Han

"It's a state of mind. Of soul, really."

Overwhelmed is a good way to describe myself after yesterday, and yet, even that somewhat hyperbolic word seems strangely inadequate.  I am so deeply moved and touched by the response to my post about my father – some of the comments left by friends and strangers quite literally brought forth tears.  And that is all my Dad, proving that what I said yesterday is true, that even twenty-five years gone he retains the ability to move and inspire everyone he touches.

Some of you shared your own inspiring stories of your parents, and of your own losses.  I think it’s important to remember in times like these that which connects us all as members of the human race; our emotions.  In our darkest and our brightest moments, we all feel the same way.  We can look at someone who is suffering and understand the depth of their pain.  More than that, we can share in our joy and celebrate mutual triumphs.  We can feel so alone in this vast universe, and yet we never are.  We have each other.  We will always have each other.  A man who was equal parts president and philosopher, John F. Kennedy, said that “we all inhabit this small planet; we all breathe the same air, we all cherish our children’s futures, and we are all mortal.”  The possibility of our greatness is tied to our capacity for empathy, the knowledge of and the desire to do good, not out of a wish for personal gain, but because we know that it is right, and that the mere doing of good makes us all better.

There is a Korean word, han, which first came to my attention when it was used on an episode of The West Wing.  There is no English translation, but it was described on the show as “A sadness so deep no tears will come, and yet still there’s hope.”  I’m not sure if I’m using it here exactly in the way a native Korean would, but for my own purposes, it captures my state of mind this morning in a way that overwhelmed does not.  I still mourn my late father, but I am lifted, given great hope indeed, by the supportive thoughts of friends, family and strangers; the great tapestry of emotional connection that binds us all in a universal truth.  Maybe that’s a lesson to take from this experience, is that even in the depths of despair, there is always hope.  And we need not look far to find it.  It’s in me; it’s in you.  It’s in us.  It is us.

Twenty Five

Nothing can prepare you for the news that your father is gone.  It doesn’t matter if it’s expected, the inevitable conclusion of a long terminal illness, or sudden, like the turn of a page.  You are spending the afternoon in the snow with your friends when someone comes to you and tells you to be brave.  And then they lead you to a room where your mother is sitting, her face the picture of devastation.  There is no easy way to tell you, but she tries to ease into it as smoothly as she can – mindful of the fragile heart of an eleven-year-old boy.  The fateful words come.  “I’m afraid he died.”  The rest of the moment is lost in a torrent of sudden tears wailed into her arms.  It can’t be, you think in the spaces between the sobs.  Not him.  Not my dad.

That boy was me, twenty-five years ago this afternoon.  More than any other day, February 12th, 1987 has shaped who I have become, because it was the day I lost my best friend in the world, the man I admired above all others.  He was everything I ever wanted to be, a legacy to which I still aspire, and if I live another sixty years and achieve half of what he did I can leave this life content with how I’ve used my precious time on this little rock.  Was he a famous man, an influential man, a man of letters or worldwide renown?  Google his name if you want; you won’t get any hits.  But that doesn’t matter to me.  My father remains the ideal of what it means to be a man.  Without his guidance this past quarter-century I have looked to other mentors from time to time and each has come up a distant second (and occasionally further back even than that) through no fault of their own.  They’re just not and will never be my father.  Growing up without your dad is a bit like trying to canoe on your own against a heavy wind.  Without him in the stern guiding you with his steady paddle, you’re often blown far off course and will struggle to find your way back – perhaps never.

My father never judged me.  He never forced me in a direction I didn’t want to go.  When I was abjectly miserable following my first-ever hockey practice, humiliated by kids who were bigger and better at it, he told me I didn’t have to go back.  And yet he wasn’t a coddler or a helicopter father.  In the junior soccer league in which I played, it was something of a running joke that it was customary for the coach’s son to win the Most Valuable Player Award every year – predictable nepotism from showbiz dads convinced their kid was the next Beckham (or Pele, if we’re using a decade-appropriate reference).  But not the year my dad coached my team.  He wasn’t going to give me something I hadn’t earned.  I got Most Improved Player – because despite my total lack of athletic skill, I worked incredibly hard, suffering skinned knees and bruised shins, for him.  (Most Injured Player would have been more apt.)  Making him proud was more than enough for me.  An interesting aside to this story is, that year our team lost every single game except the three my father wasn’t able to attend.  My teammates begged him not to come to the championships.  He did regardless – and we won the whole blessed thing.  I still have the trophy.

