Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Incest-Free Canadian Novel Wins Prize; Terry Fallis Wins The Leacock

News today that Terry Fallis's The Best Laid Plans has won the Leacock Medal for Humour. The prize, sponsored by TD Bank Financial Group, is awarded annually to the Canadian book that best combines themes of abandonment, loss, and sexual inadequacy. Or maybe rape, self-immolation, and funny librarians. Wait, that's not right...How about sarcastic dogs, ice sculpting, and chemical castration. Yeah, that's the one.

Ever heard what happened when they called Leon Rooke to tell him he hadn't won for Shakespeare's Dog? "I'd be upset," Rooke said, "but I just got the most terrific blow job last night. The lips, the tongue...Twice I had to pull the leash. God, what a night. She must've had a fever, I'll tell you that. And...And...And, what's more--you've got the wrong number."

It's funny that they've named a prize after a man who once said, "The only difference between the comic novel and serious literature is that you use one to jerk off to and the other to clean up--but both are great for train rides."

This was truly a great Canadian.

I'll point out that Fallis had to go begging in order to get his book published. He tried Doubleday, but they had their hands full with an Albertan-authored trans-transgender trilogy (the climax is that it was a dream; she was just sleeping on the remote control). Anansi was doing something with Mennonites, Catholic guilt, and a partial eclipse. And McClelland and Stewart had its hands full with four big incest tomes that all, in some way, feature canoes.

I had to pause for a second when I realized Fallis's book didn't have any ghosts. Where the hell are all the allegories? You mean this book's not patterned after The Iliad? Gee, where's Fallis from? Buffalo?

Fallis takes the $10,000 cheque, and for that I'm sure he's grateful. It wouldn't be Canada if a prize-winning writer didn't pocket 1/3 of an annual SSHRC Doctoral Grant for his full-length novel.

The only thing left to do is read Fallis's book. I was talking about it with my PhD friends, and they all agreed that they're looking forward to his interpretation of the suburban garden-hose douche. "That's Terry Griggs," I said. "This is Fallis."

"Oh. Who the hell's he?"

Canadian Writers Don't Wear Underwear; or How To Tell If It's A Good Sex Scene

Being a Canadian writer means going briefless. No boxers, no Chocky's; no slips, petticoats, or shorts. Crotchless panties are OK as long as they're red or black.

There's a famous anecdote about Stephen Leacock tearing the crotch of his pants in a badminton game, and bending over suddenly to retrieve the birdie. His fellow players stood in shock, their eyes wide as one large testicle descended through the gaping hole in Leacock's slacks. Leacock, noticing the precipitate decline in athletic chatter, lowered his head between his knees, noticing the errant object of his guests' attention.

"Christ, Stephen," one of the players said. "I didn't even know you were pregnant."

They all had a good laugh, and, when things had calmed down, someone asked the Orillian satirist if he was perhaps a little behind in his laundry.

"I never wear drawers," Leacock is rumoured to have said. "They stifle the spirit."

Good writers just don't wear underwear. A professor tells a story of visiting Alden Nowlan. The latter was sitting at his desk, composing in the nude. "Don't you have any clothes, Alden?" the professor asked. "Sure," Alden said, "but I want to be closer to my words."

That might sound a little strange, but there's something to be said for complete honesty. Too much Canadian writing reads as if the writer's last orgasm came via a long walk in the desert. That reminds me of a line in one of Susanna Moodie's settler narratives; a line in which she desribes the impact of a drought on her husband's strawberry fields: "I had to come" Moodie writes, "it hadn't rained in weeks."

A friend who wrote a book about a trek through the Canadian arctic claims that the region deprives the writer of sex. "All erotic thoughts vanish on the ice; in the whiteness of the place. Not unlike Rosedale."

Which brings me to the question of how to judge the quality of a sex scene in a book. A friend was reading Barbara Gowdy's Mister Sandman a few months ago, and he describes the sensation as follows: "I started feeling something; something strange. Finally I looked, and, sure enough, my penis had shrunk."

"A good sex scene," this friend says, "is one that gives me an erection. I think that's a fair way to judge it. For women, I'd say it's a good sex scene if you feel like doing your husband's laundry."

That's just his opinion, and there's no reason to adhere to it. But the possibility of being aroused by literature is one of the artist's greatest "ins."

Bernard Shaw never wore BVDs. His dick was out all the time. Why then would Canadian writers do a 180 and button up? Too much is said of a writer's "magical" prose. Name one magician you'd like to fuck.

John Metcalf is one of Canada's greatest practitioners of the sexless story. A critic once observed, "Metcalf's fiction has all the erotic appeal of a long bus ride down Weston Road. If a Metcalfian character even attempted sex, one gets the feeling he would struggle to open the jar."

And that, sadly, is Canadian fiction.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Ezra Pound Wasn't Just An Anti-Semite; He Also Liked To Knit

A friend of mine--a big Pound fan--was down in Hailey, Idaho, about six years ago to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Ezra's death. The week-long festival thrown by the town's business council included such non-literary events as a barbecue (hamburgers and hot-dogs), a hayride, and a competition to see who could spit watermelon seeds the farthest (the winner of which received a bushel of corn).

It was at the barbecue that my friend got caught up in the free-flowing excitement, and by five o'clock on the great day he was half-drunk on Cockspur rum. He was sitting on a picnic bench, eyes fixed on a church spire about five hundred yards away, when an old man walked over and sat down beside him, his back resting against the table's ketchup-stained top. "You want to know about Ezra Pound?" the fellow celebrant asked him. "Sure," he said. "I'll tell you something about Ezra." "Great. Go ahead."

The man, about eighty, looked at my friend, took a bite of his wedge of watermelon, and licked his lips. "That boy could knit. K-N-I-T. Knit."

My friend laughed.

"Mind you," continued the wizened old man, "I didn't know him well. But it was my mother who taught him. The Moss stitch. The Windmill. The Garter stitch. Large Diamonds, Double Seed. Close Checks. Chevron. Seafoam. It's like it was yesterday. I remember listening to her talk about knitting. Yeah, she used to talk about him all the time. I bet you had no idea."

"About knitting?" asked my friend.


"No, I didn't."

"You know he knit his own shroud. Big, must've been ten feet around. A big, blue-fringed thing with a nice big swastika right in the middle. That's the goddamn truth. Couldn't stand Jews. Why? He never forgave them for stealing the bagel. Making it theirs. Sonuvabitch was a real bastard. Oh, even my mother knew that. Knew it when she caught him pulling a slice of warm bread. My mother baked all her own bread. A boy of twelve masturbating right in her kitchen. Now what kind of boy does that? Yeah, but she got him. Made him eat the bread. What do you think about that!"

"I don't know...What kind of bread?"

"And now people come here for his poetry. Never liked it. But it's good for business. I own the drug store 'round the corner. I'll tell you this: I've never sold more condoms in a week. Condoms and vinegar. Go figure that!"

Finally my friend begged his leave, saying that he had to find his wife. The stranger clapped his hand on my friend's shoulder and bade him farewell. But just as our Pound fan was almost out of earshot, he heard the thin voice yell "Wait a minute!" My friend turned. "I've got one box left," the druggist said, "if you need 'em."

Canadian Men You Should Never Trust

Here's a short list of Canadian men you should never trust compiled by interns at Conde Nast while on an Easter picnic. I'll admit that they were pretty damn close to the mark. The list is only one item long, but it encompasses the broad spectrum of a kind of Canadian maleness that veers away from GQ values.

Canadian Men You Should Never Trust...

1: Never trust a Canadian man who...wears sunglasses flipped over his head like a barrette. Unless you really like canoeing. Because that's where such a man will take you. Right off Yonge Street, north on the 400, and you'll be spendin' your time boiling lake water on a fire stoked with palm needles. You'll know why that's funny when you try brushing your teeth with said water, and realize why we don't typically eat pine trees.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Whatever Happened To Edna St. Vincent Millay's Dildo?

Walter Benjamin writes something about the deluding capacities of the relic. Just because the B-52s composed Love Shack on John Lennon’s Steinway doesn’t mean the song channels the dead Beatle in any metaphysical way. Same goes for D.G. Jones’s Butterfly on Rock. Just because Jones wrote the thing on Sea-Hi takeout menus doesn’t mean the book tastes like rice.

But it’s fun to own things possessed by (literary) celebrities, and many authors have adopted sacred totems as the means to extract stories from their pale and poorly toned bodies. Sinclair Lewis wore a pair of Mark Twain's slippers while writing; Jean Anouilh smoked one of Ibsen's pipes; Gilbert Parker wore Felicite Angers's chastity belt.

The Holy Grail, if you will, of literary relics, is an ivory dildo once owned by Edna St. Vincent Millay. The dildo’s existence first entered the popular imagination in 2001 with the publication of Nancy Milford’s Savage Beauty, a Millay biography. In Milford’s preface we get an excerpt from a letter written to her by Edna’s sister Norma, in which the latter admits to having burned the famous pole--though it wasn’t easy. "I tossed it in the fire, but it wouldn't catch. It just kept getting blacker and blacker. You know how long it takes to burn one of those things? A lot longer than it takes to cool one down, I'll tell you that much."

Most people figured that was the end of it; the dildo was buried in a Maine dump, cracked, and finished. But that’s just not the case. That dildo's been Canadian-owned for more than fifty years. And if it could speak...Gwen Davies'd sue it for copyright infringement.

Edna’s ivory dildo is kind of a legend in the Canadian literary community. The shaft, about twelve inches long and eight inches in circumference, was said to be modelled after the penis of Zwelunke Obi A Mulla, a nineteenth-century Zulu chief famed for his ability to communicate with the animals of the African interior. (Incidentally, Dr. Dolittle was based on Obi A Mulla, but producers axed the large penis references, fearing it would scare children and anger pregnant women. The original script called for Harrison to wear “long shorts--long as necessary to conceal the ‘device.’” Eventually though they just went with grey pants.)

The actual dildo was white, an irony that never ceased to amaze Millay. “Apparently the black-tusked ones went extinct. At twelve by eight, it ain’t tough to figure out why.”

Carved with a concentric “rope’ pattern of thick, cylindrical bands, the toy had an ebony grip, which was drilled-through to accommodate a thick leather thong. The thong acted as an ersatz handle, which could be used to clip onto or loop around a laundry peg for open-air drying. This was, of course, in the days before dishwashers.

After Millay’s death in 1950 the dildo was boxed, wrapped in brown butcher paper, and sent to Gabrielle Roy. A note attached to the parcel stated simply, "Here. You need it more than I do. ESVM." It stayed with Roy just long enough to inspire Street of Riches and Where Nests the Water Hen, disappearing from her bedroom after a visit from Douglas LePan. It’s rumoured that LePan sent the tool to Henry Kreisel as a belated wedding present, but it’s more likely that it remained in LePan’s possession until 1966 when, upon visiting Margaret Laurence at Elm Cottage, Adele Wiseman discovered it hanging from a pot rack in Laurence’s kitchen.

