When I was in Banff


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A year ago I developed what I’m sure others thought of as an annoying habit of starting sentences with, “When I was in Banff.”

It wasn’t just the humble-brag of the tourist who has just been to a place and judges the mundane familiar against the novel wonderful, though I’m sure others heard it that way, I could see it in the nearly visible eye-rolls each time the phrase left my lips.

What they failed to realize – and what I failed to adequately explain to them – was that the trip to Banff served as a dividing line between my old life as a secret writer and a new existence as someone with writerly ambitions that she dared speak out loud. I’d come out of the closet, as it were. The whole world changed while I was in Banff, but for me the important change was interior – it reset my clock.

For years before I applied to attend a two-week writing retreat at the Banff Centre for the Arts I told myself that what I needed in order to write was to be able to dial myself back to zero – slough off all the cares and woes of daily living, calm my brain down, and get to a place where all I needed to do was write. But vacations were for travel and even if I did manage to carve out a few days alone somewhere it wasn’t enough to clear my head, there was always something else to distract me, something I needed to do or felt I should be doing.

There was also the question of money. Even when I had it I found it hard to spend it to take myself somewhere private, especially after I bought my house. And it seemed the height of wastefulness to spend money to go somewhere and not take advantage of the trip by playing tourist.

This endless, circular argument about needing to be alone to write for more than a day or two, and where the money would come from and couldn’t it be better spent elsewhere, and was I going to use my limited vacation (which I should use to visit family and friends) just to be by myself to pander to this idea I had that I could write something worth reading, spun round and round in my head.

When I applied to the writing retreat I was saying a number of important things:

  1. I was ready to admit to the world that I thought I could write and had something to say
  2. I deserved to spend my money on myself
  3. I deserved to spend my vacation on myself
  4. That I believed in myself

People who hadn’t been listening to that argument in my head all those years can be forgiven for not understanding the conclusion, or what a huge step I was taking in my personal sphere. They couldn’t know that my acceptance letter from Banff made me cry because it meant that I was right about all of it. It was vindication, validation, justification – it meant someone else thought I had something to say too.

Banff is a magical place and I recommend it to everyone. I love the mountains and if I could drag the Rockies to my beloved East Coast I’d do so in a heartbeat and live there forever with the mountains at my back and the Atlantic at my feet and be perfectly content. The scale and grandeur of the mountains take my breath away. The mountains work in every season – I’d only previously been there in summer and fall, but even in March they’re enchanting, if cold. And the town is a little touristy jewel.

My cohort at the Banff Centre consisted mainly of younger, already-published writers, and I found them all intimidating as hell, but they didn’t question my right to be there and were impatient with the thought that I would. I’d been accepted into the writing program, I was therefore a writer. Full stop. We met up at mealtime and talked about writing and publishing and what we’d done that day and I quietly gloried in being with people who understood how my mind works.

Strangely, once I was there I wasn’t able to make it work for me, not entirely. I worried that I had to make it count – I didn’t take daily walks into town like some of my cohort, didn’t go to the evening events or hang out at the bistro. I’m so easily distracted I worried that if I stepped off my path in the slightest I would get hopelessly lost. I got up early in the morning, made my breakfast (instant oatmeal with banana), worked until noon, went for an extended lunch, worked until 6 then went for a long supper, then came back and worked until 9. Some days I napped a little, a couple of days I went for short walks, but mostly I stayed in my room at my desk. I checked email before 9 a.m. and after 9 p.m. I stayed off the internet.

And I did not write. I’d been working on a novel for 11 years at that point, working in those glory times when I wasn’t paralyzed by writer’s block or whatever other excuses I had (slot bad feng shui in there, but a major reason was also that I didn’t know what I’d say when someone asked what I was doing, so I didn’t do it so I wouldn’t have to be put in the position of admitting that I thought I could write and had something to say). I’d started taking advantage of having an office door at work to spend my lunch hour writing scenes (as long as they’re just scenes it’s just practice, they don’t have to fit anywhere, so there’s no pressure) so I spent the first few days going through what I’d already written, and figuring out where those scenes might go in the larger work. I was oddly stymied by the realization that I’d failed to transcribe one possibly pivotal scene from one of my many notebooks. I couldn’t recreate it and couldn’t seem to move on knowing it was done. I spent quite a bit of time that first week finding something to present at the reading Friday night, and practising reading it, timing it obsessively, reworking and rewriting until it was a polished gem and my delivery of it was perfect.

And then they sent us home. Eight days into the program they told us to leave as soon as possible. By then COVID-19 was all anyone could talk about, the people in my cohort discussed their fears and anxieties about travel and lockdowns interminably. The buffet-style restaurant where we ate our communal meals first put out hand sanitizer, then handed us our plates instead of letting us take them from racks, and then started serving us instead of letting us serve ourselves, all to limit contact. It was just a matter of time before they sent us home, everyone knew it – everyone but me. I remained wilfully oblivious to the inevitability.

The day they told us the program was ending I couldn’t work. I took a walk around the campus and spent a great deal of time leaning against a fence, looking at a mountain and crying. I’d finally made this great personal leap only to have the rug pulled away from my landing spot. The universe had finally given me what I’d wanted and I’d wasted it by not actually writing very much new material – I’d been working for days but I’d polished more than I’d cut – and then it had said, sorry, you can’t have it after all.

That was Monday. On Wednesday I flew home. On Thursday I slotted in the missing episode and by Sunday I’d finished my first draft. I was full of resentment and my stomach was grinding and I was depressed as hell but I’d done what I’d set out to do two weeks earlier.

There’s an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where Buffy, having died to save the world at the end of the previous season, is brought back to life by well-meaning friends who are certain she’s trapped in a hell dimension. They perform a ritual at her gravesite but leave when it appears not to have worked. Buffy digs her way out of her grave, dazed and confused by the noise and violence of the world to which she has returned. She’s traumatized because, as we learn later in the season, she’d been in heaven and had been dragged back into hell.

And that’s essentially how I felt for months after I came back from Banff, which for me represented good times, feeling like I was with my true people, living a life that required nothing of me but to do the thing I love best in the world, and not having to explain that joy or justify the selfishness of taking the time and spending the money. And then I was back at work, stressed and depressed, trying to readjust, trying to pivot each day to meet the new challenges that COVID-19 was throwing at me and failing miserably. I was lucky to have a job and to be able to work from home but working from home made every task harder than it would have been in the office, it all took longer, was more frustrating. Leaving the house to run errands was another sort of hell. It’s been more than a year since I’ve left the house more than once or twice a week, or gone much further than the local grocery store.

Through it all the universe has continued to toy with me. I sent the book out to beta readers, most of whom loved it. My would-be mentor from Banff introduced me to her agent and after a month in which I suffered some of the worst anxiety attacks of my life the agent agreed to represent me and my novel. It was so surreal – doesn’t the agent thing usually take longer? – I didn’t know how to tell people about it, so I didn’t, mostly. Then the book sold, but it was impossible to celebrate during lockdown, so I missed that milestone too. It was all so much easier than it should have been, but harder at the same time. The universe once again was giving me exactly what I wanted but making sure I couldn’t enjoy it.

Before Banff I was one thing, after Banff I am another, but I haven’t been able to process what that is yet. I have a completed novel that readers have assured me is good, a book deal, a publication date, all of which should be making my soul sing but on the other side there’s this low hum of anxiety and depression that suck the joy out of everything. I fantasize about hosting a party to celebrate my book deal (six months later at this point) and doing a reading and getting hugs and bisous and feeling lifted by my friends’ joy in my good fortune, in my own joy at having revealed my true self, finally, without equivocation.

