Death Mask – Troubled Dreams on the road to Clay & Bone (Part 1)

It was eight years ago today, on December 12, 2008, that my dear sweet friend Ben Banky was murdered by a deranged employee.

I’m sitting at my desk, at my art studio- Shavasana -on Mayne Island feeling that I have a lot to be grateful for in this life. I am grateful for this sweet creative space that fate has allowed me. I am especially grateful for the engaging, caring, compassionate & loving friends and family that I have been blessed with on this journey. Thank you Ben, thank you all.

Yesterday,  as I was beginning to write the story about how I found my studio space on Mayne Island ( Searching for Shavasana – Part 1)it seemed clear to me that the story would not be complete if I didn’t acknowledge the chaotic, tragic and painful journey that led to it’s inception. The finding and setting up of Shavasana Art Gallery, Studio & Café on Mayne Island is a joyous story filled with personal healing, growth and creativity (it is not without its blemishes – more about that later) Stories of this nature will be written up on my gallery website: . Stories that pertain more to my personal journey, that is, elements of my experience, thoughts and behaviours that contribute directly or indirectly to my creative expression will now be journaled here – on Clay & Bone. If “Searching for Shavasana” explains how I arrived at this sweet healing place of rebirth, “Death Mask – Troubled Dreams on the way to Clay & Bone” explains why it was so necessary.

I am a recovering alcoholic. I have been sober since April 25, 2012 – thank you AA. In May of 2005 I was in full swing. Although it was beginning to dawn on me that I had a drinking problem, I was having way too much fun to even honestly consider quitting. To celebrate my 50th birthday in June of that year I decided to have a large party at my home in Kitsilano. I had invited over 100 friends, had arranged for some catering and music and it looked like it was going to be, yet another, large boozy event. My favourite kind. One friend was flying in from Germany, and even my ex-wife, who had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimers several years earlier at the young age of 48,  was still fit enough to attend. It was going to be fabulous. And then, a week before the event, my father died, unexpectedly, of a stroke.

When an 84 year old man dies while putting on his socks at home, it is not a tragedy. My father had a long, loving and loved, life. He was a wonderful man and we, his family and friends, all loved him deeply. Faced with this new sad reality though, the first things I had to do were deal with my own grief, help care for my mother, arrange for a celebration of my father’s life, and, call up over 100 friends to cancel my 50th. All of these things were done in good fashion, and within a month or so we were all settling down to our new dadless world.

Just as the summer was getting underway, full of its fun activities & distractions, Festivals and weddings, one of my dearest friends, an almost indescribably lovely man – Paul “Lolly” Lawton, ( ) was accidentally and horrifically pulled through a wood chipper on July 15, 2005. This gentle, sweet, talented man – this angel – this Juno Award winning drummer who was earning a few extra dollars for his trip to Toronto to be best man at a mutual friends wedding the following week died…in this most tragic way. To those of us who knew and loved Lolly, this incomprehensible  event, this new tragic reality shook the personal foundations of many of our collective minds…it was, as they say, a complete mind-fuck. We couldn’t understand this because this wasn’t possible…it wasn’t in the script. Gut wrenching heartache & tears.

As a committed, heavy, social drinker, grieving doesn’t stop the drinking…on the contrary it gives one an excuse (as if one was needed) to engage in even heavier pensive/reflective boozing. Lolly’s death altered my world view and brought so much of it into question. It neither confirmed nor disproved the existence of God. It made chaos more tangible, randomness a stark truth, the shortness of life a palpable reality, and it exposed concepts such as fairness, justice and karma to be just wishful human constructs.   I think it was here that I started to drink to the point of blackout, on a more regular basis.

Four months after Lolly died, and fewer than six months after our father passed,  my sister received a call from our mother saying that she wasn’t feeling well. Mom had been a trooper during these last months of grieving the loss of her husband of 57 years and we had been keeping a close eye on her. Without ready access to a family doctor, on this day, we took her to the emergency ward at a local hospital and, after a gruelling 9 hour wait/assessment, discovered that Mom was suffering from Stage 4 breast cancer.

