What I miss most

Iris

Despite being divorced, I will be forever grateful for my amazing marriage and am fortunate to maintain a friendship with my former spouse that will hopefully last a lifetime.

But even with that companionable joy, there are things I miss about sharing my life with another, moments and situations remembered with a smile and an emptiness.

Walking into a room and knowing you were there.

My lap being used as an ottoman while watching TV.

Resting my head on a cushion and smelling your perfume.

Knowing you’ll be completely unconscious 10 minutes into the movie you chose.

Feeling the bed jostle as you roll over in the middle of the night.

Sensing your skin millimeters before actually touching it.

Shared silence.

A bed that is mussed on both sides.

Watching you engrossed in an activity.

Knowing you’ll be home any minute.

Happy Valentine’s Day to you all, whether partnered or not.

The Pentagon on a Tuesday morning

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On Tuesday, September 11, 2001–as we did every weekday–my wife and I rode the bus from our home in Northern Virginia to the Pentagon Metro Station, where I still daily marveled at my proximity to one of the most iconic buildings on the planet. As I described it to my then mother-in-law: “big building, five sides, it’s in all the movies”.

Moving with the crowd, we descended into the station to ride the train, parting company in town as she headed to work and I headed for an Amtrak train to Baltimore. It was Day Two of a scientific conference that I was covering for my publication MDD.

An hour after we got off that bus and headed into the tunnel at Pentagon Metro Station, the plane struck one of those five sides.

Below is the latter half of my report on that conference. The first half was a litany of instrumentation, seminars and breakthroughs that immediately became unimportant to everyone in attendance.

But the focus on the show floor quickly shifted from biomolecular screening to terrorism. People by the dozens flipped open cell phones, holding fingers to open ears in an attempt to better hear dial tones that were not there, moving swiftly from the floor into the atrium hunting in vain for a signal from above.

A voice boomed from the public address system letting us know that the impossible had indeed happened and that planes had struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. All speech ceased as a thoughtful pall descended on the floor, with only the perpetual whine and click of the robotic plate handlers breaking the silence. Finally, the voice broke through to tell us that it would try to keep us up-to-date as information came in.

But the waiting became too much as the line for computer access became longer and the cell phones were intermittent comfort at best. A crowd formed around the booth hosted by Beckman Coulter, which had turned its large screen monitors to CNN, and we all stood transfixed as we witnessed the madness that was New York. Some of the witnesses wiped away tears while others whispered silent prayers.

By noon, the day was over and convention center staff moved through the hall trying to herd attendees into the atrium while company representatives threw swatches of cloth over the equipment and turned off the lights. Without a defined place to go, however, the attendees milled about the atrium for several minutes before finally flowing as if by gravity into the streets around the convention center.

The conference that started with such high scientific hopes was interrupted by an act of insane brutality.

0 1 0 9 1 4 - F - 8 0 0 6 R - 0 0 3    FBI agents, fire fighters, rescue workers and engineers work at the Pentagon crash site on Sept. 14, 2001, where a high-jacked American Airlines flight slammed into the building on Sept. 11.  The terrorist attack caused extensive damage to the west face of the building and followed similar attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.   DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Cedric H. Rudisill.  (Released)

DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Cedric H. Rudisill. (Released)

Inside definitely Out (a review)

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Earlier today, I had the opportunity to see the latest Pixar movie Inside Out in the company of one of the film’s writers and its story supervisor Josh Cooley (a very nice man). And aside from receiving a lovely lecture about story development at the famed animation house, the connection afforded me an opportunity to appreciate the movie much more than I did on simple viewing.

To briefly bring everyone up to speed, Inside Out tells the story of the emotions that rattle around inside the mind of 11-year-old Riley as she struggles with a move across the country. Although we are introduced to 5 main emotions in Riley Headquarters (get it?)—Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear—there is no mistaking that Joy is numero uno in this space.

Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) sucks the oxygen out of any room she’s in and proves that even the best intentioned of assholes is still an asshole. Her goal in life is to make every moment of Riley’s life a happy one and is not worried about shoving aside the others (ever so happily) to ensure that.

