Sunday, July 17, 2016

11 Things I Never Want Snopesed.

The other day, I realized that I have a broad assortment of facts and factoids that I turn to on a surprisingly regular basis but for which I have no evidence whatsoever. None. 

For some inexplicable reason I heard or read or dreamt up a few things that suited my world view so perfectly I grabbed them and never let them go.

I bet you have some of these gems floating around in your default information bank, too.

So here, unplugged and unfact-checked, I present, 11 things I never want Snopesed.

1)    A slice of pepperoni pizza contains all the major food groups;

2)    Shakespeare never intended his plays to be written down and published in books, much less studied ;

3)   On a commercially operated ski hill, if you let a bowling ball go at the top, it will follow a path to the bottom  where the skiers line up for the lift;
by Rodney Frost

  4)    20 percent of all magazine reading gets done in the john. 

  5)    An airplane “wants” to fly; i.e., if the engine fails in mid-air, it’ll glide smoothly to the ground; 

  6)    Astronauts age more slowly while they’re in space;

  7)    Artists like studios with north-facing windows because north light is consistent; 

  8)    Woody Guthrie was paid by the U.S. government to write “Roll On Columbia” to help sell the idea of building a dam;

  9)    In Dante’s Inferno, there’s a level of hell where people eat human flesh and when the poem is read aloud in the original Italian, the reader’s mouth moves in a chewing motion;

10)  Pigs are the smartest animals in the barnyard; 

11)  People are more liable to read an odd-numbered list than an even-numbered one.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

4 Job-Losing Tips for Fired Journalists

Since university, I’ve had 10 staff jobs.
THE HELLYER SAY: After the book came out, he fired us.

Five of them,  I quit. 

Four I got fired from. 

One, I haven’t quite figured out what happened.

The weirdest firing, I have to admit, was from my first-ever magazine gig. I had been an editor at a Toronto-based company called Chimo Media just over three years when one afternoon, the owner, Paul Hellyer--yup, Canada’s former minister of defence--showed up to tell us that business was bad and several of us were goners.

What made the day particularly memorable was that before lunchtime, I had taken a call from my landlord, a friendly Russian-Canadian senior citizen.  He was so apologetic he was almost crying when he told me his aging wife could no longer manage the stairs at home, so they needed our apartment.

My new wife Helena and I were evicted. And 50 percent of us was now unemployed. 

We'd seen better days. (I should mention that one week before that double-barrelled job-loss/eviction day, she and I had booked and paid for a two-week trip to Greece.) 

But here’s the best part.

In all of the magazines that Chimo Media produced, we advertised an economics book that our civic-minded owner Hellyer had authored.  The title? “Jobs For All.” (Look it up!)  Written by the chap who fired us.

Still, I owe him. 

If it weren’t for the former honourable Paul Hellyer and several others in the industry I could not present these “4 Job-Losing Tips For Journalists Who Find Themselves Fired.”

Tip 1) Have Plans B, C, D, E, F’n G.

Once, after I told my friend, colleague and neighbour Doug Bennett that I’d been let go (from something,  I forget what),  he said, “That's why Robert Fulford says every journalist should have at least seven bosses.”

He’s right. If one outfit kicks you off the team,  you  need something else journalistic to do.  It might be editing copy as assistant editor of the West Toronto-High-Park Shania Twain Fan Club newsletter, but for Pete’s sakes have another gig lined up. It’ll keep you grounded.

But more important is the answer to this question:  When I quote Doug quoting Fulford,whose brilliance are we tapping into? My friend Doug’s or that of the guy he cited? These are the important issues writers grapple with. Never mind whose employee you are.

 I’m deciding here and now.  It’s Bennett. He chose the smart quote. 

That’s the kind of thing makes a terrific journalist. Doesn’t matter who he or she works for.

Tip 2) If you’ve decided to quit, quit. Never mind how much you’ve had to drink.

One job, I had to quit three times before it took.

My very first newspaper position was at The Standard, a community paper serving several communities in Northern Ontario. Based in Elliot Lake. The publisher, Jon Butler, hired me between my third  and fourth years at university. 

