You might wonder how powerful people get away with doing disgusting things, particularly things like sexually harassing less powerful people. Why don’t more people who know about their actions blow the whistle on them?
There’s an easy answer. Nobody wants to get involved. It’s an ugly, murky business, often characterized by only he said/she said evidence. And powerful people are powerful for a reason. They control who gets to work, earns a living, and has a career.
Shortly before the end of the last century I directed a couple of episodic TV shows on the west coast. Like most episodic shows, the budget was squeaky tight and the shooting schedule meant that the director’s shot list had to be scraped to the bone. Bringing the show in on time and on budget was the usual struggle against time and circumstances. This particular series helped the directors out by providing a second unit camera crew to pick up shots the director simply didn’t have time to set up. In this case the second unit camera was operated by a very attractive young woman. She was doing great work, and I was grateful for it.
“You’re saving my life here,” I told her. “I don’t know how I could get this show in the can without you.”
And then she was fired.
I heard that the producer said she was incompetent. That didn’t make any sense to me, but maybe there was something she shot that the producer didn’t like, or decided was a waste of money. Producers can be hard to please.
I heard from the camera crew that the producer had hit on her. She had turned him down flat. And then she was fired. That would explain a lot.
Some weeks later I got a phone call from the producer. She had gone to the union and lodged a complaint against him. “She’s saying that the great Zale Dalen told her that her work was saving his life,” he told me, his voice an audible sneer when he said my name.
The implication, of course, was that he wanted me to deny telling her that her work was valuable. A lot of emotions were running through my body and tightening my breathing at this point. Chief among them was that I didn’t like this guy. Possibly there was a bit of pride in his sarcastic suggestion that my name carried weight in the industry. Also there was a slight annoyance at the woman for dragging me into this situation. By this point in my career I had learn that pissing off a producer, even a low level West Coast episodic producer, could be career suicide.
Case in point: I went to an interview with a PBS producer in Seattle. He told me: “I hear you are hard to work with.” and I knew exactly where that had come from – a producer I worked with in Toronto, almost on the other side of the continent. The movie industry is a small club. Producer talk, and don’t mind exercising their power and influence by killing a job prospect for a director.
I remember sitting in a sushi bar with George Lazenby. He told me that Albert R. (Cubby) Broccoli wanted him to do another James Bond movie after starring in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and he had refused because “the producer made me feel mindless”. Cubby Broccoli told him he would never make another movie, and pretty much made it stick. “After the Bond argument nobody would touch me,” George told me. “Harry Saltzman had always said, ‘If you don’t do another Bond you’ll wind up doing spaghetti westerns in Italy. But I couldn’t even get one of those. My agent couldn’t believe it. But the word was out – I was ‘difficult’.”
Being difficult is the kiss of death for a director, unless you direct a huge money maker. Then being difficult is not only expected, it’s essential. A director is expected to have a vision and fight for it. But even so, one must be aware of power and influence. Phil Borsos had a good run after making “The Grey Fox”, but his career did a steep dive into the toilet after he pissed off the producer of “The Mean Season”, David Foster, a man with a list of major credits as long as your leg and an entrenched member of the Hollywood industry elite.
So, what could I do? I certainly wasn’t going to deny that I said what I said. I told the producer, listen, this isn’t my business. I don’t know what went on and I wasn’t there. But what I saw of her work looked good. If anybody asks me, I’ll say so.
I later heard that the young camera person settled, i.e. was bought off. And, predictably, she became known as “difficult”. Though I managed to hire her for one small project, I don’t think she got a lot of work after that. Another reason why I don’t like the film business. It’s full of assholes who trash careers out of spite.
Strangely enough, I also didn’t get any work from that producer after that.
It’s really encouraging that the “casting couch” has been sent to the landfill and abusers like Harvey Weinstein are getting what they deserve. But it’s still an industry that lives on gossip, word of mouth, and reputation. Becoming known as difficult is the kiss of death, and that will never change.
What will also never change is that there will always be ambitious young women, and men, willing to not “be difficult” when a career advance is dangled in front of them. So that confuses the situation. And such compliance is fraught with danger and disappointment. “Did you hear about the Polish actress?” a disgusting Hollywood joke that manages to be both sexist and racist (plus a reflection of the bitterness writers often feel as their work is butchered by producers and directors). “She fucked the writer.”
Damn but it’s an ugly business. Makes me sincerely glad my phone stopped ringing years ago.
