Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Our long civic nightmare is over - or is it?

I was out over the weekend, having drinks (probably too many of them) but attempting to explain why there's a large part of me that is, for lack of a better word, often ashamed to be a Canadian right now.

I suppose it's safe for me to say that I'm far from a supporter of our current federal government, or the current (at least until the end of yesterday) Mayor of Toronto.  But it's not just that they're right-wing and I'm not, it's more about the ways in which Canadians have become so much pettier and meaner than I recall growing up, and how our current governments often reflect that. 

By reflect, I mean that nearly half of voters in the last civic election voted for Rob Ford, knowing full well who he was and what he stood for.  And he delivered on his "mandate".

John Tory?  I usually remember him as the guy who used to real suck up to Mike Harris, which made me sick, but then I actually felt a bit sorry for him when he lost as PC leader over, of all things, funding for religious schools.

Now I know that I'm pretty much the only person (especially on the left) who feels this way, but I always thought he got a bad rap for losing the election over this issue.  Given we already fund Catholic schools, why not fund all the other religious schools?  And then they all would have to play by the government's rules - despite what people think about government, that's how it works.  If you want the money, prepared to have every last cent of it accounted for.  Wouldn't it be a better idea to bring these private schools into the tent than leaving them outside?

But it turned out that raising the spectre of "Muslim" schools was more than enough for the good people of Ontario to reject him, even though, like the whole Sharia Law thing a number of years back,  Ontarians decided it would be better to exclude Muslims from the law than to bring Sharia Law into the framework of the Canadian legal system. 

Canadians are good at talking about diversity, or being smug about diversity, but actually reflecting it in our institutions?  Not so much!

But I don't come here to talk about the mayor. 


No, I want to talk about the story that's overshadowing the fact that there will hopefully never be a Mayor Ford of Toronto - the firing by the CBC of Jian Gomeshi.

Given what's come out, it's pretty difficult to see anything good on Gomeshi's side - the calculated Facebook post, followed by the numerous allegations, and so on.  It's all very ugly.  But here's the disclaimer- none of my opinion on what happened matters or has any bearing on the truth!

But the thing that really got me was how many Torontonians, when they heard about this, answered "I'm not surprised."  Really, you "Toronto media and arts scene" assholes?  Really?  You weren't surprised that he allegedly hit and choked various women?

Is this what passes for being an "insider" in Toronto - I thought a membership to The Spoke Club or an invitation to the latest secret supper club inside the back of a food truck was good enough back in the day, but everyone "knowing" a prominent CBC Radio personality is supposedly doing this kind of stuff to people?

Maybe being across the pond, I'm seeing this rather differently than if I were there, but it's difficult not to think that most of the Torontonians who went around saying this all over the Internet the past few days were just reinforcing their own social capital, which is, quite frankly, insane to me. 

There are people defending him, there are people excoriating him, and then there are people telling you that they knew about this all along on twitter, and then defending or excoriating him.  Two of those three groups live in the real world, the other lives in downtown Toronto.

This is what infuriates me about Toronto -how incredibly blind people are to the world and that even we Canadians do awful things to each other and other people, all around the world. Here's a news flash for Canadians - we are no better than anyone else in the world

We do awful things, and we let awful things be done to people, and then we tweet about knowing how these things happened all along, and it's the latter that seems to be the most important thing.   It seems trivial to say this, but there are going to be long term ethical and political implications to seeing the world this way.  And that frightens me.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Cash is the limit point of irony, or, things that have been in my head for a long time

If any of you were reading me five years ago, you might recall that one of my many failed projects was an examination of hipsterdom.  Back in 2009, this would have been cutting edge research, but because I was either lazy or busy (or other things that one could discern from this blog back in the day...) I never got past the first piece U did on the Black Hoof, which has become an institution.

I talked about hipsters as an artifact of late capitalism.  I thought that sounded pretty novel - well, it turns out that pretty much everyone already thought this.  Indeed, N+1, the literary magazine founded by white guys my age (like me!) published a book called "What was the hipster?", which I got with my subscription to, uh, N+1.

