The Struggle is Real, The Effort Worthwhile


It’s summertime up here in the Northern Hemisphere. Despite the countless joys that arrive with the season, for many of my female friends it is a mixed blessing. Their eagerness to bring out those light, cute, and comfortable outfits ready-made for the warm weather, or to sun bathe in a swimsuit at the beach is tempered by the frequency they are subjected to creepy, unwanted advances from sexually aroused males. The worst of these are the drive-by catcalls from men who can’t help but enthusiastically let a woman know she is the apple of their eye, telling her as much by imploring her to sit on their face or shake her tits.   

This sort of male misbehaviour is rooted in the belief that women are always signalling the degree of sexual attention they want from men. By outwardly, enthusiastically showing their arousal, so it goes, these men are fulfilling their role, which is to flatter the woman for a job well-done. In the not-too-distant past, this “taunt and react” dynamic was touted as a normal, functional way of mediating sexual relations. In reality, it led to legions of women being sexually assaulted and raped by men socialized to believe their entitlement to sex was affirmed by the clothes a woman wore. 

In the eighties, when I came of age, there were cultural memes predicated on packs of guys “cruising” in cars with the top down on a Saturday night howling and jeering as they drove past a throng of gals. For their part, the women would bat their lashes in response to the ape-like affections of the men, which were sought after and desired. Thanks to popular culture, which depicted every encounter between men and women as a spar with a sexual sub-text, there are generations of men conditioned to believe the only reason women wear clothes, or do anything for that matter, is to attract the sexual attentions of a man. At the heart of these outmoded ideas is an obsession with what women wear. The old assumption is that women who wear provocative clothing are revealing something meaningful about their sexual inclinations. It is a sad, lingering relic of a bygone era.

I won’t deny it. Because I am a flesh and blood heterosexual man with a functioning set of eyes, when an attractive woman wearing clothing that flatters her impressive features passes my gaze, there is an instant, biologically-predetermined reaction. It hails from a relatively primitive part of our evolutionary brain – the limbic system. There’s an instinctive part of me that instantly craves to ogle, to leer, or to fuck, urges which I am aware conflict with the ardent feminist I aspire to be. 

That insight arises in the blink of an eye, rousing my pre-frontal cortex, which kicks in and subsumes the urge to beat my chest – or beat something else – beneath the thought, “Ahem, your leering and your thoughts are verging on the ungentlemanly. Cut it out.” Most days this tack works. When it doesn’t instantly kick in, and I catch myself leering maybe a little longer than I consider to be civilized, I say a metaphysical “Sorry ladies,” and implore myself to keep my head in the game. 

Thankfully, the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) is synthesizing these ethical intentions into a set of guidelines to help me conduct myself in a civilized way. The PFC is the part of our brains that distinguishes humans as the most intelligent beings on the planet, despite certain striking instances to the contrary. In the throes of a carnal response to the physical presence of an attractive woman, the PFC stirs me to behave as if I really believed a woman ought to be treated like a human being, rather than as a living, breathing wank machine. When my limbic system protests against the PFC’s civilizing dictates, the PFC overrules it. 

The important thing to note is the emotional interplay between the two parts of the brain arising from the same sexual impulse. This reality refutes those who posit that men’s sexual behaviour is pre-determined as residing in one part of the brain versus the other. That is false. There is a dynamic between the parts of the brain which males must gain mastery of if they intend to behave in sexually appropriate ways. The lynchpin here is to have the intention to behave appropriately in the first place. 

Assuming the good intention exists, the key to the PFC gaining primacy in this inner conflict is to ensure a conscious effort to impart the lessons about appropriate standards of behaviour towards women routinely occurs. The curriculum to which males appeal to shape their values in these matters is significantly influenced by the culture. Unfortunately, if the culture harbours unhealthy sexual norms, then society teaches, reinforces, and perpetuates sexually unhealthy behaviours among its men. Depending on the culture, the curriculum by which boys are taught to become men may be dreadfully flawed. If a culture lacks the ethical intention to treat women as equals, the motivation to evolve commensurate behaviours is not instilled in individual males.  

We may say we live in an “individualistic” society, but in truth, how men behave towards women is greatly influenced by the culture in which they live. Through sexist media and social structures our culture is constantly modelling for boys and young men a particularly sexist way of relating to girls and women. On the other hand, there is an expectation that men become individuals who behave differently than the culture that reared them in their private sexual interactions with women. It’s a sociological fact that the transmission of feminist cultural ideals must actually be observed in the culture if the aim is to ensure they are adopted and exemplified by a society’s males. A sexist culture creates sexist individuals. It’s an axiom we cannot ignore if we want men to do the right thing in their private encounters with women.  