While I was in China I regularly published a blog, aptly titled “The Man in China“, which to this day can be found at www.themaninchina.com. It was widely read by my students, who were generally an intensely nationalistic bunch after absorbing government propaganda through their formative years, and often caused some pushback when my opinions were not in line with official policy. For example, I was sternly corrected by several students when I stated the land area of China without including the area of Taiwan. But generally I was allowed to give my personal opinions without any censorship from the administration. I only removed something once, when some nameless prude complained to the administration about the picture I posted of kissing my wife on the big Ferris wheel (Actually, to be clear, I kissed her on the mouth while we rode on the big Ferris wheel). I wasn’t told I had to remove that picture, but they did tell me about the complaint and I removed it because I did not want to fight over such a trivial issue. I also got a visit from the head of our department when I posted my opinion that China could score propaganda points by allowing a dissident, Liu Xiaobo, to accept his Nobel Peace Prize, rather than getting in a huff and trying to suppress the news. To keep the peace, I offered to take the post down if the administration was unhappy with it, but was told that the post could remain up, since it was clearly my personal opinion.
But to get to the point of this post, my best, and most successful (ever) April Fools Day joke was when I posted that Canada and China, after a series of top secret meetings by government officials of both nations, had agreed to merge the two countries to form the largest country in the world, a country to be known as Da Zhong Guo (Big China) in Chinese and Canadada (da in Chinese means big) in English. The advantages to both countries were obvious. China would get improved access to Canada’s immense natural resources and badly needed living space. Canada would gain access to the huge Chinese domestic market for Canadian resources, goods, and products. Win win all over the place.
What made this parody post so successful was that some of my students believed it, and told their fellow students about it with great excitement. More or less the definition of a successful parody. Also, for my students, an example of Poe’s Law, a parody that mirrors society so perfectly that one can’t decide whether or not it’s real or “fake news”.
I saw it as part of my job to make my students just a little more suspicious about news reports. Of course my students were far smarter, and less gullible or naive, than I thought. This was brought home to me when I learned about the Wu Mao Dang, or Fifty Cent Club, which allegedly paid Chinese students fifty cents to counter social media statements critical of the Chinese administration. A social media thread sequence often went like this: a social media post would criticize the government, followed on the same thread by a post supporting the government, followed on the same thread by a post proclaiming “Here comes the wu mao dang again.” My students were no dummies. The brightest people in China, as a matter of fact, despite their indoctrination.
By the way, I recently learned that one of my favorite poems, “You are Old Father William” by Lewis Carroll, one of the very few poems I can recite accurately even when in my cups (Especially when in my cups?), a poem I love for it’s wonderful rhymes, such as rhyming “suet” with “do it”, is in fact a parody of a rather sanctimonious didactic poem by Robert Southey which has been justifiably forgotten, “The old Man’s Comforts and How He Gained Them”
Amazing what one can learn by following Wikipedia links. I do love the Internet. I’m so grateful to have lived long enough to experience it, while remembering the drudgery of researching in the libraries of my youth.
To get back on track with this post, I can see an argument for limiting the free speech protection for parody. How is parody different from fake news? Can a person publish any disinformation they want if they merely insists, with no indication in the material published, that it was just a joke. A thorny question indeed.
People seem passionate about social positions that have nothing to do with their own lives. A perfect example is a man beyond procreation age taking a passionate position against abortion. I suppose you could argue that a potential grandparent has an interest in whether his daughter bears a child, but that seems to be a thin argument to me. For myself, I don’t believe that any man has a right to an anti-abortion position of any kind. That is one hundred percent a women’s issue. They are the ones with the bodies that will be be affected. We don’t have a dog in that fight.
There is one social issue that I do feel entitled to sound off about, and that is Medical Assistance in Dying, or MAID. I have metastasized prostate cancer. I have registered for MAID.* In theory, a phone call to Dr. F_____ will trigger a sequence of events – organizing nursing assistance and procuring the necessary drugs – that will take about three days and result in a team showing up at a place of my choosing to kill me. Should it go that way, it will be a pleasant and painless death, very much like the one we just purchased for our beloved GouGou after almost sixteen years as a member of our family.
It’s been a long and hard battle to gain this right in Canada, and I’m grateful for it. I very much do have a dog in that fight. I have watched several cancer victims die. Horrible deaths. Death that we would not inflict on an animal. I really see no point in going through that disgusting and undignified process myself, reduced to utter dependence and kept alive by medical interventions far beyond the point when the party is over and it’s time to leave.
So I consider our current laws on medically assisted death a sign of social maturity. I’m grateful for the change from previous legislation, mostly because I am likely to benefit from it. Still, I don’t think we got it quite right.
