Category Archives: life

A New CBC

In the interests of full disclosure, I am an ex-CBC employee (1992-1994).

Victor Wong, over at The Phantom Observer, has, over the past few weeks, run a series of posts polling and asking for comment on the CBC and its future. For die-hard Friends of the CBC, of course, the answer is always and forever “more money, fewer strings, hands-off [and why aren't you expanding it?]“. For many on Canada’s right, including many of Canada’s private broadcasting conglomerates, the implicit answer is “please do away with this competitor”.

I am here today to speak out for a reformed CBC; a “new” CBC. CBC Management has made many questionable decisions over the years; I do not seek to defend these. But I also think the CBC has an on-going role to play in our national life: it is not an archaic remnant of our past.

I’d also note that I am not going to speak here of SRC, the Radio-Canada family of networks, mostly because it is a rare day that I tune into any of them: a little RDI extract on a flight, perhaps, and, if a particular news story warrants it, Le Téléjournal. Let someone who knows Francophone cultural needs intimately speak up in its defence.

Content Matters

My listening and viewing pattern is typical (I believe) of what the CBC needs to become. I seldom watch any television off air/cable/satellite: hotel rooms on business trips is about it, but there my station of choice is CBC Newsworld, not the main network, and none of the subsidiary digital channels. For radio, I am (if I am tuned in, typically while driving, which I do far less of these days) resolutely tuned to Radio One, not Two. That was true when Two had its former classical-centric programming; it is true today with the new mix of genres. (Mostly, if I hear Two, I hear it in the periodontist’s chair during a cleaning and examination.)

But I also have to say that I don’t choose Radio One as my first choice, either. Partly that’s the impact of podcasts: the programmes on One that I want to listen to are all available in podcast format, and iTunes graciously delivers them daily for my listening pleasure (also my skipping pleasure if today’s topic does not deliver on its promise). My first radio choice is generally CKNW, despite the fact that the phone-in format is boring: I’m far less interested in hearing the same daily rants from the public than I am interesting guests and competent, hard-hitting interviewers. But on the private station I find more topics of interest, so I’m more likely to turn it on and leave it on.

A reformed CBC must start with content that achieves that “turn it on and leave it on” impulse, be that a radio format or a television format, if the CBC is to “find an audience”. Podcasts, PVR-based time-shifting and the like are for people who already know what they want. The goal is serendipity: to surprise and delight the listener/viewer with something they would not have known was coming.

Now, in today’s world of millions of choices — I myself avail myself of the BBC, Australia’s ABC, NPR, and other “broadcasters” programming daily thanks to podcasts, plus many independent efforts on Internet Radio channels, BlogTalk Radio, etc., plus many private stations’ pod- and vodcasts (and it is a constant challenge of finding and pruning to fit into a day) — CBC needs to refine its voice. It needs to be known for something nationally — a place to turn to.

My recommendation: take advantage of the regions. Widen our horizons, using news analysis and documentary formats.

I could see the programming on Radio One, for instance, unfold through the day as follows: Morning drive (local), a national documentary/interview programme like The Current, then a series of regional lunch-hour programmes starting with Newfoundland and Labrador and ending with British Columbia until afternoon drive (local) begins — then the national news at six and As It Happens, followed by ideas-based programming. The use of regional programming brings our various national accents, world-views and local experts to the country at large.

Such programming, incidentally, is very inexpensive, relative to sports broadcasts or dramatic/comedic productions. Inexpensive enough, in fact, to be free of advertising.

Another advantage of the use of regional programming is that the main charge levelled against the CBC in the regions — its Toronto-Ottawa (or Ottawa-Montréal) centricity — evaporates. If (and I do not say that it does — or does not!) the CBC has a left-liberal bias, it does so because that is the predominant local political culture of these cities and educational institutions, think tanks, etc. (the source of the regular talking-heads of the network). Bring on the different flavours of political thought across the country! Show Torontonians that in the West the division is often between right (Conservative) and left (NDP) — that the West is neither monocultural (as they might well presume based on an electoral map) nor “just like them”. (The same is true for the Atlantic region and for Québec — who amongst us “got” the rise and fall of the ADQ, the passion Newfoundlanders have for Danny Williams, etc.?) Paradoxically, regional programme origination rather than endless rehashing of issues through Ottawa or Toronto-based interviewers should act to tie the country together — and the diversity it unleashes makes the CBC distinctive relative to the other national networks (which are not in any way regional) and local stations (which are not in any way national).

For television, documentaries play a larger role. But these, too, need to tell regional stories. As this past week’s helicopter crash into the Atlantic off Newfoundland showed, Newfoundland’s communities are familiar with the price the sea demands, and pull together in the face of familiar adversity and loss. One might think this a simply human story. But it is not: Newfoundland’s way of doing this is a story that should be told by Newfoundlanders to the rest of Canada. Similar adversity in other parts of the country is met in different ways: some part of Canada are more private in their grief and one does not easily see the “ties that bind”.

