The Importance of Being Italian

I’ve learned several important things being married to a Canadian-Italian woman. Things that define the Italian community I’ve been grafted onto. Things I never really paid attention to when I was young, but which I do now that I’m older. Here are the top three:

The importance of family

I had a pretty decent family growing up. A decent, whitebread WASP-Irish middle-class family. As a kid, I thought we were pretty tight. When I met my wife, all that was blown away as I learned about Italian families, including…

  • Weddings with 400 guests (and a whole roast pig trotted out around midnight).
  • Visiting the in-laws regularly and spending five hours sitting around the dinner table, talking and eating.
  • Attending every communion, confirmation, birthday and other significant occasion for every niece, nephew and mother/father/brother & sister-in-law.
  • Vacationing together.

This didn’t happen in my family, partly because of distance (being scattered around several different provinces and states, depending on the year), but also because we simply weren’t close the way my wife’s family is. Everyone went their separate ways after growing up, and the broader web of aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and cousins was similarly scattered, estranged or just not that connected. Time and our parents’ infirmity brought my siblings and me back together, but my wife’s family has never lost that connection.

They have an advantage, living in the same city, but they enjoy a stronger connection that gets reinforced with every text, call and family event.

Arthur Miller wrote that nothing is bigger than family. Miller wasn’t Italian, but the sentiment is. Growing up in my house, family was important, but not everything. For Italians, family is everything.

The importance of food

The main disadvantage of growing up in a whitebread WASP-Irish household was the food. We never lacked for any, and it was good, basic food. When I say “good,” I mean it in the nutritional sense of the word, not “good” in the way Italian mothers apply it to food, which is a celebration, an event and a show of love. Food in Italian households is so important, it’s almost a competition: people will talk about how good someone is at making pasta, how their homemade sausage stacks up, or how crisp their crostoli are.

My family was content to just have something edible on the table. It didn’t have to be gourmet (how many helpings of East-coast delicacies such as boiled potatoes and fried haddock I ate, I’ll never recall) but mom certainly tried. Not to the level that she felt she was in competition with anyone, but she tried.

That’s not the way it works in traditional Italian households. At least as a guest, meals are a multi-stage affair, with a range of antipasti greeting you when you walk in, then the various courses, followed by dessert and a fruit tray after that, maybe with some chestnuts or something similar.

Food and family go hand-in-hand: one facilitates the other. As you eat, you talk and come together. Bonds are renewed and strengthened, and it’s a perfect opportunity to comment on how much better nonna’s gnocchi are than the ones you had at so-and-so’s last week. Food makes it all happen.

The importance of talking

The national sport of Italy is supposed to be soccer. This is not true. The national sport of Italy and its diaspora is TALKING REALLY LOUD.

As kids, we were discouraged from talking too much, especially at the dinner table. Dad’s constant refrain was “I’m trying to eat!” This was a command to give dad a rest from idle chatter after a hard day’s work. We weren’t an expressive bunch, something I chalk up to the dour Scots-Irish genes running through our DNA, equal parts quiet reserve and emotional constipation.

I can’t imagine ever being told not to talk in an Italian household: conversation is an essential social lubricant. Volume is a whole other ballgame. I keep trying to explain to my wife that her “disagreement” is my “arguing” and her “raised voice” is my “yelling.” Growing up, not only was witty and vibrant conversation kept to a minimum, but raised voices were considered dangerous, a failure to keep emotions in check. In Italian households, it would be unusual and highly suspect for people not to raise their voices, and would indicate some deeper problem.

Putting it all together

It might sound comical, but these are significant differences. Family, food and talking weren’t venerated in my household the way they are in my wife’s, and millions like hers. Does that mean I had a lesser upbringing? No. My family prioritized lots of things, from education to stability. Each family is unique. None is better than another simply because of what they hold dear.

I’ve come to accept the volume of our conversations. The food is even easier to embrace. The family thing grew on me: a younger me couldn’t have understood its value, but as I’ve gotten older, it’s importance has become clear.

I wouldn’t trade my childhood for my wife’s. Except for the food.

The Mayor of the Market

I have seen my retirement. It is delicious.

He used to hang around Yonge & Eglinton in Toronto, but I haven’t seem him in a long time. I don’t visit midtown much since moving out in 2010, so I don’t know what became of him.

The first time I saw him, I couldn’t decide whether he was homeless or a millionaire. He looked in his late 50s, with a smoothly shaved head, a deep, lurid tan, an earring and a big belly. His clothes were on the rough side of casual, but not ragged. He seemed to be everywhere: at the hot dog cart, occasionally helping the owner; on the corner watching the world go by; installed in shops here and there.

