Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Books of My Childhood—Part 4/4 Later Science/Serious


If You Lived In the Days of the Wild Mammoth Hunters

I remember seeing this book in the equivalent of middle school, when I was 12 or 13. It's largely about the first people to populate and inhabit the Americas... which is to say, I suppose, the ancestors of the First Nations, as we call them in Canada. Aside from the revelations about how they lived and hunted, which were all on their own fascinating, the artwork was striking. Pastels or chalk, overlaid with just enough inkwork to provide force, direction, and definition. I'd never seen anything like it and the effect was singular. It was one of those perfect little gems that still stands out in my mind. Years later I was able to find a copy of it in, if I remember correctly, a used book store. Pure, delightful serendipity.


There's no overstating the impact of this book on me. A companion to the series that ran on PBS back in 1981, it might be the first hardcover book that I ever saved up for and bought on my own. As I recall, it cost me something like $13 or $14 at the time; something around $40-50 today, I'd guess. In a day when we didn't have a VCR yet, this was as close as I could come to having the series in my hands.

Cosmos was a revelation to me. It literally helped me to understand the universe in a way I hadn't before. It made it all bright and exciting and fascinating. I think the most remarkable realization that ever came out of it, for me, was the fact that just about every element heavier that hydrogen in our bodies was created in the forge of stars; stars that long, long ago blew themselves up in titanic supernovae that seeded the galaxy with the heavier elements from which the planets, and ultimately, we, formed. When Carl Sagan said that we were all literally "star-stuff", I was enthralled and enchanted. That we come from the most titanic of events, and probably dozens of them, is still an idea that can give me goosebumps. If I could only hand down a half a dozen books to a future generation that had forgotten everything about us, this would unquestionably be among them.


My Aunt Betty gave me this book for my 13th birthday. That was less than a year after we moved to Hamilton, and that was the first year in my life we actually had family close enough to us to see on a regular basis. As a kid who, until then, had grown up with relatives as a once-or-twice-a-year (if that) kind of thing, finally having them just across town, or a few hours up the highway, was a gift of inestimable price. This book is very much a symbol of all that for me.

It's a book in the same vein as Cosmos, but a little more speculative. In part, it talks about what advanced civilization on other worlds might be like, but it also has a deep, respectful grounding in physics. Oddly enough, it's this book, rather than Cosmos, that I remember introducing me to the concept of stellar "generations"; that is to say, stars that arise from the ashes of previous ones. A first generation star can be gleaned by checking its spectrum and finding no markers for any element as heavy as iron, or heavier. This means it's an original star... not one that arose from the guts of some other supernova event(s) that strewed such elements across space. Our own sun has iron in it, but it can't be iron fused in the sun itself... the sun is both too young and too small to fuse iron, and as soon as a star begins to fuse iron, it begins to die, because that process consumes more energy than it creates. That's how we know the sun is a second or third generation star in our galaxy. Fascinating idea even now. So the book has great value to me, both instructional and sentimental.

The History of the Atomic Bomb

I saw this book in the same school library as the mammoth hunters one above. This was a fascinating book that told the story of the Manhattan Project, the use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and how Klaus Fuchs gave it all away to the Russians to put us all on the brink ever since. In its early chapters, it also tells the story of how modern atomic theory was developed; the discovery and use of x-rays; the work of the Curies; and the amazingly casualness of the creation of the first atomic pile at the University of Chicago under Enrico Fermi's guidance. Still a fantastic book, and one that I found on eBay nearly 20 years ago now, and still have.

The Steven Truscott Story

I read this back in grade nine in the early 80s. It's the story of one of the great modern miscarriages of justice in Canada. Steven Truscott was a 14-year-old boy in southwestern Ontario accused and convicted of the rape and murder of classmate Lynn Harper in 1959. He was essentially railroaded, and despite his youth, sentenced to hang (to spare you the suspense, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by the federal cabinet of Prime Minister Diefenbaker not long his imprisonment). The book tells of his watching leaves falling off the tree outside his cell in the autumn of 1959, making a wager with himself that if any of them were still on the tree by a certain date (not sure if it was Christmas or New Year's), his life would be spared, and rising each day to see how many "traitors" among the leaves had deserted him. His case was reviewed by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1966, but it found no fundamental error in the trial; jurisprudence being what it was at the time. A model prisoner, he was released in 1969 and lived for a time with the family of the prison chaplain before changing his name and settling down to a steady job and raising a family of his own.

When I read this book in the early 80s, what happened to Steven Truscott shook me up. It was hard to believe this country would let all that happen to a boy pretty much exactly my age at the time.

Steven Truscott never stopped proclaiming his innocence and spent years trying to get his case reopened. In 2000, CBC's documentary program, The Fifth Estate, produced an hour-long show about the case and re-introduced Truscott to the country. It reviewed the mistakes made in the case, the flawed logic used to implicate Steven in Lynn's murder, the eyewitnesses to his innocence among other children who were ignored, and a strong suspect overlooked at the time. Largely as a result of that, his case was reviewed, and while too much evidence had been lost, destroyed, or degraded over the years to proclaim his actual innocence, the court was able to declare Steven Truscott not guilty in law, which at least removes the stain and the conviction. He's still alive today and makes periodic appearances to speak out for the wrongly-convicted.

