A Brief and Personal History of Arts Journalism in Calgary   3 comments

When I began writing for the Calgary Herald, my publisher Peter Menzies told me there are over 300,000 people from Saskatchewan in Calgary, and so just treat it like it's Saskatchewan's largest city, which I did. Shamelessly.

When I began writing for the Calgary Herald, my publisher Peter Menzies told me there are over 300,000 people from Saskatchewan in Calgary, and so just treat it like it’s Saskatchewan’s largest city, which I did. Shamelessly.

The demise of FFWD, Calgary’s entertainment weekly for the last nineteen years, is both lamentable and predictable – and probably disastrous for arts groups in all areas in terms of promotion through the weekly listings – let alone providing an informed critical response to the work on stage.

Looking back at arts coverage over the last 20 years, it’s been a slow and steady and deadly decline.

I arrived here in 1994, chaperoning my play Some Assembly Required at Alberta Theatre Projects’ now-defunct playRites Festival. At the end of that run (“the hottest six weeks in winter!”) I was given a stack of clippings – previews, reviews, insights, interviews from a variety of papers and magazines including  previews and reviews from the Globe & Mail and whole-page spreads from The Calgary Herald. It added up to an impressive pile of paper, a couple of pounds worth, probably.

That was just what had come out in print. Add to that several television interviews and spots on CBC Radio – which continued over the years thanks to the unflagging support of Caroline Smith – and one felt that the work and, assuming it happened more than once, one’s career, were taken very seriously in Calgary.

Thanks to the work of many great journalists, not to mention publicists from all the theatre companies, I was able to become something of a big deal during my ten years at ATP.

In 1997 a publication called The Calgary Straight came into existence. I had always been attracted to the idea of writing some kind of column, and one evening at an artists’ soiree organized by Bart Habermiller, who at the time was the City of Calgary art guy, I met the Straight’s editor, Patricia Robertson.

She invited me to submit an article. I did. It got published. And so I was on my way. Or so I thought.

Very shortly after that, Patricia took exception to the way the paper was being run and quit. (She made what could be call an “ethical decision.” Remember those?)

Michelle Greysen stepped in and took over. Following a chance encounter at Stage West (!), she asked me to write a weekly column. I thought my journalistic ship had finally arrived. I even went so far as to buy a little notebook to keep track of all my fabulous ideas for possible columns.

One day around this time I went into the old Roasterie 2 in Kensington to write down some of these bright ideas in my little notebook, and there was Michelle sitting at one of the back tables with an open bottle of Baileys in front of her. It didn’t seem hopeful, and it wasn’t. The home office (Vancouver’s Georgia Straight) had pulled the plug on the fledgling venture in Cowtown. She invited me to drink to the memory of the Calgary Straight. We had a drink and that was that.

The Calgary Straight folded in 2002 after a 5 year run, sadly just at the point it was starting to turn a profit.  As sad and frustrating as it was for the people involved, it wasn’t a great surprise, I suppose, and it didn’t matter that much in terms of the big picture because around this time The Herald was going strong with Martin Morrow, Bob Clarke, Stephen Hunt et al; Lisa Wilton and Louis B were over at The Sun, and FFWD had an extremely strong presence – and some very good writers like Nikki Sheppy and eventually Martin Morrow who went over to FFWD following the acrimonious strike at The Calgary Herald.

It was around this time that my photo graced the cover of FFWD.  (I think I was on there a few times, but this one in particular stands out in my memory.) To prepare for my 15 minutes of fame, I went to a hairstylist who spent hours getting my eccentric hair to behave itself. The hair ended up being rather high, I thought. Making matters worse, in the photo I was wearing some kind of velveteen jacket. The effect was that I looked, how can I put this delicately, a tad effeminate.

I asked my friend and advisor in such matters, Bob White, if he thought that photo made me look gay. He looked at it for a moment and said, “No, it doesn’t make you look gay. It makes you look like a woman! Like a dowager from the 1870’s!” Or words to that effect.

