When Ontario went into lockdown in mid-March 2020, I became caught up in the paranoia of COVID-19. The dreaded virus, I assumed, would kill everybody. My job wasn’t deemed an essential service, but, luckily, my employer transitioned us to a seemingly permanent home work situation. And although this took away my daily commutes and expensive transit fares, I was listening to the radio during those early lockdown days, and every radio station had sixty-second COVID updates every ten minutes that enhanced my paranoia. And although I wasn’t technically supposed to go outside during the early part of the lockdown except to go grocery shopping or some other essential service, I had to get out and go for walks and long runs to keep my sanity. (In my paranoid thoughts, I justified this by keeping more than two metre’s distance from people.) The lockdowns are an experience that I hope to never relive.
I knew that I had to keep busy beyond streaming movies and TV. Vaccines wouldn’t be available until the next year, delaying Ontario’s reopening. The years 2020 and 2021 would become a revolving door of openings and lockdowns, and Ontario had perhaps the longest-lasting restrictions in North America. But perhaps one industry that year that thrived during the pandemic restrictions was online learning–and that was ultimately how I would keep busy during the pandemic. If I did take online courses, what would I take? Could I find something that would give me a skillset that would keep me busy? And could I find an extra skill to add value to my writing work?
2. Photography Could be a Solution
I’ve had a lifelong fascination with photography, but it wasn’t a skill that came naturally to me. In grade school I dreaded art class. I lacked eye-hand coordination, making me bad at all things art. My grade eight art teacher, seeing me struggle on a project, said to me, “Your art is worth a F, but I’m going to give you a C because of your effort.” In high school, I took a photography class. This was way back when photography was still on film. Although I enjoyed the class, I ultimately didn’t do too well. (Because I’m not naturally a visual person, I don’t think that I was adequately mature enough at the time to bridge the technical elements of photography with the artistic side of photography. Notably, I kept shooting out-of-focus photos.) And again in university I did a photography class that required us to shoot on slide film. This class, too, focused on the basic skills of photography–Fstop, aperture speed, different film stocks–and again, it didn’t stick. But I still had the interest in photography. I knew that if I found the right entry, I could figure out the right way to effectively tell a story through photography.
Fast forward to the fall of 2020, and I enrolled in an introductory digital photo class that counted towards a digital photography certificate. By this point, everything was digital–the camera I bought was digital, as was the editing, which has transitioned from the darkroom to the computer. The five mandatory classes again covered the basics but also taught things I hadn’t thought of before–white balance and the role of light in composition, for example. I still struggled with the technical side of photography, and many of the other students picked it up faster than I. And digital editing still overwhelms me. (Why is Photoshop so brutally expansive and complicated?) But I was motivated. I work as a writer. I am a rarity among writers in that I am a writer with a well-paying full-time job. However, I wanted to pick up freelancing opportunities on the side, and I figured that if I had photography skills, I could attract prospective employers. But until I began the certificate’s elective courses, I didn’t know how photography would help me.
To complete my certificate, I took three elective classes–flash photography, which focused on using a flash as an additional lighting and compositional tool; street photography and photojournalism; and portrait photography. It took me almost two years to complete the program, so by the time I took the photojournalism class, outdoor events had begun to start up again. And with the portrait class, people had started congregating again by the time I took it. For my assignments, I paid some of my art modelling contacts (I previously worked as an art model for three years) to model for me while I practised lighting patterns. (It turns out that the lighting styles used in portraiture are rather consistent and established.)
The one model I worked with most during my portrait class was Sara, whom I had met just a couple of times before. Sara had agreed to model for me at an affordable rate, and because I had explained to her in advance that I was just learning my skills, she was adequately prepared to be patient with me. It was September when we had our first session together, and when Sara and I met at a park in her neighbourhood, she was well into her third trimester of her first pregnancy. She was a trooper, walking around the park with me and standing while I took photos of her, despite the extra load she was carrying. Because I was focusing on her shoulders and face, my photos never captured any evidence of her pregnancy, but Sara went on to give birth just a few weeks after my class ended.
At the time I took this photo, I was quite proud. The photo of Sara is a clear example of split lighting; I achieved it my placing an external flash on a stand to the left of Sarah, with the flash at Sara’s eye level. I was happy that I was able to achieve the lighting pattern, but I would never try to pass the photo off today: the lighting is much too harsh. It’s much too close to Sarah, and the lack of diffusion is not flattering. (Sara looks fine, as usual.) And there’s some blurriness; perhaps the shutter speed was too slow. But considering that this was taken on my very first session with a model, it wasn’t too bad an attempt. I do have to thank Sara for two things–for patiently posing for me and for helping me open my eyes that I may enjoy doing portrait photography.
3. The Dreaded Self-Portrait
As the course progressed, and I practised more, I became more confident in my skills. But I knew that two things were true: I needed to get more adept at using a flash (fortunately, I was taking the portrait and flash courses at the same time), and I needed to photograph lots of people to get my skills up. Near the end of the class, our instructor told us that we would have to do something that would probably make most of us uncomfortable: we would have to do a self-portrait. The concept of a self-portrait didn’t bother me. As a former art model, I was used to being depicted on a canvas, so taking a photo of myself didn’t bother me. I decided to take it one step further: I would photograph myself first thing in the morning, straight out of bed. No shower first. No getting dressed first. No eating breakfast. I will say that taking a self-portrait is hard: it requires you to be able to figure out which lens to use, where to place the camera so that you’re in focus, and set up the lighting. Then you have to edit the photo of yourself. I will say that the instructor was probably shocked at the photo that I submitted of myself: I’m not the loudest person in the room, and I don’t think he anticipated anybody doing a self-portrait like this:
Again, it’s split lighting. At the time, I was amazed that I was able to do lighting like this, but in retrospect, I should have used some kind of reflector on the left side of my face, if just to make it more visible.
4. I Complete the Certificate, But I Need to Practise
But enough of these photos that I took while I was in class! I was determined that if I were to sell myself as a writer who could write profiles of people and take a decent-looking photo of them to accompany the article, I needed to practise. I needed a captive roaster of people to model for me. The first choice was my three nephews, the only kids that I have access to on a regular basis. And although I have practised on my nephews a few times, including capturing one spectacular image of my then-two-year-old nephew, I know that I have no interest in working with children. I don’t have the patience.
It dawned on me that if I wanted to practise, I should see if there were performing artists who would want to model for me. People working in the arts don’t necessarily have the money to pay for an experienced professional photographer, but at the same time, they need decent photos to promote themselves. When I was art modelling, I took burlesque classes to increase my confidence in front of the audience and be more comfortable creating more interesting gestures. I thought about reaching out to some of the models that I had met throughout my burlesque odyssey. I reached out to some of the burlesuqers whom I follow on social media and whom I thought would be interested in modelling. There are certain burlesque artists who are very good at consistently creating a presence for themselves on social media, particularly with images of themselves. I started putting feelers out there and see if any would be interested in modelling for me. And I got responses!
