A bit of nonsense in which I attempt to answer my sister Susan’s questions.
A bit of nonsense in which I attempt to answer my sister Susan’s questions.
It was just supposed to be a short trip to pick up some Thai take-out.
I headed south on Brock toward the FreshCo in my 2019 Hyundai Elantra. The one that I’d purchased for its safety features and drive-ability, mindful that my two daughters would be learning to drive in it.
The light turned red at Dundas. A Durham Transit bus pulled up beside me on my right. On my left, a guy crossing the street waved at me. I waved back, until I realized he was waving at the bus driver to wait for him. I smiled at my foolishness. The light turned red. The intersection was clear. I pulled out in front of the bus.
Safely through the intersection, I headed down Brock for another block. Bowman & Gibson Insurance Brokers sits on the northeast corner of Colborne and Brock. It’s a single story brick building that obscures much of what might be westbound on Colborne. It shouldn’t matter; there’s a stop sign there. You should be able to proceed north or south on Brock without worrying about anyone on the side streets.
I don’t know what I was thinking about in those few seconds between Dundas and Colborne. Whatever it was, BAAMM!!! it was violently knocked outta my head (and possibly into the next province) when a thunderous crash and an enormous impact assaulted my reality and rattled my brain. In that same instant I found myself in a sea of white, my vision completely obscured as (I realized later) multiple air bags deployed around me.
“HOLY F***!!!” I shouted.
It seemed an apt response.
My past didn’t flash before me. My future did. Was I about to die? Was I badly injured, crippled maybe?
I felt no pain. I knew that pain might come, once the shock of whatever had just happened wore off.
My vision in front of me and to the left was almost completely obscured by the white air bags. I don’t remember bringing the car to a halt but I found myself stopped, the car still in gear. After a few seconds I had the presence of mind to take the car out of gear, but I didn’t think to turn it off.
I didn’t appear to be physically injured but I was pretty emotionally shaken up. I thought about getting out of the car. There was an air bag in my way. It was enough to deter me from getting out. I thought, I’ll just sit here a bit and collect myself. I wanted to get to the point where I could talk without my voice sounding all shaky. I knew it would be a while.
A guy showed up in the driver’s side window. “Hey buddy, how you doing?”
I thought he might be part of the emergency response team, even though it had only been about a minute since the crash. It was his manner, pretty calm and collected. Turned out his name was Brett and he worked at the Brock Street Brewing Company just down the street a bit further. I will be going there for a drink someday where I hope to buy Brett a drink.
“Blew through the stop sign,” Brett said.
I started to panic. “I blew through the stop sign?”
“No, no, the other guy!” Brett clarified. “He blew through the stop sign right into you. Now he’s buying some smokes in the corner store.”
I was relieved that I wasn’t at fault. There was definitely something amiss with the other guy, though… blasts through a stop sign onto a major road in downtown Whitby, crashes into another vehicle, and then before doing anything else goes into a convenience store to buy a pack of smokes.
“I’m gonna go make sure he doesn’t get away,” Brett said, after making sure that I was more or less okay.
I did seem to be okay physically. I tried to think how I could get the Thai food I’d ordered, then realized that probably wasn’t going to happen. I still wasn’t quite up to getting out of the car. I remembered a friend telling me about a similar accident and how he’d made the mistake of deciding he was okay, and telling the paramedics he was okay, only to have them all leave him alone while he gradually went into shock. I thought I would just sit tight and then get myself checked out.
Brett came back, said they’d got the guy. He suggested I turn off the car’s engine. Sheepishly, I turned it off. I told Brett I’d better call my wife and let her know that I wouldn’t be coming back with the Thai food.
“I’m okay,” I told her when she picked up. “But I’ve been in an accident. It’s pretty bad but like I said I’m okay.” I was sounding pretty shaky but there was nothing I could do about that. “Can you call Thai Delicious and tell them I won’t be coming?”
She told me she would and that she loved me. I told her I loved her too.
We resolved to give Thai Delicious plenty of business later to make up for it.
Brett gave me a note from a witness with a name and number. “She wanted you to have this in case you need a witness,” he said. I tucked it in my wallet.
A paramedic by the name of Tristan (I think) showed up and checked me out. Turned out I had a nasty cut on my right leg and some scrapes on my right arm. There was what looked like a bad carpet burn on my left elbow. Looking at the pictures of the airbags that were deployed, it’s obvious that all my injuries are a direct result of the airbag deployment. The airbag beneath the dashboard cut my right shin . The one from the steering wheel cut my right forearm. The one from the driver’s side door burned the skin off my left elbow. Presumably they all prevented more serious injury.
