From the archives: This Won’t Hurt a Bit

From the archives: This Won’t Hurt a Bit

Featured Psychology Science

From the archives: East Meets West in the Dentist’s Chair

From SATURDAY NIGHT magazine, 2002

For whatever reason—and there’s endless scope to speculate – pain is a hot topic these days. “That’s gotta hurt!” we say of the extreme snowboarder who lands face-first while jumping a Volkswagon, or of our friend’s kid who flashes her tongue stud or lumbar tattoo. But we’re fascinated. In an age where pain is optional, it has acquired a strange new cachet.

On today’s maternity wards, experiments in mystical stoicism have replaced old-style epidural-aided childbirth (which at least offered mothers-to-be some relief) with “natural childbirth, where lucky women get to sweat and holler and squeeze the doula’s hand, the pain simply the price of being fully present in the moment. The Dene and the Inuit of the Northwest Territories would understand. Many of their traditional games – the mouth pull, the knuckle hop – involve the mutual affliction of pain. “If we know how much pain we can take,” an elder named Big Bob Aikens explained to writer John Vaillant not long ago, “we know we can survive if we are injured.” Most of us below the tundra line are so far away from needing pain for that reason that it’s hard to fully appreciate what Big Bob is getting at. But the possibility glimmers on the periphery of awareness that maybe the Inuit are onto something. Maybe anesthetizing pain is a bad idea, evolutionarily. Maybe learning to feel pain, to take it, to “live inside” it, to study it, to re-engineer our relationship with it, is part of the secret of advancing the species.

There is, of course, another, more immediately relevant reason to study pain: as pain treatment goes, so goes the future of medicine. How we decide to deal with pain matters, now possibly more than ever, because pain disproportionately affects an enormous and growing number in an aging population.

And it’s hear that a clear division has emerged on which direction we ought to pursue. Ask a Western doctor what the future of pain relief is, and he or she will probably start naming drugs that end in x. Western medicine has cast its lot with pharmacology, and, increasingly, biotechnology.

But at the same time, and in record numbers, the afflicted are looking for something different. Collectively, we seem to be letting our guard down about those crazy Eastern remedies that at least do no harm, and may do some good. (British Columbia, where I live, was the first province where traditional Chinese medicine was recognized as a regulated discipline.) Herbs, guided fantasy, acupuncture, magnets, hypnosis, virtual reality, prayer: people will reach for anything when they’re in pain and the old standbys haven’t done the job. The “proof” that any of these “natural” remedies is effective – that is, double-blind controlled-study proof, Western science’s standard – is scanty at best, but the nature of the target, pain, is ephemeral enough that the phrase “controlled study” can seem hopelessly paradoxical.

What is clear is that the mind, when it comes to pain, is more powerful than we ever imagined. Pain, like, time, is an illusion. We interpret it as discomfort because discomfort is nature’s way of ensuring a damaged area gets attention. But is there anything to say that we can’t learn to “read” pain signals dispassionately, as just so many lines of source code, and remove the discomfort from the equation? Or even learn to interpret pain signals as pleasurable – so-called “eudemonic” pain? Hindu mystics have done it for centuries. As that stoic philosopher Arnold Schwarzenegger put it in The Terminator, “Pain can be controlled – you just disconnect it.”

Was Arnie right? I have decided to find out.

It happens that I am one of those people who never had their wisdom teeth removed. Now all four of mine sit like tiny thrones sunk in soft tissue – inviting a controlled test. I will have the teeth on the right pulled the Western way (which is to say, by an oral surgeon and with ample drugs before and after) and the teeth on the left pulled the Eastern way (by a holistic-oriented dentist using a cocktail of New Age measures, no anesthetic.) My own theory is that since the more soulful, creative right brain controls the left side of the body, I ought to be able to recruit some natural pain relief from there. Or at least draw on reserves of faith.

I will turn over my body – my mouth, at any rate – to science. East vs. West: may the best side win.

WEST

Dr. Martin (Marty) Braverman is one of the top oral surgeons in B.C. His office is in a mall.

Braverman can extract a couple of teeth in the time it takes to get your oil changed. On a busy day he might pull a hundred teeth. You pay a little extra for a guy like Marty Braverman, because he is a specialist and because he boasts a very low dry-socket ratio. (A dry socket, in which the bone holding the tooth becomes exposed to air, is the very definition of pain.) “Will I be able to drive afterward?” I’d asked the receptionist.

“Can you drive now?” she said.

“Yes.”

“Then, yes.” Ba-rum-bum.

Sitting in Braverman’s chair, I survey a rolling cart with a few silver instruments on it. The smell of a dentist’s office provokes a kind of primal fear, and, fast on its heels, the urge to bolt. I have to remind myself: This is the easy side.

Braverman is short and bespectacled and almost alarmingly casual in manner. He’s wearing khakis. With a needle as fat as a fountain pen, he injects, lidocaine, but as he has applied topical anesthetic to numb the gum first, I don’t feel the needle go in. I don’t feel a thing.

“Now, lidocaine usually has about a three-hour duration,” Braverman says, “so in three or four hours you’re going to experience some discomfort.” A nurse pokes her head in to remind Braverman that he has a lunch date in twenty minutes.

He goes to work on the lower right-hand tooth, the trickier one because it’s half-buried. He makes an incision. “What we’re going to do is push the gum back away from the tooth,” he says. “You’ll feel some pressure as we do that.” A scratching sound, a cat at the door. He removes a bit of bone to create some space to lever the tooth up and out. The drill roars. Through the window, I can see the traffic light, hung on a wire over the intersection, being blown so far off plumb by the wind that the motorists can’t tell what colour the light is.

Braverman has the tooth out in two minutes, 35 seconds. He asks for a needle-driver, so that he can “re-approximate” the gum with some stitches. He packs the hole with a dissolving sponge and packs my cheek with dexamethasone, an anti-swelling drug.

The top tooth ought to go even faster, and it does. Braverman levers an instrument called an elevator – essentially a primitive wedge – between the tooth and the bone, grabs onto the tooth with the forceps, and, boom: done. One minute, 25 seconds. I have barely warmed up the chair for the next person. Pain? There has been none. The procedure is over so quickly as to be disorienting. This feels like cheating, the way plane travel feels like cheating, bridging distance you somehow haven’t earned.

Braverman prescribes Tylenol 3 and the antibiotic amoxicillin – a prescription I fill one floor down in the mall, before driving home. The cost is $250. There’s an industry joke about a guy who receives the bill from his oral surgeon. He’s outraged. “Three hundred dollars for 15 minutes’ work?!” The surgeon replies, “Would you rather I’d taken an hour?”

A problem arises as I try to monitor the degree of pain I experience during recovery: how do I measure it? Most doctors acknowledge that the task of calibrating pain is almost impossible, since the amount of pain people feel is ultimately subjective, varies wildly from patient to patient, and is influenced by factors such as mood and expectation. All of the pain scales thus far devised are imprecise, and in fact no one has improved on the old “On a scale of one to 10, how much does this hurt?” The pain I feel on Day 1, after the extraction, is about a 2.

On day 2, the pain climbs to three, and requires a couple of T3’s to keep it in check. I try to pay attention to the pain. It diminishes, narrowing to a little, lingering ache just below the right temple, then migrates to the hinge of my jaw. By Day 4, it is largely gone. For all intents, the right side, the Western side, is over – hardly more psychically disruptive, overall, than a bad haircut. The persistence of a very low-grade headache makes me wonder if there isn’t, just possibly, a little infection, so I start taking the antibiotics again, three a day. A week later I take a closer look at the label on the bottle: “Three a day until finished, as directed by Dr. Salzman.” Dr. Salzman? Oh yeah: the guy I sometimes see from the travel clinic down the street. I have been taking pills for altitude sickness.

