Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Asylum Walk (29)

Story: what you have. Story is story. Story is.

Even when it makes no sense?


Has no beginning, or beginnings that keep changing?


Is full of holes. Plot keeps petering out.


Characters you get sick of, bored by, can’t believe in.


Unreliable narrators. Liars. Kooks. Amnesiacs.


Keeps getting stolen, hijacked, abducted by aliens.

Story. Story. Story.

Feels unreal, like someone else’s.


Like no one’s. No story.



Get it?

Good, bad. On, off. Whatever. What I’ve got.

Story is.


Monday, January 28, 2013

Asylum Walk (28)

Analogy? If learning to draw means overriding the normal processes of vision so that one’s experience of the object in the world becomes more like looking at a picture of it...

...does the development of a personal biography—“my life, my story”—mean overriding the actual experience of that life so that it becomes more like other life stories one has heard?

Many people never learn to draw. Does anyone not become a biographer?

Can the artist switch modes, i.e. still see a drawable-tree as a tree? Can the biographer?

For the self-teller (the biographer), what happens to the un-tellable? Does it remain intact but untold, un-tellable? Or does it grow more vague and distant, harder to recall? Does it lose its un-tellable bits, stripping itself to be told? Are the stripped bits then forgotten? How memorable is what is unaccommodatable to a story?

Story as aide-mémoire. A story increases the number of points of association between its elements. It becomes more meaningful as it becomes more memorable, as its parts become more available to different parts of the mind. It is a lushly cross-referenced filing system.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Asylum Walk (27)

Stages of settlement:

Hamilton is built on the Niagara escarpment and on the narrow plain, 2.5 to 5 kilometers wide, running between the base of the escarpment and Lake Ontario. The inner and outer bays of the harbour are protected by two huge bars, Burlington Heights and Hamilton Bar, both almost 6 kilometers long but of very different heights (Burlington Heights being formed first is much higher), deposited by the movements of wind and current over the earlier and much larger Lake Iroquois.

c. 1780: The first European settlers, United Empire Loyalists, moved into the area west of the Niagara River previously inhabited by the Mississauga Indians.

1789: The mountain site of the future asylum was settled by Michael Hess, a farmer from Pennsylvania.

20 July 1814: Eight men convicted of treason in the 1812 war were hanged on Burlington Heights. In fulfillment of the sentence passed, they were cut down while still living, disembowelled and their bowels burned before their eyes, before being beheaded and quartered.

1816: George Hamilton, formerly of Queenston, founded the city currently bearing his name.

1836: Barton Lodge, the estate home for the Whyte-Gourlay families from which the asylum grounds would later be purchased, was constructed for Lieutenant-Colonel James Matthew Whyte. It was a square-towered Italianate stucco villa, with casement windows, fine china and rare paintings among its many attractions. Many rumours allege connections between the inhabitants of Barton Lodge and the British Royal Family. Aristocratic luminaries—Edward Prince of Wales; Princess Louise, Victoria’s daughter; the Duke of Devonshire, Baron Rothschild—are said to have signed their names with a diamond on a library window. Fire gutted the house in 1930.

10 June 1960: The retirement of Old Flo, the last milk wagon horse on city streets.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Asylum Walk (26)

Private and Public

On 10 October 1905, a darkhaired, well-dressed, pregnant girl was found gagged and shot in James Marshall’s bush on the Mountain. A witness claimed to have seen a man and woman walking in the area the previous day. When three boys gathering sweet chestnuts found the body they went running to the nearest house. The homeowner wouldn’t let anyone near the woods until a policeman arrived.

10,000 people viewed the murdered girl’s body in Blachford and Son’s funeral parlor.

The case was never solved.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Asylum Walk (25)

In 1899 “Crazy Ben” Parrott, drunk, axed to death his drunken mother. He was hanged and buried in the yard of Barton Street gaol. The murderer’s autopsy, attended by seven medical men, disclosed that his brain weighed 2 ounces over normal. “Good proof,” announced the physicians, “of no insanity in the murderer’s make-up.”

