Listen For The Helpful Voices

Another popular artist, this time Chester Bennington of Linkin Park has been lost to death by suicide. Whenever there is news of a death by suicide of a highly successful celebrity a voice in my head impulsively says, “How can someone so rich, successful, and creative, do this? What do they have to be so unhappy about?”

I am aware how this minimizes the tragic loss of human life their story tells; how the comparison of my life to that of the celebrity stirs resentment and fear instead of compassion. I see a lot of this in the social media frenzy that tends to follow these stories. The focus is more on the celebrity than the illness that caused their death; the one linked to the other in absurd ways. These aren’t stories about celebrities, not necessarily, but of human beings who suffered a terrible illness that claimed their lives. We make more out of the celebrity status than is helpful in discussions about the mental illness their untimely death provokes. 

I myself have suffered immense sadness, have endured bouts of spirit-crushing depression. It is frightening to think that death by suicide is where it may one day lead. This is why, in the face of such tragic news, there’s an impulse to harbour ideas that attempt to explain and rationalize away these senseless deaths. On self-reflection, it strikes me as a way to distance myself from the fear, and the reality of just how harrowing the human condition can become, especially when its ebbs-and-flows are intensified by mental illness. 

None of us is immune, despite our collective efforts to posit and reinforce ideas about how success equals happiness, which we seem to need as a shield to the possibility of psychological defeat in the face of countless threats in the human experience. I don’t think any of us is any more or less vulnerable to this illness given the right circumstances. When a celebrity dies by suicide, it is an affront to our childish ideas about happiness, and shines a revealing light on how stridently we deny and repress the realities of mental illness. It also shines a bright light on the true harshness of the human experience. 

In this respect the tragic death by suicide of Robin Williams is illustrative. Many fans and admirers were genuinely saddened at his death. Many more could not help but betray a profound fear at what it said about “happiness”, their comments expressing the sentiment “if he is vulnerable, what does that say about me?” That is it exactly. 

This is why I stop that voice of resentment in its tracks, why I don’t express “shock” that another human being has succumbed to the West’s silent killer, just because they were a celebrity. Celebrities are human just like you and I, no matter how hard we try to put them on a pedestal to satiate our psychological need for a panacea to human woe. Denial is unhealthy in the face of tragedies that warrant compassion, not just for those who have died, but for ourselves and others in our life who are struggling right now. 

It is dangerous to plaster ill-conceived ideas about why celebrities shouldn’t be mentally ill, or why suicide is “selfish”, either on social media feeds or comment walls wherever news of these deaths is published. Why? Because people who are surviving with mental illness are reading those threads. To deny the humanity of the celebrity who succumbed is to deny the humanity of the anonymous who struggle day by day to survive, but may yet still die by suicide. For anyone who has mental illness despite outward appearances of success, however shallow and feckless our society measures it, this is the last thing they need to hear. It is a refrain that surely risks causing more guilt or shame for their illness. 

Our society already does a stellar job of shaming and stigmatizing those with mental illness, without also having the occasion of another death increasing their burden. When mental illness claims another life, the last thing a person with the same illness needs to hear is assertions about how their illness is a figment of their imagination that doesn’t – or shouldn’t – exist, just because they are successful or have an ostensibly charmed life. 

As a person with ADD, I know how hurtful it is to hear how every arm-chair, ignoramus shrink with a PhD from Twitter-Internet College believes the condition that has nearly ruined my life, that is at times the bane of my existence, is “a conspiracy invented by drug companies.” No, it is bloody well not and I know because I live my life despite it. It is a condition that afflicts my brain, and is manifest by dysregulating the balance and flow of certain neurotransmitters needed to propel functional thoughts and behaviours. In that way, my ADD shares a biological antecedent similar to depression, anxiety, schizophrenia or other neuro-psychological conditions. Just because science does not yet know how or why, does not make it any less true. 

To those who knew and loved Chester Bennington of Linkin Park, I am truly sorry for your loss. My heart aches and my spirit weeps for those who have lost someone they cherish to suicide. It is sad, on a profound, metaphysical level, that these lives ended in one of the most tragic ways imaginable for a human being. I am sorry for the legions who suffer this wicked mental illness and for the pain they have to live with every day. I am sorry the illness made it too difficult for those who ultimately succumbed to have seen another way; one that would have kept them alive. 

