Bingo night in Hubbards, Nova Scotia

We went to the Hubbards Fire Hall bingo last night and, from the get-go, I was pleading with the gambling gods to lose every game.

This obsession came after a quick scan of the room. My girlfriend and I were likely the youngest people playing by at least 20 years and I couldn’t help but feel that I didn’t deserve to take any money from the grey-haired dabbers, who eyed up us newcomers as we bought our cards and took our seats at the fold-up tables. I imagined they’d put in years of devotion, investing money into this local game – hobby? passion? – treating it like a community co-op and expecting the dividends to pay off due to their careful honing of meticulous superstitions, crafted through painstaking trial and error. (Some ladies in the room had as many as ten different dabbers lined up on the table, which they used selectively for specific games). They, far more than I, warranted the big jackpots – or the “cupcake” or “bonanza” or “lucky seven,” as the games and gimmicks were called. (It should be noted, the technical jargon of bingo ranks up there with the airline industry or brain surgery in its complexity and foreignness to outsiders.) Who was I, some young upstart from away, to come in and take part of this bounty that they’d been cultivating for months, years, decades? (I also recognized that there was likely some pension and retirement money in the room and I certainly didn’t feel comfortable taking any of that away.)

My sense of intrusion certainly wasn’t allayed when my girlfriend called a false “bingo” on the first game of the night, thinking it was a one-line winner, instead of the two-line or one-line-and-four-corners game. (Part of this had to do with Bingo’s aforementioned peculiar vernacular and with the accent of the Nova Scotian caller, who sounded, oddly, a bit like folk-rock troubadour Doug Paisley.) We heard frustrated sighs when she called it, amplifying my feelings of infringement, and then gasps and tsks when it came out that we had got it wrong. Her face turned beat purple. (She wound up winning the game with two other players, bringing home $17.)

It hit me last night that I don’t like to make waves in a new place, something that has been apparent throughout our Maritime road-trip this last month. I told my girlfriend, around the third or fourth of the 20 or so games, that I was rooting against myself, that I was terrified of possibly having to call “bingo” in this room of 50 or so seniors or near-seniors. She looked at me perplexed: “I want to win,” she affirmed, before scolding me subconsciously for distracting her and making her miss the most recently-called number. (She played nine cards per game, while I contented myself with three.)

As each game progressed, I would look at my card and see that I only needed a couple numbers for a winner and I’d get sweaty at the prospects of the required sequence being picked and having to single myself out in this room full of retirees. Luckily, I’ve never been a particularly lucky Bingo player, and really with lotteries in general. My only real run of success was during Quebec Carnivale week in grade school, where I’d get picked at random to wear a Bonhomme belt and get odd food and drink privileges during the festivities. Not much of a prize.

My cards would get darker each game, and my heartbeat would pick up, only to have the room fill with annoyed rumblings – filling me with relief – when a “bingo” was called somewhere behind or beside me. (One octogenarian at the table behind me would whisper-yell her “bingo.”) Despite a close call or two, things went as well as I could have hoped for during the first half of the night: I lost every game.

At this intermission, I spoke with the lady beside me, who told me the games at the Hubbards hall – located at the eastern tip of a beautiful stretch of the winding 329 highway that snakes around rustic coves and idyllic fishing towns – used to be much larger, with bigger jackpots. She didn’t have an answer for the drop-off, but I imagine it had something to do with that blanket legislation that slowly snuffed out smoking across this country over the last 15 or so years. (During said intermission, half the players ran outside to huff down a smoke.) The sweatbox of a room, which was heavy and humid due to the mugginess outside the last couple days, may well have played a part.

My aversion to attention had nothing to do with the friendliness of the folks at the hall, who were all really helpful. This sort of hospitality has been standard since we started our trip out east. I’ve always thought the ‘Canadians are too friendly’ stereotype was bullshit, and that it was really a superficial politeness that could be seen as almost standoffish or disinterest. But from Quebec City onwards, the people we’ve met, be it in rural PEI, or Tadoussac, Quebec or along country roads in Nova Scotia, have been genuinely interested in us, in our travels and in giving us memorable and positive experiences in their hometowns. At the bingo hall, a couple of old ladies at the table in front of us would tell us which one of the dozen or so coloured game cards would be up next. They “yoo-hoo”ed me at first to get my attention and inform me of the next card, before then giving me the thumbs up when I held up the card before the each game. Some of the volunteers in the hall would also come over and explain the rules for some of the more unique, obscure games. This was all very much appreciated and it made us feel much more comfortable in our new surroundings.

