John reminds me that it is almost 14 years to the day since Tiananmen Square, which just reminds me that it was 14 years ago that I was living here, in predictably unrequited love with Mary, a waitress at Stavros’ Irish Bar (see also) and one in a long line of bargirls who spurned me, drinking in life in massive great draughts, careless and happy and free and burning away brain cells at dizzying speed. I remember when one of the gorgeous French girls who worked in the time-share office at the hotel (whose front desk I was managing and software I was geeking) told me about Tiananmen and showed me the newspaper, I remember it like it was yesterday. I also remember that she was inexplicably and vocally impressed with the girth and sturdiness of my treetrunk-like thighs, although I can’t for the life of me remember her name. Guess I didn’t kill all the braincells, just the ones that counted.
That was one of my favorite places in a lifetime of favorite places :
Via Rusty of Kuro5hin in an almost completely unrelated Metatalk thread, an etymology and cultural history of the word ‘cunt’.
You learn something every day.
My fondest personal memory of the word itself (as opposed to the body parts to which it refers) comes from my first trip to London, back in 1988, I think it was. Stefan and I, fresh off the plane and train, boggled and hungover in Victoria Station, found the cheapest place we could to sleep, which turned out to be the floor of a run-down gymnasium near King’s X station. Was it called Tunbridge Sports Club? I don’t know, I can’t remember. Something like that, anyway.
It was only a pound a night, and all we needed to do once we’d paid at the door was drag a sweat-stained foam pad from a storage room and stake out a place on the floor somewhere. The arrangement left more cash for the beer, and that was a consideration foremost in our minds at the time. The fact that it was locked up between the hours of 9 am and 9 pm was just fine, as we were happy to wander the city all day though the clouds of diesel, colonial bumpkin mouths agape. The fact that we were locked in between 9 pm and 9 am might have given us pause if we’d stopped to think about it, but we were on an adventure, damn it! No foo-foo ‘youth hostels’ for us.
Three people I remember from that place : two Finnish guys, one who wore one of those teacozyesque knit caps over his blonde dreadlocks and was clearly the alpha male, and the other who orbited around him, a little like the Warner Brothers yappy little cartoon dog and his big tough pal, Butch. We ended up putting our foam mats down in the same general area a couple of nights running, both duos sensing in a reassuring preverbal kind of way that neither was likely to rip the other off while sleeping. I called them Sockhead and Son, and remember them still, which is no mean feat for my Rube Goldberg machine of a brain.
The third was the foulmouthed chainsmoking Cockney who ran the place. Well, ran it to the extent that he hung around at the entrance between 9 and 10 pm, collecting pound coins in his dirty paw, and turning away anyone who looked too much like a gluehead and too little like a backpacker. His favorite phrase, which in the week or so we crashed there I must have heard two dozen times, was : ‘Yoooooou foockin’ cooont!’ He seemed inclined to drawl it out whether happy or angry or contemplative, under any circumstances that required verbalization, to anyone that might find themselves unhappily pinioned under his bloodshot medusa gaze. Five minutes after nine and not out of the communal shower? ‘Yoooooou foockin’ cooont!’ Only a five pound note to pay for your foam mat for the night? ‘Yoooooou foockin’ cooont!’ Caught smoking inside the building? ‘Yoooooou foockin’ cooont!’
It was like a lullaby after walking 20 or 30 kilometres a day, while sinking gratefully down onto the gym floor. I remember drifting off to sleep with Grubby The Warden hectoring late arrivals at the top of his gravelly voice : ‘Yoooooou foockin’ cooont!’ after ‘Yoooooou foockin’ cooont!’ easing us off into la-la land.
I hated that guy, but I loved him too, because he was at least memorable. Like the Young Ones used to say about Harry the Bastard with mock-respect in their voices : what a bastard!
At this time, in the Stews (brothel) area of Southwark, London, there was a street called Gropecuntelane. Similarly, there was a Gropecuntlane in Oxford (later renamed Magpie Lane), a Cunte Street in Bristol (later renamed Host Street), and, in London, a Pissing Alley and sh-tteborwelane. Gropecuntelane may have been shortened to Grope Lane, and a similar (though less graphic) example can be found in York, where a Grope Lane was “renamed [Grape Lane] by staid Victorians who found the original Grope – historically related to prostitution – too blatant” [Wainwright, 2000].
My mother recently found one of the journals I kept during my wanderings in the 90’s, buried at the bottom of one of my old tin trunks that had been sitting out beside the woodpile at the lodge for a few years, and mailed it to me. Reading it has flung me back into the sweet mad whirl in which I lived for so many years, and brought back a peacock fantail of good and bad memories. Here’s an excerpt :
December 28 1992
Latitude N 21°50.51
Longitude W 105°52.89
After an overnight cruise south from Mazatlan, the shakes from the exhaustion after 2 or 3 hours sleep are chased away momentarily with a little caffeine.
At sunset, we had 5 sails up in a vain attempt to catch what little wind there was – jib, stay, main, mizzen staysail (which was actually the old chute from Taiping), and the mizzen. We must have looked magnificent in the fading light. But as the sun went down, the flukey light winds said ‘f–k it’ and went to bed. We dropped everything except the main and mizzen, tried in vain to get some speed, then gave up and sheeted them in tight and turned on the engine.
About three in the a.m., orange dots began to show up like measles on the radar. A veritable flotilla of fishing boats, all overlapping their nets in continuous lines miles long, raking everything alive out of the water. Miserable bastards. No running lights to speak of, of course, and the few there were obeyed no patterns, so we had a few tense hours winding our way amongst the boats, hoping like hell that we wouldn’t hit any of their nets. At least the sun-bright squid boats with their spidery armatures of lights pointing down into the water were easy to avoid.
Michael retired before we were through (a little worse for the beer I suspect) but we managed, Dale and I, to steer us through. Iron Mike, the autopilot, did most of the work – but we watched damn close, adjusting every minute or two. Came within a few hundred feet of a couple of them, which out on the open water felt close enough to smell their farts.
sh-t! Whales – I almost forgot. Not only was there a humpback in full breach not 200 feet from us as we approached Mazatlan a couple of days ago, which was my first glimpse, but shortly before sunset last night, while I was steering under sail, two more humpbacks surfaced and blew about 100 feet off the starboard beam. Curious, they turned to approach. The sheer size and majesty of those magnificent bastards terrified me. They came within about 20 feet of the rail, then, sounding, dove. Michael worried aloud that they’d ‘fall in love’ with the boat and bump it a little, rub against it some. They do that sometimes, he said. Maybe he was just messing with me. But they were at least as big as us, and we’re 71 feet LOA. I was all over the compass, heart pounding.
The whales surfaced again about half a mile off the port beam, having dived beneath us, then turned north and headed towards Mazatlan. We sailed on, slowly, sniffing for winds.
