Monday, September 29, 2008

The Return of Slavery

Yesterday I read an article by Bob Hoare on the rise of slavery in the Deep South. He wasn't talking about antebellum slavery; he was talking about people--teenagers, twenty-somethings, and middle-aged men and women--who're returning to slavery as a way of life.

Here's a chunk of the story:

Young people are educated, experienced, and disillusioned. They don't like Bay Street, they don't like Wall Street, and they can't believe the absurdity of North American politics. So, increasingly, they're looking for something that'll provide a secure, focussed, and purposeful twenty or thirty years--an opportunity to live a stable life. What's more secure than slavery?

Three plantations have started with the goal of accepting American and international slaves. But they won't admit anyone. You'll need transcripts, letters of reference, and a 2x2 photo. They'll send your file to an admissions committee, and you'll be notified in the spring.

Why screen potential slaves? They want to know that candidates are serious. They don't want people doing this as a lark. Because once you're there, that's it. You can't call for a cab. You're a slave. Hoare writes, "The plantation 'owners'--really southern farmers--are serious about authenticity. If you even think about manumission, this is not for you."

There's also the problem of "bad" slaves. "You can't fire a slave," says a plantation owner whose slaves are largely ex-Los Angeles Jews--entertainment industry exiles. "Regardless of how inept he is, there's really nowhere for him to go. Some of the people applying, people who get through the admissions process, are really poor slaves. They're constantly breaking things, plowing crooked lines. They laugh and joke with me, talking about some of the movies they've produced. They chat with my wife, play with my daughter. What can we do? We hang them."

Once on the plantation, you'll live in a traditional bunkhouse, you'll eat around a communal bench, and you'll sow, tend, and reap fields of cotton and rice. You won't be remunerated for your work, but room and board are free. Occasionally you'll be raped, but never with the light on.

Stephen Katz is a New Yorker who's moved onto the Suivez Vague plantation in Louisiana. He describes the experience as "interesting, but not for everyone." Why? "Like anything else," Katz says, "it has its ups and downs. On the positive side, I'd say that your [sic] outside, you're working hard. There isn't a single day when I don't sleep right through the night. In Manhattan I'd wake up every hour, and I'd be tired in the morning. Here I'm very well-rested. And, I can't stress this enough, it's a good quality sleep. I've never slept this well. On the downside, I guess, I'd say that you're not allowed to read or to talk to each other or to have relationships. But you take the good with the bad."

Other things to consider: People with children can arrange to have them "sold" onto other plantations. (The experience is akin to an adoption.) If you ever change your mind, looking to gain your freedom, you can escape via the underground railroad (Greyhound) to Atlanta, up through Scranton, and all the way to Windsor, where you can take a GO train to Union Station. Now, you will be pursued and, if caught, will be brought back to the plantation where you'll receive your punishment. That probably means being whipped and doused with brine.

And it's not just plantation slavery; you'll also be able to work on the river, pulling rope, toting barges, lifting bales. It depends whether you're a good swimmer. If you are, it's the fields.

More on this later.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Bob Compton? Symptom or Pathology?

Remember this as you're reading this post: China has the highest suicide rate in the world.

This is a quote from a Guardian story.

Referring a recent survey by the health ministry, the paper said that suicide was the fifth most common cause of death in China after lung cancer, traffic accidents, heart disease and other illnesses.

But it is most prevalent among young urban intellectuals and rural women. Exam stress, career worries and relationship problems are named as the main reasons why suicide has become the main killer of people aged between 20 and 35.

Newspapers are filled with stories of bright and wealthy college students - almost all of them single children because of the state's one-child policy - who kill themselves because they fear that they cannot fulfill their families' aspirations.

Today's Star has an incredibly irresponsible story, patched together by Louise Brown, on the question--yes, it's now become a question--of our North American education. (That reminds me of Derek Walcott's postcolonial education--not one thing, but many.) The kernel of Brown's piece is a documentary by an American Harvard grad. named Bob Compton. Compton's a businessman/filmmaker who, for the past few years, has been polishing his shovel, ready to sink a nice deep grave for America's education system. So hyperbole is completely appropriate--Compton sees everything going wrong, and he's trying to get people to notice.

Some bloggers agree with Compton's premise. (Here's another one.) Google "Bob Compton" and you'll get a balanced argument. But first let me outline Compton's screed:

It goes something like this: Certain countries (notably China, India, Japan, and Korea) have structured their education systems (yes, they have systems) to maximize potential/future GDP creation/student. This--I almost said "typically," but the better word is "always"--requires students to be streamed at an early age (usually 12-13). Gifted students take advanced math and science courses; mediocre students are trained for administrative or (civil) service jobs; poor students are tabbed for the trades (carpentry, plumbing, etc.).

