Monday, March 31, 2008


i've been working with some people on an event to commemorate the vriend decision. as you probably know, the vriend decision is the 1998 supreme court case ruling that read sexual orientation into the alberta human rights act and the canadian charter. it's a major landmark for queers in alberta: it's our stonewall.

but it means even more than that, at least to me. and to explain it, i want to tell you about the world of alberta 10-15 years ago. which is another way of warning you that this is a serious post. we're back in the room with the sonograph, and the tech has turned on the political augmentation. no doubt my account is dopplerized, but this is history from the heart.

i started my job at the UofA in 1993. between the time i interviewed (dec 1992) and the time i started (july 93), ralph klein was elected premier of alberta. between my first paycheque and my second, his government implemented punitive 21% across-the-board funding cuts to health, education, and social services. i say that so trippingly i forget to absorb it. take a look at your latest bank deposit. then lop off a fifth of it and try to pay your bills. that's a 21% cut. now imagine trying to run a school, a hospice, or a suicide prevention program without that fifth.

it took me years to understand what it meant to start my career under those demoralizing circumstances. indeed, it took me years -- five of 'em -- to bring home again the salary i started with that first month. more significant than the money itself is the way being under-waged distorts your sense of reality and erodes your sense of worth. it's one of the problems plaguing artists in canada, where we support art but not artists. it puts you in the position of having to argue, over and over again, that what you do has social value. having to argue for the value of art, or teaching, or crisis prevention is like having to argue that women deserve to be treated like human beings: if you have to start there.... after a while, those arguments just grind you down. you accept de-skilling. if you're an artist, you take the canada council recommended $125 for a reading, even if you have to fly across the country and miss three days' work to do it. if you're a professor, you pay for your own long distance calls. if you're a nurse, you teach people how to change their own catheter and watch them hobble out of the hospital.

worst -- most pernicious -- of all, you become so inured to the way things are that you forget they could be different.

what i want to convey is the emotional consequences of those klein cuts: the sense of collective despair we felt. it wasn't just a matter of the deterioration we faced in our individual workplaces and homes. it was the society we suddenly found ourselves living in. virtually every day we albertans were subject to hearing terrible things about the poor, women, artists, students, intellectuals and queers -- despicable things, hateful things, from our elected representatives. teachers were fat cats with too much holiday, people on AISH were scammers, the homeless were lazy. women should be happy they are allowed to work at all. got an addiction? a mental illness? here's a bus ticket to BC. kindergarten? who needs it.

things were being torn down so rapidly that you didn't know where to turn first. increased class sizes, decreased salaries, increased patient loads, decreased insurance coverage, increased violence, decreased intervention programs. one day we came to work and discovered that the alberta government had closed the dentistry school. the dean himself learned about this from the newspaper. never mind that it's the only dentistry school in western canada. never mind that it's a major source of dental work for people throughout northern alberta. it was just summarily struck out of existence. students started working 20, 25 and 30 hours a week to keep up with exponentially rising tuition. professors worked unpaid days, while avoiding (at least i did) desperate pleas from the development office. food banks ran out of food. did you catch that?: food banks ran out of food. it was all so very, very evil that we could not stand undismayed. we stood dismayed, and bewildered, and exhausted, and terrorized.

and for the most part, we stood alone. on the one hand, this is alberta's fault. call it alberta pride, alberta separatism, alberta exceptionalism, alberta fear (of falling short, of being found out, of being called out, of not being the centre of anything, of not being toronto), but we've never been very good at initiating liaisons and inviting solidarity. on the other hand, the rest-of-canada has to share the blame. nothing's easier or more fun to despise, neglect and gloat over than alberta.

so when the vriend decision was announced on april 2, 1998, it was momentous not just for queers (though certainly that), but for the possibility that something, anything could be different, more hopeful, than it had been. i cried for many reasons that day, but one was relief at the fact that the rest of canada had not forsaken us. i know this sounds pompous, inflated and precious. but that's how it felt to me: we were not forsaken. we couldn't do it alone, that much was clear by 1998, and suddenly we didn't have to. my country was not going to stand back and let alberta turn into a bullies' backwater.

everybody went to the leg that day. the news spread around campus by whispers and then shouts. (remember, it's 1998: no texting.) it was sunny and chill, as i recall, a spring day in every sense. all afternoon the high level bridge undulated north as people came in pairs, in groups, by the dozen and alone to stand on the legislative grounds. there were speeches, i know, and lots of cheering by the roused rabble, but when i think back to the day itself, it unfolds silently, in strange slow motion. i stood with my back up against mo, her arms around me, and we watched the crowd grow. the nurses came. the raging grannies came. the ATA was there before we were. we ran into friends and colleagues who looked as dazed as i felt, and happy. there was a lot of hugging. it was an incredible day.

that day wasn't the end of it. things got worse, rhetorically, before they got better. but one of the reasons i'll be attending next sunday's commemoration is that 2 april 1998 represents the day i learned that you can never give up on hope. it's the germ of social justice.

vriend commemoration:
sunday 6 april, 1:30-3:30
edmonton city hall
free and open to all

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Seduced by feminism

i was talking last night with my friend susanne about becoming a feminist. the setting was ironic, perhaps: we were at a fashion show with chic girls and pretty boys in their irritatingly early 20s. my modern vintage t-straps had me in agony, which i thought would be sexier than it was. i didn't realize that at this fashion show we'd be standing all night, and i didn't realize that "all night" would be as long as it was. when the invite said doors at 7, i thought that meant show at 8, so i had my friend renee pick me up at 7:30. suffice it to say, we pretty much opened the party. and so, here i was, three hours later, with pain radiating up and down my spine and the mortifying thought that i was going to have to take my shoes right off, as if i was at a wedding reception in a community hall and not at a fashion show at an independent gallery.

anyway, having chosen the best boy-outfit and the best girl-outfit, having outed the boots that were trying too hard and exhausted the treats table, talk turned to whether we'd ever imagined a career in the fashion industry. me, i grew up idolizing long-haul truck drivers. susanne's parents, it turns out, were in the high-end retail business in germany. the upshot was the same: neither of us fancied a career in fashion, both of us became professors. but was style absent? susanne described her first women's studies prof, a redhead the same age as her mother but who wore black leather, played in a rock band, and dated women. even by the standards of 1980s berlin, she was cool.

i was similarly seduced by the lifestyle of the intellectual class. i graduated from high school in 1984 here in edmonton and headed straight to university. i had figured out by that point that i wanted to teach. i didn't care for children and barely survived junior high the first time around, but perhaps i could become a professor. it must be said that in 1984 i had no idea what "being a professor" meant. nonetheless, as soon as i hit on this idea, i knew it was for me. i imagined long periods of reflective study punctuated by socrates-like sessions with devotees; i saw fierce arguments in smoky bars; i pictured myself toiling away on a misunderstood masterpiece all alone in a garrett. we didn't have garretts in edmonton, as far as i knew, so this life would pretty much have to take place elsewhere, probably toronto. once i was a feminist, my imagination became sharper: i imagined coming home after a long day in the library to a tiny apartment redolent with garlic and steamy with pasta, all made by my live-in boyfriend. what can i say? it was the 80s; we ate a lot of pasta, and "common-law" felt radical. i'm getting ahead of myself a little, but it's a measure of my misplaced idealism that i most wanted to become a grad student after reading margaret atwood's the edible woman.

from my vantage point as an eager undergraduate, my professors' lives did appear to conform to my dreamy notions. it's about 1986, a saturday night, and my boyfriend and i are milling around in the now-defunct weinlos books, attending a reception for a visiting poet. i can't remember who it was now -- bp nichol, perhaps. anyway, the talk was all about the canadian long poem. talk? arguments, impassioned ones, among poets, professors, book merchants, and grad students. i didn't have the first clue how to participate in the conversation, but i covertly purchased a copy of the 1979 long poem anthology that night and set to work on it. the book was edited by michael ondaatje, the "early michael ondaatje," we have to say now, the ondaatje of coming through slaughter and there's a trick with a knife i'm learning to do. ondaatje's always been sexy, but he used to be our very own pretty boy.

