The tragedy of Amy Winehouse

I didn’t know Amy Winehouse.  I wasn’t really a fan of Amy Winehouse.  I had only a tangential interest in Amy Winehouse, inasmuch as I knew that she sang “Rehab,” had a strange hairdo and made news for drinking, drugs and getting into a lot of trouble.  That would probably be a common answer if you asked any dozen people on the street to describe her.  So the news of her sudden death at the age of 27 this past Saturday would not come as a great surprise either.  She joins the pantheon of musicians unravelled by their demons – Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley.  What stands Amy Winehouse apart from this crowd is how her downward spiral became the focus of her fame.  Despite her talent, entire forests were whacked to instead provide embarrassing photos and salacious accounts of somebody who was clearly suffering a great deal – so much so that the sanctimonious among us can now say smugly, “it was only a matter of time.”

The first time I ever received morphine was during a brief hospitalization for a collapsed lung.  I remember thinking as the sensation of euphoria washed over me and cleansed away the pain, “ah, this is why people do drugs.”  (Clearly a world-changing revelation from a naïve 21-year-old who barely drank and never even tried a cigarette.)  Despite the morphine experience, I don’t have an addictive personality.  Most of us don’t, which is why we love jumping all over the latest celebrity drug abuse scandal.  It is incomprehensible to a non-addict where this need to smoke, drink or inject chemicals into one’s body for a temporary “high” comes from.  Things just can’t possibly be that bad, we say.  Just don’t take the stuff.  A lot of misguided drug policy has been formulated from this morally superior perch, because our brains aren’t wired the way an addict’s brain is.  And with a lack of understanding comes a lack of empathy.

Addiction, like any mental illness, is still a stigma.  If people don’t look like anything is wrong with them, then it’s assumed that they are perfectly fine.  People missing limbs, people wasting away from AIDS, people who have suffered disfiguring injuries are regularly celebrated as heroes, resolute in the face of their challenges.  But most mental illnesses are still equated with weakness, or worse, turned into punchlines.  Someone with bipolar disorder who needs to have regular electroshock therapy is viewed as “crazy,” much less courageous than the stalwart woman fighting breast cancer.  And raising money to fight addiction and mental illness isn’t as politically sexy as other diseases because many of the people who suffer from them are often viewed as the undesirables of society – far too often winding up in prison instead of treatment.

The tabloids loved to kick Amy Winehouse when she was down, which seemed to be regularly.  Plenty of stories ran earlier this year about her cancelling concerts, appearing incoherent and slurring her words on stage.  “Winehouse Behaving Badly” was no longer news – it was just expected.  Not having known her personally, I can’t attest to what was going on in her life, what kind of person she was, how she treated those around her.  All I know is that she didn’t get the help she needed in time, and her parents have now lost a daughter.  And I can’t help wondering if she had suffered a more visible illness, might she have garnered more sympathy?  If she’d died of leukemia or ALS, would people be saying, as was overheard in my office today, “well, she was clearly headed that way”?

Suffering doesn’t always come with a limp or a scar.  We need to stop assuming everyone with an addiction or a mental illness is crazy, or that it is something to be scorned.  It’s difficult to watch someone self-destruct, as it must have been for those closest to Amy Winehouse.  It’s harder still to continue to be there for them, to not let them go, to fight against the stigma and the public perception and the belief that it’s their weakness.  But we can’t let ourselves do any less.  Love is, after all, the most important part of Rehab.

In Peace for All Mankind

Today is July 20, 2011.  42 years ago, Apollo 11 touched down in the Sea of Tranquility.  Forty-two freakin’ years.  My generation wasn’t even the proverbial glimmer in its father’s eye when the last guy (Eugene Cernan – I saved you a trip to Wikipedia) left the moon in 1972.  Your smartphone is infinitely more complex and powerful than the computer that guided the Apollo spacecraft to the surface of the moon and back.  Heck, even your wristwatch is probably more sophisticated.  So forty-two years ago we landed on the moon and forty-two years later we’re getting ready for the last space shuttle flight to come back to earth with the space program on fiscal life support and seemingly no clear direction as to where it’s going next – certainly not in terms of manned missions.  And far from being glued to their screens listening to Walter Cronkite describe Neil Armstrong’s descent from Eagle, people are likely more inclined these days to ask, “there’s still a space program?”