This morning I learned that several states in the U.S. allow doctors to prescribe drugs fully intended to painlessly kill their patient, but are forbidden from administering those drugs themselves. Now that’s an idea that I like. There’s something wrong with doctors administering drugs intended to kill. From a comment she made to me (“As long as nobody calls me a murderer.” -Dr. F___) while discussing her agreement to terminate my life, I’m pretty sure that Dr. F____ is not completely comfortable with taking on that roll. I’m sincerely grateful that she is willing to do it for me. But her direct assistance is not at all necessary. Give me the means to go quietly, at my own time, and leave the rest up to me. That’s what I would really like.
What the hell is wrong with that?
*Before you leap to the assumption that my death is imminent, please calm down. My death may be years away, and it’s very likely that I will die of something else, like old age, before the cancer gets me. My oncologist tells me that the situation with prostate cancer reminds him of the early days in his career when he worked at a hospital treating AIDS patients. Back then, AIDS was a death sentence, a guaranteed terminal disease. Today, after decades of research, AIDS is a chronic disease that can’t be cured, but a person with HIV or even full blown AIDS may live for decades. So it is now with prostate cancer. I’m definitely in decline, but I look good on paper. My PSA, (Prostate Specific Antigen, an indication of tumor activity) level is decimals below one and it could be years before you can mourn or rejoice in my death.
Some time before the turn of the century, I was blessed with a rather large royalty payment for my television work, enough to settle my debts and give me some money to play with but not enough to buy me an early retirement. At any rate, I was in my fifties and not yet ready to retire. At the time, digital media was just coming available, bringing amateur film production closer to reality, but the resulting films generally had the camera mounted on the head of a poorly trained seal and sound quality that made the dialogue impossible to understand. Generally these productions made an excuse for the technical failings by pretending to be a college documentary found in the woods ( Remember the “Blaire Witch”) or footage from a security camera or a psychiatrist’s interviews.
My agent at the time had a client who was about to have a kidney transplant. He and his partner also happened to have a tiny miniDV camera with very limited controls. With that, and a flimsy tripod, I made a documentary on events leading up to the operation.
And I was hooked. I realized that with care and attention to the camera, focus, and shots plus good quality recording and a mix, this stuff could look like a movie. My first step toward bankruptcy.
That royalty money from the television work wasn’t enough to finance an industry style movie, which was just fine by me because I hate the way the industry makes movies. They are micro-managed in a style that originated with Frank Winslow Taylor and is absolutely antithetical to art. Television is a factory product. To a lesser extent, so are feature films. Money controls everything, from the script to the choices of locations, director, production personnel, and editing time. Every second on set is important. There is no room for experimentation, or for just trying things out. Not until a director gets to the A list, at which point things loosen up. But I never worked on a production that had time or money for re-shoots. Follow the script. Make a precise shot list. Get it right the first time or never work again. It’s a formula for formula film making and I chaffed under the restraints.
But here, with the availability of digital prosumer production gear, was a chance to make films completely outside of the industry. So I launched Volksmovie.com and set about revolutionizing film making. I teamed up with Beth Waldron, a local talent agent, and pitched the idea of a totally cooperative film production. I would provide the hard cash for equipment and MiniDV cassettes. Everybody else would do whatever they could to help make the movie, from manufacturing equipment to writing scenes. One of our actors was a welder. He turned a refrigerator dolly from Home Depot into a very serviceable camera dolly. Home Depot because our largest equipment supplier. We made diffusion filters out of furnace filters, and adapted work lights into set lights by adding barn doors.
I purchased three Canon GL1 miniDV cameras, three fluid head Manfroto tripods, a carbon fibre boom pole, a selection of mid range Audiotechnica microphones, and two Apple computers equipped with Final Cut Pro. I even purchased a light weight Cobra Crane.
It was very much a European style of film production, where a theme was chosen and threads explored. We had no completed script. We would shoot a scene. I would take a day or two to edit it. Then we would have a group screening and try to collectively figure out where the story was taking us. Artistically it was heaven. On the first shooting day, everybody stood around watching me put equipment together. After a week or two I could stand back while the van was unloaded and gear assembled. If an actor wasn’t in a scene, they might be operating a camera, or holding the boom pole. We had 64 shooting days, twice as many as I ever had on an industry production.
We kept track of everybody’s time, and the deal was that proceeds from the film would be split three ways, one third to pay back my capital investment, one third to be divided among the crew depending on time worked, and one third for the group to finance the next film. The problem was, there were no proceeds.
My business plan was extremely simple and obviously flawed: Make a zero budget film that looks good. Get invited to film festivals. Grab a couple of television sales that would more than recover the production costs. Rinse and repeat.
