Cannery Row Magazine
A Literary Journal . . . with Benefits
by Tanja Rabe
by Matthew Del Papa
by Suzanne Mansour
by Nasreen Pejvack
Chris and Roger Nash
by John Jantunen
by John Wells
by John Jantunen
by John Jantunen
by Randy Eady
by Katerina Fretwell
Poetry & Musings
by Rebecca Kramer
by Rebecca Kramer
by Les Edgerton
Born in Kingston - Made in Canada
by Tanja Rabe
The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed. And they stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listen to the screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quick-lime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage. - John Steinbeck
Faulkner once said, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."
I take it to mean that everything, eventually, comes around full-circle, in personal life and in society; that the past has a habit of catching up with us - if not repeating itself - and shall neither be denied nor buried deep enough to prevent it from re-emerging at some point and exacting its due.
Over the last year, there's been a lot of chatter on the web and in the media about, what's been coined, "The Great Resignation". Workers appear to be quitting their jobs in droves, keeping businesses scrambling with skeleton staff in addition to pandemic-related absences and lockdowns. Instead of company billboards advertising deals and specials, every fast food joint and many other establishments in and around town have been sporting the same message for months: HIRING . . . NOW!
With desperate employers offering lavish bonuses and perks to reel in potential hires, you'd think this opportune situation would be any job hunter's dream, yet the inconvenient truth is that there's more to this issue than meets the eye and businesses should have seen this coming from a mile away instead of crying foul after the fact. (Toronto Star/The Great Resignation)
Over and over, corporations - in particular the minimum-wage service industry - have been blaming a new generation of 'lazy workers' for their troubles, claiming young people don't know how to put in an honest day's labour anymore, are unreliable, ungrateful and would rather couchsurf or live at home with parents catering to their every whim than buckle down into the responsibilities of adulthood. They blame video games and the internet, an over-indulgent liberal mindset, a student-pampering education system, 'easily accessible' government assistance - anything and anyone but themselves - for the sudden shortfall of disposable cogs in their corporate machinery, completely ignoring the myriad hardships affecting people's lives (and livelihoods) that they themselves have had a major hand in creating for decades.
Now, I don't believe that young people these days are so different from other generations, despite all the tech they grow up with. Most young adults would still rather have their own place than slugging it out at home where restrictive house rules, lack of privacy and space for social get-togethers, meddling parents and annoying siblings cramp their budding independence. Many look forward to leaving school and finally getting paid for their time and effort. Financial self-reliance is still key to cutting that umbilical cord and jobs a necessity to achieving their goal.
So what is really going on out there if it's not a new wave of slacker culture?
Having a son who finished high school last year, I've had a bit of a front-row seat in this ambiguous scenario. Since he (like so many teens) has no idea, as of yet, where life's journey might lead him professionally, he decided to save some money for post-secondary school via a job in the service industry and ended up at a well-known fast food chain fixing burgers and sandwiches. Shortly after his training period, the leisurely 24-hours-or-less per week he'd signed up for turned into a gruelling, full-time treadmill (40+).
Nine months later, he has yet to be offered any kind of employment benefit or been given an alternate day-off for working every single statutory holiday - in fact, he's had to decline initial call-ins for over-time shifts on his weekends off as well, though always felt guilty for having to make up excuses so he could recover from work. He self-medicates every day to deal with joint and muscle aches and his feet are in constant pain from standing at the counter for eight hours straight. Yet, when we suggest he might want to ease up on his work ethic just a bit (ironic for a parent, isn't it?) and take a sick day once in a while, or ask his manager for reduced hours, he always refuses, not wanting to be the one responsible for leaving his work buddies in the lurch. In the meantime, he's always exhausted, has no energy for a life outside of work and barely leaves his room on his days off - if he actually gets out of bed.
When asked whether the business was hiring more employees, he confirmed they were but, between senior staff burning-out/leaving/taking sick days and most new staff quitting as soon as they caught wind of the workload and long hours, they never managed to catch up. Coming finally down with the Virus this spring seemed, absurdly, a godsend since, after the first agonizing day, he was forced to take a mandated, weeklong 'holiday'.
As parents, it pulls at the heartstrings to see our young struggle in this meat grinder of an economy and more than once was I tempted to pick up the phone and have a talk with his manager, if only to remind them to cut back his hours to the original agreement. Yet I always refrained from giving in to the urge, knowing full well that he's too old for me to fight his battles any longer and would have been mortally embarrassed at my interference.
The sad truth is that, for all the good advice I'm giving my son in regards to healthy boundaries and standing up for himself in the workplace, I've always been just as bad at being assertive towards my 'superiors' and putting my own well-being ahead of excessive expectations on the job.
In the year before the pandemic, I was looking for work myself and, due to ageism coupled with a long absence from the workplace when I was home-educating our kids, I had trouble getting any call-backs for interviews and ended up in housekeeping at a renowned, upscale hotel chain in North Bay. What ensued was plenty of fodder for nightmares and panic attacks down the road to the all-too familiar tune of minimum wage (and miserable tips).
It soon became clear why I had been so eagerly hired despite the hole in my resume. The staff turn-over was simply mind-boggling, many new hires barely lasted through training, most of the rest quit within a month.
Work quotas proved downright crippling. The hotel's one hundred suites all included a full kitchen (regular fridge/freezer, stove top, coffee station, dishwasher, sink, small appliances, pots and pans, dishes) with a small dining area, a living room corner with fold-out couch and armchair, some had separate bedrooms, every bathroom came with an ante-room for the sink and closet and each of the six floors had a (much dreaded) luxury Jacuzzi suite. The list of room chores spanned two pages and the allotted time was a whopping 35 minutes per suite, no matter the size, length of stay (several months not uncommon due to kitchen facilities) or the state of disorder and filth present (parties, displaced families, film crews, junior sports teams). (Housekeeping chores list)
The individual room quota, as applied to the overall shift, also included: lengthy, often intimidating 'pep' talks in the staff room prior to starting our rounds; travel between floors (busy elevators); disposal of laundry/cart waste bags/hotel kitchen dishes/recycling/liquor bottles; restocking the carts; chasing down functional equipment, fresh laundry and supplies on busy days when stock ran low/out or the laundry department lagged behind; dealing with malfunctioning appliances (few of the industrial-weight, stand-up vacuum cleaners had working rotator brushes); handling guests' requests, complaints and chats with grace and patience (as the clock ticked mercilessly onward); supporting teammates; unscheduled bathroom breaks (all-women staff); tracking down supervisors (no walkie-talkies); waiting on guests to vacate suites (late exits); remembering to re-hydrate regularly (one crew member fainted from dehydration), dealing with small injuries and so forth.
We were also 'encouraged' to go the extra mile for guests whenever an opportunity presented itself, of course always with an obliging smile and perfect poise. Downtime was minimal to non-existent; you raced through the rooms until you were done, then clocked out - regardless of your scheduled hours.
As any housekeeper worth their salt will tell you, cleaning at lightning speed and cutting corners to save time inevitably renders poor results. Vacuums pick up little when rushed (and damaged), cleaning cloths need to make thorough contact with sprayed surfaces to be effective and bathrooms and kitchens require some serious elbow grease. Thirty-five minute quotas for rooms the size of small apartments were a recipe for disaster in terms of dirt build-up, deterioration of facilities (ignored repairs), guest complaints/refunds, the physical toll on staff and the constant mental pressure of beating the clock to avoid verbal abuse from our manager - guaranteed to be handed out generously at the end of most shifts to crush any sense of accomplishment in their staff.
Even our toughest teammates confessed to regular panic attacks before and during work, self-medicating every day to numb muscle and joint pain (occupational arthritis), losing weight at an alarming rate (15 pounds personally over the first four months) and lamented having no life outside of work due to exhaustion, wear-and-tear and anxiety issues.
Ironically, upon being hired, we had to read and sign the obligatory Health and Safety Standards Guide - an inch-thick document - the contents of which stood in direct conflict with the reality of what our job entailed but, through the act of putting our name to paper, any responsibility for work-related injuries lay squarely on our own shoulders, with the company washing its hands off all blame.
In fact, when a team member broke her little finger carrying an excessive amount of laundry to the chute to save time, she was berated for her carelessness and not allowed access to worker's compensation or sick leave. Despite being put on 'light duty', she was in tears with pain every shift as her finger refused to heal but, instead of being supportive, our manager told her to stop acting like a wimp.
During the course of my employment, I gained two rather disturbing, albeit enlightening, insights from senior staff, one of whom had been with the hotel since its inception a couple of years previous:
First off, room quotas at this particular hotel used to be 45 minutes (enough to not fall behind significantly, though still taxing) and the 10-minute reduction 'coincided' with the provincial raise of the minimum-wage, even though prices had been adjusted more than adequately to compensate for the added expense. And secondly, the hotel budget allocated a certain amount of hours for housekeeping over the fiscal year, with bonuses awarded to all management positions if expenses (labour and supplies) were significantly less than anticipated.
It came as no surprise, then, that every housekeeper on staff was planning their exit strategy to a one, yet the energy and confidence to follow through whilst still on the job and needing a consistent income was simply lacking in most. So, when Covid 19 started sweeping the nation and many businesses, including hotels, shut down temporarily, it felt like a gift from the heavens to many in the service industry - despite the scare of a viral Godzilla running amok throughout the country.
After the initial bureaucratic hurdles and confusion, the CERB - and subsequently E.I. - provided, sadly enough, more income ($2000/month) than most of us had been earning in part-time jobs with unreliable hours, besides providing the necessary break to recover some of our health and reconsidering our options down the line, the outcome of which shows glaringly in those pleas for HELP strung along the main drags of our cities.
For decades now, big corporations have been drastically downsizing their labour force without an over-all reduction in workload or any concern for their employees' welfare, increasing profits further as they outsource projects to a growing number of underpaid, insufficiently protected freelancers. In the same vein, companies have pressured governments for concessions (subsidies, tax-cuts, stalling minimum wage increases, support in gutting union power and labour laws) by threatening to move production to off-shore nations - only to relocate their businesses out-of-country after all once the government teat has dried up.
On top of that, workers' wages have stagnated miles below the rate of inflation, full-time jobs reduced to part-time in order to avoid paying for benefits (service/minimum wage industries) and toxic work cultures across the board have robbed many employees of any sense of value and pride in their achievements, if not downright traumatized them to the point of dysfunction. And despite a massive outcry on social media lately, there's been little public recognition of what truly ails the system, so let me sum it up for those still on the fence:
We are facing a growing epidemic of work-related PTSD; debilitating work conditions reminiscent of 19th-century workhouses; labour laws steadily dismantled or plainly ignored with little to no recourse for employees; a terrifying rise in occupational disabilities, prescription drug addictions and overdoses; workers incapacitated with Long Covid symptoms while many also grieve the loss of family members and support systems during the pandemic; ecological and economic depression running rampant amongst the population; starvation wages coupled with an artificially super-inflated cost of living, hostile work environments and burn-out . . . all while people are struggling with a myriad issues in their private lives, leaving precious few moments of peace and joy to look forward to.
As a society, we've reached the point where we find ourselves caught in a dangerous, downward spiral as a steadily declining workforce has to shoulder an ever-increasing load to keep this broken system dragging along until its bitter end when the whole pyramid scheme of Capitalism finally collapses on top of the very people upon whose labour and lives it has been so profitably built.
So, every time I read about some overpaid CEO or Fat Cat politician - look no further than our own Premier - blaming 'lazy' workers and union 'meddling' for their staffing issues and scheming to force people back to work, despite the fact that corporate profits have been soaring to previously unimaginable heights, I feel the bile rise in my throat as I recall the toxic conditions of my last job - multiplied ad infinitum across this country.
