Hand me down my walkin' cane
Updated: May 1, 2022
Yes, and on our spring walk along the Galloping Goose bike trail, dilapidated railway tracks and Capital Regional District right-of-way with the No Trespassing signs all the dog owners blithely ignore, we are greeted with such an abundance of arresting sights that it’s all I can do not to weep for joy.
Rekha’s knowledge of the plants that flourish here on southern Vancouver Island far exceeds mine. But in a pinch, I could probably name dozens of flowers and ferns, shrubs and bushes, deciduous trees and conifers as we saunter along.
Spring gold and nodding fawn lilies, for starters. Western buttercups, paintbrushes, Henderson’s shooting stars and blue-eyed Marys. Chocolate lilies, purple dead nettle, Siberian miner’s lettuce and Belgian bluebells. Grape hyacinth (superb, but neither a grape nor a hyacinth). In our neighbourhood, glorious six-petalled, blue-violet camas are just now starting to pop.
Haughty dark-eyed juncos flick their distinctive white outer tail feathers while rushing for cover after being flushed by our intrusion. A spotted towhee forages loudly through last fall’s leaf litter before scolding us with angry red eyes and his hoarse, two-parted alarm call from a tangled thicket of invasive Himalayan blackberry canes.
Rekha is drawing my attention to the beautiful clusters of yellow-green flowers on a big-leaf maple, whose five-lobed leaves will have grown to 30 centimetres across by September. But I’m twitching my walking stick and less attentive than I should be.
My head is buzzing again with random images and half-remembered lines for yet another crappy poem that I’ll never write and which the world will never miss.
The cordon sanitaire of the mystical presence of God, for pity’s sake.
Mental derangement, confabulatory spirit projection, shapeshifting, sorcery, prosody.
Nude odalisques and long cataleptic naps.
Alpine theorems in Dirndl dresses and dragon spume.
Nonsensical stuff like that. The river is moving. The blackbird must be flying, as Wallace Stevens once observed.
The rhythmic, hooting call of a barred owl in the distance: Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all? A grey squirrel bounds across the path in front of us. Immature bald eagles or red-tailed hawks — they’re too far away for me to be sure without my glasses — circle lazily overhead, using thermals and updrafts to effortlessly drift, bank and soar.
More gimcrack images from stuff I’ve read or dreamed lately keep bubbling up:
Linoleum-cut bicyclists careening past, ahem, newspaper taxis at intersections.
The swaying, noisome backs of bobblehead beetles on rotting bark.
Ersatz Disney creations and pink-orange Paw Patrol toys in landfills.
The silver cup that Anne Boleyn gave to Henry VIII.
Ortelius’s Theatrum Orbis Mundi and the golden age of Netherlandish cartography.
A strange elongated shape that when viewed at a certain angle becomes a skull.
This might all sound crazy (it certainly does to my doctor buddies) and it probably is. But to me — dwarfed at this stage in our walk on the wild side by windswept Western red cedars and towering Douglas fir — the rekindling of my sodden imagination is a sign of renewal rather than decay.
The sea of needles and leaves in which we’re immersed are tiny factories that turn air and water into sugar. It takes a smidgeon of imagination for a human brain to turn sugar into air and water and, I dunno, a few bars of Lili Marlene. Seems a more than fair exchange to me.
With their green sterile stems and leaves whorled at the joints, the common horsetails emerging in the low, wet drainage trenches along the trail are the last remnant of a chlorophyll-lacking, spore-bearing family of herbaceous perennials that grew to the size of trees in prehistoric times. They strike me as vaguely pornographic barber’s poles for dwarfs and elves, though the reigning urban forest champions in that department are the tropical-looking skunk cabbages that flourish in any seepage area.
“They look like penises and vaginas,” confides Rekha, not usually given to scatological observations. But with their small green flowers packed on a fleshy spike surrounded by a gorgeous yellow spathe up to a metre long, that’s pretty much what they are. They’re called skunk cabbage, I suppose, because they emit a strong odour reminiscent of a skunk or a big fat doobie, but the insipid name fails to do justice to such a stupendous signature of spring on the West Coast.
Rekha is no fan of what she considers these garish displays, but seems especially drawn to the unspectacular, quotidian, second-rate characters like stonecrop, sea blush and monkey-flowers. Which might help explain what she’s doing with me.
Dull roots with spring rain. A little life with dried tubers.
As we plod along, holding hands in awed silence, more images and ideas spill out, like the nascent fronds of sword ferns. But unlike the unfolding fiddleheads, my interior monologue proceeds without design and to no apparent purpose:
Ecstatic prayer as a mystical pathway to the divine.
