* Eye Weekly


What is the proper place of religion in society, and what limits should be placed on the discussion of it?

When Mark Steyn, the conservative columnist, writes in a book chapter reprinted in Maclean’s magazine that jihad is unnecessary because the fertility rates among Muslims mean they will soon achieve dominance through democratic means, is he engaging in “hate speech”? Even if — as the Canadian Islamic Congress (CIC) complains to various human rights commissions in BC, Ontario and the federal government — Steyn’s views are offensive to Muslims, should he be prevented from stating them publicly?

How about the view, expressed by CIC president Mohamed Elmasry on television in 2004, that all Israeli adults are legitimate targets for terror attacks? Is that hate speech? Should that be forbidden?

What about the Bible, one of the foundational texts for all three of the major religious groups in Canada, in which it says (with authority often claimed to be divine) that men who have sex with other men are “detestable” (or an “abomination,” depending on your translation) and should be put to death? Is this hate speech? Should anyone printing bibles or repeating the words of the Bible be charged with a crime?

Or, to look at it from another angle, what about vocal atheists like Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, who claim in print — citing the Bible, among other things — that religions, including Christianity, Islam and Judaism, are murderous nonsense that inspire hatred and violence? Are they engaging in intolerant hate speech? Should they be forbidden to do so?

Or does the tolerance and freedom of religion that allow us to live together in peace actually require us to allow the expression of such divergent and often offensive beliefs?

Does American presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s recent speech on “Faith in America” shed any light? When he says “Freedom requires religion, just as religion requires freedom,” is he making the slightest bit of sense? When he claims that he believes that Jesus Christ is the saviour of mankind, and that the American government is inseparable from “the God who gives us liberty,” and then goes on to say that his Mormon religious beliefs are irrelevant and that asking questions about those beliefs is intolerant, is he trying to have his cake and eat it too? Doesn’t his intolerance of the irreligious “religion of secularism” actually lay the theoretical framework for intolerance of his religion of Mormonism, or intolerance of any other religion?

Would it be fair to say that a speech in 1960 by US presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, in which he said that his Catholicism was irrelevant because he believed that the separation of church and state was “absolute,” was more coherent? When he went on to say that the president’s “religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office,” is he actually sketching an entire ideology for governing?

Does a view that everyone is entitled to their own religious beliefs —?or lack of them — actually require that the state itself remain agnostic? And does that freedom of religion actually require, for its very existence, the protection of speech that expresses contradictory beliefs about religion and its uses? And doesn’t that protection, by definition, require the tolerance of opinions that some of us will find offensive and hateful?

And is it going too far to point out examples from societies where this freedom was not protected — say in Sudan, where a British schoolteacher was jailed for allowing children to name a teddy bear after the Muslim prophet; or in Medieval Europe where Muslims were tortured and murdered; or in World War II Germany where genocide was attempted in response to a religion that was deemed dangerous and evil?

In the end, is it even possible to have freedom of religion at all if that freedom does not extend to all religions (and to the irreligious too)? And if not, what exactly do we mean by freedom?
Discuss.

Originally published as an unsigned editorial in Eye Weekly on December 13.

Greed, grit and the triumph of civilization at the corner of Yonge and Bloor 

If you were watching the news on Nov. 13, you may have caught the weirdness: a near riot outside the Yonge and Bloor sales centre of the condo tower to be built at 1 Bloor E., as a mob of roughly 300 people jockeyed for position. Scruffy-­looking young people stood on chairs chanting “Go by The List! Go by The List!” Police milled around looking to maintain order. Kathy Kalina and Nadine Robbins, two la-di-da real estate agents from central casting (Robbins even had a tiny dog in her purse) were defiant for the cameras about their right to jump the queue — which had formed eight days earlier in anticipation of the agents-only launch. And then the pièce de résistance: a worker for the 1 Bloor developers climbed a ladder amid the fray to unfurl a banner changing a sign that had read “From the $300,000s to over $2 million” so it now read “From $500,000 to over $8 million.”

All this in the shadow of a looming US recession spurned by a real-estate crisis — this fuss to pay $1,000 or more per square foot for teensy apartments in a tower that won’t be built until at least 2011, a tower that’s currently proposed to be 20 storeys taller than current city zoning will allow. The message was obvious: the Toronto real-estate market has gone batshit crazy.