I didn’t find exactly what I was looking for in Banff. I dream of going back again without the pressure I put on myself the first time, knowing that if I took a little walk into town or went with some of my fellow writers to the bistro in the evening I would still be a writer when I got back to my room, I would still be able to call myself that, would be able to pick up where I left off. I think I would still reference my time there after I returned, “when I was in Banff,” not in the sense that the world had changed while I was there, but in that normal touristy “I’ve just been somewhere great and now everything else palls,” way. Or maybe I’ll find a retreat somewhere else that will give me the same sort of reinforcement that I am a writer and deserve to take my time to myself. The person I became in Banff acknowledges the possibility.

The salad, tossed

English is weird when it comes to articles. It’s neither as prissy about them as French, which requires the speaker to know the sex of every noun, nor as laissez-faire as Russian, which has no articles at all. To the native speaker at least it seems so totally casual, all “drop in anytime,” that you can be tricked into thinking you don’t need to call first. But there is both a science and an art to articles. And I still remember my first lesson in this.

I was in my teens, reading a Harlequin romance (probably a Harlequin Presents — it was one step past the traditional Harlequins, there was still going to be a massive age difference between hero and heroine, but they were likely to kiss at least once before declaring everlasting love). There was some discussion about dinner. The hero prepared steaks while the heroine “started to make the salad.”

That “the” tripped my brain. It stuck out like a sore thumb. Had they discussed a salad? I looked back. No, they hadn’t. I looked back some more to other meals. Had they established a pattern of eating salad at every meal? No, they hadn’t. At that time I knew very few people who did, which is probably another reason why that sentence stuck out.

It wasn’t “the” salad, then, it was “a” salad. She started to make “a” salad.

To some of you this will not seem like an epiphany. But I am not now nor have I ever been someone who embraces the rules of grammar. I learned some important ones by osmosis, and got away with errors because I was more well-spoken than just about anyone in my cohort at school, because I used big words, and because I could write engagingly. I have failed spectacularly at any attempt to learn grammar in other languages. It’s like math to me (the only two subjects I’ve ever tried to learn — I won’t say master — were math and grammar and both nearly ruined me).

That said, I do notice bad grammar, but that sentence wasn’t grammatically incorrect, it was grammatically incongruous. It lacked continuity. It was a more object lesson in the proper use of articles in a sentence than any I’d ever been taught in school.

Speaking of grammar and the proper use of words, did you know there are rules for the proper placement of adjectives in a sentence? This article from The Guardian is an oldie but a goodie.

Deep background

You may have noticed dear readers, that I haven’t written for a while. I’m trying to find my way back in, still. This is probably background to my WIP, because one of the things I’m trying to do is keep the exposition to a minimum — I want the world to be a fait accompli, understood and accepted as it is, without a lot of discussion as to how it got that way. And there’s far too much exposition here. Part of this is me trying to figure out my character, who she is, how she came to be. I’m finding her rather one-dimensional, I need to know that there’s more to her. So this is called “How to be alone for 10 years (without really noticing)”

And if you come and read, please leave a comment.

In my grade 12 yearbook, each student in the graduating class was asked to name his or her favourite saying. I wrote “le temps passe inexorablement.” It wasn’t anything close to my favourite saying, which was probably obscene and unpublishable, but it sounded erudite and grown-up and, above all, French, which to me epitomized erudition and adulthood. It was a line from a pop song I’d learned that summer, my own “ne regrette rien,” and to me it spoke of the futility of fighting time – no matter what I did to stop it, or to hurry it along, time would pass at exactly the rate it wanted to and no faster, but it would in fact pass, and so, too, would “this,” as promised. The river is never the same twice.

If I have a guiding philosophy, I suppose that’s it. If I wait out the bad things they will pass, if I fail to enjoy the good things they will pass, no matter what I do or don’t do, in fact, it will all pass, my having done or not done will have had no impact.

And I guess that’s how I , who believed in nothing outside of myself, found myself alone for 10 years, waiting for the invisible hand of something to change my lot in life, or maybe I just accepted that this is what life was now. Honestly, when I tell you the better part of those 10 years passed by in a blur, that I can’t remember them in minutes or hours, I’m not being disingenuous. Time was being itself, passing inexorably, and my life — my existence — was marching in tandem with it without having any relation to it. I wasn’t  this passive before Henny Penny, I couldn’t have been. It must be one of the scars left by the virus.

It’s not that I didn’t mark the time, I did. I had a job, the job had to be done. I woke up each day, ate, bathed, sat down at my desk, logged in and said good morning two or three times a week into the microphone to my editor. Sometimes we had long conversations, sometimes not. I generally didn’t turn on the camera, had no interest in showing my face to the world.

I worked for hours on end every day. Writing, researching, reading my fan mail — I didn’t get a lot, but I got some. I rarely responded. When you’re that isolated, it’s hard to start a conversation with strangers — I dreaded getting into a correspondence with someone who didn’t interest me. I can’t explain that in a way you will understand, because in a drought any liquid should be welcome, right? And yet… I was good at the kind of writing I was doing, but I had no pride in it. It was a job, not a calling. Journalism had been my calling, politics, and then it nearly killed me and then, for a while, there was no more journalism. In the early days of Henny Penny, the virus was all anyone cared about, and when the newspapers stopped publishing, the government, then the regency, took over. It still hasn’t come back completely, and the regency still controls what there is of it. And no one has smelled ink on newsprint in a very, very long time. But so. I was left with no marketable skills other than writing but I needed to work. When they came to me to write a book about Henny Penny, I did that gladly — or as gladly as you can do something that revisits the worst days of your life. And then Bob suggested serialized fiction, making me the Charles Dickens of the apocalypse, and I took that on too.

So between the endless updates to the book — it’s online, and I’m still collecting information and rewriting, it’s how I fulfil my volunteer obligations under the regency — and my daily obligation to the paper, I kept busy and, inexorably, time passed. Whether I noticed or not.

We all mark the passage of time in our own ways, but mostly we do it by the changes in people and things around us. We can tell the passage of time in nature by whether it’s green grass or snow on the ground, whether the tree is taller than your shoulders or above the roofline. Children are great for marking time because their progress is measurable — they can lift their heads, sit up, crawl, walk, run, speak, argue, reach puberty, reach adulthood — and there’s 20 years. Ask parents where those years went and see if they can answer you.

It’s inexorable, time. It passes and doesn’t require me to notice.

Living alone, I stopped bothering, for the most part, with mirrors. There hardly seemed to be any point. At first all I’d see was this sad woman, wasted by her fight with a disease that had killed everyone she’d ever cared about. The initial sadness passed, but that lingering low-level grief — that depression — never went away and I didn’t care to look into mirrors so I couldn’t measure the passage of time by what I saw there, the increasing amount of grey in my hair, the new wrinkles on my face. Every so often when I was out on one of my infrequent trips for food and supplies I’d catch a glimpse of myself in a plate-glass window and would stop and stare, startled at what I saw there. But that would just tell me that a good deal of time had passed since the last time I’d looked — in the moment-to-moment time, in the day-to-day time, I would see no changes. I only saw it in retrospect.

But 10 years, you ask. Ten years without significant human contact? How  can anyone not notice that?

Welll, I wasn’t living years, was I? I was living days. One day at a time. And I was filling those days. I had a purpose, a mission. I had a reason to get out of bed.

Evenings were harder, especially once the electricity became dependable and I didn’t just go to bed when it got dark, but stayed staring into my empty rooms, if there was nothing to write just then, or to read, or to watch, nothing to occupy my mind. That’s when I’d feel the absences bite, that’s when they crawled into my head and slithered around, and I’d cry, or make a plan to actually go into the office and see a human face — or as much of another’s face as I could see with the masks — and not just another human, but someone who knew who I was. Because I did see humans, every time I left the apartment, though that wasn’t often, but strangers didn’t meet your eye, they didn’t want to know. And I didn’t want to know from strangers, either.