Everywhere I saw him, he was talking to people, casually and easily, like an old friend catching up, without a care in the world. His whole reason for being seemed to be to watch the world go by.

His Lordship, The Mayor

I nicknamed him “The Mayor,” because he acted like he was in charge of the neighbourhood, somehow responsible for its smooth operation, relying on a mix of casual observation and small talk. He seemed so natural and at ease, with no pressing or prior commitments, in some kind of laid-back, Buddha-bellied communion with the neighbourhood and its people. I thought, “That’s what I want to do.” I want to be the mayor of somewhere.

Of course, maybe none of that was true. Maybe he was homeless and had nowhere else to go. Maybe he was injured and on disability, with nothing to do but kill time. Maybe he really was a millionaire, and enjoying his neighbourhood was his idea of a plum retirement. I like to think the latter was true, because the idea of spending my golden years tending my neighbourhood appeals deeply to me.

My neighbourhood has none of the yuppie ambition or sleek lines of Yonge & Eglinton. Gentrification has largely passed it over, thanks in no small part to a mix of public housing and heritage protection. In my neighbourhood you’re as likely to run into a busker with three teeth and a sailor’s mouth as you are a bright young thing from condoland. There isn’t the variety of chic boutiques Yonge and Eg has sprouted, but the hustlers and collectors at the antique market will sell you anything from Roman coins to Tinkertoy for the right price. My hood lacks the pretense that dogs much of Toronto, and the epicentre of that authenticity is its eponym: St. Lawrence Market.

Still Life with Pork Chop

The Market holds a special place in my heart, grown over four years of living next door. My wife and I took most of our wedding photos inside, she in her immaculate white wedding gown trailing across the scruffy concrete, me in my tux. Our favourite photo features us posing in front of rows of pork chops at one of the butchers.

There’s nothing elegant about the Market. It resembles nothing so much as a cross between an overgrown barn and a collection of roadside stalls. Any ambience is a byproduct of the chaotic jumble of boxes and people crammed into a city block, hitting a fever pitch Saturdays when Toronto descends en masse.

Duelling green grocers try to establish whether you’re inadvertently trying to pay for the other guy’s zucchini. Boxes of spices overflow in the basement bulk shop, surely Toronto’s cheapest aromatherapy. A butcher rings a cowbell seemingly at random. Is it to celebrate a significant sale? Does it mark the hour? Is it just random boredom? Who knows?

The Stories that Make a Place

I’ve discovered the Market’s idiosyncrasies and details, both cryptic and trivial, over the years, like the name of the flower guy I buy a rose from each week for my wife. I know where the prison used to be when the Market was Toronto’s town hall, shackles hanging from the wall. I’ve learned that if you wait till 3:00 on a Saturday, you can find fish that’s been marked down at least once, and maybe twice. I know that the German-sounding deli is actually run by a Greek family. (“Odysseus” is the best name ever for a cheese-monger. It makes me think of some intrepid soul embarking on a ten-year journey to bring back the finest Camembert from around the globe)

Farther afield is the lunch place I visit each Saturday, where the owner knows my order before I even set foot inside (chicken salad with an extra falafel), and the barber who regales me with the latest on which businesses are moving in or out.

That’s what makes a place a neighbourhood: people and their stories. A neighbourhood needs context and history, roots and randomness, knit together by people you want to get to know. It never ceases to amaze me that in a city as big and cool-to-the-touch as Toronto, there are still places like that. That’s  why when I think of what I’ll be doing when I’m 65 (if I’m still around, healthy and financially solvent) the thought of just being a part of the place appeals to me: sampling the cheese at Scheffler’s, listening to the guitar player compete with the Dixieland combo for change, recognizing toys from my childhood at the antique market, helping out here and there if people need a hand. The thought of becoming part of the neighbourhood by becoming one its stories makes me happy.

Maybe I should visit Yonge & Eglinton to see if the mayor’s still around. Maybe I can tease his story out of him, and find out if I was right. It’s probably better if I just leave his story in my imagination intact, because if I’m right and he was (or still is) the Mayor of Yonge & Eglinton, I feel like there’s a precedent, and maybe I can become the Mayor of the Market.

Who Killed Journalism?

Spoiler alert: not the internet.