however, not even michael ondaatje was as sexy as mid-80s canadian feminism. in those heady days, women's studies was just being established at the UofA. in keeping with feminism's commitment to inclusiveness, undergraduates were encouraged to get involved in the hiring decisions. we didn't have the first clue what we were doing. there was a fantastic quebecoise up for the job of chair whose expertise was labour movements among immigrant seamstresses in montreal, but we collectively pooh-poohed that in favour of the candidate who studied Women's Spirituality. c'mon: woman-centred spirituality? for a girl just five years out of braemar baptist church, that was pretty bold. though i didn't use that term exactly. "hers is a more gynocentric approach," i recall saying, knowingly.

anyway, of all the exciting things going on, nothing was more exciting than the book launch for shirley neuman's anthology a mazing space. to give you a sense of how long ago this was, the gerund was not yet ubiquitous in academic titles. there are images of clam shells and spirals superimposed on the pages of the book, which was designed by one of shirley's husbands. can i say that again?: one of shirley's husbands. she was like edmonton's elizabeth taylor. most scandalously of all, there's an essay in the book called "how the cunt lost its tongue." i was agog. "cunt"? in an academic book? you can do that? it was the linguistic equivalent of susanne's teacher's punk haircut.

the launch of a mazing space was held at garneau books (now a high-end CD store). it was the first book launch i'd ever been invited to, and i had no idea what to expect. i thought for sure it would take the whole evening. i thought there would be a formal program. i thought it might be like the symphony, with dignitaries, speeches. i was quite surprised to discover that a book launch amounted to a whole lot of wine-drinking and milling about. kind of like a fashion show, come to think of it, only i was wearing doc martens. these people -- my people -- were so blase about the intellectual life that they could squander it in small talk and boxed wine.

nothing could have seduced me more.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Rant: earth hour

don't forget to plug in your cell phone this aft and charge up your laptop. you might even want to set an alarm for 7:30 so that you have time to make yourself a nice tall organic free trade decaf soy latte before the big moment:

'cause at 8 pm the world turns off the lights for Earth Hour.

i've tried not to write this post, my new thing being to practice hope instead of cynicism, but the glib self-congratulatory brouhaha about earth hour has so nauseated me that i can't help it. don't get me wrong, i love the WWF (no, not that one, the other WWF), but this change-the-world-through-candelit-yoga idea turns me off. according to the earth hour homepage, the point is to "make a statement" about climate change. hmmmm, what statement would that be: we heart climate change? bring it on? or maybe the point isn't the content of the statement, but to raise awareness of climate change. you know, among the unfortunate cretins who've spent their whole life in a media deprivation tank.

why do i feel so strongly? first, because it's hard not to see this as an attack on working people. the event offers a handy trade: for a small inconvenience on a saturday evening when you wouldn't be doing much of anything anyway since the kids, thank god, are in bed, we'll assuage your white liberal consumerist guilt. (i'm sure christian lander will be blogging about it momentarily.) but what about the servers whose shift at the restaurant you're frequenting becomes exponentially more difficult when they have to fetch your dinner in the dark? what about the janitors who will, what, schlep mops and buckets up the stairs of those dark highrises? -- oh, no, that's right: they just extend their workday by an hour. here's a news flash: poor people are not at the root of the global warming problem.

more importantly, global warming -- or "climate change," as i gather we're calling it now, politely -- is not a moral issue. for an excellent discussion of this, see Michael Specter's article in the 25 feb new yorker. tempting though it is to mock the massive wastefulness of north american suburban life (don't get caught driving your navigator to earth-hour yoga etc), i'm not going to do that because there's just no end to the finger-pointing. sure, we should all do our bit to take the bus more often and switch to compact fluorescent bulbs, but let's not start thinking that buying agribiz-produced organic strawberries in january makes us better people. it makes us lucky.

the most pernicious aspect of earth hour is that it encourages people to believe that the solutions to global warming are simple, and they're not. we don't even have a handle on the full complexity of the problem yet. here's an idea. if you don't heart climate change, lobby your governments to put more money into research and development. not just research into the miraculous promises of nanotechnology, but curiosity-driven research across the sciences and significantly beyond. if consciousness-raising is part of the game, canada council is going to need a lot more money to support the leslea krolls of our world (see yesterday's post). you're also going to want to fund philosophers, economists, sociologists, cultural studies experts, anthropologists, industrial designers and people who know something about children and families -- how about feminists? -- 'cause if we're even going to begin addressing the consumption end of this, we have got to rethink childhood. ever seen the waste created by a grade-school birthday party? although i'm no expert in this, i'm thinking it might be time to put a few more resources into, say, mandarin or hindi too. what i'm trying to emphasize here is that global warming is a problem with social, cultural, scientific, economic and behavioral facets, and finding solutions to it is going to require all the imagination we can command.

as for me tonight, i'm attending a fashion show by a local designer at latitude 53. there will be lights of all kinds: spots and strobes, tracklighting and candles. a DJ will be using an embarrassing amount of electricity to pump the space with music, and the caterers will burn fossil fuels to keep the food hot. but don't worry, i'll turn the lights off when i leave the house. i always do.

Friday, March 28, 2008


leslea kroll is one of my favorite playwrights. i've never known anyone who can so skillfully hear what language does. her new play, swallow, meditates on tar sands and ivory gulls, migrant workers and loneliness, dormancy and dreams, the resilience of sisters and the fragility of -- well, teeth, lungs, eyes, eggs: all of it. this play is smart, tender, and cutting and, in case that wasn't enough, it sneaks in a lyrical little bit o'marx. eileen sproule directs, rebecca sparr and laura rabound act (and wow, do they), dave clarke does a fantastic sound design.

swallow is playing at azimuth theatre through sunday. $15 or pay-what-you-can. for more, check out the preview in vue.


so i have to do revisions to this article that i initially wrote over three years ago. eh, academic presses are slow. i understand that the lag is not the fault of the editors. still, after three years it's hard to cast my mind back to where it needs to be in order to revise it properly. so i have been putting it off. and off and off and off.

i printed out the paper and the editors' comments back in early december, when they first got in touch with the green light from the press. then i stacked four other projects on top of it, just so i wouldn't have to look at it. but it turns out it's not the visual that matters; it's the sound. the paper scolds me in the middle of the night, it yells at me when i shuffle through other stuff on my desk, and it takes over my mouth in conversations. seriously: a student of mine asked recently what i was up to over the weekend. i named a few things, then said casually, to see whether i could trick myself into it, "oh, and there's this paper i have to revise..." she didn't miss a beat. "that's not the same paper you were talking about last time we met, is it?" oh god. really? "the one you were working on before you went to switzerland?" really? i believe i even mentioned this article in a previous blog, the one about ironing. it's all part of a well-intentioned if desperate attempt to embarrass myself into doing it. and yet?

and yet, i have become the person i hate. oh, i know that person very well; i'm trying to motivate her to contribute to a collection of essays that i'm putting together. it's karmic. as an editor, all i want is to know where the paper is at, how it's developing, how the revisions are coming along. i write politely, then curtly, then i facebook her. when she still doesn't write back, i key an awful, smarmy email that is really a threat: "i know that my last few notes to you have gone unanswered. i promise that if you don't respond to this one we'll stop harassing you about this collection. but...."

that's my outbox. over in my inbox -- well, i can't really say what's going on in my email inbox, 'cause as of this week, having missed a deadline of 7 january, and another of 10 february, and a personally-imposed-absolutely-cannot-be-broken deadline of 29 february, then easter weekend, when for sure-for sure i'd do it, i have actually begun to avoid my email. i simply opened a gmail account with an address the editors don't have, and i conduct my business there.

of course, there is an upside to all this procrastination. you wouldn't believe how many other things i've got accomplished. it's not just that the house is vacuumed and the shredding up to date. no, this procrastination is much worse than the usual make a pot of tea and ensure all the pencils are sharpened. this week alone, i have organized a multi-day symposium for 35 people, replenished a steering committee of 12, taken on a special job for the UofA president, organized a commemoration for the tenth anniversary of the vriend vs alberta decision -- and that's just the work. i've been so abject that i've actually looked into my finances, an endeavour that reliably gives me a pain right ... here. i've renewed magazine subscriptions, subscribed to "stuff white people like," repotted an ailing jade plant, mailed a change of address form to alberta health care, phoned my dentist, emailed my trainer, streamlined my facebook groups, and filed my taxes.

and i've caught up on my blog.

now what??