Dad taught me baseball, he taught me to ski, he taught me to love the Beatles.  Where other kids recited “Old McDonald Had a Farm,” I sang “Norwegian Wood” to perplexed relatives and he beamed.  I laughed at his inability to decipher song lyrics and the comical nonsense words he came up with instead.  I watched my cousin tear up on her sixteenth birthday as she listened to the playlist of 50’s jukebox classics he had assembled for her big day.  I watched his delight at the smile on my face as I tore open the newest box of space Lego.  I watched him shrug off with a smile the time I embarrassed him in front of our entire church congregation.  He had a rare capability to spread joy, and he did so whenever the opportunity arose.  He could befriend complete strangers in minutes.  You could not walk down the main street of our home town with him without running into someone he knew.  And you always got the sense that everyone he did know, whether casually or intimately, cared deeply about him as well.  He had that effect on people.  When I was struggling with bullies or simply trying to figure out my place in the world, his arm around my shoulder assured me that everything was going to be okay, because he had my back.  No matter how dark the night, the voice of my father was the light.  One of his last gifts to me was in the early stages of my figuring out that I wanted to write.  On weekends, or in the summer, he’d take me to his office and park me in front of the old Xerox computer with its floppy discs the size of pizza boxes and encourage me to type and just dream.

The last time I saw him, he wasn’t feeling well.  He’d taken the morning off and was still in bed as I got ready to head off to an overnight stay with my weekly enrichment class at a nature park a few hours north of us.  I went into the bedroom to say goodbye, never imagining this would be our last moment together.  I gave him a kiss on the forehead and said I would see him in a few days.  When I saw him those few days later he was lying silent and cold on a table in the funeral home.  And I still expected him to open his eyes and look at me and smile, and tell me that it would be all right.  It felt like we had so much left to do together.  The Blue Jays were going to be starting a new season in a few months and there was a new Bond movie coming out in July that he’d promised me he’d take me to see.  Wake up, Dad.  I still need you.

For twenty-five years there has been a father-shaped hole in my life; I have lived far longer without him than I did with him.  I am only five years younger now than he was when he died, and not a day passes that I don’t think of him, and miss him.  I reflect on some of the disastrous decisions I’ve made in my life and think if he had been here, maybe he could have steered me away from those rocks and shoals.  Age has made me look more like him too; there are moments when I see pictures of myself now and shiver a little at the uncanny resemblance.  I have felt for much of my life like a mere echo of his voice, my path ever uncertain, every step of the way wondering what he would think of the choices I’ve made, if I have lived up to the example he laid down in his too-brief journey.  I am not really a spiritual person, but I feel the same longing to be able to ask the absent Father if I am all that I am meant to be.  If I am worthy of his name and of his love.  I feel it so acutely of late, like a needle twisting in my heart, and today most of all.  I want to hear him say he’s proud of me.  That’s all I’ve ever asked.  It is all the validation I’ll ever need.

After my mother passed away several years later, we had a small ceremony to place her ashes with his.  As we left the cemetery, a pair of geese from a nearby hill took off and soared away into the sky.  The timing was eerily serendipitous; it was almost as if they were together again now, reunited in a new life and heading off to adventures bold.  One could even imagine that they were bidding me a last goodbye, secure that they had done all they could and were letting me go now to face the challenges of the future with the strength and the values they had instilled in me.  Values of kindness, respect, compassion, empathy and love.  Everything I am I owe to them, and through the sadness, I feel gratitude.  I wish I could tell them that.  I wish I could toss the ball around in the backyard with Dad and complain about the lack of depth in the Jays’ pitching staff and ask him what he thinks of Daniel Craig as James Bond.  I wish I could introduce him to my beautiful wife and listen to them sing together – they’d sound terrific, I’m sure.  As amazing as my wedding was, Dad leading the guests in a round of “Yes, We Have No Bananas” with half the words wrong would have made it even more memorable.

There is an old saying that a candle that burns half as long burns twice as bright; I have to believe that in the eleven short years I had with my father we burned brightly indeed, and that we loved each other as much as a father and son could.  Perhaps I don’t have his counsel anymore, or his arm around my shoulder on those darkest days, but I have the life he gave me, and the road ahead that is his greatest possible bequest.  I don’t think I’ll ever stop missing my dad, but when I get up tomorrow and start my twenty-sixth year without him I will try to carry the best parts of who he was through all the rest of my days, and live the life he would have wanted for me.  And I hope that’s tribute enough.

I love you, Dad.

Blain William Milne

1945-1987

The future ain’t what it used to be

It’s 2012 – wondering where the flying cars are?  The way some people drive, maybe it’s not a bad thing Ford hasn’t rolled them off the production line yet.  But as a fan of science fiction from a young age, a passionate supporter of space exploration from around the same time and a gazer at the stars from long before that, I kind of expected the future to be, well, a little more futuristic.  I’d hate to think that all those classic movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey lied to me, and yet, as 2001 came and went we weren’t boldly voyaging to Jupiter and beyond, we were mired in terrestrial disputes, our feet welded to the ground by political infighting, war, terrorism and relentless media-induced fear.  The words of Robert F. Kennedy come to mind:  “Some men look at things the way they are and say why; I dream of things that never were and say why not?”  Somewhere along the line we, collectively, stopped dreaming of things that never were and became coddled by advances in technology that heighten only the convenience of life, not its quality.  Probably the greatest step forward in the last ten years has been anything produced by Apple, and yet, really, a portable Justin Bieber catalogue isn’t exactly the sort of thing Jules Verne would have envisioned as a quantum leap.  We still get from place to place, basically, on 19th Century engines – they are faster and sleeker but the principle is the same one that propelled your great-grandfather’s old jalopy down Main Street when it was a dirt road with horse hitching posts along the sidewalks.  As Leo McGarry opined on The West Wing, “where’s my jetpack?”  Forget that – I want my damn Back to the Future Part II Mattel hoverboard.

