On The Bus

On The Bus

Ontario is drafting policies aimed at our opioid problem. That effort, however, is aimed almost exclusively at providing opioid substitution therapy (OST) to people addicted to opioids. These policies would nearly exclude abstinence-based treatment in its current form as a choice for opioid addicts (Health Quality Ontario, Opioid Use Disorder, Quality Standard Currently In Development).

Residential treatment centres would, “be required to initiate and maintain clients on [OST],” in spite of the existence of sound research showing that OST prescribed patients do not necessarily function well alongside clients with abstinence goals at residential centers.

Opioid addicts seeking treatment are served by OST. They avoid withdrawal, disease, getting drugs off the street and overdose. In the meantime, they can rebuild their lives.

But for as long as they are taking a substitute opioid, they will also avoid being abstinent from opioids. It is just that simple.

The biggest problem is opioid addiction itself. It is an insidious and complex issue for both individuals and our community. It is not amenable to simple strategies that propose, like the draft statements to this new policy imply, that opioid addiction can be solved exclusively at the busy end of a physician’s pen.

Abstinence-based interventions such as residential treatment centres must remain options to publicly funded Ontarians.

In Toronto where I practice social work, however, these treatment options are like a shrinking piece of melting ice, off of which addicts and organizations are being forced to jump. The changing ecology for opioid users is already in place at critical points of care.

A man I worked with last year needed medical withdrawal management for opioid withdrawal. He required the kind of services that the only two truly medical detoxes in Toronto offer: addictions doctors, nurses and a visiting psychiatrist. He needed a temporary medical intervention, while going through heroin withdrawal.

Yet in spite of the existence of these two world-class facilities only a bus ride away, he was out of luck. He was addicted to opioids. The nurse at the one Hospital politely informed me that she was no longer allowed to admit patients addicted to opioids, while quietly schooling me: “You are supposed to be referring him to an OST clinic, you know.”

My client had one official option as a first line treatment: Drug replacement. He declined this option, tried to detox himself at home, and we unfortunately lost touch.

20 years ago in 1996, there were about 3,000 people taking opioid substitution in Canada. In 2010 that number was to 29,000. It is now over 50,000. That puts us at a four times per capita rate higher than the USA, whose opioid problem is no different than ours.

Physicians who prescribe OST are financially rewarded and there has been a gold-rush to the cause of substitution therapy by clinics looking to get in on the action. Benedikt Fischer and his colleagues explained it in a paper, published recently:

“While the MMT-focussed incentives have created a proliferation of MMT clinics and patients in Ontario, there has been no commensurate investment in short- or mid-term treatment interventions, for example with abstinence, where possible, as a main goal for potentially suitable patient sub-groups. While these treatment interventions may potentially be more care effort- or management-intensive in the acute treatment phase, they be less costly for the system – yet also provide less income for [OST] providers or medications producers – in the long run. To illustrate: The current annual public expenditures – or reimbursement fees – for MMT alone in Ontario are estimated to exceed $250,000,000.” (https://substanceabusepolicy.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13011-016-0055-4).

OST is furthermore prescribed to people who are not deeply involved street level or IV drug users. They are often young and were prescribed drugs like oxycodone for pain in the first place, only to end up taking OST for lengthy periods of time. Many of these people would succeed with abstinence-based clinical support.

These policy initiatives would nearly enforce our support of the use of extremely powerful opioids to treat addiction to other powerful opioids, which Ontario’s healthcare system was in the first place responsible for prescribing.

The North American oxycodone scandal hovers as a dark frame to these policies, which propose to enrol the Ontario taxpayer in a bid to solve an opioid crisis which was fuelled in part by corporate malfeasance, and a tendency by physicians to impulsively prescribe opioids to their patients.

Though abstinence-based treatment strategies may be costly up front- this has been a common complaint by taxpayers and policy makers alike- they help people develop lifestyles that reduce traffic in hospitals, and which foster meaningful membership in the community. Most of the addicts I know in long-term recovery have rebuilt their lives by engaging in positive social activities such as work and family.

Benedict Fischer advocates a stepped-care model that is not anti-OST. So do I. We need a menu of choices for addicts that use opioids and who want to get better. Our treatment strategies must be built around their needs and desires (for example providing truly medical detoxes for opioid addicts). We must confront the opioid crisis in its full complexity.

Click this link to give your valuable feebback

LINK HERE: http://www.hqontario.ca/Evidence-to-Improve-Care/Quality-Standards/View-all-Quality-Standards/Opioid-Use-Disorder?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=QS%20Opioids%20Public%20Comment&utm_content=QS%20Opioids%20Public%20Comment+CID_304bda8cf62837ae65a39fea33d06bb7&utm_source=email%20CM&utm_term=Opioid%20Use%20Disorder%20Care%20for%20People%2016%20Years%20of%20Age%20and%20Older

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Fall, 1991

 

In grade 11 I thought about two things, neither of which had anything to do with school. One was with girls, the other was football.

That fall, my brother and I joined forces and enrolled at Western Technical Commercial School in High Park area of Toronto, to facilitate these two very things.

I went to a bunch of different high schools. Five to be exact. I think my brother went to about eight. There was nothing wrong with this to us. I would sample different high schools for a while, then… try another.

It started when I ran from my first high school, Humberside, after being stalked and beaten during that school’s lightly termed “initiation week,” by two skinheads. They spotted me like a lame deer my third day. In 1991 an older, petulant looking white boy in a nylon bomber with enough guts to put red laces in his 10-hole Doc Martins was a sheer sign of danger to anyone- still is.

Humberside was huge. I was lost in the belly of a whale. Its inhabitants- teachers and students alike seemed to hate me. I would have done better in the military, rather than that faceless and terrible place. The school offered no comfort to its new enrolees. Just the opposite. Not a secretary or a teacher was interested in easing the desperate state of human suffering they at the same time were facilitating by allowing to go on what went on between classes. There weren’t signs telling 13 year olds like me what we were in for. No announcements. No hint from parents.

On the surface, it sounded like picking classes and learning, but it was sheer oppression and rudimentary survival. The halls made up so many miles of lockers, where between classes a fission explosion of boys and girls massed into the halls talking, laughing and screaming in pain, and horniness and wanting to fit in with one another.

If anyone from my grade 8 or junior school was enrolled there, I saw them about as often as you do a prisoner you knew on the outside, in another range at a penitentiary. Every three days or so I would see someone and we were afforded a brief conversation, hurriedly spoken between classes, ringing bells, angry teachers, a small mafia for a front office and other forms of institutional insanity and abuse… We were honestly in shock.

In grade 9 I was cute but useless in a fight against most other kids in my grade or older. I was a late bloomer, which meant I lived in as much fear of a girl getting to third base with me as I did getting into a scrap.

Anyways, that’s how I became a school hopper. Or as I prefer to call it, a school shopper. I left Humberside under duress, in the cover of night. There was no choice. There were skinheads there! Skinheads!

I noticed them out of the corner of my eye the second day I was there, not far from my locker. I knew it was trouble. They were talking in the hall, which quickly emptied of kids after morning class. There was no way to act my way out of the dread these two pricks inspired. I was already in a state of fight or flight every moment of every day of those first two weeks of high school.

The hall was then completely empty. I froze. I had to walk past these two guys to get to where I was going. I had now become convinced that they were watching me. Until then I had been in hopeful denial. I played with the shit in my locker for a minute or two, hoping they would leave. They didn’t. I dropped a book onto the floor. They started laughing. I grabbed my bag and tried to move. I froze.

I summoned the courage to look- they were staring right at me. I would have rathered senior guys on the football squad or something like that from a Molly Ringwald movie. These guys looked unhinged. You can’t identify publicly as one of Hitler’s youth without something having gone terribly wrong, somewhere.

I gathered what courage I had, grabbed my shit, and slunk past them to the left. They stood under a loud blinking fluorescent light, just as the last door to the last open classroom clinked shut. The hall was otherwise perfectly empty. My face drained of blood as I slithered away.

After recovering from crushing anxiety, I had a moment or two of relief. But a larger state of despair was beginning to set in. I ignored it. I told no one- too embarrassed. I shouldn’t have been so afraid, but when you’re being abused, silence seems like a safe option. Less trouble. Like the little old lady closing the drapes from her Brooklyn apartment so she doesn’t have to witness two thugs mug some cab driver- Except in this case, I’m the old lady, and the cabbie getting mugged all at the same time.

On the very next day, the same skinheads found me in the hall after geography class, just before lunch. They saw me from the hall, waited for like 20 minutes in the hall till the class ended, then grabbed me and put me up against the lockers… The one with the teacher still in it, ten feet away. What the fuck? How was no one stopping this?

I looked back over my shoulder at the class, and the teacher was answering some students’ questions. You fucking kidding me? A skinhead had me by the scruff of my neck and was slapping my face. The other one had a stick in the sleeve of his bomber, which he let slide down into his grip. Here we go I thought, and stifled a cry. They both punched me in the stomach, then laughed and walked away.

Halfway down the hall, with me still hunched in disbelief, one of them turned around and yelled, “Welcome to Humberside.”

“Thanks,” I muttered.

It’s not pleasing to either admit to have, or to actually have, imagined murdering people. I mean I was only 13, and my sanity had been pushed to the limits of violence and hatred by the goings on within a massive publicly funded educational institution. It looked more and more like a fucking jail! Its monolithic ad Victorian inspired front entranceway, more imposing each morning.

I daydreamt for three days and three longer nights about getting those assholes back. Vile predictions about how a fight might go played out in my head.

The school was actually difficult academically, but I had to focus complete and total energy on this other situation that I had, and my dreams of becoming a doctor seemed to be slipping away. Fuck that. I had clue what I was doing, or what I wanted to be. It’s hard to focus on sailing when your bailing out your hull from water. Go ahead and be serious about your education. Just live to tell about it.

I realized that I needed some people on my side. One person at least. I looked around the next day for some friends to pool together. I remembered my friend Mike- one of the tougher grade 9’s I knew from middle school, had also come to Humberside. I found him just before lunch the next day to tell him what was going on, but when I got around his locker, I found him surrounded by about six older guys watching him push a marshmallow down the hall with his nose.

I decided to I bring a concealed weapon to school on Monday- an old Wilson tennis racket which I put into my locker. The next time I saw that skinhead I was gonna use it. Or something.

I got my chance the very same day. I was at my locker again and one of the same skinheads, wearing the same outfit, walked right by me. He winked out of his weasel white buck toothed fucking face. I flipped through the plan: Grab the racket, and hit him with it. Pretty simple.

He was by himself. It would have been perfect, wood and cat-gut mesh wrapping itself in the bloody bone face of a die hard Nazi. It would have been a goddamned public service. I could have looked back and been proud. I could have told my kids. I could have bragged. I could have been a contender. But, rather than produce my weapon, I froze and looked down at my shifting feet.

A natural abiding fear of the skinhead is warranted at any point in time; to be scared to death of getting in trouble is not so useful since it prevents one from stepping out and trying things, from engaging in activities that one has no clear answer about. I like to think I have overcome this fear, but the truth is its still there, hidden by a false bravado and a distaste for being told what to do.

It was my father. He was big, strict about school and- I realize now- unhappy. School was everything to him. He had done amazing at school. He had also somehow refrained to mention during his many passionate appeals to me about school, the skinheads, the initiations, a lack of hair on my dick at 13 (which seemed as much his fault as mine), and the generic sense of terror once locked inside of a real high school. Unlike the cops, which I could run from when my brother and I smashed bottles against windows and broke like vandals into the dawn laughing at Park Lawn, drinking and almost getting caught… you cannot run from some legally registered sociopath with which your school board inhabits your precious learning environment.

Nor could I run from my father- or so it seemed. He loomed more and more expectant the older I got, the more I got laid, the more I hung around big brother Johnny.

I decided right then, as that young man walked away having owned me for the second time, that I was getting the hell out of that school. Fight or flight. I chose flight.

I must note here that my brother Johnny was a god. A hero. A lady’s man, tough guy and rock and roller all balled up into one. He beat cool to the punch. He beat the fuck out of cool and offered to bandage its eye. He was cool! He embodied the cool that I wished I had, which mostly meant, 1) Tough in a fight situation, and, 2) Getting laid.

I finally told him what was going on at Humberside. We were at his buddy’s Justin’s house, smoking reefer and drinking on a Tuesday night. There were about 4 other guys there, all tight with Johnny, all drunk as fuck. They liked me mostly cause I could drink, and cause Johnny stood up for me. Some of them were already recovering felons at that time. Older guys that were like 27 and had carpet businesses and cocaine addictions, and long criminal rap sheets. Good fucking guys, basically.

When I told them, they all wanted to come down and kick these guys asses- and they meant it.

I declined. “No, I hate that place, and will never go back.”

Johnny said, “You’re coming to Scarlett Heights,” where he was enrolled. I say enrolled, not attending. He had an authority that I believed. It partly came from my mother, who took Johnny’s and my side almost no matter what- a reality that proved to be extremely helpful later. I realized she had provided me the only parental example of trustworthiness that I had had as a burgeoning adult. She had faith in me- a long term and I believe strategic faith.

She would side with me, and Johnny would side with me, about changing schools. After all, the plan could work. Johnny could have picked up his proverbial bootstraps, set a “good” example for me, and started to buckle down. Going to Scarlett Heights with Johnny might have a positive impact.

I agreed with Johnny. Had there been any other viable option, I would have also considered that. I was backed into a corner by my own pathetic-ness, lack of puberty and lack of ability to tell older and stronger people to fuck right off. Those were some of the main lessons I was to learn from Johnny. At least shit like this wouldn’t happen with him around.

I started building up the courage to convince my dad to let me enrol at Scarlett. My obsessive mind at least made me a very convincing little turd when I needed to be. “Without skinheads and other bull, I would be able to ‘focus on school,’” I told my dad. It was nearly a total misrepresentation: I imagined only the better chances with girls I was gonna have with Johnny around.

Johnny. He was three years older than me. He didn’t bloom late. His birthday was in January and that meant he was always slightly older than the kids in his grade, rather than me, who was always slightly younger. He also happened to be a real bad-ass. As I mentioned, he drank. He smoked weed. He hung out with other cool and even really more bad ass other dudes from other schools. Tom, Justin, and Justin D, who were full fledged and happygolucky criminals at 17. By criminal I mean totally amazing. Ladies men.

But he also hung around lots of other different cats as well. Musicians, artists, athletes. He was engaged in many social circles, and this made him not only cool, but very mature in a way for a man (or boy) his age. For example, on Saturday nights at my mom’s house, a whole group of people would inevitably gather, to find out from Johnny where we were going. He was a social climber and leader, even though he sucked at institutional learning environments.

Furthermore, Johnny wasn’t scared to fight like I was. There was lots of times at parties or at school when I watched him kick guys asses, or get his own ass kicked. The point is, he didn’t back down. He had what yogis call an abundance of primal, first chakra energy. Too much.

As an illustration: Me him and this guy Tom once got surrounded in Hamilton by about 7 guys. We were there drinking and hanging out for no good reason, other than that Tom decided in his infinite 17 year old wisdom that driving hammered to Hamilton sounded like fun, and we came because we happened to also be drinking, making great decisions, and in the back seat of his maroon 1987 Chevy Beretta. It was literally a getaway car, funmobile, and polish drinking experiment all in one. Tom was a big, tall, good looking Pollack from Tandridge in Etobicoke- an area that has bred more than one handsome, felonious and highly engaging teenager. We were in a dead end alley finishing off a 24 pack of beer and suddenly seven guys turned the corner at the end of the lane, and right away we knew we were in trouble. They stalked up to us. They must have scoped us going in, and come up with some hairbrained plan to fuck us up. Two groups of idiotic teenage men with two very different hairbrained plans. I was thinking, “We are just completely fucked.”

We were on the edge of a dock bay with our feet dangled over. There was only one way back out that alley. I looked up to see if maybe the business was open. The doors were closed, the dock bay desolate, and no lights were on inside.

I turned back around, to see Johnny and Tom already engaged with them, and the terms you would imagine being set. The biggest one was up in my brother’s face, telling him to give over our beer. In case you don’t remember, when you’re 18 years old, you don’t take others’ beer. Nor does any self-respecting 18 year old ALLOW his beer to BE stolen.

Johnny acted meek and polite, “Ok. I’m sorry. Sure,” he said, hopping down off the raised bay, landing on the alley’s pavement with a thud. I knew that tone of voice. Pure sarcasm leading to violence. He looked over to us and kinda shrugged like, “Sorry guys. I guess they win.” Oh god, here we go I thought.

He twisted away towards the case of beer on the dock bay grabbed it like he was gonna hand it over, but just as he got close enough to stick one, he dropped the beer and threw a generous right hand into this guys stunned face.

The beer was broken and we got our asses kicked for the next 5 minutes before we were able to run off. We giggled like crazy driving back to T.O. It’s why we loved Johnny so much and followed him around. We never seemed to get truly hurt, in spite of a million more opportunities laid out by providence for us to be maimed, injured or killed.

Johnny has a square jaw, a shock of long brown hair and confidence coming out his pores. Girls love him, and anything that girls loved, we loved.

The status of his being wanted was undeniable. Still is. As Henry Miller once said, “The world turns on a fuck.”

Johnny not only fell through the cracks of the public school system (and various other poorly equipped and haphazard institutions), he sought those cracks out and jumped right into them with naturalistic teenage violence.

There was an edge there. Against my father, with whom he no longer spoke; against the schools; against all the adults that he should have been able to trust; the cops; anyone who would stop him from doing whatever the hell he wanted. In a way it was a narrow vision, dominated by a need to rebel constantly, that when it wasn’t expressed, got taken out on me, or others who were close to him.

The girls he hung around also liked me- I was the cute younger brother. They wanted to tickle, hug and even sometimes kiss me…. My first lay at 15, for example, happened to be with a friend of one of my brother’s girlfriends- an 18 year old who decided to de-virginize me several times one night.

So anyways, back to the fall of 1991. In late September 1989, I enrolled at Scarlett Heights for grade 9. It was an hour’s bus ride from my house, which was great until the TTC decided to go on strike in late August of 1991. At that point we had no where to go, and Johnny and I had to find somewhere else to attend. For whatever reason, we picked Western Tech.

My brother had a friend named Greg who actually had a car!! It was a blue Volkswagen Jetta, like 10 years old. Greg helped us out by picking us up for school and we all piled into his car each morning and headed off to Western Tech, where all that mattered and all we thought about was girls and football. Yes, we had by that time already, mostly given up on the idea of education by any other means. These large brown buildings had only several viable options, and none of those involved learning from books or the disciplinarians calling themselves teachers.