I was in journalism school in 1993 when someone from Halifax’s now defunct Daily News visited our class, to explain how newspapers could use a new technology called “The World Wide Web.” They demonstrated the cutting edge of interactivity at the time, a cartoon where you hit a politician on the head with a hammer. The politician made a funny face and a noise when you whacked him. We laughed, filed it away as light entertainment, and got on with the serious business of learning how to report the news. We should have paid more attention. Virtually every news outlet in the world similarly underestimated, misunderstood or ignored the internet’s impact on their business until it was too late. As a result, we may be witnessing journalism’s final death throws.

26 years after that cartoon, journalism still fundamentally doesn’t understand the internet. Newspapers have had over almost 30 years to come to grips with the online world. The fact that they haven’t is due less to the internet and more to bad management.

The internet will kick your ass

30 years is an eternity online, but peanuts in the history of journalism: newspapers have been around for about 350 years. That difference in time span might explain journalism’s inability to adjust and keep pace with technology, but doesn’t excuse it. Three missteps highlight that inability to change:

  1. Insistence on the subscription model.
  2. Misuse of paywalls.
  3. Ignoring the problem until too late.

I don’t subscribe to your point of view

Subscriptions are a relic from a time when you could save money by signing up for a year’s worth of news. On one hand, it was cheaper than buying a newspaper at the corner every day, and on the other it provided dependable, yearly revenue to the publishers. Subscriptions worked well when people had no choice but to receive a large chunk of dead tree on their doorstep daily, and had to wade through ads and sections they weren’t interested in, to get to the stuff they wanted. You paid for all of it: the stuff you wanted and the stuff you didn’t, because you had no say in the matter.

People now have a very large say in the matter. We cherry-pick the content we’re interested in. Editors no longer dictate what content we receive, which makes the subscription model not only irrelevant, but undesirable. Why pay for an automotive or lifestyle section you’re not interested in? Why pay for something to be delivered every day if you only want to read it when something tweaks your fancy?

Unfortunately, journalism has been unable to imagine a future without subscriptions. Micro-payments haven’t taken off, which leaves publishers to either put up a paywall or bleed cash. The former rarely work, and the latter is a dead-end.

The great paywall of nope

Paywalls generally haven’t worked, because (surprise) people aren’t willing to pay for something they can get for free, and until every journalism outfit in the world starts coordinating their efforts, you can usually find a free version of any given story somewhere.

Paywalls also reduce readership, forcing newspapers to choose between a smaller readership that pays for the product, or a larger one they can monetize for ad revenue. It’s a devil’s bargain, and the paper loses either way.

Time was on their side

There’s no easy fix for journalism’s cyber-woes. However, after almost 30 years of the World Wide Web, no major news outlet has been able to come up with a more creative response than forcing people to pay for something they can get for free. This is neither a vision for the future, nor a strategy, nor management acumen: it’s what happens when you ignore a problem until you can’t anymore. 30 years is more than enough time to figure out how to make micropayments, a hybrid subscription model or any other number of revenue models work. The fact that no major outlet has found a way out of this mess is a failure of imagination and management.

If journalism ultimately goes belly-up, it won’t be the fault of the public, the reporters or the editors. It will be the people at the head who ignored the problem, and lacked the creativity and vision to find a way to make it work.

Mystic Muffins

How long can the little guy with a big heart hold out when gentrification sets in?

It’s not the food that keeps me coming back: it’s the personality.

Elias is flying solo as usual, a whirling dervish of falafel and patter behind the counter.

“What’ll it be today? The usual?” I visit often enough to have a “usual,” the salad Elias has anointed the “Super Annie” in honour of his wife. I get the chicken option with extra falafel and consider how cliché it is to have a “usual” at a lunch place, and how rare it is to have a favourite lunch place where the owner knows me and my order by name.

In a town renowned for its cool detachment, Elias’s place is an oasis of eclectic, in-your-face charm. There’s no such thing as detachment when he starts shilling his apple cake for the umpteen-millionth time.

“Your wife told me you want an apple cake, something nice to take to the in-laws. You want to make sure you’re in the will, right?” Despite the shop’s name, it’s apple cake – not muffins – that Elias pushes. If it’s not the in-laws he wants me to buy apple cake for, it’s our building concierge. Or my dad in Halifax. Or the boss at work. If Elias thought buying the Pope an apple cake would seal the deal, he’d invoke his Holiness in a heartbeat.

My wife always accompanies me to Elias’s. Although delicious, never once has she suggested I buy an apple cake for her parents. Nor the concierge. Nor my dad. Nor the Pope. Walking into Elias’s guarantees you three things:

  • Good food
  • Conversation
  • A full-court press on apple cakes

A customer asks for change for $20. Elias responds, “Even better: how about I give you an apple cake for $20?”

