August 14, 2012

Why the Olympics rock

Usain Bolt fist-bumps a volunteer.

Do you know why the Olympics rock?

At work over the past two weeks, we've had the Olympic Games on the TV in the background. I found it difficult to concentrate, actually. By craning my neck slightly, I could see the greatest athletes from around the world competing together in one city. Each athlete brought a story; there's no way to reach that level of athleticism without etching a novel in blood, sweat and sacrifice. God, the drama.

Some of my co-workers didn't care for the Olympics. "Whatever." "They're just some games." "It's an exercise in sponsorship, advertising and government-self-congratulation."

Perhaps that last one is true if we let it be true. It's possible to miss the message of a ritual (any ritual, from Christmas to a funeral to a debut) for the packaging that accompanies it. There is no doubt the Olympic Games are tainted commercialism.

You can focus on that taint (hah!) or you can focus on the heart of the ritual. And the heart of the Olympic ritual is an invitation for humanity to rise to excellence, both physically and spiritually. Really, I find the mental fortitude, commitment and peace in some of the athletes a thousand times more moving and desirable than their athletic prowess. And it's achievable: These young women and men prove it is every four years.

Does that make me a sucker? Perhaps. To borrow someone else's phrase, I'd rather be a sucker than a cynic.

August 13, 2012

First comes love, then comes...

When James asked me to give a speech tonight - to toast him - my first reaction was happiness, pleasure and pride. What an honour.

My second reaction was fear, timidity, impotence and, yes, hate. How dare you ask me to try and sum up your diverse, wacky, adventurous life. Ask me to eloquently summarize a true renaissance man in five minutes? What a tool.

 And he is a renaissance man. In the 13 years I've known him, James has been:

·         a legislative assistant
·         a pizza delivery bicyclist in Northern Ireland
·         security at a Scottish football club
·         a sandwich artist
·         a translator
·         a lecturer
·         a bankruptcy counsellor
·         a political candidate
·         a fry cook
·         an upholsterer
·         a furniture delivery man
·         an editor for a Korean airline's magazine
·         a trumpet player
·         an actor for stage and screen
·         a director
·         president for the Centre for the Advancement of Steady State Economics
·         a master's student at Cambridge
·         and a concert pianist

And those are just occupations. Jobs. That list doesn't include his travels, his hobbies, his many, many volunteer projects. The full list is something I can only guess at. I think if the two of us were in a plane crash together, in some remote part of the world, like Siberia, and we survived and made our way out of the wreckage, some fur-covered man would find us in the snow, take off his hood and go, "F---in' Jaaaaaaaaames!"

James told me when he applied to Cambridge and had to list out his background, he included a note saying "You'd be forgiven for thinking I'm an amateur addicted to novice pursuits. But what I actually like to do is learn something, conquer it, do it perfectly and then move on." That's pretty good. But my favourite quote about James came from our university dance teacher. Actually, it wasn't really a dance class. We didn't learn any dances or choreography. It was a Movement for Actors class, where we learned to move around a room theatrically. I can't explain it better than that.

James was having trouble getting the class, understanding what the teacher wanted. So one day, during an exercise, he just let loose; he did what he wanted, he vocalized and flailed and had fun. And when the exercise was over, the room was quiet and the instructor looked at James and said, "You are the victim of your own enthusiasm."


James is the victim of his own enthusiasm. His love for action - for setting audacious goals, for achieving big things, for helping people - has pushed his mind and body to the limit (sometimes further). James is the victim of his own enthusiasm. And the world is better for it. And so are the people, like me, who are lucky enough to have him in their life. I've seen James, with 15 balls in the air, make time for me in his schedule, help me, listen to me when I needed a friend. And when I'm done talking, he rushes off to save the world or write a novel or perform a Chopin waltz. How can I possibly sum a guy like that up?

