Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Monday, February 29, 2016

What Does it Take to be The Good Survivor?

When Tito Guillen, director of a new local short film, contacted me to offer an advance screening of the new project I leapt at the chance, of course. One of the primary qualities necessary to be a decent writer is a deep and relentless curiosity about everything, but especially about the things your friends have been up to. So when he sent me the link, I watched the film intently. Not once, but at least three times, because once the curiosity was sated I found so much more I needed to grasp.

"The Good Survivor" is  the local film that won a $10,000 Telus OPTIK grant thanks to a voting process that allowed members of the public to vote for films they wanted to see funded. The concept in itself was intriguing, given a cast of locals like Steve Reeve Newman of Mix 103.7 FM radio fame and up-and-coming young performer Dylan Thomas-Bouchier. Both of these individuals are gifted actors in their own right, but I was intrigued to see how they would work together, and how they would work Dylan's cerebral palsy into a screenplay about a challenging post-apocalyptic world - one filled with zombies.

Of course zombies are quite popular right now, given television shows such as The Walking Dead that have taken zombie culture to new heights. But The Good Survivor is less about the zombies and more about two very different characters who come together in a world filled with them - and one of the characters has what we have long traditionally viewed (and even called) a handicap.

I have had the opportunity to speak to Dylan about the filming, and I know it was an arduous ordeal for all of the cast and crew given that it was filmed in the winter and they were exposed to the elements for long periods of time. For Dylan it was on occasion particularly challenging, which is perhaps what has given rise to an astonishing performance that so captured me I had to watch the short three times to let it sink in fully.

This is not to diminish the roles played by anyone else, including the talented Steve Reeve Newman who looks a bit Grizzly Adams bear-like and who evokes the crankiness one would expect of someone who has been fending off hordes of zombies (and carries a secret inside them too). The supporting roles are equally well portrayed, but there is no doubt young Dylan steals the show as he fleshes out a character that is not only more than his "handicap", but is also perhaps even far more interesting and compelling because of it.

The short is filmed so well, particularly given the inclement weather conditions, and the directing is crisp and precise. The special effects are suitably gory, and the storyline is thoughtful as it explores what it takes to be a "good survivor", which in the end may not be about traditional survival skills at all.

The short film has now had a few public screenings, and even more people have had the opportunity to experience what I was so fortunate to get a sneak peek at. The reviews continue to be strong, and there continues to be interest in both the project and a very unique storyline that didn't shy away from the reality of "handicaps" but instead stared right into them.

This week The Good Survivor enters into a new phase of voting. You can view the film online and then you can vote for the project. A top winner from Alberta and a top winner from BC will be selected through a combination of votes, social media presence and a jury of judges to go to the next level of mentorship through Telus / NSI and an invitation to the Banff Media Festival to further the development and careers of the filmmakers.

The support of the community continues to be critical to ensuring The Good Survivor not only attracts new audiences, but furthers the development of a group of individuals who have already produced a remarkable short film, made in challenging circumstances and featuring a storyline that is not only unusual but compelling.

Over the past few years the art of filmmaking has truly taken off in our region. Thanks to individuals such as those involved in this project, Wood Buffalo and Fort McMurray are becoming part of the Canadian filmmaking presence, an amazing achievement that has occurred in a very short period of time. It is entirely due to thoughtful, professional products like this one, which marry a popular concept (zombies) with a solid storyline that explores what being a good survivor really means, and the true nature of our handicaps, whether they are physical or emotional.

I sincerely hope you will take the time to view the film and to vote for this group of filmmakers and this project, one which proudly reflects our community. Watch the film, and then vote to ensure this group of local filmmakers has the opportunity to further explore their craft while also representing our community on a national stage. Help The Good Survivor to thrive and move onto the next step - and take pride in fellow community members as they follow their dreams.

