A Modest Proposal

Dean Swift used this title quite some time ago, to suggest that starving Irish people should get off their duffs and find what nourishment they could by eating their own plump children during the potato blight and famine of the mid nineteenth century. Well, I have this to say to Mr Swift: Dean, you cannot copyright a title, so whether you like it or not, I plan to issue my own modest proposal. This time, the proposal will be a cogently argued plea for better Men’s restrooms.
Initially I was going to cover simply the problems of the Urinal, but I have since realised that there is a rich subject matter here. This richness demands that I spend some time on the Cubicles, which are available for what the French coyly refer to as La Grosse Commission, and for the convenient and private injection of intravenous drugs. I may have to deal with cubicular problems in a separate article. We’ll see how it goes.

First, I have to apologise. This is a perfectly serious contribution to the exponential growth of Knowledge, but many people are going to conclude, unfairly , that after a promising start to my second career (“Wise Man” or “Old Fart”, take your pick.) I have completely dropped the ball and allowed sleaze and obscenity to cause a dramatic drop in the intellectual tone of my writing.
But I will not be provoked; I am taking the high road.
A warning to women: You are might be puzzled and repugned by my revelations. You really don’t need this and you will learn nothing of value. I suggest you move on and read something else. That way I will have only half as many people to disgust.

Yes, unfortunately this is about urinals. Let’s move past the usual complaints: the odour, the frothy turbid fluid, of an unattractive deep amber shade overflowing onto large puddles around my feet, the cigarette butts blocking the drain and the scarcely coherent graffiti.
But I want to move on, past the not always impeccable hygiene of the Standard Urinal, and concentrate on more philosophical matters.

We have to start with a rather idealised picture of our ancestor of three million or so years ago, Archeopithecus jedensis, as he bestrode the Olduvai, stalking Lucy and lusting after her somewhat hairy bosom. At some point, perhaps after she has given him the bird or copulated with him, (it doesn’t really matter which, by the way.) and she has wandered off in search of berries or small, defenceless mammoths, he is left alone to commune with nature and reflect on the difficulty of pleasing women. He experiences a powerful urge to relieve the tension in his bladder.
Archie (as we may call him) is a simple man, of simple distractions. He needs to urinate. He urinates. Nothing more complex than that. I can (discreetly!) summarise the protocol involved: Archie is not encumbered with the complication of clothes, so he simply has to point his appendage at some handy bush and let go like a veritable fire hose. He fastidiously shakes himself off and resumes his aimless ramblings to see if he can make it again with Lucy.
Now, my modern male readers will probably be experiencing a lively degree of envy. Of course, few Archeopithecines of Archie’s generation got to be older than twenty, so right there he has an advantage over us. His prostate gland is probably the size of a cherry, with a channel the size of his finger, so he can empty the whole bazooka in about two seconds flat. Not so his miserable, remote descendant, whose gland is the size of a grapefruit, with a channel that might allow the introduction of a tiny sapling twig, should one wish to embark on such a disgusting experiment. Anyway, no matter.
The point is that our fire-hose days are long gone. Our bladders have to be cajoled and caressed into doing what they were initially designed to do without such humiliating blandishments: pass urine.
Nowadays the conditions have to be perfect. The ambience, the lighting (soft, mellow) the background music, (Mozart’s later quartets and Enya are OK.) Somebody called Snoop Doggy Something is definitely not recommended. Much too nervy and discordant.
The state of mind is crucial. Think what might be going through the mind of the Dalai Lama in a moment like this and try to emulate that. Meditate on the Buddha and his ineffable wisdom.
And if you think you’re going to be able to piss after a session with your ex-wife’s accountant’s and lawyers, forget it. It’s not going to happen.
The other place where urine is guaranteed not to flow, is in the standard restroom which has small or no dividers between the stalls.
Think about it. Archie and his contemporaries were well aware of the need to find a private place where they could relieve themselves, secure from the threat of sabre-tooth attack or being beaned by a large rock.
I know. You are saying that this is all a crock. There are no longer any sabre-tooths, and we have much more efficient ways of killing each other than hitting each other with rocks.
Yes, but it’s the feeling that is important!
We are all hard-wired to fear the Jabberwock and the Frumious Bandersnatch, however unlikely their appearance in our men’s restrooms.
So here you are, Modern Man. The restroom has soft, mellow light. Mozart is playing delicately from discreet speakers disguised as cupids. You stand there with a preoccupied but confident expression, as if you are solving the problems of the Higgs Boson, or the Unified Field Theory, smiling tolerantly as you list the arguments you might have marshalled against Einstein’s sketchy reasoning. Your bladder feels close to bursting and your pulse is a hundred and twenty. Your opening has clamped down like the Finance Department auditors on your expenses for that last conference in Bali.
So it’s getting embarrassing.
The guy in the next stall is a 200 lb linebacker for a CFL team. He shakes himself off and gazes ironically up the wall, completely aware of your predicament. Then he goes away, whistling triumphally.
Then you think, At last!
There’s an infinitesimal easing of the tension and you think that your problems are over. Then a new guy appears, with possibly even more antisocial and violent designs on you, whistling softly at the stall on the other side. He starts to micturate copiously and loudly. You cannot bear to turn your head to check out his equipment.

