Best of Toronto Mike


Big Fish

Tear DropI just cried like a baby. I'm not talking about a manly cry where you grimace and a tear escapes from one eye, I'm talking about an actual cry. The sad thing is, I knew I was going to cry and there was nothing I could do to stop it. You see, I've just finished watching "Big Fish" and every single time I've watched this movie, and I've seen it dozens of times, I've cried at the end without exception.

I've written before about the effect this movie has on me. There is no other movie that extracts this response from me after multiple viewings. I'll swell up during a scene in "Field of Dreams", but that's it. With "Big Fish", it perfectly presses my buttons in a manner that leaves me a blubbering fool.

Critics will tell you Tim Burton has done better work, but I beg to differ. You'll also hear the great Albert Finney has been better, but I haven't seen it. IMDB.com users rank 174 films higher, but I find that hard to believe. "Big Fish" is the perfect storm of exceptional direction, an inspiring screenplay and actors who assume their roles perfectly. Still, I've seen a number of fantastic flicks, but none cause me to respond as emotionally as this one does. Why does "Big Fish" cause big tears?

It's that triple smack-down at the end. With Ed Bloom lying on his death bed, his non-believing and bitter son Will tells the final story. The story is in full Ed Bloom-style and fulfills the witch's prophecy. Everyone is there, everyone is happy and Will carries his father into the river where he becomes a big fish. This scene starts the tears flowing, Ed passes away but not before his son finally understands him and makes peace with him. Then, there's the funeral. This is where I really cry. The characters Ed spoke about in his elaborate stories are there, lending credence to what Will always assumed was hyperbole. Karl the Giant is there, Amos Calloway is there, Ping and Jing are there, Norther Winslow is there, they're all there and they're all sad to say goodbye to their pal Ed. Will realizing that his father had lived such adventures strikes a chord in me. Whereas the previous scene is Will buying into the stories to satisfy his dying father, this scene is Will realizing they were true all along. He now believes as I do. Just when I'm in full weep mode and can't take any more, the credits start to roll and I hear Eddie's voice starting "Man of the Hour". As I said, it's a triple smack-down and resistance is futile.

I'm not one to re-watch movies. Even movies I really liked rarely get a second viewing. I have a handful of films that I'll watch over and over again, but they're few and far between and lately I haven't had much of an urge to watch any of them. "Big Fish" is the great exception. It's as if the emotions it unleashes in me have created a chemical addiction to the movie. Even without the great ending, it's a fantastic movie that seems custom made for me, but throw in that ending and I need "Big Fish". Crying is great therapy and men don't try it nearly often enough. As I wrote before, only six things have made me cry in the past five years, and only one of those things is a fictional movie I can revisit over and over and over again.

And I will.

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Stop The Violence

GunWhen I was in high school, I remember hearing stories about kids who were being swarmed at the Eaton Centre. If a group of teens wanted your pair of Doc Martens, they simple swarmed you until you handed them over or you were going to get beat up. As a guy who wore Doc Martens and frequently visited the Yonge and Dundas area, I remember being particularly interested in these tales classmates were telling.

Fifteen years later, that legend sounds like a story straight out of the 50s. All year long we've been hearing that gun violence has increased in the city but yesterday's news of gun play really pissed me off. At about 17:00 EST, outside the Eaton Centre at Yonge and Dundas during the hustle and bustle of Boxing Day, gunfire broke out between two groups. 10 to 15 people in their late teens to early 20s were involved as six people were wounded and one innocent 15-year old girl was killed. She was standing outside a Foot Locker store, shopping with her family, when she was shot in the head.

I sincerely believe kids today are more brazen about these activities than they would have been even ten years ago. These people who fire guns into crowds of Boxing Day shoppers have no fear and simply don't care. 52 people have died in Toronto in 2005 due to a gunshot wound. This 15-year old girl wasn't shot at an after hours club at 03:00 but was shot while shopping at the Eaton Centre on Boxing Day. Are we simply getting a taste of what big American cities have been experiencing for decades? Have we indeed lost our innocence as Detective Sargent Savas Kyriacou said yesterday? What's the solution? Is there any hope for the future?