James is a victim of his own enthusiasm and so are we, the people who get swept along with him. Mel tells a story about when we were all in university and James decided to go biking across Europe on a low budget. The lowest budget. The "sleeping in a churchyard under cardboard in shifts so the muggers don't stab us" budget. Mel was working at the same place as Tristan, James' brother, and when they were on shift together, they would compare notes. "Have you heard from James?' "Is he still alive?" "Should we send him money so he can afford to eat more than just bananas?" We are all victims of your enthusiasm.

Kendra, you are about to become the chief victim. The sacrificial lamb. I remember the first time I met Kendra, when she served me a drink from a box of wine that had been heating nicely over a vent for several hours. She looked at me, daring me to be upset and immature, assessing me, analyzing me, forming an opinion of me when I was supposed to be forming an opinion of her. When we were back in the car, James asked me what I thought and I think I said something that sounded like "good luck." In a much nicer way, of course, but I wasn't too sure about Kendra.

James, however, is not as timid as I am. So here we are today. And I have found that Kendra's sharp mind is matched by a soft heart, a passion for the arts - good choice - and a genuine concern for the people around her. James, Kendra - you're both insane. And absolutely wonderful. I hope you continue to be victims of each other's enthusiasm, plans, dreams and love for the rest of your lives. It won't be easy, but it will be great.

If you'll all join me in a toast to one of the best people I know.

To James.

August 8, 2012

Our Winnipeg secret

I've finally been able to write an article for the Winnipeg Free Press during my internship there. The following appeared in the Sunday, August 5th edition, with a great photo by Ruth Bonneville.

I know the Freep is looking for other Our Winnipeg stories (looking at you, fellow CreComm students). Do you have a nook in the city you cherish? Drop me a line and I'll try to connect you with the publishing powers that be.

Photo by Ruth Bonneville.

The flip side of our bizarre city

'Lovely little park' shows what Winnipeg could be

Mel and I aren't from Winnipeg. She's originally from southwestern Manitoba and I'm a base brat from everywhere and nowhere. When we moved here about 12 years ago, we had the same thought: What a bizarre city...

August 3, 2012

Lessons in copy editing #4 (Final)

Sometimes it turns on a word.

On Friday, July 20, a young man walked in to a Colorado movie theatre and opened fire on the audience. 12 people were killed and 58 were injured.

The shooting was, unsurprisingly, a top story that weekend in newspapers across North America, including the Winnipeg Free Press. I was copy editing that weekend and I remember the editors searching the news wire services with urgency, looking for stories to move in time for the print deadline.

One piece that came over the wires was by Eli Saslow and Marc Fisher, two Washington Post journalists, who managed a pretty good piece within a day of the shooting: expert opinions mixed with reasonable conjecture and, importantly, details on the deceased, the injured and the alleged shooter. Their piece was picked up around the world.

Give this section a read:

"The suspected shooter, James Holmes, surrendered to police without a fight. He was armed for war, outfitted for terror. His hair was painted red. He told the cops, "I am the Joker."
His past, so far, seems more a riddle. Unlike some mass shooters, Holmes, 24, does not appear to have much of an online or written trail. The world of social media is now such that anyone can find Holmes' description of his genitalia, but no one has come forward to explain his departure from the realm of the rational.
The evidence at this point is sparse; the clues, tantalizing. Jimmy Holmes was an accomplished student, a "brainiac," something of a loner, some said; others called him witty, even nice. For four months, he'd been receiving a high volume of packages at his Aurora apartment, yet no one said anything.
Over and over, people who studied, worked and lived near Holmes sheepishly acknowledged they didn't know his interests, friendships or much at all. At his high school, his college, in Aurora and back home in San Diego, acquaintances recognized his face on TV on Friday morning, but beyond that, mostly a blank.
"He's one of those people. I had classes with him but never talked to him," said Abel Maniquis, a high school classmate.
A longtime neighbour of Holmes's parents, who live in the Torrey Highlands section of San Diego, didn't even know the couple had a son.
Arlene Holmes is a registered nurse. Her husband, Robert, is a senior scientist at FICO, a nationally known financial services company where he works on identify theft and online financial fraud. The father has three degrees in math and statistics.
James Holmes ran cross-country in high school, spent summers in science programs, was a counsellor at a camp for poor kids in Los Angeles. He graduated with honours in 2010 from the University of California at Riverside. From his undergraduate years on, his studies focused on human behaviour. This spring, he delivered a presentation in a University of Colorado graduate class on the biological basis of psychiatric and neurological disorders. Then he left school.
Mostly, he's left questions. Had he been on a psychotropic medication he had stopped taking? Did his recent departure from a neuroscience PhD program at the University of Colorado represent the kind of sudden, traumatic break from his career's forward motion that has been cited as a spark for violence in some previous shooting cases? Did his teenage passion for online fantasy games morph into a break from reality that culminated in him assuming the identity of the Joker, Batman's eternal nemesis?"

