Friday, May 30, 2008

Taking Alice Munro to See "Sex and the City: The Movie"

It's tough to say how many Candace Bushnell books Alice Munro's read. I'm tempted to say three: Four Blondes, Lipstick Jungle, and the original Sex and the City novel. I can see Alice turning the pages, reading, thinking, "Oh, yes. Soooooooo true."

So with the Sex and the City movie coming out tonight, I wondered, logically, what it would be like to take Munro to Silver City Eglinton. What it'd be like to stand in line with her; have a vodka martini with her; share an extra-small popcorn.

First, the line:

Alice: So many people.

David: Do they make you nervous?

Alice: I feel so underdressed. Such beautiful prints.

David: Florals are in this year.

Alice: Look at what I'm wearing.

David: You look fine.

Alice: But look at their shoes. Red. Look at those heels!

David: Your shoes are fine.

Alice: They're so old.

David: Don't be silly. You just made them last week.

Then, inside the theatre:

David: Samantha really pisses me off.

Alice: I love her.

David: Really?

Alice: I think we could spend all day eating lunch, talking. She's so vital.

David: She actually reminds me of you.

Alice: Really?

David: Yeah. See how she chews her nails.

Finally, the drive home:

David: Well, that was fun. What about you? Did you have a good time?

Alice: I had a great time.

David: That's good. We should do it again.

Alice: I don't know. I have a lot of reading to do.

David: That can always wait.

Alice: I have so much writing to do.

David: That can always wait.

Alice: I've got plans with Margaret. But she can come with us!

David: ...Well, if you're busy...

Yeah, I'm sure that's how it'd be.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Checking Out Neil Smith's Bang Crunch For The First Time

We're all prisoners of Canadian literature. And I say that knowing anyone who reads this blog has probably taken specific steps to arrive at this page.

A Google search for "Neil Smith" nets 680,000 results. Impressive...if you don't know Neil Smith the soccer player; or Neil Smith the (once) NHL GM. There's even Neil Smith the geographer.

Then there's Neil Smith the Canadian writer. A few months ago I read a review of Bang Crunch in The Toronto Star. It was a near-rave. But, caught up as I was in My Lovely Enemy, the paper ended up holding peanut shells.

Then a couple days ago I asked a friend to recommend a good Canadian book; something new that I hadn't read; something by someone (hopefully) young and (maybe) good. She recommended Smith. I went to the library, picked up the book, and took it home.

I enjoyed most of Smith's stories. He worked with a kind of naive intelligence that made me wonder how fast he wrote. He seems, from reading his stuff, like a guy who belts out drafts in a quarter of an hour. And he does something that all good writers do: modulate their voice(s) to make you wonder how this shit got published. Then, in the next sentence, you realize it's the character speaking, not the writer. Writer = coherent, literate; character = incoherent, not funny. Green Fluorescent Protein is clearly his best story. A sentence before the touch, I realized, "He's gay." That Smith could lead me to that point is a testament to his skill as a writer.

I wonder why he wrote Extremities. It's funny that all the other stories were Journey Prize selections, but Extremities, a vanity piece, is just something he managed to place.

But this isn't really about Smith.

When I opened its cover, I noticed that I was the first person to check out Bang Crunch. This happens to me all the time. I find a good Canadian book, sidle up to it, take it to the counter, and sign it out. Invariably--if its anywhere near new--I'll be the one to break its maiden. I guess I'm the book deflowerer. The Canadian book deflowerer.

I'm getting increasingly dazed as I notice the traffic trickling into this site. I'm not making any claim for its amazing design or content, but how many people are blogging about Russell Smith, Frank Davey, or Robert Lecker? Few if any. And still, no hits.

Let me take another step back: I don't mean that you, the reader, should be landing here; I mean the writer. Or the writer's agent. Or the guy teaching the writer's book. I feel like I'm pissing in the middle of an open field.

But now I realize what's happening: no one reads Canadian books. I keep checking out W.O. Mitchell's Who Has Seen the Wind for thesis- and MRP-related research. I finally realized that I had a copy...but, let's move past that. In sixty years (it was published in 1947) seven people had signed out that book. And I'd taken it four times. So three people had read it. (Four, if you include me.)

Other books whose library relationship I consummated: Muriella Pent, everything by Jason Sherman, everything by Emma Richler, Hey Nostradamus! (which Coupland must've written on a bus), The Petty Details of So and So's Life, Fugitive Pieces, My Present Age (another winner (wink)), Mouthing the Words (just to size her up), The Big Why, and Dr. Delicious. Everything else had been checked out once, twice, three times.

How is this happening? I know people don't read, but university-level English students must, on occasion, feel like giving it a try. I remember an undergraduate course; I remember the first day. The professor stood at the front of the class: "Name a Canadian writer." I felt like shit. You know why? Because even I couldn't get past Richler, Laurence, Atwood. And this was four years ago. So we're all guilty.

The same friend who recommended Bang Crunch is in the enviable position of getting free books. But the library is free. That's why I raid it so often. But I feel like I'm stealing sand, dirt. These books have no commercial value. There's no demand for them. Yesterday I checked out Billy Crystal's 700 Sundays. No one else had. Then I got Nora Ephron's Crazy Salad. Do people even know who Nora Ephron is?

But I want to keep this confined to Canadian writers--people who, on a good day, have just enough personality to open an automatic door. No one's reading them. A Canadian best-seller: 5,000 copies. Or at least Lecker says so.

That's why I write like Philip Roth. Right. See me smiling?

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Haunted By The Ghost Of Michael Winter

This afternoon I saw an ad for a movie called The Strangers. It was a typical ghost story: A family's killed; another family moves into their home; the former family returns from the dead to get the home back. (Good luck; hope they had title insurance.) Anyway, the exact same thing happened to my grandfather. A few years ago he'd gone to an estate sale; he picked up a few things. A week later the dead couple came looking for their two-stroke lawnmower.

"I don't have it," he told them. "I sold it."

"You sold it?" they said. "Well, get it back, dammit."

"I can't. All sales final."

"Then steal it!"

"From my grandson!"

The whole thing reminded me of a time when I was, in fact, hounded by a ghost. I was sleeping one night--it was an ordinary, average May night/early morning--when there was a knock at my window. I woke up. I'd been having a strange dream in which Mordecai Richler and I were acting in a CBC production of Jack and the Beanstalk. Richler was The Giant, and I was Jack. Florence was there too--she was cleaning the windows.

I raised the blinds and looked outside.

"Let me in," a voice said.

"Who is it?"

"I'm a ghost."

I couldn't believe it. "What do you want?"

"I wanna borrow a book."

I opened the window. There, sitting on the sill, was Michael Winter.

"Shouldn't you be in Newfoundland?" I asked.

"You know who I am?" He paused. "Dad?"

"No...No. You've lived in my professor's house...I've read your stuff. I'm ABD. English." I paused. "'s not so bad?"



"Oh, right. Well...It's like meeting Alice Mun--I can't believe you know who I am."

"I have all your books."

"Oh, right," he said. "I remember you from a signing. Chapters at Yonge and Dundas."

"Actually, Goodwill's Buy The Pound at Jarvis and Adelaide. Hardcovers two bucks; softcovers a quarter."

"You know I don't get any royalties for that."

"Really? The guy behind the counter in the fun fur jacket said that you did.”

“Well, he lied.”

We looked at each other.

“So,” I said. “You want a book?”

“Yeah. You don’t have any kimchi, do you? ‘Cause I could really—“

“No kimchi.”

“Seaweed? You got any seaweed?”


“I’ll haunt you, you know.”

“I didn’t even know you were dead.”

“Technically I’m not. I’m just in Calgary.”

So we sat and talked for a while. He wanted Saul Bellow’s Herzog. Of course I had it. “Goodwill again. A quarter.”

A few days later he came back. Another knock at the window. And there he was, again, holding the book.

“Christ!” he said, throwing it down. It bounced off the roof, landing on my lawn. “You know what this is? This is Barney’s Version. I can’t believe it. He stole the whole thing.”

“Yeah, that’s what The New York Times said.”

“Well, I can’t believe it. I’m really disillusioned now. How can I believe in anything.”

“You’ve got the afterlife.”

“I’m not really dead.”

“No kidding.”

“I’ve got fines at the library,” he said. “You’re the only one in this city who reads.”

“The only Jew.”

“No, no. That’s not true. I just got a first-edition Harold Robbins from your neighbour.”

“So,” I said. “What’re you going to do now?”

“I guess I’ll go home and write. I’ve got a great idea about a rabbi who solves crimes.”

“I’d read it.”

“I’ll let you know when it’s published.” He started inching his way down the gable, then stopped and looked back. “Anansi’s interested in rabbi stuff right now. ‘Anything with a yarmulke,’ they told me.”

And that was it. I never heard from him again. But it was only three days ago, so we’ll see what happens.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

CBC's Horseman: I Like My Protagonists Ugly

Yesterday, while reading Mr Sammler's Planet, I started thinking about shoes. I don't know why. Big, red shoes. Patent leather, with huge brass buckles. I like Saul Bellow, but he can't hold my attention. Henderson was almost as bad as The Order of Things. They're books you should get the gist of. They're the kind of stories/analyses that, if a friend tried to corner you and explain their significance, you'd break his toe with heel.

Then, for some reason, I started thinking about Mordecai Richler. How bad The Acrobats was; how bad A Choice of Enemies was. And how much better is his later work.

This was supposed to be a break from thesis writing. It was supposed to be relaxing.

I changed subjects.

How disappointing was the CBC's adaptation of Richler's St Urbain's Horseman? I didn't even have a problem with their script. I liked the focus on the the trial, and it was certainly long enough to include the better parts of the story. But the actors were all too good-looking. They were incredibly attractive. David Julian Hirsh, who plays Jake, looks like an American Idol finalist. And Michael Riley's too urbane to be Harry. He looks like Guy Pearce's British uncle.

And Liane Balaban as Jenny? Wow. I guess that's the kind of girl David Hirsh'd get. Richler? Not so much.

And, of course, I'm wading into the biographical fallacy. But I'm not sure the book/movie works with attractive characters. Jake's supposed to be a gritty kid from Jewish Montreal. He looks like he took the first yacht out from All My Children. I couldn't shake the feeling that I was watching a Soap. Everything was so clean, crisp, and digital.