For others out there struggling, no matter how society may tell you your illness is “all in your head” or makes you feel it is cured by an “attitude adjustment”, know that these notions are false and you should not heed those voices.  Mental illness is real, it is biologically-rooted, and it doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor, famous or living in ignominy. It does not care what ignorant falsehoods our mindless society clings to about mental illness. There are professionals and other helpers who know better and are trained and eager to help. Turn your focus to them and, at the very least, listen to those whose knowledge about mental illness is real. Cover your eyes and ears to the foolish voices who say things to appease their own fear and shock; who are well intentioned but extremely unhelpful in their clumsiness. 

Nobody who suffers an illness – be it cancer, ALS, or Parkinson’s – is to blame for their affliction. Mental illness is not the fault of those afflicted, and it does not have to be a lonely struggle. If you are living with mental illness, seek out the experts to provide the help and supports you need to continue living a fruitful life; to help you cope despite the illness; to ensure you are a survivor. 

Peace and love to you. You are not alone. 

Good Things Come to Those Who Don’t Wait (For Death)

This costs nothing and means everything when you're gone.

This costs nothing and means everything when you’re gone.

We’re all going to die. Not necessarily soon, but eventually. I hope that doesn’t come as a surprise.

We have to remind ourselves sometimes, especially when we’re being unreasonably harsh, either on ourselves or toward others we know and love. Denial about the inevitable keeps the poker flame well-lit, especially when life is spending a little too much time in the fast lane.

When we’re in that head-space we’re not really enjoying the gift. Sometimes a bucket of cold, hard truth can snap us out of the ignorant funk.

It’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. You’re so wrapped up in the process of ‘doing’ you forget yourself.  You forget why you’re so engrossed, but since you’re in it, you’re in it. Even if you know you’re being a shithead, you don’t know how else to operate to get you through.

You believe you are what you are; that fundamental change is impossible and you’re stuck on the path you put yourself on long ago. You’re going to react as you’ve always done, even if sometimes you wish you hadn’t, because it’s got you where you are.

There’s a pang inside you suggesting something’s not right, but you can’t figure out what it is or how to shift gears. You’ll stay on your hamster wheel even though it may be crushing your spirit and literally killing you. Don’t wait until you’re facing death to come to realizations needed to stir change.

Think about death. It will help clarify what needs to change in time for you to reap the benefits in your life. Maybe you’ll spread some of the grace from your awareness to others who could use a kick in the ass. You won’t regret it when you are really about to die. You won’t regret it now either, if you can get going.

Because you’re still living like a teenager who thinks they’re going to live forever, small, insignificant problems are amplified in your mind. Let’s say you’re running late. Not late to save a dying patient on an operating table, but late for a meeting. Late for a haircut. Late for work at your office job.

You’re worried about inconveniencing someone, how that makes you come off in their eyes. You fear your boss sending you a passive aggressive e-mail for not showing up to the office on time. Your boss needs to get a grip too. Since you’re going to die, you shouldn’t be so afraid to tell them that.

But you worry about those things because you take your mortality for granted. Those worries translate into self-absorption – pressing into the world so firmly as to make it align with your neurotic vision of where everything ought to be. It sucks you dry, and your dessicated spirit sucks the life out of others around you.

Today, it’s because you’re late. Another day you got in a fight with your spouse, or someone didn’t give you what you thought was your entitlement. Someone took umbrage with you for no good reason. It’s always something.

You jump in your car, speeding through town like a maniac. You zip past school zones, cut people off, weave in and out of traffic. You don’t let the buses into traffic. They’re carrying dozens of passengers who are too poor to own a car, or who are trying to keep their SUV off the roads to spare the earth a few metric tonnes of extra pollution.

You give people the finger, honk your horn, blast through red lights, and flout public safety. You text to say ‘you’re on your way’ as if everyone else’s life depended on it. You’re a total menace to society. Why? Because you are late. Or you’ve just got to see the text that’s come in. Those incoming texts or tweets are always so riven with epiphanies as to make risking your total destruction worthwhile.

Perspective has been lost. It’s made you wilfully ignorant of the serious harm you invite on others because you cheapen life with your habit of forgetting about where it’s all headed. If that isn’t your intention, perspective needs to be re-acquired. Here’s something: you won’t care about any of the things that get you riled up when you’re dead.

Holding hands silhouette

Laugh. Dance. Play. Love. Fall in love too, even if there’s a risk. Do these things because the intentions are pure and simple. They make life remarkable.

When you are facing death the important things crystallize. Why wait? Put yourself in that head-space now to sharpen your thinking.

