Sep 7, 2018

9 Reasons Why I Travel

1. Because for every moment (and there were a lot of them) of gastrointestinal distress, there's standing in Anne Frank's bedroom, decorated with pasted-on magazine photos of movie stars and other things designed to brighten the room during her two-year seclusion, with tears running down my cheeks.

2. Because for the poorly draining shower and subsequent flooding of the entire hotel bathroom, there's playing pool at a scuzzy rock bar in Amsterdam with expats Ula (from Poland) and Blackie (from Bulgaria) and listening to them complain about how the city has changed. There's also somehow winning both games (Blackie was terrible at pool).

3. Because for that time you get bad information from someone at an information desk and spend all afternoon on a city bus in Utrecht instead of visiting Castle de Haar, there's seeing the brushstrokes of Van Gogh's sunflowers and irises up close.

4. Because for every shitty hair dryer, there's capturing the perfect photograph of Dutch cows in a verdant green field on your bicycle trip through Waterland.

5. Because for the torrential downpour on the day you wanted to spend in the park, there's Rodin's L'Homme Qui Marche and the crazy post-war architecture in Rotterdam.

6. Because for every night of jet-lag-induced middle-of-the-night insomnia, there's biking past the windmills in the Kinderdijk and actually seeing an old guy wearing those wooden shoes.

7. Because for the boatload of tourists participating in a Nickelback/Maroon 5 singalong in what was supposed to be a cool bar, there's sipping a glass of jenever and experiencing gezellig in a classic canalside brown café in the Jordaan.

8. Because for the thin foam mattress with a top sheet instead of a fitted sheet and the resulting bunching up of the sheet beneath you every night, there's a cancellation at La Caserola on the last night of your vacation and a delicious six-course tasting menu that ends with Dutch cheese melting in your mouth.

9. And because for every two-and-a-half-hour flight delay and 20-hour travel day, there's the glorious comfort of your own bed.

Riot on, travellers. The world is a strange and wondrous place. I hope you get to enjoy some of it. xo

Jun 28, 2018

I'm on page 209 of Ulysses, and easily distracted

A single spider strand shimmering in the sun.

The chip-chip-chip of a bird hidden somewhere in the shade of the woods.

The soft thwack of a golf ball, a distant fore.

Earthworm corpses: pale and bloated in the bottom of the pool, dark and desiccated on the hot stone.

The summer breeze rustling in twin trees, leaves glimmering silvery green.

Tiny white butterflies flitting in the purple salvia and blue larkspur.

Perfume of pink roses.   

The buzz and hum of bumblebees.

Warm sun on my bare shoulders, teasing out the freckles.


Jun 19, 2018

The Cries of Children and the Demon-Man

I rescued two lost ducklings yesterday because that is what we do when we see babies in peril. I don't know what they were thinking, or even if they were thinking at all, while they were cheeping and hopping frantically to get out of those window wells to be reunited with their mother and siblings, but the level of panic of those two wee things gave me a visceral response: I will protect you from harm.

Meanwhile in the country to our south, a power-hungry demon in the guise of a man who spends too much time in a tanning bed wearing protective goggles is stripping children from their parents in an attempt to send a message.

A message to people who likely have not read his latest tweets about border security because they are too busy fleeing poverty and crime and persecution by coming to a land that historically has offered the prospect of something better for themselves and their children.

A message to people who probably do not watch Fox News or CNN or read the New York Times while sitting around the breakfast table eating waffles with fresh strawberries and whipped cream because they are too busy trying to NOT DIE.

(But really a message about his own power.)

This demon-in-the-form-of-a-man and his lackeys are deliberately inflicting pain and creating unimaginable levels of trauma on the innocent children whom we, as adults, should protect.

(I can't help but feel that the lackeys are somehow worse, because, while I believe that the demon is unaware of his own sense of desperation and insecurity, as the truly sick often are, these sycophants must surely realize the depths of his depravity.)

There is something about the crying of children that creates the desire to help, something innate and instinctive. And I'm not talking about the kind of whining cry of the child who does not get what he wants. I'm talking about the kind of cry that says, I am small and I am helpless and I need you to protect me because I am not big enough or strong enough yet to do it on my own. Please, please, help me. 

These people are not criminals. They are guilty of nothing more than the human desire to protect themselves and their children. Your country, demon-man, is not under attack. Or rather, it is, but not from without. Your country is being attacked from within, and you are the attacker, the bringer of chaos and violence and pain. You must be stopped. 