Now, on the surface, that's a completely reasonable strategy. It's absolutely logical: your brightest students have the potential to be engineers, so make sure you give them the tools they'll need to succeed in a post-secondary math-science-based degree program. And poor students--why let them waste unproductive years in high school? Let them apprentice, train, and get jobs in their mid-late teens. And mediocre students? Why let them compete and fail? (Canadian medical schools accept something like 10% of applicants. So those B students don't have a chance. Get ye into the civil service. Or something like that.)

Yes, the logic's fine. The problem is the corruscating vulgarity of it all.

But that's Compton's criticism of North Americans: we're too soft, to indulgent, too spoiled. We value things like sports, movies, music, TV, books. Fluff. Compton calls it fluff. It doesn't lead to technical innovation, and it doesn't lead to domestic product. Anxiety disorders do. Compete, compete, compete; then try to recreate your lost childhood after work.

Brown's article ends by taking a shot at Compton: the filmmaker's pulled his daughters from their swim teams; he wants them to focus on school.

Why does Compton think that he's improved on Pangloss? Canada graduates more engineers/capita than the U.S., China, or India. So maybe we're safe up here; maybe Compton's okay with what we're doing. But his plan to mechanize childhood is so insidious that American and Canadian educators are reacting viscerally to his film.

Education is not the problem with the education system. The kind of plan that Compton outlines can't be achieved by better teachers or streaming. What Compton describes (although I'm not sure that he realizes it) is a system of rigorous discipline in which maturity is imposed rather than achieved.

Mediocre students are capable of superlative grades. Are they capable of the self-discipline needed to achieve those superlative grades? What happens when we replace "self-discipline" with "discipline"? What happens when discipline is the rule? Come on, we've got the research. What happens when a parent says "You must study this; you will be that? What happens when every parent says it? But we're removing parents from the process; it'll be the system that decides. And the point is that the system already decides. Find a single North American professional school that'd be willing to say, "Well, we would've admitted more students, but we just didn't have enough qualified applicants"? The opposite's true. So what are we going to do with all these force-fed engineers?

His plan's a step away from the creation of an American residential school system. You won't make sure that your child comes to class, does his work, studies for tests and exams? Fine. We'll send him somewhere where he'll have someone who does. That sounds reasonable, doesn't it? Well, it's a step you can't take.

This is a complicated issue, and I don't want to give a facile response. Certainly there are students in American schools--students who will drop out or fail or post middling grades--with the potential to become professionals. But Compton wants those jobs wrested from China, India, Japan, and Korea. He wants more competition--competition for the jobs that immigrants are filling in America; competition for the jobs that are being outsourced to Asia. So, in effect, we could see Americans moving to Asia to work the jobs that Compton wants created domestically. Would that stop Asia from producing its own engineers? No, they'd just adjust their curriculum. They'd draft new plans, adjust their focus.

Who cares about comedians, writers, actors, artists...We don't need them. Or they'll act or perform or write after their labs. Let's not forget that books and paintings and TV shows create jobs. Good jobs, too.

This argument seem to be about very general statements: America doesn't innovate anymore, American education isn't very good. Beyond the tremendous difficulties which inhere in the education of low-income, or high-risk, or low-income and high-risk youth, you've also got to consider that most sub-urban families have more than one child. And sometimes these families have money. And sometimes these families aren't helmed by professionals. The children of those families will achieve as much as they possibly can. And usually in the direction of their Thoreau-ian dream. But force them into certain jobs--all the jobs that Compton wants nationalized--and just wait. Just wait and see what happens when your middle-class, monied engineer says at twenty-seven, "You know what: I really wanted to be a chef."

Again, I don't want to be facile. But after two hundred years of capitalism, you don't just stop and say, "C'mon, kids. From now on we're all heavin' together for the State. We're gonna maximize your economic value."

It sounds a bit like Stalin's method of clearing mines: march a regiment through the field, and whoever makes it through moves on to the next one. Throw 10,000,000 kids at engineering programs, graduate as many as possible, cream off the great ones, and let the rest go home, find a tall building, and die.

For crissakes...Can't we fault outsourcing for some of this lack of innovation? Maybe you should've kept those manufacturing jobs? Maybe you should've protected your middle class. You built and encouraged the discourse of possibility, and now you want to burn it down.

At a certain point competition is not a good thing. And we've gone well past that point. And now Compton's calling for them to put up the steel cage. Just remember how this post started.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Six-Dollar Thank You Cards

There's an old joke about bookmarks: Why spend a dollar on a bookmark? Just use the dollar as a bookmark.

I feel the same way about greeting cards.