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Asylum Walk (24)

When reading the following passage (taken from The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan), mentally substitute “symptom” for “mushroom” each time the latter occurs:

What we call a mushroom is only the tip of the iceberg of a much bigger and essentially invisible organism that lives most of its life underground. The mushroom is the “fruiting body” of a subterranean network of microscopic hyphae, improbably long rootlike cells that thread themselves through the soil like neurons. Bunched like cables, the hyphae form webs of (still microscopic) mycelium. Mycologists can’t dig up a mushroom like a plant to study its structure because its mycelium are too tiny and delicate to tease from the soil without disintegrating. Hard as it may be to see a mushroom—the most visible and tangible part!—to see the whole organism of which it is merely a component may simply be impossible. Fungi also lack the comprehensible syntax of plants, the orderly and visible chronology of seed and vegetative growth, flower, fruit, and seed again. The fungi surely have a syntax of their own but we don’t know all its rules, especially the ones that govern the creation of a mushroom, which can take three years or thirty, depending. On what? We don’t really know. All of which makes mushrooms seem autochthonous, arising seemingly from nowhere, seemingly without cause.

(With the one substitution in place, what substitutions suggest themselves for other words: “fungi,” “soil,” etc.? Also, what effect do other substitutions for “mushroom” have on the passage, e.g. instead of “mushroom”—“behaviour,” “trait”...“personality”?)

Monday, January 21, 2013

Asylum Walk (23)

“Brain Blanket Bingo”

You know you’ve been a psych patient too long when...

1. Your former psychiatrist (not your first) dies of old age.
2. Drinking red wine before dinner, you catch yourself saying, “It’s not a mood stabilizer so much as a brain blanket.”
3. “How’s your libido on the new dosage?” sounds as normal (and as interesting) as “How about those Leafs?”
4. Somebody talking about an 80s band stops and says, “Oh, that’s the decade you missed, right?” (You haven’t told her yet about the 70s.)
5. Mental states are classed as Friendly, Hostile and Non-aligned.
6. Your hands flutter and your eyelids seize.
7. Your pill-cutter needs a new blade.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Asylum Walk (22)

Growth of the Asylum and the Green Stairs:

Situated on the brow (the edge of the Niagara escarpment above Hamilton), on 100 acres of wooded property purchased from local landowners, the Asylum for Inebriates was completed in the fall of 1875. Patterned brick with stone trim, a mansard roof. The asylum housed 200 patients and staff. It was the fruit of determined lobbying by temperance advocates for a place of detention for the city’s purportedly fast-growing number of alcoholics.

When these alcoholics failed to appear in sufficient numbers, J.W. Langmuir, inspector of prisons, recommended that the asylum be assigned to the insane, whose numbers had overflowed existing institutions and gaols into private houses. On 17 March 1876, the building, under superintendent Dr. Richard M. Bucke, was opened for the chronic insane and 210 patients were transferred from Toronto, Kingston and London asylums.

In 1879, wings increased the asylum’s length to 550 feet, and a three-storey addition was built in the rear. At this time eight counties were assigned to the hospital. In June, to meet demand, basement housing for 27 patients was added.

In the same year the problem of sewage disposal was addressed. To this point, waste had been collected and treated in tanks blasted out of the rock before the main building, with raw sewage overflowing down the mountainside. Now connection was made by pipe with city sewers. The problem of raising fresh water up the mountain was solved by a special pumping station erected at the corner of Queen and Markland Streets.

In 1888 the Asylum for the Insane at Hamilton was officially declared best in the province of Ontario. Additions had provided East House for the criminal insane and accommodation for 300 added patients. A flight of wooden steps now led to Queen Street below. These stairs, joining other flights widely spaced along the brow, were painted a bright green and were called by all who used them “the Green Stairs.” (Non-pedestrians usually designated them by the major street they descended to: the Queen Street stairs, the James Street stairs, the Wentworth stairs, the Dundurn stairs....)

In 1892, in its seventeeth year, the asylum was severely damaged by fire. Following this, a 200,000-gallon reservoir, a fire hall and hose tower were erected, with a powerful steam pump to ensure adequate pressure. The new century saw an infirmary and operating room built; a skating rink installed; and substitution of electricity for gaslight.