I made a situation that arose as a result of that cover the subject of a Spoken Word performance at an event titled “Smart Men, Hot Words.” Or was it “Hot Men, Smart Words?” Either way, I thought the organizers wanted something hot and sexy. Turned out I was probably wrong. (You can find it on You Tube if you’re desperately bored. For the record, I did not really masturbate in the washroom at IKEA, but I digress . . .)

With my matronly visage gracing their cover, I wondered about pitching the idea of a weekly column to FFWD. I ran the idea by Bob White (my advisor on such matters) and he suggested I try The Calgary Herald first. (Bigger audience, more pay, etc.) As it happened, Ashley Menzies, daughter of Peter Menzies, then publisher of The Herald, was in my Saturday morning playwriting class at ATP. So I asked her one day if she thought her dad would be interested in going for a beer with me. She laughed and said that her dad had asked her to ask me if I’d be interested in going for a beer with him.

Don’t it go to show that it ain’t what you know but who you know?

A few days later at Ed’s on 17th, Peter and I met over a couple of beers and some chicken wings and my weekly column with The Herald came into being. I told him I didn’t know anything about journalism. It didn’t phase him. He gave me only one rule: don’t write like anyone else.

I went on to prove that I didn’t know the first thing about journalism almost 300 times over the next 5 years. Some 250,000 published words. In fact, I even outlasted Peter who got the old heave-ho a couple of years into my cyber-residency at the paper.

And then, one fine day, The Herald went into the dumpster. My editor called me one morning and told me it was over for me and many of my fellow free-lance writers and photographers. He actually wept when he told me this. It was a black day.

I was sad that it had come to an end, but on the other hand, closing in on 300 columns, I was finding it increasingly hard not to plagiarise myself. Obviously, The Herald is still being published, but it’s a shadow of its former self.

Martin Morrow moved to Toronto. Nikki Sheppi and the writers I had come to know at FFWD scattered to the winds. Patricia Robertson moved to Saskatchewan where she is continuing her own writing career. Michelle Greysen is in Lethbridge writing up a storm and selling real estate. Recently, Caroline Smith retired from the CBC. There are a few brave souls like Stephen Hunt at The Herald soldiering on, but all in all, with the end of FFWD, you would have to think that arts journalism in Calgary is hooked up to the machines in intensive care, if not in palliative care.

After a few years of not writing for The Herald, I missed it, and started writing this blog, which is much like my column was. I’m not sure how many people used to read my column in the paper. I do know exactly how many read this blog, and where in the world they are reading it. (This morning, for example, I see I have had readers from Canada, The US, Russia, Brazil, Germany, Estonia and Portugal. My daughter Hanna lives in Portugal, so that explains that one. But Estonia? Maybe I’m big there, who knows?)

My thoughts on the death of my friend Michael Green last week were read by several thousand people from around the world, mostly in Canada and probably mostly in Calgary. Not exactly viral, but I hope it was of comfort to those who read it.

Because here’s the thing: I don’t get paid for this. All of us artists in all disciplines are finding it more and more difficult to actually get paid for the work we do. Ironically, digitization which potentially brings our work to vast audiences has made it less likely that we ever get paid properly, if at all, for what we do.

The rules of the game have changed. I don’t trust anyone who says they know where it’s all leading. Really, we have been caught out like the scribes in the days of Gutenberg. We have sacred skills that technology has rendered not meaningless, but virtually worthless.

And so, RIP, FFWD.

Interesting times, indeed.

Thanks for reading! Here’s something I found on You Tube this morning . . .

 

I’m The Guy In The Light! Michael Green Remembered   7 comments

Photo by Brian Jensen

Photo by Brian Jensen

Like so many others, I was shocked and saddened to learn of the passing of Michael Green in a fatal accident in Saskatchewan earlier this week. He was a gift, really, taken away too soon and so suddenly. Although Michael and I were friends for 20 years, we never had the opportunity to work together. We had been meeting with a producer on a rather ambitious project, and had high hopes for creating a show for 2017 together, but now, alas, that will never be.

There were three others who also lost their lives in this terrible accident: Michele Sereda, who was an old friend and even former neighbour from Regina; Blackfoot Elder and film maker Narcisse Blood — I know it was my great loss not to have met such a great man; and finally, Lacy Morin-Desjarlais, a Saulteux artist from Saskatchewan. To all of the friends, family and colleagues left to mourn the untimely passing of these four beautiful souls, I offer my heart-felt condolences and most sincere sympathy.