I have plenty of questions, but few answers. When shooters are as brazen as this I'm particularly fearful. Lawless, fearless, lost souls with access to firearms and a tragic agenda are in a different category altogether than the swarming groups we were warned about by our peers.

I remember in 1989 a collection of popular rappers who called themselves the Stop The Violence All-Stars recorded "Self Destruction". The Stop The Violence All-Stars were KRS-One, Stetsasonic, Kool Moe Dee, MC Lyte, Just-Ice, Doug E. Fresh, Heavy D, Public Enemy and Ms. Melodie. I was a big Public Enemy fan at the time, and I remember Chuck D's line at the end of this single. "To revolve to evolve to self respect cause we got to keep ourselves in check or else it's self destruction, ya headed for self destruction".

I think Chuck D nailed it. It's all about self respect. Those with self respect don't fire bullets amidst a crowd of shoppers. Those with self respect don't shoot innocent 15-year old girls in the head. Those with self respect don't acquire guns in the first place.

All we need to do to reverse this trend is give our young people self respect. It's that simple.

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The Reality of Mortality

DeathLooking back at the past year, there was a great deal of the good life and a solid reminder that life, good or bad, always ends in death. As The Flaming Lips recently reminded us, everyone you know someday will die. It was hard to forget that in 2005.

Mother Nature's Brutal Force
It was still 2004 when I wrote this entry about the devastating tsunami that sent huge waves crashing into coastal resorts across south and east Asia. At that time they were predicting a death toll of 23,000. It soon became clear that figure was way low. As we began 2005, we were offering unprecedented relief while learning of unprecedented body counts.

As August came to a close, Katrina struck. On September 1, I wrote this entry about her brutal blow to New Orleans and the desperation and danger she left behind. Death was everywhere; floating in the streets, trapped in flooded buildings and even in the home stadium of the New Orleans Saints. If the flood didn't kill you, the contaminated water would, we were warned.

In October, with the massive death tolls from the tsunami and hurricane Katrina still being tallied, an earthquake hit South Asia. Thousands and thousands more would perish. Again, the footage from the disaster scene was horrifying. Mother Nature had made her point loud and clear. She could be as brutal as she is beautiful.

The Terri and John Paul Death Watch
I wrote about Terri Schiavo in March. Terri was in a persistent vegetative state with no hope of recovery. Terri's husband fought to have her feeding tube removed while her parents fought to keep it in place. The media frenzy surrounding the Terri Schiavo death watch was highly disturbing but it forced everyone to choose a side in the debate regarding ones right to die. Death was the lead item on the news and Terri wasn't the only reason.

Pope John Paul II had been quite ill and at the end of March there was much talk of his imminent demise. On April 1st I sat down to write an entry entitled "My Pope Is Dying" but instead wrote this. He would pass away the next day. The death watch concerning both Terri Shiavo and Pope John Paul II overwhelmed the month of March and continued the death theme started on Boxing Day 2004 with the tsunami. As I realized the fragility of life and mortality of us humans, I needed something to put this bleak smog of death into perspective. I needed something to remind me of the natural role death plays in the cycle of life and that it isn't to be feared. That would come, in of all things, a television show.

Six Feet Under's Finale
I had followed this series from the beginning and felt it was second to none when it comes to dramatic television. In August I sat down to witness the finale which I wrote about here. It was another great episode in another great season of this great show, but the final ten minutes brought everything home. We witnessed the death of every surviving main character. We saw how they died, who was at their funeral and how old they were when they shuffled off their mortal coil. It was highly interesting and most effective.

Watching the Fisher family age and die had the most calming effect on me. We're all going to die. You're going to die, I'm going to die, your best friend is going to die and your worst enemy is going to die. It's up to us to make the most of life and accept our inevitable demise and the inevitable death of our loved ones as an essential component of this exceptional ecosystem. If we're lucky, we get a lengthy and happy life as Claire did. If we're unlucky, our life is cut short a'la Nate.