So some nights when I was unwise enough to stop doing something long enough to notice the time passing and leaving me alone, to see the bare walls of my builder’s beige apartment, a place with so little of me on display that anyone could have lived there, I’d either succumb to the gloom or make plans. But in the light of day there was always a reason not to follow through — I’d need a haircut or new clothes to go out into public. I didn’t know anyone at work any more except Bob. Fear of the unknown.

Le temps passe inexorablement.

I was living in my head, too, creating people and places and sunshine and the tinkle of ice in tall glasses and conversation. A person with a good imagination can be alone, but not lonely for — well, years on end, apparently. This is going to sound bizarre but I would hold conversations with my characters. I would always cast myself in one of the main roles — I think every writer does, to a certain extent — and I would have conversations, I would care about what happened. The story would be both a play I was writing and one I was acting in.

Even before Henny Penny it would often happen that I couldn’t distinguish reality from what went on in my head, couldn’t remember whether I’d dreamt a thing or daydreamed it, or actually experienced it. I’d have to take my cues from others, what they knew or said. “I may be making this up,” I’d say, and people would laugh, but I’d be dead serious, because I wouldn’t know. I’d frantically check the internet to confirm or deny what I was sure was real but couldn’t prove. And gratifyingly often it was in fact real, so I didn’t worry too much about it. But then when I had to immerse myself in the fictive — all bets were off.

When I thought about it — and I did think about it — I guess I figured that everyone else was in the same situation as me, or close enough. I knew that some people, like Bob, hadn’t lost everyone, but I know that they were a definite minority. And I figured the rest of us poor buggers were, like me, sitting alone in our apartments, working, waiting either to die or for the world to get better, but needing someone else to take the first step to improve our lot. I might ponder the possibilities of starting a dating service for widows and orphans, for example, but I ‘d never do it. You were there, you remember the paranoia, the fear that one wrong move could be enough to to kill you. Hell, remember it — we’re all still wearing these masks and gloves, aren’t we? There’s been a working vaccine for how many years and we’re all still wearing the masks and gloves. Even though every door we walk through has its own nuker to kill any free-riding germs. And everything we learned before the pandemic tells us that’s a bad idea, we’re reducing our natural immunity to ridiculously low levels by not exposing ourselves to germs but we’re all so damned scared of getting a sniffle that, ironically, actually getting one might kill us.

And you want to hear something really crazy? I started working some of that idea — that someone needs to get the ball rolling on changing the mask and glove laws — into the pieces I was writing. I set one whole storyline around the world post-mask-and-glove, about a year ago. And you know wheat? Bob wouldn’t publish it. Too inflammatory, he said. The regency had been cracking down on the petting zoos and teenagers were going maskless at raves and getting colds, a couple had died — it wasn’t the time to talk about relaxing the laws, he said.

So I feel my paranoia was at least somewhat justified.

But I should have asked more questions. I know that now. I should have paid more attention to the world around me. Should have taken more initiative. Let  me start a list: Things I should have known/said/done that I realize in retrospect. Depression though — I find it takes away your will to act, even if in your non-depressed life you would have been a can-do kind of person.

If I’d thought about it, of course, I would have known that there world could simply not have continued to function if everyone had holed themselves up in their homes the way I did. I had electricity, for crying out loud. I had running cold and sometimes hot water, heat, a working internet, and after the first couple of years of scrounging and lining up for food rations, access to food.  When I went outside I saw people walking, biking, driving cars — not many of those, mind, gas was still strictly rationed and there weren’t a lot of parts to be had when they broke down — I knew the world  had continued to turn, even if in my own little world it had stopped.

I guess  I knew that. What I didn’t understand was that people had kept moving too. Despite their fear, despite the ludicrous masks, people continued to meet and fall in love and talk into the night, becoming 3 a.m. philosophers over bootleg vodka. They continued to die too, and they were mourned and life went on. That’s the connection I didn’t make. Take food, for instance. We all owe a certain amount of volunteer labour each year to the regency — because I was a knowledge worker and had been hit hard by the virus, making physical labour difficult, I use mine to work on my book; some people go and work on a farm. I knew they did that, knew that they had to interact with other people to do that, and somehow I thought they did so without really talking to each other and then went to their empty homes alone at the end of the day.

That life could be different, that’s what I didn’t see, living inside my head as I did, not meeting other people except for the performance of commerce. All my stories were set in the past or the far future, idyllic times when people met and talked and loved and DID things, heroic, interesting, risky, ridiculous things, they took action to improve their worlds, while for me time just kept passing, inexorably.

Ten years.

That’s how that happens.

The blink of an eye.

Draft Chapters 1 and 2

Note from the author: This is about the fourth or fifth time that I’ve re-started this story. This time I changed the character’s name, occupation, and even the narrative voice. I’m not certain I’m comfortable with any of this, I actually like third-person better. But I needed something to jump-start me and I thought this might do the trick. I may have to go all George R. R. Martin and have different characters tell different parts of the story, I haven’t decided that yet. Please post in the comments and tell me what you think.


As soon as I heard about the third bonnelly in a month I expected a call, and sure enough, a day or so later, there it was. Everybody into the office.

It was probably time — past time, really, but I’d become so used to working at home that the rigamarole associated with actually leaving my apartment and making my way into an office every morning threw me. I didn’t know how offices worked any more — how did that many people hang out in one space without killing each other?.

But the bonnellies were getting out of hand and the word had obviously come down from on high that this was the way to combat the madness. The last one, a woman, had only killed herself, which was a blessing. Men tended to take a few people with them, like Johnny Bonnell had.

I still shuddered at what Bonnell had done to that family but truth be told, much as the idea of just travelling to and from the office scared me —  yeah, I knew Henny Penny had been beaten and the vaccine and the BLT laws made the world outside my apartment as safe as it could be, but my brain was having a hard time convincing its inner lizard that I could be in a room with people and not die —  I was closer than I’d have admitted to  an act of auto-bonnellification. I mean, I could shake my head with the best of the net pundits at the people who couldn’t handle it, voice my scorn at their weakness and vow I’d never show that fragility of character myself, but when it came right down to it, I knew exactly where they were coming from and I’d suffered enough long dark teatimes of the soul in the past 10  years to know that the only thing that stood between me and that crowd was cowardice, and maybe lack of access to opiates — plus an enduring fear that I’d kill myself and no one would notice for weeks and weeks and I’d be some puffy, gaseous mess (or worse still, mummified, because it could be that long before anyone thought to look for me), stinking up the place and looking like hell when they found me.

And a tiny smidgen of backward optimism — a curious certainty that the day after I killed myself things would change, get better, and I’d have just missed it.

But if that was going to happen, if anything was going to change, I needed to get over my fear of people.

For starters. The other thing, the thing that drove Bonnell and all those others mad, had been nibbling away at the corners of my psyche for a long time, even before Henny Penny if truth be told, so maybe I was better equipped to deal with it than some. But back then I had hope. And even though Neitzsche said hope is the cruellest thing, I say lack of hope rips you apart. If you’re lucky, or, as I said, inured to it, you can shut down enough to continue anyway. For a while, at least. If you’re not, you go insane. Maybe not Bonnell insane, but mad enough to matter.

Funny how when there’s no scarcity you can live without touch for years — perhaps not fully, perhaps not happily, but you can do it because the prospect is always right outside your door, or at the very least right around the corner. Theoretically you can always find a likely somebody and invite that person to touch you and they’ll take you up on it and la la la, life is fine and you go on with it, either with that person or not. That wasn’t precisely how it worked for me before Henny Penny, but something like that happened often enough that I never exploded with despair. Now that it can’t happen — now that I barely open my door and go through it — it’s all I can think about. The lack, the absence. Ten years after Henny Penny was wrestled to the ground, people are  still dying, but this time for want of physical human contact, instead of because of it. And I didn’t want to be one of them.