In some cultures, awareness of the intense inner struggle between primal urges and moral conduct acts as a cautionary tale. A society’s males, seeking to conduct themselves with moral rectitude, become wary of the mere existence of these internal battles, which they sense can go either way. That fear fuels notions about how the struggle itself is the fault of women; it feeds the idea women must take ownership of the sexual animus they trigger in men. These ideas sustain cultural practices – usually in the form of religious codes – that dictate women dress and behave modestly. It’s a cultural sleight-of-hand that shifts the burden away from a society’s men so that women ultimately become responsible for moderating the degree of male sexual arousal in a society. 

This is a puerile resolution to the inner struggle of a society’s males, because it discourages each individual man from learning at an early age how to process and regulate their sexually-charged emotions. Our culture’s mixed signals about what constitutes sexually appropriate behaviour is a serious psycho-social issue that needs to be acknowledged and properly addressed. This will ensure there are fewer victims of sexual crimes by inculcating a culture of men with emotional intelligence, who are capable of exerting a degree self-control that discourages their sexual misconduct. 

In this respect, what does it say to young men that, despite the fact Americans were well aware that candidate Trump grabbed women’s pussies, he was elected US President? For all the young men grappling to control their sexual urges, are they learning from this that it’s as important to behave in sexually appropriate ways as it is to be rich and ambitious? To what ends are young men motivated to channel their cognitive energies: to that of learning how to respect women, or to that of amassing the wealth and power required to treat women however their carnal urges desire?  If we want to see appropriate sexual behaviours in men, we have to exemplify, reward, and teach the lessons consistent with that aim. 

As a man desperately trying to get beneath years of cultural conditioning where women were touted as objects of male gratification, I am aware the struggle to overcome sexual urges is very, very real. I engage in a lot of self reflection about this, certainly not because the predominant norms in my culture have compelled me to do so, but because I am aware that my responsibility to foster healthy sexual behaviours comes in the face of intense, biologically-determined cravings. Men have to acknowledge the presence of these primitive cravings, which exist in the same measure as they would have among our evolutionary forebears, despite how intellectually advanced our societies have otherwise become. It’s a strange paradox, and it requires we expend greater conscious efforts to the task of moderating these impulses so our behaviour is consistent with evolving norms about what it means to be civilized sexual beings. 

As men, we must decide which part of our brain we want to heed: the advanced part that sets us apart as human beings, or the a-moral, pre-evolutionary part we share with reptiles and other less intelligent animals. I choose to be a civilized human being. I have to make a conscious effort to establish in my PFC a benchmark of what it means to be respectful to a woman and act accordingly, despite the primitive urges that arise in her presence; despite the culture which continues to normalize a decidedly misogynist benchmark. The responsibility for regulating these urges when it matters is mine alone, and I wouldn’t put that on a woman. 

It would help if our culture didn’t keep telling young boys and men that women are sex objects and reinforcing unhealthy ideas about women that impede their learning of functional sexual behaviours. We are subjected to an unceasing barrage of images and ideas from mainstream culture that piques and reinforces our consumerist desires by sexualizing and objectifying women. This conflicts with, and undermines, efforts to instil norms of self-control in men. Regulating sexually-charged emotions is a cognitive process that must be learned like any other higher-order human function, because the desired behaviours hail from the pre-frontal cortex. When we expect these behaviours to kick in they are fending off the strong, anti-social impulses of the limbic system. Unfortunately, this part of our brain is constantly being titillated by a sexualized, stimulus-addicted culture, which makes it a formidable force to reckon with. 

That isn’t to make excuses for men, it is to say that it takes effort on our part to do what is right in respect of women. It is also to say that culture has a role to play in normalizing healthy attitudes and behaviours about how men relate to women at the office, at home, and in our bedrooms. The biggest first step however, is for men to recognize the struggle to control impulses within ourselves is real, it is natural, and women are not to blame for its existence. The responsibility for doing what it takes to resolve conflicting feelings and emotions is on us as individuals. 

It means that we cannot sit and wait for the mainstream culture to reflect modern values about gender, because we are ourselves arbiters and transmitters of those values. Young men look to how I and my peers conduct ourselves for their signals about what is and isn’t acceptable. I take that role very seriously and I urge my mid-life male peers to do the same. Our role as cultural agents compels us to pro-actively stir a cognitive shift when we recognize some of our attitudes and behaviours are rooted in sexist dogmas of our upbringing. We are key influencers in the culture to which the next generations of men will appeal for norms about how to behave with respect to women. I will cringe if, in thirty years’ time, a figure like Donald Trump is emblematic of my generation of men and is still winning society’s greatest rewards despite his retrograde, morally decrepit views about women. 