The first burlesque artist I photographed was Bellamie, with whom I had first met in a burlesque class and whom I would also profile in a blog on my website. When I approached Bellamie, I told her that I would be initially interested in doing headshots unrelated to burlesque–shots she could use on LinkedIn or show to her family. If she was comfortable with the photos I took and with me as a photographer, then we could perhaps revisit and do something more burlesque themed. She agreed, so we rented a studio, and we got busy taking photos.
I’m still quite happy with the photos that I took of Bellamie that day: For two hours, I took photo after photo, and, to be honest, she looks good. I got some good lighting patterns on her, but if I had used reflectors and diffusers, she would have looked even more spectacular. (I knew to use them, but as a photographer working on my own, I was hadn’t yet figured out how to balance using them while taking photos.) But I was on my way. Luckily, Bellamie felt the same way too. A few months later we regrouped for more bourdoir-themed photos. I was still cognizant of planning my compositions and lighting.
More photoshoots with other burlesque models followed, including Mary, a local actor and burlesque performer. We did a regular photoshoot in High Park during the summer and then later in the fall a more boudoir-focused shoot in a studio.
Or there are the sessions that I did with Felix, who was active in burlesque prior to the lockdowns. We did an outdoor shoot at Evergreen Brick Works in the fall, when I used only natural lighting. (I had dropped and broken my flash). Later, we did an indoor boudoir shoot.
5. In the Meantime, I Pursued Street Photography
I have to admit that as a photographer, my biggest challenge has been attracting men to model for me. Women are more willing to expose themselves in front of the camera in a way that men typically aren’t. Perhaps this is the male gaze taking effect? But in the meantime, I’ve pursued to street photography. Over the past summer, I went to High Park to photograph people at the cherry trees, photographed people riding bikes along the waterfront, went to a book festival, photographed an outdoor dance show, and went to the gay pride festival. I love taking photos of people who aren’t necessarily posing. Photos of people in their natural element can be fun!
6. I Seek Feedback about my Photography
Not too long ago, I showed my photography to people I work with, and although they praised my eye for composition, they acknowledged some truths: I need to get better with lighting. Diffusers and reflectors need to be more effectively and consistently used. Tone down contrasting lighting. It was advice that I took to heart. So a couple of weeks ago, I contacted Crimson, who, in the past, has done burlesque and currently does a lot of ariel circus. She was eager to do a straight-up photography shoot, so I rented a studio, and on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I decided to make an effort to use great lighting on Crimson. And I have to say that it worked.
7. What Have I Learned?
I know that I have an eye for photographing people, and I’m ready to incorporate it into my writing. Indeed, I already have incorporated my photography into a couple of articles that I wrote for my full-time writing job at the engineering regulator. Notably, I photographed a retired engineering professor for a profile I wrote about her and included street photography for an article I wrote about engineers on transit projects. I want to continue with my photography. I want to continue to get better. And I want to include it with my writing. I’m already a good writer. Will my photography be as equally good?
When I first lost Boris, I didn’t think it would hurt so much. I left his food and water bowls on the floor for months after, bits of food still in the quickly evaporating water. His pet steps are still by my bed and couch, and his toys, until recently, were lay all over the floor. After almost 11 years with him, I fear that my memories of him will fade with time, and that is why, in part, I’m writing this.
When I first saw Boris, he looked so depressed. He was big–18 pounds–and nine years old, with short grey-and-white hair and the brightest green eyes that I had ever seen on a cat. He was lying in his cage, his front right leg hanging out the bars, his face with the saddest expression lying on the bottom of the cage on his blanket. He looked like he was purposely sleeping his time away. Quite frankly, he looked stunned to be there–and he probably was.
It was November of 2010, and I was in the Toronto Humane Society (THS) for the second time in a month to look at older cats that were available for adoption. Earlier that weekend, I had been to the City of Toronto’s animal shelter on the Exhibition grounds, where I saw a beautiful female calico cat that I would have loved to have adopted, but the staff said that she was feral and needed weeks of proper socialization before she could be adopted. So on a cold and grey late-afternoon Sunday, I again walked into the THS’s Queen Street East location, two hours before they were scheduled to close, to look at older cats that I could adopt.
I had grown up with both dogs and cats. My parents had a dog when I born–I can’t remember its name but can clearly remember the little white dog. Yet I do remember the cats we had had from my early childhood, including Saturn, a male tuxedo cat; along with a female Siamese cat whose name I can’t recall; and Sasha, a female tuxedo cat. Interestingly, Sasha, who lived well into my university days, and the Siamese cat were pregnant with liters at the same time when I was six. The Siamese cat would put her babies on my top-level bunkbed (my younger brother had the lower bed); I would wake up to kittens between my legs. As I grew up, we always had dogs along with cats, and at one point, when I was in high school, we had two cats and two dogs, including a 17-year-old Sasha, who had to manage a full-grown 100-plus-pound Rottweiler. (Sasha successfully put Jazz in her place.)
I had been living alone in a bachelor apartment on the seventh floor of a twelve-storey apartment building in midtown Toronto for almost two years when I had decided to adopt a cat. I was working for the YMCA of Greater Toronto on back-to-back contracts, first in their call centre, where I was registering children in summer camps; and then on a second contract, where I was registering university co-op students into a government-sponsored job-making program for which the YMCA had been awarded the contract to administer. Both positions were temporary, and I had no idea what my employment prospects were going to be beyond this. By the time I had begun seriously thinking about getting an older cat, I was in the second of these contracts and, unbeknownst to me, three months away from being unemployed, with no subsequent job opportunities lined up.
At the time of my visit, the THS kept their dogs downstairs in cages spread over three or four rooms, the walls and floors made of concrete; every time a person entered, the dogs would bark in unison, their yelps echoing and piercing throughout each room. I did a quick walk through of the dogs, and although I would have gladly adopted one, I knew that I wasn’t prepared to take on the responsibility: I lived on my own in a small apartment; I was out all day at work; and I didn’t want to have to go down seven flights of stairs every time the dog needed to go to the washroom. An older cat, I figured, wouldn’t mind as much if I was out all day. An older cat, I figured, could use kitty litter. An older cat, I figured, would be more content being inside. And because I lived on my own with no children in my life, I decided that an older cat would be happier with my quiet, solitary life. So an older cat it was!
For Boris, the THS was a sad place
The THS cats were kept upstairs in about six separate rooms. Some of the rooms were closed to the public, since some cats had medical issues like FIV (the feline equivalent of HIV) and feline leukemia. However, most were in open rooms where the public could walk in and interact with the cats. Each room had cages stacked two high around the perimeter, while the larger rooms also had cages in the middle, again, stacked two high. Each cage was perhaps three feet across, three feet deep, and perhaps three feet tall. It was one of the larger rooms that I saw Boris; he was in an upper-level cage in the middle of the room, and when I saw this older and sad yet huggable-looking cat with a name that made me think of a Russian florist, I knew that I wanted to give him a home.
