Max's Blog

How Pop Culture Leads and Misleads

Month: June, 2010

That’s so Gay

‘That’s so Gay!’ read the pink poster advertising a queer art show on the wooden stairway of the Gladstone Hotel. “Oh my God, I want that,” I told my friends as we stumbled up the steps (I’d already finished a pint). “I’d put it above my bed!”

We had ventured down to Queen West to hear Arsham Parsi take part in a panel discussion on (take a breath) “Bridging Queer International Human Rights at Home and Around the World” (exhale). Arsham is an Iranian queer activist (essentially the Iranian queer activist) who fled his home five years ago after creating an internet message board for Iranian queers. In Canada, he founded the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees, which provides legal and financial support for gay, lesbian and trans-refugees in Turkey, the United Kingdom and North America.  

Most interesting was his insight that the language to talk about gay rights in Iran barely exists. There is no non-offensive word for homosexuality in Farsi. So Arsham made one up. He took the insulting name for a sissy man, equivalent to ‘faggot’, changed the ending and began telling people it meant homosexual. Already, he has noticed reporters picking it up. Arsham has seen first-hand how little information is available for people in Iran and is now posting videos of himself on youtube explaining in Farsi what gay, lesbian and trans mean. He takes his responsibility to the families of Iranian queers just as seriously as that of the refugees themselves and hopes they will watch the videos too.

We were informed that after the break there would be a question and answer session, so I snuck up to Arsham and, after telling him he was doing a good job, whispered, “Just don’t answer any questions about the G20 protests.”

“I am here to talk about queer rights in Iran,” he said. “Don’t worry, I won’t.”

The very first person who went up to the mike, whose broad A’s suggested Australian and skater boy clothes suggested trans, asked about the protestors. Actually, he didn’t so much ask as ramble on about interviewing those who had been arrested and their claims of homophobic slurs from police. Arsham looked at me and smiled. He allowed the other two panellists to give their thoughts, and only when asked directly by the moderator did he weigh in.

“My focus is on the rights of Iranian queers,” he said. “But I should say that I think people should feel safe and secure, and coming from a place where I was in constant fear of the police, in Toronto I always feel safe when police are around.”

Afterwards he told me how much the G20 protestors rattled him. “I left a country of violent protests for one of peace. I don’t want this again.”

One of the other speakers was Marilyn Byer, one of the founders of PFLAG in York Region. She goes into schools and gives talks about homophobia, although that word makes some principals uncomfortable, so she’ll tell them the talk is about ‘diversity’. She pointed out the irony of the ‘That’s so Gay!’ poster on display beside her anti-discrimination banners. “I’m trying to get teenagers to stop saying that, and here it is on our own posters!”

I thought about the new GQ magazine, a magazine my friends and I mock as being one for men who don’t know their gay yet.  Besides the interview with Jason Seigel and the photos of Taylor Lautner (and I must say, being aware that he was born in 1992 and that I would still totally ball him makes me feel a tad old and gross) it has an article defining old-fashioned words for gay guys. The writer explains words like ‘fairy’, ‘queen’ and ‘nancy boy’ in a tongue-in-cheek, ‘isn’t it funny that people used to actually say things like this’ way, taking the (presumably straight) reader’s comfort with homosexuality as a given.

In one place, an activist has to make up words in order to create dialogue, the very first step towards social change. In another, we laugh at hollowed-out slurs as harmless camp relics from another time.

(Although, of course, Canada isn’t homogenous, as activist Kim Vance, the third panellist, reminded the moderator when he claimed that ‘queer’ was universally acknowledged as an acceptable term by the community. “Um, I’m from Nova Scotia,” she said. “And while I’d never live anywhere else, there, it’s still a pretty bad thing to say.”)

“What is in a name?” famous heterosexual heroine Juliet asked on her balcony.

It turns out, quite a lot.

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Other People: Jessica Bartram

For those who don’t also have me on facebook (if you even exist), check out my interview with good friend Jessica Bartram on the WORN Fashion Journal blog. It’s the only reason she has not appeared on this website yet.

Mike Huckabee

I find Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas, an amiable fellow. He seems like a nice man and is undeniably funny. Along with both being governor, he shares the same home town with Bill Clinton (Hope, Arkansas) which led to his famous line, “Give Hope a second chance.” On a trip to Isarel, he joked that he should move there, as the yarmulke covered his bald spot perfectly. All sorts of observers, including Ariel Levy in the current issue of The New Yorker, find him charming and I would probably be no different. We wouldn’t become friends though, as he believes that my life threatens Western civilization and that, after the Rapture, I will burn in hell.

