The Big Dipper

The big dipper is the only constellation I can recognize. Okay, sometimes I think I recognize Orion’s Belt. But the Big Dipper is unmistakable.

It was my father who showed me the Big Dipper. We were walking on the family farm on a warm summer evening and I had my son, a toddler at the time, on my shoulders. It was a clear night and the Big Dipper was very obvious. Dad talked about how you would learn to recognize it even when only part of it was visible. I’m sure he was thinking of the big sky in Saskatchewan of his childhood.

Since then there have been several occasions when I was anxious or under stress or depressed. And somehow the Big Dipper would show up in the sky.

I remember one occasion when I was alone at the wheel of a rather large ship, the Wawanesa, an old wooden fish packer and former rum runner with half the ribs removed to lighten it for races against the coast guard patrols. It was the end of the fishing season and the crew were celebrating and not much help with navigation. Standing at the four foot tall wooden wheel with the chain link to the rudder, I was feeling the stress and responsibility of piloting down from Prince Rupert through the inside passage. And there was the Big Dipper. It felt like my father was with me, a great comfort. Foolish, but there you have it.

To be clear, I am the last person to harbour woo beliefs. But confirmation bias is hard to avoid, eh.

My Father’s Death Was Perfect

It couldn’t have been better, for me at least. Well, okay. It could have been a hell of a lot better if my father hadn’t died. But we all have to go sometime. As my father said, “Dying can’t be so bad or everybody wouldn’t do it.”

That was 1986, the year of Expo in Vancouver, and I’d been hired to make the film for the Saskatchewan Pavilion. That was a year of work, starting with rejecting the script that had been commissioned and paid for and instigating a search for a new writer. There was already a concept in place – a big screen anamorphic 35mm. film with an actress under the huge screen interacting with the film. I wasn’t sure that was going to work, so the Director of Photography, Richard Leiterman, and I flew down to L.A. to take the Universal Studio tour because we’d heard that the tour included a section during which the tour guide interacted with a Hollywood celebrity. That didn’t tell us much. Our concept was for the actor under the screen to talk to the audience and talk to characters in the film. The Universal Tour sequence simply handed the Master of Ceremonies job to the Hollywood celebrity and stood down while he talked. Did that mean what we wanted to do wouldn’t work? It was something to worry about.

There was also the question of eyelines. If the characters in the film were going to believably talk to our actor, where should we have them look to make us believe they were talking to her. Richard stood in various audience positions while I stood on a ladder under the screen, still just a framework, and pretended to look at the actor. Things were getting scary. It turned out that the actors would have to look down toward the base of the camera tripod, but looking left, right, or center depended on where the audience was sitting. Compromise would be required.

The script writer search found Carol Bolt, a Toronto writer who gave us the conflict that was missing in the original script. The actor would be a “girl next door” from the prairies who had been hired as a living narrator to tell us about her province. While she was very happy to have the job, she was also desperately homesick and missing friends and family back home. At the end of the film she would apologize to the audience, run off stage and reappear on the film running toward her boyfriend.

I won’t say too much about the actual production, other than it was fraught with personality conflicts and technical problems. There were politics involved. I was from B.C. and Saskatchewan had its own film community. I was getting attitude from my AD, my assistant director, who had been laid on by the client, and it took me some time to realize that he had made a very competent tourism movie for Saskatchewan the year before, and felt that they owed him the director position on this one. Richard Leiterman was getting attitude from his camera operator, who had been the director of photography on that same tourism movie. While they both did a good job for us, the subtle vibes on location made for a less than wonderful shoot. On at least one occasion, words were spoken.

We had a tiny budget compared to what was being spent on the B.C. film. This meant a very limited shooting schedule, and weather wasn’t cooperating. Saskatchewan was supposed to look beautiful, and it looked downright gloomy. The client wanted the people of Saskatchewan to seem hip and very modern, emphasizing that computers had to feature prominently. I tried to explain that everybody had computers. They didn’t make much of an impression. And a computer in the tractor connected to the futures market, a system that was still in the beta development phase, would seem a bit silly. An Expo film is a difficult film to make. In essence it’s a tourism movie, but it had to be somehow more than that. It had to have size, and big scenes with hundreds of extras, like the two hundred plus dancers in Rainbow Danceland in Watrous, and the big country wedding. But what would make it work was actually simplicity, the love and connection between the characters on the screen – the mother and father, grandfather, first nations uncle, the school friends, particularly the boyfriend – and the homesick girl presenting her province to the audience. What I was really making was a twenty minute romcom, though the clients and sponsors didn’t know that.

The good news in all of this was that the film was produced by an old friend of mine, Tony Westman, and he generally gave me a free hand and supported my decisions. I’ll never know what he had to do to protect me from the politicians, the clients. There must have been something, because they freaked out several times when they saw my rushes.

So… I was involved in the script development, the choice of music, client meetings, casting, and of course shooting. Then came months of editing. In those days I had a complete editing room with an Intercine flatbed editing machine, benches, rewinds, split reels, and all the other gack that editing a large format film required. Finally we had a rough cut, and a sound mix, and then we had casting for the five actors who would perform under that big screen. We found one key actor to lead, learn the lines and moves, and train the four other young women who would take turns performing. With a performance every twenty minutes for a ten hour day, one actor simply couldn’t do the work alone.

There were surprises. We were all worried that a tiny figure of an actress under that big screen would not be able to compete with the movie images. During rehearsals and staging of the actors, we discovered that the opposite was true. The only time the audience would look at the screen was when the actor gestured and directed their attention to it.

All of this had the tension level of a big budget feature. There could be no last minute revisions. No trial runs. It had to work, or fail miserably, right off the hop. The producers advertised for Saskatchewan ex-patriots and packed in a full audience for the first screening, and the lights came back up to a standing ovation. One of the ushers came to me with double handfuls of kleenex, soaked in tears. We had a hit.

It ran with long lineups, every twenty minutes for the duration of Expo ’86, with the actors suffering through repetitive strain injuries from looking up at the screen.

Through all this, my father was dying. We knew it was coming. Lung cancer. That’s what a lifetime of unfiltered Sportsman cigarettes will do to you. The tobacco industry said it was his choice, but I remember him trying to quit when I was eight, when I was ten, when I was twelve. He didn’t manage to kick the habit until his diagnosis, and by then it was too late. “If you want the whole world to say I told you so, get yourself in my position” he told me. I desperately wanted him to see my work, work that had taken over my life from concept and script development through casting, shooting, editing, and casting and directing the live performances. But I realized that he was never going to make it to Expo to see it.

My mother phoned me to tell me that I’d better come to see my father, because she felt he didn’t have long. She had a sixth sense about that kind of thing. I was afraid that I would forget to say something that needed to be said when I actually saw him, so I sat down and spent a few hours writing him a letter, which I took with me and read to him when I went to see him.

In the letter I told him what he had meant to me, that he had been my hero and role model, the most important man in my life. I asked him whether there was anything he wanted taken care of discretely after he was gone, or anything he needed done. I recounted a couple of time when he had set a standard for integrity and compassion I’ve always tried to live up to. For example, there was a time during one of our trips when he was fishing in a shallow river. While my father fished, I caught a tiny frog and showed it to him. He told me that some people would use a frog like that as live bate to catch a fish, but that we weren’t the kind of people who could do that.

I asked him whether there was anything that shouldn’t be left unsaid between us, because now was the time to say it. The only thing he could come up with was to express regret that his grandchildren were growing up in a drug environment. That made me laugh. “Dad, you’re twenty years behind the times with that. Laara (my first wife) won’t even take an aspirin any more. We don’t do drugs. So you can put your mind at ease about that.”

He had been sleeping in a hospital bed in the living room, but felt well enough to come out to the kitchen for a cup of tea, a key part of our family culture. Knowing that he would never see my movie, I decided to perform it for him. I told him every image, every sound cue, where the music swelled up or faded away, every line of dialogue, every action, and the audience response. By then I knew it all, and I did my very best to let him see it in his mind’s eye.

When I was finished he said, “Now I’ve heard from a real artist.” I helped him up and walked back to his bed with him.

I wanted to stay, but I had a wife and new baby girl back in Gibsons, a ferry ride away. Who could say how long this could go on. When I got home there was a message on my answering machine from my mother. My father was gone.

