Thursday, September 17, 2009

I want to go to there...

It happened again today and it’s really just the sheer ridiculous number of times it’s happened that made me sit up and take notice and then of course to sit down again and write about it. Because of course – as should by now be crystal clear – once I’ve got one thought on the go, it’s never very long before another comes sidling along to keep it company and the tangentializing begins like that shampoo commercial where the girl told two friends… who told two friends… and so on and so on and so on.
So what happened again today (for the umpteenth time – an amount that’s situationally-dependent, but for the sake of argument lets say at least 20 times in the past month) was that someone came up and asked me for directions.
Nothing out of the ordinary, right? But then, mere moments later another strange somebody came up and asked me for a whole bunch more directions, which was obviously just apres him le deluge because before another ten minutes had passed a third person came up to me and asked for his very own set.
And it’s not like I was the lone potential directions-giver. This all occurred on a very congested bit of pavement at University and King on a Wednesday evening at about 6 PM. Total rush hour. The streets were clogged with traffic and the sidewalks were practically shoulder to shoulder with busy business men (and women) on the go. And each time the same thing happened: the direction-asker would sweep her (or his) eyes across the wall of humanity before bearing down on me with all the deliberate awkwardness of a drunk at a cocktail party.
And each time I had to smile and shake my head and tell them no – sorry, I have no idea where your there is.
But they keep asking.
Now by no means am I suggesting that being asked for directions makes me eligible for special notice – or in fact that in this instance or for any other reason I’m the least bit special at all – but it came hard on the heels of the day before where I was accosted at question point twice in one hour. See what I’m saying? It was the multiples that caused the notice, but even without the coincidence factor, I have always been vaguely aware that if someone is lost and I am in the vicinity, it is likely to me they will be turning. Bless them – bless them and their completely misbegotten faith in my directions-friendly face.
I don’t know why, but what I think it must mean is I’ve got the kind of face that looks as though it knows where it’s going and would be happy to let others know where they’re going too.
Sadly, those two truths remain eternally unconnected because though I would be perfectly content to share any bit of helpful information with anyone that asked, I almost never know where I’m going if it’s the slightest bit off my regular grid and unless people are asking me for directions to my actual home, I probably don’t know how to get them where they’re going either.
This is a lifelong issue. I am famed for my inability to find or follow directions. To apply a map with actual streets. To instinctively know east from west (west is the direction my friend lives in – east is on the way to that PetSmart off Laird) though I’ve got north and south nailed as up and down. Thank God. But even those simple compass points require constant, vigilant practice to make me feel comfortable relying on them as I can easily be bamboozled into turning the whole thing upside down or inside out and be completely lost in the rolling of an eye.
Just last week I was off to meet a friend for dinner (n.b. I am genius – read ‘adequate’ – with subways and streetcars) and after using up every drop of TTC available to me, hit the pavement and began the ordeal of finding her by going to completely the wrong location on the first try. Not just the wrong direction – totally and utterly not the place. I was canny enough to ask the host of the wrong restaurant where the right one was and he gave me very simple directions: return in the direction from which I came, walk until I hit Adelaide, then turn left and keep going until I either walked straight into or right past the place I intended to go.
What could be simpler? I knew the direction I had come from and I knew for sure without even thinking twice (one glance at the hand that holds the pencil was enough) which way was left. So why did I decide to turn left several blocks earlier than advised with an idea that I would then turn right and then left and (oh, jeez, who knows?) end up at the destination from my own trajectory. Why? Why did I think I knew better than the man who knew absolutely where I was going and the best way to get there? Why was I so sure I was clever enough to achieve this? Why – with years and years and years of personal experience and hard-won knowledge that I suck at going places - did I suddenly decide to become Direction Girl?
The answer remains unfathomable. I mean, even in these relatively few paragraphs (relatively few for me…) you must have grasped that when it comes to going places, there is where I am not. That striking off on my own is likely as foolhardy as my secret conviction I could do surgery if I tried.
But weirdly, I do this all the time. It’s as though I’m continually testing myself to see if I can suddenly start finding my way – as though I might wake up one morning miraculously equipped with some kind of mental GPS – without any effort on my part. As though finding places and reading maps is a state of mind that can change, perhaps when that particular state of mind has simply had enough of getting lost, or the loser gets bonked on the head or experiences an electric shock or has a piano dropped on them.
But each morning I awake, as determinedly geographically-challenged as the day before.
It’s ok. Eventually I get where I’m going.
I got to my dinner date not much more than half an hour late and my date was brilliantly forgiving and understanding. All the recriminations were going on inside my head between me and me – and that’s not an argument that’s going to end anytime soon.
But from now on I am committed to taking a cab when meetings are critical and destinations are unfamiliar. I will give myself extra time on the more casual occasions when I feel myself starting to feel quietly adventurous. I will listen more carefully, make more notes and repeat instructions as often as necessary to simply get the address correct. I will accept this handicap as is, admit I have a problem and not hope for a piano to fall on my head.
And as for where you’re going? Unless that’s a philosophical question, it’s probably best not to ask.
Remember, it’s not the destination – it’s the journey.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Cry me a river

When a top professional tells you your breasts are amazingly photogenic, you can rest assured you’re hearing it from someone who knows.