I had attended every Toronto Film Festival for about the past thirty years, ever since “Skip Tracer” was invited back in 1976. I felt certain that “Passion” would blow their minds. Two things I did not anticipate – an absolute tsunami of amateur short films, mostly made by teenagers, and the fact that we had achieved our objective. “Passion” looks like a movie. Right down to the poster.
But now back to the problem with my business plan: A video maker I knew who had found a niche making “So Ya Wanna Fight” videos, lent his son his production gear. The kid shot a five minute video of himself French kissing the family Rottweiler. And got invited to three film festivals as soon as he submitted.
“Passion” was invited nowhere. The festivals could afford to give five minutes of screen time to a teenager’s production that would bring in an enthusiastic audience. But “Passion” was a full length feature. As such, it was competing for screen time with the latest “special” film that comes to Toronto with name stars and a whole promotions team and budget.
“Passion” plays best to a live audience where the laughter is contagious. It would die on a VCR in an office while a festival organizer takes phone calls.
Having failed to find attention on the festival circuit, I decided to try another route. I rented the Pacific Cinemateque in Vancouver and set up a private screening, inviting film workshop students and industry members and, most importantly, opinion makers from the press. I hired a publicist to bring in those opinion makers.
We had a full house, with laughs all the way through the screening. But none of the opinion makers showed up. For that matter, my press agent didn’t show up. We got not one inch of copy in any paper. I realized that tearing up a thousand dollar bill on the corner of Thurlow and Robson would have done just as much good for my movie.
So “Passion” worked well with a full audience, but nobody in the industry liked it. Maybe it’s a crappy film. Maybe I’m just a crappy director. I’ve given this possibility a lot of thought. Except I still love the movie, and there are others out there who love it too.
I can understand why “Passion” turns a lot of people off. At it’s heart, it’s about a stalker, Dwayne Fever, part owner of an antique store called Cabin Fever, a man obsessed with a younger woman, his business partner, who is already in a relationship. The thing is, I can forgive him for that. He’s very self aware, and doesn’t want to be obsessed. His wife is dying of terminal cancer, making him even more of a creep in the eyes of many people. But grief manifests in many unexpected ways. You haven’t lived if you’ve never been obsessed with somebody, and needed to control your behavior.
The actions and characters in “Passion” are absurd, but so is reality. Nothing can be more absurd than the human behavior we can read about every day. Just Google fetishes to see for yourself.
I can understand why many people who expect the normal romcom tropes would be turned off by “Passion”. Here’s one example. This is a letter I wrote in response a friend’s criticisms of the movie. I never sent it.
Dear _________: December 5, 2014
I was going through some old files the other day and came upon your remarks about my movie, “Passion” (dated March 27, 2002). I didn’t address them at the time, because I don’t really believe in defending my movies against criticism. People will think what they want, and I generally take their comments as just an indication of whether or not I have correctly predicted their reactions in order to give them a movie they enjoy. But one of your comments demands a response, late as it is.
“For me the incongruity is best encapsulated in the scene between Fever and his daughter Cloe when he remonstrates her for having sex in his car. Rather than taking issue with her morality, he is most concerned that she stay out of his car! His fatherly instincts are laughable.”
My friend, I think I understand and respect your concept of morality. But you should understand that I do not agree with it. I place no value on virginity or chastity before marriage. None at all. In fact, I believe that telling a girl to remain a virgin until she marries is foolish. It means that she will be marrying a stranger. In the case of my sister it resulted in her marrying a repressed homosexual.
I am a sex positive person. It is my belief that sex is a natural human activity and a source of great joy, but that this has been perverted by the demands of patriarchy which, in the past and still today, treats women as chattel.
The scene you found such a laughable example of poor parenting is actually my very favorite in the entire move. As he says to his daughter, “I know you are old enough to have sex.” His complaint about her having sex in his car is not about her having sex, it’s about his shear incredulity that she would come to his house, for which she obviously has a key, specifically to have sex in his car. His initial reaction to her having sex in his car is more one of surprise than anything else, and if she’d asked his permission in advance he quite probably would have given it.
You see, I feel that Dwayne Fever’s relationship with his daughter is a model for what a father’s relationship with a daughter should be. So far from seeing him as a bad parent, I see him as a role model.
I completely accept the fact that my daughter has sex with her boyfriend. I see no problem with this. I would much rather have her enjoying sex than being afraid of sex, or withholding sex through fear.
Our culture has had and still has a double standard about sex. Women are not supposed to want or enjoy it, and are only supposed to engage in sex for procreation. Men, on the other hand, are expected to “sow their wild oats” and get experience so that they can be lord and master in the marital relationship. I detest this aspect of our culture, and I’m very happy to see it changing. “Slut shaming”, now part of the lexicon, is an activity that belongs in the past.