All we did everyday for the single semester we spent at Western Tech was play football. And try to pick up girls. It only got more pronounced as we stayed there. We skipped class more than we went to them. We drank more than we didn’t. And we spent more time playing football on the little makeshift pitch on the south east end of the school, than we spent with our loved ones.

We played football before football practices. We played football after football practices. We played football at lunch. We skipped class and played football in the afternoons, when other boys looked out windows in the fall and dream about running around on the pitch…. When it got too cold, and when our teachers started noticing us on the field during classes, we even played football in the halls of the school.

As the semester at Western Tech wore on, the teachers got wind of our skipping and makeshift football games. A critical mass of them had noticed our antics, including one of the defensive coaches, who was super cool. He had no real choice but to shut us down. We were out of control with football.

One teacher, though, had it out for us. Mr. Redman, the art teacher, noticed us skipping and started following us around like a jealous thief. He caught us about three times playing in different places within or outside of the school and Redman wanted to make a big deal about it. When he first approached us to tell us to get back to class, we told him to fuck off and do his job! I admit, we started the war.

He kept finding us, but we kept finding new spots to skip class and play. Once, I saw him screaming at us to come back in for our classes from the doors near the pitch- he wouldn’t actually come out and approach the 17 or 18 young men who had only the other day told him where to stuff his shitty attitude about our games and class skipping. The next time he had an embarrassing conniption in the wide open foyer of the school where we were passing it around and running plays; and lastly in the parking lot in the back of the school. The look on Redman’s face each tie told us everything: We had pushed him to his limit.

We got sent to the office, where it was a predictable fare of escalations and warnings. But let me tell you, like the great loves of all times, the stories of DH Lawrence, Earnest Hemingway’s great romances and stories of men and women who refused to be separated form one another by either distance, incarceration or war, we also refused to be separated from our makeshift football sessions-and each other- for very long. No crochety, horny old art teacher who didn’t have a class to hide himself in after lunch was going to ruin our fun just because he walked the halls for the tiny bit of exercise he afforded his lumbering body.

So I started looking for less obvious places to play. Spots that would give us the privacy and space which we needed and deserved. I had what I considered a guerrilla style urban talent for finding ninja spots, inspired initially as a need for finding good places to drink and smoke weed that were right under the noses of those who would stop us. I began to utilize this talent for finding the same kind of spot for our massive obsession with makeshift football sessions.

Western Tech is a great space, structurally. It was built in the 1920’s, when less functional architecture had not robbed Toronto’s growing metropolis of flair and nodded-to Victorian, brick hewn expanses. Western smelled like old wood, and had massive, wide halls, wide high archways, and all the nooks and crannies you might expect from such a building.

One day I was by myself skipping English and poking about it’s immense structure when I went past the theatre auditorium, as much to see if there was a drama class going on with girls in it, than to find a great place to play football. When I got there no one was there. No class, no sound. The halls were silent. The auditorium sat in the southern part of the school where there were no active classrooms on the first floor. I hadn’t even thought of the bounty of privacy and space that the theatre might afford us- until that moment.

I peered inside through a crack in the double doors. The lights were on, but I couldn’t hear anything. I listened for a full minute, a breeze touching my cheek from the different air pressures between the auditorium and hall, blowing through the crack between the double doors with a low hum. Nothing. No movement, no sound. Nobody.

I decided to go in. The old varnished wood seats and playfulness of the theatre were too inviting.

But then I tried the doors. No bones. Three sets of them, all locked. My hair bristled while I explored for another way in. I listened for footsteps… silence. Redman had a long, fat shuffle that was unmistakable, with overworked old loafers and corduroy pants. He and everyone were tucked away in their classes.

I walked around to the side and checked another set of doors. They were about halfway down the auditorium seats towards the stage, in a strange little hall adjacent to the big room. Nothing. Another set, about another ten feet down. Locked as well. There was only one more…one little door…that led directly onto stage right. I tried it- open! I walked in.

There was nothing better- and there still is not- than an empty theatre. In it, drama, spaciousness and openness come alive. I loved the stage- how it smelled, the seats, which I imagined were filled with the nodding heads of an approving and discerning audience. The booth above and the lights. The 40 year old grand drape that smelled like dust. Alone in that room and playing hooky from class, I felt free.

I jumped on stage and looked out at the empty seats. I dreamt for a moment I was a hero who saves the girl; next, some terrible, solitary villain who crashes the entire world down around him…Yet even as I fantasized and gestured out into the empty seats, it dawned. It clicked. It came to me… this place was perfect room for our makeshift football games.

We had our new location! The aisles, the large stage, and the fact that the auditorium was off in a corner of the school where there were no classrooms… The stage made it feel even more inviting to our fantasies about being football stars under the lights. My assessment was complete. I left to inform the others immediately.

That same afternoon, we all joined at the door. Within 5 minutes of walking in we immediately set up a passing play. Our quarterback stood halfway up the aisles between the seats and threw a 15 yard pass to a receiver, who ran across the stage left to right, dove for the ball, and tried to land in a 12-inch-thick foam mat used for dramatic stunts during performances.

Once in a while- needless to say- the receiver didn’t make the mat in his zealous attempt to catch the ball. There were so many obstacles made of hard wood, not to mention the cliff-edge where the stage ended, and a narrow running lane, all of which meant sure injury to someone who wasn’t very careful about their sprint, and dive onto the big mat.

I ran up to the booth and got the stage lights going. I put a spot up where the receiver would be diving in mid air for the ball.

Bliss. Heaven. They are made of many different dreams – various escapes from hell. But that makeshift football game in the old Western Tech theatre auditorium must be counted amongst them, for both its pleasure inducing, and also sheltering qualities. We were safe in there.

My brother and I began to go door-to-door to classrooms after lunch, and secretly pull out members of the junior football team. Johnny would even sometimes enter the classroom and ask the teacher if a particular student could come out because there was a family emergency of some sort. We did whatever it took. God would later exonerate us for these lies, sins, and crimes, because he knew how much we loved football. And each other.

We took turns taking passes or acting as quarterback. Others were just running around up and down the aisles throwing footballs, screaming and losing their shit. It was joyous class-skipping football extraordinariness… Johnny came up to me one day, put his arm around me, and said, “Beef, this is the best,” and he and I just sat back and watched for a while. Until we got caught.

I think we got into that auditorium to play our mid-day football about 12 or 15 times- at least a month- before the magic broke. Old red faced Redman walked in on us. A janitor, who had heard us squealing and bouncing off the walls, had summoned him. The lot of us to the office. The magic door locked from then on. The dire warnings. Escalations. And of course plenty of laughter.

 

***

I was the starting junior half-back for Western Tech. In the 90’s, football teams ran a two-back set (we thought about teams like the Dallas Cowboys with Moose Johnston and Emmit Smith day and night). By grade 11, I was now one of the oldest and biggest guys on the junior team because of when my birthday was- it allowed me to play junior for three years. During that terrible first week at Humberside I was scrawny and 13, but by grade 11 I was 15 and 165 pounds. I had always been long and fast but that year I stood out for my size. I was hard to tackle, had a nasty stiff-arm, and an instinct for the game.

I watched 9 hours of NFL on Sundays, practiced 5 days a week, played makeshift football at least five other times per week, and played in a game. Grade 11 heaven. No girls, though, yet.

I came into that season with two full years of football under my belt on the Scarlett Heights senior team. Scarlett didn’t have a junior team those years, so I played with the seniors and they were good. The coach put me into the second half of games that we were winning, and I made some catches and blocks as back-up to one of the best and fastest receivers I ever played with a guy named Joel. It was great. I got shown things by seasoned players. I made it to every single practice and learned from Joel and guys like Shane and Rob G and Fordy and all the older guys on that team, so by the time I got to Western, I was also one of the most experienced players on the junior squad with two full years of playing under my belt.

Mr. Pyzanschin was the coach at Western. He was very passionate. He’d say to us, ”You gotta BLOW through that line.” When we did something wrong, he’d say, “Awww, horse pucky, run it again,” which always made us giggle. He had coached for like 30 years. He taught us that football is not a contact sport- it’s a collision sport. We needed that kind of coach, because guys who hadn’t played football before were scared to run right into guys and blow right over them. Smash-mouth football, like a steamroller running up the field 5 and 7 yards at a time. Nothing was more fun once you got the hang of it.

Johnny was too old to play on the junior team and for whatever reason he didn’t join the senior team at Western. He was a bit too much of a rebel. He and his buddies had too much fun hanging around us all the time. They helped us practice, and of course took part in our constant sandlot football matches we set up just about everywhere we went.

It was the year I had finally begun to have a growth spurt, beyond just my body. I started growing out of my shyness. I started growing out of my boyhood and looked more and more like a man. My face changed, me demeanour, my attitude. I didn’t rely on my father as much. Johnny was my new hero.

I was constantly challenging my older brother to various contests and duels- all of which I lost. Johnny was fast. He was strong with a muscular body. He worked out a lot, mostly for vanity but it also came in handy when he would get into a real fistfight or had to run from some bad situation like a gazelle. I was obsessed with beating him at things like pull up contests, races, and wrestling matches.

The only thing I came close to him on was wrestling. I was a natural wrestler with an instinct for getting someone down, getting low and tricking them with quick feints and bulrushes. But he even beat me most of the time in that.

God I loved him so much. We spent lots of time together just hanging out, getting stoned and drunk, chasing girls and pretending to go to school. It was definitely one of the best times from my teenage years, even though we complained every day about going to Western Tech.

You might have thought- like we did- that our prospects for girls would have been high. They weren’t. I mean we were cool! But not at Western Tech. It was partly cause we didn’t know anybody and we had to really try to work our way in. It was also that none of the girls there gave a shit about football. At other schools they came out to watch games or even had cheerleading squads. Silverthorne, Humberside, Scarlett. But not Western.

Also, like all high schools, Western Tech was really cliquey. By grade 11, people already had their groups, and most of these at Western were organized along racial lines. I’m not sure why. Ask a sociologist. The Chinese, the Filipinos, the Latinos, the Jamaicans and other black kids, and the whites. It was not surprising, looking back, that kids in large schools find tight groupings of some sort to stick together by- out of sheer insecurity, based on the kind of shit we had to deal with. I mean after all, the negotiation of “skinheads” was not exactly part of the orientation they gave to grade nines. Nor was feeling trapped and subdued by orthodox scholastic learning.

Unfortunately though, for me, when it came to girls at Western, the pairings occurred within the bounds of clique, which meant race, and diversions from this were obvious and noted by everyone. They weren’t prohibited, as if in a prison, but they were rare and duly observed by about 1500 other kids- the last thing two teenagers looking for a place to make out needs to deal with. So, since our second priority or let’s just call it our second first priority- was to pick up girls, we had to really make an effort. This came to both me and Johnny as an unfavourable surprise.

No girls were paying any attention to my exploits on the football field. No one seemed to notice how astoundingly cute I was, either. So I had to ply one of my only other skills as a human being: drama. You see, drama was the one school subject that my growing, hyperactive, fun loving body could appreciate.

Sitting there all day in classes drove me nuts. My storied career in math had finally finished in grade ten. Fuck I hated math. Weed didn’t help, the way it seemed to have for Carl Sagan. Teach me how to tally a fucking restaurant bill, or measure some drywall. Why on earth would I need to know the square root of anything. I wouldn’t where I was going, I made sure of that… by going somewhere that math was not involved.

I thought they also hacked up English class too, with too much boring shit. I was already reading way past my grade- Poetry, Vaclev Havel, the Beat writers, Henry Miller etc. I could tell from what these people were saying in these classic books- Tropic of Cancer, On The Road, and Living in Truth- that the public school system had “English Class” all off.

Drama was the only class where I seemed to have natural affinity and talent. I looked forward to theatre and didn’t skip most of the time.

Unfortunately, the drama teacher at Western didn’t like me. Big surprise. She could probably sense the insane and asinine horniness coursing through my every sentiment, tone of voice and gesture… every time I talked back, and every time I interrupted her. Like most adults, she had no clue how to harness or make something out of that energy.

She instead tried to prohibit it- the least effective forms of all human interaction and learning. Drugs, racism, crime, and teenage boys- none of these will ever leave the human experience, while being policed.

The drama teacher was 55, British, and made us do exercises every class prior to getting to the acting part, which really pissed me off because I liked the acting part. I especially liked acting with girls.

Drama attracts shy people. Olivier vomited before most of his stage performances. I know exactly why. You can hide in a character and say things and do things that you normally would not do. You can express ideas and activities which you had rehearsed a hundred times in your normal life like an obsessive squirrel trying to remember where his lost nuts are. “I should have said this,” or, “I should have said that.” These are the rehearsals for future theatres. Shy people have a hundred skits all built up in their mind already, and drama releases them like a dam.

One day in the second half of class, after boring and uncomfortable drama drills, we were doing sides in pairs. By some twist of romantic fate I got paired with Jessica who I will tell you about in a minute. Rather than figuring out how to kick the ass of the “About Last Night” break-up scene, I set about trying to figure out how to impress and cajole Jessica to notice how cool I was and to like me. We had five minutes to prepare.

Looking back, I think my predilection for Jessica, and the personal pledge to win her by having her notice me in some way, was the best kind of preparation for acting, anyways. That energy in the pit of your stomach is where it’s at. Not in all the books in the world that could drown you in the theory. It’s humanness an actor craves.

We moved over to a corner and I awkwardly started reading out lines. I was trying to get her to look at me but she wouldn’t. She read her lines back to me, but she wouldn’t look me in the eyes. Ok. We tried it again. There… a small twinkle moment when we locked eyes, worth millions and millions of dollars. We invented some loose blocking. They called our names to present.

Rather than front on, we changed it and decided to play it in the middle of the circle of other kids. As soon as I said it, teacher frowned, but Jessica’s eyes lit up for another breathtaking second. I showed a moment of confidence, so I then had hers. That sparkle was there- that crackle of performing, that life, when those characters come out for a moment from inside, and the body is fully present.

Although Jessica hadn’t seemed to notice me one bit prior to that scene-it was different afterwards. There was a little tiny itsy bitsy something between us, and I chased after it. It could have just been the characters from About Last Night. But I still chased after it.

Jessica was in the same grade as me, and we only had that one class together. She was Jamaican and Scottish I later found out. She wore her hair pulled back tight, had piercing brown eyes and a smile that came out only every once in a while. I think I liked that best- there was something serious going on there, and I had to find out what it was. Like me, she didn’t really know anyone else in the class, but she had a big clique of people at the school, and an older brother who looked pretty bad ass, and tons of other friends.

She was shy, I think. Of course I was shy too- way more shy than most people, and especially shy around girls. I got by on decent looks and a comely smile, and the hope and prayer that a girl would come up to me and start the conversation. My moves were terrible, my lines and my ability to talk and be spontaneous evaporated as soon as I liked someone and tried to talk to them.

That’s part of the reason I poured so much into football and drama-to get girls to notice me and hopefully come up and talk to me. Until that point, it had been working, and if girls hadn’t been making the first move since I was 12, I never would have even had the chance to kiss one, let alone have sex. But at Western Tech in grade 11, I began to try a different tact- I chased because I had to. I set about to somehow win Jessica over in spite of my terrible shyness, terrible lines, and the apparent social rigidity at the school that circumvented the effort.

I did make one friend that seemed like he might be able to help. His name was Micha. He and I became buddies from that drama class, and from meeting in the office for always being late. He was extremely outgoing and well-read. He was a bit of a loner, but cool. He didn’t know anyone either, and he was one grade older than me. He was Jewish, spoke well and was really funny. One day I told him I liked Jessica, but that I didn’t know how to talk to her. He laughed as we walked down the hall. “Have you read the Godfather, by Mario Puzo?” he asked.

I said, “No.”

He laughed again and said that if I borrowed his copy- a hardcover that by the looks of its fibrous and undone binding and corners had never languished on a bookshelf for very long, and which he handed to me at the very moment- that he would help me talk to Jessica. I believed him wholeheartedly- partly out of desperation and partly out of awe for his careless ways. “The only thing,” he said, “is that you have to have it read by Monday.” It was Friday at noon. I grabbed the book out of his hand, hoping it wouldn’t be too boring, or come along with its own super dry whistle-blown soundtrack of honorific Italian lament. I began to read it immediately.

It was a big weekend. I had to read Puzo’s Godfather, which was the best novel I ever read- I couldn’t put it down. I had a playbook to memorize for the game we had that week against Humberside. I had to get good and drunk with Johnny and a few of his older friends on Friday AND Saturday night. I would squeeze in a miniscule enough amount of homework to pass enough to keep my father off my back for another little while. And finally, I had to think about Jessica. It was a tight schedule. I barely had time to eat.

Mother was always lovely at home, and often had to break out a stick to break up a scrap between me and Johnny. Not that weekend though. That weekend, Johnny was super nice to me. He was being really supportive and kind. He loved that I was on the football team, and he was acting like my protector. “We have to keep Bob healthy for Tuesday’s game,” he told his buddy Justin, just as we were dipping into our next round of beers in Justin’s backyard. The sun was setting over a long fall Friday night in early October, and Monday seemed like a long way away. The feeling of beer settled into my stomach, and the cares of the world dipped below the horizon, along with the sun.
Monday came. It actually came twice, like the bookends of a 15 minute sex -romp of a teenage boy: Once while staying up till past 2 am finishing The Godfather for Micha, and once again when I had to drag my sorry ass out of bed all dishevelled but happy for my big day.

First came the drama class, which, unhappily for my teacher, was almost first thing in the morning. This meant- since I had not yet discovered coffee and other stimulants- that I was a groggy, moody curmudgeon with a knack for a nasty comeback, and not liking being told what to do. We had sides that morning and teacher paired everyone up with the person they were with with before- except, when she got to me. I got paired with a boy named Hamish.

Not only had every single person in the class except that old bitch came up to us last week and said how awesome our little skit had been, but we knew it. I had spent all weekend fantasizing like a shy dweeb about how amazing I was gonna be in Mondays drama class, and alas, I got paired up with some dude. I think I saw the teacher smirk when we walked over to the corner to briefly rehearse.

So I said, fuck it. This woman’s throwing me a curve- I’m going to throw one right back. Hamish and I were given a scene from one of Chekov’s short plays, but I convinced Hamish that the light at the end of the tunnel of this dark and forgettable moment in our scholastic lives, and the way to get teacher back for her stupendous jealousy and smallness, was to abandon the scene we were given in dramatic style and to draw one up from scratch. “From where?” asked Hamish.

