Dead on

Thursday’s D.I.Y. Dharma class in Vancouver touched on contemplating your own death, a well known Buddhist object of meditation. Coincidentally, so did the previous Sunday’s meditation session with Zen monk Wayne Codling (Sojun Enso) in Victoria.

All of which reminded me of the following passage early on in David Darling‘s provocatively titled 1996 book Zen Physics — the Science of Death, the Logic of Reincarnation. As walking “meat-based time machines” (per Vic slam poet Skawt Chonzz) with built-in expiry dates, this is uncomfortable information we should have.

As soon as a person’s heart stops beating, gravity takes hold. Within minutes a purple-red stain starts to appear on the lowermost parts of the body, where blood quickly settles. The skin and muscles sag, the body cools, and within two to six hours rigor mortis sets in. Beginning with a stiffening of the eyelids, the rigidity extends inexorably to all parts of the body and may last for between one and four days before the muscles finally relax.

Two or three days after death, a greenish discoloration of the skin on the right side of the lower abdomen above the cecum (the part of the large intestine nearest the surface) provides the first visible sign of decay. This gradually spreads over the whole abdomen and then onto the chest and upper thighs, the color being simply a result of sulfur-containing gases from the intestines reacting with hemoglobin liberated from the blood in the vessels of the abdominal wall. By the end of the first week, most of the body is tinged green, a green that steadily darkens and changes to purple and finally to black. Blood-colored blisters, two to three inches across, develop on the skin, the merest touch being sufficient to cause their top layer to slide off.

By the end of the second week the abdomen is bloated. The lungs rupture because of bacterial attack in the air passages, and the resulting release of gas pressure from within the body forces a blood-stained fluid from the nose and mouth — a startling effect that helped to spawn many a vampire legend among peasants who had witnessed exhumations in medieval Europe. The eyes bulge and the tongue swells to fill the mouth and protrude beyond the teeth. After three to four weeks, the hair, nails, and teeth loosen, and the internal organs disintegrate before turning to liquid.

On average, it takes ten to twelve years for an unembalmed adult body buried six feet deep in ordinary soil without a coffin to be completely reduced to a skeleton. This period may shrink drastically to between a few months and a year if the grave is shallow, since the body is then more accessible to maggots and worms. However, soil chemistry, humidity, and other ambient factors have a powerful effect on the rate of decomposition….

Hello again, darlings

Here i is, back with (a) a reliable Internet connection, combined with a comfortable office setting at the house-sit i’m currently house-sitting at, and (b) an iota of will to update the world on my insignificant wanderings and maunderings.

It has been several months of couch-surfing in Vancouver and Victoria (thank you, Robert and Heather, respectively, for putting up with me) and expansive reading, and i must say i think i am making some progress in my aimless quest for, ah, wisdom — by which i mean the ability to function effectively and lead some semblance of a good life in a world that often seems hostile to that modest ambition.

It was … illuminating to spend that much contiguous time in cities, something i haven’t done for well over a decade. It has its strong points, urbanity does, but peace and quiet is not one of them. Hard to think clearly amid the sirens and traffic and endless, ubiquitous distractions. I did, however, thanks to Pure Hel, stumble across a hot damn study group called D.I.Y Dharma“a peer-led community of freaks, geeks, queers, rebels, outcasts, stream-enterers and their friends, who meditate together in the Buddhist tradition” — and get to one of their gatherings. I wished i could attend a whole lot more. Kind of makes religion FUN again, you know?

I have not worked (in the usual sense) an hour in those months, apart from writing a piece or two for Tofino Time, and i have become convinced that escaping, at least part-time, the treadmill of labour is absolutely essential to finding peace of mind in this life.

And i’m getting there, dammit. I’m getting there.

Details at seven.

Life in the hands of Google

I am woefully bad at making life decisions. I can waffle for months while opportunities come and go without latching onto any one of them.

Trouble is, i don’t see a decision as saying “yes” to something; i see it as saying “no” to the thousand-and-one alternatives. And i hate the narrowing of possibility. As a guy with no great agenda, who doesn’t see much point to grandiose career and life plans, who prides himself on accepting and enjoying whatever comes along, it’s hard to choose, even when choice is forced upon me.

To wit: my looming return from the summer’s travel. It’s got to come to an end sometime, somewhere. But when? And where? Where to lay up my carcase as the world has its way with me?

Then i hit upon the ancient stratagem of the oracle — that mysterious, evasive entity one consults at turning points in one’s existence. (Wikipedia: An oracle is a person or agency considered to be a source of wise counsel or prophetic opinion; an infallible authority, usually spiritual in nature.) Of course, some superstitious wretch poking at chicken guts in a stinking cave won’t hold a pop-can of credence in the modern world. No, these days who better to consult than the mighty sage, Google?

