Thursday, 7 January 2016

Why Wonder? My Quest to Understand Depression Continues

Over a year ago I finally decided to step out of the depression closet, inspired in large part by the suicide of Robin Williams and other celebrities like him.

In that blog, I made a pact with myself to better understand my particular case of depression, before my symptoms got any worse. This crippling condition has affected many members of my family and although they’ve largely suffered in silence, I knew I couldn’t. I’m blessed or cursed with a big mouth and an even bigger, more obnoxious voice. I might suffer, sure, but I certainly won't do so in silence.

A part of me assumed the struggle would be relatively easy. Don’t get me wrong, I knew there would be setbacks and obstacles to navigate, but it'd be like a videogame. I'd just level up and learn some “coping strategies” to deal with them.  Having scrounged up the gall to admit I had depression, I thought I'd done the hard part. I could see the light at the end of the tunnel to true spiritual enlightenment, and it was lined with rainbows, unicorns and a boyfriend resembling Chris Hemsworth.

To nobody’s surprise but mine, I would be in for a rude awakening. As it happens, I would have several rude awakenings over the next 18 months, and surely many more to come. Getting an accurate diagnosis and therapist that gets my particular kind of crazy (and my penchant for self-aggrandizing bullshit) was an ordeal in of and itself. She’s introduced many therapeutic strategies, from medication to meditation, designed to bust my bad habits, but I’m an old dog, very resistant to new tricks. Especially when they involve sitting still and not thinking about anything.

I’m not hyperbolizing when I say facing the many struggles of depression has been tough, and pretty near impossible. But I'm also confident in saying I think it very much is possible. I don’t mean to skirt around my story – I'll share my personal and largely ongoing story of depression in due time – but first I want to jump to the punchline.

The cure to my depression? Art credit to Joey Matthews
The more I’d learn about what’s causing and fuelling my depression, the less depressed I’d feel. This gave me a hunch. What if a curious sense of wonder, the same thing that fuels my creative drive, is the antidote to depression?

Maybe you’re thinking this sounds like New Age mumbo-jumbo, so I’ll serve you up some pretty basic brain science to present my hypothesis. When depression tells us we’re "worthless” and "unlovable" or we feel the impulse to have another glass a wine to numb the pain to those ruminations, we’re activating parts of the limbic brain where instinctive, subconscious emotions originate, which is why depression or anxiety can seem so out of control.

But when we wonder or get scientifically curious, we activate the conscious, decision-making parts of the brain and we gain what the experts call "psychological distance" that lets us better understand even life’s most difficult problems. It might not be possible in the middle of a panic attack or a night of binge-drinking, but when we have the courage to dig deep the next day perhaps during that walk of shame  we can deploy our imagination to better understand what triggered the situation, and learn to avoid those situations. And the more we break our more self-destructive bad habits, the more self-aware – and resilient – we become, for when real shit happens.

This all gave me the idea for 1001 Ways to Wonder, a web-series kind of like the science documentaries I’ve made for The Nature of Things, where I could routinely test my theory. Each week I’ll wonder about something, usually the sort of something that might normally drive me crazy, but instead I’d ask how or why it’s driving me crazy. Then I’ll head out to talk to the scientists, armed with my curiosity and my camera, to get the answers.

I know, for example, that a bad breakup or even innocuous rejection can trigger World War 3 trauma in my brain, but why? I've got a pretty bad case of road and dodgeball rage, but does that mean I'm predisposed to Hulk-like aggression?  I've said depression and addiction run pretty deep on both sides of my family, so genetics must play a part, but are we talking leading lady or supporting role?
I don’t think you need me to tell you why we need something like this, so I won't turn this into a PSA. There'll be plenty time for preaching later.

Here’s the thing, I honestly think we can beat our depression – or at least come to healthy terms with it. But that requires opening up and talking about the things we instinctively want to avoid.
Welcome to 1001 Ways to Wonder – now let's science the shit out of depression!

Thursday, 22 October 2015

The Truth About Vitamins: What I Learned Making The Curious Case of Vitamins & Me

We all think we know vitamins – and we’re told they’re essential – but why do we really need them? Can we get what we need from our food or should we turn to supplements to fill in the gaps? These were a few questions on my mind when I set out to understand the nebulous science of Vitamins in The Curious Case of Vitamins & Me, my documentary for The Nature of Things on CBC. You can watch it now here.

Should be easy to figure this one out.
Making this particular film was probably one of my most challenging experiences as a science communicator. My first doc for The Nature of Things about the biology and evolution of male homosexuality might seem like it explores a more complex topic, but with only a handful of scientists studying various aspects of the genetics, neurochemistry and evolutionary biology of being gay worldwide, it was relatively easy to connect the scientific dots and find mostly satisfying answers to the research questions.

The Curious Case of Vitamins on the other hand tackles a much simpler question on the surface: do we take need to take vitamin supplements or don’t we? As I’d soon discover, the answers couldn’t be less black and white – which isn’t always great when you’re trying to make a digestible, coherent and entertaining documentary.

My favourite cereal says it so it must be true, right?
For starters, I learned a lot of the vitamin information we all rely upon isn't even that accurate. Take the nutrition info on the back of prepackaged food, a mandatory fixture in Canada since 2007. When it comes to essential micronutrients, food labels in the United States or Canada are only required to include information on Vitamin AVitamin Ccalcium and iron – so whether food manufacturers include data on the other 11 essential vitamins is only optional.