Today, one of the greats exeunted for the last time, took his last curtain call, and left us for that great playhouse in the sky. How could I tell the rollercoaster cinderella story of Skeleton Warrior, the passion and the pain, the sex and the drugs and the necrophiliac nights, better than he could himself :
“It comes and goes in waves. The fame, the luck, the depression. I’ve been letting it push me around for years,” his eyes gazed out to a lone surfer. “I think it’s time I finally got up on that board and rode it, show that f–ker who’s boss.”
What I don’t need is another shiny thing to distract me, but this is some kinda fun, pilgrims. I know it’s been around for a bit, and the alpha is almost over, but it’s new to me, and it’s very cool, and scary addictive. Reminds me, in a good way, of IRC (to which I’ve never been that attracted), crossed with the mind-expanding, imagination-tweaking, eyestrainy old days of all night text-adventuring on my big grey TRS-80.
>READ THE SIGN
“Warning! These are poisonous oranges, not meant for human consumption.
– Farmer Bozbar”
>EAT AN ORANGE
Aaarrrr! It burns your tongue and your throat!
***You have died***
As I was walking home through the clouds of industrial smoke this evening, I was reminded for some reason of one particularly wild evening in Quintana Roo, Mexico, a few years back.
We’d been hired, Greg and I, to do the sound and lights for a party, a big one, that was being held in ‘a barn’ in Tulum, a couple of hours south of Cancun. Tulum the town, which is a nondescript collection of buildings on a crossroads on the highway, not Tulum the gorgeous Mayan ruins nearby, which are, you know, gorgeous. And ruined.
We took the 3 ton cube van down, loaded with gear, made it through the army checkpoints (we always sweated a bit with them, carrying pyrotechnics as we usually were) and found the place in the early afternoon. It was a concrete shell, barn-sized all right, and it didn’t have a roof. Great. But we took it in our stride, in true make-the-best-of-it Mexican style, and had a beer while we figured out how we were going to set up. Manuel, the young Mexican guy who worked with us (and spent a great deal of his time shaking his head in bemusement at the antics of the crazy longhaired gringos) came back with some bad news : the building was connected to the grid, but that was it. No internal wiring at all.
Greg, who was the guy who actually knew how to do sh-t, after conferring with the promoters, told him to wire us up to the main circuit box. Manuel looked a bit doubtful, but after being reassured that everything was fine, he wandered off to start juryrigging sh-t together. It was the usual modus operandi – improvise, make do, and make it work.
We started setting up the triangle truss sections, the Par64 fixtures and their gels (sprinkled with sand from the last beach party a couple of days ago) and the amp racks and speaker enclosures, and 6 or 8 beers later, as if by magic, the sun was beginning to go down, and we had everything set up. There were a few more people hanging around, smoking dope, drinking, watching lazily as we tested the audio and lights. This was always my favorite part of a gig – finished the hard work for the moment, and relaxing before the party geared up. Leaving all the decisions and troubleshooting to Greg meant that I could enjoy as many beverages as I felt appropriate. The one exception had been when we’d done the indoor fireworks for New Year’s Eve at Senor Frog’s back in Cancun, but considering that we had blown off several thousand dollars worth of pyro inside a bar with sawdust on the floors, that had probably been wise.
Just as the last of the light was fading, it began to rain. The music had started, though, and people were arriving in droves, and they didn’t seem to mind. It was a flash crowd, and soon our roofless concrete barn was packed with wet bodies, dancing under sheets of hard rain and the intermittent flashes of lightning. We put up some tarps over the audio equipment and the dj, and let it go. The rain didn’t let up, but no one seemed to care. There was a weird earth-magicky kind of vibe happening, and the harder people danced, the harder it seemed to rain. Huge, warm drops grown fat in the wet air out over the Caribbean, hammering down like a waterfall.
The hippies and tourists just danced harder.
Manuel sidled over to us about half an hour after the rain really started coming down, looking terrified. Greg followed him outside, and came back a few minutes later, looking disturbed, which for him was a bit unusual. I arched my eyebrows in inquiry; he shrugged and handed me a beer.
Later that evening, things started to get bad crazy. Greg’s girlfriend arrived, and Manuel found himself a peasant-skirted girlfriend from Bolivia, who lived here in Tulum, and she had a large quantity of acid. Driven by the strange, powerful feelings I was getting from the storm and the crowd, I danced like a maniac in the warm rain, and swallowed everything anyone handed to me. The promoter was thrilled at the crowds, and kept us in drinks and smoke.
Dreamlike tropical hours passed.
I don’t remember the party winding up, or loading the gear back into the truck. I do remember Greg — who despite being gloriously stoned was as usual the one experiencing the fewest visual anomalies and general impairment — driving us at a snail’s pace down the narrow jungle road to the sea side cabanas where we were apparently staying.
The rain was still pounding down, there were no lights on the road, and the truck’s lights weren’t working. We couldn’t see a damn thing out the windshield. I made Greg stop, got out of the truck, climbed up on the bumper and leaned back against the cab window, facing forward, arms spread out as if I’d been crucified, like a huge hairy moth that had been splattered on the windshield, and alternately pointed left or right as he drove. He drove totally blind, guided only by my frantic pointing as he edged toward one ditch or another, while Manuel and his new Bolivian girlfriend made out on the passenger side of the bench seat.
It worked pretty well, except when we hit speedbumps.
We made it to the place we were staying, eventually, wired tight, but couldn’t handle it indoors in our thatched huts, and spent the rest of the night on the beach, watching the waves and the sparkle of phosphorescence as the raindrops struck the sea. All except Manuel and his girl, whose enthusiastic grunts and squeals we could hear in the distance, over the rain and surf.
The next day Greg told me that Manuel had “wired us straight into the mains. No breaker, no ground, no nothing.” I didn’t see how that had been such a bad thing, but then I made the connection to the fact that the dancers out on the concrete floor, myself included, had been frolicking in water that by midnight was about ankle deep, sliding on their bellies like seals, doing rain dances, inches from the wiring that was feeding power to the audio and lights. Greg had wanted to shut it down, but the promoter was adamant, and in the way of connected men in Mexico, was not a man that one could say no to, and stay in the area for long. We got lucky, as usual.
The Bolivian girl disappeared before Manuel woke up. Through some strange coincidence, his wallet had disappeared as well. The drive back to Cancun was a quiet one.
Back in about ’86 or so, the world paused for a moment in its orbit as the musical colossus known as Naked & Shameless spontaneously appeared, boozily clambered to the very apex of the Vancouver musical scene, and then flamed out and disappeared, all in the space of days, if not hours.
Well, what really happened is that my buddy Deviant, who was responsible for the creation and dismantling of various Vancouver bands of moderate success over the decade, decided that it’d be pretty damn cool to get me liquored up in his studio, record one of my infamous spontaneous rants, then put it to music.
