Saturday, November 15, 2014

New Site Coming

Apologies for not posting recently. I'm in the middle of NaNoWriMo (National Novelist Writing Month) which challenges writers to write 50,000 words in one month to finish, or nearly finish, a novel. As I did in the summer, I'm working on this challenge as part of my new writer's schedule. Three times a year, for three separate series, I'll take six weeks and write 2000 words a day to finish a rough draft. The rest of the time will be used for editing.

Unlike the editing phase, writing fresh copy is exhausting, which combined with my full-time job, leaves me little time to blog. Add to that the fact I'm working on a new website that should be up in the next month, and I have even less time.

Please stay tuned, though. I'll be posting updates about the new website and have a few blogs running through my head that I need to write.

I promise things will be back to normal soon. Thanks for your patience.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Predictions for the 2014-15 Toronto Raptors

It's that time of year and Toronto's best sports franchise is back. I was trying to figure out how to frame this year's predictions, so I decided I'd steal these questions from my favourite Raptors' website.

It feels strange this year, because the NBA is generally a highly predicative league. That is, with only five players on the floor, assuming teams stay healthy, there isn't a lot of unexpected movement. That's what made the raptors season last year so surprising after the Gay trade, because they did move.

However, the change in pieces explained that. So did the break through seasons for Lowry and Derozan. And so now we're at a very strange place. The Raptors are expected to win the division. They are expected to get to the playoffs, expected to get to the second round of the playoffs. And unlike the Blue Jays, who made a trade and before seeing the results on the field were predicting a World Series appearance, we know this Raptors team will be good. How good, we're not sure. But they play an entertaining, unselfish style, they go two deep at every position, and will grind other teams into the ground with their relentlessness. As a fan, what more can you ask for. (Except for signing Kevin Durant next season. Drake, you there?)

1. What will the Raptors record be?

Almost guaranteed to be in the 44 to 52 range. A lot of prognosticators seem particularly bullish on the Raptors getting to 50 wins. I'm not. The Eastern conference has become more balanced with LeBron's shift to Cleveland and the return of Rose to Chicago, though it clearly remains the weaker conference. Toronto started 6 - 12 before the trade last year, but everything after that went as smoothly as one could imagine. No injuries, other than Johnson's wonky ankles. They had great team chemistry, and everyone accepted their roles. 

Some have suggested that Lowry's breakout was due to a contract year. Or that we're bound to see a dip in play. Nothing we've learned about Lowry has suggested that he will be anything less than he was last year. And Derozan has looked even better in the pre-season, his confidence skyrocketing after making the US World championship squad. 

So where does that leave us? I'm predicting another 48 win season, which in an improved conference with more parity, is actually an upgrade. They'll win the division title and lose in the second round to the Bulls. 

2. Do Lowry or DeRozan make the All-Star team?

Yes. It's a much harder path for Lowry, but if he puts up the numbers in the first half of the season that he had last year, he'll make it. And Derozan is -- depending on Dwayne Wade's health -- the best or second best shooting guard in the East. 

Their record will come into play here, bu their schedule favours a fast start. If they're leading the division with a decent record, say eight or nine games above .500, they'll get two in the game. Thinking back to last year, I still get frustrated thinking about Lowry's exclusion. Here's hoping the fans stop being idiots and voting in a player like Irving. The next time Irving plays defense will be the first time. He's a decent offensive player but the most overrated player in the Eastern Conference, and it's not close. Raptor fans, make sure you vote.
3. Take a guess at the numbers for Ross and Valanciunas

For both players, the steps they need to make won't be found in their individual numbers. (Not the basic stats anyway, in the advanced stats those steps ARE measured. For the purposes of this site, I try to keep the advanced numbers to a minimum, though I'll reference them occasionally.) For JV, his biggest contribution will be on the defensive end. He needs to better on his rotations, he seemed to arrive a step too slow last year. He also needs to play with an edge. Centers in basketball are like centers in football, they need to play smart and mean. He's packed on some muscle and its his third season. Bigs always take longer to develop. I fully expect him to be better this year. And despite that lumbering shot fake, if he develops anything going to his left, he can be a scoring machine down low. I'm saying 15PPG and 10RPG, but watch closely his work on the defensive end.

As for Ross, he's got a great role model in Derozan. I just don't think he has DD's fire. He can shoot it though, and he's got unbelievable athletic ability. Let's see, agains, like JV, what his perimeter defense looks like this year. He can't coast and he can't stop the ball on offense. He needs to hunt his shots and move the ball. I'd like to see 3 assists per game. If he gets to that, you'll know he's moving in the right direction. I'll go with 13 PPG, 2 RPG and 2APG. Again though, it's going to be more nuanced as to marking his improvement this year.

4. What change would you like to see on offense?

Not much. They need to move the ball like they did last year. We'll see how they integrate Lou Williams and James Johnson (who sometimes thinks he's a scoring point guard) and how that affects the chemistry and flow. They also need to get Valunciunas more involved. Last year he saw the ball early and they never went back to him. The young center can score, keep him involved. 

5. What change would you like to see on defense?

Where to begin. Casey is an excellent defensive coach, and he has some new toys this year, particularly James Johnson, who can guard positions 1 - 4. And when Amir Johnson is on the floor, one of the best pick and roll big men defenders in the NBA,  the Raptors are capable of playing elite defense.

Let's see how JV adjusts, and whether Derozan can play at least average defense. Lowry is an excellent defender, and Ross has shown flashes. Their defense will decide what happens this year, because the team can score.

Final thoughts
The Raptors have a chance to be very good. They are one of the deepest teams in the NBA, and the deepest in the Association. If any of their young core takes a significant step forward they'll challenge for one of the top two seeds in the conference. Their schedule, however, somewhat demands they get out to an early start. Which means Casey has to figure out very quickly how his new pieces fit into his rotations. It's a concern, but not a major one. The kids have another year to grow, and the vetrans like Lowry and Derozan won't let this thing get off the rails. In other words, Raptors' fans can prepare for a fun season of solid and enjoyable basketball, and if the chips fall right, they just might find their team in the Conference Finals. 

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Man at The Garage (RAOK Alert)

A couple of weeks ago, my missionary father-in-law was headed to a week long retreat outside the city. He'd been having issues with his car, so one of the other men volunteered to drive. The man suggested that my dad drop off the car at his mechanic. (I'd explain what was wrong with his car, but since the only thing I readily identify about automobiles is their size and colour, so I'll refrain from explaining it, err, trying to explain it, here.) Suffice to say, the bill came out to well over a hundred dollars. When my father-in-law tried to pay, the mechanic said that someone else had already taken care of it. This person identified himself only as a Christian and asked that his name not been given. A true random act of kindness.

When dad first told my wife and I this story, I felt something lift inside my chest. Maybe it's because you need to know my wife's parents. I know people hear all kinds of stories about missionaries, and some of them are disturbing and awful. But Tim and Lorna are extraordinary people. Everything about them is soft and gentle and loving. Tim grew up in Ethiopia, where his dad was a missionary, and became one himself. When he met Lorna, the two of them went back there where they built English schools and dug wells and did everything they could to help a people in need. My wife moved 21 times before she was 16 years old, and through everything -- a drought, a civil war -- they stayed firm, an example of love and kindness with little consideration to themselves.

Here in Canada, they continue to serve as missionaries, albeit in a different capacity. They are, without question, two of the most loving people I have ever met. They have adopted a very simple, very kind life, and it is always a joy to spend time with them. (It's difficult to explain, but when you're with them, it feels like everything slows down. Like the hurried and harried needs of our ultra-fast society are somewhere in the background. It's like breathing clean air after so many years of rushing to take a breath.)

That someone, a random stranger, would pay for their repairs, struck me as either wonderful coincidence, or God (and using a Humphrey Bogart voice, of course) ordering someone to 'do them a solid.'

I started wondering what would happen if every Christian, if every person of faith, stopped campaigning for who shouldn't be included and ripping every "sinful" act every committed, and simply started doing this. Obviously, I included myself in these considerations and decided that the entire world would start believing whatever people who espoused such kindness had to say. Who wouldn't?