Now, it wouldn’t fall to me to write any kind of official tribute for Michael. As friendly as we were for so long, there are many other who knew him better and are far more qualified to talk about his dazzling life and many, many accomplishments.

However, at the spontaneous gathering held at the Big Secret Theatre on Wednesday, I kept thinking of a story of his that to me says so much about the kind of man he was, and that’s what I’m here to share.

Here’s how it went down . . .

A couple of years ago, on a warm summer’s evening, a few of us, including Johanne Deleeuw, Tim Williams, Kate Newby, Cam Ascroft,  a few others and myself had gathered at the Auburn Saloon with the express purpose of drinking some beers and generally shooting the shit. After we had been there for an hour or so, Michael wandered in, got himself a drink and joined us.

He told us that a couple of nights earlier, he had been sitting in his back yard with a friend, smoking a joint and having a couple of drinks when suddenly, out of nowhere, a police helicopter flew in, hovering directly overhead, making a hell of a racket and generally scaring the hell out of them.

If that weren’t bad enough, after a minute or so, it turned on its powerful spot light and shone it right into Michael’s little yard, illuminating him and his friend in a stark and very bright, even blinding, light.

I don’t know if it’s on account of my own tendency to suffer from rather intense feelings of paranoia whenever I smoke up, but if that had happened to me, I’m sure I would have taken refuge inside my house, turned out all the lights and probably hidden under my couch.

But not so with Michael Green. Once he had sized up the situation and was reasonably sure he was not being abducted by space aliens, he picked up his phone, dialed 911, and when they answered, yelled, “I’M THE GUY IN THE LIGHT!”

After an intense conversation with the operator, he was actually patched through to the officer in the helicopter, to whom he repeated, “I’M THE GUY IN THE LIGHT!” Adding, “WHY THE HELL ARE YOU SHINING YOUR LIGHT IN MY YARD?! I’M TRYING TO HAVE A CONVERSATION WITH MY FRIEND! SHUT IT OFF!”

Amazingly, they did just that, they turned off their light and flew away.

Michael had us all in stitches telling that story, and ever since I heard him tell it, I always thought it said so much about him:

“I’M THE GUY IN THE LIGHT!”

It’s so fitting on one hand, and yet, those of us who knew him would surely suggest he wasn’t, after all, the guy in the light. He was, in fact, the light itself. The source.

He radiated a pure, dazzling, multi-coloured light that shone on all of us who were fortunate enough to know him. It shone on audiences of One Yellow Rabbit performances and the High Performance Rodeo for the better part of three decades. It shone all throughout the City of Calgary at hundreds of events during Calgary 2012. Most recently, it shone on the lives and illuminated the stories of our First Nations People who have been shrouded in darkness far too long.

In fact, that’s why he was in Saskatchewan in the first place, to explore the possibility of creating “Making Treaty 4” along the lines of “Making Treaty 7” which he helped produce here in Alberta.

Such a bright light he was. For many of us, the world became a little darker, a little dimmer with his passing.

He will be missed.

Thanks for reading.

The lights of Calgary shone yellow for One Yellow Rabbit on Tuesday night. I shamelessly stole this photo from Facebook. If it's yours, please let me know and I'll give you credit!

The lights of Calgary shone yellow for One Yellow Rabbit on Tuesday night. I shamelessly stole this photo from Facebook. If it’s yours, please let me know and I’ll give you credit!

Apologies to Dostoevsky   5 comments

booksIt began with The Brothers Karamazov which I lugged home from the second hand book store one day, it was a Saturday afternoon. This was years ago, but I remember thinking nothing else would do. Never mind that it was my third copy of the book, the third I could think of. Never mind I’d never read the other two, having given up in despair around page 24 both times. This one would be different. On the cover, The New York Times Book Review promised: “One finally gets the musical whole of Dostoevsky’s original.” I needed that. I needed the musical whole.