“Margaret!” Wiseman said, shocked. “Don’t you know where that goes?”

“Sure,” Laurence said, demurring, “but I can’t keep it there, can I?”

After that, the trail of Edna’s dildo becomes a little hazy. Some say it went to Atwood, some say it went to Marie-Claire Blais. The Atwood angle seems credible, and some theorists have suggested that The Handmaid’s Tale is nothing more than a crude pun. "See her chipped tooth," an academic wag is said to have commented. "Nuff said." The only other thing I’ve heard re: the dildo is that Brian Moore inherited it from Laurence’s daughter, had Mordecai Richler’s face scrimshawed onto the business end, then sent the package to Timothy Findley.

It’s interesting to think that some of the greatest works of Canadian fiction could’ve been inspired by a large African dildo. But sometimes art imitates life.

The Five Things Alice Munro Did That Bothered James

Alice Munro (nee Laidlaw) was born in Wingham, Ontario, in 1931. Those were the days--according to my grandfather--when people were born, got married, and died. But Munro skewed the paradigm, divorcing her husband James in 1972, twenty-three years after their marriage in 1959.

Did Alice leave James? Did James leave Alice? Let's say that it was a mutual separation. But how could any man leave--even unwillingly--such a warm, caring woman? A woman who can make ice with a smile. A woman who'll have sex "when I'm done this paragraph. You know Athol Fugard is so much more interesting in Dutch."

Here, for the first time, are the five things Alice did that really irritated James. Married readers will be shocked to see that, yes, Munro's feet have actually touched ground in past. Not anywhere near a McDonald's, mind you, but she has heard of it.

(As told by James Munro to Ann Veldt of Girl magazine, Oct. 1973)

1: Singing: "Alice used to sing the most awful songs. And she could never remember the lyrics, so she would just repeat one line of the chorus. And she'd repeat it over, and over, and over again. 'Joy to the world. Joy to the world. Joy to the world. The fishes in the deep blue sea. All the boys and girls.' Last year...I can't even remember the name of the song, but it was by that Jewish boy and his family. 'One bad apple can't spoil the bushel. Give it a try, give it a try, yeah.' [Note, Munro was referring to 'One Bad Apple,' by the Osmond Brothers; the song hit #4 on Billboard's Top Hits of 1971. The Osmonds, as readers will know, are a Mormon family--not even half-Jewish.] Over and over she sung it. I thought I was going to lose my mind. When I finally heard the thing on the radio, I realized she wasn't even singing the right words. I told her, 'Alice, the least you can do is get the line right.' God, don't even get me started on that 'It's Too Late' song. 'Too late for what?" I used to say. 'Dinner?'"

2: Leaving Kleenex Around The House: "She used to blow her nose and leave the Kleenex all over the house. On the night table, on the floor. In a bag of chips. Oh, it was horrible. I keep a glass of water by the side of the bed. One night I reached over, took a drink, and there was a Kleenex floating in it. 'This has to stop!' I said. 'Right now.' The next day I opened the TV Guide and there was a Kleenex stuck between the pages. 'What's this doing here?' I yelled. 'Oh, I was just marking where The Carol Burnett Show was. It's on Thursday this week. And Paul Lynde's back!' She loved Paul Lynde! Couldn't get enough of him."

3: Making The Bed: "She could not make the bed. I did all the laundry. I don't know what's so hard about it. Here's a fitted sheet, here's a counterpane, here's a blanket. Simple, right? No, not for her. I was downstairs, watching TV, and I'd here a shout. 'James. The sheets aren't on the bed.' 'So put them on,' I'd yell. Nothing. She couldn't do it. Sometimes I'd go up at two in the morning and she'd be lying on the floor with a towel covering her, a pile of sheets at her feet. Couldn't make the bed! She kept telling the Rector I deprived her of sleep. I said, 'He sleeps on an army cot. Not gonna get much sympathy there!' But she loved talking to the Rector. It was Rector this, and Rector that. I'd say, 'The church life would've been perfect for you. All those fasts--they're not supposed to eat dinner.'"

4: Every Part Of Her Body Was Cold: "Some women I know have cold hands, cold feet. My mother always used to tease my father by sticking her hand down the back of his shirt. Alice was colder. But she didn't like to do those teasing things. Every part of her body was cold. And I mean every part. I used to joke with her that she could rent herself out as an air conditioner. Then she'd touch me with her bare feet. I stopped that joking pretty quick."

5: She Had The Worst Taste In Clothes: "Now, I don't need a fancy Cosmopolitan kind of girl, but there has to be a middle ground. I've seen Alice wear a potato sack. I said, 'What are you doing in that thing?' She said, 'It's the only dress I could find that hides my ankles.' But she didn't find it; she made it. I'd like to say we at potatoes all week, but she'd taken the damn thing from the trash outside the grocery. No potatoes in it. 'We've got money,' I said. 'You can buy clothes in the store.' 'They don't have anything I like,' she'd say, and she'd toss the catalogue at me. 'Well, I guess not,' I'd say, flipping through it. 'This is for Persian rugs.'

"But I'll say this about Alice: not once--never--in our years together did I find a pubic hair on the soap. She was always good about that."

What a relationship.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Edna St Vincent Millay Gets Off Sinclair Ross

Milton Berle tells a great story about a meeting with Norm Crosby in which the latter's love life was discussed. Berle was backstage at a benefit, getting ready to go on, when he was tapped on the shoulder by Crosby. "Where were you?!" Berle asked, turning. "You fucker; you're supposed to introduce me. I'm on in thirty seconds!" "I'm sorry. I lost track of time," Crosby said, a sheepish smile on his face. "Joan and I were fooling around, and...You'll never believe this, but I discovered a new way to have sex." "No shit," said Berle, one eye on Crosby, one eye on the stage. "Well," Norm said, shrugging his shoulders, "a little."

It's more or less common knowledge that Sinclair Ross was gay, but not many people know of his one-night tryst with the American poet Edna St Vincent Millay. Nancy Milford, author of Savage Beauty, a biography of Millay, uncovered the anecdote during the course of her research into Millay's life. She was advised, for a bevy of legal reasons, to excise the story from her text, but it survived the "urban legend" stage to trickle down the ivy-covered wall and into the gossipy academic domain.

It happened in 1938, three years before Ross published As For Me and My House. Sinclair was in Boston visiting relatives, and he was introduced to Millay through Henry Allen Moe, who headed the Guggenheim Foundation. Moe, who suspected Ross's homosexuality, was also familiar with Millay's tendency to "generate a lot of laundry--mostly sheets." Moe, a muscular Christian type, pointed Ross at Millay, and urged him to "just once, give it a try." Ross hesitated, but one night at Moe's, after a few drinks, Millay was enjoying the chase. Moe had alerted her to the plan to deflower Sinclair (Jim), and she "thought it would be a lot of fun."

Finally, toward the end of the evening, Millay managed to trap Ross in Moe's guest bedroom. She'd finished half a bottle of Gordon's gin, and Ross was half-drunk on Creme de Menthe. "I'll tell you this," Ross said to Millay. "Put on a baseball mitt and I'd be a little bit excited."

The rest of the story is, according to Moe, as follows:

"Ross asked Millay what she was going to do. She told him she was only going to recite a poem, and that he should just relax. He sat down on the bed, and as soon as Millay'd finished the last stanza her shirt came off. Ross was flustered. He didn't know what to do. He said something like, 'I can't do this. No.' Edna just looked at him and said, 'Calm down, huh. We'll try it your way first. If you don't like that, I've got an emery board in my purse.'

"Forever afterward Ross sweared that nothing had happened, but Edna insisted that she'd scored a conquest. The only thing that made me doubt him was that, later, about a day or so, he came down with a terrible stomach ache, and was in bed for a few days. When I finally saw him again, he said, " time I'll wash my hands.'"

Saturday, April 26, 2008

TTC On Strike; Miller: "I Make The Trains Run On (NDP) Time."

Last night I was standing at the corner of King and Cowan, waiting for a bus to take me all the way to Yonge Street. It was 11:50 p.m., and I'd been waiting for about 20 minutes. Accompanying me on the other side of the telephone pole was another guy, whom I didn't know, but who was getting progressively more agitated as the minutes passed.

Finally, at about midnight, a guy rode by on a bike and told us the TTC had gone on strike. "They walked off an hour ago. Better get a cab."

I looked at my fellow (putative) commuter; he looked at me. "I knew it," he said. "I knew it! I knew it!"

"Yeah, you knew it," I agreed, deferring to his prescience.

"I knew they were gonna do it. I knew they were gonna do it tonight! I knew it."

"If you knew it, then why've you been waiting here for the past thirty minutes?"

He was silent for a minute; then, as if punctuating a thought, he jabbed the air with his fist, revealing, under his coat, a sweater with a large red TTC crest emblazoned on his breast. "It's my shift change, man!"

Who knows if TTC workers deserve more money. My inclination is to say they deserve whatever they can get. But it's time to let arbitrators make that decision. It's unacceptable that 1.5 million people in the GTA be forced to the sidewalks on Monday morning. Having once spent four hours walking from Union Station to Finch and Yonge, I know that hoofing it is a chafing and blistering option. Imagine living at Hwy 7 and Islington. Better to stuff yourself inside a cannon, point it at King and Bay, and hope for the best.

Why did this happen? Maintenance workers felt they were being shafted. The new contract would have them potentially out of work in months or years. The plan, of course, was to fly the buses to India, torque the manifold for twelve cents/hour, then A400 it home. Yes, that probably would have happened. But do most Torontonians care? Well, weigh 1.5 million commuters against a few thousand TTC mechanics and you'll get your answer.

Wake me when we start charring public servants for their huge salaries. The head of OPG makes enough to gold-plate his eyelash curlers. That's capitalism, folks. It even exists in the public sector. People want what's coming to them.

The TTC is an essential service. Period. Watching Dalton McGuinty blank-stare his way through yet another "children-are-our-future" speech'll give you an indication of why transit hasn't been legislated beyond the reach of union action. And David Miller...well, he is to governance what Barbara Hall is to jet kerosene refining. The GTA's new motto is "Toronto Happens...Eventually."

We'll see what happens. I'm sure they'll be back by Tuesday. But what a helluva three-day weekend.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Russell Oliver Wants To Do You (A Favour)

Every Torontonian knows Russell Oliver. He's the Cashman. He wants to give you cash for your old, dusty jewellery. Do you have any tired, sick gold? He'll take it. Any bruised gold? Any past-ripe, mealy gold? Any ripped or torn gold? He'll even take your dog-eared gold. This guy wants gold.