Levy’s portrait of the man, current star of a hit Fox News show and potential candidate for the Republican nomination in 2012, is a Cubist masterpiece of conflicting contradictions. Although his political sympathies are apparent, Levy attempts a balanced evaluation of the pastor-turned-politician, although he can’t help catch Huckabee in some of his more obvious hypocrisies. Without plagiarizing the whole article, and replacing my photo with a doctored one of Eustace Tilley with silver brow-line glasses and hipster bangs, I’m going to highlight some of Huckabee’s more problematic quotations.

Huckabee believes that the rules of the Bible should be followed as one would follow a recipe (he uses the analogy of his toddler son baking a cake with salt instead of sugar) and if we come up with our own ideas about what’s right and wrong the world will turn into an unappetizing, salty mess.

“Consider homosexuality,” he says. “Until recently, who would have dared t suggest that the practice should be accepted on equal footing with heterosexuality, to be thought of as a personal decision and nothing more?” His use of the word “decision”, along with the troupe “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”, makes him appear like he’s battling gay rights in 1995.

As governor, Huckabee successfully passed laws preventing gays and lesbians from becoming foster parents or adopting. He told a student journalist last April, “Children are not puppies—this is not a time to see if we can experiment and find out how does this work.” He then went on compare gay adoption to legalizing drugs or incest.

When Levy presses him to justify his position without mentioning the Bible or the “ick-factor” (Huckabee’s lovely term), he refers to studies that show that children with a mother and father are more well-adjusted than those without, the oft-misused conventional ‘wisdom’ about single-parent households that willingly ignores economics and education-levels.

“No culture in the history of mankind has ever tried to redefine marriage.” Where to begin with this whopper? Perhaps Huckabee has not been reading his Bible as closely as he pretends, for, as Levy points out, in the Old Testament polygamy was commonplace and the early Christians believed marriage was only for those without the pious self-disciple of Jesus. Marriage has even been redefined in America’s not-too-distant past: before 1967, it was defined in much of the country as a bond between a man and a woman of the same race, a definition that would annul the marriage of the current president’s parents.

I don’t know if I care for Huckabees’s opinions on even his own marriage. He’s been with his wife Janet for 36 years, having tied the knot as teenagers. “I think we both went into it understanding it was for life. I’ve always said, I f you believe divorce is an option, you’ll take it.” Poor Janet. She seems like a cool, down to earth lady (who skydives!) but her husband admits that if divorce was part of his worldview, that if he didn’t think it was fundamentally wrong, he’d leave her. Although, that makes me more proud of my parents’ marriage, as they haven’t needed God’s threatening vengeance to keep them together.

Despite believing that homosexuality is “sinful and unnatural”, he doesn’t like being thought of as a homophobe. “I’ve had people who worked for me who are homosexuals, and I don’t walk around thinking, Oh, I pity them so much. I accept them as who they are! It’s not like somehow their sin is so much worse than mine.”

This use of the traditional ‘we’re all sinners’ Christian refrain is interesting as it positions him as humble and non-judgemental while simultaneously casting others as ‘sinners’. And he is not actively working to restrict his unnamed sins, only those of homosexuals, in this case, the sin of existing as who they are.

Like many Evangelicals, Huckabee is a strong supporter of Israel, a support which binds conservative Christians and neo-conservatives (including Jewish ones) in the Republican party. The latter don’t like to look too much at this tenuous bond, though, as some Evangelicals mainly support the Zionist state because Jewish control over the Holy Land is supposed to bring on the apocalypse. Then, watch out!

Huckabee doesn’t want to dwell on the gory details with The New Yorker or Ariel Levy, and tries to paint himself as a moderate, almost a relativist. “If somebody asked me, How do I get to Heaven, I would tell them that the only way I personally am aware of is faith in Christ, because I believe the New Testament. That’s the only map I got. Somebody says, Well, I got a different map. O.K.! You know what? If it works, I’m not going to argue with you.”

“If it works”? What the heck does that mean?

The most charitable way to interpret this is that Huckabee is accepting that no one belief system is inherently better than any other, and that they may even potentially “work” and get you into Heaven. The less charitable interpretation is that, while your spirituality may help you get through life’s difficulties now, when the End of Days comes along all bets are off. It is the ultimate politician statement: nice sounding, but decidedly ambiguous.

I don’t know if I’ve ever met someone who could talk with me, get to know me, and all the while sincerely believe that I’ll end up in Hell. I read the article because I want to understand how a politician could be pragmatic in some ways, idealistic in others (Huckabee thinks being ‘pro-life’ means you shouldn’t stop caring for babies after they’re born, and supported elements of healthcare reform), and then claim that “Everything you do and believe in is directed by your answer to the ultimate question: Is there a God?”

