Plastic Brain

The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science
By Norman Doidge, M.D.
Published by Penguins Group (Canada) 2007
This book is about brain plasticity and the miraculous abilities of our brains to compensate for damage, natural or inflicted, to learn or relearn tasks and actually change themselves to adapt without drugs or operations.
Norman Doidge is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and researcher at Columbia University and The University of Toronto. He took the time and made the effort to visit many contemporaries he calls “neuroplasticians “.He outlines the history of neuroplasticity, its proponents and opponents.
Neuroplasticity: Neuro is for “neuron”, the nerve cells in our brains and nervous systems. Plastic is for “changeable, malleable, modifiable”
A lot of wonderful discoveries took place in the 20th Century, yet Norman Doidge says in his preface that brain plasticity is “one of the most extraordinary discoveries of the 20th Century”. The results of experiments with the human brain which lead him to that conclusion are astonishing.
In a futuristic science like neurology one would expect a more progressive attitude in its practitioners, but the same old attitudes appeared there too and every scientist -doctor- researcher who bucked the trend and suggested the possibility of plasticity was attacked because the establishment had concluded that the brain was hardwired to certain functions. The notion of plasticity was so revolutionary that those who believed in it wouldn’t dare to use the term in writing for many years. Those who knew brain plasticity was a reality were vilified, ridiculed and obstructed at each step of the way. Doidge pulls no punches when he describes the difficulties these people went through. As usual, the rebels led the way.
One of the biggest misconceptions about this book is that it is written only for the super intelligent. It isn’t really. The stories of experiments with monkeys, rats and mice which make up many of the eleven chapters of this book are told clearly and simply. The extraordinary results in humans as well as animals are described in detail in plain language.
There is a section at the end of the book, just before the appendix, called Notes and References, in which Doidge includes verifications and explanations of quotes, ideas and concepts, some requiring whole pages.
The Brain That Changes Itself is a hopeful book which is well worth the read. This edition has 427 pages including. eleven chapters, two appendices, Notes and References, a forward, an acknowledgements section and an index.

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Private Empire: ExxonMobil and US Power Blues

The Penguin Press New York 2012
685 pp. $36 US $38 Canada
ISBN 978 1 59420 335 0
“-the corporation does more to shape our energy economy than our democratically elected government-” Steve Coll
I didn’t want to read this book and try to understand its meaning because I thought it would be too depressing but like SELF SERVE: HOW PETROCANADA DRAINED CANADIANS DRY by Peter Foster and SEVERE CONDITIONS: BIG OIL AND THE TRANSFORMATION OF ALASKA by John Strohmeyer, it’s irresistIble to me.
I’m interested in the oil business because I worked in the upstream (the exploration and production of raw oil) as a roughneck in Alberta and on the North Sea and in the downstream of the business (the manufacturing and selling of oil and gas on the wholesale and retail markets) as a yardman in the pipeline terminals of Esso (Exxon through Imperial Oil) and PetroCanada in Ottawa.
Steve Coll wrote the Pulitzer prize winning GHOST WARS, an account of the CIA’s activities in pre2001 Afghanistan. He has written six others including one called, THE BIN LADENS. He is a serious writer with a talent for telling a story from facts and events stretching over many years.
He has written about important historical events in present day America. When you read this book, you realize that he’s doing it again by documenting history as we live it.
In 1904 Ida Tarbell published The History of the Standard Oil Company. It was one of the first pieces of investigative journalism and described the ruthlessness of John D Rockefeller’s monopoly. It eventually led to the trust busting laws of 1911 which broke up Standard Oil.
One of the pieces of the Standard Oil breakup was Exxon. In PRIVATE EMPIRE Steve Coll has written a meticulously researched book of investigative journalism about it.
Exxon had always been shrouded in secrecy but, bit by bit, through the use of over four hundred interviews, more than one thousand pages of previously classified US documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and unexamined court records, the curtain is pulled back by Coll.
Exxon and Mobil were both originally parts of Standard Oil. They completed their merger in 2000.
Canada’s taken for granted. That was the feeling I got when I read the book. A kind of impotent outrage at being snubbed and the old realization that we in Canada aren’t that important even though Canada is by far the single biggest supplier of imported oil to the US, 1.9 million barrels per day in 2008.
It’s pretty clear that if the CEO of ExxonMobil can ignore, consult with or demand attention from the US government at any time, he isn’t too worried about what Canada’s government thinks.
PRIVATE EMPIRE is a book of 624 pages, with 61 pages of acknowledgements, notes, a bibliography,a complete Index and a Table of Contents into which the twenty eight chapters are divided into Part One: The End of Easy Oil and Part Two: The Risk Cycle. There are maps of Exxon’s and Mobil’s upstream investments before the merger, of the countries of Indonesia, Equatorial Guineau, Chad, and Venezuela and of the Exxon spill in Jacksonville, Maryland, where a gas station leaked 25,000 gallons of gasoline into a community’s water supply. It also contains a Cast of Characters listed by country; dictators, despots and enemies of the American government among them.
Canada and Alberta are dealt with in four pages. As Coll puts it, “Canada’s politics concerning the oil sands were complicated, but as a practical matter, there was virtually no chance that Alberta’s provincial politicians or the country’s national leaders in Ottawa would seriously limit Canada’s production in the years ahead.”