Feverishly, I read 24 pages then put it aside. The trouble was, there was no place to put it. The bookshelves had long been filled. Not just filled like they were meant to be, as they were when I was young and happy and the days were sweet. Now there were piles of books stacked on their sides along the shelves so you couldn’t even see the ones in behind them, let alone reach one if you needed it. I needed a new book case, desperately, but the thought of going to IKEA filled me with self-loathing and disgust, so no new book case had been procured.

The Brothers were set down on the carpet between the book cases and the coffee table in my living room. It was meant to be a temporary measure. And yet it sat there for several days and soon the entire room seemed to be organized around it. I thought of my mother who had worked so hard to put me through university, what would she think of this errant book just lying there on the carpet? Such thoughts filled me with shame and many a night I went to my poor bed and cried myself to sleep thinking of mother and the rest of the family I never saw any more. I knew deep inside that none of them would just leave a book sitting there on the floor like that. Day after day my shame and grew and my confidence began to crumble.

One day not long after, perhaps weeks, maybe months, I had stopped washing so it was hard to differentiate one day from another, I went to my favourite coffee shop where all I could afford was a cup of hot water. I couldn’t actually afford hot, so settled for lukewarm. I looked down, as I always did in those days, as looking up was too painful, and there on the bench beside me was a copy of Kafka’s The Trial. My heart raced. I felt feverish. Sweat poured from the palms of my hands and the soles of my feet. Like a condemned man, I took the book in a trembling soggy hand and stashed it into my greasy satchel and furtively made my way back to my cheap lodgings.

I lay on my couch in mortal agony, subsisting on saltines and vinegar, and read the entire book without a break. When I was finished, I hardly knew my own name. Without thinking, I set The Trial atop The Brothers Karamazov before I swooned and fell into a treacherous sleep.

It was later the same day I tired of reading a piece on monopedomania in The New Yorker and set the magazine on top of The Trial. The next day, a letter from the phone company threatening to cut me off (again) went on top of the magazine. In the laundry room I found a copy of a biography on Steven Tyler which I mean to get to someday, but for now, it sits on top of the nasty letter from the phone company, beneath a slightly damaged Penguin Pride and Prejudice.

Something sculptural and loathsome and demonic was forming in my living room. Day by day, book by book, bill by bill, magazine by magazine, the tower rose from one foot, to two feet, to six feet, until I had to stand on my tip toes to jam a Pizza 73 flyer between the top of the pile and the ceiling.

By now, the tv was obscured from my favourite place on the couch. A second tower was growing up beside the first, grounded with a two volume set of impressionistic art. Before long, it too reached the ceiling, and a third tower began. And a fourth. And a fifth. You get the idea. Soon my entire apartment was a series of precarious piles of paper and I found myself scurrying around in this maze of my own creation so that I began to feel more like a rodent than a human being.

One night, as I sat in my local bar, nursing a flat beer, my eyes yellowish with fever, reading a stale Paris Review, despite my best intentions I was joined by a local harlot who rubbed my thigh and suggested we return to my hovel for a night of passion. I had been without passion that involved a second party for so long that I unthinkingly said yes. Up the stairs we climbed to my grim dwelling place. She was afraid of elevators. I can’t blame her.

I opened the door to my apartment. She entered and saw the towers of paper rising to the ceiling. She shrieked, causing a percussion that, as if in slow motion, started the crumbling and deconstruction of the towers. Like dominoes they began to fall, drawing the attention of the neighbours and the building manager and soon we heard the wail of sirens in the distance.

I scurried out the kitchen and onto the fire escape, climbing down to the alley where I began to wander disconsolately in the rain. This was weeks ago. I wander still. The only possession I managed to salvage from the ruins?

The Brothers Karamazov . . .

Thanks for reading!

 

Posted February 1, 2015 by Eugene Stickland in Uncategorized

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Event Planning with Eugeniuscorp®©™   Leave a comment

penEugeniuscorp®©™ was recently officially endorsed (for the 12th time!) on LinkedIn in the area of Event Planning. This was taken as remarkably good news in a year that otherwise has been off to a regrettable beginning. To say the administration of ECorp was surprised at the nod it received in this particular area would be an understatement, given that generally speaking we are unable to plan with any exactitude when we will get out of bed in the morning, let alone what we will do with ourselves once we are, as they say, up and at ‘em.

