Friday, 31 December 2010

"Barney's Version" (the film)


Who the hell’s “Version” is this, anyway?

posterIn my last post, I confided how much I was looking forward to seeing the film adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version. Yesterday, I actually put my money where my mouth is. Now all I can say is, be careful what you wish for.

I knew from earlier reviews that many attributes of the book that had most amused me—particularly its skewering of Quebec nationalist politics and Canadian cultural nationalism—had been left out. I was philosophical about this: after all, turning a 417-page, four-decades epic of one man’s life into a two-hour film demands some streamlining.

But there’s streamlining and then there’s the hatchet job, and I’m sorry to say, despite the smattering of applause from the nearly-full auditorium at its conclusion, Barney’s Version the film is more like the latter.

To mix metaphors a bit, it seems that the delicate artistic balance of the novel has been destroyed in this new “Version,” and this drunken lurch is nowhere better demonstrated than in the film’s treatment of Jews and women. And Jewish women, in particular.

Barney’s Version the novel is the fictive autobiographical confession, “the true story of my wasted life.” It has a largely tripartite structure, with books based on each of Barney Panofsky three marriages.

trigonometry

Now the triangle is an ancient, mystical, and frustrating form—just ask any teenager struggling through trig 101--and still holds great attraction to us today—as morbid interest in Aniston, Pitt, and Jolie, Charles, Diana, and Camilla, or the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, demonstrates. In Barney’s case, though, these three wives are in no way a triangle: they are guideposts in the life of a man on a mortal journey, searching for meaning and love. (Hmm, perhaps more like the Father-Son than I thought…)

The first Panofsky wife is Clara Chambers (actually Charnofsky), the hedonist of his youth, a first class f*cked up bitch. In the book, she is a talented artist whose modest genius is hugely inflated by the feminist commentary that grows around her suicide—a knock-off of Sylvia Plath, with Barney cast as Ted Hughes. In the movie, Clara’s (Rachelle Lefevre) talent is not discussed and the fame that lives on after her, redacted. Not so Clara’s father, played by Saul Rubinek1, who appears on the heels of her death as a bearded Orthodox Jew, unmasked in short order as another in the long line of Richler’s nasty Jewish characters.

clara

The second Mrs. Panofsky, an archetypal loudmouthed yenta of a Jewish American Princess, is brayingly brought to life by the incomparable Minnie Driver—who really should have been cast as Miriam, the third in Panofsky’s marital hat-trick.

minnie

Driver is beautiful, a great actress, and she looks plausibly Jewish…which brings me to the crux of my beef with the liberties taken with this celluloidization of a novel: in Richler’s version, Barney’s third wife is Miriam Greenberg, clearly a Jewish woman who, as I wrote in my earlier post, drives a stake through the shiksa goddess motif favoured in novels by Jewish men of a certain age and stature (and not just of a certain age either; the all-round repulsiveness of the Jewish woman is still common cultural currency, as throw-away lineslines2 in The Social Network demonstrates).

If you need examples of the shiksa goddess, think Cybill Shepherd (in Tootsie); if you need a fer instance of the opposite, please see this description of Sophie Portnoy of Portnoy’s Complaint. Then there’s most of Richler’s earlier oeuvre (e.g. the lovely Gabrielle Lazure as Pauline Shapiro contrasted with the odious Esther, Joshua’s mother, played by Linda Sorenson, in Joshua Then and Now).3,4

But in this film, Miriam Greenberg morphs into Miriam Grant (played by the luminous Rosamund Pike) and, to emphasize the point, this stylish, classy and sexy shiksa’s wedding ceremony is concluded by a man wearing neither head covering nor tallit, is clearly a non-Jewish one (driven home by the phrase, “I now pronounce you husband and wife.”)

miriam

Now, these are by no means the only flaws with this film—it seems to forget the murder-mystery plot line for what might have been an hour, it should have included voiceovers with Barney as he wrote his confessional (rather than the stilted info dump conversations it employs instead), and the resolution of the murder is so heavy-handed, it appears aimed at imbeciles (with apologies, of course, to imbeciles). Also, Barney’s paunch in his 20s is almost as noticeable in his 60s. Which brings us to another eternal motif in the story, that of Beauty and the Beast motif (which was, apparently, according to Charles Foran, how Richler referred to his relationship with his beloved wife Florence).

Recasting Miriam Greenberg as Miriam Grant resurrects the shiksa goddess, just when I finally thought it was safe for this Jewish woman to head back to the movies. Unfortunately, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

So I guess my question is, whose odious version of Jewish womanhood is this? Screenwriter Michael Konyves’, producer Robert Lantos’, or director Richard J. Lewis’?

Inquiring yentas want to know.

To be fair (and really, this comment comes 7/8 of the way through my review, so how fair could it be?), this Montreal audience appeared to love the movie, the trip down memory lane (though how COULD they have left out Duddy Kravitz’ final hurrah?), the talented ensemble cast, Dustin Hoffman’s mastication of the floorboards, etc.

dustin and paul

Had they read the book? Did they remember it if they had (the book having been published in 1997)? Or maybe they felt the film’s poignant finale was enough for them, that 75 per cent of Barney was close enough to the mark.

As A.O. Scott puts it in the New York Times,

In spite of Mr. Giamatti’s ferociously energetic performance “Barney’s Version” never figures out just who Barney is. In Richler’s pages he is above all a voice — profane, sophisticated, tender, mean and funny — and the filmmakers prove unable to compensate for its absence…in attempting to honor the spirit of the book, they extinguish it. It is a wild, unruly novel of character, in which the character himself is at once incorrigible and irresistible. The film tames and sentimentalizes him, and in showing respect for Barney’s author turns his creation into something unforgivably respectable.

Harsher judgement than my film attending confreres and consoeurs. But I agree with Scott: the problem with this version of Barney is that we have no idea WHAT these three women could possibly have seen in him...of course, we do know what Clara saw, and even the second Mrs. P (who is so odious, she never even merits a name!)...but what could the luminous, perfect redeeming wife have seen in him? Frankly, in this version, that's a bigger mystery than Boogie's disappearance.

But finally, I guess I still have to say that I’d rather have this Barney than no Barney.

trifecta

Footnotes

1 Irony of ironies, Rubinek was born in a refugee camp in Germany following WWII…both film and book skewer Jewish community fundraisers who use the threat of another Holocaust after every publicized local grave desecration or incident of swastika tagging as a fundraising opportunity. Which makes Barney’s Version (the movie) exhibit A for scholars like Jenny Peto.

2 From a blog post titled "Is The Social Network's Asian Fetish Acceptable":

Eduardo: It’s not that guys like me are generally attracted to Asian girls. It’s that Asian girls are generally attracted to guys like me.

Dustin: I’m developing an algorithm to define the connection between Jewish guys and Asian girls.

Eduardo: I don’t think it’s that complicated. They’re hot, they’re smart, they’re not Jewish and they can dance.

3 My earlier post discusses the possible reasons—all that psychological crap—for Richler’s generally dismal portrayal of Jewish women.

4 For what it’s worth, I feel compelled at this point to admit that my long-term marriage—my one-and-only—is to a man who wasn’t born Jewish (but who converted after we’d been married 6 years). My parents could never afford a house in Cote St. Luc when I was growing up, but I do have a Master’s degree (my hubby, very accomplished in his own right, does not…note to self: must ask how often I rub his nose in this…)

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Waiting for "Barney"




The first Mordecai Richler novel I read was Son of a Smaller Hero in the late ’70s. I was a McGill undergrad in an intro to CanLit class taught by a Caribbean member of the professoriate, the punchline to the course being: there’s no such thing as Canadian literature because lit-rah-chure is universal, don’t you know?! Though set in the same Mile End district as later works Duddy Kravitz and St. Urbain’s Horseman, Son of is worlds away in sensibility — dark, angry, and bitter, unleavened by any of the renowned Richler ribaldry.

