Max's Blog

How Pop Culture Leads and Misleads

Tag: cottage

Howdy Neighbour!


And suddenly, it’s autumn.

I woke up this morning freezing. Fortified by three cups of coffee, I attempted to build a fire to bask in and warm up the cottage. How can you resist the smell that lingers on your clothes from a wood-burning stove?

After several tries (“Oh, that’s why you’re supposed to crumple up the newspaper!”) I appear to have succeeded and am currently defrosting my toes in the orange glow.

My family used to spend many an autumn up here, sometimes staying as late as Thanksgiving. I remember falling in piles of leaves, the windy walks and the lake crashing around like the Atlantic. Even as a child, you sensed the feeling of everything winding down; the summer chairs stacked away; the hammock folded up; on the final day, the water being turned off.

There was also less pressure to run around outside (not that there was ever much) and we would cuddle up inside watching That’s Entertainment videos on our little TV.

Had to just tend to my fire. Why is it that buildings can burn down by accident, but starting a fire in an enclosed fireplace is difficult?

My Dad: “We have a copy of Cher’s workout book we can burn. It’s hardcover… How’d it get here?”

Anyways, for the uninitiated, the three That’s Entertainment films consist of clips from classic MGM movies, mostly musical numbers. The first was released in the 1970’s and their appeal is supposedly nostalgic, but as a child, I just loved them. (Insert gay joke here.)

The change of the seasons reminds me of this number from Summerstock (1950). Although her relationship with the studio had turned sour, and they were soon to kick her off the lot, it is appropriate that Judy Garland’s last movie at MGM resurrected the troupe from the beginning of her career of putting on a show “right here in the barn!” There was tension on the set, with Judy’s erratic behaviour and drug use, but none is discernible on screen. “How dare this look like a happy picture!” one of the MGM brass after seeing the rushes.

Mostly remembered for the ‘Get Happy’ number, shot two months after the rest of the film, thus explaining Garland’s obvious weight loss, I have a fondness for this song. Supposedly, Judy got tired filming it one day and asked “Why am I on this tractor? Where’s Vincent, I want to go home?” The eternal questions.

I hum it when we drive past farms in the country or when I’m taking a walk amongst the fire-coloured leaves.

Endless Summer


So the season that changed everything draws to a close.

After a rough emotional week in the city, I escaped up to the cottage. I was theoretically going to look for jobs, but I ended up writing two things for WORN, reading Through Black Spruce and starting the epic Infinite Jest, and going for quiet walks, retracing childhood paths on Snake Island. I tried to keep updating my blog, but my stats dropped dramatically as I assume my loyal readers (my Maxiles, if you will) were also en vacances. I think I was physically and mentally exhausted as, no matter how much rest I got at night, I kept randomly falling asleep in the middle of the day.

The events of that week might have sent me into a mini-depression. I would be fine during the day, listening to 1940’s music with my parents and Granda, watching Jane Austen movies and discussing the Bennet sisters after dinner, but late at night I would toss and turn in the darkness, unable to keep my mind from upsetting thoughts. I dwelled on disappointing dates, on drama with friends, on unsaid things to the Gentleman. One night it sunk in that I had quit my job and didn’t have another one lined up.

Being up at the cottage was an escape from the real world, dodging the pressures of adulthood being one of the defining characteristics of our generation (at least according to the recent cover stories of both The Walrus and The New York Times magazines).

As relaxing reading in the hammock and watching the sunsets was, how long could I keep summer going?

Dervla came up and joined us on the weekend, ridiculously excited to be invited to Snake Island. She came equipped with hardcore sunscreen, nonfiction about Africa, the DVD of Good Hair, and a six-pack of something called ‘Vex in the City’, a bottled carbonated Cosmopolitan. She relished all the standard cottage traditions: we cut our feet on zebra mussels, drank beer and ate chips while tearing apart Vanity Fair’s Best Dressed List, and tromped my parents in a drunken game of cribbage. Our good times were only interrupted by Dervla’s occasional sighs of “I don’t want to go back to the city!”

“We’re not talking about Sunday!” I kept reminding her.