With additional propery purchased, by 1914, the asylum owned 529 acres, housed 1,312 patients and served eleven counties.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Asylum Walk (21)

Blooming eclipses:

Last night, a total lunar eclipse, the last viewable from these parts for three years. Creeping black as earth’s shadow gnawed the moon, followed by a rusty-rose blush for about an hour.

On Monday two of the four paintings stolen from a Zurich museum were found, still under their display glass, only 500 meters from the crime scene, in the back seat of an unlocked white sedan parked outside a psychiatric clinic.

Blooming Chestnut Branches was painted by Van Gogh in May 1890. At one time it was owned by Dr. Paul Gachet, in whose care the painter had been placed at the clinic in Auvers sur Oise. Eventually it, like the other stolen works by Monet, Degas and Cézanne, found their way into the collection of Emil Bührle, a Swiss industrialist.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Asylum Walk (20)

Ownership, like dispossession, happens by degrees.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Asylum Walk (19)

In one sense the new is always familiar: it is what the old used to be.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Asylum Walk (18)

Geological terms. From a notebook left in Room 6:

“The river supplies an adequate cause for executing the task assigned to it.” (Charles Lyell, diary 1841, disputing catastrophic causes of the Niagara gorge)

Unconformity: A surface of erosion or non-deposition that separates younger strata from older rocks. It represents a long interval of time.
Drift: Material deposited by glaciers.
Moraine: An accumulation of drift deposited by glacial action and possessing initial constructional form independent of the floor beneath it.
Erratics: Rocks different from the bedrock they are found in, transported and deposited by glaciers.
Isostatic rebound: The tendency of land depressed by the weight of glaciers to spring back after the glaciers have retreated.
Mass wasting: The downslope movement, often in the form of spectacular falls, of soil and rock under the direct influence of gravity.
Talus: Fallen rocks, the result of mass wasting, at the foot of a steep slope such as the face of an escarpment.
Varve: A pair of seasonally deposited sediment layers, one layer in summer, the other in winter. Thus one varve represents one year.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Asylum Walk (17)

With some things, the less you know the better; with others, you can’t know too much.

Learning which is which.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Asylum Walk (16)

In the “Little Albert” experiment of 1920, John Broadus Watson (1878-1958) and his graduate student Rosalie Rayner (1900-1935), behaviorist researchers at Johns Hopkins University, conditioned an eleven-month-old infant to respond with shrieking terror to a white rat, which Albert had previously reached for with gurgling interest, by presenting the animal along with a loud clanging noise which the experimenters produced by banging a steel bar with a hammer just above and behind the subject’s head. The fear response conditioned by only seven paired presentations was generalized to other fluffy white objects including a rabbit, a dog, a fur coat, and a Santa Claus mask with cotton beard worn by Dr. Watson. At the time of the experiment, Watson had been president of the American Psychological Association for five years.

Albert B., the suject of the experiment, was found in a hospital for orphans. He was removed from the hospital 31 days after the start of the experiment, before any attempts to extinguish the conditioned response through desensitizing had been tried. Nothing is known of the subject’s later life.

The experimenters were soon embroiled in controversy, not from the Little Albert affair, which excited little comment at the time, but from the affair Watson, who was married, was discovered to be having with his much younger student Rayner. Watson was dismissed from the faculty of Johns Hopkins. He married Rayner and they moved to New York City, where Watson began a long and highly successful career in advertising. Rayner, born with the century, died in 1935, aged 35. Watson lived more than twice as long, dying in 1958 at age 80. They had two sons.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Asylum Walk (15)

The notoriously prodigious energy demands of the human brain—including 20% of the body’s oxygen, delivered by the 100 ml of fresh blood bathing every 100 g of brain tissue every minute; a trillion glia (nutritive cells) supporting 100 billion neurons connecting a quadrillion synapses—invite the question of what all this energy is for.

