The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Up for Another Year

by Tricia Dower

Another New Year’s Eve. Getting ready to appear on Colin’s CFUV radio show, Concert Studies, later this afternoon with our friends Chuck and Judy. Each of us has chosen three songs to introduce in keeping with the theme, “Dancing into 2009.” (Mine are Chopin’s Waltz in C Sharp Minor and Polanaise Militaire plus Valdy’s Renaissance.) We don’t expect many listeners and most of the radio staff will have gone home early, so we’ll kick back and have fun talking to ourselves. After the show we’ll traipse back to our house for dinner and a movie: When Harry Met Sally or Some Like It Hot, perhaps. We’ll pretend we’re on east coast time so we can kiss the new year in at 9 and call it a night. We could get wild and crazy, though, and watch a second movie. You never can tell what might happen when the Martinelli’s Sparkling Apple Juice is flowing.

When I was a kid, my parents would put us to bed at the usual time then wake my sister and me around 11. Popcorn and chips would be set out on the card table with a selection of baking pans and spoons. At midnight we’d stand on the front steps, bang those pans, and scream “Happy New Year.” Across the street, Mr. Dunphy, the fire chief, would shoot his rifle into the air and a couple of streets away, officer Kenney would discharge his police revolver. It was the same every year and always satisfying.

When I grew up, New Year’s Eve became more complicated, more alcoholic, more disappointing. So much expectation invested in one evening. So much hope invested in the following year. Not all years delivered on that hope. The nearly broke ones or those with deaths and divorces, for example. (If your life was one giant year, those would be like the months without Rs when oysters can make you sick).

But 2008 has been one for me to celebrate: Silent Girl published and the chance to read from it in six cities. Positive reviews. My own website. A video trailer. Train trips from Seattle to Toronto and Toronto to Vancouver. Visits with my kids and grandkids. A high school reunion. Getting to meet a number of "virtual" friends for the first time, including the CWC's Tamara and CWC alums Patti and Jen. Getting to see Andrew again. And Christmas last week in Ucluelet, on the beautiful and rugged west coast of Vancouver Island. Can’t imagine how 2009 can top 2008 but I’m up for it if it wants to try.

Happy 2009, everyone!

Photos: Christmas in Ucluelet

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Why is it that the writer feels the need to re-evaluate at this time of year? I know everybody does it – it’s called making resolutions for the New Year, and it’s customary. But seriously, I’ve never heard of an office dreg evaluating their performance as the year comes to a close. Why do we do it, torture ourselves I mean. I have this all figured out. Listen to me. The safest bet for the writer is to forgo all resolutions to ring in the New Year except one, and that is to not commit. Say it after me: I will be noncommittal in 2009. Beyond taking out the trash and bathing, you should all read, write, and revise at will. That’s your resolution, to do what pleases you, when it pleases you. That’s all.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Five Books to Read Before March!

Here's a challenge for you! Canada Reads 2009 is coming up in March. You might enjoy the radio debates even more than usual if you attempt to have read all five books. Can you do it?

I doubt I can. This is the first time I haven't read ANY of the books on the list, I'm embarrassed to confess, so I've got some readin' to do if I want to be fully prepped by March. I'm going to try. Because they all sound pretty great actually...

The Book of Negroes
by Lawrence Hill
defended by
Avi Lewis

The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant
by Michel Tremblay
defended by

by Brian Francis
defended by
Jen Sookfong Lee

Mercy Among the Children
by David Adams Richards
defended by
Sarah Slean

The Outlander
by Gil Adamson
defended by
Nicholas Campbell

Get crackin'!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Getting equipped

by Tamara Lee

The recent snow here in Vancouver has put everyone in limbo: Are we going to risk travelling the Sea-to-Sky highway for the holidays? Will the plane be on time? Will the snow ever actually stop? Yes, it’s true, we still seem surprised by the snow. My friend said today, when I asked what kind of tires he has on his vehicle, “All-season… This is a season.”

Smug easterners go on and on about how much we’re griping about this latest snowfall, but the fact is, no one ever expects this sort of snow here. Not even the powers that be at eastern HQ for Canada Post, who decided not to equip Vancouver mail trucks with winter tires, claiming we don’t need them. And the little town of Bellingham, an hour south of Vancouver, sold all their snow clearing machinery a few years ago (much of it to us).