It's a good little book, and it kind of killed my project, in part because it had so much more authority than my blog, and better research too.  But there was always one thing that bugged me about the book, of which a good excerpt is here, which was that Mark Grief, the author of the piece, stated that the hipster emerged in 1999.  I don't really disagree with him, but I've always been convinced that the hipster aesthetic emerged before that, and my evidence for this has always been Fiona Apple's "Criminal" video:

Actually, I'll just say right now that I think this video pretty much invented the aesthetic.  By which I mean it made the 70's look like the 90's, and this is where we are now, isn't it?  Go back and watch and episode of Friends, or the last season of Seinfeld, and tell me they haven't aged.  But this?  It could have been filmed yesterday.  Or 10 years ago, even!  But this video is closer to 20 years old, which is mind boggling.  (Oddly enough, Tidal represents one of maybe 10 popular music albums I've purchased in the past 20 years, most of which happened around 1997-98.)

The reality is that the most authority I've ever had on this is when I wrote a post eight years ago about Ossington Avenue, and it's kind of cool because Ossington is so unrecognizable now in that piece, entirely due to hipster gentrification (I'm actually using this term ironically, just wait!)

It captured a moment, and also my own ambivalence about my role in the world, which at that time was centered around Queen and Ossington. (This ambivalence is a large part of why I post so infrequently now)

But I do have a couple of things to say about hipsters that I couldn't say five years ago. Besides my Fiona Apple Conjecture,  I'm pretty sure the early 21st Century hipster and what we refer to as hipsters now are two totally different things - the early version were people who get referred to as the shock troops of gentrification - they gave a place a cool edginess, but usually without the scariness of the Other -they somehow felt both welcoming and exclusive.  I'm thinking of a place like the Communist's Daughter, which is now an institution.  Or the Lakeview Diner, which was an institution before its makeover, and is now an institution.

But always lurking in the background were people like me - thirtysomething upper middle class white people. We were waiting there, letting the hipsters do the heavy lifting, and then we got in there and built condos and squeezed out the original hipsters.  But the process was so strangely organic, with Category 1 hipsters becoming Category 2 hipsters once they got a job in the civil service, that no one really noticed that the hipster, who everyone associated with say, Dash Snow, somehow became the hipster of the Portlandia series, that is, bourgeois, domesticated. 

The hipster that Mark Grief describes died out a while ago, but it still signifies two things - people with big glasses and lumberjack shirts, and then people who own the bars these people drink at.  They kind of look the same, but they seem to represent two very different things.

I mean, you can have conservative hipsters now!  There are actually guys, who wear lumberjack shirts and have beards with short, pomaded hair, and who vote for Stephen Harper.  I've met them.  This is not something I could have imagined 10 years ago.  Hipsterdom is rather like punk now - something a lot of people loathed, and a lot of people loved, but now it's just an aesthetic.

This is also why I got tired of writing about this stuff - I wanted to deconstruct the irony that the  hipster, in the movement's (actually not bad) celebration of kitsch and trash begat the $15 macaroni and cheese. But in doing this it also meant participating economically by consuming all this expensive crap. Because the only way one could participate in being a hipster was by paying $20 for a hamburger and fries, which was actually a pretty good sign that the way I, and everyone else, was talking about hipsters was deeply, deeply confused.  For a brief moment, hip meant affordable and interesting.  But then irony got expensive.

There's maybe no better example of this now than Wallflower.  It's a bar on Dundas near Lansdowne.  I was first attracted to it because it has that faded charm that so many bars in Berlin have. (Yes, I am aware of the fact that just saying that says a lot about me, but here we are!)

But then they charge $6 for a "mug" of beer, which actually works out to $8 a pint, and it occurred to me that I was not in a Category 1 hipster bar, but a Category 2 hipster bar.  By which I mean that people with money, who want to make money, are running Wallflower - it is such a calculated environment, but not in the way a fancy restaurant is, no, all the calculation is in the effort the owners took in hiding its calculatedness.  Hey, it's really just a low key relaxed place, with distressed wood and faded wallpaper.  And expensive beer served in a way that evokes drinking out of mason jars.  

