The Truth, the Whole Truth, and the Truth? Not So Much

QHaving once worked on the CBC Radio show Q with Jian Ghomeshi I have been following the events of the past couple of weeks with a great deal of (morbid) curiosity. I feel terrible for the women involved. I also feel awful for the staff of Q, as well as for the CBC itself. I haven’t felt comfortable commenting on the affair much publicly because I still work for the CBC and I wouldn’t want anything I say to be misconstrued as anything resembling an official position; everything I write here is strictly my own opinion.
That being said, I would like to comment on one aspect of the story that I haven’t seen remarked upon anywhere else. I will not be talking about the specific allegations against Ghomeshi, which are overwhelming and in any case will ultimately be decided in a court of law. I’ll be talking about peripheral elements of that story that have got me thinking about the reliability of what we read and hear in the media.

During the last couple of weeks I’ve read most of the articles published about the Ghomeshi affair. Usually when I read news articles I’m reading about stories I don’t have anything to do with personally. I don’t know the people involved or much about the subject matter. I’m at the mercy of the journalist publishing the piece. I have to take their word for it that what they’re publishing is true. Maybe some sources are named that lend the article extra credibility. Maybe the newspaper has a sterling reputation, and readers are inclined to think heck, this is in the Globe and Mail. Therefore, it must be true. As such, my default has been to believe what I read in the newspapers.

This despite my father’s advice when I was a kid that I should believe nothing of what I hear and only half of what I see. I’ve always thought that was a pretty good rule-of-thumb (not that I’ve been able to stick to it). A few years ago when a friend told me one story about Jian Ghomeshi’s despicable behaviour toward women (the now infamous “hate *uck” incident) I was appalled but not inclined to take it at face value. It was a rumour. Hearsay. Having worked with Jian, I did not want to believe that he was that sort of person. My eight month working relationship with Jian had been punctuated by two episodes that could be called confrontations (and several positive interactions, I am compelled in the interest of truth and balance to add) but overall our relationship had been fairly neutral. I decided that there was probably something to my friend’s story—where there’s smoke there’s fire—but beyond that I didn’t give it much thought. I didn’t think it really mattered because by this time I was in a different role and didn’t have anything to do with Jian anymore, other than saying hi to him in an elevator now and then.
Two weeks ago the big story about Ghomeshi broke and suddenly the newspapers were filled with articles about people I knew. Not only that, every now and then they would refer to events I was a part of. It was fascinating to read those bits, and on one particular occasion I was reminded of my father’s advice: believe only half of what you see.

There was an article on Friday October 31st in the Globe and Mail written by James Bradshaw and Greg McArther. The article is called The Story of Q. That in itself is interesting because it’s the title of a speech I gave to Ryerson Radio and Television Arts audio students in 2008 about the creation of the show Q. I published the speech on my blog shortly afterward, where it’s still visible (I’m not suggesting the Globe got the title of their article from my blog post; I just thought it was interesting).

In the article, the authors state the following:

“When Q launched as the new afternoon arts program in the spring of 2007, it had a core group of young and ambitious producers, almost all of them in their 20s and 30s.”

Nine of us created Q. I don’t know everyone’s exact age, but I do know that at least two, and possibly as many as four, were in their forties. Jian himself turned forty within months of our debut, in June 2007, so that’s three (and possibly five) of the creators in their forties by June, and of those in their thirties, only one was in his early thirties. So I’m not really sure that you can accurately report that “almost all of them were in their 20s and 30s.” At best it leaves an inaccurate impression, and at worst it’s factually wrong. (I readily admit that we were all ambitious and at the very least felt young.)

The authors go on to say:

“Mr. Ghomeshi had a very specific idea of what Q was going to be, and it was not typical CBC. The aim was to land big-name guests, and not to adhere to the usual CBC mandate: promoting Canadian content coast-to-coast.”

I would suggest that this is also misleading. Although these two sentences don’t state it explicitly, they suggest that Ghomeshi’s ideas took precedence over the ideas of the rest of the producers present, and this was simply not the case. We all had equal input into the conception of the show. I can’t comment on what the show evolved into, because I wasn’t there later on, but in the beginning we all contributed equally, and if we all thought an idea had merit, we adopted it for Q.

It also suggests that Ghomeshi came into the planning sessions with preconceived ideas about the nature of Q, and maybe he did, but I don’t remember him imposing his ideas on any of us in any untoward way. The planning sessions were expertly facilitated and in the very beginning we were remarkably cohesive in our thinking about what the show should be. Really all any of us knew as we started discussing it was that the show was going to be an arts and culture show with Jian as the host. Everything else was up for debate. We even debated what arts and culture meant (e.g., did culture include sports, and if so, under what circumstance?) We did agree early on that landing big-name guests was a good idea, but not to the exclusion of Canadian content. We didn’t care what nationality the big name guest might be: Canadian, American, Martian, whatever. The point was that the show itself was by its very nature Canadian (i.e., we were Canadian, operating out of the CBC) and the content we would produce would be for Canadians (and whoever else chose to consume it).

More from the same article:

“A couple of veteran producers who objected ran up against Mr. Ghomeshi’s star power; they were weeded out. The five that stuck around…”

Etc Etc.

People left, but were they weeded out? I don’t know. Conversations perhaps happened that I wasn’t a part of. Certainly there was a bit of musical chairs but you get that everywhere. The line that really got me was, “The five that stuck around…”

I had to stop and think when I read that. There were two producers that left before we even started to create the show but I don’t think they were weeded out; I’m pretty sure they left of their own accord. And only one of them could have been considered a veteran producer. Ultimately nine of us remained to create Q, one of which was Jian, so that leaves eight, not five.

