Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Civilization and its Many Discontents

Everybody knows the Jean-Paul Sartre quote “hell is other people”. Everybody at one time or another can nod and agree with it. However it begs the question “was Jean-Paul Sartre any great shakes himself?” It’s very easy to point the finger of blame at other people and hold them responsible for your misery. But if you’re the one doing all the pointing, chances are you’re the hell.

I recently quit a high paying job. It’s very unusual for me to bail out of a gig because I’m a freelancer. It’s also unusual for me not to get along with a co-worker. But such was the case. I had to leave for my sanity’s sake. My co-worker did a lot of pointing.

I give people the benefit of the doubt. I enjoy working with people. One of the best ways to create a team environment is knowing how and when to support other people’s ideas. It’s essential to collaboration. Putting on a television show is a collaborative effort. There may be room for pride, but there’s no room for ego. I have learned that the hard way. I am used to having pages and pages of script tossed. I may think that what I’ve written is good, if not hilarious or poetic, but if the powers that be don’t like it, out it goes. An accepted fact – I am a cog in the machine. I save my soul for fiction and essays.

Without going into details (and believe me, I’d love to document every tension filled minute) I found it impossible to collaborate with this co-worker. I think my co-worker had a major psychological disorder. I had to make a decision – cut and run or be provoked into a physical attack. I cut and run. That’s what it came down do. Fight or flight. No nuances, no subtlety. I did not have the wherewithal to deal with her. I realized my limitations in this situation. It was lose-lose.

She’s the kind of person who makes your gut tighten in that weird “something’s not quite right here” way.

A wise friend of mine comforted me with the immortal lyrics “You gotta know when to hold ‘em/know when to fold ‘em/know when to walk away/know when to run.

I ran.

I did the right thing.

Other people said that I should have fought, should have insisted to the powers that be that one of us had to go and that it wouldn’t be me. Sometimes bullies win. It’s that simple. It’s a hard lesson. Am I a wimp? A coward? Well if being a coward means sleeping again, being able to eat and returning to the people and places I love, I am a deserter. I chose to lay my arms down, instead of waste my time battling malignant ambition. The first week of my employment, my co-worker provoked me with a rant about the Iraq War and how she was originally for it. I felt my gut tighten (see above) and realized I was being pushed into confrontation. WHY I have no idea. This had NOTHING to do with our work. I did not want to engage in a debate about Iraq, with someone who was clearly out to “win” at all costs. It was not the time nor the place. And that’s my problem, I suppose. I believe in a TIME and a PLACE for things. How hopelessly courteous of me.

There’s a great verse in “The Gambler” that gets glossed over.

Now every gambler knows/that the secret to surviving/is knowing what to throw away/and knowing what to keep.

It goes on:

‘Cause every hand’s a winner/and every hand’s a loser/and the best thing you can hope for/is to die in your sleep.

Kenny Rogers may not have been Jean-Paul Sartre. But he sold more records.

I can sleep again. And maybe, if I'm lucky, I'll die in my sleep too.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

What's Wrong With The CBC Now?

Amidst the latest weeping and gnashing of teeth over the ratings at CBC, my boyfriend (who is a mental health worker, lucky me) asked if Hockey Night in Canada is on CBC because it’s the law. With the anticipated defection of HNIC to CTV/TSN in 2008, the question is not as endearingly naïve and incredibly sexy as it seems. After all, the CBC was created in 1936 to “foster a national spirit and interpret national citizenship.” While once a regulatory board, the CBC gave up that gig to what is now the CRTC. So I guess the answer is no, HNIC is not on CBC because it’s the law. But should it be? Is it a part of our national identity, or is it a commodity up for grabs to the highest bidder? There’s a big fat can of worms for you.

My brother who’s a lifer at StatsCan (with one brief foray into the giddy environs of RevCan) rails against the CBC and its one billion dollar annual budget. He laments what he perceives as a colossal waste of the tax payers dollars and how the money could be better spent on social programs .Ah, the poor sap. His brain has been addled by numbers. But with each passing year, I find it more difficult to defend the CBC around Christmas dinner. The CBC is the glue that holds this country together. Pass the gravy. How much longer can I do this?

