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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Back from the Edge of Nowhere

Midafternoon today, Sean and I returned from our 4,000 km voyage through southern and northern Manitoba. We were sunburned in the south and feasted upon by bugs in the north. We have hours of video footage to sort through and hundreds of photos to examine, so my plan is to spend the next couple of days combing through that material in order to prepare the final chapter in the Woods of Leaf Rapids Saga: Return to the Edge of Nowhere.

Some of the HD footage we shot has to be seen to be believed. It's going to take me a while to edit it down to a manageable and interesting length, but I hope the end result will be worth it.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Journey to the Edge of Nowhere, Part VII: The Land that Never Was

The sign was the first thing that had changed.

When we first moved from Thompson to Leaf Rapids, the "Winter Survival Equipment Essential" sign caught our family's eye. It was the most striking indication that this was a new frontier, a brand new model community on the edge of nowhere, an experiment, a townscape designed by government and corporate needs and yet integrated with the extent a town fuelled by a strip mine could accomplish that. To my delight, the warning was still there when Sylvia and I arrived, in its original spot next to the town, though the physical sign itself had been replaced with a newer model. Perhaps I could go home again, homilies notwithstanding.

It was late afternoon by the time we arrived, so we had time for only a quick tour of the little town before we needed to find lodging. So I showed Sylvia the Town Centre, a faux-Brutalist, rust-coloured edifice that crammed all the town’s most vital businesses and public services into one compact mall.

This is where I attended kindergarten and grades 1-3, plus half of four. This is where I played the coveted part of the Wizard of Garbage, thanks to drawing the lead role from a hat. It’s where I played the second shepherd in the school Christmas play and shouted my one and only line, “I am sore afraid!” It’s where Sean was born. It's where my one dollar a week allowance bought three thirty-five cent comics at the Town Centre drug store (Mom or Dad always gave me the extra nickel).

With no real idea of where we were going to sleep, and with the one and only hotel in Leaf Rapids long closed, we drove slightly north of the town, across the Churchill River bridge, where we found a tiny clutch of cabins. At first it looked as though the place was abandoned, but then a fiftyish man appeared and asked if we needed a place to stay.

“How much for one night?” we asked.

“A hundred bucks,” he said. I had exactly one hundred dollars in my wallet – a fortunate coincidence, since the nearest ATM was three hours away and cash was the only payment option here. Strangely enough, when we got to talking we discovered that the man remembered Dad, and had in fact bought the Acklands building; he was using it for storage now.

The cabin turned out to be quite nice – very roomy, with a fireplace, comfy beds, and a terrific view of the lake.

We started a fire to get us through the night, and as Sylvia slid onto the couch before it, I went down on one knee and asked her to marry me. I’d brought her here so she could understand who I am and what she was getting herself into – and yet, despite all that, she said yes. We talked, enjoyed the fire and the view, and played some Scrabble, honouring that game’s place in the flowering of our relationship. Sylvia kicks my butt more often than not in Scrabble, and I’ve always respected her for it.

We looked up at the stars. Northern Manitoba must be one of the best places on Earth to view the universe; it was spectacular. The pitch-black sky was thick with stars and a heavy moon, all of it reflecting off the lake, Northern Lights dancing overhead occasionally – not as strongly as they would in the winter, but having lived through many winters there, I was willing to accept the tradeoff.
And then the day broke. We packed up our things and drove back across the bridge and into town. It was July 20, 2006, thirty-eight years since men walked on the moon, an event I watched on my mother’s lap some distance south of here.

I showed Sylvia the town’s industrial park, the northern half of the town, which included a half-dozen or so businesses and the Manitoba Hydro building. Most were boarded up, including Dad’s old workplace, the Acklands branch he’d set up and managed, the job that brought us (further) north in the first place.
Acklands was a hardware/supply store. It had a Telex machine, which fascinated me. Telex machines were a kind of combination typewriter/fax machine, an outgrowth of telegraph technology. I loved the cacophony it generated when a new message came through, a chattering of keys hammering ink into paper, typing without anyone touching the keys – it seemed like magic. When I was bored, Mom or Dad would set me up at the Telex and I’d type out stories or just play with the keys.