You will see how important it is your kids know you really love them. It will matter you have great, loving relationships. It will matter if you can look in the mirror and honestly say your presence on this planet is, on the whole, mostly positive. It will matter how you treat others, including strangers.

The only way these meaningful things can really resonate in your life is if you invest your time and energy in cultivating them now. Later may never come if you die unexpectedly.

It’s two o’clock in the afternoon and you get an urgent, out-of-the-blue task from a higher-up saying they “need” that such-and-such thing done by tomorrow at noon. You know he’s been sitting on the issue for weeks. Now it’s come to a head – your head, in fact.

You know in your heart the demand is extremely unreasonable. You know you’re going to be at the office until late and maybe have to do the work at home when you’d rather be tucking your kids into bed. The idea the higher up doesn’t care fuels your fire. Say something. Don’t just say “yes.” Let them know what they’ve asked of you. Maybe they genuinely weren’t aware.

Stand up for the quality of your precious life and for that of others. Be brave. It’s a cliché but one that is all too suffused with truth to flout, especially when it’s your life on the line. When we’re facing death, all bets are off with fear. It doesn’t help then and it isn’t helping now.

It’s time to stop allowing yourself to become so apoplectic because of others. After a point, your outrage becomes more your fault than theirs. Try to be more measured in your righteous indignation. You’re going to die soon and you don’t want to go out like that – with your head swirling in acrimony. As Mr. T says “pity the fools.” Let people try to make their problems yours because they’re ignoramuses. Don’t let them succeed.

Ensure people respect your life in their dealings with you. Those who constantly violate your boundaries have to be met with the sound of your feet walking in the other direction. This will keep your sanity safely from their crosshairs. You are worth it.

If a person’s bad behaviour is uncharacteristic figure out what ails them and turn their tactics into an opportunity to enlighten. Let people have a bad day without making it worse by reacting to it poorly yourself. Nobody is born a jerk and a fool. Everyone is capable of change eventually. And sometimes, a fool needs a hug.

Living in the world as if it was your last days is liberating. You’ll say and do things that really, really matter and won’t waste your energies engaged in pointless battles with those facets of our wealthy, privileged Western existence that unconsciously spread misery. You won’t waste your time in places or with people who are disrespectful, ignorant, or foolish. You’ll feel sorry for them as you expunge them from your richer, fuller life.

The new-found lightness of your existence will be the graceful foil in their angry, ignorant faces. Gandhi stared down centuries of colonial rule with ahimsa, so you can probably withstand the indignities in your relatively fortunate life.

If you can’t help allowing things and people getting under your skin, or if you try to dominate and control your surroundings your life will become decidedly smaller for it. The legacy you’ll leave behind will be full of broken bridges and an earth scorched by so many misdeeds necessary to chase the pointless goal of cupping the whole world in your greedy, selfish hands.

Meanwhile, there are so many tangible, meaningful things that command your attention and withstand your neglect. Focus on the meaningful things in your life as if you’re never going to see them again. Don’t wait for the doctor to tell you you have cancer to start getting that done.

When you are fully conscious of how precious your life is, the potentially negative entanglements you are so easily hooked into are easily ignored. When someone you love says or does something hurtful, your heart will quickly trump your fragile, injured ego. Instead of reacting in defense and making things worse you’ll ask “are you okay?” swinging the whole encounter in a totally different direction for the better. When your child is out of line, instead of reacting with scorn, imagine it’s the last encounter you’ll have with them and let that guide your next action.

Your ego takes a back seat when you’re focused on doing what matters to make your remaining days on the planet peaceful and joyful. You will walk the earth differently if you think “maybe this will be the last,” and will find a way to enjoy things, even if they are unpleasant. At least you’re alive to have an opinion either way; a privilege deprived so many millions every day.

Make the time.

Make the time. It costs nothing and its value is infinite.

“Okay, so I’m supposed to act like my death is imminent. Do I go and quit my job and travel, climb Mount Everest, buy things I’ve always wanted, go skydiving, and exist on credit? I have responsibilities,” you say.

What a fucking cliché. You have what you need to make your life what you want it to be right now and still respect all your obligations. You aren’t obliged to live in a four thousand square foot home and make a million dollars a year. You aren’t obliged to spread insensitivity, greed, and acrimony as you set about to conquer the world. Your mind is still beholden to the common idea that the most sophisticated being in all of the natural world was evolved to amass wealth, subjugate the planet, and buy stuff.

