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What Would Hemmimgway Do?

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I no longer in retail, and I don’t regret it.  But I do.

In October 2011, I began working at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario–widely known as the LCBO, for the full name sounds like it’s pulled out of the Prohibition Era that the LCBO was created to end–a job that started at 14 bucks an hour, offered no guaranteed hours, gave no benefits until after five years–and even then, they were a trivial minimum offered only on condition of working a stipulated amount of hours per year that weren’t guaranteed to you–and left very little room for mental stimulation.  My job involved working a cash register, bagging orders, tearing down the load in the warehouse, and stocking the shelves.  I did the job for seven years almost to the day, until I left it for my more satisfying current full-time position as an associate editor for a magazine. (More on this later.)

The LCBO, Ontario’s government-run monopoly, which, although it allows wine and beer in grocery stores, maintains a tight control of distribution

Government-monopolized booze

Unless you hail from Ontario, you’re likely not familiar with the LCBO.  The retail outlet can find its origin in 1927, when Ontario, realizing that the prohibition of alcohol was an impossibility, lifted the alcoholic ban, flooding the country with the booze that never really left in the first place.  (During its eleven-year experiment with Prohibition, Ontario’s wineries were allowed to stay open, light beer was allowed to be manufactured and consumed, and breweries and distilleries were allowed to remain open for the export market.)

The LCBO was opened as a government-owned and -operated distribution and retail operation, a compromise between people who wanted access to booze and the lofty ideals of the temperance movement, rooted in a 19th-century Canada in which men drank heavily and abused their wives and children.  (In fact, temperance, along with the its sister movement of women’s suffrage, were the two largest causes championed by early feminists.)  The chain initially opened with 16 stores, four warehouses, and 16 mail order departments; two-dollar liquor permits were required to purchase alcoholic beverages.  The permits weren’t abolished until 1961, and although the LCBO had expanded to hundreds of stores by the ’50s, they weren’t friendly places: Customers had to have an alcoholic passport in order to make alcoholic purchases.  The passport displayed all of their purchases, and staff was expected to judge if customers were fit to consume alcohol; the passports stayed in place until 1962.  First Nations Ontarians weren’t allowed to buy booze until 1959, and women and visible minorities were effectively barred from working at LCBO stores.  Merchandise wasn’t displayed in stores until the mid ’60s, and it wasn’t until 1969 that the first self-serve LCBO opened.  (Prior to that, you had to go to a counter and ask a staff member to retrieve bottles for you.)

As a kid in the ’80s, I can remember going into LCBO stores with my parents; the stores felt like dreary, sterile buildings with bare cement walls; the outlets were seemingly designed to make you feel guilty about buying booze.  It wasn’t until the late ’90s that the LCBO began opening their big-box, customer-first stores, complete with its sought-after complimentary magazine, Food & Drink, which ended up, in a round-about way, to be my ticket to a more satisfying career.

First Nations Ontarians weren’t allowed buy booze until 1959, and women and visible minorities were effectively barred from working at LCBO stores.

The unintended side effect of the LCBO was the enormous cash cow that it became; for its 2016-2017 fiscal year, the LCBO had $5.89 billion in revenues, had a profit of $2.09 billion, and sent the province a dividend of $2.06 billion.  It is the world’s largest purchaser of alcoholic beverages, and even with the expansion of beer, cider, and wine sales into grocery stores, the LCBO holds a tight control on the distribution across the province, for grocery stores are obligated to purchase their alcoholic products from the LCBO’s warehouses.  This is telling, for of its two corporate mandates–social responsibility and fiscal profits–the latter seems to be the more important.  And, critically, the LCBO reports to the Minister of Finance.  (This is not necessarily a criticism of the LCBO; rather, it should be a recognition of how the government monopoly has evolved over the past 92 years.)

I Felt Trapped

I have two university degrees, both of which for over a decade failed to get me a position that I could have gotten with a high school diploma. I earned a B.A. in sociology and history from York University’s Glendon campus and a subsequent film degree from York’s fine arts faculty, which has since been renamed.  I sought the film degree because part way through my liberal arts degree, I had an epiphany that I should pursue a career in the movie business, mostly because I spent my teens and early to mid-20s watching movies, initially borrowing them from the library (remember when VCR was king?) and then spending all of my free time at Toronto’s old neighbourhood theatres, which by the ’90s had been converted to second-run theatres.  I had fallen into this false thinking that because I loved movies so much, I could earn a film degree, leave school, and then somehow enter the film business.  But three things eluded me: first, that I should spend my school years building up a portfolio of creativity that represented me, second I should build up a network of colleagues and mentors with whom I could have possibly collaborated, and third, that to make it into the creative side of the movie or tv business, you have to have immense talent and dedication.   I put none of the above-mentioned background work into getting into the field and participated in no practical school events that would have developed my skills.  (I also subsequently later realized that I don’t have a skill set to succeed in film or tv, for when I had my I.Q. test done in my late 30s, I realized that I am extremely low in the spatial intelligence needed to be in the visual arts; however, I have a near-genius level intelligence in verbal intelligence.)

After I finished my second degree, I was lost.  I had no job lined up, no money saved up, and no way to begin paying back my student loans.  While I was in school, my parents had moved to Erin, Ontario, a small town an hour’s drive northwest of Toronto.  So that’s where I was headed.  For about four months, I couldn’t find a job.  I eventually applied to a few temp companies, who placed me in positions in various factories and warehouses, including Canadian Tire’s distribution centre in Brampton, Ontario; a small electronics warehouse in Mississauga, Ontario; and various juice factories scattered across the Greater Toronto area.  I was even placed at a plant that processed chickens arriving from the slaughterhouse; luckily, the temp agency failed not only to tell me that it was a processing plant but also to wear appropriate clothing, so when I arrived, I wasn’t allowed do that job.  My longest placement with the various temp agencies was the Walmart distribution centre.  Walmart contracts out its distribution centres; they in turn contract out their hiring to temp agencies.  It’s a tactic that many large companies do, for they don’t have to go through the expense of hiring people, and if they want to get rid of somebody, the temp agency “reassigns” you to another client and never calls you back.  I was essentially working forty hours a week there but had to wait everyday for the temp agency to call me to assign me a shift.

Things Get Worse Before They Get Better

But temp jobs aren’t designed to last, and none of these did.  Nor did they provide me with enough income to be able to plan into the future, not that I had developed a plan at this point.  (If I had had the skill to plan for myself, I would have more effectively used my university days.)  So I picked up a few different jobs, including mucking horse stalls and working at Canada’s Wonderland, essentially a summer job that should have been for a high school student. 

All of these low-paying jobs were interrupted by months-long stretches of unemployment.  While still living in Erin, I drove to Guelph, Ontario, where I would get a non-profit agency to help me write my CV and come up with effective plans to pump out my resume.  At this point, I had no special skills and was still pumping out vague resumes intended for anybody who would hire me.  All this time, my mother urged me to apply to the government for disability payments.  I quite possibly could have qualified, if I had claimed a developmental disability, but going through the prospect of the difficult application process didn’t appeal to me, especially considering that I would have essentially been living the rest of my life on welfare.  I knew I was able to something; I just didn’t know what.

However, I wasn’t above using non-profit agencies dedicated to helping those with disabilities getting people into jobs; unfortunately, these jobs were entirely unsuited to me.  The first job was selling conference phones to businesses.  I have zero ability to sell, so that job lasted a mere six months.  Job number two was working at a call centre for RBC, the country’s largest bank; unfortunately, I’m not good at multitasking and quickly absorbing information, so I was unable to pass the training program.  At this point I was living on my own in Port Credit, Ontario, and had no job and rent to pay.  I quickly applied for EI and began pumping my CV out again.  I didn’t even have my own computer at this point–they were still somewhat expensive at this point–so I spent hours at the library, where I used the free computers to email CVs.  It took eight months, but I found a job.

I’m No Good at Talking on the Phone

The job: working at the call centre for the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), the city-run agency that operates Toronto’s public transit system, including its buses, streetcars, and subways.  I was hired on a contract; the job was part time with no guaranteed hours, no benefits, although each shift was guaranteed to be eight hours, with a one-hour paid lunch.  I was hired to take calls in the TTC’s information centre, giving people routing information.  The routing information was easy for me (reading maps and understanding directions is one of my strengths), but I was stressed by the job: I was given only a minute and fifty seconds to give routing information to anxious people who would really slowly write the info down and then repeat it.  And people would yell at me, insisting that I was giving them wrong information.  I was kind of glad I didn’t get my contract renewed.  However, I was able to use that job to get into GO Transit, Toronto’s regional agency, where I would be doing public relations.  The majority of the job involved writing apology letters to people when their trains didn’t show up; however, after I was hired, I learned that about a quarter of the job involved talking to people who chose to phone in their complaints rather than email it in.  I lasted for almost eight months, when it became apparent to GO that I couldn’t deal with disgruntled people.  By this point, I was living on my own in Toronto, with no way to pay the bills, when, close to a year later, I landed a job, another contract, working at the YMCA, where I enrolled kids into YMCA summer camps.  It lasted seven months, and at the end, I was able to get another contract position at the YMCA: The YMCA had a government contract to place university grads into paid internships with non-profit environmental agencies, and I screened the applicants and filed their paperwork so they could work.  The job was great, but the  contract lasted only three months, and by January I was out of a job yet again.  I went a few months without another job, when I landed a job working the fall months at York University’s bookstore, stacking shelves with textbooks.  And it was this job that landed me the job at the LCBO.  It was my first time transitioning almost immediately form one job to another.

J’aime le LCBO

I got the job because I speak French; LCBO stores located in neighbourhoods with a certain threshold of francophones are required to have French-speaking staff.  So after going through the interview process at the LCBO’s flagship Summerhill store, I had an interview with a French translator, who rated my French as intermediate plus, which, at the time, was good enough to get you hired as French-language staff at the LCBO.  I was placed at a large LCBO store near where I live in midtown Toronto.  The store was ranked as the third- or fourth-busiest LCBO in the province; still, my shifts were rarely longer than five hours–occasionally they were six-and-a-half hours, and the only way to get enough hours was to work everyday–six months into the job, I was doing just that. (I even had to supplement my income by modelling for art classes. Read the blog!)  But the stress of working in a busy store every single day got to me, so when I found out that my store needed four people to work the midnight shift–come in at 11PM, break down the load, and stock the shelves–I jumped at it.  I didn’t have to deal with customers, I could listen to CBC on my phone while working, and I could keep to largely to myself.   And most importantly, I got my weekends off.  And I got forty hours a week.  And apart from being kept up on world events by listening to so much CBC, I enjoyed our lunches; we would take an hour and watch movies.  But working midnights is tough: by the end of the weekend, my body would be back to days, forcing me to nap on Mondays during the afternoon, it was hard to sleep during the summer, and during holidays, my family was unable to understand that I was having a hard time staying up to their schedule.  After nine months, I had to rebid for the midnight shift, and I lost.  I was back on days, with unpredictable hours.  I was working seven days a week and getting maybe 30 hours a week.

