Missing David Rakoff

David Rakoff reads before a crowd in 2008. (CC by Pop!Tech)

This past August, we lost David Rakoff — a gifted humorist and storyteller who has been affectionately described as a pointed pessimist and Gen X’s Oscar Wilde.

Like many other fans, I was introduced to David’s work through the hit podcast This American Life and have since put his many books on my to-read list.

His wry humour and keen observational skills, paired with his distinctive voice, helped make TAL the beloved podcast that it is.

(And — lest I go on too long without mentioning it — he’s Canadian.)

David’s first cancer was discovered when he was in his early 20s — and he was only 47 when he died of sarcoma. It’s a terrible thing, and a damned shame.

I’m thinking about him tonight because I recently re-listened to Our Friend David, a TAL episode entirely dedicated to his writing. I feel compelled to share a particularly beautiful excerpt from his autobiographical piece on realizing he liked men.

(I highly recommend listening to it in its original context, though.)

Have you ever had one of those moments when you know that you’re being visited by your own future?

They come so rarely and with so little fanfare, those moments. They’re not particularly photogenic.  There’s no breach in the clouds to reveal the shining city on a hill. No folk dancing children outside your bus. No production values to speak of.

Just a glimpse of such quotidian incontrovertible truth that — after the initial shock of the supreme weirdness of it all — a kind of calm sets in.

“So, this is to be my life.”

Thank you, David, wherever you are. We are worse for all the things we didn’t get to hear you say.

Listen to Our Friend David here.


The enigmatic genius of Vivian Maier, street photographer

I’d never heard of Vivian Maier before yesterday, but now I can’t stop thinking about her.

Maier’s street photography is probably the best I’ve ever seen — but the reclusive Chicago nanny never intended for anyone to see it.

Her choice of subjects, her use of light, her impeccable timing … it’s just incredible to think she wasn’t a professional. But she was a genius.

I saw Maier’s images for the first time during This American Life live, a visual adaptation of one of my favourite podcasts, which was beamed in real time to movie theaters across the U.S. and Canada.

John Maloof, the young man who purchased thousands of Maier’s unattributed negatives at an antique auction, is now on a mission to share her work with a new generation. He admits the intensely private woman probably would have hated the attention, but was never able to ask her permission directly.

Maloof writes:

Out of the more than 100,000 negatives I have in the collection, about 20-30,000 negatives were still in rolls, undeveloped from the 1960s-1970s. I have been successfully developing these rolls. I must say, it’s very exciting for me. Most of her negatives that were developed in sleeves have the date and location penciled in French (she had poor penmanship).

I found her name written with pencil on a photo-lab envelope. I decided to ‘Google’ her about a year after I purchased these only to find her obituary placed the day before my search. She passed only a couple of days before that inquiry on her.

Maier caught fleeting moments like bubbles on the tip of her finger, and I’m not sure who could keep such talent to themselves.

In a world full of photoshopped renditions of posed subjects, these images are intoxicating in their authenticity.

With apologies – thank you, Ms. Maier.

October 14, 1968, Chicago. Vivian Maier. Maloof Collection 2012.

October 14, 1968, Chicago. Vivian Maier. Maloof Collection 2012.

The “tall tale” about a hero in my family that turns out to be true

Carlos Dardano (Facebook)

If your father told you that your one-eyed uncle landed a passenger aircraft after its two engines burned out in the middle of a merciless storm — without anyone getting killed — you’d totally think he was lying, right?

C’mon, tell me you would, because I feel like a pretty terrible daughter right now.

My dad (Italo Carletti Dardano) first told me about my *uncle Carlos Dardano when I was about 12 years old.

My dad saw a kid who was finally old enough to process an incredible story.
I saw a dad who thought I was still young enough to believe a tall tale.

(To be fair, my dad is kind of like the father in Big Fish: full of grandiose stories that push the boundaries of believability.)

The thing is, my dad was not lying. He wasn’t even exaggerating.

Two days ago, this episode of Mayday was uploaded on YouTube.

