September 10, 2013

I’ve been out of touch for awhile, I know. Thank you for standing by - or not, as the case may be.

Last night I dreamed I was with Jim Sutherland, ex-editor of Western Living, and Carole Taylor, ex-British Columbia Finance Minister and ex-President of the CBC. They were playing golf, Taylor in a stylish white coat, while I shoveled cow shit from a pasture next door into a big leaf bag, hauled it to the offices of the British Columbia Legislature, and dumped it in the Board Room for later use as fertilizer for the plants.

I’m not much into dream interpretation, preferring to let the movie just play in my head, in all its resonant, ineffable glory – especially these days, when my dreams are far more interesting than daily life.

Speaking of which, more developments in the math of medicine. From the printouts it appears I have a heart issue of some kind: possibly a plumbing problem, possibly an electrical problem, or possibly a rare inherited condition that my or may not have caused a couple of uncles to drop dead in the 1950s. (At different times and thousands of miles apart, I mean it wasn’t as though they hit the deck together.)

In my case it’s a bit like the French legal system – all suspects are guilty until proven innocent. So until they find out exactly what is going on, I’m on meds for everything – rat poison, beta blockers, blood pressure meds, baby aspirin, you name it, I’m taking it.

The creepy thing is that none of this ever showed up as symptoms; I’m more or less a bystander, innocent or not, a tourist in the fascinating, parallel world of the Canadian medical system.

Meanwhile, the “real” world is spinning away, as is President Obama, trying to resurrect the psychology of Weapons of Mass Destruction and a Line in the Sand (the line is coloured red in this case). I ask myself whether I’d rather be bombed or gassed, and the former appears the preferable option – gas just kills you dead, you don’t get to wake up with legs and arms missing.

I suspect that the President is resorting to these Bush-isms because what is really going on is way too complex to be explained on television, and that the situation in Syria is really just a continuation of the Iraq War.

Americans can’t get their heads around this one because they see borders as created by God, not as arbitrary liness on a map drawn by Imperial Brits over crumpets and tea.

For the people who live and die in the region, the real borders are tribal and religious and cultural; this was true even with the Ottoman Empire, whose borders extended only as far as they were able to tax that year. And of course there’s the desert, which is like the high seas, where nobody is in control.  

The area is full of people who consider themselves a a “nation,”  borders or no borders.

If I were Obama (what a terrible thought), my eye would be on the Kurds. They have a shitload of money, a shitload of arms and mercenaries – and no country. Should Syria devolve into a tribal patchwork, watch for Kurds to secure their territory, then join Kurds in Iraq and form a de facto state at long last.

And so the great game will continue, and the weapons industry will flourish, and the body count, of course.

July 3, 2013

Take the Subway to the Big Time

John MacLachlan Gray

Keynote Speech, June 2013

In Tune Conference: Creating the Great Canadian Musical

I’VE BEEN NERVOUS ABOUT GIVING THIS SPEECH FROM THE MOMENT I AGREED TO DO IT. THE OLD FEELING OF BEING AN IMPOSTER, THE ACTOR’S NIGHTMARE. YOU’RE IN COSTUME, ABOUT TO GO ON, THE AUDIENCE IS OUT THERE MUTTERING AND RUSTLING… AND YOU NEVER GOT AROUND TO READING THE SCRIPT.

IN THIS CASE, IT’S TALKING TO TRAINED PEOPLE, PEOPLE WHO CAN READ AND WRITE MUSIC,ABOUT SOMETHING I KNOW HARDLY ANYTHING ABOUT.

I HAD THAT FEELING WHEN I WAS ACCEPTED INTO THE UBC DIRECTING PROGRAM IN 1969. FOR THE APPLICATION, I CLAIMED TO HAVE BEEN IN EVERY PLAY I’D EVER HEARD OF. THE TRUTH WAS, I HAD BEEN IN 5 PLAYS, AND HAD SEEN ONE PROFESSIONAL PRODUCTION - “THE RAINMAKER” AT NEPTUNE.