Barry and “Banish Misfortune”

I’m in that demographic now. You know the one, the demographic where old friends are dying and funerals, now called “celebrations of life”, become a weekly event. And still we chug along, those of us who are left on the planet. I’ve known Barry Carlson since my university days. We played in a jug band, The Vacant Lot, in 1966, a long time before I picked up the fiddle, back when I was bending notes on the blues harp. My friend J. Douglas Dodd had a minor stroke some time back. It hasn’t left too much damage. He’s still the genius I’ve known and loved since he was the music director on my first feature film. But it has caused a problem with his vision, and that caused a problem with keeping his drivers license. I drive him wherever he needs to go now, and last week that was to Victoria for a follow up appointment on an eye operation.

Once we got that out of the way, we joined Moira and Barry Carlson for lunch in their beautiful home decorated with Moira’s amazing art. Barry and I had a rare chance to try out a fiddle jam. This piece is called “Banish Misfortune”, an appropriate title for two old geezers with cancer and a third with vision problems. It’s just the demographic were in now.

“Banish Misfortune” should rightfully played about 1.25 times this speed. The next time Barry and I get together to play it, I’ll have it up to that tempo. I’m not happy about the fumble in the A part. I am happy about the way I aced the double stops in the C part.

I see improvement already.

Getting Started and Granny’s Quilts

Unless you were born into Hollywood royalty, like one of the Carradines or Coppolas, getting a foot into the film industry is a seemingly unsolvable puzzle, especially from a socially remote location in Canada. Back in 1969, the only path I could see was to do anything that would put me in contact with movie people, like working as a sound man or an assistant editor, and then doing anything else that I could call making a movie. That last part is far easier today, when an ambitious kid can make a short movie on his phone and edit it on his computer. But when I got started, making anything cost a ship load of money.

How much money? Well, for starters you needed a camera that cost thousands of dollars, but you could rent, and sound equipment costing slightly less which you could also rent but I had saved up to own. Close to three thousand bucks for a Nagra IV with crystal synch and a Sennheiser 804 microphone with wind cage and carrying handle – the basis of a documentary sound kit. Then you needed film to run through the camera. You couldn’t edit that film without expensive equipment, unless you had the dedication of Jack Darcus and were willing to shoot black and white reversal and edit the original with a magnifying glass and a pair of scissors.

Even at that, the film and processing was going to set you back hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. To give you some idea of the expense: Film stock, processing, and a work print would cost approximately one dollar per foot. Sixteen millimeter film had forty frames in a foot, running through the camera at 24 frames/second. So every couple of seconds of shooting, another dollar was going into the movie. You could count on, conservatively, a ten to one shooting ration though on a complicated documentary that might go up to a hundred to one or more. A ten to one ration meant each ten feet you ran through the camera and work printed, would result in one foot of finished film. This caused a great temptation to try to edit in the camera, which was a false economy and severely restricted the choices in editing.

For example, if you have a performer entering the scene through a door from another room, it gives the editor choices if you film them going from that room, opening the door, entering the other room, and closing the door behind them. Similarly, you want to overlap the action in the other room, starting with the door closed and having the performer enter and close the door behind them. That way the editor can chose where to cut to make the action flow smoothly.

This principle of overlapping should extend to every action. If somebody stands up from the table in the master shot, it might make sense to start with them sitting down, thinking about rising, then standing up. Your cut to a close shot might call for the actor starting sitting and then rising into the frame. It’s vitally important to give the editor choices of cutting points, and that inflates the shooting ratio.

Then, of course, there are the flubbed takes and pick ups on takes. Both of which call for overlapping action and dialogue.

And that’s just the shooting. After that you have the cost of post production, the sound transfer from quarter inch magnetic to sprocketted sixteen millimeter magnetic film stock that can be synchronized with the work print. You’ve all seen the clapper boards with the film name and scene number and take number on them. Those served a purpose. They allowed the film to be synchronized by matching the frame where the clapper board closed with the click of the “sticks.”

The sequence for starting a shot was for the Assistant Director the AD, to call “roll sound”. The soundman would then say “speed” when the tape had stopped bouncing the guide rollers. Then the cameraman would say “slate” or “mark it” and the camera assistant would waste no time announcing the scene and take number before loudly closing the clapper board. Of course that footage, that dollar or more of shooting, would be thrown away, which is why the slate was in position and ready to close by the time the cameraman said “mark it”. Nobody wasted any time when the camera was rolling, which could be quite disconcerting for the actors. It was why I always gave a second or two for things to settle before calling “action”. Some waste was necessary.

I don’t think I need to go any further into the process. You get the idea. Making any kind of a movie cost money. When I was working as an office junior at CBC in Toronto, Brian R.R. Hebb, another office junior, and I teamed up to make a “filler” in hopes of selling it to the CBC. Brian wanted to be a cameraman. I wanted to be a director, or at least make movies. So we kicked in our own money to buy a few 100 foot rolls of Kodak reversal stock, rented a camera, and set about making a little film to celebrate the vanishing streetcar. We shot some of the streetcars still operating in Toronto, shot a day at a streetcar museum close to town, added in some stolen stock footage of streetcars in the early days of Toronto, laid on some cleared music from the CBC’s music library, and I cut our little film after-hours in one of the CBC editing rooms on CBC editing equipment. I don’t remember how all the numbers worked out, but when we sold “The Short Train” to CBC we turned enough to pay our costs and pocket maybe a hundred dollars each. Since we were both earning $50/week at that time, that felt pretty good.

Cue Digression Cam: Years later I was hired to direct an MOW, a Movie of the Week, about Tai Babalonia and Randy Gardner, a figure skating pair who were headed to the Olympics when Randy pulled a groin muscle and they were out of contention. To my surprise and delight, the producers wanted to use Brian Hebb as the Director of Photography. He’d worked his way up to a cameraman position at CBC, an amazing achievement in it’s own right, after I’d left the mother corporation. Then he also left the CBC and was making a name for himself as a freelancer. So there we were, some twenty years after making our little filler. Me the director and Brian the Director of Photography. Both of us where we’d wanted to be way back when. There was a scene in “On Thin Ice” that called for a television to be playing in the background in a hotel room. I managed to get CBC archives to find our little film, and that’s what’s playing back on the TV in that scene. Full circle, eh.

That little filler was about as much as I could do without more money, and getting more money meant finding government support. The Canadian Film Development Corporation, later rebranded as Telefilm Canada, was catching flack for not spending any money out west, so they threw B.C. a bone with a short film program. It called for submitting a script and budget, so I wrote a half hour based on one of my father’s stories of working for the railroad in Northern Saskatchewan. I think that gave my first wife, who had become my producer, $7,500, with which, being extremely frugal, we figured we could make a television half hour, twenty-two minutes of finished film. We lucked out with the weather. It started snowing on our first shooting day, stopped and turned to rain on our seventh, and by the time we wrapped the snow was gone. The end result was a short film that looked gorgeous. I managed to sell “Gandy Dance” to the CBC.

I also found a distributor for “Gandy Dance”. He was based in Toronto and mostly handled educational films. I don’t think he managed to get any revenue out of our film, beyond what we got from the CBC sale. I was looking for an economic base, a foot in the door as a film maker. So I asked him to lend me three of his top earning educational films. From a film making point of view they were not very impressive, downright ugly even, but they did fit the parameters of educational rentals – they were designed for art classes with titles like “Working with Papier Mache” or “Working with Crayons”. They were no longer than twelve minutes running time, which meant that a teacher could show them to a class and still have time to have the students do some work inspired by the film. They were extremely simple – just one camera angle, hands entering frame to do the artwork, no editing, and one sound track of non-descript music. No sound mix. Obviously they were very cheaply made.

I thought maybe we could have a winner if I made an educational film that had instructional value, but also had some mood, some heart and soul. And that made me think of my grandmother and her quilt making. Granny was eighty-seven years old at the time. She had been making quilts since she was sixteen, and her first quilt, a log cabin pattern, was still in the family. I managed to borrow it from my cousin Alice, and it truly is an amazing quilt. Look at it and think red, and a pattern of red rectangles emerges. Think blue and a different pattern of blue rectangles comes out.

I gathered up maybe twenty other quilts from members of the family, hung them on the wall of our cabin, and shot clips of them. Crazy quilts. Dresden plate quilts. And the aforementioned Log Cabin Quilt, with Granny’s voice over comment “I guess I was ambitious in those days.” I had a wealth of visual material. Then I spent hours and hours interviewing Granny about how she made quilts.

