Monday, December 21, 2009


Sunrise: 10:08 a.m.
Sunset: 15:05 p.m.

It's all uphill from here.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Farewell, my friend

This has been a hard week. It opened with news that one of our dear friends had passed away, and closed with the emotional conviction and sentencing of a cop killer. I don't want to dwell on the latter, but I do want to say something about the passing of my friend, Greg Nearing. This is my column from the November issue of the Law Society newsletter:

I first met Greg in court when I was a reporter in the early 1990s. Greg was an exceptional criminal defence lawyer, and while he often had the higher profile cases on the docket, he was just as ready to go full bore for someone accused of a simple assault or shoplifting. He was a passionate believer in legal aid, and for a time served on the F/P/T working group on legal aid while he was with the Legal Services Board of the NWT.

Born in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, Greg was a proud X-man who earned a BA from St. F/X in 1982, and graduated Dalhousie School of Law in May, 1986. He moved to Yellowknife shortly thereafter to article at what was then Richard, Vertes, Peterson & Schuler under his principal, Ted Richard, and swore his Oath to become a member of the Law Society on September 11, 1987 before Justice de Weerdt.

His career would eventually take him to both Departments of Justice here, although the bulk of his time was spent with Legal Aid, where he eventually became Executive Director. In 2002, he returned to private practice, moving to Nunavut when his wife Diane was offered a position with the Nunavut government.

Service to the profession was a big part of who Greg was. He was President of the CBA NWT branch in 1996-97, Treasurer of the Law Society in 1998, and President in 1999. He was also a loyal member of the discipline committee in 2001-2002, and even ended up chairing the social committee in 2001, when he was the only volunteer (until Linda donated the services of that year’s articling crop to help out). After moving east, Greg continued to serve the profession as Treasurer of the Law Society of Nunavut in 2004-2005. As our Law Society President, Greg holds the record for chairing the shortest AGM, at 45 minutes, in 1999. It is likely a feat that will never be repeated.

Greg was a complicated guy who faced a lot of challenges in his life, but when he was on, no one was quicker on his feet or more fun to be around. I never had an opportunity to run a file or do a circuit with Greg, but I got to know him in social contexts, him with his omnipresent diet cola in hand, always foraging around for snacks. While it was impossible for him to sit through an entire movie without taking at least one break to go play videogames in the lobby, he somehow amassed an encyclopaedic knowledge of film. In the ‘90s, Diane and I took sailing lessons together one summer, and got in the habit thereafter of renting a sailboat on weekends to putter around the bay. Greg was a constant presence, frequently called upon to assemble lunch below decks or haul on some rope to hoist a sail. He was unfailingly good humoured about his role on these excursions, and together as we drifted past Dettah, we would often comment on the hounds baying at the morning sun.

For my birthday in 1996, Greg arrived at the party with cards he had created listing out a couple dozen suitable topics for dinner conversation. Alongside the serious - the link between individualism and the disintegration of American society (such as it is) – were more fanciful subjects, like the role of underwear in safety consciousness, memories of grade 4, and the colour yellow. I have kept a copy of that card framed in my home office ever since, and every time I read it, it makes me laugh. It was an awesome gift and so totally Greg.

A couple of years later, during my first year of law school, Greg and Karan Shaner were in Montreal for meetings and called upon me to show them around the city. What followed was a wild afternoon and evening involving haunted houses, bakeries, cobblestoned streets, a strip bar, and a bank security guard alarmed at our use of Greg’s newfangled digital camera (pre-9/11, you could alarm a security guard without being thrown in jail). For obvious reasons, I’m adopting a “what happens on the road stays on the road” approach to the details, but suffice to say it is one of my fondest memories of spending time with Greg.

Gregory Charles Nearing was 48 when he died unexpectedly.

He will be missed.

Saturday, October 3, 2009


Well now. This is embarrassing.

In late May when I came back from my European vacation, I promised a bunch of posts - and promptly executed precisely one. And now I find myself getting ready to go on another vacation next week without having caught up yet. I'd like to say I have a good excuse, but other than the usual - work was busy, summer was entertaining, etc - I've got nothing to offer. Except a promise that I will do better in the coming months. I may even backtrack and get those Europe posts up and running before 2010. Because this is what it has come down to. It's not like I didn't enjoy my trip - in fact, I enjoyed it so much I had a hard time figuring out how to separate it into finite posts. And then I didn't execute. Hmmm....maybe next time. My bad.

Monday, August 31, 2009

A Final Roar

I was going to post today about the passing of Teddy Kennedy, but I came upon this post by John McCain's daughter Meghan that sums up exactly how I feel about contemporary politics, and how this contact sport has completely lost touch with the crucial component of political life, public service. Enjoy.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

And that's the way it is

There will never be another Walter Cronkite, and that says as much about our era as it does about his.