My friend _______, I’m sorry if I sound like I am lecturing you. I really do appreciate the time you took to watch my movie, and your rather gentle response to it. I just couldn’t let your main criticism go unaddressed because it’s an issue that is very important to me.
Warmest regards and all the best for a very Merry Christmas
In writing this letter, I was very aware that my friend had grown up in a Dutch Calvinist culture, one in which the rooster is locked up on Sundays so he doesn’t do any “work”. I really can’t blame him for having values antithetical to mine.
So Dwane Fever’s creepy behavior is redeemed for me by his relationship with his daughter, by the self aware the way he tries to control his stalker behavior, and by the relationship his has with his dying wife, best illustrated in the scene where he is in heaven and confronted by her ghost, who at that point knows everything. Her lines, “So you thought you loved her. Don’t you get it. You don’t know the first thing about her. She doesn’t know where she was when Kennedy was shot. All that time you were looking into a mirror.” And his line after he acknowledges the truth of this, “You know you are the only woman I ever really loved.” To which she responds. “Of course I know that.” This is great, honest, relationship stuff.
There is a lot more than the social values I enjoy about the movie. One of our main actors, Tim Johnson, took on a key roll as a writer. Between us we created scenes that still make me laugh. Tim found us a lesbian advisor who helped shape the scenes between Fever’s female lawyer and her secretary. And Tim was capable of finding completely off the wall lines that somehow rang true.
For example, when his character, Bob, is caught trying on women’s clothing, he chases his girlfriend down the street crying “But I’m not gay. It empowers me.” And that line, written by Tim, always made me shake my head. Where did that come from? Well, recently I met a man who told me his first marriage had fallen apart. I asked him what happened and he said, with admirable candor, “I’m a heterosexual transvestite and my first wife couldn’t handle it.” Naturally I had to invite him and his second wife to dinner and show them my movie. I wanted to ask him about that line, did it have any validity? “Absolutely,” he responded. “My mother was a very dominant personality and a seamstress. Somehow women’s clothing and the fabrics they’re made from acquired an irresistible sexual frisson. I just had to wear them. They make me feel powerful”
My love for the “Passion” is not uncritical or unreserved. At times the performance wanders too far into Mr. Bean territory for my taste, and some of the acting is questionable. But overall, it gets at least an A for effort. And it deserves a place in movie history if only for the production method and technology used.
For me, the characters in “Passion” are absurd, but not repugnant. They are all human beings, some smarter and more enlightened than others, but all part of this amazingly absurd world we try to muddle our way through. Watch it it without judgement and you may find yourself appreciating it, if not loving it, as I do.
I got an email from my wife today with “Are You Ears Burning” in the subject line, directing me to this post by Kenneth George Godwin.
I tried to post a comment in response, but there’s a glitch in his site. There was no sign of a captcha, but an error message said I hadn’t filled it out correctly. So I sent him this in a email instead:
Hi Kenneth George Godwin:
I tried to post the following comment on your post, but got an error message saying I did not enter the correct captcha. Couldn’t find a captcha anywhere. Anyway, here’s what I tried to post in the comments:
Don’t know who it is at the editing bench, identified as Dale Zalen, but they bear no resemblance to me, Zale Dalen. Not an uncommon mistake. (This has been corrected, and the picture replaced with one I provided.)
Aside from that, this was a very fair and generous article. For a time I was the West Coast advisor to the Canadian Film Development Corporation, and spent many meetings pleading with them to expand on the special investment program, under which “Skip Tracer” was made, and fighting off the industry types championing big budget American style production. I was also pleading with them not to go into supporting television production, a move they made because they couldn’t justify the money they were losing supporting feature films. The name change to Telefilm Canada marked the final defeat of that battle. I wrote a post some time ago on why I believe “Passion” is an underappreciated and historically important film, but that post seems to have disappeared from https://www.artisanmovies.com/ pages. I guess I’ll have to write it again. My main pitch is that it was the first prosumer digital production made completely outside of the movie industry that made no excuses for the technology and actually managed to look like a movie. (the fact that you reviewed it as just a movie kind of makes this point.) Plus I just like its social statements. Check into http://www.zaledalen.com/zaledalen/ in a week or so and I should have it up there. Thanks for the ink and attention.
