Thursday, March 31, 2005

Why I love Quebec

From today's Montreal Gazette:

"Nearly three-quarters of Quebecers want the provincial government to restore the entire $103 million in bursaries converted to loans last year, according to a new Leger Marketing poll released by the Federation etudiante universitaire du Quebec."

But wait, there's more:

"Moreover, 63 per cent of those polled said they're willing to give up some of their tax cuts to restore the bursaries."

And that, dear readers, is why I put up with six months of winter every year.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

fred & solskinn

Thanks to Terje Rønnes for writing, and for painting, and for teaching me how to say "peace & sunshine" in Norwegian.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Monday, March 28, 2005

Easter

Sometime between the student strikes and union meetings and drunken manifestoes, the city of Montreal finally succumbed to spring. A season’s worth of snow and ice is rapidly melting, and the detritus of the previous fall, hitherto buried, has resurfaced with an odiferous vengeance. In a day or two’s time, I anticipate being able to free my neglected bicycle from its icy tomb and have promised myself that I will immediately wheel it to the bike shop for its annual tune-up. I can almost taste the prospect.

The surest sign of spring must be the late-night carousing of the neighbourhood cats, which have emerged from the staticky warmth of their owner’s apartments to keep their first noisy trysts of the year. Tonight, the scene in the alleyway behind my apartment is positively Dionysian, with at least a dozen slow-moving felines moaning and hissing their way through a spectacular ballet of unselfconscious kitty-fucking. Can their human counterparts be far behind?

Earlier this evening, I had dinner with James at Beau Village, a newish Indian restaurant that has courageously broken the psychological barrier that is rue Jean-Talon. The food was both delicious and plentiful, even if the patrons – i.e., us – were not. The restaurant is located at the corner of Parc and Jean-Roby; please dine there if you can.

After dinner, we set off in search of an open bar – most are devoutly observing the Easter holiday, as we discovered – and wound up at Spanish Social Club, where we met up with James’ friends Cy, Bill, and Jonathan. These three are what are commonly referred to as “tight”: longtime friends whose friendship encircles them like a smoky, familiar halo. I think I impressed Cy by discussing my childhood fascination with Dr. Who, although I refrained from admitting to the near-obsessive crush I had on Tom Baker. Yes, I was the geekiest eight-year-old girl on earth.

Tomorrow, I will pose for a portrait for Arit, who is taking a class in corporate photography. As her choice of subject makes abundantly clear, Arit has a delightfully subversive sense of humour. Will it be cheesecake next time, Arit? You know I'm up for it...

Friday, March 25, 2005

The Hangover Manifesto

As all of you have now plainly witnessed, I am what they call a happy drunk. I am also, now, more than slightly hungover. Predictably, there is a story behind both conditions.

The more attentive readers among you may have noticed that I have made occasional references to “the union,” which likely require further explanation. When I am not pretending to be a productive graduate student – and frankly, I’ve had difficulty lately even keeping up the pretense – I work for a TA union. Actually, I somehow allowed myself to get talked into running the joint, a turn of events that still inspires fits of bemusement.

Yesterday, the union held its annual general meeting, a lengthy and at moments nerve-wracking affair that required weeks of frantic preparation. At the best of times, the process of organizing graduate students is not unlike herding cats, except that the cats in question are simultaneously afflicted with generalized anxiety disorder, ADD, and, in certain cases, persistent delusions of grandeur. It is very much an art, not a science, and a rather strange one at that.

I should mention that, before he retired and took up internet dating full-time, my father worked in a steel factory for almost forty years. He was by no means an activist, being much too shy to speak in front of large groups of people, but he was a proud union member and faithfully attended every meeting of his local. Growing up, I learned what unions were all about and why they were important for families like ours, which otherwise could never have afforded to buy a home or travel or pay for piano lessons and the like.