There will be no commemorative issue of People Magazine, no cover story in Rolling Stone, no week of endless speculation by pundits on news channels about his cause of death. And that is how he would have wanted it.

Mr. Cronkite died Friday at the age of 92, after an unparalleled career in journalism.

It is hard to remember in this age of Twitter and internet and 1000 channels of round-the-clock news yammering for our attention, that once, not so long ago, if you wanted to know what happened in the world today, you had to sit down at 7 p.m. EST for a half hour of news, presented by Walter Cronkite. No taping it and watching it later; no surfing the satellite receiver to take in a different regional feed; no CNN, no Headline News, no Newsworld. 7-7:30, or read the paper the next morning. Those were your options.

In our house, Walter Cronkite was God. Most nights my parents and I would eat our dinner off TV trays in front of the behemoth black and white television console with the fairly tiny screen. There was absolutely no talking during the news; if you had a story to tell about your day and it didn't squeeze into a commercial break, it would have to wait another 8 minutes to be finished in the next break. Walter came first.

Sitting in front of the TV, I learned about Vietnam and the space program. He was the person who told us when Martin Luther King was shot, and when President Kennedy died. It is an oft-repeated story in my family that pretty much the first thing I ever saw on TV was Walter Cronkite breaking into the live soap opera As the World Turns to announce President Kennedy had been shot. My mother adored President Kennedy - it was a simpler time, far easier to believe in the image, sheltered from the reality - and she learned her dream died while ironing the laundry, from the most trusted man in America. It was a short, sharp shock to everyone's system, and I was two months old, propped up on the couch pillows, facing the TV.

Walter Cronkite was an incredible reporter. Unlike contemporary anchors, he had no formal presentation training, having started in newspapers before TV had been invented, and while he became a polished presence on camera, he never lost his sincerity or his slightly rough edges. There was no doubting this was a man who had ink under his nails, and who had covered big stories from the ground up. He didn't start out that way, of course - he was a cub reporter in Houston while still in high school, and had a paper route delivering the Houston Post, sometimes with his articles inside. He moved on to announcing football games on local radio, before catching on as a regional reporter with UPI as a stringer. And then came World War II. Unlike the sanitized "embedded" reporting we are now subject to from the front, if we are allowed to see a snippet of what's happening at all, Cronkite rode along with Allied Troops in big events - the invasion of North Africa, the Battle of the Bulge - and every day events, like bombing runs over Germany. It wasn't safe, and he wasn't protected, but he was lucky, and every plane he was on came back to base. He rejected a job offer from Edward R. Murrow to stay with UPI and cover the Nuremberg war crimes trials, but finally accepted Murrow's offer 7 years later and made the move to CBS, and television in 1950.

During the 1960s through the mid-1970s, Cronkite anchored not just the evening news, but every blastoff of an Apollo mission. My father, who was born the summer Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic, and was named Charles in his honour, was fascinated by the idea of men going into space, so every time a mission was set to launch, he would get me out of bed - those launches tended to happen around 5 in the morning - and we would watch the live broadcast from Cape Kennedy, Cronkite explaining what we were looking at. And then I would go back to bed for a couple of hours before I had to get up for school.

Those mornings with my dad and Walter also gave me a context and an appreciation of science, and the world beyond my suburban existence. They also indirectly got me interested in reading as a child, as my parents subscribed to National Geographic, which featured the space program heavily in every issue back then. There was a symbiotic correlation between the magazine and Mr. Cronkite in my tiny world back then, and I reveled in it.

I had the enormous good fortune to meet Walter Cronkite once, when I was about seven or eight. My father had been working in New York, as Canadian banks were starting to expand internationally in the 1960s, and my father was part of the Bank of Montreal's team setting up the U.S. head office. He would be gone weeks at a time, and sometimes, instead of flying him home to Montreal, the Bank would fly us to New York instead. On one of those trips, I can't remember where we were exactly, but I know we were getting into an elevator in Manhattan, and as the doors opened, there was Walter Cronkite, going our way. All three of us, my parents and I, were mesmerized to see this icon out of the tiny box in our living room and in the flesh. Evidently used to this sort of reaction, he very politely said hello and started the small talk. It came out that "I" was a big fan, and then he reached into his inside jacket pocket, pulled out a business card, signed it, and handed it to me.

In the four decades since then, I have moved several dozen times, back and forth across a vast country. Yet as I write this, I have that business card tucked into a corner of my computer screen. It says, simply, "Walter Cronkite - Correspondent" with the CBS News address and phone number. It isn't flashy or pretentious. It is the epitome of Walter Cronkite on a 1.5 x 3 inch piece of paper - clear, concise, solid, informative.