At the time of the writing and publishing of this book, ExxonMobil was trading places with Walmart as the biggest company in the US and with PetroChina as the company which was most valuable in the stock market. It was the most profitable corporation headquartered in the US.
The corporation’s K Street lobbyists in Washington DC spent more millions than everyone else except GE and Pactfic Gas and Electric shaping, influencing, and stalling regulatory legislation after 1998.
ExxonMobil, whose income dwarfed that of most countries, used the USA’s military and diplomatic channels to ensure smooth operations and ignored the politicians when they they wanted to. Rex Tillerson, who replaced Lee Raymond as the Chairman and Chief Executive of ExxonMobil in 2005, told the State Department, ” I had to do what was best for my shareholders.” after a $3.1 billion deal was announced between Vladimir Putin and ExxonMobil to develop oil beneath the Kara Sea in Russia. The deal could grow to $500 billion. The State Department was usually told first.
Steve Coll catalogues, in exhaustive detail , ExxonMobil’s refusal to take responsibility for the social and physical damage it caused in places like Aceh, Indonesia, the Niger Delta and Nigeria, Chad, and Equatorial Guinea. Places far away and unlikely to interest the American population. But, to be fair, as Coll is ,painstakingly, through this book, they were the only places on earth where the oil and gas supply was vast and available.
Lee Raymond, the CEO of ExxonMobil until he retired on January 1, 2006 with a four hundred milllion dollar package, was a midwest product, an engineer for 30 years at Exxon, an old time oil man. He was Machiavellian in that he didn’t hesitate to manipulate governments, politicians and their military power, regulators and environmentalists to his advantage. He was stubborn and short sighted in that he never believed in the science which claimed that climate change was due to the burning of fossil fuels. He employed many ethical scientists whose non disclosure contracts were tied up with pensions and retirement bonuses. No one really questions the character of the scientists but Coll and others point out that the management of the science is dubious.
Raymond’s tough style kicked in with the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989 when the company’s reputation was in shreds and the regime of safety he instituted included how employees parked and required reporting of paper cuts. He personified the arrogance of ExxonMobil and was disliked by many but was an undeniable success in the business world.
ExxonMobil, extracting oil from tar sands in Alberta at Syncrude since 1978 through its Canadian affiliate, Imperial Oil,has Canadian contracts there reaching into 2035 and other interests in the tar sands.
ExxonMobil would never use the American miiItary, the consular services or the Washington lobbyists to force Canada to be the oil spigot for the American consumer, would it? It’s a question that needs to be asked. As unlikely as it seems, history shows otherwise.
The author is scrupulous in presenting both sides of the arguments, explaining ExxonMobil’s activities, good or bad, from their point of view, through their eyes.
Coll says, “Oil from Alberta, barrel for barrel, contributed one of the highest gas emissions of any source in the world” but the message Canada was getting from the American government under Bush was “ Produce as much of this oil as you can-we’ll buy all of it” There was never a problem with the environment and global warming when Bush and Cheney were in power. Cheney and Lee Raymond were close personal friends, both, like Bush, from an oil background, who met frequently in Cheney’s office.
When Obama took over, the oil industry was angry with his attitude and at the new California emission standards. They rallied some of the population with patriotic fervour, saying that if Canadian oil wasn’t sold to the US, it would be sold to the latest threat, China.
ExxonMobil was so confident in Canada as a friend and risk free oil source that it thought the many efforts of oil company lobbyists when Obama returned to Washington from his traditional first visit to Ottawa were a waste of time and money.
Their attitude was that if the US government cut itself off from Canadian oil, they would sell it elsewhere.
The problem is that exploiting the tar sands is more like strip mining than drilling with even higher costs to the environment and local people.
The time horizons of ExxonMobil’s investments far outlive the politicians who hold power for a few years and are gone. In some countries there might be war for years and changes of unstable governments or no governments at all.
It is no wonder that ExxonMobil had more influence in Chad than the US government. Where the American government gave $3 million to the country, ExxonMobil invested $4.1 billion.
ExxonMobil has been compared to the East India Company, and the Dutch East India Company who set out four centuries ago to colonize the New World. The irony is that four hundred years later, these gigantic multinational oil companies may be responsible for raising the very seas upon which the early explorers sailed, through global warming.
The corporation is compared to a Frankenstein monster in the where Bruce Watson states, “Nowhere has ExxonMobil bullied the world more than in the global warming debate”
The Exxon Valdez disaster happened in 1989 and dumped 257,000 barrels of oil into Prince William Sound, more than had ever been spilled in American waters before. Lee Raymond instituted reform and Exxon produced an admirable safety record and record profits.
One would think a huge company investing gigantic sums in oil and gas plays all around the world would be vulnerable to the resource nationalism, partisan movements and blackmail which is commonplace in many countries but through an uncompromising array of legal action, shifting responsibility for human rights violations to militaries or to the World Bank and outright influence peddling, ExxonMobil has managed to avoid any Exxon Valdez type disasters so far. In 2005 Dick Cheney personally called the UAE government to enable ExxonMobil to win a contract to develop a field which held ten percent of the world’s oil and the fifth largest gas reserve.