“Well I’m glad you asked. From the novel, The Godfather, naturally,” and I pulled it out from behind my back.

After a couple minutes of fevered discussion, we decided to act the scene where Michael Corleone proposes to the consigliore and Sonny to murder a cop and a couple other unlucky dudes in a public restaurant. We wrote it from scratch, and when we ran out of time, kept writing it out instead of watching the other kids perform. I was best under that kind of pressure. It didn’t hurt to know that this teacher was going to have a goddamned heart attack and fail us both when we did the scene.

There is a contagious rebelliousness to theatre, one I was later attracted to very much. I only hoped that Jessica would notice. Hamish watched me nervously scribble off a couple of lines- more nervously as the minutes progressed. I finally finished it. a page and a half. Best writing I had ever done.

She called us- ruefully. I handed Hamish his copy. He played Sonny, talking sense into me after I ambitiously but naively suggest we murder the Turk and cop in the restaurant.

“All right we wait.” Sonny says.

“We can’t wait.” Michael retorts….

Halfway through he scene, everybody realizes what we have done. Hamish picks up on the vibe and says fuck it, goes even more into Sonny.

“Bada bing… Bada bang…”

When we were done, the smallish class erupted in applause. They all knew this was a made up skit we did- we were reading off hand scribbled pieces of papers for scripts. Jessica did too, and she seemed to like it. When we were finished everybody but the teacher clapped.

I had made my impression. Micha was happy, since of course he knew I had read the book he loved so much… He made everybody read that damned book. It was by far his favourite thing to do and when we were finished the scene, he sat back like Don Corleone and nodded in satisfaction.

There was one more skit then class let out. As we all got up from the carpet I wanted to get strait over to Micha, because I really wanted him to make immediate good on our bargain. As I moved, though, someone grabbed my arm. It was the teacher. Red faced and glowering, I could see she was steaming mad. “That wasn’t the scene I gave you two,” she said. I nodded.

“And you dragged Hamish into it to, I presume?”

“You could say that.” She nodded two nods downward in some vengeful thought, then one upward and towards the exit door. I turned on my heels like a convict and hit the door. I was screwed. I knew she’d have the last word- she eventually failed me. But I had better things to do that day, and walked out of there to do them.

By the time I reached the classroom door, I could hear Micha’s voice laughing, and yes, to my great excitement, it was Jessica was laughing with him. “Hey.”

“Hey.”

“Was she pissed off?” Jessica asked.

“When is she not pissed off?” I retorted, and she laughed. Micha put his arm around me- like he was making me into the Jewish mafia.

“That’s my boy. That’s the power of Puzo.” We laughed, while Jessica looked up at us with a smile, not getting the little joke.

“Its Micha’s favourite book,” I explained, and produced the ancient, string-bound copy between my two palms. “And he gets anyone he can to read it.”

“Only my best students,” he said, and again his face assumed the look of warm satisfaction from earlier. He happened to also hate the drama teacher. “The look on her face was priceless. Absolutely priceless.”

(Awkward silence where I should have said something).

Micha laughed, “Jessica wants to borrow it next.”

“You do?” I said awkwardly, and she smiled. “Its really good,” I tried to follow up.

“Sure,” and as I started to hand her the book, Micha grabbed it from my hand.

“She wants to borrow it from me,” he said. We all laughed, and he handed it to her. “But you have to read it by Monday,” he said with his best Corleone smile. She looked over at me to explain.

“It’s ok, he does that to everyone.”

Just then, Micha flew off. “I gotta go. My dad’s sick at home. I’m taking the rest of the week off.” And we both started to laugh. He was a great guy. I wished I had stayed in contact with him, but I didn’t.

Jessica and I continued walking down the hall, her rocking back and forth in slow deliberate movements, I hopefully interpreted as playful. The black, fabricky unsheathed book in one hand, her book bag on both shoulders, and she moved ahead slightly. It was my natural tendency to “upstage” people in conversation. I was staring at her and taking her in, but also trying to get her to look back towards me. Of course, I was also thinking of what the hell my next line was. Desperately.

She suddenly caught me out of the corner of her eye. “What?!”

“Oh, nothing sorry,” I tried coy and she didn’t play back. She pursed her lips, and shook her head, like what an idiot. But then she turned back and saw the look on my face, cracked up with laughter, stomped her foot, and hit me with the back of her hand. All I could think was, “physical contact! Yes!” God I was so horny and annoying.

I liked the direction we were walking, because it was away from the location of where all of her friends were- in their territorial spot at the opposite end of the school. I didn’t stand a chance with her with all them there. I stuck out like an incandescent thumb. I wasn’t cool. My friends were drunks, drop outs and football junkies.

We reached a stairwell near and stopped at the top before descending. She looked up at me. Maybe she wanted a kiss? I thought about it. Moment gone. We took the steps to walk down. “I have a spare,” she said.

“Really? You want to hang out?” Way to quick…I didn’t have a spare, but I wouldn’t have missed this opportunity for a lecture by Francis Ford Cappola.

“Sure,” she said, I tried to evade the surge of gratitude that threatened to beam across my face.

We spent the next 70 minutes talking and hanging out. Once I knew that she was even mildly interested in spending a bit of time with me, my guard went down, and I could be my cute and annoying self, rather than painfully shy.

Almost as if to shelter our little date from the potential prying eyes of her brother and crew, we ended up on this little staircase at the very back of the school, beside the field where we practiced every night. No one was really ever down there.

We spent an hour getting to know one another. She kept mentioning her brother Simon. I asked her to come to my game the following day against Humberside, and she promised. I told her how to get to Humberside’s field, and which side we would be on. I didn’t try to kiss her, though and our little date ended.

That night practice was all work. Plays plays plays. Pyszanchyn hated Humbeside almost as much as I did. North American football is like going to war, with the pitch turned battlefield, highly coordinated and pre planned plays, analyses of what the opponents strengths and weaknesses were, and a huge amount of equipment.

Humberside were enemy combatants. A platoon of teenage soldiers we had happened to meet dozens and dozens of times in the long history of the two schools. Humberside was where preppy kids went- ready for university. Western was where you went just to graduate high school. It was working class, and far more dominated by non white racial groups. Our football team hated Humberside for their colors and traditions. It went pretty deep. We were not playing around.

In high school junior ball there’s not a lot of passing. It’s too challenging. It’s easier to run the ball. Me and Sammy. Tomorrow it would be me and Sammy. And all the boys from the makeshift football club. And Pyzsanchyn.,my brother, a couple of his older buddies and Jessica. We were going to crush Humberside. I couldn’t wait.

Tuesday’s activities were utterly superfluous to the content of that game. Nothing was going to stand in the way of me both enjoying this day, and engaging in the football game that afternoon. Unlike other schools, where the football program was a valuable aspect of the schools endeavours, at Western, they were just happy that a few less kids were out in the parking lot smoking weed.

I actually had to attend a morning English class to hand in an assignment, but after that it was outside to run makeshift plays with all the other guys, and especially Sammy.

Everyone was feeling the pressure. At lunch, Sammy and I made a pact to protect each other, and lower blocks on their defence for each other, and to generally watch out for one another once the game started. One o’clock rolled around. The school was nice enough to let our afternoon teachers know about the game. We moved towards lockers to get ready.

Humberside was down the street. We suited up and walked over. They were already on the field stretching. We had to walk past three row stands to get to our end. My brother and his buddies were already there. “Beef! Kick their asses,” He yelled with a big gamey smile on his face. His buddies laughed. It felt really good having them there.

We got to our end and started warming up stretching. The stands filled up. I couldn’t tell who was who, but I hoped Jessica was in one of the rolling large groups of teenagers proceeding to take their seats. Warm ups done, there was 15 mins to kick off. Pyzanchyin grabbed me and Sammy by the jerseys, and brought us both in to him.

“You boys ready to make some trouble?”

“Yessir we both said at the same time, and smiles at each other.”

“Get out there and kill someone.” It was football talk for running someone over. At that point, coach spoke up, and projected like a Lieutenant Col. to his troops “Everyone in.” We all did as asked. “Todays game is about you boys, not about these wannabees from Humberside.” His voice got louder with each statement. “Today is about you sticking together. Focus on the play at hand. Todays not about running someone over, its about running someone over, then getting up and doing it again.’ Louder still. “It’s about levelling the playing field between Western and Humberside once and for all. Its about pride, kicking some ass and living to tell about it.” A spontaneous war cry from us erupted.

“You all understand?” Pyzanchyn yelled back.

“Yessir,” we screamed.

“I can-no-t hear –you,” he yelled back deliberately.

“Yessir,” we yelled back.

“I cant hear you!” he yelled, practically a the top of his lungs.

What came back out of our mouths was unintelligible, loud and frightening. We had been officially whipped into a frenzy.

We made our way to the side of the field opposite the bleachers. We were kicking to them so I was off till we got on offence. I took a moment to survey the crowd across. My brother and his buddies were high up on the left- furthest away from any potential threats to their drinking. I scanned right. Where was Jessica? Hold on- there she was at the very top, with two of her girlfriends and a couple boys tagging along. I smiled. Whatever happened in the game didn’t matter as much now. The tension released for a moment.

I continued to survey the crowd. My eyes adjusted down towards the Humberside bench. They were big kids. I was trying, though, to make out the faces of a couple guys sitting behind their bench. My hair stood up on my neck. The tension came flooding back, and the distant memory of the two weeks of grade 9 I spent at Humberside almost crushed me.

It was that piece of shit skinhead, and like 5 of his buddies, sitting next to the Humberside bench. They were obvious- no one was sitting next to them. It was a warm October day, but they were still in black bombers, still in doc martins, still acting tough. I almost swallowed, then decided to spit. Rage made my head hot, and my hands grasp for something to squeeze- hard.

Sammy had walked over to me, and noticed right away. “What’s up Bobby,” he said. “You ready?” he asked.

“Yeah, yeah,” I said as I tore my eyes from the stands across the field. Me and Sammy’s eyes met. “There’s some people in the stands… A couple of motherfuckers. From Humberside.”

“Who?” he said, as my hand went up to point them out. “Those fucking skinheads?” he asked, and almost laughed.

“Yep,” I said, deadly serious. It didn’t take much. Sammy could see it was more than just their presence. There was some history there and his eyes reddened too. He was the nicest guy. I almost never saw him get pissed. But as a Pakistani-Canadian, he likely had had his own shitty experiences with white supremacists.

“Where they from,” he chopped back, getting into my foul and slightly violent mood.

“Humberside,” I said.

Sammy turned to me, still red from the sight of those pricks. “We are gonna fucking kill these guys today, Bobby.” And that was that. Quick on with our helmets, banged together a head butt, and just then, Pyzanchyn called us out onto the field.

“Offence!!”

Riled up teenage boy-men, with 18 competing emotions and practical nose up hard ons all day long make for some pretty decent basic material for a game like football. Today, against Humberside, those ingredients came together and turned out a recipe for a real good football game.

First play, toss outside right to Sammy, me lead blocking. I found a safety jogging up towards the play, and levelled him with a block. Sammy made 8 yards. Next play call, a guard trap to the left, me with ball. Half their d-line collapsed in the ruckus, and I ducked to the outside. Sammy took the wide receiver towards the out, and I ran the open lane, tackled by the linebacker after gaining another 7 or 8. First down.

Next, an up the gut off center run for no gain. Short pass to the wide out, maybe 3 yards. Only three downs., Canadian style. Coach called in a screen to me on the outside, one of our best plays. We had a quick and aggressive O-line, perhaps the most crucial of all strengths at that level of play. I pretended to take the handoff, then swung out as QB backed up to pass, spreading out the defence, when the O-line split from their pass blocking over to where I was, out near the receiver in the backfield.

The pass to me was a dead on leading affair that had me at ¾ chug by the time I wrapped my hands around the ball and tucked it into my chest. Two great blocks from the guard and tackle, I feigned outside then darted back in and turned on the jets, found open field, and ran across their line for a touchdown.

Our team was screaming in joy. The stands- the ones to stage left were also screaming. Sammy and I met in the end zone, and head-butted, then turned and walked back up towards our end.

Instead of following my teammates towards our bench opposite the stands, I walked along the Humberside bench, in open defiance of football etiquette. I didn’t give a shit about their players. I wanted to check out the crowd. With my helmet on, no one could tell who I was except the guys who had been out to practice like Johnny. I strode past the skinheads, and the guy- the same fucking guy, wearing the same goodamned outfit- was sitting there looking right at me. I’ll tell you, it felt amazing. With my entire team there, Sammy and all the others, along with my brother and a couple of his tougher buddies, I felt untouchable.

Skinhead boy and his merry band of idiots- now verging on adulthood and indictable offences for hate crimes, had no clue who I was. Maybe it was my helmet, or then again, when you set yourself on the goal of being a bully and racist, you probably tend to forget the features of some of your clientele- especially after they’ve grown by 6 inches and gained 25 pounds. I kept walking.

“Beef!” my brother yelled out, snapped me out of my limbo, and his buddies all cheered as I peeled away across the playing now filling up with special teams for kickoff. I took my place on the bench.

Humberside scored on the kickoff. Then we turned it back, brought it into their end but got shut out on a 3rd down attempt to run- I got crushed by their big nosetackle and practically limped back to the bench. Fortunately, they couldn’t do much pinned down in their end, and their punter lobbed a lame duck 20 yard kick out of bounds, so we started next offence at their 45.

Sammy smiled as we took the field again. We could feel it. Even the wind was at our backs.

We played a short pass to gain 5. Tackle-trap to the left to me for another 12, then Sammy took another pitch, out to the right- and he made it count. He could jig and jag and turn on the jets like the best of them. He crossed their line with a kid dangling from his left ankle trying to slow him down, but the damage was done. We were up 13 to 7 and halftime was called.

The next half was the same. Back and forth. I kept my eye on the bleachers. I knew if I told Johnny and his boys who was at the game, he’d have gone and smoked the (now emaciated-looking) skinhead. Its funny when you’re bullied, one of the things that prevents you from crushing the bully back is that you feel sorry for them. At least I did. He wasn’t scary anymore, just arrogant. He wasn’t big anymore, just thin with a puffy jacket. He wasn’t tough, just part of a small, corrupt and very dysfunctional clique.

In the latter half of the second quarter, they scored again on a run by their big half back, a guy named Chris who I knew from the gym. So they were up 14-13 at that point, with a quarter left.

Before our offence took the field again, Pyzanchyn roused us with another speech. We had to dig now, cause we were all tired. We were banged up. Our center was off with an ankle. Our best wide out had an asthma attack. This was it. This was what it meant to decide to win.

Our offence rolled downfield slowly- keeping possession and making modest gains for first downs. From 12 -yards out, Sammy took a pitch, following a lead block from me and the shifting O-line, and he crossed that ball over the plain for a touchdown. It was the last one of the day. The one that won us the game. It was fucking beautiful.

As ref called the play over and touchdown scored with his whistle, I was turning towards the stands when one of Humberside’s linebackers shoved me from just behind- we called it a clip, and it twisted my lankey left ankle and sprained it good. Fuck, I thought, immediately hoping my season was not finished. I later discovered that there was little a bunch of tape and a cortisol shot couldn’t fix. Our go-to physiotherapist for the team was an ex-center for the Argonaughts whoe office was in Bloor West “If you’re going to play football,” he said, “You’re going to learn to play in pain.”

Right after the injury, and in the end zone, though, I was sick to my stomach from the adrenaline and pain. I removed my helmet. Sammy came over to get under my left shoulder, and we hobbled back. “Lets go this way,” I said, beaconing us to walk along the Humberside bench again. A couple of the other boys on the team saw us, and our left guard, Pete, got himself under my right side. A couple of others walked behind, one of them carrying my helmet. “That’s him?” Sammy asked, as we got right up on the stands.

“Yeah, that’s him.”

This was the moment. I wanted him to recognize me. The same guy that ate me for breakfast exactly two years ago. He caught me looking, and started looking back. He shoved one of his buddies who looked up and they giggled. I kept right on staring, and I knew Sammy was too. We got even closer, as they say, to see the whites of their eyes.

They seemed to suddenly take note of the edge to our gait. Our proximity. Our staring and serious faces. And the fact that we should have been celebrating. It seemed to dawn on this guy that we might be there to fuck him up.

He smiled and nodded his head upwards, like “what do you want?” trying like an arrogant fool to test the waters. Now we were right in front of them. I stopped for a second and our eyes met again. He didn’t recognize me. I didn’t care. He looked back at his buddy to the right and shrugged his shoulders, trying to play off like I was weird. But he was scared, and I knew it. Things had come full circle.

I looked up, but Jessica and her friends were already gone.

We headed home. We had the rest of the season- three more games- to think about. Makeshift football was done for me for a while, though I still skipped class and made sure people were coming. Hanging out with big brother Johnny, and taking on his various rebellions to the world got more and more pronounced. In fact, I ended up moving in with him and my mom that very night after the game against Humberside.

My dad, who had been steadily and awkwardly taking note of my growing masculinity and disdain for all things nerdy, had been subtly or not so subtly pressuring me to perform better in school, and to listen more. I still got B grades with some A’s. It was more my attitude he wanted to adjust.

I had lived at my dads house for the last 5 years after the separation between him and mom, and had secretly been trying to pull the family back together. In that, I tended to be the really good kid. Golden boy. But at 16, that had changed. From grades 6-9 I lived in the absolute graces of my pops. But when I started to become a big person, I also started to become a troublemaking shit.

My father craved a son who would be “good,” which meant someone in contrast to my brother, and also meant to remain in the nostalgic childhood I had now grown out from. He wanted a son who would make him proud- perhaps make him look good. But it went further. He wanted someone to have sympathy for him. He wanted people like me- the people closest to him- to do all of the understanding. All of the “hearing him out,” and that sort of thing. He felt hard done by with regards to Johnny.

What I already knew intuitively at 12 years old was that my brother’s rebelliousness, being bad a school, hanging around tough guys and drinking had as much to do with my father’s abuse towards him as it did from some endogenous behavioural issue on Johnny’s part. Like most middle class people, my father maintained a steady, single dimension, popular-psychology-inspired vision of people that was perhaps at the time the burgeoning manifestation of North America’s obsession with self-help, and the pathologizing of natural, normal human behaviours.