“Boris was brought into the shelter when his owner had passed away,” the description of Boris said on the front of the cage. (All the cats had a bio, complete with their photo, on the front of their cage.) “The family members who brought him in said he hadn’t been using the litter box. He had not been neutered, and his litter box wasn’t regularly cleaned, which may have been the cause behind his house soiling issues. THS veterinarians neutered Boris and placed him under observation to monitor his litter box use. Since being in the shelter, he has used his litter box every day. Boris is a very friendly and affectionate cat who enjoys lots of attention. He has shown a positive response to the other cats in the shelter and because of his friendly and easygoing personality, [he] may do well with children.”
I went to the cat area’s reception area and told the receptionist that I was going to adopt Boris. Boris, I learned, had been brought in after his previous owner, who had had Alzheimer’s disease, died. Sadly, Boris had been with the owner for some time before family members decided to check in. To add to this, Boris was at the THS for about two nights when a family adopted him; they returned him the next day after he hissed at the cat that they already had.
I was put through a litany of questions to make sure that I was a good match for Boris. The woman at the THS warned me: Because I lived high up in an apartment, I had to cat-proof my balcony. Cats apparently have poor depth perception, so falling off the balcony is a danger for cats. I was grilled on what I would feed him. I didn’t dare admit that I was strongly considering putting him on a raw meat diet–the one true diet for which a cat’s body is designed for. To appease her, I said that I would feed him a mix of dry and canned food; I even named the brands that THS staff was feeding the cats. She asked if I would ever take Boris out. I said no, since I lived in a multi-storey building, but secretly I was considering getting a leash and taking him for walks. In my head, I was going through what I thought she would want to hear. Sure enough, the woman let out a “Yes!” as we finalized Boris’s adoption. I had gone unprepared though: I didn’t have a cat carrier, nor did I have a car. (I have a diver’s licence but no car.) When I asked if I could put Boris on hold and pick him up the next day, the woman’s face dropped. She probably thought that I would spend the night thinking about my commitment and decide not to take him. But that wasn’t the case–my mother, who at the time lived an hour away from Toronto, told me that if I were to get a cat, she would drive me and the cat home. The woman reluctantly agreed to put Boris on hold, telling me that she would do this for only 24 hours.
The next day was Monday, and I worked until 5PM. Sure enough, though, my mother came down. We went to Petsmart and got a carrier, kitty litter, and pet food–organic, meat-based dry and grain-free canned food for Boris’s immediate meals. When I arrived at the THS, I paid for Boris’s adoption–I got him at a discount, since he was a senior cat–and we went to his cage, and for the second time, I got to pick him up. Unfortunately, like the day before, Boris wasn’t too affectionate. He just lay in my arms like a dead weight. But we put him in the carrier and went to my mother’s car. We put Boris in the back seat, where he sat quietly in his cage on top of the rear seat. We got to my building, went up to my unit, went in, opened the cage, and let Boris explore. Frustratingly, Boris went straight under my bed. My mother and I sat on the two large, comfy seats that I had at the time–I no longer have them, since Boris eventually tore them to pieces–talking so that Boris would get used to my voice. After doing that for half an hour, we went out and got take-out dinner and brought it back home to eat. We used the food to get Boris to come out from under the bed; it turned out that Boris was an enthusiastic eater. But as soon as the food was eaten and my mother had left, Boris was again under my bed, and I couldn’t coax him out.
For the first few days, Boris stayed under my bed. I was worried. I didn’t know if he’d ever come out. I was, of course, at work all day, but I sensed that Boris was out to eat or drink. Yet he didn’t leave anything in either of his kitty litter boxes. (Because of his litter issues, THS staff has recommended that he have two boxes so that he always had a clean place to go to the washroom.) On the Friday of that first week, I called the THS while at work for advice; he would come out, they assured me. Cats, they told me, hide until they feel safe. When she said that, I thought Boris would die of a kidney infection because he wasn’t coming out to use his litter, they told me to give him time. The woman sounded panicked, as if I was going to return Boris. I wouldn’t have, but I left the conversation not feeling anymore relieved.
Boris finds his confidence
But Boris eventually came out. I stayed home most of that first weekend, and it was my food that coaxed him out. By Sunday morning, Boris was sitting on the chair by my bed, his front legs resting on the arm, as he watched me sleep. And he had peed in his litter box sometime throughout the night! And when I went to work all day Monday, he greeted me as I came home and followed me around my apartment, including into the kitchen, where he sat and meowed as I made dinner.
Boris proved to have an easy-going, friendly personality. He greeted me habitually when I came home from work. He liked to sit with me as I watched TV. He loved to stare at me with those intense and beautiful eyes of his. He loved to sit by me as I ate dinner and walk all over my lap until I gave him some. Did I mention that he had a dominant personality?
He also had this quirky bump on his forehead, an idiosyncratic formation of his skull that, when you petted the front of his head, you’d feel the bump But petting that bump, along with his beautiful eyes, made it easy to forgive him for his transgressions. My initial twin seats that I had? Boris ripped them both to shreds. My next seat was a leather couch whose legs that he had, within a month, punctured with his claws. A part of his clawing was no doubt that he was a cat, and that’s what cats do. But in the larger scheme of things, he was bored. And although I had intended from day one to take him for walks, my mother told me that walking him was a bad idea–Boris was an indoor cat, my mother reasoned. He wouldn’t like it outside. He should stay outside. So for the first six years I had him, Boris left my apartment just once, and that was to go to the vet.
Boris gets bad news from the vet
The first time I took Boris to the vet was about four years I got him. Boris had started vomiting shortly after eating. Everything else about him was fine: his appetite was the same, and he was using the kitty litter. But he couldn’t keep his meals down. So to the neighbourhood vet we went, where the the veterinarian told me that Boris had a mass in his stomach, and given Boris’s age–he would have been around 13 at this point–it was unlikely to be benign. I left Boris at the vets while they took an x-ray. I walked home, where I started sobbing. I couldn’t believe that I would be losing him. When I went to the vet to pick Boris up, the vet confirmed the mass in Boris’s stomach. They could operate, but it would cost thousands. I made the decision not to do anything; if Boris wasn’t in obvious pain, I would leave him be, but if it became too painful for him, I would consider euthanasia. Oddly, though, within a couple of days, the vomiting stopped, and Boris never became obviously sick. (When I took him to the vet again, a couple of years later, the vet–a different one–was unable to confirm the presence of a tumour.)
It was that next visit to the vet that proved that Boris’s health had permanently changed for the worse. It was May, and Boris would have been 14. I had a visitor, who looked at Boris and pointed that he was walking funny. And I noticed that he indeed had a peculiar gait: He was waddling on his hind legs. Instead of walking on the toes and pads of his hind legs, he had them bent under his body. His hind legs now resembled skis. Of course I did what everybody does now and went on the internet. I essentially became an absolutely unqualified veterinarian. The internet told me that Boris’s symptoms were likely diabetes, which is apt to affect cats when they get older. I booked an appointment at the vet for a couple of days from then. When we went, the vet performed some bloodwork on Boris. The tests indeed confirmed that Boris was diabetic. Boris would now have to receive insulin shots twice a day–from me in needle form–and I would have to feed Boris specially formulated cat food for diabetic cats. This last point disappointed me, since I had had Boris on a raw-meat diet, supplemented by grain-free organic dry food. But the vets warned me that the bacteria in raw meat can interfere with the insulin, so Boris would have to swap the raw meat for the diabetic canned food.