Few amongst us, for instance, recall that the engine behind the Reform movement at its founding was as much if not more British Columbian than Albertan; that Vancouver, with its mix of Liberal and NDP MPs was the place a populist uprising in Canadian politics happened. (Many Central and Eastern Canadians of my acquaintance thought of Reform as “those bloody right-wing Albertans”, with a dismissive shrug that “they’re not really like us”.) But explorations of how Alberta politics actually works, or why the three Westernmost provinces have seen parties merge, recrystallise, etc. over the years, would show elements of the Canadian matrix of opinion not easily found working exclusively in Southern Ontario.

These need not be hyper-expensive. It should not be the role of the CBC on television to travel the world; just travel Canada’s two lane roads with people who live in those regions to talk to people of the same region. Let us hear the dialogue, focused around an issue (a six week exposé in half-hour segments of the dying bounty of the oceans and how that destroys or rebuilds communities, for instance). These, in turn, could be sold as views on Canada outside the country.

In turn, not all of CBC television needs to be CBC-produced. All entertainment programming, yes (if any). But buying in similar high-quality programmes — for both radio and television — from the BBC, the ABC, etc. also makes sense. There is, for instance, nothing in BBC Radio Four’s In Our Time that would not suit an evening’s listening on CBC Radio One. Last week’s show was on the Library at Alexandria. Previous weeks have examined issues in physics, the life of Charles Darwin, etc. Solid educational programming done in an entertaining and engaging conversational format. The ABC’s Big Ideas series would offer public lectures given by people Canadians may not have heard of, but should. Some exchanges like this already occur: Big Ideas rebroadcast the CBC-produced Massey Lectures. Let’s do much more of it.

In turn — because the Millennial Generation and their younger siblings growing up digital do not watch television or listen to the radio other than rarely — all CBC programming ought to be available as pod- and vodcasts.

Finally, other than a programme like Hockey Night in Canada, there should be no advertising on CBC Television. (Most of CBC’s commercial revenues are sport-programming related in any event.)

Radio Two? A good question. I don’t have an answer for that. I think the recent changes were a plausible thing to try. The reality is that if I want to listen to classical music or jazz — and I have an extensive library of both — I’ll put on a disc rather than turn on the radio. If I want to listen to “the music I grew up with” (1960s-1970s), it’s on my iPod. I suspect I’m not alone in these habits. (I certainly don’t find commercial AM or FM music radio worthy of my time.)

Newsworld? This — not the main television network — should be the flagship station for CBC News and Current Affairs. But don’t overlook offering diversity: most viewers of Politics with Don Newman, for instance, know what angle Don’s interviewing will expose even before he welcomes them to the “brawdcast”. (I listen to the show via podcast as the visual element offers little to nothing over the soundtrack — and the podcast is commercial free.) But why not also have a Michael Coren, and an Adrienne Carr, hosting a political show? (These are two names chosen at random to broaden the spectrum.) A Green-biased show would handle economic stories far differently, as would a right-wing Christian moral perspective. 90 minutes (three 30 minute shows) of Politics with very different outlooks on stories would be far better than 60 minutes with one (and it matters not whether you agree or disagree with that outlook).

Just don’t go down the “let’s shout each other down” format used in the US media! (Interestingly, when we lived in The Netherlands, we discovered that the main channel there was turned over to different interest spectra on different days. The Catholic right got one night, the Labour Left another, etc. No attempt was made to be balanced; fairness was achieved by allowing obvious skews of opinion to be aired. This would work here, too, where the voices of region come with different outlooks, agendas, political philosophies, etc.)

I would very much like it if Newsworld could also be free of advertising, but that is probably not possible. Still, it should be a goal — perhaps beginning with commercial free news (so adverts only go into opinion/analysis shows).

As with BBC World, Newsworld should also look to put on programmes that expose other parts of the world to our view. Not only does this make more use of the extensive field resources the CBC has already deployed, it gives people a reason to tune into Newsworld as opposed to BBC, CNN, FoxNews, etc. (Most news channel watchers turn it on and let it run in the background of what they’re doing.)

… And Some Relief

Elements of the Broadcasting Act that controls the CBC require that off-air transmission of Radio One be available to very small communities, and off-air transmission of CBC Television be available to communities that are still on the verge of towns from being villages. Given Canada’s extensive geography, this means that CBC must invest hundreds of millions in physical plant — all of which must be maintained — to fulfil this requirement. This is money that by and large could be used for programming and elimination of some advertising.

So, Government should amend the Broadcasting Act to allow satellite-based transmission, receipt via cable, etc. In addition to the CBC’s channels on Sirius Satellite Radio, it would be possible to offer a simple gadget for use in an automobile or home that received only the CBC and SRC feeds from one of Canada’s satellites. Many remote repeater towers could then be dismantled. As a one-time investment, this would make far more sense than annual capital costs.