In my lifetime, I don't remember a worse year of natural disasters. Throw in threats of an Avian flu pandemic, the Terri Schiavo media circus and the passing of the Pope and we have a year draped in black funeral attire. With the foul stench of death in the air, "Six Feet Under" put everything in perspective and eloquently presented the reality of mortality as a concept I can fully understand, effectively inducing catharsis.

We all need catharsis.

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The Demise of the Dull Moment

FamilyWith James completely full of beans and Michelle fully morphed into an actual person with a personality and curiosity of her very own there truly is never a dull moment around these parts. Dull moments have disappeared completely from our lives.

One moment James is a full fledged pirate complete with sword, pirate-speak and a parrot on the shoulder. The next moment he's an independent contractor roaming the home for projects and things to fix. When he's James the Fixer, he's decked out in overalls and a yellow hard hat Grandma got for him. Sometimes he's a boxer ready to go twelve rounds with Daddy or Buzz Lightyear preparing to go to infinity and beyond. When he's not in character, he's a typical boisterous and mischievous three year old which helps explain the lack of dull moments. The fantasy worlds he concocts are impassioned.

Then, there's fourteen month old Michelle and a boisterous curiosity of a different nature. She's not as full of beans but she's awfully inquisitive and a virtual sponge absorbing the world around her. She's jetting up and down the stairs with ease and investigating every nook and cranny of the home. She'll pick up the DVD she wants to see and bring it to you, then she'll proceed to the DVD player and point to it. The orders are clear. She'll sing along to the alphabet song and nail great chunks of it, impressing the crap out of her old man. If she sees a dog, she'll point and say "doggie" and if you ask her what a doggie says, she'll give you a bark.

Both kids are awfully happy and good to each other. They're clearly bright, interesting, addictive personalities that I can't get my fill of. The dull moment is officially dead and I couldn't be happier.

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The Drive of '85

Blue JaysI don't want to let the 2005 baseball season end without paying tribute to The Drive of '85. Twenty years ago, our Blue Jays won their first divisional pennant and got their first taste of post-season play. Can you believe that was twenty years ago?

In 1983, my first full season as a die hard Jays fan, we had a good young team that made some noise in the American League East. In 1984 the Detroit Tigers got off to a torrid start and practically buried all others in the East but the Jays clawed back to make it interesting, only finishing four games back. Then it was 1985 and our turn to shine. The Toronto Star, my primary source for sports news as a ten and eleven year old, referred to it as The Drive of '85. It was a magical season.

When I went through a couple of old boxes on the weekend, I found a few memories stashed away. Between my stamp collection and old Maple Leafs programs were a series of newspaper clippings from The Drive of '85...

I still can't believe that was twenty years ago. I remember that entire season as if it was last year. We were one win away from the World Series before the Royals beat us three straight to win it in seven. George Brett found an extra gear and the rest is history.

There's only one fitting way for me to end this entry recalling The Drive of '85. Here's Tom Cheek calling the final out in the clinching game.

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Ten Canadian Tracks

CanadaThroughout the past week, I've been trying to assemble a list of ten songs that collectively epitomize the spirit of Canadian music. Pruning this list to ten hasn't been easy but I was up to the challenge.

Here are ten Canadian tracks that, to me, represent all that is right with Canadian music.

I'm An Adult Now - The Pursuit of Happiness
I don't think there's a more Toronto song than this one. This independent single was spun all the time on CFNY in the late 80s and I thought it was the coolest. Great lyrics, great raw sound and a great story. TPOH got a record deal and put out the awesome Love Junk, a cassette I played over and over again. In addition to a more polished version of "I'm An Adult Now", this album had stellar tracks like "She's So Young" and "Hard to Laugh". Why does this song more than any other remind me of my city? For a couple of years in my early 20s I worked at Dufferin and Dupont and lived near Yonge and Bloor. My route to work was a bike ride along Davenport to Dupont, and more often than not I'd see Moe Berg walking that street. There he was, taking a stroll in his city, and every time I saw him I heard "I'm An Adult Now" in my head.