He believed a half hour newscast once a day wasn't enough time to truly inform viewers about all the complicated things going on in the world, and after he retired in 1981, he reportedly hated how newscasts were now stuffed full of soft features that told us nothing much about anything other than the reporter's vanity in front of the camera. We now live in world of a seemingly endless information and delivery options, but what are we really learning? Too much of what passes for news now is celebrity gossip, repeated ad nauseum between commentators who pass as reporters, or opinion based on nothing more than ignorance, fear or polling results. Television news, at least, has become a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Hardly a meaningful tribute to the remarkable legacy of a pioneering newsman.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Finally, you say!

Part of the joy of traveling is the way it takes you out of your every day routine and forces you to do something a bit different for the duration of the trip. Unfortunately, when you return, the routine does as well, until one day you look up from the pile of files on your desk and realize you've been back in Canada for five weeks and have not yet blogged a peep about your fabulous spring vacation in Europe.

So - here we go, part one of a multi-part saga.

This trip was mostly about visiting friends. The last time I was in Europe was three years ago, for Lindsey and Serge's wedding. Now I was off to visit them and their adorable toddler, Jules.

A few things had changed since the last time, other than acquiring progeny, most obviously the simple location - they were no longer living in Geneva, but were now in the countryside outside London, England. In "Harrt-fird-shuur" as the passport control officer kindly corrected me upon my arrival. I was soon to recognize that although the words look like English the way they're spelled out, it's a totally different language in the way they are pronounced.

Hertfordshire is what I like to think of as typically English, full of 500 year old houses, narrow rambling lanes with highway speed limits and blind corners, a cow (or sheep) in every field, and a pub on most every corner. The next village over has a train station with a relatively short commute into downtown London, making this a pretty sweet locale for a week's vacation, so long as I didn't have to drive.

We quickly settled into a domestic routine that usually began with Jules offering me a toy, sometimes at speed, as I lay sleeping on the world's most comfortable pullout couch in the living room. This was quickly followed by coffee and breakfast and chat, more coffee, more toys, a shower, and more chat.

It was an arduous week.

I can hear some of you questioning my ability to enjoy an entire week in the presence of a child. I offer you proof Jules is not like other children - he liked me back:

I have to say that if one could clone children, and be assured of their temperament, I would seriously consider raising a totlet like Jules, because he is almost never unhappy with anything, even while he is teething. He is the sweetest-natured child I have ever met. He is the mellow 60s surfer dude of children. Without the weed, of course.

He is also an intent little observer of the world - he can sit watching everyone for long stretches of time, and you can see the wheels turning. I am fairly sure he will grow up to be quite the handful, but not my handful. I just get to drop in at random intervals for a short visit and flit off again, which is probably best for everyone.

On our first day, we drove into a nearby village to play on the village green, which is also outfitted with a kickass gym set that Jules never tires of trying out:

This lovely space also included a large pond, with many birds just sitting at the edge of a well-traveled footpath. Here we've got a pair of Canada geese with 8 goslings, 3 mute swans, a pair of dozing mallards, and some exotic Euro-duck I haven't been able to identify yet (there will be an entire post later on about birds, mark your calendars).

Spring being the season of young creatures learning new skills, Jules also took this opportunity to try to get the hang of some stairs - he isn't looking too sure of himself:

A stroll around the village later, I was beginning to understand that a slower pace can be a good thing.

Next up: Linds and I do the culture thing in the Big Smoke, and we all drive up to Bath for the day.

UPDATE: The Euro-duck is actually a Eurasian Coot. Thanks Vicki!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Patience is a virtue

Remember that.

I have been back from a wonderful trip to Iceland and England for about 10 days now, and people want to hear all about it and see some photos. I appreciate that, and I'm working on it. There were a couple of thousand pictures to download (now done). I still have to go through them and make a small selection, and then I have to figure out how to describe my trip. I have also been trying to catch up at work, and I seem to have imported a bug from overseas, which hasn't helped. Anyway, the point is, in the coming days, I will be posting a series of entries about my trip, each with a few photos to whet your appetite for travel. Bear with me, I'm doing what I can! Thanks for being interested!!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Two down...

The first round of the NHL playoffs are well underway and we've already seen two teams eliminated in four games straight, Montreal and St. Louis. I guess a long summer of golf lies ahead for these guys as they ponder their respective futures, but I will say that their teams seem to be going in completely opposite directions.

The St. Louis - Vancouver series was classic, exciting hockey. OK, the Blues didn't win a game, but after a nervous debut in game 1, they really ought to have picked up at least one, if not two, of the remaining three games. It's not their fault they ran into Roberto Luongo, who is looking unbeatable. Which is good for the Canucks, since the Blues seriously outplayed them in games 3 & 4, they just couldn't score. St. Louis, with its core group of young talent, is going to be in the playoff hunt for years to come. They play an exciting, offensive style of hockey that makes the final score almost unimportant.

