Saturday, 27 December 2014

A Lesson in Transience

This is an aside.  It doesn't have to do with my travels, it's just something I've been thinking about.  This happened a long time ago.

I had been stood up at a fetish/kink themed party earlier that night.  I traded emails with some random person on the internet, I don't remember her name, and we talked about it as a way to meet.  It was a public space with lots of people, and the community surrounding was very clear about the need for consent.  It was safe and interesting and would've made a good setting and story for a first date, if she had ever shown up.  Somehow even though I was surrounded by people in sexy costumes seeking attention I managed to feel really sad about being stood up and barely talked with anyone.  I walked out before midnight with the costume covered by a trench coat.  I transformed into someone mundane, just another winter pedestrian in a long black coat.

After I left I met someone random on the train ride home.  I don't remember how exactly we struck up a conversation, but I remember that I asked her specifically if she was interested in talking with a stranger.  She looked upset and I wanted to distract her from it.  She didn't say no and we started talking, and she only clarified much later that the answer was yes.  We got to know each other slowly, little by little.  She liked guns, and frequented gun ranges.  She was ridiculously flexible.  She blogged and wrote poetry.  She rode her motorcycle around.

One day she came over to my house and we sat on the living room couch and heckled terrible movies.  Making fun of Britney Spears in Crossroads is the only part I remember, plus wondering whether or not this beautiful dark-haired woman was coming over to my house as a friend or as a date.

She talked about her ex-partner a little bit, just enough for me to know that the relationship was complicated and the separation was also complicated.  They had been together for a long time, she showed me pictures of a much heavier version of herself playing sports with him, and her eyes looked sad and a little vacant when she talked about him.  The process of getting to know her was so slow that I didn't ask many questions, I just noted that she had broken up with her ex recently and still had some intense feelings about it.

We talked frequently.  I knew when she had a dental emergency and helped her find an anesthetic (clove oil) when pharmacies and dental offices were closed.  I knew when she had a challenging conversation with her family.  I knew when her heartstrings got tugged on by her ex, although I didn't know details.  She had opened up to me in ways that felt a little bit special.  I didn't know any of her friends or family, she and I had a little bubble of friendship too new to have those factors woven in.

We went downtown to have dinner together at a Japanese place that she was especially fond of.  We went back to my place afterwards and had a drink.  I felt like this might be the kind of special that means friendship, but it might also be the kind of special where something  more might happen.  We were sitting in dim light in my room with wine glasses at 1:30 in the morning, and I asked her if she was interested in dating me.

A friend of mine would later ask me what it was like to be a man who time traveled from the 1950's.  People who aren't old men on the inside just make out with the person they're interested in and use that as a litmus test. 

She turned me down gently, but without any room for misunderstanding.  She just said no, she wasn't interested in dating, and that was that.  She drove home.  We were definitely still friends.

We made plans to go hiking and kayaking.  She was asking me what I was doing on Saturday or Sunday.  She asked me if I was superstitious about Friday the 13th. She told me that when she and I went out for a Bellini after work it made her day.  In February on her Facebook page someone posted that she was in a head-on, hit-and-run collision with a towtruck in the suburbs and was pronounced dead at the crash.

I was too startled to be sad.  I didn't know her well enough to know whether or not it was a prank.  I waited, and when no one corrected or withdrew the update I understood with a kind of sharp finality that she was actually dead.  A car crash had killed her.  I tried talking to a friend of mine about it and he assured me that identity is insubstantial and that the only thing lost was transient anyways and that her loss was primarily a mental construct.  I got angry and told him that no matter what mental construct I had I was sad that I would never again get to do any more things with her.  No hikes, no heckling bad movies, no figuring out who she was as a human being, her story in my life would never advance past what had already happened.  No mental or emotional gymnastics could undo the fact of her absence.

She was just gone.  Death is final.

The details of the funeral were posted on the same Facebook page.  The bubble of our friendship had burst - I had never met any of the other people who I was sharing grief with.  She had never talked to anyone about me; not friends, not family.  I was a stranger at a stranger's funeral.  They gave out the spent bullet casings from her time at the gun range, wrapped in little ribbons, and a lot of people I didn't know gave me dirty looks.

Her mother was understandably teary - weeping and holding hands with a twenty-something man.  When people were invited to tell stories about the deceased, he was announced as the boyfriend who's heart was broken by this loss.

Before she died I heard a lot about her tumultuous separation and about some of the challenges of being single.  The man standing in front of me, holding the hands of a grieving mother, seemed pretty sure that when his girlfriend had passed away they were still a couple.  There was no purpose to adding confusion to grief.  I left, and carried out with me all of the conversations about breakups and separation that appeared to be inaccurate or at least seriously misrepresented.

I have questions.  Why did she mislead me about her (ex?) partner?  Did that have something to do with why I never met any of her friends?  Was this just her way of her relating to a new person, was I reading too much into it?

She's dead.  During the crash a piece of debris in the back window of her car hit her neck at the 3rd vertebrae and cut off her brain's connection to her body.  Whatever other damage a head-on collision did to her was incidental in the face of a severed spine.

Mostly I remember walking with her, taking the long train rides downtown, the surprising sweetness of a new friend.  I wondered idly at the mystery of her now and then.  Her departure from my life was profoundly abrupt.  Her funeral was a ceremony of closure for some but a ceremony that, for me, only moved closure further away.

I have questions.  They're like an itch.  I miss her.  I feel a little bit ashamed that I also wish I could get answers.  But she's dead, and there are no answers.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

NYC --> Montreal

I had been sick for long enough that I was worried.  Even at my worst I normally catch a bug for 2-3 days at a time and then recover, and this had been going on for more than a week.

Even though I had medical insurance I decided to wait until I was in Canada to access health care.  God forbid my insurer decided there was some exceptional reason to deny my claim and I find myself on the hook for thousands of dollars of tests.  In one more day that possibility would evaporate.

The pain and nausea were still fairly intense as I rode the Amtrak train to Montreal.  As soon as I could, I decided to go find a doctor in Canada.

NYC (and when it is bad...)


This happened concurrently with my last post.  This was happening at the same time as all that other stuff.

I was still sick.  I woke up functional but in pain at around 5am. When I went into the living room, the couch had been put back and someone was sleeping on it. I went outside, pre-sunrise, and sat barely within wifi range thinking about how I could make this work, and decided just to walk back towards the subway station in the search for functional wifi that wouldn't involve the hostel. I was in a cold sweat and dazed but at least I was only carrying a small backpack – I left the big pack at the hostel, a simultaneous source of relief (less physical burden) and stress (it might get stolen). The theft risk was mitigated by the fact that there were mostly only clothes – valuables were all in my small pack. Sick people don't make the best decisions.

I ended up in a Starbucks in Manhattan. There were no shops or services in between where I was staying and that Starbucks, none that I could find anyways. I thought “they'll have to have wifi.” No appetite, a cup of chai tea, some dedicated time and attention searching AirBNB, Couchsurfing and Priceline for alternate accommodation... trying to download a map of Manhattan so that I could get vaguely oriented... I tried to cram a lot into that 2 hours of laptop battery. I got a few other things accomplished but I couldn't find a better place to stay that I could afford, or that would give me access to Manhattan. People in pain don't make the best decisions.