I’m pretty sure I acquired St. Urbain, Joshua Then And Now, and Solomon Gursky was Here through the Book-of-the-Month Club (something you won’t often find a literary writer admitting), in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s. And while Gursky is, by some accounts, supposedly Richler’s masterpiece, I had to force myself through while the other two I read with pleasure, and more than once.Here was a Montreal I could still see evidence of, if only in broad strokes. Sort of like those chalk outlines left over at crime scenes. It wasn’t my Montreal but, in fact, my parents’, especially my father’s. But where my father was the good son — who stayed close to and cared for his parents, no matter their faults — Richler was the angry young man who flung himself across an ocean to drink, fuck and write himself into adulthood.

In retrospect, the Richlerian coming-of-age seems more like a romantic cliché, this swanning around, down and out in London and Paris…Ibiza, crossing paths with Papa Hemingway, et al. Reading about it again gave rise to a sort of melancholy, in the same way having missed coming of age at Woodstock makes me nostalgic for a more recent past I also managed to miss. Although Richler probably felt the same way over having been too young to serve in World War II…

But there’s a special place in my heart for Richler’s tour de force of a novel, his grand finale, Barney’s Version. It has everything — humour, a whiff of mystery, poignancy, a suggested reading list for a literary illiterate like yours truly, the Falstaffian hero Barney Panofsky — cantankerous curmudgeon of good heart crossed with the insanely irresistible fax machine prankster, though I could have done without the soft shoe.

What I really loved about Barney’s Version, though, was the stake through the heart of the shiksa goddess motif. Here was a novel in which all three of Barney’s wives were Jewish women, even the third and favourite one, “Miriam, Miriam, my heart’s desire…”

As a Jewish woman, what a relief to finally read a novel by a Jewish male writer of stature in which a Jewish man actually desired a Jewish woman! One he was wholeheartedly, head over heels in love with and mad with desire for. What a novelty, as Quill & Quire’s reviewer James Grainger notes, amidst the “the parade of harpies, good-hearted floozies” that made up Richler’s usual female universe. (Miriam may be wonderful but she hasn’t, by a long shot, the dimensionality of Barney. But then again, who does?) And, of course, Jewish women aren’t harridans only in Richler’s universe, but in most Jewish men’s work.

In fact, once this deep desire of mine was fulfilled by Barney, I finally became aware of how large a need it had been (in fact, I still wonder if meeting it was calculated, a marketing ploy). But even if Richler decided to toss his largest constituency a bone — since women buy and read most fiction, I’ll wager the majority of even Richler’s readers are also women — I forgave him. Because really, who could hold anything against Barney?

Grainger actually castigates Foran for failing to speculate on the reasons for Richler’s way of writing women…and then repeats the identical error. But I have this theory…

Foran’s biography clearly owes a tremendous debt to Michael Posner’s The Last Honest Man: Mordecai Richler. In many places, Foran seems to have simply transformed the sliced and diced verbatim interviews Posner reports, into narrative prose.

Foran, who in publicity shots appears to be cultivating a Mordecai-ian hairdo, also takes pains to present his book as an unauthorized biography. To which I can only say: if this be unauthorized, one shudders to imagine the converse. Because, on comparing Posner and Foran, one becomes aware of the areas where the hagiography ends — which are, coincidentally, the points Foran conveniently overlooks. Some of them have to do with women, one being Mordecai’s first wife, Cathy Boudreau. According to one of Posner’s sources, a “friend, who requested anonymity” suggested that “Perhaps seeking a way out of his marriage…Richler…became impotent…‘I think towards the end Mordecai was uninterested and withholding himself and out of need, I guess, she slept with some of his friends (Posner, p. 106.’” (With friends like that, as my mother might say, who needs enemies?)

Which brings me to the subject of Richler’s mother. The book is quite detailed in the matter of even his parents’ upbringing, particularly that of Lily (sometimes Leah) Rosenberg, Mordecai’s mother.

Foran makes quite a song and dance of a 2,400 word letter Richler wrote his mother in 1976, a copy of which he kept in his archives. Florence never knew about the letter, which finishes with Mordecai explaining why he deviated so greatly from the biblical injunction “to honour our mother and father [;] I must point out that there were some things Moses had not yet heard of.” He then tells her he remembers, from his boyhood, that she had sex with one of her boarders in the bedroom Mordecai and his mother shared, “the two of you humping together only 12 feet from a boy of 12.” And please don’t accuse me of being a spoiler: Foran announced the contents of the letter — complete with the quotes I cite, in The Globe and Mail, on the publication of his book.

For me, the true tragedy at the centre of Mordecai — aside from his sad decline and untimely passing in his final illness, which in this account more than ever resembles an alcoholic beset by a tragedy of medical errors — is all his mother’s. Maybe she was an embittered old woman. Maybe she was mentally ill. Maybe she had, as Mordecai wrote, humped her lover “only 12 feet from a boy of 12” (Would you really trust the accuracy of such a freighted, 33-year-old memory? Foran himself describes the great outcry within the Richler clan to Mordecai’s assertion that his Richler grandfather struck his own — the grandfather’s — children; even Mordecai’s brother “wonders if [MR] had got this wrong…But [concludes the brother] whatever his other flaws, Mordecai Richler did not fabricate [p.707].”) And then there was the fact that this letter was among a set of papers that weren’t to be made public until 20 years after his death…which to an outsider like myself makes the inclusion of this letter in the book an immoral act, despite the estate’s waiving of the condition.

Lily Rosenberg’s sin was to be born female in the home of a revered Chassidic Rabbi more than a century ago, and so be ineligible to follow in her father’s footsteps the way a favoured son might, despite being otherwise capable or worthy. She was relegated to the position of errand runner to her exalted father, “a slave to her Judaism…submissive to her father who deprived her of higher learning she could obviously have enjoyed and mastered (p. 497),” according to a review Foran cites of her fictionalized biography, The Errand Runner. In fact, her father did the best he could for her in the sad times into which she had been born — Lily was married off to an unsuitable boy from a prosperous family, an attempt to assure her financial future. Instead, the marriage was ill-starred and poverty-stricken. And then, her father dead, Lily cared for her mother, bed ridden from a stroke that left her incontinent and at risk for gangrene, for seven long years. She eventually had her marriage annulled — making her sons bastards, according to Jewish law.

Who wouldn’t be bitter, surviving such a scenario? (And here I include both Lily and her sons…)

I do recognize the above spin perhaps echoes the posthumous fate of Clara Charnofsky, the fictional Barney’s first wife. I also feel, after having read Foran’s book — and Lily Rosenberg’s — a better understanding for the way Mordecai wrote women (for example, the mother who does a strip-tease for the bar mitzvah bochers in Joshua Then and Now, the mother who died of Alzheimer’s, as Lily did, in Barney’s Version). The story of Lily Rosenberg, the story of Mordecai Richler…these are novular in their own right.

One thing I think neither Posner nor Foran picked up on was that Duddy Kravitz was not the original I’d always thought he was.


In 2009, the writer and producer Budd Schulberg died. I must have read an obituary on him at the time, and put his seminal novel, made into a movie and even a highly successful musical — What Makes Sammy Run (1941) — onto my reading list.


Well, in 2010, I finally read it…hmm, I thought, why does this Sammy Glick person seem so familiar? Because Duddy Kravitz was an updated, menchified Sammy Glick. From the 1959 New York Times review of MR’s book by Florence Crowther (no relation):


The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is really the revved-up odyssey of a young man from the squalor of St. Urbain Street to the…stylish residential heights of Montreal’s Outrement. The young man is Duddy Kravitz, a Sammy Glick by any other name, but a broken-field runner rather than one with his eye on the long distance crown.