I also enjoyed playing in the bins of Zorbal at the back of the store, although I remember the stuff itched an awful lot. And I cut out the middle pages – that is, the colour inserts – of my Star Wars novelization and photocopied them in Dad’s office. I was disappointed with the quality of the reproduction, and mad that I’d ruined my book for nothing. (Incidentally, I only just recycled that book, finding one in far better condition, and from an earlier print run, than the one my parents bought me at the Town Centre’s drug store.)

Next door I found the abandoned remains of the Midi Mart, land of Pink Elephant popcorn and Wigwag bars.

We looped around the town a couple of times, past house after house that was boarded up and long abandoned. We saw perhaps twenty-five different people, even though the town still officially boasted a population of 500; I’m not sure where everyone was that day. I was hoping to find the empty lot where Churchill Place had once stood; I knew that if I could find that lot, I could navigate my way to the sinkhole.
That plan failed until we circled around and wound up at the Town Centre again, and I found that wooded path I’d followed to school and back. I was excited – this was it! We left the car and made our way down the path.

Sylvia was immediately swarmed by sandflies and blackflies, great black clouds of them surrounding her. They left me alone, perhaps recognizing a native son, perhaps simply attracted by the scent of Sylvia’s makeup.

But Sylvia suppressed her natural fear and loathing of insects and followed me into the forest as best she could, snapping the occasional photo, then handing off the camera to me as the bush thickened.

I knew that the sinkhole, my gateway to not only yesterday but to my child-self’s dreamworld, was very close.

But with every step I took, the brush grew thicker, more impenetrable. I knew I was heading in the right direction, but the paths I took as a child had grown over, and all I could see of the sinkhole was the effect of its depths on the treetops in the distance, lower than the ones over my head. I could tell that those trees were growing out of the depths of the sinkhole, and that I was close, very close, to to precipice...

But the woods held me back, and I could hear Sylvia calling my name from a great distance. Frustrated and bitterly disappointed, I turned back. I felt as though some force had found me wanting, as if I weren't yet ready to return.

The woods denied me, and so I turned back. The other world my childhood self had explored was closed to the man, and now there was nothing left but the formalities.

Sweaty and dirty from my futile attempt to breach the forest guarding the sinkhole, I decided to visit one of my favourite places in town the old library, which backed onto the school. And lo and behold, there was Lois Hole's Favorite Bulbs, one of the gardening books I'd co-authored at Hole's. Something of me had made it back to Leaf Rapids even before I did, and this simple thing relieved a good deal of my frustration.

After taking a quick look around the mall and paying for some gas at the Co-Op, we left, as simply as that. A journey of many hours - and in a sense, many years - ended in the space of an afternoon, an evening, a morning. Only this and nothing more; an exploration I'd anticipated for years, dwindling in the rear view mirror as we started down the long road home.

It’s been almost exactly three years since Sylvia and I travelled to the edge of nowhere. We’re married now, and since coming home from the edge of nowhere we’ve had a few adventures: our big fat geek wedding, coming face to face with Barack Obama in Hawaii, running for office in the last provincial election. These are the pursuits of adulthood, and if I couldn’t recapture the dreams of my childhood, perhaps Leaf Rapids was sending me a message, after all. I left my childhood behind in the fairy world beneath Leaf Rapids, but I came away with something more valuable still: a partner, a fiancee, my wife to be.

But I’m compelled to try one last time. Just a few hours from now, Sean and I will journey together to Manitoba. First we’ll join our parents in Virden, to participate in a ceremony honouring our grandparents’ donation of Salt Lake to the surrounding community. Then we’ll head north, following a different path than the one Sylvia and I took in 2006. Sean will see a birthplace he no longer remembers, and I, armed with my new insight, will search for the sinkhole one last time.

It will almost certainly be the very last time I return to Leaf Rapids. Not long from now, I’ll let you know what we find there.