A concerted effort to avoid the ill-effects of misogyny from poisoning the behaviour of men will always be necessary. Nature has seen to that. The reasons to expend those energies – to secure a future where women are treated as equals instead of as objects or as victims – have never been more compelling, and makes the effort absolutely worthwhile. 

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.

Trust Me, You Do Not Want to Know What is Going on In Here

Those four words. Like dogs to a high-pitched whistle and flies to mortally electrifying light, they render the same degree of involuntary response among North American men. We are brought to our knees reeling in pain as those words make ruthless contact between our legs.

They come as we are spooning after making love to our partner. Or while we’re hand-in-hand for a lovely stroll at sunset through botanical gardens; the sound of songbirds and the smell of flowers filling the air. Or when we’re sipping lattes after a glutinous, ostentatious breakfast sharing the Sunday Times, periodically breaking the comfortable silence to offer musings on the week’s news.

Out of the blue, instead of savouring these serene, emotionally uncontroversial moments of bliss for what they are, for no good reason the four words are unleashed, grazing insensitively at the most tender side of unsuspecting, fully descended testicles.

“What are you thinking?”

Ohhhh gaaawddd *knees buckling*

Where in the living hell did that drop-kick in the pants come from? And for Christ’s sake, why? What does it matter?

Sometimes you wish you'd never asked the question.

Sometimes you wish you’d never asked the question.

We’ve just made love. To make sure my role in the affair extended longer than a commercial break, I may have had to deploy radical counter-measures to fend off premature detonation of missile warheads. This possibly involved tapping into childhood memories of larger mammals mating on Jacques Cousteau or  National Geographic. There could have been thoughts of grannies playing Twister in their over-sized underwear, or naked old men juggling puppies.

You know how long it will take to incinerate those despicable images from my mind? You couldn’t just let us spoon in relative peace. Next time, I’m letting my missile blow wherever and whenever the hell it feels like it.

As we have our breakfast, I am reminded of a YouTube video of a dog at the table wearing a hoodie stuffing his breakfast into his face with human hands. Oh god was that funny! He was eating scrambled eggs just like me – but way funnier! Because he was a dog and had hands! Get it! A DOG! HA HA HA!!

I see yellow daffodils and think of Sponge Bob and Patrick getting drunk on ice cream and coke floats, then trashing his pineapple home; the fact that Squidward’s face looks a lot like a dude’s package.

That is basically what I am thinking. The thoughts don’t diminish my lapping up of the experience.

So, why you gotta ruin a good moment like that?

“Um, what?” is what I actually say instead.

Oh yeah, I heard the question. How could I not? My testicles have been catapulted to my spleen.

But I need to buy some time so I pretend I didn’t hear. I need to clear the cobwebs and muster up something pithy to say, and quick. These moments call for pith, don’t they? Or is it mirth?

Focus in on his dangling nose and eyes.  Imagine him with a moustache. Those animators are a gas!

Focus in on his dangling nose and eyes. Imagine him with a moustache. Those animators are a gas!

Do you not know how hard it is to come up with good pith and mirth after I’ve been schtupping? Or when I’ve just eaten enough sausages, eggs, pancakes, ham slices, hash browns, and bacon to give an Olympian type-2 diabetes in a single meal?

As we stroll in the garden I am being eaten alive by mosquitoes, who seem to love black guys more than the horses and cows in the nearby farms. It’s as though they’ve learned their favourite drink – Venti African Dark Latte – is being given away for free on this night. I am trying to keep my shit together without jumping in the fountain to spare myself the onslaught!

You look like a snow cone to mosquitoes. No mosquito in the world likes a 7-Up-flavoured Slurpee. The little bastards know where the good, down-home hooch is. Those little shits are a-comin’ to paaaah-tay on some moonshine from my black ass because they only have one day to live, and they ain’t risking an early death sipping girly wine coolers from your pint-sized body!

On a sunset night in the garden, that’s what I’m thinking. It’s not exactly romantic. It’s not going to make you bat your lashes quite like, ‘I’m thinking of how wonderful it is to be with you’ or ‘I feel lucky,’ or ‘I wish we could walk in the park like this every night.’

Believe me, I think those things. All the time, in fact. Just not at this particular moment. At the moment you ask, the thoughts can be a little, well, romantically underwhelming.

My last cranial MRI. This explains a lot. I wish I'd known sooner.

My last cranial MRI. This explains a lot. I wish I’d known sooner.

“I saaa-id, ‘what are you thinking?'”

“Oh, nothing. Just enjoying the moment. Why?”

“No reason. Love you.”

And then you go to sleep/keep walking in the garden/take a sip of coffee. A masterful deflection. Right?

RIGHT !?!?