These are just some initial thoughts. To reiterate, I believe Canada needs the CBC. But we need a CBC that measures up to the best of the world, and yet shows us the great depths of this vast country. Today we have neither. Getting to that vision would make the CBC stand out in a crowded media space. Enough said.

Getting Outside the Bubble

Whether we know it or not, we all live in bubbles. It is human nature to prefer the company — real or virtual — that we find congenial. This often translates, these days, into “people who agree with me”.

So co-religionists flock to co-religionists; party members flock to fellow party members; people in technical roles (accountancy, human resources, IT, etc.) gather with others of their work in industry associations and the like; and so on. This, in turn, fits those we choose to feed our desires for opinions.

When, for instance, a die-hard Conservative says “the CBC is against the Conservative Party”, what is meant is “I didn’t hear anyone on there I could agree with”. It’s easy to find evidence of bias if you’re looking for it. At the start of the G-20 meeting in Washington, for instance, footage of Prime Minister Harper walking with President Bush was shown. Easy to think this was at the conference, but the light seemed wrong: too bright and intense for November. Then, too, it was a shirt-sleeve environment in the shot. This was probably stock footage, rather than live coverage (which is typically by pool cameras in any case and therefore seldom shows anything Canadian) — but it didn’t say so. Bias? or fairly reported. You decide. I think it was just available footage as opposed to anything sinister.

Of course, “we report, you decide” is the slogan of the either deeply beloved or utterly despised Fox News Channel, isn’t it? I can report — having spent a few days with an American friend of mine who is a Fox News junkie and has his big screen on from morning to night — that FNC is actually two channels. Morning and afternoon programming actually does, for the most part, live up to the promise of “fair and balanced”, more so than most other 24/7 news channels. As afternoon starts to slide toward evening, however, it turns into an obvious and often vicious news twister carrying forward messages that support Fox’s party of choice.

How can I mention the CBC and FNC in the same breath? Well, because I do try to get outside my own bubbles of like-minded thinkers.

I found watching FNC in the evening very hard to do, even when I was on the same side of an issue they were reporting in a favourable manner, mostly because they were so obviously so over the top in twisting things. Still, it’s good to check out other bubbles occasionally, and to try and be open enough to them to “peer behind the curtain”.

This is also why, for instance, I stay away from joining a partisan or issue-centric aggregator. Sure, I could have more traffic for this blog (although it keeps growing by word of mouth as more people find it or are referred to it). I might generally support the ideals of the Conservative Party, and do think Prime Minister Harper hasn’t done a bad job overall. (Expecting perfection — or perfectibility — is a mug’s game anyway.) Does that mean he’ll (or his party) have my support next week? Perhaps not. For the fact that I send money to parties — and in the last two years the NDP and the Conservatives have received funds, as have candidates for the NDP and the Green Party — does not mean I am a die-hard partisan. I have standards and principles and positions on issues, but my blood does not run with the rhetoric of “my party, right or wrong”.

But I do enjoy — and consider essential — reading quality writers from all the major threads of thought and political stripe. (I have little time for tripe, and less stomach for it. Nor do I want to weed through masses of screaming, foul invective, outright twisting of the facts or character assassination, regardless of issue or position on the political spectrum. Rabid Conservatives are generally as noxious as are Rabid Liberals (Warren Kinsella, anyone?), Rabid NDPers or Rabid Greens.) Passion is fine, so is commitment: just try to convince me and retain your own integrity while you do that.

We need to get out of the bubbles we inhabit because more and more issues we must deal with — from the economy, to the environment, to the military, to the question of national investments, and so on — don’t “fit” the classic shorthands for allegiance. Party tents may well be “big” (or at least the attempt is made) but we are coming to a time where more and more discussions must cross boundaries to succeed in finding ways to move forward. Listening to only one’s own group of voices can’t do that.

If so many people don’t vote and don’t care to vote, could it be because the system as it is now has nothing and no one for whom they wish to vote?

Think about this for a minute. It’s assumed that if a party has the right policies to put in its “shop window” and a charismatic leader that victory can be achieved. But what if the citizen says “you know, I like this but I can’t stand that”? The presumption of a “big tent” is that that citizen would hold his or her nose to vote for what they like. Perhaps instead people are saying “I’m not holding my nose: figure me out”.

Is this a recipe for further fragmentation in our politics? Most likely, and that implies the need to undertake some structural reforms to deal with that. Why was Chuck Cadman so admired in 2005? Wasn’t his election as an Independent something that gave him, when it mattered, the chance to act on his promises rather than vote a party line? The opposition parties ask — even demand — that the Government listen to their proposals and act on them. When the Government, in turn, takes idea “a” from one party, idea “b” from another and puts forward a course of action that contains these alongside the Government’s own electoral commitments and policies, why do we hear screaming that the Government is acting in arrogance rather than praise for having picked up “a” and “b”?