EAST (The Preparation)

Canadians spent about $4 billion on alternative therapies last year, and more than two in five say they use some kind of “complementary” medicine. In most cities you can now find a holistic dentist who will manage pain with hypnoanaesthesia or herbology or acupuncture instead of burying it with sedatives or anesthetic. It would be an exaggeration, though, to say that the masses are flocking to these folks.

“People don’t like to feel pain,” says Dr. Craig Kirker, the founder of Biological Dental Investigations, a consultant at the Integrative Medicine Institute of Canada in Calgary – and the practitioner who has agreed to take me as a test subject. Kirker often uses acupuncture in his treatment of patients, usually ones who are terrified of the kind of big dental needles that deliver lidocaine (and for whom, therefore, the reduced pain felt with acupuncture is preferable to the full-throttle pain of no treatment at all). “When you’re frozen with anesthetic, you’ll feel, on a scale of one to 10, zero, maybe point-five. If you have no freezing you might feel a nine when it gets close to the nerve. With the acupuncture you feel about a four. And it’ll peak to about a six. Just once in a while. You know, just kind of like: ‘zing.’”

Regarding my own personal experiment, Kirker is curious, even keen, but offers no guarantees. No painkillers before, during or after? “If you’re just popping a tooth out, it’s not such a big deal,” he says. “If they have to touch the bone, you’re probably going to want freezing. It’s a little different kind of pain down there. But it’d be interesting.”

Kirker sets up the extraction for three weeks hence. He recommends a couple of ways I can prepare. One is a visualization exercise popularized by Jose Silva in a classic of New Age literature called You the Healer. Basically, the subject relaxes by counting backwards from 50. You imagine your hand immersed in a bucket of ice water. You leave your hand in the water for 10 minutes. Then you withdraw it, stiff and numb, and apply it to your face, where the numbness transfers to the jaw and settles deeply into the bone.

“Here’s another little tidbit,” Kirker advises by e-mail. “Get into your quiet space and have a little conversation with your wisdom teeth and jaw. It would be nice if they felt OK about parting ways as well. I know it sounds a little flighty, but I have actually run into cases where this could have prevented a lot of trouble if we had listened more carefully.”

And so Jose Silva joins my night-table stack, atop Mark Salzman’s novel Lying Awake. In that book, a nun named Sister John has been suffering from killer migraines, which we later discover are linked to epilepsy. “I try to see pain as an opportunity, not an affliction,” she explains to a neurologist. “If I surrender to it in the right way, I have a feeling of transcending my body completely. It’s a wonderful experience, but it’s spiritual, not physical.”

EAST (The Indoctrination)

The IMI, a cozy little brick building not far from downtown Calgary, is on the frontier of the field of “integrated medicine.” Its mandate is similar to Andrew Weil’s bailiwick at the University of Arizona – to get the two solitudes, Western and Eastern medicine, to meet for lunch. Mind-body medicine is about breaking the old dichotomy – not “East” or “West” but “the medicine that works at the right time for the right reason.” “The body is capable of healing itself,” the Canadian alternative-medicine pioneer Wah Jun Tze often said. IN fact, perfect health is the body’s natural state, and anything that interposes itself in that process, the mind-body tribe says, is probably hurting more than it’s helping in the long run.

I arrive the day before the scheduled extraction. My vow to do this side the Eastern way forces the direction of treatment somewhat. Kirker will work as part of a team: he’ll do the prep work and the acupuncture while a colleague named Bill Cryderman, a dentist who is on the same page with IMI philosophically, will pull the teeth. “We could have gone with an oral surgeon, but I thought you’d have a more exciting experience with Bill,” Kirker says. But before I meet Cryderman, there’s a little “tuning up” to be done.

“Here in the West we’re hunt up on the double-blind placebo study,” Kirker says as I frump into the chair next to a “bioresonance” machine called a MORA. “First we observe. We make theories. Then we test those theories, and that’s science. When Newton proposed an invisible force called gravity, they almost threw him out of the institute – but then they started testing and found out he was right.”

Craig Kirker is a nice guy. If Mr. Rogers ever decided to have a dentist on his show, Kirker would be the man he’s invite. He has a habit of telling an anecdote with a surprise ending involving spontaneous or dramatic healing, and punctuating it with “Interesting.” The MORA machine is making high-pitched squeals. Its job, Kirker says, is to detect imbalances in my body’s “harmonics” and try to kick me back into plumb. A nurse jots down the readings she’s getting. Apparently I’m a little out of balance,” “possible from the plane ride,” Kirker offers, charitably.

Next, in another room, my autonomic reflexes are tested to determine how much my body reacts to anesthetics the dentist might have if the pain proves too much to bear. Kirker puts a number of different samples in a little receptacle, one by one, and determines how they conduct energy through an acupressure point in my finger.

In still another room, I lie on a massage table with an oxygen mask over my mouth. I get a fix of ionized oxygen for 16 minutes – eight minutes of positively charged ions followed by eight minutes of negatively charged ions – which Kirker tells me has a general “detoxifying” effect and boosts my immune system. (If you could take a picture of the energy field around my body, he says, you’d see that after the oxygen had saturated the cells, the energy field would have expanded to Michelin Man dimensions.)

Then we add light. From the hood of a “biophoton machine” poised over my scalp, tiny red pulsing diodes send light energy into my body, filling me, Kirker says, with qi energy. A magnetic ring around my ankles catches energy that would apparently otherwise be lost, and sends it back into my body.

Finally Kirker puts a tiny vial of liquid in the “honeycomb” – a device that takes the frequency signature of whatever you put in it and feeds it through the lights. The liquid is a homeopathic remedy created from a flower essence – an ultradilute solution of dew collected from a flower petal in a meadow in Western Canada just as the light of dawn struck it – selected for me by an IMI staff “intuitive” named Iris.

“We’re working on you from all levels,” Kirker says.

Now, there is plenty in New Age medicine to be suspicious of. In my suitcase is a thick folder full of articles that take the air out of exactly the sort of thing we’ve been doing. But I haven’t read them yet. I’m highly motivated to believe. What’s going on here seems nutty, but my job is to take my own cynicism out of the equation at least until my teeth are handed to me in a sack. No theories, no baggage, just direct experience.

As he finishes the tune-up, Kirker tells the story of his own drift from hard science to the speculative fringe. How, almost as a lark, he played along with the leader of a workshop called “Body Symptoms as a Spiritual Process,” and allowed the possibility that symptoms happen for a reason and that the painful kink in his neck was just his body’s subconscious trying to tell him something. (The kink vanished.) And how, a while later, a naturopath using a similar technique managed to cure him of chronic abdominal pain. As far as extra-normal talent goes, for that matter, Kirker’s associate Iris, the “medical intuitive,” has a reputation for being downright psychic. Sometimes she turns up in pictures of gatherings she wasn’t even at. And here she is now, poking her head into the treatment room. “Will you be there tomorrow?” I ask.

“Not in body,” she says.

“Then how will I know if you’re around?”

“I’m a little clumsy,” Iris says. “If somebody knocks something over, that’s me.”

