Back To The Future

Ronald Reagan. It’s been years since I thought about the 40th President of the United States. However, in one of those odd coincidences that happen so frequently in life, I was reminded of Reagan recently after watching an Oscar-nominated movie and reading a popular 2013 novel.

The movie is Dallas Buyers Club, which tells the horrifying story about the outbreak of the AIDS virus in early 1981, coincidentally, the first year of Reagan’s administration. The film details the struggle to identify and treat the first victims of AIDS. It’s a sad, sad story of fear and prejudice and ignorance, some of which was propagated by Reagan himself.

Ostensibly, the President refused to utter the word “AIDS” in any of his speeches until 1985, during his second term in office, despite the fact that it had become an out-of-control epidemic by that time. In 1981, there were just 159 reported cases of the disease. By the time Reagan left office in 1989, nearly 90,000 Americans had already died of AIDS.

As the movie relates, during those first few years, the U.S. government dithered and delayed, eventually setting up blind clinical trials that dying AIDS sufferers would have to wait for a year to start. By then, if they were still living, they would have only a 50/50 chance of being prescribed the untested drug AZT. If they weren’t in that fortunate group who received the drug, they’d get a worthless placebo, instead.

Dallas Buyers Club relates the story of two very different victims, one an emaciated redneck played by Matthew McConaughey (who knew this guy could actually act?) and the other a flamboyant transgender male/female, played superbly by Jared Leto. The unlikely pair of victims join forces to purchase illegal, experimental drugs from various parts of the world, creating their own “cocktails” to help prolong their lives.

The other 80’s touchstone is the novel The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. The book centres around a group of young people who come of age during the Reagan administration. One part of their lives deals with the sudden appearance of the AIDS virus and its effects on the members of the group, one of whom becomes involved with a victim of the disease.

Twenty-five years after he left office, Ronald Reagan routinely scores near the top in surveys about “Most Admired Presidents” and many still consider him to have had a greater impact on American life than almost any U.S. leader in the 20th century. His supporters point to the restoration of American morale following the Vietnam War, the great wealth accumulated by many, the collapse of the Soviet Union and numerous other touchstones that occurred during his administration.

On the other hand, Reagan’s tenure also saw the national debt soar, relations with Iran and other Muslim countries ruined, a massive build-up of defence spending, the attempted destruction of unions and, of course, the aforementioned devastating effects of Reagan’s inattention to the AIDS virus.

Added to that, in my opinion, there was a transformation of America into a less caring, more fearful, more isolated nation, one that’s only been made worse by subsequent Republican Presidents, including Reagan’s Vice President and successor, George Herbert Walker Bush and Bush’s son, George W.

For those who never supported Reagan, he’s considered a B-list actor (one who co-starred with a chimp in the “classic” Bedtime for Bonzo), an eccentric geezer, and a dunderheaded buffoon who championed absurd projects such as the cartoon-like Star Wars defence program, which would have seen billions or trillions of dollars spent trying to shoot enemy missiles out of the air. It also led to the President’s popular nickname, Ronnie Raygun.

Rather than looking at him like a friendly, doddering old uncle, they see him as a mean-spirited tool of the rich and powerful who gave generously to the wealthy through his failed Reaganomics program, a simplistic economic system that anticipated a trickle down of wealth to the poor and middle class, something that never happened.

Instead, Reagan’s policies sowed the seeds for an America where the rich got richer, the gap between the haves and have-nots widened, mistrust of foreign countries grew and fear became the norm in American life. It also paved the way for creepy characters like the Bushes and Dick Cheney to build on their own wealth and power at the expense of average citizens for much of the last 30 years.

In the movie and book’s descriptions of living with the AIDS virus, Ronald Reagan’s true colours shine brightly. During his tenure, the primary goal in life was to accumulate great wealth, at the same time ostracizing those who were different, promoting fear, buckling under to the religious right and ignoring anyone who didn’t fit into the President’s narrow definition of what it meant to be an “American.”

In Reagan’s United States, the AIDS virus was considered to be God’s punishment for those whose lives didn’t conform to what was considered “normal.” It was a tragic, despicable view that ended up killing tens of thousands, many of whose lives might have been spared if Reagan had kept his eye on the physical health of his country, rather than just its wallets.