The decor is a collision of character and chaos. One wall is covered in photos of people posing in locations around the globe, wearing the restaurant’s t-shirt (for sale along with mugs). The menu is a giant chalkboard running the length of the back wall, and the combo of the day is printed on a blackboard next to the counter. The combo “of the day” hasn’t changed since I started coming several years ago: the chalk has probably permanently adhered to the blackboard by now. Slogans that are equal parts cheese and charm litter the rest of the space, inside and out:

  • “World’s best apple cake. Must be legal eating age for a slice.”
  • “Ask not what you can do for your tuna on a pita but what your tuna on a pita can do for you.”
  • “Made with passion. Served with love.”

To his credit, most everything Elias dishes up is served with love. Whether it’s coffee and a muffin, or a bagel with cheese, everything is served “+ love,” according to the menu (taxes included). This would be cheesier than charming if it weren’t for one thing: everything really is served with love.

Elias’s shop straddles the divide between some of Toronto’s best-off and worst-off neighbourhoods, but he doesn’t discriminate based on which side of the tracks you’re from. Whether it’s well-heeled yuppies from the encroaching condos, or homeless people wandering in from the Salvation Army next door, Elias serves them all. I’ve seen people so strung out they could barely count their change get a seat just as easily as the bright young things filtering in. To Elias, they’re all just people.

“You buy a falafel at regular price, I’ll throw in a slice of apple cake for $3!” The apple cake is $3 a slice no matter what you buy. It’s one of the running gags that keeps me coming back: the food’s good, but the show’s better.

“They’re going fast. I’ve only got five left. I’ve sold thirty-two already today!” I sometimes wonder if Elias was born talking: most days he barely stops for breath. As soon as you walk in the door he’s either asking you how you’ve been or talking about his latest woes: the Italian exchange student he hired, who keeps showing up late and won’t stop moaning about girl troubles; the squeegee kid who was strung out on something so powerful he literally fell asleep standing up; how much Costco is raising prices, and how it’s going to force him to raise his prices.

Elias has barely raised his prices since I started coming. How he does it is beyond me, because everywhere else in Toronto small businesses are jacking up prices or shutting down as property values and taxes skyrocket. It’s what happened to Yonge Street. When I moved to Toronto in 2001, downtown Yonge was filled with small businesses. Used bookstores and cheap eats competed with strip clubs and sex shops, camera places and corner stores. Now steel and glass behemoths block the sun and strangle the little places that lent the street its appeal, however gritty. I’m worried the same thing’s going to happen to Elias.

The vacant lot kitty-corner to his hole in the wall is prime for redevelopment, as is the gas station across the street. A 41-story condo has been proposed for just down the block. How long can he hold out? Elias is tight-lipped, but sanguine about his future.

“If they wanted to put up a condo, they’d have to buy out the guys beside and behind me, and the Salvation Army. That isn’t going to happen.” I wish I shared his optimism. It’s more likely that if a developer showed up tomorrow with a blank cheque, the whole block – Salvation Army and all – would transform into a 50-story monster with concierge service within three years. Elias’s place is almost 200 years old, so it’s got heritage protection, but all that means is that they’d either gut it and keep the facade or build something over it using stilts. I think they’d gut it: Toronto loves scraping the innards out of character buildings and preserving their corpses like a real-world experiment in architectural taxidermy.

The city is growing. I understand that. I love watching the city change, and urban renewal is the unofficial spectator sport of Toronto: there are entire websites dedicated to it. But great cities aren’t built only of brushed steel and tinted glass. Great cities like New York have grown without completely bleaching their roots. When you walk through SoHo or the East Village, you’re never more than a few blocks from the most expensive real estate on the planet, but New York has managed to keep its neighbourhoods’ history and character intact. I fear if Toronto doesn’t do the same, we’ll end up as a museum dedicated to what used to be a really interesting city.

“You’re going to get hungry later: take an apple cake,” coaxes Elias. “You know what they say: a hungry woman is an angry woman.” We’ll keep visiting as long as there’s an Elias to visit, and occasionally we’ll buy a fresh, relentlessly upsold apple cake.

 

United by Weather

“How’s the weather down there?” It’s how a significant number of conversations between father and son begin with us. Weather is a safe topic, a place we can meet, even though we’re 800 miles apart.