Echo chambers, that’s why. The number of people looking for co-operative, cross-boundary action is apparently smaller than the number of people who are “to the wall” partisans. Certainly the media’s approach — talking heads fulfilling “roles” in ritualized combat — and the Parliamentary game of sound-bite dominance aid and abet this.

Perhaps the non-voters are part of the cross-boundary community: their voice just isn’t heard on television, on radio, in the papers or in the Commons.

So, if you’re a Conservative, read Liberals and NDP (and so on). If you’re a Liberal, stop despising Conservatives as unethical (they’re not; they just use more moral principles than you do to reach a position, as Jonathan Haidt talked about at the TED conference) and NDPers as “Liberal vote stealers” and enter their worlds. If you’re in support of the NDP … well, you should get the idea.

After all, with new ideas and a disturbing of a “too comfortable” and “closed” mind-set, the bubble you save may be your own.

Who We Are: A Guide for Perplexed Canadians

Today marks the 141th recurrence of the coming into force of the British North America Act of 1867 and thus the transition of the colonies known as the Provinces of Canada, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia into this new creation, the Dominion of Canada. It is for this reason that this day has been historically known as “Dominion Day” — and so I still call it.

I do not wish to rant about Pierre Trudeau and his underhanded stealing of our national symbols and heritage in an afternoon, shovelling three readings of his act to, amongst other things, change the name of our national holiday to the insipid “Canada Day”, through both the House of Commons and the Senate in the space of an hour or so, then driving the act for Royal Assent to the Governor-General’s residence so that, between lunch and dinner, our history as a nation was disposed of. Just let it be said that I disagree fundamentally with his actions and refuse to recognise his changes. (Perhaps one day I shall be blessed with a Government in Ottawa that will undo this travesty — but I’m not holding my breath waiting for it.)

Instead, today, to celebrate Dominion Day, I want to reflect on what makes Canadians “Canadian”. This is as true of the newest immigrant who chooses to remain here, landed (even if never becoming a citizen), as of those of us who (unlike me) can trace their Canadian roots back hundreds of years to before the coming of European settler colonists.

We are the land of multiple identities, overlaid and interacting one with another.

Few nations have consciously chosen to be so, especially since the American and French Revolutions, which brought forth the notion of (to use Eric Voegelin’s words) a “civic theology” to bind their inhabitants together. The United Kingdom attempted something less deep, overlaying the notion of being British on the top of being (at one level) Irish, Welsh, Scottish or English, and at another level being of a particular shire or county.

When our Fathers of Confederation met — and we should not forget that it was the Maritime colonies who called that meeting to discuss forming a unitary state, and that the representatives of the Province of Canada who came then discussed a larger project (but one that could not be carried out in the context of a unitary state, thus requiring a Federal model — they recognised the pre-existing identities of the parts of what would become Canada. They also recognised that the British model would serve a Confederated Canada well: Queen-in-Parliament would apply at two levels of government, and each would have their respective domains.

In choosing to name our land, the original idea was “Kingdom of Canada”. (The Queen is Queen of Canada in her own right; if the United Kingdom became a republic tomorrow and overthrew the monarchy, the Queen would still be our Queen. Indeed, the first Act of Parliament following the death of King George VI was one to recognise Queen Elizabeth as having ascended the throne — and to style her “Elizabeth II” to avoid confusion [England's Queen Elizabeth I having reigned long before the Canadian monarchy existed, or, indeed, settler colonies in what is now Canada]. At the passing of our current monarch, we may choose to enthrone someone other than the inheritor of the British throne — but we will remain King-or-Queen-in-Parliament for all that.)

A good name, but there were worries about the reaction across the border in the United States, where the Union Army, having just won the Civil War, could be remobilised easily. The choice that was made, therefore, was “Dominion of Canada”, a new term in political parlance, to recognise the monarchical principle without suggesting that a royal house was being settled in North America. The name was used by others: the Dominion of Newfoundland and the Dominion of New Zealand come to mind — but we were the first.

We fail, often, to remember that our formative constitutional document, and our form of government, falls amongst the oldest continuous ones on earth. France, for instance, has been through an empire, three republics and the Vichy interregnum in the same time we have governed ourselves. Germany was proclaimed in 1871, when BC became Canada’s sixth province and four years after the Dominion was proclaimed, and has been through an empire, two republics plus the Soviet republic in the east, the Reich and occupation by the Allies since then. In other words, long-standing governmental systems are quite rare. We should be proud of how well our forefathers built.

From the beginning, it was expected that we would be citizens of our country, of our province, perhaps even of our region within that province. Rather than subsuming all into one “love of country”, as a civic theology impresses upon citizens born and naturalised alike, we have always accommodated the notion, so well expressed originally in Plato and as echoed in the works of Canadian philosopher George Grant, that love of the whole is built up from love of particulars. We are called, in other words, to have multiple identities, multiple loyalties, and to (as a mathematician might note) to have these be fractal structures and form a complex adaptive system of evolving identity at the national level.