For those of you who started reading this story wayyyyyy back in 2006, I apologize it's taken this long to finish what should have been a simple travelogue. I'll try to be more timely when Sean and I Return from the Edge of Nowhere.

Thursday, July 16, 2009


The following conversation takes place on Thursday night, before a showing of the Woods condo, between 7:40 and 7:50 pm. Events occur in real time.

"Just put some vinegar in the pail, and some hot water."

"Where's the vinegar?"

"Under the sink in a clear bottle."

"Is this it?"


"Wait, is it in this one that says 'vinegar?'"


"Why didn't you tell me that the bottle says 'vinegar?'"

"I didn't think of it."

"Okay, now what do I do?"

"Pour the vinegar into the pail along with some hot water."

"The whole bottle?"

"NO. This is enough."

"Okay, now just the hot water?"

"No, add some dish soap."

"Wait, you're not supposed to mix chemicals. Besides, you can't wash the floor with dish soap. Dish soap is for dishes. For that matter, vinegar is for French fries."


"Wait, I have to write this conversation down before I forget it."


"EARL! Wash the floors!"

"Just a minute! I'll just be a second!"

"Well hurry up, I have to take a shower and I have to pee..!"


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Journey to the Edge of Nowhere, Part VI: Reaching the Edge

Initially, I was surprised by the road's quality. When we lived in Leaf Rapids, only short sections of Provincial Road 391 were paved - a few kilometres north of Thompson, a few kilometres south of Leaf Rapids; in between, bare gravel. I'd been warned that the road between the two communities had deteriorated significantly in the years since we left Manitoba, so we left Thompson with appropriate caution.

But Sylvia and I drove tens of kilometres on smooth asphalt with no problems, and so I opened up the throttle a little. Evergreens, bedrock and beautiful beach sand surrounded the road on either side, whizzing by to the sounds of the bombastic soundtrack from Pirates of the Carribean.

And then, suddenly, the road was full of gravel patches, potholes and sudden dips and warps. We slowed down, but then suddenly the road would improve, and our speed climbed...only to run into another rough patch, the car shaking and bouncing. Sylvia and I started to laugh hysterically, for the music echoing from the car stereo was perfectly dramatic and overblown for what had become more of a rollercoaster ride than a leisurely drive.

We passed few vehicles. Dragonflies the size of small birds slammed into the grill and the windshield, a couple getting stuck under the window wipers, much to Sylvia's disgust.

The dragonflies, the bare bedrock, the trees, the raspberry bushes in the ditch...every image, smell and sound awakened a memory:

Dragonflies were and are huge in Leaf Rapids. One day when I was small, I stood in front of 8 Churchill Place, our home in Leaf Rapids, while a massive dragonfly circled me, its wings so huge that you could hear them flapping quite clearly - click-click-click-click-click. I wasn't afraid; I loved the way the sunlight caught the glossy wings, reflecting across the segmented surfaces as if they were stained glass.

When I slept, I dreamed of dragonflies - dragonflies and monsters and heroes and princesses and fairies.

Thousands of years ago, as the glaciers retreated, they carved a great furrow in the earth. Leaf Rapids is built almost atop this furrow, and in a few minutes I could walk from our house to this great wound in the earth. Everyone called it the sinkhole, a name I never liked; it was an ugly word to describe a magical place.

Leaf Rapids wasn't like ordinary towns - places where the woods were bulldozed to make way for a spiderweb of roads and housing developments. Instead, destruction of the local environment was kept to a minimum, with just a few roads connecting the Town Centre - the rust-coloured all-in-one school, shopping mall, hotel, bar, theatre, hospital, curling rink and gymnasium - and the various housing developments, or "Bays." As a result, most people got where they were going by walking along heavily wooded trails.

