The C Word

My sister always told me, “We don’t get physically unhealthy in our family. No cancer or strokes or Parkinson’s disease. It’s just our minds that go to shit.”

I used to find this vaguely comforting, till my oldest sister began showing signs of dementia. Some might say I’m being too harsh, that’s it merely a strong fixation on her part, but I say anyone who watches Hoarders for more than three hours straight is a nut case.

My paternal grandfather, Grandpa Jones, went batty in his old age. When he was younger he had a temper, and used to beat up Grandma. My Dad was the eldest of four kids, and he tried his best to protect her.

One day Grandpa beat Grandma so badly that Dad decided to stop him once and for all. He loaded a shotgun, but while he was tamping down the bullet, he shot off the top of his index finger instead.

The good news is, it all evened out in the end. When Grandpa went senile, Grandma locked him up in the attic and fed him on Wonder bread she slid under the door. One day Grandpa escaped and ran down the street, naked and babbling.

Or so I’ve been told.

All of which is my way of saying I’m fortunate that I haven’t had to deal with a serious illness.

Last month Cameron’s Dad had a cancerous tumour removed from his skull. He and his wife came to Toronto, where I visited them at a hospice for chemo and radiation patients and their families.

If you’ve never been to a hospice for cancer patients, you don’t know what you’re missing. And believe me, that’s a good thing.

The Princess Margaret brain tumour hospice looks about the way you’d imagine: miles of drab, grey corridors filled with elderly people shuffling about or slumped in chairs.

The main lounge resembles a bed and breakfast I stayed in when I was a kid; an effect made more real by the fact that one wall is filled with Reader’s Digest Condensed Books from 1960.

Looking around, it was hard to see where those billions of dollars for cancer treatment are going. I mean, last I checked, chemo and radiation were considered cutting-edge around the same time as Reader’s Digest Condensed Books.

One place those dollars definitely aren’t going is The Humour Room. This drab little space boasts a few chairs, an old timey television and – I shit you not – a VCR and tapes. An old lady sat there alone as we passed by, watching CNN.

The next time we go, I’m bringing a DVD player and a copy of Dumb and Dumber. Even if it’s their only movie, it’s beats an evening with Wolf Blitzer.

Cameron’s parents, Cameron and I decided to go for a walk. When we got to the end of the block, we turned the corner and found ourselves facing a compound straight out of The Wire. Teenagers huddled in twos and threes, daring us to make eye contact. All that was missing was D’Angelo’s orange couch.

We quickly circled back to the hospice and sat in the lounge for a while. Then it was time to go. On our way out we passed another room filled with books. There were boxes and boxes of them, all donated by volunteers.

“Look at this one!”

Cameron’s Mom held up an old paperback. On the cover was a picture of a keyhole and the words The Discreet Gentleman’s Guide To The Pleasures Of Europe. It was basically a Frommer’s for the raincoat brigade, circa 1976; a sort of European Orgies On $10 A Day.

“Here, take it,” she said, pressing it into my hand.

“I couldn’t,” I protested. “It’s for patients.”

“The sign says ‘Help yourself. Yours to borrow or to keep.’ Why don’t you use it to write some sort of skit.”

Or…this.

 

Remembering George

This year I had the great fortune to work with someone truly gifted. His name? George Hickenlooper.

My art director, Shelley, and I were sifting through a pile of director’s reels when I saw his name on the case.

“With a name like Hickenlooper, he’s gotta be good,” I joked.

I put the disc in my computer. The first thing on the reel was a scene of Kevin Spacey doing his best Kevin Spacey impression in a mirror.

I checked the disc. There must be some mistake.

I clicked to the next spot on the reel. It was a clip of William H. Macy. I clicked again, and there was Woody Allen. What? The f*ck?

At the end of the reel was a 10-minute clip of Guy Pearce and Sienna Miller from Factory Girl.

By now Shelley and I were in stitches. It had to be a joke.