It is beyond despicable to scapegoat workers for peacefully boycotting a corrupt system and refusing to be pawns in a congame that is rigged against them, doesn't represent them, treats them as waste at the end of their productivity, has the audacity to accuse them of being a burden on society after burning through them and solely serves to supply ever-more currency to the rich and powerful in their manic competition for global domination.
Hence, in the spirit of this month's May Day protests and calls for solidarity to end systemic inequalities all around the globe, I leave the reader with a timely quote of warning, issued almost 60 years ago:
“I believe that there will ultimately be a clash between the oppressed and those who do the oppressing. I believe that there will be a clash between those who want freedom, justice and equality for everyone and those who want to continue the system of exploitation. I believe that there will be that kind of clash, but I don't think it will be based on the color of the skin.” - Malcolm X
Gratitude, as always, to my creative team of dedicated volunteers.
Stay well one and all, keep up the good fight and enjoy the Journal.
Blue Mood (Tanja Rabe)
by Mat Del Papa
We all take things for granted.
From universal health care to indoor plumbing, we have it pretty good nowadays. Seldom do any of us, me included, take the time to marvel at the world around us until something forces us to do so. Well, I had just such a 'Eureka' moment when, a few days ago, I dropped a can of tomato juice - one of the big, heavy ones - on my toe. This, after a rather long stream of curses, got me thinking about canned goods.
I never gave tin cans a second thought before. They’re just so ordinary. The most I do is try and load up when the local supermarket has a sale or maybe check to see how much salt content is inside - but I’ve never really thought about the whole concept. Once I did, my outlook changed. Now I thank Napoleon for this modern preservation miracle.
What’s old Bony got to do with cans? Everything.
You know that axiom “an army marches on its stomach”? Well, General Bonaparte, besides being credited with saying it, took it to heart and, in 1800, offered a cash prize of 12,000 francs (approximately $1.5 million in modern Canadian money) to anyone who could keep food from spoiling. The little Corsican* knew that “wars were won by the quartermasters” and he wanted the French army kept well- fed. Nicolas Appert, a Parisian chef and confectioner, found a way to prevent spoilage: canning. (It’s sometimes called ‘Appertization’ in his honour) Only he didn’t use cans at first. No, he started in 1795 with wine bottles. Even in 1810, when he finally perfected his method and claimed the prize, he still stuck with glass containers.
It was the British who started the whole tin can thing. Peter Durand* (a French expat) patented the idea in 1810. Originally huge, basically repurposed ammunition canisters (hence the name), early cans weighed over ten pounds. The Brits made just one small mistake - they used lead to solder the lids to the cans! This, of course, meant people eating the contents suffered from accidental lead poisoning (Franklin and his famous Northwest Passage expedition are believed to have gone mad and died from lead-sealed cans).
Amazingly though, even after the unfortunate poisoning incident had been corrected, canned goods failed to take off with the public until 1855, when an Englishman named Yates invented a useful little gadget called a can-opener. Before this technological quantum leap - for over forty years - people used whatever lay near at hand to open their cans. A knife, a hammer and chisel, even sharp rocks! (early can-openers were considered so dangerous, only professionals were allowed to handle them, meaning customers had to have their canned goods opened at the store.)
Think about this next time when you’re handing over a couple of cans to some schoolkid collecting for the local food bank. Instead of feeling guilty for donating nothing but canned beans, try feeling some love for the lowly tin can.
* Napoleon wasn’t actually short - he stood 5’7”, one full inch taller than the average man at the time - just the victim of his enemy’s PR war.
** History gives Appert and Durand the credit but, in truth, the Dutch had been doing something similar to canning since the late seventeen hundreds. Fresh salmon, after being cleaned, were soaked in brine then smoked and stored in tin-lined iron boxes. Yum!
(The Capreol Press, 2010)
In Memory of Khalil Gibran
by Suzanne Mansour
Gibran Khalil Gibran (1883-1931) was a Lebanese-American writer, poet, visual artist and philosopher (although he himself rejected the title). He is best known as the author of The Prophet, a book of 26 poetic essays, which was first published in the United States in 1923 and has since become one of the best-selling books of all time, having been translated into more than 100 languages.
He has been called the single most important influence on Arabic poetry and literature during the first half of the twentieth century and is still celebrated as a literary hero in Lebanon.
Gibran created more than seven hundred visual artworks, including the Temple of Art portrait series. Most of Gibran's paintings expressed his personal vision, incorporating spiritual and mythological symbolism, with art critic Alice Raphael recognizing in the painter a classicist, whose work owed "more to the findings of Da Vinci than it [did] to any modern insurgent." His prodigious body of work has been described as an artistic legacy to people of all nations.
Suzanne Mansour is a musician, artist and academic from Sidney, Australia, whose first love is education. She has a passion for creating art and relaxing musical compositions to alleviate the suffering of others and finds her purpose in unveiling beauty hidden in the world around us.
A Woman's Place is . . .
by Nasreen Pejvack
For many decades, countless courageous women have campaigned for gender equality and in support of women’s struggles. From our earliest feminist sisters such as Rosa Luxemburg, an anti-war activist, philosopher and social economist, and Clara Zetkin who fought for women’s suffrage and called for establishing a day for us all, namely "International Women’s Day"; to the ones who advocated over many decades to end legal and workplace inequalities and to women's challenges today with ending sexual harassment and rape culture - female activists have taken immeasurably strides towards the empowerment of gender, often facing dangerous opposition, incarceration and threats to their lives.
Rosa Luxemburg, who was part of first-wave feminism, sought to overturn contract, marriage, and property inequalities, fighting for universal suffrage and the right for women to influence the political agenda. In 1919, at the age of 48, she was assassinated by government-sponsored militia for her ideas and bravely speaking out for human rights and against war. Even today, a similarly corrupt and ruthless patriarchal mindset tries to intimidate activists like young Greta Thunberg with rape and death threats, seeing her as an obstacle to their indiscriminate exploitation and destruction of our planet for financial gain and power.
Then, from the early 1960s onward, Second-Wave Feminists took on new challenges and a wider range of problems. Their goal was to increase equality for women beyond just political emancipation. They fought for gender equality in the workplace, for equal status and safety within the family and, above all, for reproductive rights. They also stood up for our right to divorce and to obtain legal custody of our children. They established progressive programs, such as rape-crisis centers and women’s shelters, and organized campaigns calling for an end to violence against women. Today we are indebted to those brave champions for many of our advantages.
With the Third Wave of Feminism in the early 1990s, more attention was paid to individual expressions of gender and to considerations of racial inequalities not sufficiently addressed previously. And presently a Fourth Wave is challenging the core of gender relations, as exemplified by the #MeToo movement and its exposure of sexual crimes committed by powerful men of privilege.
Activists today recognize that, despite many years of progress in the past, we still discover that people - such as Harvey Weinstein - got away with sexually abusing and intimidating scores of women for decades, with few people having been aware of these assaults and many complicit by abetting the offenders or keeping silent. This latest wave strives to bring them to legal justice as much as possible, to leverage social media to expose them, and to ensure that the testimonies of women victims of sexual predators are treated as credible evidence. These women deserve our utmost respect and admiration for coming forward and speaking out about the abuses they, and so many others, have suffered, instigating a legal and social movement to hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes .
So here we are in the world today: freer than ever to express our ideas, to choose our own professions and to vote for those we believe can help advance women's equal status in society. So it is disconcerting and painful to witness the spread of reactionary agendas that make some women reject feminism by declaring, “I am not a feminist, I am a Christian.” These women move through the world more unencumbered than in the past, yet seem oblivious to how feminist activists past and present have given them that relative security by risking their own safety and livelihoods. Philosophies of denial keep many women uneducated about the history of their own gender.
It seems our failure to be united and to fully comprehend the fundamental narrative of women’s accomplishments may be one of the reasons why “our task is not yet done”. Many of us, in our younger years, innocently reached out to claim our rights; campaigned fiercely for peace, truth and a just life for all.
Today, older and weathered, we wearily continue the struggle, sometimes giving in to feelings of hopelessness and futility. In many areas of life it appears to be getting harder than ever to attain our goals. Throughout the world, women are still continually exposed to brutality - harassed, exploited, mutilated, even murdered - and left without proper legal protection despite all those years spent fighting for safety and equality.
Are technologies of distraction and self-interest partially to blame? Have our gadgets just augmented individualized greed and gratification? Our cyber/industrial revolution has taken us so far, but is it aligning with how civilized nations should act or the way we, as human beings, should treat one another ?We continue to fight, knowing it is right and necessary; but we are not seeing the changes as quickly as we should. After more than a hundred years, should we still have to be taking bullies to court for abusing and harassing women?
I ask myself frequently, "How much longer do we need to struggle? What is going on? Are we not doing enough?" Well, I believe we are doing all we can. There is just so much resistance and wilful ignorance in this world. Much of what is wrong with societies all across the planet is due to the exploitation of people and resources which affect women and families first and most. The earth’s population continues to grow and the drive for profits continues to devastate our lives and ecosystems. What about our communities? Is there enough food for everyone in the near future; should it be controlled entirely by market forces and large conglomerates? Housing and food prices are rising and people are less able to pay for them. How far will this go, and is there anything we can do beyond just hoping that our corporatized governments come up with effective solutions?
Feminist movements have been as rich and diverse as the people within them and many different ideologies have developed over the years to bring us to where we are today. Yet, despite their hard-earned victories, we still have a long and arduous path ahead of us to educate people, specifically our men. I, personally, have a deep appreciation for the first and second wave of feminism that laid down strong foundations for us to continue building upon, letting us stand tall, speak loudly, and march confidently as we affect changes and further advance the issues.
With this in mind I say to all of you: Women everywhere - mothers, daughters, sisters - the future is yours! Organize in every community, district, and city . . . wherever you can. The time is now to surge forward, to stand on the shoulders of those who came before us and to complete our liberation from the yoke of patriarchy!
(written for 'International Women's Day', March 8th)
Gosling Huddle (Tanja Rabe)
Roger Nash - Poetry
Chris Nash - Photography
by Roger Nash
the birds sleep in late
when we put the hour forward
clocks build their straw nests
herds of white tailed deer
move quickly down the mountain
antlered snow melting
spring’s bounty arrives
the black umbrellas grow first
then pots of radish
the weights in a gym
no light thing being human
sunlight lifts the day
dead fox in the road
in a season of high hopes
its shadow escaped
fresh breeze off the lake
my wife puts on new dresses
colours move clouds by
will the heron move?
sounds of silence get louder
time stands on one leg
one by one by one
a ginger kitten counting
truth will set you free
even that you have no choice
that sets you free too
by John Jantunen
John Williams stood at the back of the Albion for twenty minutes before anyone saw he was there. A few glances passed his way, but none took note, instead leaving him as they found him - a dull smile concealing his nervousness and his hands tucked into the front pockets of his jeans.
He was a tall man well on his way to six-foot-five and, for most of his life, had taken pleasure in his stature alone being enough to draw attention. Now though, he was glad that he had been able to slip unnoticed into the bar, for he wanted to survey the room before taking the stage and making his challenge to the patrons.
The Albion was full when he arrived. It was Friday night, pay day. The stripper had finished her second, and last, ten-minute set of the night as he stood waiting outside the back door. The door was propped open with a broken cinder block and he had resisted the urge to sneak a peek inside. He knew that she would be done in a matter of minutes.