Maybe the authors were talking about after the show had been created. After the show debuted one producer left for a job in print. After a while the executive producer left as well, leaving… six, not five. Maybe I wasn’t counted because I left myself after eight months, but it certainly wasn’t because I was weeded out. I left due to a promotion; it had nothing to do with any tension with Ghomeshi.

I’m making mountains out of molehills here. The distinctions I’m pointing out are pretty minor, significant to nobody other than me, probably. Still, they have changed the way that I will consume news in the future. Especially when viewed in conjunction with other articles (and recently published books) about the CBC that contain, at least to these eyes, additional (and arguably more important) factual errors or at best misapprehensions about the internal goings on at the CBC. I’m referring to another article in the Globe and Mail that I just cannot take at face value, one published Friday October 10th by David Shoalts called Hockey Night in Canada: How CBC Lost it All, and yet another one in the Globe by Patrick Lagacè published Thursday Nov 6 called “Enabler to a Media Hatchet Job.”

Read all this stuff with a major grain of salt, folks. Unless you were actually there, participating in these events, you do not, cannot, know the whole truth.

Knowlton Nash and the Picture

Knowlton Nash

Knowlton Nash


Once upon a time I lived next door to a little old lady. Her name was Mrs. Reilly, and she was a widow. She liked to talk to me about what I did, where I was from, and how I kept my yard.

She told me the last people to rent my town house kept their yard in an abominable state. They didn’t mow for months on end. Her game was to shame me into keeping my yard in good shape, and it worked, for the most part.

Mrs. Reilly was no hypocrite. Her yard was the best on the block. She was often up before the crack of dawn watering her lawn. There were a lot of water alerts those days. Warnings that the Toronto water reservoirs were dangerously low, that we shouldn’t use any more water than we absolutely had to. Yet Mrs. Reilly’s sprinklers would remain on full, Mrs. Reilly going thirsty herself no doubt so that her lawn wouldn’t suffer.

Sometimes my square metre of grass would get past me, but I managed to stay in Mrs. Reilly’s good books. After each time I cut it she would dart out with her broom, calling “Joey, you can use my broom to sweep the grass off the driveway,” and I would. (I have no idea why she called me Joey instead of Joe–the only people left in the world who call me that are my mother, who’s entitled, and some of my mother’s friends, who aren’t. But I didn’t really mind, because how could I? She was a nice old lady.)

One day Mrs. Reilly spied me in the driveway and emerged from her house carrying a large yellow envelope with something bulky inside it.

“Joey,” she said, “you work for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, right?”

That’s right, I said.

“Would you mind giving this to Knowlton Nash for me then?”

I told her that I had never met Knowlton Nash, as in those days I worked for CBC Radio, not CBC Television.

Mrs. Reilly didn’t know the difference and didn’t care.

She showed me what was in the envelope. It was a framed picture of Knowlton Nash smiling up from behind his newsdesk. Judging by the famous newscaster’s spiffy clothes, the picture had been taken sometime in the early seventies.

Mrs. Reilly explained that her husband had been distantly related to Nash. Seems Nash had given the picture to another relative and eventually it had wound up in Mr. Reilly’s hands. After her husband passed away, Mrs. Reilly decided she wanted to give the picture back to Nash.

Perhaps I should refer to him as Mr. Nash, out of respect, and seeing as I didn’t know him. I reminded Mrs. Reilly of this fact, adding that I didn’t think Mr. Nash even worked for the Corporation any more. He had retired.

The truth was, I figured the odds of me being able to return the picture to Mr. Nash were about as great as me getting up early one Saturday morning to mow the lawn: nil, in other words.

“Take the picture,” Mrs. Reilly insisted. “Maybe you’ll run into him someday.”

I was stuck with the picture.

Two years later I moved, and never saw Mrs. Reilly again. Her yellow envelope languished in my locker at work, where I saw it just about every day.

Several years went by.

Every time I opened the locker I felt guilty. Once in a while I took the picture out and looked at it just to make sure Mr. Nash’s smile hadn’t turned into a frown. Okay, it never did, but damned if he wasn’t looking at me as if to say, “When are you going to give me the picture, Joey?”

“Don’t call me Joey,” I would tell the picture, before putting it back in the locker. “It’s Joe.”

One time I caught a glimpse of Mr. Nash in the CBC Atrium and I thought: quick, run, get the picture from the locker! But I knew that he’d be long gone by the time I got back, so I didn’t.

I hung onto the picture. I thought about visiting the people at the National and asking them how I might get the picture to Mr. Nash. But I figured they’d probably just say, what would Knowlton want with an old picture of himself, anyway? So I didn’t. I was afraid they wouldn’t understand the obligation I felt to this little old lady. I didn’t understand it myself.

Fast forward a few more years. One day a production assistant told me, “Hey, you’re going to be working with someone interesting this afternoon–Knowlton Nash. He’s coming in to do a phone-in show.”

No way.

Way.

Finally, I could unload the picture. I didn’t think twice about it. Friends said, why bother? I tried to explain: I didn’t feel right keeping the picture for myself, I couldn’t throw it away, and I couldn’t live with the darn thing in my locker any more.

I carried the tattered yellow envelope with me all day. It came time for the phone-in show. The production assistant introduced me to Mr. Nash in the announce booth. It was my job to adjust his microphone and make sure he was comfortable, after which I would sit in the control room and tech the interview, riding the levels and whatnot. I had brought the envelope containing the picture into the booth with me.

Feeling stupid, I explained the situation to Mr. Nash:

“Mrs. Reilly knew that I worked for the CBC and asked me to give this to you,” I told him. “I’ve had it in my locker for years.”

“You kept the picture for HOW long?” Nash snarled, before breaking it over his knee.

Okay, that would have been the more dramatic ending, but it’s Knowlton Nash we’re talking about here, a genuine gentleman by all accounts, and my experience with him was no different.

He examined the picture with genuine interest, then opened the card Mrs. Reilly had included and silently read it. Afterwards, he smiled, nodded, and thanked me.