The writing is a bit florid, but there's pretty decent detail given the tight time frame. They strike me as good writers and journalists. But a phrase caught my eye. Did it catch yours?

"Mostly, he's left questions."

I disagree. Mostly, Holmes (allegedly) shot and killed people. From a journalist's perspective - with a deadline looming and immersed in a news industry that's fascinated by psychopathy - unknown details about Holmes' life may be important. But questions aren't his largest legacy. Saying so insults the dead while trampling the journalists' credibility.

At the Free Press, we changed it to "He's also left questions."

Sometimes it turns on a word.

August 2, 2012

Lessons in copy editing #3

6) Keep a list of your errors

When you make an error more than once, it goes on The List - a collection of your frequent errors and slips. I hate doing this, to be honest, because fixating on my errors (which I tend to do) makes me feel about this big:

O-|—<          (actual size shown)

BUT I find I need to write down my mistakes to absorb them; just looking at the red ink doesn't cut it. Keep the list by your desk for quick reference and once you can reflexively spell/conjugate/modify that swatch of the English language correctly, cross it off The List.

8) Keep historical copies of articles you edit

Like running out a line of string behind you as you enter the dark woods (none of that breadcrumb garbage, we all know how that turned out), keeping previous copies will let you backtrack in a hurry. If you don't do this and your editor comes to you, asking you reinsert material you cut, you'd better have a good tap dance ready, Gene Kelly style.

7) Get ready to be unsung

Reporters get the credit. Fair enough, they do most of the leg work, ferreting out stories, interviewing people,  drawing it all into one compelling narrative...

Except for the times the narrative isn't compelling, interviews are missing, facts are wrong or words are misspelled. Then copy editors step in. On a number of occasions, I've seen Free Press copy editors take an average (or worse) story and massage it into good journalism.

And they don't get any public recognition for it. Every now and then a headline will elicit a remark, but that's about it. And a sense of a job well done.

All that to say, if you're going into journalism and you're packing a substantial ego, you definitely want to avoid copy editing. But do thank your copy editor! I've also witnessed rare occasions when a reporter/columnist has wandered over to the pagination area to thank a copy editor for catching an egregious error or typing the perfect headline. Gratitude will get you a lot of traction.


Thank you Lara, Laurie, Stacy, Andrew, Pat, Ron, Bud, Ben, Scott, Kelly, Greg, Steve, Mike, Darron, Dave, Chad, Randy, Jill and any other copy editors I haven't met in person. You've been very kind in putting up with me. Four more weeks darlings, four more weeks.

August 1, 2012

7 new words from the Fringe

In the spirit of CreComm instructor Kenton Larsen (who I'll be seeing in less than a month — wow, summer flew by), I offer you seven new words/terms generated by the Winnipeg Fringe.

Show-blindness — inability to see the glaring faults of a show you are acting in

Samosoma —  deep-fried, potato-stuffed coma

Star-sighted — inability of a Fringe-goer to look past star ratings

Reviewsal — when a patron informs a handbiller that star ratings don't matter (awesome!)

Cuetaclysm the total derailing of a show by a technical/actor snafu

Thespensity — tendency for crowds to become emotionally volatile after seeing Fringe shows

Embuskassed  feeling when you pass a busker who's trying and failing to build an audience

Now, on with August!