It was just after the intermission that my unease began to slowly morph into a disinterest in the game. Bingo doesn’t offer you the chance to change strategy or increase your chances of winning through tactical means, other than buying more cards, and so I found it stale that there was nothing that I could do other than blot out the number that was called out. I did enjoy thinking about the different permutations and combinations that I needed in order to win a certain game, but that excitement would be assuaged each time a different number was called.

And as I got more bingo weary, and the games ended anticlimactically, it suddenly hit me: Oh shit, I think I want to win now. I no longer viewed the game as a charity donation, or as a low-key night with my girlfriend, a bag of Hickory Sticks and a couple Cokes. My growing annoyance wasn’t from the deterministic nature of the game, but my shitty Bingo-playing abilities.

As I got more comfortable in the room, I suppose I got greedier. (What does that say about humans?)

Each game wore on, and the losses kept mounting, and I felt more and more disappointment. No thoughts about taking a pensioner’s nest egg anymore. I could use this money for gas. No worries about singling myself out amongst this tight-knit crowd. Just numbers I didn’t need, being called at random, affecting my mood.

When the “bonanza” and the final jackpot were called, the hall emptied at light speed and we were back in the car, driving that twisting road home, and I was confused as hell about my bingo experience. Was there a moral somewhere here?

If you set your expectations low, you won’t be disappointed?

You should do something for the fun of it, because as soon as you start getting selfish and taking things too seriously, you’re bound to be let down?

Or was the moral just not to play stupid games of chance?

Yes, that’s the one.

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Patente et Machin

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Patente et Machin is happily lambasted by the Trip Advisor community for its hipster proclivities, a title both well-earned and tremendously unfair. The staff kindly make allowance for my English, going so far as to take five full minutes to give the daily menu its due. The menu itself is a carnivorous monster, all heavy meats and rich sauces; even the pulled pork doesn’t escape the deep fryer.

I’m seated at the bar, which feels a reasonable fate for a lone patron at a restaurant which sells its mains primarily as shareable endeavours. I order the strongest IPA in the house and await my meal, a seared duck breast on a bed of fresh-made polenta, with a scattering of root vegetables.

My fellow bar-mates are a middle-aged duo of well-dressed (if overly colourful) business women to my right and an older lady to my left who seems to be on her third dish, provided we’re counting her charcuterie plate, which naturally we are. The grill man, a rather gregarious looking fellow, wears an ages-old white t-shirt greased at the fringes from countless wiped fingertips and seems to speak only when spoken to (happily, this happens often). His tradesman’s tools, all cast iron and used beyond the normal call, look to hail from my grandparent’s kitchen in Newfoundland. Based on this alone, the meal promises great things. Later, he will personally ask me how I find the meal, and will show genuine sincerity in doing so; my plate, scraped clean, will be my ultimate response.

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It’s surprisingly easy to find the obvious touches of this place beguiling: the unfinished table, the profusion of beards, the folksy québécois tunes on the radio. There are more liquor bottles in this place than anyone could find time to serve, almost as if the proprietor’s personal collection, curated from days of wild teenage parties, found its way in on opening day. The walls are either brick or uneven drywall, and it all can’t help but feel… intentional. I suppose I don’t mind, insofar as it’s a more pleasing aesthetic than the usual pleather chain resto fare. The beer’s good, and the crowd is unreadable, a mix of demographics so broad as to be mostly unclassifiable, with the obvious and unavoidable caveat that everyone here is white. Consider that a side effect of the city itself.

The largest cut of beef I’ve ever seen resides on the grill top, the grill man himself now wearing a safari hat, no irony in sight. Oysters border the day’s menu. I’ll be skipping them. The sounds of Québécois French register as a harsh and heavy buzz. I await my meal.

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The food itself is savoury, without the overbearing weight I’d expected. In the midst of parcelling out my experience and writing some notes, I somehow forget to continue drinking my beer throughout the meal. Literally speaking, this never happens. The plating hides how full I will feel upon finishing my food. If it initially seemed like a slight portion for the price, it will take more than the 10 minute stroll back to the hotel to walk it off. A good excuse to peak into the old town, then, where people are paying far more and, in turn, receiving far far less.

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Taste of Italy™

These obviously aren’t real people.