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Shopper or buyer

it all started because we needed cardamom. everybody knows that the best indian spices in edmonton come from mill woods. so off we went. mo's been interested in cars for a while; holiday monday seemed like a good time to test-drive one; there was a good deal at a shop in mill woods and another test-drive possibility on the way; so off we went.

the jeep liberty was certainly pretty. and virtually new. and a great price. it drove well. afterward, she said she needed some time to think. i said fine, you smoke on it; i'm going next door to pick up some cardamom.

you know how it is at a spice store. you (i) have to look at everything and take in all the smells (what is that -- oh, fenugreek!), make sure you're getting the freshest bag of coriander, compare the jamaican curry powder to the english -- well, it takes some time. and i was thrilled, just over the moon, that they had bolst's curry powder. i don't know whether it's actually good or whether i am just nostalgic about it, but i debated a long time over whether to buy a ginormous tin of bolst's or a modest package of turban brand jamaican curry. then in a stroke of genius and good luck, i snagged a package of crushed chilis on my way out: an item mo had just the day before noticed we were out of.

anyway, it was probably a good ten minutes before i got back to her, hoisting my bag of spices with pride. but before i could tell her anything, she had a little something of her own to tell me. "i bought carda--" i started to say, when she uncharacteristically cut me off. "i bought a jeep." "you what?" "yup."

it was exactly the right move: the right vehicle at the right price on a good day. but i am still floored. admittedly, she's been looking at jeeps online for a few weeks and she's needed a new car for a while. the justy is trusty and lusty, but 15 years old and short a coupla struts. let's just say that the trade-in deal on the justy had money travelling from mo to the dealership.

but to drive two cars and buy the second one? i debate longer than that over a pair of tights (anna sui tights, if you must know, and yes i did eventually hit the "buy now" button). i don't like to spend too much and i don't like to acquire things i don't actually want or need. i'm a true materialist, so every acquisition matters. as a result, i keep my amazon cart open for weeks. i hem and haw and put things on hold. in short, i'm a proper shopper.

this "buying" thing? whole other ball game.

Sunday, March 23, 2008


there's no parking on our street this morning, so packed is the road with easter sunday churchgoers.

i kind of understand the impulse, even though i've sworn off christianity for the sake of my mental wellbeing and dignity. of all church services of the year, easter sunday was the best, even if you did have to get up early. then again, everyone with kids was up early anyway. i used to lie in bed on easter morning preparing myself for the possibility that the easter bunny might not have come after all, just to intensify that thrill of lilac raffia and big easter rabbits that i fervently hoped were solid.

church felt as right as it ever did at the sunrise service. celebrating while the sun rose made the event thrillingly pagan -- not that we used that language -- and people tended to be in a good mood. even sour mrs donelon (RIP, killed in a horrific car accident just last fall) said hello to the teenagers. the campbells, tanned and lined, would be back from wintering in arizona, talking flamboyantly and, we felt, a bit pridefully about the snowbird life. roslyn hanchard, the prettiest girl at church, would have a new hat and kim mabbott, the doctor's daughter, would be wearing a whole new outfit. the doctor's entire family would come to braemar on easter sunday, looking very well dressed and just a bit uncomfortable. did they know, then, that jim would end his career in disgrace? for the most part we put the knives away on easter sunday, welcoming even the pastor's hippie daughter who had a child out of wedlock (we did use that phrase, "out of wedlock") and, worse, was whispered to be "a vegetarian!" in a good year the weather would be warm enough that we'd be able to wear white sandals instead of brown boots, our reinforced-toe nylons poking through.

easter music was always the best. not even braemar baptist's lugubrious congregation could turn "and can it be / that i should gain" into a dirge (though i've just done a quick internet search to remind myself of the lyrics, and i see that some can). in the early 1980s my friend sylvia and i would play the descant on our flutes, standing as close as possible to the musically talented carmichael family who would sing soprano, alto, tenor and bass. dimpled betty-mae macdonald, whose daughter wore enviable black-and-white saddle shoes that, she told us confidently, were Orthopedic, was another singer, with a sweet pure voice that ascended to the heavens.

after the service there would be food -- refreshments, they were called. the plain ladies, the widows and those who couldn't sing would spend the service in the church kitchen plating dainties and slices contributed by the hospitality committee, so that when we all trooped back to the church gym after the service we could hold the sugar crash at bay for another few hours.

the very best part about easter sunday? you were set free by 10:00 am.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Ironing bored

today i did the ironing.

wait! don't click off until i explain. i hate ironing. not just like i hate the war in iraq or the urinous taste of brussels sprouts. i mean, i really really loathe it.

the mystery is that everything i know about myself suggests that i should like ironing. i am a neatnik, a clean freak, a perfectionist. i approve of HGTV shows that depict clutter as a moral failing, and -- yes, let me be honest: i judge the unkempt. moreover, when i'm around ironing, i love its sensuousness: the smell of hot clean cotton, the rush of steam to the face, the visual pleasure of sharp sleeve creases lined up at the ready for another week of work. i love being around someone else who's ironing. but as for me? i'd rather peel the skin off the soles of my feet.

ironing is, in our household, The Job That No One Loves and therefore The Job That No One Does. oh, for an ironing dobby! happily for me in most respects, my mo is a laundry fetishist. alas, her pleasures stop when the dryer buzzes. she doesn't even really like folding and putting away, though she does them. but when it comes to ironing: well, we have a doorknob where we hang the wrinklies for weeks that turn into months at a time. and when that spot fills up, we find another. and another.

oh, of course i've taken the easy route out and sent clothes to the cleaners. but ever since i saw a TV special on how women get charged 50% more than men for the same garments, i've been on strike against dry cleaners. i could just hire people to press our clothes, i suppose, but it strikes me as inconceivably decadent. what's next: bellhops? no, i'm not valet-parking people.

periodically mo, ever optimistic that all we need is the right tool, comes home with a new clothes steamer. "have you seen them using these in the stores?," she'll ask, pumped. "it's amazing. all you do is plug it in, leave it for 40 minutes, then fill the little cavity with distilled water gathered from the desert floor, then leave it for another 25 minutes, then hang your shirt or whatever on this pole -- we don't have a pole like that but we'll get one -- and then you run the steamer down the front of the shirt or whatever for, like, twenty minutes, cast this spell (don't worry, there's a DVD) and the wrinkles fall right out! it was advertised on TV." i can tell already that this gadget will go the way of the Flowbee and the BetaMax, but for one brilliant second, i get a hint of what it might be like to live A Life Without Ironing, and i let myself get excited too.

i've done many shameful things to avoid ironing (two words: permanent press) but by far the worst was dating a psychopath with a military background. hey, those air force girls know how to iron! when i realized her stories about sexual abuse were made up -- can there be a more despicable act? -- i rationalized that she'd see the errors of her ways eventually. and wasn't it kind of a fair trade: me, guiding her to feminist consciousness, she filling the closet with crisp clean clothes? even when i discovered she was cheating with my then-best friend, my indignation was tempered by nostalgia for perfect plackets.

i've tried tricking myself into ironing, and goading myself, berating, seducing, and annoying myself into it. sometimes i'll set up the ironing board right on laundry day. the rule is: no taking it down til the ironing is done. amazingly, for a person who can't stand storing the toaster on the kitchen counter, i discover the capacity to step around the ironing board in the middle of the bedroom, the living room, the hall. then i give up, fold it away and store it -- wait, where do we store the ironing board?