I laud the advances we’ve achieved in communication, this forum being one of them.  What concerns me is that we are moving towards a point in our existence where we may have very little of substance to communicate about.  Human beings are needy creatures – we are forever craving stimulation to make us productive.  From adversity comes advancement.  But what happens when life is so easy, so crammed with distraction, that challenge is all but forgotten?  Look at the difference in a little over half a century – after Pearl Harbor, Americans banded together to enlist, volunteer, ration, buy bonds, collect scrap metal, anything that could be done to assist in the war effort.  Contrast that to the post-9/11 era where the President told his people that the best thing they could do to help their country was to go shopping.  Rosie the Riveter?  Nope, Penny the Power Purchaser.  And why?  Because it’s easier.  It’s yet another distraction, an erosion of altruism for self-interest über alles.  Surrounded by distractions, we do not think.  We forget about the whole and focus on the pleasure of the one.  These mass-produced trinkets are fun, but they fill the one empty space that should be uniquely our own – our imagination.  They saturate it so completely that we don’t think we are lacking for anything anymore, and thus, we are no longer compelled to create.

I am a victim of this myself.  When I was first living on my own, I had only an old computer with no Internet capability, let alone access.  I wrote constantly, generating screenplay after screenplay, thousands of pages of would-be novels.  Without distraction, I could focus on creation.  Then one day I decided to buy a Nintendo 64.  And who wanted to stare at a blank screen and flashing cursor anymore when there were so many goombas for Mario to jump on and so many princesses to save from castle dungeons?  My imagination took a huge hit and I don’t think it has ever completely recovered.  To this day I prefer surfing through a few favourite sites and catching up on the latest show business news over writing something of my own nine times out of ten.  I’ve been prolific here lately because I’m really forcing myself.  But it’s not easy.  The lethargic soul is a persistent enemy forever at the gates.  And he seems tragically immortal.

Primitive computers with barely the memory of today’s pocket calculator helped land men on the moon and return them safely to Earth.  That was in 1969.  2001: A Space Odyssey came out a year earlier, and given the pace at which things were happening then, it seemed a reasonable prediction – barring the unforeseen bankruptcy of Pan Am – of what our lives could be like as the 21st Century dawned.  Instead, HAL 9000 is the iPhone 4S, and the moon seems further away than ever.  But goshdarnit all, I’ve got 100,000 songs in a little gizmo a third the size of my wallet.  Is this what RFK had in mind when he was dreaming of things that never were?  Is this what Stanley Kubrick expected?  Is this what Aristotle, Copernicus, Leonardo or Galileo would have wanted?  Full seasons of Fear Factor streaming to my HDTV on Netflix?  Snooki with a million Twitter followers?

The capacity of what humanity can do with imagination and hard work is limitless.  But we have to force ourselves to look up from the screen and back at the stars again.  Because although they’ll be there forever, we won’t be, and I’d rather not see the ability to download Jackass 3-D at lightspeed as our civilization’s greatest lasting legacy.

Tears in rain

Memory is a curious thing.  It is not the same trait as intellect; many of the world’s smartest people can’t remember where they left their car keys.  The most frustrating aspect of memory for those of us who don’t have the gift – apart from the headaches it causes those who live with us – is the failure of our brains to act like reliable nth-terabyte hard drives from which we can instantly access any desired thought as simply as double-clicking a mouse.  This can be particularly intimidating when attempting to participate in a conversation where your friends are sharing detailed recollections of events that happened twenty, thirty years ago, recounting every sound, every smell, every syllable of dialogue.  You feel lesser somehow.  Incomplete.  As we grow older, and friends and family fall away either through distance or the tragedy of passing, the reserves from which we can draw the history of our lives begin to dry up.  Without a reliable memory to keep the flame alight, it can lead you to feel like a part of you is missing – that like in Blade Runner, it has been “lost in time, like tears in rain.”  I’m envious of those who have had the foresight to keep diaries from a young age.  Like saving for retirement, there are innumerable advantages to starting sooner rather than later.  (If only there had been a version of WordPress for my old Commodore VIC-20.)