This reign of terror will end, because there is more good than evil in humanity, and if there is justice in the world, you will be stripped of your title, your property, your possessions, your wife, your children, and your tanning bed. You will be given a bare spot on a concrete floor in a prison cell and a number instead of a name. You will feel helpless and small and no one will come to comfort you because no one will hear you cry. Or rather, we will, but we will choose to ignore it. 

May 24, 2018

A blog version of a letter I am going to write to the AGO

The Art Gallery of Ontario recently changed the name of Emily Carr's painting "Indian Church" because the title contains "hurtful language." Carr painted it in 1929. This is an artist's creation, named by the artist, that reflects both her art and the period in history in which she created that art. Changing the title erases the context of the piece in favour of being inoffensive. This is so dangerous.

I absolutely believe in changing how we currently use language to reflect our growth as a society. Change the name of your football team to something that doesn't denigrate other human beings. Don't use the words "faggot" or "retard" as insults. Change the pronoun in the national anthem to be inclusive of all genders. As a society, I think it is our responsibility to address inequality whenever possible, and language is one way to do that.

But don't censor "nigger" out of To Kill a Mockingbird or Huckleberry Finn, because that word tells us something about the characters who use it, as well as valuable information about the era in which the book was written.

Language itself is not inherently offensive. Context and intent are critical in providing meaning. For example, the term "queer" could be hurtful when yelled out the window of a passing car at two men holding hands, but it could also refer entirely non-insultingly to a particular literary theory or the especially discerning eye of a homosexual man trying to help an unfashionable heterosexual man buy new shoes.   

Censoring the language of art, and thereby revising history, is a slippery fucking slope, and I'm once again reminded of Beatty's speech in Fahrenheit 451 about why art and literature were abolished: everything will offend someone, so let's get rid of it all. Michelangelo's David's enormous cock and balls are offensive, nipples are offensive, the word "fuck" is offensive, blood and carnage and rape are offensive, so let's eliminate them entirely. Let's pretend they don't exist. Let's pretend the world has always been peaceful and tolerant and good (and clothed). 

The name of the painting "Indian Church" makes me think about how Europeans came over and brought death and Christianity to the indigenous people of this land in a way that "The Church at Yuquot Village" does not. It adds a rather unpleasant undercurrent to what is a rather peaceful painting. Maybe that was Carr's intention. Maybe not. But who the fuck are you, museum curator, to change the artist's personal work based on your personal whim?

Art SHOULD offend you sometimes. It should make you think and feel and react. And if you think political correctness is more important than creative integrity, perhaps you shouldn't be a curator of art at all.

Apr 25, 2018

It was really nice meeting you.

A few months ago, I dropped off some unused feminine hygiene products to a women's shelter in my city. I had originally planned on making little tampon goodie bags to pass out to homeless women on the street, but it's harder to find homeless people on the street in the winter than in the summer and I figured they weren't helping anyone sitting there in the back of the bathroom cupboard, so I might as well give them away to someone who could use them now. (Also, selfishly, horribly, I didn't want to walk around in the cold.)

As an aside, one year I drove around with a fruitcake in the car after Christmas because I had received two, and, while I do enjoy a piece of fruitcake, I certainly didn't need more than one. I thought that the nutritional value in fruitcake must be pretty substantial, what with all those bits of fruit and nuts packed into that dense cake, and I thought this bit of Christmas tradition would be appreciated by a hungry homeless person. When I finally found a guy and asked him if he wanted it, he scoffed at my offer. I was astonished. Reject an entire fruitcake? Not everyone likes fruitcake, I guess. And it turns out that beggars can be choosers. (I don't remember what I did with it after the rejection. I probably just broke down and ate the damn thing.) 

Anyway, for some reason, I assumed that it would be mostly young women with small children at the shelter, which would have been tragic enough, but when I got there on that cold grey day, I was surprised to find a bunch of ragged older women sitting around outside on the battered benches under the bare trees, smoking, the ground littered with cigarette butts. There was an indescribable aura of suffering about the place, and it wasn't just the bitter February chill in the air. I felt like a jerk in my nice coat with my pathetic offering of a bunch of tampons and a half empty box of pads.

We didn't have a lot of money when I was growing up, but we were never homeless. My parents made sure I got a good education and brushed my teeth. I have never been battered or abused. Not everyone is so lucky. This fact is something I know intellectually but was reminded of emotionally on that day. I was reminded of it more recently as well.