Like Sammy, Duddy is bound to escape from the poverty and humiliation of his boyhood. But unlike Sammy, once Duddy has outgrown his childhood peculations…his urge is for the honorable, the legitimate, the man-to-man enterprise…”

In fact, Duddy is even referred to as Sammy Glick in the novel (on p. 165 of the version in Google Books—again, sharpening my appreciation for an e-reader…). Which underlined a thought that had occurred to me a couple of years back, on perusal of Irene Nemirovsky’s David Golder (which I couldn’t even bring myself to read, it sounded so horrific): you can never go wrong making your Jewish character a son-of-a-bitch.

But perhaps one of the most impressive lessons I learned from Foran’s book was the invisibility of women as writers in the era of Mordecai Richler (a defect somewhat repaired in Linda Leith’s new book, Writing in the Time of Nationalism, which rescues from obscurity the names of woman writers of the Richler era). Foran does his best to keep women’s names in the narrative, but other than the occasional editor and agent, and despite Florence’s primacy as Mordecai’s first and best critic, women are pretty much absent in the creative sense — other than as wives, lovers, babysitters. Oh, Foran does mention Mavis Gallant, Doris Lessing, and Margaret Atwood, but mostly in passing; it seems as though he’s worked hard to get them in at all (and if you want a real eye-popping view of what it was like to be a women even in professional society of several decades past, please read Stephen Kimber’s book Not Guilty, about politician and serial sexual predator Gerald Regan).

Pining for Barney, I went to the book launch for Mordecai: The Life & Times, the first launch I’d been at where the author declined to read from his book — and at $40 a pop, he should have! Before the proceedings actually got underway, Marvin Rotrand, a member of the Montreal’s civic government, circulated a petition among the paltry, grey-headed crowd (a number of young people were there, but only because they were buddies of Foran’s daughter, who attends a local university. A couple of them I spoke to: Americans who had never heard of Mordecai Richler). Rotrand has a petition going to “request that the City of Montreal make an appropriate gesture to commemorate the contribution of Mordecai Richler in naming a street, a public place or building in his honour.” It has garnered 2,000 signatures. Meantime, a petition demanding Quebec’s premier resign has collected nearly 150 times as many names…

Foran and Rotrand joked about the possible canonization of Mordecai, riffing on Saint André Bessette, the former Brother André, who had recently been canonized. Which set me to thinking of an appropriate commemoration that might have Mr. Richler rolling in his grave — with laughter. St. Joseph’s Oratory is the shrine built through Brother André’s devotion, the largest church in Canada, and one of Montreal’s major tourist draws. Our jolly comrades of Quebec sovereignty and archetypal Richlerian foes, the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste, have episodically agitated to change the name of the street, Queen Mary Road, where the Oratory is located. I think it might be time to give in to the SSJB’s demands in exchange for one of our own: why not rename the Oratory in honour of the late lamented Mordecai Richler, the most successful writer Montreal ever — now and probably ever — and St. Urbain’s true horseman?

Foran is a strong writer and his book is a wonderful achievement, bringing a glimpse of so much of Montreal literary and social history — particularly, but not exclusively, Montreal’s Jewish history — to life. The prose is lively and powerful and moves at a great clip. I was sorry to finish it, moved to tears repeatedly while reading the last chapters, which is a remarkable feat, especially in biography. Foran’s book fittingly — and to the chagrin of Richler’s political foes — seeks to praise Richler, not to bury him, unlike some of MR’s literary fellow-travellers (see ELAN’s RAEV program, for example).

But even after reading it, I haven’t had my fill; I am still waiting for Barney. In so-doing, I know I am really waiting for a version of Mordecai. I’m waiting for a version of my father, for a version of Montreal’s late, lamented past, to reappear. And in this, I know, I am really, pace Beckett, waiting for Godot. Unfortunately, I know something else — spoiler alert! — that despite our devotion to it, the past, like Godot, never comes.


(Originally published on The Rover, Montreal's online arts magazine)

Monday, 13 December 2010

The Hardboiled Stress Of Being Santa


(What's the connection between dirty letters written by Santa, cash payments to former Prime Minister Mulroney, the Guess Who reunion tour, randy goats, sustainable development and Gilbert Gottfried? Join intrepid tabloid reporter Renta Yenta as she narrates my funny Christmas Valentine for Canadians...originally published on Joyland.ca on Feb. 14, 2010. Hope you enjoy & season's greetings!)
------------------------------
Abridged Timeline:

1. CBC News, The Fifth Estate: November 8th 2007: German-Canadian businessman Karlheinz Schreiber files affidavit alleging he negotiated a $300,000 lobbying deal with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney at the prime minister's Harrington Lake retreat two days before Mulroney stepped down as prime minister in 1993.

2. Canadian Press, December 14, 2007: Canada Post investigators and Ottawa police narrow the field of suspects behind letters from Santa containing curse words and descriptions of lewd acts.

3. MSN News, September 16, 2009: Questions of credibility and wrong-doing continue to dog Mulroney. His relationship with Schreiber becomes the focus of further concern as the businessman makes public documents showing where and when Mulroney took cash payments for lobbying government. The allegations result in a commission called by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, headed by Justice Jeffrey Oliphant. Earlier this year, Schreiber is extradited to Germany to face charges of bribery, tax evasion and fraud.

It's the story that refuses to die, and so, yours truly, intrepid tabloid reporter and all-round diva Renta Yenta, has decided to come clean, to cough up the ganze megilla—that is, to fill you in on the whole pungent, sordid tale…

WARNING: rated X for explicit content (rutting goats, sweaty reindeer, Santa Claus, Brian Mulroney, Karlheinz Schreiber, political corruption).

Maybe it was inevitable, given the pressure on him and all, but still, I was shocked when, just days before Christmas of 2007, the world was confronted with Santa's strange behaviour—writing letters to kids filled with swearing and descriptions of lascivious behaviour…After I roused myself from my daydream, I realized this wasn't the Santa Claus the world knew and loved.

I smelled a rat.

And so, partly to cope with my own devastation (some of my best friends are Christian, see?), I decided to apply my particular perspicacity and get to the bottom of it. After all, I know a good story when it bites me on the ass. And sometimes a newsgal's just gotta make a living.

No matter who gets hurt.

Soon as I pulled myself together, I jumped on the blower. And before you could say “Merry Christmas,” bingo! I discovered good ol' Santa was on a publication-banned court-ordered stress leave that stretched from the middle of December to 5 p.m. Christmas Eve. All provided, of course, courtesy of the Canadian taxpayer.

I couldn't reach Santa himself but after much tsuris1 and tuml 2, managed to make contact with his arctic NGO, AGI3. I knew they'd be running spin big time on this baby and that odds were good they'd be looking to play me…but then I thought, what the hell, couldn't hoit.

What follows is a worldwide exclusive, a transcript of the conversation I had with Santa's personal representative and communications consultant, PR person Caspar Flack, his psychiatrist, Dr. Mel Chior, and his accountant-cum-aroma therapist, Balt Chazzer 4.

Dateline Montreal, December 20th 2007:

“First off,” Flack said, “you gotta promise never to refer to this here situation with Santa Claus as a nervous breakdown, okay? And, uh, we're still off the record, right?”

“Not a snowball's chance,” I said, scribbling gleefully.

“My God, what a fucking nightmare!” he shrieked. I heard a repeated smacking sound, suspiciously suggestive of someone banging the telephone receiver against his forehead, which was followed immediately by the click of a disengaged line.

Now Dr. Chior, the psychiatrist, jumped right in. “Ms. Yenta, you'll have to forgive our Mr. Flack. He's monitored over fifty thousand reports from around the world in the six days since the news of the rude letters broke. He's exhausted, I'm afraid, hasn't slept a wink. But you're the first journalist to have uncovered Mr. Claus's court-ordered rest period, so before we go any further may I just say some hearty congratulations are in order?”