So I started walking. My friend in New York, one of the central reasons I had added NY to my itinerary, lives in the downtown section of Manhattan and was going to be free in the evening. I had a whole day to kill in the Big Apple and it was only about 9am (since I woke up so early). I walked up Fashion Ave taking note of the deathly thin women and men, the many students with scroll cases full of fashion drawings... and the nausea. The increasing sensation of pain beginning in the upper part of my guts and winding its way down slowly. I felt as if I had the body and soul of an old man, a bottle of hot sauce broken open inside of my chest, the capsacin running in rivulets across my intestines. I walked a few blocks and sat on a bench. I walked a few more blocks and stopped for awhile. I walked a few more blocks and sat on the grass in Central Park. I walked through the park a little bit and sat on a different patch of grass. It took 5 hours for me to travel from Penn Station to the Museum of Anthropology on the West side of Central Park, a walk that Google Maps says should take about 45 minutes. 

In the MOA, walking around and taking in all of the history and humanity, I could only really think about keeping track of the closest washroom and trying not to throw up on an exhibit.

Lovely masks.  May I vomit on them?

Having lived through chronic illness, as an adult now whenever I get sick there's a little bit of very intense fear that whatever sickness comes to visit me is more than just a visitor. I remember when I got sick once and instead of just passing through, it made itself an unwelcome guest for 15 years. Those scars still hurt when something touches them that closely. I sat on the front steps of the New York Museum of Anthropology and wept like a scared 30-year-old. It took me a few minutes to pull myself together again.

I barely visited with my New York friend at all. I went back to the hostel and, for various reasons, couldn't sleep until 2 in the morning. When I did sleep it was fitful. I barely functioned the next day, making it out of the hostel just long enough to get lunch and nearly fall asleep into a cup of tea. My friend sent me back to get some rest and I slept from 3 in the afternoon until 9 the next morning, tossing and turning and sweating. I must've needed the rest.

It feels like there's some significance to the fact that I had this happen so soon after leaving Lawrence. After touching the memories of being sick all the time, I had this little tactile reminder. This time, I got better. I got some time in NY. 

The light side, what I already posted, is the version that chronically ill people normally let you see. The part that's visible.

There are no external symptoms when people go through an experience like that. That kudzu vine can grow rampant and it doesn't leave marks on the outside. If you know anyone who has a chronic illness, if you love anyone who's sick in a way that doesn't make sense, reflect on the fact that both this post and the one that came before it are about the same day, the same experience, the same time in New York. Both the good and the difficult were real experiences riding alongside each other.

Monday, 24 November 2014

NYC (When it is good it is very, very good...)

Both this and my next post refer to the exact same period of time... for the record.

Penn Station was a natural place to grab breakfast on my way into Manhattan, so I stopped and had an iced coffee and a scone and watched the throngs of humanity go through.  That station is the busiest train station in the United States, and it shows.  People watching was unparallelled.

I skipped the tours and tourist attractions and just walked around.  I nursed a chai from Starbucks and wandered gradually up towards Central Park.  It was cold and I didn't have a sweater on hand, so I bought a cheap (and awesome) one from one of the vendors on Fashion Ave while I watched camera-friendly stick figure people walking up and down the road flanked by students with tubes full of design drawings slung over their shoulders.

There's a friend of mine, someone I've known for more than half my life who's been a friend and confidante for ages.  Saying we've been through some inter-personal ups and downs understates things mildly, and despite her incredibly busy New York lifestyle she managed to find time to have lunch with me one day and set aside almost an entire day for me the next.
New York, and Central Park

We went to Momofuku.  If you don't know about Momofuku, you really should probably find out about Momofuku (link) and then do something like make a trip to Manhattan just so that you can eat there.  Ramen traditionally is the domain of broke college students and instant noodles, but when you turn a world-class chef like David Chang loose on them it turns into the sort of noodle bar that can hold its own against the incredible diversity of food in Manhattan.


Then we went to a place that has one of the most beautiful views I've ever had the good fortune to experience.

This is me, looking out the window of the Mandarin Hotel.  You can just barely see the edges of the little plates and pots of jam that accompanied high tea at the mandarin.



I skipped the food photography.  Aside from the waiter getting me the wrong tea, it was as close to perfect as any afternoon tea I've ever tried.  The Earl Gray was phenomenal and complex, and whoever curated the menu absolutely had their head on straight.

It's such an incredible privilege being able to do things like this.  I was 36 floors up in the air drinking some of the best tea in the world, eating some of the best pastries in the world,  spending time with an incredibly dear friend. 

We walked around Manhattan, I had dinner with her and her husband, I even got a chance to meet her daughter and a few of their playmates before I left town.  Manhattan was beautiful, and is absolutely a place that offers experiences that are available only in Manhattan.  I was lucky to be able to work a few of them in.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Brooklyn, the Gateway to Manhattan

This post contains swearing.  If that's a problem for you, don't read it.  There are times when profanity is the only way to properly communicate something.

I arrive at Penn Station in New York in the afternoon.  I'm travelling with a large hiking pack, so the sane thing to do seemed to be going directly to the hostel and setting it down before trying to strike out into Manhattan.  There's no space in those city streets for a hiking pack.  I took the train to Brooklyn, and walked about 15 minutes downhill, under the freeway, into an area of town that looked rough.  When I arrived to the Pacific Lofts hostel, I saw this.


This building is the Pacific Lofts Hostel.  The reason you don't see a sign on the front saying “Pacific Lofts Hostel” is because the man who runs the hostel takes the sign down during the day to discourage anyone from reporting an illegal boarding house and getting him shut down.  The sign, when it was on the door, was this one:


  I felt reluctant as soon as I laid eyes on the place.  It looked cracked and broken and a little bit dangerous.  The sign may as well have read “we don't give a shit about your comfort” and the flaked paint, cracked brickwork and uneven steps may as well have been another sign saying “no one gives a shit about this house either.”

Welcome to Brooklyn, asshole.


I was sick.  It was late afternoon.  This place had online reviews that made it sound like it was workable and had been operating as a hostel for awhile and I thought I'd give it a chance.  All I wanted was a bed and a place to store my stuff that was within semi-easy reach of Manhattan.  Warm reception aside, this hostel was still offering me exactly what I was after.

So.  I was shown into the downstairs space.  The door frame had warped to a point where the door barely fit anymore, and when it pushed open this place said hello.


Hope you enjoy your stay.

When I wrote in my journal about it, my exact words were:


"This hostel is sketchy mc. sketchville, served with a side of sketchy with a decent lug of house made sketch sauce."  I stand by those words.

The landlord had been digging up the cheap, press-on laminate in the living room while guests were staying in the hostel.  The couch, TV, cleaning products, mortar mix, buckets, brooms, shovels, fans, personal junk, lysol, spray-starch and a bunch of unrecognizable garbage that couldn't possibly have belonged to guests were...  well... here.

Next to the fridge, there was the cooking area.