An old-world shtetl and the 613 commandments.
Hundreds of metres of barbed wire, beyond which, nothing.
Yeshiva students throwing stones at a car.
Engravings, miniatures, stained glass and the façades of houses.
A herd of independent minds opposing vaccines.
Phrenology and animal magnetism.
Transcendentalisms, myths and oracular gibberish.
The inviolable order of the world.
I am thinking about vaccines, you see, because we are taking the scenic route to our neighbourhood apothecary. I’m about to receive my fourth COVID jab. The pharmacist will explain that because I’m immunocompromised, four shots for me is like three for a healthy person.
But we’re not there yet. I stop holding Rekha’s hand for a moment to check my jacket pocket. Inside is the sandwich bag you might have seen in the photo that accompanies this — putting it as generously as possible — rambling disquisition.
I haven’t counted them, but there are surely more than 100 tablets and pills inside. Some are blue and some are pink and some are yellow and some are white and some are orange (has anyone ever studied the dyes they put in these things?) and some are round and some are oblong and some are etched with writing and some are as big as the casings for Contact C tiny-time capsules and some are as miniaturized as wee gumballs or cake sprinkles. Each is sort of its own Holbein carpet, with mental palettes of soft pinks and reds, vivid blues and greens.
Yes, and I could sell this bag for hundreds of dollars on Pandora Avenue, hub of Victoria’s illegal street-drug scene. If a depressed person wanted to, he or she or they could commit suicide many times over with the bag inside my pocket and a simple glass of water. His or her or their head would turn to sugar and air in less than an hour.
Here’s what I would say to a person in that frame of mind: Tell ’em a hookah-smoking caterpillar has given you the call:
Avant-garde artistic techniques mixed with agitprop.
A blue sea star clinging to a coral head.
A pale, ghostly, ecologically devastated oceanic simulacrum; tubes, tendrils and spines.
Surreptitious stirrings: corpses being lowered into narrow ice holes.
Exquisite water colours and miniatures.
Oh hell. More incoming. Roll iconic M*A*S*H helicopter intro.
Rowers bent in unison like parts of a pinnate leaf, the vanes of a feather.
Fractals of clothing and greenery suspended, like coxswains, in sunshine.
Painted cherubs; the kinds of things you hang in the bathroom.
The vast interior of Queen’s Hall (later destroyed in the Blitz).
Gilt fountains of goldfish, Apocalypse and wallpaper.
At the point where these paths join, a rondel of geometric heads and cloche hats.
And yes, we are going to the pharmacy so I can get a booster shot — which I thought would be my second, but which turns out by the power of mathematics and a truant immune system to be my first — but that’s not why there is such a (you’ll pardon the expression) spring in my step.
The salmonberry and the Indian plum are poised to bloom, followed in quick succession by fairyslipper, thimbleberry and false Solomon’s seal. The holly-leaved Oregon grapes and the saskatoon berries and the late-season cherry trees are already in full blossom regalia. There are stunning stands of daffodils and narcissi that have escaped the surly bonds of better lawns and gardens. But that’s not why I’m wired as the scores of Italian wall lizards basking on rocks and fences, brick walls and peeling paper birch trunks.
Apart from the COVID shot, my key mission today — should I decide to accept it, and I have — is to dispose of the gaudy bag of prescription drugs at the pharmacy. They are mostly anti-depressants prescribed by a psychiatrist over Zoom calls (we’ve never met in person) in an attempt to cure my insomnia and, ostensibly, to cheer me up.
They invariably made me sadder and, even at remarkably high doses, never knocked me out for more than a few hours. I would wake up at midnight or one or two and talk for hours in a loud voice that sounded like someone else’s, repeating “Hit me” over and over again. Never knew why but couldn't stop myself. I would hide from company and the sun. I refused to leave the house except for unavoidable radiation treatments. Rekha decided to sleep in a different room for a while.
Black lambs skipping under blossoms.
Hindu designs of Shiva, ideograms of Peruvian symbolism.
The furrowed earth, wild and shaky as a zig-zag symbol of fecundity from Central Asia.
Wild and shaky as the handwriting of a frenzied sans-culotte on 9 Thermidor Year II.
Vita Sackville-West striding across plains in Turkish pants and emeralds.
Escherian tessellations of interlocking female figures, sugar lumps, mackerel, sausages.
Grilled songbirds, rice, pork and mutton, a bottle of wine.