Harry was supposed to be a rat-like pervert, chewing his 'nails and washing his face with a dish towel. Instead he was Edward Norton.

But maybe that's just the reaction of someone who has read the novel a few times. It just couldn't mesh with psychical image I'd created.

But I really think Hollywood/CBC (a likely pair) adaptations of novels do too much to re-cast the text. Unless it's a Sophie Kinsella novel, all the characters should be ugly. Period. Or, if not ugly, at least average. Normal. Character actors should take all the title roles; the facemen should be on the fringes. Otherwise you get Keira Kinghtley and Matthew Macfadyen in Pride and Prejudice. With those two leads it should've been a porno flick. It'd take about five pages for them to get together, and another 300 to get their clothes back on.

As an aside, Jane Austen was not an attractive woman. Neither was George Eliot. But Susan Sontag wasn't bad. I wonder whom they'd cast for Trip to Hanoi.

Back to the thesis.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Al Purdy Gets A Statue In Queen's Park

I didn't post yesterday. Hundreds of people flooded my inbox. They wanted to know why. What was I doing? Where was I? Another question was kind of funny. "Remember," it started, "when Roots jackets were cool? You know, the ones with the leather sleeves and the last two digits of the year stitched onto the shoulder? I think it was a patch."

Yeah, I do remember. I remember going down to the Roots flagship store in my grandfather's Lincoln Touring Car. I think it was somewhere in Yorkville. As I'm remembering it now, it seemed like the Toronto version of the MOMA. And whom did I see there that day? Al Purdy. I was only ten, but it was Al Purdy. I still have the autograph. You think I'd throw out a Loblaws bill?

This all came back to me this morning when I saw a picture of Purdy's statue being unveiled. It was Page Two of The Toronto Star. There was no story--just a picture and a caption. Because that's how important Al Purdy is. (And I'm sure a ton of Star reporters know AP and his work. I can't even open the Stargazing section without seeing a Purdy quote.)

If it were Atwood there would've been a story. And a black and white picture...(You mean that's colour? Jesus...) But certainly a story.

I was interested to see how the sculptor had dealt with Purdy's hair. The man had the worst haircut in the history of Canadian writing. I think he styled it with canola oil. I've always wondered if he cut it himself. A friend once told me Purdy used to sit on his front porch and wait for a child to walk by. "Hey," Purdy would say to the kid, "wanna make a quick quarter?"

"A quick buck? Sure," the kid would say.

"Fuck off, kid. I said a quarter."

And, when the haggling was over, Purdy would have his haircut. (The kid would have an NSF cheque.)

But the statue's hair was very nice. In fact the entire casting--a huge, ten-foot bronze--was smartly done. There's Al, looking east, bent over, huddled, struggling with a composition. "This next one's gonna make a million bucks," he's thinking. "It'll sell 500,000 for sure."

"I wonder what it's like to do Dallas."

If you're a Purdy fan, take a look at the Margaret Laurence fonds at York University's archive. There are a few candid letters from Purdy to Laurence in which the former trashes his students, Canadian universities, and a handful of Canadian writers. It's great reading. Al was a talented man who stole stationery from every hotel and roadhouse in Canada. It's fun just as a documentary project.

You know, we really ought to have a monument park (Yankees reference) of Canadian writers. There'd be Richler with his middle finger flipped, Laurence in a caftan, a bunch of guys (Kroetsch, Richardson, etc.) paddling canoes, Brian Moore beating his son (or someone's son, I guess), and Gabrielle Roy with her legs open.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Margaret Atwood Uses Drama Clean Shampoo

I'm at a point in my life where I don't believe happiness is possible. I don't believe success is possible. Don't even ask me for a poached egg.

Maybe it's this process of thesis writing. I'd love to be Heather Horton, alone in the country in a fieldstone house. Instead I'm in downtown Toronto in an apartment advertised for its proximity to Chicago: "Only 1,200 Clicks Away!"

Does anyone even know who Heather Horton is? I can see her illustrating a Lisa Moore book. "That's good Heather, but can you open her wrists just a bit more? Yeah, just a bit more. Can you put in some sinew? Yeah, that's good."

Maybe this is my polysyndeton phase. That doesn't really work for a thesis: "And then Frank Davey wrote Canadian Literary Power and it was published with a Canada Council grant and how he got the grant I do not [no contractions allowed] know and how I'll get the grant he doesn't know and he's [fuck that] much shorter in person."

Yesterday I was in a Shoppers at Yonge and Marlborough--deep in the heart of Rosedale--and I saw Margaret Atwood buying shampoo. I guess she was out of egg whites and mayonnaise. And I eyed her. For some reason Atwood is my enemy. I'm like Saul Bellow trying to unseat Howard Fast. And I don't even write fiction. But, god, if I were as talented as Vincent Lam...

And she bought Herbal Essences. It was Herbal Essences in a new, curved bottle. I know because I swooped in after her and bought the same shampoo. I bought eight bottles, just so I wouldn't look conspicuous. (I'm including the link to the HE website just in case any grad student's reading this. I know you wash your hair with bar soap. Really, you think I don't know what Irish Spring smells like?)

It was the name of the shampoo that got me: Drama Clean. Fitting, right. I'm a bit dramatic. Queen--not so much. (I'm much more of a Papa. Only I don't own a gun.) But Drama Clean shampoo for Canada's Drama Queen writer. And I didn't even know you washed wigs.

I figure it'll get worse from here. And what better outlet than a blog no one reads. Although I am getting interest from Douglas Gibson. He thinks I sell bowties. I told him I don’t use prepositions outside of academic writing. It spoils the pace. He said, “Fine, just as long as you’ve got one with polka dots.”

And Heather Horton's got talent. That's no joke.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

SSHRC Funding: 20% Luck; 80% Spit or Swallow

Everyone hates begging the government for money. But as a graduate student you've got to do it. You've got to get on your knees, open your wrists, cry, and beg. You've got to kiss feet, kiss ass--if it's red or pink you've got to lip it. And although the more oral penetration the better, some things you just squeeze lightly between the lips and hum. A few times you'll get the money, sometimes you'll get hoof and mouth. But it's all worth it, right? Well, if that $35 K cheque is coming in the mail, then, yes, it's all worth it.

Thirty-five thousand? you ask. No, it can't be that much. How about $100,000 over three years to study metpahors or disunity in Quebecois poetry? How about $100,000 over three years to study images of South Asians in contemporary Manitoban fiction. (Note: There isn't anything they can't pick.)

How about a hundred grand to take a look at Robertson Davies's deployment of horse shoes?

I know, I know. It's not enough. Maybe if it were something good--a real golden project--you could land $150,000. Depictions of aberrant sexuality in Maritime outport fiction? Only if you leave the fish fucking out.

But, to be serious for a minute, the SSHRC serves a legitimate purpose: it feeds graduate students, it houses graduate students; it gives them money to do things like cut their bangs, buy new jeans, and pay library fines. I know that most just braid or pull back their hair, wear shitty old jeans, and extend their loans for eight months. But at least they have the option of stroking the GDP.

Of course those are the ones who get the grants. Not everyone does. (Unless you go to UofT, then you just follow the yellow brick road to cash your first cheque. In 2007, 264 UofT graduate students applied for government grants; 262 got money. What about the other two? One had to go back to Finland, and the other's application was short postage. That, ordinarily, would've been fine--but he sent the thing to Consumer's Gas.)

I have an SSHRC grant. Let me just say that. I'll tell you what I use it for: Last Christmas I took a cruise to Monaco. A few weeks ago I bought new tires. Then I rented a cottage for a homeless guy. He kept asking me how he was supposed to get there. "That's not my problem," I said.

Who doesn't get government money? Being on the inside of the machine, I can tell you exactly who'll be sleeping on a Bay Street grate next academic year. If you've got a B+, you're out. And don't write anything about loving books. That's bad. I know a guy who, at the end of his application, wrote, "I have always loved reading, and will continue to celebrate my passion for critical inquiry." The next day he had his GAship pulled. "What'd I do?" he asked the programme director at his school. "Don't take it personally," the director said, "but your enthusiasm could be contagious."

Also, don't try to be funny. Saying something like, "As Derrida might write, 'fgdsfgdsfgsd,'" won't earn you any friends. You'll be shopping in Kensington Market. For food.

See ya at the MLA.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Children of Famous Academics Part 1: Murray Foucault

Some people like to sit around and talk about Michel Foucault. I know a young married couple who had an Order of Things-themed wedding. It started at six o'clock Saturday afternoon and ended when everyone stopped talking.

Foucault's been dead for twenty-plus years, but his work's just as relevant today as it was, say, in 2004. So he'll always be remembered. In fact, I had an undergraduate friend who vowed that he’d never forget The Archaeology of Knowledge. It was the book he’d read just before his father died. “Gee, what a day,” he told me. “First that, now this.”

But what about Murray Foucault? Murray Foucault, Michel's son, doesn't have his pop's literary credibility. Once, Murray claims, he tried to write a book: "I couldn't get past the first page." Then he tried to dictate a book: "I couldn't even get out a word." Then he tried to buy a book: "They wouldn't even take my money! They tried to trick me into stealing! I said, 'That's it! The Geneva Public Library has lost Murray Foucault's business. For good!"

Murray Foucault doesn't have Michel's talent for puzzles. Murray Foucault doesn't even have a cell-phone. So what does Murray Foucault have?

"I'll say this about me and my dad: I've got a beautiful head of hair."

A few months ago Murray gave an interview with The Sewanee Review in which he explained the difficulties inherent in being a Great Man's son:

"People expect me to be smart," he said, "but it's not that way at all. Sure, I'm my father's son. But people don't know he was a great card player. People don't know that. They only know the smart stuff. So it's always, 'Yeah, Murray, you're a fine Hearts player. But was Plato right?'"

You've got to feel for the guy. "I don't even like Sartre," he told his interviewer. "Simon...Simon's my favourite. Always has been, always will be. You wanna see smart! You wanna see insights and powerful thoughts! Simon. I'm telling you--Simon." He waved his hands. "But I think the whole thing's fixed. You wanna tell me that David Archuleta came in off the street? Please. If you believe that, I've got a bridge I'm willing to sell ya."