“Thanks very much,” I said. (Don't think yours truly can't tell when she's being buttered up!) “But can you tell me what exactly precipitated this extremely unSanta-like episode?”

“Well, any number of things, I suppose. But I guess it all starts with the information revolution.”

“Really,” I said, thinking WTF5 doesn't? I figured he was looking to brush me off, to tempt me with some wild goose chase. (Little did I realize just how wrong was my choice of livestock…)

“Think about it this way. Before Al Gore invented the Internet, most of the world's people had never even heard of Mr. Claus. So he served maybe one, one-and-a-half billion people. But now, what with broadband, everyone on the mother-lovin' planet knows of him, and demand for his services has skyrocketed. Unfortunately, his funding hasn't nearly kept pace.”

“Not nearly,” Chazzer chimed in.

“Uh-hunh,” I said, still scribbling like mad.

“I mean, we've been writing Can Con grants till our hands cramp—let's face it, Mr. Claus is a performance artist of mythic proportions--but with this tight-fisted Conservative regime, he might as well be pissing into the wind. If you'll excuse my French.” Mel Chior cleared his throat. (I was getting the distinct impression this guy was in love with the sound of his own voice.) “Since Google and Wikipedia came on the scene, Mr. Claus has been forced to do much, much, more--and all of it without one thin dime of increased support.

“Burnout was only a matter of time.”

“But why now, exactly?” I persisted.

“I blame the Boomers myself,” Chazzer, the accountant and aroma therapist, chipped in, “and their inflated sense of entitlement.”

That sounded pretty promising (editors love stories that appeal to a broad demographic, and if you've seen a Baby Boomer's hips lately, you'll know they're about the broadest demographic going!). I encouraged Chior to keep talking.

“Well, they can be so demanding. It's as though they never outgrew their infatuation with Mr. Claus. Children in earlier generations, they cease and desist after the age of ten or so, but these Boomers…well, they're in their sixties now and they still haven't stopped with their endless requests. Lower taxes, free health care, Viagra in the drinking water, a Guess Who reunion tour…it just never ends. And when Mr. Claus realized there could be another thirty years of this…” His voice trailed off.

“But why an aroma therapist? Mr. Chazzer?”

“To cope with the unexpected side effects of the push toward sustainable development,” Chazzer said.

“Huh?” I said (again thinking like, WTF???).

“You know, all those websites where you can give mosquito nets, chickens, or a goat on behalf of a loved one to a family in the third world."

“So well-intentioned but--my goodness—the consequences. Heartrending, really,” Mel Chior added.

Flack had finally made it back on the line, and now he pitched in, too: “This year, Santa had twelve thousand goats on order. Twelve frickin' thousand! Imagine what we were faced with, trying to keep them all under control up here at the North Pole. I tell you, the shit was flying! It was like being held at gunpoint during Question Period--with Gilbert Gottfried filling in for Rhona Ambrose! And you know that expression, ‘randy as a billygoat?' Well, it's true! The butting and rutting going on up here--it was just like being on Parliament Hill--or at the Assemblée nationale! The poor elves were beside themselves.

“Not to mention,” Flack added darkly, “what happens to the bleedin' reindeer when they start making all those tropical deliveries.”

My spidey sense kicked into overdrive. “Why, what does happen to reindeer when they make all those tropical deliveries?”

“Well, they're cold-weather animals, innit? In the tropics, they'd be sweating incredible-like, wouldn't they?” Flack said. “And do you think anyone ever bothered to give just the teensiest, tiniest THOUGHT to what nine sweaty, overworked reindeer SMELL LIKE?! No, of course not! None of those green revolution types ever consider the consequences of their little gift-giving fads on poor old overworked Saint Nick!”

“And that's where the aroma therapy comes in,” Chazzer added.

They kept on tryin' but I wasn't buyin'. “I hear what you're saying, but to tell you the truth guys, while all this sounds like a bit of a pain, it hardly explains why Santa's gone off the deep end. Writing pornographic letters to children? Is this Santa's workshop we're talking about or the Christian Brothers? Why now? And why Ottawa, of all places?” (Your intrepid reporter may be a Yenta, but I wasn't born yesterday!)

Silence.

“Flack,” said the psychiatrist finally, “it's not working.”

“Don't do it Mel Chior,” Flack shouted, “For God's sake, man, don't! We've got to stick to the communications strat--” He was cut off mid-kvetch.

“I can see we're just going to have to level with you, Ms. Yenta,” Mel Chior said, and his voice dropped a mellifluous octave. “It's about the Conservative caucus. And Brian Mulroney's grandchildren.”

“What?” I said, in consternation. “Mulroney's grandkids? What do they have to do with anything?” (That the Conservatives were mixed up in this was a yawner but I knew this new youth angle would make my editor pish6 himself.)

“For the past month, Mr. Mulroney's grandchildren have been sending letters daily, asking Mr. Claus—begging him—”

“Imploring him,” Chazzer interrupted.

“--to restore their grandfather's reputation. Ditto for the government caucus.”

I chewed on that for a sec. “That'd be a tough one,” I said. “I mean, he IS Santa Claus 'n all, he does some amazing things, but a miracle-worker he's not. Those poor kids.” (I'll never have it in me to feel sorry for the Cons.7)

“You still don't get it, do you?” the aroma therapist interjected. “Karlheinz Schreiber has grandchildren. And a great-grandchild, too. Don't tell me you've forgotten what Santa's main responsibility is?”

“His raison d'être, as it were,” said Mel Chior.

Being of the Chosen persuasion, I puzzled this for a few ticks—was this some kind of goyische8 trick? “Bringing presents?” I finally offered.

“No!”

“No!”

“No!” (Flack was back again and now all three of them were at me.)

“Jews!” scoffed the aroma therapist.

“OH. MY. GOD,” Flack roared. “Chazzer, will you just go somewhere and stifle your damn self?” (There was a strangled sound and for a moment there I thought I heard him doing that thing with the receiver again.)

“Santa's most important job is to figure out who's been naughty!” Chazzer exclaimed.

“I tell you, the stress on Mr. Claus has been unimaginable,” the psychiatrist continued.
“Downright intolerable! And then, seeing all those Ottawa postmarks…Mr. Claus just… blew a gasket, as we say in the trade. He's not been trained to deal with anything even remotely like this. As the DSM-IV would describe it, he's gone completely round the bend.”

“That's terrible,” I said. “That really stinks!” (You should pardon the expression.)

“Indeed,” the psychiatrist said. “Unfortunately, no matter what Mr. Claus does, I expect Mr. Mulroney's grandkids--not to mention the Conservative party--are just going to have to suck this one up.”

“Isn't there anything you can do?”

“I doubt it,” said the accountant-slash-aroma therapist. “We've wracked our brains and come up with nothing. Nada, zip, zero, zilch! And we can't even get any high-priced advice. The big boys at Navigator9 won't even take our calls. And The Strategic Counsel10? They won't touch us with a 10-foot pole.”

By now, Flack was audible sobbing in the background.

“Too tragic,” said the psychiatrist. “No, nothing more to be done, I'm afraid.

“This is one of those things, I fear. Mr. Mulroney's just going to have to take this one on the chin.”

------------
Footnotes:

1. Aggravating trouble
2. Confusion
3. AntiGrinch International
4. Pig
5. What the fuck
6. Piss
7. http://www.guncontrol.ca/English/Home/News/Clinov2.hilltimes.pdf; http://www.nwlc-clfn.ca/story_17091_e.aspx; http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/arts/new-rules-a-big-big-hit-to-cana... and so on…
8. Gentile
9. Canada's Arnold Schwarzenegger of the communications industry.
10. Canada's Dwayne Johnson of the polling industry.