A million micro-decisions through the 24 hours of the day.
Trompe-l’oeil arches, balconies and niches.
Mary Stuart’s altar, where she prayed before her execution.
A farmer’s wife carrying her bucket to milk the cows.
Figures and feathery trees from Jain rock statues, martyrs of facticity.
People constructed from tangrams, all edge and all angle.
They huddle like our grandparents before enormous radios.
The jaw hanging open of the dead Christ in his tomb.
His master’s voice.
And that is quite enough of that, Herr Castorp. Way too easy to satirize. I know, in any case, that you’re impatient to get to the contents of the bag, six inches wide and one and a half inches thick with:
• Clonazepam (an anticonvulsant used to prevent and control seizures and panic attacks).
• Mirtazapine (sold under the brand name Remeron among others, an antidepressant commonly used off-label to treat sleep disorders).
• Lorazepam (sold under the brand name Ativan among others, a benzodiazepine used to treat anxiety disorders, sleep problems, seizures, alcohol withdrawal, nut-bar agitation, and nausea or vomiting induced by chemotherapy).
• Trazodone (sold under many brand names, an antidepressant used to treat major depressive disorder, anxiety disorders and sleep difficulties).
• Doxepin (marketed as Sinequan by Pfizer and by Boehringer as Quitaxon or Aponal, a medication used to treat — stop me if you’ve heard this one before — major depressive disorder, anxiety disorders and sleep difficulties. The extra selling feature of this baby is that it also tackles chronic hives).
• Venlafaxine (most commonly sold under the brand name Effexor, an antidepressant of the serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor class — you really can’t make this stuff up — used to treat the usual, with social phobia and chronic pain thrown in).
• Olanzapine (sold under the brand name Zyprexa among others, an antipsychotic medication primarily used to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disease).
• Quetiapine (usually sold under the brand name Seroquel, an antipsychotic used for the treatment of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder).
Even while acknowledging that there is a crow overhead making burbling sounds eerily reminiscent of human speech and that the wild oxeye daisies are so thick along this part of the trail that they could be mistaken for a snowbank, I must protest at this point that I have never suffered from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or (this last one is a bit iffier, I guess, but who’s to judge?) a major depression.
And just to prove I’m stable as a table, it’s time for more indiscretion (feel free to scroll though this part quickly like everyone else or feed your head, feed your head):
Esophageal ascending stairs, arabesques of curved wings and smoke trails.
Swinging swords and gleaming tonsures rising from braziers in back gardens.
Encomiums and tocsins of church bells for Kurds and Medes and caravans.
(This is Lotta Hitschmanova, giving all her love to just one man.)
Robespierre physically blocked from getting to the rostrum, struggling to be heard.
Wee Willy Winkie in his nightgown.
The dancing plague of 1518 and descents of our ancestors into alcoholic pointillism.
(When this Magic Boomerang flies in the sky, all time will stand still.)
Clergymen and spinsters in mushroom hats collecting fossils, ravaging the coast.
The temporary relief of sick men shifting positions in bed.
(Please give generously to the Unitarian Service Committee, 56 Sparks Street, Ottawa 4.)
Now, as I was saying before we were so rudely interrupted by a girl with kaleidoscope eyes — and, as you can infer by how doggedly I can chaperone a topic, brooking no such interruptions — there is absolutely nothing wrong with my bean.
There hasn’t been since late February, when I disobeyed doctor’s orders and made the valiant effort of staying up five days and nights in a row to break a dependence on various combinations of the legally prescribed, heretofore described, mind-altering tickets to ... what, exactly? Let’s call it a bardo state akin to the revised mental circuitry of, I dunno, let’s say 19th-century railroad construction foreman Phineas Gage after an errant iron spike pierced his skull.
And just what did I visualize as the Philippe Petit of high-wire somnambulism?
Those same sick men in black caftans and swinging beads, lit by the Mithraic sun.
A widow found dead in her bedroom, lipstick smeared on her pillow.
Luminous floats coiled in the night like the cocooned wings of bottled butterflies.
Discontinuities in the geologic record, unevenly intricate involutions.
Memory gaps, clefts in space, fissures in time, the impossibility of knowing
laterally thatching their lines together like a net, nodes between skeins
of vague, empty, rock-roughened pastures and abandoned farms.
Big John, big John.
Big bad John.
The Veil of Veronica, a relic of incalculable value.
The smell of Connie Sachs’s dog by the fire.