It’s been said that an unexamined life is not worth living, and how else can we examine that life without our memories to draw upon?  At the same time, one is forced to ask whether the sum worth of a person’s existence is the breadth of the memory he carries, or the impact he has left on the outside world – in a sense, the memories others have of him.  We must each arrive at a point in our histories where we question whether we have done enough with the life we have been given, if we have experienced, tasted enough of the richness that is our universe.  What is it about our memories that makes us walk taller than the others who share the street with us?  Are memories truly the building blocks – the only building blocks – of the soul?  The end of Blade Runner is one of the most poetic expressions of this question.  Nearing the last minutes of his four-year lifespan, the replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) engages in a cat-and-mouse chase with Deckard (Harrison Ford), the man assigned to hunt him down and kill him.  As Deckard is about to fall to his death from the side of a building, Batty unexpectedly reaches out and saves his life.  Sitting quietly together with his adversary as his final seconds tick down, Batty recounts some of the wonders he has seen and mourns their passing.  Up to this point the entire film has posed the question of what it is to have a soul, whether or not it matters if the components of that soul are electronic or organic.  The replicants – the androids – show empathy for one another, feel fear, anger and sadness, while the humans are cold, relentless killers:  Deckard at one point shoots an unarmed female replicant in the back twice as she flees half-naked through the streets.  Batty’s final act of pure compassion toward the man who was sent to destroy him seems to suggest – notwithstanding his lament for his lost memories – that the soul is found in the actions, not the recollections.  Not what we bring to the game of life, but how we play it.  Perhaps that explains Batty’s wry smile as he whispers “Time to die” and his head sinks in the silence of the falling rain.

Whether we remember them or not, our memories have played a part in shaping our evolution as people, directing our choices based on past experience, the recollection of what works and what doesn’t.  But they are not the definition of who we are.  We exist in four dimensions and our future actions are as important to the overall portrait of us as what we have done in every second of existence leading to this point.  The key difference is that the future is still under our control, the way our pasts and our memories never will be.  We can choose to remember things a certain way, but that does not change how they happened.  Each new moment brings with it limitless opportunity to forge a new and bolder path, to create a lasting legacy – a complete soul – whose every minute detail you won’t need to remember, because the evidence of it will be all around you wherever you go.  Never to be lost like tears in rain.

Laudantium Duo Cathedrales

"Have I displeased you, you feckless thug?"

A review I found of The Grey recently (not mine) pointed out that it’s not often we see poetry in the movies.  Nor are we likely to find it on television, particularly when there is after all so much donkey semen to be consumed, and so much ritual humiliation to be suffered, in pursuit of cash and prizes.  In a way though, it’s not really surprising.  The production of episodic television can best be likened to a meat grinder churning through product ever faster.  Compromises are the order of the day to meet the schedule; creativity takes a distant back seat to speed.  Poetry, by contrast, is meditative and contemplative – it takes time and care to compose, and even more time to read and reflect upon.  That is why the rare occasion one does come across televised poetry is such a gift.  James Lipton called The West Wing‘s “Two Cathedrals” the finest hour of television ever produced, and I’m inclined to agree.  Written by series creator Aaron Sorkin with his usual brilliance and flair, it is an allegorical story of Job, a story of a man, the President of the United States – ostensibly the most powerful man in the world – whose faith is tested to its limits.  A man who is forced to confront his innermost demons, who is pushed to the edge, to breaking, and finds solace and strength once more to stand against the coming storm.  A story of the true bravery of which human beings are uniquely capable.

The setting:  The White House.  As re-election looms, President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) is about to reveal to the world that he has multiple sclerosis and did not disclose it during his first run for high office.  His beloved long-time secretary and confidante Mrs. Dolores Landingham has just been killed in a car crash.  Tragedies and misfortunes pile on and the President finds himself questioning what he sees as God’s plan, wondering if God is, in fact, merely a feckless thug.  In a series of flashbacks we see young Jed demeaned by an imposing, small-minded father who seems to resent his son’s very existence.  When the President curses God in Latin (“Cruciatus in crucem – eas in crucem”) and crushes out a cigarette on the floor of Washington’s National Cathedral, he is rebelling against God and his father as one.  He has sunk to his lowest and is resigned to defeat, advising his staff he does not intend to seek re-election.  An hour before a press conference at which he plans to announce the same to the world, Bartlet sits quietly in the Oval Office, preparing himself for the grand humiliation to come – when suddenly the door is blown open by the wind and his conscience reasserts itself.  In the form of a conversation with an imagined Mrs. Landingham, Jed reminds himself – through the voice of his departed mentor and friend – that the fight is worth the struggle, that he is in a unique position to help so many faceless people, and he cannot and will not be undone by the failings of the father.  He walks outside, and as the haunting guitar of Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms” starts up, Bartlet is baptized by the driving rain.  At the press conference, he throws away the script and invites the question of whether he intends to run again.  It’s established earlier on that when Jed has made up his mind, he smiles and puts his hands in his pockets.  Without speaking, he does so again, and his journey is complete.  He has descended to the depths, walked through the fire, and emerged whole and greater.

