Sunday, December 30, 2007

Spurtin' Burton

It's his masterpiece - Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd - Demon Barber of Fleet Street starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. But bloooooody!

I can't recall viewing another musical horror flick with the same impact, although Little Shop of Horrors was very funny. There is less humour here, although still plenty of clever, comical lyrics. The music in Sweeney Todd is so tightly integrated with the visual effects and so incredibly well done that, in my view, it surpasses anything that might normally be referenced in comparison. Phantom of the Opera and Rocky Horror Picture Show might also be compared, but there really isn't much point to such comparisons. This stands alone.

Personally, I think it's stunning and deserves Academy Award nominations, especially for screenplay, sound editing, and perhaps even for Bonham Carter and Depp, certainly for cinematography and the musical score.

I can't say it's a must-see movie. It's definitely not for the whole family. And, to state the obvious, you'll never want to see a straight razor again, anywhere, anytime. I even have a few quibbles with the plot line (without spoiling anything). But if you're up to the blood flow and can accept someone singing their way to a vengeful, murderous rampage, then this is just the ticket.

And now, if I weren't vegetarian, I'd want to get myself a newly baked meat pie....yum!

Friday, December 28, 2007

Discovering The Ideas Guy, Richard Handler

Recently, I've taken to eating lunch at my desk. I know - not a good idea. There are many reasons to get up, move about, find another place to eat lunch, to change the pace of a day spent in front of the computer. But something good has come of this practice. I've rediscovered once again.

That, in itself, might seem a little strange for someone who has been a fan of CBC radio for years. In this I'm not alone. For many of us, CBC radio is the only reasonable choice for standard radio fare. CBC TV is not my first viewing choice. But until and unless I purchase a satellite radio, listening to Andy Barrie in the morning and flipping between CBC Radio 1 and CBC Radio 2 (I can't say the "new" music of CBC Radio 3 has captured my interest yet) while in the car is where you'll find me. The only exception while doing chores or driving is my iPod, something I find I'm doing more and more frequently (with my recent gift of a Best Buy gift card, I may end up purchasing an iPod Radio Remote for FM, in which case, the rationale for a satellite radio will almost disappear).

But as I chew on a sandwich or a fruit salad, I've taken to reading news stories and opinion pieces online on the CBC web page. And in doing that, I've discovered a rich source for another kind of digestible. Richard Handler is pegged as The Ideas Guy. His online columns come weekly, hardly enough to satisfy my lunchtime reading requirements. But invariably what he writes is both current and pertinent to my own intellectual journeys.

He writes about things that interest me, things like evolution, the weirdness of auditory hallucinations, why polytheism is still fascinating, and how to fake it at parties when chatting about a particular book or author. In each case, his ideas are enlightening and may just help you improve your image when engaged in an actual conversation with a real person over lunch.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Boxing Day Beauty

Originally uploaded by rtfax
If you click on this photograph, you will be taken directly to my Flickr site where there are a few more photographs of a spectacularly beautiful Boxing Day. Over night, there was a thick fox and just the right temperature to frost the trees. Then, to top it off, the morning was sunny and bright with the temperature just low enough to maintain the conditions necessary for some of us amateurs to take a few photographs.

What a stark contrast to the roads and the big box stores where everyone is searching for a bargain. We tried both today, but it was clear to me that the solitude and beauty of frosted trees was a far superior experience to shopping.

This morning was exactly the kind of experience you can imagine our ancestors anticipating following the winter solstice, a day when the sun begins its long, slow journey back to prominence. No matter how we package the experience, no matter what metaphysics we employ to layer meaning upon the moment, it is glorious enough in its simplicity.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

An Unwanted Journey: Day 0754 - Proud Flesh and NED

"No evidence of disease." What great words to hear from my surgeon this morning.

Yes, there is still that granulation tissue, euphemistically called "proud flesh" around the anastomosis. And true, there was nerve damage that occurred during the total mesorectal excision surgical procedure. And true, I have after effects and biological changes that I'd rather not suffer - but those are all trade offs.

Now, I don't even need another colonoscopy until the Spring of 2009. What an incredible relief! Tonight, it will be champagne and Chinese food with my wife and my sons.

On with a new life, a new job, and a new perspective.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

An Unwanted Journey: Day 0746 - Climbing towards a cure

I received notification yesterday of a fund raising initiative for the Colorectal Cancer Association of Canada by a Toronto-based Remax broker named John Helfrich. John lost a good friend to colorectal cancer; another friend had extensive surgery, and his mother barely survived the disease. So John is traveling to Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and climbing to the summit of the 19,336 ft. peak. He hopes to raise at least $1 for every foot of the climb.

As of this morning, John has $4701 or almost 20% of his fund-raising goal pledged. I'll add to those pledges and I hope you do the same.