my latest tactic is to break up the task into small bits. iron one shirt, check my email. iron another, and i get to go to the gym, watch mo play a hockey game, try out a new curry recipe, catch up with my friends in the pacific northwest, and blog a little. now that this post is drawing to a close, i can see the evening stretching flatly out in front of me.

oh, but wait, i have that hateful academic article to revise. okay, let's say those are my options. i can iron or i can edit.

this should be interesting.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Venial equinox

it's the vernal equinox, halfway from the depths of winter to the height of summer. in a nice coincidence, christians are marking good friday. it's persian new year. feels like all the world's engaging in meaningful ceremonies to mark the passage of time, death and rebirth, the end of one cycle and the beginning of another.

well, i have a l'il ceremony of my own. i call it putting away the winter boots.

oh, chie, you are a temptress. i don't know whether it's your cosmopolitan background, your just-nerdy-enough internship with a podiatrist, your sassy designs or your gorgeous colors but i tell you what: i fell in love instantly. i would have bought your boots even if i couldn't stand in them. but when i slipped them on ... oh,

it wasn't like that for us, was it? i'm ashamed -- now -- to say that i didn't even notice you at first. it took mo's keen eye to hook us up. but you were so understanding that you became the go-to boot this winter. skirts, jeans, dresses: nothing flummoxed you. and yes, yes, you could go on through the spring and perhaps even the summer (this is alberta, after all) but .... well .... the seasons are moving on, and so am i.

remember how i thought i could get through a 9-day trip to london on two pairs of shoes? trooping through chelsea i thought my feet would perish, my knees would give in, my back would crack. i found you, little no-name diesel knock-offs, in a little no-name store and thought i could fly. rest well -- you've earned it -- and i'll see you next year.

in their forties, people are meant to be learning all sorts of things about themselves. what i am learning is: i love boots.

i can hardly wait to see what the easter bunny has in store:

Thursday, March 20, 2008


if you're sitting around this long weekend staring glumly at a pile of grading, a great way to procrastinate while raising the intellectual tenor of the grunt work in front of you is to read jay teitel's essay in the new walrus: it's called "failure to fail" and i recommend it for lots of reasons, and not just 'cause he quotes me using rather robust language. (note to self: stop swearing during phone interviews.)

the article is great for the way it records a tuition-payer's stunned astonishment that students never fail. those of us in the biz forget to be astonished. we know it's really hard for a student to fail. i mean, hard to fail a student. i mean .... well, both. there are lots of reasons for this. jay teitel is just recording a phenom, so he doesn't give them. but worry not, dear reader. today's blog will give you

three good reasons students don't fail.

1. good sound pedagogy: especially in the humanities, and especially with skills-based subjects like writing, more work is sometimes better work. a student will learn more by rewriting an essay than by failing it. how do you motivate students -- who are busy, savvy people -- to do more work?: offer more grades. incidentally, grading rewritten essays is rarely rationalized in an instructor's workload. when students don't fail, it's partly because teachers work so bloody hard to help them learn.

2. disciplinary flux: if we don't know what it would mean to fail, it's party b/c we don't know what it would mean to pass in a discipline thrashing about like a spawning salmon. take english, for instance. do you fail someone who can't write a grammatical sentence? doesn't understand french philosophy? didn't participate enough in class discussion? got too many wrong answers on the pop quizzes? didn't offer useful observations in a peer writing group? anyone who skips class *and* writes poorly *and* misunderstands the readings *and* opts out of discussion fails. but what about the student who performs solidly in most aspects but badly in a couple? or poorly in nearly all but spectacularly in one?

3. greater cultural sensitivity: yeah, that's an odious phrase. you're right to choke on its self-righteousness. but what i want to convey here is that in the olden days, "you didn't meet the standards" was all too frequently code for "you couldn't crack the white/middle class/genteel/north american/male-centered codes." university degrees remain a great economic equalizer, battered though this social role is by ever-downloaded costs onto "consumers." when students don't fail it's in part because we've worked hard to make curricula, expectations and environments more inclusive.

i'm on the side of passing students. i'm on the side of students who want to learn -- in my experience, the majority (though i hasten to add that i don't teach a lot of compulsory intro courses, which is where the really hard work lies). when i inherit a student in my class who can't structure an essay/tell the difference between its and it's/locate the library on a campus map, my first inclination, of course, it to wonder how the hell she passed so-and-so's intro course. but then i remind myself that not everybody aces every class. some folks pass with a D.

before i go, i have to excoriate one utterly bogus reason given for why students don't fail. call it a mini-rant.

what is this conviction that universities want students to repeat courses because of the tuition money they'll make? universities do not make nearly enough tuition out of any given student for that to make any sense. i know: tuition is expensive -- too expensive, i think. but your $5K still represents well under 25% of the actual cost of a year's university education. if the university was just aiming to be lean and mean, we'd fail way more students, as early in the year as possible -- say, a day after the no-tuition-back add/drop deadline. c'mon, people: use yer noggin!

but that's enough from me. those papers on your desk ain't gonna grade themselves.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Bad ideas

i called in fat to a meeting today. okay, i did have a minor scheduling conflict but i thought i might make it back in time for the wine and cheese. however, when i went to get dressed, i couldn't find anything to wear. i am still too big for all of my spring outfits, and i am bored bored bored with the two skirts that fit.

although i have a theoretical commitment to getting my body back in the right way, through sensible eating and regular exercise, and although i know intellectually that three weeks is not a long time to be off effexor, all of that means precisely nothing when i'm standing in my closet unable to zipper my trousers. what i think then is not "just be patient, you're on the right track," or "you gained this weight two pounds per month and you'll lose it just as slowly," or "it's what's on the inside that counts." nope. what i think then is: i should find myself a good crystal meth dealer. ever seen a fat junkie?

happily, i can recognize this as a Bad Idea. there are things that just happen to have hideous consequences, things you can't do anything about, like the time in grade 8 when i mistook the family garbage for my bookbag and carried it to school. what makes a bad idea a Bad Idea is being able to foresee its consequences and doing it anyway.

anyway, this latest notion puts me to mind of several other Bad Ideas i've had in my life, such as:

-- signing up for timeshare info using my real phone number

-- forgetting it was halloween and wearing my spiffy red-and-white outfit to school (red pants, a red doo-rag, a red-and-white gingham shirt, a red leather bowtie and red North Stars)

-- the pyramid scheme all my toronto friends were getting rich on

-- getting my hair done at a joint called "salon dada"

-- mixing peach schnapps with gin and scotch and then, in an effort to mask the breath (i was in junior high), peanut butter

-- flipping the bird at that guy in a pick-up truck in a mcdonald's parking lot

-- playing the second half of a soccer game after tearing my ACL in the first half

-- that "shortcut" in the bugaboos, in the august snow

-- raw eggplant canapes.

then again, i lived through all of those, didn't i? and i just heard about this new product called "herbal magic" that promises to melt away pounds. that can't hurt, can it?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Dear diary

it's happened and, i will admit, a little sooner than i'd like. i'm out of things to say. when i started this blog, two weeks ago, i decided that i wouldn't become one of those bloggers who tells aggressively dull stories about everyday life just for the sake of writing daily. ("i got the electricity bill today and i can't believe what they charge for power!") nope, not me. i scorned those bloggers. i sniffed through my upturned nose, muttering dismissive things about the unexamined life.

then i hit a dry spell, two days in a row in which, honestly, nothing much has happened. nothing much happened yesterday, and nothing much has happened today. i've been ticking along, body mind and spirit, but without very much of anything coming to mind -- or body -- or spirit.