Maybe what holds this country together is us griping about the CBC. The idea of protecting our national airwaves is nothing new. The advent of broadcasting saw politicians and intellectuals of the day advocating for a public network. American radio flooded into Canada and, no surprise, many people tuned in. To safeguard our fledging country it was deemed necessary to create an entity to give voice to our nation. That was seventy years ago. Today the Canadian people still prefer American programming. Why? Because it’s very good, for the most part. Does this preference for American products make us any less Canadian? Does anyone care anymore, except our cultural elite, bureaucrats and CBC freelancers like me? My head runneth over…

Television shapes our opinion and accompanies us through life. I was a young teenager when the Big Three ruled the airwaves. The CBC was our broadcaster though: Wayne and Shuster made jokes with Canadian references! Hey – we were on the map! Then in the 1980s the TV landscape changed with the introduction of Pay TV. I remember seeing music videos for the first time and having a sinking feeling Wayne and Shuster were uncool. Canadian TV seemed all arms and legs next to the sleek mature production values of American TV. The CBC seemed lame in comparison. But gosh darn it, the CBC had become ingrained. My loyalties were divided.

CBC is constantly trying to find ways to reach the 18-34 demographic. Does the 18-34 demographic care that the CBC broadcast Winston Churchill’s 1941 speech to our Parliament? Does it care about preserving a piece of our national identity? Or does it simply want to text message its cronies about the next kegger while watching Lost and playing Grand Theft Auto or whatever the hell rape and pillage gorefest is the bomb? CBC has to matter to our educators and politicians before it can matter to the kids. Canada is a complex country, home to different nations, according to the Conservatives. How can the CBC be all things to all people? It can’t. But it’s important and relevant to the people who cherish the idea of a united Canada. What’s the point in having a country at all if we don’t appreciate our own national character?

It has been suggested that CBC go the way of PBS, become commercial free and rely on viewer donations for revenue. This is better than extinction, if push comes to shove.

Remember the old CBC promo – CBC and You? It laid the existential dilemma bare. There’s CBC and then there’s You. Is there a CBC and Us? I’ll have to prepare an answer in time for Christmas dinner.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Public Transit Rocks

From the archives. This was written after the London Tubeway bombings.

Odds that you’ll be killed in a car accident: 1:18,800. Odds that you’ll die in a motorcycle accident: 1:118,000. Odds you’ll get killed by a car as a pedestrian: 1:45,200. (www.enotalone.com). Odds of being killed in a terrorist attack: 1:88,000. (U.S. Center for Disease Control). FYI.

A pox on Al Qaeda! It’s nefarious, it’s vile and it isn’t environmentally friendly. Bombing public transit systems isn’t going to win them any fans with the Greens. What the hell does Al Qaeda hope to accomplish? As far as striking terror into the hearts of urbanites who rely on public transit, yeah, the terrorist organization score points there, but the two compelling reasons to ride public transit – efficiency and speed, are hard to give up. Commuters will not give up. Many low-income urbanites can’t give up. Who are these terrorists hoping to win over anyway? A bad PR move all around. Al Qaeda wants to franchise? Open a Krispy Crème and leave transit alone.

In urban centres public transit makes sense. I love the TTC. I feel sorry for people who rely on cars in the city. Being stuck on the Gardiner in some gas guzzling SUV spewing crap, listening to EZ Rock and Phil Collins while rubberneckers halt traffic to gawk at a stalled vehicle -- eesh, I’ll take the high security alert on a subway. Driving around by yourself in a hermetically sealed automobile defeats the purpose of "city". Public space and public services should be celebrated. You want privacy? Stay home and pollute your own closed garage. Keep the car running and strapped yourself in the front seat while you’re at it.

Public transit isn’t for wimps. You have to have stamina and a good dose of serenity to tolerate transit delays, overcrowding, broken down escalators. Days after the most recent threats to the London transit system I was getting off at Dundas when a TTC cleaner accidentally dropped a metal container that made a loud CLANG. At least seven people whipped their heads around quickly to see what the noise was about. I ignored the tightening in my gut and carried on. Tense? When aren’t I?

We like to think a terror strike could never happen in Canada. Why would anyone bother with us? The only thing resembling terrorism in this country happened in 1970. I was a little kid living in Montreal and I was rather happy about all the FLQ chaos. It meant occasionally staying home from school and watching The Flintstones. My parents were less pleased. I remember my father pouring over the Montreal Gazette, headlines screaming the latest on the kidnapping of James Cross and the murder of Pierre Laporte. Canada had its version of unrest. It seems quaint in comparison, like schoolboys pulling a prank. We worried about mailbox bombs. The worst that could happen if one detonated – a few Visa bills would be torched. Not so bad. Even the most rabid separatist wouldn’t strap on a vest of explosives or a backpack full of chemicals and blow up the metro. Suicide? Not when there’s Happy Hour. Dying would interfere with life’s pleasures, comme diner et danse.