One cannot watch the episode without feeling a similar lift, regardless of whether or not one is a person of faith – and that, to me, is one of the triumphs of “Two Cathedrals.”  The allegory of God/father vs. Jesus/son is plain, but it is handled so delicately that even though the underlying themes of the episode are highly religious, it does not come across as a sermon, but rather a paean to the faith a single human being can have in himself, and the ability to overcome any amount of doubt in order to do what is morally right.  There will likely be a time in every man’s life when he looks to the image of his own father and questions why he is here, or what purpose, if any, his suffering must serve, very much as Jesus on the cross cried toward heaven asking why his father had forsaken him.  It is the paradigm of the relationship between a father and a son.  The clarity and certainty Bartlet finds as he stands in the rain is to be admired, and in many ways, to be envied as well.  We should all be so lucky to understand ourselves and our place here on earth.  Where “Two Cathedrals” helps is in throwing down the challenge, forcing us to ask the question – one of the most terrifying any man can ask, because the answer can truly shape the rest of his life.  It can come to define the limits of who he is and everything he will ever be.  That is more than mere poetry – it is the essence of truth.

Of Dickens and dancing

One is known for penetrating insight into the human condition, the other for a sublime figure and captivating dance moves. If you think you know which is which, you obviously never saw Dickens do a tango.

February 7, 2012, is the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens.  The best of times, or the worst of times?  One wonders if Dickens, who died thirty years before the turn of the 20th Century, would be pleased to know that his stories and characters are remembered well into an era he could not have conceived, yet arguably might have found a home in.  You don’t have to have read his entire catalogue, or even a single volume of his works to know names like Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Nicholas Nickleby, the Artful Dodger, Miss Havisham, Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay, and perhaps most notably, Jacob Marley, Tiny Tim and Ebenezer Scrooge.  As I’ve observed before, how we celebrate Christmas today is largely the result of how Dickens portrayed it.  Dickensian is a familiar adjective that conjures immediately an idealized image of the grand old city of London, his everlasting muse.  Stylistically, Dickens was a master of character, an expert wielder of the cliffhanger.  Socially, he was a champion of the poor, an advocate of justice and a relentless believer in the capability of good to triumph over evil.  Story was his sword, and with it he carved himself a legacy still seen in the most popular fiction of today – particularly that which celebrates the underdog and his fight against overwhelming odds.

The romanticism of the Dickensian tale resonates to this day, I believe, because he recognized that we all crave that same heightened sense of adventure in our own lives.  Edyta Śliwińska of Dancing with the Stars fame, in discussing the various failed relationships that had sprung up between celebrities and partners during the course of the show, cannily observed their failure to know the difference between intense attraction and a lasting emotional connection – the mistaking, as it were, of movie love for real love.  Fictional romances, whether on the screen or in printed pages, are a powerful narcotic because of their savvy manipulation of the universality of emotions.  We want to be swept off our feet in slow motion to the swell of orchestral strings and walk into the sunset of the happily ever after.  It is not that our real lives are less interesting – far from it when closely examined – but we are drawn in by the heightened and artificial reality of the story.  The natural ebbs and flows of relationships are compressed into 90 minutes, the sweet moments escalated into diabetic fits of ecstasy.  In the story you don’t see the sitting up at three a.m. worrying while your partner squats noisily on the toilet, and any screaming matches usually only happen in the last third of the second act; once the screen goes to black and the credits roll, all is right in the world forever and evermore.  Real love is messy, and angry, and hurtful, even hateful at times.  But it is real, and unlike the movie, it is lasting.

Why then, do we still want the storybook version?  It is perhaps a gut reaction to the madness of the world outside, an existential search for meaning in the face of suffering.  I choose to see it as a case for optimism about the nature of humanity.  Like all of nature’s creatures we are designed for survival at all costs, often by the cruellest methods available to us.  Yet paradoxically we are still drawn toward the positive, the sense of anticipation of the prosperous future.  We hunger for the reassurance of the triumph of good against evil no matter what the stakes, or the cost.  Charles Dickens knew it, and could translate that longing into characters and tales into which we could invest ourselves.  That, I think is the key to Dickens’ lasting appeal – the nurturing of that tiny flame which continues to burn in every human heart, no matter how downtrodden, how wracked with despair at seemingly unending misery.  The longing for the light.  The everlasting sense of hope.

And I’m told he had great legs too.

And now for something completely different – space vampire zombies

No one ever sets out to make a terrible movie.  Ed Wood at his creative peak (or nadir) thought he was doing good work.  It’s hard to believe with what gets released nowadays, films so mind-numbingly awful that you can feel parts of your brain oozing out your ear as vapid dialogue, inept performances and ludicrous stories flicker across the screen in front of you.  But even the worst of the worst feature hundreds of hard-working performers and technicians doing their damnedest to create something memorable, even if their efforts are undermined by bad decisions at the top, or doomed from the start by a flawed story that should have long ago been dissolved in the electronic ether of the Windows Recycle Bin.  Remember, if you hated the Twilight movies, it wasn’t because the key grip or best boy didn’t try hard enough.