But fuck, that first step…

And it was going to have to be a literal step, because while gas rations weren’t a problem — I hadn’t used my car in ages — I had a flat tire that was going to take forever to get fixed, and my bike chain was broken, with the same prognosis for repair. The regency had put extra cars in the fleet to accommodate the influx of at-home workers needing a ride, but there was no guarantee that I wouldn’t have to share and I couldn’t bring myself to book one, commit myself to sitting in a closed space with another person.

That first morning I looked at myself — judged myself — in a way I hadn’t bothered with in years.My wardrobe, my hair, my nails, the  full pelt on my legs — all of them proclaimed me an at-home worker. I cut my hair myself, and the result was as could be expected. I’d started to go grey but  had never really paid attention to what it looked like — we see ourselves at least partly through others’ eyes, and when no one you care about is there to see you, you become a bit blind to the things you care about others caring about. Some people go grey in a pretty way. I am not one of them. A carb-heavy diet proclaimed itself from my middle and thighs and skin. My clothes were new because they had to be — or at least they were relatively new and very rarely worn because I hated the virus-impervious fabrics that were all we were allowed to wear in public any more. No matter what the fabric had started life as — cotton, linen, silk — its pores were clogged with some substance that rejected the free riders that had killed so many people 10 years ago. I had no idea whether they were in fashion, but fortunately I’d never given a shit. Did anyone even care about being in fashion — did such a thing even exist — after Henny Penny? I honestly didn’t know.

I thought about makeup but my lipsticks and eyeshadows were all dry and cracked, and my foundation smelled vaguely rotten. Just as well, no one was going to see my face anyway. Or my fingernails.  I’d never been a girly girl, although I suppose if I had been I maybe would have found a way — or a reason — to find these things.

I slid the elastics of the mask behind my ears, pulled on my gloves, shucked into my backpack, which held my laptop, my wallet and my lunch and a book to read at lunchtime, took a deep breath and opened the door. And screamed, scaring the hell out of the neighbour I hadn’t expected to see walking past my door at that moment. I’d never laid eyes on her before, and I apologized as she scurried past, not stopping to become better acquainted. Another person not used to the morning commute.

The thing about being an at-home slug is you — obviously — don’t get out a lot. But since you move easily around your own environment you don’t consider the ramifications of that lack of activity. I hadn’t gone much further than the corner market, where I bought my food and other necessities of life, in ages. Every so often I’d get an urge to get out and walk around but the panic attacks — or if not a full-on attack, the endless second-guessing about the wisdom of my actions — would always start within a few blocks and I’d high-tail it home again.

Why I thought I’d be fine walking the five kilometres to the office … (slaps self in forehead) Or that it would only take me half an hour… Sedentary people don’t think of themselves as sedentary, they think of themselves as prospective athletes who are just taking a break. Unless there’s an actual disability. I wasn’t much of an athlete before Henny Penny, and after it wasn’t much of a walker (see above) or even a cyclist, and yet for some reason five kilometres in 30 minutes seemed eminently doable for the first five blooks. I was so miserable for the rest of it that I barely noticed my surroundings. There weren’t many people and not much traffic, despite the back-to-work edict. Relatively speaking of course. I felt positively terrorized by the number of people on the sidewalk with me, but pre-Henny Penny it would have been a quiet Sunday walk. True to the nature of the city, though, no one met another’s eye, or said hello. Even a world-changing pandemic can’t change human nature. And the masks meant we couldn’t smile at each other even if we’d been so inclined. We were supposed to be going to work to feel less isolated, and I was feeling more isolated than I did alone in my apartment — water, water everywhere and nary a drop to drink. It was  a cruel tease.

My office was still in the pre-pandemic space — on the third floor of a five-storey building downtown. It was a fortuitous floor in a good address — low enough to be useful when the elevators weren’t working; and close enough to the city centre to have continued to be serviced all through the pandemic and its aftermath. I stood in the stairwell halfway up the last flight of stairs, panting, hoping no one would come along and catch me.

Finally I had enough control of my lungs to open the door. I stood still while the blue light of the nuker ran up and down my body, then stepped inside the office and greeted the new — to me — receptionist.

‘Hi, I’m Lily King,’ I said.

‘Lily! Hi! I’m Ellen,’ she said, excited, jumping up and for a minute I thought she was going to hug me, but she stopped herself short of that. ‘Nice to finally get to meet you in person.’

‘You too,’ I said. ‘Nice to finally put a face to the name of the person who makes sure I get paid. Half a face anyway.’

Half a face, but what a face. Ellen had obviously had no trouble finding makeup — the half of her face that was visible above her mask was elaborately made up to look like a Venetian carnival mask, with dramatic shading and gold glitter everywhere.

Ellen laughed. ‘It’s been like a parade this morning, all these people I’ve been emailing for years, getting to meet them. Bob did an orientation for them but … You’re a little late…’

‘Yeah,  I walked and didn’t realize how long it would take.’

‘Want me to show you to your office?’

‘Oh.’ I was nonplussed. ‘I have an office?’

‘We had them built – the pods really didn’t work any more. We needed doorways for the nukers, and since there were so many fewer people…

‘Sure, sure….’  Life had gone on while I wasn’t there. Silly of me not to think of that. I followed as she led me to an office down a long hallway that was in the middle of what had once been our open-plan, bustling newsroom. Doors along the hallway were closed.

Ellen looked around and shrugged apologetically. ‘As much of the stuff that you left here that we could save is all here,’ she said. ‘The chair’s new, of course, and everything’s gone through the nuker.’ She gestured for me to enter and as I did the nuker inside my office door ran me up and down. ‘Every office has them. The supply cupboard is across the hall and the kitchen is where it always was.’

She looked around again. ‘Why don’t you get settled and I’ll tell Bob you’re here.’

I sat in my new chair — leather, of course — and surveyed the space. Same desk, but the drawers were mostly empty. A couple toys, a few pens, a pair of reference books that someone, Ellen probably, would have had to painstakingly nuke page by page. All of my files had been scanned onto portable storage ages ago; everything I needed to do the job I’d been doing for the past 10 years was either on my laptop or in my head.

Henny Penny had done me a favour in a roundabout way — after I burned out and nearly died covering the pandemic, I came back to a world that didn’t really need my services. Or there were other people better equipped to provide them, not as traumatized as I had been. But what it turned out there was need for was storytelling. And I could do that — had always wanted to do that, and now my former employer was willing to pay me to do that. Circle closed. I became a Charles Dickens for the post-Henny Penny age, writing stories that were serialized weekly in net zines and journals, most of them about a magical time when the world hadn’t been terrorized by a pandemic that had taken a huge chunk out of its population. That doesn’t take a lot of research.

I’d known war reporters who’d needed more than one brush with death to deter them from their course, but that’s all it had taken for me. I missed news — I missed the newsroom, more like, the back-and-forth between interesting people doing interesting things, the adrenaline, the feeling that you had your finger on the pulse of something alive. But storytelling was safer. My mind wasn’t about to kill me — except maybe in the very darkest hours before dawn, and so far I’d managed to best it.

‘Lily!’ Bob was in the doorway. ‘I’d give you a hug but … I’ll do this instead.’ He lifted his gloved fingertips to his mask (plain, unlike Ellen’s) gave a loud smack then mimed sending a kiss my way.

‘That’s probably the most sterile bit of affection I’ve ever received,’ I said, returning the virtual embrace.

Bob stood for the nuker then came in and sat down in my guest chair. ‘So?’

‘This is very weird.’

‘Ten years is a long time, kid. You should have come back ages ago.’

‘Yeah, well… you know.’

‘I know. How’ve you been keeping? What are you doing for fun these days?’

‘Did the regency tell you to ask that?’