He'll take charred gold. Was your gold in a fire? Did you keep your gold in the basement? Oh, you had a flood? Is your gold all mouldy and mildewed? The Cashman doesn't care.

Is your gold dented? Did you get tomato sauce on your gold? Did your dog eat your gold? Don't tell me you're still keeping that ratty, threadbare gold. Take it to Oliver.

Aged diamonds? You got any wizened, aged diamonds? He wants them. He'll even take your sad emeralds, pathetic rubies, and tormented platinum. It doesn't matter to him.

One time he even took gold with a Caesarean scar. And if you think that's something, the very next day he took menopausal gold.

My friend took a tennis bracelet to a pawn shop. The bracelet had two karats of diamonds, and the setting was 24-karat gold. The shop owner examined it, then tossed it back to my buddy. "What are you bringing this shit in here for? See those diamonds? These diamonds are expired. And this gold; this gold's got silverfish. No, I can't help you." My friend turned and walked toward the door, dejected. "Wait!" the proprietor shouted. "There's a guy who helps people like you. He's crazy, but he'll take anything. Last week a guy came in here and wanted to fob this wet Rolex on me. I said take that to Russell Oliver. He'll not only towel it off for you, he'll give you a couple bucks."

A few weeks ago that same friend went into Oliver's store; he had a gold ingot he wanted to sell. (This friend's trying to get in on Potash before it goes to $300.)Gold was going for $900/ounce, and Oliver offered him $500 for his one-ounce minted bar. Fine, he was entitled to make a profit.

"You got anything else?" Oliver asked. My friend slapped a hundred-dollar bill on the counter. "I'll give you sixty-seven fifty for it."

Canadian Literary Orgies: Anecdote #1

Bennett Cerf writes in Living to Laugh of a party at John O'Hara's house; a party attended by Sinclair Ross, Robert J.C. Stead, and Sheila Watson. O'Hara, the author of Appointment in Samarra, Butterfield 8, and Hope of Heaven, had read Watson's The Double Hook and had asked Cerf to dig up the author's address and pay her fare to Philadelphia, which was where O'Hara was living at the time. Cerf obliged, and soon Watson and O'Hara were conducting a friendly correspondence. Watson would come to O'Hara's party; she looked forward to meeting her new friend.

O'Hara, who was not a patient man, was expecting Watson's train at five o'clock on a Saturday. She'd sent him a telegraph Friday afternoon letting him know when she'd be arriving and where to meet her on the platform. The next day he went to 30th Street Station, following her instructions, and was incensed when the express arrived and Watson was not on board. He waited for an hour, hoping that Watson would be on a subsequent train, but the next one came...and still no Watson.

O'Hara sped home, railing against the Canadian author all the way. When he pulled into his driveway there was Watson at the foot of the steps, sitting on her suitcase. "I missed my transfer in Allentown," Watson said, "so I had to drive down. I hope you weren't just waiting for me."

O'Hara feigned delight, but was secretly fuming. "Oh, don't worry about it. It's alright. I'm just glad you're here."

Later that night, during the party, William Styron got drunk and made a pass at Watson. O'Hara, who had been hanging on Sheila's elbow all night, watched in horror as Styron twisted his pinky into the corner of her mouth, his other hand massaging her ass through layers of turquoise silk interwoven with a pattern of bowing Japanese virgins. O'Hara turned his back to vent, and when he looked again for Styron and Watson they were gone.

As the night progressed, more and more guests began disappearing; disappearing upstairs into O'Hara's large carpeted bedroom. O'Hara navigated his way through the writhing literary bodies, finding Styron and Watson half-way under his mahogany bedstead, their legs locked in embrace. Both were obviously smashed.

O'Hara did the only thing he could do: he dropped his pants and joined in. "Nice to see you, John," Styron said. "There's a little room north of the shoulders."

Watson fellated O'Hara, but was still lucid enough to insist on one condition: "Don't come in my mouth."

"Don't worry," O'Hara said. "Just stop talking. I don't smoke cigars, and I don't come in women's mouths."

But, a few minutes later, O'Hara's limbs shuddered, and he ejaculated on Watson's hard palate. She pulled back, shocked, slapping her palm against his bare thigh.

"You said you wouldn't!"

"And you said you'd meet me at the train station," O'Hara said, reaching under the bed to dig into his pocket. "Now have a cigar."

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Beloved Toronto Jewish Ethnic Stereotypes 1/2: Saul Korman and Korry's

My grandfather tells a great Saul Korman story. It goes as follows:

Ten couples were taking out another couple for the latter's 50th anniversary. They went to a very nice Toronto restaurant famed for its wood-panelled walls, wood-burning fireplace, and prolific use of garlic. They had steak, they had ribs, they had lobster and wine, and eventually they all shared a cheese-cake (which they'd brought from Wanda's Pie in the Sky). The cheque came at the end of the night and every couple--well, every husband--tossed cash into the middle of the table. Every couple except Korman and wife.

Out came Saul's wallet, and out came his Korry's Visa. "Let me put it on my card," he said. And he gathered up the cash, gave the credit card to the waiter, and charged it.

Now Gentile readers might not understand that story. "What's the difference? He paid with his card. It's the same as cash. He put in exactly his share."

Well, my naive WASP friends, let me explain something to you. A corporate credit card in the hands of a Jewish man (over the age of 40) is an interesting thing. It tends to pay for everything. And everything it tends to pay for is magically transformed: in this case from an anniversary dinner party to a business dinner/tax deduction.

That's $2,000 for dinner, minus 40% off his gross income. The dinner wasn't only free; it paid for a new pair of shoes.

Korry's Clothiers has become famous in Toronto as the store owned by the raspy-voiced Jew. Being Jewish, this has always bothered me. I remember the first time I heard one of his commercials: he was on the Fan, it was 1997, and I was in the car with my grandfather--Korman's friend--going south on Bathurst at College.

"We've got tailors working in the back," Korman bragged. "We've got more tailors than anyone in the business."

"Who the hell cares?" my grandfather said.

The last ten years have seen Korman migrate from The Fan to CFRB 1010. Of course he still calls into the Fan. But I haven't heard him in a while. He used to bring Tim Hortons donuts to Don Landry and Gord Stellick. Back then I remember him as a salesman. He talked about pants, he talked about shirts, and he talked about Franco.

You see, Korman doesn't record his spots; he calls in--live--and talks. He just talks.

Now he's basically my grandfather. He talks about his grandkids and where he went on vacation. He talks about the waiters on his cruise and how he loves playing gin. He talks about a guy he met at the bank who just lost his job at Midas. He talks about the weather.

And then he talks about clothes. It goes without saying that he can give you a deal. Jerome Weidman couldn't have done it any better.

Korman's become a minor celebrity. He's what Mel Lastman was in his Bad Boy days. That's about as good for Toronto Jews as a Nascar race through Forest Hill.

You have to understand that Toronto doesn't have any famous Jews. There's Norm Rumack, Jake Gold, and Saul Korman. We don't have a Jewish writer; we don't have a Jewish actor. We've got lots of rich Jews, but no one who can tell a joke. I figure that'll change, but 'til then we're waiting for the world according to Korman.

In a way, he's our Don Cherry. In a nicer jacket.

My Primary Goal As A Parent: Raise A Child Who Flushes The Toilet

I don't have any children. I will, some day, so I'm getting my parenting priorities straight. My son/daughter will be literate; s/he will say please and thank you. And, most importantly, s/he will flush the goddamn toilet.

I don't even mean the toilet in our house. But I guess that's where it'd start: the home. That's where kids learn such complex tasks as opening and closing the door, turning on the lights, turning off the lights, and washing their hands. I'm sure this is all a long, complicated process of indoctrination, but eventually people learn.

(I have a feeling being a parent is about as embarrassing as getting your penis caught in a manhole at Yonge/Dundas Square or having a tampon fall out on Wimbledon's centre court. I have a lot of sympathy. And as long as you're teaching your kids that soap's their friend, I love you. Keep up the good work.)

Even if it's only token handwashing (running the water, wetting the soap, and rinsing your hands), it's still something. God knows why you wouldn't go all the way and just lather and rinse, but the gesture shows your heart's in the right place.

But there are people who don't even go that far. I'm an atheist--and here's one of the reasons. If you're arguing for Intelligent Design, try explaining how men and women, putatively modelled after God, can exit a public washroom without washing their hands. You want me to believe God designed the Krebs Cycle, but couldn't figure out a way to force people who've just touched their dicks, vaginas, and assholes to pause and use a little soap and water?

I don't even care about germs. I don't necessarily object to turning a handle that might as well have been plucked directly from your uterus. But the stupidity's shocking. It's like when a friend asked me why all these New Yorkers were driving around Buffalo.

But it gets worse.

I was in a library washroom a couple days ago, standing at the urinal, when I heard the sound of ripping toilet paper coming from an occupied stall. A pause and then more ripping. Then more ripping. Then the sound of pants being raised and a belt being fastened. By this time I was standing at the sink, lathering. A guy emerges from the stall, the door swings open, and he walks out of the washroom. The last thing I saw was a pair of pants being hitched.

Forget handwashing. This guy didn't even flush the goddamn toilet.

Sometimes, when I see a guy in a souped-up Honda pass me at eighty over the limit, I wonder what type of guy's in that car. What kind of person's ego pumps and thrives on the thrill of driving fast?

Well now I know because the guy from the washroom was stopped beside me at a red light. The huge spoiler on his cobalt Civic looked like it came from a Flying Fortress. As soon as it hit green this guy was weaving down Steeles at 85 kph.

So that's my new standard of parenting. Does your kid was his/her hands? If so, guess what: You're on the right track.

An unflushed toilet? Better start saving for law school.

Torontonians Don't Fall In Love Like Art Buchwald

My grandfather just got back from Florida, where he goes primarily to golf and steal books from his complex's library. I've written about the library before, but I'll just mention that it's administered by a retired New York librarian, and all its volumes were acquired courtesy of donations. (That means, for you Gentile readers, that some aged Jewish man died, and his wife chucked the books.)

Anyway, he gave me a copy of Art Buchwald's I'll Always Have Paris, which describes Buchwald's ascent to beloved middle-brow caricaturist.

Buchwald, an ugly man in the mould of a shorter, fatter John Turturro, devotes a section of the book to the courtship of his wife Ann. First he ignored her, calling her Fran. Then he sat down, uninvited, at a cafe table, dishing out egotistical bullshit re: his incredible gift for styling prose. (Buchwald is to writing what the Ford Taurus is to cars.) Next time he cornered her in a bakery and forced her to buy him a baguette. And, finally, he invited himself to her house for dinner--which she was to cook for him.

It was at that dinner that he kissed her, then got laid on the kitchen table.