The Weight - The Band
When Bob Dylan went electric, he called on The Band. I once heard a great quote attributed to Robbie Robertson when Dylan said he was going electric. Robertson wondered if there was any other way to go. "The Weight" is a fantastic single, practically perfect. This single is proof that Canadian artists are second to none.

Cinnamon Girl - Neil Young
Neil Young is the quintessential Canadian artist. He's a master of multiple genres, chock full of integrity, and both a critical and commercial success. "Cinnamon Girl" could be "Heart of Gold", "Down By The River" or "Helpless", but I'm going with "Cinnamon Girl" because it's just grungy enough to earn him the moniker "Godfather of Grunge". It's the impossible blend of raw elegance and it makes Neil Young not only an essential Canadian artist, but essential, period.

Underwhelmed - Sloan
Following the Seattle explosion in the early 90s, partly inspired by Neil Young's rockers, there was the Halifax explosion led by Sloan. These four became instant Cancon favourites with "Underwhelmed", another CFNY staple and a song that perfectly captures the slacker mentality of the early 90s.

Try - Blue Rodeo
"Try" might be the polar opposite of "I'm An Adult Now". They came out at roughly the same time in the late 80s and one was as pretty as the other is raw. I first heard "Try" during a grade school dance when the DJ played it for a slow number. It's a stunning composition that sounds as sharp today as it did then. It was sort of country, but not nearly country enough to repel. It was just a beautiful song about love from a Toronto band with heart. It was the epitome of Canada.

Tom Sawyer - Rush
I'm convinced you either love Rush or you hate Rush. There is no middle ground. My brothers and wife unanimously despise this band while my heart speeds up and I get goosebumps listening to Alex, Neil and Geddy. Like Young's "Cinnamon Girl", this could have been "Closer to the Heart", "Spirit of Radio" or "Fly By Night", but "Tom Sawyer" has those keyboards! Love them or hate them, Rush is the Canadian band that unites us. I once heard a girl on CBC say Rush was equally loved by all essential elements of Canadian living: hockey fans, farmers and computer geeks. 'Nuff said.

New Orleans is Sinking - The Tragically Hip
This song has been in the news lately for all the wrong reasons, but conduct a poll and you'll learn it's the most popular song from the most Canadian of bands. The Hip sing about Bill Barilko, Bobby Orr, Bobcaygeon and Toronto. They're unabashedly Canadian and "New Orleans is Sinking" is their anthem.

Rockin' in the Free World - Neil Young
The Soviet Union was breaking up and the Berlin Wall was coming down. Meanwhile, Neil Young, a Canadian legend who hadn't made much of a splash since the late 70s, released "Rocking in the Free World". It became an instant radio hit, a sing-along for 16 year old kids like me and gave Neil back his street cred. Best Canadian song of the 80s.

American Woman - The Guess Who
Without The Guess Who, would there be The Tragically Hip? Without The Guess Who, would there be a Rush, a Barenaked Ladies or an Our Lady Peace? These were the groundbreakers, the frontiersmen. When "American Woman" shot to the top of the charts, it represented a whole bunch of firsts. A Canadian band had released a bonafide smash hit that wasn't just awesome because they were from the Prairies but because it rocked. The Guess Who, with this success, paved the way for the success of Canadian bands to come and got many a youngun to pick up a guitar and jam in the garage on cold winter nights.

Big Yellow Taxi - Joni Mitchell
This song is not only infectious with it's catchy melody but it has a social conscious. When I think about Canadian music, I think about this combination. It's appealing to the masses while saying something significant. Another artist who got her start in Toronto, Mitchell took folk to a whole new level and helped the woman voice in rock get heard. If you don't like Joni Mitchell, there truly is something wrong.