Shame on you for steadfastly believing something so ruinous to your well-being and your relationship with the important people in your life; not to mention the planet and all the creatures on it. If you were dying tomorrow you know you wouldn’t spend your last days shopping or amassing more wealth.

You would want to share your precious love with those who care about you. The other things you typically fret over would slide off your consciousness. The beauty in the multitude of simple, little phenomena in your everyday life will not escape your notice. The need to acquire luxuriant adornments vanishes in an instant because you know they add nothing truly meaningful to your life.

Here is something to be afraid of: dying before you really, truly lived.

There is good news to be plucked right from the heart of the bad. You’re a homo sapiens, the only creature capable of pondering its own death and with the capacity for insight on how to chart the wisest way forward. You’re running late in the exercise, but make your steps a little more intentional from here on out, you dig?

So think about your death. It will help transform a life too often mired in the small and pointless into one that is infinite and rich with meaningful experience.

Life: A Drama Worth Celebrating

It is easy to get swallowed up in the drama of our own lives, especially when you’ve suffered a series of setbacks. Over the past few years a combination of spiritual and physical practices have tenuously kept the seeds of disillusionment from blossoming and overtaking my spirit. At the same time, the state of my personal life has been in precipitous decline, coming to its nadir in 2012. I have to confess, it’s been a particularly diffident struggle to go beyond my safe bubble of neuroses to look for a bright side beyond those comfortable edges.

The year 2012 opened with the demise of my marriage to a woman I’d been with nearly nineteen years. Leaving the home I shared with she and my twins for the last time felt like the beginnings of a steep, treacherous climb over a mountain to an alien existence that awaited me on the other side. It felt as though I had to make the trek with missing limbs and an obliterated heart.

In late Spring I learned I was to lose my job. The ousting of dozens of colleagues who gave their lives to public service saved my skin, for now at least. It was all part of a purging by politicians harbouring a pathological disdain for civil servants. These ideologues are still my masters, at least in the abstract, and they crack the whip at the backs of my eviscerated co-workers and I who are left to tend our hollowed-out departments. I’m a black man, and I should have serious misgivings about working for a cadre of angry, craven white men who despise what I stand for. But it’s a paycheque, so I bury my head and plod on.

In late 2005, both of my twins were diagnosed with a developmental disorder with no known cause or cure. The diagnosis forced us to move away from a city and lives we loved to the city I grew up in so we could affordably access behavioural therapy. It was an uprooting predicated on the faint hope the non-medical therapy would pay off in the future. With that move I left a dream job in a city bustling with opportunity for a hometown I was all too happy to forever leave behind seven years earlier. My career has stalled ever since; it is a small, provincial, working-class place where a graduate liberal-arts education and experience in international affairs are as in-demand as butter knives in a butcher shop.

The strain of so many setbacks, so much hardship, and so much uncertainty about the future was too much for my marriage to withstand. I became detached and ambivalent; made so by the shabby circumstances that cast a cloud over my perception of what life had become. I shut out the world closest to me, maniacally pursuing one distraction after another to bury my anger and sadness in the haze of constant motion.

In my absence, my wife looked to others for support and we weathered the storm mostly in isolation, fortifying our castles of resentment and dredging deep moats of hostility along the way. Our focus was on getting by; attending to the kids’ special needs to forge a better future for them. The strong relationship we built over so many years was left unattended, and after years of steady decline it eventually crumbled from the neglect.

There is no silk purse to be made from the sow’s ear. In 2005, life burnt my happy house down. I took some embers from the ashes of my blissful existence and held them in my bitter heart. In the years that followed I scattered them far and wide until the earth all around me was scorched and those closest to me were singed by the inferno.

I contrast the path of mental destruction I chose to confront my setbacks to the tack taken by two women my age who have been diagnosed with cancer. One of these is a personal friend, the other an old school mate I knew several years ago, who I greatly admired and respected for her heart, her supreme intellect, and the fact she could play a mean bass in a punk band.

Catherine has taken to sharing her story about her treatment and the disruptions caused by her disease in candid, lengthy e-mails with her varied networks of friends. Over the past two years she’s undergone aggressive chemotherapy for a type of leukemia that rarely strikes forty year-olds. Initially she had it licked, but over the past half-year it has made a comeback and has forced her into a second round of chemotherapy. At the same time, she lost her job, got cut off by her long-term disability provider, and her mother passed away.

