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Quebec: the bonfire

I find this scarcely believable myself, so I sympathize with the reader who won’t credit it with truth. For advice on kicking the alcohol addiction, I actually turned to the Consul in Malcolm Lowry’s novel Under the Volcano. If you haven’t read it, do; it is one of the 20th century’s truly great literary novels, filled with vast flights of sheer virtuoso writing; yet its plot summary is hardly magnetic, which is why John Huston’s misguided attempt to film it tanked horribly. Huston claimed to have read over thirty scripts before finding the right one, the one that simply followed the plot. Here’s the plot: a British ex-consul in Mexico is drinking himself to death because his wife left him; his wife returns, yet he continues drinking himself to death, finally succeeding, though in an unexpected manner. The end. Even starring Albert Finney and Jaqueline Bisset, it’s difficult to imagine how such a story could work. Anyway, the Consul, as he’s known throughout (although he is no longer a consul, is indeed extravagantly unemployable), drinks Mescal, an especially nasty form of Tequila with a dead worm in every bottle, for reasons unknown. Ostensibly, he views all other beverages as soft drinks. It’s the Mescal that undoes him, along with drinking it all day and all night, frequently plagued by demons and feeling he’s in the Klippot, a Kabbalistic term referring a realm of shells and satanic forms, a kind of mirror version of the Tree of Life, where all one’s imagined spiritual progress up is, in reality, taking you further down. It is trickier than mere hell, where torments are, well, torments, free of sardonic mockery, obvious. Like all alcoholics, the Consul is forever planning to kick the habit, claiming at one point that he had a foolproof method for doing it, a method that had worked for him many times before. Ignoring the glaring implications of ‘many times before, it was this method that I selected to separate me from Demon Rum. It was admirably simple too: you just sit drinking beer all day and night, and it’s all over in three or four days. You’re off the hard stuff, free and clear, if not exactly clean and sober. As the Consul himself proves – a fact I had failed to notice – the method most emphatically does not work. I sat down in our basement, my eyes, or the 5% left of them, being highly light-sensitive, drinking cases of Guinness, until the stuff made me literally sick, while doing nothing to the craving for something 4% proof or more. After a few days I decided that beer might work in Mexico – a climate thing? – whereas Quebec, with its obsessively French milieu, probably required a soft drink like wine. This being a therapeutic venture, we bought boxes rather than bottles of wine, which I guzzled straight from their faucets. Now, I have never liked cheap red wine. It gives me what used to be called ‘heart burn’ but is now elevated to the term ‘acid reflux’ – and, wow, did my acid reflux down there in the dark, uncomforted by my comforter, lost in vinospace. I was crunching my way through a bottle of Tums a day; and, when I slept (if you can call lapses into unconsciousness ‘sleep’), I would awake with a raging fire like an arc-welding torch in my lower esophagus. The Quebec Method obviously didn’t work either. Thus it was, with Kara’s staunchly loving encouragement that I determined to go it cold turkey, without knowing that you cannot do this safely unless serious medication is also involved. This was when I got my first glimpse of what a motherfucking dangerous drug alcohol actually is. The words of John Lennon’s heroin song kept ringing in my ears: Temperature’s rising, fever is high; can’t see no future, can’t see no sky… And my cold turkey did indeed keep me on the run; I might as well have slept in the toilet – if, that is, sleep were even possible. I began shaking so fearfully that I was forced to crawl up and down the stairs like a baby, or an aged lemur. My teeth chattered uncontrollably, and a desperate feeling of dread and panic pressed into my solar plexus with the tangible force of a sword. I had no