Toronto is a big city in Canada, which is a foreign country. I went there and survived. This is my story.
I went to Toronto for Asha’s wedding. Asha is my grand-niece, and she married a guy in the RCAF. His military status allowed them to hold the ceremony in the officer’s mess of the Canadian Forces College. It was all very formal and British, if in some ways unconventional. Polished floors and coats of arms on the walls. There was even a sword. It was held during the ceremony by the the groom’s sister, who was the best man. The parents conducted the ceremony.
The Toronto Beaches
After that, I had a day or two to look around Toronto. Canada’s largest city manages to be both cosmopolitan and reassuringly colonial, not unlike the wedding. A freewheeling modern multiculturalism is fused with a bit of Anglican staidness. It’s a civil place where transit runs on schedule, even if some of the new trams can’t get through snow. A place where people debate a fair price for top-quality weed, expected to be legalized shortly. A cab driver named Mohammed told me real estate is skyrocketing, and people pay for things with polymer currency , the notion of paying with plastic having become universal.
I stayed at a BnB in my niece’s neighborhood, The Beaches, near Lake Ontario. The marketing drivel you find online describes it as a “relaxed neighborhood” with a “small town vibe”. My place was on the block between the beach and a commercial strip on Queen Street (“vibrant”). So, I decided to walk a loop down Queen and back up the boardwalk that follows the beach.
The neighborhood on the slopes above the lake is made up of large brick houses with chimneys and small, damp yards. It is at once cramped and roomy. I walked along Queen Street’s safe, narrow sidewalks among polite seniors and past crowded coffee shops and sushi bars that alternated with old brick apartments. The apartment houses had small patches of grass by their entrances where narrow lawn sales sometimes took place. On my corner, one of these yards had accumulated a more or less permanent contingent of lawn chairs and ashtrays. I ran a gauntlet of smoke each time I passed.
Along the lake shore there is a park full of black squirrels and dogs. The two species appear to have overlapping habitats that also include the streets of the town, but only the dogs venture onto the beach and into the intertidal, where they fetch atlatl-flung sticks and leave feces. Along the boardwalk aging blondes stroll among Chinese couples and accented European professors. Piles of rocks form scenic jetties along the gravel beach. The lake waters glisten. The public restrooms are actually unlocked, and families getting out of parked cars make use of them before heading to the beach.
Later on, I went closer to downtown and the vibe was different. The sidewalk on Spadina Avenue was busy with office girls chatting on their way to lunch. A blonde and a fat brunette with a baby stroller were leaning against a doorway smoking. At the corner of Dundas, a Chinese woman stood alone screaming at her phone. Dundas separates Chinatown from an area called Kensington Market.
Kensington is a neighborhood of turbocharged bohemian kitsch. The buildings are completely covered with an amalgamation of contrived graffiti and painted urban mural. There are several blocks of this, a massive chamber-of-commerce retailing ploy spawning a made-to-order bohemian market. “Indie shops” and “cheese shops”. Souvenirs and coffee. There are Indian textiles and incense burners, and of course there is reggae. You can’t sell souvenirs of Toronto without reggae.
Further on there is Graffiti Alley, literally just a random garage-lined back alley nearby that has been spray painted mercilessly until the camera-bearers came. Is the usurpation of urban graffiti by commercial entities to be detested as cultural appropriation? A good thought to put before the accented professors, but I was too tired for such liberal angst. It was hot. I needed food and beer, and not the gluten free nonsense they were serving around here. I headed toward the neighboring downtown area in search of something more upscale. Colonial, if you will.
Downtown is a forest of towers, just like every other city. Some of them face right onto the sidewalk, while others cluster behind lawns on little campuses. Out in front of the smoke-free office blocks, guys on break congregate, lighting up and talking on their cell phones. You have to go inside for fresh air. But Toronto also offers many small parks, where you can go to escape the glass walls.
I found my way to a very spacious bar where I was given a table in a shaded courtyard and a pint of ale and left alone with my thoughts. I looked around the room, saw businessmen in suits, and recalled the darker suits at the Britannically-tinged wedding. In both cases ties had been loosened once the formalities were over. At the bar, a big Bulgarian with a small head was telling stories to his long-haired friend. Above the open collar of his pink dress shirt, a small bubble of chin with a thin fringe of beard looked like graffiti on a bowling pin. I ordered the fish and chips for lunch and waited ‘til the time came to meet my niece.
Click on any image to enlarge. More photos of Toronto can be seen here
Improve your social media presence with the latest development in emoji technology
Hey can you do me a favor? I need some bagels and I can’t actually move around much right now. Could you pick some up when you come over? [smiling face emoji}
You need bagels? Sure 👍, how many and what kind?
Get me eight. Four garlic and four onion. Thanks!
[person bowing deeply emoji]
Ok, no problem
Though your emoji game is seriously lacking 😀
That just shows how little you know. My emoji game, as you call it, is far more sophisticated than yours. You are an emoji novice [smirking face emoji], barely above the emoticon level.
What are you talking about?
You are using simple pictographic emojis. Primitive. I, on the other hand, know how to incorporate the more nuanced virtual emojis into my writing. It’s easier and more expressive [fingernail-contemplating smugness emoji].
WTF is a virtual emoji?😕
It is a tacit emoji that simply refers to the little picture thingie without actually having to look it up.