Collectively taken aback by this new harsh revelation we, as a small family of three, let the medical system inform us as to our options moving forward. Further medical exams, tests and assessments, left us with no positive outcome. Mom was terminal, had months to live and would not benefit from radiation or extensive rounds of chemo. “Take her home and make her as comfortable as possible for as long as you can” was the message. What ensued was three relentless months of always playing “catch-up” with the progression of the disease. Home care, weight loss, Ensure, palliative medications…(me drinking excessively, daily, despite my new caregiving responsibilities)…and eventually collapse (Mom, not me, on Christmas Eve) hospitalization, hospice, and death – three months to the day after diagnosis. I held her hand as she died.

In case you are wondering, dear reader, why I am writing about all of this misery, I guess my best explanation would be catharsis. I am just beginning to write & journal/blog in my two new websites and I felt it a good idea to explain the recent past and how and why I ultimately came to make quirky masks of human faces adorned with antlers and run an Art Gallery Café called Shavasana on Mayne Island ( ). It’s a story of tragedy and despair, substance dependency & healing, and ultimately, just as fate can be random and horrific, it can also be benign and blessed. I feel fortunate to have survived – thus far – on this path …the events of this story notwithstanding.

We all handle grief in our own way. After the initial intensity, life pulls you forward, time provides healing space, and you are compelled to “get on with your life”. All well and good. We have things to do, responsibilities, distractions. Whereas my drinking habits remained undiminished, I began to experience subtle changes in mood & outlook. Depression crept in along with a general sense of meaninglessness. My work suffered, and, what little interest I had in my accidental vocation of  “Advertising Sales Rep” – evaporated.

This was not an auspicious time to be in print advertising sales. The overarching power & pull of the internet was shifting the grounds under the feet of print media empire owners everywhere, and the community newspaper I worked for was no exception. By 2006 our parent company, Canwest, was struggling: by 2007 their bonds were given junk status; and by 2009 they declared bankruptcy during the fallout from the Global Financial Crisis of 2008. Canwest’s problems were not all internet related, they had also taken on unmanageable debt just prior to the financial crisis which – in essence – bankrupted them.

All of this drama started to play out at work as they tried to shed expenses at every level of their media empire. We lost our beloved publisher – Peter B. – during this stressful time, which angered the staff and ultimately resulted in efforts to unionize – which failed by one vote.

None of this improved my mood. The staff was polarized. I started to feel depressed, anxious and distracted at work. I approached my Family Doctor with concerns that I couldn’t shake my troubled thoughts and dark moods. I was given a prescription to see a shrink and, for a time, went on the anti-depressant – Zoloft. I found this particular SSRI to be unhelpful and actually worsened my anxiety. The side effects felt speedy and within a month or so I weaned myself off the pharmaceutical and returned to my trustworthy “mood enhancer” alcohol…not that I had ever given it up. It was sometime during this period that I went on my first bout of stress leave.

Stress leave is not guaranteed to diminish or remove your stress. For some, like myself, it provided a kind of  unhealthy paid vacation with plenty of idle time to think…and drink. As, they say, “idle minds are the Devil’s playground” and, as a self-professed News Junkie with a degree in Poli Sci/Economics I started to fixate overly on the increasingly glum situation in the middle east and the  global economy.

There’s no shortage of doom and gloom on the internet…or perhaps, in the world at large for that matter. The trifecta of environmental collapse, post 9-11 apocalyptic ponderings, and fear of a subprime mortgage global derivative meltdown provided ample ingredients for a potage of worry. Because of my own particular basket of interests & worries (world affairs & economics), family history (a father and grandfather who fought in both wars), life experience (travel through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan & Pakistan) and education/outlook, I inhabited a dark vision of what was approaching us. I know that I am not unique in this regard.