He had left his one-room apartment over the bookstore on the main street at five after seven. The walk had taken him precisely three minutes. He'd stopped at the lights in the centre of town, thinking that it was a nice night to be out and about. The rain that marked September had broken in the first week of October and, since then, the sun had returned a feeling of summer to Bracebridge. Kids wore shorts and gas cans were refilled with the prospect of a few more lawns to mow. Best yet, the locals had the good weather to themselves. The tourist season was over and there were no city folks to pretend that all this, the clean air and lazy afternoons, existed for their benefit alone. Thanksgiving was coming, then Halloween followed by the long wait until Christmas.
The holiday season is almost upon us, John thought pleasantly. There will be much to do.
John Williams stepped lightly down the wooden staircase that led into the parking lot behind the cottage brewery and walked to the adjoining lot of the Albion. Hard Rock roared out of the crack in the doorway - 'Hell's Bells'. He remembered the song from the nights he had spent in bars like this on his trek through southern Asia. Same music, but there everyone watched the door. It was almost impossible to slip into a bar without being noticed, sized-up and approached with offers of this service or that. The bars there weren’t places where you went to get away, as the two were in Bracebridge, but where you went to find people and be found. Business was conducted elsewhere here - on front porch steps, through the windows of idling pick-up trucks and even over refreshments after church. At the bars, and especially at the Albion, nobody wanted to be reminded of the need to make a living. All they wanted was a table and a chair, with the possibility of a game of pool or darts after the show.
So it was with a sense of unease that John stepped through the door, the sound of billiard balls clattering while someone fed quarters into the jukebox telling him that the stripper was done. He had arranged with Kathy, a twenty-eight-year-old waitress who’d recently joined his congregation, for the opportunity to present his challenge to the bar. She was supposed to talk to the owner, to square it with him. She said that if there were any problems, she’d call him back. She hadn’t called and John took it to mean that everything was a go.
With 7:30 threatening, Kathy approached him and asked if he would like a drink. He replied that he would.
“A scotch and water,” he added after a pause that did nothing to lighten Kathy’s workplace frown.
A band was setting up its gear on the stage and, when Kathy returned with his drink, she assured him that Mike, the owner, would call for him when they were done. He had two minutes to make his plea, then he’d have to clear out, takers or not. John said that would be fine and, with a perfunctory smile, she returned to her duties. He watched her bob and weave through the crowded room, catching orders like errant pitches, then return to the bar and fetch the awaiting tray loaded with draft beers.
“I’d still fuck her.” The shrill voice rose out of the swell of noise and John turned to a frizzy-haired man seated a few feet away. He followed the man’s gaze back to Kathy.
That’s right, John remembered, she’s pregnant.
He was surprised that he made the connection between what the man had said and what he'd meant by it so quickly, and more surprised that his gaze lingered on Kathy for a moment. She was attractive, more so than the stripper, John hazarded a guess, and, judging from the halter top that didn’t quite conceal her stomach, she knew what her best feature was. John wasn’t able to raise the glass of scotch to his mouth quick enough to clip the thought, “She’s hardly even showing”. To avoid any further digressions, John traced back his memory to where he’d first heard the news as if to make sense of his sudden discomfort.
He had been sitting behind the pulpit. It was a place of refuge for him during the week when the Associate Minister’s cubby, more a waiting room for the adjoining Reverend’s office, was not large enough to contain his thoughts. Also, he came here when the urge to have a cigarette weighed heavy on him. It was cool behind the pulpit and he didn’t have to worry about being disturbed. Sometimes, he would sit for an hour breathing in the bookish air, clearing his mind, while at other times it only took fifteen minutes.
That day, through closed eyes, he heard the main doors open and, shortly thereafter, a burst of red, like the afterglow of a firecracker, told him someone had turned the lights on. He did not open his eyes. Instead, he focused on the shapes and sparks that flared behind the skin of his eyelids with the intrusion of light. It was a game he had played since he was a child and had never grown tired of.
What do I see? he asked himself. I see a horse spinning, then galloping away and replaced by a figure, now only a head, no-one I know, something out of mythology perhaps? And a sword and fire and whatever else I want to see. Quicker than I can name it, it disappears, leaving me to fumble with words after the image, and always changing. Like clouds except they can’t be seen. A making sense of senseless patterns, a conjuring to pass the time.
Sometimes, he imagined moving through a tunnel. He had done the same then and, slowly, the walls sped by until they blurred with dizzying velocity. He felt wind blow against the inside of his eyes, or so it seemed, and he tried to push himself further, faster - halfway believing that, if he could just keep up the pace, eventually the tunnel would lead him somewhere.
To the furthest recesses of my mind and the secrets that await me there. He smiled at the memory of this childhood conceit and the image collapsed. He blinked, letting the yellowish light overhead flood his vision, and rubbed a grain of sleep from the hollow space at the edge of the bone surrounding his eye socket.
Two elderly women were cleaning between the pews. The pulpit obstructed his view of them, but their voices, hushed whispers, resonated in the empty space. They were complaining bit by bit about the little messes they found - a wad of gum stuck here, a spot that looked like dried snot, a used tissue and torn pages stuffed back into hymn books with “no concern for who has to use them next”.
“It’s the kids,” one of the ladies said, not concealing her contempt.
“But it’s the parents' fault,” the other responded.
“Of course it’s the parents' fault, but it’s still the kids doing it.”
John was not quite listening and only lingered, because he wanted to delay the return to his office as long as possible. Later, when he remembered what was said next, he mused that he should have known better. His idea had germinated in the gossip of two old women and, regardless of his good intentions, it would be tainted by this through to its outcome. At that moment though, it was only the possibilities he had seen, and those possibilities began with the mention of Kathy and her condition.
“She won’t even admit who the father is.”
“If she even knows.”
“And she pretends to look so innocent.”
“When everyone knows where she works.”
“They have exotic dancers there, you know?”
“That’s what they call them.”
“And the fights. The police are there every Friday”
“Twice on Saturdays,”
“No Christian would be caught dead in that place.” The women had reached the front pews by this point and John slipped out the door behind the altar to avoid detection. He knew he'd have to act fast. He would confront Reverend Cairn that afternoon and, with a little luck, he’d have everything arranged by the weekend. Or rather, everything minus one thing and, if the old ladies could be trusted, he doubted very much that would be a problem either.
“And now I’d like you to welcome a special guest who has an announcement to make.”
Mike, a short, wiry man in his forties, stood at the microphone and motioned for John to come up. John set his drink aside - he’d only had a couple of sips - and threaded his way to the stage. Nobody paid him much attention and he was thankful that, at the last minute, he’d decided to wear a light grey sweater in place of his dress shirt and collar.
The wooden platform creaked under his feet as he stepped onto it and his arm bumped the mic, producing a high-pitched, whining sound. He set its stand aside and turned to face the crowd of forty or so patrons. “Can everybody hear me?” he asked, tentatively.
“Sorry Rev, I spent all my money on beer.” The heckler got a good laugh and John waited for the bar to quiet down before continuing.
He had rehearsed what he was going to say and the words flowed easily. He refrained from accenting his speech with the solemn undertones he used in Church, keeping his voice even and matter-of-factly. It took him less than a minute to say his piece and, when he'd finished, he waited silently for a response. He stared dispassionately at the back of the room counting the ticks off towards sixty, by which time he knew he would have failed. Then and only then, he thought, will I thank them for their time and leave them to their evening.
At forty-five seconds, amidst the feigned coughing that was beginning to re-initiate conversation and the ping-ping of a pinball game, John noticed that someone was standing at the edge of the stage. He hadn’t seen the man walk up and, when he turned to face him, it took him a second to confirm that a man stood there at all. At first, all he saw was the red tag on his denim shirt and, when he looked to where his face should have been, it seemed as if there was only an empty space. When the man spoke, it broke the spell and John realised that he was black and that his face had been obscured in shadow.
“I’ll fight you,” the man said. John nodded, thinking, so that’s that.
The fight was set for the Saturday after next to coincide with the annual Church Bazaar. The Reverend Cairn, a bald, middle-aged family man who wore a suit and tie under his frock, had reservations about the match, mostly associated with the expenses involved. John found out that Stan, the church treasurer, also happened to manage the local community centre and he got his assurance that the cost would be negligible. Stan knew where there was a ring and would give them a rate on the banquet hall, he’d even referee to boot, so Cairn was obliged to offer his blessings and retire from the proceedings.
That left only the task of publicising the bout and, towards that end, John conscripted the Youth Group to print up posters and distribute them around town. Tickets could be purchased at a number of outlets and sales throughout the weekend were reported to be brisk.
By Monday, John was satisfied that everything that could be done had been done and he settled into a five-day training regiment. Although he hadn’t fought for nearly a decade, and for most of that time had quietly resolved that his fighting days were over, he had kept in good shape. All that was required, he decided, was a little refresher course on the heavy bag and a few thousand sit-ups to strengthen his stomach muscles.
He'd talked briefly with his opponent that night at the Albion. John had learned that the man, Cyril Byrd (“just call me Bird”), was a 28-year-old American who, three months earlier, had been discharged from the Navy. During leave in San Francisco two years ago, he’d met a woman on vacation and they’d become engaged before he shipped out because "that’s the kinda thing recruits do on leave”.
“Originally, I’m from North Carolina, a little dustbowl town hardly worth mentioning, ‘cept I got six brothers and three sisters livin’ there. Parents died when I was ten in a motorcycle accident, you know, but it’s all right, my oldest brother was real cool ‘bout things.”
Bird’s way of talking was slow and drawn out, like he was waiting for every word to ripen before plucking it, and John took an instant liking to him.
“I followed my girl up here,” he continued, “cause, sure as hell, ain’t nothing for me back in North Carolina ‘ceptin three brothers in jail on some phoney possession wrap. Cops real eager down there and I ain’t wasting three years of my life just 'cause I like to smoke a jay now and again. I heard North of the Border they ain’t so stiff, so I came on up.”
He looked at John and smiled as if looking for reassurance that it was true. John nodded gravely.
“Now me and Nancy been writing real regular like. She works in a bank on the main street here and is taking correspondence to become an accountant but, don’t ya know it, when I showed up at her door, I got me a surprise. Spun me for a loop, I tell ya, and I asked her, ‘Why didn’t you say we got a baby? I’d of sent you some money or toys and shit for his birthday.’ She was real coy about it and says that she didn’t want to put any pressure on me. I asked her if it was okay that I hung around for a while and she said sure, seein’ how me and Eddie, that’s my kid, were gettin’ along so well. They off swimming tonight, so I figured I’d get a beer, watch the peelers, you know. Funny, how you came in with that crazy idea for a fight, ‘cause I was just thinkin’ that the one thing I miss about being in the Navy is Tuesday nights. We’d have these knock-down matches up on deck to relieve the boredom and maybe earn a little on the side. If any Marines turned out they’d always clean house, but I got some Tae-kwon-do, so I did okay.”
After a breath, during which John deliberated as to how much he should share about his past, Bird looked up at him and asked, “So what kinda fight we talkin’ ‘bout here?”
John replied that he thought it’d be best if they limited it to boxing. Bird said “That’s cool,” then excused himself so he’d have time to do the dishes before the missus came home.
“She’s real particular about them dishes,” he added. Then, as slow and steady as his speech, he made for the backdoor.
What struck John immediately about Cyril Byrd was how much in common the two of them had. As he returned to his apartment, he regretted that he didn’t get the opportunity to explore these similarities. During his time in Bracebridge - nine months and counting - he hadn’t met a single person who he could really talk to. Mostly, his conversations were confined to members of the congregation..
“Good afternoon . . . sir,” they would start, tagging on 'sir' because they didn’t know what else to call him. He wasn’t a Reverend yet and Associate Minister sounded awkward.
“Good afternoon, Mr. or Mrs. so and so.”
“Fine weather we're having.”
“Listen,” getting to the bones of the matter, “there’s this piece of scripture that I’ve been thinking about lately. You have a few minutes to spare?”
