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Silent Cruise


“Doves of Townsend, good morning.”

This is me, answering the phone at the shop. After which I frequently end up explaining the inherited family name. Sometimes (I admit) tired of telling the real story, I’ll make something up. “There’s a flock of doves found in Townsend, my Dad’s hometown,” I’ll start. Then I finish the story by saying the birds hunt as a pack and kill cats, or that they bring good luck if you catch one and pull out a tail feather. The mood of the story rides up and down on the sine wave of my menstrual cycle.

The truth is plain. My father came from Townsend and he was a fanatical collector. Knives, as it happens, but it could have been anything. Magpie, hoarder, packrat, whatever you want to call him, I had long understood him to be obsessive-compulsive within certain categories. His suicide note read: I fear I have covered the full length of this blade. But at auctions, where he lived the happy parts of his life, he held up his wooden paddle and said his last name so the auctioneer would know who was bidding. “Dove,” he’d say, eyes never leaving whatever dagger, cleaver, oiseau or machete had captivated him. And then -- in case there was another Dove in the room -- he’d say it again, louder: “Doves of Townsend.”

So, here I am: “Doves of Townsend?”

It was two months ago, Alexander Galbraithe calling. He wanted a set of chrome 1940s ashtrays, the ones with the DC-3 doing the flypast over the cigar butts. I’ve known Mr Galbraithe since I was a child. When my father started Doves of Townsend as an extension of his own collecting (a very bad idea I came to think), Mr Galbraithe was one of his first steady buyers. I assume he stayed with me out of allegiance or sympathy, since after Dad’s death I sold off the knife collection quickly and resolved never to replace it.

“Clare?” he said. “Are you familiar with the airplane ones?”

I knew he was talking about the famous deco ashtray since none of the other things he collects – coach clocks, cigar cutters, Iranian block-print textiles, even knives as far as I know – come in an aeroplane model.

“Pedestal or tabletop?” I asked him. “Illuminated?”

We began to work out the specs.

“Real?” I asked, breathing a little into the phone. “Or fake?”

Mr Galbraithe didn’t laugh often, although he found many things funny. What he did, instead, was roll his massive balding head back an inch or two, squint slightly and crinkle his cheeks. When he was done, he’d roll his head back to its normal position and resume where he left off.

This is what he did now. I could tell over the phone. And when he had returned he said, “Clare. My dear. Really.”

It pays to be straight on this real-fake question. There’s no point looking for something real, something authentic and old and possibly rare, if the client has no preference. My former-sometimes-boyfriend Tiko used to send art directors my way from time to time, and all they cared about was that an object look good on camera. Some collectors, on the other hand, collect fakes. So go figure.

What’s bad, clearly, is to get fake when you’re after real. Most dealers will learn this the hard way even if they resist being obsessive collectors themselves. Me, for example. I was just starting out. Dad had been gone a year, and I overcame all the good sense I had and bought a set of les Freres locking steak knifes. I literally saw them in a shop window, stopped on the sidewalk – reconsidering everything I had resolved after my father slipped somewhere beyond reach, after he did what he did – then went in and bought them. Of course, I knew the famous French maker produced knives that were rare and beautiful, knives with a four-inch hand-forged blade folding into black pear-wood handle with silver inlay and locking in place with a tiny gold clasp in the shape of a dove. I knew the les Freres dove had meant something special to my father, among all his knives. These were the first I had seen since his death and, for that instant, I was host to a perfectly synchronous collector’s impulse.

What this lapse taught me was never to buy a thing merely because it is rare and beautiful and you are able to construe some tangled family significance. What I didn’t know then was the number of les Freres reproduction steak knives that had been made over the years by Spanish, Korean and other manufacturers. When I learned this, which was soon enough, I sold my Taiwanese fakes for about one-twentieth what I paid for them. To Mr Galbraithe, in fact, who rescued me. Tried to pay much more than they were worth, but I wouldn’t let him.

“You see the clasp here, Clare?” he explained very kindly. “The reproduction clasps are stamped flat from stainless steel, then gold-plated. A real les Freres has a hammered dove figurine, sculpted in three dimensions, in 18-karat gold.”

“Fake,” I said, shaking my head. “I should have known.”

“But now you have seen it,” he said, putting a large hand weightlessly on my shoulder. “I am quite sure you won’t miss it again.”

He was a huge presence, six-and-a-half feet tall; God knows how many pounds. In his other hand, the knife looked like an antique folding toothpick I’d once seen at auction. Mr Galbraithe always leaned a little forward when we spoke, canted just so, careful to hear and understand everything that I said. He wore dark, heavy double-breasted suits and two-tone black and white shoes. Tiko met him once and referred to him thereafter as Sidney Greenstreet, although he looked nothing like that. He brought to mind the force of gravity, yes, but not the crushing pressure of it. Instead, he made me think of the way some large things elegantly defy it. I’ve looked at suspension bridges the way I looked at Mr Galbraithe.

He folded the fake les Freres into his palm, first popping the gold-plated clasp with his thumb, then clicking shut the blade with his fingers. Then he wrote me a cheque using a large black fountain pen. In the nineteenth century, I thought on occasion, with my father gone and no family remaining, I would have married the widowed Mr Galbraithe, friend of my father and life long presence. The thirty-year age difference would have seemed, I think, to be much less.