The script we’d sent out was basic, to put it kindly. No Old Spice-guy-on-a-boat hijinks; ours was a straightforward slice-of-life commercial, though we managed to sneak in a faint whisper of humour.

But who were we kidding? If this guy had really worked with all these stars, why the hell would he want to bid on our little job? Knowing we had a snowflake’s chance in hell of working with him, we put his name on the list anyway.

When we got off the phone with George and his producer, Shelley and I were dumbfounded. He was smart, soft-spoken, and most mind-blowing of all, excited about the job.

After 20 years in the ad biz, I’ve heard my share of phony pitches and feigned enthusiasm.

George was utterly genuine.

When we met him in casting, he didn’t at all match my image of a high-flying director. He was polite and reserved, but his sense of humour and love of film were immediately apparent.

He took photos of all of us on his iPhone. I couldn’t understand why, when he also had photos of so many well-known celebrities.

“Add me on facebook!” he beamed.

I did, and was stunned to find his friend list read like a Hollywood Who’s Who: Alec Baldwin, Roger Ebert, Illeana Douglas, Joaquin Phoenix, Ben Stiller…and me.

George was terrific on set. Even though we were shooting French and English, which normally means overtime, we finished ahead of schedule. He had a quiet but commanding presence, and the shoot went smoothly. His attention to detail was evident in every frame. The client was ecstatic.

Afterwards we went for drinks. Like rabid fans, Shelley and I gave him our favourite films to autograph: Hearts of Darkness, the documentary about Apocalypse Now, and Factory Girl. He signed them with a flourish.

On his last night in Toronto, he told us how excited he was to premiere his new film, Casino Jack, at TIFF in September. “You’ll have to come!” he said, and true to his word, we got tickets when the festival rolled around.

The film stars Kevin Spacey as Jack Abramoff, and it was obvious at the premiere that George was in awe of his lead actor.

Looking at George’s facebook photos, I was often struck by the “kid-in-a-candy-store” look on his face, whether he was standing with Tom Ford, William H. Macy or Barack Obama. He never seemed jaded or blasé, but retained an almost childlike enthusiasm for his art.

It was a shock then, to hear that George died on Friday, right before the premiere of Casino Jack in Denver. He was 47.

Only last week I saw Morgan Spurlock’s documentary Committed. It follows the lives of four filmmakers, including George, as they show their films at the Toronto International Film Festival.

In one scene, where George is getting his hair cut, he says, “I worry that death will be boring.”

Not a chance, George. Not a chance.

Book Review: Born On A Blue Day

Born On A Blue Day: Inside The Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant is the story Daniel Tammet.

The Raleigh News & Observer calls it “Remarkable, revealing, and nearly flawless.”
“Honest, eloquent” raves The Cleveland Plain Dealer.
“Yawn.” – Me

Turns out his autism is plain old Asperger’s syndrome.

Big whoop.

Try growing up with four siblings, four of whom have Asperger’s. Only no one’s heard of Asperger’s yet, so you think that you’re the freak.

With my steady job, ability to make eye contact and lack of criminal record, I’ve been the object of ridicule in my family for years.

My sister Janet was the Acid Queen of Yorkville in the ’60s. She and her husband made LSD in their bathtub, and kept $100 bills stacked in the freezer.

At least it wasn’t body parts.

She got busted eventually, of course. When the RCMP arrested her, she demanded to go to the washroom – alone – and calmly flushed the evidence down the toilet.

(I, on the other hand, couldn’t bring home stickers I found at school without tearfully confessing to my parents.)

Twenty years later she was busted again, this time for bilking the Old Age Pension.

Apparently she took the names of dead people from gravestones and used their I.D. I say “apparently” because we’ve never discussed it; I found out from co-workers who saw it on the news.

Janet’s disdain for the law is balanced by a bizarre reverence for etiquette. Talking too loud, saying “can” instead of “may,” and chewing gum in public are all serious offenses.