Later I would find other scrapes and the distinct impression of a seat belt running up my side. The paramedics took me to Oshawa hospital where I was also checked out and given a relatively clean bill of health and released back into the wild, though I was warned that some whiplash could develop over time.
I was kinda surprised that the hospital did nothing for my cuts and scrapes. When I asked about them, the doctor’s assistant just said, “Clean them and they’ll heal up nicely.”
The following day I had an opportunity to speak to the investigating officer when he kindly came to my home to return my driver’s license and insurance papers. He explained to me that no police are required for minor fender benders, but police are required when there are injuries involved. In this case the injuries turned out to be pretty minor (I don’t think the other guy was hurt at all), but at the time of the accident it looked to witnesses like the injuries would be far more serious.
All the witnesses the officer questioned thought I’d been killed, such was the violence of the collision. I had been struck on the driver’s side, toward the front of the car but the impact had included part of the car door. It had probably looked pretty darned dramatic. (Sure wish I could get my hands on some security footage, if any exists!) Our Hyundai Elantra’s safety features performed as advertised and I sure am happy about that.
Although the other guy claimed he’d been waved onto Brock by another driver, all three witnesses said he blew through the stop sign and right into my car. The police officer told me that if he hadn’t hit me he could well have struck and killed pedestrians crossing the street. It turned out the fellow was driving with a suspended license and had taken the family car without permission. He’s facing three charges, including careless driving. The other two charges are personal in nature and the officer wouldn’t tell me what they were (I didn’t pry).
Despite what happened to me and my car, it appears there were other factors at play that make me feel some sympathy for the guy, and his family… I think he has a rough road ahead of him.
Whereas I’m back on the road, a little worse for wear, but still intact, mobile, and enormously grateful to be alive.
I stumbled across the following recently which had appeared on an early version of this blog (July 14th, 2009, to be precise), before the blog self-destructed shortly afterward (one of a handful of blog implosions over the years). I like to recapture this sort of thing for the modern incarnation of Assorted Nonsense so that it doesn't get lost to time and also because it keeps alive the memory of some important, interesting people in my life.
aka “Inspector Nickles” (Photo by David Cooper, Shaw Festival.)
Neil Munro has passed away at 62 years of age.
I was fortunate enough to work with Neil off and on over the course of two or three years. Although they don’t mention it in the notice at CBC.ca, one of Neil’s many accomplishments was starring as Inspector Quentin Nickles in The Investigations of Quentin Nickles , for CBC Radio’s Mystery Project.
Working on these plays I had the opportunity to observe Neil’s craft up close.
You had to be a skilled actor working on these shows. Producer/Director Barry Morgan was a one take wonder. Rarely did we ever make it up to take two. So the actors had to get it right the first time, and they almost always did. If we had to do a second take it was usually because one of us technical types had screwed something up, or one of the sound effects engineers was caught on tape snoring during a brief siesta (that actually happened once).
Neil also wrote/adapted several radio plays; I remember recording and mixing two or three wild and crazy examples of his work. The names escape me now, but I recall them as full of mirth and inventiveness.
I remember Neil Munro as not only a consummate professional but as a genuinely warm and friendly man. He deserved better than to have died at 62, it seems to me. As Truman Capote said, life is a moderately good play with a badly written third act.
In Neil’s case, I’m afraid someone eliminated the third act altogether.
So long, Inspector Nickles.
My friend and colleague Barry Morgan, whom I referenced in the post, responded with a comment which I thought was gently chiding in nature. I realized that I may have irked him slightly with my remark about doing everything in one take. I hope not, because Barry was a great guy and I hate the thought that I might have annoyed him. Anyway, here's what he wrote in response:
Writer, Producer, Director, All Round Nice Guy
Joe, a really nice appreciation of Neil.
Perhaps I can clarify the “one take” reference.
It was because Neil brought his incredible energy and focus to the rehearsal session before we ever got to the studio floor. The work was already done. And beyond that his electricity energized his fellow cast members to the point that the performance bar was raised far above the level of `excellent`.
We have enjoyed a long history of fine radio actors from the days of John Drainie, Jane Mallet, Frank Perry and a great many others. Neil Munro was certainly among the front rank of those incredible talents.