No end of summer. No growing up.

Then I received word of two separate wedding engagements: one of two fabulous urban lesbians, which I learned through facebook, and the other of my more-conventional friend from university, who wrote me a breathless email asking me to call her as she was decidedly not going to inform people via facebook. I have not been to any weddings of close friends, nor to those of anyone my age. I have wanted to, because I fully intend on being the saucy one who misbehaves ala Four Weddings and a Funeral, but have not been given a chance. But I also took comfort in the absence of weddings. If my contemporaries were still not married, even those in long-term relationships and living together, then I could still think of us as being in our unorganized and experimental early twenties.

Not anymore. We are in our mid-twenties, a short, bull-shitty demographic which rapidly becomes late-twenties.

And just as we inevitably become grown-ups, Sunday, as it must, arrived. Dervla and I stood on the rickety dock waiting for the ferry (the dock being rickety because I participated in its putting in).

“What are you doing this week?” she asked me.

“Umm, I have no idea.” And I had an epiphany. “Maybe I’m so anxious right now because I have no idea what’s happening next in my life. I have no job. I have no boyfriend. I haven’t even pictured the autumn. My life hasn’t been this unclear since the winter and I got back from Ireland.”

“And look at all you’ve accomplished since then,” Dervla reminded me.

“Yeah, I know. It’s scary, but uncertainty holds great possibilities.”

I am back at the cottage now and, although I have the September Vogue, I swear I will start applying to jobs and get past page 250 (of about 1,000) of Infinite Jest. This summer has been one of the longest and most eventful of my life, and a good one, despite some set-backs. But, as they say in fashion, there’s always another season.

It’s a new month.

It’s a new world.

I’m ready.   

Pictures from the Cottage

I really like these atmospheric photos my brother Tom took at our cottage.

The Ladies of Lake Simcoe

Even at the cottage, one should always look one’s best.

Disappointments and Diverges

I didn’t get the writing job I had applied for at an expanding Canadian news and opinion website. I made it to the second round: last week, I wrote a test for them, a five hundred word column in three hours. Having not heard anything back, I wrote them today, and the kind recruiter told me that my application was still under consideration, and that “due to the large quantity of applicants” only those chosen for an interview would be contacted. So I was surprised when I got a second email from him this afternoon saying, sorry, the competition was just too stiff.

I’m disappointed because I would have been perfect for it, because it would have been the first job I had gotten in the field I’d like to be in, and because I’m ready to make a hasty retreat from serving coffee. The bad news capped off a tiring week in which the Gentleman was away in Montreal, I felt like I barely had a moment to stop and breath, and I missed my family, who are up at our cottage, where I would like to be. Perhaps the most pathetic moment came when the last episode of Road to Avonlea made me cry, because my Mom loves Anne of Green Gables and because Mag Ruffman (Aunt Olivia) is who I would get to play her in the Canadian-made movie of my life.

I’m disappointed, yes, but as I grow older I’m recognizing that events which first seem like setbacks can put you on a different track, a track which, like Robert Frost’s road diverged in wood, might make all the difference.

One year ago I received another very disappointing email, this one from the University of Toronto. Tired of waiting for the official letter, I had written asking point-blank if I got into their PhD program. (Evidently, patience is not one of my strengths.) When I read that my bid was “unsuccessful” I broke down. I had made nice with all the profs, had done all the assigned readings, had embodied all the characteristics that had led so far during my successful career in academia. But it was over. Even though it could have easily been something to do with my proposed thesis, or lack of a supervisor, or some other such thing, I couldn’t not feel inadequate and less intelligent then I thought I was.

By the end of that day, I had decided to go to Ireland, to indulge in pints and accented men and reading for fun. Most of all, to get excited about something again and to have an adventure. Only when I was away did I realize how depressed I had been at UofT.

Recognizing that I couldn’t run away from real life forever, I had to hatch a new life plan, so I went back to basics. I asked myself, What is it you love doing and know you are good at?