Silly? I thought so at first, but I don’t think so any more. Getting the picture to Knowlton Nash had been important to Mrs. Reilly, and regardless of what I had originally thought of the mission, it felt good to finally see it through.

You’re welcome, Mrs. Reilly.

The Dreaded Travelling Shot

This is a repost, with some slight revisions, of a post I wrote back in June 30th 2006 on a different version of this blog. Also posting the audio sample of the travelling shot in question, which wasn’t included in the original post:

Canadia 2056

Canadia 2056

First of all, I have no idea how to spell “traveling.” I have seen it spelled both as “traveling” and “travelling.” The more I look at the word with either spelling, the stranger it looks.

That aside, some of you may recall my comments on traveling shots in radio a little while back. (For those of you new to the term, a traveling shot is a shot in television, film or radio in which the characters are on the move and the camera/microphone is following them. Think Xander on his skateboard in the opening shot of the very first Buffy the Vampire Slayer for TV, or the famous lengthy traveling shot with Tim Robbins that opens Robert Altman’s The Player)

Basically, traveling shots in radio are usually a bad idea. The reason they’re usually a bad idea is because many writers write them accidentally, without even realizing that they’re writing a traveling shot, until they get in the studio and the engineer says, what the heck, this is a traveling shot, you do realize how difficult it is to convey traveling shots on radio, dontcha? And they say, well, you did read the script before getting here didn’t you? And the engineer says, um, I didn’t really have time, and the writer says, well then you only have yourself to blame then, don’t you? And then the engineer says, well, the producer should have caught it, and then the producer suddenly jerks awake in his chair and says, what scene are we on…?

So why am I repeating myself?

Well, after I wrote that post, I wound up working on projects that were essentially traveling shot after traveling shot. Clearly people are not reading this blog (for shame!) It bears repeating: do not drink and drive, do not pet burning dogs, and DO NOT write traveling shots for radio UNLESS YOU ARE A FOOLISH, IMPETUOUS RECORDING FOOL LIKE MYSELF!

Now.

Have I made myself clear?

Good.

I beg your pardon? You want to know about the “foolish, impetuous recording fool like myself” business?

Oh, all right.

Yes, I was personally responsible for one of the traveling shots. The traveling shot in Canadia, to be precise. (Canadia being the science fiction comedy pilot I’m producing with my buddy Matt Watts).

You see, after writing about them, I realized that I’ve long wanted to try recording the granddaddy of all traveling shots. One that really works. Because if you can convey to the listener what’s going on, then your traveling shot will have worked. Now, it happens that I have recorded dinky little traveling shots that have sort of worked, and longer traveling shots that have kind of worked, and location traveling shots where I’ve followed actors with a boom on the streets of Montreal that also have kind of worked after a fashion…

…but I’ve never built a really good, effective traveling shot for a radio play in a studio.

So I said to Matt as we were planning Canadia that I thought it would be neat to attempt a West Wing/Hill Street Blues style traveling shot off the top of Canadia. So obliging fellow that he is, Matt went ahead and wrote one.

It so happened that we got busy before the taping, Matt was off to New York to see The Drowsy Chaperone (which he helped write), and we never got to discuss the scene properly before taping was upon us. I had originally thought that I might grab a boom and a Tascam and follow the actors around somehow, but instead I opted to record the actors in place with the rest of the cast swirling around them.

Racing against the clock in post-production, however, I lost my nerve and simplified the scene to essentially a static shot. It didn’t work at all. It just lay there in the play, twitching from time to time like a dying rat. When Matt heard my rough mix, he was horrified. I had to admit that it didn’t resemble our original conception at all. Guilty as charged, I admitted that “it still needed a bit of tweaking.”

During the final mix, I sent Matt off for some sound effects, which meant that he had to pass through five different rooms and hallways, each with radically different acoustic ambiances. On the way, it occurred to him that if we broke the scene up in exactly that manner (several different clearly distinct rooms) that it could be made to work. The scene happens to take place on a starship, where this would make complete sense. Additionally, it’s a great opportunity to take listeners on an acoustic tour of the ship.

Genius!

I grabbed an AKG stereo microphone and our Edirol and Matt and I set off on a trek across the Broadcast Centre. I recorded everything as we passed through as many radically different acoustic environments as possible. Afterward, I loaded the material into my ProTools mixing session and cut it down to about a minute and a half, the length of the traveling shot. We placed doors at strategic points during the scene, and built wildly different sound effects beds for each section. (These included a set of stairs, an engine room, a room with loads of construction happening, etc.)

I also electonically “treated” the actors’ voices depending on their supposed location (as well as the accompanying sound effects)… for instance, in the stairwell, I used a Protools plugin called TrueVerb to make them sound realistically like they were in a stairwell.

Although I’m essentially opposed to the use of footsteps in radio (for fear of it becoming “all about the footsteps”), I try valiantly not to be too dogmatic about such things, and reluctantly added a “soupcon” of footsteps here and there just to help sell the movement in the scene.

Whew!

We think it works.

Next time round we’ll plan it better, though, so that the actors know exactly what they’re supposed to be doing when (ie. speaking loudly in the engine room). Although I must say that there is something to be said for their straight delivery, in which nothing is overplayed.

Now if we can only get this show greenlighted for a series and broadcast so that folks can actually hear it…

Note: Not only was the show greenlit, it ultimately went two seasons, with twenty episodes in total broadcast (twenty-one in total made, with two versions of the pilot).