the terrifying prospect is that this blog will shape up like the diary i kept in grade 4. you know this diary; maybe you had one too. mine was purple with extravagant silver script on the front cover announcing itself: DIARY. it had a little lock and key built right in. the second i saw my diary -- christmas day, 1974 -- i knew that i would hide its tiny key in my trinket box, really a turquoise handkerchief box that housed all my other treasures, like the suede badges my friend mette and i made for our secret club, an embossed candy tin from some long-devoured lemon drops, and a silver dollar from my grampie. i would have kept the key in a jewelry box with a pop-up ballerina, only i didn't have one of those. (my sister did. of course.) jealousy aside, i was actually very fond of my trinket box, principally because of the word "trinket." everything -- a tiny skateboard from a cereal box, a barbie shoe gone solo, the bookmark i earned in sunday school, my first fortune-cookie fortune -- everything automatically became precious when it went into the trinket box, when it became, by virtue of that act, a trinket.

anyway, the diary. the second i laid eyes on it, i vowed that i would start living a life worthy of my purple DIARY. moreover, i would record that life faithfully. i fancied myself a bit of an anne frank, or perhaps what anne frank might have been like if she hadn't been hiding from the nazis in frankfurt but growing up in edmonton in the mid-1970s with her very own trinket box.

sadly, my life did not stand up to the grandeur of my DIARY. there are pages and pages of nothingness punctuated by valiant stabs at the examined life. of these, my favorite is the one from a tuesday in march, which reads, in its entirety:

Today was boring. I ate too many vegetables.

when i think about my nine-year-old self writing that entry, i imagine a thoughtful pause between the first and second sentences. i watch myself penning the first, using my very best handwriting which, no matter what, never matches my mother's neat little lines. i draw a little circle over the i, and ever so carefully i grind in a full stop. then there is a pause, while i ponder what else i can say. it's an important moment. i'm making good on a promise to myself. the habit-forming practice of self-discipline is, literally, on the line. i can make meaning of my life. i can do this.

no matter how many times i have thought about it -- and during the intervening three decades i've wondered rather a lot -- i cannot for the life of me recall or imagine what i thought i was adding with that second sentence. the line is so nakedly desperate i can't stand looking at it. quick, turn the pages of my DIARY to the many blanks that follow. look away from that nine-year-old girl overcome, already, by a life of tuesdays. imagine all the wonderful things that must be happening the following week, and the week after that, and the week after that. i must be riding my bike in the sudden spring melt, taking pottery class at the downtown art gallery, making an uncrackable secret code, reading nancy drew, designing new platform shoes for mrs nemirsky, whose fluid backhand penmanship on my report cards makes me swoon. that's what tuesdays in march are all about. who has time to write?

(but just before i leave, and for you, heather-at-nine: we had stir-fry for dinner. it was good.)

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Confession from the yoga mat

the worst part of every yoga class is, hands down, the breathing. i understand the theory behind it. i'm a teacher too: you always need some sort of transition from the world beyond to the task at hand. and when it comes to bodywork, and especially the spirit-infused bodywork of yoga -- well, breathing just makes sense. of course you start with the breath.

but i gotta tell you, i hate it.

it's not like i don't try. i cross my legs and straighten my back. i allow my shoulders to relax and my chest to rise. i feel my spine like a long string of pearls. i close my eyes. i visualize The Breath of Life, i ponder the miracle of the pulmonary system (not in those terms, i use appropriately mystical terminology), and i feel:


everybody else in the class seems serene. focused. even occasionally transported. i know, because i peek. they love to breathe. they groove on it. their bellies fill and their bellies empty and sometimes they smile. they feel at one with the universe. meanwhile, over on my purple mat, things are not going well. my feet are cramping. my anklebones hurt. my neck is stiff and i'm trying not to fart. worst of all, this breathing is having exactly the opposite mental effect than it's supposed to. instead of dwelling in the present, i'm becoming panicky about the future. i can't help listing the number of important things i could be doing with this time. a reckless multi-tasker, i generally breathe while i answer emails. you know, simultaneously.

when we finally, finally start to move, it's a relief beyond words. gingerly i unpretzel myself and before i know it, i'm lost in the bodywork. is there anything more satisfying than a really challenging pose? i'm amazed that i can wring out an inner organ, recalibrate my skeleton, and hover just a few inches off the ground on a good chaturanga day. i find relief in the exertion, and knowledge. every once in a while i get a bodily glimpse of what an asana is supposed to be like -- what it's supposed to "do" -- and i comprehend from the inside out. realization doesn't come at me in the usual way, like a cosmic baseball to the head ("suddenly, it hit me!"), but spreads like a pool inside me. i can't even pinpoint an origin. i just get it; i know.

at those glorious moments, the distinction between mind and body shimmies just enough that i can imagine what it might be like to sit quietly and follow my breath.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Mind-body connection

i'm no philosopher, but i was raised cartesian enough to be habituated to a strict distinction between mind and body. "cogito ergo sum" was a way of life -- a way of thinking about life -- long before i knew enough latin to translate it. you'd do things so differently if you believed "i breathe, therefore i am" or "my heart beats, therefore i am" or "being part of a community produces a sense of individual being" (which i don't think has a fancy latin tag, though undoubtedly there's a nice phrase for it in some language).

it's not like there haven't been opportunities to unlearn the subjugation of my body to my mind. for one thing, i suffer migraines. what is a migraine if not a painful reminder that the brain is a bodily organ? likewise, i received one of the best health diagnoses ever from the venerable dr aung, years ago. in chinese medicine, each fingertip represents the function of an inner organ. dr aung clipped a sensor to the end of each finger in turn and together we bent over the hand-held meter to watch the electrical currents register. my lungs, it appeared, were functioning at about 35%, my kidneys struggling for 30% and my liver ticking along at nearly 40. finally we came to the right index finger, connected to the brain, and the dial redlined. "aha!," said dr aung. "you are theenking too mach!"

in spite of all these ... learning opportunities, i remain painfully mental. migrainous. im-patient. unrealistic, idealistic. the connection between mind and body keeps eluding me. however, in this latest diagnosis, vasovagal syncope, i've been given another chance. in fact, i've learned how to name the mind-body connection. it's called the vagus nerve.

from the latin for "wanderer," the vagus nerve runs from brainstem to viscera, branching off at the heart, lungs and stomach along the way. (seriously! and how about this, from our good friends at wikipedia: "research has shown that women who have complete transection of the spinal cord can experience orgasms through the vagus nerve"?) in situations of extreme pain, fear, or anxiety, your vagus nerve causes your heart rate to slow and your blood vessels to dilate. the combination of low blood pressure and blood pooling in your extremities results in fainting. being prone on the ground means that your circulatory system no longer has to fight gravity. blood can circulate back up to the head, so consciousness is restored.

if i understand all of this correctly, it means something like this: physical and emotional distress so taxes the mind-body connection that the normally vagabond nerve centre panics and shuts everything down. fainting -- prostration without consciousness -- is the body's way of recalibrating.

or am i over-analyzing?