Headstone in a graveyard near Banff

This was 2006. Iran was actively pursuing it’s nuclear program (and supposed development of nuclear weapons) and the rhetoric between it and Israel had reached -a worrisome intensity. Israel was lobbying the Americans to attack  Iran in a pre-emptive strike to take out its nuclear capability. If their sympathetic allies were unwilling they were threatening to do the job themselves, and the Saudis were also applying pressure on the Americans to do the same, to cut off “the head of the snake” as they viewed their Shi’ite rival. At one point the Saudis even suggested that if Iran developed the bomb, they would just purchase nuclear weapons from their Sunni ally Pakistan to gain parity. Fun times. How did it become even remotely conceivable that non-nuclear states could just purchase nuclear weapons like pieces of industrial equipment ?  I digress here…, I am relatively certain that an entire military/bureaucratic branch of the US government exists to prevent such an outcome but I am revealing a glimpse of the rabbit-hole thinking that was obsessing me at this time. Ongoing grief, depression, stress, monomaniacal issue-based worries, caffeine overload, and alcoholism.

Since 9/11 Rome has been burning and many of us have been fiddling and dancing on the periphery of the fire. The Empire took the fight overseas  (Afghanistan 2001 – Present, Iraq 2003 – Present, Pakistan, Syria, Libya, Yemen, etc;) starting fires, and burning through many lives and vast amounts of cash. Like so much of the world, we in Vancouver have been spectators to this ongoing debacle, watching with a mix of fear, sadness, anger, confusion and disinterest. Fiddling and dancing. Searching out distraction. Cauterizing our consciousness with substance abuse and infotainment. I was no different…until 2005 the problems of the world were abstract visuals consumed between boozy parties and social events. Then my own personal Nakba began to unfold. My world changed. A switch was thrown and loved ones, friends and acquaintances started to die with great regularity. Dad, Lolly, Mom, two beloved aunts, some jolly coworker pals, friends and partners of friends. It was a rough time, I lost 10 friends and loved ones from ’05 to ’12,  and – I can’t say if this new sad reality increased my drinking  or enhanced my melange of worry/paranoia –  but, by mid 2006, both were in full swing. And then war broke out between Hezbollah and Israel.

For me, this war, the 2006 Lebanon War as it is known, represented a turning point in my perception of how things were going to turn out for Israel, Iran, the Middle East, and, perhaps you and I- we were fucked . Because the war between Hezbollah and Israel was considered a proxy war between Iran and Israel, it was – in effect – a glimpse of the future when Iran acquires the bomb. …our primitive solutions to communal problems combined with nuclear weaponry were not going to end well. I felt disheartened and hopeless. I started to look for the exit doors.

When you have a strong opinion or belief it’s not uncommon to gravitate to information sources which support your point of view, this is known as confirmation bias, “the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories”. We also have a tendency, within our social networks to create what is known as “echo chambers”… “group situations where information, ideas, and beliefs are uncritically bounced from insider to insider and amplified, while dissenting views are censored and/or ignored”. Our perspectives are thus reinforced through selective information gathering and cloistered opinion sharing amongst like-minded individuals.

It’s 2007. Geo-political instability was soon to be accompanied by the onset of the Financial Crisis of 2007 – 2008 – considered by many economists to be the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. For those of us who are prone to worry there were legions of pundits portraying the subprime mortgage meltdown as a looming disaster which only the informed and prepared could hope to weather. The crisis did not come into full swing until the fall of 2008. Until then, I read & obsessed. I worried and I drank. I sold whatever stocks I had and went to cash. My stress levels spiked and, in early ’08 I took another round of stress leave. It was during this period that the thought of cashing out and pursuing a more gentle, sustainable lifestyle away from the city really began to take hold of my consciousness. A vision from my hippiesque youth of rural acreage…nature, community & creativity held great appeal. The parent company (Canwest) of the community paper I worked for (The Vancouver Courier)was trying to avoid bankruptcy and, in so doing, was offering select staff members buyouts to help reduce their fixed costs. Because I had a sympathetic boss, I managed to be included  in the buyout. (Thanks EJ 🙂 By the middle of ’08, as arrangements for leaving my place of employment and receiving “a package” progressed, I further decided to sell my house and pursue my dream.