Monday, 8 November 2010

A Writer's Gratitude




As a confirmed evolutionist, I know my unfortunate tendency to see bad news like THIS while good news meanders across my brain pan in a lower case way, was hammered into human DNA through the ages. After all, recognizing danger must surely confer a stronger evolutionary advantage than non-stop partying (or so I rationalize. Always possible I’ve just caught a case of incipient Presbyterianism).

So you won’t be surprised if I admit to sometimes having to force myself to dwell on the positive, rather than succumb to my default attitude (accentuating the negative). But I do know, deep down, that I have much to be thankful, especially as 2010 draws to a close. So I hereby declare today my gratitude day, a day to look over the year’s accomplishments, to goose my sunny side to the forefront, as it were.

My year in publishing started with February’s “Now It Can Be Told: The Hardboiled Stress Of Being Santa,” appearing on Joyland.ca. David McGimpsey, Joyland’s Montreal/Atlantic Editor, is the man who tried to teach me humour at a Quebec Writers’ Federation Workshop. Making people laugh…now THERE’S the kind of work I’d love to have!

My story follows intrepid tabloid reporter Renta Yenta as she susses out the secret links between dirty letters written by Santa, cash payments to former Prime Minister Mulroney, a Guess Who reunion tour, randy goats, sustainable development and Gilbert Gottfried. Quite the high wire act, but when, while writing it, I caught myself laughing out loud, I knew I was on to something. David called it hilarious and said he loved it! So I’m grateful for all of that, and I think you’ll find it’s just what Canadians need to read as we contemplate the tortures of the upcoming Xmas season (e.g. sharp-elbowed crowds and the endlessly looped, pan pipe version of “The Little Drummer Boy,” coming soon to a department store near you…).

Not long after that, I finally received my “printed” version of the prizewinning and honourable mention stories of The Binnacle’s Sixth Annual Ultra-Short Competition. The word limit was 150. I was expecting a typical print journal issue, though someone I’d met during a writing residency in Banff last year had hinted it would be a bit out of the ordinary. What I received was a box with 56 business card sized versions of the winners and other honoured stories, my “After Katrina” being one of latter.

What does a 150 word story look like, you ask? In answer, may I present, for your delectation,

After Katrina
My sister Darlene, she ain’t never been what you call reliable. I was the one ended up seein' to Mama after Katrina hit. The whole thing give her a heart attack, but I found her safe in hospital.
She didn’t want me going to the house. “Try and stop me,” I said. It was the only home I’d ever known.
Everything was a total write off. Papers everywhere, like Scarlet O’Hara’s discarded handkerchiefs, like drowned doves. And the smell! Eau de outhouse.
Only managed to fish out Mama’s marriage license and our birth certificates. Discovered Darlene wasn’t really my big sister.
At the hospital, Mama said, “Find anything?” her gaze red-rimmed steel, her lips like dried worms. Skeleton fingers plucked the sheet. This old woman. Lied to me my whole life entire.
The heart monitor hiccupped, the IV dripped its silvery drops.
“No ma’am,” I said. “Didn’t find nothing.”
For those interested in such things, the story arose from a prompt of Nancy Zafris’ at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop of 2008—to date, three of my published stories germinated under her skilled attention. Does she think writers are hothouse flowers? Hardly! But her green thumb left faint traces as well on my multi-award-winning flash story “Pie”--which has just made the Commendations List in the UK's Aesthetica Magazine Creative Works Competiton--and on “What I’ve Prayed For,” the latter published in The New Quarterly this spring. All these stories came from this movie review prompt in the New York Times. So please let me hereby express my gratitude to Nancy and also to The Binnacle’s Gerard NeCastro, The New Quarterly’s Kim Jernigan and The Lists Issue Guest Editor Diane Schoemperlen (thank you, thank you, thank you squared…).

And maybe this would be an appropriate time to thank all the incredibly generous and talented creative writers whom I encountered as writing workshop leaders and mentors over the past six years of my journey to published-authorhood: (in temporal order) Colleen Curran, Greg Hollingshead, Isabel Huggan, Edna Alford, Robyn Sarah, Joel Yanofsky, Monique Polak, Lori Weber, Luis Urrea (also instrumental to “Pie”), Mikhail Iossel, Brad Kessler, Tess Fragoulis, Robin Marantz Henig, Guy Lawson, Neale McDevitt, and Ilona Martonfi.

Whew! They say it takes a village to raise a child; it appears to me that it may take a small town to raise a writer. And sorry if I’ve forgotten someone (I probably have; but I’m even grateful for fallibility—it reminds me to be humble).

Well, this feels like enough gratitude for today…Besides, I think I like the idea of stringing this out over several entries.

Wishing you all peace and love (oh, I am so not a hippie!),

Bev



Sunday, 17 October 2010

Lest We Forget: the Cowardly Assassination of Pierre Laporte






October 17th, 2010 marked the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Quebec’s Vice Premier and Labour Minister, Pierre Laporte, by Paul and Jacques Rose, the cowards of the Front de Liberation du Quebec. Rest in peace, M. Laporte. We can never repay your sacrifice...or that of your wife and children, and the widow and children of your late brother Rolland, all of whom you were supporting at the moment you were abducted from your St. Lambert home by a bunch of pathetic pseudo-Marxists who had taken leave of their senses after watching too many screenings of The Battle of Algiers.

Paul and Jacques Rose, driving to Texas to buy guns for the cause, were surprised to hear of the kidnapping of British trade commissioner James Cross by their FLQ Liberation Cell brothers on October 5th, 1970. They raced back home and grabbed you as you played football with your nephew. You, M. Laporte, who had been a journalist with Le Devoir from 1945 to 1961, determined to best the tyrannical Premier Maurice Duplessis. You, M. Laporte, who had been part of Jean Lesage’s Equipe de tonerre, who had helped to roll back la grande noirceur and ended up falling victim to its newer iteration. Who were these angry nobodies who had never done a thing to advance the people of Quebec, who confused the blowing up of mail boxes with positive political action?

On October 12th, Prime Minister Trudeau, at the request of Premier Robert Bourassa, invoked the War Measures Act. Your letter to M. Bourassa, dated October 11th, read:

My dear Robert,

I feel like I am writing the most important letter I have ever written.

For the time being, I am in perfect health, and I am treated well, even courteously.

In short, the power to decide over my life is in your hands. If there was only that involved, and the sacrifice of my life would bring good results, one could accept it...

You know how my personal situation deserves to draw attention. I had two brothers, both are now dead. I remain alone as the head of a large family that comprises my mother, my sisters, my own wife and my children, and the children of Rolland of whom I am the guardian. My departure would create for them irreparable grief, and you know the ties that bind the members of my family...

You have the power of life and death over me, I depend on you and I thank you for it.

Best regards,

Pierre Laporte

What would you think of the Quebec of today, a Quebec which virtually ignores your murder, a Quebec where a goodly number have convinced themselves the entire FLQ episode was some kind of federal conspiracy to discredit the independence movement? As if the independentistes needed any help in that regard, the truth being that some of the most revered of the separatists—their sainted Rene Levesque and his bombastic sidekick Jacques Parizeau—took advantage of the uproar caused by the kidnappings to talk about planning the “provisional government” of Quebec.

But Messrs. Levesque and Parizeau weren’t alone in mistaking their duties: as media analyst Raphael Cohen-Almagor later concluded, the media coverage of the crisis was a textbook example of irresponsible journalism in Quebec.

