Category Archives: The Little Voice

Reflections on childhood and childlike things not yet put away.

Catch: A story of fathers and sons


This is my unsuccessful entry for the 2014 CBC Nonfiction Short Story Contest.  Their loss is your gain.  Please to enjoy.

Late afternoon, and amber light from a cloudless sky is mirrored in thousands of dandelions littering the field of cool park grass.  Wind tugs at my hair and bites at the flesh of my cheeks.  The scent of leather triggering a hundred fragments of memory, I reach into my old glove and curl my fingers around the seams of the ball.  Tightly woven threads rub against each ridge of my fingerprints.  What’s it to be – a curve, a slider, a non-athlete’s approximation of a ninety-mile-an-hour fastball?

“You ready?” I call out.

A short distance away, my son waits.  His glove is brand new.  A week ago a plastic tag hung it from the chrome arm of a store display.  It’s stiff, immaculate, ready to be infused with history.  And he’s not holding it right.  “Up and open,” I tell him.

Awkward fingers reorient themselves to the pose he thinks I’m asking for.  He doesn’t really want to be here, I can tell.  But he’s trying because he knows this is important to me.

I nod, wind up and release.  Perfect pitch.  Nolan Ryan would be envious.  The ball sails towards him.

My boy reaches up and closes the pocket too fast.  The ball bounces off the edge of the mitt and tumbles into the weeds.

“It’s okay,” I say.  “Try again.”

I’ve never purchased a glove for myself.  The one I’m using, the one I’ve always used, is my late father’s.  I used to have a smaller one, until I grew into his.  Just like his suits, the first ones I ever wore.  As ridiculously out of style as I must have looked, they had a reassurance to them.  Slipping my arms into the sleeves was like feeling his around my shoulder again.

My son doesn’t feel that way about my things.  Because until only a few short months ago, he wasn’t my son.

There is something of a skewed, Hollywood perception of what happens after you adopt an older child, particularly one who’s spent most of his life in and out of foster care.  I’m thinking of the end of Face/Off, where John Travolta’s character brings home a kid adopted from the terrorist he’s just killed.  The rest of the family embraces the boy, the music swells and the credits roll, the happily ever after securely in place.

Integrating our new son into our family has not been quite so instantaneous, and it has certainly been devoid of any triumphant orchestral music.  In preparing yourself for taking on an older child, you can rationalize until your brain oozes out your ears:  Of course it’ll be different than giving birth to our own baby, but that’s fine.  It’s okay that we don’t get to name him, or see his first steps, or hear his first word.  We’re giving a home to a child who needs one.  And at least we’ll never have to change diapers.

The trouble is, your brain can accept these facts, but your heart, not so much.  You can’t steel yourself with intellectual arguments against what you’re going to feel.  When your new son sits at the dinner table with you and all his stories, all his memories, are of another life that you weren’t in.  When he says “my dad” and he’s not referring to you.  You feel like you’re babysitting someone else’s child, this well-mannered little stranger whose stay with you seems to be going on a while.  And the very worst part is that this is normal, it’s no one’s fault, and there’s nothing you can do about it.  It just is what it is.

And it’s positively gutting.

He tosses the ball back, and I scoop it out of the air.  I catch a scent of my glove again as I wind up, and I think about the man who should be here with us and who isn’t.  I lost my dad when I was 11, and I adopted my son when he was 12.  I’m going to be presiding over this boy’s teenage years with no road map, no example to draw from, not a solitary conception of what it is I’m supposed to do.

He’s taken off his glove to adjust his sunglasses.  I’m so lost in insecure reflection I don’t notice.  I throw.  Roger Clemens.  Down and away.

In the general direction of my son’s face.


An explosion of tears, and my wife runs to his side.  With each choked sob a crescendo of guilt rises within me, the creeping and admittedly hyperbolic sensation of being the worst father in the world.  It sure ain’t like the movies, I think to myself.

Too many people in the world have made this boy cry.  Too many have disappointed him, failed to meet his basic needs, even abused him in moments unthinkable.  He wants so much to be happy and the world keeps kicking him while he’s down.  Now his new father has hit him in the head with a baseball.  One more chorus of pain for the cacophonic dirge that has been his life to this point.

My father made me cry when he went away.  When my mother told me that he’d died, I shattered.  Like the neighbor’s window met by a carelessly tossed ball.  My soul was broken shards on cracked earth.  It has been nearly thirty years gluing it back together.

Tears dry, but my son doesn’t want to play anymore.  We gather the gear and proceed home in a heavy silence, broken only by the roar of cars passing on the street.  Once inside, he tosses his glove aside and hurries upstairs to the sanctum of his video games.  There are aliens to destroy and princesses to save.