Unfortunately, no matter how much Ouzo I swilled, sitting on the stool in front of the mike, it just wasn’t spontaneous. Performance anxiety. I did force it a bit once the booze kicked in, and pulled some ranty stuff out of my ass, but the resulting track didn’t meet the high standards we had anticipated, and after a few plays on CiTR, the UBC campus radio station (“all spaceship and satan music, all the time”), sank into history unremarked.
For the purposes of branding, though (we were ahead of our time, baby), I’d come up with the name ‘Naked & Shameless’ for our two-man band. Myself being Jim Naked, up there under the hot lights, baring my soul, and Deviant being Dave Shameless, the evil rocknroller exploiting my gentle drunken poetic weiner-talk to get chicks and stuff.
That part was good.
Wisely, though, with our first track sucking so heinously, we decided to shelve the project.
Fast forward to a few years ago, and Deviant, who has been living in Chicago and whom I haven’t seen for almost a decade, has restarted Naked and Shameless, with cousin Buck Naked replacing the dearly departed Jim. Buck can actually sing, and play. This is a good thing.
Why am I telling you all this? Besides the usual ‘I’m so goddamn hip I can’t see over my own pelvis’ stuff, mostly ’cause I remembered that N&S have an mp3.com page with some fun songs on, which I’ve been listening to this evening as I get slowly plastered, and they’re currently on tour, and will be playing one of our favorite Vancouver haunts this weekend, the Railway Club.
(The serendipitous thing here being that through completely random chaotic f–king weirdness, one of the owners of the Railway Club, Roger Trentenero, since deceased (murdered on his boat not long after I’d decamped, so to speak, at Playa Los Cocos, by hammer flung headward by his 16-year old Costa Rican girlfriend, is the story that I heard), was the owner of the first sailboat I crewed aboard in the Sea of Cortez, approximately midway, temporally speaking, between then and now…but that, as I find myself saying all too often, is a tale for another day.) Drinking Song #16 is the one dedicated to me poor old Jim Naked. It’s funny, but not my favorite. C’est la vie.
If you do go have a listen to any of their stuff, don’t miss “Lawrence (Head of Lettuce)“. A true story from our UBC days. Not even the names have been changed to protect the guilty. Rock’n’roll verité, man.
A few times during your life, you may have run up against situations that tell you what kind of person you really are, what your response to disaster might be, what your mettle is. Some people have these experiences and it breaks them. For others, it’s just an anecdote.
Greg and I had just gotten back from Isla Mujeres, off the Yucatan coast near Cancun. The sun was going down, and we were well lit up. We’d been on the island all afternoon, fixing up the light and sound systems, and as per the usual arrangement when we moonlighted, we’d been paid in food and booze. Given the quantity of beer we generally drank just to maintain our equilibrium and air of pleasant mañanaland befuddlement, it might have been cheaper for them to pay us cash, but this way it was off the books, and everyone was happy. We were looking forward to an evening at Dady Rock, on the strip, where we were customarily given open bar courtesy in return for helping out with sound mix and lighting there as well.
Greg and his Mexican girlfriend Bianca had a tumultuous relationship, to say the least. She was the very embodiment of the cliche of the fiery latina, and living with them as I did, I caught her wrath almost as often as Greg. She could be terrifying, and almost totally irrational when she lost her temper.
Bianca met us at the dock, and we wandered over to the main road into the Old City, intending, I think, to go find Greg’s dealer. I wandered over into the bushes to have a pee while Greg and Bianca waited at the roadside to flag down a taxi. Life was astonishingly good at that moment – drunk, living in Paradise, I rolled my head back as I peed to look up at the wisps of clouds that were painted a rich red by the sunset, and breathed deeply of the clean ocean air to clear my head.
Then I heard the yelling.
“Ah, sh-t,” thought I to myself, “they’re at it again.” I immediatedly started reworking my plans for the evening to be a solo flight. But as I wandered over (slowly, unkeen to put myself between the two combatants – I’d learned how ill-advised this could be before), I saw Greg on his back in some low bushes, and Bianca astride him, pummelling him, or at least attempting to. I stopped on the sidewalk about 10 metres up from them, and waited. No way I was getting involved once she started getting violent. I’d taken a heavy silver belt-buckle in the head last time I’d tried that.
A few seconds later, a police car pulled up, and the policia switched on their rollers. The cops got out, pulled Bianca off of Greg, and cuffed her. This wasn’t good. As I walked up to the police car, they were putting the screeching and struggling Bianca in the back seat cage, and Greg was telling them in Spanish that he was her husband and he needed to come along. He looked at me as he got in to the backseat and shrugged. In Spanish, I asked the shotgun cop where they were taking my friends, and their answer was incomprehensible. I asked if I could come with them, as I had very little money on me and no idea where they were going.
This was my first mistake.
They took us to the police station on the main street of Old Cancun. Bianca was beside herself, still cuffed, doing everything but foaming at the mouth. Greg had entered into negotiations for the requisite bribes, trying to negotiate his way down. Everything seemed under control, so I asked what seemed to be the guy in charge, behind the desk, if I could go and get a pack of cigarettes. He replied in the positive, and I wandered off, confident that all was well. I bought a pack of Montana lights, and a can of Dos Equis, and wandered back to the cop shop, getting impatient to get back to the Strip. This was my second mistake.
As I walked in the door, it became clear that something significant had happened. Two cops were restraining Greg, three restraining Bianca, who if anything had cranked it up a notch into complete non compos mentis wildness, and one cop was sitting on the bench, looking green.
“What the f–k?” I asked Greg.
“She kicked one of the cops in the nuts!” said he.
I offered some of the cops cigarettes, which they took. Then, after a couple minutes, the boss said something to the others, and they took the whole pack. And my wallet and passport, and my belt, and they led me back to a holding area. I was now, somehow, one of the detainees. f–k.
Bianca was still screaming, kicking, trying to bite anyone who came within range. Cuffed as she was, it took what appeared to be a great effort on the part of the two cops still restraining her to keep her in place. Greg had been put back in the holding area with me, and was now pleading for our release for any price, rather than just trying to negotiate the bribe down.
I was starting to sober up. And the cops had taken my smokes.
Some time later, Bianca was brought back from wherever she had been taken, and she looked bad. Blank eyes, slack mouth, bleach-blond mane hanging in front of her face. I don’t know what they had done to her, but Greg bristled, and I started to get a little scared. I’d heard stories about the cops here, and how they dealt with gringos who weren’t tourists. Greg had a temper of his own, and two black belts, and I could see things getting out of control very quickly.
The cops led us out to a patrol car, with a bigger, sturdier cage in the back, and refused to answer our questions about where we were being taken. The three of us were pushed roughly into the backseat, Bianca in the middle, and the doors slammed.
