This Is Not A Drill

I don’t know if my sense of smell is more sensitive than the average person’s, but there are odours in this world that can cause my stomach to pitch and roll. And it has gotten worse over the years. I live in a high rise apartment that was built during the first big oil boom of the 1970’s, and though the building has had a lot of cosmetic reconstruction and looks quite nice, the infrastructure is old and creaky. At least twice a month our water is shut off for patchwork repairs, which I assume are done with a bit of bubble gum and duct tape, and the ventilation system is a cruel joke of sorts. We live in a corner suite, which means we have little noise, but it also means we get a fair bit of smells that are accrued from God knows where in the building.

It is not uncommon to be woken at 2 a.m. by a smell of garlic so strong I am practically choking on my dry heaves. Or on a Sunday at 10 a.m. we are assaulted with a smell of fish, garlic, and onions so pervasive and intense it causes a panic and I have a semblance of empathy for a G8 protester who has been tear gassed. At these times I regularly ask/yell the same ridiculous questions : What kind of demon would decide to eat that much garlic at 2 a.m. on a Wednesday? Why the fuck can’t they just have a peanut butter and jam sandwich? Why can’t they eat bacon and eggs for breakfast? How can you eat something so vomit-inducing first thing in the morning? Why is the ventilation such that it funnels the unfiltered smells of what I can only guess is the collective smell of evil right into our second bathroom?


This is usually how the exercise goes. My wife and I will be enjoying our day/evening. One of us will catch the first snatches. If it’s my wife she’ll say, “Am I smelling stink?”

I will pause the television and point my nose in the air, and swivel my head from side to side. “I don’t think so.” This is my denial. I am still prone to deny the horror even after ten years. I am desperate for my wife to be imagining things.

“Go check in the hall,” I am ordered, and though I am afraid to face what might be out there, I swallow my fear and do what must be done. And that is when I am hit with the full force of all that is corrupting to the nose. Sometimes it’s even mixed with cigarette smoke or pot but mostly it’s the same three smells: garlic, onions, and fish. Sometimes separately, sometimes all at once.

“OH MY GOD THAT STINKS!!” I will scream as I scurry frantically back inside. I run immediately to our massive supply of incense, and with the skill of a seasoned veteran, I place a stick in the holder and light it fast; sometimes the stink requires two sticks–and on especially bad days three–placed strategically throughout the apartment. As I do this my wife grabs a towel that is folded neatly on the top shelf of the coat closet. She unravels the towel and folds it neatly lengthwise along the bottom of the door. Next, she grabs the strips of packing tape that hang discreetly on the door jamb, and uses the tape to make an airtight seal around the door. This can all be done in 15 to 30 seconds.

I'm thinking of getting a pair of attack skunks to counteract the chemical warfare we are subjected to.

I’m thinking of getting a pair of attack skunks to counteract the chemical warfare we are subjected to.

“Oh my fucking lord that was nasty,” I will proclaim. “Jesus Chriiiiiiist. Oh my god. Jesus Mary and Joseph what the fuck is wrong with people? How can you even taste your food if you have that much spice and shit on it?” We catch our breath and sometimes laugh in relief at having survived another attack.

We stayed sealed in until we feel the danger has passed. If someone happens to come to the door, it’s a procedure to take down the tape; it takes a bit of time and some noise, and no doubt must give the impression that a couple of lunatics have possibly shut themselves away, fearing microwaves from aliens. But this is a small price to pay to avoid such an assault. And if ever a biological weapon or gas attack occurs, we’ll be more than ready. And who’ll be laughing then?

The Seneca Scourge

The Seneca Scourge, written by Carrie Rubin, is a medical thriller that was a pleasure to read.

The Seneca Scourge

I won’t give too much of a synopsis of the book because I don’t want to spoil anything, but it’s about a physician named Sidney McKnight, who is battling a deadly strain of influenza and joins forces with a mysterious virologist, Dr. Casper Jones. And that’s about as much as I should say because there’s a really interesting idea that unfolds in the novel, an idea I found surprising and intriguing.