Which may be true. But if you talk to those who’d been camping out for a week in the cold and rain to be at the front of the line, a different story emerges, a story about strangers bonding and getting along in odd circumstances. According to the soggy, groggy condo campers, the moral of that story is — ready for this? — the triumph of order over chaos and principle over greed. Now we’re talking crazy.

Exhibit A for the human angle is Monica Geiman, the young woman you may have seen on the news standing on a chair, pumping her fist and chanting. A between-jobs retail clerk who lives with her parents in Thornhill and is planning, at 23 years old, to go back to university in the fall, Geiman was one of the original crew of 15 who arrived more than a week earlier to occupy the first 11 spots in line on behalf of real estate agents Hersch Litvack and Anna Cass.

Geiman’s friends wouldn’t have guessed that she’d last out there — she isn’t the kind of girl who’s keen on going without showers or wearing the same clothes for days on end. By her own admission, bad as it sounds, she’s kind of spoiled.

But she’s pals with David James, whose mother works with Litvack, and James was the ringleader of the original crew, mostly old friends from high school and elementary school rounded up for extra cash and a bit of adventure. Geiman earned enough to go shopping in Buffalo, take her boyfriend on a cruise and make some car payments, and she had a once-in-a-lifetime experience to boot.
For her and the rest of Litvack’s crew, every comfort, under the circumstances, was extended: they had a hotel room across the street at the Marriott, where they took turns sleeping in shifts (there were 15 of them holding 11 spots — don’t ask about the state of the room after eight days), they had sleeping bags, propane heat lamps, a daily allowance for food and coffee, ponchos and tarps. All in addition to payment, which varied, but the going rate was $250 per day. You gotta figure Litvack and his people spent more than $40,000.

Which is not to say it was easy. In fact, on day three, Geiman broke down and cried and thought about quitting, but a bit of rest set her straight and, five days later, she was standing on a chair chanting “Go by The List!”

Geiman’s was to be the keeper of The List. On the first night, the people behind Litvack’s group in line — young agents Yoon Hyun Choi and Winston Mak from Homelife, out on their own behalf — started offering tips from their experience in the condo wars. Those at the front of the line, they said, had to create a system to maintain order for the group. By then there were 90 people there.
The List was born to allow for some order (and some rest): people had to show up for a roll call (every two hours between 8am and 6pm, every three hours till midnight, and then again at 4am) to maintain their spot on The List, and otherwise they could roam for coffee or naps or washroom breaks. And since David James was busy managing his crew — making schedules, handling complaints with a roll of his eyes, managing money and brokering supplies — Geiman kept The List.

Adam Szalai, a 26-year-old film production worker, meanwhile, did what he does, which is help manage the production. He talked to the media and helped people negotiate their spots on The List and generally worked to maintain order. And, according to Szalai, a whole system developed by collective consent. There were five rules that emerged from the line’s spontaneous democracy:
1. You cannot be late for roll call or you lose your spot.
2. One person in line represents one agent. No holding multiple spots.
3. You cannot sell your spot in line. (Szalai was offered $8,000 for his spot at one point.)
4. Agents can switch representatives, but a representative cannot give their spot in line to a new agent.
5. No agent, no holding a spot.

The last three rules are just different ways of saying the same thing, but they were making these up as they went along and crossing bridges as they came to them. Everyone knew there were millions of dollars at stake for the agents, and everyone was together in being out on the street putting up with crap, getting hassled by crack addicts and passing drunks at night and looked down upon by businesspeople during the day (“who thought we were skeevy, homeless glue sniffers,” Szalai says). So everyone respected the rules. Mostly.

There was the time when a homeless guy, reportedly getting paid only $80 a day (which Geiman says is sad and as Szalai points out, in protecting-your-investment terms, is just stupid) missed a roll call and got sent to the end of the line. The agent paying him rolled up and double-parked his Audi, and, a walking stereotype of sleaze — with an exposed hairy chest and gold chains and sharkskin shoes — started threatening the girl at the front of the line maintaining The List. The pay-duty cop stepped in and told the guy to step off. And there: the law was respecting the line’s authority to self-regulate.

