Chasing Atlantis: Something You Should All Know About

November 23, 2012

Hello again, everyone,

I’m going to start with an apology: Once upon a time I resolved to write on this blog regularly, making a point to have at least one entry a month, come what may. That was a pretty easy thing to commit to when I had a couple hundred readers a day –many of them personal acquaintances– but my most recent post from three months ago now has had 168,597 readers to date, and I found myself paralyzed by a feeling of inadequacy. I’ve been retweeted and reblogged and followed on Facebook to the point where I know what I write next will be read by a thousand people expecting at least a few minutes of entertainment and possibly something worth thinking upon deeply and making their own. I’ve found myself gun shy: What can I possibly say next to all of those people who are going to read this blog one more time? What would hold your attention and give you value for your visit?

And then I remembered what my friend Matt Cimone has been up to lately.

As a rule, I don’t mention my friends by name on this blog. I do so now after careful deliberation. Let me back up for a moment and give some context to what I hope is going to be a worthwhile read: I have had the great good fortune to know a man for the last twelve years who I believe will one day make a positive mark on the collective human experience. I look forward to the day when I can say with pride I knew him in his youth. After my late grandfather, I strongly suspect Matt Cimone is the finest man I’ve ever known. When I find myself confronted with an ethical or moral dilemma, I ask myself, “What would Matt Cimone do?” I rarely follow that course, but it’s an interesting question to pose for the sake of finding one’s bearings.

I could give any number of examples of why I’m fortunate to know this man, but for the sake of brevity I’ll say he was a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador in his mid-20s; he’s founded his own charitable organization that uses the micro-credit model to empower entrepreneurs in third world countries, and he’s dedicated his life to being the change he wants to see in the world, a humanitarian who speaks openly and often about how we can all contribute in our own small way to a better future.

A year and a half ago, Matt Cimone asked me to go on a road trip with him to see the very last space shuttle launch. With deep reluctance I had to decline: I’d just quit my job, and I had to commit all my efforts to finding my next step. I watched Matt pile into a car with several friends and drive to Florida to join a million spectators as Atlantis hurled itself towards the heavens. In his usual above and beyond approach, he decided to create a short documentary about his experience on a hand-held digital camcorder. But that initial vision has since grown.

“There are a hundred films about the shuttle technology, but we are more interested in the people inspired by human space flight; those like us who always stood in wonder of the night sky.” Matt told me. “It began as a simple video about our trip. I thought we could put it online. Thankfully one of the five who came with us was my friend Paul Muzzin, founder of Riptide Studios. Paul is a filmmaker, and his expertise breathed new life into the film.”

“I’ve known Matt for almost 2 decades and I saw his passion for this trip,” Paul said. “His story is compelling, and I believe will resonate with an audience. While something shot on a handicamDigital SLR and put on YouTube would have still been from the heart, I believe that with some work this documentary could have a place in festivals and theatrical exhibition. I have also been a fan of the space program and always wanted to see a launch myself. In a sense, between directing this film and seeing the shuttle, I was fulfilling two dreams.”

Space exploration has always fascinated Matt, and witnessing the last shuttle launch was a catalyst for him. Human spaceflight brings out the dreams and aspirations of people from every walk of life, and so both he and Paul started interviewing people: Witnesses of the last launch, NASA spokespeople, fans of science fiction –both Matt and Paul are huge Trekkies, and Wil Wheaton even agreed to do an interview—even the astronauts themselves. The duo asked them what they thought, what they dreamed about.

Matt calls the story Chasing Atlantis, and from the humble beginnings of a road trip video of five friends to see the shuttle launch, it is evolving into a professionally shot, edited, and scored feature-length documentary about space exploration, ambition, and the freedom to imagine a future where the best that we hope we can be is given voice.