“You have an eye for the fine line,” Mr Galbraithe said to me another time, admiring a more successful purchase. I thought the words left unsaid were something like: but be careful, so did your father.

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Navigating a New World

Conflict is our actuality. Conversation is our hope. -- David Tracy, The Analogical Imagination

Prologue: Canada and the World

Canadians are on the road to global citizenship. Increasingly in work, travel, education and in personal and political engagement the world is our precinct, with international trade, finance, technology and business driving much of our global interests. But there is also a political, cultural and even moral dimension to our emerging role in global society.

Canadians take pride in what we do in the world. Our sense of identity is often tied up in such achievements as peacekeeping, placing in the top rung of the United Nations Human Development Index of best places to live, and winning a gold medal in Olympic hockey or a Man Booker Prize in literature. The values we express internationally help define who we are when other distinctions are being erased. Equally, our welfare is closely tied to international rules and practices. Daily while at Foreign Affairs I saw how little separates what we do inside our border from what happens outside and vice versa. We occupy the global village that Marshall McLuhan prophesied we would half a century ago. What this means is that we win in a stable, equitable, cooperative world. We lose when it is turbulent, divisive and unfair. It only makes sense, therefore, to examine carefully what we can do to tip the global system in a constructive way. That is what I would like this book to achieve.

I don’t feel we yet fully understand the responsibilities and obligations that come with being a global citizen or make the full connection between the need for well-resourced international initiatives and our domestic interests. Too often we try to do things on the cheap, and avoid the tough commitments. In the federal election of 2000, I watched with some dismay how the entire campaign unfolded with nary a word about foreign policy. There was great discussion of domestic economic priorities, but nothing on how to strengthen our capacity for effective international action–and this despite growing disenchantment with a variety of global developments, expressed most notably in protests and demonstrations.

My own years at Foreign Affairs were very much occupied with the effort to define a distinctive international place for Canada. When I arrived there in 1996, a decided shift was taking place in the perceptions and calculations arising out of the end of the Cold War and the surge of globalization in economics, technology and information. In the early nineties there had been fond hopes of a new era of prosperity based on the liberalization of markets, deregulation and the global movement of capital. Poverty in the Third World would be whittled away by the powerful forces of the marketplace. By the middle of the decade, though, that tide of optimism was on the wane. Inequities were growing, not receding. The value of global trade and investment agreements was under challenge by Southern countries, and there was growing skepticism from civil-society groups. The spectre of ecological disaster was creeping into prominence.

Similarly, President George Bush Sr.’s bold claims for an emerging system of security based on international cooperation -- the “New World Order” -- had already run aground in Somalia and Bosnia. The United States was increasingly shy of exerting direct leadership in the security requirements of an era of messy internal ethnic conflicts. The United Nations was discredited by its inaction in Rwanda and impoverished by the nonpayment of dues by the world’s superpower and other financial shirkers. There was a definite vacuum in defining security needs and responses.

This was especially so in scoping out answers to the dark side of globalization -- the increasing threats from international terrorists, pedophiles, drug dealers, small arms traders, illegal-diamond merchants and people smugglers. The same networks of information that allowed capital to move around the world in seconds, or brought scenes of suffering into living rooms around the globe, gave these predators the capacity to exploit the vulnerable and establish international connections that could overwhelm the capability of individual nations to protect their citizens. Drug trafficking, for example, had become a multi-billion-dollar business and confronted police forces with the most sophisticated tools of communication, transportation and organization. Ugly signs of dangerous terrorist networks were being detected. Already in 1996 I was calling for a starvation policy to deny criminal perpetrators access to money and arms.

There was an obvious demand for more effective international teamwork to meet all these challenges. Halting steps were being organized at the UN, the G-8, the OECD. But there was an opposite pull. The strong hold of beliefs in national sovereignty, and anti-internationalist feelings, meant that many governments resisted multilateral cooperative ventures. The philosophy of go-it-alone was alive and well even in the face of a shared risk. Traditional notions of national interest were stoutly defended even while they simply didn’t match the tempo of interdependence that was under way.

Complicating the efforts to govern this global interdependence was the pre-eminent position of the U.S. The collapse of the Soviet Union had confirmed the dominance of American power and influence as the reality of the global system. With this came increasing U.S. claims that its dominant position carried special responsibilities and therefore prerogatives to act unilaterally. The Clinton administration generally set its actions inside the framework of international institutions and laws. But not so the government of George W. Bush. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, launched an aggressive U.S. effort to assert U.S. interests, repudiate multilateral, collaborative governance, and follow a radical security doctrine that prescribes the use of U.S. military supremacy to establish the U.S.’s unchallenged right to determine the character and shape of the world -- what might be called imperial ambitions.

From a Canadian point of view, the U.S.’s reluctance to submit to international treaties and agreements, and its new doctrine of pre-emption, are cause for great concern. While over the past decade most agreements in arms control and environmental or human rights have not been ratified by Congress, now the Bush administration is not just a reluctant signatory but also a ferocious opponent of any agreement that does not directly serve specific ambitions of the U.S. -- hardly a promising atmosphere in which to construct a new global architecture.

From the Hardcover edition.