Of course when that professional is a medical imaging technician and the view she’s raving over is entirely internal, some of the pixie dust tends to dissipate. When you yourself get a gander at the captures and see nothing so much as a sort of fuzzy astronomical chart of the Milky Way, your confidence reverts to entirely pre-compliment status. But such was the opinion of the nice lady at Women’s College Hospital and such was all I was able to take away from my second mammogram.

Last time I endured the discomfort and indignity of a mammogram and breast ultrasound I took away a good deal more, from a personal insight, to an instant diagnosis, both of which I felt compelled to write about and gained the distinction of being the first writer ever to have the word “tits” published in the Globe and Mail. (Eulogy material! Score!)

There’s a PS to that story too (which I also wrote about; there was a time when I could hardly go to the bathroom without making, if you don’t mind me saying, a blog entry) whereby a woman who read the story contacted the Globe to get in touch with me. Seems she had also been moved by my experience… she had been reading my essay on the way to her own appointment with boobular destiny at the imaging clinic and took a special comfort in my personal happy ending. The surprise (even shock, she related) was that her name was Jane Wilson too. Imagine: it would be like coming across a secret letter from yourself to yourself, telling you everything was going to be alright.

But this time around I received no immediate answers – no publishable material – no distinctive anecdotes; just the remarkable experience of being treated like a human being in the often inhuman business of doctoring.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the medical world (I’ve always said that with a properly illustrated textbook and a sharp steak knife, I could take out an appendix. And really, I’m almost certain of this…) from volunteering at the Sick Kids, to supporting friends and loved ones unfortunately buried right up to their necks in it, for reasons less than desirable.

I suppose it began with my mother and her time(s) spent in hospital for treatment of, and then for dying of breast cancer, through my father and his time in hospital and in hospice before death, kindly at home, to my dear darling friend who has battled an absolute army of illness since I first met her more than 10 years ago. She’s had fully three different types of cancer, requiring surgery and chemotherapy and she battles on – with a few less bits and pieces (nothing she can’t live without) and a patience that’s starting to become just the faintest bit frayed around the edges as cancer has once again reared its hideous head to tease and taunt and terrify us all once more.

And in all those times and through all those experiences, I’m very sad to report that more often than not the treatments – and those who treated – were the worst part of the experience.

This is not in any way to suggest that overall, medical professionals are cold, emotionless automatons, bound and determined to make a bad time worse (or even like Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man, grim, determined, practiced sadists) just that in the most tender and terrifying moments, it is the rare professional who is able to make the worst moments better. Or even bearable. I am speaking of course of the highest ranks of medicine – the surgeons, internists and specialists – because with equally rare exception my experiences with nurses and GP’s have been nothing short of life-saving.

Is it their job, you ask? Their job to comfort and support and empathize with people in extremis? It’s not written down anywhere, so I guess the answer is no. But surely it is the fundamental job of humans to make the plight of other humans easier to bear – and no more importantly than at the moment of a devastating diagnosis.

I can take my father out of this equation almost entirely. With the exception of a few of the very highest placed specialists (who were the most unpleasant of all the medical people I’ve ever had the misfortune to meet) he was surrounded by the support and even love of his GP and the professionals she guided him toward, to help guide him through his last weeks and days. As far as I can tell, she went out of her way – the infamous above and beyond – to gently lead him down the painful path of acceptance and then readiness for death. When he died at home late at night, she was standing by and came over past midnight to sign his death certificate and kiss his forehead before he was taken away by the funeral people.

(As he was removed from his lovely home, zipped up in a big black bag and rolled away on a gurney, my brother was amazed that a) it could even happen to this man who had loomed so large in all our lives, for all our lives, and, b) that it was he who was leaving and we who were staying.
“I get the feeling we should just all clear out and he should be bricked in with all his books and clocks and paintings. Nail boards over the door, seal the place right up and leave him here like a pharaoh in a pyramid.” I agreed. But it was a condominium and I knew even then there was no way we could have gotten the condo board to go along. They were, to a jaded soul, next to medical specialists, the most unromantic folks you could ever care to meet.)

But the story was very different for my mother. When she received her second (and last) diagnosis, telling her the cancer had returned, complete with the intelligence that there was no treatment, there was no cure, there was no hope, she, rather understandably, began to cry. She was told, abruptly and with neither preamble nor sympathy, to pull herself together and get out of her doctor’s office.