“Initially I only dared to think we’d make it this far.” Matt said. “When we combined the initial concept with what Paul envisioned we could accomplish with his production company behind us, doors started to open. We asked if we could conduct interviews, and people said yes. Suddenly we were doing something bigger and better. I would have never thought I’d be sitting across from future ISS commander Chris Hadfield or cast members from Star Trek when we first started planning all of this…well…I hoped, but I thought it would be a long shot.”

The common thread through all those interviewed is that the end of the shuttle program is just the turning of a page in the story of human ambition, of human discovery, of human aspiration and that regardless of if your dream is to go to space, or make a film, we all must chase the “Atlantis” in our own lives.

Here’s the current trailer:

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A Few Thoughts on the Life and Legacy of Jack Layton

August 22, 2011

As a rule, I don’t blog about daily events. Things that seem important in the heat of the moment so often fade and blur with the healing balms of time and distance, and I want these posts to have longevity and relevance beyond the moments of creation. I doubt I’m violating that principle now: The world is a little dimmer and darker than it was yesterday, and I suspect a void has been created in Canadian public discourse that will never be truly filled.

This morning shortly before 9 a.m. I read on Twitter that Jack Layton had passed away. I felt like a stone had hit me between the eyes. I’ve spent the last twelve hours in a daze, reading obituaries and an outpouring of grief from Canadians across the political spectrum. Friends and foes alike, no one can ignore the dull thud of sad fact being committed to unchangeable history. Canada lost a giant today, a lion cut down in his prime after an incredible life-long story of struggle and hard work and perseverance.

I ache that Pierre Berton died almost seven years ago: Jack was his kind of character; Berton’s unwritten words of off-hand admiration –the wry twist on a matter-of-fact retelling of the improbable-but-true– would have formed a lasting tribute worthy of commemorating that remarkable breed of Canadian politician, neither boring nor crazy nor insincere.

I appreciate that many of my readers are not Canadian, so perhaps I should take a moment to give a little context: When people say that all politicians are crooks and cheats and liars who will say or do anything to get elected, somewhere deep inside of you exists a belief that there are exceptions, even polar opposites to that statement. The Honourable Jack Layton was that sterling example of what you always hoped a politican would be, could be, should be. Jack really was a dedicated public servant. He really did work incredibly hard to make things better. I didn’t agree with his entire party platform –even members of his caucus often quibbled with some of his decisions– but no one ever said he wasn’t the genuine article. No one ever said he was in it for himself. He wore his heart on a sleeve rolled-up to allow for serious effort, and he did his best to make friends and neighbours and total strangers happier through a combination of optimism, seeking the middle ground, and never letting a lesser politician get a superior quotation in the media.

Thousands of people better qualified than I have spent today talking about his life and his politics and his contribution to Canadian history. I have little to add to that, except to say that I met Jack somewhere between a dozen and a score of times, and I was always impressed that he really did care. I spent three semesters going to school in his riding, and I lived there for a year and a half some years later, at least in part because I admired him as a man and as a representative of the people: He never missed an opportunity to participate in the things that mattered to his constituents, and he never played politics with the things that shouldn’t matter but political handlers agonize over.

The first time I met him he was wearing one of those hand-knit sweaters that even Annie Liebovitz couldn’t make look flattering. A little starstruck, I complimented the woolen wonder for lack of anything better to say, and without missing a beat he said, “Well, I knew it would be cold in here.” I remember reading once that shortly after becoming leader of the NDP someone in the party ran a survey to see whether voters liked his mustache. When he found out, he called over a media scrum and said something to the effect of, “The only person who gets an opinion about my mustache is my wife, and she likes it!”

He was a straight-shooter, and when he shook your hand and made small-talk, you really had the sense that in that minute or two he cared about whatever you had to say. The only politician I ever gave my email to was Jack. Again, I’m not a party member. He was that good.