It was dark by now, but it was clear that we were being taken west, out of the city. In the couple of years I’d lived in Mexico, I had heard enough first-hand stories to know that it wasn’t just in the movies that the cops in Mexico take people out into the back of beyond and beat them, or worse. And Bianca having kicked one of the senior cops square in the nuts did not bode well for our future. I started to get really scared, and when Bianca came out of her fugue state and started screaming curses and kicking at the cage between us and the two cops in the front seat, I started to, well, dissociate. Greg kept asking them in Spanish where they were taking us, forcing a calm tone on top of the growing panic in his voice.
No answer from the front seat, and we were leaving the last of the lights of Old Cancun behind. Greg murmured to me “When they open the doors, you go left, I’ll go right. Run.”
I didn’t acknowledge what he’d said. Bianca did, and fell silent. The sheer terror and helplessness washed over me, and I was frozen. I wasn’t sure that if the cops did stop and open the doors in the middle of nowhere, that I’d be able to move, let alone run. Like I said, sheer terror.
A few minutes later, there were lights beside the highway again, and we pulled into the parking lot of the federal prison. It looked like we weren’t going to be dealt with extra-judicially after all. The overwhelming joy and relief I felt at the realization that I was going to be put in jail is a very vivid memory.
That happiness dissipated rather quickly. Mexican jails aren’t very pleasant. But I wasn’t there long, and that’s a tale for another day, perhaps.
Reading a thread at the SA forums tonight, which began with the question : “Did you ever find porn in the woods as a child?”
My immediate answer was “Yeah! I did!” And apparently dozens of other goons did too, leading to the positing of a magical Johnny Pornoseed who long ago in a more idyllic age travelled the byways of North America and charitably scattered dirty pictures in the forests for pubescent males to discover and cherish. Astonishing. Something I’d never thought about as a common experience, hadn’t really thought about in decades, but there it is : finding porn in the woods is something that many many young men have experienced.
And what a joyous, revelatory experience it is, too! Explains the fervor of a lot of Green Party members, I reckon.
One SA Goon said this, which is so evocative for me of my teenage hunger for porn :
Has anyone noticed that smell forest porn always has? Kind of musty, but unlike any other kind of smell in the world. It always smells exactly the same. The forest porn smell….
I will never forget the smell of rained on porn mags that have been dried up. For me, it’s the smell of porn.
What’s f–ked up though, is that to this day, my brain associates the smell of ferns with porn. No lie. We hid our rescued stash in a small cave that was hidden by a blanket of ferns.
The reason I talk about this, though, is because it reminded me of what I like to think of as one of my more amusing off-the-cuff comments, one of the proud random snapshots from my life that I like to remember when I’m in need of proof that I’m not a complete moron.
It was Edinburgh, Scotland, in the winter of 1998, I think. Me and Rick (of whom I’ve spoken many times before) and the Bearman and Stiffy The Magic Austrian were living in a B&B in Portobello, which is a grey concrete seaside suburb of Edinburgh (which we customarily referred to as Edithburg, just to be annoying), perched like a frozen dog turd on the southern edge of the Firth of Forth.
For some reason, while drinking the cheap Hungarian wine (‘Blood of The Bull’) that fueled my joyous and aimless unemployment at the time, I’d gotten it into my head that I was infallible at finding sexy bits in novels. I’d sit down with Rick or Barry and make them riffle through the book of their choice. I’d melodramatically stick my finger into the flying pages, and 4 times out of 5, stop the cascade on a page that contained some sort of sexuality. It was downright spooky. But an amusing party trick.
So. One afternoon we’re walking back from downtown Edinburgh, which was only couple of kilometres away, through the shortcut alleyway which bore a sign that designated it, colourfully enough, as the ‘Fishwives’ Causeway’. Some way along the narrow, high-walled, piss-reeking, dogturd-littered alley through which we meandered, I spied a flash of colour to the side, investigated it, and discovered it to be a Nudie Magazine. Huzzah!
Says I off the cuff, as I reach in under the vines to peel it off the asphalt, breathing deeply of that magazine-that’s-been-rained-on scent, unmindful of possible cooties : “Not only can I find sex passages in books, I can find sex books in passages!”
Much hilarity ensues, hindered only by the lack of a laff-track and rimshot.
Having actually written the little story down, I now realize how lame that comment actually was. I swear to god it was funnier’n hell at the time…
Proves, I guess, how deeply unexciting the day to day existence of being a World Traveller can actually be when you get right down to it (at least if you did your travelling with us)…remind me to tell you the tale of Ailsa the Hogmanay Girl sometime, just to balance things out.
So : you ever discovered woodland porno?
While reading the recentposts from Mike Golby about the struggles with alcoholism buffeting his family, as well as being struck both by the bravery of his candor and the lucidity of his prose and wishing there were something I could do to help him in his dark times, I got to thinking about my own long and deeply intimate relationship with the booze, about the times I’ve been called an alcoholic, by myself and others over the years. This is hopelessly self-indulgent and journally. I thought I’d share, because that’s what it’s all about, right? I beg your forgiveness. Blame Mike for starting me on this train of thought.
Have you ever decided to stop drinking for a week or so, but it only lasted a couple of days?
Do you wish people would mind their own business about your drinking?
Have you ever switched from one kind of drink to another in hope that you wouldn’t get drunk?
Have you had to have an eye-opener upon awakening during the past year?
Do you envy people who can drink without getting into trouble?
Do you need a drink to get started, or to stop shaking?
Have you had problems connected with drinking during the past year?
Has your drinking caused trouble at home?
Do you ever try to get “extra” drinks at a party because you do not get enough?
Do you tell yourself you can stop drinking anytime you want to, but you don’t stop?
Do you have “blackouts”?
Have you ever felt your life would be better if you didn’t drink?
I had an uncle Ron, who wasn’t really my uncle, but was the husband of the woman who took care of me when I was an infant, while my mother worked. About him (and about most of my childhood, if truth be told) I recall little but mental snapshots, with thick white borders and faded-to-sepia colours. In my mind, he has a perpetual 5-o’clock shadow, and wears the sort of white, sleeveless t-shirt with suspenders over the top in the hot weather that is iconic of the home-from-the-office man of the first two-thirds of the last century. If my memory serves, he had ruined his stomach with rotgut whiskey, and had taken to drinking his rye with milk. He was the first and only person I’ve known who did this. He was a kind man.
I recall one evening, my parents were sitting with Ron and Nina and their linoleum-topped kitchen table, drinking, smoking. It must have been 1969, or 1970, or somewhere around there. I was about 5 years old. Everyone would have been about 10 years younger than I am now, but they seemed ancient, Easter-Island monolith old, to me. I was tear-assing around the place, as usual. Ron stopped me up on one of my laps past the table, and I jumped up on his lap. Curious about the pungent smells wafting around, what the small city of bottles on the table meant, and why everyone seemed so animated and good-natured, I pointed and asked. Some meeting of eyes must have happened over my head, because to the chuckles of the assembled, Ron poured out about a third of a water glass of rye and handed it to me.
