The Face That Launched a Thousand Quips

Did you hear Renée Zellweger just Jennifer Greyed herself out of a career?

The web has been abuzz since she debuted her new face at the ELLE Women in Hollywood Awards on Monday. Questions were posed like, “Who is that?” and “No, seriously, who is that?” and “Won’t somebody please tell me who this woman we’re taking pictures of is?”

Like the infamous nose job that “fixed” Jennifer Grey’s schnoz and abruptly ended her rising career because she no longer looked like Jennifer Grey, Zellwegger has taken the slice/dice/nip/tuck that extra step and now looks like someone who has just been processed by the witness-protection program.

Who are you and what have you done with Renée Zellweger?

Who are you and what have you done with Renée Zellweger?

Such snide comments have led to the inevitable backlash. How dare anyone criticise her choices as she attempts to remain young and vibrant in an industry that rarely has anything to do with women past the age of 40? Well, sorry folks, but the quest for eternal youth in sexist Hollywood isn’t the issue here. The issue is that Zellweger, in an effort to remain marketable, has laid waste to the single most marketable thing about her: that she LOOKED like Renée Zellweger, an established actress from many hit movies.

Famous men and women both have had lots of work done over the last century of cinema’s vain train. Some work has been subtle, some not, some successful, some disastrous. But unless they were addicted to plastic surgery like Michael Jackson, they usually came out looking like new, improved models of themselves, albeit with much tighter and frequently expressionless faces. I don’t care for it myself, but lots of stars say it’s essential. Considering it’s elective surgery that’s actually tax deductible as a business express, it would seem even the IRS agrees with its usefulness for maintaining a successful career. You know, like all the prescription meds stars take as well. But, just like prescription meds, if you do too much at once, you overdose.

How do you know when you’ve taken plastic surgery too far? Well, if you’re a celebrity and your biggest fans couldn’t pick you out of a police line-up, then yeah, you may have taken it too far. Imperfections are what make you stand out from the crowd of beautiful, perfect people. Jennifer Grey’s big nose made her charming. Renée Zellweger’s cheruby whateveryouwannacallit face made her charming. To some. I guess. I was never a fan.

Would Bette Davis have been THE Bette Davis if she had “fixed” her eyes? Probably not. Would she have had a hit song written about those eyes? Definitely not. Sometimes your worst feature is secretly your best feature.

Look at Charles Bronson. He was an ugly, ugly man with a craggy, nasty face. That’s what made him awesome. That’s what made him look like he could kick your ass. And that’s why his late-career decision to get pretty-girl eyes is all the more baffling. What the hell was he thinking?

Did this magnificent squint need to be made pretty?

Did this magnificent squint need to be made pretty?

Look, get some work done if you must. Lose a mole here or there if it bothers you. Get those plugs to stave off the inevitable if you want to pretend you still have a full head of thick, luxurious hair. Pin back those crow’s feet behind your ears where nobody will think to look for them. But don’t go nuts. Because every once in a while it turns out your money-maker isn’t your tits or your ass. It’s your ugly mug.

Having said that, I can only hope Steve Buscemi got that tooth growing out of the roof of his mouth fixed after cashing his Armageddon cheque.

Behold, the single least-flattering celebrity close-up in cinema history.

Behold, the single least-flattering celebrity close-up in cinema history.

A Pot to Piss in

I had a test tube of urine sitting on my desk all weekend.

No, I haven’t taken to drinking my own piss as a means of self-cleansing. I drink so much coffee, it would probably just taste like Columbian beans anyway, so why not just stick with coffee? As things-on-my-desk go, a test tube brimming with pee isn’t particularly out of place. Other things current sitting on my desk include a denarius of Clodius Albinus (from the brief period he stood as a usurper Augustus operating out of Lugdunum), a McDonald’s apple pie now in its 26th year of existence, a Lego minifigure of Christopher Lee, an alien-queen paperweight made entirely out of welded together hardware-store junk and bicycle chains, a 250 million year old trilobite fossil, a le Roy mechanical pocket watch from the 1950s and, inevitably, a cup of black coffee.

I wasn’t expecting to add urine to the collection, and I was eager to get rid of it. I found myself unexpectedly saddled with the burden last Friday when I went for a blood and urine test at the brand-spanking-new CLSC (centre local de services communautaires for the acronym-impaired (community service centre for the French-impaired)) around the corner. Purely a formality of my annual check-up, I popped over in the morning after the requisite 14-hour fast to get jabbed and bled.