There is some irony in this digression - I'm pretty sure that the person who owns Wallflower owns the Communist's Daughter.  So there's a circle there, somewhere.

But I am boring myself with this, and I didn't really have a point except that this has been laying in the fragments of my mind for a while, and now that it's gone, I can make room for other thoughts.  At least I think that's how it works.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

This blog still exists

It seems odd to think that this blog has been around for 7 years, limping along, a post here and there, lately reflecting not much more than a profound desire to avoid writing.  Of course we know why- there's a dissertation to be written!

In any event, writing at all has proven difficult.  And indeed, when one looks across the infinite horizon of the virtual landscape, there are moribund blogs everywhere.  So maybe it isn't just me.

I also know that people have moved on, to Facebook, to twitter, etc.  There are places where essays are also read and shared (metafiler is a good example), but blogging, that medium that "forced" newspapers to add comment sections to the bottoms of their articles, to the benefit of no one, now seems to have been a passing fad, consigned to the dustbin of internet history.

Instead we have sites like, uh, Medium, which is basically a blog, but it was created by one of the founders of twitter, and it's somehow new.

Does this seem like I'm complaining?  Why do I only ever write about writing?

Or about Toronto?  For years I've had a pet theory about Toronto mayoralty races since Toronto was amalgamated in 1998, and the current race, which I'm thankfully out of the country for, is a chance for this theory to really shine.  So I'm going to put it out there, in part because one of Olivia Chow's former advisors, Warren Kinsella, is asking this very question.

I call it the "Underdog Theory".  It's a pretty simple theory, but I've never seen anyone else write about it, and it's so far been a nearly universal predictor of who will become the next Mayor of Toronto.

Here goes:   About a year (or even earlier) before the actual election,  journalists in Toronto begin to create "buzz" about the next big candidate (if there's no incumbent mayor).  This buzz is amplified by polling firms, who take the conjecture of the media, and ask people who they might vote for, and also by the people who might want to be mayor.  This person, for the purposes of my theory, I've named the "consensus candidate".  By this I mean that person who, long before most people are thinking seriously about the election, and before anyone could even reasonably consider running, has been chosen by the media as the front runner.

 So for example, before the 1998 and 2003 elections, the frontrunner a year out was Barbara Hall.  After David Miller decided to step down, the consensus front runner was George Smitherman.  Do you notice anything about these frontrunners?  They never win.

Who wins?  Well, it seems to be the person who somehow bucks the consensus.  What's interesting about this is that it doesn't seem to have much to do with ideology - David Miller won mainly by being the lone candidate to campaign again the island airport, and Rob Ford won mainly because he represented an outsider looking into City Council.

So this is to me what makes this current race pretty interesting.  Firstly, we have an incumbent (or had I should say now).  But I think that, given everything that went on, including the fact that his powers were stripped from him, the current race was functioning effectively as one without an incumbent.

Now if anyone is actually reading this, and has bothered to stay with me so far, let's look at the consensus candidate from a year ago - Olivia Chow.  Does everyone remember all the stories about how polls showed that only Chow could beat Rob Ford at the polls?  When I saw this, my first reaction to it was "uh-oh".

I reacted this way for two reasons - firstly, at the time I thought this time might be the race that refutes my pet theory, and that would bruise my ego.  Secondly, I thought to myself, well if she's isn't going to win, who will, and the odds are that person is going to be awful.

So here we are a month out, and guess what?  Olivia Chow has basically disappeared from the race, and could sink to Joe Pantalone levels of support, and John Tory, who lost to Rob Ford, has come from below to steal the race from her, although as I've argued, she was screwed the day everyone said she would be the one to win!

But then Rob Ford got cancer, and his brother stepped in.  I cannot help but look at Doug Ford and see him as the new underdog, especially here in the bucolic splendour of Wolfenbüttel! 