EAST (The Extraction)

Bill Cryderman’s workplace feels less like a dentist’s office than like the “pioneers” wing of a museum of natural history. Water rills down a slate waterfall and trickles lazily into a catch basin. Fire blazes in a hearth. A pair of snowshoes sits propped in a wall niche. And overhead, positioned so that its ribs fill the field of vision of the prone patient, is a ‘40s-era wide-bodied wooden canoe.

Cryderman himself is a small man with a sort of jocular confidence. “Good to meet you,” he said, emerging from behind a partition and pumping my hand. “Are you all psyched?”

I am lying in his high-tech dental chair. With a low hum, parts of it move to adjust to my contours. Some money falls out of my pocket onto the floor. “That’s the automatic coin-remover,” Cryderman says.

He draws himself in close, trying to gauge my level of trepidation. “You know we have a backup, right?” He means lidocaine. “It’s just for your mental security. I don’t want to give you a back door. This is going to work.”

It’s hard to tell whether Cryderman’s as certain as he seems to be, or as certain as he needs to be fore me to believe him.

There comes a point – and actors and speakers must feel this – when apprehension becomes a bigger burden than the thing you’re apprehensive about, and you actually wish yourself forward in time to meet the event. I felt that way this morning. But now I’m in full retreat, my stomach in coils.

For the past week, I’ve been practicing the ice-bucket exercise. In theory, I should be able to effect an actual physiological change. In other words, I’m not just fooling myself into thinking the area’s growing numb – it IS growing numb. Neurons generate electrochemical charges that actually block the pain messages coming back from the brain. In theory.

Craig Kirker is beside me. He seems quietly stoked. He is the pit crew, the doula, overseeing the acupuncture. Carefully, he hooks up tiny needles to acupressure points in my right ear, left hand, left food and face. Some of these needles are basically just electrodes, through which a mild current (called, oddly, a tsunami) will run from a machine called, unpromisingly, an Accu-O-Matic. There’s very little sensation: the needles hardly feel as if they’ve penetrated the skin. This could easily be a total ruse. “Now I’m just going to dial it up,” Kirker says. “The frequency you’re on right now is for healing.”

What am I doing here? No, really, literally, what am I doing here? Trying, in a sense, to reprogram the body. Pain is the fire alarm of a healthy, functioning nervous system. So the question becomes, can we make the mind aware that, yes, we’ve heard the alarm, we’re aware of the fire – but it’s a controlled burn, a regeneration burn, and therefore there’s no need to ring anymore. Can we tell it that? And will it listen?

“Ok,” Kirker says, “now start counting yourself down.”

I close my eyes and move slowly backwards from 50, breathing deeply, rhythmically. The idea is to slow down the brain activity and drift toward an alpha state, where the right brain, the creative, intuitive side, predominates.

“We’re going to just allow the body to numb,” Kirker says, “and we’re going to give the release to the teeth. We’re going to allow them to leave, and we’re going to allow the process to take place without invasion. The tissues will adapt if they need to, and healing will begin to take place as soon as the tooth is gone. We’re going to do the same visualization we’ve been doing, with the ice water, but we’re also going to draw our consciousness back from the body. To do that we’re going to go up some stairs in the mind. Only a few stairs until we reach a landing. Now look back and see your body in the chair.”

I can see it. The body. It’s me but it isn’t. It looks like an exhumed mariner from the Franklin Expedition, mummied in ice. The eyes are buried like bulbs under the skin, the whole left half of the face is crusted over with thick, white frost. This guy is dead.

Kirker reinforces the image with another. There’s a thermostat in the wall. The thermostat will be used to put the jaw into a deep freeze. At “1” the jaw is already numb. “When we turn the dial to the number 2, the numbness deepens, becomes more pervasive. Now turn the dial to 3. Turn it to 4. Deepening almost to the very tip of the root, now. Five. It’s starting to feel almost like stone. No sensation. Numb and very dense. You’ll still feel pressure, but nothing other than pressure.”

Image-making. In repressive regimes, the room where victims have been tortured has often been given a nickname. In the Philippines it has been called “the production room.” In South Vietnam “the cinema room.” In Chile “the blue-lit stage.” The very thing that manufactures and heightens sensations of pain – the projection booth of the mind – can be recruited to do propaganda for the good guys. In theory.

Somewhere across the room Cryderman is laughing. He and the receptionist strike up the Johnny Cash tune “Ring of Fire.”

I can hear things being unwrapped, instruments.

“Breathing in numbness,” Kirker says, “breathing out tension.”

A machine issuing three tones: GEG…GEG…

Cryderman is standing, for better leverage.

“Bruce is wired for sound,” he says, surveying the electrodes on my face.” “Second floor: lingerie.”

The top tooth is lying at an angle, like a newspaper box that’s been tipped over and frozen into a snowdrift. “It’s pointing a little sideways, but it’s manageable,” Cryderman says. His assistant, Monica, is at his flank. “I’m going to apply some pressure now around the upper wisdom tooth.”

You’ll feel pressure, but no pain.

Extracting a wisdom tooth is like prying an oyster off a rock. You’re pulling ligaments away from the bone, and attached to each ligament are nerves.

“Try and shift your lower jaw towards Monica,” Cryderman says. “Good for you.” The man is relaxed. He’s selling this. A little probing, a little digging – pressure, as promised, but pressure is not pain. Stone cold, bone numb.

“I’m going to try a straight elevator,” Cryderman says. “That was too easy.”

So far, so good. The dentist is smooth. He’s in there working on my mouth, and I haven’t really felt much of…

Mother of God.

Cryderman has leaned on the tool as if it were a tire iron. There’s a sick-making twisting, each sucker being yarded off the rock like snot till it pops free. Painwise, that was a six at least. Or was it? The lateral motion was what got to me, that unfamiliar sensation I interpreted as pain.

“You OK?” Cryderman says. “Yes? He’s going to be fine, then. You are going to be just fine.”

Pain is a private experience. To feel it even for a moment is to glimpse how it must, for chronic suffers, be a brutally estranging force. The human being is affiliative by nature, constantly reaching out; but the human being in pain is isolated, constantly looking in, drawing on reserves, spinning down to a hidden centre.

Quell the fear. Most of pain is fear. Breath in numbness, breathe out tension. Hey, this isn’t so bad. On the other hand, if the same procedure were happening in a different circumstance – the Tower of London in the 18th century, say – my subjective experience would likely be different.

“Hang in there, buddy,” Cryderman says. “Good show. So, we’re done there.” The top tooth is out. In seven minutes. Not exactly a slow float in the shallow end of the kidney pool, but manageable, surprisingly so. One down, one to go.

If I could somehow have known what was to follow, I might have bailed right there – paid up and been on the next plane home.

“I’m going to enlist your aid here, OK?” he says. “I want to control the bleeding in the lower left. I want you to imagine that the blood supply to that corner of your mouth is delivered by a garden hose. I want you to turn the tap off. Imagine yourself turning it right off. Cinch it down tight and shut the blood supply off to that wisdom tooth area. That’s it. Just imagine that you’ve stopped it altogether.”

Most of the tooth is covered by a crown of skin, which will have to go. Cryderman picks up a scalpel. Its blade is as long as my thumb.

“For all I know, this is the part that will bother you more than the actual tooth removal.” He pushes the blade in deep, drawing it down nearly a quarter of an inch and all the way forward, creating two flaps he then peels back on either side to expose the bone. It feels like a scraping, a scouring, a beating of rugs, uncomfortable for sure, but by now I have defined pain down – anything that doesn’t involve twisting is OK by me – and I let him go on.

