Life, death and the fond farewell of a hypomaniac
He died pretty much alone, in one of those places where people go to die. They call it palliative care. His shriveling body he willed to science so there was no burial, no ceremony. He called himself Roberto. He had no kids, wife gone decades before.
Six days before he died he hosted a party for himself in the apartment overseeing the gates of Mount Pleasant where he lived the final fifth of his eighty three years. The call went to friends near and far, new and old. A crew that must be called motley if that word has any meaning, numbering perhaps four or five dozen through the six hours the party lasted, gathered around. Some sang and danced a bit, though there wasn’t much room. Some brought rare single malt, some brought pot, for which Roberto had medical permission. Nobody else had permission, other than his, but that didn't inhibit their using.
And the emails! The calls! Pierre Juneau phoned. Pierre Juneau!!! Tell me you knew he was still living in the land! Well he is and the old mandarin wants Roberto, whom he knew as Bob Russel way back when they were something of a team until a media misstep tripped them up, to do something for him. Juneau wants Bob to send whatever papers and speeches he has kept to his biographer. The great public servant, inventor of the CanCon solution, saint of the eponymous Junos, now eighty eight, is getting a book.
“Well deserved,” said Bob, and of course he had preserved everything. It was part of history now. At one time it was fodder for the futurist and mandarins with the courage to hear.
(It occurs to me that there will be some readers who are not Canadian, more's their pity. They will be unfamiliar with some cultural policies peculiar to Canada. Elucidation of some of it is provided at the end of the piece. Press More below.)
(In the photo Bob Russel is at right, the artist Mary Daemen at left during their years living high in the Manulife Tower on Bloor, around the corner from the Windsor Arms when that was the place in T.O. to be seen. Yours truly is in the middle. Mary and Bridget, my late wife, were sisters. Bob and Mary didn’t marry but he always referred to us as brothers-in-common-law. On the wall can be seen one of Bob’s unique methods of idea mapping.)
There were some odd birds about at the party. There was a fellow who said Roberto had known about a lot of stuff before any of the rest of us. He was writing about laptop computers, for instance — the electronic briefcase he called it —in the 1960s. He was writing about the pending economic bioshift just a week before his farewell party.
In the 1980s he had written a book called Winning The Future. It was a cause of no little annoyance as he was dying that American politicians were mangling the meaning of a phrase Bob felt some entitlement to. After all, isn’t that what title means?
“As you know,” he wrote to me in March (I didn’t), “Newt Gingrich, who recently published a book called WINNING THE FUTURE, is planning to run against Pres. Obama on behalf of the Republican party (should he get their nomination).
“The president has used "Winning the Future" as a key phrase defining his policies for the U.S., beginning with the State of The Union speech. He continues to use the phrase in speeches.
“Newt is likely to claim authorship of the phrase in his campaign. And soon.”
Bob wanted to let them know of his prior appropriation of the phrase to describe the interstition of economic eras from prehistoric times up to the space revolution even now in preparation. But he ran out of time. He knew he was going. He had to choose how best to use the remains of his energy. Let American politicos have the words. He could let that go. He wanted to organize his end. The party was a very important part. Bob didn’t get a lot of opportunity to party since he had almost no family. Families are where parties are mostly held.
In the corner sat a fellow who didn’t speak much, apparently ran the CBC many years ago. A woman stood quietly, spoke softly, classic features framed by flowing hair, a burnished gold dress, lightly bronzed and stunningly simple as only breeding, taste and wealth can command. She had worked with him long ago, in a previous century. After, she had created her own company, nurtured it and sold it for a lot. She had also married well.
Roberto in what he called his burial suit. But he donated his body to science and we're not sure the suit went with him.
His former lover Mary was there. He had been faithfully visiting at the residence where she was kept, though she had been somewhat unaware for some time past of who he was. Nurse Hope moved lightly along the edges, quietly soliciting donations to cover Bob’s nursing care through the nights, when Canada’s health delivery system is asleep for people who need care at home. In any event she had no trouble raising the $160 a night that was needed. She figured three or four nights at most until Bob was moved to palliative, where costs are covered. Nurse Hope had known Bob only a little while, a few months. But she had paid for two nights of care from her own purse, which didn’t look to be deep.