In fact, we note with some alarm our increasing inability even to attend events skillfully planned by others. The thought of actually planning an event is daunting, if not out and out terrifying.

Still, with a recession looming on the horizon and lean times ahead (as well as behind), we at Eugeniuscorp®©™ do not turn down any reasonable opportunity to skin an unsuspecting client for a few bucks. With that in mind, we have prepared the following screed to be included in the list of services we offer to the general public.

Planning an event? Why not let the capable staff at Eugeniuscorp®©™ help out?! Our team of friendly and professional event planners will ease your mind and ensure that things run seamlessly on your big day. From weddings to international anti-terrorism symposia, no event is too big or too small for the competent staff at Eugeniuscorp®©™.

Our pledge to you:

When you retain us to plan your event, we will show up on time for our first exploratory meeting. Well, say within twenty minutes or so, depending on traffic. And assuming that we remembered to enter our meeting into our iCalendar or our Day-Timer and it didn’t just get lost in the jumble of crumpled scraps of paper we keep on our kitchen table which is also our work area.

In the likelihood that we actually make it to the meeting, freshly showered and shampooed and with our teeth recently and vigorously brushed, we will have with us an impressive looking notebook and an equally impressive fountain pen containing the finest of inks to keep an official record of the details of our meeting.

Generally, depending on information gleaned in the early part of our meeting, things can go in one of two directions. If the client is a woman, and is reasonably attractive, and appears to be single, or if not out and out single, giving signs of being in a less than stellar relationship, then your Eugeniuscorp®©™ agent will be extremely engaged and attentive to each and every word you utter.

Should you not meet these requirements, you may notice your agent checking his phone for emails, looking at Facebook, responding to texts, hopefully (if not a little desperately) looking for matches on Tinder, playing Trivia Crack etc. etc. but you can hardly blame us for what you’re not bringing to the table.

In terms of payment, please be aware that Eugeniuscorp®©™ requires a hefty deposit to ensure the smooth runnings of your event. We’re not a charity. Cash payments slid in unmarked envelopes across dirty table tops in late night greasy spoon restaurants are our preferred method of payment, but other less conventional methods can be arranged at your convenience.

Once the nature of the event has been ascertained, we will ask pertinent questions that will soon increase your comfort level and make you relax in the certain knowledge that you are in the capable hands of a LinkedIn-endorsed event planner.

Things like the date. Sometimes people forget to mention the date. You’d be surprised how often that happens. You will note how our agent deftly first writes the date in his notebook with a very expensive fountain pen, utilizing only the finest Japanese ink, and then marvel at the “double-binding safeguard”®© your agent will employ as he enters the date into the calendar on his iPhone®©, with a full 24 hour alert to ensure that your event will enter his consciousness at least one full day before it is scheduled.

All of this at no extra cost to the consumer.

Our operators are standing by to consult with you on your event. Calls received before 8:00 PM are more likely to be remembered than those received after.

Remember our spiffy motto: Got an event? Get Eugeniuscorp®©™!

Thanks for reading!

Posted January 23, 2015 by Eugene Stickland in Uncategorized

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I Want My Pre-Internet Brain Back   6 comments

All dressed up and nowhere to go

All dressed up and nowhere to

Someone wrote that on Facebook the other day and it has stuck with me ever since: I want my pre-Internet brain back.

I don’t think I even hit “like” on it, which I feel a certain amount of remorse about now. Oh well, another item for the great list of remorse that I lie awake at night pondering and reviewing.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post about Nicholas Carr’s excellent book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains. (Nothing good, alas, dear reader, as you may have suspected.) You can find that post by typing Life With No Computer into the little search box on the left side of the screen.

I wrote that post two years ago and haven’t thought a lot about it since. At some level I have, no doubt, willfully kept it from my mind. I know I spend too much time on the computer. I’ll bet you might be able to say the same, dear reader. If you’re reading this, you may have become aware of this post on Facebook, or you may have received an email notification, or you may have even been Googling something else and just come across it.