Here's the thing - John Tory has been leading for some time now, and Doug Ford, whether or not deserves it, can pretty much count on all of Rob Ford's support.  What remains to be seen is whether or not the huge group of people who voted for Rob Ford but never admitted it to people (a tendency which, given the whole crack scandal, is strangely literary in its foreshadowing...) are prepared to switch their votes from Tory to Doug Ford.

Honestly, I don't know.  But now that I have finally had the courage to state my pet theory, I look forward to its refutation.  Mainly because the thing that seems really clear to me, if my theory is actually operating (somewhere) in the hive mind of the Toronto voting public, it's that the race for mayor has nothing to do with governance, or ideology. 

It's about something else.  I still haven't found a way to articulate what that else is, but it seems to have less to do with politics, and more to do with anxiety about "elites".  But I've already gone on too long.

With any luck, the next time I write on the blog won't be six months from now! 

Friday, March 28, 2014

A blast from the past!

Maybe because it's near my birthday, and I'm feeling both old and nostalgic, but this post from Metafilter about being a tuba player is a nice reminder of both why I loved playing the tuba but also why I gave it up. 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Friday, November 08, 2013

Running is Cheap

I clicked on this expecting to be angered (is that not that the main reason we read anything on the Internet?), but it instead confirmed something I wish I'd said out loud a long time ago!

A long time ago, I wrote a nice post  about getting back into running.  Unfortunately, right after that post, I injured myself, or aggravated some long-term problem in my knee, or something, which put me off running for long time.

But I started running again this summer, and again, it is so strange to be a runner now, having been a runner over 20 years ago, and how everyone who runs now has all kinds of crazy gear, like belts with water bottles attached - who on earth needs one of those to go out jogging for 3km?  I recall seeing this one woman every morning, running very slowly and deliberately, with three small, completely filled water bottles.  Perhaps it would have been easier for her to run if she weren't carrying 10lbs in water on her?

This was something I remember very clearly after I ran that race 5 years ago.  Cheering people on the finish line, and watching people come in 20 minutes after me, wearing hundred of dollars of running "equipment", like special tights, and those crazy watches that tell you everything about your run, and all I could think to myself was "this equipment did not really do much for you".

Maybe that sounds unfair, but it is so easy to buy professionalism these days - to feel like you are with the pros.  It's like Guitar Hero - it very much gives you the feeling of playing a guitar, but please do not tell me (as many do) that it's the same as actually playing a guitar.  It isn't, and it's kind of insulting to all the people who spend day after day practising.

I am not really in a position to brag about my own discipline and amazing practicing techniques, but I know well enough to know that buying stuff isn't a replacement for taking the time to learn something, that's the attitudes that link jokes about is really more about commodification than it is about enjoyment or exercise.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Margaret Wente: Ace Concern Troll

Why did I read Margaret Wente's recent column on David Gilmour?

I don't even know why I'm writing about this, except that I a) wrote about both of them recently, and b) I am, in my own pathetic way, as bad as everyone else on the Internet (forgive me, Jonathan Franzen!).  I also promise not to write about her again at least until next year.

To be charitable to her, her column points something out that nearly everyone else has ignored.  She is nearly the only person who has pointed out that Gilmour is not a tenured professor.  Rather, he is (like me, actually, as well as many of my friends) a part-time sessional instructor at U of T, specifically, with Victoria College.

I suspect one of the reasons this was lost in the shuffle was because the impression one gets from the initial Hazlitt interview was that the U of T begged to give him a 100k+ per year tenured position because he's a "natural teacher". The reality is that he's making about $7,000 per course, at least until his contract runs out...

