"Mind Field" by Richard Toon

Richard Toon

Richard Toon

Richard Toon was born in England and has kept a notebook since he was fourteen when a teacher taught him to write poetry and to jot down thoughts and observations. Since 2004, he has worked as a senior research analyst at The Morrison Institute for Public Policy, at Arizona State University. In 2006, he was awarded a residency at the artist colony Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York, where he worked on Pictures at an Exhibition, an essay collection, including stories of an English boyhood and meditations on jumping across classes and cultures. He is currently at work on the book Sugar Time, a memoir about diabetes and the British class system.

Mind Field



"Field of Dreams" 

I am a man who thinks he can be deported for jaywalking, although really I'd like to rob a bank. It makes compliance a difficult thing.

I am a man who has not wanted to think that diabetes controls his life, has not wanted to think he has been controlled by anything, has not wanted to think. I mean, really, it gets so complicated and depressing. And yet, I like thinking. I am all about using my mind. I am a thinking machine, do it on my days off, do it in the bath, do it when I'm not having sex, which is just about the only activity that interrupts my flow of thought. Thinking about me is what I don't like to do. I never really developed a taste for it. I'm English, you know, though I'm not attributing this reluctance to national origins. The English are a diversified people with introspective types strewn about. It's just that I've found more interesting subjects to occupy my thoughts than me. Generally speaking, that is. But when I consider the concept of compliance, I find it strangely encompasses my life.

Diabetes, like the British class system, is all about compliance. Stay in line and fulfill your role, and you don't upset the cart. Gum up the machine? Arouse the sleeping lion? I'm not sure what image applies, class being such a shape shifting thing, or is it a mental state? You can see the difficulty of pinning it down as it readjusts itself, asking you not to call attention to its underlying workings. Diabetes is also about balance and avoiding extremes. Blood sugar too high and you're into hyper-glycemia, which after many hours makes you feel deeply nauseous and heavily drugged. You smell of acetone. If you don't bring your blood sugar down, it could lead to coma and death. Blood sugar too low and you're into hypo-glycemia. Your mental processes slow down, you start to sweat. You get disoriented, and you might want to fight anyone who tries to help you. If you don't bring your blood sugar up, it could lead to coma and death. Hence the vigil of staying on the path, taking the injection, balancing out food and exercise.

On the way to low-sugar death, though, the altered states have something to be said for them, rather a lot, actually, in that they are tantalizing little mind treks. Can you walk the tightrope? Why would you even want to try?

I once watched Field of Dreams on TV when I was alone. As my blood sugar drifted down, the movie became more and more profound. I looked up from the screen and saw the living room through a fish-eye lens. The bookcase was swaying, the arm chair mumbling quietly to itself. I looked down at the backs of my hands, which were attached to extremely long, thin rubbery strips that were my arms. The hairs on my hands, light brown and silky, were beautiful and mysteriously meaningful. A drop of sweat ran down my forehead, splashed on my thigh, and rippled like a water drop on the surface of a pool. And I thought—very, very, slowly and with a self-satisfied smile that signaled danger—I thought, I'm having a really low blood sugar.

I found myself in front of the refrigerator with the door open, looking in and feeling cold air on my body. I was slick with sweat, just sweating all over. I couldn't remember what I was supposed to eat, so I bit off some cheese (bad idea, has no effect on blood sugar) and drank orange juice (good idea, you can easily see why) directly from the container. Ten minutes later, I felt normal again, and I went back to watching Kevin Costner meet his dead father in a cornfield. Costner had lost his profundity and was back to giving a wooden performance. James Earl Jones was overly ecstatic at coming across dead baseball players, and I felt a bit wooden myself, ejected from my field of dreams.

I realize that under normal blood sugars, big Hollywood, metaphysical films don't have the same captivating effect on me. Take Ghost with Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze, where she is in love with her recently deceased boyfriend who can't find his way to the white light of heaven without help from Whoopi Goldberg. Most of the time this is not my idea of a plausible life or afterlife, but when I have a really low sugar, I'm a believer. As Max Weber famously put it, some people are religiously musical. I'm not one of them, but when my blood sugars hit the forties I find it conceivable that a ghostly Patrick Swayze can occupy the body of Whoopi Goldberg with little more that a shudder and assistance from a breeze blowing around her big hair. In these states, a sense of the spurious cosmic grips me, and I feel encouraged by those shafts of white light, as if they might offer a vacation destination. Most of the cosmic consciousness I've heard about strikes me as a brain state that can be explained by a self-induced hypo.

In one rather precarious low sugar, while my wife was helping me return to full consciousness by offering me a glass of orange juice and waiting for my jumbled speech to mean something, I was convinced that time was running backwards. I could swear that everything that was happening had already taken place, a sustained sense of deja-vu. I kept saying, “I don't want the OJ. I've already drunk it” and “How come time is going in reverse?" If you've seen the film Memento you'll remember the main character goes around without any operating memory and has to piece together what has happened to him from notes he leaves on his body. As he constructs and reconstructs this knowledge, the story is revealed to him (and us) in reverse. My experience felt exactly this way, and the odd sense that it engendered-you feel smugly ahead of the game, hence the oily smile-stayed with me for days.