Don't you have regular emojis? 😘
I have them, but there are so many that they bewilder me. You have to hover the cursor forever to find out what each one means, and then it never turns out to be the one you want. I find it easier simply to type the desired meaning in brackets. The bracketed words then refer to the emoji, which in turn refers to the emotion in need of expression. The actual emoji is merely implied, never really used. Think of it as para-semiotic writing.
Ok now I understand. You got a nap and I didn't.
Virtual emojis work just as well as the real ones, and you save yourself a lot of trouble by not having to search for them every time [flustered man looking through open file cabinet emoji].
That emoji doesn't exist! I'm not sure about the fingernail one, either.
That’s an additional advantage of the technique. You can use brackets to refer to emojis that haven’t been invented yet. No need to wait [time waiting for no man emoji]. Virtual emojis just bypass the need for a picture entirely. They let you express emotions that are too subtle or that might be difficult to represent with pictographs. For example [schadenfreude emoji] or [penis envy emoji].
You know, you might actually be onto something.
You can combine virtual emojis with pictographic ones or with each other to make compound emojis. Then you can express ideas that are even more complex! [you 🛏 me emoji]
Are you coming on to me?😚
I think virtual emojis are even better than the real ones. There’s actually no need to use the silly pictures anymore. We could just string virtual emojis together like words in a sentence and communicate that way.
That's an incredible idea! It could revolutionize the way people use Facebook!🙄
It isn’t really my idea. It dates back to the cavemen.
Cavemen invented virtual emojis?
Sure. They invented words so they wouldn’t have to draw pictures of everything in the dirt [man with stick scratching picture of attacking tiger in sand emoji].
But seriously thanks for picking up the bagels [man eating lox with onions and cream cheese on toasted garlic bagel emoji].
No problem. So, how come you can't get out of the house?
Recently, I told a friend that I wanted to find someone to go hear live music with, and he suggested that I look into dating websites. I was skeptical about this, at first, since I think of myself as too old for online dating. But I found many websites that do serve the older age brackets, and even some that specialize in that market. Here’s a look at what some of them have to offer, the kinds of people you meet, and some of the advanced techniques I’ve used to pick up chicks. Well, okay. Hens.
Senior Dating Websites
Many websites specialize in helping people find one another in matches suitable for romance, travel, or friendship . They maintain a database of each subscriber’s descriptive profile, a mechanism for matching people, and some kind of chat system for interaction. There’s usually free access to a limited feature set, and you pay a subscription fee if you want the whole shebang.
I found that every site is the biggest site. All claim to dominate their market segment. Every site is the world’s largest, is number one in my area, is the top local senior dating service, is the premiere site for tattooed, overweight graduates of Monroe High School. Size matters, because the more game, the more meat, so users have reason to flock to the dominant player. That’s where the average male is most likely to find a date.
Judging my attractiveness to be somewhat less than average, I decided to sign up for a half dozen sites to increase my odds.
The first step at each site was to fill out a profile, describing myself with a brief paragraph and by answering some questions. Most of the women’s profiles that I looked at overflowed with banality. Like to laugh. Love my family. Take walks on the beach. Kind and loving. I can only assume that the male profiles are similar but more boastful. Ghostwriters are available, and since women seeking men don’t see the profiles of other women, they have no idea that they’re all the same. Sweet racket. No one can read this stuff for long without going numb, anyway.
In contrast, I approached this autodepiction with great earnestness. How best to describe myself? Cougars and dirty old men might be tempted to lie about their age, but I am a man of honor and will stoop to no such subterfuge. Bent on cold honesty, I bluntly described my carnivorous personality, laying bare that I might be a bit of an acquired taste. Truth in advertising.
Next, there was usually a place to describe what you were looking for in a match. Every woman wanted a man who was honest and kind, and it surprised me how many specified “makes me laugh”. And “romantic”. Made me laugh. I left this part blank for fear of excluding anyone.
Then I uploaded some pictures of myself. People upload all sorts of pictures, images of their families, their dog, their last vacation, multiple copies of the same shot. One woman told me that some men pose with a large fish, damp emblem of their endowment. I wanted to do the same, but I couldn’t find a whole fish, so I had to settle for sushi.
Another woman’s pictures were all taken with a purple hat in front of a mirror. She wasn’t smiling in any of them, just scowling at the camera like she hated the hat. I figured I’d take it off her hands:
I wonder if you would consider selling your hat. The purple color and large flower on the side are quite fetching, especially in photo number 21 of 25. Your stern stare above the granny glasses reminds me of Ms Cole, the school librarian who once smacked my ass with a ruler. If you are willing to sell the hat let me know how much and if you have Paypal.
A week later she hadn’t answered, so I figured I’d try again:
If you won’t sell the hat, how about letting me take a better picture? They have these 3D printers now that let you make a real duplicate, and I can make myself a hat, too. Not sure how it works, actually, maybe you end up with a hat made of ink. It’d maybe run all over my hair, but hey, lots of old ladies have purple hair, why not an old guy? Better fey than grey.
The next step was to search through the profiles to find potential matches. You could do this yourself or let the site’s algorithm do it for you. I searched the profile databases with criteria for age and for location. Some sites wouldn’t let me set the minimum age above 45. I guess they don’t realize there are age brackets for shuffleboard.
Then I played matching games that let you Like pictures of women from a series that they present you with. If my Like was reciprocated, I would be notified and invited to contact my reciprocal Likee. Sometimes there was a picture but the profile was blank. Meat market. Sometimes the pictures were not so recent. Buyer beware.