The episode confirms the following, based on official reports, interviews and eye witness accounts:

  • Carlos Dardano lost his left eye after being shot in the head by guerrillas during the civil war in El Salvador — but despite his impaired vision, he went on to become a certified commercial pilot.
  • On May 24, 1988, Carlos was flying a Boeing 737 for TACA airlines (TACA 110), which was on its way to New Orleans. The plane was carrying 38 passengers and several crew members.
  • During that flight, a violent thunderstorm killed power to both engines. Shortly after the pilots switched on the emergency backup generator, the engines overheated and there was a dual engine flameout.
  • To avoid a catastrophic fire, Carlos shut the engines off again and put the plane back into free fall, while realizing he wasn’t going to make it to the New Orleans airport. He ruled out the possibility of landing on a highway as the air traffic control tower had suggested (and likely killing people in cars and on board).
  • His co-pilot spotted a levee parallel to a canal, and Carlos began a risky maneuver meant for small planes called a sideslip. There was no way to slow the plane, but somehow Carlos avoided a high cement wall and a steep embankment — and made a bumpy but safe landing. No one on board was killed, or even badly injured.
  • “For the first time in history, a 737 without any engines has landed safely outside of an airport.”

Dardano planes (Facebook)

After watching the show, I promptly called my dad and apologized for being such a skeptical 12 year old, and also for forgetting about this incredible tale for so long.

I also looked up my cousin Charlie on Facebook (Carlos’ son who is around my age) and found out two more things: Charlie has some pretty awesome pictures of his dad and their flight school in El Salvador and, luckily, he doesn’t have very strong privacy settings.

I immediately wanted to message him, but I wasn’t quite sure where to start.

Perhaps with: Our grandfathers were brothers. My dad went to school with your dad in El Salvador. Your father’s tale of heroism was so awesome that I refused to believe it for years. (Or, hey, I borrowed some of your pictures for a blog post – is that cool?)

I think I’ll just send him this post and see what happens. I’m actually pretty nervous!

Until then, I urge you all to revisit the flights of fancy from your youth. They may be better grounded than you think.


*Note: my dad refers to Carlos as my uncle but, to be more precise, he’s my great grandfather’s brother’s son. I’ll attempt to draw this branch of the family tree after consulting with my grandma, Maria Isabel Dardano Gonzalez.

What slain journalist Marie Colvin lived for

“At some point, you have to make a choice: Do you want journalism to be your job, or do you want it to be your life?” – Chris Jones, Esquire Magazine

By now, you may have heard how veteran war correspondent Marie Colvin died — but do you know what she lived for?

Colvin was, among other things, an indefatigable voice for women and children caught in the merciless grip of war. Over the years, she covered conflicts in the Balkans, Chechnya, East Timor and Lebanon — to name a few.

The 56-year-old’s trademark eye patch was itself a testament to her resolve. Colvin lost the use of her left eye to shrapnel while reporting in Sri Lanka in 2001 — but no close call was enough to make her “hang up her flak jacket.”

This is an excerpt from her final report, posted outside of the Sunday Times paywall.

February 19 2012
Marie Colvin in Homs

‘We live in fear of a massacre’

They call it the widows’ basement. Crammed amid makeshift beds and scattered belongings are frightened women and children trapped in the horror of Homs, the Syrian city shaken by two weeks of relentless bombardment.

Among the 300 huddling in this wood factory cellar in the besieged district of Baba Amr is 20-year-old Noor, who lost her husband and her home to the shells and rockets.

“Our house was hit by a rocket so 17 of us were staying in one room,” she recalls as Mimi, her three-year-old daughter, and Mohamed, her five-year-old son, cling to her abaya.

“We had had nothing but sugar and water for two days and my husband went to try to find food.”

It was the last time she saw Maziad, 30, who had worked in a mobile phone repair shop. “He was torn to pieces by a mortar shell.”

For Noor, it was a double tragedy. Adnan, her 27-year-old brother, was killed at Maziad’s side.

