Finding Empathy

Last night, I experienced a disturbing situation on Toronto transit as I was coming home from eating at my favourite restaurant.

I boarded the subway around 9:30 so the car I was on was still very busy with passengers. I took my seat beside a sleeping man. I had maybe 10 stops before I’d get off at Union station.

Like most people, I keep to myself on public transit. I take out my reading material and ignore my fellow passengers as best as I can. In a sense, our world has obscured the reality around us, blocking out the lives of others, causing us at times to be selfish but not necessarily to anyone’s detriment.

About three stops into my journey, I took notice of the sleeping man who was an arm’s length away from me. Or, at least, I thought he was sleeping. His neck was craned at an awkward angle so his head was pushed foreward, his chin on his chest. I thought I detected his body shuddering gently, in rhythm with his breathing. He was young and appeared strong which probably should have suggested that he was okay; only in a deep sleep.


Yet, I could no longer concentrate any more on my reading. What if, in fact, he wasn’t okay? I asked myself. I looked around at the other passengers and they were all caught up in their own lives. No one seemed bothered by the slumped-over man nor did they seem bothered by my intensity in watching him.

I can pass homeless people on the street without much conscience, as they lay sprawled out on a sidewalk, motionless. Once I pass them, they are out of sight, out of mind.

But this man disturbed me. I felt I couldn’t get up and move to another seat, distancing myself from a potential problem.

When station names were called out, he didn’t stir. This struck me as odd. When I or others have fallen asleep on public transit, we usually wake up to the sound of our stop being announced and then get up in a slight stupor.

As we were approaching Union, I touched the man’s arm a few times and said “Sir!” in an audible voice a few times. I really did not want to involve myself with a stranger, especially when my own world was snug and secure. In case he suddenly jarred awake, I started formulating sentences in my head as to what I’d say to him.

Perhaps I’d grin idiotically if he squinted at me with annoyed eyes and say, “Sorry. I didn’t want you to miss your stop.”

But he didn’t wake up. He didn’t even show a subtle response to my actions.

As I got off the train, I looked back as a multitude of people boarded, and he was still slumped in the same position. I reported him to a TTC employee and he promised me he’d look into it.

I was still troubled but I felt good about my decision to report the situation.

Which leaves me with an even more overwhelming concern.

As I get older and think of death more, I always come up with the same view: I can accept death, I just can’t accept dying alone.

What if I died on a crowded subway car…and people still didn’t notice?

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Tough Week for Teaching

Like most jobs, teaching can run smoothly on average but then throw a challenging week at you. For me, this was one of them.

I am a substitute teacher and the advantage of this is that if I have had a particularly rough day with a group of students, I may not have to face them again the next day. I am not disheartened by challenges: I just know that teachers and students sometimes need a break from each other.

My week started in a class where a boy hit one of his classmates in the face with his binder. He is 9-years-old. The girl who was hit had a red welt below her eye.

In another class, a grade seven student told me to “Shut up!” on two separate occasions. One was directed at me simply because I told him to turn off a laptop on which he was playing a game. The other when he threw open a door in a rage and it hit me and I cautioned him about it.

I am at an age when I take nothing personally any more. I still enjoy going into classrooms and gird myself for any potential problems but the world is a worrisome place when kids think they can solve problems through violence and aggressive confrontations.
Not all children grow from aggressive toddlers to aggressive adults. I’ve seen many change in a positive way.

angry child

But some don’t.

So what happens to the individual who continues using violence and bullying language when he doesn’t get what he wants? I pity the person he’s driving behind on a crowded freeway when he’s in a bad mood.

I wonder how such people would react if placed in a third world country where the children in poverty-stricken areas see going to school as a privilege. I wonder if they would eventually wear down if they had no food in their bellies.

They won’t likely have the chance. Perhaps they’ll never ever see beyond their sense of entitlement.

Am I reading too much into a boy hitting a girl in the face with his binder?


Maybe not.

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Art With Heart 2014

I had an eventful week previously.

On Saturday, October 4, I volunteered to help tell people about, and sell tickets for Art With Heart, the annual auction that donates money to Casey House, a hospice for people afflicted by AIDS.

The auction features art by well-known and up-and-coming Canadian artists. Artists from all provinces and territories are represented and there is always some art contributed by Aboriginal artists.

The reviews took place at Waddington’s Auction House near King and Sherbourne and it was here that I got to know Stephen Ranger a little better. Ranger is the Vice President of Business Development at Waddington’s and has been an auctioneer for Art With Heart for 20 of the 21 years the event has existed.

I already knew from the auctions I have attended that he has a warm sense of humour and a steadfast dedication to making money for Casey House. Having seen him afar for so many years, my face just another in a huge audience, I got to see him up close on Saturday. He is even more personable in one-on-one situations.