Most sites automate this, matching data sets by psychological profiling (or possibly astrology or random selection) to identify smaller sets of potential match-ups. A daily batch o’matches is then sent out. However the matches are made, marketing will trademark a name and sell it as artificial intelligence to their pining customers. For better or worse, Zoosk’s Behavioral Matchmaking™ system (“powerful”), Match’s Synapse (“intelligent matching technology”), eHarmony’s 29 Dimensions of Compatibility (as observed by site founder Dr. Neil Clerk Warren), and EliteSingles’ Big 5 personality test now held the key to my future happiness.
Armed with my latest matches, I was ready to hit on some babes, or at least message some matrons. There were systems for sending email and chatrooms to let me accost these ready women. Transcripts of everything are saved, so I would be able to keep all my paramours sorted out. There are also various encouragements for the shy and reticent: suggested questions to ask; alerts telling when someone is online. Flirt or Fave buttons, for those too meek to type, send a message that basically says “why don’t you hit on me”.
The People You Meet
Reading the profiles is like people-watching on a screen. You sit around looking at pictures of women, and if you want, you can find out a little about them by reading the profile. You don’t even have to hit on them, it’s fun just doing that.
I wanted to concentrate on women who do some of the same things I do, like breathing and pining for sex, but sometimes I had trouble understanding what they had written. People described themselves as ENTP and GGG and I didn’t know wtf. For seniors, in particular, the jargon may lead to misunderstandings. For example, many women specify “no hookups”, but when I met one I learned that didn’t refer to oxygen.
One woman wrote that she was obsessed with dining out. She knew about all the famous chefs and wanted to eat in their restaurants. If a new place opened she wanted to try it, check out the whole menu over several visits. This lady ate out all the time. Then I looked where you answer the questions and she had put that she really liked to cook. So I couldn’t figure that out. If you eat out all the time, when the hell do you cook?
I contacted her and we chatted a few times until finally, I realized what was going on. The woman really did like to cook, and she put a lot of effort into it. She’d start in the morning with marinades, mother sauces, clarified butters. The afternoon was spent dicing vegetables and baking cakes. But when the roast came out each evening and she sat down to it, she realized that, as good a cook as she was, she was no match for the professionals. And so she had to go out.
This was expensive, of course, what with all the food wasted, and that’s where the online dating came in. Every night a different guy would show up and ask where she wanted to go. No vegetarians, had to be guys who were seriously into food. I was honored when she asked if I wanted Mondays, but I still said no. Monday is my bowling night.
Many divorcees have had a bad experience with an unfaithful man. Their twelve-year-old photos often accompany text describing a desire for honesty and fidelity in a match.
I noticed in your profile that you want a loyal man. Then I saw the picture of you cuddling your black and white Abyssinian pomapoo. Since dogs are so loyal, I thought you might want to meet a man who shares other traits with your pup.
• For large ears, look for Basque men. They have very long lobes.
• For a prominent nose, the obvious recommendations are Jews and Italians, but check out Indian men, too.
• Your chosen color scheme will be difficult to match, but right now if you head to Burning Man you can probably find a white guy who is, like, really dirty and it’ll be almost the same.
• I can’t tell from the picture, is the dog’s tail long or short?
As for the long tongue, I’ll let you do your own research. Good luck!
The same woman came up again in my daily matches about two weeks later. So I wrote to her once more.
You have come up once again in the daily matches sent me by the artificial so-called intelligence that produces these pairings. Since you were chosen twice out of fifteen 10-person samples taken (with replacement) from a larger population of people our age, it’s possible to estimate the size of that parent population. I won’t depress you with the result of that calculation, since you might conclude from it that you are destined to run into me again. I know you would prefer a Basque.
Another woman described herself as a sapiosexual, which is someone who is aroused by a partner’s intellect. In other words, someone who wants to fuck your brains out. This lady got in touch with me because my profile had no spelling errors, which put me in the top two percent of subscribers. I immediately wrote back.
When you got in touch, I was happy to meet a sapiosexual. Then, looking through your pictures, I noticed one of you in a lab coat and suddenly realized that you are a scientist and not likely to be asapient, either. This excited me, as I, too, am sapiosexual, and particularly attracted to women who look smart by wearing glasses (opticosapiosexual). Also, I like your smile (risiopticosapiosexual).
I must confess to a puerile fantasy of meeting you, sapiotropism leading to sapiosexuaggregation. At first, we enjoyed some good, old-fashioned socratisapiosexuconfabulation. Then, our sapiocredibility established, we engaged in reciprocal tonolingual salivary osculostimulation and sapiosexuophagy leading to the inevitable secretory sapiostasis.
How to Pick Up OWILFs
Compared to bars, I find the biggest advantage of websites is that, when I first approach a woman, I can get out more than just a sentence or two before she decides to ignore me. I usually try to write a few lines, cite part of her profile, and point out something we have in common, some way in which we could interact. It’s good to include questions. Here are some of the more successful come-ons that I’ve used.
I understand you like camping. Me too. I like being out in the wilderness because no one stares at me. I like campfires, and chopping wood with an axe, but the best part is setting up the tent when you pound on the little pegs with a mallet. Wham! Let’s meet somewhere and plan a backpacking trip. Wouldn’t it be fun to be alone in the woods together?