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From Ink Lake

From Ink Lake

Canadian Stories Selected By Michael Ondaatje
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The Paper Wife

The Paper Wife

also available: Paperback
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The Drug Trial

The Drug Trial

Nancy Olivieri and the Science Scandal that Rocked the Hospital for Sick Children
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In August 1998, a story about a doctor named Nancy Olivieri grabbed headlines in Toronto. The articles stated that Olivieri had discovered serious problems with an experimental drug manufactured by Canada’s largest pharmaceutical company, a Toronto-based generics manufacturer called Apotex. The drug at the centre of the scandal is a white tablet called L1, or deferiprone, intended for use by patients with the inherited blood disorder thalassemia. Olivieri planned to tell patients about the problems, as required by her hospital. But Apotex played dirty pool, ejecting her from their research program, cancelling the study she was running to test the drug and threatening her with court action if she went public. The scandal was in the news for months. And for four years, legal charges and personal accusations flew back and forth between Olivieri, the company and Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, where Olivieri worked.

Parts of this story are well known. The CEO of the drug company Apotex is a billionaire alumnus of the University of Toronto, where Olivieri is a professor. At the same time that Apotex was funding Olivieri to test its drug on patients in a clinical trial, he was offering to put scores of millions toward university research facilities and teaching hospitals such as the Hospital for Sick Children, where Olivieri ran the treatment program for patients with thalassemia. The hospital and the university didn’t step in to defend Olivieri against the company’s threats when they arose. Determined to tell her patients and scientific colleagues about her discoveries, she became a whistleblower, publicly accusing Apotex of suppressing her discoveries. She also blamed her home institutions for allowing it to happen because they didn’t take up her cause. News of her plight shocked academics, and they sprang to her support. She has won medal after medal for courage.

In 1998, her hospital sponsored its inquiry to figure out what had happened; two years later, Canada’s national organization of university faculty associations conducted its own. But the inquirers lacked the power of the coroner or the courts: they couldn’t compel disclosure, ensure confidentiality or allow for appeals. John le Carré spoke to Olivieri and spun a fictional account of the events. Casting her as Lara from Leningrad, he wove her into The Constant Gardener, his recent novel about the human costs of Big Pharma’s corporate greed. Yet the full story of the science scandal that rocked Canada is not as convenient as fiction, and it turns out to be far more shadowy than le Carré imagined.

This is a complex story about medical research and the rules that govern it. Those rules are science’s moral code, the standards scientists live by and train under. Here are a few examples: "Don’t lie about your work." "Don’t steal someone else’s work and claim it’s your own." "Report your findings; don’t bury them." The rules should be easy to follow, but in the fiercely competitive world of modern medical science, they’re not.

In studies of new drugs, the research involves patients, so there are additional strictures: "Don’t ask patients to volunteer for an experiment that’s likely to harm them." "Report the serious side effects of an experimental drug." "Allow patients to drop out of an experiment at any time." The rules for research on humans are discussed in numerous places — the Belmont Report, the Declaration of Helsinki, the Nuremberg Code, National Institutes of Health (NIH) regulations, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations, Canada’s Tri-Council guidelines. They’re supposed to be enforced locally by hospitals and universities, and if violations are widespread, federal authorities at the FDA, the NIH or Health Canada can get involved, even to the point of shutting down research at a university.

Yet the rules for doing science aren’t well understood, and newer rules about how to conduct research in an era of public-private partnership are still being hammered out, largely as a result of fiascos such as the one I am about to explore. The debacle of Nancy Olivieri and the pill to save thalassemia patients revealed every crack in the system. It is emblematic of what happens when the standards for scientists’ behaviour and the lines of institutional accountability are unclear.

The saga also unfolded against the background of an ongoing debate over drug research. Those who want greater protection from risky drugs point to innocent victims killed by dangerous prescriptions and lay those deaths at the feet of profiteering drug companies or unwitting drug agencies that approved products too quickly. On the other side, people with rare diseases for which few treatments are available demand the right to decide for themselves how much risk to bear, and urge drug agencies to speed the approval of products in the pipeline.

But at its core, this is a story of scientific rivalry and revenge. "Good scientists will tell you that being a good scientist requires a very competitive spirit in this day and age," said a sociologist of science, Harriet Zuckerman, in the mid-1980s, around the time that L1 was discovered. "It isn’t really clear what the causal relationship is. Maybe you have to be competitive in order to succeed, but maybe succeeding also helps you be competitive."

In the story of Nancy Olivieri and L1, highly successful scientists fought intensely for predominance over a tiny territory — the field of drug treatment for thalassemia. A pharmaceutical company got into the mix and the result was the scientific version of a Greek epic, with researchers battling over ideals, such as the well-being of patients and the integrity of their work, while simultaneously
competing against one another for power and position. At first, Olivieri was the epic’s heroine, telling the secrets of how her science had been thwarted by her enemies. The ferocity of the drug company’s retaliation caught and held our attention. The truth, however, remained obscured until much later, when others emerged to tell the rest of the tale, speaking mostly in whispers to one another. To disentangle a whistleblower’s moment from the legend that’s grown up around her, we’ll need to bring some of those other conversations into the open. Then we may begin to understand what happened here.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Believe Me

Lately, I’ve been thinking about death.

Actually, I haven’t.

