Sunday, January 31, 2010

Memories of Student Journalism

Patricia Rozema

On Friday I was interviewed by the University of Ottawa's student paper, The Fulcrum. The interviewer was a first year student, and I couldn't help but recall my own student journalism days, many many many years ago.

I was a writer for the University of Toronto student papers, The Varsity, The Gargoyle and The Newspaper. This was back in the late 1980s and early 90s, so there were no websites back then, and even email was a rarity. Many would type out their articles on typewriters! Gasp! I know!

I wrote mostly arts reviews, and rarely something more serious. I wrote about 40 articles for those journals back in the day, and at least one was included (without my permission, I will add) in some Japanese coffee table book about an art installation I'd reviewed ("Ball Crowd Illuminates Riotous Architecture", The Varsity, Oct 2, 1992). The rest were of variable quality, but each had the fullness of my attention. The experience, without a doubt, helped me to develop the skills and discipline to become a professional writer.

My very first editor was Isabel Vincent, who went on to Canadian journalistic fame. The article I wrote for her was a review of a new TV show called Star Trek: The Next Generation. I'd concluded that the show would probably not have a long run. I was quickly pigeonholed as the "Star Trek guy", and was subsequently sent out to review a couple of Star Trek conventions. Yeah, chicks dig guys who write about Star Trek. Right?

My old high school friend Simon Houpt was my subsequent editor. Simon, of course, is now a superstar arts writer for the Globe & Mail, and author of Museum Of The Missing: A History of Art Theft. I remember that one of Simon's thrills was occupying the Gargoyle office once owned by David Cronenberg when he, too, was a student journalist. The lineage of such things is deep and important.

(A decade later, Simon and I would meet Ted Turner in the men's room of a movie theatre. Simon would go on to interview Billionaire Ted in an article that briefly caused a little stir in American print media. I mentioned the meeting briefly in one of my wrestling columns at the time.)

I recall fondly my first "big name" interview, which was arranged by Simon. It was with film director Patricia Rozema at the so-called "Festival of Festivals", which is what the Toronto International Film Festival was called back then. It's quite the giddy thing for a naive 20-something to be cast into the world of glamorous film festivals, with a catering room, press pass, press kit and everything! I would go on to review the TIFF for a variety of magazines years later, as my career matured.

Ms Rozema was very helpful, as she could probably tell how nervous I was. She told me to stop recording and check to see if the tape recorder was actually working. Now that I myself am sometimes interviewed, often by inexperienced journalists, it's something that I find myself doing: asking the interviewer to check on his recording device. I was such a pathetic sod, that at one point the interview turned into a therapy session as Ms Rozema attempted to console my broken heart, recently made so by an ended relationship.

I'll never forget something she told me during the formal interview. She was talking about how people search for meaning through family and by doing good deeds, leaving their mark, etc. I asked her then what her purpose in life was, and she replied, "To make beautiful things through my art." At the time, I thought it was the stupidest, flakiest and most self-obsessive thing I'd ever heard. I'm not so sure anymore.

I'll also never forget the reception that my interview received, so typical of idiotic, self-important youth. The first line of the article was, "Patricia Rozema is a beautiful woman in every respect." Predictably, the newspaper received letters of complaint that I was "objectifying" her. Insert rolling eyes here.

One of the curious things about student journalism, especially at a big and important school like the University of Toronto, is that you never know who your coworkers will become. Another old friend of mine, Matthew Vadum, was big on the student journalism scene and now makes it big on American TV and print. Another gadabout in those days was Hal Niedzviecki, who has certainly carved out a niche for himself in Canadian culture.

Back in the Varsity days, I worked alongside many future big names. Two necessarily come to mind: Naomi Klein, who is now one of the most famous women in the world; and Tim Long, who is now a writer and producer for The Simpsons. (And I will personally attest that long before the Powers That Be noticed him, Tim Long was a reflexively hilarious writer and a naturally hilarious fellow.)

As a result, despite whatever small success my writing has afforded me, I hope you will forgive me for never quite feeling up to the task. Look to whom I must constantly compare myself!

So what's the lesson here? There is none, except to say that so much of student experience separate from the formal academics plays a role in shaping one's skills and path in life. I wonder who the young woman who interviewed me on Friday will become in 15 years.

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Wednesday, December 30, 2009


After literally months of stealing a few minutes here and there, I finally just finished reading the 936 page novel called Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts. The book is already an international bestseller, and was recommended to me by my Australian friend Phil after I'd related to him my joy at reading Suketu Mehta's Maximum City. While the latter is a non-fiction account of life in Mumbai (Bombay), Shantaram is a novelization of the true life story of Roberts, a New Zealander heroin addict serving prison time for armed robbery, who escapes from prison to Mumbai, where various circumstances compel him to become a slum doctor, a mafia soldier, a counterfeiter and a gun runner to the Mujahideen in Afghanistan.