Still, there are those in the pantheon of cinema dreck that stand apart because the scale of their absurdity defies comprehension.  You can’t quite dismiss them out of hand.  It almost becomes a question of thinking, “surely they can’t out-weird this” when inevitably, that next moment raises the bar of the bizarre.  Lifeforce (1985), directed by Poltergeist’s Tobe Hooper, is one of those movies.  It is literally a smorgasbord, with not only the kitchen sink, but the refrigerator, the dishwasher and the Easy-Bake oven thrown together and mashed up in the garburator to concoct a diabolical stew that challenges the most experienced reviewers to describe it.  The plot in a bulging nutshell:  A space mission to Halley’s Comet brings back three aliens in suspended animation who wake up and begin sucking the life force out of every person they can find, transforming the population ofLondon into zombies.  The only survivor of the space mission teams up with a jaded SAS colonel to try to find and stop the alien leader, a beautiful woman who spends the majority of the movie wandering around nude.  One could stop there, but as infomercials like to say, “But wait!  There’s more!”

With one major exception, the acting is actually not that bad.  The cast is mostly Brits, who play the material with their trademark understatement, lending the subject matter a smattering of respectability.  Peter Firth, best known for his role on the BBC series MI-5, or as the stuffed-shirt political officer Sean Connery kills in the first ten minutes of The Hunt for Red October, leads the heroes as SAS Colonel Caine, and his wisecracking unflappability even when confronted with soul-draining vampire extra-terrestrials gives the role an unexpected gravitas.  The same goes for Frank Finlay, who plays a scientist obsessed with the idea of life after death and who is saddled with most of the expository dialogue.  The same cannot be said, however, of American actor Steve Railsback as Colonel Tom Carlsen, the man who discovers the vampires in space and becomes obsessed with their shapely leader.  Railsback’s casting smacks of the “well, we can’t get our first twenty-seven choices, who else is left?” approach.  “Oh yeah, the guy who played Charles Manson – he just personifies the spirit of space explorers.”  Railsback chomps on the scenery from moment one, looking like he’s two seconds from snapping and trying to bring on Helter Skelter.  Although in fairness, Olivier in his prime probably couldn’t do much with lines like “I’m going to have to force her to tell me!  Despite appearances, this woman is a masochist!”  Patrick Stewart – yes, that Patrick Stewart – has his first-ever screen kiss with Railsback while his character is possessed by the space girl.  The space girl herself, the embodiment – literally – of evil in this movie, is played by French actress Mathilda May.  Her performance leaves nothing to the imagination.  It’s all there to experience in glistening glory as she wanders around in her birthday suit, silently consuming souls and blowing up buildings.  She is stunningly, seductively beautiful and yet otherworldly, making her a perfect alien and creating an indelible impression – one that may have assisted a lot of boys as they struggled with puberty, but didn’t necessarily assist her acting career.  John Larroquette of Night Court fame appears in the first minute, uncredited, as the narrator setting the stage for the lunacy.  And Mick Jagger’s brother Chris plays one of the space girl’s partners-in-life-sucking-crime, investing some unintentional double-entendre in the latter-day phrase “Moves like Jagger.”

For 1985, the special effects are serviceable, if not Star Wars.  The makeup effects for the zombies are pretty cool, but Halley’s Comet looks like banana pudding smeared across the sky.  The musical score, on the other hand, is better than the movie deserves – somehow Henry Mancini, of Charade, The Pink Panther and Breakfast at Tiffany’s “Moon River” renown, was coerced into providing his services to this weirded-out apocalyptic extravaganza and creates a driving, memorable main theme.  I’d mention the screenwriters, but whoever typed the line “The web of destiny carries your blood and soul back to the genesis of my lifeform” probably prefers to remain anonymous.  There is, truly, a lot of real talent at work here, and they were obviously trying hard, but the resulting flame-out is utterly spectacular, like the grandest NASCAR crashes.  That’s the thing – perhaps after this preamble you’ll be tempted to check Lifeforce out.  Be warned – this review shouldn’t be taken as a recommendation, more like a war story from someone who survived it by the skin of his teeth.  Lifeforce, like its villains, tends to infect those who come into contact with it with a strange fascination that is neither love nor loathing, but rather a continuing obsession with trying to process what the hell it is we’ve seen – searching vainly for logic where none is to be found.  So my final word on Lifeforce is this – abandon all hope, ye who enter here.  You won’t be able to take your eyes off it, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.

Fun with words: Fry’s Theorem

As regular readers know, I love the peculiarities – the quirks, as it were, of the English language.  Because to me, English is a bottomless trove of enigmas, a linguistic vein to be mined in endless permutations.  Creatively, it remains an invaluable resource, for if you are ever short on inspiration, you need only dive into its well to uncover a fresh helping of treasure.  Do not fear that bane known as writer’s block.  English will always be there when you need her.  Finding the creative impetus again can begin with something as small as the shape of a single word.