Chances are you are looking at this blog with Facebook lurking just below the surface, with your email open at the same time. If you’re like me, you might well be listening to music and even carrying on a text conversation on your phone. And you may even be watching a game on tv or a film on Netflix.

It all adds up to a tremendous amount of distraction. We get so used to it that it’s really a small miracle that we can concentrate on anything at all for any length of time anymore.

I hadn’t realized (or admitted?) just how bad it is with me until I went to my favourite coffee shop the other day (Caffe Beano, of course) where I’ve been gamely, even grimly, adding 500 words a day to my new novel.

(“New novel?” you may ask. “What the hell happened to your old novel?” I’m glad you asked. The old novel, titled The Piano Teacher, will be published by my little publishing company in a few months, on the first day of spring. Trust me, you’ll be hearing a lot more about that in the months to come. And now there’s a new novel. Quite simple, actually.)

On any account, there I was at Caffe Beano, coffee procured, notebook out, pencil sharpened (metaphorically speaking, it’s a mechanical pencil actually, a Pentel Kerry .07 in which I use B leads). (These are things you need to know, friends, as far as I’m concerned.)

I found my reading glasses, no longer optional, and felt around for my phone (an iPhone 5S) but it wasn’t in that pocket where I’d found my glasses and it wasn’t in any other pocket and it wasn’t in my bag so that could only have meant it was sitting on my table at home, charging away, while I was at Caffe Beano without it.

OMG! I DID NOT HAVE MY PHONE! I LEFT HOME WITHOUT MY PHONE! HOLY SHIT, WHAT NOW?! DO I GO HOME AND GET IT? BUT IT’S COLD OUTSIDE. OH NO OH NO OH NO! HEEEEEEEELLLLLLLLLLLPPPPPPPPP!

Ok, ok, ok, ok, ok, calm down, it will be all right, it’s just for an hour, we’re not expecting anyone to call anyway, Facebook will take care of itself for an hour, no significant other to text insignificant nothings to us anyway, we don’t need it, come to think of it, why do we think we even need it ever? It’s not like we’re a doctor on call. Or in the fresh bloom of love. Or any bloom of anything, for that matter. Relax. Breathe. Just breathe. In and out. Sloooooowly. We don’t need the phone.

This way, we reasoned, we’ll be able to devote 100% of our concentration on the matter at hand, which is to add 500 words to the new and as yet unnamed novel.

Well, that was the gist of the internal dialogue.

I petulantly scratched a few words onto the page, random nouns unconnected by verbs or conjunctions or prepositions. I fidgeted. I sighed.

I had nothing. I quit and got back home to my phone. No calls. No texts. No emails. No nothing. So why was I even worried about it in the first place?

My brains, I realized, were slowly turning to mush. That’s when I remembered that status update from Facebook: I want my pre-internet brain back.

Thinking back to when I was a teenager, way back in the murky black and white steaming swamp of time lost, pre-computer, pre-internet, pre-VCR, with only two channels on the old Zenith black and white TV with the bunny ears on top, pre-telephone answering machine – you get the picture, pre-everything that could possible distract you, I had fashioned a bedroom studio in my parents’ unfinished basement.

After supper, I would disappear into the basement and spend the entire evening painting, playing my trumpet (the mournful strains of my rendition of Herb Alpert’s Lonely Bull wafting up through the floorboards)(my poor suffering parents finally bought me a mute), writing, reading and doing other things that teenage boys do, which I will leave to your imagination, gentle reader.

A friend might phone, or just as likely not phone. Someone might drop by for a visit. We used to do that in this culture, remember? Actually visit friends. Like, in person. Like, putting ourselves in the same room as our friends. Remember? Whatever happened to that?

By and large, I was capable of spending huge amounts of time with myself, happily engaged in these solitary artistic pursuits, happy as a pig in the proverbial shit.

So what the hell happened?

Computers happened. The internet happened. Cell phones happened. I seem to have bought in, every step of the way.

Now, I want out. At the least I want to feel I am in control. To make even a small change to my dependency feels as monumental a task as quitting smoking, which I have never been able to do. Clearly something has to happen. Maybe it’s as simple as deliberately leaving home, at least now and then, without my phone. Or taking a day away from Facebook. A full 24 hours! It seems daunting.