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Rant: do-gooder do-nothings

i don't know what it is about professors -- "my people" -- but they just love to hate their jobs. nothing gets us more exercised than bitching about how much we work, under what terrible conditions, for inadequate pay, under such stupid administrators. nothing, that is, except how bad someone else's job is.

i'm on this list, a cultural studies list, where everybody is up in arms over a tenure case at the university of michigan. seems a progressive activist has been denied tenure. sweet jesus above, keep your eyes peeled for horsemen, for the apocalypse must be upon us.

actually, it appears on closer inspection that the tenure decision has not yet been finalized, nor has it been made public. nor has anyone on the cacs list been privy to the full set of documents involved in this case. nonetheless, professors, postdocs and graduate students are all dutifully writing to the provost at michigan to express their outrage at this miscarriage of academic justice. i guess they've never heard the old peter cook and dudley moore sketch on the second world war. "i was against the war," says dud, self-righteously, "i wrote a letter!" i can just see it now, the u-michigan provost calling a special meeting of the tenure and promotion committee: "i know this group has reviewed the materials in the tenure file and has read carefully the letters of experts in the field, and has put this candidate's qualifications against those of other recently tenured professors. but i'd like to draw your attention to a letter i received this morning from an assistant professor at brock university which clearly states -- what? oh, brock university: that's in canada."

people on the cacs list must get less email than i do.

while i'm no pollyanna (yeah, sure i'd like to make more money, work fewer hours, have a bigger office and a faster computer, handpick my students, teach only when inspired, write for fame and glory), and while i don't for a second believe that universities are perfect, i'm normally so busy with issues in my own school and city that i don't have time to involve myself in the obscure, private matters at another. and, yes, they are obscure -- the full facts are not known, and probably never will be, given the confidential nature of tenure cases -- and they are private, for the same reasons of confidentiality.

here's an idea. if you want a better system of tenure, promotion, reward, activism, community service, or collegiality, why not take up an administrative position in your own university? say "yes" the next time someone asks you to serve as an external reviewer. nominate leonard pelletier (or, for that matter, andrea smith) for an honorary doctorate. or help organize the next local/provincial/national election. or tutor a student at an inner-city high school.

you'll have less time to fret on the multi-national listservs, but you might actually make a difference.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Paging doctor zwicker

it's always the small things that do you in. in my case, the hospital gowns. i don't get it: why not make a single, standard robe, the type of garment a person could figure out once and for all? -- the type of robe even someone like me, someone who needed help putting on her own bra yesterday, could master? i stripped down three times today for the final phase of my heart testing, and each time found myself confronted with a poser. for the ECG, the gown appeared to be kimono-style. but how can you have a kimono-style gown with just one tie at the neck? thus i found myself flashing the entire cardio ward in my search for a loo.

down in the x-ray unit, i caught the tech before she left and asked, casually, "anything i need to know about the gown?" "nope!," she said brightly, "just the usual. three arms."

three arms? three frickin' arms? what is this, some kind of joke? i pulled one down off the shelf and, sure enough, the innocuous-looking pale blue gown turned out to be built for a mutant. an ungainlier garment you have never seen. and that's before i put it on.

i'll say this for the cardiac ease clinic at the uofa hospital: they run a helluva shop. my appointments were scheduled for 9:15 (holter monitor removal), 10:00 (ECG), 10:30 (xray) and 11:30 (cardiologist), but i was moved efficiently from ward to ward and was done everything but the consult by 9:50. i wasn't particularly looking forward to an hour and a half of outdated chatelaine, but the cardio unit had other surprises in store. "let's get you set up with a pager," said the receptionist, "and you can go off and get some lunch." i stared. lunch at 10? but also: a pager?? nobody's ever paged me for a literary emergency ("doctor zwicker, doctor zwicker, we have a poetry situation in the humanities centre"), so this felt like a big moment. she passed over a round red disk with a flashing beacon. "it'll work anywhere in the hospital and even over at the tim hortons," she said. seeing my confusion -- have they mistaken me for a real doctor? -- she added, "it works just like the pagers you get at restaurants." no help. but i nodded sagely anyhow.

they didn't page, but i still enjoyed the fantasy that they might. i felt important, sitting next to my little pager. i kept picking it up, just to be sure it was working, then imagined what i'd say if they did page me. i played out the fantasy all the way back to the cardio unit and into the exam room. i was phrasing introductions with the cardiologist: "dr haraphongse? dr zwicker." "dr zwicker! i'm dr haraphongse." handshakes all around, when --

-- when the nurse practitioner interrupted my reverie by suggesting, ever so gently, "you might want to turn that gown around before the doctor comes in."

oh, and the diagnosis? "vasovagal syncope." translation: "you're a fainter." treatment: "if you're going to faint, try to avoid hitting your head."

Monday, March 10, 2008

I don't heart my monitor

first, it's not called a "halter monitor," as i'd supposed, but a "Holter monitor." in my imagination, it was one of those sexy black chest straps that only the buffest boyz at the gym wear, shirtless ostensibly to provide access to their cyborganism but really to show off their abs. that's what i thought i was getting, and i even packed a gym bag, thinking i'd stop for a workout on my way home from the cardiac clinic.

a Holter monitor is a whole other thing. don't get me wrong. i'm not an ingrate. the idea of a rolling ECG is cool. but the thing itself is pinchy and awkward and clunky and really quite ugly. there are seven plastic discs stuck to my chest. each is connected to a medium-gauge wire that measures the electrical signals from my heart. the seven wires, color coded, come together in a flat, wide plug lying against my sternum. the cord coming out the back end of this plug -- and we're talking a pretty heavy cord here, like an extension cord -- goes up around my neck, down my shirt sleeve and into the monitor itself, which is a flat grey institutional box the size of an old-school handycam. this sits in a grey canvas pouch with black neoprene straps that you wear over your shoulder, mailbag style. the contraption makes a fanny pack look chic by comparison.

but wait, you're wondering, what about your bra? indeed. let's just say i puzzled over that one for a bit and eventually called my tech, anne, back behind the curtain for assistance. she had a clever way of threading it up, over and through the various wires, a technique i realized immediately i could never master. and that pretty much put paid to the plan of going to the gym.

for 24 hours, i walk around like barton fink carrying a head around in a box. only in my case, it's my heart i'm wearing on my sleeve.

and yet, even though my heart is right out there for all the world to see, it remains opaque. somewhere inside the box, a digital motherboard is tracking my heart's every modulation, but this record will only be read retrospectively, by an expert, tomorrow. for now, for me, it's the usual guessing game.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Sunday evening pall

if saturday morning is a sun-filled loft, sunday night is a cheesy motel room. the light is poor, but you can still take in all the evidence of your misspent time: suitcases half packed, the toothpaste tube squeezed in the middle, the stale smell of pizza boxes and unfilled promises.

which is to say i didn't build a birdhouse or paint my study, i didn't run and run and run -- i jogged a wee bit, slowly -- and making granola, it turns out, wasn't quite as exciting as i made it sound.

anyway, time's up and i gotta get out of here, or you know what it's like: they start charging you by the hour.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Saturday morning, spring

this, right now, is my favorite moment of the week. i’ve woken up in a sun-filled loft called saturday morning. i’m lying in bed, a hot cup of coffee to my left, a dreaming girl to my right. it’s spring here, at least indoors, and nothing is required of me. i could do anything.

i might paint my study green today. or build myself a bookcase. or run and run and run through the river valley. i might read a book about argentina. there's a pair of disappointed chickadees on the balcony right now, taking a break from househunting and reevaluating their choice of neighbourhood: maybe i’ll fix the birdhouse for them. i might mix up a batch of granola. i’d love to wash the windows, get rid of all that winter dust so we don’t miss a drop of the new spring sunshine. i might take pictures, take a jacuzzi, take myself out for breakfast. or i might nuzzle right back into the duvet and take a nap.

saturday morning shout-outs: to sweet ted, dancing, and his grandma, departing. to beautiful catherine, living. to anthony, reading spivak. to my anonymous new friend D, smiling back at her kidneys. to st city roasters, who did an especially nice job on this pound of ugandan coffee. to all my snowed-in friends in ontario: keep the chocolate handy! to gogol, takin’ it to the streets. to my friends with kids, whose weekend pleasures are so different from mine. to lez grrls (edmonton chapter), who make me laugh. to renee, promoted. to jen, happy birthday, you international woman! and to all the poets who make something beautiful of this day.

Friday, March 7, 2008

The five (dozen) senses

in elementary school, things had numbers and the numbers stayed put. our world was made up of seven continents, five oceans, nine planets, some now-forgotten number of elements on the periodic table (but fewer than 118), and five senses.

once we learned to think metaphorically, we learned about that evasive "sixth sense," but for the most part we were happy with the five handed down to us: sight, sound, smell, taste and touch.

don't you think this list is impoverished? first of all, it draws too neat a distinction among the senses. you've seen gordon ramsay blindfold chefs and then scold them when they can't tell pork from chicken; it makes me want to shake him. buddy, i want to say, sight, like smell, is part of taste. eating, cooking, appreciating: it's a synaesthetic experience.

but the real problem with the mythology of the five senses is what it leaves out. if we agree that a "sense" is a physical experience that negotiates between the world as given and the world as we make meaning of it, here are some new senses that ought to make the grade.