“Certainly, why don’t you come into my office.” Over coffee and snacks left over from the previous week’s reception, he’d answer questions on miracles and the life of Christ and the plan the Good Lord had for his people. A new interpretation of the Bible, which suggested that Hell wasn’t a place, but merely the absence of God’s love, was a hot topic. So was the ordaining of homosexual ministers and the role other faiths had in a changing Christian world. He’d be asked for his opinion and would give it freely.
“What we have to remember is the time Christ was living in.”
“Much like ours.”
“Yes, perhaps in many ways, but the force of History didn’t exert such a pressure on him as it does on us. What I mean is that Christ was living in the present.”
“He transcended the ages.”
“Yes, good point, but more than that he relied on experience to be his guide. He saw what was going on around him and he acted accordingly. And it's a fine point to make, I think integral to our understanding of his teachings. He was not merely reacting to what he saw as injustices, but saw beyond them to a larger pattern, one which defined life as the greatest gift. His life in particular because that is what he was, alive. He rejoiced in this, his own aliveness, and through that rejoicing others, more by a kind of osmosis I think than through his words, were charged with the same sort of vibrant life energy. His work was doomed to fail because, sadly, what he felt could not be taught. It’s not something that can studied and, I think, the real tragedy is that, as soon as it was written down, it lost its true potency. We became detached from the real message. For a time, maybe, we got it back. I’m speaking of the scientific revolution here which started with the simple premise that we, all of us, have the capacity, through our senses, to look around and see for ourselves. To draw our own conclusions and that’s what Christ was doing; seeing for himself and listening to what his Seeing told him. There is no book which can show us that. A book can be a reminder, yes, it can fill us with a sense of awe at the possibilities that life has to offer, but it is a starting point, intellectual fuel so to speak, which only demands that you see through it. As Milton reminds us, Who reads incessantly, and to this reading brings not a spirit and judgement equal or superior (and what he brings, what needs he elsewhere seek?) uncertain and unsettled still remains, deep versed in books and shallow in himself. And this is as true with the Bible as with anything else. It’s a shortcoming of the medium regardless of its content.”
How many times had he made this argument and sat back afterwards breathlessly, waiting for a response to be met with glowing eyes like a child seeing a Ferris Wheel for the first time? Or a wry smile? Or disinterest? Or a fidgeting with the coffee mug? All of which amounted to the same thing.
“You preach one hell of a sermon, but what I really wanted to talk about was . . .” and, in return, he would limit his answers to Yes or No and occasionally pull passages from the Bible like rabbits from a hat. Never once did they ask him why he had become a minister, what had brought him to this town or what he hoped to achieve. And he had hoped to achieve something. The memory of that had not yet faded, though the rigor of routine had diluted his enthusiasm.
A few days after their encounter at the Albion, he concluded, “I am here for the same reason that Cyril Byrd is.” It was Wednesday afternoon and he was jogging down River Road towards Wilson’s Falls. The pavement gave way to gravel as the river swept out of sight behind a stand of pine trees. Dust rose at his feet and he picked up his pace.
Cyril had hoped for refuge and in return had received what? A surprise and, in that surprise, what? Direction. Fatherhood. He"d accepted it without pause, but also without commitment. That’s what he'd said, wasn’t it? He stayed because he seemed to get along with his son, a boy of less than two years. How hard is it to get along with a boy that age. Show him a little attention, buy him a toy or something sweet. Play with him. Point at the sky when a bird flies overhead. Hold his mother’s hand. Eat at the table. Be there. Smile. Was that all or was there more? Love him. It was an accumulation of things. The above with kisses and secrets and time and patience. And love grows or wanes, it never remains still. Silent, yes, but never still. Like faith, it is a longing with a foreseeable outcome. Companionship, purpose, a means of approaching the day. A reason to get out of bed. And nothing more?
No it can’t be. It is arbitrary. The ultimate coincidence. A looking at the same thing, then an awareness that you are, all of a sudden, looking at the same thing with someone else. As when you stand in a room with mirrors on opposite walls and try to see beyond your own reflection, to the infinite, and your head gets in the way. Two people standing side-by-side likewise can’t see beyond their heads, but between them there is a space which can see, does see, serves nothing but to see. That space is love and also faith.
John crested the hill that overlooked the Falls. He slowed and let gravity pull him downwards. His knees ached, so he walked the remaining few meters to the bank of the river. The hydroelectric station at the base of the Falls looked fallow. He could see the heavy chain strung across the door in front and the lock. Water trickled lazily out of the pipe jutting from the brick building.
John wiped a hand through his sweat-beaded beard and coughed, thinking, I could really use a cigarette to help me think this out more clearly. What was I on about anyway? And why all this now? Am I in crisis?
No, he decided, nothing so dramatic. It’s the fight stirring up all these old questions, he thought. Wasn’t that why you wanted to fight in the first place, to remember? The Bazaar gave you an excuse. We’ll do something different this year, raise an extra few hundred bucks. Put it towards buying a new rug or add it to the fund to replace the backstairs that connect the Sunday School with the auditorium in the basement. I’ll keep the rest to myself. Safe and secure. A diversion because Christmas is coming up. The busiest time of the year. No. The fight was to give me something to talk about. Wasn’t that its design? A starting point in conversation. A means of revealing myself to the congregation, or was it? Maybe it was a test.
I used to fight because I was angry. Anger gave me my strength. Now I remember the pattern, he thought. Two years in Asia, backpacking after high school. My entire inheritance gone, so I returned to Hamilton not wanting to work in the factories. I had learned a smattering of martial arts and precious little else on my travels. I joined a boxing club and even showed some promise. Then, somewhere along the way, the anger ebbed. But why was I so angry in the first place? Only because it was easy to be angry. There were other reasons ,but they were less tangible. In the ring though, it’s hard to be angry when you start losing. Anger is a winner’s right. It feeds on self-righteousness. It finds vindication in the count of ten and languishes in its own resolve. In the real world, perhaps, self-pity does the same, but in the ring it is bereft of any power because it thinks back upon itself. Anger only sees the here and now and the possibility of rage.
Four years of sliding down afterwards. A job pulling a lever, counting to three and releasing, came to an end when I walked into a convenience store after a night at the bar. I had saved three dollars and seventy cents for the pack of cigarettes that would get me through to the end of my next shift.
“It’s four twenty-five,” the man behind the counter had said. I didn’t understand him at first. His face, scrunched behind a pair of wire-rimmed glasses, seemed to be accusing me of something. He was Chinese, middle-aged, wearing a V-neck sweater with a tie underneath.
“It’s four twenty-five. Price go up. New tax.”
“Pack of Dunhill’s,” I repeated.
“Price go up.”
I stood there, not believing. Something in my face must have betrayed me because I saw his hand move towards the phone.
“You go now. I call police.”
My hand tightened into a fist and I did not feel it make contact with his nose, but all of a sudden he wasn’t standing there anymore as if I had wished him away. I stepped around the counter and was startled to see him lying on the floor, face down.
“Fucking Chink,” I said. (Yes, that's a matter of public record. I said 'Fucking Chink'. The man’s wife in the backroom had been close enough to overhear.)
I grabbed a pack of Dunhill’s and left. I had intended to leave the money, but also forgot my wallet. They called it a hate crime. I haven’t sorted that one out yet, so perhaps it was.
John felt a chill run through him and realised he was standing in the shade. He looked up at the horizon over the treetops and saw that the sun had set. His legs were stiff and they protested when he started to run. He pushed the discomfort away and, by the time he reached the top of the hill, it had eased. The return trip was mostly downhill. After a few minutes, his feet no longer felt like cement and he thought reassuringly, I’m not that old yet.
On Thursday nights, John hosted the Senior Youth Group. Normally, it was held in the room where the choir practised, but this week he decided to invite them to his apartment. Five girls and two boys, aged 16 to 18, showed up. They were his core group. Sometimes, he had as many as twelve, but usually it was just these seven. He served herbal tea or juice and fruit, cheese and vegetables with dip. The teenagers set upon the trays with haste and John had to point out the stack of plates. When they had piled on as much as they wanted, they sat down on the couch and some fold-out chairs John had brought from the church. They all had copies of the Good News Bible, gifts from confirmation, and set them on their laps to eat off of.
After a round-robin prayer in which twice The Lord was appealed to make the upcoming fight a victory for their church, John took his steaming cup of tea in his hands, the warmth comforting him, and started.
“I’d like to do something a bit different this week.” It had been his practice to let the kids control the conversation at these gatherings. Their task would be to locate moral dilemmas, whether they were found on the news, at school or at home, and together they would sort through these problems and determine how the Christian Faith could provide answers. Today, he felt like talking.
“I have a question for you tonight,” he said, then paused for dramatic effect. “What I would like to know is whether you, as individuals, have anything new to bring to Christianity.” He looked at each of the seven in turn. They all had their heads lowered. He could tell they weren’t evading the question, but were trying to make sense of it.
Chris, who always wore a suit and tie, spoke first. “What do you mean by 'new'?”
“Okay, good. Let’s define our terms. New, something that you feel is lacking in the Church that you could provide.“
“Youth,” Sandra in a floral dress piped in.
“What is it about youth that would be an asset?”
Sandra was rather shy and, in the moment it took to collect her thoughts, David, who was her boyfriend and sat next to her, spoke up.
“I think, what Sandra means is that mostly old people go to church these days.”
“And why is that?”
“Because most people our age think it’s boring and they’re also embarrassed, even though a lot of them believe in God.”
“So you set a good example.”
“Is that what you meant Sandra?”
“Okay, so what happens when you get older, what will you bring then?”
“Business smarts.” Chris answered. “The Church needs better PR. The Evangelists and the Catholic Priests who’ve, you know, gone to jail have given the Church a bad wrap.”
“So you think Christianity needs to be sold more aggressively.”
“Interesting. Anyone else?”
“I think the church should do more to help the needy.” This from Clara with pigtails and freckles.
“An administrative matter. Next?” In turn, the remaining three offered their say and John listened quietly to each. He sipped at his tea and nodded politely. None of the answers satisfied him.
“What I am hearing is a lot of reactive thinking," he said finally. The group didn’t understand, but he could tell they were vaguely insulted.
“What the Church needs is action and where does action come from? Anybody? Experience. What you have to bring to the Church can only be your experience with the Church. How has the Church helped you? How has it hindered you? What has it done for you, if anything at all? And I say this because it is my feeling that the Church serves no purpose for most of its members. It is a convenience, a routine, a symbol of intention. And because it is a symbol it is empty, as are all symbols. Let me repeat that: All symbols are empty. They mean nothing, worse than nothing, in fact, because they allow us to point at them and say: This is what I believe in. They define belief when belief can only be defined by one thing and that one thing is experience. Your experience is the one new thing you can bring to the Church. It is the only new thing any of us can bring.
“Now, there's a widely-held belief that there is no such thing as an original idea anymore, that everything has been covered. It only seems that way because we believe it to be. The Church itself is content to revel in past glories, the Life of Christ being the predominant glory. The Life of Christ has itself become a symbol. That is where its power comes from, but I am here to tell you, that power has grown old, weak, impotent and, as such, it is useless.”
John Williams paused to catch his breath and to survey the room. His words were not met kindly by the seven. Chris shook his head, smiling ironically. Sandra clutched her Bible hard enough to force the blood from her hands and David looked angry.