I always told myself this was because it was so long ago – in the 80’s – when bedside manner wasn’t taught at school along with injecting oranges and memorizing what the hipbone and everything else is connected to.
But honestly? I really don't think anything has changed.
For my friend… well, with her the story is different yet again. I hadn’t met her during her first bout with cancer, but have stood by her for most everything else over the last decade or so. Because I’m a freelancer, I’ve been able to accompany her to most of her appointments. I’m there to play cards, make jokes, suggest diversions, gossip and giggle and basically get her through the waiting period, before going into the examination room with her and remembering the questions she wants to ask when fear and anxiety have got the best of her for a few moments. (She also has an appalling memory. Mine is slightly less so.)
With her, I’ve gotten to know all the receptionists and nurses; we see each other every six months for routine checkups between shocking diagnoses, and we are for the most part all happy to see each other. Her oncologist (a very important one) and his interns are amongst the exceptions; they’re thoughtful and nice and patient. And hopeful – a quality I cannot laude highly enough.
But there are always a few wormy apples you have to brace yourself against. Take the young bottom-of-the-barrel doctor-ette who was filling in for the oncologist’s own intern one stressful day when my friend asked her how much longer before she’d be seen.
We’d already waited hours for what was supposed to be a quick appointment before we needed to high-tail it over to the hospital next door to be prepped for an unrelated surgery; the one we were waiting for was for lymphoma, the one we were on our way to was for colon cancer. (Did I mention how brave my friend is?) Anyway, we had a rapidly narrowing window of opportunity; if we waited much longer the surgery would have to be re-scheduled – an agony almost worse than the impending operation. What I’m saying, is we weren’t moaning for fear we’d miss our pedicure appointments. This woman, this fill-in intern, this creature took one look at my friend (who it should be noted was simply one of about 40 people with cancer waiting to see a doctor that day) blew out her cheeks in exasperation, and told her she didn’t know.
“It’s just that I have to be at Mount Sinai in half an hour,” says my lovely friend.
Oh cry me a river,” said this Satan in scrubs, and blew past her on her way to heaven (or hell) knows where.
Cry me a river. Right up there with the oncologist who recently told a chemotherapy patient asking for help with the side-effects: We don’t care.

I’ve got more stories, each more inexplicably chilling than the last. The surgeon who wanted a piece of my friend’s liver so badly, she didn’t want to wait for biopsy. “I’ll take about 40%; we’ll follow up with chemo. Look at the time – must run.” She was wrong. At that point the cancer had not progressed and the prognosis was good. We made all sorts of Chianti and fava beans jokes after that. What else was there to do? Then there was the post-op technician in the recovery room who told her to stop whining about her pain, before discovering the morphine drip had been pulled out of her vein and was soaking into the mattress.

And I know that there are people who will be reading this who have had marvelous, exceptional, joyful, even transcendent experiences – exciting satisfying adventures in medicine. More likely, there have been those of you who have had wonderfully unremarkable experiences. Or who can relate stories of pleasant, even caring salutations with those who are about to help you stop dying. We all have our anecdotes – these are just mine.

The day after tomorrow is another biopsy day for my pal. We gird our loins (or rather, I do – hers need to be sort of un-girded for the procedure) call on our reserves of charm (you’d be amazed at how important sucking up is – it’s saved us a time or two) and convince ourselves once more that this is just another predictable discomfort on the way to confounding them all again by surviving.

And my tits by the way, are okay. My humane and human specialist went above and beyond, and even to some trouble, to secure my old films to make double sure in a compare-and-contrast sort of way that the photogenic pair are here to stay that way.

And I appreciate the kindness almost more than the prognosis.

P.S. Having said all the preceding, I am still grateful beyond all measure that I actually have a health care system to bash...
P.P.S. The girlfriend is great - she had the liver resection, but it looks as though they got it all and she won't require chemo. It is the best possible outcome and we are all thrilled.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Speaking of cats