He continued: "I grew up in a house with all these books, but did anyone ever read me a story? OK, OK. Once. And," here he paused, "to this day I still don't know if The Royal Porcupine was Dennis Lee. I kept asking pop, and all he would say was, 'Mur, open another bottle of wine. Open another bottle of wine, Mur. I was eight years old! 'White or red?' I'd ask.

"For my tenth birthday he bought me an hourglass. When I was eleven I got a lock. Finally, when I was twelve, he gave me the combination."

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

TAs I Know Who've Slept With Students, and The Grades They Gave

I know a guy named George who's slept with four of his students. He's a TA in my department, and he considers himself somewhat of a stud. It could be his hooves; it could be his tendency to mount three year olds. Either way he's a "lover."

Last year he slept with two of his students. Both were undergraduates in his American Novel class; both were thin, athletic, and ran a mile and a quarter in two flat. One was a roan, one was a chestnut brunette. Both were absolutely gorgeous.

I wanted to ask him how de did it, but, before I got a chance, he told me. "David," he said, "who are you screwing?"

"No one."

"Why not?"

"No one's asked."

He laughed at me. "But you're teaching that Canadian Mennonite, wheat and dirt class."

"Prairie fiction. Right, I am. So?"

"So what are you waiting for?"

"I haven't even handed back their first-term essays."

He paused. "Oh. You have to hand those back. But here's what you do: Take the essay of the prettiest girl in your class; give her an F."

"Why an F?" I asked.

"Because with a D she'll try to do better next time. She'll read; she'll study; she'll go to the Centre for Academic Writing and learn to write. But with an F she has to fuck you."

Gee...Flawless reasoning.

"I don't think so," I said. "I'm not taking advantage of anyone like that. It's awful."

"Don't be an asshole, David. They want it. Why do you think they take your class?"

"Because it's the only one on Monday that starts after eight a.m," I said.

"Because they want you to give it to them!" he yelled, jabbing me in the shoulder.

"George," I said, "they don't even want to sit beside me."

At that point George had to leave to go teach a class. He told me to meet him outside of the room in an hour, after the tutorial was over. I figured I'd take a thirty minutes and go for lunch. I was sitting outside, eating a turkey sandwich, when a student cornered me with his thoughts on Saul Bellow's childhood. By the time he got to Bellow's bar mitzvah an hour had passed and I was late for my meeting with George. "Fuck him," I thought, and walked to his classroom. When I walked through the door there he was, on his knees, smelling an empty chair.

"You just missed her," he said.

"Missed whom?"

"My lover."

"No, I think I saw her in the hall. Blue rayon pants? Gray hair?"

"She was sitting right here," he said, pointing to the chair beside which he was kneeling.

"And she dropped a contact lens?"

He got up. "We're meeting tonight. I'm going to help her with her term paper. Silly girl." George said things like that: Silly Girl. He was from Alberta. "She wants to go to law school. You can't do that with a D."

"A D?" I asked. "I thought you said an F worked the best?"

"First an F; then a D. Once they get the D, they don't ever want to go back."

I wish I could say that George got caught and was booted out of the programme. That's not the case; he's still there. And students seem to like him. I don't know why. Maybe it's because he has such long fingers.

Monday, May 12, 2008

What The Hell's Hannah Moscovitch Doing Being Jewish In Toronto, Canada?

I saw Hannah Moscovtich's East of Berlin; I liked it. Toronto papers were touting the Ottawa writer as the newest, greatest thing. Canadian theatre could use her--a nice, Jewish playwright. Everyone was so excited: Could this be it? Could this be the Jew we've waited seven years for? (Richler died in 2001. Since then they've been trying to tell us that Stephen Marche is the new Canadian Mel Brooks. Do we need to insert a tube in Neil Simon's vas deferens, jerk him off into a can of Vernor's, then set up an injection clinic at Mount Pleasant and Bloor? I guess this is Year Seven of Forty in the Canadian desert. No one listens...)

Then the Jewish News found her. Her name's Moscovitch; her bat mitzvah picture was in Lifestyles, it wasn't hard. Suddenly she was a star. I asked my mentor, a Canada Research Chair, if he'd ever heard of her. "Who?" he asked. "From the Woody Allen movie?"

"No, the Canadian playwright," I said. "A big success."

"Are you sure she's Jewish?"

"Well, I've never met her--"

"You're Jewish," he shot back.

"I am," I said.

"Give her a call."

"Sure. Just let me get this matzo out of the oven."

"Hey, I think I met her, actually."

"You did?" I asked.

"Yeah. But I don't think she's Jewish...At least I didn't smell anything."

The Russian Play and Essay were both good. So now what?

Good luck to you, Hannah. You're Jewish in Toronto. You're a Jewish writer in Toronto. I'd rather be Germaine Greer's manicurist. I've got lessons to impart. I'm twenty-three, I'm a Canadian writing specialist, and I know our last Canadian Jew right down to Nathan Cohen. Now that's a statement. There's nothing here for Jewish writers; there never has been; there never will be. Every time Jane Urquhart publishes another Canadian best-seller, a Jewish Canadian Jewish writer turns his/her Buick into traffic. (I know she's dead, but that doesn't stop Atwood.) Or, worse, she goes to Hollywood.

And people will say that a good writer, Jewish or otherwise, can make his/her living in this city. S/he can publish; s/he can put it on stage. Adele Wiseman did it. Marian Engel did it. You know that Engel bought so many razor blades that, at one point, Gillette's CEO called her thinking she was their northern distributor? But we've had one funny Jew--an asshole named Mordecai. Want to know how he felt about Canada and Canadians? Eat a broken Crown Royal bottle, then take a Lomatil. That's how he felt.

For crissakes, Moscovitch's Holocaust play's already been written. She's done the campus thing. What's next? What can she do? A Jew in Alberta? A Jew trying to start his own bottle-your-own-wine business? Just wait and see. Jews get one chance in this country. And we're 2.5% of the population. And my father hasn't read a book in thiry years. See where this is going?

The more I think about this, the more rational I get. Every time I read another Louise Erdrich book I save an extra sleeping pill. D.Y. Bechard won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize...Isn't there anyone in this goddamn country who'll take a Jew off the slush pile?

[INT. Publisher's Office. Reader takes MS off an ungodly pile.]

Reader: "What's this? [Reading.] 'By Jonathan Cohen.'"

[Enter Reader 2.]

Reader 2: "What've you got there, Mary?"

Reader: "Oh, hey Chris. It's a book by some Jew. But I'm just on my way to lunch. Can I borrow your F150? I'm going down to get a mayo sub."

Reader 2: "Sure. And leave the MS in there; I lost one of my floor mats. [Beat.] Hey, how was Communion yesterday?"

Zi gezunt. Muzeldick. These goyim down speak Yiddish. So luzem gayne. It'd be easier to say if I didn't want to make a living in this shtuet. Let them Google. Hannah...We'll see what happens.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

A Typical Canadian Love Scene

Robert Lecker's based his life on the notion/fact/reality that a Canadian book which goes over the counter 5,000 times is a true-blood best-seller. Five. Thousand. Gordon Ramsay's Fucking Famous Kitchen Mosaics sold more copies.

Being born in Canada's the worst thing that could happen to a writer or artist. Charlie Pachter does some really nice stuff with the moose, but around the world that's seen with the same grace as stars-and-stripes-rimmed sunglasses.

It's worse for a writer. Thank god I don't write fiction, because I'd start looking for heavier and heavier bar bells to lift. A friend wanted to write a book about a Canadian comedy writer trying to pinball his way through the CBC ranks in the late-'70s. It was a What Makes Sammy Run kind of thing. He showed it to me, and it was very funny. "It's good," I said, "but you can't have all these Tommy Douglas gags. OK, so maybe one James Cross joke is fine, but you've got a whole chapter on Pierre Laporte. How do you think that'll play in Tennessee?"

"I don't know," he said. "I think they'll love it. I hear Bourassa's huge down there."

But no one was interested. Because Americans don't care about the CBC; they don't know what the hell it is. But show a guy screwing around MGM and you've got a book everyone understands. So the question becomes Why represent Canada in Canadian fiction? To aspire to a readership that could fit on a single subway car? No thanks.

That's why I have so much respect for Doug Coupland. I don't even really like his writing. He's good--I'm not criticizing his talent. (I don't live in the basement, so it's not my taste.) Yet he's actually been published. How? God only knows. I'm sure his father's an MP--maybe a senator. He could know Bennett Cerf's grandson. He's one Canadian writer who's deviated from the traditional way of depicting Canadian lust.

Here's how it's always been.

[A man named John and a woman named Kate are floating down a river in a canoe. They beach the canoe, get out, and sit on the 'bank.]

John: My father wants me to go into the family business. "Times are changing, Dad," I told him. You want to tell me the last time you bought a sugar beet? Why can't we grow apples? Pears?

Kate: My mother wants me to become a teacher. That's fine. You meet a lot of nice boys. But I'm such a fantastic writer and so fine at English. Mr MacArthur telled me so right after he boughted me that Ten-E-son. Oh, maybe it was because I just devoured books. First I'd read one, then another, then another. OK--so I've read three. But, clearly, I have talent. Maybe I should run away. That's worked. I'm neurotic, bland, and self-involved, right? I could do it. Remember when I almost got raped by that vacuum salesman?

John: Ms Christian said it was the best show and tell she'd ever seen.

Kate: I've never gotten over that. I could write...

John: I'm torn between the farm and the city. But I'm tired of wearing jeans.

Kate: That's nothing. I have a terrible family secret that I've been hiding all my life.

John: Who doesn't.

Kate: Really?

John: Sure.

Kate: I'll guess yours if you guess--.

John: Raped by a family member?

Kate: Be more specific.

John: The vacuum--

Kate: He wasn't a relation.

John: Your uncle?

Kate: Yeah, but that's not the one I'm thinking of.

John: ...Your father.

Kate: You cheated!

John: Hey! Hey!...I just watched.

Kate: Fine. Now it's my turn. Does it have anything to do with an illegitimate child?

John: No clues.

Kate: Were you conceived out of wedlock?

John: Damn! But that was easy! How'd you know?

Kate: I've always noticed a far-away look in your mother's eyes.

John: Yeah. Well, what do you want to do now?

Kate: I don't know. Screw?