MIND YOU, I HAD BEEN ON STAGE MANY TIMES – WITH THE LINCOLNS, THE IMPERIALS - VARIOUS SOUL MUSIC BANDS INCORPORATING R&B, HARMONY SINGING, DANCING, GOSPEL AND A SENSE OF RITUAL.

THINK OF JAMES BROWN, THROWING OFF HIS CEREMONIAL CAPE TO BELT OUT YET ONE MORE CHORUS OF PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE. OR TINA TURNER, DOING ALARMING THINGS TO A MICROPHONE. WHAT’S NOT DRAMATIC ABOUT THAT?

AT MOUNT ALLISON I PLAYED ESTRAGON IN WAITING FOR GODOT, WHICH I RECOGNIZED AS PURE TV VAUDEVILLE – AN EXISTENTIAL TAKE ON “THE HONEYMOONERS;” LAUREL AND HARDY WITH NOTHING TO DO. WE PERFORMED IT AT DORCHESTER PEN; THE PRISONERS THOUGHT IT WAS PRETTY FUNNY. THEY KNEW ABOUT WAITING. IT GOES TO SHOW THAT ANY SHOW CAN WORK, IF YOU FIND THE RIGHT AUDIENCE.

I DIDN’T SEE A BROADWAY MUSICAL UNTIL I WAS IN MY TWENTIES – AND EVEN THEN IT WAS BROADWAY AS INTERPRETED BY THE CHARLOTTETOWN FESTIVAL. I WAS HORRIFIED. IN ALL FAIRNESS, WHEN I SAW A SHOW ON BROADWAY, I WAS HORRIFIED THEN TOO.

GOD KNOWS I APPRECIATED THE SKILL THAT WENT INTO IT – THE SONGWRITING, THE VOICES, THE DANCING, THE PRODUCTION. IT’S THE SAME APPRECIATION I HAD FOR THE CHRISTMAS VARIETY SHOW AT CHURCH: LOOK AT THE TROUBLE THEY WENT TO FOR THAT! JUST IMAGINE THE WORK THAT WENT INTO IT! THAT WAS MOST ENJOYABLE – BY GOD I THINK I’LL BUY A BAG OF FUDGE!

I HAD NO REAL PROBLEM WITH THAT. MY PROBLEM WAS A SPECIFIC MOMENT THAT SEEMED TO GO WITH THE TERRITORY: THAT MOMENT WHEN THE ACTION SHIFTS, FROM BEING AN ILLUSION WITH A THIRD WALL, TO A FLAT-OUT PERSENTATION IN WHICH THE THIRD WALL IS GONE – AND SUDDENLY WE’RE IN ANOTHER WORLD, A STANDARDIZED, ARTIFICIAL WORLD, LIKE DISNEY WORLD: OH LET’S CALL IT MUSICAL WORLD.

IN MUSICAL WORLD THERE ARE NO REAL CHARACTERS. WHAT YOU MIGHT HAVE THOUGHT WERE CHARACTERS ARE NOW MUSICAL WORLD SINGERS AND DANCERS, WITH MUSICAL WORLD VOICES, MUSICAL WORLD SKILLS, MUSICAL WORLD SMILES, AND ALL SEEMINGLY WITH THE SAME SUBTEXT: TAKE THE SUBWAY TO THE BIG TIME! THE ESCLATOR TO THE TOP! EVERYBODY BETTER LIKE ME! OR I’M GONNA BE A FLOP!

OFTEN AS NOT, THE SCRIPT SEEMED LIKE JUST A SERIES OF BRIDGES TO MUSICAL WORLD - THE ASSUMPTION BEING THAT AUDIENCES WILL PUT UP WITH ANYTHING, AS LONG AS IT LEADS TO A PRODUCTION NUMBER OR A GREAT TUNE.

MUSICAL WORLD WAS A PLACE I KNEW I WOULD NEVER FIT IN. I WOULD NEVER WRITE FOR THE CHARLOTTETOWN FESTIVAL, CANDA’S INCUBATOR OF BROADWAY MUSICALS. WHICH WAS FOR THE BEST, BECAUSE THEY NEVER SEEMED TO GO ANYWHERE.