There was at least one exception. Johnny was a paraplegic man representing an agent. No one’s saying for sure that Johnny was homeless, but he hadn’t caught a lot of breaks in his life, and you could see in his eyes that this money he was making was everything to him. He stood out there night and day and never missed a roll call. Until one 4am when Szalai was heading for Timmy’s for a coffee and saw — this was like 4:03 — Johnny running as fast as he could on his canes, trying to make the line, trembling with tears in his eyes at the thought that everything he had worked for was going to be lost because he’d drifted off trying to get warm over a coffee. Szalai turned and ran as fast as he could to get back to the line, to tell Monica and everyone else that Johnny was there and should be marked present. “I would have argued to the death with anyone in that line who challenged me that that guy didn’t have the right to be there,” Szalai says.  

And, of course, there were other sad stories. David Chesney was hired by some guy on craigslist and sat out there in the street for seven days. The agent he was supposedly representing turned out never to have heard of him. He got nothing — he’d been promised $2,000 — and is planning to file a lawsuit.

But see, for the overwhelming part, The List was respected and enforced by group consensus.

Until, that is, the morning of the day the sales office was to open. That’s when the builders said they didn’t know anything about any list and were planning to serve people first come, first served. And those two defiant women on the news, Kalina and Robbins, marched to the front of the line at 6am, hours before the scheduled roll call.

But here’s what happened while the TV news cameras and the police prepared for a riot: Litvack and Szalai and the police and building security had a meeting and, it was decided, The List would be respected. The builders agreed.

The crowd outside burst into applause at the news, and Geiman — in her car on her way home, under the impression The List had been tossed and her hard work calling names 10 times a day and helping enforce rules was to be for nothing — got a call on her cellphone to return to help put people in order. Even Kalina and Robbins, who’d had representatives in line for them the entire time got to keep their places in line. Democracy ruled the day.

“I loved it,” Szalai says, “I loved every minute of it. What’s so great about this story is that the good guys won. And the bad guys lost. All the way through.”

And, while the people of the line went home and rested and formed a Facebook group to keep in touch after this strange, momentous event — like kids after summer camp — the batshit craziness took over again. On Nov. 17, it was reported that the penthouse apartment had sold for $25 million to a foreign businessman, who, of course, never had to wait in line. It was the most expensive condo sale in Canadian history. 

Originally published November 21, 2007 in Eye Weekly.

The City’s preservation board investigates designating the entire subway sysem a heritage property — putting it on a collision course with the TTC 

“As the son of an architect, I was always amazed at the architecture of the subway. Once, it was breathtaking and beautiful,” recalls city councillor Adam Vaughan. “When those old trains came through the stations, the primary colours really played off the maroon of the subway cars in a way that was quite rich. The nostalgia around the TTC system was always pronounced with me… I have rich, vivid memories.”
So Vaughan was interested and concerned when he read a story I wrote for EYE WEEKLY (“Signs of dysfunction,” July 12) about Toronto typography expert and transit activist Joe Clark’s campaign to preserve the historically unique signage of the TTC, which has been neglected for decades and is currently threatened by a station modernization project. After visiting the website of Clark’s TTC Signs campaign (www.joeclark.org/TTC), Vaughan, as a member of the Toronto Preservation Board, felt he needed to act.

“It occurred to me that we needed to provide the TTC with a little directional kick in the pants to take care of a couple things,” says Vaughan. “One is the rich design history, which was part of their whole psyche in the early years but has left the station in ways that are really quite deplorable.… The fact that there’s a whole history to the type, a whole history to the station design, a whole history to the different lines and how they evolved and how they represent different periods in Toronto’s history needs to be honoured and recognized.”

He put my article on the agenda for discussion at the preservation board’s meeting Nov. 9 and, after hearing a presentation by Clark (and some brief remarks from me), the board voted unanimously to have staff report on the possibility of designating as Heritage Properties the entire Bloor-Danforth subway line and the Yonge-University line between St. George and Eglinton. Such a designation would require the TTC to consult with the board about any renovations or changes to the stations, and to ensure that such changes respect the historical character of the original design. The motion calls for staff to report first on designating the eight stations currently scheduled for modernization, which could put the board on a collision course with the TTC.

Clark’s campaign, begun this summer, calls on the TTC to respect and preserve the unique typeface and other characteristics — including colour patterns, tile work and original signs affixed to the walls. Stations including Pape, Victoria Park, Islington and Kipling are scheduled to be renovated in the immediate future and, at least in the case of Pape, plans call for a complete overhaul. Such a move would eliminate the design uniformity that currently exists across the entire Bloor-Danforth line, with consistent colours repeating in sequence, consistent tile patterns and one unique TTC-designed font inscribed on the walls. The renovations are part of a 35-year plan to modernize every station in the system at a rate of one per year.