In the end, at least for that one person who payed the bill, it wasn't about credit. It wasn't about being recognized for their generosity. And it wasn't about showing the world how great they were or how much better their religion was. It was an act of kindness, from one person to another, to two of the sweetest people you'll ever meet. Ah yes, a Kind Life indeed. 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

5 Things: Bills 43 Jets 23

1. Turnovers: (Jets 6 Bills 0)

This is the most predicative stat in football when it comes to wins and losses. It's not QB rating, it isn't yards, and it isn't sacks. It's turnovers. Both Jets quarterbacks had bad games, though Vick was able to move the ball in the first half with his legs. (more on that later) Geno Smith threw interceptions on three consecutive possessions in the first quarter. About as bad a game as I've ever seen from a NFL quarterback. Vick was picked off and fumbled twice. Even still, with a 4 - 0 turnover edge in the first half, the Bills only led by 7 at the half. (24-17) Why?

2. Three and outs.

The Bills simply couldn't convert on third downs today. ( I believe they finished 2 for 12) The reasons for this extend to the fabulous Jets front seven (as good as it gets in the NFL. Amazing) and the poor showing by the interior of the Bills offensive line. Their running game was non-existent, which meant their play action was also non-existent. And their were times when it looked llike Orton simply held the ball too long in the pocket. When you have a six to nothing turnover edge, and when you start six times in the opponents territory, 43 points isn't enough. Have to do better in this regard going forward.

3. The offensive line

I've been hammering the O-line for the past few weeks because their guard play has been abysmal. As in, all world awful. However, Urbik started today in place of of the rookie Henderson, who was little more than a pylon in Minesota, and played okay. The problem today was Eric Wood, their normally solid center. Understand, the Jets' Wilkerson (defensive rookie of the year last year) is a force, but Wood got blown off the ball consistently, which meant their running backs had nowhere to go. If your center gets beaten that badly, the play is over. Period. That's the worst game I've ever seen from Wood. I expect him to be better going forward.

As an aside, football is interesting to casual fans because it's easy enough to follow the ball on a given play. However, if you want to see what's happening from a more analytic perspective, watch the line play. That is, do not watch the quarterback. Take your eyes off the ball and watch the line. On television, you can't see downfield anyway. So watch the lines. This is where the game is won and lost. It always takes me longer to watch a Bills game because so often I'll rewind a play if i missed what happened on the line. I should add that Glenn has been very solid at left tacle, and the other rookie (also Henderson) has been steady on the right side. The problem is in the middle, which is why they can't run the ball.

4. Defense

This game belonged to the defense. The defensive line goes eight deep. Four of those guys are pro-bowlers. At the end of the first half Vick got the Jets into good position by using his legs. In the second half, I kept an eye on the Bills D-line to see how well they stayed in their lanes. (When you have an exceptional running QB like Vick, you can't cheat, take faster angles to get to the quarterback, because if you miss, he can get around you for a big gain. This is much harder than it looks, since every defensive lineman is trained to get to the QB) Only ONE play in the second half did the Bills lose contain (Jerry Hughes) and picked up four sacks. They were disciplined. And they were dominant.

But as great as they were, what has me really excited is the linebacking play of Preston Brown, the rookie from Lousiville. 'For SO many years the Bills struggled with their linebacking play. But with Bradham and Brown and Alonso coming back next year, they have a terrific group of LB's for the first time since 2000. I'm convinced that it's the improved play of the linebackers that has them in playoff position going into week nine. Well, that and this guy...

5. Sammy Watkins 

So much was written about the Bills giving an extra first round draft pick for this guy. It is an EXTREMELY high price to pay to move up five spots in the draft. I'm telling you, it was worth it. Yeah, yeah, sticking his arm in the air and slowing down and getting caught was a good teaching moment (sorry, it wasn't showboating, it was celebrating) but 3 catches, 157 yards and a touchdown later, he was the difference. Forget he's a rookie, he's a star right now. His route running and hands are far beyond his years. This guy is going to be great.

I should mention Kyle Orton, who threw four touchdowns and didn't turn the ball over. He's not perfect -- he still holds the ball too long in the pocket sometimes and he isn't mobile at all -- but he has guts. In the first half, on a third and seven he took a shot down the field. It ended up being a Bills three and out, but he's not afraid to throw it down the field. That same willingness led to the "should have been Watkins TD throw."

The Bills look dangerous to me, even without their top two running backs. There's much to fix, but they have a really good defense, a star receiver, a QB who can make the throws and a strong kicking game. Right now, they look like a playoff team.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

5 Things: Bills 17 Minnesota 16

This is probably the biggest win for the Buffalo Bills franchise in years. That they were expected to win this game doesn't matter, the way they won is what counts: a last second TD pass to Sammy Watkins in a drive that included completing a fourth and twenty. I watched most of the fourth quarter with the sound off. (It's easier to see what's happening without the noise. Not exactly like watching coaches' tapes, but it's better) Okay, let's go to five things.

1. Turnovers are the most predicative stat in football. The Bills turned it over four times (the Vikings had two), two of them in the red zone. That the Bills were able to overcome those two turnovers speaks to the quality of their competition. (Look what happened against New England) If they don't clean that up, this season will be over in short order. They have to do a better job taking care of the football.

2. The Bills lost CJ Spiller (broken collarbone) and Fred Jackson (MRI coming) which meant a lot of time for Anthony Dixon. The issue isn't Spiller, who aside from that 51 yard run today before he got hurt, hasn't been effective this year. Some of that blame has to go to the coaching staff, which hasn't been terribly creative in getting him the ball, but that's not where the problem lies. (More on this in point 3) Fred Jackson is the more valuable player, the one who will be hard to replace. He's their leading receiver out of the backfield, and terrific at picking up blitzes on third down. Mr. Steady always picks up positive yardage, and knows how to run between two terrible guards. They do have Bryce Brown, who they picked up for a fourth round pick from the Eagles at the draft and who ran well in pre-season. Worried about losing Jackson, but that isn't the biggest concern going forward. No. 3 is.

3. The Bills probably have the worst set of guards in the league. Cyril Richardson was responsible for 3 sacks today (maybe even 4) and Erik Pears on the other side is just as bad. Richardson replaced Kraig Urbik, who shouldn't be playing in the NFL. Glenn is fine at left tackle, and Wood is a very good center, but playing with those two guards is like playing short-handed on every play. They're awful. To my earlier point about Spiller, he isn't a natural, between the tackles runner. He needs bigger holes than a huge back like Dixon or a slitherer like Jackson. Those holes, the push, hasn't been there this year. Just watch the Cowboys. Look at the holes Murray gets from that great offensive line. (Use your PVR and freeze it on replay. What do you think Spiller would do with holes like that?) I don't know how they fix this during the season, but it's tough to get the ball down the field to Watkins or run between the tackles when your two guards are getting blown out on every other play. The worrying part is that other teams will start blitzing the A-gap (the spot between the center and the guards) like Minnesota did in the second half. Especially without a great blocking back like Jackson.

4. Sammy Watkins. Two first round picks for one player is a lot, but wow, he looks like he might be worth it. He gets open consistently. Has great hands. Runs excellent routes. And doesn't seem at all wowed by either the moment or himself. If he stays healthy, the Bills have a generational talent. Spectacular game today, and when they needed him the most, there was no way they were going to anyone else. A rookie, but seven games in, already the most dynamic player on that offense and the one the other teams (sans Revis island) have to stop.

5. I understand that Bills fans are testy. I get it. I've been a fan for thirty years, and the last fifteen have been brutal. But we have to stop ripping the team when they win. It's hard to win in the NFL. When the Bills won against Detroit a coupe weeks ago, I heard numerous fans suggesting it was the Lions' kicker, who missed three field goals, and not the great play of the Bills' defense, that won them the game. Hey, kicking is an important part of the game. And today it's been fans suggesting that a close win like this over a bad opponent at home means they're not a playoff team. Um, not winning enough makes you a non-playoff team. They won. Relax. Enjoy it. Next week marks the halfway point of the season and the Bills are still in it. My point, stop ripping the team when they win. They've done it little enough over the past fifteen years that you should be enjoying the result.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

5 Things: Patriots 37 Bills 22

1. There was a big question early in the season after the Patriots started 0 - 2 if this was the year Tom Brady was finally finished, that his decline as one of the greatest to ever play was eminent. Yeah, about that. Facing a very good Bills defense in the second half, and without top rusher Stephen Ridley and nothing but a bunch of question marks for receivers, Brady put up 24 points, including a couple of pinpoint throws down the field. Oh, and did I mention that he lost one of his starting offensive linemen (Dan Connolly) from a line already filled with question marks? Brady is still great. Which means the Patriots will probably win the division. Again.

