Sheltering Ghosts

In honour of Remembrance Day I thought I’d repost this bit about family, war, and my gratitude for the veterans who sacrificed so much.

 

“You remember your Uncle Leonard, right?” My father asked. “Oh, yeah,” I replied.

“Well, he was in Belgium during the war. He was wounded, shot in the arm. He lay there for six hours before they came and got him. He almost bled to death. His arm was never the same; he had a piece of the bullet in him for the rest of his life. The field doctor did a pretty good job, though,” my father said.

On that day

he was a bard,

a soothsayer,

and a hedge-school teacher.

He was seventy-five.

 We were in a Calgary hotel room, on the fourteenth floor. It was Sunday of the May long weekend. The rain had been coming down in fat, hard drops most of the afternoon; during supper we heard thunder. This was ghost story weather.

caen_medics

My father continued: “After he was wounded he was taken to England to recover in a hospital. They had no windows, just cardboard where glass should be. And the Germans–Uncle Leonard thought they made their bombs a certain way to terrify the enemy. They’d make a loud noise coming in”–my father arched his hand smoothly through the damp air–“and then there’d be silence for a few seconds. Then the bomb would land. But in those few seconds of silence you didn’t know where exactly the bomb would land. He told me that men would hide under their beds terrified.”

We were there for a wedding.

Our room was clean;

our towels were changed every day

and had a mild bleach smell.

Someone made our beds.

“Is it true,” I asked, “that they had to fight the Hitler Youth? Am I remembering that right? I think I remember Uncle Leonard saying that. Were they really young, like eight or nine?”

“Well, no they weren’t that young, but they were in their early teens. The officers would beg them to surrender but they wouldn’t. They didn’t know the word.” The rain outside was pounding but our room was warm, almost hot, so we had the balcony door open.

I bought a leather coat

the morning before,

at a mall downtown.

“Jesus, that must have been awful, to have to kill kids like that,” I whispered.

“Yeah, well, they didn’t have any choice, the kids would stand in front of the tanks and get rolled over. They were absolutely fanatical. But Leonard said it was worse for the Americans.”  My father paused for a moment and I could hear the sound of cars drive by on saturated asphalt. “The Americans went at them with flamethrowers. It was the only way to rout them from the Leopold Canal. They wouldn’t go any other way, they’d been indoctrinated since they were this high.” My father held out his hand about three feet of the carpeted floor. We sat on hotel furniture, quietly taking this in, as bulging drops of water bounced off the concrete balcony and low thunder rumbled in the distance, more a cry than a growl.

I thought about the kind of mental gymnastics that would be required to have someone that age, going against such a primal instinct, and sacrificing his life. And I wondered about history and the randomness of time and place.

thSBCUOKZM

“He joined a Western regiment, the Regina Rifles, so he would be sent overseas right away,” my father says, and I receive this bit of information with reverence and awe.

We visited the zoo

on the afternoon

before the wedding.

I saw a brown bear

up close.

He was a city bear.

If such a thing could be.

“Leonard was never the same when he got back. Neither was Tommy or Frank.” My father was talking about the other men I came from, my other uncles.

“Frank, he had a real bad experience.” He didn’t elaborate. I’m not sure if that was because he didn’t know what the bad thing was or he didn’t want to talk about it. Uncle Tommy shot himself in the head before I was born; he drank too much. He tried to quit (they all tried to quit) but it didn’t stick. When I was about ten, Uncle Frank walked into Lake Nipissing and drowned himself. We had visited him that summer at his retirement home in North Bay. The home had a pool table. It was in the fall when he took his last walk so they couldn’t recover his body until after the winter when the ice thawed. He left a note. I’ve never read it.