Last weekend I was driving down the highway on a rock and roll road trip to see John Waters and L7 with a friend, discussing the women's shelter and the general shittiness of life for so many people, when we passed a lone hitchhiker on the side of the road.

It was a beautiful sunny afternoon in late April. Old Man Winter seemed finally to have gasped his last gasp. There was not a lot of traffic on the highway. I was driving in a new (to me) car with a CAA membership. I was with a good friend on our way to see a brilliant old weirdo and a great band in Detroit Rock City. We were about 40 minutes away from our destination. Life was pretty great. I pulled over.

The young man who ran up to the car thanked us profusely and introduced himself as Lee. I told him we were going to Windsor and he said that was perfect. I requested that he kindly not murder us and he requested that we kindly return the favour. He got in.

My parents used to pick up hitchhikers all the time when I was a kid (it was the 70s, after all), but this was the first time I had done it on my own. And if I hadn't been with a trusted friend, and if it hadn't been a beautiful sunny April afternoon with little traffic, and if I hadn't been driving a reliable car with four doors instead of that old piece of shit two-door Civic, I probably wouldn't have stopped. But I'm glad I did.

For young Lee, bedraggled and bearded and tattooed and missing some teeth, probably in his early twenties, who had hitchhiked to Sarnia for a friend's funeral and then stayed unexpectedly longer because the friend's father had killed himself two days before his daughter's funeral, was a delight.

He thanked us over and over, complimented our attractiveness and my friend's handwriting. I have never met a person more sincere. He was either a brilliant liar or exactly as he appeared: someone for whom life has not been kind but who has somehow maintained a positive outlook in spite of it all. I prefer to believe the latter. 

He explained that he had been on the road since 11:30 the previous evening. "I really should've waited until this morning, because I didn't get a ride until then anyway. Nobody picks people up at night." He laughed. "It gets harder the older I get, and the more tattoos I get and teeth I lose. People have told me that might have something to do with it."

We couldn't in all honesty disagree. Still, there was something about him, some innate goodness, that was evident even while I zoomed past him at 110 (ish, I hate cruise control, and my speed is somewhat erratic as a result) kilometers an hour.

He observed that it helped to be in a good mood to get a ride, that somehow people did not stop when he was cranky, so he tried to be always positive and cheerful, and check it out, it worked. He told us that he had to hitchhike because he didn't have his driver's licence. (My friend and I both thought, but did not say, that one does not hitchhike because one does not have one's driver's licence; one hitchhikes because one does not have the money for a bus ticket.) 

He asked us what we did for a living, and I told him I was an English tutor. "Really?" he asked, obviously interested. And then when my friend told him she worked for the university, he became even more animated. "I almost stopped in at the university library but didn't because I knew I'd stay for another two days," he told us. "I love it there."

He was a poet, you see. The first time I stop to pick up a hitchhiker, I meet a real, honest-to-goodness wandering bard.

I told him I was reading A Tale of Two Cities for the first time, and he told me that he had spent high school with Dickens under his arm. He asked us our favourite authors and told us his (Kerouac, obviously, and Bukowski). He raved about Bukowski's ability to enchant readers with stories of clipping his toenails, and, although he had grown out of his Beat period, Lee professed to dreaming of hitchhiking across Canada with a copy of On The Road and a journal to write in. (He hadn't been able to cross the border into the States since he was 14, he told us. Thoughts of murder despite our verbal agreement flickering through my head, I did not ask why.)

We told him he'd probably really like John Waters, and he promised to look him up. We agreed that brilliant old weirdos were pretty much the best. Incidentally, the only John Waters book I have read is Carsick, his book about hitchhiking across America. Perhaps subconsciously Uncle John was in my head when I pulled the car over, assuring me that I had nothing to worry about.

I recommended Journey to the End of the Night by Celine, and The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. We discussed existentialism and the value of human struggle and The Old Man and the Sea. Lee recited a long passage from By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept and urged me to read it. I assured him that I would.

He talked about how one of the worst parts of hitchhiking was forgetting things in strangers' cars. He did not miss the clothes he lost, but he did regret losing his journals full of poems. I told him about how my car got broken into in Detroit once and the person stole the mixed CDs I had made, and he said that art gets shared that way, that maybe I had introduced someone to a song that they really loved. I told him that more likely the thief had tossed them into the nearest trash can once he realized they were worthless, and Lee said that then maybe the next person to go through that trash can found them and the music got passed on that way. This made me sad because Lee was obviously no stranger to going through trash cans (or probably to breaking into cars). I told him that I appreciated his positive outlook.