Everyone in the cellar has a similar story of hardship or death. The refuge was chosen because it is one of the few basements in Baba Amr. Foam mattresses are piled against the walls and the children have not seen the light of day since the siege began on February 4. Most families fled their homes with only the clothes on their backs.

The city is running perilously short of supplies and the only food here is rice, tea and some tins of tuna delivered by a local sheikh who looted them from a bombed-out supermarket.

A baby born in the basement last week looked as shellshocked as her mother, Fatima, 19, who fled there when her family’s single-storey house was obliterated. “We survived by a miracle,” she whispers. Fatima is so traumatised that she cannot breastfeed, so the baby has been fed only sugar and water; there is no formula milk.

Fatima may or may not be a widow. Her husband, a shepherd, was in the countryside when the siege started with a ferocious barrage and she has heard no word of him since.

The widows’ basement reflects the ordeal of 28,000 men, women and children clinging to existence in Baba Amr, a district of low concrete-block homes surrounded on all sides by Syrian forces. The army is launching Katyusha rockets, mortar shells and tank rounds at random.

Snipers on the rooftops of al-Ba’ath University and other high buildings surrounding Baba Amr shoot any civilian who comes into their sights. Residents were felled in droves in the first days of the siege but have now learnt where the snipers are and run across junctions where they know they can be seen. Few cars are left on the streets.

Almost every building is pock-marked after tank rounds punched through concrete walls or rockets blasted gaping holes in upper floors. The building I was staying in lost its upper floor to a rocket last Wednesday. On some streets whole buildings have collapsed — all there is to see are shredded clothes, broken pots and the shattered furniture of families destroyed.

It is a city of the cold and hungry, echoing to exploding shells and bursts of gunfire. There are no telephones and the electricity has been cut off. Few homes have diesel for the tin stoves they rely on for heat in the coldest winter that anyone can remember. Freezing rain fills potholes and snow drifts in through windows empty of glass. No shops are open, so families are sharing what they have with relatives and neighbours. Many of the dead and injured are those who risked foraging for food.

[Continue reading . . . ]

Colvin in her own words:

Last conversation with the BBC, posted on Tuesday: “I watched a little baby die today. Absolutely horrific.”

Last conversation with CNN, also on Tuesday: “This is the worst … for many reasons. … There’s no where to run.”

Click through to see the Sunday Times public tribute to Marie Colvin

Who are the most promising new journalists?

Former "snowballs" - anonymously submitted student questions, thrown to the front of the lecture hall. As you can see, some students kept it very general.

I have to confess right away: this post will not thoroughly answer the headline’s question —  yet.

Actually, I was hoping to borrow your collective brainpower.  Quick background: I’m the TA for the UBC School of Journalism’s undergraduate New Media course, and many of the students are interested in getting into journalism.

Today we had the students throw “snowballs” (anonymous crumpled up questions) to the front of the lecture hall. It turns out many of them are interested in how new journalists are making their way into the field.

More specifically, they want suggestions on who to watch – emerging journalists that they can see as mentors. (You know, “most likely to succeed” high school yearbook style.)

I have a few names in mind, but I’m really hoping to get peer input on this one. I’d love a good cross-section from various backgrounds and J-schools (although, more than formally studying journalism,  it’s important that they excel at practicing it). I’m also hoping to include many approaches to the craft, and I’m open to suggestions outside of Canada.

If you have anyone in mind, I’d love if you could fire off any/all of the following, where applicable:

  • Name
  • J-school
  • Current/Past employers
  • Publications in which their work has appeared
  • Platforms they work in
  • Blog/twitter feed/website
  • Link to a good sample of their work <–very important!

The only requirements are that they are new to the industry – which may or may not mean they’re twenty-somethings – and that you really think they show great potential. I’ll be sure to post the list I come up with, with priority to those that send me cross-platform samples I can show the students.

Please comment below or email me at ef (dot) carletti (at) gmail (dot) com

Thank you immensely everyone! And congrats to those already recommended by their peers!