“So we’re going to make some noise just like for a filling.”

Constant suction. Cryderman needs a point of leverage to get the tooth out of there. He starts to drill. Now he is digging a little trench in the bone. What helps stave off panic is that the drill, I discover, is preferable to the elevator, whose sudden, stump-uprooting action creates a more mentally vivid and therefore more flinchworthy sensation.

I can feel him moving back there. He’s a long way back, so far back that maybe he’s working on somebody else’s mouth. The mouth of the dead guy, Franklin’s man in the ice.

The tooth is butted up to the next molar too tightly. It’s not going to come out in one piece.

Cryderman starts to drill. He burrs down from the top of the tooth at an angle, the sound of a jet plane on takeoff heard through earmuffs. He brushes the pulp – a zing of pain, electric, a fist flying open. “Hang in there,” he says. “We’re making great headway.”

Whenever the rational mind is activated, there is suffering. Cryderman can tell when I am in my rational mind. He knows the circuit is open, two people receiving each other. He’s talking to me now, engaging directly. He knows I’ve gotten off the lift and am taking the stairs, and he is helping me up those stairs.

I fall back on the Jose Silva technique. The trick, Silva figured, is to concretize the pain, make it a physical thing. The right brain, which creates pain sensations, deals with subjective constructions. It can’t deal with things. So once you’ve given pain dimensions, you’ve taken it out of the right brain and put it into the left, which feels nothing. Concretize the pain. It is the shape of the sun, the sudden weight of a wheelbarrow full of rocks.

“Thanks for opening so wide,” Cryderman says. “I had a little girl just before you, and I keep wanting to say, ‘Bruce is being a big helper.’”

With a loud crack the corner of the tooth shears off. The idea is to plug the elevator in and try to level the tooth out. But again, it refuses to budge.

Strategy changes. Cryderman and his assistant have a little conference. Kirker, who has been down at my feet massaging the acupressure points, pops up to have a look. “OK, let’s try it,” Cryderman says finally. “We’ll just go really slow and see how we do.” He begins to drill straight down into the pulp chamber of the tooth. If lidocaine were ever going to be needed, it’s now. I can feel the burr going in, but the pain is more a frisson than a jolt, no worse than some of the bad dentistry I had as a kid, nothing I can’t handle. If the other “pain” sense cues were absent – the scraping of the scalpel, the cracking of the teeth, the smell of burning pulp – there would be almost no sensation. At intervals Cryderman stops drilling and tries levering. I can hear myself making whale sounds. “Let’s give him a rubber bite-block – that should improve his ability to stabilize his own jaw,” Cryderman says. “I think that’s going to help you, Bruce, because I’m torquin’ on ya.”

The roots of the tooth have grown together into a kind of monoroot, which means Cryderman will have to bore down almost all the way down to the jawbone before the tooth splits. Then all that will remain is to slip an elevator into the crack, twist it, and the two pieces should split like cordwood, free to be lifted out. In theory.

Light blooms periodically as Cryderman’s headlamp beam passes over my eyelids. I can feel tight skin near my temples where the tracks of tears have dried.

The steady trickle of the waterfall. Kirker has turned up the current on the electrodes on my face so I will feel a reassuring buzz, but I don’t feel a thing.

A hazy notion is born and forms and tries to take hold. It’s the sense that there are two worlds in opposition – the world I normally live in, the grasping world, self-centred and busy and messy, my brain full of way too much pop-cultural arcane; and the other world I am beginning to glimpse, a letting-go world, a place of acceptance and submission and yes, faith, where the real show is happening beyond conscious awareness, your biochemistry sensitive to toxins at almost an atomic level, dead relatives along with you for the ride and every organic thing pulsing at an almost audible frequency, giving off a visible light. A place that, once you decided to live in it permanently, would probably make the other world look like the restroom of a gas station next to the beach.

How we experience pain, eventually, falls into the preverbal realm, or possibly postverbal – casting us back into the frustrating limitations of infanthood or forward to the final mumblings in the vapour tent before the ventilator is turned off English has no words for it. At best our descriptions are crude approximations. Pain is the original language, not what the body speaks to the world but what the world speaks to the body: you are still alive.

Cryderman is almost entirely through the tooth. “Hang on,” he says. “I think I’m going to have some good news for you pretty quickly.”

The tooth splits with a crack. “OK, let’s see what we’ve got.” The two pieces should lift out easily. But they don’t. They are fused to the bone. Akylosis. Cryderman will have to pry each out individually.

At this point let me collapse the story. Plenty of things happen in my mouth, and plenty of things happen in my mind, not least of which is that I adopt a new strategy, leaning not on images, but on fact (“Look, this is the way it was done for thousands of years”) and affirmations (“The only way out is through”). Cryderman describes a required manoeuvre to Monica as a “dipsy-doodle.” He tells her to be a little more aggressive. At a certain point, I find myself talking to the tooth: “Let go, pal.” The tooth and I have fairly clear communication going. We are staring at each other across the table of a bad Mexican restaurant on the night, after 25 years together, that it all ends. The tooth says, “Why are you doing this to me? What have I ever done to you?” It senses an impure motive. This is not a diseased tooth. It wasn’t causing any trouble. Strictly speaking it did not need to come out. Was the thrill gone? Was there another, younger tooth in the picture? No. I was doing this for the money.

“OK, Bruce,” Cryderman says. “You made it.”

Sixty-five minutes after he began to tackle it, the last piece of this tooth is out. Cryderman’s face is filmed with sweat. “Holy mackerel,” he says. He puts a couple of stitches in. I don’t feel them. I am floating on endorphins.

This has turned out to be one of the most stubborn extractions Cryderman has ever undertaken.

“OK, I’m not ordering anything with sun-dried tomatoes on it this weekend,” Cryderman says “Monica is destroyed on sun-dried tomatoes now. Possibly forever.”

In his byzantine excavations, Cryderman managed to miss the major nerve that runs under the wisdom teeth – if he’d hit it I doubt any amount of acupuncture or guided imagery would have prevented me from jumping out of the chair. But even so, this was a pretty sensational bit of trauma. And with acupressure, and what amounts to positive thinking, I was able to endure it. the dissociation from my own body in the chair – not “astral travel,” but something closer to a state of light hypnosis, suggestibility with awareness – worked. “Turning off the tap” worked. Cryderman removed only two gauzes’ worth of blood – way less than there should have been for a wound that size. A dental patient who’s not completely frozen will typically feel pain the moment the drill penetrates the enamel, moves into the dentin and brushes the pulp. Cryderman drilled right through the pulp. “That,” says Kirker, “is like doing surgery.”

Here’s the truth. I am not a tough guy. I cry at track meets. And I’m easily distracted. A stronger person with a more disciplined mind could almost certainly enjoy something close to a pain-free experience.

“Western medicines definitely have their place,” Kirker says as we make our way back to the IMI in his minivan. “They’re very useful for some things. It’s hard to beat a good nerve block.” I know what he means. Strictly in terms of quantifiable pain, the Western side of this experiment “won” hands-down. But the Eastern side was a lot more interesting.