Multiculturalism (yet another “gift” of the Cartesian-inspired rational Trudeauvian recreation of Canada) plays its role in this as well, as long as the multicultural community comes to share in the fractal Canadian identity (and so, to CKNW’s Christy Clark, who won an award for her shriek at a guest over whether or not “New Canadians” needed to become “Europeans”, I say “to the extent that Canada is European in its civilisation and culture then, yes, all of us do, to some extent. That’s the nice part about the Canadian identity: it is not one that replaces or encompasses other identities one has: it is just another part of the person who holds it.)

The Welsh have a wonderful word — cynefin — that means (more or less) “the place where your multiple identities dwell”. That is what the Dominion of Canada means (as opposed to the half-flag wordmark “Canada” that replaced it under Trudeau). The Trudeau change was one to create a single identity, to rationalise the others out of existence. This, in turn, backfired, and created a void in its place.

The next time you despair at pointing to “single-payer public-sector health care” or the theme for Hockey Night in Canada as symbols of the Canadian identity, saying “is that all there is?”, know that you are living in the world’s first state designed for identities that are a rich tapestry of parts that may not fit perfectly together — and was meant to allow you to be human in this way, rather than moulded to fit an invariant model of what you are to be. Americans, for instance, might say “America: Love It or Leave It”. That thought is alien to the core of a Canadian: we both love and despair, exult and wonder why, with every breath we take — and we do it regardless of what part of the country we are in, or how long we have been here.

We are a land of many nations — many First Nations, the Québécois nation, our various “English Speaking” nations, the Newfoundland nation, and on and on threads taken from around the world — interacting in a kalidoscopic interplay of light and colour. All within a set of traditions that do go back to Europe, and are a part of Western civilisation: this is the inheritance of our founding fathers, and all those who have led this country since. (Even Trudeau, whom I abhor, drew on this: simply different parts.)

We have much, indeed, to be proud of, in our quiet and unassuming way. (It is why, when I bumped into a Francophone Quebecker at the Citadel in Cannes, France, in 1991, he said “In Québec, I am from the Saguenay; in Canada, I am a Québécois; in the world, I am un Canadien”. He was an ardent supporter of both the Bloc Québécois and the Parti Québécois — and yet said this freely and with passion.) This is who we are.

May you have a joyous Dominion Day, my fellow journeyers on the pathway known as “being Canadian”.

Blogs I Like

I had the opportunity today to meet in person one of my favourite authors, Raphael Alexander of Unambiguously Ambidextrous. It was a far-too-short cup of coffee and conversation after work, and something I’m looking forward to doing more of now that he has relocated to the “right side” of the Rockies.

What I look for in a blog, first and foremost, is good writing; a close second is a degree of sensibility. People who foam at the mouth, use their blog to ladle out reams of insults, or who think being bigoted or obnoxious is in some way a substitute for trying to convince me just aren’t things I read. It’s also why I categorically refuse to join a blogroll. (Frankly, I just don’t want to be associated with some of the bloggers you find on such lists. Nor am I a reflex defender of any party or point of view, nor do I think it’s my job to be a cheerleader. Praise I give willingly when I think something appropriate is being done; criticism is given equally frequently — perhaps more often!; there are so many ways to “go wrong”.)

I also like Patrick Ross at The Nexus of Assholery, which, despite its title, is a good and comprehensive read. Werner Patels, who has had a number of excellent blogs in the past year and who now publishes as Canada Today, is another daily read — and I’ve enjoyed Werner’s “evolution of his core position” over that time. Steve V, whose Liberal-leaning Far and Wide is eternally optimistic for his party of choice and has more ways than I thought possible to drag a silver lining out of anything, yet he does not assert his hope; he gives his reasons for it, and thus makes me think. The fine author of Blogging a Dead Horse is another one.

My list is much longer, of course, even in the realm of Canadian politics, but these are the core that, fighting sleep, I will stay up a little longer to make sure I take in today.

There isn’t a soul in this list I wouldn’t find the time to meet, either. Perhaps that’s the real point: all these authors have become “real people” (in a fashion: the non-reciprocal relationship between reader and writer is a real thing — see Thomas Langan’s Being and Truth — although it is a relationship to a person in profile and fulfilling a role and not very nuanced).

Blogging is hard, especially if being generally accurate, persuasive and rational are goals of the writer. Take the time to meet the writers you most like to read. You’ll find they come from surprising walks of life — living proof that anyone can be a real citizen, not just a passenger or consumer — and are more often than not autodidacts, constantly learning on their own. In other words, they can and generally will be interesting.

Raphael, I look forward to our next conversation.

In Praise of Roger Angell

Too often in life we fail to give praise to people. It’s always one of those “I can do it tomorrow” things. To overcome that, give public thanks, which I shall now do for one of my favourite writers, Roger Angell.

