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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
In previous posts I told the story of how and why I got my rather expensive Italian violin made by Maurizio Tadioli, an award winning luthier who lives in Cremona, Italy. I told the story of how it was lost and all but destroyed in China, and how, after seven years as a decoration on my wall in China it made it’s way back to Maurizio for repairs, the two years it took him to repair the instrument, and my travels to Italy to get it back in my hands. I recently did a post about my tour of Scotland with the Szasz family and my young fiddle buddy, Kipling, playing Scots melodies in locations where they originated – “Over the Sea to Sky” on the Isle of Sky, “Callums’s Road” on Callum’s Road, “Hut on Staffin Island” in Staffin, and “Flowers of Edinburgh” in Edinburgh, plus a couple of others in random castles and ruins.
Now it’s time to tell why I don’t have my beloved violin any more and where it has gone. I guess this is the final chapter, at least as far as my involvement goes.
When I learned that my prostate cancer had jumped ship and gone ashore into my bones and lymph glands, I jumped to the conclusion that this meant curtains for Zale Dalen. That’s what Dr. Google told me, and I believed it when I read that the chances of me being alive a year after that diagnosis were 45% and my chance of being alive five years after that diagnosis was 1%. I’ve since been told by my oncologists that treatment has come a long way. Prostate cancer, even prostate cancer that has metastasized into the bones, is now considered a chronic disease rather than a fatal disease. I’m on a new drug, a testosterone blocker, and my numbers are looking good. Going on three years since that scary diagnosis, I feel generally okay.
But one thing that wasn’t feeling good was the arthritis in my hand. The thumb on my bow hand, my right hand, grew increasingly painful after the Scotland trip, to the point where playing the violin for a few minutes took all the fun out of playing and practicing. The specialist gave me cortisone shots into my thumb joint, and that helped a little, for a month or so. But it seemed obvious that my days of playing the fiddle were numbered. I had already decided that I wanted Kipling to have my violin. In fact, that was the only way I could feel comfortable letting her father pick up the tab for my trip to Scotland.
Then I learned that Kipling, who prefers reading music and playing classical violin, rather than fiddling, was going to take her grade nine Royal Conservatory test. She was at a critical stage for a violin student, a point where one either falls in love with the instrument and strives for perfection or puts it aside for other interests. I decided that perhaps having a piece of wood she could fall in love with might motivate her to practice, and really go for concert performance level in her playing. So my Mauritzio Tadioli Il Cannone became hers. She renamed it Cosimo, after Cosimo de Medici, the renaissance patron of the arts, which I took as a sign that she was forming a personal bond with the instrument. I took back the Chinese violin I had given her to use when she reached the size to need a 4/4 sized instrument. That certainly is good enough for me. I will never be more than a fiddler, and a mediocre one at that.
Since passing my Italian fiddle along to Kipling, I’ve had an interesting surgical treatment on my arthritic bow hand. The specialist told me that she could cut off the arthritic end of the bone and glue on some tendon from my forearm and that would possibly be a more permanent solution to the pain than the cortisone shots. My first reaction to this idea was astonishment. What? Take a tendon from my forearm? You’re kidding. Don’t I need those tendons? Well, it turns out we, at least some of us, have a vestigial tendon in our forearm that no longer has a function. It does virtually nothing. So I had the operation and… it’s been a miracle. It was a slow and painful recovery, but I can once again practice for an hour or two without undue pain in my bow hand thumb. Now the limiting factor is the rotator cuff in my bow arm shoulder, which has also had a surgical repair. But that is also improving with stretching and exercise. This doesn’t change the fact that I will never become a really good performer. Kipling has a shot at doing that, and I’m hoping she takes it. But that’s up to her.
I will admit to missing my Italian violin, and occasional twinges of regret at giving it away. But I’m finding that a new set of strings and daily practice has awakened the Chinese fiddle. It is also a hand made violin, made by Jin Lin Rui Lin in Shanghai, and is indeed a lovely instrument. When sunlight hits the Burmese maple of its back, it bursts out in ribbons of gold. But sadly, no matter how good a Chinese violin is, it will never have the status or value of one made in Cremona. I refuse to succumb to that cultural foolishness. Pure snobbery. It looks amazing and sounds wonderful. That’s what matters.
Whether my social experiment with Kipling works out as I hope it will is up to Kipling. I feel good about the deal, and the chain of events that lead to making it happen. I feel good about myself, and I’m enjoying playing again. That’s enough.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Just reminiscing as I turn 60 this year, remembering former colleagues and times.