The problems of this new century are going to require that we attempt to understand each other and work together, but I don’t know how we’ll do it.

One of the most incredible quotes from the piece is not from Huckabee but from his former chief of staff, Brenda Turner, and is unremarked upon by Levy (so I’m going to remark upon it here).

Huckabee has been disliked and dismissed by the Republican establishment and is considered (his words) “a complete, uneducated, unprepared hick”.

“This man didn’t come from a law background,” Turner says. “He was a pastor, and that was somehow mysterious. My personal feeling is what we don’t understand we fear. And what we fear we seek to destroy.”

My personal feeling as well.

Sunday Reflections: Fashionable Me

As everyone who works at WORN knows, “I’m in fashion” rolls off the tongue much too easily. It starts out as a joke. When explaining why it took you so long to get ready, it’s fun to say “I was putting together an outfit. I am in fashion, after all!” It works well with a flamboyant Vreelandesque hand gesture. But it’s pretty easy to start taking it seriously.

“Max, did you need a second white Nehru-collared shirt?”

“Yes. I’m in fashion.”

“Oh God,” friends and family mumble.

I can’t remember exactly when I began dressing for fun. My personality made  me stick out enough in elementary school, and God knows I wasn’t going to let my clothes make things worse. Then part way through high school, I don’t know if it was getting into high fashion (via Vogue and FT Fashion Television) or no longer caring what bullies thought, but I started to experiment. I remember distinctly seeing a man on the bus in a tweed suit jacket  and thinking I would have to find one at the Goodwill (this being before they staged their huge comeback and were available all over the mall). The summer of 2002, after reading an article about him in the newspaper, I bought a traditional grey fedora from the old man at Rotman’s hat shop on Spadina. I also, for some reason, safety-pinned fun quotes on little pieces of paper onto my clothes: a sort of punk/wit aesthetic.

Then I went to university and a clotheshorse was born. The combination of a residence at which I was accepted, university-town second-hand shops (they’re the best), and the opportunity to change outfits three times a day convinced me I was the gay boy version of Carrie Bradshaw. I schlepped gi-normous bags of arcane t-shirts, argyle sweater vests and army jackets home on the Guelph city bus, sometimes, if memory serves correctly, through blizzards. There were triumphs and there were misfires (I know I want to use my Japanese biker shirt as an example, but I can’t decide of which one!) but I always experimented and have fun. I didn’t feel much socialist New Democratic guilt, as the clothing was all cheap and second-hand, and many would be ultimately returned to the Goodwill in garbage bags during my yearly purge.

Then, I don’t know if vintage (or vintage-inspired) clothing became too popular, or my break-up made me grow up a bit, but I stopped feeling my previous manner of dressing. And nothing replaced it for awhile. I wanted to buy new clothes, but they were too expensive and they seemed to look dated much quicker, like the long-sleeved t-shirts in red and blue I bought from American Apparel. I had lost my inner fashion voice, the siren who guides you as your fingers dance on the wire hangers: ‘Not that, not that, this one! Ahhh!’

And it only got worse during my Masters, when I got bogged down and depressed and gained weight and didn’t enjoy dressing at all.

“I used to be passionate about things?” I moaned. “What happened?”

When I took off to Ireland, I adopted the Euro neo-rave scenster look that many people have over there. It’s hard to explain, but they don’t dress as frumpily, ironically bad as we do in North America, particularly Toronto. While I loaded off a garbage bag of cast-offs to a Dublin charity shop before I came home, I cherish my Irish rain jacket and my Berlin t-shirts. I fully intended to keep a bit of my Euro style going in Toronto.

And then I got an internship at a fashion magazine.

One of the amazing things about WORN is that, while everyone involved makes an effort, there is no ‘WORN look’. This is in keeping with a fashion journal that doesn’t cover trends or inform readers of what’s ‘in’ and ‘out’. But being around people who put in effort encourages one to do the same. I decided polo shirts would be my thing: stylish, but casual; comfortable in the boiler-room hot WORN office; boyishly cute (as the only male, have to represent); and they come in all the colours of the rainbow. Just as I used to, I find I’m planning outfits a week ahead, especially for special events or if I think a camera will be present. We’re planning a group photo of the staff this summer, and I’m embarrassingly excited about it.

I am once again having fun with fashion, experimenting and creating an identity through picking out clothes.  It feels like a home-coming. I hear the siren’s call, and it’s fabulous.

A Rainy Day in Toronto

Well, they’ve done it: they succeeded in hijacking the G20 meeting for their purposes, mysterious as they may be. And I’m not talking about protestors hijacking it away from politicians. I’m referring to the black-clad anarchists stealing the all attention from the peaceful protestors.