It's a very large story, replete with intricate, fascinating detail about multilayered life in Mumbai. But, at its core, it's a study of the nature of love and freedom, in the sense of those words that Plato would have most enjoyed. Before his downfall, Roberts had been on an academic path to become a professor of philosophy. His study of violence and meaning, intertwined with the poetry of pain, both psychic and physical, is in many ways a masterpiece of meditation.

The book is rife with laughable purple prose at times, such as this description of a sex scene: "My body was her chariot, and she rode me into the sun." But more common are somewhat profound studies on the essence of free will, like the book's powerful opening:

"It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured. I realized, somehow, through the screaming in my mind, that even in that shackled, bloody helplessness, I was still free: free to hate the men who were torturing me, or to forgive them. It doesn't sound like much, I know. But in the flinch and bite of the chain, when its all you have got, that freedom is a universe of possibility. And the choice you make, between hating and forgiving,can become the story of your life."

If you're interested in an honest and intimate portrayal of the Indian ethic, and/or a unique perspective on the motivations and fragilities of masculinity, I recommend the book to you. You'll be inundated with talk of it soon enough, though, since Johnny Depp and Amitabh Bachchan are making the motion picture version pretty damn soon... unless, of course, rumours that the film has been shelved are to be believed.

During my traditional post-read research, I came across some interesting lectures and interviews by Gregory David Roberts. First is a five part interview with the dizty Indian hostess, "Sexy Pooja". Part 1 is here. Here is part 2:

And here are links to parts 3, 4 and 5. They're sort of worth it just to see a white dude speak streety Hindi and Marathi.

The next three videos (parts 1, 2 and 3) are of Roberts giving a lecture to some social group. He tells a good story or two.

For those who've read the book, I think you'll really enjoy this four part interview with Roberts on CNN Asia, in which he takes us on a tour of the slums in which his book was set:

part 1

part 2

part 3

part 4

In Other News

My review of James Cameron's new science fiction movie Avatar is now up at Go have a look.

And because I'm sick in bed and sort of bored, here's a great photo I found on the Interwebs. Is this not the definition of elegant?

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Saturday, June 20, 2009


Greetings from the 2009 Podcasters Across Borders convention in sunny Kingston, Ontario. As you probably don't know, my friend (she would say, "acquaintance", I'm sure) Chamika A. and I have been trying to launch Chutnification, a podcast about South Asian literature, for some months now. Don't think about stealing the name. We already own it. So we're here for the skinny on the podcasting world. Yes, it's a nerdly sausage fest. But you know what? So far it's a pretty fun time. The fellow conventioneers are all well engaged and genuinely nice people, and there ain't nothin' wrong wit dat.

Here's a pic of Chamika and me. I'm throwing down some bad-ass gang signs. So no, I'm not having a seizure:

Since our podcast doesn't have any, you know, content yet, I'm calling it a "mimecast". Yes, you can use that terminology, too, but don't you dare forget where you heard it first. Or didn't hear it, since that's the point of the joke, after all...

Tonight I had some more ideas for podcasts:

A show about fishing: codcast
Another show about fishing: rodcast
A show for Evangelical Christians: godcast
A show for weed smokers: potcast
Another show about weed smoking: podgrass
A show for cattle ranchers: prodcast
A show for fitness freaks: bodcast
A show about Flash comic books: Gorilla Grodcast
A show about my favourite Superman villain: Kneel Before Zodcast
A show about failing computers: podcrash
A show broadcast in double stereo: quadcast
A show about affirmation: nodcast
A show about nasal hygiene: snotcast
A show about potatoes: spudcast
A slow moving show: plodcast

Well, you get the idea.

In Other News...

Darth Vadum sends us Sex Myths That Are Actually True.

Any Iranians out there wishing to protest the current shenanigans online, but are afraid of exposure? Try Anonymous Iran.

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Sunday, May 24, 2009

You're Fired!....Guv'nor.

Cousin Ajay sends us this. Is funny:

Cousin Ajay also sends us this, with the comment that he fears it might turn kids retarded:

Cousin Ajay is on a roll. (It's a figure of speech; he's not actually riding bread.) He also sends us Helen Keller's twitter feed. Go look.

Special Ed sends us Captain Kirk's Best and Worst Moments. (Yes, it's the real Kirk, not this new poser.) The list is missing the bit where Kirk has nasty Captain sex with the hyperfast accelerated woman who can kill him with a scratch, yet somehow manages to avoid any and all abrasions. That's skill.

Special thanks to Dr Qais Ghanem for hosting myself and Dr Robert Huish on Dr Ghanem's radio show last Friday. Hopefully the MP3 of the interview will be posted very soon.