No doubt Silva made some mistakes, and Iris misses the barn some days, and Deepak Chopra bends some facts to fit his myths, and a lot of the “Kirlian photography” people you see at science fairs are charlatans, waving the Polaroid over a 60-watt bulf before handing you back an aureole-ringed picture of yourself. But somewhere in the fog is the right way forward – to a future where doctors are paid even if they don’t make a referral or prescribe a pill, and patients are encouraged to do all they can for themselves, and Western and Eastern medicine collapse into something we call ‘using what works.’ And pain still exists though we all start thinking about if differently, trying to answer the question of why it dogs us from a little further upstream.

The healing curve on this left side is steep. Kirker gives me a couple more sessions of the oxygen and the lights. He makes a liquid homeopathic out of the pieces of my own tooth. He feeds into the bioresonance machine he’s using on me the signature of healthy tissues from pigs raised on an organic farm in Germany. (Using healthy human flesh would no doubt present, um, ethical issues.) There is very little swelling, which surprises him. “When you touch bone,” he says, “almost invariably you swell up like a chipmunk.”

The night of the operation there’s a little low pain, maybe a Two, not enough to prevent me from sleeping. The next morning it is gone.

On Monday, Kirker and I shake hands goodbye.

“Oh. Iris phoned,” he says. “I asked her if she was there. ‘Oh yeah,’ she said. ‘Dragged on awhile, eh?’”

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail
Court Jester

Court Jester

Featured Profiles Sport

Can squash have an enfant terrible? Oh yeah. Meet Jonathon Power

From SATURDAY NIGHT, October 1998

In November of 1993, at the world team squash championships in Karachi, Pakistan, Canada drew Scotland in the first playoff round. But when the team bus arrived at the courts, Jonathon Power, the nineteen-year-old prodigy from Toronto, wasn’t on it. Coach Gene Turk tracked Power down at his hotel, where he was still sleeping, and brought him to the stretching area, where other players were warming up. Power was there in body but his head was far, far away. He stood, heavy-lidded, in a tearaway basketball tracksuit. “What do you want me to do?” he asked Turk. “Well, stretch!” Turk said. Power bent over to try to touch his toes. A cigarette pack fell out of one jacket pocket and a lighter fell out of the other. A few feet away, limbering up on the mat, the world champion, Jansher Khan of Pakistan, watched this little bit of vaudeville. He couldn’t believe it. He was looking at a clown.

He was looking at the future of squash.

Team members today tell that story with bemusement, partly because they know how things turned out. Four years later, Power became the first North American ever to beat the long-reigning Khan, and created the tantalizing possibility that he might one day tame his demons and become world champion.

But mostly the story circulates because it captures Jonathon Power in amber. He is not as other men. Or at least not any other elite professional athlete.

When he walked into the office of Graham Carter, a top Toronto money manager, a year ago, Power projected an oddly contradictory image: the worldly naïf. “Here was a kid who had had no real advisers for his whole career, and the guy is number three in the world, and prior to six weeks ago he’d beaten the number one six times in a row,” observed Carter. Like those eccentric math geniuses who tackle complex theorems all day but have trouble boiling an egg, Power did one thing awesomely well but was almost comically deficient in the routine demands of a professional life. He didn’t have a credit card. He didn’t even have an OHIP card. He’d plied his trade in sixty countries, logging hundreds of thousands of air miles, but had never bothered to get on a frequent-flyer program.

What kind of sponsorship deals did he have, Carter wanted to know. None, Power said. Equipment? No. Shoes? He bought his own. McDonald’s had approached him about doing some promotions, but no deals had been finished. There had almost been a racquet agreement, but that fell through after Power left the court audibly slagging the racquet that had let him down. The rep for the company happened to be in the stands watching, and the net morning, he called to say he would not be doing business with Jonathon Power, like, ever.

This wasn’t going to be easy.

WHEN most people think of squash – if they think of it at all – it’s as a pastime enjoyed by toffee-nosed Ivy League seniors, captains of industry, TV psychiatrists. Or just dorks who spend the summers of their youth bouncing balls off the garage and never outgrew the fascination.

People who actually play squash (a fairly small number), or watch it (an even smaller number), have a model in their mind of how top squash players look and act, what they stand for and where they live. The model is probably someone very like the current world number on, Peter Nicol of Scotland. Small in stature – for squash is a punishing game, and only lightweights can withstand the pounding on the joints over time. Gentlemanly – for squash’s British traditions stress fair play, and historically, exchanges between players and referees would not have sounded out of place in the Old Bailey. (“Let.” “No let.” “Appeal.” “Sustained.”) High focused – for squash, which has been likened to speed chess, is a game of infinite combinations and angles and moves and countermoves and perpetual calculation of risk. Supremely fit – for squash is a game of heavy aerobic demands. Deferential to their coaches – for squash is almost a tradesman’s pursuit, best learned at the hip of an experienced mentor who can groove you in.

Jonathan Power defeats all the stereotypes so completely you’d be tempted to conclude he was dropped into the game by some lesser god just to shake it up, the way John McEnroe landed in tennis in the seventies like a hound on the kitchen table.

He is quite a big man – six feet, 175 – and he seems, eerily, to get bigger the moment he steps on a squash court, the way some actors look bigger on stage.

On court, wearing his trademark red bandana, Power calls to mind the young Christopher Walken in the Russian-roulette scene in The Deer Hunter, where Walken sits zombified in the Saigon gambling den with a gun to his own head, somehow absolutely certain the bullet has the other guy’s name on it.

He is not the scion of some wealthy industrialist, who grew up in the shade of a single private club. He was a military brat, born in Comox, B.C., whose sports-fanatic dad was director of athletics at Canadian military bases and took a fierce interest in the physical education of his kids as he moved them from town to town.

He did not go to an Ivy League school. He didn’t go to school at all beyond grade eleven – he dropped out. Having won national junior titles since the age of ten, and having glimpsed the life that awaits an international squash celebrity when his father sent him to England to train with the coach of the great Pakistani champion Jahangir Khan, he saw no point in waiting to turn pro.

And he did not, having turned pro, instantly settle into a mature, ambassadorial role. In 1990, when he was sixteen and just breaking into the circuit, he lost in the first round of a tournament in San Francisco – an unthinkable outcome. Power wasn’t to be seen for the rest of the week. He hadn’t gone home; he’d drowned his miseries in the local rave scene, conducting private research into how many drugs and how much alcohol an athlete can ingest without its affecting his equilibrium on the dance floor. Squash seemed the last thing on his mind. But two days later he showed up for a tournament in Denver and made it to the semis.

Few players accompanied Power into the night. But everyone watched, a little bit amazed, as the bell-bottomed boy went down the rabbit hole and popped back up at match time ready to play. The night before the semifinals of the 1994 Alberta Open, Power for forty-five minutes of sleep. He won.

From the Delphic, on-court utterances (“If you choke, you’re a dead man!”) to the basketball slang that so bamboozles European umpires (“Hey, double-pump, ref!”), he earned a reputation as squash’s Yorick. Or perhaps squash’s Howie Mandel. At one tournament, Power walked past an umpire and said, by way of greeting, “Whose life are you going to ruin today?” In the Qatar Open final in 1997, after Power contested a call by the strict Irish referee Jack Allen, Allen leveled a long gaze at the Canadian. “Mr. Power, please do not talk back to me.” Power feigned surprise, raised his palms, put on his best puppy-dog face, then said, quietly, “Jack, I was only having some fun.” The crowd was in his pocket.