Dear tar sands
Hello. You have come up in my matches of the day. I looked at your profile but you didn’t fill in the section describing your desired match. From this I surmise that you’ll take pretty much anything. Since I’m routinely snubbed and occasionally reported by the women on this site who do have standards, I thought I’d take a run at you. Why not drop me a line and say hello?
Your profile says you’re very proficient in the kitchen. Please help me. I have been recently rendered a bachelor and am struggling to feed myself.
I bought a microwave because the girl at Safeway said it’s the easiest way to cook. I also have a frying pan but the kitchen’s a mess and I don’t think I can find the stove anymore. I had to set up the microwave on the chair, but I figure I can eat standing up. Can you tell me how to make chicken livers and pesto? I’m desperate.
I see that you used to be a teacher. I wanted to tell you that I like kids and have some experience teaching, as well. Last year, I taught the kid next door how to use a slingshot and now he keeps the cats out of my backyard. We started out shooting 5 mm ball bearings. The cats would squeal and run like hell if you hit one. Now he wants to try an 8 mm ball, see if he can kill one. Kids nowadays, so precocious. Aren’t you glad you retired?
I met a woman once who told me there were men who tried to paw her on the very first date. While I understood their motivation (she was very attractive), I reflected that there could be some debate about whether such a primitive approach expresses a hirsute, masculine trait or simply reflects a lack of self-control.
In another man’s worldview, potential partners are peers, not conquests. One does not normally paw a peer. Or rather peer pawing, when it does occur, involves a mutual consent which is arrived at by subtle communications that some of us have never been very good at. In a number of my more paleolithic gender mates, this ineloquence leads to pawing behavior.
It is preferable to paw primarily those who also share other interests, so that the hours when one’s paws are tired can be spent doing things other than fighting. One therefore forms a more circumscribed set of potential pawing partners, a club so exclusive that there may be times when it contains no members at all. In some males this condition may augment the tendency for early-onset pawing.
The subtle communications to which I have alluded should begin with some exploration of areas of mutual interest. You may like the same music or sports. If you’re both into meditation, you can kill a lot of time right there. You can avoid future conflict by distinguishing those who want to wear diamonds in a box at the opera from those who are more into blowing weed and listening to the Stones. And it is appreciated when you show interest in something more than the size of a peer’s paws.
At some point these preliminary exchanges give way to outright pawing. This transition has traditionally been managed through two strategies, which we shall call the Forceful Y and the Artful X. The Forceful Y involves groping a lady’s breasts as soon as you can figure out where they are while you assume she’s only pretending to resist. The Artful X entails sitting close to a guy, letting him smell your breath, and seeing how long it takes before he stops pretending anything at all.
The men who make overtures to women in the manner described by my friend would probably find a more reserved approach to be timid. And there are surely women who prefer an assertive advance, and who shun those gentle souls who so undaringly respect them. On the other hand, the limited vocabulary that her erstwhile suitors had brought to those subtle communications had seemingly dissuaded my friend from seeing them again. I suppose she wanted a better linguist.
The bereavement fair is coming to a location near you
Grieving is a process. The psycho-babblers describe five stages of grief, which they label Denial, Anger, Famine, War, and Conquest. Or something like that. It really doesn’t matter, because after this generalization, they go on to say that the stages are totally different for everyone, which is a pretty effective disclaimer. When my wife died I was vaguely aware of all this, and I knew that I would go through a series of changing emotions lasting indeterminate amounts of time. What I failed to appreciate was the extent to which this process has been dissected, defined, addressed, and monetized by the medical establishment and its metastatic associates.
My foot got hurt a couple of weeks ago, so I made an appointment to go see Dr Oops1. It was the first time I had seen her since my wife’s passing, and she hugged me while collecting her co-pay. In the examining room she poked at the sole of my foot for a while and said “That’s weird”. Then she told me it should get better by itself and to see a podiatrist if it didn’t. On my way out, the nurse gave me a smile and two sheets of paper. One was a referral to a podiatrist in Pacifica. The other, in standard operating procedure format, was entitled “Grief (Actual/Anticipated): Home Care Instructions”.
My first reaction to this was to marvel at the contemporary bureaucrat’s ability to classify and adapt. The vast machinery of modern medicine tames everything by making it a variable in some computer-assisted process. This, in turn, causes us to see the parallel nature of every symptom. Think of it as the standardization of suffering. Substitute “gastritis” for “grieving” in a document like this and almost nothing else has to change. Anticipated gastritis is nothing to sneer at.
The document began by undermining its own existence with a paragraph explaining that grief is natural and does not require medical treatment. I surmised that there must exist aberrant grief conditions that do, in fact, require some medical intervention because the document went on for a full page after that. Indeed, some of these situations were listed:
Contact your doctor if you have any of the following problems that last for 2 or more weeks:
You feel sad a lot or cry all the time. I have to say I found the prescribed interval for chagrin to be a bit meager. I have been sad for far more than two weeks. I haven’t told the doctor, though, because it seems ridiculous to dwell on it. And I really don’t want any Prozac.
You have trouble sleeping. Sleeping has not been a problem. Waking up is where it gets hard.
You find it hard to concentrate, make decisions, or remember things. This, too, has been going on for more than 2 weeks. More like 20 or 30 years, actually. But Dr Oops knows about this already: she insisted on putting me through some kind of cognitive ability test one morning last summer, before I’d had coffee. She gets a remittance from Medicare.
You change how you normally eat. My refrigerator’s content is now comprised of a half dozen eggs, a sixpack, four peaches and a supermarket roasted chicken. Also 12 bottles of mango protein shake.