Two nights ago Margaret Atwood invited me over for dinner. We had London broil. It was a good time; Len Findlay was there. And after it was over I decided to send her a note, thanking her for everything. But I don't have personalized stationery, and I didn't want to write on a sheet on lined paper. So I went to a Hallmark store to buy a card.

The cheapest card was five bucks plus tax. Now, five dollars is nothing. It's not a lot of money. But the thought of paying five dollars (six with tax) for a 4x6 piece of paper just bothered me.

Then I saw Tomson Highway in the store. I walked over to the "Christenings and Communion" section, hoping he wouldn't see me, but I stepped on a small twig and within seconds he was beside me.

"Going to Church?" he asked.

"No, Tom. Just getting a thank you note."

"They're over there," he said, pointing.

"Really? Thanks."

"Thank who?"

"No one. It doesn't matter."



"Atwood? Oh. Get her a black one."

"Do they make black thank you cards?"

"Sure. You think George Elliott Clarke'd buy a white one?"

"For crissakes!" I said, stopping him. He laughed, replacing the card.

"It was good to see you, Tomson. Take care, will ya."

Five dollars for a magazine is fine. You read the magazine, you read it again, and you put it in a basket in the downstairs washroom. Five dollars gets you a baseball or two large packs of gum. You can toss the baseball and chew the gum. What happens to the card? It's read, then thrown away. Right in the damn garbage.

But I bought the card anyway, and sent it to Peggy. She read it and threw it away.

But I was over there again yesterday, picking up a serving dish that she'd used for dessert (cupcakes from The Cupcake Shoppe), and there, on the fridge, was a five-dollar bill. "Thanks for everything," was written over those blue kids playing hockey, along with, "Sincerely, Philip Marchand."

So he'd had the guts.

"What are you going to do with the half-sawbuck?" I asked.

"Graeme wants some Kraft Dinner. The fusilli kind--I don't know what they call it. It's on sale at Fortino's."

Just think of all the money wasted on greeting cards. Hundreds of millions of dollars, just tossed in the garbage. Sign the money; inscribe it. Is it tacky? About as tacky as a black pearl.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Derisive Blog Entries Caused By Re-Reading Soucouyant

Yesterday I re-read Soucouyant. You know what, I was wrong about it: Chariandy's done solid work, and I was too quick to call it another "postcolonial affirmative (re)action."

The first time I read it I borrowed a copy from the library. The second time I bought my own text: $19.95 at Chapters. They had one slim edition, representing, to me, the tremendous force behind marketing and selling Canadian fiction.

"It's about a black woman and a black-Asian son," one customer told me. "Who wants to read about the world's fastest convenience store owner."

I told her that it didn't have much to do with either of those things--that the protagonist was something like Sri Lankan and Jamaican.

"Ohhhh," she said. "So it's kind of like a John Irving novel."

I go through stages where I'm alternately happy and seething about and over Canadian fiction. Yesterday, in talking about arts funding, Stephen Harper said that the average Canadian gets home from work, turns on the TV, and spends the rest of the night complaining about those ritzy authors being feted in the most expensive hotels with the most expensive Scotch. That's an interesting idea. I guess it'd be better if, say, the average Canadian got home from work, turned on the TV, and ate dinner to a lovely L.M. Montgomery monologue, broadcast live from the steps of Parliament. They'd ride home in their phaeton, unlace their boots, then sit down by the coal stove. "Ma! The poem readin's a startin'! Quick, bring the ham!"

"What about a book? Andrew Pyper's got a new one--"

"I said ham!"

Can you turn Soucouyant into a movie? Who'd play the narrator? Daniel Radcliffe in blackface? I can see Maya Angelou as the mother.

I don't really like Maya Angelou. Once I heard her talking about God. It was in an interview with an ABC reporter.

"You talk a lot about being descended from God," the reporter said.

"Who said anything about descended from," Angelou shot back.

I realize that I don't like Canadians very much. I'm tempted to write Canadian jokes that no one'll ever read. I was up at a farm ten years ago--this was a place way up north with no running water and no septic tank. They had an outhouse with an old Chatelaine in use as toilet paper. It was much too glossy. But there was a guy, sitting on a fence, reading a copy of Over Prairie Trails. I hate that book, but I was still impressed.

"Reading it?" my grandfather asked. (He was with me.)

"No," the guy said. "Just trying to see which pages got the fewest print." He paused. "Gonna wipe my ass with it."

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Do Blogs Die?

"Can blogs die?" I asked a friend.

"Sure," she said.

"Well, what about mine?"

"Is yours dying?"


"No, I think it's okay."

"How can you tell?"

"You post on it. You tell me that people read it. You pay attention to it. So I think it's alive."