Ah, forget it. You can always go home and pee in the shower, or onto one of your wife’s geraniums, which are always grateful for a little extra nitrogen.
I cannot believe that there were men involved in the design of men’s restrooms. At least not men with normal urinary plumbing. Perhaps a few younger men whose systems were still in fire-hose mode, and who have no idea what is in store for them when their flow is reduced to a trickle, as is the experience of normal men over forty.
The other thought that occurs to me is that there may have been women involved in the design phase. This would explain a lot.


The Caledonian and the Continental.

What if I really am a jerk?

This is a thought that occasionally occurs to me in the stillness of the night, waking me in a cold sweat. Lord knows there are enough people who have thought this of me in the course of a long and not particularly virtuous life. What if they are right?

First a digression on semantics. My original question was What if I am an asshole? But I was uncomfortable with this vocabulary. It seems indecently craven to grovel before one’s fellow human beings in hair-shirt and ashes, and seriously, if I ask myself that particular question and open myself to an answer in the affirmative, I really should stop postponing my inevitable suicide.

So the terms, which for the purposes of this short offering, and in the interests of efficiency, I will define thus:

 asshole: a person of mediocre moral values.

jerk: an asshole with insight (ie (s)he knows it.)

That’s the quick and dirty. If you want to quibble with that, fine, but we’re not debating a proposition by Wittgenstein here. I doubt if there is a person on the planet, in the whole of recorded and recordable history, who has never, ever done anything jerkish. We are all to some extent jerks, some of us more than others. But the interesting thing is, the term asshole does not lend itself to first person use. Someone who seriously believes he is an asshole  and says so is likely to be greeted by a sudden hush in the room, followed by a stampede for the door.

You never know.

We’re not that worried about you being an asshole. After all, most of us would be comfortable with the idea that fifty percent of the people in a given room are certifiable assholes (by our own private definitions). We’d certainly be worried, however,  that the guy doing the sackloth and ashes thing and actually saying he is an asshole might suddenly pull out a machine pistol and prove it.

I think we are OK, though, with the I am a jerk statement. I’ve heard those words uttered on many occasions by some tearful penitent in a group session or an AA meeting, and my own internal echo is the words, I hear you, brother(/sister), you and me both!

Where I’m going with this is something interesting and who knows, possibly valuable that I have discovered in the course of sixty-odd years of inexpertly managed life. We believe that so-and-so is an asshole, because he has offended us or someone we hold dear is some way. We are also, I think implying that there is no hope for so-and-so, because he just doesn’t see it. Just keep out of the bastard’s way. When I hear someone say, “Oh, (s)he’s a complete asshole, I want to hear the subtext of a poorly resolved conflict between the speaker and the purported asshole.

The statement So-and-so is a jerk, however, is milder. Jerkishness is a potentially temporary state, amenable to therapy, counselling, mediation and possibly, psychopharmacology.

Here’s the “new” stuff, which of course, I only think I have discovered, because I never read the book by that guy who really did discover it (Like M. Scott Peck, or R.D. Laing or someone like that. What? Am I supposed to read everything?)

My research makes me suspect that there are two main styles of conflict resolution:

One: The Caledonian style.