2. I became a Bills fan in 1988, when the Dallas Cowboys fired legendary coach Tom Landry. I've been one ever since. These 14 years and counting of the Bills not even making the post-season, after such startling success in the nineties, has been failure on something approaching spectacular levels. In a league like the NFL, 14 years without making the playoffs is like 40 in Major League baseball. It's just mind boggling. So today's game, with a chance to grab the division lead, and the gap in talent much closer than it's been in years, the Bills laid an absolute egg in the second half. Brady is now 23 - 2 all-time against the Bills. I doubt that's going to change very soon.

3. It isn't that the Bills do not have talent. They do. The problem is that the places that lack talent means they employ players who are SO below replacement level they bring down the team. Duke Williams, for example, is a tremendous special teams player. But he's a terrible safety. His two penalties today were of the "what the hell was that" variety.

On the offensive line, Erik Pears has been awful at guard for them. He was today, as well. Most casual fans do not understand guard play, the offensive linemen who line up on each side of the center. Here's a quick tip to help you understand if you're getting good guard play. Your ability to rush the ball, and your ability to protect the quarterback up the middle. Well, the Bills haven't been able to garner a consistent rushing attack all year, and that's with a duo (trio?) of talented backs. Eric Wood is a solid center. Pears gets thrown around and beaten so often, plays are wrecked before they even begin.

In the back end, McKelvin should not be playing. As a nickel back in certain situations? Maybe. But he got exposed today, as did Graham back at safety. The one touchdown was a direct result of his being out of position.

When one player on a unit is horrific, the talent level around them almost doesn't matter. All about the weakest chain.

4. Lack of offensive creativity. At some point, they have to figure out how to get CJ Spiller going. The line isn't good enough to open holes for him (like Dallas does for DeMarco Murray) but he's too good a playmaker not to get him involved. Put him in a Percy Harvin role. Get him the ball in space. Otherwise, you'll be starting drives 2 and 11 or 2 and 13 like they did today.

5. Speaking of the offensive line, watching Dallas beat Seattle today should be a lesson. The Cowboys have three top picks on their offensive line. Zach Martin, their 16th overall pick this year, played four years at Notre Dame. (I might have missed two of them.) He's a guard, the least glamorous position in football, and he's changed everything for them. They run the ball with authority, and they protect the quarterback. The Bills haven't had consistent guard play since they let Andy Levitre go to the Titans a few years ago. Now that they have a new owner, maybe they need to start paying more for a position that is vital to winning but gets no publicity. It's great to have Sammy Watkins on the outside. But if you can't run the ball, and your quarterback doesn't have time to throw it down the field, then it doesn't matter how good your skill guys are.

Friday, October 10, 2014

5 Things: Raptors vs. Celtics (Pre-season)

I started doing "5 Things" last year after Raptor games, and this year we're going to try and make it a regular feature, time willing. It's great to have basketball back, even if it's only pre-season.

After winning 48 games last year and pushing Brooklyn to seven games in the opening round, the Raps are looking to grow from last season's unexpected success. They re-signed Lowry, Patterson and Vasquez, and are hoping their young players like Ross and JV continue to improve.

Now, this is the pre-season, so you always want to be careful with your evaluation. Coaches aren't trying to win so much as trying to find the right combinations, allow the new players (like Lou Williams and James Johnson) get comfortable. So any analysis needs to keep that in mind. With that all said, here are my Five Things from tonight's game.

1) Demar is ready

Demar Derozan was a first time all-star last year. He made Team USA over the summer, as a surprise pick. He's clearly ready for the regular season. He looked decisive and confident tonight, and even showed flashes on the defensive end. If DD becomes even an avergae defensive player (and his 3 stroke looked very good tonight) he'll take yet another step towards stardom. He's already an all-star. Tonight, the Raptors looked decidely different with him on the floor.

2) Second Unit still finding its way

They added Lou Williams, a scorer, and James Johnson, as good a lockdown 3-4 defender in the NBA for their second unit, but it may take a while for those guys to figure out how to play together. The second unit got ripped tonight. There were clear communication issues, and when Williams isn't scoring, and JJ believes he is a scorer, there are problems. They did carry the first unit's unselfishness with them, which is a good sign, but they were something of a mess on the defensive end.

3) Defensive issues

Coach Dwane Casey said before the game the offense was ahead of the defense. No kidding. Awful transition defense, slow rotations (particularly JV), and a general lack of intensity brought to mind their late season struggles on that end. This is a concern going forward. People have lauded a backup duo of Williams and Vasquez, but neither of those guys play defense, and if they aren't scoring, JJ cannot cover for them completely. They'll give away leads like they did tonight with regularity.

4) More Defensive Issues

I don't want to hammer on this, but the Raptors ability to play good team defense (They finished in the top ten in the NBA last year) is this season's most concerning, and most important, issue. Boston shot over 50% tonight. The Raptors don't seem to recognize individual players on the floor. Jumping out at Evan Turner on the 3 point line, for example, so he can make the extra pass to a better shooter. Or not identifying that Avery Bradley has a jump shot and not guarding him until he scored 20 points in the first half. Everything about their defense screams desperation. I won't hammer on the whistle in the pre-season, but the fact that the Raptors got 2 technicals in a freaking pre-season game should indicate some frustration towards that part of the game. I blame this on frustration and some guys consistently not being where they were supposed to be. Give someone an open shot in the NBA, they're going to make it.

5) Kyle Lowry

Only fitting that this post start and end with the Raptors two best players. Lowry makes such a huge difference because even in a pre-season game, he gives a shit. He's the only truly good defender among the Raptor guards, and when he's out there, this is a completely different team. there are concerns going forward, mostly on the defensive end, but so long as Derozan and Lowry stay healthy, they'll compete and win their fair share of games. And that's all you can ask from your favourite team.


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

TWIS: Processing Hate... and Excuses

Sorry about the lack of posts lately. With work back in full swing (I work full-time with special needs kids in an elementary school), along with my personal training gig and writing full-time (3rd edit of The Last Angel), it's been a bit chaotic. I kept telling myself I didn't have time to post a coherent blog until I realized I was spending more time dropping five hundred word comments on Facebook threads. Not particularly productive. So instead of commenting there, I figured I'd post them here and give more people a chance to throw eggs at me. (Or nod sagely in agreement)

This Week in Sports (T.W.I.S.)

News is always bad news, but this week has been particularly tough. First, the Ray Rice video broke the NFL and finally shattered that thin glass separating our conscience from the horrific and violent stories consistently brushed over by the league. 87 arrests by 80 players in fourteen years, and yet suddenly the climate has changed. Hell, even after the first video of Rice pulling his unconscious girlfriend, Janay Palmer, out of the elevator, the outrage was on its death knell until the second video of him punching her in the face and knocking her unconscious was released. We had to see it to process it.

Maybe we didn't believe that someone, someone we watched play our favourite game on Sundays, could actually commit such a hateful act. Maybe we'd learned to disconnect our conscience from reality when we read the other stories. Maybe we came up with other reasons (she started it) for him to be pulling her unconscious form from the elevator. Either way, it was the tipping point. We saw it. We were forced to deal with it. And now, everything is different. Will it last? Who knows. I hope so.

But the gut punch has been listening to people like Panthers coach Ron Rivera. Listening to him talk about the "changing climate" regarding his own player, Greg Hardy, who has already been convicted of beating up his girlfriend and threatening to kill her, as if it were somehow the media's fault, or the fault of the "changing climate" to inexcusably play Hardy in Week Two.