Nutrition Facts: Mandatory since 2007, but guess how reliable they are.
Nutrition Facts labels provide information on percentage Daily Values – which are based on Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for each micronutrient, which were originally calculated way back in 1968 using data from World War II, when governments had to determine what soldiers serving overseas needed to avoid getting known deficiency disorders like Rickets or Scurvy. Scientists from the the NIH, Health Canada and Institute of Medicine reevaluate these numbers each year, but apparently rely upon surveys and opinions, or the "lowest rank of evidence."  

Vitamin RDAs are based on data about this accurate.
Even though scientists reevaluate the RDAs every few years, manufactures actually base their numbers on figures over a decade old! In many cases, the current RDAs are up to 50% higher than the Daily Values we consumers end up seeing. Take Vitamin C. If you follow the label, all we need to meet the RDA is 60mg, when in fact the RDA for Vitamin C is currently 75mg for women or 90mg for men, which is 50% higher!  If we can’t fully trust food labels – or even the RDAs that inform them – how can we figure out if we’re getting what we need in terms of essential vitamins?  And more importantly, do we need to turn to supplements to fill in any gaps?

I head from San Francisco to Washington DC to get the answers (and indulge my costume change obsession).
Most experts – including the Scott Smith, the lead nutritionist of NASA’s Space program – seem to agree a balanced diet of colourful fruits and veggies is the best way to get our vitamins, some scientists have observed modern fruits and vegetables may not have the same nutrition as they used to be because of soil depletion – with declines as high as 37%! If we can’t trust we’re getting what we really need – is it okay to take vitamin supplements, to compensate for these gaps in our diet?
One leading nutritionist demonstrated that when we’re low on certain vitamins, like Vitamin K, we ration it towards short-term survival (blood-clotting in the case of K) instead of long-term health (preventing hardening of the arteries). If this ends up being the case for the rest of the Vitamins, maybe we should turn to multivitamins, as insurance?

I learned broccoli isn't as nutritious as it once was - but should we turn to organic?
Some experts believe multivitamins provide no definitive health benefits – besides maybe a placebo effect – they do little to prevent cancer, heart disease or other signs of aging. Then again, how do you prove a vitamin assisted in the prevention of cancer or heart disease, you didn’t get 20 years down the line? Modern research methods – the gold standard being randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials – are often too time-consuming and therefore expensive to perform for vitamins. And until the medical worlds at larges shifts the priority from reactionary measures to preventive ones, this paradigm likely won’t change. 

In the US, you'll find this delightful small print on most supplements.
If there’s no conclusive evidence multivitamins are dangerous to our health, can there really be such thing as too much of a good thing, when it comes to vitamins? Turns out individual vitamins consumed in excess can be dangerous. Study after study has demonstrated taking excess amounts of fat-soluble Vitamins A (or beta-carotene) and E can increase the risk of developing lung cancer or prostate cancer, respectively, by up to 20%! While the scientists can’t pinpoint the exact molecular processes at work, the reality is we can overdose. The RDA figures include Upper Limits for most vitamins, and many have severe side effects if you consume too much. To put this in perspective one tablet of Vitamin E at 1000 IU is roughly 3000% of the RDA for Vitamin E. To consume this much natural Vitamin E, you would need to consume about 120 avocados.

Now before you abandon your supplements, there might be some exceptions to the rule. Take Vitamin D, an important micronutrient, essential for good bone health. We need sunlight to activate Vitamin D and many food products like milk are fortified with it to ensure we get enough to prevent the deficiency disorder, rickets. But some argue we may not be getting enough Vitamin D, especially for those of us in cooler climates, like Canada. We need the sun to make Vitamin D – and scientists recently discovered we need Vitamin D to make serotonin, the feel-good neurotransmitter, which might explain why so many of us get depressed during the winter.

My blood test reveals my Vitamin D levels are less than ideal. Or typical for Canadians.
If we have different needs for Vitamin D based on our geography, does that mean we have different needs for other vitamins – and if so, what’s our recourse? Given how complex nutrition science can be, I think getting better informed about our individual needs is the only viable answer.

We took this approach when making the documentary, where I get my blood tested for deficiency levels to find out if I really need to supplement (available to anyone with a Health Card in Canada). These tests are certainly not comprehensive nor definitive, but they will provide a more accurate portrait of your current health needs – and might help you avoid the latest trendy products getting the Dr. Oz stamp of approval. As G.I. Joe taught me, "knowing is half the battle." But ultimately the biggest lesson made about Vitamins is that we're only scratching the surface of what we know about them. And that I need to be a lot more skeptical in general as a consumer.

This is how most Vitamin supplements usually get promoted... 
I mentioned this documentary was tough to make. The second major challenge we faced was figuring out what my place would be in the narrative of all of this and how we'd integrate my light and fun energy. Survival of the Fabulous was born from my obviously personal quest to understand what makes me who I am, which provided a pretty convenient and authentic narrative through line.

Vitamins as a subject matter is a lot more universal – and a lot more scientifically technical – so finding out a reason why somebody like me – who isn’t a doctor or a microbiologist. I don’t have a PhD, I didn’t even study science in University. So why should audiences take somebody who just isn’t smart enough seriously?

