Joe`s Favourite Flicks

Friends who have checked out my list of Ten Films You Might Not Have Seen But Perhaps Ought To have questioned the absence of certain films they know I love but that aren`t on that list.

That`s because that list is a list of slightly more obscure films. A list of my absolute favourite films would consist of different films. Such a list would be much shorter, and might look something like this (in no particular order, because they are all equal in my mind):

Little Big Man (1970)

I first saw this movie when I was about eleven, and I`ve seen it many times since. Such is the power of this movie that even during the long years I didn`t really like Dustin Hoffman as an actor (it was probably his choice of roles I didn`t like) I continued to love him in this role. It`s an episodic tale, which is probably another reason I love the movie, skipping from tone to tone, story to story in a linear fashion.

I couldn`t find a proper trailer, but here`s a decent clip. The clip doesn`t give a proper sense of the scope and majesty of this movie, but it does reveal its occasional gravitas.

Life Is Beautiful (1997)

This is the only movie that has ever made me cry (though It`s a Wonderful Life sometimes makes me tear up, especially when I see it on the big screen). I laughed throughout Life is Beautiful, and when the credits rolled, I burst into tears right there in the theatre and sobbed like a baby for a full minute, much to my wife`s amazement. I have never cried before, during or after another movie in my life. In fact, I didn`t even think I had tear ducts until then. You will have to see the movie for yourself to understand why I cried, and perhaps even then you won`t understand, but the fact that it was capable of reducing me to such a state is but one of many reasons I love it.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966)

This is not a movie for people with short attention spans. There are long, slow scenes. But once you get into it, once you absorb the pace and feel of the movie, it`s terrific. Clint Eastwood is appealing as the kind of guy you wish you could be like, but it`s really Eli Wallach who walks away with this movie with his energetic performance.

The Man Who Would Be King (1975)

I caught this movie one morning back in the late eighties around Christmas time before working a late shift in Radio Master Control at the Jarvis Street CBC. What a gift! Sean Connery and Michael Caine together. With Christopher Plummer, no less. And John Huston directing. I`ve always been fascinated by John Huston, the charismatic asshole who also directed The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and picked on Ray Bradbury mercilessly during the making of Moby Dick. (It wasn`t the whale who was the dick during the making of that movie.)

Anyway, if you like adventure movies, I`m pretty sure you`ll love The Man Who Would Be King.

Excalibur (1981)

King Arthur, Merlin, the Knights of the Round Table. What`s not to like? Especially if served up properly, as it is in this flick. Liam Neeson has an early role as a knight. Nicol Williamson delivers a slightly eccentric but brilliant performance as Merlin. And Nigel Terry, who my casting director friend Linda Grearson once met and cannot stop talking about whenever his name comes up, is a wonderful King Arthur. There has never been a better movie about King Arthur, at least that I have seen.

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.

What the…?

Huh?

Huh?

Yesterday somebody asked me, what’s up with your blog?

“You’re referring to the poker thing?” I asked him.

He was.

Here’s the deal with the poker thing. It’s an advertisement. Somebody offered me one hundred and forty some bucks to place that on my blog. I thought, hey, I could use one hundred and forty some bucks. So I accepted, both because I wanted the cold, hard cash, and because I thought it would be an interesting experiment. Little did I know that it would involve such a butt ugly graphic.

No problem, I thought when I saw it. I’ll just bury it with other posts.

Which worked until something odd happened to the poker post. It became impossible to access it from outside the blog. You could scroll down to it, but you couldn’t click on a link to it and access it. The advertising company emailed me and pointed this out, so I was forced to post it again, bumping it to the top of the blog. And yes, I have asked myself, how did that one post become corrupt?

Don’t know. Curious to see if this one becomes corrupt.

If it does, guess I’ll just refund the one hundred and forty some bucks, and my little experiment with advertising will be done.

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.

Bespectacled

The Glasses

The Glasses

When I was eleven I couldn’t see the chalkboard.

So I got glasses.

When I was twelve I wore them part time. I would carry them from class to class and put them on when I needed to.

By the time I was thirteen I was wearing them all the time. Just in time for my teen-age years. Just in time to eat away at my self-confidence like a particularly potent brand of sulphuric acid.

Sometime around twenty-one or twenty-two, after much consultation with friends who’d already taken the leap, I got contacts. I loved them right away. They took my disability and made it go away. It required some practice but in no time I had no trouble putting contacts in my eyes. There was the odd mishap, like the time my lens got too dry and scratched my cornea, and the time a lens split in half in my eye and rolled up under my eyelid. (I freaked out at that one, until I reasoned that the lens couldn’t get lost behind my eye, that it had to be just under the eyelid, and sure enough a doctor flipped the eyelid back and got it out.)