On first glance, graduate students have absolutely nothing in common with my dad and his coworkers. They are highly educated, fluent in one or both of Canada’s official languages, and, as often as not, accustomed to a degree of economic privilege that my father has never known. More to the point, they see themselves not as “workers” but as professionals-in-training, which in many cases they are: future lawyers and doctors and business managers who might one day run the company my father used to work for. At best, unions and graduate students make for strange bedfellows; at worst, they would appear to be fundamentally incompatible.

However, if we shift our understanding of what it is that unions actually do just slightly, the marriage makes a little more sense. For a growing number of graduate students, particularly those of us studying in the humanities and certain of the social sciences, a “career” is far from a certain bet. We may become full professors one day, but, as previously noted, we could as easily become permanent part-time instructors, as quite a few people I know are. The former most definitely constitutes a “career”; the latter is, frankly, a “gig,” and not a very good one at that.

Similarly, we could, if we are lucky and so inclined, land highly-coveted government jobs, among the most secure known to man; or, as Atomic well knows, we might wait for months to receive short-term U.N. contracts that briefly whisk us away to full-fledged war zones before returning us to long-term unemployment. Or, we might work for years in the publishing industry, as my friend Karen did, earning an enviable salary while accruing significant professional experience, only to be replaced by an eager production assistant and suddenly grateful to find work that pays us one third of what we previously earned.

The scenarios described above have several things in common. First, they are all marked by chronic financial instability: the part-time instructor may be given three courses to teach this academic year, or she may receive one; Atomic may work for six months in 2005, or not at all. Secondly, unlike the traditional “gig,” they demand a commitment of time that is grossly disproportionate to the pay they offer: Karen, for example, works ridiculous amounts of overtime for her $20 000 per year salary, but by virtue of receiving a salary she is not entitled to overtime pay, nor can she simply “clock out” when she hits forty hours for the week. Finally, they do not provide health or pension benefits as a matter of course, which, as most factory workers keenly understand, are worth as much as if not more than wage increases.

Thus, if we place the emphasis not on how much an employee makes per hour, which in some of these cases is not unimpressive, but on how much work they can count on having on a regular basis and what they can reasonably expect to receive in return for their investment of time, unions start to make a lot more sense. It was unions, after all, that fought for the eight-hour work day, which many individuals working in the so-called “knowledge” sector (and this includes academia) routinely exceed. Unions also envisioned the “family” or “living” wage; that is, an income level with which one can reasonably and consistently support oneself and one’s family, while still having some measure of time to spend with said family. In this sense, time and stability are conceived of as basic human rights, which employers are legally obligated to respect regardless of their feared effect on profit margins.

For their part, unions have had great difficulty reorienting their own understanding of what a union member is or could be. As I’ve suggested elsewhere, the seminar room and the shop floor are vastly different cultural and discursive spaces, and unions are only beginning to recognize that they require different ideological strategies. With traditional “blue-collar” jobs such as my father’s being steadily lost to globalization, unions must learn to speak more persuasively about the labour abuses that characterize the knowledge-based economy, both to the employers that perpetrate them and to knowledge-workers themselves. Surely, it is not impossible to once again conceive of economic stability and leisure time as rights and not privileges, even if we do not necessarily conceive of ourselves as militant(e)s?

In any event, yesterday’s union meeting was a resounding success, and I was, I’m happy to report, re-elected to my position. To my mind, this called for a celebration of bacchanalian proportions, for which I am paying today. It was, without question, worth it.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Exhale

I am drunk and hungry and tired and tomorrow I'm gonna sleep until I feel like waking up and maybe I'll dream about quiet philosophers who hang around while I smoke cigarettes and I will not think about all the work I have to do as my cats purr beside me and I'll climb out of bed as the sun streams in and maybe have coffee at the café with a well-deserved hangover and gaze out the window without taking anything in and think about how fucking lucky I am to have the friends that I do and the life that I have and to be smart enough at least to recognize this fact and to still feel love and hope and wonder at the world in spite of everything and because of everything and I know you really shouldn't write blog posts while drunk but I don't care because when all is said and done it was a really good day. Yeah...