My wife tells me not to worry about it.  She’s right, of course; it was obviously an accident.  I’m not there anymore; I’m trying to recall the very last time I played catch with my dad.  Memory is uncooperative.  No bars, no signal.  Only a gray blur.  It was likely a moment to which I assigned no special significance at the time, because it was one of a thousand, and I wouldn’t have suspected there wouldn’t be a thousand more.  So it is lost in the mists, forever.

It occurs to me then that it won’t be long before my son doesn’t remember this day either.  That maybe he’ll have the vaguest of recollections when he looks back from fifty years’ distance.  If I’m still around, and I remind him, he’ll laugh at the old man for dredging up such a silly reminiscence.

And then I realize.

It’s not the golden, soft-focus Field of Dreams moment we’re promised by the movies.  It isn’t even a collection of moments so perfect they might have been choreographed for maximum impact on the heart.  The smiling pictures we post online for our friends to envy.

It’s the work we put in one day to the next, through seemingly endless bouts of frustration and failure and feeling like the last people on the planet who ever should have been approved for parenthood.

It’s not in how we throw the ball, or even that we make the time to throw the ball back and forth whenever the sun shines on that field of dandelions.

It’s in the catch.

Our boy was falling, but we caught him.  He’ll stumble often throughout his life, but we’ll catch him.

Even if he never truly loves us the way a son is expected to love his parents, we’ll catch him.

One day he’ll be ready and he’ll want to throw the ball to me.

With my father’s glove I will catch it.

With a father’s love, I will catch him.


Talking about My Next Generation


Lately, I’ve been watching Star Trek again.  Or more to the point, I’ve been watching The Next Generation on Netflix, that is, when I’m not working, writing, taking media courses or running copious errands.  Ever since I became a father, television has dropped several ranks on the priority list.  My wife and I were joking the other night about how we used to lie on opposite couches on a Sunday afternoon and mumble to each other, “What do you want to do?”  “I don’t know, what do you want to do?”  That boredom was so frustrating at the time; now it’s looked back upon with reverence and longing.  We’d murder for a boring day like that.

When our son came to us his taste in TV was a bit, shall we say, delayed.  Cartoons well below his age level were the go-to.  Trying to encourage him to take a step ahead we suggested he give TNG a go, figuring he’d grok the whiz-bang of the space battles while subliminally processing the messages.  And of course we’d be happy to watch it with him.  So what began as an exercise in maturity for our lad has turned into a nostalgic trip for myself.

Some of these episodes I haven’t seen in a decade or more, and it’s sometimes sad to realize that what enthralled you as a teenager can come off to a more seasoned palate as cheap, juvenile or otherwise lacking.  That first season in particular was really rough going, in terms of the writing, the acting (with the sole exception of the masterful Patrick Stewart, probably the only reason anything worked in the first year) and the show’s overall ambition, or lack thereof.  Airing in first-run syndication rather than on a network saved it from becoming a swiftly forgotten, ill-advised follow-up to a 60’s classic, along with the devotion of fans so grateful for new Trek on TV that they stayed with it throughout its growing pains.  (One wonders if the struggling Agents of SHIELD will likewise endure.)  But I remember sitting on my mom’s bed glued to her television (the main one in our basement didn’t work most of the time) being thrilled by the sight of the Enterprise-D blasting through the warp barrier to travel beyond the boundaries of the universe to a place where thought and reality intertwined in “Where No One Has Gone Before,” and wondering how they could possibly make it back unharmed.  I recall thinking how awesome it was to see the Klingons back causing trouble in “Heart of Glory.”  I remember the nightmares I got when a guy’s head exploded under Picard and Riker’s phasers in “Conspiracy.”  I remember the massive crush I had on Gates McFadden as Dr. Crusher and how stunning she looked made up as a 40’s moll in “The Big Goodbye.”  And I remember obsessively checking Starweek to see when the next new episode was going to air – in fact, I believe I may have insisted that my mom purchase the Saturday paper strictly for that reason – and being crestfallen at the long wait between seasons one and two (thanks a lot, Writers Guild strike of ’88).

As wobbly as some of the earlier episodes of the show were, what endeared it to me and I suspect the majority of the fans, was the ever-present nobility of the characters, effortlessly upstanding in their morals and always trying to do right by the universe even when challenged at their very cores.  Was it a realistic portrayal of human beings?  Probably not.  But we could aspire to be like them.  The Next Generation provided that model for me as I grew through my teenage years and evolved from being embarrassed to admit I liked it lest the girls think I was weird, to going merrily to conventions and “talking Trek” with comrades at every opportunity – often to the chagrin of my best friend who’s indifferent to it to this day.  As the show went on and I got older, I found my response to it evolving as well.  My tastes were growing more sophisticated the more I learned about literature and history, and I found myself less than enamored with the show’s switch in its golden years to out-there-for-the-sake-of-being-out-there sci-fi premises and plots resolved through mindless technobabble.  Maybe another time I’ll get into a detailed analysis of where I think things started to go wrong (it all began when they changed the style of the music late in Season Four), but by the end I was ready to vomit if I saw one more episode about reconfiguring the deflector dish to emit tetryon or verteron particles.  And yet this too was a formative moment for me.  Because it was when I began to think, “you know what?  I could do better.”  I understood there was no drama in pulling an imaginary subatomic particle out of the proverbial arse to deus ex the machina.  That wasn’t how you told stories.  Not well, anyhow.  Not how I wanted to tell them, or how I wanted to see them being told.

