Gear and Clothing in Las Vegas (and Cedar City)

JQLV2019Last week, I went to a conference in a small city best reached by an international flight to Las Vegas. It wasn’t a big conference, wasn’t particularly relevant to my current research, and in the end, I made my presentation to six other people, mostly conference organizers attending out of the kindness of their hearts. But that’s what conferences are really about anyway, right—the friends we make along the way?  An important point of the trip was its function as a test-flight for my upcoming big conference trip across the Atlantic, to London. Air travel with a chronic illness—can I do it?

The test-flight was a quick one, booked on ultra discount airline Swoop. What’s it like to fly Swoop from anywhere to Las Vegas at the beginning of the May long weekend? Remember that 1990s dance song “The Venga Bus,” the one about the “inter-city disco”? Disappointed there isn’t more beer spilled on your flight? Fly Swoop.

It was my first time in Las Vegas but it had a familiar energy. Strangely, unexpectedly, it felt a bit like China—fat, English China, where what made me stand out in a crowd was nothing but the fact that I was there, in Vegas, alone.

In the dark, I drove north, into mountains which probably have a name, up to Cedar City. In a dormitory with no China-energy at all—mattress on the bed, potable water–I went to bed exhausted and keenly aware of something I hadn’t thought about for at least two weeks: the illness deep in my guts. It was there when I woke up, mounting through the day. Ignorable enough to leave me a clear head for making a comment on the presentation of the one woman who spoke during the morning. In the afternoon, I accidentally went to a talk on water management in Utah but got through it, even the question and answer section where someone asked what changed between the state’s early communal religious settler days when it was a model of responsible water use to now when it’s a complete mess. I did not jump up to yell, “Capitalism! Are you kidding me? It’s capitalism!”

Dinner was fabulous. USA, USA. The keynote address began at a little after six, in a room decorated like Hogwart’s dining hall. By 7:55, the Q&A was still in full swing. I had good will for the man speaking but realized I would be walking out at 8pm whether he was finished or not. And anyways, like most of the speakers I’d heard that day, it was more twentieth century Western theory for 2019 global issues and it was wearing away at me. The trip, the T.S. Eliot quotes, the May weather that would have been bad even in Canada—it was over for me, the conference’s queen of chronic malaise.

I needed drugs and a bathtub. Back at the dorm, damp and freezing, I looked at the raised lip of the shower stall and didn’t wonder for very long about whether I could stop up its drain and rig a tub out of it. No, drugs alone would have to do. And they did. In my own homage to the twentieth century, I laid in bed watching clips of Wayne’s World, lingering on the parts where white people speak Chinese. That’s the joke. That’s the whole joke.

In the morning, the symptoms that had me fantasizing about getting back to Canada and going straight to the emergency room had vanished. I went to just one more talk before rolling out. The conference had been fruitful. I met smart and good people, two of whom invited me to submit the paper I presented to their publications. I left right before another all-girl panel like mine began. Before heading down the mountain, I went up, to the tip top where my church has built a temple. It was a beauty, new but built after the style of the nineteenth century. The parking lot was full, the front plaza lined with people in Sunday clothes—wedding guests. Congratulations, y’all. Share your water now.

Utah, Arizona, Nevada and Vegas on a Saturday afternoon. My big backpack and the sweater I put on in Cedar City were making me look like a lone gunman, parking her rental car one block north of Mandalay Bay. Not the look I wanted, so I went into Ross Dress for Less and bought a summer dress—a red one with an elastic neckline. I wore it over my jeans.

Down at the Bellagio fountain, music came up with the water—bongos and an acoustic bass. How had I not known the soundtrack was “Viva Las Vegas”, the Elvis Presley version, the voice of the ghost of this city, heard half hourly, turning day into nighttime, turning night into daytime?

It was almost time to report back to Venga Airways. I needed to sit and gather strength somewhere out of the sun. I sat down in front of a slot machine, fed it a dollar bill, and pulled the lever, the rent for the seat. When I told a colleague of mine about it, back home, he was shocked. “Capitalism got our star student!” I heard his voice in my head as I read the text, his Shanghaiese accent.

Travel is part of this long, difficult, costly education of mine. That is actually what conferences are all about. The friends are nice but the learning also comes in being alone, unprepared, surprised, suffering a little as we take the schemes we dream up in our offices out into the world, into other people’s worlds, to see if there’s any truth to them. In Vegas and Cedar City, the work I’d done on an obscure problem of East-West ontological and epistemological theory hit the road and found some traction.

Still, when I go to London, it will be as we.

In Hysterics

sickfeetI’ve been sick. I’m now well-medicated and functioning but I’m still sick-ish after two months—a personal record. It began early this Fall, when in the space of four weeks, I had two colds and one stomping stomach flu. It wasn’t an ordinary bug that razes everything for 24 hours before blowing over. It dragged through an entire week, attacking and then relapsing on all 30 of the people who caught it at our family’s Thanksgiving potluck. My immune system cleared all of that up then opted for something other than its usual return to idling in the bod’s background. Sensing the state of me, maybe—the stress and overwork of preparing for a looming week of PhD qualifying comprehensive exams, my grief at the hard times of some of my loved ones, or tens of thousands of things—my immune system cranked the throttle open, blew me into bedridden bits for weeks.

The world of a sick person is small and terrible. Reading made me feel ill. The to-do list I’d been compiling during the months of exam preparation—catching up on satisfying household projects, overdue time with my kids—all of that was beyond me. Not even my lifelong fix, food, was available. Unable to eat much, I lost about 13% of my weight. (Never congratulate someone on sickness weight loss. It’s just suffering made visible.) But in small worlds, small me, there is still gratitude. As I lay in bed, I was glad to have a bed—a comfortable, warm bed in a safe place. I thought of my ancestors, with the same physical problems I have only trying to rest in cold, damp, crowded cottages without big tubs of running hot water to soak their bones in, and I was grateful.