The new facility had all the bells and whistles socialized medicine has to offer, including a touch-screen numbered-ticket dispenser, an elderly security guard to explain how touch screens work to the elderly patrons, a display monitor that goes “ping” when it’s your turn to check in at the counter, and bloated bureaucratic oafs to make sure it all runs as inefficiently as possible in the face of technological advancements in efficiency.

The bleeding part went smoothly. The urine part, not so much.

I’ll admit, my urine sample’s failure to launch was entirely my fault. The blood-test unit is only open in the morning, and closed by 9:00 am. That meant setting an alarm and getting up early. Mornings aren’t my thing, so I typically rely on autopilot to see me through my washing and dressing and eating a bowl of Shreddies (when I’m not fasting for a blood test). Purely on autopilot, I also indulged in my morning piss that day. Which meant I had nothing to offer by the time I was supposed to produce for my urinalysis.

I wish I could say this was the first time I’d done this to myself.

After the blood test, I sat in the waiting room, a bar-coded personalized specimen receptacle in my pocket, waiting for the magic to happen. In a concerted effort to force the aforementioned magic to happen, I made frequent trips to the water fountain to stockpile ammunition. A series of trips to a bathroom stall amounted to nothing but performance anxiety. I had a gallon of water sloshing around inside me, but my kidneys insisted on operating on their own schedule, in their own due time. Not unlike government-payroll bureaucrats, but I digress.

After nearly an hour of languishing in the waiting room, listening to a pair of grandmotherly junkie-rehab patients talk about the social dynamics of their halfway house, I was finally ready to perform. After squeezing out the first few drops through willpower alone, the floodgates opened and I was able to summon enough urine for a sample. More than enough. Much more than enough.

“Where were you?” I yelled at my copious stream of piss.

It offered no excuses.

Eagerly, I sealed the tube, returned it to its designated plastic bag, and rushed it to the clinic down the hall – which was locked tight for the day. It was past 9:00. Bugger.

I asked around and determined that, although no one would accept my sample because the daily shipment of bodily fluids had already departed for a lab across town, I could drop it off on Monday morning.

And so the piss sat, waiting patiently on my desk. Only last night did I empty the tube, rinsing it out and preparing it for a fresh morning sample. I left the empty tube in plain sight on the toilet tank where even my autopilot couldn’t fail to spot it.

This morning I embarked to drop off my new and improved sample like a good little patient. Returning to the CLSC, I avoided eye contact with any security guard eager to redundantly school me on how to use a touch-screen, and got my ticket number for a “sample delivery” with a single painfully obvious poke at a digital button.

It wasn’t long before I was called to the desk. I presented the plastic bag with a clear tube full of golden goodness.

“Where’s your requisition form?” demanded the all-too typical overpaid, over-unionized, under-motivated government stooge. Although there was no attempt to communicate what this requisition form entailed, the tone of her voice communicated so much more. Boredom and distaste mostly.

“I was told to drop this off here Monday morning.”

“You can’t do that without a requisition form.”

“That’s not what I was told.”

“We can’t accept it. This could be from anywhere.”

“My dick hole. That’s where it’s from,” I said with my sarcastic inside voice.

“It has a name and a bar code on it,” I said with my sarcastic outside voice.

I dropped the name of “Louise,” one of her co-workers who I’d discussed this with on Friday. The personal touch seemed to provoke some movement from the sloth-like government lummox. They don’t like it when you know their names. It gives you power. It arms you with a finger to point at somebody specific if you go over their heads to complain. She grunted and rose to her feet, lumbering off with my bag-o-piss.

“Louise, Louise, Louise…” she repeated, an annoyed mantra that suggested there would be hell to pay. Grunting, irritable, whining hell.

Realizing she’d made the terrible mistake of leaving the area with my sample in hand and not a single word of “excuse me” or “wait here, please,” I seized the opportunity and stealthily left the building like a ninja Keyser Soze. Poof, I was gone.

I expect one day, after the collapse of western civilization (which, I’m reliable informed, may happen as soon as next Tuesday morning around 10:30), my urine will be discovered by future archaeologists, still in its bar-coded test tube, safely ensconced in a ziplock biohazard baggie, forgotten at the bottom of a filing cabinet drawer. Or maybe the government worker bee just threw it away. I don’t know. She could have drank it for all I care. I don’t expect the lab technicians are likely to discover the secrets of the universe when they read the tea leaves (and coffee beans) that comprise the discharged contents of my bladder.