It's come to this.
I have crossed a line... or a bridge... or a Rubicon... or something you cross (time/space continuum?) and have arrived on the other side bewildered. And not entirely happy.
You think maybe it could happen some day; perhaps you've heard tell that it's happened to others - you might've read a book on the subject or shared a joke with your friends; but you just personally pray that that ignominious day will either a) never come, or b) come, but not make itself known, personally, to you, so you can fool yourself that that day, hasn't actually... er... come.
Essentially, I was called out.
Thinking about it isn't so bad - saying it out loud, slightly less than not bad - but hearing it... and hearing it in a sentence that is clearly directed at no one other than you - well, that's a whole 'nother proposition altogether. An entirely different kettle of worms.
Here's what happened:
I was on the subway, lateish - 9 or so - returning from an evening with friends. I was dressed against the inhospitably (some might say downright unfairly) inclement weather (covered up is what I'm saying) leaning in the doorway, just basically doodly-doo-ing in my head - counting stops, reading posters, checking out my cohorts on this journey... when I noticed one of my cohorts was similarly checking out me. Intently.
With purpose even.
Back to aggressive doodly-dooing... darting eyes re-recording what I've already exhaustively read poster-wise... studying the subway map as if I didn't know what comes after Summerhill and before Davisville... pretend-checking my purse for... what? (Keys, phone, wallet, gum... whatever...) and then one quick glance across the seats opposite me - and there he is again. staring... studying me like, well, like a subway poster.
He's 20-something-ish. Cute. Okay, very. Looks like Cat Stevens pre-Yusuf - all dark, shiny, curly hair, twinkly eyes (creepy-starer he may be, but credit where credit is due) and (as far as I can tell) sober.
Age him ten years or so and he's a dating trifecta.
But I'm shy. It's embarrassing being stared at - I'm deeply uncomfortable with it - and I just want it to stop. It stops. It stops when he gets up and walks straight toward me. And everyone is watching.
"Hey," he says, "I just wanted to tell you you look beautiful tonight." He growls it sort of, but it's an articulate growl.
I don't know where to look. My eyes do some more darting, blinking (plink, plink) before I face him. I take a deep breath.
"Thanks," I say, not burdened at that moment by a surfeit of articulateness. I think I touched my hair. Blushed.
He smiles. His eyes pierce me.
"So," he says, "I guess you're what they call a cougar, eh?"
Black. It all just went black. I'm pretty sure my mouth fell open. I know my pupils dilated. (I just know.)
"I beg your pardon," say I in a tone that begs nothing; as if by questioning it, I can somehow demand it be retrieved. A take-back... a cosmic do-over.
But it was done.
He looks at me, puzzled. I suspect he's familiar with the look of happy women, but at this moment he's face-to-face with the unfamiliar.
"But why," he asks. "What's the matter?"
"Let me give you a tip," I say to him as our subway car bursts back into the light and slows down as we prepare to stop at the place that lies between Summerhill and Davisville. "Take it from me: women don't like to be called 'cougars'. It's an insult."
"But why?" he asks again, genuinely surprised.
"Because it's a term whose implication suggests that older women prey on young men. It makes us sound like sex-mad predators," I tell him. "It's not the least bit flattering. It makes us sound desperate." I pause. "It makes us sound old."
The train stops. The doors judder open.
"But what am I going to call you that will get me a date," he asks, twinkle snapped miraculously back in place.
I am not moved this time. This time I have moved on.
I look straight at him.
"Nothing," I reply, and with the perfect timing for which I am not the least bit renowned, I step off the train and the doors slam shut.
I am a woman of a certain age. I am hanging onto that last frayed, split-ended, dangling piece of string that tethers me to the kite of the baby boomer generation. Minutes away really, if you want to stretch a point (let's) to that generation known as "X".
I look after myself, I look good for my age; I wear lipstick when I go out and high heels (virtually no matter the weather) and on a good day, I hold my own.
I am not a cougar.
And if you disagree with me - seriously - I'll scratch your eyes out.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

How lucky can you get?

