Saturday, November 16, 2013

Stations of the Breath - Interlude (a Mea Culpa)

Continued from parts One, Two, Three, Four and Five.

 There's a voice someplace that says Just finish it and let it be done and something else telling me Context, above all. History outside of context might just as well be fiction.

 I'm in a writing workshop near the end of university; let's call it 1991 or '92. I remember the room in an office space in downtown Toronto. I can't quite remember if it was a simply a staging area in my fourth year (which would have made me a York student) or the standard, bricks-and-mortar location for such things (which would have made it a University of Toronto course, where I finished my degree). I had written a piece that echoed an incident in Part Five of the series you're reading now, to wit:

I talked to Zoe a few days after the break and don't want to remember it the way that I do. She didn't look good. She was sitting at her locker in a third floor hallway and looked like she'd been crying...I noticed that her wrists were skinny again; I realized I didn't remember when they had looked normal. 

There were over 10 people in the course; I don't know why this sentiment (if not the exact wording) caught the attention of one of my classmates. But during the let's-discuss-it section of the evening, she latched on to that particular incident with an enthusiasm (for want of a better term) that I've never forgotten. The following exchange is as verbatim as I can recall between myself and a woman I'll call Lindsay:

You knew she was going to kill herself because of her wrists, that's why you've pointed it out?
 No. I just remember seeing her wrists like that.

You remember that by itself? Separate of  everything else that happened afterwards?

Yes. Otherwise, I wouldn't have mentioned it.

You didn't remember them after the fact?

I...anybody who remembers anything remembers it after the fact. I don't know what you're trying to suggest.

I'm just saying you wouldn't have (she used 'air quotes here) 'remembered' her wrists unless she killled herself, would you?

I hate to disappoint you, but yes. I would remember it. I just wouldn't have any reason to point it out after the fact.

How so?

I don't know what you're...

I'm not calling you a liar, Michael. I'm just saying that you might be putting undo emphasis on something you remember, rather that what you saw.

I...sorry. I can't agree.

This doesn't make you bad, Michael, it...

I don't think it does. That's your term.

You don't need to be oversensitive, I'm just...

 I hope I'm not being oversensitive, but can I suggest something?

Of course.

I don't remember the way she wore her hair that day. But I know she was wearing jeans. I'd seen that pair before, they were flared at the ankle which was a bit weird for the time. If I'd written that she was wearing a green sweater with floppy cuffs, would you accept that?

I don't know what you're...

If I'd written about the colour and style of what Zoe was wearing that day, would you be bringing up the same point about what I did or did not remember?

I don't want you to be defensive...

I hope I'm not.

I just think it's a lot to remember, especially putting such emphasis on her wrists.

Okay. I can't argue that. But I do know that her wrists were of no interest to me outside of that that moment. I just knew I'd seen them less-skinny before, but I didn't remember when. Maybe after the summer where everyone looks good when you're back to school. None of this matters to me now, or particularily then. I didn't think she was going to die because her wrists looked skinny. I just remember remember thinking about it at the time, before she killed herself.

Well, I can't tell you if you're wrong or right. I just think that you might want to think about it.

Fair enough. But I need to know what what you're trying to say.

I think you might want to think about what you've written.

What does that mean?

Just think about it.

Alright. (pause) I think I want you to explain that a little more.

I already have.


That particular writing class broke up a few minutes later. Lindsay apologized to me for what she called her 'tone' in a sort of way that suggested she had a certain degree of pity for those who disagreed with her. I shrugged it off at the time but never forgot the exchange.

For the record; I can only report what I remember, and not exactly unrepentantly at that. I know what I saw and can bear witness. Have I considered that I might be wrong, or inaccurate, or misleading, or simply not the person to report what happened? Yes. Not often over 30 years or so, but very acutely from time to time.

Everything that follows stems from the realization that not everything matters, but everything happens. To complicate matters further, there's another muttering from someplace deep and (usually) much more quiet, perhaps a mantra instead of literary criticism. A simple reminder to be honest in all recollections. Anything less would be a desecration.