But when I was a kid, growing up in North Vancouver—a municipality sat on the side of a mountain—snow usually managed to find its way down to us. So my childhood memories are full of snow-filled Christmastimes, with making snow angels and chasing leaping dogs, before heading inside for hot chocolate with the little marshmallows. I always had a proper ski jacket and snow boots, with mittens (tied together with that string that always managed to leave a rub-burn on my back) and toques and scarves to choose from.

What happened? When did I stop having these essential winter items, I wonder. Sometime around my late teens, I think. But I’m not sure if the snow stopped coming, or I decided to defy weather first.

And yet, here we are. A few days before Christmas, I have bought a ski jacket and I’m now thinking about buying my first pair of real snow boots since I was 15. There’s a fresh blanket of snow on the ground. That feeling of diving into untouched snow still gives me a charge. If I'd grown up anywhere else in Canada, would I get that same charge by this novelty? Maybe so; but the surprise of snow still turns me into the little girl pulling the tiny red sled through a makeshift snow fort.

Another Christmastime tradition that thrills me: Dylan Thomas reading "A Child’s Christmas in Wales."

Season’s greetings to all!

(Image credit: Splityarn)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Have Yourself A Tacky Little Christmas

by Tricia Dower

Some years ago I was amassing quite the collection of tacky souvenirs. It’s packed away in the garage now, waiting for my lucky children to fight over when I die. My favourite is a napkin holder featuring a reproduction of the Last Supper in which the disciples’ eyes move. I’m also partial to the tiny square of Elvis Presley’s vinyl convertible top, complete with certificate of authenticity. My primary criterion for adding an item to the collection at the time was that it had to take itself seriously— in other words, not know it was tacky.

I’ve moved on from that particular hobby, but I still enjoy sniffing out the tasteless. Newsmax, an online and print magazine that, according to writer, actor, and attorney Ben Stein, reveals the "unafraid, uncomplicated, bare-knuckles truth about today's dangerous world," offers a particularly fine selection of neo-con items this year. (I’ve condensed their product descriptions but the words are theirs.)

  1. The Deck of Weasels: This hot new set of playing and informational cards depicts the enemies of America and Iraq’s liberation, including Michael Moore, Tim Robbins, Jacques Chirac, Barbra Streisand, Teddy Kennedy, Kofi Annan and many more. You’ll laugh out loud looking at the faces of the world’s greatest weasels, each wearing the beret of Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard.
  2. The U.S. military’s Desert Camouflage Hat (also called the Desert Boonie Hat), worn during Operation Iraqi Freedom by our combat troops and embedded journalists, is one of the coolest items you can wear, while reminding America of our victory in Iraq.
  3. You can stand with the men and women of the Central Intelligence Agency by proudly wearing the CIA cap. CIA operatives have successfully located a number of dangerous al-Qaeda operatives in the Middle East and eliminated them with strikes from Predator drone aircraft. Wear the cap and send a message to your friends and neighbors that you believe the US should remain firm in its battle against terrorism.
  4. With the US Border Patrol Cap, you can stand on the frontline of America’s battle with illegal immigrants.
  5. With Ronald Reagan's Greatest Laughs CD, you'll laugh as the Gipper uses wit to expose big government, defeat the Evil Empire, take the Democrats to task, and much, much more.
  6. Pray and Be Rich reveals the Biblical secrets that will enable you to become a member of the five percent of people who rise to the top and succeed.
For tacky experiences, though, I’ve got to hand it to Victoria’s Lighted Truck Parade. I had heard good things about the annual event and didn’t want to miss it this year. I imagined something akin to the Rose Bowl Parade, with elaborate floats on flatbeds. So on a drizzly night, Colin and I stood along the road with hundreds of others as a long, steady stream of vehicles passed by: tractor trailers, tow trucks, panel trucks, buses, a huge RV, the Canada Post van, and more. (“Will it never end?” I whispered at one point.) It was reminiscent of the USSR’s displays of military might during the May Day parades of armoured tanks. In Victoria, however, commerce, not war, is king. Noting that we had not one, but two cement mixers in town willing to participate in the parade (one actually spinning), brought to my mind Bob Cratchit’s wonderful lines from the 1951 film version of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol: “Bravo, there’s bounty for you. I declare. I’d like to know how many families of our acquaintance could boast of two rounds of the best gin punch.”

Most of the vehicles made an effort to festoon themselves, but a surprising number opted for the minimalist look, leaving us nothing to admire but their advertising: XYZ Moving. 1-800-JUNK.