1. sense of touch(2): put your hand on your face. what you feel with your hand -- smooth, hairy, wrinkled, sweaty -- is what's conventionally referred to as touch. but what about the sense of touch from within? what does the face feel like to be touched? how would "touch" be different if we thought as both subject and object?

2. sense of time: the real advantage here is that we could develop a polite language for people like me whose sense of time is, uh, imperfect. i'm the time-sense equivalent of blind.

3. sense of justice: yes, this is an embodied sense. think of rwanda. that ache in your stomach? sense of justice.

4. sense of balance: ever since i started getting the effexor whirlies, my sense of balance has been messed up. i think a lot about what goes into balance. you need proprioception, visual orientation, a balanced sense of hearing (not perfect, just balanced) and probably other things too.

5. sense of danger, aka intuition, gut feeling, hunch: there's as much bodily intelligence here as there is with sight or sound. we just haven't parsed it yet.

that's a start, anyway. what would you add?

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Phantom: a true story from the blood lab

a day with a triumph is a good day. a day with a triumph before 8am is -- well, i don't actually know what that's called, since this was my first.

i underwent a blood test at 7:50 this morning without quaking or shaking, without psyching myself up or psyching myself out, without fainting, without crying. i didn't talk maniacally to the lab techs. i didn't even feel particularly nervous. it was like being someone else and getting a blood test done: utterly uneventful. i went to the clinic, they took my blood, i went home.

it is not always like this for me. last time i did a fasting blood test, i worked hard at not wigging out. granted, i hardly slept the night before, but on my way to the clinic (i'll walk, i thought, that way my blood will be thrumming) i started to get nervous. then anxious. then downright scared. but also -- and this is the fatal part -- impatient. how can a self-respecting, professional, propertied woman in her forties be afraid of a banal lab test?

the lab tech -- chinh, i think her name was, and it must be said, she was lovely and gentle and did not deserve me -- could tell i was nervous because when she said to make a fist i whimpered. it's the worst moment: they ask me to make a fist, and my muscles turn to water. even so, when chinh asked if i'd rather lie down i played the hero: "no, no, i'll be fine." she gave me another chance: "it's really no problem to put you in the room back here, we do it all the time." "oh, don't be silly," i said to her -- i mean, myself, "it doesn't even last very long! go ahead."

you can see where this is going, right? i thought i was fine, i said i was fine, but i wasn't fine. on my way out of the cubicle, i passed out, taking chinh with me. we crashed into a filing cabinet and i smacked my head on the floor.

even then my overwhelming sense was embarassment rather than endangerment -- god, i thought, i'm lying on the floor of a blood lab! this is hardly the image they want to project to the outside world. i struggled to get up and out of there, but the lab techs were wise to me now and forcibly held me down. new patients tiptoed fearfully around me while i tried to look serene. someone got me a juice box and i tried not to dribble while i sipped, prone on the concrete floor.

i had a lump on my head but of course my pride hurt the most. that, and my tender inner elbow. the rest of that morning i found myself splinting my left arm. i reached across my body to shut the car door with my right. i twisted around to reach a glass from the upper shelf just so i could keep my achy left arm tucked close.

what with all the mortification and hoopla, it wasn't until early afternoon that i realized what was wrong with this picture: they took blood from my right arm, not my left. i pulled up the sleeves of my sweater to check. sure enough, there on my right was the telltale tape. my left arm was clean. and here comes the really trippy part: even as i gazed down at my own two arms, i could feel the left one throbbing, while the right felt whole and strong.

welcome to the psychosomatic.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Inner terrain

recently i was lying in bed with my lover, who said something particularly sweet. i said i could feel her words in my heart, and i put my hand over my left breast to show her where. she smiled and said, "you know your heart isn't really there." "are you calling me heartless?," i teased. "no," she said, "really. your heart isn't really on your left. it's pretty much in the middle of your chest, just slightly to one side."

i stared.

"you're kidding, right?" she shook her head. "the middle of your chest? for real?" "uh huh." this was in the olden days, before i'd seen my own heart on an echocardiogram. "well," i said, gamely, "i suppose that makes room for your stomach and your liver." "sweetheart," she said gently, "your liver isn't on the left side of your body." "yes it is!," i argued, foolishly. i never did take biology in high school, but who wants to be wrong twice in the same discussion? besides, it's my body. wouldn't i know?

turns out i didn't know the first thing about how my body was -- literally -- organized. i had all my main bits lined up on the left side like a big club sandwich: heart in front of stomach draining down into spleen sitting on top of the liver until finally digested food got squeezed through my gall bladder (a bulb on a tube) and on down, somehow, to the large and small intestines (which i had backwards). "but what's on your right side, then?," asked mo, gently. i paused. i'd never really thought about my right side. in my imagination, the right side of my torso was just a vast empty space until you got down to the frond of the appendix, waving about prehistorically somewhere in the pelvic basin. "the right kidney?," i suggested, touching my lower back.

turns out the kidneys are more mid-back than lumbar. and your gall bladder intrudes on your liver like the biological equivalent of a dishwasher tablet. we walked through all the organs of my body, me gesturing, mo correcting, until everything was present and accounted for.

at which point, i burst into tears. it's not that i'd been so gobsmackingly ill-informed (though one does have to wonder how a person lives four decades under such misconceptions). it's that it no longer felt like my body. it was like going off to work in the morning whistling dixie and coming home to discover that someone had moved the kitchen next to the bathroom and your bedroom onto the main floor: workable enough, perhaps, but not home.

i've calmed down since and moved back into my organized body. but -- and don't tell mo -- i've flipped my liver and my gall bladder around so that the gall bladder can nestle down into its livery bed. it just feels better that way.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Itchy, bitchy, ditzy

so as i mentioned in my last post, i ran into a bit of a mental health crisis last year. my doctor and i decided effexor (generic name venlafaxine) was the way to go. one of my main symptoms was panic attacks, so an SSNRI (selective serotonin norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor) seemed preferable to an SSRI. i will admit this: at the time, i thought it was the right thing to do. actually, i thought it was absolutely necessary.

my weight had dropped during the crazy summer of '06, and effexor did address that. and then, during the next 11 months, i gained another 30 pounds. i can't imagine how much i'd weigh now if i hadn't been eating properly and working out regularly. effexor got me sleeping again, too: nine hours a night and napping at least once a day, always with lurid dreams. i started fainting. i suffered wicked night sweats -- the kind where i'd have to get up, change my sleeping clothes, and come back to bed with a towel to sleep on.

when i put together a list like this, it sounds coherent, and the solution seems obvious: get off the drug, 'cause it's totally messing you up! but the problem with diverse symptoms while you're experiencing them is that they don't organize themselves neatly into a coherent problem with an evident solution. particularly in the case of mental illness, symptom and disease, cause and effect, are hard to tell apart. am i drowsy from the meds or from the depression? is my fainting caused by panic or venlafaxine? and when it comes to bodies, especially women and their bodies, the tendency is always to blame ourselves: i knew i should have worked out harder, if only i hadn't eaten that cookie, this is what happens when you don't keep a food journal, etc. our poor bodies, right in kicking reach.

when i was down to two skirts i could wear, i was finally ready to consider that perhaps this weight gain wasn't all my fault. my doctor concurred, and suggested that perhaps the night sweats and lowered blood pressure could be traced to effexor too. (incidentally, the "literature" on effexor, aka The Book of Lies, says effexor usually causes weight loss not gain, increased not decreased blood pressure, and hyper-alertness rather than drowsiness. who are these lab rats?)

anyway, i've been coming off effexor for about six weeks now, and it has been frightful. at first it wasn't too bad. you go down in stages, and at every drop i would experience three bad days where my skin would crawl and i would feel more emotionally volatile than usual. then my body would adjust and, a week or ten days later, i'd adjust the dosage down again. once you're down at the lowest dose, 37.5 mg, you alternate taking the drug one day with not taking it the next. after a week or ten days of that, you're done.

