Tuesday, February 28, 2017

I love Erika

Just wanted to share some photos. It's looking like, between this Saturday, which will be my first visit to the medical oncologist, and my first surgery - the first step in my treatment - a few weeks will pass. If we're going to speed the marriage ahead - a smaller ceremony, while I still fill out my suit! - it might be happening near the end of March, I guess. Remains to be seen (it will be on Vancouver Island, not here). She's rejigging her life and cancelling plans and so forth (though we are still holding some hope that May 20th will still be doable - we haven't cancelled ALL our plans yet; who knows, maybe the news this Saturday will be positive, that this is quickly and easily treated?).

I can't write that much, right now - I gotta get to a doctor's appointment, and I don't want to get myself crying or anything - but I just wanted to say I love this woman lots, and I'm very lucky, and grateful to have her in my life. I tend to dwell a bit on the dark side, but her positivity, creativity and loving nature are going to help me a LOT, I expect, to get through this. We've had some wonderful moments together (and we're really cute together!). The first one is the oldest, at Adstock Maple Ridge a few years ago, because I still have my moustache...

Give a hypochondriac a cancer diagnosis...

(Note - this has been edited and augmented since I first wrote it, earlier this morning. Mostly that's a line here, a line there, but there's a chunk at the end that's new. Because - vanity, my name is Allan! - some of you are going to want to read this more than once, right? Riiight!

Give a hypochondriac a cancer diagnosis...

Actually, I'm not a real hypochondriac. I just have an active imagination, which sort of runs on automatic, in the background, all the time. I became aware of this when I had a herpes scare, about ten years ago - I don't have herpes, but I slept with someone who didn't tell me that she did (long before I connected with my fiance, you understand). Anyhow, every itch, every pimple, every unexplained blemish that I developed in the time thereafter, up til I got tested and cleared, I was convinced - terrified! - that it was herpes.

I was wrong. If there were a font called "Schwarzenegger," I would inflect this sentence to read: "It's not a herpe." I was very relieved when the tests came back negative.  

When I noticed a weird swelling in my throat, around the left lymph node, back in October, my imagination kicked in. Dad died of colon cancer (wrote about that a lot on my blog, in late 2009, if you want to read about it). Mom had had cancer too, some decades before, having most of her "female parts" removed. Plus I had been a fairly heavy smoker at one point, in my somewhat self-destructive 20's; I cured myself of the habit for good in 2000, but there were a few years where I smoked a pack-and-a-half a day. 

Anyhow, with a history of smoking and two parents who'd had cancer, I made a pest of myself, seeing the doctor about my lymph lump. "It's probably just a reaction to something else going on in your body." I had a throat infection around that time - in November - and then eventually the swelling went down, so I ultimately bought it; it's not like I wanted it to be bad news. (Plus at one point, in my panic, I put the pressure on to get a CT scan, and it revealed nothing. Great!).

Maybe if I'd been less proactive about that lump, I wouldn't have been hesitant to bug people doctors about my tongue, when it started developing symptoms of its own in early January?

In any event, I figured it was like my herpes scare - I was overreacting to a symptom. I put it on the same shelf in my head. 

But it doesn't cure me of overreacting (especially now that I discover in fact I was under-reacting). Now that I've been told I have cancer, some part of me runs wild with worry at each new symptom. My ENT said that the discomfort in my ear and throat are "probably" connected to the growth on my tongue; so now anything that feels weird or wrong in my body, I am inclined to run with it and connect it to my diagnosis.

The lump I had in October, that people told me was nothing? Cancer.  

The weight that I've lost over the winter, thinking it was because I was getting exercise at the warehouse job I was doing? Cancer. 

My left eye itches, feels a bit blurry? Cancer.

I seem to be using the bathroom an awful lot? Cancer. 

I have the makings of another cold again, feel kind of dizzy and weak? Cancer.

My appetite seems to be lessening? Cancer. 

I hope my cancer is less enthusiastic than my imagination - that it's just sitting there in my tongue (and related areas?) waiting to be cut out, not in any hurry (some part of me feels this superstitious dread that now that it's been named, it is off the leash and running rampant, trying to get in as much damage as it can, but that's just silly, right?). I mean, it might be easily treatable, I dunno; I know people who have had cancer in their tongues, and they're more or less fine now. But this is going to be a long week; as things stand - unless I can get the appointment moved up - there will be no further news til Saturday. Has cancer been running wildfire in my system since September/ October, when I started noticing symptoms?

Maybe. That freaks me out (in their rush to reassurance, a few people I've told have resorted to "at least you caught it early," but no, folks, I didn't. Or, more importantly, my doctors didn't, and I bought it). 

And hey, you want to really freak out with me, let's imagine the end results, once treatment is done. Assuming I CAN be treated - assuming, like, I'm not already down for the count, am I going to end up like Roger Ebert, missing a jaw, tongue, digestive tract and such?

Sorry, Rog, but - ecch! 

He got a lot of writing done, mind you. What's that Bruce Springsteen lyric - "you can get used to anything, sooner or later it just becomes your life?" Mostly what freaks me out in that scenario is Erika - I don't want to saddle her, my wonderful, beautiful, supportive bride-to-be, with a deformity for a husband, someone who can't comfortably go out in public with her. She would stand by me, I believe - but that's precisely why I don't want that to happen to her.

(She's got an active imagination, too, alas). 

And selfishly, there are other things that worry me almost as much. What if I lose my tongue and can't speak? Goodbye teaching jobs. What if I end up unable to taste food? (I love food!). What if I lose part of my hearing? (The inner ear on my left side has long been a trouble area, actually - I have long had to vent my eustachean tubes by holding my nose and blowing, periodically, to clear fluid that builds up, compromising my hearing on one side. But what if I flat out LOSE those tubes? Goodbye stereo!). 

Anyhow, my friends are all being really reassuring and supportive - not one of them hasn't said "if there's anything I can do." But, you know, alas, none of them are kickass oncologists, so... (depending on how grim my prospects look there may be a big sale of DVDs and LPs and CDs at some point, where buying my stuff might actually help me out, but don't get too excited yet, you vultures! ...certainly my illness calls into question the wisdom of the stuff I've been accumulating all these years). 

Meantime, Erika has found stuff online that suggests married cancer patients are likely to live longer. That the survival rate for men goes up something like 27%, was it, if they have a loving and supportive partner. So depending on my prognosis, we might be moving up our wedding (but doing it on a smaller scale). It will probably be on the island, still, I'm afraid, so my friends over here might face challenges getting over there, which are understood - I mean, we live here, and you can congratulate us in person after we get back, if it ends up that way.

There's the added wisdom of getting married while my suit still fits. If I end up in chemo, well... I saw what my Dad went through. He ended up bone thin, eating sour cream and cottage cheese and sometimes ice cream, which were about all he could stand. 

Anyhow, breakfast is ready, but that's my head this morning. Meanwhile, I am busy writing about music, and will have some music blogging up soon, because there's stuff I want to put online before... in case... well, you know...

Post script:

Spending the morning on the phone making inquiries - money matters, medical... I feel like I need to get my ducks in a row. Have I worked enough hours since my last EI claim ended to apply for benefits? I need 600 hours. Between on-call ESL teaching, freelance writing, and warehouse work... I might have, but I doubt it. Guess I gotta find out.

What other sources of income are available to me?  Social Services are designed to be useless in a case like mine - if the maximum benefit available to me (under $900) is less than my spouse's income, I receive zero. Well, thanks.

CPP might be more helpful but my work history includes a few years out of Canada, not making payments, and long periods lately of not contributing much or anything, as I muddle by on odd bits earned here and there - mostly freelance writing. Funny thing is, they're not all that easy to talk to. I'm in queue now, but I made about ten phone calls earlier this morning where they went DIRECTLY from the "your call may be monitored for quality assurance purposes" to hanging up on me. (Now that's quality!).

MSP have good news - they already have reduced my monthly payments to $11 a month. The guy emphasizes that squeaky wheels get greased, in situations like this - "you gotta push" - but the (friendly and helpful, calm and professional, and actually rather pleasant) receptionist on the phone at my surgical oncologist's office really, uh, seemed to want to discourage that avenue of approach (I inferred her recoiling in horror at the thought, because I suspect she is surrounded by squeaky wheels).