Influential segments of the French media served the interests of the terrorists and ignored the interests of the victims, as well as the interests of Canada as a free, democratic society. Journalists broke almost every ethical norm that is accepted during hostage-taking episodes; they did not hesitate to sensationalize and to dramatize the event, stirring up emotions in a way that hindered governmental operations...They gladly offered their services as mediators and messengers of the terrorists, disregarding their obligation to accurate reporting, and broadcast the terrorists' communiqués without the consent of the authorities. Through their extensive sympathetic coverage, French journalists not only provided a grand platform for the terrorists, but also legitimized their demands and actions...

And this media mischief and misinformation continues: a Radio-Canada documentary just days back repeats the lies that your murder was “accidental” and in fact the fault of the police, since you were supposedly still alive when they deposited you in the trunk of that car for the police to find (this despite the fact that the communiqué issued at the time spoke very plainly of your “execution”). And, the Felquist apologist continued, if a communiqué from Cross’s kidnappers, addressed to the numbskulls who held you, and urging you not be harmed, hadn’t been suppressed by the police, you would have been fine.

Oh, M. Laporte, to think, if only the police hadn’t been so devious, you might have lived…is it only in Quebec people lie to themselves this way?

Instead of bowing our heads in collective sorrow at the fact that you were strangled with your own religious medallion—surely a torturous and agonizingly slow method of execution!--the Quebec’s news media today celebrates instead the canonization of Brother Andre, the illiterate “man of the people” who “cured” the sick by anointing them with oil.

And the pathetic apologia for your kidnapping and murder—and the murders of 5 others, as well as the kidnapping of Mr. Cross—continues, as one of the authors of Quebec’s high school history text declares the FLQ never meant to hurt anyone. This despite their having perpetrated in excess of 200 violent crimes--including at least 100 bombings--that resulted in the deaths of six people!

But luckily for this next generation, according to history teacher and textbook author Raymond Bedard, the Quebec curriculum does not put a lot of emphasis on the October Crisis, perhaps 45 minutes of class time out of the entire school year.

They say those who forget history are condemned to repeat it. Dear M. Laporte, I am glad that, for you at least, that cannot be so. I wish you godspeed. You didn't deserve the treatment meted out to you. You didn't deserve it then, and you still do not now.

---------------

References:

Raphael Cohen-Almagor. The scope of tolerance: studies on the costs of free expression and freedom. London: Routledge 2006. p.235

http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/local/flq-didnt-mean-to-kill-people-quebec-author-105014434.html

http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/terrorists_spies/terrorists/flq/index.html

http://www.montrealgazette.com/news/Extremist+makeover+edition/3588195/story.html

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Funny/Not Funny: Tyler Clementi & Why Context Matters

It's probably a rare person who actually enjoys being “defriended” on Facebook, but I don’t feel any shame in explaining how it happened to me recently. Albert somebody-or-other, a self-proclaimed Laughologist and inventor of Laughercize, with the click of a button, excommunicated me from his exalted circle. Fair enough: it’s his party and if I’m not invited, I think I can still manage to live a happy life. But the reason I was banished from the warmth of his virtual embrace bothers me, so much that I feel obligated to share it.

A few days back, under the heading “It is possible to have too much fun,” Albert posted this video

“pole dance no casamento”; the last word means “wedding” in Portuguese; another version I found intimates it dates from November 2009 (I tried to discover if it was a fake or urban legend at Snopes; it isn’t there, so maybe it is real).

The 1 min 31 sec clip shows a wedding reception, held in a large tent, if the beribboned pole in the foreground is anything to go by. The camera pans out over the tables, and we see we are indeed at an outdoor wedding, under a large white tent. A long-haired woman in a red sequinned dress, lots of back showing, dances around somewhat hedonistically, a wineglass in one hand, the large pole in the other. The bride, in the background, doesn’t look too amused (leading me to wonder if the entire deal has been staged, for some reason—like, maybe to garner a million youtube hits). Within seconds, red dress is dancing with a man (likely the groom); bridey looks even less pleased, being upstaged by red dress’s dirty dancing AND having groomy snatched away from her. And then the scarlet woman goes back to the pole, swings around it a time or two more, and...MANAGES TO PULL IT DOWN!

Mayhem ensues, people crawling over the grass, young guests comforting each other. The last image is of bridey, on the ground, being offered a folded handkerchief to staunch the bleeding from her nose.
Albert posted the video and “liked” it himself. I added, “didn't i see this in that sandra bullock movie '28 days'? actually, this is worse: in the movie, there wasn't a bloodied bride...moral: beware a woman in a red dress (i guess).”

But then I get to thinking about the episode, taken as a whole. And I start to realize it really ISN'T funny…

The rest of our exchange plays out like this:


Albert Note the Bride seems to be glaring at dancing woman as if to say "that woman is going to ruin my wedding." She was right!
Me yes, i did notice that...wasn't it because red dress started dancing with the groom?
Me but Albert, i fear anyone laughing at this has an unfortunate lack of empathy. and just such a spectacular lack led last week to the tragic death--by suicide--of Tyler Clementi.
Albert Beverly. You're way off. This is darkly funny.
Tyler is a completely different story. Don't know why you would connect the two.
Me it's funny only if it isn't a real wedding. if it's a real wedding, it isn't funny. why can't you see that?
Albert Still no connection. People laugh naturally at a lot of things. Some of them rough. This is still funny. Bride was not seriously injured…

And this is where Albert and I part ways: I feel the sight of a woman bleeding anywhere—much less at her own wedding, for God’s sake!—is not funny!

Not funny, no how, no way.

Days earlier, Tyler Clementi, the unfortunate 18 year old Rutgers student caught on streaming video having sex with another man (twice!) by his roommate and the roommate’s friend, had committed suicide by jumping off NYC’s George Washington Bridge as a result of this cyberbullying. The Facebook memorial page “In Honor of Tyler Clementi” is available here.

So, good people, I put it to you: is this wedding crashing video funny or not funny?

Funny only if it is a set-up, a fake? To me, conceivably. Funny if it’s the real thing—that is, a wedding at which a drunk or otherwise-overly-enthusiastic person pulls the house down and the bride ends up bloodied?

For the life of me, I just can’t see it.

And let me know if you perceive a connection between the pronouncing of this video funny and the astonishing lack of empathy—not to mention boundaries—demonstrated by Rutger students Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei, also both 18 years olds. To me, it's all the same empathy continuum.

If you want to see the modern faces of heartlessness, here they are:

raviwei

And, while I'm asking the questions and you're furnishing the answers, please tell me: is this the legacy of a decade of the idiocy of shows and movies like “Jackass” and its ilk--Beavis and Butthead, Fubar, Futurama, The Simpsons, Harold and Kumar, Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Borat, Uncle Buck, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Deuce Bigelow: Male Gigolo, and on and on--a generation that can't tell the difference between a joke and destroying someone's soul?

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Worth More Alive than Dead: Why the PM may have engineered Bill C-391 to fail

(The Meaning Of Children now available on Kindle!)

Everyone knows Bill C-391, the second so-called Conservative private member’s bill (PMB) to propose destroying the registry is really a government bill—after all, if it walks like a duck hunter and squawks like a duck hunter, chances are it’s a duck hunter. Never in Parliamentary history has the governing party hired billboards, set up websites, sent out flyers etc., in support of a private member’s bill. So why the subterfuge? Because clothing a government bill in PMB clothing means Mr. Harper could exhibit pretend outrage at the opposition’s whipping the vote, all while imposing party discipline in his own ranks (why else would all 10 Quebec Conservative MPs have voted with the government?).

But division among the opposition is not the reason Mr. Harper may be satisfied with the 153-151 outcome on Bill C-391: money is. 