But where Joy has developed a respectful détente with Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Fear (Bill Hader), she firmly but gently has no use for Sadness (Phyllis Smith), practically ostracising the poor creature to the periphery.

With the upset of the move from Minnesota to San Francisco, though, Sadness seems to want to be more involved and in a fracas with Joy, the two get sucked out of headquarters and into the long-term storage hinterlands of Riley’s brain.

At this point, the story basically turns into the Odyssey as the two emotions struggle to return home before Riley falls completely apart at the hands of the others. (To say much more would be to offer spoilers.)

Joy and Sadness wander the hinterlands of long-term memories

Joy and Sadness wander the hinterlands of long-term memories

The challenge I had was in trying to figure out exactly at whom Pixar was targeting the movie.

Superficially, this is a pure kids movie (ages 6 to 10, maybe), unlike many previous Pixar concoctions, which had elements for both kids and adults. Inside Out doesn’t have the depth of Toy Story or The Incredibles to truly speak to adults, much as the most mature 11-year-old isn’t ready for the adult world.

I’m not saying there aren’t adult-focused jokes interspersed throughout the film, but rather exactly that. They are interspersed, like small granules of sugar designed to feed the parents accompanying the kids to the theatre.

Up talked about loss and aging

Up talked about loss and aging

There is no real adult storyline to this film to touch adults as there was in Up or Wall-E. Instead, the film has sweet, adorable moments of baby bums and first goals that might tug at a parent’s heartstrings but never engage the soul.

But as a friend suggested, it is not strictly a kids flick either because it touches on esoteric aspects of the psyche that kids that age would never be able to comprehend, such as abstract thought and the concept of forgotten memories. The problem is these aspects are more conversations of the mind and not the soul. So even here, the adult is largely passed over unless they have an interest in neurology and psychology.

Wall-E dealt with issues of love and environmental destruction

Wall-E dealt with issues of love and environmental destruction

And as a writer, perhaps the biggest sin with Inside Out is there is no sense of what’s at stake.

Sure, Joy is losing her cool as she fights to get back to headquarters. For her, Riley having a down moment is a disaster.

And Sadness isn’t exactly having a picnic as she is routinely sideswiped or ignored by Joy in their efforts to get home. If anything, she increasingly takes the blame for everything onto herself.

But what’s at stake? What if they don’t get back to headquarters?

Does someone die? Is life no longer worth living?

I don’t know because that was never a question on the table. And without stakes, I find it difficult to root for the hero.

And this challenge is made all the more difficult by the fact that the hero (Joy) is also the villain, albeit passively. She is truly her own worst enemy, and so I quickly find myself irritated by her with no great concerns about the outcome.

The six hour conversation and lesson with Cooley helped me see a lot more of what the writers, animators, editors, directors and producers were trying to accomplish. And that did help me understand the movie better. The thing is, few others were going to get this kind of help.

The movie will do well at the box office. Of that I have no doubt. It is a wonderful vivid distraction for young kids.

But it won’t have the staying power of Pixar’s earlier efforts and likely won’t be spoken of again in a few years other than in possibly hushed whispers.

Thank you

Varied of tradition, but singular in purpose.

Varied of tradition, but singular of purpose.

I just walked to the grocery store without a second thought beyond wondering whether milk would be on sale or if I could get there and back before it started to rain.

Thank you.

Last night, friends and I filmed puppetry vignettes in which we satirized recent political events and social attitudes, laughing freely and openly.

Thank you.

On Saturday, I met a friend for bacon sandwiches and then walked home along the beach, smiling at kids playing in the sand and dogs excitedly greeting each other.

Thank you.

Today, my biggest concern is whether I will get off my backside and walk two blocks to change my cellphone carrier or if I’d rather just bitch about the one I am presently using.

Thank you.

My home hasn’t been destroyed. I’m not worried about my next meal. My family hasn’t been slaughtered. No one will kick in my door because I made a joke online. And you and I can completely disagree on local, national and world politics and social trends.

Thank you.