The thread that made a difference for me is Angell’s writings on baseball. You can be a fan — even hold season’s tickets, be at the park constantly — and still miss so much. It is in the savouring of the game, again and again, that we need conversation and we need good writers to take us back. Angell is that good writer.

I was re-reading, yesterday, some of his essays (originally published in The New Yorker) covering the mid-1980s. Angell may report, but he is not just a reporter. He gets at feelings, and reminds me of the things I myself went through at the time.

For instance, in 1985 the Toronto Blue Jays made their first foray into the post-season. Angell writes about his on-going exchange of letters with a Toronto-area baseball reporter who, as he said, had made that transition into one of those who “belonged” to the baseball fraternity, living and dying with the team. (Angell believes that in many ways the fan of the team that makes a run at victory in September, and falls one game short, has it best of all. Baseball, as he notes repeatedly across his corpus, is filled with losing. Great batters fail to get a hit 70% of the time. Pitchers fail to keep runners off the bases, and half the time can’t stop them stealing. Great teams lose four games out of ten over the course of a long season. Streaks of good fortune and comedies of errors abound. Often the winning team for the season falls across the finish line.)

I recall that summer of 1985 — the terrible ups and downs, it all coming down to the final series, at the Mistake by the Lake, against the arch-nemesis, the New York Yankees. Buying tickets for all the games — could they clinch victory? Would it go to the wire? Sunday’s game — Phil Niekro’s 300th win — became meaningless with sealing the first place position on Saturday and it was so different, almost like mid-summer “lots of time left” baseball again, instead of the nerve-wracking September form when the team is in contention.

Then came the American League Championship Series against Kansas City. The Royals, of course, won it, and went on to win the World Series (losing to the eventual winner overall does make the ashes taste slightly better).

Comes the next year and a sigh of relief: we’re not good enough; baseball can be taken in peace and enjoyed for itself. But for Angell that year, the year came down to that 1 in 167 chance no fan with a favourite in both leagues wants to see: his hometown National League favourites, the Mets, face off against his American League favourite, the Boston Red Sox. (I know how he feels: my earliest baseball experiences tied me to the Red Sox, too; they are as much my team today as ever.)

Angell writes about the end of the 1986 season in a brilliant essay, “Not So, Boston”, which, with his previous essay on the 1975 season, “Agincourt”, precisely capture the pain and anguish of being a Red Sox supporter in one of those years where they reach the playoffs. My memories are (I discover) hazy, much like an old sepia-toned photograph with the edges rubbed and faded into the white of the edge. He sharpens them, brings the colour back, the light and the shadows.

From Angell I also learned what little I know about the game that I could pass on to my son as he has played. My own playing days were abysmal: errors galore, stuck in right field because no one hit there (usually), a batting average that began .0xx (right down there with American League pitchers when forced to the plate). I had little to offer from experience other than that all that personal defeat had not made the game unenjoyable. But Angell writes about catching, from conversations with catchers, and suddenly the dust-covered, aching-legged fellow wearing the “tools of ignorance” comes alive, and with it that very different perspective that comes from facing the field. (No wonder so many managers are ex-catchers: it is the position where a player can see the whole effort unfold at once.) Angell writes about slumps, for both hitters and pitchers, from the players’ perspectives. He writes about being stuck in the minor leagues, about never having made it but still having the fire of playing in one’s heart; he writes about the players who stayed on one season too long, and those who were cut short in the prime.

He writes about the parks, about sitting in this place or that. (He shares my refusal to ever again sit in the left field bleachers at Yankee Stadium, where the most noxious of their fans sit — my one and only game at the Stadium was spent there, and I will not go back if that is where the ticket is.) He is as frozen at Candlestick as I was in mid-summer. He has as much affection for the ivy at Wrigley as I do. He makes me want to spend March in Arizona (which has kept a little of the laid-back approach to spring training; it is not the profit centre that Florida has become).

But his most powerful essay is the one that has led me to how I volunteer at my son’s league. You see, I am a scorekeeper (and according to the people in the league, one whose scorecards can be used to teach from). This all comes from an essay Angell wrote, about a fan of his who sent him a scorecard for a game that had never been played: Boston’s worst players of note, historically, with Angell himself pitching at Fenway, against the all star team of all all star teams across both leagues through history. Imagine facing off against Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and the like! The Bostons struggle but constantly manage to keep the score for the all stars at zero: they never get anyone across the plate. Meanwhile, come the bottom of the ninth, Angell — the pitcher (this game is played by pre-designated hitter rules!) hits his way on, advances, and finally scores to win 1-0.

Angell’s telling of this, given to us as a full-bodied telling of the game and what happened all by looking at a scorecard alone, awakened the interest in scoring, and in doing it in a way that you could tell by looking what had unfolded. Elsewhere he mentions his own scorecards, with their annotations beyond what is required. The game in a few pencil marks — and the theatre of the imagination.