John: OK. But let's wait a couple of minutes; I think it's about to start raining. And there was a swan that we passed a few yards back. Wait for it to dive or fly away or something.

Friday, May 9, 2008

My Trip to Montgomery and the White People I Saw

My grandparents spend their winters in Florida. Can you believe that? Jews in Florida. "It's the real Jewish state," my grandfather likes to tell me. "Fuck Israel. I need all that sand?"

Well, that's the kind of family I'm in.

Last December I was driving down to Fort Lauderdale for the Christmas break. I had three weeks to mark freshman essays and get some colour. White people who live in Toronto tend to look malnourished around late-December. It's just the lack of sex and natural sunlight. We call it Lisa Moore-chic.

So I was driving down through the States, enjoying the South, when I decided to get off I-95 and head through Alabama. I had enough pecans. Everything south of Chattanooga is pecan country. I wanted a Brazil nut. I wanted an orange. I wanted some strange fruit. So I turned into Alabama.

I wouldn't say there are many Jews in Montgomery. Actually, there's an old joke about that. A guy drives into town and asks where all the Chinese people are. "Ain't no Chinese," says a local, rocking on his porch. The guy asks where all the Mexicans are. "Ain't no Mexicans," says the local. Finally the guy asks where all the Jews are. "Jews?" says the local, pointing to an old, weathered poplar. "Well, there's a tree they tend to hang out at."

But it's not like that; not at all. I pulled into Montgomery around three in the afternoon. It's a big city with paved streets, telephone poles, and antebellum storefronts. The racism's all gone.

I was thirsty and hungry, so I walked into a T.G.I.Friday's. That's an American chain restaurant; a family-style place with lots of nostalgic quirk. The waitress seated me, and handed me a menu. She was a beautiful blonde with long nails and flawless skin.

"Can I get you anything to drink?" she asked.

"Just water" I said.

"OK. Sorry we don't have any blood for you?"


"You drink Christian blood, don't you?"

"Well, not usuall--"

"Because we're fresh out."

"That's fine. Just water, please."

"We got Negro blood in the back."

"Negro blood? No. No, thanks. Just water," I said.

"Well, I guess even Jews gots standards."

The water came.

"Cold enough for you?" she asked.

"It's perfect. Thank you."

"Sure you don't need no special blessing?"


"From one of those singin' hat men with the long hair."

"No, it's just water. I'm not Kosher. No rabbi needed."

"Rib-eye? You know, I'm Catholic. Oh, yeah. Don't know much about rib-eyes. Well, are you ready to order?"

"Yeah," I said. "I'll have the burger and fries. With a side of potato skins." Friday's potato skins are legendary.

"Those skins cost extra," she said.

"I know. Don't worry--I brought lots of shells."

"I mean extra money."

"But they're real shiny...What about wampum?"

"Hey," she said, pointing to the door. "Look at this." There was a young black man with his arm around a young white woman. She appeared to be pregnant. "Ain't that a shame. Now you wouldn't go and do anything like that?"

"I don't know. He's kinda tall for me." I can sense when I'm in a vaudeville skit. There was no need to let her know I was straight. And it was kind of fun.

"A queer yid! I never..."

"You mean there are no gay Jews in Alabama?"

"There were."

"Well, I'm just kidding. I'm not gay," I said. "My girlfriend's at home sewing hoods."

"I knew it. My mama taught me how to spot queers," she said.

"Who taught her?" I asked.

"My father."

"He sounds like a terrific man."

"No, he just liked it up the ass."

She left to place my order. About ten minutes later she came back with a plate of food. She placed it in front of me, I ate, and I asked for the cheque. As soon as I paid I got up and walked toward the door.

"Hey," I heard a voice behind me. It was the waitress. "You forgot your change!"

"No," I said. "That's a tip."

"I don't know what to say. Won't people like to hear about this!"

"Don't forget to tell the Pope," I said, "when you see him this Sunday."

Kind of makes Toronto seem a little dull.

Another Rejection Letter and The Highly Recommended Prostitute and Sex In The Library

Rejection letters are foreplay. That's what my ex used to say. "David, why so rough? That unbuttons, David! David, that's my shoulder...Oh, which one was it? Was it Fiddlehead? Was it Fiddlehead, David?"

Yesterday's "Fuck you, but no thanks" was a little tough to take. About three years ago I'd sent in a short story to The New Yorker. I did it as a joke; I never expected them to print something called "What'll Happen to Philip Roth's Stuff When He Dies?" I thought for sure I'd have to change the title.

But it was rejected. Outright.

Why this one hurt more than others is difficult to say. It could've been because, with the end of the academic year, life's kind of slowed down. It could've been because my dad's new book is looking like a Canadian best-seller: 5,000 copies sold and two CBC appearances. It doesn't get much bigger than that.

People might be wondering why, if I'm the son of a writer, can't I pull a string, tug on my father's balls, and get Anne McDermid to shop me around. That's usually how it works, right? Otherwise who would've heard of Menachem Philip Grove?

But dad says NO! Nepotism's taboo in our house. "You sink or swim on your own," he told me.

"What the hell am I?" I asked, "a witch?" I liked the sink or swim bullshit, so I kept going. "With enough rocks in your pockets even you'd stay on the bottom."

"What are you saying, David?"

"I'm saying I'm going to live a long and healthy life. And thank god I've got a waterproof watch."

Anyway, that's all tired family bickering. That's all we do: fight. We'd just been trading insults Thursday afternoon, which was why I was so down when the rejection slip slithered into my mailbox.

"Why spend the rest of the day writing?" I thought. "No publisher'd ever handle a Jew from Toronto--I've got to move to Penticton."

So I called a hooker.

There's a new "ebrothel" running on my campus, and it's been getting great reviews. They recruit men and women from the undergraduate ranks--and I've even heard of professors getting involved. You call the service, tell them your age, weight, height, favourite book, and your GPA, and they send you a man or woman likely to satisfy you intellectually and physically.

At first I felt bad calling, but the woman they sent was so grateful. "I've never met anyone who knew so much about Barbara Godard's gynocriticism," she told me. "Gee, tell me more about Jane Rule!"

The best part is no money actually changes hands; you just make a direct deposit against their tuition.

The girl they sent last night had actually been in one of my undergraduate classes. Her name was Vanessa, and she'd presented on Middleton's Women Beware Women. I thought it was a little long, but still made some lucid points.

"David, right?" she said when I turned the stack in the library. (That's where you meet--among the books.) "Wow! I don't mean to pry, but have you graded my exam yet?"

"No," I said, lying. Once I'd...and she'd had sharp teeth...and, well, let's forget about that for a minute.

"Oh...Oh well. I think I did great."

"I'm sure you did."

"No! Oh, I didn't mean that," she said, slipping her gum into a pocket Kleenex. "Please, on my merits only. So, where do you want to go? You know, to..."

"I think by the Atwoods would be good."

"Ha! That's what all men say."

I'm usually not so conventional. "OK. Fuck it. Daphne Marlatt. They've got eight copies of Ana Historic in soft cover. That shouldn't hurt too much, should it?"

"I don't know. How long is it?"

"Not very. A hundred pages or so."

"Good. Last week it was An American Tragedy, and I couldn't sit down 'til Tuesday."

"Well, then why don't we try Avison. Her chapbooks are all paper-bound."

"Wow!" she said, again. "You're kinky." We started walking through the stacks. "Let me ask you something, David," she put her hand on my forearm. "Why did you have to use three essay questions? Last year it was two plus definitions."

"It was the course director's choice," I said. "There was nothing I could do."


"No, I'm serious."

We walked over a sleeping student. Either sleeping or dead. "Here's a good place."

We stopped beside an empty carrel. I took out my wallet. "OK," she said. "Do you want the abridged version or the unexpurgated?"

"Unexpurgated. Absolutely unexpurgated."

"The Lampman or Bissett?"

"Bissett. Of course, Bissett."

"Form or content?"


"Hard cover or sof--"


"Do you want to flip the pages, or should I?"

"You probably should."

"In two volumes or one?"

"Let's try one, then two."

"I knew it!" she said, smiling. "Academics are all the same."

Now I feel like shit. Rejection ,whether it's coming from a colleague, friend, or publishing house, is actually sweet. There's something about being liked "as a friend" that feels better than smacking a beautiful woman's bare ass with Routledge's edition of Winter Sun. It doesn't always feel good to play in a fixed game--or a library. And paying for sex while leaning against a collector shelf does nothing for the ego. Especially when the girl you're with thinks rug burn is the next best thing to an orgasm.

...At least she liked my long poem.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

A Date With My Ex In Toronto

A few days ago I asked my ex if she was OK with her role on this site. She said it was fine; she could use the publicity. I asked why. She said she's got a new book coming out. Columbia's publishing division is handling it, and the pre-printing sales figures have been dismal. "Sometimes I feel like I'm wasting my life," she told me. "I'm pregnant, I've got Dennis, but I need more than that. You know what I mean."

"Sure," I said. "Everyone needs to feel successful in their career. That's normal."

"I meant money, David."

"Well, what's the book about? Maybe it'll surprise you."

"It's a complete history of asceticism, of self-denial," she said.

"So it's an impulse buy."

"They're going to put them near the register."

" lines."

"You know what, David...Go fuck yourself."

And she hung up. But she's fine with these stories, and that's all I wanted to hear. So here's another good one about her trip to Toronto in 2006.

Loren (her name) doesn't like to fly. She's afraid the plane'll crash and she'll be the sole survivor. "I couldn't deal with the guilt," she used to say. "And what if I forgot my purse?"

So I drove down to Union Station, waited for her in the Grand Concourse, and was happy to see her walking up the marble steps, trailing a rolling suitcase. "How was your trip?" I asked, shaking her hand.

"Don't get me started."

"Why? What happened?"

"We hit a cow."

"You hit a cow? You mean the train hit a cow?"

"No, David. I hit a cow. I got out and hit a cow...Yes, the train hit a cow."

"How do you know? Did they announce it?"

"I was in the front...Inthefrontofthetrain! The engineer was showing me how it worked."

"Well, that was nice of him."

"You should see how high the windows are. I had to sit on his lap just to see out."

"Sure. I guess they were out of phonebooks..."