I remember the strangeness of sensation when at 11 years old, I listened to my father’s complaints about how Johnny had had somehow turned on him, and was now no good- damaged goods- and my mother along with him. It was bizarre, because I had myself witnessed old dad kick the shit out of young Johnny more than once, in fitful and lurid acts of violence, from which none of us- Johnny especially- ever fully recovered. No, your pop psychology didn’t offer you a glimpses inwards, where your answers truly were.

Come young adulthood, I had many of those same rebellious and natural instincts for wanting to be cool and athletics, that came at odds against father’s perspectives. Not only that, but I began to break apart from trying to hold all of that tension together, and it came to a head, the night my father came home after that game against Humberside.

I was at the house on Sunnyside and began to ravenously eat. I could cook, and I did up a feast for myself and my father. When dad got home, I was eating in front of the television- one of the no no’s in the house. He normally didn’t care so much, but for whatever reason, he dad lost it that day.

Father flew into the room and crisply attacked my laziness for eating in the living room. Though I had until that very moment spared my father the incredible rebelliousness and sarcasm that most of my teachers regularly felt, I didn’t that day. My team had won the game. Johnny and my teammates were my protectors. I was thinking about celebrating and picking up chicks, not fawning before this man.

Out of my new response to assholes and other adults, I shot back, “What does it matter where I eat?!” And that was all it took.

Pops lost it. “You will immediately go to your room, this instant.” He raised up his hands and voice, in a tired cross between pouting and rage.

But I wasn’t going to let him define the situation.

“No,” I said, and thought for a moment about my ankle. Should I mention it to him? I was all bandaged up. Should I maybe just listen? Ill be honest, I had had enough. I had had enough bullying. I had had enough confidence. I had had enough girls. Enough football. Enough exposure to my brother and his myriad groups of friends and lovers. I had had enough trying to hold the family’s tension together. I had had enough.

“No, I wont,” I repeated.

“Get upstairs to your room, and don’t come down at all.”

“No,” I said, and hobbled up to stand, not two feet from his imposing frame. It was the first time I had used my own physicality in this kind of interaction with my father. Up until then, it was all him.

My father’s big- 6’4”, with brooding Slavic eyes. They shook back and forth, confused and searching at his sons response. Then, rage.

He careened across the short 8 feet of the old living room on Sunnyside Ave, and bellowed and raised his fist to me, threatening to knock me out.

The one regret I now have- knowing now how it all went down, knowing I’d never get my chance again, knowing that my father’s only real solution to any problem with other people was to cut them off and draw himself into sacrosanct isolation- was not standing up to him and taking my lumps. I couldn’t.

I froze. I had spent too long listening to my father and feeling sorry for him. I had been subdued by the thought that he had been done wrong and that in the moment, I couldn’t overcome it.

I turned, put my plate on the floor, and walked out the door, crying.

We never spoke again.

The season ended. I moved into moms and Johnny’s place on the Lakeshore, near 15th street. The TTC strike was over. Our prospects for girls had never panned out at Western. Our ride, Greg, got called to active duty when he turned 18. And we moved onto what we hoped was greener pastures- Silverthorne Collegiate. Their football program was known province-wide. Their infamy for hot girls, also seemed to be a known factor. We didn’t know single person there, but come second semester of grade 11, we were enrolled.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Social Workers Complain, but Does Anyone Listen?

 

I was on placement for my graduate social work degree and I had a little bit more time on my hands than I normally do. My caseload was lighter, the agency was giving me time to learn, critically reflect and practice my new knowledge. I was the acting family program coordinator for a trauma and addiction center near Toronto. If I had some free time, I used it to connect with my peers from school and other acquaintances in the field, to gain as much knowledge and wisdom as I could.

One of the main contacts I spoke to at length was a social worker from Calgary named Allie, someone twenty years in the field of clinical social work. Allie has a ton of knowledge and practice experience and she helped me a great deal. I considered her a mentor and fortunately I had the time to listen to her.

Many of our conversations revolved around the organization in which she practiced social work. While there were many positives, there were many things that Allie had problems with: her direct manager- who was not a social worker- had recently taken a hard-line position with Allie related to confidentiality and a court subpoena for one of Allie’s client records; a co-worker of hers had recently got walked off the job after they had practiced together for 8 years, and no follow-up was deliberately offered to Allie; perhaps most importantly, her management rarely took her opinions and complaints about such things very seriously. Allie had not been heard on these issues much at all. If she did bring her problems up, she was basically ignored.

Unlike other work environments, understanding employee complaints is critical to the success of organizations where clinical social work occurs. There is little room for either supervisors or organizations to ignore the grumblings of social workers, the way they might in an accounting office or on a construction site. Social worker complaints deserve to be heard differently. Why? Because connectivity and empathy are the currencies of many clinical social work environments, and not listening to social workers is a profound kind of disconnection within the system. Where the stated goal of an organization is to help people transform their lives, a culture of connection must prevail. That culture can be inspired by listening to social workers complain.

This can be hard for an organization or manager. Complaints from social workers often seem to be directed at them. This is especially true if managers or supervisors view social worker complaints from the perspective of workplaces where employees are asked to fill a straightforward role. Clinical social workers’ bread and butter, however, are the circular, sometimes messy, organic, two-steps-forward-one-step-back world of helping people change. In such an environment, social worker complaints are an opportunity to construct solutions.

Allie did not want to remain embedded in the negativity and problems that sometimes characterized our discussions. She wanted to feel better about her work- she wanted solutions. Solution-focused therapy and its unique view of human change, benefited me when I reflected on Allie, especially insofar as I was already studying it as an intervention. Solution-focused therapist and pioneer Steve de Shazer used the concept of language games to discuss factors guiding human change (de Shazer, 2000). Language games are customary uses of language that change depending on the social or psychological context in which the language is used. Customary language with friends on Friday night is very different than the customary language of the workplace Monday morning. Solution-focused therapists work to change the language games that people play- especially about their emotional problems- to realize that there are exceptions to rules:

“When clients talk about emotions as problems, they are following the rules of problem-focused language games. Shifting to a solution-focused language game will provide clients with new “emotion rules” to follow… (de Shazer, 2000 p.17)”

The language game of employee complaints is pervasive in more straightforward workplaces: what bosses do, pay scales, being overlooked for promotions etc. In such environs, these games may not present significant opportunities for change. The language game of complaining in the social work environment, on the other hand, has real therapeutic potential. It is an opportunity- with some guidance from others- for social workers to reinforce their strengths, to recall times when there were exceptions to problems, and to receive direct compliments from their superiors (de shazer, 2000).

If you have ever worked for a boss in any workplace who was less than generous with their compliments about your hard work, you will recognize immediately how simple and powerful compliments can be. For complaining social workers, compliments and other structured attempts at changing the games of workplace language can be magic.

Managers and organizations cannot be blamed. The larger paradigm of psychotherapy- in fact much of our culture- approaches human emotions as if they were problematic. While it’s ok for social workers to help clients with problems, it’s quite another for a manager to wade into the emotional depths behind social workers’ complaints. This may be partly why Allie’s manager is reluctant to do so: It’s not a normal language game or custom to discuss problematic emotions in a workplace. But what if the custom changed? What if organizations changed how they approached problems, complaints and employee emotions entirely?

Say we have a client who is fearful of intimacy and they experience a lack of commitment. From a traditional psychoanalytic perspective, exploring the root cause (fear of intimacy) would be important. But not necessarily for a solution-focused therapist, who might ask if there are other reasons- aside from fear of intimacy- why a client is experiencing a lack of commitment? Maybe they have yet to meet someone trustworthy. Maybe they have little time to engage in relationships right now due to work or school. Similarly, Allie may have many other reasons as well- aside from the things she voices in her complaints- which may be causing her distress. Some of these may point to strengths. Maybe one of her new clients has been particularly traumatized and Allie has been working extra hard to gain ground in their therapy; maybe the funding structure in Calgary just shrunk a little and two of her friends just got laid off. Would helping Allie see these other options, open up more opportunities for her and her organization to discuss change (de Shazer, 2000)?

Furthermore, social workers are allowed to complain about their jobs within the rules or customs of their particular workplaces. They do not, however, customarily complain because of their clients- at least not overtly. Clients are held in the highest esteem in most clinical social work environments. However, helping people with serious problems all day long is inherently stressful. Without supervision, it can even be harmful to the practitioner. Yet planned discussions about how social workers are affected often take a very low order of priority, depending on where they work (this is changing in a positive way for sure). Are social workers regularly given the freedom within their organizational culture to discuss how clients affect them? This is different territory- it is riskier and requires more vulnerability- than case discussions about what is happening with clients.

Social workers are also regularly distressed about macro level forces- the institutions and ideologies that surround our clients and ourselves. Discussions about such things are often eerily absent from social work environments. If the subject does come up, well-meaning social work managers often say that these forces are, “out of our control.” In fact, that is the casual response almost every single time that I have seen someone bring up structural forces at a table of social workers and their superiors. It is easy to forget, however, that social workers are trained to view the macro as within their sphere of influence, and ignoring these forces comes at the peril of social workers. To be told that macro level forces are off the table for discussion undermines social workers’ unique perspective and extensive training. The result is a constant conflict between social workers’ progressive, macro lens, and the highly individualized culture that surrounds clients, organizations and social workers.

Even the cultures of healthcare or mental healthcare often discouragingly replicate the competition, individualism and entitlement that also characterize macro level problems. It is difficult for social workers to find a voice regarding the problems inherent in the system in which they work. That system- like an understandably defensive manager dealing with an employee complaint- repels it. Yet social workers that remain without a voice about large-scale social phenomenon will present with internalized hopelessness or negativity, since it is a reality they are trained to witness. An organizations that knows that such concerns are regularly dismissed or inadvertently ignored, and which invites discourse on these subjects, can speak right to the heart and soul of a complaining social worker.

In other words, social workers that complain about their workplaces are not only complaining about their jobs. Just as often, they are expressing vicarious stress or trauma that has a client-based or system-wide origin. Social workers voice pain and dissonance and they need to be heard through a different lens- a different language game. This is also how trauma informed systems operate: within the paradigm of clinical supervision, which builds relationships with clinicians and encourages them to engage in their own transformations- somewhat like clinical social workers do with clients. Being kind, invitational and generous seem to be key elements. Deferring the directive approach, which is always available if necessary. Supervisory strategies that may work on a construction site or in an accounting office are not necessarily appropriate within the more complex social reality of helping guide human change. This is also why borrowing structures and managerial practices from the business world and implanting them into fields such as mental healthcare are sometimes fraught with problems.

There is nothing inherently harmful in complaining. The problem lies when social workers and their organizations believe wholeheartedly that the workplace is the cause of their complaining. Viewed rather as one of many possible motives, complaining can actually be an opportunity to change.

 

 

 

  1. Miller, G., de Shazer, S. (2000). Emotions in solution-focused therapy: a re-examination. Family Process. Spring; 39(1):5-23; discussion 25-8.

 

 

 

 

 

The Invasion

I brought home expensive wine that night before Russia. The first glass stopped halfway to my wife’s mouth, its contents trembling along with her hand. She looked up at me. “What do you mean you’re going?”

“I’m the only one that will do it,” I said.

“So what, that doesn’t mean you should.” Lisa could see it was pointless. I had that look in my eyes, that fire-like addictive substance of fear, obsession and excitement. It was the real reason I did my job. She brought the wine up to her lips, dispatched the entire glass in two gulps, got up from the table without touching her steak and went upstairs to our room. I was going to have to work harder if I wanted to get a little warm and fuzzy with the wife before I left. I finished my dinner and let things cool off for a couple of hours.

She was mad because she was scared. So was I. The reports coming into the States from Europe were from so many credible sources that our paper finally sent someone. I drew the short straw. I was a reporter for the Chicago Sun Times and I was assigned to investigate stories coming from a rural Russian village about something that had crash landed in one of their fields. You may rest assured that none of us- none of the reporters assigned to the event- were very confident we would ever come back alive. There was a sense of dread… even doom. The woman who booked our travel arrangements at the paper was normally really talkative and friendly, but when I picked up my itinerary for this assignment, she wouldn’t even make eye contact. The look of stark pity on her face summed it up.

I remember that Monday morning when I first found out. My voicemail had blown up from nearly every corner in journalism. Yes, my work phone stayed in a drawer on weekends. There was an urgent message from my good friend John in Munich at the US foreign office. I called him back. “What is it?” I asked.

“You haven’t heard? Something happened in Russia, not far from Moscow. A ship landing. Not human origin.” I giggled, knowing that me and John spent many a night drinking and discussing shoddy journalism, and a growing lack of integrity in the field. “I am not fucking with you,” he went on. “There’s a blackout from the Kremlin and diplomats everywhere from Washington to Prague are trying to wet down these rumors. Check it out yourself. I have to go.” And he hung up.

I raced down to my editor’s desk and crashed through the door. He sat looking out his window, peacefully. “What the hell?” I said. I was like a badger then. I had some issues with… diplomacy.

“I know, Bob. Calm down,” he said.

I couldn’t believe it: “You know about this? Why aren’t we on it? This is huge.” He got up without looking at me and made himself a small drink from his mini fridge, taking his sweet time. He shot it down and planted his ass back into his chair.

“You know shit like this can sink a real news outlet. You chase down enough rabbit holes got nuthin but dirty water, you can bet yourself out of a job in this racket.”

He was right. I took a breath, calmed down a bit, grabbed a chair and thought about what to say next. “John Silver in Munich confirmed, plus three others from the feed all saying the same thing.”

“Fine,” he said, “you can go.” A smile broadened the concern written across his face.

“I never said I wanted to go,” which was a lie. I smiled right back

“Well you’re going anyways,” he said and poured us both a 9:30 am Remy Marin.

By seven o’clock that same evening- after my wife stormed away from the dinner table- I had phoned all my relatives, and assured my mother that all the rumors that had spread couldn’t have been anything more that a hoax, and I was simply going to debunk the whole thing. And I was lucky enough to get some goodbye loving in with Lisa- I didn’t know then that I was going to be gone for the next twelve weeks, on this crazy story.

I sat back in my seat the next morning as the plane lifted out of New York on a cool, sunny Tuesday and I went over what I actually knew. Not much: A ship of unknown origin had landed just north of Moscow. That was it, but it had got everyone talking. Some people were saying they had seen little brown aliens running around. Some people panicked, some people celebrated. I was going to see a guy named John who said he saw the whole thing. I wondered, just as my ears popped, if this was just a plane ride and a few nights in a shit hotel away from my wife. We had reached altitude.

John was my first of many interviews on this story. I first spoke with him over the phone the night before leaving. His English was very good.. He had been out walking his dog when he witnessed an airship come to a severe and sudden skid across the back of his neighbor’s long field. Curiosity pushed him past his fear. His trusty female Doberman helped too: “With one word she is ready, you understand?” he said proudly.

“I went closer to see, with my Klatchka on a short leash.” John stopped talking and I thought we had been cut off. I asked him to go on. “No,” he said. “I do not know who could be listening. I will only meet you in person.” So I went.

John’s town of Ozerestokye is about 35 miles north of Moscow. The Kremlin definitely wanted the town’s people to keep silent but none of my good contacts took that very seriously… The KGB also released a “military command” for the people of Ozerestokye to not speak to any foreign reporters- so I had to sneak around a bit to get there. Fortunately for me, the people of Ozerestokye didn’t give a damn about the Kremlin and the various things Mother Russia asked of them.

John and I met 36 hours after the incident. I got in through Ukraine. I had to drop my laptop, phone and everything, and crossed into Russia as a beet field worker to keep things under the radar. I didn’t want to miss this meeting. We met in front of his house and shook hands. John was thin and had a brisk walking pace and began immediately to talk. “This was day before yesterday, in the night,” he said, beckoning me towards his house. “I haven’t slept since.” I believed him on that at least. Whatever he needed to tell me was weighing on him, physically.

We walked around to his back yard. From about twenty-five meters, I could just make out the pit left by some force of impact. “Is that it?” I said.

“Yes,” he answered. “When it smashed down, we thought it was to explode. Klatchka and I saw the whole thing.” Dogs weren’t much of a second witness, I secretly thought.

We ambled towards the crater it had left, and as we did he whistled, summoning a massive Doberman that came out of nowhere and heeled at his side. “When Klatchka is with me, I do not even fear our local bears. Her ruthlessness is a prize. You must see it.” I nodded and smiled as if I understood ferocious canines. Lisa and I had a Morkie at home.

Unlike his neighbours who were all farmers, John was a hunter. He said that the vessels’ last few moments in the air reminded him of, “Watching an injured beast lurching and dying right in front of me.”

“What exactly did the ship look like?” I asked.

“It wobbled,” he said, as he used his hands to outline its erratic movement in the sky. “A disk, I thought. Very difficult to know shape and size…impossible speed through the air.” It looped above chaotically, he said, nearly fading from view, then returning full swing, “Like a boomerang.” It came close several times to cracking up into a stand of trees in the back of his field.

“Klatchka wouldn’t take her eyes off it. I ducked when it passed back over our heads. The air became very heavy. I cannot describe it, like a wall of warm air pushing through.” He was nearly in a trance just watching it, he said. He reported later that he had felt hypnotized by some unknown force. “Then Klatchka started barking, and it woke me up.”

The cadence of his speech became rapid and he peered down to the ground as many do who are recalling a bad memory which maybe no one will believe. “I was scared and raised my rifle. I was worried my dog would draw them to us, so I whispered, ‘Klatchka stop, stop barking. Stop now.’ But she would not.” He looked at me with wide eyes and gathered himself. “Then it stopped and fell straight down from about 10 meters up.”

We inched closer, traipsing over the knee-high troughs in in the rows of last year’s lentils. As we did, his dog drew to the ground and began to slink along behind, whimpering. “We hunt bear- I have never seen her like this,” John said.

We got to within 20 feet of the pit, which was marked off by frayed police tape, barely hanging on in the wind. On one end was the unmistakeable mark of where something had crashed: the soil there had been carved clean as if by a guillotine or large shovel. At the other end was a hill of dirt about 45 feet high, where the earth had been pushed forward like a wave. I reached down and touched the ground in front of me- it was still very hard.

John went on. “About three of the neighboring families had already arrived, and stayed back of maybe 15 meters.” They heard hisses and metallic clicks coming from the thing.

All of the other witnesses confirmed these facts in nearly identical detail. The one exception was the town’s mayor, who maintained a more diplomatic position, in spite of the fact that he had not been present for the crash landing and the drama that ensued just after it.