The Art With Heart auction happened on Tuesday, October 7 and, as always, was entertaining. The bids came fast and furiously and a few pieces of art reached or went beyond the $10 000 level.

One does not have to bid to enjoy the spectacle. He can simply sit back, take a glass of wine that rolls by on wheeled carts, and be enthralled with the marvel.

Rick Mercer and I - October 2014

Then, on Wednesday, October 8, I had the opportunity to meet Rick Mercer who has supported Casey House over the years. Last April, Rick was honoured by the charitable organization, the St. George’s Society. Rick asked for the money from ticket sales to be given to Casey House and this was a much-appreciated gesture, seeing that Casey House is expanding into a larger building, being constructed to accommodate more clients in more spacious rooms.

These are exciting times for Casey House, an organization that strives to make daily activities more comfortable for people suffering from AIDS.

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Word on the Street 2014

For the second year in a row, I rented a booth at Toronto’s Word on the Street festival in order to sell my children’s fantasy novel, More Precious Than Rubies: The Return of the Norse Gods.

The morning started unpromisingly as the rain teemed down, drenching my set-up table and my chair and making the situation of organizing my books almost impossible. Plus, the booths are so small with sheets of sturdy plastic separating them that the people behind me kept pushing in on me.

Things got slightly more optimistic as the rain gamely went away by opening time, allowing us hot, dry weather. I learned later that this weather was against me, too. My booth faced west and I was basting all afternoon.


I made my first sale early. A woman, also a self-publisher, was advised by publishing authorities that she should be reading five children’s books (picture books) a day in order to understand the genre, get to know writing techniques, and then write her own, based upon her findings. Therefore, she was on a buying rampage and decided to buy my book although it’s not a picture book.

There were two self-published authors to my right, trying to sell their books. We got to know each other and discussed our tribulations regarding the time and money we inject into our work. We traded books, mine for theirs, so I count these as sales.

My fourth sale was to a fellow Canscaiper of mine (Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators, and Performers). He said that he was immersed in a lot of projects at the moment and did not have much time for reading. He hemmed and hawed for a long time, perusing the book, then finally decided he would buy it. I thanked him for his support but consider this a sympathy buy.

So, really, I figure I only had one legitimate sale. I had a long way to come out ahead but it rarely happens.

Another man was going to buy the book but when he found out I was a teacher, he said, “Oh, I was going to help you out but you’re a teacher. You make good money.”

I’m sure he meant it sincerely.

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Inspired to Write

Recently, I was interviewed about my writing. One of the questions focused on my writing environment and when and where I was inspired to write.

When I was much younger, I forced myself to write. That’s right. Forced. I’d take out a piece of paper and pen and lay them out on a desk in front of me, or I’d sit perched over my typewriter, waiting for an idea to come to me. Sometimes, I waited a long time. Usually, I’d come up with nothing.

Randy Over Typewriter

I did this because I had read about famous writers saying, “You must write everyday!” or that if you just started doodling or writing random thoughts, a great idea would emerge from this.

Every time I forced myself to write, the writing would resemble exactly that: forced. Lacking imagination; one-dimensional.

I’m not against other writers forcing themselves to write. It just doesn’t work for me.

As I got older, I let the ideas come to me. As all writers know (As all artists know, for that matter), an inspiration might come in the middle of the night or in a restaurant or on an airplane.

One of the interview questions asked where I write best and I said, “Outdoors in a foreign country.” However, now when I sit down to write (Always in pen first, then on a laptop), I have already formulated the idea for the short story or poem or novel. I still have to sit at times, perplexed, but not because I have no idea for my theme. It is usually because I have to think of my characters’ traits or how to make a sentence stand out.

I never do start writing until the idea has been fixed in my brain.

On a side note, I recently had an interview for a grade 6 teaching position. One of the last comments asked of me was, “Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about yourself?”

I mentioned that I had self-published a children’s book, probably aimed at children at the grade 6 level. I said I would never promote it in class: this would be unprofessional. But it would be good for the students to know that I was on their level when it comes to writing rough drafts and then revising. It’s a long, at times, tedious cycle.

I thought I did excellently in the interview but, alas, did not get the job.

Perhaps I was too ebullient about my writing. And to get some kind of ebullience from me takes awhile.


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Good Reviews, Bad Reviews

As a self-published author, I paid a sum of money to have three prestigious companies review my two novels. These American companies that critiqued my books are blueink Review, Clarion Book Review, and Kirkus Reviews.