You feel guilty about the death or loss you have suffered. I’ve discussed this previously.
You are using alcohol or drugs to help you cope with your loss. I use alcohol or drugs to cope with everything. That’s what they’re for. If I told my doctor, I’d just get hassled and given a prescription for some other drug, something made by Lilly and stepped on by CVS. Who needs it.
Be sure to contact your doctor if you think about killing yourself It’s good to know she’ll be there for me. Suicidal urges must be managed on an appropriate schedule, however. If I call Dr Oops’s office between the hours of 12 and 2 on weekdays, I will be informed that the staff are at lunch. If I call on a weekend, I will hear recorded laughter.
Curious about where my small town doctor was sourcing her prose, I looked more closely at the paper I’d been handed. In the margin there was the web address of a company called athenahealth (“At athenahealth, we put people first”). Apparently, they are Oops’s chosen provider of electronic health records and home care instructions, including grieving protocols for those having recently lost a spouse, job, or pet.
It is in the nature of businesses to differentiate themselves by offering their customers more services, especially ones that can be culled from government databases and cost nothing. It is in the nature of entrepreneurs to fill niches, offering to those who grieve — and to those who know them — every conceivable solace. And so we have grief counselors, support groups, grief camps, sleeping pills, and home care instructions to go along with the cards and tissues. And these are offered by companies and charitable institutions, and it is in their nature to hire management and staff and to protect their economic turf and thereby their salaries. And so, out of death, an industry is born.
At this point I received a phone call from Dr Mimi, wife’s failed oncologist. My nosey eldest son had contacted her and voiced concern about my mental state, my ability to cope with engrievement. What an asshole. Dr Mimi wanted to reach out to me, all according to best practices, and to offer me the resources of her formidable university. Normally I would have blown her off, but the word “resources”, unexpected in this context, somehow made me think of Australia, which is being exploited by the Chinese according to an article I had been reading while practicing grief unassisted. In private. This left me slightly confused, and I agreed to have her send these resources, whatever they might be.
They turned out to be links to some websites, online grief clearing houses. I felt compelled to explore.
The first was an outfit called Kara (“Our guiding value is empathy”), with the succinctly delineative web address kara-grief.org. Kara sends out volunteers to support dying patients and survivors in the Palo Alto area. I’m not sure what the volunteers do, actually, but it seems all to be based on something called the Shanti Project, so I think mantras must be involved.
I moved on to Pathways, a provider of home health and hospice care. Pathways publishes a quarterly newsletter, “Seasons Through Your Grief”, for those who want to be kept up to date (on grievous matters?). I learned that Pathways partners with eCondolence.com, “the premier resource for condolence, sympathy, and loss-related content and gifts”.
These outfits offer counseling, workshops, support groups, memorial events, and more. There was also a link for Hospice by the Bay, a UCSF affiliate which is currently advertising for graduate students to apply for bereavement internships. Send an email to Human Resources.
For myself, I have no use for most of these professional outlets. I’ll keep my distance from the ghouls, thank you. I’m not a social person, nor do I choose to grieve in the presence of others, to elicit rote responses, however sincere or adept. The thought of support groups is revolting. Why would I want to rub elbows with a bunch of other people who have just suffered a loss? Why would I listen to their stories? Fuck them.
The dynamics of the market affect everything in society, of course, and it’s interesting, if depressing, to see them play out here. Functions once considered religious have been deconsecrated and market segments are being contested by lay, medical interests. But why go to a doctor for something that is natural and does not require medical treatment? Why not apply the AirBNB model? Locally sourced solace. Through a central booking service, empathetic individuals could set up shop, offering a kind ear, platitudes from a list provided by the franchisor, and perhaps access to a room with yoga mats. All for $75 an hour billed to your insurer. Everyone makes out. Some would specialize in clients grieving for pets — a lucrative market segment, as the shorter lifespans offer potential for repeat business. Others might choose to concentrate on those in the less violent stages of grief, avoiding clients who might kick walls in anger and risk hurting their own feet.
At first I had no idea how much it would affect me. I hadn’t thought ahead or even considered this possibility at all, although I should have. We could all see how sick she was. But at the time I simply couldn’t make my mind confront that scenario. And then I was numb. For a long time, I only thought I felt the pain, but I was in shock. So it wasn’t until weeks after she died that I began to realize what it meant to lose not just my wife, but the only person I’d ever really wanted to spend time with.
My life changed completely in those few weeks, as events faded into routine. It’s not just her death, there is this, too: I’m almost always alone, now. There is no one else. There’s no one to bring news to, to make laugh, to ask for an opinion. It’s as though I was transported to another planet, and I must learn to live the life of an expat. This daily solitude was easier for me long ago, when it was voluntary, a circumstance somehow leading toward the life that lay before me. I actually enjoyed being alone back then. But now, all that lays before me is a few more years of the same. It has become more difficult.
There are many things that I can’t do on this new planet. Restaurants are impossible, there is nothing to do there except think. I see old couples sitting at other tables and jealousy wells up inside of me. How come she gets to live? Why are they allowed to be happy? I try to go early when places are empty, sit at the counter, have a quick burger, and leave. Fine restaurants, long meals, those things are out of my life. I can’t do them any more. Concerts, ballgames, any entertainment you would normally go to with a spouse or significant other — where I would have taken her — are off limits, as well. I can’t do them alone, and I don’t want to go with another couple, to be a third wheel. Charity is embarrassing, however well meant.
