Where I spray-paint my thoughts…


As You Were

This week last year was pretty awful. Surprisingly, it was already bad even before my mom died suddenly on the Saturday evening, which obviously made it one of my worst weeks ever. But before that happened, I got the news earlier in the week that an old college friend, Linda, had died of cancer. I had only recently learned that her cancer was terminal, and I didn’t expect the end to come so soon.

I was shocked when I got that call, but I didn’t cry. I’m weird about tears — I cry easily, but not always at the things you’d expect. Not yet guessing how many more tears I’d be crying before that week was over, I felt terrible about my friend’s untimely death but I didn’t immediately burst into tears.

A day or two after Linda’s death, Cape Breton singer Rita MacNeil died, and the radio was filled with her songs and tributes to her. Now, I liked Rita’s music, but I wouldn’t call myself a major fan. I’d never seen her in concert; I admired her as someone who’d made something beautiful out of a tough start to life, and I was sorry she died. That was pretty much it. But then, the day after her death, I saw this cartoon and it brought tears to my eyes:


(in case you don’t recognize them, the other figures in the cartoon are also dead musicians from Eastern Canada. But you probably guessed that from context clues).

A few hours after I saw that cartoon, I was thinking of it while driving when Rita’s signature song “Working Man” came on the radio. I started crying so hard I almost had to pull over. When I did pull in to my own driveway I just sat there bawling uncontrollably for awhile. Fortunately I have a degree in psychology, so I was able to make the not-very-stunning deduction that my tears had more to do with the friend I’d just lost than with a musician I’d sort of admired. Music is a big emotional trigger for me, and I often cry when songs come on the radio or we sing hymns in church that awaken memories. But in this case it was the cartoon that stood out in my mind. Why, out of all the tributes to Rita MacNeil I’d seen, did this one move me to tears — and why did that unlock a deep well of grief for the friend I’d lost but hadn’t yet cried over?

It reminded me of another cartoon honouring another dead celebrity — again, someone I’d thought was talented but had not been a devoted fan of — that also moved me to tears. A week or so earlier, writer and movie critic Roger Ebert died, and this cartoon made me choke up a little:


The whole “recently dead celeb arrives in heaven” theme is very popular in tribute cartoons (regardless of the religious beliefs of the celebrity involved or whether they believed in any kind of afterlife at all). And these two really got to me, especially as I reflected on my own losses during that week.

The existence of cartoons like these is evidence of something I see all the time when people are faced with death — even people who have no religious beliefs and are skeptical about any kind of afterlife. We have a deep-seated need to believe, or at least to pretend, that the life of the person we loved is going on much as it used to, on some other plane of existence, in company with those who’ve already died.

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Actually Loving

SMLGBTIn the fall of 1983 I landed on the campus of Andrews University, one of the largest and most diverse Seventh-day Adventist colleges in North America. I felt out of place in many ways: unlike kids who came from large Adventist high schools together, I had no cohort: none of the handful of Adventist kids in my high school class had ended up at AU. I knew exactly one person: my cousin, who was older, cooler, and already had a collection of friends from the previous year. I had a mild  case of what I would not then have labelled social anxiety: I just knew that talking to new people was hard, but it had to be done. And I was out of place in the rah-rah of freshman orientation because I had completed my first year and a half of classes at Memorial University back home, so I wasn’t even actually taking first-year courses.

Despite all that, I got to know people and found friends. One of the first close friends I made that fall semester at Andrews was a guy I’ll call G., primarily because that letter doesn’t appear anywhere in his real name. G and I hit it off immediately: we had the same sense of humour and lots of the same interests, two elements noticably lacking in my relationships with most of the guys I’d met back home. Although I had dreamed for years of going to college and meeting a nice Adventist guy who was smart and sarcastic and hilarious, it was obvious from the beginning that my friendship with G was not going down a romantic path. The attraction just wasn’t there, on either side. We quickly became, and remained throughout those first couple of years in college, good friends.

It was a few months before G confessed his big secret to me: he was attracted to other guys. This quickly became an open secret in our group of friends, and also a subject of much discussion, both with G and behind his back. All the friends I’d made at Andrews were devout Adventists — we went to church, chapel and Bible studies without being reminded or threatened; we sometimes prayed with or for each other; we were all serious about following Jesus and doing what was right. For me, at least, the news that one of my best friends was, um, homosexual (we didn’t even start to use the word “gay” in conversation with and about G til later that year), introduced something entirely new into the equation.

