Monday, February 28, 2005

Another Saturday night

It was drinks with Mona and D. last night, an enjoyable evening by any measure. The conversation ranged from the role of class in the contemporary university to the puritanical impulse behind the American obsession with health to the terminology employed by Harlequin romance novels to describe the male sexual organ. God love them both.

As ever, D. had her tarot cards on hand, which became the basis for an impromptu drinking game: every time the Three of Cups appeared in one of our readings, we had to drink a toast to ourselves. As luck would have it, the Three of Cups came up in every single one of our spreads from that point on, which made for some unexpectedly heavy drinking. As a side-note, the Knight of Wands came up repeatedly in my readings, which D. insists is a harbinger of a sexually-charged affair with a fiery man. Yes, but has he read Habermas?

Mona and D. plan to return to the States in June, and I shall miss them when they do. I like their intelligence and their impermeability to ideology in any form, a rare condition in graduate school. I appreciate their wit, which is effortlessly acerbic, and the aura of close friendship that surrounds them even when they are doing their best to completely ignore each other. Most of all, I enjoy their relentless cynicism, which is always undergirded by an equally relentless optimism, even when it’s February and absolutely everything sucks.

D. has written a fine little parody of the romance genre, which can be found here. I am trying to encourage her to write a full-length novel in this style, or at the very least a novella, which will almost certainly become a bestseller. Then, we can drink expensive scotch instead of beer when we hang out.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Zen and the Art of PC Maintenance

I spent much of this week tinkering with my computer, which has become increasingly temperamental with age and stopped working completely last weekend. Like most people, if not most bloggers, I possess just more than the bare minimum of knowledge that is required to operate the machine, which makes sudden and mysterious system crashes a profoundly distressing development.

Over the course of the week, I backed up my hard drive, reinstalled programs, archived over 4000 email messages, and, in a fit of technical machismo borne out of sheer desperation, edited my system registry. (*gasp*) In so doing, I have managed to fix problems that the Dell support technician I spent three and a half hours on the phone with, Manuel, was either unable or unwilling to solve. “I think it’s time for a new computer,” he suggested blandly at the end of our call. “With the greatest possible respect,” I thought, “fuck you, Manuel!”

At some point along the way, I remembered that I actually enjoy tinkering immensely. What happens if I do this? How does this fit together with that? How does a problem change over time, and is it possible to guide its evolution to a productive outcome? I used to derive pleasure from this process of figuring stuff out, and I often regret having fallen for the idea that “science” and “art” are mutually exclusive fields of endeavour.

When I was in grade school, I attended a program of summer classes that was developed by the Toronto school board for allegedly “gifted” students. One had the opportunity to choose from a range of module-based courses in everything from improvised comedy to stained glass making -- an embarrassment of riches, by contemporary standards. For some reason, I kept gravitating toward the science-geek classes, of which Introduction to Rocketry was my undisputed favourite.

We spent the module learning to build little aerodynamically sound rockets, which we would attempt to launch from the school’s football field on the last day of class. My rocket was red with a sea-blue nose cone and matching blue balsa-wood fins, which seemed altogether too fragile for the function they were designed to perform. When launch day came, I awaited my turn on the field and felt the unique pangs of anxiety that precede any long-planned experiment. Would the thing actually work? Or, would the craft I had spent weeks assembling lift only just high enough to enable it to sputter uselessly to the ground?

As luck would have it, the thing worked. My red and blue rocket with its improbable balsa-wood fins went up into the air and stayed aloft for an entirely respectable length of time before returning to the grassy field from whence it came. Other rockets rose higher or stayed up longer, but I was no less elated by my craft’s modest performance; the rocket worked, which, as some of my classmates came to understand all too keenly, was far from a guarantee. It was a remarkable feeling to have, squinting against a bright yellow sun, something between pride and accomplishment and reward but not quite any of those things. Whatever it was, it felt damn good.