‘Yes, as a matter of fact, though you weren’t supposed to be able to tell. I’m also interested.’

‘You’re the only person I’ve been in constant contact with since …’ I waved my hand, a gesture meant to encompass the past decade. ‘Believe me, if I’d had anything to tell I’d have told you. I stay home, I eat pasta, I write stories on deadline, and I watch serials on the net.’

‘Jesus Lily.’

‘Why, what do you do that’s so different? There are no restaurants, there’s no theatre, no one’s making movies…’

What I didn’t say, the words that lay between us on my perfectly bare desk were, ‘and everybody’s dead.’

‘I come to work, I see people… My wife and kids — we have a life. We even have a social life, a small one. People we trust.’

‘Yes, well.’ I shrugged.

‘You can’t have no one,’ Bob said, appalled. ‘What about…’ and then that penny dropped and he remembered that my friends from the newsroom were dead, and maybe he even remembered me telling him that my best friend had simply disappeared a few months after the BLT laws were enacted, saying she couldn’t take it anymore. She went to ground and I hadn’t heard from her since. ‘You never found her?’ he asked, finally.


‘Jesus, Lily…’

‘What else does the regency want you to find out about me?’

‘Well, that was actually the most important thing. And now that I know it, I am required to send you to a therapeutic touch clinic. And you’re going to have to go at least twice a week.’

‘Therapeutic touch clinic?’

‘The regency just finished a pilot program, they’re actually very effective. They’re rolling them out across the country now. It’s essentially a massage.’

‘You’re kidding me.’

‘Nope. A massage by a licensed practitioner, courtesy of the regency. Everyone without an intimate in their life is required to attend at least once a week; people who’ve had no intimate contact in the last year or more must go twice a week.’

‘They think that getting strangers to rub people down will stop the bonnellies?’

‘The results of the pilot project were very promising.’

‘Jesus, Bob.’

‘You’re going. And you’re going to write about the experience for me.’

‘Am I?’

‘The regency wants us to get the word out.’

‘So even if I don’t like it I can’t say so?’

‘Call it an advertorial. But I don’t think it will be a problem. I even went to one. It was nice.’

‘So now that I’m back you want me to start reporting again?’ A little chill of fear ran through me at the thought.

‘Depends on what you want to do. Your stories are still the most popular thing we run so I’m in no rush to put an end to them. On the other hand, I have an idea for a series and I think you’d be perfect to write it. We’ll talk in a few weeks, after you’ve settled in.’

‘OK.’ Bob got up to leave. ‘How many came back today?’

‘You’re one of eight people who’s been working from home more or less full time. We’ve had five or six in the office all along.’

‘Anyone I know?’

Bob shook his head. ‘A couple of bylines you might be familiar with, but no one you’ve ever worked with.’

‘Great. And they’re all kids, I suppose.’ Even 10 years ago I’d been one of the oldest reporters in the newsroom, only Bob and a couple of the other editors had any real time on me.

‘Mostly,’ Bob smiled. ‘You can be momma Lily, mentoring all the cub reporters.’

‘If I had anything on my desk to throw at you, I’d throw it…’

Bob scurried out the door. ‘Settle in, and I’ll take you around to meet them later. And Ellen will let you know when your first touch clinic appointment is. There’s one in the building, so it’s all easy-peasy.’ Bob shut the door on the way out.

I sat back in my chair and closed my eyes. Between the walk, and the terrors of the walk, and talking to Ellen and Bob, I’d had more interactions with people in the past two hours than I’d had in a decade, and I was exhausted, my brain dry and limp from the effort. And I was going to have to meet more people later. And I was going to have to do this every day. ‘Kill me now,’ I said, which was, you know, ironic.

Chapter 2

That was no massage.

I’d had massages, used to get them regularly, nice long deep-tissue explorations of my shoulders and back, usually not bothering with legs and feet because all those hours of sitting hunched over a computer keyboard made the back the target — sometimes the gluteus maximus if I felt like shaking it up a bit. I’d get off the table an hour later a little quivery, a little spacey, blissed out from the endorphin release and smiling every time I moved and it felt like my muscles were bruised. That to me was the sign of a successful massage.

That was no massage.

I sat in my new leather chair behind my new desk in my new office and tried to write about the experience I’d just had at the therapeutic touch clinic and collapsed into tears again. I’d never been violated like that, ripped open and exposed in all my vulnerability, all my tendernesses open to the air.

Jesus, how was I going to write about that?

I’d had to go up to the fifth floor for my appointment. After walking through the nuker I followed directions into a room with beige walls, a sink, a massage table — just the table with its hard leather surface, no sheets or pillows. The dim lighting and soft music were the only holdovers from my therapeutic massage experiences in the past.

The receptionist had told me to leave my mask and gloves on and when the technician came in she was similarly covered. She told me that she would remain that way throughout the procedure. I got on the table fully clothed except for my shoes, and lay down on my back. ‘Close your eyes,’ she said, and I did.

And then she touched me.

And it wasn’t a massage, in fact I’d been disappointed when she told me to lay down on my back instead of on my stomach, where most therapeutic massages start out, but I soon realized that this was not a massage at all. She just touched me. Bursts of warmth against my clothes and skin. At first it was simply a laying-on of hands, she’d rest them in a spot, let that spot grow warm, and then move them to another spot, which might or might not be adjacent, and warm it up, and then move again.

I was tense when I went in, not knowing what to expect, but with each little warming I relaxed a bit more, I opened a bit more. I did that. Five minutes in I had laid myself bare, had let down the walls that had been inviolate for a decade, that had protected me from the reality of my situation, from the true extent of my loneliness and my unwanted solitude, and she crossed over the rubble and touched my weaknesses. Standing at the head of the table she started stroking lightly down my arms. Then she had me roll over and she started again on my back, stroking lightly, rhythmically, and I started thinking, ‘this is where I begin, and this is where I end. I go this far and no further. I am here.’ And that was a mind-blowing thought. I mean, I’d been me, and I’d been there all along, but somewhere I’d lost of my sense of ‘I’ and the physical space of my being. And being reminded that I was I and I was here and that SOMEONE ELSE HAD TAKEN NOTE OF MY PRESENCE … I just curled up into a ball and … bawled. Cried like I hadn’t cried in years — hadn’t allowed myself to cry because I knew that once those walls crack, there’s no fixing them. Once that self-awareness takes you by the neck and starts wringing, you can choke on it. And I did. I was a great big heaving,  choking, bawling mess of self-awareness.

She told me later she always makes first-timers her last clients of the day because there’s no telling how long the appointment will take. My reaction was a little extreme but I wasn’t the first to have it, won’t be the last. Muscles store memory, she says, and they know the difference between good and bad memories. They’ll avoid the bad ones. Being touched for the first time in a decade brought back good muscle memory, but bad brain memories – for every memory of touch I had had more memories of not being touched. My brain and my body warred with each other, leaving me dazed and weak.

I was in a certain amount of pain when I got up from the table and she told me that wasn’t unusual either — while this hadn’t been a deep-tissue massage in the usual sense, letting go, opening up released a tension I hadn’t known existed (my walls, I guess) and with that release and that relief I felt the stress of having held it in place for so long.

‘I don’t know if I can walk,’ I said. ‘What did you do to me?’

‘I showed you what was missing, that’s all,’ she said. ‘How are you getting home?’

‘I was going to walk…’

‘I’ll call a car for you. And I’ll make you another appointment for the day after tomorrow. Same time.’

I could only nod because at the thought of being touched again I started to cry once more, and that for the moment was worse than the thought of being alone in a car with another person.

‘Will this stop?’ I asked her, embarrassed, accepting her offer of a handkerchief in a sterile wrapper.

‘Eventually, but it may take a while,’ she admitted. ‘I have you down for twice a week but that may not be enough. You’ve been out of the game for a very long time.’