Two significant events in my life  have helped inform my experience with disease. The first was reading the book Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond, in which he answers some big questions like why different cultures have developed more quickly or more slowly than others, how food production leads to specialization, and how domesticating animals and living in close proximity to livestock have led to immunity to some deadly diseases (of course many people had to die first, but those who were left were a heartier stock of human). Diamond’s book helped answer a lot of questions I had about the role of disease in shaping historical events worldwide.

Guns Germs and Steel

The second event was contracting H1N1 in 2009. It was one of the scariest times in my life and I’ll post about it another day.

Rubin does a fantastic job of capturing the effects of an influenza strain that attacks the respiratory system, that helpless feeling of drowning in your own lungs and the moments of panic, the fever, the pain. She does a great job describing this from the perspective of a front-line doctor who is always on the verge of being overwhelmed. One can’t help but think of the front-line workers in Liberia battling the Ebola virus.

The more technical aspects of the illness are described in layman’s terms (did I mention Rubin is physician?) so even someone as scientifically simple as me could understand and appreciate them. I never felt lost and was even able to learn a little about some different strains of influenza.

Sidney McKnight is a well drawn character–compassionate, hard working, doubtful of her own abilities, and funny. The story is fun to read (in a dark sort of way) with a clever idea executed nicely. The one aspect I really enjoyed is that nothing was overblown, melodramatic, verbose, or pretentious. She tells the story with elegance and simplicity. This is a remarkable feat and all the more so considering this is Rubin’s first novel.

I would like to call for a series, or at least another book set in the world of Sidney McKnight and Casper Jones, as they’re definitely people I’d like to get to know more. Well done, Carrie Rubin.

Rubin also has a great blog: The Write Transition.

Ebony and Ivory

Mike Tyson stopped by Toronto City Hall today to ENDORSE Rob Ford’s candidacy for mayor.


Ah Jeez. I just pooped a little.

Ah Jeez. I just pooped a little.


It warms my heart when such different kinds of crazy can come together and give each other a helping hand.

And it looks like Ford will be re-elected.

Thank you, Toronto. Thank you.



I feel bad for people who lived before the advent of skydiving. Without skydiving they would have had no way to demonstrate they are “adventurous” and “living life to the fullest.” And their bucket list would have been diminished. How did people measure the quality of their lives before skydiving? Thank you skydiving for giving the modern world an activity that people want to do before they die. You and electricity have given us so much.

Four Hours of Labour and a Few Complications

The first time I was told that my wisdom teeth would need to come out, I was newly moved to a small windswept prairie town in the heart of Alberta farm country. It was chock full of oilworkers with gun racks in their trucks and senior citizens newly retired and flush with money from selling the farm. It was weird to be surrounded by so much money and yet have so little myself. I worked for a place that paid nothing and certainly had no benefits.

“It shouldn’t cost much.” The dentist looked up to the ceiling while she picked a number. “Maybe five hundred a tooth.” This amount of money was science fiction. I was only having this one visit out of necessity as it had been a couple of years since my last checkup and I wanted to make sure everything was okay.

“I’ll think about it.” I said. But really there was nothing to think about. I would just have to take my chances. It was a few years later before I had a job with a good dental plan and a wad of cash to pay for services up front.

My dentist now is a kind, competent, funny woman who always remarks how absolutely spotless my teeth are. I am meticulous with my dental hygiene out of fear of having work done like pulling, drilling, and mining. But those wisdom teeth were still there and they had to come out. She gave me the choice of going to a dental surgeon and being put under as a couple of the teeth were in sideways and it was going to be a job and a half to take them out. My other option was have her do the deed while I had local anesthetic. Bingo. That was exactly what I wanted. I trusted her implicitly, and I didn’t want to be unconscious unless it was absolutely necessary because, well, if the apocalypse began, or a zombie invasion, or even a Russian invasion from the Arctic Circle, I wanted to be able to run, fight, or become a high-ranking lieutenant in the new world order.

At that time my dentist had her office in the same building I lived in, so getting to and from the office was not a big deal. Before we started, though, I had a request: “I want my teeth. I want to keep them, take them home with me.” I thought this might be a strange request so I was a little hesitant.