A lot of what she told me hit the editing room floor. Granny had made thousands of quilts. A quilt a month in her final year. She had sent quilts to the starving Russians during the famine in the Stalin years. She made baby quilts for every child born in the family.

With the basis of a sound track in hand, I brought in Ron Orieux, the cameraman who had shot “Gandy Dance” for me and who would go on to shoot my first and second features, “Skip Tracer” and “The Hounds of Notre Dame”. That gave me almost everything I needed to make the movie, but I still brought in Gordon Fish, another freelance cameramen, for a few extra shots.

By this time I had purchased a 16mm/35mm sound transfer machine, so I could do my own transfers of the 1/4 inch magnetic to 16mm. sprocketted stock. I had also purchased a six gang synchronizer and a guillotine splicer, a viewer with a tiny screen, and a “squawk box” reader for the synchronizer. I put together an editing bench, with rewinds and split reels and bins to hold the film clips. It was all very expensive equipment, not the kinds of things you could buy at a garage sale. The guillotine splicer alone was hundreds of dollars. Big money in 1971.

I set about cutting the visuals and laying in Granny’s narration. I recorded my aunt Belle’s piano music to add to the sound track. Aunt Belle played ragtime, and old tunes like “Ke Ke Ke Katy”, Granny’s theme song. For transitions I recorded some “stingers” on our own piano, and transferred them at double speed because that seemed to make them sound better.

After a start at the painful process of editing picture and sound using the synchronizer and sqawk box, I found a well used Moviola editing machine I could afford. That completed my first editing room.

The Moviola editing machine. It had a tendency to eat the workprint, but at least it let me view the picture with one track of the sound. It was far superior to the squawk box and synchronizer. I ended up editing several tracks of sound, music and sound FX, and put out the money for a sound mix at the lab.

Editing took months. I was running out of money. But I snagged a Canada Council grant to get some finishing money, to pay for the sound mix, neg matching and answer print and I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. I think the Canada Council grant came in at $3,500. That was inspiring to me. To think that I could work for hundreds of hours at the wage available at that time, or sit down and write a grant proposal in a few hours and have that huge sum of money come into my mail box a few months later. Well… it made me think about money differently.

Artistically, my main problem was that I wanted the film to bounce along. But when I tried to use shorter cuts, it ended up looking like a badly made commercial. I finally realized that the film had to be paced to suit the subject matter. This was an old lady making a quilt. It was a mistake to try to make it exciting. it just had to flow, and finding that flow took me a lot of time. But finally it was finished. And here it is:

This was Granny Scott’s last quilt. Shortly after we finished shooting, she went in for cataract surgery and she never made another quilt.

Of course, making something to sell is only the first step. I took “Granny’s Quilts” to schools and was told that, much as they loved the film, they got all their movies for free from the National Film Board.

That was the beginning of my feud with the Board. If the government spent far more than any shoe maker would afford to spend to made shoes of exceptional quality and then gave them away for free, the shoe makers would be up in arms. But somehow, film makers were supposed to accept this situation and lavish praise on the National Film Board in hopes of getting a budget for the film subject du jour. It was discouraging. Obviously, my only hope lay south of the border.

I took a print of “Granny’s Quilts” down to a school in Seattle and immediately got a sale. I think in those days we were offering prints for a couple of hundred dollars, which gave us a slim profit margin. The really lucky break was that I learned about Landers Film Review, an American publication that went out to all the libraries and school districts in the country. After I submitted “Granny’s Quilts”, and got a glowing review, the requests for preview prints started coming in. We were soon getting two or three requests for preview prints a day, and for every three requests we made a sale. So my humble film about my granny kept us eating for a couple of years while I explored other possibilities. And that’s how a film career begins.

I can’t end this without acknowledging that, while I did the creative work and manual labor to make our films, I wouldn’t have been able to do anything without my wife and partner, Laara Dalen. On days when I wasn’t bringing in any money, she always was working some job or other. She kept the groceries coming and the lights on. Those were lean times. I would take my grandfather’s Silver Pidgeon Baretta shotgun down to the nearby dairy farm and blow off both barrels at the pigeons that were eating all the grain. Laara cooked up a mean pigeon-a-dobo. We supplemented that meat source with the rabbits we raised, or with oolichans we scooped from the nearby Fraser River.

And when money came in to make something, Laara was the best producer and production manager I ever worked with. So my best advice to anybody who wants to become a film maker, starting from zero, is find yourself a supportive partner. Best case scenario, marry them.

The Good Son

In the post about my name change, I briefly touched on the tension between me and my father in my teen years, but that was just a part of it. John LeMay’s mention of his relationship to his father reminded me of this story.

When I was thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen, I was counting the days until I turned sixteen and could get a drivers license. I got my learner’s permit the day I turned sixteen, and my full on drivers license two days later. Then I took driver education, simply to get a reduced rate on my insurance.

My point is, I lusted after the freedom that driving would give me, and I loved to drive. I learned to drive on the family farm, driving my uncle Bill’s three ton dump truck, a stick shift with a non-synchromesh transmission that required double clutching to shift gears. I learned to drive a “three on the tree” family sedan on that same half mile of dirt roads, long before I could legally venture out onto the highways. My idea of the perfect date was to borrow the family car, throw an arm over my girlfriend on the bench seat, and just drive someplace.

Dad was a Chevy man, but without the fuzzy dice. He wanted a plain Jane car
that was not pretentious. Middle of the road and middle class.

My father’s car was important to him. He was a manager with Great West life Assurance, working with salesmen under his authority but also still in the field as a salesman himself. His car was as much his office as his office was. So it was incredibly generous of him to lend me his car for a Saturday night date. I appreciated that.

On one particular Saturday, I left the family farm to pick up my girlfriend. I drove down into Washington state, to Birch Bay where we could sit on the beach. Then I took the long way home, just enjoying her company and enjoying driving. Back roads. Highways. Small towns long since forgotten. But, being a grateful son, I stopped someplace at a gas station and filled the tank. In those days I think it took about two dollars to replace the gas I had burned. Thirty or forty cents a gallon if I remember correctly. Actually, I just looked that up and it was $.31 an imperial gallon in 1963 in B.C.. A penny less in 1964. Gotta love the Internet, eh.

So that was my date. Totally satisfying. But the next morning my father was furious. “Where’s my gas cap?”

“Your gas cap? Jeez dad, I don’t know.” This was back before the days of self serve. “I guess the guy at the gas station forgot to put it back on.”

“Well, where did you buy gas?”

“Uh…Dad, I have no idea. But just let me borrow your car and I’ll scoot into town and buy you a new gas cap.”

And that’s what I did. Problem solved. Except the problems were just beginning. For the next week, my father was having car problems. His car would start fine, and run fine for ten minutes for so, and then it would quit. He twice had it towed into a garage, where it would start fine and the mechanic would look at him and shrug. Can’t see any problem with your car, Dave. So off my father would go, only to have his car quit again after ten minutes of driving.

Finally somebody figured out the problem. I had purchased a non-vented gas cap. After a few minutes the engine would suck enough gas out of the tank to build up a vacuum, stop the flow, and stall the motor.

“Dad, I’m sorry. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a non-vented gas cap, or that your car needed a vented one. I was trying to do the right thing for you. I’m really sorry this happened.” And that should have been the end of it, except it wasn’t.

A week later, my father was on a business trip up into the interior with a couple of his sales guys. Halfway through the Hope-Princeton highway, well past the sign reading “Check Your Gas, Next gas 80 Miles”, his car stopped. Although the gas gauge read half a tank, he was out of gas. The vacuum caused by the non-vented gas cap had collapsed his gas tank enough to throw out the gauge.

Once again, my father was not happy with me. I felt bad about it, but what could I do or say. “Dad, I’m sorry. I was just trying to do the right thing to thank you for lending me your car.”

My father got his revenge. Accidentally, and, like me, with the best of intentions. My uncle John offered me work for a summer on his fish collector, the MV Advise, working out of River’s Inlet on the B.C. Coast. His contract called for him to steam around to the trollers and gill netters, pick up and weigh their night’s catch, and deliver the silvery bounty to the packer in the evening, from thence the fish would go to the cannery, or the fresh fish market. That was the summer of 1966, the largest salmon run in fifty years.