I was grateful for the kindness of my family, especially my husband, especially when I’m doing nothing to earn it. I wasn’t unkind to him but I wasn’t a very thoughtful partner to him during this illness either, like when I brought him with me to the mother-of-all rounds of blood tests my doctor ordered to rule out every infection he could before putting me on a drug meant to depress my immune system. I forgot that the sound of the vials of blood coming on and off the needle makes my husby woozy, and he didn’t remind me as he stood beside me in the lab, shaky and pale having to hear it all.

Beds and caregivers—in my country, these are considered basic rights of sick people and I’m grateful that these are our collective ideals even though we fall short of them. The next thing I am grateful for is more rare. I’m grateful for spiritual guidance through my illness. While I was sick, we reached out to our faith community and someone arrived at our house with food and treats for my children, friendship, prayer, and what I must acknowledge was true inspiration. I remember our visitor saying in prayer that I needed medical attention. If I was a different kind of person, this advice might have been trite. But I am this kind of person. I am a rundown middle-aged woman with pain, fatigue, bad digestion. When physicians first coined the word “hysterical”, they were talking about me. The inspiration was at once advice and a warning. If I wanted medical attention, I would only get it through insisting, persisting.

The first doctor I saw told me I likely had bursitis in my elbow from leaning on it while holding books to read. He suggested a fancy drug I might not have thought to try myself yet called “Advil.” I cried and begged and he prescribed a stronger pain killer so at least I could sleep. When I ran out of it, I couldn’t bring myself to beg again and I ate the old pills I hoarded from my sons’ wisdom teeth extractions. The hysterical have learned to be resourceful.

The third doctor I saw told me it was just fine for someone like me to give up eating and phoned a GI specialist, talking extremely loudly, announcing my full name, birth date, and current bathroom habits to an emergency room ward crammed with people. This doctor’s medical attention came with a vague insult about my middle-aged figure and a flagrant lack of regard for my dignity and humanity. But heck, it was nothing more than I deserved for following the advice of my second doctor, my family doctor, and clogging up the ER, desperate to make an end-run around the appointment desk of a specialist’s office by gambling on seeing one in the hospital clinic. The maneuver failed and I was sent home with an assurance someone would call me with an appointment. Still waiting.

By this point, medical attention had been awful and useless. It reduced me to something mewling, dirty, sneaky, superfluous—a noisy waste of time and space. Make way for a baby with a rash, a guy who dropped something on his foot. The hysterical’s fight for medical attention can be hopeless–painful, please stop paying attention to me. I don’t want any more. I’ll go.

Truly, I would have quit and gone home to bed, given up on the life I used to think I’d have, if it weren’t for the confidence I had in the spiritual guidance I’d received. This kept me hounding the clinic until my family doctor, working outside his professional comfort zone, found the confidence of his own to prescribe the medicine I need right now. Confident is the opposite of hysterical. The spiritual provides a vantage point to see “things as they really are” rather than things as a lifetime of systemic bias against us can dupe us into accepting. Do not accept it. You need medical attention. You are worth it. Carry on.

“Crotchetty, De-Crappity, Schnappity:” Goth Red Green and How My Summer is Going

I know two things about cleaning gravestones:

  • Don’t use bleach
  • Don’t use a big freaky gas-powered pressure washer

I learned this watching grave restoration clips on YouTube—an activity that’s turned out to be my preferred mental break during a summer spent in a very strange headspace, fighting to finish reading the 61 books and articles I will be tested on in November to see if I can continue in my doctoral studies. Ideally, I’d be done reading in two weeks, but as of right now, I still have ten partly finished books and one I haven’t even started. I love everything about grad student life except this and funding applications so it’s been a rough summer of paying my dues and trying to get paid for my dues.

Clearly, gravestone restoration videos were the answer.

Most of the videos are narrated by biocide salesmen (the crud on gravestones is generally biological–algae, moss, lichen, all of it alive), earnest professional conservators, or amateur genealogists who are just so disappointed. They use soft-bristled brushes, approved cleaners with PH levels matched to the stones, and rinse it all down with a gentle slosh of plain water out of a bucket.

“That’s not tap water is it?” a heckler calls from off screen. “There’s chlorine in that!”

Welcome to Gravestone-Restoration-Tube.

But then there’s Bill.

From what I can gather, Bill is a senior groundskeeper-handyman working for a municipality in eastern Ontario. His personal YouTube thumbnail image is a John Deere themed open casket and his YouTube channel chronicles the maintenance he does in around the town cemetery (at least, it did until a board of directors banned him from filming anything past the cemetery’s front gate).

He’s like a goth Red Green (something for non-Canadians to Google), letting a slightly affected Canada-hick accent fly as he welds an old tank still full of diesel fumes without blowing himself to bits, and, yes, pressure washes the “friggin crap” out of gravestones, even a soft white marble one he begins the video by showing us that it’s a good exfoliant for his dirty thumbprint, improvising a tripod function out of the bucket of his skid-steer. He likes puns, mocks Nazis, gets distracted by interesting bird calls, and works the graveyard humor with quips like, “K, we’re here, live on location—well, least I’m live on location.”

And I can’t help thinking, but for a few decisions, maybe if I wasn’t so chicken when it came to the welding unit of my junior high industrial arts class, I could have been Bill. It’s a good life—creative, inquisitive, self-aware, brilliant in its Jack/Jenny-of-all-trades makeshift-ery. Dang, for all the lives we don’t get to live, languages we don’t learn to speak, people we never have “coffee” with, books we write that might never be read, books other people write that we might never finish reading.

I need these exams to be over. Until then, rock on, Bill.