Even travel, once one of our great joys, would be a constant reminder of her absence. We were thrown together all the time overseas. But that kind of adventure — that once brought us so close — would now make this solitude even starker.
So I sit in the house alone, eating takeout and trying to work on my projects. Some art, a photograph, a piece of writing. It’s all completely pointless. No one is going to look at them, appreciate them, or even care that I’ve done them. Why do I bother? Just to pass the time? Waiting around to die.
Every once in a while the phone rings. One of the boys checking up on me, or some friend who has promised to “be there” for me. I have to lick my lips before I speak. They are stuck together from disuse. I’m glad to hear from people, of course, to break up the long day. But I can’t help feeling that I’m a burden. The guy who’s alone, with whom we should spend some time. Practically all of the friends I have were made through her. I was part of the bargain: you had a put up with the husband. Now that she’s gone and I’m the whole ball of wax, it has to be far less appealing. And the smell of death is on me. I am more than ever a pariah.
My life has become a sort of minimum security prison. I can come and go, but some places, some activities are off limits. And I’m definitely trapped, no way to get out. Life sentence with no parole. There are times when the realization that I can never speak with her again fills me with panic. Like claustrophobia, it makes me jump out of my chair. Pacing empty halls in the house where we once lived, I wish there were some way I could join her. But, how? I’m far too much of a coward for suicide. So for now I’m stuck here, like a refugee longing for distant shores that can only be imagined. Will I find her there?
There are times when anger overflows and I break down, swearing out loud in these empty rooms at the god that did this to us. This senseless thing. I call it a coward as it crouches in hiding, wanting to anger it, to make it strike me down, too. But it is too cruel to do that to me now. It’s going to make me wait.
All doctors are created equal. Most of them stay that way.
The pain was back. A dull abdominal ache. On the left side, so it wasn’t appendicitis. I’d been taught about appendicitis way back when. This had been going on for weeks now, months it seemed, on and off, every day. Finally, I decided I had to see a doctor.
Half Moon Bay doesn’t really offer a large choice of general practitioners. There used to be a clinic with about six of them, where they once had me wear a Holter heart monitor for two days (without showering), but it turned out the batteries were dead. Anyway, they couldn’t make money and finally they all moved on. Since then, a lot of people drive over the hill to see a GP, but that’s way too much of a bother. So, after a brief search, we ended up going to one on Main Street. We call her Dr Oops. She disapproves of smoking weed and of salting your food.
Oops got her name when youngest son went for some vaccinations one time. He was to get two shots, and she brought out two syringes and both vaccines in bottles. After some trouble getting the correct volume into the first syringe, she injected a dose into his right arm. Then, as he recalls, she glanced in confusion at the two bottles, blanched, said “oops!”, and excused herself to go call the CDC. It turned out that in adjusting the volume she had managed to mix both vaccines into one syringe, and had no idea how much of anything had been delivered. She came back ten minutes later and told the boy that it was okay, and to go home. So far, he hasn’t been adversely affected. At least, we don’t think so.
In my case, Oops’ initial diagnosis was that I had a hernia. I reminded her that I had been surgically de-herniated on both sides some years previously, but she insisted that these things could somehow recur. She referred me to a hernia surgeon — a different one, this time, than the apparent incompetent who had sliced me open previously — who poked me several times and then said flatly, “You don’t have a hernia.”
Needless to say, this left me quite confused. Mine was not a hysterical indisposition, the pain was real. The surgeon admitted having no idea what ailed me, but was certain of what it was not. I returned to Dr Oops.
This time, I was sent to a urologist. The location of the pain was coincident with some tubule or other with a name I can’t remember. Did I experience pain while urinating? No. Well, I should go see one anyway. She began to look through some book, a listing of specialists. The urinary Yellow Pages. Although San Mateo County boasts more urologists than India and China combined, I was limited to the ones in the network of my HMO. The majority of these were declining new patients, having already paid down their homes, boats, and wives. And so I ended up in the crowded waiting room of Dr Kenneth O’Grady.
This was one of those outfits with two locations exploiting the San Mateo – Mountain View corridor. The Axis of Pain. They were in the low cost, rapid turnover market niche. O’Grady, a little Ivy League type in corduroy pants, worked it with a partner, graduate of some prestigious Caribbean medical school.
I began to describe my symptoms, but the good doctor cut me short. Reassuringly, he knew immediately what ailed me. An infection. Take these antibiotics. Go for this blood test. See you in three weeks. When I returned after that interval with my condition unchanged, I was deemed a resistant case and told to repeat the course of drugs. The blood tests had been negative, but he told me that wasn’t unusual. These infections are hard to detect. Sneaky germs. Feeling somehow at fault, I refilled my prescription and conscientiously did as I had been told. When I appeared before Dr O’Grady for the third time, however, not only had my abdominal aches not improved, but I now had diarrhea and red patches on my skin caused by the antibiotics. “Don’t worry,” said O’Grady. “Nothing could’ve survived all that antibiotic, so I’m sure the infection’s gone. If it still aches, it’s probably nerve damage. Takes a long time to heal. Sorry.”
Sorry, like oops, is not a word you want to hear from your doctor. I went home, despondent. The pain was more severe, now, almost constant. My antibiotic-weakened body lay in bed for long intervals. It was at this point that Eldest Son suggested acupuncture.
