Thursday, June 23, 2016

Making Contrary Canadian TV

A little belated posting here, but it was bittersweet to document my memories at the little network that could, that did a lot, but ultimately couldn't permanently because of the onerous regulatory barriers placed upon upstart Canadian media. 
“We don’t have a reporter position available, but we do need a senior producer for Ezra Levant,” Sun News Network management told me during my 2011 interview. 
“Who’s Ezra Levant? ” I wondered. But I was too hungry to waffle, so I gobbled up the offer. It’s a rare thing for a journalist to get in on the ground floor of a new media venture, especially one so audacious and plucky. 
Once I’d gone home to Google this “Ezra Levant,” I wondered what the hell I was getting into. He’d had some court tangles and said a lot of highly controversial things. He was almost . . . un-Canadian in his politics. But that just made me like him more. I didn’t choose a career in television news to be an empty-headed prompter reader, but a muckraker. And oh, into the muck did we go at Sun News. 
You can read the rest at Walrus Magazine.

p.s. my former tv host and his band of happy rebels refused to quit as real men and women in the arena tend to do.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Of crackers and Cubans

On my flight from Miami to Havana I was seated next to a very chatty Cuban native in the middle of the row. He works in Miami and sends money to his family. In his hands he had a cheap toy, like the kind you get at the Dollar Store, unceremoniously wrapped in a plastic bag.

He explained it was a Christmas present for his young son who he had not seen in many months. I smiled politely but the truth is I was sleep deprived and uncomfortable in my seat and nervous about getting into the country.

It turns out he was nervous too--about flying--and I think talking calmed him. I may have spoke more Spanish than he did English, which made the conversation more of a difficult translation game.

When we landed the entire plane of Cubans clapped like they'd witnessed a modern miracle, but this grown man in the middle seat, wiped big tears from his eyes. He apologized, "I'm just happy to be home and see my son."

As we were deboarding, the chatty father gave me a half eaten stack of Saltine crackers. I laughed because I thought it was a joke, but he was very serious in his generosity. Almost somber about it.

I quickly exchanged my snort for a very serious "gracias."

We waved goodbye in the humidity on the tarmac and I worried about throwing away the crackers later. I had an intimidating customs and visa process ahead of me.

By the time I finally arrived at my AirBnb, it was late and I was starving. It would be 10pm before I could sit down to a proper meal. I looked down at my carry-on bag at that sad stack of Saltine crackers and said, "what the hell?"

About 6 crackers later, my hunger was staved and I was humbled by his meagre gift.

There were several times when I was miles between the next meal in my travels, and those Saltines kept me going until I arrived at the next Cuban adventure.

Yes, I realize celebrating Christmas in Cuba by yourself is a bit unorthodox, but it's not like I lacked for any show of generosity, thanks to many kind strangers, and the man in the middle seat.

**Update from a Cuban-American friend who read this post: "Saltine crackers are a staple in a Cuban household. He must have really liked you."

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Redemption is for broken fathers, too.

He told me to just stay in New York. Grandpa probably only had a few hours left and I wouldn't make it in time. But that wasn't the point. I needed to be with my dad more than I needed to say goodbye to my grandpa. The thought of him watching his father die without any of his children by his side was just unbearable.

As his oldest child, I had done my share of not listening to Dad when I should have, but this was one of those times when I knew he'd understand my small act of rebellion was really an act of love. I booked my flight to Tampa where Grandpa had made his home, near strawberry fields and majestic trees draped in sad, Spanish moss that swayed in the Florida breeze. 

My dad's journey to my grandpa took longer than the couple-hour flight from his home in Oklahoma. It started about 25 years prior when he realized he wanted his children to have a relationship with their grandfather, although he had not had one himself. My dad's parents divorced when he was very young. The Army lifestyle combined with unspoken heart breaks that often lead to poor decisions, left my dad mostly fatherless. Life in Lexington was a struggle as my dad's mother never remarried. The Southern belle with no post-secondary education but a whole lot of pride, worked hard to provide for my dad and aunt. Even still, my dad recalls that a glass of milk at supper was a luxury so his mother would water it down to make it last longer.  

A few years ago my dad showed me and my brother the mountain trail he climbed during his rocky teenage years outside of Lexington. He never understood why his dad didn't want to know him. With tears in his eyes he told us that when he climbed those Kentucky hills, his insecurity was left at the base. At the top of those rocks, he felt special. Untouchable. Victorious. 