The last time I shared a list of this nature, I got hit with a bunch of "what about x" and "how could you put y on there" emails. It's a very subjective list and this is my best crack at it. If you're up for the challenge, Share your ten with me and I'll post them.

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Desperation and Danger

Red CrossI'm following the aftermath of hurricane Katrina fairly closely, and I can't get over the surreal nature of it all. Much of New Orleans is under water, looting is widespread with many looters armed with weapons, thousands and thousands of people are simply homeless with no food or water, rescue efforts are failing due to dangerous conditions and police and National Guard troops are struggling to restore order in a scene reminiscent of "Escape From New York".

These are merely the short term concerns. Long term, there is real concern that disease could kill thousands, with dead bodies decaying in the already polluted water. Then, there is an overwhelming number of poor that have been displaced and a city that has simply been ravaged. Of course, New Orleans isn't the only city affected as more and more dead are reported in Mississippi. The death toll, officially tallied at 185, will surely skyrocket once everything is sorted out. It's devastating.

I read these reports and I see the horror, and it plays out like the script for an epic disaster flick. Earlier today, there were even reports that Superdome evacuation efforts were halted because some people have become violent against the rescuers. They closed the entire city and declared martial law, and still there is mass looting and lawless behaviour. For once, the headline on CNN.com doesn't seem hyperbolic. "Desperation and Danger" it reads.

If it wasn't so damn real, it would make a tremendous summer popcorn movie. Sadly, it's all too real. Donate online if you can. Desperation and danger indeed.

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An Open Letter To Toronto Bloggers

Toronto SkylineI frequent a number of blogs on a regular basis. A frequently updated and interesting blog beats a mainstream media site every day of the week. This weekend, I decided I would write an entry about the top ten blogs in Toronto.

I first referenced my bookmarks, identifying those written by a Torontonian actually living in Toronto. I then asked other blog readers as to which Toronto blogs were their favourites, and I checked those out. I quickly came to realize the sad truth. Toronto has few great blogs.

This is a huge city and home to great communicators, numerous intelligent and educated people as well as many creative artistic types. Throw in our diversity and the e-savvy nature of our citizens and we should have the ideal breeding ground for tremendous blogs. Where's the commitment? Where's the interest? Where's the passion?

This is an open letter to Toronto bloggers. Lets put this city on the blogging map. Lets do something here, something special, something groundbreaking. The best city in the world should not accept mediocrity in any form.

Instead of the ten best blogs in Toronto, here are ten Toronto blogs I check out now and then, in alphabetical order.

BlogTO - interesting and fun local blog that's updated frequently. Sweet.

daily dose of imagery - If you love photography and Toronto, this is your utopia. It's a photoblog, and the author posts one picture a day.

Eye Weekly Blog - I've always loved the paper and the blog ain't bad either.

torontomike.com - This blog really speaks to me.

photojunkie - Another decent site for the Toronto photographer.

Raymi the Minx - I'm quite conflicted when it comes to Raymi. I like the "I just don't care" quality, but I often wonder how much of that is contrived. I check in now and then, but it's sort of like peering at a car crash. You know you shouldn't, but you do anyways. I should also point out that Raymi gets naked...a lot. Would a fully dressed Raymi be as popular? Not a chance. Clearly, I should devote an entire entry to Raymi, there is much I have to say. If you want more, check out my interview with Raymi.

The Adventures of Accordion Guy in the 21st Century - The Accordian Guy might be the anti-Raymi. Luckily for us, he never gets naked. There are frequent interesting posts, many with a Toronto flavour.

Torontoist - Like BlogTO, this is an interesting and fun local blog that's updated frequently. In a nutshell, this is all I'm asking for.

Wholesome Goodness - I stumbled upon this blog one day while checking out the website of my alma mater U of T. It's just a regular blog by a regular guy, one of thousands, but there's solid effort, a little passion and frequent updates. I'll pop in and see what he's linking to, just to make sure I'm not missing anything cool.

Zoilus - Carl Wilson writes about music for the Globe and Mail and he maintains this blog. As a huge fan of music and pop culture, I read it daily.