I Formulated a Plan

It was a Saturday in May 2013, and Toronto was having its annual Doors Open.  I was working a five-hour afternoon shift at the LCBO, so I didn’t have to be at the LCBO until 4PM.  I knew I was working Sunday too, so this day would be my only day to enjoy Doors Open.  I looked up some of the buildings that were open and decided to go to three buildings on Queen’s Quay: the Redpath sugar plant, the Corus radio building, and George Brown College’s then-brand-new campus.  I went to Redpath first, then off to Corus, and then off to George Brown.  

George Brown College’s Waterfront campus, where I had an epiphany

I walked around the first two floors of George Brown’s building but wasn’t all that impressed by it.  As I was walking down the stairs, I saw a stack of its calendars for continuing education, and, on a whim, I picked it up.  The first page I turned to was in the communications section, and it listed the department’s certificates.  I immediately noticed that it offered an editing certificate, consisting of classes in grammar, copy editing, and structural editing.  And best of all, it offered an internship class, where I could apply my skills and develop my resume.

Unfortunately, classes weren’t scheduled to begin again until September, but it gave me four months to research how I was going to pay for my these classes.  And I figured it out: Although I had almost no benefits at the LCBO, I discovered one that I could use.  It was a benefit that not too many LCBO employees took advantage of, but I decided I would.  The LCBO offered to pay for employees to take continuing education courses that could benefit their current position or could help them move into a position that they could reasonably expect to move into.  So in September, I filled out the forms, and in the section where the LCBO asked me to justify the benefits to the LCBO, I indicated that could move into the communications department, or, better yet, copy edit for Food & Drink.

I saw a stack of calendars for continuing education, and on a whim, I picked one up. The first page I turned to was in the communications section.

I was excited when they approved my initial two classes, and over the course of a year and a bit, I completed my certificate. My last course was the internship–again paid for by the LCBO–and after much arm twisting on my part, I was able to do a four-month internship copy editing for the LCBO’s much-loved magazine devoted to alcoholic beverages. (I actually did a second internship for a non-profit dance organization that also padded my resume and helped give me a deep appreciation for watching dance, despite the fact that I have two left feet.)

What’s Next?

I thought that once I had my certificate, I’d quickly become a sought-after freelance editor, and I would never have to worry financially again. It turns out that people aren’t hiring editors like they should, and although I had a couple of one-off clients, freelance editing never panned out. I quickly realized that were I ever to become employed in communications, I would have to market myself not only as an editor but also as a writer. (It actually makes sense: you can’t be a good editor unless you’re a good writer.) But I had no idea where to start, other than to start my own blog–you’re reading it write now–and submit pitches to magazines. The established magazines never replied to my pitches; however, I eventually started writing on other people’s websites. And although these websites–including a film website that was able to send me to major studio’s press screenings and the Toronto International Film Festival–didn’t have the money to pay me, they helped me pad my resume, so for the five years I applied to in-house writing jobs, I was able to pad up my portfolio to make somebody decide to take the bite and want to hire me. I never pictured myself writing for a magazine published by Ontario’s engineering regulator, nor did I really understand what engineers did before I took this job, but in a roundabout way, I owe it to the LCBO, who provided me with a job that barely paid the bills but also helped me get into a career. It wasn’t easy getting to this point, but I got here. So to the young man I worked with at the LCBO who, on my last day working at the LCBO, said, “Hey, do you think you can get me a job writing there? I like writing essays in school,” the answer is no. I didn’t put out all this effort for you. I did it for me.

Lord of the Fly: Violence, Macabre, and My Reading List

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About three years ago, I began using Goodreads to track my reading habits.  Goodreads, which allows you to search for books to read, rate books you’ve read, and set a yearly goal of the number of books you want to read, is the Facebook solution for people who at times prefer the company of a good book.  In fact, when you open a Goodreads account, it will automatically import any of your Facebook friends who are also on Goodreads.

I’ve been going over my Goodreads account to review my reading habits over the past three years.  I’m surprised, first of all, at how much my reading level has dropped off since my 20s, when I was reading perhaps 25 or more books per year.  And interestingly, I am reading mostly fiction, with on average one or two non-fiction books thrown in.

My non-fiction reading falls into two broad categories.  I’m apparently attracted either to biographies of performers — including writers (I read a decent bio of J.D. Salinger that suffered from its subject’s alusiveness), musicians (I was disappointed to hear that drummer Keith Moon wasn’t all that likable), and athletes (I loved Norman Mailer’s take on Muhammad Ali) — or to non fiction that has a sociological or anthropological outlook to human sexuality and intimacy.  (Did I really follow up a book about polyamory with a book about living solo?  Aren’t they polar opposites, and what does it say about me?)

But I’m devouring mostly novels; most notably, I’m latching onto certain authors, reading a multiplicity of their works.  This isn’t new to me: in my 20s, I read a plethora of Canadian authors, coming to admire the works of Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence, Mordecai Richler, David Adams Richards, and Jack Hodgins.  Or there was my fascination with Kurt Vonnegut and George Orwell.

But my reading preferences are evolving.  I’m currently drawn to authors who either have a very distinct writing styles (Cormac McCarthy, Jose Saramago) or write within a distinct genre (Salman Rushdie and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and magical realism).  And yet again, I’m drawn to authors who write brutally violent stories (McCarthy and his bloody Westerns, John Ajvide Lindqvist and his shocking horror tales).  And then again I’m attracted to authors who write about mistaken or hidden identities and twist endings (Ann-Marie MacDonald and Ian McEwan).

My mother, who follows me on Goodreads, refuses to read many of the novels I read, stating that they are violent, dark, and sick.  I beg to differ.  I think that what I read, despite their occasional dips into the macabre, are thoughtful didactic pieces of art.  So I’d like to take the time go into detail about three authors with whom I’m currently obsessed — McCarthy, Rushdie, Lindqvist — to see if I can defend my current aesthetic tastes.

Cormac McCarthy

cormac

I first read McCarthy about four years ago, when I stumbled on his post-apocalyptic novel, The Road, set in a near future when an unnamed catastrophe kills almost all plant and animal life.  The two unnamed protagonists, a father and his young son, walk along a road, the ground grey and void of any scenery; the only precipitation is a grey, snow-like ash.  The father, hoping to make it south to presumably warmer grounds and water, carries their meager belongings in a shopping cart.  The father, telling his son that they are “good guys,” warns his son to beware of dangerous people who may be shadowing them.  The dangerous people, it turns out, are other survivors who have turned to cannibalism as a food source.  The father carries a revolver with only a few bullets to protect themselves.  When the father dies, the boy must fend for himself.

And this was my introduction to McCarthy, a spooky, depressing tale that earned him the 2007 Pulitzer Prize.  I was hypnotized by McCarthy’s writing style, which I would later learn isn’t unique to this novel.  But this style — including the omission of almost all punctuation typical to the English language; short simple, albeit beautifully composed sentences; and quick, rhythmically jabbed dialogue that in combination make it difficult to identify the speaker — added to the claustrophobic terror of The Road.  When I was reading The Road, I noted that the omission of quotation marks to offset the accented, prompt dialogue between the father and son –remember that we never learn their names — made me feel that I was reading a story that succeeded to do in book form what Night of the Living Dead had succeeded in doing in cinematographic form some four decades previous: create a scary, bone-chilling small space in which the characters must struggle to fight from being eaten.

Blood-Meridian.jpg

But McCarthy’s writing style is universally consistent among all of his novels, including his critically acclaimed historical Western, Blood Meridian, which follows a teenaged Tennessee boy known only as The Kid, who joins a vigilante gang of guns-for-hire called the Glanton Gang, an actual historical gang that travelled along the U.S.-Mexico border to kill and scalp Native North Americans.  The Kid, who early on in the novel had proven himself a formidable bar fighter, joins the gang after spending time in a Mexican jail with his older, earless friend, Toadvine (they had participated in a slaughter of Native Mexicans together).  When they join the gang, The Kid is reintroduced to Judge Holden, whom The Kid once saw encourage a church congregation to kill the preacher after Holden accuses the preacher of raping both a girl and a goat.  Naturally, Holden, a seven-foot giant, proves himself the most violent member of the gang.  As the gang expands their exploits beyond scalping to outright robbery and murder of anybody they encounter, they are eventually caught; most of the gang is slaughtered.  Both Holden and The Kid escape and during a chance meeting years later in front of a brothel, a naked Holden, quite possibly a pedophile, attacks The Kid in an outhouse.

McCarthy again uses his sparse, beautiful writing, almost zero punctuation, and crisp, confusing dialogue, to alienate the reader in an almost Brechtian technique, making the reader think and ponder about about the violence of American history.  Yet McCarthy, even with all his violence, shows beauty in his writing.  Just picture the last scene in The Crossing, a novel featuring a teenage boy who rescues a pregnant wolf from a trap and takes it to Mexico, where it came from.  After a months-long ordeal, during which the kid has to kill the wolf after it’s been forced into dog fighting by bandits and learns of the murder of his parents by robbers, the kid is approached by a starving dog looking for help.  The kid quickly regrets kicking the dog:

“He walked out.  A cold wind was coming off the mountains.  It was shearing off the western slopes of the continent where the summer snow lay above the timberline and it was crossing through the high fir forests and among the poles of the aspens and it was sweeping over the desert plain below.  It had ceased raining in the night and he walked out on the road and called for the dog.  He called and called.  Standing in that inexplicable darkness.  Where there was no sound anywhere save only the wind.  After a while he sat in the road.  He took off his hat and placed it on the tarmac before him and he bowed his head and held his face in his hands and wept.  He sat there for a long time and after a while the east did gray and after a while the right and godmade sun did rise, once again, for all and without distinction.”

And the books ends just like that.  For McCarthy, despite his themes of graphic violence, has a touch of sentimentality to his writing.  Is that what I’m attracted to?  Or is it his aloof, alienating writing style?  Or maybe both?

Salman Rushdie

rushdie

I have to admit that I avoided Rushdie for years, for I was a 13-year-old kid when Rushdie’s life was threatened by the Ayatollah Khomeini, who issued a fatwa (death threat) after the publication of Rushdie’s 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses, a book that I’m planning on reading later this year.  The stir that it caused, along with Rushdie’s subsequent years-long hiding, jarred me for a long time because I thought I would have no entrance to the author’s writing.  I have little understanding of the Islam religion, nor am I knowledgeable about India, the setting of many of Rushdie’s novels.  However, after hearing Rushdie praised as an intellect and excellent writer, I decided to give him a chance and chose to read Midnight’s Children, Rushdie’s 1981 Booker Prize–winning novel about Indian children born on the very day of India’s independence from the UK.