Perhaps the archaeologists will have more luck when it’s their turn to analyse my piss sometime in the post-apocalypse.

For those simulated-city-building nerds who expressed interest in my plug for Luke Hodorowicz’s incredible solo project, Banished, here’s a reminder that the game debuts tomorrow, February 18. It will be available through Steam (and elsewhere) for twenty bucks. Money well-spent if the hours of gameplay videos I’ve watched are any indication. I’ve been following the devlog for this project for over a year now, and it’s great to see it finally made available to all the eager fans who have been dying to play, myself very much included. Congratulations, Luke.

Elective Butchery

Sure, I’ve been tempted to get cosmetic surgery. A snip here, a tuck there. I never thought I’d go through with it though. Dreams of getting a modest boob job just to give me something other than my penis to fiddle with were just that – dreams.

But I finally decided to do something about my emergency backup brain. Like the dinosaurs, I had a secondary brain located near the base of my spine to help coordinate the movement of my lower quarters. Evolution deems this sort of thing necessary when the functionality of the main cranium is deemed too slow and laborious to tell the ass-end of the body what needs to be done in a timely fashion.

Okay, I ASSUME this thing growing on my lower back to the right of my spine was a secondary backup brain. It certainly looked like one, jutting outwards on a short stalk, with identifiable lobes throbbing with evil intent, sending independent thoughts to the main brain such as, “Kill them all,” “Bathe in their blood,” and “Shop at Wal-Mart.”

My doctor differed, however. With all her imagination sucked out by a higher education, she deemed my spare brain to be merely a mole, and wrote me a referral to have it lopped off. I was somewhat reluctant to see it go, and anticipated a ten to twenty point drop in IQ. On the other hand, it was a rather unsightly appendage at the beach, and we live in a beauty-before-brains society. Faced with such a dilemma, I sought guidance from the source of wisdom we all turn to in these troubled times. I asked myself, “What would Paris do?”

Of course, you and I both know what Paris would do. She would have the disfiguring nub surgically removed. Then she would drive drunk to the nearest party and get video taped performing bored, indifferent sex acts that would later net her a million dollar distribution deal. I resolved to do exactly the same.

A mole. Not mine.“I’ll give you one guess why I’m here,” I told the dermatologist as I took off my shirt. She gasped when she saw it. At least, I think she was gasping at my brain-mole. She may have been gasping at my manly physique. Women sometimes go all gooey when they see me with my shirt off. It’s the combination of flabby, ill-defined musculature, corpse-like white flesh, and shaggy back that drives them wild. Seriously, girls, stop emailing me for photos. Why fuel your fantasies when there’s just not enough of me to go around?

“That’s going to the lab,” she said after a pain-numbing needle and a quick flick of the scalpel. I watched my brain-mole bob around in a sealed test tube as it was labeled, filed away, and shipped off to pathology. They just wanted to make sure it was benign. The fools. I already knew it was no such thing. It wouldn’t be long before it was putting thoughts in the heads of all the lab technicians. Its will was so strong, it didn’t need to be physically attached to them to dominate their weak minds.

No reports of any pathologists killing people and bathing in their blood yet. But Wal-Mart has noticed increased sales figures for beakers and Bunsen burners, so it’s only a matter of time.

Bagel, Bagel, Meat

Such was the progress of my giant serrated knife as I tried to saw through a particularly stale bagel a couple of weeks ago. I like to maintain my steady diet of bagels to help keep up the illusion that I’m Jewish for the teeming masses who would be so disillusioned to learn that I’m nothing of the sort, despite looking like a Rabbinical school dropout. Sometimes this necessitates a middle-of-the-night excursion to my local 24-hour bagel emporium (run, appropriately enough, by Hindus) to snatch up whatever they still have in stock before the 6:00 am batch starts to roll hot off the presses. And if all they have are day-old leftovers, well, at least it beats matzo balls and gefilte fish.

I knew I’d made a tragic mistake when, two or three hard-earned strokes through the bagel, I started cutting something that wasn’t quite so doughy. I withdrew the knife from my finger, shortly before hitting bone, but long after doing what would have been only superficial damage. And then the blood came.