To visit the sinkhole, my friends and I would follow one or another of these trails, boots crunching through thick snow in the winter or sneakers squishing soft moss and pine needles in the summer. The long edges of the sinkhole were extremely steep, cliff-like; if you jumped, you'd sail through the air for quite a distance before meeting the grade and rolling the rest of the way down the hill to the bottom. The short edges were shallower, allowing one to descend more leisurely. Imagine a giant canoe pressed into the earth and then lifted back into the air; that's the shape of the sinkhole.

Descending into the sinkhole was like moving into another world. The trees grew even thicker, so thick that if you looked up you could only see patches of sky. The moss became even deeper, softer. There were bogs to avoid, and strange noises.

In the winter, we would toboggan recklessly into the sinkhole at breakneck speed (indeed, some people did break bones doing this). In the summer, we would play Fantastic Four or Star Trek or cops and robbers or cowboys and indians.

And at night, in my dreams, the sinkhole was even more magical. In reality, you could climb (and as the grade declined, walk) to the bottom of the sinkhole, each wall of the depression several meters away. But in my dreams, the sinkhole became steeper and steeper and narrower and narrower the deeper Iwent, so that eventually the sides of the sinkhole pressed in on me. Soon I'd be using clumps of moss and tree branches as handholds to descend, but instead of reaching the bottom, I would slide through the narrowest possible gap, and then the sinkhole would widen again, and below me was another world.

It was never a long drop from the gap in the world above to the floor of the world below, and so I would let go of the moss and fall a couple of meters, but softly, to the flowery fields of my dream world. I don't remember what adventures I had in that world, but I know I had friends there; a tiny, winged fairy, a man made of rock, a princess whose name began with J. It was a beautiful world, but a troubled one, and they needed me from time to time, and so I went to help, even if I was only a little boy; but a little boy was required.

(Later, in Alberta, I read the Narnia tales of C.S. Lewis, and I was delighted but disturbed, as if I'd seen and experienced something like this before.)

I still dream about that place sometimes. Perhaps it's the whole reason I took Sylvia north with me in 2006. Maybe I thought I could find it again.

Surrounded by the beauty of an untamed wilderness, the architecture in Leaf Rapids, though award-winning (for the Town Centre), lacked a certain je ne sais quois in comparison. I'm not the fashion plate Sylvia is, but the brown and yellow paint scheme used for Churchill Place in the 70s seems pretty garish to me now. But this is where I first watched Star Trek ("A Private Little War" - I remember the Mugato jumping out and scaring me), where I played with Fisher Price Adventure People, where I sleepwalked down the stairs to pee in the garbage can under the sink, much to my parents' amusement.

One Christmas Eve, my parents told me that Santa Claus was coming to our house. The doorbell rang, but it wasn't Santa. While I watched in goggle-eyed shock, a seriously drunk man crashed through the front door and slid down the hallway, too inebriated to stand. Mom and Dad phoned the RCMP, who gave him a nice place to sleep for the night, and a good thing, too - the man would have frozen to death, otherwise. Santa arrived some time later without incident.


My brother Sean was born in Leaf Rapids, and was quick to misadventure. Once, while I was lying on the couch reading, he clambered onto the backrest and leapt down onto my chest, his little feet smashing into my ribs with incredible force. Later, he leapt from above through one of Mom and Dad's glass-topped coffee tables. Sean survived without a scratch, playing with the shards of glass that surrounded him. The unbroken tables were gone the next day.

Sean liked to jump. It made him jolly.

Sean had a more serious accident a short time later, while we were camping at the Suwannee River campsite a short distance away from Leaf Rapids. While we were preparing dinner (or perhaps lunch) in the camper, Sean grabbed a cup of boiling hot coffee, went to take a drink, recoiled from the heat and spilled the coffee all over his chest. Dad immediately grabbed my screaming brother and dunked him in the camper's sink, hoping the cold water would help. That obviously wasn't enough, so seconds later we were tearing down the road at the truck's top speed, heading for the hospital. This was a three-quarter ton Ford crew cab, and Dad must have pushed that truck somewhere north of a hundred miles an hour as Mom cradled my wailing brother in her lap. I stood in the back seat, terrified for him, wishing we could go even faster.

