Under the Norwalk

Depending on the source, somewhere close to one third of the 370 delegates at the 74th Canadian University Press conference fell ill with norovirus (or Norwalk) on Jan. 14 and 15. This is a retelling of the events leading up to that evening.

Over the course of a couple days, wide-eyed university press representatives rolled into Victoria for the Canadian University Press (CUP) conference — including six from the Manitoban and one from the Gradzette. From Jan. 11 through 15, CUP delegates had the privilege of attending a series of panels, plenaries, seminars and keynote speakers — all either former CUP journalists themselves and/or current media professionals. We learned from Lucas Timmons (Edmonton Journal) about the importance of web developing skills in online journalism; how proficiency with coding and programs like Google Fusion are the indispensable narrative devices of future journalism.

We heard from, and saw a lot of Tasha Diamant (“The Human Body Project”), and her thesis that we need to be vulnerable, to expose ourselves, in the strictest sense of the word, to make meaningful connections with other people.

Our keynote speakers charted the paths they’d taken in the media industry: Alan Cross spoke of the ongoing history of new music journalism; Anna Maria Tremonti (CBC) summoned us to take back journalism; the sports writer Dave Zirin gave a cultural anthropological analysis of the politics and militarization of sports in North America.

And on Saturday evening, after raiding the buffet, we all took to a conference room where we listened to a hilarious Chris Jones reflect on his punk-leanings, and on how to cash cheques from media conglomerates like Esquire and ESPN without feeling as though you’d sold your soul to “the man.” In one of several self-deprecating anecdotes, Jones revealed that after having troubled bowels and a subsequent appendectomy 24-hours earlier at Cedars-Sinai Hospital, he had interviewed George Clooney and bled upon Clooney’s expensive leather couch. Jones disclosed a few candid accounts of instances of incontinence, and the audience obliged him with equally unconstrained laughter.

No one present for his keynote address could’ve known (save for the few already quietly exhibiting symptoms) how topical Jones’ scatological remarks would soon become.

Bloated with (among other things) food, drink and anticipation of ringing in the end of the conference in style, we boarded our caravan of yellow school buses headed for the gala destination on the University of Victoria’s campus. The buses unloaded, and the journos filed into a line at the buildings entrance.

While in that line, we beheld a sight of cartoonish dimensions: an unidentified delegate was being consoled by another, and escorted passed the shudders and snickers of onlookers to the front of the line. Someone had decided to make a Jackson Pollock replica on the back of the gentleman in question’s head, who had what looked to be a swath of puke dripping down the length of his once in vogue tweed blazer.

“Well . . . [stifled laughter] . . .  at least you’ve got a funny story out of this?” commiserated one gentleman.

“I will never be happy about this. [Full stop],” responded the victim. And, of course, we all took to the occasion to laugh at his expense. Who wouldn’t? Surely this was just another alcohol-related case of “too much, too fast?”

If what Nietzsche said is true, “[h]umour is just schadenfreude [pleasure derived from the misfortune of others] with a clear conscience,” what we had just experienced — both during moments of Chris Jones’s talk and while waiting in that line — was a form of schadenfreude with a potent karmic bent to it.

Soon enough we resumed debauching, maybe even dialled it up a little for time lost waiting in line. Not two-hours into the evening, one of the CUP organizers took to the stage to deliver the disappointing news: the event was being cancelled due to the fact that upwards of 10 people had abruptly come down with some kind of “bug.” The nonsensical heckles and inebriated jeers of partiers filled the room. Just the same, we filed back into those long lines outside, this time with our backs turned on what might’ve been.

This is where the evening took a seriocomic turn; having opted to cab back to the hotel with fellow ’Tobanites, I decided to break from the pack for a quick nap to recharge my batteries for what promised to be a long night. I’ll spare you the pleasantries: I laid down in my Saturday’s best and woke up with cramps that progressed into projectile vomit, which turned into explosive diarrhoea — it was midnight.

There was no foreshadowing (or so it seemed). My guts were blindsided by a wave of uncontainable putrescence. Indeed, it would be a long night after all. Luckily I had two news editors to keep a nightlong vigil over me, administering Tylenol and ginger ale as needed. From 1 to 6 a.m., those editors, those business associates of mine watched helplessly as I repeatedly folded in an accordion like manner into the fetal position, rocking and writhing, rocking and writhing, only to unfold in a flash and dash to the bathroom, cloddishly bumping into walls along the way. And, just for good measure, on one occasion my pants fell to my ankles en route and nearly provided all in attendance with something years of psychotherapy and boozing could never undo.

I was beginning to see how the plight of our tweed-wearing friend from before was rather unfunny, but I couldn’t manage to comment. Paramedics inevitably arrived, assisted me into a wheelchair and shuttled me to the hospital. There I lay, for another four-hours as they drained two sizeable bags of intravenous into my corpse-like visage, until I felt strong enough to catch a cab back to the hotel. However before I could go, one more indignity lay before me; I was handed a transparent bedpan and pointed towards a bathroom at the end of a long hallway and told to provide them with a stool sample.  Having deposited my “sample” I was made to carry it back, passed a waiting room full of anonymous gawkers — I had reached the pinnacle of my sufferings.

After two days of voluntary quarantine the afflicted emerged from our hotel rooms to fly back to our respective parts of the country. I never did hear back from those doctors about that stool sample I gave, nor have I heard of any other test results confirming conclusively that what we had was indeed norovirus.

All I know is that somewhere in the midst of all the heavy heaving and hurried waddling to and from the bathrooms that night, a part of us died: I suspect the inner lining of our collective small and large intestine, stomach and other viscera.

The CUP conference was so great up to and until that night I’d like to say I’d do it again . . .


Bryce Hoye and 120+ others walked the Norwalk so you don’t have to.