Imagine some dour old Scot with a mad gleam in his eye who is quick to take offence and is incapable of self doubt. If you offend this man, his mouth will set into a straight line he will stare right through you, and never speak to you again. Decades will not suffice to warm the contempt and the cold resentment in his heart. This style of conflict handling solves the conflict by never recognising it, and by simply condemning the person who broke some obscure article of an unwritten code which the Caledonian person knows but never explicitly acknowledges. He never says what the rules are, because ignorance of the code is in itself a mortal sin. Further discussion is unnecessary.

In case you think I am being unreasonably harsh on the Caledonian, just accept that I have a perfect right to bad-mouth my own kind.

Second style: The Continental. (Some people call this the in-continental.)

I met this style when I married a Frenchwoman and discovered that French people talk French a lot of the time, and they talk a lot, period.

The Continental style of Conflict Resolution (CR for short) is noisy. Incredibly noisy, I found, involving a deal of undignified screaming and darkly sinister imputations of centuries of genetic malformation that occurred in the British Isles, because of our isolation from the healthy influence of Continental genes. The Continental is forever seeking the cause of problems, be it genes, mother’s milk or just the pernicious effect of bizarre social and cultural rituals, like the Scottish prep school and afternoon tea. The Continental is also convinced that a lack of healthy catharsis following lengthy screaming matches is deeply pathological. The Caledonian, however, is not interested in whatever caused you to become a cunt or a bism. (note: male and female for asshole in the Scottish dialect) Once the fatal assesment is made, he condemns and forgets. He doesn’t give a macfuck for your pathology, although he may darkly suspect an excess of screaming in childhood.

Some examples of the Caledonian mode, including sadly, some from my own life:

My mother had two siblings, both of whom immigrated to Canada just after WW 2, both settling in Winnipeg. They lived there within a mile of each other, not speaking, for the next thirty years. Make that forty years. Nobody really knows why this happened.

Interestingly, on the side of my aunt, one of the daughters has cut herself off from the family, and another has been denied access to her granddaughter, for what seems to me to be puzzling reasons. (If you happen to be one of these said cousins and are reading this and taking offence, please, pick up the phone and call me. No judgement or offence is intended. We are all Caledonians together.) Unfortunately the Caledonian trait is very hardy, and will likely survive the deaths of all the dramatis personae in this sadly typical family story.

To return to the perplexing question I started with, ie

Am I  a jerk?”

A sober review of the record reveals that I have done a disturbing number of jerkish things. Inexplicable things. Oh, I’m not talking about stealing, stock manipulation  and murdering and stuff, which can often lead to book rights and the lecture circuit, and has the possible cachet of dramatic criminality repented. If you steal ten dollars you can get jail for ten years. Steal ten billion dollars and you can look around for an unoccupied Pacific Island, a large yacht with a small helipad in the stern, and a large all-female crew. I’m not being sexist here. Even successful and incredibly wealthy female stock manipulators would be better with the female crew and just a couple of male secretaries.

No, the things I have done which shame me are the petty things, the people I discarded and cut off my Xmas card list for the weirdest and most trivial reasons, and feeling totally justified. One College friend I told to stop emailing me because he sent me one of those internet jokes. Yes, it was a dumb joke, but do I have so many friends I can afford to throw them away like that? I stopped writing back to another because he had taken up with a woman half his age and I thought this was stupid. Another friend stopped writing to me because he was a friend of the internet joke one. Another friend, who co-edited the yearbook with me was banished to barren, wind-swept steppes because he let the photographer of the yearbook put his business stamp on it. Yes, he should have discussed it with me, but given my level of self-righteousness, I’m not sure it would have made any difference.

So, unfortunately, I have to conclude that I may be a jerk, or at least that I have done many things that raise that suspicion. But then, sometimes my courage fails me and I listen to the two halves of my brain come to their own conclusions: My Caledonian hemisphere will say, Don’t be ridiculous, Laddie, and my Continental will say Pas du tout!


There, agreement at last!


On the bright side, Caledonians are interbreeding with Continentals at a rate that is accelerating and likely alarming to the elders of both these branches of European culture.

To the Continental assertion that blood is thicker than water (La famille, c’est la famille) the Caledonian will for a while reply, “Aye, right enough, but oor blood is thicker than yours.