“These people are simple,” he said to me on the day after I met with John. “Do not believe everything they tell you. You probably do not understand Russian farmers. Have a drink with me.” We drank strong beer while the mayor smoked a small Cuban cigar. He seemed to want to position himself as the centerpiece of my story- I was used to this sort of thing and I let him go on thinking he would be. He later gave an official statement to the press that concluded, “The ship of our visitors must have been built in heaven itself, and landed gracefully upon the welcoming, cooperative and fertile soil of Russia (translation).” It was the most common tact taken by leaders from various nations in response to our newly arrived visitors. That is, before we figured out what kind of visitors they actually were…

Let me get back to John’s version, though. It was getting late and chilly and we walked back from the crash site towards his home for something to eat. “It is the first time I have eaten since all this happened,” he said. “Maybe telling someone has given me back an appetite.” He cooked us venison and potato stew and continued his story while I sat at the small kitchen table. “Everything got still for over one hour while the ship just sat there. No one said a word.”

Suddenly, whatever organism was inside turned on some kind of loudspeaker. “Those of us gathered outside- good Russians, let me tell you- we could hear them but we could not see them.” I admit I was getting spooked. I was actually starting to believe him. I scanned the room nervously where blue-faded pictures of his relatives stared back at me from the kitchen walls; the head of a large brown bear slung over the fireplace, its glass eyes spelling out unheard warnings; a rifle case half open in the corner with a well-worn brass latch; the wood stove; and next to it, Klatchka, sitting right in front of the only door, staring outwards, whimpering and panting. “Don’t mind her,” he said and went on.

“A voice came out of the microphone- in perfect Russian by the way- and introduced themselves: The Boronstock, who roamed the galaxy, using planets for resources and entertainment.” John said one of his cousins smirked at him and whispered, “Did they say ‘entertainment?’”

“We had begun to feel a chill in our bones,” John continued, “at what this thing was saying. Even poor people like us can understand, you know. But then something changed,” he went on. “There was a rumbling in the background, and another voice. There were two of them!”

Whoever or whatever had the microphone barked at the other one, muffled though, “Like when you cover the telephone receiver for a moment. Then voices that john assured me were not Russian, German or English. “They got louder, one yelling over the other. Then even louder. Then they were almost screaming.”

The microphone must have been dropped and John said he believed they began to fight over its use. “They were arguing, there is no doubt,” he said. An object was thrown and something screeched out loud. “Whatever was inside that ship, I swear a fight took place between them that lasted at least two minutes.”

I took a breath. I tell you, this part of the story had few variations, even after I interviewed every single person present, and went over police reports. In journalism this is very rare. Yet I found myself very troubled to believe. That is of course until I eventually saw our visitors in action for myself.

John went on. “We heard crashing. Something broke like glass. It sounded like they were cursing each other.”

John said that he and the other onlookers began to shake their heads. “One of the grandmothers said “Idiotski,” under her breath and laughed, which got all of us giggling.

“Then something went off with a bang and we stopped laughing. A pitiful cry was heard, then silence.” The microphone was slowly retrieved, and the creature cleared its throat to resume its message, which began:

“To the many people of the earth before us.”

The suspension of my disbelief had reached its outermost limit and John must have noticed the look on my face. “It sounds impossible?” It had been a long day, I said and I asked John for a drink. I told him a good journalist needed to be open to anything, but also picky. I liked him and felt that I could be frank.

He continued. The organism emerged from its ship several minutes later. John and everyone else present agreed that it had an unmistakeable look of surprise on its face- though it were hard to distinguish the gestures of a thing so hideous and unseemly. There were rapid, furtive movements to its skittish black eyes. It seemed to be constantly looking about and it regularly turned its head to peer behind itself- the way a fearful person does in the street. Its nose was wet like a dogs, but shinier, and a loathsome white tongue frequently licked it with a mucous-like saliva, which ran down to its lip, only to be re-swallowed every few seconds. Their mouths curled down as if always in complaint, with thin lips. Later, when I saw one of them, their appearance reminded me of features which one generally associates with a bias towards dishonesty. It stood about four feet tall, had a long torso, short legs and wore a cream coloured gown.

It must be noted that for all its hideousness, we later came to discover that their species had a robust appetite and even crude talent for the erotic…

 

*   *   *

I Skyped with Lisa that night on an internet connection that wasn’t great. When the screen switched on at her end, I could see she was still a little pissed. But I had a sarcastic smile stretched across my face.

“What is it?” she said, and I told her about John and Klatchka. “Great, you made a new friend,” she said. I told her about the pit and the police tape. “A hole in the ground in the middle of Russia,” she retorted back. So I told her a little more about John’s story and the crash he witnessed. “Did anyone else see it?” she said.

“No, well, I mean there were other witnesses who came after it crashed…”

“Was there anything more? Or can you come home now?”

I explained the rest of the story, and told her that at least 15 other people said the exact same thing.

“You’re telling me that an organism has flown halfway across a galaxy, crash lands in a field in the middle of the night, only to end up in a fistfight over a microphone so it can give a speech to 15 Russian farmers?”

“Yes, that’s the story,” I said and smiled. She smiled too, and we had a decent little laugh. I actually felt a relief. Maybe it was just a hoax, I thought to myself. “They’ve called a press conference in the Dominican, for tomorrow,” I said and just then our connection was lost.

I attended this event, flying out of Moscow after claiming to the US consulate I had lost my passport. It didn’t matter. By now, the floodgates had opened and reporters were getting into Ozerystokye like bull sharks on prey. I admit that my story was the first that broke about John and his incredible tale. He swiftly became a bit of a celebrity.

The Dominican press conference went well except for one small detail towards the end. First off, the Dominican President could not have been more proud and he sent his very top aide to assist the creatures, whom he described as, “Our alien friends.” The Boronstock spent the afternoon on the beach and when they finally took the stage they delivered a four-hour speech in the sweltering, Caribbean spring heat. “Cronky,” was the name of their ambassador, their leader was an alien named Glotten, who was unable to make the press conference because he was indisposed at the moment.

Most of us were drenched in sweat and started to become impatient but Cronky stood up there and rambled through a history of their species, referring many times to the great degree of refinement and beauty their race possessed, “The likes of which humanity had probably never been exposed.” There were few real details, however. It seemed rather to be what my friend Able Adams from the New York Times described as, “A protracted series of self-congratulations and blustery pretensions.”

All we were thinking about that day were the plans these creatures had for the earth and its inhabitants, but when Cronky finally addressed this, it was three and a half hours in. We were done- we couldn’t take any more. I remember I had forgotten my recorder that day, and the small notepad I was using became so soaked with sweat from my writing hand, that I could make out little of what I had written. I am pretty sure Cronky said we would fall under their strict control and that everything would be explained. He said that what we needed to know now was that this was not the first time they had taken over a planet from a lesser race, and that fighting them would only make things so much worse.

Just then a smarmy little grin passed across his thin lips, but it was so hot that I thought my mind was playing tricks on me.

We were falling into heat-induced dementia, to the point where I just didn’t care what this little thing was going on about anymore. It reminded me of the three-hour Pentecostal church services my dad used to bring me to when I was a kid in west Texas. I just remember squirming and begging for it end. I know they were talking some really important stuff, but I couldn’t help it, I just couldn’t pay any more attention.

Then Cronky pulled out an overhead (which he had borrowed last minute from us) and began to place photographs onto it, which projected onto a fold out screen. They were snapshots of organisms, “From other planets.” We woke up a little, out of fear. It looked like these creatures seemed to be in various states of agony and despair- though their alien features masked their expressions to us, and so we relied on Cronky commenting on each photo. He pulled up one particular photo on the overhead that I do remember. It was brownish and faded, and reminded me of photos guys take after they’ve caught a fish. “Look at this pitiful organism,” Cronky said, “look at the pain and suffering.” I winced, partly to try to make out the details of the photograph. It appeared that the poor thing was being hung upside down by its ankles, and two Boronstock stood at either side, mugging for the camera.

Cronky pointed to one of the Boronstock in the picture, and said proudly, “That’s me, when I was much younger.” He seemed to really enjoy this. He began to giggle and kibitz back and forth with the other Boronstock who stood beside him. They were in fond memory of earlier times. To be truthful, it was crass.

They caught themselves suddenly, or else noticed that none of us were laughing, and few of us were even paying attention- it was too damn hot.

“Do not underestimate us,” he said sternly, clearing his throat and speaking English again. That was the end of the conference. He took a long gulp from a glass of brown liquid on the podium, licked his lips, looked around and tried to walk down from the stage.

This is where things got interesting. Cronky would have been fine, except that he fell on those three short steps leaving the stage, cut his knee open and nearly broke his leg. We gasped in terror. An American medic was later praised for her quick response, as she was able to stabilize the wound, and assuage the creature’s great distress. Cronky writhed on the ground uncontrollably and cried out for almost 20 minutes. We watched helplessly while the medic appeared several times- in my opinion- to try to break off the strange embrace between the two of them, though she denied this to me later when I interviewed her. Thank goodness that Cronky’s wound turned out to be quite superficial.

Two well-known papers in France immediately did humour pieces on the aliens’ apparent lack of physical coordination. Our galactic invaders immediately shot back with a press release of their own, which appeared in several major news outlets the following day. According to them Cronky had, “Tripped on his long and impressive garment, the exceptional beauty of which could not possibly be understood by such a lowly species as the human.” Someone should have been holding up the draping fabric of his gown, they said. They admitted that our lack of awareness was not at all surprising to them, so they would have mercy on us for screwing things up. Meanwhile, the world sat spellbound and confounded in front of our televisions, radios and newspapers.

Though their arrival had provoked nearly total chaos and fear amongst the people of the earth, a small anecdote from that first Dominican press conference hinted at something far less sinister: It was something that we humans could at least make sense of. You see, Cronky was drunk. The human aide from the Dominican president’s office who was assigned to coordinate the event told me later that the creature who fell off the stage that day had not tripped on his gown at all. “He was hammered,” she said. “In the hour leading up to his speech, he and his two associates must have downed at least twelve half -litre bottles of local spiced rum. I should know, I was the one who kept running out to get them more.”

They called another press conference. About a week later. I flew there too. They wanted us to convene in the parliament building in London so they could announce a list of world leaders with whom they wished to work. They wanted our help with their invasion! So we came, from around the world, and clambered into the stodgy, wooden interior of the parliament house, until every inch of every hall were filled and still we spilled out into the street. Our leaders gave speeches at their own press conferences leading up to the event, arguing why the Boronstock should pick them for the momentous task.

The day arrived for the London press conference. It was scheduled for one o’clock. Then a call from Cronky- at 1:15- Glotten was running behind they said-they would be there by two. Two came around and they still weren’t there. At 2:30 there was another call. They suggested we should all go have tea, because they weren’t ready yet, due to the immense preparation required. Five o’clock was much more appropriate, they said. So we had tea, delivered to the 5000 of us in attendance. Then five rolled around. No call, no show. Grumblings from the huge audience were heard, though everyone still waited. By 9 pm, people started to leave- we had flights to catch, and kids at home. I was supposed to Skype with my wife that night after dinner, but I didn’t get back to my hotel until well after 1:30 in the morning. They just never came.

The explanation for their absence, though heavily underreported at first, became the touchstone of a growing doubt about these creatures’ true intentions. It had turned out that the leader, Glotten, was partying in a well known brothel in London with Cronky and their other associates. They had run up a 72,000-pound tab, which they couldn’t pay. They had no money. As the owner of the establishment could no longer take the constant insults his galactic guests were hurling at him and his staff, and the poor way in which the women attendants were being handled, he called the police. In one small article left to the back of the London Herald, a female worker from the brothel had this to say: “They were the randiest creatures you’ve ever seen. They wouldn’t take their paws off us. They stayed awake for days drinking! It was awful.”

The British Prime Minister stepped in and proudly paid the brothel owner’s invoice for the party. There was a very strange picture published in one of Paris’ more liberal papers that showed this grey- suited diplomat from the British prime minister’s office shaking hands with the brothel owner and cutting him a check. The prime minister meanwhile tried to use it as an opportunity to show the Boronstock and the rest of the world what true cooperatives the Brits were and how, “We intend to be fully amicable to our new visitors and their aspirations.” I’ll be honest, as an American- as a southerner at that- I felt my stomach turn a little.

This incident was followed directly by another like it, two days later. The Parisian mayor at the time personally invited Glotten to the Opera, hoping also to dig up favours for his city and nation, and to create a nice chance for publicity. Manon by Massenet was running and everyone of importance in France would be there. I caught wind and got there just in time to witness the spectacle that ensued.

Our visitors attended in grand fashion: The world’s entertainment press photographed them as they approached the doors to the Palais Garnier. Though the mayor never admitted it publicly, a driver from their limousine, a ticket taker from the opera and one of the photographers who dared get close to her alien subject all confirmed to me that Glotten and his associate got sauced before the performance.

Things were going well until towards the end of the first intermission, when the Diva opened the curtain and came out in rare fashion, stunning the audience. She wanted to address her stupendous and galactic audience members, and a spot was proudly put up onto the box where Glotten and the mayor were sitting. But as everyone’s eyes adjusted, we could see that nearly everyone in the entire group had fallen asleep during the first act. The Parisian mayor’s wife nudged the mayor awake, and he in turn nudged Glotten, alerting him to the unexpected bath of attention.

Sensing a moment of celebrity, Glotten and his assistant stood- haplessly forgetting just how drunk they were. The full house in attendance applauded almost wildly. Glotten was steady on his feet- we learned that none of the other Boronstock could hold their liquor as well as he. His alien assistant, however, swooned under the light then teetered and lost his balance. The audience gasped and stopped clapping all at once, just as the creature fell over the handrail, 35 feet onto seats below. A woman screamed and a brief panic set in. A medic was called but it was too late. Apparently their bones were quite thin- much thinner than ours, and the poor alien had crushed his skull on the edge of the dense, 100 year old walnut seats of the Palais Garnier.

The death of the visitor sparked rumours about some kind of retaliation and people all around the world were generally in a panic. The only response from them, however, was another press release, this time lambasting the Diva of Manon for her untimely and spontaneous deviation from the show. It was our fault- again. I gathered reports- from five or six people from the orchestra pit, who hopelessly watched the creature expire: they all agreed on one thing: that the dying organism absolutely reeked of hard liquor.

The press was suddenly becoming less interested in these events. It was actually my wife who pointed this out to me, during one of our Skype calls after the Paris incident: “Bob, haven’t you noticed something?”

“What?” I said.

She smiled. “Every time they set up a press conference or something, they don’t show.” I had to admit she was right, though no one from the mainstream press had yet alluded to it. “Either that or they go on these long tirades about their species. The plan to take over the earth never gets discussed, or it always gets put off. They haven’t given us one detail and they haven’t actually done anything.” We giggled then started to laugh. It was at that moment that I remembered John from Ozerestokye, and the Russian grandmother who got everyone laughing during the Boronstock’s scuttle over the microphone. My wife was right. Nothing up to that point matched what an alien invasion should look like.

Cronky’s incident about a week later at a Cleveland Indians game was no exception to this pattern of dysfunction. Apparently the Boronstock loved gambling, as well as drinking. We found out later that Cronky had bet a huge quantity of money on the game against the Yankees that Sunday afternoon. A consortium of nations who wanted to help the creatures’ state of abject poverty had donated the money to them. Unfortunately, a large Indians lead got blown in the 8th inning by an admittedly shoddy outing from the Cleveland bullpen, and as the go ahead run rounded third, a teenage girl sitting behind Cronky began to cheer most innocently for her beloved Yanks. Perhaps it was in bad taste on her part- after all it was a Cleveland home game- but the response she received was truly unfair. The creature- drunk by that time- wheeled around to chastise her. People said Cronky was frothing at the loss of his monies and his hatred of Yankees baseball and became quite abusive. The poor girl was only 14.

The group of people near them in the stands along the third base line, casually turned to see what was up. Such incidents were not unusual for Indians games against the Yanks. But after about 45 seconds of a vicious verbal berating by this drunk little alien, the girl’s father finally stepped in and told the creature where to go. He was a big man- a New Yorker.

The over confident Cronky then turned his attention to the dad, and started into him with little thought of what he was saying. The daughter- and it must be noted that this was the very first act of human aggression against our visitors- took what was left of her hot dog and planted it directly onto the creature’s bald, brown head. She followed it with her drink and giggled at the mustard dripping down his brow. The crowd gasped or laughed in equal parts.

Everything became still. Sensing his own embarrassment, Cronky looked around at the crowd and perhaps briefly thought of controlling himself, but his temper got the best of him and he lurched from his seat and grabbed the scruff of the girl’s Yankees jersey. People began twisting to get out of the way and holding up their cameras and phones. Somebody whistled for the cops. The creature would not let go, however, and the father, unable to contain himself any longer, quickly landed two excellent right hands directly onto the creature’s poor forehead. It reeled, and for a moment nearly caught its balance, but then fell into the back of the Cleveland dugout, vomited and passed out.

We started to really lose interest as a whole. Major news outlets either stopped reporting for fear they would look like tabloids, or else tabloids were the only ones reporting these events. I suppose it was because we were less afraid, and other really important matters began come back up in world journalism.

My wife and I continued to talk via Skype as I followed these shenanigans around the country and the rest of the world. It was exhausting, and our conversations produced much-needed relief from the weariness I was beginning to feel from all the travel. It was like covering a war, but one that was only ever about to take place, and whose main aggressor seemed far more interested in getting hammered in the worlds dirtiest corners than they were interested in taking over our planet. I needed home, and just about then- twelve weeks to the day they arrived- I finally gave up full time coverage on the story.

My editor pulled me off, right after it came out that their leader, Glotton had slept with the Russian president’s wife. She and Glotton had apparently become good friends in the days after their crash landing. Her reputation for heavy drinking drink was well known and she and the alien leader became inseparable. They often drank together into the night and commonly ended up in friendly arguments about who was more intelligent- the Russians or the Boronstock. The creatures’ ship was large enough to be their home, but it was damaged in the crash and was uninhabitable. So, homeless, they had been staying in the guest- house of the Russian President, where everything took place.

As it happens sometimes in human affairs, the combination of drinking and excessive amounts of time spent together between a male and a female who have a natural liking for each other- well… you understand. Things happen. I mean, how did Svetla think it would turn out? The Russian President had been completely oblivious, until the one night he happened to come into the room where the two of them… in front of the television… it was disgusting. An aide and a security detail of three men accompanied the President during his discovery, and, knowing the story would have been impossible to contain, the Kremlin held a press conference to announce what had happened.