So it’s only natural that next in line is my loud, slang-talking, gum-chewing sister, Marion.

For as long as I can remember, Marion’s been a magnet for chaos. From losing her wallet on Christmas Eve, to contracting Legionnaire’s Disease at work, to getting evicted when her roommate turned their home into a crack den, if something can go wrong, it will, usually in spectacular fashion.

A writer by trade, Marion has lived most of her life in a one-room flat. Compared to Janet she seems pretty normal, until you look at her circle of friends: astrologers, compulsive gamblers, schizophrenics, professional lab rats, and nuttiest of all, other writers.

Where Marion’s heavily into the occult – she was married to a palm reader – our brother Lloyd is a card-carrying atheist.

Like many people with Asperger’s, he has a limited range of interests. Or should I say, interest. He’s spent the last 40 years in his basement, building and programming computers.

Whether from the isolation, the Asperger’s, or both, his social skills are pretty sketchy. Dinners at his place involve me smiling awkwardly at his wife while Lloyd sits, eyes closed, and complains about the “terrible food.”

But what he lacks in diplomacy, he makes up for with deadpan humour. I’ve cried more than once for taking his jokes seriously.

SFX: (phone ringing)

“Hello?”

“Hey, I’ve got a great idea for making a lot of money. It’s simple. I just hack in to the banks’ computers and take a penny from every account electronically. They’ll never know.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“No. (pause) You’re an accomplice now, by the way.”

“WHAT?! Why?”

“Because you listened.”

I might’ve laughed if our sister wasn’t Janet.

Then there’s Sitara, a.k.a. Astrid, a.k.a. Batul, Samantha, Lynn, Judith, Maude and Derede. The last time I saw her, she was standing on the corner in a Muslim robe, clutching a Fendi handbag.

“Hey Sitara, how’re things?”

She smiled. “I’d be fine if I could just assassinate George Bush!”

“Great. Well, see you around.”

Sitara is closest to me in age, but we couldn’t be further apart. When I was obsessed with Snoopy and Woodstock, Sitara was reading Chaucer and writing in iambic pentameter. She also talked to fences, and was prone to public outbursts.

Before Sitara was diagnosed with Asperger’s, I blamed her eccentricity in part on her birth name. Who wouldn’t be fucked up with a name like Derede?

“It’s Greek for Dorothy,” Mom would explain when people asked.

Why she didn’t just name her Dorothy is a mystery best explained by the fact that our mother also has Asperger’s.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

Smart but not a genius, creative but unfocused, I spent years trying to gain my family’s approval. Then one night as I was flipping channels, I saw John Bradshaw.

He looked and sounded like a TV evangelist. I’d always been fascinated with Jim and Tammy Bakker, so I stopped to listen.

“Watch out for the black sheep of the family,” he said. “Chances are they said, ‘I’m getting out of here, these people are crazy!'”

The words hit me like a lightning bolt. You mean it’s OK to not be like the rest of my family? In that moment, everything changed. Now I accept myself and my family as individuals who just happen to be related.

But back to Tammet.

No question, he has an amazing mind. Thanks to a condition called synesthesia, he sees numbers as physical landscapes, and in 2004 he memorised Pi to 22,500 decimal places. He also speaks ten languages, including Esperanto.

All in all, I recommend Born On A Blue Day if you want to know more about Asperger’s.

Or you can just visit my family.

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Mr Perfect

When I was 20 I lived with a man who communicated via stuffed animal.

Actually, we didn’t really live together. I commuted across town to his apartment on weekends, where I did my best to disappear.

Chris had obsessive compulsive personality disorder, and he didn’t like physical evidence of my existence cluttering up his living space. Unlike OCD, OCPD involves perfection, rules and organization. At the time I just thought he was a typical art director.

He gave me a two-inch space in his closet, where I crammed three days’ worth of clothes. Apart from my toothbrush (whose brand and colour he dictated), you wouldn’t even know I was there.

