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No sound? No reality!

SUBCONSCIOUS_PASSWORD_POSTERThe concept was fairly simple. Oscar-winning moviemaker Chris Landreth leads his audience into the recesses of the brain of a character named Charles Langford, who’s attempting to remember the name of a long-ago friend he’s suddenly re-encountered at a party. You know… It’s when you see the face, but you can’t remember the name… Well, Landreth used that premise in an 11-minute short film, called “Subconscious Password,” which we recently saw during the annual Short Film Festival at Uxbridge’s Roxy Theatres. The film becomes a madcap edition of that classic TV game show “Password,” with every contestant knowing that the long-ago friend’s name is “John,” except our hero.

“Landreth’s spellbinding animation makes anomic aphasia unforgettably entertaining,” explained the Roxy program. [more...]

Handling the handlers

Toronto mayoral candidates (l-r) Doug Ford, Olivia Chow and John Tory.

Toronto mayoral candidates (l-r) Doug Ford, Olivia Chow and John Tory.

She started looking and listening from the moment she entered the room. Almost as if she were a bomb-sniffing canine, she was casing the space in which Olivia Chow was about to participate in a mayoral debate, Monday evening. I was the moderator and introduced myself. She had a raft of questions about where Ms. Chow would be sitting during the debate, and what the order of speaking would be. Then, just before her candidate entered the room, the handler approached me with one final question.

“How will Olivia know when her speaking time is up?” the woman asked me. “Have you got signs to count her down to the end of her time?”

“No.” I said. “I’ll just tell her she’s got 30 seconds left.”

“I really think you ought to have visual signs for her,” she insisted.

“Don’t worry. I’ve moderated a lot of debates. I don’t think we need visual signals. I’ll just find an appropriate moment, a breath pause in Olivia’s comments, and I’ll gently say, ‘Thirty seconds.’ It should work just fine.” [more...]

How families grow wiser

Walter Allward's marble sculpture of Mother Canada mourning her dead at Vimy Ridge memorial site in France.

Walter Allward’s marble sculpture of Mother Canada mourning her dead at Vimy Ridge memorial site in France.

Early in the celebration of Bill Cole’s life, last Sunday afternoon at Wooden Sticks, his son Rob talked about the periodic disconnect that had existed between himself and his late father. Rob said he thought it was much the same as the disconnect between Bill and his father, First World War veteran Thomas Clark Cole. But Rob admitted a reality that many sons and daughters do.

“I was astonished,” Rob Cole said. “The older I got, the wiser Dad seemed to become.” [more...]

Rules are not for breaking

People's Climate March supporters believe world leaders have failed to live up to environmental commitments.

People’s Climate March supporters believe world leaders have failed to live up to greenhouse gas emissions regulations they agreed to at Kyoto in 1997.

I remember the shot as if it were yesterday. Just a few minutes into our friendly game of shinny, this new guy in the game came skating down the wing, pulled his hockey stick back to let a slapshot fly. In an instant, the goalie ducked and everybody in the path of this guy’s shot got out of the way; it was like the parting of the Red Sea. A second later, his blast from the wing exploded off the glass behind the goalie and ricocheted around the boards with a resounding boom.

“Hey! No slapshots!” somebody yelled. “Don’t you know the rules?” [more...]

The frill is gone

My checked luggage as a profit centre for long-suffering airlines.

My checked luggage as a profit centre for long-suffering airlines.

It was just past 6 a.m. I was rushing through the Calgary airport to catch a flight to the U.S. a few weeks ago. I was relieved when I found nobody in front of me at the United Airlines check-in. I rustled up my passport and sighed with relief that I’d probably get to the gate in plenty of time. The ticket agent scanned my credentials and took out a tag for my one piece of luggage to be checked to the airplane’s baggage compartment.

“How would you like to pay for this?” she asked.

“Pay for what?” I asked.

“It’s $22 for your checked baggage.”

“I’m only checking one bag,” I protested. [more...]

A 9/11 story

Laurie Laychak simply identified herself as "a volunteer."

