My women friends are better than me, which is why I like them and follow them slavishly. When they do something, they do it well. Like being ill.
One of my friends glamorously developed strep throat from neglecting her health on a restorative trip to Paris and a weekend in New York. She was taken to an emergency room, where she was made to gargle a flesh-freezing gel, had anesthetics injected into her throat and then had her tonsils slashed open in the wrong place. They had to haul in another surgeon, presumably his grandpa, the oyster shucker, and cut her again.
I envision it as Artemisia Gentileschi’s gore-strewn 1620 painting Judith and Holofernes, with my girlfriend splayed on a government of Ontario emergency-room stretcher, swathed in red velvet, while Judith (Doc) does her thing to Holofernes (my friend) and blood spatters those funny flowered curtains they always have in hospitals. One of us has to go, me or those curtains, one always thinks Oscar Wilde-ishly.
I had strep throat too. But it was the night of the American election and while she was marking the occasion by slitting her throat, all I did was head off to bed at 11:30 muttering feverishly, “The hell with this,” and cursing my “lucky” Venetian lion earrings.
I wasn’t dramatic or stylish, I was just ill. I am still ill after a series of antibiotics including lemon yellow and black capsules and now big pink things that cost $10 each and make me delirious. I have chills, am swathed in blankets and cannot eat. The infection has spread to organs here, glands there. Last night, it attacked one ear (“You have strep lughole,” my British husband announced merrily this morning) and today appears to have infected my head. I am not Holofernes, nor was meant to be. I am no oil painting. I am Strephead. I am just sick.
Fed up with six months of American political reading, I check my Unread Bookstack, containing Burma: The Forgotten War, histories of the gulag and the Japanese human experimentation camps, a biography of Pol Pot and even the estimable Jane Jacobs’s Dark Age Ahead, which I’m afraid to read in case we have to invent iron all over again.
In despair, I choose Charlotte Gray’s The Museum Called Canada: 25 Rooms of Wonder. It was the right choice. I was sick, damn it. I did not want to hear one more thing about Americans and their sour tangled guts, I wanted to know more about my own country. Ms. Gray’s entrancing book took me out of myself, forgetting infection and fatigue, an alarming skeletal look and the coming bleak winter bringing with it a visit from Smug George.
People claim that Canadian history is dull. It isn’t when you visit The Museum Called Canada. They say that the craze for visuals like cartoons is a sign of young people dumbing down. But the genius behind the book is showing artifacts, not just words, to represent Canadian history. What does it say about me that I am drawn to the tactile? The author and a wonderful curator and designer named Sara Angel show me a colour photo of a stromatolite, a 2.1-billion-year-old fossil found in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., and suddenly prehistory is interesting.
I vaguely remember New France from history class and I turn the page to a painting of Marguerite Bourgeoys, a Quebec nun from the 1700s. She has a face like a hatchet and doubtless a personality to match. Ms. Gray then shows me how in 1850, in an effort to have her made a saint, her sisterhood painted her over and turned Bourgeoys into a beatific pretty little candy-box woman with a bow under her chin. In 1963, an X-ray revealed the fakery and she was returned to her ugly, strong self.
I am still Strephead, lacking brainpower, but I’m fascinated, locked in the museum, popping Zithromax and gargling hot saltwater.
I always thought Jean de BrÃ©beuf got what he was asking for (keep your religion to yourself is still a lesson today), but the museum shows me his actual skull with its black holes for eyes, the bone the only part that didn’t feel the boiling water they poured over him.
It shows me General Wolfe’s portrait (a real chinless wonder, that man) and tells me about his lung infection. We have one thing in common then, though not the syphilis.
It’s all here, Tom Thomson’s shaving mug, the palm prints of the Dionne quintuplets, Alberta flu epidemic posters from 1918, the soup tins with their faulty lead solder that killed the Franklin expedition (death by snacks), and a piece of graffiti on a boulder in Bella Coola, B.C., — Alex MacKenzie was here, eh — that the explorer wrote himself in 1793 with vermilion and bear grease. It’s still there.
I’m not suggesting that The Museum Called Canada is a book suitable only for those who prefer touch to talk, art to words, or those temporarily deranged by fever and elections. What I’m saying is that it makes Canadian history vivid, something that can be studied and even stroked. Combine it with Mark Starowicz’s DVD of Canada: A People’s History and you have Canadian history in the palm of your hand.
If everyone in this country watched the series and was given the Gray and Angel book this holiday season, if every immigrant were given those two things upon arrival, I really do think many of the things Canadians fret about — our identity, our “brand,” to use that awful word — would simply disappear.
Trust me to treat strepbody by festering on the couch with an improving book for a week. I touch the back of my hand to my forehead, moaning. “Bloody Camille,” my husband says. “You’re getting better.”