Dr. Patrick teaches me how Vitamin D synthesizes serotonin - and how to make science cool.
As it turns out – it doesn’t really matter. Sure it helped to tie in the fact that I used to be a chubby Hermione Granger know-it-all who transformed myself From Chunky to Hunky – and now is obsessed with fitness and nutrition. But the reality is science should matter to us all – whether you’re a medical practitioner, a university professor or the every day, average person.

My personal shtick as the keener layman who loves to explore science is my way in. Because I don't understand science the way doctors and geneticists do naturally makes me better equipped to ask the questions the rest of us might be thinking. The dumb questions that might seem obvious, but force us to think outside the box and really, truly understand something dense and complicated.

In a sense that makes me the Jennifer Love Hewitt of the documentary world. #TheScientistWhisperer. 

Monday, 1 September 2014

How Robin Williams Helped Me Come Out of the Depression Closet

The unexpected death of Robin Williams got me thinking – once again – just how tragic depression really is. 

It's frustrating that it takes a celebrity suicide to open our eyes and get us talking.
It fills the heads of its victims with crippling despair, distorted thoughts of self-hate, even the most intelligent, seemingly (outwardly) fulfilled sufferers can’t ignore. Oftentimes it targets our society’s most sensible, talented, passionate creators and producers of society. And worst of all, it's a tragically invisible disability many sufferers can't talk about.

In the Facebook/Twitter/Instagram generation of faux happiness, we’re conditioned en mass not to talk about our bad days, because heaven forbid we be the party buzz-kill.

Well that’s too bad, because it’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to.

Yes, if you haven’t guessed it already, I very much suffer from bouts of depression likely fueled by bad genetics and a shitty childhood and a few poor life choices. And I want to get this off my chest if I’m going to understand and hopefully beat it. 

Psychiatrists still don't fully understand the causes of depression, so here's my two cents. 
First off, a tiny confession. I almost published a version of this blog post about a year ago, after the tragic overdose of Glee star Cory Monteith. Ostensibly this talent had the life: as the star of a popular show with a loving girlfriend and a hopeful future. But that’s the picture that’s always painted – especially when you have agents, managers and publicists operating the paintbrush.

But then of course I got cold feet. I can’t remember why. I probably got chicken-shit after my mood took an upswing. I certainly didn’t want to shatter the illusion people may have that I’m totally fun and confident, that I’m actually somewhere on the spectrum, bordering on the edge. Eek. Don’t invite that Negative Nancy to the party.

A year later the news of Robin Williams’ death arrived around the same time I’d sunk to an oppressive low of self-defeating thoughts. Then I watched a Ted Talk about the Power of Vulnerability by author and leading social worker Brené Brown. I slurped up her Kool-aid it finally dawned on me. If I truly wanted to beat this, I’d need to open up and be damn honest about even this kind deep, dark shit if I wanted to see positive change.

Brené Brown's Power of Vulnerability in a Coles Notes Nutshell
Maybe you’re thinking: Wow, how more self-centred and self-indulgent can a narcissist get? A celebrity figurehead dies tragically and somehow he once again finds a way to relate it back to himself? Here's the thing, I routinely struggle with seemingly irrational bouts of negative thinking, and I very much work in the TV / film wheelhouse, a bumpy road of feast or famine where uncertain circumstances only trigger or exacerbate the symptoms. Maybe it’s just my hyperbolic nature, but their deaths struck a major chord.

I knew something might be up when I finally started to get my act together – and I’d still manage to spiral into crushing pits of despair. Survival of the Fabulous gets green-lit but that must be a fluke. I got into the CFC Writing Program, the third time applying, I’d still manage to convince myself that I must be a fraud, they’ll figure it out soon enough. Even when I ostensibly attained my personal Holy Grail – an attractive, wholehearted guy who actually liked me back – I’d still have thoughts that it’s an illusion, he doesn’t really like me, I’m still unlovable – and surprise, surprise, cue the downward spiral into Depression Alley. 

Recently an investigation of my family tree for my documentary revealed an alarming, interesting find. Multiple cases of depression and more horrifyingly suicide. My uncle jumped from a high rise about a decade ago. Two great aunts killed themselves via rat poison and shotgun. Apparently another lumberjack actually felled a tree so it would intentionally crush him (okay that one might be an urban legend).

All those black and white portraits are untimely deaths. 
It just so happens depression, alcoholism and drug addiction have reared their ugly heads all over both sides of my immediate family, so it’s certainly hereditary to some degree, so are my demons naturally going to grow up into all-consuming, suicidal Devils?

I sometimes wonder if contemplating the contemplation of suicide even counts. It’s true I probably am too much a drama queen to go out in a quiet fashion. I mean at the very least I’d want to recreate a kill sequence from my favorite Final Destination and make a trashy posthumous reality show out of it.

I used to think I’d dodged the addiction bullet. I’d never smoked a cigarette in my life. I didn’t start drinking until well into university and I’ve never used it to dull the pain. Maybe my family of felons and addicts acted as reverse role models – and saved me from a predestined path of self-destruction.

But let’s call a spade a spade. I may not be addicted to booze or blow, but I certainly do have an addiction for validation, which I’ve chronicled extensively on this blog – and will recap more in part two of this uber-fun depression series, where I try to get to the bottom of why people like us suffer from depression.  

Some addicts "choose" booze or blow. I prefer the Boys, Body Dysmorphia and Validation cocktail 

For the longest period of denial I tried to convince myself that I was in no way like the aforementioned Tortured Artists of the world. I don’t go on partying binge-fests that result in blackouts and shaving my head.