The books of mine reviewed are More Precious Than Rubies: The Return of the Norse Gods which follows the adventures of a 7th-grade student as he battles an evil Norse God who is embodied in the school’s new principal, and The Monarchs, about a man battling cancer and trying to find some meaning in his life as he makes various journeys to Mexico with his wife.

The reviews were uplifting at times and disappointing at times, giving me the true sense of being an author. The most beneficial part of the whole exercise was that it made me contemplate the value of my work and how to make it better next time. Most people would say this is a good lesson; yet, I totally understand how critics can cause people to consider turning away from their craft.


After some brief bouts of depression when I read negative references to my novels, I convinced myself that some reviewers will like one’s output as an author and some will not. Then, their opinions may switch for one’s following novel. I also considered all of those established authors out there whose books have been turned down by publishers countless times. And did they give up?

I will give some examples of the reviewers’ comments regarding my first self-published book, the children’s fantasy entitled More Precious Than Rubies.

Blueink Review had mostly negative things to say about the book: “…there’s very little action in the plot, and the most critical scenes – including the story’s climax – happen entirely offstage.” Also, “…this story requires major revisions to reach the standards of quality, excitement, and expanded mythology that are already available in the traditional marketplace.”

Clarion Book Review, on the other hand, had mostly positive things to say about the book: “Coates, an elementary school teacher, captures the characters of Paul and Chad perfectly, with the budding independence and maturity appropriate to their age, as well as the uncertainty that accompanies a lack of experience.” Also: More Precious Than Rubies is an enjoyable, self-contained tale that will entertain young readers and bring an ancient myth to life.”

Kirkus Reviews, as a balance, provided mixed comments. Contained in the critique is: “The initial mysteries surrounding the new school principal set the stage for a page-turning story and will pique readers’ interest.” But then it goes on to: “An intriguing tale, but one hampered by uneven characterization and a disappointing ending.”

Concerning my second self-published novel, The Monarchs, blueink Review held mixed reactions, indicating that I offer “a raw and sometimes painfully realistic look at how one paired-for-life couple handles their final years, months, and days together.” But there was also this: “One or two such scenes showing us the way cancer has made Robert’s life almost unlivable would be enough, but Coates revisits this theme so frequently and intensely that it overshadows the charming relationship between curmudgeonly Robert and his loyal, if frequently sarcastic, wife.”

Clarion Book Review is mostly positive: “Coates flawlessly combines their spoken and unspoken reflections and points of view, and what begins in jest…gradually takes on a deeper meaning.”

However, there is this, too: ”The Monarchs could benefit from a thorough review by a translator to clean up these portions, as there appear to be many errors, including a lack of italicization.” This type of criticism I do not mind so much: the problem is easier to clean up than one involving theme or action.

Meanwhile, Kirkus Reviews hits the book hard: “Additionally, Robert and Sharon’s ideologies are jammed into the narrative at perplexing intervals simply to make what come across as half-baked points. Rants about George W. Bush, religion, and cultural differences between Mexico and Canada are unfocused and distracting.”

My final analysis about seeking reviews for my novels?

When I read the positive comments, I’m happy about what I did. When I read the negative comments, I wonder if I should have put my money towards a trip to the Galapagos.

I guess I have adopted the mind-set of a professional writer.

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Back From San Miguel, Part 2

During my stay in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, last month, I happened to be in town for the Guanajuato International Film Festival (GIFF). Guanajuato is one of the states of Mexico. It is here that San Miguel is located. I had not tried to plan my trip to correspond with the festival; it was merely a coincidence.

I live in Toronto where we have the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), arriving very soon next month. TIFF is world-famous and GIFF is rarely heard of in Canada and the U.S. It is, however, well-known to Latin Americans.

Although I am a movie buff, I have never attended any of the movies presented at TIFF, nor do I stand in long line-ups, waiting to get a picture of a celebrity. They get enough attention.

In fact, while in Mexico, I was more excited about GIFF than I have been in the past about TIFF. There are many similarities between the two festivals: the number of different venues where movies are shown, the red carpets, the celebratory atmosphere.

I took in one movie: Eden. It is directed by Elise Durant and stars Diana Sedano. Durant was once a native of San Miguel and many of the scenes are filmed in and around the town. Sedano plays an ill woman who has returned to the town where she grew up with her father. There is a reason for her return: she must talk to the man who played a huge part in dismantling the lives of her and her father.


From the attention that the movie was generating in San Miguel, I got the idea that this was going to be the darling of the festival.

There was a huge turn-out. It was exciting to sit in the audience with native San Miguelenses, all of us waiting to identify places or people that we recognized in the movie.

And, as is typical at TIFF, the director and actors came out on stage at the end to talk about the reception. With my limited knowledge of Spanish, I did understand some of what they said.

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