It occurs to me I keep calling him Jack. I’ve shaken Stephen Harper’s hand. I’ve met Bob Rae half a dozen times or more. I admire them both in their way, but I wouldn’t dream of calling them by their first name, let alone the familiar diminutive of John Gilbert Layton, the man the majority of Canadians would have liked to have a beer with and perhaps see as Prime Minister one day –whether they liked his politics or not.

When Jack announced he was taking a leave of absence –when he looked so drawn and thin and weary– I strongly suspected it would come to this. Maybe not in four weeks, but I worried I would never hear from him again. When Jack had prostrate cancer he said so and wore a blue tie, and he fought the good fight and he beat that damned disease into the dust; then he campaigned across the second-largest country in the world with a strut and swagger only embellished by a cane. This ‘new cancer’ was never labelled, and I’m sure that was a mercy: Jack knew he was going to go, and he didn’t want his name attached to a fatal prognosis in the mind of other Canadians suffering the same dreaded illness. I don’t know if he died of lymphoma or liver cancer or lung cancer, and I hope we never learn what finally laid him low. Fighting cancer is a life and death struggle, and Jack made the conscious decision to throw himself on the grenade and keep his death sentence a private matter, even when you could see it written on his face, hear the quaver in his voice.

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Remembrance Day, 2010

November 10, 2010

Tomorrow is Remembrance Day. It’s the first Remembrance Day of my life that I will not be celebrating with my grandfather, Murray Anderson, a veteran of the Second World War who passed away last winter.

In December, 2009, I scanned a number of pictures he took during his time in the Royal Canadian Navy with the intention of uploading them to honour today. Unfortunately I cracked the motherboard of the computer containing those scanned pictures last spring, and I haven’t managed to recover the harddrive yet. When I do, you can be sure I’ll upload them to this blog.

In the meantime, I want to put something up here in his memory, and to mark this day where we remember all those who have served and sacrificed in the past and present so that we can live in a better world. On my facebook profile I have a collection of photos of his ship that I’ve found online up, and so I’ll republish them here for a wider audience.

This is my grandfather’s ship, the HMCS Dumheller (K167). Of the 37 U-Boats destroyed by the Canadian Navy during the Second World War, it sank one and assisted in sinking another. It also served in Operation Neptune, the naval component of Operation Overlord, the Allied Invasion of Europe.

My grandfather was one of the wireless operators aboard the HMCS Drumheller. His ship escorted the Mulberry hulks, old wrecks that were scuttled off the D-Day beaches to make breakwaters and piers so the Allies could use the Normandy beaches as a port.

On June 6th the HMCS Drumheller was just offshore. He could see bodies floating in the water. He told me he saw a troopship, its deck full of soldiers, hit a mine and vanish in a flash of light and white water. Later that day he was out on the deck when the HMS Norfolk was firing its eight-inch guns inland against Nazi positions. He burst his eardrum and permanently lost his hearing in his right ear. He never reported the injury for fear of being put ashore, and it wasn’t until the 1980s that he filed a claim with veterans affairs. He was afraid he was going to get in trouble somehow for concealing his war wound for so long.

This is the HMCS Drumheller coming into a harbour. This photo was taken from the deck of a Canadian destroyer. See the sailors lined up on the deck? During the run up to D-Day it worked alone, shepherding individual ships from British port to British port along the English Channel.

One night he said they were escorting an American merchantman through the English Channel, and they could hear over the water the special whine of a German E-Boat (a torpedo boat that was easily a match for the Drumheller). The Canadians were hoping that the Germans wouldn’t find them, but the Americans had a 50-calibre machine gun bolted to their bow, and they started firing wildly into the night. All of a sudden my grandfather heard the ‘Ping! Ping! Ping!’ as the bullets bounced off the metal of the E-Boat. The Germans revved up their engines, turned tail and ran. He figures they must have thought anyone with the nerve to shoot at them must have been another torpedo boat. The Americans trigger-happy attitude saved the day.

