The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Hallowe'en Eve Rant

by Tricia Dower

You may have heard about West Hollywood window decorator Chad-Michael Morrisette decking out his house for Hallowe’en—an effigy of John McCain emerging from a flaming chimney, and Sarah Palin’s likeness hanging from the roof, a noose around her neck, her hands apparently tied behind her back. Morrisette said it reflects his view that McCain’s and Palin’s politics are “scary.”

This link (which somehow turned into a video) started out as a newspaper article reporting on the efforts of neighbours and the mayor to persuade Morrisette to remove the effigies. Morrisette had to be persuaded because his display violates no state or federal law, despite some people reporting it as a hate crime. The noose around Palin’s neck seems to offend people more than does McCain emerging from a flaming chimney, understandably so. McCain might escape his fiery torture chamber, but Palin's a goner.

I have trouble defending Morrisette’s right to show such a violent expression of a political view. But what equally disturbs me is something Steve Whitmore, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, said in an earlier article: that, if the same display had been made of a Barack Obama-like doll, it might be considered a hate crime. "That adds a whole other social, historical hate aspect to the display and that is embedded in the consciousness of the country,” he said.

I suggest to Mr. Whitmore that misogyny is likewise embedded in the consciousness of the country, if not the world. That violence against women is so commonplace it's accepted as inevitable. Why did Morrisette hang Palin and not McCain? Could it be she’s another “uppity” woman like Clinton who has to be shown her place? I find Palin’s politics scary, too, but I don’t want her hung in effigy or degraded in any other way.

I posted this article on Silent Girl Speaks about what Hillary Clinton experienced and the need for women to speak out. I hope Morrisette does the right thing and dismantles his Hallowe’en display sooner rather than later. And I hope he asks himself if it reflects not only his political sentiments but a hatred of women so deeply embedded in his consciousness he may not even know it's there.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Objects: #5—My New Cell Phone

By Andrew Tibbetts (the handsome devil to the right!)

I went to take a picture of my new cell phone for this blog post. Then my mind had to do a mental flip because you can’t take a picture of something with the thing that you use to take pictures of things! Can you?! And then I remembered those mirror shots in dating profile photos. The main thing you can tell about a guy is that his mirror is streaky. Mine certainly would be, so I took this at work.

I have a new cell phone. It’s a blackberry. Now I get my email and my phone calls and my text messages all sent to me wherever I am. This has changed the structure of my life. I’m hauling the thing out of my pocket all the time to see what messages I have. And most of the time it’s disappointing. No, that guy has not texted me since the last time I checked fourteen seconds ago!

I got this blackberry by accident. I lost my normal, perfectly acceptable phone on my trip to the AIDS conference in Mexico this summer. I had signed my life away for my cell phone plan and they were going to continue to bill me for years whether I had a phone or not. So, I went on Craigslist and met a lovely young woman who wanted to get the new Curve and was thus willing to sell me her old cell for quite the deal! I didn’t know much about the difference. But now I do, now that I’m perma-wired to the net. To all the nets! Caught like a multi-fish in the multi-verse.

However, I’m not likely to give it up. Like the situation of a bad boyfriend, the potential pleasures hook you to the ongoing pain realities. There just might be a message. Let’s check. Nope. Let’s check again. Nope. Shut the thing down. Okay, turn it back on because there just might be a message. Is there? Nope.

But maybe there is… now…

…or now…

The process is neuroticising. Before my blackberry I had self-esteem. I was a man who got messages occasionally. Now I’m man with no message right now and no message now either and still no message and still no message and still no message…. I had no idea how many seconds of the day there were in which I was not receiving messages.