She writes with such frankness and humour about her ordeal, and I relish the chance she’s given me to be a fly on the wall through her experiences, even if it has been tough reading. Tough reading. It seems ridiculous to even write it out. I’m not the one throwing up and changing sweat-soaked sheets from a perpetual fever. It’s striking how active Catherine keeps herself, and how neither anger nor bitterness seem to trip her up as she goes. She’s not opting out of things, in spite of her sickness, and in spite of the people who’ve run away from she and her cancer. I assume her story is too difficult for some; maybe they don’t know what to say. It seems like the wrong approach.

Catherine’s had more of a life in recent years than I have; she is less dragged down by negativity. It’s an embarrassing reality given she’s had to overcome aggressive chemotherapy, anemia, fevers, nausea, all-encompassing fatigue and dozens upon dozens of tests, appointments, drainings and proddings. My only excuses are laziness, self-pity, dispiritedness, and apathy.

About a year ago I noticed some of Lisa’s facebook updates alluded to cancer, but the turmoil in my own affairs turned my mind away from social media, and I did not fully grasp the specifics. As I pulled out of my haze in summer I noticed regular updates of bike trips and other active adventures throughout Europe, which I took as encouraging news. If she had cancer, she must surely have it licked, and was savouring the normalcy re-gained. What a relief, I thought. A true champion in the battle against the world’s misanthropes had been restored to good health.

I was mistaken. In November Lisa decided to share her experience about the Stage IV cancer that has caught her in its grasp. She refers to herself as being in ‘Stage V’ cancer – “not just palliative, but writing a blog about it.” Wittiness and good humour, even in the face of such trying circumstances.

So there it was, in my facebook newsfeed. Lisa was gravely ill and in the fight of her life. She writes:

It’s been one year slash 12 months slash 366 days of cancer.  It’s been simultaneously the fastest year of my life and the slowest. Words that I never knew existed have become part of my everyday lexicon: pleurodesis, chemotherapy, gamma-knives.  My bathroom and bedroom are filled with medicines whose awkward names now roll easily off my tongue: metaclopamide, dexamethazone, cyclazine.  My previous life of teaching and libraries, conferences and abstracts, has been eclipsed by clinics and CT scans, second opinions and canulas. And an existence that was previously metered out in words per page has become one where writing, and even reading, has faded into the background.

I was despondent after reading her blog post. Lisa is thirty-seven, which is too young to be suffering from Stage IV lung cancer. It was the first time in a long while my sadness wasn’t brimming from the well of self-pity. Nothing in what I had faced this past year, or the years’ prior, was of the life-threatening variety. For now at least, I can count on the relative certainty of being alive to wallow in my misfortunes.

Well, enough of that, I should think.

At least I don’t have to face cancer like Lisa and Catherine. Not yet anyhow, and I shouldn’t squander the good fortune to have my health intact. My problems aren’t small, but they aren’t, relatively speaking, as grave as life and death.

With eyes open I can see the scale of my problems in their proper light. It isn’t a competition, but it is a fact that alters my perception of things. It makes me slightly ashamed for all the brooding I’ve been doing, for the volume of time that’s been gnashed away with angry teeth and spit out. I wish I could take it all back and give it to these two courageous women fighting cancer – or to the millions of others doing the same. They would put it to better use than I did.

The magnitude of the developments in 2005 was conflated in my mind because of all the changes it wrought. I am ashamed to admit my view of things until then had been remarkably self-referential. My eyes were gazing far into my navel when my troubles came, and I wasn’t habituated to looking for the positives when things got off track. It’s a vicious cycle that taints your worldview.

When you veer in this direction a resignation sets in your mind to the idea that you are a powerless victim of omnipotent forces. You tread water and leave your fate to the four winds instead of finding the determination to work with what life hands you. It’s taken time to come to the realization that, with focused effort, you can at least shape the direction of things. Sometimes you get to a better place, other times you end up somewhere else. The virtue is in the honest attempt to swim with the tide.

The truth is, the world is indifferent to your feelings about what unfolds; nothing happens to smite you or better your station. When calamity strikes, you’ve still got some control over how to approach things in your mind: with anger, denial, and bitterness, or acceptance and determination to prevail with dignity. It’s the lesson I take away from these women sharing their tumultuous cancer journey with the world.