Some of my friends and family even know I have oscillating super-highs and depressive lows. But they think there’s no cause for concern because I’m really just an attention-seeking Drama Queen, too shallow to raise alarm bells. I’d even convinced myself and got really good at concealing my brooding darker side. If you only see me as a vain, vapid pre-law school Elle Woods, that’s because the more confident, more shallow and all-around funner Bryce is clearly more likeable than the real, tortured deal.

It turns out this is Comedy and Depression 101, as this fantastic article by David Wong about Robin Williams illuminates why funny people kill themselves. The seemingly obvious jist of it? Depressed people use jokes as shields to hide their abused souls.  

I’m not crying for help with this post. In fact, I was going to keep all this to myself. Or maybe sugar coat it for a psychotherapist.

But I want to understand the nature and nurture of depression, figure out how it manifests. Maybe even some of the readers out there – you know, all seven of them – would find it helpful to know just how common depression really is, and that it’s okay, in fact necessary, to be candid about it.

Once I better understand this depression business, I’ll formulate a strategic battle plan, so I can beat the shit out of it. The one thing I do know is it’s life-long war, and one that would require a daily regimen of patience, willpower and commitment.

Teaser: if I could go from Chunky to Hunky, I can slay a few pesky mental health demons. 

It’s a bit terrifying that it’s 2014, and we still don’t know the answers. Doctors prescribe anti-depressants like they’re one-size-fits-all cure-alls and psychiatrists disagree whether we should even take them.

But spoiler alert: I know seeking help is possible – and it very much can and does work with time. But it’s an ongoing battle and when symptoms are their most severe, the motivation to seek help wanes, making the vicious cycle continue and the need to talk about it all the more important.

It truly is a tragic shame that Robin Williams and other formidable artists like him never found their answer. But I will say thank you for giving me the courage to speak up.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

My Battle with Elle Woods Syndrome

If you’ve held court with me for more than five minutes you’ve likely heard me bring up or quote Legally Blonde. Maybe you’ve even wondered why any self-respecting writer and filmmaker would cite Legally Blonde as one of his most cherished films.

Story of my life, circa 2001-2013
Part of it is the genuine truth – it’s a brilliantly written comedy with endlessly quotable dialogue and timeless themes. The other reason is perhaps more metaphysical. When I reference Legally Blonde, I’m really subconsciously testing to see if you’ll judge and write me off as vapid and/or shallow, much like the narrow-minded law students of Harvard U did Elle Woods. (If you need a reminder, think Bel Air bombshell in Barbie pink amongst stiff intellectuals in muted, ill-fitting cardigans). I’ve come to identify so much with the protagonist of Legally Blonde, that she’s literally fused into the DNA of my identity, like a parasite, but with blond highlights.

In ironic other words, I’ve developed a meta-disease only Abed Nadir would know how to diagnose. It’s called Elle Woods Syndrome.

Elle Woods Syndrome (EWS) can be defined as the perennial need to cast oneself as the fish-out-water outcast in an intellectual milieu. Usually it involves emphasizing one’s seemingly vapid, shallow and/or douchey traits to lower expectations of one’s ability to perform – so that one can emerge as an underdog-turned-dark horse. The environment should be one where geeks, nerds or intellectuals thrive, so that the stereotypical babe or jock you'd expect to be popular is rendered the outcast, reverse-bullied by the usually dejected.

E.W.S.:  psychological phenomenon affecting dozens of valley girls and hot jocks with untapped potential.

I likely contracted EWS shortly after watching Legally Blonde for the first time during my tenure at Ryerson University. 

I know what you’re thinking: I didn’t go to law school to win back my ex-boyfriend (sadly this was long before I was hunky enough to have a boyfriend) so how could I relate to Elle Woods? As a gay man starved for attention, even (or especially) when closeted, I always stood out and I did sort of decide to go to film school on a whim, when I realized genetically engineering dinosaurs likely wouldn’t be a possible career path. So the next best thing would be to tell my own geeky sci-fi stories, right?

Elle Woods Syndrome is also known to afflict gay writers with delusions of grandeur.

So this freshly and flamboyantly gay science nerd, lover of popular culture, wearer of muscle tanks outside the gym and hopeful creator of Anaconda 2 Anaconda 5 arrived at Ryerson film school. While it was sadly no Harvard (or even the Canadian equivalent of an Ivy League), we did have a pretentious film school in “Image Arts” chock full of stodgy hipsters in muted, ill-fitting cardigans, who wanted to make important art films. 

We had snobby, opinion-recycling Vivian Kensington’s, social-climbing Warner Huntington III’s or Femi-Nazi Enid Wexler’s, all nonconformist conformists. They hated me on first impression impulse because I stood out and not in a good way (at least that’s how I projected it in my head and later Burn Book). Once I decided to embrace my life as Elle Woods – and centre of attention – this track became a self-fulfilling prophecy and full-blown EWS. 

I set a precedent of making people think I was vacuous bumble gum, so I could later prove them wrong. I’d spend my scholarship money on bleach-blonding or perming my hair (a la Justin Timberlake circa the N*SYNC days). I’d wear excessive costumes during my pitches or muscle tanks to my lectures. And I saw links to Legally Blonde everywhere.