I was thinking

about that note

as I looked at the new suitcase

that I bought

at the same mall where I bought my new coat.

thTZE3DY23

Uncle Leonard was one of those anonymous old drunks you see every day, a part of the urban landscape we take for granted, like an abandoned machine shop in the middle of an industrial park. After the war, under a burning and humid Hamilton sun, he worked in a steel mill. He lived in a small bachelor apartment, had a penchant for thick steaks, and drank discounted liquor at the local Legion. We visited him once. I think it was in July; everything was sticky. I managed to impress Uncle Leonard because, though I was only ten, and small for my age, I managed to eat a whole T-bone steak and half of the one my brother couldn’t finish.

Uncle Leonard was an alcoholic. He drank all day, every day, whiskey, sometimes mixed, sometimes straight from the bottle, gallons of it. At night he went to bed with a 26 or 48 ounce bottle and straw and he’d lie down like a nursing baby, ensuring that night would not snatch the drunk from him. He went years without drawing a sober breath.

When Grandma Callaghan died

we all walked slowly to the grave

behind a big black car.

Uncle Leonard was crying.

Hard.

It was the first time

I had seen

a man cry.

One summer Uncle Leonard came to visit us in our tiny apartment on Raglen Street in the small town of Renfrew. He brought me an orange the size of a strongman’s bicep. He peeled that orange for me, with powerful, patient hands that moved slowly and forcefully, like the hydraulics on a backhoe. The rind didn’t stand a chance.

thC86UBFTW

He showed  us how to salute, march in formation, and address an officer. He pulled up his sleeve to show us the scar, inside just below the armpit. It was an ugly, messy star, and it was frightening to know that a piece of the bullet that  got him was still somewhere inside his arm.

He was the only man

I ever knew

who had been shot.

I was seven when he visited that summer. I’m not sure if my parents were still in the bottle or had sobered up by then. Two blocks from our apartment was a store my brother and I referred to as the “candy store” because it had candy, lots of candy. I would gather pennies that I found, often lying at the bottom of my mother’s purse, and head off to buy. The ritual was to dump the change on the counter and declare how much I had, and then ask to turn those pennies into a bag of mixed-up candy. The person behind the counter would grab a small paper bag and pick randomly, placing an assortment of candy, from the small display boxes that were lined up behind the counter. Bill was the owner of the store and could sometimes be crabby. He was bald, and wore thick glasses and a dark olive janitor’s uniform. His voice was deep and scary, so when he talked it sounded like a growling dog.

Uncle Leonard had pockets filled with change, and while he was visiting he gave us handfuls. Sometimes he’d even give us paper money which we’d stare at and treat with the reverence of a sacred scroll. During those days of plenty I’d sometimes make three or four trips to the “candy store,” stuffing myself with bubble-gum, Swedish Raspberries, and the odd piece of licorice. I had no idea if my luck would ever be this good again, so I got while the gettin’ was good. It must have been on about my third visit one day that Bill shoved the small brown bag of good fortune toward me and spoke terrifying words: “Here. Now don’t you come back.” I cried all the way home , trying to eat my candy as best I could through choking tears.

“Bill told me I couldn’t go back,” I blurted to the adults gathered in the kitchen.

“What?” my father asked. He likely couldn’t understand me because I was crying and had a mouthful of gum.

I took a deep breath and explained, “I went to the candy store and Bill said I couldn’t come back no more.” As I said this I began to cry even harder.

Uncle Leonard stood up and, quietly, angrily, said, “We’ll see about that.” The next thing I remember is walking to the “candy store” with my uncle. I came up to his waist and remember looking at his bulging belly that was evened out by his thick, bulging forearms. Even his fingers seemed to burst with muscle. Those were Nazi-choking hands. I looked up at his face and it was determined and fearless. He looked straight ahead as we marched to the store.

We stood at the counter for three seconds before Uncle Leonard said, “Where’s Bill? I want to see Bill.” The hair on the back of my neck was standing at attention.

Bill sauntered out from the back room. He appeared confident and unafraid as he looked at me, but his face changed when he saw that it wasn’t Father standing there, but a stranger. A stranger with a head that looked like it could endure many, many forceful blows.

“Did you tell my nephew he couldn’t come back here?” Technically this was a question but it was stated like a warning or even a threat.