Laurie Laychak simply identified herself as “a volunteer.”

It was the tail end of a travel junket. By that I mean I was touring parts of Virginia (near Washington, D.C.) with several other writers and broadcasters. We had been invited there by a state tourism consortium in hopes we would write glowing stories about such tourist spots as Alexandria, former stomping grounds of George Washington; Manassas, with its showcase U.S. Marine Corps Museum; and Arlington, home of the Arlington National Cemetery.

But, on the last day, our guides took us to the west side of the U.S. Pentagon just across the Potomac River from D.C. There we entered a park area, with benches and stunted trees. A woman approached us.

“Are you the Canadian writers?” she asked. Then, she introduced herself. “I’m a volunteer. My name is Laurie Laychak.”

I still didn’t get it. “Volunteer?” I asked. And I looked around at the stainless steel benches inlaid with granite and the Crape Myrtle trees.


“Welcome to the Pentagon 9/11 Memorial… I lost my husband David Laychak, here in the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.” [more...]

Driven and loving it

The Nanji twins are driven to contribute to their community.

The Nanji twins are driven to contribute to their community.

The two young women stood together at the front of the hall, the former pharmacy on the main floor of the Toronto Street medical building. They couldn’t have been more alike. They wore the same T-shirts decorated in a blue and yellow logo. They wore their hair the same – shoulder-length – and they even looked, well, identical. And when they spoke – like a married couple – they finished each other’s sentences.

“I still remember a year ago, thinking this might not work,” one said.

“Yeah, we’ve grown so much,” the other said. “There were only 15 people attending this time last year…”

“This year, there are over 30,” the first added. [more...]

My “famous” friend

Howard Walker never considered himself a wartime hero. But he was to a lot of Centennial College students.

Howard Walker never considered himself a wartime hero. But he was to a lot of Centennial College students. (Photo courtesy Matthew Wocks.)

With some people I know, there are delicious rituals enjoyed when we meet after not seeing each other for a while. For some it’s a real bear hug or a genuine slap on the back. With others it’s a heart-felt handshake. Then, there is one friend with whom I’ve established a unique greeting, in this case an exchange on the telephone. Depending upon who’s calling whom, our phone conversations always began the same way.

“Is this the famous Ted Barris?” he would ask.

To which I’d respond, “Is this the famous Howard Walker?” [more...]

Demonstrating change

Anti-Vietnam War demonstration c.1970.

Anti-Vietnam War demonstration c.1970.

It began rather innocently as a group of students naively wanting change. It was the ninth year of the war in Vietnam. I was in my second year at Ryerson. The U.S. National Guard shootings of four students at Kent State had just happened. On University Avenue in Toronto, we joined others whose agendas were wide-ranging. Some wanted world anarchy. Others were Americans burning their draft notices. Most were like us, just students wanting to change things for the better. Then, things went haywire.

“The police are on horses,” somebody shouted, “and they’re coming at us.” [more...]

Death by more than old age

Sunrise at St. Mark's Square in Venice, where neither the hustle of tourists or tour boats have stirred the city.

Sunrise at St. Mark’s Square in Venice, where neither the hustle of tourists or tour boats have stirred the city.

We arrived before the city was awake. The sun had just slipped above the eastern entrance to the lagoons of Venice, where our cruise ship was met by a speedboat bringing the required harbour pilot to guide us into port. Minutes later, we passed some of the historic sites of the city – the Grand Canal, St. Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace. Someone beside me on deck noticed how few people there seemed to be walking along the canals or through the campos (squares).

“Seems so peaceful and untouched,” he said.

“The really big cruise ships haven’t arrived yet,” another traveller commented sarcastically.

Skyscrapers of the sea.

Skyscrapers of the sea loom over the Venice skyline.

He was right. Our ship, M/V Aegean Odyssey with a modest complement of perhaps 300 passengers, hadn’t been moored at the Marittima Pier at the western edge of the city more than a couple of hours, when suddenly it became surrounded by a fleet of recently arrived cruise ships – Silver Wind, Celebrity Sihouette and Sovereign Pullmantur, to name a few. With lengths as great as that of Titanic and a passenger capacity of 4,000-plus, these floating hotels at first seemed the lifeblood of the city’s vital tourism industry. But according to a lecturer aboard Aegean Odyssey, the large ships may ultimately be contributing to Venice’s demise.