“Not bad. It was stinking hot today. How is it up there?” Gruffness is a mask. It establishes that we are both busy men with lots of important things to occupy us, but that we’re willing to give each other a few minutes of our time to check in and make sure everything’s OK, before rushing off to deal with pressing matters.

“Very nice. Going to be that way till those hurricanes disappear.” In a nation obsessed with weather, meteorological small talk comes as naturally to us as breathing. This makes sense when you consider how miserable a simple change in barometric pressure or snowfall amounts can make us. People in more temperate climes would probably be amused to discover weather-watching is Canada’s national sport. Unless they spend a winter here.

“It won’t be anything like hurricane Juan. People still talk about that, you know?” My dad is so interested in the weather, he will put the Weather Network on as background noise during the day. He lives alone now. I think it makes things less lonely.

“Well, the leaves haven’t changed here yet. Still waiting for that to happen. It’s been a good year for the maples, I think.” He once bought me a Weather Network calendar for Christmas. It featured weather trivia each day of the year. That, more than anything, speaks to Canada’s obsession with meteorology: we actually have calendars of weather minutiae to amuse ourselves with.

“If you’re lucky, the leaves will be starting to change when you come down. Depends on how cold it gets in the next few weeks.” I come down once a year with my wife, and once a year on my own. It’s important to make sure dad’s OK, and to visit my mother. She’s in a long-term care facility. Dad isn’t.

“Won’t be long now. The days are getting shorter.” It amazes me that each year around September, Canadians marvel at how the days get shorter, as if it were some entirely new and unexpected phenomenon, not something that has been happening every year since our solar system formed. The quality of small talk like that doesn’t really matter, though. I phone to hear dad’s voice, not to have deep conversations. I call to try to establish how he’s doing, and to see if he needs anything. Weather’s a tool. If dad’s got something on his mind, he’ll get around to it, but talking about the weather provides an entree, a way to warm ourselves up for the main event: tough conversations about mom’s state of care, and how dad’s handling it.

“Are you driving down here or flying?” Dad always asks if I’m driving down. I have never driven to Halifax, and never will. It’s a two-day affair vs. a two-hour flight: life’s too short. Dad’s frame of reference is sometime in the ’70s, before cheap airfare became the norm. I remember annual summer trips to Cape Breton to visit my grandmother and her cottage on the Mira river. With stops, it was a six-hour affair for a family with a couple of kids in the trunk of a station wagon without seatbelts, barrelling down the highway at 65 mph. Awareness of personal safety and responsibility wasn’t as developed in 1978 as it is today.

I actually don’t mind dad asking twice a year whether I’m planning to drive down: it’s one of many features that recur dependably in our conversations. Those features have become like a familiar handshake, and the older my parents get – and the more care they need – the more comforting that kind of routine becomes. On some level, I appreciate that he’s still interested whether we’re going to drive down the St. Lawrence River and through New Brunswick twice a year to see him.

“If it’s not raining too hard, I’ll probably drive over to see your mom.” He still drives over to see her almost every day. He still feels the need to check in regularly to make sure she’s OK. She’s still the centre of his life, even though they’re apart.

“I’ll tell her you said hello.” Dad has only known responsibility his entire life. The oldest of seven siblings, he became his mom’s right-hand son early on, helping take care of the younger ones. Then, as a husband, bread-winner and father of four, he was responsible for a mortgage, putting food on the table, payments for two cars, paying for his children’s education, and a million smaller responsibilities, from teaching us to drive to fixing the lawn mower. Then he was responsible for taking care of mom, until it all became more than could be expected of anyone his age.

Everything changed when mom went into care. When your whole life has been about being responsible, what happens when those responsibilities get removed? A leopard can’t change its spots: dad still needs to feel responsible, and mom needs someone to check on her and look after her, even if she can’t understand anymore why that’s important.

Dad won’t always have mom. Or maybe it’ll be the other way around. But for now, between naps and the Jays game and naps during the Jays game, we’ll have the weather to bring us together.

Why: An Ode to Richard Feynman

“Toes on the line!”

She was oddly emphatic for a yoga instructor, almost religious in her fervor. For some reason, she considered it crucial for us place our tootsies on a line of white tape, six feet behind another line of white tape, and so on across the room. Line after line of white tape, which – for some mysterious reason – it was important to line up on.

Except I didn’t do it. I couldn’t see any reason for, or benefit of, lining up on a strip of white tape to do half-moon pose. Why? I was plenty far away from my nearest yogi, and in no danger of crimping their standing-head-to-knee poses. What need was there to line up with military exactness? It was yoga, not the marine corps. If yoga isn’t about celebrating our whole-grain individuality, what is?