After that summer, I quit to return to school but 18 months later, I got a call.

Jon: “Want your old job back?”

Peter: “You betcha!”

A few months passed with me back at the old job and then one evening, I—a single, skinny, long-haired, small-town newspaper reporter who’d barely done any travelling at all save to a few family funerals in various Canadian locales—got quite drunk with a guy named Mark, and decided we had to explore India, even if it meant quitting our jobs.

I phoned Butler to tell him my plans. Turns out he was very curious about everything Indian and made me a counter-offer. If I filed a few stories from my travels, there’d be a job waiting for me when I got back. 

I returned and got the old job back where I stayed until I quit again.

Mark never made it to India. Never quit his job neither. 

Then again, he’s not a writer. The India trip was one of the best things I ever did. And Butler one of the best bosses ever.

Tip 3) Look in the career-view mirror

Here’s a secret I can no longer keep.

Growing up in our very book-friendly house in Sudbury, I learned from novels that  women found male writers irresistible. Couldn’t keep their hands off them. I didn't quite understand why, but  I’d be lying if I said this didn’t inform my career choice. 

Except … I never actually chose a "career." 

 I just wanted to write. 

I know with certainty that I was in my mid 30s first time any of my journalism friends used the word “career” in reference to himself.  Even then,  I think he was trying to impress somebody. 

Career simply wasn't a thing. Writing was.

Furthermore,  I was well into my 40s by the time I realized that all those novels in which the male writer/hero was so attractive to women were written by—you guessed it—middle-aged men.

All I know for sure is, I didn’t get into this business to work for anybody; I got into it because I wanted to—among other things—write.

Tip 4) Document, Document, Document.

If you do get fired, be sure to make careful notes of what people involved say and do. If you’ve ever been to court, you’ll know that meticulous note-taking is welcomed.

I’m not suggesting you head for court.  In fact, a date in front of a judge is the last thing I’d recommend.

I once got fired in a schmozzle so illegal a lawyer guaranteed me if I sued, I’d win. But, he said, the case would take years.  The company would dig its heels in,  it had way more money than me, and even if I did emerge victorious, he said, lawyers would get a bunch of my dough.

The worst part? As long as the case was before the courts, I couldn’t talk about it.

Imagine, me not being able to talk about something.

On this matter, my spokesass is Donkey, from Shrek, who said,  “What’s the point of being able to talk when you gotta keep secrets?”

Yes, take notes. But not because of lawsuits.

Take notes because that’s what writers do. 

You never know when you’re going to need them for a novel, a play, or a movie script. Or a blog.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Tour of A Life Time. Or Maybe a Life Sentence.

This is too weird and rare not to share. In mid-June, my 25-year-old daughter Ria and I toured the now-closed Kingston Penitentiary. Yeah, that Kingston Pen.

It’s 178 years old and for many years was home to quite a few household-name inmates. Corrections Canada closed the joint in 2013. (And no, they didn’t lay all the prisoners off and send them home; they were dispatched to various maximum security facilities around the country.)

After the closure, the authorities invited local people in for tours. Something like 18,000 people took them up on the offer.

Prisoners in the shops manufactured locks for Canada Post bags.
So this year, the St. Lawrence Parks Commission very smartly re-introduced the idea and tickets are going fast. I recommend buying one. Check

Kingston Pen is unlike any historical site you’ve ever seen.

It’s chilling, sobering and sad.

But at the same time the tour paints for you a portrait of a sort of bizarre community of souls—staff and inmates—with eerily interwoven interests.

One reason that the tour is so powerful is that former staffers are on hand to describe what life was like on a day-to-day basis. They look you in the eye and tell you about how proud they were of the work they were doing with the incarcerated men and you understand that basically, everybody was doing the best they could under lousy circumstances.

And while they won’t name names, the guides answer questions with surprising candor.
The first place you go after entering is the children’s room, where inmates could interact with their visiting kids. Posted around the room at various sites are little 8x10 signs, advising the inmates of things like ‘interfering with children other than your own is a serious offence’.

