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Archive for April, 2008

Apart from gender, few things are as central to a person as their name. Someone choosing a pseudonym is likely to choose a new name as close to the original one as possible, or at least keep the same initial. So is a transsexual. Still others go through different versions of their names, adopting diminutives or alternate versions of their names to suit different stages in their lives. Even when changing identities, apparently, people have a hard time severing all connections with their original name. But it’s a connection that leaves me bemused, because I mostly don’t share it.

Oh, in my teen years, I used to sign poems and stories as “B. Allan Byfield,” thinking it more euphonious than plain “Bruce Byfield.” I also toyed with changing my name to “Brian,” a much more common name for my generation, which I often got called anyway.

At times, too, I’ve lamented the lack of variations possible in my first name. If you’re called something like “James,” then you have no end of possible variations: Jamie, Jem, Jemmie, Jim, Jimmy, even Hamish, if you’re of a Gaelic turn of mind. But “Bruce”? Not much can be done with that, except adding a boyish “ie” at the end. And one or two people have tried to call me “Bru,” but it’s never caught on.

However, I can’t say that I’ve spent much time worrying about such matters. After a couple of years, I decided that “B. Allan Byfield” sounded pretentious, and I’ve never cared enough to change my name or find some variation that I like.

Really, the only thing I have against the plain monosyllable is that the only association it gave me as I was growing up was the Scottish king Robert the Bruce sitting in a cave taking lessons in perseverance from a web-spinning spider. It’s not a bad story, and persistence is one of my characteristics, so perhaps I learned from it, but I would have liked a few other Bruces for role-models as well.

On the plus side, I appreciate that my name is unusual. Since the rise of the Internet, I have noticed a few Googlegangers, including a real estate salesman and a minister, but, in every day interactions, my name is unique.

Moreover, if I encounter someone with the same surname, I can be reasonably sure that a connection exists somewhere, even if I don’t know what it is. Chances are, I am related in some way to Ted and Link Byfield of Alberta Report fame, although the fact that we are all journalists is a coincidence, and I deplore their politics. Similarly, Jamaican Byfields exist, but whether an ancestor was a slave owner or married a transported African, I don’t know. But I do like to think that the Richard Byfield who was vicar in Stratford-on-Avon in the 1590s was an ancestor, and that he might have preached to Shakespeare, or even taken his Sunday sermon down the road to have the playwright criticize his rhetoric.

Such fleeting thoughts aside, I’ve always sympathized with the poet and novelist Robert Graves, who in “My Name and I” asserted that he and his name were independent entities who were only distantly connected.

More recently, since I became a journalist and my name gained some little recognition in free and open source software circles, I’ve appreciated the title of one of Alec Guiness’ autobiographies, My Name Escapes Me. In one autobiography, Guiness mentions his bemusement at Star Wars fans sending him action figures of his character Obiwan Kenobi and imagining that he would want them.

No one has sent me any swag yet (nor would I want it), but, in my own much smaller way, I’m starting to understand what Guiness’ title means. When people discuss what I’ve written in blogs, I’ve sometimes reacted personally, if only in my head. Yet, increasingly, as I hear people praise or vilify this “Bruce Byfield,” or ascribe not only opinions, but also characteristics and habits that I don’t share in the least, I wonder who they are talking about. This “Bruce Byfield” that they are going on about doesn’t even seem to be a friend or acquaintance of mine. He certainly isn’t me.

But no doubt my name and I will travel along in loose association in much the same way as we have until now. Then I will die, and for a while my name will live on in a few statistics and memories, free of its unwanted connection with me at last.

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Yesterday, I was sitting in the hallway of the emergency ward at Royal Columbian Hospital, waiting for a bed for a patient, when word came through that George Abbott, the BC Minister of Healthy, was expected through on a tour. “Trip him up and tell him you need a bed right now,” a technician whispered to me. That was about the only reaction to the news that I saw – and it wasn’t particularly busy, for once. But the episode strikes me as a good example of why voter apathy and cynicism are increasing.

First came Abbott and the member of the hospital board who was guiding him on the tour. For all I know, the board member is caring and dedicated, and has brought the hospital millions of dollars through his scrappy advocacy, but to my eye he and Abbott looked two of a kind. They both looked like middle-aged men used to authority. The only difference was that the board member was about fifteen years older.

Behind them came a woman with a hospital badge. From her stance and her dress, I suspect she was lower in the ranks than a board member. Behind her came three or four other men, non-descript except that they were younger and junior to Abbott. Possibly, one or two were bodyguards, but at least two had a clerical look. Bringing up the rear was a twentysomething man carrying a clipboard. He didn’t know what to do with himself and stood in a corner shuffling from one foot to the other, but, boy, he knew his job – nothing was going to make him let go of that clipboard.