Midnight’s Children is an epic tale of Saleem Sinai, who was born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, the exact moment in time when the British partitioned the Indian subcontinent into the independent states of India and Pakistan.  As Saleem grows up, he discovers that he has telepathic abilities, a skill that throughout most of his childhood he struggles to keep secret.  Additionally, he has an enormous nose that gives him an excellent sense of smell.  Saleem was placed into the wrong family by his nurse; instead, he is placed with the family of his arch nemesis Shiva, who is placed with Saleem’s family.  Shiva, who has equally strong magical powers –every child born in India that day has magical powers — becomes bitter when he realizes that he was placed into a poor family instead of the middle-class family that was rightfully his.

As Saleem learns to control his powers, he telepathically communicates with every other magically gifted Indian child born that day in order to bond over their shared powers; he bonds most closely with Parvati-the-witch, who has the ability to make herself disappear.  The story follows Saleem as he experiences India’s turmoil through its first three decades of independence.  Saleem’s family becomes part of the Muslim exodus to Pakistan and as a young man is forced to fight on behalf of the independence forces of what would eventually become Bangladesh.  He develops temporary amnesia until he returns to India, where he and the other magically gifted kids become victims of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency and her son Sanjay’s Cleansing, which, according to Rushdie, was conceived to sterilize the magically gifted kids (now adults) and rob them of their powers.

midnightschildren-diary of a dancebee.jpg

Midnight’s Children is clearly set in the genre of magical realism, in which supernatural, over-the-top events are downplayed and ordinary events — in this case India’s turbulent first three decades of independence — are exaggerated.  It’s a technique that Rushdie uses to great effect to make political and social commentary about the limitations of Indian democracy and its caste system.  But who can deny the beauty of Rushdie’s prose as Saleem describes the abuse of power of Shiva, who at this point had become a major in the Indian army.  Shiva becomes a womanizer, and Saleem recounts,

“And certainly there were children.  The spawn of illicit midnights.  Beautiful bouncing infants secure in the cradles of the rich.  Strewing bastards across the map of India, the war hero went his way; but (and this, too, is what he told Parvati) he suffered from the curious fault of losing interest in anyone who became pregnant; no matter how beautiful sensuous loving they were, he deserted the bedrooms of all who bore his children; and lovely ladies with red-rimmed eyes were obliged to persuade their cuckolded husbands that yes, of course, it’s your baby, darling, life-of-mine, doesn’t it look just like you, and of course I’m not sad, why should I be, these are tears of joy.”

So why am I a fan of Rushdie, despite his description of violence and human rights violations?  Perhaps it’s because Rushdie, like McCarthy, uses literary techniques to purposely describe the violence of the world while wrapping it up in exquisitely beautiful prose, to make the reader reflect.  And later on I read Rushdie’s Grimus, another fantastical tale about a Flapping Eagle, who gains the power of flight and immortality.  When he travels to Calf Island to regain his mortality and reunite with his sister, he becomes engaged in perilous quests that make him question his humanity.  It was a tale I was less fond of, but it’s Rushdie’s first novel and a hint of the masterful skills that he would later develop.

John Ajvide Lindqvist

John_Ajvide_Lindqvist_2008_(cropped)

I was first introduced to Lindqvist when I saw the Swedish vampire horror movie Let the Right One In, the movie adaptation of Linqvist’s book of the same name.  It’s a beautifully shot, haunting horror that features the Scandinavian snow as its principle star.  (The movie was faithfully rebooted in Hollywood two years later with the title Let Me In.  Both movies are well worth seeing.)  I was so captivated by the story of a bullied 12-year-old boy and a centuries-old vampire trapped in the body of a pre-adolescent girl that I immediately discovered that the movie was based on a novel by Lindqvist and got busy reading.

Let Me In opens with Oskar, a small weak socially awkward preteen who lives with his single mother in a small town in Sweden.  It doesn’t help that Oskar has a morbid fascination with death and violence: in the opening scene, he quizzes a police officer visiting Oksar’s class about recent murders.  Oskar’s seemingly clueless about how he’s perceived by others, and it’s this innocence that earns him the attention of the school bullies, who relentlessly torment Oskar both physically and emotionally.  Because Oskar is so socially isolated, he spends his free time alone on the playground in front of his apartment building.  One day he is befriended there by his new neighbour, Eli, who is seemingly a 12-year-old girl living with her father.  Eli only comes out at night, never wears a winter jacket or boots (despite the Swedish winter) and keeps to herself.  Oskar and Eli are attracted to each other and to their seemingly similar isolation and quickly start up a conversation.  Eli is quick to encourage Oskar to use violence to fight back against his tormentors.  Oskar does, including setting their desks on fire, encouraging only more bullying.

But Eli’s casual offering of violence as a solution comes with a dark secret, for she is actually a centuries-old vampire who relies on human blood to live.  And the man she lives with isn’t her father but rather a pedophile who kills people for their blood in hopes of receiving sexual favours from Eli.  When he is caught by the police and kills himself rather than give up Eli’s secret, Eli must fend for herself.  She attempts to get the blood from a local woman, who survives the attack and sets herself on fire by looking at the sun rather than turn into a vampire.  And when Oskar’s tormentors attempt one final attack — drowning Oskar in the public pool — Eli kills the kids, their heads and limbs sinking in the pool.  The novel ends with Eli and Oskar running away together.

little

And that was my introduction to Lindqvist, who used a vampire story to explore diverse themes such as bullying, pedophilia, single parents, murder, and violence.  Yet it’s not his most violent story.  There is also Little Star, which follows Theres, who as a young girl, was found abandoned in the woods by a musician.  He takes her home and locks her in his basement, where he and his wife raise her in isolation.  Theres, either  because of her isolation or because of mental illness — she never does learn to speak in full sentences — kills her adoptive parents by smashing their heads in with a hammer and drill.  When their adult son, Jerry, comes over for a visit, he discovers the mess:

“Theres was kneeling in the blood next to what remained of Laila’s head, which was slightly more than in the case of Lennart.  In her hand she held the drill; the battery was so run down that the bit was hardly rotating at all.  With the last scrap of power left in the machine she was busy boring her way in behind Laila’s ear.  A little pearl earring in Laila’s earlobe vibrated as the drill laboriously worked its way through the bone.  Theres struggled and tugged, changed the direction of the drill and managed to pull it out, wiped the blood from her eyes and reached for the saw … ‘Theres,’ (Jerry) said, his voice almost steady.  ‘Sis. What the fuck have you done?  Why have you done this?’  Theres lowered the saw and her eyes slid from Laila to Lennart, over the bits of their heads strewn all around her.  ‘Love,’ she said.  ‘not there'”

There is little doubt that this is perhaps the most violent story I have ever read.  Yet the above passage isn’t the most violent in the book, for as Therse progresses throughout her teens, Jerry places Theres into a televised singing contest (think American Idol), where Theres develops a cult following among teen girls who are attracted to Theres’s zombie-like demeanour. Eventually, Theres and her followers meet; and Theres, mad because of the sexual advances of a record producer who had attempted to rape her (Theres eventually killed him), takes her followers to a rock concert, where they murder hundreds of people with hammers and drills.

The novel is extremely violent and Linqvist’s themes — murder, pedophilia, isolation, despair — almost universally span his novels.  And although Linqvist lacks the power of prose that both McCarthy and Rushdie have in spades, Linqvist is able to make thoughtful connections between isolation, ennui, and violent behaviour.  For recent acts that have made the news — including school shootings and incels — seem to reflect the motifs that Linqvist explores in his novels.  I may be attracted to Linqvist because I recognize that the horror genre explores the hidden truth that is far too scary for many people to talk about openly.

I Think I Understand Now

I’m not a violent person, nor do I advocate violence.  I do, however, appreciate well-crafted, meaningful tales that can perhaps teach me something.  And that is the love I have for these writers.  And if an author can leave me in better shape than before I started to read him or her, I’m happy.  That’s all I ask for.  And to my mother, who says I read dark, scary novels: I am learning something.  I’m learning to recognize the animal violence in people.

 

 

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Grouchy About the Oscars

Last year, close to 33 million Americans had their TVs tuned to the Oscars and watched in shock as presenters Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty flubbed the presentation of the Oscar for Best Picture.  Dunaway and Beatty, who were given the wrong envelope by the TV producers, hesitated before declaring La La Land the winner.  As that movie’s producers began their acceptance speech, the Oscar show’s producers came to the stage to announce that the film Moonlight was actually the “Best Picture” of 2016.  It was an odd yet compelling moment that was quite possibly the only real moment of drama in award-show history.

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Although the fiasco kept people talking for days, it shouldn’t be overlooked that two more drastically different movies couldn’t be nominated for the Best Picture award.  La La Land, which was actually the most-nominated film of the year’s Oscars, was a cinematically extravagant musical harking back to the Hollywood of the ’50s; while Moonlight, a socially conscious tale of race and sexuality, told the story of a young queer Black American.  And although Moonlight was a noble tale, it was a small picture that lacked the pizzazz of the more exquisite La La Land.  But it may not be surprising that Moonlight won the biggest award of the night, for last year was the year that many in both Hollywood and the media expressed disappointment and regret that few people of colour were being recognized in the world of film.  Interestingly, Dunaway and Beatty had 50 years earlier stared in the legendary Bonnie and Clyde, a violent biopic that helped to usher in the New Hollywood era.  And although it was tied for the lead of Oscar nominations for 1967, it actually lost the Best Picture award to the much different In the Heat of the Night, a Norman Jewison exploration of racial bigotry in the American South.  The late ’60s were a time of racial uprising in the United States, particularly in the South, and the Oscar award show for the 1967 season aired just two days after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

I mention this allegory not to draw criticism at Hollywood’s attempt to address race in the movies but rather to note how tricky and naïve it is to attempt to define a Best Picture when politics enters the equation.  Or should I say marketing, for the Academy Awards were founded in the late ’20s by the major studios as an attempt to promote their products — movies.  (To this day, movies that win the big Oscar awards see an upswing at the box office after the awards show.)  And politics may be a factor in this year’s Oscars ceremony, given the #MeToo movement.

