Tag Archives: Death

My Grandmother’s Eyes

My Grandmother died on April 20th. I’ve never been present before when a death is declared. My grandmother had obviously expired, but the attending VON lacked the necessary government-approved certification to say unequivocally that she was dead. At times like this, I become strangely practical. I suggested we turn off the oxygen machine (why waste perfectly good oxygen?), but the VON said no; we needed to wait until his supervisor arrived and declared the death. To my mind, these strict procedures could mean only one thing: some time in the past, a well-meaning relation had turned off an oxygen tank and inadvertently suffocated his grandmother who wasn’t in fact dead but only appeared to be dead. I pulled my hand from the machine and sat like everyone else, waiting for the supervisor to show up. I had to pee but didn’t move. I was afraid tinkling sounds might disturb the solemnity of the moment.

When the supervisor arrived, he did the usual things you’d expect. He felt the wrist for a pulse. Then the carotid artery. He pulled out his stethoscope and listened for a heart beat. Logically, it’s impossible to prove a negative proposition, in this case, that my grandmother was not alive. Everyone in the room—my parents, me, the VON, the supervisor—everyone knew that my grandmother was no longer alive. But how do you establish that as a fact? You want to avoid the Pythonesque situation where, on the way to the funeral home, the presumed corpse sits up and says: I’m not dead yet.

The day before, they had wheeled a hospital bed into my grandmother’s living room so she could die in comfortable surroundings. Now, as the supervisor followed his procedures, I sat to the west of her, on her favourite couch. As a kid, I had sometimes slept on that couch, but in the living room of the house on the family farm. As a teen-aged sci-fi geek, I had read Robert A. Heinlein novels on that couch. Later, as an English major, I read James Joyce’s Ulysses on that couch. Now, my grandmother’s body lay propped a little to one side, facing me where I sat. My parents stood to the east of my grandmother and so they missed what I saw next.

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The supervisor asked for a Kleenex. My mom found the box and handed it to him. He took a Kleenex and rolled it to a point. He leaned over my grandmother from the far side of the hospital bed, with his back to my parents. He pushed back the eyelid of her left eye. My grandmother stared directly at me with her one unblinking eye. Her pupil was dilated, ringed around by the thin band of her blue iris. The supervisor tapped the cornea, once, twice, three times, with the tip of his rolled Kleenex. I don’t understand the physiology of it, but I guess he was looking for some kind of autonomic response. He didn’t find it. He shut the eyelid and scribbled some notes on his official declaration of death form.

At that moment, I couldn’t help myself. I guess it has something to do with my literary background. As I stared at my grandmother’s dead eye, I couldn’t help but think of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Near the beginning of the story, the narrator describes the old man’s eye:

It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture—a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees—very gradually—I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.

Although my grandmother had died, still she stared at me. Based on that stare alone, I would not have been able to tell that she was not alive. They say (and by “they” I mean some impossible-to-identify person in the misty past) that the eyes are the window to the soul. But my experience suggests that the eye is a deceptive organ.

When I do street portraiture, the number one rule is: focus on the closest eye. As a result, I’ve become adept at manually shifting the active auto focus point into position as I’m yakking it up with prospective subjects. When I capture an expressive face and discover, in post, that the closest eye is perfectly crisp, I smile and give myself a pat on the back. I’ve got myself an image that viewers will care about. Inevitably, the image will draw their attention to the eye. They will stare into it and sense that, almost mystically, it reveals the inmost depths of my subject.

Ross

Diane Arbus observed: “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know.” I would suggest that her observation is doubly true of the eyes that appear in a photograph. When we stare at an image of a person’s eyes, maybe all we can know for certain is the content (the hopes and expectations) of our projections. We meet an elderly man. We observe the time-worn lines etched deep in his face. We think: he looks like wisdom personified. He squints and it looks to us as if he’s staring halfway across the galaxy. As photographers, we want to capture this look and share it with others. But when we talk to him, the mystery evaporates. The man is a moron. Or worse, an asshole. He tells dirty jokes. He says he has a stash of kiddy porn under his bed.

