Max's Blog

How Pop Culture Leads and Misleads

Month: August, 2010

‘Good’ Hair

White women complain about their hair. Ones with straight hair curl it. Ones with curly hair straighten it. They dye it, obsess about the length, and buy conditioners allegedly chock-full of the essence of the rainforest. But there is no comparison with black women.

I knew that black women’s hair was a big deal, but I had no idea how big until watching Good Hair, the 2009 documentary narrated by Chris Rock, who claims he was inspired to make the film by his toddler daughter’s innocent question, “Why don’t I have good hair?” Very quickly, we learn that ‘good’, in terms of black hair, means straight, smooth and shiny. ‘Good’ hair essentially means white hair. And black women will do anything for it, from burning their scalps with chemical relaxers to sitting for hours as real-hair is sown into their heads. And money seems to be no object: a good weave costs upwards of a thousand dollars, and the black hair industry is worth an estimated 9 billion dollars.

The film doesn’t waste any time getting to the politics of all this styling. As an interview subject explains that all every single famous black women straightens her hair or wears a weave, a montage of silky-tressed Beyonce, Oprah, Condeleeza Rice and Michelle Obama proves this to be the case. A group of teenage girls reach the conclusion that they would not feel comfortable going to a job interview with a curly, “nappy” ‘fro. And a clip of Charlie’s Angels-era Farrah Fawcett, flipping her famous feathered bangs, is immediately followed by a black interviewee with very similar blonde-dyed waves. I was shocked by footage of a six-year old getting her hair chemically straightened (shouldn’t that not be allowed?), and the trouble that weaves cause even after they’re in: you can’t wash them yourself, you have to go back to the salon to have them tightened every month or so, and many women don’t ley them be touched, even during the act of love-making. Like breasts implants, which I’ve heard lose erotic sensitivity for the women they’re attached to, getting weaves in your hair seems like admitting that a part of your body is no longer for you. As the Rev. Al Sharpton says, in a very Al Sharpton-y way, “How can we overcome our oppression when we’re wearing it on our heads every day?”

While Rock presents the largest black-owned hair styling company, he spends a lot of time on the argument that the black beauty industry largely benefits white and Asian-owened companies and stores. The documentary becomes borderline racist when Rock targets Chinese and Korean storeowners who sell long, straight weaves for black women, and tries to get them to buy a bag full of black hair (obviously, Afro wigs). Rock gets somewhat offended when the store owners say nobody wants hair like that, but as Sharpton had previously explained, if it’s black women who are doing the buying, and the overall culture which is influencing, you can’t really blame the sellers individually.

While many of the interviewed ladies talk on and on about the process of getting their weaves put in, they draw blanks when Rock asks them where they are from.

“It’s human hair,” a couple of them say.

“Yes, but who was this human? Where are they from?”

Truth be told, I had never considered where all this real hair was coming from, and the answer startled me: India! Young women in India will grow their thick hair as long as they can, cut it off for free in religious ceremonies, after which the temples sell the tresses to North America at a huge profit. There’s so much money in the Indian hair trade that there’s even an illegal black market: women have to watch out for men who will cut their hair off while sleeping or at a dark movie theatre! Thinking about black women importing weaves from India in order to have hair which is more white makes one’s head spin.

There’s two paradoxes in Good Hair. The first Rock points out when he mentions that, despite benefiting large white-controlled beauty companies and Asian-owned business, the beauty industry employs untold numbers of black hair dressers and barbers in every single in North America, who would see their livelihood disappear if more women embraced the natural look the movie appears to promote. Somewhat related, the look of ‘good’ hair is often not simply white hair on a black person: the film displays all the fantastical colours, patterns, shapes and heights that black hairstylists artistically create. While chemical straightening and weaving may have started with trying to look like Farrah Fawcett, by this point it can be seen as a launching pad for whole new, and black-specific, looks.

The irony is if I was a black woman I think I would like an Afro. Not a big one, a cute, compact one, like Macy Gray (who the film could have interviewed, as I read previously that she was advised to straighten her hair if she wanted to sell more records).

But I am Caucasian. I do not know what it’s like to grow up bombarded with imagery which equates beauty with whiteness.

African-Americans have created so much which has influenced and shifted North American culture, through music, language, comedy and fashion. The rhythms of the black church can be heard in the President’s speeches. Black men have influenced white men, through the athletic jerseys, hoodies and close-cropped hair which seem essential for white rappers (think about that term; white has to be added to rappers as black is the assumed). It’s a shame that there’s not more discursive space and appreciation for the beauty natural black hair.