So i dashed off a quick list of things that are important to me, tacked on the names (one at a time) of the various towns that have appealed to me in the past four months, and plugged it into Google to see how many hits came up — possibly a meaningful indicator of how involved each particular town is with the items of interest. Here’s my first crack:

Google search of zen + bicycle + poetry + green + [town name]

Results (alphabetically):

  • halifax ………… 178,000
  • montreal …….. 860,000
  • ottawa …………. 321,000
  • tofino ……………….. 6,080
  • toronto ………… 203,000
  • ucluelet ……………. 1,130
  • vancouver …….. 175,000
  • victoria ……….1,090,000
  • winnipeg ………. 118,000

You’d think the larger cities (especially Toronto) would have the most hits on any search, simply because of the greater number of computer users and, presumably, web sites. But the results belie that, which makes me think there may be some validity to the technique. I’m surprised.

Of course, small towns stand no chance against cities in this ranking, so i’ll have to refine the method. But preliminary results look, as the scientists say, promising. So far Victoria is a clear leader, with Montreal running second. Stay tuned as Google messes with my life.

Unmugged in Medicine Hat

Arrived at Medicine Hat 8:30 p.m. with a plan for the all-night layover. I asked a cab driver where the movie theatres are: Medicine Hat mall (where else?), about a $13 cab ride. Could i walk there? Oh no, you can’t walk that far. Categorically impossible. So i wandered instead, and immediately stumbled upon a bus loop, and caught a bus to the mall, which turned out to be about an hour’s walk away. What’s wrong with these old folks that they can’t remember life before the almighty car?

To my surprise films were showing till 10 p.m., even on a Thursday, so i caught Wanted, with Angelina Jolie and one of the nondescript male stars i no longer keep track of. I’d read Christy Lemire’s positive review on CBC that made me want to see it.

Underwhelmed. Neat effects, interesting idea (if a bit of a stretch), but the male lead was annoying and the camera work was MTV and A.J. was, well, A.J., as always. Another dozen over-the-top stunts involving people killing people in ever more novel ways: when will we get to the end of that road, i wonder. (With time to kill beforehand, i snuck in to see the first 20 minutes of Hancock, with Will Smith as a down-at-heel superhero in need of a PR makeover, and that one looked better all round.)

Got out at midnight, with 4 hours to bus time. I walked mostly back via the city network of unlit, winding trails through forest and green space — a highly unnerving three hours of pausing to listen for lurking muggers or drunken youth gangs, scouting out flight opportunities into the bush, and berating myself for stupidity in inviting disaster. One hand on my little LED flashlight, knife at the ready in my pocket, stealthing along on the gravel path … i met exactly four living creatures in the whole three hours — two amorous teens, a doe, and a cat — and they all startled the shit out of me.

In my dubious dark-path wanderings i found the very spot where Sylvia and i launched our punt in our 2004(?) row/drift down the South Saskatchewan and Saskatchewan River system, ending up in Lake Winnipeg 6 weeks later. (I’ve got to get that page posted again.) Aty least i think it was the same spot — it was 2 a.m., dark, and the river was quite a bit higher than i remembered.

It was a huge relief to get back to lit streets again, then the sanctuary of an all-night Tim Horton’s. But the layover time flew by like the snap of a finger.

The 4 a.m. bus from Medicine Hat was packed full, to my surprise. People like to travel all night? I barely got a seat, and all but wrecked my neck trying to sleep for the next few hours — it’s not humanly possible — but slid into Regina happy under the sun and eager once again.

Long ride

My debate leaving Fernie was where to go: Saskatoon (nice city but no hostel), Regina (22-hour bus ride), or straight through to mom’s in Winnipeg (because i’m a bored with the rootless life). Taking full advantage of my footloose life, i didn’t decide till i stepped up to the counter and bought the ticket — to Regina. And then found out it involves an 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. layover in Medicine Hat — unappetizing prospect.

The driver, when he saw my ticket, pointed out that the Hat’s bus depot would be closed and i would be “on the street” for the 8-hour layover. Then he scribbled on my ticket, changing it to route via Calgary, where there’d be only a 2-hour layover.

It was a delight to ride out of the Rockies’ Crowsnest Pass into the foothills and finally the prairies, over the next 4 hours. I had a double seat to myself, the clouds were dramatic, the visibility good. By the time we reached Fort McLeod i’d decided to forgo master-of-the-universe Calgary and the tedious Trans-Canada, and stick with the southern route, despite the layover. I like the Hwy. 3 milk run, with its stops in the small places. What, i’m in a rush?

Someplace in southern Alberta it just crept up on me, that flat, flat ground to the horizon all round, that endless sky full of clouds like turtles and shards of pots and gods’ playroom, and i could feel my consciousness unfolding from the valleys and reaching out and out, wide and unfettered as the wind, and i smiled the whole rest of the day. I love the prairies, and i’m back on the wagon train of life in the now. And it’s true, what they say: there’s really very little to worry about, right here, right now.