Glance if you will at the following sentence.  “Hold the newsreader’s nose squarely, waiter, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers.”  I borrowed it from a classic episode of A Bit of Fry & Laurie, a sketch involving Stephen and Hugh discussing the infinite capacity and flexibility of English.  Just ponder for a second the absurdity of that phrase and how it could only belong to the Queen’s grand old tongue.  Keeping in mind of course that other languages can be arranged in their own nonsensical combinations, Fry’s main argument – delivered in his unique style – is that because of the dexterity of English, one can speak such absurdities in the certainty that they have never been uttered before by anyone in the history of language itself.  Language is capable of so much more than we realize.  Much like the oft-repeated factoid that humans only use 10% of their brains, in our regular conversations we use only a fraction of language’s potential.  No wonder why dialogue with one another can often feel so stilted, so underwhelming.  Our reluctance to exploit the potential of language to its greatest extent is one of our many failings.  Perhaps it’s worth taking a step back and thinking about how we converse with each other, and whether we are truly saying all we can say.  Quite possibly, those word-a-day calendars are really on to something.

Realistically, though, one has to wonder if we are an evolutionary downslope when it comes to how we speak to one another.  Slang is a far-too-easy layman’s recourse when our brain’s thesaurus fails to measure up.  Textspeak is another, and to a linguist like Stephen Fry must represent a true collapse of imagination, his well-documented love of technology to the contrary.  Ultimately the best approach on an individual basis is to set a good example, and hope that others may rise to the challenge.  Very likely some may dismiss this as elitism or worse, snobbery.  Whether or not they do is no reason why we shouldn’t still try to raise the game.  Xenophobia, or more precisely the fear of strangers’ reactions, certainly isn’t, in my mind, a compelling argument against it.

You may have noticed, if you are reading astutely, a particular quirk with this post, and you’re invited to submit your best guess as to what it is in the comments.  Zillions of imaginary happy points to the winner!

Guest post: The Cat’s Meow

My better half is very critical of her writing skills.  I’m not entirely sure why.  She has a natural, friendly style that is earnest and highly readable, and she can get her message across without sounding as long-winded as another unmentioned member of her immediate family (blush).  I try to be as encouraging as I can, but my compliments don’t seem to be sticking.  So today I’m going behind her back a little bit and offering a sample of her prose for your enjoyment.  From the end of this paragraph, all remaining words in this post are hers.  Hope you like it – I know I do.

When a person is speaking of something that they think is really great, they sometimes refer to it as “the cat’s meow.”  So I took it upon myself to do a bit of research to see if I could discover where exactly this phrase comes from.  Most sources seem to indicate that it originated in the 1920′s when flappers and other hipsters used “cat” to refer to ideas that were too cool for words.  In addition to “the cat’s meow” there was the “cool cat” or “hep cat” and “the cat’s pajamas” (although this one I will never understand since I have yet to see a cat lying around in a flannel nightie).  But I must say that lately, I do not consider my cat’s meow to be anything other than highly annoying.

It was a little over 8 years ago, when I innocently went to the Humane Society one day with my sister so she could pick up an application to volunteer.  I had a few minutes to kill while waiting for her to collect the proper paperwork, so I ventured into the “Cat Room.”  The walls were lined with cages containing cats of many colours, shapes and sizes.  Some of them paced back and forth as I walked by meowing loudly, saying, “Look at me, I am stunning.  You will not find a more beautiful cat than me”  Others slept in curled up balls and simply opened one eye as they heard me pass, deciding I was not worth waking up for.  And then, as I shuffled past one cage in the middle of the room, this pretty little gray creature slowly walked up to the front of the cage and tilted her head, looking at me as if she thought she knew me from somewhere.  She moved a little closer and stretched up on her hind legs, inviting me to bring my face a little closer to hers.  As I did so, she reached her two front paws out through the bars of the cage and gently touched my cheeks.  That was it, I was a goner.  I immediately surrendered to Muffins, a dilute tortoiseshell of about 11 years old at the time, and we headed off to start our new life together.

Now, by all accounts, Muffins is a great cat.  She’s clean, well-behaved and she loves to make new friends, as long as they are of the two-legged kind (other cats and dogs just will not do).  And she is affectionate – well, that is to say she loves attention.  In fact, she demands it on a regular basis.  And it used to be that she would simply rub up against us or park herself on my lap whenever I sat down, expecting some petting or face and ear scratching or even a brushing.  But lately, she has taken to meowing whenever she wants attention.  And I’m not talking about a cute little meow that says “Yoohoo, do you see me?  I’d like a bit of  love if you can spare a couple of minutes.”  No.  I’m talking about a loud, annoying meow that goes on incessantly and says “Hey you, yeah you, it’s been at least 5 minutes since you paid attention to me.  How many times do I have to remind you that your job is to give me all the love and affection I desire, no matter what you may be doing.”  And did I mention that Muffins is an early riser?  Her usual wake up call is around 5:15 am but sometimes she’s had enough beauty rest by 3:00 am and it doesn’t matter to her one bit that my husband and I are trying to sleep.  Oh yes, and she doesn’t believe in weekends!