I took the glass from him, drank it down in about 4 swallows, then hooted in rough-throated glee at the gobsmacked faces around. I remember running around some more, less and less steadily, giggling at the gravitational anomalies that had suddenly manifested themselves, before settling myself cross-legged on the floor in front of their big console TV in the den, and slowly toppling over backward as the Flintstones flintstoned and the lights went out.
I suppose, if one was to pick the very beginning of a love affair, the instant at which your eyes meet and those mental tentacles spring out and grapple greedily and invisibly with the object of your desire, well, that’d be it.
A decade later, I was a pimply teenager in a tiny town in the deepest northern interior of British Columbia, a town where the only real option for entertainment was booze. I was 15 or 16, and I’d finished a 26’er of rye with a couple of my buddies in the trailer out back of Leon’s house. For some reason, we felt it necessary to make the trek to Brian’s house, a hundred metres or so up the alley. And over the fence. I recall with a seraphic clarity — though it was two decades ago and I was piss drunk — that endless moment of teetering atop the man-high wooden fence behind Brian’s house, then falling like a rock and landing on my head. The moment of impact was a revelation. It didn’t hurt, not a bit. I was so astonished by this fact, by the sheer wonder of it, that I sucked in the summer night air like it was rocket fuel, jumped up with mud on my face and laughed and danced and whooped like a monkey.
My illness and pain the next day was my introduction to the wages of the drink.
It was a good while after that before I had my first real night out with the boys and, guilty but filled with the wonder of boozy camaraderie at the end of it, hauled my ass into my parents’ kitchen by the watery light of a northern BC dawn.
It seems like I’ve always been a drinker. By the time I was finishing high school, and had headed off to Vancouver for university, I had carved out an identity for myself, one that I came, I see now, from the marriage of a desire to stand out from the sea of small-town boors, to excel, to exploit the Big Fucking Brain I’d been gifted with and for which I’d been so lavishly praised, and the overwhelming desire to belong, to Be A Fun Guy, which seemed easy, and to Get Chicks, which seemed utterly impossible. In that tiny little town, the possibility of finding a high-school social milieu not intimately tied to the consumption of alcohol and the concomitant possibility of finding yourself a young lady with which to frolic pastorally and learn the ways of love, was, if not precisely zero, so miniscule as to be invisible. Which is to say: I didn’t get laid much, in those early days.
It turned out that my ‘Uncle Ron Experience’ as a child had been prophetic, and that I was capable, through sheer animal robustness if not sheer force of will, of swilling oceanic quantities of liquor, and never ever devolving into headbutting, gutter-puking beast mode. At worst, go-home-and-sleep-mode, but always: under my own power.
I was painfully shy as a teenager, until I found the drink. After the fencetop revelation, I consciously worked the booze and its magical inhibition-loosening properties, and zeroed in on people in a way I never had before. I was hungry, jesus I was ravenous for stories, for the meat of life. In a complete turnaround from my reticence to ever ask any questions of anyone, I would quiz people, girls mostly, about the most intimate details of their lives, and they would, without fail, tell me all. By the time I was in my early twenties, I’d heard so many personal tales of rape and molestation, of broken homes and familial violence, of harrowing pain and loss, and yes, of the horrors of alcoholism, that I sometimes felt like my eyes must glow in the dark. Times I felt guilty were few, because most of the people who spilled their stories to me eventually became intimate friends, and told me, at the gravel pit or the graveyard, how relieved they’d been to unload their burdens.
There’s probably some sort of unpleasant pop-psychology term for the way I behaved back then, but it filled the hollow at the center of my soul with stories, and it seemed to help many people who later became friends or lovers to get over childhood traumas of their own. Booze was the tool I used to grant me the unselfconsciousness to get into people’s heads, and let them into mine. I loved the stuff.
The drunk-on-life’s-joy, clever-though-smashed, writerly-but-boisterous persona worked well for me. I was popular, well liked, and socially successful. I had a group of close friends who knew me intimately, and trusted me implicitly, as I did them. I was reading voraciously all the while, and some of my favorites recommended to me a controlled madness that appealed, irresistably.
These last couple of years of teenagerhood and first few years of university saw the first few times it was suggested that I was an alcoholic, though. I would, like any boozy university student, go on binges. Mine, being as closely married to the bottle as I was, were perhaps a little longer or more intense than most others. It was still a competition to me – I was King Boozer, while also determined to get the best marks in the hardest field, to be the best lover, the wildest madman, and write the best damn stories too. I wasn’t entirely successful, but it was enough. I did some astonishingly silly things while drunk: ledge-walking on the 17th floor, driving while blind, the usual array of bad judgement calls that reformed boozers trot out to show why they eventually stopped.
Now, see this is the point in most people’s Tales of Booze where it all goes to shit, and they begin to outline their inexorable descent into alco-hell. I’m sorry to disappoint, but this didn’t happen to me.
I thought long and hard about those first few accusations of alcoholism, coming as they did from friends, often after my more spectacular examples of bad judgement. Mostly female friends, for whatever reason. But I just couldn’t see it, to be honest. (‘The alcoholic can never see it’, came the standard rejoinders…) My drinking clearly wasn’t affecting my studies. (‘You just think it has no effect’, sang the chorus) I did do some stupid stuff sometimes, but life without some danger was not worth it, I reckoned, all Hemingwayesque. (‘You’re rationalizing your dangerous lapses in judgement’, tra-la-la) I sometimes went for weeks without a drink, and didn’t miss it at all. I loved being drunk, not shambolically, mindlessly drunk but playfully, lightheartedly drunk. But if I were asked to choose, and I was, a few times, I would always say in an instant that I preferred to be sober. A life of constant inebriation would be hellish – a life of constant sobriety less enjoyable, perhaps, but no worse for it.
So I continued on in my boozy ways, graduating university and hitting the road. I’ve been wandering around the planet for more than a decade now, sometimes drinking, sometimes not. There’ve been a few times when I wondered if my drinking was unhealthy, or destructive, and stopped, effortlessly, for a while. Two decades after I started my career as an afficionado of the drink, three decades after my first taste of the stuff, I am happy, healthy, wiser, and if not especially wealthy, quite comfortable. Of the pure, heart-squeezing joys that I’ve felt in my life, those shivering moments of connection to other souls or to the world itself, many have happened when I was sober. Of the most memorable, ecstatic and monumentally fun moments so far, many have happened while inebriated.
I weave the drunken threads and the sober ones together, and the fabric is all the richer for having both. My life would be infinitely poorer for being drunk all the time, but would be very much impoverished too were I never to taste the sweet madness that the liquor brings.