The parade was presaged by the appearance of Santa in an inflatable suit and running shoes, handing out flyers on behalf of local shops. Several children standing next to us were excited to see him. But their excitement turned to confusion as a few other Santas showed up on trucks, waving down at them. There were a couple of blow-up Santas, too, one of which was moving quite strangely on its pretend sleigh on top of a truck.

“Santa is twitching,” I said.

“Yeah,” Colin agreed, “maybe jerking off.”

That just about said it all.

Photos: I don’t think I’ll be buying the Deck of Weasels or Reagan's Greatest Laughs. But, I am mighty tempted to get the Barack and Michelle ornament, above. What do you think?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Some Musings on Third Person

By Andrew Tibbetts

All my published work is in first person. The stories I’ve written in third person haven’t been accepted anywhere I’ve sent them. My new story—a few revisions away from submitting to journals—is in third person and I’m nervous.

All his published work is in first person. The stories he’s written in third person haven’t been accepted anywhere he’s sent them. His new story—a few revisions away from submitting to journals—is in third person and he’s nervous.

See! It shouldn’t make THAT much difference. It’s equally compelling. Or un-compelling, as the case may be.

However, I’m tempted to just go through my new story and rewrite it in first person just to see. Maybe first person is my thing.

In a lot of writer’s groups first person is considered less mature. Novice writers write in first person. The theory is that the writing is barely distinct from something they’d write in a diary.

Joe Novice’s Diary:
Got up at noon today. Pretty tired. Put my laundry on. Realized I had to get going to meet Ruth and Anna. I wouldn’t be able to switch it over to the dryer and that might mean somebody in the laundry room would throw my stuff on the floor. I could always stay to switch it over and take a cab. But then somebody could just as easily throw it out of the dryer. I wish I’d waited. Maybe I can go late.

Joe Novice’s Short Story in First Person
I woke up pretty tired. Dragged my ass down to the laundry room. Tossed my clothes in the wash. Saturday. What was on for the day? Oh crap. I had to be all the way across town in an hour. That’d give my fellow tenants a chance to throw my clean laundry all over the place. You have guard your stuff in this building. I could baby-sit the wash and then take a cab at the last minute. That’s gonna cost. More than redoing a load of laundry, I figured, and ran to get on the streetcar.

Joe Novice’s Short Story in Third Person
Frank hauled himself out of bed dragging the sweat-soaked linen with him, threw it in the basket with the week’s clothes, dragged the basket with him down to the laundry-room. The floor was so greasy and dirty it looked like someone had parked a dump truck in there. He wiped the inside the washer before he put his stuff in. He only bothered to check the time once the coins were in, the water was gushing and the bubbles were churning around the dirty laundry. Frigg. He wouldn’t have time to baby-sit the wash and in this building you couldn’t leave anything unattended. If his clothes were even there when he got back, they’d be all over the floor, mixed in with the dirt, dusty bounce sheets and wads of dryer lint.

A part of me can see the improvement. Distance from the emotional reality provides room to put in the sensual details. But another part of me likes the earliest version. I like writing that seems to spring spontaneously from a unique point of view, writing that reflects an individual consciousness.

Sometimes writers like to have both a feel of consciousness caught mid-stream and the pleasures of literary craftsmanship. It can lead to characters who are supposed to be teenage delinquents but who apparently think like Vladimir Nabokov.

On my way to detention I noticed the new science teacher Miss Dendrite naked, I imagined, beneath her iridescent blouse.

A quick glance through anyone’s journal will tell you that people don’t think like writers.

But with the advent of modernism writers having been trying to write like thinkers.

Another inch. Stretch damn it. Reach up, reach up. Tiptoe. I’m not asking the lodger, Mr. Stick-His-Nose-in-Other-People’s, to get the shotgun down for me again. Especially not since…Why does grandma keep it on top of the damn armoire? It’s not like SHE can get it down. Shrimp. Squashed little gnome. Once I get the thing down and shoot the lodger I’m putting it somewhere low. Swing Low. Sweet Chariot. Come and take that damn Mr. Stickney home.

A good thing to remember is that it’s all made up. Naturalism is a style. Realism is a construct. It’s all just black squiggles on white paper (or different shades of light on your computer screen.) And some writer or other has chosen each squiggle. And whether it’s first person or third person, it’s not really the character thinking. It’s always the writer. Authoring.