The board member stopped the procession at the front desk. The nurses and the doctors nearby did not look up, and nobody introduced them. The board member explained what the list of patients on the white board meant, noting that those with an “A” beside their name had found a bed elsewhere in the hospital. This fact may have been meant to impress Abbott with the need for more funding, but, if so, it like failed. The minister only looked polite.

Then the board member invited the minister to see something in the back of the ward. Half the entourage hovered in place, while the other half straggled after the board member and the minister.

I don’t know what they went to look at, but in less than three minutes they were leaving, saying something about their schedule. All the while, the staff kept at their paperwork, or wandered off to see to patients. Clearly, they were unimpressed, and had no belief that the visit might make their lives easier. Nor did Abbott make any attempt to engage any of them.

Watching the parade and reflecting on the three hours I had been sitting beside a gurney, I had to wonder why anybody bothered with the whole episode. The health minister and his entourage could have seen nothing substantial in the time they spent in the ward, and must have learned less. Nor did they seem to want to. I would say they had done it for the publicity, except the only member of the press nearby was me, and I don’t cover politics. So what was the point?

The only conclusion I could reach – and, I think, the only one any witness could reach – was that the hospital tour was made because someone, whether the minister or some member of his entourage concerned with communications imagined that going through the motions would look good. How, or to whom, the person responsible probably couldn’t say, but the thing was done.

But I wonder if the tour did anything except to bring the routine of governing into contempt. After the tour had exited, you could feel the staff relax, but apart from a few raised eybrows and one shaken head, everyone had grown too cynical about such efforts to bother venturing any remark whatsoever. The tour was something inflicted on everyone, and, when it was over, people could get back to their routine.

[Update — A few weeks ago, Abbott was dismissing the claims of overcrowding made by a surgeon as “alarmist.” This pre-judgment, I suppose, goes a long way to explaining what I saw. I suspect that he wanted to say that he had personally investigated, but was determined not to let the facts get in the way of his position.]

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Right after I moved out of my parents’ house, I shared a basement suite with a high school friend. He had always seemed quiet and responsible – exactly the type of room mate you want when you’re a university student and studying fills your days. But the arrangement wasn’t a success. Inspired by the example of a girl for whom I’d nursed a crush, I was ready for adult responsibilities like cooking and doing the washing. My room mate wasn’t.

In a sense, the arrangement wasn’t too bad for me. He was paying half the rent, but he was at his parents’ on the weekends and two or three nights a week. I had the suite to myself so often that I had to remind myself that he had every right to stay over. I rarely had to cook for the both of us, and I could usually use the washer and the dryer without tossing a coin with him to see who got to do the first load.

However, it was a strain, sometimes, trying to deal with someone who was not only gone more often than not, but wasn’t ready to take care of himself. I quickly tired of taking messages for him, to say nothing of hearing him complain that I hadn’t bought exactly what he wanted for breakfast; he might have been providing half the grocery money, but he was never around when I had to haul groceries from the store – and we weren’t exactly on the bus routes.

Still, the experience had its comic moments. I remember sitting in our kitchen one night while he tried to cook himself a midnight snack, and his sudden yelp of pain as he put his oven-mitted hand on the hot burner. It was the sort of event you couldn’t put in a story or script, because nobody would believe it.

Another time, he showed up unexpectedly while I was entertaining my girl friend. We were sitting on the couch preparing our costumes for the university medieval club, but from his reaction you would have thought he had caught us in a moment of tumultuous and kinky passion. His face and ears turned a bright red as he passed from the bedroom to the bathroom, fully clad in pajamas and a thick housecoat. From a man with sisters, it seemed an extreme reaction.

About a month into the semester, my room mate found his own girlfriend, which meant he spent even less time in the suite. However, I did notice eleven red roses on his desk before a desk, and a card reading – wait for it — “11 American Beauties, and the 12th is you.” I’m not sure whether the cliche, or the fact that we were living in Canada made the sentiment funnier.

He planned an ultra-romantic evening for his girlfriend, which would culminate in a canoe trip on a lake in a heavily-forested local park that he didn’t know very well. He arrived back at the suite at about 5AM, soaking wet. Not only had they been caught in the rain, but they had carried a rented canoe several kilometers along the unlit cedar trails of the park and, with him in his best suit and her in high heels and nylons. They never did find the lake, but they had got very lost, and very, very damp.

Somehow, I managed not to throw back my head and laugh when I heard the tale. I’d been assuming that the date had ended steamily, and had gone to bed muttering, “Bless you, my children,” so the contrast between my imagination and the reality only made his tale of woe more comical.

