Friday, 2 December 2016

A Clean Well-Lighted Place

There are no more bars in Toronto.
I know this might be somewhat of an exaggeration, but let me tell my story.
I was trudging up Yonge Street with a friend. Because her car was parked near Yonge and Wellesley, and we were down by College, we were looking for a bar there.
We couldn’t find a single one.
Pardon me - there was an establishment that featuring a flashing light that said LCBO in the window, but the place was called, I think, Fry. 
The name suggested it was something more of a restaurant than purely a drinking establishment.
You see, I remember a day when if you walked up Yonge Street from College to Wellesley you would find a number of bars.
Now. Nothing.
Let me make it clear; I am not including in my category of bar a licensed restaurant. A licensed restaurant is something else entirely. I do not wish to go out for a drink and find myself surrounded with parties of any kind. I use the term party in both senses; quite literally a celebration, as well as a large group of people. Families, for instance. All celebrating Aunt Maisie’s birthday and eating chicken wings. Or a bunch of guys pinching waitresses and watching a ball game. That is not what I consider to be a bar.
Where have all the bars gone? 
My suspicion is that it is a sign of the times. First of all, nobody goes out anymore, now that there’s Netflix. And secondly, condos are not conducive to bars. They are considered noisy by condo dwellers who also suspect that they have the capacity to attract the ‘wrong’ crowd.
The concept of a bar— for those young-un’s who may never experienced one - is most cannily described by Ernest Hemingway in his short story A Clean, Well Lighted Place. This story offers a great way to get a down and dirty introduction to Ernest Hemingway’s oeuvre — if you would rather skip his more ponderous macho masterpieces.
In A Clean Well-Lighted Place a lonely man explains his reason for looking for a bar: he quite simply needs a refuge from the overwhelming ‘nothingness’ of life.
This is exactly what I imagine a bar to be. 
In my imagination, this is a bar.
There is a woman on a barstool, a bit frowzy — she’s certainly been around the block. She’s easy — or was easy — in better days. The bartender — there’s something welcoming about him; you long to tell him your problems. There is a man sitting at the other end of the bar, all by himself. He is talking very obsessively and semi-philosophically with the bartender about something — the bartender is only half listening. The man appears to be quite thoughtful but perhaps also somewhere on the autism scale. (I sat next to a man like this in a bar in Hamilton the other day —yes, they still have bars in Hamilton — and he kept talking about his dog — ‘I loved that dog,” he would say and then, after a short pause “I mean I really loved that dog.”) Off in  the corner somewhere would be a young man, with a guitar, rolling a cigarette. He would have long hair and be darkly handsome. He would be lonely, and be looking for someone to talk to or— (best case scenario) whatever.
That’s my idea of a bar.
And nobody would ever ask you  —“Would you like some wings with that?”

Monday, 28 November 2016


Conflict Is Not Abuse is the simple, eloquent title of a fascinating and controversial new book by Sarah Schulman. Schulman’s thesis is that conflict and abuse are very different things. However, in contemporary culture they are taken to be synonyms. Though Schulman is an American, she recently spent some time in Canada, and her observations are particularly relevant to Canadian culture.
Schulman is very careful to explain that she certainly understands people are abused, and that abuse is a significant, often tragic issue.  But she dares to challenge what I would call modern ‘victim culture’. Schulman uses case studies referencing social work, Israeli/Palestinian relations— as well as HIV criminalization — to make her points. 
Schulman’s argument concerning HIV criminalization is especially relevant to Canada, where an inordinately large percentage of black heterosexual men (along with some white men and women, both straight and gay) have been charged with assault and/or murder for not disclosing to their sexual partners their HIV status. Emotionally volatile reactions to this sexually transmitted disease cloud the issue. However Schulman asserts that those who charge their sexual partners with assault or murder for not disclosing their HIV status should instead themselves be responsible for protecting their own health. These so-called ‘victims’ should demand their partners use condoms. And now of course — in addition to condoms — we have access (for those who can afford it!) to the enormously effective HIV preventative drug PREP. Schulman reminds us that HIV education traditionally recommends  that everyone take responsibility for their own health. This philosophy has done much to prevent the spread of HIV. Why should we abandon it now? The non-disclosure issue is conflict — says Schulman — not criminal abuse.
But, possibly because Canadian culture is essentially kinder and gentler than American culture, we are particularly prone to confusing the two notions. This is particularly true where it comes to hate speech. I have always opposed this legal concept — not because I don’t think that some speech is regrettable and hateful — but because as a writer I would not wish to see language criminalized. My most recent novel is Sad Old Faggot. This title might seem offensive or even abusive to some. I think it should be my right to use these words.
Schulman’s thesis sheds light on two recent contemporary Canadian issues. First there is the case of Jordan Peterson, a professor at the University of Toronto who has refused to call his transgender students by their preferred pronouns. This is conflict, not abuse. It should not come under the criminal or human rights code. However Peterson’s actions are beyond insensitive and the university should discipline him for not treating his students with respect, as this is a primary responsibility for any teacher.
Similarly, there is much discussed Steven Galloway case. It’s important to remember that Steven Galloway, formerly a professor at UBC, was (rightly or wrongly) accused of abuse. Margaret Atwood, on the other hand, is not an abuser and should not be accused of it when she defends him. It is deplorable that the defense letter which she signed felt it necessary to shed skepticism on the claims of the victims in the Steven Galloway case. But this is conflict, not abuse.