It was truly dysfunctional. I attended and stood at the front with the press while the President made a brief speech. His wife and Glotton stood on either side of him with doleful expressions on all of their faces- at first. Svetla was gloomy, crying and apologizing. Yet just as the Russian president was disclosing the horrific revelation of the affair, Glotton’s expression changed. A grin- I swear it was a grin, we all did- began to invade the corners of his unseemly mouth. His beady, black eyes darted back and forth. A reporter from Moskow noticed immediately, raised his hand and asked impatiently what Glotton thought was so funny about this embarrassing affair. Glotton quickly retorted that his expression was one of profound sadness and grief- not a smile at all. He added that no one understood him- especially not anyone from a race of creatures as illogical and short sighted as we humans.

He then told a long story about how he had been more poorly treated on earth than on any other planet he had visited. He went on to discuss that his job was really stressing him out right now, and that he really just needed some affection. He sobbed.

It’s really funny the things we notice or don’t notice. I Skyped with Lisa one last time before heading home. Towards the end of our conversation, she remarked, “What happened to their women? All of the Boronstock are men.” We both thought for a minute on that one, then Lisa snorted, “Maybe their women kicked their asses out of the house,” and we both howled in laughter.

I caught the red eye out of Minneapolis where Cronky had been admitted to the hospital after another fight. I got home that night twelve weeks after I had left. An alien species had crash-landed the earth, only to end up a bunch of hedonistic drunks.

I walked up the three steps to the front door that Saturday morning in July, put the key in and turned the knob. In exhaustion and gratitude, I embraced my wife. She looked up at me and her lips curved into a smile. “I’m pregnant,” she said. “It must have been that night before you left, I’m exactly twelve weeks along.”

The Boronstock stuck around. Their ship was broken, so they kind of had to. We just kept feeding them liquor wherever they went, and pretended to listen to them go on about some invasion. After all, they had done this before.

 

word

“What we have forgotten is that thoughts and words are conventions, and that it is fatal to take conventions too seriously. A convention is a social convenience, as, for example, money … but it is absurd to take money too seriously, to confuse it with real wealth … In somewhat the same way, thoughts, ideas and words are “coins” for real things.”     -Alan Watts

Take the word tree, for example. The word tree means the thing we refer to as “tree.” But it really only tries to mean that- that is, it does not actually mean or define the thing we are referring to when we say the word “tree.” Even the words, “the thing referred to as tree” does not come close to an “actual tree,” nor does it remove us from the limits of definitions or bring us a real understanding of “the thing referred to as tree.” Neither does the phrase “actual tree.” Do you see what I mean?

The word tree does not define tree, or determine what tree is. Even if we define the word tree, that definition points to other words and definitions that happen to fall into the same limitation or pitfall. For example, Dictionary.com says that tree is: “A plant having a permanently woody main stem or trunk, ordinarily growing to a considerable height, and usually developing branches at some distance from the ground.” Whereas I know what Dictionary.com means, those words do not make up what a tree is. But again, we are in the wordy pitfall, because me using the phrase, “what a tree is,” will not ever be what a tree really is, except insofar as it’s a concept pointing to something real. What the word tree points to is something that can only be experienced. Some might say it cannot ever be named: “Tathata,” means “suchness” or “thusness” in Sanskrit. Tahata refers to the indescribable nature of things- their essence.

But words not only attempt and fail to define; they can even prevent genuine experiencing. Concepts thus have an obstructive power. Names for real things like trees obscure and obstruct the experience of trees when words and their definitions act in the mind as if they are the thing they represent. It’s a very subtle act. It gains strength through education. We get deeper into word-games and complex meaning constructs and society begins to reward us the better they play such games. Genuine experiencing of things, (which we do all the time and which is its own reward) takes a secondary social position to conceptual games. Why does this matter? Because there is a social pressure exerted on people to continue to act as of the word tree meant “actual tree.”

This is what Alan Watts means by words as social conventions. Rather than being a purely individual experience, concepts like “tree” are socially constructed- and belief in them is socially enforced. Breaking from social conventions- whether those conventions be behaviours or concepts- means not only freeing ourselves from the individual psychological effects, but transforming one’s relationship to social meaning. The obstructive power of concepts is reinforced in social ways- and some concepts, like “self” and “happiness” are far more difficult to break away from, than are more innocuous concepts like “tree.”

Whereas the experience of a tree is full and satisfying, the concept of tree, no matter how complex, is relatively shallow and inaccurate. The concept of “tree” is incomparable to falling asleep under a large oak with your partner, staring up at an 800 year old sequoia, or climbing trees as a child. Conceptual objects have a “let’s get down to business” flavour, whereas the actual experience of things have a childish, playful aspect that needs no describing. How many teachers teach the “essence of tree” rather than “definition of tree” to their students? How many children know the “essence of tree” more so than their teachers? The essence of tree comes from being around trees and other people who have a sense of trees.

Other terms strengthen the power of concepts to act as if they were more than concepts. “Tree” is fairly straightforward. Think, however, of the word “true.” “True” refers not only to the thing referred to by the word, it also makes a statement about words themselves, since “true” is a word claiming to do the one thing words cannot ever do: to truly represent their objects. “True” claims to exclude itself from the pitfall of all concepts I am describing- their limitations and obstructive power. Because it is impossible to avoid this pitfall, words such as “true” end up playing a very important social function- and that is to maintain the definitional power of words in general. “True” is thus a “word about words” or a “concept about concepts” empowering our imagination about the languaged world in which we find ourselves. Words like “true” are an important part of the reason why words- and the entire conceptual framework of language- are mistaken to be accurate representations. Yet the word “true” is not any more true than the word “tree” is a tree.

Happiness is another word with complex and seductive definitions that act like they are real. Whereas “tree” only promises-yet-obstructs a full experience of trees, “happiness” has the potential to promise yet obstruct a full experience of happiness. Mistaking “happiness the concept” for happiness the experience is more deceptive and unfriendly than doing so for “tree.” It can be like a cruel joke. This is where the most career, status and materially focused westerners find themselves every single day. This is not new territory, but stressing the power of concepts is important, especially for words like happiness or truth, for it is entirely possible to “live for happiness” and “live for truth” yet still find oneself miserable and fraudulent. Furthermore, unlike “tree,” concepts such as “truth” and “happiness” invite others to define them in ways that suit their interests rather than ours…but this is a topic for another discussion.

Another powerful obstruction stemming from language is contained in grammar and structure of phrases. A perfect example is the phrase, “our experience of the world around us.” The phrase differentiates subject and object, where the subject carries out the action (in this case, “our experience”) and the object is the thing upon which the action is carried out (in this case, “the world around us”). Yet if this grammatical difference between subject and object is taken for reality, which it most often is, it can really mess with us. It sets up a perception- a delusion, really- where “us” and “the world around us” are two very different things. No other organism suffers this fate. This basic grammatical function- to separate subject and object, innocent as it may seem- can create a psychological error where people feel like they are separate from the rest of life: “Lack of awareness of the basic unity of organism and environment is a serious and dangerous hallucination (Alan Watts).” Alan Watts spends a great deal of time talking about the power of this basic grammatical function, and the psychological error it sets up.

The final concept I want to discuss is the concept of self. If concepts like truth and happiness can obstruct the experience of truth and happiness, then imagine what power the concept of self would have in obstructing. What consequence? In the same way that “tree” proposes yet fails to be actual tree, “self” acts as if it is who I am, yet fails to actually be me. Almost all discussions about human beings make “self” the assumed starting point, without acknowledging the pitfall here described. Like the concept of tree, self attempts to define and make real something that can only be experienced- like this entire discussion, which of course is still plagued with the basic problem being discussed. In the sentence, “self is not who I really am,” the word “self” and the phrase “who I really am” both fall into the pitfall.

None of these statements overcome the basic problem with language I am discussing with the concept of “tree.” In fact this whole little essay is like a ball bearing rolling around a tin drum, believing it was the earth rolling around the heavens. Almost all genuine experiences are initially obstructed in this way. Moreover, others who are strongly obstructed often draw others in; those who are less obstructed can often see beyond others’ conceptual selves first. A sense of ‘tree” is better wrought by hanging around a group of children climbing trees, than by asking a tree specialist what he thinks a tree really is. The same holds true for seeking an experience of self. And whereas developing a genuine experience of actual trees is not strongly guarded by a thousand and one different arguments, developing a genuine experience of self is one of our culture’s greatest taboos.

If someone were to say, “It is true that Picasso was a great painter,” this is only true within a conceptual construct. An art historian could spend hours describing in interesting ways why Picasso is great, but the greatness of an actual painting by Picasso can only be experienced.

Short Story: Zavar

Zavar

Zavar leaves his hut at the beginning of every day. He is up at dawn like he has been since he was able to work, which was about age eight. In the morning light he was cool and the air temperate. He breathed this in judiciously-calmly but intentionally, fascinated by the thought that the short lived and blessedly cool dawn air would keep him alive through the hottest parts of his coming day.

He swung his legs about the side of the bed, which was a very comfortable invention of his own making- straw and fragments of elusive hides. These he had stolen, as anything of monetary worth would need to have been stolen by Zavar or his cast. His father had shown him how to procure the ingredients for a wonderful bed when Zavar was very young. Zavar could not remember exactly how long ago it was. He had no calendar.

Zavar’s father, Ur, was wise. He could read which was rare amongst people of his cast. In fact it was something that was quite illegal and punishable by banishment or death, which amounted to the same since banishment meant the desert. Gathering knowledge, however, was an act of survival, and only survivors could endure the life of a laborer. Vigilance to the harsh environment was essential. Even more dangerous, however, were the whims and entitlements of those above their cast. Ur gathered clandestine knowledge about the lieutenants, architects and royals- and passed this on to his son in whole. If he had been caught in this crude but effective schooling, little mercy would have been be applied, since mercy to laborers by the class above them- the lieutenants- was also punishable, a result that came even more swiftly for the brutal citizenry chosen by the gods to occupy that cast.

Ur died one day while walking back from the building site. It was the same site that Zavar was building and upon which Zavar’s grandfather-whom Zavar never met- had also worked his whole, short life. It was a project undertaken with greater urgency and ruthlessness with each passing generation of king and queen. Not many from Zavar’s cast could admit to knowing this kind of history. Ur had some idea, however, and taught Zavar in secret about it. Zavar remembered staying awake much past exhaustion at night as his father had demanded of him from a very young age. He learned how each successive king and queen believed that he or she would be the ones buried within the confines of the massive structure. Ultimately, it was the gods who determined the length of time to complete the building’s construction. All casts understood and believed this: That the gods decided who were to be buried there; they would be the greatest kings and queens that ever lived!

Ur was one of the most talented workers on the site. He was of enormously robust health and stature, but more importantly he could think. He knew well more about the principles of building than many of the lieutenants on the site, and was regularly consulted by them in order to produce reports. The richness of his thought -life extended however, to keen insightfulness in other matters- especially in what he knew and understood about men and geography. He had surveyed the complex systems of etiquette and speech about the site, which forgave only the slightest social maneuverability for men like him. And yet he exploited such spaces like a master. One could never look more intelligent or kind, for example, than a lieutenant-such a failure in the system was never tolerated for long. Even the gods decreed it.

Zavar and his father were taught to believe they were destined for a certain fate-a certainty that was made true by the life enforced upon them. An example of this was the doling of water rations. The promise of increased water rations was one of the greatest and most inflated currencies in the system and it was a trick. The lieutenants were bombastic in their praise and promises, but cunning and shrewd in following through. A smile, a pat on the back, a nudge…Zavar had come to hate these men, but his sentiment was not shared in his camp- at least never openly. The other laborers seemed to praise the lieutenants and to see them as portionally divine. Nothing pleased the lieutenants more, since their cast was convinced that their fates could be changed by increased productivity on the site and the consequent favor from royals and gods. Meanwhile, Zavar’s friends and family thought and prayed every day that the promises of the lieutenants would come about- that the water ration would finally be increased, and that the existence of the families in the camp would finally improve. The lieutenants dreamt also, but of greater productivity, which they in turn could bargain with architects and more royal classes of people for better lives for themselves. The laborers promised greater workloads, but this was nearly impossible without increases in water… It had gone on this way at this site for 200 years.

To Zavar and his people, kings and queens lived what seemed an age. They were considered god-like and nothing happened to please kings and queens more. When they visited the site, they assured the laborers in windy and indulgent speeches that the building these people were trying to erect in the middle of a desert was an important part of god’s plans. Laborers were held in high esteem, they said, and this was true- to a certain extent.

They were part of a noble, divine and unfolding schedule. They had a special place in this life and the afterlife, which meant brutalities against them by lieutenant classes were sharply discouraged. Zavar and his people were not slaves. Yet prohibitions on abuse against laborers had even more practical purposes: Camps like Zavar’s had been known to violently repulse such aggressions, and a fear of this danger lurked in the minds of higher casts through all of Egypt. After all, it took little imagination for masonry hammers to swiftly transform into weapons.

Zavar prepared his morning ritual today. As he did every morning, he began by giving thanks for the many gifts his father had imparted to him. He recalled his fathers face- the strong features of his brow and deep-set eyes that expressed so much joy and also hid so much pain. Today, like on most mornings, these memories caused Zavar to glumly recall the day his father passed away while walking back from the site. That heat on that walk back killed men and women like a crushing thing- a pendulum that seemed always to be swinging about their heads. Nothing was more deadly to these people. Only air, sand, toil and thirst but it was heavier than any stone, more decisive than any axe.

The site was far from the encampment of laborers- the encampment of laborers nowhere near the site. It was designed this way so the laborers could never compromise something truly royal and godly. Yet at the same time, none but men like Zavar and his father could build such a thing. No one in Egypt had the talent in masonry or the capacity to withstand the blazing, seasonless environment, yet Zavar’s people would never practically benefit from the work they did. Zavar sat and thought. He wondered this morning, as he did nearly every day, if anyone at anytime would benefit from the scaling, unfinished monument that loomed an hours’ march from his camp, where all of his people lived and died.

Ur, though a wise man, died like a laborer after work one day. No day could ever match the days these men and women worked. No matter how hot and hard other days were to other men in other places and other times, this work and this heat were the toughest. This part of the world was like a hell, Zavar thought, counterbalanced only by the blessing of the water that kept him and his family alive. The royals who lived next to Egypt’s waters didn’t understand this hell at all. This was certain. It occurred to Zavar today that the royal classes paid pious tribute to gods and desert whenever they came to the site, yet they seemed to have little respect for the truth: Deadly heat, deadly toil and endless sand. The very attempt to build this building, Zavar thought ruefully- was it not the greatest affront to gods and desert alike? Was the project not a simple and prolonged act of carelessness and vanity? Zavar lost himself in thought about the heat and the water and the desert and the men and women and their lives and deaths.

Zavar’s father had died only a year ago. It did not matter what day. Though Ur knew more of recorded time than anyone in his tribe, even he struggled to know basic things such as how old he was and how long he had been working at the site. On that day, a nauseating shiver passed through the back of his body and he lurched dizzy and fell from the line of scorched people one evening on the way home. Though he harbored a fantasy his whole life that he would die in a grove of shade and cool water, surrounded by the faces of the people he loved, Ur died in the exhausting heat.

Zavar was behind his father that day as he was every day. He knew something was wrong. His father suddenly clutched at his stomach and looked back at his son. It had been a particularly hard day at the site, the lieutenants had been particularly harsh. A visit from the royalty was expected soon and progress had been particularly slow. At one point just after lunch, the lieutenant had openly berated Ur, and the busy work on an important structural column had suddenly stopped for a brief but intense moment. Yet as in many things and in many places, the people least responsible bore the brunt of liabilities and Ur, for all his talent and pride, felt himself a failure because the project was so far behind.

At the death of every worker, the lieutenants’ job was to ensure the rites of the lost were upheld at the moment of their demise. Zavar stood motionless. They would never meet again. Ur grew cold in spite of the immense fomenting heat and he matched his son’s eyes with the same love and longing that Zavar was trying to shine back. “At all the things I taught you,” his father thought, and lost himself in his only son’s beautiful face and passed away.

The women who provided food and water during the build each day rushed in and bent down to quickly prepare his rites. One lieutenant always was chosen to accompany them back, mostly to police the water rations, and this man said nothing. He did not need to. Ur’s arms were folded and he was placed into a gurney, bedded with a selection of dried flowers. Black ash was slowly drawn across his forehead, white ash across both cheeks. Finally, and most importantly, a large cup-much larger than the ones used to dole out the daily rations- was filled with water and poured across his lips. A christening and gift for each into the holy place of the dead.

****

Today, Zavar moodily recalled his father’s death as if it were yesterday. A feeling of revolt weighed on him in a way that no other person in the tribe could possibly comprehend. He felt drained about the coming day and he wished these feelings would go away. He cursed himself for corrupting with angst the memories he kept of his father and he forced himself- as he did often- to recall only the last glimpse he took of his fathers loving eyes and wept.

Zavar left his hut today and began to prepare his morning. Had he not known so much, his life might have been less painful. He was tired. Unlike his father, he hated that thing out in the desert. He didn’t care what it was, and he believed that few people even knew what it’s designers had intended over 200 years ago. He had also been up playing cards last evening until well into the cool hours, the air being as much the reason for such games-forbidden as they were- as was the prospect of winning. These people were always thirsty and hot and the cool nights were one of the guaranteed pleasures of a life spent working on Egypt’s grand desert. Those who stayed up past the sun were surely cooled by the gods themselves.

****

Zavar and Hasina were going to be married. Though they had nearly been inseparable as children, and though the entire camp knew they would eventually marry, their actual marriage was uncertain. Zavar had not made his wish for her known to her and the others in the camp in the usual way. He shielded this from her, from others, and likely even himself. Zavar tended to ignore- at his own cost- some of the more everyday pleasures and rituals that pervaded the laborer cast. This was part of the cost of his general tendency to think- or at least that’s what he told himself as an explanation for his general awkwardness.

He was confused by the thought of Hasina. When he was about age 16, she seemed to be offered to him. Older women in the camp would knowingly glare at them anytime they met. He often overheard these same women shooing her into the room where Zavar might be, or worse, shooing him towards Hasina. This insistence from other parties became a painful obligation that he did not, or could not live up to. He loved this woman more than anything in the whole world but he resisted the pressure to make this known in the customary way that was usual for young men his age. Because of this, however, Hasina also became confused and at moments extremely disappointed, since she had always believed she would be married to him. She believed Zavar was closing himself off to her at the very time that he would have- or should have- made his love known to her.