Like Ms. Woods, I'd overcompensate with razzle-dazzle.
We had this ruthless film history professor who pinned our eyes open to watch awful Russian films. She made us introduce ourselves via film clips we believed “best characterized” our cinematic taste. After the usual PT Anderson and Coen Bros suspects, I decided to show Elle Woods’ cross-examination of Chutney Windham. After prerequisite scoffing and eye-rolling from the film snobs, the scary professor actually called it a “wonderful example of the village idiot” which I didn’t understand. (I’d later realize our Russian Professor Umbridge was my first Professor Stromwell in a long line of Yoda mentors).

My Professor Stromwell mentor came in a slightly harsher form.
I once pitched a high-concept, high-budget sci-fi short in lab-coat including mock science-experiment for our thesis film (think the equivalent of the prestigious summer internship). In my head, all those ill-fitting cardigans thought I was a hopeless long-shot, but once the list appeared and my film I was selected, this is how I reacted:  

Once I’d contracted EWS, it only festered, especially after I shed my soft-fleshed cocoon and morphed into a douchebag butterfly. Wherever I went, I’d do everything in my power to stand out. Behind the scenes in television production, I was the fit editor who refused burrito lunches with the other tubby editors. Videogame and comic book conventions, where I should be networking, I’d instead be posturing as a nerd-jock in cosplay, so I’d be taken as seriously as the booth babes - only I was neither as hot nor as paid to be there.

What Elle Woods and Bryce get up to when they should be studying.
During my residency at the Canadian Film Centre’s television writing bootcamp, something in me changed. I’d desperately applied to this prestigious program two times before, beginning to fear TV writing was only “for people who are boring, ugly and serious,” that I must be none of those things. But another voice told me I really fucking wanted it. So through perseverance, better scripts and the sometimes reliable need for validation, I finally got in. Immediately it felt like I was back in film school: the outgoing pop-culture guru amongst mostly introspective writer-sorts. I was all ready to prove I write my bubble-gum “genre” TV, while rocking a form-fitting Henley, and probably be judged for it. They even made a 25-cents jar in our writing room for every one of my Legally Blonde references. But each time I added a quarter, it began to dawn on me:

I was stuck in First or early Second Act Legally Blonde, forgetting Elle Woods herself went through a huge transformation. Sure she went to law school to win her boyfriend back, but there she discovered her untapped potential as a bonafied lawyer. Her original motivation was misguided, but it led to an experience that fundamentally changed her.

Elle Woods triumphed in the court room - proving everybody including herself wrong, but where was I?
All these years of embracing an Elle Woods identity, I’d completely missed the point. I was trying so hard to be outcast as different or even inferior, I could never be accepted and never really grow.

But luckily at the CFC I was working with or for the best of the best. All of my mentors were Professor Stromwells with noses that could detect bullshit (and/or the bells and whistles I’d used in the past to hide thin writing). I was forced to dig deeper and to stop being so shallow.

Taken through the ringer at the CFC, I arguably discovered my inner potential for writing drama – something I thought myself previously incapable. I’d always been content with writing derivative knock-offs of Jurassic Park, Anaconda or X-men, but with a little elbow grease, I learned why I really want to write and what I really have to say. I have no delusions that I’ve somehow morphed into a genius writer – I still and always will be learning and developing my craft. But I can say that writing Anaconda 5 is no longer at the top of my career goals.

I'm not the only one to realize the didactic potential of Legally Blonde.
My Professor Stromwell called it right!

The funny thing is, throughout my CFC residency, nobody ever really judged me on all those shallow archetype things – in fact they were embraced and championed as part of my “unique voice.” So look at that, Elle Woods was right after all. Being true to yourself never goes out of style.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

My Dark Days of Dodgeball: Or How I was Forced to Learn a Lesson in Congeniality

Besides storytelling, strong female badasses and videogames, there is probably nothing I'm more passionate about in my simple simple life than Dodgeball, the glorious sport of "violence, exclusion and degradation," made famous and rules defined by the exquisite Dodgeball: An Underdog Story. It's a sport which defined key character building moments of my last decade and led to my one and only concussion.

Now before you go thinking this is my spirited pledge for turning Dodgeball into an Olympic sport, you should grab the kleenex, because this is rather, a very tragic confession of my descent into disgrace and depravity. And to all that have been hurt along the way, my deepest apologies...

The narrative of my connection to dodgeball is a long and storied one. It all began almost a decade ago when I captained a team of underdog artistic oddballs assembled from my Documentary Media MFA program at Ryerson U. We academic wannabe athletes called ourselves Dodging For Columbine and we were as terrible as you could imagine. We were mostly fat or scrawny, some with glasses, and all who threw like girls, except the girls themselves, who were mostly lesbian cannons that should be playing major league baseball.

Our team sucked but at least we were clever.  
We competed against undergrad jock douchebags, all of whom were better than us in most every way. And no team was better looking, more athletic and more douchey than Natural Selection, a cartoon squadron of mega-hot jock bullies who stepped right out of my nightmare wet dreams to antagonize us on the court. But these were villains you loved to hate so hard it was like the living inspiration for Ben Stiller and his Purple Copras.

Aptly named in every sense.
But I must give Natural Selection credit for fueling a fire I never knew I had inside. I’d never played a team sport in my life (unless you count Reaching for the Top), but thanks to their routine, skin-thickening decimations, I learned that while I may not ever be able to throw like a man or a lesbian, but I can dodge, I can strategize, I can survive a dodge-ball catalyzed concussion, I can sure as hell shit-talk like the best of redneck trash, and well, I can also lead. 