Aside from turning me into a snub-nosed zombie with a pudding-bowl haircut for the year that I was riding that train — high, but not on cocaine — the drugs that were just dropped into my mind — to see what condition my condition was in — all came with the risks of infelicitous side effects. With the lunatic off the grass, out of the hall and banished from my head, here’s a view of the risks from my Pullman window:
• Clonazepam: Sleepiness, poor co-ordination, agitation, increased risk of suicide.
• Mirtazapine: Sleepiness, dizziness, mania, weight gain, low white blood cell count, increased risk of suicide.
• Lorazepam: Weakness, sleepiness, low blood pressure, breathing problems, increased risk of suicide.
• Trazodone: Dry mouth, feeling faint, vomiting, headache, irregular heartbeat, mania, pathologically prolonged erections, increased risk of suicide.
• Doxepin: Sleepiness, dry mouth, constipation, nausea, blurry vision, mania, urinary retention, increased risk of suicide.
• Venlafaxine: Loss of appetite, constipation, dry mouth, dizziness, sweating, insomnia, drowsiness, sexual problems, mania and — are you sensing a Leitmotiv here (or maybe a madrigal, the solo line heard above other parts)? — increased risk of suicide. This one also sent me to the hospital for X-rays, dead certain that I was having a heart attack. Turned out to be a very convincing panic attack.
• Olanzapine: Weight gain, movement disorders, dizziness, feeling tired, dry mouth, constipation, low blood pressure, high blood sugar, seizures, abnormal enlargement of breasts in males, erectile dysfunction, involuntary body movements such as repeatedly grimacing, sticking out one’s tongue or lip smacking, an increased risk of death in people with dementia, hallucinations and excessive thoughts about suicide. (Question: How many thoughts about suicide are considered restrained, healthy and rational?)
• Quetiapine: Sleepiness, constipation, weight gain, dry mouth, low blood pressure, seizures, high blood sugar, prolonged erections, the repetitive lip-smacking thing, high fevers, confusion, rigid muscles, an increased risk of death in people with dementia, an alleged connection (in multiple lawsuits) with the onset or worsening of diabetes, an alleged connection (in 10,000 lawsuits filed against AstraZeneca) with slurred speech and chronic insomnia. Oh, and an increased risk of suicide.
Sadly, I missed out on the pathological priapism. Plenty of others, though, ring full-bore, been-there-done-that bells straight out of a five-alarm Johnny Depp-Amanda Heard tropical vacation.
I can’t help wondering about long-term damage to my liver, heart and kidneys via uncharted interactions of these antidepressants — all sold to me as safe, worth-the-gamble, let’s-go-ahead-and-roll-the-dice sedatives by my GP, psychiatrist and a psychiatric nurse — with the other daily medications prescribed by my oncologists. Principally, those would be Gabapentin for pain, and two non-steroid anti-androgens used to suppress testosterone production as a treatment for prostate cancer, Bicalutamide and Goserelin. At various times, there were also a couple of side effect-heavy urological drugs in the mix: Tolterodine (Detrol) and Mirabegron (Mrybetriq).
After some slow-motion, senior citizen-style “scampering” over gnarly tree roots, ankle-twisting pine cones and ancient bedrock — striated and grooved by debris from the last Ice Age back when we were pitching woo, by cracky — Rekha and I have reached a portion of our journey that borders what must be the remains of an abandoned farm. Is there a better balm for sore soles, by the way, than a massage of rocks and roots through muddy running shoes?
No buildings or even foundations remain, but the plum, apple and pear trees planted many decades ago are in a blind, orgasmic fury of efflorescence. The white flowers of the woodland strawberries and the fragrant, pinkish florets of the native kinnikinnick are thriving amid the year’s most energetic burst of grasses and sedges and clovers and dandelions.
The force that through the green fuses is driving the flowers. Driving my green age. Blasting the roots of trees.
A doughty freedom fighter has etched “Scamdemic” into the smooth, impossible-to-resist-rubbing-one’s-hand-along bark of an arbutus, Canada’s only broadleaf evergreen. The leaves feel like leather and favour those of a rhododendron. Which reminds me. The city-wide magnolia are cresting at their magnificent pinnacle this time of year. The freedom fighters, I would say, are a little past their best-before date.
As we pass a house where kiwifruit are beginning to leaf out on an elaborate espalier, a jaunty old man in a turban and matching tie waves merrily. He has a plastic sunflower on his lapel.
We come now to a small suspension bridge over Millstream Creek, where a commuting cyclist seems mesmerized by the rapids below. He is garishly arrayed — like most other casual cyclists these days, including those on electric bikes — for the Tour de France or maybe the Giro d’Italia. I used to love passing these jokers on my 40-year-old CCM three speed.
