The queer adolescent’s guide to Epic Fantasy

Last night This American Life replayed one of my top five favourite stories. Just South of the Unicorns is the true tale of a lonely teenager in the Eighties who hops a plane to Florida in search of his favourite fantasy writer, Piers Anthony.

The story appeals to me on a hundred different levels. It should go without saying, that being gay and wearing Coke-bottle glasses made me an outcast in school who found solace in Science Fiction and Fantasy stories; Andy, the teenager who embarks on the quest, was from Buffalo, which is due South of my hometown of Brampton, Ontario; but what makes the story so relatable are the books of Piers Anthony.

I’ve never read one of Piers Anthony’s books but I remember looking at them at Coles bookstore in Shoppers World. They always had these crazy covers with half naked men and women on them, which were like prepubescent soft core porn. They were sexy and amazing at the same.

What makes Just South of the Unicorns beautiful is how it slowly reveals itself: the narrator’s description of his obsession with Piers Anthony and the author’s place in Science Fiction; how he comes to know the teenager that ran away to meet him; and the retelling of the meeting itself. It plays out like an epic fantasy set in the suburbs.

The rebroadcast of the episode happened to coincide with my coming home from an evening of watching Excalibur at friend’s place. Dorey and I are only a few years apart in age, and although we were raised on opposite sides of the country, we had similar tastes in escapism growing up.

Dorey and I both love cheesy SciFi movies from Seventies like Logan’s Run and Soylent Green, and cheesy Epic Fantasy movies from the Eighties like Conan the Barbarian and Beastmaster. The plots of the movies are usually better than the special effects, but they almost always expose a bit of male flesh, which is the wet t-shirt contest equivalent for a queer adolescent.

For the last couple of years, Dorey and I had been trying to get our hands on a copy of Excalibur. We looked on iTunes, and in secondhand DVD stores, and then last year we were at Barnes & Noble in Seattle, and I asked the cashier if they had it on the shelves.

The cashier was barely legal to work and had to sound out the name of the movie as he typed it into his computer. Without saying a word, the cashier left his little nook and led Dorey and I to one of the shelves. Not only did they have it, but it was only $5. Were I not a better friend, I would have fought Dorey for it, but since we were in Seattle for Dorey’s birthday, I let him have it; however I drew the line at buying it for him.

I still can’t remember the first time I saw Excalibur. I remember seeing a clip of it during the 1982 Academy Awards when it was nominated for Best Cinematography. I want to say that I saw the copy my brother taped from Pay TV, but I also remember recognizing Helen Mirren, Patrick Stewart, and Liam Neeson, so that doesn’t seem possible. All I know, is that I associate the film with those feelings of adventure and nudity that I lived for in my early teens.

The other people we watched the movie with last night hated it: it was too long, the story didn’t have a clear focus, the lighting was too dark, and the acting terrible. They had a point, but I still loved it because it’s like a live action version of those Piers Anthony covers I used to ogle at as a kid.

You can take the kid out of the SciFi/Fantasy section of the bookstore, but you can’t take SciFi/Fantasy section out of the kid.

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Horror movies for pussies

Last night I did something I rarely do: I a saw scary movie in the theatre. 

I doubt that 10 Cloverfield Lane counts as a horror movie by die-hard horror fans, but this was a big step for me—like having vertigo and riding a roller coaster. 

I have a really hard time with violence and tension in the movies. I recently watched Better Call Saul on Netflix, and there were a few episodes where I was squinting my eyes and looking away from the television because I was afraid someone was going to get their head blown off.

I hate being scared in public. I recently watched The Road Warrior at a theatre in my neighbourhood—a movie I have already seen—and I actually yelled in surprise at something that happened near the end. The only thing worse then yelling in fear in a packed theatre, is having your friend double over laughing at you after you do it. He recently told me the memory of my being scared is what cheers him up when he’s in a bad mood.  

The last scary movie I saw in the theatre was Prometheus—again, not very big on on the horror Richter scale—but scary enough that I worried my friends would be embarrassed to be seen with me when we left the theatre. 

Prometheus is notable in my history of scary movies because   my phone vibrated in my pocket when Noomi Rapace was literally being chased around a spaceship by her own abortion, and I jumped out of my seat. It felt like someone had used a defibrillator on me. Luckily, the people I was with were so grossed out by what was happening on the screen they didn’t notice. 