A friend reminded me last week of a quote from an unknown source that says, “People were created to be loved. Things were created to be used. The reason why the world is in chaos is because things are being loved and people are being used.” Too true.

Put on as many pairs of rose-coloured glasses as you want. No matter how hard you squint, you can’t hide the fact that this popular president did so little to help average citizens, as well as the weak, the poor, the sick or the challenged. Instead, he promoted the stockpiling of wealth for those who were already well off – at the expense of the people who truly needed his help and compassion. In my mind, that’s nothing to be admired.



Declining Grammar Skills Are No LOL Matter

Most people would agree there’s no shortage of problems with the Internet, social media and all the technology that’s associated with them – viruses, scams, pornography, phishing, cyberbullying, identity theft – we could go on all day. Now there’s another evil to worry about: declining grammar skills among teenagers.

If that doesn’t sound nearly as dangerous as some of the previously mentioned issues, consider the fact that, unlike most adults who have already acquired a good writing foundation before they start texting or using e-mails, teenagers are still learning the fundamentals of how to write properly.

The problem starts with a whole new language called “techspeak” that’s been created using a variety of abbreviations, acronyms and emoticons in place of traditional words and phrases. That’s all fine within the context of e-mails, text messages and social media, but now it’s starting to spread to students’ essays and exams, a troublesome sign that the barrier between our actual language and techspeak is already starting to disappear.

In the new language, entire words are turned into letters, numbers or combinations of both (e.g., “are” becomes ‘r”, “to” turns into “2” and “great” morphs into “gr8”). On top of that, a dictionary’s worth of abbreviations have been created, including the popular “LOL” (laughing out loud), “TMI” (too much information) and “OMG” (oh my god). Hyper-savvy kids have hundreds of these at their fingertips, including ones like “POS” (parents over shoulder), which alerts teens who are sending messages about the presence of adults lurking near the recipients.

The problem is especially critical among teenagers, an age group where students are in the midst of learning proper grammar use and starting to compose more formal papers and write more involved exams. In a recent study, noted by, it was discovered that students who use techspeak frequently have difficulty switching to proper grammar when it’s needed. That’s very troublesome.

Not only are 13-17 year olds more than twice as likely to send text messages than any other age group, they’re also inclined to respond in the same way their friends send them messages. In the study, 64% of teens admitted to using techspeak in their writing assignments and 38% say they’ve used abbreviations like “LOL” in their papers.

The study concluded, “A decline in grammatical skills is attributed to the use of techspeak in most daily communications.” In particular, teens are more prone to making punctuation errors, using sentence fragments, inserting emoticons (such as ❤ for heart), misusing apostrophes and using inappropriate abbreviations.

Still, you may be asking yourself, what does it all matter? Does anyone care if students can’t spell or write properly or compose complete sentences? Yes, they do, especially post-secondary institutions that frequently ask students to submit written material as part of their entrance requirements. An article in The Globe and Mail said recently that texting is actually killing students’ grammar skills, not just harming them. Students themselves realize there’s an issue, with 86% saying that proper writing skills are essential for success in life.

But, how can you solve a problem that’s so widespread? Kids aren’t going to give up sending texts and they’re certainly not going to stop using techspeak and risk looking uncool to their friends. On top of that, e-mails and text messages have an inherent problem, in that they often don’t communicate someone’s mood or tone, something that is often solved by using “LOL” or a similar interjection. Without these abbreviations, a “conversation” can run seriously off-track and lead to major complications – friends breaking up, couples splitting, etc. – all because someone got the wrong impression from a text message.

In the end, parents and teachers have to make students aware that there are two languages and that the real one, not its techspeak counterpart, should always be the default when it comes to doing schoolwork, applying for a job or completing any other task that operates outside the realm of cyberspace or text messaging amongst their peers.

Years and years ago, the common belief was that proper spelling and grammar would gradually become a thing of the past. Although language has continued to evolve over the last two thousand years, that prediction has never become a reality. You can LOL all you want, but proper writing is here to stay.

Buffy The Cabin In The Woods Slayer

Joss Whedon is red hot.