I managed not to throw up until I got home, which was one small blessing.

I decided to put off writing my article until the second visit, but it was as bad as the first. And the third was only marginally better. Bob started asking for the article, asking whether I was keeping my apppointments. I didn’t know how to explain to him… Told him I couldn’t find the lede. He reminded me that this was a damned advertorial, not a chef d’oeuvre, I just had to write something nice about the experience, and I couldn’t explain to him why that was impossible for me.

‘Why isn’t this getting any better?’ I asked her in despair after the third visit, when I lay curled in the fetal position on the floor snivelling and snotty, with all the dignity of a three-year-old whose blankie is in the dryer.

‘Better is subjective,’ she said, maddeningly vague. ‘You have a lot of crap stored in your muscles. A lot of pain, a lot of suffering, a lot of rejection, a lot of refusal to admit there’s a problem. Every time you come here a little more of that is released. This could be a long process.’ She shrugged. ‘Do you have anyone to talk to?’

‘You think I need psychiatric therapy too?’

‘Don’t you? You’re functional, but I can tell without doing anything but touch you that you’re deeply depressed. It might help to talk to someone. I’ll give you a couple of names.’

We only talked at the end of these sessions, which allowed me to concentrate on the sensation. It was weird, being in this intimate space with another person, and giving that person the freedom to explore my body — mostly its extremities. And though there was never anything remotely sexual – even if I’d been in a headspace to be seduced by a woman in surgical mask and gloves – my body reacted as it would to a touch with far more seductive intent.

‘You are a sexually healthy woman,’ she said. She’d asked about my responses to the touch and my blush had responded. ‘When no touch is sexual, all touch is sexual, whether you’d normally be attracted to the person doing the touching or not. There’s a false intimacy here, but when it’s the only one you have, it’s powerful nonetheless.’

‘Is it transference, then?’

‘Not really, because I don’t think you’re falling in love with me. You would likely have that response no matter who caused it.’

Bob finally came to my office. “Where’s my story? You making a life’s work out of it?”

“No, it’s just harder than I expected.”

He came in my office and sat down. “What’s hard?”

“Let’s just say my reaction has surprised me. Not the therapist, who’s seen it all before, but me. It’s harder on me than I expected.”

Bob clearly didn’t understand.

“Bob, when was the last time you went to bed without a goodnight kiss?” He rolled his eyes, but didn’t answer. “For me it’s been over a decade. Not just Henny Penny, but before that too. You can’t even imagine it. Neither could I. But every time I go to that damned clinic I’m forced to confront that reality, and it hurts.”

“Fine. Whatever. Don’t psychoanalyze your response on the page then. Write, “I go to this place twice a week and this is what it looks like and this is what happens ….”

“And then I go home and throw up because it upsets me so much.”

Bob was taken aback by that — not only the idea that I’d throw up after what to him had been a totally benign experience, but that I’d tell him so. Bob and I were co-workers, he was my editor and we were friendly but a professional barrier was always up between us. We simply didn’t share deep personal confessions, unless it was well after the fact and telling all was in aid of a good story. Didn’t particularly want to hear the other’s deepest secrets, or at least had never broached the subject. I’d just given him too much information.

“Shit, Lily… ”

“Sorry, Bob, you didn’t need to know that.”

“No, I think I’m glad you told me. I thought maybe you were just having trouble getting back in the saddle, I had no idea this could actually be hard.”

I shrugged. “Neither did I.”

“OK, so write about it, with as little or as much detail as you want, but I need to have something and I still want you to write it.”

“Why? Surely some of the others who came back …”

“Yeah, but … well, there’s something else I want you to write and while this is required writing for the regency, it’s also a stepping off point for the other thing.”

“What’s the other thing?”

“All in good time, Lily.”

So I wrote my piece, probably not as bright and sunny as the regency might have wanted for its star program, but not as dark as it could have been. The journalist in me wouldn’t let me make up details, and it would have been professionally irresponsible to allow people to think it was all sunshine and lollipops behind the closed doors of the treatment rooms, but the private person I’d always been didn’t want to expose too much of my soul either. Bob gave it a polish, made it presentable.

And eventually it did get better. I stopped throwing up after sessions; I stopped crying like a baby before she even touched me. I never did seek talk therapy either, but I already felt like I was giving away too much of my inner self.

And of course as soon as it started getting better, it stopped being anywhere near enough. I started noticing things I didn’t like about it, or that were not satisfactory — the fact that she remained gloved and I remained clothed all through the sessions. I started to crave the feeling of flesh on flesh. I resented being unable to see her entire face when we spoke after the sessions. Her touch-stroke routine was unvaried each time I went. I’m a little OCD and I started counting the seconds of each touch, it was a remarkably steady 30 seconds everywhere except on my face, where it was 20. I wondered if she was counting too.

I was distracted. When I get distracted, therapy, no matter what it is, no longer works for me.

I started making and going to appointments at other nearby clinics, to see if a new therapist could bring back that initial feeling of release. The regency was offering the service for free, so there was no reason not to. Male, female, old young — they’d all learned at the feet of the same master; all offered the exact same service. It wasn’t enough.

So when Bob came to me with his little pet project, we should have both known it was irresponsible for him to offer it to me — him because while it was free the regency did keep records and they were sent to my employer so he knew exactly how often I was going to the clinics. Neither of us could resist it. He was an editor assigning a reporter he know knew would bring him a helluva story; and to me it looked like an answer to a question I’d been asking for weeks.

“I want you to check out the petting zoos,” Bob said when he finally came to me and asked if I was ready to do some real journalism.



Zora Neale Hurston Teaches Angela Flournoy How to Write What You Don’t Know – The Atlantic

There are a couple of characters in my WIP that I worry about writing about because I’m afraid I don’t know them well enough — I’m afraid they’ll end up as caricatures (which is funny, because for them to end up that way I actually have to sit down and write, something I’m finding more and more reasons not to do these days).

A friend just had a baby whom she named Zora, which led me to think “Isn’t there an author by that name?” which led me to Zora Neale Hurston, which led me to this article about an author who had an epiphany about writing about things beyond her own experience while reading a book by Hurston. I particularly liked what she said about imagination:

“I’ve found that, if I focus on doing the work every day, the imagination part starts to take care of itself. The beautiful thing about imagination is how it keeps opening doors for your characters to walk through. You’ll be surprised—they’ll walk through these doors, if you free yourself to allow that to happen.”

The secret, as every successful author will tell you, is to do the work every day. Let it come to you. I’ll have to work on that.

In the meantime, enjoy the article.

The novelist Angela Flournoy discusses how Zora Neale Hurston helped her imagine characters and experiences alien to her.

Source: Zora Neale Hurston Teaches Angela Flournoy How to Write What You Don’t Know – The Atlantic

Possible prologue

On the theory that to make progress you have to kill your darlings, I’ve decided to rethink the prologue on my work-in-progress, the thing that’s been constant since my nascent novel was a short story dashed off in a single burst of genius one night after I got home from work. This is my proposed new prologue. My question is, would you read a book that begins this way?


I still dream about smoking. Every now and then, when I haven’t thought about it in months, or when I’ve congratulated myself on going for so long without, I’ll be hit in a dream with a vision of the me that was, laughing over a drink and a smoke with some anonymous someone — other people in my dreams are almost always faceless, even if I know who they’re supposed to be — taking deep a draught of hot smoke, letting its feathers tickle the back of my throat, sucking it deep into my lungs and holding it there for a few seconds before blowing it softly back out. When I wake up my brain is convinced that I’ve never quit smoking and I have to remind myself for hours that there will be no cigarettes today or tomorrow or any day after that.