Off-camera, there was a single pan.  The technique to cooking with this single pan was first to remove the microwave from the stove, and then line the pan with tinfoil and put it on the burner (where the microwave used to be).  The kitchen didn't have a sink so you would have to throw out the tinfoil afterwards rather than wash the pan.

That way the pan wouldn't get dirty and other people could use it, of course.

Necessity really must be the mother of invention.

Pardon the mess, he says, we're just replacing the flooring.  He didn't add that this decision had been made while the hostel was full.

The dorms were just behind the last door and weren't a lot better. No air circulated in the basement space.  Something that looked a lot like mold was on the baseboards.  The guy running the hostel didn't check my ID or make sure I wasn't a NY resident (which you're legally required to do if you run a hostel in NY).  He had lost his phone so he didn't have a chance to charge me for my stay at first.  I got to sit and think about it for awhile.

Making decisions while you're sick as a dog is more challenging than making decisions when you're feeling well.  The calculus works differently.  The factors involved in “should I find another place to stay” are more complicated.  Could I find wifi, find another place to stay within a reasonably comparable price range, get to that place to stay and avoid getting into an argument with the operator of this hostel, and do it all without degenerating into a vomitous mass of Jonathan?  Probably, probably, probably, probably and probably not... in that order.  Travel while sick is more complicated than travel while not sick.  I just stayed the night, stale damp air and all, hoping that the next morning I would have a few more personal resources to bring to bear. 

Friday, 21 November 2014

Sorry DC, but I'm on my way out

There was a moment in DC when I walked out of the hostel to explore, made it about three blocks and almost collapsed from fatigue, nausea and gut pain.  Food poisoning had hit me pretty hard.  I limped into a coffee shop and sat in a comfortable chair until the worst of it went past.  24 hours later and the food poisoning (or whatever it was) still hit me hard.

I was still so sick the day that I left DC that I meant to go to several museums - the Smithsonian, the aerospace museum, DC is full of fascinating things and I wanted to see some of them.  Nausea and pain were not cooperating with this plan.  I took two steps into the US Postage museum because it was the closest one to the hostel, and then when I had no interest at all in its contents I limped to the museum of art (the next closest, which I also had no interest in).

In the end, I just got onto a train and left DC.  Getting sick stole that experience. To get it back, I'll need to go back to DC.

6 hours on the train seemed easy.  Next stop, New York City.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

I wonder if I could eat that without getting arrested...

In addition to many buildings being strange, spooky, looming edifices that look designed to project power to the humble, ant-like pedestrians below...




there are also some oddities.

Outside the US Department of Agriculture, within reach of the sidewalk, there are a few rows of corn.  Chalk that up among the things I didn't expect to see wandering the nation's capital.

The pictures that everyone takes

I spent most of a day laying in bed.  I hadn't slept very much because of the nausea and the pain, although thankfully I wasn't making any mess.  Around 3 or 4 in the afternoon I felt well enough to stand up and walk around a little bit, and I kept saying to myself... I've only got 1 more day in DC.  No matter how I feel, I have to get out there and look around.

Once I got going it was dusk - late enough that all of the museums I might be interested in were closed already.  I went to view the monuments that I had missed the day prior.  My bike ride was disoriented and feverish on account of the fact that I was disoriented and feverish. 


The Lincoln Memorial was so still, so quiet and so revered by the people inside that it felt as ceremonial as any church that I've ever attended.  I have to say, again, I can appreciate the symbolic power of devoting so much space and energy to these values literally in the heart of power.



These pictures seem obligatory for anyone who went to DC.  I'm not adding anything new or artistic to the world with these images, but they're special because *I* took them with my own camera in this place.  The feeling in the air of that monument is an odd mix of electricity, meaning and profundity.  Words don't do it justice.




Tuesday, 18 November 2014

DC, Bicycles, and the EULA

In DC there's this interesting bike sharing thing.  You rent a bike at a kiosk, you bike around, you stash it at any of about a hundred other similar kiosks around town.  It's sort of like Car2Go only for bicycles.

Page 2 of how many?


It is also a perfect example of how no one reads End User License Agreements (link) - there were 137 pages of monochrome text in the contract I had to agree to.  Do you think I read them all?  Do you think anyone reads them all?

Hostels, and the pubs that surround them

At night, at the DC hostel, they give out free beer.  It encourages people to mix and get to know each other, and it's just... kind of fun.  A dozen people were in the common spaces and we talked and spent time and it was good.  A random Swede named Stephan was tooling around drunk and stoned and trying to push his intoxicants on the other guests.  He was far enough gone that he gave me his tequila and asked me to hide it until tomorrow so that he wouldn't drink any more of it.  Apparently he also started to get naked at a certain point, which from what I gather isn't that weird for Swedish people.  It just freaked out the other guests.

Stephan, if you ever read this, I'm sorry I never got a chance to give you back your tequila before the staff evicted you from the hostel.  If it's any consolation I really enjoyed it once I realized you weren't coming back.

As things wound down I went a couple doors down the street with two of the other people in the hostel and got a beer and some pub food and I realized that talking with strangers is one of my favourite things ever.  I was also a little bit fragile from my time in New Orleans.  The pub had a themed event - a screening of the Fifth Element, with themed dishes around the 4 elements.  I tried a beer, plus "fire" and "earth."  It seemed safe at the time.  The restaurant was one that gave none of the indicators of being unsafe but I'm pretty sure I got food poisoning.  I started to get really, really sick.

Monday, 17 November 2014

The Values of the United States, Carved in Stone

In Washington DC, I stayed at what is so far the very best accommodations of the trip - even better than the stunningly beautiful hotel space in the French Quarter.  It was called very simply "the Downtown DC Hostel" (link) and was cheap, clean, friendly and lovely.  I stashed my bags and set out.

I realized that Washington DC is imposing.  My personal belief is that the architects that design the buildings in DC focus on making them look like imposing extensions of power and dominance.  The buildings in the downtown area rely on width rather than height to create a sense of really heavy presence - it feels like someone has dropped gigantic, artful bricks into the dirt and then hollowed them out to make buildings.  Rather than the artful spire of a high rise, these buildings are relatively low to the ground and just *feel* huge.




I was born an American citizen and spent a good dose of my childhood tearing around a ranch in the desert in the States.  I also have pretty deep Canadian roots, so I was surprised to feel a little bit of strange American national pride creeping in as I walked through the monuments in the USA.


Carved in stone as a good example, in Washington DC



The values of the United States as presented in these two memorials are something I can really get behind.  In the Jefferson memorial - men (people) are created equal.  They have inalienable rights.  Governments are instituted to secure these inalienable rights among men (people).  Or from the FDR memorial, "we must scrupulously guard the civil rights and civil liberties of all citizens, whatever their background.  We must remember that any oppression, any injustice, any hatred, is a wedge designed to attack our civilization."

It's sometimes difficult to find people in Canada who can relate to this... but reflecting on how those two ideas are/were foundational to the creation of the United States of America as it is today made me really proud to be American.  The USA is involved in some international activities that I'm pretty uncomfortable with, and the way that the US exercised its values on Native Americans when the country was being formed should give any informed person pause... and even still I can appreciate the symbolic power of devoting so much space and energy to these values literally in the heart of power, in the centre of this country.  It gives me hope, and it encourages me to exercise the responsibilities of American citizenship in a good way.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

There's a Word Missing

The District of Columbia will get its time in the sun.  First things first though...