The Usborne Book of the Future

This was actually a compendium of three books put out by the British children's publisher Usborne... Future Cities, Robots, and Star Travel. The timelines in the book were, as these things typically are, somewhat optimistic. For example, it predicted the advent of electric cars in the 1990s, a revolution that's really only just kicking in right now. But it did give a kid in the early 80s a glimpse of what to look forward to on the way to middle age. The one thing that particularly and consistently surprises me is how no one really seemed to see the internet coming. That seems to be something no one quite predicted, at least not as the single, convergent-technological phenomenon that suddenly appeared in the early 90s and is so ubiquitous and indispensable today. Just one of those blind spots, I guess. Given how much of life seems very much the same as what it was when I was a kid in the 70s, it's surprising how much really hasn't changed, and how vastly different life is in small but highly significant ways thanks to the net.

Six Seconds In Dallas

And finally, there's this one. This is a bit of a cheat, because I wasn't really a "child" when I encountered it. I was 19 and just starting university when I found this book in the campus library. It dates from 1967 and was one of the first books to lay out the problems, inconsistencies, and oversights of the Warren Commission's findings. I practically owned this book for the four years I was in university; I almost always had it signed out except in the summer when I had to, well, y'know, give it back. I won't labour the point by going over all the things Josiah Thompson laid out in the book (which has had a recently-published sequel by the same author, which I also own, reviewing new information while putting some of the older theories to bed). I'll only say that, while I'm no conspiracy nut, I am persuaded that there was more going on in John Kennedy's assassination than the Warren Report concludes, and regardless of who did or didn't pull the trigger(s), that he almost certainly died as the result of a conspiracy, probably at the hands of the mafia working at the behest of rogue elements of the US intelligence community. We'll probably never know, but to me, that's the likeliest explanation for how it was accomplished and covered up. I think it's not insignificant that CIA director Allan Dulles was fired by Kennedy, and then wound up in the Warren Commission, directing aspects of the investigation and questioning of witnesses. Just sayin'.

So, these have been many of the major books that helped shape who I am today, in various ways and to different degrees, from the wistful to the profound. If you've made it this far, I'd like to thank you for your time and attention, and I hope that one or two have piqued your interest enough to go looking. :)

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

A Moment in Time

I recently acquired a 1965 set of the Encyclopedia Britannica that came with a set of yearbooks from 1963 (covering 1962) to 1980 (covering 1979). Beautiful volumes. The original owners seem to have kept everything that accompanied them, so the yearbooks frequently have various offers tucked into the back cover. Some of them are elaborate foldouts, promising one free volume you can keep at no obligation.

Perusing the yearbook covering 1962, I came across an insert card. The offering itself—The Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking—didn't interest me much, but the nature of the card itself did...

I think these are so charming. First, the postage back in 1962 was a mere 6¢.

Secondly, the postal address back then was "Toronto 5", which I suppose was some particular, general region of the then-City of Toronto. According to Wikipedia, the modern postal code system we use rolled out from 1972-1974. Prior to that, the big cities were divided into postal zones... "As of 1943, Toronto was divided into 14 zones, numbered from 1 to 15, except that 7 and 11 were unused, and there was a 2B zone." For what it's worth, the postal code for 151 Bloor St. W. today is M5S 1S4, and that address houses, among other things, the Consulate General of Ecuador for Toronto. Britannica is long gone.

So the cost of this two-volume set, back in the day, was apparently $6. There appeared to be 60¢ postage and handling fee, which would be waived if you sent the full $6 (rather than the two installments of $3). I wonder how you did that using a business reply card. I guess you needed to use an envelope and you were on the hook for a 6¢ stamp. The other thing that surprises me is there's no mention of tax of any kind. There was no point-of-sale federal sales tax in Canada in 1962. I don't know if Ontario had a provincial sales tax in 1962; I suspect we did, but I really couldn't say. In any case, I don't believe it did then, or does now, apply to books. But the federal GST certainly does. In any case, it's still kind of... freeing, somehow?... not to see tax mentioned in the middle of something like this. At all.

I wondered what that kind of money all of this would represent to us today. I went to the online CPI inflation calculator, and it tells me that $6.60 in 1962 would be about $59.90 today... a dime short of sixty bucks. It's strange to think of six dollars and change being the equivalent of a good meal or an afternoon in the pub today. That 6¢ would be worth 54¢ today, which I think is actually considerably less than the actual cost of a stamp these days. Well, so much for the vaunted efficiencies of technology, I guess. :)

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Books of My Childhood—Part 3/4 Later Fiction

The following are books of fiction that came to my attention during adolescence and teenage years.