Here is the infamous travelling shot:

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Repost: Plunging the Dead Dog Cafe

I’ve been perusing the Wayback Machine for long lost posts from earlier incarnations of Assorted Nonsense. Here’s one from back in the good ol’ days (circa 2006) when I worked for a fun and much missed show called Dead Dog Cafe:

So there I am, in charge of the live sound effects for the Dead Dog Cafe. Jasper, Gracie and Tom are all counting on me:

Jasper, Gracie and Tom

Jasper, Gracie and Tom

 

My fellow recording engineer Greg DeClute helps me bring some props in on the Go Train for the Sunday morning session.

Greg DeClute

Greg DeClute

 

 

 

 

 

That’s his son Randy’s hockey sticks.

The umbrellas belong to my little girls.

The pressure’s on ’cause we have some high profile guests:

 

 

 

Margaret Atwood after recording Dead Dog

Margaret Atwood after recording Dead Dog

 

I prepare for live sound effects by reading the scripts and getting the sense of the sounds I require. Once I’ve read the script, I delete all the dialogue, leaving me with a list of sound cues. Any sound cues that are kind of vague, I refer back to the script to see their context.

 Most sound cues are obvious… like, say, “plunger.” How many different kinds of plungers are there?

 

 

 

Dead Dog Plunger

Dead Dog Plunger

 

So, seeing plunger in my list a week or two after making the list, I think, well, we don’t have any plungers kicking around in the studio, I’d better bring one in from home. So I disinfect the thing, stick it in my bag and carry it all the way in on the train. I place it close by during the recording session so that I can grab it when the script calls for it. We get to the part of the script that says “plunger!” and I grab it and begin vigorously plunging the floor, making (I think) some particularly good “thwocking” sounds for the rest of the cast and crew to admire.

 

Producer Kathleen Flaherty immediately calls a halt to the proceedings. “Joe, just what the heck do you think you’re doing?”

Kathleen Flaherty, Producer

Kathleen Flaherty, Producer

“Uh… making plunging sounds. Pretty good, eh?”

Not!

Turns out the sound cue was calling for a kind of “medical” plunger to test Tom King’s blood sugar level. Which was obvious when I read the script a little closer.

D’oh!

Fortunately, it’s a comedy show; everyone has a good sense of humour. We all have a good laugh and move on.

And I learn to read my scripts just a tad more thoroughly.

Potato hockey with Dead Dog Cafe

Potato hockey with Dead Dog Cafe

Science Fiction: The Interdisciplinary Genre (SF Academic Conference at McMaster University)

McMaster SF Conference

McMaster SF Conference

Last weekend I attended an SF academic conference at McMaster University.

The conference was in honour of science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer’s archival donation to the university library collection.

It wasn’t a typical science fiction convention. There was nobody in costume. This was a conference in which academics from all over North America presented papers and talks on the subject of science fiction. Talks on subjects like “Russia’s Afrofuturism” by Anindita Banerjee from Cornell, and “Sawyer and Czernada in the Classroom” by David DeGraff of Alfred University.

I wanted to attend for several reasons. One, I’ve known Rob Sawyer since before his first book was published, when I worked on a show he made for CBC Radio’s Ideas way back when. Flash forward (ahem) a few years and we made some other radio together. I’ve read many of his books (I’ll get to them all eventually) and have followed his career with great interest. So I just wanted to be there to help support the man during what would be a pretty significant event in his career.

The Bobbsey Twins -- Ya Gotta Problem With This? width=

The Bobbsey Twins — Ya Gotta Problem With This?

Also, I just want to be a part of the Canadian science fiction community. I’ve read science fiction since I graduated from the Bobbsey Twins (yes, the Bobbsey Twins got me started on the path to reading) and it’s no secret to readers of this blog that I write science fiction. I knew that this would be a relatively intimate affair and afford me the opportunity to meet and chat with some really interesting folks in the SF community.

Finally, I was interested in hearing some of the presentations. But more on that later.

Getting to the conference proved a bit of a task. I was commuting from Whitby to Hamilton (my wife needed the car). This involved a bus at quarter to five in the morning connecting to a subway at York Mills connecting to another bus at Union Station — a three hour commute. I hadn’t slept well so I wasn’t exactly in the best of form by the time I got to Hamilton. Making matters worse, I’d decided to wear my glasses because I don’t trust my contacts these days. I am almost always ill-at-ease in glasses.

I was one of the first to arrive at the conference. I sat in Gilmour Hall wondering if it had been a mistake to come. I was actually feeling kind of panicky. Apart from Sawyer, I realized, I wouldn’t really know anyone. There would be a few people there I’d met before, like Peter Halasz and authors Julie Czernada and Robert Charles Wilson, but I didn’t really know them. I was confronted by a day of social isolation, crashing a party that really had nothing to do with me, attempting to make myself welcome in a community in which I probably didn’t really belong.

And I wasn’t quite sure how getting home would work.

This is how my mind works when I’m tired and wearing glasses.

Rob Sawyer arrived. He saw me, made a beeline for me and welcomed me warmly. The man almost seemed to go for a hug, which I botched by sticking my hand out. We settled for a hand hug. We chatted briefly, catching up (not having seen one another in about four years), and afterward I felt a little more welcome. Maybe this wasn’t such a mistake after all.

I sat back down.

Nah, it was still a mistake.

Two women entered and sat two rows ahead of me. Weird, I thought. They look just like a mother and daughter pair from my karate Dojo. Impossible.

But the daughter is university age. In fact, she’d be starting university this year.

I got out my Samsung Galaxy and texted my Sensei. Is so and so attending McMaster? Does she like Science Fiction?

Sensei texted me back within minutes. Yes and “she loves that stuff.”

It had to be them. Emboldened, I made my way to their row and sat down beside them.

“Hey,” I said.

The daughter looked at me blankly. The mother looked at me blankly. I had the wrong mother daughter pair. I felt lost. Alone.

“Would it help if I put on a gi?” I tried.

Finally recognizing me, they loosened up immediately. “Hey, what are you doing here?” the mother asked.

I explained all, and so did they.