To this the Continental will roll his Continental eye balls and make an eloquent gesture with his hands, saying, “See what I mean? Not enough screaming.”

After a century or two as our mutually suspicious communities struggle towards entente, who knows what the outcome will be?

The mind boggles.

Maybe we will start sitting down and negotiating the un-negotiable. We will stop trying to improve our friends and our family members by giving them deeply offensive diagnoses and prescriptions. We may even start to treasure the things that make us different one from the other and make life interesting and maybe even wonderful. We can but dream.

Runny Jam

Having dealt satisfactorily with some of the big issues elsewhere, I can turn my attention to some of the less pressing stuff. Those of you who have read my solutions to the Middle East, world Hunger, Poverty, Global Warming and slavery will be glad to know that I am still working on the details of other issues:

Runny Jam

I can’t tell you how much grief this stuff has caused.

Today, in the interests of improving my sadly deficient multitasking skills, (simultaneously walking/eating) I was walking across the kitchen floor, eating a scone covered in the stuff when a dribble started running off the edge. It dripped down my bathrobe, and onto the floor. I stepped in it. Of course.

Also, since you can’t transfer runny jam from the jar to the scone on a knife, I try to do it by tipping the jar. This gets jam all over the mouth of the jar, into the  (what do you call those spiral things anyway?) spirals, and onto the table, which may or may not be covered by a cloth. The jam starts to run down the jar, creating the phenomenon of sticky-messiness or messy-stickiness.

In the case of jars equipped with raised lettering, you can’t tell if it’s just lettering, or the much dreaded m-stickiness, or s-messiness. You may have to run the jar under the hot tap to remove this, but don’t forget to put the lid on first!

One of my first stabs at this problem was to put the jam in the freezer, but then it freezes into a bright red disk, which is reassuringly solid, but unfortunately, just a little wider than the mouth of the jar, and has to be hacked out piecemeal with a Phillips head screwdriver. This does little for the taste element. My next attempt was to save up lots of used jam containers from restaurants, fill them with the runny stuff and freeze them as individual portions. This is a lot of work, and very messy if you have your stock of jam in a ziplock bag and the power goes out. (It’s even messier if you have them in no bag, or a bag of the non-ziplock variety, by the way.) I am exploring a more radical solution at the present time, ie, buying solid or semi-solid varieties of jam, but I agree with those who say that runny jam is probably going to be with us for a while.

The Drug War

I admit this is  tricky one. The current solution of targeting the people involved in selling and using drugs, apart from the upper management and  board level investors is a good one, and has managed to kill, maim or imprison a gratifyingly large number of miscreants. The war is not won, but next year will mark the hundredth anniversary of the first law to outlaw opium, and so it’s early days yet. Only time will tell if this approach is the right one. The price has been high. There are hundreds of inner city neighbourhoods where public order has had to be subcontracted to multinational pharmaceutical interests; the proportion of the US population in prison or under some sort of administrative supervision for drug offences is the highest anywhere in the world, including Iran and North Korea.  Mexico is essentially a failed state that shares a very porous border with the US.

Some people argue that using the law to enforce moral and/or life-style standards is socialism, and we should let our young people develop their own standards and sink or swim according to the strength or weakness of their own characters. Unfortunately, time and again, our young people have shown themselves to be weak and self-indulgent, and unable to make good choices.

It’s true that the interdiction of drugs has put our police agencies under enormous stresses, and for a cop, if you have to choose between getting a briefcase full of money or a bullet in the neck, you have a difficult moral dilemma. Nevertheless, we should continue to encourage ethical behaviour in our police forces, and make sure that dirty cops go to jail.

There is a parallel here, with the other intractable problem I mentioned at the start of this post. More research, more Task Forces are needed if we are ever going to make progress in the problems of runny jam and substance abuse.

Intimatio Mortis

I have a confession to make. I am going to die soon. I’m sixty-seven and 13 days now and with my condition I may have as little as thirty two years before old Father Time beckons me. It’s a sobering thought. When you are faced with this kind of bleak reality life seems all the more precious.