But there’s something that I find really depressing about this commercial and it’s not the farcical portrayal of Italians, or even the state of these actors’ careers.

It’s the implicit lack of culture and tradition in North American suburbia that the creators of this commercial are inadvertently hinting at that gets me. It’s that emptiness they say to fill with “ciabatta” and that Taste of Italy™, which was surely concocted in some flavour laboratory in a business park in New Jersey. It’s the unimaginative friends spontaneously meeting to choke down some processed food on the Wendy’s patio, adjacent the parking lot, outside the local mall complex before heading back to the office. There are no customs or traditions to follow – we’ve already started eating our shitty meals before you even sat down because we’ve got to get back to work. It’s the lunch crew pretending to be Italians and making fun of each other because they’re so uncomfortable with themselves. (No one has ever said “When in Wendy’s” because why would anyone ever say that.)  We don’t typically greet each other warmly because we’re not actually sure if we like each other. And, hey look, that guy doesn’t even know who we’re sitting down to eat with.

In many cultures around the world, the meal is the focal point of a social gathering. It’s not meant to be raced through, but rather enjoyed.

It’s the gang getting together at Wendy’s after work before doing what exactly?

These obviously aren’t real people. But this conservative corporation has carefully produced this ad – and endorsed this message – with a targeted audience in mind. And obviously that demographic is comprised of real people. And I find that profoundly saddening.

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Calvin and sobs

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Although this has basically been proven a hoax (read: fan-created strip) it still hits me square in the feels.

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Donald Rumsfeld: The Known Known

The_Unknown_Known_posterThere’s a scene near the end of Errol Morris’s new documentary ‘The Unknown Known’ when you think you might actually see Donald Rumsfeld crack. Is he finally going to acknowledge, on a human level, the role he played in the conflicts that led to the deaths of thousands, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people during his two stints as U.S. Secretary of Defense?

Rumsfeld, now 81, talks about a visit to a military hospital where he met the wife of a gravely injured solider who hasn’t been given good odds to survive. Rumsfeld, who had an affinity for recording and dictating memos and who waged as much of a war on language as he did on ‘terror’ in the early-2000s, fumbled and stammered and choked up in this retelling, ironically remarking that he didn’t know the word that could articulate this moment where he was forced to confront the real-world consequence of one of his many backroom decisions. But then the story takes a turn. Rumsfeld describes how he returned to the hospital weeks later and “wouldn’t you know it, the fellow made it.” And there’s your happy ending.

Except, it’s not. Instead, it is at this point that you realize, as an audience member, you’re not going to get any sort of cathartic climax, or at the very least an honest instant of self-reflection. (Don’t expect to see anything close to Robert McNamara’s tortured confession at the end of Morris’s ‘Fog of War.’) Rumsfeld regains his composure and the horrifying truth hits you that he really believes every single thing he’s said and done in office, no matter how twisted the logic. It’s the one-in-a-million story he wants to sell us. He’s obviously bought this version. There is no time for the other 999,999 sad endings.

This is a tough movie to sit through. Part of this is due to feeling oddly complicit in the wars and conflicts he led us into – some of which are ongoing today – because you didn’t do enough to oppose the blatant deception being perpetrated by Rumsfeld, Cheney, Bush and Co. You sit there and marvel at how they duped us into invading Iraq. Honestly, it still doesn’t make sense.

The other, more glaring reason for the discomfort is Rumsfeld’s absolute certainty about the choices he made. Sure, he deflects, confuses and misleads, but he won’t admit to having regrets, as his own misdoings, even in hindsight, would have been committed by anyone else in his position, he assures us. (Rumsfeld’s smugness is one of the vilest film villains in recent memory.)

Humans will have evolved if they are ever able to breed out the Donald Rumsfeld worldview: that peculiar, paranoid and hopelessly cynical view of humanity that says that in order to protect (and expand) your own interests, you must punish, bloody and kill anyone you (rightfully or wrongly) view as a threat. (“If you want peace, prepare for war,” is one of the idioms he repeats over and over.)

Rumsfeld played Don Draper during the Bush years, selling a non-sequitur war in Iraq that nobody wanted and that ultimately ended more than 100,000 lives. And he shows no remorse. But why should he? He did all his dirty work from behind a desk, approving strategic air strikes with a quick signature or stamp, completely disconnected from the actual blood and guts and death that marked his most recent tenure as Secretary of Defense. He saw that one solider beat the odds and that’s what he chooses to remember. And that’s what he’s trying to sell us, and history, in this film.

