Category: Family (page 1 of 2)

The Blue Shank Road

Assorted Nonsense Episode VIII: My brother-in-law (and fellow author) Brian Wyvill and I visit the Blue Shank Road outside Summerside PEI, where Barnabus J. Wildebear and Doctor Peter Humphrey first return to Prince Edward Island following their trip through the gate in my novel A Time and a Place.

A Time and a Place, in wide release Oct 1st, 2017:
Publisher’s Weekly Review of A Time and a Place

Ode to a Sandwich

A film about a sandwich, that’s all.

A Time and a Place, in wide release Oct 1st, 2017:
Publisher’s Weekly Review of A Time and a Place

The Necronian

While I was writing A Time and a Place, my daughter Keira made me one of the characters. This guy’s one of the nefarious Necronians.

Somewhere along the way, it lost a tentacle, but it’s got seven others, so it’ll probably be okay.

 

The Cold Equations

The Cold Equations is a short story by Tom Godwin, first published in Astounding Magazine in August 1954. You might want to read it before we go any further. I wouldn’t want to spoil anything for you.

The spoilers begin here.

The story’s about a teen-aged girl named Marilyn Lee Cross who stows away on an emergency space shuttle with disastrous results. I chose it as one of the two radio dramas we included in our science fiction radio pilot Faster Than Light.

I chose The Cold Equations because it was dark and sombre. I’m partial to humour, but I wanted something with a little gravitas, something that I thought people would take seriously.  I wasn’t the first to adapt The Cold Equations for radio. It had been adapted twice before, for an episode of the radio program X Minus One in 1955, and for the radio program Exploring Tomorrow in 1958.

August 1954 edition of Astounding Magazine, which included Tom Godwin’s The Cold Equations. Cover art by Frank Kelly Freas

In the story, Marilyn just wants to visit her brother on a nearby planet. The emergency shuttle is delivering critical medical supplies to sick miners on that planet.

Unbeknownst to Marilyn, the shuttle is designed with a strict set of parameters: it has just enough fuel to carry its sole pilot and his critical cargo to the planet. With Marilyn on board, the shuttle will run out of fuel, the mission will fail, and the miners will die.

Critics of the story point out that the writer, Tom Godwin, unnecessarily stacked the deck against the girl. Why was it necessary to design the shuttle with such a slim margin of error? Godwin might argue that fuel would be a precious resource in space; you wouldn’t want to use any more than was absolutely necessary. Of course, the real reason is that Godwin needed to create a very specific set of circumstances for the story to work. But consider the recent plane crash in Colombia that tragically killed most of the Brazilian Chapecoense Real football team. The plane ran out of fuel because the company that owned the plane skimped on fuel to save money, with horrific consequences. Godwin’s plot may not be so unrealistic after all.

Realistic or not, in the universe of the story the girl must be jettisoned from the shuttle into deep space for the mission to succeed. Not exactly a Hollywood ending. My story editor, Dave Carley, felt that Marilyn learns the consequences of her ill-fated decision to stow away too quickly. She spends the rest of the story waiting to die, while the pilot reflects on the cold, harsh reality of the universe. There is no hope and therefore no real tension.

I didn’t necessarily agree, at least initially. I’d originally come across the story in an English class in high school in one of our text books. I began reading it during class, during the teacher’s lecture, and quickly forgot about the lecture. I found the story utterly gripping. This was long before cold-blooded authors like George R. R. Martin began killing off our favourite novel and television characters with impunity. I didn’t believe that the girl was going to die. I kept waiting for her to be saved, and was utterly gobsmacked when she was finally jettisoned from the space shuttle. Reading the story as a teen-ager, I had never encountered such a brutal ending before. It left quite an impact.

But Dave felt strongly that we needed more tension, more suspense, so for my version of the story I concocted a storyline where there was some slim hope that another ship (the Stardust) would catch up with the emergency shuttle and rescue Marilyn. I made other changes as well. In the original story, Marilyn was older, in her late teens. I reduced her age to thirteen to make it more believable that she would do something so ill-considered as to sneak onto an emergency shuttle without understanding the consequences. This also injected a little more pathos into the story. Because it was radio, I needed her to speak at the beginning of the story to help illuminate to the listener what was going on. (You can’t just have a character say, “I’m sneaking into the shuttle now,” and so on. Well, you can, but that would be narration, and I didn’t want a narrator.) So I had Marilyn sneak into the shuttle while talking to her cat, Chloe (which happened to be the name of one of my cats at the time.)