From that moment on the entire day was gold.

They were a lot of fun. Margaret (the mother) and I attended all the academic sessions together, writing notes to one another throughout with our (to us, at least) witty observations. The three of us had lunch and dinner together and I got to know them both a lot better than when violently throwing punches and kicks at one another back at the dojo. And Margaret generously drove me home afterward.

John Robert Colombo

John Robert Colombo

The day began with a speech by Canadian author John Robert Colombo called “400 years of Robert J. Sawyer.” Evidently Sawyer is older than I thought. It’s a great pleasure listening to accomplished public speakers like Colombo. He speaks well and elicits many laughs. One listens to every word. Damned if I can remember any of his speech now but I remember being impressed at the time. Okay, just kidding. Sort of (hey, I didn’t think there’d be a test afterward). The gist of his speech was about how science fiction is about four hundred years old, dating back to the writings of Cyrano de Bergerac (“The Other World“). The question he posed was, would we be reading Robert J Sawyer in four hundred years? To which I would emphatically respond, not unless we make a great deal more progress in the science of senescence. Okay, OTHER people might well be reading Sawyer, but probably not me, so I’ll just have to do my best to read the rest of his works in however many years I have left.

After Colombo, Margaret and I trotted off to Chester New Hall where we took in Herb Kauderer, Associate Professor at Hilbert College & PhD Candidate, Buffalo, talking about “Fedora Hats and the Great Gazoo: Pop Culture References in Robert J. Sawyer’s novel Triggers and Red Planet Blues.” At the risk of doing a terrible injustice to Herb’s presentation, which was much more expansive and erudite than I can possibly present here, Herb wondered (among other things) whether the pop culture references in Sawyer’s work were distracting, especially considering some of them could not possibly be understood or appreciated (without research) by many younger readers (the Great Gazoo dates back to the mid-sixties). I believe Herb came down on “no,” and I would agree. I wondered as Herb spoke whether Sawyer’s work (and the work of other modern authors) would have to be annotated in the future, as classic texts are now. Of course they’ll have to be.

Next up were Rebecca McNulty (MA Candidate, University of Florida) with a speech entitled “‘Let Me Reveal Your Future!’: Robert Sawyer’s Use of Prediction in Near-Future Narrative”, followed by Carrie J. Cole (Indiana University of Pennsylvania) discussing “Science and the Staging of the Speculative Imagination:Interdisciplinary and Intertextual Performance Strategies”.

I love these titles. The speeches were usually infinitely more interesting than the titles suggested. I won’t get into the gist of all the speeches (you really ought to have been there — shame on you for not attending).

I do have one critique, and it’s about public speaking. And I trot this out based on my years working for CBC Radio, working with freelancers and actors of all stripes. This is what I have learned. When speaking in public, it is VERY hard to be entertaining and properly engrossing if you are reading from notes. Almost certainly you will read too fast and the audience will miss much of what you say. It’s okay to have notes, it’s even okay to have it all written down, but don’t read from it. Refer to it from time to time if you have to. The speakers at this conference illustrated this to great effect. Some read, others spoke. The ones who spoke were a lot more fun to listen to than the ones who read (unless they were reading an excerpt from a book, which is different).

And I say all this as someone who struggles sometimes with public speaking. It’s hard to put down the notes. What if you freeze? I froze once during a speech. But that was because I wasn’t prepared (and somebody had told me not to be funny… I need to be funny, or at least try to be, to put myself at ease before the audience). So that’s my two cents. Lots of folks at the conference had plenty interesting to say, but they need to take a page from John Robert Colombo’s book and put down the notes.

David DeGraff (Alfred University)

David DeGraff (Alfred University)

One great talker I’ll point out was David DeGraff of Alfred University talking about “Sawyer and Czerneda in the Classroom.” DeGraff, a youthful (despite his full head of gray hair) professor spoke with enthusiasm about using fiction effectively as an aid to education. I’d take one of his classes in a heartbeat.

Another great speaker — actually, among the best of the day — was Chris Szego of Bakka-Phoenix books, who spoke about “Independent Bookselling: Two Parts Circus, One Part Gong Show.” Speaking from the heart about her experiences selling science fiction books, complete with facts and figures, refuting a few myths about the trade and just generally being interesting and engaging.

And now we come to the highlight of the day for me.

One man I really wanted to hear talk was David Hartwell, Senior Editor at TOR books. He was among the last to talk on Saturday. I had heard him talk at Anticipation in Montreal a few years back and he had some great things to say about the editing process which have since informed my writing. He’s Sawyer’s editor and has a reputation for being good to Canadian science fiction writers. He read excerpts from a book he’s working on about science fiction anthologies.

David Hartwell, Senior Editor Tor Books

David Hartwell, Senior Editor Tor Books

There was a Q & A afterward with both Hartwell and Szego during which Hartwell commented that they are always on the lookout for “talented” writers. I asked him to define talented, which got a big laugh from the audience. But I really wanted to know. How does he define talented? What the heck does that mean? His answer was rather flip, which also got a big laugh, and I’m afraid I don’t remember quite what it was, though he (or maybe it was Chris, or Rob) went on to say essentially that talent manifests itself in many ways.

I spoke with Hartwell afterward. He apologized for his flip response, though it hadn’t bothered me at all, its saving grace being that it was both funny and true (if only I could remember what it was!) I was treated to a rather lengthy conversation with the man, during which (I fear) I peppered him with many questions about editing and writing, all of which he answered graciously. I asked him (for instance) what kind of editing one does on a writer of Sawyer’s calibre (“it’s all about detail,” he told me, or words to that effect).

Before we parted I couldn’t resist telling him that I would love to send a manuscript his way one day. “Send it to me now,” he responded, to my astonishment.

“What if the last five pages aren’t quite done?” I asked him, panicking a little.

“Just make sure the first five pages are perfect,” he said.