“Perhaps,” he began again, “you all know that I spent time in prison for a hate crime. Like a lot of cons, I turned to the Bible, not because I cared about what it said but because it looked good on my review. And what did I find? I found a story about a man. A quiet man who spent most of his life toiling away, head down, yet a man who was not afraid to sneak a peek sideways once in a while. What he saw out of the corner of his eye filled him with rage, hatred and bitterness. Yes, all of these things in equal measure. I understood this man, but when I spoke about him to the prison chaplain, he said I was mistaken. ‘Jesus was full of love.’ ‘Lies,’ I said. There was no love in his heart, only fear. He could see how it would end and it would not end well, not for him or anyone around him. So what did he do? He made a choice. He said, 'I can succumb to that fear or I can make it my ally' because it, sure as hell, wasn’t going to go away. Instead of hiding behind his fear, he let it propel him forward to its inevitable conclusion. He said, by his very actions, that we all live in fear and we let that fear destroy us rather than give us salvation. How do I know? Because it destroyed me.”
He'd meant, "destroyed Christ" and, for a moment, he thought he should clarify, then reconsidered and sidelined towards his conclusion.
“Now has anyone heard of the Greek cynic Diogenes and his search for one honest man?”
The next morning, John awoke at seven. He showered and shaved, ate a bowl of cereal with a pear in it and, by eight, was walking the two blocks to the church, carrying the chairs he had borrowed. The day was crisp and clear and he relished the coolness that nipped at his bare hands. It was the day before the fight and he thought he should give Cyril Byrd a call. He didn’t have his number though and didn’t know the name of the woman he was living with.
She works at a bank on the main street, he remembered. There were two banks on that street, so he would have to call on them both.
Halfway along Chancery Lane, a cobble-stoned alley leading up a hill to an English-style pub, he saw one of the posters announcing the match. Sandra had drawn caricatures of Cyril and himself and had them facing each other with gloves raised. He had described Cyril to her and she had done a decent job of rendering his likeness. He looked black anyway and that was the main thing. What made him pause at this poster - he’d already seen four downtown - was that someone had used a marker to scrawl a Swastika over Cyril Bird’s face and written the word 'Nigger' below it. John set the chairs down and removed the poster from the wall. He folded it and put it in his pocket.
When he got to the church, he set the chairs on the landing between the offices and the auditorium where he had got them from and climbed the stairs. The Reverend Cairn’s door was open and John could see that Cairn was at his desk, flipping through a magazine. He stepped inside and fished the poster from his pocket.
“I would like your opinion on this,” he said as he handed the poster over. The Reverend closed the magazine, a Sears Christmas Catalogue, and took the poster into his hands. As he studied it, he clicked his tongue against his teeth
“Yes, well, the kids around her don’t see a lot of black people. Probably just showing off in front of their friends.” He dropped the paper into the garbage can beside his desk and placed his glasses back in his pocket.
“Big day tomorrow.”
“I see we have sold over two hundred and fifty tickets so far. Looking to be the most successful event we’ve had in years.”
“Just trying to do my part.”
“Good. How’d the group go last night? I hear you had them over at your place”
“It went well.”
John stepped back into his office and closed the adjoining door behind him. What he had said about last night was not really a lie, although it struck him that way. He wasn’t entirely sure that it had gone badly. After he had finished he'd opened the floor to questions, but there weren’t any. He'd dismissed the group and they collected their Bibles and left. He had been unable to sleep and went for a jog. In his mind, he went over his strategy for the fight. Upon returning home, he was too tired to shower and passed out as soon as he'd slid beneath the covers. Probably no mention would be made of what he had said, though he expected not all seven would be coming back next week. Still, he did feel good about what he had said, regardless of the consequences.
I needed to remind myself, he thought. And before the fight, that was important. He was positive of that, even if it wasn’t entirely clear why. It had something to do with Diogenes and the way he felt just moments ago when he saw the poster that was defaced. But what had he felt? Relief?
Yes, I felt relief. No use denying it now.
It was as if someone had named that nagging itch logged in the back of his head. It had been there from the moment he saw, but didn’t quite see, Cyril Byrd standing in shadow. At the table, he had let Cyril talk, but he was thinking: A black man. Perfect. He’s a black man. What more could I have asked for. That’ll pack them in. Was that really what he thought though? No, he thought, I get to fight a black man. Spectators or not, it will be me and him. But I have fought plenty of black men before and haven’t felt this way. Or have I? What did I feel then? John pulled the memory of his fights out like so many cards from a library catalogue.
I was the underdog. That’s what went through my mind. They had a right to be there and I had to prove my right. And why did they have a right? Because they were black and I was white. I stacked myself against them and it always felt better to win against a black man than a white, or even a Latino or Asian, and it stung less to get beaten. It made sense to get beaten and victory was always a surprise - a pure measure of my determination as if, for an instant, I was equal to the task I had set for myself.
But that was the currency of the past. It was what he had denied all this time and only now saw like a slide projected over the memory. He stood, staring straight out with the real image painted behind, stuck in the present of defence and offence, dodge right, dodge left, jab-jab, retreat. Blithely unaware that it was all part of a pattern.
Now we’re getting somewhere, he thought. At least now I know what’s at stake. John stood up and poked his head into the Reverend's office. He excused himself and nearly tripped going down the stairs as he took them two at a time. He skipped across the street and ducked back down Chancery lane.
No-one at the Royal Bank in the centre of town knew anything about Cyril Byrd, so he made his way to the second bank at the far end of the street. It took him a good fifteen minutes to get there and he counted ten more posters along the way, all without the offending graffiti. At the park beside the movie theatre, he spotted another poster in the bandstand, but couldn’t make out if it was untouched. At the CIBC, he waited in line for his turn, then stepped up to the teller.
“You must be talking about Nancy,” the teller said.
“Yes, Nancy, that sounds right.”
“She’s home today. Would you like to leave a message for her?”
“No but it’s a matter of some urgency, I don’t suppose you could give me her home address.”
“Sorry, that’s against bank policy. As far as I know, she is listed in the phone book,” then in a low whisper, “under Carver.”
The street she lived on was only a two-minute walk from the bank and, without further delay, John reached the intersection of two residential streets, looking for someone who could narrow his search to one of the houses along Anne street’s two block expanse. As he hesitated on the sidewalk eyeing an old woman pushing a grocery cart, a young woman walked around the side of the house on the corner, carrying a child clutching an uprooted tomato plant. The boy, his hair curly and dark, his skin a shade lighter, threw the plant down. The woman bent to pick it up and John stepped forward.
Inside the house, John waited in the hallway for Nancy to put the boy to sleep. She had invited him in without saying anything, except that it would be best to talk out in the yard.
“It’s funny, I just called you people a few minutes ago,” she said as she swept up the mess her shoes had made on the hardwood floor. “Meant to call you last night, but I forgot. Cyril left on Wednesday and I don’t expect him to be coming back anytime soon. Said he had some unfinished business in North Carolina. That’s where he’s from, you know.”
John replied that yes, he knew that.
“Of course, that’s not why he really left. Can’t say as I blame him.” Nancy put the broom in the closet and opened a drawer in the bureau beside a hat rack.
“He found this stuck to a tree over near the hospital.” She smoothed out the crumples in the piece of paper and handed it to John. “I told him it was just kids, you know, showing off in front of their friends or something. He said he understood. Then, the next day, he called me at work and told me his sister-in-law had phoned. She needed his help on account of that they were trying to take her house away. It’s a shame because he was really getting along with Eddie. I named him after Cyril’s dad. He died in a car crash when Cyril was ten.”
John gave the poster back to Nancy and said goodbye.
For the next two hours, he patrolled the town and removed what posters he could find. He had thirty-seven when he mounted the church steps and almost knocked into Reverend Cairn on his way home for lunch.
“I see you’ve heard,” the Reverend remarked, noticing the posters.
“Well, you know . . . don’t let it trouble you for too long,” he said, slapping John on the shoulder, uncharacteristically chipper. “Just finished talking with Father Duffy over at the Catholic Church. He’d heard about the fight and was a little insulted that I hadn’t called him earlier since I’ve been to his house and seen his trophy. He was the Champion Middleweight at his seminary. I had forgotten all about it until that woman called. He’s guaranteed that he can match the number of tickets we’ve sold and he’s even got some ideas for door prizes.”
John mumbled that he was glad to hear it wasn’t a total loss and started into the church.
“A total loss, nothing,” Reverend Cairn called after him, “If you want my honest opinion, I think it’s the best thing that could have happened.”
Dandelion Sparklers (Tanja Rabe)
Based on the Memoir by Stephanie Land
Netflix, USA, 2021, Drama, 15+, TV Mini Series
Director: John Wells
Creator: Molly Smith Metzler
“Before they bite, they bark. Before they hit you, they hit near you”
During the first Lockdown of the pandemic in 2020, every liquor store I passed by sported a long line-up around the corner of the building. "I guess, they had to declare liquor an 'essential' product." I'd remark wryly to John, "The government must be worried about half the country going into withdrawal all at once. Imagine the riots . . ."
As one Lockdown followed another, with seemingly no relief in sight, and people were shuttered off from each other, the stats showed a steady increase in alcohol consumption. It didn't take long before the deteriorating state of our communal mental health made its first headlines in the news as lack of social interaction and restricted access to support and services began to take its toll nationwide. So it didn't come as much of a surprise when domestic violence helplines reported a sharp uptick in calls for support nationwide.
"Everything closed overnight, and our crisis lines lit up,' one organizer informed the CBC in February of 2021. "It's very disturbing to know that there are so many women who are in this really precarious situation," she said. "There may have been limited support for them beforehand, but at least they had outlets."
What did however surprise me was coming across a mini-series on Netflix that managed to put a believable face to the all-too-often hidden, and frequently stigmatized, issue of spousal abuse. I was in the midst of battling Omicron at the time and desperate for anything to watch that could cut through the viral brain fog and tie me successfully to the couch for some much-needed rest. Ironically, a couple of comedies I had initially zeroed in on proved too upbeat and cheerful for my sombre mental state. I soon realised that my misery did indeed require company of the self-same variety, so when the Netflix Gods in their digital wisdom suggested I give one of their top picks titled Maid a chance, I took the leap and never looked back.
Maid proved to be not just an excellent piece of film making supported by a top notch cast, but also heartrendingly realistic. Based on the memoir by Stephanie Land, it tells the story of a young mother, Alex (Margaret Qualley), who, in the dark of night with her two-year-old daughter in tow, escapes from her abusive, alcoholic partner Sean (Nick Robinson). Destitute and homeless, Alex faces a rollercoaster ride of seemingly insurmountable obstacles when trying to navigate the dysfunctional and fragmented system of services for battered women.
She initially loses a custody hearing that is plainly stacked against poor, single mothers and, down-the-line, struggles with exploitative work conditions, insecure, unsafe housing and precarious childcare arrangements with no personal support network to speak of - all while dealing with traumatic flashbacks as she tries to protect her child's well-being at the expense of her own.
Seeking support from her free-spirited, bipolar mother (Andie MacDowell) adds more grief to this cocktail of adversity and, as the plot moves forward, we find out the true reason for her deep-seated reluctance to accept help from her father (Billy Burke) - a reformed alcoholic himself who started a new life and family after his wife fled with a young Alex to Alaska.
Despite its grim subject matter, the story contains just the right mix of humour, determination and rays of hope to keep us from drowning in despair by proxy and, thankfully, it generally refrains from trading in stereotypes.
Sean joins AA and sobers up for a short while in an effort to get his wife and child back, and he convinces Alex to move back home. As the tensions between them soon overwhelm his fragile sobriety, he hits the bottle hard one night which ends in a frightful scene of psychological abuse and forceful confinement. (Sean later confesses he grew up in a severely dysfunctional family that set him on his path to alcoholism at the tender age of nine).