It’s been awhile since I wounded myself badly enough to have one of those cuts that just won’t stop gushing. Water, hot or cold, and applied pressure did nothing. Indeed, days later, I would continue to tear the wound open all over again if I looked at it wrong. As I gazed at the fresh, deep cut, I had one of those “stitch or no-stitch” moments before deciding to go with “no-stitch” and, more importantly “no-three-in-the-morning-emergency-room-wait.” I would just deal with it myself.

I am stuck on Band-Aid brand, cuz Band-Aids stick on meDealing with it myself involved the application of ancient leftover Band-Aids that dated back to the genesis of self-adhesive technology. You know the ones I’m talking about. The kind that leave a sticky residue that would suggest, to an experienced criminologist, that you had been kidnapped and bound with duct tape for the last three weeks. The kind that will stay with you through your next dozen showers, despite your best efforts to remove all traces of it with soap and water and a belt sander.

After going through a few of those tar-like bandages, I finally concocted something more suitable with a paper towel and scotch tape. It was so large, however, that typing at my keyboard proved impractical (and painful), and therefore gave me a valid excuse to slack off from both work and blogging. Miraculously, my video gaming was not adversely affected. Funny that.

Unfortunately, time heals all wounds. And now that my finger has safely grown back into one whole piece, I have to get back into the swing of things. Plans are in motion for the next time I need a break though. Call it a premonition, but I think I might be accidentally crushing my thumb in a car door sometime in the future when I need a breather.

Thank You For Not Choking Me To Death

Long after so many other civilized corners of the world clued in, Quebec has finally decided to join the party and ban smoking in all restaurants and bars. Despite this trend becoming more and more popular across the globe, it’s a major breakthrough I thought I’d never see happen here. Quebecers are hopelessly addicted to tobacco, and asking them to lay off the ciggies over a beer or a coffee is a pill about a thousand times harder to swallow than gay marriage, a prime minister from out west, or the fact that Celine Dion is an insufferable shrill skeleton. They just love to smoke as no other culture on Earth.

Witness one woman I saw only hours before the smoking ban was due to take effect. She was sitting on a bus-stop bench, an arm adorned by a huge hepatitis-chic tattoo, a smouldering cigarette hanging out of her mouth, and a belly full of nine-month-old fetus. Just try suggesting she should quit. She’d claw your eyeballs out. When I, with no particular affinity for children, see someone like that, I still think, “Hi. Could I adopt your child once it’s born so you don’t get to fuck it up?” If I actually said it out loud as often as it occurs to me, though, I’d probably end up with more adopted kids than Angelina Jolie and Mia Farrow combined.

It’s not like you can warn the typical Quebecer off the stuff, either. They laugh in the face of mortal peril. Then they start coughing and hack up half a cup of tar, but they’re still giggling once they’re done. Even the particularly vile Surgeon General labels they started covering cigarette packaging with failed to put anyone off. Pornographic pictures of gum disease, heart disease and lung disease didn’t slow down sales, it boosted them.

Last month my local corner store guy complained to me at length about one interminable transaction he had to go through before it was my turn at the cash. The guy in front of me wasn’t just buying cigarettes, he was filling out a collection. He made the cashier rifle through every single pack of his favourite brand of smokes looking for the one particular tumor he was still missing. No luck that time, but I’m sure he was happy to smoke a few more crates of coffin nails looking for it.

Bar and restaurant owners have launched an appeal of the new law, convinced it’s going to drive customers away. I, on the other hand, know a few establishments I’ll be frequenting much more often now that I can enjoy a meal or a drink without tasting someone else’s fumes. Taking a walk on the sidewalk outside, however, will be like strolling through the smoking lounge of a tobacconist convention.

Life Lesson 4: A Poisonous Work Environment

My fourth job paid ten dollars an hour and I thought I’d hit the jackpot. Tired of watching me being exploited for a pittance, my aunt stepped in with a healthy dose of nepotism and landed me a three-month summer job at the same company she worked for. This arrangement, she assured me, would be perfect because she could pick me up on her way to the office and we could drive to work together. The fact that I would be working for a company that was listed as one of the top environmental polluters in Canada held no ethical quandary for me. I mean, come on, it was ten dollars an hour.

On one of our first commutes, my aunt asked me what I wanted to do for a living. Maybe she was wondering if I was interested in a permanent position at the company once I was out of school.

I said I wanted to be a writer.

“When do you get to retire doing that?” she wanted to know.