Normally, my first reaction would have been that this was just the sort of new age healing that a Generation X vegetarian might be expected to embrace. My French rationalist upbringing had taught me to reject all methods not rigorously scientific. Acupuncture as a healing process was lumped together with homeopathy and banging on drums. It reminded me of Paula, who would go on weekend purges that involved bad food and induced diarrhea. Paula had been a masseuse but then her hands would get tired and she started spending more time each session doing Quantum Energetics. She would have you hold your thumb and index finger together while she tapped your skull three times, then she’d pry your fingers apart. After a moment’s consideration, you were told that your liver was not completely well. Then she’d do it again — tap, tap, tap — and warn of future adrenal complications. Tap, tap, tap — a heart valve, probably the bicuspid. She claimed to have predicted Steve Jobs’ death. I stopped seeing her before she could predict mine.
But acupuncture has gained a measure of respectability, of late, and such was my desperation that I decided to give it a shot. Or at least look into it. Eldest Son suggested a woman in SoMa, highly regarded by his skinny-jeans friends. A web address. I typed it in and there was a dandelion seed floating across the screen in front of a field of out-of-focus flowers. Or weeds, you couldn’t really tell. Slowly, it floated across the whole damn screen. There was no way to bypass this video, I had to wait for the thing to reach the other side. It was like being trapped on a plane. It was halfway across when I parachuted out.
Then I remembered Imp, a college friend who now lived in San Diego. He used to be an acupuncturist. He had always been in tune with his body, once ate nothing but brown rice for three months while sitting naked in his apartment listening to Grateful Dead records. I decided to ask him for advice.
“What percentage of doctors do you think really know what they’re doing?” he asked when I called, referring to the anointed medical profession. I guessed it might be about half.
“Hah! More like 5%,” he shot back. “Acupuncture’s the same way. Hard to find a good one.”
He gave me the name of a guy in Marin, acknowledging that it was a bit far for me to drive regularly. This had been his Teacher when he was learning the Way of the Needle, and he was well known on the Marin healing scene. I had a mental image of an old guy walking around in robes all day like Terry Riley. Maybe an embroidered hat. Crystals and mandalas surround and there’s a Cayenne parked in the garage. Anyway, Marin really is too far.
Given that the low odds of finding anyone good made the whole business a crapshoot anyway, it only made sense to pick a place that was convenient to attend. I mean, why pile on the misery by having to drive to the city? There was a guy a half mile away in a strip mall with a nice parking lot. Wife’s friend had gone and said good things about him. She had to be at least as good a judge of acupuncturists as my son or his friends. So I went to see Ming.
He was a stocky, youngish looking man of about fifty who rented a tiny room in back of a chiropractor’s office. It was completely filled by a massage bed, a chair where you put your belongings, and a heat lamp. And mandalas, of course, lots of mandalas. A walk-in closet at the rear seemed to be filled with needles and other paraphernalia. Flute music floated from a boom box. There was nothing for sale: no unguents, pills, or nutritional supplements. He would suggest these, sometimes, but then send me down to the health food store to buy them.
Ming treated me in a variety of ways, including the application of tuning forks. These were, thankfully, of the same key as the flute music, and I wondered if he sometimes changed the music and the forks along with it. Occasionally, he’d suggest something absurd, like giving up French bread because of the gluten, but he’d back off quickly when he saw that I was having none of it. And although he didn’t want to contradict the doctors I had seen, I could tell that he didn’t think I had an infection. He thought I had tendinitis, pointing out that the location of the pain was coincident with some major ligament, along with the aforementioned tubule. Crowded spot. I have to admit that I was surprised when, after a few treatments, the pain was gone.
Well, it turns out that you can’t go and get your acupuncture treatment from Ming anymore. It seems he let his license lapse a few years ago, and finally got busted for continuing to practice without it. The state has mechanisms to make sure that we citizens are not subjected to medical treatments from quacks or incompetents. Especially the ones that don’t pay their fees. We should all be grateful.
On the TV just now there was a news piece about a Black Lives Matter protest on the Bay Bridge. A bunch of protesters drove their cars side by side across the bridge, then passed a chain from car to car through the side windows. The TV news people, primary consumers of the spectacle, had received ample notice. They were able to get excellent footage of the whole thing from a boom truck in front of this line of cars. At a given moment, the protesters all stopped, blocking traffic, and chained themselves to their cars. Of course, they left one hand free so they could hold a fist in the air.
The protesters weren’t really clear about what they were demanding, I felt. At the top of their list of grievances was the immoderate slaughter of young African Americans by the police, who were said to be waging war on young black men. Last year, by several counts, there were some 1200 people killed by the police in the US. I suppose it’s a safe assumption that most of them were African Americans, so out of a population of about 75 million that is a mortality rate of 1.6 per 100,000, which is shocking. On the other hand, 124 cops were shot dead, and out of a million that’s 12.4 per 100,000. So, the police appear to be losing this war, and should be open to negotiating a change in the rules of engagement.
But the protesters made no such rational argument. Instead, a large woman of seemingly modest hygienic accomplishment told the cameras that black lives matter enough for people to be forced to interrupt their daily grind in order to contemplate the black experience of being shot at by policemen. Perhaps she believed that if everyone caught in the backup were to hold hands through open windows and chant, Om, the police would be moved to love rather than fear suspected perpetrators. Perhaps they would put down their guns and taser people instead.