Naturally I forgot to ask him for his email address (which Rob generously provided later).

Now, I am not a complete fool. I am well aware that nothing may come of this. Mr. Hartwell was probably just being nice. But his comment did have the effect of galvanizing me. I spent the next week not only making sure the first five pages of my manuscript are perfect, but finishing the last five. I think it (more or less) rocks now.

Whatever comes of it, Hartwell’s offer was a terrific end to a thoroughly enjoyable day.

Ten Films You Might Not Have Seen But Perhaps Ought To

There are probably hundreds if not thousands of films out there that we’d appreciate — maybe even love — if only we knew about them.

Sadly, we don’t know about them. Either because they didn’t do so well at the box office, or were only released on Mars, or we weren’t born yet.

Or maybe we just weren’t paying close enough attention.

So I compiled a list of ten films I consider worth seeing.

I’m not saying they’re my favourite films (that’s another list for another time).

I’m just saying these are a few cool films that maybe flew under the radar that are worth checking out.

I’ve numbered them, but the numbers don’t matter. Truth is I couldn’t decide which order to number them in. So this is just the order I left them in when I gave up the silly exercise of numbering them.

So, without further ado:

10. Les Visiteurs (1993)

I saw this film, about a French nobleman and his servant who are transported forward in time to the twentieth century, in 1993 when I was living in France. A bunch of my French friends dragged me to it, insisting that I had to see it, it was all the rage, and sure enough since then it has turned into a French cult classic

My French wasn’t so hot back then (my French never actually got past “warm”) so I didn’t understand much of the film when I first saw it.

But one line stood out for me with absolute clarity, a line spoken by Jean Reno: “Je pense que j’ai fait un grosse betise” (I think I just did something really stupid).

I was perversely proud of myself for being able to pick out that one line.

It’s a bit of a silly movie, with a particular French comedic sensibility. There was an American remake (Just Visiting), but you owe it to yourself to see the original.

9. One Week 2008

This is a Canadian movie, currently available on NetFlix, starring Joshua Jackson of Fringe and Dawson’s Creek fame.

After being diagnosed with cancer, Jackson’s character feels compelled to take a motorcycle trip from Toronto to Vancouver, presumably to come to grips with his illness and also to sort out his feelings about the woman he’s about to marry. Along the way he sees a lot of small town Canada and meets several interesting characters (one of whom provides some startlingly dubious advice about his relationship).

The soundtrack to this gentle but engaging film was recorded in the Glenn Gould studio in the Canadian Broadcasting Centre where I work, by my colleague Dennis Patterson. But that’s not why I’m flogging it.

8. The Last Mimzy 2007

This is a lovely little science fiction movie for the kids. And the grown-ups. And everyone in between.

I like it for three reasons in particular.

One, it’s an intriguing story about two kids who discover artefacts from the future that give them seemingly magical powers. But for what purpose?

Two, it’s clearly the result of a labour of love for the director, Robert Shaye (founder and former head of New Line Cinema, also famous for giving the green light to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Ring trilogy).

And three, it’s an adaptation of an old science fiction favourite of mine called Mimsy Were the Borogroves (note the different spelling of “Mimsy”) by Lewis Padgett.

A couple of things about that. The title is a line from Lewis Carroll’s poem Jabberwocky:

Twas bryllyg, and ye slythy toves
Did gyre and gymble in ye wabe:
All mimsy were ye borogoves;
And ye mome raths outgrabe.

And Lewis Padgett is actually a pseudonym of the husband and wife writer team Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore.

7. Away From Her 2006

Another Canadian film, this time by director/actor Sarah Polley. It’s about a man (played by Gordon Pinsent) dealing with his wife’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease (the wife is played by Julie Christie). So, a happy movie. Not. But a compelling movie.

I found a promotional copy of this movie on the infamous “Table of Shit” in the Q production area back when I worked on the show. The Table of Shit was where we put all the books and videos and whatnot that people sent us flogging their wares. So I took this one home and watched it with my wife, and was duly impressed.

6. Le Hussard Sur le Toit (The Horseman on the Roof) 1995

This one is set in Provence, France in 1832. It’s about a young officer trying to help a young woman find her husband during a cholera outbreak. I saw it a long time ago (well, eighteen years ago, to be exact) and would love to see it again. I remember being drawn to it because it’s set in Provence, my home for a year shortly before seeing it. But well worth seeing in its own right.

5. The Emperor’s New Clothes 2001

If you like Bilbo Baggins you’ll like this movie. Well, maybe not. But perhaps if you like Ian Holm, who played both Bilbo in the Lord of the Rings franchise, and Napoleon, in this flick. It’s a small but charming movie about Napoleon’s final attempt to regain the throne of France. An attempt that doesn’t quite go as Napoleon would have liked.

4. Spoorloos (The Vanishing) (1988)

A disturbing movie about the disappearance of a woman with one of the best endings I’ve ever seen in a movie.

I will say nothing more about it, except to say you must see the original, not the Hollywood remake (but isn’t that just about always the case?)

3. The Swimmer 1968

I caught this Burt Lancaster flick on late night television back in the eighties. The best kind of quirky. A couple of months ago I stumbled across the John Cheever short story the film is based on. A good short story. A better movie. Roger Ebert called Lancaster’s performance in this movie his best.

2. Ridicule 1996

Ridicule

Ridicule

(I have removed the trailer for this film because it is rather explicit. I must confess I didn’t watch it all the way through before posting it. Learned my lesson there!)

What can I say? I like French films (I pretty much like French anything). This one has a lot of humour in it but not the kind you might expect from a French film. This one’s smart and sometimes nasty. Highly recommended.

1. Legend of Drunken Master (1994)

This Jackie Chan film is a personal favourite, influenced no doubt by my love of both martial arts and martial arts films. Tons of action and plenty of humour. I brought it home one night from the video store and my wife said, “What the heck is this?”