You can watch the short in the video below, and just below that is the link to vote for this project. If like good short films, if you love people who have passion for their craft and if you want to see others in our community have the opportunity to attain their dreams and goals, vote now for The Good Survivor - because this group of filmmakers? Well, they have shown all of us just what it takes to not only survive, but rise.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

A Glimmer of Light

I had a strong suspicion this latest trip to Edmonton was going to be a challenge when the bus I was riding in broke down just outside Wandering River. We limped into that small town, and there we sat for three hours to wait for another bus to finish our trip to the city where I would see my corneal specialist, something I have done frequently in the past year and a half. The new bus finally arrived and we got on board, hours behind schedule but finally under way, and I thought the trip should now go smoothly – right until the next morning when the taxi I was riding in on the way to the corneal specialist broadsided another vehicle that had failed to stop at a stop sign.

Oh, the taxi driver tried to avoid it, stomping on the brakes, but the roads were icy and there was just no escape. I watched as we drifted, seemingly in slow motion, into the side of the other car, and then we spun around a couple of times for good measure before coming to rest in a snowdrift beside the busy street. The driver and I were unhurt, thankfully, but the omens were clear: this trip was doomed.
A new taxi arrived and ferried me to the specialist’s office with time to spare, as I always arrive early and then end up waiting as one always does for physicians. I quite like my corneal specialist, one of the best in the province I am told, although we met under rather inauspicious circumstances in an emergency room as he used medical grade crazy glue to seal the hole that had developed in my cornea, the result of years of an eye disease that had weakened that fragile bit of flesh. Like a punctured tire, my cornea was leaking and he needed to plug the hole, which he did with great precision and great success.

As I sat in the big chair I assumed it would be much like our previous visits – some concern over the increased pressure in my eye, a reaction to one of the medications I must use to control the inflammation, and a determination that I still had no vision, obscured due to the glue that sits squarely in the middle of my cornea and clouds the world.
This time was different, though. The specialist, concerned about the ominously high pressure in my eye, asked if we had ever talked about enucleation.

Now, other people might not even understand what that word means, but I knew instantly. I have never come so very close to vomiting on someone’s shiny black wingtips, as what my specialist was now proposing was not the corneal transplant we had discussed but rather the removal of my entire left eye.
His reasons were sound. The increased pressure meant that I was likely developing glaucoma in that eye, which would eventually diminish any vision I might have once the glue was removed. And we could not be sure how much vision still remained, given that despite medications the pressure had remained absurdly high, although he acknowledged this may have been in part due to an inability of the usual instruments to measure it properly due to the glue. An enucleation would end it all – the pain, the suffering, the uncertainty, the years of medication, the endless round robin of medical visits. No more eye problems. In fact, no more left eye.

We discussed it at some length, me doing that thing I do when I am actually dying inside but pretending to be completely rational and logical and dispassionate. When I left his office it was with the directive to make a decision, removal of my eye or a corneal transplant which may not work, may not result in any vision and which may end in removal of the eye in the end regardless.
I wandered around a local mall in a daze, buying things I cannot even recall wanting or needing but just having to do something to not think about the decision. It was not until very late that night, when I could not sleep, that I faced my demons. I laid on my bed in a darkened hotel room, the only light coming from the screen of my laptop as I read on and on about the procedure of removing an eye and the development of an artificial, or prosthetic, eye.

What I learned would have been quite fascinating had it not been quite so personal. The art of making prosthetic eyes is exactly that, an art often handed down from generation to generation. It is far less science and far more craftsmanship as the artisan molds an eye to fit the socket and then painstakingly hand paints it to match the other eye. Thanks to advances in the technology artificial eyes can even move to mimic the other eye, lessening the effect of a “wandering eye” that is clearly fake to any observer. There are only a handful of such artisans in the country, I learned.
But as I sat there, late at night, all I could think was how we come to places in our lives we never expect to be. I never, ever anticipated I would find myself in a hotel room hours from home contemplating having a piece of my body removed. I would have never imagined myself learning about prosthetic eyes not because it affected someone else but because I needed to know how one cleans them and how long they last.

I don’t share this story looking for sympathy. I suppose I want people to understand that this is how life works – full of surprises of every kind, including the ones that find you staring into the dark in a hotel room as you think about whether or not to remove your eye.
And it was there in that dark that I turned on the flashlight on my cellphone and moved it around the air, trying to see if I could detect the bright light from it. I closed my good eye and used only the “bad one”, the one that has been through so much over the past sixteen years.