It was not uncommon for men to become rather awkward around this young woman. Hasina possessed a stunning beauty which bewildered Zavar. Her beauty was a thing of rumor, even amongst the royal classes of women who infrequently entered the camp. Many of these, upon seeing Hasina, instinctively set her about some lowly duty. But these same royals would inevitably remark that she had a way about her- a grace and fairness that pervaded her actions and friendships that made onlookers even more envious and reverent. She could for example hold differing opinions on contentious matters about the camp, a quality that betrayed the usual rash and polarized way in which important subjects were discussed amongst the workers. Such rashness was of course the very dynamic which royals and lieutenants tried to inspire amongst these people- should they squabble and fight amongst themselves on inconsequential matters, the better for those who benefitted from their utterly subordinate position. Hasina’s grace, then, was an even greater, more practical and fundamental threat to higher classes than even her physical beauty.

Hasina commanded respect from nearly everyone and this formed an important part of the drama that surrounded the qualities she possessed. She was also a favorite subject matter of some of the older women in camp. Hasina’s aunt reported to the group just the other week that she had overheard a visiting Egyptian royal wonder to her husband if he had,”noticed that beautiful young woman.” Should you have heard some of these same people on their long journeys back to Cairo, you would know that their compliments on Hasina’s qualities were usually cloaked with intolerance and always followed along in conversations with longer criticisms of one of her likely but unknown deficits. There was no debating that she inspired admiration and envy from nearly all who met her and that the lines between casts momentarily blurred in the beauty and refinement that Hasina possessed.

None of this helped Zavar’s true pledge for her, nor helped him undo his state of shyness and reticence. Many other men had also wanted her, men more aggressive than Zavar. And of all the many men that had also been her suitor, the lieutenant’s son, Po was the most relevant to the telling of this story, and the fateful way in which things transpired today. Po was a lazy and corrupt young man. Hasina thought him boring and that he was similar to the many people she had witnessed berating and undermining the people she had loved for her whole life. But he was also relatively wealthy. He made it known very early on in his appointment to this camp- about three years prior- that Hasina was his choice.

Of course she was. Po was obstinate and obvious in nearly everything he did. His swift and unthoughtful decision was certainly not remarkable- at least not for him. His hallmarks were blatant insecurity and entitlement. Not that he was aware of these unpleasant qualities- rather just the opposite. He found himself considerate and learned, and each day he rose and peered into his expensive mirror, he reminded himself of just that. He believed that he was held in high respect amongst most laborers in this camp, which may be one of the hidden reasons that Po believed himself more safe than he actually was and why on this very day, he would lose his life.

He never got to know anything about these people, the work they did, or the rich history that passed between their generations. He made no attempt to know Hasina, either, and this made her dislike him all the more. He did not enjoy work and he foisted himself into situations instead of creating relationships and he knew little of building construction. This was not unusual, however, for those in the lieutenant class.

Po had advanced himself to Hasina the night before last, just after her the laborers dinner. Hasina’s opportunistic and greedy aunt had secretly arranged the meeting. Had the timing been more imperfect, Hasina would have likely spent the rest of her life with this man. But fate and the timing of the gods not only dictated suffering and hardness- they also came to the rescue of romance, love and story. Though she felt a deepening repulsion for this young Po, it was still considered unthinkable for Hasina to refuse him, since her life would have improved in ways she could not help but to imagine. The match would have ensured her abundant water and decent food for the duration of her life, a duration that would have increased dramatically under the influence of such necessities. She also would have been able to change jobs- from the devastating toil of the site’s water bearers and food carriers, to the camp’s dinner preparer and handmaid to the lieutenants’ secure camp.

Hasina’s and Zavar’s love remained a secret, until better preparations could be made. Zavar had wanted it this way and Hasina agreed. The lieutenant’s family did not know- and the unapologetic Po who wished her hand certainly had no idea. So when Hasina’s wishful and senseless aunt had arranged for her to visit with Po the night before last, it was understandably done without this intimate knowledge. Knowing Hasina wouldn’t have gone, her aunt used a trick to get her to go. She said something of importance needed to be picked up for tomorrow’s build. On her way across the mile expanse of desert to the lieutenants’ house, Hasina hoped that she would not run into Po. As she approached the gate to their encampment she felt a small chill run up from her legs to the back of her neck.

She prepared herself and knocked at the door. In moments it swung open and her heart fell to see Po, standing in freshly washed clothing. He smiled. “Welcome, Hasina. Welcome to my home.” He was careful to not let her see his edacious glance as she walked passed him to come in.

“Did you have something for us?” she said as she looked around the entranceway.

“So straightforward,” Po said. “That is such a good quality in a woman. No wonder so many royals speak so highly of you.”

She glanced up involuntarily at this, and Po smiled with conceited satisfaction. She stopped herself from enquiring who from the royal class had mentioned her, but a glaze in her cheeks gave away her curiosity at the mention of royal notice. “Oh yes,” Po proceeded, “I have come several times upon the wives of the architects and their friends discussing you. I, of course, did not let on that you are my friend, but you may be assured that some of them are most impressed.”

She could not catch herself. There was nothing Hasina or any other woman in her camp had grown up fantasizing about more as a little girl, than one day being a member of a royal class. The sheer poverty of their existence demanded such daydreams. This was bolstered of course by the many convictions that laborers held about the general belief in the ascending nobility of the classes. “I find it hard to believe,” Hasina said, trying to pull back.

She noticed the room she was in. It was sumptuous. She had never been in this house. “Oh it is quite true,” Po went on. “You may believe me wholly. I would not lie to you, Hasina. You may believe me about anything.” And at that he touched her shoulder. But rather than twist immediately away as her body told her to do, she looked down at his hand- pale and soft, with oval and slightly long fingernails in the fashion of kings. She considered her predicament before looking back up into his face.

“Po,” she smiled gently, “You are so graceful and well mannered. I am truly amazed at what you say.” Few kings could have resisted the glance which at that moment she evoked, and Po found himself in a trance of hopeful expectation. She turned then and walked away, towards a table, where fresh fruit sat out. “May I?” she enquired.

“Yes, yes of course,” Po responded quickly. She picked up a succulent pear and with her back still to Po, closed her eyes and carefully chewed. The juice ran down her throat and a shock of erotic pleasure passed through the deepest part of her belly, then tingling out through her arms, legs and forehead. She turned around.

“Was there something for me to pick up?”

****

Zavar looked at her. That was all. It had only been a look, but it was a look enough to tell Hasina that Zavar did indeed have her on his mind for a wife. She had been sitting at the side of the stove that provided the camp food near the end of one day, about one month ago. She was making final preparations for the evening meal. The table was set, and everyone would enter for dinner in less than 20 minutes. Zavar normally worked in his hut at this time, but today he walked over to the kitchen. And though he had rehearsed a hundred- or a thousand times what he would say to her, he seemed to lose focus the closer he moved towards the room where he knew she would likely be.

Isn’t it amazing- two people who had been inseparable growing up could, under the influence of an ocean of desire, come to forget who each other was at all! But this was one of the many pleasures of love… to forget- as one sometimes forgets oneself- and wonder what of the other person still lay hidden. Innocent friendship transforms under eros, which arrives always without warning. Who from any time or from any race did not love such remarkable transformations? Perhaps only the two people themselves! It is not only enjoyable to be overrun by the great unknowable nature of the gods as they sought to merge into a seemingly small, inconsequential friendship, like it’s blazing center, around which the heavens themselves sought to orbit. It could also be quite frightening. But this was the love between these two. There was nothing more powerful, sought after, misunderstood or envied.

These feelings welled up in Zavar on that day as he approached his beloved. An artless mix of fear and courage bleat in his throat just as he entered the room, and she looked up. The gaze between them was only a moment. Zavar found himself at her side and instinctively knelt next to the low stove and held her eyes in his. She silently took a small ladle, and fed him deliciously the broth she had prepared, replaced the utensil and as she did, peered down at her hands. They were chaffed with work and sand and sun and she began to weep. Zavar’s eyes welled up in profound gratitude, love and sadness. He found a cup of oil close by and used it to carefully wash her hands and feet.

****

Today was Zavar’s last day of work upon this site. Upon waking, he walked to the western edge of his camp, something he rarely did, to the point where he could see in the pittance of early light the outline of the building. It lay across a field of sand and dark blue Egyptian sky and sat like a sleeping menace- a dangerous beast that had killed everyone he ever loved. What a slow, selfish and harrowing gift from the royals to themselves, he thought- what a steady, unfinished lie that bid everyone believe it. It was the only place in the world-other than his camp and the long walking path- with which Zavar was truly familiar.

He turned in the still, early morning and felt as if the whole of the night was ending only for him. His belief in the cooling power of the early air caused his breath to deepen as he turned and walked over to the pool of water on the other side of the camp. A sluiceway transported these people’s daily ration of liquid right around this time, and now as he reached the pool, it was already full. Neither Zavar nor any one else in the camp knew that the Nile had more perfectly drinkable water than he and the next thousand generations of laborers throughout the whole of Egypt could ever drink. No- the next ten thousand. What he understood- what he was made to understand- what he and his family only ever knew was that water was given out of mercy and necessity, from the gods and the royal classes who were known as gods.

He reached the pool at the eastern edge of the camp. Across its span was reflected the great plain of desert beyond, towards the Nile river, which Zavar imagined he could almost hear. Few people actually knew the true direction of the Nile. It was deliberately kept a secret so that no one would think of escaping, since it was to the river where Zavar’s people would ever dream of going. It was said to be beyond the great building site, to the west, but Zavar knew this was not true; it was due east by about two days, rather than due west. Due west were a thousand days’ march that no human had ever traversed. But his knowledge gave him more than just insight; Zavar not only knew of the direction of the Nile, he dared to imagine actually visiting it. The thought had played on his mind in fantasy since he was a boy and seemed to cool him when the sun only wanted him and Hasina to suffer. When he could, like today, he spent a few minutes eliciting the clearing and quenching power of even his small camp aquifer… the diverted pool whose origin was even itself the mighty and godly Nile. This thought gave him great pleasure each time he thought it and so he thought it often.

These thoughts swam in his mind as he squat down and looked into the dark but visible reflection of his head and torso leaning over the pool. He touched the water, which he loved, and the ripple travelled like a bird from his hand, followed in formation by an eager flock of other ripples. There was such glee in him at such moments.

A breeze touched his skin that belied the hot day that was always on its way. He pulled his hand out of the magical pool and raised his face to the horizon, which was still quite invisible. He peered into the dark air and let his eyes adjust to the faint outline where land and sky met. He realized at once that he was not alone… a kneeling figure had joined him at the edge of the pool, several meters away. It was Hasina. She bore a grin as she watched him, knowing that he had only just noticed her. She touched the water then, and her glare into the pool became introspective while she peered at the ripples that quickly travelled to the place where her beloved sat. She again looked up towards Zavar playfully, met his eyes and they were absolutely in love.

The beautiful moment ended. Something broke and seeped into Zavar that was not anger that was not hate, but was a mix of the promise of the horizon, his Hasina sitting so close and the clandestine knowledge he held of the world. How would he ever carry his beloved across the expanse of Egypt, as Zavar had dreamed of doing many times? There were no other gates he and she would cross, no other thresholds, no other doors that he and she did not already know. In today’s early light and in the faint outline of the day to come, Zavar’s mind concussed, and his eyes grew wild with unshakeable angst.

His beloved noticed the look pour across his brow. It was one she had never seen. Her absolute faith in and love for him mixed with fear for what could be passing through her lovers heart. Then the breeze blew warm from the west and this small morning ritual was over. He thought of the many duties in the coming day as he unfolded to his standing height, just as the day’s heat also began to rise and the sun edged orange a sliver above the horizon. He peered at her again and pondered her who also held his eyes. The coming day would care little for either of them.

The walk to the site this morning was uneventful. No breaks were taken, except when the site was reached. There was no point, the heat would not let them, as the cool night and early dawn suddenly traded its brief tenure over these peoples lives to the long, blistering and careless heat. The site was visible from the flatland expanse between it and the small village of workers, but it was deceptively far to walk- another one of the desert’s many and deadly tricks. What seemed an easy walk could quickly become a harrowing pledge for survival for someone unprepared for calumnious nature of the Egyptian desert.

Upon reaching the site, heat began to pass through them in shivering waves. Each time the wind died down, mournful glances passed between them as they fell about their work. Women spread themselves about the site’s planned activities with their water stores and food, while the men gathered their tools and ascended the complex of scaffolds and gangplanks, which bore men, stone and pack animal alike. The lieutenants were behind by about the length of time it took to walk from the village. By the time they reached the site, the workers would have begun the day’s build.

Zavar walked the scaffold to a corner of the structure that he had been working on for months. The masonry in the cross sections of this building were highly complex. Lieutenants believed that these support and stabilizing sections could be built with algorithmic regularity and predictable speed, but good architects knew that the best-laid plans had to withstand the tolerances of masonry and reality. Lieutenants cared little for such nuance, and only plied for the results at the end of day that could bring them greater favor. It was left to men like Zavar to ensure the plans were carried out. For example, the lieutenant had repeatedly told Zavar that he should finish this section in half the time that Zavar knew it would take, and that he could place Zavar into one of the less skilled sections of the build at any point in time. These sections were more deadly, since the less skilled workers made up for themselves by being constrained to more physically demanding work.

Zavar had the materials he needed and began to work. Zavar cut stone and wood shims with as great a skill as any. His current duty was to plant stone reinforcements at the meeting points between the two massive outer walls that met on this corner of the building. His vantage point was from about 200 feet up. He turned away from the corner of the building for a moment and could see straight back to the village, along with the short line of lieutenants who were slowly making their way to the site. Excdpt for windstorms, the desert days afforded the longest views on earth. A prolonged gust of wind died down, and the shivering heat sank into Zavar’s blood, making his eyes water, and then the gust picked back up.

The lieutenants spoke as they reached the site. They dismounted from the animals. As far as Zavar could tell, their conversation looked serious. The lieutenant from Zavars section seemed to spell something out to his son Po in animated gestures. Zavar wondered what they talked about, since normally, little was said between the lieutenants at the site, or in front of the workers. Zavar did not trust these men on any day, but today this sentiment made him feel something like fear.

Zavar heard footstps on the gangplank leading to his corner as the women made it to his section on the build for morning water. To Zavar’s surprise, Hasina was the person carrying his allotment. Wives or family were forbidden to distract their men in any way, especially those with greater skill and more responsibility. It was also a way to control the allotments of water, since it was also more likely that a wife or sister would give two dips of her cup to her husband rather than the one that was the prescribed ration.

Zavar was happy and they smiled at one another. As Hasina produced his ration, though, Zavar heard footsteps on the gangplank again coming towards them- Po and his father. Zavar recognized their voices. Zavar pulled his eyes away from his wife, drank quickly and handed her back the cup. Hasina took it and nimbly ran around to the outside of the corner of the building, where the gangplank wrapped around and came to a sudden end on the open expanse of the north side of the building, which towered above her another 100 feet. The wind ripped around at this place with a hollow sound, a singular note played off the building’s massive eastern wall. There was no barrier or rail between her and a 200 foot drop to the ground. Hasina leaned against the wall, only inches from the precipice, motionless and riveted to the ensuing conversation only several feet away out of sight.

“Hello, Zavar,” the lieutenant spoke from a smile. “Hello,” said Zavar, noticing the keen manner in which Po glared. She was hiding, Zavar thought- thank the gods. “How is your section going?” asked the lieutenant and Zavar began to answer that he might even be done today. But before he could, Po broke in: “You will be done today, Zavar, I can assure you. Today will be your last day on this section. If not, tomorrow, you will find yourself at the bottom of this site.” Zava nodded seriously. “Has the morning water made it up to you, Zavar?” Asked the lieutenant, and Zavar nodded again. “Yes,” Zavar said trying to hide his nervousness about where Hasina had gone, “they came a little early today.”

Zavar knew now what the lieutenants had been discussing earlier: they were going to make another impossible push on production. These pushes- usually counterproductive and not based on anything like the wisdom of building- often resulted in men like Zavar being transferred to more difficult physical work, which also meant that less skilled workers would replace him. This way, the whole village was poorly affected, and so in turn was the entire operation. Within such a foolish alchemy , Zavar’s only hope was to produce what they wanted. It was at least possible, he told himself. “I will be staying around your section today,” Po said, “just in case you need any of my help.” Zavar wanted to laugh at this statement, but stifled his humor, and nodded. The lieutenants then left.

Zavar turned back to his work. Several moments later, he was startled to hear feet from around the east side, where the gangplank ended. Hasina emerged, with a childlike smile. She kissed his forehead and disappeared.

The morning wore on. Zavar thought to himself that he might actually finish this small section today or tomorrow should his cuts and his measurements be accurate. The heat rose and Zavar’s concentration upon his task was strained, yet Zavar felt as productive as he had in months.

Zavar began to speed up. Lunch came, Zavar ate. He kept himself in the elusive small shade, as the sun reached it’s peak. The wind rose and fell, the only mitigating thing to the heat, except one’s imagination or reflection upon the cool. The building grew hotter, even as the sun lost intensity through the afternoon. Zavar had nearly completed his corner and he made one more decisive cut to a large piece of stone that he had retrieved from down below just after lunch. He knew that if he could make the cut in time, he might just finish today. He worked hurriedly- a liability to his job. He made a few last skillful strikes to the stone between his feet and it seemed ready to be placed. Normally, with a stone of this particular size, he would have gone to find at least one other worker to assist in its placement. Today he did not. He thought of Po, his words and the push. He thought of his father, Hasina, and the whole tribe of laborers. He thought of the choking angst from this morning, and from every morning from about the time that his father died.

“Place the stone,” he thought and he wedged himself beneath the place where it would be installed, brought the stone onto his chest and pushed it upwards into place. It was heavy- too heavy. Should it fall it could crush his skull quite easily. It was more than it looked, he thought as he nudged a knee behind it to free a hand, then another, to place shims. He pounded a shim into place. Now another. On one of the final strikes upon a shim, his hammer hit the side of the stone instead, and a sharpened corner of hardened limestone flew, hitting him in the face just above his eye. He wiped his eyes with the back of one arm- blood- and continued to hold the stone. He made his final strike with blood trailing down his cheek and neck. He looked carefully and slowly at his work- it was set, and he wedged his way out.