I would hazard that the eye isn’t a sensory organ so much as an aesthetic convention. When we look at a painting or photograph, its eyes tell our eyes where to look. We stare first at the eyes, then follow their gaze into the scene. It produces drama. It suggests the culmination of a narrative. What’s more, the presence of eyes tells us how to engage the work. If eyes are the window of the soul, then a representation of the eyes is a representation of the window of the soul. The eyes tell us that if we look closely, we will discover hidden depths. Just as a perspectival trick (first invented in the Renaissance) produces the illusion of three dimensions on a flat surface, so a moral trick produces the illusion of deeper meaning.

A Child's Stare

In his book, The Ongoing Moment, Geoff Dyer opens by drawing a thread through the history of photography: the thematic preoccupation with blindness. He suggests that blind subjects are the objective correlative of the photographer’s desire for invisibility. I don’t think it’s that complicated; I think photographs of blindness lay bare the moral trick. Unless there is something in a photograph that indicates blindness (in many of the early photographs Dyer examines, the blind person wears a sign that declares the blindness), the photograph is no less meaningful than one in which the subject is sighted. Photographs of blind people reveal that the functionality of eyes has no bearing on the effectiveness of a photograph. By extension, they play on our anxiety that photographs—and art more generally—may in fact have no deeper meaning.

As we sat with my grandmother’s body waiting for the supervisor to arrive and to declare the death, the VON spoke to my mother. Maybe the silence bothered him and he felt compelled to say something. He asked if my grandmother was a Christian. I rolled my eyes. While my grandmother was a regular at a local Presbyterian church, she never talked about her religious beliefs. As I later discovered while sorting through her belongings, she maintained a hefty stash of Bibles and they were all dog-eared. My mother nodded and the VON went on a riff about how Jesus’s resurrection was a promise from God blah blah blah. As the VON went on about Jesus, I felt anxiety descend like a fog upon the room. I stared at my grandmother’s body. After 97 years of life, is this all that remains? What if we have no deeper meaning?

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Rob Ford Funeral Fotos, Part Duh

Here are some more photographs I shot at the Rob Ford funeral procession, this time without the cultural analysis. I said everything I care to say about this event in my previous post.

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Ford Riders of the Apocalypse (and one scooter)

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Honour Guard

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Jeremy Eastmond, aries7media.com

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Shooting Ford Nation

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Woman leaving tent on lawn of St. James Cathedral

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Woman reading in front of St. James Cathedral

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Getting directions

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Zanta (David Zancai)

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Rob Ford’s Funeral Procession

Yesterday morning I walked down to St. James Cathedral bearing my camera gear like a giant question mark. I wanted to see if I could discern what makes Rob Ford tick—not Rob Ford the man, obviously, since he’s no longer with us, but Rob Ford the cultural phenomenon.

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Mourner, hat in hand, waiting for the funeral procession.

I went with a theory: that Rob Ford is an accidental postmodern. The way I understand postmodernism, it began as an intentional critique of the relationship between power and culture and supplemented its theorizing with a set of practical tools for subverting that relationship. It challenged the hierarchical structure of cultural production. The distinction which privileges high art over pop culture is a false distinction. So, too, the distinction which privileges scientific/academic discourse over lay inquiry. Professionalism over the amateur. Religious orthodoxy over grassroots spirituality. Reason over dreams. White over black. Man over woman. Straight over queer. Not surprisingly, the earliest theoretical glimmers of postmodernism coincided with the rise of practical movements: Black Power, Feminism, Gay Rights.