While researching links between the Canadian gun lobby and the U.S. National Rifle Association (NRA), a vociferous and financial supporter of its Canadian branch, the imperative made famous by informant “Deep Throat” during the Watergate scandal popped into my head: “follow the money.” The NRA, America’s most influential lobby group, wields a shockingly large annual budget--$307 million USD. To give you a taste of what that buys in Washington, in addition to lobbying against virtually any and all gun restrictions, the NRA recently lobbied: against an appointment to the supreme court; to be exempted from a proposal requiring lobby groups to disclose donor lists, and; to graft a ban on insurance companies charging higher premiums for people with guns in their homes onto a health care bill. Also, for the NRA, gun control anywhere threatens gun owners everywhere; they’ve meddled in Brazil and at the UN, so why not Canada? This is the bull the Conservative Party welcomed into our Parliamentary china shop.

The long gun registry may be the best cash cow the Conservative Party’s ever had: why would they kill it? What if the failure of C-391 is what the government set its sights on all along, a milestone in their strategy to achieve a majority? With Bill C-391 defeated, Mr. Harper can shrug and tell supporters he gave it the old college try, but that the effort to squash the registry failed because of the “socialist coalition’s dastardly tactics,” like whipping a so-called PMB. This leaves the Conservatives free to exploit, once again, the registry as a key weapon in its fundraising arsenal, a war chest ostensibly necessary to gain a majority and so destroy the registry another day. 

The government denies the relationship between the NRA and their drive to destroy the long gun registry, despite the fact that the Public Security Minister’s Firearm Advisory Committee (FAC) includes Tony Bernardo, executive director of the Canadian version of NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action (CILA) and CILA’s sister organization, the Canadian Shooting Sports Association. The CSSA/CILA Facebook page brags it has 4 senior organization members on the Public Security Minister’s 12-member FAC, and that most of the rest are CSSA members; that CSSA/CILA is “fully endorsed by the NRA and NSSF [U.S. National Shooting Sports Foundation],” that “CILA’s work has been personally endorsed by NRA Executive Vice-President Wayne LaPierre and former Presidents Charlton Heston, Kayne Robinson and Sandy Froman,” that “as a direct result of our lobby efforts, including CILA-coordinated conference calls between Ministers and major firearms manufacturers, we proved to the Canadian Government that they were being mislead by their bureaucrats,” that they “conducted an election poster campaign which was approved by the PMO - posters sent to all dealers, retailers, clubs and businesses; conducted a ‘train-the-trainer’ session for grass roots lobbying – facilitated by the NRA Director of the Grass Roots Division, Glen Caroline and we are now offering grass roots political action training to clubs and members…”

The NSSF, the other American organization CILA proudly associates with, has a board of governors representing a who’s who of major gun manufacturers: Smith & Wesson, Beretta, Winchester, Glock, Sturm, Ruger & Co., Colt’s Manufacturing, and Remington Arms. 

The $100,000 anti-registry video the NRA produced in 2000, “Gun Control in Canada,” features Tony Bernardo and John Perrochio, a “former gun shop owner” who laments that the Canada’s gun industry has dropped from 6,000 dealers to 875 and was “a $6 billion industry that has been annihilated by ignorant politicians and absolutely pathetic firearms legislation.” Follow the money indeed.

If C-391 had passed, Mr. Harper’s grateful gun lobby supporters may have decided that donating to the Conservative Party was no longer so important. So despite all the heat generated by Bill C-391, the Prime Minister had the strongest of motives not to destroy the long gun registry, because its continued existence will fill his party’s election coffers more assuredly than the converse: the gun registry is worth more to him alive than dead.

References
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nmrqT9SIkQw (3min43secs into the video for John Perrochio’s quote)

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Support the gun registry or you don’t know jack




These are just a few recent stories in the country-soon-to-be-naked-of-the-long-gun-registry:

July 2009: Joan Hanson, daughter, and granddaughter shot dead by Ms. Hanson’s estranged hunter husband with his legally owned rifle, which he later turns on himself. January 2010: Stephanie Hoddinott shot dead by a former boyfriend, using a legally acquired handgun he then uses to kill himself. March 2010: three women shot near Belleville by a male acquaintance of one of them; two die. Within days, Const. Vu Pham is shot and killed by hunter Fred Preston, apparently despondent about the break up of his marriage. Weeks later, disgruntled Edmonton car dealership employee Dave Burns walks into work firing a sawed-off shotgun. Manager Garth Radons dies and Burns turns the gun on himself; he’d apparently been suspended for uttering racial slurs and posting sexually explicit photos mocking another employee. Radons’ wife, a police officer, is among the first on the scene.

How does the long gun registry help prevent this litany of death, including suicide, and crime, including murder? Knowing who has which guns allows police to remove them as a preventative measure, should it become necessary. In thePreston case, if his estranged wife had reported any threats he made to police, they could have removed Mr. Preston’s guns. ALL his guns, which isn’t possible if they aren’t all listed somewhere handy, like, say, a long gun registry.

Since its creation, some 22,000 firearms licences have been denied and over 8,000 guns surrendered and confiscated because of safety concerns like those posed by Mr. Preston. Of the revoked guns, 74 per cent were nonrestricted shotguns and rifles. The boundary between “law-abiding duck hunter” and “criminal” only takes a fraction of a second to breach: how long does it take to pull a trigger? In light of these statistics, how can opponents of the registry continue to deny it saves lives?

In fact, many lives have been lost at the hands of "legal" gun owners. Having a gun in the home, rather than making you safer, dramatically increases the chance of death. Those suspicious of statistics and their collection may prefer to believe in unreported crime and--coming soon to a parliament near you, perhaps--imaginary crime. (With the crime rate plummeting, we’ll need to fill all those new penitentiaries somehow.)

Dr. Ted Miller's 1995 look at gunshot wounds in Canada, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, estimated that 1991 gunshot wounds cost Canada $6.6 billion (1993 dollars), representing nearly $9 billion today. About $63 million was associated with medical and mental health and $10 million with public services; productivity losses exceeded $1.5 billion. The remaining dollars were attributed to "pain, suffering and lost quality of life." Miller didn’t take into account costs associated with the justice and incarceration systems, but it’s clear that the enormous costs of gun violence—including “legal gun” violence--dwarf the cost of the registry. Even preventing the loss of one or two lives—or one or two shootings--pays for the registry, if you’re callous enough to consider only dollars and cents. At $3-4 million a year, the long gun registry is an incredible bargain.

Jack Layton is supposedly a supporter of women’s rights and equality. He is also, supposedly, a supporter of the long gun registry. Well, the gun registry is a women’s issue, too: the vast majority of those long gun owning “duck hunters” are men. The vast majority of individuals threatened, shot and killed in domestic disputes are women.

The RCMP and the associations of chiefs of police, the women’s organizations, suicide prevention, emergency and other medical associations have unequivocally come out in favour of the gun registry, proven a critical tool in the prevention of suicide and domestic violence, especially in rural settings.

Gutting the registry when all these groups are in favour of it and the “duck hunters” are against it is really letting the tail wag the dog. If this same “duck hunter” brain trust decided that our murder laws don’t prevent murder, would you strike those laws down, too, Mr. Harper?

So there you have it, Messrs. Harper and Layton: either you ensure the registry survives, or you betray your sacred responsibility to Canadians, including women and rural people. Either you support the registry or you don’t know jack.

(Appeared in The Hill Times, Sept. 13, 2010; p.17)

Monday, 13 September 2010

The solution is simple: Canada needs MORE gun controls




The late Anastasia De Sousa, who died at Dawson College, September 13, 2006

Today being the fourth anniversary of the tragic murder of another "beautiful young Canadian with everything to live for," Anastasia De Sousa, during the Dawson College Shooting , I've decided to post the opinion article I wrote following the Sept. 13, 2006 rampage by the deranged Kimveer Gill. Versions of this piece appeared at the time in The Montreal Gazette and The National Post. The memorial notice for Ms. De Sousa is here; you may leave a message of condolence here.