“Hopefully never,” is what I told her.

My aunt had a first-floor office at the front of the building where she was in sales. I, however, was tucked away in a room upstairs with five other employees who worked as a team to keep the paperwork moving. I was answerable to all of them, and was assigned the little irritating jobs they didn’t want to do themselves. As such, I was required to fill in reports and make calculations. About what, I had absolutely no idea, but my figures seemed to be correct and none of them ever came back to me, so I assumed I was doing a good job.

There were no windows in the office, just fluorescent tubes and a skylight at the very top of a funnel. You had to stand directly under the funnel and look up, way up, to catch a glimpse of the sky. But since this was right in the middle of the room, well away from everyone’s work station, there was never any reasonable excuse to do this.

Everything in the room was grey. The walls, the furniture, the people. If something that wasn’t grey was brought into the room, the lighting would suck the colour out of it. When it left again, it left grey.

All day, every day, the radio in the office was tuned to the local EZ-listening station. All day, every day, I’d wait for them to play one of the two songs in their schedule I could stomach. One was Enya, another was Sinead O’Conner. And when they were on, for two minutes at a time, I could be in that room and not want to tear my eyes out and jam meat skewers through my eardrums.

There was also a door in the office. It was at the back of the room, thick, heavy and very very grey. At random intervals during the day, I would be handed a single piece of paper and told to go through that door.

Behind the door was the factory floor. Iron stairs ran down into its black heart. There was a railing to hold onto, but you couldn’t touch it because it was coated in oily soot. Everything that wasn’t constantly on the move in there was coated in this soot that was sticky in a way unlike any other sticky thing I’d ever touched in my life.

Because I was required to step inside the factory ever so briefly from time to time, I was issued a pair of safety shoes with steel toes that would assure, no matter how badly I was maimed by the heavy machinery, my toes at least would be safe and secure.

There were robots in the factory — automated platforms with roller surfaces that transported stacks of product up and down the line so different procedures could done to them, often involving chemical sprays. These robots all had signs on them warning, “Danger, may move at any time.” To get to the command centre to deliver my piece of paper, I would have to climb over the robots as they went about their duties. Sometimes they would move while I was on them, sometimes they wouldn’t. Each time I ran this gauntlet, there was a calculated risk that something would move at exactly the wrong moment and take my entire foot off at the ankle.

I counted the days like an inmate counts a prison sentence. To pass the time, I drew an elaborate schedule that broke my three months of employment down to hundreds of fifteen-minute intervals. As each of these intervals passed, I would colour them in with a pencil, looking forward to the day when the entire schedule would be filled. Often I would spend an entire fifteen-minute interval doing nothing but waiting to black it out.

We all had our own ways of getting through the day, I suppose. One of the women in the office, for example, got by on the delusion that she was an object of desire. She looked like an aging barroom skank who went and got a real job the day she realized she was now too old and ugly to get free drinks and quick cash for bathroom blowjobs.

“I know you guys all fantasize about me,” she let slip one day, offering me an unexpected and unwanted glimpse of her psyche. The saddest part of her declaration was that she was probably right when it came to the other two guys we worked with.

Weekends flew by like they were nothing. I’d blink and miss them. On my downtime, I wanted to do nothing but sleep or watch television. Creatively, I dried up.

Eventually, I penciled out nearly all of my schedule. For the first time ever, I looked forward to work. My final week was approaching and I anticipated blotting out the last handful of fifteen minute blocks like a kid anticipates Christmas. I simply couldn’t wait.

That weekend I fell ill. Terribly, weirdly ill. I wasn’t coughing or sneezing, I wasn’t sore or vomiting. But all at once, every last ounce of energy I had left me. I could barely make the trip from the couch to the bed, and the concept of food was alien to me. Even if I could muster the strength to chew, there was no appeal in swallowing.

At work on Monday, my aunt went upstairs to my office, collected my things, and told everyone I would not be returning.

They ran the usual bunch of tests at the hospital and came up empty. The doctors resorted to that great cover-your-ass fallback diagnosis and told me I probably had a viral infection. Go home, they said, get plenty of rest and fluids.

I spent the next three weeks on a couch staring at game shows and soap operas. I didn’t move, I didn’t eat, and my weight plummeted. I figured I might die, but I was so exhausted I didn’t much care. Obviously I wasn’t cut out for a nine-to-five life. Three months of it had nearly killed me. But was it the hours or where I spent them?

