All posts by Graham Milne

My name is Graham, and I am a man of many opinions and talents. On any given day the opinions will exceed the talents by at least a 10:1 ratio. This is my chance to share these observations and thoughts with you. I promise never to be cruel for cruelty's sake and that all snark will be directed only towards richly deserving targets. Because a belly laugh is always more powerful than a hateful scream.

The Winter of Discontent – West Wing Season 5

As I’ve mentioned before, we spent the summer rewatching The West Wing from start to finish.  That marathon ended a few weeks ago and I’ve been neglectful about sharing further thoughts on this epic journey of television drama.  It seems appropriate then to return to the subject on the 45th anniversary of the debut of another classic NBC program some of you may be familiar with – Star Trek.  There is even a touch of synergy to the two in that the only appearance on TWW by a regular member of a Star Trek series cast in fact took place in Season 5.  Think about that for a moment (no running to Wikipedia to check) and I’ll reveal it at the end.

John Wells is no slouch, but even he had to be scratching his head as to how to resolve the conundrum Aaron Sorkin left him in the fourth-season finale, Twenty-Five.  Zoey Bartlet was a hostage to terrorists, President Bartlet had stepped aside and conservative Republican Speaker Glen Allen Walken was now Acting President.  I can picture Wells nursing a scotch, staring at a blank screen with a cursor blinking and hurling a stream of profanity at it.  Equally disorienting is the experience of watching the fifth-season premiere, 7A WF 83429.  The teaser begins with whip-pans, quick cuts, distorted sounds and images (such visual trickery becoming the trademark of director Alex Graves) and the audience desperate for a glimpse of the friends they’ve missed since the end of season 4.  When you do see them finally, they are disheveled, in darkness, as lost as we are without the familiarity of Aaron Sorkin’s keyboard behind the scenes.  Wells did the best he could, and the episode does have some beautiful moments – the ending montage set to Lisa Gerrard’s “Sanvean” in particular – but things just aren’t right.  I said earlier today that watching the post-Sorkin West Wing is like going back to your favorite restaurant, saying hello to your favorite waitress, settling into your usual table, reaching for the menu and finding out they’ve changed chefs.

It’s tough to say for certain, but Sorkin seemed to take great care in ensuring that characters behaved consistently from one episode to the next.  You get the sense in many of the season 5 stories that characters who would habitually go left were being wrenched right (no political pun intended) to serve the demands of the plot.  Would the Leo McGarry who saved Josh Lyman from being fired in the pilot and told him “as long as I’ve got a job, you’ve got a job” in Season 2’s Noel really strip Josh of his legislative portfolio and cut him out of the loop as he did in the three-episode arc that followed Constituency of One?  Would Leo really be willing to walk from Jed’s side to defend some other guy – supposedly his real best friend, whom we’ve never seen or heard about before – in An Khe?  Would the Bartlet administration, who had shown such hope and confidence in NASA in Galileo really become utterly disdainful of them in The Warfare of Genghis Khan?  And how in the name of all that is holy did Congressman Robert Royce of Pennsylvania from Season 3 suddenly become Senate Majority Leader in Jefferson Lives?  (I blame a casting mishap on that one – I’m guessing that the “Majority Leader” character was written with no one in mind, H. Richard Greene was cast before anyone remembered he’d already played this other role, and the character was then named Royce in a bit of retroactive continuity.)  Still, this lack of internal consistency in Season 5, an unfortunate side effect of a dozen writers working on it instead of only one, only adds to the discomfort we feel in watching it.  These people don’t feel like our friends anymore.  They’ve changed, man.

Ultimately, Season 5 was when The West Wing went from masterpiece to just a pretty good show.  And yet there was one standout gem of an episode that just for its 43 minutes made one hope that the magic could be recaptured.  I’m referring of course, to the fake documentary episode Access.  JUST KIDDING!  Heavens no.  That well-meaning misfire is best left forgotten.  I’m referring to Debora Cahn’s award-winning The Supremes.  The elderly liberal Chief Justice is ailing, a young conservative judge on the Supreme Court has died, and the White House is besieged on all sides as they attempt to choose a replacement who can survive the Senate confirmation process.  In what had to have been one of the most expensive guest casts for a single episode of television in history, Glenn Close, William Fichtner, Mitchell Ryan, Milo O’Shea and Star Trek: Voyager‘s Doctor, Robert Picardo, all lend their dramatic talents to what turns out to be a funny, erudite, wholly implausible but inspiring and thoroughly entertaining romp – ending with a scene of standing ovation that we want to join in with.  While the nitpicker in me bemoans the absence of even a mention of Season 1’s Justice Mendoza (with all those other guest stars they surely couldn’t afford Edward James Olmos as well), the episode is a little helping of vindication for those of us who stayed with The West Wing, lending some hope that all was indeed not lost.  Those beloved characters felt like our friends again.