EVERY SO OFTEN A MUSICAL FROM THE CHARLOTTETOWN FESTIVAL WOULD HEAD FOR NEW YORK - LIKE ROCKABYE HAMLET, WITH ITS GET THEE TO A NUNNERY PRODUCTION NUMBER, IN WHICHDOZENS OF NUNS DANCED IN A CIRCLE, CHANTING “NOT ANOTHER NUNNERY…” THIS, DESPITE THE FACT THAT OPHELIA COMMITS SUICIDE IMMEDIATELY AFTERWARD.

WITHOUT FAIL, CANADIAN MEDIA WOULD HYPE THE BROADWAY OPENING AS CANADA’S GREAT PLAID HOPE, THE ANTIDOTE FOR CANADA’S INFERIORITY COMPLEX.

THEN THE SHOW WOULD OPEN, TO BE GLEEFULLY RIPPED TO SHREDS NEXT MORNING BY THE CRITICS, CLOSE AFTER 3 DAYS, AND STAGGER HOME TO A MEDIA CHORUS OF I TOLD YOU SO.

ALWAYS A CHALLENGE FOR A CANADIAN WRITER OF AMERICAN MUSICALS: THE AMERICANS HAVE SO MUCH MORE EXPERIENCE AT BEING AMERICAN.

I DIDN’T GO THERE – MOSTLY BECAUSE NOBODY ASKED ME TO. I STARTED WRITING MUSICALS BY SNEAKING IN THE BACK DOOR – THE SO-CALLED “ALTERNATE” THEATRE. THE “EXPERIMENTAL” THEATRE. THEATRE THAT TOOK PLACE IN CONVERTED CHURCHES AND HALLS AND FUNERAL PARLOURS. WHERE MUSICALS DIDN’T HAPPEN, BUT MUSIC DID.

I WROTE MUSIC FOR TAMAHNOUS HERE IN VANCOUVER (YOU CAN ORDER UP MUSIC IF YOU’RE THE DIRECTOR), AND FOR TARRAGON IN TORONTO, BUT MOSTLY FOR THEATRE PASSE MURAILLE - AN OUTPOST OF SO-CALLED COLLECTIVE CREATION. THE PASSE MURAILLE METHOD WAS TO HIRE A TEAM OF PERFORMERS TO CREATE A SHOW THAT DIDN’T EXIST, OTHER THAN AS A THEME, WITH NOT A CLUE HOW TO GO ABOUT IT, AND BARELY ENOUGH TIME TO PUT THE THING TOGETHER, LET ALONE REHEARSE. AS OPENING NIGHT LOOMED, MUSIC CAME IN HANDY – AS BRIDGES BETWEEN SCENES THAT DIDN’T REALLY FOLLOW EACH OTHER. MUSIC COULD SMOOTH OUT AN UNREHEARSED MONOLOGUE, FILL THE HOLES LIKE BONDO.

AS YOU MIGHT EXPECT, SOME COLLECIVE CREATIONS WORKED BETTER THAN OTHERS. PEOPLE WAX POETIC ABOUT THE FARM SHOW AND 1837; BUT YOU DON’T HEAR MUCH ABOUT THE HORSBURGH SCANDAL, THE OLYMPICS SHOW, SHAKESPEARE FOR FUN AND PROFIT.

THOSE WERE THE SHOWS I WORKED ON.

NONE OF THE SONGS I WROTE THEN WILL EVER BE PART OF THE CANADIAN SONG BOOK; BUT I LEARNED A LOT ABOUT HOW SHOWS GET MADE, AND HOW NARRATION WITH SONGS COULD TELL A STORY AND AVOID A TRIP TO MUSICAL LAND. HOW A STORYTELLER COULD BE YOUR MAIN CHARACTER, WITH THE CENTRAL CONFLICT BETWEEN THE STORY-TELLER AND THE STORY. STUFF LIKE THAT.