I quit when everyone else did, and for the same reason — no more smokes. Some poor pathetic addicts would roll up dried leaves into a page torn from a book, fire it up and suck it in as if their lives depended on it. There were days in the early going, I won’t lie, when that appealed, but they didn’t last. I have some pride.

And now, if you believe the medical propaganda, my lungs are supposedly as baby pink as they would have been if I’d never smoked at all.

Ironic — I stopped smoking because Henny Penny, as well as wiping out uncounted (so far) millions of people, also obliterated the tobacco industry as collateral damage. And thus saved my life twice.

The funniest jokes are the cruelest, right?

Look at me laughing.

In the dreams when I’m smoking, that’s when I recognize myself, or at least the self I showed to the world back then, confident, self-assured, fuck your surgeon general, these things are part of my makeup, part of my concept of self.

I’m naked without them. I don’t know what to do with my hands. When I’m around people now, and that’s not all that often, I watch them to see what they do with their hands, where they put them, how they hold them. Do they seem to be in anyone else’s way, or is that just me?

After 10 years, yes, I have figured out to live without many things, but other peoples’ hands still fascinate me. What they do in the absence.

(I’m considering ending the prologue here.)

Henny Penny left absences, in splatters, in drizzles, in big splotches that you try not to look at because thinking about the absences is too hard, hurts too much.

I lost less than some but more than many because when others retreated into their family units, or the nuclear groups of friends and family  left standing, there was no place for me. Friends had died or disappeared without warning, like Sophie, who walked out of our apartment while I slept off the remains of the virus.

Would I be in a different place now if Sophie had stayed? I think so. She would never have allowed me to become as isolated as I did, she needed people around her, they were the air she breathed. On the other hand, with her gone I found bits of myself that I’d lost sight of in her shadow. I’m different — lonelier, but stronger in some ways without her. I still miss her like crazy and if I ever see her again the first thing I’m going to do is punch her for being so goddamn selfish. Or was it selfish of me to want her to stay when she was so obviously dying inside, just because I need a social convener?

When the world ends, nobody wins, it seems.

I fell down a rabbit hole and found Bernie Taupin


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I did a completely uncharacteristic thing this week — I wrote a letter to Bernie Taupin. The uncharacteristic thing was not writing a letter — an email, to be exact; it was to write it to someone famous. I’ve never understood autograph-seekers or the people who get celebrities to pose for pictures with them — or, no, I suppose I get it, I’ve simply never been interested. What I want to do with people I admire is sit down with them, over a drink or a meal, the kind of meal that starts early and lasts long into the evening, with the conversation continuing long after the plates have been cleared, and maybe moves on to more comfortable chairs — and maybe doesn’t, and talk with them, learn what makes them tick. It’s kind of the same way that I don’t want to go visit a country I’ve been wanting to visit for 10 days or however long the standard vacation is. I want to get to know it, travel around inside it, meet its denizens, find out what makes it tick. In the word of Robert Heinlein, I want to ‘grok’ it. There are certain people I’d like to grok too, for an hour or a day (or evening) or weekend, and Bernie Taupin is one of them. My favourite Russian prof called the kind of conversation that you have at 4 a.m. after too much vodka ‘dukhe na dukhe’ (pardon my transliteration) — soul to soul. It’s the only kind of conversation worth having with someone you admire.

My admiration for Bernie Taupin has been strictly of his professional persona (well, no, that’s not true, he was awfully good looking when he was a young man, I admired that too). For those unfamiliar with the name, Bernie Taupin is the man who puts the words in Elton John’s mouth. I’ve been an Elton John fan since 1975, when my cousin Lisa forced me to listen to Someone Saved My Life Tonight and it plucked a chord inside me that has never stopped vibrating. Even now that song will take me back to that summer, and make me feel a little melancholy. I’d heard of Elton John before, of course, my brother had his first Greatest Hits album and you couldn’t be a child in the 70s without having danced at least once to Crocodile Rock. But Elton John is such a towering character, and I was young and I’m beginning to think perhaps I was a bit simple, for the things it never occurred to me to think about, but I sang the lyrics without thinking about them. As you do, I suppose. It wasn’t until I started accumulating Elton John albums, with their lyric sheets and recording information that I became aware of the jester behind the throne. I pored over lyric inserts on those albums, soaking up the words, figuring out what I liked and didn’t like, and more importantly to someone who already realized that writing was going to be a feature in her life, why I liked them.

But the years went by and eventually there came a time when I didn’t love every Elton John album on first listen. Sure there was a gem or two on every one, but by the 90s I have to admit to giving up a little. My mother gave me the latest one for Christmas every year until Peachtree Road, and I listened to them dutifully, but it wasn’t the same. Nothing held me quite like the old stuff. Elton was plagiarizing himself a bit, I thought, and so was Bernie if truth be told. But the year my heart broke, the year I couldn’t listen to music without crying, or wanting to throw up, Elton and Bernie saved me — that was the only music (with lyrics) that I could bear to hear. The music, the words, were almost like sense memory, race memory, they were simply part of me, not listening would have been like chopping off an arm. I thanked Bernie for that in my letter.

Two weeks ago I had a voice lesson. I’ve always loved to sing, I sang in elementary and high school choirs and have performed on stage as a soloist once or twice; and I love karaoke. My dream was to either be a writer or a singer and I kind of made one side of it happen but I still dream of getting on a stage with a backing band and a microphone and giving Ann Wilson some competition. With age and smoking and disuse my voice is failing me — I think I once had close to a five-octave range, now it’s closer to three. So I decided to take lessons to learn how to preserve what I have and to strengthen it — maybe to the point where I could do something more than sing karaoke if the chance presented itself. My instructor tells me I have a pretty voice with a good tone. My first class we sang Levon, probably my favourite song off the Madman Across the Water album, and my instructor told me I had a good voice for Elton John. This I kind of already knew — I’m a mimic, not an interpreter, and my pitch is good and I know when I match someone note for note. It was still nice to hear though. And that class sent me back to Elton John, which sends me back to Bernie Taupin. Everything is on the internet these days — I’m finding interviews, documentaries that I didn’t know existed — or knew, but had never sought out. And one of the things on the internet that I found when I fell down one of its Elton John rabbit holes, was Bernie Taupin.

He spends most of his time as a visual artist now. I can’t claim to understand abstract art but some of his stuff is quite striking. He has two young daughters. He rode in the rodeo for a while, cutting cattle was his event but now, to paraphrase another famous poet/lyricist/storyteller, he aches too much in the places that he used to play to do it competitively any more. He had a satellite radio show dedicated to playing the old masters of country, blues and jazz. Funny that someone I connect entirely with rock/pop music spends his days immersed in anything but. I sometimes forget that people have whole lives to which I am not privy, as if my brain thinks they shut off any time I’m not watching. Bernie’s a private guy and he doesn’t give anything away — in fact, if you read enough interviews you’ll see that he has some stock answers to questions that journalists keep printing even though if they’d done the slightest bit of research they’d have found he’d said it all before (though in his defence I think if people kept asking me the same questions after 40-odd years I wouldn’t dignify them with an original response either). He has a blog but he doesn’t use it to tell tales of life on the road with Elton’s magical mystery tours — a fact that disappoints me and greatly amuses me all at once. Amuses because a) it’s unexpected (and it’s unexpected because I know nothing about Bernie Taupin), and b) he doesn’t look back, and by that he means that he’s his own man, he has his own life and he’s happy with it, doesn’t yearn after some bygone glory days. I’m sure he has stories to spare, and I hope he one day writes a book. But he was somehow, despite the fact that he was just a kid when everything went golden for the two of them, able to hang on to himself. He didn’t get caught up in the entourage, though he was part of the show, didn’t get caught up in the fame and glitz — not to the point where he needed it, in any case. He remained himself. I admire that, I’m not sure I would have had the strength of character.