Email Andrew’s blackberry at and help re-build his self-esteem.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Colour Us Lucky

by Tricia Dower

The VIA train they call “The Canadian” left Toronto last Saturday and deposited us in Vancouver three days later. We headed north, passing through Felix, Gogama, Minaki, Ottermere, Mud River, and a slew of other Ontario towns I’d never heard of, even though I spent 24 years in the province. We were too late for the fall colours—only a few yellow leaves clung to the tops of white birches. Near Sudbury, the completely bare birches with blackened trunks formed a post-apocalyptic landscape. They were followed by a succession of clear blue lakes seemingly untouched by development. So much water, such a rich land! A former bush pilot we met over dinner one night told us of flying over parts of Canada that few people ever get to see. For a while on our train, I felt as privileged as he had felt in his plane.

We spent nearly all of Monday in the dome car, not wanting to miss a minute of our approach to Jasper, Alberta. Edmonton’s flatness gave way to foothills, then mountains that had us craning to see their peaks. Clouds hovering over deep valleys transported me into Tolkien’s Middle-earth. We’d been without news of the outside for several days, and I felt suspended between worlds. Imagining the awe of the first people who discovered what I was seeing.

A broken rail delayed our arrival into Vancouver, enabling us to ride along the Fraser River in daylight. One of our breakfast companions was sure she saw a moose in it. "They do swim, you know," she said.

As we pulled into the station, Colin spotted a sad-looking man on the side of the tracks.

“Homeless?” I asked.

“Hard to say.”

For a month, we’d traveled across the US and Canada, sleeping on clean sheets and eating three squares a day (including unexpectedly gourmet dishes aboard VIA). In Victoria, the brilliant red, orange and yellow leaves were waiting for our return. And our city’s homeless were erecting tents two blocks from our house after a judge sensibly ruled that people have the right to shelter themselves from the elements.

We were very lucky, we agreed in those last minutes on the train, and more than a little ashamed of having so much when others have so little.

Photos: Approaching the Rockies in VIA’s dome car; I took the top bunk in our sleeper; Colin at a lakeside bonfire the night before we left Wellington, Ontario.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Objects: #4—Thrown-Out Stuff

by Andrew Tibbetts

My friend Judy (not her real name) knows the garbage nights of the rich neighbourhoods. She will often cruise over in a borrowed minivan and come back with great stuff. She has a Mr. Fix-it boyfriend, so even thrown-out speakers and radios and such, she’ll take a chance on. The worse case scenario: they’ll end up out front on her garbage night a few days later.

There was a short story by Laurie Moore that got edited at the New Yorker and they wanted her to take out the phrase ‘garbage night’. I couldn’t believe that. “Garbage night” is big news in the suburbs. It has its own rituals. It may not be particularly evocative for apartment dwellers but it calls up lots for me. Arguments with my sister about who’s turn it was. Lovely stop and start conversations with neighbours as you come back to the curb with each load. The yucky time I worked for a group home with a giant garbage bin outside that collected the bags until garbage night and how in the summer they were sure to be covered in a slime of maggots so that you had to take one bag at a time, wearing gloves, holding it the full length of your over-extended arms so that it wouldn’t drip onto you. Fun times!

And of course: thrown-out stuff. Sometimes it’s hilarious. Neighbours put out furniture that reminds you of your own living room in the seventies! Exercise equipment that looks dusty. Good looking stuff that makes you ponder your own sneaky recovery mission, but then what if, months later, you have those neighbours over! And they see it. And say, “Hey, we have that…. Oh….” And then there’s that awkward silence.

Garbage picker! That was a terrible insult in my elementary school. Nothing worse. Not even having cooties. Okay, maybe being a fag was worse. But garbage picker was about your deep character as reflected in your disgusting behavioural habits. I can’t scoop up thrown-out stuff as a result. I’m perma-scarred, on perma-guard against the accusation. So if my neighbours were throwing out Fabergé eggs I’d walk right by. Okay, maybe I’d rush right by, run to my phone and call Judy! Get over here now! And then I’d go back and guard the garbage from folks less damaged by school yard hierarchy experiences.