You might wonder what this factory could have been making that was so singularly toxic that it poisoned the world and destroyed the health of those who worked there. Anthrax, perhaps? Agent Orange? Thermonuclear weapons? No.

They made cardboard boxes.

I recovered in time for the start of the school year. Periodically, I’d hear news about my former co-workers from my aunt. Things like who’d had a miscarriage this time, or who was the latest to develop a malignant tumor. The updates stopped when my aunt retired. She left the job with a tumor of her own. After surgery and chemo, the cancer went into remission for ten years. Then it came back and ate her body in ways so horrific, even someone with my sense of humour can’t make light of it. I remember my mother coming home after seeing what parts of her body the doctors had cut away.

“I didn’t know you could do that to a person,” she said. And she was very pale when she said it.

That was the last of three summer jobs I took to put myself through university. Once I earned my degree, I had to make a choice about how I was going to make a living now. I weighed my past experiences and considered my options. In the end, there was really no choice at all.

I never worked another day in my life. I became a writer instead.

And I learned my final lesson. All jobs suck. Don’t have one.

Who The Hell Are You People And What Have You Done With My Graduating Class?

It seems like only yesterday I was failing to attend my grad dance. To commemorate the twentieth anniversary of that non-event in my life, I failed to attend my high school reunion as well.

Anxious as I was to relive the memory of the five-year prison term that supplied me with so many of the neuroses I hold near and dear today, I managed to come down with a cold the day-of and decided it might be best to skip.

The school system here is a little different from elsewhere. Because we have CEGEP and no junior high, five years is the standard length of time for high school in Quebec. So taking five years to complete it makes me neither brilliant or retarded, merely invisibly average, which was my academic goal for all eighteen years of my formal education.

Fan as I am of communicable diseases, I thought the nice thing to do would be to stay home and not infect everyone with my germs. I also figured it wouldn’t make the best impression, after twenty years, to meet and greet people with my nose melting off my face.

But I can guess what I missed. Having attended a smaller, less formal reunion a couple of years ago, I know how these things go down. People who used to see each other every single day throughout their teens meet for the first time in many years and share insightful exchanges such as:

“I have no memory of you whatsoever.”

“I don’t remember you either.”

“Well okay then.”

And then they go order drinks with someone they do remember and ask them, “Who the fuck was that?”

And when a more general group discussion breaks out, the first topic is always:

“Who’s dead?

“Someone must be dead, right? A car accident, maybe?”

“Cancer! How about cancer? Somebody has to be dead from cancer.”

I never saw a group of people so disappointed to learn they had failed to outlive anyone from their graduating class. Divorces, yes. Hard times, I’m sure. Prison and rehab, almost certainly. But nobody died. Not yet.

But I’m sure we can come up with a few viable DOAs by the time our twenty-fifth rolls around if we only apply ourselves.

I'm the one twenty-three miles to the leftIn a desperate bid to have the reunion happen in 2005 before it was too late to call it a twenty-year reunion, the meeting was called for December 27th, a date scientifically determined to be the one day of the year when the fewest people would be able to attend. As a result, scanning the faces in the group photo, I see few people I was close to. The rest will have to touch base at some future date.

Only then will I be afforded the opportunity to catch up and swap stories and recollections of that bygone era. Like how we used to pop down to the local diner after class with our buddies Richie and Ralph and Potsie and play the jukebox and cruise chicks. Or all those times when Spicoli and Mr. Hand clashed in history class because Spicoli was totally stoned every day. Or that one time when everyone stuffed the ballot box to make sure I was voted prom queen and I got up on stage and they dumped pig’s blood on me and then I killed everyone with telekinesis.

Ah, sweet memories. Remember them? I’m sure we all do, even as we completely fail to remember each other.

My Chicken Has The Sniffles

Happy Pandemic!

Okay, maybe not yet, but soon maybe (fingers crossed). The promise of a new worldwide epidemic (“pandemic” for those of you interested in expanding your vocabulary) that could top even the razzle-dazzle body count of the Justinian plague has the nipples of the world media outlets standing at attention. But does the chance of a massive-scale human cull translate into more than just another ratings bonanza for news networks that have been flying high on earthquake and flood footage with snazzier visuals than the boring political corruption that’s sweeping across the States on a scale Katrina could only ever dream of?