appetite for food whatsoever, yet still continually threw up something unrecognizable, alien, besides squirting a foul yellow bile from my arse. For four days I did not sleep at all, not a wink, resorting to a massive dose of Nyquill, a truly horrendous over-the-counter alleged sleep aid. Instead of aiding sleep, it made me collapse with disorienting dizziness. True, I had far exceeded the recommended dose, but who knew this store-bought crap was so potent? I’m surprised it isn’t more abused by the type who likes sniffing glue or inhaling gasoline fumes. It definitely fucks you up with equal proficiency. I hear you ask, Why not consult a doctor? This is why not: in Quebec there are no doctors, due to a staggeringly low pay scale, and those that do exist (generally because they’re rubbish or can’t speak English) will either not see you, or else put you on a ten-year waiting list. If you are doctorless and sick, you must take your ailment to the St. Agathe Hospital’s emergency ward, where the average wait-time is ten hours, unless you’re bleeding to death, possibly – they don’t, like the Pentagon, do a body-count. The idea of waiting for ten hours in my shuddering state was simply untenable; so I toughed it out, hallucinating bizarrely from lack of sleep as much as lack of alcohol, haunted by the dread that I was about to die — which, it turns out, I could easily have done, from cerebral aneurism or some such bodily reaction to sudden booze deprivation. I felt so stupendously awful that I couldn’t even smoke. My mouth tasted as if some small creature, a mouse or shrew perhaps, had crept inside to die, using the place as its sarcophagus. After four days, however, miraculously, the symptoms subsided and I was able to sleep, albeit fitfully and wracked by extraordinary nightmares, many of them lucid, ones in which I was conscious of being asleep, yet unable to wake myself. There were ruined labyrinths populated by hostile beings, not quite human, the ground awash in muddy slime, and me, the dreamer, fruitlessly searching for a way out, since Ariadne had left me no thread to follow, and I was far from certain that a way out even existed. At some point, I felt a crack on the head so hard, as if from a metal rod, that I woke up immediately, fearing I’d suffered some cerebral disaster. This happened, with varying severity, several times over the next few days, the shock and reality of the blow always waking me, always making me think some neuron-circuit had blown up. There was another dream in which our house had been invaded by total strangers who were holding a raucous party there, wine bottles spilling, glasses broken on the floor, complete mayhem. I approached one of these strangers and said that I feared I’d had a stroke, on account of the skull cracking. “No,” he told me, “you’re okay. It’s nothing. Have a drink.” It was in this dream-reality that I first realized I actually did not want a drink, indeed found the thought of a drink nauseating. When this self-detox was finally complete, or seemed to be, I felt like someone who had survived a shipwreck and was now safe ashore, wrapped in a blanket and drinking hot cocoa before a roaring fire. The experience had been no different from any account I’ve heard of heroin withdrawal, yet this was only government-sanctioned-and-sold booze, the official, the socially approved drug. I was shocked. I’d had no idea that its dark side was so impenetrably dark, even if Freud’s Death Wish does incline us to play with fire. There was also the book that revealed subtle images of sex and terror, hard cocks and gnashing sharks, air-brushed into ice cubes featured in whiskey ads. You are not supposed to see them – that demolishes any symbol – but the mind registers them subconsciously, making the flame still more attractive to any moth encountering it. I don’t know if the ‘Madmen’ still do this stuff, but, since there are no depths they won’t plumb to sling their products, they might. Check out the ice cubes, especially ones in so-called male magazines. The ones examined in the book were from Playboy, I think. I would have a look for you, but, alas, I can’t do that anymore.