I beg those of you who have made it down this far not to take what I say as in any way devaluing the stories from Mike and Mark and others about how much the liquor and the craving for it have damaged their lives. I mean no disrespect – just the opposite, in fact. I understand and respect their decisions to attempt to banish it from their lives : I’ve been close enough to the deceptive janus-face of it myself enough times to understand that as much as I feel it’s been a good thing in my life, it can be the Destroyer as well. Hell, it killed my father.
I tell this fragment of the story in part because, as many mature and beautifully-written tales about the horrors of the drink as I see, I see very few paeans to it written by anyone other than drunken frat boys.
Just finished watching the Ireland vs. Cameroon match, and though I’m far from an expert in such matters, I enjoyed it a fair bit. Averaging one goal every 45 minutes : I guess that’s major excitement in the soccer world, huh?
The reason I mention it is that it was almost precisely 12 years ago, during the World Cup in 1990, that the Wonderchicken was born, the uncreated conscience of my species, forged in the smithy of my liver. A couple of days after this blessed event, Rick and I were in a lovely little B & B in Aberystwyth, Wales, and watching the match between Cameroon and Ireland. Our viewing was made more enjoyable, if indeed that were possible, by the presence of a Large Bottle of Vodka. This we drank (which is the primary use to which one puts Large Bottles of Vodka, other than bonking people over the head, of course), and cheered lustily for the underdogs, Cameroon, who ended up the victors.
Although my powers of recollection tend to suffer when battered by such oceanic quantities of booze, I seem to recall that we ventured out into the night at the conclusion of the game, wobbly but under our own power, navigating by the bottle, and ended up in a pub, where Rick also ended up swapping saliva with a nubile young lady. This was the time in our lives when this sort of thing still happened, albeit irregularly.
The next morning, the proprietress of the B & B, waggling an admonishing finger as only middle-aged Welsh matrons can, suggested that we should find alternate lodging.
She must have been an Ireland supporter.
Through the last few years of my university career, I spent the bulk of my time with a group of (for the most part) hard-drinking, (for the most part) punk-rock proto-grrrls, who took the bumptious clay that was this boozy small-town-boy-gone-bad and molded him into Professor Bosco T. Matrix, the Liver That Walked Like a Man. Much fun was had by all, and the usual sex, drugs, rock and roll, wacky hijinx and adventures ensued, as these things do.
One of the appealingly quirky things about this gaggle of gals was their enjoyment of a truly goofy 80’s cartoon called Jem. I was forced to sit through many episodes of this, sometimes even while sober, and it was a minor bane of my existence. I hadn’t actually thought about it in perhaps a decade, until Lia mentioned it recently, and in the process led me to Fush (who is a Very Amusing Young Man).
Downside to all this pleasant linky-dinky and reminiscence? I now have the Jem theme running through my mind, and I swear, someone is going to pay. “Jem! is truly outrageous. Truly, truly, truly outrageous…”
Art. Nature. Blues. Play more spaceship and Satan music! Monsters. Travel. World’s Best Bars. Return of the stubbie. Sex with Chickens. f–k Microsoft. Sleep Sex. 800 lashes! weblog.f–k.org.confused, disorganized and maddeningly tiring to read.Mmmm Gyros! Indestructible sandwich plus muscle-building pill = well, who f–king cares, really?
This weblogging sh-t gets tiresome, you know. Never gonna do that again.
*goes back to whatever it was he was doing before*
(Uhhh – read the above as stream-of-link-consciousness, I guess. Puts me in mind of my first trip to London at 22, sleeping on sweatsoaked foam mattresses on the floor of a gymnasium for a quid a night, wandering the streets in a boggled, eyes-wide and mind-racing haze, gobsmacked, with my taciturn-but-dependable university buddy Stiffy more or less trailing along, me spewing random stream of consciousness poetry as we walked, wheeling to look at him every once in a while and say ‘write that down!’, only half in jest (You think I’m arrogant now, you shoulda know me then!), returning at night, after 10 or 20 kilometres of diesel-fume footsore random dogsh-t wandering, back to the King’s Cross Youth Club or whatever the f–k it was called, and bedding down on the foam mats we pulled out of the closet near our Finnish poor-but-happy temporary road-buddies, Sockhead and Son, listening to the proprietor of the flophouse-gym scream ‘yoo fookin’ coont!’ at whoever was annoying him that evening. But, as I say so many times, that’s a story for another day, perhaps…)
It’s just not possible to trace the fractal-chain of cause-and-effect back to a single Prime Mover moment in your life, usually. Trace the branches back, navigate around the random events, the decisions made or just taken, and hope to find any kind of actual reason for the way you are today, the way you think, and you’ll drive yourself f–king mad with might-have-beens.
Decades ago, Rob Beitel introduced me to a few of the chemicals I’ve enjoyed in my long and bumpy history of self-medication, ones of which, along with all the rest, I no longer partake. I haven’t seen him in nearly two decades. He was found dead recently, in the snow, within sight of his home in Northern BC, half a world away from here, a couple hours away from the town we grew up in. I talked about it a bit on my buddyblog with the Bearman, who knew Rob as well, way back when. Mirrored here because I’m drunker than hell, and sentimental, and having a little one-man wake for Rob tonight.
Rob Beitel’s dead.
It’s odd that that should deflate me the way it does. I barely knew the guy, to be honest. He got me mind-crogglingly stoned a few times, provided me with a few stories I could regale people with, and have, at bars in far flung corners of the planet, I think he f–ked an ex-girlfriend of mine before she actually became an ex, he was a shaggy, bearded, small-town Lizard King with mirror shades and a fast motorcycle.
I wonder if he ever realized what an influence he had on my life. In a small town populated with a vast array of losers and wanna-be’s, he was damn near the Real Thing. Meaning, of course, that he wasn’t anything like the Real Thing, but when I was young and unschooled in the ways of the world, he seemed near enough to me, damn it. Dissociated, vague, cool.
I remember an evening when I was still a teenager, the Bearman and I at Rob’s girlfriend’s apartment (she of the Trans-Am, which may or may not have had a large, glam-rock flame appliqué on the hood, but that’s the way I remember it), smoking. More than ever before, and probably more than ever since. It may have been the first time I took more than a toke or two. There was rye whiskey, of course, which was all Bearman and I would drink when we were teenagers, and there was an insanely large, complicated, twisty glass bong. There were hash brownies. We smoked and drank and smoked and nibbled. We sang songs. After what may have been minutes or hours, I had gotten to the point where, when I moved my head, my eyes would track to follow a second or two later. This I found uproariously funny, and Rob seemed to take some pride in this cherry-breaking drug-induced first. I don’t know if Zeppelin IV was playing, but it should have been. The next thing I remember was staggering around, alone and drooling, on the road to the elementary school, which had inexplicably developed a 45 degree list. I think I slept in a ditch for a while. Good thing it was summer, I guess.