The Runaway Robot

What I mainly remember from The Runaway Robot was the faint sense of injustice I felt on behalf of the robot. He was at least as intelligent as the kid he served, and was portrayed as having emotions, desires, and apprehensions, but remained an object. Property. Even as middle schooler, I had the sense this wasn't right; that this was slavery by another name; and that if we were ever empowered to create such beings, that they had the right to autonomy, inasmuch as we ourselves have it. It was an open door to other, more troubled musings on the nature of the animals around us that, while not as mentally capable as us, are still possessed of love, joy, fear, anger, varying degrees of empathy, and the capacity to suffer.

The Gift of Winter

This one's kind of a cheat, actually. It's one that's very special to me. It's the book version of a story that was animated by a Canadian company in early 1970s, Rankin-Leach, and I remember seeing it one winter day when I was in grade four... I want to say it had something to do with the solar eclipse that year; I think we were all off that day so we wouldn't risk being outdoors to blind ourselves by staring at it or something. Anyway, I remember that no one else in my class remembered seeing it. It was a very strange story. A bunch of people in some town, all of whom had names that broadstroked their personalities (Nicely, Goodly, Rotten, Malicious, Small, Tender, and Bazooey) are tired of winter and set off on a march through the wilderness to reach the Ministry of Winter, where Winter himself rules the season with the aid of various iceberg-like people, notably the Secretary of Cold. They make their pitch and get shown the door. The three kids are overheard by Winter as they theorize why he's so mean, which brings him to tears. The tears become snow, and that is the eponymous "gift". Thanks. Thanks a lot. :) I saw it again on Christmas morning, 1980, and this time I knew it was coming on so I open-air recorded it on my Radio Shack tape recorder. I still have that recording, with all its background noises, my 12-year-old comments and singing, and even some of the station breaks. Many many years later, possibly into my 30s, I actually found this delight on VHS. But I remember seeing the book in a library and I looked for it for many years on eBay and finally found it. There's something even more real about having it as a book. It's strange, I know; the thing itself is an animated half hour. But in book form, you can touch it. It's real. It could arguably persist for centuries.

Incidentally, that special featured the voices of several Second City alumni at the dawn of their careers. Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Valri Bromfield, and Gerry Salsberg are all featured voices in it.

The War for the Lot

This story really captivated me back when I was 13 or so. It tells the story of a lonely boy named Alec who discovers he can converse with the wild animals in a lot near the home he's staying at. The animals live in fear of being overrun by a horde of rats. They convince Alec to become their general, and together they plot out their battle strategy. I remember it being surprisingly frank and violent for a book ostensibly aimed at children. For me, the ending was very sad. Mission accomplished, Alec loses not only the ability to communicate with the animals, but the very knowledge and memory of what he's accomplished. His deeds, his friendships, his heartfelt struggles, triumphs, and losses all evaporate and he goes back to being this average kid with no memory of how extraordinary the events around him have been and his part in them. I suppose the one silver lining from this ending is that any one of us could suppose himself to have been another Alec, a hero who's forgotten the role he played, but the notion you could do all that and still lose yourself continues to sadden me. Older but wiser, I suppose.

Watership Down

Watership Down was a huge big deal for me when I was about 15. The CBS affiliate in Buffalo played the movie across two evenings and I was absolutely enthralled. I borrowed the book from the school library and took it with me on our trip to Florida that spring. Later I found out that my friend Dave had the picture book; stills from the movie that, with the text, told the story. I traded something to him for it, and I cherished that book for years and years. Later on he happened to mention that it had, back in the day, been a birthday present to him from his mother, a charming, hard-working woman whom I admired and who passed away in the years in between. I gave the book back to him. Somewhat later on I was able to find another copy of the picture book on eBay and I still have that copy today, as well as the novel's less-notable sequel.
If you're aware of the book or the movie, they tell the story of a warren of rabbits whose destruction is foretold by one of the, a clairvoyant runt named Fiver. He and his older brother, Hazel, convince about a dozen other rabbits to escape. Fiver turns out to have been correct, and their warren is blithely destroyed by humans for a building project. Tracking across country, they eventually come to a huge hill, the eponymous Watership Down, where they make their home. The problem is, they're all male, and have no mates. Nearby is a Sparta-like warren headed by General Woundwart, and with the help of a wounded seagull named Keehar that they befriend and who becomes their one-bird air force, they set out to free as many as will join them. Can brains defeat brawn? Spoiler alert: eventually, yes. :)
Maybe more than any other story I ever read or watched, Watership Down made me want to become a writer. I was truly inspired by it. I've seen the movie upwards of a hundred times, and quotes from it live in my mind and spring to life on my tongue from time to time to this very day.

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Books of My Childhood—Part 2/4 Early Science

And so now we move on to the science portion of our show. These were the books that impressed me during the first decade or so of my life and helped shape my understanding of the world.