What's Wrong With This Picture?

In case you need to be pointed in the right direction on this one, you might want to look into the origins of the quote at the bottom of the license plate.

None of the people I talked to in DC had a clue why this was on all of their license plates.

My cousin, upon hearing this quote (and its omission), laughed... and then didn't believe it... and then looked sad and said "yeah."

After actually reading the Wikipedia page that I just linked, the omission is deliberate and has specific origins.
The District of Columbia (DC) pays Federal taxes but doesn't have representation at the Federal level.  The DMV in DC added this to the license plates that it printed to acknowledge that, and to protest it.

So, literally, people in DC feel that they pay Federal taxes without representation.  That's what that's about... rather than a blunt nod towards power imbalance, or something silly like that.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Grand Designs, Part 3 (Before the Fall)

Next stop was walking along a street that looked like this...






In order to get myself in contact with a bottle that looked like this.


If you try this, and Denise is your bartender, tell her I say hello.
Absinthe is a vice of mine.  I've tried every type that I've been able to lay hands on so far, from the B.C. made Taboo absinthe to generic Lucid, bottles who's labels I couldn't fully read, and eventually my very favourite bottle in the whole world so far, Vieux Pontarlier (link).  I likes me some absinthe.  Pirate's Alley had a bottle custom made for New Orleans and imported from France, so... that was something I pretty clearly had to try.

I'm... pretty sure she poured me a double.  Pouring someone a double is dangerous when the alcohol you're pouring is 120-proof (60%).  I stayed there for awhile and geeked out on absinthe with her, partly because it was fun and partly because if I'd tried to stand up I likely would've wobbled.  Remember... an hour before this I had just finished drinking 4 shots of rum.

My lovely bartender Denise suggested I hit karaoke at a local place later that night, gave me the coordinates, and sent me on my staggering happy way.  The hotel was 2 blocks away and when walking, I felt surprisingly steady.  I got back to the hotel, took the cigar and matches and rum out of my backpack, filled up a flask and went up onto the balcony.

Pride, as they say, always comes before the fall.

I lit the cigar and took a few pulls - I knew not to inhale into my lungs, but other than that it was the first cigar I've ever smoked (and only the 2nd nicotine product - I smoked part of one cigarette once about 3 years ago).  That cigar and that rum really, really, really paired well.  The jazz wafted up from a band playing in Jackson Square, and for a moment I felt like I had found the perfect expression of my time in New Orleans... happily tipsy, enjoying a luxury I never even considered before, sitting in ridiculously humid summer weather and listening to the notes of a city that knew what it looked like to just play for the sake of playing.

Feeling like a boss lasted about 10 minutes.





About 1/4 of the cigar went away - maybe 1/3rd.  The jazz paused, and I thought this was a good time to withdraw to the hotel room.  Maybe I'd take a nap before I went out to karaoke...

Nope.

Nope.  Actually I'd get back to my hotel room and get violently, unpleasantly ill.  The nicotine, the absinthe, the rum, the coffee, the rich food, the fragility that comes with travelling to new places, the heat, the humidity, some shell of health I was surrounded by cracked, and the pressure of all my recent lifestyle choices flooded in all at once.  I purged until I was empty.  I realized that the smell of cigar smoke had absolutely permeated all of the clothes I was wearing and washed them each several times in the sink, with a generous helping of soap (to no avail).  I hung them to try and then laid down in misery, and tried to sleep.

Hours later I went out to get food and fought nausea back the whole time.  I did make it to karaoke eventually (didn't sing, didn't see Denise or any other familiar faces there), but it was a token effort and was fixed in a cloud of perpetual sickness.  I went back to the hotel and accepted that I'd had as much fun as I was going to have in New Orleans.  The next morning I was on a train to Washington, DC.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Grand Designs, Part 2 (Pride...)

Spitfire Coffee doesn't have a web page or I would link to it.  This is the place with men who looked like they were from Portland behind the counter - I went in and talked with them a little bit, and one of them actually was from Portland.  He mentioned this as a way of explaining that he drinks espresso straight, no hot water or milk or other adulterants.  He poured me a shot of espresso that he described as "fruity as hell."

Now... ok... listen.  There's a whole narrative of coffee drinking that I'm carrying around with me.  I've had good coffee before - Heart in Portland, 49th Parallel in Vancouver, and a scattering of places in almost every city I've been to so far.  I've been able to pick out the chocolate notes, the chicory notes, the fruity notes, and put all the elitist coffee snob commentary in context.  I like me some serious coffee.  This guy suggested straight espresso and that sounded pretty damn good.

Once, at Heart in Portland (link) (which served me the very best cup of coffee I've ever had in my life), I brought a good friend along to have a coffee with me.  I was shocked when she acknowledged that it was a good cup of coffee, but then said "I don't understand why people in North America are so afraid of full-bodied coffee."

Spitfire blew.  My.  Mind.  They suddenly made sense out of what I'd been told in Heart Coffee Roasters.  The coffee I had at Heart was the best cup of coffee I've ever had.  The coffee I had at Spitfire was also the best cup of coffee I've ever had - they were absolutely not the same thing at all.  Heart roasts coffee so that it tastes incredibly smooth, the acidity is incredibly mellow, and it's like drinking velvet.  It's the white wine of coffee.

Spitfire served up a teensy espresso cup that lived up to its "fruity as hell" description.  It was like the red wine to Heart's white wine.  The fumes from it filled up my face, the fruit notes absolutely could not be ignored, and suddenly I understood what she meant by "people in North America are so afraid of full-bodied coffee."  This stuff was a different creature than any coffee I've ever had before.  The West Coast coffee I'm used to is smooth and easy, this cup was potent and pissed off and rewarding to anyone who could put up with it.

I know some people like that... potent, pissed off, and rewarding to anyone who can put up with them.  Spitfire makes that kind of coffee.  They were a highlight head and shoulders above, in a place absolutely chock full of highlights. 

With apologies, you'll have to pardon the absence of photos.  10 minutes before I drank their coffee I'd had 4 shots of rum.

And no, that did not influence my opinion of them.  I dare you to drink their coffee and disagree with me.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Grand Designs

I meant for that day to be a day of pleasures.

I woke up and went straight to Cafe Du Monde, again.  Beignets and coffee lose some of their shine on round 2 - it was still good, but it was basically a breakfast of donuts, powdered sugar and caffeine.  As it turned out, once was enough.

Since that experience had lost its shine, I took the next few steps along that path.  I'd been told I needed to go to Pat O'Briens and drink a Hurricane.  I had seen an absinthe bar in Pirate Alley that got my attention.  There was a teensy coffee shop with men who looked like they were from Portland serving coffee.

There was a balcony at the hotel that looked over Jackson Square, which was constantly filled with music.  I had been told I needed to try New Orleans spiced rum (link).  I noticed a cigar shop.  I had very little time left in New Orleans, and a plan began to take shape. I literally wrote it down.  I wanted to make sure I got in everything that I wanted to do.