So I didn’t line up. I deliberately defied the yoga teacher and her lust for conformity, obstinately standing several inches behind the white line, much to the chagrin of my wife, yoguing next to me.

“Why couldn’t you just do it?!” she groused afterward.

Micro-aggression v.s. Micro-conformity

I thought about it for a second. Why not? It’s a micro-conformity, and one which – for some reason – the teacher considered important for all students to observe. What’s the harm in indulging someone, even if the reason behind the request is small or invisible? Why does anyone need to be an individual 24/7?

I only needed to think for a second before answering, but I did so under my breath to minimize further marital friction: “Why would I?”

“Why?” is a powerful word. It’s audacious. It bucks conformity. It keeps us honest. It’s insurance against mindlessness.

Some of the greatest minds in history were renowned for asking why. Newton asked why an apple falls from a tree. Einstein asked why light and matter behave the way they do. Another brilliant scientist – although less of a household name – made a career out of relentlessly asking “Why?”

The Sage from Long Island

Richard Feynman was a Nobel-prize-winning physicist. He was also a New York wiseass, with a Queens / Long Island accent thick as a brick, who brooked no B.S. He was renowned for his no-nonsense approach to everything from explaining science to investigating the Challenger disaster. His common sense was relentless and much of it focused on asking, “Why?”

Whenever someone tells me I’m being stubborn or obstreperous, I think of Dick Feynman and his shameless pursuit of “Why?” Whenever anyone wants me to conform for no good reason, I think of the brilliant, simple, irreverent genius from Long Island, and his unrepentant individualism, and I ask myself why more people don’t ask “why?” Here was a signal intelligence that gave us insights into sub-atomic particles, who had his paintings hang in galleries, acted, played percussion, wrote best-selling books, and – most importantly – educated (literally) millions. All of it was based on a relentless individualism that bucked authority, probed beneath the surface of phenomena, and relentlessy, shamelessly asked, “Why?”

Why should I believe you? Why are you saying that about those people? Why is that true? Why do want me to do that?

As anyone with a two- or three-year-old knows, there comes a time when asking “Why?” becomes tiresome. Luckily, most adults don’t even come close to asking “Why?” that many times.

Trump, Russia and the Power of “Why?”

In 2018, asking “Why?” is becoming crucial. In a Trump era of creeping authoritarianism, we’re being asked to swallow falsehoods, lies and half-truths without question. Fake news and foreign propaganda increasingly inundate us. “Alternative facts” have become standard. Now, more than ever, we need to ask “Why?” and not just do what we’re told.

As if that weren’t enough, it seems that every week we hear new accusations of cults brainwashing people. One of the defining aspects of cults is an intolerance for questions about the activities of the cult or its leader. In other words, they’re allergic to “Why?” That should tell you all you need to know about the power of that one little word.

My wife still rolls her eyes when I don’t do what the yoga teacher says, whether it’s toeing the line or adjusting my posture (no, holding my leg that way isn’t going to magically unlock my chakra energy; I’m reasonably confident of that.) But my behaviour is more than obstinacy or stubbornness. It’s an assertion, however small, that I’m not going to mindlessly do what I’m told. That starts with questioning and resisting the smallest things.

Unless you can answer the question, “Why?”

Toronto Launches Contest to Name Historic Sewer

The City of Toronto has launched a contest to name the historic “porcupine” drain recently uncovered in archaeological excavations in preparation for the new North St Lawrence Market.

“Toronto has a long history of effluvia, and we’d like to recognize that in the restoration and naming of this historic sewer,” said spokeswoman Connie McGunge of the Society for Historic Infrastructure of Toronto (SHIT). “Whether it’s rivers of blood flowing out of our pork abbatoirs, Rob Ford’s famous ‘enough to eat at home‘ comment or our sewer systems regularly backing up, Toronto has a long history of s**t. We need to preserve that.”

McGunge explained the mystery and allure of the magnificent pipe. “While we’re uncertain whether this drain channeled blood and guts from the meat stalls in the market, or more mundane material such as rainwater and everyday pooh-poohs, we’re certain it requires preservation. Imagine the tales this tube could tell if only it could talk!”

Redevelopment of the North Market has been put off indefinitely until such as time as the rare and historically significant sewage system can be put under glass or similarly preserved for future generations of fecal fans.