Panic Central, CNN, has been offering round-the-clock coverage of every chicken with a fever, duck with a chill, or pheasant with a chronic cough, just in case one of them has cooties that might leap onto the nearest television journalist, and then leapfrog across the rest of humanity from there. With no really interesting hurricanes left to cover, they have no choice but to sit around all day promising that Anderson Cooper will snag an exclusive interview with the first mutated avian flu virus capable of human-to-human infection the moment it evolves (or is created by God for viewers in the south). A microscope with a satellite uplink is ready to roll, and a set of blue index cards stands by for Anderson to read questions off of. Probing inquiries such as, “Are you a sign of the apocalypse?” “What do you have against mankind anyway?” and “How much money would it cost the American taxpayer to get you to leave our nation alone and go bother someone else like…say….North Korea?” should keep viewers riveted long enough for the virus to further mutate into one that can comprehend these questions and articulate a response in a known language (preferably English because CNN viewers don’t like subtitles unless they’re in the form of an amusing and insightful ticker that scrolls across the bottom of their screens and tells them who won a Grammy).

I know I may be jumping the gun, but I’ve already applied for a position as a mass-grave cart-puller. I’ve always dreamed of holding a job that allowed me to ring a bell and call, “Bring out your dead” all day long. You’d be surprised how rarely I get to do that as a professional screenwriter. I figure it’s a good idea to have another line of work ready since I doubt there will be much call for cartoon and miniseries scripts once most of the human population is wiped out and we descend into another dark age because everybody who knows how everything works will be roasting on a pyre with the billions of diseases chickens we used to need to feed ourselves.

You know, I recently had a pitch for a TV episode turned down because it was deemed “too ghoulish.” I can’t understand where they got that kind of idea about my work.

Ireland, Day Five

My final moments in Ireland were spent trying to find a chemist who would sell me something for the headache I’d woken up with. Ah, it was going to be a long trip.

Aside from panic-related reasons, much of my objection to flight as a means of travel is sinus based. During descent, about half the time I can expect the change in air pressure to suck a hefty wad of phlegm into my ear canal, causing crippling pain. This is very inconvenient for me, because I find it hard to concentrate properly on my fear when I feel like there’s an ice pick digging into my skull. Furthermore, this ear canal blockage usually refuses to dislodge itself in a timely fashion, and I can be stuck with it for days afterward. It will often sit there until it gets infected, and then only time or penicillin will fix it.

Such a blockage is what happened landing in Philadelphia, and was compounded by a second landing in Montreal soon after. I had to live with the popping sound effects in my left ear every time I blew my nose for weeks afterwards. It only cleared up a few days ago following some spicy food and a bloody nasal discharge. But enough about my infections.

The stopover in Philadelphia was an uneventful and very lengthy five hours. The greatest excitement came when I fell asleep face down in my luggage and woke up with vision so blurred by my squished eyelashes, I thought I had detached a retina.

As a special favour to the people who were picking up the tab for this whole trip, I agreed to mule some Irish whiskey through Canadian customs. This isn’t as nefarious as it sounds. We were all allowed a certain legal limit, and since I wasn’t bringing any booze home for myself, I brought along a couple extra bottles in my bag and claimed it as my own. It was all perfectly, sort-of-ly, legal. Thankfully I didn’t have to hide it up my ass, or decant it into a series of condoms I could swallow and then regurgitate after passing customs. Admittedly, some of the more gruesome specifics of modern smuggling techniques fascinate me, and I’m always interested in the methodology of sneaking a kilo into the country when you don’t have a convenient dead baby you can hollow out.

Again my carry-ons ruled the day. Leaving my companions behind to deal with the whys and wherefores of more lost luggage, I grabbed my ride home to begin my recovery from the journey – and the extensive notes I had to assemble about the project in an effort to agree on what we’d all agreed on.

Okay, enough travelogue. Back to business.

Sleepless In Montreal

After I finished peeing, I took a good look at myself in the bathroom mirror. My worst fears had been realized. A lab-test monkey was looking back at me. Harried, blood-shot eyes peeked out from under a mop of tangled hair that was thick with blobs of electro-conductive jelly. Dozens of wires, taped and epoxied all over my head and face dangled down, disappearing into a junction box strapped over my shoulder. It was the middle of the night for me – 11:00 am to everyone else. This lab monkey may have been out of his cage, but the taste of freedom was to be brief. There were more cruel and unusual experiments to come, and hours of more test time to log. Escape might come later, but for now it was back to a fitful nightmare of semi-consciousness under the watchful gaze of the video cameras and the row of computers monitoring my every twitch and brainwave.