We had been taught to grapple with the big, burning question of whether it was OK for guys and girls to have sex with each other before marriage (it wasn’t, but endless debates were possible about whether there were loopholes to that rule and how far you could go before you violated it). The question of guys with guys, or girls with girls, was entirely outside my realm of thinking at the age of 18. I knew, in a vague general sense, that the Bible said it was a sin, but it wasn’t a sin I’d ever heard addressed or discussed in church or the Adventist high school I’d attended. I didn’t know a single gay person until I met G. Any conversation about the rights and wrongs of homosexuality was as purely theoretical to me as talking about whether it was a sin to play the roulette wheel at a Vegas casino — I knew it probably was, but that particular sin was so far outside my personal experience that it didn’t seem to matter.

And then it did matter, because I had a gay friend who wanted to be a good Christian, indeed a good Adventist, and saw no path open to him. Most of the “help” open to young gay Christians on an Adventist campus in 1983 involved counselling and “change ministries,” with the goal of re-orienting yourself to be a bit more straight, if possible. Watching G struggle through this kind of “help” reinforced for me how ineffective it was —  not just ineffective but in some cases actually harmful, making an already unhappy person much unhappier.

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Unrepressed Childhood Trauma and Sandwich-Making

wonderbread There’s a real feeling of what I can only describe as smug virtue when you get to say that you dislike something most people like, that also happens to be bad for you. Or, conversely, when you like something many people dislike, that happens to be good for you. And people are suspicious of this. For example, when I tell people that I really prefer dark chocolate to milk chocolate, or that I actually hate McDonald’s burgers, I get this shady look, as if people are thinking, “Sure, you say that because it makes you sound all lofty and noble and healthy, but I know you’re faking it.” I recognize this because I give people the same look when they claim to genuinely love kale or quinoa. Or, for that matter, when people insist that they actually love winter and really enjoy shovelling the driveway because it’s such great exercise. When some insists that their natural inclinations happen to line up with the good, the virtuous and the true, the rest of us harbour secret doubts.

But of course, we all have these quirks. We all have things that are supposedly “good for us” that we’re fortunate enough to actually like without effort, just because of our natural tastes and inclinations. I actually prefer the taste of dark chocolate; the fact that it’s supposedly healthier (or, at least, less unhealthy) is pure bonus. There are plenty of things I like — sugary, creamy Starbucks coffee drinks, for example — that are demonstrably not good for me, so it’s not that I’m just naturally virtuous. I know what I like; I don’t usually know why.

But one of my apparently “virtuous” preferences has a clear source in my childhood traumas, though it took me years to remember it (kind of a Recovered Memory Syndrome thing). If you give me two loaves of bread to make a sandwich, and one of them is sliced white bread in a plastic bag, I will always, always, always choose the other bread — whole wheat, multigrain, even if it’s freakin’ quinoa bread, rather than use sliced white bread.

I’d love to claim that I feel this way because I understand how white flour is stripped of all its nutrients and then the bread is pumped full of additives and preservatives, but no. The truth is there are lots of other things you can make with white flour that I will fall upon like a famished savage. Give me french bread, sourdough bread, any kind of buns or rolls or, oh bliss – croissants!! – and I will tear into them regardless of the nutritional content. I can even eat homemade white bread if it’s fresh out of the oven and has a bit of molasses on it. But store-bought sliced white bread makes me queasy, and I can sum up the reason in two words: BREAD POULTICE.

Now, I don’t know how many of you have ever used a bread poultice, or had one used on you. Likely not many of you, especially if you’re under 40. Despite the fact that my mother was the office manager of a medical practice and a keen believer in modern medicine, my childhood was peppered with good old-fashioned patent medicines and home remedies — I remember swallowing Milk of Magnesium, and having Merchurochrome dabbed on injuries where I would now put a little Polysporin. Minard’s Linament was used for aches and pains (though that was more something you’d see older folks put on themselves since kids weren’t expected to have those kind of aches and pains). Administering these things was mostly the territory of my Aunt Gertie, in whose house we lived until I was seven and who was my after-school caregiver for years after that. But nothing beat Aunt Gertie’s most memorable remedy: the bread poultice.