I don't know what it's like to doubt the love of your father. That has never been my journey. My father vowed to be a different man to his seven children. From age five to 35 he has carried me. At first, it was in his arms. Later, it was in his belief that I could accomplish anything. Now, it's in his pride that I did accomplish the dreams he helped set sail. 

My grandfather got a second chance at being a good dad. He remarried and had two more beautiful children who have become my kindred spirits. They each stood by my grandfather's hospital bed squeezing his still warm hands. The sheets wet with their adoring tears, feeling the same way I do about my father. But they weren't the only children in the room weeping over the wonderful memories made with my charming and unforgettable grandpa. My dad fought to get his own dad back. And he did. My grandpa learned to love his first-born the way my dad deserved to be loved all along. Seated next to my dad in the hospital room watching his tears make trails on his face, I was overcome with gratitude because I realized, there is no expiration date for redemption.

After my grandfather passed, we made our way to the beach to trade sadness for sunshine, if only for a day. Digging my toes into the sand, I overheard my dad tell my brother on the phone that I had been strong. Strong for him. He'll never know how much it meant to hear him say that. It's a running joke that I'm the emotional crybaby in the family. I think people often mistake my tears for weakness, but I want to tell them that sometimes my love is so brimming over, these salty rivers have nowhere else to go. 

My dad has done so much for me, that to hold his hand and his heart in mine as he watched his father pass, did not require incredible strength. Really, it was just the least a grateful daughter could do. 

Uncle Tony, Aunt Monica, me and Dad. Taken at sunset at the home of my grandpa not long after he passed. We let him know he could leave, because with each other, we were in good hands.  

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Three Things I've Learned in My First Year of Living in NYC

1) I don't miss my car like I thought I would. 
I'd had Lil Red since I was 25. She made the journey from Oklahoma to Canada and somehow, with rear wheel drive and no snow tires, survived 7 winters. Even when I moved to the semi-pedestrian city of Toronto, I couldn't let her go. She was fast. She was hot. She was small. She was filled with memories. Most of all, she was a gift from my father.

From 2002-2005, I was working 30 hours a week and going to college 6-12 hours a semester. I didn't want to go into deep student loan debt, so I paid my tuition along the way. Dad promised that if I graduated college with a 3.5 GPA, he would buy me a car. I really didn't need the extra incentive to excel in courses; my own self-satisfaction and basking in the pride of my parents would've been enough. But come was a red convertible.

I never felt spoiled driving Lil Red. I felt grateful. It was only a decade prior we were on food stamps and I was borrowing my track coach's lawn-mowing shoes because we couldn't even afford Wal-mart tennis shoes. My dad was finally in a position to show me the kind of generosity many fathers wished they could for their children.

Despite my nostalgia, the car was a material possession I could not afford to keep in Manhattan. I needed the money from the sale to help pay for my expensive move.

Saying 'good-bye' to Lil Red

It was a wistful goodbye to that chapter of my life behind the wheel, but I still get tune-ups. It just that these days, they're for my feet. Pedicures are not a luxury anymore. It's just mandatory upkeep for my new wheels.

A little over a year later, I'm fully pedestrian and loving every step of it. I can hail taxis with the best of them, and navigate the subway tunnels with near ease. I walk to work every day and never grow bored of it. There's characters at every intersection and I'm constantly entertained by the stuff New Yorkers say. You can also feel the city at your feet in a way that you can't from the seat of a car. It's pulsing with life. Sometimes I wonder where the conductor is when one person briskly walking north, and another hurriedly walking east, just barely escape a collision with each other. It's a walking symphony and I have a front row seat.

2) It's not always Sex-y in the City. 
I walk to work with headphones on most of the time. Many of us pedestrians do. With the right song, you can really hit a good stride and feel like the star of your own music video with the sun kissing your face and the wind whipping your skirt at just the right flirty height. That music video in your head comes screeching to a halt, however, when your nose gets a whiff of the real Manhattan.
There's nothing like a wave of piss and gunk, just simmering on the street, to turn your healthy sidewalk stride into a stumbling dry-heave.

There was a moment last fall when a couple of tourists walking next to me in Hells Kitchen asked aloud, "what's that smell?" Without skipping a beat I answered, "That's NYC."

It's not just the smell. There's real, live rats. Some of them even terrorize us on the subways. There's cockroaches. Cockroaches so big they could qualify as a roommate on your apartment lease. And then there's the reality of almost zero green space for everyone's precious puppies to poo and pee. It's an obstacle course dodging the doo on the sidewalk.