Science Book of Volcanoes

This book absolutely fascinated me back in grade three and started a long obsession with volcanoes. It focused, in part, on the story of the eruption of Vesuvius, and the dooming of the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum... one of those morbid things that seem to really sink hooks into certain kids. In fact, it led more or less directly to me creating one of the first stories I ever finished: a comic, drawn in grade four on lined paper in a notebook, called K.K.V., "King Killer Volcano". In it, an evil scientist brings a volcano to life; it grows a face and arms and legs of lava, and proceeds to terrorize the world while challenging other volcanoes to duels, and finally losing to the might of Vesuvius. I still have that comic. It's just awful. But it's mine. :)

In the Days of the Dinosaurs

What kid doesn't go through a phase where they're fascinated with dinosaurs? Just about the time you realize monsters aren't real, you discover that, yeah, for a while, they actually were! This book was practically the Bible for the boys in my third grade class. There's a lot of information in this book that's now outdated, but we ingrained every fact, name, and dimension into our memories through constant and repeated readings. On days when it was too cold or rainy to go outside for recess, there we'd be, huddled in the corner on the floor, making dinosaurs out of plasticine.

There are facts from this book I still remember. The earliest discovery of dinosaurs being equated to roughly the time of the death of George Washington. The sad, then-mysterious ending of the age the dinosaurs ruled. That dinosaurs came from huge eggs, often laid in great clusters, which always made me think of giant chickens... ironic, given that by the time I was in my twenties, I was hearing the astonishing idea that birds are, in fact, the last extant line of the dinosaurs, and those things wheeling in the sky and looking so delicious on the plate are actually dinosaurs. I'm still trying to wrap my head around the idea that tyrannosaurus (among others) probably wandered the world wreathed in feathers. I think the thing that really stayed with me, though, was the idea that that ancient world, in which they were the overlords for so, so long, had to move aside in order for us to be here, and what we are, now. The idea that our existence might not have been inevitable was a truly profound revelation at the age of 8.

Stars and Planets

For a couple of years, I lugged this book everywhere. It came with four pages of perforated stickers you had to lick and stick in the appropriate boxes. Each page had a separate topic, along with a line drawing suitable for colouring... which I did. I loved the hell out of this book when I was 7 and 8. I was mostly interested in the topics about the planets in our solar system; less interested in the other aspects of astronomy such as stars and galaxies. That seems natural enough to me now; it was a moment in time when the US and the Soviet Union were actively sending probes to the planets, so that was in the news a lot. I remember Pioneers 10 and 11, and not long afterwards Voyagers 1 and 2, beginning the exploration of the outer planets; at about the same time, Vikings 1 and 2 had landed on Mars. These were all real places; when I was a child, for the first time in human history, you could actually see photographs of them, just as real as ones of Paris or Tokyo or Rio de Janeiro. That was new, and it was happening right then. This book was my portable little piece of all that.

I found a copy of it a year or two ago and bought it. I scanned all the pages, including the stickers, and then "pasted" the stickers onto the scanned pages in Photoshop. I coalesced the whole thing together into a PDF that I shared with a buddy who also had a fascination with such things as a boy. I guess you don't grow out of everything as you get older. :)


This was a rather more sophisticated version of Stars and Planets; a field guide to amateur astronomy. It was the kind of thing a kid with a little telescope (not that I had one) out in a field on a summer night would have found useful. Again, I was mostly interested in what it had to say about the planets of our solar system, although there was enough of interest about other topics to finally get me at least passingly interested. I think the thing that really caught my attention was the suggestion that the pole star changes over time as the 'point' of the Earth's axis of rotation itself turns, over many, many thousands of years... That while it is, today, Polaris, that is has been in the past Vega, and eventually will be again. Something about that made me feel tied to a universe greater than me. It wasn't all just here to support me; quite the opposite: I was just a momentary bubble on a great wave passing through that had existed long before me and would carry on long after I was gone.

Extinct Animals

I still remember the ride home from the mall, poring over this book in the back seat. It was the first time the fragility of life was really impressed upon me; the first time I ever realized that extinction wasn't just something that happened to the dinosaurs millions of years ago, but had happened in the very recent past, and was potentially still going on around me even then.

Two stories really stood out for me. One was the tale of the passenger pigeon. The idea that the most abundant species of bird in North America had, all in space of a single human lifetime, gone from the billions to none at all, was sobering... if I can say that of a 10-year-old boy. That they could even identify the last living individual, a bird named Martha in the Cincinnati Zoo, and the very day and hour the species became literally extinct, gripped me in a way little else has.

The other story was the utter extermination of the native people of Tasmania, including the horrifying illustration of a white settler shooting a nude, black-skinned man in the back. It seems kind of inappropriate to me now to number a race of human beings among extinct "animals", even if it is taxonomologically valid. However, I can't say I'm sorry I was exposed to the realization... it was an important one, and was one more thing that helped to shape the person I became and the values that matter to me.

Primitive Man

This is one of the few childhood keepsakes I have. It's not one of the books I've managed to find and buy retrospectively as an adult, but actually one I've managed to keep hold of through myriad moves and upheavals since 1977. I'm pretty sure it's the earliest book I still possess of which I am the original owner.