“The trick is trying to prevent the destruction of the subway system as we know it,” Clark says. “What are these [TTC] commissioners doing, exactly? Through malign neglect, they are beginning a 35-year process of destruction. Because if they make over Pape station so that it doesn’t match any of the other stations, if they make it over in artificial stone — which has “fake” right there in the title — then the design uniformity of the Bloor-Danforth line is busted, and that gives future generations of commissioners authorization to make every station different.”

Clark is encouraged by the preservation board’s response to his campaign. “It’s a good sign, an excellent and necessary corrective to what the archaeologist who runs the TTC is doing,” he says, while cautioning that the wording of any designation must be specific to ensure the TTC does not simply preserve the typeface of station designations and disregard everything else.

The archaeologist mentioned derisively by Clark, TTC chair Adam Giambrone, says that he’s willing to work with the preservation board but that he thinks designating every station on entire lines is excessive.

“Usually we don’t expect to see every single station designated. Some of them certainly deserve designation … the system was built out over a number of years and I’d think you’d want examples of each of those stations.”

Giambrone says trying to preserve the look and feel of stations — which require renovation due to the need for wheelchair accessibility and general wear and tear — could be expensive, since the colour, size and shape of the original tiles are no longer produced.

“We could get special tiles, presumably someone could make them, because they do reproductions, but it’s going to be very expensive.”

Pointing to the multi-million dollar budget for each station’s renovation, Clark scoffs at this argument. “Let’s spend the money. Would you like me to chip in? I can set up a Paypal account if you want.”

Vaughan takes a similar view, characterizing the TTC’s recent bare-bones approach as being “too cheap to be special.” He says it’s the wrong way to approach infrastructure. “You can build a city off a budget sheet, but you end up with Tucson…. The reality is if you build Paris, you’ll have an economy. If you build an economy, you’ll have Houston. Or Calgary. The poet laureate [Pier Giorgio Di Cicco] has said it the best. He said ‘beauty has its own economy,’ and he’s right. The old subway stations were beautiful, and they found their own economy. It’s the roots of the wealthiest transit system in the world in terms of being able to generate passengers and off-peak passengers…. The Toronto Transit system is still one of the great transit systems in the world and it performs in a way that’s quite spectacular, despite its underfunding. That finds its roots in the attention to detail of the earlier generations who used to run it.”

While promising to work with the board, Giambrone claims it may be too late for Pape station, where, he says, an artificial-stone redesign is too far along to stop. “We’re going to have to figure this out. We’ll work with them — there are already some stations like Pape, where contracts are being issued. So those will go ahead, I suspect, before designation. We’re going to have to take a look at it.”

Clark thinks it is urgent that the “destruction” of Pape station be halted, and is considering taking the fight to city council.

Vaughan would also like to see the TTC slow down its plans there to wait for the preservation board’s advice. “If it’s too late for Pape, my apologies. But the reality is, we’re going to move to try to curb the way the TTC is approaching this and approach it from a perspective of heritage and not just of refreshing the subway system. We’re going to immediately get a handle on the eight [stations] that are most likely to change and get them to just be refreshments rather than renovations. And then, for the two heritage lines in particular, that have a really consistent set of design principles attached to them, to immediately establish what those principles are and make sure that all future conversions talk to that status.”

Vaughan claims the Bloor-Danforth line is a set and that, aesthetics aside, tells us something important about our history, something worth preserving. “When we built the subway, we built it as one big project. That in and of itself is what the design of the subway speaks to — [a time] when we had the confidence and the ability and the vision to build infrastructure the size and the scope of the Bloor subway line. That’s an amazing mindset compared to what we have today, where if we’re really lucky we could add a station and if we do, it should just be bare concrete because everyone will think we’re rich if we do it any other way. We didn’t just sort of go to a computer and print some signs, we designed a friggin’ typeface. That speaks to a level of design and a level of endeavour, which is, in fact, real city building. Now we just renovate.” 

Originally published November 14, 2007 in Eye Weekly.

Come Remembrance Day this week, Canadians will, as always, solemnly recite the verses of Canadian World War I soldier John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields,” including its stirring final stanza: “Take up our quarrel with the foe: / To you from failing hands we throw / the torch; be yours to hold it high. / If ye break faith with us who die / We shall not sleep, though poppies grow / In Flanders fields.”