My grandfather told me once they were in Portsmouth, and V-1 Buzz Bombs were flying overhead. All the ships in the harbour were firing their anti-aircraft guns, and then the orders came over the radio from the harbour master to cease fire immediately: If any of the V-1s were shot down, they could have hit one of the ammunition ships. The RAF would take care of them once they were in land.
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On Robert Service’s The Cremation of Sam McGee

September 6, 2010

I have a lifelong relationship with Robert Service’s The Cremation of Sam McGee. It was one of my mother’s favourite bedtime stories because it was short. I most often requested a book called The Golden Eagle: It was fascinating, beautifully illustrated, and it took about forty-five minutes to get through. When my mother didn’t want to commit that kind of time to putting my sister and I to bed, though, she could always get me to agree to a reading of this poem.

I remember it was the first time I ever heard of Tennessee, and so my mother would have to explain it was someplace very warm –though not tropical– many hours’ drive to the south of our quiet street in Toronto. Then she would have to explain that the Dawson Trail was on the far side of Canada from where I lay, tucked in under my covers. It was desperately cold there, but more than eighty years ago thousands of people came from all over the world to search for gold.

This poem was my introduction to the idea of cremation. It was my first ghost story. It was the first time I heard of dog sleds, or ships trapped in the ice and abandoned. It might even have been the first story I ever heard where someone died.

I can think of many times this poem and I have crossed paths. When I was in grade five or six they would send me down to the grade one and two classroom to help the younger students with their reading assignments. The Cremation of Sam McGee was in their story books, and I remember reading it many times aloud to them, explaining what was happening along the way, just as my mother had for me. A story is always better with the context, I find.

Years later I remember a woman I was dating spotting a copy of it on my bookshelf and saying she knew the whole thing by heart. I was so pleased with this declaration that I asked her to recite it, and there followed one of the funniest and most awkward conversations I have ever had without being able to laugh aloud:

“There are strange things done… Um… Line?”

“In the midnight sun.”

“There are strange things done in the midnight sun by the men who… Uh… Line?”

“Moil.”

“Moil? That can’t be right.”

“It’s like toil.”

“Okay… By the men who moil for gold. The arctic trails have seen strange tales… Shoot… Line?”

This went on for much longer than you would believe possible. She really thought she had it, because she had given a speech about it in school many years before. To be fair, I shouldn’t have put her on the spot like that. She didn’t want to give up, and she didn’t want me to let her off the hook. We never made it as far as Sam McGee’s death, and that’s the last I’ll say about that.

I have recently finished Pierre Berton’s excellent book, Klondike, but I was disappointed that Robert Service was only mentioned twice in passing, and never in the context of his poetry outside of the end notes for the revised edition. There were tantalizing mentions of Lake Lebarge and steamships trapped in the ice, of dog teams and many queer tales that did indeed make my blood run cold, but it turns out Service missed the gold rush itself, so Berton rightfully did not include much about the man or his work in his otherwise exhaustive and thorough record of the last great gold rush.

Anyway, the book set my mind to work once more upon the poem and its setting, so I’ve decided to put it up on the blog, along with a wonderful reading of it by the late but immortal Johnny Cash (although he does use the word toil instead of moil). Enjoy!

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I felt the whole world tremble today. I’m adding it to my list of unlikely experiences.

June 23, 2010

Today I felt the whole world tremble.

I never thought I would experience an earthquake. I know for many people it is something that is viewed as the cost of doing business, but I live in Toronto, which doesn’t see a lot of seismic activity. What little we do get –the ‘pop back’ from the ground rising up after being depressed by glaciers that disappeared ten thousand years ago– only occurs once every decade or two, and it generally goes unnoticed except by the sensitive equipment of scientists who monitor such things. That wasn’t the case today, though. For fifteen or twenty seconds, everything noticeably trembled.