I wanted to share this hooch revelation with friends, but I could sense the disinterest. It was merely my fault for drinking too much – which is probably true – so instead I shut up, concentrating instead upon a regimen of exercise, diet, and, yes, meditation. Ordering from the blind society’s audio library every spiritual text it had, and it had a surprising number of them, I was soon back at my old task of inner enlightenment. Om. After wading through the Old Testament, in which there is precious little spiritual advice, unless you turn to the interpretive genius of Kabbalah, I tried the New, with its conflicting accounts of the same story, and the disturbingly paranoid protestations of St. Paul (who caused riot wherever he went, and was clearly being called a liar by someone with clout), finding, nonetheless, a fair bit of wisdom in what Jesus has to say, when, that is, he isn’t baiting the authorities. But, as I found when writing my book, Journey of the Magi (retitled in the U.S. of A., predictably, In Search of the Birth of Jesus – because books with ‘Jesus’ in their title apparently sell better than ones without it), it is hard to imagine how an entire civilization managed to found itself on such nursery texts. I listened to Juan Mascaro’s superb translation of the Bhagavad Gita some fifteen times, on the other hand, finding there, as I always had in the days of yore, undiluted wisdom and guidance, which one could easily understand as the cornerstone of a great civilization. I found the same true of the Buddhist Dhammapada, where narrative is non-existent, and the sole purpose is to convey tenets of spiritual guidance. Then I turned to more modern sources. I even found great value in the works of Deepak Chopra, who I’d previously assumed to be another charlatan on the make. He’s not, and he provides much interesting scientific data on the proven virtues of meditation. In Krishnamurti, alas – a sage I’d once loved to hear speak, and even on one occasion had lunch with in Bangalore – I found mere sophistry, seemingly profound statements that led nowhere, and were of no help to the seeker, since they denied all methods and practices leading to enlightenment, and disparaged all teachers and gurus. Krishnamurti, who claimed he was not a teacher or guru, while doing nothing but teach and guruize, obviously felt he was the exception to this rule. As a tutor of mine at Oxford, Bill Byrom, once remarked, K. was like a man who has used a ladder to climb into heaven, then pulled it up behind him, denying that any ladder is needed. Indeed, his first book, At the Feet of the Master, recounts his own experiences with his guru, as well as the spiritual disciplines it entailed. So why do we suddenly not need anything of the like? My impression of him over a tete a tete salad (almost tasteless, an oddity in India) was of a tired and disappointed old man, who rambled on about the terrible state of the world, and the vital importance of vegetarianism, yet was strangely lacking in spiritual advice on a personal level. This was strange indeed, since he had just delivered an inspiring talk seemingly full of such advice. His talks were always magnificently eloquent, the product of a razor-sharp mind capable of coming up with apparently irrefutable syllogisms; yet, in retrospect, I usually found, immediately after listening to him, that I had no idea what he’d been talking about. I also disliked his frequently arrogant impatience with anyone asking a question, a tendency that, understandably, discouraged further questions. Like so many gurus, he was not what he appeared to be – something that makes me wonder what or who he actually was, and what he thought he was doing in this world. But when you’re told you are the Messiah in childhood, and then, coming of age, deny that you are, thence finding yourself unfit for any other job than being a Messiah, life is likely to be strange, conflicted, boxes within boxes. After this cosmic let-down, I started listening to very recent writings on Buddhism, by such people as Alan Watts, Joseph Goldstein, and the excellent Dr. Mark Epstein, all of them either scholarly or pragmatic, refreshingly free of religious dogma, yet aligned with leading-edge psychology, and related fields of science. They were stimulating and empathetic, being mostly a mixture of personal experience and practical fact. One could relate to these contemporary seekers in a way impossible to manage with the ancient texts.These works, however, were also to prove my severe undoing – a subject I will save for my next blogarithm, while remaining, always sincerely, Paul William Roberts.