It was a great privilege to have him around to make all of us look better.
I will always treasure his friendship.
“If you ignore the problem you are part of the problem.”Yasin Osman, photographer, cartoonist and founder of Shoot for Peace, as quoted in the toronto star
I’m a white guy. They don’t get much more white than me. I grew up white, in a white neighbourhood, in a white town, in a pretty much white province, Prince Edward Island.
I am the embodiment of white privilege.
I’ve been stopped by the cops a few times in my life for speeding, once because I had a taillight burned out. I never thought the police would beat me up or hurt me, let alone kill me. Never crossed my mind. Once a cop in Quebec asked me to get out of the car and walk in a straight line (I’d told him I’d drunk a glass of red wine six hours earlier). I walked the line perfectly fine; he still made my wife drive instead of me . This cop was an idiot. Still, it was a peaceful encounter. I imagine now that had I been black it wouldn’t have been as peaceful.
This is just one example of how I have benefitted from being white. I could list many others. Here’s a fairly trivial one: flesh coloured band-aids. The colour of whose flesh? My flesh.
Here’s another one: growing up, I read positive portrayals of people like me in books, watched shows about them in TV and in movies. This was reflected in my own writing. Reading an early draft of a novel I was writing, I was shocked to learn that I hadn’t included any black characters. Even the final draft is not satisfactory. There is one overtly brown character and another character that I deliberately made ambiguous. My thinking was that she could be interpreted as either black or white or anywhere in between. I should have just made her black.
Here’s another one: if a white person does something stupid, or is lazy, or commits a crime, that fact will not be used against me and others who share our racial identity.
Here’s another one: did you know that lighting black people in movies and TV has long been problematic? Cinematographers would just light for white people. If a white person was in the frame, they’d light for that person and leave the black person in shadow. Not cool.
There are many other examples of white privilege. For other examples I suggest you do your own research. You can start with this essay by Cory Collins. The thing is, it’s a subject that requires some thought to really understand the nuances. I certainly didn’t get it right away. I probably still don’t fully understand the implications. In fact, I will go so far as to say that I will never fully understand, because I’m not black, and I can never truly understand the lived experience of being black, no matter how much I talk to people who have lived it, or how much I read about it. I can only try to deepen my understanding as much as I can.
Here’s an example of me not getting it.
Once I was in a leadership course. The subject of hiring came up. I was a hiring manager at the time. I spoke up: “I will hire the best person for the job,” I declared, “because the corporation needs the best people it can get in these jobs. I don’t care what colour they are. That doesn’t matter to me. I’m colourblind. All that matters is that we get the best person for the job.”
I was ignorant. I didn’t know any better (not that that’s any excuse). There are at least two things wrong with what I said.
First, when I went to hire someone, I would get about one hundred candidates for a single position. I’d whittle those down to about twenty and then someone would pre-interview the rest. I’d wind up personally interviewing about eight. Most of those candidates would wind up being white. Why? That’s a deeper, more complicated question. My guess is that black people weren’t getting into the schools we were looking at because of other systemic racism issues, or weren’t doing well there because of systemic racism, and so on. The fact is the deck was stacked against black candidates as a result of systemic racism. I thought I wasn’t being racist. I didn’t have to be: reality was plenty racist enough without me. So when I went to hire my “best candidate for the job”, often it could only be a white person because a black person didn’t even have a seat at the table. For me not to be racist, and to counter the systemic racism, I needed to make sure that there was equal representation amongst my candidates.
The other problem with what I said during that leadership course was the business of me being colourblind. I used to love to tell people that I didn’t see colour. We’re all the same colour, I would say. I’ve done this up until recently, I’m sorry to say. As I learn more about racism and white privilege and systemic racism, I learn more about not just how I’ve benefitted from being white, but how I’ve been hurtful and damaging as a white person. Saying that I’m colourblind is, first of all. absurd. It’s denying reality. We are all different colours. Insisting that we’re not is refusing to accept the lived experience of the people around us. It’s ignoring the reality of race and when we ignore the reality of race how can we talk about it, and if we can’t talk about race, how can we talk about and defeat racism?