Besides that, her column is phoned-in trash about how men are a disadvantaged minority on campuses.  The following is a character study in complete bullshit being passed off as conventional wisdom:
Frankly, I was surprised and glad to learn that there remains one small testosterone-safe zone at U of T (although I guess it’s not safe any more). As anyone who’s set foot on campus in the past 30 years ought to know, courses in guy-guy writers are vastly outnumbered by courses in women writers, queer writers, black writers, colonial writers, postcolonial writers, Canadian writers, indigenous writers, Caribbean, African, Asian and South Asian writers, and various sub- and sub-subsets of the above. But if you’re interested in Hemingway, good luck. No wonder male students are all but extinct in the humanities.
I know that the Globe and Mail, like many other news organizations, has had to tighten its belt, but couldn't anyone have googled the U of T's English Department's course listings?  A cursory glance at the course outlines shows that there are plenty of the supposed "guy-guy" writers, like Philip Roth, getting taught at U of T.

The problem, and this is maybe what Wente missed when her overworked, unpaid intern, who had spent 30 seconds "researching" her column after picking up Wente's Pumpkin Spice Latte, is that a lot of the "guy-guy" writers that Gilmour mentioned just fall under the category of "American Fiction of the 20th Century".  In other words, their maleness is not pointed out because it remains the category against which everything else is judged. 

Indeed, Hemingway might be the only major white male author for whom I could not find a course listing.  However, there's a fourth year seminar for that darling of the feminist left, Ezra Pound.

This brings up an important point.  Maybe we do need to spell this kind of stuff out - English 324 should be called "Modern, mainly white, male poets up to 1960" so that men too can also wear the burden of their identity the way Margaret Wente so casually diminishes the identities of everyone in her laundry list of courses.

But the line that really sticks in my craw is the last one "No wonder male students are all but extinct in the humanities." Seriously?  Men aren't drawn to the humanities because they don't get to read books by male authors?  So then what are all these women doing reading Milton? Penis Envy?  And what the hell do I have in common with Milton anyway, beyond my gender and my skin colour?  None of what she writes makes any sense!

In conclusion, I will never write about anything she writes ever again.  Sorry to have troubled you.

New York City Opera

Here is a very nice obituary for it by Tim Page.

Having never lived in New York, I cannot really imagine what it would be like to lose something like this.  We remain, in Canada, relatively lucky that, despite an (allegedly) crack-smoking mayor here in Toronto,and a Prime Minister bent on returning Canada to its fur trade roots by narrowing our economy to resource extraction, we have managed, somehow, to retain most of our arts organizations.

Even if the Canadian Opera Company pisses me off, and it has lately, I don't know what the cultural life of the city would be like without it.

A very sad state of affairs.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

David Gilmour

I see David Gilmour all the time.

He used to host a program on CBC Newsworld called On The Arts.  I used to watch it a lot, in part because it was almost the only thing on TV that had much to do with the arts, even though "arts" usually meant film and literature reviews, and not much music, which was what I was actually interested in.

But I do remember a few things about the show and his attitude, things that stuck with me for some reason. Firstly, he had a really combative interview with Brad Pitt over Fight Club.  It was interesting because everyone was looking at the movie as "culture jamming" and Gilmour was taking him to task because he felt that a big Hollywood production was incapable of culture jamming in the way the marketing of the movie implied.

I liked it because after years of watching these publicity "interviews" I thought it was unusual for the interviewer to actually call a celebrity out on what they thought was bullshit.  It also made me question what Fight Club was about, and made me realise that I had completely bought into the marketing of the film as being equivalent to the effect of the film.

I also remember him often saying that he didn't like Shakespeare because "he's boring".


When I first moved to Toronto, I lived at Bloor and Brunswick, pretty much the heart of the Annex neighborhood here in Toronto.  I saw David Gilmour a lot there.  Then I moved away and didn't see him around much.

When I started doing grad school at the University of Toronto, I started seeing him again.  He's one of those funny people in one's city life where, even though you don't really know him, he always seems to be around the same places as you.  I go to a cheese shop in Kensington, and he's there.  I grab lunch at Victoria College, and he's there.  I can't avoid him.

I don't really know him.  But until yesterday at least, I really quite admired him, mainly because of this article he wrote about Tolstoy.  This is one of my all-time favourite articles about a writer.  I don't know why I liked it so much back in the day, but I did, and it made me go out and buy War and Peace.  And oddly enough, the last time I saw him, which is usually at least once a week, he was going up Yonge street, and I mentioned to my girlfriend that I might go and tell him how much I loved that Tolstoy article in the Walrus.