Written on the battlefield, McCrae’s words are powerful and beautiful, and they have been held up as a proud symbol of Canada (look, there they are on the $10 bill). But, in that it could easily serve as the text of a recruiting poster or, as it does for the Montreal Canadiens, the slogan of a sports team, that final stanza is not typical of the poetry of World War I soldiers.

Most soldiers shouted home a different message. English soldier Seigfried Sassoon’s “Suicide in the Trenches” concludes in a manner closer to the general mood: “You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye / Who cheer when soldier lads march by, / Sneak home and pray you’ll never know / The hell where youth and laughter go.”

Wilfred Owen, the English soldier many consider the leading poet of the war, wrote “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young” as a retelling of the familiar biblical story of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac. An angel appears to spare his son: “A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead. // But the old man would not so, but slew his son, / And half the seed of Europe, one by one.”

This Remembrance Day, Canadian soldiers are in combat in Afghanistan, and may be for decades to come, we’re told. War rages in Iraq and may soon in Iran and Pakistan. There is much to reflect on. We might well consider the lessons of those brave soldiers from what was to have been The War to End All Wars — this way lies madness, they say, a self-fuelling fireball that engulfs the bodies and souls of all who wage it or who have it waged on them. That has been the lesson of warfare since the beginning of humanity. It was understood by the Vikings, whose greatest saga, according to Lee Sandlin in his essay “Losing the War,” was about a pointless, unproductive battle that engulfs generations and destroys the innocent and guilty alike. “For the Vikings, this was the essence of war: it’s a mystery that comes out of nowhere and grows for reasons nobody can control, until it shakes the whole world apart.”

Even wars generally agreed to be humanity’s finest moments teach the same message: in the service of ending fascism and stopping genocide in World War II, more than 60 million died on all sides, many after surviving years of insane agony on the battlefield, many more as huge swaths of millennia-old civilizations were reduced to rubble. A great part of an entire generation on five continents lived in a waking nightmare of fear that the bombs and guns and death camps would return.

From the American Civil War through Korea, Vietnam, Kosovo, history tells the same story, one nearly identical to that of the soldiers returning from Iraq: if war produces just ends, it is only by happenstance, for the logic of war leads inevitably towards carnage; towards the reduction of humanity to its most horrifying state of barbarism and of the world to an unendurable hell.

Yet we have become again a society in which the military is seen as a source of solutions — through the eyes of leaders who have never served in combat, war is a just hammer. To them, every terrorist attack, foreign-policy threat and humanitarian crisis begins to look like a nail. They point to those who warn that war must be a last resort and accuse them of failing to “support the troops.” But the troops are citizen servants of the highest order who go off and learn what soldiers past have tried to teach; they sacrifice their sanity, their lives and their humanity — and inflict untold terror on others —?on our instruction.

In an age when being “strong on terror” has been reduced to tying a yellow ribbon and solemnly swearing to send others to kill and die before sitting down to watch Dancing With the Stars, we might reflect on what our history of violence has been trying to tell us all along:
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Originally published as an unsigned editorial in Eye Weekly November 7, 2007.

The City of Toronto has studied burning garbage — apparently candidate Stephen LeDrew has not
I’ve been on about this on the blog (check it out at eyeweekly.com/election2006) but the vast influence of my internet audience has not yet altered the terms of the election debate, so I figured I’d commit this to paper, too:

Stephen LeDrew, alongside many, many conservative-ish council candidates, keeps proposing that we should “investigate” or “take a look at” or “study” burning our garbage rather than buying the Green Lane landfill (or any other landfill). Here’s LeDrew, for example, in a press release from last week: “I will commit to diverting 80 per cent of waste from landfill and exploring clean and cost-effective waste-to-energy solutions for the remaining 20 per cent.”

(Nota bene: “waste to energy,” “advanced thermal technology” and “gasification” are all words that mean incineration, just so we all know what we’re talking about.)

It sounds so reasonable when they suggest we should study this option. Who wouldn’t want to investigate all the options? Why is David Miller such a closed-minded hard head that he’s against investigating possible solutions? Right?

Except that, as Geoff Rathbone, director of policy and planning with the city’s works department, confirms, we have already studied and explored waste-to-energy solutions, and in fact we’re continuing to do the groundwork required to build such a facility.

