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She writes sad songs

She writes sad songs with fancy pens
And written, scratches out again
And again she writes in smeary scrawl
A song of love and loss (et al)
And draws another damp, thick line
Through verses good or bad or fine
She writes sad love songs with her pen
Again, again, again.

She thinks, if only she were free
Her songs would spark, would simply BE,
Would simply soar across her breath
And not demand a speedy death.
Her eyes would blaze with verses true
As that is what true artists do.
She writes sad songs and strikes them out
And out and out and out.

I wish I could relate the end
Of my sad-love-song-writing friend
For all I know she writes them still
For good, indifferent, or ill;
And if her pen sleeps peacefully
I hope the same is true of she.
This is the most we can aspire:
Continue on, if we desire,
And find some happiness if not,
Forget – and be forgot.

Simple pleasures

The simple pleasures remain, at least.
If nothing else, they do remain –
A sunlit glow through a covered pane,
A breeze, a scent, a sudden taste,
A fine-turned phrase or a soft embrace,
They remain. They remain.

If nothing else, hold on to these
These quick-sweet moments, darting bright
Hold on to life and hope and light
All you who breathe, here, now, and still
And still beneath the ocean’s swell
We remain. We remain.

There is no answer, no way to peace
The rot within us will come out.
No cure, no change, no turnabout
This is the fate our hearts maintain.
But the simple pleasures, they do remain.
I do not know how long.

I was walking my kid to school the other day – YES THAT BABY I HAD FOUR YEARS AGO THAT TOOK UP ALL MY BLOGGING TIME IS IN SCHOOL NOW, NO I’M NOT CRYING, WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT – thinking about how humans get from one place to another. On one hand we’re pretty awesome at creating complicated machines to transport our weak little human bodies around. On the other hand we stink at it.

I mean, take a city. A city is the human equivalent of an ant hill – it’s where we live together in close proximity because life is easier that way. The entire *point* of a city is to keep the necessities of human life within a manageable distance. Yet few North American cities are really walkable, and even in the few that are the majority of people drive the majority of the time.

As a way of life and an allocation of resources this is really inefficient. Driving is difficult, dangerous, and expensive. That something like 80% of trips within Toronto are done by car bothers me not just because it’s bad for the environment and destructive to public space, but because it’s so colossally wasteful. It offends my frugal soul. Don’t you know that gas costs money? I want to yell at the guy around the corner who drives his kids to school (it’s about a 10 minute walk). Don’t you know that car is going to cost you like 8 grand a year? I refrain from posting as a comment on a friend’s Facebook picture of their new wheels.

But of course people drive. Because it’s easier that way, because it’s normal, because they want to maintain status with their peers, because no other option seems viable, because they’ve structured their lives so that they have no other choice. So be it, when gas gets up to $10/L that’ll change. But if you had to design an urban transport system from scratch, what would it be?

I’m starting from the basic principles that good transportation: a) is good for the user; b) is good for the environment; c) doesn’t unduly harm other people or animals; d) inexpensive; e) is accessible to the greatest number of people, and f) is easy. Bearing that in mind…

1. WALKING AND MOBILITY DEVICES – Walking with or without a mobility device should be the default mode of transport. Walking is good for you, safe, almost impact-free on the environment, free to the user (though mobility devices are not), and very easy.

2. CYCLING – Riding a bike is also very good for you, relatively safe for the user – though not as safe as walking, of course – generally safe for pedestrians, and relatively easy. Most of us learn to ride bikes in childhood and, as they say, you never forget. You have to pay for your bike and any parts and maintenance, but that’s it. Don’t let anyone tell you that you need specialized clothing to ride a bike around town, other than a helmet and maybe a reflective vest. You can ride a bike safely in almost anything.

3. PUBLIC TRANSIT – Public transit is mostly safe for the user and the non-user alike, though women often experience sexual harassement and attacks on public transit – ask me about the time a guy tried to lick my face on the subway!  Buses which run on petroleum products do harm to the environment, though not as much as private cars. Ease of use and cost vary between regions. The TTC is easy enough to use but expensive.

4. DRIVING – If this were the food pyramid “Driving” would be about as big as “Fats and oils”. Use sparingly. Driving is bad for the user, destructive to the community, dangerous both to the user and to non-users, very difficult, and really really expensive. Not to mention, in spite of a rigorous testing programme, most people can’t drive for shit. Just stand at any reasonably busy intersection at rush hour and see how many Ontario Highway Traffic Act infractions you can count if you don’t believe me. I once counted 7 waiting for a light to change, including someone doing a U -Turn against the light IN THE MIDDLE OF THE INTERSECTION. No wonder it feels like you’re taking your life into your hands every time you leave the house.

