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The plastic brain

Dr. Norman Doidge

Dr. Norman Doidge

At Centennial College where I work in Toronto, this past week, I faced new students, people with different destinations than my students last fall. As I asked them about their aspirations for the course I was about to teach, one asked about what I do. In passing, I mentioned I’d be interviewing a doctor who believes the human brain can change, adapt, and even heal itself. Curious, I asked the class if anyone had ever had a traumatic brain experience.

“When I was young, I had a stroke,” one student said. “It took away my speech. I couldn’t talk.”

I nodded that her current speech suggested a full recovery. “What happened? How did your speech come back?”

“They taught me Italian,” she said. “I didn’t know a word of it. But in learning the Italian I got my English speech back.” [more…]

Just how cold was it?

That Fort McMurray hilltop where we tried to beat the cold with our introductions, in November 1985.

That Fort McMurray hilltop where we tried to beat the cold with our introductions, in November 1985.

We had been sitting inside our TV crew van for about 15 or 20 minutes, waiting. We weren’t about to venture outside until things were ready for us. Meantime, my co-host – Lee Mackenzie – and I, rehearsed what we would say. We wanted to make sure, the moment our producer called for us to speak our lines in front of the camera, outside, that we could deliver the introduction to our TV show in one take (without any mistakes). Why? Well, our camera location was on a hill overlooking Fort McMurray, Alberta, in wintertime. The temperature outside our van that day was about –40. Eventually, all was ready and we dashed outside, took our spots, rolled the video and spoke our lines.

“Hi, I’m Lee Mackenzie,” she said.

“And I’m Ted Barris,” I said. “Welcome to ‘Monday Magazine’ from Fort McMurray…” [more…]

The challenge of sitting

In their day, paddlewheel steamers cost thousands and took months to build...

In their day, paddlewheel steamers cost thousands and took months to build. I had to build mine in minutes for nothing.

It was one of those moments you can turn into something brilliant. Or, just as easily, one you can see yourself going down in flames. It happened over the holidays. I was suddenly thrust into the position of having to do some babysitting of our grandchildren at our daughter’s and son-in-law’s house. The three grandkids had finished dinner. Their parents had dashed off for some quality time away from the kids. And I had to come up with something creative for entertainment. I asked the eldest grandchild – the six-year-old – what she wanted to do.

“Let’s make something really cool,” she said.

“Like what?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said, “but let’s draw it first.” [more…]

Is Christmas relevant?

"It's Christmas Eve" brought together Alex, the composer, and Quenby and Whitney, the singers and grandchildren, in 2001.

“It’s Christmas Eve” brought together Alex, the composer, and Quenby and Whitney, the singers and grandchildren, in 2001.

A number of Christmases ago, my father Alex called me. He was worried about something. I asked him what was wrong. He said he was facing a dilemma. He had just written a Christmas song and wanted one of our two daughters to record it. Since both were good singers, he didn’t know which to choose.

“Dad, I don’t see a problem,” I said. “They both sing. Why not ask them to record it together? They can sing it in harmony.”

Well, it was one of those times in my life when instinct proved to be bang on. My father approached both our daughters – Quenby, the teacher, and Whitney, the actor/singer – and they agreed to work on it together. [more…]

Rancher prisoner teacher and champ

Noreen and Art Hawtin pose with the sign identifying their ranch est. 1936

Noreen and Art Hawtin pose with the sign identifying their ranch est. 1936

One of rancher Art Hawtin’s closest friends, another rancher in Beaverton, Ont., told me that Art had two personalities. One personality Art exhibited around family and friends, when he was soft-spoken and easy-going. Then, whenever he herded his cattle, he exhibited the firmness and purpose required. When he moved cattle into pens or onto trucks, his friend said, Art seemed to be able to speak to the animals with his eyes and his body posture.

“It was as if the cattle figured that it was their job to get into the chutes or onto the truck,” Bob Robertson told me this week. “Art made them do whatever he wanted.” [more…]

Answering the bell

Keith Ballard checks Corey Perry and Don Cherry salivates. (courtesy puckgonewild)

Keith Ballard checks Corey Perry and Don Cherry salivates. (courtesy puckgonewild)

Last Saturday night, during the “Coach’s Corner” segment on CBC TV, Don Cherry could barely contain himself. His partner on the Hockey Night in Canada segment Ron McLean asked the one-time coach of the Boston Bruins what he thought of a the hip check delivered by Minnesota Wild defenceman Keith Ballard on Anaheim Ducks’ star winger Corey Perry, earlier in the week. Cherry blurted out that it was perfectly normal, just “a hockey hit.” Seconds later, the HNIC producers showed one of Perry’s teammates dropping the gloves, challenging Ballard to a fight. Why?

“Somebody has to go after (Ballard) and answer the bell,” Cherry bellowed. “And if you don’t understand that, there’s no sense me talking about it!” [more…]

A New York state of mind

Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade lasted three hours and featured all manner of superhero, including Spiderman.

Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade lasted three hours and featured all manner of superhero, including Spiderman.

The turkey was done. Done like dinner, because it was American Thanksgiving dinner. The pies and other glorious pastries had come out for dessert. And the relatives I was visiting on Long Island, New York, were well into their annual ritual – eating, drinking, joking and generally over-indulging – during their Nov. 27-to-30 holiday. Except, for them, after the turkey, the dressing and the dessert, there was one other indulgence required.

“OK. Where are the flyers?” my cousin asked. “Gotta check the sales.” [more…]

Respect my neighbour, or else

The unsinkable Rodine Egan at her 90th birthday party in 2013.

The unsinkable Rodine Egan at her 90th birthday party in 2013.

It happened over the weekend. She called me over to her house. As a neighbour of some 25 years, of course, I said I’d help. When I entered her kitchen, I realized she was upset. More than that she was worried. She handed me a letter she’d received from a utility and asked me to explain to her what it meant. I looked at the content of the letter as she spoke to me. She seemed to be more afraid than inquisitive.

“What does this mean?” she repeated.

As many of you know, I live next door to a most extraordinary person. At 91, Rodine Egan is not as spry as she once was, but at no time have I ever sensed that anything could frighten her.

[more…]

More liberation needed

My mother, Kay Barris, could have run the retail department in which she served as a sales clerk.

My mother, Kay Barris, could have run the retail department in which she served as a sales clerk.

The deadline for getting my news story on the air was fast approaching. My TV producer, a long-time filmmaker and friend named Sue, made some speedy recommendations in the editing room to help me get the story finished in time. At the time, her experience was wider and deeper than mine. And thanks to her skill, we managed to get my TV story broadcast that night. That’s when I delivered that horribly cliché and patronizing line about her talent.

“That’s why you get paid the big bucks,” I said condescendingly. [more…]

Wartime life at sea

Canadian sailor Jim Hunt served in the Norwegian Merchant Navy in WWII

Canadian sailor Jim Hunt served in the Norwegian Merchant Navy in WWII

Regulations clearly stipulated against it. An exposed light in the middle of the darkness, especially on the open sea when the country was at war made the vessel emitting the light extremely vulnerable. German U-boats could spot it in a second, and attack in the next. And the risk was made extremely clear to merchant navy man Jim Hunt during one North Atlantic crossing when his tanker convoy was under an escort by U.S. navy ships.

“Someone had left a porthole open with a light on at dusk on board our tanker,” Hunt said, remembering his time in the Second World War as a teenaged sailor at sea aboard a Norwegian merchant navy ship. “So, an American destroyer came alongside our ship and signaled for us to turn the light out … or they would sink us.” [more…]