I understand these moments are tricks of the blood sugar, but I see them as special mental abilities, regardless of how they're generated. I'm not saying that time was really running backwards, rather that I enjoyed experiencing it that way, savored the different sights and sounds as you might a journey to the Arctic or the Amazon, even though you would not always want to live in these extremes. Extremes offer a rabbit hole into parts of life not ordinarily seen. How many Richards am I? In the rhythm of sudden sickness and rapid recovery, I experience little deaths and rebirths many times, even in one day. The return to a sense of self not shaken in the fist of either a high or low sugar is sweet in the same measure as altered states are illuminating. I feel a sense of hope as I reassemble the fractured parts of me, languid on a couch, the littlest hairs on my body feeling air moving across them. I am small and excited, ready to evade repetition, folly though that yearning might be.



I suppose we all have moments when we can choose to be smarter or stupider, alert or adrift, steering the vessel or along for the ride. When I was young, my mental abilities seemed like apples I could pluck from a tree and install in my head—or not—according to my whims. Other peoples' expectations of me have always played a large part in my thinking about myself, as if their understandings could make me bigger or smaller. I have been like the characters in the Wizard of Oz who become braver and more empathic through the power of magical thinking—as if there is any other kind of thinking other than magical. 

In 1964, my dad once offered me a bike if I came in the top ten in my class at the end of the school year. For the previous terms at Humphrey Perkins, I'd regularly come in around thirtieth or thirty-first in a class of thirty-two. The bike seemed like a good deal, and I came in third.

The vehicle had a bright yellow frame, three Sturmey-Archer gears, straight handle-bars, and lights that worked by a little dynamo installed in the back wheel-hub. It wasn't exactly the sleek, light-weight, drop-handle-bar, racing bike I'd been dreaming of but I didn't feel cheated, for it meant freedom to bike to the surrounding villages and be gone all day.

I never asked my Dad why he offered the bribe and I don't remember him doing it again, but I managed to keep my position in class fairly well from then on without an incentive package. Not that it was a stellar intellectual feat. The large grammar school I went to had recently morphed into a pseudo-comprehensive—it was called a bilateral—which meant that it had the entire range of student abilities from “swots” at the top to “thick-o's” at the bottom. I was closer to the “thick-o” end of things, in the basement of the C-stream form. The headmaster had told us on one of his rare visits to our classroom that we wouldn't go to university like those in the A-stream, or get the better clerical jobs of the B-stream, but we could work in shops, thus avoiding D-stream factory work, and the road mending jobs of the E-stream-when they weren't in prisons or mental institutions.

Yes, headmaster Dunn M.A., really delivered this pep talk to us in the lower ranks, but as much a factor as social class still plays in the magical thinking of the English, I'm thinking rather more about my dad in this instance and why he took such an uncharacteristic, direct material approach with me. I would have expected him to wonder why I was doing so poorly and ask me why, rather than offering the bribe. I assume he'd worked out that all I needed was a carrot to nose after, which I suppose is flattering in that he believed I had the stuff in me. Looking back, I think he approached the issue on two fronts: one was to deal quickly with me and the other was to suggest to my mother that I should be going to school more often than I did.

One of the reasons I was flagging was that I was hardly ever there. All I had to do was sneeze or say “I don't feel too well today” and my mother would let me stay home. Let is an understatement. She pounced on any opportunity to keep me near. She was lonely in the English Midlands, having moved down from Lancashire and smacked against the snobbish aloofness of the Toons to anyone from the north. My father, who had taken over the tailoring business from his father—he'd died of it, but that's another story—saw customers in the front of our house. My mother wasn't invited to share that space with him—his work area, the income-producing domain. Of her four children, I was the disobedient but adorable wit, easily loved, and I took that entitlement for granted, at least in the family. I stayed home so often that when I did go to school my form teacher said that if I was going to have any more days off he'd have to report me to the authorities. I didn't know what the authorities were, but they didn't sound good, and they have come, ever since, to haunt my life like disagreeable relatives you feel obliged to put up for the weekend. As soon as I relayed this information at home, my dad took action. I started to go to school more and the bike offer got made. I think it was as important to him—perhaps more so—not to have the authorities asking me, or worse, him, any questions, and so I was suddenly offered an incentive to perform.

Not exactly the ideal form of ambition for your children that might make you believe in yourself, but it passed, as I seem to have done. Previously, my mother and father's interest in my schooling consisted of going once a year to the parents' evening where they were told by various teachers how badly I was doing, that I could do better, etc. But I don't think they ever thought my education was their responsibility. If I wasn't learning anything, it was presumably the school's fault, and what could they do about that? I don't remember them asking me why I didn't try harder or encouraging me to do better, as if, somehow, it would have put them on the spot. The demand wasn't to do well; rather I was expected to do as well as I thought I could, and if that wasn't great, then okay. Nobody need get riled up.

So why the bike? My theory is “the authorities” threat, but I don't know for sure. Maybe I'll ask my dad when I call him this weekend. He'll say to me, “So son, how are you feeling in yourself?” And I'll say “Fine, fine,” even if I feel like crying in his arms, which I sometimes do, and even if I am wishing now, as I did as a boy, that he'd show he wanted more for me than it was possible for him to imagine, that he wanted all of us in the family to break through the skins of tight control that kept us on the straight and narrow—even if it was the soft pressure of his own timidity—instead of stretching toward the inaccessible but rosiest apples.