I LEARNED A BIT ABOUT FITTING A SONG TO A SITUATION, AND A BIT ABOUT UNDERSCORING A NARRATIVE. A BIT ABOUT THE GRAPH OF A SHOW, HOW AUDIENCES HAVE THEIR OWN RHYTHM, HOW TO RESPOND TO THAT IN MY MIND. I WASN’T WRITING A MUSICAL, I WAS WRITING A PERFORMANCE, AN ACT.

MEANWHILE, OUTSIDE MY FIELD OF VISION, TALENTED PEOPLE WERE LEARNING HOW TO SING AND DANCE, AND TO WRITE MUSICALS THAT FIT INTO THE AESTHETIC OF THE AMERICAN MUSICAL - AND GETTING BETTER AT IT. WHATEVER ITS VIRTUES, MY METHOD CAME FROM A PLACE OF PROFOUND CLUELESSNESS, A DEEP IGNORANCE OF WHAT A MUSICAL WAS.

THE AMERICAN MUSICAL DEVELOPED OUT OF LIGHT OPERA, MUSIC HALL AND VAUDEVILLE; MUCH AS OPERA CAME FROM A MIXED-UP IDEA OF WHAT GREEK DRAMA MUST HAVE BEEN LIKE. DESPITE THEIR UNCERTAIN ORIGINS, THE OPERA AND THE MUSICAL BECAME ART FORMS ON THEIR OWN.

I DIDN’T GET THAT. I DIDN’T GET THAT MUSICALS ARE NO MORE “AMERICAN” THAN OPERAS ARE “ITALIAN.”

I COULDN’T READ OR WRITE MUSIC. I DIDN’T “COMPOSE,” I MADE UP TUNES THE WAY ROCK BANDS DO: YOU THINK UP A TUNE, THEN FOOL AROUND ON PIANO OR GUITAR UNTIL SOMETHING COMES TOGETHER.

EVENTUALLY, SOMEONE MORE SKILLED THAN ME – ED HENDERSON OR DOUG DODD – WOULD WRITE A SCORE, FILLING IN THE GAPS IN THE MUSIC LIKE BONDO.

18 WHEELS WAS AN ACT THAT COULD BE DONE IN A BEER PARLOUR, IN WHICH A BAND PLAYED AN EXTENDED VERSION OF THE COUNTRY STORY GENRE – BIG BAD JOHN, PHANTOM 309, RINGO - INTERSPERSED WITH SONGS THAT SORT OF SUMMED THINGS UP.

BILLY BISHOP GOES TO WAR WAS 2 GUYS AT A PIANO REMEMBERING WHAT THE WAR WAS LIKE. THEATRICALLY IT WAS PURE VAUDEVILLE – THE PLATE SPINNNG ACT, ONLY INSTEAD OF PLATES, THE ACTOR JUGGLED CHARACTERS. HEALTH WAS SIMILAR IN THAT WAY – BASED ON VENTRILOQUISM AND SLAPSTICK - SENIOR WENCES MEETS THE THREE STOOGES.

ROCK AND ROLL WAS THE CLOSEST I CAME TO A LEGIT MUSICAL. BY THEN IT HAD DAWNED ON ME THAT DIALOGUE COULD BE UNDERSCORED, SMOOTHING THE TRANSITION TO A SONG; AND THAT A SONG COULD BE PLAYED AS A SHAKESPEARIAN SOLILOQUY. SO THE MUSIC AND DIALOGUE KIND OF MERGE TOGETHER AND YOU DON’T END UP IN MUSCAL-LAND, AND THE ACTORS HAVE SOMETHING TO PLAY OTHER THAN A DESIRE TO PLEASE.

I WAS HAVING A PRETTY GOOD TIME. THEN, ALL OF A SUDDEN, THEATRES SEEMED TO HAVE A WHOLE LOT LESS MONEY.

SUDDENLY, GOVERNMENTS SEEMED TO TAKE A KIND OF GLEE IN CUTTING ARTS FUNDING, AS A CHEAP WAY OF APPEALING TO IGNORANT VOTERS.