I have to admit that I was afraid to write about this subject. I was afraid of getting it wrong. Of writing the wrong thing, missing some nuance and being called out on it. I was afraid that it would come off as virtue signalling. That’s why I placed that quote at the top by Yasin Osman. It spoke to me, reminding me that I have a voice, and a platform, however small, and that I had an obligation not to ignore the evil of racism, and an obligation to speak up against racism in all its forms. And more than that, an obligation to do so as a white person, even if I don’t fully understand it yet, even if I do get parts of it wrong.
I continue to learn. I don’t want to be racist. I don’t want to perpetuate systemic racism. I don’t want to see black people treated unfairly. I don’t want to benefit at their expense. I don’t want to see black people hurt and I sure as hell don’t want to see them killed.
White privilege is, in part (as Cory Collins writes), “the power to remain silent in the face of racial inequity.”
I choose not to exercise that power.
I denounce racism in all its forms.
Black lives matter.
This is both a review of Den Valdron’s book The Mermaid’s Tale and a reflection of sorts. Because The Mermaid’s Tale is a thought-provoking book. I mean that literally—it has provoked many thoughts. But before I get into those thoughts, a few disclosures. I share a publisher with Den, Five River’s Publishing, and I’m a tiny bit acquainted with him, virtually at least. We’re both members of SF Canada, Canada’s National Association of SF professionals. And editor Robert Runte edited both our books when he was Senior Editor of Five Rivers. I don’t believe any of those factors has influenced my opinion of The Mermaid’s Tale.
I’ve been curious about this book for a while because there is some buzz about it. People are talking about it, writing about it. I first heard about it the weekend Robert Runte signed me to Five Rivers. He didn’t mention the name of the book, but during our conversations that weekend he mentioned that he’d signed another book that he was quite excited about, that he thought was challenging, and now I’m fairly certain that he was talking about The Mermaid’s Tale.
After The Mermaid’s Tale came out, I read comments by others that suggested this book was a cut above. On Goodreads and in emails. On the SF Canada Listserve over the years I’ve read emails by Den in which he has proven himself to be eminently readable. When Den writes an email on a list-serve you generally read it. He’s thoughtful and considered. Smart. Reflective. Only natural to expect those qualities in a book written by him. So I went into this book with high hopes. I wanted to like it. I wasn’t disappointed.
I have many writer friends. Some are professional, at the top of their game, successful. Others struggling, or just starting out. I have bought books from many of these folks over the years. Some of the books are good, some not my cup of tea. If I don’t like a book, I won’t finish it and I won’t review it. If I like it, I’ll finish it. Usually, I’ll rate it on Goodreads. Sometimes I’ll write a review as well. If I know the writer, I try not to give a book less than a four or five star review. This is because I know how hard it is to write and sell books, and I know that a three star review won’t help sell books. If you’re reading this and thinking, wait, I gave one of Joe’s books a three star rating, don’t feel bad. It’s okay. I want you to be honest. I’m just explaining how I operate, not how you should operate.
Sometimes when I give a book a five star rating it’s not because I think it’s the best book ever written. Sometimes I’m employing other criteria. Maybe I think it’s a five star book for that author, or there’s some other quality about the book that elevates it to five star status. You may not agree with this approach. I don’t care—it’s my approach, refined over time. Why am I telling you this? Because I want you to know that in this case I’m giving The Mermaid’s Tale five stars because I think it actually deserves five stars. I think it’s a five star book.
A confession based on a fragment of memory. Years ago, when I was working in a certain capacity for CBC Radio, somebody sent me some chapbooks. I think they were about zombies, and I think it was Den who sent them. I might be misremembering. I got sent a lot of books at that time because of the projects and shows I was involved with. I didn’t have time to read all the books I was sent. The CBC gets sent a lot of stuff. When I worked on the show Q we had a table that we called “The Table of Shit.” It wasn’t all shit. It was just stuff we got sent that we set out so that people could pick through it. Eventually a lot of this stuff winds up lining the shelves along the atrium. I hung onto the chapbooks for a while, then, like much of the rest of what I was sent, they made their way to those shelves. I never read the chapbooks. They were snatched up pretty quickly by someone else. I hope they found a good home. Now I wish I’d read them, because if they were in fact from Den, I’m pretty sure they were worth reading.