Story Editor Dave Carley (far right) on the job in Studio 212 with Gordon Pinsent and Linda Grearson during the taping of the Radio Play Test Drive (photo by John McCarthy).

Writing the adaptation, I felt like I was writing yet another draft of Tom Godwin’s story. This may be horribly presumptuous, and my apologies to Tom Godwin, but I felt like it was a opportunity to correct some of the story’s flaws. For one thing, the original story was quite wordy. I cut an awful lot out of it. Now, I have a lot more respect for Tom Godwin than some, such as editor Algis Budrys, who reportedly once said that The Cold Equations was “the best short story that Godwin ever wrote and he didn’t write it” — referring to the fact that editor John W. Campbell sent the story back to Godwin three times before Godwin finally got it right—that is, before Godwin stopped coming up with ingenious means of saving the girl. Oh, and allegations that he borrowed the idea from a story published in EC Comics’ Weird Science #13 .

Anyway, Campbell recognized the true power of the story: the idea that the universe is impartial. It doesn’t care whether you live or die. Reading it back in high school, I glimpsed, perhaps for the first time in my life, a sense of the implacability of the universe. You play by its rules or you die. The stowaway is done in by cold, hard facts. For others to live, she had to die.

Several drafts into my version of the story, I was happy with everything except the ending. Something was missing. It didn’t feel complete, somehow. Endings don’t always come easy for me. I work hard at them because I consider them extremely important. Getting the ending wrong can ruin an entire story. Getting it right can elevate all that came before.

Producer Barbara Worthy

I discussed it with my wife. Something she said (unfortunately, I don’t remember what, exactly) made me realize that the pilot didn’t need to talk or think after ejecting Marilyn from the shuttle. He needed to acknowledge what he’d just been through. He needed to cry. It was an epiphany for me. It allowed me to cut a bunch of extraneous boring dialogue and get on with the emotion of the scene.

Later, one of my colleagues suggested that if you allow a character to cry, you are depriving the audience of the chance to cry themselves, because you’re doing it for them. I felt differently. Making the pilot cry felt like what would actually happen. I know that truth doesn’t necessarily equate to good fiction—the truth is deeper than that—but sometimes it does. So my pilot cried, and it felt right and true to me.

Matthew MacFadzean

Once the script was complete, we held auditions for the cast. An embarrassing amount of actors showed up for the casting call (we auditioned for both radio plays included in Faster Than Light at the same time, The Cold Equations and Captain’s Away). Ultimately we cast Matthew MacFadzean (not to be confused with British actor Matthew Macfadyen) in the role of the shuttle pilot, and Vivian Endicott-Douglas as the young stowaway Marilyn. Shawn Smyth played the stowaway’s brother Gerry Cross. Andrew Gillies played Commander Delhart of the Stardust. Sergio Dizio played the Clerk and Jennifer Dean one of the surveyors. Julia Tait was our casting director (replacing regular CBC Radio Drama Casting Director Linda Grearson, who, I believe, was subbing for Deputy Head James Roy at the time).

Barbara Worthy directed The Cold Equations while I sat behind the Neve Capricorn console recording the show. Matt Willcott did all the live sound effects. I was extremely happy with the work of our actors. I have to single out Vivian, though, who was extra-ordinary. She nailed every single take of every single scene. We could have used any of her lines in any take.

We did have trouble with one lengthy scene during which the pilot must stoically accept Marilyn’s fate. Couldn’t quite nail the pilot’s tone and neither Barbara nor I could figure out what direction to give Matthew to make it work. We did four takes and were running out of time—we only had the actors for so long. We were forced to move on and record other scenes. Just before production wrapped for the day we came back to that problematic scene and did two more takes. Matthew finally nailed the tone, sounding troubled yet together.

Vivien Endicott-Douglas

It didn’t take me long to edit The Cold Equations, probably a couple of hours. I used most of the scenes we recorded in their entirety, which was unusual. Usually we scavenged lines from other takes of the same scene. I mixed the twenty-five minute long play in a single day in Sound Effects Three, my favourite mixing studio.