Thank goodness. I’ve always disliked nostalgia. Reminders of my past, or unbidden memories, made me feel so very sad. That life, those experiences, are gone and not coming back. Often the memory would make me cringe for one reason or another, usually at behavior I’m not proud of. Or else it would just make me sad. The entire previous generation in my family is gone now, with the exception of Aunt Mary in England who keeps on trucking into her late nineties. Friends keep falling off the planet. Many of the big names, the stars, the celebrities I worked with or knew, have also shuffled off this mortal coil. My world is being hollowed out.
For me, the worst thing about the nostalgia presented on social media can be summed up in the phrase: “Those were the good old days”. No they weren’t, damn it. I was born into a sexist, racists, gender essentialist, intolerant society. Don’t tell me about how great it was to ride in the back of a pickup truck, or drink from the garden hose or run loose and unsupervised until the street lights came on. Yeah, those things were fun. My childhood was wonderful. But it was also a time when a woman couldn’t get a credit card or open a bank account without her husband’s signature. It was a time when farm boys went into the big city to beat up queers – good farm boy fun. A time when a black man couldn’t drink at the courthouse fountain, let along become president of the United States. It was a time of intolerance. During my long hair hippy phase, I was refused service in a restaurant for having hair about as long as it is right now.
When I was a kid, women’s rights, gay rights, black rights, and colour television were still years in the future. The silent light switch still hadn’t been marketed and turning off a light made a loud clack. A long distance phone call meant that somebody had died. In every way I can think of, society and technology is better by far than it was in my childhood. Now I play Chinese chess every weekend (great game, much better than international chess. You can check it out for free here.) with my friend Danny, an American still stuck in China. Or talk to him, or former students in Shanghai, on voice calls or video links. For free.
Subtle improvements in technology keep sneaking up on me. I mentioned the silent light switch. The enameled pots and pans of my childhood are gone now, as are the aluminum ones. Gotta love stainless steel cookware and utensils. Air hand dryers in washrooms actually work and I don’t mind using them. Battery powered drills and screw drivers are amazing, as are all of the battery powered tech from laqwn mowers to our car. I just noticed that our new toilet seat closes gently, without the loud clack of the old one. It’s hardly worth mentioning that my smart phone does everything my computer can do. In fact, I left my laptop at home on my last trip to Italy. Didn’t need it.
The only thing that was better in the fifties, if you were straight, white, and of the male gender, was our youth, health, and energy level. That was the only thing that was good about the good old days.
Most annoying about social media rants about the good old days is the dissing of kids today. The kids today are great, okay. They are smarter than we were, better educated, more engaged, and the world will be in good hands when we finally turn it over to them. The young people I meet, beside being awesomely beautiful, are just wonderful people. We boomers are just jealous.
To get back on track here, I’ve hated nostalgia for some years now. But recently I woke up in the wee hours of the morning, unable to get back to sleep as free association memories flipped through my brain. The six years old, fishing in our gulley, redolent with the smell of skunk cabbage, alive with mosquitoes, racoon tracks like tiny hand prints, for the the little trout I would stick in my pocket and take home to clean so my mother could fry them up for my breakfast. That lonely drive down I5 to Los Angeles, feeling sorry for myself because I had to leave home to scare up some work. High points like the standing ovation in Alice Tulley Hall at the New York Film Festival, or on the bridge of the Yukon while we steamed into a tropical sunset with porpoises leaping in our bow wave and flying fish with iridescent cellophane wings, a hundred in a school, launching from the waves to glitter in the sun. Low points like getting fired from a job I never should have accepted. Random memories, good and bad, in no particular order. Riding high. Crashing hard. Nostalgia writ large. But this time, for whatever reason, they didn’t evoke the usual sadness and longing for the past. This time it was like watching one of those corny Hollywood biopics about my life and times. It was just a great movie.
I think the difference is that I can see the end coming now, and, looking back, I’ve realized that there’s no point in taking anything too seriously. Nobody gets out alive, as my father used to tell me. Sure, there were tough times, terrible moments, but also moments of triumph and exhilaration. It’s been one hell of a life. A hell of a ride, as Bill Hicks put it. I’m so glad I got to live it, to marvel at all the changes, and to still be here for another trip around the sun.
I’ve always wanted to make a difference to this world. I also have a substantial ego that makes me think I can do something as significant as change China’s culture. Hence my campaign in China over a number of years to get the Chinese to wear bicycle helmets. Overall, I guess this is just another of my failures, though I can say that by the time we left China after nine years of teaching there, I was starting to see helmets on bicycle riders. Whether I had anything to do with that cultural shift is debatable.
Brain injuries in China are an invisible plague. A young person doing well in school, on the university track, doted on by their parents, slams their head into the pavement and ends up one of those shabby pathetic creatures sweeping up the litter every night after the market closes. Forgotten. Ignored.