I don’t recall all the details of how or why the bread poultice was used, and I’m not about to Google it because I’m afraid that Google Images might bring up something that will scar me for life even further and perhaps put me off all bread products. What I remember is having an ugly gash or scrape on my knee — this happened to me a lot as a kid, not being particularly graceful. Aunt Gertie (with, it seems, the willing collusion of my mother, who presumably would have put a stop to it if there was anything shady about the process) administered a slice of white sliced bread to my knee and taped it on there to — and this is the phrase that’s run in my memory for forty years — “draw out the infection.” In my memory, the bread is damp. But was it damp when it was taped to my knee (with adhesive tape? Possibly…) or did it become damp as the sweat and blood and pus and … eww, I can’t even think about this anymore. I just remember going around for the rest of that day with that hot, damp, doughy mess adhered to my knee, all the infection presumably being drawn out of my innocent young body and into what was swiftly becoming the Bread of Disease and Nastiness. 

This may have only happened once in my childhood. Once may have been enough. What was the defining factor that determined, “This is an injury serious enough to treat with a slice of bread rather than just a band-aid, but not serious enough to seek medical attention”? I have no idea. I only know that while the scar on my knee faded with time, the scars on my psyche burn to this day —  usually when anyone presents me with a sandwich made with store-bought sliced white bread.

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Writing Wednesday 68: Room to Grow (with Bonus HIMYM Rant)

Today’s video immerses us in pop-culture a little bit as I analyze why I (and thousands if not millions of fans) thought the series finale of the sitcom How I Met Your Mother was so badly executed. If you liked the series but haven’t yet seen the finale and have somehow remained unspoiled, please DON’T watch my video till you’ve seen the finale. Then come back and watch it. I think the basic problem was a writing-related problem, or, more specifically, a plotting problem, and it’s one a lot of writers fall prey to. That’s the problem of having your story so tightly planned that you don’t allow room for change or surprise. I won’t say anything more for fear of spoilers (there are plenty in the video!!) but if you’re a hardcore “planner” in your approach to plotting, you might want to rethink the value of having your ending locked in from the very beginning. Stories need room to grow, whether in the pages of a novel or on a TV screen.

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Bible Movies: Why Is It So Hard?

Over the last few days, about 75% of my social media newsfeed seems to be taken up with reactions to the new “Noah” epic starring Russell Crowe. Do Christians like it? Do non-Christians like it? Do people who like well-made movies like it? (For the most part the answers seems to be no, no and no; the best analysis of the movie I’ve seen, and one of the few with anything positive to say, is here). A couple of weeks ago it was a barrage of posts by people telling me that I either must see, or absolutely must not see, the new “Son of God” movie.

Making movies about the great stories of the Bible is tricky. It’s rarely done well. Religious people get upset if you deviate too much from the text. Other viewers don’t like the movies if they stick too woodenly to a literal interpretation of the text. And no matter which audience you’re trying to target it towards, the mere fact that you’re dramatizing one of our culture’s most famous stories, stories that millions of believers hold dear, stories in which your characters have unironic conversations with God or may even BE the Son of God … well, it tends to produce uninspired scriptwriting and wooden acting, as if everyone involved in the film is overwhelmed by the great seriousness of what they’re doing.

In all the years of keeping my Adventist kids appropriately occupied on rainy, snowy, cold and windy Sabbath afternoons, I have seen a LOT of “religious” movies and “Christian” movies and “Bible” movies. I am convinced there are only two really good movies based on Bible stories, and they are these two:

Prince of Egypt (1998) and The Miracle Maker (2000) have several things in common. Both were made, as I understand it, with the consultation of a lot of Biblical scholars (mostly Jewish scholars in the case of Prince of Egyptwhich is how it should be done in adapting any story from the Hebrew Scriptures. Both taken some liberties with the storyline to heighten dramatic effect (in the case of Prince of Egypt) or to create a relatable viewpoint character for young viewers (in the case of The Miracle Maker). Yet both remain true enough to the original story that all but the most nit-picky believers recognize the beloved Biblical tale and find it familiar. Both are made for kids, or at least for “family entertainment,” but aren’t cloying or annoying for adult viewers. Both tell the story well enough and have enough artistic merit (the high points being the beautiful claymation-style puppets in The Miracle Maker, and the soaring musical numbers in Prince of Egyptthat even those who aren’t believers can appreciate them as great stories, they way I might appreciate a terrific adaptation of a Hindu epic (and by the way, you should also check out the movie Sita Sings the Blues).