Continued in Part Six

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Bad news, bad news came to me where I sleep

A friend of mine has passed away from pancreatic cancer. He was a Dylan fan and he'd appreciate this with an ironic smirk, especially that part about "The cruel, the rain, and the wind." Goodbye Bob.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Stations of the Breath - Part Five

Continued from parts One, Two, Three and Four.

What's an afterthought when applied to somebody's life?  One action doesn't reflect everything there is in a person, and not every aspect of their story is holy writ. You can look at it all with the Yeats line about how Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold or just shrug and mutter Whattaya gonna do? leaving it at that. It sums things up just as well but lacks poetry.

There isn't any poetry in self-destruction, at least not to the witnesses. The last thoughts of the instigator must have their own rhyme and structure, something that applies entirely to their own diminishing stations of the breath. They might be able to explain their motivation if they survive, or simply push it all away as far as possible to be explored no further.

All of this conjecture is ham-fisted on my part. Mea culpa. It's the only way that I can explain the brief presence of Celeste in the context of Zoe's story and not feel like I am somehow robbing her of her own voice in the matter. My only defense is that Celeste didn't talk about her suicide attempt. It happened early in Grade 11, let's call it October of 1984. Somebody told us what happened and it was briefly whispered about and after a week or ten days she came back to our theatre class with careful bandages on her wrists and a hospital bracelet that, for some reason, she wore for a long time.

Our class was closer than most, but the details around her attempt seemed only to be shared only among a small group of girls, her nearest and dearest. I wasn't privy to any of the background other than the basics; she'd been sad and moody (not unusual for teens in a performing arts high school) and the general consensus was that this had been a cry for help or just a really bad idea on her part. I also remember that there wasn't a hanging concern that she would try it again.

Maybe it was because it seemed so unreal to her friends in the first place, or perhaps it was just felt unreal to me. I was still raw after Antonella and didn't want to push the topic further or even think about it. Celeste only comes into Zoe's story briefly, later, without playing a part. My notice of her does. It's something that needs to be explained to understand the whole.

We haven't exactly kept in touch, but I run into her on rare occasions at get-togethers with mutual friends. Her scars are almost gone and aren't - now or then - a topic of conversation, but if you're one of those who saw them when they were new (even under her carefully placed bracelets and sweaters with overlong sleeves), you still notice traces on her wrists when she raises her glass of wine at a party.

It's all irrelevant now. I can't even tell you if her scars are horizontal or vertical or both. But a classmate with a graveyard sense of humour pointed out the differences in approach; blood clots easily from a horizontal cut, and flows quickly from a vertical slice. He'd remind you that's it's Across for Show, Down for Go. Or he'd pretend to cut a capital H into his wrist horizontally (H for Hospital) and vertically (H for Heaven), his routine probably picked up from a movie somewhere.

And he liked Celeste.

He was 15 years old and trying to be funny. And we were all friends at the time.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Stations of the Breath - Part Four

Continued from parts One and Two and Three.

Before Antonella's story, another perspective of Zoe. Antonella won't mind.

I received a long Facebook message from a woman who was a brown-eyed, curly-haired music major back in the day. I responded with If you give me permission, I'll quote you. I won't do it without your OK - and I know it sounds weird - but there is a larger point at the end of the piece that's being expanded by what people are telling me.

She gave me permission with one proviso; Don't call me Donna. I hate that name. 

She can be Madeline, then. I was surprised to hear from her in the same way that I hadn't expected to hear from Lloyd. They both arrive in this narrative later, their presence an indelible fact that had almost fallen away until meeting Kelly and finding it all brought into the foreground, again.

What Madeline remembers:

I didn't go to Zoe's funeral, 'cause at the time her parents said it was family-only (until they finally realized how many people wanted to be there and opened it up). I freaked out and locked myself at home for a couple of days, refusing to answer the phone... I have no recollection. I had spent a lot of time with Zoe in New York where Zoe expressed the desire to kill herself and of course l tried to talk her out of it and reassure her that she was loved, etc...and it seemed that was fine. Only it wasn't. Zoe's death affected me deeply, and I don't think I every really understood it.