“Yeah, no problem. I even have a little clear plastic case you can put them in.” She explained that this was not exactly a common request but she did get it from time to time.

I sat in the chair for four hours. The procedure had become a mining expedition; my gums were the land torn open, and the vein of gold was my rotten, gnarled, and twisted wisdom teeth. The roots of the last tooth were twisted sideways, and I could feel the vibration throughout my head and down to my feet every time the pliers grabbed hold of the tooth but then slipped free.

“This one is really stuck in there. I can’t get a purchase,” she said.

“Purchase?” her hygienist said. “What do you mean, ‘purchase’? Like buying something?”

“No,” my dentist said. “You know. A purchase like in rock climbing. A foothold or handhold.”

“I’ve never heard that before.” The hygienist sounded doubtful that my dentist was using the word correctly.

“I’m going to drill an indentation on the tooth so my pliers can get a purchase and I can get this sucker out.” I wasn’t sure if she was talking to me, the hygienist, or both of us. Using only my eyes I said, “Sure, okay, whatever works.”

The tooth was stubborn. I guess change is hard for teeth as well. By this point my lovely lady dentist was sweating and exclaiming, “Son of a bitch, this tooth is stuck in there. Okay, wait, I’ve got a purchase. Come on, you son of a bitch.” She was pulling with everything she had. The veins on her forehead stood out and then “There it is,” she said triumphantly. “Finally.” She dropped the last of my wisdom teeth in a metal pan.

“And I do apologize for swearing.” She looked down on me so earnestly. “But that last tooth was really pissing me off.” She was massaging her hands and forearms. I smiled as much as was possible with my mouth wedged open. My wisdom teeth were cleaned and placed in a clear plastic container as promised.


I consider my wisdom teeth valuable and may contain magical properties. So I've hired Katniss Everdeen to guard them.

I consider my wisdom teeth valuable, and they may contain magical properties. So I’ve hired Katniss Everdeen to guard them.



Yes, that is a bow in her hand. Do not mess with this lady.


My wife was there in the waiting room and escorted me home. I stared at my teeth and tried to grin all the way home. I think I had a bit of a nap. Considering the ordeal I went through I felt really good. And because I’m a superhero, I ordered a pizza. I ate the pizza. The dentist called and I told her how good everything felt. Hell, I’m going to brush my teeth. With an electric toothbrush. What harm could come from having a super fast, relatively uncontrolled, bristly appliance in my mouth where a delicate blood clot was still forming and acting as a protective barrier for my raw and exposed nerves? And, of course, that is when things went really sideways as I saw and felt the bottom left clot fly out of the socket and go down the drain. Oh shit.


I have two blackflies who I've trained to guard my teeth work the night shift while Katniss is asleep.

I have two blackflies who I’ve trained to guard my teeth and work the night shift while Katniss is asleep.


The flies are named Sweety I and Sweety II. I pay them in sugar.

The flies are named Sweety I and Sweety II. I pay them in sugar.


At first nothing happened and I thought maybe I was going to be okay. But I awoke in the middle of the night thinking that a tiny metal spider had somehow been let loose in the exposed socket and it was trying to scratch its way to freedom. It was a painful, miserable time that consisted of multiple visits to my poor dentist who daily packed the socket with a paste she created that sort of helped the pain and kept the nerve endings covered. She was infinitely patient and didn’t once scream at me, “You fucking idiot. I told you specifically not to brush your teeth for at least a day. You ruined my work you ass hat!” Eventually the socket healed and I had no further complications. Except I kept insisting on swallowing the horse-pill-size antibiotic dry, and as it went down my gullet it made a long, painful scraping sensation that buckled my legs and forced me to lie flat on my back. Water is for babies.

Sadly, I learned little from this as, at a certain point, I determined that my stitches were not dissolving fast enough. I grabbed a pair of tweezers, opened wide,  and yanked them out. They were starting to piss me off. Nothing really bad happened and for that I’m grateful. I don’t think I could have faced the dentist having once again done something stupid.