However, despite the impressive coordination of the traffic blockade, no provision had been made to spread the message back through the lines of aggravated, immobilized motorists: no runners carrying signs or handing out leaflets with the words to Kumbaya. It seemed the protesters felt safer among the cops.
And the police, having been tipped off, were ready and moved in quickly. They cut chains, replacing them in several instances with handcuffs. They towed cars. They made arrests. As far as I could tell, they didn’t shoot anyone, but the TV cameras were present, so it wasn’t really fair.
In Queens we lived in a sixth floor apartment with a view of the street. I commuted to my lab job in the Bronx by car, every day over the Whitestone Bridge. Street parking was hard to find amid the anonymous bedroom-borough brick apartments, on streets with alternate-side restrictions and New York’s pedestrian-friendly prohibition of cars blocking the sidewalk at corners by sticking out past the building line.
One night I got home from the lab around ten and was lucky enough to find a spot right across the street from our place. This was especially fortunate in that I absolutely had to be back at work early the next morning to continue a timed process that was part of some big deal we had going on at the time. It would not do to be late. The parking spot was a large one right on the corner, and I slid straight in with my little Corolla, leaving 2 or 3 feet of clearance behind the car in front. I turned off the lights and went upstairs.
The next morning I got up in plenty of time to get to work. After getting dressed I went to the kitchen for breakfast, and from there I happened to glance out the window and across the street at the place where my car was parked. I was horrified to see that another vehicle, a large, old Buick of some kind, had been jammed in behind it. In order to fit the Buick in at the corner, its driver had pushed my car forward, up against the next vehicle, and left me no room at either end. And still, the Buick protruded a good 3 feet beyond the line of buildings.
Aghast, I ran down to examine the situation more closely. It was actually worse than I’d imagined: bumper to bumper, my car was touching both the Buick in back and the car in front, a Chevy. Two massive automatic transmissions daring my little Corolla to try to move them. With a sense of hopelessness, I got in and started the engine, then eased it into reverse to push back on the Buick. It didn’t move at all. Same with the Chevy. No way. I was completely stuck. Trying to remain calm, I got out and considered my options.
Public transportation would take hours. A cab would cost too much money. Getting the guy towed would involve the police and take all morning. Then, I noticed the Buick’s front bumper. It was a piece of chrome plated metal that stuck out 3 inches from below the grille, flat on top, without those little vertical stanchions you sometimes see. At the statutory height for an automobile impact absorption system, it was pressed against the rear bumper of my Corolla. Suddenly, I got an idea.
Using a ballpoint pen, I let all the air out of the Buick’s front tires, lowering the front bumper by a couple of inches. Now, when I put the Corolla into reverse, its bumper rode over the other, and I could back it up an inch or two until it rammed the Buick’s grille. This gave me enough room to maneuver out of the spot.
Back and forth, turn the wheel, ram the grille. It must have taken fifteen minutes. My arms were aching and I started worrying that, still, I would be late for work. Finally, I got my bumper clear of the Chevy in front. Looking in my mirror, I prepared to pull out into the street. And just at that moment, a police cruiser came around the corner. Two of New York’s finest looking for a place to eat their bagels, they began to drive right past. I jumped from my car and flagged them down. The Buick, I pointed out, was protruding beyond the building line. It should be cited. And I got back into my car and drove to the lab.
That night, when I got home, the Buick was still there, in the same spot on the corner. There was a parking ticket stuck under the wiper blade on a windshield that was now spider-webbed by the impact of some club or projectile. The local delinquents, having seen the ticket and two flat tires, had concluded that the car was abandoned and entertained themselves by smashing its windows. There was broken glass on the seats and some had gotten onto the street. Not all that much, really. But the car was a mess. Reflecting that it might collect another ticket in the morning, because of the alternate side thing, I found a spot down the block and walked home.
One thing for which we can thank the internet is that the world now seems to be enjoying a surfeit of good causes, causes that vie for my attention, try to get me to join or support them in some way. It seems like a constant stream of recruitment messages finds me through email, social media and the web. They cajole me to sign a petition, share a polemic, join someone in their moral anguish. Like a conscript in an endless war, I am to be marshaled from front to front in the ongoing struggle of some cause against another.
Here is a list of causes that have asked that I rise to the ramparts this summer:
Transgender people (gay people are passé)
Bans on drilling, fracking, and shipping petroleum
The Confederate flag
The right of Nicholas Constantine Soukeras to name his first-born son Spyridon (really)
The suppression of Michael Vick, Kanye West, and Planned Parenthood
Two women in India
The extradition of an extractor of teeth (say it 3 times, fast)
This is just a partial list, and of course it doesn’t include the door knockers selling raffle tickets, Jesus, and frozen New York steaks. And what happens when election season rolls around? You can add robo-calls to the mix. And the media, already full of offended women and bald patriots, will blare further entreaties. A nationwide Iron Mary of exhortation.
Listen, people, it’s too much. Everyone is pushing something. And it’s all noble and tax-deductible, of course, and everyone seems properly righteous when they make the case that they’ll improve society. But then it turns out they disagree with one another and you have to decide. The only thing they agree upon is that it’s important, and urgent, that you take their side. Too many decisions. Too much responsibility.
Do we really want to live like this? Must we all be Don Quixote? Walden Pond, anyone? I have to admit that hermitry attracts me in this environment, but it means I’d have to give up my cell phone. Alternatively, I could try to improve society myself with a crusade to limit causes, but I have no idea how to go about it. I imagine there’s a tax deduction in there, though.