The energy they put into living their lives to the fullest extent possible, to finding the positives wherever they can be found, is a genuine source of wisdom and truth. There is no boiling over with indignation at the hand they’ve been dealt. Instead it’s a business-like moving forward day by day. The outlook resonates at a time when the struggles in my own life have been intense. My heart wants to reach out in a meaningful way to embrace these women in their journey, and that spirit is a source of inner-strength for me. It’s what I need to pull up my socks.

Nothing in the world is meant to go right or wrong and nothing lasts forever, try as I might to hang on as if it were so. Things will go as they go, and I’ve got to go with them or end up in a haze of denial. It’s no way to live; with a mind resistant to reality because things didn’t go as expected, according to a blueprint sketched out by a blind man with lofty, unrealistic ideals. It’s easier, I think, to throw away the master plan than it is to keep coming to blows with a world that never seems to fall in line.

I’ll leave it to Catherine to remind me of a more fruitful approach to living life, however it comes:

Waiting is a BIG part of Cancer Life. A tremendous amount of patience is needed. I live day by day. I will admit that some days are better and easier than others. For my own overall health and happiness, I do my best not to worry about tomorrow. I have more than enough people in my life that do the worrying for me. I continue to take on each challenge, setback, and struggle as it comes. I mindfully pick and choose my battles. In the meantime, I embrace every aspect of Life. Even in moments of crisis, I can and am allowed to find reasons to celebrate. After having personally been to Cancer Hell, the good moments – no matter how big or small – are all worth a celebration. Life is a constant blessing. I have learned to celebrate and enjoy the little things in my Life; one day I may look back on all of this and realize they were big things.

Bacon: My Gateway Meat

There’s something about bacon that keeps bringing me back to meat. Throughout my life I’ve had many solid stints of vegetarianism thwarted by the smell and ultimately, the crumbling of my will to the scrumptious virtues of bacon.

I might turn to gnawing off my arm on afternoons when I find myself a little peckish if I were to bathe in this.

I’ve taken to referring to bacon as my ‘gateway meat’. It always seems to happen that, well into a course of vegetarianism, I forget myself and and accept an invitation to dine with friends at a place with a breakfast buffet. There, I am tempted by row upon row of sausages, ham, and bacon. I look despondently at my plate of scrambled eggs, hash browns, and pancakes, as if staring at a photo of orphaned children pining for a family. Then, the seed of my undoing emerges: “a couple of strips of bacon won’t hurt, will it?”

The taste of bacon is the catalyst for a precipitous decline into a pork binge in the days that follow. Pork roasts, pork tenderloins, spare ribs, and pork chops for dinner. Ham sandwiches and smokies with sauerkraut for lunch. Pastas with chorizo, pancetta, prosciutto, or italian sausage, hold the peppers and peas. Breakfast with sausage, ham, and all varieties of bacon: back, peameal, side, maple, and hickory smoked.

In the span of a couple weeks, the goodness in all the legumes, nuts, greens and roots I once called a meal regimen is ruthlessly evicted from my body, pushed out by the invading masses of saturated fat I’ve mindlessly crammed in. With it, my bowels return to a steady-state of semi-constipation, a homeostasis far more at home to me than the constant bloatedness and the endless emptying I experience on a vegetarian diet; that leave me cursing my toilet and nursing my over-worked anus.

You eat veggie patties, I eat pigs. Either way, something’s going to die for our meal, why not wash your guilt down with some bacon grease, no?

With vegetarianism on hiatus, the risk of ‘sharts’ and countless trips to the crapper a day are usually behind me. A moisture, suppleness, and colourful hue return to my hair, skin, and complexion. I don’t have to fight the onset of lethargy and burn out during intense workouts or runs longer than five kilometres. The idea of never staring down another plate of quinoa or bulgur wheat and uttering the lie “wow, looks great!” is liberating and keeps me running to the butcher. Soon enough, I’m eating steak, fish, and chicken for nearly every meal.

But the guilt and shame of my ethical failing quickly returns.

I am filled with anxiety when I look my yoga-enthusiast, buddhist, anti-animal cruelty friends in the eyes. Can their ayurvedic noses catch the whiff of pork-fat oozing from my pores? A one-time slip into savagery could be forgiven. I was raised in a family committed to the Tyrannosaurus Rex diet, where vegetables were a colourful but perfunctory accoutrement to the meat. The habit of tearing the flesh of sentient beings with my incisors is well-honed and hard to break.