Still, perhaps he sensed my impulse to laughter, because he started spending even more time at home. By the time he told me that he was moving back home a few weeks later, I had already been making plans for my next semesters’ accommodation in the campus dorms. Come our final exams, we packed and returned, each to his own parents’ house – me until I could move to the dorm in the New Year, my roommate – I believe – until he married the American beauty.

We had never quarreled, but somehow we never saw anything of each other after that. About a year later, I had heard that he had married his girlfriend and – suburban kid that he was – dropped out of university to help with the dairy farm run by his wife’s family. I can only hope that he knew more about taking care of cows than he did of taking care of himself, but I suspect not — the marriage ended in divorce.

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For me, exercise has always been a contemplative act. I usually exercise first thing in the morning, before I face other people and the day’s business, or at the end of the workday, when I’m trying to relax. Most of the time, I exercise solo, not just from preference but also because doing so is easier than trying to get schedules to mesh. All these reasons explain why, although I have just about become accustomed to mixing an exercise bike with street jogging, going to the exercise room at the nearby rec center, my pleasure from working out is lessened by the people around me.

Admittedly, I always enjoy people-watching. But the only way I can make using an exercise bike tolerable is to do interval workouts in which I go flat out for five minutes, then ease off for two. This sort of workout takes a certain kind of concentration, a slipping into the zone where the rhythms of the exercise take over and I can keep going without a conscious effort.

The constant radio and TV are distractions enough (and I’ll leave it to possible future blog entries to ask why both need to be on together, why background noise is assumed essential, or why classic rock stations never play the really classic rock, like Derek and the Dominos or Jimi Hendrix instead of mediocrities like Elton John or Chicago). But the people are often too much.

I suppose that the only way many people can exercise is by making the effort a social occasion. But, too often, it seems that people are doing far more chattering than exercising. Moreover – no doubt hardened from constant cell phone nattering, most of those working out carry on their private conversations as if they were alone.

I wouldn’t mind so much if their conversations were interesting. The rec center is less than five miles from a major university, so you’d think the odds would sometimes be in favor of a thoughtful remark or two. But the reality is more relentlessly banal. If it’s not housewives talking endlessly of half-baked dieting fads and what’s on Oprah, it’s male middle-managers replaying last night’s hockey game or trying to outdo each other by peppering their conversation with sports statistics. More than one exerciser spends three minutes talking for every one minute he exercises – and that’s on a good day.

But by far the worst are the teenage boys. For some reason, if you put the average teenage boy near anything to do with sports, he seems to instantly lose forty IQ points and to affect the hoarse, semi-articulate tones of a hockey announcer. Then, to make matters worse, they start throwing mock punches at each other and wrestling or kickboxing in the aisles, all the while talking relentless trivia.

Today, a group of teenage boys were carrying on in their usual way about a meter away from where I was wiping sweat from my forearms and brow and trying to psych myself up for my final interval. But, this time, the antics kept going much longer than usual, and I started to fume.

And it wasn’t just me. A couple of women regulars, who work as hard on their routines as I do on mine, couldn’t get around them to get to the weight rack. One of the women was jostled, and almost fell over a work bench.
Suddenly, I had had enough. I shouted at them to take their games outside and get out of everybody’s way.

For a moment, the boys looked startled. No doubt they were surprised that the middle-aged fogey could talk or have good enough eyes to see what they were doing. But one thing I’ve always noticed is that, the rare times I lose my temper, people don’t cross me. They muttered half-articulate apologies and I started my last interval, glad for the silence but also ashamed that I had turned angry.

The personal stresses of the last month had made me overly sensitive, I’m sure, but my outburst was troubling all the same, especially since I know that I’ll either have to learn to endure the conversation of those less dedicated to exercise or else find a place in our crowded townhouse for my own exercise bike.

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At the gym this morning, someone made a comment that implied that I was a decade younger than I am. That’s not the first time I’ve been pegged at younger than my age,but I admit that the mistake evokes a hypocritical reaction in me – or at least an inconsistent one.

On the one hand, since age long since ceased to be a matter of whether I can buy a drink, the mistake pleases me. I’m not the first member of my family to be consistently mistaken for being younger than I am, and I exercise hard, so I’m gratified that my effort has some benefits. Also, if I’m being honest, there’s a smug little part of me that enjoys knowing a secret that others don’t (I’m not particularly proud of this part, but it exists).

Another thing: when I’m perceived as younger, younger people are often more open with me than they are when they know my age. I can whet my curiosity about them a little more easily, because they perceive me as a contemporary.