Since coming home, I have embraced writing and already have two Ryerson courses, an internship and a blog for which I receive compliments almost daily to show for it. Indeed, I barely have time to look back, but when I do, I recognize that these good things in my life happened not despite that earlier disappointment, but because of it.

And so I’m trying to keep this in mind, along with the fact that there are other writing jobs out there. (If you happen to hear of one…?) I get to review a play tomorrow and then it’s up to the cottage where, when I’m not google-image-searching vintage eyeglasses for WORN, I will relax and read Tom Wolfe or David Foster Wallace.

I have been lucky, and years from now I may view this latest setback as a diverging, not a disappointment.


Sunday Reflections, Cottage Edition: “Uncategorized”

I am writing this beside the lake on Snake Island. I even brought down my computer cord in the vain hope that the electrical outlet hidden by the truck of a tree down here (traditionally used by Dad to listen to opera) would power my computer and turn my screen from a near-mirror reflective surface into something viewable, but it was not to be.

It is my second morning up here and my body and mind have slowed down. Before we ate dinner on our first night, I declared I would go swimming, and I bravely marched right in (although the water had to reach my nipples before I plunged my head under). I finished my Edith Wharton book for WORN and wrote a not-very-good draft for my column class. The boys (my brother and his friends) arrived with much fanfare last night, and since my parents don’t know when next they’ll have three strong, young men up here (four, if you count me) we’ve been coerced into putting in the dock today.

Now, our dock used to be normal. When we first started coming to the island, the marina had boats (big, deep, fabulous out-door-motor boats, one which I vividly remember as golden pine) which you had to, with effort, clamper down into and then, with more effort, climb out. Then they switched to long flat pontoon boats, essentially mobile decks on water. While these made it easier to get in and out, without falling in between the boat and dock and getting mushed to death, docks began getting larger, higher and stronger, so as to not fall apart when bumped by the pontoon.

We are surrounded by South African neighbours on either side who are under the impression that Snake is some WASPY watering resort like Nantucket or Cape Cod or the setting of countless weepy teen shows in which white thirty-year old actors, pretending to be 16, look at lakes wistfully. Both of our neighbours’ docks are modern and metallic and intimidating, although when we were let off on one, I noted that it still rattled and shook. But since we can’t take advantage of their neighbourliness all summer, we had to put in our dock, a simple straight line, often at an angle, which is ten feet shorter than the South Africans’. We suffer from dock envy.

Along with flipping through The New Yorker’s fiction issue, and back issues of Vanity Fair and Vogue, I indulged in my tradition by starting to read The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne, the sole mystery by the creator of Winnie the Pooh and the enchanted Hundred Acre Wood. In the witty introduction, Milne laments the prevalence of weak writing in the genre:

“I remember reading one in which a peculiarly fascinating murder had been committed, and there was much speculation as to how the criminal had broken into the murdered man’s library. The detective, however (said the author), ‘was more concerned to discover how the murderer had effected an egress.’ It is, to me, a distressing thought that in nine-tenths of the detective stories of the world murderers are continually effecting egresses when they might just as easily go out. The sleuth, the hero, the many suspected all use this same strange tongue, and we may be forgiven for feeling that neither the natural excitement of killing the right man, nor the strain of suspecting the wrong one, is sufficient excuse for so steady a flow of bad language.”

Later, while explaining how a writer most famous for stories about a pudgy philosophical bear came to write a mystery, he writes that “the only excuse which I have yet discovered for writing anything is that I want to write it.” I have recently been thinking of this very thing. One of the things I hated about academia was the process of never-ending narrowing and the fear that, by the end of a PhD, you would be an expert on one specific topic while knowing nothing of anything else. I got onto a queer history stream and then could not escape it, even though I have many other interests and find arguing with Foucaultists exhausting.

So now I’m pursuing journalism, which I thought would better reward someone with my eclectic interests and knowledge, but during my first column-writing class, my teacher told us about the importance of finding your ‘bailiwick’, your beat, the area that you cover. Bloggers, despite not having to get their ideas approved by an editor, are also advised to focus on a specific subject, in order to nurture a readership and keep them coming back.

Good advice, but, yeah, I’m not going to do that.