McGunge has already received a number of submissions for the new name, including:

  • Ye Olde Sewere
  • The Drain of Destiny
  • The Egregious Waste of Taxpayer Money and Patience*
  • Eric
  • Poop-Chute Deluxe
  • The Blood Canal
  • The Tube of History
  • Sludgey McSeptic

* = disqualified by the judging committee due to snark.

Torontonians are encouraged to email their suggestions to wittyandvibrant@gmail.com by Aug 27, 2018, to be entered into a draw for an array of fabulous prizes, including a miniature bobble-head version of the famous drain, a free septic tank or your very own ten-litre container of vintage sewage.*

* = prizes may or may not be purely fictional. Contest not valid in jurisdictions where people breath air. A whole crapload of conditions apply.

Ok, we’re kidding about the prizes. And we made the whole thing up. But, hey: how many times a day do you read the words “porcupine drain?”

Love Letter to the Danforth

I touched down in Toronto on December 30, 2000, thinking I would be here just one year. Almost 18 years later I’m still here, thanks partly to a neighbourhood named “the Danforth.”

I came to Toronto from Calgary for a one-year program at Humber College. Aside from an arboretum, Humber’s Rexdale Campus doesn’t boast much charm, unless industrial parks are your thing. In Calgary I lived near downtown on a street lined with restaurants, cafes and shops. Rexdale was a bit of a shock, but I knew nothing about Toronto, so it seemed easiest to stay in residence at Humber until I got my bearings. After six months I needed out. I asked for recommendations, and the same neighbourhood kept popping up: the Danforth. I answered a newspaper ad for a room (this was 2001, when advertisements were printed on dead trees) and found one just off Danforth Avenue.

It was a rooming house, with an odd assortment of characters: a Greyhound driver going through a divorce, a short order cook who disappeared in the middle of the night on his bicycle, and Ed, a busking classical guitarist and vegetarian, who despised vegetables: he survived on soy products, constant coffee during the day and NeoCitran to help him get to sleep. I worried Ed would get scurvy, but said nothing.

The Danforth was everything I needed: an eclectic people street, rough around the edges in parts, chi-chi in others. It still had a strong Hellenic presence from its time as the centre of the Greek community, even though most of the Greeks had bugged out long go for suburbia. I taught myself the Greek alphabet so I could read the signs in shop windows, including everything from the octopod in the fish store to the galaktoboureko in dessert shops.

The Danforth became home, from the hippie shop selling patchouli and wispy dresses, to the organic food market, to the pub with the sign outside that shouted “Put tzatziki on it!” Roaming the back streets lined with old brick houses and their neat little gardens was positively therapeutic. Walking and discovering all its hidden gems was like a full-time hobby.

I moved out of the Danforth after a year and a half. Past a certain point, you need an apartment of your own, not a rotating cast of eccentrics you share a bathroom with, but the Danforth will always be Toronto for me. Whether it’s a visit to my doctor and dentist, stocking up on remainders at my favourite bookstore or just seeing what’s changed, it’s the heart of my Toronto.

That’s why I know it’ll bounce back from the shootings that happened in July. These things leave a scar. I know that. I also know the Danforth is the place that showed me it’s possible to have a community in a big, sometimes cold, often indifferent city of six million. That’s why it has the capacity to recover in a way that other places don’t. Communities have an identity, a cohesion that comes with being more than just a name on a map. They’re more than a place to sleep and pick up your mail: they’re places you’re a part of, which become a part of you.

I’m going to the Danforth’s annual street festival, like I do each year. My wife doesn’t get it: she tells me I can get the same stuff without being jostled by a million people, but that’s actually why I go. It’s not like I can’t get ortiki, little grilled quails, at a bunch of places along the strip 364 days a year. There’s a bunch of pastry shops where you can find galaktoboureko and baklava done a dozen different ways, and you don’t have to wait for the one weekend each year when half the city floods the street to get some.

I want to go when that craziness is happening, now more than ever. I actually like that part. The place has changed since I lived there: it’s less Greek than ever, I see more “for lease” signs than 17 years ago, and the old movie theatre has become a concert venue. But its core hasn’t changed: it’s a community, one I still want to be a part of, even for just a few days a year. And now – more than ever – I feel like I want to support it as it bounces back from tragedy, even though I’ll only be a small drop in an ocean of humanity. That’s important to me on some silly, sentimental level, because I still have a connection with that place. I always will.

It’s why I love the Danforth.

The Curious Case of the Thing That Wasn’t There

We’re in danger of losing our world.