Whether using the Indonesian military in Aceh (whose methods included torture, summary executions and burying insurgents’ bodies in mass graves with company equipment),the military torture chambers of Equatorial Guinea or the security forces in the craziness and piracy of the Niger Delta, ExxonMobil built its own foreign policy without the US government’s concern for human rights. It was there on the surface, they said all the right things and did their best to protect the corporation legally, but they knew about the human rights abuses and, for the most part, carried on anyway.
ExxonMobil Chemical is also dealt with in PRIVATE EMPIRE. About a quarter of American oil imports are used to manufacture commercial chemicals annually. A chapter of this book outlines the fight ExxonMobil and their spokesman-congressman, Joe Barton from Texas, waged to avoid having DINP (phthalates- See Ottawa Sun Aug 27, 2012 page 8) banned from children’s toys. It is a softener which makes vinyl more pliable but is suspected of being carcinogenic. Consumer advocates got some DINP banned but not all thanks to ExxonMobil’s lawyers and politicians.
The premise of it all, of course, is George Bush’s long awaited pronouncement that the US was “addicted” to oil. There has been no doubt about that for a long time and as unpalatable as it is to the oil industry to hear put that way, they can rest assured that they are safe in the short term and, judging from the performances of the governments of North America, equally unthreatened by long term solutions.
To understand the power of ExxonMobil, another George Bush quote is helpful. When the Indian prime minister asked why he didn’t just tell ExxonMobil to buy into an oil play in India, Bush replied,
“Nobody tells those guys what to do.”
The debate about climate change is something which Tillerson mulled over and investigated through ExxonMobil’s specially hired astrophysicists for three years. ExxonMobil finally admitted that global warming, at least in part, was caused by human activity, probably the burning of fossil fuels, when, for the first time in the company’s hundred year history, Tillerson supported a carbon tax in 2009.
When the Deepwater Horizon blowout happened to competitor, British Petroleum, in 2010, it was estimated that five million barrels of oil were released into the Gulf of Mexico.
Rex Tillerson commented, with a typical ExxonMobil attitude, “We would not have drilled the well the way they did”
The “energy independence” drum is being beaten as it is in every election and the “Drill, baby, drill” proponents are searching for a congressman or senator like Joe Barton.
ExxonMobil has unprecedented power in governments world wide.
Canadians who are happy that we’re in such a helpless position, can take comfort in knowing that ExxonMobil is in our oilpatch. They were ten, if not twenty years ahead of PetroCanada in the Ottawa pipeline terminals when I was there in 2000. It means that we have someone technologically brilliant and wildly successful businesswise, exporting our oil.
On the other hand, it is depressing.

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Sailing to Philadelphia Considered

Like the bears in the zoo which plod the same circle day after day, I dutifully checked the Pynchon section of the public library. The past years of habitual checking had produced nothing but it was part of my routine.
Then, one day, there was a new book in the Pynchon section. I took it home with great expectations. Intellectual memories were blurred by time but the feeling of excitement was the same.
I had read Gravity’s Rainbow and V so many years before that I had forgotten what they were about. But I had a strong feeling, took it for granted, that Thomas Pynchon was an important writer to me.
Life intervened and I never got to finish the book of seven hundred pages. It was called, MASON AND DIXON.
Years later when a Mark Knopfler cd came out, I bought it and listened with relish to SAILING TO PHILADELPHIA, the song. He does it as a duet with James Taylor.
Returning from three years in Europe, I spent $40 of the $60 with which I landed in Ottawa, on a concert featuring Dire Straits and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Mark Knopfler’s the only concert I’ve gone to see in the past thirteen years, since we moved to the country.
In other words, I am a Mark Knopfler fan. I even liked his instrumental duets with Chet Atkins.
James Taylor’s songs and voice and his connections to Apple Records and Jimmy Buffet and Carly Simon sent thoughts in another direction.
Then, suddenly, I heard the words to the song. I realized what the characters, each of whom had a voice, one of Mark Knopfler and one of James Taylor, were saying. They were sailing to Philadelphia to draw the Mason – Dixon line.
I assumed, at first, that it was a coincidence. Then, in an interview, Mark Knopfler said that he had respectfully distilled the 700 page book into a two minute song. He was exploring the phenomenon that is America and this was a part of it which he articulated in his own way.
Now that Pynchon ‘s 1000 page novel is about to be published, Ian Rankin discloses, in a Guardian interview on the website, that he is a real Pynchon nut. He was going to do a PHD on the writer.
Ian Rankin reminds me that Pynchon dedicated Gravity’s Rainbow to Richard Farina.
I think he was married to Mimi and they played folk music. For sure he wrote a book called BEEN DOWN SO LONG, LOOKS LIKE UP TO ME which was popular. I can’t remember anything about that book but I know that it was the source of many weird names considered for rock bands of the day.

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The Neighbour

I first noticed her while I was waiting for Yvonne. It was a throwback to the Hitchcock movie. Me and the rear window. Mine was the only house which looked over her back yard. When the tree by my kitchen window was full of leaves, I could only get glimpses until I cut the right branches. It was risky, but I had developed strong arms and the tree was close to the window.
I started to use escort services when I arrived back from Iraq and couldn’t use my legs. I didn’t want a commitment of any kind. A whole year of hospitalization, only to find that they couldn’t cure the paralysis in my legs. There was a long period of rehabilitation after that. I was treated as a hero at first, felt like an object of pity, later.