It proved easy to administer the needles; I gave one to Boris in the morning with his breakfast and one at night with his dinner. Boris was such an enthusiastic eater that he was too busy eating to even notice that he was getting a shot. All I had to do was put the needle in him above the shoulder of his front right leg. And that went on until the day he died. Yet within a couple of days of Boris’s diabetes diagnosis, my mother called with this epiphany that Boris should go for walks outside. Boris, she reasoned, was bored inside. (Remember that my mother told me six hears earlier that Boris should stay inside.) My mother brought me a cat harness and leash that she had used on her cat Hugo, who was actually my sister’s cat from when she was in Thunder Bay getting her teaching degree but then gave to my mother once she decided to move to South Korea to teach English. The harness was a tad tight for Boris, who was significantly larger than Hugo.
Boris starts going for walks
The next day, I took Boris out for his first walk. The harness was on, the leash was attached, and I carried him down the elevator and out to the side of the building, where there was a large patch of grass. Boris wasn’t moving; instead, he stood there crying, looking timid. He wouldn’t move, so I picked him up and carried him to the rear of the building, where there were some flowers growing. He walked around the flowers and sniffed them but then stood there and cried again. The total length of his first walk? Five minutes.
The second day of his walk was ten minutes, thanks in part to a woman sitting on the patch of grass to the side of the building. To this day I don’t know why she was sitting there, but she was excited to see me carrying Boris outside, and she was enthusiastic when I dropped Boris beside her. Boris was enthusiastic, too, and he walked around her as she talked and petted him. The interaction with this woman was a big help, and no doubt it hastened Boris’s calmness outside. Within the week, Boris was walking on his leash, which was extendable, allowing him to walk onto people’s lawns and sniff their gardens. I developed a routine that first week where I would carry Boris to the end of the street and get him to walk back to the building. At the end of the street there were a row of houses that shared a laneway that allowed the cars to park. It was essentially a dirt lane with trees on the adjacent property; I would go up that laneway and let Boris walk. By the end of the week, I encountered a neighbour walking his miniature poodle while talking on the phone to his wife. I heard him exclaim, “Somebody’s walking his cat on a leash!” As we finished our interaction, he asked why I bothered putting Boris on a leash. I wondered that too, so on the next day, I took Boris out to the end of the street again, but this time I took the leash off but kept the harness on. Boris walked up people’s front lawns and then came back to me. So the next day I kept the leash and harness at home, and Boris was fine. He stayed with me and watched me like a hawk. He never left, except for one time, when, while listening to music, I lost track of him, and my neighbour in the building came running to me to tell me that Boris had walked back to the building on his own. This was a huge feat, since Boris couldn’t walk too fast on account of his age and his odd, diabetic-affected walk.
The walks had the effect of making Boris even closer to me than he already was. I discovered that during the summer, the sun was too hot for Boris. In the summer months, it was best to take Boris for walks during dusk, which turned out to be his favourite time during the summer. He liked sitting in the sun as it set while the dusk breeze hit his face. His summertime walks over the years would last an hour a day. Sometimes I would take him for even later walks, sometimes at eleven at night.
When we went for those walks, Boris and I would see all the wildlife: rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, opossums, woodchucks, and, on one Sunday morning, a fox. The raccoons caught Boris’s attention the most. It must have been the way the way they walked? Boris once tried to chase a family of raccoons across the street.
The neighbourhood cats were in interested in Boris, with one of the cats, an all-black cat whose name I never discovered, following Boris all the way down the street during several walks. Most of the neighbours, too, got to know Boris and would stop to talk to us. Boris’s personality changed after we started our walks: whereas before he would hide under the bed if anybody came over, he now became a calm, confident cat. The things that scared him at the beginning of the walks–people, dogs, cars, noises–didn’t bother him anymore.
If people came into our apartment, he would go up to them and greet them. But, importantly, the walks cemented his attachment to me. He always slept by himself before the walks, but after the walks began, he would snuggle with me as I sat on the couch or slept on my bed. If I was sitting at my desk working, he would come over, lie on the rug, and roll on the floor, exposing his belly. I am confident that he was appreciative of the walks, and to this day, I am convinced that cats need to get outside in order to be normal cats. A cat that stays inside all day everyday is a neurotic cat.
Boris stayed with me as my precarious work situation shifted to a permanent, more financially rewarding one. The first few years of my new job saw me going to an office, forcing Boris to be by himself for a long stretch during the day. But once the COVID pandemic hit, my job transitioned to remote work, and, ironically, it was because of COVID that I got to spend the majority of day at home with Boris for the last year and a half of his life.
Boris was happy that I was home all the time. He would sit on the couch and watch me as I worked. He loved that I would eat lunch near him, and he would even come lie on the floor beside my desk, exposing his belly to me.
Boris even became a photographic muse for me. To keep myself busy during the initial COVID lockdown, I started taking online photography lessons at a local college, and to help me on my photographic journey, Boris became my main muse as I tested out my new digital SLR camera. He was a ham, always indulging me as I snapped photos of him.
Boris’s last days
But after the first fifteen months of my working at home, Boris slowly changed. He would occasionally not go into his kitty litter to pee, forcing me to mop the floor. (He had been randomly pooping outside his litter boxes for months, so I thought little of it.) He stopped coming onto the couch to sit with me while I watched TV or eat dinner. (I’d have to pick him up and place him on the couch.) And at bedtime, he’d only snuggle with me while I fell asleep, and by the time I woke up, he’d be lying on the floor.
It was his last day that upsets me. It was late August, and, as usual, I was working at home, yet I wasn’t paying much attention to Boris, who had spent much of the day under my bed. He had been spending quite a lot of time there for the last couple of weeks, but he always came out to eat or beg for my food. And he wasn’t going out for walks with much enthusiasm, as I would often have to pull him out from under the bed. In retrospect I should have recognized this as a tell-tale sign that he wasn’t feeling well, but I just didn’t see it.
It was a Friday, and I wanted to go to the Distillery with my camera and take some photos. So before leaving, I fed Boris, who started to eat enthusiastically when I placed him in front of his food. I went out around 5pm and got home around 8pm. On my way home, I bought dinner to cook, and once I got home, I was cooking my meal in the kitchen, when I heard Boris make a deep, strange moan. I came out to check on him, and I saw that he had come out from the bed. I returned to the kitchen, made my dinner, and ate it while looking at the computer. It was only after I finished my dinner that I again checked on Boris, who, was now lying under the coffee table–an unusual place for him. He had also dropped about five large pieces of poop. His legs were spread out, and he was flat like a pancake. I lifted him onto the couch, where he lay normally but kept shaking his head. (I realized later that this shaking was likely a seizure.) Nevertheless, I still didn’t realize how serious his condition was. I put him on my bed and lay with him for an hour. Yet–madly–it was only after I went out for 40 minutes and returned to see that he had peed all over my bed and was madly drooling that I finally realized that things weren’t good. It was almost midnight, and I began calling all the emergency vets, but because of COVID, they were all taking just one patient a time and were fully booked except for one in the west end. I had to call a taxi to take Boris to the vet. Once I got to the vet, I couldn’t go in with Boris, despite the fact that we were the only ones there. Instead, I had to have a conversation with the vet on my phone from the parking lot. The prognosis? Boris likely had had a clot in his foot. It was probably blocking the blood from getting to his head. The vet could give him pills, but Boris was 20, and there was no guarantee that he wouldn’t have another stroke. Euthanasia was the kindest thing to do. The vet pulled a cot out to the back of the building, where I stayed with Boris during his final moments. The taxi driver stayed with me the entire time as Boris passed away.
