All posts filed under: Memoir

Farewell, Alex Trebek

On Friday, November 6th, between 1 and 2pm Pacific Daylight Time, I participated in an audition for the TV game-show Jeopardy!. Normally auditions are conducted in person at various regional locations around the US. As a Northern Californian, I should have been attending a live audition in San Francisco. But COVID and the quarantine have played havoc with everything this year, and the King of American Game-Shows is no exception. And so, along with eight other hopefuls, I was auditioned via a Zoom call from Southern California by John Barra, the show’s contestant producer. He informed us that, since the onset of the pandemic, roughly 237,000 people had applied online to be Jeopardy! contestants. The show selects about 400 contestants each year. This was in fact the second Zoom conference call in which I had participated with the producers of Jeopardy!. On September 2nd, I participated in a sort of pre-audition meet-and-greet with seven other potential contestants and a different producer, whose name I’ve forgotten. By the end of the November 6th audition, the nine …

On Remembrance Day, Celebrating Two Canadian Prisoners Who Took Down an Entire Shipyard

To compensate for Japan’s manpower shortage during World War II, the country’s military commanders often shipped their prisoners to the Japanese mainland, where they worked as slave labourers in mining and heavy industry. As someone who made such a trip after my own capture in 1941, I can attest that the journey to Japan was terrifying in and of itself. Because the Japanese didn’t mark prisoner transport ships with a red cross or some other agreed-upon symbol, thousands of prisoners were lost at sea when unsuspecting American submarines mistakenly torpedoed some of these transports. One such ship, the Lisbon Maru, carrying about 1,800 British POWs from Hong Kong to Japan, was sunk in the South China Sea on October 1st, 1942, by the American submarine USS Grouper, whose captain had no idea of the precious cargo in the hold. Eight hundred and forty-six prisoners died, either by drowning, or were shot by the Japanese as they tried to swim clear of the wreck. This was the backdrop when the first group of 1,180 Allied prisoners—including …

R.M. Vaughan (1965–2020): A Beautiful Mind Silently Extinguished in a Time of Fear

We were extremely close for about five years. He was my confidante and my support system. We were best friends. Never lovers—though many thought we were. It was a dark time for me, and I needed him. Canadian gay writer Richard Murray Vaughan (1965–2020) was found dead by police in Fredericton, New Brunswick on October 23rd—10 days after being reported missing. No foul play is suspected. This is in part a remembrance of R.M. (as he was widely known, including to his friends), but also a reminder that the campaign against COVID-19 can create its own kind of harm. I don’t pretend that this essay is one Richard would have authored (though he did write about COVID-19 and mental health shortly before his death). He and I were different men and different writers. But I do think my old friend would have agreed with at least some of what I have to say. I met Richard when he entered my office at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre—142 George Street, Toronto—in 1991. Initially we talked about …

My Brief Spell as an Activist

I knew a few social justice campaigners in high school. They were advocates, they liked to remind the rest of us, and they were endowed with holy outrage and an acute awareness of inequality and a passion for tolerance that never quite translated into actual kindness. They wore t-shirts that bore slogans like “The Future Is Female,” they crusaded against “oppressive” dress codes, and they confronted a patriarchal grading system. They were practised in the art of derailing conversation with accusations of heteronormativity or cultural appropriation. The battles they won (“We can wear tube tops now!”) were triumphs of resistance, while those they lost only accentuated the ubiquity of the inequity du jour. No matter how petty and irrational their grievances became, these students eluded criticism from peers, teachers, and administrators alike. Nobody wanted to take them on. After all, who wanted to argue with the pursuit of justice? Throughout high school, conversations were had, discourses were dismantled, lived experiences were brandished, and I sat through all of it silently. I was more bored by …

A Poor Farrier’s Journey to Political Sanity

I’m a 26-year-old American working-class college dropout who owns and operates a small business. From the time the COVID-19 lockdown began, I’ve had to scramble to ensure that I could keep working. The company that employed me in northern Nevada had me working nearly full-time during the first quarter of 2020, doing repairs on federal buildings in the western states—a job that presented an opportunity for upward mobility and education within the building trades. But when governments abruptly restricted projects in March and April, and limited outside contractors from their facilities, the work dried up long enough to get me moving. So I moved to Northern California, where I’d previously lived and worked. Sleeping on the floor of a friend’s home near Sacramento to begin with, I reconnected with clients in need of wildfire risk mitigation, as well as handyman and landscape services. It’s been stressful juggling work, finding a place to live, and dealing with unexpected costs. Getting set up in a decent mobile home ate up about three-quarters of my savings. I felt …