But the subsequent heaps of unethically slaughtered, animal flesh that I willingly fill my palate after the lapse; that I crave like air? By my tenth ‘slip’ into eating meat, I’ve usually traded in my rice cooker for a  new set of carving knives. Once I’ve ambled firmly down the carnivore path, paying good money for a meal of exotic vegetables in lieu of the succulent meat offerings on a restaurant menu seems tantamount to asking my doctor for a colonoscopy when a ‘smear-test’ will do.

So I avoid meal-time socializing with my vegetarian friends, at least until I get a good fix and get back on track. In the meantime, invites to barbecues are sheepishly accepted. Following a few words of contrition for any past sanctimony on my part, my hosts are delighted as I share in the main course of burgers, ribs, or steak they’ve prepared.

I don’t leave hungry and agitated because I’ve had to hash together a ‘meal’ out of potato salad, coleslaw, chips, or other side-dishes. I am spared the leathery, freezer-burnt insult of some veggie-oriented meat substitute liberated from several months of living a sad, anonymous existence buried at the bottom of the freezer beneath a constantly changing roster of roasts, ribs, chicken fingers, and ham. Instead, I leave with a good taste in my mouth, a satiated belly, and the contentment of strained friendships set right.

Broccoli? Yeah, like, not even close to being as awesome as bacon. It’s green, like Kermit the Frog and algae, and smells like farts when you cook it. Like farts. ‘Nuff said.

I struggle with the repeated turning away from vegetarianism. There are plenty of genuine reasons to disavow meat: e coli, salmonella, bovine spongiform encephalitis, irradiation, the spread of anti-biotic resistant diseases, colon cancer, enivironmental degradation, and so on. As a wealthy society, there are plenty of affordable options that make the elimination of meat from our diet altogether, or at least a dramatic reduction in our consumption of meat, a reasonable and viable option.

Then there is the ethical argument. We are raising domesticated beings for their ultimate slaughter and consumption.  The slaughter of animals, whether mass produced or “free” range is horrifying and cruel. It couldn’t be otherwise. It would be more fair if we had to hunt our food and kill it with our own hands before we ate it, but we don’t. It’s bad karma to ignore what is involved in getting that steak to your plate, if you believe in that idea, which I do. I desperately want to be a vegetarian for these reasons.

It’s just that, well, meat is so bloody delectable, isn’t it? No vegetable will ever come close to delivering the full bodied bliss of a rib-eye steak done to perfection, or of fresh tuna sashimi. The best, most well-prepared vegetable dish will never rival the crappiest grade of bacon, if such a thing could even be said to exist.

Bacon is one of the simplest, cheapest, and most reckless choices in a carnivorous diet. It is laden with salt, saturated fats, cholesterol, and all the other horrendous byproducts of food produced for mass consumption. It takes only a few strips to approach the intake of calories and fat content of an entire meal.

Except, no lover of bacon eats just a few strips at a sitting, do they? That’d be like having just three kernels of buttery popcorn at the movies, or two Doritos from a bag, or four french fries from a carton. Who has that kind of self-restraint? Not me, that’s who. Every time I eat bacon it’s lots and lots of bacon; so much that I’m forced to eat lettuce and water for the rest of the day, or go for a four-hour workout to avoid racking up three days’ worth of fat and calories in a single day.

That’s not a complaint, by the way. It’s just a fact. The imposition is well worth it.

The irony that bacon is my gateway meat is not lost on me. My vegetarianism has never been thwarted by a tenderloin steak, or a succulent grilled mahi mahi, prime rib, or coq au vin. It’s always been bacon that lures me under the bus of moral turpitude.

It’s a troubling admission because pigs are filthy, grotesque, vile animals who live in mountains of their own dung and devour anything under the sun when hungry. It’s disturbing to think of how enjoyable it is to eat an animal whose bodily waste, if properly harnessed could power a city, but instead is left to poison metric tonnes of groundwater. The idea of eating a majestic horse, or a tropical bird seems more acceptable. Except it isn’t. Pork really does rule the culinary roost (forgive the mixing of metaphors).

There are plenty of religious sects whose adherents disavow eating pigs for these reasons. Assuming you subscribe to the nonsense that moral purity were within our grasp, it seems a reasonable edict that consuming a pig seriously undermines the project. Well, for twenty four hours at least, depending on your constitution. There are really no redeeming qualities of a pig – other than its flavour when grilled to warm, delectable perfection.