Having moved away from a MLB city, today much of my following of my teams necessarily occurs in this way: reconstructing the night before via the box score, catching a game on the radio when I can. (I, like Angell, prefer the radio to the television; with television you see what the camera shows, whereas in radio you see the entire field in your mind.) But I am close to the play for all of that, thanks to Angell’s bringing alive games I never paid attention to, in seasons going back to the 1960s.

If I see Koufax and Drysdale pitching, or the sad-sack Mets of their early days, or the great Oakland teams of 1972-1974, as clearly as I do the games I have been to in person, it is thanks to that writing. Thank you, Roger Angell.

Gary Gygax, RIP

E. Gary Gygax may not be a household name in your house, but he has been in mine for 33 years. You see, Gary was one of the two creators of Dungeons & Dragons, a game I have played for all those years.

I had the opportunity in 1980 to go to Lake Geneva, WI, where Gary lived, and spend two days talking with him. The fourteen hour drive (each way) was well worth it. I treasure that conversation.

Role-playing games are, I think, a natural successor to the old radio dramas of the 1930s and 1940s. As with baseball on the radio, these are truly “theatre of the mind”. Played with only paper, pencil and dice, all of the action takes place with the ability to paint a scene and describe actions. It is a play that evolves at the hands of the game master (who is responsible for the setting of the adventure, the types of things that happen, and the adjudication of events) and of the players (who are the main characters and decide at each step what they will do in response to what they hear).

Growing out of mediaeval battles using miniatures, Dungeons & Dragons added elements of fantasy: the fantasy races of elves, dwarves, gnomes, halflings, orcs, etc., the ability to battle fantastic monsters (dragons, goblins, and more) in settings reminiscent of great horror literature (dungeons, abandoned castles, ruins and deep, dank forests). The players make choices as to what to play: what race, and what “character class” (to be an arcane magic user, a channel for divine energy, to trust to stealth and guile as a rogue, or to be a straight-forward swordsman in armour). All of the evolution of the rules over the years from the first three little booklets published in the mid-1970s stem from these basic elements.

Players become their characters after a while (and these are often quite unlike who they are in their day-to-day lives). Flesh is put on the bones the game provides of die-rolled statistics; personality and habit emerge. It is a game that rewards continued play.

When I had children of my own, and they were old enough to play, we commenced our family game. I had to shift, at that point, from player to game master. Each has its rewards. The greatest reward is in breathing life into a whole world that unfolds around the players, just as this world unfolds around us, with almost everything that happens unknown but following a logic that can be discerned and put to work, but, alas, there aren’t enough hours in the day to engage in that level of creation. Still, others do, and publish their work, and so we can play in theatres of the imagination that hold us for years at a time.

This game that Gary helped bring into being has brought us so many happy memories over the years. The bat cave, with a floor covered in guano, and two of the other family members’ characters would get up, slip and fall back down in it, over and over again, while the third member of the party of characters never slipped once. One family member who, upon being threatened, jumped into a 80 metre deep hole to escape (knowing it was that deep, having just climbed up) and then turning in surprise to find that I had rendered the decision that the character was dead, having lost more than enough “hit points” in the fall to die. The great “let me tell you a story” moment with the Goblin King (another death). Last year’s moment of summoning a god to do battle — perishing — being rescued by the one party member who wanted no part “of the stupidity” — only for all of them to die in the next chamber they entered. Great moments of bribing the priest at the local temple for yet another discount resurrection.

And, along the way, the moments of triumph, that come with heroic deeds and fantasy.

Gary Gygax’s creation went on without him long ago: others took over the evolution of the game and its rules. He continued to create new rule sets — I suppose for a game designer there is a continuing quest for the “perfect” set of rules, as simple and light-weight as possible, and pregnant with the most possibility, and with the cleanest set of outcomes for the poor game master to handle — but he also continued to add to his original creation.

His legacy has been the subject of hostile attacks by many who do not understand that just because the manual contains (for instance) a demon as a possible opponent the game master need not use it; by those who think that any attempt to branch out from “reality” and “focus on what matters” is a horrid thing to do to a child; by those who simply mistrust something that can keep teenagers glued to chairs for twelve or more hours at a stretch. Nevertheless, it endures. It has forged video games, multi-player Internet games, a great body of fantasy literature, and a forest of opportunities for small publishers to try and seek their fortune doing something they love. It is, in other words, something good.

Gary, I shall miss you. But, as you taught us (and as the creators of gaming’s great and funny look at itself, Knights of the Dinner Table, said when they killed off the creator of the game the players in that comic play a few years back), the game goes on. There may be an empty chair at the table, but those of us who have enjoyed all you gave us will continue to roll our polyhedral dies, cry out “I waste him with my cross-bow” or “fireball coming online”, and play for those who cannot.

That’s you, big guy.

And if I’m wrong about things and there is an afterlife, look up my departed dear friend Ron Speyer, who introduced me to D&D back in 1975, and have a seat at his table. Just be careful … he’s a chaotic neutral type, and a little collateral damage to his adventuring party never worried him when there was treasure to be gained.