Even if they weren’t from Den they’re worth mentioning because like I said, if I recall correctly, they were about zombies. The Mermaid’s Tale has nothing to do with zombies, but it’s all part of the same continuum. The Mermaid’s Tale is about orcs and dwarves and goblins and hobgoblins and vampires and giants and trolls. Now, I love science fiction and fantasy, and I’m not generally a snob, but even I, when confronted by books and chapbooks about zombies and the like, become instantly suspicious. I suspect that what is before me is probably not very good. It’s probably poorly written, poorly thought out, poorly edited, shallow. In other words, I’m prejudiced against the subject matter. Whoever wrote those chapbooks about zombies produced them before zombies hit the mainstream. I saw zombies and pretty much dismissed them. A few years later, Walking Dead hit comic book stores and the airwaves and zombies became huge. Mainstream. I saw that stories about zombies could be compelling. Yeah—I wish I still had those chapbooks.
Now here we are with mermaids, orcs, trolls etc. I already knew this wasn’t going to be your usual mermaid, orc, troll story because it’s Den and because of the buzz around the book. This book contains these sorts of fantasy/horror cliché characters, and that might make it sound juvenile, but I assure you it’s not. One of the many strengths of the book is the spin it puts on all of that. These aren’t the mermaids, orcs and trolls we grew up with. They serve a purpose. They have much more depth. We feel for them. Boy do we feel for them.
The book is from a small independent publisher. Like I said earlier, it’s one that I share with Den. A publisher like this can’t afford to publicize its books the way a large publisher can. It’s print-on-demand so individual print copies are a bit more expensive than we’re used to. (I actually bought this book twice: first the inexpensive e-book version, then, because I realized I don’t like reading e-books, the print version. I’m glad I did. The print copy looks and feels great and was a pleasure to read.) Some people might be inclined to look down their noses at independent publishers. I have had people in the industry smile indulgently, somewhat patronizingly when I told them I was published by one. But thank God for the existence of such a publisher, because they find and publish quality books like The Mermaid’s Tale. Look up Five Rivers back catalogue. They have published many fine books by many fine authors. And they must be doing something right because they continue to do so.
You might be asking yourself: who is Den Valdron? This is a bit of a problem for Den and authors like him. When you’re not a name author, few are going out of their way to find books by you. So who is Den? He’s an aboriginal rights lawyer originally from the Maritimes in Canada. A man who’d probably rather spend most of his time writing but can’t because you can’t make a living writing these days, with rare exceptions. So he can’t pump out as much material as required to make an impression. He could be a Stephen King but he’s not as prolific and hasn’t pulled off a Carrie yet. But he might—just give him time.
Den won’t break out with this book, I expect. It’s special, all right, but it’s got a jaw-dropping act of violence near the beginning that I suspect some people won’t be able to get past. I can imagine it would be pretty triggering for some. It reminded me of a scene in one of Stephen R. Donaldson’s books, Lord Foul’s Bane, that I first read when I was about seventeen, and that almost made me stop reading that book, I was so outraged. The scene in Den’s book did not make me stop reading it, but I wondered about it. I wanted to understand its place in the book. It’s not random, it’s not gratuitous, it’s ugly and horrible. It’s integral to the plot, to the characters, to the theme. It would not be the same book without it. It’s referenced later in the book. It speaks directly to the characters’ pain. It’s tragic and awful and something that happens in the real world and therefore merits inclusion. How do we deal with such violence if we simply bury it, refuse to acknowledge its existence, and don’t talk about it in our art?
The Mermaid’s Tale deals directly with such violence. This is a story about characters who live in a violent world. It’s a story about the impact of that violence on them. It’s a story about characters who must live with the knowledge that they are reviled by everyone around them. Everyone, even themselves. It’s a story about the corrosive impact of that terrible knowledge upon them. But this isn’t just fantasy; all of that violence and hatred exists in our own world too. This is a reflection of that, and forces us to reflect upon that fact.
I should probably also mention that it’s a murder mystery, but, although important and well executed, and it’s the mystery that provides the scaffolding, that aspect is almost incidental. It’s the story, but not what the story’s actually about. The Mermaid’s Tale is greater than the sum of its parts.
We live in a world saturated with art and entertainment. It’s a golden age for television. A century’s worth of films to choose from. Hundreds of thousands of books published every single year. Much of this art and entertainment is very good, some of it sublime, created by gifted people know what they’re doing. We can’t possibly sample even a fraction of it. Like the unnamed protagonist in The Mermaid’s Tale who doesn’t stand much of a chance in her world, a violent book about an orc by an unknown author from a small publisher may not stand much a chance in this world.
And that’s a shame, because a book of this calibre deserves to be much more widely read.