It’s about time that we begin to ponder the difference.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Brent Hawkes’ Trailer Party

Brent Hawkes —Toronto’s beloved gay pastor — is on trial for molesting a 16 year old boy in Nova Scotia. I must say, this animates my animus towards him. For years, I have hated Brent Hawkes. There, I said it.
If you are part of the Brent Hawkes fan club, perhaps you should not read on.
I will disclose. I’ve been watching Brent Hawkes from the time that Buddies in Bad Times Theatre was having trouble with the City of Toronto (and Rob Ford — at that time a rookie on city council). We were in trouble because we wanted to take over the 12 Alexander Street building (which Buddies presently calls home). We had a lot of opposition from Christian Right homophobes (and the Toronto Sun) who were trying to block our bid for the building.
At that time we were looking for support from well respected members of the gay community — in fact we needed that support to survive. And we couldn’t get Brent Hawkes to make a statement in support of us. We didn’t know why. Finally I enlisted a spy — a young man who was going door to door to raise money for the Buddies’ cause. He went to Brent Hawkes door to ask Brent for a donation,  and this very attractive young person was somehow able to pry loose Brent Hawkes tongue — for Hawkes confessed to him that he would never publicly support Buddies in Bad Times Theatre.
I will never forgive Brent Hawkes for that betrayal. 
This incident is at the heart of my anger at Brent Hawkes; but I also feel it’s relevant to the present trial.
I believe the Reverend Hawkes was unwilling to get behind Buddies in Bad Times Theatre so many years ago because Buddies philosophy has always been pro-sex. This means we always thought that sex is fine, in fact joyful — even when it is not part of marriage or a loving relationship. I personally believe that any consensual act of sex is, in fact, love — and that people who are promiscuous are not bad or sick — just joyful — and they should not be judged but prized. To quote Hannah Jelkes in Tennessee Williams’ Night of the Iguana: “Nothing human disgusts me, Mr. Shannon, unless it's unkind, violent.” 
Apparently this philosophy was a bit foo dangerous for Brent Hawkes to be associated with.
Now I am not going to suggest that Brent Hawkes is guilty of molestation. I really don’t know.
But I will make one small — but I think important observation — that comes from all this. 
Unfortunately Christianity has become a very good place for molesters to hide.
Consider Donald Trump who, as we all know, likes to grab women in the ‘you-know-what’ — without consent. And yet, the Christian Right in American is supporting him, many whole heartedly. Then there are the molestation scandals that were carefully hidden by the Catholic church for so many years. 
If you ally yourself with Christianity, some will think you are respectable. But nowadays being Christian is no guarantee of respectability. Christianity has become a religion that -- though it may boast some kind, caring, understanding believers -- also welcomes a significant constituency who have lost their heart, their love, and their tolerance, and replaced those (once considered Christian) virtues with ‘unkindness and violence.’
Welcome to ‘Brent Hawkes Trailer Party!’

For me, this invitation is a symbol of the lies, hate, and molestation that have infected Christianity, and now, with the election of Donald Trump, threaten to infect us all.