Those were the days.
This used to be our favourite part of the walk — the dip in the trail offers a cool respite on a hot summer day — but it has been tainted forever by the horrifying abduction, rape, mutilation and murder of a teenage girl 12 years ago by two schoolmates who tried to burn her body under the bridge.
The young psychopaths, who toted the victim’s body to this sacred place in a hockey bag, would presumably have benefited from a heavy-duty drug intervention after it became clear to their teachers and their parents that they were going off the rails.
I get that. Psychoactive medications designed to alter perceptions, moods, consciousness, cognition and, above all, behaviour, have been rightly credited with wondrous results. I’m not advocating that anyone now being treated by a competent therapist follow me into a cold-turkeyed, clear-headed sobriety. Tapering usage under the guidance of a physician is clearly the wisest way to go when you want to tackle an addiction or drug dependence.
But I will say that unless the goal is to generate interesting anecdotes for conferences and academic papers, or to maximize fees for Zoom consultations and never-ending prescriptions (perish the thought), it’s less clear to me why the medical community is willing to throw so much mud into healthy minds just to see what sticks.
I know the toolbox is limited. I know I asked for help. There are too many patients, too few doctors, and COVID has broken the donkey’s back. My shrink was surprised but seemed genuinely pleased when I told her I had gone rogue and was feeling ever so much better. We have one last Zoom call scheduled to make sure I haven’t fallen off a cliff, and that should be that.
But these pills really do fuck with your mind, pardon my French. And when your mind is tout fucké, it’s comforting to believe the experts must know what’s good for you, even if what they’re doing isn’t working. After all, they went to school and what do you know? Your mind is fucked. Quod erat demonstrandum.
The good news about your mind, based on my experience anyway, is that you can get it back. Most of it. This might sound glib (because it is) but even if you think you can’t think, take a long walk to think about it. Remember what the dormouse said:
Let x represent a dust devil of bone and CT scans, MRIs and gut-destroying antibiotics.
Let y represent a year and a half of testosterone-wasting hormone therapy.
Let x be real.
If x, then y.
If not x, then not y.
It’s not only the square root of two that’s irrational.
Now you are 2.
Let a series of antidepressants cause affective resonances of vermillion dreams,
the reliable trundling of blue and yellow trams
and what Henry James liked to call the little ewe-lambs of possible exotic experience.
Let your mind be a numinous boy or girl riffling through an old atlas.
Let Philippe Petit navigate a telephone line of crooked little houses by a crooked little sea.
Amass proofs by contradiction, reductiones ad absurdum, intersecting lines.
Two trains 100 miles apart are on the same track, heading toward one another.
Let a fly start out at the front of one train at 100 miles an hour.
Points have no parts.
Sugar plum fairy, sugar plum fairy, sugar plum fairy.
Let that fly be you.
Circles, conics and flakes of flames tumble through coiled branches.
Points become words, lines become sentences.
Infinite planes become origami paragraphs.
Add codices, glyphs, mental derangement, spirit projection, shamanic night flying.
Let the fly approach the second train.
Mesopotamian traders scratch marks on clay.
Let Paul Klee take lines for walks.
Let Rekha walk me to the drugstore.
Paul is dead.
Let the fly reach the second train, turn around with this warning for the first:
Casey Jones you better
watch your speed.
Will the two trains collide, crushing the fly, or can disaster be averted?
You think, ergo vos esse.
Yes, and now I am standing proudly in front of the prescription counter with a bag of pills in my hand.
“No sharps in there?” a matronly pharmacist asks through her mask. She takes the bag without even a glimmer of surprise. Sticks it in a drawer. Walks away.
So now I’m the surprised one. After all the buildup, this lacklustre dénouement isn’t how I thought things would play out. Not sure what I was expecting, exactly — a high five, a thumbs-up emoji, the tune that plays triumphantly at the checkout when you win $10 with a Lotto 649 ticket? — but I haven’t felt this deflated since the final episode of Seinfeld. I might as well have been returning an empty jar of Metamucil. A crushed can of Pepsi Zero.
Turns out the ones that you give Mother don’t do anything at all.
Still. This has been a pretty good day. I feel a song coming on. Hit me, Scruggs:
Hand me down my walkin’ cane.
Lord, hand me down my walkin’ cane.
Hand me down my walkin’ cane.
I’m gonna leave on the morning train.
My sins, they have overtaken me.