We made it to Leaf Rapids' small hospital without driving over a cliff or crashing into another car - it was an amazing feat of driving, for the roads in northern Manitoba are pretty unforgiving. The doctors in Leaf Rapids did the best they could, but Sean had second degree burns and so he and Mom had to be flown to Winnipeg while Dad took care of me. Fortunately, Sean escaped without any lasting damage thanks to my parents' rapid response and the amazing work of the Manitoba doctors. I still remember how relieved I was when Sean and Mom returned, their hair all curled from the incredible humidity in the plane.

Sean ate a stinkbug in the backyard and a cigarette in the living room (and apparently he also tried to eat a toy helicopter). I should have intervened, but instead watched in wide-eyed fascination. I like to think that Sean's experience with tobacco prevented him from taking up the habit in later life. At least, that's how I rationalize my inaction today.

Once, Sean was fussing in his high chair. In high dudgeon, he flung a bowl of cereal to the kitchen floor, and Mom, frustrated, tied him to the chair with a teatowel, an inventive and effective solution.

I saw Star Wars in Leaf Rapids. It was an event. Months earlier, I saw the first trailer on CBC - the early trailer with the ominous classical music, not the later one with John Williams' iconic score. I went nuts. I remember jumping up and screaming something like "I HAVE TO SEE THIS!" When the movie finally arrived, everyone in town lined up inside the Town Centre to see it. Hundreds of people filled the place, the line extending all the way through the mall and out into the schoolyard. People were dressed up as Leia, Luke, Han and the robots. 75 cents purchased a ticket, a pop and popcorn.

Sean reacted to Darth Vader by peeking over the top of his upraised blanket, crying "Ooooo!" I was sitting closer to the front, with my friend Kelly Bear.

The Kenner action figures eventually made their way to Leaf Rapids. I wanted Luke Skywalker, but had to settle for R2D2 first - he was the only semi-cool figure left in stock. And later he became my favourite character anyway. Kelly and I amassed quite a collection of figures, and we'd create our own adventures with them, usually out behind the Acklands store, which Dad managed. It was a great location, because just behind the store there was a sandy hill, a great substitute for Tatooine. I remember playing with my Corgi Batman cars here, too - the Batmobile, the Batboat, the Batcopter. I lost the tiny Batman and Robin figures in the sand, unfortunately, but I still have at least one of my two Batmobiles.

Not all my memories of Leaf Rapids are pleasant. I was a very small child, and I was targeted by bullies. In kindergarten, there was an indoor sandbox mounted on legs. One day, while playing underneath the sandbox, two bullies kicked out the legs and I was squashed underneath. Sand is heavy.

Walking home from school could be a nightmare. I was beaten up a number of times, until one day I was thrown down on my back. The bully who'd pushed me came down at me to pummel me with his fists, but I reflexively raised my booted foot and kicked him in the chin as hard as I could. He ran away and the bullying, at least in Leaf Rapids, stopped. I hate what that implies, that violence is the only way to end violence. I hope that's not true, because as much as I hated coming home crying to my parents, I hate myself for striking back that way. A kick like that could have broken teeth or maybe even a neck. Probably not, small and weak as I was, but the image still haunts me.

Of course my tormentors weren't just bullies, they were kids, like me. Troubled kids who needed a release for their pent-up emotions.

I hope they got better.

I didn't tell Sylvia any of this, but I did point excitedly when we crossed this yellow bridge, which I remembered well from many childhood trips between Thompson and Leaf Rapids.

And I was even more excited when we drove over the dam. The past was so close I could taste it.

And then...there it was. You can't even see Leaf Rapids from the road; it's hidden by the forest. Just a quick right between the trees, an eyeblink, and you disappear into the green. We'd arrived. This is where I would come to terms with my past, and, with my planned proposal to Sylvia, I'd set the course of our future.