I’m not nervous on the TTC. Never have been. But the Underground and our subway are similar. Toronto’s subway is a baby version of the Tube. There is a passing resemblance, Ontario being a good little province in the Commonwealth. It’s been a little eerie lately.
But public transit riders are a hardy lot. We gripe, we moan, and like Homer (Simpson), we sometimes may feel that "public transit is for losers". But the last couple of weeks I’ve noticed some people wearing Underground T-shirt on the subway, myself included. A small gesture, but an act of solidarity nonetheless, a banning together in spirit.

If we can handle body odour in 40 degree heat, we can handle anything.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

This Complete Idiot's Guide to Paris

What do you do when faced with the Louvre’s 35,000 works of art and only five hours to spare?
You get caffeinated.
You enter Ming Pie’s glass pyramids while looking at the surroundings eight centuries in the making, up at the statues of Rousseau and Rabelais for inspiration, and then gird your loins.
Pick a section.

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles came to mind. Donatello, Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo. The Italian Masters it would be, followed by Delacroix and David. First floor in the Denon wing. Inadvertently saw the Mona Lisa. Leonardo has better portraits, but there’s no denying the enigmatic quality and superlative technique. What really moved me were the Titian portraits – Man With A Glove c. 1520, "remarkably psychological" (according to my "A Guide to the Lourve" publication) and an early precursor to Romanticism (according to my humble opinion). Onto large format French painting, and a needed break from crucifixion and suckling infants. Military conquest. Napolean everywhere. Paintings "ripped from the headlines". Bolted down the stairs before closing for a quick gaze at Italian sculpture and Michelangelo’s The Dying Slave,1513ish. Pain and ecstasy, sensuality and longing. Dying made me horny. Lucky Jim.

Jim. My travel companion and lover. Booked us in an apartment near the Avenue des Gobelins bordering the Latin Quarter, one off limit apartment once the studio of the famous French painter Watteau (yeah, I’d never heard of him either). If you have the money, book an apartment. If you don’t have the money, book an apartment on credit. Hotel rooms are the size of walnuts. You’ll appreciate having your own kitchen in the morning.

Now I’m just a simple white girl, a fifth generation Canadian from a dysfunctional family. I don’t forget that. I wish I could. So when visiting Chateau Versailles and plowing through the palace’s many anterooms, the Hall of Mirrors and the Queen’s apartment, well, I got my back up. The opulence revolted. No wonder the gens sliced off the royal heads. Divine Right of Kings my ass.
The palace gardens. Topiary that would take your head off, in a good way. Floral symmetry that staggers.

Paris seemed vaguely familiar to me, because I was born and raised in Montreal. My French is abysmal, mais, I did get by. For a Torontonian, Jim spoke French exceptionally well. Only once did he screw up, when he purchased what he thought was ice cream at the Jardin des Plantes. "Glace ou non glace", asked the attendant. "Non glace", replied Jim. (I was gawking at a flower at the time and didn’t hear the exchange). Jim came over holding a frothy looking cone. "What’s that?" I asked. "Whipping cream from an aerosol can." He ate it anyway.

How did the Nazis take Paris? How did my friend’s friend’s cousin at ten years old cope with seeing his parents bussed away from the Rue des Rosiers in the Marais quarter, never to return? When you’re deep below the Montparnasse streets in the famed Catacombs, the hideout for the French Resistance and only a mile or so away from the Palais de Luxembourg, (Luftwaffe HQ in the day), and you’re surrounded by centuries of bones and skulls, the questions haunt.

France rejected the EU charter. French society is divided. Paris is a living museum. People wearing tuxedos stood in a movie queue at midnight on the Champs Elysees. Everyday life for some.
As is jumping in front of a Metro train for others.

Friday, September 29, 2006

On the Fence in L.A.

There are few places more surreal than Los Angeles. The Antarctic, maybe. The moon, perhaps. Now, it’s been awhile since I’ve visited the moon and the Antarctic, well, I’ve seen pictures, but they have one big advantage over L.A. – tougher gun control. And the exchange rate isn’t as bad. However, Los Angeles wins in the employment department. Everywhere you turn, people are working, quite a feat when the temperature and sun conspire to turn every waking moment into a happy siesta. You can’t be a Canadian television writer and not think about Hollywood at some point. The film and television industry in Canada doesn’t take you seriously unless you’ve slogged it out south of the border, regardless if you worked on execrable nonsense or not. If you’re so good, why are you not in L.A.? goes the thinking. It’s 2006 and we still think this way. I make the obligatory pilgrimage once a year, just to say, "I’m in L.A.". (I still put an L.A. address on spec scripts. Has gotten me a few gigs up here, I'm convinced.)