"And is posting the only thing that signals life or death?"

"No. Sometimes the content gets tired. Sometimes it's repetitive, didactic. A lot of blogs only talk about their grandchildren, or golf. Or they make a lot of noise getting out of the car, or getting up after a long meal. Or in the mornings. That's how you know it's getting pretty near the end. And they move to condos or bungalows because they don't like stairs."

"And sometime's they're incoherent, wandering?"


"With a lot of non-sequiturs?"

"Yeah. Like this cabbage that I bought last week was really green. Did I tell you?"

"So, what do you think? Should I keep posting?"

"Sure. I enjoy reading you. But..."


"I just wish you'd write more about Joseph Boyden. I know that you've mentioned him a couple times, but I really, really like him. Can't you do more stories about him? I'd really like to know who cuts his hair."

"I think he has some kind of vacuum."

"That's the kind of thing I'd love to know. What's his inseam?"

"I don't even know him. We've met once."


"And his t-shirt was tucked into his pants."

"What kind of t-shirt?"

"It said 'Old Navy Swim Team est. 1984.'"

"I wonder if he's any good...Oh. Well, write more about life. I like when you talk about death, and dying, and the death drive. I like that."

"You like that."


"That stuff drives me crazy. Eschatology. Reflecting on my own mortality. My Primo Levi motivational tapes...That's what Joseph Boyden and I talked about: death."

"Oh yeah? What did he have to say?"

"That he'd live forever, probably. That a fortune teller told him that his beard would never go grey."

"And what did you say?"

"The same thing happened to Derrida. He went to a fortune teller, and the woman told him that he'd never die, that he'd only get stronger and more vital with age. Well, he wasn't too happy about that. In fact, he was mad. So you know what he did?"

"No. What?"

"He painted a picture of her upside-down, then covered it with a sheet."

"What did that do?"

"It put her under erasure."

"Oh, God..."

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Vitality Of A Spoon: Faulkner's Critical Reception, And Friends Who Read This Blog

About a week ago I was out with friends from the English department at my school, and someone mentioned that I was the owner and proprietor of my very own blog. "He has this blog," the person said, "and it's funny. You should read it."

So the other person--the one being told about the blog--asked me for its address. I told him, and he recorded it on a notebook produced from his vest pocket.

Yes, this person was wearing a vest; yes, the vest had pockets.

About two days later I saw the new reader leaning against a tree. He stopped me, waving his hand with the conviction of a long-dicked man standing nude in a subway tunnel.

"I read your blog," he started.

"Yes?" I said.

"You really disappoint me."

"How? Why?"

"I thought you were a real writer."

"I said that I wasn't, didn't I? Didn't I say that it was just for fun? You thought that I was a serious writer...I told you that I'm obsessed with death, and failure, and identity crises. But in a funny way."

"Yes, you said that."

"So what disappointed you?"

"Your writing. The things you write about. Alison told me that you were very good. But you write with the vitality of a spoon."

"And you're disappointed with my writing?"

"I thought, after talking with you, that you were another Faulkner. I thought that you would be serious and abstract and insightful. I was looking for a tragedy--a tragic blog. But you kept writing about Sarah Palin's bikini wax, and how the poor Korean girl kept trying to ask, 'Well, what do you want me to do with those balls?' David, that's beneath you."

"It was a joke."

"I wanted Soldiers' Pay, you gave me Duddy Kravitz."

"Next time I'll try harder."

"You don't have to write a novel, but do something constructive."

"I will."

"And tell me something about the human spirit."

"Right now."


"I think that you'd like it."

That's the problem with blogs: friends find out about them, friends read them, and friends criticize them. But when Hank Greenberg tells you that he's likes your take on Brokaw's The Greatest Generation, then only large snowstorms seem to matter.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Facebook's New "Dead or Alive" Application: Ride Your Horse Right Into My Heart

I don't know very much about software design, but I'm experienced in overreaching, flying too high, making wax wings, and high diving. A year ago my friend's grandmother died. She'd been sick for a long time, and her death wasn't a shock. Everyone knew how she would die; the question was When.

So, simply, she died.

And the first thing that everyone did was to rush to Facebook to post their condolences: "Sorry to hear about your grandma, Paul. That really sux."

And things of that nature.

Then, a couple months ago, a friend attempted suicide. He didn't die, but he was hospitalized for three weeks. As soon as the news had spread, people were on Facebook: "OMG, Alan. I can't believe it. Why? Call me."

It's funny, but he did call that person. I went to visit him, and he was sitting up in bed clicking around Facebook.

"Who are you calling?" I asked.



"She wrote on my wall."

So he called, and he let it ring, but there was no answer.