Friday, 11 November 2016

No Intermission

I’ve been complaining about this for a long time, but what is actually going on here?
Try and find me a play with an intermission; they no longer exist. 
Last night I went to see Breathing Corpses at Coal Mine Theatre. They lady at the door said the play would last one hour and and half.
I timed it; Breathing Corpses clocked in at a cool one hour and forty five minutes. 
Nothing against Coalmine, it’s happening all over; and this was the latest hit from The Royal Court Theatre. Well obviously they will have no truck with intermissions in London, England, either. 
Dare I ask; what does ‘intermission’ mean
You might say; well people just had shorter attention spans back in the day.
Is that really true?
We know that years and years ago (like in the late 19th century) plays had three acts, and each act was a half hour long, and there were two fifteen minute intermissions between each.
Sure — you might say — time to have tea, have a drink, socialize.
I think it’s something more.
It all has to do with our relationship to reality.
Nowadays you can you can’t see a movie without these words popping up before the title:
“Based on a true story.”
Yes, from Ravi Jain chatting up his Mum to a couple of guys trying to figure out whether they are winners or losers, we live in the era of reality theatre, reality TV, reality everything. Hey, we’re not interested in anything that’s fiction, anything that’s made up.
The ‘no intermission’ thing started way back with Strindberg (incidentally, the founder of naturalism). You see, intermissions are too ‘metatheatrical’ too ‘suspension of disbelief’ — for those obsessed with truth. After all, what do you do at intermission? You turn to your friend or lover, and say “Here we are at the play, and you ask them ‘What is the theme of the play?" And they ask you — who is the best actor in the play, that is, who is the most convincing at pretending to be someone else?
But nowadays we don’t want to be reminded that we are watching a play. We do not wish to remember that what we are seeing is fiction.
After all, the new theatre buzzword is ‘immersive.’
But along with our insatiable hunger for reality, we may have forgotten something…….
theatre is not real; it’s unabashedly, perversely and deliciously, fake.
And though we like too imagine that some of us are more truthful than others, that some of us speak the truth and value the truth, more than others — could it be that we are all quite happy to live in our own separate fictions?
I dare you.
Come out into the lobby. 
We can share a cigarette and a drink, and gossip a little bit about who this actor is sleeping with or this actress is flirting with, about what’s going on behind the scenes.
Because after all it’s just a play.
Remember what it was like — long ago and far away?

When there was ‘make believe’?

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Some Things We Have To Be Honest About Even Though You Might Rather We Not Be

Condos are not housing.
They are investments. Housing is affordable; investments are designed to make the maximum profit for a corporation. Houses are built to live in; condos are built to make a profit.  Statistics Canada tells us that more than 16% of Toronto’s condominiums are owned by people who have several other residences. (I expect the percentage is higher!). Macleans tells us that “most condominiums have been turned into corporations with their own shareholders and boards of directors responsible for multi-million-dollar budgets.” So even if you own your own condo and live in it, your living space has now become a business. Is this a good thing? No. 
It’s inhuman.

2. Donald Trump’s candidacy has nothing to do with economics.
The only reason people are devoted to Donald Trump is because they are racist and sexist. That’s what ‘Let’s Make America Great Again’ means. Trump and his followers like to pretend that it’s all about raising the standard of living for the working classes. It’s not. Not only do Trumps economic plans not make sense, but like Adolph Hitler and Rob Ford, Trump’s appeal to the ‘old days’ is an appeal to a gut affection for racism and misogyny. And please stop thinking it’s a contradiction that people of colour and women support Trump. Many learn to love their oppressors; it’s called the Stokholm Syndrome.

3. There are no plays with intermissions anymore.
Yes I’m going to go on about this again. I had to sit through a play recently where they announced beforehand ‘The play is two hours without an intermission.’ What are they, some sort of sadists? The human body and mind are not equipped to sit for more than hour and a half in a play without an intermission. Sure, we can sit thought a two or three hour movie — because movies do not require our participation — the actors don’t know we are there. Our laughter and clapping and listening and crying, our getting up and leaving — is all noticed by the actors in a play. This saps the audience. At the hour and a half mark of the two-hour-with-no-intermission play my friend and I simultaneously looked at our cellphones, because the body knows that an hour and a half is all it can take. You can’t do this to people. Stop doing it.  It hurts the work.

4. GO doesn’t get you there faster than a car.
I have a four hour round trip commute to work. This is unacceptable. Coach Canada and Greyhound are for-profit corporations that only now run routes to make money so GO is the only choice for most of us. If you complain to GO about your four hour commute they will say ‘We are not an express bus service, we are a commuter service.’ Right. Then why don’t you have washrooms on your buses for my 2 hour commute? We are paying for GO with are taxes and it’s criminal. Period.