The reality was that I went to Iraq to boost my income and career. Some of my photographs won prizes. My impetuous nature, my thirst for adventure, my selfishness, they were all part of it. But when I returned, the benefits soon wore thin. I didn’t feel that I’d accomplished anything. The people around me had never seen war. They only knew the old me.
My wife and young kids treated me like I was sick, friends hid their smugness and pity behind their concern. When it became unbearable, I made plans.
Something had happened to me while I was an embedded photographer in Iraq, which I would never wish on anyone, but which didn’t make me feel the least bit suicidal. A descent into the bottomless pool of self pity wasn’t an option. The misunderstanding of my well meaning friends and family caused me to make the escape. I had been changed. I didn’t care anymore. I had been through too many operations, too many hours of physio punctuated by hours of doing nothing. I couldn’t deal with all the ties of my old life. It wasn’t worth trying to explain and I didn’t care what anyone else thought. If there is a god, may he or she forgive me.
I played the role while I was recovering then I ran. Who’s going to suspect a man in a wheelchair of acquiring a new identity? It was easy.
Only one person in the world knew my new name and where I was. She was a lesbian mother of two who lived in Vancouver. We met in university, kept in touch over the years. She was no threat. She knew as little about my former life as I knew about hers.
Money was no object for me because of the insurance. The network had me well covered. I disappeared to an east coast city one day. Every so often, another story appeared in the media about my depressed state at the time of my disappearance. My wife moved in with a former mayor. She and the kids looked happy in media pictures.
The first man I saw with the neighbour turned out to be her husband. When they sat out on their backyard deck around supper time, they seemed to have that intimacy. She touched him when she gave him a glass. Sometimes they argued, other times they’d sit reading while their barbeque smoked in the background. They seemed comfortable with each other for most of that early spring.
I watched from my kitchen window the night of the party in her backyard. I drank tequila while I watched the couples till they departed.
The guy must have been a close friend of them both. She kissed him goodnight before her husband, disappeared into the house. The guys talked, then the husband produced a hand held video camera, left it with his friend, disappeared into the house.
By this time, I had my powerful binoculars focussed on the small screen in the camera which the buddy was watching on the deck. He sat with his back to me, as fixed on the images as I was. We witnessed the marital coupling from several angles. The husband made surreptitious smiles into the screen. When it was over, the bedroom lights went out. The buddy took the camera with him into the house. Lights in another part of the house went on and off. All was dark.
I started drinking in a local bar but the other drinkers there were even more patronising and depressing than my real family so I joined some wheelchair racing enthusiasts. The athletics became too hard for me in a short time. I wanted to be comfortable, not driven. I didn’t really have anything to prove. I just wanted to take it easy, pay attention to the things I liked. I became content staying at home, playing my guitar and reading. I used the tv and computer, but usually when Yvonne wasn’t coming over, I read or played my music.
The next time I saw the neighbour, she was sitting on her deck, sipping a coffee. She had discarded her robe, exposed her body in a skimpy bikini. I studied her closely with the binoculars.
I noticed a mound in her backyard, just below the deck. She had planted a peony bush on it. The edges of the mound were visible, at first, but she kept it watered. Soon it blended in with the rest of the lawn.
Her husband was never seen again. Cops interviewed her, the story of her husband’s disappearance was in all the media, for a short time. It was the man I’d first seen her with. His name was Norman.
She shed tears for the press, played the role of the grieving widow-distraught spouse, in public. I knew, from watching her, that she smiled a lot, to herself, when she was alone, watering the peony.
She was slim with short blonde hair, long legs and a pretty face. I came to appreciate her figure when I saw her from my kitchen window, on summer mornings. I had hours to inspect her body, through my binoculars. She stretched, drank coffee on her deck. She often wore a robe which she discarded when she sat down.
I was blessed when the hand held rocket hit the truck in the middle of Baghdad. Blessed because when the shrapnel hit my spine, it didn’t affect my genitals. I could still function sexually. In fact, I was hornier than ever.
Yvonne had no inhibitions with me. I paid her good money to dress up and take off her different costumes. It was a kind of visual foreplay.
After I saw the neighbour, I insisted that Yvonne and I do it in the kitchen. She didn’t notice the neighbour, didn’t notice me looking out the window, while she was busy.
The buddy showed up some months later. He had been around at first, offering the grieving widow the obligatory shoulder to cry on. She wasn’t a widow officially, but there was no sign of her husband. The buddy must have run into her somewhere a few months later.
I watched Yvonne dance around the kitchen, strip to the music. The neighbour and the buddy sat together, on her deck, drinking something out of tall glasses.
Yvonne left after supper. I watched them kiss on the deck, disappear into the house. Lights went on and off in her bedroom. All was dark.
My neighbour sat on her deck again in late summer with two mounds in the back yard below her. On the second mound, which was barely visible, she had planted a rose bush. Often on summer mornings she sat on the chaise lounge, read, drank coffee, smiled to herself. On hot days I could see rivulets of sweat through my binoculars. They trickled from her neck down between her full, bikini’d breasts.