Go to cigar shop, get a nice cigar.  Go to liquor store, get spiced rum.  Go to Pat O'Brien's and drink a hurricane.  Get coffee.  Go to pirate bar and drink absinthe.  Go to hotel in the early afternoon, drink rum and smoke cigar.  Stay at hotel, since I will be drunk.  Go out at night and explore, even if still drunk.

The summary...

I got a cigar from a very helpful man at a cigar shop about 2 blocks from Canal and Decateur - I wish I could remember the name, but I've lost my little red notebook and Google doesn't know about it yet (recently opened).  I stopped at an utterly generic liquor store on the way to Pat O'Briens and got a 40oz bottle of spiced rum (they don't sell smaller ones, and booze is cheap in the States).  I stopped in at Pat O'Briens and ordered a hurricane.

I'm just going to pause there.  A hurricane is a drink created during the time where in order to buy whiskey, you *had to* buy 20-50 times as much rum. It was designed to move rum as quickly as possible.  I watched the bartender (who kept calling me, and everyone else in the bar, "my love") pour 4 shots of rum into the glass.  4 shots.  I saw her do that, I thought about the absinthe and the rest of my plan for the day, and wondered if I was going to be able to pull this off.  I left early the next morning.  "Now or never," so the expression goes.  It was a decent drink, which is an accomplishment, considering how more than half the liquid in it was 80 proof alcohol.

My steps were faltering by that point, but I could still see straight.  As long as I didn't get behind the wheel of a car, I figured I would be fine.  Coffee was next up.

Monday, 10 November 2014

They Look Like They're Worth More Than That / How About I Show You Mine for $5?

One night I walked home along Frenchmen Street, just East of the French Quarter.  That's where the local craft market sets up, and is apparently also where the New Orleans jazz that made Bourbon Street famous moved to once Bourbon Street mostly became about tits.  I ate a gator sausage po'boy and listened in to the half dozen bands playing in the clubs and bars along the street.  The jazz was lively, a cover band did a weird rendition of Ice Ice Baby, and a sudden and angry rainstorm blew in and had everyone running for cover.  I finished the gator sausage and waited for the squall to end, then started walking again.

It was almost 2 in the morning.  Stepping into the French Quarter I walked past two men and a woman lounging in the closed storefront of some trinket shop or another.  I walked past, and they asked me if I wanted to buy two bottles of wine for $5.  I smiled and said a polite "no thanks" - they missed a beat, then asked if I wanted to buy two bottles of wine and see the girl's tits for $5.

I kind of wish I'd made a snappy quip, or that I hadn't been so surprised, but I said something like "I'm good thanks" and kept walking.  I went to the hotel, went for a swim, then turned in for the night.

Don't have any photos to go along with that story...

Sunday, 9 November 2014

My Day as a Tourist in NOLA (pt 2)

I rode out to the zoo on public transit, which let me stare out the window and observe the city beyond the French Quarter.  That city is lush and dense with life, ivy crawls all over everything and regular efforts clearly need to be made to beat back the encroaching greenery to keep civilization in place.  Bugs hum and birds chirp out of every nook and cranny.  Restaurants selling po'boys and beignets and gator sausage became less frequent, but stayed consistent during the entire bus ride.  So did the clubs, bars and coffee shops advertising jazz.

A note on coffee shops in New Orleans: Most of them sell booze too.  The distinction between a bar and a coffee shop starts to get pretty academic.

Once I arrived, the zoo was a mixed experience.  The first guest I visited was an orangutang - I forget his name.  Mostly he was hiding from the fairly intense sunlight inside of a shade structure, but when a group of people started holding out their (empty) hands as if they were offering him food, he crawled out and started interacting with us.


He looked sad, and frustrated.  I'm probably anthropomorphizing him, I don't know what orangutangs look like when they're sad or frustrated or happy for that matter.  I only know that angry is baring teeth and making lots of noise (and he wasn't doing that).  This primate, though, is capable of learning sign language and has a level of comprehension that's way beyond anything else in the zoo with the possible exception of certain parrots (link).  He was trying to get us to give him food that he's not allowed to have, and if I were in his shoes I'd also be trying to get some relief from the intense boredom and lack of stimulation.  It was fascinating to see an orangutang in the flesh, but it was a conflicted fascination.

There were a bunch of zoo animals... flamingos, turtles, smaller primates, a small group of rhinos (which were pretty neat), some elephants, some giraffes.  I didn't think the zoo had any surprises in store for me once I took a picture of a few goats for the teens I volunteer with back home.  I was happy that I'd done it but the whole thing left a kind of ho-hum taste in my mouth.  I had fulfilled my obligations as a tourist.

Then this happened.


The giraffe pen has an observation area where you can feed them by hand.  I missed the feeding time, but that didn't stop the giraffes from coming over to see what was going on.

I've never been face-to-face with one of these things before.  Somehow observing the elephants wasn't this... majestic, or this profound.  Giraffes are as graceful as horses only they're massive.  When I stood there, coming up roughly to the thing's shoulder, I felt like I was in the presence of magical, unearthly giants.  I got kind of choked up and I still can't explain exactly why.  On film giraffes are a curiosity but in person, their giant black tongues probing out and the strange mottled frame supporting an animal that feels almost impossible...

I just don't know how to say it properly.  I was moved.  It was such a big feeling that I almost didn't take a picture, out of respect.  Giraffes in the flesh are profound creatures to be close to. 

I stood there staring at them for awhile.  Feeding didn't happen again that day, otherwise I would've probably waited around for hours to have them nibble a branch I was holding.  I don't know what makes these animals in particular so significant, but they were.  I felt it all the way down to my bones.

That was really the single significant thing that I saw at the zoo.  I wandered out, a little bit aimlessly, and stopped just long enough to take one more picture.


A capybara.  Presented here simply because it's a capybara, and those things are hilarious.



Friday, 7 November 2014

My Day as a Tourist in NOLA (pt 1)

For the first day I was a tourist.  I did classical touristy things.  When I woke up I did not pass Go or collect $200, I went directly to Cafe Du Monde and ate this.

If anyone asks you to define what "a lot of powdered sugar" looks like...
It was bloody inspired, it was so good.  I was hungry, of course, I hadn't eaten at all and that made everything even better than it was already, but the beignets were better than the best donuts I had ever eaten and the powdered sugar had been dusted (dumped) the instant they came out of the friar.  It was sticky and soft and amazing, and I understand why beignets and iced coffee at Cafe Du Monde is one of those things that every breathing human being who I spoke to with any experience in New Orleans at all said I absolutely had to try.

Then I went to the New Orleans Aquarium.  It's comparable to most aquariums that I've seen so far, full of exotic things, only I would say it was a lot better stocked and curated than the one that I'm most familiar with in Vancouver.  I almost immediately learned something I had never known before...

Look closely at what these manta rays are eating

Apparently manta rays go absolutely bonkers over eating broccoli.

It's like a cat eating tuna fish - when the hell would a cat in the wild ever have a chance to even see a tuna fish?  And even if it did, what house cat could possibly ever actually manage to kill a tuna fish?  Tuna are huge!  The cat wouldn't stand a chance.