I felt terribly guilty for not recognizing Boris’s illness. I felt guilty that I had left him alone for over half an hour, despite the fact that he was suffering. But I hadn’t clued in to what was going on until it was too late. And for the first few weeks, I couldn’t bear to clear my space of his belongings–his partially eaten last meal, his water bowl, or his toys lying all over the floor. His absence left a big hole in my life. I missed his presence. I missed our walks. I missed cuddling with him in bed. Most of all, I missed him. But I also felt a relief. I no longer had to worry about his insulin shots. I no longer had to worry about him peeing all over the floor. I no longer had to worry about him getting sick. And that sense of relief made me feel guilty.
The guilt and the sense of loss ebbed over the first couple of months–enough, in fact, that within two and-a-half months, I was back at the THS looking at cats. (I even adopted one–18-year-old Gretl.) But as guilty as I feel over Boris’s last night, I realize that he spent eleven happy, fulfilling years with me. I realized that he was a happy cat who enjoyed his life, had all the comforts of life, and got to go for walks. I realize that he appreciated me. And I appreciated him. He gave me over a decade of companionship. And for that, I thank Boris.
The Revival has been a part of Toronto’s Little Italy neighbourhood on College Street since 2002. It’s housed in a seemingly century-old brown-bricked building on the southwest corner of College and Shaw Street; practically next door, on Revival’s east, is a tiny mall with a twenty-four-hour Metro and Tim Horton’s; Shaw Street, to the west, is a quiet residential street lined with late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century houses and bike lanes that allow bicyclists to quickly travel from Trinity Bellwoods Park to Bloor Street West and the subway. College to the east sees more pedestrian traffic, particularly with the numerous Italian restaurants, eclectic independent stores, and neighbourhood cinema. Indeed, the seemingly larger Mod Club—which also opened on 2002, but on the north side of College, practically facing the Revival—seems to attract a larger audience, judging from the size of the crowds that often congregate outside the Mod on summer nights.
Yet the Revival’s website claims that it has attracted big names over the years, including Justin Timberlake, Robin Williams, Black Eyed Peas, Sara McLaughlin, and Conan O’Brien. Revival is indeed large, with three floors that allow the venue to host separate events, including corporate events, trade shows, video shoots, and dinner parties. Yet despite the big names and corporate events that Revival has attracted over the years, the Revival also hosts smaller events that allow many of Toronto’s lesser-known artists and performers access to an audience. Notably, it has become a home of sorts to Toronto’s steady yet overlooked burlesque scene, having hosted in the past the Toronto Burlesque Festival, Imperial Burlesque Canada, Game of Thrones, and other smaller burlesque events. “Burlesque factors large on our calendar,” Revival’s website claims.
It was on a cold and snowy Sunday night in January that I went to see a burlesque show called “Witching Hour: Ice Kween” at the Revival. The show was on the building’s main stage on the ground floor. After walking up a short flight of stairs at the north-end entrance, I stood on the main floor, with its beautiful brick interior walls and fully equipped stage at the south end that had a set of stairs to allow performers to walk on and off the stage to the wooden floor, which makes the main floor look like it could be a wicked dance venue. The centre floor was otherwise empty of people, seats and tables, or anything else. Along the east wall, there was a fully licensed bar, and along the west wall there were about five or so booths filled with seated people. At the northwest corner was a booth where the stage’s tech person sat, and behind him, at a table, was me, quietly taking the whole show in.
“Witching Hour” had two acts of two burlesque performers each; in between there were contests and striptease performances by two other performers who used mainly the floor and bar areas. “Every edition is going to mean something different,” its host and producer, Miss Diamond (all burlesque performers in this article are referred to only by their performance names) a curvy woman who appeared to be in her late 20s, told the audience immediately after performing her own burlesque routine. “This one coincides with January and the winter season and the issues that a lot of women deal with…All the ice queens tonight are here to show you that they don’t give a fuck what you think…We don’t care what patriarchy says.” Diamond continued: “They will show you all the various different types of what it means to be a woman in here. We write women with an asterisk because we don’t think that genitalia tells you who you are.” (Diamond’s social media ads for “Witching Hour” spelled “women” as “wom*n.”) Indeed, Diamond on her social media states that she produces principally QTBIPOC (queer, trans, black, indigenous, people of colour) events.
I was at the show at the suggestion of the evening’s last performer, burlesque artist Bellamie Beastly, who has been a part of Toronto’s burlesque scene for the past two years. For perhaps around a year, I had been following Beastly on social media—primarily Instagram, where she’s a prolific self-promoter, posting photos—both selfies and professional shots—accompanied with sometimes long-winded monologues on her ethnicity, mental health, and queerness. Consider this October 11, 2019, Instagram posting that she used to promote a burlesque event at Oasis Aqualounge that she was scheduled to appear at the following night: The picture is of Beastly wearing a white tank top that says “Get ready to be Babashook” and a black top hat with plastic sunglasses. Her face is covered in white makeup and a sinister black smile painted around her mouth. She is holding a pompom, and she is accompanied by another person whose face is covered yet who is also wearing a black top hat while holding onto a rainbow pride flag. (The photo is designed to reference a 2014 Australian horror movie whose titular monster character is noted by online bloggers to represent the coming out process for queers.)
“It’s National Coming Out Day!” Beastly wrote. “If I recall correctly, I came out as bisexual to my parents ten years ago today, and since then I’ve been an unapologetically belligerent queerdo dancing through the struggles of not being regarded as queer enough, being regarded as too queer, being fetishized, and having assumptions made about my sexuality. However, I know that there are so many people fighting battles more taxing than my own; I have mixed feelings about this day because we shouldn’t be forcing people to come out if they’re not ready or if their surroundings are dangerous and unconducive. So instead, let’s look towards a future of living authentically and dismantling the structures that uphold that danger.” Or consider her other musing of her sexuality in a September 23, 2019, Instagram posting. In it, Beastly is wearing muggle (non-burlesque, real-life) clothes—shorts and a t-shirt. Beastly appears to be in a greenhouse housing trees, which surround her. “It’s Bisexual Visibility Day, so I might as well make myself seen in this very appropriate lighting from last month! I came out to my family when I was 15, and since then I’ve never felt truly ‘in’ even when meeting new people and providing this fact. I use both ‘bisexual’ and ‘queer’ to describe myself despite knowing that this is not the case for everyone, I define bisexuality for myself as ‘attracted to people with genders like my own and different from my own’ despite understanding the complex discourse behind this definition, and above all, I’m immensely proud to be the bisexual, biracial, belligerent bombshell that I am. I was recently involved in an argument about whether it’s as ‘necessary’ or remarkable to come out as bisexual as it is to come out as gay or lesbian, and to that I say: approach your sexuality the way that works best for you, regardless of obligation. If it helps, look up at some queer trees like these and realize how big this world is and how much room there is for you to navigate your own queerness.”