I don’t like to think about death. Whenever the subject of death springs to mind, the two thoughts that form in my brain are scary, and go away. It’s my son, Lester, who has been thinking about death, and he has been asking me all sorts of practical questions.

“How do people get to Heaven, do they walk?”

He tossed out this particular query from the back seat of our rented Pontiac Firebird while we were driving to the Cape Breton Regional Hospital to visit his granny, who had told him two days previous — tremulous, clutching a rosary — that she expected to be in Heaven soon with her husband, Stan. This is not the sort of thing that I would generally encourage grandparents to say to five­year­olds, particularly when their mother has not yet prepared them for the concept of finite existence. But Lester took from it what he could, which is to say nothing, beyond the idea of Heaven itself as a new destination. Now Earth consists of four places: our summer cottage, Toronto, Cape Breton and Heaven.

The North Atlantic wind was buffeting the car, so cold that my earlobes were still throbbing in spite of the car’s heater and I could barely keep my shivering hands still on the wheel.

“No, I don’t think they walk to Heaven,” I replied.

In truth, I haven’t got the faintest idea how people get to Heaven. I have never read the Bible. Nor the Talmud, the Koran or the Tibetan Book of the Dead. If any of them have specified the transit route to the afterlife, I am simply unaware. So.

“They float,” I told Lester, experimentally.

“They float?” He sounded awed. We passed Dana, my mother­in­law’s cousin, who was shuffling along the icy sidewalk, head to the wind, with a bag of Kentucky Fried Chicken in the crook of her arm. I slowed down to wave. She pointed emphatically to the bag, and then uphill toward the hospital, indicating that she was on her way to deliver the contents to Bernice.

“Great,” I mouthed to her, nodding.

“Do they float in the lake?” Lester asked.

“I beg your pardon?”

“When people go to Heaven, do they have to wear a life jacket?”

“No, they — I don’t think they float on water, Lester, they float in the air. They don’t float like fish, they float like leaves. Except up.”

“Where, up?”

It’s the follow­up questions that nail you. You can get away with fairly preposterous theories when you’re talking to a five­year­old, but you have to have thought them through. Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the probable existence of elves: these are lines of inquiry that I’ve rehearsed. “Ah, the Tooth Fairy. Yes, she’s very special, Lester,” I was able to explain recently, when his friend Clarence turned up at the Tweedle Dee Daycare with a gap in his front teeth. “She wears a cloak of maple leaves and builds little castles made of teeth — deep in the forest. She’ll leave coins under your pillow if you place your tooth there.”

Ever since, Lester has been planning what to do with his windfall, and I have been silently adjusting the figure for tooth­fairy leavings depending upon what he envisions. Fifty cents doesn’t buy much any more, but $4.99 is enough to snag a two­inch plastic hadrosaur at the Museum of Nature.

God is a different proposition entirely.

“I don’t know where, exactly, they float,” I conceded to my son. “Nobody knows, honey. The stairway to Heaven is a secret passage that only the dead can find.”

For a moment I marveled at this impromptu theology until it hit me that I’d copped it from Led Zeppelin.

Lester was stuffing his nose into his ski mitt.

“Are we there yet?” he asked.

What saves you in the end is the fact that five­year­olds have no attention span.

“Don’t worry, little goose,” I said, because this one I knew: “We’ll be there soon.”

We were there, in fact, a minute later, for New Waterford is a teensy town on an enormous island in the North Atlantic, connected to mainland Nova Scotia by a single causeway. When I first came here with my boyfriend Calvin, more or less direct from New York City, I was amazed at the remoteness of the place, and further awed by the presence of malls. I could barely comprehend how piles of Mexican bananas and John Grisham novels could wend their way so far into the wilderness. Geography ought to have cast the island culturally adrift. Perhaps in some ways it had. Certainly nowhere else in North America had I seen fire hydrants painted as Smurfs.

The town Calvin comes from is inhabited by unemployed miners and their wives, all of whom work at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital serving tomato soup to the eldest of the unemployed miners, or next door at the Maple Hill Manor, serving soup to the eldest of the miners’ wives. New Waterford was once a thriving community made prosperous by the Dominion Coal Company, which hired strapping young Acadians and Gaelic­speaking Scots to exhaust the motherlode while they sang. In the evening, they joined together to play their fiddles and accordions. At some point, as the mines closed and the miners began to pay for their careers with their lives, the business of the community shifted. Now, if you want to work here, your best bet is to learn how to give sponge baths.

As we got out of the car, I saw Dana’s sister Janey trot through the squat brick hospital entrance and dart across the parking lot. I waved. She didn’t see me, but waving is very important in New Waterford. I learned this on my maiden visit, when Calvin brought me to meet the unexpected grandparents of our unplanned child. I discovered that waving was far more essential than knowing who anyone was. Not waving signaled that you — the stranger, the New Yorker, in my case, for that was where I was living when I got pregnant — think you’re too good for them. That you’re stuck­up. A snob.