It's apple-apple here.  What manta ray would do more than asphyxiate if it was land-bound and presented with broccoli?  The broccoli plant might be disturbed by the thrashings of the manta ray, trying to breathe outside of water, but the environment of the broccoli would defend it just as successfully as the size of a tuna fish would defend it from a house cat.

I still find it weird.  Nature never prepared a manta ray to love broccoli so much, and yet there they are, loving broccoli like this lady loves apples (link).

Just after that, me and this guy spent some quality time.

Where else would you find an albino alligator, aside from the NYC sewer system?
He absolutely could kill me, and he absolutely wanted to.  If it were down to me and this beast, he'd grab my idiot self and roll me around underwater until I was dead and turn my empty shell into dinner.  The plexiglass made me brave, but it was a funny feeling being 6 inches away from something that was born to kill and eat warm, squishy mammals like me.

The aquarium had its cast of characters, for sure.  The lionfish looked just as poisonous as the stories suggest, and for some reason the blowfish was ABSOLUTELY FASCINATING (although he wouldn't pose for a picture).  If there was a single thing that I saw that made me feel feelings, it was this...


t
"Of the 122 animals identified by Lewis and Clark, how many are left today?"
I'll expand it, since the text is small.

Extinct: 1
Possibly Extinct: 1
Federally Endangered: 3
Federally Threatened: 2
Other Official Designation: 37  (candidates for federal or state listings; protected in some manner)

44 out of 122 species that Lewis and Clark identified, or 36% of the wildlife that existed before the land was developed, are extinct, endangered or protected.

It was a heavy note to leave on.  It didn't deter me from being a tourist, but it gave me something to think about while I headed to the zoo.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

My Introduction to Party Town

As I was leaving Lawrence, someone said "Oh!  You're going to see Nola!"

It took me a minute to realize he meant New Orleans, Louisiana (NO, LA).  The name immediately struck me as a sort of vulgar shorthand for a city that I hoped would be more beautiful than that.

The train ride from Mississippi felt short compared to the 20-hour ordeal I went through travelling from Kansas to Memphis.  By noon I had crossed the border into Louisiana, and started getting acquainted with the changes in the terrain.  The land and climate helps define a city and its people, and for the first time I found myself travelling through this...


 
To the right of the train was this marshland, dotted with green.  To the left was open water as far as I could see (with, inexplicably, a set of high-voltage electric lines going off into what looked a lot like nowhere at all).  Somehow this climate and this place gave rise to the home of jazz and Mardi Gras and parties and intensity and all of these things that ended up looking a lot like...



The French Quarter of New Orleans.  This is Jackson Square, adjacent to the St Louis Cathedral and the Louisiana State Museum. 

The square, which is only suggested by this photo and isn't clearly visible, has a spread of street performers, ragtime bands, tarot readers, palmistry booths and other seers and strangers ready to take your donations.


I hiked through the French Quarter and explored, still wearing my 60-lb pack and trying to find a place that looked welcoming and interesting.  The whole city has a thick fog of religion and superstition - even Mardi Gras is predicated on preparing for lent.  The voodoo shops spill incense smoke onto the neon of Bourbon Street and the traces of pagan practice mix with the bells of the cathedral.  New Orleans is what would happen if someone tried to recruit the Catholic church to work with a hundred houngans to build another Las Vegas at the South end of the Mississippi river.  There were no traces of irony or mischief that I could detect when I saw these signs advertising spaces for rent.


I prefer the haunted ones.


As far as I could tell, these signs were absolutely sincere.  When I struck up a conversation with a few locals one of the first things I heard about were hauntings - construction sites, houses, parts of town, mostly with the lead in of "I consider myself a skeptic, but..."

The Visitor's Centre was extremely helpful.  I got a steep discount on a hotel in the French Quarter and settled in for a few days.  I settled in and settled down to a hotel room, where the view from my window looked like this...

About then, I decided that New Orleans and I would probably get along just fine.

The Pyramids of Memphis

It's going back in time a little bit, I know, but I just wanted to mention that there's a giant glass-and-steel pyramid in downtown Memphis, TN.

This pyramid is currently empty.  If you think of it as a cultural symbol, a monument to the culture of the area, it points one towards wondering what sort of thing would go *into* this pyramid.  Something deeply reflective of the aspirations and beliefs of the culture surrounding it?



Previously, it was a casino.

Next, it will be a tackle shop (Bass Pro - link).  Note that the website refers to the pyramid as "one of America's best known icons."

Tackle, fishing rods, camouflage, camping gear, guns, bullets, scopes, and plenty more.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

The Land of the Free


I'm told that after the Civil War broke out, three slaves crossed into the Union states and asked for amnesty. The decision on what to do with them went all the way up from the military unit that sheltered them to Abraham Lincoln himself. If the slaves were freed just because they crossed the border, it would undermine one of the major economic engines of the South by encouraging their workforce to jump ship. The call was made, the slaves were freed, and the rift that started the war got bigger.  Later, the Emancipation Proclamation made it bigger still.  One of the major sources of productive labour in the South was slavery - giving them a compelling reason to leave the South undermined the whole economy of the separatists. My cousin described the U.S. Civil War as a war around secession where slavery became a central issue, rather than a war around slavery specifically (the history textbooks support her on this one).

Slavery gave rise to some interesting architecture - plantation houses.


These properties were built to house the masters, to separately house (and control) the slaves, and to be an expression of wealth and privilege. As beautiful as plantation houses are, they're a strange sort of monument to the cheap/free labour that made such expressions of largesse possible. Families could afford this sort of excess because slave labour was cheap - buy a slave once and you got every productive hour that they would ever work for the rest of their lives.
Not only that, but they're built on top of land that was cleared of trees, wildlife and Native Americans, all of which were lumped into the same calloused category by the settlers of the time. This particular plantation manor (above) is built on top of an "Indian Mound (link)." It's beautiful, there's grandeur, there's a unique Southern style, and the buildings are tinted forever by the system that produced them.

Some are in better shape than others - this one (below) was rebuilt and refurbished. When the Northern states came through in the Civil War they either stole or destroyed a lot of wealth in the South. War is ugly.   This is the Cedar Grove Bed and Breakfast in Vicksburg, Mississippi.  Cedar Grove still has some of the scars from the war, literally.



Just around the corner from a beautiful hall and doorway, "bohemian glass" and all, is a cannonball that's still embedded in an interior wall. You can trace the line through the door and some parts of the hallway where it shattered the wood. 



Cedar Grove was used as an impromptu hospital during the war, or it's likely that it would've been bombarded and razed along with the rest of the city. 

Many plantations ended with a bang - one of the functions of war is destruction of the enemy's economy. Many ended with a whimper. What wasn't destroyed by the end of slavery was often economically destroyed with the Great Depression. Even the Biltmore House (link) had to open its doors to the public after that era. Some that survived such intense trials have been left to ruin more modernly - two of which I was taken to visit in Mississippi. It was "urban exploration" without the "urban" - two beautiful houses allowed to fall gradually into disrepair.

This is what I mean...