Ironically, Season 5 would be the last time The West Wing would operate as originally intended.  Season 6, which I’ll get into at another time, saw old friends change jobs, new characters enter the picture and the thrust of the show become not the administration of President Bartlet but the race to replace him – with several episodes in the latter half of the season taking place not anywhere near the White House.  For me, the final word on Season 5 – and there could be more, but I’m trying to keep it under 1000 words – is best paraphrased from Toby’s pronouncement on Bartlet’s new Vice-President, Bob Russell.  It wasn’t the best, it wasn’t the worst, it was just what we were stuck with.

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Phase Two

On this, the first day of school, I find myself in reflective mode.  It’s been about a month and a half since I started composing these missives and firing them off into the void of cyberspace as though I were Carl Sagan at Arecibo blasting radio-encoded ones and zeroes at neighboring stars, hoping for a reply.  I daresay my luck has been a little better than Carl’s.  This has been a great experience.  While we’re not changing the world or really doing anything of great cosmic significance, it’s wonderful to see your comments and know that you’re enjoying reading my fractured takes on life – to any writer, that’s the proverbial manna from heaven.

Tomorrow, we’re kicking it up a notch.  I hinted at this a few days ago on Twitter but now the curtain lifts and all shall be revealed.  I’ve been lucky enough to have been chosen by The Toronto Star as one of their “Speak Your Mind” Community Bloggers for the 2011 provincial election.  I’ll be offering commentary specifically on the race to succeed Joyce Savoline as MPP for Burlington.  This is the first race in quite a while where there is no incumbent and while Burlington is traditionally a safe Conservative seat, the local PC riding had some bumps choosing a candidate and as a result, this year all bets are off.  It’s gonna be a lot of fun covering this race and I hope you’ll enjoy reading my updates.  It won’t be all politics all the time of course, I’ll still have lots to say about what’s going on in the rest of the world and plenty of West Wing references for the new readers who found their way here thanks to the awesome Rob Lowe.

In this day and age, writing about politics is difficult without veering over the line into cruel snark.  I have my own beliefs and my own thoughts on the outcome I’d like to see, but I intend to write as fairly and as balanced as I can (unlike a certain U.S. “news” network).  What I want to see is candidates talking up to us, not down; raising the debate, not driving it into the sewer with canned sound-bite, sarcastic answers to complex questions.  I want to see this election as a contest of and for smart people.  If I think someone’s crossed the line, if I think they are trying to cruise into office on a tide of smears, no matter which party they’re in, I’m gonna call them on it.  Above all else, I will remain true to the three principles I outlined in my very first post – humanity, heart and hope.  Our politicians are only partly to blame for the state of the public’s apathy towards government today.  As writers who want to get them engaged again, we have to give them a reason to tune in other than scandals and shouting.  That’s my plan and I’m looking forward to the challenge.  Hope you are too.

Allons-y!

Running, the cruelest of mistresses

What ever should one do when one is awoken by a persnickety feline at quarter after six on a Sunday morning and the wife remains sound asleep?  If one has consumed a bountiful meal of cheese, bread, pasta, chocolate, beer, wine and cake the previous evening, why, the obvious solution is to go for a run.  Sounds a delightful idea, doesn’t it?  To be out in the freshness of a quiet morning, with nothing but nature to accompany you – saturating your lungs with clean, cool air, making your heart race as you pound one sneakered foot in front of the other, feeling the burn in your leg muscles and filling your mind with thoughts of health and renewed energy and vitality.  A veritable paradise.

Except that I hate running.  Hate it hate it hate it.  Loathe it beyond all rational means.  Hold contempt for it equal to that of say, brussel sprouts, Kate Hudson movies and Republicans (okay, maybe that’s too much hyperbole.)  And for some reason I keep doing it.  You read about people who are morbidly obese, recovering drug addicts, cancer survivors or what have you who experience almost religious epiphanies when they first strap on a pair of Nikes and preach at length about the joy of running and how it’s changed their lives.  I’ve been running irregularly for about four years now and I’m still waiting for that lightbulb.  I think about that when I’m panting along, the sweat is pouring off my brow like Niagara-freaking-Falls and my legs are ten seconds from collapsing into piles of jelly.  When am I going to have that moment?  When am I going to start to actually like this?