There was a hint of that feeling the other night, when, after nine hours of increasingly manic tinkering, I rebooted my computer for the umpteenth time and its hard drive purred like the proverbial kitten, as opposed to the apneatic snorer it had previously been. In spite of Microsoft’s dire warnings and without regard for the bad faith demonstrated by Manuel Dell, I made the thing work. And it was good.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Figure E

Angel 1
Terje Rønnes
Acrylic on Canvas 65*27

From Galleri Rønnes

Obsolete Sounds: His voice before

I miss what my brother’s voice used to sound like. Before the first break, he had music in his voice: variations in pitch and tempo, accents, melismata. Now, he speaks in a steady, clipped monotone, just loudly enough that he can hear himself over the other voices that are always there. I haven’t heard him laugh in four years.

Onomatopoeically, psychiatrists refer to this phenomenon as “affective flattening.” It impacts facial expression, eye contact, and body language as well as the speaking voice, and is one of the criteria used by the American Psychiatric Association to diagnose schizophrenia. It is also, perversely, a side-effect of the medications that are commonly used to treat the disease.

My brother’s voice has haunted me since Friday. It is him and not-him; it is the voice of a mentally ill man who used to be my little brother.

It’s Monday. I’ll stop now.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Figure D


Terje Rønnes
Acrylic on Canvas 41*49

From Art Against Stigma

Figure C


Pneumo-encephalogram of person with psychosis, 1935

This is the earliest known brain image of a person with schizophrenia. The pneumoencephalographic process requires cerebrospinal fluid to be drained from the area around the brain and replaced with air, which allows the brain structure to become visible on x-rays.

Figure B

Source: Gottesman, I.I., Schizophrenia Genesis: The Origins of Madness, New York: W.H. Freeman, 1991, p.96 (c) 1991 Irving I. Gottesman.

Figure A


PET Scan Images of Monozygotic Twins
Source: Rosenberg and Vogt, Princeton University

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Call home

I spoke with my brother again tonight. He is well into another episode, his third in four years. We talked for over an hour this time, until he heard the phone being wire-tapped and hung up.

My mother called back several minutes later and explained that my father bugged the telephone before he left, with help from the “others.” Then she cried for a long time. I used to argue with her, but now I just listen quietly. It’s easier that way.

Research suggests that schizophrenia is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. As my brother and I have both in common, I have often wondered why he developed the disease and I didn’t. This seems like a perfectly plausible explanation:

Early adult smoking protects from schizophrenia

Shouldn't I get a Medic-Alert bracelet or something?

Wednesday, February 16, 2005


She walks through the hallway in a straight line. Her office is at the end of the hall; she turns the key and pushes the weighted door open. The last light of the day comes in through the window. The room is small, but she is glad of the large window.

She sets her briefcase down on the desk and checks her voicemail. Her partner has a late meeting: should she get take-out on the way home? She decides to stay and grade a few papers; she returns her partner’s call and leaves a message.

The papers are for an undergraduate course she is teaching in Renaissance art. She reads five of them and makes comments in blue ink. The last paper analyses the construction of the female body in Florentine portraiture; she smiles and gives the student an ‘A’.

Stretching, she stands and looks out the window. She is tall and strikingly thin; there is no excess in her. She deciphers the bodies of women but does not recognize them.

She will give two lectures tomorrow that she has already prepared. This leaves her time to finish her report for the Faculty Committee. She sits on three committees to demonstrate service to the university, and has submitted two articles for publication this semester. She reminds herself that her tenure application is three years away.

She wonders when her partner will arrive at their apartment, and if she will already be asleep when she does. She drifts for a moment, imagining the space between her breasts and kissing her there. She decides that she will make a cup of tea when she gets home.

She collects her briefcase and coat and takes an apple from the side pocket. She closes the door behind her and walks through the hallway, biting through the apple’s skin as she turns toward the elevator. It is 7:45 PM.

Monday, February 14, 2005

The Dinner Party

Thanks to Alice and Rashid for a delightful evening, which finally changed the tone of an unrelentingly awful week. The SAQ strike mercifully over, we arrived with several litres of good wine, which we drank with an appreciation that bordered on rapture. To complement the wine, our hosts served a delicious Chinese fondue, followed by an assortment of chocolates brimming with raspberry, orange, and praline ganaches. Sated—nay, engorged—we retired to the living room where we lounged and smoked and told silly, wine-fuelled stories, while Rashid’s excellent mix CDs spun without end.