As the number of episodes remaining in Season Seven dwindled, I was still watching, but with a sense of sadness at lost opportunities – “all the stories in the galaxy to tell and they did another broken holodeck episode?  And why is the music so bad?”  There were gems here and there but the entire enterprise (sorry) felt a bit like it was slumping to the finish line, with the creative energy diverted to getting Deep Space Nine up and running, but oh yeah, we’ve got this other one that I guess we have to pay some meager level of attention to.  Stewart and the gang were giving it their all, but it was obviously time to go, just as the teenager inevitably turns twenty and braces for a new set of challenges.  The finale, “All Good Things…,” was a great sendoff; not perfect, as it too relied on technobabble to solve the central dilemma, but it did top the gift with a beautiful bow in Captain Picard sitting down for the senior staff poker game for the first time and announcing that “the sky’s the limit.”  It was a touching parting sentiment for myself as well, reminding me that I didn’t have to be satisfied with stories that didn’t give me what I wanted from them.  Instead, I could create my own.  The end of their journey was the beginning of my own.

And now I’m seeing it again, with my boy, and wondering how he’ll look back on it in future years – if it will ever mean as much to him as it does to me.  If watching The Next Generation does nothing else for him, I hope it will at least inspire him, when he’s out on a clear night, to look up – and imagine what might lie out there in the stars.

Lego minifigures, why so serious?


This fascinating article from last week illuminated an otherwise unnoticed fact – that over the last few decades, the faces printed on Lego minifigures have been getting steadily more angry and intense.  Those cute little plastic guys, population 4 billion and rising, who for a long time faced the world with a uniform array of sweet smiles have succumbed to the creeping angst of a 21st Century obsessed with dystopia and inner turmoil.  Is nothing sacred?  Is there no refuge from the seeming relentless push towards “dark and edgy” as the only virtues in our entertainment, no matter its form?

My first Lego set came my way when Jimmy Carter was still President; it was a Space set featuring a tiny wedge-shaped ship, controlled by a steering wheel, mounted on a launch vehicle, and it included a single red-suited spaceman, happy at the prospect of the adventures he was certain to have with me.  Shortly thereafter Lego became my toy of choice – forget Transformers, G.I. Joes or whatever else, if that wrapped Christmas present didn’t manifest the trademark rattle when shaken it was bound to be disappointment on the morning of December 25th.  With birthdays and other special occasions my armada grew to include astronauts in white and yellow, and eventually (once the line expanded) blue and black.  And darn it if those little guys weren’t always cheerful.  Even when Lego went a step further and introduced the first “bad guys” of Lego Space – Blacktron – beneath those ominous dark-shielded helmets could be found the same delightful grin.  The same went for the Town and Castle lines.

Kids grow up, of course, and Lego falls by the wayside… until 1998 and Lego Freakin’ Star Wars drops.  By then I’m handling my own discretionary spending and so set after set gets snapped up to the detriment of my income but to the benefit of recapturing childhood glee.  But the minifigures have changed.  Their faces have been customized to better suit the Star Wars characters.  Leia has eyelashes and lipstick, Han has a little wry smirk.  Luke Skywalker looks rather dour with a very even, mature expression more suited to the way Mark Hamill looks now than his A New Hope variant.  As the line prospers, pieces are refined and more and more sets are released, with the minifigures continuing to evolve alongside them, finally trading in their trademark yellow hue for tones borrowed from the actors who played the characters.  And many of them are downright grumpy.  A few of the nameless officers still sport the crescent-moon grin, as though working for the Galactic Empire or the Rebellion respectively is the most awesomest job ever, but the more famous characters are all pretty darned serious.  And this is only Star Wars – this isn’t considering Batman, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter or the Lego City lines or innumerable others where often, minifigures look pissed off, as if someone has completely ruined their wonderful little plastic day.  (We won’t get into the replacement of megaphones with blaster pistols for the Stormtroopers’ weapons, that’s another conversation).