The reason I wanted to see 10 Cloverfield Lane in the theatre is because I loved the original and every review I tried read about the sequel began with spoiler alert warnings. I figured I better man up and see it on the big screen or risk having the movie ruined for me. I’m glad I did, because as soon as I mentioned I saw the movie on Facebook, a ton of my friends ruined the movie for everyone else commenting on it in my newsfeed. 

For anyone that may be reading this that’s as chicken shit as I am, I can safely say 10 Cloverfield Lane is more tense than gory, and you can probably watch it without covering or squinting  your eyes. In other words, if you can hand An American Werewolf in London, you can handle0 Cloverfield Lane . The move doesn’t rely on cheap scares where things jump out of the dark when you least expect it, but the movie will get under your skin (unlike Super 8 which is horror for pussies, and that’s coming from me). Now that I know what happens, I would actually like to see it again with my eyes open.

The one thing I did come away with from 10 Cloverfield Lane is that if there were ever a serial killer on the loose or an alien invasion, I would be one of the first people to get killed. People are always telling me I’m brave, but I’m brave in a metropolitan sense; I’ll call people out on their shit if they’re being an asshole in public, but if it’s a matter of life and death I would be like, “Kill me now.” 

Hopefully there will never be a time when I have to lead the charge against a mortal enemy or lead the way out of a capsized boat. And if you ever cross my path in a life or death situation, whatever you do, go the other way because I will only get you killed.

Need a goos scare? Check this out:

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Buying a movie ticket should not be this hard

Remember back in the day, when if you wanted to see a movie with your friends, you’d just call them on a rotary phone, arrange a time to meet at the theatre, buy your tickets and then go see the damn movie? I miss those days.

My buddies and I go to the movies about once or twice a month and every time it feels like we’re trying to organize a State dinner at the White House. As I write this, my iPhone is exploding with text messages from my friends trying to figure out when is the perfet time to be at the theatre so that we can get good seats without waiting around for too long.

Of course, we wouldn’t be in this mess if the movie we want to see, 10 Cloverfield Lane, were being screened in more than one theatre that didn’t have reserved seating. I actually prefer an AVX theatre with reserved seating, but it’s a pain in the ass to coordinate with your friends remotely. One person has to go online, pick the seats and then commit to spend between $50-$100 on the seats, which is fine, my friends are good for the cash, but shit happens—people get sick, or stuck at work, or they decide they don’t want to see the film anymore, and you’re stuck with the ticket.

I can’t count how many times I’ve been at the theatre with a friend using a separate automated kiosks trying get a seat next to each other so we can collect precious points on our Scene card; and believe me, those points are precious. 

Then there are those times when you just want to buy a single ticket in the middle of the theatre but the system won’t let you because there’s a single seat on either side of you. It’s discrimination if you ask me.

The point being that while technology makes our lives simpler, it also complicates it at the same time. There are more screens and easier access to movies, but there is so much more room from error. It used to be there was a screening at 7 and 9 pm and that was it; now there’s a screening at 7:15, 7:30, 7:50 and so on—just pick a time already!

Not to mention, I nearly want to put my fist through my computer screen every time I buy a ticket online; it takes so freaking long to complete the transaction—I’ve bought plane tickets with layovers in less time. And then you get to the theatre and you realize you thought you were buying a ticket near the back of theatre but your seat is actually in the front row. 

I still love going to the movies, especially with my friends, but I shouldn’t need to see a film to take my mind off the stress of going to the movies. 

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Hand in glove: The People V OJ Simpson

It’s funny, when the OJ Simpson trial was being broadcast live on TV, I didn’t want anything to do with it, but now that Ryan Murphy has turned the trial of the previous century into a TV mini-series, it’s become the highlight of my week.

I don’t have cable so in order to watch The People vs OJ Simpson, I had to buy a season’s pass on iTunes. Coincidentally, I had also bought a season’s pass for The X-Files reboot at the same, so there was a period of of a few weeks where I was basically watching the same shit on TV as I was twenty years ago.