Garage sales are different. Those are cool. I like when entire neighbourhoods co-ordinate their garage sales and the streets become a bazaar some Saturday summer afternoon. The town of Manheim in Ontario has a great one. One year, I took my kids. I parked and a police officer noticed my expired validation sticker and gave me lecture in front of the town of Manheim. A lecture and a ticket. There were so many people gathered around, perfectly content to watch the show. My mortified children hovered by the car. I tried not to cry. He asked me, “so why haven’t you renewed it?” Folks leaned in to hear. I said, “lack of funds.” He said, “And yet you’re here at the Manheim garage sale? Doesn’t sound right to me.” I thought to say, much later when once the flight-defense response had lifted and my brain came back on-line, “Well, officer, I only have these two dollars, I thought I might get a used jigsaw puzzle for the kid’s birthday. It’s not much but it’s the best I can do since the wife died and I lost my job.” If you’re going to put on a show, put on a good one! Instead I hung my head, took the ticket, packed the kids up and left.

Why is it okay to buy someone’s old blender in a garage sale, but not pick the exact same blender off the front of the same lawn if it were a garbage night? Garage sale/ Garbage night. There’s not even that much difference to the phrases. Linguistic cousins? That little ‘b’ that wanders into the garage spoils everything.

We get to declare whether the stuff we don’t want is garbage or not. And if so declared, it’s only the very brave Judies of the world who defy that designation.

I had coffee at Judy’s house one morning when she first told me of her scavenging adventures. She gave me a quick tour of her home. “This came from R. street; this I got last summer, from, I can’t remember, maybe E. avenue; oh, this, this I love! It was poking out of a pile of old shoes, giant pile of old shoes, and this chest of drawers underneath, can you believe, walnut, perfect condition…” Her entire, beautiful home, furnished in other people’s garbage. A part of me was awestruck and envious. Another part of me felt sick and wanted to run.

*Photo from Maitland Street Garbage Night sometime in October 2008

Monday, October 20, 2008

Stumpknockers and name-games

By Tamara Lee

You know that dreamy hour, two, three you spend trying to come with the perfect character name or title? Those precious hours wasted, procrastinating (we may call it “working on the piece,” but this is a post about naming and I’m naming that tactic what it is—procrastination, pure and simple) can often turn from brainstorming-fun to creative-angst in a matter of half a day. We become increasingly aware that the naming of a thing is its life force, as we seek the essence, the just-so, the perfect signifier for our tale.

I always loved Mordecai Richler and Philip Roth’s character names. Often Jewish and maybe a bit difficult to say, so that the name we pronounce in our heads takes on its own shape. Hear them read or refer to the name in an interview and suddenly there’s shame or disappointment or some other emotion (that doesn’t have a name but we know that feeling, and trying to name it is what got us into this mess in the first place, so let’s just leave it at that for now, shall we?) My first name may be Hebrew, but I’ve heard every possible pronunciation and have given up correcting others to the version I speak or hear in my own head. I’ve learned to pick my battles, and the pronunciation of my name is not one of them. Deciding a character’s name, though, is very much so, a tussle I tough-love the hell out of.

Jennifer Jacquet’s piece in The Tyee considers the current tendency to rename fish as a way to control consumers’ interest (“The rename game is working the same way for seafood. Slimeheads weren't a culinary hit until they became "orange roughy." Today's "spotted sunfish" are yesterday's stumpknockers”). As writers, we must also consider our own interest, maintaining it. I’ve found myself unable to go on with a story if the character’s name isn’t right (Ah, Procrastination, by any other name...). After reading Jacquet’s piece, I was reminded of a dilemma I have with one, two, three of my projects: they have the same name, but each piece, though inspired by several of the same characters, differs greatly from the others in plot and tone. But I’m infatuated with the name, and am reluctant to decide on new titles, knowing that I will see the project differently afterwards.

Several people I know have, as adults, changed their name. It was a conscious choice to slip into a new self, or a “true” self, and start anew. Does this work with fiction? Will renaming these pieces, maybe the characters (whose names have been the same for a very long time) rekindle or destroy the story? Or will it feel like I’m pronouncing it wrongly, letting my head still think of it in terms of its former identity?

