Ghosts of Christmas

Christmas eve in 2014 was a Wednesday. The stock exchanges closed three hours early, so I was off work by noon. I took the elevator down from our 15th floor office and stepped out onto the bustling downtown streets. Quite a few people were getting their last-minute shopping done. The sun was out, so it was a nice day despite freezing air temperatures. There was hardly any snowfall that winter except in the mountains. On that particular Wednesday, the city’s sidewalks were frosted and glinting in the sunshine.

I bought takeaway pasta for lunch, and takeaway roast chicken for dinner later that evening. Then I returned to my motel room. I was staying at a motel because I’d had to leave my apartment rather suddenly. It took me five weeks to find a new one. The motel was decent, with cable TV, Wi-Fi, daily turndown service, and complimentary coffee and tea in every room. It sat at the base of a mountain and catered primarily to snowboarders and skiers.

I ate the pasta in bed. I alternated eating with fussing on my laptop, mainly hanging around sci-fi and Sherlockian community websites. I chatted with some folks about sci-fi TV shows, Sherlock Holmes, and other things besides. For instance we laughed over the episode of the BBC radio sitcom Cabin Pressure in which one of the characters sings the Christmas carol called God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen but his lyrics are “Get dressed, you merry gentlemen.” We chatted about the 1955 episode of Guild Films’ Sherlock Holmes in which the violinist Holmes says, “Let me play you a carol, Watson,” and the comedic sidekick responds with a facepalm. I exchanged warm messages with some people who were also on their own for the holidays. We chatted about the 1984 episode of Granada Television’s Sherlock Holmes in which Holmes and Watson share a festive Christmas meal after solving a case involving a blue gemstone. I exchanged warm messages with a few transgender folks and a few disabled folks. Some of them felt they were stuck in torturous celebrations with relatives who wished they were someone else. We chatted about the 2014 episode of the BBC’s Sherlock in which Holmes shouts, “Merry Christmas!” before shooting a villain dead. Eventually it was time for me to eat my roast chicken. Then eventually it was time to sleep.

The following day I watched the special Christmas episode of the BBC sci-fi show Doctor Who. But that wasn’t till the evening. I had a whole day to get through before then. I slept in, and I stayed off certain websites to avoid spoilers. (The episode aired in Canada seven hours after it aired in the UK.) I ordered Chinese food online. I listened to some radio plays online. I watched a TV episode or two on Netflix. I had a nap. Soon it was time to watch Doctor Who, then a few hours later, Christmas was over.

Friday was Boxing Day, another holiday. Around midday I walked to a Denny’s nearby and got myself enough greasy, delicious takeaway food for the whole day. I went back to my motel room, making sure that the Do Not Disturb sign still hung on the doorknob. After eating lunch, I stared at the room’s plain beige wallpaper and breathed. The king-sized bed felt way too large. Empty, even with myself in it. It occurred to me that I almost went through the whole of Christmas day without speaking. All I said was a “thank you” to the Chinese food delivery girl. I gave her a sizable tip.

Mid-afternoon. I closed my eyes. Outside my door, a family of holidaymakers walked cheerfully past. The sound of the children’s excitement and the parents’ laughter floated around my room, echoing long after the family had left. By late afternoon, the sound waves had coalesced into a solid, shiny, sharp object, which then flung itself towards me. It stabbed me in the gut. And the only thing wrong with this scenario, I thought, was that the knife wasn’t real.

Early evening. Judging by how the past few years had gone, I figured it would’ve made no real difference to anyone whether I was alive or dead. I tossed and turned in bed, feeling like I was bleeding from my phantom incision. The blankets wrapped themselves tightly around me, soaking up my invisible blood and making it difficult for me to move or breathe. Slowly but unrelentingly the blankets twisted, wringing my trapped body. My head turned beyond the range that my neck allowed. I started tasting acid, rising up from my belly. The acid must have been so strong that it tore at my throat, because the next thing I tasted was metal. I was dizzy. I felt pins and needles all over my skin. I knew what was about to happen. I’d been here many times before.

My skin took on a life of its own. It was attached to me, but it wasn’t a real part of me. Somehow, long ago, it simply forced itself upon me, enveloping me, intruding into my space. It closed around me, like a prison cell. I couldn’t escape it. It declared itself my constant companion. And now it was speaking; I didn’t know how. It suggested that I stop existing. It pointed out that the world wouldn’t miss me if I were gone. I agreed. Then it swore it would never leave me.