Bill was suddenly preoccupied with arranging the candy boxes on the shelf. In a small voice that was cracking just a tiny bit, Bill said, “No, no, nothing like that.” He had his back to us and talked into the floor. “I just meant he shouldn’t come back today.” This was a lie. Uncle Leonard stood tall and straight and stared at the back of Bill’s head. I’m the dog now, I thought, and I could smell Bill’s fear. His hands shook slightly as he adjusted the straws on the counter, still unable to look at the fire in my uncle’s face. We left.

That was

the safest moment

of my

childhood.

th55ONXK70

We take the Red Arrow home, back to Edmonton, and the prairie sky is like a hanging ceiling of grey cotton candy. The rain continues, cleansing away the remnants of a Western winter. As we pass by field after field I stare out the window and I think of young men like Uncle Leonard who fought in fields like the ones I see now. I try to put myself there, to make myself feel the bullet hit my arm. To watch what keeps me alive seep into the soil. Did he smell copper and earth, smoke and fire? In those six hours did he make deals with God as he lay among dead friends in an old-time Catholic hell?

Our people farmed in the summer and felled trees in the winter. I suspect that joining the army, and going overseas, was an attractive alternative to being a poor Irish man-tractor, feeding the forest with blood and sweat to fill the coffers of the English and Scottish landowners.

I think about Tommy and Frank and Leonard, and how the drink killed what the war could not. But the drink couldn’t take away what they had been: soldiers. Boys who dropped their axes and plows, walked off the farm and out of the bush and went to foreign fields, to suffer and bleed and die.

There is a bit of snow on the ground as we make our way past Bowden. What would a May long weekend in Alberta be without a little snow. I am warm, and happy, and safe. I will likely go the rest of my life never having been shot in the arm fighting in a war, and part of me is ashamed for this soft life I have.

At my feet

are two

pieces of art

we bought at the gallery

where the wedding was

held.

The best I can do is shelter the ghosts of these men that I miss, though I never really knew them. I keep them in a room marked “Death by Alcohol.” They aren’t lonely because the room is full of family. I visit them often and sometimes I strap one of these ghosts to my back, like Uncle Leonard, and carry the cross of his memory around for a while, and then I’ll put him back.

I am hitching my breath and fighting back tears as I remember all over again how much I miss these men I came from, and how the ghost of a man is not the same as the life of a man. These are the bombs that terrify me because they land in the most unexpected places, with no set time, and I have no choice but to honour what these men did, and who they were, by telling a story. So, right here in the Red Arrow, my face is in danger of becoming as smear-streaked as the window I look out of, as I think of Uncle Leonard and the heroic things he did without being asked: The War, The Orange, and The Candy Store, and I am regretful, and I am sorry, that I never had the chance to at least whisper:

thank you

thank you

thank you

My Wife Scares Me

halloween 1

I love a good scare. Or, more accurately, I love to give a good scare. For the length of our marriage, something my wife and I have done consistently is scare the shit out of each other. We often do this while or after watching a horror movie. But the trick to keeping things effective is to make it a seldom and random experience.

My preferred method of affliction is to stand statue-still in a dark room and either jump out at my wife as she passes by or make a sudden jerky movement. This is effective in that when she gets that feeling she saw something out of the corner of her eye, and then quickly dismisses that feeling, she’s terrified when I make my sudden jerky movements. On occasion, if the setting is right I’ll stand completely still hugging the wall just around a corner and when my wife comes around said corner she practically runs into my giant Irish melon. This inevitably causes a howl.

halloween 3

 

But my wife probably has the best method. She will stand in the tub, with the shower curtain drawn, and because the curtain is always drawn I suspect nothing. I stroll into the bathroom, usually singing a song that’s nonsense but written (music and lyrics) by yours truly. As I get ready to do my business, my wife whips the curtain open, yells, and lunges at me.

BITCH ON TOAST!