In L.A., people in Mercedes, BMWs, Porsches, Rolls Royces and less modest vehicles cruise the palm dotted roadways, all in a hurry. Either they’re going to work, are working in their cars or are going home to work. Even when they’re not working, L.A people work. Waiting is work, the hardest work of all. And right now a friend of mine is toiling away at nothing.

This friend, who I’ll call Ricky because that’s his name, has just wrapped his own television pilot. Right now he’s experiencing what is known as "being on the fence", the time between wrapping the show and waiting to hear whether or not the network will pick it up. If they decide it’s a go, Ricky, the actors and other assorted creative types will be employed for at least a year. If they pass, Ricky will have to fall back on the film projects he’s been neglecting. Either way, he doesn’t have to punch in for the night shift at the local sweatshop.

At the corner of Beverly Glen and Sunset, Ricky and Johnny, the star of his show, pick me up in Johnny’s BMW. I’ve never been in a car that talks. I’ve been on public transportation where people talk to themselves, but I’ve never had an inanimate object engage me in chat. Johnny’s BMW told him where to turn, how fast he was going, how good he looked. All the while, Ricky has his cell phone pressed to his ear. He’s not listening to the talking car, he’s clinging to his agent’s hope for the show. I hear things like "being in New York for the up fronts" and "start up in mid-season". Ricky has an agent, a manager and a lawyer handling him. No wonder he’s twitchy.

As a distraction, we go see a movie at Century City. Even a non-stop-Dolby-surround-sound-40-edits-a-minute film is not enough to pry Ricky off the phone. He bites his nails and nods intensely to the voice at the other end. It must be rough being a successful Hollywood screenwriter/show runner. Your manicure bills must be murder.

Back at Ricky’s chic abode, perch high in the Hollywood Hills, we settle in to watch hockey. Ricky gets CBC on satellite and is temporarily mollified by Ron Maclean. Ricky is Canadian by birth and American by necessity, as are most Canucks down here. Ron can’t distract Ricky anymore from the ringing phone. Ricky probably wouldn’t notice California sliding into the ocean at this point. He’s on the fence, on the phone. Ricky analyzes his caller’s every nuance, searching for meaning behind every pause or modulation of tone. Will the network order 13? 6? Anything? He’s driving himself crazy.

There’s nothing I can do except help myself to Perrier and go stand on the deck. The view is dizzying – Los Angeles sprawled below, in all its beautiful and harsh complexity. What better place to have your innards twisted by anxiety than this heady locale, the scent of lemon and eucalyptus invigorating the breeze. But I don’t think I’m cut out for the L.A. life. I’m too socially conscious, too modest, too Canadian. Besides I don’t know what to do with my tax rebate, let alone millions. I'm one of these freaks who actually loves winter. That’s what industry executives up here fail to factor in – some writers and performers choose to stay in Canada because it’s home. It’s sane, balanced, and one of the world’s best kept secrets. Sure, I won’t make millions of dollars, but I’ll make tens of thousands of dollars, enough to buy a metropass in Toronto. Sounds good to me.

I've decided to live through Ricky and his Hollywood success, while enjoying medicare up here. Besides, the L.A. Kings? Nobody but nobody cares about hockey in California. Or medicare for that matter...

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Je Me Souviens Dawson

Go to: www.nowtoronto.com and look in their "news" section. I have a little piece in the September 21-27 issue.

Thank you.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

bon bloke, bad bloke

This isn't about being a DRO....After what happened at Dawson College I lost interest...here's a little piece in the meantime.