But clearly, something has to be done.

I want my pre-internet brain back.

Thanks for reading.

 

Here’s a funky remix of a song that seems to sum it all up . . . .

Some Thoughts on Death and the Telephone   4 comments

 

Maybe heaven looks like Barlow Station.

Maybe heaven looks like Barlow Station.

Last week I found myself in a small northern city without enough reading material. I obviously needed to do something to rectify that situation, so I set out in that unfamiliar place and before long I came across a Wal-Mart. You might guess my feelings about Wal-Mart and the evil empire, I haven’t been in one for years. But desperate measures for desperate times, as they say, so I steeled myself to the task and joined the great unwashed, guided by the vague notion that if they sell everything else under the sun, surely they would have a few books. I was right. They did. I bought one.

(I also bought what seems to be a decent pair of jeans for $12.00. 12 bucks! I tried not to think of the child labor and grizzly sweat shops in Bangladesh stitched into those jeans, but that’s another thought for another day.) I took my book and my jeans and made it back to my hotel, at once ashamed and yet proud of my purchases. (12 bucks!)

The book I bought, on closer inspection, seems to be appropriate for what they call a YA audience. Young adult. I am not a young adult. I’m not even sure I’m an adult, when you get right down to it. I immediately questioned the veracity of my decision of buying it when I opened it to discover that no less a supreme personage than Oprah had decreed that this was a book “every woman needs to read before her next birthday.”

I think I bought it because I liked the blue on the cover. And to keep myself from one of those robust spy novels that Wal-Mart was full of. But further, The Sacramento Bee says that the book is “perfect in every way.” Not bad. Maybe I was onto something.

The book is titled The Fault in Our Stars and it has sold a zillion copies and it has been made into a movie that everyone loves and it is so sad and yet so real. I have to admit that despite the fact that the only character I could really relate to was the broken down Dutch novelist Peter Van Houten (although I don’t think I’m all as bad as that), it’s really a wonderful book. In this day and age when it seems all of us are destined to get some sort of cancer, it probably should be required reading. And how sad when it happens to young people who never really get a chance to live their lives.

But it was a departure for me. The last book I read was Elie Wiesel’s Night (happy, happy!) and the other two books I have on the go are Beckett’s The Unnamable (for the umpteenth time) and Henry Miller’s Sexus – once more into the breach, I thought I’d take what will be probably my third run at The Rosy Crucifixion.

So you can see, I am a supreme snob when it comes to literature. I rarely sample the fare of the popular culture, but I really thought The Fault in Out Stars was a good book and worth the read. And who am I to argue with #1 on the New York Times and Time Magazine’s Book of the Year?

There’s a scene towards the end of the book that reminded me of a scene from my own life, one that was so painful I had suppressed it, until now it seems. I don’t want to spoil the book for you should you decide to read it (or the movie should you wish to see it), so I won’t say what happens there, but this was the incident from my own life that it brought back to memory.

A number of years ago, I had a very dear girlfriend who sadly passed away as the result of a car accident. She had lingered for quite some time after the accident, in and out of hospital, and we kidded ourselves I guess that she would get better, and we could spend our days together. But one day, she just gave up the ghost, and that was that. You could say I was devastated. It was maybe the bleakest time of my life.

One night, when I couldn’t stand the separation any longer, the loneliness and despair rising to lethal levels, I phoned her. Not like I expected her to answer, but I just needed to hear her voice one more time. Wherever her phone was, it was still active, and I heard her voice on the voicemail, asking me to leave a message.

What message is there for a dead person? Only one. I said “I love you” and then hung up. It was helpful to do that, comforting to hear her voice. Immensely sad, too, obviously. And probably absurd. But helpful.

I did it a few times. Not every night. But from time to time when the grief would not relent, and the cold empty night stretched relentlessly before me, I would call her number and hear her voice. Maybe I was after confirmation that she had existed at all. I don’t know. On any account, in this manner, creeping day by day, I made it through.

I was pushing my luck. One night I phoned and a young woman answered. A girl, probably. I really didn’t know what to say to her, but I came clean and told her why I had been calling.