There were plenty of moments where I felt genuine sympathy for the male 'antagonists' in this story, themselves victims of broken homes and easy prey for substance addictions that lead them to destroy everything they love and care about. And even though I wanted to yell at the TV when Alex hesitated to accept help from her father and sabotaged a blossoming relationship with a caring, male friend who offers to support her and her child, I knew deep down that this was the only way she thought she could protect herself from getting ensnared and burned in another, possibly toxic, relationship.
The insidious effects of spousal abuse are manifold and the resulting trauma gets passed on down the line to future generations. It leaves wounds that, for some women, are too devastating to ever come even close to healing and manifests in feelings of impotence, guilt and a lack of self-worth that keep resurfacing for decades. Full trust in their own judgement and in men can rarely be restored, anxiety-inducing triggers are everywhere and learning to stand up for oneself in the face of intimidation - instead of instinctively running away from it - can be a lifelong hurdle that some never manage to overcome.
Reviews for this show have been wildly enthusiastic all across the board. It resonates intimately with survivors of domestic violence and, for those of us like myself who never had to live through such harrowing experiences, it courageously opens a window into a domestic purgatory that is all too often ignored, if not blamed on the victims themselves. It is raw, unflinching and honest, haunting and heartbreaking, not to mention completely enthralling all the way through. As one reviewer commented: "The writer finds a beautiful line - never fully glorifying or demonizing anyone. Everyone has a heart. Everyone has a story."
Maid superbly illustrates the positive impact television can make when creators throw all their passion and talent into a project and aim for authenticity and integrity in film making. Two thumbs up!
“They don’t know what it took to get here. Three hundred and thirty-eight toilets cleaned, seven types of government assistance, nine separate moves, one night on the ferry station floor and the entire third year of my daughter’s life.” - Alex
by John Jantunen
This summer we'll be heading off to Vancouver for a family reunion. The last time I was there was for my sister's wedding fifteen years ago, an occasion which also marked the first time I'd see my eldest son Drake, then fourteen, in almost a decade. Tanja wasn't able to join me then and so it'll be our first time back together, which is reason enough to celebrate as we'd met while working at the Capitol Six Movie Theater on Granville Street. Tanja would end up taking the very last photograph I'd have of me and my son before his mother absconded with him to parts unknown.
We'd leave the city a few years later - in a 1981 Cutlass Cruiser Stationwagon we named Smaug - to begin - what we've taken to calling - our 'Great Adventure'. Our imminent return, with our own two teen sons, has got me thinking quite a lot about how far we've come since those less-than-halcyon days of our youth, and it's in this spirit that I offer the following piece which originally appeared as the third of four blogs I wrote for the National Post, following the release of Cipher in 2014.
There is a framed photograph of my oldest son, Drake, on one of the bookshelves in our den. He is three years old and dressed in a pair of rubber boots and a bright red winter jacket, standing at the edge of a sandbox in a playground on the south shore of False Creek, a short walk from Granville Island. His foot is raised and he’s about to stomp into a large puddle that has made an island of the slide that’s just visible in the bottom left-hand corner of the picture.
He looks almost exactly the same as his younger brother Anyk did at that age. Same blond hair. Same blue eyes. Same reckless abandon. A 23-year-old version of myself is standing beside him and smiling awkwardly into the camera, or rather at the person holding it. Tanja and I had only been together for a couple of months when she took the picture (we celebrated our nineteenth anniversary last August). It was the first time she’d accompanied me when I visited my son. I was a little distracted and, thus, couldn’t foresee the kind of trouble Drake was about to get me into with his mother when, 15 minutes later, I would bring him home early, soaking wet and crying from the cold (though, the fact that I’d brought my new girlfriend along probably didn’t help much either).
There is an ancient tugboat moored in the harbour behind us. It is black and white with a red door and looks just like the one in that old children’s book. There is a small tree in front of it. Its trunk is thin and its branches empty so that, at first glance, it is hard to tell it apart from the dozen or so masts projected against the forest of glass and steel condos in the West End behind it.
Drake’s face bears such a look of gleeful determination that, all these years later, it’s hard not to recall another important step. The step, I guess. “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” And for me, his step would be just as momentous. The picture would mark the last time I'd see him for almost 10 years.
We have two other pictures of Drake placed at carefully considered intervals in our house. On an adjacent shelf in the den: a studio portrait to commemorate his high school graduation. So prim and proper in his gown and tie. Tacked to the corkboard in our kitchen: Drake sitting in an office chair in my sister’s apartment, trying hard not to smile. I think he was twelve. And there are a bunch more scattered through various scrap books.
One of them shows me sitting beside him at my sister’s wedding. I’m in a tux and he’s in a white dress shirt that his aunt had picked out. It was the first time we’d seen each other since he was three. The caption Tanja wrote below it reads: Drake Meets John. Hmm. Both of us look a little uncomfortable.
For the interval between that photo and the one at the park when he was three, we have no pictures of Drake. I’m not even exactly sure where he was during those years. All I know is that he’d left Vancouver with his mother and his older sister, Danara. I heard a rumour from a mutual friend that they were in Salmon Arm. Then Parksville or Nanaimo. When he was 11 he was remanded into foster care.
We had just returned from a four-year stint spread between Cape Breton and Guysborough, Nova Scotia, and were back in Bracebridge. Anyk was two and Kai was but a notion. After speaking with Drake’s intake worker a few times, he agreed to send me the police report. On the night in question, it read, Drake was playing with a bottle of hairspray and a lighter in his bathroom. He set the drapes on fire while his mother was out drinking. A few minutes after she returned home, one of her neighbours called 911.
It sounded like she was killing someone over there, the woman had told the operator. These were the last words his mother said to him: I never want to f–king see you again. The police dragged her away in handcuffs.
And so I got to know Drake again. First at my sister’s wedding and then for five weeks the following summer and two weeks at Christmas; a pattern that would persist until he was 19. Summer. Christmas. Summer. Christmas. Summer. Christmas. Summer. Christmas.
He once told me that he didn’t hold a grudge about the way things had turned out. I don’t recall exactly what I said to him in response, but I’m certain it wasn’t the truth: that I knew that sometimes he did.
He’s 21 now and, when we speak, he calls me Pa-pah. He works as a bartender at a pub in Gastown. My younger sister runs into him every once in a while. She lives in Coquitlam but works, and plays, in Vancouver.
He’s a funny guy, she told me. And he looks just like you.
He doesn’t answer his phone, I said.
Remember what you were like when you were 21?
I’d rather not.
He’ll answer when he wants to talk.
Damned call display.
Just keep trying.
The best time we ever had together was when I took him swimming at a place known by locals as 'the Potholes'. Located just south of Bracebridge, it’s where the southern branch of the Muskoka River funnels through a thin gorge on its way to joining the main. The walls are some twenty-feet high and below it, they say, the water is almost as deep. There’s a spot to jump off from a pine tree that leans over the cliff face. Someone had nailed a few boards to the trunk, serving as a ladder to the lowest branch. From there, you can climb all the way to the top if you wanted to, though neither of us did.
We’d made two jumps apiece and then Drake sliced his foot open on a broken beer bottle. I bandaged the wound with my favourite shirt. It took us twenty minutes to get back to the car, then ten more before we were in triage. We waited seven hours to see a doctor.
You took him to the potholes, he said to me, after I told him I had. What could I say? He turned to Drake.
How old are you? he asked.
He’s 14, the doctor said, glaring at me and shaking his head, and you took him to the potholes?
On the car ride home, Drake said, That doctor was a f–king asshole, and I agreed.
Next time I’ll get Tanja to stitch you up at home, I told him.
She can do that?
Sure, why not?
Next time then.
Yeah, next time . . .
Rhapsody in Kelp (Tanja Rabe)
In for a Dime
(Book II of the Tildon Chronicles)
by John Jantunen
ECW Press, Fiction, May 2022
Jantunen writes with full frontal force and honesty . . . a horror film journey that is all too real, with a great Canadian twist.
- Robert Rotenberg, bestselling author of Downfall and Old City Hall
Ten years after the calamitous events set in motion by Dylan Cleary in his attempt to bring George Cleary’s last novel to life, Deacon Riis has settled back into the rather sedate life of a small-town reporter. That is, until he’s invited to a New Year’s Eve party by Dylan’s sister Crystal, who is now a successful writer/producer behind a wildly popular horror movie franchise and, for her next big budget slasher flick, she’s chosen to adapt one of her grandfather’s apocalyptic thrillers.
On the drive up to his sister’s retreat in northern Ontario, Deacon receives a text that reads, It has begun again. D. True to his word, Dylan is even then orchestrating an apparently random and increasingly savage series of attacks culled from his grandfather’s last fiction and Deacon’s only hope of avoiding a similar climax as the one that saw much of Mesaquakee reduced to ash will be to go all-in like Dylan.
(Book I of the Tildon Chronicles)
"John Jantunen’s darkly violent thriller is as fascinating as it is disturbing. After a wealthy developer winds up dead in Ontario’s serene cottage country, greenhorn local reporter Deacon Riis gets caught up in an escalating spiral of violence. Did eccentric author George Cleary predict this cataclysm, or is someone trying to bring his brutal books to life?
Jantunen’s Molotov cocktail of a story touches on class conflict, the dangers of social media, and other hot-button topics of our age. A book that would make David Lynch proud, No Quarter exposes an idyllic town’s dark underbelly."
- Apple Books Review
"A unique and extraordinary novel by an author with a genuine flair for character and narrative driven storytelling, John Jantunen's No Quarter is a simply riveting read from beginning to end . . . very highly recommended for community library Contemporary General Fiction collections.
- Midwest Book Review
"No Quarter has the skeleton of a thriller, but author John Jantunen consistently zigs where other narratives would zag, creating a story that is far stranger and disturbing . . . the connections add a wonderful layer of dread to No Quarter."
- Shelf Awareness
Vain Vine by Aaron & Randy Eady
Stones, Soles and Survivor Solace
by Randy Eady
A community-wide initiative, The Countdown Public Art Project Pebble Mosaic in Renfrew County, Ontario, crafted one large, permanent public art monument and three ‘sister’ monuments to honour survivors of sexual assault. The arts initiative works with communities to create memorials in public spaces to honour those affected by abuse and to imagine - or count down to - a world without gender-based violence.
The three smaller mosaics are located in Killaloe, Pikwàkanagàn and Pembroke, while the largest creation is situated in Eganville, the geographic centre of Renfrew County. A custom bench, nestled beside the installation, was unveiled in May of 2019. The mosaic was created over a summer by hundreds of community members and is made up of several tons of hand-selected stones, carefully chosen, assorted and arranged into the semblance of a blooming flower.
Anna Camilleri, Artistic Co-Director of Red Dress Productions & Lead Artist, and Andy Trull, Artistic Co-Director of Ottawa Valley Creative Arts, stewarded the progression of ideas into designs for not one, but a total of four linked river rock creations built with the help of community members from each location.
In Camilleri's words, the "Countdown Public Art Project is not a passive art object, nor a polite request. Through this many hands' and many hearts' effort, we enact the aesthetic power of collaborative public art to make an active demand, a public protest, a resounding declaration: Sexual violence is not a private shame; it is a public scourge and a social and political responsibility that belongs to all of us to eradicate."
“We like to use materials and a process that everyone can enter into whatever their skill level or experience,” says Trull. “It’s something people can work with without having to speak, but also it really connects them to the earth.” Sorting five tons of stone for the monuments, the component elements were arranged and crafted on tables one pebble at a time and, after completion of the pouring and curing process, they were released from their molds.
Within First Nations cultures, stones are called 'grandfathers' and are alive with spirits. Stones and rocks are wise and sacred because of everything they have seen and experienced. Rocks, it is believed, have spirits that guide and assist us. It is truly befitting that the first-ever monument in Canada dedicated to survivors of sexual violence is made of stone.