I don’t think it’s a question of would I like it if it were easier.  Writing can be excruciatingly painful and we’re still going steady after 30 years.  But my ongoing courtship with running feels a bit like picking up a gorgeous woman who is the picture of physical perfection and finding out after dating her for a little while that though the sex might be great, you have absolutely nothing to talk about.  Maybe for some people that’s enough.  I want more.  I want to fall in love with running.  I want to smother it with affection and feel the exhilaration of its caresses as we tear up the road together.  I would love to look back on my life from years ahead and know that I was able to run at least one marathon, once – if nothing else, getting in shape enough to successfully complete a marathon will probably mean looking back on it from the age of 95 rather than 65.  Selfish reason?  Perhaps, but I don’t think I know of anyone who runs for the altruistic aspect of it.

I was in a public relations class once and the ice-breaker exercise on the first day involved figuring out what comic character best represented us.  I was completely stuck for an answer on that one.  When I mentioned it to my wife later that day, she immediately had an answer – Garfield.  Which I suppose is pretty accurate.  I do love sleeping and lasagna and have been known to cough up the occasional furball.  I certainly couldn’t have said The Flash.  But I keep hoping that this is going to be the day.  As I don the dry-fit shirt and the shorts and lace up the cross-trainers, I say this is it.  This will be the day that I’m going to be bounding along with a spring in my step and a song in my heart and everything is going to click.  At that moment I will truly become a runner, and my path will lead me to heretofore unimagined heights of fitness, stamina and confidence.  I’ll be one of those guys with those inspirational stories of salvation through exercise.

But then the alarm goes off, and I snuggle into my comfy pillow and mutter to myself, “I hate Mondays.”

So be it… Jedi.

Although giddy for the release of brand new, high-definition Blu-Ray versions of their favourite films, Star Wars fans were mostly horrified this week to learn that the Jedi Master of the saga of a galaxy far, far away, the relentless tinkerer George Lucas, had ordered some additional digital changes to his babies – the most egregious of which was the dubbing of additional dialogue for Darth Vader during the climactic sequence in Return of the Jedi where he sacrifices himself to save his son.  Where Darth had originally done the deed in silence, he now screams “No.  Nooooo!!!!” as he picks up the evil Emperor and hurls him to his doom.  No less a luminary than actor (and Star Trek star) Simon Pegg took to Twitter to denounce this latest re-edit, and the Internet nearly melted down from the resulting collective fanboy freak-out.  For Wars-ies still miffed by Greedo firing first in the 1997 Special Edition re-cut of A New Hope and the overall existence of Jar Jar Binks, it was one CGI tweak over the line.  With the backlash to the Special Edition changes and the general disappointment in the prequel trilogy still fresh in his mind, it’s a little puzzling why George Lucas would want to go back to that same poisoned well.  Surely the thought of being digitally burned in effigy across millions of chat boards can’t be a comforting thought to anyone, no matter how many billions of dollars they sleep on at night.  But it’s difficult for fans or anyone who’s even aware of the Star Wars phenomenon to remember that Lucas sees Star Wars uniquely and in a different way than anyone else.

Star Wars was made in an era before home video, when special effects could be just okay since they were only designed to be seen once quickly in the theatre, rather than pored over, rewound and scrutinized again on an endless loop – when the audience was meant to be so engrossed in the story they didn’t have time to notice the strings on the spaceship.  We know it as we first saw it, and to us, it was and always has been perfect.  When Lucas looks at it, he remembers only the pain of making it:  the threats from nervous studio executives, the embarrassment of the actors not understanding his dialogue, the frustration of the camera crew and their British union rules, the disappointment of the effects guys wasting money on useless shots, the overall feeling that he was ruining his career.  With that baggage, he hasn’t become emotionally attached to every nuanced moment or every cadence in a bit player’s delivery of their only line of dialogue that has managed to entrench itself in popular culture.  It is his creation, and he sees it with the eye not of a kid playing make-believe lightsaber, but of a craftsman where every compromised choice made under pressure of deadline and lack of resources sticks out like a hangnail on an otherwise relatively satisfactory manicure.  Lucas himself has said that “works of art are never completed, they’re only abandoned.”  It’s the same feeling that for those of us who are aspiring writers leads us to tweak endlessly, thinking that every nip and tuck of text brings us inexorably closer to that critical moment when the manuscript will be “ready” – an undefined day that lingers in an unreachable fog.