These coaches, and in extension, the talk show hosts and fans who keep insisting that these players should be forgiven and given their jobs back and what right does the NFL have to prevent their employment, echo like the sound of a cat being tortured in the back alley. Have they so completely lost their sense of right, of kindness, of freaking life, that they can no longer find their way out of the maze of psychological dependency on a team or a sport as some kind of last frontier where everything goes. And oh yeah, fuck women and fuck morals, it's football! No pussies here! It's hatred run wild, and processing it has been increasingly difficult.

Adrian Peterson, who stuffed leaves into the mouth of his naked son and beat him with a switch until the boy had lacerations on his legs, his buttocks, his scrotum and yes, his hands, where he held them up, trying to prevent a 210lb NFL athlete from hitting him, has somehow become a discussion on spanking. This sparked one of the most idiotic comments from Charles Barkley in his terrific broadcasting career when he suggested that "every Southern black person would be in jail" if they were charged the way Peterson had been.

To be clear, spanking is favoured in uneducated areas for a reason. Studies have shown how damaging it is, how unnecessary it is, and yet, even though Peterson's son had welts on his freaking scrotum, some people are insisting this is a spanking issue.

Yeah, I got spanked. I was never abused. If people can't figure out the difference, then maybe we're all stupid.

All in all, its felt like a week of processing hate and excuses. I'm glad the sponsors are speaking up. I'm glad Hardy won't be playing this week. I'm glad Peterson won't play again this year. But that window is shattered now, and I'll be watching closely. I shouldn't have to swallow my conscience to watch sports. And if it continues to be a problem, maybe I'll stop worrying about processing hate, and just change the channel.


Saturday, September 06, 2014

New Blog Plan; Other News

Hey folks,

I apologize for not posting this week. I'm back at school, working at my day job as a special needs worker. It's my third year at this elementary school and my third year with the same student, a true blessing. And while I enjoyed being back with the kids, it was sad bidding farewell to those late nights sitting out on the porch with a great book, promising myself 'just one more chapter!'

It was a quiet summer for my wife and I, though I did manage to write a new urban fantasy novel (The Last Angel) in two months. (Woohoo!) I'm working on the second draft now and it should be finished soon. As to the question why that one took two months and my epic, Second Blood, took five and a half years, I'm not sure I have an answer to that. Not a full one anyway. Part of it has to do with the genre. Urban fantasy is a blend of noir detective and fantasy, it's quicker to write and develop. The world building is far less intense, too. And I think that understanding the way the publishing industry has changed makes a difference. I spent two years polishing and re-polishing Second Blood. Now that I know I can self-publish so easily AND have it be a worthwhile process, frees me up to just go for it. I have another urban fantasy novel in the works as well. The goal is to write three books a year, one in each series. Ambitious, but not un-doable.

New Blog Plan

What I'm trying to develop now is a plan for this blog. I'm fairly certain I can manage four posts a week, although they'll be shorter than the ones I used to post. Unlike some blogs, Trials of a Kind Life is a pretty wide open topic. (Believe me, there are a lot of days I wish I was writing about one thing. Thing is, I'd get bored of that pretty quick.)

So here's what I'm thinking:

Post 1: Sports

Post 2: Movies

Post 3: News Item of the Week

Post 4: Books

I'm not sure if I should lump books and movies together or not, maybe have a another topic? I'd love some feedback on it, so feel free to drop in some suggestions. I appreciate you stopping by. :)


Tuesday, September 02, 2014

The Lady at the Bus Stop (RAOK Alert!)

There's a Bingo Hall just down the street from us, a large building that also houses the Fitness Connection where Bethany (my wife) and I work out. A few weeks ago, she met an elderly woman waiting at the bus stop. The woman stopped my wife and asked her if she was was going to take the bus. Bethany was headed to the gym. On a whim, she asked the elderly woman if she needed help.

"Oh no, Dear," she said with a smile. "I just wait here every morning until someone comes along who can use my transfer. It's good for another hour."

When Bethany told me that story it brought a smile to my face. Such a small thing, you know. And yet, what a wonderful act of kindness.

Sometimes, it's good to hear about large extravagant acts of generosity. But for my money, these little ones often mean a lot more.


Monday, September 01, 2014

Rudy: Dreamers vs. dreamers

Fall is here. For many of us, school starts tomorrow. We'll send our kids off, or head back to work, or we'll head there ourselves in pursuit of new dreams and new goals. It can be an exciting time, especially if we allow it to be. This post is for all my fellow dreamers out there, in honour of one of the most famous dreamers ever to grace the silver screen.

There are a number of great scenes in the movie, Rudy, that deals with what it means to be a dreamer, but I'll only reference a few of them. When Rudy's best friend dies in a mining accident, he decides he has to leave. That if he doesn't try to get into Notre Dame now, he'll never make the attempt. His dad meets him at the bus stop and tries to discourage him. Only rich kids and great athletes go there. He tells him a story of his own childhood, how his father lost everything "chasing a stupid dream."

Rudy's father is not trying to be hurtful or petty, he's trying to protect his son from crushing disappointment. It's an act of love. But Rudy is young and stubborn and knows that if he just doesn't do something to change his life, his life will never change.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

5 Things They Don't Tell You About Getting Old

I still remember when my neighbour turned forty. I was in my mid-twenties then, and all I could think was 'Wow, Paul got old, man.' I felt bad for him. I still had my whole life in front of me, and his, well, his was winding down. I didn't tell him that. No use depressing the guy, but I felt like a fortieth birthday was probably closer to a funeral than a party, if only because you were so much closer to a funeral.

Well, a few weeks ago I turned forty-two. I'm an now officially "middle-aged." Amazingly, I'm not sad about it. Fact is, I'm happy to report that a lot of the stuff I was told about aging is a load of crap. In a good way. And so while I yet stave off death's calling, which, according to my young friends, should arrive any minute, here are a few things I'v learned along the way. My young friends, take heed. And to my fellow, err, mature adult friends, heyo!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Who Am I? (A fun test for you)

I'm always a bit surprised that, in an individualistic society like ours, few people really understand themselves, their personality, and why that matters. All humans are self-centered, and I don't mean selfish, I mean oriented towards our own lives. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, because it's not like we can live lives for or through other people. (Though, ahem, some hockey dads seem intent enough on doing that)

Understanding who we are, why we think the way we do, why we like certain movies or books and why others don't, is extremely helpful. (As a writer, its absolutely imperative to understand what makes us tick. If we can't figure out ourselves, how do we expect to understand our characters?) It helps us not only relate to ourselves, but to those around us. It helps us understand why we respond to certain things within our family. It helps us better explain things in our romantic relationships, and in turn, helps us relate to one another in a more positive manner. If we can answer the question, "Who Am I?", with some degree of success, everything else becomes a bit easier.

I'm not simply talking about dealing with mental health issues, although that's certainly part of it. I'm talking about understanding your personality type. What makes you tick. What you need to recharge your batteries. What your strengths and weaknesses are. What job would suit you. Etc...

I took a leadership course in grad school, and every student in the class was asked to take a number of different tests, all designed to help us gauge our abilities in different areas. The most helpful one, by far, was the Myers-Briggs personality test, based on Carl Jung and Isabel Briggs Myers typological approach to personality.

(If you want to skip the explanation, you can find the test here.)

The test asks you basic questions, all answered with a yes or no. It breaks down four categories and groups your answers into sixteen possibilities:

Introvert(I) vs. Extrovert(E)
Sensing(S) vs. Intuition(N)
Thinking(T) vs. Feeling(F)
Judging(J) vs. Perceiving(P)

The result will be a combination of four letters. (For example, I am an ENFP.) I was skeptical when I first took the test, because I questioned how we could break down so many human personalities into sixteen categories. (And some people do fall between two categories.) However, when I looked up the results, I was shocked. I felt like I'd just printed out a paper stating who I was. And just to verify, the test is not based on astrological readings or any kind of mysticism. It's based on your actions.

Sample question: 1) You are almost never late for your appointments. YES or NO

When you take the test as done by professionals, it posits about 120 questions costs anywhere from $80 to $150. However, I found a spot online where you can take a similar test (and yes, I referenced this site in my Top 7 Sports Movies post) It is 72 questions (about ten minutes) and it is as accurate, or nearly so, as ones done professionally.