Peter Lebensold, one of his generation’s more creative magazine publishers, called and then wrote, “Just hearing your voice and your laughter on the phone the other day (for the first time in, what, 30 years?) was a blast: All the old enthusiasm and excitement with new ideas seems still to be coursing through you. But, why not? It is — after all — the way you have lived your whole life, and I'd hardly expect that to change now.
“So thank you. Thank you for the Intersex article that put my little movie magazine on the map (especially after Playboy picked up your piece and ran with it). But thank you, too, for believing in that little movie magazine ... for, generally, giving my ideas more credit than they probably deserved, often seeing in them possibilities that I was too tradition-bound to recognize myself. And thank you, also, for — from time to time — in your work for the Secretary of State, or at Orba, letting me be a small part of the brave new world that you (and often only you) could see so clearly. It's been an honour.”
Yes, Bob wrote for Playboy as well as for the Secretary of State. He was a Johnny Appleseed of ideas, spreading them any way he could. For several years he delivered a brilliant exercise in lateral thinking each month to 300,000 readers in Canada’s high tech communities of Ottawa, Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver as a columnist for Silicon Valley NORTH, which was the forerunner to SCAN and www.scansite.ca.
Joseph Glazner, a novelist whose name you’ll not recognize since he chooses to publish under pseudonyms, wrote to thank him “for showing me that the pages of the world's greatest newspapers and magazines could be read like tea leaves to predict the future of civilization."
Frank Ogden, for whom multi-talented is a description inadequate, called from Vancouver. Most recently identified and probably best known to an astonishingly large public as Doctor Tomorrow, Frank has been a helicopter pilot, a pioneer of LSD research and a student of voodoo priests in Haiti. He counts himself among those to whom Arthur Cordell refers when he wrote, “I learned from Bob and I respected his views and so his loss will not only be a loss to family and friends but a loss to the creative world. A loss to those who remain and are still trying to make sense of the information world and, whether they know it or not, owe a debt to Bob for some of his early insights.” He aurthored The Conserver Society for the Science Council of Canada when Canada had a science council. After Mulroney killed it, instigating the little-think science policy that continues until today, Arthur found shelter under Mike Binder at Industry Canada and became integral to the federal government’s understanding of the information age.
For all that, this is all that Bob Russel ever put on his website to describe his career: “columnist since college newspaper, 1948-50. theater production and promotion, Paris and London fifties, filmmaking NFB, broadcasting CBC, authored WINNING THE FUTURE 1984, NYC Carroll & Graf. Study of economic revolutions in history. Public speaking and keynote addresses, 1980-1990; published 75,000 abstracts on tech and social change, as ORBA INC, 1970-75. Manic-depressive II.”
You might think it odd that Bob would finish his brief bio, in the space where others are listing the clubs they belong to, with a descriptor of his mental state. But it was just this that defined him. What was like him was to delve as deeply as possible into whatever problem or circumstance he was confronted with. To the end he shared his insights with anybody who cared to ask, only slightly stymied by the unreadiness to pay the piper of those who came to listen. But he could laugh about it. He knew himself. And he could draw lessons. The following he wrote in an Email about six months ago.
“I am a certified manic depressive. Type II BiPolar Disorder is the professional diagnosis. Hypomania. The milder kind. Im a creativity addict, with vertiginous ups and sudden descents. Let me tell you about my discoveries, and share my experience.
“My beloved mania has impelled me to sixty years of creative adventures. Under its spell in my early twenties, I produced and directed a play in a commercial Montmartre theater, and gave a series of lectures on classic French theater at the Comedie Francaise. In London I joined the Angry Young Men and successfully promoted two frontline theatre companies. And crashed. A four year flight. My first great trip. My first great crash. I retreated home to Canada, tail between my legs.