Yvonne began talking about retiring near the end of the summer. Usually we didn’t talk. I didn’t get turned on by it and I was paying. Yvonne didn’t take offence. Instead, she told me about customers who liked to talk and liked to hear her talk while she satisfied their sexual desires. I would be sad to see her go.
The neighbour cleaned up her deck for the winter with three mounds in the backyard. There were blowing leaves gathering on them. The third one sported a hydrangea bush which looked like it had always been there.
I wasn’t surprised that the detective who talked to her, on the deck, with a notebook in one hand, a badge in the other, had disappeared. He showed up at later that night, had a few drinks with her, stayed out on the deck for a smoke. Her bedroom lights went on, he finished his cigarette, disappeared into the house. Her lights went out. All was dark.
By this time, I assumed that my neighbour was having sex with, killing and burying the men in her life. I thought about calling the cops, but I didn’t want any publicity. It would be a big story. The black widow. The seductress-murderer.
There was always the anonymous tipline. But every time I went to make the call, I was battered by questions: Was she doing anything that was more shocking than what I had seen in a war? Was it any of my business? Was it a connection, even so tenuous, to my former life? Did my neighbour’s men get what they deserved? Did she? Did I? Did the Iraqis and the Americans?
The questions stopped me, then became unimportant when Yvonne retired to start her own agency. They remained in the back of my mind but they were impossible for me to answer. My finger was poised above the phone several times, but the questions stopped me.
I had contributed to Yvonne’s nest egg. I didn’t regret it. She introduced me to Rita, brought her around one day. I got specials for free: Rita and I got along well. It was even easier for me than with Yvonne because Rita already knew what I liked.
I figured my neighbour would probably get caught on her own. There was nothing to watch in her backyard during the winter. Boredom started me back into photography again. Slowly but surely, I got ready for the spring. I wasn’t sure what for, but I would be ready in the spring.
But in the spring, she was gone. A new family had moved in.
I watched the mother teach her children about the three bushes in their back yard as they came to life in the warm sunshine. They watered them carefully, fussed over them, pruned them.
In the spring, the peonies bloomed, the rose blossomed all summer and the hydrangea put on an impressive show in the fall.
The framed picture of the yard, deck, three bushes, hangs on my kitchen wall.

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I was of a young age when I was born. Lack of experience and physical inabilities forced me to spend most of the first few years on my back with a few moments on my front. Various big people coo cooed, picked me up, put me down, held me, changed me, fed me and kissed me goodnight. I was the centre of attention for a while.
When winter ended I explored the world around me. My mother wondered at my insight. I crawled, poked and investigated the various rooms of our cardboard box.
I deduced that summer was near when a flower bloomed outside of our cardboard door and an extremely hot thing above us in the sky burnt the bejesus out of our box.
I was drawn to the sound of traffic as soon as I could stand. There was no turning back when it came to me and traffic. I rushed straight for it as fast as my little legs could carry me. I was saved from certain disaster many times by strangers.
Several rainy springs, my mother gathered all twelve of us children together to collect cardboard for a new box. Waterproof cardboard was hard to come by.
For a long time, I thought the furry fellow who kept licking me and wagging his tail was my father. It was Rex the dog. Big people kept him happy with food and water like me. The only apparent difference seemed to be that they made Rex defecate outside before they disposed of it, whereas I could go right in my pants.
I went to school by following the herd of my brothers and sisters when I was of an age to do so. The teachers taught and the students, of which there were many thousands, learned. What we learned is another matter.
Children followed marriage. They seemed to pop up regularly in various rooms of my home.
I was, by this time, the proud owner of a wooden packing case. The appearance of new children always coincided with my wife gaining then losing a great amount of weight around the belly area.
Often, when the family gathered in the packing case, we had a karaoke night. None of us could carry a note. Neighbours sent complaints our way but in the main our karaoke nights were successful. We all knew ‘Jeremiah Was A Bullfrog’, by heart and each member of the family sang it lustily. Perhaps the neighbours wouldn’t have complained so much if we sang some other songs as well.
Now that I am old, I grow young again. The others grow old and young again at their own pace. The passage of years winnows things down to bare essentials. It’s normal to return to childhood as you grow old because as the years go by, more and more, you don’t care as a child doesn’t care.
If all goes well, I’ll be of an old age when I die.

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The Snack

I swallowed a piece of gristle, cut into the lamb, smiled at Mrs. Ready. She was old, with a glitter of intelligence in her eye. I worked my way through the big meal gratefully, home-made food was good. I watched Mrs. Ready fussing with the potatoes. Surely, when we’d eaten our way through the lamb, potatoes and vegetables, had our dessert, chocolate cake, and coffee, surely, then, she’d get around to it.
I was investigating the disappearance of the cop who came here to investigate the disappearance of her nephew Cecil. We usually don’t eat and drink with the people involved in an investigation, but she’d insisted. Cecil was a small time hustler, sold anything he could get his hands on. It wasn’t just to support one habit, Cecil was into everything. He drank, drugged, gambled and whored like a sailor on shore leave in a wide open port.
There were a hundred Cecils, but this one happened to have a beer one night with Louis, a money launderer from Gatineau, across the Ottawa river. They were boyhood friends, met at a strip joint once. The brass insisted that Cecil was worth watching. When he went missing, they wanted detectives on the case. My partner, Dave Speller and I were fresh out of uniform. It was because we had recently been in uniform, dealing with scumbags on the street, that we were familiar with Cecil.