What I remember most about the OJ Trial was that you couldn’t escape even though we didn’t have the Internet (much less screens in our pockets), and I couldn’t discuss it without getting really angry. It was so obvious OJ had a motive and the means for committing the murders, and yet the media and the defence kept on throwing curve balls at you trying to distract you from the truth, and create a reasonable doubt. It was like they were working together. 

I have to admit it was hard watching last night’s episode today after work. At the time of the trial, I had a bit of crush on Chris Darden (and Sterling K. Brown who plays him) and I completely sympathized with Marcia Clark despite her prickly personality in court. Here were two people basically shaking the public and the media by the shoulders trying to get them to wake up and smell the coffee and no one was listening. By today’s standards you could compare it to convincing the Republican party that Climate Change is not a conspiracy theory. 

I watched OJ try on those gloves live on TV with my roommates. We were all a little stoned, (it was the Nineties and we were in our Twenties); we were watching the trial on this shitty little colour TV from the Eighties that had been left in the flat by the previous tenant. I just remember the silence  after OJ couldn’t get the gloves on. It was like the air had been sucked out of the room. Right there and then, you knew the trial was over. 

I’ve read The Run of His Life: The People v. O. J. Simpson by Jeffery Toobin three times since the trial; it’s actually one of my favourite crime books (the other being Vulgar Favors by Maureen Orth). In the years since the verdict and now, I always thought the OJ Simpson trial was one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in American history, but thanks to this new re-telling of the story and the Black Lives Matter movement, I finally understand why the jury delivered the verdict it did.

Back in the day, the brutal murders of two innocent people seemed like a horrible and disturbing way to make a political statement about law enforcement’s treatment of black people, but in light of the cell phone footage we’ve been seeing and the blatant lack of justice for the victims, it’s hard not to put yourself in the juror’s shoes. The real tragedy is, it was another twenty years before the rest of us took the problem seriously.

Related: The People v. O.J. Simpson Recap: Fact-Checking Episode 7

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In your face!

I work as a technical writer which is the best job I’ve ever had. Not only do I get to write for a living, but I get to use my brain so I can explain how things work to people in the simplest way possible. What I like most about my job is that I have guaranteed audience and I always know how what I’m writing is going to end.

For the last year or so I’ve been trying to document some reports that for the most part are pretty easy to understand. The challenge has been organizing the information in a way that a user would use the report and describing the formulas the application uses to calculate the totals. To be perfectly honest, I’ve never been completely satisfied with the documentation I created, mostly because the reports are constantly changing and they’re designed so that any idiot can figure out what’s in them by just looking at them.

One of the first emails I got this morning was from the Project Manager who signs off on the help topics I create for the reports. She had reviewed the latest updates I made to the topics and had basically gone through and changed a lot of content that was already there. I didn’t have time to go through all her comments when I opened the email because I had a meeting first thing, but I saw a lot of red text which made me think I had my work cut out for me.

I should say I really enjoy working with the Project Manager who reviewed the work; she knows what she’s doing and she’s great at identifying what she feels our customers are looking for in the web help. I also don’t mind being edited; it can smart at times but that’s why they call it “work” right?

Whenever I see that much red on a document, I start to question my ability as a Technical Writer and wonder if I shouldn’t be looking for another profession. The feeling usually passes but it requires a lot of deep breaths and cat videos to push through my insecurities.

When I finally got around to reviewing the Project Manager’s edits, I noticed something: many of her suggestions were variations of drafts I had previously written.   Whether she knew it or not, we were reverting back to an earlier version of the topic I had already written. This isn’t the first time this has happened, but I have to admit, I felt a little vindicated. Still, it’s not like I could go up to her and say, “In your face,” since some of her suggestions were her own and they were really valuable. 

Later in the day I sat through a meeting where one of our co-ops gave us a report on how she used our web help to learn how to use our product. I find these sessions valuable since it’s a great way to identify out-of-date material and improve the help.

Most of the co-op’s observations were minor and could be easily remedied, but there was one glaring mistake in the Table of Contents that almost knocked me out of my chair. Thankfully, it wasn’t my mistake but the person who made it has this habit of pointing out my mistakes when I least expect it, rattling my nerves and making me feel like an idiot. Again, I couldn’t go up to the person and say, “In your face” but it was nice to know they too were prone to making an obvious mistake.