The two most important similarities these two movies share, though, are 1) They are both animated movies. Different styles of animation, but both animated movies. I really think this matters. Human actors often seem bowed down by the weight of the importance of the characters they’re portraying. As soon as you see an animated movie you’re freed from the restraint of thinking this actor “is” Jesus, or Moses, or whoever. Even if the voice actor is really well-known, the fact that you’re looking at a cartoon or a puppet somehow eases the pressure of having to imagine that actor in such a portentous role. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my two favourite Biblical movies are animated.

And finally, 2) They both feature Ralph Fiennes. He’s Ramses in The Prince of Egypt and Jesus in The Miracle Maker, and he’s equally velvety-voiced and wonderful as the good guy or the bad guy. Need I say more?

So if the idea of Noah and Son of God both leave you cold for various reasons, and you’ve missed either of the above-mentioned movies, check ‘em out!


Too Many Funerals

If you live in the St. John’s area, you’ve probably heard by now this heartbreaking news story in which well-known local actors Andy Jones and Mary-Lynn Bernard talk publicly about the mental illness and suicide that took the life of their son, Louis, at age 28. If you’re not familiar with the story, please click that link and read (or listen to the audio) what this courageous family has had to say about a loss that people all too often cover up with shame.


Parents who lose a young adult child to cancer or a car accident are devastated, but open about their grief. They talk about it; they mourn; sometimes they start foundations. Parents who lose a child to suicide all too often feel that it’s not acceptable for them to talk publicly about how their child died, and I applaud Andy and Mary-Lynn for talking so openly about something so painful.

I didn’t know Louis Bernard; I met him a couple of times several years ago and thought he seemed like a bright, charming young man. Our acquaintance was so brief I can hardly say I felt his loss, except in that it echoed for me with the too-many other losses I’ve seen families go through. There’s no “right” amount of funerals for teenagers and young adults you should have to attend, because the only acceptable amount would be none. But I’ve been to more than my fair share as a teacher, especially since I’ve started teaching the the Murphy Centre, where the population of young people I meet is a little more high-risk than the average high school population. There have been too many funerals, and too many of those have been for young people who took their own lives, often after a struggle with mental health that leaves their families looking, sounding, and no doubt feeling, like refugees from a war zone.

One of the powerful points Andy Jones makes in that interview is that relative to other fields of health care, mental-health care “is still back in the 17th century.” While that’s obvious hyperbole (in the 17th century mentally ill people were nearly always just locked up, while today only some mentally ill people are locked up) it pinpoints an important truth; we understand far less about the brain, what can go wrong with it, and how to treat it, than we do about other parts of the body. And there is still far more stigma associated with mental illness than with other kinds of illness.

Mental illness is poorly understood and poorly treated in general (though of course improvements in treatment are being made all the time). It’s particularly devastating in children and young people, I think, because the impact of mental illnesses on their developing brains is even less understood. Also, I think, because teenagers have a strong tendency to self-medicate with alcohol and illegal drugs, which complicates the mental health issues even further to the point where addiction-vs-mental-illness often becomes a real chicken-and-egg problem. Another thing to remember as you read or hear Louis Bernard’s story is that his is, in many ways, a best-case scenario, in that he obviously had parents who were aware of his issues, not in denial about the fact that their child was mentally ill, and were willing and able to advocate for him. Can you imagine what going through this hellish nightmare is like for a young person who doesn’t have family support?

I don’t know much about the medical or social-work aspects of how our society deals with mental illness, but one thing I do know is the school system, and I know that our school system has virtually nothing in place to deal with young people struggling with mental illness.  Think about the supports we have in place for young people with learning disabilities. If your child is diagnosed with dyslexia, the public school system has a whole array of resources and accommodations that are supposed to be put in place to help him or her — extra time for writing tests, the ability to have tests read to you and answers scribed, access to audiobooks, support from a language specialist, etc. Now, I realize that young people who have learning disabilities (or their parents) will be quick to tell me that these supports are not always put in place as and when they should be, and school systems vary widely in how effectively they actually use these supports. I get that there’s a lot of room for improvement.

But what gets me frothing at the mouth is that in the case of learning differences, at least a structure exists, even if there’s room for improvement in how it’s applied. With mental-health issues, none of this exists. When your junior-high student is diagnosed with depression or severe anxiety, there is no “Pathway” to send them down within the school system. There’s no ready-made list of accommodations for the school administration to look at and say, “What resources can we call on to help this student?”

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