A stunning glass orb, designed by Tanya Lyons of Killaloe, resides at the mosaic's centre. This reflective sphere was vandalized using blunt force, only scarring its surface as a result. When Centre Communications Coordinator Jancy Brown described the vandal’s failed attempt to shatter the orb, she focused on the glass’s resiliency rather than the harm done.
Lyons, owner of The Glass House, underscored the glass's sheer strength by noting how it may look fragile but “it is a powerful material made from earth and fire that can survive through time for thousands of years. Glass lends itself to conceptual art and represents the strength and power in this monument very well. Now the glass bears scars as many women do, adding depth and beauty while reflecting strength.”
In fact, just as blown glass changes in its biological state, it figuratively reflects the adverse experience and the process of working with trauma - which often affects transformative and profound changes in sensory and thinking processes. So it makes sense to assume there's a feedback mechanism at play where biological modalities are intimately interfused to other states of being - another inspiration to create a monument that could be therapeutically touched and felt by offering sensory engagement and expression.
In coming to terms with this act of vandalism, the Women’s Sexual Assault Centre of Renfrew County was determined to find a positive angle. “A rock couldn’t break this and that’s how survivors are,” she concluded. Despite the obvious damage to the monument’s glass and stone, Brown said, the centre has no plans for its repair.
The community-wide initiative has created public spaces for survivors to reconnect to their communities and invites vital, often private, conversations to more public platforms so that communities can heal from collective trauma, gain insight, and move towards a world free from gender-based violence. Since the start of the Renfrew project in 2016, over 1500 people have gathered in large and small groups to build 10 pebble mosaics across Ontario.
(Editor's note): During our two-year residence in North Bay, we lived a couple of blocks from where this picture was taken. It shows the unveiling of the North Bay Pebble Mosaic at Fisher Street Park in July of 2019, in conjunction with the Amelia Rising Sexual Assault Centre of Nipissing. Hidden on the underside of the stones, which form the six-foot in diameter monument, are the names of survivors and personal messages of hope. For more info check out:
The Dove of Peace Speaks Out:
by Katerina Fretwell
But the dove found no rest for the sole of her foot. Genesis: 8:9.
Ukraine is denied a safe No Fly Zone;
my wings can't wipe out the blood and despair
drenching birthing beds, the bereft, the dead,
the infirm . . . non-fighters causing no harm.
I dread flight near Putin's cross-hair-eyes
fixing on the evil trinity:
money, power and empire that measure
success in bank notes and brutality.
I swoop onto Zelensky's shoulder,
cooing: “Though no bombs answer Putin's,
you are not alone; you dwell in allies' hearts.
Even Russian soldiers sabotage their tanks.
Soon, I hope, I'll fly freely
over rubble rebuilt, peace fulfilled.”
The Tail-End of Two Secrets
by Rebecca Kramer
I have lived within the crosshairs of two juxtaposed realities for longer than I care to remember. Each reality holds a secret from the other. I wish to divulge those secrets on both sides of a psychiatric hospitalization. In one camp are the all-mighty psychiatric professionals and in the other camp are their vulnerable patients. The public has a right to know about the dynamics between the two.
I asked myself, “How can I bring peace to a land fraught with fear and hatred?” The next few paragraphs might be surprising to the uninitiated, but familiar to psych patients.
This is the first secret that I wish to reveal to psychiatric patients and their loved ones:
Psychiatric professionals are taught that people with a mental illness must be brought into 'care'. They reassure parents and partners that all is well. Nothing could be further from the truth. Here is the dark, very real issue of abduction.
All sense of personal power and dignity are erased from people when, based on the lies of others, they can be turned in through 911 calls; have their voice taken away; are brutalized while being apprehended by the police, are handcuffed and shoved into the locked backseats of police cruisers like criminals; are forced into lockup confinement in hospital psych wards where their personal belongings are stripped away from them; have to wear thin cotton gowns and slippers while pacing cheerless hallways and being forced into silence; are threatened to be tranquilized and abandoned in solitary confinement cells without toilets if they cause any disturbance, however minor - not even one cry of pain or anguish of any kind must slip out or a gang of blue-gloved nurses will subdue them to finish the job.
Psych wards are cruel, emotional pressure cookers. Not surprisingly, this dark reality fails to ever appear in psychiatric textbooks. Sadly, the trauma of being forced to enter a psych ward can make a new patient appear sicker than ever and medical treatment is decided accordingly. Any legitimate ‘discomfort’ a patient shows from their harsh apprehension is met with this claim from the staff, “It’s only in your head!” even when multiple bruises are clearly visible all over their bodies!
The basic tenet of psych wards is to throw a wrench into human rights by denying patients permission to meet all of their physical needs on their own. This accomplishes ultimate demoralization. Patients are brainwashed into believing that they deserve to be driven back into the dependant stage of toddlerhood where they, literally, have to beg for every physical need to be met by medical staff: from knocking on steel doors to use the bathroom, to asking for a toothbrush or a piece of paper to colour on.
Back to how psych staff are trained. Once people with a mental illness are brought into 'care', psychiatrists and psychiatric nurses have been taught that an appropriate regiment of medications stabilizes chemically imbalanced minds effectively. Therefore, their primary job is to bring the medications that they administer upon their patients to therapeutic levels by observing their patients’ behaviour. Thus, they see themselves as clinically honourable professionals.
But, strangely, the reasons for their observance of a patient’s behaviour are kept secret from their patients. Psychiatric staff don’t tell their patients what they are looking for. All the patients are aware of is that they are constantly under surveillance and checked up on; they are kept under lock and key and they are forced to take a barrage of medications with often debilitating side effects for weeks and months on end.
All of these so-called treatments continue on for an indefinite time with the even more disturbing reality of the ever-elusive release date. Therefore, the patients are given no indication of when they will finally be released back into their homes and communities. Even jail is less cruel than that. Criminals know their crime; they serve their time; they know their release date; and then they walk out free. Criminals are also innocent until proven guilty. Those with a mental illness are considered guilty from the outset and then proven guilty all over again through observation. They never shake the guilt and shame of the most criminalized, demonized, ostracized and gossiped-about illness in the world.
What psychiatric professionals seem completely unaware of is the elementary importance of how the stress of being kept under lock-and-key plays havoc on the mind of any human being. When you hear that solitary confinement door lock behind you and the nurse walk away with the key - not knowing when she will appear again - panic hits you automatically. You ask yourself, “What do I have to do to get out of here?”
Your amygdala is the fight-flight-freeze response centre of your brain, designed to override every other part of your mind when you are in danger; and lockup signifies danger! It is imprisonment! Your brain goes into high alert to preserve your own life! Your inner sirens wail as they do in the minds of people hearing bombs drop in a war-torn country.
This is the second secret I wish to impart to psychiatric staff:
When patients get their bearings after their admission, they tune into the moods and personalities of the psychiatric professionals around them and play into the hands of those who hold the keys of power to their freedom. Like good actors, these patients will become as pleasant and compliant as required in order to free themselves as soon as possible. Both the terrorizing lockup - and the need to escape it - actually play a much larger role in a patient’s behaviour than both the evidence of a mental illness and the effects of any psychiatric drug!
The apparent cooperation of patients can motivate doctors to assume that a particular medication is now at a therapeutic level. This assumption may be the furthest thing from the truth. The sad reality of all this secrecy between opposing camps is that a patient will often be released back into society on the wrong medications and dosages.
I was a casualty of exactly this frustrating conundrum in 2003 when a psychiatrist threatened to lock me up for the rest of my life. (This was the first time I was threatened with life lockup, simply for being an artist, and it is a fact that psychiatrists are taught that creativity can be a sign of mental illness.) I pretended that the medication he put me on, Olanzapine, was the perfect drug for me just to get out of there, though that was completely untrue. After my release, that drug made me sleep 18 hours a day. I lived this way for eight years until I was done with sleeping my life away. I asked a different doctor to be placed back onto Seroquel which I knew was the perfect drug for me: the medication that I am still 100% compliant on today.
Let me state this clearly: “Psychiatrists, if you want the truth from your patients, then you need to tell them the truth as well, just like any other medical doctor who will explain the procedures and treatment regimens to patients with a physical illness.” The more comfortable a patient is with the information their doctor gives them, the more med-compliant that person will become. If this communication has proven to be successful in other spheres of Canadian health care, then let’s show it can be done in our mental health care system as well. Improving communication between psychiatric staff and their patients is the starting point in resolving festering distrust in both camps. But where should we even begin?
The fastest and most effective way to correct this conflicting scenario between patients and their appointed caregivers is achieved through teaching a new approach to impressionable psychiatric students by reworking their textbooks. I recommend they read something like the following:
101 PSYCHIATRY COURSE
(Suggested Textbook Introduction)
The psychiatric hospitalization industry once taught and practiced that the only way clinicians could administer and monitor therapeutic levels of medications to those with mental illness was through forcible capture and lockup confinement in an institutional setting; in short, those with a legitimate mental illness were criminalized. Forcible capture and lockup is no longer a practice in Canada. Criminalization and confinement of patients was once sanctioned as care, but was proven, in every way, to only further traumatize those in need of treatment.
Far too many people have suffered alone with a debilitating mental illness. They did not seek help for fear of confinement, which is tragic. Now, unexpectedly, these sufferers have come forward, have sought help and have received it. What is the result? Canada has become a healthier society. Lockless hospitals have become the solution in creating a therapeutic environment in all spheres: mentally, emotionally, physically and socially.
Care now means care! Psychiatric patients are free to come and go as they please, even those who were once deemed a danger to themselves or a risk to society (barring extreme cases). This trust which has now been built between them and their professional caregivers, instills in patients a willingness to work with their health team on establishing the best medication regimen for their particular needs.
Psychiatric staff effectively communicate to their patients the following message: "Let’s work together and discover the optimal set of treatments for you. Let’s talk. I will teach you, as we go along, how each medication is expected to affect your body and your brain. Your body may react differently to the medications than the bodies of other patients. So, give me feedback on how they work for you. Remember, empathy is my primary job description. For example, if I am not hungry but you say you are, I must refer back to when I was hungry to see your need as being urgent. If I empathize with your hunger, I will immediately get you food. In the same way, we need to communicate openly for another reason. I do not share your illness. This fact could become problematic and, to ensure that it does not, please tell me if something feels wrong. Though I am not presently feeling something wrong, I must refer back to when something felt wrong for me. Then I will see your need as being just as urgent as the need both of us have for food. Immediately, I must do something about your particular complaint. For only then am I doing my job effectively. Let’s begin our journey together.”
Keep in mind that, as you enter your career in psychiatry, whatever is forced onto human beings is unwelcome; whatever is freely offered to them is generally welcome. Humanity has always responded to coercion and freedom in the same way. Why would people with a mental illness respond any differently? They are a part of humanity too! Let’s help them to feel that way!
by Rebecca Kramer
Creeping ugly giant spider
Stuck in mud along the shore
Swam across the whole lake backwards
Just to walk through willow’s door
But we know it’s not a spider
Just a log stayed where it fell
Once it may have been a willow
Till it did not feel so well
Softly rippling turquoise water
Doodling shadows of the log
Zigging Zagging silly sketches
For the seagulls and the frogs
But we know that water hasn’t
Taken any art class yet
Furthermore, the sun draws shadows
Of its subjects dry or wet
Bulging like the crust of strudel
Or like chocolate almond bark
Trunk of willow looks delicious
Sweetest tree around the park
But we know that bark is bitter
Poet talk is just pretend
And we don’t need all that sugar
All we need is one good friend
Similar to many artists
Who refuse to cut their hair
And believe they’re more creative
Willow branches dangle there
Once again there’s small relation
From the poet’s world to real
Still . . . we love imagination
Merging how we think and feel
by Les Edgerton
Down & Out Books, USA, Memoir, 2018, 344 pages
Review by John Jantunen
In 2014, Jack David, my publisher at ECW Press, rented a van and drove four Canadian mystery writers to Bouchercon in Raleigh, North Carolina. Bouchercon bills itself as the largest crime writers convention in the world and, as a newly published, first-time mystery writer, the trip would serve as a rite of passage for me as well as provide the opportunity to mingle with my more- esteemed peers, most of whom would welcome me into their fold with a degree of fellowship I’d never thought possible.