Monday, March 21, 2005

The skinny on the student strike

Since you ask, the massive student strike pictured below is a response to the Quebec government’s plan to cut $103 million dollars from the province’s student bursary program. Until now, university students applying for financial aid in Quebec received a combination of loans, to be repaid upon completion of their studies, and non-repayable bursaries. This program, along with a long-standing freeze on tuition fees, is the primary reason that Quebec university graduates carry the smallest debt burden in Canada. Under the reformed system, the bursary component will be eliminated for all but the most underprivileged applicants, to be replaced by substantially larger loans; this, in turn, will set the stage for the eradication of Quebec’s tuition freeze, which university administrators have been actively lobbying the government to rescind for years.

The same set of policies came into effect in Ontario in 1993, which happened to be my second year of undergraduate study. In my first year, I received $7366 in government financial aid for tuition and living expenses, exactly half of which came in the form of a non-repayable grant. In my second year and every year thereafter, I received roughly the same amount in repayable loans, which doubled my debt load virtually overnight. In my third year, the Canadian government ceased to guarantee student loans to the banks that distributed them; in exchange for taking on liability, the banks demanded greater control over the loan system, which they immediately received. As a result, student financial aid was transformed from a public service into a private concern – it remains a government program, but in name only.

There were other changes as well. Canadians could no longer declare bankruptcy on student loans, a right that is enjoyed by virtually all other debtors, including oil companies, financial speculators, and gambling addicts. At the insistence of the banks, the repayment period was set at a maximum of ten years, irrespective of the total amount of the loan or the income-level of the individual debtor. If the debtor is financially unable to meet their minimum payments, their loans go immediately into default; only then are they permitted to negotiate reduced payments, at the discretion of the collection agency that has purchased their case. The banks set the “grace period” for repayment at six months, which allows students to have summers off but not to take longer leaves of absence, including medical leaves.

Further, the amount of income that students are allowed to earn from paid employment or scholarly awards while receiving aid was capped; if this amount is exceeded, the student is expected to immediately repay the equivalent amount of the loan they have received to their lending institution. As a final indignity, the banks limited the period of time that continuing students can defer repayment of their loans; this limit, which was initially set at 520 weeks and has been lowered further since, does not take into account enrolment in graduate school, with the result that it is often reached about halfway through a student's doctoral studies.

At the same time, university tuition fees increased dramatically. During my five years of undergraduate study, the tuition I paid rose by 50%; over the same period, the amount of student aid I received increased by less than 5%. Since I could not figure out how to live in the city of Toronto on less than $5000 a year, and since additional employment income would have been deducted from my loan amounts, I resorted to working under the table throughout my undergraduate degree to make ends meet.

In retrospect, I can think of no government policy that has had a more insidious effect on my everyday life than this one. At present, I owe roughly $35 000 in student loans, all of which were incurred during my undergraduate degree. Assuming the maximum repayment period of ten years, I am minimally liable for monthly payments of $450 per month, regardless of my employment status or level of income. I have not taken any time off during my three degree programs because I could not afford to carry my loan repayments in the interim; for the same reason, I did not take leaves of absence when my father was diagnosed with cancer, when my brother suffered his first schizophrenic episode, or when my ex had a nervous breakdown. In spite of not once interrupting my studies, I will hit my loan deferment wall sometime in the next several months and have no grounds to appeal. Having lived with someone who was forced to default on their loans, I have by association endured years of threatening phone calls from collections agents; the unannounced garnisheeing of income tax refunds, and the refusal of banks to provide the basic service of a savings account.

It is much worse for some of my friends, who are anxiously staving off loans two to three times larger than my own. When they finally complete their doctorates in English or, worse yet, Philosophy, they will have to reserve, at minimum, $12 000 of their annual income for loan repayments for the next ten years of their lives. This is not impossible on a professor’s salary, but what if a tenure-track paycheque doesn’t fall into their laps within six months of graduation? What if the best they can manage is a gig as a sessional course instructor, with pay of $15 000 or less per year? What then? Sometimes, when we talk about these things over beer, our conversations are shadowed by regret, and always there is the silent, nagging question: was it really worth it?