I laughed harder tonight than I have in a long time, the kind of laughter that threatens to bring tears to your eyes and wine through your nose and which lasts so long you forget what made you laugh in the first place. You laugh even though you’re tired and edgy and full of doubt; you laugh until everything else falls away and there’s nothing but laughing and the people you’re laughing with. And when you come home you know that it was, despite everything, a perfect evening, and you decide you will write about it before you go to bed.

Friday, February 11, 2005


  • Total number of emails in my Inbox: 2516
  • Unread emails: 225
  • Emails that require immediate response: 11
  • Number of committee meetings I have to attend next week: 3
  • Number of lawsuits currently being threatened against the union I work for: 1
  • Total amount of money in my bank account: $126.85
  • Total amount of bills due today: $165.13
  • Hours spent in bed but not sleeping last night: 2.5
  • Number of cigarettes I've smoked so far today: 15
  • Number of cigarette packs remaining in carton: 3
  • Waking hours passed before I remembered to eat breakfast: 4.5
  • Thickness of layer of cat hair on my bed: 0.5 cm
  • Thickness of layer of dust on my TV screen: 0.02 cm
  • Number of times I’ve been a total bitch to complete strangers this week: 1
  • Number of times I’ve regretted this since: 6
  • Hours spent working for the union on my day off: 4
  • Hours spent doing my own work on my day off: 0
  • Number of times I’ve wanted to scream at someone today: 3
  • Number of times I’ve wanted to cry: 3
  • Amount of money I would pay for a hug: $126.85

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Obsolete Sounds: Knob Hill Farms

If Saturday afternoons were earmarked for buying government-controlled beer with my dad, Saturday mornings were all about buying cheap groceries with my mom. For years, this meant taking a trip down to Knob Hill Farms, the discount “food terminal” owned by former Toronto Maple Leafs chairman, Steve Stavro.

Knob Hill Farms has been described as a precursor to Costco, except that Costco’s target market is the suburban middle-class, whereas Knob Hill served the large community of working-class immigrants that still lived in Toronto’s west end in the 1970s and 80s. The store was housed in a cavernous warehouse that loomed from behind the corner of Dundas and Lansdowne Streets, an area that was unnervingly seedy at night and only marginally less so during the day. As consolation, it featured the lowest prices in town on a limited range of basic foodstuffs: sugar, ketchup, beans, potatoes, meat. If you were in dire need of gourmet coffee or portobello mushrooms, well, you were shit out of luck. Then again, you probably didn’t shop at Knob Hill Farms anyway.

The store was dirty, disorganized, and absolutely immense, which made it a perfect playground for me and the small army of kids that were left to roam freely as our mothers focussed on the infinitely more important task of securing the best chicken legs the butcher had to offer. I have vague recollections of games of hide and go seek that involved squeezing between boxes of wilting cabbages and waiting breathlessly to be discovered; I also remember seeing entire families of mice scurrying away as I approached, and making it a point never to sit down.

Knob Hill did not play Muzak, which would have incurred additional expense, nor did it possess any soundproofing materials to speak of. Instead, it was a teeming container of din, which rose up from the concrete floors and floated toward the corrugated steel of the roof. Stout, kerchiefed women in formless black skirts yelled alternately at the butcher, their children, and one other as they crowded together at the meat counter. The employees, almost all of them southern European men, shouted and swore at each other over the motors of the small forklifts they drove erratically through the aisles. Children fell down and emitted piercing shrieks that outlasted their breath. Boxes thumped, cans rattled, glass broke, and always there was the staccato symphony of the cash registers, which still sounded like old cars rather than computers. The place was intoxicating and overwhelming, wonderful and horrible at once.

Knob Hill Farms went out of business in October of 2000, a victim of the rapid wave of gentrification that transformed Toronto completely in the span of a single decade. I remember reading about it in the Globe & Mail one morning, and feeling deeply saddened by the news. Preservationist that I am, I am proud to keep in my possession one brown plastic Knob Hill Farms basket that has served as my laundry hamper for almost fifteen years.

The store’s last days are documented in Eroded Margin, a remarkable bookwork project by Greg White and Patricio Davila that I urge you to look at. They also inspired a thoughtful companion piece by Ryan Bigge, Everything Falls Apart, which is very much worth reading. Please do.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Public Service Announcement

Enfin! The SAQ strike is officially over! According to, retail outlets will re-open their doors at 12:00 PM on Friday, February 11.