In the decades since the first Star Wars, we have entered an era where art has become communal – a shared experience where millions of others can take art, bend it, shape it, smash it to bits and reassemble the pieces, with varying degrees of skill and success.  Aside from the many mainstream Hollywood homages to and ripoffs of Star Wars, there is a Library of Congress’ worth of amateur art and fiction out there that draws inspiration from Lucas’ universe.  Indeed, whatever you are into, chances are someone who didn’t originate it and has no connection with those who did has either written about it, made a video about it, performed a song about it, drawn a picture of it or, eye-rollingly, made porn of it (see “Rule 34 of the Internet”).  We live under the impression that once art has been released, it belongs to everyone.  It is the hope of every artist, no matter how hipster they claim to be, that what they have created will be embraced by a large following.  It truly is a cry into the night hoping for a reply.  The ultimate measure of success then is to affix oneself into the zeitgeist as Lucas has done.  Star Wars has grown beyond him and become a force – pardon the pun – unto itself.  Much as the people of a country react poorly to proposed changes to their centuries-old constitutions, voices rise in anger – mostly in the form of Internet chatter – when George wants to smooth out what he sees as the rough edges in his work.  It doesn’t matter if we think it’s perfect.  He doesn’t, and no amount of anonymous name-calling will change his mind.  As much as we might hate him for “Jedi Rocks” or blinking Ewoks or Hayden Christensen’s ghost, if it were our creation, our universe, we’d reserve the right to do the same and we’d be frustrated by strangers getting sentimental and enraged about what we see as our flaws and personal failings in our work.  Whatever one may think of the methods or the results, George Lucas is always trying to improve his art, and there’s something noble in him not being willing to think something is just good enough.

Having said all that, I liked it better when Vader chucked the Emperor over the edge in absolute silence.  But that’s just me.

By their fruits shall you know them

In the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, Republican presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann suggested to a crowd of her supporters that both the hurricane and last week’s earthquake were signs that God is angry at America.  She pivoted immediately to suggest that God’s anger stems from too much government spending.  I recall when this sort of politics & preaching was the exclusive domain of Pat Robertson, the late Jerry Falwell and the execrable Westboro Baptist Church.  But here we have someone who, as nuts as she can sound to a liberal, has a decent shot at winning the nomination – to say nothing of front-runner Rick Perry, who held a massive prayer rally before jumping into the race and has suggested that global warming is a lie, evolution isn’t real and Social Security is a giant Ponzi scheme – this from the man who had insurance companies take out secret policies on retired Texas teachers and then cash in huge when said teachers ‘passed their finals.’

Excluding weddings and funerals I have not attended a regular church service in 20 years – but I would not go so far as to say I am completely non-spiritual.  I have my questions and my doubts, and in my quiet moments I am given to ponder the meaning of existence.  If there is a grand design to the universe, I have to believe it is bigger than anything that can be codified in language or filtered through the voices of intermediaries.  I don’t know what that is.  I don’t presume to be smart enough to understand it.  But every day, I’m trying.  My faith, as it were, is that the journey to uncover the answer is likely more meaningful than the destination, the answer itself.  And that works for me.  It probably won’t work for you or anyone else.  I’m not going to try and push it on you – it’s not my place.  Much as I would ask you the courtesy of not forcing your beliefs on me.

However, not being religious doesn’t mean sticking your head in the sand and pretending that it isn’t worth learning about other faiths.  Growing up in an overwhelmingly Christian community at a time when you still had to recite the Lord’s Prayer following the national anthem at school every morning, you still retain a lot of this stuff.  And as an adult I’ve read the Bible and other texts about Jesus and his message.  I’m not quite sure if it’s Matthew, Mark, Luke or John where he says that senior citizens should die in poverty while Wall Street loses their retirement funds.  Or if it was on that extra tablet of Commandments that broke in History of the World, Part I, where it said “Thou shalt cut taxes for the rich.”  One should never make the mistake of assuming that all Christians are rabid right-wing, small-government conservatives.  I’d go so far as to say that despite their protestations to the contrary, most of these rabid right-wing, small-government conservatives aren’t really Christian – at least not in the way I understand the Biblical Jesus Christ would want them to be.

I respect people.  I don’t murder, steal or cheat on my wife.  It’s not my business to dictate how two consenting adults should love one another.  I think women should control what happens to their bodies.  I think evolution is a fact.  I think no one should have to fear going bankrupt if they get sick and that higher taxes are a pittance for a clean and beautiful planet.  I’ve made mistakes and hurt people in the past, but overall I’ve tried to lead a good life.  Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann would probably think I’m going to hell.  But they wouldn’t say that because they truly believed it.  They’d say so to win votes – which is the most cynical exploitation of faith.  And they know it too.  In the States you can lock in a solid bloc of the electorate simply by repeating “Jesus” and “tax cuts” ad infinitum – and the votes you’ll win are from the people who are most in need of charitable help and most likely to be wounded by the loss of government programs those tax cuts will entail.  Michele Bachmann says that God is angry at the United States – I suppose it never occurred to her that He might be angry at the politicians dropping His name to win elections.