IT SEEMED TO HAPPEN OVERNIGHT: WITH ROCK AND ROLL I HAD 3 WEEKS REHEARSAL, 3 WEEKS ON THE ROAD, and 2 WEEKS OF TECHS AND PREVIEWS - 8 WEEKS. WITH DON MESSER’S JUBILEE AND HEALTH, I HAD 3 WEEKS OF REHEARSALS, TECHS AND PREVIEWS… THEN WE WERE REVIEWED IN MACLEANS MAGAZINE.

THE OBVIOUS PROBLEM HERE IS THAT SHOWS OPEN BEFORE THEY’RE READY TO OPEN. MIKE NICHOLS SAID HOW IT’S ONE THING TO ELIMINATE THE PARTS IN WHICH THE AUDIENCE IS BORED; IT’S ANOTHER TO ELIMINATE THE PARTS IN WHICH THE AUDIENCE IS ALMOST BORED – WHERE THEY SAY “OH DEAR AM I GOING TO BE BORED?” THEN “OH GOOD, I WASN’T BORED.” NO BIG DEAL, BUT IF IT HAPPENS TOO OFTEN A KIND OF METAL FATIGUE SETS IN, IN WHICH THE WHOLE EXPERIENCE HEADS DOWNHILL.

IT TAKES TIME TO FERRET OUT THESE LITTLE ENERGY SUCKS – BY INTERACTING WITH AUDIENCES. NO MATTER HOW MANY WORKSHOPS, A SHOW NEEDS AUDIENCES, TO ESTABLISH HOW MOMENTS WORK. ANY SHOW THAT OPENS AFTER 2 1/2 OR 3 WEEKS IS OPENING BEFORE ANYBODY KNOWS WHAT THEY’RE DOING.

IN ANOTHER WORLD, REVIEWERS WOULD KNOW SOMETHING ABOUT THE PROCESS, AND INCLUDE IT IN THEIR THINKING.

MAYBE SPARE A PARAGRAPH TO TALK ABOUT A SHOW’S POTENTIAL, EVEN IF IT’S A BIT OF A SHAMBLES. GOOD LUCK WITH THAT.

WHICH OF COURSE AFFECTS HOW SHOWS GET WRITTEN. WRITERS CONCENTRATE ON WRITING SHOWS THAT CAN BE REHEARSED IN A FEW DAYS, THAT REQUIRE NO TIME TO FIGURE OUT. I TRIED THAT. THE PROBLEM IS TRYING TO STAY INTERESTED YOURSELF.

I’M SORRY, I JUST DON’T HAVE THE BOREDOM THRESHOLD TO SPEND MONTHS ON SOME NECRO-MUSICAL – HAVE ELVIS OR PATSY CLINE OR JUDY GARLAND RISE FROM THE DEAD TO BELT OUT THE OLD FAVOURITES. SO I SPENT MORE AND MORE TIME WRITING SATIRICAL VIDEOS ON TV, AND RADIO MUSICALS, AND FOR SPECIAL EVENTS LIKE EXPO 86.

MEANWHILE, ALONG CAME THE “MEGA-MUSICAL.”

DESPITE ITS GRAND PRETENTIONS, THE MEGA-MUSICAL IS REALLY JUST THE CHURCH BASEMENT PRONCIPLE, TAKEN TO ANOTHER LEVEL: A FALLING CHANDELIER. A HELLICOPTER. ACTORS IN ROLLER SKATES AND TRAIN SUITS. THEY’RE LIKE MOVIES IN A WAY – OFTEN BASED ON MOVIES - AND WITH A SIMILAR CORPORATE STRUCTURE, WHERE THE WRITER ISN’T REALLY AN INTEGRAL PART OF THE PROCESS, A WRITER IS SOMEONE WITH A SET OF SKILLS, WHO CAN BE HIRED AND FIRED AT ANY TIME. SURROUNDED BY PEOPLE WITH OPINIONS. AND THE MONEY TO ENFORCE THEM.