But now I feel ashamed to admit that.


Why, you are asking, because you do not have an rss feed reader?  Because of this.  He has since kind of apologized, but the thing that really comes out of that interview is the fact that he seems to utterly lack charity.

This is ironic because the Tolstoy article is all about coming around to Tolstoy, about imagining that he would hate it, and then reading it, and realising how wonderful it was.  It was that joy of discovery that really affected me in a positive way, and I can imagine that if he can come across that way in a classroom, it would be very inspiring.

But I cannot help but think now that his Tolstoy article was a work of fiction more than a work of memoir, as he seems completely incapable of understanding how his remarks might be interpreted as deeply, deeply uncharitable to women, or to nearly anyone.  This interview makes his experience of Tolstoy sound impossible.


I want to contrast Gilmour's controversy with the one I wrote last week about Jonathan Franzen.  Both are causing a lot of controversy, but I was surprised by how much of the Franzen controversy surrounded what he wrote about women, and also by how differently I read those passages.

They are both middle-aged white men (I am also perilously close to that demographic) but where I see Gilmour blind to his own uh, blind spots, I read in Franzen a self-deprecating moment that, perhaps having been a young man myself, I could identify with that ingrained youthful sexism where, even if you are a "nice guy", you still somehow believe that your grand gestures should be acknowledged as signs of greatness (and virility), and when they aren't, it really offends your ego.  Never mind that she may have her own feelings and thoughts on this, and have different wants and needs.

And I look back on some of those moments, and I feel badly about them, and I hope to talk to my son about those things in a way where he doesn't find himself in those kinds of situations of being angry with yourself, and with the world, because you cannot control whether or not people are attracted to you or not.  A lot of other critics read him as just being straight up sexist, and I don't agree with that at all.  But then perhaps people will imagine that my saying what I just did is sexist.  And then I suppose it's true that there is no space for conversation on the Internet, and Franzen is right again!

Anyway, I suppose my point is that where I thought many critics were uncharitable to Franzen, it seems pretty clear to me that Gilmour lacks that charity towards others. They are being compared to each other (right now on the Internet!) as symbols for creepy/irrelevant old dude power, when it seems pretty clear to me that, at least from the standpoint of women, they are coming at things from wildly different perspectives. It is also true that they are older white dudes.

But as it stands, I think it will be kind of awkward seeing David Gilmour around (I know I will!) and I don't know if that bizarre familiarity will lead me to feel sorry for him, or kind of pissed off that he managed to poison my nuanced and thoughtful admiration (as you can see from above) of him.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Craig Davidson

One of those lucky few (ha ha) to have a sidebar link from my prestigious blog is the Canadian author Craig Davidson.

I'm not actually sure how I encountered his work, although, I think it was from this, where he savages a review of a book on the old literary site the Danforth Review.  (The exchange is actually kind of funny...)

Anyway, it led me to his blog, which honestly, has been one of the funniest things I've ever read.  If you look watch this recent CBC interview, the interviewer mentions that the men always wound up smelling like doughnuts, and I can't help but think he is referring to an old blog post about his dad working at the Ridpath Sugar Factory, which had me in tears.   It looks like that post has long since vanished, so it will only live in my heart (and mind) as some of the funniest stuff I've ever read.  That being said, he's still very, very funny!

What's great about his blog is how different it is from his work as a novelist, but taken together they show a wonderful and convincing range on his part.  I'm really happy to see that he's doing so well, with one of his books turned into a movie, and the latest one on the Giller longlist.

I actually ran into him once, at a bar called Pauper's here in Toronto, and I (unsuccessfully) tried to get him a job!  That was years ago, but nevertheless I'm going to pick up his book, which will be strange given how much I hate Canadian fiction, but it seems like the least I can do for all the entertainment he has given me over the years.  If nothing else I have a table leg that needs balancing.

Seriously though, I would urge you to check out his blog and buy his book!