We dropped him off when we got into Windsor. "Thanks again for the ride," he said.

"It was really nice meeting you," I told him. I almost never mean that when I say it; it's just something to say. But I meant it that day.

In exchange for a few kilometers, this young kid, this beat up soul with sparkling eyes, with a backpack and a head full of books and a past I can only imagine, added something to my life and to my understanding of the world and the people in it. I don't want to forget him, and my memory is shit, so here he is.

It was really nice meeting you, Lee. I hope your future is better than your past. I hope you write a book some day and I come across it in a bookstore. I hope you get the opportunity to tell other people your stories (whether they are true or not). I hope you don't have to walk too far or wait too long for your next ride. Riot on.   



Mar 19, 2018

Oh lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes-Benz

In the early days of my teenaged years, my mother and I would occasionally take notice of our surroundings.

As a kid, I didn't really notice how poor we were. There were three years of relative prosperity when my parents owned their own home with a rental property in the basement (my grandparents gave them the down payment), but mostly we lived in duplexes or fourplexes (never apartment buildings).

We moved around a lot as my father looked for work, so we didn't have much furniture. One constant was a big round mahogany table with a set of matching chairs with woven bottoms. One of the chairs had arms; the king chair was my father's. I imagine that the bottoms of the chairs were once tightly woven, but in my memory there are always holes in the centres where the caning was worn through. 

When I was old enough to be conscious of our poverty and my mother and I would take notice of our surroundings, we would point out the holes in the bottoms of the chairs to each other, and laugh. We would comment on the shelves and tables made of squares of plywood on top of red and blue plastic milk crates, the worn carpeting that we cleaned with a carpet sweeper, the foam mattress on the floor that served as my parents' bed. We would laugh and laugh, laugh until tears streamed down our faces and we weren't sure if we were still laughing.

Sometimes when I was a kid, we would dig through the milk crates filled with records and sit around on the floor listening to music. John Lennon and Yoko Ono's Double Fantasy, Queen's The Game, Harry Chapin's Greatest Stories Live ("30 000 Pounds of Bananas" was a favourite), and Janis Joplin's Pearl. 

My mother loved "Mercedes Benz." Joplin's rusty voice, that lilting chuckle at the end to suggest that she was just kidding, possibly. (Or not.) The longing for a new car, a colour TV, an escape from the drudgery of life. My mother could identify. 

The cars my parents owned were always used, always rusty. We called one the Grey Ghost, because there was no longer any visible paint, just grey primer. We had to keep a jug of water in the trunk for another car, because it overheated every few blocks and we had to fill the radiator up to keep on going. The nicest car we owned was a pale green Ford Granada that my maternal grandfather gave them when he finally bought himself a new car (with cash he had saved in Mason jars). 

People with nice cars were assholes. We judged them when they cut us off or took our parking spot or tailgated, in a way we didn't judge people driving cars with dents in the doors or rusty fenders who did the same things. 

I am now an adult, and we have two cars in this two-person family. One of the cars is a Mercedes-Benz C400, which my dude's company pays the lease on. The other is a 14-year-old Honda Civic, a car that I have reached a tentative truce with. 

The Honda's air conditioning doesn't work, I have to keep the door open with my foot or it slams shut on me, we had to buy a battery charger because the battery is unreliable, I can't set the time or listen to the radio or play a CD because there's something wrong with the stereo, the air bags are faulty, and there is an alarming knocking sound when I go around corners that I used to ignore but can no longer due to the stereo issue (I would just turn the volume up and pretend everything was cool). The brakes and starter were both replaced in the last couple of years.

The Mercedes has heated seats, a smooth ride, and pickup like you wouldn't believe. There is a GPS, a rear-view camera, Bluetooth capablity, a sun-roof, and a killer stereo. The doors lock with the touch of a finger, automatically unlock when you approach, and you don't need to put the key in the ignition to turn the car on. 

As an aside, the Mercedes does not have a spare tire, because rich people don't get flat tires, I guess. The Mercedes also has some strange feature that prevents you from being able to hook jumper cables up to the battery to help a fellow motorist in need. (So that whole asshole thing has some basis in reality, I suppose.) I hate it for its lack of spare tire and boosting ability, yet I cannot deny its many charms. It's fucking fun to drive around in that car. 