5. You think gay is over? That’s just pretend.
You think Gay men are just like straight men, same rights, privileges and lifestyle? Well let me ask you a couple of questions. Do straight men have GRINDR? Do straight men like watching porn about guys fisting other guys in bars? Do straight men spend a lot of time trying to figure out when to start their AIDs drugs? Is it likely straight men will be arrested for spreading HIV if they are not black? Are straight men worried they are too fat or too feminine to get laid? No? I didn’t think so. We are not anything like straight guys. Gay men would like you to think we are. But take it from me; we’re not.

6. All those movies that say they are based on a true story are trying to convince you that what you are watching is more important because it’s true but take my word for it: just because something is based on a true story (like all movies seem to be these days) does not mean that it’s more relevant, meaningful, honest— because it’s all just the same lie which is the lie that is all entertainment and art, okay, so stop fooling yourself, okay?

&. And finally…
Your Facebook friends are not your friends. Friends are people who you meet with, hold and touch. You have to be able to look in their eyes and see their faces. You have to hug them when it’s cold and feel their tears on your shoulder when they cry. You have to be nervous about
their disapproval in real time (you can’t wait to deal with their emotions at another time; they are sitting right in front of you). It’s called love.

I’m just telling you cuz I think you should know….

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

The Girl on the Train

I am the girl on the train
I am played by Emily Blunt who is a much better actress in this movie even than she is usually because she has been allowed by the director and producer to retain her British accent.
I don’t exactly know why they call me a girl. As I am a woman.
Oh well.
I have a problem.
It is difficult for me to talk about the problem because, well, it’s difficult for me to talk about pretty well anything as I am an alcoholic.
You can tell I am an alcoholic because my hair has not been washed recently and I speak slowly and with difficulty and I walk down roads in the rain looking lonely and I gaze at you pitifully looking for some sort of pity because I am so pitiful
Every day I ride on the train and you think I’m going to work at first but it is revealed at a later point that in actual fact I am just traveling on the train every day for no reason because my life is hopeless
And every day I see a beautiful young woman with slanted eyes named Megan Hipwell who is much more beautiful than I am and who has a handsome boyfriend with an extremely well-toned body who is constantly having sex with her
I know this because they often have sex with all the windows open or on the deck of their lovely Dutch Colonial house
I wish I had her life, I wish I was blonde and had slanted eyes and a boyfriend who screwed me constantly in front of other people
I wish for what any woman would want because I am just that, I am any woman, no pardon me every woman
I want to have a baby like every woman does but I cannot have one and because of that and because I am a nasty drunk my husband dumped me like an old sack of potatoes which is what I look like and feel like every day when I ride the train
Emily Blunt who plays me aspires in fact, to embody the mood and general demeanour of a sack of potatoes when she plays me
And let me say she completely succeeds.
And then one fateful morning I wake up and I discover as I slowly open my bleary eyes that oh no I blacked out the night before and I actually have no idea at all what I did
Can you imagine such a thing?
Let me tell you Amy Schumer the feminist comedian made a movie about the same thing called Trainwreck  i.e. alcoholism in women — only she treated it in a lighthearted manner
But I, the girl on the train do not think that a woman getting drunk is a laughing matter
For I know that being drunk is a very bad thing, nay tragic, and I know this ever since I woke up on that fateful morning and I had blood on me (why? why blood? whose blood was it?) and there was an empty liquor bottle that happened to be lying near my face so it made a great closeup shot and my hair was even dirtier than usual which as you can imagine was nearly impossible and then my roommate yelled at me
And then a mean detective played by Allison Janney accused me of killing the blonde girl with the perfect life and the slanted eyes named Megan Hipwell
Did I kill her? is it possible that I killed the girl with the perfect life in my drunken blackout just because I was so jealous of her? Could I be that evil?
This is certainly my darkest night of the soul that I am experiencing now.
Experience it with me. 
I think I will stagger down another alley and perhaps fall down and you will pity me and someone will call me a slut.
But then just when you think things couldn’t get any worse, lo and behold, they don’t.
All of a sudden I meet Lisa Kudrow who is being very brave in this movie for showing her wrinkles for the first time on screen. (Wow, a closeup! Wow what wrinkles! Even TV stars get old. At least some of them do. Jennifer Anniston doesn’t. I guess it must be the fabulous wrinkle cream she uses.)
Anyway Lisa Kudrow tells me not to worry and reveals to me that in fact to my surprise and chagrin I never got drunk at her party and never embarrassed my husband and I am not a messy drunk at all
Lisa Kudrow changes my life, just as she changed the lives of so many on the TV show Friends, by just being her cheery empathetic self but in this case specifically suddenly revealing to me in the nick of time that I am a good person and that my husband is the evil one and everyone knows that he is evil because he can’t keep his dick in his pants
So, ergo, therefore, his new wife and I — she is another blonde woman I forgot to mention who I am also very jealous of — well I bury my jealously and we act — two women — as one, and we stab him to death with a corkscrew
It’s lots of fun but what else can you do with a man who can’t keep his dick in his pants?
Wow this is a feminist movie after all!
Now it’s the end of the movie and I have finally washed my hair and bought my self a new white coat.
I am going to visit the grave of my husband who I killed with a corkscrew but of course he deserved it and I am also visiting the grave of Megan Hipwell the girl with the blonde hair and slanted eyes who I was very jealous of but that’s okay because I didn’t kill her
You are allowed to imagine that I will probably hook up with Megan’s boyfriend who used to screw her with all the windows open on the deck of the Dutch Colonial House
even though he is a little violent
You probably shouldn’t imagine I will end up with him, but I know you will.
I mean, come on who cares if he’s violent and throws glasses against the wall — I mean all men are violent, aren’t they?
And isn’t that kind of sexy?
Where are you going to meet a guy who is not abusive? I mean isn’t that just after all, part of what it means to be a sexy man? So don’t you usually just pick the least abusive guy and hope for the best?
But I probably shouldn’t say this or even think this 
And in the movie I don’t actually get together with Megan’s ex, but you can imagine that I might
That is your right as a woman
It is also your right as a woman, to watch this movie
We’ve come a long way, baby, from Joan Crawford starring in Mildred Pierce in 1945
Unlike Mildred Pierce I don’t have a job, or struggle as a waitress, or pinch pennies
We’ve gone way beyond that
And anyway you’ll be glad to hear
I’m not a bitch like Joan Crawford.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Homophobic Hosanna