I had never, and haven’t since, worked so hard. We’d start at first light in the morning. I’d get out of my bunk to get the coffee started before pumping the bilges. We were taking on a bit of water due to hitting a log going under the Lions Gate bridge, an event that bent the propeller and caused a stop in Gibsons to put on a new prop. The added vibrations of the bent prop had also damaged the stuffing box, so we were taking on a substantial amount of water over night, and during the day. Part of my job was to monitor the water level in the bilge and keep us from sinking by pumping it out. Next I’d cook breakfast, and by then we’d be approaching our first gill netter. I’d get a line on it, jump from our boat to the fishing boat, and fork the catch onto our deck, where John would count the various species, weigh them, and dump them from the deck scales into the hold.

By the end of the day, usually by eight or nine o’clock, the hold would be full and fish would be sliding around on our decks. By ten we’d be back at the packer. I’d jump into the hold and start forking the fish into the brailer, a net basket which would swing up over my head, dripping scales and slime, to take the fish to the packer. By eleven the hold would be empty. I’d be down there with a deck brush and the deck hose, scrubbing the slime and scales out of the hold. I’d have to jump out every few minutes to pump the ship, because the water from the deck hose had no place to go but through the bilge pump. Ah youth. In those days I could jump up and catch the combing of the hold to pull myself out. John was too short to do that, and needed a ladder to get out of the hold.

By one or two in the morning I’d pump the bilge for the last time and get to my bunk. In the morning, I’d catch hell if Captain John found a fish scale in the hold. It had to be clean.

That was when I learned to sleep whenever I could, under whatever circumstances, including sitting at the table while we steamed between fishing boats. That was a very useful skill to learn. I can still lie down on the floor anyplace, at any time, and be asleep in a matter of minutes. But that’s not the point of this story.

The thing is, what should have been an idyllic summer in a beautiful world was damn near ruined by the constant attention from Captain John. He was critical of my every move. If I put a knife in the sink, “You’re going to cut yourself on that knife”

“No I’m not, John. I’m washing it. I put it in the sink to wash it.”

Finally, near the end of the season, he said, “You know, this accident prone business is nothing but a lot of damn carelessness.” and the penny dropped.

“Accident prone business? Did somebody tell you I’m accident prone?”

“Well, you are, aren’t you?”

“No. I hardly ever have an accident. Haven’t had anything I’d call an accident in years.”

My father had told him I was accident prone so he would take care of me. Damn near ruined my whole summer.

That was the first phase of my father’s revenge. The second was worse. I’d earned enough to cover the rent for a couple of months in Vancouver by writing a film script and as an assistant editor on a Canadian feature, but couldn’t find work after that delivering pizzas much less something in the film making. Toronto was where the action was. So I hitch hiked to Toronto and got a job immediately at the CBC. A year later, my wife to be, her mother, and her two sisters drove her big red Pontiac, Big Red, from Vancouver to Toronto where we were to be married. Along the way they stopped at the family farm to put some of her things into storage, and her mother had a chance to take my father aside for a parental chat.

“I want to know what you are going to do for these young people,” she asked my father.

“Absolutely nothing.” was his blunt response. “My son is a bum. If you want to do your daughter a real favour you will convince her to call off this marriage. No good will come of it and it won’t last.”

The result was that my fiancée and her sisters were treated to a non-stop tirade as they drove the endless prairie miles, to the extent that Rena considered having her mother committed to a mental hospital when they reached Regina. It took some pleading on her arrival in Toronto to convince her the marriage should go on. That marriage lasted 32 years and resulted in three amazing children. A great partnership and not a bad run.

Ah, father. You had such a low opinion of me.

Thankfully, in later years, I managed to turn that around, and got to see him break into tears on reading my certificate from the Moscow Film Festival, “For peace and friendship among nations,” not realizing they would award that to anybody who made capitalism look heartless, which my first feature film, “Skip Tracer”, certainly did.

At a later time, after my kids were born, my father and I became very close. I taped interviews with him every weekend for months and transcribed the tapes into an oral history, which is an amazing document and a story for another day.

Damn but I miss him.

Let me conclude this post with another appeal for feedback. If you found my story interesting, if it touched you in any way, or even if you want to tell me to learn how to write, please leave a comment. I live for your attention.

Another Blast from the Past

Recently I was contacted by Michael Rawley, a Toronto actor who received a kidney transplant in the year 2000. It was my good fortune to be able to document the lead up to the operation, and result.

I had pretty much forgotten this effort, but Michael’s request for a copy sent me on a search through dusty storage in subterranean caverns. I couldn’t find any of the original cassettes, or anything labeled as final version, but I did turn up a MiniDV cassette labeled “Transplant, rough mix”. Even more amazing, I dug out my now ancient Canon GL1 camera and found that it still works just fine, despite not being out of the case for at least ten years.

The next questions – do I still have the technology to capture video from a MiniDV cassette and turn it into a digital file? That took some time and effort to figure out. But in the end, success. Now my very first attempt at digital film making is up on YouTube for your viewing pleasure.

Wendy’s Michael’s Kidney” my first digital documentary. I was hooked.

The gear I had to produce this was primitive in the extreme, a tiny amateur level camera with very limited control over focus and lighting, a ridiculously shaky tripod, and only a clip-on lavaliere microphone to capture the sound. Yet I’m still impressed with the quality. Although I never made a penny from the considerable time I spent making this documentary, and could never get anybody to broadcast it, the result convinced me that I loved the new technology.

Only a few years before I made this, something equivalent would have cost thousands of dollars and required at least a two man team. Making it was a taste of things to come. The finished film still brings a tear to my eye. It was a first step toward my eventual bankruptcy and flight to China.

Funny how things get started, and how they work out.

One last thing for anybody reading this: Please, for the love of mercy, make a comment. I’m pretty sure a few people are reading my personal website now, but I hardly ever get a comment. Even if you just say hello, please please please say something. Please let me know I’m not alone. I feel so very alone.

A More Complete Explanation

I have touched on the Scotland trip in a previous post, if you care to search for it. Categorized as Music I’m involved in I think, or cancer. But I left out the important details, the why of why it happened. So this is the thing:

A few years ago, my PSA level was rising alarmingly. PSA stands for Prostate Specific Antigens and is a marker for prostate cancer. The PSA level is now a routine part of most blood tests for men. A rising PSA level is not good.

More tests followed, and eventually a biopsy of specific spots in my prostate. That resulted in a Gleason score, which I don’t remember and don’t really understand. All I know is that my Gleason score indicated a high likelihood of cancer.

The next test was a CAT scan of my whole body. I was told that it is very sensitive, and if the cancer has metastasized, i.e. escaped the prostate and invaded the rest of the body, the CAT scan will show it. I had to wait through a weekend for the results, and in the meantime I asked Dr. Google, who told me that the one year survival rate if the cancer has gone into the bones is forty five percent. The five year survival rate is one percent. Gives a person pause, eh.

The following week, with results in, I could breath a sigh of relief. The cancer had not gone into my bones. Treatment of the cancer in my prostate would probably stop it in its tracks, and give me decades more time to enjoy my life.

The doctors recommended three forms of attack – hormone therapy, radiation therapy, and brachytherapy. Prostate cancer feeds on testosterone, so the hormone therapy cuts off the supply. In the old days this was done simply by castration. Doctors don’t want to tell a patient that they are going to cut his balls off, so they call it a bilateral orchiectomy. Nowadays this is accomplished with drugs, specifically an injection of leuprolide acetate, commonly called lupron, into the abdominal cavity.
Radiation therapy, which I liken to sticking your ass in a microwave oven, simply focuses beams of microwaves from several directions at the prostate to kill the cancer cells. It is inconvenient, in that it involved traveling to a major city for the treatment every weekday for several weeks, but painless.
The brachytherapy involves planting radioactive seeds of iodine in the prostate. It requires a general anesthetic, but otherwise is not a big deal. I was given a card to show to the customs people if I ever want to leave the country or board a plane, explaining why I’m slightly radioactive.
Which is not to say that these three treatments, combined, are not a big deal. Testosterone is a very important male hormone. It affects everything, from energy level, mood and depression, to sex drive. The radiation therapy and brachytherapy did a good job of destroying the nerve that allows an erection. So, say good bye not only to sex, but to the sex drive too. That’s something I really miss.
I’m now taking four large pills daily each containing 240mg of Apalutamid (trade named Erleada). This is a new drug, not yet approved by the B.C. Medical plan, and would cost $4000/month if it weren’t supplied by big pharma “on compassionate grounds”, meaning, if I want to be cynical, that they need more test subjects. It’s a testosterone blocker, negating any action by whatever testosterone I have left. So far the only side effects seem to be that I’ve lost all my body hair and been returned to a pre-pubescent condition.