There, we were greeted by a soft-spoken woman who had started her career as a nurse but rose to be the “keeper” of the penitentiary, a job she had until 2013. “That meant,” she said, “When the warden went home at night and on weekends, the jail was mine.”

We went past the row of cabin-like houses designed for conjugal and family overnight stays. The guide (another former guard) says the houses were always booked and when in use, the inmates could order in pizza, if they wanted to.

Me and Luke the tour guide. His dad had been the warden.
Then it was on to the main range, which looks like an old-fashioned jail from a movie set; just as you imagine one to be.

At one point, while our tour group of 20 was examining an actual cell—still containing the unmade cot (as if the inmate had just stepped out for a minute), the little TV, and some homemade decorations—the guide/guard  demonstrated how staff made announcements. He yelled “Jug UP!” with such vigor and volume it was arresting.  “Mostly,” he told me afterwards, “we didn’t yell like that.”

Hands down the hardest site in the place is the row of tiny, barely-bigger-than-a-minivan segregation cells, where certain prisoners (some of their names you know) spent 23 out of 24 hours of the day, isolated for their own safety. The only thing a prisoner can do in there, the guard says, is read.

At the end of the row, a door leads out to an equally tiny dismal fenced-off patch of grass, which is where the isolated prisoner could, if he wanted to, spend the 24th hour.

The guard said all maximum-security federal pens across Canada have these isolation cells and, she added, they’re all full, all the time.

Much of the tour is given over to the shops, where prisoners held down real (albeit miserly paying) jobs, such as assembling locks for Canada Post mail bags. (The irony was not lost on the guide.)

Another small square brick structure, just south of the main gate, is the I-T building.

And it was in there that one of the most surprising chapters of Canadian Penal History unfolded; something I hope somebody someday makes a movie about. Knowing about what happened in the I-T shed changed everything about my visit.
Fisheye view of the north and south gates.

As you exit through the gift shop, you can purchase, for the sale price of  $5, a CD called “Kingston Penitentiary Is On The Air. Inmate Radio Shows Live From 1952.”

According to our guide Luke, the CD had been recorded in the I-T building.

The CD cover reads: “In the spring of 2000, two dusty CKWS radio transcription discs, part of the collection of the Penitentiary Museum, were sent to the audio restoration specialist Graham Newton, of Toronto. Although we knew that these recordings had something to do with a radio show, their content was a complete mystery.”

“What came back was a CD containing an hour’s worth of performances by inmate entertainers from Kingston Penitentiary as originally broadcast over the public airwaves in the summer of 1952. The quality and professionalism of the performances was simply astounding.”

The KP inmates did songs, skits and even parodies of commercials; e.g., “If you use Keen&Peachy Hacksaw blades, you’ll find no holds barred and no bars will hold.”

The show was broadcast on numerous small town radio stations across Canada including I think my hometown of Sudbury. The performances are nothing less than Massey-Hall worthy.  If you’ve ever seen “A Prairie Home Companion,” the movie about an old-time radio show, written by Garrison Keillor, you’ll know what ‘KP is On The Air’ sounds like.”

Across the street from the Pen sits the Kingston Penitentiary Museum.

The curator of the museum—he’s been there for 30 years or so—is Dave St. Onge. He is largely responsible for assembling the CD. (It’s also for sale in the museum store.)

I phoned to ask permission to post an excerpt on this blog. He happily agreed and then I asked if he knew any particulars about the performers. Might any still be alive?  I estimate that if they were serving time in the mid '50s, any survivor would now be in his early 80s.

He said they only went by first names but he was pretty sure that Edwin Boyd of the infamous Boyd Gang was one of the performers. “But as you know, he passed away a few years ago.”

“That was one of the problems with the show,” he said. “The performers kept changing.”

 Listen to these voices.  And the musicianship. Think of the practice and discipline it took to get here.

Think of the natural talent that was—and probably still is—locked up.  Try to tell me you’re not amazed.

To enjoy Kingston Pen is On the Air, click below.