I was, if I remember correctly, 9 when I got this book, probably in a supermarket as we shopped for groceries. I absorbed myself in the book in the back of the car on the way home, and I was blown away by the revelations in it. The world and how it worked were coming into real focus as I went through the pages. But it was also kind of unsettling. The world that I knew simply just was. It had always been like this and always would be; the only real changes were the new things we invented. Now I was starting to understand that no long ago, nothing I knew from my world would have existed... even the people in it. Nature wasn't just all the stuff around the human world; the human world, and human beings themselves, were a part of nature and necessarily embedded in it; that we are, for all our special abilities, actually just another species of animal. But as I read along, I came to a passage that was kind of a lifeline. It was a simple line; just a few words, but somehow, it made everything else okay. It somehow remoored everything to a foundation, and safely so emboldened, I felt free to explore more. I'll quote the passage from the book, and highlight in blue where the author encapsulated my fears, and then in red the words that still resonate with me more than forty years later...

Do all people believe the theory of evolution

When Darwin's books on evolution were printed a hundred years ago, many people said Darwin did not believe in God's plan, but in a horrible universe run by lucky accidents and greedy fighting. They said he was making man out to be nothing more than a smart ape. But these people need not have worried. The theory of evolution says certain things happened. It does not say, and it could not say, why those things happened. If God made the world and runs the world, then evolution is God's plan. And it is a majestic and beautiful plan. With evolution, even accidents are part of the plan of life, and even the lowest creature is part of the family life. The theory of evolution does not say man is only a smart kind of ape. It says that for two billion years living forms were tried and improved and tried in improved in preparation for the arrival of man as we know him upon the scene of life upon the earth.

Well, this more or less rounds out the books that really affected me in some key, important way up to the time I was 12 and we moved from Nova Scotia to Ontario. Moving on, I'll be looking at the books that helped shape my opinions and understanding in my teenage years. Coming up next! :)

Monday, December 27, 2021

Books of My Childhood—Part 1/4 Early Fiction

Think back to the favourite books of your youth. Which ones shaped who you are? Influenced you? Or just impressed you with some particular detail? I thought it would be interesting to go over some of the ones that stand out for me.

My parents were always really indulgent with me where books were concerned. I often came back from trips for groceries with some science-based 79-cent paperback, and whenever those little Scholastic Books order forms arrived in class, I always got to order two or three. A good deal of my allowance went on reading material of one sort or another. I had quite a little library of my own by the time I was eight or nine.

I spent the first twelve years of my life in suburban Halifax, Nova Scotia. After that, we moved to the northwest shores of Lake Ontario, where I lived in various cities. I decided it might be best to divide the books both by theme (fiction vs. science/reality) and period (Nova Scotia vs. Ontario). So these are the books slotted into each cross-section.

Most of these books I actually own. The great majority of them are ones I tracked down over the years on eBay or Amazon and picked up mainly for reasons of nostalgia. The upshot of that is I was able to scan the covers and give this little presentation a splash of colour. Now, to quote The Friendly Giant, "Are you ready? Here's my castle!..."


Crosspatch was a very early book in my collection; really, the first one I remember. I was two or three when I got this book; it tells the story of a lion cub in a zoo who's so thoroughly unpleasant that visitors begin avoiding his cage, leading him to become very lonely. He learns his lesson and becomes frolicsome and fun to watch and quickly attracts a large following of friends. It's an easy enough lesson for even a child of that age to take onboard. But the thing I remember most was a broad two-page spread that depicted a large panorama of the zoo, showing many animals in their habitats, featuring a tall flamingo and clusters of colourful balloons that fascinated me and became seared in my imagination... sufficiently so that I went looking for the book again many years later and gave it a home on my shelf.

The Witch's Catalog

The Witch's Catalog was one of those Scholastic Books I mentioned. I think I was in grade three when I ordered it (this is not that original copy, though). It was written by Norman Bridwell, and was part of his series of books about a friendly witch who served as a sort of fairy godmother to a couple of kids and their friends. If I remember correctly, he was also the author of the Clifford the Big Red Dog series.

It's worth noting here that while this was a surprisingly popular book among my crowd at the time, it's truly become a collector's item in the intervening decades. When I went looking for it, I had to look long and hard to find a copy affordable enough to be justified as a boon purchase. Copies of this book are often offered north of a hundred bucks; sometimes more.

I may have blogged about this particular book previously. It occupies a very special, very particular place in my life and my psyche. The book catalogs a variety of magical items that any red-blooded kid would give his or her eyeteeth to get hold of. A portable faucet with an endless supply of pop. A balloon that keeps monsters and bullies at bay. Invisibility-granting fabrics. Things like that.

But what makes it special to me is that it represents the moment in my life where I was right on the bubble of having to decide, for myself, if these things formed an actual part of reality or not. There was an order form in the back, and I was back and forth in my mind about whether or not filling it out and following its instructions would result in me acquiring the things I wanted to order. No money was required; you were to fill out the form, rub it with bat fat and flea's tears, and then hide it in the hollow of a tree at midnight under a full moon or something like that. I remember that what unravelled the whole thing for me, right on down to finally making me realize that magic must not be real, was that I couldn't imagine where you would get bat fat and flea tears. It strikes me now as funny that I could accept all the wildest claims of the book only for what tripped it all up for me to be the tiniest, least significant details at the last hurdle. But I guess I was who I was the following year in grade four because of that, and ever since.