This is, for me at least, what the student strike is about. I believe that education is a right, not a privilege. I believe that scholarly work contributes to the greater good. And I believe in the socialist values that have shaped Canadian society, and which, ironically, have been eroded everywhere but in Quebec. If the strike is successful, it will prove that the neo-liberal agenda can be opposed, which is a good thing for anyone who cares about things other than profit.

OK, so that's the deal. Thanks for listening.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Student strike!



I'm the eighty-four-thousandth, nine-hundred-and-third from the left. See?

Monday, March 14, 2005

Hell is other people

smokingSartre


Sartre without his cigarette?! Bastards...

Having thus commenced the philosopher’s castration, the censors will next recast his politics as liberal-moderate.

Then, they will forbid him to fraternize with Jean Genet.

Then, they will replace Simone de Beauvoir with a suburban housewife.

Then, they will rewrite No Exit so that the inseparables are not, in fact, murderers, but vegan social workers who have agreed to meet for afternoon tea.

And then, the world will be a better place. Really.

Sunday

I slept poorly last night. Dreams became nightmares, full of fear and death. I think I woke up screaming, but I’m not entirely sure.

My brother sent me an email today. He asked me how crazy people are supposed to relate to family members. I wrote back to him and said that I didn’t know, especially when their family is as weird as ours.

I wonder what loneliness feels like to him, and if it’s anything like what it feels like to me?

I was supposed to get in touch with S. today, but didn’t. There’s no comfort in an experiment. Maybe I will tomorrow, or maybe not then either. I’m not sure what I’ll do.

There are 485 emails in my Inbox. One of them is from my brother.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

More random notes

I slept for ten hours last night, a deep, dream-infused sleep that was at least three nights overdue. The cats were with me as I drifted off, Simone on my chest and Ivan in the crook of my arm, both of them purring and still.

No drug has yet been synthesized that can approximate the physical sensation of sleeping between two purring cats. I presume that the pharmaceutical companies are working on it.

When I woke up today, I felt strangely lifeless. My morning cup of tea had no effect, and it did not occur to me to have an afternoon cup of coffee. I forced myself to run a few errands, which made my foot hurt terribly, then decided that I would stay in tonight.

The washing machine is filling in the background. If nothing else, my lame foot will be clothed in a clean sock tomorrow.

Last night, after a late union meeting, I met James for drinks at the café. It was good to see him, to reconnect after a period of distance and tension. Perhaps these things aren’t always terminal?

Our theme last night was the crossroads, which in this case refers to the vantage point between the last ten years of your life and the next. You don’t regret the last, which are the life you’ve known until now, for better or for worse; you wouldn’t change them. But looking forward, you know that you need the next to be different.

James and I are both thirty-three. I suspect that this is relevant.

My father turned sixty-five today. I called to wish him a happy birthday, and promised to send him a gmail invitation. I told him that every senior citizen should have a gmail account, and that he can use it for internet dating. Yes, my father is still internet dating.

I will have dinner with my friend Esther tomorrow, who is visiting from Toronto. I am looking forward to seeing her, and to hearing the latest goss from T.O. I just hope she doesn’t want to go out dancing afterwards.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Random notes

The day began with me slipping on ice and falling flat on my ass. This is a common enough occurrence in Montreal, and therefore hardly noteworthy, except that it happened as I was limping to the health clinic to seek medical counsel for a non-resolving foot injury. Sometimes I amuse myself to no end.

When I returned home twelve hours later, I discovered that my blog is currently valued at $1635.61 on BlogShares.com. I don’t really know what this means, but I am already planning my new spring wardrobe. Is black the new pink yet?

Finally, there are many reasons why I think Bob is cool. This is one of them.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Dear Spalding,

Are you swimming? I’ve been thinking about you lately, and I thought I should write to you today. Someone should.