So, is Lego driving this trend or is it merely responding to the downward (emotionally speaking, that is) trend in popular taste?  Whenever you hear about a new movie or television series being pitched, the makers’ first comment is usually that it’s “dark and edgy,” almost as a reflex response.  It’s what’s in – presumably, a “bright and sunny” film would be laughed out of the room.  We have seen countless remakes and reimaginings where otherwise optimistic tales are “darkened” for public consumption.  And yet, there is obviously an appetite for optimism that is desperate to be satisfied, growing ever hungrier every time “dark and edgy” sighs its way onto our screens again.  We saw evidence of this appetite in recent years with the brony phenomenon coming out of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, where otherwise-angst-consumed teens and adults embraced a colorful children’s cartoon that emphasized the importance of kindness in all things.  We want to feel happy, yet our entertainment producers keep shoving melancholy down our throats, and we swallow it willingly, trying to ignore the sting of the razor blade as it rattles its way down into our stomachs.

Lego is hedging their bets somewhat, as it often prints Janus-like heads with two different expressions, one serene and one more intense, that can be rotated depending on the mood of play.  Part of what made the original smiling minifigure so endearing, however, was that no matter what horrific fate might befall him – usually bisection in a spaceship crash, if we’re going by my experience – he came through it with unflappable joy and spunk, ready to be reassembled for more.  No matter what kind of day you’d had, if you’d flunked a test or been shoved into the locker again by that mean kid twice your size, when you shuffled back into your room your Lego men were always smiling at you and standing ever ready to help you explore the very limits of your imagination.  Maybe there are limits to what a bunch of little plastic guys can teach a kid, but the attitude of the classic minifigure – embracing challenge with positivity no matter what the circumstance – is worth preserving and passing along.  Let’s save the angst until high school at least.

Johnny, we hardly knew ye

I feel as though I have been writing a lot of tribute pieces lately, both for people I’ve known and those whose stories have come to me through the perpetual tide of information that is our 21st Century, digitally connected world.  Today, on what would have been his birthday, I’d like to spend a few words on someone who wouldn’t have known a Tweet if it pecked him in the eye – my grandfather, Jack.

It seems to be a recurring theme of my life that some of my closest family bonds have been forged with people I’m not physically related to; the same goes with the only grandfather I ever knew.  My mom’s father passed away when I was three, and my paternal grandpa died before I was born.  Jack himself had another family before encountering my widowed Nana.  Born in 1927 as the second oldest of four, he served in the Canadian Air Force and worked most of his life at a packaging company in Toronto – back in the era when you worked at one company for life and retired at 65 with a healthy, well-earned pension.  His first marriage, while ending sadly in divorce, did see him have one son, with whom he’d have a complicated relationship until the very end.  He met my grandmother in the late 70’s, and they were inseparable from then on, dividing their time between his cottage home in Muskoka and her winter retreat in Florida before finally tying the knot just a few short years before her passing in 1993.  But to us, he was always “Uncle Jack.”

I wish I had more to relate about his history, but that was Jack – unlike the yarn-spinning stereotype of the happy grandpa, he rarely talked about his past.  He did like to chat, but the stories were always recent, within the last few months.  Jack never once talked about the war, or his first marriage.  He was very much a man who bore his history quietly, preferring to live in the moment and look to the future.  One of the stories I do remember fondly was his tale of his exploits at the aforementioned packaging company.  I don’t recall the name of the firm (or whether they even exist anymore), but they handled printing the boxes for several large corporations, one of which was Labatt’s (one of Canada’s biggest beer companies, for the uninitiated).  After a long night printing boxes of Labatt’s Blue, it was time to swap out the plates for the next run, which happened to be for feminine hygiene products.  However, apparently the ink had become saturated in the rollers and when the machine started up again, boxes of “Labatt’s Maxi Pads” began tumbling off the line.  (I’m all in favour of brand diversification, but that might have been a stretch of a sell.)

After my father died, Jack was the man I looked up to, and even though I only saw him five or six times a year, he did his best to fill that mentoring void.  And frankly, there were times I resented it.  I didn’t understand why whenever we visited his cottage, I’d be stuck helping him rebuild his bathroom on a sunny hot day while my mom and sister got to play in the lake.  I hated being reminded constantly to stand up straight or hold the door open for the ladies first.  For a while I thought he just didn’t like me, or that he was trying to make up for his awkward relationship with his son.  Yet the lessons were seeping through – the love of the peace of nature, the appreciation for the music of the past.  Practical skills like the few handyman tasks I actually know how to do, how to tie a tie, how to drive a car.  But above all else, the abiding respect for women.  If my father planted the seeds in me of what it means to be a man, Jack taught me how to be a gentleman.  He was a sterling example of how to carry oneself with dignity, poise and confidence, in the old-fashioned manner that most will agree has been lost nowadays, to our detriment.