NEXT: All My Yesterdays

Monday, July 13, 2009

Journey to the Edge of Nowhere, Part V: Approaching Nowhere

We woke the next morning and left Grandma, Val and Cranberry Portage behind, knowing that Leaf Rapids, the edge of nowhere, was drawing near. But first, we'd encounter Thompson, Manitoba's third-largest city, a mining town over 700 km north of Winnipeg.

I have no childhood memories of Flin Flon, my birthplace, but I do still retain a few flickering images of life in Thompson. I remember, for example, my earliest friends, Matthew and Michael Hawkins, who lived across the street. Their dad worked in the mine; their mom worked at A&W. We had fun playing in the "secret tunnel" in their house - a tunnel that was really just an extended storage space large enough for small children to crawl through and explore.

At the time, Dad worked at Acklands Ltd. while Mom stayed home to take care of me. Once there was a small fire in our little house, and before running to safety I made sure to retrieve my prized bucket of toy cars. (My parents still laugh about this.) It's the one and only time I've seen firefighters enter a home I've lived in, but it wasn't a scary experience at all; I remember being annoyed more than anything else.

The Hawkins family was featured in a 1972 issue of IN Manitoba magazine, a publishing venture of Inco Mines.

I also remember that one of the kids next door stole my prized Tonka truck. A bleak day. I seem to recall that Dad challenged the neighbours, but he had no proof and they wouldn't budge. It was, to the best of my memory, the point at which I learned about the practical realities of man's inhumanity to man. And yet today I wonder if perhaps the kids next door stole not out of malice, but out of envy or simple desperate need. It was a great toy, and while we weren't rich by any means, we got by...perhaps the neighbours had less. I'll never know. I hope the kids who stole it enjoyed it as much as I loved it, even though now I can't remember what it looked like, exactly. Yellow...with a steam shovel attachment? Or was it a dump truck?

And finally, I remember the cold winters...

...and how wonderful spring felt. Strangely, I remember that snowman's mouth quite vividly; we used a weiner to create it, and I remember the weiner-shaped impression the weiner left behind when it fell out a couple of weeks later.

On the way to Thompson we pulled into the Pisew Falls rest stop. The wooden boardwalk from the rest stop down to the falls wasn't particularly accessible, so Sylvia, unfortunately, had to stay behind while I walked through the woods, down to the river. It's too bad; the Pisew falls aren't huge, but they are impressive, especially tucked away in such a remote location. Even from the distant viewing platform, you can feel the spray of water and practically taste the scents of the forest. I soaked in the atmosphere for a while, missing Sylvia and yet enjoying the solitude, the feeling of being separated from the great mass of humanity. My childhood felt very near, the years slowly being compressed to months, days, minutes...seconds would have to wait for Leaf Rapids. I wasn't home yet.

I climbed back up out of the thickly wooded valley, the Pisew's low roar fading behind me. Minutes later, Sylvia and I were back on the road, heading northeast. Along the way we spotted a wolf, lurking beside the road, watching us intently and then disappearing into the wilderness with the eerie grace of a ghost. Not long after I saw a very strange bird - something like an ostrich crossed with a peacock. "Holy cow, did you see that?" I asked Sylvia, but she'd been looking the other way, and then we rounded a curve and it was gone. It must have been a figment of my imagination, but the colours were so vivid - purples and oranges and yellows on some huge, long-legged, swan-necked thing. Impossible.

But that's northern Manitoba all over.

And then, there it was. We didn't explore Thompson; I was too eager to get to Leaf Rapids. We took time only to note that this small northern city was about as noisy, dirty and boisterous as you might expect from a remote mining community, a town a little rough around the edges; I imagine Fort McMurray, Alberta's big oilsands city, might be a little like Thompson.

Another memory returned, however, just as we were crossing Thompson's big bridge: I remembered the fast food joint that played fast and loose with the Popeye characters, using them, I'm sure, without clearing the copyrights. Who would ever notice?

We stopped for lunch and enjoyed the typical burgers and fries you find at this sort of place, just hot and greasy comfort food of little nutritional or culinary value, and yet still somehow satisfying.