Maybe the fact that they were in Paris somehow explains this. Maybe the fact that it was 1950 is important. Maybe she was just an idiot. But Buchwald's story reminds me of a friend who tried, for years, to land a single date with a Rosedale girl.

First he met her and forgot her name. Then he saw her at a bar and tried to buy her a drink--which she refused. Then he saw her leaving his dorm, and offered to take her for coffee. She said no. Finally, he asked her to be his date to his fraternity's spring social. She told him she preferred to remain friends.

Of course she didn't like him, but the message was sent.

Fast forward three years and this girl's now engaged to the son of a man who has a Renoir in his bathroom.

The book-movie model of dating just doesn't work in Toronto. Here men and women just hate each other. And that hate doesn't blossom into love; it blossoms into more fragrant and colourful hate.

In fact, I don't know anyone who met their boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse in the city proper. They all met at camp, on vacation, at school, or at someone's cottage. Was that because they were drunk and half-naked? No, it was because they found steady sex, and they couldn't give it up.

It amazes me when I hear stories of people falling in love in Toronto. But, invariably, it's a case of love at first sight. "I saw him/her and wanted to screw him/her." No one's story goes, "He asked me what book I was reading and I told him to fuck off. We'll be married in June."

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

I'd Rather Have One Child Than Three Dogs

There's an article in this month's Toronto Life on raising kids in Toronto. Katrina Onstad, the authoress, describes the conflict between urban parents and urban non-parents. The problem seems to be that the parents keep winning.

And the battleground: the leash-free dog park.

"What about our kids?" the dog-parents ask about their dog-children (literally, their dogs). "Don't they deserve a place to play? Don't they deserve to be happy?" Of course they do. After all, we want them to grow up to be healthy, well-adjusted, productive adults.

I used to say I never wanted children. But now with two of my exes pregnant by other men, I've adopted a different attitude: Given the choice between having a family and not having a family, I choose the family. Hell, I'll adopt a kid. I'm only twenty-four, but now I'm starting to think about the metaphorical significance of my watch.

And here's why: I can't and won't be a thirty- or forty-something with a clean house and one, two, or three well-dressed dogs. Toronto's divided itself into two camps: the dog parents and the real parents. The real parents, even given their faults, are the ones I've sided with. The dog parents--whether they be empty-nesters, singles, or just affected--need to stop. Stop what? Just stop. You've taken a dangerous step by naming your dog Parker. A dangerous, awful step.

A few months ago a Toronto man named Bert Clark lost his dog Huckleberry. He offered a fifteen-thousand-dollar reward for the dog's return, and the dog came back home. That was nice; I had no problem with a man paying to be reunited with his dog. But it went a little deeper. Clark, when interviewed, seemed to describe a much deeper, somewhat metaphysical, relationship with Huckleberry that verged on filial, parental, AND matrimonial bonds.

Clark planned his day around Huckleberry. He bought his house with Huckleberry. He went places Huckleberry wanted to go. He bought food Huckleberry liked. He clothed Huckleberry. Huckleberry slept in Clark's bed.

The dog wasn't his friend, it was his wife and son.

I don't think there's any good way to age as a single. You either do it with class and a helluva lot of money, or you become lonely and slightly crazed. The class-money option seems like the right way, but it probably only means a more expensive dog. No single person over thirty-five is safe from (imminent) dog ownership.

Parenting a child in the city may be tough, but so's finding a parking spot. If a person with a stroller is walking toward me, I'll get out of the way. Why? Because I'm not sure the infant should be straddling the curb. I'm pretty sure your dog can handle it. I don't care how new his/her shoes are or how hard white suede is to clean.

That said, by all means have a dog. I used to have a dog. Dogs are great friends. Just don't come back from the Humane Society and tell your dad he's a new grandfather.

Last week I was in the car with my brother-in-law and my five-year-old niece. He was taking her to McDonald's, and I was going to the liquor store--beside McDonald's. "What do you want to listen to?" my brother-in-law asked. "Bob Weir and Ratdog." I didn't say that; she did.

But an ironic child is still better than a dog. And a know-it-all kid? Still better than two dogs. A wise-beyond-her-years child actor? Well...what kind of dogs?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

What Woody Allen And Mordecai Richler Would Say If They Met Claudia Dey

I've never met Claudia Dey, but I'd love to sit down and share an oversized vanilla-iced cupcake with her. I'd pay, and she could sit...and eat...and tell me about the best kinds of edible grass.

Of course that won't happen. But until then I'm cooking with timothy.

I've wondered, with the rise of magic realism in Canadian fiction, what old, dead Canadian writers (and Woody Allen) would say about the books and authors getting press in 2008. I'm sure they'd be thrilled. Mordecai Richler, as we know, loved fairy tales. "Nothing made dad happier," Jacob Richler once said, "than the man who came to our house and danced on the sidewalk to an audio tape, narrated by Rex Murphy, of Duddy Kravitz. He seemed to interpret it as an erotic Gothic romance. This was in 1977. At the climax--when Duddy forges the cheque--dad made me run out and sprinkle sawdust."

Of Dey, Jake says his father might say the following: "I can see him reading her work. I think he might sit there, smile, and say, 'This is a good writer. This is a woman who knows the pulse of the people. And, what's more, I really like her hat.'"

That doesn't sound anything like Mordi, but the son is never too close to the father. The no-longer-living Richler would probably see her smoking her cigar, swallow, and say something like, "I read Stunt last night. Here...Watch carefully. I'm going to bend over, drop my pants. You take a puff of that thing and direct the smoke...blow it right up my ass. I'm only on page sixty-seven...and this way's faster."

That's the Richler we know.

And what about Woody Allen? What would he say of Dey? Forty years ago Allen was really on-point with his analyses. For once it was trendy to hate intellectuals. I think Woody'd like Dey. "Claudia Dey. I met her once. She's a Canadian writer. She's really interested in an authentic--an urban lifestyle. She invited me over for dinner, you know, but I couldn't fit down the rabbit hole."

We'll see where this goes. But the cupcake's a standing offer.

A (Twenty-Something) Toronto Jewess Rejects Anal Sex

My friend Andy has been dating his girlfriend Anita for nine years. They started going out in high school. He was her first sexual partner; she was his first sexual partner. Now they're twenty-five, they're not even living together yet, and marriage looms nigh on the Forest Hill horizon.

Their sex has progressed from missionary to her on top. Neither is particularly athletic, but Andy is an open-minded, adventurous type. Anita is willing to try new things, but she's pragmatic.

A few weeks ago they were in Andy's parents' basement, they were having sex, and Andy tried to flip her over. He grabbed her, twisted, and she rolled off the side of the mattress and landed, with a thud, on his tiled floor. The floor was cold, and she was not happy.

He said, "We have to try something new."

A week later he was visiting her at her apartment in Montreal. She goes to McGill, where she's a year away from an MA in architecture and city planning. She has a beautiful place (which her father pays for); it's immaculate. Spotless.

And you know why? Because the dad pays a cleaning woman to come Mondays and Fridays. Anita doesn't clean. She doesn't cook. She doesn't do laundry. She doesn't do dishes. She goes to school and watches TV. She's broken free of patriarchy. Andy? He cleans, he cooks, he does laundry, he does dishes. He's broken free of patriarchy too.

He does her laundry. He cooks her food. He does her dishes. Sometimes she rests her feet on his neck.

She's a new-age girl, the kind every guy wants to marry.

So he was at her apartment and they were talking about sex. He wanted to try different things. She was amenable, but wanted to know what he was thinking. He said he'd like to see her dress up. "As what?" A cheerleader. "No! I'm not dressing up as a cheerleader." Why? "They're too young. You like young girls?" There are old...older cheerleaders. Women cheerlead into their 20s. I've seen them at college football games. "No. That's sick. And I won't braid my hair."

But a cheerleader was all he could think of. He wasn't too interested in Jacobean damsel, or pirate's daughter.

"What else?" she asked. I want to hit you. "Hit me? No." Just with a little whip. "You're not touching me with a whip."

What about outside? "Outside what?" Sex outside. "I'm not taking off my clothes outside." You don't have to take off your clothes. "I'm not breaking the law."

So he retreated to his first option, something he'd wanted to propose from the onset.

What about anal? She blanched. "No." No. Why? Won't you try it? "No." You won't even try it? "No." Why not? "I'm not washing the sheets."

She has a counterpane, a fitted sheet, and a linen duvet.

"I'm going to have to wash the sheets every time. No, there's no way I'm doing that. It's too much laundry."

Of course, his next move was to offer to do the laundry himself. "No way! You'll do it wrong! You don't know how! No, it's too much."

And he gave up on the anal sex dream. If she wasn't willing to wash the sheets, what was the chance she'd go for the (necessary) enema?

So they're back to the old reliable missionary. But a few days ago he went for a twist. On the verge of orgasm, he pulled out and positioned himself for what Robertson Davies gingerly terms a "facial." In a split second she'd raised her hand and slapped his erect penis like a tetherball. "Do you want to live?"

I told him he should just buy a watermelon.

Books To Keep In The Bathroom

I have a 341-page book in the bathroom. I don't know why it's there; I never read it. I guess it's supposed to keep the 221-page book company. Or the hundred pager on E.W. Thomson's correspondence with Archibald Lampman. Yes, those are all in my bathroom right now. And there's an LCBO glossy ad showing whiskies for sale (in September 2006). I've also got a collection of New York Times editorials, and a novella explaining why the New Yorker is anti-Caribbean.

Not many people keep books or magazines in their bathrooms. But the ones who do tend to keep a selection. My grandfather used to have eight or ten Time magazines in his upstairs john; downstairs: the complete run of Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues. I read the SI's and ogled the Time covers.

I'm not sure what the rationale is behind bathroom reading. The Seinfeld line is, to paraphrase, re: the bathroom, "I understand Gutenberg spent a fair deal of time in there."

How much can you really get through in the head? A page? Two pages? I think people who like to read so crave quiet spaces they can't pass up the chance.

There is no etiquette re: reading in the bathroom. By that I mean the kind of books you can bring into the can. Library books are fine. And it's OK to leave them in there to get steamed and warped by the shower, or sprayed with mouthwash. You're not supposed to know where your book's been. Witness a friend of mine who was eating fusilli pasta with meat sauce, and using the plate to prop open a library copy of GBS's Major Barbara. Every time he'd take a mouthful he'd get tomato on the page. But that was OK; it was a library book.

(I've never known anyone to read in a public bathroom or a bathroom at work. That would be interesting to see. I've never used the head at a publishing house, but I'm sure they hand out samples at the door.)