He kneeled carefully, then decided to stand but as he did, he realized it was not a great decision. It was the hottest part of the day. The blood from his wound was heavier than he thought. He dabbed it with his sleeve and felt the cut with his hand while he gazed at the expanse of the desert floor beneath him, which seemed to rise and fall. The wind suddenly died. His arms both fell limp and numb and the blood again seeped down into his eyes. He tried, but he could not reach up to wipe it, and he fell unconscious in towards the building.

He woke about a half an hour later, to the gaze of his wife who held his head in the crux of her left elbow. With the other hand she dumped small portions of water across his lips, which he now opened to receive. His eyes fluttered clean of the blood that had gathered as Hasina gently washed them. He was alive. He smiled up at Hasina. “The day is almost done, “ she said, and helped him up to his feet. “I will be ok, “ Zavar said, “you should go back down and get ready.”

With Hasina gone, Zavar began to consider the long way back home. Getting down from this height on the structure was a chore in itself. As Zavar began make his way on the thin, long, descending planks, he realized his balance was off. The ground far beneath to his left still shuddered in and out towards him and he had to turn his head away so it was not in his field of vision. But little respite existed to his right, as he structure itself was as hot as a piece of baked iron. He had been this hot and exhausted before, but Zavar knew this was different. He reached up and touched the wound on his head. It was a gash and would need time to heal.

Almost everyone from this height had already made it to the ground, while a few stragglers- mostly older men- still made their way. There was a large staging area or hub, about tone third of the way up from the ground, and as Zavar finally made it here, he stopped to rest and looked across its expanse. It was as wide as the face of the building- a very large area, maybe 150 feet across. Supplies making their way up to the rest of the building were brought to this hub and dispensed to the various sections above. Lieutenants and visiting architects or other royals also had a covered quarters here, from which orders and other information made its way around. The hub was deserted now, and you would not know that during the day, this part of the project pulsed with activity, with people going up and down in bisecting paths and pack animals moving large pieces of material.

He felt too hot to move. His feet were unsteady. “Where was Hasina?” he thought to himself. He considered walking across the hub towards the scaffold that would bring him the final part of the way to the ground. It was about 100 feet away through the direct sun. He would have to walk away from the relative comfort and part-shade of the side of the building. He steadied himself as best he could and moved. Without the building face to lean against he focused on not falling over, but his gait was skewed, and he lumbered and weaved. A wind picked up a large tuft of sand from the floor of the hub, and Zavar stopped and steadied himself as it approached. The gust blew into his eyes and into his wound, but it was not strong enough to knock him over. His body, cooled, felt relieved for a moment.

Zavar continued to walk across the hub and he realized he was totally alone. He had to make it to that gangplank, now 80 feet away… The building loomed over his head to the right and took on a malevolent aspect- even more so than usual. It seemed to grow in height and bend in towards him. “Keep walking,” he told himself as he shielded his eyes from dust and the dizzying sight of the building.

Something then caught his eye…someone else was on far side of the expanse, coming towards him. It was hard to believe. “Who is it,” he said loud, as much to himself as to this other. “Everyone should have been down by now,” he thought. His stopped walking and strained to see. Whoever it was also huddled in towards themselves from the sandy wind and blasting heat, fully covered head to toe in linen. As Zavar winced he thought the figure….What? Impossible…It was his father, Ur. Zavar blinked and tried to focus. Though it could not be, his heart melted as Ur came close, touched Zavar’s shoulder and smiled. Zavar felt his body and mind awaken from exhaustion for a blissful moment as Ur spoke, “Zavar…”

Zavar reached out to embrace him, but as soon as he did, he realized it was one of the water carriers, Nenet, whom he held in his arms. She held his chin and lifted his face so she could see. “Your head!” she cried and she reached down for a cup of water. She looked about to ensure no lieutenant was near and gave him a drink of the warm water. Zavar drank, grateful but also disappointed, as one feels when they wake from an excellent dream. She grasped him about the waist and turned the two of them towards their destination. He leaned into her and the two them made their way down the rest of the way.

The group waited at the bottom, finalizing their preparations for the walk. The tools were being prepared for the next days build. Hasina’s eyes welled up when she saw him. The lieutenants left ahead of time on the animal’s backs, but someone from the lieutenant class stayed back with the laborers on the walk home, in case anyone were to pass away and to police the water rations. Po volunteered for this duty today, believing it would be like any other day. It turned out to be a tragic decision.

The walk began like every other day. Today seemed worse. They were a little further behind than usual. It was heat that concerned them most. Lieutenants rode on the pack animals’ backs, drinking at will from leather flasks, and chattered back and forth- they were happy today, as their push on production had brought them most of the result they could have hoped for. The laborers on the other hand, did not speak. They ambled along, shuffling and focusing on just making it back alive.

At the halfway point, water rations were doled out but the group continued to walk. It made no sense to stop, since the sun and heat were far more dangerous than the bone weary aches everyone felt. The water carriers were placed at the front, and walked backwards along the forward moving line, doling out to each person their small, life saving ration. Zavar was near the back of the line and though Hasina peered out towards him as she made her way along with the water, she could not see him. She smiled as she finished serving a teenage cousin his ration, and began to move along to the next in line, when she heard someone from back of the line cry out for help. She peaked her head up… Someone had fallen, since the line stopped: falling was the only reason that the line ever stopped. She hurriedly moved towards the back of the line and her aunt cried out, “Zavar!” Hasina forgot what she was doing and ran towards the confusion.

He lay in the sand, clutching his abdomen, looking afraid. It was Zavar. Hasina cried her beloved’s name, and he turned his head, looked up at her and forced himself to smile. Half of his face was covered in sweat-soaked sand, which he spat from the side of his mouth. The heated ground scorched his shoulders and face, but he could not resist the urge to rest there for a few more moments…

He was dying, and Hasina did what anyone would ever do in the natural order of things, if another person were starving of thirst and heat: She gave him water.

She reached down for the cup, but she had left it with the last person she had dolled water to. All she had for a container was the one that had been blessedly poured across the lips of Ur the moment he had passed away- the much larger cup, carefully reserved for the christening of the dead. She filled it without hesitation and pulled Zavar’s head up with a little too much force. “You will not die,” she said and cried out desperately.

He could barely take it into his mouth. Her ears rang and she could hear nothing. Zavar began to drink down the warm contents of the cup more efficiently- the small, divine portion of the Nile River tinkled its way down his swollen throat. Hasina dipped it again, and used that portion to wash the dried blood from his eyes. She noticed how the wound he had suffered earlier continued to bleed. She dipped the cup again, cradled his skull, and kissed his cheek while continuing to feed him water.

Hasina had not noticed- nor had anyone noticed- Po approaching the scene. Had they, perhaps the disaster that ensued for him might have been diverted…Without thinking, Po seized her arm and pulled her from Zavar’s side. Her elbow flailed and with it, the large cup and the rest of its contents arched into the air and splashed down onto the earth. Hasina screamed out in pain as her shoulder had been twisted quite badly. She instinctively slumped down in the sand and curled in towards the pain, at the feet of Po. Injuries could be devastating, since injury never kept a person from having to work, and twists, breaks and sprains dogged laborers for the rest of their lives.

Zavar teased himself awake and looked up. Po was standing above Hasina. “What had just occurred?” he asked himself as he struggled to his side then rose to all fours in the sand. He touched his forehead and his cut there and he winced in pain, which briefly focused his memory in the few moments that now passed. He could not think. He felt a deep current in his belly that was one part love, and one part rage. His mind was confused and thinking felt like spreading a dry, uncooperative paste. His eyes blinked closed and open and sand fell from his forehead across the bridge of his nose. The swirling moment, the heat and the vision of the unconscionable Po provoked Zavar, who thought for a moment that Po smiled. Dizziness and fever surmounted his heat exhaustion and finally became madness.

Zavar reached for his tool belt instinctively and quickly produced the larger of his two hammers. On one end was a chisel that every mason sharpened at the end of his day, in preparation for the next, fastened to a cherry wood stock by a kind of epoxy resin. The stock, which he had gripped since he was 13 years old, felt comfortable in his hand. He lurched clumsily and swiftly and struck Po across the top of his left foot and nearly severed it in two.

One of older laborers cried in a lumbering crescendo, “No, no, no!” as Po dropped to the ground in luminous shock. His face pushed down into the sand as his body trembled. The wound pointed grotesquely down towards the ground while blood filled the dry sand, which became dark with it. Po’s life, along with the precious red liquid, would both quickly dispel themselves onto the soulless Egyptian plain. Po seemed to come to lucidity for one last time, looked down at the wound and cried out for someone to help him. “Please,” he pleaded to the nearest worker who stood motionless.

Then Zavar regained his own clarity and assessed what he had done and the grave ramifications. There was only one thing left- for this moment. He crawled closer and mercifully turned Po over so that he was looking up at the sky, raised his hammer with the chisel pointed down and smashed it just above the bridge of Po’s nose, through his eyes and deep into his skull. It was finished.

A smattering of sand licked hard across the back of Hasina’s hand, and she looked up from the scene before her, to the west. A tuft of sand about three miles west was lifted into the air and advanced in apparent harmlessness with the wind. The tuft began to obscure the low evening sun and Hasina realized that it was anything but harmless. There was no time to think. She spoke one word to the gathered group who for several moments had had no idea what to do next. A pit were dug for Po, 50 yards off the walking path, where it would be unlikely to be found. His horse was killed and along with Po, their bodies deposed. “He was lost in the storm,” she instructed loudly to the group and everyone nodded. “Zavar and I- we were lost in the storm,” and as she said this, she began to weep. They would leave tonight and never return.

They moved swiftly. The closer they got to camp as the storm hit, the further off track Po’s searchers would be. If the laborers had only spent a mile walking through the storm at a normal pace, then Po could have only been lost within that range- not halfway between site and camp where Po had actually perished. They all took large drinks from the cups and began a fast walking pace each carrying a thin, strong piece of canvas that was now hung on their west-facing shoulders, as a shield to ripping the sand.

They arrived back to camp. The lieutenants had already retired. Po and the laborers’ well-being was far less important than their meal, which they had rightfully earned. Neither was it uncommon for groups of laborers to be lost in the storms that sometimes struck between work site and encampment, and Po’s horse would normally be the difference between living and dying through such an event.

The wind continued threw up sand in swirling furor and wraithlike columns, which made nearly certain that the lieutenants would remain indoors and Zavar prowled over to the lieutenants’ stable in the cover the storm provided.

He opened the stable doors. The horses jostled in their stalls at every thrust and peevish gust of wind. He entered the stable and closed the door behind him as a large grey mare threw back her head in fear- riled, unfocused and dangerous. She peered at him and neighed, and the others responded in kind. They clopped in their stalls as he walked along. He wanted the best horse-the largest and fastest and youngest, which was kept towards the back. He was the horse used by a royal if they happened to want to ride to the building site. The beasts shifted and pulled but Zavar made his way along calmly. As he got to the last stall, he saw his horse: he neither pulled nor neighed. Zavar unlocked the gate and the horse shifted away from him and stared at Zavar from his large left eye. Zavar released his harness, bridled him and walked quickly out of the barn.

Hasina waited for him at the flag-post which marked to travellers from Cairo the entranceway to the camp. Today, this was a departure point, instead. Hasina was ready. Zavar walked towards her. His face looked hungry with concern, but there was also something else: A reach she had never seen, a commitment to something entirely new. To a dream. Something neither his nor her family had ever experienced. They were leaving the camp.

He walked towards her with the majestic animal at his side, and had she not known his face so well, had she not felt the beaming and violent tug of adventure in her chest, she would have mistaken his own majestic countenance for fear. He smiled, and Hasina for the first time in her life, allowed herself to consider the possibility before her, and she immediately accepted the risk in what they were about to do.

He brought the horse right to her side. Its smell and power were intoxicating. They loaded the animal with their necessities. Zavar helped her into the saddle. Briefly, they said goodbye to everyone in the world they knew. All the rest would be answered by god or whatever force now cradled their delicate lives. The gods that ruled this life, the life of the laborer, were being left behind.

For the first time since it started, the storm parted and allowed Hasina to see the sliver of evening sun shine through a tall column of dust and reveal its final few bright moments. Zavar ascended the beast behind her on the saddle, and he and Hasina took their first steps into the wind, towards the true direction of the Nile.

Where’s My Pen – Research Study

Study:   Deliberately Locating Writing Instrument in Office Setting

Introduction

Whereas many things are easy to find in the office environment, a decent pen is not. The office is competitive and demanding. One minute a telephone could ring; another, one’s boss might walk right into the room. The reality of the contemporary working environment is replete with distractions and demands. Furthermore, distractions also exist in present day offices that previously did not, in that the contemporary workforce is a far more educated group. Diplomas might hang snootily on the walls of one’s coworkers; A supervisor has gone to a college in England; Someone from accounting is going for their masters. One of the unforeseeable results of this more educated workforce is that not as much time and attention gets spent on keeping track of office supplies, energetically walking past one’s boss’ office with papers only to take a long break, or finding that perfect spot for a nap on the fourth floor across from the elevators. This particular study focused on office supplies, and sought to discover if there was a useable pen in one of the drawers in the writer’s desk.

Previous Research

Other clinicians and writers have made similar enquiries. The writer of this paper’s coworker, GB, just the other day came into the photocopy room at our workplace and asked if anyone had seen the document he had sent to the printer. Someone had, but they would not admit it, and preferred to see GB head back to his desk and print the document again (Chuckman, 2016).

Also, and perhaps more germane to the current study, was a recent incident at a healthcare convention the writer recently attended. A physician had just finished an hour’s talk about cortical myelination, which the writer had only vaguely understood, and had only marginally remained awake for. At the break, the writer decided to ask a question about the subject as the physician walked past his table. Rather than respond, the physician looked up and asked us if I had seen his pen (Chuckman, 2016). I responded I had not, although on the way to the bathroom, I did find a pen, which did in fact turn out to be the physician’s (Chuckman, 2016).

There has also been at least 25 other occasions (a conservative estimate) where this writer needed a writing instrument while driving in their car, and decided to check the glove box. (Chuckman, 2016). Whereas there is never a pen in the glovebox when one needs it (Nationwide Insurance, 2016; Strait Dope Message Boards, 2016), it would seem likely that there would be, and that looking within the glovebox might be a reasonable course of action when one needs to find a pen.

 Questions

“Where can we find a pen?” This question is deceptively ubiquitous. When can one say that having a pen handy would not be a good idea? Something less general might be more appropriate, such as, “Is there a pen in this place?” Surely, wherever we go, there might be a pen. Narrowing this down, then, we settled on the following research query: “Is there a pen in this desk drawer?”

Hypothesis

If the desk drawer is opened, a pen could be found within its contents.

Methods

After careful consideration, we used our hand to reach out and open the desk drawer to the right of our computer at work. The right hand was chosen as the hand to conduct the experiment. The left hand stayed resting on the left thigh, quite useless as usual. One serious variable that was difficult to control, and which could have possibly jeopardized the legitimacy of this experiment, was whether the experimenter could recall whether pens were in the drawer or not. Insufficient Recall (IR) was used as the control method for this, as this is a reliable method often used by the criminally accused, for example, when explaining why they have forgotten to come to court (R. v Osmond, 2006) and also as a reliable method to simply forget important things when being questioned on the stand (R. v. Myran, 2009). Though no one has used the terminology “Insufficient Recall” in the current context, the concept lends at least a face value meaning construct to begin the current enquiry.

Therefore, since the experimenter had IR at the time of the experiment about whether a writing instrument did or did not in fact rest within the contents of his desk drawer, this was considered a reliable method to control for previous recall of such an instrument.

Furthermore, since one’s coworker could have walked into the office being used in the experiment at nearly any point in time, this door was closed and a sign put up saying, “Do Not Come In.” This was also considered sufficient to meet the requirement of both an undistracted experiment participant, and to ensure that coworkers might not inadvertently disclose the location of a pen. It seemed at the time entirely plausible that someone might burst in and helpfully say, “Hey I know that there is a pen in that desk drawer near your right hand” (though this sentiment was later reconsidered as flawed). Such a statement would have obviously rendered the current experiment superfluous, or at least invalid, since then opening the desk drawer to locate the writing instrument could just have easily been motivated by the coworker’s statement.

The desk drawer was then opened.

Results

 There was a pen in the drawer. It was red.

Discussion

 Given the many competing interests upon workers in the contemporary office, finding a pen can easily- and often does- take a subordinate role in the daily activities of people. This experiment sought to find out whether a pen did in fact rest in the desk drawer of the experimenter.

Our hypothesis, that a pen would be found by opening the desk drawer, was demonstrated by these results. The pen, however, was a worthless red pen.

Although we believe that we have devised a somewhat reliable method for controlling potential confounding variables in the search for a writing instrument, little consideration was given to the quality or colour of the pen that might be found. The results do indicate a confident appraisal of opening a desk drawer as a method for future pen searches.

One potential pitfall of this design was whether or not we had actually remembered whether there was a pen in the drawer. It might have been, given the highly complex ways that human recall manifests as actual, real-time memories, that a dim awareness might have been at work in the mind of the experimenter about pen location. Also, the experimenter could have been lying, in order to satisfy the projected hypothesis of the current enquiry. Furthermore, there were many, many things which the experimenter should have been able to remember, such as “what time did I get here?” “how long until I am finished?” and “what was I just doing?” all of which potentially demonstrate serious flaws in the experiment’s central participant and design. Thus, further methods that might control for the potential of recall problems regarding pen placement in the workplace could be useful to future discussions on the subject.

References

Chuckman, Robert. Office Incident, just the other day, 2016.

Chuckman, Robert. Incident at Super Boring Workshop Last Week, 2016.

Chuckman, Robert. Driving Incidents, Various. 1995-2016.

Nationwide Insurance, 2016. https://www.nationwide.com/glove-box-items.jsp

Strait Dope, 2016 http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/archive/index.php/t-597170.htm

R. v. Osmond, 2006. https://www.canlii.org/en/ns/nspc/doc/2006/2006nspc52/2006nspc52.html?searchUrlHash=AAAAAQAXZm9yZ2V0dGluZyBvbiB0aGUgc3RhbmQAAAAAAQ&resultIndex=12

R. v. Myran, 2009. https://www.canlii.org/en/mb/mbqb/doc/2009/2009mbqb71/2009mbqb71.html?searchUrlHash=AAAAAQAUZm9yZ290IHdoYXQgaGFwcGVuZWQAAAAAAQ&resultIndex=2