-----------------

I am the mother of a Dawson College student, was friendly with a beloved husband and father killed at Concordia University 14 years ago, and worked in a non-traditional occupation - molecular genetics research - when the Ecole Polytechnique massacre took place. My husband is a provincial politician who spends much of the year at the National Assembly in Quebec City, where three were killed and 13 wounded by a deranged Canadian soldier in 1984. And so I feel myself uniquely placed to respond to the events of Sept. 13.

My response is not to launch a fruitless inquiry into the "root causes" of this catastrophic occurrence. I couldn't care a whit whether the perpetrator of last Wednesday's atrocities was refused academic admission to Dawson College, whether he was bullied as a child, either in school or at home. I think it's irrelevant if he grew up with a chip on his shoulder because of some imagined slight, or even if he or his family suffered in the past from some form of persecution, be it real or imagined, in Canada or elsewhere.

To me, there can be no mitigating factors for murder, whether the locus of attack is a college campus in downtown Montreal, a nightclub in Tel Aviv, a skyscraper in New York City, or some parched crossroads among the rubble of Afghanistan. Murder is murder is murder. Each one should fall under the rubric of "hate crime."

When 14 young Montrealers, full of hope, ambition and promise, had their lives snuffed out because they had earned the privilege of studying engineering while another could not, many people I knew, especially women, insisted the "root cause" of this crime was our society's oppression of women, an opinion at which I scoffed.

When gun control was trumpeted as the panacea to these horrible killings, I was skeptical. I bought the argument that gun control penalized the law-abiding, rather than the criminals. I was sensitive to the position that people living rural lifestyles needed firearms as part of their daily lives, a situation unimaginable to me, given my urban existence.

Well, I am skeptical and sensitive no more. Last Wednesday was the drop that made the glass overflow, as we say in Quebec. The balance has shifted. I realize more clearly now that my choice must be to care more for the potential victims than the potential perpetrators.

So that's my response to the Dawson killings: No more guns. It's as simple as that. Because no one can accurately predict who among us will become unhinged enough to explode in bloody slaughter, I believe that guns should be unavailable to the public.

I don't trust psychiatrists - much less gun-registry officials - to ferret out what lies deep in the hearts of men. After all, Concordia administrators, some of whom had equipped their own offices with locks and panic buttons because of Valery Fabrikant's continued harassment, consulted a psychiatrist about the demented professor before his murderous rampage. I saw the same psychiatrist on television last week, hovering in the background following the Dawson shootings.

According to journalist Morris Wolfe, the psychiatrist had deemed it "unlikely" that Fabrikant, a professor repeatedly denied tenure, would become violent.

So if a trained psychiatrist with an abiding interest in severe and chronic psychotic illness, confronted with a man he himself has diagnosed as having "a personality disorder" cannot foresee the coming explosion of rage, all the administrative screening in the world won't be able to keep legal guns out of the hands of loonies. The solution that's clearest to me is to make guns - both legal and illegal - impossible to get.

And so, as a mother, a woman, and a sentient human being, I'm telling Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the entire government of Canada to wake up and smell the coffee: If you persist in your intended dismantling of the gun registry instead of making it harder for people to own guns, there will be hundreds of thousands of us marching in the streets of Montreal. I guarantee it.

----------

I continue to believe that guns, especially long guns, are too readily available in our society. The government of Canada--under the guise of a private member's bill--is attempting to destroy the long gun registry, part of a web of regulations that seeks to make Canada's gun owners more accountable for their weapons and has been shown effective and even cost-effective.

The psychiatrist, Warren Steiner, contacted me after my piece(s) appeared to say Mr. Wolfe had it all wrong and that he--Dr. Steiner--regretted not having demanded retraction of the statements ascribed to him. Four years later, the comments are still available here. Dr. Steiner has since made the recovery--or lack thereof--of the Dawson community a particular research interest. And it looks to be a lucrative, longterm one.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

The Maytag Repairman: Lonely No More!





It’s been a terrible month for appliances chez moi. First, and disaster de tutti disasters, my laptop of nearly 4 years’ vintage crashed. Literally, taking a swan dive off our kitchen table and landing, screen first, on the floor. It seemed none the worse for wear at the time, but next morning, on rebootation, I received a message so traumatic, I seem to have blanked it out (either that, or the Alzheimer’s is proceeding faster than I thought). Worse than the blue screen of death, it said, “No recognized operating system.”

Cue stab scene music from Psycho.

And the best part—okay, the worst part--is that the crash happened in early August and my last external backup was—cue sad chamber music by string quartet on the deck of the Titanic—June 21st. So let that be a lesson to you: back up your hard drives, people.

But I digress: today’s subject is Maytag repairmen, and the complete opposite of their loneliness, and my laptop wasn’t made by Maytag. My dishwasher, however, is another story.

Last summer, we finally decided to renovate our 1950s kitchen. It wasn’t quite the reno of our dreams--that would have cost at least another $5,000. Let’s call it the-reno-of-our-dimished-but-wholly-practical expectations. But there was the dishwasher dilemma: ours still worked, but it was 10 years old. Should we keep it till it died, or spring for a new one?

We opted for door number 2. Cue buzzer for wrong answer from Family Feud. Worse, instead of our usual bottom of the line, department store brand, we sprang for a Maytag.

Why?

I have no answer except the salesman’s recommendation, the middle of the road price and—let’s face it, they’d hardly spend the billions if it didn’t work—the advertising. Did we want the extended warranty?

No, we did not.

Foolish us.

But in nearly 30 years of marriage, we’d had 3 dishwashers and maybe 2 repair calls. Extended warranty? What for? It was a Maytag. Extended warranties were how they gouged you; everyone knew that!

Did I mention we were foolish?


Dishwasher purchased June 2009; expiration of manufacturer’s warranty: June 2010; dishwasher death: August 2010.

I called the toll-free repair service. Did you know that Whirlpool bought Maytag and now comprises some 8 or 9 brands? Together they represent the OPEC of household appliances.

A tech came and consulted the entrails of a chicken: we needed a replacement electrical panel. Replacement electrical panel: $100. Two service calls: $150. The feeling you get spending $250 to fix a year-old dishwasher bought for $750 (and still being paid for): priceless.


I was ticked. Seriously. Told the pudgy young service dude, “Tell your supervisor how seriously ticked I am that our dishwasher is broken a mere 14 months after purchase.”

His answer: “I never see a supervisor. They’re in Ontario.” To a true Quebecois, Ontario is like, oh, I don’t know, the frigging moon or something. And vice versa, I’m sure.

Four business days to get the part, he said.

Of course, I had to wait much longer than four days, and finally called to inquire where said part was, only to be told the repair wasn’t in their system.

This frightened me: they had a system? For manufacturing substandard appliances and failing to repair them in a timely manner?

Who, exactly, was in charge of this “system,” the ex-cons from Enron?

I told Katie, the customer service rep with the nice Southern drawl—and I’m not talkin’ south’n Ontario, neithah—how upset I was to be paying $250 to fix a dishwasher purchased for $750 not quite a year ago. She put me on hold. I waited.

They would cover the part, she finally told me; the service charges, however, were all mine.

I subsequently googled Maytag dishwasher repair: in June 2010, some 1.7 million dishwashers—same manufacturer, but branded Maytag, Jenn-Air, Amana, Admiral, Crosley, Magic Chef, and Performa—had been recalled. Produced between 2006 and 2010, the dishwashers risked “an electrical failure in the dishwasher's heating element” posing “a serious fire hazard.” As opposed to an unserious fire hazard.

Twelve reports of fires, one “of extensive kitchen damage” but luckily, “no injuries.” So far.
Of course, my dishwasher didn’t fall into that recall, but I have high hopes for the next one.

At least, with 1.7 million dishwashers recalled for servicing, you can be certain of one thing: that ol' Maytag repairman sure ain’t lonely no more!