Of course, if you live outside of the human anthill (I suppose there are solitary ant species?) your pyramid is going to look different, but then I’m not talking about you, am I? You go on with your…solitary ant life, whatever that is.

A few weeks ago the worst thing that has ever happened to anyone happened to me: the local grocery store abruptly shut down.

There was no warning. One day it was open, the next there was a sign on the door that some kind of serious structural issue needed to be fixed right away and the store was closed until further notice. Rumours went through the neighbourhood. The roof had caved in. The floor had collapsed. It was a nefarious plot on the part of the parent company to tear it down and sell the very valuable land for condos. The man in the hardware store on the corner told me the parent company wanted to buy up the whole block, tear everything down, and build a huge Shoppers Drugmart.

I will be the first to say that it was a bad No Frills. It frequently made lists of “The worst No Frills in Toronto”, of which there have been a few. The quality of the produce was decent, if you knew what you were looking for, but it frequently ran out of staples, like garlic or sweet potatoes or soy milk. What kind of grocery store runs out of garlic? This one did more than once. But as bad as it was, not having it is much worse.

Here are some things I have started rationing since No Frills shut down:

  • Fresh fruit other than apples
  • Tofu
  • Broccoli
  • Greens

Here are somethings I buy more of than before:

  • Frozen fruit and veg, they keep a long time and are space-efficient 
  • Samosas. They have really good ones at one of the small groceries I go to in the neighbourhood. Not complaining.

Here are some things I have given up in buying period:

  • Whole wheat pasta (they sell name-brand white pasta at the dollar store, that’ll do)
  • Whole wheat flour (too heavy and bulky)
  • Juice (too heavy to carry from anywhere else)
  • Bulk toilet paper (too bulky to carry on transit)
  • White vinegar (too heavy, not worth it)

Here are some things I haven’t figured out how to reliably buy yet:

  • Disposable diapers and wipes
  • Baby cereal 
  • Canned beans unless it’s an emergency (too expensive to buy in local stores)
  • Olive oil (I found some reasonably-priced stuff at a fruit stand on the Dabforth but it’s hardly in my orbit or a reliable source)

It could be much worse. There are multiple small South Asian groceries in the neighbourhood, whose prices are on the high side, but carry a decent selection of fresh fruits and vegetables, dry goods, dried beans, and spices. There’s an organic grocery store for your $3 avocado and vegan marshmallow needs, and two dollar stores which carry an inconsistent but reasonable selection of dry goods. One even had baby cereal last week! (Personally I will buy name-brand food from a dollar store but not store-brand or unrecognizable brand. Call me a snob, I don’t care.) The possibly-nefarious parent company of the shuttered No Frills even runs a free shuttle bus to the closest No Frills, about 5 km away. It’s an infinitely nicer store – a friend who lives nearby refers to it as “Some Frills” – but there is no getting around the fact that what used to take 20-30 minutes out of my week now takes 2-3 hours, or that I have to think carefully about my ability to carry whatever I buy, or that I have switched to less healthy foods or rationed staples in an effort to save my sanity.

I know that even without No Frills you couldn’t call this a food desert – maybe a food semi-arid area? – and that eventually we’ll figure out a routine of food acquisition that ensures a reliable and reasonably cost-effective food supply without tearing our collective hair out. My kids will not die because I fed the more simple carbs or more frozen veg than before. But it still stinks and I would like to strongly register my disapproval of the entire situation.

In closing if you would like to buy me a giant thing of toilet paper and about 35 packets of vegan baby cereal I will not say no.

Hi! Did you miss me for the last…really long time? I’m not going to go through all of what I’ve been up to for the last year and a half other than a) I had another baby! Her name is Alice and she’s almost 8 months and b) I had to spend the last three weeks of my pregnancy and the first two weeks after the birth on bed rest and while you’d think that would get me blogging again, it did not.

Anyway. I am still not 100% back to my normal level of mobility and my studio is a bit slow right now, BUT I have a metropass and a curious almost-four-year-old who loves public transit and , incidentally, a really sweet-natured and easygoing baby. So I thought I’d start doing something I used to do on my own, only with my kids.

Back in 2006 I quit my sort-of day job of ballet accompanying and started my studio. While I was trying to build up by client base, I got into the habit of going on an “adventure” every Wednesday. I had a weekly budget of $20, including TTC fare, and would basically just go somewhere I hadn’t been and do something, usually involving a café.

You may have noticed by now, but I am not by nature a particularly adventurous person. I often feel awkward in new situations and don’t have a desire to plunge into other people’s spaces and take part. However, I do enjoy just going places and looking around, maybe having a coffee or lunch or something.