I didn’t have the budget for much original music, but I was able to use an original piece of music for the opening called Snowfire Reprize, by Rod Crocker. I used a couple of Manheim Steamroller pieces from Fresh Air 1 for a couple of tiny music bridges. At the end, I had Mozart’s Lacrimosa swell up underneath the pilot’s tears. At first I thought it might be too much, a little too heavy, but after listening to the completed mix in the studio I was convinced that the pathos of the piece supported it.

The Cold Equations may not be the most accomplished or sonically interesting radio play I’ve ever worked on.

But I’m pretty darned happy with it.

The Cold Equations was originally broadcast as a part of Faster Than Light on Sept 22nd, 2002 on Sunday Showcase (in mono) and again Sept 23rd on Monday Night Playhouse (in stereo).

Life With a Broken Ankle

As almost the entire planet probably knows by now, about five weeks ago I broke my ankle slipping on a patch of ice on the way to work. A clean break in both the tibia and fibula.  A classic example of how life can be turned upside down literally in the blink of an eye.

I wrote about the first couple of days here.

I wasn’t sure I’d write any more about it because it’s not like breaking an ankle is that unusual.  But who knows, there might be people out there breaking ankles this very moment, people soon to be confronted with vast amounts of free time to scour the internet seeking articles on “What to Expect When You Break Your Ankle”, so what the heck, I’ll pick up where I left off.

The original cast. More of a splint, really.

All things considered, I was pretty lucky. I had surgery two days after the accident. This allowed my ankle to begin healing properly almost right away. For this I must thank the Canadian Health Care System. I wasn’t required to cough up any dough, didn’t have to negotiate any labyrinthine bureaucratic hurdles. I just had to show up at the hospital when they told me to.

The surgery was pretty straightforward. Still, I was a bit nervous. I was thinking of my paternal grandfather, who died shortly after exploratory surgery for cancer back in 1954. A blood clot got him, I’m told. I didn’t really think anything like that would happen to me, but it was on my mind.

As I lay on the operating table, the nurse asked me if I had any questions. I had lots, but my brain wasn’t completely functioning.

All I came up with was, “You guys have done this sort of thing before, have you?”

“Google’d it this morning,” the nurse assured me. “We’re good to go.”

And they put me under.

I woke up later with nine screws and a plate in my ankle and much better questions on my lips, but the surgeon had left, so my questions had to wait.

Before the surgery I had worn a cast that went slightly above my knee, preventing me from being able to bend my leg. After the surgery I wore a cast that went a little more than half way up to my knee. It was a huge improvement being able to bend my leg.

I was also pleasantly surprised to find that the pain was quite manageable.  I’d heard it could be pretty bad. That’s not to say there wasn’t any, but it was more discomfort than pain per se. At times it just felt weird, making me wonder what was going on down there. I had narcotics (Oxycocet), but I never took any. Ibuprofen seemed to do the job. The cast began chafing after a couple of days. I didn’t realize it, but the chafing was doing a number on my foot. I would find out just how bad it was about a week and a half later, when they took the cast off.

More machine than man, now…

One morning several days after the surgery I woke up to find that a good portion of my leg had turned black, especially under the knee. This freaked me out. I actually looked up gangrene, just to rule that out, but it was just severe bruising. Probably because I was keeping my leg elevated and the blood had pooled toward my knee. It made bending my leg really uncomfortable. It lasted about a week before clearing up, at least on my leg. Five weeks later my foot is still bruised.

There was also quite a bit of swelling. This lasted until two or three days ago.

Sleeping was pretty uncomfortable for the first little while. I was sleeping downstairs in the guest bedroom. I could negotiate a path from the bedroom to the washroom easier down there with crutches. Also, I wouldn’t disturb my wife with all my clattering about if I had to get up in the middle of the night.

The bed in the guest bedroom, I discovered, isn’t anywhere near as comfortable as the bed in our master bedroom. (My apologies to all our guests over the years!) And having a cast on my leg didn’t help matters. I like to sleep on my side. The only way to make this comfortable with a heavy cast on one leg was to stick a pillow between my legs.

The worst, though, was the lack of mobility. I was warned not to put any weight on my bad foot. The last thing you want to do is to break it again while it’s fragile. Maybe there’s a way to get up and down stairs with crutches when you can’t put any weight on one foot, but if so, I never figured it out. I was reduced to crawling up and down the stairs on all fours. It was kind of pathetic. I felt like we had suddenly acquired another dog, and I was it. Sometimes as I crested the stairs into the kitchen I would announce my presence with a bark.