Another time, again the Bearman, Rob and I. A cold night in the city of Prince George, at Rob’s aunt’s house I believe. One of those nights where you’re not quite sure where the hell you are, but glad at least to be inside. There was fungal psilocybin, a lot of it. Rob and I sitting up all night, while Bearman tried in vain to sleep, cackling joyfully, tripping. My jaws were sore, and tears streaming from my eyes, and it was one of the most purely enjoyable chemical experiences in my life.
Yet another time, Barry and I driving that Trans-Am for some reason, Rob following us on the bike. (In hindsight, I suspect there was probably a kilo or two in the trunk, and plausable deniability was the order of the day. What the hell did we know?) He pulled a wheelie somewhere just outside Fort Saint James, and as we approached Vanderhoof, nearly 50 kilometres later, he was still up on one wheel. We shook our heads in dude-respect, took a drink, and mumbled ‘crazy bastard’ to one another in admiration.
He was a f–king legend in my mind, at least, was Rob Beitel. I haven’t seen him in half a lifetime, and now I never will. Drugs took him, it would seem, which was probably what was expected. Sad and pitiful to die in the snow, freezing slowly, it might be said, but at least in character, and maybe that’s what Rob would’ve wanted. Burn out, don’t fade away.
Rock on, you crazy motherf–ker, wherever the hell you are. Rock on.
A Few Ways In Which I Have Hurt Myself Grievously Number 1 : I am 5 years old, in the back yard with my friend CJ. We are smashing bricks onto the top of a low retaining wall, for some reason that I now forget, which is only reasonable, damn it! That was a helluva long time ago! I can’t be expected to remember every damn thing…Am I gonna have to kick yer….
Sorry. Lost track there. Anyway, CJ took a mighty swing with one of those rusty red bricks, and managed to bring it down squarely on the middle finger of my right hand, mashing it flat. I screamed like a petroleum-powered chrome-plated screaming machine, and he took the f–k off up the path, running home. I’d have done the same, if I were him. Once I realized that all that blood wasn’t a good thing, I pounded up the hill to the house after him, looking for mom or somef–kingbody to help me out with this newly-flat finger I’d acquired. CJ had gotten about fifteen feet ahead of me when he realized, I guess, that he still had the brick in his hand, so, still running, he flung it behind him. Hit me square on the forehead. I was a blood-streaked howling mess when my mom opened the screen door. That finger is still 50% wider than it’s twin on the other hand, streaked with scar tissue. I’m a little proud of it, actually. Number 2 : I’m a couple of years older, and I’ve traded bikes with my friend David, and we’re about to zoom down the switchbacks to the public pool, which is in a deep hollow near the centre of our hilly town. The only problem is that I’ve never actually ridden a bicycle with hand brakes before, and am somewhat unclear on the concept. As I roar down the hill towards the first switchback, the back of which is a 100-foot dropoff, backpedalling madly to no avail, I take one of the sorts of off-the-cuff decisions which will end up characterizing most of the rest of my life : drop and slide, or sail off the edge into the abyss? I drop and slide through the gravel and broken glass, ripping most of the skin off the left side of my body, and embedding a few pebbles in the babyfat around my beltline. I stop sliding a few feet from the lip of the cliff, and David’s bike sails off into space. Still got one of those rocks buried in there. Not much in the way of scars, though, which still amazes me.
Stay tuned to this channel for more amusing tales of agonizing pain!
Or not. Your call.
Edit after a few more beers : It’s late Friday evening, which of course means there are an undisclosed number of Empty Bottles sitting around the WonderChicken at the moment : I just had a thought that it would be swell to wake up tomorrow to some similar tales of Really Painful Things from other friends in the virtual neighbourhood, if they were so inclined, just for fun. It’d be a break from Metablogging, at least…
I woke up this morning from a dream of Flores, Indonesia. Bena, a small stone-age village, perched on the side of a volcano, that has stayed with me since the day I saw it, and has been the setting for many of my dreams.
Getting there was the usual trial of endurance that travel in some parts of the world can be. It had been about seven hours the previous day on one of the short buses that ply the narrow roads of Flores. One of the old Indonesia hands that we’d met in the days previous had told us to watch out for long bus trips in Flores – he’d said that the unhappy result of the winding ride through the incredibly rugged terrain, the road only having been in existence for a few years, and the fact that many of the locals were unaccustomed to long rides in motor vehicles was that on the longer trips, there was a tendency for a great deal of vomiting to occur.
‘Bah’, said I, ‘it can’t be that bad’.
About 3 hours into the trip, I’d managed to reach a detente of sorts with the chicken that had been pecking and pulling at my shoelaces. I’d noted to myself that chickens do not seem to be as clever as some other animals, in the sense that if you kick them, they forget about it rather quickly, and come back for more. Not that I have a long and noble history of animal-kicking experimentation : one just makes assumptions about being-kicked response systems. At some point, though, it had sunk into the chicken’s little birdy brain that my shoelaces were not edible, so I felt I had achieved a minor victory.
There was still the horrible, pathetic bleating of the live goat that was tied to the roof of the bus, unfortunately. This had been getting to me, until the bus driver popped in a cassette of the Rolling Stones’ Hot Rocks, which did drown out the poor bastard’s lamentation to a degree. In the fashion of all Flores bus drivers, the treble and volume on the cassette player had been turned all the way up, and what bass or midrange there might be had been silenced. After a few hours, I began to loathe that album. Ruby Tuesday still makes me break out in a sweat. But it was better, perhaps, than the goat-cries. Still, when the bus stopped for any length of time, the bleats of goaty anguish would start up again, and me and my vegetarian companion would glance at each other and make ‘yikes!’ sort of eyes.
Auditory assaults were soon to be the least of my worries. About halfway through the journey to Bajawa from Ende, a few more people managed to squeeze their way onto the bus and find places to stand or sit on the floor. Before getting aboard, two men, with the assistance of the driver and some of their friends, strapped a dead manta ray to the back of the bus, like a gigantic grey meaty parasol. The wingspan on this creature must have been close to three metres. Unfortunately, every time the bus stopped, a fragrance began to emanate from the corpse that managed to cut through the clove cigarette smoke like, well, like dead fish through pretty much anything. This olfactory extravaganza was actually preferable, though, to the next hundred or so kilometres. One of the manta-ray guys was standing in the narrow aisle beside where I was sitting, and once he’d made himself comfortable between sacks of rice and hunkered-down bodies, he more or less perched his right buttock on my left shoulder. There wasn’t much space to manoeuvre in this bus. Once he’d established to his satisfaction that I wasn’t really going to object to the crowding, he proceeded to fart in my left ear, non-stop, for the next two hours. Quietly, surreptitiously, but with a reek that overpowered even the dead manta ray. This, combined with the tinny shriek of Mick Jagger, the bleating of the dehydrated goat on the roof, the unique scent of the mantaray and the redoubled efforts of my chicken nemesis, was beginning to make me a little antsy.