When he sold that cottage on Muskoka’s Birch Island, I was furious.  It was a formative piece of the world for me – we’d spent a part of every summer there and even a few winters, back when it got so cold that the lake froze over solidly enough to drive across.  I learned to fish, windsurf and drive a boat there.  I developed my first real crush on a girl there – the beautiful and wild Christine Moody, whose family owned the cottage next door.  (You can imagine how damaging to a young ego it was to learn later that she actually dated the elder son of the couple who bought the place from Jack).  I can close my eyes and picture with laser-like clarity the smell of the air, the sound of boats driving by in the night and recollect the emotions I felt in almost every step I took up the winding, woodchip-strewn path, lighted by lamps that resembled giant mushrooms.  I could not believe it wouldn’t always be there, and I know I was angry with Jack for a while because of it.  In August of 1989, on our final visit to Birch before its new owners took possession, I decided I wanted to do something special as a final goodbye to this magical place.  Across the water from Jack’s dock was a much larger island, probably about half a kilometer away.  Years earlier my father had swum that distance, and I wanted to pay tribute to him by doing the same.  Despite my chilly, immature sentiments toward him for selling “my” cottage, Jack drove me across in his boat, I hopped out and began swimming back.  He stayed alongside me the whole way, until I climbed wearily out onto his dock again to the smiles of the rest of my family.  A quiet guardian, never too far from view; that was Jack.

He was with me at every atrocious school band concert I ever played in.  He was with me when I went off to university for the first time.  Even as I grew older and we fell out of touch for a while, he was with me.  Jack was fortunate that in his last few years he had the company of a truly remarkable woman named Fran, whom we still talk to and visit from time to time.  At my wedding six years ago, Jack and Fran were caught in traffic and were late.  They caught only the tail end of the ceremony.  Jack’s health had started to waver and he wasn’t the sturdy, imposing man with the rock solid handshake grip I’d always remembered.  At one point during the reception, after my new wife and I had surprised the guests with our choreographed first dance (a cha-cha to Keith Urban’s “Somebody Like You”) he came up to me, shook his head and whispered two words that remain with me to this day.  A rare display of emotion from a fairly private yet thoroughly good-hearted old man who’d taken this dumb kid under his wing and made it his responsibility to be the best role model he could be.

“You’re amazing.”

How do you respond to something like that?  You don’t.  You give your dear old grandpa the biggest hug you’ve ever given him in his life.  And you carry those words with you to the last of your days.  Reflecting on Jack today I wish I’d been a little more patient with his lessons, wish that I hadn’t been so preoccupied with my own juvenile troubles that I’d taken more interest in his life and learned more of his history, that I might be able to share it with his great-grandson.  We kind of assumed that Jack would always be there.  I guess in many ways he will be.  You just have to lift your head from the water and look to your left.  He’ll be steering that red and white boat with the 70 horsepower Evinrude outboard motor alongside, keeping your course straight and true.

Smooth sailing, Uncle Jack.


Life has no cheat codes

A life lesson in pixel form.
A life lesson in pixel form.

Up-up-down-down-left-right-left-right-A-B-start.  If you’re a gamer of any kind, you’ve probably entered that or similar combinations of buttons into your controller, seeking to enable invincibility, infinite ammo, all power-ups or what-have-you.  In today’s video games, cheat codes are everywhere – originating as secret backdoors for programmers to enable them to jump to specific points in the game to test for bugs, cheat codes are in the mainstream now, with the option to enter them usually front and center on most games’ main menus.  Some are pretty harmless, like sticking a mustache on your character or changing his outfit.  But others turn you into an omnipotent juggernaut mowing down hapless bots as you stroll brazenly through bloody bullet-strewn battlefield after bloody bullet-strewn battlefield, with no need to strategize about your approach, or, you know, duck.  If you’re an adult and that’s the gaming experience you want, bully for you.  But for kids, being able to quickly button-mash their way out of the effort required to finish a game legitimately with its puzzles and dangers intact is one of the worst life lessons they can learn in their formative years.  Just a few short years ago I swore I’d never give a “kids these days” speech, but here I am, as inevitably as the tides.

I grew up in the era of the quarter-sucking arcade and the first home video game console systems – when the kid on the block whose dad got him the Atari for Christmas was the epicenter of the neighbourhood social scene.  In those days, you started with three lives, and no matter how far you got in the game, if you died three times you’d have to start again from the beginning.  The game might be magnanimous enough to offer you an extra life or two when you reached a certain point threshold, but if you were an amateur gamer like myself, struggling to elude those damned multicolored ghosts as you wheeled Pac-Man wildly through his maze of blinking dots, that was a rare prize indeed.  There was no such thing as “leveling up” – the aliens descended progressively faster while your skill set remained constant, limited to the extent of your hand-eye coordination.  No armor upgrades, invincibility potions or uber-mega-cannons to be found.  Mario was forever a lone soldier with nothing more than his ability to jump to a finite height pitted against the merciless barrel throwing of Donkey Kong.  And even though the frustration factor was enough to make us want to punch through the screen as we watched our Galaga fighter explode into pixel shards, the challenge, and the fun, kept us coming back.  If we’d all hated the experience that much, Wreck-It Ralph never would have been made.