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The Unstrung Illustrator; or, Mr. Gorey Writes a Novel

Before vampires became the default emotional porno for teen girls, Emily the Strange rubbed shoulders with Hello Kitty at the mall, and the fantastic cartoon of Beetlejuice introduced kids to the dark side each Saturday morning, Goth subculture must have started somewhere. It’s so established as a scene, so codified as a look, that it’s hard to imagine its beginnings. Who was the first cool girl (or guy) who combed vintage stores for clothes that could look Victorian, who gave themselves kohl-eyes and pale skin when everyone else was tanned and blushed, who found a wholly new way of freaking out old people? How did it start?

The origins can be traced back at least to 1950’s and 1960’s America when, as one interview subject in a documentary about Jim Henson (who had a dark side himself) put it, a “sick humour” came into fashion. That’s when the cartoons of Charles Addams depicting an unnamed family (the mother looked like a glamorous witch, the father Peter Lorre) who lived in a derelict mansion and mildly threatened their neighbours, were popular enough to inspire a TV show. For all their eccentricities, the Addams Family was really about making fun of average people, a funhouse mirror for mid-century suburbia. “It’s the kind of day that makes you feel good to be alive,” Gomez says, looking out on a torrential rain storm, making one consider why sunshine should inspire this sentiment rather than a hurricane. And Morticia on the telephone channels June Cleaver: “Oh, we can’t do anything on Friday. It’s the 13th, you know!” The classic 1990’s movies continued this aspect, as the viewer relates to the eccentric Addamses and laughs at conservative, blonde, Republican families.  

In 1953, Finnish actress Maila Nurmi, who was a hatcheck girl on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip, drew inspiration from Morticia  Addams’ slinky gown for a costume she wore to a masquerade ball. Spotted by a TV producer, he hired her to host a late night horror movie show, and thus she became Vampira. Maybe her Gothy persona allowed her to be more overtly sexy than was normally allowed on TV. Her acting is enshrined for us in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space, often considered the worst movie ever filmed.

Also in 1953, the first book by an artist who would inspire Goths, while always staying separate from them, was published in a limited run by Duell, Sloan and Pearce. Edward Gorey, who had majored in French at Harvard, had no formal art training, but for the rest of the 20th century, averaging one book a year, he would create one of the most atmospheric and beguiling (as one critic put it, wholly improbable but utterly convincing) worlds ever put on the page.

The Unstrung Harp; or Mr. Earbrass Writes a Novel is both a fitting introduction to Gorey’s world and an unusual one. What little plot there is concerns Clavius Frederick Earbrass, who is “of course, the well-known novelist” writing a book also titled The Unstrung Harp. Mr. Earbrass, like all the men in TUH (uncharacteristically for Gorey, no women appear, neither vamps nor veiled mourners) has an elongated head somewhat resembling a foot. Other than a flurry of illustrations featuring similar-headed personages from the early 1950’s, published recently as postcards, Gorey would never draw people like that again.

Foot-headed men aside, the remarkable thing about the illustrations for TUH is how early Gorey had mastered his cross-hatched pen and ink style. He already had the tendency of including the smallest of details (a mislaid tea-cup, an air balloon in the distance), but still leaving the viewer feeling there is more to discover. While Gorey’s drawing style would change (he increasingly used a bold, blotty ink style which, by the end of the 1990’s, suggested unschooled ‘naive’ folk art), it’s incredible is how little Gorey’s fabricated universe changed in the years after TUH.

Here it is, already fully-formed in 1953, the mysterious, eerie and vaguely melancholy (but drily funny) Edwardian world of country houses, dinner parties, abandoned croquet games, imposing urns, cobble-stoned streets, book-lined studies, early evening drives past ruined fireworks factories, and, despite being given details such as Mr. Earbrass’ athletic sweater always being worn “hind-side-to”, the inescapable feeling that something is being left unsaid.

The aspect that most obviously separates TUH from the books which came later (which had little more than one sentence per drawing, and often had no words at all), is the sheer amount of writing. Each page has a short paragraph of description and Gorey’s sardonic voice was never better displayed:

“On November 18th of alternate years Mr. Earbrass begins writing ‘his new novel’. Weeks ago he chose its title at random from a list of them he keeps in a little green note-book. It being tea-time of the 17th, he is alarmed not to have thought of a plot to which The Unstrung Harp might apply, but his mind will keep reverting to the last biscuit on the plate.”