Public perception of NASA’s budget in the United States is that it accounts for as much as 20% of the total federal expenditure, when in fact it’s closer to 0.5%.  You have the country that arguably led the way into the heavens spending $600 billion a year on ways to kill people (which is always guaranteed to win lots of public support) when the entire Apollo program cost a total of $22 billion over ten years to put men on another world.  Thing is, if the people wanted more focus on outer space and voted accordingly, it would happen in a heartbeat.  So why don’t we?  When you think about the thousands of years of history that preceded July 20, 1969, the generations of civilizations looking up at the stars and wondering what was up there without the technological capability to see for themselves, the idea that human beings could ever look upon space with as much interest as they might have in a seven-year-old tax return is stomach-turning.  It’s a betrayal of the promise of who we are, and the worst form of cynicism.  Yet it happened.  Landing on the moon was cool once, became routine and then stopped altogether.  I’m at a loss to explain it, because I don’t see how you can look at those images the astronauts are tweeting from Atlantis and not be enraptured by the beauty, the fragility and the necessity of it all.

Opponents of the space program love to drag out the old cost-benefit rationale.  “What do our tax dollars get us?”  Certainly not a house in the Hamptons or a bridge in Brooklyn.  The greatest benefit of space exploration is not measurable by accountants, because it is in enriching the spirit.  It’s in asking questions of existence, faith and the human soul as much as any religion (which, by the way, gets numerous tax breaks without any demonstrable fiscal return).  It’s in expanding us beyond the confines of our tiny planet and imagining the possibilities of an entire universe – where human trifles that consume our thoughts and our fears today are reduced to the insignificance of sand grains in favour of something far greater.  Exploration united us on July 20, 1969 as Armstrong took that first step.  It can do so again – what is required is commitment, courage and above all else, curiosity.  And that is worth it.

Pro intelligentia et curiositas

Textspeak frustrates me to no end.  That there has been a word coined for a non-language bordering on illiteracy irks me even more than seeing “LOL” dropped into emails as punctuation.  If I were an English teacher, I would take a well-deserved dollop of joy in assigning zeroes to any essays that crossed my desk featuring any combination of OMG, BRB, b4, Ur, ppl or ROTFLMAO.  To wit:  “OMG Shkspr’s Jlius Csr is SO LAME!!!!  U agree?”  I thought I was on the side of the angels until I read about one of the U.S. states deciding to no longer teach handwriting in its public schools.  I guess the ppl thought that was SO LAME too.  I get that it’s today’s version of shorthand.  I understand that it helps you send messages quickly.  I don’t understand why you’d want to sound like a squealing teenage girl woozy over her latest Bieber sighting, but there you are.  The aim in any form of communication, spoken or written, should be to sound smart.  If you can’t deliver your message without abbreviating words to the point of incomprehension, then a rewrite is required.  Even on limited platforms like Twitter.  Just try harder.  You can get there.

The flourishing of textspeak is only a symptom of a larger issue.  Both the triumph and the failing of the Internet is that it has become a leveler, in that anyone with access can share their opinions on all number of things.  The problem is that not all opinions are equally valid, but the perception has arisen that they should be.  “I’m entitled to my opinion,” whines the anonymous message board commenter.  If I’m going in for a triple bypass, I want the opinion of the expert in cardiac surgery.  I could not care less what the guy who watched a marathon of House reruns thinks.

