Thursday, March 23, 2017

Glider Panic

I would rather do anything else than write this, and so, of course, I'll write.

Early on Wednesday, I felt isolated, insecure, and this prompted me to glance at the Facebook page of my last girlfriend. Because we are no longer friends, most of her page is hidden to me, but I did notice a new collection of photographs devoted to a March blizzard, one severe enough to stop all travelers, except for her "champion," the man she loves.

Then I felt as I once did when I was in a glider, caught in a wild thermal, carried higher and higher as the pilot beside me struggled to bring us back to the ground. Far below us, a plowed field was losing its topsoil to the wind, and the column of its loss rose like a volcanic plume, gone forever into the sky.

I had always known that she would find someone else, because a woman like her had so much to offer to any man with eyes and emotions. I also knew that her happiness mattered to me, that I would never want for her to be alone. I knew these things, but I still felt that glider panic, I still saw that loss to the sky.

Then I realized that Facebook had not brought me to her page, but to a choice of pages from women who shared her name. This woman and her champion of the blizzard live in Québec, while my last girlfriend lives on the other side of the continent.

But for the rest of the day, and for the night that followed, I still felt as if I were caught in that unforgiving sky. Even if she has nobody now, the odds are good that she will again, someday.

And if that is what she wants, then that is what I want for her. The whole point of her leaving was to follow her needs of the heart, and to find what she could never find with me. She gave me the happiest years of my life, and I would never deny her a chance to find similar years of her own.

I only wish the ground were not so far away.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

A Cause for Cerebration

Late on Sunday night, to celebrate my birthday, I watched "The Inheritors" again, which is my favourite episode from the second season of The Outer Limits. And yes, I did cry at the end.

I finished watching at 4:30 AM, then stepped from my darkened bedroom to the bathroom, where the fluorescent light seem unusually brilliant. When I returned to my computer to write notes on the episode, I found the monitor partially blocked by a dazzling white retinal afterimage. I tried to work around it, but its intensity increased: an effect I had never seen before.

Within a few minutes the afterimage became a white starburst pattern with a violet fringe, and it began to flicker like a strobe lamp. I closed one eye, then the other, and found a similar strobing in each. The flickering intensified.

At this point, I began to worry. In the bathroom, I peered at my eyes in the mirror, raised my arms above my head, stuck out my tongue, spoke aloud. In the hallway, I balanced on one leg, and then on the other: no problem. Then I recalled descriptions my father had told me about migraine auras; they had plagued him, now and then. I had never had migraines in my life, and had no interest in starting. Worry swelled into fear.

I called the Québec emergency health hotline. As I described my symptoms, the starburst drifted leftward until it was nothing more than a flickering rim at the edge of sight. Within less than a minute, the effect was gone. "I've never experienced anything like this."

The man on the other line went to consult with staff; when he came back, he said, "Get to an emergency room, right now."

And so, at five o'clock in the morning, unshaven and frozen, I waited outside in the cold white moonlight for a taxi.

The driver was a friendly bald man with an opaquely slavic accent; he had been driving taxis for 22 years. "I am not rich," he said, "But I am there for my children. One must always be there for one's children."

At the Gatineau hospital, where I go to have my blood tested for its coagulation levels, I arrived at 6:30, still in darkness. I had no idea how to say "afterimage" in French, and so the nurses found my descriptions baffling.

After two hours in the waiting room (where an old man snored like a faulty jet engine), I spoke with a Dr. Bonneville. He took me through the standard procedure to find any symptoms of stroke, but I was able to follow his moving finger, see his moving hands with peripheral vision, touch my nose with both hands at the same time, and so on. No indication of stroke.

When I told him that I was on Coumadin for my blood clot, he gave me a grim look and said, "There's a problem with Coumadin: it makes you bleed." He spoke about one patient who, like me, had never experienced these visual phenomena before. The cause? Bleeding in the brain.

I must have turned pale. "Was he... all right?"

"Yes, he was fine; the bleeding was minor. And the chances of your having this condition are small. But all the same...."

When he left the room to call a neurologist, I stared at the probes and the tubes on the walls and did what I could to assure myself that my bleeding, too, was minor. By now it was 9:00 in the morning, I had not eaten since midnight, and I was also worried about hypoglycaemia.