I do like the following quote from the Gospel of John:  “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?”  And this one, Ephesians 4:2:  “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.”  I don’t see a lot of that in the Republican front-runners for the presidential nomination, or in the people who support them – they seem to be a little mired in Leviticus.  I suppose that they are perfectly entitled to hold those opinions and run on them, as objectionable as I and other liberals might find it.  But for Perry and Bachmann to be claiming God is speaking through them and that they alone have the wisdom to interpret natural disasters as endorsements of their platforms makes them seem less like legitimate presidential contenders and more like the guy on the street corner with the warnings of doom on his cardboard sign.  That they have a better than ridiculous chance of being elected should give everyone – including Christians – reason to pause, and give some serious thought to that timeless question – what would Jesus do?

Connery. Sean Connery.

I’ve delved into some serious stuff in my last few posts – fate of humanity and all that.  I thought it was time enough for something a little on the lighter side.  And today’s the perfect day to do it.

Bet you didn’t know that today was “International Talk Like Sean Connery Day.”  In honor of Sir Sean’s 81st birthday, voicemails across the English-speaking world are offering up such bon mots as “Greetingsh.  I’m shorry I can’t take your call thish inshtant,” while the man himself probably relaxes at his Bahamas home with a good stiff drink after a round of golf.  He’s been out of the limelight since 2003’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the throes of whose making upset the actor so much he decided to pack it in.  Interesting story about that movie, was that Connery had turned down roles in both The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings because he didn’t understand them.  When the script for League came along he confessed to not understanding it either, but decided to take the part just in case he might miss out on something spectacular.  Turns out he should have trusted his earlier instincts.

After an almost 50-year career in show business, it’s not like he had anything left to prove.  Coming from a poor background in a suburb of Edinburgh, working jobs like milkman and coffin polisher by day and honing his physique at the gym by night, this lad who his friends called “Big Tam” went in a few short years from one or two-line extra parts in British movies nobody saw to defining masculinity for an era as James Bond – setting a standard that tends to make the toughest of us look like effete pretenders.  He had the sense to walk from Bond before it got ridiculous, when he could still manage to carve out a career for himself in different roles, although some of those 70’s movies of his really haven’t aged well (and if you don’t believe me, try sitting through Zardoz.)  Artistic recognition came for him with his Oscar for The Untouchables, and he managed to get in a great line in his acceptance speech:  “I first appeared here thirty years ago… Patience is a virtue!”  Oddly enough it was the period that followed that offered up his most popular movies since the Bond days – Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Hunt for Red October, The Rock – each a runaway boxoffice smash with Connery headlining the movie poster.

As the director Nicholas Meyer tells it, there are two kinds of actors in the movies.  There are those actors who pretend that they are the people they are playing, and actors who make you think the people they are playing are like them.  Someone like Daniel Day-Lewis disappears into his character (does anybody outside his immediate family know what Daniel Day-Lewis is really like?) while Sean Connery is always Sean Connery.  And that’s not a bad thing.  It’s patently ridiculous that a Soviet submarine captain should speak with a Scottish accent, but we buy it because of the presence of the man.  We like spending a few hours with him.  As men, he makes us want to stand taller, to puff out our chest and to stare down every challenge with unflappable swagger.  The old “men want to be him, women want to be with him” tagline rings true.  Go on – put on one of the old Bonds and see if you don’t find yourself walking a little differently after it’s done.

So here’s a good tumbler of Lagavulin to you, Sir Sean… hope your 81st finds you in good health and a few strokes under par.  We miss you, but thanksh for all the memoriesh.

Jack’s Goodbye

Acceptance of inevitability does not diminish the sadness of loss.  When Jack Layton told Canadians his cancer had returned and he was taking a leave of absence to concentrate on fighting it, it was painfully evident based on his gaunt appearance that he was not doing very well.  But it still came as a tremendous and deeply cutting shock when he passed away early yesterday morning.  Agree with his politics or not, Jack Layton was one of those people you thought would always be there.  Better scribes than I have already lauded his legacy as a public servant and I suspect there is little appetite on your part for a half-assed elegy from me, someone who never voted NDP in his life and who to be perfectly honest was a little peeved with Jack more than once for some of the choices he made.  Be that as it may I can only admit to one personal encounter with the man, watching him speak at the Green Living Show in Toronto in 2007.  One of only two of the five federal party leaders at the time to appear in person – Elizabeth May was the other – Jack’s address was a little of that uniting “we’re all in this together” mojo that Barack Obama would wield so skillfully a year later.  I don’t recall him once pitching for votes during that speech – it was the expression of a vision, of the things people can do when they work hard and work together.  I wasn’t all surprised to see that same sentiment expressed in his final letter to the Canadian people.