A further thanks to the organizers of the CSEB student conference this weekend for inviting me to be a judge in theit epidemiology poster competition. Ironically, this weekend I also judged a literary contest with co-judge Shanthi Sekaran. Shanthi's new book is getting a lot of attention; I can't wait to read it.

What am I doing now? Procrastinating. How? By watching the UK version of The Apprentice. Man, I love this show! Well, I love most things British. It's so delicious watching Brits argue. Their turns of phrases sound so cute and alien to me that it's impossible for me to get too emotional about it, only highly entertained. And I love that their equivalent of Donald Trump, Sir Alan Sugar, is an enormous prick who doesn't take shit from anyone, and whose firing decisions appear to be both consistent and justified! What a change!

Okay, back to TV...

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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Spinal Crap

Well this has been quite the interesting week for me. Due to my herniated disc, I've been pretty much disabled, living in agony on my living room floor, unable to do the most basic tasks for myself. I have a new appreciation for the difficult lives of people with debilitating diseases. At times, the pain has been unbearable, almost driving me to tears. The strongest drugs at my disposal have done nothing, and some hours there wasn't a single position that was pain free.

I had to proctor three exams this past week, and did each while lying on the floor of the exam room, my lower back supported by either my acuball or a hot water pad. Not exactly pain free, but manageable. Actually getting to the exam room was the issue, as I limped along in blinding agony. Here are some photos I took on my cell phone while lying on the floor:

And here's a self portrait of my creepy mug trying hard not to grimace in pain while lying on the floor of the exam room:

Last night, the pain was so intense that I decided to go to the Emergency Room and request an epidural steroid. Putting on my shoes took half an hour, and was so tiring that I had to lie down to rest. Well, I was so exhausted that I fell asleep right there on the floor by my door, and never made it to the hospital. This is a good thing, since all I was looking for was a good night's sleep.

I woke up with a modicum less pain, but it was still a nightmare getting to my feet and down the street to pick up my vrtucar. See, I had to give a presentation this morning to a group of medical students going abroad. I wrote the bloody thing, in agony, while lying on the floor the night before. Luckily, I'd given several similar presentations over the past 2 years, so it was only a matter of plucking slides from existing sets.

Once again, I had to do the presentation alternating between standing, sitting, leaning, and lying on both a table and the floor. Sort of like William Shatner on The Family Guy:

Then I even managed to do a recording for a radio interview in my office, again while lying on the floor and coked up on pain killers. This horizontality is becoming my thing, I think.

By the time I got home, the drugs had all but knocked me out. I took a nap, half hanging off my bed, and awoke to.... painlessness. More or less. There are still twinges, but hallelujah, I'm no longer cursing in 4 languages and mixing narcotics. Only one way to celebrate: more narcotics!

In Other News...

A little late on the draw, but Janet Jagan, one of the people responsible for the independence of Guyana, and President of the country of my birth from 1997 to 1999, died on March 28. Some love her and some hate her, but there's no denying that she was a giant figure in the history of a tiny South American nation most people have never heard of.

Mrs. Jagan was a nice Jewish girl from Chicago. Amazingly, she found herself in a scandalous interracial marriage with Guyanese freedom hero Cheddi Jagan, a man of my racial extraction. It's a remarkable thing that this unremarkable suburban woman found herself kneedeep in the political intrigue of this hot country, eventually facing the warships of Winston Churchill, sent from Britain to topple their embryonic, Marxist government.

The movie, Thunder In Guyana, was based on her life. Frankly, I'm surprised big-money Hollywood types haven't latched onto this story.

I met Mrs. Jagan back in 2000, when she was briefly my "handler" when I was awarded a Guyana Prize for Sweet Like Saltwater. I was so nervous at the time that I didn't recognize her, and was vaguely annoyed that this old woman was trying to talk to me about her Canadian grandchildren while I was frantically trying to formulate a speech in my head.

When I realized who she was, I was quickly abashed and humbled. Now that she has passed, I am proud to have spent those few moments as her escort in the theatre. Here's the one photo I have of us:

RIP Janet Jagan, October 20, 1920 – March 28, 2009.

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Thursday, April 02, 2009

Gorgeous George Galloway

Weird evening. I paid $15 to sit in a theatre to watch a live video broadcast of George Galloway speaking from New York. It seems I could have watched it from home, for free, on RabbleTV.

I don't mind paying $15. George Galloway is a magnificent speaker. Even if you don't like what he has to say, you have to admire the man's effortless articulateness. It really was a remarkable performance, giving a speech to a camera in an empty room, without benefit of sensing his audience's reactions, and managing to bring said audience to their feet with his impassioned words and sensibilities.