Five minutes in, after some pretty dubious English dubbing, she said, “Seriously, this is what you want to watch?”

But she watched the whole thing with me.

And the next night, when we felt like watching another movie, she said, “Let’s watch Legend of Drunken Master again!” because she had enjoyed it so much. Watching the same movie two nights in a row is something we’ve never done before or since.

So what’s it about?

Jackie Chan’s character is a martial artist who gets better the more alcohol he drinks. Needless to say his parents don’t approve. But when foreigners start stealing priceless artefacts, Jackie has no choice.

Particularly charming and hilarious is Anita Mui’s performance as Jackie’s character’s mother-in-law.

Now.

What little known gems do you recommend?

No It Isn’t Done Yet, But Thanks For Asking

The Infamous Manuscript

The Infamous Manuscript

Just now a woman stopped me on the Go Train platform to tell me that her nephew had finished his novel. Oh, and he’d published it too.

“It’s on the shortlist for the Jiller prize,” she told me.

“Giller,” I corrected. “Good for him.”

“How’s yours coming?” she asked me.

I felt a lump forming in my throat. “It’s coming along,” I told her.

She looked at me with what could have been sympathy but might just as well have been pity. “Good,” she said, nodding. “Good.”

She was asking because she’s ridden the same Go Train as me for several years. And as long as she’s known me I’ve been working on this novel.

And I felt bad because as long as she’s known me I’ve been working on this novel.

This morning – the same day, mind you – another Go Train friend told me about a friend who had just published a novel.

“How’s yours coming along?” she asked.

“Fine,” I said. “Almost done.”

“It’s been almost done for four years,” she reminded me.

“Yeah,” I said, and slunk off.

Recently a relative said, “I don’t tell anyone about your book any more. It’s embarrassing. You need to just finish it.”

Later that same evening one of my daughters said, “Just finish it, Daddy. I’m sure it’s fine. You don’t need to fix it anymore. Here, let me read it.”

“Another pass and I’ll let you read it,” I told her, and slunk off.

The fact is my novel isn’t done yet. Last summer – or was it the summer before – I thought it was. I convinced myself it was done. I was tired of writing it. So I gave it to a few friends to read. Four of them professed to like it (one even graciously copy edited it for me.) I’m still waiting to hear from one (I don’t blame him – I consider it a great imposition to ask someone to read my work). One said he couldn’t get past page forty (yes, he’s still my friend, the jerk).

While I was waiting I read it over again myself. I liked it. But I didn’t like the ending.

So I went back to work.

And that’s what I’ve been doing since, correcting the ending. It’s a lot better. But I still have a few pages to go.

James Michener

James Michener

James Michener once wrote that the biggest challenge in writing a novel is finishing it. Many others have expressed similar sentiments. One of Michener’s favourite novelists only ever wrote one book. Except that’s not exactly true – late in life Michener looked him up and found out he’d actually written three others, but never finished them. Late in this fellow’s eighties he was still working on them, trying to make them perfect. As far as I know, he never did.

I have always been afraid of being that guy.

Once I was mad at George RR Martin for not finishing the next book in his Game of Thrones series in a timely manner. I met him in Montreal two or three years ago. I wanted to say, “Finish your damn book, sir.” Except I knew better, and I knew what it was like trying to finish a novel you care about.¹ You can’t just finish it. The book is the boss. It will tell you when it’s done, not the other way around.

George RR Martin

George RR Martin

Another of my favourite writers, Vernor Vinge, took ten years to write one of my favourite books, A Deepness in the Sky.² He had a full time job, like me. I’m eight years in since I started working on this book seriously in the Fall of 2005.³ So by that standard I still have two years to go.

Vernor Vinge

Vernor Vinge


So yes, in case you were wondering I know it’s completely ridiculous that I haven’t finished my novel yet. I’m sorry. Believe me, nobody wants to finish it more than I do. Increasingly when people ask me about it I just want to weep at the pathetic-ness of it all.⁴

Will it be worth it after all this time?

I was going to write that I don’t know, because I have no way of knowing whether it’ll ever get published, except to say that my efforts to get it published will equal my efforts to make it good.

But the true answer is of course it will be worth it. It’s already worth it.

Because I have loved every instant of writing it.⁵

Postscripts:
¹In the end I just shook his hand and told him how much I loved his books. “Thanks,” he said. And that was the extent of our relationship.
²Don’t hold me to that figure, I’m not exactly fact checking here.
³Although I put the first words to paper sometime around nineteen eighty-seven, I think.
⁴Except, as I have written before, I don’t, because I’m a man and as such have never wept and probably never will.*
⁵Except the first draft. I hate first drafts.
*Yes, the bit about weeping and being a man is meant to be ironic.

Facebook Faux Pas

Not so sure about the thumbs up...

Not so sure about the thumbs up…

I don’t know how many times I’ve embarrassed myself on Facebook. Probably more times than I even realize.

Recently, at about one in the morning, I came across a humorous anti-gun cartoon good enough that I thought I’d share it. I wrote a caption to the effect that as long as at least some people on the planet were thinking in these terms, there was hope for humanity. I felt good about myself.

The next morning I woke up, opened up Facebook, and the anti-gun cartoon had somehow turned pro-gun. I had posted a pro-NRA gun cartoon and loudly proclaimed this kind of thinking to represent salvation for humanity!

What an idiot.

So I wrote a comment clarifying my views. Later in the day I looked at the cartoon again and thought, well, maybe it could be interpreted as anti-gun, if you squinted right. When I realized that I could no longer even interpret the cartoon correctly, either due to the ambiguous nature of the cartoon or impending senility, I decided the best course of action was simply to delete the cartoon, which I did.