That doesn’t make my mistakes any less stupid, but I’m comforted by the fact that I’m not a complete idiot despite the evidence to the contrary. 

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Train wreck

I spent the better part of the weekend watching the media beat up Donald Trump for inciting violence at his rallies. Wallowing in bad news is something I do; I did it with Hurricane Katrina; I did it with the Boston Marathon bombing; and I’ve done it with every mass shooting in the last ten years. Wallowing feeds my anxiety about the human race and it’s ability to sustain itself; it plays into my secret narrative that humanity is going the way of the Dodo.

There’s a part of me that believes calmer heads will prevail and Donald Trump will either lose the Republican nomination or the general election. What scares me though is the Republicans have gerrymandered the voting districts to such an extent, and passed so many voter suppression laws that he could actually become president. It’s the novel Kurt Vonnegut didn’t have time to write. 

The Canadian Federal election was pretty intense—the most intense I’ve ever seen. The polls were all over the place; there were so many missteps by all the candidates it was hard to tell which way the wind would blow. 

In my heart of hearts I felt there was no way Harper could get re-elected; he had scorched the economy, sold our sovereignty to the lowest bidder, and become so polarizing, it felt like the country was coming apart at the seems. I literally stopped watching CBC’s The National just so I wouldn’t have to hear his voice. 

For a while there, it looked like Harper’s chickens had come to roost. The photo of a dead Syrian boy washed up on the shore came to light, and then it was discovered the boy’s parents had applied for and been denied asylum in Canada. It was like the country got it’s soul back and we tool a long look at ourselves as a nation and decided this wouldn’t do.

But then the pendulum swung again back in Harper’s court. His government sued to prevent a woman from wearing a Hijab at her citizenship ceremony and then he proposed a tip line for “Barbaric Cultural Practices” and it was like that poor child had died for nothing. Some how, some way, Harper and his team had touched upon our greatest fears and our worst prejudices and seized the baton again. 

I knew we were in real trouble when I was discussing the election with my sister, who is a devout Catholic but no fan of Harper, and she said, “Those women in their burkas make me nervous.”

“Drunk white guys after a hockey game make me more nervous,” I told her. It helped her put things in perspective, but I don’t know if I changed her mind.

I didn’t vote for Trudeau—I live in an NDP stronghold—but I’m glad he won. The selfie thing is becoming a little trying, but I realize he has his work cut out for him rebuilding the country. I’m skeptical, and nervous about the future of my country, but at the same time, I’m relieved that Trudeau and his party aren’t making knee-jerk reactions and looking for quick wins. I’m in it for the long haul.

What I appreciate most about Trudeau however, is he’s not out there inciting anger. He’s not acting like a know-it-all. He reminds me of myself when I start a new job: a little over my head but trying hard to learn what I don’t know.

I still believe calmer heads will prevail in the US, but this election is like a powder keg waiting to explode and someone needs to diffuse it. The Canadian election was only 72 days long and it was gruelling to sit through. I can’t imaging what  another 8 months of this is going to take on the American psyche, much less humanity as a whole.  I just hope some poor kid doesn’t have to wash up on some shore for people to get their shit together and figure out what’s important.

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Out of time but not out of mind

Facebook has this great way of reminding me that I’m aging a faster than I can stop to live in the moment without feeling like I’m missing out on something. Today on my news feed some asshole decided to inform me the album Out of Time by R.E.M. was released twenty-five years ago today. Thank you Mark Zuckerberg for that kick in the balls, the grey hairs on my chest weren’t startling enough.

Twenty-five years! That’s nearly half my life! 

I could sit back and ask myself where the time went, but I know where it went; some of it was good, some of it was bad, but all of it seems compressed into a ZIP  file that expands whenever my brain clicks on by accident, taking up on my internal hard drive that I need to delete or compress again to make room for the future. 

Last week I convinced myself that I was turning 50 this year. It was one of those random questions that run through my mind while I’m riding my bike to work: “How old am I again?” I did the math in my head and came up with the number 50 surprising the hell out of me. I had to stop my bike, pull out my phone, and subtract the years from each other. There it was my age: 50. It was like thinking you’re a Libra all your life only to find out you’re a Scorpio.