We’re mere days away from Superbowl XXQVCII. (Or something – seriously I have no idea which year this is; I was going to look it up, but really, why bother? If you care, you know… if like me you could go the rest of your life without ever hearing how much Pepsi is paying for a thirty second spot, or which inappropriate, non-football related pop star – Janet Jackson? Please. Jessica Simpson – umm whaa? - is going to perform at half time, then knowing how many years in Roman numerals this game has been going on is seriously more information than I could ever possibly wish to know…in whatever format you choose to announce it…)
So though I won’t be watching the game, one thing I’m unlikely to miss is the ever-popular aftermath sure to lead each and every newscast for the next 24 hour cycle, complete with coaches and players all praising the Almighty for making the unquestionably correct choice in awarding them the game ball. I don’t doubt there will be prayers prayed beforehand, during, and after – in grateful thanks, or in dazed, confused misery for how things could go so terribly, terribly wrong.
Personally, I don’t pray to God for things. I think it’s presumptuous, obnoxious and actually, completely inappropriate. I want all His energy directed toward the starving, the homeless, the diseased, the abused and the abandoned. And I don’t ever want to be in a position, quite frankly, where my problems are of a type critical enough to move up to a pre-eminent spot on His celestial agenda.
I don’t pray for things. I just… wish for them.
Like last Sunday. (And just to reiterate, God had nothing to do with it. I have it on the highest authority that on the day He was either in church or resting.) I was on my way to meet my friend Tom for coffee, scuffling along through the slush, day dreaming and dum-dee-dumming as one does. And I remember just one clear thought that day: gee – these socks are comfy!
The day before (also a busy day for Him – too busy by far to be keeping an eye on me) the same Tom and I had gone shopping at one of our favourite haunts – the Dollarama! What a place – a virtual Aladdin’s cave of treasures and trinkets – and all for one single dollar! Everything you could imagine – though perhaps not of strictly the highest possible quality – sitting out in huge piles, just begging to be taken home. I defy anyone to go into one of these places and not come out with something. Kitchenware, bathroom fixtures, soap, shampoo, pens, pencils, pads, erasers, reading glasses, make-up, pots, pans, toys, beads, placemats, gift bags… the list is endless.
(Like the poem about Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout – who "Would not take the garbage out". She would: “…boil the water and open the cans and scrub the pots and scour the pans and grate the cheese and shell the peas and mash the yams and spice the hams and make the jams, but though her daddy would scream and shout – she would not take the garbage out! ...And so it piled up to the ceilings, coffee grounds, potato peelings, mouldy bread and withered greens, olive pits and soggy beans, clamshells, eggshells, stale scones, sour milk and mushy plums, crumbly cake and cookie crumbs…” and so it goes – on and on and on. I don’t want to give anything away (spoiler alert) but things don’t end so well.)
Not that there’s anything remotely garbagey about the Dollarama – though you certainly can get garbage cans and garbage bags and environmentally friendly poop n’ scoop dog poo bags and rubber gloves and disinfectant and J Cloths and brooms and dustpans and even air fresheners, should the former somehow fail to address the issue, as well as food and snacks and candy and nuts and gum and ashtrays and lunchboxes and Tupperware and crayons and colouring books and hair elastics and underwear and (I swear, God help me – not literally though, you understand) even white and flesh-tone lift-and-separate brassieres for $1!
And socks. Lovely, lovely, squishy, teddy bear textured, terry towel inspired, colourful, delicious, impossibly kitten-soft socks. For a dollar. I bought two pair.
And I was wearing one of those pairs on Sunday – my Sunday-go-to-coffee socks – enjoying their unmatched comfort so much so that I actually thought to myself: “I wish I had a hundred dollars so I could buy 100 pairs of these fabulous socks and never, ever wear any other kind ever, ever again.”
On my honour, that was my wish. And an original one too; I never have wished - and likely never will again - for $100.
Moments later I was in the coffee shop and there was Tom, over at the cash register, picking up his mug of tea (Tom obviously isn’t entirely clear on the inherent purpose and point of the coffee date. No matter – he’s great with so much else) when he saw me and called out: “What do you want?”
“One hundred dollars!” I called back, only to see his face go white. Really. White.
“Say that again,” says Tom, in a voice that I would soon come to associate with incredulousness.
“I said, ‘I wish I had one hundred dollars!’” says I, absolutely mystified at his wide-eyed (incredulous) stare.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a 100 dollar bill.
“This is yours,” he said. “You won the lottery.”
Reader, I swear every word of this is true.
You see, Tom and I had also called in at a Loblaws on our way home the day before to each pick up a few groceries. On the way out, Tom insisted we stop so he could purchase a lottery ticket, and on the spur of the moment, I decided to get one too.
(Normally I never indulge; my father let me in on a secret many years back - the purpose of the lottery he explained, in the hushed tones of one sharing at the very least the key to the ancient riddle of the sphinx, is basically the following: you're meant to lose. Practically guaranteed. When viewed from that perspective, I sort of lost permanent interest in the lottery. And though I will waste money on many, many (many) things, since that day I find it difficult to buy lottery tickets – I hate to spend my money on something that’s pretty much taking my cash in exchange for nothing more than the faintest of faint hopes. It doesn't feel like a very good bargain is all I'm saying - and just a shade magic-beanie if you know what I mean.)
As soon as the tickets were purchased, Tom suggested we agree to share the imaginary millions if we won and I readily agreed. Why not? Even the bare bones of shared hope is infinitely more enjoyable than the lonely, pinched, personal variety.
And Tom’s ticket won. $200 and change. And he couldn’t get down to the coffee shop fast enough to give me my half.
And further, let me be clear on this point: neither Tom nor I are completely rolling in it these days, if you get my drift. Even with Tom quitting smoking and me cutting my own hair (cheap – or just plain canny? I ask you…) we’re still watching our bank balances very, very closely and not in that chortling, hand-rubbing, miserly way of totting up our respective fortunes. More like gauging the rubbery-ness of each and every cheque endorsed. The truth is - I swear, okay, to God - that I wouldn't have faulted him for a moment if he'd chosen to hang on to the whole 200 bucks. It was a casual agreement - we neither of us expected to win - and we both of us could have used every penny of the full amount.
For perhaps 5 seconds I cursed myself for wishing for $100 when $1 million would have been so much more… useful. But the truth is in one moment I had wished for $100 dollars, and no more than one moment later I received exactly that: $100. And I was over the moon.
Coincidence? Maybe. Luck? Unquestionably. Gift from God? Not a chance.
I didn’t pray to God for that money – I just wished for it.

But I do thank God every day for a friend like Tom.