My daughter is in her thirties now, and when I go, she will hardly have reached retirement age. My son, about to enter medical school (with my heart-felt encouragement—  talk about foresight!) will hardly have settled into his plush office as Dean of Students at UBC when he will have the tragic responsibility of arranging my cremation. I am insisting on that. Better a few seconds of intense warmth than that they should make a mistake. After all, sometimes it’s the medical student who gets roused from his girlfriend and warm bed at three am to confirm the old geezer is truly gone. True. I should know. I was in the business.

OK, enough of the sentimental tear-jerking.

Oh, I forgot, my grandchildren. The lawyer, now five, will receive the news over his $20,000 videophone in his new BMW (MSRP $768K) and the doctor, now just two, starting out in his first Head of Department post, will be paralysed with grief too.

I may have to erase the next sentence.

My darling wife will likely be spared the pain of our separation, as I am sure she will go first. God knows how I will manage all the money that Rhea will have squirrelled away for me.

Remember Rhea?

So why all of a sudden this morbid preoccupation with death?

Well, I had my first intimation of mortality about two weeks ago. Just a little swelling of the ankles, a little short of breath.

Congestive Heart Failure.

Sylvia, my darling wife, thought I should got to the ER, but that I didn’t need an ambulance with the sirens. Pity. That’s one experience I was kind of looking forward to. It’s likely to be the only time I will sail past BMWs, respectfully pulled over as I head into town in seven minutes, shaving twenty-eight minutes from our normal time.

So she drives me into town, slo-owly, with maddening respect for every traffic light, and callously leaves me at the ER entrance. (“I’ll just park the car, dear, you’ll surely manage to register by yourself?”)

About six hours later, I am starving and could do with a shave and some clean clothes, but I’ve almost reached the registration desk. Sylvia has gone off to have sex with one of the ER docs. She was debating going home (where she and the doc could be more comfortable, I guess).

“Oh, yes, thanks dear.” A plywood and 10W30 motor oil sandwich washed down with Fanta orange, delicious. But no matter, I’m getting to see the doctor, if they can find him, and he’s almost finished with that cute medical student. Sylvia swears up and down that she gave him no encouragement and anyway, he wasn’t her type. (More of a Ralph Fiennes, rather than Leonardo Di Caprio, whom  she prefers)

So anyway, I’ve seen the nurse, so she has already confirmed the diagnosis of CHF (mild, she said. Very mild. Borderline normal. I hate nurses. So know-it-all.) I’ve had my EKG and my chest Xray, and the blood lady has taken a moment from her involved conversation with the other blood lady about somebody called Derek, and taken three vials of blood. I am surprised. “Only three?” I say. What about the—? And the—?”

 (I won’t bother you with the confusing acronyms and medicalese.)

“Oh, the doctor doesn’t need all those. He’s ordered all the ones that are needed.”

I restrain my natural impulse to remark mildly that after all, I am a retired psychiatrist!

OK. Showtime.

Have you ever noticed how the doctors are getting younger and younger? This one looks like an adolescent Hugh Grant.

He gets my story, efficiently, and examines me, ditto, being appropriately respectful when he realises I am a colleague. Then he says, “It’s obviously mild CHF, and I mean mild, from the symptoms, but your exam and all the tests are normal. Maybe it’s a side effect from one of your blood-pressure medications.”

He seems inappropriately cheerful and humorous as he gives me a prescription for the smallest dose possible of a well-known diuretic, half a pill, daily.

“Hey, relax doc, you’ll live for ever!”

I hate it when people don’t have the guts to level with me.

Bad enough that my family should have to face the awful possibility of a life without me, but I want them to know the truth too! No sugar-coated euphemisms!

Anyway, I’m much better now after a couple of days on the water pill, and going off one of my blood pressure pills, which has the tendency to cause fluid retention.

Naturally, my case has been assigned the highest possible priority, which explains why I got a letter in the mail yesterday, confirming my appointment for a cardiac ultrasound in June 2014.

Wow! An appointment for a cardiac echo in just nine months! I just knew it was something serious.

Mission Statement

Having recently retired from working in a field not unconnected with psychiatry, I want to test-bed some of the writing I did when I was an apprentice at my trade, and strike out in new directions. The things I enjoy writing now are comic fiction and a spy novel. As a nouveau bloggeur, I am so looking forward to le bloggage!