I guess I’ll send Hughes Bremen, my new heroine, out in the third person she was born in and see what happens to her…

Monday, December 15, 2008

Slumdogs and the cussing complex

By Tamara Lee

I just saw Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle’s latest film. Set in Mumbai, India, it essentially depicts the lives of two lower caste brothers. Aside from the complex story structure, two other production choices intrigued me, as someone with a toe in the film subtitling business. Not typical of post-production subtitles, the subtitling was, instead, treated as an added dimension of the film. Also interesting, the cussing in the film was not translated, as it usually is in subtitled films. Instead, Boyle lets the story unfold with the assumption audiences will recognize, if not understand, some colourful cursing is being used, adding to the layers and textures of the film.

Afterwards, I revisited one of my pet subjects: how we learn secondary languages. Often, we start our teen or adult second-language learning by heading straight for the cuss words (In fact, very often only learning the cuss words). Learning to cuss in a different language, getting the intonation and correct usage down, can act as a marker of one’s acquisition of a language. But how often do we really get it right?

Most of my current favourite curses aren’t actually English. Lately, I’ve been fond of French profanity, which I’m sure I don’t use correctly. But the mutterings of these cusses end up just being profanity for myself. I don’t tend to use them around folks whom I know speak French. As much because I don’t want to offend them with the content as I don’t want to amuse them with my misuse.

And this is what I find most fascinating about writing dialogue and creating narrative voice. I’m currently working on the third draft of a story and noticed the narrator cusses, but the characters do not. I’m now pondering what it means for my characters, and my narrator, wondering whether I should add some profanity or take it out. How will this change the story? What kinds of layers might cussing add, or how may it distract?

For example, if Character X, who speaks English as a second language, is cursing with an accent, and hasn’t mastered the basics of English curse structure ("I damn understand well"), his misuse of the curse word could be for effect; or it could be inappropriately comedic, with either choice adding a different depth to the story or character.

I’ve always preferred profanity be used like em dashes—sparingly or pointedly, in everyday speech and literature. But if all the children’s cussing in Slumdog Millionaire had been translated onscreen, it would’ve affected our sympathy for them. And for those who speak Hindi, perhaps the role the language plays adds yet another dimension to the film that speaks only to their experience.

As for my cussing narrator, perhaps we'll have to sit down and have a chat about where he got that dirty mouth from.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Objects: #7—Phone Numbers on Bits of Napkin or Scraps of Paper

By Andrew Tibbetts

This month I’ve had two different guys slip me their phone numbers in bars. Woo-hoo. It’s never happened to me before, but I’ve seen it in movies. I’m going to make a little shrine at home for them and their colleagues, the contact-info-upon-debris of the future.

According to Feng Shui, you should put a little romance altar in the northeast corner of your place if you want to improve that area of your life. On it you could put two candles (unless you are trying to attract a polyamorous collective and then you could put a dozen.) Pick red or pink. It’s the love spectrum. You could put little pictures of lovers kissing. Or ducks. (If you are a fowlaphile.)

I’m not superstitious. I don’t believe in magic. But I think if you do this sort of thing, it has a psychological effect. You are taking action to prioritize something and that is going to effect your subconscious attitudes and decisions. Pay attention to your love corner and see if that doesn’t translate into something.

What happens if your little scraps of potential relationships ignite on your love candles and burn your house down? Is that a sign of something? Not a good one, right?

I was going to make a little altar right now, but in my office, because they have insurance. Only, I figured out the northeast corner was what the door opens onto. That would mean that any time I went in and out of my office I slam the door into my love area. That’s got to hurt. So maybe just a picture on the wall in that spot.

I have a nice one of two hockey players kissing from the International Day Against Homophobia of several years ago. I look at it and swoon. Let me share it:

Yes. It’s true. I did this entire post so that I could look at those hockey players and brag about my hook-ups. Shameless. What’s it have to do with Canadian Writing? Nothing, I know! I should have written something about parliamentary politics or the woodchuck.

The only thing I’ve ever written on scraps of paper are ideas for books or music which come to me at inopportune times. Later on I take them and turn them into full-blown masterpieces of course. I hope the same for my recent love-leads. And to you, dear reader, I wish woodchucks and a parliament that works along with your fill of sweet kisses!

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Yes, Virginia... even flash writers are writers

1- You get the thrills that go along with completing a story real quick. Gosh, that sentence I just wrote sounds terrible. Lemme try again! The thrill of completing a masterpiece of fiction, a work of art, however minute, and however disillusioned you are in thinking it is a masterpiece in the first place, well, that thrill comes fast and furious. It’s like thinking you’re going to get some, and then actually getting some, all in one night. Your hair was good, your shirt was smart, the collar razor sharp, the jeans you wore, as with your briefs, were newish and snug-fitting, and you still smelled good when it counted, so everything gelled. It was effortless. Z-bang! Hello!