What else can I do to be proactive? Make a will? I dunno. I'm struggling to finish my now-cold oatmeal (too lazy to heat it up). I have friends I haven't told yet, who probably haven't read this.

("This is attention-seeking behaviour, Allan," a little voice whispers in my ear. Damn straight! My Dad was stoic and patient through his medical ordeal, and all it meant was that the system ignored and overlooked him until it was too late).

Did I take a shower yesterday? Maybe I should start there...

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The results are in, plus First Blood, Manchester by the Sea

Hate to break the news, but I saw my ENT about my biopsy results today, and it turns out I have cancer. The thing in my tongue (and perhaps related areas) which I wrote about a few posts ago.  I see a specialist next Saturday. The exact prognosis and length of treatment are 100% unclear, beside that there will likely be a combination of surgery, chemo and radiation therapy - standard stuff, really, hopefully leaving me relatively whole and healthy.

It's also looking like this might affect wedding plans - postponement, alteration, dunno yet, there's plenty that is unclear. My girl is bearing up but it's tough. I'll be blogging about it, I guess, and so forth. I'll also keep up with other writing too - I've got plenty of stuff I want to put into the world yet.
Speaking of which, filmwise, we watched First Blood, the first Rambo film, the other night, one of the earliest and most important stories in the history of Hollywood North. My girl came to it a Rambo virgin, which is a remarkable and positive thing, since she got to see it without the filter of the later films (all crap, though I have fondness for part 4). We were entertained by the BC locations (mostly Hope) and the story, which is much more critical of a certain type of masculinity than it is a reactionary macho celebration or such. I had forgotten that the climax of the movie, after abundant explosions, was Stallone breaking down and crying. It's a powerful,unexpected moment, and I was moved to tears by the pathos of it. I had also forgotten, or never realized, that David Caruso was in the film as the sole cop with a lick of sense, and I certainly never knew that Bruce Greenwood has a small, early speaking role, complete with a bit of babyfat on his cheeks (he plays a National Guardsman named Bruce, so he's hard to miss).

We also watched Manchester by the Sea, and to be honest, while it is moving and well-made, it is nowhere near as good as the long cut of Margaret. Lonergan seems to be the kind of filmmaker who basically needs three hours to flesh out his characters and story; Manchester by the Sea, at two hours seventeen minutes, still feels like a short.

That's it for a bit. Wish me luck.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Al's Favourites of Southern Gothic and Southern Gothic Horror

I don't really understand much about the Southern Gothic mode, but I find it oddly fascinating.

Flannery O'Connor, for example, writes stories that get deep under your skin, unsettling in that they appear to argue in favour of innocence and faith, but from a deeply perverse point of view; they endorse "wholesome" virtues in a way that make you want to take a shower. Take "Everything That Rises Must Converge," for example: a liberal intellectual chides his old fashioned, somewhat racist, but sweet and sincere southern mother for her condescending and antiquated ways. This takes place - as I recall - on a bus ride through the rural south in the 1960's, a heated time for inter-generational conflict and race relations, both.You're obviously MEANT to identify with him, to find yourself in his attitudes, since his is the point of view that commands the narrative, and even O'Connor would probably concede that most of what he says is RIGHT - but right or not, as she lays bare his motivations, he's a funhouse mirror of everything grotesque in your psyche, everything shameful; your vain desire to win arguments, your self-congratulation at having the "right" views, your self-righteous, smug superiority over that which is less refined, less cultured, less advanced than yourself, your arrogant love of lecturing and correcting others, your complete lack of spiritual innocence or humility (maybe I should sub out the "your" with "my" in all these instances, but I don't believe I'm the only person O'Connor is chiding or who will find themselves in the piece). Then at the peak of the story, an altercation ensues, and his mother dies of a sudden heart attack, which our obnoxious protagonist is pretty much to blame for. He's left mired in guilt, which we are told will haunt him the rest of his life, and that is where the story leaves us.

I enjoy a pervese short story with the best of them - I'm a big Patricia Highsmith fan, after all, with her killer snails, vengeful pets, homosexual murderers and female-penned tales of misogyny - but O'Connor, in stories like this, just leaves you feeling unclean, compromised, confused about yourself. They're not horror stories per se - sometimes she comes close - but there's a kind of moral horror in her best work that is more troubling than any gore or overt monstrosity you could be confronted with. I don't know other writers who shine as deep a light into human ugliness, based on the stories of hers I've read. ("A Good Man Is Hard to Find" would be another example - as I recall it, it praises a doddering, confused, but indubitably innocent old woman who wins the affection of a vicious serial killer, as he murders the rest of her family). Maybe it's just personal to me, but I find her writing really troubling, so much so that I've mostly stopped reading it. 

She's not the only southern US writer who mines the perverse to the point of making me uncomfortable, either. Harry Crews also has imagery so unsettling he scares me away - I have picked up his novels on several occasions but never been able to finish one. For example, his All We Need of Hell begins with a man having sex with a woman while visualizing genocide and concentration camps. Ecch! Flesh Eaters' vocalist, film historian, and novelist Chris D.  has recommended A Feast of Snakes, and I've owned it on a couple of occasions, because I'm fascinated by snakes, but I have only ever gotten a few pages into it. I gather it deals in depravity and murder during a snake hunt in the south. It comes complete with castrations -which also crop up in The Scar Lover, of which I read about half - and people being beaten until they shit themselves. His protagonist is an illiterate former football player distraught over his loss of control of his life as he gets older, who goes on a rampage of sorts as a kind of last stand for his compromised manhood (or something like that; like I say, I haven't read it). Sounds unpleasant, but periodically I am drawn to Crews. He has a striking appearance in the film Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, too, which also exudes Southern depravity, but I only ever get a few pages into his books before I run away, scared.  

Even the books that I have managed to finish from Southern writers are troublingly creepy and weird. I haven't attempted Faulkner - I gather from Claire Denis' Bastards that one of his novels involves a father raping his daughter with a corncob - but Cormac McCarthy I've read nearly to completion. While his somewhat florid, baroque prose gets likened to Faulkner's, he shares themes with Flannery O'Connor, shares some of her sensibility, I think. She surely would have admired Outer Dark, in particular, or - God help me, Child of God, which tries to understand a dispossessed, mentally challenged hillbilly who becomes - when he stumbles across a pretty, female suicide victim in the backseat of a car - an opportunistic necrophiliac. This "child of God" - an innocent, according to McCarthy, who clearly strives to find things to like about the character - lives, after he loses his home, in a cave, and eventually takes to murder as a way of getting new "girlfriends" for himself, whom he stores in said cave. This is all he ever knows of human intimacy; at the end of the novel, he is debased to a subhuman state, practically gone feral.

Considering that everything about McCarthy suggests he's a fairly stern conservative, maybe even a Christian one, he has an immense talent for depicting the depraved, particularly in this book (which, incidentally, is also very, very funny; for instance, one of his secondary characters, also poor and uneducated, names his daughters from a discarded medical dictionary he happens across, so you get a female character named "Urethra"). You might also think here of No Country for Old Men or The Road, if you've seen the films, which, as with O'Connor, praise simple virtues, "carrying the torch," protecting your family, being virtuous - while depicting subhuman levels of depravity and evil (Anton Chigurh in the first and the whole cannibalism thing in the second. Let's not even get started on The Counsellor). As with O'Connor, we feel a stern rebuke to that which is corrupted in our nature, which ends up amply punished, but also as with O'Connor, there seems more than a passing familiarity with and fascination for human viciousness. What is it with the south that breeds such extremity?