“Soon after I was editing National Film Board documentaries in Montreal, and making films for the CBC. During this marvelous flight, I published tens of thousands of futures abstracts, many of which ended up on a Californian satellite. Along the way I built a personal computer (two years before the Altair 8800), and used it to send personal daily bulletins about the future to scores of clients as far away as the Bahamas. An eighteen year flight this time, and with a really bruising crash, including two years of mourning and therapy. I had, in the process, invested and lost my home.
“Repaired and restored to flight, I advised our government on cultural policy in Ottawa; published a book on Western economic history in New York; gave scores of speeches and keynote addresses on cultural futures all over the continent, and ran a three year creativity consortium for the business community in Toronto, before my wax melted once again.
“Then there was a TV series on celebrating Western Cultural History for a Montreal producer. Four years work ended in heart attacks, his and mine. Great flight. Painful landing.
“I am my mania. It is my life. It is who I am. In between flights I am nothing. A brief rest to heal my bruises, then back up there with Icarus, on to new adventures. And as long as medical science keeps curing our deadly diseases, I have no intention to stop.
“What is this dangerous life force we all possess, that can grow so sweet, and burn so hot, and sometimes drive us mad? From a bio-tech viewpoint, creativity stems from a cocktail of hormones, genetically evolved to keep us changing, adapting, expanding, unfolding as we grow, influenced by what we consume, stimulated by stress and challenge and exercise, dampened by booze, sharpened by drugs and stimulants, eased by tranquillizers, stifled by rejection, subject to crashes. Yet as its devotees would agree, creativity provides one of the most exhilarating flights life has to offer. Like running a great firm.
“One day, perhaps soon, the biotechies will identify this cocktail, let us measure its day-to-day progress, and like insulin, bring it under our personal control. Depressed? Pill A. Getting irritable? Frequent glasses of B. Need a creative boost? A measured dose of C. Feeling paranoid? A biweekly injection of D. Perhaps our avid molecular biologists will provide the answers before our endocrinologists: a tweeking of the genome, and we’re set for life, like having our teeth straightened.”
Jim Hynes, who helped build some of Toronto's most creative design houses, including the iconic Burns, Cooper, Hynes, and who now shares secrets of success in the craft with students at George Brown College, wrote a week after the party, the day Roberto died:
"Now that he's gone, Bob's living wake can be seen as a remarkable success. It's fitting that Russel pulled this off, because it's something that took both exceptional chutzpah (most people wouldn't dare think of such a thing) and an exceptional awareness that the time really was near (which many would deny until it was too late). When I chatted with him at the party, it struck me that while he looked to be near death, his voice, and especially his light, staccato laugh, were the same as they always were. The real Bob was still there, even as the body sustaining him was melting away. He was a unique character, and I'm glad I got to know him for a while. Now he knows what we all want to know — if he knows anything at all."
Postscript for non-Canadians: The gemstone of Canadian cultural policy is the Canadian content provision that comes with every broadcasting licence. Access to the airwaves in Canada is regulated by government, as it is elsewhere. In Canada one is licenced by the Canadian Radio, Television and Telecommunications Commission, popularly known as the CRTC. If you are a radio station and you're going to broadcast music, a large chunk of it has to be Canadian in some way (singer, song, band, whatever). It is this simple provision that has enabled the Canadian music scene to flourish. It hasn't worked quite as well for television but the same principle applies. God only knows how they'll deal with it in the internet age.
Pierre Juneau was the genius who figured out CanCon and the smart operator who made it happen. He was the first chair of the CRTC, in 1968 at the very start of the Trudeau era. He had a great career. It's well outlined in Wikipedia. Now we know we'll be getting a full bio (that's news to the trade and the cognoscenti, btw). He was appointed undersecretary of state by Trudeau and then, in 1980, DM of communications. In 1982 he became CEO of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, where he inaugurated the cable news channel CBC Newsworld, and increased Canadian content on the CBC to 95% of programming. But to the conservatives, elected under Mulroney in 1984, he carried the taint of Trudeau. Out he went.
I'll let you all know when the book arrives.