Deep anaesthesia reduces the energy consumption of the brain by only 50%. Half of the brain’s energy is needed to maintain ion gradients across neuronal membranes at rest, without ever firing off an action potential. Half of the brain’s energy, in other words, goes to keeping the brain ready to respond to the environment. The total set of possible responses, including the small subset of purposive conscious thought, presumably consumes most of the remaining half.

This leads to strange inferences. In terms of energy demands on the brain, there may not be much difference between Charles Darwin sitting at his desk pondering On the Origin of Species and a cable subscriber sitting on his couch watching The Planet of the Apes; in fact, the balance of costs may tip against the latter, owing to the amount of expensive visual processing involved. In some ways it costs less to be a genius.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Asylum Walk (14)

The trilobite on this desk was given to me by my wife, “a small notion to bring light into the dark time of year.” Asaphiscus wheeleri, about 1 cm long, nestled within a small white cardboard box atop a square of cotton packing, sits on (and still mostly in) the rectangle of gray Wheeler Shale, from present-day Utah, it was unearthed in. Previously it had lain in the shale bed, encased in solid rock, for five hundred million years.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Asylum Walk (13)

Let’s go! Let’s go! Where? Anywhere. Where? Away. From? Here. To? Somewhere. And be? Not here.

They can’t leave, can’t stay. Spend their days packing. Nights staring at maps.

Asylum Walk (12)

Harm’s Way. Yes, the problem in a nutshell. Harm becomes an M.O. and an address. Harm is home. Giving and taking what each home does. Giving: the comfort of familiarity, reliable patterns of doing and knowing. Taking: the sight of other avenues, eventually the ability even to imagine them.

Asylum Walk (11)

My life, my house. The place I live, where each event (First Time Skating) or linked series of events (Childhood) has a place and purpose. Behind different locutions you hear the architectural metaphor: laying the foundation, hitting the wall, raising/lowering the ceiling, room for improvement....

And thus: The Den. The Rec room. The Cellar. The Closet. Renovating. Expanding. Furniture. An ornament (“just for fun—an elegant touch”).

But where to put mental illness?

The Wreck-room?

Losing it (The House) repeatedly leads to a condition of vagabondage, provisional stints of renting, bunking-in, crashing...or outright exposure. Homelessness. Which is another, very different kind of home.

Different and not so different. Comfortable and uncomfortable. Hard to leave.

Or is one’s life a room in the house of one’s self? In my house are many mansions...

Or a snail’s shell?

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Asylum Walk (10)

“Spirit Balm Boogie”

The following treatments have proved to be efficacious antidepressants in the past week:

Watching the stern chopper blades lift Bush away.

Hearing Obama on the radio. The possibility of a new channel.

Singing “Amazing Grace” a capella in the car.

Observing a squirrel nibble the lacy fringe of rooftop ice.

Eating chocolate with over 70% cocoa content (limit: 1 bar per day).

Sitting on the orange chair in Jon’s painting room, listening to The Clash while he works on Brian Wilson’s hair.

Beginning to re-learn German (Die Welt von Gestern, Stefan Zweig, 1 page per day).

Ongoing plasticity trials: Challenging the Inner Prosecutor’s hard-wired loops by strengthening counter-circuits, following established protocol:
1. Interrupt the I.P. mid-spiel (“breaking in” is vital; decorum leaves the loop intact).
2. State the Inner Advocate’s counter-argument (belief in the client—or his attorney!—is not necessary; make the case as strongly as possible. Take the floor!).
3. Reward the I.A. (simple but key, without it consolidation falters: do something pleasurable right after or along with the new thinking, reinforcing the loop with a dopamine spritz. The I.P. is retained by the state. Do you expect his adversary to work for free?).

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Asylum Walk (9)

A sobering reminder from the landlord: The house will close up for good in two to three days. All parties are expected to vacate the premises well beforehand. By next weekend the neighbourhood itself will be dispersed.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Asylum Walk (8)

The house party on Earth.

(1 hour = 100 million years.)

The doors were opened at dawn, nearly two days ago.

For the first few hours, the house stood empty; as far as we can tell, no guests arrived.

By noon there were definite arrivals, but traces of these, owing to later great disturbances, are faint and ambiguous.