At some point, this salesmanship will obviously come to an end – likely, with Rumsfeld’s passing. If you can take any solace from this film, it’s that, in the very long run, history is rarely spun successfully and despite his best efforts, Donald Rumsfeld will not be remembered fondly by future generations.

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The Loss of Silence

Tinnitus is one of Archer's many, many injuries

Tinnitus is one of Archer’s many, many injuries.

While part of me wonders how best to describe this to you, I think it’s safe to assume that anyone can immediately grasp the maddening truth of it: My left ear has been hearing a high-pitched whistling sound, something akin to a dog whistle, for the past two months. It is ceaseless; from the moment I wake up to the last dreary second before I lose any perceptible sense of consciousness, my thoughts and the aural makeup of the world around me are accompanied by the ringing, the whistling, the ever-modulating noise that seems not to come from nowhere.

Perhaps it’s all in my head; literally, a malfunction in the nerve-receptors that tell my brain it’s hearing something in my ear. I suppose it would be a relief to have that clarified, to receive some sort of answer as to why this is happening. The sad truth of tinnitus is that even if I managed to find some identifiable cause, there exists no consistent cure of any kind. If you get tinnitus, generally speaking, it’s with you until it decides to leave. It is likely to leave at some point, but perhaps I’m part of the fifteen percent of the tinnitus-afflicted population who get it forever, carrying it with me through moments of excitement, boredom, romance and sadness, all the way until death.

There’s a sense in which it truly becomes a passenger in your life. In the early weeks I tried to ascribe positivity to the noise, thinking of it as the machine in my head that kept my body running; as long as I hear it, I know I’m alive. Perhaps that logic falters when I sleep, which is accomplished with the help of smartphone apps that play rain and thunder noises. Once or twice I’ve fallen asleep without the noises playing, but I slowly feel it’s becoming a necessity in my sleep space. With tinnitus ringing in your ear, noise becomes the devil.

It gets better with time, at least perceptually. I increasingly find myself getting through longer and longer stretches of time without noticing the noise. If I’m occupied in some form of engaging task – be it playing a videogame or tackling some complex problem at work – I function just like normal. Atlantic editor and author Scott Stossel’s recent book My Age of Anxiety, a dissection of our collective history with anxiety, raises a similar argument for combatting anxiety and panic, frequently reiterating the importance of an occupied mind in overcoming mental and emotional distress. Make yourself busy enough and you’ll almost forget you have an affliction.

This strategy works, but there’s a caveat: When you’re occupied, you never get to stop and enjoy the absence of your tinnitus. To notice the absence of the ringing is to take a moment of reflection, the act of which immediately brings the noise right back to the foreground. I wake up each day hoping to hear nothing, and the best I can do is be too pre-occupied to care. It robs me of pure silence, of relief from the sound. I don’t know that I miss the silence itself, so much as I miss the luxury of having it when I wanted it. Some of the more terrifying and lonely moments of my life were spent in the deafening quake of silence, and I’ve infrequently wished to situate myself in its presence. From that perspective, I’ve perhaps discovered the most luxurious affliction possible.

Which isn’t to sugarcoat things too much; my first couple weeks with the noise were wracked with anxiety, minor panic attacks and moments of despair dark enough to not be proper in sharing. The noise, so foreign and unwelcome, seemed to infect the very processes that allowed me to function, no longer allowing me the simple pleasure of eating, sleeping, or even thinking. As someone who never pined for a quiet home out in the country, I can positively reassert that now more than ever, I want and need the noise and bustle of the city to keep me company.

In an attempt to find the root of the problem, I was recently subjected to an MRI scan. Thanks to the strange scheduling of the machine, my scan was at 1:30 am. The entire experience was surreal, waking up at 1:00 am to drive downtown and sit in a futuristic tube of magnetic brain-scan equipment. The cacophony of noise was initially overwhelming, and the tube itself far tighter than I had expected. Without my glasses and bereft of hearing, I had no choice but to lay motionless and let the experience happen, mentally forming the machine’s endless sounds into musical notes whenever they rhythmically coalesced. I gained an even greater appreciation for Charlotte Gainsbourg’s “IRM”, a song written as an attempt to capture the feeling of being inside the MRI machine [IRM is the French name for an MRI].