The mystery of poetry

When I was young, I would listen to the adults who occupied important positions in my enterprise, then I would try to decipher what they said. I was a very polite young lad and would never have dreamed of questioning their enthusiasm for Iwanderedlonelyasacloud, and I could just stomach themoonlikeaghostlygalleon. Later of course, as I was passing through the phase of a boy’s development usually called the early priapic, I had a brief period of infatuation with vaguely naughty stuff:

The boy stood on the burning deck,
His pockets full of barley,
A mouse ran up his trouser leg
and ate away his —-lie.

When I became more mature, I eschewed such childish frivolities. I was entering the late priapic and preferred things like:

Do you remember an inn, Miranda?
Do you remember an inn,
And the tedding and the spreading
Of the straw for bedding
And the fleas that tease, etc.
(I was really getting into the problems of Miranda’s lover, and his totally understandable preoccupation with getting into Miranda. . . )

I was in short getting to understand the mystery of poetry.
But wait! There was more!

Secretly, I was convinced that my adults were all psychotic, engaged in a huge conspiracy to have me swallow the outlandish proposition that ahostofgoldendaffodils made some kind of attractive image that would make me misty-eyed. Then one day, not that long ago, (passing through the delayed priapic), I came across two lines of poetry written some two thousand years ago.
These were part of the epitaph written by Marcus Valerius Martialis (aka ‘Martial’ ) for a six year old girl:

O Earth, Lie light upon these bones,
That were so light on thee!

Suddenly I was misty eyed!
I jumped to my feet and punched the air. I yelled, “That was beautiful!”
Then, when I had settled down, I said more quietly, “You bastards! Why didn’t you tell me?”

Memory games

I think I should report an ominous milestone. Today I received an email from one of my favourite people, myself. It was a simple message: “call rhea” and served to remind me to call the lady at the bank who takes all our money and converts it into money for us. You ask, why not just write a note (note to self. . . .)? Ah, yes, but when you not only forget to phone Rhea, but you forget where you put the pencil, then, having found the pencil, you can’t find the blasted piece torn off the Qualicum Beach News you were going to write your reminder on. And even, get this, if you miraculously find pencil and paper and remember what it was you wanted to remind yourself about, you like as not will not remember to read the reminder, or even remember where you put it. Actually, remembering that there was a reminder would be a victory of sorts.

Hence the new cunning plan: send myself an email!!!

I may forget my wife’s name, what I went to the kitchen for and the name of the guy who played the guy in that movie I liked but can’t remember the plot of, but I always read my emails every morning. Right now I am relaxing in the comforting glow of knowing there’s someone I have to phone at the. . . bank, right?

We seem to have settled in to our new house, and are enjoying the sunny microclimate which goes from Louise and Vic’s house to the mailbox. I am getting mysterious phone calls from guys called Wayne, who want to talk to Sylvia about an estimate. I mustn’t get them mixed up. There’s the Wayne for the sunroom, the other Wayne for the extra window we’re going to punch into the South wall, the one to demolish the old toolshed, and a fourth Wayne, who does excellent cedar fences. Oh, I forgot Wayne with the back-hoe who is going to dig us a hole for the new heron snack bar we’re building. Lots of projects. Hard to keep track of them all. (There was also Wayne for the new wood flooring, but he’s been and gone and installed the new floor, so we don’t need to call him any more.)

By the way, we are apparently on point for the massive bulge that we’ve been part of from birth– onwards. All these Waynes are complaining that this year is twice as busy as last year. Well, yes! there’s a flood of exhausted retirees flopping onto the sunny shores of Qualicum Beach like Coho salmon in the shallows of their birth creek. Next year, Wayne is definitely going to need an assistant.

I have just finished building myself a workbench in the garage. It looks quite nice and now I’ll have a place to store all my tools, and do all my little projects. Sylvia asked me yesterday (or was it Sylvia, or what’s her name?) what projects I had planned for my new DIY facilities, and I had to admit I couldn’t exactly recollect any, but that they would come back to me. I’ll send myself an email: “start project. buy spirit level” (I already have 3 spirit levels, but you can never have too many.)

And right now, before I forget, I’m going to call Wayne.

Oh. Yes, and Rhea!