Once I accidentally washed my contacts down the drain (I got mixed up and thought I was rinsing out my contact lens container). No problem, I resorted to glasses. But by then I had developed a loathing for glasses, and on the subway I took them off to get a break from them and set them on the seat beside me. Then got up at the next station stop and left them behind. They never showed up at Lost and Found, so for three days, while I waited for replacements for both my contacts and glasses, I was forced to live life with my natural-born eyesight.

Because I always had some form of vision correction, I hadn’t noticed how badly my eyes had deteriorated. I wasn’t exactly blind — I could still see close up, but what an eye opener, pun intended. I still had to go to work. I remember editing audio tape with the tape machine inches from my eyes. I went to the zoo with my girlfriend and was unable to see any animals. I couldn’t watch television, there was no point going to movies, and I couldn’t even read a book or magazine with comfort. I realized for the first time in my life how much of a disadvantage I would be at had I been born in a time without vision correction — in other words, for most of human history.

But other than those incidents I had a good twenty-six years wearing contacts.

Until a couple of years ago. When I started getting headaches.

I have an astigmatism. I can’t see far away and just about all distances are blurry to me. In my mid-forties, as I think is the case for just about everyone, I started to develop far-sightedness, or an inability to see close up. My eyes began to lose their elasticity. My contacts couldn’t correct all my vision problems.

I persisted anyway. I loathed glasses, I told myself. It was inconceivable that I should have to wear them all the time. I dealt with the headaches. I worked through them, lived with them. Never felt completely normal — unless I wore glasses. I tried different contacts, but none of them made the headaches completely go away. Some days were worse than others. You might think, why would he put himself through that? I would refer you back to the part of this essay where I mention loathing glasses.

Still, the older I’ve gotten the more I’ve made my peace with glasses. They allow me to see, after all. They are a miracle product — not as elegant as contacts, which allowed me to pretend that I didn’t have a disability, but thank God for them.

Because last weekend the headaches were so bad that I was practically in tears by the end of the day (I wasn’t actually in tears, mind you — I am a man, and as such I have never cried, and probably never will.) It was obvious that the end was nigh. I knew this would be the case someday, but I thought that day would be when I was seventy, not forty-eight.

I have worn glasses every day since. Twice I have put the contacts back in but haven’t been able to stand them any longer than an hour. I am looking at a future of glasses and no contacts.

My optometrist tells me she has one more trick up her sleeve. Something called “monovision”, which involves correcting for distance in one eye and up close with the other eye and letting the brain try to make sense of it all. I’m not optimistic, but I’ll give it a try. I’d sure like to be able to wear contacts again.

Still, if I have to wear glasses full time I will accept it with grace. Why wouldn’t I? There are people who suffer much worse fates — loss of limbs, chronic pain, what have you. What’s having to wear glasses compared to that? Nothing more than an annoyance.

So if you see me with glasses and wonder what’s up, that’s it. Get used to it.

I intend to.

What Did We Know?

Three Oaks Senior High School

Three Oaks Senior High School

My wife and I were discussing reunions for the High School we both attended, Three Oaks Senior High School in Prince Edward Island. Neither of us has ever managed to attend a reunion because we live in Ontario, only get back to PEI every two years (if that), and when we do get back any reunions are invariably held the week before or after we’re there (hmm… makes you wonder).

We got to talking about the so-called “in-crowds” which neither of us were ever a part of, if such things even existed at Three Oaks.

We agreed that it was a long time ago and probably everybody’s changed anyway.

“What did we know back then, anyway?” I said. “Nothing, that’s what we knew. We were just kids. We didn’t know anything.”

“You didn’t know anything,” my wife corrected me. “But I’m pretty sure everybody else knew some stuff.”

Effectively ending the conversation (it’s hard to talk when you’re too busy laughing).

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.

Toronto Gay Pride Week

Throwing Confetti During Gay Pride Parade

Throwing Confetti During Gay Pride Parade

Got up this morning, ate my usual English Muffin with peanut butter and jam accompanied by a banana, an orange, and a glass of water, opened the Toronto Star, and was immediately confronted with hatred.

There was an article about a man who, along with his family and several hundred others, was rounded up in 1941 and marched at gunpoint to a pit in the forest where they were all murdered and buried in the pit for the crime of being Jews. The man survived to tell the tale so that I, in the comfort of my peaceful, middle class home seventy-two years later, could learn about the capacity of the human race to hate. And not just hate, but HATE.

This depressed me. It probably depressed many decent people. How is such hate possible?