My hometown Habs, however, WTF? It's no big surprise after the disastrous season they had, but really? This is what the 100 year legacy comes down to? A bunch of paycheck cashers and a non-existent defense that left their goalie hung out to dry, actually being booed by the hometown crowd? Appalling. I have some sympathy for Carey Price. Sure, he hasn't played as well this year as he did last year, but he was actually pretty good for most of the series with Boston. It is impossible for any goalie, even the revered Luongo, to stop every possible shot when nobody is playing defense, taking their man, or clearing the slot. At one point in tonight's game, a Bruin walked right in on three (!!) Habs standing still in front of Price, making no effort to do anything to stop the shot. No surprise Price was beaten from 20 feet out. And yet somehow, the crowd blames him alone. This will not be a fun summer inside the organization, and I expect next year's team will look significantly different from the team that lost tonight.

You'll notice that I said "hometown Habs" above, and not "my Habs". People often assume I am a Canadiens fan because I am originally from Montreal, but from the earliest time I can remember, it's been nothing but the black and gold of the Bruins for me. Now, when I was a kid in the late 60s and early 70s, the Bruins were the team of Orr, Esposito, Cashman, Buyck, Hodge, Cheevers and my all time favorite, Derek Sanderson. But for a long stretch between those glory years and now, it has been a cold, hard slog to support a team eking out barely 30 wins a season.

It's a dirty little hockey secret that there are many of us born into hockey towns who actually root for teams other than the hometown one. My dad, for example, was a lifelong Red Wings fan. In Montreal, Boston is a close second in popularity. It's an Original Six thing, I think, but going to games at the old Forum the jerseys in the stands were nearly 50-50. THAT makes for an atmospheric game! BTW - you will NEVER see a Maple Leafs fan who was born in Montreal. Just doesn't happen. Montrealers have standards when it comes to sports teams, unlike Torontonians.

This has been one of the best overall hockey seasons in the past 15 years. With the salary cap and some judicious drafting and player development, the parity between most teams is palpable. There are a half-dozen young teams who will be making noise for many seasons to come. Joining St. Louis on that list? Chicago, playing firewagon hockey with heart against Calgary; Columbus, currently being trounced by Detroit, but with the most exciting goalie to come along in a long time; Boston, who may well take the Cup this year; and two teams that didn't quite make it this season, but for whom I have high hopes - Edmonton and Phoenix.

After the dry, boring defensive trap system that made the 90s a jail sentence for fans, this plethora of young talent clustering in a few hot cities is making the game exciting to watch again. And that works out for everyone, especially the fans like me.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Only perfection need apply

Russ Germain died Monday night. He was 62.

For those of us who grew up listening to CBC Radio One, Russ was the voice of the World At Six. Cool, unflappable, with a deep, smooth voice and the professionalism of the consummate newsman, he would be appalled by the structure of this sentence. For Russ, precision in language and clarity of structure were paramount. In radio, after all, listeners only got one chance to understand what you were saying to them, so it was incredibly important to be clear and precise. A pretty good approach for any news person, really, but one that is rarely instilled through constant emphasis and monitoring by one's editors.

When I worked for the Mother Corp. in the mid-90s, I either started my shift by reading the news on the morning show, or ended it with the 5:30pm newscast. This is how I came to know Russ.

Although he was based in Toronto, one of his responsibilities was to monitor all the regional newscasts for consistency, proper use of language, and accuracy. He was a language enforcer, as it were, insisting on perfection. Any slip of the tongue during a seven minute cast and you knew there would be an email or voicemail the next day kindly pointing out the error (in case you hadn't noticed) and offering an improvement.

Those of you who have never been in the news business probably don't realize that every major outlet has their own style guide, and each has their own quirks. Staff are expected to conform to their organization's guide, regardless of what the everyday usage of a word might be. The Mother Corp. was a particular stickler for specificity of pronunciation. Many words in the English language have more than one acceptable pronunciation - tomato, to-mah-to, kill-o-mee-ter, kil-oh-meh-ter, etc. Only one of these is correct for a CBC broadcaster.

One of our biggest ongoing battles was with the term harass. Russ, and therefore CBC, insisted upon hah-russ, which always struck me as vaguely British and kind of poncy. I have never heard anyone who wasn't trained at CBC pronounce it as anything other than HA-rass. It became a bit of a running joke in a newsroom constantly covering court stories, many of which involved harassment of one sort or another.

Proper usage of language was the other component to Russ' training. As radio people, we are encouraged to write like we speak, so it will sound natural to the ear for those who are listening. However, most of us speak with contractions, use words in the wrong context, or use expressions that, while commonplace, are inaccurate. For example, how often have you said "added bonus"? A bonus is by nature an addition, so it doesn't need the adjective. Or "completely destroyed"? Something either is destroyed or it is damaged. Destruction connotes completeness. My favorite is "enormity". People often use that to mean really, really big. It doesn't mean that at all. Enormous means huge - enormity means massively devastating, like "the enormity of the concentration camps cannot be overstated". That doesn't mean the camps were physically huge, but that they had a massively devastating effect.