The girl told me, very gently, that it was her number now, and asked me if I was going to be ok. She was so helpful. I thanked her and hung up and never called the number again. I guess I moved on. And yet, as we all know, dear reader, there are some losses we may never get over.

So. There you have it. There’s a scene something like that near the end of John Green’s novel The Fault In Our Stars. If you like good books that aren’t afraid to deal with the messy sadness of life, I highly recommend it.

Thanks for reading.

Here’s a song that was written before answering machines and voicemail . . .

 

Posted November 23, 2014 by Eugene Stickland in Uncategorized

Tagged with , ,

This Is What My Country Looks Like   8 comments

This is what my Canada Looks Like

My students who come from (clockwise from top left)  Bangladesh, Nepal.Syria, India, Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan, Pakistan, (me from Saskatchistan), Mongolia, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

My students who come from (clockwise from top left) Bangladesh, Nepal.Syria, India, Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan, Pakistan, (me from Saskatchistan), Mongolia, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Take a good look at this picture. For the last 12 weeks, these are the people I have spent most of my time with, these are the people I have come to know and love as my students in the MDRT program at ABES.

The what at the what??

MDRT means Medical Device Reprocessing Technician. When you go for a treatment at the hospital or clinic, and hope that the instruments being used on you have been sterilized – that’s the function of the MDRT.

ABES mean Alberta Business and Educational Services. It’s a school in NE Calgary that trains people in various medical areas, including lab assistants and health care aids and obviously MDRT.

4 years ago, the MDRT program was launched specifically to help internationally educated professionals (ie, immigrants) get a foot in the door in our health care industry. I was brought in to teach them something about the culture of the country and the language we use to talk about it.

The people in my photo, all but three who are doctors, are probably over qualified for the position they are training for. Some will use it as a stepping stone to something grander. One of my former students went to the University of Saskatchewan and did a Masters in Public Health, for example. Others will complete the accreditation process (which is time-consuming and expensive) and become doctors here.

When I first was asked to teach the course, I have to admit that as a Waspy kind of guy, I didn’t know much about new Canadians and their reasons for wanting to come here. Their situation, which I initially thought was peripheral to our culture, is in fact, I now realize, at its centre. We are a country of immigrants. Some of my own people got here in an early wave of Brits, as far back as the 1700’s. But still we came from somewhere else. Even our native people came from somewhere else, having walked here over the Bering Straight, albeit some 10,000 years sooner than the rest of us.

(I have written about this program elsewhere on this blog. Please type ABES into the search box to the left of the page and you will find out more about it, especially the post titled “Work, Work, Work.”)

A few years ago, I thought this class and my experience with it could lead to an interesting film. My friend Randy Bradshaw and I applied for some development money to get the process going. We were turned down.

Why?

“This is not an Alberta story,” we were told.

Look at that picture. It was taken last week in Calgary.

If you think this isn’t an Alberta story, then clearly you are living under a rock or have your head lodged very far up one of your southern orifices.

What are our stories? The one about the solitary prairie drifter falling in love with the beautiful young teacher from the one room school house?

That was actually my mom and dad’s story. It happened in 1940. Maybe it’s time to move on and examine some new stories.

Many of the people in my picture are Muslims, by the way. They are some of the most spiritual and peaceful people I know. I feel it’s worth saying because I believe anything that can help fight the stereotype we get constantly from the press is worth the cyber ink I spill to say it.

These are lovely people. Their goal as doctors is to take away suffering. This is so apparent to me I feel embarrassed to have to say it, but I know there are people among us who harbor fears and resentment based on the popular press.

Look at those faces! These are very good, kind, decent and gentle people. They are in our midst! And it’s a good thing!

Remember this: The white Waspy version of Canada that some of us grew up with lasted only a couple of hundred years, only about 100 out west. This is a country in transition, in flux. Our new Canadians, like these students of mine,  bring a wealth of experience and a vibrancy to this country that makes it a better place to live for all of us.

This is Canada. This is Alberta. This is Calgary.

This is my world. It’s yours too.

Embrace it.

Thanks for reading

 

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