More recently, we’ve witnessed the emergence of cultural phenomena which, while never intended to fulfill a postmodern agenda, nevertheless bear some of its marks. They are accidentally postmodern. Facebook is a good example of this. It has ripped down the walls between our neatly compartmentalized discursive habits. Now, it’s hard to tell whether we’re reading news or advertising, gossip or fiction. Facebook makes it impossible to privilege one discursive mode over another. (The only thing that’s privileged is Facebook itself.) In the same way, Rob Ford never woke one morning and said to himself: Hey, I’m gonna be a postmodern mayor. It just happened that way.

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Consider the evidence (or don’t, since that might be too scientific). Ford occupied the office of mayor which, traditionally, evokes a sense of gravitas. The mayor is addressed as Your Worship, and he has all the powers of a Justice of the Peace which entitles him, among other things, to preside over marriages. Tradition treats it as an office marked by dignity. People loved Ford for the fact that he was accessible and casual. He was hands on. Accessibility may have come at the expense of dignity. Everybody knew he was smashed on the job. Everybody knew he worked while driving. Talked on his cell phone while driving (gave a woman the finger when she told him to hang up). But so what? He demystified the aura that enshrouds the mayoral office.

He blurred lines. With him, it was impossible to tell whether he was politicking or entertaining. The conflict of interest scandal that nearly cost him his job underscores this blurring of lines. He didn’t appear to understand that it might be inappropriate to solicit funds for a personal charity on City Hall letterhead. But why should he when such distinctions belong to an earlier time with its archaic assumptions about propriety? Or consider his personal wealth which suggests white male privilege. And yet he styled himself a man of the people. A mayor for the little guy, enormously popular with working class and Black voters. Never mind his union busting, his racist rants, his groping and butt patting, his refusal to attend LGTQ events. One could call him hypocritical or contradictory. But I wonder if, maybe, he occupied a Both/And cultural space that gave him an extraordinary sense of freedom.

Clowns in gowns pretend to be officiants at a religious service.

Clowns in gowns pose as religious officiants.

At Jarvis & Adelaide, I cut through St. James Park. I remember when this was a tent city during the Occupy Movement. Although I was early, a line had already formed in front of St. James Cathedral, members of the public hoping to get inside for the funeral. I crossed to the south side of King Street and positioned myself across from the front door. Beside me, the media had set themselves up, talking heads, live commentary, drooling experts. A man in shorts and a Santa Claus hat was posing behind them. I laughed. It seemed perfect. I squinted at the man with his goatee and cigarette. Wait a sec. Isn’t that Zanta?

Have you heard of Zanta? He’s something of a fixture in these parts. You can read more about him on his wikipedia page, but the short version is that, 16 years ago, he fell down a flight of stairs and may have suffered neurological damage. He was later diagnosed with schizophrenia. His name is David Zancai, but he has adopted the performing name of Zanta. His performance involves wearing a Santa hat, doing a lot of push ups, posing (totally ripped), and wishing people a Merry Christmess on any day of the year (except Christmas).

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Zanta (David Zancai) kneeling in front of St. James Cathedral.

Zanta lay down on the street in front of the church and started doing pushups. When he finished his pushups, he lay his sweatshirt on the pavement, pulled out a magic marker, and started writing a message on it. Three police officers stepped onto the street and encouraged him to leave, forcing him to the eastern edge of St. James Park where he simmered for a time on a park bench. I spoke to the police officer who led the push to expel Zanta. If I was going to play amateur photojournalist (or whatever the hell I thought I was doing), it seemed a good idea to do some fact checking. The police officer confirmed that, yes, the man is Zanta. He rolled his eyes. He’d had dealings with Zanta for probably 10 or 12 years now. But they had to get him out of there. It was important for the funeral to go off with some decorum.

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Police remove Zanta from the scene.

Later, I spoke to Zanta. He was pleased to hear that my name is David. He asked me if my parents are alive. Yes. Grandparents? One. How about the other ones? Well, um, uh, no (logic didn’t appear to be one of his strong suits). He said he’d tell me where they are. His rambling boiled down to this: my deceased grandparents are with Rob Ford. No doubt they’re delighted to have his company. He talked in a wandering way. It wasn’t an associative wandering. More a string of non sequiturs. It was impossible to have a rational conversation with the man.