We cruised around Cecil’s usual hangouts, the taverns and strip joints, nobody had seen him. We forgot about it. There were murders, blackmail and more cases of white collar crime than ever before. Then one day a message landed on Dave’s desk. I was on the way to court. He was reading the note, and I said, see ya, so did he. He shouted to me,
“Hey, Cecil went to visit his aunt”
I ran to catch the elevator, those were the last words I heard Dave say.
Nobody thought much of it when Dave didn’t show up for work the next morning. His wife Jackie called at noon. Dave was missing.
At first, we kept it quiet. His car was parked a few blocks from Mrs. Ready’s house, in a shopping centre. Forensics went over it with a fine tooth comb, but couldn’t find anything significant to point us in a direction. The house to house questioning, with Dave’s picture and that of his car, produced nothing. Nobody had seen the car stop at the shopping centre. Nobody had seen who was in it, who got out of it.
We traced all the cases he was involved with, braced whoever could possibly have had the remotest grudge against Dave. It wasn’t hard to do, he’d only been a detective for a year. All of the suspects had an alibi or were in jail.
Mrs. Ready’s was one of the first places we checked. She was a perfect, little old lady, white hair in a bun, pink pant suit and sneakers. Yes, she was Cecil’s aunt, but hadn’t seen him for years, until the one visit. Yes, Detective Speller had come to ask some questions. He was such a nice boy, even had some cookies and a cup of tea with her. She was distressed to hear that Dave was missing. It was all over the newspapers, tv and radio.
Jackie phoned me twice a day, at least. I was in shock, but not as badly as Jackie. A dark foreboding hung in the background when I went through Dave’s effects again. His desk held no clues. My own piled up with ignored work. Even Cal Davis pulled out all the stops, called in all the favours, made the men return to their snitches, once again. It didn’t matter how hard we pushed, we still turned up nothing.
I sat in my apartment, on a Friday night, with some rented videos and a bottle of rye. I was stumbling by the time I went to bed. In my drunken reasoning, I had resolved to return to the scene of the last sighting of Dave, Mrs. Ready’s. The instances of someone attacking or kidnapping a city detective were rare, in Ottawa. There were lots of threats made in courts and jails but no one ever followed through. Until Dave. I had the feeling, it grew every day, that Dave was dead.
Mrs. Ready mentioned supper when I called her. I had a bunch of paperwork to tackle, the never ending court appearances. I stopped off on my way home from a long, frustrating day. Seeing her gingerbread house brought back painful flashes of Dave. She lived in a quiet neighbourhood in the west end of Ottawa with manicured lawns and overhanging trees. The house itself was well maintained, painted, roses grew over the trellis at the side. Mrs. Ready’s sensible Toyota sat in the lane way.
I left my tie and jacket in the car, knocked on the door. It opened immediately.
“Detective Sloan, come in, come in” Mrs. Ready was small, about five foot three. She held the door open for me.
“Hi, Mrs. Ready. Thanks” As I followed her into the living room, my eyes fell on the chair which had been last used by Dave. Before that, Cecil, himself, had used the chair, when he came to beg.
In the dining room was a table set for two. I would have disappointed her, if I had not sat down. I had no intention of eating a big supper there. She insisted that we have a snack at least. She served me slices of lamb with home made peppermint sauce and a glass of wine. She ate everything on her plate, which was as big as mine. The mashed potatoes were creamy, smooth, the cauliflower and carrots, steamed just right. Mrs. Ready looked like a little, white haired sparrow, but she ate like a vulture.
We downed the glasses of wine, ate the food with gusto. She asked me all about Jackie. I asked her if there was anything about Dave’s visit that was strange. She replied, as she had, no doubt, a hundred times before, that there was nothing.
I ate the chocolate cake and ice cream which she served for dessert and we sat with our coffees. I couldn’t get past the fact that Dave had been here last. Mrs. Ready looked interested and concerned but she said that he’d left after a few, brief questions about Cecil. She let me walk around the living room.
I sat in the easy chair, looked at the spotless, hardwood floors, the doilies on the tables beneath the antique lamps. I hadn’t seen doilies since the family went to my grandmother’s house, years ago. I attempted to think like Dave. Where would I go next?
Mrs. Ready wrapped up some slices of lamb for sandwiches, gave them to me on my way out. I drove home depressed.
Reporters called, occasionally, inquiring about Dave. There was no point in trying to hide it, we were honest with them. We told them that we were as mystified as everyone else.
I finally got a little hope when I went back over the reports made by the team who questioned people, in nearby houses, on Mrs Ready’s street.
It was a real longshot. The people across the street from Mrs. Ready were noted, by the canvassing officer, to be ‘out of town’. When I called their number, in desperation, I got a teenager named Brent who told me that he was in the house the day of Dave’s disappearance. His parents were out of town, he wasn’t. He seemed, like most teenagers, unaware of anything around him which didn’t directly involve loud music, drugs and girls. The loud music in the background signalled to me that he was home alone, again. He remembered because he and some friends were “getting ready” for a concert that night, at the Corel Centre, sitting in the living room. He had seen Mrs. Ready drive Dave’s car away. Brent called her “old lady Ready”
I was stunned. I had called Brent from my cell phone, on the way home. I decided on a short detour to Mrs. Ready’s house.