And even with all that, five “thank yous” is not nearly enough to express my gratitude to the men, women and families who have sacrificed everything so that all of the above is true.

I live in Canada. It is Memorial Day in the United States. And none of that matters. The international boundary does not make any of what I have written less true.

We may choose different days and express our feelings in different ways, yet we have but one purpose: gratitude.

Thank you.

From Ottawa's Parliament Hill to Washington's National Mall to France's Vimy Ridge, we must never forget and always be grateful.

From Ottawa’s Parliament Hill to Washington’s National Mall to France’s Vimy Ridge, we must never forget and always be grateful.

Remembering to Imagine

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I had just moved my bedroom to the basement of the townhouse we lived in. The lights were off as I lie on the mattress listening to the radio. I can’t remember what I was thinking of, but it probably had something to do with my next day at school, Grade 12 at White Oaks Secondary School in Oakville, Ontario.

As a song ended, the announcer came on the air to deliver the fateful news that John Lennon had been shot and killed outside of his home at the Dakota Apartments in New York City. Details were sketchy at that exact moment, so the announcer simply put on the song Imagine.

john-lennon-slain

For every way that the death of Elvis Presley affected my mother just three years earlier, the murder of John Lennon felt that much bigger for me.

Not quite old enough to have been impacted by Beatlemania the first time through, I had fond memories of The Beatles cartoon, the movie Help, and the bajillion songs that the four band mates had produced together and in solo ventures. To this day, I cannot see Ringo Starr without thinking back to the movies Caveman or The Magic Christian.

But with the murder of John Lennon, my fondness became a mania as I started to realize what I had largely missed in only listening to pop radio and watching late night movies. I set out immediately to learn everything I could about the man and the band. If nothing else, this instantly made birthday and Christmas present buying so much easier for those around me.

Within a few years, the can-do-no-wrong mania tempered into an acknowledgement that these were not gods, but brilliant artists with all the flaws that go with being humans under a microscope.

I don’t like a lot of the music John Lennon produced, but what I do like, I adore. The man was an absolute prick at the best of times, and yet I could see where some of that came from as I learned his life story. Had we ever known each other, I seriously doubt he and I would have been friends. Our personalities simply would not have meshed.

But none of that takes away from the wonders of his music and his poetry.

Thirty-four years later, I still have reason to weep in the dark for my loss, but thankfully, 34 years later, I still have your art to refill the broken heart.

Lest we forget: Thanking the fallen

Remembrance Day Poppy

On November 11th in Canada, we take a moment out of our day at 11am to remember those who have fallen in war to define and defend our rights and freedoms as a nation and a people. We call it Remembrance Day and in the British tradition, we symbolize it with a poppy.

I am of the fortunate age that while I never had to experience the terror of war myself, I am old enough to have spoken with many of my family members who have served in the Canadian military both in times of war and in times of peace.

My great grandfather Francis Sowden served in the First World War, the war whose Armistice Day we commemorate. My grandfather Allan Eby served in the Second World War as part of the Canadian forces that invaded Italy and freed the region from Nazi occupation. Similarly, my great uncles served in the military, one making it his career.

Each man had his own experiences. Each man could relate his own stories.

I remember fondly, when I grew old enough to understand, listening to my grandfather relate his experiences; in some ways, his greatest days and in others, his worst. In his own gentle way, he taught a brash young know-it-all with all the answers on the failure of war a thing or two about life and the need to defend freedom when called upon.

Beloved and missed

As I visited my grandparents’ gravesite the other day, I came upon the graves of several other soldiers, their tombstones clearly marked, their ranks smartly inscribed. And I stopped for a moment to thank them for their sacrifices.

It was only then that I noticed a monument atop a hill, something I had never seen before, that paid homage to the fallen. A soldier with bowed head. Very humbling.

To the men and women who sacrificed everything for my home, I thank you.

To the men and women who served bravely or waited nervously for family members to return home, I thank you.

To my friends who continue to serve for Canada or any other country, I thank you.

As long as I am alive, your story will not go unheard or unremembered.