2- You can work on several pieces at once! A couple are in the reread stage, because you’re sensitive and artful as a person, and what person such as this wouldn’t feel the doubts creep in after a few rejects. Still a couple others are in the brutish, I can’t believe I wrote this crap with incredible potential, stage. You glance at these brutes from afar whenever you open Word, subconsciously shuffling and reordering in terms of their readiness, or your readiness to jump in. Speak to me! Pick me! You got nothing better to do, anyway. Or it just appears before you like the card only you saw but the magician was still able to make rise out of the deck. And every once in a while, you get a piece that begs for more even though it’s had enough attention already. 1500 words? 2500 words? A novel? No. 1500 words.

3- The strain is definitely lite. Come on, you flash writers, especially those of you who’ve attempted a novel. You know what I mean… And why is it that those writers fully ensnared by the lure of flash writing tend to jump from flash to novel and not the lovely 5000 worder all the major magazines seem to prefer? What’s up with that? Remember those 25, double spaced page wonders you slaved over before you discovered flash? Three months to get a decent first draft. Another three months to get a decent rewrite. Six months waiting for the first reject crammed into your mailbox. Three months for a second decent rewrite. Another six months to a year(because this rewrite wasn’t half bad) only to have your envelope stuffed back into your mailbox. Like I said, flash writing is stress-lite. That’s a plus!

4- A lot of times, you don’t have to come up with names for your characters others will be embarrassed by, like Elizabeth or Kate, Chad, and the perennial favourite -- Elizabeth Chadwick. You can name them he or she or they or it if you want. Stress is bad.

5- If you write flash, you can always say to a potential reader, “but it’s only one page.” Try getting a civilian to read three successive rewrites of the same story you couldn’t staple together with just one staple, you had to pound at least three in there, one from the backside, just to keep the pages together. Impossible.

6- You get good with titles – you have so much practise. The Chair. The Doorknob. The Dresser(one of my actual titles). The Belly up Goldfish you Bought with the Christmas Money from Grandma. Whatever you like. It’s flash, where titles can hang in the air if you like.

7- Best of all, you get to call yourself a writer! These days, hardly anyone ever asks just what kind of writer you are, actually -- Have you written a novel yet? They won’t ask, and you know why, because flash has come onto its own, and flash writers are feeling a surge of confidence, finally. Yes, Virginia, even flash writers are writers.

(stay tuned. I should have a nice interview ready and posted of some flash writers who actually know what they're talking about... soon.)

Monday, December 08, 2008

On comments and character

by Tamara Lee

Who are the kinds of people who comment online? The stay-at-home mom who uses a series of exclamation points out of pure frustration about an article; the insomniac warehouse worker who uses all-caps to register his fury about the state of the world.

Reading the comments following an article appearing in an online-version of national or regional newspapers can be a sort of character study. But the most enthralling and disheartening reading I’ve found has been on the CBC.

The vitriol spewed by some of these folks, many of them regulars, is unlike anything one would hear in normal conversation. These kinds of people are the raging drivers of the Internet: if someone dares to comment on the rager’s so-called point, there’s likely going to be an ugly accident. And of course, many people (and apparently moderators) can’t help but watch the ensuing accident, or watch for it.

I often find myself immersed in reading the comments on the CBC, especially when the article has been about national politics, because I sometimes feel I live in an ideological bubble and need to know how the rest of the country thinks. But the reality, I’m learning, is that these comments do not reflect a cross-section of Canada. They do, though, reflect the mindset of the kinds of people who regularly leave online comments.

The tone of the comments left, for example, on, or the, compared to the tone of the comments left on the CBC, and increasingly (representing an array of regional papers), seems to point to an increase in discontent among the average-Jill-and-Joe. They now have a forum other than the lunchroom and dingy bar to tell people just what’s the matter with the state of the world. Mostly, though, their world begins in their neighbourhood and ends in Ottawa.

What moderators let pass as acceptable can be especially baffling. The racist and sexist comments that somehow manage to slip by have increased; the comments that try to spin some sense into a discussion (for lack of a better word, because online commenting can rarely be called a discussion) have become fewer and fewer. But that may have less to do with the moderators, and more to do with the sensible folks recognizing the futility of trying to espouse reason within an online Jerry-Springer-effect.