And then we were on the road again. Now there was nothing between us and a small town that haunted me but a vast swath of impenetrable forest and gravel road...and about a million years of memories. I began to wonder if, when we reached Leaf Rapids, Sylvia would think I was crazy for wanting to return. I wondered too if the strange fairyland I remembered would be completely shattered by the hollow shell I knew the town had probably become in the wake of the Ruttan Mine's shutdown and the numerous forest fires.

But it was too late to turn back. In a few hours, we would reach the edge of nowhere.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Board Games at the Bijou

Ridley Scott will direct a movie based on the Monopoly board game.

One of the writers of Fringe will help bring a View-Master movie to the screen. Even the old vector graphics arcade hit Asteroids will soon become a film.

Turning toys and board games into movies is nothing new –Transformers, Clue and Dungeons and Dragons have all been transformed into narratives – but making a movie based on the View-Master, of all things? I guess if there were top secret information encoded on the picture reels you slide into the viewer…or if magic reels let you see through walls or into other dimensions or something…but still.

I suppose Monopoly isn’t that big a stretch; the board’s streets are based on those found in Atlantic City, so you could turn the board game’s “story,” such as it is, into a Rat Race/Cannonball Run style madcap chase for loot and property. Of course, someone will inevitably quip “Do not pass go, do not collect $200” after some slow-motion action sequence that ends with several people outrunning a fireball. I’m sure Mr. Moneybags will lose his cap and monocle at some point. In fact, I’m sure the movie will be about some plucky small business people who use their wits to break up a Monopoly, defeating the entire point of the game.

Asteroids…I have no idea. A spaceship blowing up space rocks might be interesting for a minute or two, and the game did feature a UFO, which could provide additional dramatic tension. But can a plot this thin really hold up for two hours?

If I were a big shot movie producer, my toy-based pitches might look something like this:

Lite-Brite: The Motion Picture
In this action thriller, a hip fourteen year old boy – let’s call him Billy – is disappointed that his uncool dad gave him a Lite-Brite for his birthday. What he doesn’t know is that his dad is actually a secret agent and hid a miniature nanotech factory inside the Lite-Brite before mysteriously disappearing. With his dad gone, Billy embraces the toy he shunned out of nostalgia, and starts playing with it, starting with the one of the classic patterns included in the box: the clown. When Billy finishes creating the pegboard clown and turns on the Lite-Brite, not only does the clown pattern light up on the toy – it projects a holographic beam into the air and the nanofactory inside the toy creates a real clown! Terrified, Billy yanks the plug and the clown disappears. Soon, however, Billy realizes that he can use the Lite-Brite and his own artistic talent to create anything he wants. He makes a bike, balloons, a giant chocolate bar, a car – anything he wants to satisfy his adolescent urges. But it’s not long before sinister men in black stop by Billy’s home, and they seem to be looking for something…can Billy use his Lite-Brite powers to stop the bad guys and find his missing father?

Barbie Cue
In this lighthearted romantic comedy, a bubbly blonde teen named Barbara Millicent Roberts – or “Barbie,” for short – can’t decide on a career. Her boring but dependable platonic boyfriend Ken Carson struggles to keep up as Barbie switches from job to job: beautician, equestrian, superheroine, astronaut, pro tennis player, surgeon, NASCAR driver and so on. Romantic tension simmers when macho adventurer Big Jim catches Barbie’s attention. When Wedding Barbie takes her cue to walk up the aisle, who will meet her at the altar?

It walks down stairs, alone or in pairs! A meteor crashes to Earth and splits open, spilling out Slinky, a loveable but silent alien who slithers and slinks his way into the hearts of a wholesome small town. But then the government shows up to take custody of Slinky, thinking the strange creature is some kind of alien invader! Can the simple folk of this charming American Anytown defend their new friend from the army? Can Slinky slink his way out of this one? And who’s that cute pink plastic Slinky? One thing’s for sure – this film, like this toy, is fun for a girl or a boy!