Right now, his latest directorial effort, The Avengers, is smashing worldwide box office records – $650 million worldwide in just its first week of release – and making critics foam at the mouth, too.

While hardly in the same stratosphere, Whedon’s co-written April release, The Cabin In The Woods, also generated good box office returns (over $50 million worldwide) with absolutely no stars, but lots of good buzz.

Where did this sudden success come from? After all, this is a guy who’s barely been heard from in the past few years. Personally, I think his mojo’s back because he’s returned to what he did so well earlier in his career.

While watching The Cabin In The Woods, I was instantly transported back to the most creative period of Whedon’s career – the days and nights of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. When it first arrived, there was simply nothing like it – and the features that made Buffy the best thing on television are also what make TCITW so enjoyable.

Without spoiling anything about the movie, it brings together semi-misfit young people, fantastic otherworldly creatures, horror, action, and the perfect dosage of humour, while kicking a gigantic hole in all the tired clichés that have made most recent “horror” films so insipid. What’s not to love?

Although Whedon came up with some intriguing interludes like Firefly and Dollhouse in the last decade, they were definitely missing something, some little Whedon-osity that truly captured our imaginations and made us root for the scrappy underdogs.

With Cabin, he reached far back into his past and discovered those missing elements.

I haven’t seen The Avengers yet, but from everything I’ve read, it’s another labour of Whedon love, culling the best of his lifelong fascination with comic books and combining it with many of his other passions. The result? More Whedon magic.

So, what does it all mean? From my perspective, it indicates that Whedon’s at his best when he works from the heart. Or maybe it just indicates that the masses have finally caught up with his genius, a unique combination of fantasy, humour and humanity.

All that leads me to wonder how his next project will fare – a film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. It sounds like a stretch for Whedon, doesn’t it? Come to think of it, though, Shakespeare was also a master of fantasy, humour and humanity.

So, what am I worrying about?

What’s your opinion on Joss Whedon’s “newfound” success? Does your appreciation go all the way back to Buffy days – or are you a newcomer to his unique style? Let me know – it’s always great to hear from you.

Fantasy For Unfantastic Times

With the recent release of the movie Mirror Mirror, the revival of the Snow White & the Seven Dwarves tale has shifted into high gear. In June, the second big-screen retelling of the story arrives with Snow White & The Huntsmen. This follows the appearance of Once Upon A Time, a small-screen adaptation, which has already built a rabid following, along with Grimm, a darker program offering weekly modern twists on classic fairy tales.

Many people have wondered about the curious timing of this Snowmania. Certainly, the tale has been retold many different ways over the past century, but this definitely seems like fairy tale overload. After watching Mirror Mirror with my wife recently and seeing the audience’s strong reaction to a fairly average and, frankly, poorly reviewed movie, I began wondering what the sudden attraction was.

I honestly believe it’s a reaction to the nasty economic times we’re living in. It’s not exactly an original thought. After all, everyone’s aware of the proliferation of musicals and comedies during the Great Depression and similar genre spikes during other ugly times in recent history. There definitely seems to be a strong parallel right now.

It’s not just Snow White who has been resurrected from her historic trance to help us escape the daily reports of collapsing economies, job layoffs, and real estate foreclosures. The total media takeover by zombies, vampires, wizards, and other fantasy creatures makes me scared to go out at night, let alone turn on the TV, go to my local megaplex, or wander a bookshelf aisle.

Frankly, I don’t think it’s some strange coincidence and I also don’t believe all these writers and producers are jumping onto some supernatural bandwagon. I just believe the timing provides the perfect opportunity for people to escape from this over-caffeinated, bad news world for a few hours to a place that offers an otherworldly alternative.

Is this a bad thing? Of course not.

Anything that helps people cope with all the snarkiness and smarminess and other evilosities of the world certainly can’t be a bad thing. On the other hand, when the movie ends or you finish the book, all that ugly reality is still going to be waiting to spoil the rest of your day.

In the meantime, though, you might as well enjoy your ride on the fantasy coaster as long as you can.

How do you take a break from reality? Don’t be embarrassed! We all have our own fantasy escape hatch. What’s yours?