Cervantes, albeit referring primarily to reputation, has written, “A good name is better than riches,” but we can go all the way back to the Old Testament, to perhaps where the whole naming mess really began, “A good name is better than precious ointment.” In the case of a procrastinating writer, though, a good name is the ointment.


Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Between Heaven and Hell

Last summer. A farm. Sixty-three missing women. Prostitutes, drug addicts, and runaways. Students lined up along a makeshift conveyor belt, the RCMP watching over. Big bits of earth jiggling into smaller bits of earth as it trundled down, body parts plucked out as the earth fell away. For me it was like sorting through a bottomless box of lost and found, all the hands and teeth becoming gloves and earrings. It wasn’t like that for Sarah.

“What do you think about?” she asked, across from me. She must’ve smiled. I could tell by the way her mask inched upwards.

“I try not to think. I make it all grey, pretend this belt is like a highway.” In the few feet between us, a chewed-up hand surfaced. Sarah started to reach for it, but stopped.

I grabbed it. Put it into the bin beside me. “See, nothing but a car.”

“I can’t. Not think, I mean.”

“Give it time.”

“What if I don’t want to?”

Lunch. Thirty minutes hunched over picnic tables. Sandwiches of cold meat in a field of carrion, while the RCMP manned the barricades that kept the vultures with cameras at bay. I saw no point in washing my fruit.

Sarah sat off by herself, cross-legged on an upside down pail. She looked like she had been in the rain all day instead of the sun.



She had no food. “Not hungry?” I asked.

She said nothing.

In the distance the Rockies seemed to lower the sky. A reporter broke through the barricades, sprinted toward us, all his gear slowing him down. We watched the RCMP descend and devour him. He stared at his shattered camera as they dragged him away. His uncoiled film twitched in the wind. Died under the sun.

“Do you think he knew what he was doing?” she asked.

“That guy?” I nodded toward the scrum.

She shook her head.

“You mean, was he insane?”

“No. Something beyond insanity. Deeper. Like, is it worse to do evil, or to know that you do evil?”

The reporter struggled, shouted, buying us a few more seconds without the conveyor belt between us.

“I read somewhere once that if we were meant to be good, we’d all be good. Evil, we’d all be evil.” I offered her my apple. “We’ve had a lot of time, it would’ve worked itself out one way or another by now.”

“Maybe we have to make it work out.” She wiped the apple on her shirt, rubbed it on her pant leg. Frowned.

I wanted to babble into that frown. Support it with all the meaningless things that would otherwise be so important, lead somewhere. Do you like university? How many semesters left? Where are you from? Who’s your favourite author? Do you like movies? Me?

“We have to get back,” was all I said.

She bit into the apple. Her face scrunched into lines. “I know.”

“Maybe we could meet sometime? Somewhere else. Talk about other things?”

“You haven’t even told me your name,” she said.


“Adam. I like that.”

By Steve Gajadhar

*This story was previously published in Skive Magazine
Image: John Martin, Sodom and Gomarrha

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Nowhere to Hide

by Tricia Dower

On Monday, October 6th, we left the States where a surreal presidential campaign and a financial market free fall have left many Americans angry, afraid and confused. Despite the Gestapo-like announcement that the washrooms would be locked and we were to remain in our seats as Customs and Immigration officials boarded the train, I was relieved to arrive at the Canadian border at Niagara Falls that evening. For a moment an irrational fear that I wouldn’t be allowed back in gripped me but, an hour and a half later, the train with me on it was cleared for the trip into Toronto. As we sped past vineyards, Stelco’s belching stacks, and the Burlington Skyway, I thought: ah, home, where the banks are solid and the politics dull.

How stunning to find the Canadian financial markets in a tailspin, Liberal supporters in Toronto threatened by slashed brake lines, and support for the Conservatives disappearing as quickly as everyone’s retirement savings. What happened in the US had spread while we enjoyed a news blackout on the train. I find it blackly humourous that Harper called an election he didn’t need to at this momentous time. I’m now looking forward to October 14th almost as much as I am to November 4th. As the ancient curse goes, ‘May you live in interesting times.’