I know of what I speak because I have been one of those who try to squeak in a voice, be it devil’s advocate or genuine disgust at someone’s ignorant comment. And the result is usually the same: the post is either ‘check-marked’ by those who agree (although never the same number of folks who agree to the rager’s point), or the point is lost in the muddle of frenzied opinions.

Once I had someone call me to task for my comment, but a small group of white knights came to my rescue with statistics and quotes to prove my initially meek point. I didn’t have the energy or interest to keep up a jousting game, but apparently the knights were willing to get off their horses and engage in the rage. I never bothered to check in to see the end of the match.

Now, of course, as anyone who follows online forums knows, indeed as anyone who has used the Internet regularly in the past five years or so knows, the anonymous posters can range from teenagers posing as any number of characters; to political pundits posing as average-Jill-and-Joes to further a cause or point.

And so the online Springer-effect adds yet another new dimension to what poses as debate, or more often than not, farcical entertainment.

(Image: 'Throwing chairs' courtesy of Thijs van Exel.)

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Alberta Assumption

by CWC alumnus, Jen McDougall

A word from out west about assumption. Specifically in Alberta, it's assumed that everyone you come in contact with is a Conservative Party supporter—your neighbours, your friends, your babysitter, your babysitter's parents, the people at the gym, the couple sitting next to you at Earl's, the mechanic on the phone—every one of them obedient Albertans ready to recite our provincial mantra: "the west wants in." For this reason it is not uncommon for an exchange between complete strangers in a Tim Horton's line-up to go something like this:

"What do you think of the three stooges?"
"It's a disgrace, totally embarrassing."
"Harper was voted Prime Minister, skewed CBC statistics won't change that."
"I know! I thought Canada was a democracy."
"This will hit Alberta very hard; we will send out billions more, probably already earmarked for another stupid plan like the gun registry."
"At least Trudeau spoke both of our official languages."
"It's time Alberta separated..."

These comments could come from educated, successful business people but they rarely get involved in politics and I question whether they truly understand how Canadian government works. It doesn't occur to many Albertans that there could be another way, another reasonable view. If you live and breathe Alberta air, you consume the Tory rhetoric, pass it on to your fellow Albertans, and never let anyone dare to question it.

I don't think I can accurately describe the social risks an Albertan takes should he suggest "Harper kind of had it coming," or "Actually, the country didn't elect our Prime Minister, he just came with the party." Should this conversation occur at your son's hockey game, make no mistake—the eyes of every parent within earshot will be trained on you. They're watching to see how far you venture beyond boundaries of acceptable debate in the land of the Conservatives. You feel as conspicuous as if you had suddenly begun singing a show tune.

The Alberta assumption doesn't end when you get to work. It is assumed that if your employees are supporters, so too is your employer. This is why you shouldn't be overly surprised to receive emails aimed at bullying potential opponents. Emails that have been forwarded to your entire firm. By your boss.

Are other provinces in Canada like ours? Void of any real democratic debate? Seriously. I've lived here all my life and I honestly don't know if this is normal in a particular region. The only voices tolerated around here are those echoing the rhetoric of the head bully, Harper. The criticism of the opposition is meant to do two things: intimidate and deflect attention from reality. Try suggesting that the real issue today is the economy and Harper's initial misguided response and you're done.

If you are part of the silent minority in Alberta, you've probably retreated even further this past week. And if you're undecided, well, good luck in gathering information from both sides.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Office Endangered List: The Filing Cabinet

I’m an office worker. My office is full of computers and routers and modems and CDs and dusty books. What it is not full of is filing cabinets. The filing cabinet is disappearing at an alarming rate of 1 every 2.5 hours and it is for this reason I have decided to place the filing cabinet on my office endangered list, status: critical. If nothing is done I predict the filing cabinet will be extinct within the next 20 years.

Males average 4 feet tall but can reach heights of 6 feet and weigh up to 200 pounds. Females tend to be smaller and narrower, but easily hold as much as males. They have a hard exoskeleton of tin, steel or plastic and an internal structure of folders and hanging files or Pendiflex. Skin color runs the spectrum from white to black and chipping or flaking can occur, especially in older specimens.

Filing cabinets prefer to live near walls and are rarely found in open spaces. They are social objects and are often found in groups of 3 to 6 individuals. Their diet consists mostly of paper, with the occasional coffee mug, t-shirt or wallet getting ingested by mistake. Filing cabinets have a complex relationship with humans, particularly when it comes to mating. Males compete for females by enticing human males to lean on them and talk to other human males. The cabinet that amasses the most leaning time with the most human males usually wins the favour of the surrounding female cabinets. Mating then occurs sporadically and is initiated with the jamming of the female’s second drawer from the top. Frustrated humans then alternately kick the cabinet and vigorously pull on the drawer which serves to pollinate the female egg. The female then releases the drawer allowing the fertilized egg to be passed to the male cabinet by the transferring of files, or by the eggs clinging to the skin of the hand.