In preparing to read a newscast then, a broadcaster needed to be aware of how the story was written, fix any misuse of language or awkward structure, be aware of timing and sound clips, and mind one's pronunciation, all with no retakes. It was a challenge most days, but in hindsight, knowing Russ was listening, and knowing there was a universal standard to conform to within the Mother Corp, I know I worked harder to master my on-air skills and pushed myself to constantly do better. Working with him, albeit at a distance, I truly learned how to be an on-air reporter. I suspect there are thousands of folks like me across the country, and abroad, who can say they came into their own under Russ' watchful ear during his 29 years with CBC.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Excuse me?

Sometimes entries just write themselves.

I was reading the New York Times this morning online, as I so often do, trying to wake up and be useful, when I happened upon a story about odd road signs in England, and this photo:

I was now fully awake.

The story went on to examine, as it were, a number of quirky and suggestive place names in the British Isles, including Titty Ho, North Piddle, Crapstone, and Penistone. My inner eight-year-old started to giggle.

It seems most of these names date back to when words had different meanings than they do currently. I could have written a serious post on the evolution of language, but the eight-year-old wouldn't let me.

Butt Hole, it turns out, probably referred to a well. Not nearly as much fun now, is it? Damn reason. Gets in the way of all the best stories.

So I got to thinking about Canada's equivalent, and of course, Dildo, Newfoundland popped into my head. It is not terribly far from the trio of Heart's Delight, Heart's Desire, and Heart's Content, which run down the Bay Roberts coast within about 20 kilometres of each other. (I drove through them last year and they are lovely, if wee.) But of course these three aren't nearly as salacious and provocative.

I'm asking all nine of you who read this blog - can you think of any other risque Canadian place names? We have lots of quirky ones, like Moose Jaw, but are there any other Butt Holes, Dildos, or Penistones out there in Canada? Post your comment below.


Last Friday, a truly remarkable woman passed away in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut.

Helen Maksagak was the first female Commissioner of the Northwest Territories, from 1995 to March 1999, when she was appointed Commissioner for the newly-created territory of Nunavut. To the best of my knowledge, she is the only person to ever serve as the Queen's representative in two different jurisdictions (for those of you reading from non-Northern locations, the Commissioner is to a territory what the Lieutenant-Governor is to a province. Yes, we do have a different word for everything).

Mrs. Maksagak was a quiet, friendly Inuk woman, born in a traditional camp at Bernard Harbour in 1931, and raised in the Mackenzie Delta communities of Aklavik and Tuktoyaktuk. In her early 30s, she moved to Cambridge Bay with her family, and raised six children there with her husband John.

Mrs. Maksagak was, perhaps, four foot nine. She was tiny, dainty, and impressive. She reminded me of one of those apple granny dolls popular in Quebec, where the head of the doll is made from a shriveled apple. She opened meetings with prayer, befitting a Christian woman, and was fluently bilingual in Inuktittut and English. During her entire life, she worked tirelessly for the benefit of her community, particularly youth. She cared passionately about the environment long before being green was cool, and was a leader in the endless fight on drug and alcohol addiction in the North.

She also had a wonderful sense of humour and loved to laugh. One of her proudest days was when Nunavut was created in 1999, and the Inuit had an official homeland.

In 2002, all of her selfless efforts resulted in her being named to the Order of Canada. She was an exceptional woman, and she will be deeply missed.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

And the nominees are....

I am a film geek.

In a prior life I was actually paid to care about these things, but now, as with all the best things in life, I care for free. It makes me happy.

Usually, the Academy Awards make me unhappy. It's an industry, after all. The studios behind a lot of big stars with a lot of crap films throw bundles of money at advertising campaigns, and are rewarded with a laundry list of award nominations that mean nothing other than the box office is suddenly going to blossom, because people generally are sheep who will want, overnight, to see a movie they didn't care about two days ago simply because it was nominated for an Oscar.

Not this year.

This year's nominations are full of previously under-appreciated talent (usually from TV) acting in small pictures who are being noticed for their skills, and not how much money their films brought in. Because for the most part, their films didn't earn very much at all. I'm willing to bet most of you haven't seen these films, and you probably haven't heard of most of them either. For the most part, big studio pictures got shut out of the categories anyone cares about. Sure, The Dark Knight and Kung Fu Panda and Wall-E picked up a bunch of technical nominations, but will anyone really toss and turn at night trying to pick the Best Editing winner for their office pool? I don't think so.

In fact, of the 30 nominees in the main 6 categories (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress) exactly one comes from a blockbuster, and that would be Heath Ledger, who turned in a riveting portrait of anarchy in The Dark Knight before he died unexpectedly (exactly a year ago today, not that we're keeping track or anything).