The history of the Oscars have left many people scratching their heads.  How did Citizen Kane, long heralded by many as the best movie to ever come out of Hollywood, lose the Best Picture Oscar to How Green Was My Valley, a lesser-quality John Ford picture?  (The answer lies possibly in the meddling of a disgruntled newspaper mogul.)  How is it that the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, never won a competitive Oscar?  And somebody explain to me how the mechanical Crash earned the Best Picture over the more artful Brokeback Mountain and suspenseful Munich.  And then there’s the year 1977, in which Annie Hall, a masterful comedy and possibly Woody Allen’s best cinematic effort, won the Best Picture Oscar over Star Wars, George Lucas’s sci fi opus that sourced ancient myths and epics to reimagine the ’40s and ’50s low-budget shorts that Lucas idolized as a kid.  Both movies are spectacular, yet forcing them to compete within the same set of artistic aesthetics is absurd.

 

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But that’s not to say that the Oscars always get things wrong.  Take the case of Francis Ford Coppola, who directed, produced, and wrote The Godfather, Part II while editing The Conversation at night.  Both movies were nominated for multiple Oscars for the 1974 Oscar season — one of them winning Best Picture — and both have since been hailed as well-received masterpieces.

I’m thoroughly amazed how seriously people take the Oscars, for I’m confused as to why people watch it.  Do people watch the show to see who wins the awards, or do they watch to see what the female actors (why do people still say “actress”?) are wearing?  Do they watch to hear the jokes the host will say at the beginning?  Or do they watch because they want to see celebrities act as themselves?  Or perhaps they want to see moments as real as the Dunaway and Beatty Oscar flub.  I’m not sure.  I’ve sat through Oscar shows, and they’re three- to four-hour bore feasts: awards are given periodically, while in between, songs are sung and other unrelated topics explored.  It’s not something I enjoy, and it’s an approach that has been expanded to other award shows.  I have never seen the Grammys, I would be shocked if anybody watches the Canadian Screen Awards, and the Golden Globes are dull.  I now see award shows like the Oscars as the original reality TV shows: People enjoy watching them in the hopes of seeing the kind of unscripted drama that happened during last year’s Oscars.  Oscar spectators, in a sense, aren’t all that different than people who watch sports on TV.  It’s just the venue that’s different.

As I finish writing this article, the Oscars have probably finished, and I have no idea who won what.   Nor do I care.  Instead of watching the Oscars, I streamed a horrible movie and listened to a podcast.  But I think I share my lack of Oscar enthusiasm with George C Scott, who died in 1999.  A respected and intense thespian of both the stage and screen, Scott may be best remembered for his roles in Dr. Strangelove and Patton.  And when he was nominated for his performance of the titular character in the latter movie in 1971, he warned the Oscar committee that were he to win, he would reject his award on philosophical grounds.  “The whole thing is a goddamn meat parade,” Scott was reported to have said.  “I don’t want to be a part of it.”  Surprisingly, given his lacklustre attitude, Scott won the award anyway.  (His performance was good.  He put a tremendous amount of effort and research to create an effective portrayal.)

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At the time his win was announced, Scott was asleep at home.  I admire Scott for his attitude.  He made Oscar ennui cool.  You have my back, George.

Men and Exercise: Try Something New

I started going to the gym 15 years ago, when I was an overweight university student.  At the time, I applied for a summer student job at the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), who required me to undergo a physical before offering me a position.  In his report, the TTC’s doctor wrote, “Healthy but clinically obese.”  That same summer, my family doctor advised me to have a cholesterol test, as heart disease runs on both sides of my family; it was borderline high.  Since then, through a combination of a relatively healthy diet (I do occasionally eat badly) and regular exercise, I have maintained a healthy weight and lifestyle.  It includes biking (almost) everywhere, doing a lot of outdoor activities during the warm months, and, of course, going to the gym, where I go 4 to 5 times a week.  At the gym I do a combination of strength training and cardio, but one day a week, I take a low-impact class.  I’ll rotate between either yoga, Pilates, or barre; quite often, I’m in room full of women.  At first I felt out of place, being the only guy in the room.  But as I did more classes, I stopped caring and decided to embrace the benefits of the classes.

I’m not sure why more men don’t do these low-impact exercises, but studies have shown that men who work out are far more likelier to focus on building larger upper-body muscles and strength, while women likelier to focus more on losing weight and sculpting their lower bodies, especially their behinds.  I’m certainly not going to try to tell women what they should do at the gym, but I do think more men should do a low-impact class at least once a week.  Below are three reasons men should incorporate classes like yoga, barre and Pilates.

They Exercise Your Core

Studies have show that men will focus on their upper body, especially their arms and chests while ignoring their core and lower bodies.  Don’t get me wrong: building muscle mass is an important part of being healthy, but it shouldn’t be at the neglect at other types of exercise, including cardio-vascular exercise (like running) or core exercises, which target your abdominal muscles, back muscles, and pelvic muscles.  Yoga, barre, and Pilates target your core.  In fact, each of these classes have overlapping exercises,  including the bridge, quadruped, and plank, which strengthen your core and target muscles that you may not be targeting when you’re lifting heavy weights at the gym.

 

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Plus, you have the added benefit of having an instructor who can correct your movement and offer suggestions to improve your performance.  This is an benefit, since most gym memberships include fitness classes — instructor included — with the regular membership rate but charge more if you were to have a fitness instructor help you in the weight room.

They Improve Your Posture and Coordination

Because yoga, Pilates, and barre emphasize breathing, alignment, and strengthening your core, you develop a better posture and coordination.  Yoga, for example, challenges you by forcing you to develop strength by holding poses while breathing regularly; and barre, which is very similar to Pilates but with the added element of a ballet barre and some ballet movements, encourages you to develop a better balance by exercising one side of the body at the time.  Additionally, you’ll quite regularly hold one- or two-pound weights while exercising, encouraging you to build strength on a different level than in the weight room.

Get in Touch with Your Feminine Side

There is more to exercise than building muscle and having a macho physique.  Remember that exercising is also about feeling good.  And health is more than physical — it’s also mental.  And most men can improve their mental health by getting in touch with their inner woman.  I’m not saying that classes like yoga, Pilates, and barre are designed exclusively for female participation, but for whatever reason, these classes attract a largely female audience.  I had been doing Pilates for over a year on a Saturday at the YMCA.  The class right after was barre, and I would watch the class sometimes.  I noticed that the class participants were solely women and that many movements involved dance.  And the instructor used dance music.

 

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I wanted to do the class because it offered the challenge of doing something new and different, and a healthy part of exercise is adding variety to your routine.  But I avoided it for months.  But once I made the decision to plunge in, I was accepted by the instructor, who introduced herself to me after the class (she seemed excited to have me add spice to what was until then an exclusively woman’s class); and the women in the class either ignored my presence or smiled at me. (No, I don’t think they were smiling to pick me up.  I suspect they thought it was neat that I was there.  It’s never even crossed my mind to use an exercise class as a place to attempt to pick up women.)  But I do think that in our culture, which is still learning to embrace a more female-minded perspective, men do need to embrace their inner woman.  Just sayin’.

 

 

Syphilis and a Flat Earth: Two Different Conspiracies

A Real Conspiracy

On a May 16, 1997, gathering at the White House, then U.S. President Bill Clinton made an apology to victims of a top-secret forty-year study that left lasting scars.  Speaking directly to the handful of living survivors, including a 110-year-old man, Clinton acknowledged that the U.S. government “…did something that was wrong — deeply, profoundly, morally wrong … The people who ran the study at Tuskegee diminished the stature of men by abandoning the most basic ethical precepts.  They forgot their pledge to heal and repair.  They had the power to heal the survivors and all the others, and they did not.  Today, all we can do is apologize.”

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an arms-length agency of the U.S. government, details the events of the Tuskegee study.  By the mid-1920s, 30 per cent of adults in reproductive age were infected with syphilis (this stat presumably reflects the United States).  Most infected people do not progress beyond the disease’s secondary stage, which involves a horrible outbreak of skin rashes and mucous membrane lesions; however, if the disease is left untreated, it can progress to more serious symptoms, including paralysis and dementia.  Internal organs can also be damaged, leading to death.  By 1929, doctors were treating the disease with mercury and bismuth; it had a success rate of less than 30 per cent and could cause toxic or fatal side effects.  So in 1932, a program called “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” began.  Although the study was run by the Public Health Service, the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), a largely Black-American college, co-sponsored it in hopes of employing Black American doctors and receiving the study’s credit.  Set in Alabama, the study found 600 men, all Black American, to volunteer.  Two thirds had syphilis; the rest did not.  The volunteers were told they were being actively treated for various diseases, including syphilis; however, they were only monitored for the progress of syphilis.  Despite being designed to run six months, the study ran for four decades, and even though penicillin became an effective treatment for the disease by 1945, the men were never treated.  The study didn’t end until 1972, when the Associated Press caught wind of what was happening.  In subsequent years, the government was forced to pay the volunteers millions of dollars in compensation and to provide free lifetime medical care to the volunteers, their spouses, and their children.

The events in Tuskegee prove that actual conspiracies have taken place.  Most people, when pressed to think of a conspiracy, think of over-the-top, extra-ordinary events such as the JFK assassination, dead alien bodies in Nevada, or the 9/11 Truth Movement.  However, provable conspiracies have taken place around the world and across history, and although some have had some degree of outlandish detail, the vast majority are much more grounded in reality than alien-lifted military technology at Area 51.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines conspiracy as “the activity of secretly planning with other people to do something bad or illegal.”  By definition the above-mentioned Tuskegee saga is a conspiracy.  And other historical events, such as Watergate, which covered up a U.S. president’s criminal activity; and the Manhattan Project, which developed the nuclear bomb, are conspiracies.  Some, like the Nazi’s Final Solution, are even more breathtaking in scope.  But they all did real, measurable damage and became public knowledge in relatively short times.  But most importantly, they all have an ending.  That is to say that they became a part of history.

Conspiracies Are the New Religions

The world’s major religions, such as Christianity and Islam, developed at a time when people had no idea where the sun went at night or why people got sick.  So stories of Jesus curing lepers or God sending plagues and famines to punish people could be seen as ways of explaining what was then unknowable and scary.  But in the four-and-a-half centuries since Copernicus’s observations of the solar system sparked the Scientific Revolution, people like Newton, Darwin, and Einstein championed the Scientific Method as a way of understanding the world and the universe through observation and experimentation.  Today’s luxuries — heated homes, global travel, modern medicine — were all developed through modern scientific understanding.  Intuition has given way to deduction.  Spirituality has given way to rationality.  And religion has given way to secularism.

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In developed countries, most people have at minimum a high school-level math and science education.  Yet people are still susceptible to irrational beliefs and superstitions.  These modern irrational beliefs — for example, chemtrails and crop circles — indeed cloak themselves with a scientific facade, but they have much more in common with religious dogma than science.  Like religion, they offer a universal explanation riddled with faulty logic and little evidence.  Their believers dismiss any evidence that disproves their explanations.  And like all religions, they are conspiratorial in nature.  (If you don’t think that religions are conspiracy friendly, consider that the Abrahamic religions are named after a prophet who plotted with God to sacrifice a baby.)