This one, fallen almost completely into ruin. It could only be rebuilt from scratch. Ivy has overtaken the outside, and the inside has fallen to pieces. There were (weirdly) still some things intact... 



A piano, sitting in a hallway. Old photographs in picture frames scattered, broken, on the floor.

In another house, the bones are still intact but it would take significant financing and dedicated effort to ever get it back to its original state.



 You can still see some of the glimmer of the gilded age, underneath the ruin and mold.  It's easy to imagine Southern belles and their bustles, and the shadow of the slave trade just over their shoulders.
 






Plantations houses are part of history in the South, telling a story of a strange and shaded chapter of U.S. history.  They're a reminder of a time of slavery and excess, of the cruelty that's possible towards people we don't think of as people.  They're also a symbol of glamour, class and Southern hospitality.  Both things exist side by side, and walking through these empty places was uncomfortable, and revealing.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Community Done Right - the Twin Pines Co-Op

I want to single out the Twin Pines Co-op as a place that does community right, and I'd like to tell you why that is.

We're still going to talk a little bit about Lawrence, Kansas.  Particularly this is going to be about the Twin Pines co-op - referenced earlier in "the kindness of strangers, the power of community."

To recap, briefly, I visited a co-op where I stayed for a month 15 years ago (Olive House) and they referred me to somewhere that might have a place to stay (Sunflower House).  Sunflower didn't have a place, but after sitting down for 5 minutes various people gave me a beer, offered to let me sleep on the porch, offered me money if I needed it, and connected me with another place that might have an indoor space (Twin Pines).

Twin Pines let me stay.  There wasn't an official exchange, a trade of services or money, except for a simple "we'll figure it out later."  They meant it.  Everyone I talked to had a warm welcome and was curious and conversational.  I got used to people being interested in where I was from, and why I had picked Lawrence as a stop on my trip.

Eventually I attended the House Meeting, where I assumed I would sort out the cost of my relatively brief stay.  There were lots of other things for discussion, like renting out the front yard for parking spaces during the upcoming football game(s), but the subject of rent eventually came up.

Draw a mental circle around this next paragraph.  It's the important part.

Some people in the co-op had struggled with rent for one reason or another.  They talked about it in calm, compassionate tones, and everyone was clear that kicking anyone out or even creating "disciplinary" things just wasn't an option they wanted to explore.  Since it was a co-op everyone needed to pay a certain amount to continue to pay rent for the whole building, and that was also calmly talked about, but everyone was clear that they wanted to make room for everyone else to go through something difficult and not just get tossed out on their ear.

Money is so often the sort of conversation that invites people to act awful, compared to their baseline.  In some situations even looking at images of money or having it mentioned casually causes them to act less "humane."  The Twin Pines co-op, even when the rubber was hitting the road financially, was still acting with compassion, acknowledging that people had been through difficulty (and even saying they were glad they could help them through it), and talking about it as calmly and compassionately as if they were talking about the dinner plan.  As for the cost of staying there, that conversation was just as nuanced and easygoing and straightforward.  I did a bit of work, I paid a bit of cash, and it seemed like it worked for everyone.

Looking after each other happens when it's difficult or complex.  If it only happens when it's easy, it isn't really looking after each other.  So far as I'm concerned the Twin Pines is a snapshot of what it looks like when a community functions with its head and heart in balance.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

LA, DC, NY, QC, ON, BC, NC, GA, TX

Since September 24th there have been a lot of places and a lot of things, including getting ripping sick during the LA / DC / NY leg of the trip.  Travel and sickness don't get along too well.

Still... there was New Orleans, full of party and booze and sketchy past-midnight salespeople, Bourbon Street and the more secret place next to the French Quarter that still has more music than tits.

There was DC, which was imposing and incredible... and incredibly brief.  I lost most of my time there to laying still, being in pain.

There was New York, which had powerful ups and downs.  This was where I tried to keep being sick in check, since all of the frantic energy of Manhattan was just outside the front door.  I took a dozen pictures of a pigeon in Central Park feeling too weak and ill to do anything else.  I had tea at the Empress Hotel.  It was both beautiful and awful.  I'm told that's not too unusual for the area.

There was Quebec, which became my first opportunity to rest and get medical attention for the illness that wouldn't go away.  Medical care in QC is interesting.

There was Ontario, and a good friend of mine pitching Buck Rogers meets Stalinist colonialism and pulp fiction space-race, plus an unexpected football game (and win for the home team).

There was BC, the return home... essentially not leaving the place I called home for a week, giving in to my exhaustion.  Having scarcely any time once I got there.

There was North Carolina and my family - the visit to the Biltmore, the real one, the monument to excess and culture, the incredible castle of the 1930's.  Doing my best to listen carefully to political ideas that are radically different from mine and still carry my opinions and ideas where I can.

There's Georgia, simply passing through, headed towards family.

There's Texas, which my next airplane will take me to (in about an hour), where I meet my second cousin for what may as well be the first time.

Then...  on to a place where I can relax, for as long as I decide to relax (or for a month, whichever comes first).

Posting at the same time as things chronologically happen isn't an option, now that there's been a gap of a full month.  The experiences still happened though, and you'll still find out about them here.  Stay tuned.  Each of these summarized things have pictures and things that I mean to share.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

The Ironic Flower Shop in Lawrence, KS

Just feeling whimsical.  A law office, and a weirdly named flower shop next door.  Coincidence?

Betcha New Hampshire Street law offices deal with Family Law a lot...






























I'm far from Lawrence now, so this is a throwback.  In my travels I just haven't encountered many places that have consistent wifi signals and give me enough time to pick through it all, so you're going to see photos and stories trickling in dribs and drabs.  I'm lucky to be able to get *this* out, considering.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

The Claim to Fame of Memphis, TN

So I went to Memphis.

Memphis has a few musical claims to fame... but Memphis has one particular musical claim to fame.

I grew up mostly ignorant of Elvis Presley.  My mother told me that he was a big deal, and that sometimes when he was filmed on television they would only film him from the waist up, so that he wouldn't offend the delicate sensibilities of girls and (particularly) their parents.

Other things I knew about Elvis...  he got fat before he died... people ... uh... impersonate him?  Some music fans are absolutely ape shit over him for reasons I can't identify?


Once I got inside of Graceland, I almost immediately recognized two other things about Elvis.  Maybe it's partly the era he existed in, but he had terrible taste in decorating (although that stuffed monkey is kind of cute) and he tried to watch three televisions at the same time.

Considering the fan art that he specifically endorsed, I'm not at all sure that it was just the era that he existed in.





(Fan art, as selected by The King himself)










Directly after that, I walked into a dim hallway that was literally lined with records and singles that went gold and platinum.  It *lined* *the* *hallway*.








I learned that Elvis wasn't just a big deal, he was a bigger deal than damn near any other musical thing that happened within a span of decades.  He's the best selling solo artist in history, starred in more than 30 movies and...

Famous isn't the right word.  Successful is too timid an expression.  They had a whole other room with his outfits, lined with awards.  There was a poster that said "Before anyone did anything, Elvis did everything" - it would've been easy to dismiss before seeing the ridiculous number of songs and albums that he made (that he consistently made!) that sold like hotcakes and reached #1.