Then he did kill himself, and, again, his wall was bustling: "Too soon, buddy. Too soon." I saw Sarah at his funeral, and I asked her why she hadn't picked up her phone, hadn't returned his call.

"Oh," she said, "he should've just texted me. I saw 'Mount Sinai Hospital' on the call display, but I thought it was just a wrong number."

"But you knew that he was in the hospital."

"Yeah, but I didn't know that he'd have a phone."

"But you thought he'd have a computer?"

"Of course."

So I called a friend who's into programming, and asked him to build the first Facebook condolence book and death-watch application. That way, if you die, your wall's automatically shut down. No more people saying, "It's been too long. How are ya, hun," when you're dead. The application would let you know who's dead or dying, and would prevent people from accessing their albums and Favourite TV Shows info.

Then we could create a kind of Virtual Cemetery. It'd be an online graveyard where people could go to visit the electronic effluvia of their pals' lives. Everything from Myspace, Facebook, MSN (old conversations)--it'd all be there. And this is coming, I assure you. Very soon.

Let me digress: Of all the things I've just mentioned, the posts on the wall of the suicidal friend really bothered me the most. Why couldn't you just have visited him in the hospital? C'mon. Last week a guy in Texas--a guy being executed--asked as his last wish to log on to Twitter and post a message. The message: "Palin? Are you kidding me? Glad I won't be around to see that"

Monday, September 15, 2008

Waking Up To Banned Books: Toronto Jews Talk American Politics

I know one American. And he's not American, really. His mother was born in New York, and so he's been gifted with the right (or privilege--however you see it) to vote in the upcoming U.S. election.

"What do you think of Obama?" he asked me.

"I think he's an idealist."


"So, all he has to do is believe he can fly."

"I don't get it."

"Wendy. Captain Hook. Understand?"


"I like him better than the rich white guy and his rich white wife and their rich white Roy Cohn."

"Roy Cohn?"


"Oh, right. Well, I don't know. I don't know about him. Obama, I mean."

"I can understand that. But change might be good. Even if it lacks substance, even if it doesn't work."

"I'm going to vote for McCain: he's good for Israel."

And that's the way that Toronto Jews see it. They actually follow American politics; they're interested in American intrigue. Our politics is--that's right, it's singular--awful. Boring, stupid, and completely devoid of characters. Our prime minister once took his children to a coal mine. When they got bored, complaining that they wanted to go home, he told them that they couldn't leave or they'd miss the tonnage.

So we follow American politicians. But democrat, republican, or otherwise, only one thing matters: Israel.

Which is why Sarah Palin is really scaring Toronto's Jewish community. Remember that story about Palin trying to ban certain books? This was up in Alaska, in her district schools and libraries. The list--apocryphal as it may be--is long: Catch-22, Portnoy's Complaint, Herzog, The Naked and the Dead, The Magic Barrel, The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel, Tuesdays with Morrie. Starting to see a connection here? (Hint: unleavened bread is somehow involved.)

"She bans books," my grandmother said. "I don't like that. I think that people should be able to read what they want and make their own choices."

"She banned Silas Marner my grandfather said. Silas Marner! Why?"

"That list was wrong," I said. "Don't trust it."

"What about Heller, Roth, Albom?" my grandfather shouted. "She banned them all."

"I'm telling you: don't trust the list."

"She bans Malamud. What'd he ever do to anyone. Ban Richard Wright, for crissakes. He killed someone."

"No he didn't."

"Look it up! David," he was getting conspiratorial, "listen to me: She's banning Jewish books. She's banning all of them. Think about it: What does this mean for Israel?"


"She hunts, David! She shoots animals for fun, then eats them. Do you think she cares about 2.5 million Jews?"

"How's that an argument?"

"Her husband's the First Dude. He rides dogs to work. German Shepherds. You know where they used German Shepherds?"

"Yes, I do."

"Did you see her campaign manager? David, did you see him? He's Jewish! He's a Jew. David, she made him wear a pinstripe suit. David, did you see the yellow kerchief in his breast pocket? Did you see how it was folded? Five points. She made him wear that."

"Go golfing, Zaida. Pick up your clubs, and go play golf."

"You and everyone else. You'll see."

My grandmother sipped her hot water and lemon. "To ban books? In this day. I can't believe it. And especially Portnoy's Complaint. That wasn't even dirty."

"Yes, it was. It was incredibly dirty. Almost as dirty as Henry Miller."

"Oh, she banned him too."

"Miller? Well, maybe she's not so bad."

Friday, September 12, 2008

Question: Can Serious Prose (Fiction) Survive A Blog?