Each of the acting categories has at least one nominee who is a working actor (as opposed to a STAR), someone whose face you always recognize but can't quite place, someone who is working all the time but never gets bothered at the grocery store. A few people's lives are going to change quite drastically on February 22, and I'm not sure if that's a good thing or not. Part of what makes each of these actors so good is that, away from the set, they're able to live normal lives and observe society around them. Those days may be over for some of them now.

In the Best Actor category, Richard Jenkins is nominated for The Visitor. You've most likely seen him as the mortician father in Six Feet Under, but he's made nearly 85 movies in 35 years, including this small scale portrait of a regular guy who comes home one day to his New York flat and finds a family of illegal immigrants has moved in. And he lets them stay.

He's up against Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler. Anyone who remembers him from Body Heat and Rumblefish would be hard pressed to recognize him now, so broken is his face. But it works for the character of a washed-up wrestler trying to make a comeback. Every now and then, an actor's personal story blends seamlessly with the character, and the result is serendipity.

In the Best Actress category, Melissa Leo of Frozen River is up against stalwarts like Kate Winslet, Meryl Streep and Angelina Jolie. TV watchers might remember her as Detective Sargeant Kay Howard on Homicide. Approximately 3 dozen people saw Frozen River, despite sterling reviews. Perhaps a few dozen more will make a point of renting it on DVD now.

In the Best Supporting Actress category, we find two actresses - Viola Davis and Taraji P. Henson - who you may remember from Century City or Law & Order: SVU, and Boston Legal, respectively - up against a previous winner and two constant nominees.

And over in the Best Supporting Actor category, Michael Shannon earns the only acting nomination for Revolutionary Road, despite all the hype about the reunion of DiCaprio and Winslet. Shannon is usually the bad guy on any number of shows, so its good to see him branching out a little.

The best part of all of this, is that, apart from Rourke, none of these nominations was predicted by the cognescenti. There were no nominations this morning for the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, or Clint Eastwood. Instead these skilled, under-known actors earned their spots, mostly starring in small films that came out in the hectic fall season and got lost in the bigger ad campaigns for the films that drew the most eyeballs and dollars.

But the biggest story of this year's Oscar race may well be Slumdog Millionaire, set entirely in India and filmed partly in Hindi. It's a romance about a smart kid from the wrong side of Delhi who wins the grand prize on a Who Wants to be a Millionaire type show, and the resistance he faces from people who think he must have cheated (because poor kids can't possibly be smart). Despite a miniscule budget and a cast of mostly amateur actors, it is nominated for 10 Academy Awards (second only to Benjamin Button), including Best Picture. It is a fairytale story worthy of a film all its own.

In the Best Picture category, it will compete against The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a romantic fable based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald story that is really a meditation on the nature of love when the physical is stripped away; Frost/Nixon, an adaptation of a Tony-winning play pitting disgraced President Richard Nixon against talk show host David Frost; The Reader, a Holocaust drama about the nature of evil; and Milk, about the first openly gay elected official and his subsequent assassination by a co-worker.

All of these, in their way, ask us to examine our perceptions of the world, our views on race, culture, class, and gender identity, and what it truly means to be human. I honestly don't know which film I want to win - I'm just happy someone is still making films like these, when it would be so much easier to make Transformers 42 or Saw 11 and rake in the cash.

OK. Maybe I'm rooting for Slumdog Millionaire. Because I am a film geek, and I love an underdog.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

148 years on, a Dream has been realized

It is rare to experience an event and know while it is happening that you are witnessing history in the making. Usually, the historic import of something only becomes clear in the context hindsight brings, but yesterday’s inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States was an exception to that rule. If we didn’t know already about the historic significance of installing an African-American in the White House, there were only too many media pundits willing to hammer the point home again, and again, and again during dawn-to-dusk coverage. So many words were spoken and written, in fact, that it is hard to have an original thought at this point.

One thing though, is clear: after eight years of President George W. Bush, with his ignorance of history and geography, and his inability to speak the English language coherently, a sea change has taken place. America has managed to elect a man who embraces his obvious intelligence and who is a keen student of both history and politics, whose career and public persona has been shaped as much by his own bipartisan ideology as the courage, ideas, dreams and actions of those who went before.

Washington D.C. is a city designed and engineered to maximize grandeur, full of memorials paying homage to the defining moments and figures in American history. None of the 42 previous Presidents has ever understood or been able to harness the visceral power of symbolism and the resonance of history quite like Barack Obama. He and Washington will be a good fit.

Two years ago and virtually unknown, Obama stood on the same patch of Illinois ground where Abraham Lincoln had declared his candidacy for President in 1859, and made his own declaration. 20 months later on election night, he celebrated his victory in Chicago’s Grant Park, previously known only as being the scene of violent riots during the 1968 Democratic Convention.