The doctor came back, and told me that I was going to be transferred to another hospital for a CAT scan and a meeting with the neurologist at 2:00; the only drawback was that I would have to fast until the procedure was completed. I looked at the clock on the wall: four hours to wait without food, but what the hell. "I can handle that."

After blood tests and a long wait to see if the scan could be scheduled, a nurse put a shunt in my arm, and the staff paid a taxi driver to take me to the Hull Hospital, which happens to be less than a half-hour walk from my apartment building.

The driver was friendly, Muslim, and certain that he would no longer visit the United States. "Trump didn't win," he said, "Hillary lost. And I'm glad she lost." We went on to discuss her foreign policy record, and Trump's political pandering. By the time we arrived at the Hull hospital, we were both happy to be Canadians.

I was able to complete the scan half an hour before my appointment with the neurologist. The scan technician was helpful: she took me through each new step of the procedure before she acted. "Now I'm going to cross over to the other side, and inject the iodine." This made my head feel as if I were trapped under a sun lamp. The deep droning whir of the scanner made me think of a magnetic maelstrom.

Afterwards, when I took off the hospital robe to put my shirt back on, the gruff (but not unlikeably gruff), white-haired woman who ran the department said to me, "The changing booth is over there. This is not a changing room, this is my personal workspace."

I smiled and apologized. The old man waiting beside me for a scan said, "Don't worry about me, I'm not offended!"

An hour later, while I waited in the neurologist's office, I noticed a pair of threatening machines that looked like grinding or sharpening tools from a metal shop. I went up for a closer look; as far as I could tell, they were dental equipment.

The neurologist, Dr. Gagnon, came into the room at a rapid pace. A short, round-faced man with a comical moustache, he greeted me in French and began to talk about my symptoms.

"Pardonnez-moi," I said, "mais je manque un vocabulaire quotidien...."

He laughed, rolled his chair up to a computer monitor, and spoke in perfectly fine English with an accent I could not place -- German? Swiss?

"You've had your scan? Let's take a look at it." As he opened images on the monitor, I feared the worst.

"What we have here is -- oh, pardon me, that's my call." He answered the cell phone, stood up, left the room, and left me seated there. I began to fear the worse than worst.

When he came back after several minutes of worst, I said, in my horrible French, "I was here on the edge of panic, and then your phone rang...."

He laughed loudly and happily: "I love that!"

Then he displayed the scanned images in sequence, which made them look like a cartoon trip through a skull. I felt the strangeness that hits you when you peer at your own brain.

"Ah," he said. "I'm not worried for you. Everything here is the way it should be."

"Can this really show if something's wrong?"

"Oh, yes. It would show us tumours, blood clots --"

"And bleeding?"

"Oh, yes, bleeding too. But there's no sign of anything like that. And see this? Your vertebrae, aorta, they all seem fine. I'm not worried for you."

He explained that what I had seen had been a surge through the visual cortex, an aura without migraine. When people who have never experienced one before suddenly see an aura, doctors need to know the cause. And given my father's migraines, I had been wise to have this checked.

"If you go through this again, don't worry. Just let it pass. You should only be concerned if it leads to headaches or any other violent symptoms, or if it lasts for more than sixty minutes."

And so, nine-and-a-half hours after I had been dropped off at the first hospital, feeling weak, now, but not horrendously hypoglycaemic, I walked home on a bright and very cold afternoon. I thought about brains, about what can harm them, and I noticed all the cars around me, all the dangerous intersections, all the spots of ice on the sidewalk. I had been looking forward to biking season, and of course I always wore a helmet, but would a helmet really save me, if...?

Then I breathed in cold air, looked at the clear, cold sky, and reminded myself that Dr. Gagnon had shown me a healthy brain. This had to count for something. This had to be a cause not only for cerebration, but for celebration, too.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Unsettling Punch of Brevity

Two days ago, when I re-read "The Great Clock," by Langdon Jones, I was reminded of just how powerful a story can be when it widens focus in the final paragraphs -- when it pulls back, like the story here, from a tight concentration on one character's disaster to reveal the larger impact of a catastrophe, or when it pulls back to reveal a greater personal crisis beyond the small symptoms we had been offered up to that point ("The Beautiful Stranger," by Shirley Jackson), the larger pattern of pain or obsession in a group or family ("The Fifth Head of Cerberus," by Gene Wolfe), the human loss that extends beyond the loss of one person ("The Dying Man," by Damon Knight), the greater mystery behind a small one (The Haunted Hotel, by Wilkie Collins), or even a larger, more sinister context in a story that had seemed local, specific, and simple ("A Wedding," by William Sansom).