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On New Year’s Eve, 2009, we packed a U-Haul with all our worldly possessions. When I say ‘we’, I mean Kara and her friend, Sandy. I was more fruitfully occupied, buying a firkin of homemade grappa from a friendly restaurateur, under the counter, then a bad but large pizza from the nearest dive on St. Clair Avenue. With 5% vision in one eye, you have to know your routes well and put up with the consequent dearth of choices. I believe a friend of mine came over at some point, and we drank grappa while watching the girls work on the loading. We did share the pizza with them, however. It was a long night, although there appeared to be a brief interlude with champagne to welcome in the year of 2010 (at my age these dates make me feel I’m living in the Roman era rather than the future I had expected from them).

At the crack of dawn, we left Toronto, with Kara driving a huge truck that I was not at all convinced she would be able to drive. But I had my gallon of grappa on hand, so anxiety soon became low on my chart of worries. Now, if you think Montreal is a long five-hour drive from Metro, try it in a big overladen truck. It was night by the time we arrived at the chaos of ongoing construction projects the city likes to imagine as a highway system, and through which Kara had to find her way to a certain ‘Laurentian AutoRoute’—not that any signpost bothered to identify any such road. By now I had drunk myself sober, and was no longer sure whether I had a hangover or simply poisoning from over-proof bathtub grappa, or possibly both. So I drank some more, which seemed to solve whatever problem there may have been.

The AutoRoute Des Laurentides, once we’d divined its existence, proved to be the only decent stretch of highway I’d ever seen in Quebec. Although we had stopped once along the unrelievably dismal 401 East to eat some of the shit that seems to be the only permissible food for long-distance drivers, we were both now very hungry, and we also still had a long way to go. The thing about this highway to the Laurentians, as we soon discovered, is that there is literally nothing on it, nowhere to stop, not even a gas station. It was very dark, too, and snowing. By the time we reached St. Agathe it was late, much later than we’d agreed to meet the owner of the house we were renting, in order to collect the keys. Yet I was under the impression we’d now be there at any minute. No. Val-des-Lacs, our destination, is not as near to St. Agathe as I had somehow thought it to be. It is also not easy to find once you have turned off the final strip of highway, especially during what had become a blizzard. The road is nothing but hairpin bends, some of them indicated, others not. It took us half an hour to reach the metropolis of Val-des-Lacs (one church, one store), yet still we were not at the house. This was when things got complicated and our directions proved useless. What ought to have been ten minutes took half an hour, with the snow falling in a torrent of fat feathers, and a total lack of signposts. Eventually finding the right Chemin, we experienced much trouble with the street numbers. Some were invisible, others did not exist. Finally locating the number preceding our own one, we found that there was no other house for about a mile. But this next house did indeed prove to be ours. Kara turned the truck onto a steep driveway, and as we sped up it the rear wheels suddenly slithered off into some kind of ditch. At least we had arrived, though; and the owner, who lived nearby, did not seem to mind that we were three hours late. She even dragged out her aged father, who brought his tractor to drag us from the ditch, and not without some difficulty. When they spoke together (their English to us was excellent) the language sounded to me like Croatian, Moldavian, or some such East European tongue. It takes quite a while to realize that the rural Quebecois actually speak French – but more of this later.

We loved our new home, although we still had to return to Toronto and pick up our car, besides another truck-load of stuff, which a dear friend, Jamie, was kind enough to drive this time, since Kara had a carload of cats to ferry up herself. Within a week, however, we were finally at home up in the mountains for good.

But was I happy? Nope. And I was drinking at least a bottle of rum every day. Every alcoholic has his or her reasons for resorting to the hooch, and none of them are valid. Not really. But mine were as follows:

My ex-wife died in the middle of divorce proceedings, which are generally a waste of time, since the Law states that all assets must be divided equally – end of story. She did not want to do this, alas, forcing me to spend $70,000 on a lawyer. Her untimely death, one would have thought, ought to have terminated this futile squabble. But oh no. Her brother, named as executor of her will, decided to keep it going. Now, this brother, a real mama’s boy if ever there was one (and we know mama’s feelings about me), has done some fairly unforgiveable things, yet none was worse than actually hiring a bouncer to prevent me from attending his sister’s memorial service, held in what was still technically my own house. Fortunately, my daughter begged me not to come, so I complied. Had I not, however, and found myself manhandled by some 300 pound thug, I could have simply called the police and said that a stranger had threatened me with violence for trying to enter my own house. Respect for the dead and my daughter’s wishes prevented an ugly scene. Yet the brother – possibly disappointed by missing the opportunity to humiliate me – chose to ask friends of mine to leave the gathering instead, embarrassing them horribly in front of many people they knew well, yet also revealing himself as the ignorant asshole he is. For these friends were not just mine, they were also his sister’s friends, and their son was one of my daughter’s particular friends. They had grown up together. All of us had spent the Millennial New Year’s Eve together. We had vacationed together on numerous occasions for twenty years. And this pompous imbecile asks them to leave! Me I can understand, although I still think it shameless and ill-cultured to prevent anyone, even an ex-husband, from mourning the loss of his children’s mother. This was and is the unforgiveable deed. Prolonging the fight over money was merely irksome, unnecessary, and typical of his spectacularly greedy nature. Thus I drank to fend off the anxiety of waiting for the legal solution, since I needed the money that was rightfully mine in order to buy the house we were then renting.