My front yard that needs no mowing
Like I said, I love my pedestrian life, but it isn't always Carrie Bradshaw glamorous. My life is more like Smells in the City than Sex in the City, and the public dry-heaving keeps me humble.

3) I'm stronger than I thought I was.
I love an adventure but I don't really relish change. Moving countries is uncomfortable, and sometimes, for an uncomfortably long time. It took me several years to settle into Canada and its culture, but once I did, I flourished. I'm proud of the career achievements I made there, and I'm even more proud of the friendships I cultivated. Those folks kept me upright during very tempestuous times, including the dissolution of my marriage. I was a professional success, but a failure in my personal life. My friend-family loved me in spite of it. When I got the opportunity to pursue my dreams in NYC, my friend-family selflessly relinquished me back to my homeland.

I literally am living the dream. I have a cute apartment in midtown Manhattan and an interesting career, but I catch myself whimpering when the 40 hour work week easily balloons into 60. I had a better work-life balance in Toronto and my best friend was just a subway stop away. Starting over from friend-scratch can be trying. Starting over from romance-scratch is even harder. The vulnerability and time it takes to turn strangers into sidekicks sometimes seems insurmountable--until I remember I've done this before. And I can do it again. And I want this. I've wanted this since I was that awkward teenager embarrassed we had to use food stamps to pay for cereal.

"I need a vacation" 
In this wild city, I have permission to be my brazen self. I've been told before I'm too aggressive, but in NYC I'm allowed to have late nights, obnoxious laughs, and loud phone conversations. My aggression has come in handy when confronted by hawks and hustlers on the street. And beware the crude man who mistakes me for a naive, starry-eyed tourist.

I don't have to apologize for wanting to put my career in sixth gear, when many other women my age are slowing to first.  Everyone else is here to do the same thing. To be the best in their industry. To test their limits and capacity in a city that could crush you in an instant if you're not careful.

I'm stronger because of my friendships and my family that keep me and push me. On the phone with my dad today I remarked that nearly all of my friendships are long-distance, and it's a testament to them that they've remained solid through wear and tear.

Dipping my toes into Coney Island with new friend, Kristen. 
I don't have much time for written reflection these days, but I thought it was important to mark a year of Survival in the City. I spent my NYC anniversary on Coney Island with a new friend I made in NY. Turns out, you can find great sidekicks just about anywhere if you open your heart to a little change.

We stuffed our faces with Nathan's famous hotdogs and cotton candy, slurped Brooklyn lager and squealed as we rattled from tall heights in a cage on the historic Wonder Wheel. Dangling from a 95-year-old amusement park institution I thought, "what a scary, eccentric ride it's been," and "can I go again?"

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Long Way Home: Part I

Sometimes I feel like an immigrant in my own native America. I use an extra "u" in "humour" and "neighbour" and only realize the error of my ways when Word makes an angry, red squiggle line.

I answer in Celsius when someone asks the temperature, just to be shot a disappointed look.

I say, "eh," at the end of a statement and am predictably and mercilessly mocked for it.

I crave poutine after a solid Saturday night on the town and settle with a sigh for ordinary fries.

For all intents and purposes, I make a half-decent Canadian, but alas, I left before swearing oath to Queen and Country.

It wasn't so long ago I was struggling to spell like they do, tell temperature like they do and make proper use of their sing-song affirmation at the end of a sentence.

"Did I get it right this time, eh?"

I even warmed to watching ice hockey...for fun.

Seven winters. That's how I count my time in Canada. So my chronology is a little macabre, but for 26 years my blood ran warm in the mild Fahrenheit temperatures of Oklahoma. Not even a puffy Canada Goose down, fur-lined jacket could stem my disdain for a season that seemed to drag on out of spite.

When I explained to an American customs agent that I was entering the border to stay this time, she greeted me with an enthusiastic "welcome home!" but my heart was betwixt. Home, I realized in an instant, was just a backwards glance over my shoulder. What lay ahead was something I loved, but barely recognized.

To be continued...

Sunday, March 17, 2013

POTUS takes a potshot at Americans

President Barack Obama's staff took to his official Twitter account Friday evening to remind "severe conservatives" that despite the Supreme Court challenge to the Affordable Healthcare Act, Obamacare is here to stay.

The reaction to the President's message was met with both favour and fury, with one Twitter user describing the tweet as giving "the presidential finger."

It just all felt so very...un-presidential. 