The technique is different in a story like "The Dead Valley," by Ralph Adams Cram, which pulls back to reveal the long-term duration and repetition of what had seemed like one isolated, uncanny event: the widening focus, here, takes place over several pages, instead of being concentrated in just a few lines. This method can be powerful (as it is in the story by Cram), but it lacks the unsettling punch of brevity.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Notes to Myself: Nigel Kneale, Drama, Gotcha Finales

All too often, horror stories rely on a Gotcha! finale that brings the tension to a tipping point, but leaves unresolved many of the interesting conflicts that were used as a basis for the story. In short, many horror stories lack drama.

Two examples come to mind, both from someone I respect: Nigel Kneale. Of the scripts he wrote for the television anthology series, Beasts, both "The Dummy" and "Baby" represent stories that go nowhere. They spin around, rise to an ending, then stop, but they also forsake the elements that would make a horror story a good story. Their central conflicts hang in the sky, unresolved. "Baby" ends with a Gotcha! that implies nothing about how its protagonist will deal with her problems; "The Dummy" ends with a pile of corpses, but no sense of connection with the troubles of its characters.

Of course, a good story can remain in the sky, but usually after its characters have grown enough to meet a conflict head-on (as in Chekhov's "The Lady With the Dog"). In such cases, their desire for change, their determination to find a way, is enough to make the story meaningful. Other, more challenging stories, like A. E. Coppard's "Dusky Ruth," leave much unexplained, but succeed as enigmatic "slice of life" tales that imply more than they state. Stories like "Baby" and "The Dummy," however, have been structured as dramas, which makes their failure to follow the traditional pathways of drama all the more disappointing.

In "Baby," the protagonist worries about her unborn child, and wants to get away from a house and a landscape that seem to kill the unborn. Her husband, an ambitious veterinarian, disregards her fears and wants to stay. The ending of the script shows us what we already know -- that the house is haunted -- but offers no hint of where the other conflicts might lead.

If a story sets up expectations for a dramatic resolution, then it should pay attention to those elements of drama that are normally resolved. At the very least, the conflicts that began the story should leave implications behind at the story's end. On the other hand, a story not structured like a drama has no need to meet the expectations we bring to drama, and it has greater freedom to leave its protagonists "hanging by a thread" -- often literally, as in William Sansom's "The Vertical Ladder."

When I wrote, "At First, You Hear The Silence," I wanted a story that offered two levels of conflict: one based on the tensions of everyday life, the other based on tensions from beyond. At the end of the story, neither conflict is resolved, but the ripples of that conflict spread outwards in the life of its protagonist, and his choices, his actions, are channeled by the conflicts. Was that ending strong enough? I can only hope; but I do like the method, and I want to apply it elsewhere in other stories.

I could always focus, instead, on shorter stories in which atmosphere is everything. I love this type of story (one that I've just re-read is Jean Lorrain's "L'Un d'eux"), but at the same time, I need to challenge myself, to write stories that teach me about story-telling -- in the same way that I took on "Silence" to learn as much as I could about plotting. I would love to write both types, but for now, I feel an urgent desire to stretch myself -- if such a thing is possible.

I want to understand how traditional stories are put together, so that, should I decide to continue writing dream and nightmare stories without traditional plots or dramatic resolutions, my decision will be based on choice instead of incompetence, on clear-eyed awareness instead of blind ignorance. At my current level of skill, I would never call myself a story-teller. What I would call myself is unprintable.

Am I being hard on myself? No. I read too many weak stories, too many badly-written stories, to believe that criticism harms a writer. If anything, clearly-stated and clearly-illustrated technical criticism is the greatest gift a writer can receive. If no one offers the criticism, then writers must provide it for themselves.

-- Sunday, September 04, 2016.