Flat Earth Theory as a Religion

On November 27, 2017, 61-year-old Californian “Mad” Mike Hughes was prevented from launching his homemade rocket by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.  The limo driver, who once told the Associated Press, “I don’t believe in science,” had reportedly spent over $20,000 (U.S.) to build a rocket that would blast into space with the aid of a rocket launcher made from a used motor home.  The government apparently didn’t take too kindly to Hughes’s use of public land to soar his amateur rocket at 500 miles per hour in Amboy, California, in his quest to prove that the Earth is flat.  Hughes, who wasn’t fazed by the immense odds stacked against him, said that aerodynamics and thrust are “…not science, that’s [sic] just formula.”  Hughes is taking the setback in stride, telling NPR that he would be launching shortly on private property near where he originally intended to launch.

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What would cause somebody to discount thousands of years’ worth of observation and evidence?  Many scholars believe that the ancient Greeks probably understood that the world was round six centuries before the Common Era; Ancient Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle offered observations of stars and lunar eclipses to prove the spherical shape of Earth.  And as the Greeks’ observations spread throughout the Mediterranean and beyond, Indian mathematician Aryabhata accurately calculated the circumference of the Earth to within 100 kilometres a millennium before the Age of Exploration.  And Columbus used the Ancient Greeks’ observations when he “discovered” the Americas.  But most importantly, in the last six decades, countless satellites and people have taken pictures of Earth from space. Who can deny the haunting pictures of the earthrise taken from the moon’s orbit by the crew of Apollo 8?

Hughes is apparently financed by Research Flat Earth, an organization that has barely an online presence, save a YouTube channel featuring videos, which, although they are created to appear scientific, are more amateurish than true.  The videos offer scant evidence and little justification for their conclusions.  They are neither peer reviewed nor validated by any scientific research.  Yet if their evidence is refuted, it is further proof that they are right.  And how does knowledge of a spherical Earth hurt anybody?

Then there is the strange Twitter reply to Telsa and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, who, after tweeting “Why is there no Flat Mars Society!?” received the following tweet back from the Flat Earth Society: “Unlike the Earth, Mars has been observed to be round.  Have a nice day!”   The society’s webpage, which doesn’t identify who the society is or how to contact them, is a barebones site that offers little concrete proof or scientific evidence, yet it includes basketball star Shaquille O’Neill as the biggest (pun intended) proponent of flat earth theory.

Why It Matters

To give flat earth theory any more attention would be a distraction from the victims of actual conspiracies, like the men in the Tuskegee study.  The people who buy into flat earth theory are not too different from those who send money to televangelists, for just as TV viewers cling to hope that televangelists can cure cancer, proponents of flat earth theory cling to a fantasy in which the pain of the real world is suspended.  They believe in a truth that, if revealed, would make the world better.  They fear those things for which fact and science can provide no answer.  It’s an unprovable concept that will never make the world better; consequently, it’s the hope that makes them happy.  But let’s not give these people much attention.  Let them be wrapped up in their own personal religion, the religion of the fake conspiracy.  Instead, let’s remember real victims of harmful conspiracies: the victims of the Holocaust, victims of the two atomic bombs, and the loss of innocence from the Watergate fallout.  For when people do conspire, bad things almost always happen. It’s not about a flat Earth.  It’s about the victim.

My Latest Song Addictions

I don’t think that I’m inherently conservative, so it’s interesting that many songs I listen to are older.  I’m certainly not opposed to listening to new releases, and I do keep up to date with trending bands and the newest fads, but when it comes to songs that I play on repeat, they’re hits that have proven the test of time.  Maybe it’s because I grew up listenting to them on the radio, and the background noise ingrained on me; I’m not sure.  So here are five songs that I find myself gravitating towards time and time again.

“God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys

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I’m not necessarily a huge Beach Boys fan, for I find their early stuff overly juvenile and simplistic.  But Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson made his masterpiece when he recorded Pet Sounds, which was released 1966.  Wilson had actually retired from touring over a year before going into the studio to record the album with many of Los Angeles’s leading sessions players, who were informally known as the Wrecking Crew.  Wilson effectively left his band mates out of the creative process and brought them into the studio only at the very end to record their vocal tracks.  (His fellow Beach Boys, understandably, were frustrated, and as a result disagreed with Wilson’s creative focus.)  Cowriting with lyricist Tony Asher, Wilson produced a collection of introspective songs that had harmonies and structures that were unusually complex for pop music then or since.  The album had an immediate and powerful impact, going so far as to inspire the Beatles to record Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Wilson effectively left his band mates out of the creative process and brought them into the studio only at the very end to record their vocal tracks.

And who can deny the power of an album that contains classics like “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “Sloop John B,” and the album’s title track.  But perhaps the album’s true classic is “God Only Knows,” which opened the album’s second side. A gentle, threeminute tune that begins with french horns, viola, and cellos, instruments typically found in an orchestra, the song is a sweet love song in which the singer speaks about not wanting to be apart from the love of his life.  It has a consistent tempo throughout, but towards the end the song increases in volume, with more complex vocal harmonies and heavier instrumentation adding a melodic and symphonic element.  Yet the song has a simplistic and upbeat message, and as a result, the song has been featured in multiple movies, including Love Actually and Boogie Nights.  It was also the theme song for the TV show Big Love.

“Northern Sky” by Nick Drake

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Nick Drake may not be a household name, and that’s a shame.  In his short life (he died aged 26 in 1974) Drake produced only three albums, all of which sold extremely poorly in his lifetime.  Indeed, it wasn’t until a decade after his death that wellknown musicians, including R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and The Cure’s Robert Smith, spoke of how influential Drake had been to their musical education.  And around the same time, The Dream Academy released their hit song, “Life in a Northern Town,” which was inspired by Drake and his tragic life.

Drake remains an enigma, for his music was simultaneously inspired by and hampered by his severe depression.  Drake lived his entire life with his parents, who towards the end were worried enough to hide pills from their son.  When Drake’s music label dropped him, causing him to lose his small weekly retainer, he was unable to buy a new pair of shoes.  Drake had a small network of friends, who all reported that Drake would sleep on their couches and then disappear for weeks at a time; and a week after Drake’s closest female friend ended their relationship (she couldn’t cope with his depression), Drake died from an overdose to anti‐depressants.

Indeed, it wasn’t until a decade after his death that wellknown musicians, including R.E.M’s Peter Buck and The Cure’s Robert Smith, spoke of how influential Drake had been to their musical education.

Yet this doesn’t explain why Drake’s music didn’t get wide attention until his song “Pink Moon” was featured in a Volkswagen internet commercial in 1999.  After all, other musicians achieved fame while experiencing illness and hardship.  Just look at Brian Wilson.

But thanks to that commercial, more people became aware of Drake’s music, which often relied on nothing more than voice, with guitar and piano (though his first two albums had some orchestral arrangements).  His beautiful melodies, augmented by his unusual guitar tuning and cluster chords, are quite hypnotic.  Take in point the song “Northern Sky,” a gorgeous melody with lyrics that equate love with images of nature.   “Would you love me for my money?/Would you love me for my head?/Would you love me through the winter?/Would you love me ’till I”m dead?” illicit a hope from nature. “I never felt crazy magic like this/I never saw moons knew the meaning of the sea/I never held emotion in the palm of my hand…”  I get the sense that Drake isn’t singing to a particular person but rather to the northern sky itself.  And his guitar and piano in the song sound like the wind.  Indeed, many of Drake’s songs are about his observation of nature, seemingly hinting that Drake was more attached to inanimate objects than to people.

“Song in My Head” by Martha and the Muffins

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All artists have that one song that defines them: for Queen it’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” for The Police it’s “Roxanne,” and Corey Hart it’s “Sunglasses at Night.”  And while they produced other amazing songs that I enjoy listening to, I dislike their biggest hit.  Maybe it’s because I’ve heard it one too many times.  And Martha and the Muffins is no exception.  This Canadian group, started in the late ’70s by art school graduates, hit it big in 1980 with their one international hit, “Echo Beach,” a song I’ve heard one too many times on Canadian radio stations (thank you Canadian content rules!)  But that doesn’t mean that the band didn’t have other songs that are thoroughly enjoyable, including “Black Stations/White Stations,” about the implicit racism in the recording industry at the time; “Cooling the Medium,” a wickedly fun song that was accompanied by a bizarre video that only art school graduates could have dreamed up; and “Song in My Head,” a great mid‐1980s pop song that actually has a cool video.  It’s an up‐tempo song, complete with a funky bass riff, a quiet guitar, and loud horns and synths playing throughout.  It’s ultimately about the singer breaking up with her romantic partner because, “You started to give me that old refrain/I never wanna hear that song again,” so realistically it shouldn’t be a fun song to listen to.  Yet it is fun precisely because the song is so self‐referential about being a song.  The chorus repeats the lines “There’s a song in my head going round and round/There’s a something in my heart that I never found.”  But for more fun, watch the song’s video, which is readily available on YouTube.  In it, group singer Martha Johnson is in a sound stage (wide shots reveal it to be a sound stage, with a working film crew) while a wardrobe crew dresses her and applies makeup to her face.  She’s standing on a rotating stage as different background scenery and people spin around her.  Get it?  As Johnson sings in the song, “There’s a song in my head going round and round.”

“Give a Little Bit” by Supertramp

Many would argue that Supertramp’s artistic triumph was their 1974 album, Crime of the Century, a collection of songs that share closely related themes of despair, isolation, and ennui, causing group writers Rodger Hodgson and Rick Davies to comment that the album was not a conscious attempt at writing a concept album.  It’s a thoroughly enjoyable album to listen to from beginning to end, but Supertramp’s true anthem came later in the decade with “Give a Little Bit,” a song that Hodgson wrote when he was about 19 but didn’t record with the group until after achieving success with Crime of a Century.  The song is pure pop, with Hodgson’s unique singing voice blending nicely with his 12string guitar.  The song is pure anthem, and yeah, it’s a love song, but it’s not necessarily about romantic love.  The song is more about the desire to connect with other people.  Hodgson could probably have retired on the earnings of this one song alone, for it’s been in countless commercials.  It’s in Amazon’s 2017 holiday commercial, and a few years ago CocaCola used it in their brilliant ad, playing the song over video surveillance images of people doing acts of kindness.  It is a feelgood song, and who doesn’t play air guitar to it?