Written as the end neared, it’s a beautiful farewell and one that has been Facebooked, Tweeted, shared and re-shared all over the country.  And yet it was not 24 hours before someone on the opposite end of the political spectrum felt it necessary to print a detraction – mocking the media coverage and accusing Layton of using the moment for political advantage.  It is highly cynical to suggest that the thoughts of someone in the last hours of his life are consumed with electoral math.  Lee Atwater, the Republican strategist whose lasting legacy is the elevation of the political smear campaign to levels undreamed of by Richard Nixon’s gutter crew, spent his final days writing letters of apology to men whose careers he had destroyed.  At the time, Atwater was criticized much in the same vein, that he was just doing political spin to the very end.  Maybe it was nothing more than trying to latch on to a shred of dignity, but I don’t think it’s fair to assume anyone’s state of mind as death approaches.  We can’t possibly know it until we face it ourselves.  Where someone like Lee Atwater, who spent his life spreading darkness, deserves credit, is for his ultimate recognition of something that Jack Layton knew all along – that one should go out in the light and with hope for those left behind.

Jack Layton’s letter is the final instructions from a great political leader to his party, which many assume will have a difficult time in the years ahead without his guidance – but he is leaving them with the confidence that they already have all they need to triumph without him.  It is the last testament of a father to his children, hoping that they will find successes that outshine his own achievements in ways he cannot even imagine.  No one should have expected anything else from him to his loyal troops.  And yet the letter bequeaths to all Canadians a positive vision of the incredible possibilities that can come from cooperation and unity – a message revealed by its viral spread to have surprising resonance in a country grown cynical of government and the motivations of politicians.  It reminds the pessimist and the cynic that most of our fellow human beings are fueled by the same desire to create a positive and progressive place to live.  At times we are scared, we are confused, we don’t know who to listen to or which direction we should turn, but we have a common dream.  And it is our responsibility to take the parting wisdom of men like Jack Layton and use it to shape our home into somewhere that no one else will have to only long for on a deathbed – we can all live it for real, starting today.

Slán a fhágáil, Jack.  And thank you.

In search of lost leaders

I paraphrased that from Marcel Proust – a name any candidate for office drops at his or her own peril, lest they be labeled an out-of-touch, latte-sipping elitist and snob.  I haven’t read A la recherche du temps perdu – my experience of Proust is confined to multiple viewings of the “All-England Summarize Proust Competition” from Monty Python’s Flying Circus.  I did however slog my way through James Joyce’s Ulysses earlier this year.  (Spoiler alert:  the last word is “yes.”)  I didn’t read it so I could say I did whilst peering down my nose at the teenage girl devouring her dog-eared copy of Twilight.  I read it out of a sense of curiosity and wanting to enrich myself, and as a writer, wanting to learn from one of the masters.  Will it have any discernible impact on my own writing?  Can’t really say.  But the point wasn’t to reach a definitive goal.  It was to simply add another ingredient to the bubbling stew of my intellect – a concoction of memory, schooling, experience and opinion from which (hopefully) pours forth something of value.

Pardon me as I pause for another sip of my venti decaf mocha hazelnut frappucino.  I mention this as I watch the unfolding of two election campaigns with the memory of a third only a few months old, and bemoan the race to the bottom that each has become.  If there is a singular thread that runs through my handful of postings here, it is a profound belief in the capability of human beings at their best, and an equally profound disappointment at humanity’s choice not to exert its potential.  It’s a bit like watching Superman choose to sit on his porch with a beer just because he doesn’t feel like doing anything today.  Except instead of today it’s been the last 30 years.

Jimmy Carter was crushed in his bid for re-election by a guy who galvanized America with a bold, inspiring message.  The message wasn’t about the incredible things that America had done when it pulled together and shared sacrifice, like winning the Second World War or landing men on the moon.  No, it was that their government sucked.  (It remains frustrating to me that anyone can win election to office by decrying the office itself, but there you go.)  Ronald Reagan preached that government needed to be reined in, cut off at the knees, drowned in the bathtub.  This message resonated so deeply, coupled with the other side’s failure to articulate a decent rebuttal, that it has informed the political discourse in the U.S. ever since.  It’s disappointing to see even President Barack Obama buy into Reagan’s fallacy as he describes his battles with a Congress full of people who literally hate his guts.  The debate has moved so far to the right that those of us on the other side feel like we’re a yard from our own end zone with 15 seconds left on the clock in the fourth quarter.

The rebuttal should be that government works when the right people (pardon the uncomfortable pun) are running it.  And that is, subliminally, something that most people do agree with.  People want leadership.  “Strong leader” is one of the most important factors when pollsters take the temperature of the electorate’s attitude towards candidates.  Yet the atmosphere has become so trying that truly great leaders won’t even make the ballot, let alone win.  Television and 24/7 media scrutiny played on endless repeat with panel discussions, five-day-long specials and exclusive interviews has made it so that only the blandest folks can survive the onslaught.  An email used to circulate a few years ago where you were given three biographies and asked to pick which you thought would make the best leader – only after you’d picked were you given the names.  I don’t remember the exact details, but basically, the first was a drunk, the second was a cripple and the third was a squeaky-clean vegetarian customs clerk.  Based on the bios you always went for the clerk, only to discover that it was Hitler – while the former were Churchill and FDR respectively.