The past few years of small child-having have kept me either at home or only going out to familiar places/on planned excursions. And of course the city keeps changing – my own neighbourhood certainly has. So, since I have a bit of not-exactly-spare-since-I’m-looking-after-at-least-one-kid-but-not-exactly-scheduled-either time and, as I said, a metropass, I’ve decided to start having adventures again.

Normally I plan on going on Tuesdays, because weekend transit is a shitshow, but today I had to do a distant errand and Cecil wanted to come with me, so we can call this one an adventure.

Victoria Park/Lawrence

This was our route:

viclaw map

Due to the general incompetence of the TTC the entire Coxwell station bus bay is closed down while they do…something which will apparently take a year? Anyway, more detail than you probably want, but the Coxwell bus route is combined with another bus that goes north into Scarborough, which is unexpectedly convenient. To get to Victoria Park and Lawrence from our house was only two buses.

We had to go there to go to a dingy Babies R Us so I could buy a new breast pump because I very stupidly left the old one on the bus and couldn’t wait to get it back from the TTC lost-and-found/order one online. Downtown Toronto being surprisingly poorly served for things like inexpensive breast pumps, at least of the brand which I prefer, I found a Babies R Us at Victoria Park and Lawrence which carried them and figured out how to get there.

I asked Cecil, who enjoys riding the bus, if he wanted to come, and sure enough he did.

Some points about weekend TTC in general:

  • It stinks, both literally and figuratively.
  • Sometimes it is empty, sometimes it is super-crowded.
  • No one in power appears to think that it matters.

These points all stand doubly for the more outlying areas which are already poorly served…like the intersection of Scarborough and North York or wherever the hell Victoria Park and Lawrence is. Getting there looked easy on paper: take one bus, then change to another bus arriving a minute or two later and go about 8 more stops north. Except, of course, on the way there the bus we were supposed to change to blew right past the stop and we had to wait something like 20 minutes for the next one, which was super crowded with people who didn’t think a woman travelling alone with a three-year-old deserved a seat.

Scarborough/North York is mostly small detached houses, somewhat larger semi-detached houses, the kind of apartment buildings that seemed like a good idea 40 years ago, and strip malls. It looks like everywhere in Ontario, which makes it kind of look like nowhere. I cannot call the bus ride up Coxwell, along O’Connor, and up Victoria Park particularly exciting BUT I spied a ginormous Value Village, which I intend to go back to another time, and got some knitting done to boot.

Even though housing prices have probably doubled over the last 10 years, like they have everywhere else, there are not many indicators of gentrification along O’Connor. There is the occasional newly-built McMansion – well, at least newly-built house that’s 25% bigger than any of its neighbours and doesn’t look like it came out of a mold 50 years ago – a bowling alley that’s being converted to condos, and the odd store with a black sign with tiny white writing on it, but that’s about it. The rest of the shops are the kinds of places that flourish in a low-rent environment – “Doll Hair Emporium!” “Cat antiques!”  “Make your own kilt!”– or cater to Scarborough’s many ethnic communities, or are so junky I would never consider shopping there, and I have few inhibitions in that regard. Stores too gross for me to shop in surrounded by houses I can’t afford, that is Toronto in a nutshell.

Anyway.  We got there eventually. You’re going to have to take my word for it, but the view from the intersection of Victoria Park and Lawrence – literally from the middle of the intersection, looking west as you cross the street – is gorgeous. The elevation is relatively high, so you can see all the way to downtown. Today was warm for January, a few degrees above zero; in the distance the city buildings were all shrouded in mist. Cecil was thrilled to see a distant crane, because he’s three and construction is pure excitement. If there were an island halfway across the street I’d expect to see watercolourists camped out on it on foggy days. As it is I couldn’t exactly stop and take a picture and it doesn’t seem like anyone else ever has. Toronto Public Works, call me and we’ll discuss closing the intersection so I can get a snap, OK?

The Babies R Us was in a – you guessed it – strip mall. I would hesitate to call it a high-class strip mall, but it’s a cut above the usual strip of 2-3 restaurants/dollar store/vet or dentist office/something improbable like a bathroom fixture showroom/ “holistic spa” combination. I’m guessing that’s because it’s not technically in Scarborough but in North York, which is generally less deprived. There was a No Frills – with a hotdog stand out front! – a Baskin Robbins, a few small businesses, and (of course) a Toys/Babies R Us.

They were having some kind of sale, so the store was full of people who apparently had never handled money before and were convinced the store was trying to cheat them out of their discount high chair, but we got what we needed without incident, then failed to get a snack at the hotdog stand. They were out of veggie dogs, causing the main drama of the afternoon. I dragged a weeping toddler back to the bus stop and we began the long trip home.