It was a surreal day at work. It was a busy afternoon, rainy, so lots of people coming in and sitting around. Other than the occasional flock of police cars racing by the windows, there was nothing to suggest that it wasn’t a usual Saturday afternoon. But eventually someone turned on the Toronto Star live updates blog of the protests downtown, and we took turns reading and refreshing the screen (while helping customers in a timely and courteous manner). It was like reading updates from another city entirely; cars on fire; shattered windows; tear gas that may or may not have worked; police goaded on by protestors who may or may not have been undercover cops. The mom of one of my coworkers was downtown and she was not able to reach her cell phone. “They’ve probably blocked reception,” someone suggested.

One of the updates had a quote from a protestor claiming that only big businesses which used sweatshop labour would be targeted. We all had a bit of a chuckle over American Apparel being vandalized (does anyone have good feelings about that store?), but smashed windows of Starbucks (where I used to work) and Swiss Chalet (where my family used to go for special occasions) hit a little close to home. Where’s the Swiss Chalet sweatshop?

I don’t think it’s as bad as it could be, and I don’t think anything terrible will happen. It’s just depressing because a lot of thoughtful, non-violent people like Sandy participated and will be ignored on the six o’clock news for the sensational footage of destruction. If anti-G20 protests are to continue (that is, if G20 meetings are to continue) there needs to be a reckoning between those with legitimate grievances, relevant issues and peaceful intentions, and those flown-in professional protestors, brave enough to smash windows but not enough to show their face.

Other People: Sandra Goldenberg

When Sandy and I worked together we discussed many things which were “problematic”. Then she left to stand on the street for Greenpeace. (Be nice to those people!) Now she’s doing yoga, running around, a gal about town. Because of her encouragement to get back out there (“You have to!”) I met the Gentleman. Even without that, she’d have a place in my heart for her intelligence, wit and genuine compassion.

MM: Are you still doing chat roulette? What was the craziest thing that happened?

SG: Haha. For the record, my stint on CR was short-lived and fuelled by curiosity (and maybe a giant boner. I kid!) I haven’t visited for a while now, but that’s not to say I wouldn’t in the future. I love meeting new people! See, you’d expect me to tell you that the craziest thing that happened was seeing cock and endless balls (to quote Ginsberg), but something even CRAZIER happened.

My second time on the site, after several creepy, creepy dudes popped up, was a slightly less creepy one that I had an extensive conversation with. It turned out that we loved talking to each other and we’ve carried on video chatting via gchat until now. I think I won him over when I mentioned the movie Houseguest in one of our early convos, and I kid you not, he reached off-screen and it was the movie at the top of his DVD pile. And that was mid-March. It’s not romantic or anything and he lives in Wisconsin, but it’s just a reminder that you never know where you’re going to make a connection. Also, he taught me all about March Madness, ukuleles, and his cat, Sinbad. Moral: Don’t judge Chat Roulette…except maybe a little bit.

MM: What was it like working for Greenpeace?

SG: Amazing! Hands down, favourite job yet. (Well, minus the time I worked with you, Max. That was nice too). For the first time in my life, I was able to apply my passion and my schooling (I’m completing my degree in Equity Studies in December) to a job, for which I was being paid. I was canvassing on the street (a girl with a binder, I know), which led to all sorts of learning regarding Greenpeace itself, environmental degradation and human interaction – good and bad.

From what I saw, Greenpeace is an effective and inspiring organization. I was proud to be on the frontlines for something that I believe in. To revert back to my job as a canvasser, I’m going to go ahead and say that everybody should sign up and donate. See, the world is going to keep kicking whether we stick around or not, and selfishly, I not only want to have kids, but I hope they get to swim in lakes and see ancient trees, and don’t have to feel scared about the condition of the environment. I find it hard to believe that I’m alone in this. It’s something to think about anyway.

I would get a lot of flack from passers-by, claiming that I was naïve for thinking an organization could make change. Hold on to hope, because it inspires it in others, and together, change is absolutely possible.

MM: Ideally, what would you like to be doing?

SG: Who are you, my Mom? Haha, kidding. I love both you and my mother. Honestly, the answer to this question changes a lot, but there are themes that are emerging. I care desperately about my freedom to live as I want and my ability to express myself in a creative way. I care about learning and teaching, writing, yogaing, and my relationships with others. I function under the assumption that I won’t have a TON of money in my future, but I’m okay with that.

I learned early on, with The Sims, that knowing the cheats and having tons of money is a shortcut to unhappiness. To be more specific, I picture: yoga teacher, academic, mother, working in some capacity for Greenpeace or some other sweet-ass organization or maybe even a totally unqualified therapist. It’s not that I have the answers, but I love hearing about others’ confusion – I have endless sympathy for people who just aren’t sure about the answers to life’s bigger questions.  

MM: What do you like about yoga?

SG: It’s just the best metaphor for life, ever. It’s full of struggle, it requires risk, strength and courage, it throws you in compromising positions to which you find, there’s always an escape. Even in seemingly impossible postures, even when your muscles are shaking and the sweat gets in your eyes, you can find this secret bit of strength that you didn’t know you possessed, which allows you to sustain and eventually surrender to the pose. It’s incredible because you can feel this transformation from struggle to radiance and grace. Honestly, I feel like I struggle a lot but I’m aware that I get stronger, and that the things I perceive as failures are (I hope), successes in progress. 

For a long time now, I’ve wanted to teach yoga but I had a set back this year. There’s a voice in my head that tells me I’m afraid to do hand stands and arm balances, so my progress began to plateau because I was so afraid. I stopped going to yoga for a while, convincing myself that it just wasn’t what I wanted anymore. But a couple weeks back, I woke myself up. I was like, “Sandy! What are you doing?!” Ha. I laughed at myself and now I’m going again. I’ll let you know when I start getting up in hand stands.

MM: Describe your bedroom.

SG: It came furnished and the stuff is remarkably nice, considering.  The walls are white with a plastered ceiling. I like to look up at it because it’s all swirly. I have a white comforter and a crazy old-school hud-bay blanket for additional warmth. (Completely unnecessary in this heat). The window is by my bed and always open. The artwork is all my own and I only put up pieces that inspire me. Books, lotions, dirty mugs. Yup. Oh, one time my roommate walked in and my room was a MESS; a giant pile of random things lying on my floor. As she turned away she said, “You know it’s a real mess when there’s a hula hoop in the mix.”

MM: What book should everyone go out and start reading?

SG: Ugh, I hate talking about books because you know like 75% of people are going to be like, “Ooooohmygod, On The Road or Catcher,” and I’m one of those people! And then someone is inevitably going to rag on you for your cliché choices. So, I’m going to choose other amazing books because LOTS of books are incredible. Angela Carter wrote Wise Children, after she found out she was dying of cancer. It’s not only a hilarious, rich and well-written novel, but one of the most inspiring books I’ve ever read. The tone corresponds to the refrain of the novel, “What a joy it is to dance and sing!”

I was also raised by a mother who was into self-help in a big way. If you want to find freedom and joy, read Louise Hay’s You Can Heal Your Life.

And when you’re done feeling really good about life, read whatever poetry you can get your hands on and question everything you learned from Carter and Hay. But then read the former two again so you can feel good.

MM: Describe what G20 protests you’re involved in, and what your opinions are about it.

SG: I was present at the Toxic Tour on Wednesday, a march through the streets which sought to bring attention to Canada’s extractive industries, the Tar Sands, key financiers of these industries and to bring together people who believe in climate justice. I’ll also be at the People First! march on Saturday which will be huge and amazing, not to mention family friendly. (Bring your friends!) At this point, I’ve read a lot of theory about activism, but haven’t put a lot of it into practice. The summit has provided an interesting introduction to this kind of work.

As for my opinions, they’re conflicted. They’re conflicted because I don’t know the right way to make positive change. I’m not sure how best to shape this reality into the one I wish it is. I’m not altogether sure that I think it’s fair to shape things to my hopes and dreams, as opposed to yours or that guy’s or whomever. I don’t know how the protesters will be met, if the risk of violence is worth it, if people will be respected. I believe (and I know there are people who would argue this) that both protesters and police deserve respect. My understandings of non-violence are probably stricter than many people marching.

I find it difficult to reconcile also the messages I receive on my yoga mat with the chanting and shouting at a rally and yet, both make sense to me. I attempt to keep things in tension, keep things complex in my mind. Ultimately, the reason I’ve decided to be there is because I heard someone say that you’re either an activist or an inactivist. I’d prefer to the be the former and not sit by idly.

MM: Where would you like to travel next?

SG: To the woods, out of sight.

MM: What are the five best (or worst, or mixture of the two) academic books/thesis you’ve come across.

SG: Sigh. Max. Perhaps you overestimate me as a student. I wish I remembered all of the amazing articles I’ve read over the past 6 years. But…

John Gray’s work on Modus Vivendi, gave me nerd-chills like nothing else to date. He’s a political theorist dealing with value-pluralism, which is relevant to a place like Canada. In a nutshell, his theory allows for groups with conflicting cultures/morals to form smaller groups/nations run by their own worldviews, while all nations agree on a VERY minimal compact or agreement. I’m not promoting it necessarily, just saying it’s awesome.

Luce Irigaray’s This Sex Which Is Not One was a hit. She talks about vaginas. It’s pretty cool.

The entire book, PoMoSexual. It’s two of my fave things to talk about: post-modernism and sexuality.

Christopher Southgate et al.  God, Humanity and the Cosmos. It’ll tell you what you need to know about the history of the science/religion interface. Amazing.

I’ve only got four. My head is really to explode from thinking hard. Nap time. And I’m not joking.

BABIES

This is not the review I thought I’d write. I’d planned on discussing the cuteness of the BABIES and Vanity Fair’s assertion that this is the Era of Cute (with the Obama administration being the “first cute presidency”) and a friend of mine who relaxes by watching youtube clips of baby animals (I do something similar with late night viewings of America’s Funniest Home Videos). But then I watched the movie, and, while undoubtedly cute, I ended up seeing the BABIES in an unexpected way: I ended up seeing them as humans.

BABIES, a documentary by French director Thomas Balmès and playing at the Cumberland, presents the first year of four infants from starkly different parts of the world: Namibia, Mongolia, Japan and the United States. Balmès bravely chose not to have narration and the film has been criticized for not placing the children into cultural contexts. But by not allowing a disembodied grown-up voice to tell us what we’re seeing, the viewer, with nothing to focus on except the infants’ expressive faces, gradually comes to see the world from the BABIES’ points of view. When the little boy from Mongolia’s mother scolds him for spilling a bucket of water inside the yurt, his face fills with utter incomprehension and you understand that he has no idea why he’s in trouble. In one of the best sequences, the little Japanese girl tries repeatedly to push a toy stick through a wooden loop, each failure met with a dramatic cry, the toys flung behind her and rolling around on the floor in exaggerated desperation. Then she gets up and tries again, only to repeat her operatic reactions. A valuable life lesson. Of course, BABIES are often unexplainable, and what causes the self-satisfied smiles of Ponijao, the Namibian baby, will forever remain a mystery.

Now that I’ve brought him up, Ponijao is awesome. He’s not just cute (look at him!), but intelligent, inquisitive, joyful, funny and a bit of a trouble-maker. Whereas the American and Japanese BABIES are coddled indoors, Ponijao craws all around the camp site (and, spoiler alert, eventually walks, with authoritive arm-swinging), putting things in his mouth, bugging the dog, drinking the creek water and improvising some baby-yoga. While he appears to be given free reign, he is under the constant eyes of the tribe’s women. Still, it reminded me of Dervla’s observation that African babies, opposed to Western babies who are kept sheltered and stupid, “know what’s going on.”

BABIES serves a greater purpose than to make audiences giggle at adorable shenanigans. It reminds you how early we develop personalities and how, while starting off similarly, our cultures quickly lead us in disparate directions. And, despite being cute, BABIES are people too.

Not about the World Cup

Although I may start rooting for the French team just for kicks: I love how their melodramatic theatrics have turned them into the ultimate stereotypes.

And speaking of stereotypes,

I love musicals. I grew up on Singing’ in the Rain and That’s Entertainment! (parts I, II and III). In first year I read the Judy Garland biography Get Happy and connected her ‘singing through the tears’ emotionalism with my romantic disappointments. I always have ‘The Man that Got Away’ playing somewhere in my brain on a continuous loop. During my Masters, I discovered academics who shared my obsession: finding Incongruous Entertainment: Camp, Cultural Value and the MGM Musical by Steven Cohen in Robarts library sent me into giggly fits of delight.

But, somehow, I had missed Gypsy. The 1962 movie, based on the 1959 Broadway show, was a huge hit when it came out and thought of as the definitive backstage musical, and arguably one of the best. It recounts the rise to fame of real-life actress and burlesque stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, pushed into showbiz by her mother, Mama Rose, the ultimate stage mom.

Mama Rose initially put all of her attention on her Shirley Temple-ish younger daughter Baby June with Gypsy playing back-up (I had no idea how much of how much the opening section of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? was indebted to Gypsy). But when Vaudeville goes caput and Baby June runs off with a dancer, Mama Rose decides, rather than throw in the towel and live a “normal” life, to turn her shy, elder daughter into a star. It is at this point, stranded at a foggy country railway station, and delivered to her frightened daughter, that Mama Rose sings the famous ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’, a song which I never knew had ironic undertones.

Rosalind Russell, fresh from camp-orgy Auntie Mame, was cast as Mama Rose despite not being a singer. The film editors did an incredible job of mixing Russell’s voice and that of contralto Lisa Kirk. I was surprised to learn that Natalie Wood, who had been dubbed in West Side Story by workhorse Marni Nixon, used her own voice as Gypsy. The part of Mama Rose had been originated by Ethel Merman on Broadway but the belter, in the grand tradition of Mary Martin and Carol Channing, had been denied the film role which she had made famous on stage. Although it’s a shame, I think that Merman’s performance would have been too broad for the film, always aiming for the backrow even with microphones, and Russell managed to bring out the character’s grating determination as well as her pathetic desperation (Mama Rose has been called musical theatre’s King Lear).

My dream casting would be Judy and daughter Liza Minnelli, whose ages were been perfect in 1962. It would have been the ultimate art-imitating-life, as Liza knew what it was like being raised in a performing family, and Judy, who started on the Vaudeville stage with her sisters as a toddler, had an intricate understanding of that world and its pressures. Indeed, Mama Rose might have been potentially too similar to Judy’s determined mother Ethel Gumm and playing her may have brought up childhood demons best left undisturbed.

After her mother’s futile attempts to turn her into incarnation Baby June, Gypsy’s career spirals downward until ending up at the Wichita Opera House, which turns out to be a theatre of the burlesque. At first, Mama Rose puts her foot down and refuses to let her daughter perform, but the lure of money and a little fame eventually smothers any ethical concerns. In real life, Gypsy Rose Lee never set out to be a strip-tease performer, but the cheers that accompanied an accidental slip of a shoulder strap inspired her. Although three-quarters of the movie had recounted (often painfully slow) their false starts, once Natalie Wood starts stripping her rise to fame is summarized in the tradition three-shows-each-in-increasingly-glamorous-theatres montage. Wood’s performance is stylish and sexy (and her gowns, tailored to come off in sections, are amazing) and you wonder why, given the return of burlesque via Dita von Teese, Gypsy hasn’t been rediscovered by a new generation.     

Now that she’s famous with all the perks (personal dressing room with gold star on door, ridiculous pink feathered dressing gown, sessions with French photographers in bathtub) Gypsy has little time for her meddling mother, and brushes off the woman who dedicated her life to her daughters’ careers. (Ethel Gumm, after her estrangement from Judy, worked at an airport and died in its parking lot).

“Why did I do it?” Mama Rose asks Gypsy, distracted with posing for pictures in a corseted bathrobe.

“I thought you did it for me,” Gypsy replies.

The movie ends with the incredible ‘Rose’s Turn’, a stream-of-consciousness song in which Mama Rose grills herself over her motivation for pushing her daughters into showbiz:

Why did I do it?
What did it get me?
Scrapbooks full of me in the background.
Give ’em love and what does it get ya?

Mama Rose realizes that it was her dreams of fame and fortune that propelled her, leading to the famous ‘Mama’s Taking Loud, Mama’s Doin’ Fine!’ chant, familiar to Arrested Development fans from Lucille and Buster Bluth’s record-playing. (Lucille’s line, “How do you like those eggrolls, Mr. Goldstone?” is also from the musical and one wonders about the Bluth family-Gypsy connection). I was familiar with this song from the Bernadette Peter’s tragic rendition from a Broadway revival and Kurt’s version on an episode of Glee. I can picture myself belting it in front of my bedroom mirror for years to come. But again, I wish Judy had sang it. There were only a few songs which fully utilized her vocal and acting talents simultaneously, and who knows, by placing herself inside the world’s most famous stage mom, she may have finally forgiven hers.

Tale of Two Reading Groups

One of my reading groups has just ended, and the other one revived.

After over two months, our book club finally met again Sunday night. I came directly from an eight-hour shift, unshowered and tie-askew. I prepared myself for the worst as I feared that everyone hated The Satanic Verses and would, correspondingly, hate me. It was just Nina (our sole girl) and I for the first forty minutes, so we gossiped and I made her jealous of my WORN internship and we finished off a pitcher of sangria. Then the boys arrived and we ordered another one.

Patrick, our soft-spoken engineer (and, as it turns out, an industrial artist) was the first to bring up Mr. Rushdie. “Max, it took me two months, and I read the final sixty pages today, but I finished the book… and I didn’t hate it.”

That made it all worth it.

Nina gave us special not-for-sale copies of our next book from her publishing house and I buzzed my way home in order to have a cold shower and rewrite my final column for my Ryerson class, before collapsing in bed around midnight.

This is my life right now.

Last night was our final column-writing class. I stressed out all weekend over my last submission. I wanted it to be good because of what had happened last time. The previous week, when we were supposed to hand in our “perfect” column (one which reflected everything we had learned in the class), I had proudly submitted my ‘Up to You’ story, which I thought was one of the strongest, most emotional things I had written.

And the class destroyed the first two paragraphs; “run-on sentences”; “hiding behind jokes”; “too detailed”; “too long”; “confusing”; “keeps the reader at a distance”. It felt like Lord of the Flies.  The hardest thing to hear was the question “Who did you write this for? Was it for yourself?”

Even in the middle of the massacre, I knew they were right.

“Well, that was the hardest class so far,” I said to my friend Ricki as we wandered out.

“Truthfully, I really liked it and I didn’t notice what everyone was talking about when I first read it,” she said. “But now I see it.”

You don’t take workshops to get praise. You take them to get better.

So, after meeting up with the Gentleman at a Chinese restaurant and allowing myself to be distracted by his rationalization of why he won’t be cancelling his speech at Pride over the anti-Israel scandal (a decision I was proud of), I sat at my laptop in his apartment rewriting the entire beginning of the story. And I made it better. I considered sending it back out to my class, but then I thought that would look crazy and obsessive (“DO YOU LOVE ME NOW?”), and besides, I didn’t do it for them. I did it for myself and for you guys, the readers.

Last night we went around evaluating our ‘voices’. I said that I write the way I talk, which is a strength but also a weakness. For instance, I have to avoid run-on sentences, making assumptions about what the reader knows or cares about, and throwing in extraneous details which would be charming in person but tiresome in writing.

I had sent an email thanking the class for helping me become a stronger writer, and suggesting that we could continue to meet up on our own for occasional workshops, if people wanted. I haven’t got any response yet. But as I was walking to the subway with Ricki, I described the crazy busyness of the last couple of days.  

“You have a book club?” she asked. “Can I join?”

His and Her Sinks

So we’re watching It’s Complicated the other night, and I got thinking about Meryl Streep’s career. It’s funny that when she first became famous it was for Dramatic Roles in Serious Movies about divorce and the Holocaust. Members of my generation think of her as the singing matron of a Greek resort, or a masochistic fashion mag editor, or, her greatest role, the little girl Jessica Lovejoy on The Simpsons. She once complained that there were no parts for older actresses, but that was before her career renaissance: now there are no parts for older actresses because Meryl gets all of them.

I love Meryl, of course, but I do worry about her tendency to make all her characters sympathetic. We ended up rooting for Miranda Priestly, the uber-bitch, and she made her Sister Aloysius in Doubt, a character written as the strict nun to out-glare all the others, fidgety and funny. A real actor shouldn’t be afraid of being unlikeable to the audience, especially one who gets nominated for Oscars just for showing up.

Many (male) reviewers mocked It’s Complicated as escapist fare for women because of Meryl’s perfect catalogue house, perfect catalogue job and perfect catalogue kids. And, of course, that pissed me off, because action movies never get called escapist fare for men. They are just action movies and their unrealistic plots, slick cars, buxom blonde scientist sidekicks and screens filled with billowing orange fire are simply taken for granted as part of the genre. But a romantic comedy with charming interiors and shots of tantalizing food, ridiculous!

Anyways, when Meryl is explaining her home renovations to architect and future-love-interest Steve Martin she explains that she doesn’t need the ‘his and her’ sinks because she’s currently single with two sinks and the second one makes her sad.

“What’s this now?” I exclaimed. “I get that that means having two sinks side by side, but is that common?”

“Yup, it’s a standard feature in bathrooms now,” Dervla informed me. “Everyone thinks they need the two sinks.”

That is some fucked up shit.

First of all, labelling two sinks side by side ‘his and hers’ reeks of heterosexism, and you know that there’ll be plenty of gay couples who want them, with mirrors encircled with dressing room lights. And second of all, why do you need two sinks! I get that sinks can feel crowded when there’s two people using them, but are you really brushing your teeth with your partner every night? It’s not really a group activity. And shaving or examining your pimples in the morning? Isn’t there some things you still don’t want your partner seeing? What about romance?

And speaking of romance, isn’t it kind of fun being crowded over the sink together, working out a little dance to avoid stepping on toes or spitting mouthwash unto the back of your lover’s head? I haven’t been married, so it’s possible that that’s only sexy and fun when you’re first together, and two separate sinks so that you can simultaneously wash your hands prevents a lot of married people fights.

It will be fun to explain to our grandchildren, when asked about what life was like before the Third World War, and the melted icecaps turned coastal cities into aquariums, that at one point in the Before Time married couples thought they needed two bathroom sinks. (“And that’s when we still had water in its liquid form, not the canned gas you use every day!”)

And what about Meryl’s concern, that a second sink would depress a single person? Half of the couples buying these prefab houses with ‘his and her’ sinks will divorce. I know that I would be sad every time I looked at that unused sink and pictured my ex standing over it. Or, if I was angry, I would use it for soaking my socks.

You gotta hand it to Meryl: she thinks of everything.