You’d be tempted to call Jonathon Power “anti-establishment,” but that would imply a firm position on the other side of the equation. Power isn’t anti-anything. He just is. “He doesn’t do too much to please other people,” admits his father, John, a top player himself and currently the squash coach at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. In interviews, Power has not tended to censor his thoughts – to the delight of the media and the despair of the people looking out for him. After he publicly cut up then world champion Jansher Khan after a loss, Power’s coach, Mike Way, took him aside and said, “What, you wanna give the guy more armor?” Power didn’t particularly care. In 1997, when Power accused Khan of failing to clear back from the wall to allow Power to hit it, yet masterfully hiding the fractions from the inexperienced referees, Khan was reported to have replied: “I never block players. The referee can see everything. All players have this problem. That’s how squash is. I think it’s more of an excuse for losing.” Power figured Khan must have been misquoted, because, he said, “he can’t form the sentences that quick.”

Last fall at the Qatar International, the night before his semi-final match against Jansher Khan, a man named Ali Al Fardan took Power aside and made him a deal. Al Fardan, one of the most prominent jewelers in the Middle East, was the tournament’s chief sponsor. “If you beat Jansher tomorrow, and then go on to win this tournament,” Al Fardan said, “any ring in my store is yours.” (Power had endeared himself to Ali the year before at a party at Al Fardan’s lavish penthouse. Al Fardan had arranged for a belly dancer to perform. This caused palpable tension among the guests in the strict Muslim country. The players themselves, unsure of protocol, were keeping a dignified distance. The party was stiffing. Then Power got up and started to boogie. All those years of raving finally paid off. He faced the dancer and slowly gyrated to the rhythm she set. He languorously undid his shirt a button at a time. He was in his element. He saved the party.)

With the ring on the line, Power did beat Khan, and then beat Nicol in the final, and Ali Al Fardan honored his bargain. Power showed up at the jewelery store the next morning with a friend. Al Fardan brought out a couple of display boxes and laid them on the counter. Power conferred with his friend, who knew a little bit about jewelery appraisal. Then he pointed to a ring of white gold; he thought he saw Al Fardan flinch just a little. The ring was going, in that market, for about $12,00 (U.S.). Power paid the tax on it and took the ring home. He put it in a safety-deposit box and promptly booked a couple of airline tickets to Paris. He cooked up a story about having to play some matches there, and then he called his long-time girlfriend, Sita Schumann, and asked if she wouldn’t mind joining him. He gave her the engagement ring by the Seine. They will marry this summer.

Had he not met Sita in a Toronto bar in 1991, and had he not turned on the charm when he needed to, things might have worked out quite differently for Power. Sita’s influence has been a key plot point in his life, in the estimation of many who know them both. He’s still unlikely to be mistaken for Prince Philip, but Jonathon Power circa 1998 is a demonstrably mellower version of the Jonathon Power of even a few years ago. “He’s cleaned up his act a hell of a lot – the drugs and so on – because he knows Sita won’t tolerate that – says former national junior coach Stuart Dixon. “She’s also given him some goals, like, ‘Jon, you can be world champion.’ And he’s starting to believe it.”

After that first formal meeting with Power in Toronto, Graham Carter, the money manager, agreed to take Power on – practically pro bono, initially. He called up his friend Wade Arnott, the hockey agent. “How’d you like to try your luck with a squash player?” he asked. And so began the construction of a crude infrastructure around the young man who had somehow gotten so far without one. Carter and Power have become fast friends, with Carter assuming an additional role as a kind of financial tutor. They took out an insurance policy to save Power’s bacon in the event of a career-ending injury. Carter set up a holding company called Top Seed Inc. to catch the endorsement money, when it comes.

If corporate-sponsorship decisions were made on native ability alone, there’d be no discussion and no worries. Blank cheques would quietly be written on mahogany desks. Power is a unique talent. Even fellow players who don’t like the gamesmanship and just generally find it hard to get around his big backside when he sticks it out as an impediment, doff their hat before his skills. “He does things with a racquet that just make you want to play squash,” acknowledges Nicol.

When Power was a young boy and the family was living in Montreal, his father would pull him out of school and they’d drive to Toronto to watch the top players who were coming through for Tournaments. Thus did Jonathon watch and model and mimic – his preferred method of learning. He soaked up Australian Brett Martin and Kiwi Ross Norman and the Pakistani Jahangir Khan, but in the end developed a style all his own.

The difference between a top club player and a Jonathon Power is hard to appreciate just by watching each of them hit. Oddly, framed by a court thirty-two feet long by twenty-one feet wide, really mediocre players can seem more dynamic than the pros. The dentists and accountants – guys with barely reconstructed tennis or racquetball swings who do scary things like turn and play the ball directly at their opponent saying “Coming around!” – are obviously working out there. They skid on their own sweat and sport raspberries on their naked butts in the shower room afterwards.

The top pros, by contrast, hardly seem to be running at all. They just shark around the “T” in the middle of the court, drifting, finning, conserving energy. From some angles, they look like a couple of clever-bearing chefs hustling around each other in a kitchen. The game looks simple at this level. He ball seems peppy and the court looks small and easily coverable. Tight, compact swings drive balls off the front wall and down the side walls, making a sound like flies being swatted. The chief virtue of the best squash shots is not speed but “length,” whereby the ball is hit so that the second bounce, if you let it come, lands near the junction of the floor and back wall – and from the gallery this looks perfectly innocuous because pros take the ball early, or when they don’t they can still usually dig it out from the back, and so the point goes on and on. No flashy smashes or half-volleys or aces: just the slow, calculated working of the opponent out of position, sitting up an eventual loose ball that can, with luck, be put away.

Power has limited patience, so he’s not inclined to let points drag on. And this is what’s most remarkable about him as a squash player. In a sport in which you’re not supposed to be able to win a point quickly, he can.

“He has the remarkable ability to hit a shot more than one way,” says Mike Way. Many of Power’s strokes start off looking the same. Then, like a baseball pitcher, he directs the ball, with astonishing accuracy and touch, at the last second with a crack of the wrist. “What amazes me is when I watch him send the top players in the world in the wrong direction,” says Gene Turk. “That should never happen at that level. His short game is so good, players must feel they need to get a jump on the ball, so they make a commitment.” And the moment they commit, Power goes the other way. To avoid being cartoonishly wrong-footed, anyone playing Power must come to a complete stop, then start again when the ball is struck—an exhausting proposition over the course of a match. Unlike other top-twenty players, some of whom have crippling workout regimes, Power has never been very fit. But until recently he hasn’t needed to be because he himself reads his opponents like airplane fiction, and because, as British player Tim Garner puts it, “Normally his opponent does four times as much running as he does.”

Few squash players have ever been as dominant as Power is when he’s on. Or have self-destructed as badly as Power has when he’s off. Often he has roared through to the semis of a tournament without dropping a game, only to sink quickly in the cream of the draw with brainlock. “When he gets into trouble, he has a tendency to do one of two things,” says Colin McQuillan, who covers squash for the London Times. “He gets petulant, or he stops.” In the 1998 Commonwealth Games final – probably, because of the live BBC-TV coverage, the most widely watched squash match in history – Power seemed to be cruising to victory when a couple of calls went against him. His opponent, Peter Nicol, started playing tougher and clawing his way back into the match. Power began to cave. At a game-break, fellow Canadian Graham Ryding went over to speak to his teammate, who sat at courtside looking uninterested. “Don’t be such a dick,” Ryding urged. “Don’t let him do this to you. You’re the number-one player in the world.” Briefly reinvigorated, Power played better in the next game. But then so did Nicol, to take the match. At one point Power threw his racquet at a wall in disgust, missing Nicol’s face by inches.