In fact, I feel quite the opposite here. I worry that Calvin’s relations and all of their friends secretly think I’m inferior. Inept at baking, lousy at bingo, ill­informed on the subjects that matter — like God, good coffee and how to craft doilies. Luckily, New Waterford folk are very kind, provided that you wave, and they have been a wonder in their care for my ailing eighty-year-old mother-in-law.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Miss Elva


Jane at sixteen was all flaming youth and cheekbones. Bold to her betters some’d say, mostly Rilla, by way of apologizing for her daughter. Jane would never be sorry for a goddamned thing, but Jesus! That girl could turn the head of a stone angel.

Now you didn’t usually see her kind in Demerett Bridge, Mi’kmaq had their place up in Indian Brook, but Rilla had that thing going with her white man Amos so you couldn’t very well say no. And Jane? Half white so no one minded her checking herself out in windows up and down Commercial Street on account of her good half being on the outside. So, Girl don’t you be giving me any business, was all she’d get from King Duplak for sassin’ him and saying she’d make that ol’ catalogue dress and wouldn’t buy it in his shitty five­and­dime even if she could. She ripped the page right out of the T. Eaton book and slipped it into her pocket so she could paste it on her mirror.

Rilla was searching through cans on the shelf and Duplak said, Hey now, it took the wife some time to get them all facing right like. So Rilla counted out nickels, going red at the cheeks ’cause she’d been caught looking for cheaper prices in behind. Be glad when this strike’s over, Mr. Duplak.

Christ, she’s going to want this on account, King was thinking, knowing full well what no rails coming off the foundry lines meant. Wouldn’t be enough for Amos Stearns to feed his harem over there on Kirchoffer Place, specially since he’d been off sick. Amos’d been the security man at the foundry, sort of like a policeman with a lot more hitting power, but what good was that if you had to spend half your day in the crapper? When Amos’s poor stomach became a regular thing, there was talk of a pension or something, then the manager, Urban Dransfield – who everyone in Demerett Bridge now hated because of the strike – said, Thank you very much you can’t work any more here’s a watch with your name on it.

That was before the strike, and now, not so many potatoes for the stew pot. No paycheques in a town controlled by the Maritime Foundry Corporation meant Amos’d been unable to meet ends with the boarders in that place of his. Must be why his old lady was back on the road. King’d seen for himself Stearns’s Mi’kmaq whore in that old Ford of his. Heard she was doing washing as far north as Raven River for those German yahoos up there. Hey, honest folks were hurting too and thank Jesus they’d rather starve before swabbing out skivvies and bedsheets for River people. Yeah, right. If washing was all she was doing. King smiled, remembering the old days when Rilla wasn’t looking so hard-ridden. Why if it wasn’t for the wife out back, he’d show Amos’s squaw his own laundry shed.

He counted each coin again. Didn’t matter that the woman had been a customer for over thirteen years. It’s not like she was Stearns’s legal wife. Indians got no credit no how, so Jane didn’t need a new dress and no, added Rilla, you’re not getting your hair bobbed either.

Daylight flooded through the open door catching the dust unawares. Barely reaching the latch, Harry had shadowed Rilla and her girls into the store. He was too young to be captivated by Jane’s adolescent charms or to know he shouldn’t stare at the other sister, well, half­sister, the one who wasn’t as pretty as Jane. Normally the ugly one sat out on the front porch when she came into Demerett Bridge shopping with her ma and Jane. Sometimes she’d colour with chalk on a writing tablet. Once when she did it, Harry stopped carving his name in backwards letters into the steps of his dad’s pool hall across the street, came over and looked. Said she couldn’t draw and why didn’t she draw boats? He might like them better if she did boats, but the girl, Elva, just said, Go away. She didn’t sit outside today because there were men on the corner, shouting now, looking to make trouble for someone new around these parts.

Elva had trouble breathing on hot days or when she got herself worked into a lather, so when she turned away from the window and said, You have to help him, it came out all huffy.

Rilla stared at the Elva girl. What was she thinking, giving orders to Mr. Duplak?

Jane flipped another page in the catalogue. Big deal. It wasn’t like anyone was going to take notice of her. “Help who and stop that wheezing.”

It took ages for Elva to get out, “There’s a man on top of the clock. Went up it like a caterpillar. He’s jabbing it with an army knife.”

How could he do that and hold on to the clock? Jane wanted to know, but more men were tumbling out of the pool hall and crowding around the clock so Elva didn’t say. They were grey and furry like rats, Elva said and added, “There’s no more poison and there’s rats in the cellar.”

Jane reached over and pinched her arm.


“What’s he doing now?” Mr. King Duplak came over to the window to see for himself.

The pole sitter was showing the others a silver timepiece, one of those really old­fashioned watches on a fob that used to sway like a garland across fancy waistcoats. From the window where she watched, standing on her toes to be as tall as Jane, Elva guessed the watch had once been broken and maybe he’d repaired it. Probably thought he could set the town clock too. Some people are born that way. Wanting to fix things even when they don’t want fixin’, only the man no one had never seen in Demerett Bridge before didn’t know about the clock being sacred and you don’t touch it.

“Is he cute?” Jane asked.

“He’s kind of pasty and he wears funny glasses but he’s dreamy.”

Jane was always saying dreamy this or dreamy that, so lately dreamy was Elva’s favourite word. Then she got all short for breath again when the men outside starting throwing rocks.

“He’ll fall and break his glasses!”