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The pipers piped. The honour guard marched. The hearse arrived and pulled to the front door of the church. And behind it all, the rabble. People with their signs and little flags declaring their allegiance to Ford Nation and proclaiming Rob Ford the best mayor ever. They were loud and unruly. They shouted their non sequiturs, their contradictions. I turned and Zanta was gone. I caught sight of his white hood disappearing into the mob. He fit right in. So much for the police and their decorum.

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It would be easy to ridicule the Ford Nation phenomenon. I was born into a modern world, but educated into a postmodern sensibility, so I tread on fractured ground. The reasonable me, the one who likes neat categories and well-reasoned arguments, would very much enjoy running Ford Nation through my privileged blender. But the unreasonable me recognizes that my reasonable upbringing is intimately tied to stories of unjust relations. With time to reflect on the photos I took of Ford Nation’s citizens, I’m reminded of the Black Lives Matter tent city at Police Headquarters. These are not two separate groups. They merge like a Venn diagram. Their points of intersection are messy but they need to be acknowledged. As for Rob Ford, I wonder… Privileged white man with a penchant for hypocrisy? Or could he, indeed, have been an ally? And what does that make me if I dispute those who claim he was?

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Citizens of Ford Nation follow the funeral procession.

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Under The Millwood Road Bridge

I think our neighbour has killed himself. Nobody who knows will talk about it, but it seems likely.

We drive home around dinner time and have trouble getting into our building. Police cars block the entrance. An ambulance sits on the sidewalk by a stretch of yellow tape. Our building superintendent is talking to the police. The building manager sends an email message advising us of a police investigation on the premises, but we aren’t to be alarmed; there’s no danger. Later, we leave to go out for the evening and three police officers exit the unit across the hall from us. It belongs to an elderly man who has always struck me as lonely and reclusive. Seeing the police, we know what to think. When we return home from dinner, the night concierge is already on the desk. He isn’t allowed to say anything, but they sent the evening concierge home, told him to take some time off.

There must be something in the air. It’s been a long dull winter without the fluffy decorative cheer that snow brings. We hear in the news how a woman stabs the concierge at a nearby building as he helps her move some boxes. She flees and ends up on the balcony of a 27th floor apartment in another building. Police rappel from the balcony above to capture (rescue?) her. The media identify her as an “internationally renowned architect and philanthropist.” It is implied that her outburst is the result of a mental health issue. The woman is held on a suicide watch. The media interview a friend (she’s a “remarkable woman”), a man who, it turns out, designed the Luminous Veil, the Bloor Street Viaduct’s suicide prevention barrier. The woman in question was instrumental in promoting the barrier and raising funds for it.

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Dead Animals

In the film, American Beauty, Wes Bentley plays the teen who moves in next door. He sells pot from his bedroom and uses the money to finance his obsession—video equipment. He loves to shoot video and produces a visual diary of the things he sees each day. In particular, he tries to shoot dead things—pets, wild animals, and ultimately Lester Burnham—focussing on their eyes to capture that decisive moment when they hover between life and death.

I’m reminded of Henri Cartier-Bresson who applied the phrase “the decisive moment” to the art of photography. I think he was writing about how all the elements of composition come together (as in a painting) and are captured in the decisive moment when the photographer releases the shutter. And yet it seems to me that his decisive moment in the art of his work is not all that different from the teen’s decisive moment at the cusp of death.

There is a sense in which releasing the shutter rails against death. We want to freeze moments that will never again happen in precisely this way. Convergences, collisions, coincidences. We try to preserve these moments and offer them to the future. At the same time, we try to interpret them. We don’t offer them as raw moments; we wrap them in our aesthetic sensibilities. The moment is decisive, not simply because it freezes time, but also because it draws into a single frame all the considerations that make a good photograph.