I stumble back and usually fall on the floor, scrambling backwards as I make the sound I suspect I will make at the moment of my death: “UUUUUUH” (this really doesn’t do it justice). And once my body realizes that today is not the day I will die, my wife and I both laugh like maniacal children who have just discovered the joys of setting fires. And it is at times like these I could not love my wife more and feel like the luckiest man in the world.

If I’m found dead in my bathroom, with my pants down, covered in my own urine, and a stricken look upon my face, please know I died doing what I love: having the piss scared out of me. Literally.

Happy Halloween, everyone.

halloween 4

 

The Frog Days of Summer

Facebook is much maligned for being a giant time suck. But I appreciate Facebook for allowing me to keep in touch with friends who live thousands of miles from my home. And sometimes I get a reminder about how little, in some ways, I’ve changed. Here is an edited exchange I had last week:

Change Room

Rob: Anyone recognize this in Renfrew?

Tracey: Change room from the beach?

Rob: Yep. I think it’s the only thing left at the beach.

Me: What happened to the beach?

Rob: They closed it several years ago.

Me: Oh, explain please.

Rob: That’s all I got.

Me: Hahaha. Okay.

Ann: It was closed years ago because of a high ecoli count. There was a recent article in the Mercury saying the town had retested the water and was still too high to swim in. I still remember the musty smell in the change room. Wasn’t pleasant.

Me: Thanks Ann. And ewwww. I don’t think I ever used the change room.

Ann: I hated biking all the way across town with a wet bathing suit.

Me: I never minded. But I was a weird kid and pretty oblivious. I probably swam in my clothes.

Ann: You weren’t that weird. Except when you used to tell me the picture of me in my locket looked like a frog. I thought it was a boy thing. LOL.

Me: Hahahaha. What a little turd I was. Yes I was weird, and if that’s all I said then I am grateful. Sorry by the way. I’m sure you looked perfectly nice.

Ann: I think it was an inside joke that you never let me in on. LOL. Mrs. Amell’s  split grade 2-3 class. Good times!

 

It’s wonderful to still be friends with the people who knew me when I was such a weird little turd.

 

 

Canadian Thanksgiving (Gobble Gobble)

Today is Thanksgiving in Canada. Here are some things I am grateful for that, normally, I just take for granted:

1. Coffee Filters: The usefulness to cost ratio is immense. Making coffee without these perfectly shaped manufactured items would be a pain.

2. Cotton: From t-shirts to pyjamas, cotton is nature’s way of giving us a hug.

3. The Printing Press: The invention of this magnificent tool, and its offspring, has given me more pleasure than any human is entitled to.

4. Debit Cards: I remember when I was young (cue old man voice) and the panic for everyone to get to the bank on Friday and withdraw enough cash to see you through the weekend. This was a pain and especially so if you miscalculated how much you would need.

5. Sewage System: Poopy go bye-bye and with it so have many diseases.

6. Toilet Paper: Although I think this is still a method that could use some improvement, it’s better than going all day with “mud butt.”

7. The Internet: I can play Words With Friends and Scrabble with my brother-in-law who lives a half a world away in England, and partake in some trash talking in real time. This is as close to magic as I think I’ve ever come.

8. Science: From vaccinations to engineering, almost every modern convenience we enjoy today exists because someone asked, “How does this work?”

The first Canadian Thanksgiving dates back to 1578 when Martin Frobisher led an expedition to the Canadian North in the hopes of establishing a small settlement. Yikes!

Here is the area:

Frobisher Bay 1

After his ships were separated, battered by severe weather, some sunk by icebergs, and many of the sailors killed, they did manage to meet up in an inlet that is now known as Frobisher Bay. A mass was held to give thanks they had survived. The settlement never happened.

Martin Frobisher

I suppose if Frobisher turned that collar up he would have a hell of a wind-breaker.

 

Frobisher returned to England later that year with what he thought was a thousand tons of gold ore that turned out to be totally worthless. Sigh. I guess naming a bay after the poor man was the least Canada could do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Personification: My Bladder

So I’m at the stage in my life where I frequently need to ask my bladder, “Do you really need to go pee or do you just think you need to go pee?”