As I was preparing to list my house in September of ’08, the news became relentlessly bad and it appeared that the global economy was truly coming apart. Lehman Brothers collapsed on September 15, 2008 – the largest bankruptcy in history – along with Washington Mutual, General Motors, IndyMac, CIT, Chrysler, etcetera. The US subprime mortgage system (Fannie Mae & Freddie Mac) was disintegrating as well as the value of real estate and the stock market. The Dow and the TSX plunged over 50% (May ’08 – Mar ’09) …from Wikipedia: “The crisis threatened the collapse of large financial institutions, which was prevented by the bailout of banks by national governments, but stock markets still dropped worldwide. In many areas, the housing market also suffered, resulting in evictions, foreclosures and prolonged unemployment. The crisis played a significant role in the failure of key businesses, declines in consumer wealth estimated in trillions of US dollars, and a downturn in economic activity leading to the Great Recession of 2008–2012 and contributing to the European Sovereign Debt Crisis.”

For Vancouverites at the time of this writing (December 2016) it may be hard to fathom but in the Fall/Winter of ’08 – real estate had crashed. In the 3 months that my Kitsilano home was on the market, I had in excess of 200 people drop in at openings without one offer. No feverish bidding wars, no “well over asking”, and the invasion of overseas $$ had not yet arrived. By the time it finally sold on December 9, 2008 I had dropped my price – at the feverish insistence of my realtor – and weathered the inevitable “low-ball bottom feeders” who had crawled out from under their various rocks.

Your own private hell will arrive in it’s own time and fashion. The weekend of Friday December 8 through Monday December 11 2008 contains – for this writer –  the most hellish, tragic, untimely, transformational, and life altering sequence of events yet encountered. Let me elaborate.

  • On Friday December 8, 2008, one of my best friends – Ben Banky – while decorating his business with staff in preparation for the annual Christmas party, was murdered by a deranged former employee. This beautiful man, this gentle, bright, loving and kind friend, husband, son, uncle, brother & boss was gunned down by a man who had been fired days earlier for threatening co-workers. The incomprehensible and mind-fucking nature of this tragedy left all of us who loved him, and participated so joyously in his life, devastated, and immersed us in our own private hell which only time and the distractions of life has mitigated.
  • The following day – Saturday the 9th –  I awoke from this nightmare to learn that the subjects had been removed from the sale of my house, and that, this sweet enclave, the stage upon which so much of the joy, tragedy and life of the prior eight years was enacted was for all intents and purposes – gone. Against the very bleak economic outlook at that time, the sale of the house represented an unknown roll of the financial dice. With Ben’s murder the day before, there was no joy to be had in this sale (or anything) and, the discussions he and I had shared – of starting a rural cottage-industry distillery – died with him. As things played out over the next several years, the sale of the house proved to be a very untimely financial decision. The story has not yet come to a conclusion though and ultimately, given some of the rebirth, joy, ecstasy and beauty which subsequently followed this “period of pain”, it may be viewed as a necessary transition on the path to a new life
  • The buyout from my place of employment was available for pick up from the regional head-office on Monday the 11th. I drove down in a kind of dull emotional fog, picked up my cheque, and never went back to the office. The job, the coworkers, the clients and the routines that gave some kind of structure to my booze encrusted existence were gone. Within this four-day period my universe shifted dramatically – I had lost a best friend, my home and my job. I was hollowed out, glum, uncertain and worried about the future….

(This uplifting story continues as: “Death Mask – Troubled Dreams on the road to Clay & Bone (Part 2)“)