I am the same person regardless of which car I am driving, but I feel vaguely uncomfortable when I am in the Mercedes. I feel like an impostor, a fraud. I can zip ahead in a merge lane in the Honda with impunity, but when I do it in the Mercedes, I can feel the animosity from the other drivers. I know what they're thinking, because I still think it, too. It's ridiculous, of course, and I know better, but there it is. 

Although I would not wish a life of poverty on anyone, I am grateful for mine. It taught me to look past the car people drive (or the public transportation they take), where they live, and what they do to earn money, and recognize that we are all just toiling along down this highway of life. Some of us are driving fancy foreign cars, some of us are in the carpool lane in a leased sedan, some of us are on a Greyhound bus, and some of us are stranded by the side of the road. 

I am no millionaire, and that Mercedes is just a lease paid for by someone else, but I do not have to cut coupons or worry about making rent. I am financially secure, and there is such comfort in that knowledge. I have worked hard to get here. But there is, and will always be, a part of me that feels like that piece of shit Honda is the car I deserve. You can't outrun your past, even if the vehicle you're driving goes from 0-60 in under 5 seconds. 


Jan 9, 2018

Dear unfriended facebook friends

Dear facebook friends who find yourself unfriended,

I know it's hard, but please don't take it personally. It's not you. It's me. Or, rather, it's this whole social media thing in general.

When I first joined the wild world of social media that was myspace, I enjoyed connecting with new people. I enjoyed being able to write things and have people read them, since I have been a writer since I was a child, narrating my walk to school to myself. I enjoyed the ability to entertain and to be entertained.

When I made the reluctant move to facebook, I still enjoyed all those things. But this new incarnation, with its likes and ads and suggestions and networking, has become less enjoyable for me of late. Sure, it's fun to receive validation for one's posts/photos, but is it necessary? Is it healthy to base our sense of worth on what others think? Is it useful for us to know when our friends are hungry or cranky or drinking a cup of coffee? Is it good to feel guilty if I don't wish you a happy birthday? Is it beneficial for me to be exposed to the ignorance that abounds in the form of strangers' comments on friends' posts?

I know that I can be a hypocrite, but one thing I refuse to do on facebook is hide people's posts. I have organized all my eff-bee friends into groups by how I know you (high school, the bar, my old job, that crazy convention, etc.), and I check those groups daily. I see everything each of you posts, because I have set that parameter on myself. If we are facebook friends, I pay attention to you. It seems only fair. To be 'friends' with someone yet choose to ignore them seems somehow immoral to me.

But this is exhausting. For example, it's cool that you have a stamp collection, but I don't personally collect stamps, so your posts have no meaning for me. And I think it's really great that you love your children, but I don't love your child the way you do. I am not fascinated by your pet, but I'm glad it brings you joy. As I've said, it's not you. It's me. It's not your job to make your facebook page relevant to me. (And I know this works in reverse. Fuck, you probably say to yourself, another book post? Who gives a shit what you're reading? I get it, I do.)

And am I supposed to assume that my facebook friends give me the same consideration I give them? When I see you and you ask me what's up, should I repeat information that I have posted in case you didn't see it? And if you didn't see it, why did I bother posting it? This potential awareness of each other's activities adds an uncomfortable dimension to real-world human interaction.

Although social media would have you believe otherwise (because the more friends you have, the more likes you get, and the more likes you get, the more valuable you are as a human being), I think it is healthy and good to have peripheral relationships in your life, people you know that you have something in common with (drinking and dancing, say, or that previously mentioned convention) that you only see a few times a year, people that are fun to talk to but that probably wouldn't come to your birthday party or your funeral. It's honestly more fun to see you and chat about what you've been up to lately than to see you and say, oh yeah, I saw that on facebook, because there the conversation ends. It's a drag.

Some relationships naturally expire when people move or change jobs or get married or the myriad of other reasons we drift apart. Maintaining those relationships in virtual form is artificial at best and annoying at worst. We no longer share this thing we once shared, and it's okay for us to move on. You were in my life for a certain period of time, and it was fun, but let's not drag it out. Facebook creates an odd sort of stasis and a false sense of connection that I find disconcerting.

To conclude, this is my longwinded break up letter. I hope you understand. Deleting you from my friends list does not necessarily delete you from my life, and it certainly doesn't delete you as a person or have any bearing whatsoever on anything that really matters. I hope your life in the real world (and, hell, in the online world, as well) brings you happiness. And when it brings you sadness and frustration, as it will, I hope you are able to handle it with the help of those close to you.

Ah well, and riot on.