"--And that's when we hit the cow. It was awful. Oh, I feel like I'm gonna be sick. Anyway, where are we going for dinner?"

At this point she was just a philosophy major in her last year at Yale. Graduate school at Columbia was a year away. I kept having to remind myself, "She's smarter than you, David. The tattoo's right."

I took her back to my apartment, and she took a shower, unpacked, and got dressed. I tried to get into the shower with her, but she stuck out her hand. "I've got a headache."

"Oh," I said. "Do you want an aspirin?"

"No, but lick my ass for a while."

She was a genteel girl. Gingham and ribbons, I used to say. "She's a lot like Laura Ingalls Wilder," I told people. "Only with softer hands."

Dinner was at a place called Sapore. It's an Italian restaurant around Yonge and Lawrence. It's a small, intimate kind of place--the kind of place where the maitre d' is also the owner. And he knows your name.

"Adler, table for two," I said, referencing our reservation. He led us to a table on the patio. It was a beautiful night, and the weather was perfect for al fresco dining.

"We're eating outside?" Loren asked.

"What's wrong?"

"I don't want to eat outside."

"Why not? It's gorgeous out."

"David," she said. "This city smells like shit."

And she was right. It was early spring, and the open-sewer smell of Toronto was particularly strong. So I asked politely for another table, and we were seated near the middle of the dining room.

Everything was fine until dessert.

"Would you like anything else?" the waiter asked. "Coffee, cake maybe?"

"I'll have a cup of coffee," I said.

"No you won't," Loren interjected.

"Why not?"

"Do you know what kind of beans they use?"


"Are they fair trade?"

"Why don't you ask him."

She turned to the waiter. "Is your coffee fair trade?"

"I'm sorry--I don't know."

"No coffee, David."

The waiter looked at me, very sympathetic. "Perhaps another rye."

Loren castrated him with her eyes. "He's driving."

Later that night, in bed, I tried kissing her feet. That's her favourite form of foreplay.

"No," she said. "Go to sleep."

"But I haven't seen you for three months."

"David, I'm tired. I've been up since four."

I paused for a theatrical beat. "Well maybe you should've had a cup of coffee."

She stayed for another two weeks. It's the first time a woman's ever menstruated from May 1-15, then 22-30. "What'd you need the week off for?" I asked her. "A smile?"

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Bury Me On Toronto

My grandfather teaches writing at a Jewish old folks home in Toronto. The place is called Baycrest, but I don't expect anyone to have heard of it. It's like the Nevele (Catskills reference) for Jews who're too frail to complain.

My grandfather's not a writer. Christ, imagine that: a grandfather who's a writer, a father who's a writer, and a son who's a PhD student. Net contribution to the Canadian GDP: a few pounds of sawdust and three subscriptions to Mirvish's theatre season. No, my grandfather's a retired layout artist. He designed, among other things, the packaging for Tide detergent and the Shoppers Drug Mart logo. Now he's retired and, since my grandmother's still alive, constantly looking for new ways to get out of the house.

What do old Jews write? You'd be surprised: not a helluva lot. But they like to talk about writing. "You should see what I wrote today. Oh, what I wrote." "What did you write?" "What did I write?" "Yeah, that's what I said, 'What did you write?'" "No, no, I heard you. I'm just trying to remember."

His classes run Tuesdays and every other Wednesday, and there's never an empty chair in the house. His primary function is to bring paper, pens, and a dictionary, which he's responsible for holding and looking up words. "Irwin?" (that's my grandfather's name). "How do you spell propulsion?" "P-R-O-P-U-L-S-I-O-N." "Great. Now use it in a sentence."

Sometimes he transcribes for men and women whose fingers are bent at arthritic joints. He writes seventy-five words/minute; they speak three.

"Irwin?" one student asked him.

"Yes?" my grandfather said.

"I'm not gonna be here next week."


"But I'll bring a doctor's note."

"Sure. Don't worry about it, Sid. Don't go to all that trouble."

"Trouble? It's the least he could do. You know I practically raised that sonuvabitch."

"Sure you did, Sid: he's your son."

That's the kind of thing that happens a lot down there: old Jewish man comedy. It's like vaudeville's second coming.

"Irwin?" another student asked.


"I don't have much longer to live."

"Jack, you don't know that."

"Sure I do. I'm a hundred and nine."

"Jack, you're eighty-three."

"Sure, he's eighty-three. But who cares about him? I'm a hundred and nine."

"I'm talking to you."


"I said, 'Jack.'"

"Huh. Whaddayawant?" A pause. "So here's what I want to do: I want to write my life story."

"That's great. Sure, I can help--if that's what you want."

"Great." Jack clapped his hands. "Help me what?"

"Write your life story."

"You're going to write my life story? What do you know about me?"

"We've been friends for forty years."

"When'd I meet you?"

"Forty years ago."

"Forty years ago! Well, a lot's happened since then. You met me forty years ago? I hadn't done nothin'! Nothin' then! You should've known me thirty years ago."

"Let's focus on the story, Jack. Your life story."

"Oh, sure. I've had a very interesting life, I'll tell you that. Very interesting."

"Sure you have. You were a fighter pilot in WWII; you got shot down and spent four years in a German stalag [a P.O.W. camp]; you went on the road with Bob Hope; you married four gorgeous, young centrefolds; you met Kennedy," my grandfather said, grabbing a pen and a legal pad. "Christ! You did all that!"

Jack scratched his chin. "I did?"

Jack died about four months ago, and this story has to do with the BS surrounding his interment.

Jack, as a former pilot, wanted to be dropped from a plane. He didn't want his ashes spread from a plane--he wanted his corporeal body to be dropped. "I don't want that cremation shit," he told my grandfather. "Not in my good suit."

So he instructed his family that, after death, he should be wrapped in canvas, flown over Toronto, and dropped. My grandfather overheard the following conversation between Jack and a middle-aged man.

"We can't drop you on the city," the middle-aged man said.

"Why not?" asked Jack.

"It's sick. It's illegal."

"C'mon," Jack said, waving his hand. "No one'll notice."

"What if you land in the middle of the street?"

"What are they going to do? Give me a ticket?"

"They'll send me to jail. That's what they'll do."

"With your wife, I'd be doing you a favour."

"Dad, Sheila and I are divorced."

"Good. I never liked her."

"She's your daughter!"

"Who are you?"

"Your son-in-law."

"Well...stop calling me Dad." He paused. "We'll ask Case Ootes."

For some reason Jack had convinced himself that Case Ootes held the solution to his problem; only Case Ootes could help him.

"Dad," his son Marty said. "We're burying you. That's it."

"Just try," Jack said.

And, on another occasion: "This is crazy, dad. We're not burying you on Toronto."

"Drop me on a forest. Who'll notice?"

"A forest? You want to be dropped on the Don Valley?"

"The Don Valley? Are you kidding? It's filthy."

But Jack was buried. He died, suddenly, and was planted the next day as per Jewish tradition. My grandfather saw his son at the funeral, and, after the service, led him aside.

"So, you finally won," my grandfather said, glancing at the hole in the ground.

"I'm gonna tell you something," the son said, edging closer to my grandfather. "The coffin's empty."

"Empty?" And as he spoke, a small plane buzzed overhead. "You don't mean..."

"No!" Marty said. "Christ, no." And he looked at his watch.

"Oh...oh, I'm sorry. I'm not keeping you, am I? Go. Please..."

"No. It's all right. We don't have to be at the airport 'til twelve."

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

WWII-Era Canadian Jewish Humour: Pre-Figuring The Producers?

Yesterday I was in the library looking for a copy of Jeffrey Feinman's Mel Brooks: The Irreverent Funnyman when a thick, soiled, cloth-bound book fell onto my foot. I bent over, picked it up, and read the spine: B.L. Cohen's "Jewish Humour: The War Years." The book, published in 1954 by Klopfman Press, Orangeville, Ontario, is a compendium of jokes, caricatures, and cartoons written and drawn by Canadian Jews between 1939 and 1945. I'd never heard of it before, and a quick search of ABEBOOKS and ALIBRIS shows that its print run must've been in the low single digits; you can't find it anywhere. A lot of the material was collected from WWII riflemen, sailors, and RCAF pilots and mechanics who, presumably, had a lot of spare time for drawing.

One particular cartoon got a deep belly laugh. It was done by Private Johnathan Goldblum of the Princess Pat's (a famous Canadian infantry regiment); it's dated 3/8/1944, and looks to be drawn on the back of an envelope. It's a two-panel drawing, and I'd describe it as follows:

First panel: A man in a prison uniform is walking through what looks to be a furniture store. He's paused to look at a particularly drab lamp, which is adorned with an enormous shade.

Second panel: The man from panel one is standing next to an extremely fat man, also dressed in a prison uniform. It's obvious from the Stars of David on their chests and the barbed wire in the background that both are prisoners in a concentration camp. The first man turns to the second and says, "Oh...I forgot to tell you: I saw your uncle yesterday."

I'll check out the book and scan the cartoon. As a Jew, it's a terrifically offensive joke. But, since it was done by a Jew, it's OK to laugh.

Six Girls With Boyfriends, The Boyfriends Stayed Home, And One Single Guy

Now that I'm single again, I don't leave my apartment. I just stay there, all night, writing and eating broccoli. Sometimes I just eat broccoli.

I live in a part of the city with a vibrant street culture. That's why I wear shoes. But a few nights ago I decided to go out. I'd been working on a novel, and I was stuck on a particularly tough sex scene. Those don't usually give me trouble. My tendency is to have the guy bend the girl over a chair, and try his best. But this time I was working with historical romance. Set at the Battle of the Canadian Thames, I had to figure out some reason for Tecumseh to have brought furniture with him.

Roundhead: "Tecumseh, what the hell are you doing with that stool?"

Tecumseh: "Fuck. I'm tired of sitting on the ground. [Sizing up the stool; stretching his back audibly] Goddamn stool. Gonna have trouble gettin' up tomorrow."

It just didn't work. And with an invitation to have a few drinks with PhD friends, I decided to let it cool off for a while why I went and breathed fresh Toronto air.

The bar was a place in the east end of the city--a place with a nice patio and those propane heaters that convince you you're in Malibu. Then a homeless woman walks by and pisses on the curb. "Only in California." Her sleeping bag's rolled up under her arm, she's trailing her shopping cart. "Hey, where do you keep your 'board on that thing?"