We’ve seen plenty of prospective leaders undone by the smallest gaffes.  Howard Dean, the progressive governor of Vermont who was leading in the early 2004 Democratic presidential race, was finished off by media overreaction to an exuberant scream he gave during a rally-the-troops speech to his supporters.  Not a sex scandal, illegal nanny or even a misfiled income tax return.  A scream.  Michael Ignatieff, the highly-regarded writer, educator and public intellectual, led Canada’s Liberal Party to its worst-ever defeat after being hounded in attack ads and the press for having lived several years abroad.  Again, he hadn’t fathered a kid with the maid or been caught snorting cocaine off a bikini model’s boobs.  He was attacked for having lived outside the country.  No one can say what kind of leaders these guys would have been had they won.  But the circumstances of their undoing merely reinforced the meme that safe and bland is a winning strategy.  In fact, you don’t have to be a strong leader at all – you just have to say you are over and over again and people will start to believe it, regardless of the evidence to the contrary, or lack of any evidence of leadership qualities at all.

If we are defined by our mistakes, and our character shaped by our reactions to them, what can be said of people who don’t make any?  How is someone who grew up in comfort and was parachuted into his career by his country club father, someone who has never had to take risks and has never experienced the ache and disappointment of loss and personal failings ever supposed to empathize with the plight of drug addicts or the homeless, or the simple working man who has to scratch for every dime to feed his family?  How is that person supposed to unite the differing interests of a vast country and guide them into a new and better era?  When you occasion to wonder why we haven’t gone back to the moon, or to Mars, or really progressed very much further in our evolution, you have only to look at the mediocrities we’ve entrusted to lead us – people with no imagination, no soul, no capability of looking beyond the end of the spreadsheet.  Politicians cruise to landslide victories on promises of nothing more than tax cuts.  We then act surprised when they don’t deliver anything else.

If someone is capable, if they are intelligent, if they are curious, if they have lived a learned and compassionate life, if they have a sense of humor, if they have experienced the world beyond their borders, if they believe in the ability of government to unite and do good, if they are driven to challenge and enrich themselves, and if the cruelties of regret have forged the gravitas of statesmen, then quite frankly, I don’t care if they have snorted cocaine off a bikini model’s boobs.  I’m more likely to admire them for admitting that and making light of it rather than succumbing to the papal-like finger-pointing of the media and the opposing party.  We need to remember that the best of us are broken in some way, and that by demanding perfection in candidates we won’t get leaders, we’ll only get managers – those guys who in the private sector become terrific assistant vice-presidents but never really impact anybody’s life but their own.  I hope to be more than that, and I hope we are one day again led by someone who is more than that.

So maybe I will pick up that copy of Proust after all.  And hopefully, a future leader is doing so right now as well.

The Stormy Present

Towards the end of his second State of the Union address, Abraham Lincoln said, “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.”  That quote has been at the forefront of my mind for the last few days.  Lincoln was trying to rally a Union divided against itself and suggesting that they needed a new way of thinking.  Basically telling them that everything you think you know is wrong – that the old solutions aren’t going to cut it.

The stock market is collapsing.  The U.S. Congress is beholden to corporations and morons wrapped in the flag.  Extreme right-wing governments are readying the knife to slash the social safety net to ribbons.  The planet is cooking and scientists desperate to reverse it are mocked, slandered and defunded.  Intellectuals are feared and ignorance is lauded.  The Mayor of Toronto wants to close libraries.  And the great city of London is on fire.  The present is not just stormy – it’s an all-out hurricane.

Right now, a guy I used to play in a marching band with named Steve Gaul is attempting to break the world record for marathon drumming.  He survived testicular cancer and lost his sister to paranasal cancer just last year.  He’s doing this to raise money and awareness and you can check him out (and donate) at www.beatstobeatcancer.com.  The record is 120 hours and as I’m writing this he just passed 105.  I have to confess to a bit of cynicism about cancer research.  There seems to be an awful lot of money raised for it every year and precious little progress made in treatment methodology – and the real pessimist side of me notes that we’ve never heard about a pharmaceutical company executive who’s died of cancer (happy to be corrected on this point if anyone out there knows something I don’t.)