We meagre documentarians went from wanting to change the world by finding the cinematic cure to world hunger to having a taste for human bloodshed. After finally learning how to dodge, dip, duck, dive and dodge, we rose up to challenge even Natural Selection a few times (though we never won). And we were once put on probation when a fistfight broke out between out two teams. I kid not, and I realize that this memory should not be fondly remembered, even if it is.

Now fast forward a few years to the Gay Ball Society and the first ever Toronto-set LGBT dodge-ball league. At long last a place where you could meet fellow gays while playing the greatest sport known to man.

We took the fun out of dodgeball!
During the first year, I captained a team called “Cherry Poppers”. Well actually, I should say, I became the captain after I helped orchestrate a mutiny when I realized the first captain wasn’t intense or competitive enough to lead us to victory. The rest of the team seemed to agree, and quickly, week to week we became the team to beat. I had no delusions of being the best or even close to the best player on the team. We were stacked with power cannons and strategic snipers that already gave us an edge. But those like me, who weren’t the most athletic were game and motivated to perfect our throwing, dodging and catching until we were feral animals that dined on bruises, broken egos and bone marrow.

There's no I in team, but there is an I in win.
We left many teams in our dust as we outplayed, outwitted and – forgive this unnecessary Survivor reference – outlasted our way to the top and won the first ever Gay Ball Society championship. The fact that nobody liked our team and that, as one witness recounted, we “took the fun out of dodgeball” didn’t matter, right? Because obviously they were jealous they weren’t on the winning team.

We savored victory and let the cockiness go to our heads. Or at least I did, moving into the second year and a brand new team. I was captain again – this time fairly and squarely – and our team was christened “Red Hot Chili Peckers”. Similarly to last team we had a nice balance of cannons and snipers, and I quickly instructed the noobs on how to be catchers, collectors or dodgers if they couldn't throw. And once again, we were the team to beat and the team to hate.

Take that, Natural Selection!
That is until complaints that we were mean and intense on the court started to come in. I was given warnings to dial it back a notch, because other more sensitive players teams weren’t as competitive and therefore weren’t having fun when they had to play against us. A little birdie from another team told me the one thing our team is missing is a thing called "poise". 

It’s not that I ignored these amber alerts, it’s just I preferred to win, and aggressive passion is just part of my nature right? I can’t be blamed for something I can’t control. Riiiigggghhhhttt?! 

Little did I know, I was fastly becoming this guy.
Alas, after seemingly endless victories, we finally lost our composure during a key play-off game, and just like that we were finished. We came in 7th overall while inspiring a Cinderella Story we'd never live down. The same team, which ironically tried to teach me P is for Poise. Oh, how the mighty had fallen. But it’s okay right, it’s just about having fun, and I’d already won (my first ever) first place ribbon last year.  I didn’t need victory!

But then the administrators of the league pulled me aside after the final game and informed me I would NOT BE ALLOWED TO CAPTAIN in the following year. Why you ask? 

Because apparently I’m “too intense, too competitive" … and perhaps, worst of all, I have a reputation for running my team “like a slavedriver”. A flurry of emotions consumed me: Fury. Guilt. BETRAYAL, from my own people. My gay tribe had rejected me. And no amount of blasting “Let it Go” could make the pain go away. 

But really, me: a Slave-driver?! I sent long-winded inspirational slash instructional emails to my loyal teammates. I encouraged the weak links lesser-skilled players to improve their game. I freaking designed a GODDAMN LOGO FOR OUR TEAM SHIRTS. And this captain was a SLAVE-DRIVER?!

I was about to start a witch-hunt when a wise friend told me, "I’m pretty sure that’s what Hitler said before the whole holocaust thing"

And suddenly it dawned me.

Maybe I did take the spirit of competition a touch too far. Maybe I was a fascist son of a bitch. Maybe I did drop one too many F-bomb-laden shit-talking attacks. 

Dare I say it, but had I, Bryce Sage, former fat-geek underdog morphed into one of the extreme supervillains I used to dread? Forgive my hyperbolizing, but yes, I think I had. 

After being summarily demoted, rank pulled and forced to face my shame head-on, I’m now playing as a civilian on two different teams, in two different leagues one gay and one straight. And I’m doing everything in my power to manage my anger and my liberal dropping of F-bombs and C-units.

My new life goal for 2014.
I’m ready and raring to embrace this whole “poise” thing, too, however fake it seems at first, and win the coveted “Miss Congeniality” sash by end of season. I’ve promised I’ll wear an evening gown if I’m actually crowned, which I know is competitive bribery and probably goes against the definition of congeniality. But c’mon. Baby steps.

Friday, 27 December 2013

Why I wish I read THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY ... 10 Years Ago

I recently had to catch up on a literary classic -- and by classic I mean one written before the 21st century. You know, one of those books you should've read in high school, but only pretend to know by name? Well, had I read this particularly cautionary tale by Mr. Oscar Wilde (the eminent 'mo of his Victorian day), I might've shaved a decade of adolescent learning off my life.     

For those of you like me, who barely knew Dorian Gray by name, I highly suggest you rush out and buy or download The Picture of Dorian Gray for free. This isn't a classic you need to add zombies to make entertaining; Wilde is as witty as Mean Girls.  