...Or check out Dennis Covington's Salvation on Sand Mountain for something really bizarre: an insider's account of snake handling churches in the American south, which climaxes with the author becoming what he beholds and engaging in the practice himself. I wrote a paper on snake handling once, and based on my research, I know that the founder of the movement, George Went Hensley, was inspired by Bible verses that state that being able to drink poison and take up serpents, with no ill effects, are signs that follow those who believe. Misguided or not, I admire his purity of belief, that he read that passage and decided right off the bat that he should try it out, put it to the test (Apologies to Gerry Hannah for putting him in this grotesque context, but it's a similar thing I admire, as when punks turn radicals and try to really and truly smash the state... or for that matter, when "Satanic" headbangers burn churches; such actions may be deeply misguided and wrong - you kind of have to judge them on a case-by-case basis - but the principle, of walking your talk, of living out your beliefs in your life, is kind of admirable: "They shall take up serpents?" Okay, now where can I find me a snake? ...Of course, Hensley appears to have missed the Bible's other admonitions about not tempting the Lord). Then he started bringing snakes into churches, a practice that persists to this day and has caused no shortage of controversy (among, say, the in-laws of handlers, who want to keep their grandchildren from being raised in the faith). The followers enter a sort of ecstatic state, speaking in tongues, testifying, and handing around rattlers and cottonmouths and such, all often to guitar driven rock (because you can't drink strychnine and pass around snakes without someone playing an electric guitar: I mean, I guess you could, but what fun is it? I'd love to get some recordings of music from snake handling services, actually). It sounds absolutely unhinged and deeply unsafe - and Hensley died vomiting blood, after being bitten during a service, all the while refusing medical attention, so I don't think you can cry fakery, here - but it also sounds way more compelling than any Catholic church service I've ever attended. ("Is your church boring? Bring a rattler!") Once you see people doing this, and believing in it as an expression of their faith, there's very little in human behaviour that can come as a surprise.

The Southern gothic mode makes for good cinema, too, especially when it comes to horror movies. I can't really do justice to Fulci's nightmarish The Beyond here - one of the most surreal horror films I'm aware of, with some striking gore (he apparently likes puncturing human eyes) and at least one utter special effects failure where the filmmakers opt to augment a handful of real tarantulas (which, as you might expect, look just like real tarantulas) with several mechanical ones (which, go figure, do not). Because it is an Italian approximation of the Southern Gothic mode, it almost doesn't feel like it belongs on the list (it is not authentically "of" the south, is kind of faking it), but it's a must-see no less (and suffers least from the ESL-level of English that you find in some of his films, like City of the Living Dead; maybe he consulted a native speaker on The Beyond?). There's a real, if excessive, poetry that the film achieves, but it feels almost accidental when you look at some of Fulci's other films. 

More authentic - though it's a Hollywood approximation, also not exactly "of" the south - is Walter Hill's Southern Comfort, which provides a metaphor for Vietnam in a story about inept national guardsmen, led by a never-better Keith Carradine and Powers Boothe, who find themselves in a shooting war with swamp-dwelling cajun trappers. The film has plenty of hanging moss, plenty of masculine sturm und drang (including great small roles for Fred Ward, Peter Coyote, Brion James, and The Onion Field's Franklyn Seales) and looks like it might have been a muddy, Herzogian ordeal to film. It also boasts what surely is the most memorable pig disembowellment in cinema history, and my own personal favourite death by quicksand.

I didn't care for it initally, but I've also come to be quite fond of an oddball Kate Hudson/ Gena Rowlands/ Peter Sarsgaard/ John Hurt movie called The Skeleton Key. On first viewing, theatrically in 2005, maybe as part of a backlash against overblown Shyamalan-esque cinematic twists, I found the ending so improbable that I rejected the film as garbage, but I've liked it more every time I've seen it (twice, now), and agree with Manohla Dargis' summation of the film as "enjoyably inane." I still don't really buy Ms. Rowlands as a Southerner, but the film has some very effective imagery and a wholly unique structure. Plus, you know, there's voodoo or hoodoo or such in it; the whole plot hinges on how one needs to believe in such things for them to have power, which, of course, ultimately, they do. Questions of belief seem essential to the Southern Gothic horror mode.  

And speaking of belief, Bill Paxton's Frailty is a must-see. One of a small handful of things Paxton has done directorially, besides the Barnes and Barnes "Fish Heads" video and a golf movie (?), it's a film about the extremes of religious faith, dealing with a father, played by Paxton himself, who is either a delusional axe murderer or a visionary messenger of God, on a mission to slay demons, who appear to the rest of us like normal humans. His story is told somewhat sneakily from the point of view of his two sons, who come to share differing views about their father. Powers Boothe pops up in this, too, as a cop to whom one of the now adult children (Matthew McConaughey) is relating the story, years later. Along the way, lots of people are dispatched with an ax in a barn, just like in that Tom Waits song...

What's maybe most interesting about the film is that readings of it can differ wildly, especially when it arrives at its own twist ending, which spurred a fairly strenuous argument with a friend of mine, since it appears to validate one of the two readings of its story. (Spoilers ensue, so you might want to skip the rest of this paragraph if you haven't seen the film). It suggests that in fact, the father was right, he was killing demons all along, and that demons are real, and that we should all be very careful, because God is watching us (!). My friend - not particularly given to thinking deeply about films - was disappointed by this conclusion, seeing it as patly affirming something positively Christian, conservative, and worthy of scorn ("demons are real? Give me a break!"). He had never read O'Connor or McCarthy or any other writers who truck in southern perversity, obviously. Though indeed the film takes sides at the end, the answer it arrives at is so deranged that no one in their right mind would take comfort in it, which is precisely why the film is great; my friend - former friend, really - failed to appreciate that the upset he was feeling with the film was deliberately induced. Frailty lures you into complicity, invites you to make a smug judgement ("this guy is nuts"), then slaps you with the opposite truth, so you're left asking yourself what the fuck you've just been party to - much more troubling and memorable than just affirming your prejudices. Fascinating, disturbing, utterly unique film (not particularly Gothic in flavour, alas, and not that much swampiness, but in terms of perverse psychology and extremities of faith, it wins big prizes).

Which brings us to the film that I'm watching right now, that I put on pause to write this: We Are What We Are, a 2013 horror film that flew below my radar until I stumbled across a compelling preview on another disc (the trailer isn't entirely convincing, mind you, that the film will be good one, but from what I've seen, it is). I'm guessing the authors were well acquainted with Frailty; it clearly raises similar questions, this time focusing on two daughters whose father is raising them in an unusual faith, which also requires extreme and troubling behaviour of them. Full of swampy Gothic imagery (and featuring the ever-delightful Michael Parks, as a town doctor who tries to help the girls), it manages to get quite far in before revealing the particular twist on their father's belief system, so I'll spare mentioning it and recommend it, if you can find it; just don't look at the DVD box art, because - I hate it when they do shit like this - the box art ITSELF provides a huge spoiler for the reveal of the film. Because of the too-obvious, too-literal box art, you're forced to watch the movie in a state of waiting for them to get around to showing you what you already know to be the case. Which I guess is not REALLY a problem - I mean, we've all watched vampire films knowing they were vampire films, where they keep you in "suspense" that the main character is a vampire for half their length, right? Or werewolf films where the main character doesn't turn into a werewolf until half the film has passed, where knowing he's going to become a werewolf doesn't detract from your enjoyment. So knowing from the outset what the family's secret is doesn't exactly ruin the film, but if you have a shot of seeing it without that information, you should. It's kind of assholish for the people who designed the box to give so much away that the filmmakers take pains to reveal gradually. If you're of a mind to trust me - and like Southern Gothic horror - check it out without knowing more about it. (It can be found at HMV's as part of their closeout sale, note).

There's lots else I like in the Southern Gothic mode - and lots else I find fascinating from the south, from the cannibalism-themed Civil War movie Ravenous to the urban-rural supernatural revenge thriller Pumpkinhead. Neither are exactly Gothic, I guess, but both delight me in different ways; I'm also a big fan of Tennessee novelist Walter Tevis, though his books - The Hustler and The Man Who Fell to Earth are the best known, and both made into great films - are neither "Gothic" nor "horror" per se). I don't really understand WHY the American south has produced such disturbing and unique art, but at the moment I'm craving it (hell, I may even re-visit Angel Heart, or Interview with the Vampire). Is there a swamp in the movie? Does moss hang from the trees? Is there a decrepit mansion with rotten wood and a secret in the basement or attic? Do you hear voodoo drums even in passing? Is there demented religious faith of any sort run amuck? Are there Cajuns? Are there rattlers? (Check out Stanley, if that resonates, but note that it does seem that real snakes are harmed in the making of the film, as with Ssssssss).

I have no brilliant ending for this piece - the point is just that I'm enjoying some Southern Gothic horror at the moment - but feel free to recommend films if you have any favourites; I'm eager to catch up on ones I've missed. I wonder if the Powers Boothe TV movie where he plays Jim Jones ever came out on DVD? ...or if there's a decent presentation of The Creature From Black Lake out there...?

Now that film has some serious moss in it!