I asked Beastly about her in-your-face openness about her queerness at Toronto’s downtown reference library, where we met on a grey Sunday in November 2019. “I think one of the reasons I’m so vocal about being bisexual now is I would have liked to have been when I was growing up,” Beastly told me. “This is what a bisexual person looks like. Just because you’re bisexual, it doesn’t mean that you have to feel conflicting feelings about being attracted to people of more than one gender.” I was interested in Beastly’s perception on how her experiences discovering her bisexuality differed from mine, since she is both a woman (I am not) and almost a generation younger than I. Beastly, 25, continued: “When I think about middle school and high school, from the late 2000s to the 2010s, no one was really out. We did have a gay-straight alliance, but the person who ran it was a really terrible person. It wasn’t necessarily stigmatized, but a lot of people were like, ‘Why do you have to be out?’” But Beastly, who attended an upscale private school, admitted, “I come from a different background—I think my graduating class was 69 people and very well-off kids—than a really big public school, where there would be more people who would be more vocal, and also more bullying.” When Beastly came out to her parents at 15, they vocalized some initial confusion, although Beastly stated that “I never felt closeted, even throughout school, just because there was never any reason to bring it up.” One thing that Beastly and I shared, despite our difference in age was an initial confused understanding of our bisexuality: “Something I struggled with when I was a teenager was that I thought that being bisexual meant being 50 per cent gay, 50 per cent straight. That’s not the case. Just because I’ve never had a long-term relationship with a woman doesn’t mean I’m not bisexual. Just because I’m currently in a relationship with a man doesn’t mean that I’m not bisexual.”
I was curious about Beastly exactly because of her use of photos of social media that both emphasizes her burlesque persona, which accents Beastly’s sexuality and sexual persona—her derriere and breasts are abundantly present in her photos, sometimes centre stage—and her strongly held convictions on her sexual orientation, mental health, and her biracial background. (I’ll touch more on those issues later.) Beastly maintains that her ability and desire to pontificate on a deeper level go back to her education, for Beastly moved to Toronto from British Columbia in 2012 to study pre-medicine at the University of Toronto (U of T), eventually graduating with a degree in biology and philosophy and a minor in English. On her burlesque persona, Beastly said, “One comment that I’ve gotten is, ‘Oh, you’re so articulate!’ and it’s not necessarily in a bad-handed way.” She added, “Some of it perks my interest when I receive feedback like this is because, especially when it comes to burlesque, it’s so visual on appearance and stage presence that we don’t necessarily see it as a platform for performers to express their thoughts or political ideas or things that might be controversial.” But Beastly admitted that “one element I would say about myself is that it takes me a thousand words to say something about myself what it takes most people to say in ten.”
And that was certainly true when we met for our conversation. Beastly arrived at the Toronto Reference Library for our tête-à-tête, her long, wavy hair in thick curls, seemingly appropriately unkept for a Sunday afternoon. Her slightly above-average height—she’s probably about 5’9″—was also striking. She wore a baggy sweatshirt and jeans. She has a deep, somewhat husky voice and speaks with a distinct rhythm, often speeding up and slowing down her pace, sometimes mid-sentence. She reminded me that we had previously met at Red Herring’s Toronto School of Burlesque, where we took Herring’s Burlesque 102 together. (She finished the program and subsequently moved on to develop a burlesque routine; I didn’t.) Beastly had graduated from the U of T in 2016, about at which time she first became aware of the Toronto School of Burlesque, which she attended initially because the school participated in the Class Pass app, which allowed her to attend burlesque classes for a flat fee. Beastly was looking for an alternative to a gym because “staring at a treadmill TV screen for half an hour and then attempting to do lifts on a squat rack” didn’t appeal to her. (She has since joined a gym, where she goes regularly.) One of the first classes Beastly took was Red Hearing’s Bump and Grind, although, “I didn’t get much of a workout, and I didn’t get as sweaty as anticipated, I felt that something had unlocked itself in me.”
Although Beastly and I met so I could profile her prior to her upcoming January performance, she was, on the most part, protective of her privacy, particularly of her muggle life. What I do know of Beastly, beside what I’ve written above, is that Beastly:
Self-identifies as biracial, born to an immigrant mother from Vietnam and a white father;
Is not yet out to her family about her burlesque activities or persona;
Has long battled depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem;
Currently has a romantic partner; and
Lives on her own in Toronto, with her immediate family in BC and her closest extended family in Montreal.
By the time I saw Beastly perform at the Revival, she outwardly appeared to have sufficiently conquered her anxieties around her body image. Yet, Beastly’s performance was different than other performers, many of whom predominately emphasized their curves and sexuality. Although Beastly took off layers of clothing and showed plenty of skin, she seemed more intent on attempting to tell a story. However, some of this may be tied to Beastly’s admitted limited dance prowess. But more importantly, Beastly is a self-professed nerd, and this, in combination with her background and interest in science, seems to have set the tone of her act: At “Ice Kween,” Beastly’s act drew inspiration from a hit HBO fantasy show. With the lights on the stage dark, Diamond introduced Beastly: “This belligerent bombshell delights in bringing her fiery signature of fiery karma to every act that she brings to life. Bellamie’s rendition of the Ice Kween resurrects a fantastic frozen creature from a Games of Thrones universe. And she is excited to bring the coldest fires with this dragon.” The crowd cheered her on as the lights come up and she appears on the stage. Indeed, Beastly had attempted to appear dragon like: her long, black hair has been pulled tightly back; on top of her head are two long streaks of tinfoil painted blue, complete with a headband and fake flowers, made to appear to be a pair of a dragon’s horns.) Her forehead is covered with blue make up, as are her cheeks; and the rest of her face is covered with white powder and sparklers. She’s sporting a blue and black top, with ample extra material at the back of the arms to make it appear as if Beastly has wings.
Her top is cut low on her chest, fully exposing her breasts, save for large pasties covering her nipples. She has on a voluminous shiny blue dress, and black high heals with black straps that circle her legs up to her knees. As she hit the stage and the lights came up, and Britney Spears’s “Break the Ice” played. During the song, gently sung at a medium tempo, Beastly slowly works the stage, and slowly takes some layers off. Yet considering that it’s burlesque, Beastly had little in terms of clothing to peel off: She took off her blue top, exposing blue straps that go from her breasts, over her shoulders and to her back; and stripped from her dress, showing off her transparent blue underwear that exposes her butt but is attached to darker blue material at the front that covers her genital area. Beastly’s stage movements were not really about showing off her plentiful thighs and curvaceous breasts; rather, she was seemingly interested in creating a dragon character. This certainly explains why she relied less on flirtation with her audience as she peeled off her outer layers. As Britney Spears’s song faded away, Fall Out Boy’s “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark (Light ‘Em Up)” a more upbeat tempo song, began, her movements quickened, and Beastly got on her knees. She detached the wings attached to her outer dress, which by now was lying on the stage, twirling the wings in her hands like a cheerleader with pom poms. However, Beastly was clearly imitating a flying dragon making manic movements in the sky, her arms’ rhythms copying the staccato singing by Fall Out Boy. And although I’ve never seen Game of Thrones—I am familiar with the premise, though—it’s clear that Beastly was acting out her love for the fantasy hit, which ended last year. As Bellamie’s act ended, the lights on the stage darkened, and Beastly walked off the stage, down the stairs, and walked the entire length of the dance floor and out the doors leading to Revival’s main entrance.