I bet every dude reading this is agreeing, while every woman is shaking her head. I know, I know. I really want to be better at this shit. I want to find a way to enjoy that graze to my nads. But it’s just so, I don’t know, begging me to lie. I am a terrible liar. I get twitchy and stupid.

Wait. Is this a test of my creativity? Am I supposed to lie really awesome and romantic-like?

One time after the question I said ‘oh nothing, really.’ Oops. Really? No. Not ‘really.’ Nothing. I was thinking nothing at all. Well, nothing I wouldn’t be ashamed of, anyway. After that stupid slip, I was a Taliban captive at Guantanamo, having the hairs on my testicles removed by tugging them off, one-by-one until I coughed up some intelligence about the inner workings of my mind.

Okay, I had a bad week at the office, and yeah, sometimes I do feel kind of insecure in relation to other dudes. Damn! That wasn’t what I was thinking about. I was thinking about how funny it would be if Sponge Bob and Kermit the Frog were getting fisted by Miss Piggy.

I cracked like a fat kid to a pile of Twinkies. I just handed crucial intelligence to the infidel. I revealed a way through the posturing, macho facade my brothers and I have masterfully erected to keep our emotional secrets hidden in our man-caves. Now she has a target to launch drone strikes and blow my little emotionally-stunted jihadis out of their repressed hiding places.

I will get revenge against the infidel, my brethren. Do not worry. I will buy some jewellery, a dozen roses, take her to dinner, and let her choose the romantic comedy for movie night. Then I will give her a back rub, and light a trail of scented candles that lead her to her pillow, upon which there will be two exquisite chocolates on it – less than the six I started with, because chocolate is my heroin and I had four as I was lighting the candles.

I will not resort to playing Barry White music and offering to dance at the bedside. That much North American romantic cliché in one day will have destroyed what little remains of my soul. A man must be able to enter the cave of brothers with his head held high.

I will never forget the jeers I received when I opined over beers and golf that The Notebook wasn’t bad, and another time when I described the colour of eggplant as aubergine. Come on guys, it ain’t purple. So, there will be no Barry White. Sorry, Barry White, it’s not you, it’s me.

So, having showered you with campy bribes to weaken your mental defences, I’ll get even by asking the male equivalent of those four words. “So, am I, you know, uh, compared to your past ones, relatively speaking, of course, bigger, average, or, uh, you know, uh, smaller. Down there, I mean? (pointing to my penis)”

On second thought, maybe Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men was right. I’m not sure I want the truth because I really can’t handle the truth.

The thing is. Well, see, the thing is, I have a hamster in my mind. I have ADD. He’s always running on his wheel up there, especially when he’s content. But when you introduce unexpected emotional depth at random?

Hell breaks loose. He tries to run away the little idiot. But he’s on a wheel, so instead the heat builds up until metal fatigue throws the wheel off its moorings and it abruptly ceases spinning upon hard contact with the ground. The fleeing hamster is sent flying into the side of his cage. He is woozy and groggy, wondering what hit him.

That’s what happens when you ask “so, what are you thinking?” You send hammy running for the hills.

That is when my fear you’ll discover the sad, puerile nature of my pet rodent-like mind will scare you off. Yes, the hamster runs in place on his wheel, even when he’s accompanied by a beautiful woman. He can’t help it. He’s a bloody hamster.

He’s on the wheel to stay happy. It will calm his emotions down so his head doesn’t explode. But sometimes a stupid thought pops into his mind that he simply can’t ignore. Like the scene from This is 40 when Melissa McCarthy, Paul Rudd, and Leslie Mann are in the Principal’s office to clear up a bullying issue with their kids. McCarthy threatens “to rear up and jackknife my legs and kick you both in the fucking jaw with my foot bone.” Oh my god, that was so funny.

Because I don’t want you to have proof you’re with a moron, I don’t say what’s really on my mind. My guess is there are few women who would want to hear about hamsters while on a romantic stroll in the garden.

So, erring on the side of caution, I don’t mention Sponge Bob, dogs eating breakfast, Melissa McCarthy shit-kicks, or hamster wheels. I say something else. I want you to be too invested in this relationship before I start revealing the true man-child you’re with.

“This is phenomenal. Good night, mia amore.”

And then I roll over, hoping the hamster will soon go to sleep in his comfy bed of wood shavings and poo pellets. He needs the rest for the marathon to nowhere he’ll be running again tomorrow.

Not quite little buddy, but hopefully soon.

Not quite little buddy, but hopefully soon.

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.