For university students, bike helmets are just uncool. They are trying to fit in, and terrified of being ridiculed by other students. So it was an uphill battle. I bought a hundred or so helmets and gave lectures about the results of brain damage, then offered to give a helmet to any student who would sign a pledge to wear it. I don’t think many students took that pledge seriously. But they did love to get free stuff.
We had fun making a public service promo. I think we might even have managed to get it played on a local station.
I also talked to stony faced Chinese executives, presented my power point pitch, and even took a train to Guangzhou to meet the owner of a helmet manufacturing firm. All I got from that trip was two high end helmets, one for me and one for Ruth, which I had to pay for.
The big plan was to convince a helmet company to donate helmets to all the students, provided the university would make a rule that helmets must be worn on campus. If I’d managed to sell that idea to either side of the equation maybe it would have worked. I would have generated huge international attention for my university, Jiangnan Da Xue, already one of the top universities in China. But I couldn’t sell peanuts to monkeys (no racist metaphor intended, I love the Chinese people) so we left China without a major, culture shaking, achievement. I sure gave it a good try though.
Please obey that impulse to leave a comment. I live for your comments, and shouting into the void is unmotivating. Thanks a ton.
Just planning ahead. Please register for my celebration of life party. It may not happen for a couple of years yet, but let’s all be ready.
I really hope to see you then and there. It’s going to be one hell of a party. As people register, I’ll start developing the program and lining up the performances. At the moment I’m planning on about three days of party, to allow friends from time zones in China and Australia a chance to drop in to say hello….uh…goodbye.
I’ve had an amazing response to my posts about being ill, and considerations for my end of life. It’s been heartwarming and touching and almost enough to quiet that tiny voice that tells me I’m a failure, a fraud, and a waste of skin.
Here’s something that came in yesterday from Australia. It brought me to tears.
“Jennifer Wu: Sending you lots of love from down under! Even though you only briefly taught me English in JNU (that’s why my English is so good now), I have learnt so much from your website and posts. You were the first person in my life who made me realize making money isn’t that important. How can this person be willing to give out helmets for free only if people agree to wear them? For the same reason, you were the first person who showed me life can also be driven by passion and people can make efforts and spend time/money on the causes they believe in. After I moved to down under, I saw it’s not unusual. But at that time, to a teenage girl growing up in China, you made a huge impact on how I see and approach life. Thank you! Wish you all the best with your health. “
Now there’s a letter any teacher would appreciate. The bicycle helmet campaign she’s talking about is still up on the Internet. It was fun checking in on it again: http://www.brainsofchina.com/
That campaign taught me a lot about social activism. The big lesson I took from it was that it ain’t easy to change anything. But by the time we left China I was starting to see people wearing bike helmets on the streets of Wuxi. Maybe I had a part of making that change. I can hope.
If you want to leave a comment, just click on “leave a reply” to the far right of the small blue letters at the bottom of this post. Don’t worry about giving up your name and email address. You could use a fake one if you want, though of course I’d like to be able to contact you through email. Your response will not be visible until it has been moderated, but once that’s been done any further comments using the same name and email address will appear immediately. Please do leave a comment. Comments are what I live for.
I got into an argument on Facebook recently with a rabid anti-gun crusader who was absolutely contemptuous of anybody with an interest in owning or playing with a gun. At the time the only argument I could offer was Sarah Silverman’s explanation for why she likes big hairy hanging balls: “Well, the heart knows what it wants.” Unsurprisingly that was greeted with a snort of disgust. The quote I really wanted to give was from E.L Doctorow’s novel, “Johnny Bathgate” in which the protagonist describes firing a pistol for the first time. I only recently found that quote. Isn’t the Internet amazing.
“I will never forget how it felt to hold a loaded gun for the first time and lift it and fire it, the scare of its animate kick up the bone of your arm. You’re empowered, there’s no question about it. It’s an investiture, like knighthood. And even though you didn’t invent it or design it or tool it, the credit is yours because it’s in your hand. You don’t even have to know how it works. The credit is all yours. With the slightest squeeze of your finger, a hole appears in a piece of paper 60 feet away. And how can you not be impressed with yourself? How can you not love this coiled and sprung causation? I was awed. I was thrilled. The thing is, guns come alive when you fire them. They move. I hadn’t realized that.” – E.L. Doctorow “Billy Bathgate
People who aren’t into gun culture, who only see the gun in terms of mass shootings and crazies, people who didn’t grow up with guns, surrounded by Hollywood gun propaganda that soaked into the childhood psyche, will never understand.