Mediation was eventually decided on, a process for which we had to return to Toronto. A horrible business it is, too. The brother was there, a Scrooge-like spider hunched over the boardroom table, and even having the temerity to say, “Hi, Paul”. I wanted to kick his balding head, but wisely just ignored him. He had even dragged my kids to this ordeal, for no apparent reason beyond malicious coercion. Both parties are asked to sign an agreement that whatever decision is finally reached by the mediation will be binding, a document that, of course, had to be read to me, my hand guided to the signing line. Then the parties retire to separate little rooms, and the Mediator shuttles back and forth with the offers on hand. I looked to my lawyer for advice on what was fair. My daughter was even sent in once to badger me, an act I consider heinous, and presumably the brother’s brainless scheme. At the end of what seemed to be an interminable day, we arrived at what I was advised to consider a just settlement. Whether it was wise to grant my son $200,000 I doubted as a sound idea – a doubt verified now by the fact that he blew the lot on drugs and whores within months of release from jail. My daughter obtained the same, spending it wisely, however – although I was perfectly prepared to finance her education etc. I was, nonetheless, quite content with my share, leaving that sterile legal hellhole joyously, for it was finally over, and I would never have to deal with that greasy toad of a brother again. I also could not wait to get out of Toronto, a place now only of heartache and bad memories.

This was in February. I waited for my check to arrive patiently enough, but since we had already concluded an offer on the house my patience could not afford to be unlimited. I began to phone the lawyer daily, asking if the money had arrived. And the longer I waited the more I drank. It was only in April, I think, that I learned the brother had all the money, and it was he who had to issue my check. Knowing his astounding greed and pettiness, I imagined he would hang on to that cash and gather its interest for as long as possible, if not forever. He is one of those people who loves having money but hates spending it, which is really all you can do with it. He will spend it on property, since that is an investment; yet spending it on such frivolities as a restaurant meal is anathema. It would make him ill (like all assholes, his bowels are a major problem, especially under stress). I was quite surprised to learn that the pinched nose, admirably suiting his pinched nature, was actually a nose-job; and that his mother and sister had their noses done by the same plastic surgeon, possibly in a three-for-two deal. Early photos do indeed reveal quite a beak, but each to his own. My concern was that he still had my own. It took legal threats finally to squeeze that check out of him, which was couriered up me in May, nearly four months late, but just in time to buy our lovely little house. I pictured the agony on his face at having to write so large a check to me, of all people. His bowels must have been churning like the fabled ocean of milk, his hair falling out in hanks, the sweat on his brow like tears of Niobe. But I think that is enough of him forever, no? I suspect I’ve made my feelings about the so-called man clear.

Now we settled into our new house and new life happily ever after. Didn’t we? Well, not quite. First I had to deal with what had clearly become a drinking problem – whereas before it had seemed more like a drinking solution. I had no reason to guzzle anymore, and imagined I could now just stop. I was, I began to notice on country walks, in diabolically bad shape, and the drinking was not so easy to stop. Then the demons emerged, as if annoyed by the fact that my life was no longer so sufficiently plagued. But this will have to wait until the next bloggishness. I remain, always sincerely, Paul William Roberts.

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