 A critic once described Gorey’s books as being like tableaux or stills from a silent movie, with accompanying captures which are at once obvious and vexing, for his tendency to not describe any events not pictured. But TUH does this very thing, when we’re told that Mr.Earbrass leaned out his window into a strong wind for several minutes (an arresting image, one would think), but instead we’re  shown the novelist afterwards in his kitchen, “restoring himself” with a sandwich and glass of milk as he reads what he’s written so far.

“He cannot help but feel that Lirp’s return and almost immediate impalement on the bottle-tree was one of his better ideas. The jelly in his sandwich is about to get all over his fingers.”  

It is appropriate that TUH has more writing then any of his later books, because it is about a writer, the process of writing and the “horrors of the literary life”. One wonders how Gorey, who never wrote a novel, can so knowingly describe the curses that face storytellers.

“Several weeks later, the loofah tricking on his knees, Mr. Earbrass mulls over an awkward retrospective bit that ought to go in Chapter II. But where? Even the voice of the omniscient author can hardly afford to interject a seemingly pointless anecdote concerning Ladderback in Tibet when the other characters are feverishly engaged in wondering whether to have the pond at Disshiver Cottage dragged or not.”

Of course, the plot of the fictional The Unstrung Harp makes no sense, seeming like a parody of Gorey’s work.

“Even more harrowing than the first chapters of a novel are the last, for Mr. Earbrass anyway. The characters have one and all become thoroughly tiresome, as though he had been trapped at the same party with them since the day before; neglected sections of the plot loom on every hand, waiting to be disposed of; his verbs seem to have withered away and his adjectives to be proliferating past control. Furthermore, at this stage he inevitably gets insomnia. Even rereading The Truffle Plantation (his first novel) does not induce sleep. In the blue horror of dawn the vines in the carpet appear likely to begin twining up his ankles.”

The horrors don’t cease when the book is finished; Mr Earbrass must write a clean copy of the manuscript (“not only is it repulsive to the eye and hand, with its tattered edges, stains, rumpled patches, scratching-out, and scribbling, but its contents are, by this time, boring to the point of madness”); then, rather than give it to his publishers in London, he considers dropping the book into the river Thames. The cover design makes him apoplectic (“on any book it would be ugly, vulgar, and illegible. On his book it would be these, and also disastrously wrong”) and the reader smiles with recognition that the cover of the fictional The Unstrung Harp is the same as the one in hand. Even his six free copies do not cheer the novelist up as there are “at least three times that number of people who expect to receive one.”

“Buying the requisite number of additional copies does not happen to be the solution, as it would come out almost at once, and everyone would be very angry at his wanton distribution of them to just anyone, and write him little notes of thanks ending with the remark that TUH seems rather down from your usual level of polish but then you were probably in a hurry for the money.”

That little bit of passive-aggressive bitchiness shows a level of light social satire rarely seen in Gorey’s later books, and links him more in tone with his beloved E.F. Benson ‘Lucia’ books, about the gossipy machinations of inter-war English village faux-artistes.

In keeping with a book about words, Gorey closes TUH with a melancholy almost-modernist stream-of-consciousness ode to boredom.

“Mr. Earbrass stands on the terrace at twilight. It is bleak; it is cold; and the virtue has gone out of everything. Words drift through his mind: ANGUISH TURNIPS CONJUNCTIONS ILLNESS DEFEAT STRING PARTIES NO PARTIES URNS DESUETUDE DISAFFECTION CLAWS LOSS TREPIZOND NAPKINS SHAME STONES DISTANCE FEVER ANTIPODES MUSH GLACIERS INCOHERENCE LABELS MIASMA AMPUTATION TIDES DECEIT MORUNING ELSEWARDS…” 

The unsigned intro on the dust jacket of my Harcourt Brace edition, which refers to TUH rightly as a “small masterpiece”, describes the book as a look at literary life, writer’s block, and life in general. “Finally, TUH is about Edward Gorey the writer, about Edward Gorey writing The Unstrung Harp.”  I like this theory, and I love to picture the young Gorey, trudging around New York City in his famous fur coat, writing TUH as an inside joke for his bookish friends Doubleday (who he drew covers for in his early career), and not expecting to create a whole career from his little drawings. Who would have thought there was an audience?

When Gorey inserts himself in his work, recognizable by the fur jacket, the beard and the incongruous tennis sneakers, he’s always referred to as a writer, never an artist or an illustrator. While an appropriate introduction into the world of Edward Gorey, The Unstrung Harp can also be seen as the road not traveled. If the proportion of words to pictures of TUH had continued through Gorey’s other fifty-or-so books, he may have been as remembered as much a writer as a cultish but talented artist.