So far I’ve including all the names suggested to me by people who have read the criteria above. I’ll include more details about the journalists I highlight in my follow-up blog post, but for now, you can:

Find them on twitter!
@jesse_mclean @buhfy @jtwittah @amp6 @AdrianMorrow @ChrisJai @DakGlobe @metrolens @StuartAtGazette @jayme_poisson @writefullydevon@LaurenAtGazette @tamara_baluja @liemvu @ziannlum @NicoleatTheSpec @robyndoolittle @klaszus@l_stone @cfedio @dylan_robertson@JodieMartinson @ardenzwelling @sarah_millar @ddale8@nonstopnicktv @erinmillar @jesslinzey@Eric_Szeto @jesseferreras @EBDuggan@allisoncross @katecallen @sunnyfreeman @thesunnydhillon


Jesse McLean

Jennifer Yang

Justin Tang

Anna Mehler Paperny

Adrian Morrow

Dakshana Bascaramurty

Beth Hong

Stuart A. Thompson

Chloé Fedio

Jayme Poisson

Amanda Ash

Devon Wong

Lauren Pelley

Tamara Baluja

Dylan C. Robertson

Liem Vu

Robyn Doolittle

Nicole O'Reilly

Jeremy Klaszus

Laura Stone

Jodie Martinson

Jessica Linzey

Zi-Ann Lum

Sarah Millar

Arden Zwelling

Liam Casey

Nick Taylor-Vaisey

Erin Millar

Kate Allen

Allison Cross

Jesse Ferreras

Eric Szeto

Rebecca Lindell

Evan Duggan

Daniel Dale

Chris Jai Centeno

Sunny Freeman

Teri Pecoskie

Iain Marlow

Dr. Peter’s Diary: “I am a doctor, but I’m also a patient.”

Twenty years ago, a handsome young physician looked into a camera and spoke words he was not sure all Canadians were ready to hear.

“We’re going to be approaching this from a different point of view — a more human point of view,” Dr. Peter Jepson-Young said of HIV/AIDS.

“I’m going to be introducing you to someone with AIDS to help provide a name, a face, and an identity to this disease,” the Vancouver-based doctor famously explained.

“The person I’m going to introduce you to…is myself.”

Despite the initial fears and disapproval of his loved ones, Dr. Peter told audiences that he was struggling with HIV/AIDS at a time when many thought everyday interactions – like shaking hands – could lead to infection.

He also told them he was gay at a time when gay men were widely feared and demonized.

Far before the dawn of youtube confessionals, he showed Canadians that it was possible to talk about a poorly-understood disease openly and honestly.

“I am a doctor, but I’m also a patient.”

Filming the young doctor was David Paperny, who will be leading my advanced television course at the UBC School of Journalism this semester. He still remembers the project as one of the most important of his career.

In class yesterday, David told us that some viewers told Peter to “rot in hell” and cried out for the CBC to take him off the air.  But, at the same time, something more powerful happened.

Many Canadians were educated and inspired by the young man’s courage.

Although he was only supposed to tape a handful of shows, the Dr. Peter Diaries ended up chronicling about two years of the man’s life in 111 episodes. People grew familiar with him, and bore witness to his worsening condition. Many felt as though they knew him, or even loved him.

Before his death in 1992, the doctor set up the Dr. Peter AIDS Foundation, a non-profit organization that continues to care for people living with HIV/AIDS. His diary series was nominated for an Academy Award in 1994.

Twenty years later, the mayor of Vancouver has declared Sept. 3 – 10 Dr. Peter week, and the diarist is being remembered as a national hero. David is currently working on a new series of diaries that will allow a new generation to talk about how the disease affects their lives today.

But as we remember Dr. Peter, let’s not forget how much further we have to go.

Photo from the Dr. Peter AIDS Foundation website


• UBC Alumni screening of The Broadcast Tapes of Dr. Peter, Thursday Sept. 9 at 6 p.m. at the CBC Studios, 700 Hamilton St.

• 20th anniversary screening of The Broadcast Tapes of Dr. Peter, Friday Sept. 10 at 6 p.m. at the CBC Studios, 700 Hamilton St.

• Passions: A Benefit for the Dr. Peter AIDS Foundation, Sunday Sept. 19 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Dr. Peter Centre, 1110 Comox St.