Starting mid-afternoon, however, increasing numbers began dropping in. Over the first night and all through the next day, the house teemed with visitors, multitudes of them, coming and going at unpredictable intervals. For all their wild profusion, they nevertheless shared certain qualities of modesty and simplicity which kept the gathering, especially when compared with later developments, reasonably sedate.

Everything changed, as it always does, with the advent of sex. This began with the Eukaryotes around dinnertime on the second day. Couples peeled off to bedrooms, or copulated where they stood or lay. Wild feeding continued. Post-coital lovers consumed others in flagrante, then were themselves devoured.

Evidence of the long reign of the Trilobites can be found throughout the house, embedded in the dried slime and mud in which they scavenged and bred.

About the extremes of raucous violence achieved during the party’s second night, enough has already been written. Every party reaches an apogee of wildness sometime long after it has begun and not too close to its end, when exuberance has overcome all initial resistance but is not yet tempered by exhaustion or other by-products of its own excess. It should be remembered that even the rampage of the Dinosaurs, which began sometime after midnight, was completely extinguished and the offenders evicted, before 3 a.m. (Thank God our paths never crossed!)

That was less than an hour ago.

We have just stepped through the door.

The party is still raging. Screen doors banging, guests arriving and departing, usually without notice. In most ways the house bears little or no resemblance to the structure of 46 hours ago. Still, there are surprising instances of persistence: guests may be encountered who, though they arrived many hours or even a day ago, and have participated unstintingly throughout, seem totally unchanged.

As always, when a party has gone on a long time and the hour is late, there are discussions about whether the event is sputtering out or merely gathering itself for a second wind. Evidence points both ways.

A second dawn is still two hours away.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Asylum Walk (7)

Yesterday, on a snowy lawn near Bracebridge, Bino, a 180-kilogram black jaguar, just escaped from captivity and holding his owner’s dog in his mouth, was shot by police officers. The dog, Blue, had also to be killed.

Wild foxes, said the owner, a swarm of them, were plundering the scraps of meat that had fallen beside the cage during the jaguar’s feeding. Outraged, the captive clawed a hole in the chain-link fence and squirmed through. Liberty: brief, eventful.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Asylum Walk (6)

Halfway House. In some ways it was the perfect university. Public library down the street, coffee shops for after-hours or a change of location. Simple but sufficient meals, and no distractions: single bed, nightstand, bureau, chair. Day after day of reading and writing in spiral-bound notebooks, sitting and walking. Years of that compression. Expansive compression. And the condition of being just-released: also perfect for a student. Sleepless thrill and urgency to learn a fledgling world, to recreate it for yourself. The only drawback (serious but not seen so at the time): no community of other students. Ideas incubated in isolation. They grew fast and unchallenged. Conditions—you were a long time realizing this (another consequence of isolation)—that promote proliferation but not robustness or real thriving. Bonsai enlightenment...weed epiphanies.

“Assisted living,” someone, a supervisor, said, years later, “That was an unfortunate phrase.” She winced, as at some irony, an unintended slight that deserved an apology.

“No,” you said after a moment’s thought. “That was accurate. And...appreciated.”

Friday, January 4, 2013

Asylum Walk (5)

The adult patients lingering near our games could see back to us, to some version of children playing from their own lives, just as we and they could see back further to even younger children playing. But we could not see ahead, and did not try to see ahead, to their adult lives even though in some cases these would resemble our own. Just as they could not see, and perhaps did not often try to see, what life awaited them in the future.

Image: A road, people making their way along it. Sight complicated by drifting mist and reflective surfaces. At stages (a simplification, since it happens by degrees) the travellers change costumes and habits. Those further along the road have more confidence in their backward looks, since they have come all that way. Worn those clothes, done/said those things. They have more confidence in their looks ahead, too, a confidence based on trends. Patterns of change observed and experienced. The trends are strengthening and debilitating, the latter from their tedium and their tendency to become self-fulfilling. Most of the early walkers—and a proportion of walkers at every stage—do not look ahead often or with any earned or assumed discernment. They fantasize, treading the interval they’re on.