IN THE NINETIES, THE GREAT CANADIAN HOPE WAS THE MEGA-MUSICAL NAPOLEON, IN WHICH THE NAPOLEONIC WARS, IN WHICH TEN MILLION PEOPLE DIED, WERE PORTRAYED AS “BOY MEETS GIRL, BOY LOSES GIRL, BOY CONQUERS EUROPE. YOU COULD WRITE IT AS A COMEDY, IT’S PURE MONTY PYTHON, BUT NO. THERE ARE NO MEGA-MUSICAL COMEDIES. MEGA-MUSICALS ARE SERIOUS BUSINESS.

GRADUALLY, I EASED MY WAY OUT OF THE MUSICAL BUSINESS. OTHER THAN PERFORMING BILLY BISHOP FROM TIME TO TIME. THERE WASN’T MUCH CALL FOR LITTLE MUSICALS THAT TOOK TIME TO REHEARSE. AND IF I WANTED TO BE IN A CORPORATE SITUATION, I COULD WRITE SCRIPTS FOR CANADIAN MOVIES THAT NEVER GOT MADE; OR APPEARED IN PUBLIC FOR THE BLINK OF AN EYE. AND IF I WANTED TO ENGAGE IN OBSESSIVE WORK THAT PAID PEANUTS, I COULD WRITE NOVELS.

THEN, WOULDN’T YOU KNOW, SUDDENLY THE AMERICAN MUSICAL STARTED HAPPENING OFF-BROADWAY, PRODUCING REALLY ORIGINAL WORK - RENT, THE DEAD, URINTOWN, SPRING AWAKENING, TRISTAN, BLOODLESS, THE DROWSY CHAPERONE, MY MOTHER’S LESBIAN JEWISH WICCAN WEDDING, RIDE THE CYCLONE…

AS USUAL, MY TIMING WAS A LITTLE BIT OFF.

BUT IT WASN’T BAD BEING KIND OF A MISFIT. FOR ONE THING, YOU DON’T NEED THAT MANY BREAKS. JUST KEEP SHOWING UP, AND SOONER OR LATER SOMEONE IS GOING TO TAKE AN INTEREST.

BECAUSE OF MAYBE 6 PEOPLE, I SPENT 20 YEARS WRITING MUSICALS, SOME MORE SUCCESSFUL THAN OTHERS, ALL PRODUCED AT LEAST TWICE. AND I GOT PAID. NOBODY RIPPED ME OFF – WELL, ALMOST NOBODY.

CAN’T COMPLAIN ABOUT THAT.

THIS IS WHERE I’M SUPPOSED TO SUM UP WITH SOMETHING GENERAL AND PRETENTIOUS. SO HERE GOES:

ONE WAY OF LOOKING AT THE WORLD IS THAT IT’S MADE OF ROCK, AIR OR WATER.

IF YOU CHOOSE TO SEE THE WORLD AS ROCK, YOU SEE A SERIES OF DEFINED SPACES OR NICHES. TO SURVIVE, YOU HAVE TO FIT IN, TO TAKE ON A CORRESPONDING SHAPE.

BUT THE WORLD IS ALSO MADE OF AIR, FIRE AND WATER – WHICH WILL FORM THEMSELVES AROUND YOU, CREATE A SPACE THAT CORRESPONDS TO YOUR SHAPE – ASSUMING THAT YOU HAVE ONE.

(WE’LL DISCUSS FIRE ANOTHER TIME. I HAVEN’T REALLY THOUGHT THIS THROUGH.)

PUT ANOTHER WAY, IN THE EFFORT TO PRODUCE WORK THAT FITS THE TEMPLATE OF THE AMERICAN MUSICAL, BE CAREFUL YOU DON’T LOOSE SIGHT YOUR OWN SHAPE – THE PART OF YOURSELF THAT’S CAPABLE OF SOMETHING ORIGINAL, SOMETHING BRAND NEW.