It also occurs to me now, looking around at anti-vaxxers, MAGA hat wearers, and Brexit voters, that some grown-up people are still looking for the bat fat and flea tears to rub on the order form.

Tom Eaton's Book of Marvels

Another Scholastic Book, but not one I ordered myself. I bought this at a rummage sale in my school one Saturday when I was in grade five or six. The humour in this little tome is actually rather sophisticated for a kids' book. For instance, it includes a rather cynical send-up of The Waltons, a show I was very familiar with. It also featured a very broad interpretation of Archie comics, set in a page-by-page contrast with an average teenager's boring real existence.

I loved the art style and I still find the humour engaging. I gather Tom Eaton, who passed away just a few years ago, had an extensive career writing and illustrating Boys' Life magazine. Personally, I think he could have done just fine with Mad or Cracked. He was that good. I suppose the crucial takeaway I have from this book, though, that I still carry with me today as practical advice, was from a set of updated Aesop's fables, where the moral of one story was "You can't please some people, and after a certain point, you shouldn't try."

Arrow Book of Ghost Stories

A got this book in a trade with a friend, if I remember correctly. It was an anthology of creepy ghost stories. There were two that really stand out in my mind. One was about a "teeny-tiny" woman who finds a "teeny-tiny" bone that she takes to her teeny-tiny home to make her teeny-tiny soup, etc., etc. During the night she is haunted by an ever-closer voice demanding "Give me back my bone!" It ends with her just yelling "Take it!"; nothing really happens to her. But it was so creepily written, ramping up the suspense in an air of isolation, that it genuinely scared me, and it was a kind of guilty pleasure to dare myself to read it from time to time and risk the bad dreams. The other was about a genial 19-century ghost who befriends two boys. A murder victim, he asks the boys to dig up his bones and rebury them in a church yard so that he can rest properly. The boys do so, and it's implied at the end of the story that he becomes quite a good friend to have moving forward. It was an unusual but oddly happy ghost story and I think it made an impression on me for that reason. I certainly enjoyed re-reading it when I got hold of another copy many years later.

Ghosts Who Went to School

Another rummage-sale pick-up, or perhaps a trade; I'm not sure anymore. In any case... this is a fun story, but I think what really sold me on it was its illustrations. I simply loved the art style, and I still do. It tells the story of a family of ghosts, quietly haunting their abandoned house after having died quite some time before... turn of the last century, I think; the story is set circa 1960. The two boys get bored and decided to start going out in the world, culminating in them materializing and beginning to attend classes at the local elementary school as a pair of ordinary kids. The part I remember that kind of shook me up was one of the boys, Mortimer, privately demonstrating to one of his new friends that he actually is a ghost by appearing to the boy "in his bones", which was illustrated with a grinning skeleton appearing before a kid with his hair raised stock straight up. There's a sequel to this book, illustrated by the same artist, that I'd dearly love to get but it's considerably rarer and hideously expensive. Any copy you're likely to find is priced into three figures. Alas.

The Riddle of Raven Hollow

Funny to say, I never actually owned this book as a kid; at least, not at the time. This book was in our school library, and I pretty much had it out on permanent loan for years; renewing it again and again. This book was the one that made me want to become a writer.

It's the story of a boy named Bart who lives in Nebraska with his widowed mother and older sister. Bart was 12 or 13, a few years older than I was at the time, and he had a paper route in order to help his family make ends meet. In the course of his rounds, he begins seeing odd goings-on in the early morning, culminating in him meeting a mysterious, belligerent boy who, in the fullness of time, turns out to be a girl who is hiding out because her grandfather has been kidnapped (if I remember correctly). There's actual existential danger for these kids in the story, and I recall being totally impressed that kids could actually get caught up in situations that might see them murdered just like any adult. Makes you feel like part of the club once you understand that kind of thing. I was infatuated with Bart and I made up a couple of boy detectives of my own and started writing stories about them. I don't think I ever finished any of them, but I thoroughly enjoyed coming up with ideas and taking them as far as imagination at the time would permit me. I was lucky enough to have a couple of teachers who were willing to read them and gave me considerable encouragement, and my heart and warm thoughts still go out to them. I really ought to read this book again.

So, that's it for the fiction portion of our show. Tune in next time when we move on to blinding you with science!

Wednesday, September 08, 2021

As universes go by...

There's a short documentary by the National Film Board of Canada, from 1960, that's sort of haunted me for a while now. Called Universe, in about half an hour, it frames our understanding of the cosmos at the dawn of the Space Age, and bookends the work of an astronomer at the David Dunlap Observatory in Richmond Hill, Ontario, one of the most important in North America at the time. It still exists. In 1960, it was half an hour or more out in the countryside. Today, it's surrounded by suburbs.

There are two moments in the documentary that speak to me personally. The first occurs a little over eight minutes in. Speaking of the planet Mars, the narrator tells us that "It is reasonably certain that the markings on it surface, bluish-green in the Martian summer, turning rusty brown in the autumn, indicate vegetation..."