I've lost two close friends to colorectal cancer and received extensive treatment myself - radiation, surgery, and chemotherapy - so I have a good sense of how devastating this disease has become. In fact, it is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in Canada.

While I wish John well on his climb and his efforts to raise awareness of colorectal cancer, like many other survivors I wish I were traveling to Tanzania myself. Looking at the photographs of the game reserves, the mountain itself, and the safaris leaves me just a little envious of those who can take these excursions.

While I am extremely grateful that there is no evidence of disease left in my body, I am also very much aware of how treatment has affected me physically. Even if somehow I were to find myself in Tanzania right now, I don't know if the physical exertion of a climb would be possible. It's not just a matter of conditioning, although that is part of it. It's also a matter of what appear to be permanent changes in bowel habits. I just can't imagine climbing a mountain and having bowel movements every two hours or less!

But maybe I'm just a victim of a lack of imagination, or even worse, of a failure of determination. Perhaps I need to be setting physical goals for myself that are more challenging than what I think I can do at the moment. After all, I haven't "peaked" yet!

Saturday, December 08, 2007

"I hate love, I hate you, I hate me."

I guess I'm weird. I love off-the-wall, sometimes naughty, often sentimental "Christmas" movies - things like Christmas Vacation, It's a Wonderful Life, Elf, Scrooged, Home Alone, The Nightmare Before Christmas, A Christmas Story, Bad Santa, even Die Hard. What I don't like at all are the nativity-based or overtly religious movies. Not because I think the story of the birth of Jesus has been exhausted, but because almost all of those "message" movies miss the completely subversive nature of the story - the "divine" found in a dirty, ugly feeding trough to homeless parents in a totally insignificant part of the Roman Empire.

This time of year, we're sure to get the whole range of movie offerings on TV and DVD. Right now, for example, I'm watching Eight Crazy Nights, an otherwise forgettable Adam Sandler movie about - get this - Hanukkah and basketball! It's a good thing Sandler is "animated" in this movie. It makes it so much easier to turn him into a basketball hero.

"I should stick you on a twig and roast you."

Family troubles, misshapen characters, anti-heroes - that's where the true narrative possibilities can be found in Christmas movies.

"That's a technical foul!"

Eleanore, Whitey, and Guest. It's people like that who have something to say to us at this time of year. So here's two thumbs up to Christmas movies, the opportunity to laugh, to curse, to cry, and to remember how weird and wonderful it is at this time of year.

[For a decent list of Christmas movies and TV times, check out It's a wonderful time for TV.]

Friday, December 07, 2007

An Unwanted Journey: Day 0741 - Work as therapy

I started a new job this week as Implementation Consultant for Covarity, an information technology company providing loans monitoring software services to financial institutions. I've just written an entry on my technology blog about the collegial experience of working with other IT professionals on a daily basis. But one of the things I've been ruminating upon recently is the idea of work in general as therapy.

This morning, I received a Google Alert about an academic with rectal cancer who died almost immediately after delivering his last lecture of the week before scheduling his surgery. Professor Lee Ki-yong was only 50 years old and had only been diagnosed two months ago. He was receiving radiation and other forms of treatment, but had decided to complete his semester lecturing responsibilities before undergoing surgery. He did that, but died shortly after delivering the final lecture for the semester.

Without speaking with him, it's difficult to know what he thought about work as therapy, but clearly he felt deeply committed to his professional obligations. Whether or not he felt there were personal therapeutic benefits to continuing his lectures or not, that sense of commitment and duty is inspiring.

My own experience confirms the therapeutic benefit of work, more specifically of contributing in a significant way to the benefit of other people. Sure, when we do so in a corporate setting, we are remunerated for our services. And it is true that the remuneration is a measure of how our services are valued by others. But the true benefit, the true nature of the "therapy", is the inchoate sense of contribution and engagement with and for other people.

Whether we stand before a group of students or assist in the implementation of software solutions, the bottom line is that we are doing something worthwhile, something "bigger" than those health issues we face.

One of Professor Ki-yong's students remembers him saying that losing your health means losing everything. True enough on a personal level. But losing the opportunity and the capacity to help other people, however meagre, however momentary, is a far worse fate.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

The "War" on Christmas? or Christmas Bullies

If you're on Facebook or any other social media site these days, you're probably getting inundated with YouTube videos posted to your FunWall or SuperWall or getting hyperlinks in your e-group lists. What are they all about? The "true" meaning of Christmas.

Evidently the majority feel a little threatened these days. Unless you greet them this time of year with "Merry Christmas", they will take offence. Unless you decry retail outlets with banners or advertisements declaring "Happy Holidays", you're participating in a commercial fraud. Unless you rail against schools and public institutions who might avoid talking about "you know who", you're missing the point of this time of year and, God forbid, "politically correct".