This hasn’t been helped by a media so terrified of being accused of bias that they have to shove a knuckle-dragger onto the air to offer “the other side” every time a specialist is interviewed.  If Neil Armstrong had landed on the moon last week, the news networks would give equal time to the crackpots who claim that it was all shot in a soundstage in Arizona.  Jonas Salk would have to share the stage with a faith healer.  Bill O’Reilly would insist to Albert Einstein that you can’t explain the universe anymore than you can explain the tides (because Bill doesn’t remember the moon and its gravitation, but I digress). I suppose things have gotten better in that a screaming match on Fox News would be a far merrier fate than that which befell Galileo, but I’d like to think that in 400 years we’ve come a little further than that.

Still, you could forgive this ignorance if behind it all there weren’t a cabal of very smart people looking to keep things that way.  The easiest way to win an election is keep your voters dumb and angry.  Rupert Murdoch wouldn’t have as much power as he does and be able to influence as many people if his audience was smart enough to know when they’re being played.  As I’ve said before, you do have a choice when you’re standing at the supermarket counter to leave that tabloid in the rack where it belongs.  But we’re too conditioned to want the fast-food version of the news rather than taking the time to plumb the depths of the story, to look past the talking points and examine the nuance.  I have a feeling we would be so inclined were we a better educated, more curious people.  But as I said, a lot of people are making a lot of money keeping us stupid so we’ll buy their crap, so I don’t see a mass effort to change this coming anytime soon, at least not from the top.

It has to start with us as individuals.  We have to raise our own game and demand the best from ourselves.  I won’t say I’m not upset at watching News Corp being hoisted on its petard over the phone-hacking scandal.  But it was our fault that they got as far as they did – because we craved more and more cheap news hamburger.  I guess my point is, when it comes to food for your mind, suck it up and go for the filet mignon.  You are, after all, what you eat.

Huge Act, Man!

Few of us are lucky enough to love what we do.  A vast majority slog across a daily grind of menial, meaningless tasks, the day’s only bright spot the dwindling minutes until quitting time.  When you consider that you will (unless you are a Kardashian or a Hilton) spend most of your life doing a job, it is tragic that many of us won’t ever find that singular vocation that we can relish.

Hugh Jackman doesn’t have that problem.  The Australian actor, who got his star-making break as Wolverine in X-Men eleven years ago when original casting choice Dougray Scott got stuck growling at Tom Cruise on the overlong shooting schedule for Mission: Impossible 2, is finishing up the last of a two-week run of his one-man performance at Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre.  By “finishing up” you might suspect that he’s going through the motions as the end draws near.  Not so.  The show is a supernova’s worth of energy and talent blasted at an eager audience whose already high expectations don’t come close to what this natural-born-entertainer is capable of.   With a continent’s worth of charisma and a wit quick enough to rival the most skilled of improv comedians, Jackman takes you on a personally guided tour of his career, his passions and his favorite songs, including stories about his family and a spiritual experience of the beauty of the Australian outback and the magnificence of its indigenous people.  He loves being there, he loves doing this, and unlike some performers who subtly hint that they occupy a stratosphere never to be glimpsed by mere mortals, “Jacko” makes the people who come to see him feel like their coolest BFF got a stage show.

That show ranges from the flamboyant (Jackman reprising his The Boy from Oz role of Peter Allen for a couple of numbers), the touching (a story about Jackman’s father coming to see him play Carnegie Hall, and a quiet rendition of Allen’s moving song “Tenterfield Saddler”), the hilarious (inviting a lucky shlub of an audience member up on stage to dance with two sexy backup singers), the absurd (how the studio behind X-Men thinks he should be spending his downtime), the raunchy (grinding his hips for the female fans), the romantic (a series of clips from his leading man roles set to “L.O.V.E.”) and the transcendent (an incredible closing number involving two digiridoo players and Australian Aboriginal leader and singer Olive Wright).  After witnessing this it’s hard to imagine anyone else – including the Rat Packers at their peak – who could wrap all of these diverse ingredients into a swift 90-minute cocktail that goes down as smoothly as a cool martini.