I could write about politics, but then I would post about once a week. Entertainment and pop culture? Same thing, maybe twice a week. While I’ve reignited by love of fashion, I would be hard pressed to find five topics about style to post every week (and anything I do come up with should be run by WORN first anyways).

So, instead, I’m going to write about anything and everything I want to. I noticed that, unless otherwise specified, wordpress labelled your posts “uncategorized” and I kind of love that, so I’m sticking with it. One day Jane Lynch and Glee, the next Elijah Harper and Meech Lake, all “uncategorized”. I’m trusting that if I find something interesting, someone else hopefully will. 

Writing is about gut instinct, even when it’s writing a blog.

The Egypt Game

Loyal Readers,

I will be out of the office (re: away from the internet) until Saturday night as I am going up to our cottage for the first time this year. I had wanted to lay in hammocks and read murder mysteries, but I will probably end up working on an Edith Wharton book review for WORN and the final column for my Ryerson class. That’s the plan anyways. I just wanted to let you know so you didn’t think I had thrown in the towel already and you’d hopefully return at the end of the weekend. To help me get in the mood for Lake Simcoe I thought I’d share a story from my childhood at our cottage.

I don’t want to sound like a crusty old curmudgeon. I really don’t. There are already too many people complaining about how “kids today” don’t read, don’t go to the ol’ fishing hole, don’t go on raft adventures with escaped slaves down the Mississippi. Don’t do anything good or fun at all, actually. A lot of it is bullshit spewed by people whose kids are grown-up and who have mythologized their own pre-digital childhoods. I completely agree with Steven Johnson in his book Everything Bad is Good for You that many of today’s technologies, like computers and video games, are actually making kids smarter rather than dumber. That all being said, there’s still a benefit to being unplugged.

Our cottage, on an island on Lake Simcoe, is not rustic by any standards. There is electricity and plumbing and even a TV, without cable so mostly used for old movies. There’s no dish-washer, so manually cleaning up after dinner is one of our few rituals which recreates the not-so-distant past. But even so, as a child, left without TV channels to flip through and before I got into devouring every Agatha Christie, I had time to kill. So I played ‘make-believe’, going down to the lake and imagining stories, characters, entire movie productions. I never associated my playing with the “imagination” games that the Sesame Street characters were always plugging, in which you would apparently be transported to an animated landscape and meet talking sheep and cookies, but now I realize that’s what it is.

One memorable summer, my Dad read a little paperback we had bought at the shop on the mainland, The Egypt Game by the fantastically-named Zilpha Kealtey Snyder. It was about a group of children who invent a whole ancient Egyptian world in the backyard and shed of an abandoned house in their run-down neighbourhood. The older children become obsessed with its authenticity and become experts on spiritual rituals to re-enact. There was also an exciting subplot about a potential child-murderer in the neighbourhood, which some of the online reviewers thought was too scary (people really are no fun anymore!) but it gives the story its edge.

I, of course, needed my own Egypt, and the timing worked out perfectly as we were just building a brand new shed behind the cottage. My Grandpa Ralph built a little, thin room, with a child-sized door and a window on the far wall. It looked like an musty ancient tomb, and opening the little door I felt like Howard Carter discovering Tutankhamun’s resting place. Being the Egypt-obsessive that I was, I decorated the scratchy plywood walls with Egypt-themed stickers, pages from a ‘Sesame Street goes to the Museum’ colouring book, and my own magic-marker interpretations of hieroglyphics.

I don’t remember much what we did in ‘Egypt’. My friend Alyssa was in on the game, as were the required younger siblings. There was one time when I wanted to do a ceremony, like the kids had in the book, and I came up with the idea of lighting some paper on fire in a bowl. Alyssa being a more practical child then I said she didn’t feel comfortable about it, and we got in a big fight, and it didn’t happen. This event may have been in the early autumn, or perhaps I just remember it that way as it signalled the beginning of the Decline of ‘Egypt’, and the end of that part of my childhood.

The smell of plywood dust continues to make me think of the Nile. The little door is still there and maybe I’ll open it up this weekend.

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