“Burning Love” by Elvis Presley

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I’ve never been a huge Elvis fan.  I know that saying this is as blasphemous as saying the Beatles were overrated (they were, except for George), but Elvis was nothing more than a goodlooking face with a good voice.  He sang songs he didn’t write, barely played guitar, and stole his shakinghips routine from black rock ‘n’ roll singers who had spent the previous decade perfecting their acts.  But Elvis brought it into the mainstream, and for that he should be thanked.  But he paid a heavy price, for fame was horrible to him, forcing him to retreat in later years to his palace, where he turned into a bloated drug addict who died tragically young.  Yet it’s from Elvis’s later period‐‐1972 in fact‐‐that I find one of my latest song addictions, “Burning Love,” an amazing song written by Dennis Linde and first recorded by Arthur Alexander, whose original cover of the song came out just months before Elvis’s version.  (Do yourself a favour and listen to Alexander’s version on YouTube; it’s an interesting blend of country and Motown.)  Elvis’s version, which was propelled to fame by his 1972 Hawaii special, is a kinetic song with a cool guitar riff played by Linde and a manic drum beat that actually strengthen Elvis’s already strong vocal performance.  For three minutes I’m an Elvis fan and thoroughly enjoying this song.  I’ll even forgive Elvis for that hideous outfit he wore in Hawaii.

Hugh Hefner: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Analyze the Playboy Bunny

When news of Playboy founder and publisher Hugh Hefner’s death broke three days ago, I mentioned it in passing to a woman about ten years younger than I.  “I didn’t realize it was still cool to keep a harem,” she quipped sardonically.  She was, of course, referring to the fact that Hefner, right up to his dying day at the age of 91, maintained an entourage of young “girlfriends” seven decades his junior.  Hefner’s plethora of lady friends, a long parade of tall blondes smeared in makeup, high heels, and artificially enhanced breasts, were physically indistinguishable.  Hefner kept his girlfriends at his Playboy Mansion, yet if any of these women saw another man (like maybe somebody closer to their own age), they would be reportedly sent packing.

‘I didn’t realize it was still cool to keep a harem,’ she quipped sardonically.

It’s this image of Hefner in his later years that helped damage his facade, further cementing his status as a has been.  But it was an image he put considerable effort to maintain.  From the onset of Playboy‘s initial publication in 1953, Hefner tried to class up pornography: he presented himself as a sophisticated, well-spoken, pipe-smoking gentleman in a tailor-designed house robe.  Just watch this old clip of Hefner’s 1959 episode of Playboy’s Penthouse, which was broadcast on TV.  But given the contempt that people at the time viewed porn and burlesque, Hefner’s effort is understandable.

Hefner began his publishing career writing for U.S. military newspapers during the Second World War.  After supplementing his undergraduate degree in psychology and creative writing with some graduate courses in sociology from the University of Illinois, Hefner became a copywriter for Esquire.  He then borrowed $8000 from 45 investors, including his mother, and started Playboy; the first issue featured nude pictures of Marilyn Monroe taken in 1949.  And Hefner dressed up his publication to match the classy image of himself: nude pictures, including the infamous Centrefold, made up only a small fraction of the magazine.  Most of the magazine matched the literary prowess of The New Yorker or The Atlantic, with a who’s who of literary figures.  Over the years, writers such as Margaret Atwood, Kurt Vonnegut, Arthur C. Clarke, Vladimir Nabokov, Saul Bellow, and others published their short stories in Playboy.  People actually read Playboy for its interviews; in fact, its January 1981 issue, which featured an interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, was on the newsstands the night Lennon was killed.

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Hefner liked to place himself in the middle of the social changes of the 1960s, often claiming that it was he who helped spark the changes.  Historian Alex Haley interviewed both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King for the magazine, cementing Hefner’s defense of racial equality.

People actually read Playboy for its interviews; in fact, its January 1981 issue, which featured an interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, was on the newsstands the night Lennon was killed.

And in 1955, Hefner stirred controversy when he published Hugh Beaumont’s short story “The Crooked Man,” about a future in which a majority homosexual society formed mobs to persecute a minority of heterosexuals.  “If it was wrong to persecute heterosexuals in a homosexual society,” Hefner said, “then the reverse was wrong too.” 

Despite his own claims of sparking the Sexual Revolution, it was the Sexual Revolution, in combination with women’s liberation and technological changes, that saw the downfall of Playboy.  The November 1972 issue sold over 7.1 million copies; one quarter of college men supposedly had a subscription.  Yet in 2016, the circulation was under 700, 000.

I was born after the Sexual Revolution.  By the time I appeared on the scene in the 1970s, Second Wave feminism was at its peak.  So Playboy to me was something old, something some old sexist man would gawk at in a barbershop.  (I actually went to a barbershop about eight years ago and saw a Playboy on the barber’s desk.  I felt out of place, not that it stopped me from taking a peak.)

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When I first hit my teen years in the late 1980s, there was no internet porn.  There was no pay-per-view porn on TV.  And because I had no older brother whose room I could sneak into to take a peak at stag magazines, I would periodically go to magazine stores to stealthily look at nudie magazines, but it would be at something more hard core, like Hustler.  Even when I turned 18 in the mid 1990s, and I bought my first and only copy of Playboy, it was kind of a disappointment to me, in part because the pictures of women were too perfect, but mainly because I realized that the Playboy era was antiquated.  Besides, by the ’90s, more exciting porn was easily accessible at the local video store.  Yet as I’ve gotten older, I can reflect on how immature my taste in porn was in my 20s.

So if you peel away Hefner’s classy image, if you peel away his social activism, he was a pornographer who objectified women.  Gloria Steinem, in her 1963 essay “A Bunny’s Tale” for Show, wrote about going undercover at a serving job at the New York Playboy Club.  Steinem noted that during the audition, women with unattractive legs weren’t invited to stay.

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And Steinem noted that the costume, a tight corset with a bunny tail attached, “…push[ed] all available flesh up to the bosom.  I was sure it would be perilous to bend over.”  Additionally, dry cleaning bags, gym socks, and silk scarves were used for padding.  The Bunnies, if they weren’t already fit, certainly became fit by bringing drinks up and down the steep stairs for their minimum wage pay.  The club, which lasted until the ’80s, gave ordinary men the chance to fraternize with extremely attractive women.  As Steinem noted, the customers were often lewd and abusive.

And of course there was the famous 1970 debate on the Dick Cavett Show between Hefner and feminist activist Susan Brownmiller, who accused Hefner of not seeing women as fully human.  Brownmiller quipped, “The day you’re willing to come out here with a cottontail attached to your rear end?” It’s a shame that Hefner could never quite admit that sexual objectification has historically been one sided.

As I reflect on the changes since Playboy‘s heyday, I realize that there has been a lot of positive developments, thanks in part to Hefner but also to the efforts of feminists.  More and more women are less likely to allow themselves to be undervalued, unequal to men, or treated as sex objects.  More and more men are more sensitive to sexual objectification of women.  But that’s not to say that we’re in an ideal world.  The gender gap has lessened considerably but hasn’t disappeared.  And sexual violence, which counts women and children as its most bountiful victims, still exits.  But Hefner, and the controversy that surrounded him, deserve credit for helping to bring these issues to the forefront.

As for the younger woman who made that initial sardonic quip to me?  Well known on Toronto’s burlesque scene, she was able to make that joke to me in part because the age gap has made her more insightful than I, but I also suspect that a large part of it is because she has dedicated her living to displaying her body with female empowerment and a female gaze looking back.

How times change.

My Long Short Summer

At the beginning of he year, I made a New Year’s Resolution to write one blog a month.  My July post was a few days late, and now I’m writing my August post on the month’s very last day.  This bog, therefore, will probably be my weakest.  And for this blog, I’ll recount my busy summer.

How Busy Am I

I consider the Canadian summer to run roughly from the Victoria Day weekend to the Labour Day weekend, although the calendar disagrees.  And reflecting back on my summer, I have to agree that it’s been a busy and sad summer for me.

The Scholar Am I

At the beginning of May, I began two classes at Toronto’s George Brown College, including Wine II, an advanced wine class that involved lectures and tastings; and Spirits, which introduced me to the world of spirits.  I was particularly enthralled by the spirits class, for I had previously never been enthralled with spirits, so I was looking quite forward to learning how to appreciate distilled alcoholic drinks.  However, the wine course, which ran thirteen weeks, was repetitious of previous courses’ material, although I was able to sample some outstanding wines.  But I will forever associate the beginning of these classes with some bad news.

My First Grandmother Moves on

The very day my Spirits class began, I drove with my mother to suburban Mississauga, where my maternal grandmother was staying in a nursing home.  Five years previous, she had had a stroke, robbing her of her independence.  My grandmother, who had lived the previous two decades on her own, lost her ability to take care of herself, hence the retirement home.  Robbed of her speech and energy, she became a zombie from The Walking Dead, living only in body but robbed of her previously sharp mind and physical energy.  On that last day with my grandmother, my mother and I spent time with Nana as she watched idiotic daytime television, including The Chew.  My grandmother, who had been progressive and forward thinking, was reduced to waiting for her time to die.  I was in a bit of a bad mood that day, and had I known it was going to be my last time with her, I would have put in a stronger effort to connect with her.  Two months after she passed, when my sister was home from China, we buried my grandmother’s ashes with her parents and older brother.  It was a very informal, brief ceremony void of any religious overtones or outside family.  My extended family, which includes my two aunts and uncle, broke up, most likely forever, and we parted ways.  And life goes on.

My Sister Comes Home

My sister has spent the last three years teaching at international schools overseas.  Armed with a teaching degree, she first went to the United Arab Emirates to teach the Alberta curriculum to local children; later, she moved on to China.  Much to my mother’s delight, my sister has bee accompanied by her husband.  My sister was last home 18 months previous, when she visited us for Christmas.  This time she came home for summer break, and to celebrate, my mother rented a cottage in Haliburton.  The week also corresponded with the last week of my Wines II exam, so I joined my family part way through the week.  As a result, I had to take a bus from Union Station to Haliburton.  It was an ordeal that lasted four hours and had me passing through, among other places, Oshawa, Lindsay, Peterborough, and Port Hope.  I arrived at Haliburton on a Wednesday night, but once I arrived, I was able to spend three days canoeing and swimming with my nephews, aged five and three.

A Weekend of Shows

Every summer I enjoy going to many arts shows and outdoor festivals, and this year was no exception.  It began in late April, when I went to three screenings at this year’s Hot Docs Festival, Toronto’s annual film festival dedicated to documentaries.  I dragged my mother, recently relocated to downtown Toronto after a decade in Wellington County, to two documentaries that I thought she would like.  One involved Japanese women bonding over an art piece and the other involved a woman who lived on her own at a weather station in the mountains.  They were both boring movies.  But the documentary I saw on my own, about people in New Zealand who dress up as zombies and scare people, was interesting.