I’d be remiss in failing to mention the personal connection I have to this show in that an old high school friend is a member of Jackman’s orchestra, and it’s a moment of extreme pride to hear one of the biggest stars in the world give her a shout-out onstage for baking cookies for the entire crew.  Way to go Kate, you done good!

Aaron Sorkin has written that an artist’s job is to captivate you for however long he or she has asked for your attention.  Hugh Jackman does more than that.  He shows you how good it can be when you really love what you do, and it’s a seductive, and inspiring experience that stays with you as you wander back into the office the following morning and behold the litany of frivolous emails and the malfunctioning photocopier demanding your attention.

Too many of us sacrifice our passions with excuses we know don’t hold water.  “It will be too hard.”  “I probably won’t be any good at it.”  For 90 minutes last night, we could understand how richer we are that Hugh Jackman (and my friend Kate) never succumbed to that.  It makes us wonder, too, about the possibilities that might unfold were we to, as Hugh would put it, just “have a go.”  That’s the best lesson to take from Hugh Jackman and one that I suspect he’d probably be cool with.

Thanks for the show, mate.

Irony, thy name is the Conservative Party of Canada

So, does anyone remember that last year when the Conservatives were making all the noise about killing the mandatory long-form census, their chief rationale (repeated ad nauseum) was that Canadians shouldn’t be threatened with jail time for not filling out personal information on the long-form?  It sounds on the surface like a perfectly rational point.  We won’t get into the fact that not once has anyone actually been imprisoned under this law.

Here’s the thing – every morning I’ve been hearing these ominous radio ads that start with creepy percussion (a bit like the Law & Order “chunk-chunk” noise) followed by a serious voice saying “By law, all Canadian households must complete a census form.”)  Let’s break it down again – we have the musical homage to a show about crime and punishment and the first words of the ad are “By law.”  Basically, subliminally threatening people with jail time if they don’t fill out the census form.

Kinda writes itself, doesn’t it?

Read it, don’t read it, it’s entirely up to you

Journalists and bloggers have been making plenty of noise since the verdict was handed down on whether or not Casey Anthony will get a book deal.  Naturally there’s been lots of accompanying outrage and moral indignation over the thought of this person raking in seven figures to spend a few hours chatting with a ghostwriter who’ll shape her verbiage into a tearful missive.  Frankly, I expect this as inevitable.  I suppose it’s no more egregious than any one of a hundred true crime authors who’ll be cashing in on the Casey Anthony media frenzy.  I could launch into a screed on how this is symbolic of the downfall of our culture and our preoccupation with all things celebrity, but I won’t, because I have hope.  And that hope has oddly come in the form of Snooki.

When it was announced early this year that the  Jersey Shore “star,” who had boasted of only ever reading one book in her entire life, had landed a deal with Simon & Schuster to write a novel, thousands of unpublished authors across North America (myself included) bashed their heads against the wall in unison.  Why, with such a glut of undiscovered talent out there busting their asses for the slightest bit of attention from mainstream publishers, were the big houses continuing to write big cheques to D-list celebs with no discernible writing talent whatsoever?  It reminds me of the fourth-rate movie production houses who regularly churn out zero-budget dreck like Snakes on a Train, apparently banking on that precious and heretofore-unexploited demographic of Snakes on a Plane fans afflicted with glaucoma.  Somewhere in an accountant’s backroom, the great gods of publishing have decided that a piece of crap written by a quasi-somebody will stand a better chance of selling than a potentially brilliant story written by a nobody.  So thousands of query letters go in the trash and semi-literate Snooki goes out on a massive publicity tour to pimp her opus A Shore Thing, hitting just about every morning and evening talk show on television (and the cover of Rolling Stone, much to the chagrin of Dr. Hook).  My personal favorite was her interview on Today, with a clearly embarrassed Matt Lauer asking her, “What’s a badonk?” – to which she replied with the William F. Buckley-esque “Your badonk is your butt.”  Yep, somewhere Hemingway was rolling over in his grave and reaching for another drink.