“Show’s over,” said Mr. Duplak, drawing the blinds. The town clock hadn’t kept time since the hurricane of ’04, and according to King Duplak, he’d no business up there in the first place. The rusting timepiece was a tribute of sorts, but less to the Nova Scotian town surviving the storm and more to the prevailing Scottish thriftiness that didn’t see the need to pay for a monument when a perfectly useless clock would do.

“Pink­whiskered Jesus! Like a pack of dogs been through here! Who’s going to clean that?”

It hadn’t been enough for li’1 Harry Winters to follow Elva into the store and stare at her. No. He had to go to the counter for a penny jawbuster, then wander over to the corner where he stood wide­eyed and sucking, oblivious to the trail of black muck from his shoes. Goddamned tar ponds! A mecca for boys of Harry’s age, wanting to throw stuff in, or worse, drag dead things out. Now Harry’s cub­like marks were everywhere.

From the Hardcover edition.

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The Head Trip

The Head Trip

Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness
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Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our ­visit.
–T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

Here’s a curious phenomenon; maybe you’ve experienced ­it.

For several years in my mid-twenties I spent my summers tree planting in northern Ontario. It was a difficult job. Every morning at 5 a.m. some classic rock anthem would blare out across the makeshift camp and we’d drag ourselves from our warm tents and pile into the rusted yellow school buses idling on the logging road. Out on “the block,” we were assigned huge chunks of napalmed land, uneven mixes of charred duff, swamp, and scraggly brush. For eleven hours we’d plant little ­eight-­inch saplings–­kick-­shovel-­draw-­bend-­insert-­stomp­kick-­shovel-­draw-­bend-­insert-­stomp–­little mechanical humans jerking along the horizon. Every seven feet, several hundred an hour, several thousand a day. It was fantastically tedious, made worse by ­bone-­chilling drizzle, a fog of biting blackflies, hidden wasps’ nests, thickets of sharp sticks, and patrolling bears who’d ransack our lunches and terrorize the ­cooks.

Beginner planters spent their time in an agony of unhappiness and frustration. But as the weeks wore on the privations lessened, in part because we became habituated to the job, but also because of an odd recurring experience that some of us discussed among ­ourselves.

I remember the day it first happened to me. It was still early, a little after 9 a.m. I had just loaded up my bags with trees and stood gazing out over the denuded expanse of earth and rubble. I sighed, looked down at my shovel, and began planting. When I raised my head I noticed the sun was on the other side of the sky. Little green spruce dotted the landscape all around me, and on the road empty tree containers sat in a disorderly pile. My watch said 2 p.m. Five hours had passed and I remembered nothing. What ­happened?

I had no idea, but like other planters before me I welcomed the state. Now days alternated between ­time-­crawling ­now­ness, idle ­daydreams–­another important ­consolation–­and these strange absences, little wormholes in time where we dropped off the land and reappeared several hours ­later.

One day I experienced a new variation. I mounted a steep ridge and there, towering before me, was an enormous white pine with silver scales and a broad, knotted trunk. The tree was wrapped in a gauzy halo of needles, and in the ­late-­afternoon sun they filled with golden light. I caught my breath and everything went suddenly very still. The background chatter of the forest faded, and I had the feeling that time had paused, except, in contrast to my wormhole experiences, “I” remained to witness the ellipsis. But it was not an “I” I recognized. As strange as it may sound, I felt as if I were somehow part of the tree. I stood transfixed, a large, unblinking eyeball. And then the feeling passed. In front of me was just a tree. I looked down and continued ­planting.1

The experience of tree planting didn’t end at night. As soon as our eyes closed, a ­slow-­moving landscape flickered up on our retinas and we watched reruns of the day–­kick-­shovel-­draw-­bend-­insert-­stomp, ­kick-­shovel-­draw-­bend-­insert-­stomp. I remember being struck by the photographic perfection of these images, bright visuals that were often accompanied by the physical sensation of movement, like that wobbly ­sea-­legs feeling you get after a day of sailing. Once fully asleep, the activity seemed to rev up a notch. I dreamed of twisting in my sleep so I could plant my bedroll, or trying to slam my shovel through the asphalt of an endless dream highway. I often woke in the night protesting: it isn’t fair, this isn’t my workday, this is my time off. I shouldn’t have to plant now! When I struggled against the dream narrative I inevitably woke myself up, though several times I flickered into momentary ­self-­consciousness in the dream itself, and stood there in the empty expanse of dream land with my dream shovel in my hand thinking this was a really weird situation, I’d have to remember to tell someone. Inevitably I woke exhausted, and on the bumpy ride out to the block, all of us muttered about our diabolically doubled ­workloads.

Tree planting got me thinking about consciousness because the unvarying sameness of the days provided a perfect backdrop for alterations. I noticed the differences, and they seemed to correspond to shifts more fundamental than those of mood or even alertness. In the previous few paragraphs I’ve described seven distinct states of consciousness that most of us have likely experienced at some time or another: general alertness, daydreaming, deep absorption, a heightened present, ­sleep-­onset imagery, dreaming, and the very beginnings of a lucid dream. Some of these occur with strict regularity, others are more rare. And although a few of them may sound mystical, one of the main preoccupations of this book is how far science has come in shedding light on their ­character.