Later I was listening to CBC Radio’s DNTO which today is about the elasticity of gender, where I was confronted with my own capacity for hatred.

I grew up in Prince Edward Island where I encountered to my knowledge two gay men and no gay women that I’m aware of. I know now that there were many more but at this time only two were out of the closet. I did not hate the two that I knew, in fact one of them was a favourite teacher, a drama teacher, who cast me in one of his plays, and the truth is I didn’t think much, if ever, about the fact that he was gay.

It was only later when I was in university in Nova Scotia and in the company of many shallow youth such as myself that I began to contribute to the culture of intolerance and, yes, hatred for homosexuality. I did not understand it, I thought it was wrong, I was surrounded by like-minded people who affirmed this kind of wrong-headed thinking. Thinking created by not thinking with any kind of intellectual rigour about homosexuality, thinking manufactured by fundamentalist religious views, thinking promoted by wanting to fit in, to become that much more accepted by your peers by generating a few laughs about an easy-to-target demographic that you think has nothing to do with you, really.

I moved to Toronto to attend university there. I got a job as a security guard at 77 Carleton Place. My first boss was George, a World War Two vet who went abroad to fight against exactly the kind of hate that I started this post with. “We’re not allowed to carry weapons,” he told me when I started. “We are allowed to carry keys, though.” And he produced a key attached to a long wooden stick that I hope to God he never actually had to hit anyone with.

George also talked to me about one of the other security guards, a handsome, fit man in his early forties who also worked as an underwear model. I can’t remember George’s exact words about this gentleman, but it was clear what George thought his sexual orientation was, and that George did not entirely approve.

George got sick and the handsome man became my boss. One night myself, the handsome man and another security guard happened to be working together and the subject of homosexuality came up. This was not as random as it might seem because there was a tenant in the building dying of Aids at the time. He looked terrible and was the first person I’d ever met who I was aware suffered from Aids. I do not believe he survived long after I met him.

Anyway, in a moment of candour I wish I could erase from my life (along with the attitude that produced it), I told my new boss (conveniently pretending that I suspected nothing about his sexual orientation) what I thought of male homosexuality.

I never worked as a security guard again.

My next job was working for a private production company. One of the biggest jobs I worked on for this company was producing a documentary on Aids. It was about a young man dying of Aids and the struggle of his family to come to terms with both his sexual orientation and the fact that he was terminally ill. Before the father (a tough, grizzled autoworker) learned of his son’s illness he was every bit as prejudiced as I was at the time. He’d never really thought about the subject before. But, he told us on camera, choking back tears, nothing mattered to him now but his love for his son.

This was just one brick in the wall of my own education on the matter. After that I went to work for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. My first year there I fell in love with a woman who never loved me back, at least the same way, because she was gay. I won’t write any more about that for reasons of discretion except to say that this was the emotional juggernaut that prompted me for the first time to really think about the subject. I talked to people, visited bookstores in which I spent hours reading about homosexuality, trying to understand. I started from the position that homosexuality was a choice, a bad choice. I seriously thought I could get this woman to change her mind. I actually told people that I thought a crime had been committed, as if someone had corrupted her in some way. I would get her to come around, I thought.

But the crime was mine, of not understanding.

My feelings on the matter were further complicated when I moved in with two women who, two days before I moved in with them, informed me that they were gay. I had guessed because of a certain lack of bedrooms. They were going to tell me the day I moved in. I lived with them for six months during which they treated me abominably, ignoring me, not speaking to me. It was a terrible, emotionally damaging experience, and one of the happiest days of my life was the day I moved out.

You would think that experience might have deepened my prejudices, but in fact I was already starting to come around. I had friends by this time who were clearly gay and I would defy anybody to truly be friends with someone either gay, Jewish, black, animal, alien or otherwise and remain intolerant. Or at least I hope so.

To this day I don’t think I have any true comprehension of what it’s like to be gay or the subject of any real intolerance, prejudice or hatred. I’m a straight white male who in many ways has it easy. But I hope, I hope to God, that I have eradicated as much hate and intolerance from my being as possible. I attended a church for a while, full of people that I like, but who adhered to a certain fundamentalist perspective such as an intolerance for homosexuality that after a while I couldn’t look past, that to me amounted to just a different kind of hate. So I stopped attending.

After a while of living I realized that my true religion was people. People over ideals. My idea is that as long as I place people first, whether gay, black, pink, purple or what have you, I can’t go wrong. I don’t care what you believe, if it places any kind of people anything other than first, you wind up with hate.

Author Iain Banks summed it up nicely: “F*** every cause that ends in murder and children crying.”

Amen.

Happy Pride Week.