My Military Jail-Time in Israel

I have never done time in a civilian prison. But military jails are another matter. During my long service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF)—during 1967–1969 as a conscript and, thereafter, until 1990, as a reservist—I spent three stints, as far as I can remember, under lock and key. Each of them tells us something about the history of Israel and the IDF. I The first time was like a bad joke and brief, almost a non-event. It was sometime in mid-June 1967, a week or so after the IDF had defeated the armies of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria in the Six Day War. In the days after the shooting had ended, the IDF was engulfed by chaos. On the front lines, at the eastern edge of the newly-conquered Golan Heights and West Bank, along the Jordan River, the forward combat units dug in, waiting for what the politicians would decide—to hold in place, to withdraw, to shift the units about. (The troops remain there, more or less along the same lines, to this day, …

Guilt Trip: A Son’s Memoir

The Southern Tier of New York State is a bleak place in the dead of winter. The days are dark and short. Snow is piled high on the sides of the two-lane roads that connect towns like Olean, Wellsville, and Hornell, where I was born. You can drive for miles, past farms and houses standing alone, and see no one. In December 1968, I returned home for the Christmas break after my first semester as a sophomore transfer student at Reed College, in Portland, Oregon. I took a bus from New York City after the night flight from the west coast; it moved westward on Route 17, through the grey wooded hills, the freezing air deadening the smell of stale cigarette smoke and diesel fuel whenever the door opened. I had not yet settled in at Reed, had yet to feel any strong spark of intellectual curiosity or ambition. I moved through my classes as a ghost. No professor had any impression of me, as I almost never spoke in the small seminar classes. I …

For 30 Years, I’ve Tried to Become a Woman. Here’s What I Learned Along the Way

I turned 45 this month. I can’t deny that I’m in my middle years. Although I’ve been blessed so far to avoid noticeable gray hairs, there are unmistakable creases around my eyes and forehead. My hands are even picking up the signature wrinkles and definition that I’ve always associated with “old hands.” Beyond the outward signs of age, I feel it inside. My peak energy levels are lower than they used to be, and the idea of dashing around makes me tired just thinking about it. The aphorism that you’re only as old as you feel may have some truth to it, but one can’t just wish away one’s age. When I appraise myself in a mirror, looking for signs of aging, I can’t help but look for the signs that betray the sex I was born. Male. A bouncing baby boy, and more or less on that trajectory until my early teen years, when I became convinced that I was actually a girl. It was only a short time later that I started taking …

When I Was in Love with a Comparative Literature Student

She said she did not believe there was such a thing as love—not because she was embarrassed by sentimentality, but because Jacques Derrida had convinced her that language did not actually refer to an external reality. I met her during the period she was reading Derrida’s Of Grammatology. Or maybe it was when she was reading Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, which for weeks she kept open and in front of her at the campus coffee shop. At least once, she carried Heidegger into a bubble bath. The first time we hung out, we read together in an empty classroom. I was reading Philip Roth’s novel American Pastoral for a literature class. She was reading “The Concept of Irony” by literary theorist Paul de Man for fun. As in every classroom, there was a clock at the front of the room. The sound of the ticking, which I had unthinkingly accepted as an imperfect part of our environment, irritated her. She stood up on the table and flung the clock to the ground. She put …

Remembering My Friend Peter Beard

Peter Beard, internationally renowned photographer, author, railroad-fortune heir, and socialite, died last month. Or possibly in March. Beard (b. 1938) had been ill, and suffering from dementia. He wandered off into the forest near his home on Long Island. He was 82. His body was found in a nearby national park, which is grimly fitting, for wildlife and parks were some of his abiding passions. The unconventional manner of his death also matched the way he lived. And if he were going to pick a way to go out, this might have been it. Having gotten to know him reasonably well when we both lived in Kenya, I suspect he would have preferred not to have been found, however, as he was a consummate trickster. He might well have preferred an obit that said, “Mr. Beard disappeared from his home in Montauk sometime in the spring of 2020. His whereabouts are unknown.” Peter was a gifted photographer, an engaging diarist, a gracious and generous host, a non-stop raconteur, universally described (truthfully) with that cliché, “one …