I'm sure we've all noticed weird stains on our copies of Huck Finn. Was it from a tubercular former reader who disdained to cover his mouth? Probably. Sometimes I wonder if eighty-year-old germ cultures are still active. But to a greater extent it's mostly ear wax, poppy seeds, and fruit stickers that decorate circulating copies. I'm sure this is some kind of "marking territory" behaviour, but why then the bathroom?

Oh, right.

Friday, April 18, 2008

I Need To Know What You're Reading

It's summer in Toronto and I'm in the car with my grandfather. We're driving through the city, or we're stopped at a red light. Some teenaged girls in knee-socks and vulva-length skirts are twirling down the sidewalk. His head turns. He takes a look. I bite my lip.

That’s the way it’s always been. But I’ve noticed, recently, that I’m doing something similar. If I’m on the subway and someone’s reading a book, I look. I can’t help myself. I glance out of the corner of my eye. What the hell are they reading.

A few days ago I was out with a friend for lunch and a twenty-something bald guy with an Al Jolson t-shirt was walking toward us. He was carrying a thick hardcover book with the spine tucked into his waist, and I was trying to get a glimpse of what the thing was. I figured a skinny, twenty-something bald guy with an Al Jolson shirt and a shoulder bag had to be reading something really esoteric and interesting. For some reason I was determined to know what the book was. My friend saw what I was doing, but couldn’t figure it out. To him it looked like I was staring at this guy’s skinny-jeaned crotch. But I was looking at the book.

This is somehow very Freudian. Depending on your gender, a book makes a frightening comparison to genitalia. But I have seen people spanked with them. And a guy I knew once chipped a tooth on one.

Not that I’m embarrassed. I’ve looked down plenty of camisoles on the subway trying to glimpse the chapter title of whatever the woman was reading. I wasn’t looking for skin; I just wanted to know if it was Grisham, Kinsella, or Dreiser. (Note: It was never--not ever--Dreiser.) I’m a heterosexual man caught up in the weird universe of book-loving pedagogues and autodidacts. Books don’t give me pleasure; but once a professor gave me a copy of Reading Canadian Reading…and the pages were stuck together.

Even magazines do it for me. I was walking down a beach and there was a nude woman-- a beautiful nude woman in her twenties--reading a Cosmo. You know what I wanted to ask her? "What page are you on?" Vogue's good, too.

If it’s an attractive woman holding a book, here’s the progression: book, ass, tits, face. I know that’s pathetic, but the book has assumed such awful meaning for me. Maybe it’s the fact that, as I sit here, there is, at my feet, a paper bag (that once contained a dozen poppy-seed bagels) now contains Frances Newman’s Hardboiled Virgin, Cynthia Sugars’s Home-Work, and Margaret Atwood’s Essays. (Note: I just tore the bag trying to look inside.)

[Sigh.] I’m going to the library.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

London, 1961: Mordecai Richler Meets Philip Roth

In 1961 Mordecai Richler was living in London. Ron Bryden remembers a dinner at Stanley Price's house where Richler and Philip Roth were vying to best each other in terms of who could be more obscene. (Roth won with an incestuous neuf-soixante-neuf in which Christmas lights played a significant role.) Price was a British screenwriter who'd penned Golden Rendezvous, Shout at the Devil, Boo Maroo, and The Time Before That; Bryden was an editor The Spectator, and had met Richler through his publisher Andre Deutsch.

The account of the dinner's related in Michael Posner's The Last Honest Man, but only in a very cursory way. Bryden points out that at the end of the evening "Roth said to Mordecai as an equal, 'Why don't you come back with me to New York and go into the Jewish business?'" That was nice of him. Imagine Roth and Richler in New York in the '60s and '70s, hating the same people, spilling grape juice on the same waiters. Not much Desmond Pacey could say about that.

Roth had published Goodbye, Columbus in 1959, and was about to publish Letting Go. Goodbye, Columbus and Defender of the Faith had made Roth famous, and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz had established Richler as an author whose books could actually be read.

Mitchell Schwartz, a screenwriter who worked mainly in television, was at the Price dinner, and remembers the evening as follows. This is, to my understanding, the only record of this evening--other than Bryden's brief reminiscence--that exists:

"Richler and Roth were horrifying everyone with their obscenities. The women at the table started to leave. During dinner. They just got up and left. Richler was making endless jokes about Roth's penis, which he imagined, for some reason, to be enormous. He'd turned to his wife and said something like, 'Have to get some teeth pulled for that one.' She was mortified, but he kept going, on and on. I was sitting at the opposite end of the table, and I had turned around to watch them. It was funny, in an adolescent way, and I didn't think there was much harm in it. Roth said something horrible about Freud, a retarded child, and a box of clementine oranges, and Richler spit Scotch and water all over their beautiful Jacquard-woven tablecloth. What I objected to was the arrogance with which they proceeded to speak about their own work. Richler was quite adamant to Roth that there was no Canadian writing worth reading. He could name about three Canadian writers, but that seemed to be all he needed. Roth didn't know anything about the field, so he was completely in Richler's sway. Richler told him that most Canadian writers were either priests or cocaine addicts, which I'm sure wasn't true. Roth said that Richler reminded him of something he'd once said about Emily Dickinson--that the only positive thing one could say about her was that she was a good speller. Later, I understand, Richler used that phrase in an essay about a Canadian writer, and became quite famous for it [Note: Richler's phrase referred to F.P. Grove.]

"The problem with Roth was that he'd made quite a lot of money off the sale of the rights to his short stories. [Goodbye, Columbus was made into a film in 1969; Richard Benjamin starred alongside Ali MacGraw and Jack Klugman.] I'm talking about film rights. And he's not a particularly modest person to begin with. He speaks in a very deliberate way, and you get the sense that he's rehearsed everything, countless times, in the shower or before he falls asleep. He was teasing Richler's desire for Canadian sales. Roth had received a huge advance on his next book, and Richler was writing for less money than some of the sign painters I knew. Finally Richler turned to him and said, 'There are twenty-five Jews in Canada, and three million in the United States. But at least yours can read.'

"But it didn't last very long. Richler's wife was a very proper, humourless kind of person. I've spoken to people who knew him--Richler, I mean--and they found their spousal relationship quite intolerable. He was uxorious to a terrible degree, and she maintained this image of strict, didactic Catholicism that reminded me of stories I'd heard from friends who'd gone to St. Paul's--which is a very famous school in London. I don't mean that she was religious; rather, I mean that she was quite by-the-rules. I've heard stories to the extent that she often corrected people who misplaced their pronouns. But she was a very nice person. Now that I've mentioned Freud, it occurs to me he might have had quite a lot to say about that relationship.

"We were having after-dinner drinks and she came in and requested that they leave. Roth begged Richler to stay, but he would absolutely not disobey or argue with her. It was, 'Dear, I'm a little tired.' And he got up, finished his drink, and shook Stanley's hand.

"After they left Roth tried to get Stanley to say something about Richler's work, and Stanley said his last novel had been very good, but the earlier stuff was shit. He wasn't sure which direction he'd go--back to the shit, or on toward something else. Roth, of course, hadn't read anything of his. He asked me my opinion, and I told him that I didn't think being Canadian would help him very much. Now I see some irony in that comment. It was Canada that, as Norman Levine said, made him. If he'd gone to New York, I don't think we'd ever have heard from him again.

"One coda to the story. Before Richler left he asked to use Stanley's washroom. He closed the door, we heard the flush, the sound of running water, and then he and Florence were off. About fifteen minutes later I had the urge, and I got up and opened the door, walked in. And Richler had pissed all over the toilet seat. Thinking back, I realize he was probably quite drunk, but just had a gift for hiding it well. And, of course, it being 1961, he got in his car and drove home."

Typical Richler; typical Roth. There's a thesis there.

We Need More Celebrity-Authored Self-Help Books

If there's anything you can say, with conviction, about celebrities, it's that they're all good writers. And smart. And insightful. If that weren't the case, how would they have become famous in the first place?

What? You said something about a couch? Crests? They had big crests? I didn't catch that. Why would producers care about nice, high crests?

Last year Signet sold 10,000 copies of Othello; Marilu Henner's Wear Your Life Well just had its initial printing of 25,000 in hardcover. In it we learn to "love ourselves," "pay attention to your spouse," and "the brain is the sexiest organ in the body."

Yes, we learn all those things.

If things you "learn" are taught--frequently--on daytime television, then maybe you're better off living among the Pennsylvania Dutch. That's just my opinion. But I was reading Sean Ireton's An Ontological Study of Death today, so maybe I'm just too low-brow.

If people would just buy paperback anthologies of Freud's work, all these self-help books could be shredded; the pulp used to make environmentally friendly shin guards. Freud explains it all. And he actually explains it. He doesn't give you cliches or platitudes. Mourning and Melancholia. The Ego and the Id. Try it sometime.

Or if you don't like Freud, what about Nietzsche? And if you don't like Nietzsche, try Plato. They're the M*A*S*H episodes from which every single Family Ties and St. Elsewhere plot was ripped. They're the Mel Brooks whom Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer attempted to paint their faces to match.

It's all about being lazy. Few people actually want to understand things. They just want the kernel. They just want the palliative. So you have men and women living among piles of old sweaters, shoppings bags, and boxes. And in comes someone to tell them to "respect your stuff." That's better than "be who you are," but not by much.

I think TV robbed people of introspection. So you get shows like How Clean is Your House going into disgusting, disgraceful pits, and the denizen of the hovel emerges to claim it's not really a priority to be clean. No, why would it be? Paradise Island is on. Order some more Sonic burgers.

But what happens? In comes the TV host to tell them what to do. And, magically, lives are turned around. Because TV has stepped in. TV has steered them in the right direction. TV knew what was best for them, and changes were made.

It's the same with celebrity-authored books. I can't imagine the kind of person whose life would change after having Ivana Trump tell them to live every day to the fullest. But they must exist.

That reminds me of a story once told to me by a friend who went to Yale. On the final day of his freshman-level metaphysics class, a student asked the professor to name the one book he'd recommend as required reading to live an informed, honest life. The professor looked at the student, paused, and said, "Mine."

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Canadian Writing's Bad? Name One.

A few days ago I got into an argument with a friend's brother-in-law. The brother-in-law's a dentist with an office in the city. He says sometimes when he has a really attractive female client he rests his forearm on her chest. His wife's his secretary because he's already cheated on her once. He has one son, whom they both named Finnegan. He brags about once masturbating during an anatomy lecture.

We were at an engagement party and the guy wanted to know what I do. I told him I was working toward a PhD. He wanted to know what field. I told him English. He wanted to know what genre. I told him Canadian writing.

"Canadian!" he laughed. "Why?"

A lot of people hate Canadian writing. They hate Canadian painting and Canadian drama. They hate Canadian movies and Canadian bands. They don't know why, exactly. They just hate them.