Until that summer, my conception of consciousness was little more than a crude on/off switch in my head. We were awake, and then we were asleep. Sure, there were dreams, but these sort of happened off the record. Unless you wanted eye rolls and public derision, you only told your ­bed-­partner about them (“I opened the umbrella and out flopped a ­half-­dozen pale cow ­udders–­can you believe that?”). Clearly there was more to consciousness than these two ­options–­how many variations were there, ­exactly?

The answer, of course, is ­billions–­as many variations as there are individuals to experience them, and within each individual a succession of seemingly unique moments. This disorienting plentitude seems all but impossible to quantify, for the one thing we can say with certainty about consciousness is that it is an ineffably private and subjective ­affair.

Except that isn’t the full story. Because underneath our shifting tides of awareness are ­specific–­and ­regular–­physiological changes occurring in the brain. The most elemental of these are the circadian processes that govern our ­sleep-­wake cycle. These undulating rhythms form the basic contours of subjective consciousness; they guide changing levels of alertness through each day and, in concert with their chemical emissaries, move us through the various stages of sleep at ­night.

The notion that sleep is not a single monolithic state is perhaps not fully appreciated by most people. We cycle through stages, of which ­slow-­wave and rem sleep are the most distinct. Each of these two states is as different from the other as they are from waking. This is the case regarding: 1) their specific functions; 2) the physical processes that form them; and 3)–crucially, for the purposes of this ­book–­what they feel like to experience. These three states of consciousness–­slow-­wave sleep, rem sleep, and ­waking–­form the primary compass of human ­experience.

This psychological and neuroscientific and experiential story of how consciousness changes over ­twenty-­four hours is the first story I want to tell, and it forms the loose skeleton of this book. But there is a larger, more important story, one that involves some of consciousness’s more dramatic variations, because overtop and between these three primary states, the mind is capable of visiting some very strange destinations. Since I can’t reliably talk about the shifting experience of consciousness without ­test-­driving some of those changes myself, I have gone on six adventures, six major head trips that ended up challenging everything I thought I knew about the expanse of consciousness and how our minds relate to our ­brains.

The trips themselves were ­far-­ranging in both a geographic and a psychological sense. From Montreal to Hawaii, London to New York, Scotland to northern Ontario, my body moved and my mind moved with it, propelled through the visionary logic of the hypnagogic, the mysterious ­mid-­night awakening known as the Watch, that astonishing challenger to waking consciousness, the lucid dream, the plunging well of attention known as the trance, the sublimely alert ­high-­resolution smr (captured on a computer’s monitor), and the ­quasi-­mystical substratum of awareness itself known as the Pure Conscious Event. Along the way I discovered other ­states–­some familiar, some less so: the parasomnias, the slow wave, the rem dream, the hypnopompic, the daydream, and the athlete’s Zone. That these various states are not better ­known–­at least in the West2–or more clearly understood has to do with the interrelated histories of the scientific study of consciousness in general and the study of sleep in ­particular.

Things started well enough in the late nineteenth century, with psychologists like William James championing a new scientific field. “A science of the relations of the mind and brain,” wrote James, “must show how the elementary ingredients of the former correspond to the elementary functions of the latter.”

First-­person approaches to consciousness were deemed essential, and indeed they took off in philosophy under the banner of ­phenomenology–­the study of consciousness and its immediate ­objects–­and in psychology, in a school of thinking called introspection. Yet although introspectionist psychologists like Wilhelm Wundt and his student E. B. Titchener developed some interesting experimental methods for measuring the contents of the mind, the young discipline was heavily criticized by other psychologists: introspection wasn’t scientific enough, ­self-­reports of mental phenomena could not be trusted, even introspectionists themselves, the critics argued, could not agree on the facts. Looking back on the school now, part of the problem was an inability to access purely objective measurements of mental activity; the ­brain-­imaging tools we possess today had not yet been ­developed.

While phenomenology flapped around in continental European academic circles, introspection took a nosedive, and in its place rose the behaviorists. Forget about interiors, for these scientists what mattered were the externals: behavior. Behavior could be replicated and quantified. Ring a bell, a dog salivates; stimulus, response. Under the reign of the behaviorists, “consciousness” became a dirty word, an ­airy-­fairy object of scorn with no place in the lab. Consciousness was left to the ­humanities–­to the writers and the philosophers. And without a scientific language to describe or even acknowledge the shifting experience of consciousness, it remained for New Age and religious traditions to ­co-­opt some of its more dramatic manifestations (such as lucid dreaming and the various levels of meditative absorption). Which only served, of course, to further remove them from scientific ­respectability.

One exception to this trend was a blip of activity in the 1950s and ’60s, when the nascent science of “altered states” took off under psychedelic researchers like Charles Tart, Oscar Janiger, Stanislav Grof, Timothy Leary, and others. With their focus on mind-altering drugs, they were among the few investigators to consider seriously the significant fact that consciousness changes. In his landmark 1969 anthology Altered States of Consciousness, the psychologist Charles Tart defined an altered state of consciousness (ASC) as one in which an individual experiences a “qualitative shift in his pattern of mental functioning [Tart’s italics].” That is, not just a quantitative shift of becoming, for example, more or less alert, but a sense in the individual that “some quality or qualities of his mental processes are different.” This definition, of course, didn’t extend only to the effects of drugs; experiences like dreaming and meditation and hypnosis were examined alongside LSD and psilocybin trips.3

Today consciousness has been rehabilitated. Neuroscientists like Christof Koch write about the quest for the neural correlates of consciousness, and in forums like The Journal of Consciousness Studies psychologists and philosophers are once again debating the merits of “first-person approaches to consciousness.” To back up these arguments, a new generation of Buddhist monks are having their eegs scrutinized for signs of unusual activity. So, waking consciousness is hot–but what of sleeping consciousness?