A Rebel is Born – Part II

Now that I think back, it’s possible Ms Crank was only about 49 or 50, which isn’t that much older than I am today. Crank opened my eyes to the cruel, capricious excesses wrought by people seduced by their position of power and authority over others. I could not stand by and watch as she took pleasure in making little kids cry, in spite of the fact she always said stuff like ‘it gives me no pleasure to do this’ while she boiled children in her cauldron. Bullshit. Torturing kids was her self-gratification of choice to get off. In her sexually repressed mind, we were nothing but a bunch of bubblegum and smelly butt crack-scented dildos.

For a nine year old, a school year is an eternity, and I was adamant: she was not going to turn my grade four into a terror-filled, masturbatory Stalinist gulag. From then on I understood why so many men are drawn to the rebel lifestyle – it is gratifying to fight the good fight, it absented you from the boring, legitimate work of regular schmucks, and being a shit disturber was intellectually stimulating. Most importantly, it became a persona that would appeal to the ladies – the passionate rebel. I was gonna get some play. Subcommandante Edgardo Castros Sanchez (born Edmund K Saunders), of the rebellion against the elementary school junta was born. The struggle for freedom from the caprice of sex-starved, mothball-scented old people was on, Donkey Kong.

In the early days before we tapped into the support networks provided by our Syrian and Iranian benefactors, we had to settle for low-rent forms of insurgency. Our first order of business was to disorient the enemy, throw her off her game. Whoopie cushions on the teacher’s chair, scrawling dirty words or big penises on the chalkboard, changing seats when the teacher turned to write something down on the chalkboard. These were standard tactics. The seeds of revolution were germinating wonderfully! I convinced almost a majority of the class to make the same mistake on one of our assignments with the word ‘penis’. (Exceptions were goody two-shoes Jenny Graham who could not be swayed, even with bribes of ice cream and candy that we could get Jimmy Peters to steal from Family Fair in unlimited quantities.)

One morning as we were waiting single file to come back into class from recess I pleaded with Crank to let me go to the bathroom because I was feeling sick. She spun her head around seven times as she uttered ‘I won’t be falling for that one Mr Saunders’. The previous week I said I had to go to the can – I did – but on my way back to class I ducked into a gym class to play dodge ball, and half hour later Crank had to dispatch the Stasi to bring me back to her side of the wall. Moments after she barked out her edict barring me from the bathroom I sprayed her and the student in front of me with a geyser of grape Kool-Aid-infused Quaker oatmeal barf. I wish I could say I stuck my finger in my mouth to spontaneously summon up a barrage of barf just to get even with Crank, but I was really sick and this time the alchemical mix of fate and serendipity came together in sublime fashion.

Troy, the kid I barfed on was incensed, and he was the local tough, so I was extorted frequently out of candy and favoured parts of my lunch for quite a while. Relinquishing a pack of Lik-M-Aid here and a corned beef sandwich there was a small penance for the satisfaction of seeing Crank’s ghostly white complexion stained by my grape-laced vomit. To meet my extortionist quotas I simply dispatched Jimmy to conduct more organized thefts to keep that blockhead Troy happy with supplies.

But I did have to endure Troy’s unimaginative invective for years after that. He continuously called me ‘barfy’ or ‘barf-boy’. Exasperated by the banality of his barbs, I used to propose more creative ideas to Troy like ‘projectile man’ and hand-fed him with concepts and back stories about thwarting thieves by pummelling them with chunks of Alphagetti and Mac and Cheese sprayed from my gullet. I was pining for anything but fucking ‘barf-boy’. If I was going to be bullied I wanted it to be done in style, by a worthy persecutor. This tool was no Idi Amin. He never understood what the hell I was getting at, so I had to cringe inside while he feebly attempted to smite me with the stupidest of taunts. As we aged, I sprouted into a brawny, nerdy mesomorph and as a football player I schooled him – and other blockheads like him – on the fine points of inflicting pain on others. I was clever enough and large enough to bully the bullies without them realizing they were being bullied. It gave me orgasmic pleasure well into my teens, which was better than the smut magazines and baby oil I usually used to similar effect.

One time I set out to graze Crank with a spitball, meaning for it to land on the chalkboard as she was writing, but she turned just as I released my armaments and took a volley on her glasses. I was a local legend and was in a state of intoxicated vainglory for weeks afterwards, having tasted the sweet nectar of VICTORY. Even Troy let me have my whole lunch for a few weeks and only extorted my fizz candy one time in that period. The principal seemed genuinely angry at me and called my mother in to discuss the situation, but she was too busy being single with two kids to do much about it. She did say to the principal, ‘when my kid is not the top student in the school give me a call, otherwise don’t waste my time’. Thanks mom, you rock. This little scenario played out dozens of times in subsequent years.