Thursday, February 16, 2017

RIP Ozzy

(photo of Ozzy by Erika Lax)

David M's dog Ozzy has been sick, so today, when I got an email from David with just the word "Ozzy" in the title, I knew what it would say.

Ozzy was a very, very sweet guy. He would run up to you barking and happy when you visited, run laps around David's living room while you sat on the couch, leap up beside you, walk along the back of the couch, roll around in front of you; he was always letting you know, by a myriad of ways, how happy he was you were visiting. Because David's door buzzer doesn't work, if you visited, you had to phone David to be let in, so even if you were just phoning, Ozzy wouldn't know the difference - he would think company had come over and start his rather joyful anticipatory bark, which you could hear in the background. When you actually did visit, Ozzy would generally beat David to the door and be there, wagging his tail, ready to say hello.  I don't think I've met a more exuberant, joyful dog (though I saw similar behaviours in Teddy, the therapy dog who licked my Mom's face when she was in hospital, who had an Ozzylike manner; Ozzy also was a therapy dog, David told me, so  maybe it's a therapy dog thing to be exuberant and joyful?). There was a lot to learn from Ozzy - he was a very healing, wise, happy presence who did not keep any secrets about how happy he was to be alive, most days, though the last few weeks have been tough. I mean, look in his eyes (it's a photo from some months ago): that's a wise little dog.

Be nice to David this week, folks, this is tough stuff. (Les Wiseman posted "The House Dog's Grave" on David's Facebook page but yikes, I can't make it through that  poem without sobbing on a normal day). So sorry, David. We're all going to really miss him, and we all know you loved him.

It was a privilege to have known you, Ozzy. 

(With apologies to Janis Joplin:) "take another little chunk of my tongue now baby"

...So after breakfast, my girlfriend, ever supportive, drives me to the hospital - which I'm very grateful for, because, while I could have made my way there by transit on my own steam, I had no idea how invasive the procedure would be, or what sort of condition I would be in afterwards to get home. My tongue, as it has done for two months now, hurts: kind of akin to the feeling you get when you bite on it, hard, but deep and lingering, all on the left side. If I stick the tip in my right cheek, you can see lesions on it in back - the white and red cluster on the tongue itself, in the bottom right of this pic (I think the brown thing is a filled tooth or something):

My GP, observing this cluster, said it needed to get looked at. A walk in doc, fielding a request for antibiotics in advance of the ENT appointment - I thought I would try to anticipate that that might be all the ENT was going to prescribe, as a preliminary, so we could maybe skip a step in the event they proved ineffective by the time I got there - declared it wasn't bacterial, made a call, and had the ENT appointment moved up a week, to last week, which made me a bit nervous (it doesn't happen very often that  people actually try to rush you through the system, you know?). The ENT, looking in my mouth, scheduled me for a biopsy at his closest convenience. Today was the day of that, at 8:15 AM.

It's a hell of a word, biopsy. It kind of evokes an autopsy, except on a living thing (which also brings to mind the concept of vivisection). So how serious are these lesions, anyhow? Based on his first look last week, my ENT was giving me a fifty fifty chance that it was something called lichen planus - or else it was cancer. Either way, it likely relates to my swollen lymph node of the fall and my ongoing sore throat and inner ear pain, all on the left side of my head, all manageable - at least in terms of present pain levels - but starting to freak me out no less. It went undiagnosed and untreated because I was more concerned, when symptoms first manifested in September, about the lump in my throat - which proved to be nothing, or so I was repeatedly told. Now that the lump has faded, the growth on my tongue has taken centre stage, suggesting that hey, maybe it was something after all...

Today's procedure went like this: after I assumed position on the narrow hospital bed - more gurney than bed, really - the ENT dried off my tongue a bit and had me stick it out to one side, taking a deeper look. He held it out of my mouth between pieces of gauze, peering, telling me to keep my eyes closed, telling me to relax. He quickly amended the "possible lichen planus" diagnosis: now that he can see better, he can see one clear big lump in back that he figures might be a viral growth, which needs to be cut out - if, that is, it's not cancer, which is still a concern, and which would require other avenues of treatment. The nurse went to get a clamp to hold my tongue in place, while he put three needles into different spots to freeze it. As film geeks out there might anticipate, with my tongue held out to one side, I had an unwelcome image from Salo flicker through my head.

...And with that image in mind, and my tongue in whatever contraption the nurse brought in - which I never did get a glimpse of - he got cutting. It took about fifteen minutes, after which he put in a few dissolving stitches; I didn't feel much of anything, though it hurts now, and told me to come see him next week to talk about the results and the next step.

"Can I see what you cut out?"

The nurse was happy to oblige, holding the jar up to the light so I could snap a pic. It doesn't seem like very much at all, seen this way, but I sure can feel the effects of this on my mouth.

And now for a week of waiting. I can use mouthwash or salt water rinse for comfort, can eat normally - he's got no suggestions, really. And he was not forthcoming with any offers of painkillers: though my inner ear is starting to hurt a fair bit, I have been told that there's a newly legislated mandate that opiods are only to be prescribed for very, very serious sicknesses, so I'm left with Tylenol and discomfort (of course, if it's cancer, I might get some painkillers, I guess, but if it's a viral growth, probably not).

I resent that, actually - that the government response to the opiod crisis means that people in pain can no longer expect treatment for it. There's enough of a disconnect between the two things - junkies dying of fetanyl-laced IV drugs and my ear, throat, and tongue pain - that it seems kind of silly, akin to outlawing the sale of Christmas trees to help prevent forest fires or something. Feckin' misguided bureaucracy; but what more would you expect of our provincial government?

In any event, it's a good excuse to stay home and watch movies. Did you realize that the heavy in Ben Affleck's The Town was played by Jeremy Renner? I hadn't. He's great in it; it might have been the first thing I ever saw him in (though I later caught up with him in that Jeffrey Dahmer movie, which is amazing, and prompted Kathryn Bigelow to cast him for The Hurt Locker). There's lots I like in this movie, in fact. It's not as good as Gone Baby Gone, but it's a ton better than fuckin' Argo, which I still think is a self-serving Hollywood liberal handjob and a one joke film to boot. I didn't much like The Town either, when I first saw it theatrically, but I revisited it with my girl the other night, in the theatrical version, wondering if my opinion of it would have changed since I saw it theatrically, and I have to admit I enjoyed the experience, and not just because of Renner. I still thought the ending rang false and feelgoody, but I guess not all Boston crime films can be The Friends of Eddie Coyle.

So with the theatrical version fresh in my head, I'm watching the extended cut of The Town now, and am going to get back to it. I wonder if I'm going to end up all Roger Ebert-y, jawless and using typing as a primary means of communication? (Because my carpal tunnel problems are really going to be a pisser, then).

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

On my lack of faith in professionals, plus a new health concern

I don't have a lot of faith in professionals at the best of times. It seems to me that for every competent, caring person you  meet in any profession, there are four of five mediocrities who have no talent at all at - or passion for - what they're doing, who are just waiting around to collect their pensions, playing it safe, hoping nothing too challenging presents itself to show up how incompetent they really are. And for each of them, there are at least one or two total jackasses who stand as living arguments in favour of caution, who have risen to positions they barely deserve and who will make your life misery if given the chance, with bizarre personal issues, flawed logics, and indifference to your needs, which come second to their own ambitions and quirks.

Take dentists, for instance. I'm a difficult freeze, a sensitive guy, and have a less than outstanding track record when it comes to taking care of my mouth. I have had four or five root canals, one crown, five or six extractions - I forget, and don't feel like sticking my finger in my mouth to count the spaces. Plus I've had countless fillings. I have encountered a wide range of dentists, in getting work done: from magicians who have painlessly removed unsaveable teeth to a guy who, as I recall it, actually put his knee on my chest to give him leverage as he yanked this way and that to yard a wisdom tooth from my jaw (unfortunately, I didn't realize painless removal was an option, when allowing the knee/chest guy to operate on me). Meantime, in between either extreme, I've encountered more than one dentist who simply couldn't freeze me well enough to do the job, who blamed me for being too sensitive to operate on, who then charged me money for trying and failing to produce a single meaningful result. When I find a good one - and I credit Billy Hopeless here for introducing me to Dr. Donald Shuen, my current dentist, on Broadway, whom I recommend enthusiastically - I tend to stick with him, if I can, because they're the exception, rather than the rule, I've found. 