So now my teeth are kept on my desk and have provided me endless enjoyment as I look at them and marvel how they came out of me after being carried around inside me for so long. Maybe this is what motherhood feels like, though–and I don’t mean to brag–my teeth are much better behaved than most children.

It’s Good to Be Queen

I normally don’t write about politics, specifically local politics, as many of the people who read this blog don’t live in my neighbourhood, and for the most part local politics is not exactly the most stimulating topic. But due to the rather silly and sad conduct of the former premier of Alberta, Alison Redford, I thought I’d post a little blurb on the latest (and hopefully the last) chapter of this saga.

Alison Redford was the premier of the province of Alberta. I’ve previously commented, in a post titled “Oh Alison,” on her abuse of government planes and how this was the beginning of the end.

Redford resigned as premier in March but did hold on to her seat in the Alberta Legislature representing her constituency in Calgary (lucky people). If she thought that resigning as premier would alleviate the scrutiny she was under, then she was mistaken. It was revealed that the premier had ordered a luxury penthouse suite to be built on the top of a Government of Alberta building that was under construction. According to Global News, “There would bedrooms for Redford and her pre-teen daughter . . . , a shared bathroom, a powder room, a walk-in closet, a butler’s pantry and areas for dining, studying and lounging. There would be grooming and changing areas, a fireplace and room-by-room temperature controls.”  This was unnecessary and extravagant. The consulting alone was $173 000. The project has since been nicknamed the Sky Palace, which is fitting as Redford and her daughter seemed to be confusing themselves with the Saudi royal family. Once these plans were made public, everyone collectively groaned, “Not again.”

Redford and Daughter

Don’t you pay any attention to these rubes, honey. They have no idea how to treat a princess.

Before she resigned as premier, she ordered an investigation by the Auditor General into the use of government aircraft. I guess this was an attempt to demonstrate that she had nothing to hide, that she was serious about getting to the bottom of mishandling of government funds. She wanted to know who was responsible for defrauding the Alberta taxpayer. At that point everyone in the province said, “Uhhh yeah, you know that’s you, right, Alison?” Her ordering of the audit doesn’t demonstrate a lack of intelligence but a surplus of disdain. She simply didn’t seem to care what anyone thought and was generally annoyed if she was  questioned.

The day before the Auditor General’s report was released, Redford resigned her seat in Calgary. These are a couple of highlights from the report–and by highlights I mean examples of entitlement and abuse of power and trust:

Whenever a delegation of Alberta politicians and staff had to fly somewhere for whatever reason, Redford’s staff would book the plane and fill the passenger manifest with people who weren’t actually going to fly on the plane. Just before the flight was to leave, staff would cancel these passengers and leave just Redford herself and the few people she wished to fly with, basically so she and her besties could have the plane all to themselves. As a result two planes were often used when only one was needed–Redford and her entourage on one plane and the unwashed rabble on the other. Wow, she must have made a lot friends with a strategy like that.

Empty Plane

I once rode a bus that was empty but never a plane.

Perhaps the lowlight of the report was the revelation that Redford had employed a travel scout, a woman who was paid $127 872 to go places the premier was planning to visit in order to suss out the best hotels, restaurants, and local sights, even giving weather reports (she e-mailed the premier that she  may need a jacket on some mornings in New Delhi). On top of the travel scout’s ridiculous salary, she racked up $330 000 in expenses in just twenty months. This was a position that didn’t exist until Alison Redford created it.

How does someone get a job like this? What would the qualifications be? I will conclude this post with how I imagine the job interview for this position:

Premier: Hello, John. Thank you for coming in today for this interview.

Me: No problem.

Premier: Do you like to travel?

Me: Sure do.

Premier: Do you like to spend other people’s money on luxury hotels and the finest restaurants?

Me: Oh, for sure.

Premier: Well then, John, welcome to the team. The job is yours. And might I say you had a fantastic interview. You just blew me out of the water.

Me: Oh, stop.

Then we both laugh and put our feet up on some Alberta taxpayers as we sit in leather chairs and light cigars with hundred dollar bills.