It's all part of this we're-not-even-American that's been floating around for the past 141 years. America's usually been bigger; America's usually been flashier and more interesting. We had all these erect WASPs, and they had drunken, anti-Semitic, psychotic poets and artists. Those drunken neurotics birthed Western culture, and here we were, up here, alone, in the cold.

But here's the thing: people hate Canadian everything, but they don't know what they hate. I already said they don't know why they hate it--which is fine. But if you're going to hate something, you should at least know what that something is. "Canadian writing" is not a thing. You hate Canadian writers, Canadian books. And, if that's the case, you should probably be able to name some.

So I asked this brother-in-law what he disliked most about Canadian writing. "It's all boring, bleak, shit," he said. "It's not funny; it's not good."

Again, part of the discourse.

I said, "Well, have you ever read Mordecai Richler?"

"No, but I've heard of him."

OK. There goes our funny writer. "Have you ever read Atwood?"

"In high school."

"Ever read Timothy Findley?"


"Rudy Wiebe?"


"Margaret Laurence?"

"In high school."

That's how most Canadians know Canadian writing exists: they read it in high school. And whom did they read? Atwood, Laurence, and Atwood and Laurence. That's it. F.P. Grove? No. Morley Callaghan? No. Sure, these are dry, Freudian-obsessed writers. But they exist. They're seminal figures in the Canadian canon (which does actually exist.) If you're going to hate Canadian writing, at least know who they are.

No one knows who Marian Engel is. No one knows who Brian Moore is.

I don't think that's a particularly bad thing. Most people don't read. But why "hate" it? Why not just dislike it? Why not just ignore it?

And I'm just talking about mid-twentieth-century authors. I'm not even getting into the weird, mystical/magical-realist/Rapunzelist/guy-leaves-Gatineau-and-becomes-a-monkey-trainer kind of writing that's happening right now. Richler is a stick-your-cock-in-the-faucet type guy. At least take a look at him.

But, yeah, a lot of our writing is bad. Maybe most of it is bad. But at least I know that.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Michael Coren Is W.J. Keith's Half Brother.

Michael Coren's an interesting study. He's a muscular Christian, interested in facts, yet he adheres to tradition as if its roots weren't buried deep in European sand. He has an almost Panglossian fondness for the past--which he sees as a time when morality reigned and everyone knew their place--and he's not too fond of the present. It's a simplistic philosophy that typifies most conservatives, and, like everything, it's not all-wrong.

He also believes in the literal truth of the Bible, the Immaculate Conception and the Resurrection, and the 1950s. The earth might be 10,000 years old; he's not sure yet. (Six months ago he had a creationist debate an evolutionist. The creationist insisted that the earth was around 10,000 years old. Coren didn't seem to buy it, but he was unusually quiet.)

Fine. All that's OK. I don't agree with much of it, but I'm not opposed to intelligent morality, and I think the Ten Commandments are a good thing. Coren's probably the most learned of all Toronto commentators, and he usually does a good job at discussing what needs to be discussed. Plus he'll actually delve into facts that aren't PC. And, as long as they're facts, that's fine.

Yet here's what bothers me: Coren, who was born in the UK, is a British snob in the mould of some of our finest, most imperalist cultural villains. Discussing a government bill that would cut funding to arts projects that violate the Criminal Code, Coren said the following: "It's not like they're not giving money to Chaucer, Shakespeare...or even Marlowe."

Chaucer? Shakespeare? Marlowe? Are you kidding. This is Canada. It's 2008. The English Renaissance aesthetic is dead. Let's be realistic.

Earlier in the broadcast he'd spoken about "mediocre Canadian writers" like Farley Mowat and Mordecai Richler. Coren's opinion is that the government should stop giving money to the arts. Canadians don't sell many Canadian books; Canadians don't watch many Canadian films. That's true. And, like many of Coren's points, there's a decent logic to his bent. But seeing that his evaluation of Canadian writing seems to be based on the Fadiman scale, what kind of point is he looking to win? In writing, as in art, it's not Faulkner or nothing. (Coren probably thinks Faulkner's ungrammatical--and he's certainly not British--so I'll use someone else.) It's not Coleridge or nothing.

Unfortunately, people don't read literature. Just like people don't know much about A.J. Casson--sorry, another Canadian...Just like people don't know much about Joshua Reynolds. But I think we should probably keep Robert Kroetsch and Thomas King. If we have to use Canada Council money to keep them in Kraft Dinner, then do it. It's not like that money's going into the mattress. It'll be spent; taxes will be collected. It's not going to end up in a wood stove.

Coren generally disparages anything and everything that's Canadian. Canadian teachers are bad. Canadian universities are bad and "hand out PhDs!" (The average PhD completion time in Ontario is seven years. The percentage of candidates who complete: 52.) Canadians are stupid.

Again, all partial truths. You really make yourself look like a fool when you generalize. Some teachers are bad; some Canadians are stupid. Some Canadian writers and painters are mediocre. But not all of them.

Coren reminds me of W.J. Keith and John Metcalf--and not just because they're all Brits. It's the self-righteous, omniscient attitude he takes toward everything of which he is not a valued part. Or, in other words, if he doesn't like it, it's bad. So those leftists in the arts community dislike him? Well, according to Coren, Sarah Polley's a bad actor, a very bad actor. And Canadian directors are bad...And Canadian musicians are bad...That'll show them.

But Claire Hoy, a man who, in Fiction and Other Truths, a documentary on Jane Rule, is filmed explaining why gay men shouldn't be allowed to teach in Canadian high schools...well, he's ok. Why? Because Coren likes him.

And York University? Well, when Belinda Stronach was crossing the floor, Coren talked about Stronach's degree from York. York's 50,000 students were fools. Why? Because the school would graduate anything with a pulse. He wants the Academy. Oxford entrance exams. Know your Greek. I guess York's Yale-educated profs are just that much more slack-jawed than NYU's Yale-educated profs. I guess curves are a Canadian thing.

And Coren's writing? He publishes in The Sun. The Toronto Sun. That's a sports section wrapped in j-school copy and AP blurbs. It's the least literate of Toronto's many dailies. But Coren doesn't or can't say much about that.

It's disappointing because Coren can do better than that. Or, at least, he should. John Moore does.

Here's Why Canadian Comics Aren't Funny: Lorraine Sommerfield

I won't even delve into the differences between New York and Saskatchewan; I won't touch on the predominance of Jews in American comedy, and the predominance of Gentiles in Canadian comedy; I won't even mention that the lowest, most disdained American comics are the high-energy squealers, and the "best" Canadian comics are the ones with nothing but enthusiasm (think Nikki Payne).

But I will say that Canadian comedy is bad. Very, very bad. And why shouldn't it be? Ever seen Wingfield on Ice? You know how many Canadian humourists served their apprenticeships writing gags for For Better or Worse cartoons? Think about some of the stuff from Woody Allen's nightclub act: "I had a rough marriage. Well, my wife was an immature woman and, ah, That's all I can say, she...See if this is not immature to you: I would be home in the bathrroom, taking a bath, and my wife would walk right in, whenever she felt like, and sink my boats." This was sophisticated, deep, intelligent humour. Now think about Payne blowing smoke out of her ass while wearing a tartan quilt.

But even smart Canadian comedy is a kind of pastoral, town hall kind of performance.(I can think of three exceptions: Jeremy Hotz (who was born in South Africa), John Wing, and Russell Peters.) But the rest just sounds like a guy/girl from Sudbury drove down to share his/her observations of fin-de-siecle Canadian life. I'm not saying people from Sudbury can't be funny. But are they?

Witness the incredible number of Tim Horton's jokes in Canadian comedyy. I don't think I've ever heard Richard Lewis riffing on McDonald's or Paula Poundstone talking about the lines at Wal-Mart. But Canadian comics invariably build acts around how much wood you can buy at Rona or Home Depot.

And it's not that the jokes are banal, it's that they're really, really simple: "I went into Tim's today. Yeah, don't you hate it when the guy in front of you doesn't know what's he's ordering. 'I'll have an...I don't, single...etc.'" That's one Tim's joke.

Here's the other: "Yeah, those Tim's menus are so confusing. I went in yesterday to order a coffee. But I came out with a double triple mocha grande frapped latte quadruple triple chocolate grande. With cream."

And, here, the joke's that people order complicated coffees. If you can write material like that, who needs New York?

It's a lot like those big-box jokes that were popular in the States about fifteen years ago: "I went into Costco for some mustard. I came out with an eighty-five gallon jar. I had to roll it home."

But here's another problem: Canadian comics don't take chances. Peters comes closest with his ethnic jokes. And he does it because he gets good non-WASP audiences. Lo and behold, his stuff plays in American cities.

Ron James? Conan O'Brien came to Toronto, and James was doing jokes about portages.

But look at Lorraine Sommerfield's reaction to a comic making a joke about peanut allergies. This WASPy Toronto Liberalism/delusion explains why so many Canadian stand ups do jokes about how hard it is to close a cottage for the winter.

The offending joke: [The comic holds his forefinger an inch apart from his thumb] If something this big is gonna take a kid out, guess what, he's not gonna make it.

That's a decent joke. It's not explicit; it's not crude. Kids have peanut allergies; peanut allergies are serious; serious topical issues are fodder for good comedy. But not in Canada. No, in Canada we don't do that Chris Rock thing. Sommerfield's offending line is 0.1% Louis C.K and 99.9% Shari Lewis. Yet Sommerfield reacts as follows: "A doctor friend was with us that night. I asked her the current stats on kids with peanut allergies. "One in 30," she responded quietly. "One in every class."

She responded quietly! The atmosphere was suddenly sombre. More SUV jokes, please.

Sommerfield continues: "I don't have a politically correct bone in my body. Pick on any sacred cow you like, especially in a crowd that cautiously backs their SUVs down the driveway so they don't run over their recycling boxes. Pick on us, pick on how we parent, pick on our navel-gazing obsession with our tired little First World problems at a time when the Earth is going to hell. That's all fair game; a kid's affliction with a life-threatening allergy isn't even close to being fair."

And here's the crux of the problem: "I'd tell you I jumped up and ran out in a self-righteous clamour, but I didn't. I didn't think I'd heard correctly. When he finished up a few minutes later, I knew I wasn't alone. The same way he wondered how something as small as a peanut could cause such upheaval, I was left wondering how something so small as that peanut could scrub so much enjoyment off the evening."

Get up and walk out because of a peanut allergy joke? What are you going to do when Gilbert Gottfried talks about his September 12, 2001, flight making an unscheduled stop at the Empire State Building? Pick on any sacred cow you like, Sommerfield says. Sacred cows like what? The Premier? The TTC? Muskoka? The Minister of Natural Resources?

Pick on any sacred cow, but no jokes about peanut allergies. In 1968 Mel Brooks makes a movie called The Producers; in 2008 a comic in Canada makes a joke about peanuts.