Sunday, January 25, 2009


Blogging is like virtually any other activity that takes practice and time – fall out of the habit and you fall out of the rhythm, the swing and even the need to blog.
The last time I wrote was February of last year and come to think of it (as if I didn’t know) that’s when so much else changed as well.
I lost my little life companion, the ridiculous Lily. At the age of 15 and suffering an untold number of conditions, ailments, illnesses and just plain old age, I was with her when she died in the midst of a snowstorm on a terrible day that even now I steel myself from thinking about. She was just so tiny, so elderly, and even with me there beside her, so very alone when she died. Barely six pounds at the end, and moments before in deep distress, when she died her eyes remained open and the tip of her little pink tongue was left hanging down on her greying bib of her now scant hair. I had her cremated, and the ashes and dust and detritus that remain of her now remain with a friend. I can’t bear the finality of that tiny urn. I’m just not ready.
I started work on a long-term project that turned my life upside down as I changed from a stay-at-home freelancer, to a fulltime, riding the streetcar, going to the office career-type gal. Quelle change. I haven’t worked all in a row, every day, in an office (with the exception of much shorter contracts: a month here or there) since 1990. Seventeen years.
But I surprised myself by loving it. I loved the interaction with the others I worked with, the purposefulness of working on an intriguing project every day, the routine it created even as the routine of the job itself changed virtually daily.
I who love being alone so much was absolutely smitten with the idea of working as a team. I became closer with the people I already knew and welcomed whole-heartedly (open arm-edly!) the new friendships with others.
The project is a TV series – 25 short documentaries about people who are changing the world by the way they lead their lives. Big-time philanthropists cheek-by-jowl with little-time, nearly invisible regular folks who are changing their own personal routines to make the world a better place. To say it was inspiring is as clichéd as it was true. It consumed my life for months. Long months. Good months. A couple of them great.
The series also supports a dedicated website designed to turn the inspiration of the stories into action, linking people up to a social network-cum-clearinghouse of life-changing ideas as well as action-oriented volunteer opportunities. I was involved with creating that too – and I enjoyed turning my mind to a different sort of creative vision, the sort that required big picture planning and a specific sort of imagining. I find I like “imagining” as an actual work-related activity. I find I’m good at it too.
And the project created friendships and purpose with it. I’m now volunteering with an organization headed up by one of our profilees. I’m mentoring a just-turned 9 year old boy, helping him choose a ‘goal of contribution’ and helping him follow through on it too. I have so many young girls in my life I thought it was time I tried a relationship with a boy and I found, to my delight, a little guy just as quirky, as complex and as lovable as any little girl I’ve ever known.
I found a new life-companion too. The equally ridiculous, (as Lily) Charlotte. A rescue Pekingese (see photo above) with a host of medical and physical issues that only serve to make me adore her and want to comfort her more. (My friend Tom found her on a rescue dog site on the internet – “She's such a loser,” he said. “She’s got you written all over her.”) I was sure when I entered into the arrangement on my birthday back in June that I was essentially signing on for a load of problems, but her history made me want to help. Imagine my surprise when it turned out that far from being an angry, nippy, put-upon victim of years (8) of abuse and neglect, Charlotte was (is) an absolute joy to hold and behold. She’s kind and shy and just wants her belly rubbed and to be given treats once in a while and to lie beside me anyplace I choose to lie down. With the exception of the belly rub part (I prefer a back massage) we’re very much alike.
And I traveled too. To Miami, Nassau and Vancouver Island. Trips with friends, holidays with family, a little time out of mind that deepened my affections and lightened my stress.
But now that stress is back with a vengeance. The brutal economic conditions that have dealt the world such a resounding blow have dealt me a blow as well. Funds for my project have dried up as well and as of now (this minute, this second) there are only vague whispers of possible, potential work. I’m scared. Really scared – as I haven’t been for a long time. Along with everyone else my resources have dwindled – some have out-right disappeared – and as of now (this minute, this second) I don’t know how I’m going to survive.
But at least now I have time to blog.
So I've got that going for me.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Out of the dark

Well, here’s an embarrassing admission: I’m an addict. Or was…or am in recovery... or taking it one day at a time or something. I’m not completely over it – I still indulge almost every day. But in small amounts… for a limited time… and I cut myself off after just one: one sinful, spectacular, perversely satisfying hit a day.

I had to stop. My life had become, to a certain extent, unmanageable. I was miserable, tired, depressed, worried and anxious – virtually all day, virtually every day. And the more it affected me, the worse I felt, the more I wanted; in some backwards Bizarro-world diminishing returns kind of way, (and I can’t imagine why – it wasn't even remotely logical) I was using it to achieve its opposite effect, with spectacularly negative results.

Finally, it got so bad I went to my doctor and described my symptoms – the constant song I couldn’t get out of my head, my worries and anxieties… the physical and mental misery I felt practically bathed in. And all the while I was talking to her, right there in her office, I was on the drug, experiencing the drug – I actually had it on me when I went in – and I never said a word.

My MD began by prescribing other drugs – anti-anxiety medications that nearly pulverised me with exhaustion, but did nothing to allay my symptoms. I awoke each morning as if from a coma, not fully conscious for at least an hour; on some of the drugs she had me try, I’m not sure if I was ever fully conscious at all.

But I continued to take my drug. And I continued to suffer.

Eventually, she sent me to a psychiatrist who spent a full ninety minutes questioning me in minute detail about my symptoms and habits and history. I’d had some of my drug before I went in – I even managed to have some more in his actual office – but I did it surreptitiously and never referred to it. And neither did he.