On the site, you can find summaries to your personality type. And if you Google your personality type, you can find all kinds of information, everything from ideal jobs to ideal partner types. It's a lot of fun, and I know a few people to whom I recommended this site who called it a life-changer. (Yes. Self-knowledge can be that liberating.) I should mention here, since I have two friends who are therapists, that the idea of this is FUN. The idea is not to mock someone (and really, if you mock someone because of their personality type, you're a classless moron who doesn't get it anyway. Self-knowledge means squat without self-awareness) but simply to understand one another. Why not do this with your spouse when the kids are in bed? Or with your boyfriend/girlfriend?

You can find the test HERE.

Have fun with it, and if you have any questions, drop them in the comments and I'll address them. (If you want to better Jung's typology, you can find the basis of his work here.)

Blog Verification:
  • The contrived tree rends a healthy workload.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Importance of Mom(s)

I smile at my wife as I walk up my parents’ driveway. Snow lines the edge of the street, but most of it has melted. Another green Christmas. When I was young, it snowed more often, and Christmas was the way Bing Crosby would have liked it. That was long ago. Like many things, the weather has changed.
My parents have lived in this house for forty-two years. They moved here two days after I was born. That, at least, has not changed. It is a red brick bungalow with white siding and a carport hedged with hanging ferns and flowers. The big evergreen in the middle of the yard is gone, replaced by a birdfeeder. But the old maple beside it, the one I used to climb and swing on as a child, remains. It is even cozier inside.

As soon as we enter, my dad’s voice booms across the room

“Heya, Partner!”

We hug. I greet my sisters the same way. My mom gets a hug and a kiss. No snow, but it is still Christmas. My mom takes me by the hand.

“I want you to meet my friend.”


She’s told me about her friend, an elderly woman who moved in down the street and lives alone there. This is my first chance to meet her. Her name is Aluweya. She wears an African style dress that sweeps down to the floor and a matching hijab. She has a kind face and smile lines around her eyes. She is from the Sudan, a widow with eight children, all of whom are highly educated, two of which are doctors in the U.S. My mom has told me this before I met her. I say hello and we exchange pleasantries before I am swept away by the entrance of more family.

My mom takes her friend’s hand, the way she took mine, and leads her to the front entrance. I watch them, not surprised, exactly, but it still hits me with a quiet, redeeming force.

Aluweya is black, and she is a Muslim. That is not a big deal in Toronto or Ottawa, my two cities of residence the past sixteen years, but this is not those places. This is Welland.


My hometown of fifty thousand seems to shrink every time I visit. That is not an insult. It is slower here, the pace less frantic. A walk down the street seems more reflective and less harried. Born sometime in the late 19th Century, it was birthed on the edge of a canal, which fostered ships along between the great lakes and down the St. Lawrence and out to the ocean. It became an industrial town, steel mostly, and filled with Italian and French immigrants, nearly all of them Catholic. Most of the steel mills have gone now, but the makeup of the population remains the same. Many Wellanders are Catholic, nearly all of them are white. In my high school of over a thousand students, there were two black students. Neither was Muslim.

This does not seem to bother my mother. Nor does it bother her new friend. Both are devout. Neither would ever consider the other religion. Neither care. My mom has bought her a gift. That Aluweya doesn’t celebrate Christmas does not matter. At Christmas we give gifts to people we love. People we appreciate. Aluweya has also brought a gift for my mother. It does not to bother her that she is, in a manner, celebrating a Christian holiday. When Ramadan comes the next year, my mother will make her friend special cookies without yeast. Sometimes wisdom is not spoken, it is only seen.


My mom is a small woman, quiet and strong with a good sense of humour. She hovers in the background during family gatherings. She takes pictures at odd moments. All moments. My sisters and I have become good at insta-smile. I am faster than most gunmen with my camera smile. It is a learned behaviour.

My father is as generous as he is boisterous. He is loud and fun and was beloved by many of the boys he coached, both basketball and baseball, for over forty years. He has received awards for his volunteer work. That is not why he did it, but he is known in the community. My mother’s kindness is quieter.

During my childhood, any stray cat was welcome. My mom kept a food dish on our porch. We adopted many of them. Mitsy. Professor. Blacky. Smokie. The same was true of any dog. Any wounded animal. She spent hours walking the neighbours’ dogs, or walking the homeless ones at the Humane Society. She cooked for people. Cooked for us. Cleaned up after us. Nothing was done for attention. Nothing to get attention. She taught us that kindness does not have to be loud to be effective. That it is more powerful when it is quiet.


The world has changed since I was young. We hear stories about faraway places more often. Stories of tragedy and conflict. Every day they are thrust in our face. We are asked to choose sides. Sometimes they use nations. Often they use religion. We are told that if one is bad that all are bad. That one idea is better than another. That we can tell a book by its cover. Things are so fast that mostly we look at covers. We have stopped reading books. We don’t have time.

But kindness is not fast. Kindness is slow. Kindness volunteers hours at the soup kitchen teaching the poor to cook. Kindness walks homeless dogs. Kindness provides a home and love and care for family. It does not make waves, except the gentle kind that ripple slowly to shore. It does not seek attention for its own sake. It does not counter angry rhetoric with argument, nor ignorance with logic, but acts of its own accord and dares one to challenge it.

My mom will never win an award for this. She would not want one. She does not expect such things to be calculated or quantified, because this is how we are supposed to be. We help those who don’t have. We help the wounded and the strays. We befriend our new neighbours. We do it because we are human. 

Because this is the life for which we were created. It is not a life of affectation, but affection. We do not have all the answers. We do not know what will happen in the future. We cannot be sure what will happen when we die.

But we do know the people next door. We do know our family. We do know our friends and family and work colleagues. We know them because we know ourselves. We know what it means to struggle through a world and life that often befuddles us, resists our attempts to be strong, steals our resolve to be better. And so we don’t try to change the world. It is too big.

Instead, we put out food for the stray cat down the street. We call him Ginger Ale, because of his coat. He is too scared to come inside. And when he disappears, we continue putting out food for him. Maybe he has been killed. Maybe he’s just gone for a while. But we put out food for him anyway, every day, just in case. And if something has happened, another kitty will be able to eat.

We put out food for him, and we tell our son and daughters about it. We become friends with the elderly woman down the street. We volunteer with Pathfinders. We join an organization and take our dog to senior’s homes, to let them visit with her. We are quiet and gentle and what people are supposed to be. We inspire our children with our kindness. With our wisdom.

The world has changed. The weather has changed. But our mother has not. She is mom. She is kind. And she is amazing.

Dancing with
mom at my wedding.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Does The NFL Hate Women?

It was a slow walk up the apartment steps. I appreciated the quiet of my old apartment building, only four stories high and too short for an elevator. After a long workout, however, even four floors felt like a lot of work. As I opened the door to my hallway – top floor, of course – one of my neighbours was running from door to door, frantic.

            She was a stout girl who I’d bumped into once or twice in the laundry room, usually with one of her children. Now, however, she wore a nightshirt and underwear and nothing else. She still hadn’t seen me as she pounded on my door.

            “Please help!”

            I sprinted towards her. “Stephanie,” I said, thankful I’d remembered her name. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

            She turned. Two marks – one purple, one red – marked the left side of her face. She was breathing hard. “It’s my boyfriend. He won’t leave! The kids!”

            Adrenaline and rage washed over me, and for a moment I felt blind. Not again. Four weeks earlier I’d been woken up by the smashing of pots and pans in the apartment above me, accompanied by a few screams. I’d rushed upstairs and ended up throwing out a Nigerian man who’d just finished beating his girlfriend. She’d begged me not to call the police, and as I wasn’t sure what their status was regarding immigration, I did as she'd asked.

            I followed Stephanie down the hallway. Her door hung open. I stepped inside the dimly lit apartment. Her three kids – all under the age of five – gaped at me. All three were either naked or wearing only a diaper, and they were sitting on a bare mattress in the middle of the living room. The girl – the oldest one -- appeared to have been crying.
            Empty beer cans and overturned bottles covered every counter in the tiny kitchen. Water dripped from the faucet. And behind the kitchen table stood her boyfriend.