In today’s games, along with increasingly sophisticated graphics and cinematic behind-the-scenes talent has come checkpoints, save points, official strategy guides and enough in-game cheats both hidden and obvious to let you plow through to the end in a few meager hours of play.  You never die in a game anymore; it merely pauses for a few seconds before you respawn in the same place (maybe back a few hundred in-game meters) with little to no penalty.  And almost every single in-game danger or problem can be mitigated by a cheat code.  Running out of ammo?  There’s a cheat for that.  Missing a crucial key to unlock the next door?  There’s a cheat for that too.  Instead of putting in the mental exertion or the time commitment to try and solve the puzzle, a kid’s first recourse is to go online for a code.  Getting to the end as quickly as possible, enjoying the spoils without the effort and without the experience of the journey, is the primary goal.  But the game is the journey – that’s the whole point.  SimCity remains a magnificent video game recreation of the trials of urban planning and municipal management, where success depends on learning how to allocate scarce resources and resolve the political consequences of important decisions.  Without a landfill, garbage will pile up on your streets, but residents will complain and move away if you put it too close to them, and so on.  But even SimCity has a cheat that gifts you with infinite cash and reduces the cost of all city improvements to zero.  I’m sure plenty of mayors and planners would love to have access to that!

Funnily enough, the reward for reaching the end absent any risk or need to think about what you’re doing is usually just a brief cut-scene followed by developer credits.  I don’t know about you, but I’m not that interested in who the second graphics assistant coordinator is for Halo.  I also know that giving in to the temptation of cheat codes is the quickest way to lose interest in a game.  I remember racing through the Facility level on GoldenEye 64 time and again, dodging bullet hits left and right from digital Soviet soldiers to complete the mission in under two minutes and five seconds and unlock the invincibility achievement.  Sure, there were times I wanted to chuck the controller against the wall, but I kept playing, kept trying to shave off crucial seconds.  Then I discovered that you could actually unlock invincibility with a few button pushes instead.  Once I did that, the challenge of beating the game was gone, and so was my joy in playing it.  I played it perhaps a half-dozen times after that before it was consigned to a basement box.

In an era when everyone is a beautiful snowflake and no one is allowed to fail lest their precious feelings be hurt, cheat codes are another message to children that they don’t really need to try, that they will be carried along to the next level regardless of how mediocre their performance is.  There is no point in trying, because there’s always a way to cheat yourself out of a tight spot.  The nobility of effort is a lost concept, and the video games we give our kids to play are emblematic of this problem.  Getting crushed by Donkey Kong’s barrels or caught by Inky, Blinky, Pinky or Sue were in their strange way, important rites of passage.  They taught us that we had to consider different approaches and to try harder if we wanted to get ahead.  One shudders at the thought of a generation of adults raised to believe that they need only to touch the right combination of buttons in order to be granted whatever they desire.  (That worked really well the last time I wanted a new car, and infinite ammo for my bazooka.)  Or worse – rushing through life to get to the disappointing cut-scene at the end.

Life has no cheat codes.  Video games shouldn’t either.

Hail, ye olde Commodore

Hello, old friend.

Ready.  That’s what my Commodore VIC-20 told me every time I flipped it on.  No “Press Ctrl+Alt+Del” or any other series of commands to get things moving.  Just Ready.  Ready for what seemed like the limitless possibility of high-tech adventure waiting at the first keystroke.  A basic calculator purchased at the Dollar Store today likely has more computing power than my old Vic, the chunky pillow-sized box you had to plug into your television.  Commodore has faded from the scene, its late founder Jack Tramiel, who passed away Sunday at the age of 83, hardly a household name with the recognition factor of Jobs or Gates.  But for many of us who have grown up never knowing a world without computers as a part of regular life, the Commodore line was our gleaming key to the front door, an inexpensive welcome into the virtual world of ones and zeroes that has come to redefine history.  It was ready, and so were we.

Pitched on television by none other than William Shatner, the VIC-20, introduced in 1980, was already obsolete when I unwrapped it one fateful Christmas morning three decades ago, but it cost half as much as its successor the 64.  It came with a pair of game cartridges – a thinly disguised Pac-Man clone called “Cosmic Cruncher” and the frustrating “Jupiter Lander,” where the goal was to guide a collection of pixels roughly resembling the Apollo 11 lunar module across the uneven green blob of an alien world.  I like many other youngsters of the era was more interested in the instruction booklet, because it included a tutorial on basic programming language, a rudimentary guide to getting your Vic to do anything.  A handful of sample programs were included, my personal favourite being one that showed you how to animate a stick figure doing jumping jacks.  10 PRINT “\O/” was the first line and you can guess where it went from there.  If you were really ambitious, you could get the jumping man to change colors too.