Mrs. Ready was pleasant when she answered the door, asked me in. I couldn’t stick to my plan of trying to trick her into talking, I just blurted it out. I asked her, why she had driven Dave’s car, where was Dave? What had happened?
Mrs. Ready insisted on a little wine, when we sat down at her kitchen table. I didn’t see any harm in it. I had a glass with her, waited for an explanation. I wasn’t sure that Brent’s tip was true, it sounded outrageous.
When she finally got around to it, she laughed at Brent’s accusations. She said that he and his friends were so stoned, they couldn’t be relied on. Even Brent’s parents left their house from time to time, to get away from him. Brent didn’t like her because she called the city when his dog did its business on her lawn.
She kept talking, I began to feel dizzy. I remember trying to get to the sink, Mrs. Ready pushing a chair in front of me. The perfect kitchen moved. I remember hearing her giggle. I fell to the floor. Something was wrong, then there was blackness.
Everything was swirling when I woke up. My hands were behind my back, fastened with my own handcuffs. My feet were tied together, my mouth taped shut. I was as surprised as I was groggy. Light leaked into the room, produced visibility. I was at the bottom of some stairs, I could feel the scrapes I’d gotten on my face. She must have pushed me down them.
It was a cellar. I could make out a furnace, the outlines of a washing machine and a dryer. I was laying on a concrete floor near a drain which didn’t smell good. There had been something powerful in the glass of wine. I heard a phone ring. The conversation above was muffled by motors running behind the furnace. I squirmed and wiggled my way to see that the motors belonged to two old fridges at the far end of the room.
The door opened at the top of the stairs and the light went on. I could see only her feet, at first. Then I turned my head and Mrs. Ready appeared.
She was dressed like a surgeon, even wore a mask. She floated around the cellar talking to herself, humming, gathering implements: meat cleavers and saws which she placed on a rough counter.
I tried to signal her by bugging out my eyes, wiggling like a fish, but Mrs. Ready ignored me. She got two card tables from the darkness, set them up. Then she opened a case to inspect the scalpels and knives within. I watched her plug in a skill saw, start it up. That was the only time she looked at me. Our eyes met when she depressed the trigger of the saw and the sharp teeth revolved at high speed. She giggled beneath the mask then looked me over, as if gauging the height and weight of a piece of meat.
Mrs. Ready picked a deadly looking knife from her case, set it on the table. She looked into the drain in the floor, tested the hose attached to the laundry sink then took a sip of wine from the glass she carried. She approached me and made a sound which I’ve heard people use to calm upset children, but it wasn’t working with me. I wasn’t soothed when she tried to stab me in the heart.
I turned away at the last second and felt a sharp pain in my shoulder. She raised the bloody knife again. I was backed up against the wall, nowhere to go. I forced myself to look at her. I could hear her starting to giggle. The wet knife came closer. Suddenly there was a cry from behind her. A tall, bulky form pushed her against the wall. She crumpled easily, dropping the knife on top of me. It was Cecil. Broke again, he’d crawled out of whatever hidden cave he’d found to ask for more money. Even this jaded lowlife was shocked by the scene. Eventually he found the keys to my cuffs. I called the department.
I sat in my car in front of Dave and Jackie’s apartment building. Forensics had verified that Dave and some other unidentified males, had been in Mrs. Ready’s cellar. Parts of them were found in her fridges and the drain. Maybe she saw Dave as a convenient victim to feed her habit. The investigation was continuing.
I went up to Jackie’s to break the news. She was relieved that, at least, Dave’s remains had been found. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her that the DNA results also confirmed that I had eaten part of Dave. It was probably the big muscle in the thigh which Mrs. Ready served as lamb. There were still some slices in my fridge.

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Two Dogs

He’d been alone a lot. Not lonesome in the sad sense of the word… he was used to it.
There was that woman, once. She stayed for a while but, eventually, she drifted away.
There were the two dogs, of course, so he wasn’t really alone. Just no people around regularly.
He wasn’t sure if he owned the dogs or they owned him. He didn’t think about it like that, anyway.
Ownership, laws, rules. Like the soldiers and media types in the boat who came by.
They were so sure that it was necessary, mandatory, even, that he leave. They tried to convince him to join the rest of the evacuation.
They could shout and roar and threaten but they’d never catch him.
They wore gloves and masks and worried when they got a bit of water on them.
And here he was, paddling, belly down, his inner tube and plastic container, to the grocery store.
The water stank and there were turds floating by, but he’d seen the kids of Bangkok swimming in the filthy canals when he was there on R&R from Nam.
They survived. In fact, the Thais were some of the strongest. Some of the toughest.
He paddled with his right hand to turn left. Up to the park where the tops of the swings were still visible and across the submerged boulevard to the mall.
All but the hardiest and most determined had given up shopping here. It wasn’t really shopping, you didn’t pay for anything, most of the valuable stuff was gone, looted. What were they going to do with the electronic appliances and games, anyway? There was no power.
He drifted in the door of the grocery store.
There were a few pet owners still making regular trips to the store but he doubted that many, if any, had tried the dog food. He found that it didn’t taste so bad.