It is now April 3rd, two months to the day of when I first noticed the ringing while sitting at my desk at work. I still vividly remember the day before I heard the ringing, spending time with friends, watching the Super Bowl, playing board games, huddling close to my wife at the bus stop to travel back across town near midnight. There seems something so melodramatically carefree about those moments. Multiple medical tests later and I still hear the ringing and I still seem to be suffering from minor earaches in both ears. It’s nothing but a luxury that my right ear seems generally un-afflicted, though the random moments once every day or two in which it rings for 5 or 6 seconds are always cause for momentary panic. Perhaps I can learn more from the lessons Stossel discusses in My Age of Anxiety, that health is a combination of mind and body, that your work and your life cannot be extricated and quarantined from one another. Perhaps this ringing is a call to myself, to spend more time pursuing my goals, to not simply surrender.

And yet here I am, writing again, at last, waiting for this final sentence to pour itself out of me, and all I can hear is the ringing.

 

 

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April Fools in the Hospital

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Years ago on April Fools, I found myself scared of death. I was in the hospital — three days earlier, at the age of 21, I had suffered a stroke.

The morning of April Fools I was woken up with a scream. This is not uncommon in the neurology ward. On this morning, the overnight staff had placed a plastic skeleton in a hospital bed and attached it to a heart monitor. Whenever a nurse or doctor came in for the morning shift, they told them about a car accident that had taken place overnight. They took them to the bedside of the only surviving victim, and the unsuspecting staff member, barely into their morning coffee, would see the flat line of the heart monitor and pull back the sheets on the skeleton.

Food was delivered on trays, and the trays stacked on tall pushcarts that almost touched the ceiling. That morning, after the hospital staff delivered breakfast to the patients on my floor, a Filipino orderly who looked like a bouncer flipped the empty pushcart so that the wheels faced the ceiling. After breakfast, hospital staff placed the empty trays into the pushcart, with half-eaten oatmeal and the ends of juice. And when they went to push the cart and it wouldn’t move, they looked up to see the wheels facing the ceiling. If they flipped it back the other way, all the half-eaten food would fall out. There was a lot of swearing.

The young and sick receive a sad version of the VIP treatment. Doctors are more curious, nurses more attentive, and civilians in the hospital, frightened and reverential. Illness in youth is a reversal of the natural order; one is gawked at and attended to like an alien or the prettiest girl at the prom. A young man in a hospital gown, dragging an IV stand, possesses strange powers.

As a kid I’d learned a prank from a magazine – tape a plastic cup under your armpit, tell someone you hurt yourself, and as you move your injured arm, crush the cup against your body for a bone crunching sound. There I was in my hospital gown, dragging an IV stand with two plastic bags of medicine and an electronic box that monitored the drip, walking around the halls of the neurology ward, telling a nurse or an orderly, “I have a really bad cramp in my shoulder, can you just rub it for a second,” and when they did, I would crack the plastic cup under my arm and yell out in pain, asking “Why did you do that so hard? I’m hurt!” Most of them would shrug it off – nurses are so hard to scare.

Later that day, I was wandering around the hospital lobby, bored and lonely, soaking up distant attention, with a fresh plastic cup taped under my armpit. I was ready to go back to the neurology ward and got on the elevator with a middle aged couple. Just me, the husband and wife, together for less than a minute. Right away I started writhing in pain, screaming about my shoulder cramp. “Could you please just rub it for a second, just a second, the pain is excruciating.” The wife started rubbing my shoulder hesitantly and as soon as she started, I cracked the plastic cup so hard, the bone crunching sound repelled her away from me. I screamed out in pain, “Why’d you do it so hard! I’m sick, I think I’m hurt,” as I held my arm in pain. The hospital gown, the IV stand, the bone crunching sound,, it all added up to this – they injured a young sick person. The wife started apologizing profusely, the husband nervously asked me if he should call someone. And right then, the door opened on my floor, and I said, “April Fools!” and dragged my IV out of the elevator. As the elevator doors closed, we all smiled at each other – I have never seen people more relieved in my life.

Yes, it was mean, just like the fake accident victim and the upside down pushcart. I wonder if that couple tells the story of our minute together, if they maintained their relief, if they found the humor in what I did, or if they were angry after the elevator doors closed. For a moment though, we all smiled at each other in relief, and that’s the part I remember.

In a place where the laws of nature routinely maim and kill, the ability to bend reality, even for a moment, is valuable. It’s good to be reminded that I am often blind to the obvious, and that distress and relief are both temporary, often brought about by my own hand.

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