My bladder usually just shrugs and says, “You wanna take that chance?”

Sigh. “You’re turning into a real asshole, bladder, you know that?’

My bladder stares blankly. “Well, you’re in the right neighbourhood. Wrong house, though.”

None of this was in the brochure.

ISIS and Canada’s Embarrassing Response

I think we can all agree that ISIS is without doubt an evil, vile, and terrifying organization that has committed atrocities from mass executions of religious minorities to the beheading of Western aid workers. The oilfields they have captured, coupled with the American military hardware procured from surrendering Iraqi and Syrian troops, has made ISIS well funded and well equipped. The core of their belief is simple enough: believe what we tell you to believe or be killed. This is a sentiment so wrong, so completely dangerous, I’m not even going to begin to argue this and just assume that anyone reading this more or less agrees that ISIS is horrible and they need to be stopped.

So a myriad of countries have formed a coalition and each has pledged a certain amount of military aid to fight ISIS, to stop them from perpetrating hate on the world. This would seem to be a no-brainer. I mean, even other Islamic countries have ponied up fighter jets, and some Islamic leaders have publicly denounced ISIS. This almost never happens and goes a long way to demonstrating how vile ISIS is. Canada is a nation that has participated in the two great wars and fought well above our weight defending democracy and freedom and just doing the right thing when and where the world has needed us. When our friends have asked us to help, we helped (this might be stretching it a little with regards to WWI but I’m not going to get into a history lesson of the relationship between Great Britain and Canada at that time). Canada has been asked to give help, military help, to at the very least aid those poor brave bastards, the Kurds, by giving air support, training, and guidance. This is an easy decision to make, right? Of course we will lend our military to a cause as noble as this. Right?

Maybe not. Politics enters the picture and we have a bit of a mess. For my American and international friends I will give a quick and dirty synopsis of the political landscape in Canada. We do not have political parties that are anywhere near as polarizing or binary as Republicans and Democrats in America. We have a Conservative, Liberal, and, New Democratic Party (NDP). They are all more or less the same in that all three could fit nicely with varying degrees into the Democratic party of the U.S. All three leaders of the parties are in their own way perfectly nice, and I do believe that they have sincere intentions of wanting to serve the country and make it a better place.

It is comedic to me to see elements on the far left who claim that our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, and the Conservative party he leads are attempting to install some sort of Fascism at worst, and at best are turning Canada into the United States of America. Yes, to my great shame this antiquated notion of America as a great devil, and a horrible place, is still bandied about and is one of the last bastions of prejudice some Canadians will still participate in. And to call Stephen Harper a Fascist is an insult to Fascists. In that company I’ve no doubt the man would be considered a lightweight. But please don’t mistake this analysis for approval. The Conservatives have been involved in more than a few shenanigans, and I find many of their practices repugnant, but no more or less than those of the other parties.

Stephen Harper: Likes beer and hockey. Not a fascist.

Stephen Harper: Likes beer and hockey. Not a fascist.

The Liberal party is led by a young man named Justin Trudeau. He is largely unqualified to run a country as his job before being elected was as a substitute drama teacher. A fine and honourable profession, but not what I consider the best training to manage, say, a complex foreign policy, or our vast natural resources. But I do believe at his core he is a good and decent person who genuinely wants to do good for the country. And he has great hair, which doesn’t hurt with the ladies. If he were elected I don’t think he’d do the damage that the more right wing elements claim: All businesses will leave Canada, prison doors will be flung open, everyone will go on welfare, abortions will be mandatory (for men and women), and cats will lie with dogs.

Justin Trudeau: Don't hate me because I'm beautiful.

Justin Trudeau: Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.