WASPs ruined Canadian comedy; they weigh on the comic sensibilities of our good young Jews, and they get all the cushy CBC writing jobs. Look at our signature comedies: Air Farce, 22 Minutes, Red Green. One takes place in a goddamned forest, and the other two feature cast members kidnapped straight from the ould country. They sit in church on Sunday and pen lines about the rector. You know where Red Green's really popular? Wisconsin. I'm serious. And Air Farce's talent? Just take a look at their jaw lines and faery hair. For crissakes, they're writing jokes about the Queen!

Mercer's scripted stuff is decent. Why? Look at the names of a few of his writers: Jeff Blumenthal, Mark Goldberg, and Sandy Steiner.

Look at Air Farce's creative team: Roger Abbott, Craig Lauzon, Alan Park, Don Ferguson.

I'm Canadian. If other Canadians like this stuff, fine. Great. But there has to be something behind this WASPish lead curtain.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Angeline de Montbrun A Lesbian?

I'm reading an article by Margaret Michaels in Studies in Canadian Litrerature on crypto-lesbians in twentieth-century Canadian fiction. Michaels argues that the dearth of Canuck lesbians (she calls them Canlickers--an interesting pun for an academic) is due to the prudery of Canadian male writers who chose instead to have their male protagonists engage in shirtless, sweaty grain threshing. But the lesbians are there. Mrs Stake in Robert Stead's Grain, Morag in Margaret Laurence's The Diviners, Joan Foster in Atwood's Lady Oracle, and the Second Mrs Panofsky in Mordecai Richler's Barney's Version are all, according to Michaels, repressed lesbians.

But the twentieth century is too easy. If Michaels had just extended her argument a little bit, she'd see that nineteenth-century Canadian writing is teeming with lesbians. Except instead of wearing black Everlast sweatshirts they're wearing frilly gingham and gabardine. (There are gay men in the genre, but they just have large teeth.)

Michaels's principal nineteenth-century Canadian literary lesbian: Angeline de Montbrun. Laure Conan's protagonist suffers through a relationship with an overbearing father and an impotent male lover. Really, all she wants to do is climb into bed with Maurice's sister Mina. It's kind of a Richard-Lady Anne thing. Michaels claims that Mina enters the thick, labial cloisters of the humid convent to escape her prurient urges; thereby protecting Angeline from lapping up some new-original sin. Most critics have read Angeline as despairing and neurotic; Michaels just sees her as sexually frustrated. Conan's metaphorical spiritual masturbation scene could, in that respect, be read as the tipping point of Canadian Catholic whiteness. I know Morley Callaghan agrees.

It's an interesting take on an unpopular text. Terry Goldie tried something similar in Pink Snow: Homotextual Possibilities in Canadian Fiction. It works if you want it to work. Original? Yes. I'll try any argument at least once.

Leftonians Sick With Liberalism

As a socially liberal person, I cringe at the froth being stirred up by my caring fellow Torontonians. Two weeks ago a man named Jim Wallenberg left his $77,000 violin at a Queen's Quay bus stop. He posted a $1,000 reward for its return. A man named Wayne Wulff found the violin, returned it, and received a cheque for a grand.

That's the summary version; the whole story goes like this: a homeless woman found the violin, stuck it in her shopping cart, and wheeled the cart into a park. Wulff saw a poster advertising the reward, saw the homeless woman with the case, and bargained with her to secure it. He gave her thirty-five bucks and a silver ring (retail value $50-ish).

Now The Toronto Star's mailbox is overflowing with letters from angry readers decrying the swindling of a poor, innocent, lost soul. Talk-radio callers, with their eighty-word vocabularies, are calling to complain about this travesty of a mockery of a sham transaction. Wulff, they say, should split the money with the "bag lady"--that's what the press has tagged her. The bag lady deserves a fair cut. "Whoa is us! What does this say about our society! Think about the bag lady as we slip into our nice warm beds!"

"Give the bag lady everything we have! The Royal York isn't good enough for her. Oh, we're all so damned guilty! We did this to her; we must've. She couldn't have. No, no, she couldn't have."

This, folks, is Toronto. A city reclaimed from nature in which nothing is now natural. Is anyone pointing out that Wulff wears cheap silver jewellery? Is anyone pointing out that he takes the streetcar to work? This is obviously a blue-collar guy. Who cares about his wife, kids, taxes? But the homeless woman is the one we ought to be thinking about.

Wulff describes the bag lady as follows: "There was obviously a problem with communicating with her. She's constantly talking to herself, so I don't think she understood the magnitude of what was in the case."

The woman found the violin. She kept the violin. She had no intention of returning the violin to the man who'd gone on the radio to talk about its significance. But give her the $500! Why?

You know why? Because she's homeless. Because, as the really fringe leftists say, "our hearts go out to her." That's why it's tough to be liberal. There's a widening group of people who subtract all the reality from reality, then discourse on the Platonic ideals of fairness, love, and compassion. Earnest idealists are sick, sick people. (If Nietzsche says it won't work, then it won't work. But I guess the alternative is Kierkegaard's despair. Or just shut up and buy a TV.) If someone shoots you, it's society's fault. Society did it. Or at the very least society made them do it. The homeless woman is a product of society. Society did this to her. Society pushed her to the streets. Society forced her to keep a $77,000 violin in a shopping cart and then sell it for $75. She's the real hero here. Society...The villain.

If an employed--and this is funny--"housed" (that's what they're calling people who live in homes) person had found the $77,000 violin, kept it, and had been discovered with it in their possession...the shit that would ensue. It was a violin on a bench outside a streetcar shelter. Fair to assume it didn't blow there with the north wind. But, as all Leftonians do, they've ascribed a radical innocence to this woman who has been "hurt and tempest tost by the cruel modern world."

Yeah. She has. And what about me? And what about you? And what about the rest of us? Funny, but I don't consider myself as riding the sweet wave of contemporary society.

I'm just waiting--because I know it's coming--for someone to offer to take this woman into their home.

The reflex is to blame society. Or government. Personal responsibility ends at your heartbeat. After that you're the government's chattel. Given that the city can't forcibly institutionalize and treat the mentally ill homeless, what's the alternative?

Well, now we know what it is: five hundred dollars.

Bad capitalism is when we steal from each other, not when we strike good deals. But this is a North American sickness. We all have to be guilty about things we didn't do, weren't here for, and don't even really know about.

Friday, April 11, 2008

I Think About Aritha van Herk During Sex

I think about Aritha van Herk during sex. It’s a great way to prolong an orgasm. (That reminds me of an interesting story. A friend once told me he’d never had an orgasm before. I knew he’d travelled with a prostitute in Thailand, so I naturally wondered what had happened. It turns out he didn’t know that male ejaculation is clinically termed an orgasm. But I didn’t feel like educating him. He said he’d come—many times—but had never actually experienced a true Sex-and-the-City climax. I told him he needed a vibrator. Later that day he went and bought one.)

Some men say that a condom desensitizes them and allows them to engage in harder, more athletic sex. I say go get a copy of The Tent Peg with a back-cover photo. It’s worth at least five minutes. If you like suspended congress that means you’re going to have to start ramping up your chest press reps and crunches. My girlfriend wanted to watch the finale of America’s Next Top Model, but she figured there was enough time between washing the dishes and the show’s start to go take a shower together. There would’ve been, but with Aritha she ended missing the first two commercial breaks.

The traditional way has always been to think about baseball. Van Herk is much better. It’s like the difference between brushing your teeth with your finger and brushing your teeth with an Oral B Electric Ultra Plaque Hammer.

Atwood also works, but she can de-stimulate you a little too much. She's for the dentist's chair.

For gay men, I'd recommend Robertson Davies. For women, David Staines.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Andrew Pyper Believes In Fairies

Andrew Pyper's new novel The Killing Circle is coming out in August. I didn't like Lost Girls, and I didn't like The Wildfire Season, but I'm prepared to consider TKC as if I'd found it coverless on a park bench. I'll read it as an anonymous work, and render my opinion as soon as it either pleases me or pisses me off.

I don't know what TKC's about, but I know what it isn't. A friend who works at Doubleday was telling me about the pitched battles they were having with Andrew over his book deal. He was due to submit something this year, and his Doubleday editor wasn't happy with Andrew's early chapters. Pyper was pushing a story about Muskokan fairies--literal fairies (nymphs, sprites, etc.)--who travel to Georgian Bay to torment a vacationing Toronto lawyer. The lawyer is involved in some kind of misconduct involving a real estate deal; the fairies are evicted from their home, causing them to travel to Georgian Bay to help the lawyer come to terms with the loss--literally the loss; not the death--of his father. The editor kept telling Pyper they couldn't and wouldn't publish an adult literary-fiction novel that had fairies as its central characters. (Apparently the father either was or became a fairy, too. It was basically Surfacing with fairies.) But Pyper kept insisting that the fairy book would sell. According to my friend, Pyper was adamant that "people wanted fairies." He [my friend] claims to be in possession of at least eight emails where Pyper defends at length the use of fairies in a serious novel. Pyper works his way from Sophocles through Dryden, and ends at Hugo von Hofmannsthal. That's when the editor told him to "fuck off and start working on a real book." Apparently Pyper was going to take his argument all the way through Marge Piercy, but unpaid fines forced Robarts Library to block his account.

Postscript: Claudia Dey liked the fairy idea so much that she's now working on her own interpretation of Pyper's truncated work. She's renamed the lead fairy "Mopsy," but otherwise the bones of the story remain the same.

Gabrielle Roy Sits For Jackson Pollock

It seems like interesting, long-hidden facts re: long-hidden/dead Canadian writers are constantly being unearthed. The newest weird dish covers a 1948 meeting between Gabrielle Roy and Jackson Pollock. Roy was travelling through Long Island with Gregory Gould, a New York bookseller who knew Pollock through Lee Krasner. Having seen Pollock's work, Roy asked Gould if they could stop at Springs (Pollock and Krasner's home/studio), and see if the artist had any pieces he was willing to sell.

Roy was looking for something to hang over her fireplace, but Pollock was working on 60x48 murals. When Roy told him why she wouldn't be able to buy any of the canvases stacked in his barn/shed workspace, Pollock apparently threw paint at her, and ordered her to leave. Gould took a picture of the argument, and later sent the photo to Krasner as a joke. Pollock saw the recoiling Roy with paint speckles on her pink shoes, and told Krasner he was going to turn the scene into a painting. Number 5 (1948) is, consequently, Pollock's interpretation of Gabrielle Roy's 1948 visit to his studio. If you look closely, you can see Roy's horrified expression as oil-based Prussian blue ruins her heels.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Miley Cyrus Loves Sinclair Ross

In an interview last month with Teen People, Miley Cyrus was asked how she spent her time on the road. Her tour schedule has her away from home for seven months of the year, and fans are understandably interested to learn how she divides her time between concerts. She said she reads.