With the annual Conservative Political Action Conference underway in Washington, one of the largest gatherings for conservative politicos in the States, the timing of the tweet seemed targeted at killing the Republican revival buzz.

The President is no stranger to social media, and was successful at using it as part of his strategy to mobilize support among the younger voting base in both the 2008 and 2012 elections. It's the perfect platform for rapidly spreading clever partisan ideas. With over 28 million followers, Team Obama owns Twitter and uses it effectively. But as we saw on Friday, sometimes they can act like real trolls.

The President's tweet was aimed at "severe conservatives trying to roll back progress," but who are they? 

According to recent Rasmussen polling, 48% of Americans disapprove of Obamacare, with only 45% in favour of the reforms. 

Obama is a loving leader to the less than half of Americans that agree with his healthcare policy. The other half become the butt of his vindictive Twitter jokes. 

With divide and conquer politics such as this, you can sympathize with the citizens of nearly 20 states that have petitioned to secede from the Union in a desperate attempt to have their frustrations with the White House heard. 

Posting snarky social media messages is a nani-nani-boo-boo brand of leadership you might expect from an insecure authoritarian, not the leader of the Free World. 

In the firestorm of comments that followed the President's tweet, I half-expected a retraction or an admission that perhaps the tweet was dismissive to those that respect the Office of the President, but don't always agree with its politics. How naive. Apologies aren't for those that hold a second and final term. 

And hey, the graphic paired with the tweet looked slick. So get on board, America. This is the new progressive. 

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Of montages and mothers

When the television network I work for put out a call to staff to send in photos of their moms to air as a tribute on Mother's Day, I didn't realize how difficult such a simple task would be. I had one print photo from my graduation day and that was about it.

I franticly emailed a few friends and family members to see if they had any on stock. The fact that I even had to do that depressed me greatly. I had plenty of photos taken with my dad and brothers and sisters, but hardly any with my mom. I resolved in that moment to take more pictures with my mother while I'm still blessed to have her on this earth.

Perhaps I sound a touch on the melodramatic side, but living so far from home for the last several years, pictures with family mean more to me than they ever have before. I need something to hold onto that affirms, "yes, we're family and we've shared memories together."

Luckily, my dad came through and sent me a low resolution photo taken from his iPhone.

This photograph represents one of the proudest days of my life (and one of the coldest nights in Canada I can remember). The documentary I had poured my heart and soul and sanity into for the last several months was making its premier in Calgary. I told my parents how much it would mean to have them there for such an important day.

I knew it was a long shot. It was sort of last minute and it was the middle of the week during the school year. Someone would have to watch my younger siblings. The flight from Oklahoma City to Calgary would be expensive, but they didn't even blink. Despite the fact that my mom is an organized planner still on mom-watch and absolutely abhors cold temperatures, she said she wouldn't miss it for the world.

And I needed her there. I was so nervous at something so personal being displayed on a massive theatre screen before several hundred strangers. With dad on my left and mom on my right, I held my mother's hand in a sweaty death grip. She squeezed back just as fierce.

I watched her watching the film. She cried at the parts I had cried at, laughed at the scenes I had laughed at in post-production, and smiled the proudest smile I've ever seen her smile over me. Yes, I needed her there desperately.

As the oldest of seven kids, it's easy to get lost in the sea of activities and accomplishments of my other siblings. Growing up, I felt I didn't have her approval on much, and over the years our relationship has been fraught with a sometimes tense dynamic.

When she was 19 years old, she married my dad and inherited me and my brother from his previous marriage. When I was 8 years old, she made the tremendously symbolic and important gesture of adopting me, and even then my insecurity failed me constantly as I doubted her love and acceptance of me as one of her own.

She sacrificed much to raise me and my brother at the time. Her youth, time alone with a new husband, and even her career. When she met my dad, she was enrolled in television broadcasting at a local college. I still find it funny that I ended up on the same path she wasn't able to finish so many years ago.

More than anything, I wish I could be home celebrating this Mother's Day with her. She likes the simple things on days like this. To be surrounded by her children in church, for her family to be at peace with each other and not bickering like we often do, and rest from her household chores.

That's why the small gesture of honouring her in my own small way was so important. I wanted the world to know that my lack of Kodak moments with her is not a reflection of my love and admiration for her. That I am a success because of her love for me. And while my mom may not have given birth to me, she has certainly given me life. No television montage on Mother's Day will ever be enough to honour that sacred gift.

So many years later, Mom finally makes her national television debut.