1 Years later, while reading Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, I was excited to find this passage: “I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance.” It was, Dillard writes later, as if a great door had opened on the present, and the tree flickered with “the steady, inward flames of eternity.” Same sentiment, different tree. Dillard calls these moments “innocence”: “the spirits’ unselfconscious state at any moment of pure devotion to any object . . . at once a receptiveness and total concentration.” My friend Dawn, more prosaically, calls them “Matrix moments,” after the film’s signature frozen-in-air martial arts scenes.

2 More than one observer has pointed out that in the West we don’t appreciate the full spectrum of naturally occurring altered states because they are not part of our legislated lived experience, our “consensus reality,” as psychologist Charles Tart puts it. We have a very sophisticated understanding of some things–the material universe, for example–but we neglect others. In the case of consciousness, most of us are not taught to recognize the subtle variations, so we have no vocabulary to describe them. This is not the case in many Eastern cultures, particularly those that put a premium on introspection. Thus the Buddhists, for example, describe dozens of meditative states, each with its own specific and apparently reproducible phenomenology.

3 By Tart’s criteria, extreme mood changes also qualify as ascs. This makes perfect sense to me; when you’re furious or deeply depressed, you see the world in an entirely different way. That said, the emotional brain has been the subject of many excellent books. It is not the specific subject of this one.

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Your Guide to the Most Environmentally Friendly Information, Products and Services in Canada
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You know, it’s funny: Canadians are surrounded with so much damn nature we think that automatically nominates us for outdoor MVP of the year. But when hundreds of trees fall in the boreal every minute, does anybody really care? Well, aside from a few folk singers and some ­placard-­bearing ­enviro-­groups, my answer just a few years ago was a reluctant no. Observers declared environmental consciousness dead. Earth Day marches had long been cancelled due to lack of attendance. Indeed, there was but a faint green pulse left in us as we dragged our recyclables out to the curb then hopped into our gas guzzlers with the a/c blasting. Memories of acid rain, dead lakes and the Exxon Valdez had faded to black, along with any recollection of feathered hair and shoulder ­pads.

Then, sometime in the last year or two, someone somewhere pulled out the defibrillators and called “clear.” Was it the spike in the price of oil, forcing us to reconsider the value of spending 80 bucks a tank just to drive ourselves to the corner store? Was it the increased ­alarm-­ringing of climate change scientists? The drowning polar bears? The breaking levies? The freak storms? The reports that DDT is still swimming in our children’s bloodstreams decades after it was banned or that ­non-­stick chemicals are sticking to bald eagles and floating in breast milk? Maybe, as my local souvlaki guy noted, it was the realization that ­ever-­climbing hydro bills could be tackled only with conservation and sharp questions about why our government isn’t more aggressively subsidizing solar panels and geothermal heat pumps. More realistically, it was all of the above: a perfect storm of factors that made us sit up and say, Holy Toledo, Dorothy, we’re not in Kansas ­anymore.

But what’s exciting about this surge, this outpouring of interest in all things green, is that everyone, from the trucker up the street to the CEO of ­Wal-­Mart, is taking notice. And whether you’re expressing your concern for the planet by reaching for organic milk, turning off the taps as you brush, driving a little less or not driving at all, it all adds up to a movement.

Sure, sticking to a ­five-­minute shower rule may seem fruitless in the face of a melting planet and relentless emissions from the coal plant two towns down. But are we to throw our hands in the air and bury our heads in the sand as our federal government has? Every drop of water you conserve, each watt of power you save, every green pepper you purchase from a local organic grower sends a message. To paraphrase hockey dads everywhere, if you want to be on a winning team, you have to think like a winner. And sometimes, when that team is slacking, you’ve gotta step up and take the lead. You don’t have to start a march on Parliament Hill to make a statement (though, hey, if you’re itching to try out a megaphone, go ahead). Start small. Start by leading by example. Get your workplace to turn the lights off at night and the thermostat down. Tell your grocery manager you don’t need California mushrooms ­vacuum-­packed on polysterene when he should be pushing local ones, loose. Tell your brother idling is just burning up gas (not to mention the planet) and tell your minister of Parliament you want real action on greenhouse gas emissions for ­once.

The tough part is that figuring out what’s green and what’s greenwash, what’s ­eco-­friendly and what’s ­ozone-­deadly can be downright dizzying. This is where knowledge comes in to play. The more you know, the more effective your choices, actions and movements can be. And if GI Joe was right that knowing is half the battle, just buying this book (and reading it cover to cover, of course) should turn you a finely trained ­eco-­warrior, or at least make it easier for you to decide what cleaning products to buy. Don’t worry: you don’t have to give up shaving and chain yourself to a tree to be green. Just do what you can, one step at ­time–­until you’re a ­full-­blown ­ecoholic.

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