This is not a particularly exciting adventure – oh, I forgot, we had another 20-minute wait in the middle and went to Tim Hortons for snacks – but you know what, we enjoyed it.

If you plan to go because you also lost your breast pump/want a veggie dog but have to justify it with extreme effort, or just want to see the view:

  • Bring snacks
  • Don’t expect too much from the TTC, and if you’re 3:
  • Plan your bathroom breaks.

I am experiencing Deep Feels.

When I moved to Toronto 15 years ago, it was like a weight lifted off me. I’m from London, Ontario, and I went to one of those high schools they set teen movies in, all football and sexual coercion and mean girls. I felt like the weirdest person in the world, largely because I liked reading and classical new music and didn’t want to drive absolutely everywhere I went or give myself skin cancer in a tanning bed.

So I came to Toronto, and I didn’t feel weird anymore. I felt positively normal. Everywhere you went there was someone at least 3 times weirder than me. You think nose rings are weird, London? Why, that guy on the streetcar has a hole in his ear you could fit a towel rod through. You think my unfortunate tramp stamp tattoo is an abomination unto the Lord? Well, I know someone who has two full sleeves and is trying to find someone who’ll fork her tongue for her.

Anyway. It’s been 15 years and I’m starting to feel weird again. Continue Reading »

Why war?

*Crossposted from On Memory and Desire*

In 1932 a rather poignant exchange of correspondence took place between Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud. This was never intended as private correspondence, but was published in a very limited edition a year later, after Hitler’s rise to power. Even if this had been a mere private exchange, both Freud and Einstein were so famous at this time that their every word carries the heavy hand of posterity.

There is a certain sad irony about these two Jewish men solemnly discussing the problems of the world of 1932 as if it were in their power to solve them. They both understand that something very bad is brewing but not that they and their people are going to be victims of it. There’s something very touching about this attempt to understand the intractable problem of collective human violence, and something very sad and futile.

I’m not going to give you a blow-by-blow summary of this pamphlet, which is freely available online (pdf) and, indeed, shows up in my Facebook or Twitter feed every now and then, but in a nutshell, Einstein asks Dr. Freud: “Is it possible to control human mental evolution to that people can resist the psychoses of hate and destructiveness?”, which Freud answers with a long exegesis that basically comes down to “Probably not”.

I personally share Freud’s pessimism; humans have been violent towards each other since before we were humans, and there’s no reason to believe that’s going to change any time soon. Freud goes as far to say:

Why do we…protest so vehemently against war, instead of accepting is as one of life’s odious importunities?

I wonder the same thing sometimes myself – no one goes around asking “Why are ducks so horrible to each other?”, it’s just the way ducks are and there’s nothing to be done about it. Similarly, you can look at human history and think “Well, they really seem to like killing each other,” and wash your hands of the whole affair.

But Freud goes on to say:

The answer to my query may run as follows: because every people has a right over their own lives and war destroys lives that were full of promise; it forces the individual into situations that shame humanity, obliging them to murder fellow human beings against their will; it ravages material amenities, the fruits of human toil, and much besides.

Or in other words, as well as a need to destroy and hurt, humans have a need and a capacity to value and care for each other, and that is a place from which anti-war action can come.

Freud argues that “All that produces ties of sentiment between man and man must serve us as war’s antidote”, which can hardly be argued with. A rather less palatable idea is his suggestion that a class of intellectuals and thinkers be developed “to guide the masses dependent on their lead”, another sadly ironic statement to come from a Jewish man in 1932. (Incidentally, this is also the position of the Raelianmovement and a plot point in the classic Doctor Who episode “Robot”, so clearly it’s an idea with legs. A terrible idea, but one that persists.)

Freud closes his letter:

How long have we to wait before the remainder of humanity turns pacifist? Impossible to say, and yet perhaps our hope that these two factors—people’s cultural disposition and a well-founded dread of the form that future wars will take—may serve to put an end to war in the near future, is not chimerical. But by what ways or by-ways this will come about, we cannot guess. Meanwhile we may rest on the assurance that whatever makes for cultural development is working also against war.

There may be something in the assertion that “a well-founded dread of the form that future wars will take” can prevent war. After all, we are now, what, 69 years into the age of the nuclear bomb and have successfully avoided global nuclear war – well done, humanity! But I don’t know about Freud’s idea of cultural development as anti-war. I have any number of intelligent, educated, cultured relatives in the US who were eager cheerleaders and are constant defenders of the Iraq war. I think the entirety of humanity will become pacifist around the same time it becomes vegetarian: that is, never.

But you know, maybe I’m wrong. At least I hope I am.

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