( map from the CBC )

The 5.0-magnitude earthquake’s epicentre was hundreds of kilometers away, and nineteen kilometers under ground, but I felt it as a distinct and unsettling vibration, a tremor that I first mistook for some piece of heavy machinery at one of the three different condo building sites that surrounds my office just north of Bay and Bloor. It didn’t make sense, though: No truck could sustain that kind of building-wide vibration. I rose from my desk and made eye contact with the woman across the way from me.

“Did you feel that?” She asked.

“Yes,” I said, elaborating on my theory. Someone else on the floor said it was an earthquake, but I didn’t believe that was possible. Not in Toronto. Not for that long. Not that noticable. No way.

People started walking from window to window, checking to see if there was unusual activity at one of the building sites around us, but nothing explained it. My stomach continued to tremble long after my feet told me the vibrations were gone. The thought that the world could be made to shake –the power that it takes to shake the whole world– just seemed so unlikely, so beyond my ken.

I jumped onto my computer, and within two minutes, the Globe & Mail had a bulletin up on their website: It was definitely an earthquake. It had been stronger in Ottawa, and the paper’s newsroom there had been evacuated. Information flowed in via twitter: People had felt it in Montreal, in Windsor, in Ohio. What a thought! I could lay my palm flat on a map of North America, and everything under my palm had been vibrating just moments ago.

One of my co-workers muttered, “I can’t die here…” then at length she returned to work.

I sat at my desk for a long time, consciously aware of my heart beating, trying to wrap my head around what had just happened. I admit, I got very little done over the next couple of hours.

It’s something new to add to my list of strange, unique experiences, and I spent the rest of the day, on and off, quietly contemplating some of the other unlikely events I have witnessed in my life.
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Diefenbaker’s Foreign Policy

May 13, 2010

I enjoyed reworking one of my old university essays for publication on this blog last month, and so I’ve decided to do so again. This time my subject will be the foreign policy of former Canadian prime minister John Diefenbaker.

Oh, I know: Canadian History, what dreary stuff. Balderdash! Canadian History is boring when it’s taught in a boring way. I took a couple of courses in university that were taught with great fire and enthusiasm by a professor I deeply admire. His passion was obvious and infectious, and his memory for obscure details and stories from Canada’s past was astounding: Several years after taking his courses I ran into him in the halls one day, and he remembered I was a descendant of Empire Loyalists. Hundreds of students had come and gone through his classrooms in the interim, but he remembered that. It impresses me still.

Anyway, I wrote this essay for one of his classes, and I’ve always been fond of it. As I mentioned in April, I’m aware that anything I put up on the internet is free for someone to appropriate, so I’ve taken out the footnotes and bibliography, rendering it much less useful to anyone looking for a quick copy and paste to solve their looming deadline problem. My old homework really shouldn’t end up being someone else’s easy way out. That’s not to say any students reading this aren’t welcome to use this essay as either a source, or perhaps as a jumping off point to go to their school’s libraries and find the monographs that support my arguments. I’d be very pleased if that were to happen.

For non-student readers who feel like taking a mental stroll through one of the more interesting and convoluted ambitions of one of Canada’s most interesting and convoluted prime ministers, read on and enjoy!

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My Grandmother, Serena Anderson

January 18, 2010

Serena Anderson, 84

I mentioned last month that I’ve scanned in a number of pictures from my grandparents’ old photo albums. Everything I’ve put up thus far has been from my grandfather’s youth, and so I thought I’d mix things up a little bit by putting up some information on my grandmother. A great deal of the following text comes from an interview I did with my grandmother for a school English assignment. I have no idea what the project was about, but I must have put a lot of time into it based on how long the interview was. Anyway, I recently came into possession of a number of my old computer files, and I was delighted to find this conversation typed up. I’m sorry that some of my questions are a little stilted and her answers tend to ramble. I was just a kid when I did this, and I had no idea how to conduct a proper interview. I have added some recent additions and notes. You’ll find them in square brackets.