I devised a vaudevillian prank where I’d lean back in my chair until I toppled over, bringing desks, papers, other students – comrades who were also in on the conspiracy – and their desks crashing down with me. The first few times I toppled Crank chalked it up to genuine clumsiness. Nine or ten ‘falls’ later, and an epidemic of similar eruptions across various sectors of Stalag 6, the intention behind these calamities became more clear. Propaganda by the deed. I was selected for punishment because her spies – Jenny Graham – had indicated I was the spark, the ringleader behind the spate of identical Lone Wolf acts of disruption. As the face of the rebellion it was an honour to sacrifice for my people.

They moved my desk out to the hallway for a time as a punishment, which was fine with me, those imperialist fools. From my new command post I hatched countless schemes to further wage a war of attrition against the forces of evil, unfettered by trips to the blackboard or turns reading Mr Muggs. They brought my desk back in the classroom when they realized that I had a strong tenor voice – a celebrated staple of the school choir – which caused me to disrupt six, as opposed to just one, classroom. For my repertoire, I chose to serenade my peers with tracks from AC/DC’s Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, like ‘Big Balls’ and ‘Problem Child’ which filled the cavernous hallways of the school with song.

At some point I lost sight of the true aim of our revolution and it is possible some innocent bystanders were inadvertently caught in its haunches. It’s not totally a stretch to suggest I became over zealous in the fight against counter-revolutionaries. For a time I had turned into a mini-Robespierre. But it was for a good cause. As Lenin famously remarked ‘in order to make an omelette, one must break a few eggs’. We made quite a few omelettes, some egg McMuffins and enough quiche lorraines to feed a revolutionary army from that year onwards. In subsequent years I was part of numerous cabals that drove hapless substitute teachers hysterical and may also have chased some upstarts from the business of teaching. Sorry ‘bout that. Blame Crank, she started it.

In my grade four putsch I bamboozled other kids who weren’t as clever, or who did not have previously unblemished records into my conspiracy and they got themselves into really big trouble on my account. Jimmy had to steal shopping carts of candy on a regular basis to keep everyone happy. We could not risk acrimony and dissention in the rank and file. So we bribed them with sweets. In my mind, Jimmy was a legend in petty thievery. He could steal packs of smokes, boxes of Count Chocula, bottles of soda pop, can openers, frisbees, and cat food – I was dared to eat a tin, and I never turned my back on a dare – all in one single mission. Without being caught. He wore his father’s clothing and parkas everywhere he went, even in summer. This came in handy when you were stealing for the masses. I often wonder what ever happened to Jimmy. Given his proficiency for grand larceny, I suspect he’s either a high-level organized crime figure or a Wall Street banker.

I credit Crank for helping me to tap into the well of my rebellious side. Prior to that year I had always been an angel. Deep down I really loathed being such an obsequious do-gooder. Crank gave the sleeping Devil in me the kick in the pants needed to toss my inner-sycophant aside so the dirty work of sparing my grade four existence from misery would get done. After that year I would beckon that dark side to reinvigorate rebellion whenever I sensed teachers, principals, professors, cops, bosses, or any putative authority figure was getting too big for their britches.

In the end, I have to give credit to Crank, she sussed me out as a subversive when I was not myself aware of it. I gained sustenance as I drank from the teat of her tyranny. From her I was provided the foundations that have made me the big, strong, well-educated, passive aggressive, quietly resentful, slightly underhanded, perpetually disagreeable, ardently bombastic man I am today. My friends, family, and work colleagues thank you, Crank.

A Rebel is Born – Part 1

I had the meanest, most wretched teacher in the world when I was in grade 4. To protect the innocent, I’ll call her Ms Crank. For the year she was my teacher I don’t think she smiled even once, except maybe when she caught the scent of a child on the verge of breakdown. A small corner of her mouth could be seen curling just a little upward and her eye would twitch involuntarily. When we handed in our assignments Crank used to make us cross out with only one line any mistakes we made in our composition so she could see the mistake. She liked to humiliate us for making the same mistakes all the time, I guess so she had proof that we were a bunch of morons. It didn’t seem to strike her that WE WERE FUCKING NINE YEAR OLDS! In correcting our errors we were forbidden from using white out. To be sure, when we handed in our work, she’d scan the page with the palm of her hand, and if she felt white out or saw more than one line through a mistake, she’d make a witch-like face at us as she crumpled up the page and tossed it in her garbage bin. Then she’d yell ‘zero’, forcing us to redo it. She made a lot of kids cry.

Funny or Die

When I was nine, anyone who was over the age of 30 was from the ‘olden days’, which I used to believe was when the world was black and white, before colour was invented in the 1950s. In my mind, Crank was from the really ‘olden days’, before the combustion-engine and the printing press. Her hair looked old and wiry like mannequins at museum exhibits that demonstrated how everything back then was fifty times harder than it was when I was nine; back when people used to wade through mountainous snow-drifts and fight off bands of marauders and stampeding buffalos in the hours it took to walk to and from school every day. Like all ladies of that age in the 1970s, she had pantyhose that only went up to her knees and these continually sagged and bunched up midway down her varicose-vein infested calves.