To wit: the city convened a committee made up of experts on waste management and local citizens and activists to study all available options for diverting waste from landfill way back in February 2003. That group (whose name is longer than a Rex Murphy adjective — the New and Emerging Technologies, Policies and Practices Advisory Group, for the record) met for nearly two years, at no small cost to the city, and studied all the new technologies on the market. Their final report is available online at http://www.tinyurl.com/y6lqnj.

As a result of their work, Toronto is conducting an Environmental Assessment on various technologies — including incineration — with an eye to building a test facility. Just this week, the city ran a bunch of
advertisements announcing public hearings as part of that EA process (see http://www.toronto.ca/ceat for hearing dates and a comments form). This is all work that is required before building a waste-to-energy facility.

In other words, not only have we studied incineration, but we’re taking the necessary steps to build incinerators.

Maybe some candidates haven’t explored all the options, but the city has. And if they want to build an incinerator, they shouldn’t hide behind words like “look into it.”

Taking a page from Spacing
Last week in this space, I had a bit of a laugh at Jane Pitfield’s blog. Over the weekend, the story got even weirder. Turns out her posting from Oct. 7 — taking the wind out of some Miller spending proposals — was plagiarized almost directly from a post by John Lorinc on Spacing magazine’s excellent election blog (www.spacing.ca/votes). Further investigation revealed that another post seemed to have been lifted from a story by Anthony Reinhart from The Globe and Mail.

Matt Blackett of Spacing writes, “‘There hasn’t always been a clear plan of what to do with my blog,’ [Pitfield] said. ‘I have a young man looking after it. But I will talk to someone at our office right away.'”

The entire blog has since been removed.

On a related technology note, one of the interesting developments in this campaign has been the emergence of the blog as a form of coverage. In addition to ours and Spacing’s, there’s also Rob Granatstein’s X Marks the T-dot from the Toronto Sun, where I found the LeDrew quote about garbage above (surf over to www. blog.canoe.ca/cityvote and praise the lord Sue-Ann Levy hasn’t figured out how to use the internet yet) and Marc Weisblott’s Campaign Bubble from The Globe and Mail (www.theglobeandmail.com/blogs/campaignbubble).

Meet the next mayor
Both Christopher Hume of the Toronto Star and John Barber of The Globe and Mail have very recently proposed the idea of introducing political parties to Toronto politics.

We suspect they mean party as in have-a-membership-card-and-toe-the-line. But Eye Weekly already has plans to introduce a
political party (as in pass-the-beer-and-hit-the-dancefloor) to this election, and it’s scheduled to take place one week before election day.

The Political Party, presented with our friends at Spacing magazine, will feature speeches and interviews with Jane Pitfield and David Miller and then give you an opportunity to talk to them yourself while the drinks flow and the live music plays.

It takes place at Revival (783 College) on Monday, Nov. 6. Musical guests announced Oct. 19 at http://www.eyeweekly.com/election2006. Admission is free.

Originally published in Eye Weekly on October 19, 2006. 

Recently, Spacing magazine and Live With Culture solicited submissions for a contest in which applicants were asked to shoot a 30-second video for the city, using the theme “My Toronto.” You can view the submissions they received and vote on your favourites at www.spacing.ca. Coincidentally, the CTV television network has launched its own “My Toronto is…” video contest, also soliciting videos from viewers. EYE WEEKLY city editor Edward Keenan is not very handy with a camera, but couldn’t resist gathering some notes for his own My Toronto video.

A rail network runs through my Toronto like the open road in a Kerouac novel – representing connection and freedom and possibility – so we’ll want to open with a shot of me in my Battlestar Galactica pyjamas, looking out my bedroom window onto Gerrard Street as the 506 car rumbles by at night. Then jump-cut to me on the same streetcar, lugging all my hockey equipment as an eight-year-old on my way to play on a Saturday morning at Ted Reeve arena. From there, cut to the view of the Don Valley Parkway from the Bloor subway travelling on the Prince Edward viaduct, as I try to spot two red cars (for good luck) before we re-enter the tunnel.

You can pull some footage from the archives of me as a Grade 9 in my Catholic school jacket and tie, sleeping on the subway surrounded by a school bag, hockey bag and stick and saxophone case as the crowd wedged in around me glares. And then get a shot of the building on Dupont where I lived with my wife in my early thirties as a freight train passes on the CNR tracks directly north. Zoom in through the window to find me and Rebecca in bed, sleeping contentedly, the passing train rattling the entire apartment.