I'm too tired to go into what he talked about. I think it's safe to say that if you agree with Galloway's positions on most things in the world, which I do, then you would have found his talk inspiring, though not particularly informative. If you don't agree with him, you would find his words frustrating. He does not serve to convince the opposition, nor I think to sway the undecided. But he does good work and he motivates the believers.

Though I've called him a buffoon on many instances, I do admire the man. He walks the talk.

In Other News...

It's no secret that I've been working on a new book for a few months now. It's advanced to the point where I was able to apply for a Canada Council grant. I'm proud to report that the Council found my work to be of good quality, and thus it was "highly recommended" for funding.

However, it seems there was not enough cash in the trough this year, and I was denied a grant. And so I feel my first pinch in this economic crisis. Damn! Here's the letter:

Oh well. Ontario Council, here I come....

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Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Porn Star Stewardesses: What A Wonderful Time To Be Alive!

Ack! I'm wearing reading glasses right now. READING GLASSES! How did this happen?

Don't know if you've heard, but it seems a RyanAir "air hostess" has been outed as a porn star. The best part of this story is the way the airline is sticking behind her (so to speak). Instead of playing the ridiculous anti-freedom moral card and insisting that the hostess's personal activities have some relevance to her job, their position is "What people do before or after they work for us is their business."

Hallelujah, brother!

Mind you, their highly ethical stance might be a bit more worthy of celebration if this wasn't the same company that is considering putting pay toilets in their planes and on making calendars of their employees in bikinis.

In Other News...

For my fellow writer friends, be sure to visit the Google Book Settlement page and to assert your rights over whatever content Google might have digitized without your permission. Now, I'm on record as being a fan of piracy and open access.... and that includes piracy of my written works. But if you'd a chance to get some cash out of a billion dollar corporation that made profit out of your works without your permission, go to it. The Writers Union of Canada advises writers not to opt out of the settlement.

Lastly, want to see some great presentation software? Check out!

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

What? You Want A Title, Too?

This is pretty cool. I got it from Dawn's Facebook page. It's a list of history's weirdest cases of mass hysteria. People are so lame.

Also in the cool category, Richard sends us this video of something called "Red Bull Crushed Ice", which is a sort of extreme skating event:

It gets better. Nasty Nicky B points out that I'm not the only one noticing the clearly Irish origins of President Bartholomew Paddy O'Bama, with the song, No One As Irish As Barack Obama.

Check out the following drawing by artist Dusty Abell, showing all the skiffy icons from the 70s. Amazing how a crap decade can seem some awesome in retrospect, no?

What to hear something fascinating? It's something I've noticed about my own records keeping practices with respect to this and my other websites. In the digital age, content is updated so rapidly that there is little or no record of what came before. In other words, for the first time in history, the written word is no longer a record of history. One fellow is taking it very seriously, and is taking steps to combat this trend. But it's an aspect of the paperless revolution that few saw coming.

Lastly, in a sign of the arrival of the genre, The Guardian has a list of the science fiction novels "everyone must read". Some questionable choices there, such as Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin, a lot of books I've never heard of, and a saddening tendency to confuse space opera and fantasy with true skiffy. Oh when will they learn? IO9 takes a crack at them here.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Page Three Boy

If you're having any doubts that George Bush's Amerikkka is slipping further along the path to an Orwellian paranoid police state, take a gander at this innocent article. Excerpt:

One of my colleagues was in the gathering crowd, trying to figure out what had happened. She heard my description—a Middle Eastern man driving a white Beetle with out-of-state plates—and knew immediately they were talking about me and realized that the box must have been manuscripts I was discarding. She approached them and told them I was a professor on the faculty there. Immediately the campus police officer said, "What country is he from?"

"What country is he from?!" she yelled, indignant.

"Ma’am, you are associated with the suspect. You need to step away and lower your voice," he told her.

Yeah, campus cops who think they're FBI. Great. The warmongering set likes to make comparisons between the modern Bush era and the "greatest generation" of WWII. Well, back then (when they weren't interning Japanese citizens), folks inspired each other with tales of courage and comfort. Today, we get highway signs reminding us to "report suspicious activity".

As Bill Maher put it, "For some inexplicable reason Republicans have taken to comparing Bush to Harry Truman -- a comparison that would make sense only if Harry Truman had A) started World War II and B) lost World War II."

In other news...

  • The first book in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials saga has been voted the best children's book in 70 years. I heartily extend by congratulations, as both a fan of Pullman's writing and an admirer of his courage in extending this controversial vision. The 20th century saw three great fantasy sagas in the English language: The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia and His Dark Materials. Most North Americans have yet to discover this gem, but they will when the movie comes out. The runner up --Tom's Midnight Garden-- is, however, my personal choice for best children's book. That one inspired me for many years from early childhood onto adolescence.

  • Have a look at the Let's Talk Science June newsletter. There's a special section on me! Page 3--- I guess that makes me a Page 3 boy!

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