I find myself channeling Wes Bentley’s character. When I walk in Toronto’s ravines, it’s common for me to stumble upon dead animals. I feel compelled to photograph them, not out of a ghoulish fascination, but because—somehow—that is what a camera is for. The camera prods me to take this raw visual stuff and make sense of it, both rationally and aesthetically. Shooting dead animals is easier in the winter. The corpse is literally frozen in time and so I have the luxury of extending the decisive moment over minutes, or even days if I choose to come back. I don’t need to cover my face. I’m not repulsed by the smell or by the insects.

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I see a cat (or what I presume to be a cat) but I see no tag so I wonder if it was a feral cat. Otherwise, if it was a pet, where did the tag go? It’s lying in the snow by the side of the Don River. I’m no pet CSI, but this one looks like it’s been dead for some time. Again, I’m no pet CSI, but this one looks like it’s been skinned. It’s lying on top of the fur which has been detached from the body. What happened here? Now, it lies eyeless with its nose submerged in the melting snow. How will I position myself to best capture the scene? I use a tripod and 100 mm macro lens. ISO 200 f/11 1/20 sec.

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I see a raccoon drowned in Yellow Creek. It hasn’t been a cold winter so the water keeps flowing. Animals must drown here all the time. I find something compelling about the saturated colours of the fur, the washed out reflection of the trees, the digits hanging below the surface of the water. I use a monopod and 100 mm macro lens. ISO 400 f/5.6 1/100 sec.

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I find a dog trapped between rocks in the Don River. Probably a pet that got caught in the current and swept downstream. There’s something pathetic about the way the back is arched and the forelimbs raised over its head, as if pleading. I shouldn’t anthropomorphize these scenes; the limbs are in that position courtesy of physics. I shoot with a tripod and 50mm Sigma Art Lens. ISO 400 f/11 1/4 sec.

On reflection, I wonder if there’s anything at all decisive in any of these moments. Does life in the city—forget the city—does life in late modern global culture trivialize the concerns that drove Cartier-Bresson? Am I losing my ability to distinguish the value of an animal’s life from the value of an iPod? Are all moments of equal (i.e. equally meaningless) weight whether we capture them in the past or give them to the future? Are moments neither decisive nor indecisive but simply part of that stream in which commodities are rendered unfashionable or obsolete? When I see something dead, instead of making a photograph, maybe I should shop for a new camera.

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Highway 17 Around Superior

I just got back from Thunder Bay, and while I could have flown, I prefer the drive, especially once I get north of Sault Ste Marie and start following the shoreline of Lake Superior. You might think that the reason I like the drive has something to do with stunning scenery. I guess it would if it weren’t for the camera around my neck. Photographically speaking, stunning scenery doesn’t do it for me anymore. In the modern world of HDR images, landscapes have taken on a plastic quality. They’ve stopped being interesting. In my view, what redeems landscapes are the other points of interest happening within them. Landscapes are merely frames. Sometimes pretty frames. But frames just the same.

Pruce's Motor Inn

I enjoy photographing the ruins scattered throughout Northern Ontario. A fire breaks out and, afterwards, it seems to take years to deal with the wreckage. The owners simply walk away. The buildings persist, ghostlike, offering a dumb testimony of livelier times. They challenge our assumptions about the natural rugged landscapes of the north.

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Abandoned Spaces in Northern Ontario

If I stopped every time I saw a burnt out motel or abandoned gas station beside a highway in northern Ontario, I’d never get anywhere. In May, I stopped at a few choice locations, and bookmarked a few others for the end of the summer when I’ll be passing that way again. The images are inherently dramatic, they raise questions, imply a story. For example, what happened at the Dorion Inn? This motel sits on the south side of Highway 17 by the township of Dorion half way between Thunder Bay and Nipigon. Interestly, you can still find it listed on TripAdvisor. Good luck booking a room. According to the wikipedia listing for Dorion, the town has a population of 338. Maybe 337 if one of its residents was staying in the room on the end the night the fire broke out. But why would a local need a room? Unless … My imagination gets the better of me.