As if having to crawl up the stairs wasn’t bad enough, I couldn’t even shower by myself those first few days. Not exactly safe standing on one foot in the shower, and I had to be careful not to get the cast wet. I went several days without showering. Instead I just knelt by the tub to wash my hair and scrub my body. When my stench started knocking people standing close to me unconscious, I realized something would have to be done about this.

Coincidentally, my friend Fergus happened to have broken his ankle a couple of weeks before me. (So did two other friends—it’s been a virtual pandemic of ankle fractures this year.) Fergus suggested a stool in the shower. Myself, I thought you were supposed to dispose of stools in another part of the bathroom, but hey, whatever turns your crank. My wife borrowed a special waterproof chair for seniors from a neighbour. The chair sat half in and half out of the tub. The idea is to sit on the part outside the tub, then gradually work your way in. Fergus also mentioned something called a Seal-Tight Brownmed Cast and Bandage protector. He didn’t have much credibility with me after the stool business but I ordered one anyway and was glad I did. Between the chair and the bandage protector I was soon fit for human companionship again.

I loved the cast art, courtesy of my daughters

One day my wife arrived home with a walker she’d borrowed from someone. I liked it at first, but it required a lot of hopping on my good foot, and after three or four days of this the heel of my good foot started to hurt so bad that before long I couldn’t walk on either foot, so I reverted back to the crutches.

Crutches are great, but unfortunately you can’t really carry anything when you’re using them, unless it’s small enough to jam in your pockets. So my wife and kids had to wait on me, fetching stuff for me, carrying bowls and plates to the table during meals, and cleaning up without my help. They did all of this graciously, but I hated being dependent, and tried to refrain from asking for anything. Often I would just figure out how to carry or move something myself despite my inability to do so with ease. Which, if it was even possible, was usually time consuming, and sometimes dangerous, especially if it involved stairs.

During this period I felt a lot worse for my wife than I did for myself. Suddenly she had to do all the chauffeuring, and dog-walking, and grocery shopping, and waiting on me, in and around going to work. It wasn’t fair to her. I tried to compensate by doing most of the cooking, and cleaning up in the kitchen afterwards, which I discovered I could manage by resting my knee on a stool, or leaning on my crutches, and hopping around a lot. Of course, it still didn’t make up for everything she had to take on.

And then there was all the sitting around. I imagined I could feel my body deteriorating with the massive doses of inactivity.  Before breaking my ankle, I was reasonably active, walking the dog, doing Pilates. I was contemplating returning to Karate. That was out of the question now, and Pilates classes would have to wait. I did some Pilates lying on the floor, but I couldn’t really get into it. Not vigorous enough, for one thing. Had it been summer, I could have hobbled around outside on the crutches, but with ice still coating the sidewalks and streets, that was out of the question. Still, I did manage the odd outing, such as accompanying my wife to Costco one day, which helped shake off the cobwebs.

Many people assumed that I would have a lot of free time while recovering. That never happened. My sister and her husband immediately shipped me up a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s Tales of Horror and Fantasy, thinking that I would have all kinds of time to read now (thanks guys!) The truth is that during this entire time I continued to work. I only took one sick day, the day of the accident. After that, I worked from home. Why?

  1. Because it’s 2017
  2. Because I’m an idiot

Actually, I did this for a number of reasons. One, because it wasn’t really clear what I should do. Initially, my surgeon never gave me any instructions about work. Another surgeon told me that commuting was out of the question (my commute into Toronto is an hour and a half each way, involving busses and trains and stairs and so on), but nobody produced any paperwork to this effect until two weeks had gone by. Because of the nature of my job, I could continue to work remotely via emails, phone calls and Google Hangouts, so that’s what I did. It kept me busy, and it also kept me in the loop.  There was a lot going on, I had only been in my current position for six months, and I really didn’t want to fall behind.

(I did manage to get some of the Kipling read, though.)

That sums up the first two weeks after I broke my ankle.  Eleven days after I had my surgery, I had a follow-up appointment with the surgeon, Dr. Ibrahim.

More on that in my next post.

Don’t look too closely if you’re squeamish…

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