I've been doing a lot of sly bullshitting lately, and it's made me wonder whether this blog shouldn't or couldn't be a little more serious. Should I add poems, should I perform the office of a legitimate prose writer. And what I mean by that is Should I actually offer any insight(s) into dasein as I both see and imagine it.

I don't think I should. I think, if anything, I should be even more outrageous; even less serious.

I was looking through an old essay, and I'd written, about Woolf's To the Lighthouse, that "Nature is sombre and has a soul of passion." I wrote that years ago. (They call that "creative criticism," and at the graduate level it's good for two pounds of flesh.)

But I thought, "Well, I can do something like that. I can be honest, I can write serious fiction; I can post poetry."

And then GBS (Bernard Shaw) spoke to me. "David, why do you want to do that? David, so many others are doing that. David, please...David--Where in the shower does David Adams Richards rest his foot when he's shaving his testicles? Tell me that, David. Please."

So I could be serious. I have unpublished novels; I have unpublished short stories. I have unpublished poems.

But why ruin it? As Robert Bolt once told me, "David, you've already got one Margaret Atwood. Be funny!"

I dug my toe into the sand. "Well, Robert: I try."

I just wish that people cared. If people don't read Saul Bellow, why would they care that he's thinking of buying a new canoe?

About two months ago I met Zadie Smith. "Zadie," I said, "I want to let you know that I really love your stuff. But, please, smile, honey. Just part your lips. Come on. It would mean so much to me. How about a grin? Zadie, just smirk."

I don't sound like that. But I put on the voice. For you, readers. Just to entertain you. But it doesn't work. It reminds me of the time that I baked a pecan pie for Bret Easton Ellis. He'd asked for it, and I baked it. "Bret, have a piece."


"Just a taste."

"I'm not hungry."

"But you asked for it."

"David: I do not need pie right now."

That's the future of blogging. In my opinion, of course.

Drink, Drink

I believe that as you drink your identity's revealed. So here's a test for all self-abusing writers: If you want to know whether you're really made to swallow and re-swallow the description of a tree--or even to look at a tree and wonder, "What kind of tree is that?"--then get drunk. If you get boisterous, if you start joking about the size and angle of your friend's nose, then you may be a writer. If you claw back at fun, if you stop yourself from being fun, then you are a writer. And you ought to sit down and get to 160,000 words, because you have no choice, you'll never escape it, and thin women like writers.

Last night, while drinking will fellow Canadian academics, I wondered what it would've been like if Derek Walcott had risen from the grave (I know he's not dead), and observed our table.

Walcott: Where's my money?

And I think that would've been about it.

One time I was in a bar and Michael Redhill walked in with Christian Bok and Stephen Cain following not-too-far behind. "Great," I thought. "Entertainment." So I pulled over my chair and started to listen.

Cain: "I've just not been pleased with the quality of kimchi in Mississauga."

Redhill: "No, no. It's no good."

Bok: "I can't find a good mirror."

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Famous Canadian Authors Eating

I've been getting such a good response to my Camilla Gibb-sandwich story that I thought I'd inaugurate a new series of posts on Canadian authors whom I've seen eating or drinking in public. No one else is churning out this kind of material, so why not fill the need? We Canadianists want to know what Joseph Boyden looks like eating a slice of pizza. We want to know what Joseph Boyden looks like eating a gyro. We want to know how Joseph Boyden eats an ice cream sandwich, and we want to know how Joseph Boyden cuts his watermelon. Does he cut it down the middle, then slice it into wedges? Does he cut the meat from the rind, choping everything into steak-like triangles? Does he cut it into squares? Or does he do all three?

We must know this.

But, interestingly enough, this post isn't about Joseph Boyden. Instead I want to remember a time when I saw Jane Urquhart eating crab cakes and New England clam chowder at Captain John's Harbour Boat Restaurant in Toronto.

I was there with my grandparents, celebrating a birthday, and Urquhart was at the table across from us. She was with a man--he could have been her father or her grandfather--and they were sharing a bottle of wine and a large Caesar Salad.

Urquhart's got an appetite. But the fork kept missing her mouth, and pieces of lettuce would jam up against her cheek, leaving a smear of Caesar dressing.

My grandparents saw me watching, and wanted to know who Urquhart was.

"That's a Canadian writer," I said. "Very famous. John Metcalf loves her."

"He does?"

"Sure. Last week I heard him tell Russell Smith that she was the best thing to happen to us since Frederick Niven."


"It doesn't matter. She's just a writer. Leave it at that."

"I think that I've read her," my grandmother said. "I thought she was okay."

"She is," I said.

"I like the way that all her paragraphs end at the bottom of the page."

Urquhart managed to drop a hunk of cheesecake down the front of her dress, and when the man went to help her retrieve it she raised her chin and stuck out her tongue. "Look at that," she laughed, "straight to my tits."