You've probably never seen the movie either, it's even more obscure.

That said, here’s my Spark Notes.  It’s about this high-society guy so hot everybody wants to be him or be with him. When a painter captures his hotness in portrait form and his sassy and sinister best friend / devil on his shoulder Lord Henry Wotton puts bad advice in his head (i.e. "the people who love only once in their lives are really the shallow people”), Dorian makes a Devilish deal to ensure the painting ages instead of him. Essentially free of his conscience, Dorian becomes a sleazy, self-absorbed narcissistic hedonist who leaves a trail of heartbreak and suicide in his wake. Until, spoiler-alert, he goes insane, stabs a few people--and then the painting--effectively killing himself.

Modern-day Dorian Grays, and, no, they don't need magic paintings.
It's not very difficult to draw comparisons to today.  Dorian’s basically the 19th century equivalent of a modern day player douchebag. He's gorgeous, likely grew up in the Hamptons, never had to work a day in his life (unless you count modeling), and gets everything in his life served to him on a silver platter. He even has a name readymade for a CW show. Now we may not have magic paintings that can keep us young, but with convincing botox and mad science telomerase-enhancing pills, we're getting pretty close. 

Hollywood movies have taught us that, at least in the heterosexual world, extreme cases of hot assholes who coast through their formative years on their looks generally get eclipsed by smart geeks with robust senses of humor. Eventually these super-hotties get their comeuppance when their looks fade and women become wiser of their disingenuous ways. Or they eventually learn that even though their good looks can get them laid (or better marks, careers and criminal court verdicts), relying on them can be pretty soul-crushing.

Even Mr. Gosling learned that being a hedonist douchebag eventually gets old. 

But if there is one place where this retribution is so delayed it sometimes never even happens, it's the gay world. And this is speaking from experience.  

If you’re young and beautiful you’re immediately ushered into the elitist scene as the belle of the ball – maybe even made the live-in of a richer silver fox “daddy.” (AKA our Lord Henry Wotton). Adolescence into adulthood (the critical period of life where most people learn to stop being shallow, self-absorbed narcissists) is thus postponed. You may not ever need to go through it, depending how good your genes are – and how much capital you’ve got to spend on Botox and steroids.  That’s right, we may not have a magic age-defying mirror, but we do have plastic surgery!

Dozens of ways to become your own Dorian Gray!

Let’s examine some other lessons to learn from Dorian.  Take the Grindr meat market – a dating app that reduces human beings into savage animals – where we select our sex partners for their pretty faces and six-pack abs while callously rejecting the fat, femmy or ethnically diverse, with not a second consideration to how these guys might take said rejections. Sound a bit like when Dorian Gray rejects once-fiancé Sibyl Vane and she ends up committing suicide: "You have killed my love. You used to stir my imagination. Now you don’t even stir my curiosity."? Okay maybe we’re not that bitchy, but you get the point.  

Douchebags of Grindr: if only they read The Picture of Dorian Gray  

And what about our canonization of mean-spirited Über-cunts like Cersei “I’ll have you strangled in your sleep” Lannister and Regina “that is the ugliest F-ing skirt I’ve ever seen” George? We love these bitches so much, fellow homo Ryan Murphy made a whole show about them for us with American Horror Story: Coven. Well guess what, before there was Regina George or Fiona Goode there was Lord Henry Wotton, who had delightful one-liners like: "I choose my friends for their good looks, and my enemies for their good intellects" and "Mrs. Vandeleur was so dreadfully dowdy that she reminded one of a badly bound hymn-book".  

So why do some of us love these bitches so much? Probably because deep down we're incredibly insecure Dorian Gray-types, so we like to put others down to make ourselves feel better. Why is this beginning to sound like an after school special?

Bitches: Why do we love them so much? Probably because we identify with them.

Needless to say, visit any gay scene and you're sure to encounter more than a few vain, self-absorbed Dorian Grays and their enabling, sassy Henry Wottons, and it's a vicious cycle with loads of collateral damage.  Sure to call members of the gay community shallow and superficial isn’t new but speaking as one of these self-absorbed, Dorian Gray Biotches, I think it bares repeating.

I think I'm ready to atone for past sins, and this isn't just my bitter, dried-up cynicism talking. Even if I had read The Picture of Dorian Gray in high school, I probably would’ve rejected the wisdom it had to offer. I still wanted to be older, so I didn’t know what it was like to dread age and I wasn’t even out of the closet, so I didn’t know what it was like to appreciate beauty. 

But now, as somebody who spent the last decade chasing twinks at Buddies, dropping snarky one-liners to friends and foes alike, and leaving a wake of victims in my douchey wake - basically trying to be or be with Dorian Gray - I'm ready for some change.  

And thus I pledge 2014 to be the year I try to become Miss Congeniality.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

"Has anyone ever told you you look like..."

Okay in typical me fashion I’ve neglected the blog and this time I’ve left all six of my readers hanging - I’m only half-way through the 12 Steps For Getting Over a Validation Addiction

Now, instead of moving forward with the rest of the list, I must first do a couple stand-alone posts to show why someone like me can’t just get over this Validation Addiction overnight. Yeah, yeah. I’m really just creating false suspense, much in the way network TV drags out major story developments with boring filler episodes. However, I argue bad habits are like Roman cockroaches, and they can’t be killed in a day or a single blog-post split into two and spread out over four months.