And it does haunt me. This is a moment in history when we could still imagine there was complex, multicellular life on Mars. Only five years later, those millennia-old illusions would be dashed forever by the fly-by of Mariner 4. But in 1960, when my parents and some of my friends were already alive, less than a decade before I was born, you could still dream. And what dreams they were.

The other is a more earthbound moment. At the very end of the documentary, as the astronomer is rubbing his tired eyes at the end of a long night in the light of dawn, there is a shot of Hwy 401 at the Leslie Street interchange. I know this interchange well; I've lived walking distance from it for 21 years now. In fact, I know it well enough to tell you that the NFB was cheating; that the view faces west, so is in fact an evening shot, not a morning shot. It was taken from the vicinity of the on-ramp from southbound Woodbine Avenue, which no longer exists... it's now Hwy 404 north of the 401 and the Don Valley Parkway south of it. My guess is that the NFB crew stopped (that's probably their car on parked on the right there) and took video of it on their way out of the downtown north to the observatory. Two lanes on either side, the 401 back then was out in the countryside, bypassing the city, and had it been a human child, would have been facing the prospect of starting kindergarten at the time.

For comparison, I took a video of nearly the same location in 2008 at night, shot from the bridge of Don Mills Road (not to be confused with the Don Valley Parkway), which would have been visible in the shot above except that it Don Mills Road didn't cross the 401 until about 1965.

Universe had some interesting ramifications. Ostensibly, Stanley Kubrik was inspired by aspects of it when he went on to film 2001: A Space Odyssey. As well, it was narrated by Douglas Rain, whom Kubrik chose to voice HAL, the computer from 2001 and its 1980s sequel, 2010. If you're at all interested in seeing it, it's a pleasant 28 minutes of what-was and what-if, and can be viewed here. It amazes me that people still alive today took this as the state of things, and have had the universe itself change around them.

Monday, June 21, 2021

Adventures in dentistry: Invisalign

For the past year and a half, I've been undergoing a six-month course in tooth-realignment. That's right. Eighteen months of a six month therapy. So let me explain...

Let me take you way back to tell you the whole story. In March of 2019, my weight had reached something in the neighbourhood of 330 lbs. I'd been trying everything for years to get that down again, but will power and the tide of biology conspired against me. Finally one morning at work, sitting there alone, I remembered the wife of a friend had had bariatric surgery and it had been literally transformational for her. And for the first time, I decided maybe I needed to give that a try. For what it's worth, I had the surgery not quite a year and a half ago, and I'm glad I did. So much has changed... including what I'm about to write about.

One thing led to another. Getting onto that program, which is a long process nearly a year from start to finish, meant that I had to see a cardiologist. He sent me to a sleep clinic. They told me I stopped breathing during sleep somewhere in the neighbourhood of 80 times an hour. Think about that. So, they recommended I get a CPAP machine to keep my airway open during sleep. I got it in November of 2019 and I've used it every night ever since. But one morning I woke up with a terrible ache in my jaw. I wondered if I'd fractured it. For days, I could barely chew. Back when I was in my 20s and I had my wisdom teeth extracted, my dentist advised me I should get braces because my teeth were badly misaligned and by the time I reached my 50s and 60s, I might start getting hairline cracks in my jaw. Well, this experience sobered me up to that, and so I started looking around for an affordable program.

I found Invisalign, which promised to do the job for somewhere around two grand; a lot less than other programs and with the added bonus that it was being done with transparent plastic rather than wires. So I went to see them, they showed me what they could do over 6 months, and I signed on.

The 18 pairs of aligners arrived in January, 2020. Here's how it works. You put a set it and, other than eating, leave them in all the time. You wear each set for a week, but every third set you wear for two weeks. So, 18 pairs comes out to 24 weeks, just about six months. Starting in mid-January, my therapy would have been completed around early July last year.

When I started out, my teeth were fairly crowded. I had buck teeth in the uppers (the left one out further than the right), with the outer incisors slightly tucked in behind the inner ones. My bottom teeth were worse. The two incisors on the right were pretty much okay, but the front left one was turned almost sideways, facing toward the left, and the outer left incisor was tucked in behind that one. Generally, you couldn't even see it. I looked like I had three bottom incisors because one was almost completely hidden behind another.

This is a picture of what my teeth looked like when I put my first aligners in. Please excuse the coffee stains. :)

Left is right and right is left here, of course. So, as you can see, only three incisors are visible along the bottom. There's an eyetooth there on the right (my left) that seems to be in its place. Space needed to be added there to move it forward. As well, on the top, you can see how the teeth overlap somewhat, almost like a poker hand. This is the mouth I've lived in since I was a tween.

Each Sunday night I would switch to the next set of aligners. They're tight, and they take a minute or two to seat properly using little tubes of plastic they call "chewies" that help you gently bite down and sit the aligners down over your teeth. Early on, they ached quite a bit for a day or so, but as the process went on, that really lessened. Maybe the therapy simply accustomed the teeth to moving as time went by. All I can tell you is, at some point, I stopped waking up Monday mornings still feeling it.