But what does all of this have to do with the Scotland trip? Sit back and relax, I’m getting to it.

Some time after I had all these treatments, my cancer seemed to be under control but the science marches on and a new kind of radiation scan was in development. My oncologist signed me up and sent me to Vancouver to be part of the trial, to get another radioactive injection and enjoy another slide into the big spinning doughnut for a PET scan. I was told that it would be a couple of weeks before I learned the results, but my oncologist phoned me after two days. He didn’t sound happy. The new test showed cancer in the bones of my pelvis, and in my lymph glands all the way up into my neck. To me this sounded like a death sentence.

This is a still from my PET scan looking at a cross section of my pelvis, in case you don’t want to take the time to watch the video. That bright yellow dot just to the right of the center is cancer. It’s in the bone of my pelvis, which is not a place I want to see it.

I told my wife, Ruth, about these results. We spent an evening cuddling and processing. That Sunday at the Unitarian fellowship, during a segment of their service called “Joys and Concerns” in which the congregation is encouraged to briefly share events in their lives, I made an announcement: “I’ve had some terrible news. Somebody very close to me, somebody I love, has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. (pause for effect) And unfortunately it’s me.”

Cue digression cam: I am not a member of the Unitarian Fellowship. In pre-pandemic days I would show up after the services for the potluck snacks and conversation. My wife is very involved with the group, and has served on their board of directors for the past few years. They have provided a great community for her on her arrival in this new town with me.
I am a radical atheist. The Unitarians are the closest thing to a church that I can stand to enter. They are very accepting of all religious and spiritual views, including atheists, and I’ve felt very welcomed there. Many in the congregation describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious”, or agnostic, or even atheist like me. In fact, one of my favourite members was the second woman to be ordained as a minister by the Lutheran church. On the day after her retirement, following decades of work in a hostel comforting the dying and their loved ones, she burned her clerical collar and announced that she didn’t believe any of it.
What Unitarians have in common is that they all want to be good people. They are very involved in social justice issues, inclusion, environmental issues like climate change, and every other progressive cause. They have sponsored a Syrian immigrant. They run a homeless shelter in the basement of the building they own. Their sermons never talk about sin, redemption, or salvation, but more about compassion, caring, forgiveness, and appreciation. I appreciate the support they have provided for my wife, and, inadvertently, for me.

To get on with this story, after the diagnosis, and my bombshell announcement at the Unitarian fellowship, Ruth and I commenced what we describe as our “crying tour”. We visited our closest friends to give them the news. Our second or third stop was to see Rod and Chao, an amazing couple we met at an Immigration Welcome Center appreciation dinner; Ruth and I had volunteered to help a Syrian family adapt to life in Nanaimo. By great good fortune, I happened to be seated beside Rod Szasz, only one of the most amazing people I have ever met, avid historian, mountain climber who has been to the base camp on Everest, local forest ranger and search and rescue volunteer, fluent in Japaneses, entrepreneurial businessman. His Chinese wife, Chao, is equally impressive. The two met in Japan, and their eldest daughter, Akela, is also fluent in Japanese. Shortly before she graduated from high school, she was flown down to Miami to compete in a judo competition, following which she flew to Beijing to compete in a classical voice competition. Since graduation she’s been studying medicine in Scotland. Their youngest daughter, Kipling, has been my fiddle buddy since she was a child.

And now, if you are still with me, we’re getting to the reason Ruth and I ended up in Scotland. Rod and Chao were in their kitchen when I gave them the news about my diagnosis and prognosis. Rod immediately rushed out of the room and came back with a bottle of expensive scotch, telling me to take the bottle home. “I’m taking you to Scotland,” he announced. He had a trip planned for just before Christmas to meet up with Akela.

I told Rod to keep the bottle and I would return to drink it with him, which turned out to be a mistake because he had another friend he felt he needed to share it with. And my initial reaction to the invitation to travel with him was that I couldn’t let him go to that expense.

Kipling, meanwhile, had been sleeping. She came into the kitchen all sleepy eyed, and immediately picked up the mood and the look on her parents faces. “What’s going on?” she asked. So I told her. Now, Kipling is a very reserved young lady. While I’ve spent a bit of time with her, and taken her with me to fiddle sessions in Qualicum Beach, I wasn’t even sure that she liked me, or whether she was just going along with the urging of her parents. But Kipling crumbled when she got my news. She came to me crying and climbed into my lap and hugged me, sobbing. When I got her calmed down, we got out our fiddles and played “Aspen Grove” together, and “Calum’s Road”. That’s when the idea of playing “Calum’s Road” on Calum’s Road entered my head, along with the thought that I would eventually give my wonderful, and expensive, Italian fiddle to Kipling, an acceptable trade for a trip to Scotland.

The next day, Kipling ran in the Terry Fox run for Cancer wearing a sign that read “I’m running for Zale”. Ruth and I made plans to go to Scotland. Ruth had decided to come along, and to pay her own way.

So off the four of us went, Rod and Kipling, me and Ruth. Rod took care of all the bookings, arranging the AirBnB accommodations, the car rentals, the navigation. We met up with Akela just as her exams were finished and set off for what we later called the cemetery and castle tour.

Kipling and I played “Over the Sea to Skye” on the Isle of Skye.

We played “Calum’s Road” on Calum’s Road.

We played “Hut on Staffin Island” in Staffin.

We played “Neil Gough’s Lament for the Death of His Second Wife” in Doran Castle.

We played “Flowers of Edinburgh” in an Edinburgh cemetery.

I played “Da Shlockit Light” outside another ruined castle.

Rod began each day with an early morning run. He lead us through a wonderful selection of old cemeteries, which, on seeing endless tomb stones with the names of parents followed by six or eight children who died at various ages, left me wanting to slap an anti-vaxxer upside the head when I returned to Canada.

Along the way we met some beautiful people and had some interesting conversations.

All in all, it was the trip of a lifetime. I used to think that I didn’t want to see death coming. That I wanted to be walking in the park and foolishly left my protective garbage can lid at home when a meteorite slammed into my skull and killed me instantly. Or, failing that, to simply fall asleep and die quietly in the night, not realizing I was dead until the morning. But I wouldn’t have missed all of this for the world.

You are, no doubt, by now familiar with the Kubler-Ross formulated stages of dying. They begin with denial on receiving the dreaded news; this can’t be happening to me; I’m not really that sick; I feel fine. Then progress to anger; This isn’t fair; I don’t deserve this. And then bargaining; Okay, it’s not too late; I’ll clean up my life style and eat healthy, or accept Jesus or somebody else into my heart. Then the penultimate, depression; Why bother getting out of bed; I’m going to die anyway. And then finally acceptance. Death happens to everybody. It’s just my turn. I’ll just try to make the most of the time I have left.

I’ve always believed that the first four stages are a waste of emotional energy. Far better to simply vault over them to acceptance. Of course that is easier said than done when dealing with emotions. But that is what I do, as much as I can. If I have to die, experiencing the Scotland trip made it worth it. That and the loving support of my wife and friends.

Anticlimax: As you may have guessed, my reaction to the news that the cancer had metastasized into my bones turned out to be an overreaction. After a consultation with my oncologist, I’ve learned that, with advances in treatment, prostate cancer is quickly becoming a chronic disease, rather than a fatal one. He insists that I’m going to die eventually, but of something else, possibly old age. My PSA numbers, thanks to the apalutamide, are down into the low decimals, which means that the cancer is not active. I feel a bit foolish for making such a fuss. On the other hand, it’s been worth it just to experience the reaction from friends and family. I have spent most of my life feeling foolish, so I guess I can live with this.