I’ve been keeping a blog, which is more or less like what you used to do except in written form. Everyone does this now, which you could take to mean that everyone is Spalding Gray. I’m not at all sure this is a good thing, by the way. After you went missing, I read somewhere that you had dyslexia and had trouble writing things down. I didn’t know this about you, but I could tell. Your books were never really free of it; it flattened them out. Or were words just stage directions for your body and voice? Is this the difference between acting and writing?

Anyway, now that you’re dead, I have a confession to make. I always had a crush on you, even though I knew you were an asshole. It’s that thing in the eyes; it gets me every time. Phil had it--most Geminis do--except his never came out in books or films or monologues or anything. It just stayed there for a long time, until I couldn’t see it anymore. I hear he’s a businessman now, which isn’t quite the same thing. Or maybe it is?

Oh yeah, and another thing. You’re a fucker for the way you left Renée. (She’s a Virgo, isn’t she? She must be.) I suppose you already know that your monologues were never as good after that. They didn’t ring true anymore; they didn't come to life. Maybe that was the depression setting in, or maybe you had nothing left to say. Or maybe you just gave up. Is that why you got married and had babies and left New York? (Babies that will grow up haunted and torn the same way you were haunted and torn, you selfish fuck.) Did you give up on the life you were given?

I realized something while watching you perform a monologue once. You were talking about your mother’s illness and suicide, and I was right there with you as you burned through it, second row right, feeling it like you felt it and so deeply grateful that you were saying it out loud. I realized then that there are no perfect moments, except maybe when you’re on stage and the words are coming out in a thick, perfect stream, and you know that the audience is right there with you and that for once, the things that make you feel alone and apart are the very same things that connect you to other people.

Anyway, I'm coming to understand that the only thing to do, to aspire to, is to live the best life that is possible under the circumstances. Fuck transcendence, fuck Zen, fuck all those perfect, illusory moments. You work with what you've got: with your eye disease and your dyslexia and your depression and your repression and your psychotic mother and the fear that is always there in the pit of your stomach and the desperate, compulsive need to connect so that you don’t disappear completely. You work with it; you make do, and you love as well as you can along the way. Otherwise, they drag your bloated, decomposing body out of the East River and you never get to Cambodia.

Then again, maybe you do. You’d know better than I would. Wherever you came ashore, I hope that you have peace. And that the banana actually sticks.

Love,
Vila

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Smokergate?

Smoking in bars OK with Quebecers

Poll: Three-quarters say a ban is too much. Quebec government commissioned survey in June 2004 but never made results public. Read more.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Intimation

I’m not sure I should write about this. I’m going to anyway.

There is someone. He is different. It is different. It is not a relationship. It is an experiment.

Newsflash: I am conducting experiments again.

Possibilities: A conversation unfolds at a masquerade. Two mad scientists play hide and seek. Ernie and Cookie Monster have an affair as Bert tends to his pigeons. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern get their groove back.

Yes, I remember this. The story begins here.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Adjustment

Ada has quit smoking. It's strange to write it down. She had her last cigarette on Friday, which is also the last time she smoked with me.

Ada and I have smoked together for over twelve years, through undergraduate and Master’s degrees, and through most of our PhDs. We have smoked at bars and cafés and pubs and parties; between classes and during breaks at work; and in at least six different apartments in two different cities. We have smoked while drinking coffee and wine and after dinner; we have smoked with men and without them; we have smoked through a thousand conversations and in heavy silence.

Ada was one of the few people I know who smoked as much as I do. Not prissy just when I’m out drinking smoking; not socially but not at home smoking; not I don’t buy packs but can I bum one off you? smoking. No, this was real smoking, with coffee in the morning and before bed at night and at all points in between. Addiction, not affectation; regular, not menthol.

Until last Friday, we had this ritual in common. Now she watches me smoke from across the table and thinks of it as something she used to do.

Of course she had to quit, and of course I wish her well, and of course we will remain friends regardless. But here, now, I mourn the loss of a woman I smoked with. I will miss her.