This was a fairly simple process at first. The first two or three sets were no problem. Then one Sunday night I found I was having a really rough time getting the aligners on; especially the bottom one. I was getting this pronounced wow in the inner arch, folding the plastic such that it formed a salient that poked at my tongue. I mean, I'm talking about something like a quarter of an inch here. It was very noticeable. I thought maybe my teeth weren't keeping up with the therapy, and I hoped they would catch up. In coping with that, I ended up getting an inexpensive Dremel tool to buff the wow and the edges of the aligners down (they can be fairly sharp). The aligners ship with a nail file for doing this, but I needed that Dremel to really get anywhere. It became a weekly thing for a while. Put in the aligners, let them deform, then Dremel the point down to a sort of inverted U gap behind my incisors.

About half way through the process, this was where we were at. You can see the bottom front left incisor has been turned to at least face more or less the same way as the others, and some room has been opened up in the hopes of bringing that outer one out from behind it. So, you know, decent progress...

The set and week is actually printed onto most of the sets I had, and at one point, around the start of June, I happened to look at them and I noticed the numbers for the upper aligners and the lower ones didn't match. The lower set I was wearing was several weeks in advance of where I was in the therapy. Well, that would explain why they hadn't fit and deformed so badly for some time. But the upper one was actually a couple of weeks behind where I'd gotten to... they were actually moving my teeth back where they'd been before!

Do I need to say I was livid? I got in touch with them and demanded they reassess my therapy. I told them I'd start putting the payments in escrow if I didn't get some action. I told them that, in my opinion, having a therapy that reversed the course of the treatment verged on malpractice. They sent me an impressions kit to make new molds of my teeth and advised me to keep wearing the current set at night so my teeth wouldn't start reverting to their old positions. I wore that set for about six weeks waiting for the new ones. They were pretty shagged out by the time the new ones arrived.

It was an entirely new set of 18 aligners. I was starting over again. This time I opened every set and checked the numbers, making sure they were in sequence and matching. They all were. I sealed each set in a sandwich bag and labeled it, and started over. This set arrived in August, which meant the new therapy would send in February. Now they were a lot easier to seat on Sunday nights and I pretty much stopped with the Dremel, not even bothering to buff off the edges unless they were particularly sharp.

You have to order retainers at some point, and just as I was about to do so, I broke one of the points of my lower left 12-year molar. I guess there'd been a crack there for a long time, because it broke while I was chewing bread. I went to the dentist who suggested I wait till the end of the Invisalign therapy to repair the gap, which was essentially just cosmetic, and to let Invisalign know they'd need more impressions to get the retainers right. So, that's what I did.

This is where my lower teeth were at just prior to the break in the back molar (it's the one with the white filling; the forward interior point is the one that would shortly break off). You can see that hidden incisor was really coming forward by then.

Fast forward to February. Filling is in and the point is reshaped. I get my impressions kit. Send it in. I'm doing this to get my retainers made. They send me back an email saying they'd received my request for a "touch-up" and were evaluating it. I nearly sent back an email saying, "Oh, no, I'm just ordering my retainers," but I stopped. Touch-up, you say...? Well, let's just keep our powder dry and out mouth shut till we hear back from them. If they want another thousand dollars, I'll just say "retainers, please". But if it's part of the therapy I'm already paying for, well...

As it turned out, it was, and they sent me another nine sets. So, another three months of tooth-straightening above and beyond the... oh, I can't even do the math anymore. This time, though, the numbers on the aligners were strictly Week 1, Week 2, Week 3/4, over and over. Each set of three was numbered exactly the same. I had to essentially trust them that they'd ordered them correctly. But in checking the first set against the last, I could see very clearly the progress between them, and so I sealed them all up again, labeled them, and got back to it.

So, that was late March. It's now mid-June, and last night, I put in what will almost certainly be the last of all those sets of aligners. I have to wear these another two weeks (at least), or however long it takes for the retainers to show up.

The last time they asked me to check in on my progress, a couple of weeks ago, this is where we were at...

Forgive the little red arrow; I drew that on there to show a friend which tooth had seemingly come out of nowhere in the past year or so. Yeah, that one is finally visible without you needing an angled dental mirror to see it.

It's been a long time, this "six month" therapy that's gone on for seventeen. But for all that, the results really are remarkable. I can't show you the original animations from last year anymore; they're long gone from the site—which is too bad, because those were profound. But I can show you what just these last three months represent...

It's been a long haul; a lot longer than I imagined. There were some real ups and downs at first, but aside from the original screw-up, I'd have to say that Invisalign has treated me with respect and addressed my concerns and, if I'm being honest, gone the extra mile for me. Would I recommend the process to friends I care about? Yes, I would. I don't imagine my experience with the misnumbered aligners was typical. Stuff happens. But when I told them about it, they made it right. I'm hoping that, aside from making me less ashamed when I smile, that maybe this will head off those "hairline cracks" warnings my dentist gave me 30 years ago.