Beastly reflected on her burlesque creations: “I have a narrative every time I go up, and it’s gotten easier for me to portray a relatable character.” Indeed, Beastly seems to have a sci fi and fantasy motif in her acts: “My first nerdlesque (burlesque that incorporates sci fi, fantasy, and nerd culture elements) performance was framed around Star Wars: The Last Jedi as Rose Tico,” a supporting character performed by Kelly Marie Tran, who, like Beastly, has a Vietnamese background. “This actress was bashed to high heaven by a lot of this incredibly vocal misogynistic part of the Star Wars fandom by these purist rogues who thought that she was inserted into the Star Wars universe to make it more politically correct or that there was no point to her character existing, that she was useless. And that really, really bothered me because they are terrible things to tell women.” But, importantly, Beastly “saw a lot of myself in that character and that portrayal because of the struggles she goes through and, honestly, because there aren’t a lot of famous Vietnamese people in the Western world. That is what drew me to the character, and that is what drew me to create the act…I do like to inject a little bit of myself or something close to me in every act.”
Beastly is philosophical about her Vietnamese heritage, saying that “I don’t look very Asian. I would say I’m white passing, but the reason I’m white passing is because I’m half white. I grew up very Westernized. I don’t speak Vietnamese fluently: I can count to ten and order food; that’s it. Even though I grew up very whitewashed, there’s another half of me that’s very relevant too.” But as Beastly was growing up in B.C., despite her sheltered upbringing, she still felt, at times, different, beginning in grade school and “noticing that I was the only dark-haired person in my very white kindergarten class to looking at my high school graduation photos and seeing that I didn’t look like everyone else. Sometimes I would bring Vietnamese food for lunch, and my schoolmates would be like these typical stories you hear from children of immigrants. But I would say that [my biracial heritage] didn’t affect me negatively. I treat it as a positive aspect of my life.” Yet this feeling of being a little different has followed Beastly into adulthood. “I get a lot of people asking me that. They are just coming from a place of curiosity. Generally, the reaction I get is, ‘Wow! I didn’t know that. Cool!’ But it sometimes gets tiring answering. And I hear that a lot from white-passing people.” (Indeed, a pet peeve of Beastly is when men who hit on her choose to ask about her ancestry.) But for Beastly, embracing her biracial heritage through her burlesque is empowering. And she noted that “I have gotten to know fellow performers all over North America through social media who are in the same boat as I am. They’re also biracial; they’re proud of who they are. They may have acts that relate to their identities. And that’s something that I think about a lot, and that’s something that effects me on a day-to-day basis is to be part of a community and being able to increase not only the visibility but also the diversity.”
Regardless, Beastly’s feels welcomed and embraced in Toronto’s burlesque community, where she has developed numerous close friendships. “I do spend more time with my burlesque friends,” she noted. “But it’s not because I’ve grown apart from my first [university] friends in Toronto. A lot of it is because my friends from undergrad have moved away or they’re busy with grad schools or medical school or other full-time jobs.” She noted that her university friendships developed because of a common physical proximity—being at school—yet with her burlesque friends, it’s the common interest of burlesque that binds them. But despite her burlesque friendships and burlesque’s seemingly embrace of people who are different, Beastly still noted that the burlesque community is still caught in mainstream culture’s preference of white beauty and slender female body shapes. “Burlesque should be something where all bodies are accepted,” Beastly strongly asserted. “There’s that societal stigma of that ideal body type. Fat performers and performers of colour don’t have as many opportunities to get on stage as conventionally attractive white people.” She observed that these attitudes are especially stronger is some parts of the world. “In Europe, burlesque is seen as very traditional and white driven, and it does deal with racism a lot more than in Canada and the Unites States. You’ll still have white performers dressing as geisha dancers or voodoo queens. It’s really uncomfortable.” But even in Toronto, Beastly has noticed that “I’ve heard performers in Canada who look at the cast for an upcoming show, and it’s all conventionally attractive white performers, or there’s only one performer of colour, and they feel tokenized.” But Beastly remains optimistic, noting that Toronto has queer burlesque shows, drag burlesque shows, and shows for people of colour. She pointed to Les Femmes Fatales, an all woman-of-colour burlesque group, of whose members Bellamy noted are predominately queer identifying as well.
Despite the close circle of friends that Beastly has met in the burlesque world of Toronto and beyond, Beastly maintains an effort to separate her muggle life and burlesque life. She worries about possible reactions from employers, and she has yet to tell her family, including her parents, about her burlesque, as she worries about their reactions. “I want to tell my family about it because I want to, not because I feel like I have to. I’m not pressured into it, because it takes so much of my time. I don’t want to have to come out to them. Eventually I might, but I’m not in a rush to.” She has been open to a few of her muggle friends to her burlesque life. “The women in my life or [people who identify] as non-binary are a lot more accepting of it than my friends who identify as male,” she disclosed. “The reason my male friends don’t approve is because they don’t get it. They don’t understand it as much. It’s hard to draw the line between empowering and objectifying. Or between burlesque and stripping. Or between sex work and adjacent sex work.” Few of her friends have seen her perform, more because of their busy schedules than a disapproval of burlesque.
Regardless of the wall that Beastly has between her burlesque and muggle lives, Beastly claimed that burlesque has been cathartic for her mental health. “I do have generalized anxiety disorder. I don’t take medication for it or for depression. It’s been one of those journeys that I’ve had to flounder on my own and develop my own support system, mostly because my family didn’t think it was a big deal.” Beastly cited that for children of immigrants, the stigma of mental health can be greater, particularly because some cultures view mental health as a sign of weakness. For Beastly, it affected her ability as a kid to make friends. “I didn’t grow up with a lot of friends until I graduated high school. When I moved to Toronto, it actually felt kind of disorienting that people wanted to accept me and hang out with me for the weirdo that I am. And this was even before I got into burlesque.” Beastly sought out the help of the mental health services available to students while studying at the U of T. But it’s the burlesque community where she has found a more impactful acceptance of her anxieties and depression. “Burlesque brings together a lot of people who come from similar circumstances as me, who are socially anxious, who deal with anxiety, who had trouble making friends growing up, who don’t quite fit in.” But for Beastly, that’s what makes burlesque so much more helpful than an anti-depressant: “In burlesque, you don’t have to fit in.”