If I missed an awesome Toronto blog, let me know. I love this damn city and I just want our bloggers to effectively reflect the awe I observe daily walking these streets. Ladies and gentlemen, punch the keys!

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Tales From The Ex Revisited

CNELast year, during the 125th Canadian National Exhibition, I shared some stories from my three years working there as a game booth attendant. With the 126th CNE in full effect, the timing is right to revisit these tales.

They were truly great times.

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My Ten Tracks

MusicI've taken dozens of notes and mulled the options for months but I've finally done it. I've managed to arrive at a list of ten songs that might just be my ten favourite tracks of all-time.

This was no easy feat. I started with a short list of about fifty songs and slowly whittled them down. There was much internal debate with some amazing personal favourites being relegated to the cutting room floor. All the heavy "hard rock" tunes seemed to bite the dust before the top ten with System of a Down's "Chop Suey!" being the last of that genre to go at the bitter end. Shockingly, no song from The Tragically Hip appears on this list, although a few were close. Without a doubt, this list is subject to change and will no doubt change before the month is through. Some days The Five Stairsteps is a slam dunk, some days it's barely a top fifty. Sometimes Radiohead is well represented, this time they're not. Sometimes all ten songs are from Arcade Fire's "Funeral", this time, not a single one.

Without further delay, I present to you my favourite songs of all-time. I call this entry, my ten tracks.

Louis Armstrong - What A Wonderful World
This one was a no-brainer for me. Its place in the soundtrack of my life was solidified sixteen summers ago when it was played on the Polar Express every night during the CNE after closing. It became the thought provoking anthem of my summer of '89 and I can't hear it without drifting back.

Jeff Buckley - Hallelujah
Tragically dead at the age of 30, Buckley's cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" lives on as a haunting tribute. It's a special song, covered by many artists, but no one did it as well as Buckley. I'm sharing this track tomorrow.

Hayden - Bad As They Seem
I think I was hooked on Hayden immediately following the first time I heard the first three chords of this song. It's a simple and sweet folksy tune about a guy who digs a chick he can't have. I simply can't tire of this one.

Nirvana - All Apologies (Unplugged)
Following Kurt Cobain's suicide, the unplugged version of this song was my mourning anthem. The In Utero version was great, but this stripped down rendition was Cobain's swan song. It was a farewell to a generation that came of age to his poetry. That was my generation, and this was my farewell.

Pearl Jam - Crazy Mary
It's unbelievable that a band that has produced so much brilliant original material would appear on this list twice with two covers. This time, it's Victoria Williams getting the golden treatment by Ed and the gang and it's spectacular. To me, this song is my first year at U of T and riding the subway with my walkman.

Pearl Jam - Throw Your Arms Around Me
Pearl Jam took this song from Hunters and Collectors and made it their own. It's ultra romantic without being sappy and custom-made for weddings. A tasteful love song that truly will echo through the ages.

Otis Redding - (Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay
If things are hectic and I need to chill, I listen to this song and all is well. Enough said.

Dusty Springfield - Son of a Preacher Man
This songs inclusion on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack instantly tattooed this gorgeous tune into my psyche. Lyrically and musically it's a gem.

James Taylor - Sweet Baby James
Always a favourite of mine, "Sweet Baby James" guaranteed itself a spot in my ten tracks when it came time for Taryn and I to name our son. We were having some difficulty finding common ground when I thought of this song. The rest is history and I can't hear this song without thinking about my sweet baby James.

Neil Young - Helpless
He's the godfather of grunge and a Canadian hero. One note from this man and my ears are ecstatic. Is "Helpless" his best? That all depends upon what day you're asking the question. Today, it's one of my ten tracks.

I'm emotionally exhausted from this exercise. With over 13000 songs in my collection, there are hundreds and hundreds that I absolutely love. When I embarked on this quest, I never imagined it would be as difficult as this. If you're up for the challenge, Share your ten with me and I'll post them. G'night all, I'm beat.

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