The most complicated program in the guide created a menu from which you could select one of three different dishes, the recipes for each you had painstakingly typed into the Vic’s memory, and these were the days when you couldn’t save anything.  Unless you had the add-on cassette drive, which used audio tapes you hadn’t already turned into bootleg recordings of Thriller to store dozens of primitive games and anything else you could dream up to impress your friends.  Can’t-miss cartoons of the day were swiftly forgotten, replaced by hours inputting commands to make the Vic do anything from drawing a happy face to calculating baseball statistics to asking trivia questions.  You didn’t need a degree in coding to get the Vic to perform for you; a quick study through the manual was enough to get you going.  In many ways its simplicity helped demystify and deprogram – pardon the pun – the idea of the cold, impenetrable, malevolent silicon intelligence of HAL 9000 and his cinematic siblings from the public consciousness.  Now, anyone could figure these things out and make them dance.  It made us feel in charge of our machines again.

Looking back the entire package was not much of a step up from punch cards and the telegraph, but that didn’t matter.  What differentiated the Vic from its competitors was that with the Vic, you weren’t just playing in somebody else’s pre-designed sandbox, limited to discovering new ways to guide a frog across a highway or save a princess from an angry barrel-throwing monkey.  The Vic was your sandbox – you were learning and creating.  You were computing.  You were laying the foundations of the next great evolution in human communication to come, even with the brown buttons and the beige box.  The Vic, and its more successful cousin, the Commodore 64, gave you the ability to exercise the most important muscle of all – your imagination.  All it asked was that you be ready, and at the appropriate time, type in RUN.

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


These are the bricks you’re looking for

A few weeks ago, an episode of The Simpsons took a poke at Lego, criticizing the volume of licensed Lego products and charging that the world’s favourite building toy is no longer about individual imagination and creation, but rather the mindless duplication of whatever the designers have created for you.  Certainly Lego has changed since I got my first set back in the early 80’s.  Back then, aside from the boxes of generic brick assortments, there were only three product lines – Town, Castle and Space.  Nowadays, there’s Pirates of the Caribbean Lego, Harry Potter Lego, Star Wars Lego, Spider-Man Lego, and a forthcoming Lord of the Rings line, where you will finally be able to purchase a Lego Legolas (the mind trips at the metaphysical implications of that one).  There are Lego video games, Lego board games, Lego cartoons, Lego movies, even a Lego Architecture line where you can recreate famous buildings like the Sears Tower or the White House.  YouTube is full of amateur Lego recreations of classic movie scenes and Eddie Izzard’s comedy routines.  And the surest sign that the popularity of the little Danish toy that could continues to swell is that much to the chagrin of parents, retailers almost never put it on sale.  Lego comes as close as any product I know of to a textbook example of inelastic demand.

Upon glancing through the Lego section of your local Toys R Us, it would seem that the trend has moved towards replication rather than innovation.  The instructions enclosed with each set used to be harder to follow – you would be shown stages of construction and it was up to you to figure out which bricks you needed to find amidst the pile.  Now everything is laid out much more clearly, with each brick given its own part number, arrows showing how they should be connected, and a helpful suggestion to assemble your set on a hard surface, not a rug (I guess during all those hours assembling spaceships on my bedroom carpet, I was doing it wrong.)  At the same time, not that I’m keen to disagree with The Simpsons on anything, but upon deeper examination, their assertion is still not particularly fair.  To its credit, Lego has been savvy enough to realize that their sets have different levels of appeal:  some want to collect the licensed sets just to build them as presented, but the majority of Lego’s fans treasure these sets not just for the chance to build an X-Wing, but for the customized parts that can spur their own flights of fancy.  The first Lego bricks were strictly rectilinear, but with the new lines came varieties of curved bricks and specialized parts like flags, steering wheels, fruits, swords and countless others that opened up new possibilities for creation – everything didn’t always have to be ninety-degree angles anymore.  Indeed, builders both young and adult have flooded the Internet with images of fantastic constructions, some inspired by popular culture, others wholly new and inventive.  One could be given a collection of paint and shown step-by-step instructions on how to recreate the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but the true artist will always use that paint as the building blocks – sorry about the pun – of their own unique fabrication.  The same as how a keyboard could theoretically be used to retype A Tale of Two Cities, if that is your inclination, or it can help write a new, original masterpiece.  Lego is at its core merely a tool for creativity, and the set designs are only one option for how to wield it.  The use of the tool is up to the individual.