Just wanted to reach out and tell you how thankful I was to have worked with you on that episode of Friday’s Curse. You may not recall, but it was a rather emotional episode involving my father played by Michael Constantine. I recall you being very skilled creating a space we’re I could reach places in my work I had never been. So thanks.
I am glad to hear that your cancer scare was nothing more than that. I wish you many years of following your artistic whims.
All the best, John LeMay
John: Such a delight to hear from you. Thanks so much for the kind words about my directing.
It may interest you to know that I was contacted some years ago by a fan who wanted to know if he could get a copy of that cursed pipe. I ended up giving the slip cast I made from the Plasticine mold to him for the cost of postage.
I was quite proud of that pipe. The one supplied by the props guys was much smaller, and would have disappeared into the actor’s hand. I ended up making the one we used out of Plasticine, just to get the visuals I wanted. No doubt that didn’t endear me to the props guys, but that’s the price you pay for being a demanding director I guess. Demanding, and I’m sure some would say, rather arrogant.
Turning 60. That’s amazing. You were such a kid when we shot that episode. A very earnest kid as I remember. You did a great job. Happy birthday, and many more
Thanks again for your kind words. Please feel free to check in again now and then. I always love to hear from the talented people I worked with. Warmest regards Zale
P.S. If you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to post your endorsement to my site. Let me know if that’s a problem for you.
And John’s back to me:
From John LeMan: I’m always amazed at the passion fans have have for that show. I did not know , or forgot that you created the “cursed object
That is one lucky fan!
My “real” dad was visiting the set while we were filming that episode. They made him an extra in the lab scenes. Another reason it will always hold a special meaning for me.
Feel free to use my endorsement of course… I meant every word and it’s from the heart.
Look forward to keeping in touch.
John LeMay would have no way of knowing this, but I have very mixed feelings about my work as a director. That episode was number 24 of season 1. The show ran for three seasons, and I have no idea where I blew it, or why I was never invited back. It’s great that John LeMay was happy with my work, but the producers, the people who could give me work in the future, were obviously not impressed. It’s evidence of the truth I was told after my one, and only, counseling session: “What you have told me is that your failure to get as much work as you would like is a result of failing to form relationships with the people who can give you work.”
Well, go figure, eh. It was so obvious. But I had to see a counselor to see it. I came out of the Simon Fraser University film workshop, learning about making movies by talking to fellow enthusiasts, all cameramen, sound technicians, editors. They are my people. I love working with actors and admire their abilities. But producers intimidate me. They play their cards close to their chests, remain emotionally distant, and hold power over me. I did my best to avoid them and just do a good job. If I have one piece of advice for an aspiring young director today it is this: Be friendly with everybody, because anybody can give you a boost or stab you in the back without even thinking about it, but form relationships with the people who can give you work.
Sometimes I remember pulling off an amazing directorial achievement, and I feel like, yes, maybe I have talent. Sometimes I remember the accolades from film festivals or viewers, and I feel good about my career. At other times I lie awake torturing myself over some incident, some time when I didn’t really live up to my standards, or acted in a way that I now regret, and I feel the full force of imposter syndrome. In my case, the feeling that I’m a fraud is perfectly justified. When I think about all the skills involved in directing a movie, the emotional intelligence required, the intuitive understanding of how the audience will react to an image, the artistic background that would support the title of director, it seems impossible that anybody could be really great at the job, especially me. Such arrogance, to step forward and claim to be a movie director. And yet I did that long before I had any credits to support my claim. It’s easy to see that being a tall, not terrible looking, white male was of great benefit to me. It’s a proven fact that such people are given far more authority and respect than they might actually deserve. The other aspect of my character is a strong element of Dunning Kruger Effect. I often have to laugh at my willingness to take on projects, from home renovation, wiring, dry wall finishing, and plumbing to artistic creations like that pipe for Friday the 13th. the Series, for which I have no experience or training. It amazes me how often an attitude of “well, how hard can it be” has brought me success that I don’t feel I deserve (see imposer syndrome above).
I don’t want, expect, or need a tombstone. But if I were to have one, I’ve always wanted it to read: “He was kind and generous, a sucker for every hard luck story.” But the truth is, the epithet I believe I deserve is: “Here lies Zale Dalen, where the Imposter Syndrome met the Dunning Kruger Effect.”
Given all of this, I don’t think John Le May could have had any idea how great an effect his generous letter would have on me, or the depth of gratitude I feel for him taking the time to write it.