But I accept that I am a human possessed of endless avenues for moral depravity, a few genetic twists away from my evolutionary ancestors the caveman and the fish. I don’t steal gum from 7-11. I don’t fill up bags of goodies at the bulk section and eat it all up as I shop at the supermarket. I don’t cheat on my taxes and I never yell at my kids. I don’t honk my horn or flip the bird, even to really, really bad drivers, and I always let people cut into my lane if they need it. I think I’ve earned some kudos on the karmic scale. So I say “pass the ribs, please.” I never set out to be Jesus.

Because here’s the thing: bacon is porn for my palate. My tongue and taste buds moisten at the sight and smell of the stuff. A strip is all it takes to guarantee the ‘money shot’ in my mouth. It’s a difficult analogy for a heterosexual man like me to fathom, but it’s the most fitting in the circumstances. I willingly accept it as true for bacon. Well, also for pork roast, kielbasa, german sausage, and schnitzel. And pork sausages swimming in pools of maple syrup. Money shot, all of them.

And that is why I am still on hiatus from vegetarianism – four years after those fateful morsels of bacon put me on my current carnivorous path. My advice for those whose commitment to vegetarianism rests on a wobbly foundation: just say no to bacon. Unless it’s a vegetarian establishment, don’t even go into a restaurant at breakfast time if you can help it. You will regret it.

On Medicine and Aging

I’m getting to that age where every medical exam is more than just an exposition of my flailing health and unstoppable descent towards death. There’s a directly increasing scale of humiliation involved in the nature of routine afflictions a person suffers with age. Hemorrhoids, piles, incontinence, flatulence, cancer. To diagnose these conditions we have to regularly submit to having organs and orifices squashed, poked, prodded, scoped, smeared, drained, and probed. Remember when you were young the worst thing about a doctor’s visit was maybe the doc would grab your balls and say ‘cough’. As a kid, the most invasive thing was getting that oversized popsicle stick thing stuck on your tongue so the doc could look down your throat to see if you had tonsilitis. I used to bite down on the wooden popsicle stick in spite of the fact that biting wood is like brushing your teeth with steel wool. I remember the doctor would always say things like ‘ah what a clever lad’ when he really wanted to take his stethoscope and hang me from his stirrups.

Now, it’s like, ‘Okay Mr Saunders I am just going to stick my fingers up your ass and wiggle ‘em around a little bit and we’ll see if that little critter at the base of your scrotum is getting a little big for his britches.’ Can’t we do a bloody x-ray or MRI on it? We send people to the moon, we clone sheep, invent nanotechnology, and split the atom – and yet here we are having doctors sticking their hands up our arses to check our prostate?

I wonder about people who want to be proctologists. What life circumstance is at the root of this kind of ambition? When I was a kid, and the teacher would have students talk about their ambitions I’d always say something like, ‘when I grow up I’m going to be Superman and use my x-ray vision to see through the clothes of hot chicks and I won’t have to work cuz when I need something I’ll just go and take it’. Or, I’d say that I was going to discover a gadget to stop time so I could just plant myself at the place where they draw the lottery numbers and have mine come up so I’d never have to worry about money. I’m pretty sure my teachers are Googling me today thinking I’m number seven on the most wanted list – a degenerate, but an underachieving one at that. Either that or they are certain I’m a carnie.

I imagine that proctologists along with podiatrists are like the gym teachers of the doctor world. Those foot doctors are like the creepy janitor at your high school who just happens to be there when you’re trying to get to second base while making out with Susie in what you thought was a safe nook in the school basement. In my mind only a total creep wants to deal, on a day to day basis, with feet like my grandmother’s with toes that point sideways from the foot and bunions that need a chainsaw to be removed.

So now, I hate to say it but I’m thinking more about ass doctors and more anus-oriented medical issues in general. I really can’t get into the free and easy banter when it prefaces the act of a finger being stuck up my ass by an overly-chipper doctor, or worse, by a camera thrust up my poop-chute ‘hey, let’s stick this big tube up your ass to see how clean your pipes are! Anybody in the mood to sniff out a polyp?’ Now they show people’s butts on billboards to convince us that it’s silly to be embarrassed about having some doctor look up your anus. Propaganda to the core, and tantamount to those insidious tampon ads that show women dancing in white pants when in reality they are brooding about their periods.

Apparently I have a polyp colony that has settled on some fertile land somewhere in my lower intestine. Soon I suspect there’s going to be enough polyps to form a little society, and in no time my polyp society will draft a Bill of Rights and a Constitution to organize themselves effectively. Whatever they do, I don’t want them to start a Revolution. The spread of polyp dogma throughout my body is the last thing I need.