That's an interesting thing for an American teenager to say. And, as an academician, forced to read...let's see...books like Bedelia Kearns's "Metaphysics, Romantic Literature, and Oral Hygiene," I immediately questioned her veracity. But then she said something intriguing. Asked who her favourite author was, Cyrus said, "It has to be Sinclair Ross. Yeah, for sure: Sinclair Ross."

Sinclair Ross. Truth is stranger than fiction. By its sheer esoteric lunacy, that cannot be a lie. It's like asking some poseur nihilistic teen who his favourite philosopher is. And he says Holderlin. You don't pick up that name in USA Today. It's like asking a man what his favourite heel is, and he says, "Mary Jane Pumps. Preferably black patent leather. And preferably worn." That man knows of what he speaks.

So Miley likes Sinclair Ross. Here's what the Teen reporter said in response: "Sinclair Ross. Cool!"

Why Ross? Well, according to Cyrus, Ross's "Canadian, like, depression-era aesthetic is just so, you know...that so interests me. God, I think it's so vivid, you know. It speaks to me. I can see Mrs Bentley. I was telling my dad, 'Come on, dad, you've got to read this book.' And he did, and we talked about it for hours. We were both crying so hard at the end. After Sandra Birdsell, he's my favourite writer."

Later in the interview she adds, "I can't wait to go to Saskatchewan."

Canada's on its way. Next stop Oprah's book club. Tomson Highway's crossing his fingers right now.

Lost Is Just Screwing With You

A couple months ago my cousin told me to watch Lost. I told him to go to hell. I'd seen a couple episodes in the first season, and it was enough to send me running to Mavis Gallant's Home Truths. "What's it about?" someone asked, regarding Lost. "It's about a bunch of people who were in a plane crash. And they're caught in the space-time continuum."

Having seen Back to the Future, I laughed. They're caught in the space-time continuum.

And I guess the flux capacitor is what makes Lost possible.

J.J. Abrams had an idea for a show where a plane crashes and people are stuck on an island. But he didn't want to steal his secondary plot from Lord of the Flies, and he didn't want to steal his tertiary plot from Gilligan's Island, and he didn't want to steal his quaternary plot from the X-Files, and he didn't want to make any of his characters brush their teeth or comb their hair. So he came up with Lost.

But there was a problem: the Networks wanted to know where the show was going. What was it going to be. The audience would want a resolution.

And that's why this converation happened:

[Setting: Fox studios, LA, August 2003]:

Fox Executive: What are you going to do with this thing? I don't buy it. Audiences won't buy it either. How are you going to keep them watching?

Abrams: Don't worry. I'll just fuck with them for a while.

FE: But what are you going to do? What about the storylines? Are they going to stay on the island?

A: They'll leave the island. Then they'll come back.

FE: But why will they come back?

A: I dunno.

FE: Well that's ridiculous. That's stupid. Unless...I think I saw this before--No, I forget.

A: What about this: they say, "We have to go back--BACK TO THE ISLAND!"

FE: You can do that?

A: Sure. I can do that...It's original.

FE: And this space-time bullshit? You think that's OK?

A: It's the space-time continuum. That shit is crazy.

FE: What do you mean?

A: Oh, man. There are monsters in that shit. Monsters and know...ghosts and crazy huge spiders.

FE: Spiders?

A: Massive spiders.


A: You know it!

FE: What about other characters?

A: Crazy hatches and things...

FE: I said what about other characters.

A: Oh, yeah. They're there too.

FE: Where?

A: In the bushes.

FE: The bushes?

A: They're all around, you know. It's an island.

FE: But how did they get there?

A: I told you. The space-time continuum. It sucked them up.

FE: Why?

A: It's crazy. It kills you know...resurrects you.

FE: How?

A: It's the space-time continuum. I don't know WHY. It just does, man. Like Einstein said.

FE: So they're just dead? That's it.

A: No, no. They're not dead.

FE: What are they?

A: They're in it.

FE: So how does the series end?

A: They realize they're in it.

FE: Hell? Heaven?

A: No. It.

FE? IT what?

A: (Pause) Hmm. It was just a dream!

American Actor; German Accent; Canadian Perspective

There's a story circulating that Tom Cruise's new movie Valkyrie, the story of one of many failed plots to nix Hitler, is being held up in production because of Cruise's poor German accent. Apparently he's not believable as an English-speaking German. Given that Cruise is from upstate New York, that doesn't surprise me.

So here's Tom Cruise, in Nazi Germany, and he's not believable as an authentic German. Given that I saw him, last week, on the cover of my mom's US Weekly, I'm understandably shocked.

This begs the question: Why speak in the accent, anyway?

You've probably noticed Anglo actors affecting foreign accents in countless movies. That's fine as long as the character is acting as an ESL student, but the rest of the time it's just stupid. How many Elizabethans have we seen with mercury fillings and straight teeth?

What's the conceit here? That characters are more believable when they're obviously foreign? Were these German officers speaking English at the time? That seems to be what directors are driving at. Because not every German character speaks English; some speak German, usually in the background. So here are these real Germans, speaking German, and here are these other Germans, speaking English. If Tom Cruise can't speak German, then let him use his own voice. I understand that I'm not watching a documentary. I'll accept the fact that these are not authentic Nazis caught in Lost's execrable space-time continuum and captured on digital film.

A friend once told me he didn't like subtitles because he didn't go to the movies to think. I think the real reason captions have disappeared is because most people can't read.

Hamlet was a Dane, yet every actor who plays him affects an English accent. Why can't Claus von Stauffenberg be from Syracuse?

This really bothers me when American actors are pretending to be Canadian. First of all, they're all really white. They sit up straight, they speak like Exonians, and they're all bald. And to reinforce the fact that they're Canadian, they all talk about our Minister of Justice. Obviously, a Canadian flag is hanging in the background.

A lot of people don't understand that Due South was actually carried on American networks. Americans have this weird desire for inaccurate, boneless cultural depictions that can be swallowed in the same gulp as a Hardee's pancake burger.

Really, I can't say why that is.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Oral Sex Gone Horribly Wrong

Most people I know had their first sexual experiences at camp. I’m no different. Nine two-month summers of $150/day camping and I had my share of sex, violence, baseball, peanut butter sandwiches, and homosocial relationships.

I won’t name the camp, but it’s far enough north on the 400 so you can actually breathe without getting headaches. This was Canada! The great Canadian north! Not America, where mothers and daughters went to the same high school. But we were debauched, and healthy. In the eighteen months I spent there I never even sneezed. And I was a kid who, at thirteen, was scrubbing my face with isopropyl alcohol. Over one year spent at camp and my skin was like Jennifer Lopez’s waxed inner thigh. It was amazing.

But here we were, some four hundred Jewish kids from middle- to upper-middle-class to my-grandfather-founded-Stelco backgrounds, and we were in it together. It was like a weird conveyor belt where every year the same kind of shit would happen to the same age groups; the same fights, the same plays, the same dances, the same sweatpants. We'd just be one year older, and they'd just be one year younger. I guess if you went back there today the same stories would be unfolding. Teenagers, you know, aren't that original.

But the thing that dominated camp was sex. Sex was everywhere. We were teenagers, and we gossiped. One morning I woke up and a friend was crouched beside my bed. “Did you hear about Lisa? She gave her first blowjob last night.”

Lisa was fifteen. She’s now in her third year of medical school at McMaster. She wants to work in the paediatric cancer ward. But eleven years ago she got on her knees in the dust of a grey plywood-floored cabin to service a guy who spelled know with a g.

That was camp. I remember, one night, a councillor who was having loud sex with his girlfriend in the back room of our cabin. Yeah, the counterpane he’d hung in the doorway just didn’t block out the sound like he’d thought it would. She had a loud orgasm, which I taped on my boom box. Back then--1997--people still had orgasms.

I’ll say this about my personal experience. I guess that's what this post's about. When you’re a teenager you know you don’t know what you’re doing. But you’re willing to try. A friend with a cock like a garden hose was talking about how he’d just screwed a female unit head who was five years our senior. Looking back, had that really happened, it might have been illegal. But this was camp. It was Vegas, for kids.

Oral sex was the thing to do. Being from repressed Jewish homes, actual sex was out. The girls wouldn’t do it, and the guys didn’t want to do it. Many of them probably couldn’t have done it. The cabins were open spaces with bunk-beds arranged along the walls. You could have rolled around in a field, but the grass was always cut short. One guy had gone off to the woods with his girlfriend, and had been bitten on the scrotum by a black fly.

And these beds rocked. The metal frames were about forty years old, and it was all a guy could do to hang a sheet over the front and move just enough so that the thing wouldn't creak. Then someone me jumped in and shoved a straw broom onto exposed skin. It was fun for everyone.

All this as a circuitous way to introduce my story of two fifteen-year-olds trying to give and receive in a dark, empty cabin. It was late in the day, during the free period before dinner, and the blood was flowing. I’ll say this: we were both willing. Sunlight was streaming through the windows we curtained with beach towels, and dust motes revolved through the close air like we were sitting in a chalk mine.

Why didn’t it work? It was a problem I’d actually heard about from the hose-cocked friend, the one with the legitimate mantle as “experienced.” Though there were showers in the cabins, the days at camp were long. And hot. It had been 105 that day, and I’d played basketball. She’d gone sailing in the lake, and had tipped over, twice. She had not changed her clothes.

But we didn’t know. This was a mutual first, and that particular aspect of the act just hadn’t occurred to me. The same was true for her. We were thinking about one sense, not two. Or three. Or four.

She went first. To give her credit, she persevered. At that stage of my life it wasn’t exactly a time-consuming process.

Fair is fair. When my turn came I was excited. I was ready…And, for crissakes, do you know…Lake water…Lake water ferments. It’s a weird chemical process that you shouldn’t try to understand. But lake water is neither pure nor benign. And when it’s a hundred degrees outside, and when you’re a woman and you’ve been wearing a bathing suit all afternoon…

The sensations remain with me to this day. I bought a shaving cream a couple years ago. And as I was lathering my face, I smelled something. I was on the floor, head between my knees, taking deep breaths. Saliva was flowing in my mouth. I couldn’t stop spitting.

So that was my first real sexual experience; my first real sexual horror story. There have been others, but nothing as scarring as that late-summer afternoon. I can laugh about it now. But I lost weight that summer.
All Posts On This Site Are Intended As Juvenalian Satire. If They Veer Into Horatian Satire, That's OK Too. Just, Please, Don't Take Them Too Seriously. PhD Students Can't Afford Libel Suits. CUPE Doesn't Cover Court Costs.
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