His beard was thick and black, and he dangled a gold and black tallboy from his hands. With the beard, it was impossible to tell how old he was – early thirties, maybe older – and he was small and lean. One of the children started crying.

“Shut up!” he yelled.

“Get out,” I said.

The other children started crying. This time he ignored them and looked at me. He wore a half-smirk that dangled around his lips like expensive jewelry. He noted the size difference – I probably outweighed him by fifty pounds – and put his beer can on the table. He shook his head a little, glanced over at Stephanie and back at me. “Women,” he said with his eyes. “Drama queens.”

Stephanie had gone to her children, content to leave this part to me. I ignored the attempt at misogynal bonding and jerked my head towards the door. He swaggered past me. I escorted him out of the building. He tried one last time when we reached the bottom stair.

“It’s her fault, you know.”

I gave him a blank stare. He shrugged and walked outside. I went back upstairs. Stephanie still hadn’t closed her door.

“Call the police, Stephanie,” I said. “You need to report it. If he comes back or you need anything, I’m just down the hall.”

She nodded. “I will. Thank you.” She turned back to her kids, distracted, and I closed the door behind me.

When I was young, I used to think that helping people in distress made you feel better. Well, this was about the fourth time around this particular rodeo, and all I felt was dirty.Sick. Like I’d just waded through a sewer of human shit. It’s always the same, I thought. Even if you’re trying to make it better. Even if you’re trying to help. You’re the one gets covered in it, and you’re the one who stinks.


It had been a while since I'd felt that dirty, but when the news about Ray Rice broke a few weeks ago, I felt that way again, especially after watching the above video. Yes, that’s the Baltimore Ravens’ star running back Ray Rice dragging his unconscious wife out of the elevator. According to the police, it was a result of a “minor altercation,” during which Rice beat her until she lost consciousness. It's about as disgusting a thing as you'll see.  

The NFL commissioner thought this was such a grievous incident that he suspended Rice for two games. To put that in context, if you fail an NFL drug test for marijuana, which they test at military-like levels, you get an automatic four game suspension. If you, say, stomp on the head of another player during the game, like Albert Haynesworth did, you get five games. If you beat your wife or girlfriend unconscious, you get a two games and the people around you, like Ravens’ coach John Harbaugh, will say things like “he’s a heckuva guy.”


It goes without saying that the NFL has always had its own set of patriarchal tendencies. But within the changing societal landscape and under the weight of its own enormous influence within the culture, it has become a seemingly last-gasp playground for misogyny, white-knuckled fists clenched hard against the “progressive" agenda of equality.

And for many of the people who work around the NFL (most of whom are men) it’s clear they haven’t got a clue what to do with the changes to what was once a simple code. Classy old coaches like Tony Dungy, who works as a studio analyst on the most popular show on television, (NBC’s Sunday Night Football) said he wouldn’t have drafted Michael Sam, the first openly gay linebacker who was taken by the Rams with the last pick in the draft, because he wouldn’t have wanted the ‘distraction’ on his team. This from the guy who pushed for a team to take another chance on Michael Vick, the quarterback convicted of running dog fights. (Uh, what?)

Of course, if you’d have told the "establishment" around the NFL ten years ago that a three hundred pound lineman would take a nine game leave of absence because he’d been bullied (?!) by his fellow lineman, they would probably suggest that you’d lost your mind. And yet, that’s exactly what happened last year with whole Jonathan Martin – Richie Incognito incident.

The only thing that’s clear nowadays in the NFL is that, at least to most of the old-timers, nothing is clear. That’s true of many of its fans as well. (Question: How many ‘stop the effing sermons’ comments do you find on any article that talks about women or gays or bullying or anything outside the patriarchal domain of “bro” chatter? Answer: A lot. Or, watch the above video on YouTube and see how long you can read before you start to feel nauseous. I lasted four comments.)

In general terms, the NFL has managed to navigate these waters by staying away from them, ignoring them, or offering general platitudes while winking at its hard-core fans. It forces its players to wear hot pink for an entire month to raise money for breast cancer research, but when something real happens, when something that may affect the game on the field happens, it offers a two game suspension. And for anyone who thinks that a player beating a woman unconscious is pretty serious, the NFL flips us the collective bird.

It also doesn’t really care what happens to the women on the sidelines, the ones wearing short skirts and halter tops. I don’t have a problem with cheerleaders being on the sidelines, and for those who raise questions about objectifying women, I disagree. Vehemently. Those kinds of accusations may have some truth to them, but then you have to start extending that to look at women who choose to be models, women who choose to work as hostesses in restaurants, etc… I’m sorry, but a grown ass woman has a right to do what she wants, and leading cheers while waving pompoms is what it is. What I do have a problem with is the NFL’s inability to pay them a decent wage. Or let them form a union. And then there’s the lack of female commentators and analysts and studio hosts. (Every year, about halfway through the season, it becomes nearly impossible for me to watch the pre-game shows with all the fake ‘bro-chuckling’ going on in the studio.)

In a way, you can’t blame the league for doing it. They’ve done a better job mythologizing the game than any other sport over the past forty years, with the possible exception of baseball. (Baseball is better equipped to do it simply because it has a longer history. And the two sports are radically different in their mythological approach. Baseball has always been a father-son family game. Football is for men and building young men. Similar, but different enough in that most of the hard core NFL fans, especially the older ones, can’t fathom how the name “Redskins” might be offensive while Major League Baseball designates a Jackie Robinson day every April when every player wears his number.) The NFL doesn't need to explain anything. They don’t need to justify anything to anyone, especially a bunch of pushy liberals who never played the game.

Now What?

Varsity Blues "bro-ing it up"
Well, I’m not sure how pushy I am, but I played football for three years in high school. I loved every second of it, too. Changing in the hallway. Wearing the jersey on game day. Bro-ing it up with boys. It was like bathing in testosterone. If I’d been a peacock, my tail of feathers would have been wagging me. I remember watching Dwight Clark’s The Catch in the NFC Championship game with my dad back when I was a Cowboy fan. I remember standing on the table in a tavern as a twenty year old, screaming at Scott Norwood “Lifetime contract if he makes it!” during the Bills’ first Superbowl. (He didn’t.) So many memories. And now, well, now I’m not sure.

Living a Kind Life isn’t a religious thing or a cult thing, it’s about trying to do what we can in a pretty messed up world to be decent freaking human beings. My wife and I stopped shopping at Wal-Mart because The Evil Empire represents everything I hate about big corporations, in everything from where they buy their meat to how they treat their employees. That said, our little boycott is not a big deal. Those twenty bucks we’d spend there don’t matter, but that isn’t why we do it. We’re not interested in standing around their headquarters holding up a giant sign that says “Look at me! See how hip and countercultural we are!” No, it’s so much simpler than that. It’s about living a decent life and trying feel like you haven’t had your soul sucked down the black hole of materialism and greed and the shallow facades that permeate the three hundred billion dollar ad industry.

Hell, that’s part of the reason I love sports so much. I don’t want to watch another news story about the tragedy of humanity or Nancy Grace or Honey BooBoo. I want to dive into the mythology and story of a sport, the same way I do with fantasy. But it has become increasingly difficult to justify diving into a sport that clearly doesn’t care about some of the things that I hold dear, equality being one of them.

So what to do? How do I justify the attention I give the NFL? I’m not sure, truthfully. I don’t want to stick my head in the sand, because that goes against everything I believe. That a player can beat a woman unconscious without truly getting penalized leaves me feeling like I’ve been gut-punched. And every time I hear someone like John Harbaugh saying things like ‘he’s a heckuva guy,’ I remember Stephanie’s boyfriend looking over at me with that half-smirk, trying to appeal to my “bro-hood,” and I feel dirty and sick all over again.

I don’t think the NFL hates women, because the National Football League is a business, and businesses don’t hate their customers. Green is green. But does it cherish women, does it even consider the two genders equal? No. The league – which includes the players, coaches, media and management – condescends to women in much the way it always has, except now they have a few games where they wear pink. I'm not sure what I'm going to do just yet. Maybe wait and see how sick I feel this year. Or see if the league can redeem itself. The NFL may not hate women, but does it despise them, at least a little? Absolutely. 