An Appreciation for the Game

Those of us who grew up in major league cities (regardless of the sport) are somewhat blasé about that good fortune. The ability to just go and see the team play, more or less at will, without having to plan a trip to do so, provides the stimulus to also connect with the regular radio or television broadcasts that “fill in” the time between visits to the stands. It’s not, of course, that minor league, semi-pro or even teams for youth can’t do that in terms of going to see the game, but it’s the major league teams that get the columnists offering opinion, the reporters providing coverage, the regular place in the sports pages so that game reports can be perused, and so a sense of “being there” evolves such that every game becomes a part of the fabric of one’s life. Indeed, after a while, even the games where you were not there, where you didn’t hear a broadcast, and have only the box score to count upon start to form up an image in your mind, so that, in that sense, you were there just as any other day…

I had been a baseball fan, first getting hooked on the game in the last season of the old Toronto Maple Leafs (AAA club, affiliated in that last season with the Red Sox organization) playing down by the lakeshore in the old Maple Leaf Stadium. I was playing baseball — extremely poorly — myself at the time. We went a decade without professional ball, and then the Blue Jays franchise was admitted to the American League, and from the first Opening Day (in the snow) I was hooked. I went from being a television and radio fan with occasional trips to Exhibition Stadium, to a shared season’s ticket holder when the SkyDome opened. A fan as with many others, I suppose, but I enjoyed the game even more than the winning and losing toward the end.

One of my most favourite memories, actually, is of game six of the 1993 World Series. We were in France; my father-in-law phoned us there, very early in the morning, to tell us of Carter’s home run giving the Blue Jays their second Series win in a row. He was not the fan, but he knew I was, and that it would be another full day before the International Herald Tribune would have the final box score. Quite the gift, and right up there with the silence that lasted for what seemed an eternity when, in game seven the preceding year, Jimmy Key got the final out in the thirteenth inning to win the Series: you could hear a pin drop, and then the doors started opening. At nearly 1.00 am people went outside so as not to disturb their sleeping family members, and then the whoops of delight began.

1994, of course, was the year of the labour shutdown when the owners decided come hell or high water baseball would be returned to its nineteenth century ideas at any cost. We were moving at just about that time, disrupting my attendance (it’s hard to get to games when you end up in Connecticut). Between the move and the loss of the season I just fell out of the habit. I went a couple of times to see the AA team in New Haven, but didn’t reconnect with the sport. (Going to New York once Major League games resumed didn’t appeal to me: the Yankees were a team that, going all the way back to 1965-66, I had seen as “the enemy” [there's a great deal of Red Sox fan in me even yet; we do tend to reach back to our origins] and I had never particularly liked the Mets, or Shea Stadium for that matter.) Boston was just a little too far to consider — much as Seattle is now — as a place to “drop into”; a trip must be scheduled and planned. As I spent much of the next five years travelling — and we moved across the Atlantic and back — even my radio habit died out. Baseball was gone.

It took my own son going into Little League play to reawaken the spirit of the game. I like Little League. He’s moving up to the next level this year, and I’m right there with him. Even the tryouts and drills to see what the players can do interests me. (I’ve never made a trip to Spring Training, but I’d like to, now.) We’ve also made our annual pilgrimage to Seattle each summer for a weekend of games — Cleveland the first year, Toronto the second and last year, Oakland. This year, I’m thinking of taking him to Toronto to visit the SkyDome and let him see his beloved Blue Jays play at home. (As for me, over the last few years, I’ve given equal thought to the Red Sox as to the Jays, so the dream trip for me would be to see a game at Fenway.)

In any case, somewhere in the past three years the soul of the game has reawakened. I am reading my old Roger Angell books, counted down the days until pitchers and catchers reported this February and have been diving for the news from Arizona and Florida each morning, look longingly at the fields getting ready for a new season locally, and am thinking seriously about season’s tickets for our Class A Vancouver Canadians and spending the summer at Nat Bailey Stadium.

It’s a game of the mind, and can be played in the mind. I look forward to baseball again on the radio (I’ve never really enjoyed it on television, although turning the television sound off and substituting the radio play-by-play to the pictures works) I’ll be at Opening Day down at Currie Field in Memorial Park for our local Little League — it’s nice to walk to and from the game — and be keeping score for my son’s team.

Baseball is a game where you get used to losing much more than you win; where success three times out of ten is brilliance; where 999 times out of 1,000 you are flawless in your fielding and everyone remembers the one time you err. In other words, it’s an awful lot of life packed into those green diamonds. It is also something that — and let’s never forget that the reality is even Little League Majors play better than most of the people who watch them ever did or will — is still close enough to the human, in scale, player size and equipment, that we can dream of being out there, in the sun, ourselves.

It is a wonderful way to dream, amongst the murmurs of games past, plays made, options for what comes next. Play ball! Spring has come.