But then the book dropped.  And the heavens parted and a great light shone through from above and nobody bought it.  The more inclined of you can look it up, but I believe it moved about 10,000 copies worldwide.  Hardly “runaway bestseller” territory.  Those thousands of unpublished authors could now remove their heads from the wall and resume bashing it against their keyboards.

The sharp rise and crashing fall of Nicole Polizzi’s writing career proves to the more jaded of us that there still exists some semblance of taste in the appetite of the public.  Yes, Glenn Beck is still there ranting against all things Obama and Sarah Palin continues the world’s longest c***-tease of a possible presidential campaign.  And The Huffington Post still runs “Kim Kardashian Shows Off Her Curves” stories twice a week.  But dammit, we dashed Snooki’s pursuit of a Pulitzer!  And we did it in the easiest way imaginable – we just ignored her.  Which is what anyone who objects to a Casey Anthony book deal should do.

I say, let Casey Anthony’s book come out.  And let it sit on the shelves yellowing and collecting dust.  Ignore it the way you do Batboy and the latest “Who’s Gay in Hollywood!” in the aisle at the grocery checkout counter.  Eventually, publishers will get the message and maybe go back to that slush pile of queries – because the next somebody (who hasn’t been accused of murdering her daughter, or, acted stupid, drunk and skanky on television) with a great story is just waiting to be found.  It’s up to us to make that happen.

Or, buy the damn book.  But then don’t get indignant when the next reality show troglodyte rakes in a cool million for his thesis on boogers and how to use them to get laid.  It’s entirely up to you.  And I’m blaming you accordingly.


Okay, so I am a huge fan of The West Wing.  I am burning a hole in my DVD copies of all seven seasons.  The kind of obscurities that Trekkies love to dredge up about their own holy grail, I can dish on TWW.  Episode titles.  Great lines.  Guest stars.  Writing credits.  One-shot characters.  Inconsistencies of established backstory.  The fact that H. Richard Greene appears in Season 3 as an obscure congressman worried about his re-election prospects and then turns up again in Season 5 as the same character, now Senate Majority Leader, has my mind twisting in knots in its more idle moments wondering how such a transformation could ever occur in real life.  Yes, I am a dork.  Or more precisely, a Wing-nut.  I’m sure I’ll delve further into why I dig it so much in future posts.  The reason I mention it is that today my West Wing enthusiasm led me to do something lame.  Basically, to get snookered by a Twitter impostor posing as Martin Sheen.

I’ve been following this “Not-even-an-Estevez” for a few days.  His tweets seemed pretty genuine.  But in my squealing-teenager-ness, I forgot the cardinal rule – look for the damn blue checkmark.  So in blissful ignorance, I decided to send this person who I thought was Martin Sheen a compliment.  Here’s how it looked:

Me:  “Two Cathedrals” [the acclaimed second season finale of TWW] was a masterpiece of writing, directing and especially acting.  Thank you for it.

Fake Martin Sheen responded within a few minutes.

Fakey-McFake-Fake:  @thegrahammilne Two Cathedrals was great.  I love the cameo by @Lawrence O’Donnell, who if you didn’t know also wrote for the show.

Here’s where I then go off the rails into nuttery, thinking I’m impressing “the man”:

Me:  He was great!  I believe he also wrote that wonderful scene for you and Alan Alda over ice cream in “In God We Trust.”

Sheesh.  You can practically hear the girlish giggles.  It’s not great, but it would have been not quite so egregious had whoever this person is actually been the real Martin Sheen.  Turns out not only is he not, but the real Emilio Estevez (@EMILIOTHEWAY, which does have the damn blue checkmark) has been waging a Twitter war with this impostor trying to get him to stop pretending to be dear old dad.  Something I would have realized had I been a little more studious in reading the Big Faker’s entire twitterstream.