If you can believe it, some people have even published books on the War on Christmas. If you are tempted to watch or listen to Bill O'Reilly on the Fox Network, you'll be told about the shocking way in which Christians are being persecuted everywhere at this time of year.

It's all a little melodramatic. And it all reeks of posturing by people insecure in their own religious traditions.

Evidently, it's not enough to live in a multiethnic, multicultural society that embraces diversity and privileges no established religion or denomination. Apparently only the traditions that have emerged in the last 150 years or so in English-speaking countries matter at this time of year.

It's a joke really. It's like the schoolyard bully who feels threatened when children don't volunteer their lunch money.

My wife and I did some shopping today for gifts for "you know what". We visited one of our favourite stores in downtown Waterloo, Ten Thousand Villages. It's a fun place, a place where you know you're supporting people in third-world countries to earn a decent living, a place to buy fair-trade coffee, and an absolutely wonderful gift shop. But as you walk around, there is no evidence that "you know what" has lost its place of primacy on the store shelves. Crèches, Noah's Arks, Bethlehem stars, angels - they're everywhere. No dreidels. No menorahs. Nothing of other religions except Christianity. It would appear that ten thousand villages around the world make a living catering to the festivities of the religious majority in North America at this time of year.

And that's just one store. Everywhere you go, Christmas carols on the PA systems. Sure, some of them are secular; some of them are about a jolly red elf and reindeer. But it's all about "you know what" - the "C" word.

Yet the claims continue unabated about the victimization of Christians. In 2006, for example, there were all kinds of news articles about Best Buy's decision to "ban" Christmas from its advertising. That's a little like saying Rolex bans lower and middle-class people.

Here's a little experiment for you - go to the Best Buy Canadian web site and search on "Christmas". You'll find 314 hits. I guess the "ban" isn't working very well. Try "Hanukkah" - 4 hits; or "Kwanzaa" - 0 hits. Yep, sounds like a war on Christmas to me.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

An Unwanted Journey: Day 0735 - Afraid to Ask

The preparation was the same. The sedatives worked roughly the same way. The recovery was similar. The cookies and ginger ale were welcomed once more in the recovery room. The next day I felt great, as before.

There was something different this time, though. The surgeon asked questions about frequency of bowel movements, urinary function, and then the big one - how about sex? That was a surprise.

It makes you wonder why it should be a surprise. According to a fairly recent study in the Annals of Surgery entitled "Prevalence of Male and Female Sexual Dysfunction Is High Following Surgery for Rectal Cancer" (August, 2005), from research conducted and reported from Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, Ontario, high percentages (29% for women and 45% for men) indicated that curative rectal cancer surgery "made their sexual lives worse".

The conclusions of the study are that "sexual problems after surgery for rectal cancer are common, multifactorial, inadequately discussed, and untreated." Sexual functioning and quality of life (QOS) are very often negatively impacted by rectal cancer surgery and, it would seem, very few people are willing to talk about it. Even worse, when they do talk about it, very few validated instruments for measuring sexual functioning have been used by medical researchers and practitioners.

But my surgeon did something I didn't expect. He asked if I would like to get a referral to discuss the sexual functioning implications of surgery. My thoughts were simple and straight forward - why not?

But I've been wondering ever since. Exactly what kind of specialist will I be seeing? A psychologist? A sex therapist? A urologist? At this point, I really don't know what to expect. But my wife and I talked about it and wondered if maybe the outcome will simply be another prescription - this time for something like Cialis or Viagra. If so, then I'll be a little disappointed. After all, Viagra was simply a repackaging of a drug originally researched and marketed for hypertension. But when clinical trials were conducted by Pfizer, the researchers discovered the drug could induce marked penile erections.

We've seen the silly advertisements on television - the knowing looks between middle-aged men and women talking in gibberish sprinkled with the word "viagra" every couple of sentences. Dumb. Really, really dumb!

But, if you watch enough of these commercials (and I have to say that the Cialis ones seem a little more mature), you have to wonder what kind of magic these pills might do. The nickname of the "weekend pill" does, of course, conjure up all kinds of lurid images. But for men who are survivors of curative rectal cancer surgery, you have to wonder whether the focus on erectile dysfunction is appropriate.

I'm curious now. So we'll see what the surgeon has to say in our follow up visit. The most important aspect of the follow up is about the pathology results of the biopsies, not the nature of the referral about sexual function. But assuming, as I do, that there is no reason to be concerned about evidence of disease recurrence, then I find myself wondering just what kind of specialist and what kind of medication might be in the cards.

Who knows, maybe they'll want me to do a commercial.