As day passes day, week passes week, and, yes, even as the hours slip by, I am running into persistent evidence that there is something wonky going on in my head.
Let me explain. For many years I have had a strange compulsion to count things as I am walking around. For example, when I was visiting Dubrovnik, Croatia, I used to be very proud that I could walk up 287 steep steps every day and back into the town, just for a morning constitutional. The friend I was staying with had lived in her apartment for 47 years without ever knowing, until I drew her attention to it, that she had to climb 55 steps up from the street every time she came back from a shopping trip, but she thought nothing of it, was able to handle the steps with aplomb, until, a month or two after I told her how many steps there were, she began to find them difficult to climb. Back home in Montreal from that visit, I snapped my Achilles tendon while mounting my bicycle, which I blame on my false Dubrovnik pride. I have never been the same since.
Until about a month ago, having contracted an infection in addition to my lung cancer, I was unable to walk more than down to the nearest corner, a mere 200 yards, from which I would return exhausted. But since I shook that off with the help of some antibiotics, I am once again able to walk over to the corner of Peel and Sherbrooke for my favoured morning coffee. By dint of counting every fourth step, I have worked out roughly how far it is.
Though it is always hard to maintain one’s concentration on counting for a 25-minute walk, I have figured the customary count at about 450. Multiply that by four, and my total steps amount to about 1800. Multiply that by 2.5, which is the number of feet I figure I cover with every stride, and I come to the magic figure of 1500, which for reasons I will explain, I prefer to regard as meters rather than yards.
You see, 1500 meters is the distance covered at the Berlin Olympic Games in 1936 by Jack Lovelock, the New Zealand middle distance runner, who breezed home in record time, leaving the Americans and all others in his wake. Lovelock, from the previously unheard of, tiny country of New Zealand, thus became one of the athletes, headed by Jesse Owens, who poked a stick in Hitler’s eye, destroying his Aryan propaganda, in foiled celebration of which he had staged the most elaborate and nationalistic Olympics of all time.
In 1936 I was eight, and Lovelock became my boyhood hero, of course. He later became a doctor, after serving in the war, and in 1949, at the age of 39, while on the staff of the Manhattan hospital, suffered a dizzy spell while waiting in the New York subway, fell on to the track, and was killed by an advancing train.
Lovelock’s win in the Olympics was for several years regarded internationally as the greatest 1500 metre race ever, largely because the years from 1932 to 1936 are regarded as the first great years for mile runners, and the field was of the highest class. Lovelock had placed seventh in the 1932 Olympic final, and, a slight figure weighing no more than 134 pounds, he realized thereafter that he had the strength for only one major effort per season, so his Olympic victory was prepared and planned over the previous few years.
Lovelock’s Victory Oak from the Olympics was planted at the high school he attended, and is to this day considered a nationally protected landmark (when I was in high school we used to play Rugby against them every year). I grew up in a world in which streets, playing fields, sports bars had been named after Lovelock, and books, a stage play, a film, and a statue were devoted to him.
My devotion to his memory may have had an influence on me in that I developed some skill as a middle distance runner: but although like him in 1932 I came well back in the pack in the 1949 final of the New Zealand half mile championship --- I figured I came ninth, actually --- unlike him I never had what it took to go on to the Olympics. They were just beginning to get into the years of scientific training in 1949, which demanded a dedication of which I was quite incapable, and a devotion to a single goal that was far out of my ken. Besides which, I had sense enough to realize that I would never be able, no matter how much training I undertook, to run fast enough. I just didn’t have it in me.
To get back to my theme: I walk towards my coffee shop on Sherbrooke along either Hutchison, Durocher or Aylmer streets, on which there are some handsome stone residential buildings, three or four stories high, running along a good part of each block, the front doors of which are reached up stairs of ten or so steps. A good while ago, on Aylmer street, I counted the number of habitations to be found in one such building, at 10. Not content with having counted them once, I keep recounting them, and every day I come to a slightly different conclusion. In almost every case I counted a door below the main stairs as the entrance to a separate residence, probably in the basement, but only some of them were marked with a different street number, so my count could never be described as exactly precise.
But yesterday, as I walked past this same building I found myself counting 26 habitations. Suddenly I told myself, whoa, there, old man, something seems out of whack. How could I have made such a grievous error?
Today I decided to count the habitations again, and on the way to the corner of Milton street I counted 36, an even more wildly out-of-context number. I wondered if perhaps I had counted the habitations in two buildings, and determined to make a more accurate count on the way home.
Sure enough, I had counted two buildings, assuming them to be one, having passed without noticing the break between them. But on the homeward trek my count was such as to give me no more certainty than before. Each of the two buildings at my latest count house 16 habitations, far beyond the 10 I had originally credited one of them with months before. But is my count of 16 really reliable or is there something wonky in my head?
I doubt if I will ever be able to decide the answer to that question: for one thing, I can never be certain, without actually going up, knocking on the door, and asking, that the lower door beneath each of the stairways is the door to a separate basement habitation, or just the lower door of the upper house.
So where does that leave me? Readers will not be surprised to learn the answer to that.
“Wot the hell, wot the hell, toujours gai, toujours gai!”
As I suspect, something wonky seems to be happening.