Meet the Weebles
The Weebles aren’t your average, ordinary family – they’re shaped like eggs and have hard shells! Life hasn’t been easy for the Weebles, who face prejudice at every turn. Now they’re piling into their special yellow microbus and heading for the Big City for a day at the waterslides! Even jaded New Yorkers haven’t seen anything like this, and when a hostage situation breaks out at the water park, the Weebles may get their one big chance to prove that Weebles may wobble, but they don’t fall down!

Game of Bruce Lee Game
Neophyte martial artists struggle to advance in their chosen artforms while battling street thugs, fending off attacks on their dojos, participating in tournatments and eventually fighting their way into the Labyrinth to face the evil Grand Master. It’s a grueling kung-fu katastrophe, with each star sent to the hospital multiple times throughout the course of the film. In fact, in the very first scene our star, the very green Green Fighter, gets sent to the hospital when he accidentally picks a street fight with Bruce Lee himself.

Paddle Ball
The studio’s Oscar-bait movie for the year features a bookish but handsome graduate student who becomes obsessed with the underlying existential angst revealed by the paddle ball toy he played with as a kid. Our hero’s relationship with his demanding, ambitious girlfriend is put under strain when the paddle ball’s bouncing, rhythmic beat consumes the unnamed protagonist, who also narrates the film. Ian McKellen plays the narrator’s grad school advisor, the only man who realizes that the hero is on the verge of making a philosophical breakthrough that could change man’s destiny forever.

Alcoholic hypochondriac Cavity Sam (Jack Black) is in big trouble. He’s been kidnapped by a rogue band of mad scientists, each of whom has a different surgical specialty, each of whom believes that they can perfect the human form through extraordinary surgical intervention. Now, strapped to an operating table with a half-dozen scalpel-wielding lunatics, Cavity Sam has to hold as still as possible as his bones and organs are replaced by bizarre objects like a rubber band, a pencil, a wrench, a bread basket and more. One slip and Cavity Sam’s big red nose will go dim…forever!

There, some ready-made tentpole franchises for the big studios. Next time, I’ll come up with some TV series based on professions other than fireman, police officer, lawyer or doctor.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Faking Depth of Field

You can use image editing software to fake depth of field effects. Just select your foreground image, invert the selection and apply gaussian blur. I may have gone too far with the blur, though.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

A Good Day to be Canadian

Every Canada Day, I realize how lucky I am to have been born Canadian. Canada is beautiful, wealthy, full of good people, free and at peace. Even though Canada isn't perfect, when you compare our quality of life to that of the vast majority of Earth's peoples, well, things look pretty good. But as Canadians, each of us has a responsibility to build a better nation and a better world.

Today I celebrated Canada Day by travelling to the Alberta Legislature. I enjoyed pancakes and watermelon courtesy of Edmonton's Ismaili community, then worked a little, taking photographs of Alberta Liberal Leader (and my boss) David Swann alongside Liberal Party of Canada Leader Michael Ignatieff. Canada Day, as you might expect, is a big day for politicians and other public servants, who spend the day meeting and greeting people and recognizing our common dreams - and our differences.

Mostly, though, I think Canada Day is about citizenship and celebration. It's a time to recognize how much we've achieved and to imagine how much more we could do, for each other and the world. It's a time to enjoy hot dogs and ice cream, to enjoy live musicians and artists, to gasp at the fireworks and splash around in the pool.

The whole reason I sought out a political job in 2006 is because I care about this country, and I think we can do better. I still feel a little self conscious about being so politically active, given how so many Canadians are distrustful of politicians in general, often with good reason. But my reasoning goes like this: if concerned citizens don't get involved, someone will step in to fill the void, and that someone might be less qualified, less compassionate, less caring than you. The whole point of democracy is that we share the responsibility of running our own nation. So if you can, join a political party, keep in contact with your elected representatives, keep track of the news, read, make a difference...because you really can.

For today, though, I hope you have the chance to spend some time with your friends and families, enjoy the sunshine, and celebrate Canada, our beautiful little corner of planet Earth.