Nor can I deny the satisfaction of believing that I look younger than most people my age. When I went to a high school reunion a couple of years ago, I enjoyed observing the receding hairlines and loss of hair color in my male friends, because, so far, I haven’t been much affected by such things. I also noted that, although an injury was limiting my exercise then, I was still fitter than most. These are vanities that are more often associated with women than men, but I suspect that they’re common to both sexes. Or maybe I’m just an unusual man.

On the other hand, part of me is affronted by misapprehensions about my age. With all that I’ve gone through, I can’t help thinking that it should show on my face and body. Like a scar, signs of aging are signs of survival and respect. I’ve earned middle age, and I’d like to enjoy its privileges when I’m in it, rather than ten or fifteen years from now.

The truth is, there are advantages to being perceived as your age. You are taken more seriously than a younger person, and, for the most part, treated more politely. Fashion isn’t supposed to apply to you (not that I ever followed it anyway), and your eccentricities are treated with greater tolerance. The young can be surprisingly intolerant of difference sometimes.

All things considered, do I really want to be mistaken for younger than I am? At that same reunion, I met a woman who had had plastic surgery, at least part of which was for a more youthful appearance. I believe that she wanted her appearance to match her sense of herself, rather than simply to look younger, since she had other signs of a conflicted identity, such as using different versions of her name throughout her life. But I was intrigued by the decision, and wondered if I would ever consider doing the same.

In the end, I decided that I probably wouldn’t. But that’s an easy decision when a few crow’s feet and a sagging neck are your main signs of aging. Will I feel as defiant when my hair falls out or turns white? I can’t say, so I’ll probably feel just as ambiguous the next time someone makes the same mistake.

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The first two days of this week, I left the house at 8AM to get to the Open Web Vancouver conference at the Pan Pacific Hotel. By doing so, I revived all the memories of commuting that I had almost forgotten, working from home for the past three years.

Understand that I have no particular problem getting up early (although I don’t see any virtue in it, either). By the time I start work at 9:30AM, I have shaved, read The Globe and Mail, run, done several exercises, bathed, and cleaned four bird cages, so I’m well-accustomed to functioning first thing in the morning.

What I’m not used to any more is the company of strangers first thing in the morning. The local bus that takes me to the Skytrain is tolerable; once past the high school a block away from our house, it is half empty as often as not anyway.

But once I climb to the train platform, I’m submerged in a crowd, which takes some getting used to. Moreover, some of the people on Skytrain can be – well, eccentric would be a polite term. For one thing, when you’re pressed shoulder to shoulder with people, you quickly learn that a surprising number either smoke so heavily that it must sit like starch on all their clothes, or else have an active fear of water, considering their personal hygiene.

Then there’s those who carry on their private cell phone conversations at the top of their voices in a crowded Skytrain car. I once heard a young man begging and crying for his lover (whose gender was never clear) to take him back, while those of us around him squirmed in embarrassment. It was, as humorist Kate Clinton, once said, an invasion of my right to know.

But, usually, I’m the only one who apparently finds it surprising that people would have personal conversations in the crowd. This observation that makes me think that if all those mentally troubled people who argue with themselves in different voices on the Skytrain would only be given a cell phone to hold to their ear, they would immediately become integrated into society. They would never be stared at again.

Then there’s people like the intrepid shoplifter I saw once, who boarded wearing three or four shirts and carrying their hangers in one hand and all their wrapping and labels in another. The supposedly deaf people, some of whom carry cards illustrating sign language and want you to buy them and one of whom sold elaborately folded and brightly colored origami that he arranged on a branched stick. The self-important men in three piece suits who try hard to maintain their dignity. The painters and maintenance workers coming home in soiled overalls and looking seemingly pleased at the way that everyone else keeps their distance (I suppose it gives them some personal space). The trusting innocents who actually sleep on the train (quite aside from possibly being robbed, how do they avoid missing their stop? And why, knowing they have to be up early, don’t they sleep the night before?).

And always there’s the Skytrain police, whom – I learned from the newspaper this morning – have a nasty habit of tasering fare evaders (And what do they do to vandals? Suffice it to say that long-term employees at Gitmo have been known to pale when they hear). One or two of them seem to take sadistic glee in hectoring teenage Chinese Canadian girls. All of them seemed to enjoy holding up the entire system while they do fare checks. They always travel in pairs, if not in groups of four or six, no doubt because to do anything less might put them in danger from the innocent commuters whose travel time they’ve just prolonged in their paranoia that someone, somewhere, might actually be riding for free.