I’m writing from the library in Wellington, Ontario, a short walk from a B&B where we booked the least expensive room for a week but, due to fortuitous circumstances, were “bumped” into one with a huge Jacuzzi tub and a four-poster you need a stepladder to climb into. Unexpected luxury on the cusp of a possible depression. A special reward after a night in a New York City “budget boutique” hotel where Colin felt compelled to check the sheets for bugs.

I wonder if this trip will be the last before a sustained period of belt-tightening frugality. I’m storing up good memories just in case: reading from Silent Girl and attending a high school reunion in my old home town; watching New Yorkers dance on roller skates in Central Park; napping to the sound of waves on Lake Ontario. It’s all good, now that so much else is all bad.

Photos: (1) Silent Girl’s US launch in the lobby of the old movie theatre in Rahway, NJ, that was built in 1929. The theatre has been turned into the Union County Performing Arts Center and renovated to look almost exactly as it did when I was a kid. I’m standing in front of what used to be the candy concession. (2) Reading (and signing) with me was talented poet and fellow Rahway High School grad Andrea Hollander Budy. Check out her website. (3) Leaving Rahway for the 25-minute train ride into New York City.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Objects: #3—CPAP Machines

By Andrew Tibbetts

I am the only person I know who’s had a sleep assessment and wasn’t diagnosed with sleep apnea. Does everybody have it? Everybody middle-aged? Because of how fat we are? If you sleep around with as many middle-aged men as I do, you will be very familiar with the horrifying pause, the strident snort and the gasp awake that marks the death of abs and the birth of high blood pressure.

Or is the increase in apnea diagnosis because of the machinations of the CPAP lobby? These “Continuous Positive Airway Pressure” machines blow air into you so that your throat doesn’t close up to interrupt your breathing while you sleep.

My sleeping troubles turned out to be attention-deficit. I was as bouncy-minded during sleep as I was awake. Paperwork? What paperwork? Timesheet? I forgot to sign my time sheet for how long? A month? Oh, a year and a month? Gee, that’s long. Sorry. It slipped and slipped and slipped my mind. Turns out you need to spend a certain amount of sustained time in each sleep level to get the benefit of it. My sleep was not refreshing. Now I take a non-stimulant medication for ADD and I wake up feeling rested for the first time in my life. It’s had a huge effect. I still struggle with paperwork, but maybe not quite so much.

So I don’t have to have a CPAP machine. Everybody I know who has one has a dusty one. It’s lying under the bed long abandoned, or as deep in the closet as a gay Harper cabinet minister. Who can sleep with one of those things strapped to your face? (The CPAP, not the conservative!) And they cost more than a cappuccino at Starbucks. Like $140,000 or something. Yes, as much as a cappuccino and a slice of carrot cake! You can get a refund from the government because it’s medical equipment. Not the cap n’ cake. Although caffeine is good for my ADD so I should be able to get a government grant for espresso and chocolate. Medicinal snackage?

I was told by the sleep lab administrator that while I didn’t need a CPAP, it wouldn’t hurt to have one. What? I smell a kickback. But anyway, I opted out. I sleep around. Imagine hauling one of those out of your sex gym bag. Let me just slip into something a little less comfortable. Maybe there’s a subclass of sex fiends who have an apnea fetish. They rub their CPAPs together through the night. Nuzzling tubes, clinking hard plastic. Cheers! And then, for the truly freaky, they rip those things off in the night and snort, baby, snort!

*Photo of CPAP wearer from (Dear CPAP lobby? Your CPAP ads are heterosexist! Where are the same-sex CPAP ads? Two butch lesbians with matching plaid CPAP's, two designer twinks with Prada CPAP's, a trio of bears camping at Jambouree with their CPAPs plugged into a generator...let's hop to it!)