I went to the Toronto Beaches Jazz Festival, spread over the month of July in Toronto’s east end.  One weekend, I saw a reggae band playing in Leslieville; another weekend I saw Queen Street East overtaken by crowds and bands playing at every intersection.

Earlier, at the end of May, I went to some Doors Open Toronto events.  It was a Sunday, and getting around on my bike, I rushed from the west end, where, I saw Toronto’s jazz station‘s radio studio; to the east end, where I saw Toronto’s Art Deco water station at the foot of Victoria Park Avenue.  Along the way I stopped to see the end of Woofstock, which has sadly shrunk in size and reduced itself to charging a door entry fee.

Art in the Park

I went to see several art shows in parks.  In late July, I saw Shakespeare in High Park‘s Twelfth Night; tonight I plan on seeing King Lear.  And in August, I went to Toronto’s east end’s Withrow Park, where I saw Shakespeare in the Ruff perform A Midsummer’s Night Dream; a couple of weeks previous, I saw Dusk Dances perform a series of eclectic dances in the same park.  It was a magnificent display of dance and movement.

And in August, my Other Grandmother

In late July, I heard from my cousin that my paternal grandmother was terminally sick.  My grandmother was conscious and aware, so there wasn’t any indication that it was imminent, despite the cancer in her lymph nodes and congestive heart failure.  My brother and I made the trip to London during the first week of August to visit her.  My grandmother, who always loved to talk, spent the entire time talking about her childhood and marriage to my grandfather, who died four decades ago.  My bother and I were with my grandmother when the care worker came in.  When the care worker asked my grandmother if she wanted a religious person, my grandmother said, “I used to be a Catholic, buy forty years ago the Good Lord took my husband, and I can never forgive a god for taking my husband from me.  But I know my husband’s up there waiting for me.”  A week later my grandmother was dead.  I got bereavement leave from work, and I spent the day on the Toronto Islands, watching the solar eclipse from Hanlan’s Point, Toronto’s nude beach.  I saw the eclipse in Lake Ontario while nude.  I thought it was an appropriate way to celebrate an eclipse.

Other Things I Did

During the summer Toronto’s Edwards Gardens hosts a series of outdoor concerts in their beautiful garden.  Because I was taking classes for a good chunk of the summer, I saw only three concerts, including an excellent blues band.  It’s a wonderful concert series, serving beer, burgers, and ice cream.  Go see it.  Seriously.

In July I saw the Honda Indy.  Kind of.  I rode my bike to Ontario Place, and along Lake Shore Boulevard, there are a few gaps in the pillars where you can see the cars pass.  I stood at the west end of the Ontario Place Entrance, watching cars zoom by.  Car racing is boring, but at least I was able to see I saw the Indy.

Job Interviews

I had a few job interviews, and the job search has been a large part of my summer.  Because I’m submitting my resume for writing jobs, I write each resume from scratch.  I have to go through each resume and edit myself on multiple layers: copy editing, structural editing, stylistic editing.  I don’t have one set resume, so I don’t pump hundreds out per day.  Yet I do get job interviews.  I had one job interview writing and editing for a professional association’s magazine.  I had another for an educational organization.  And I had yet another for a journalist position.  I do get interviews; however, I’m looking for the job offers.

Reflection

When I reflect back, I always think of how much busier I could have been, of how I could have done more.  Yet I have to remind myself that I keep myself busy.  I go to work five days a week.  I write as often as I can.  I walk my cat almost everyday, weather permitting.  I go to the gym five days a week.  And I go to a lot of events.  Come to think of it, I keep myself very busy.  I’m proud of myself.  I may live on my own, yet I’m always busy.  I should be commended.  I should be applauded.  Heck, I admire myself.

I’d Rather Be Alone

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I’ve never wanted marriage, nor I do I want a life partner.  And the responsibility of fatherhood would totally overwhelm me.  I would rather be on my own.  I understand that others may find my solitary lifestyle scary and daunting, but I’m equally puzzled by people who need to be with somebody else, even if it’s for the worse.  Perhaps it’s my Asperger’s personality?

Yet despite my embrace of a loner’s lifestyle (I’m not lonely, because I keep myself very busy and stay very active),  I’m not asexual.  Needless to say, it’s been a struggle to balance not wanting a romantic partner but wanting sexual contact.  (And to the skeptics, I can see you rolling your eyes.  But really, I’m the male version of Emily Dickinson.)

Despite my aloofness, I have from time to time attracted the attention of women.  And oddly, there is a personality type I tend to attract.  The women I attract tend to work in some type of healing profession: nurse, yoga instructor, social worker.  They tend to be really good at reading people, and by extension, me.  (I understand that I can appear aloof and possibly angry looking, but I can’t help it.)

My Poor Coworker

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I have a coworker, a young man in his 20s who’s desperate for a girlfriend.  To meet women, he relies (I think) on dating websites, yet he says it doesn’t really work for him.  Listening to him wallow in self pity, I wondered how I would do on a dating website, despite my complete apathy towards connecting with people in any deep romantic sense.

The Premise

I’ve never thought that dating websites worked.  You can look at people’s pictures–their selected best–and read about their easy-going personality and how they like to travel (who doesn’t?)  But until you meet somebody in person and see how they move and listen to how they talk, you don’t know if you’re attracted to them.  But I get the appeal.  On a dating website, everybody’s looking, so it makes the first approach easier.

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Yet the anonymity of the world wide web enables people to be their cruelest.  Social media and news sites are full of trolls hellbent on angering people, and people who don’t have the guts to be cruel face to face certainly do a good job of it from the safety of a computer.  And the online dating seems to be no different.  Women complain about being overwhelmed with endless messages that consist of “Hey.” And that doesn’t include the dreaded dick pic.  (I’ve never seen a dick pic, but I’m curious to see one.  I don’t have a fascination with seeing penises that aren’t mine; I just want to know what is going on in these men’s minds.)  And men complain about sending out countless emails to women that go largely ignored.

Does online dating work?  Is it brutal?  Is it a numbers game?  There was only one way to find out, and that was to dive in.  But before I went in head first, I decided to make some ground rules.  Knowing that I’m a loner and unlikely to ever contemplate marriage or children,  I decided to not lead on anybody: no false hopes, no romanticizing myself, no promising the moon.

Women complain about being overwhelmed with endless messages that consist of “Hey.” … And men complain about sending out countless emails to women that go largely ignored.

I would put into my profile that I prefer to be on my own and that I’m not looking to change it.  I would never contact women who were looking for “the one”; rather, I would only communicate with women claiming to look for casual relationships.  And I would, for the large part, wait and see if any if any women would respond.

I Am Skeptical

So I decided to set up an account with a photo that I use for my LinkedIn and Facebook accounts.  And thanks to my good writing skills, I would create a compelling profile, complete with my interests and dislikes.  My first dating site was OK Cupid, followed later by Tinder, which is apparently the heterosexual equivalent of Grindr.  (I doubted that I would get women offering their bodies to me, but hey, let’s see what happens.)

My Profile

I’m proud of my OK Cupid website.  My profile was (admittedly) long written, listing my hobbies and favourite songs. but then again, what can I say, I’m a writer, so I write a lot.  But of utmost importance, I would make it very clear in my profile that I’m not looking to change my loner status.  “I prefer to live on my own,” I wrote.  “I’ll probably never marry or have kids, so if those things are important to you, I’m probably not your match.”  I went even further, adding that I get around the city by bike because “I love the solitude and freedom.”  To make myself seem even pickier, I filled out a large amount of criteria under the “You Should Contact Me If” category.  I included, among other things, “You lead a healthy lifestyle and are in good shape,” and you shouldn’t contact me if “you’re overweight and/or eat badly” or if “you’re looking for a dad for your kids.”  All of these criteria are things that would be important to me if I was seriously looking, but they are things that people rarely openly enunciate.  And if you said these things to a person face to face, you’d be considered rude.  But I wanted to see if I could push boundaries.  I wanted to see if I could actually attract somebody with my brutal honesty.

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I gave myself limitations: I would rarely initiate contact.  Apart from looking to see what people were looking for, I wouldn’t bother looking at too many profiles.  And I wouldn’t invest too much time, so if I actually had an interest in the person, I would suggest meeting instead of exchanging endless texts.  The following three encounters are of women who contacted me.  All their names have been changed.

Melissa

Melissa was an emergency nurse working the graveyard shift at a Toronto hospital.  She was six years younger than I, was selling her Queen’s Quay condo and biked everywhere. She had a cute black Lab mix.  And judging by her photos, she seemed physically attractive.  We exchanged a few messages back and forth, and luckily, she shared my sardonic sense of humour (we had a rapid exchange of emails about how we were good we were as white people because we stole the land from Native peoples as a revenge for syphilis).  And like me, Melissa said that she wasn’t interested in marrying or having kids.  To my surprise, Melissa actually was the one to suggest that we should meet.  She picked Trinity Bellwood Park, where we would split a bottle of pinot grigio.  So we agreed to meet at six on a Sunday, after I finished work.

We started with an endless banter about our work situations (I was shocked that she was on a rotating shift of working midnights followed by two weeks of day shifts.  It must be so hard on the body!)  After an hour of talk, as the sun was going down, she got to her point.  “So,” she blurted.  Tell me about your dating style.”

Melissa, it seems, was fascinated by my lack of desire to marry, live with anybody, or commit.  I tried to articulate that I wasn’t a lonely person and preferred my own company. “You’re a solo poly,” she blurted, as if she were attempting to help me find an identity for myself.  I hadn’t heard of the term before, so I needed her to break down the definition.

“A solo is somebody who values independence and isn’t looking to settle down in a marriage where they share things like bank accounts and a mortgage.”  Based on her definition, the solo part certainly fit me.

“You’re a solo poly,” she blurted, as if she were attempting to help me find and identity for myself.

Melissa, who was heteroflexible and partly fascinated in meeting a male counterpart, was firmly set in her identity as a solo poly, spoke how she had broken up with a couple, as the wife had developed jealousy issues.  And this caused me to doubt that I could rightfully call myself poly.  I don’t even desire to romantically love one person, let alone multiple people, so can I really call myself poly?  I kept my doubts to myself.

As we wrapped up and walked east on Queen Street, Melissa said, “I’m going to a poly get together at a friend’s place next weekend.  Being poly can be quite incestuous, so they’d be glad to meet more people.”  I told her that I would think about it, but more importantly, I realized that she put the offer out there because she wasn’t interested in pursuing anything with me.  We exchanged a few more texts but never met again.