going from the lowest dose to no dose was intense on an order i was not at all prepared for. first, the formication. that's the technical name for the feeling of ants crawling all over your skin. i could not for the life of me imagine why human beings were equipped with just ten fingers on two hands. how to scratch your right leg, your left ear, your back and your stomach at the same time? any change in body temp intensifies the itchiness, and sweating is the worst. picture me, if you will, at the gym, wondering how rude it is to scratch my ass in a crowded room. can i just turn to the folks on the elliptical trainers behind me and tell them i'm sorry, i have to scratch or i'll lose my mind? will they leave? would i care?

but that was over relatively quickly -- say, a week. the other symptoms: not so easy to shake.

like the irritability and the dizziness. especially on the days when i had to skip a dose, i found myself feeling like a two-year-old. everything irritated me. "why is the door locked?," i demanded, coming home to an almost deserted house. "why is everybody we work with so stupid?," i inquired of a colleague. "look, lady, if you think anybody in this house would EVER vote for the conversatives, you've got another think coming." (oh, wait, that was just yesterday. never mind.)

irritability's one thing; rage, quite another. rage! one day the heart rate monitor on the recumbent bicycle wasn't working. i kicked the bike. hard. twice. i snapped at my yoga teacher. i got so frustrated trying to print a pdf doc that i slammed my precious powerbook against the desk.

the alternative to rage? tears. now, for all of you who missed it, let me recap a recent episode of "Trading Spaces." the gag on this HGTV show is that two families swap houses for 48 hours and redecorate a room for each other. in this particular episode, the neighbours involved in the swap were sworn enemies: one, an uptight yuppie family with a precious two-year-old son; the other, a house full of teenagers whose rock bands practice day and night. the tenterhook: could an HGTV show succeed where police-ordered mediators had failed? i don't want to ruin this for anybody, but yes: yes, design saved the day. during the one-hour special, the yuppie family built an insulated studio for the boys, complete with a hand-lettered sign identifying the recording studio they hoped to set up. meanwhile, all those testosterone-crazed teenagers pitched in to paint Junior's bedroom with a panorama motif in chalkboard paint. they handmade a toy box that looked like a truck which in turn sat on the bookshelves resembling a garage.

i cried all the way through it.

and i cried when i was late for lunch with my friend olga.

and i cried when i couldn't do a downward-facing dog.

and i cried when i had to buy gas on my credit card, because it was the end of the month and i was out of cash, but i'd been trying so hard not to use my visa card, and i'd been, honestly, much much better with credit lately, but now clearly everything that i had fought so hard for had gone to hell in a handbasket and what was the use of trying to be responsible since i'm always going to fuck it up anyway?

the jonesing took me aback too. on the second dose-skipping day, i double- and then triple-checked whether i'd done the math wrong. maybe tomorrow is the day i won't have to take it? then i started bargaining. "maybe i've lost track, and i should take another one anyway." "better safe than sorry, since you never want to quit an SNRI cold turkey!" on-days, in between, i was appalled at my need. hankering for serotonin or, worse, norepinephrine -- compounds that, until just a few years ago, we didn't even know we humans produced, let alone needed -- felt ridiculous. when's the last time you found yourself craving progesterone, or heard someone say, "i could really use a shot of GHR about now."

but the dizziness and "brain zaps" might be the worst. some days i was so dizzy i had to hold onto a table while the room swirled around me. some days i couldn't look at my computer screen. some days i could only look at my computer screen. i cancelled meetings when i wasn't sure i could drive myself safely there; even walking felt treacherous.

brain zaps are peculiar to effexor withdrawal (and the main reason behind the many threats of class-action lawsuits flying around the internet). you know that feeling of being super-tired but having to stay awake? you feel like you're on the brink of a yawn: your eyes narrow, your jaw tightens and you can feel your ear canals getting ready for the release of a big yawn. that's part of it. now add the tzzt! tzzt! tzzt! tzzt! of an electrical circuit shorting out, and you've got it. brain zaps. they weren't so bad first thing in the morning, but once i stood up they started, and they lasted all day. sometimes my eyes would water with the desire for a tension-clearing yawn, but it never came.

that's what the last six weeks have been like. i've been off effexor for a week and a half now, and i've had two good days in a row: minor zaps, negligible dizziness, no tears. i'm hopeful that the worst is over.

my friend ted says that sicknesses are cleanses: "something unneeded or bilious wants to leave, but for some reason there is a struggle to let go." withdrawal is exactly like this. but i wonder, in my case, just what i'm finding it hard to let go of: the effexor itself? the history of my life on effexor -- the fact of having had to take it? or could it be that what's hard to let go of is a clear distinction between health and illness? anxiety and depression are like chicken pox: you get over the symptoms, but you remain vulnerable to the virus that lurks inside you. having to take effexor, having to take medical leave, having to take my mental health seriously really shook me up. to quit effexor is to let go of heather, damaged -- but i can no longer believe in heather, whole.

Monday, March 3, 2008

How I fell in love with my heart

i know, i know: it's a ponderous title for a blog, "sonography of the heart." but let me tell you the story of today, and maybe you can see why, ponderous or not, i like it.

i've been having some health troubles over the last couple of years. i had a wee breakdown in the late summer/early fall of 2006, after which I was on medical leave for six months. i took effexor (venlafaxine) for 18 months. by december 2007 i was having trouble staying conscious. what i mean is, i was fainting routinely. one time i cracked my head open on a sharp-edged table going down, leaving me with a rakish scar over my right eye. it was worrying. i was worried. my partner was worried. and so my doctor referred me to a cardiologist. (at the same time, i was having hot flashes, gaining weight, and experiencing other unpleasant things, so i decided to quit effexor, which i'm sure you'll hear more about in future posts.)

this morning was my first of four cardiac tests, an echocardiogram, which is an ultrasound of the heart. i was nervous about it. i knew it wouldn't hurt, but what might it mean? i tried to prepare myself for anything.

but i could not have prepared myself for what i experienced, which is that an echocardiogram is beautiful. stunning, actually. i nearly wept at the beauty of it, my four-chambered heart beating away, valves doing their valvular thing, the mechanism -- no, the muscle of it -- working steadily away and asking nothing in return. the image is the type we've all grown familiar with through two decades, now, of pregnancy ultrasounds: grainy horizontal lines where nothing is particularly clear except the dizzying fact that you are looking at your own insides. the tech (a lovely woman who described some of the tattoos she's seen in over fifteen years of doing this work) took images from several different perspectives during the forty-minute procedure. there was a photoshop-like pallet on the righthand side of the screen. when she turned on the color, squirts of red light and blue light coursed through the centre of the image. occasionally a mustard yellow explosion with a white centre marked -- well, i'm not sure just what it marked, exactly, but something electrifying. the tech looked at the back of my heart through my liver ("nice liver!"). she looked at the top of my heart coming down through my esophagus. she showed me the walls of my heart ("gorgeous!") and measured my diastolic and systolic blood pressure. i felt weirdly flattered -- no one's ever complimented my liver before -- and i felt humble and awed to see everything my heart does projected onto a TV screen.

then the tech turned on the sound, and it was liking being at the aquarium. the sound was dopplerized, turning my heartbeat from the conventional lub-dub into something that, oh, a manatee might say. "don't worry about the sound," said the tech, to reassure me, "sound is good!" but i was already gone on it. i was thinking of that song by Stars, the montreal band, that starts "i am [chris/amy/torq/etc], and this is my heart." i am heather, and this is my heart -- and, i thought suddenly, i'm going to blog this. i'm going to try to capture the resonances normally beyond human hearing, echo and amplify them, cast them in language. i will listen to my heart.

and this is where my blog begins: me, lying in a darkened room, the march snow forgotten, looking at the incontrovertible evidence that i am, simply, alive.