He comes as a boxed set: the virtuoso and the drama queen. And in remote corners of the squash-literate world, they love it all. Next to Jansher Khan, Power may have the biggest following on the circuit. He is routinely asked for his autograph in countries where the sport is appreciated, if not necessarily played, by the masses – the Middle East, North Africa, and the Indian subcontinent.

The selling of squash at the professional level seems to be predicated on the hope that if non-players could be seduced into watching this game, they’d be bitten. Hence, exhibitions and tournaments are often held on portable courts set up in some of the strangest, most exotic, most public places in all of sport. A downtown square in Brussels. Grand Central Station. The Palladium dance club. The lower concourse of the World Financial Center. And most spectacularly, the Giza plateau, where last year players fought to keep their concentration as camels moaned in the darkness beyond. Egyptians prayed toward Mecca on courtside rugs, the pyramids loomed through the front wall as the lights went down, and 5,500 fans went nuts in the stands for the local boy, Ahmed Barada.

If he had been born in Cairo, or Karachi, there’s little doubt Power would already be a wealthy man.

The young Egyptian, Barada, to whom Power has never lost, appear on TV there more frequently than the test pattern, bombs around Cairo in a Mercedes, has seen his face on an Egyptian commemorative stamp, has reportedly received hundreds of thousands of dollars in government bonuses for good performances at home, and is one of only a handful of people to have President Mubarek’s private phone number. (Barada is, in Power’s estimation, “just a little shit.”)

Jansher Khan, as an employee of the quasi-state-run Pakistan International Airlines, draws a salary of about $1,000 (U.S.) a month – enough to support four families in Pakistan. (“You can’t be more boring than Jansher,” Power told me a year ago. “He’s no ambassador. He doesn’t really talk to anybody. He arrives at a tournament with his entourage and as soon as it’s over he wants to go home. He’s singlehandedly destroyed the game, I’d say.”)

“If Jonathan moved to England he’s be a millionaire, no question,” says Tammie Sangster, the local rep for Head racquets. Prince, the racquet and apparel company that sponsors Peter Nicol, has said it would jump to the pump if Power transplanted himself, like tennis player Greg Rusedski, to Britain – a bigger squash market. There would also be tax advantages to an offshore move. “Squash players are in an almost unique position to do it, since they’re legitimately out of the country for more than six months of the year,” Carter says. “Until now, he hasn’t really been earning enough money to justify [moving], but he will be if he keeps winning tournaments.”

Power is already a kind of de facto international citizen. He rents a flat in Amsterdam where he hangs out during the European squash season—our winter season – because it’s a convenient halfway point between tournament sites and because “I can make way more money there from exhibitions.” I once watched him trying to settle a hotel bill in Cairo in American currency. He thumbed through his wallet: Dutch guilders, pounds, sterling, Canadian dollars, Egyptian pounds – no U.S. bucks. But Power appears to have no intention of grounding himself outside Canada for good. “I like Toronto,” he says, simply.

Carter believes there is money to be made in North American – by exploiting the U.S. corporate market, doing exhibition matches, speaking engagements, clinics, and so on. Whether there’s serious money here remains to be seen. The powerful American sports-marketing reflex has been unresponsive to squash. McDonald’s did come through with a smallish deal requiring that Power wear the golden arches on that red bandana for every professional match he plays, and a couple of equipment companies now give him free gear, but you won’t see Power announcing plans to go to Disneyland, or slaking his thirst with Gatorade on TV. Big squash tournaments in North America tend to be underwritten by the likes of Rolex or Mercedes-Benz. Power seems a better fit with Airwalk or Jones Soda. Recently, Carter and Arnott sat down with John Nimick, head of the Professional Squash Association in Boston, and raised the question: How can we leverage Jonathon to grow the game while at the same time doing what’s best for Jon?

Carter and Arnott could well make the argument – and no doubt they have – that Jonathon Power is the best thing to have happened to squash since a couple of British public-school boys (or so a prevailing theory holds) invented the modern game when they punctured the ball they were hitting against the school wall and dampened its bounce. Squash needs Power. It has tended to be a boom-and-bust game, enjoying robust health in the seventies and early eighties, then tumbling into a recessionary decade or so when key promoters left the sport, as Power puts it, “people got tired of seeing the same Pakistani guy winning year after year.”

Indeed, you can count the dominant players of the last thirty-five years – Khan, Khan, Hunt, Barrington – on one hand. Squash is desperate for some juicy competition at the top. Now, in the Scot and the Canadian, it has it. The polite, straight, indefatigable little steam engine versus the charismatic shot-maker. Peter Nicol and Jonathon Power, stewards of a rivalry that seems destined to hold and deepen until one of them blows a knee or knocks the other’s block off.

At this year’s U.S. Open at Boston’s genteel Harvard Club, Power roared through to the finals and ran into a confident Nicol, who was feeling he had finally solved Power’s game. In a glass count incongruously plunked down in the middle of a room where heads of state sometimes dine, Power was on (for him) his most excellent behavior. Whether for the benefit of his backers in the crowd – Carter, Arnott, John Power, untold would-be sponsors – or just to see what would happen if he bridled his id, he was practically a gentleman out there. Of course he couldn’t resist a few theatrics. After one questionable call, he straightened up, in mock anguish, with a sharp intake of breath, as if he’d taken a gutshot from the calvaryman on the mesa. The crowd was on Nicol’s side. “Stop wining!” someone snapped when Power queried another call, and the remark drew a little splash of applause. “I was hoping the Scotch boy would win,” one distinguished member told an acquaintance in the locker room after the match,” because the other boy was a pain in the ass.”

Being the “bad boy of squash” is a little like being the bad boy of the philharmonic wind section. The refugees from the arena-rock crowd are going to love you, but you can’t expect the long-time subscribers who came for The Nutcracker to roll over easily. In that Commonwealth Games final, Nicol beat Power in four games. The first three were epic. The fourth was over in twelve minutes. “The one thing that gets me about Jonathon is, I don’t think he has respect for anyone,” Nicol told me last fall. “I see him as being so close to the finished article, and yet so far away because of that. He could be fantastic for the sport, practically the savior of the sport. But in the end he always fucks it up.”

LAST summer, I watched Power on court at the Toronto Athletic Club. He had come to do drills and spar with Graham Ryding, the number two Canadian He was coming off a disappointing showing in a major tournament, having been forced yet again to pull out with an injury. A little square ball machine sat in the front corner of the court puffing out squash balls to Power’s backhand, and Power put down drop shot after drop shot. “Two years ago there’s no way he’d have done this for thirty minutes,” his coach Mike Way said quietly, referring to the tedious drill. Power overheard this remark. “Two years ago I wouldn’t have been in the club for thirty minutes,” he said.

Power was considered pretty much uncoachable for much of his career. Buddha himself – teacher of those who cannot be taught – could not have taught him. “Do you think anybody off the court can tell you what you might be doing wrong?” Way asked Power once. “No,” Power replied.

Way has described his past coaching style as “eggshell coaching” – volunteering suggestions only at opportune times,” waiting until the exact right moment and then planting the seed. He has compared his charge to Andre Agassi, which would make Way Nick Bollettieri, Agassi’s long-time coach. “Nick made Agassi’s practice sessions shorter and shorter to keep the boredom factor down,” Way told me. But now Way was being more directive. Almost stern. And Power was paying attention to every word – as if he had suddenly clued in to what’s at stake.