Crank also had that old people smell : a mixture of menthol, ammonia, and halitosis. There was a hair-topped wart jutting out of her face and no force in the world could stop you from staring at it, which seemed to make her even more angry at the world for having been born a hideous and unsightly troll. Her big round glasses with thick lenses made her bulgy mean eyes seem as big as saucers when she scoured, which was all the time. She also had that chain old people always seemed to have attached to their glasses to keep them around their neck, ostensibly so their dementia-ridden minds would not misplace them, like the idiot-strings I had running through my winter coat to keep my wool mits from disappearing. For added effect she used to toss them off so she could stare at you with her beady eyes and turn you to stone. In spite of the idiot string, I usually lost six pairs of mitts every winter, often accompanied by the loss of a jacket, toques, boots, and once, even a snowsuit.

Crank had a litany of arbitrary rules that I could never seem to grasp. She used to address us with the salutation ‘Mr’ or ‘Ms’ and expected us to do the same to our classmates. I was terrible with names, usually calling them ‘hey’ or ‘man’, so I was instantly destined for failure at this task. Plus, I’m going to call Jerry Johnson – who still shit his pants and picked his nose incessantly – ‘Mr Johnson’ like he’s worthy of that sort of decorum? When I was nine, it was uncommon to hear the term ‘Ms’ so naturally with Crank I just kept calling her ‘Miss’ assuming no sentient being was capable of marrying that thing. Plus it was obvious to me she wasn’t getting laid, which is why she was so touchy about the ‘Ms’ thing. Only with Suzie Ames was I able to get the salutation rule straight and it was because I had spent much of the summer playing ‘doctor’ with her in the bushes : ‘what ails you today, Ms Ames. Hmm, I think we’ll have to remove your top’. Suzie repeatedly called me ‘Dr’ in Crank’s class which drove Crank to a quizzical state of madness that made her wretch like a baboon in heat.

Up until I encountered Crank, other teachers had sung my praises as a model student and treated me as their favourite. I loved the attention, the swag, and the free ride that I sometimes got. Now that I look back, I am certain this reputation poisoned me in her mind. It’s obvious she was a zealous believer in original sin; and she approached children as gluttonous, slobbering heathens that had to be dragged by their ears into civility. A continuous unleashing of scorn, humiliation and degradation of a select few to serve as examples was her main method of securing the desired behaviour from others.

In her mind the students were a bunch of snot oozing, shit-stained, bubblegum chewing boils to be lanced, so this idea that there was a perfect child in her midst was probably interpreted by her as the fixings of a crafty little shit who had hoodwinked a trail of starry-eyed teachers before her. Well, she would not be falling for my little charms, nor would she abide any of the serfs in her fiefdom harbouring ideas about their alleged infallibility, especially not some second-rate nine year old Svengali. There was room for one perfect being in room 6 and that was her worship, Empress Crank II, spawn of the evil Lord Vader from the Dark Side, friend with benefits to Jabba the Hut. The rest of us tikes were jawas from tattooine and I was Lando Calrissian who would get his comeuppance. In the first month she terrorized me for the slightest transgressions, believing she had spied my weakness – a wry contempt for her authority.

Her anger intensified when I consistently messed up the ‘Mr/Ms’ rule and the line-up-in-single-file-outside-the-classroom-door-before-coming-into-class-after-recess rule. I thought I was being a good boy by showing eagerness to get back to work. That’s not how she saw it. I was getting cheeky with her Geritol; shaking her Maalox; pissing on her Pepto Bismol. She’d bring the class in, sit them down, then tell me to go get my jacket on, leave the class, shut the door and knock on the door to get back into the class. If I slouched or fidgeted through any of these steps she’d make me start again. The added time would come off our lunch break. At first I really did not set out to break her rules, but I grew intolerant of her caprice, and I’m the first to admit that resignation had stunted the attention to detail she commanded. It was like she’d spend the previous evening making shit up she knew I’d never get right. What was worse, she attempted to pit my classmates against me. These were my homies she was messing with.

Early in the year I decided to rise against her reign of tyranny and pledged to avenge the ridicule I was subjected to. I had worked to gain the respect and good graces of the faculty and my classmates. In the first month I am sure she had besmirched me in the faculty lounge and I was starting to get hairy eyeballs from my mates for cutting into their recess. I would not stand to be slandered and publicly chagrined by that wart-infested, saggy-stockinged ogre.