I never knew this; it's one hell of a thing for Madeline to have carried when she was sixteen. I remember that she looked sad and shaken, not more than others but in a quieter way, something chilling and mournful. This might be my imagination, though; not her feelings, my memory of same. I certainly wasn't keeping tabs on anybody, not consciously. Responses ranged from tears to anger, there wasn't anything that could be called appropriate in that situation and god knows what I looked like to the outside world.

I told Madeline A lot of people are offering me pieces of this story, some things don't fade.

She countered with It does fade, details are patchy.

Both statements are true. Time's funny that way. You can marvel or shrink in horror at the clarity of what remains.

Now, Antonella. Who told me the most terrifying thing I could have heard when I asked if I could write about her part in this story, or more precisely, how I dealt with the story. She said I trust you. Her history is separate from Zoe's, entirely. The only person for whom the stories tie together, a year and a half later, is me.

Things ended better for Antonella, but something dark in her lingered for the longest time. I can't know that it's gone forever; let's call it exorcised for the time being. Winston Churchill's description of depression as a black dog is overused, but it's Antonella's choice of phrase and it still comes up from time to time in an email or Facebook missive. She'll say something like the Black dog's been around, but not too close recently. That's good. It's always a relief to me to hear that from her.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Stations of the Breath - Part Three

Continued from Part One and Part Two.

A missive from Lloyd on his mention in the last chapter:

That Lloyd sounds like a jerk.

He didn’t use the word jerk. The word he used summed up his thoughts perfectly but it’s a lot less offensive in his locality than to most of my North American readers, so let’s just say ‘jerk’ which isn’t nearly as evocative, but it’ll do. Lloyd comes back later, near the ground zero of this tale, but I don’t remember him in the next part. Which doesn’t mean he wasn’t there.

For some reason, I remember Dale instead. He was tall, Korean, a good trombone player and either dated a friend of mine or (for reasons best known only to them) didn’t mind people thinking that they were dating. He is the first person I remember speaking to after Zoe’s funeral no more than an hour later, one of the groups of smokers lingering at the double doors beside the breezeway. He was giving cigarettes away to anyone who stopped to chat. I didn’t smoke but took one, grateful to concentrate on the nicotine alone.

He was a music student and I was in theatre, so I didn’t know him very well. I always thought of him as a friendly if quiet guy, so it was surprising to find him holding court with such authority. Everyone got a smoke and an “Are you okay? You’ll be okay,” rundown. I remember the shell-shocked mourners smoking and staring at anything other than each other, and hearing Dale say “If anybody here – anybody – ever gets that bad, you can call me. I’ll give you my number. I don’t care if it’s 4am. Just call me, I’ll talk you down or find somebody who’ll help. Anybody.”

I heard him say it four or five times over the three cigarettes he’d given me, which made me nauseous, which was better than thinking about Zoe. He didn’t make the offer earnestly; it didn’t sound like he expected to change anybody’s life or dedicate himself to telephone psychiatry. It sounded more like a matter-of-fact, pragmatic offer; something along the lines of nobody wants to see this again. Call me, it might help. Don’t let it happen again.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Stations of the Breath - Part Two

Continued from Part One

In the 21st century, somebody else's musings can get delivered to your computer without hesitation. 99% of them are no more important than greetings, work updates or anything else you'll forget or simply not need a few hours after their arrival. The other 1% snakes its way into your consciousness and reminds you that sometimes your tabula isn't as rasa as you'd thought.

To wit: Lloyd, formerly of high school and the previously mentioned powdered strawberries. Tall. Then and now. Musician and singer and not a bad actor; his Vladimir to my Estragon in a grade 11 Waiting for Godot scene study is the stuff of legend to a very small crowd (me, in particular). He is also perhaps the finest impersonator of a restless hamster in human form during a theatre improv that the world has ever been seen. These aren't the high points - he's an all-around, standup guy - but this is what first filters through me when I get a message in response to Part One of these postings.