There’s something about Meghan

I didn’t blog about my first front-page Toronto Star story on the day it was printed because, well, I needed time to hyperventilate. To properly explain why,  I’ll have to use grandiose adjectives thrice and break the following post into three small pieces.

The fascinating couple

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My story was about Adam Warner and Meghan Baker, who met and fell in love when they were both 27-year-old English teachers in South Korea. Because their story is both beautiful and tragic, I don’t have the heart to build suspense: I have to tell you directly that Meghan died of cancer on April 27, 2010, just about a month after she and Adam were married.

Although ’til death do us part came far too soon for this young couple, Meghan’s love continues to be the driving force in Adam’s life. I had the immense privilege and pleasure of weaving their journey together, and his journey without her, into a narrative that crisscrosses through so many things that make us human.

Their incredible story

The song “Closing Time” tells us “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”

In my story, we meet Adam just after he has lost “the best and biggest part” of his life, and just as he embarks on a project that both mourns the loss of his wife Meghan and celebrates their time together.

In short, Adam is taking on an ambitious list of almost 30 life goals that Meghan had shared on her popular blog “The Bees Knees.”

Her list is full of big dreams, like volunteering in India, running a marathon, reading 12 books a year, learning a musical instrument, living in at least five countries and earning a PhD. Adam stresses that it is not a bucket list, but a collection of goals. It has nothing to do with death or running out of time, and everything to do with “living hard.”

The story “Unfinished Business” was published on Tuesday June 29 on the front page of the Star. You can read the original story by clicking here.

Excerpt from “Unfinished Business: How one man keeps his late wife’s memory alive”

On the outdoor patio of a Brooklyn pub, surrounded by bright red walls and stringed lights, Adam Warner was cornered by a stranger’s small talk. He was sharing a canary-yellow picnic table with two New Yorkers, and one was probing Adam with where-are-you-froms and what-do-you-dos.

Eventually, the 29-year-old Washington native revealed his unofficial occupation.

“My wife just died,” he said, “so, I’m trying to set up a volunteer project to do all the things she wanted to do.”

His wife was Meghan Baker, a small-town girl from a place called Petrolia, Ont., near Sarnia. She was 29, and she had published a list of nearly 30 things she wanted to accomplish on her well-read blog The Bee’s Knees. When she died in April, her husband told Meghan’s family, friends and roughly 1,200 readers that he was going to take on her goals. (keep reading…)

My only regret is that I didn’t have the space to includes quotations from her parents, legions of blog readers, and from a grief counsellor/widow who thought–both personally and professionally–that Adam’s project was a really positive way to honour his spouse.

As I’ve said before, though, once could probably write a whole book about these two, and I’m not too worried that the details will never surface. Already many others have taken an interest in the love behind the list.

The overwhelming feedback

When it was published, Meghan and Adam’s story was the most read article of the day. Although the window for comments was very small, the story has been shared hundreds of times through social networking sites.

Adam has been contacted by many other media outlets and has already done interviews for radio and television. He told me that the day after the article was published, he went from 100 visits/day at the Bees Knees to 7,000 and that his charity fund “For the Love of Meghan” had also gone up dramatically. The Facebook page of the same name had just over 1,000 likes beforehand, and now has more than double that.

Many people offered very specific kinds of support. A long-distance runner offered to help train Adam for the marathon he’s going to run. A woman offered her travel advice for his upcoming trip to India. Another widower offered him emotional support in case he ever needs to talk to someone who’s been there. The Star’s editor in chief got a call from a rep for the Maple Leaf’s offering NHL hockey tickets.

Many, many people have contacted me either to tell me how great the story was or to get me to connect them with Adam. If my own inbox was stuffed with messages, I can only imagine his.

I am so happy that something I wrote has made such a difference in another person’s life. Adam really deserves all the help he can get. He’s taking all the love he had for Meghan (which is seemingly infinite) and pouring it into the improvement of self and of community.

If only we could all turn our personal tragedies into gifts for the world.