There is still significant merit in “just following the instructions,” as some of my friends used to natter dismissively.  A great number of today’s engineers are kids who grew up putting Lego together.  It can be an invaluable vehicle for the conceptualization of spatial relationships.  Personally, I have a profound interest and obsession with comprehending how and why things work – I’m not one to take the world on faith alone, and much of this I can trace to my fascination with watching Lego spaceships take shape one brick at a time.  To this day I still find assembling Lego to be a most relaxing activity – my mind is at peace and my attention focused on the movement of my fingertips as each piece is connected to the next.  If nothing else, it’s made me a genius at putting Ikea furniture together – so let no man assert that those silly plastic bricks are of no practical value in the real world.  As far as I’m concerned, anything that fosters curiosity and a need for understanding is a good thing.

Now I just need to see if that argument works with my better half regarding that $400 Lego Star Destroyer I was eyeing this past weekend…

UPDATE:  This story came out the morning of January 25, showing the kind of creativity Lego can inspire.

Graham’s Quackers

I still have my first teddy bear.  He is an auburn koala named Ozzy, and while his original ribbon is long-gone and his snow-white tummy has greyed over nearly four decades, he’s still in huggable shape.  There’s a picture of him in his youth watching over me as I sleep in my crib, with the same peaceful expression stitched on his face.  A few of his friends are still around too – a wobbly dark brown bear who used to play “Rock-A-Bye-Baby,” and a squeaky little critter who is best described as resembling an open-faced grilled cheese sandwich.  Wherever I have gone, in the umpteen different places I have lived, these guys have tagged along, managing to escape the grisly landfill fate that is seemingly the destiny for many stuffed friends who have outlasted the childhood of their owners.  To my better half’s occasional chagrin, I have always had a soft spot – pardon the excruciating pun – for stuffed animals.  No matter how stressed one gets throughout the rigours of life, a glance from one of these inanimate, insufferably cute critters always seems to say “hey, it’s okay.  You’ll be fine.”

One of our favourites is a duck named Quackers.  He’s a beanie baby who came from my sister’s collection and somehow not only ended up with me, but survived a garage sale purge of dozens of his brethren along with his companion, a swan named Gracie.  Normally they sit together in our closet, but on occasion, Quackers likes to go roaming.  You’ll be selecting a shirt to iron for tomorrow when you’ll notice abruptly that Gracie is alone and bereft.  Quackers can turn up anywhere – hiding under the bed covers, lurking on top of an open door, nestling among socks, shivering in the refrigerator, tumbling in the dryer, surfing the net or even, on holiday occasions, perched in the Christmas tree.  The better half protests innocence in the matter of Quackers’ frequent sojourns – indeed it often seems that this yellow mallard has a mind of his own.  Discovering his latest hiding place never fails to draw out a grin, regardless of the foulness (or is that fowl-ness?) of one’s mood.  He is one sneaky little ducky, full of personality – though he never says a word, and the rational adult in me knows he was designed, stitched together and stuffed in an overseas factory along with thousands of identical cousins, and that he is nothing more than an amalgamation of cotton and polyester.  We have a natural tendency to imbue animals, whether real, animated or stuffed, with human traits, and are inclined to respond protectively and with love to things that are innocent and helpless – the latter remains the highlight of our capacity for nobility as human beings.

Corinthians has a famous verse about growing older and putting away childish things.  There is a difference though, in what is childish and what is childlike.  It’s important to hold onto the best traits of youth throughout life – honesty, excitement, creativity, imagination and wonder at the miraculous.  These are often best embodied by the toys we treasured in the days when we knew nothing of money, politics or the cruelty of history.  They are forever unchanging, locked into that part of our lives we sometimes wish we could recapture but remains, like memory and time, slipping ever faster through our fingers.  When I discover Quackers peering at me from behind my computer screen, I smile, and for a fleeting moment my soul is five years old on Christmas morning.  Pretty amazing gift from a mere collection of thread and fluff.  Thanks, little fella.

He's watching you!

Two more reasons why MLP:FIM is awesome

Presented for your enjoyment.  All content of course the property of The Hub and the creators of the show.  In my previous post on My Little Pony:  Friendship is Magic (and don’t worry, this blog is not going to degenerate into a weekly update on all things pony) I pointed out the show’s embrace of remix culture and its extended “brony” fanbase.  Below are a couple of screengrabs from the most recent episode, taking place in a bowling alley.  Ask yourself how many tween girls would notice this – and understand the reference:
It's "The Jesus" himself! With a hairnet covering his mane and tail. But who else is lurking in the background off to the right... look a little closer now...
It is! The Dude, Donny and Walter! Man, that really ties the episode together!

Yes indeed – The Big Lebowski has invaded My Little Pony.  A cult movie that sits in the top ten list of the most uses of the F-word has snuck into a kid’s cartoon.  Young girls won’t get it.  Bronies will love it.  And much rejoicing and many celebratory White Russians will ensue.

It’s just like, my opinion, man, but I really dig this show.