Or take doctors. I've had both my parents die within the medical system in recent years, and while I could point the finger in other directions, in both cases, I had pretty serious issues with the system, saw it as at least complicit in their deaths. If my father's polyps had been diagnosed and treated within a month, say, of his first going to the doctor, they wouldn't have metastasized and spread colon cancer to his liver. He could have helped his own case, of course, by not enduring a couple of months of constipation and discomfort before he even went to the doctor, and then, once the doctor decided a colonscopy was in order, he could have helped his case by being more of an advocate on his own behalf, pushing to get it done earlier, checking to see if spaces had opened, being a squeaky wheel; but he had utter faith in the system, you know? He was of that generation - he had faith in authority, faith in the powers that be; hell, he still believed in God. As things were, by the time he did have a colonscopy, he had to have a big chunk of his colon removed and was told the spots in his liver were untreatable and were going to kill him eventually, which they did. It might NOT have been that way, had they just maybe jumped him ahead in the queue a little, given how long he'd been suffering and how potentially serious the case was. Instead, from the first diagnosis ("probably polyps causing constipation") to the colonscopy and the "terminal cancer" one, six weeks passed. By that time, it was too late...

Similarly, if a cardiologist had been called in to consult with my mother as soon as she showed signs of heart stress - which happened three nights into her six week purgatory in the hospital, before she finally died, in April of last year - preventative steps MIGHT have been taken to keep her heart from failing. She was there for gallstone problems, and there were plenty of distractions - two serious infections, periods of delirium, and so forth - but once she'd had her second heart issue, and an angiogram and stent were tabled as possibly warranted, a doctor, behind my back, had a private conversation with my mother (who was barely competent, due to her old stroke, and barely able to understand what was being said to her, and who was also totally unable to explain to me afterwards what had taken place; it is a conversation I should have been included in, or at the very least, informed about as soon as it happened). As a result of that consultation,the procedure was completely taken off the table. I asked about it, thought it was still planned, talked to more than one person at the hospital trying to figure out what was going on. I didn't find out what had happened except by accident, when I ran into the doctor who had had this secret talk with her, and she told me about it, a week or more after the conversation had taken place. By that time, my Mom had had a third or fourth heart episode - probably her old bypass grafts failing, one at a time. By the time I got the angiogram/ stent discussion BACK on the table, and a cardiologist was called in, five weeks into her stay, it was too late: Mom was too sick to undergo the procedure, her lungs filling with fluid and other organs shutting down. She died three days after the cardiologist first came on board. Hard not to decide that the system, and that one fucking doc in particular, failed her utterly.

Of course, part of the problem with any criticism of the medical system is that there IS a system in place. It's practically designed to make it hard to blame any one person. My mother's doctors and nurses seemed to change on a near daily basis, called on to oversee one phase of her treatment and then replaced by someone else who had to start from scratch once a new phase was underway, or once she was moved to a new ward (which happened five or six times, sometimes seemingly quite arbitrarily). There were also a couple of really offensive moments early in her stay where doctors tried to pressure me into signing off on a Do Not Recusitate when all she was (seemingly) facing was getting a gallstone removed, where it was clear that their concern was not about her or me or anything other than the expense of having someone hooked up on their precious machines; the institution first and foremost serves the needs of its own maintenance, and only thereafter takes into account the needs of the public it supposedly exists to help. When I read about Vince Li being granted "absolute discharge,"  my first thought - after shuddering in fear - is to wonder how much of that is because there is too little money in the public coffers to monitor him? ...If the doctors who are signing off on him taking over the maintenance of his meds regime are mostly just concerned about freeing up resources so they can treat people who are more obviously posing a problem? 

Anyhow, with experiences like these, I don't have a lot of trust in professionals. Just because someone has a job doesn't lead me to assume that they're any good at it. And just because they had to pay money for schooling to GET that job... That also doesn't fill me with trust; I've been to university too, and seen the quality of the people in positions of power and authority, from tenured professors who ate cookies while giving free-associative lectures that no one could follow - crumbs spilling down their shirt front as they lectured and chewed at the same time - to complete and utter nutcases who scared me with the sheer force of their eccentricity. (And I'm not even talking about poor Hector Hammerly, here, who, while definitely a bit heavy-handed as a prof, was undeserving of the controversy and disgrace he faced; he was one of the better ones I had, actually). I've met some great profs in my experiences at SFU and UBC, but they generally stood as the exception, not the rule. And I know from the various outstanding grades I got in classes that I barely understood (Metaphysics? Are you kidding me?) that just because you succeed in a class doesn't mean you actually have ability. If you're smart and ambitious and canny, it isn't that hard to fake your way through the system and come out the other end with professional qualifications you barely deserve. I certainly didn't learn how to teach ESL by going to university - and I'm not even sure you could, frankly. No: I learned how to teach ESL by TEACHING ESL - it took time and experience to get good at it, not textbooks and tests and note-taking. 

Suffice it to say that I tend to evaluate people on a case by case basis, and to try to trust my own judgement; just because someone has a title, or letters behind their name, doesn't mean they aren't an utter idiot who will fuck you up three ways from Sunday if you put your trust in them. There are plenty of doctors and dentists and such who I see once and then vow never to deal with again if I can help it. If someone rubs me wrong - and plenty of alledged professionals I have met do just that - I try to take heed of my intuitions. Sometimes I have no choice but to put my trust in people who have more knowledge and experience than I do in a given field, but I try not to be too passive or blind about that trust...

Anyhow, the upshot of all this is that I'm a bit nervous, because I have a health issue that I haven't previously mentioned publicly. It's been going on since September. In that time, I have consulted with five doctors or more, some on multiple occasions. I was told uniformly that it was nothing. I was given blood tests. Swabs were taken. I had a swollen lymph gland, pain when swallowing, and a weirdly sore tongue, and all were persisting for weeks, but I was assured on more than one occasion it would go away, that it was a reactive lymph condition responding to some infection or other and that it could take weeks to settle down. When it didn't, some time in mid_December, I finally went to the ER at a nearby hospital and put on pressure to get a CT scan, to look at the lump in my throat, which was then my most notable symptom. After the CT scan, I was once again assured that all was normal and it would go away of its own accord. I busied myself with other things - other health worries (carpal tunnel), my new job, and my wedding plans. I allowed myself to trust that indeed, the doctors had been right, and nothing was wrong. I let my vigilance slip a little - and for awhile there, my symptoms even seemed to go away.

But the tongue issues recurred, and I finally, sheepish about having pestered him so often, went back to my doctor and asked him again what was going on; the lymph lump is gone, you were right, but I have this weird pain in my tongue and it just isn't going away...

And this time, something like four months since I began talking to him about it, now he can see something. Hmm, you have lesions there, come back in a week, and we'll see what happens, he tells me. 

So I do, and the lesions (and the pain) get worse. 

So now I'm consulting with an ENT, and am told that these lesions on my tongue might be cancer. They might be something else - it's a fifty fifty chance that they're cancer or something called lichen planus, he says. That was last week; I was told to come in the next week - tomorrow morning, as of this writing - for a biopsy. 

So that's where I'm at. I go in for an examination tomorrow morning. A wee chunk of my tongue will be taken and tested and hopefully before too long I will know what's going on. 

David M. told the audience at his tribute to Paul Leahy the other night, apopos of his performing the song, "You Need Your Tongue to Stand Up," that Paul first had lesions removed from his tongue in 1998. This was the start of his dance with cancer. He made a good go of it, lasted 20 years from that first surgery. As David was singing the song, I was adding 20 to my age, thinking, "I guess I can live with that, if I make it to 68."

Maybe it's nothing, folks, but I got to admit, I'm nervous. The ENT seems like a good man, thankfully (a bit like a Chinese David Carradine, but calm, attentive, and seemingly good-natured; my intuition is to trust him. My GP is all right, too). It might all be nothing, but then again, it might be bad. (Maybe my weight loss recently isn't due to healthier living?).

Wish me luck...