Passing the Torch

A couple of years pre-pandemic, I was yearning for the good old days of my university life, back when coffee shops and folk music was the thing. I told my wife, Ruth, that I wanted to find a space and start up a coffee shop that could have open mike nights once a week. Ruth, ever the moderating influence on my enthusiasms, suggested that this would be a big time and money investment and might not be the fantasy I want to live. So we came up with an alternative.

Our first poster/announcement.

Wellington Community Hall is just a short block from our home. It’s a classic building, rich in heritage, and still in constant use for seniors dance classes and Brownie meetings. We came up with the idea of putting on an open mike night there once a month, just to find out whether I enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed the fantasy. Thus was the Stage Fright Cafe born.

The name was suggested by my friend Timothy Von Boetticher, a brilliant song writer and musician with a history of running open mike nights, plus a family of talented wife and children. Among my favourite people.

The hall reeks of history, but it’s a very stark environment for a coffee house. It did have a great sound system and plenty of small tables and chairs. I made red table clothes. We brought in our own lighting – my Chinese photography lights, a couple of work lights, electric tealights for the tables, and a rope light to add some colour. We decided not to use the stage. I wanted a more intimate relationship between the performers and the audience, so our performance area was set up in front of the stage at floor level, defined by two long tables where instruments cases could be left. The transformation was pure magic. But the best part was the support from friends and neighbours.

Two of our regulars in performance.

Dave Merchie, who was in charge of the hall at the time, volunteered to run the sound system. Kerwood and Jess, who had owned a restaurant in Vancouver before coming to Nanaimo, volunteered to take charge of the drinks and snack food. I explained to our first audience that they had returned to 1962, and the coffee would be ten cents a cup. The snack food was similarly low priced – banana bread with blue berries that I baked the night before the event, cookies baked by Ruth, fresh popcorn, a veggie platter, hotdogs, and grilled cheese sandwiches. Nothing costing more than a buck or two.

My famous blue berry and banana bread. An open mic night favourite.

These three wonderful people, Dave, Kerwood, Jess, plus Ruth and myself, became the operational crew. Ruth took charge of the performer list and the cash. The hall gave us a great deal, since we were contributing to their mandate of community involvement. So the rent was eighty bucks a night, but only if the donations at the door and the food money covered more than our expenses for food.

The next thing we needed was performers. The concept, as the name implies, was to provide a venue for amateurs, and my old friend J. Douglas Dodd had students in need of microphone and audience experience. I didn’t really appreciate how terrified some of his students were at the very thought of standing alone before strangers and performing, but it was delightful to see the change as they settled down and became more comfortable.

Nico Rhodes doing piano back up for one of Doug’s students.

We attracted a few pros from my pool of friends, most memorably Rick Scott and Nico Rhodes, Joelle Rabu, Timothy Von Boetticher himself (who used the occasions to try out new songs), the entire Von Boetticher family band, and Sue Averill who runs another open mike night with a different agenda. But most of the performers were seasoned amateurs who had played for years in their dens and living rooms without ever showing off what they could do. It was an eclectic mix, and amazing, joyful fun. We ended up with both regular audience members, and regular performers, with delightful surprises each session.

Tom and Jerry in performance, followed by Barry Farrell, one of our regulars.
Zale the MC. My job was to do stand up while performers prepared. I tell stories.

But… after a couple of years of setting up and breaking down and acting as the M.C., I was frankly getting tired. I think our regular audience, for whom I am eternally grateful, were also getting a bit tired. Many of Doug’s students aged out of classes, some moved on to professional training and careers. The pandemic gave me an excuse to shut the show down and take a break. I was not sure whether I would ever want to do it again. Been there done that, eh.

But the, last week, Hank Ketler, one of our regular and much admired performers, he of the mellow voice and competent guitar, called me to say that there was a new musician in town who wants to get involved in the scene here. He brought Linda Lavender (real name. Really!) over to meet me. She is just a delight, both in and as a singer song writer. So plans are in the works for another revival. It’s too early, with Omicron filling hospital beds and spreading, but I’m confident that the show will go on, eventually.

Linda Lavender with my kind of music. Give her a listen, eh.

I told Linda and Hank that I would support their efforts, but I don’t have it in me to be the main man any more. Too many other interests taking my time*. But they have agreed to take charge of the management. Ruth and I will set things up, at least for the first couple of shows. We’ll see how things go.

Linda and I are also talking about teaming up to rehearse her new songs and fine tune my fiddle backup. It’s exciting. All of this is exciting.

*So, what is it that is filling my spare time these days? What could be pulling me away from community involvement and public music? Well… here’s a short list of current projects. I’m going to take another run at making bodhran rims. I made two of the Irish drums before I went to China, but I didn’t manage to get the traditional steamed yew rims perfectly round, resulting in slack rawhide goatskin heads. Since returning home, I’ve taken two cracks at making good rims, with no real success. So that’s on my mind. Then there’s my plans to make a wooden pasta rolling machine. The shiny stainless one I bought on line is simply too small and inadequate. Next I’m going to make a fretless gourd banjo. I’ve got the gourd seeds in potting soil right now, and by the end of the summer I’m hoping to have a selection of gourds. But lately I’ve been killing myself down the Sketchup rabbit hole, staying up until five in the morning to learn that challenging CAD program, an effort that has my neck and shoulders in pain. Of course there’s still the fiddle group once a week in Qualicum Beach, Oceanside Jammers, and zoom sessions with my friend Dave Clement in Winnipeg every Monday to work up new Celtic tunes. I don’t lack for interests and excitement.

My young fiddle buddy, Kipling, in the center of the Ocean Side Jammers session. I think my next post may be about our Scotland trip. She’s now the owner of my wonderful Mauritzio Tadioli violin.

And there’s more, but that’s for my next installment.

Once a Teacher…

I got a letter from a former student today. Landon has been corresponding with me since Ruth and I returned to Canada.

Here’s my response to his latest communication, reorganized with names for clarity.

Landon: Hi David,It’s been three years since last time I wrote to you.

Zale: How wonderful to hear from you, and to hear that you are still working at improving your English. The truth is, your English is already very good and the things that confuse you are mostly English idioms and phrases that I use in an unconventional way.

Landon: I have to say the time is flying so fast, especially during past two years with COVID-19 pandemic. We didn’t travel frequently, we were busy for working, we were even asked to work for home when there were COVID-19 test positive cases occurred around my area. It’s like I don’t have much memories during past two years. As one of my colleagues said “year 2019 suddenly jumped to 2021”. And now it’s 2022 already, I wish you can have an enjoyable year in the new year.

Zale: Yes, time is flying very fast.  I also find it hard to believe that it is 2022 already.  Actually, I find it hard to believe that 1984 is no longer in the distant future, or that I am now considered elderly.  In mind, heart and spirit I feel like a man in his thirties, and it’s rather disturbing to find myself with all the physical limitations of advancing age. I’m fortunate that Ruth has done such a great job of documenting most of our time in China, and our lives during spring and summer vacations.  Without those photographs that great stretch of time would be just a blur. https://www.flickr.com/photos/canadiandragon/ is where you will find her most recent pictures.  But going into her albums is truly amazing: https://www.flickr.com/photos/canadiandragon/albums

Landon: My son got started primary school from Sep, 2021. He behaves just well at school. He is cooperative to teachers’ guidance, and consciously get homework done every day. But meanwhile, he is not willing to do what we, family members, told him to do, even though the thing is really good for his study. It’s like a common problem in China that a child listens to teachers, while opposes to families. The problem is there, but we still manage to improve the situation from time to time.

Zale: This is good to hear.  But please keep in mind that a child needs a childhood.  If he is paying attention to his teachers and doing his homework, that should be enough.  After that, I think you should just expose him to as many different activities and ideas as you can and see what sparks his interests.  Have you taught him to play xiang qi? Can you find any magic tricks online to teach him, especially tricks that show a scientific principle.  Does he have an interest in music, not just listening to it but also making music. Does he like fishing? Does he like to make things? There is so much instructional material online that any interest he has can find help to go deeper.  Maybe he’d like to build a robot.  Or a rocket.  Does he know the names of all the birds in your area, or all the different trees, or the different food crops? Does he know how to cook?  Does he know how to sew?  Can he type with all his fingers on a QWERTY keyboard? (If not there are great typing games and apps available to help him build up speed and accuracy.) Whatever he shows an interest in, encourage him.  Even if all he wants to do is play computer games, encourage and support him. There are people today making a good living playing computer games, or commenting on computer games. You have an interest in English.  Maybe challenge your son to keep up with you, talk to him in English, see if he can teach you any English vocabulary. The things he learns in school – mostly how to sit quietly, be obedient, and repeat what the teacher tells him – are not nearly as important as the things he will learn by following his own interests.