Picture this: It’s the aughts. It’s daytime during the week, and you’re at home for the day. You have nothing to do, so you turn on your tv and flip the channels and discover that there’s nothing on but cheap tv. You stop on Maury, a trashy syndicated talk show hosted by Maury Povich. Povich usually has couples arguing over the paternity of their baby or spouses accusing each other of cheating. But this episode isn’t about DNA testing. Nor is it about women having their philandering husbands take a polygraph test. Nope. Maury’s doing a topic that was then entirely new for him: He had on guests–almost all of them women–with weird, over-the-top phobias. One woman is afraid of bubble gum. Another is afraid of hair. Yet another is afraid of Styrofoam. Or there’s the woman who’s afraid of pickles. And who can forget Shawn, the six-foot-tall, 270-pound man who’s afraid of peaches?
Maury lures these guests on his show with promises of curing them of their phobias with the help of hypnotherapist Boris Cherniak. But before Povich puts Cherniak to work, Povich torments his guests by making them confront their phobias in front of the live studio audience. As the dreaded object is brought out, loud, eerie, minor-key piano music is played in the speakers, and the live tv studio erupts into laughter as the guest is chased around the studio with the object of their fears. The purpose of this show is not to help people. It’s clearly a 21st-century freak show made on the cheap with the intent to make people laugh. (If you don’t believe me, consider that the episode comes back from its commercial breaks with an image of Povich bearing a sinister smile transposed over these fearful people.)
Amazingly, People Still Watch Cable
Fast forward ten years, and I am amazed that people still voluntarily watch cable tv, riddled with cheap, trashy programming, commercials, and outrageous cable prices. Although that latter issue was at least partially solved by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s March 1, 2016, introduction of affordable, $25-per-month basic cable plans and option to pick and pay for specialty channels and packages, cable tv viewers are still beholden to schedules and, for the most part, commercials. Digital recording doesn’t entirely solve those issues, for one must remember to record and then, when watching, fast forward through the commercials.
I Cut the Cord
Five years ago I cut the cord. I was paying almost a hundred bucks a month for cable, although that cost included HBO and movie specialty stations. I would rush home to make sure I could watch Jeopardy, which aired only at 7:30, or I would have my Tuesday-night comedy lineup on CBC. And I can’t forget coming home on Friday nights to watch Real Time with Bill Maher. So I switched to Netflix, which, five years ago, was the only available streaming service. Canadians now have access to far more–think of Amazon Prime Video, CraveTV and the plethora of options soon coming, including Disney’s streaming service, with its rich catalogue, most notably the Star Wars movies. Disney+ is anticipated to be the biggest threat to Netflix, which is expected to generate a $3.5 billion (US) cash loss in 2019 on top of its debt, estimated to have been over $20 billion (US) by July 2017. However, Netflix is still spending $6 billion (US) in original content, much of it high quality. And although Orange is the New Black, its highly acclaimed and watched comedy-drama, saw its final season released this year, Netflix has other stellar original programming that viewers can watch–commercial free–on their own time. Just think of Stranger Things, the Marvel tv universe, Mindhunter, or GLOW. (I should also include the first two seasons of House of Cards.) And with the introduction of relatively cheap smart tvs–with streaming services built right into them–I’m at a loss as to why people stick to cable.
I’m still with Netflix. My tv is 12 years old, so I stream Netflix from a blue-ray that also streams YouTube. I enjoy watching good tv shows and movies, but my tv viewing habits have changed. I watch far less, and when I do watch, it’s to a much less rigid schedule. I suspect that this is because of the daunting task of choosing what to watch. Unlike the olden days, when we had a tv guide or could simply remember our go-to tv shows’ weekly schedules, there is no set schedule to streaming. Also, when I turn on Netflix, I’m bombarded with hundreds, if not thousands, of titles before I get to a show that looks interesting. I will binge watch a tv show, but once I’m finished, I have to choose a new show. Or I have to wait an entire year for the show to release another season of 13 episodes. (I just noticed that Manhunter‘s second season has just hit, and I still need to set aside time to watch it.) It’s even harder to pick a movie to watch because of the vast amount of movies in any one streaming service’s catalogue.
Trash TV at its Worst
As hard as it is to chose a show on a streaming service, consider the experience of watching cable tv. Take this phobia segment of Maury: Povich had 18-year-old Emily on his show, and Povich informs the audience that Emily has two fears: She’s afraid of both cotton balls and Styrofoam. Povich, in his khaki pants and sweater, acts sympathetically. “Did something happen with the cotton?” he asks. “Did you get something stuck in your ears when you were cleaning it out?” “I don’t know,” Emily responds, her body and voice both shaking. While this conversation is happening, the sound of Styrofoam is playing in the studio speakers. They cut to a dimly lit video of Emily explaining her phobia. “It gives me a panic attack,” she asserts. Hands playing is Styrofoam is intercut with Emily crying, “It’s enough to ruin my life.” They cut back to the studio. “When’s the last time you opened an aspirin?” Povich asks in a caring tone. “I have to deal with the headache if nobody’s around.”
“Well,” Povich says, “You know you have to confront your phobia. This is the famous ‘Maury cotton ball man.'” A man covered head-to-toe in cotton comes out and chases Emily, who runs back stage, where crew members have buckets full of cotton. I don’t know if Povich still hosts these shows, but this is the sub-par level of tv people were watching ten years ago.
Where Do I Go from Here?
It’s now summer, and I’m watching tv even less. I work all day, the days are warm, and because the days are long, the sun is out closer to 9PM. I’m not spending my evenings watching tv, so if I am streaming a show, it’s a half-hour show at 11PM, just before I’m ready to go to bed, but even so, it’s not everyday. I prefer to keep busy. I’ll go to the gym. I’ll go to an outdoor concert. I’ll take my cat for a walk. (Yes, my cat goes for a walk!) I’ll sit on the balcony and read a book or magazine. And there are Netflix shows that I plan on watching, but it probably won’t be until winter, when it’s dark and cold outside. Case in point: the last season of Orange is the New Black, whose last season was released just a few weeks ago. When I first got Netflix five years ago, it was November, and Orange is the New Black was one of the first shows I watched. I watched the first season over the weeks leading up to Christmas, and on Christmas Eve I watched the season’s last episode–set on Christmas Eve–when the inmates are having a Christmas Eve pageant and mute character Norma sings a Christmas song as Piper is attacked in the prison’s yard as it snows.
So it’s only right that I save the series’ final season until this year’s lead up to Christmas. But in the meantime, I’m in no hurry to watch tv. I’d rather keep it real. I’m living in the real world.
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.)
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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, and 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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.”
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), an historically 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.
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.
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 that, 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 cannot presently provide an 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.
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
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.) Co‐writing 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, three‐minute 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
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 well‐known 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 well‐known 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
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 12‐string 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 Coca‐Cola used it in their brilliant ad, playing the song over video surveillance images of people doing acts of kindness. It is a feel‐good song, and who doesn’t play air guitar to it?
“Burning Love” by Elvis Presley
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 good‐looking face with a good voice. He sang songs he didn’t write, barely played guitar, and stole his shaking‐hips 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.
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