I’m delighted to find Blogging Bernie not at all what I expected. He’s an opinionated old coot (well, not that old, he was a young teenager when I was born) who hates reality shows as much as I do, has no interest in current music and doesn’t take the stuff he writes for Elton too seriously. Elton famously has written songs in minutes; Bernie, it seems, is nearly as fast. He cautions readers against imputing too much depth to his lyrics — and that made me smile because I never have, except in a few cases where I’m pretty sure it’s expected. I’m not really a fan of Bernie Taupin because of his depth, I’m a fan because of his phrasing. I like the way he uses words. When I write — when I’m paying attention and not just putting words on a page to meet a deadline — I listen for the music, the little sublime moments when two words together, or two ideas together, or the repetition of a phrase or word create something bigger than themselves. On a good day, when I’m on fire, there’s music everywhere. And I think I have Bernie Taupin to thank for that. He’s the writer I’ve studied the longest, the one whose work I’ve drunk of the deepest, and I like to think he’s taught me a thing or two. So I thanked him for that in my letter too.

I still don’t know why I wrote to him. A bit of a compulsion that became more pronounced after he said he reads all his email (the stuff that makes it through the vetting process in any case, ask him for an autographed photo or send him your poetry and your email will not make it to his desk). But I’m glad I did. It’s not every day you get to acknowledge the people who influence you.

In the beginning there was the word

Note: The following is a little – well, more than a little – rough and it looks like it starts out in one place and ends at another though I swear I see a clear line of connection. It’s just that this has been the first time in ages that I’ve felt like writing and I wanted to get it down before I lost the thread and the urge completely. To be perhaps revised.

‘It was very impactful.’

That was how a woman on the radio described how she felt seeing a dying musician playing what was probably his last gig, wearing the costume she’d designed for that moment.

Very impactful.

Really? I wanted to ask. For whom? Was the impact on the audience? Did the costume create a impact in the theatrical costuming world?

Was it good for you too? I wondered.

That was an interiew on CBC, which I listen to when I listen to radio. On another afternoon drive home I heard someone else say, ‘I felt a flood of emotions,’ when asked how he felt when experiencing what for any given human being would have been a life-changing event.

That’s something writers write about you, when they’re writing about your life-changing events, it shouldn’t be what you say about yourself in the moment. Sure, you felt all the feels, but did any one of them maybe stand out for you?

And in both cases, when pressed by the interviewer to expand on those ambiguous thoughts, the interviewees backed even further away from any language that might commit them to an actual feeling. Not, I hope, because they didn’t have them, but because they had no idea how to express them in that context.

The costume designer no doubt thought she sounded more like someone who would be interviewed on CBC radio if she said it was ‘impactful’ to watch a dying singer, with whom she’d been working for several years, perform his last concert wearing the clothes she’d chosen. In fact, to anyone who understands the nuances in language, it made her sound a bit heartless, as if she didn’t care one way or another, was only thinking about it because she’d been asked (and in fact this may very well have been the case and if it was, sorry, my bad).

But my point remains, she was merely my best and most recent example of people putting distance between themselves and any expression of emotion through language choice that I’m pretty sure they think puts a spin of erudition on the prosaic.

It’s the linguistic equivalent of the annoyingly ubiquitous vocal fry, that growl at the end of the sentence that lets you know the speaker feels only ennui about the topic in question. But it’s also part of an increasingly casual misuse of language. There have always been malapropisms — it’s why there’s a word for it — and god knows I’ve been guilty enough of them myself. But it used to be more rare to hear or read educated people make mistakes in word usage in broadcast and print media that used to be known for their intelligence, and now you can barely read anything — online or on paper — without catching at least one instance that is not a typo, but is actually someone using a word of which they obviously don’t know the meaning. Not just using impact as a verb (I know I’m losing that fight) but things like saying ‘allude to’ when you mean ‘said’ (because allude means to say without saying so if you said it you can’t have alluded to it); or, I don’t know, enervate when you mean liven up.

All this mad grasping at $10 words when a five-cent word will do comes at a time of unprecedented availability of educational opportunities, when there are more written words available to more people than ever before. Is language deteriorating because more people are able to make their versions of it go farther than their grandparents would have dreamed, or is it because the increased use comes at a time of decreased policing, when editors are losing their hold on the public presentation of the written word? I think that may turn out to be the chicken-and-egg question of our time. I’d be curious to know whether it’s happening in other languages to the same extent.

I know that every generation has its traditionalist, the person who figuratively runs through the streets shouting ‘the end is nigh!’ because of the changes time and usage wreak on language. I am both a part of and apart from this group — some changes don’t bother me in the slightest. But that normal erosion of language is not what I’m talking about — I’m worried about the increasing lack of consideration for the meaning of words. It perpetuates a cycle of ignorance, when even the people who should know better do not. How are people — how am I — supposed to maintain a sharp mind when it keeps running up against dull objects? How am I supposed to know what you mean when you say, when asked how you felt, that ‘it was impactful’? I don’t want to live in a world without meaning.


Sorry, brain death in progress

I joke about brain death, not to belittle those whose loved ones have actually experienced it, and thanks to the politically correct world we live in for forcing me to make that ridiculous qualification even though any thinking person would know I’m not making fun of or belittling those who have experienced actual brain death.

My brain isn’t persistently vegetative, but it is moribund. And to me it has the numb feeling of death.

A couple of months ago when I jump-started this blog I was full of intra-cranial excitement, I could feel my synapses firing, I was brimming over with ideas and the energy to do something with them. That lasted, by my reckoning, two months. And it’s been, I’d say, two months since I’ve felt anything even remotely resembling the urge to write. I take a notebook to lunch with me and sit and read stuff I wrote a year ago until someone comes to sit with me (take a book to lunch and I eat alone as often as not, take my notebook and I’m guaranteed at least one companion).

I rationalize: Part of this is winter-related. It’s hibernation time. It’s possible I need some Vitamin D. Part of it is my worryingly long recovery time after my little fiasco at new year (see my post I need a wife). Seriously, I felt sick for days after that, couldn’t bring myself to go near a writing implement of any kind. Except at work, where I have to, and where my output over the past couple of months has at least doubled, and my responsibilities have grown (in direct inverse proportion to my confidence that I will be able to fulfil those responsibilities). And as I become more anxious about that situation, the sludge thickens.

I am different from those in a persistent vegetative state in many respects but mostly because of my awareness of my state. I know the difference between how my brain felt in November and how it feels now. The pipes are gunked up, the thoughts come more slowly through a narrower space, they’re thicker, less fluid. The edges are blunted to the point where I can’t think, let alone think creatively.

A vacation would be a fine thing, if it wouldn’t in turn make me worry about money. Time away, with no cares and different scenery – I’m dreaming of an all-inclusive resort somewhere warm and a writing table under the trees. But who knows whether I’d be able to dial myself back to zero in time to make use of it, whether I’d be able to shuffle off my cares and woes and unwind in time to get anything done. I’d need more than the bare week I could afford, I expect.

I don’t know whether this is writer’s block or winter block or just my brain protecting itself from the shitstorm around me. But I want to cry for the me that was in November, full of possibilities. I want her back. She was good for me. Outgoing and positive. I liked her a lot.

How do you experience writer’s block? Does it start in your brain or does it start on the page?

Dear Torrenter; Thank you for your e-mail. Love, ‘Nathan.

Source: Dear Torrenter; Thank you for your e-mail. Love, ‘Nathan.

Don’t have a book to sell, but after a really bad week in Canadian media, and having lost my journalism job years ago, I’m quite familiar with the phenomenon of people not wanting to pay what writing is worth. And I’m also guilty – though never with books – of consuming information for which I’m not willing to pay, so realize I’m also part of the problem. So when I say read this and smarten up, I’m talking to myself as well.