But watching Steve is amazing.  Even though we were in the same band for three years, I never knew him very well.  He was the leader of our percussion section when I first signed up and was known for his endless reserve of “guy walks into a bar” jokes shared with the group before we stepped off on parade.  I didn’t know until I stumbled upon the site mentioned above that he had survived cancer at so young an age.  As I remember him he wouldn’t have struck me as the guy who would have this kind of fight in him.  But there he is.  105 hours in, still smiling and laughing, jamming away to an endless soundtrack of rock classics.  My wife was telling me today that even though she’s never met Steve, she’s proud of him and what he’s doing.  So am I.  Here’s a guy staring into the gale and saying “bring it on.”

The world kinda sucks right now.  We can admit that.  It feels like the bad guys are winning.  The field of Republican candidates running to run against President Obama next year is a terrifying group cut from the Greg Stilson cloth whom one could easily imagine pushing the nuke button at God’s command.  Canada gave a majority government to a guy who thought George W. Bush was the bee’s knees, and we put a redneck doofus in charge of our most progressive and cosmopolitan city.  We could really use a victory right now.

Steve Gaul is proving that the victory lies with us as individuals.  Sometime around 8am tomorrow morning he’s going to break the record.  He’s going to smash it to bits.  Kick its ass.  Make us stand up and cheer.  Make us ask what we can do and dare us to do better.  Because the old way of sitting back and waiting for the storm to pass isn’t working.

Beyond the stormy present lies the clear skies of the future.  We can get there.  We know the way.  We just need to start walking.

God save Sam Seaborn

In the absence of compelling summer television and a firm disinterest in whomever The Bachelorette picks, we are engaged in a repeat viewing of the entire seven seasons of The West Wing.  Assaulted by news feeds of corporate-backed Tea Party lunacy and the fiscal axe falling on libraries, it’s good to step away for an hour or two each night into Aaron Sorkin’s erudite exploration of the virtues of public service and the triumph of liberalism.  When TWW was originally airing during the height of the Bush administration it was a welcome salve for wounded progressive hearts and a source of hope for better days ahead – showing what it could be like when the reins were held by people who genuinely believed in government as a meaningful force for good rather than some nebulous beast to be starved lest they not be able to buy another yacht.

No character better exemplified this than the Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn, played by Rob Lowe in an arguably career-defining role as a fast-talking, pure-hearted and paradoxically handsome nerd, able to translate his unassailable convictions into elegant turns of phrase for the President to deliver just as smoothly.  Where Toby Ziegler was the moral conscience of the senior staff, and Josh Lyman was the warrior determined to win at all costs, Sam was the idealist, the dreamer, a bottomless well of hope never tempered by politics as usual.  Originally intended to be the focus of the show – he was the first character to be introduced in the pilot episode – Sam began to fall off the radar as the seasons progressed, usurped at the center of the series’ main plots by Josh and Toby.  As a writer, it’s not difficult to see why this may have occurred for Sorkin – a character of such upstanding value and with so few apparent flaws as Sam is very hard to write.  Usually the approach is to test the limits of their values and morality by challenging it from every angle, daring the character to retain their hope against the creeping ennui of human failings.

We saw this articulated in Sam’s best episode, Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail.  Sam is struggling with the revelation that his father has been cheating on his mother for 28 years when he is asked to look into a pardon request for a man who had been accused of espionage for the Soviets during the Second World War.  Determined at the start to reverse what he feels is a mockery of justice, Sam ultimately discovers that his pet cause was, in fact, a traitor, the revelation of which combined with his father’s infidelities nearly crushes him.  In a touching scene where he breaks down in front of Donna Moss (Janel Moloney), he confesses the need he feels for certainties in life on which to hang his hope, like “longitude and latitude.”  And yet at the end Sam makes a difficult phone call to try and begin reconciliation with his father.  He has found his certainty – and his hope – again in the faces of his friends.

One always got the sense that Sam was driven to prove that hope could triumph cynicism.  After a soul-flattening career using his intelligence and skill with the law to protect oil companies from litigation, working at the White House was his chance to redeem those mistakes.  It would have been nice to see the hinted-at wounded part of his character explored in greater depth had he stayed a few seasons more.

Rob Lowe’s and Aaron Sorkin’s respective early departures from the series after its fourth season left a huge question in what the plans for Sam Seaborn ultimately would have been.  Yet a tease was dropped in the third-season episode Hartsfield’s Landing.  Discussing the intricacies of a standoff with the Chinese over a game of chess, President Bartlet comments to a stunned Sam, “You’re going to run for President one day.  Don’t be scared, you can do it.”  A flicker of reaction crosses Sam’s face, both sheer terror at an incredible notion that he might not have ever considered, replaced swiftly by a quiet confidence that if he has inspired that kind of hope in someone he admires so deeply, he might just succeed.  The currency of hope remains potent, and we are grateful that it is – making one agree with Toby’s final line to Sam as he walks out of the series in the fourth season episode Red Haven’s On Fire – “God save the United States of America… and Sam Seaborn.”