This is something else I try to remember as a human being. We have no idea what is going on in somebody else’s life. They may be flying high, living the joy, totally happy with everything. Or they may be deep in depression and despair. In which case a short letter of sincere appreciation could save a life.
I’m currently pretty much okay. I’m not depressed, or wallowing in despair. Even so, a letter like the one from John LeMay has made me smile for days now. You didn’t know this, John. But, if you are reading this, now you do. Thank you.
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.
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.
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.
I thought I had covered this in an ancient post, but if so I can’t find it. Today my friend Paul Stallion in Winnipeg wrote to say: “Tell me again (I’m pretty sure I’ve been told before), where did the genesis of your name come from?” So here’s the story:
I was christened David James Scott – David after my father, David Henry Scott, and James after my grandfather on my mother’s side, Lieutenant Commander James Lauden Bromfield, RN. All good and honourable names. In those days it was traditional to name babies to honour their living relatives.
I went through school and into university with the name David James Scott. Then I met my first wife, Rena Bishop. She told me that she had been christened Gwyneth Bishop, but her parents had become Kabalarians when she was twelve and had changed her name to Rena. Here’s a link to the Kabalarian website, which of course paints a flattering picture of their cult. I always found it interesting that they claim to be based on the Kabbalah, “an esoteric method, discipline, and school of thought in Jewish mysticism” which claims to predate religion, though the cult was founded in 1930. In any event, the present day Kabalarians believe a complicated system of numerology which posits that a person has a life path, determined by their date of birth, and some kind of mystical resonance with the numbers derived from their name. Each letter in a person’s name is given a number from 1 to 9, but starting over after the letter ‘i’ with 1 again, so that the letter ‘j’ would be counted as 1 and the letter ‘k’ would be counted as 2. Taken in total, but not exceeding 9, these number give a person’s name a numerical value which somehow resonates with a number derived from their birth date. They don’t care now the name is pronounced. It’s only the letters and the final number that counts. If this sounds like improbable nonsense to you, then you agree with me. Utter bollocks.
It’s not just a person’s birth date and name that matter to a Kabalarian. Every other number in their life matters – their street address, their license plate, the number assigned to the current year. It’s all considered and calculated. Life can get quite complicated. An 8 birth path going into a 9 year can be scary for them.
At any rate, I didn’t hear much about the Kabalarians after I met Rena. We dated, lived together, got engaged, and finally married in 1971. She didn’t talk much about the “Kabalarian philosophy”, other than the occasional mention that we were in such and such a year, or our address added up to such and such a number (which might mean that it would be prone to electrical problems or water damage). Rena was, and still is, a brilliant woman, the kind of person who studies university level physics for fun. I’m sure she recognized how silly the beliefs of her parents were, or at least would appear to skeptics like me.
Then, in 1972 or 1973, Rena’s father died. He had been the person in her life who told her how the world was glued together, and his death left a huge hole. She started taking courses at the Vancouver Kabalarian center, and spending money on their lessons. Soon she was deep down the cult rabbit hole. I remember one occasion when she went in to buy a license plate for our car. She didn’t like the number on the plate that was offered, so she asked for the next plate in line. That was refused. So she paid for the plate, walked out the door, dropped it in the nearest garbage can, then return to say that she had lost her license plate and paid again.
At this time I was having my own issues with my father, David Henry Scott. For several years, I identified as a hippie. With the rationalizing arrogance of youth, I felt that, given that society made it next to impossible to get around without my car, I should be allowed to park wherever I wanted. So I had a large parking ticket debt, so large that the police showed up to arrest David Scott for failure to pay. They could never find me, but they found my father fast enough. He wasn’t pleased.
Then he was bragging to his business associates that the family farm was free and clear. One of them checked and told him there was a lien on the property, a lien because of non-payment of his student loan. Of course, it wasn’t his student loan. It was mine. My father was furious. Such were the unintended consequences of giving me his name.
Rena came to me after one of her Kabalarian classes and told me that I would never be rich and famous with a name like David Scott. It just didn’t match my birth path. I needed to change my name.