And, well, that ain't no Kind Life.


UPDATE: (September 1, 2014) The commissioner issued a public apology this week, and increased the ban for domestic violence charges to six games for a first offense, and a lifetime ban for a second offense. This was brought about because of the outcry from major news sites to blogs like this one. This is why we fight for a Kind Life, why we have to fight. Equality doesn't just happen. Now then, if we can just get the NFL to lighten up on the whole 1950's weed issue... 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Divergent (A Very, Uh, Critical Review)

Note: As I rule, I only review two types of books and movies. Ones that I really like, or ones that annoy me to such an extent that unless I'm able to vent about it in some form, it will continue to annoy me. Divergent, both the book and the movie, falls into the second category. I write fantasy, and I generally enjoy YA fantasy, but sometimes, especially when a book/series becomes popular, these things must be discussed, if only to reap some amusement from them. 

Divergent takes place in a post-apocalyptic Chicago, where the leaders have decided that humans will best survive if they are divided into five random factions. The reason for this separation is never explained, but my best guess is because other dystopian YA fantasies have factions (the Hunger Games use numbers) so that clearly whenever a nuclear war comes, humans must divide that way. And using geography was already stolen. (Damn that Suzanne Collins) The five groups are: Abnegation for the Amish selfless, Amity for the peaceful, Candor for the honest, Dauntless for the cool, pretty kids brave, and Erudite for the evil nerds smart people. Each year, all sixteen-year-olds take a test to determine which faction they will belong to for the rest of their lives.


When Tris takes the test, however, she somehow tests positively for three of the randomly divided factions. What?! How is that possible?! The examiner gravely warns her not to divulge this great secret. She is (drum roll) DIVERGENT! (Audience gasps. Murmurs. Someone from the audience yells "Say it isn't so, Tris!" His sobs continue long after the movie flickers back to life.)

Tris is fearful and scared -- and what 16 year old wouldn't be frightened by such dire results -- but she is determined to pick the one that best suits her. And by God, she will! Her parents' faction, Abegnation, means that she dresses in drab, shapeless clothing and is only allowed to look at a mirror for fifteen seconds or something because that would be vanity. (No one cares if you have stuff in your teeth! Stop being so damn selfish!) Her parents expect her to follow in their footsteps, because what kid wouldn't want that life, and yet, Tris is torn, because part of her wants to join Dauntless.

And the kids in Dauntless -- everyone in Dauntless is under thirty -- are just SO brave. They jump off moving trains and run through the town screaming like they've just come out of an Avicii concert and are looking for their next rave. They wear cool leathers and weapons and stuff, and they are like, totally free. No one else in the society gets to jump off trains and buildings and oh, did I mention how cool they are?

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Robin Williams, Depression, and One Writer's Life

“Robin Williams was found dead last night, due to self-asphyxiation. The beloved actor and comedian was 63. According to his publicist, he’d been struggling with depression.”

I can still see the bottle. It’s clear, with white labels and green and black writing. The aspirin are small and white. The plastic bottle is full. I’m sitting on our spare bed, a cheapie I picked up when we moved to Ottawa. It was supposed to be for guests, but two weeks ago I moved into the spare bedroom. After five quick months, my marriage is over. I am a failure. I do not blame my wife. All we do is argue. I cannot seem to find happiness. 

I stare at the bottle. I do not know how many I will have to take. Twenty? Thirty? It doesn’t matter. I’m twenty-six years old. I sell newspapers over the phone. I make ten dollars for every subscription I sell. Some days I sell only one. I have never sold more than eight.

My wife is in her first year of teaching. She is doing well. Her career is under way, and I pushed for us to move here.

“I’ll find something,” I’d told her. “There has to be a youth job here.” 

This is all I’ve found, and I’m angry about it. Angry that my dreams have been flushed into two hundred and fifty cold calls a day selling a cheap newspaper. There’s more to it than that, but I’m not aware of those things yet. I am only aware of The Sadness. It has become a visceral thing. A companion. I do not know how else to explain it.

My friend shows up an hour later. I am still staring at the bottle. I am surprised, but tuck it away. I ask why he’s here. Who drives three hours in the middle of the night?

“She was worried. Really worried.”

I smile. I assume that I am going a bit crazy, but the pills suddenly seem a distant memory. No one is allowed to see The Sadness. I have made it my rule.

“I’m fine.”

He stays until he believes me.

Another image. Two years later. My basement apartment is dark. It’s winter. Snow covers my only window. My parents are knocking on the door. They’ve driven six hours to see me. They’re worried. I do not let them in. An empty beer bottle sits on my coffee table. My computer flickers in the corner. I feel guilty. I am a failure. The Sadness has come, and for two weeks it does not let me go. I fear it will never let me go.


Time passes. I leave the church. I have tried their suggestions. I have gone to the altar. I have laid my heart bare before God. I have asked for help. But I am not good enough. I read and begin to understand my struggle, but the church is dismissive, though I know they mean well.

I am being oppressed. I am sinful. I am not committed enough. Depression is spiritual. I listen. I try hard. But The Sadness has become my shadow.

Another year passes. I am learning how to deal with my problem. I read books that inspire me. I write. And I watch films that make me laugh. Of those, no one is funnier than Robin Williams. Some are good, some are bad, but he is a constant. I watch Dead Poets Society often. It makes sense to me. But I cannot blame the Darkness on my father. My parents love me and support me. I am a failure, but it is not their fault, no more than it was the fault of my wife.

Some days I am filled with happiness. I love those days. On those days, I make myself seen. I try to spread joy and laughter. I try to live an extraordinary life, as Keating (RW) has told his students. I dream of making it as a writer. I dream of overcoming my failures. Of proving my worth. I watch Rudy when I need a lift. I watch Robin when I need to smile. And when I feel my shadow begin to overwhelm me, I watch my favourite film.


Good Will Hunting is just a movie, a fable. But for me, narrative is more than that. The characters in my favourite books are my friends, as are the ones in my favourite movies. They know that I am a failure, but they remain the same. Here, Robin is a counselor, a teacher. He is the kind of counselor I wish I had, the kind of mentor I need. I am not closed to counseling, but I am a youth worker. An aspiring writer. I cannot afford it. I can barely afford my apartment.

Robin will win an academy award for his performance. I do not know whether he is simply a great actor or that he knows what it means to have a shadow, but I feel the movie, and it feels true. So does the pain in his eyes. That is what I need. Someone who has learned to deal with The Sadness and live, and not live just another life, but an extraordinary one.

And now, he is gone.


Robin’s death fills me with great sadness. His legacy is unique and yes, extraordinary. My wife, too, feels it. There is the sense of a light being extinguished, which makes no sense as most of us did not know him, but it’s there anyway. The grieving on social media is real. Some trolls suggest that he is ‘selfish’ and ‘made a choice.’ They are roundly criticized by a more enlightened population, but their page views have gone up, and they have received more attention. Human parasites will always exist.

The images of my early struggles remain. Like pictures people once kept in their wallets. They come to mind easily and quickly, though not without pain. I have learned to deal with my struggles over the years. The Sadness remains, and on certain days, it is all I can do to get through the day. I do my best to not let others see my shadow. That is the rule. It has always been the rule.

But I am lucky. Five years ago I married the girl of my dreams. She understands. Some days, I still feel like a failure, like she has married someone who simply cannot get over himself. Those days are hard, and I wish I was ‘normal.’ But such a thing does not exist, not for me or anyone else. We all have struggles.

As for the funniest man in the world, I do not know what to think. I do not know if things could have been different. Sometimes, The Sadness visits in such power that we are helpless before it. Religious people do not like to hear this. Neither do I. Sometimes the truth is hard.

If I could say something to him, though. If I had been allowed to speak to him, I would have thanked him for helping me through so many rough times, when his smile – his laughter, his jokes – overcame The Sadness for me. And then I would have told him this:

“You have lived an extraordinary life. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.”

Rest in peace, My Friend. You have blessed us beyond imagining. You will be missed.


Monday, August 11, 2014

What Does a Strong Woman Look Like?

There were four of them. Young guys in their early twenties, tall and lean and loud, more interested in being heard than working out. Otherwise, the gym was relatively quiet, about fifteen others spread throughout the weight room. 