Emerging from amid the blankets, I lifted my head and watched the room turn dark and smoky. Cobwebs materialized. Insects crawled forth from every corner. The palpable murk surrounded me, cradled me. Then it merged with my estranged skin. Bugs crept beneath my epidermis. I wanted to slash my infested, alien skin over and over. It was driving me mad. I wanted it off of me. I was in a recurring nightmare from which I couldn’t wake. I wanted to escape it. I wanted to stab myself for real and die.

The room spun. I wobbled from the bed to the table. The plastic serrated knife from Denny’s did little more than draw dotted lines on my arms. Nothing else in the room was sharp enough to do damage; my psychiatrist would have been relieved. I fished for my pill bottles in my purse and swallowed a tablet of lorazepam. Minutes later, the fog in the room began to clear. My body started to right itself and relax. The new-found peace was glorious. I wanted more of it. So I took another tablet. And another. I swallowed all eight. I yearned for long-term peace. Or, failing that, permanent oblivion. I knew I didn’t have enough pills to die, but I consumed all the contents of the second bottle anyway. I was willing to settle for short-term unconsciousness. Anything but the waking nightmares. The second bottle had five weeks worth of bupropion. I passed out before long.

When I woke up, it was Sunday evening. I ordered pizza for dinner. The next morning I was back at work, writing financial news briefs like normal.

Lullaby

I see the same thing whether I open or close my eyes — black. Occasionally there’s a bit of grey, which gives the black an impression of depth that I can’t understand, as if there’s simultaneously a black wall right in front of me and one so far away, but I can’t touch either of them, and I can’t run towards them because there’s nothing, no walls, just black.

I’m kneeling on dry earth, and my hands are dropped to my sides and I can’t move them. I don’t feel any restraints but–

“Resist the urge to reach out.”

My phone lights up on the floor in front of me. I can’t move, I can’t get to it. Two seconds after the light startles me, I wonder: What was that voice?

“I’m your fortress, your depressurization chamber. I’m holding you here to protect you.”

“You don’t seem very comforting.”

“I didn’t say comfort, I said protect.”

I sit back on my heels. I feel tired. “Can I please keep them?”

“No.”

“But they love me.”

“Do I need to remind you of what happened the last time someone loved you?”

“No.”

“They said they’d see you through. They thought they could. You thought they could.”

“I remember.”

“And then it all became too much.”

“I remember.”

“And they walked away. And you felt so hurt that there was a constant tightening in your chest. And then you felt hollow.”

“Stop.”

“Shh, I’ve got you.”

I relax.

“I’m telling you, resist the urge to go to them. Come, lie down.”

And the dry earth is suddenly a carpeted floor, and I can move my hands again, but all I do is lie down and fold myself into fetal position. It is cold, but I trust my fortress to slowly warm the air around me. It’s never a quick process; it’s like turning on a rusty heater. There is never any immediate relief. I get that elsewhere.

“Don’t even think about it.”

“What?”

“You’re not going to shut me off by implementing one of your insane tactics for achieving immediate relief. What do you call it these days, mind blanking?”

“Fine.”

“Let me distract you. Think of the city. It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Remember when you’d leave your apartment at night just to walk around downtown? Catch a movie by yourself? Cross the bridge on foot? The mountains are beautiful, the waters are beautiful.”

“Thanks, but just stop. I’ll be fine, there will be no tactics. Your distraction isn’t working.”

“That’s because you still haven’t let them go. You know this won’t work if you don’t co-operate. I’m all you’ll ever really have.”

I fall asleep.

Apparently it’s a Frank Sinatra evening

I love how music (or art in general) can whisk me off to a different place and time. I’ve listened a few times now to The Night is Young and You’re So Beautiful and Strangers in the Night. (All titles link to Frank Sinatra versions on YouTube.) The room I’m in seems filled with the air of Old Hollywood, and everything is in greyscale, including the Mickey Mouse cartoon playing on the television. The setting is ripe for reminiscences.

When I was six, I had a small piano keyboard and a book of piano sheet music for beginners. Strangers in the Night was one of the first songs I learned to play (just the melody, since it was a book for beginners). Another song I remember playing from the book is The Girl from Ipanema. My grandfather liked Frank Sinatra.

I’m listening to The Way You Look Tonight now, and I’m thinking that it was a good job, figuring out how to play songs on the piano from a book at age six.