My first clue that Chris was a little finicky was the kitchen.

The regular oven was off-limits, because using it would mean getting it “dirty.” Instead, we cooked everything in a crappy little toaster oven. Chris had a penchant for giant steaks, and one night my hand got stuck to the element as I tried to wrest a T-Rex-sized flank from the grill. As I watched my skin sizzle, all I could think was that I wished someone made a bigger toaster oven.

The rest of the kitchen was just as fun. Every mug had to face the same way in the cupboard: handle out, a tad to the left. The coffee maker had to be washed, dried, inspected for water spots, and put back in its original position after each cup. On the upside, I drastically cut down my coffee consumption.

Chris was obsessed with Braun products, and one year he got a Braun hand blender for Christmas. He insisted on keeping it in the original packaging, like some kind of gourmet collectible. To use it, I had to drag the huge box from under the sink, unpack each piece from its cardboard nest, unwind the twist ties and slide the plastic cover from each attachment. Then I had to put everything back when I was done. Perhaps that’s why I never understood the joy of cooking.

The bathroom was another minefield.

Each morning I scoured the tub for errant hairs that fell from my head or pubes after showering. If Chris found even one, he’d scowl and mutter about “inconsiderate people.” The towels had to hang perfectly straight, and I was late for work more times than I can remember because the hairdryer cord wasn’t wrapped exactly seven times.

One afternoon while I sat in the living room reading, I heard a roar from the bathroom. I dashed down the hallway, an apology for my hirsuteness ready on my lips.

“What’s THIS??” he demanded, his face turning purple. He pointed to my make-up brushes, which were drying in a cup.

“I w-washed my brushes.”

He stared at me like I’d lost my mind. “It’s a FUCKING TOOTHBRUSH HOLDER!”

Needless to say, I never confused his 79 cent plastic tumbler with a temporary receptacle for something else again.

In addition to his deep-seated need for order, Chris had a rather unique way of conversing.

At the end of his bed was a grubby grey toy named Earl. It looked like a cat that had been run over, with X’s for eyes. Whenever Chris wanted to talk about something important, he’d move Earl’s head and gesture with its matted fur arms.

One night I told Chris I’d visited the optometrist and needed glasses. He scrunched up his face and peered at me from behind nicotine-stained lenses, then reached for Earl.

“You mean you’re getting contacts,” he said, the cat’s head flopping up and down.

“No, I’m getting glasses. I don’t want contacts,” I said.

“You should get contacts,” Earl pressed.

“But you wear glasses,” I replied, trying to make eye contact with Chris.

“Yes, but YOU knew what you were getting!”

I stared at Chris, then the cat, then Chris, while the full superficiality of his comment sunk in.

* * * * * *

A few weeks later while Chris was out partying, I hurriedly gathered my possessions. It didn’t take long. I left my toothbrush and a birthday gift from Chris: a Braun calculator. He had one exactly like it. Then I sat down and wrote a goodbye letter.

Scanning the apartment one last time, I looked for any sign that I’d been there. There was none.

Watching Joaquin

Watching Joaquin Phoenix on Letterman, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the guy. Sure he’s a millionaire Oscar® nominee. But judging from his behaviour, he’s also a fucked-up mess. Maybe that’s what happens when your parents name you Leaf.

I hadn’t seen Dave that uncomfortable since Crispin Glover was on (youtube it, kids). Which got me thinking. Just because you’re famous, doesn’t mean you’re normal. If anything, the percentage of “normal” people is probably so small it’s statistically insignificant. Even more so in L.A.

My friend Greg and I were discussing it at lunch one day. I’d just finished telling him about my brother who has Asperger’s.

“Cameron says talking to him is like talking to a computer. When he opens his mouth all Cameron hears is, ‘Zero zero one, zero one, zero one one, zero.'” I laughed, then added casually, “So…do you think I’m weird?”

“Yes.”