I felt I’d at least earned a few privileges afforded by a reputation as a top student with an unblemished behavioural record. But even a goody-two-shoes like me was not spared the bilious wrath of Crank. She was making me look like a putz. So this is how it was going to be eh? In the words of Snoop Dogg, have it your way mutha fucka, we gonna do this gangsta style.

(I realize that in 1979 I was probably not thinking this way, that I am projecting current cultural references into historical events for convenience. I know, I know. It is waaaaay out of line to fudge history like that when everyone else in the West is tireless in setting the historical record straight about slavery, colonialism, the acquisition of land from North America’s native peoples, foreign policy in the middle east, or the invention of jazz. I should be ashamed. As if I was thinking like a gangsta. This would have made me a cultural maven and a luminary, since I was basically one of few random black flecks of vanilla root in a city of creamy vanilla ice cream. The only ‘gangstas’ I knew of at the time were Al Capone and the mafioso profiteers from prohibition days which I learned from my Funk and Wagnall’s Encyclopedia collection. In the 70’s Blaxploitation was still in vogue, but for the life of me, I can’t think of a pimp reference that fits this scenario. It’s more likely I was taking my inspiration from Bugs Bunny who would drive Black Jacques Shellac, Elmer Fudd, or Yosemite Sam insane with rage, but that’s kinda lame nowadays, isn’t it? So, just let me just say I was fixing to bust a cap in Crank’s ass without getting all up in my grill about it okay?)

The first step in my rise from the angelic ashes to the vaunted heights of rebellion was messing with that rule about how we corrected our mistakes on assignments. I interspersed mistaken words throughout my assignment so that together they made a sentence like ‘Cralnk’ and ‘iz’ and ‘uh’ and ‘wartie’ and ‘whitch’. It took a couple of assignments for her to catch on that the words made a sentence. This slow-wittedness only further diminished her stature as a formidable adversary in my mind. When she did finally cotton on – I may have substituted more eye-catching words like ‘anuss’ – she took me by the ear and dragged me to the principal’s office.

When she explained what I had done I caught a festering whiff of fraternity emanating from the principal, who was only slightly taller than me. That cowardly little Munchkin from Oz actually liked what I had done to the Wicked Witch of the West. I guessed that she had delayed her retirement beyond her 97th birthday because she enjoyed persecuting little tikes too much and this was not working for the principal. At staff meetings I imagined her riding around on her broom correcting his grammar and chastising him for slouching in his chair. Because of his stature she treated him like one of us rotten kids and he hated it. There is no doubt she made the younger flower-generation teachers cry for wearing jeans or not putting their long flowing hair in a bun. The principal was in a jam. He wanted teachers who did not rely on an abacus to do math and weren’t dismissive of new faculty just because their fashion metier wasn’t Hutterite chic. She was mean as a rabid squirrel, but her actual teacher-work could not be assailed. Kids were scared shitless from sloughing off and tended to improve in her class. When he spied the crumpled page with my clever ploy, I saw a glimmer in his eye. I was his little bucket of water.

In the many visits that would follow, I’d seen the same mixture of exasperation tempered by a modicum of respect for the ingenuity of my schemes. He would expect no less from a top student. I hadn’t stolen, or swore, or hit anybody, so my crimes were of the prankster variety – insubordinate to be sure, but not serious crimes worthy of execution. She’d have to learn to deal with me. Theoretically she had the power to fail me, but that would look pretty suspicious given I got a 100% on provincial math examinations, had the top marks in the school and had won the spelling bee two years in a row. If I failed, that could easily be seen as her failing, not mine. She was screwed because, unlike the legions of children that came before me, her tactics did not scare me, they strengthened my resolve and brought out a fight in me I did not yet know I had.

At that first incident the principal assured Crank he’d deal with the matter. For a moment she stood, expecting to watch, maybe even participate in the punishment to be meted out, but the principal gestured for her to leave. She and her hairy wart huffed, and she scurried back to the classroom leaving a trail of dust droppings and cobwebs behind her. What I would have done for a vile of holy water or some garlic at that moment. Instead of letting me have it, he just implored me to channel my clever, creative energies into my school work and not to tormenting Ms Crank. This was my first offence so he wasn’t going to press the matter. She had her ways and I had to learn to respect that without these clever games.

Fuck that, I thought. I could smell the lie on his breath and the renewed hope in his heart. His words were saying ‘be a good boy, now’ but his soul was crying ‘rid me of this wench, pleeeease’.  This was the first time I ever mused about the possibility of extorting a bribe in return for my ‘co-operation’. I quickly recoiled from that view. The sheer joy I’d felt at getting under the cold reptilian skin of Crank was not something that could be bought. Not now. Not ever.

The seeds of my rebellion had been sown.

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.