And now it’s Moon River playing, and I remember how every “that was a good job” came as “well of course you should always do a good job, otherwise what’s the fucking point of you? Are you just going to be a worthless piece of shit all your life?” 

Now it’s Are You Lonesome Tonight playing, and I know that that six-year-old girl won’t have any measure of self-worth until she’s much older.

And now it’s You’ll Never Walk Alone playing, and my heart aches for her.

Rick Rypien

Hockey player Rick Rypien, born in 1984, was found dead in his home on Aug. 15. The death was deemed sudden, but there is no suspicion of foul play. It is widely believed to be a suicide. He had been battling depression for years.

In the hockey world, he’s known for getting into fights against opposing team players. (Fighting is allowed in hockey, unlike in soccer. Hockey fighters would take off their gloves and then start punching their opponents. The game would pause until the end of the fight.)

There was an editorial cartoon in one of the local newspapers. It showed Rick Rypien on an ice rink, in his hockey gear. The stadium had no roof; you could see the sky. Among the clouds, this was written: “Keep your gloves on kid… You don’t have to fight anymore.”

With a glowing heart


This photo is from the Opening Ceremony. You can watch the whole thing by clicking this link. It’s over three hours long and the awesomeness is pretty spread out, but if you have just 30 minutes to spare, check out 1:25:05 to 1:54:50, which I think is the main performance segment. Watch for the whales, they’re my favourite. :)

Like practically everyone else in Vancouver right now, I’m in withdrawal from the Olympics. I still have a maple leaf temporarily tattooed on my cheek, and my friend who danced in the final number in the Closing Ceremony left a stroke of her face paint on. Now there are no more nightly free concerts, no more communal cheering for Team Canada, no more break from school. (In fact, I need to write two papers due tomorrow.) And for me, no more volunteering. No more granola bars and green apples. For 97 hours of volunteering, I got to watch the Opening Ceremony, as well as Barenaked Ladies and INXS concerts in Victory Ceremonies. I was in Operations Support, aka errands. Labeling, counting, cutting, laminating stuff. Going to the store to buy electrical tape. Bringing food for the rockstars. Bringing towels to their trailers. Closing curtains so that light doesn’t come in and ruin the shots. Telling people where to go. Telling people where not to go. (You can’t go this way because Michael Buble is right behind me, standing on top of a giant hat. Do you want me to kiss him for you?)

I’ve met some pretty amazing people. I like working on events because of the pace and the energy, and I especially enjoy working with or under the direction of people who exude grace under pressure. Last night for the Closing Ceremony, we helped clean up after twelve hundred 14-17 year olds who left half-eaten sandwiches and half-eaten apples on the floor and we were so disgusted, but then the kids started cleaning up, too. And they, on their own, began collecting unopened sandwich packs and asked if these could be donated to the homeless. That made my heart smile. These amazing people, these grace-under-pressure leaders, these kids with perspective, they win.

My volunteer ID hangs behind my door. I’m really going to miss this — the energy, the atmosphere, everything. <3

The Fisherman

I’m probably just dizzy, or dreaming. He turned and saw that the things around him were exactly as they were five minutes ago – his clothes, his fishing equipment, his boat, the lake, the park, the horizon. Yes, the horizon looks normal.

But just two minutes ago, he saw his boat tipping over the horizon, as if it were an insect crawling from one face of a cube to another. Although his entire belief system confirmed with certainty that the Earth is a sphere, he knew that it really happened. His boat really tipped.

The boat rocked a little, and he looked around to see if there was another boat on the lake. A running motor might have caused the disturbance on the water. What he saw instead was a boat exactly like his. There was a man aboard it. He froze when he realized that the man looked exactly like himself.

A Country On Its Knees (written June 2007)

I

“The Philippines’ flamboyant former first lady Imelda Marcos was acquitted of tax evasion [to the tune of 39.4 million pesos] Wednesday after a court ruled she did not receive any tax notices because she had fled into exile.”

Her defense implies that she didn’t know that she had to pay taxes. I’m sure that’s not true; and even if it is, ignorance of the law excuses no one from compliance. I can’t believe she won this case.

II

“Starting this school year, the Department of Education is implementing Executive Order No. 210, which calls for the use of English as the primary medium of instruction in public and private high schools. The order is aimed at improving the English proficiency of students and their chances of landing a job in call centers, a fast-growing industry in the Philippines.”