Monday, February 13, 2017

HMV closeout, plus The Last Heist DVD review

People poking through the ongoing HMV closeout - as of this weekend, DVDs and Blu's have joined CDs and LPs at 20% off - might encounter a cheapie DVD/ Blu-Ray called The Last Heist. It's a crime thriller in which Henry Rollins plays a serial killer who collects human eyeballs, who is visiting his safety deposit box at a somewhat shady bank on the very day that a gang of heavily armed men and women raid it, as part of a somewhat complex heist. The DVD is only $14.99, and with the closeout in effect, that might seem like a good idea to some of us - for those of us who still have fondness for Henry, who revered him once and who haven't jumped off the bus given his success. You might even think, hey, He Never Died - where he plays an immortal, bingo-playing cannibal killer - was pretty great, so maybe Rollins has finally found his niche as an actor? I mean, how can a movie where Henry Rollins plays a serial killer who cuts out and collects people's eyeballs be all bad?

It isn't, actually, but allow me to give you a word of caution here, folks. Between his controversial Calvin Klein billboard and The Last Heist, I begrudge Hank the billboard less, because his presence on that billboard was not enough to beguile me into buying anything by Calvin Klein. He's free to take the money if he wants, as far as I'm concerned, as long as the money he's taking isn't mine. His top billing here was the only reason I shelled out cash on this thriller - because, sorry, how can you NOT want to see a movie where Henry Rollins cuts out people's eyes? Unfortunately, it turns out he's the only good thing in it (and he's only onscreen for about a quarter of the film). The dialogue is awful (or should I spell it offal?). The special effects are barely competent, with phony looking rifle flares and empty eyesockets that are VISIBLY achieved with black paint on actors' eyelids (you can still see their eyelids!). The plot is so trite and fomulaic that at about an hour in, I picked up my cellphone and played a puzzle game for every scene when Rollins was not on screen, because a) I could follow the story just fine and b) I couldn't have cared less. In fact, the filmmakers might have had the same problem, because everything that happens in the film not involving Rollins plays like a contrivance designed to kill time until the next moment that Rollins is on the screen. Once the blood starts spurting, Henry is fun, plays the role with verve - it's a way better performance than some of the other piece-of-shit B movies he's assented to act in, like The Devil's Tomb - but, I mean, seriously caveat fucking emptor here, friends. If, having been warned, you STILL FEEL THE NEED TO SEE THIS FILM - and I don't blame you on this, because, like I say, Henry Rollins as a serial killer who cuts out people's eyes is a hard thing to pass up on - just comment below, and as long as you pick it up off me at a time and place of my convenience (Vancouver/ Burnaby area), I will flat out give you the DVD. You'll like it that much more for not having paid money to see it. Hell, then you can do fellow Rollins fans the favour of passing it onto them, when you're done, and save THEM the expense. Get some good karma going here...

As for the HMV closeout, there were still some cool DVDs and Blu's  to be found if you dig. Langley wasn't worth the trip, but Metrotown and Coquitlam still had some good titles, including the odd Scream Factory or Arrow (do you NEED a C.H.U.D. upgrade? Might as well get it at 20% off). Haven't been downtown or to Guildford yet, and might not bother. The way the bones are getting picked clean, you'd almost forget that physical media is dying; I don't blame the employees, facing rapidly approaching joblessness, for being a bit embittered about the whole experience. It's too bad people weren't still so enthusiastic about shopping there before they went into liquidation - it's the same old story from when they closed their Robson Street flagship.

Whatever you end up buying, though, seriously think twice about The Last Heist.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Not Criminally Responsible: of Vince Li and an unusual (former) friend of mine

Disclaimer: I did not know Tim McLean or his family. McLean lived in BC at some point, I gather; I remember reading that he worked for a time at the PNE. Still, I doubt our paths ever crossed. I first encountered the story of the Manitoba bus beheading like most people, in the mainstream media. 

I also do not know Vince Weiguang Li, the man who cut off McLean's head and ate bits of him on that bus. He's interviewed here; he was subsequently diagnosed as schizophrenic, treated, and now has been granted an absolute discharge - meaning he is free from checking in with doctors, free to contact the McLean family, free to go off his meds, free to do whatever he likes. He's changed his name to Will Baker - not a bad idea, I guess; who recalls Karla Homolka's new name? He seems very remorseful in that interview; indeed, he may be a very nice guy, now that he's on meds, I don't know.

However, I do know a man who, in the grips of mental illness, killed someone. His name is Neil, and we roomed together for a time, back in the mid-1990's. We were both taking a (somewhat culty and intense) class called Life Skills Coaches' Training, being run by a private college that, on the verge of closing for good, was renting space in a disused office building in Whalley, in the heart of junkie central. It ran like a sort of day-long group therapy, with a dozen or so of us digging deep into ourselves and each other, talking about our pasts, our feelings, our failings, and coaching each other how to come to terms with our "stuff." It was strikingly intimate and somewhat spiritual, with sweatlodges and smudges and other rituals. There were also random bits thrown in, from shiatsu-like massage that released torrents of tears when certain points were pressed to an all-night session on the head coach's property, a technique which had been described by a competing school as "sleep deprivation." It's a bit sensationalistic but not exactly off the mark; but frankly, I think they borrowed techniques from wherever they could, from Scientology to gestalt therapy to Reich to whatever they thought worked. I don't recall if there was any primal screaming, but there could  have been. There wasn't much of a safety net, and I'd heard stories at the time - which I can't substantiate - that a past trainee had killed himself as a result of the emotional pressures he was subjected to. It seems entirely believable.

Needless to say, the people who were part of it got to know each other very, very well during this course. If people were abused as a child, we heard about it (some people had been). If they'd been raped, we heard about it (some people had been). If they had committed crimes or done things they felt lifelong guilt and shame over, we heard about them (we all had; there were some sad stories indeed in the class, and a few pretty lame ones, including my own). People screamed, people cried, people bullied each other, and occasionally people mutinied, comparing the workings of the class to the Stockholm syndrome and challenging the head coach on her methods. We emerged all feeling a lot healthier, however, with odd bonds having formed, including at least one couple.  

Anyhow, I didn't want to have to commute from Maple Ridge to Surrey, didn't want to be walking between the school and Gateway Station at all if I could help it, especially in the evening, so I offered to sleep in the building and serve as their unofficial security guard. They were fine with it, so I moved in my sleeping bag and had a few nights to myself before a few other commuters in the class decided that it sounded like a pretty good idea. An electric wok for cooking got moved in, and at least four other people ended up, at different times, spending the night there, sharing communal, often vegetarian stir fries and bullshitting into the evening. There were enough of us staying there that the space became known as "the Stellar Hilton."

And one of them was a Newfie named Neil. He was one of the first people besides me to move his foamie onto the floor. He was a man of considerable integrity and intelligence, but who came from a lower class background, spoke coarsely, and, as I recall, had had troubles with the law (not the only person in the group who had).

It was one of the more unusual friendships I have ever formed - and a valued one, I think for both Neil and I; I haven't had many friends from a totally different class background than myself, and I learned a lot about life from talking with Neil, and profited from his advice and insight on more than one occasion. He was incisive and honest and kind of fearless; and I took to looking forward to decompressing with him after class, when Neil, myself, and another Hilton occupant who later became a close friend would talk and play chess - which I rarely won at. Neil was masterful. I looked up to him, as someone a bit older, much tougher and with some very potent life experiences behind him - though I had to make excuses to myself for him occasionally (because, like I say, he was coarse, particularly in how he talked about women and sex).

Years after the class was over - after I got back from Japan - I ended up sharing an apartment in Kits with said other friend from the Stellar Hilton, and occasionally, when Neil was in town, he would visit and crash with the two of us. It was around that time - 2005, maybe - that we began to notice that Neil was starting to seem a bit, well, paranoid. Neil was on a disability comp claim, having sustained a head injury on the job decades previously, and was certain that he was being spied on. He may well have been - he'd talked about WCB spies even back into the 1990's, when we were first getting to know each other, and it didn't seem entirely impossible or unreasonable; but by 2005, it was starting to seem a bit of an obsession, something that came up more and more often, was affecting his life in deeper and deeper ways.

As I recall, we tried to convince him that it might just all be in his head. See, we theorized - I certainly theorized - that it was all stemming from a bad conscience on his part. He didn't want to go back to work, was happy to keep receiving benefits - but it was, as far as we could see, a bit of a scam. He was pretty high-functioning, and surely could have held a legit job of some sort. He just didn't want to give up the free ride (we thought). We certainly saw no reason, hanging out with him, to think of him as brain damaged; he was incredibly sharp, and mostly incredibly rational. So maybe his guilt at not being a productive member of society was expressing itself as a sort of paranoia - that it was his own conscience that made him feel afraid he would get busted...? The alleged "WCB spies" were really his own guilty conscience?