Well, coming from Jane that kinda shocked me. But her grandfather-date did her one better: "What tits?" he said, drumming a rimshot with his hands.

It's not really a story, but it's something that I like to tell at parties. Jane Urquhart and a salad; Jane Urquhart and a piece of cheesecake.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Watching Camilla Gibb Eat A Sandwich

Last week I was downtown buying a present for my brother's wife's father. He's [my brother's wife's father] turning fifty next week, and we're all going to their place for a glitzy backyard party. They live near the Spadina Village; they've got a two-hundred-year-old oak tree in their backyard; they serve premium liquor, and they've always got lots of lemon and ice. The last time we were there they were celebrating their thirtieth anniversary. I had about eight cups of coffee, and spent most of my time talking to a really attractive, really vital, really athletic young female dentist. She was thinking about leaving dentistry to become a weaver, and I tried to convince her that it was the right thing to do. But it didn't work. "What're you trying to do to my sister," my sister-in-law asked. "You want her to lose her mind?"

The affair was catered by Josh Okorofsky Catering, and the food and service were superb. I'd describe it as a classy barbecue, and even Gerry Schwartz left full.

The man likes expensive cheese. I can't understand it, it's never been my thing. Very rarely would I say to someone, "And what kind of cheese is that?" But it makes it very easy to shop for him. Buy him a wheel of good cheese and it's like he's just been sent back in time to his sixteenth birthday party. With the listeria scare hitting Kensington Market, I decided to stop by Olympic Cheese Mart in the St. Lawrence Market. I don't know anything about cheese, but were prepared to point me at something and take my money. And I think that's terrific.

There's a place downstairs in the market that sells eggplant and veal sandwiches. Go there from 11-1 on any weekday and you'll find lines snaking through the door. They've got six people working in a space that's just big enough to park a car. They need two people just to hand out change.

I stopped there after I'd picked out my cheese wedge. I was hungry and it was time for lunch. And guess who was in line just steps away? My favourite Diablo Cody thinkalike: Camilla Gibb. I was the only one who noticed her. The three firemen behind me were busy talking about a tire, and the rest of my linemates were occupied with picking out their sandwiches. Would they get cheese or no cheese? Sauce or meat sauce? That type of thing. I watched Gibb as she chewed her hair.

I don't believe in hero worship, but I've defended the right of average Canadians to touch and pet our literary "celebrities." But that day I didn't feel like fawning; just watching.

And I watched. Gibb ordered a giant meatball sandwich with sauce and cheese. She took it all the way down to York Street, where she settled on a concrete construction barrier that was being used to shepherd people past Union Station.

I'll say this about Gibb: she's a slow eater. After twenty minutes of nursing her sandwich she took a sip of a diet Pepsi. Then she went back to the sandwich, dropping a meatball on her skirt. Then she hiked up the skirt, just enough to give me a glimpse of a large bruise, and dropped a meatball on the bruise.

I couldn't take it, so I walked across the road to offer her a napkin.

"Excuse me. Hi, I think you need this." And I handed her the napkin.

"Thank you," she said, ignoring my extended hand. "But I can just lick this clean."

And she raised the hem of her skirt--raised it all the way to her mouth--and licked off the sauce.

"Wow," I said. "Can Mary Novik do that?"


That was an interesting answer. "Fair enough," I said.

"Who are you, anyway? Were you watching me?" Kind of sly.

"No, no, I wasn't watching you." I thought this was kind of slick. "I was admiring you."

"I was writing a prose poem."

"No, I think you were eating a sandwich."

"I can do both."

I looked at her skirt, at her thigh. "No, I don't think you can."

"Fair enough."

So, that was my day. If I see Camilla again I'll be sure to relate it in this blog. I'd love to date her, but she says that I'm just too rational for her. That was an interesting conversation. "When you park," she started, "where do you park?"

"In a space?" I said, not at all confused.

"Yeah, that's what I thought."

Friday, September 5, 2008

Noah Richler Is Right; Leave It To "They," And We'll All Be Lab Techs

I've had a running feud with the Richlers ever since, at a bar mitzvah luncheon, Jacob Richler stole my seat, saying something like, "Scoot, Patty. Scoot." My name, as you can see, is not Patty; the word "scoot" just screws that thorn deeper into my paw.

But I'll admit that Noah Richler, in his latest piece in The Globe and Mail is absolutely right: "they" are getting more stupid.