Writer and Facebook Friend Ed Willett

Writer and Facebook Friend Ed Willett

Later, one of my Facebook friends, Canadian science fiction writer Edward Willett, posted the following on his Facebook page:

Social media reveals to you what your acquaintances think about all sorts of controversial issues. I am not sure this is a good thing, since it is likely you will then discover that your acquaintances appear to be blithering idiots about this or that issue on which you disagree, which may have a harmful effect on otherwise friendly relationships.

When I read that I thought, My God, he’s talking about me. Okay, probably not specifically me, but it could certainly apply to me on occasion.

Because sometimes I can’t resist sharing cartoons, essays and whatnot that I think reflect my views. Only they may not entirely reflect my views, either for reasons of stupidity as noted above, or because I’m being flip. Because let’s, um, “face” it, Facebook may not be the best forum for in-depth intellectual discourse, and sometimes (I would even say usually) when I post or share something, I’m doing so without a whole lot of thought behind it.

Recently I was called out for this flip-ness. Flipness, it seems, doesn’t translate well on Facebook. People take you literally. A couple of weeks ago I shared someone else’s essay on how modern filmmakers should not eschew analog film in favour of more modern, but more expensive, digital equipment. I agreed with some points of the essay. But I posted it because I like to indulge in a tongue-in-cheek preference for analog over digital because I run a department called Digital Production Maintenance. Sometimes the digital broadcast equipment my department maintains drives us absolutely bonkers with the need for constant upgrades and the software bugs such upgrades inevitably create. I joke that life would be a lot easier if we reverted completely to analog and changed the name of the department to Analog Production Maintenance. But I am joking (mostly). When I shared the essay on Facebook I did not make this nuance clear and at least one friend took me to task for my apparent gullibility. Perhaps others thought the same. There is a real (if slim) chance that such “mis-posts” could potentially even harm my career, were the wrong person to misinterpret such a Facebook post.

I have also noticed that whenever I go to the trouble of posting something with a little heft to it (such as this essay), it is usually completely ignored. Whereas when I post an anniversary announcement, or a cute picture of my kids, the “likes” sky-rocket. I am tempted to conclude what most people have probably known from the beginning. That it’s best to play it safe on Facebook. Leave religion, politics and other serious thinking out of it.

Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke

However, I am not inclined to leave religion, politics, and other serious subjects completely out of it. As Edmund Burke once wrote, for evil to flourish all that is needed is for good people to do nothing. I subscribe to that whole-heartedly. It is not my nature to stay completely neutral, posting only innocuous posts about baby kittens and friendly whales.

But clearly I need to modify my approach. When I do stray into dangerous territory, I need to exercise more care. I need to be clear, not flip. I must make sure that I am not misrepresenting myself in any way.

Heaven forbid someone should think I’m not in favour of baby kittens or friendly whales.

Joni Mitchell

Joni

Joni

I like Joni Mitchell.

Not just because her music is awesome, but because of a simple gesture on her part.

Several years ago she came to the Broadcast Centre for a series of interviews. I’m pretty sure the main interview was for Morningside with Peter Gzowski, because Trish Thornton was still with CBC Radio, and she was Morningside’s tech at the time.

I believe Trish recorded Joni performing one of her songs. Then I was booked in the studio immediately afterward to record Joni for another show (I can’t remember which one) while Trish went off on break. I remember being mildly impressed that the guest was Joni Mitchell. I went into the booth to meet her and the show’s producer and I asked, “So what are we doing? Recording a song?” I was prepared to mic her guitar, do whatever else was required, and I was disappointed when I was told that no, we weren’t recording any music, it was just an interview.

So I went back in the control room and recorded the interview. I can’t remember a single thing about the interview… mind you, I’ve recorded hundreds and hundreds of interviews and don’t remember much about most of them.

What I do remember is this. To most guests, technicians are little more than pieces of furniture. Or another piece of equipment. Barely human, certainly not worth paying any attention to. So I was always pleased when a guest treated me like a human.

The interview finished. The interviewer (I can’t remember who) led Joni out into the hall. It wasn’t necessary to pass by the control room. I thought, yeah, there they go, both of them, ignoring the tech as usual.

Until Joni deliberately broke free of the interviewer and marched back up the hall to the control room, where she sought me out, caught my eye, and said, “Thank you, it was nice to meet you.”

“It was nice to meet you,” I said, and we smiled at each other.

Like two human beings.

Immodest Genius

Some band

Some band

I was listening to the Beatles today. Sgt. Pepper. Such a great album.

And I got to wondering. Did the Beatles ever just pull that out to listen to when they were in the mood? Do Paul and Ringo, today, sometimes just stick it on to enjoy? Or would they be embarrassed to do so? Is it considered somehow gauche to listen to your own stuff, even at that level? Is it something you can do with other people over, or is it something you can just do by yourself?

I’ve recorded a few tunes of my own over the years. Strictly amateurish stuff, but I like some of it. It’s on my iTunes on my laptop. It’s in the rotation, and sometimes, when it comes on, I listen to it.

A young Gordon Lightfoot

A young Gordon Lightfoot

We had Gordon Lightfoot in Studio 212 one day. It was for a television thing but I was in charge of 212 that day, so I was in the studio with him and about a hundred of his hanger ons. He was in a mood and one of his hanger ons told me and some others to leave while they dealt with it. While I was standing outside the studio I talked with one of his lesser inner circle and they told me some Gordon stories.

One of the stories was that at Gordon’s parties they play Gordon Lightfoot music. And we wondered. Was that weird? Or did it make sense? I would be the first to admit that Gordon Lightfoot’s music is awesome. I’d put some of it right up there with the Beatles. Should he not have the right to play it when and where he wants? Would I play my own tunes publicly if I were as good as Gordon?

Doesn’t seem quite Canadian, somehow. Immodest.

So I’m going to go with probably not.