And parks – we’ll need shots of parks. My Toronto is tobogganing on the giant hill at Riverdale Park as a 10-year-old, racing towards the valley and the highway across the track and beyond the fence. And my Toronto is going over the handlebars of my bike on that same hill and being knocked out cold as a 13-year-old. We’ll need a shot of teenagers drinking beer at Cudia Park on the Scarborough Bluffs by the light of a campfire, me sneaking a kiss with some girl I’ve just met in the bushes before flashlights flare through the trees and someone shouts “police!” and we run off in all directions.

You can cut to a shot of me in a cook’s apron as a 25-year-old, leaning back on the boulder in Yorkville Park with my eyes closed, trying to suppress the urge to go back into my restaurant and strangle a customer or a server or anyone else who expects me to continue cooking. And then maybe fade to a shot of me leaning over my year-old son in the surf at Hanlan’s Point as he tries to catch the rolling waves, our friends and all the naked people in the background.

We have sports in my Toronto, though most of them are hockey. You can jump rapidly from me scoring my first goal on the ice at Ted Reeve to the bunch of us in Grade 3 playing “foot hockey” with a tennis ball in the schoolyard to me and my brother playing table hockey in a wood-panelled basement in Scarborough to a shot of Doug Gilmour on TV, his faced bruised and cut, as the Leafs have just lost to the Los Angeles Kings in the 1993 playoffs. Pan out from there to find a room full of grown men in tears. Then cut to the same group of men playing road hockey in the middle of Danforth Avenue in 2004.

I suppose there’s some baseball in my Toronto, too, so you can show me dancing in the middle of Yonge Street in 1992 after the Blue Jays have won the World Series for the first time, a stranger approaching me in the crowded streets and handing me a giant Canadian flag that he’s apparently ripped off the side of a building. Then you can cut to me with my hair dyed platinum inside the Phoenix Concert Theatre in 1993, sitting with the rest of the crowd and watching on the big screen as Joe Carter hits a home run to win a second title.

My Toronto is dancing on in the early ’90s at the Phoenix and the Dance Cave and Catch 22; drinking beer and playing pool around the same time at Sneaky Dee’s; shooting the shit in the mid-’90s at the Only Café; talking with James O’Reilly, the playwright, who was a bartender at the Spotted Dick on Bloor in the late ’90s, and then we’ll want some footage of me wasting the early years after the millennium at the bar at Taro Grill on Queen. Somewhere we need a shot of me at the booze can in the alleyway behind Yonge Street, where some girl I kind of know shows me her tiny fake tits in the washroom before offering me a line of coke. And another shot of the booze can in the alley behind Queen Street, where everyone is playing dice games for money.

Politics – let’s get some politics in. Show me at a Citizens for Local Democracy rally in a completely packed church in 1997 as John Ralston Saul gives a speech. And drinking beer and smoking cigarettes with Jack Layton at the Only Café on the Danforth later that year, plotting his campaign (jump quickly to Marilyn Churley in tears at his party on election night). We can find a shot of the Trampoline Hall vs David Miller event at the Gladstone in 2003, with Jane Jacobs on stage holding a big horn up to her ear so she can hear questions from the audience. (That’s me there taking notes.) And then add some footage of that night in 2005 when a public-space activist showed me how to shut off the lights on a billboard.

How can we be at 30 seconds already? I need to add a shot of me and Rebecca eating a tasting menu at Accolade in 1999, and me proposing to her over “cold tea” at a Chinese restaurant on Spadina in 2000, and a shot of me and her – Rebecca in bare feet and her wedding dress – stumbling up Bay Street to our room at the Sutton Place, our honeymoon luggage slung over our backs, on the night we were married in 2002.

And then we need me holding my newborn son Colum in the delivery room at Mount Sinai Hospital in 2006, his mother sleeping beside us after three days of labour. And Colum at his favourite places: the High Park Zoo, the ferry to the Island, running around in the middle of the street at the Junction Arts Festival, on a pony ride at a fair in Scarborough.

Here’s a tagline: “My Toronto doesn’t fit into a 30-second commercial.” Then squeeze in shots of wandering the deserted financial district in the early morning waiting for the subway to start running, of teenagers fist fighting on Kingston Road, of kids playing on the Henry Moore sculptures in front of the ROM, of the staff of a literary magazine drinking wine in the park on McCaul, of grown men playing a burby tournament in a schoolyard….

Originally published in Eye Weekly, October 18, 2007.