Post Script: Part way through writing this, I discovered that Wikipedia has an extensive history of the ‘Goth subculture’ which they didn’t last time I checked. It’s quite interesting, and focuses a lot on punk music, a pioneering aspect which didn’t cross my mind at all, as I am so not a music person. They claim Goths splintered away from punks in the early 1980’s and drew their inspiration for clothing, accessories and concert-decoration from campy horror movies of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Like Gorey’s work, the whole thing was meant tongue in cheek, a bit of a joke, and it’s fascinating to consider how followers take scenes more seriously as they develop through the years.

Women (of a certain age) Gone Wild!

I grew up amongst strong women. My friends were entirely female throughout elementary school and we were often referred to as ‘girls and Max’. It’s happening again at WORN, where we’re ‘ladies and Max’. I don’t mind. I love women. I even think female comedians are as funny, if not often funnier, than their male counterparts.

But even so, I was a bit trepidatious about being one of the few men in attendance at ‘Love, Loss and What I Wore’ at the Panasonic Theatre. But it was a chance to see legendary funny ladies Andrea Martin and Mary Walsh (pictured above) live, in the flesh.

As my fellow Wornette Anisha and I took our seats, I glanced around the theatre and confirmed that I was one of about twenty men in the theatre. Okay, maybe there were a bit more. But we were outnumbered. Most of them were husbands or gay guys. Unsurprisingly, the latter were more enthusiastic theatre dates than the former. And almost everyone was middle-aged. Anisha and I were easiest the youngest in the room.

“I need to use the washroom,” I said, five minutes before curtain. “I’ll be right back.” I raced downstairs only to discover that the ladies had taken over both the women’s and the men’s restroom, lining up outside the doors. “Great…” It was bad enough that I really had to pee, and that the play was about to start, but what was really frustrating was the smirky looks from the women I received as a man having to stand in line.

‘How the tables have turned, ha ha!’ the looks said.

When I finally made it inside the men’s washroom, I noticed that there was a line of urinals being unused because the women were lined up beside them waiting for the stalls. This was annoying. If the ladies had just stepped back at bit, I would be able to use them, and be one less person in line, and everyone would win. But no; they stayed beside the urinals, laughing and leering at me, until only one lady was left.

“Now you know how it feels!” she said.

I was done with this little game, representing all mankind for her. “Yeah, but you’re not made fun of when you have to go to the restroom.”

“Well, yeah,” she stammered, “but at least you get a little taste of being a minority.”

“Yeah… I’m also gay.”

Forgive me. How often do you get to out yourself like that? Couldn’t help it.

After she was gone, I made a point of using the urinal; my right, as a man.

Here’s my review.

Who Am I?

When I was a kid, I was able to get myself into an almost trance-like state by asking the simple question “Who am I?” I would lie in the hammock at the cottage, looking past the birch trees to the sky, and begin to feel that I was much more than this individual person, born in March 1985 in Toronto. It was like a switch turned, and I felt that my mind, or my soul, if you want, was much older than my body, had experienced more, although I couldn’t remember anything that hadn’t happened to Max Mosher. I would think about it for a long time, allowing my mind to get further and further away from my specific body, with its dark hair and its weak right leg, and my specific location, hearing the waves of Lake Simcoe splash on our pebbly beach. When I would snap out of it, it was almost a let-down to simply be Max Mosher of Toronto again, although a bit of a relief that I could return to myself. If you let yourself continue down that rabbit hole, there’s no telling how far you may fall.

This is as close to spiritualism that I can get and it’s what comes to mind whenever I hear Descartes’ ‘I think, therefore I am’.

I don’t, or can’t, do it so much anymore. Maybe it’s because I no longer have the leisure time to lie around in hammocks pondering the universe. But it might also be that as we get older we become set in ourselves, supposedly sure of what we’re all about as people, and unable or unwilling to ask ourselves “Who am I?”

Signs and Sensibility

 

Dedicated to my friend Alyssa, who knows that the best thing to do with Jane Austen men is steal their names for cats

No matter how many online profiles protest that the creator “doesn’t want to play plays games” dating is all about games. From how you write about yourself and which digital self-portraits you share, to where your messages fall on the flirtatious/friendly nexus, to when you lay your cards on the table and attempt to lay them, everything about the scene is contrived and constructed. Maybe there are straight-talkers in Europe (“Uh, he wants to sleep with you,” the bartender, acting as a translator, told me in Florence, Italy, about my new acquaintance) but Canadians are especially weary of speaking directly. We think it’s rude. Instead, we act nice and act nice and act nice and then disappear.