Bethany set her water down by the lat pulldown machine and leaned over to adjust the weight.  One of the young guys approached, indignant, and said, "Hey, I'm using that!"

“Ok, can I work in with you?”

He sniffed. “No.”

He turned back to his friends and started joking with them as if she was no longer standing there. As he was talking, he picked up a pair of dumbbells and started doing shrugs. Bethany shook her head and dropped her stuff beside the lat machine. When she sat down, he looked over at her.

“Hey, I told you that I was using it.” His voice dripped with entitlement.

“No, you're not.  You're doing shrugs.”

“But my stuff is there,” he said, pointing to his towel, clearly shocked that someone would challenge him, especially a woman. A woman!

Bethany pointed to her water bottle on the other side. “My stuff is there, too.”

It wasn’t until she finally started doing her set before he backed down, though not before looking over at his friends. “What a bitch.”

When she’d finished her set, an older man approached her. “I’m glad you told them off. They’re a bunch of jackasses.”

Bethany nodded, though she hadn’t really told them off, she’d merely stood her ground. She finished her workout by spending a hard twenty minutes working the heavy bag, angry that the place she went for peace, her place, had become a place of confrontation.

When she came home, her face was red. I kissed her at the door.

“How was your workout, Love?” I asked.

“I may have gone a bit too hard.”

She told me what had happened, and I grimaced as I listened. My wife is about 5’4”, strong but small, and this seemed like just another story – one of many – that she’d told me regarding her brushes with men. From the parking lot to the grocery store to the gym, her experience in society was completely different than mine. I wasn’t completely surprised by this, I’d been lucky enough to have a number of strong female friends over the years, and they’d echoed similar situations that happened to them on a regular basis.
According to them, when you’re a girl, you grow up with it, and so dealing with incidents like that are just part of life. Yeesh. I shook my head and continued to listen to Bethany tell her story. For as much as I still found it difficult to believe, there was a time I thought I had it rough because I was a man.

Young Men are Daft (For a Reason)

When I was in my early twenties, I had these ideas about women, strange creatures that they were. Fortunately, they were easy to categorize.

a) loud and crass
b) sexy and dumb
c) smart and ugly
d) bossy and mean

And all of those could be lumped into one of these two categories

e) frigid or slutty (Madonna or Whore)

That was about it. Some combinations were possible. Occasionally a woman could be smart and plain, or they could bossy and pretty, but for the most part, there weren’t that many different types of women. Men could be a million things, have all kinds of contradictions, but that made sense. Why? Because they were men, that’s why.

Early romantic counselling for me included any number of older men telling me that women would be whatever you made them. They were mirrors. Whatever reflection you saw was a result of your own doing. Women were strange, yes, but very simple. If you were good to them, they’d look after you. If you weren’t, all kinds of bad behaviours would result. Like pets, I remember thinking. Crazy as it sounds, I did not intend that as an insult. It just seemed self-explanatory. Most of the movies I watched clearly showed what happened when women were put in tough situations. How many times did the woman bungle things up only for the man to save things? Or when was the last time you heard a woman speak intelligently about guy things. Sure, there were a few exceptions, but that’s all they were: exceptions. It wasn’t that women were doing it on purpose, it was just their nature. I understood that, of course. But damn, it was just so frustrating.

And then there was the special attention they received. That used to frustrate me, too. A woman could walk into a room, and a proper man was supposed to hold the door open for her, make sure she was okay, settle her down if things got anxious, and THEN pay the bill. And I didn’t even mention all those ridiculous fruitcakes running around screaming about feminism and equal rights. Equal rights? Women didn’t have to do ANYTHING? Men had to shoulder the load. You didn’t see us running around whining about “special rights.”

When I asked other men about this, older men, they’d smile and shrug. That was how women were. There was no explaining it, so best get used to it.

Writers: Women are NOT Hollywood

Some time in my late twenties, a good five years after I started writing full time, I noticed that my attitude regarding women began to change. My first (horrible) novel featured two men as the main characters. Writing from a woman’s perspective was as unthinkable as understanding women in the first place. My own marriage had been a colossal failure, and here I was, not yet thirty and already divorced. What did I know about women? Certainly not enough to write from their perspective.

As a writer, I’d always wanted to challenge myself, so I determined that I was going to feature two women in my next novel as my main characters. Two estranged sisters, wildly different from one another. (That novel, Ravin, led to me to my brief relationship with a literary agent.) I’d somehow developed close friendships with two women who started to show me that everything I’d perceived about women and most things I’d learned about them, from either books or movies or the “wise” advice from other men, were completely wrong. Both of them were pretty and smart and complex, filled with nuances and contradictions, just like a man. They did not fit into my categories. (Yes, a man can have a platonic friendship with a woman. Both of them stood for me in my wedding party, and they remain two of my best friends to this day.)

At the same time, I began to realize that my perception of women had been shaped as much by the narrative I’d absorbed (movies, books, music) as by my own experiences with actual women. Around this time, I’d started watching Hercules: The Legendary Journey, and when they spun Xena off of it, I watched that, too. As funny as it sounds, Xena was the first show I’d ever seen to take women seriously. Sure, Lucy Lawless was sexy and tough, but even within the campy set of the show, there were more than glimpses to some of the difficulties women faced. That, along with her relationship with Gabrielle, her quick witted younger travelling companion, was quite revealing to me. I’d never watched a show – certainly not a ‘superhero’ type show – that centered on the relationship between two women. Both of them were strong in their own way, and both of them were admirable.

What DOES a Strong Woman Look Like?

The crazy thing is that she doesn’t “look” like anything. One of the reasons I perceived women to be weak and shallow when I was young was that the definitions and answers I received regarding them weren’t answers at all, they were types. Look again at my categories. Those aren’t real humans, they’re stereotypes. And they’re still perpetuated in everything from relational best-sellers (Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars) to blockbuster movies (anything from Michael Bay) to best-selling novels written by men AND women. (Fifty Shades of Grey, anyone? Twilight?)

Over the last decade, my view of women has changed so dramatically, I can hardly recognize the boy that used to believe those stereotypes were the totality of another human being. And as a writer, I find it much easier now to write strong female characters than I do strong males. My only explanation for this is that when you work from a blank slate, as I’ve had to do, and you’re writing from an experience completely unlike your own, it’s much easier to find objectivity when you discover your characters. (Sorry, that sounds artsy, but there it is)

In Second Blood, my forthcoming fantasy novel, my female lead (De Nyara) is by far the strongest and most complex character in the book. She was also the easiest to write. And in my new novel, The Last Angel, my female lead is a strong character that again, one I find easy to “hear.”

In both fiction and life, it’s important to consider the complexity of all people, regardless of gender. By addressing this complexity you neither write shallow characters nor perceive others the same way. (With brazenly ignorant comments like, “Ugh. Typical woman!”)

A strong woman does not have to be an Amazonian princess in the same way a strong man does not have to be a warrior. A strong woman can be a stay-at-home mom or a lawyer or a politician or a nutritionist. Strength is not defined by the loudness (or quietness) of an individual or success in a certain field or recognition by others within society.

Strength, in both men and women, is found in those who act against their own self-interests to better those around them. Their family. Their friends. Their community. Strength is found in those who battle the pre-conceptions and prejudices of society and decide for themselves what they will believe. And strength is found in those unwilling to sacrifice kindness and compassion for the sake of moving up society’s hierarchical ladder, be it for money or fame or anything else. Ultimately, it is defined by our attention to self-awareness, our willingness to look into the mirror and see who we are, to see our humanity, and face whatever that reflection reveals.

I’ve been lucky in my life. I’ve been able to meet strong people, kind people, people who were selfless and gracious and compassionate. But if you were to really press me, ask me what a strong woman looked like, I’d tell you that she looked something like the one who stood up those guys at the gym, the one who refuses to kill a moth in the house and will spend time trapping it in a box to release it outside, the one who spends countless hours developing meal plans for her friends and family, most of which go unpaid. Yeah, if you were to press me hard enough, I’d tell you that she looked like my wife.


NOTE: Why not tell me about a strong woman in your life in the comments below?