I pay little attention to the NDP as does the rest of Canada. Their leader, Thomas Mulcair, is foul-tempered and has a thousand-yard stare which inspires ghost stories in all provinces and territories of this nation. Because they will never be elected they can promise outrageous things like free university for everyone, knowing they would never have to actually implement any of these policies. Collectively, though, the country gives the NDP a friendly nudge with an elbow to the stomach, winks, and says, oh, c’mon now, we know you’d pretty much run the country the way it is now if you were elected. Perhaps some social programs would get a boost in funding but not much else would be different. The most offensive thing about the NDP is that they are popular in Quebec, and the rest of Canada pretty much wants Quebec to just shut the hell up and move out already.

Thomas Mulcair: I've seen some things. Terrible things.

Thomas Mulcair: I’ve seen some things. Terrible things.

This is a system that more or less works well. It does breed some complacency but I see complacency as a symptom of a country running well. If there is an active and enthusiastic movement underway, it is usually because the shit has either hit the fan or is about to. But the odd time a leader will very much miscalculate, when disagreeing for the sake of disagreeing can backfire–or at the very least make him look foolish, and that’s what’s happening to Justin Trudeau.

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper suggested that Canada would indeed be helping out militarily to fight ISIS, Trudeau immediately opposed the suggestion. This was a mistake. I understand that the system is set up in such a way that he is obligated to oppose anything the Conservatives propose, whether he agrees or not, in order to differentiate his party and their policies from the Prime Minister and his party’s policies. The proposal was for Canada to contribute some air power in the form of CF-18 fighter jets for six months. In my opinion this is a laughably small contribution and barely qualifies as helping out. Trudeau in a cringe-worthy statement said, “Why aren’t we talking more about the kind of humanitarian aid that Canada can and must be engaged in, rather than trying to whip out our CF-18’s and show them how big they are? It just doesn’t work like that in Canada.”

Sigh. Oh boy.

I really hope that this is just posturing for maybe some of the more fringe, radically left members of his base. I can tell you that wanting this scourge wiped from the planet has nothing to do with wanting to demonstrate the size of Canada’s penis and has everything to do with wanting a world where women can be educated, homosexuals can love who they want, and people can practice whatever religion they want, or practice no religion at all, and the more these ideals are practiced in  the world, the better the world will be. And if a source of batshit crazy decides none of these things should ever exist, and they will kill anyone who opposes them, then violence must be met with violence. What Trudeau has done in a somewhat subtle way is draw on an outdated, yet still present in some circles, anti-American sentiment that had been formed in the days when we received a lot of our information about America from the CBC, university professors, and Margaret Atwood–that America is a brutish, insecure, dumb, testosterone-driven teenager looking to get in a fight and then maybe get laid. But at this time I think enough Canadians have given up this antiquated notion of America and are focusing on the problem of today.

At this moment, right now, the brave few souls fighting ISIS need more than humanitarian aid. They need help physically stopping the progression of ISIS. Help holding a bridge or taking back a dam. To reduce my desire to see our military fight for a cause so clearly as just as this one to merely a symptom of insecure masculinity is insulting and stupid. And for Trudeau to be unable at this time to separate the idea of military aid from the man proposing military aid demonstrates to me a limited intellect and an inability to know when playing politics is just part of the game and to know when playing politics is going to cost people their lives. It is maybe understandable that in the Canadian political system there are really so few ways for a political party to differentiate itself from the others that opportunities must be embraced when they come along, but this is an instance that is so much more important than the scoring of political points.

And humanitarian aid is also being given. We can, and will, do both. They are not mutually exclusive actions.

What we need to also keep in mind in Canada, and what we take for granted, is that we may someday need our friends to help us. I would say a good motivator for that would be that when presented with an opportunity to fight evil and help our friends, we take it. I think one of the better side effects of globalization, the internet, social media, and even blogging is that it’s getting harder for politicians like Trudeau to manufacture a boogeyman like the evil empire of the United States of America because now the information, and how we know each other, comes first hand. I know people, and people know me, and when this happens it becomes nearly impossible to demonize, to manufacture the Other, and men like Trudeau sound old timey and silly and likely will find that the world is passing them by.

 

 

 

 

 

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?

Stink

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.