It’s a world of signs and symbols, of complex social codes, as Edith Wharton put it a hundred years ago, a world of hieroglyphics. But there’s no Rosetta Stone to guide us. We feel our way around in the dark, hoping to find the way to the light and maybe, just maybe, happily ever after.

We learn by trial and error. I used to think that kissing someone meant that you liked them. And, for me, ‘liked’ meant that you would at least kiss them on one more occasion, and, if nothing unforeseen happened, you would continue to kiss them. I gradually learned that this was not the case for everyone, that there were a myriad of reasons to kiss someone, many less pure than my preteen Sweet Valley High ideals.

So I changed, but I kept my faith in signs. When, after our first date, the Gentleman told me I could leave a toothbrush at his house, my head was filled with Carrie-and-Big over-analysis. I was excited, but I also felt like maybe he should know that that would scare off a more commitment-phobic boy than myself. Then he brought me roses on my birthday. And called me his boyfriend after returning from a trip. And invited my parents over for dinner. All signs pointed towards his seriousness about me, to us being together for at least the immediate future.

So I was devastated when he ended it in an email, and on top of that, retroactively de-romanticized us, claiming that I had misinterpreted the toothbrush, the roses, the dinner. Maybe, if we were being charitable, we could buy his argument that it was a cultural thing. He comes from a country where men are physically affectionate with each other and where you always repay someone by having them over after you were their guest.

Sure. Fine. Whatever. But then I braved the internet dating world again, wondering if I was ready for it but not wanting to wait around for my sex life to find me, and met an amazing Canadian guy, had probably the best date of my life, only to be informed that he wasn’t ready to start seeing anyone.

“We can be friends though, right?” My favourite sentence.  

Again, all the signs were there, and they led me astray. We are truly in the dark. We rely on signs and signals that are not guaranteed, that change meaning all the time. Someone like myself, who wears his heart on his sleeve, who is always open to getting to know someone new, is encouraged to trust, to not over-analyze, and then shot down, again and again.

But this is how the scene is, and there’s no other choice, unless one wants to be like some of my friends and simply declare that they don’t date, which, despite my periodic bouts of rebellion, is never going to be me.

It makes one nostalgic for a time when there were discernable rules, when courtship was a highly-structured sport, when they designed rooms with an alcove specifically for young couples and a chaperone. I like the idea of love letters, of country dances, and Jane Austen-esque secret engagements. At least, I thought, people always knew where they stood. (And, yes, as a gay man, I realize that I would not have participated in such dainty rites, but I can dream, can’t I?)

But then we watched Sense and Sensibility for which star Emma Thompson also wrote the screenplay and Kate Winslet earned her first Oscar nomination. It was directed, of all people, by Ang Lee, a credit card that always surprises me. Thompson and Winslet play Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, sisters who, like all Austen women, have seen their financial situation alter and need to find husbands so as to not end up in the poor house. Elinor is stoic and introverted, the ‘sense’ in the title, while Marianne is sentimental and dangerously romantic. Both sisters end up falling for men who clearly share their affections, but mysteriously do not propose. Marianne in particular becomes obsessed with the charming Mr. Willoughby, chasing him all the way to London and confronting him very publicly at a ball about not replying to her letters.

“You didn’t even text?” you can imagine the modern day equivalent snapping.

“Did he tell you that he loved you?” her sister asks, after Marianne receives a letter from Willoughby claiming that she minsinterpreted their relationship from the beginning.

“Yes, she replies. “No… never absolutely. It was very day imlied, but never declared. Sometimes I thought it had been, but it never was. He has broken no vow.”

“He has broken faith with all of us! He made us all believe he loved you.”

“He did!” Winslet cries, her voice raising an octave. “He did – he loved me as I loved him!”
 
Never have I watched this scene and so related to it. And, let it be said, that young women in the 19th century, led to believe they were practically engaged and then dropped, were in a much worse position than myself. They could lose their priceless ‘reputations’, while all it does to me is shake my already fragile dating ego.
 
Love may be blind, but it’s instructive to remember that in both Regency-era England and 21st century Toronto, dating is too.

Happy Birthday Granda

It was a tough week emotionally so I was glad to glad to get back up to the cottage. It’s Granda’s 89th birthday and there was much to do about it on our boat ride over to the island. My family doesn’t talk like normal families (I’m told), especially at the dinner table, especially when my brother Tommy and I are trying to make each other laugh. So, sitting on the porch last night, eating a restaurant-quality supper of mini-steaks, potatoes, beans and garlic bread, we got a bit naughty.

Tommy was talking about nicknaming a child at the camp he worked at ‘Big Willy Style’, and I warned him against calling a kid any name with ‘Willy’ in it. Not getting the joke, my Mom asked “What’s Willy mean?” and, without hesitation, I said, “Penis. In the UK, they call penises Willies.”

As Granda murmured about how in her day no one ever said that word (and I said quietly, “That’s progress”) my brother said “penises” over and over to himself. “Penises… penises… Is that the right word? Is it ever peni? What’s the plural of penis?”

Granda looked at everyone and said, “Why would you ever need more than one?”

I had so many follow up jokes in my head I had to excuse myself from the table.

Roomies

More than the ‘freshmen fifteen’, snogging in the library and the rumpled walk of shame after a night of debauchery, the undergraduate experience is defined by roommates. For the majority of students, living away from home for the first time overlaps with sharing close quarters with a random person, and can lead to the most remarkable, experimental living conditions. Suddenly, you realize that your roommate has never vacuumed ever in his entire life: not only does he not do it, he never even thinks of it. You wonder if he believes that machine with the long hose in the common room is some sort of abandoned conceptual art piece. At the same time, he quietly fumes at you for always having your friends in the room, sitting on your bed, loudly discussing the plot intricacies of whatever high school TV soap is currently in favour, while he tries to finish his paper on Voltaire which should have been handed in last week.

Movies, books and TV shows about college life always touch on the summer-winter conflicts of mismatched roomies. On Undeclared, Judd Apatow’s short-lived series which was a training ground for his crew of lovable slackers, Jay Baruchel was sexiled from his room in the middle of the night by his hot roommate. He meets an entire colony of pyjama-clad sexiles camped out in the lounge who play team-building exercises and create their own subculture. Tom Wolfe in I am Charlotte Simmons describes the exact same experience. In Felicity, the over-ernest heroine had a gothy roommate who dumped her stuff in the middle of the night, and wasn’t seen again until, in a painfully awkward scene, she walks in on Felicity discussing how weird she is to her friends. Mismatched roommates remain a source of inspiration for characters long-out of university: Jack Lemon and Walter Matthau in The Odd Couple, Chandler and Joey on Friends, even Ernie and Bert. (Who are just roommates, guys! Although I’m still unclear on whether they are supposed to be kids, like Big Bird and Grover, or Muppet humanoid adults. Thoughts?)

But odd couple roomies may go the way of pagers and land-lines thanks to a new social-networking app called Roommate Finder. As described by Zosia Bielski in The Globe and Mail, UofT’s housing website now allows students to create profiles (complete with cute personalized avatars), list their likes and dislikes, and cross-reference them to find a suitable match. After only a month, UofT’s Roommate Finder has six hundred users, and York, Mount Royal and University of Calgary have all adopted the similar program StarRez.

“It’s like a dating service,” a housing rep at Calgary said. “It’ll tell you that this person is 90 per cent compatible with you and then you can look at their profile.”

But on the downside, it’s like a dating service. As anyone who has every plentyoffish-ed knows, how a date comes across online can contrast starkly with the real person sitting across from you. And in this case, rather than simply suffer through an awkward coffee date, you’re looking at nine months of listening to their keyboard clacking.

But there’s a more central problem with Roommate Finder: sometimes you might not know what you want. Part of the incredible adventure of university life is being thrown together with people from different backgrounds and interests than your own. It can turn out terribly, but it can also fundamentally change who you are. Bielski acknowledges this in brackets: “And who knows, random, seemingly impossible matches by administrators might just yield students a friend for life.”

The girl profiled in Bielski’s piece had two major requirements, that she was okay with her being loud and that she also liked Glee. Now I’m all for bonding over late night DVD watching, but having a TV show in common does not mean your personalities will compliment. If I sought roomies based on two of my favourite shows I can envision finding people very different from myself: The West Wing might snare me a dweeby policy-wonk, while Sex and the City might attract an orange-tanned, peroxide blonde with a status purse swinging from her arm. (I realize while I type this that, if I followed my initial argument, I may very well end up being the best of friends with the dweeb or Elle Woods, because you never know with people, but the fact remains that a mutual TV show does not a friendship make.)

Speaking of Sex and the City, we had a roommate pair at Guelph who illustrates my point nicely. One was a tall, classic-rock loving artist from Toronto, the other a petite English student from a small town. The former decorated her walls with Rollingstone covers, the later with holographic illustrations of fairies. When she joined her roommate and I watching Sex and the City, she had never seen it before, but knew instinctively she was a Charlotte (the traditional one). In the scene in which Samantha (the non-traditional one) claims that she’s dating a guy “with the funkiest-tasting spunk in the world”, she was so shocked, she considered getting up and leaving the room. But when the character Charlotte responded on the show by getting up and leaving the restaurant, she was too embarrassed to do the same thing, so she stayed. She ended up loving the show, had a good relationship with her roommate, and she and I, the farm-girl and the queer atheist, are still friends.

There was a similar situation with a young woman who came out as lesbian shortly after moving in, and her roommate from Virginia. The girl from Virginia showed up in a pick-up truck and to pass the time on move-in day actually whittled. The lesbian told me later that she was thinking ‘Oh good God…!’ But they also turned out to have a good relationship. I’ll remember them for their refrain for dealing with issues directly before they became passive-aggressive nightmares. They would say something like, “Dear Roomie, I love you a lot, you are an amazing person and I cherish you in my life, but if you leave your clothes on the floor (or whatever) one more time I’m going to SCREAM.” As far as I know, it worked.

Part of university is meeting different people, testing yourself and expanding who you thought you were. I worry that, by scoping out six hundred people’s profiles to see who also likes Arcade Fire and The Wire, students will become as fickle with roommates as singles are with dating. It’s funny that social networking which was born of university life (facebook, before your aunt Lorraine joined, was for embarrassing drunken pictures, and it was founded by former college roommates), may deny the next generation of undergrads one of the defining experiences of young adulthood.

An Open Letter

Dear Lynne Rosenthal,

I learned from the New York Post that you are a professor of English, having received a PhD from Columbia University. Congratulations! I hope that you are using your position as one of our sparkling intellectual lights to illuminate the minds and guide the souls of the fresh generation.

Full disclosure: I worked for Starbucks in both Toronto and Dublin. It always struck me as interesting that Starbucks is a celebrity brand with more people reading about the stores than patronizing them. For these reasons, the Huffingtonpost headline “English Professor Kicked Out of Starbucks for Ordering ‘Incorrectly’” intrigued me. Especially considering how business has been, Starbucks shouldn’t be throwing customers away for calling a ‘grande’ ‘medium’.

But it wasn’t Starbuck’s notorious cup sizes that caused the problem, was it?

You ordered a toasted multi-grain bagel and, rather than just hand it over, the barista dared to ask if you wanted butter or cheese on it. Now, as an intelligent woman Lynne, you probably realize that for most of us, those of us without degrees from Columbia who waft through life not seeing the linguistic underpinnings of our bagel-purchasing transactions, would have just said “No thank you” and moved on with our day.

But not for Lynne Rosenthal, who the Post claims “blew her top”.

“I just wanted a multigrain bagel,” you told the reporter. “I refused to say ‘without butter or cheese.’ When you go to Burger King, you don’t have to list the six things you don’t want.”

Valid point, Lynne, although you may still have to answer if you’d like to ‘super size’ it, so prepare yourself for that ordeal.

“Linguistically, it’s stupid, and I’m a stickler for correct English.”

Socially, you’re insane. Plus you’ve managed to mix two of my biggest pet-peeves (being rude to service workers and grammar Nazism). Want to throw in some misogyny while you’re at it?

According to the Post, you “next began yelling at the staffer to hand over [your] plain bagel, until the manager finally called the police.”

After what you’d already been through, what with having to answer if you wanted cheese or butter, to then be pulled away by police! How embarrassing!

“Starbucks staff said Rosenthal incited the face-off by hurling profanities at the staffer.”

How could they say that?! Clearly, you were not hauled away like a crazy person for being disruptive and abusive to the minimum wage worker who was just doing their (sorry, Lynne, his or her) job. No, your childish tantrum was entirely justified in the cause of preserving the English language from assaults like ordering bagels in the negative.

As anyone familiar with Starbucks policy knows, they say ‘yes’ to almost anything, so for them to go to the extent of calling the cops you must have been causing an EPIC scene. I want to thank you, Lynne, for now I have the image of you being escorted out of the store, with or without your unbuttered bagel, in my mind for all eternity.

So rather than “English Professor Kicked Out of Starbucks for Ordering ‘Incorrectly’”, the Post’s headline should have read something like “Insane Customer Believes Anal Eccentricities Warrant Screaming, Abuse”. But you can’t blame the Post for phrasing it as they did. Who’d want to read that? It doesn’t fit the popular meme of Starbucks baristas being uppity bitches about cup sizes. And it happens every single day.

A New Week

Ah, it’s Monday. I did a lot of partying this week. Revived my European drink (vodka Red Bull) and embarrassed myself, but had a good time as always. Am throwing my own party on Friday. Should probably get around to organizing that. I’ve dipped my toe back into the dating scene; got excited, but then apprehensive about my getting excited, and would rather have everything cancel out into a nonchalant cool. Only other thing that’s happening is I quit my job. This is my last week, then I’m off to the cottage for a week, for swimming and reading and relaxing. Hopefully, I will get so relaxed that I’ll come back to the city raring to go for September.

Happy Blank-Blank to You!

It is the most recognizable song in the English language. You heard it as a little kid, with a mixture of excitement and crankiness from too much attention, stressful party games, and bottled Coke, relieved that cake was to soon follow. It continues to be sung to you now, when embarrassment has long replaced excitement and worry about wrinkles has replaced concern about the unfairness of pin the tail on the donkey. Even if you are one of the few who have never sang it (out of principle, or something), you know all the words, all six of them! The song is universal, enshrined in our minds and memories, but doesn’t belong to us.

‘Happy Birthday to You’ began life as ‘Good Morning to All’, written by Patty and Mildred Hill in 1893. The sisters taught kindergarten in a log-cabin in Louisville, Kentucky. Named the Esta Cabin, and where First Lady Eleanor Roosvelt visited in the 1940’s and broke a floorboard, the building remarkably still exists as a historical site and centre for weaving. The Hills wrote the simple melody with repetitious lyrics for ease of children’s memory, and it has been suggested that it was the students themselves who gradually turned the song into one about birthdays at parties. The song was first published as ‘Happy Birthday to You’ in 1912, but some have pointed out how similar the song is to a number of popular ditties of the mid to late-19th century, such as ‘Greetings to All’ and ‘Happy New Year to All’.

In 1935, the song was copyrighted as ‘Happy Birthday to You’ with a new company formed to protect the the copyright.  In 1998, the rights were sold to Time-Warner and later fell into the hands of a group of investors headed by Edgar Bronfman Jr., who was one of the leading opponents to free file-sharing technology like Napster. The company claims that one cannot sing ‘Happy Birthday to You’ for profit without paying royalties, which is why many restaurants have taken to writing their own birthday songs. Whenever you hear ‘Happy Birthday’ in a movie or a TV show it was paid for. Warner received around two million dollars for use of the song in 2008, and they claim that the US copyright will not expire until 2030.

I’m no lawyer, but this is stupid.  

First of all, the words and music of the Hills’ ‘Good Morning to All’ have long expired and are now part of the public domain. They are the exact same song.  

This from the writer on Wikipedia: “Except for the splitting of the first note in the melody ‘Good Morning to All’ to accommodate the two syllables in the word ‘happy’, ‘Happy Birthday to You’ and ‘Good Morning to All’ are melodically identical. Precedent (regarding works derived from public domain material, and cases comparing two similar musical works) seems to suggest that the melody used in ‘Happy Birthday to You’ would not merit additional copyright status for one split note.”

Many legal scholars, including Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, have expressed doubts that the song can still be copyrighted.

I would consider the fact that the Hill sisters are long dead, that the copyright of song is does not benefit their off-spring, and the influence of past songs and the original school children when arguing that the song should be part of the public domain.

I think it’s time to assert our rights to the song of our childhood. We should take inspiration from the lunch counter protests of the Civil Rights Movement and the same-sex marriage battles going on today, and challenge Warner’s copyright in court. We should plan a massive sing-along of ‘Happy Birthday to You’ (perhaps on the date of one of the Hill sister’s births?) and see if Bronfman wants to take us on. Of course, we’d have to be doing it ‘for profit’ so maybe we can ask for donations for the legal fight.

Like the lovely melody ‘Simple Gifts’, which began as a Shaker dance song and ended up in car commercials, the journey of ‘Happy Birthday to You’ from Kentucky log cabin schoolhouse to a multi-billion dollar corporation, reflects the story of America itself.

Esta Cabin, Kentucky