For years, Power was far and away the best Canadian player. Now, slowly, Graham Ryding is closing the gap between them. “Graham always worried Jonathon,” John Power told me last year. Jonathon is a better athlete, but in some ways Graham is a better squash player. Technically, Jonathon can compensate with strength and imagination.” Ryding knows Power’s game better than anyone. If Ryding has been good for Power, to push him, and Power has been good for Ryding, to pull him, Power and Ryding have been good for the five or six players who are drafting behind both of them and coming up fast.

Peter Nicol is clearly improving. Having lost to Power six straight times, Nicol then won their next three meetings. Shots that Power used to hit for winners are now coming back with interest.

Arnott and Carter have made clear what’s expected of Jonathon Power. “You have marketing value first of all by winning, and secondly by having a presence on and off the court,” Carter says. “We’ve told Jonathon, your job is to win. If you keep winning and you aren’t financially comfortable in the end, then we’re not doing our job. The last couple of years, Power has averaged close to $100,000 in total income. He has always understood that figure could more than double if he were to rise to world number one overall or, especially, become world champion. To leverage the boy to sell the sport, “Number two isn’t good enough,” says Arnott.

Strange as it seems to say about a twenty-four-year-old, time is running out. Squash takes its measure on the human body in invisible increments. The relentless joint-compression and subtle body contact of this “non-contact” sport grind down the knees, lower vertebrae, and especially hips. With few exceptions, the top squash player’s body gives out in the early thirties. There are no Baryshnikovs.

Even more than most players, Power has been struck by injuries, which have tended to come in bunches and always at the worst possible times – a bizarre golfing accident here, an unlucky basketball injury there. At last year’s world team championships in Kuala Lumpur, Power disappeared into the bathroom just minutes before Canada was to play England in the final and somehow send his back into spasms on the throne. I once asked him about the condition of his knees, which had been giving him grief from overstress during the Professional squash Association’s demanding fall schedule.” They wake up sore,” he said, “but once they get going, they’re good.”

Back in juniors, Power had created future trouble for himself by failing to work out. At the world junior championships in Hong Kong, the Canadian team coach, Stuart Dixon, had a couple of experts check out Power’s aching back. “What they discovered is that he was physically very, very unbalanced,” Dixon says. “He hadn’t done the weight training or the strength development. These people told him, ‘Unless you do something about this upper-body imbalance, your life span in this sport will be five years, max.”

And so he had had to catch up as if his life, or at least his career, depended on it. “I hadn’t seen Jonathon in three or four years,” recalls Alex Pogrebinsky, the Edmonton massage therapist who has worked with bobsledder Pierre Leuders and figure skater Kurt Browning, among others. “Then in 1996 he had some exhibition games in Edmonton and he came to me for a massage. His body had changed. He had these big legs. He had done so much training, I didn’t recognize him.” That October, Power chewed through the pack unseeded to win the Tournament of Champions in New York City – his first major victory on the tour. He started stringing some wins together: Hamburg, Budapest, Hong Kong. He shot into the top twenty for the first time debuting in the top ten at number six.

He has since experimented with exercise routines he once would have scoffed at: plyometrics – a system of explosive muscle development. (It gave him shin splints, initially.) Under the guidance of his new trainer, Chris Broadhurst, he recently found himself face down in a dressing room at Maple Leaf Gardens with five acupuncture needles in his naked butt. Broadhurst went upstairs to attend to business, and some Leafs players came in and shuffled past with no idea who the skinny guy was or how he hoped to make the squad looking like that.

Power had taken an enormous gamble on squash. “The problem with you Americans is, you go to college,” he told a family friend from New Hampshire. “These are your prime squash-playing years.” It was a joke, but at the same time no joke at all. Without an education, he has, as they say, little to fall back on, but Power has never thought about falling back. This is it. He must make as much as he can now – otherwise, he understands, he’ll be forty-four years old and wearing that McDonald’s bandana under a little headset at the drive-thru window. He must earn back what his parents to painstakingly invested. For twenty years, since Jonathon was old enough to hold a racquet, the Powers lived on a complicated system of debt juggling – continually borrowing, working credit-card floats, taking out loans to pay off interest on other loans, all to finance the development of their kids’ squash. IN the spring of 1997, Power returned from a tournament in which he’d done well. He approached his dad with something to say but not quite the tools to say it. “Here, I’d like you to have this,” Power said. “He gave us $8,000,” his father told me last summer. “In cash. He just pulled out this big wad of bills. His mother put it in an RRSP, and set up a plan to pay it all back.”

But there remained one more thing to deliver.

“I guarantee you Jonathon is not going to keep losing to Peter Nicol,” national-team member Kelly Patrick told me this fall, after Power had dropped his third straight match to the Scot. “He’s too competitive. If this keeps up, he’ll either explode, implode, or play the best squash ever.”

NOVEMBER 29, 1998. Doha, Qatar. Jonathon Power has just come off the court after his quarterfinal match at the Mahindra World Open in the Middle Eastern oil state: the world championships. To his huge relief, he is still alive. He met the man he has most feared meeting, compatriot Ryding. And crushed him in three quick games.

Back in Canada, the squash world is abuzz. Squash Canada’s web site racks up a record number of hits as players and coaches log on to follow Power’s progress. A question mark hangs in the air. Everyone has wondered what a health Power might be able to do if he were able to perfectly focus the beam.

In the quarterfinals, Power plays the Egyptian, Barada, who has somehow squeaked ahead of him in the world rankings. It is all over in twenty-nine minutes. Power, the assassin, decamps quickly. Seven hundred stunned Egyptians, who have turned out to lend their usual raucous support, look for a lightning rod for their rage. A small group of them rush the umpire’s section and are restrained by security.

IN the semis Power meets his friend, Australian Anthony Hill, the only player acknowledged to be as wild as Power. “I’ve been trying to keep out of trouble all week, but it doesn’t seem to have worked,” Hill remarks after losing. He pronounces Power “unbelievable.”

The final is almost anticlimactic. Peter Nicol takes the first game, but then Power, who has ripped off his ankle brace to play unencumbered, cannot be stopped. This time it’s Nicol who gets tired on the fast glass court, and Power who gets stronger as the match goes on.

It takes seventy-two minutes for Jonathon Power to become what the London Daily Telegraph calls “the first World Champion from the New World.” “What was your game plan in the final?’ he is asked by reporters. “I don’t usually have a game plan,” he shrugs. “I just wing it.” In Toronto, Wade Arnott is already fielding calls. The kid who a couple of years ago couldn’t buy a sponsor has just become a poster boy for Dunlop, the world’s leading squash brand. He will endorse a new racquet line, and his autograph will appear on every boxed squash ball that rolls out of the factor in the new year.

On a Qatar Airways flight to London, the pilot makes an announcement: the new world squash champion is on board, and he will be receiving free drinks. A flight attendant cruises down the aisle, past the suddenly anonymous Peter Nicol, and serves champagne to the beaming man in the row behind him.

Bottle this. Exploit it for all its symbolic value. For in a strange way, the appearance of the feral boy, Jonathon Power, actually does honor the game he now seems ready to rule. Squash, as the distinguished squash writer Rex Bellamy observed, was conceived in a prison (the famous Fleet debtor’s prison). Power’s ascension reminds us that squash, like opera, belonged to everyone before the elites kidnapped it. The blood of rebels runs through its deepest plumbing.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail