Monday, June 29, 2009

His job barely begun, Obama already fodder for the classroom

Daniel Reeve photographed by Deddeda Stemler.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
June 29, 2009


Daniel Reeve teaches a college class where each day's lessons are ripped from the headlines. Or 140-character Twitter posts.

Mr. Reeve has just completed a four-session, 10-hour lecture series on "The Rise of Barack Obama: From Humble Beginnings to the First 100 Days."

The United States president is barely through a tenth of a first term in the Oval Office and he's already fodder for the classroom.

The criminology and political science teacher included in each class a memorable Obama oration - his inauguration speech; his red-states, blue-states speech to the Democratic convention five years ago; his troubleshooting more-perfect-union speech on race relations; and the New Hampshire "Yes We Can" primary speech, soon after mashed into a music video by

The best political orator in a generation offers stiff competition for a lecturer interested in holding a classroom's attention. "It's hard to follow him, let me tell ya," Mr. Reeve said.

His solution: Throw it back to the class. Ask the students their reaction to a speech.

Mr. Reeve considers Mr. Obama to be the most important politician in Canada since the retirement of Pierre Trudeau. He sees the charismatic president as a political game changer, as his march to the White House destroyed one myth (a negative message trumps a positive one) after another (the young don't vote).

Mr. Obama is a phenomenon.

"He gained in one year what politicians struggle for in their entire career," he said.

Mr. Reeve, 38, who was born in Toronto and raised in British Columbia, has spent time on the hustings himself. He got thwacked as an NDP standard bearer (a.k.a. sacrificial lamb) in West Vancouver-Capilano in the 1996 provincial election. He has had better fortune as a campaign organizer, having helped elect Dean Fortin mayor of Victoria last fall.

He also had a stint as a ministerial assistant to health minister Corky Evans, a populist whom he found to be "much smarter than anyone ever gave him credit."

Mr. Reeve spent the past two years glued to his television, becoming best friends, he joked, with Anderson Cooper of CNN and Jon Stewart of The Daily Show.

His Camosun College lectures included an examination of the unsuccessful Republican campaign, including one topic certain to stir the classroom.

"As soon as you raised Sarah Palin," he said, "everyone got fired up."

The Alaska governor and Republican vice-presidential nominee did not have admirers in the class.

"In this class, in Victoria, in this context, everyone thought Sarah Palin was a joke."

The teacher insists his lectures avoided becoming a "love-in," maintaining a rigorous academic standard, though he confesses that "Obama could walk on water in this town and no one would bat an eye."

He anticipates reviving the lecture series this fall.

Mr. Reeve sees parallels between Mr. Obama and one of his Democratic predecessors - one who, incidentally, also came to office at a time of economic uncertainty.

The saviour of American-style capitalism was celebrated in his day with shelves full of souvenirs - buttons, badges, medals, hand fans, lucky coins, calendar pads, mantelpiece clocks celebrating him as the captain of the ship of state. To this day, Franklin D. Roosevelt product continues to slip off the presses - witness Conrad Black's epic doorstopper biography.

The inauguration of the current president has been greeted with a similar outpouring of commemorative plates and plaques, not to mention other tchotchkes, as well as such ephemera as newspaper supplements.

Nor is Mr. Reeve alone in studying a president yet to have time to create a legacy.

Last year, Andrew Wender taught a course at the University of Victoria called "Obama or McCain: American Presidential Politics, Canada and the World." The American-born professor's class attracted 160 students - about a third were members of the public who signed up through Continuing Studies.

In a time of tough economics, Obama 101 is a growth industry.

The discovery of Michael Jackson

Since the global media cartel demands that all newspaper stories contain a reference to Michael Jackson, here's mine.

Back in the 1960s, a British Columbia-based soul band called Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers was signed to a recording contract by Berry Gordy, the mogul of Motown. The band included a guitarist from Edmonton named Tommy Chong, who would later team up with Cheech Marin as the stoned comedy duo Cheech & Chong.

Mr. Chong co-wrote the band's first hit, a ballad about interracial love titled, "Does Your Mama Know About Me," which was covered by the Supremes.

Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers had a Top-30 hit with the number, driving sales of their eponymous debut album, the cover of which was photographed with Vancouver's futuristic Bayshore Hotel as a backdrop.

In 1968, the Vancouver group was a headlining act in a 10-day revue show at the Regal theatre in Chicago. Among the supporting performers was a family act from nearby Gary, Ind. Mr. Taylor took one look at the dancing lead singer and saw in him a pint-sized James Brown.

He called Mr. Gordy in Detroit and urged him to sign the family. Mr. Taylor then produced their Motown debut album. In Motown's mythmaking, the lead singer of the Supremes was credited with discovering the group, so the album was titled, Diana Ross Presents The Jackson 5.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Kidnapped Canadian 'just wanted to get the story'

Amanda Lindhout on the road.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
June 24, 2009


Taron Hall travels to the far corners of the planet seeking to party with the peasants.

He has been stripped naked in Japan, danced through fire in Africa, dusted in purple powder in India.

“No celebration is too remote,” he asserts,

The Vancouver-born globetrotter packs such necessities as Frisbees and quart bottles of Carling Black Label beer. He wears shorts, T-shirts, and a fanny pack, but also hauls along a lightweight camera with which he films his exploits.

Hair bleached white by the sun, he brings a West Coast party dude vibe to his travels, an amiable Westerner only too glad to take a sloppy pratfall in mud if it amuses his hosts.

Mr. Hall, a 37-year-old professional singer, has packaged his filmed exploits for a proposed television series offering “an intimate portrait of humanity with its guard let down.” He is shopping the program, pitched earlier this month at the Banff World Television Festival, under the title Festival Hunter.

For about a decade now, he has been on a quest to immerse himself in the most “far-out of cultures” in the Third World.

“People there are so free with their lives,” he said. “They don’t focus on greed, or their jobs. They focus on family and friends. I wanted to see how they go out and have fun.”

His goal: “To explore and be enriched and stimulated every day.”

So, he has waved a wooden phallus in Laos and shared the elusive charms of Metallica with nomadic Himba tribesmen of the Kaokoland in Namibia.

Along the way, he has met some memorable and fascinating people.

One of the most notable was another young Canadian.

Mr. Hall was riding a bus in Calcutta when he struck up a conversation with Amanda Lindhout of Sylvan Lake, Alta., who, as it turns out, was also on her way to volunteer at Mother Teresa’s Nirmal Hriday, a home for the destitute and dying.

“One of those feel-good things,” Mr. Hall said.

(The hospice is popular among sojourners seeking to volunteer, though not without its critics, the writer Christopher Hitchens among them. The dying are not provided with painkillers, their acceptance of suffering regarded as bringing them closer to God.)

The Canadian pair hooked up to explore Calcutta, charting parts of the city not found in guidebooks. “Slums,” proclaims Mr. Hall, “are where the friendly people are.” They sipped chai and more potent concoctions at tea stands, greeted hordes of curious children with bemusement.

They became on-again, off-again traveling companions in the early months of 2005. At one point, she trekked by rickety bus through Pakistan to the Hunza Valley to rejoin Mr. Hall in Karimabad.

All along, Mr. Hall kept his camera running.

The spirit of their travels is captured in a brief exchange with four labourers waiting in a trailer attached to a tractor. The Canadians were riding high atop a truck.

“Salam-alaikum,” Mr. Hall shouts by way of greeting. “Hey, dudes!”

“What’s up?” Ms. Lindhout asks.

“What’s shaking?” he adds.

The labourers merely stare.

“Peace out, dudes,” she says, as their truck trundles past.

They later went their separate way, staying in touch, though in isolated corners of the world, through the magic of electronics.

Ms. Lindhout’s travels took her to Afghanistan and war-torn Iraq, where she freelanced as a journalist in Baghdad, including standup reports for Press TV, an outlet funded by the Iranian government whose stories are often propagandistic. The Red Deer Advocate in her home province published a weekly column, including a first-hand account of coming under gunfire in Baghdad’s treacherous Sadr City district, as well as a report of life in the terrible slums of Nairobi.

Last August, Mr. Hall received an email from her informing him she was in Somalia, where she was working as a freelancer for a French television station. She described the country as “brutal” and a “lawless place.”

The very next day he got word she had been kidnapped along with Australian photographer Nigel Brennan, Somali photographer Abdifatah Mohamed Elmi, and their driver. Ms. Lindhout had been in the country for less than 72 hours when nabbed for ransom after reporting from a refugee camp outside outside Mogadishu.

Today [Wednesday] marks the 305th day of her captivity.

A fortnight ago, she called CTV News in Toronto by telephone to read a statement. She begged her family and Canadian journalists to bring attention to her plight, and to raise money to cover the million-dollar ransom demand.

Mr. Hall’s response was to post on YouTube a video from their journeys titled, “Amanda Lindhout Enjoying Life.”

“She never wanted to be in danger,” he said. “She wanted to get the story and put it out to the world.”

He is frustrated by the distance, by his lack of knowledge about Somalia (“I’m not really big with the news”), by his inability to rescue her.

“You feel hopeless. Somalia. If it was somewhere attainable, I could go in there with a shitload of friends ...” He let the thought trail off.

The agony of being impotent is made worse by ignorant statements and unsubstantiated rumours posted anonymously on the Internet.

“She’s the friendliest girl,” he said. “The sweetest thing. Really nice. Not snobby. Beautiful. She’s good at reading people. She senses their energy.”

A blogger who crossed paths with her in Egypt last year described an incident where she sweet-talked thieves into returning some of her money.

Rob Crilly, an independent reporter who reports from Africa for British and Irish newspapers, posted a blog item yesterday bemoaning the risk faced by freelancers.

“The kidnappings in Somalia are all about the cash,” he wrote. “By and large, despite scare stories to the contrary, Somali gangsters are businesslike pragmatists rather than mad muzzahs. They want cash in hand rather than rolling heads on youtube.

“The problem for Amanda and Nigel is that there is no-one to pay for their release. Family and friends have struggled to raise the ransom. The Australian and Canadian commissions in Nairobi refuse to pay. And without an employer to foot the bill, the two are likely to remain captive for some time to come.”

A father in Alberta and a mother, Lorinda Stewart, in British Columbia, not to mention friends on several continents, and a filmmaker in Vancouver, hope for the release of a reporter whose desire to report on the world’s most unfortunate has led to her becoming one of them herself.

Monday, June 22, 2009

He paints paradise

Ted Harrison with Vast Yukon at the University of Victoria. Photograph by Jocelyn Beyak.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
June 22, 2009


A woman stepped forward to brush stray white hairs on Ted Harrison’s head. Then another did the same. A few minutes later, a third pressed down the cowlick.

Mr. Harrison, 82, seemed to enjoy their gentle petting.

The artist was dapper despite the wayward coiffure. He wore white socks inside black loafers, kept his navy-blue blazer closed at the belly with a brass button, sported a spiffy black-and-gold tie for the occasion. His mustache, white as well, looked as it might have when he served as an intelligence officer in the British army. In his lapel, he stuck a tiny enamel pin emblematic of his membership in the Order of Canada.

On a day when Carrs and Shadbolts and Riopelles were sold at auction for millions, Mr. Harrison came to campus to see what use the University of Victoria had made of two donated murals.

“Art has to be shared to be useful,” he said. “I don’t believe in billionaire collectors who stuff them down in the basement.”

He was wheeled into the lower lobby of the new Social Sciences building, where a fresh paint job failed to mask the industrial aesthetic of concrete walls. A dull grey was interrupted by a mural as wide as three passed out undergrads lying end to end.

Like all of his works, the mural is a riot of bright colour — waves of deep purples, soft mauves and cascading blues are offset by surprising splotches of pink, nature’s treat when a setting sun shines on the underside of a darkening cloud.

The work is called “Vast Yukon,” representing the Klondike in a shimmering brilliance all those who came before him neglected to see. His is a trademark vision, a transforming depiction of what so many dismissed as a colourless wasteland, one now coveted by collectors and appreciated most of all by children, whose untutored eyes also see greens in the sky and reds in the sea.

The piece is magnificent.

All the more incredible, the mural has gone mostly unseen since it was painted 14 years ago — on the walls of the basement of his Victoria home.

Homesick for the Yukon, where he had arrived as a teacher and left as a recognized treasure, he decided to decorate the alcove of his basement den with a reminder of the land that so inspired him. Aided by his son, he covered the walls in gesso to prime the surface before administering what he described to his biographer, Katherine Gibson, as “great gobs of juicy paint.”

Pleased with the result, he went to work on another piece at the entrance to his home. He wanted to capture scenes still unfamiliar to him. Not for this artist the gloomy grays and misty blues so often associated with the coast. A brilliant sun hovers over a sea busy with a red whale, a blue orca, and yellow trawlers.

“I took my mind into the sea and saw those two whales and painted them,” Mr. Harrison said.They are creatures of his imagination, a rendition made necessary by the unlikelihood of ever seeing a leviathan in its entirety. “You don’t see a whale. You see a fin. Or a tail.”

This scene, titled “View of British Columbia,” was painted on plywood that was bolted to the wall of the entranceway. The artist had a confession. He liked to turn on the hallway light while extinguishing all others, before stepping onto the street of his cul-de-sac to admire his handiwork.

“It would shine out into the night,” he recalled. “It sure livened up Romney Place.”

Now, it is mounted on a wall above a stairwell on the third floor of a campus building.
“I don’t know why I’m looking at it,” he joked, as photographers asked him to gaze onto his work. “I’ve seen it hundreds of times.”

When he decided to sell the home, the artist thought he should leave the two murals behind. He was persuaded they had greater worth than the usual light fxtures or appliances in harvest gold.

The art conservator Philip Mix spent six weeks on the painstaking task of removing the larger mural, painted on drywall and weighing “nearly as much as a grand piano.” He also repaired screw holes in the plywood mural, which includes the Harrison signature across a seam of plywood.

At the peak of his creativity, the artist worked in 10-hour daily bursts. These days, he’s happy if he manages to complete five hours of painting in a week. He maintains a studio in an extra rented bedroom at the Oak Bay retirement home where he now lives.

Mr. Harrison, born in an English colliery town, finds delight in such small pleasures as the Guardian newspaper and an occasional pint of Guinness. He enjoys receiving children’s artworks, a reminder of his inspirational quality.

“Ted is what he paints,” said Ms. Gibson, the writer. “He’s optimistic, he’s fun, he’s meditative, he’s sincere. He’s also courageous.

“He says, ‘Painting is the last great freedom.’ ”

The eponymous biography, subtitled “Painting Paradise,” will be released in August as part of a several events being held to celebrate the 40th anniversary of his first Canadian exhibition, at the Whitehorse library. As well, a retrospective of his work will be on display at the university’s Legacy Art Gallery and Cafe in downtown Victoria.

The artist inspires not just children. Having completed the mammoth task of salvaging the murals, Mr. Mix has pledged to replace his conservator’s tools for paintbrushes.

Edward Hardy Harrison has that effect on people.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Unrest in Iran nothing new to professor

With a photo of his father on graduation day. SFU News photo.

By Tom Hawthorn

Special to The Globe and Mail

June 17, 2009


The incredible scenes from Tehran — the mass crowds, the sing-song chanting, the thrilling but unsettling feeling of not knowing the final outcome — are familiar to Peyman Vahabzadeh.

“I’ve lived those images,” he said.

Back in 1979, he, too, took to the streets, seeking to overthrow the hated Shah.

As a student, he survived a post-revolution purge of the universities. As a conscript, he survived a stint on the battlefront in the bloody stalemate against Iraq. As a refugee, he found love and, eventually, a new land in Canada.

Along the way, he lost a younger brother, hanged by a murderous regime.

He has never lost his desire to promote democracy in a nation whose people overthrew one tyranny only to have it replaced by another.

His remarkable journey has taken him from revolutionary Iran to the calm of the University of Victoria campus, where the 48-year-old assistant professor teaches sociology.

These days, he spends his waking hours in meetings and on the telephone, while monitoring events in what some are calling the first Twitter Revolution. He is a bridge between the reform movement in Iran and the 30,000 members of the Iranian diaspora here in British Columbia.

“We’re meeting and doing what we can to support the democracy movement,” he said.

He backs the reformist opposition against what he describes as a coup by radical conservative clerics supporting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Despite the Iranian government’s attempts to suppress Internet communications, the professor said he continues to receive emails and text messages from Iran that take hours to transmit.

He did not have access to such high-falutin’ technology back in the days of his own revolution.

His mother, Leila, was a teacher and his father, Ahmad, a librarian who worked at a Manhattan bookstore for 10 years to pay his way through Columbia University. Their three children were taught French and English. Young Peyman’s first published work, at age 14, was a translation into Farsi of a Reader’s Digest article on dog racing.

The librarian also had a fascination with Anne Frank, as he tried to grasp someone so young coming to terms with her impending death. He engaged his son in the Jewish girl’s terrible fate by asking such questions as, “What do you think of a young child, like Anne Frank, being arrested and killed by the Nazis for being different?”

Little did he suspect his own youngest son would suffer a similar fate.

The professor has an indelible memory of the uprising against the shah. He was just 17, joining a march of about 700 protestors in his own neighbourhood, when confronted by the army in military vehicles. “The fear that I felt in that moment will stay with me the rest of my life,” he said. Instead of bloody confrontation, though, the soldiers sought a peaceful interruption of the march. They dispersed, regathering in a nearby neighbourhood. The revolution was on. The shah fled.

“For one historical moment, we were all one,” he said. “Honestly, it is the greatest moment of your life.”

Soon, though, came the triumph of the ayatollahs. The demands for free speech and such reforms as universal healthcare were overwhelmed. He was expelled from university, later conscripted as a private, “living in the rocks and sand, eating dust” in Western Iran in the front facing the Iraqi armed forces.

His younger brother, Ahmad-Ali, arrested at age 16, was executed seven years later, one among uncounted thousands of victims of the Islamic Republic. The killing broke his father’s spirit.

Peyman became a refugee in Turkey, where he met and fell in love with Giti Faizabadi, a fellow exile.

They began a new life in Canada as refugees.

Mr. Vahabzadeh was labouring in a Surrey factory when an accident left him with a ruptured spleen, internal bleeding, and a pelvis fractured in five places. After surviving the shah, the ayatollahs, and Saddam Hussein’s bullets, he was nearly crushed to death by a tipping stack of gyprock.

Offered a retraining program from worker’s compensation, he instead negotiated a meagre disability pension, enrolling in college. At Simon Fraser University, his combined master’s and doctoral dissertation was awarded the arts dean’s graduate convocation medal in 2001. It was published as a book by a university press six years ago.

He has a forthcoming book titled, “A Guerrilla Odyssey.” (“Don’t read the book,” he quips. “The subtitle will tell you everything.” The subtitle: Modernization, Secularism, Democracy and the Fadai Discourse of National Liberation in Iran, 1971-1979. Point taken.)

Away from the classroom, he writes poetry and short stories, reads the works of the likes of Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, and the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, finding in the literature of the dissident Eastern Europeans a familiar sensibility.

He offers no predictions for the final outcome of the current turmoil. Thirty years ago, the shah’s Imperial Guard failed to put down a mutiny by technicians at an air-force base outside Tehran, a fatal miscalculation for the regime as a local mutiny became a mass insurrection. He knows fate can be capricious.

Monday, June 15, 2009

B.C. salmon headed to orbit

Anne Millerd gets canned. Photograph by Deddeda Stemler.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
June 15, 2009


Some time ago, a fishing boat in Johnstone Strait hoisted a load of squirming salmon.

The fish were delivered to a cannery on Quadra Island, where they were filleted and smoked before being sent south to Saltspring Island.

From a modest business on Saltspring, savoury packages of salmon pate and sockeye jerky marinated in garlic and soy sauce were dispatched to Texas.

By early Saturday morning, the fish was aboard a space shuttle on a launch pad in Florida.

As it turned out, the launch of the Endeavour to the International Space Station was postponed due to a hydrogen leak. Canadian astronaut Julie Payette and the other six crew members have to wait as engineers worked on a new blast-off timetable.

Their mission has 11 major objectives, from crew rotation to scientific experiments, from deploying a satellite to performing several spacewalking tasks. The final listed objective is to “resupply food, water, oxygen.”

Among the provisions are some tasty morsels of Oncorhynchus nerka, which tastes better than it sounds.

The delay in delivering provisions will not be a problem for the smoked fish.

“It's very stable. Doesn't have moist ingredients. Keeps really well,” says Anne Millerd, co-owner with Nicki Cameron of SeaChange Savouries on Saltspring.

“It's a great product for people to take when they're off on adventures, because it keeps.”

Her fish has been poked and prodded – not to mention analyzed, sampled and tested – by a bevy of finicky dietitians and food scientists at the Space Food Systems Laboratory at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Agriculture Canada and the Canadian Space Agency also conducted four sessions in which foods were evaluated for taste, colour, texture and appearance.

Most importantly, the smoky treats had to pass a tasting panel of the most discriminating palates – the astronauts who will spend weeks in orbit without the benefit of ordering take-out on a whim.

The other Canadian foods awaiting orbital delivery include maple cookies, beef jerky, and dal bhat (a traditional South Asian rice and lentil dish). Fruit bars produced in Kelowna include such flavours as cherry berry and blueberry pomegranate.

Not so long ago, astronauts endured meals in which appetizers were reduced to bite-sized cubes, and entrees were consumed by squeezing a semi-liquid from an aluminum tube. This was washed down by a glass of powdery Tang. Yum.

By comparison, today's foodstuffs are an epicure's delight.

Ms. Millerd's opportunity to feed astronauts came about because of her own need to feed a growing family.

In 1985, she and her husband were living on bucolic Saltspring with three young children. John Millerd was a carpenter whose livelihood depended on renovations, few of which were being ordered during a period of high interest rates. The couple decided to try a new business – selling smoked salmon in cedar boxes. These were marketed to lawyers and doctors as high-end corporate gifts.

The brainstorm was a marriage between Mr. Millerd's chosen career as a woodworker and his family legacy in the fishery. Mr. Millerd's Irish-born grandfather had been a prominent fish processor on the coast.

After some modest initial success, the couple faced a decision as Expo 86 loomed.

“We either jump into the deep end,” Ms. Millerd remembers thinking, “or quit.”

After the kids were put to bed each night, the couple retired to a bedroom filled with product, where they silk-screened lids before collapsing exhausted.

Today, the company has a dozen employees. It donates 5 per cent of annual profits to food banks and soup kitchens.

So how did B.C. salmon find a treasured place on the space menu in the first place?

The journey from under the sea into space began many years ago when Eva Thirsk of Vancouver Island went shopping at her local grocery store. She became a fan of SeaChange's salmon products. She got her son to try some.

Bob Thirsk then shared with other astronauts on the ground, the food got a thumb's up from the scientists, and it was first dispatched to space in 1996.

Two years later, American astronaut Susan Helms placed a special request.

The Thirsk family sent a package by courier that wound up in space.

In the coming days, another delivery of individual-sized eight-ounce packages will lift off from launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, Julie Payette bringing to Mr. Thirsk one of his mother's favourite treats.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Online hits to dead son's reputation leaves family angry and shaken

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
June 10, 2009


A mother's worst nightmare unfolded one terrible circumstance after another.

Mike Wolsynuk, a tow-truck operator known as Red for his fiery hair, was driving home after work.

After a gloomy day of rain, the road was wet. That was one unfortunate factor.

The rear tires of his 2005 Dodge Ram pickup truck were worn. That was another.

He was not wearing a seatbelt. That would be a fateful decision.

In one swift moment, at about 3:57 p.m. on Jan. 10, his truck veered out of control, hopping a concrete barrier on the left and crossing into southbound traffic on the Trans-Canada Highway. Another pickup struck Mr. Wolsynuk's truck on the passenger side.

His body was flung across the compartment by the force of a collision that compacted the width of the cab by half. He suffered horrible injuries to his neck and head. In the wreckage, police retrieved a BlackBerry.

Red Wolsynuk lasted six days in hospital before succumbing to massive injuries.

A celebration of his life was held at the Legion branch in Esquimalt.

Mourners were encouraged to wear baseball caps or cowboy hats, as well as belt buckles, the bigger the better. About 300 people packed the hall, telling stories about a hunter, fisherman, and dirt-bike rider, a shirt-off-his-back fellow who might celebrate the end of a hard day's labour by enjoying a nice cold can of beer.

"He was a guy to hang out with. He was your best buddy," said his father.

Police completed their investigation. The crash analysts had taken measurements, interviewed witnesses, checked telephone records. They found four contributing factors - the slick road, bald tires, no seatbelt, driver distraction.

The family was crushed by the loss of a son, brother, and grandson. Wishing to find the positive in so pointless a loss, the family agreed with the police to publicize the findings. If even one other young driver buckled up and put away their personal communication device, then big Red's death would have served a purpose as a cautionary tale.

"We definitely want the text-messaging message to get out there. That's really what it's all about," said his mother.

The Saanich police released a report titled, "Cause of death linked in part to driver distraction." The resulting news stories predictably focused on the BlackBerry.

"Wow. What an idiot," wrote one online commenter. "Dead is good for idiots on the road," wrote another. Others let rip: "Dang funny," "What a jerk," "Nature thinning the herd," "One more out of the gene pool," "This cretin died because of his arrogance and ignorance."

I'd like to introduce the posters, cowards all of them in their anonymity, to the mother of the man whose death they mock.

"Pretty mean stuff on the Internet," said Debby Bowers of Victoria. "And what's been said is not fair."

To read the online comments, you'd think Mr. Wolsynuk had his foot to the floor while hunched over playing hands of solitaire.

Apparently, none of the critics has ever spilled a coffee, dropped a smoke, chastised children in the back seat, argued with a passenger, fiddled with a radio dial, consulted a GPS device, answered a cellphone call, wrestled with a dog, or voted for premier a man who pleaded no-contest to a drunk-driving charge. To be a driver is to err. Happily, most of us survive our momentary distractions without a scratch.

"There is no death sentence for being human," Saanich police spokesman Sergeant John Price said. "He was being human like so many other humans. Too bad for him he had too many things align in the wrong way."

Had he been carrying a weighted load in the bed of his truck, had his tires been in better shape, had he not been distracted, perhaps Mr. Wolsynuk would have been able to recover. Even if not, he might have survived had he been wearing a seatbelt. There is no evidence of speeding.

It is a reminder, said Sgt. Price, that even professional drivers "are not immune." Mr. Wolsynuk drove for Totem Towing.

The other driver, a 41-year-old man, suffered whiplash-type injuries and was soon released from hospital.

On Monday night, an anguished father nursed his pain on a day of the calendar once celebrated.

"Today's his birthday," Larry Wolsynuk said. "Or would have been."

He remembered joining his son on a hunting and fishing trip last fall to Johnson Lake, stocked with rainbow trout. He reminisced about living in eastside Vancouver, of the end of his marriage to Mike's mother, of spending 29 years with Sears as a small-engine mechanic repairing lawn mowers and power saws. He once helped his son get a job at Sears, felt he might some day have pursued a position as a mechanic himself.

Mr. Wolsynuk, who lives in Delta, could barely contain his anger at the posthumous treatment of his son's reputation.

"Shit happens," he said, choked. "It was a bad night, January 10th. It was pissing down rain. He went through a huge mud puddle and the truck shot out from under him. Shit happens."

He cannot stand to hear another word about "friggin' text messaging."

On a late son's birthday, a bereaved father once again reached for a copy of an official document.

"I've got the damned coroner's report right here. Do you want me to read it to you?"

He paused after reading that Mike "struck his head with force on the frame of the truck."

A blood sample taken at hospital showed no alcohol or drugs. The final text message was sent to a friend at 15:35:13 and a final message was received at 15:55:45.

About 75 seconds later, the first of several 911 calls arrived at the communications centre.

The father demands to know how anyone knows whether his son answered that last message.

"Can you prove that he read it? You can't. That's why I'm pissed off."

We'll never know.

So, put away the cellphone and the BlackBerry. Select your radio station and push in your compact disc before pulling out.

Buckle up in memory of Michael Edward Wolsynuk, a fellow known as Red, who liked jokes and Tim Hortons and chili and belt buckles, the bigger the better.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

One heart for bridge

Dunc Smith is a new Grand Life Master. Photograph by Deddeda Stemler.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
June 3, 2009


It was another ordinary hand in an ordinary club game on an ordinary Thursday at the Victoria Bridge Centre.

Soon after Duncan Smith played his 13th and final card, an observer offered a postgame assessment.

“Congratulations, Dunc,” a club member said. “This puts you over.”

The triumph provided Mr. Smith with enough points to cross a threshold established by the American Contract Bridge League.

After having long ago established himself as a Life Master (300 points) and later earning such descriptive designations as bronze (500), silver (1,000), gold (2,500), diamond (5,000), and emerald (7,500), Mr. Smith had accumulated 10,000 points. Coupled with a national championship won 16 years ago, Mr. Smith attained status as a Grand Life Master.

What did he feel at that moment?

“Joy. And, to a degree, relief.”

Mr. Smith, 61, is believed to be the first Victoria-born player to achieve the highest rank in contract bridge. Only eight living Canadians have reached the pinnacle.

Such an achievement has not come without a cost.

“I've done nothing else but play bridge for 43 years,” he said. “I was hooked. I was addicted. I worked and I had a family, but bridge has always been No. 1.”

The son of a university mathematics professor, Mr. Smith grew up in a household in which discussions about the permutations of bridge hands dominated supper-table conversation. Both parents were avid players. At 15, he served as a caddy at a tournament held in the Crystal Ballroom at the Empress Hotel. It was his job to collect score slips for delivery to the scorekeeper.

The task left him plenty of time to kibitz.

“I wanted to get a handle on this foreign language I heard all the time: ‘Three no trump,' ‘they made four spades.' ”

He added bridge to a school hallway repertoire of hearts, rummy, cribbage, and poker.

In the fall of 1966, he enrolled as a linguistics major at the University of Victoria. He would not come close to completing a degree, winding up instead “with a major in bridge.” Classrooms offered little more than boring lectures. The Student Union Building offered never-ending card games, each different from its predecessor.

His autodidactic education suffered a setback when he was diagnosed with multiple brain abscesses before his 23rd birthday. The prognosis was poor.

Before undergoing surgery, his family was told he had a 10 per cent chance of living and, if so, he had a 90 per cent chance he would do so as “a vegetable.” He then underwent a series of three craniotomies, which were “as harsh as they sound.” He emerged blind in his left eye.

“I was comatose throughout so it was tougher on my family than it was on me,” he said.

Hospitalized on Victoria Day in 1971, he was released on Labour Day.

“As soon as I got out of hospital, I started playing again.”

A marriage delayed by his recovery was held in December. It produced two daughters and lasted 13 years before ending in divorce.

He acknowledges a price paid for his self-described obsession.

“My life was playing bridge,” he said, “but she didn't want that to be their life.”

On the other hand, his relationship with playing partner Jim McAvoy, a chartered general accountant, lasted 25 years. They won a national title in Ottawa in 1993.

“It gets to a point where you feel like you're playing with yourself,” Mr. Smith said of their teamwork.

Ask Mr. Smith with which famous personages he has played and he offers a quartet of names unknown outside the world of bridge, among them the creator of the Jacoby Two No-Trump Response.

Further prodding reveals a game played against Omar Sharif, the Egyptian-born actor, syndicated bridge columnist, and author of such pastime bibles as Omar Sharif Talks Bridge , Play Bridge With Omar Sharif and Play More Bridge With Omar Sharif .

The game was played at the exclusive Bal Harbour Hotel in Miami Beach, Fla.

“There was an absolute throng of spectators,” Mr. Smith recalled. Pause.

“Mostly attractive women.” Needless to say, they were more interested in the Hollywood star than the card-playing wizard from Canada. His verdict: Mr. Sharif was “a decent bridge player.”

Incredibly, bridge was an official demonstration sport at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah. The status necessitated drug testing, an oddity for a sport in which nothing heavier is lifted than a pencil and 13 playing cards. Mr. Smith narrowly lost an opportunity to represent Canada to a team that went on to claim the gold medal.

He spent several years working as an orderly in a hospital emergency ward, following a stint as an orderly at a psychiatric ward where his duties included restraining violent patients. He worked 15 years as a housekeeper before going on disability.

“A blue-collar worker,” he said. “What the hell, no education.”

He lives in a suite on the ground floor of a house owned by his younger brother, Matt, who travels the world as a bridge tournament organizer and director. (Another brother, Charlie Smith, is editor of the weekly Georgia Straight newspaper.)

Two other Victoria residents – Anna Boivin and Doug Fraser – are also Grand Life Masters. Both launched their careers in Montreal. The only other title holder in the province is Aidan Ballantyne of Burnaby.

Mr. Smith was asked what it takes to become a world-class player.

“It takes a) forever. It's a very difficult game. It takes years of playing before you start to feel you have a grasp, or know what you're doing. One has to almost dedicate their life to it.”

Which is pretty much what he has done.

Had he enjoyed similar success at, say, poker, he might now be a wealthy man, perhaps even a television star.

Instead, he plays in near anonymity, enjoying the camaraderie of the card table, knowing that he has bridge friends in nearly any city on the continent.

Last month, Mr. Smith celebrated the triumph of his lifelong quest the only way he knew how. The cards were shuffled and distributed before bidding began anew.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Victoria Seals bring baseball home

Seeking salvation in the T-shirt toss. Photograph by Deddeda Stemler.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
June 1, 2009


The mayor stood on the mound, tossing a baseball in the air with his left hand. He rubbed the ball as if for luck before reaching back to throw a ceremonial opening pitch.

Dean Fortin’s aim was true, though a little high. The crowd at Royal Athletic Park roared its approval

After a hiatus of six seasons, professional baseball returned to the British Columbia capital this weekend.

“It proves there’s a God,” said Howie Siegel, a restaurateur and well-known local baseball fanatic. He was accompanied by Monte Prior, a lawyer whose father, Bill, was a star pitcher in Victoria in the post-war years.

Fans of the summer game, long deprived of their favourite pastime, flocked to a modest but intimate park.

The city-owned facility has been spruced up by $80,000 in improvements, though the sound system remains as muddy as Cadboro Bay at low tide and lineups at the concession stand were as slow as the Colwood Crawl.

A $400,000US scoreboard bought by the team arrived too late from the manufacturer to be installed before the inaugural home stand.

A near-capacity crowd of about 4,000 attended Friday night’s game, which began after Opening Day ceremonies that included brief remarks by Darren Parker, who owns the Victoria Seals with his father, Russell.

“I know you guys didn’t come here to listen to me speak,” the son said. “You came to watch a ball game. So, let’s get on with the show.”

Joining the on-field dignitaries was Holly Graham, a 26-year-old aspiring singer and songwriter from Cranbrook whose sash proclaimed her to be the reigning Miss Petite British Columbia. Earlier, she distributed free souvenir pins marking the occasion to customers milling in the concourse behind the grandstand.

A quartet called The Dixieland Express, dressed in period red-and-white striped outfits, performed “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

Fans posed for photographs with club mascot Seamore the Seal, an anthropomorphic pinniped who wears uniform No. 09. Among them was Chris Gainor, an author of several books on the space program, who joined other wags in teasing the mascot about the Governor General’s recent experience in arctic cuisine.

“I was wondering if Michaelle Jean was going to throw out the first pitch,” Mr. Gainor quipped. “Of course, she’d have to throw to the heart of the order.”

Seamore performed an onfield softshoe routine, using a bat instead of a cane, showing himself to be surprisingly nimble on his flippers.

Nearby, fans browsed such memorabilia as cow bells ($3), foam fingers ($5), toques ($15), hoodies ($40) and ball caps ($20). A $3 program revealed such secrets about the players as infielder Brian Rios’s ownership of a tanning salon, outfielder Chris Van Rossum’s dual American and Greek citizenship, and left-handed relief pitcher Graham Campbell’s heart surgery at just seven days old.

Mr. Campbell, who turns 24 on Friday, is a hometown boy and the only Canadian on a 22-player roster filled mostly by Americans, the majority from California.

The lefty threw in relief on Opening Day, his pitches judged by home-plate umpire Ian Lamplugh, a former major-league umpire who also hails from Victoria.

The Seals play in the Golden Baseball League, an independent circuit with nine clubs in two provinces and three states. Last year, the league sold 25 player contracts to major-league teams. The league is the brainstorm of David Kaval, who hatched the idea as part of a project while attending Stanford Business School.

Victoria, a city better known for its support of old-country sports such as rugby and cricket, has a long and colourful baseball history.

The Seals follow teams named Bees, Blues, Tyees, Mussels, Chappies, Athletics, Capitals, Islanders and Legislators in attempting to win the loyalty of local rooters.

Baseball was introduced to British Columbia by American prospectors who came north in search of gold. The game was played at Beacon Hill Park in Victoria as early as 1863.

The first professional match was played here in 1896. In 1911, the Victoria team signed a fleet outfielder with one of the oddest names in baseball history. The son of prominent Washington State judge E.C. Million was dubbed Ten by his eccentric mother. He had a sister named Decillion, which is one followed by 33 zeroes for those of you keeping score at home. She was known as Dixie. Back in the days when Ten Million was a name and not a salary, the outfielder hit a respectable .276 for the Victoria Bees.

Baseball was first played at Royal Athletic Park more than 70 years ago. Among those who cavorted on the greensward were such baseball notables as Lou (The Mad Russian) Novikoff and Gil McDougald, an Athletic in 1949 who two years later won rookie-of-the-year honours in the American League while playing for the New York Yankees.

In 1978, the comedian Bill Murray from “Saturday Night Live” played a single game for the Mussels. He was a kooky infielder who razzed the umpires. He even managed to hit a bloop single in a screwball act that succeeded as comedy but failed as a publicity stunt. The game failed to sell out. The Mussels performed well on the field but poorly at the box office, remaining Victoria’s secret until the club folded after three seasons.

Before yesterday’s game, the Seals had a record of one win and eight losses. They were already in last place in the four-team north division.

Before the 88-game season ends, Victoria manager Darrell Evans, 62, who hit 414 home runs as a major leaguer, might well be tempted to pencil himself into the lineup. After watching the bullpen surrender many runs, he might also want to sign the mayor as a relief pitcher.