The cans were safe and the dried stuff, though it was hard to get down from the top shelf without wetting it, was tolerable. Full of vitamins and raw protein. Not processed to taste good for humans like everything else. The dry stuff made up for the lack of vegetables in his diet.
He arranged the bags of dry dog food on top of the cans in the container. He pushed it up the aisle in front of his inner tube.
The Saint Bernard breeder was struggling with a large bag, trying to squash it into the bow of her canoe.
He stopped to help the woman.
They exchanged nods without words. There had been nothing to talk about after the first few days.
The latest gossip and rumours had become meaningless. Especially when they realized that they were stuck with the bodies. Some neighbours didn’t get along with each other, but to see them like that. Talk became trivial, unnecessary.
He nodded goodbye to the Saint Bernard breeder, paddled up the aisle, out the door.
The sun was hot as he headed for home. The dogs’d be waiting.
It was kind of ironic, he mused, as he paddled along. There was Eric Clapton explaining his long fascination with Robert Johnson. That had been the DVD on in the living room when the water started rising.
The hurricane caused more damage than usual. The generator he’d hooked up conscientiously after the last hurricane, was doing fine, until the flood.
An earnest guy from England, an ex junkie, probably one of the best white blues players ever, sitting in a deserted building in Dallas, fifty or sixty years after Robert Johnson recorded there.
Max wagged his tail in time with the drumbeats. Brutus perked up his ears, howled along with the song when the guy accompanying Clapton launched into the electric slide solos.
Then the generator quit because of the rising water. Darkness enclosed them until he found some candles and lit them.
The dogs knew right away. They appeared more anxious every time he looked at them.
From the moonlight reconnoitre, the water first approaching his knees, then rising to his hips, things started looking very bad.
There were the sounds of shots and shouting that night, but nothing out of the ordinary for that neighbourhood.
The storm surge had lifted his van onto the roof of his stilted house. They found it a dry place, high enough to escape the water.
He knew that the accumulation of a twice divorced, twice-estranged father disappeared that night, below him, saw the evidence of it the next morning. Clapton and the DVD player were under water with the tv.
At least they had some bottled water and provisions.
Once they had settled in the van, the dogs were their usual happy go lucky selves though they didn’t like it when he made them accompany him to an empty neighbour’s house to do their business.
They smiled as they shook all over him upon their return. It was the only cheerful note on a depressing first day of the flood.
More bodies appeared, floated by. The destruction reminded him of Nam.
The memory rekindled the spirit of those days. They were “can do” days. Days when he and his buddies did whatever had to be done.
No arthritic complaints at the size of the job. They did it then and now he felt that spirit return.
They needed food and water for the future.
The idea of taking the inner tube and the plastic storage container to the grocery store came to him when an old man’s body floated by and turned toward the park.
No use sitting, feeling sorry for himself. They needed supplies. Thirty years ago he would’ve just got them. Now, he would do the same.
They see a pathetic old man paddling an inner tube through the shit. They see long grey hair sticking out of a battered old hat and a grin with some teeth missing as he looks up at them in their boat. Some had life jackets on, some, with weapons, wore kevlar vests. Who was going to attack them?
Some of the young ones with their bulging muscles and square chinned aggression were probably glad that he refused their help.
They couldn’t understand his smiling replies, his rapt attention as he listened patiently to their many reasons why he should join the evacuation.
Maybe he was judging them too harshly. But they didn’t look like they wanted him near them when they heard his refusal. No way they would take the dogs.
He realised that he was smiling at his own joke: it was an evacuation all right. Like everyone in New Orleans had a dump, relieved their bladders and puked at the same time. Then left. Or maybe it was God. Or Mother Nature.
He preferred to think that the earth was taking back its own. Like weeds that grow up through neglected concrete and asphalt.
The older guys in the boats frowned disapprovingly when he refused. They warned him that they’d be returning with a body bag tailor made for him. They couldn’t help it. Saving people in emergencies was their job. They did it every day, all year round. They had to believe in it.
Mr. Johnson’s tv, at the corner, way up in the attic, gave him a glimpse of the situation as it was portrayed by the media. It ran off a car battery for a while.
Mr. Johnson had gone with the rescue workers in the boats. He was a stubborn, old pain in the ass most of the time. He complained all the time he was being rescued. He put his faith in the system and its compassion for veterans and seniors.
The dogs greeted him with a tail wagging, slobbering frenzy until he yelled at them.
They all enjoyed the dog food as the night fell.
He had been living under the radar, out of sight of the system, for so many years now, that it wasn’t a great strain on him. He would have paddled around the city to see how old friends were doing, but from the dying images on Mr. Johnson’s tv, it was obvious that there were too many nosy media types, soldiers, national guards and cops. Too many guards guarding untouched neighbourhoods.
Those who believed in the system were now stuck at the Superdome and Convention Centre.
Viet Nam cured him of “my country right or wrong” patriotism. He learned, by experience, that smooth assurances from the powerful weren’t to be trusted. His doubts were confirmed many times over the years.
People with power often deceived in the name of freedom.
He contemplated the devastation of New Orleans.
Only fools believed them.
He surveyed the interior of the van, lit a joint.
Billy would have been making his run just when the flood hit.
He wondered if the shipment got through.

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