But it got me thinking as to why someone would choose to do this.  Why they’d put themselves out there pretending to be someone else and continue to maintain the lie even when challenged by someone with an emotional connection to the real person.  Yes, I know all about internet trolling.  I just don’t quite see what the appeal is, other than the “lulz.”  This lulz of yours confuses and enrages me, to quote LrrrMaybe making other people feel like idiots is really what gets some individuals’ rocks off.  I just can’t help thinking it’s a terribly transitory and lonely sense of gratification.  Big laugh followed by an equally large hollowness.

Right now, I have about 40 Twitter followers on any given day.  It tends to bounce up and down around that mark as new people follow me, decide I have nothing interesting to say and then disappear.  Were the grand scheme of Twitterati likened to the scale of the solar system, Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber would be the sun and I’d probably be a few notches past the termination shock (look it up).  But I’d rather have these 40 than the 3,300-odd that Fakerooney has conned into thinking he’s Ramon Estevez Sr.  Because I know they’re here for me – what I am saying as myself and not false sentiments I’m forcing from someone else’s mouth.  I’m not leeching off anybody else’s fame – my successes and failures are entirely my own from here on out, wherever this ends up leading.

And I (me, the real Graham Milne) think that’s pretty cool.  Or, put another way, pathetically hipster.  But I’ll stick with the former.

What’s next?

I am born

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, etcetera and so on.  Probably doesn’t do much good to start out with blatant plagiarism.  Then again, Charles Dickens (that’s Dikkens with two K’s, the well-known Dutch author) has been dead for 150 years so maybe no one will notice.  Unless Phil Dickens, his great-great-great-grandson, has a penchant for surfing obscure, just-started blogs for kicks.  But as I understand copyright law (a level of comprehension sandwiched somewhere between “layman” and “utter ignoramus”), I think I might be okay.

Look at this – a brand new blog, born on the fourth of July!  Aw, crap, there’s the phone, it’s Ron Kovic’s lawyer.  Yes, sorry about that.  Birthed on the 27th last day of the seventh month, is that better?  I suppose this riff on infringement and plagiarism is a roundabout way to ask if the world needs another blog.  According to the Great Encyclopedia of Earthly Knowledge (G.E.E.K., better known to you as Wikipedia) there are 156 million blogs on this planet.  156 million and change variably informed people holding court about politics, religion, celebrities, recipes, their damn kids, the history of Romanian cabinet making and just about any other esoteric topic you can think of (see “Long Tail of Media, The”).  What could I possibly contribute other than the merest infinitesimal escalation of the background noise?

More to the point, what is it about the internet that compels otherwise reserved people to spew their ramblings into the void of cyberspace?  I’m reminded of Voyager 2, which has been flying through space since the late 70’s on its way out of our solar system.  This tiny hunk of metal, at latest report over 13 light-hours from earth, still sending streams of data back to its masters on the blue speck out there in the darkness, and continuing to do so until its power trickles down to nothing in the next 13 years.  Crying out even though no one may be listening.  That’s your blogger in a nutshell.  If you’re lucky, somebody who’s interested picks up the transmission.

What it’s really about is the exchange of ideas.  But to get started with that, I’ve gotta put my ideas out there.  And I have more than a few to share.  If you read something of mine that makes you smile, makes you think, makes you punch through the screen screaming “fffffffffuuuuuu,” then something worthy has been achieved.  (Maybe not the latter so much – you might think I owe you a new monitor.)  What you can expect – my declaration of principles as it were – is my three H’s – honesty, heart and hope.

So let’s see where we go with this thing and what we find along the way.  And feel free to let me know how I’m doing.  If you like what you find here, or if you just think I’m an utterly pretentious douche, say so.  It’s the only way I’ll learn.

Namaste and welcome aboard,