Author Michael Winter sees the self in the story

Michael Winter is sitting at a table on the empty patio of the Cadillac Lounge in Parkdale, talking small to avoid posing for the photographer who’s snapping pictures.

“We bought a house in Newfoundland for $5,000. No running water. No electricity.” It’s about an hour outside St. John’s, “on the road out to a lighthouse,” near the homes of some other writers who are generous with the use of their shower facilities.

Winter is about 12 hours off the plane from out east, back in Toronto for the winter; he’s wearing an army jacket and runners, sipping coffee from a paper cup with bags under his eyes. The deep shadows come with a buoyant mood; they’re the facial baggage of a man with a three-week-old son. I ask about bringing his first-born, Leo, home to the rough-and-tumble cabin, where he’s lived all summer with his partner Christine Pountney. “He’ll have it in his biography – that his first home had no running water,” he says. No running water and a newborn kid. You working on that?

“Oh yeah. Feel these muscles, Ed,” he says, gripping a bicep. “These are not writing muscles.”

But, if you’ll excuse the cheeseball transition, he’d be entitled to brag on the writing muscles if he wanted to. The Architects Are Here (Penguin, $34), his fifth book – launching Oct. 4 at the Cadillac Lounge as part of This Is Not a Reading Series – is already on the Scotiabank Giller Prize long list before it’s even out of the gate. The ambitious novel marks the return of narrator Gabriel English, Winter’s fictional alter ego and the subject of his first three books. With those early books, Winter encouraged the perception that his fiction was not very fictional – and as a result, people in his life reading themselves in his stories were hurt. So his last novel, The Big Why, veered into the relationship-preserving realm of historical fiction. And this time, the only bits of real-life biography present, Winter says, are his own.

Except one. “There’s a part in the book when [Gabriel’s] brother says, ‘If you write about me again I will deliver a punch to your head from which you might never recover,’” a threat Winter’s own miner brother made to him. “It’s his line. That’s the end of my brother in fiction.”

And the story departs, too, from the chapter in English’s life readers already know, the twentysomething years spent in St. John’s – looking backward to his upbringing in Corner Brook and forward to his life in Toronto as it explores his complicated relationships with his smooth-talking, Falstaff-meets-Gatsby friend David Twombley, his riddling romance with Nell Tarkington and their intersection with the Hurley family, the tar-paper Corleones of Corner Brook.

It’s unmistakably the English of the earlier books, yet the experiences are buried, subtext – one can read this book and feel they know Gabe English inside and out and yet be unaware of three volumes of his life. Which, as it happens, is kind of a theme of the book.

From the book: “You never know how different people’s histories can be from what they are now.”

Winter, at the Cadillac: “We think we know people and we try to pin them down to a thing: this is what you are, this is what you’re like. But, in truth, we only know a small part of people.”

In The Architects Are Here, the fact of people’s complexity is made plain. We all contain multitudes of history, emotion and personality that stay hidden from various people. We are different, but no less genuine, depending on who we’re with. But these “other selves,” as Nell calls them, don’t remain in the past, they are beside us always. Which can bring on unintended consequences for those we love. Which, as it turns out, is another theme of the book.

Winter: “My mother told me, ‘You’re in your forties now; you need to write a book that shows consequences.’”

And consequences – usually unforeseen and often disastrous – are everywhere in the novel, as each personal, secret act reverberates outward, damaging lives along the way, and then ripples back in, dangerously and sometimes lethally, before emanating outward again.

It’s a mature book, in Winter’s mastery of his devastatingly effective prose style (spare, poetic sentences that create full, round imagery) and sprawling, entrancing plot and in the concerns of his thirtysomething characters. It’s big and ambitious and exciting: it’s a Toronto novel and a Newfoundland novel and a road novel all rolled into one; a love triangle and a buddy story and a revenge epic; a boozy, funny portrait of achingly true characters you might have a beer with playing out their lives on a widescreen scale.

There are princes and presidents and technological marvels and classic roadsters, lost parents and dead children and adultery and explosions and violence. Yet for all its Hollywood scope, it feels, days after the covers are closed, like a book about screwed-up people trying to figure out how to live with one another, and with themselves.

“I’m looking for that contrast,” Winter says, about taking plot elements that could be from a romance novel or action movie and avoid the melodrama by focusing on the inner lives of the people involved. “To take what the reader’s expecting and do something completely different – and to then, through the characters, make them believe it. Make it real.”

Originally published in Eye Weekly on October 4, 2007.

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