I promised to take myself to Hawaii when I turned 50. I got the idea from an old fuck-buddy of mine, the idea being “Hawaii-Five-Oh”. There’s no way I could do it this year; I’ve set some unreasonable financial goals for myself and with the Canadian dollar the way it is, the US is not the ideal travel destination for a single gay guy with a mortgage.

This morning I told my sister my realization and she said, “You’re not 50 you idiot, you’re only 49!” I told her I did the math on a calculator and she reminded me that I was born in 1967 not 1966. “You have another year to save for Hawaii.”

I don’t know if should be concerned that I’m so shitty at math I can’t subtract two whole numbers or relieved that I don’t dwell on my age enough that I forgot the year I was born. I’ll go with the latter, it makes me feel less stupid. 

It doesn’t change the fact it seems like only yesterday that I bought Out of Time on cassette at A&B Sound on Seymour Street and listened to it while I smoked a joint, dancing around my apartment on Harwood Street like Michael Stipe  in the video for “Losing My Religion” while I got dressed to wait tables at a  restaurant on Robson Street. 

I feel the need to say it’s not depressing that 25 years have passed since the first time I heard “Out of Time” on a cassette on a secondhand boom box that was missing buttons, but fascinating that now I’m listening to it on my iPad using the Spotify app. 

Still, I would love to know whatever happened to that cassette and where it is now. Whichever landfill it ended up in, I’m sure it will be here long after I am.

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A blast of presidential wackiness from the past

Being ThereBeing There by Jerzy Kosiński

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had to go back and read this with the crazy Republican primaries going on in the States right now. Modern technology makes the plot implausible in 2016, but the essence of the story still holds true. Basically the only thing that separates to powerful from the weak is perception and a good metaphor. Also, people are willing to believe what they want to believe and fill and the gaps of what they don’t know with their imagination. Great quick read, funny, tender, and beautifully written.

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Lyrical Super 8 memories: Review of Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown Girl DreamingBrown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It seems pointless to write a review of a book that has been universally praised and received so many awards, but I couldn’t put Brown Girl Dreaming down without saying how much I loved it.

I first heard about this memoir written in verse when it was nominated for the National Book Award for Children’s literature, and again after Daniel Handler made an ass of himself when he directed a watermelon joke at Jaqueline Woodson. I finally bought it after Linda Holmes said Brown Girl Dreaming was one of the books that made her happy in 2014 on Pop Culture Happy Hour.

I’m not a huge fan of poetry. I don’t have anything against poetry, but it’s not a genre of literature that I gravitate towards; when I do, I tend to lean towards tried and true classics like Howl or Leaves of Grass.

I’ve listened to Jaqueline Woodson read the first poem of the Brown Girl Dreaming on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, and I loved how the words rolled off her tongue. I personally wasn’t able to recreate the cadence of her voice as I read Brown Girl Dreaming on my own, and I often felt like I was reading it all wrong. That didn’t prevent me from enjoying her book however.

Brown Girl Dreaming is a perfect introduction to poetry if you want to explore verse but find yourself intimidated by it. Labelled as a children’s book, the stories and memories Woodson shares are more like Super 8 films, captured in one or two pages that manage to convey all the emotion of an epos.

There’s no plot per se, just memories, visions of the author’s past. It’s like Woodson is writing the stories as she’s remembering them. The poems have a lovely stream of conscious feel to them, and it’s easy to glide from one poem to another without noticing the time go by.

Race and the Civil Rights movement are front and center in the book, but this is really a story about your average little girl growing up in the South and then in Brooklyn; it’s about being a kid, playing on backyard swing sets, going to school and church, and living under the shadow of over-achieving siblings.

It’s important to note this is also the story of a single mother raising five children. Single black mothers are typically portrayed at their end of their ropes, struggling to keep their families together and the bill collectors at bay. You never get the sense of abject poverty from the Woodson’s descriptions of her childhood. The children in Brown Girl Dreaming seem to want for nothing, oblivious of fancy toys or big houses.

I personally identified with Jacqueline Woodson’s descriptions of struggling in school as she learned to read, and making up stories that suited her own narrative. Her descriptions of going to the Kingdom Hall of the Jehovah’s Witnesses also rung true to me (although I was raised Catholic).