Perhaps, like humans as we enter our senior years, she is having trouble sleeping through the night.  We’ve tried being understanding and waking up briefly to appease her with a few quick pets. But that was not enough for her.  Then we tried ignoring her which only led to her amping up her performance by taking it from just pacing the floor of our bedroom, to jumping up on the bed and pacing across our bodies. So it was time for tough love.  When the meowing started, out of the bedroom she went and the door was closed behind her.  End of discussion.

But neither one of us wanted to be the bad guy.  After all, she’s part of the family.  How can we banish her from the room when she loves us so much and just wants to be close to us?  What if she’s lonely when she’s put out in the hall?  She is getting older, so who knows how much time we have left with her.

So, what next?  Well, after a great deal of thought, I realize that the answer is simple.  I mean, who are we kidding?  Do we really think we can put our foot down now after years of giving in to her every whim.  It is us, after all, that created this mess.  We’ve taught her that all she has to do is turn on the cute a little bit and she can have whatever she wants.  We have no one to blame but ourselves.  This will all be resolved if we just accept who is really in charge in our house.

Meow.

An aggravating post

As I’ve discussed before, language, and particularly the English language, is in continuous motion.  While I’m all in favour of conjuring new words and phrases as our little rock spins silently around its mother sun, I’m not so keen on the ongoing mangling of the lexicon we already have.  What is most frustrating is how much of this misuse becomes societally acceptable and adopted into common parlance.  One grating example, timely with the summer Olympics unfolding in London later this year, is the transformation of the word “medal” into a verb.  As in, “the Canadian team is poised to medal in the fifth race,” when the proper phrasing would be “the Canadian team is poised to win a medal in the fifth race.”  I first encountered this malapropism during the broadcast of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and, though it was pointed out at the time as incorrect, to my chagrin “medal-as-a-verb” managed to infect all subsequent television coverage of Olympic events.  I can’t quite figure out why this usage arose – were the colour commentators simply too lazy to say two syllables, “win a,” or was it a conscious decision to remove the element of competition from this, you know, athletic competition?  Like how they now always say “And the Oscar goes to,” instead of “And the winner is,” because being nominated alone is supposedly enough of a win.  (Tell that to the runner-up in every election in history.)  The endgame of this will be, of course, the use of the individual medal colours as verbs.  “Schmidt silvered in the downhill yesterday, this is a disappointment from when he golded four years ago.”  So the bronzer I buy at the drugstore will, apparently, now help me win Olympic third-place medals.  Perhaps – if I’m competing on Jersey Shore.

I’m really not that much of a grammatical Puritan.  In fact if you go back and read through these 55 posts so far you’re likely to find plenty of split infinitives, dangling modifiers, lapses of British versus American English and even the occasional occurrence of E. Henry Thripshaw’s disease (Google it).  But if there’s a common thread running through everything I write, it is my desire for us to do better as a species – to always aim for the greatest heights.  If we fall short, it shouldn’t be because we didn’t try hard enough.  Which is why the lazy use of language infuriates me – it’s the sign of an unengaged intellect.  I’m not talking about slang, that’s a different category altogether.  I’m more concerned with writing and dramatic presentations that are full of amateur mistakes, from people who should know better.  Few cinematic experiences are as disappointing as watching accomplished Shakespearean performers reciting dialogue that is just plain wrong.  The 90’s Star Trek shows were horrific offenders in this regard.  One episode of The Next Generation had a scene where Captain Picard was talking about the Borg and he said something along the lines of “their entire existence was centered around acquiring cultures and technology.”  Centered around.  So many shows make this mistake.  You can’t center around something.  You can center on it, but not around it.  But even that doesn’t compare to the most egregiously misused word, one that causes my blood pressure to rise several points every time it emerges, like sandpaper against skin, from an actor’s mouth:  Aggravating.

You might be thinking, “What’s wrong with that?  That guy who cut me off on the highway this morning was really aggravating.  My co-worker forgetting to refill the photocopier really aggravates me.”  For the love of Oscar Wilde, no!  What you mean to say is irritating.  Aggravating means to exacerbate, to make something worse, like, “Eating hot peppers aggravates my heartburn.”  If bad drivers or your co-worker’s laziness are getting up your back, it’s irritating you.  I suspect what has happened is that people have latched onto the “gra..ting” part of aggravating and confused it with grating, resulting in this strange substitution of one word for the other.  And, like “medal-as-a-verb,” “aggravating-as-irritating” seems to be finding more and more societal acceptance.  I hear it from the mouths of colleagues, superiors, friends, and in almost all of my favourite TV programs.  I daresay it’s almost a lost cause at this point – but I’m doing my part to try and reclaim its proper meaning, without being that guy who’s smugly correcting everyone else’s grammar.  Otherwise, all the irritation I feel at the misuse of aggravation and its variations will be fruitless stress, and there are much bigger things to worry about.

Like the many other mysteries of English, including why incense can be thought of as calming, while to be incensed is to be utterly outraged.  Then again, that’s what the ad wizards live for.  “Feeling incensed?  Try incense!”

May your day be free of irritation and “aggravation.”