I ended up drinking with five women. Each had a boyfriend who was, for whatever reason, not there. That's not a bad thing--they were probably biking up and down large hills, planting trees, or staying late with the choir. They sure as hell weren't pickling briskets. But there are few worse feelings for a single heterosexual man (which I think I am) than listening to a woman talk about her boyfriend. I'm not saying it's right; I'm not saying it's fair. I'm just saying he'd rather find a tall building and flap his arms all the way to Valhalla.

[A single man and a woman with a boyfriend are talking at a bar. Each holds a drink. Frequent blinking and adjusting of hair. Woman does same.]

Man: "I didn't know you painted?"

Woman: "Sure, I'm really good. I've got canvases hanging all over my apartment. You should come over and see them. After we're done--you'll come over."

Man: "...OK."

Woman: "Great...Just let me call my boyfriend and tell him to make the bed."

Man: "Boyfriend? Oh...Make the bed?"

Woman: "For my other boyfriend. He's staying with us. You'll love him."

Man: "Oh. Sure. Yeah, I'll love him."

Woman: "Oh, but it's so late. Well, you can sleep over."

Man: "Sleep over?"

Woman: "The man next door has a pull-out couch."

Man: "Terrific."

Funny that it never works the other way 'round. No man--in a relationship or single--invites a woman to his house to look at his new crystal jug. I had a friend who met a woman at a bar. She was really into Canadian art, so he invited her over to look at his A.J. Casson print. (His grandfather had left him a really nice limited edition lithograph of Mill Houses.) She had a boyfriend, but she went with him anyway. They got to his apartment, he showed her the print, and she stuck her hand down the back of his pants. "What are you doing?" he said.

"Didn't you invite me up?" she asked, confused.

"Sure, but I just wanted to show you my silkscreen. And you have a boyfriend. This isn't right. You should leave. But, first, tell me how happy you two are. Do you have a picture I can see?"

Maybe you get lucky and the rest of the people at the bar think you're gay. I've done that a few times. "See that guy sitting over there with all those girls. I wonder which one he's with?"

"Oh, I heard them talking about him. They all have boyfriends--he's here by himself."

"Really? Oh. Well, maybe he's gay. That wouldn't be so pathetic."

"Yeah. He's gay. Hopefully."

"Maybe his boyfriend's at work."

"Must be."

I used to think I understood people, but no man ever really knows a woman. A guy can't figure out why someone of the opposite sex would sit in his lap, then tell him, "Your thighs are much stronger than my husband's."

Still, I had a good time. Girl #5's boyfriend just got into Yale's MBA programme. Oh, I'm just so happy for him. "Another drink please...Yeah. One more. My boyfriend's at work...Workin' late tonight..."

Sunday, May 4, 2008

My Ex Gets Married

A couple weeks ago I wrote about my ex-girlfriend, who left me for two other men. We thought about staying together, but they kept using my razors. Finally it was her pregnancy that convinced me I was better off single. She'd gone crazy--or at least seemed to be mired in a quarter-life crisis. What tipped me off was when she tried to convince me the child was mine. She was two months pregnant in mid-April, and I hadn't seen her since January. "It's a leap year," she said. This is a Columbia PhD candidate talking.

Last week I visited her in New York.

She lives in a fifteenth-floor walk-up with Dennis--her new husband. They'd just moved in a couple weeks earlier--their first place--and there were still empty big-box-Scandinavian-furniture-store boxes collapsed in the hallway. I was supposed to be coming down for their engagement party, but the other ring on her finger said I'd wasted a plane ticket. "We eloped on Wednesday," she told me, meeting me at the door.

"Why?" I asked.

"Class was cancelled."

Dennis is a nice guy; I don't have anything against him. He's twenty-five, he's got a nice head of auburn hair, and he loves his mother very much. Better him than me.

We got the "cheating" issue out of the way very early. "I'm sorry," he said, pointing at my ex's pregnant belly. "I never meant for this to happen. I don't know what to say. Really..."

I shrugged my shoulders. "Don't worry. It could've happened to anyone." And she shot me a sharp-toothed smile.

There was a bag of groceries sitting by the door, and I leaned over and picked it up.

"We bought all your preferred foodstuffs," my ex said, using her professorial voice. "Dennis wanted to cook for you. He's so good in the kitchen.

I looked into the yawning brown paper bag. "Mmm, favourite."

Dennis made mussels marinara with a pan-fried veal chop. I haven't mentioned that he's a real estate lawyer, but apparently he makes an excelling living. He was wearing his shoes in the apartment, which he explained by saying, "Just trying to get my money's worth." In his defense, they were nice shoes. Black leather with real leather soles and a silver buckle. "People at work go crazy! Everyone asks where I bought them, but I'm not telling."

"He's worn those shoes for the past three weeks," my ex said. "He won't stop talking about them."

"How much were they?" I asked.

"Oh," he said, bending over to look at the price tag, "$1,150."

And the man can cook.

"Where'd you get the recipe for this tomato sauce?" I asked him. "Is this home-made?"

"It's an old family thing. My grandmother passed it down to my mother, and my mother gave it to me. Actually, it's a funny story. During the Depression my great-grandfather owned property in the Italian section of the city. And this old Italian couple lived in one of his units, but they never had enough money for rent. They hardly understood any English. My great-grandfather thought it could have been a cultural thing, you know. Maybe they just didn't know to pay or they were embarrassed to come see him and ask for help. Or maybe they couldn't even ask.

"Finally my great-grandfather went to them, in their apartment, and said, 'Look. We can't have this. You must pay your rent. Everybody else pays their rent. I can't make an exception for you. I love you; my wife loves you. You're beautiful people. I wish circumstances were different. But it just cannot be done.' And the old lady was scared to death. She was too old to be on the street. She had no money. Her husband couldn't work; he'd been a shoemaker, but his hands were warped by arthritis. All he did every day was play with his little grandchildren in the mornings. Their parents--his children--were out looking for work, and he would look after the kids. Oh, he loved those kids. But they wore him out. When they left he would sleep all afternoon.

"But they had no money. What were they going to do? So the next day my grandmother gets a knock on the door, and there's the old lady with a pot of tomato sauce. She held out a wooden spoon, dipped it in the pot, gave some to my great-grandmother to taste, and it was fantastic. She said, 'I know we don't have enough to pay the rent, but this is worth more than money. This is a family recipe, passed down for generations.'"

"So your great-grandparents accepted the recipe in lieu of rent? That's a nice story," said my ex.

"No, no," said Dennis. "She wanted cash. Cash or that was it. The old lady went upstairs, stabbed the husband in the heart while he was sleeping, then stuck her head in the oven. They found the recipe when they were cleaning out the place, deciding which stuff they wanted to take."

After dessert (a pecan pie), I decided to ask what'd happened to Andy--the second of my ex's boyfriends.

"Andy moved to Boston," she said, sneaking a surreptitious peek at Dennis. "I haven't seen him for months. And we were never a thing, anyway. That was just your imagination. OK, so one night I went home with him after we'd had a few drinks. But that was one time. But how do you even know about Andy? I never told you about him. Did I?"

"No," I said, leaning back on their new Ikea sofa (brown suede--her taste), reaching behind me and under the cushion, "but he left his wallet in your couch."

I'm back in Toronto now. But I had a lot of fun. There's always something to do in New York.

Covertly Anti-Semitic Candy And A Summer Blockbuster

There are Jews who tend to see anti-Semitism in cracked sidewalks, and there are Jews who dig a little deeper for their alienation. I belong to the latter group. If someone's going to insult me, they're going to do it through a toe tap or a smoke signal. I'll give you a couple examples of things that bother me.

It was a beautiful, sunny day in late April, and a friend and I were walking on Yonge Street here in Toronto when she decided to swing into a candy store. I followed her inside, snaking up and down the aisles of hardened glycerine and sweetened corn starch. We were looking at gum--Big League Chew--when a man came in with his five-year-old daughter. She was wearing a tartan kilt, and he was well-dressed in loafers, slacks, and sweater draped over his shoulders, the arms tied across his chest. "What do you want?" the father bent over and asked the daughter, sweetly. "You want some Hershey's Kisses? You want some Fun Dip? You want some Jew Jubes? Jew Jubes? OK, we'll get some Jew Jubes."

My friend bit her lip. By now the little girl was digging into the candy bin with a large metallic scoop.

"I don't see any black ones," the father said. "Excuse me," he turned to the clerk. "Do you have any black ones?"

"Black ones?" the clerk asked.

"Black Jew Jubes. My daughter loves black Jew Jubes."

"I don't think there are any black ones."

"Oh, sure there are."

Another clerk entered the fray. This guy had a thick Nova Scotian accent and a terrifically crooked smile. "Black Jew Jews you's be wantin'? Yeah, we's got somes in de back. No ones likes 'em though. I can't stands 'em. Dems black ones is even worse than the regulars."


"That's just the way I's feels about Jews Jews. Whew! I can't even stand the smells of 'em."

"Oh, right," the first clerk said, laughing. "Jew Jubes. Sure, we've got all kinds. Cheap, too. Just let me check downstairs."

And the first clerk disappeared down the stairs while the second clerk unpacked a box of All Sorts.

"Jew Jubes," the daughter chanted. "Jewy, Jewy, Jew Jubes."

"That's right," said dad. "Big fat Jewy Jews. Big fat black ones."

Was it anti-Semitism? Probably not. But if it means anything, the name on the guy's Visa was Michalek.

So you can see how sensitive some Jews are to perceived slurs.

Another sort of sore spot with Jews is Jaws--the movie directed by S.S. (Stevie Spielberg, who is, himself, a Jew).

"Jaws?" you're thinking. "What does Jaws have to do with anti-Semitism?" Well, change a vowel, and you get Jews. OK, that's a little far-fetched, but let's think about it. It's a movie about a large fish--a white fish (herring?)--who washes onto the shores of WASPish Martha's Vineyard and scares a bunch of white people off the beach. It's bad for business; it has a taste for goyishe women; it has a huge angular nose.

My grandfather loves telling a story about his honeymoon in Quebec, and the signs our beloved seigneurs posted on their beaches: "No Jews or Dogs Allowed."