My social bubble is just about 100% SJW liberals. Being a gun fondler is not typical of the group, and I tend to keep quiet about it. Why? Am I ashamed of this aspect of my nature? I don’t think so. I just know that most of my social bubble mates just can’t understand it, and there’s no way I can justify it. Becoming a Range Safety Officer at the Nanaimo Fish and Game club has been very interesting exercise in anthropology. It’s an environment where an interest in guns is totally normal and requires no justification. And of course I don’t quite fit in there either for the following reason:
For there record: If Canada bans all handguns and all rifles holding more than three shells in the magazine, I’m totally okay with that. It is time to put aside childish things. Also, for the record, I never shoot at a human silhouette target. Shooting at a person is not a fantasy I indulge in.
But while guns are still legal, I do enjoy playing with them. I have since I was a kid, when my favourite toy was my double barreled pop gun that fired corks.
After I outgrew the pop gun, I graduated to a .177 caliber pellet gun, and spent many happy hours trying to light matches at ten feet. I put so many pellets, that came in boxes of five hundred, through that gun that I didn’t have to look at the sights any more. They just automatically lined up and the pellet went where I expected it to go. I murdered enough birds to make me feel sick to my stomach when I think about it now.
For my eighth birthday, my father presented me with a Ranger single shot bolt action .22 rifle. Some of the happiest days of my childhood were those rare times when dad took me out to hunt grouse, which we never managed to find. The best part was just shooting at dad’s empty Sportsman cigarette packages.
There was a special smell to the oil and powder that can bring the memory back in living colour.
So I grew up on a diet of cowboys and gunslingers. Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Lash LaRue, Gene Autry. At the beginning of every Gunsmoke episode, wearing my holster and cap gun, I tried to outdraw Matt Dillon. There was always a gun in the closet. Being interested in guns, and playing with guns, was just totally normal. Like smoking cigarettes seemed to be for all the adults.
Once I gained the rights and privileges of adulthood, I could indulge my interest any way I wanted. I bought a Ruger Super Blackhawk .44 magnum single action revolver and joined a fast draw club. I bought a four inch barrel to replace the six inch barrel the gun came with, and I had a gunsmith modify the hammer for fanning and chrome plate the cylinder so it could handle being fanned. On a trip to L.A. I also bought an Alfonso fast draw holster. Friday evenings I would join a diverse group of accountants and B.C. Tel executives, all wearing cowboy outfits, and we would try to break balloons at ten feet distance using blank cartridges, timed with an electronic timer. I got into loading black powder blanks and wax bullets. I won a turkey at the club turkey shoot. Gradually I came to see the gun for what it is, stripped of romance and tradition, a machine for propelling a lump of metal through the air at high speed. All the romance of a drill press.
So I got bored with cowboy fantasies and fast draw and came to see the whole western costume thing as rather silly and a huge historical lie created and perpetuated by Hollywood. I decided I wanted a modern gun, sold all my fast draw gear, and bought a Smith and Wesson Model 3906 9mm stainless steel semi-automatic. I enjoyed that gun, but a legal issue arose that I will discuss another time and lawyers suggested I surrender my FAC (Firearm Acquisition Certificate now called the PAL, Possession and Acquisition License) and get rid of all guns. So I had a couple of decades with no guns and no ability to buy one. Can’t say I missed them.
Then, some time after returning from China, I discovered that my former sister in law and her husband had bought a .22 pistol and were into shooting, so I took the mandatory training to get my RPAL, bought a Smith and Wesson Victory .22LR like the one they were using, and jumped back into it.
I took the training and volunteered to become a Range Safety Officer because I wanted the hat.
I now serve once a week at the Nanaimo Fish and Game Club and I enjoy the camaraderie of others who share my irrational interest. And believe me I am no where near as deep into that obsession as the true gun fondlers. But I seem to be sinking deeper.
My new Tokarev 7.62X.25 caliber pistol was for decades the official sidearm of the Eastern block police and military. It fires a crazy hot load, a necked down rimless cartridge with an 85 grain full metal jacket bullet that leaves the muzzle at 1406 feet/second. It kicks hard and is fun to shoot.
Each of these bullets cost fifty-five cents. That takes a lot of the joy out of making a loud noise and punching distant holes in a piece of paper. My father had a few words for people who engage is such activities: “More money than brains.” I can’t argue with that.
Can I justify any interest in any of this? Absolutely not. And, as I said earlier, if Canada decides to ban all hand guns and restrict gun owners to shotguns and rifles holding only three shells, I’m all for it.
Who needs these things, eh. Not me.
If this post triggered any thoughts, please leave a comment. It doesn’t have to be much. Just let me know I’m not shouting into the void. Thanks.