And few could have been more welcoming than Les Edgerton.
I met him on the second night of the conference. Up until then, I admit, I’d been feeling a bit like a fish out of water. While the drive down with Jack, John McFetridge, Dietrich Kalteis and Sam Wiebe had been a thoroughly memorable and even joyful affair, I was beginning to suspect that any hope of capitalizing on the euphoria I’d felt during the thirteen-hour trip wouldn’t amount to anything more than a case of wishful thinking.
My first inkling that I’d likely been a trifle too optimistic, believing an unknown author such as myself might so much as make a ripple in these international waters, had been provided by way of the gift tote I’d received upon signing in at the authors' table. In it were a half-dozen free books from some of the convention’s 'featured' authors. All were of a decidedly mainstream appeal, quite at odds with my own reading habits. I knew I wouldn’t read any of them and, since my motel was a thirty-minute walk from the Raleigh Convention Center and I didn’t want to be burdened with them until I'd return to my room that night, I stacked the pile of books on a table in the lobby of the adjoining Marriott City Center, free for the taking.
A few seconds later, I noticed an older gentleman sorting through them and watched, with idle curiosity, to see which of them passed his muster. The one he finally chose featured, on its cover, a cat sitting on a table beside a martini glass, which was about as far as my interest in the book had extended when I first found it in my tote.
Jack David would shortly thereafter inform me that it was from a sub-genre of mystery novels called “Cat Cozies” (the most popular in this breed being: The Big Kitty, The Whole Cat and Caboodle, Faux Paws & Hiss Of Death). Call me naïve, but it had never occurred to me that people wrote books (for adults) in which cats solved crimes and that people (adults!) might actually want to read them. But read them they do, and by the millions as I soon found out. For the rest of the day, it seemed, whenever I spied someone holding a book, it featured a tabby or calico on its cover and the 'Cat Cozy' corner in the bookseller’s room sported a permanent line-up - while, I might add, nary a soul was to be seen at the table that sold my novel Cipher.
That night, I ended up at an event called 'Bar Noir' and my mounting despondency was somewhat tempered by the promise that 'Noir', another sub-genre, was reserved for those who wrote to discomfort rather than its opposite. The first reader was a fellow named Tom Pitts who, I’d later discover, was a transplanted Canadian living in California. His offering involved a heroin junkie trying to shoot up in the video booth at a porn shop whose efforts were constantly being thwarted by a 'dwarf' banging on his door intent on purchasing his used jizz rag. Now that, I thought joining in with the audience’s boisterous applause, is more like it!
The next reader was a shaven-headed, somewhat elderly author with a handlebar moustache that, to me, suggested he might have been a retired sheriff from down Texas-way. He was introduced as Les Edgerton and, while it turned out he was indeed originally from Texas, I quickly learned that he was about as far removed from a lawman as one could reasonably get.
His piece recounted a true story from his stint as a convicted felon in an Indiana prison. Apparently the farmer, who supplied the prison with beans, always threw in a few shovelfuls of gravel to increase his profit. This meant that inmates had to be constantly on guard when eating the legume, but in his story "Toothache" the protagonist becomes distracted by one of the cooks attacking a fellow inmate with a meat cleaver and, thus, bites down on a rock amongst his beans, breaking his tooth. Delivered with such dry wit and grisly humour, Les’s reading that night at Bar Noir, to this day, stands as the most compelling recitation I’ve heard at any of the dozens of literary events I’ve attended over the years and, between him and Tom, my mood was on a definite upswing come intermission.
The break found me smoking a cigarette on the bar’s street-side patio. One of the perks of the evening was a sampling of North Carolina whiskey. Given that a half-pint of beer cost almost ten dollars Canadian, I’d been keeping an eye peeled for the waitress in charge of dispensing these complimentary drinks. Having already managed to snag a couple previously, I was downing my third between drags when I heard a rather garrulous voice shout out, “Who's got a smoke? I’m jonesing for a goddamn cigarette!”
Turning, I saw it was Les. Pulling out my pack, I handed a smoke over, assuring him that my Canadian Classics would be the best cigarettes he'd ever tasted. I’m almost certain he didn’t entirely agree, but we still ended up jawing at one of the patio’s tables for a couple of hours joined by Chicago mystery writer - and former Def Jam comic - Danny Gardner who’d go on to found Bronzeville Books a few years later (a publishing venture at which a friend from my high school days in Bracebridge would serve as an editor, another one of those funny coincidences I tend to thrive on as a writer).
Les proved himself as proficient a story teller as he was a reader and our conversation would give me plenty of fodder for the three minutes I’d been allotted to introduce myself, and Cipher, at the Emerging Writers Breakfast the following morning. Les was to sit on one of the panels that same day and, naturally, I put his appearance at the top of my 'to-do list'. He was seated between two law enforcement officers-cum-writers and set the tone of the discussion early on when he paused briefly - while recounting one tale from his seemingly endless repertoire of stories as an outlaw - to remark rather impishly, “I probably shouldn’t be telling this one with so many cops around,” before boldly charging ahead anyway. But it was something he said a few moments later which would tell me beyond a shadow of a doubt that I had found a kindred spirit. Answering a question about whether he had a specific reader in mind while writing, he answered that he didn’t write for a million readers, he wrote to find that one reader who might just get it.
In my twenties, I’d read Herman Hesse’s novel Narcissus and Goldmund, in which Goldmund is enticed into the artist’s life by a statue he encounters in a small country chapel at a particularly dark moment in his life. Ever since, I’d become convinced that art’s true value resided in its potential to instil a longing for a new direction in those ‘lost souls’ who needed it most. I’d been inspired by quite a number of writers over the years in my own efforts to chart a new direction for myself through my fiction, but it was rare, indeed, to actually meet a fellow author in the flesh who, by virtue of his very being, seemed to embody such an all-too-often maligned ideal.
Over the intervening years, I’ve come to respect Les's prowess as a writer as much as I do the man himself and there are no emails I treasure more than the ones I’ve received from him during our correspondence. Les generously offered to provide a blurb for Savage Gerry and, while he certainly struck at the heart of the matter when he wrote, “This is a novel of the love of men for their sons” (after all I wrote it For Drake, my first son), it wasn’t until I’d read his book Adrenaline Junkie that I’d fully understand the emotional imperative simmering beneath the surface of these words.
Les leads into his memoir by quoting James Baldwin in the first of two epigraphs: “Artists are here to disturb the peace.” Words were insufficient to express my sudden elation upon reading that as I literally leapt out of my chair to share this discovery with my partner Tanja, for James Baldwin’s Another Country plays a pivotal role in In for a Dime and I had also chosen another Baldwin quote as the epigraph for my next book, Mason’s Jar.
The complete quote, in which this line appears, is: “Now it is true that the nature of society is to create, among its citizens, an illusion of safety, but it is also absolutely true that the safety is always necessarily an illusion. Artists are here to disturb the peace. They have to disturb the peace. Otherwise, chaos.” I include it here because, to me, it provides an invaluable key to fully appreciating what Les has accomplished with Adrenaline Junkie, as does what author Marjorie Brody writes in her Foreword: “Les understands that backstory matters. It influences the presence. So, he journeyed through the past seeking answers for why he was here . . . Fighting for a moment - regardless of how fleeting - to feel in control of his life.”
It was hard not to pause again when reading this, since the only inspirational quote I have hanging on the wall above my computer is a single page torn from a July 2021, Harper’s Magazine article. I’ve highlighted the last paragraph in Matthew Karp’s “History As End” to serve as both a constant reminder of what I myself am striving for in my writing and as a welcome reassurance that I am far from alone in, what often feels like, a solitary and futile pursuit of such an ideal.
To quote from Karp's article: “The past may live inside the present but it does not govern our growth. However sordid or sublime, our origins are not our destinies; our daily journey into the future is not fixed by moral arcs or genetic instructions. We must come to see history . . . as what we fight over, fight for, and aspire to in practices of justice. History is not the end, it is only one more battleground where we must meet the vast demands of the ever-living now.”
If Les’s brazenly courageous and brutally honest account of his past is anything, it’s one man’s attempt to create just such a battlefield out of his own personal history . . . and what a history it turned out to be!
From working at his grandmother’s bar/restaurant in the highly segregated - and oftentimes callously violent - city of Freeport, Texas, during his youth and his military service as a cryptographer stationed on the Caribbean Island of San Sal, to his life as an outlaw and professional thief. Then there was, of course, his stint at Pendleton Reformatory - one of the worst prisons in America at the time - during which he’d learn the skills which would lead him to becoming a renowned hairstylist, only to have his career derailed in a self-destructive streak fuelled by his seemingly insatiable appetite for sex and drugs, and finally his moving on to rediscover his true calling as an author.
The only corollary within the literary world that I could think of, which even comes close to matching his story, would be that of Hunter S. Thompson. But, whereas Hunter S. allowed himself to become a caricature, forever trapped in a persona of his own devise, Les is driven by, what at times seems like, an almost pathological desire to keep reinventing himself, sometimes for the better, frequently for the worse.
To be honest, I often had a difficult time reconciling the man he was with the man I’ve come to know. While this dissonance primarily served to bolster the pervasive, and increasingly palpable, tension which veritably bristles off every page, it also instilled in me a certain reluctance while approaching the last few chapters. It was akin to how I feel nearing the end of a particularly intricate mystery novel, knowing that the whole thing could quickly become unravelled by an overly pat or facile resolution that leaves far too little to the reader’s imagination, whereas my favourite reveals always compel the reader to re-evaluate everything that came before, even while pointing towards a far-from-certain future. Adrenaline Junkie, I’m relieved to report, manages this with a similar prowess as Les brings to his crime fictions.
In fact, it was a passage from his 2011 novel Just Like That which was ever in my thoughts while I reflected on Adrenaline Junkie. In it, his lead character, Jake, is serving time for much the same reasons Les did and, while conversing with his cellmate about what led him into a life of crime, he reflects that “the scareder I get, the gutsier I become.”
This itself serves as incisive an explanation of what drives the 'adrenaline junkie' as I’ve ever heard and, where in his past lives Les seemingly allowed this same propulsive fear to drive him towards imminent self-destruction, ultimately it’s his embrace of that same verve which elevates his memoir beyond a mere cataloguing of the extreme turns his life took as a result.
That his ultimate reversal was spurred by the love of a woman and the birth of his son might have, in less adroit hands, come across as trite but, here, it serves only to raise the stakes even further. In McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Judge Holden remarks “The stakes is the game” and it’s a lesson Les seems to have taken well to heart. By using his fear to force a reckoning with his own past, and damn the consequences, he’s achieved the rarest of all feats; he’s turned what could have been a simple cautionary tale into an epic saga of a man re-imagining what was once his Achilles heel into his greatest asset and I, for one, cannot think of a more compelling, nor salient, story for our times than that.
Les Edgerton is an American author of 23 books, two of which are on writing fiction, and has taught at several colleges and universities.
His works, including a variety of short stories, screenplays, essays and articles, have been nominated for numerous awards and several of his books have been translated into Japanese, German and Italian.