I became aware of music late, around 1995, since the only thing my family listened to growing up was CBC radio (which isn't really about music anyway, for the most part).  In the time that I've been paying attention there isn't a single band or artist that I can think of that produced that many pieces of music that were consistently successful.  I heard more Elvis songs during my visit to Graceland than I had during the whole rest of my life put together, and even if I'm not personally crazy about them, I can now appreciate why Graceland is a thing, and why calling Elvis "a big deal" just doesn't do it justice.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

"So... Why Lawrence?" (pt4) - Significant Dates, and the Hippie Shack


October 8th is a significant day, in my personal history.  Two significant life events took place on that day.  I was born on October 8th, and a year later my dad passed away (cancer) on October 8th.  Growing up, I thought that really meant something.  The idea I somehow arrived at was that the coincidence of those two things was not a coincidence, and was somehow connected to being sick.  In my way of thinking some cosmic force was either punishing or testing me, and the reason for either one or the other was totally lost on me.

In Lawrence, I was working part-time at a pizza place.  Late September J came into this pizza place on my lunch break and told me that a blood test told her that her T cells were dying and that she needed to go in for more tests to understand exactly why.  I have a clear memory of that moment, and a clear memory of the feeling of being sucked back into a vortex, reeling while I processed the implications.  T-cells get killed off by HIV.  A promiscuous, IV drug-using girl was at reasonably high risk of contracting HIV.  I was sitting across from a promiscuous, IV drug-using girl that I was in a romantic relationship with.  She told me she knew for certain that it wasn't HIV, and I bumped up against a firm part of the inside of my brain that absolutely did not trust that she was telling me the truth.

Planned parenthood.  Needles.  Swabs.  The whole gamut - "I've been sexually active with someone who's a promiscuous IV drug-user and I need you to test whatever you can think of."

They did exactly that.  I asked when the test results would come back, and they said "well it's late September, so come back October 8th.  We'll have the results by then."

October 8th is a significant day, in my personal history.  Significant life event #3 was apparently incoming.

I kept going to work.  I kept going home to the Hippie Shack.  I got an invitation to a birthday party in my honour, and J told me the cake would have a maple leaf on it.  I can't remember anything about how the time between the test and the results went past.  I remember only vaguely how offended J was that I was so scared.

In the afternoon of the 8th I went to get my test results.  They sat me down and gave me a clean bill of health.  I went outside and sat down on the sidewalk and burst into tears, the cicadas screeching in their metallic and harsh way in the background.  I felt the whizz of air from the bullet that I had just dodged.  The implications would have been staggering - the number of people she was at risk of transmitting to were equally staggering.

Back to the Hippie Shack.  I was the first one to arrive at my birthday party - sure enough there was a cake with a maple leaf on it.  There were also a half dozen bottles of various spirits on the kitchen table, and J was off picking up some LSD.  It was a hell of a party to throw for a straight edge kid.

Everyone got drunk.  One person took so much LSD that he sat still and didn't speak or move for the next several hours.  J took 4 hits of LSD.  I watched.  I didn't do much more than watch, and reflect.  The enormity of what had almost happened gradually settled into my shell shocked consciousness, and the fact that it was October 8th sat prominently in my silent contemplation.

J was soaring on her LSD trip.  We got in a small argument.  She went downstairs, to the room with the bare concrete floor and I followed her.  We made up.  We made out a little bit.

Maybe you can immediately identify what happens next because you're aware of some of the quirks of LSD, and maybe you're a stranger to that experience.  I was a stranger to that experience, so what came next was absolutely unexpected.

"You would have to ingest a ridiculous amount of LSD for it to even be present in sweat. A few drops of acid as metabolized into hundreds of drops of sweat comes out to a negligible amount leftover, if any."

She had ingested a ridiculous amount of LSD, and I came into contact with a fair amount of her sweat... or maybe I just had a psychotic episode, or maybe I don't have any meaningful explanation of what happened next.  All I know for sure is that something gave way inside of me, and something changed.  Describing the exact nature of the process is difficult enough that I won't attempt it right now.

1:30am, October 9th, J was asleep and something inside of me rang like a bell, loud and long and deep.  I knew I didn't need to have that experience anymore.  I didn't need to be sick anymore, and so I wasn't.

"When we have a toothache, we know that not having a toothache is a wonderful thing.  But when we do not have a toothache, we are still not happy. A non-toothache is very pleasant." -Thich Nhat Hanh 

13 years.

13 years since I had been "not sick" and I didn't remember what being "not sick" felt like until 1:30 in the morning on October 9th. 

It's not an understatement to say that Lawrence, Kansas made the rest of my life possible.  At 18 the best I could picture for myself was a lifetime of Person with Disabilities benefits, trying to find a way to contribute something meaningful to a world that I couldn't possibly belong to.  At 19 years of age, 90 minutes in, what was possible became suddenly and radically different.

A week later, I was carpooling with some of the other guys from the Hippie Shack.  They were going to New Orleans, I was going to the airport in Kansas City so that I could fly back to the Pacific Northwest, where I came from.  One of them asked, "when will you be coming home?"

I didn't have the heart to tell him that Lawrence wasn't home. 

As for when I was coming back...

Thursday August 4th, 2014.  Turns out that was the answer.

Today, when I walk along the sidewalk, my feet touch these bricks and I remember the fear and the blinding impossibility of what changed.  That's why I felt like I needed to come back.

Friday, 12 September 2014

"So... Why Lawrence?" (pt3) - The Hippie Shack, and Zen


By the time I got back to Lawrence, it was mid-September in 1999 and J had been gently asked to leave the co-op.  Fleeing the police and skipping out on rent doesn't make roommates very happy.  We took up residence in a building a few blocks away that was affectionately referred to as "The Hippie Shack."

Being chronically ill, I had also decided (years before) that mood altering substances weren't for me.  Despite growing up in BC I had always chosen not to smoke weed, and despite being a human being in North America I had always chosen not to drink.  I was worried that if I participated in something that dulled pain I'd be at very high risk of addiction, so it was fire I simply never played with.  Those decisions made me an unlikely house guest of the Hippie Shack.  One especially vivid memory is sitting on the porch with one of the other residents and talking about my decision not to use substances.  He took a big pull off of his joint and said "wow man I really respect that decision."

It's best to deal with these memories in fragments.  The bare cement basement suite where the window had been busted out - slugs kept crawling in through the empty window frame.  J waking me up at 3am, curled up in a ball and rocking back and forth, telling me about using cocaine and getting jumped by a group of guys, holding onto the pocket knife I had lent her - dried blood clinging to the blade and part of the handle.  Watching her inject "insulin."  Stories of her romantic escapades with people who weren't me - which at the time I wasn't sure whether or not to believe. 

Looking back, I was pretty zen about the whole thing.  I SHOULD NOT HAVE BEEN ZEN ABOUT THE WHOLE THING.  I wish I could rewind and get mad - mad enough to walk away, mad enough to yell, mad enough to stop participating in the whole thing and storm off and never come back.  My zen, at the time, was not good for me.  Zen was the only reaction I had.

Zen could also be called learned helplessness.  Those two things look very much the same, from the outside.