There are an estimated 20 million domesticated filing cabinets left in North America with another 2-3 million wild cabinets found in landfills. Computers and binders are the primary threats to the filing cabinet, but they also face threats from overzealous office managers and organized people.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Remembering Montreal

by Tricia Dower

Today’s post has ended up being a companion piece to Andrew's, below.

Colin and I attended a ceremony yesterday at the University of Victoria, in memory of 14 women who were killed at l'École Polytechnique de Montréal nineteen years ago this Saturday simply because they were women. On that day, a 25-year-old gunman entered a classroom of engineering students, separated the men from the women, and shot the women with a .22-calibre rifle. He then roamed the corridors killing and wounding others before shooting himself. Katie was a student at Montreal’s McGill University when it happened and we had a heart-stopping moment when the initial reports came through.

Yesterday’s ceremony was part of the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women in Canada, established in 1991 by Parliament. Debbie Yaffe, Senior Instructor Emerita of the Department of Women’s Studies, spoke movingly of her personal response to the event. How it made her realize it was dangerous to be a woman, especially one with aspirations. The killer, Marc Lepine, claimed he was teaching feminists a lesson, because they had “ruined his life.” He resented women who went into careers he thought should be reserved for men. This resentment appears to be just one facet of a deeper misogyny he may have inherited from his father. (You can read a thorough description and analysis of the event in this excellent article.)

In his post, Andrew writes that he was beat up as a child because he was perceived as acting “like a girl.” This may be transphobia, as he notes, but it’s also misogyny. Some males can’t imagine anything worse than being a female: vulnerable, powerless, the one on the bottom. If one of them acts like a girl, they feel threatened: could they actually turn into girls?

Tomboys are rarely battered. In fact, girls who act like boys are quite often encouraged in it. It’s usually only as women that they arouse fear and anger in some people if they choose “gender non-conformity” roles. I would like to see parents and teachers stop communicating (even subtly) that there’s something wrong with “girl” things. The USA’s First Father-elect, for one, could apologize for saying on a televised interview that he doesn’t want to get his daughters a “girly dog,” one that sits on your lap and yaps. I admire the man for many things, but that isn’t one of them.

According to StatsCan, half of all Canadian women have experienced at least one violent incident since age 16 and four in ten have been sexually assaulted. The photos on this page offer glimpses of The Clothesline Project, dozens of t-shirts that illustrate the range of violence women experience, including sexual assault, child abuse, incest, physical assault, violence because of sexual orientation, and violence because of race or culture. The shirts were decorated by assault survivors and their allies as a cathartic exercise. Their collective display is intended to give us a sense of the scale, the epidemic nature, of violence against women.

Yaffe didn’t hold out much hope that such violence will disappear. But, even so, she and others on the program asked that we speak out against it, refuse to accept that it’s inevitable, and continue to fight for every woman’s right to live an unrestricted life free of violence. In light of Andrew’s post, I suggest we fight for everyone’s right, male, female, trans, or other to live such a life.

Right: Robin Tosczak and Sinan Soykut of UVic’s Anti-Violence Project, hanging shirts for the Clothesline Project at yesterday's event.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Trans Day of Remembrance

Last Friday, Toronto’s 519 Community Centre hosted a Trans Day of Remembrance at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. My friends and colleagues and I went to join with others to celebrate the trans community’s ability to thrive despite the horrendous violence they are exposed to due to transphobia. We also went to mourn the dead.

As the ceremony concluded with a stark reading of the 2008 murders and suicides of trans people from around the world, it occurred to me that much of the oppression I’ve faced as a gay man was really transphobia and not homophobia.

I was beat up a lot in school. The first hundred times weren’t for ‘sucking cock’ or any such thing; the beatings were administered for “acting like a girl”. Punches were accompanied by “you talk like a girl;” kicks, by “you play with girls”. My initial social crimes weren’t sexual; they began WAY before puberty. My crimes were gender-non-conformity.

For example, in grade two, I said that a story our teacher read us was “sweet”. She informed me that “sweet” was a girl’s word. At recess, the boys kicked the sweet out of me. I still pause a little before saying it, even though it’s a cool enough word for Ashton Kutcher and Seann William Scott now.