The light was above, and then below. Top left, bottom right. I could not see “things”, but my poor beleaguered eye, despite the glue and the pressure and the corneal scarring, was picking up shimmers of that light like a homing beacon.
And it was then that I decided, just as I was so very close to saying it was time to end the suffering and simply remove it, that I had to try the transplant. Maybe it would not work, and maybe it would still end in that prosthetic eye. It certainly meant more pain and suffering and medical visits and an uncertain future, but what I knew was that my left eye had not yet given up – and so nor could I.

This spring I will add my name to the corneal transplant list. In 6-9 months I should be the recipient of a new (well, more accurately new-to-me) cornea. And in short order I will know if I have any vision in my left eye.
There are many lessons here, and much to write about. I want to explore the lack of medical specialists in northern communities like ours, as an ophthalmologist would have likely been able to detect my impending corneal perforation and prevented all of this. I want to explore the artistry of artificial eyes, as even if I never find myself owning one there is a fascinating tale to tell on those, their history and their future. I want to explore the process of corneal transplants, including the wait time and why more people do not donate their corneas and other organs. And I want to write about what it is like to travel through the peaks and valleys of a chronic illness, including the deep dark chasms where one finds oneself late at night in hotel rooms far from home, pondering decisions no one should ever need to ponder.

Today though I share this simple story, of a night where I faced the kind of decision you never think you will face, staring into the darkness until I saw the flash of light coming from my cellphone, telling me that as long as there is a glimmer of hope there is no option but to forge on, not give up. As long as there is just a shimmer of hope – just the faintest bit of light – then we must try even if there is a chance we will not succeed. Perhaps that is the lesson I needed to learn most of all.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Invincibility of Youth

The news was both shocking and tragic. A group of young adults had somehow entered the Canada Olympic Park in Calgary overnight, and taken their own toboggan down the bobsled run. Undoubtedly it was conceived of as a great prank, a moment of teenage enthusiasm for what was also undoubtedly a bad idea. The tragic part is that they had no idea how bad an idea it would turn out to be, as they hit a gate on the way down the run, injuring several and killing two of the young adults.

I read it with horror, as I have my own teenage charge in my life and while she exhibits generally good judgement I know how young adults can be. I know this because I was one once, and a reckless one at that. But my horror on reading this news was compounded by the adults who also read it and shared it on social media calling the young adults in question "morons", "idiots" and "stupid".

All I could think was there but for the grace of god/luck/whatever deity you choose, go I, as there is no way I should have survived my young adult years.

Show of hands: how many of you did something stupid as a young adult? This can range from getting into a vehicle with someone you suspected might be intoxicated to street racing to trespassing to the variety of other things that seemed like a good idea at the time. How many of us did things that could have ended in serious injury or death?

I see a lot of hands, people.

Mine are both in the air. I think back to the times my best friend, who was from a small town in rural Saskatchewan, and I went "bump riding" with her friends, which meant taking the back country roads at top speed in fast cars to "get air" and feel like we were flying, if just for a moment. I think back to spinning donuts in parking lots while taking turns lying on top of a car, hanging onto the roof racks, the car increasing in speed every turn. I think back to all the times we trespassed on private property to pull pranks (ever heard of tipping cows?) and all the times we made decisions that now stun me in their complete lack of understanding of potential consequences.

How easily we could have been injured. How easily we could have died. I remember the times I felt my grip on those roof racks loosening, fearing I would fall off, but never thinking about what would or could truly happen if I did. We were so lucky.

We were so lucky, until the moment we were not. For my friends and I that luck ended one summer night. I was at home hours away while my small town friends were at a bush party just outside their town. There was alcohol, I'm sure, and there were a lot of kids, and there were dirt bikes, and then there was a collision between two dirt bikes on a gravel road. Two were killed. One lingered in a coma for months. One was badly injured and disfigured for life. They were in Grade 12, and I was in first year university.

Our belief in our own invincibility ended that night. Many things ended then, including a slow dissolution of that friendship I had treasured. We all changed forever in the seconds it took for two dirt bikes to collide on a back country road. None of us were ever the same again. I have shared that story with my daughter in the hope that she would understand the consequences of such decisions, but then again she is young and like me at her age I imagine she believes she is invincible. Such is the reality of youth.