Neil's paranoia sometimes got a bit out of hand, however. Even before I went to Japan, in 1999. I remember an episode where Neil, visiting me and this mutual friend where I then lived in Port Moody, got a bit drunk and seemed to become suspicious that maybe *I* was spying on him for worker's comp (as I recall, it was more me than my friend he suspected). I don't remember exactly what was said, but I remember the way he looked at us. Both my friend and I were scared; there was a violence in him, a hostility that flickered behind his eyes, and an unsettling, vicious quality to the way he smiled. Coming from a bit of a tough-guy past, he had been around violence more than either of us, was more comfortable with it, I guess you could say. But we had never felt it DIRECTED at us before, not even in the slightest. That night - just in the way he spoke, laughed, looked at us - we were both afraid of him.

But it passed: we took it as a sign not to be around Neil when he was drinking, and not much more. After I got back from my time in Japan, on more than one occasion, between 2002 and 2005 - during which time my friend and I shared this apartment in Kits - Neil was our guest, crashing on our couch, telling us stories about a plan he had to buy a boat and live on it with his dogs off the BC coast - something I think he actually tried for a few months, to no success. He was certainly more attuned to the possibility of WCB spies watching him, by this point - and we thought his worry excessive - but I don't remember being as scared of him as I was that one night.

Then he fell out of touch. That wasn't that unusual - he would come and go, with connections in Newfoundland and elsewhere in the province. I wasn't around the last time my friend ran into him, but it must have been around 2005, and Neil, as I recall the report, still seemed pretty much like Neil. They talked, and - I heard later - he told him about his ill-fated experiment with living on a boat, and how sad he was when he had to put one of his dogs down.

Then Neil fell out of touch completely, and over a year passed. No word at all. It got to be unusual.

Sometime in 2007 or so, my friend, wondering what had become of him, tried a Google search, where we read two articles online in the Western Star and became rather terrified. Because the articles I'm linking seem to be buggy - directing you after a minute to a malware site - I'm going to copy them in part into this piece of writing, so you don't have to click on them to read them. Also, because I don't want this piece of writing turning up on certain Google searches, I'm going to do what might seem an odd move, of removing Neil's last name, the last name of his daughter, and the name of his victim. (Fuckit, I will leave the lawyers in there). It's not that his name is any big secret - you can click the link below if you want, his photo is there too (he's considerably heavier than when I knew him). I just - Neil might have access to a computer, you know? I don't really want to make it easy for him to find this, for reasons that will become clear.

The first reads thus:
While both the Crown and the defence agree that Neil L. killed his daughter's boyfriend in February 2006, L's lawyer intends to show his client should not be held criminally responsible for the death of Frank M.
The trial against L, who was charged with second-degree murder after Frank M's lifeless body was found in his girlfriend Penny L's residence on Farmdale Road in Corner Brook Feb. 27, 2006, began in the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador in Corner Brook Thursday. 
CORNER BROOK - While both the Crown and the defence agree that Neil L  killed his daughter's boyfriend in February 2006, L's lawyer intends to show his client should not be held criminally responsible for the death of M. 
The trial against L who was charged with second-degree murder after M's lifeless body was found in his girlfriend Penny L's residence on Farmdale Road in Corner Brook Feb. 27, 2006, began in the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador in Corner Brook Thursday. 
After reading an agreed statement of facts signed off on by L and his lawyer, Peter Ralph, Crown prosecutor Jennifer Colford managed to wrap up the Crown's case by the end of the jury trial's first day. 
In the agreed-upon statement, the 12-person jury and presiding Justice Richard LeBlanc heard how M, who lived at another residence, and his girlfriend had woken up around 8:20 a.m. of the morning in question. Neil L, who also had other accommodations, had also spent the night at his daughter's home. 
The couple heard Neil L talking with Ms. L's two young daughters - aged 4 and 6 - out in the living room. In fact, L and his granddaughters were on the couch watching cartoons. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, although the court was also told L had worn out his welcome by staying two nights and that Penny and M had "ignored him the second night." 
In the morning, M "winked" at his girlfriend, who at that point was in the living room with her father and children, as he left the washroom and proceeded to the kitchen. Ms. L then went to the washroom herself and, upon leaving, heard what she described as a "weird noise." 
At that point, she saw her father and M fall through a blanket which had been draped over the kitchen doorway. Neil L was on top of M, who was pleading for help. Penny was trying to separate the two when she saw a knife in her father's hand. After a short struggle, the knife fell to the floor and Neil L screamed at his daughter. 
Penny saw her boyfriend was bleeding moments before her father punched her in the face. 
After recovering from the punch, which she later testified knocked her unconscious momentarily, Penny went looking for a cordless phone to call the police. Unable to find the phone, she decided to grab her two daughters, who were by now screaming in the living room, and get out of the house. 
By then, the struggle had moved into the living room. When Penny returned to that room, she saw  M leaning over the arm of a love seat with Neil  L standing over him, stabbing him repeatedly in the neck and screaming "You're going to f*** with me." 
M fell face down to the floor and a pool of blood came from his body. Penny told police one of her daughters was screaming "Poppy, stop, Frankie is bleeding." 
Penny grabbed her children and left the house to get help and was able to get a neighbour to make a 911 call. 
When police arrived, Penny was in the street screaming that her father had just murdered her boyfriend. 
Unable to enter 
The responding members of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary were unable to enter the residence at first, but could see a man covered in blood standing in the porch. The police eventually forced their way in and arrested  L. 
M, who died at the scene, had been stabbed 19 times in the back and neck area. 
When she took the stand, Penny L told the court her father had been suffering from severe paranoia and delusions that he was being spied on for cheating the workers' compensation board in British Columbia, even though there were no real grounds of suspicion that he might have been doing so. 
The court heard a piece of heavy machinery had accidentally rolled over L in 1989, resulting in an injury to the left temporal lobe of his brain. 
These abnormalities were recorded on medical tests conducted at the time of the accident and again in 2006. 
During her testimony,  L's daughter explained how her father thought spies were planted virtually everywhere. He even refused to communicate indoors, for fear the house was bugged; took apart light switches to check for listening devices; and even resorted to writing notes to his daughter so no one could listen to their conversations.
Penny told the court that she tried to get help for her father, but could not find the help she sought. She went to a counsellor at College of the North Atlantic, who told her to go to the police. 
She went to the police six times, but said she was told nothing could be done until L hurt himself, someone else or property. 
She said she went to the psychiatric department at Western Memorial Regional Hospital and also could not get anyone to do anything for her father. 
Penny said she was told she could lose her children because they were in a dangerous situation. 
She also told the court how her father had deep suspicious of M being a spy planted to expose  L as a fraud. 
"Sorry to burst your bubble, sweetheart, but Frank is one of them," she said her father told her. 
 L told his daughter he was going to buy a tape recorder and get M angry enough to admit he was a spy. Penny said this really upset and worried her and she tried to tell her father he was wrong about  M. 
Two days before M died, Penny  L said her father showed her a tape recorder he had. 
Penny, who said she believed her father's conspiracy theories at first but had grown to question them more and more as they became more bizarre, said she doesn't know why her father stabbed M that particular morning. However, she did tell the court that her feelings for M took precedence over how she felt about her father and this may have further frustrated her dad. 
She explained that her husband from a previous marriage had always played second fiddle to her father. 
Most of Thursday afternoon was taken up with a two-hour videotaped statement  L gave to police following his arrest. During a period of about 10 or 15 minutes when he was left alone,  L sobbed and moaned loudly and occasionally uttered statements to himself consistent with the story of his paranoia. 
"Watch my grandkids. Watch my daughter. Watch 'em," he muttered repeatedly.
While he acknowledged having stabbed M in the statement, L refused to provide an answer as to why or how it happened.
"I don't mean to be ignorant, but I can't say nothing," he repeated, telling the police interrogator to contact his psychiatrist in British Columbia and to tell her he killed someone, implying she might be able to offer police more information. 
L also repeatedly asked about his grandkids and urged the officer to obtain and preserve blood samples from himself and the oldest grandchild, an allusion to earlier testimony from his daughter that he suspected he had been poisoned. 
The trial resumes with the start of the defence's case Monday morning.
The second article - which also redirects you to a Malware page, and which I'm also omitting last names from - explains the reasons put forward that Neil should not be held criminally responsible, because of EXACTLY the brain injury that he had first filed a worker's comp claim for, that he was receiving disability payments for. Copying a portion of that: 