Richler's argument peaks in the following "fuck you" coda, directed at the un-beating heart of each and every socially conservative Canadian:

"Of course, not for a moment do I believe that Stephen Harper and his ignominious crew are about to reverse the cuts to the arts that they have made - realizing, in a sudden epiphany, that beyond the extraordinary returns on their investment these subsidies constitute, that actually reading novels such as Yann Martel persists in sending the Prime Minister every two weeks, or even thinking about bestselling films with the sort of critical faculty that an education in the arts and social sciences promote, might improve Canada."

Kevin O'Leary, a very rich, very strident Warren Buffett of the north would very likely spit in Richler's pocket square. Investments need tangible returns, not educated, aware people. Educated and aware they'd all realize the kind of bullshit in which they wade. You can't be philosophical and an accountant. Or anything else, really. You have a job; you go to the job; you do the job; you come home; you go to sleep; you go to the job again. No time for discourse or Socratic monologues. My cousin, the accountant, a man with a graduate degree in mathematics, still doesn't know the difference between to and too, their and there. I asked him to name three people, dead or alive, with whom he'd like to share a bathroom. He said, "Joey, Chandler, and Ross." But that's the world that the Harpers want us to live in. Everyone's packaged and canned in high school; they burn out, thin out in university; then become the computer engineers of the next generation.

There's no premium on critical thinking, because critical thinkers are critical. What scared, scheming, stiff-as-a-board, semi-literate Canadian politician wants more readers in his riding? Why? So someone can say, "You know what, you sound just like Elmer Gantry"?

The real question is something like Why are the arts so offensive to some--see "most"--Canadians? Forget "the arts"; let's focus on the artists. No one looks at a dentist and says, "Forget this teeth shit; go to OCAD." But people are so angry at artists and writers. "Write something that normal people would like!" "Like what?" "Something with treasure! And a nuclear submarine!"

Harper's edict proves two things: 1) anyone who talks about Canadian ideals probably parts his hair on the left; 2) this generation can't rebel.

Remember hippies, beatniks? People who left society? Well, now they're locked in. Where's this arts money going? Out of one pocket, into another? Damn right. As if artists and writers who live on subsidies don't buy food, don't put that money right back into a cash register. They're sure as hell not saving it.

But, you know what? If they were certified financial planners, this never would've happened.

Asked to name his strongest attribute, our Harper once spouted, "Prudence!" Flavourless intelligence. Nature is sombre and has a soul of passion; the Conservative government puts water in its Cheerios 365 days a year.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Less Than Less Than Zero

I wonder how the official, government-sanctioned, Canadian version of Less Than Zero would read. Bret Easton Ellis did such a terrific job of describing life in L.A. in the mid-'80s. What about life in Toronto in the late-2000s?

I have a feeling there'd be a white guy, an Oriental guy, a black guy, an East Indian guy, and a Native (Indian). Then there'd be a white girl, an Oriental girl, an East Indian girl, and a Native (Indian) girl. Don't even think about calling her a squaw.

And since this is a government-sanctioned book, everyone would be terribly optimistic. "You've got the future in the palm of your hand," one would say. "All you've got to do to get you through is understand."

More than likely they'd live in a loft on Queen West. And it'd have four bathrooms. Since this is fiction, there'd always be lots of hot water. I don't know...Who'd write something like that? Kyle Draymond? Michael Treuw? I don't get the feeling that there's any impetus right now to tell an honest, socially irresponsible story. Or maybe there is and no one'll publish it. I'd say that one is equally likely as the other.

I know there isn't much urban fiction being written in Canada, but our rural stuff is just as disaffected and bleak as Ellis's pan-Hollywood valley. In fact, it's probably worse. So where are our newish young people dying on farms? At what point did Canadian characters stop being self-destructive? The '80s? The '70s? When did we get so quirky? Wes Anderson, discussing Canadian literature, once said, "It's the influence for all my work. I love how no one is ever quite real, but is somehow real enough."

Ellis could've learned something from F.P. Grove or Sinclair Ross. You've got the soul-destroying nothingness of the farm; you've got the soul-destroying nothingness of bareback Hollywood. I'll take Hollywood, but the farm's a close second. If we're going to be moral and self-destructive, let's at least involve casual sex and drug abuse.

The Two Moral Crises of the Twenty-First-Century Man-Child
1: Can I do this for the rest of my life?
2: What did I miss?

I think the problem could be that I just know too many people who've committed suicide. I know one guy who got stuck in the safety netting at the Bloor Street Viaduct. He was freed by firefighters, thanked them, then walked in front of a truck. In his suicide note he blamed Domino's Pizza for always getting there twenty-nine minutes after he'd ordered.

I don't really believe in anything, which is why I'm wondering if there's a chapter after Ellis's novel that applies to us northerners. LTZ was published in 1985. Maybe there's a very slow ripple spreading across Canada. And now we're just starting to feel it in the centre of the universe--Toronto.
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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