The pre-inaugural whistle-stop tour train from Illinois to Washington last weekend evoked a bygone era, when the nation did have faith in its leaders and hope for its future, even in the face of crisis, be it a war or a failing economy.

His erudite campaign speeches have brought echoes of Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and John and Robert Kennedy to a generation of new ears, building upon their themes of public service, self sacrifice, and small “p” patriotism while infusing them with hope and an optimism not seen in American politics since the devastation of 1968.

On Tuesday, Obama placed his hand upon the same bible Lincoln used in 1861 to take the oath of office on the west steps of the Capitol, witnessed by at least a million people lining the Mall, stretching past the Washington Monument all the way to the Lincoln Memorial, some three kilometers away. It was an extraordinary and emotional sight. As he sat upon the dais facing the crowd, I wondered if he was thinking about Lincoln yet again, or if he was reflecting upon the line in the marble of the Washington Monument about halfway up where the color shifts slightly, because construction was interrupted by the Civil War.

The 20th Amendment to the Constitution fixes the date that the President shall be sworn in on as January 20th. The Martin Luther King Day holiday marks his January 19th birthday each year. The resonance of the juxtaposition of these seminal events this year was palpable. Had Dr. King not been assassinated in 1968, he may well have attended the Obama inauguration. He would only have been 80. This year is the 45th anniversary of the March upon Washington, which culminated in Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial:

“I have a dream,” he said, “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”.

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Barack Obama was three that winter. Metaphorically at least, Dr. King’s dream has been realized through him, but there remains so much more work to do if we are ever to achieve a society where a black man taking an oath of office does not have to do so behind bulletproof glass and wearing a bullet resistant suit.

At the inauguration ceremony, Aretha Franklin sang “America”, closing the circle on Dr. King, who referred to it in his Dream speech: “This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning: My country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.”

And sing they did, up and down the Mall, black and white, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics and non-believers, for one shining moment.

Here comes the meme again...

And I am told I am supposed to tell you six random things about me. And provide the sixth photo of the sixth photo folder in my iPhotos. Meming. Hmmm. All these sixes must mean memes are Satanic.

OK. Photo first. This is part of a series of photos I took one June day in 2005 while I was at a friend's cabin not far from Name of Town Withheld. We were crossing the lake by barge when I noticed an Arctic Tern hopping around on a small island in the middle of the lake, calling to its mate. I had just clicked off a couple of frames when the mate appeared with a tiny fish. In the frames that follow this one, the fisher hands the fish off to the other, and takes off again, while this one hops off, presumably to the nest to feed its young (which I couldn't see). It was total serendipity, but I was lucky I had the camera set to six frames per second, or I would have missed the whole thing.

Now, six random things about me:

1. My eyes seem to change color if I am standing near water or on a very green lawn.

2. I am on my third career and not entirely convinced this is the last one for me.

3. I hate clearing rain gutters.

4. I have one leg 3/4 of an inch longer than the other, but I can never remember which leg is longer and which is shorter when I take pants in to be hemmed.

5. I once served 15 straight points to win a volleyball game.

6. I have been snubbed by the Queen.

Random enough for you, Megan?

Monday, January 5, 2009

Something bigger than 5 championships

Well, we can all take a deep breath and sit back in our chairs now that Team Canada has pulled a fifth consecutive Junior World Championship out of the hat. It's amazing how exciting hockey can be despite the broken plays, undisciplined penalties, puck chasing and dicey goaltending. Usually teams making so many mistakes never advance to the medal round, but somehow, Team Canada dodged the big bullet against both the U.S. and Russia, and steamrollered the Swedes tonight to take the gold. Despite all the mistakes and sloppy play, those three games were incredibly exciting affairs. I caught myself on more that one occasion actually speaking to the TV, most particularly when there were 14 seconds to go in the Russia game with Canada down a goal, and the Russian defenceman got fancy clearing the zone, aiming for the empty Canadian net and ending up icing the puck. All he had to do was carry the puck into the neutral zone, and it would have been the Russians facing Sweden for the gold, but no, he had to try to be a hero, which backfired big time, resulting in a Russian zone faceoff and a Canadian goal with 5.4 seconds left in the game to force overtime, and eventually, a shootout win for Canada. That mistake will follow the kid around for a very, very long time.

I was heartened however to see big #5, P.K. Subban, voted top three Canadian players by the coaching staff, and making all-tournament first team. For my money, he was consistently the best Canadian every single game, an offensive rushing defenceman who makes big plays and knows how to move the puck.