Grooming the children for call center jobs, really? Anyway, I would’ve let this intention slide if there were accompanying steps to improve the quality of instruction of English as well as the local languages, so that students will be proficient (and not half-baked) bilinguals. And speaking of quality of instruction, how about improving on science, math, and the rest of the subjects too? Especially for public schools.

III

The first buildings of the University of the Philippines in Diliman were positioned thoughtfully. The administration building was at the head. The library was at the heart, representing the desire for knowledge. On both sides of the library were the College of Engineering and the College of Arts and Sciences – the arms – because the arts and sciences should extend society’s reach. Next to them were the College of Law and the College of Education – the legs – because society should stand on justice and education.

So much for standing.

Home (written May 2007)

The East Indian woman turned to face the Caucasian man in the seat behind hers. “Did you fix the thing with your visa?”

“Yeah, I just had to give them some money.”

The woman was appalled. “How much?!”

His response was inaudible to me. There was an aisle between our seats. “It’s fine. I’ll just complain at the embassy when we land.”

“What did they say was the matter?”

“They said I overstayed because I’ve been here for over six months. But my visa’s valid for a year. I don’t get it.”

“Good thing you didn’t get into any trouble.”

“I paid them.”

I couldn’t help but overhear their conversation. The plane was still boarding; the headsets hadn’t been given out yet. I learned that the woman has a Caucasian father and an Indian mother. She’s on her way home to Vancouver, after her vacation in Manila. The man has kids in Alberta, and that’s where he was headed. His second wife lives in the Visayas, I think. Her Canadian visa has not yet been approved.

The woman told of how tuition fees in Vancouver have tripled in the last four years. I think she’s on her way to a second graduate degree. She jokingly calls herself a professional student. “I can’t believe how cheap it is to get a degree here! You can get by on 300! That’s nothing! That’s just a book to me! I’m paying 4,000 per semester!” Canadian dollars, I assumed. She said it’s stupid for Canadian universities to accept international students who were just gonna go back to their home countries to practice their professions. She said it’s even more stupid for the international students who do that, when it’s dirt cheap to get a degree in their home countries.

“Even food is cheap! We had a lavish dinner, complete with wine and everything, and we only spent 10,000 pesos [pay-sus]! The same meal would’ve cost 600 in Canada!” (The exchange rate is about 43 pesos per Canadian dollar.)

“Yeah, and they say that that’s expensive. I say, ‘you have no idea what’s expensive!’”

The woman’s brother was on the same flight, but in first class. The flight was overbooked, and one of them had to settle for economy. They stayed in an upscale hotel in Makati, at $350 a night. They were so upset about seeing callgirls all over the hotel. “I’m not paying 350 US [dollars] for that view! They were flaunting themselves at the lobby!”

“What did you do?”

“I went over to the receptionist and complained. It was upsetting! There was one Arab guy who checked in with four girls, all under the age of 20! And then my brother — he was getting a massage. The masseuse whispers, ‘for a couple more dollars, I can give you much more than a massage,’ and he was naked in the massage! How uncomfortable is that?!”

“You gotta respect, though, that it’s tolerated and accepted here.”

“Well, yeah, must be some culture thing.”

I wanted them to stop talking. I didn’t want any second-hand assessments of the country I grew up in, the country I was being forced to leave. (Seriously, don’t get me started.) I was relieved when the plane took off. The chit-chat stopped.

It resumed about an hour before touchdown.

“I heard that it rains a lot in the Philippines,” she said as she turned to face him again. “I guess we came at the best time.” It was mid-summer. “And you know one thing about the people? They’re all so nice. Generally, you know. If you ask for directions, they’ll give you the right directions. In Vancouver, if you ask for directions, they’ll send you to the other side of the city!”

“Yeah, and they all know how to speak English here.”

“Yeah. And the plumbing’s great, too. Do you have good plumbing where your wife lives?”

“There’s a well. It’s okay.”

“That’s good. Do you call your kids everyday? I talked to my mom on the phone for about an hour everyday. It’s so cheap to make a long-distance call from the Philippines, too!”

“Yeah, it is. But I mostly emailed my kids instead. There are a lot of internet cafes around.”

“Yeah. Well, I can’t wait to get home. You still have a connecting flight to Alberta, right? How long is your layover?”

“Four hours.”

“Wow. I live about half an hour from the airport. I can’t wait.”

It was my turn to see what their country was like. And it isn’t going to be a vacation. I’ll remember not to ask for directions.