With all these people playing out their dramas before the audience of commuters, there’s only one rule that can help you cling to even a shred of sanity: Read a book, carry an MP3 player whose playlists you can endlessly adjust, look out a window if you can see one, but, whatever you do, don’t make eye contact.

However, even this policy doesn’t work with the people who regard the delicate art of squeezing on to crowded car as an invitation to create a mosh pit. Inevitably large and overweight, these people wait until the second before the doors close to take a flying leap on to the train, trusting to the crowd in the car to cushion their fall and keep anyone from actually falling over as they land.

The worst of these people used to be a large woman on a scooter. Don’t ask me how she got the scooter airborne, but she was merciless in crushing your toes as it landed. If you complained, she would lecture you about respect for people with disability in such a loud voice that everyone would stare at you as though you picking your noise and describing the process with a gourmet’s delight.

Even on the rare occasion when you meet none of these types, the average commute still you feeling jagged and unsettled. I can’t believe that I endured similar commutes for years – and thank luck or fate that now I usually don’t have to.

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I spent yesterday afternoon pacing the corridors of a hospital, waiting on the results of an operation. That was the fifth or sixth time I’ve spent a few hours that way, nervous and trying to control my imagination, and it doesn’t get easier with repetition. Nor does familiarity make the hospital any more of a restful place.

Part of the problem, of course, is that very few places – if any – are comfortable when you’re in the lockdown mode of a crisis. Life gets ludicrously simple in a crisis, narrowing to two basic motivations: Doing what you can, and hanging on from moment to moment. Politics, your usual scruples or tolerance for other people’s vagueness – all get thrown out during crisis. You could start a nuclear war the next street over, and the fact would be largely irrelevant during the crisis. At the most, it would be just another damned thing piled on top of everything else.

However, I’m also convinced that hospitals are by nature uncomfortable places. For one thing, they’re full of hundreds of people, all rushing around on the trail of their own agendas and overflowing with their own anxieties. Other places have their crowds, of course, but in many places where we’re used to crowds, such as a mall or a university, the average person has less intensive feelings to add to the complexity. I imagine all these colliding priorities could be seen under the right conditions, like the streams of light in a time-lapse photo, or perhaps like particle collisions with some sub-atomic camera lens.

Even more importantly, I’m with Henry James in The Turn of the Screw: How a building is used creates its own psychological environment. There are places like the gatehouse that is all that remains of the BC Penitentiary that have seen too much human misery, deserved or not, to ever be places in which you can relax. And, conversely, there are places like Vancouver’s Sun Yat-Sen which are shaped so that any emotion except a tranquil contentment is difficult.

Not every place develops such a spirit, and just what details its spirit resides in is difficult to explain, although perhaps feng shui attempts to do so. But perhaps it’s a form of erosion, as the dominant emotions in a place wear at the corners and scuff the floor, as in a public building that never closes, which somehow retains a sense of restlessness.

But you can sense the creation of the spirit, if you look carefully. When a building is new, it generally lacks its own individuality. Then, one day, for reasons that are as hard to observe as the details, a critical mass is reached, and the building has its own spirit, not in a supernatural sense, but in the most mundane meaning of the word you can imagine.

In the case of a hospital, I suspect that the dozens of daily crises and dramas are what is gradually sculpting the hallways and rooms – these things plus a vast and personality-less indifference. For all the intimacy of health care (or perhaps because of it), we make medical procedures impersonal. Doctors and nurses practice a certain distance, both for their own sakes and to preserve the dignity of patients, and to this foundation, the need to organize adds a level of even more impersonal bureaucracy.

You can suffer and easily die at hospitals, not just because hospitals are places where people go to do those things, but because both are handled – despite the best efforts of the best medical practitioners – as a routine, and routines are simply not circumstances for emotion. Your friends and family might grieve you as you go, and maybe some of your nurses and fellow patients. But, not far in the background, the bureaucracy is willing to strip the sheets so that someone else can use the bed and to process your body so that, as quickly as possible, it is no longer the hospital’s concern.

In this sense, hospitals are far worse than other large public buildings like hotels. Hotels, too, are used to tidying up after death so their owns can get on with business, but, at least in hotels, staff might recoil from the reality of death and some visitors might avoid a room if they know that someone has recently died in it. But, at the hospital, few ever know that they are being ushered into the setting of a death and a tragedy, and the staff members, for their own sake, cannot let themselves remember very much.

All the same, a trace remains on the building. More than the complexity of conflicting emotions, more than the anxiety, the most basic of human drama slowly sculpts the hospital of the cleanest, most efficient hospital, sculpting an atmosphere of anxiety beyond any hope of exorcism. If you are a visitor, as I was yesterday, you flee the hospital, when you can, like the survivors flee a haunted house.

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