Then the vomiting started…
That wise backpacker had been right. One of the young women in the seat ahead of us stuck her head out the window and regurgitated with a furious, gut-churning intensity. Her seatmate soon joined her, but, sitting as she was on the aisle seat, she didn’t have access to a window. Yes, I know. This began a chain-reaction which propagated, in a matter of minutes, to heaving and spewing up and down the length of the bus. Some of it even made it out the windows. The bus driver ignored the symphony of spew, the manta-guy kept farting on my shoulder, I chain-smoked to try and ignore the stench, and we carried on through the mountains.
We eventually did arrive in Bajawa, and I have rarely been as happy to get out of a motor vehicle.
Perhaps I’ll save the story of the stone-age village for later….
Ah, all around me in my virtual neighbourhood people are conversing in the hushed whispers of high seriousness, and I’ve been talking about poop. The Wonderchicken : Going Off On Tangents Since 1965™.
So, how about we talk death a bit? (Gotcha!) And by ‘we’, I mean ‘I’. As well as discussion of disappearing up one’s own butt (and a nastier death would be hard to imagine, unless it might be disappearing up someone else‘s butt), there has been some talk of death lately in my virtual neighbourhood, from Mike and Shelley and Jonathon and Kalilily (who lives one block over) and others, and the talk has been stirring up some sediment at the bottom of my brain, down deep where those weird-ass flat fish live. The grey rubbery ones with both eyes on the same side of their heads. You don’t want to mess with those bastards — they have sharp teeth.
But I have years of experience in wrangling the f–kers, so I’m going to poke a stick down there and see what comes up. Not a response, but a riff. This may well be more than you care to know about me, and if so, just skip it.
I remember, unclearly, the first two of the many deaths that have molded what’s left of my small family. One night when I was about 4 years old, I think, and sleeping the sleep of the just and the play-exhausted, I heard a commotion downstairs. It was, by my reckoning, the middle of the night, but that could easily have been anytime from 9 pm to 5 am. I had been awakened from a dream in which my father had carried me down to the landing that was about a third of the way from the top, and told me that I would need to take care of my mother. I remember it as a pleasant dream, and, if a little distressing, not as much frightening as it was confusing. The noise downstairs escalated quickly from whispers and murmuring voices to sobs and wails. I snuck down to the landing on which I’d been sitting moments before in my dream and peeked through the railings. There was a policeman, and my mother’s sister and her husband, my uncle. There’d been an accident. Drinking was involved. Fallen asleep at the wheel. He didn’t make it. I don’t recall anything after that, for quite a long time.
I remember much more clearly, two or three years later, the next accident. My mother had remarried. She’d accepted the proposal of one of my father’s coworkers at the TH&B Railroad. If I struggle, I can remember the new bicycle sitting on the porch on the morning of my birthday that year, and how I overheard much later that it had been a deciding factor in her decision. My new step-father had moved the family out west, in a bid to shake off the oppressive presence of his own family, most of whom he disliked, for his own reasons. We’d ended up in a small northern town in British Columbia, and although the streets saw race-related violence between native indians, Pakistani immigrants, and Euros, and the first winter brought 6 or 7 metres of snow — more than I’d ever dreamt of, let alone seen — and the water smelled rotten-egg funny, it was a clean and beautiful place. My new dad had bought a riverboat, which we kept at a marina on the river, and took out onto the lake on weekends, to fish and just wander around looking at things. I have happy sunburnt memories of cruising along on glass-flat dark water, trailing a hand alongside, just smelling the air, watching the wall of spruce and pine trees wind by.
We all wore lifejackets, conscientiously. We took as much care as people did back in the early ’70s, which wasn’t nearly enough. One late summer afternoon, when we were returning from a day on the water, we were moving our gear along the floating dock, back to the truck. My stepfather was ashore, I was nearing the water’s edge, my mother a few metres behind me, and my brother, who was a couple of years younger than I, was just getting out of the boat, carrying a fishing pole. He’d taken off his lifejacket, and nobody’d noticed. God knows why.
I heard a splash, and turned to see the circle of disturbed water sliding downstream in the strong current. My mother let out a bellow, ran, and dived in. My father raced past me, and I followed, pelting up the dock to where my mother had dived into the river. We pulled her out. The current was too strong.
The next thing I remember is a couple of teenage girls comforting me as I leant against the back of the truck, hoarsely screaming ‘someone help my brother!’, and the next thing after that was a numb, silent ride to the hospital.
We spent weeks, months, riding up and down the river, searching for my brother, with various people from the town who took us under their wings. They never did find the body.
Other people in my family have died over the years – all my grandparents, great-aunts and uncles and so on. My stepfather too, a decade ago now, almost.
This is probably the first time I’ve written about those times, that I can recall, although I’ve told the stories many times since they first came rushing back when I was in my early twenties. The deaths in my family, coming for the most part as they did early in my life, may have given me a slightly different perspective on it than some. Although I love life, with a great, chest-thumping passion, I am… matter-of-fact about dying. I understand the grief and loss that people feel, but I simply can’t get terribly worked up over it, anymore. This comes not from being hard-hearted, as some have assumed over the years — old friends will attest that I’m nothing if not self-indulgently sentimental — but from a baked-in awareness, not so much burned into my brain as sewn into my gut, that death is at the end of the road for all of us, each and every one, and what is, is good.
I’ve tried to live as many lives as possible in the time allotted to me, however long that time may be, and I think this awareness of an End is one of the things that has driven me out onto the Road most of my adult life.
To regard the death of those you know and love as a natural thing, to turn the painful experience of their loss into something that enriches and strengthens your own life (because, face it, they ain’t got one anymore) – that’s the mostly truly reverant eulogy and memorial one can make. Which is trite, perhaps, but people seem to forget it, again and again.
I’m remembering tonight (after the requisite beer and the appropriate musical prodding) the first time I saw the Southern Cross, sitting in the cockpit of Elmo’s Fire, a kinda-stolen 71-foot sailboat, two in the morning off the Pacific coast of Mexico, the great chromed wheel in my hand, whales surfacing alongside with their comical wheezes and puffs, squid boats off on the horizon bearing spidery armatures of brilliant white lights pointed straight down into the water. Tight blue shadows, starlight like the light of day, but simpler and somehow cleaner. I remember how sanctified it felt to be out there on the quiet sea, sails luffing gently, sweating out the alcohol, wondering where the hell my life was going to take me, but certain that I’d remember that moment that my skipper pointed out the constellation to me, just above the horizon, for the rest of my life.
This memory doesn’t belong here, but I don’t know what the hell to do with it.