“Venice is now attracting as many as 30 million tourists a year,” said Gregory Dowling, a professor at the University of Venice. “The city has the highest tourist-to-resident ratio in Europe.”

Once the cruise ships discharge their passengers, St. Mark's Square becomes a mob scene.

Once the cruise ships discharge their passengers, St. Mark’s Square becomes a mob scene.

Why is that such a bad thing in a Europe struggling to right itself after the economic crash of 2008? Well, among other things, the rising tourism in Venice, Dowling pointed out, has overwhelmed services (including such basics as public toilets), closed schools and driven residents from the city.

In 1951 Venice was home to 175,000 permanent citizens; in 2012, that number had shrunk to 58,000. That’s not to say that the trend has gone unnoticed; last year, local demonstrators swam in the canals and marched on city squares protesting cruise ships using the historic Giudecca Canal as a highway. The city responded in January, reducing by 20 per cent the number of ships weighing more than 40,000 tonnes.

But the invasion of Venetian canals by so-called “skyscrapers of the sea” is not the only assault on Europe’s antiquities.

Earlier during our recent tour to the eastern Mediterranean, we visited the Acropolis. The iconic mountain top above Athens has stood since the 5th century BC as a symbol of Greece’s “golden age” of enlightenment, democracy and architecture. But it too has suffered from centuries of popularity. As recently as when I was a teenager, in the 1960s, my parents took my sister and me to visit relatives in Athens, where my dad’s cousin led us throughout the Acropolis; back then, we were allowed to wander among the ruins of the Temple of Athena, the Porch of Caryatids and every metre of the Parthenon itself. Not today.

Tourists by the millions have worn the marble path atop the Acropolis to nothing.

Tourists by the millions have worn the marble path atop the Acropolis to nothing.

“We are restricted to stay within the fenced pathway,” our Athenian guide told us on our recent visit. “They are very serious about this.”

Indeed, when I ventured to the top of an ancient stone piece to photograph our group (seen here), one of the volunteer guardians of the Acropolis blew a whistle at me shouting at me to get down. As I walked the marble pathway, which I remember being jagged and coarse in 1964, I realized the surface is now worn so smooth as to nearly shine in the Athenian sun. And all around the ancient Grecian ruins are cranes and artisans working to repair and restore some of the Acropolis’s former glory.

“The Parthenon took six years to build [in 5th C BC],” our guide informed us. “Restoration has been going on for 80 years; there are still 40 more years to go before it’s complete.”

The Parthenon took six years to build, but 120 to restore.

The Parthenon took six years to build, but will need 120 to be restored.

The restorers of Europe’s antiquities are serious in every respect. As well as restricting movement among the ruins, in most basilicas, churches and mausoleums we explored recently, there were prohibitive signs posted everywhere. Visitors cannot touch, lean on or photograph with flash any of the religious icons and frescos. Clearly the free-access attitudes of the past are gone. Exhibitors, guides and museum curators all fear the damaging potential effects of their attractions’ popularity.

As far as preserving the Venetian canals, I noticed the day after we left the city once dominated only by gondolas, that Italy’s transport minister has clamped down even more.

Are these the last of the skyscrapers of the sea to visit Venice?

Are these the last of the “skyscrapers of the sea” to visit Venice?

After civic petitions and celebrity press conferences (involving Michael Douglas and Cate Blanchett), Maurizio Lupi, announced further restrictions on the mega cruise ship invasion. Soon, no ocean liners over 96,000 tonnes will be allowed to sail the Giudecca Canal in front of St. Mark’s Basilica.

“[It’s] our duty to remove the skyscrapers of the sea from the canals of Venice,” he said, “safeguarding a world heritage city … [while] protecting the city’s economy so linked to cruise tourism.”

But is it a case of fiddling while Rome burns?