Bon Bloke, Bad Bloke

Tabarnak! Ostie! Calisse! Every couple of years or so I get it in my head that THIS TIME I’m going to learn French and that it’s going to be different from ALL THE OTHER TIMES. The detritus of good intentions line my bookcase – "Le Francais sans Detours", Le Nouvel Espaces (Cahier d’exercices) "A Vous La France!" and the conciliatory "Schaum’s Outline Series: French Grammar (third edition)". Now I like to think that I’m as smart as the next human being, perhaps even more so, but there are few things in life as ego deflating as trying to pronounce words like trottoir and remunerer in front of a classroom of adults who are inevitably BETTER than you. I have a hard time pronouncing certain English words – why do I persist in torturing myself with la langue francais? My most recent foray into Canada’s other official language is a weekly two hour bafflefest at a francophone centre run by the Somali guys down the street. They switch from French to Somali to English with ease. I’m hoping to pick up some Somali swear words. At least I’m fluent in Quebecois swear words.
I’m a transplanted Montrealer, a Torontonian by default. My parents were born and raised in Toronto (as were my grandparents and great-grandparents) but for some flukey reason, my dad went to McGill and never looked back. I don’t have a French bone in my body, yet the longings and romance of home keep me dreaming that I’ll return to my birthplace one day, a truly integrated citizen.
I had just turned the corner into the teenaged years when Bill 101 was introduced in the mid 1970s. French had to compete for my attention with a brave new world of intoxicants. Pot, acid and booze seemed easier to understand. French was relegated to the backburner (preferably to use for hot knives). Priorities.
Besides, you didn’t have to speak French back then. The Quiet Revolution, the FLQ and the subsequent rise of the PQ must have scared the crap out of my parents, but not enough that I ever heard them utter a word of French in the house. To this day I still have anglo friends in Montreal who don’t speak French. Granted their job prospects are severely limited and they’re on disability and social assistance, but they manage to get by speaking English seulement. I had some ambition though and as is cliché, I went west.
I did attend summer school one year when I was twelve. Some sadist of a teacher had recommended to my parents that they enroll me in a French immersion class in August. "Carolyn is a dreamer", Mrs. Langlois told my parents, "she stares out the window or doodles. Her doodles are good, mind you, but doodling will not get her far. Speaking French will." My parents, wondering how to pawn off their six kids for the summer months, signed me up immediately without my consent. "You need to speak French in Quebec," said my father, sucking back an O’Keefe’s, "we live in Montreal and it’s high time you buckled down and conjugated verbs". Without so much as a "mais non papa! pourqouis papa?" I was packed off daily to a remedial gulag
The teacher, a relentlessly cheerful, thin woman, made us stand in a circle. "Bonjour enfants, comme allez-vous". My fellow inmates, other fobbed off sad sacks, matched and even surpassed my wretchedness. The teacher treated us like slow children each and every day for five weeks, clapping with insane enthusiasm when one of us managed to string together a phrase like "Ou sont les toilettes s’il vous plait" and "A quelle heure commence le film?" "Merveilleux! Merveilleux!" she’d exclaim, her eyes wide with zeal. If her manic energy didn’t whither you, the dripping heat in the airless classroom would. I get depressed just thinking about it.
And yet I persist.
I persist because I believe in Pierre Trudeau’s vision of Canada (he was our MP in Montreal). I persist because I have the utmost respect for new immigrants who put aside their fear and learn English, who speak several languages, who enrich this country by living in Canada. I may not believe in my own ability to ever be fluent (or even semi-fluent) in French, but I’m motivated by subtle and subconscious yearnings. It’s a bitch of a language to be sure, with seven tenses and nouns that have gender (maybe that’s why it’s so sexy), yet I will persist. I have to keep trying, to keep my dream alive. To make up for lost time. To be the citizen I’d like to be.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

DRO will be DOA

Hello and welcome to my blog. I hope you enjoy reading this post.

First of all, if the moniker carolynbennettwritercomic.blogspot.com is a little on the nose, it's because I have to distinguish myself from that other Carolyn Bennett, the MP and doctor. While she may be more famous and accomplished, I get fewer angry constituents phoning me.
And I also get the odd royalty check in the mail. Last week I received one for $4.97. I went to town and bought some green peppers.

Riding the subway in Toronto opens wide the doors of perception. Case in point - I was reading the jaunty little rag Metro the other day while in transit and spotted a call for election officials. My riding is holding a by-election and I thought, why not call, for two reasons. 1) Any work would be in my neighbourhood and 2) it would get me away from starting on my second novel.

On a whim I phoned the Riding Office. Over the phone and in two minutes I was hired as a DRO. What's a DRO? A DRO is a Deputy Riding Official. I was told to show up at the riding office the next day for training. I already regretted phoning in.

If democracy really is in the hands of the people, god help us. After a whirlwind two hour crash course in the electoral process, I left baffled. That was it? Watching a video and reading two hand-outs? At least they gave me a manual to refer to on the day. I was being entrusted with the free vote. A DRO has the final say at any polling station. I can't even find the pen I was just using, never mind overseeing an urban voting station. No police check, no resume required - just a pulse and a flicker of cognition. Shockingly egalitarian. I must admit, I got a thrill when I had to take the oath. Too bad more jobs didn't require you to take an oath. I just hope I wake up in time to open the polling station.

What does one wear when representing freedom? I'm thinking jeans and a blazer.

I'll let you know what happens. The vote is September 15. I will end this entry right now because I have the distinct feeling I'm writing for nobody.