Last week, Justice Richard LeBlanc and the six men and six women of the jury heard that  L readily admits he stabbed M 19 times. However, they also heard that  L, who suffered a serious brain injury in an industrial accident in 1989, had been enduring severe paranoia and delusions that the workers' compensation commission in British Columbia was spying on him and trying to expose him as a fraud. 
The delusion got to the point that  L even thought M was a spy planted by the commission to infiltrate his family, even though there was never any real suspicion  L had been cheating the commission to get disability benefits. 
When the trial resumed in the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador in Corner Brook Monday morning, defence lawyer Peter Ralph called his only two witnesses - Dr. David Craig and Dr. Nisar Ladha of St. John's - both of whom testified as experts in forensic psychiatry. A report from a third psychiatrist, Dr. Lisa Ramshaw of Toronto, was also read into the court records. 
All three of the psychiatrists came to the conclusion that  L was suffering from symptoms of a mental disorder at the time of the murder and should not be held criminally responsible for M's death. 
Craig, who has conducted psychiatric assessments of inmates in this province's adult and youth correctional facilities on numerous occasions, first met  L at Her Majesty's Penitentiary in St. John's in May 2006. During a third visit about a month later, Craig said  L was upset over memories of the offence and overwhelmed by what he had done and what the consequences might be.  L even told Craig he wanted to change his lawyer and change his plea to guilty. 
Based on conversations he had with  L's daughter, and a letter from her, Craig - who said he immediately contacted Ralph - learned that  L was even suspicious that the court system was part of the conspiracy against him and he would get a lengthier sentence if he pleaded not guilty. 
Since his incarceration,  L has been treated with anti-psychotic medication and drugs for depression. Craig said  L's level of suspicion has been generally resolved since then and, although he is still reluctant to say much, he is no longer worried that almost everyone around him is out to get him and is fit to stand trial. 
Craig said there is a difference between being fit to stand trial, or being able to understand court procedure and co-operate in his own defence, and being held criminally responsible of an offence, which involves the state of an individual's mind at the time the offence was committed. 
Craig said it is quite clear  L was in the deepest throes of his mental illness the morning he killed M, launching a vicious attack moments after he had been sitting between his two granddaughters watching cartoons. He said  L incorporated the belief M was a planted spy into his progressing delusional system and that  L would either have to kill himself or kill M to remove the threat he perceived to himself, his daughter and her two children. 
That opinion, said Craig, is backed up by the videotaped statement  L gave to police in the hours after the killing, in which a distraught  L admits to killing M, but still urges the police to protect his daughter and grandchildren. Craig said  L is clearly distressed about some sort of continuing threat, more than he is about the fact he has just killed someone. 
Ladha, a forensic psychiatrist in this province since the 1970s and who conducts psychiatric assessments at the Waterford Hospital, diagnosed  L as being schizophrenic. Although the exact cause of this particular kind of mental illness is typically unknown, Ladha said  L's case is different in that it can be pinpointed to a specific medical condition, namely the injury to the left side of his brain. 
"After his injury, Neil  L changed as a person," said Ladha. "He was not the Neil  L he was before. He was not the father he was before."

Ladha said an examination of  L's life since his accident in 1989 shows a steady progression of his disorder. He said his illness continued to affect more parts of his life and also began to include more people, as shown through his ever-intensifying insistence that spies were following him and bugging his house.

Unfortunately, said Ladha,  L's irrational thought processes got to the point where Frank M became the biggest threat to him and the family he loved. In  L's mind, said Ladha, killing M was the right thing to do to protect his family.

"It was this distorted psychotic rationale that led to Frank's death," he said.

Both Ralph and Crown attorney Jennifer Colford will present their closing arguments to the jury this afternoon.

Justice LeBlanc is not expected to give his instructions to the jury until Wednesday morning, at which time they will begin deliberating  L's fate.
There's some scary circular logic at work in this story - that the brain injury leads to a comp claim; that the comp claim leads to a paranoia that he's going to be booted off the comp claim; that he kills someone out of that paranoia; that he is then found not guilty of murder because of the very brain injury that started things off. Indeed, Neil did end up in an institution for the mentally ill - was found not criminally responsible, same as Vince Li (or that other infamous cannibal killer who roams free in the world, Issei Sagawa).

There's a whole lot in the stories about Neil that is disturbing, precisely because it is familiar and recognizable to me. It would be one thing to read about these acts and think they belonged to a total stranger, but - they don't. Reading the Western Star stories online was the first time I heard about fears of wiretaps - clearly his paranoia accelerated considerably over time - but most of the story reminds me of things that Neil said, and I can easily connect his violent outburst in my mind with that scary night in the late 1990's, and the way he looked at us when he suspected we might be spies, too. I wonder if Vince Li's friends felt the same sort of recognition, reading about what he did? If any of his behaviour in the past looked to them in hindsight like it foreshadowed his crime? It brings to mind a very interesting graphic novel called My Friend Dahmer that shows how Jeffrey Dahmer seemed to his "friends" in high school, including the author of the book - who in no way was surprised when the news broke about what Dahmer had been up to. (I gather it's being made into a movie).

But there's another disturbing element to the story, for me, besides the familiarity of it. What if, after some time, given budgetary considerations, years of exemplary behaviour, and apparently successful regimes of meds lead to the institution where Neil is being kept deciding he is no longer a threat, and setting him free? He has ties in BC. His MO in the past had been to just drop by unannounced. What if I get a call or a ring on the door some day - "hey, bye, they let me out!"

Eek. (Scary too that a Metro News article from last year suggests he was found in breach of protocol at the institution where he is held; they surely would say, if they meant he had escaped, right?).

The thought that Neil might show up in my life again, if released, was mainly what has kept me from sending him a care package these last ten years. It did occur to me that at the very least he might appreciate a note and a chess set, you know? - Just so he knows that regardless of what he's done he isn't totally despised and forgotten and alone, which surely is how a man in his position must feel from time to time. But there's no way I can send him anything, no way to say hello, without increasing the likelihood, even marginally, that he's going to turn up on my door again someday. As much as I want to be compassionate, as much as I believe Neil was NOT responsible for his actions, as much as I'm sure he too suffers from the effects of what he's done - I really don't want to see him ever again: not because I judge him or hold anything against him, but because there's a point beyond which I can't have someone in my life, a point beyond which I cannot put the OTHER people in my life at risk. I don't much care what chemicals he gets put on, don't care what some hospital bureaucrat decides about him: knowing what he is capable of, I can't afford to let him back into my life at all. Maybe other people out there are strong enough, brave enough, fearless enough not to distance themselves from a friend after he does such a thing, but... it ain't me.

It would all be different if I had more faith in the institutions we have in place. I don't. WCB was aware of Neil's injury. His daughter was aware that he was having problems. Repeated attempts were made to get him help. Nothing happened. And even after a crime has been committed - how many times have you read stories in the news about people regarded as high risk offenders being released into the community? Don't you always wonder why, if they're deemed high risk, they're being released? Nevermind punishment, nevermind rehabilitation: isn't part of the purpose of our legal system to protect the community from people it deems dangerous? Sure, sometimes there are screw ups - Issei Sagawa's freedom has as much to do with conflicting laws in France, where he committed his crime, and Japan, where he was deemed sane - but it sounds like the people in charge of Vince Li have very deliberately, knowingly decided that he poses no threat to the community, that he can be safely reintroduced into it.

It's a pretty big "BUT WHAT IF THEY'RE WRONG" to hang over our heads, you know?

I can't really speak of Vince Li - Will Baker, now. He's a stranger to me. But I can say of someone I actually know and liked, a lot, that I hope he stays inside for the rest of his days, for the good of everyone else in the community. I hope he's got a chess set there, hope there's some good company, hope he isn't too miserable or wracked up over what he's done - that there are some moments of peace and pleasure for him, in the institution where he lives, because he's human, because he wasn't responsible for his actions, because he deserves at least some compassion, too. But - sorry, Neil, I hope they never, ever let you out. 

Kinda makes you wonder what Vince Li's friends and family feel about his "absolute discharge," doesn't it?

To say nothing of the rest of us.