Landon: I occasionally logged on Facebook yesterday(because you know the website is blocked in China unless using proxy), and just noticed what you said on Facebook that your friend has passed away. And I am sorry for hearing that. I then read your whole blog for missing your friend. I could feel the friendship of you two, the memory you have for your friend, even though you two had many disagreements before. I hope you could recover from sorrow soon.

Zale: My father talked about reaching an age when he seemed to be going to a funeral every few days.  I’m now at that age myself, and must simply accept it as a natural part of life.  Over the Christmas holidays, my friend, Bernie, in Australia died.  My cousin Billy, my childhood hero, died. You know about my friend Rob.  One of Ruth’s friends and associates died of a brain tumor. Worst of all, my daughter in law is very likely to die of terminal cancer, although there is still hope. (we attended her fairy tale wedding just two years ago and you can see the pictures in one of Ruth’s albums https://www.flickr.com/photos/canadiandragon/albums/72157710271821806 ).  You can read her story here: https://www.gofundme.com/f/help-lennea-get-uncovered-treatment?
Are you familiar with the stages of grief first described by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in “On Death and Dying”.  The stages are:

  • denial.
  • anger.
  • bargaining.
  • depression.
  • acceptance.

Most people have to work through these stages in order to accept reality.  For example, when given bad news from a doctor about terminal cancer, the first instinct is to deny that it’s true, possibly seek a second opinion, refuse to deal with it.  The next step is to be bitter and angry, possibly lashing out at doctors and family.  Then comes bargaining – if I just change my diet and start exercising, this will go away.  But when it doesn’t go away, the next step is depression, horrible, deep depression that makes it hard to see any joy in life.  And finally there is acceptance – this is natural; this happens to everybody; I’m going to live every second until the end and enjoy what is left of my time on earth.
It has always seemed to me that the first four stages are a complete waste of emotional energy.  I much prefer to jump straight to acceptance.  And that”s how I deal with things like my friend Rob dying.  Yes, I miss him.  It’s hard to believe that he’s gone.  But that’s life. That’s reality.  There’s still a lot of joy in my world.  So, while I feel sad, it isn’t a sorrow I must recover from.

Landon: For my English study, it’s quite a long term task.

Zale: Ha ha.  It’s a lifetime task, even for a native speaker.  Ruth and I are still learning English.  It is endlessly fascinating, and there is no way I will ever know all of the words in the English language. I still encounter words I have never heard before.  Usually I just guess at the meaning and read on.  That is the best way to build a vocabulary.  It’s only when I can’t imagine a meaning that I bother to look a word up. But usually, the context will give you the meaning.  Of course this runs the risk of looking foolish if I try to use a word but don’t understand it.  For example, many native speakers think that “penultimate” means the very best, the top, the final, as in “It was the penultimate achievement of his life.”  In fact, it comes from the same root as “pen” meaning “almost” as used in words like “peninsula”, almost an island.  So the penultimate achievement is the one before the final achievement.

Landon: I never said I gave it up, but I was never determined to devote time to study it (maybe there is no much need from my current working), and consequently I never saw any much progress of it. But recently, it seems I spent a bit more time to touch it. For example, I install an app called Radio Singapore(I once studied there) to listen the English channel, and another app called CNA(its an app from Singapore mainly focusing Asia News and the worlds as well) to read English news. 

Zale: I applaud you for this.  The best and easiest things to learn are learned simply for the fun and joy of learning. So many people seem to be dull creatures with no real interest in anything but entertainment provided by others.   

Landon: Overlly I feel that for those four parts of English – listening, speaking, reading, writing, I need to improve listening with the highest priority, and reading with secondly priority. The rest, speaking, and writing, I will set them aside(maybe for future to improve, ^_^).
I sort the four items above mainly out of the frequency I use them. I listen the News from radio, and I often fail to understand during the listening because of unfamiliar words or fast speaking speed. The situation of reading English News is a little bit better. Because I can refer dict for new words while reading, and repeat to read for better understanding, it’s low efficiency though. I’m always surprised that there are so many new words when reading different topics of News. 

Zale: And when you have a passion for learning something, breaking it down into sections, setting priorities,  and organizing your study is a great way to improve,

Landon: I have some parts that I don’t understand from what you writing, could you just explain a little bit more if you have time:
1: From your facebook, “News of his death kicked the crap out of my Christmas this year”
I think it says the News made you had a sad time during Christmas, right?  But I don’t understand “kicked the crap out of …”, even after I refereed dict for the word “crap”.

Zale: Okay.  This is a vulgarism, the more impolite version of which is “kicked the shit out of…: As in “If he does that again I’m going to kick the shit out of him.” meaning I am going to do serious damage to him. News of my friend’s death was a severe shock that brought me to tears.  It cast a shadow over my entire Christmas as I struggled to accept the loss, i.e. it kicked the crap out of my Christmas.

2: From your blog:  “Occasionally he would drop a name, or tell me he was talking to the star, or the director, or the financial group that would pull it all together. Just one more piece of the puzzle to lock down and he’d be in production”
“Just one more piece of the puzzle to lock down and he’d be in production”, does that mean like every thing is ready except a last problem? But what is the exact mean of “lock down” here?

Zale: You understood perfectly. Yes exactly.  When he was putting a deal together there were hundreds of elements that needed to be decided, i.e. locked down, starting with the script, the director, the cast, the location, etc. and most importantly, the financing.  Very often there would be a vital part to this that would make everything fall into place.  Often getting the interest of a major star would be that vital part, or the interest of a wealthy investor, or a “green light” from Netflix. So you see, you really did understand what I wrote.  This is a perfect illustration of my belief that running to the dictionary every time you don’t understand something is usually  not necessary, and, in the case of idiom like “locked down” often not helpful.

Landon: 3: From your blog: “And what Christmas party is complete without the Laowise (Ruth and my folksinging group name and a Chinese/English pun) Christmas carol performance.” 
Here, why I think it should be “And what Christmas party is not complete without the Laowise …”. I feel a little puzzled. Because only with Laowise, the Christmas could be perfect and completed.

Zale: No.  For your version to work you would need to leave off the word “what”.  “And a Christmas party is not complete without the Laowise…”  Adding the word “what” asks the question, “Is a Christmas party complete without the Laowise…”So you see, once again you understood my meaning completely.  It was just an unfamiliar structure that you found confusing.

Landon: 4: From your blog: “He had a key role in putting the deal together for one of my features, “Terminal City Ricochet”, but bailed on that production and is only credited as “additional crew”. So I really don’t know what he accomplished.”
I can only figure out it does say “He had no accomplishment”, the rest I don’t understand at all.

Zale: To rephrase this I would write: I know he played an essential role in the early stages of the financing for one of my features, “Terminal City Ricochet”.  But he left that production early after a dispute with one of the other producers. Other than that accomplishment, I don’t know what else he managed to achieve.
 
Landon: Currently the main issue for me is vocabulary. If I had gained larger vocabulary, I think I could have a faster understanding while listening, and a low frequency of referring dict while reading, thus improve the efficiency of reading. And I will devote more on vocabulary.

Zale: Again let me stress that the best way to build vocabulary, and certainly the most fun way, is simply to practice voracious reading, especially classical writers like Charles Dickens, or more contemporary writers such as George Orwell. Just read.  Guess at the meaning of words.  Only go to the dictionary when you really feel that you don’t understand.  I have a huge vocabulary, compared to many native speakers, and I don’t think I went to the dictionary ten times during all my years as a student.  But I read everything I could get my hands on.Now quite often I think of a word I use and I’m not sure I understand what it means completely, so I will go to a dictionary.  It’s much easier now that a dictionary is as close as Google.  Almost always, I find that my understanding of the word is correct.Once again the Internet has made finding material to read easy.  For example, I’m now rereading a book by George Orwell that I read probably fifty years ago.  When I recommended it to somebody online, I discovered that it is available for free here: https://libcom.org/files/wiganpier.pdf

Landon: Again I wish you have all thing the best in this new year.