An addlepated madman is in charge of the world’s most powerful nation, while the (formerly) most open and progressive nation in Europe has decided to shoot itself in the foot. Countries are rushing to create autonomous death machines while lining up for war with one another. Global warming is now a locked-and-loaded catastrophe that threatens our very existence. In short, everything is unraveling.

How did we get here?

We’re a wise species. It’s how we got our name: homo sapiens, literally “wise (hu)man.” We’re the species that invented writing, space travel, universities and iPhones. We’ve been to the moon and the bottom of the ocean. We wrote Hamlet, the 9th Symphony and Madame Butterfly. We may even conquer death this century.

So how did we become so stupid? The answer may be simple: a belief in things that aren’t there.

Donald Trump rode a wave of populism based in no small part on a belief in the sanctity of the white race, and gripping tales of the minorities threatening it. Vladimir Putin enjoys the acquiescence of the Russian people by tapping into their insecurities, allowing them to project their egos onto his image of the archetypal Russian strongman. Chinese leaders continue to channel memories of western domination to legitimize their militarism.

In short, the world is unraveling because of a belief in things that aren’t true, whether it’s the sanctity of a given skin tone, fears of vulnerability, or a belief in the inherent superiority of your civilization. None of these things are real: they’re ideas, and ones that are easily deflated. Race is a construct. Vladimir Putin is not a strongman: he’s an autocrat whose opponents have a habit of dying in suspicious ways. Britain is leaving the European union because of made-up crap. A misbegotten belief in a God that wants you to vote Republican put Donald Trump in power.

Telling you what you want to hear.

How does a species of wise men and women come to believe in things that aren’t true. And what can we do about it?

The answer is that people have a tendency to believe in things that make them feel good, regardless of any reality associated with said things. Want your God to tell you to get rich and carry guns? You’ll find a way to believe that, even though his son came to earth as a dirt-poor pacifist. Think you’ll feel safer the bigger your military? So do lots of other people. Want a father figure to make you feel stronger than everyone else out there? There are no lack of world leaders willing to step up to that challenge.

Unfortunately, the antidote to a belief in things that aren’t there is neither palatable nor easy to swallow. Educating people out of their ignorance is a long process, and not at all guaranteed to deliver results. Humility is a tough sell; being powerful and bullying others can feel a lot better. Vulnerability is uncomfortable, and not exactly something nations are willing to embrace.

The solution.

As with all socio-political change, turning our backs on these phenomena will happen only if and when brave souls are willing to step up and challenge the societal norms and authority figures that perpetuate things that aren’t there. Then, after a few decades of broad-based public education, societies stand a chance of developing the maturity and self-knowledge to disavow things that simply aren’t true. It happened in the 1950s and ’60s across America. It set the stage for a defeated and angry post-war Germany to emerge as Europe – if not the world’s – current champion of freedom and democracy.

It can happen. It’s uncertain whether it will.

American Democracy Just Lost the World

Much has been made over the last two years of how firmly and repeatedly Donald Trump’s presidency has kicked American democracy in its nether regions. Instead of a government, the U.S. now has a kleptocracy governed by a man-child with a demonstrated inability to keep his member in his pants or hide the fact that he can’t keep his member in his pants.

Meanwhile, Trump and company are doing their level best to dismantle the system of checks and balances on which the U.S. government is built, while dismantling the global order two hundred years of American foreign policy has built up.

All this is happening while an opioid epidemic ravages the nation, social programs are being ripped to shreds and partisan machinations look ready to seize the gears of government.

Contrast this with what is happening in China:

Perhaps the most compelling evidence for the functionality of the Chinese  model is its capacity for sustained and effective planning. While the U.S. lurches from one partisan regime to another – systematically reversing the policies of the previous one – China appears to be a model of functionality and stability.

China’s success no longer casts shade on the value of western democracy: it’s proving to be the saner system.

The one area the U.S. could traditionally lord over China in terms of civilization and development was human rights. That’s getting harder to swallow as the U.S. continues to turn a blind eye to systemic and entrenched racism and resugent white supremacy. To claim any moral high ground in this arena, U.S. human rights would have to be moving forward, not in reverse.

Trump has effectively made a mockery of western democracy and highlighted its Achilles heel: the potential for populism and self-interest (aided and abetted by easily co-opted media) to put an individual manifestly unsuited to running a steak distributor – let alone the most powerful nation on earth – in charge.

With that degree of failure, the conversation becomes simple: who’s making greater advances for its people (economically or otherwise) and propelling their nation toward greater international stability, standing and influence?

At this point, the answer would have to be China.