IT WAS AN HONOUR TO BE ASKED TO DO THIS, A REAL PLEASURE. THANK YOU ALL SO MUCH.

May 22, 2013

For years I’ve been trying to make a case for worry, based on the observation that it’s seldom the thing you’re worried about that gets you; you get blind-sided by something that never entered your mind.

More evidence accumulated over this strange month of May.

Given my age and decrepitude, my GP recommended a colonoscopy – that’s where they run a camera up your bum and scout your intestines for what they call “polyps.” Polyps sound like something out of the ocean, but they’re growths that could be cancerous, pre-cancerous or benign; in any case, best get rid of them - which they usually do by snipping them off there and then.

(If you’re squeamish, try to get over it; sooner or later you’ll have to.)

Okay, fine. So my gastroenterologist, a Dr. Gray (no kidding) took a look around and found one polyp only; but in my case, he couldn’t snip it off because it was in a strange location. Which left us with 2 choices: 1) do nothing; or 2) have a surgeon go in there and cut off the piece of pipe containing the polyp and sew it all back together.

The problem with 1) was that, while benign, it might not remain that way; and it was bound to keep growing, to the point where it would block things up and I would be in real trouble, at an even more advanced level of age and decrepitude than I am now.

The upshot of it was, on May 2 into the shop I went to undergo laparoscopic surgery, where they blow your belly up like BC Place Stadium before the permanent roof & perform the “procedure” with lights, cameras and robotic action.

Laparoscopic surgery is supposed to shorten recovery time – and by God it did. Four days later I was back home, feeling only a bit shaky and with everything (ahem) functioning as though nothing had happened at all. Ten days later I was free and clear.

Except for a complication. (With surgery, why are there always “complications”? Why are there never “simplifications”? Oh, never mind.)

Last Tuesday I got up, walked my dog Gus, voted & saw some friends, feeling in top form. An hour later I found myself bent double with extraordinary cramps, puking, shivering violently and burning up with a temperature pushing 103.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was experiencing “septic shock” - a condition with a 25-40% fatality rate and an excellent pedigree – it killed Jim Henson, Raoul Julia and Rupert Brooke. I wasn’t quite at death’s door, but I was on the front lawn, and could smell Death cooking my bacon for breakfast.

The dangerous thing about septic shock is that it sends your blood pressure dropping like a stone; which means blood doesn’t get to where it should, and you die of multiple organ failure. Some people don’t die but they lose their kidneys. A Brazilian model named Marianna da Costa had her hands and feet amputated and died anyway.

Lovely.

And awayyyy we went on an ambulance ride (the paramedic was an aspiring novelist, I gave advice) to Emerg, where my white-cell-laden blood was taken, pain-killers given and I spent time in a giant plastic donut called a CT scanner, thanks to a man named Ben.

With septic shock, the tricky thing is that, in order to treat the underlying cause, you have to find out what it is. Given that the CT can didn’t show up anything obvious, it was a matter of waiting 24 hours or so while the lab grew a culture for a microscope slide.

This is when a lot of people die – people who put off going to hospital just a bit too long and are dead before they know what killed them.

While waiting for the lab report, we experimented with various antibiotics on an IV drip (one crashed my blood pressure further, another sent my temperature flying), until word came from the lab that the culprit had been identified as Gram Negative Bacteria, a “resistant” bug – meaning not quite a superbug but one that, when it gets into your blood, has no trouble overwhelming your immune defences and a lot of antibiotics as well.

And obviously they found the right one, because here I am at home 6 days later, feeling rather beat-up but otherwise okay. Blessings on all the gentle, sympathetic, utterly competent people who made this happen. Anyone who tells you angels don’t exist has never been under the care of a team of nurses in a Canadian public hospital.

Incidentally, for reasons known only to Administration, I occupied a bed in the Burn & Trauma unit. My room-mate was a guy who had been boiling a bear’s head at a hunting camp and emptied a vat of boiling bear fat all over himself. Even during the worst of it, I knew it could be worse.

I have no further comment except that, again, what a strange month.