Zale: Thank you, Landon.  And again it’s great to hear from you, and to learn that you have become a family man of some substance.  I hope you have a happy, joyful, and prosperous time in the new year and years to come. Please feel free to write to me and tell me more about your life, family, work, and interests in China.  You might even include some pictures.

Warmest regards
Your old English teacher, David (Zale, Da Dawei)

My Friend is Gone

My world is being hollowed out. Rob S. Buckham is dead.

I got the news last night while binge watching feel good movies on Netflix with my wife. It came in a note from Rob’s Australian girlfriend, Marion, still in Australia. I only got past the first lines: “Hi David. I am sending you this message to tell you the sad news that Rob passed away last week…” before I burst into tears and blurted out “Bastard died owing me fifteen hundred bucks.”

Wait. Wait. Wait. WAIT. Don’t get the wrong idea from that. That was a joke. I really don’t give a damn about that money, or the fact that Rob died owing it to me. When I’m in pain, I make a joke. And the news that Rob has died really broke me.

So it’s true, but also a joke. That debt was incurred maybe thirty years ago, well before the turn of the millennial century. I had quietly written it off decades ago, and neither of us ever mentioned it. I always wondered whether Rob remembered it, and had every intention of making good when his ship came in. Sadly, that ship was lost at sea.

Also, please understand that this is not an obituary or a eulogy. It’s a personal wail of loss, as much about me as it is about Rob. Please don’t read it like one of those post demise puff pieces that describe the deceased as ever so talented and kind and beloved by all. Rob deserves better than that. He was a complex person who lead a full life.

Rob and I hung out a lot through the ups and downs of our lives before I went to China. Both of us were recovering from the breakup of our marriages, and both of us were mostly broke. I owned a fifty foot sailboat in those days, but was on the verge of letting it go, along with everything else in my life as the flow of events built up to bankruptcy. Rob played not bad rhythm guitar. He once suggested that we form a singing duo, but we never found the time to work up a set and take it on the road.

Over the years I came to appreciate that Rob had what it takes to be a big time movie producer. He was incredibly stubborn. Tenacious. And for the past few years I’ve been of the opinion that he was possibly a little crazy. Heroically mad. Stubbornly optimistic. Relentlessly positive. Every conversation we had, and they were frequent, he would tell me about the movie deal he was putting together. I never doubted that it was real. He wasn’t a con man. He knew his stuff. Occasionally he would drop a name, or tell me he was talking to the star, or the director, or the financial group that would pull it all together. Just one more piece of the puzzle to lock down and he’d be in production. In China. No, in Czechoslovakia. No, it looks like we’ll be taking it to Taiwan. Always ever so close to closing the deal. But the next time we would talk, it was as if that conversation had never happened. Not that the deal was dead. But it was…a different deal. Or a new script. Another configuration of international players. Always positive. Always optimistic. Always very close to the big movie that kept moving away from him. In short, Rob was a movie producer. He was what a producer must be in order to succeed. I never rained on his parade, or questioned his chances. How could I in the face of such calm, relentless, determination.

He let me read one of the scripts once, which confirmed my opinion that our tastes were radically different. The script was a hot mess. We seldom agreed on the merits of a movie, seeming to approach them from completely different value systems.

As the years rolled by, my hopes for Rob grew dimmer and fainter. Frankly, I stopped believing. If Rob ever stopped believing, he never let it show. And in that, mad or not, he was heroic. A real international film producer. Just one who never quite managed to make his movie. Sadly, that’s not surprising. It’s almost an impossible thing to achieve and takes amazing luck. Most of all it takes persistence, which Rob had in full measure. Just not the luck.

I always wondered how Rob managed to survive and support his lifestyle, which, while not extravagant, was not inexpensive. Did he have an inheritance behind him? Family money? Or was he surviving on development deals and script development money, or occasional work coming up with budgets or production plans for other producers? I never asked. Rob played his cards close to his vest, and I never heard him say there was something he couldn’t afford. He paid his bills and kept up appearances. I didn’t pry.

In 2009 or so, Rob followed my lead and came to China to set up shop in Nantong and become a player in the Chinese movie industry. Soon he had connected with a young and ambitious female Chinese business partner. In 2010 he invited Ruth and me to stay in his rather luxurious apartment in Nantong and join him for a Christmas turkey dinner. He had purchased a large toaster oven, and somehow had arranged for a turkey to ride in a limousine all the way from Shanghai. Actually, I think he had two turkeys so that he could test out the oven on one of them before the main event. I had my Chinese drivers license by that time, so we rented a car and I braved the Chinese roads and traffic to Nantong.

-all photo credits Ruth Anderson
Here’s me picking up the rental car after hours. A little scary, but that’s how adventures start. I will never forget the drive through Nantong’s rush hour crush of e-bikes on that trip.
Here’s Rob’s second turkey. The first was just a test. The only other huo ji we ate in China, rather, tried to eat, was at a five star hotel in Weihai. It looked just like this, but was absolutely impossible to cut with a table knife, as if it was made from hard plastic. Typical of China, the chef had seen pictures, but had no idea how to cook the big bird.
Rob had no such problem and this turkey was as good as it looks.
It always surprised me that the Chinese, so fond of big family dinners, have yet to discover turkey. The only live turkey we saw in China was in a zoo.
And here’s Rob with, I think, his business partner, mixing a big bowl of cranberry sauce. This would be a feast with all the trimmings.
Guests included two of our former students, Simon and Lv Min, still cherished friends of mine eleven years later. They have made a life for themselves in Shanghai with their two beautiful boys, Lucas and Marcus. True to their nature, they pitched in to peel the potatoes.
And what Christmas party is complete without the Laowise (Ruth and my folksinging group name and a Chinese/English pun) Christmas carol performance. GouGou (Pronounced “gogo”, Chinese for DogDog. The Chinese name pets with double syllables, like WangWang or FeiFei) is more interested in the view.
And of course, a real turkey dinner requires a large pot of gravy.
The full Christmas meal deal. Damn but it was good.
I made the eggnog. Potent and delicious.
That’s a bottle opener, with traditional design front and back, one of Rob’s stocking stuffers.

That was my last and best memory of being with Rob in person. It was a great dinner, the only edible turkey we had in China.

After the test turkey and the feast, Rob was very tired of turkey, so Ruth and I got to take home a lot of turkey leftovers.

Rob and I had a few more meetings to do with film industry maneuvers, and then a falling out over an indiscreet comment I made to Marion, his Australian girlfriend. I did my best to make amends and apologize, but eventually sent him a very cheap costume jewelry “diamond” engagement ring, delivered by Marion who had become our friend too. She reported that it made him laugh, so I guess he got the message – I was sending the ring back. I settled in to wait for him to get over it. I think that took a couple of years, but eventually we were friends again.

I’ve made it sound like Rob never actually did anything as a movie producer. I looked him up on the IMDB this morning, and found only very thin credits, some as a gaffer, production manager, camera and electrical department, all dating back into the eighties. He had a key role in putting the deal together for one of my features, “Terminal City Ricochet”, but bailed on that production and is only credited as “additional crew”. So I really don’t know what he accomplished.

What I do know is that he never stopped trying, right up to the end. That’s what it takes to be a producer, and with a little more luck maybe I would have been flown to a production in some exotic location to take a minor position and get paid back the money he owed me. I kept hoping, more for him than for me. This said, don’t ever think that Rob was a loser. He was a man trying to climb an impossible mountain, and in the end it defeated him.

So, about that debt. Shortly before I left Canada for China, Rob got me involved as the cameraman/director/editor to make a presentation piece for a promoter who wanted to put together a TV series about golf. We were paid three thousand dollars, all the money Rob could wring from the guy, for quite a bit of work, and the deal was we would split it fifty-fifty. I shot it on miniDV and edited it on my Final Cut Pro system in my living room, with Rob supervising the edit and making me exceedingly grumpy in the process. When it came time for the money split, Rob asked me if he could take the whole amount. He seemed to need it more than I did. So I said he could owe me my share. I never needed it badly enough to ask him to pay me back.

Really, that turkey dinner in Nantong was payment enough.

I’m going to miss you, Rob, you crazy man. Sorry your dreams never came to fruition. Very glad I got to know you. You weren’t a quitter, that’s for sure. But I guess you’ve finally quit. I’m so sad about that. Heartbroken even.