Friday, October 03, 2008

A Dog, Happiness and Even a Book

I have this haircut. It’s not difficult to maintain, but it does require that I do one thing. After I shower, I must comb out the bangs. Which explains why I didn’t shower today: I didn’t feel I could—my comb was in the garbage, after having been fished out of the toilet, where it had been dropped by the youngest member of my household, my son. So it was, that this morning, when his father realized that he was running late and that he couldn’t, as usual, do the daycare drop-off, that I went out into the streets of my oppressively stylish neighbourhood, unwashed and uncombed, pulling a sniffly-nosed four-year-old in a squeaky red wagon. With any luck, I wouldn’t run into anyone I knew. We made it one and half blocks. It was in the sun on the corner outside of the drugstore that I was planning to hit for a comb as soon as it opened at 9 o’clock, that I saw her: my art crush, Heather O’Neill, walking a dog and looking gorgeous. I had to turn away. It was too dazzling, it was too much. And my question, for those of you who can relate to the experience of losing a comb and foregoing a shower only to turn a corner and run into a grinning idol, is how should this be handled? I'd like to take it as a good omen, a sign that we might all one day have a dog, happiness and even a book. I hope that this is not too presumptuous.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Objects: # 2—Tampons

by Andrew Tibbetts

Tampons are girls’ things. I feel shame writing about them. “No,” a deep part me of says, “no! Don’t write about this object!”

I first saw tampons looking through my mother’s chest of drawers when I was in grade two or three. Was I looking for change? Candy? What was I doing in there? I don’t know. Anyway, I found these cardboard tubes. Cool! A smaller tube slid inside a larger one. And inside the tubes was a tube-shaped wad of cotton-batten on a string. Cool! I couldn’t think what they could possibly be for, but I had all kinds of ideas. I thought I would bring some to art class. They could dip into paint like tea bags into hot water.

I can’t remember the denouement of this story. Can you believe it? Did my mother find them and have a fit? Did I show them to my teacher Ms. Glynne? Did she have a fit? Did my entire grade two or three art class make tampon paintings before any grown-ups intervened? I can’t remember. I can’t believe I can’t remember. You’d think the end of that story would have been something quite traumatic. Maybe I’ve blocked it.

Other times I’ve seen tampons: once I opened a (platonic) girlfriend’s travelling toothbrush container only to find it wasn’t; sometimes I’ve seen them lying on the ground like dead white mice beside dumpsters; just a minute ago when I googled up a photo to go with this blog. Those are the only other times. Tampons are kept well out of the public eye because society still can’t handle female reality.

Being a gay male, most of my friends are straight women and some lesbians. I know more about ‘female’ things than most men, I bet. But still, I don’t see many tampons. Tampons are not things that people like to display or look at. You will see a stack of toilet paper front and centre in the grocery store, but not tampons. You will see a cute cuddly little boy bear pulling toilet paper off a dispenser attached to a tree in a TV commercial cartoon—his father will tell him not to use too much. However, you will never see a cute cuddly little girl bear pulling a tampon out of a box—her mother instructing her on hygienic disposal methods. If men menstruated, tampons would be tax-free and there would be giant statues of them in civic squares. Men would exaggerate about how many they needed each month and how big they were.

As it is, men are nervous to buy their girlfriends, wives or daughters products for them if they are sent to the store with a list. Fathers leave the room when feminine hygiene commercials come on TV. Even though it would be difficult to tell what is actually being sold, since the visuals for these ads involve frolicking through meadows. (Perhaps a vestige of the ancient custom to send women back into nature away from the tribe during their periods? Or is that folklore?)

I remember reading Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman when I was in high school (I think it was that book—didn’t the heroine work for an ad agency at one point, doing surveys or something?) and there was a hilarious section about pads. I wondered if men would be able to stand reading it. “Good for Peggy!” I thought. “About time! Maybe one day I will be able to mention anything about this topic in public.” It’s a pretty stupid taboo.

And here that day is. Thank you for listening, public. And because it’s a blog, if I’m blushing you won’t know.