He gave me a diagnosis describing a serious anxiety disorder and recommended behavioural therapy with some form of medicinal support. He gave me a receipt for services rendered to present to my insurance company. He also suggested the name of a colleague whom he felt could help on the therapy side of things and wished me luck and sent me home. He mentioned that I would likely never be entirely symptom-free, but that I might hope for significant improvement.

I felt I needed another hit of my drug on the way home (I had a few moments of panic as I sought to track it down in the unfamiliar neighbourhood, but eventually scored - it’s easy to find if you know where to look…) all the while meditating on what he had said about the diagnosis and his recommendation for treatment and tried to picture what my life would be like stripped of most of its pointless fretting and worrying and agonizing and realized I had pretty much forgotten how such a state might feel.

I arrived home and took another hit.

A couple of weeks later, holding hope practically clenched in my hands and with my heart beating even faster than its abnormally elevated rate, I showed up for the first meeting with the referred specialist, but was soon devastated to find that not only did our session not offer so much as a glimmer of the happy destination I was imaging myself headed for, but instead made me so much more upset (and worried and anxious and fearful) that I vowed never to return. Whatever chemistry was affecting my brain to the extent that I had needed this man’s help in the first place, did not extend to any actual chemistry between the two of us. I felt worse than I had ever felt up to that point and took the streetcar home in the gathering dusk, sunglasses firmly in place to hide the bitter tears I’d shed as his inability to help me became Waterford-crystal clear. I took another quick hit of the drug on the way home, but as ever, no relief was forthcoming.

I felt simply hopeless. I couldn’t imagine another pill would produce a miracle – I couldn’t imagine there was a pill I hadn’t tried – and the horrible experience with the therapist just compounded my feelings of helplessness. I’d lived with this pain for so long (though it was gradual in coming) that I’d come to accept this state of exquisite hyper-anxiety as normal; but the last few weeks, reaching out to the medical establishment had brought hope back to life.

The subsequent disappointment was devastating.

A friend’s mother – an experienced and caring therapist – took time out of her already full calendar to begin telephone sessions with me. She was marvellous… and her confidence and positive approach were balm to my shredded nerves. But I continued to indulge in my addiction, to self-medicate in the worst possible way, so that even her tender understanding was undermined by my own self-destructiveness. However, with her help and support, I found a level of misery I could cope with and tried hard to accept that if this was where I belonged mentally and emotionally, than I had best make the best of it and find pleasure where I could.

And of course the pleasure I most easily found was in reality the source of my despair.

It was another friend – also sweet, caring and kind – with the added bonus of living relatively close-by, who, in the end, was the one who forced me to face what I was doing to myself and to make the connection between my pleasure and my pain.
When she approached me, she did it without judgment, merely by pointing out what she observed: I was a small person she said; was I aware that I was possibly indulging in this addiction, not only in larger and larger quantities, but also more and more often? How could my body take it? She was worried she said – she just wanted me to think about it.

She was the first person who had said a word – the first person who had even noticed that I was escalating my intake – and she could see it was affecting me.

So she was the first person who made the connection. I was resistant at first: I didn’t want to admit it and I didn’t want to stop what I was doing: it was my one pleasure I told myself, my one restorative – the thing I most wanted first thing I the morning and then all through the day.

I panicked a little; what would I do – how would my days look, feel and start – if I were to give up my drug and nothing much improved, then what would I do?

It was that final question that provided me with the impetus to change: if nothing changed, if all continued as before, then I would just start again. I would give it a two week trial (and I wouldn’t even give it up completely) and at the end of that fortnight, if I still felt the same, it would be back to business as usual. I would just have to get through those fourteen days.

I can’t remember now if part of me wanted everything to stay the same: not from the perversely attractive familiarity of mental anguish, but from the addiction itself – the quick subtle pleasure, the habit, the feeling… everything – or if I sensed that she had inadvertently put her finger directly on the pulse of the problem and that I might once again begin to hope that my days and nights would become calmer, gentler and… better.

It doesn’t matter now – the fact is she was prescient: within a day or two of cutting back I began to feel different. I spoke slower, more calmly, more deliberately; I slept better – and little by little, the constant nagging worries diminished to the gentle roar I now recognised from a seemingly distant past.

The psychiatrist was right too though: it is part of my personal make-up that I am never totally free of anxiety and worry. A normal day for me might feel like a state of uncomfortable unease for someone else – but compare that to how it was: multiplied by a hundred, complete with soundtrack! – and you may have an inkling how deeply, seriously affected I was by my one little pleasure.

From a former high of about six to seven “Venti” sized coffees a day (at 20 – 24 ounces and 415 mgs of caffeine each) I now allow myself just one cup. A small or a medium – never a large – and I don’t allow myself so much as a sip after four o’clock in the afternoon. My life has changed and it is so much better and brighter and more hopeful. My worries and anxieties are manageable and my need for intervention – chemical or cognitive – is just about nil. I am back and I am better.

Still, I don’t think I’ll ever completely give it up.