This was the sleep clinic, two months ago.

“Have you ever been waxed?” she asked, barely able to hide her sadistic glee.

Let’s call her a nurse. I’m sure the term is incorrect and I’m sure it would displease her. But you can’t be too picky about semantics when you dress in white, work in a hospital, and perform menial medical procedures on patients. The medical procedure of the moment was the removal of the electrodes that were taped to my shaggy legs. The test was over, and it was time to detach all the equipment that had been fitted to my body eight hours earlier. The nurse was of the short-sharp-shock school of Band-Aid removal. In this case they weren’t Band-Aids, but a special brand of medical tape stuck all over my face, chest and legs. But the principle was the same. One quick, jarringly painful rip and the tape was gone. So was a substantial tuft of leg hair, but at least it was all over. For that stretch of tape. Thirteen more to go.

By the time I stumbled out of there, I looked like I had been gang raped. It would take days to wash all the sticky crap off my body, and about as long for the physical damage to fade. I knew it wasn’t going to be a happy experience when I first arrived. I’d seen one of the other test monkeys taking a bathroom break while I was in the waiting room. He had looked like hell, and now I looked exactly like him. My hair was matted with jelly, my face covered with red welts where the electrodes had been taped, and I had the eyes and gait of a man who’d just had the single worst night of sleep in history.

There wasn’t much new about that last part. I’d been among the living dead for a very long time. In fact, I hadn’t slept at all in at least ten years. Oh, I’d fall into a state of unconsciousness regularly. No doubt about it. But sleep – real sleep – was something I hadn’t known since I was a teenager, if even then.

Every morning I’d wake up exhausted, often with a headache, never with any energy. A shower, a cup of tea, breakfast, and I’d be functional. Barely. I’d go through my day in a fog. It felt like I had moss growing on my brain and I was never fully awake or aware. This would last for three, maybe four hours, and then I’d need to go to bed again. A five or six hour nap would gear me up to get some work done in the evening before it was time to go to bed again for real. And the cycle would repeat.

This was my life as a zombie. I was a high-functioning zombie, but a zombie nevertheless. Never truly awake, never truly asleep. What I accomplished, I managed through a cocktail of adrenalin and caffeine.

tonsil diagramI’d considered checking into a sleep clinic for years, but it wasn’t until things become intolerable that I admitted something had to be done. I knew I snored, but over the last year it became impossible for my wife and I to sleep at the same time in the same bed. I didn’t breathe so much as struggle for air at a high decibel level.

I first heard about sleep apnea when I was still a kid, and even then I thought I might have it. A month after my night of monitored sleep at the clinic and I was finally, officially diagnosed with it. I had apnea all right. I had it bad.

Described as “severe” sleep apnea, the graph told the tale of a struggle for air that was waking me up at a rate of slightly more than once a minute. This would go on all night, with me waking myself up hundreds of times in a row until morning. I was getting no REM sleep whatsoever. My condition – as far as my own personal take on it went – was killing me slowly but surely.

There were two solutions suggested. The first, offered with no guarantees, was to be surgically altered. Doctors would remove the single largest pair of tonsils any of them had ever seen, along with a few other slices of extraneous meat, and we’d hope for the best. Choice “B” was the mask.

cpapCPAP machine is designed to keep the airway of an apnea sufferer open with a continuous flow of air pressure. I already knew this would work. They’d hooked me up to one of these gizmos for the second half of my sleep test, and the graph said it all: regular breathing, REM sleep.

I accepted the CPAP prescription, made an appointment with the nearest CPAP technician, and prepared to spend my last restless night on the couch.

Now, make no mistake about it, connecting myself to a ventilator machine every night via a long hose and mask that makes headgear braces look absolutely suave by comparison is a private little hell I wish on no one. But there’s no denying the thing works. I’ve been on it for a month now, and I’m still just figuring out what’s normal for me – normal amount of sleep, normal level of alertness, normal functionality. All I know, as I told my sleep clinic doctor today in a follow-up appointment, is that my worst night of sleep with the machine is better than my best night of sleep without. The whole humiliating medical procedure I went through to get diagnosed may have been worth the ordeal after all.

But if you think that was bad, remind me to tell you about my colonoscopy some time.