Imagine what it must have been like to be a person of colour, living in North York back in fall of 1993, watching the pre-Broadway run of Harold Prince’s production of Showboat. You’d see a black ‘stevedore’ in the racist American south happily singing about ‘ol’ man river,’ and a mixed-race woman moaning about her forbidden love for a white man. Well of course you’d be pissed off! As modern day person of colour in Canada, you were being forced to be a witness to ancient images of yourself and your community that simply have no relevance in the present. And it was all the more offensive because there were many racial issues brewing in Toronto’s Jane/Finch community at the time that really demanded attention.
So imagine what I must have felt like sitting in the audience at Soulpepper last week watching a brilliant pair of actors (Jason Cadieux and Damien Atkins) tackle Hosanna — a Canadian masterpiece written in the 70s by Michel Tremblay. I should have enjoyed it — I wanted to enjoy it. But the antique representation of gay men and their ‘plight’ was almost unbearable for me to see.
A masterpiece of magical realism, Hosanna rivals Streetcar Named Desire with the power of its poetic storytelling. But Hosanna is also a play about a homosexual whose tragedy is that he’s just not quite masculine enough.
One can’t blame Tremblay. Hosanna was first produced in 1973, just after gay liberation. Gay liberation was created by gender outcasts -  dykes, sex trade workers, drag queens and nelly boys. And it was all about being proud to be a pansy.  But soon after, gay men were intimidated by the patriarchy into being afraid of what they had achieved. The Village People were lurking around the corner spreading the notion that gay men could be as masculine as construction workers, cowboys and cops. Then came the 80s gay clones  in their plaid shirts, workbooks and moustaches. Tremblay was writing in the shadow of a particularly oppressive paradigm that consumed the gay community in the late 70s. Some gays said simply -- and quite rightly -- that it's okay for gay men to be masculine. But others decreed that we shouldn’t be feminine anymore.
In the meantime our wider culture broached some pretty major theoretical changes that moved us in opposite direction. Judith Butler discovered that gender is an illusion, stating that it’s okay for men to be feminine and women to be masculine. And more recently, we’ve learned from the transgender community that the sexual equipment you are born with doesn’t necessarily define who you are.
So at the end of Hosanna — when Claude stands before us naked, repeating over and over again ‘I’m a man, I’m a man, I’m a man’ — I know I’m supposed to feel triumphant. But I just can’t. I just  feel sad, hurt or worse yet — deeply wounded for gender outlaws everywhere.
Because the fact that  Hosanna has a penis doesn’t mean he can’t wear a dress.
Or am I wrong?