My grandmother will be 85 this August, and a lot of interesting things have happened to her: As a newborn she spent six months in a hospital, hours away from her mother, and she may have been almost adopted by her mother’s cousin. Even my grandmother is a little hazy on the details of that episode. Her father died in a logging accident before she was five years old. She spent a lot of her childhood as a pair of working eyes for a blind neighbour. She grew up very poor during the Great Depression. She gave up school at fourteen after her mother was in a car accident, and then she got a job working for seventeen cents an hour six days a week in a wool mill. Her youth was spent in a very different Canada from the one I live in today, and I think I’m rather lucky to have these stories to paint a picture of what that was like.

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Documents found in my mother’s antique desk dating to just after the end of the First World War

January 14, 2010

My mother's desk. Above it there's a picture of my grandfather, Philip Micks, along with his medals from the Second World War.

My mother collects antiques, or at least she likes them enough to keep an eye out for them when she pursues one of her true passions in life, interior decorating. Some years ago she bought a writing desk of quarter cut oak, and within one of the drawers she was told were some documents from the desk’s original owner dating to just after the end of the Great War. I have a friend who is a government archivist –and to hear that woman speak in awe about the benefits of acid free paper is to be in the presence of true devotion– but I confess I have no idea how to go about preserving these pages beyond keeping them in their drawer. We do our best not to handle them or disturb them, but now that I have an outlet to share them with a wider audience through this blog, I’ve scanned them and written them out. Hopefully I haven’t done too much lasting damage to the originals in the process.

The first is a draft of a letter to a periodical (possibly the old Leamington Post and News) protesting that no true veteran of the trenches could possibly bemoan the free issue of rum and tobacco products given to soldiers on the Front. I’ve recently read Shock Troops by Tim Cook (I’ll do a book review soon), and he made several mentions of the British tradition of issuing rum and cigarettes to infantry. When those soldiers returned to civilian life, Canada was in the grips of Prohibition, and they flexed a lot of voting power to get those laws repealed, much to the consternation of the Temperance Movement. I would hazard a guess that I know which way the author of these documents voted on that matter.
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The Most Incredible Thing I Ever Ate Out Of A Dixie Cup With My Fingers

December 28, 2009

Believe it or not, this is one of the best things I have ever eaten. Cutlery wasn't available. I ate it with my fingers, and just looking at that disgusting glob gives me a powerful urge to try to make it myself...

I’ve heard the most powerful trigger of memory is the sense of smell, followed closely by taste. I’m inclined to believe that’s true. Several hours ago I was two hundred kilometers from where I now sit, enjoying a bowl of pea soup at my grandparents’ house. The first whiff of my lunch transported me six months into the past and fifteen hundred kilometers further away to my summer vacation in Thunder Bay, Ontario. The memory was so powerful, I’ve been thinking about it the whole drive home, and now I’m blogging about it. I speak, of course, of the last time I had pea soup –if you can call it pea soup. It was the most incredible thing I ever ate out of a dixie cup with my fingers.
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A Car Story from the Early 1920s

December 3, 2009

This is another photo from the collection I scanned up at my grandparents’ place two weekends ago. My grandfather thinks this photo was taken before he was born, which would date it prior to 1924. There is a small possibility that he’s the little boy second from the left whose face is in shadow, which would put the photo somewhere around 1928. Either way, it is a very old picture. Working from the assumption that it predates Murray Anderson’s birth, those would be my great uncles Bruce, Graydon, Henry and Clarence sitting on the running board, along with my eldest great aunt, Margaret. The face sticking out of the driver’s side doesn’t look much like their father, Elmore Anderson. It might be the neighbour, Mr. Monaham (who has a story of his own worth putting up here), but I think we’ll just have to leave him unidentified.

When my grandfather saw this photo, his eyes lit up, and he told me a story that has been often repeated at Anderson family gatherings for the last eighty years and more. It took place a couple of years before this photo, but that is the car, and those are (some of) the kids. This is the story:
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