So, who wants martinis?

Sunday, February 06, 2005

The Spin Heard Round the World

OK, first it was Spin Magazine, then the slightly more highbrow New York Times, then, for the Europeans, the International Herald Tribune. Then the Hour weighed in, then the Mirror, and finally the Montreal Gazette.

I have a feeling this is gonna get real old, real fast.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

And speaking of booze...

The Société des alcools du Québec and the union representing 3,800 liquor store employees announced a tentative deal last night to end the 78-day strike. SAQ stores could reopen as early as next Friday. More.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Obsolete Sounds: Brewer’s Retail Outlet

When I was a kid, I would accompany my father in his white Volkswagen Beetle (AKA Herbie) as he ran his weekly errands. Our first stop was the local I.D.A., at which he would purchase one carton of Rothman’s Blue, king size. (Remember when you could still buy cigarettes at drugstores?) The next stop was the gas station on Dundas Street, which charged fractionally less than the others in the neighbourhood and which almost certainly inspired my life-long love of the smell of gasoline. When Herbie’s tank was full, we’d drive directly across the street to the government-run Brewer’s Retail outlet to return my dad’s empties and pick up that week’s case of beer.

The outlet was a small, boxy building that was surrounded on three sides by a considerably larger parking lot. You entered the building through an automated door on its right-hand side, which led to a conveyor belt comprised of several hundred small steel discs. As though by instinct, you would set down your case of empties on the belt and roll them forward to the cash counter, where a government employee was waiting to count the number of bottles being returned and to calculate the amount of your refund. The empties would then be rolled further along the conveyor belt, through a two-by-three foot opening in the rear wall and into a tantalizingly mysterious back room.

Clasping a handful of change, you would walk across the brown-tiled floor to a second cash counter, where a second government employee waited to take your order. “A two-four of Labatt 50, please,” you would say, and the employee would repeat the words into a microphone which transmitted them into the back room. Several seconds later, your two-four would emerge from another two-by-three foot opening in the wall, and roll, rather too quickly, along its own steel conveyor belt to the spot where you stood anticipating its arrival. The belt led inexorably toward an automated exit door, through which you would finally depart, your chilled two-four cradled protectively under your arm.

I was thus entranced by the sounds of the Brewer’s Retail outlet: the mechanical wheeze of the doors as they opened and shut; the chorus of exclusively male voices which enounced the transactions; the strange, flat echo of the order clerk’s microphone. But the sound that dominated all others was the near-constant polyphony of the conveyor belt, which married the clatter of the rotating steel discs with the jittery percussion of bottle sounding against bottle. On a busy Saturday afternoon, when seemingly every red-blooded Canadian man within a twenty-block radius was stocking up on 50 for the weekend, the sound of each rolling case of beer would waterfall into the next, building into amazing crescendos of metallic noise.

There are, of course, no Brewer’s Retail outlets in Québec, and although I far prefer the convenience of being able to buy beer at my corner dépanneur, I do occasionally miss the sound of them. A revamped version of the outlets, snappily renamed The Beer Store and now privately-owned, still exists in Ontario, but I suspect it is only a matter of time before they are phased out in favour of a Québec-style system. So they’re not quite obsolete yet, but I think it is fair to call them a dying – and quintessentially Canadian – breed.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Paean to a cab driver

Thank you for coming to pick me up
After I slept through my alarm
And ran out of coffee
And had awful PMS
On a twelve-hour day

Thank you for letting me smoke in your cab
As I organized my purse
And watched the clock
Knowing it was futile

Thank you for speaking to me
In a hoarse creole
Sometimes English, sometimes French
And for never stopping
The whole way down

Thank you for insisting that it was a perfect day
Not cold like it’s been
And for regaling me with show tunes
With all the wrong words
And for making me laugh despite myself

Thank you for telling me that I’m a jeune femme
And have a beautiful smile
Even if you’re full of shit
And for telling me about your three daughters
One of whom is about my age
And for the pride in your voice that is so much like my dad’s
When he talks to strangers about me

Thank you for making the day better
Than it would otherwise have been