So time for a Case Study in Validation Addiction: How one neutral comment vicious insult can rain on your Pride Parade.

So let’s set the scene. It’s Pride 2013. A weekend of slutty, shirtless free-for-alls, where douchebaggery is at its most fervent. Plastic gays have spent the better part of the year pumping iron and indulging their eating disorders to ensure they’d fetch top prize in the meat markets that ensue.

Normally a mild-mannered slightly above-average former fatty would dread these affairs and the toll they can take on your ego and self-esteem. But I'm transformed and making up for lost time. 

And I was coming off a week of both insane creative and physical validation. My documentary adventures a resounding success and in the can. Plus I’d had the chance to train and diet like crazy to ensure I look the part. Heck, the night before, I even took in so many rape-stares during the army-themed Boot Camp, my Validation meter was full to the brim. 

Of course later that afternoon it was time for Aqua, the sole event set in broad daylight when the unforgiving noonday sun reveals every unsightly flaw, every missed patch of manscaping. Any expectations for validation are dangerous at best. But my Validation Meter was full, so why should I feel the need to posture or peacock?

Aqua: A dangerous place for a Validation Addict

Alas, by the time I arrived, I was dwarfed by prettier Gods amongst men with broader shoulders, more chiseled pecs and rows upon rows of abs. Wherever I turned, there were guys hotter than me.

Okay I just had to regroup. I could find the most flattering light to stand in, next to someone fatter than me, so I'd be hot by contrast. Hold it out until the Magic Hour of sundown when vodka-diet-redbull-goggles had kicked in. But it was a lost cause. It didn’t matter how much fake confidence I tried to muster, I got about as much attention as the ladies washroom. 

Until finally I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen all party with a dude, a Random Asian Stranger I didn’t recognize. Finally, I knew this was my opportunity. I’d be introduced to Random Asian Stranger and he’d stroke my ego with a compliment. Sure enough, Random Asian Stranger pulled me in to whisper something flattering into my ear. 

“Has anyone ever told you look like…” he started but trailed off, drowned out by the circuit beats. 

No big deal. It must’ve been Guy Pierce. Or Ethan Hawke. I've gotten those before. Either way it didn’t matter, I should’ve just heard “a celebrity that’s hot” cause that was the obvious punchline. But no. I was insecure and needed my validation loud and clear. 

Celebrity Recognition as Flattering Compliment
“Sorry I didn’t hear you, what did you say?” I forced him to lean in and say it again.

This time he raised his voice. “Has anyone ever told you… you look like Mitch from Modern Family.”

I really felt like a stake was stabbed through my heart. No, I wasn’t just compared to a ginger – an association I've used a decade's worth of tanning beds and bottle-blonding to avoid (no thanks to South Park) -- but this ginger.

Celebrity Recognition as Insult.
I was speechless with no sassy comeback prepared. Not that it mattered, he was long gong, parading off to destroy another poor, vain douchbag’s self-esteem.

First of all the comparison was ridiculous, right?? I mean, Mitch from Modern Family?! A scrawny, red-headed chubby-chaser?! Okay yes, I've got a little ginger in me, and under scorching sunlight my hair can take a slightly reddish hue. So if you must compare me to a famous redhead, how about Trainer Bob from the Biggest Loser?

I didn’t even know this Mean Girl hater-bitch, let a lone understand his motivation to cut me down. Maybe I rejected him somewhere in the digital realm. Maybe he was on one of the losing teams we absolutely destroyed in Gay Dodgeball. Or maybe, just maybe, this guy didn’t actually mean it as an insult. Maybe this guy really likes gingers, somehow seeing my ginger resemblance as a positive thing. No. Not a chance.

Anyway, we’re losing the point. Which isn’t that some stranger had the gall to compare me to a ginger. 

No, it’s why I allowed the opinion of a stranger get under my skin.

I found my friends and told them I had to leave the party at 6pm so I could prepare for the next day’s documentary shoot at the Parade. Which of course was total bollux, because I was already prepared for the filming, but the excuse probably sounded better than "some random guy unintentionally struck a nerve with an impossibly low blow, so I'm gonna stay in to nurse my wounds". Thus I stayed in on a Saturday night slaying fungus-infected pseudo-zombies with my real virtual friends Ellie and Joel. And they never had the audacity to compare me to Mitch from Modern Family.

So why is it that I can survive a network screening where my blood ends up on the floor, when my creative reason for being is questioned, and somehow not take it personally, but then one harmless remark can leave me crippled? 

Well it's because I can still be a vain, self-doubting guy who cares way too much about what others think of me. I can also have warped delusions of how others perceive me. Not that one shouldn't care what certain others think - lest we swing to the arrogant end of the confidence spectrum - but one should probably raise the bar above the random drones they meet at shirtless dancing parties.

The good news is I did survive the character assassination attempt. I somehow sucked it up and reported to work the next day. I even took Random Asian Stranger off my Kill-Bill black list for Planned Vengenace once I’m rich and famous. How's that for progress?

Which all means to say, that I must be one step closer to curing my need to be continually validated by others, right?? 

DISCLAIMER: Dear Jesse Ferguson, the Weasly Brothers and all Gingers of the world (or people that know/love Gingers): No offense was intended by this Post, which is an historical account from a Former Ginger who now recognizes he's a Blond-Ginger Hybrid.

And Gingers, do have souls, for the record.