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7 (non-photographic) things you can do to improve your photography

The following are suggestions (not prescriptions) and are highly personal. They reflect what I would describe as an emerging philosophy of seeing and engagement with the world. In particular, I preach a holistic gospel of photography: photography works in service of the whole person. For that reason, the whole person needs to be enlisted in the service of photographic practice. That’s why seemingly irrelevant activities might benefit, and even improve, your photography.

1. Meditate

By meditation, I don’t mean that you should embark on an elaborate pilgrimage to a Tibetan monastery. I mean something simpler. Breathing. Mindfulness. The work of becoming awake. The discipline of meditation can provide the foundations for a discipline of seeing. You walk down a street and are more alive to the visual possibilities that present themselves. You may have walked down the same street a hundred times, but because you have become habituated to that walk, you cease to notice the wonder of its particularity. It’s as if you are sleepwalking. The thisness of its place and time have vanished. Wake up!

Time to wake up!

Time to wake up!

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The Luminous Veil

The so-called Luminous Veil is, for me, a symbol-laden structure. The Luminous Veil is a late addition to the half kilometre length of Toronto’s Prince Edward Viaduct. It was designed to end the viaduct’s reputation as one of North America’s premiere suicide destinations. Michael Ondaatje has paid homage to the viaduct in his novel, In The Skin Of The Lion, and includes an episode where a construction worker saves a nun from plummeting into the Don Valley below. The viaduct also appears in Bruce Cockburn’s folk song, “Anything Can Happen.” More recently, in “War On Drugs,” The Barenaked Ladies share their thoughts on the upgraded structure:

Near where I live there’s a viaduct
Where people jump when they’re out of luck
Raining down on the cars and trucks below
They’ve put a net there to catch their fall
Like that’ll stop anyone at all
What they don’t know is that when nature calls you go

Although Stephen Page’s lyrics suggest that the Luminous Veil has merely shifted suicides to other bridges, I have heard (from grief counsellors) that it may, in fact, prevent impulsive suicides.

Luminous Veil - Prince Edward Viaduct, Toronto

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Poem: 10 Billion

I’m depressed. Today, as I waited
for the elevator, a scream,
my neighbour: Oh God! Oh God!
Harder! Yes! More! Oh God!
Into the car and the door closed
on the fading cries above. Smiled
at my dog, spayed years ago,
prancing, impatient to pee.

Scientists just announced it:
10 billion Earth-like planets
in our galaxy alone and
10 billion galaxies, maybe more.
I could fuck and fuck and fuck
a river of cum until I die
and still not pump out enough
for a solitary spermatozoon
on each of the habitable worlds
that glides the star-pocked black.

If an alien dropped by for a beer,
how would I explain myself?
Especially my lack of utility,
my list of daily habits, a thousand
bullet points long, that guides me
to no particular end? Would the beast
understand my elevator trips, my
devotion to a barely sentient thing,
the way I trail it with a plastic bag,
my habits (which verge on obsessions),
my hobbies (which I pass off as passions),
my ruminations, scattered thoughts,
preference for the colour orange?

Would it get my need for clothes
of this design, not that, my tendency
to laugh when what I mean to do is weep,
my faith in your indifference, the way
I start from sleep to memories
of dreams of things that never happened,
places I’ve never been, faces never seen?

Does it hear a nattering voice,
as I do, reminding me of what
I ought when even can is beyond me?
Proper shoes. A hat in the cold.
Money saved for a rainy day (as if
bad weather is the worst calamity).
Ten billion ten billions
and you tell me to be reasonable?
How can I be reasonable when
the only safeguard against my absolute
diminishment is the blessing
of unreason? Go away. I’m depressed.

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