Good to read a new blog. And though I am sure the names were changed to protect the guilty, I have absolutely no idea who you were talking about. Was I there?

For some of it. It'll make more sense as it goes on. And of course names are changed. The guilty need protectin' too.

Are you saying I wasn't there for you?


Never as in you're not saying that, or never as in I was never there for you? Paranoid suddenly.

You were always there for me, in friendship and the theme to 'Friends' sense of the term. You just weren't there for every aspect of the story I'm telling. You'll recognize when you are though. And it's intensely odd that you're online just now to notice...

Ah. And you were there for me too, la la la la la la la la la, as the song goes. Can you call me Lloyd? I've always wanted to be a Lloyd. 

With two Ls, like that bartender in The Shining?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Stations of the Breath - Part One

"Wear your inside out
Dreaming of mercy..."
- Peter Gabriel

"After the first death, there is no other."
-Dylan Thomas

You have to start somewhere.

So, as weird as it sounds, the start and middle and end of my story smells like powdered strawberries.

To be a little more clear, it smells like the powered strawberry flavouring that you drop into into a milkshake. It doesn’t resemble real strawberry in the least, but it smells like a good try. You understand what it’s supposed to be.

I took part in a musical in my first year of high school – grade 10 – as part of the lighting crew. I worked dragging sets on and offstage and I wasn't the guy who filled the fog machine with what we were calling ‘fog juice’ – what would you call it? - I was just one of the two guys who applied it onstage. One of us would walk backwards slowly with the machine at ankle-height, spreading the low-hanging and slightly oily mist along the stage so it would rise thick and lingering when the curtain went up.

We were doing this in May of 1984. The weather was already hot and humid. The auditorium was air-conditioned but the curtain made a tent of heat and strawberry-powder-scented-fake-fog that wasn’t particularly good for you. I don’t find that scent very often. I don’t make milkshakes and only come across it sometimes at Halloween at some of the more enthusiastic households where I take my son trick-or-treating, or at a few product launches and clubs I’ve attended when some organizer decided the best way to give the event a sense of occasion was to have some spotlights and fog.

I have to point this out because of the association. There’s no metaphor or poetry to it. It was just there. When I talk to one of the handful of people involved with that show at the time, I’ll remember everything around it and think about that scent. It’s not welcome, exactly. But it’s not worth dreading. It’s simply part of what happened at the time. It’s a fact, rather than an embellishment.

Jump ahead a few decades to meeting up with Kelly, who was part of my grade 10 theatre class. She was blonde and pretty and could easily pass for 18 years old when she was 15 years old and was a welcome guest at any party where somebody was needed buy beer without an age of majority card. She left the school at the end of grade 11 and I was heartbroken in a platonic sort of way – she had been one of a small cadre of friends in first year, which had felt very long and eventful, and she was wrapped up with all of the problems in the year that followed.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Roger Ebert

Lifted directly from Wikiquote, but wouldn't change a word.

"Rob Schneider took offense when Patrick Goldstein of the Los Angeles Times listed [2004's] Best Picture nominees and wrote that they were "ignored, unloved, and turned down flat by most of the same studios that ... bankroll hundreds of sequels, including a follow-up to Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, a film that was sadly overlooked at Oscar time because apparently nobody had the foresight to invent a category for Best Running Penis Joke Delivered by a Third-Rate Comic."

Schneider retaliated by attacking Goldstein in full-page ads in Daily Variety and the Hollywood Reporter. In an open letter to Goldstein, Schneider wrote: "Well, Mr. Goldstein, I decided to do some research to find out what awards you have won. I went online and found that you have won nothing. Absolutely nothing. No journalistic awards of any kind. ... Maybe you didn't win a Pulitzer Prize because they haven't invented a category for Best Third-Rate, Unfunny Pompous Reporter Who's Never Been Acknowledged by His Peers..." As chance would have it, I have won the Pulitzer Prize, and so I am qualified. Speaking in my official capacity as a Pulitzer Prize winner, Mr. Schneider, your movie sucks."

Roger Ebert (1942 - 2013)

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