My favourite poem in the book was because we’re witnesses. I read that poem about three or four times before I moved on to the next one. The poem has all the power of John Lennon’s Imagine. I’m sure I’ll go back to it often in the years to come, and quote it for friends.

Brown Girl Dreaming is already a classic, the kind of book you give to youngsters and adults alike. It’s a book that can be cherished and relied upon to get you through rough times. It’s not everyone’s childhood, but it is childhood as we like to remember it, with all it’s intricacies, family dramas, and subtle joys. It the kind of book makes you grateful for the life you have, however modest it may be.

If you liked Brown Girl Dreaming I would also recommend The House on Mango Street.

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Revenge of the Vinyl Cafe: Paint-by-numbers Canadiana

Revenge of the Vinyl CafeRevenge of the Vinyl Cafe by Stuart McLean

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I discovered Stuart McLean and The Vinyl Cafe about ten years ago at the Vancouver Public Library. I checked out a collection of his CDs and spent a weekend alternately laughing and crying to stories about Dave, his wife Morley, and their assortment of friends and neighbours. While I’m not a devout fan of the CBC radio show, I certainly have an appreciation for Stuart McLean’s work and turn to it whenever I need to feel good about the world again, particularly Canada, which I haven’t felt so great about in recent years.

The best way to describe The Vinyl Cafe radio show to the uninitiated is that it is to the Canadian Broadcast Corporation what Garrison Keillor and Lake Wobegon Days are to NPR. It features an awe-shucks host telling folksy tales about nice people with the best intentions, getting in over their heads until hilarity ensues. There’s usually a slap-stick moment where the impossible happens, people get upset but in a nice way, and everything works out in the end. The stories aren’t for everybody, but if you want to kick your feet up and take your mind off the problems of the world without getting high or drunk, then Stuart McLean and his Vinyl Cafe is the cure for what ails you.

Stuart McLean specializes in meditations on quiet moments. Many of the stories in Revenge of the Vinyl Cafe examine people as they face their fears and step out of their comfort zones into a larger world. Little boys talk to monsters in the sewer, little girls prove they are as brave as the boys, and men act like little boys in an attempt to reclaim their youth. A lot of time is spent listening to one character reminisce about their past, telling stories that appear to go nowhere, culminating in a profound conclusion about the present over the course of the telling.

“All these little moments, he thought, who knows which ones are going to count and which ones will be forgotten,” McLean writes. “It’s never the things you think. It isn’t the fishing trip. Or even the fish. It’s the fish head.”

My favourite story in the book is The House Next Door, where Dave’s wife, Morley, is tasked with looking after an expensive fish for a pair of DINKS (Double Income No Kids) that have moved in next door and gentrified their neighbour’s old house. At first Morley is turned off by her new publicist neighbour, but she grows to appreciate her minimalist decor, free of clutter and children. After nearly getting caught taking a bath in their soaker tube, Morley and the publicist share an unspoken moment that defines their relationship as neighbours. It’s not earth shattering, but it’s authentic; something that people living in cities can truly appreciate.

That’s what I love about the Vinyl Cafe, the harmless secrets and circumstances that bring strangers together, sometimes without their being aware of it. It’s the story about the car Dave and his friend take on a joy-ride long after the joy-ride is over; it’s how the doll got in the box, and the explanation of how the dead fish predicted the weather—the facts behind the folklore.

The stories themselves are simple and easy to read. The situations can be a little contrived and implausible, but it’s the way McLean writes about a Saturday in September, or spring in a small town that turn ordinary life into a world of wonder.

Much of McLean’s humour is derived from stating the obvious at just right moment, or Dave confronting his worst fears as one of his misguided plans is about to hit the fan. Although McLean relies on these comic devises, he’s careful never to hit you over the head with them, spreading them out so that they seem fresh every time he springs them on you.

Written for the radio, these stories translate well to the printed page. This is a great collection to take on vacation to a cabin or curl up with in winter. For those of us that remember what it was like to dial a rotary phone, they’re a great piece of nostalgia. For everyone born after that, they may give you some insight into how we experience the world. McLean’s stories have a paint-by-numbs quality to them; simple yet complex, a portrait of landscape that is disappearing as fast the polar icecap.

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