Subban, who currently plays junior for Belleville of the OHL, and was a Canadiens second round draft pick in 2007, happens to also be black. I mention this only because it is still unusual to see black players in the NHL. Currently, there are about two dozen, most prominent being Jarome Iginla, Donald Brashear, Georges Laracque and Dustin Byfuglien. But up until the 1990s, black players were pretty much non-existent in the entire NHL. Hockey has not diversified nearly as rapidly or as completely as the other three big professional leagues in North America (interestingly, two players on this year's Swedish junior team are also black, demonstrating once again that no country's culture remains homogenous forever) .

When I was in high school, our class jock was a fellow named Hilton Ruggles. He was an amazing physical hockey player, who played left wing in the Quebec Major Junior league for four seasons in the early 80s. We all expected him to end up in the NHL, but despite racking up major points in QMJHL, including 113 points in 59 games in 1983-84, he wasn't even drafted. And that was probably because he too was black. The verbal abuse he would take at games was breathtaking, and it was all based on the colour of his skin. Opposing players and coaches would call him all sorts of horrible things, and there was an incident that made the papers where fans brought bananas and threw them on the ice after he scored a goal. He often also took crap from his home crowds, which is unprecedented in trash-talking annals.

By 1985, he'd had enough, and set off for Europe, playing for pro teams in Italy, France, Germany and Austria before settling into Britain in 1988, where he played for a half-dozen teams through 2002, racking up 2102 points (1122 goals & 980 assists) in 1052 games. Now retired, he is the general manager of the Cardiff Devils, where he had some of his best seasons in the early 1990s (including 1993-94, when he played 62 games and scored 243 points). But he never did get a chance to play in the NHL.

Last week, the Governor-General of Canada made Willie O'Ree a member of the Order of Canada. Mr. O'Ree was the "Jackie Robinson of hockey", the first black man to play in the NHL, in 1958, for my faves, the Boston Bruins. His pro career was short-lived and ended for good in 1961, but he played in the minor leagues until the age of 43. There was no other black player in the NHL until 1974, when Mike Marson signed with Washington. So perhaps it shouldn't have been a surprise when Hilton was passed over just a few short years later. A generation later, P.K. Subban is poised to enter a very different NHL, one where more teams than not have at least one black player, and where all players and staff are subjected to a diversity education program developed by the league, and run by Mr. O'Ree. I hope we are moving towards a hockey future where players will be judged on performance, and performance only. The world is becoming ever more diverse, and our sports leagues need to understand that and show some leadership, since so many kids look up to the pros and emulate their behavior. Subban, with his play and his outgoing ebullient personality, looks like he'll be an important part of that ongoing evolution.

Friday, January 2, 2009

And now, -43

I should note yesterday's photo was taken at -42 C. Today, it is a notch colder. The interesting thing about ice fog is its cumulative effect. In this picture, taken moments ago, you can barely make out the school itself, never mind downtown. If this cold snap lasts through the weekend, I probably won't be able to see across the street, quite literally, and all those trees in the school yard will disappear.

And yes, it is dangerous to drive in these conditions, especially after dark (3 more hours!) so again, staying indoors with some coffee and hockey games (World Junior quarter-finals people) seems like a good plan.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

A wee bit nippy, indeed

Canadians are obsessed with the weather. It's right up there with hockey as our national sport, a surefire opening gambit at any cocktail party if you're trying to chat up a stranger or make nice with someone you have nothing in common with. Everyone has an opinion on the weather. Northerners are a particular subset of Canadian obsessive in this area. During the Christmas season especially, when winter is usually at its coldest and the sun barely skims the horizon for a paltry four hours and fifty-seven minutes a day (not that we're counting or anything), we all go a little squirrelly over the weather.

Long-time Northerners can pretty much tell what kind of morning it's going to be by looking out the window when they get up. Cloudy, grey and sombre means warm, -20 at the most. Sunny and clear means cold, probably below -25. And around -40, a phenomenon known as ice fog descends over the community and blankets the trees in hoarfrost as the molecular particles of moisture in the air literally freeze, and hang around making it hard to see across the street.

No matter how long I've lived here, I've never gotten used to -40, and neither has my elderly vehicle. This morning, this is what I saw out my living room windows:

Usually, I can see across the school yard to downtown, but today, it was like downtown got erased overnight. At this point, it seemed logical to abandon my plans to go out at all, brew a nice pot of coffee, and curl up on my couch to watch the Winter Classic hockey game on TV. Now, if it warms up this weekend, I'm all set for a round of small talk.

Goodbye 2008, and good riddance to you

Happy New Year everyone.

2008 was a long, painful, and difficult year. There were times it seemed it would never end. Now, finally, it has, and good riddance to it, I say. Welcome 2009. You bring fresh opportunity and truly a new leaf. I hope you turn out to be everything 2008 was not, and nothing that it was.

Perhaps I will organize my complicated and conflicted thoughts about 2008 and blog about them once I break through the writer's block they seem to have inflicted these past several months, but in the meantime, I look forward to a clean start in the morning, as 2009 truly takes root.