But what is Jaws? Is Jaws the name of the fish? No, that'd be crazy. Does Jaws refer to the shark's jaws--referencing his teeth? Maybe, but that's a little strange.

Jaws is Jews; one word suggests the other. It's like a movie about a strident black woman in Alabama; a movie set in 1915; a movie whose plot focusses on an apocryphal hero leading the WWI-era civil rights movement. And the movie's called Nagger. That's Jaws.

You might be wondering about my friend and the candy store, and what happened with the black Jube Jubes (as they're properly called). Finally, after listening to twenty minutes of "Jew Jube" talk, she smacked her palm on the counter and tossed up his hands. "For crissakes, why don't you just take a pound of my flesh. It tastes better."

Saturday, May 3, 2008

My Three Married Friends And Their Impending Divorces

I have three male friends who're married. They're not particularly happy or well-fed, but they like the idea of having someone to argue with, so they stay together. Regarding their sex lives, I'll say that all three have, at times, confessed to me it's only after marriage that a man really understands the adaptive significance of masturbation. "The first fish that crawled onto land, he was married. You know why he left the ocean: because you can't jerk off underwater."

All three friends are contemplating divorce. Here's why:

Guy #1: "My wife can eat more than I can."

My friend Jeremy married his wife Elaine over a year ago. They'd dated for three years, and were regarded as a perfect match. He wanted to make her happy, and she let him. But since their marriage he's been wondering whether it's a relationship to which he can really commit. "She can eat more than I can," he says, "and that really makes me uncomfortable."

Elaine is probably at her scientifically determined weight. Though she doesn't work out, she looks like she's in decent shape. But she can eat more than Jeremy, and that really bothers him. "We went for wings last night, and she polished off thirty. I had twenty, and I was full. I said, 'You don't have to put on a show.' And she laughed at me. Then she kept on going. After fifty I told her she was getting the cheque. A fat guy wanted to take a picture with her. At dinner she eats an entire lettuce. She's not even hungry, she just does it 'cause she knows it bothers me. It was her birthday last week, and she ate the entire cake. I had one piece. I bought her a giant chocolate heart for Valentine's Day, and it was gone in two hours. Two pounds of chocolate! She freaks me out. My mom says I should give her an ultimatum: reasonable portions, or I leave."

Guy #2: "My wife insists on driving when I'm in the car."

My friend Mike's wife insists on driving when he's in the car. He's a good driver, but she won't let him drive. She likes to be in control, and she's mean. (She's also an oral surgeon, which has caused other problems in their relationship: "She'll only blow me. We never have intercourse anymore. It's 100% blow jobs. She says the mouth's good enough. Do I know what the mouth can do? she says. 'The vagina' this is her speaking, 'has nothing on the mouth.'" I know of three men who were married to female dentists: two of them are the reason there's a cage around the Bloor St. Viaduct, and the third makes his own pickles.) Mike's wife pulled up beside me in her Hummer (with its vanity plate: PAYIN. All Hummers have vanity plates; that way the assholes know where the money came from), and there he was, tucked into the passenger seat while she pencilled in her eyebrows. It was just so sad. "She won't even let me listen to music. She chooses the station because she drives," he said. "And when I tell her I'll drive, she says no. Why? I don't know. But she's putting on foundation, mascara--she's drinking a huge coffee. And I look like an idiot. You should see her reverse. She puts her arm over the back of my seat. I can't take it anymore. The toilet seat's never down in our apartment. I don't know what the hell's going on."

Guy #3: "I don't like the way my wife sits on the couch."

Mark's wife Gillian sits on the couch with both legs crossed under her body. Her legs and feet are actually on the couch. "I walk in the room and there she is, cross-legged, on the couch. Her feet never touch the floor. You don't sit cross-legged on the couch. And she does it everywhere. In the kitchen. At restaurants. We were at North 44 last week, and she sat cross-legged on this beautiful, expensive chair. First she took off her shoes, and I knew what she was going to do. I said, for crissakes, at least take the banquette, but she likes chairs. On the TTC? She's cross-legged on those red-plush-aluminum seats. People look at her like she's crazy. And she kicks me when she sleeps."

Friday, May 2, 2008

My Argument With A Guy Re: Tomson Highway

My father scored me two tickets to last year's Idea City, the Toronto equivalent of a literary/arts luncheon in Alec Woollcott's breakfast nook, and I was too ashamed to scalp both. So I went, scratching away the loss of the $450 offered by a guy in a Harry Rosen suit--a guy so Bay Street his watch didn't even have an hour hand. But I did manage to negotiate the sale of my extra ducat, taking nine fifty-dollar bills from a man wearing a porkpie hat. This guy looked like he was born for Idea City, his skinny jeans and leather trenchcoat offsetting a fine pale whiteness. He looked about forty, but he was reading Foucault's "Power." "What are you," I asked him, "PhD 18?" He just laughed at me. "I'm TA'ing my son's class, man. The $450's his tuition rebate."

About the Znaimer-spurred production:

I was there the day Tomson Highway spoke/played, and this story's about something that happened way back in the last row, along the aisle, where I like to sit.

Highway's one of the least factitious Native voices in Canadian writing. He's not Catskills-Cree (that's not pejorative, please) like T. King, he's not deeply mystical like Eden Robinson, and he's not as bleak as Jeannette Armstrong. None of those writers are bad--that's not what I'm implying. But Highway tells a story the same way Neil Simon would if he'd have been born in a tent in Maria Lake, Manitoba, in 1951. I believe that, but it's obviously just an opinion.

Anyway, as I was sitting, listening to Highway speak, a guy beside me leaned over and tapped me on the knee.

"Have you ever heard of this guy?" he asked.

"Sure." I'd read everything Highway'd done, including his Bronfman Lecture on mythology published by University of Ottawa Press.

"He's supposed to be an Indian."

"He's Native."

"Yeah, right," the guy said.

"Don't think so, eh?"

"He's bald!"

Highway is, in fact, bald. He has long brown hair, but a shiny, bare crown of scalp is visible from all aerial angles.

"Yeah, he is," I said.

"Have you ever seen a bald Indian before?"

I hadn't seen many Indians, and I told him so. "I'm from Toronto," I said. "I've never seen anyone born north, east, or west of Yonge and Eglinton."

"This guy's a fraud. I'm as much of an Indian as he is."

I sized him up. He was white, about six feet, chubby, with red hair. "Yeah, you've got a little in you."

"Pay $700 to see a bald Indian. Everyone knows: there's no bald Indians! I knew an Indian once who had so much hair he got a job cleaning pools. He jumped in, swam around, and filtered the water. Once they cleaned up the oil slick, everything was all right," he paused, drawing a breath. "Bald Indian! Next thing you know you're paying a grand to see a thin-lipped Jew."

Being Jewish, I was offended. "You paid $700?"

"A guy outside in a porkpie hat told me it was a deal. I'm just here from Vancouver for the weekend. You want Indians? We've got Indians. All kinds; not just the tall ones."

To my friend in the porkpie hat: I hope you spent the money wisely.

I'll see you next year.

Silas Marner, Mrs McTeague; Or The Literary Executor

Ruth Panofsky spins a great article on the role of the literary executor in showing the long finger to the literary-critical community. As a critic I can share the formula with you: The scholar wants to know something about a dead author; the scholar sends the author's literary executor a letter begging for help; the literary executor says, "Naw." It doesn't always go that way, but too often the critic gets spiked by the executor's arbitrary yea or nay.

Panofsky's article, "Halted by the Archive," describes her battle with Adele Wiseman's daughter--and literary executor--to gain access to the Wiseman fonds at York University's Archives. York had purchased boxes of documents from Wiseman while Wiseman was alive, but the caveat was that all researchers needed permission from Wiseman or, later, Wiseman's estate to access the fonds. Wiseman was the kind of person who'd have a researcher over for coffee. Her estate? Not so much.

Panofsky had actually been working with Wiseman while the latter was alive. Wiseman liked her, and considered her a friend. But, you see, she was just giving away all that copyright-able flow. All that good stuff was being given away. Who'd be comfortable with that.

Don't think that the Wiseman case is exceptional.

A researcher looking to access the Norman Levine fonds finds himself in the same situation. He goes, on hands and knees, to the Levine family, asking for access. They scratch their chin, think about it for a second, and say, "No."

But wait--there's more. Want to read Levine's letters to Richler? Richler's letters to Levine? Now you not only need Levine's permission; you need Richler's as well. They're both dead. So you go to the executor. You mail a letter. Canada Post is pretty good--they do coast-to-coast service in five-to-seven days. Three months later you get a reply. So even if the Richlers say yes (which they won't), you've still got the Levines to deal with. And if they say "Yes," and the Richlers change their mind...then you pack up your library card and head home.

I know a fifth-year PhD student writing a thesis on Levine's anti-nationalism. It was (and is) crucial to this student that he gain access to Levine's fonds. He needed to see Levine's letters to Jack McClelland; he needed to know what Richler and Levine were saying about centennial-era Canada.

This student wrote the Levines; he wrote the Richlers. They wanted to know about his project; they wanted to know about him. So he told them. He was a PhD candidate who'd won a SSHRC grant for his proposal. He'd read everything written by their two patriarchs. Literary-criticism was his life; his car even had books in the trunk--just in case it broke down and he wasn't in the mood to whistle.

A few weeks later their replies came in the mail. "No," and "No." Thanks for your interest, but I don't think so...

Then, five years later, the son/daughter publishes the letters. S/he gets in a bind, needs to make a few bucks, and walks away smiling. That, folks, is what it's all about.

Now some people'll say these writers deserve their privacy. Their letters weren't meant to be published; their correspondence was and should remain private.

OK. Then why'd they sell their shopping bags and bankers boxes to government-subsidized universities who paid with public cash? Explain the value of protecting documents no one'll ever be allowed to see. Because that's the rationale behind the archive--it's a place where your letters won't get wet. But let them get wet; let them bloom with exotic moulds and mildews. If we weren't meant to know what Levine thinks about Morley Torgov, then why wasn't that letter destroyed? Why wasn't it tossed in a bonfire at Memphremagog?