Really?”

I was stunned.

Greg looked up from his plate of pasta. “I think everyone’s a bit weird.”

Put like that, I had to admit he had a point. And not just because he’s a 6-foot-5 screaming fag. (I take it back. Greg never screams, though he does squeal over Kelly Clarkson.) Armed with this newfound insight, I began re-evaluating everyone I knew. Like my friend Stacy.

Stacy met her ex-husband Roy in a bar. At 19 she was already a hardcore alcoholic, and so was he. They got married she told me, because “It was a good excuse for a party.”

One day between drinks, they decided to wallpaper the living room. But first they had to restock the bar. Stacy went out and when she came back, was amazed to find the entire room wallpapered. Knowing she hadn’t been gone that long, she quizzed him.

“How’d you do it so fast?”

“Ahhhh, wasn’t that hard,” he replied, cracking open a Bud.

Stacy put on her glasses for a closer look. In a stroke of genius that could only come from years of dedicated drinking, he had nailed the wallpaper to the wall. Not only that, but he’d used six-inch nails.

“They only went about halfway in the wall,” she told me. “He just banged the rest over and down.”

Now, anyone can do weird shit when they’re drunk. But when I met Stacy she’d been sober for years. When she told me the wallpaper story, we laughed about what a freak Roy was. Meanwhile, Stacy enjoyed playing with Ouija boards, reading the Satanic Bible, and telling me about her encounters with UFOs. None of these things struck me as strange, because they were all par for the course in my family.

I was starting to see what Greg meant.

Take my husband’s ex-boss. Some people have photos of their family on their desktop. Others have stories of how little Billy scored the winning goal in their league. Cameron’s boss liked to share his children’s most intimate rites of passage with employees.

One day he strode into the office beaming.

“I taught my son how to masturbate on the weekend!”

Everyone in the department froze.

“I gave him a Playboy and told him to go the bathroom. Then I waited outside. He said, ‘I’m trying Dad!’”

He paused before continuing. No one made eye contact.

“After a while he said, ’It feels good!’”

He smiled and looked around the room for approval at what a great, modern Dad he was.

Before meeting Cameron, I had my share of odd boyfriends. When I was 18 I met Charles, a 31-year-old Beatles-obsessed virgin. After dating for a few weeks I realized I wasn’t really attracted to him, and broke it off. He started seeing a woman named Janet. I’d met her at a few Beatles conventions and thought she was a lesbian; I wondered what kind of relationship they had.

One day I was cleaning the kitchen while Cameron watched Weird Homes. He yelled across the apartment.

“There’s a couple dressed as Thing 1 and Thing 2 from Dr Suess.”

“Do they have big red ‘fros?” I asked, stepping on a silverfish.

“No.”

“Whaaat? You can’t be Thing 1 and Thing 2 without the ‘fros!”

I stomped into the living room to check them out. Sure enough, they were wearing bright red jumpsuits with “Thing 1” and “Thing 2,” but no big red hair. Funny, I thought, he looks a bit like Charles. The woman was showing off a Christmas tree decorated with Grinch ornaments.

“We keep it up year ‘round,” she said proudly.

Just then the narrator said, “Janet and Charles live in California…”

I screamed as they cut to Charles lying on their bed, reading Horton Hears A Who!Hundreds of stuffed Dr Suess toys surrounded him. No doubt they read Dr Suess’s Sleep Book each night before dreaming of green eggs and ham.

But I’m barely scratching the surface.

I could tell you about my sister’s sexagenarian sexologist landlord, who only got licenced so he could hold orgies.

Or my mother’s doctor ex-boyfriend, who reused teabags and gave his son a repair manual for his broken record player as a 30th birthday gift.

Or my palmist ex-brother-in-law who channeled dead relatives and is now in prison. (Brisbane’s ‘Cat Woman’ Killer – Google it, kids.)

I think I’ll stop there, though. I’m starting to feel a little weird.