And screw it: I’ll never drink decaf.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Tracking the tears

Did she or didn’t she? Was she or wasn’t she?
Really crying that is.
That’s the question being debated on cable news shows and across American breakfast tables this morning: was Hillary Clinton really so overcome at a New Hampshire meet and greet that she lost her well-known iron-clad control and let a few tears well up as she shakily answered a reporter’s seemingly inoffensive, non-emotional question (about she got up in the morning and faced another day on the campaign trail – appropriate answer: “fresh fruit and a protein shake!”) or was she just faking crocodile tears designed to soften an image that has hardened and cracked like cooling lava and cost her campaign so much in the polls of late.
Hard to say.
Personally, I’m never completely in charge of my tear ducts – injured or emotionally moved to a certain point they will simply open up and have at it and I am virtually incapable of clamping down on the incipient boo hoo.
I was in the Bahamas last week having the time of my life and cried fully three times.
Once when I banged my head getting into a cab (the sound alone was nauseating, the pain was unbelievable and I actually saw stars if not tweeting birds…) and the agony was so acute the tears just popped out. The second time was in reaction to a bizarre episode involving a fellow hotel guest who had fallen down and was frothing at the mouth in reaction to a CENTIPEDE BITE (!!!!) he had received a week before and which was now slowly poisoning him… almost to death in front of our eyes. (Creepy eh? It should be noted that he was bitten not in Nassau but in his apartment in New York City, that he had been given medication to counter the centipede poison, but he had subsequently drunk so much holiday liquor that the medication was all but useless, however, through the quick work of hotel staff and emergency personnel he was brought back to consciousness and would – we were assured – be fine.) I was stricken with the thought of a person going happily about their Bahamian holiday and then suddenly finding themselves facing a horrible painful death on a sunny morning in front of various and sundry colourfully-dressed strangers. It seemed both surreal and tragic, and I leaked a little at the thought.
The third time is a bit embarrassing to mention as it was on the plane ride home when the change in pressure went up against a recently acquired cold and stuck flaming knives into my eardrums that didn’t let up for nearly half an hour as we circled the runway. It was really horrid pain and, well, after about 20 minutes I was also feeling pretty sorry for myself, so once again, a few tears escaped my weakened ducts. (And btw, there were also a few babies shrieking in agony, so I wasn’t exactly the only one crying you understand.)
I can also be moved to tears by seeing other people cry (the same way you can catch the giggles or the yawns) by watching the Save the Children commercials, and those harrowing SPCA spots with the soulful German Shepherd staring hopelessly up from inside a dirty cage. Gets me every time.
So maybe there’s a little cheap sentimentality, a little self-pity, a little drama and a little over-weaning empathising going on here, but so what? Is it so inappropriate to cry from real pain? From connecting with another person’s fear and suffering? From the notion of children and animals cruelly treated?
Who, I would like to know, is so easily dry-eyed around similar scenes? And when did it become such a sign of weakness to feel something?
The tears issue, which has felled politicians in the past, seems somewhat akin to the flip-flopping issue; voters it appears, are disgusted by either a show of genuine emotion (as compared to that ersatz hand-on-heart, flag-waving crap) or the intellectual process of changing one’s mind following the attainment of new knowledge, preferring the dry-eyed and the single-minded to the raw and the real.
You can speak with passion, commit to laying down your own life in service to others, and discuss the prayers you share, bleeding heart to bleeding heart, so long as you refrain from shedding an actual shameful tear.
The fact that the President hasn’t once wept over the lives he is personally responsible for sacrificing in an illegitimate war over the past six years strikes me as more the mien of a sociopath than a resolute leader. There’s the “encouraging the enemy” argument that goes along with the “never show weakness” stipulation that the President and his nearest and dearest fall back on when asked how they sleep at night (and by the way, how do they?) but genuine – even controlled – emotion of the tearful variety is never seen, never discussed, never admitted to.
Hillary didn’t even really cry as far as I can tell; she just welled up and her voice cracked. So on technical points, it seems she has avoided the career-killing sob. The question now is whether the welling points to a fatal weakness yet to reveal itself, or whether the slight moistening may actually act as a character softener and place her back in contention against her charismatic opponent, whose obvious passion (the only emotion besides anger and contempt permitted on the stump) isn’t fighting the same popularity and personality problems.
I’ll tell you what I think. I think she did the math. I think she looked at a complicated equation involving the square root of her image, multiplied by the number of times she voted with the Republicans (also shaky, self-serving arithmetic as far as I can tell) and divided it by the number of voters she needs to close the gap with Barak Obama, and came up with precisely the performance she turned in at Portsmouth New Hampshire’s Café Espresso.
I’ll tell you something else. It makes me sick to be criticizing the woman who was until recently the most viable female candidate for President since Geraldine Ferraro; I absolutely hate it that through her actions and just plain old gut instinct, I find her about as appealing (and as female) as Margaret Thatcher… I feel disgusted and a little frightened that her character and candidacy may be a significant contributor to the loss of the White House to the Republicans. Again.
It makes me want to cry.

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, clichés 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.