The premier announces to no one in particular: It’s good to be Queen!

Robin Williams, Palestinians, and Proximity

How can anyone possibly spend any time and attention fretting over the death of Robin Williams while children are dying in Palestine?

We hear this kind of indictment every time a celebrity dies when children somewhere in the world are suffering and dying. And to a certain extent I understand the reasoning behind the question; everyone understands that the suffering of children should be more important, or at least occupy more space in the collective culture, than the life and death of a celebrity. But this almost never happens, so indictments are made and proclamations of the demise and fall of the western world are shouted from soapboxes, or keyboards, and we all take a moment to feel ashamed.

So allow me a moment to explain why the death of Robin Williams occupies in my mind the same amount of space as, if not more than, that of children killed in Gaza. And that is proximity. I am closer to Robin Williams than I am to any one person in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and this has as much to do with the randomness of where I was born as anything else.

I never found Robin Williams terribly funny (gasp!), but I did find him to be a talented dramatic actor. Throughout my lifetime, I watched stories in pictures acted out by Robin Williams in such films as The World According to Garp, Dead Poets Society, The Fisher King, Good Will Hunting, and The Night Listener. Much of how I learn about the world is through story, whether read, watched, or listened to. Robin Williams was someone whom I had seen in movies, and I grew to appreciate the way in which he chose to act out the story someone else had written him. His face was familiar to me; and his face, his body, his physicality, is linked to stories that I ingested, and as with almost all stories of any quality, helped me to form my perceptions of the world. Sometimes the ideas I had in my developing brain were not yet articulated clearly until I saw or read the scenarios of conflict and resolution, or lack thereof. Some of these ideas were developed in and linked to Robin Williams’s work, so I naturally make a myriad of links and associations between my development and the stories that contributed to that development. Some of these fence posts are more important than others, some are downright frivolous and silly, but I believe that all of them are contributing to my identity and how I see myself fitting into the world.

Robin Williams

Of course I find the death and suffering of children horrible. But due to a geographic gulf and a cultural distance, the abhorrence I feel is more abstract than visceral. I can watch the news and, by simply being a human capable of compassion, I can sympathize with the plight of anyone in a war zone. I am not necessarily going to react the same way emotionally as I would if, for instance, it were my family and friends in an armed conflict three provinces east of Alberta. Nor should I. If I did I’d be an emotional wreck and a blubbering idiot for most of every day. When 9/11 happened my reaction was strong, and later it dawned on me that one of the reasons may have been because many of those killed and injured were people who lived in close proximity to me and had a shared culture. These were people who looked like me and thought like me, and we had many shared collective cultural experiences. To a certain extent these people were me.

The fact that Robin Williams committed suicide is also a reason his death occupies a bit more real estate in my mind than it would otherwise. Suicide is something that has been a dominating shadow in my family. Three of my uncles committed suicide. These were men who were raised in the Catholic Church when church was a defining element in the growth and development of an individual. The stories that helped them develop their identity were from the Bible. A dominating theme of sin is repentance and forgiveness. Except with suicide. With suicide there is no repentance, no forgiveness. You will go to hell. Yet despite this, they chose to kill themselves. Fear as a motivator did not prevent them from leaving this world.


Robin Williams had achieved, by every metric in the western world, fantastic success–money, fame, adulation, all of it. Yet success as a motivator did not prevent him from taking his life.

Another link that I make is that perhaps these men suffered from defective brain chemistry, or some other physical debilitation we have not yet been able to identify or completely understand. I’m thinking of Robin Williams in the context of the suicide of my uncles, and I wonder if I have inherited some of that genetic material.

When I think of the life and death of Robin Williams, I guess I’m really thinking of all the links and associations he is a part of in my life, and this is at some level automatic simply because of how I consume text in Canada at this time in history. The fact that I have more associations with Robin Williams than I do with a conflict in the Middle East does not make me a bad person but a person who has a healthy, functioning mind that can only do what it can do, and to expect more might be something that only happens in the movies.

Palastinian Conflict