Because they had cash value. They were tax deductions waiting to happen. So the taxpayer got hit twice, coming and going. And now the executors are doing what a lot of kids and grandkids and widows and sisters and brothers do: protect the myth; inflate the myth; sugar-coat the myth. "Writer X was the kindest wo/man in the world. When s/he tossed the coffee on the homeless man, it was because of a strong wind." "Writer X was the most talented wo/man in the world. Once s/he recited The Iliad to a group of New England tourists, and they all agreed it was better than sex." They say it's about not wanting to hurt anyone's feelings, but c'mon. So Levine (possibly) said Trudeau cheated on Margaret. Wow! Better start hoarding non-perishables.

Michael Moir, an archivist at York, describes the hands-tied plight of archivists who must abide by donors' wishes. Does that mean that Moir, if he wanted, couldn't take a peek at verboten fonds? From reading his response to Panofsky, I'd guess the answer's No. No, he couldn't.

Once you're dead, that's it. You've got six feet of privacy. We'll handle the rest.

Leslie Roberts's Undistinguished Intelligence

"Last year," Leslie Roberts said, "1,200 pedestrians were injured [in auto-pedestrian collisions]." Only about a thousand; or three/day in a city of millions. (He didn't say whether that number was for Toronto, Ontario, or all of Canada. But let's assume that he was talking about the GTA.) That's not such a big number. And consider that that figure doesn't differentiate between jaywalkers, people running out from between parked cars, children chasing balls, and people making legal crossings. But Roberts doesn't go that deep. He's a look-on-the-surface-rush-to-judge kind of guy.

"More often than not," Roberts continued, "drivers do not have their eyes on the road."

Really? More often than not, huh? Sunday I drove down to a football game. I play in a league; our games are on the weekend. It took me about thirty-five minutes to get there. So I guess I must've spent about twenty minutes reading a book, and another fifteen checking traffic in my mirrors. I couldn't help but notice that other drivers were doing the same. One was taking flamenco lessons, another was knitting a scarf.

Roberts's second topic today: The need for photo radar. Because there are far too many accidents on Toronto streets. "If you're not doing anything wrong," Roberts said, "what do you have to hide?" You mean if you're going 49 in a 50 zone? Thirty-nine in a 40?

That reminds me of a speed trap near my house. It's outside of a Catholic high school, on a suburban avenue. The speed limit is 40 km; not a single home or business fronts onto this street. I don't understand 40 zones, but they must have something to do with crossing the road. That's fine Monday-Friday when school's in.

But Sunday morning, on the way to buy bagels, there was a cruiser parked in the school's lot, hidden behind a tree. And he was pulling over cars at will.

The school was closed; it doesn't double as a church; there weren't any kids around. But the limit stayed 40. So explain that? You can't do 50 on a Sunday because kids'll be crossing that street on Monday?

Roberts is arguing that photo radar will prevent accidents. "People aren't listening," he claims. That's the kind of general argument that he loves. "People aren't listening." Yeah, some people aren't. Some people are.

A guy calls in to talk about the 400. "But there are some accidents there," Roberts says. No kidding. Accidents on the highway. Who'd believe it?

Earlier he'd bashed a Toronto teacher for taking his students to a protest at Queen's Park. "We can't have teachers brainwashing students," Roberts said. "We need them giving both sides."

A caller phoned in. "Leslie, how do you know he's not giving both sides?"

"I don't know the facts," Roberts said, "but we can't have this." A minute later: "This teacher is not giving both sides."

The teacher had his own agenda, Roberts said. You know what that agenda was? "He was anti-war." That's right, he'd protested the Vietnam war. Outrageous!

If you don't know the facts, then what the hell are you doing spinning the story?

Then Roberts started talking about other teachers in the system performing similar acts of ideological bleaching. What other teachers? Well, other teachers. No, he doesn't know who they are; he can't name them. But they must exist. (Of course he was supported by a range of aging, bitter callers who complained about schools not recognizing their politics. "You see how girls dress now? My boys shouldn't have to see that. They shouldn't have to see that." You know--that kind of caller.)

Listening to Roberts stumble through his sentences, you can't help but wonder how he got this job. He's like Yogi Berra doing a call-in show. "We...have to help at-risk youths...choose...a better path. We're not doing enough. This is our fault. We...need tougher sentences. You commit a crime with a go to jail. Five years? Not enough time. Ten years? Not enough time. A life sentence? It's got to be longer."

Canadian Literary Orgies: Anecdote #2

In 1938 Gwethalyn Graham won the Governor General's Award for Fiction for her novel Swiss Sonata. The book, published by Jonathan Cape, is set in a Swiss boarding school, and follows the lives of a group of girls as they mature through the pre-war years.

Graham, who wrote the novel when she was twenty-five years old, never thought it had a chance of winning the GG: "There's too much hidden sex in it to make it a prize-winning book in Canada," she told Herbert McLean, a writer for The Canadian Forum. "But, for that same reason, it'll sell in Boston."

Graham found out she'd won the GG on a Wednesday, and immediately opened a bottle of champagne. Lorraine Clemens, who was one of Graham's closest friends, suggested that they go out and celebrate. Graham had divorced John McNaught more than five years prior to the news of her win, and since that time she'd established a reputation for both her high- and low-profile "affairs."

"It wasn't that Gweth was particularly loose," an unnamed friend told a Graham biographer. "It's just that she was never one for exercise."

Graham was also a crusader for social justice; she railed against anti-Semitism, segregation, and the overt political racism of Mackenzie King's federal government. King, Canada's three-time Prime Minister, was famous for standing up in parliament and shouting, "I don't even like bagels! They're obscene. Look where I have to put my thumb."

So it happened that Clemens and Graham were walking through a noted Jewish section of the city, high on Veuve Clicquot and Graham's win, when they encountered a group of young men--all in their mid-twenties--singing Hebrew songs and dancing little jigs in the street.

"What's going on here?" Graham asked, her interest piqued.

"It's Purim!" one of the men said, shaking a can full of dried beans. Purim, as most Jews know, is a festival celebrating the deliverance of the (Persian) Jews from one of many genocidal schemes. It's typically accompanied--at least among the orthodox--by a carnival-type atmosphere of eating, dancing, dressing up, and merry-making.

Graham turned to Clemens: "It's Purim! Do you hear that? It's Purim!" She turned back to the man with the bean can: "Where can we go to celebrate? Do you have a place?"

The man was confused, but he shrugged his shoulders. "Sure, I have a place."

"No, Graham said, shrugging. "I mean YOU. All of you."

"Oh. OK! Yes, we have a place."

"With lots of towels and hot water."

"Of course."

They danced through the streets, ending up at an apartment above an empty grocery store. One of the men left, but was back in minutes carrying five bottles of red wine. "Oh, that's sweet! I like it!" Graham exclaimed, taking a drink from a bottle.

"Yes," the man said. "1937 was a good year."

"Is Manischewitz in the south or north of France?" asked Graham.

"I think it's somewhere in the middle."

The sex lasted through the night, with Graham and Clemens each fulfilling their roles admirably. Seven Jewish men stripped, brushed their teeth, and waited in line to call their mothers, telling them they'd be home late. "Do you think we should use this room," one man said, "the carpet's so thin." "Oh yeah," another said, "I've got an uncle who'll fix you up with a nice rug. Five bucks." "Five! This is eight by eight. Four-fifty, I know a place." "Four-fifty and you're getting what kind of a product?" "A good one, I'll tell you that." "Oh, you don't know what you're talking about. No way I'd put a four-dollar rug in here. You think I want it cheap-looking? That I would have a four-dollar run in my house!"

"Hey!" said another guy, stepping in. "What the hell do you care? This isn't even your place."

"Do you really want to do this?" Clemens asked Graham, a little unsure of the well-formed line. "Of course I do," Graham said. "These men have been kept down long enough. The least you can do is get on your back."

"But their beards are so itchy," Clemens protested.

"So you go down on them."

"Christ," Clemens said, "I'm going to taste like garlic all week...Hey, look at this! They're missing something! I'd like to see that pawn shop!"

"That's not funny," Graham hissed

"It was a Purim I'll never forget," one of the male celebrants said, years later, to a famous Montreal writer who was just starting out and giving a reading at a local synagogue. "Even now...all these years later...You don't even want to know what I think when I see a Hamentashen."

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Growing Up Literate In Small-Town Ontario

One of the best-kept secrets re: small-town life is how much people in rural Ontario like to read. I'm not talking about the weekenders with the million-dollar properties in Muskoka or Simcoe; I'm talking about people who live in Palmer Rapids, Orillia, Midland, and Port Severn. Those people like books. (Quick fact: there are more book stores per capita in Sturgeon Point, Ontario, than in either New York or Paris.)

One of my best friends grew up in Bancroft, Ontario, and he'd never shut up about how no one in Toronto knew Tolstoy like his Grade Eleven English teacher knew Tolstoy: "I'll tell you this about Toronto," he used to say. "In Bancroft, none of these assholes would even be allowed in the bookstores." Another time he said, "I remember the time they melted the rink's ice in January so V.S. Naipaul could come and give a reading. That's how much they cared about literature in Bancroft. It's not like here [Toronto]."

Around the end of the nineteenth century writers started describing the decadent, nouveau-Gothic milieu of the debauched small town. Its inhabitants were supposed to be prurient, dangerous, and, at best, semi-literate. (It was never true. In 1945 a government survey showed that most rural Ontarians preferred pre-Raphaelite art to the Marx Brothers.) But that's all changed, and now the tide's been reversed: Torontonians are the intrusive, dull, Harlequin fans; people in Coboconk just want Martin Amis to stop by for petit fours and some free-trade coffee.

I can't say why it's happened, but I'm not the only one to notice the shift. Another friend--a post doc. who'd been courted by several top Canadian universities-- asked, "Why go to UofT when Lakehead's fifty miles closer to home? Besides, up here we've got poetry readings, we've got people giving Chaucer seminars in their living rooms. What the hell do you have in Toronto? Professors inviting you over to watch American Idol?"

Growing up in a small town is a privilege fewer Canadians find themselves experiencing. The trend is toward Toronto--the centre of the universe--and places like Cannington and Kirkfield just can't provide the job opportunities of the DVP corridor. Does that mean Canadian intellectual life's likely to suffer? I can't see how it won't.

I'm reminded of what Michel Foucault said in 1971 after visiting Cameron, Ontario: "If I had been born here--had lived my life here--who knows what I would have done."
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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