It is so easy as an adult to look at the actions of young adults and call them idiotic or stupid or moronic. We fail to remember our own young adult years, perhaps. We fail to understand that young brains have not finished developing, and make decisions adult brains would consider far differently. We forget what it was  like to feel invincible and immortal, to feel like we were flying and could never fall to earth.

Today I learned the young adults killed in Calgary were twin brothers, leaving behind grieving parents, a sister and a circle of family and friends who must have loved them dearly. When I saw their photos my heart hurt so deeply, taking me back to the morning over thirty years ago when I got a phone call telling me two friends had been killed in a dirt bike accident. I felt no compunction to pass judgment on their actions then and I do not today. Instead I feel nothing but sorrow and sympathy.

Perhaps - just perhaps - we could put aside the impulse to condemn the actions and remember what it was like to be young. Failing that perhaps we could simply understand the sort of grief others are experiencing right now.

Compassion is a gift we can give freely - it costs us nothing. I simply hope we can be rich in compassion, my friends. The world could use far more of it and far less condemnation. I believe each and every one of us hopes for compassion from others.

There but for the grace of God and/or luck go I. That, my friends, is the beginning of the road to compassion. I hope we all consider travelling it.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Getting Through the Tough Times - Together

It has become the rather large elephant in the room now. While I have seen a lot of discussion regarding the price of oil, the downturn in the economy, the drop in house prices and the layoffs we have already seen and those we fear, I have seen far less discussion on the impact this is having on our collective mental health.

There is no denying that economic and financial stress creates an atmosphere of anxiety. It is almost palpable on occasion, and I think we tend to tiptoe around it as we are quite busy putting on our “warrior faces” and being brave in the face of adversity.
And we have every reason to be brave and proud, too, as we have continued to show the generosity of our community and our desire to help others, as evidenced by the amazing fundraising that has taken place here in the last few months. But to ignore the elephant in the room is to invite trouble, because there is no doubt there is fear in our community over the current state of things.

There are those who will likely think even acknowledging it is a mistake, as it could seem pessimistic when we need to remain optimistic. The truth is that I am very optimistic about our long-term future, but I also acknowledge we have gone through, and likely will go through more, rough patches on the way to that future. And we need to both recognize them and offer our assistance to those who are going through rougher patches than we are.
I am seeing a lot if it on social media. Moms worried about grocery bills and squeezing every dollar. Dads selling the recreation vehicles they acquired when times were good. And there is a sense of anxiety that underlies it all, a fear of the unknown or a dread of what we expect. It is contagious, too, as the uncertainty affects us all.

So, what can we do in times such as this?
It’s quite simple: be there for each other. This is the time to reach out to people even if you never have before. Check in with your family and friends to see how they are doing, of course – but go a bit further and reach out to your colleagues and your neighbours, too. It’s okay to not have a solution to their worries – they won’t have one for yours, either. But sometimes just having someone listen to our fears has the remarkable ability to lessen them, shrinking that elephant down to a manageable size. If they are truly struggling and their mental health is being affected perhaps suggest some of the many resources available to help. And maybe throw in a simple act of kindness; wheel their garbage bins back in place after the trucks have been by for instance, or shovel their sidewalk in addition to yours.

Right now, when people are fighting battles about which we may know nothing, the smallest acts of kindness may have deep and profound impacts we cannot even imagine.
Words of encouragement are never out of place. Try to be hopeful even in the face of darkness. Be the one who offers the kind word, be positive and just be there for the others in our community who are struggling. And if you are the one struggling? I am reaching out to you, and ask you to reach out to me, or someone else, and simply share what’s going on with you. Share that elephant with someone else and watch how it gets smaller. I promise it will.

I have always believed and still maintain that we live in one of the most remarkable communities in this country. Community strength is not judged by how we treat each other when times are good, though. It is determined by how we support each other when times are difficult. This is a time when we can truly show that strength, by being there for each other in ways both large and small. We can still be positive and optimistic and acknowledge the challenges we face – and help each other through them.
We live in a remarkable place. Now let’s be remarkable for each other. And let’s get through this. Together.