I had two other reasons to consider changing my name. One, of course, was that my father was not happy with having the same name as he had given me. But the other was based on my belief that we are a combination of three things. We are what other people tell us we are; we are what we tell ourselves we are; and finally, we are what we actually are which is a combination in various proportions of all three determinants. All three of these elements that define us are unknowable. We are not fully aware of what other people are telling us we are, except for the broad strokes. There are so many assumptions people make and express about us that are invisible to our conscious mind. We are also not completely aware of what we are telling ourselves we are. Habits of thought maintained since childhood go unexamined, which is why psychiatrists and therapists can make a living. And we are not fully aware of what we actually are, which is a combination of all three of these factors. Nevertheless, I felt that, possibly, the best way to create a more positive, outgoing, adventurous, and enjoyable personality might be to change the label that I put on that personality, the label that I put on myself, my identity. I would rather be self created than created by the agendas of others, or even of reality. I didn’t expect to become totally self created, but I felt sure I could change the balance. So why not give it a go? (Zale Dalen – where the Dunning-Kruger Effect meets the Imposter Syndrome)
Rena presented me with a list, provided by the Kabalarians, with many rather ordinary names but often strangely spelled, like ‘Jon’, but also including stranger names, among them the name ‘Zale’. I felt that the name expressed something of my personality – distinctly different, slightly odd, unique and possibly intriguing -so David James Scott became became Zale Ralston Dalen. Rena Scott became Laara Dalen.
I hoped that my father would see this as an effort to repair the damage he’d done by giving me his name, but of course he didn’t. It took him years to process what he saw as disowning the family. The rest of the relatives were initially resistant to the name change, but with constant correction finally accepted it. I settled in to being Zale Ralston Dalen, and went about establishing a movie career.
Did this experiment in becoming self creative work as I hoped? Hard to say. Having a strange name came with its own problems, like people calling me Dale, or Zane. My first national publicity appeared in TV Guide when my name was listed as Dale Zalen. I heard from somebody putting my name forward as a director that one of the executives who would give final approval asked, “Can he speak English?” My name also gave me what I unintentionally asked for – a feeling of being cut off from my history and heritage. These problems seemed to fade as I became better known, but the feeling of being adrift came back with a vengeance when my father died.
My father died in 1986. By then we were on very good terms. I had spent weekends interviewing him and transcribing the tapes, which became an oral history of his very adventurous early life. I had long since paid off my student loans. The styles of the hippie movement had become either mainstream or comical. Everybody and his dog had an earring. A tattoo no longer indicated a complete social deviant. I had certificates from the New York Film Festival, The London Film Festival, Sidney Australia and Thesolonika. Such a degree of international acclaim had healed the wounds from my teen years, and my father actually cried when he saw my certificate from the Moscow Film Festival, “For peace and friendship among nations.” He didn’t understand that they would give that to anybody who denigrated capitalism.
Fast forward to the turn of the century. Laara and I had separated and were on our way to a divorce. My children were adults and didn’t need me any more. I’d gone bankrupt. I was about to run away to China to recover from the crash and burn that was my life. My name, Zale Dalen, had no heritage to it. Worse, it was slightly embarrassing. People who knew could recognize it as a Kabalarian name, and I wanted no truck with nor endorsement of that particular brand of nonsense.
So, despite having been Zale for more years than I was David, I went to China as David James Scott. That’s the name I was using when I met my present wife, Ruth Anderson. It didn’t hurt that the name David Scott had real value in China, where I was being hired because I am a white man and a native speaker.
I fully expected to keep my birth name for the rest of my life. But then, on returning to Canada, I Googled ‘David James Scott’ and found, or rather, failed to find, my name buried in thousands of results. Goggle ‘Zale Dalen’ and I’m at the top of the returns. That’s a hard brand to give up.
So now I have a slightly schizoid existence as both David Scott, to people who met me while I was in China, and Zale Dalen, to those who knew me before I left and after I returned. Actually, I’m even known to some as Da Dawei (Chinese for Big David), my Chinese name. That’s what Ruth calls me when she wants to catch my attention in a crowd. Apparently the percussive sound cuts through the noise and gets my attention.
As an aside, I felt that adopting a Chinese name was only fair and courteous, given that most Chinese take an English name as soon as they start to study our language. This has resulted in some very strange names, like Space Fish, Falcon, Chicken, and our Chinese best friend, Panda. If I’d known a single word of Chinese when I arrived in China I would have chosen Gao Dawei (Tall David) because Gao is a common Chinese family name while Da is not. No matter. Being Big David struck me as funny, like a gangster name, Mr. Big, and apparently strikes many Chinese the same way.
And that’s the broad strokes of a very long, detailed, and complicated story. I’ve tried to cut it to the bone, the salient points, but it really brings up many questions – why did I go bankrupt after quite a successful career, first as a movie technician and then as a director. Why did I become, as I recently posted, “Almost Famous”, and why did that all go away. But that’s nothing to do with the name thing.