Joan

Online photos can be hard to gauge a person’s physical attractiveness.  I say this about Joan, whom I didn’t realize I could never be into until after I met her in the flesh.  And I feel bad about saying it, because Joan was a person who had had a hard life, yet she had obviously placed so much interest in me.

Joan was a social worker who lived in Parkdale.  She had posted a couple of photos of herself drinking beer.  I don’t remember her profile that well, but I do remember the initial text she sent me.  She had obviously thoroughly and enthusiastically read my profile.  “I love how you wrote ‘My cat will come before you!'” her text said.  She started telling me that she found me cute and thought that we should meet to see if we click.  It seemed like an odd thing to write on an initial text, but then again, perhaps we’re living in a new world in which women are more willing to be bold and make the first move with strangers.  But then again, she could be completely Pollyanna.  I wasn’t able to tell.  But I was curious.  I wanted to  meet her.  Was she real?  She suggested meeting at a pub on Queen Street West.

I went there by bike, and as I was locking my bike up on the other side of the street, I saw her sitting on the patio with a drink.  She saw me locking my bike and began staring at me with an intense stare.  What was with the intensity?  Was she having second thoughts and trying to figure out how to weasel out?

I walked into the pub, a bit of a dive, and out into the patio.  As I approached the table, she stood up, and I noticed she was grotesquely overweight.  I immediately knew that things would never go develop with her.

She blurted out with a blunt honesty that she was on medication because she heard voices in her head.  She was fine as long as she was on her drugs, but if she stopped, the voices would come back.  She was slowly getting back on her feet, working part time as a social worker, helping other psychiatric patients find work and places to live.  I felt an admiration for her.  I knew she was doomed to a hard life, but she was obviously a fighter and attempting to make an identity as a mental health activist.

Perhaps we’re living in a new world in which women are more willing to make the first move, but then again, perhaps we’re living in a new world in which women are more willing to be bold and make the first move with strangers.  But then again, she could be completely Pollyanna.

Filled with sympathy, I walked with Joan to her apartment, an older building at King and Jameson; her fellow tenants, who were standing outside, looked rough.  I excused myself and spent the afternoon at the gym.  I received a text from her later saying she didn’t want to invite me up because she had a shingles outbreak.  The poor woman!  I told her I was flattered but told her I would be interested in being only friends.  I heard from her once more a few months later.  She was still working hard as a social worker.

Jennifer

Jennifer was accomplished and hard working.  A lawyer, she was contemplating working on her own again.  She was idealistic, politically active in her 20s, but was frustrated that as a younger woman, she had been over-stepped by older white men with name recognition.

She seemed confident in her text to me.  “I don’t have a problem making the first move.” She was responding to a line in my online profile in which I had pondered why women were so shy to make the first move.  She had confidently engaged me in some banter, saying that like me, she shared a commitment to fitness.  We exchanged some quick, detailed messages and when I mentioned that I was going to an outdoor dance show, she agreed to meet me there.

The dance show was an offbeat place to meet, but I had a sense that Jennifer would be attracted to something offbeat.  The show’s cast consisted of amateur dancers who performed dances on their front lawns and porches; they were choreographed and coached by professional dance artists.

Yet I got the sense from the that Jennifer was heartbroken and on the rebound.  She was happily married to her husband, with whom she had two kids.  But she was depressed from her recent breakup with her girlfriend, to whom she seemed emotionally close to and spent a lot of time with.  And her parents and siblings, obtusely professional and openminded people, were constantly judging and commenting on Jennifer’s sexual fluidity and polyarmorous dating style.  She seemed genuinely interested in me she asked me lots of questions yet she seemed to want to come back to her trials and tribulations.  In return, I offered a listening ear and reacted to her comments, but I had little to offer.  Because I’ve never invested myself in romantic pursuits, I’ve never had similar hurtful breakups, and I’ve never felt judged by my family for my identity.

Yet eerily, I connected most successfully with Jennifer of many of the woman that I met.

She had confidently engaged me in some banter, saying that like me, she shared a commitment to fitness.

We subsequently met a couple of times more, including a going to a 3D animated movie (I would never have given it the time to see it if she hadn’t suggested seeing it), and Jennifer seemed genuinely interested, despite her allergy to cats and disinterest in pets in general.

I don’t know if things could have gone further with her.  It probably would have required me to open up and confide in a way that she was clearly willing and confident to do, but I wasn’t really willing to do at the time.  Had I been a little more honest, who knows, something may have happened.

Afterthoughts

As I reflect on what I’ve just written, I’ve come to the realization I’m happiest when alone, and that for me, romance is an tolling effort that I’m not willing to exert.  I have a memory of being a kid in the ’80s and watching one of those weeknight soaps (perhaps it was thirtysomething).  The characters, in my teenage mind, were spending a vast amount of time whining about not finding love and “the one.”  I looked at my mother and said, “Is that all adults do is worry about love?”  My mother let out a whimper and laughed, and I think she felt a little sad for me, yet I realize that it’s a sentiment that I still have.  And my attempts at having that part of the human condition in my life, whether it is stuff I was doing in high school or university or this midlife internet exploration, have never implanted in me a desire to seek that kind of companionship.  Maybe I’m missing out on something.  Maybe I’ll die a little less for the better.  But I know what I need out of life.   And it’s not romance.  I’m happiest alone.

Four Misunderstood Rock Songs

The rock anthem: a three-minute catchy hook that gets you grooving and makes you feel good.  And maybe you’ll want to dance or play some air guitar.

Rock ‘n’ roll was born in the 1950s, when the first wave of baby boomers hit their teens, complete with a disposable income their Depression-era parents never had.  And these kids didn’t swallow up the new music genre just because it was radically different from the Glenn Miller and Frank Sinatra that their parents were listening to.  No, rock focused on fun things: Elvis Presley sang about hound dogs and blue suede shoes; Buddy Holly sang about his drummer’s girlfriend, Peggy Sue; and the overly flamboyant Little Richard sang about Lucille and Miss Molly.  But although rock ‘n’ roll began fun and unassuming, in the tumultuous 1960s, when Bob Dylan sang protest songs and the Beatles experimented in psychedelia, it matured into rock.  Yet rock and its sister musical genre, pop, never lost their playfulness.  Rock and pop music are still predominately created by young people for other young people.  But don’t get fooled by the upbeat grooves, cool hooks, and fast tempos.  If you listen carefully, rock/pop songs quite often have dark, sinister lyrics.  Here is a list of four songs that you probably didn’t realize have very bleak lyrics.

“Alive” by Pearl Jam

When Pearl Jam’s debut album, Ten, was released to commercial and critical acclaim in 1991, it helped to bring grunge music to the forefront.  Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard actually wrote the melody to their first single, Alive, in early 1990, when Pearl Jam didn’t have a singer.  Eddie Vedder, who at the time was working as a security guard in San Diego, heard a recording of the song, came up with some lyrics and sent an tape to Gossard, who immediately invited Vedder for an audition.

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Who can deny that “Alive” is a great song?  With its fast pace, happy-sounding melody, and chorus repeating “Alive, I’m still alive,” many people mistake the song as a celebration of life.  But have you really carefully listened to the lyrics? They’re actually eerily shocking.  Vedder’s lyrics partially fictionalize his own teenage experiences.  When Vedder was around 13, he learned that the man he believed to be his real father really wasn’t. Alive, however, takes Vedder’s experience further.  In the song, a mother tells her 13-year-old son, “You’re real father was dying, sorry you didn’t see him…” The boy then informs us that his mother “…walks slowly across a young man’s room /She said ‘I’m ready for you’/I can’t remember anything to this very day.”

Yep, that’s right.  The mother rapes her son.  Uncaring to the harm she’s caused, she goes on. “‘Is something wrong?’ she said/’Of course there is/You’re still alive.'”

So much for being an anthem.  Sorry to ruin it for you.

“Every Breath You Take” by The Police

The Police were huge.  The post-punk band formed in 1977, and found huge success within the year with their debut album, Outlandos d’Amour, which featured their biggest single, “Roxanne,” along with “Can’t Stand Losing You” and “So Lonely.” The band’s brief life was like a hurricane–powerful and loud–witnessing five chart-topping albums in a five-year period and multiple stadium-packed tours.  It’s no wonder with that with their huge success, the band would ultimately implode with infighting.  Although singer-bassist-chief songwriter Sting would go on to have a successful solo career, perhaps the most famous song he wrote was on The Police’s last album, 1983’s Synchronicity.  “Every Breath You Take” topped the US Billboard for nine weeks, and twenty years after the song was released, Sting was reportedly still earning royalties of $2000 per day.

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With its gentle melody and medium-pacing, many people failed to carefully listen to or comprehend the lyrics.  Sting once said, “One couple told me ‘Oh, we love that song; it was the song we played at our wedding.’  I thought, ‘Well, good luck.'”  And when he was asked by BBC2 why he looked so angry in the song’s video, Sting explained that “Every Little Breath You Take” is “…very, very sinister and ugly, and people have actually misinterpreted it as being a gentle little love song, when it’s actually quite the opposite.”

Sting wrote the song as his marriage was falling apart: he had left his wife for his wife’s best friend.  With all the complex emotions he was experiencing, Sting created lyrics written from a stalker’s point of view.  “Every move you make/Every vow you break/Every smile you fake/Every claim you stake/I’ll be watching you.”  Love does evoke strong emotions, and emotionally wise people know that love and hate are actually two closely related emotions.  Still, Sting knew how to write from a stalker’s perspective.  Hmm…what does this say about Sting?

“Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster the People

Foster the People exploded onto the scene in 2010 with their debut album, Torches.  The album’s strength, however, rested on its first single, “Pumped Up Kicks.”  A fast-tempo song with an anthem-inducing chorus and melodic melody that invites you sing along, there’s little to betray the song’s sinister themes to a casual listener.  And the video doesn’t help either, as it features the band cheerfully performing the song to a dancing audience; the concert sequence is edited with scenes of the band surfing and playing pool.  But take a deeper listen.  It’s a dark, disturbing song.

Singer-writer Mark Foster commented that the song was his attempt to understand “gun violence among youth” perpetrated by a “…lack of family, lack of love, and isolation.” Additionally, Foster was bullied in school and bassist Cubie Fink’s cousin survived the Columbine High School shooting.  The song’s title refers to a brand of kids’ shoes that serve as a status symbol.

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Need further proof?  Listen to the chorus’s lyrics: “You better run, better run, faster than my bullet/All the other kids with their pumped-up kicks/You better run, better run, outrun my gun.”

Yikes.

“Sex on Fire” by Kings of Leon

I’m throwing this song in for fun.  The lyrics are elusive and vague, but the chorus consists of “You/Your sex is on fire/You/Your sex is on fire.”  I say the song is about STDs, but I have no proof.  If you have a better idea, let me know.