I’m sure if the schoolyards I endured had managed to work themselves up to capital punishment I would have made the “Remembering Our Dead” list. It was certainly the message I was given: act like a boy or die. They trained me to butch it up. As best I could. And punished me when I slipped.

This is why it enrages me that the gay community is often a lacklustre ally of the trans community. The protest against homosexuality is often not about what we do in bed. It’s about breaking the gender code. When the opponents of same-sex marriage in the States see two little tuxedoed figurines on top of a cake, their innards seizure. But it’s because men are not supposed to be affectionate with one another. It’s not really about what sex they are going to have; it’s about how they show up in public. Holding hands! Dancing! Taking their children to the park! This is not “Acting Like a Man” and it must be curtailed.

Transphobia locks every human being into a rigidly defined gendercode that almost everyone would naturally transgress. Not even John Wayne could be “John Wayne” all the time. Fighting transphobia is a help to all the straight women who haven’t felt ‘pretty enough’ or ‘nice enough’ and for all the straight men who’ve feared appearing ‘weak’. And fighting transphobia is certainly the fight for lesbians and gays to be able to love outside the binary-gender-code as well. We’d all do well with a more flexible, less anxiety-ridden sense of the possibilities of gender.

Cheers!! to those at the forefront of playing with gender and exploring their own versions of identity! And Shame!! to those who got so scared by it that they worked to wipe it off the face of the earth.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Notes on the space between my ears

I wrote this post at work today. Why? Well, because I didn’t have anything prepared for the CWC, and I figured something might come to me between peeling onions and burning the toast. Why not. It’s happened before. I’ll be toiling away and the brilliantest most complete sentence ever in the history of humankind will appear out of nowhere, like a speck of dust on the eyeball – you blink and it’s gone. But today, I had my notepad out and my sharpened pencil. I’d capture everything. Nothing would escape me. I’d take notes all day long. In fact, I had the post title ready to go even before I finished my first cup of coffee: Notes on the Space between My Ears. I figured it would be something like a Seinfeld episode, full of little comedic connections to make the reader go Hey! That’s true! Or, Hey! I hadn't thought of that!

Well, here’s what I learned about myself through this little experiment, because it was an experiment, kinda. I didn’t know what to expect, really. Would I even come up with a post, in the very least? Would my intellect shine just as an actor’s range and ability might shine through improvisation? This was important to me as a writer. Lately, I’ve been thinking of those in between thoughts we rarely see on the first draft, those details that add texture and believability to the story. Kinda like the conversation Seinfeld and his cohorts enjoyed at the coffee shop – about nothing, but everything at the same time. Was there anything we didn’t know about George? You get a good sense of this in between stuff listening to stories being read on the radio. There are no pauses to go and get a glass of water, or to go to the washroom, or for looking up and away, perhaps to grumble. In my case, I’m always trapped in the car waiting for someone, NPR my only companion. Listening to these readings, I often find myself wondering if I even know how to write or if I’m only faking it, a strong gust of wind and my house of cards never was.

So how did I perform in this little test of myself? What did I hear as I eavesdropped on the space between my ears, besides the dozen fuckyous, a couple of ouches, and that steady whirring of the ventilation system that doesn’t stop until I hit the kill switch at the end of my day?

This is what. This post.

Monday, December 01, 2008


The political climate worldwide intensifies. And even here in the usually stoic and sensible Canada a word like ‘coup’ could be used without fear of exaggeration to describe our current state of federal politics.

I spent Saturday oblivious, wandering around malls in the US, on a day that many call the US Boxing Day. It’s so easy to lose oneself in the maze and cloister of holiday mall shopping.

Driving the I-5 home, it was like re-entering a storyline. The dire drained-iPod-battery situation forced us into scrolling through the radio stations, hearing clips and bits about the world outside the car: ...listening to—Mumbai—KISM 86.5 on your—militants—stranded—Saturday night—dead—tensions—classics from the ‘70s and ‘80s—Thailand—tensions mount.

Of course, no news-bulletins in the US covered the dramas going on in Canadian politics; that was left for us to piece together, causing our conversation to sound rather like a scroll along the radio dial, too: What do you think of—Oh, I love this song—coalition—Harper—denied—Who did this song again?—Refuse funding—deficit growing—I roller-skated to this—audacity—Remember this?

Yes, there’s something almost soothing about singing ‘70s K-Tel hit songs whilst immersed in a mental state of unrest about what lies ahead.