31 January, 2012


The first thing you have to understand, let me tell you. To set the scene. My apartment is great. Perfect size for me, good neighbourhood, no lawyers. That was my criterion for the search. I don’t want to live anyplace that looked like lawyers or bankers, consultants, etc, you know? Lived there. Obviously that’s a generalization, there are good people who are lawyers. Interesting people. I have excellent lawyer friends. But, you know, as a proxy, you know, it’s a good screen. I mean, I was a lawyer. People change.
It’s a one bedroom, my apartment. Actually there is one lawyer in the building, just graduated from -----, she’s articling now. Her first year of practice. But she’s a rabid environmentalist that’s wicked into bike safety, like a bike safety ninja. She actually bought me bike lights, as like a housewarming present. Out of nowhere. She’s afraid for me; my Jewish mother, is what she says. She sues cops.
But so the apartment, I really like it. It’s on the top floor so no noise, no bugs. The third floor’s the top floor. The outside of the building’s not so great, but I’m into it. You don’t see it coming, kind of thing. Non-descript. Thinking about going to seed.
And the super, R---, such a sweetheart. He tries hard, is what I mean. He’s a good guy. When I was about to move in and I called him about the keys, you know, about picking them up, and when is the current tenant going to be out of there. He rings me back later that night and says ‘Good news! She’s going to be outta there on the 31st.’ As in the last day of her lease. Like what a favour, right? I had to laugh.
The building, though, my flat is renovated, new floors and cupboards, but the hallways, like on the stairs and such, are carpeted. This hideous and like crunchy red carpet. When I went to see the place, R---’s sister was mopping the carpet. Straight up, no gloss. It’s a bit sad, actually, she’s retarded, I mean, but R--- introduced me and on she mopped. She’s got a little pail of suds and everything. The carpet’s always clean, too, I’ve noticed.
I like to say my place befits my current station, which is pretty much starving artist. I used to be a corporate lawyer, though, right? You work a lot, make lots of dough, have nice things. It’s cathartic. (God, can you imagine? The despair.) So my place ends up being this weird combination of Truman Capote meets Tom Waits or maybe like Charles Bukowski; like that’s the aesthetic. The windows I can’t take out and clean because they probably went in dirty, but if you want a drink - like anything, even a glass of milk - all I can offer you is cut crystal. [shoulders’ shrug]
The bathroom, though, the bathroom is all Tom Waits. The ceiling is noticeably distended; convexly curved. There’s obviously a leak in the roof - remember I’m on the top floor, right? - and the leaking water basically puddles above my bathroom, like on the ceiling, if you see what I mean.
Actually, most of the water’s puddled on my bathroom ceiling; the run-off goes into the kitchen and down the wall beside my cupboard. Little patches of disfigured and mottled plaster. It was like that when I moved in, and R---, true to form, came right in a fixed it up. It took a while, partly ‘cause he works full time and he can’t always get out to our building to fix things, partly other people have more urgent problems, but also because the plaster has to dry once it’s on, then same for the primer, then the paint. So it’s a multi-day job, in other words, and not necessarily consecutive days. Which just ends up making the whole thing ridiculous, because after R--- sanded down the walls and put on and smoothed out the new plaster, the plaster just disfigured itself all over again, meaning the water damage was ongoing not temporary. As in that’s the conclusion you should draw. But R--- is undeterred, he just puts the primer right over the disfigured plaster - to give you an idea, imagine like the wall has psoriasis, is how it looks - and then puts the paint right over the primer. He must have had to tamp the paint on with the bristles, to get it down into all the nooks and crannies and around all the bits of flaky psoriatic plaster.
But so like a month or so after he finishes fixing up the kitchen - ‘fixing up’, right? - I run into R--- in the hallway, and he actually asks me how the kitchen wall’s holding up. Like did the damage come back. I mean, did he forget what it looked like when he was painting right over it? You gotta love the guy, though, he’s really OK. It’s too funny to get upset about or anything, and you know, I’m pretty low maintenance, I can handle a little psoriatic plaster in the kitchen.
The bathroom ceiling, though, bit of a different story. It looks almost threatening, hanging down like it is. I don’t want that kind of tension in my bathroom, you know? I feel like that’s reasonable. Plus eventually the paint started to bubble in places, clearly holding water that was dripping through the drywall. Or whatever the ceiling’s made of, that stuff. You can push on the little paint bubbles with your finger, in and out, and it’s clearly water in there. And eventually the ceiling starts dripping, but into the shower, thankfully. It makes a lot of noise - the tub’s some kind of metal, right? So the drops hit it like a bell - so I have to put a towel in there to catch the water or like muffle the sound of the drips.
So up I call R--- and he takes a look and says ‘Yup definitely the roof’s leaking. I could re-plaster your ceiling but it won’t do any good if the roof up above’s leaking. We’re gonna have to get a roofer in.’ Which is fair enough. R--- knows what he’s doing, maintenance-wise, he really did do a helluva job painting over the unsmooth plaster in the kitchen. He got impressive coverage under the circumstances.
But in the interim I’m a bit worried about the ceiling caving-in, given all the obvious water build-up, but not to worry because R--- has a solution for that, too. He comes back the next day when I’m out at work and punches a hole in the ceiling right above the tub, where the biggest leak was. Like a drain. That’s what he said when I called him - I thought a piece of the ceiling fell out or something, it’s not like the hole was perfectly round or square or like finished-looking. The idea is the hole lets the water drain into the bathtub so there’s less weight on the ceiling until the roofer comes. And actually, you know, R---’s a good guy, he actually made the hole opposite the tap end of the tub, so it’s not like when it rains and I’m having a shower the water’s dripping down right on my head or anything. All things considered it’s pretty sensible.
Except then about a week later a man-sized hole fell out of the ceiling anyway, right into the tub. As in imagine a man lying down on his side above the ceiling and then falling through. Plaster and drywall everywhere. It’s one helluva drain now, in the ceiling, let me tell you.

13 January, 2012

Skull full of cocaine and three of your best straws

Frankel and I had a helluva weekend. There's a man without an OFF switch, tell you what. We even roped our friend Alice into the whole vile scene. I don't know why she puts up with us. That's not entirely true.

I've been reading a lot of Hunter S. Thompson lately. The man was a menace sine pari. I was telling Frankel and Alice, on a perfectly benign Friday evening at The Lakeview, that Thompson once snorted cocaine through a plastic drinking straw and out of the back of an old glass eye. Right on a patio in Cozumel, Mexico. And goddamn Frankel says, 'That's a terrific idea!

Frankel doesn't have any glass eyes at his place but he does have a human skull, for chrissakes, left over from a Hallowe'en party we threw last year - four months ago - an utter fiasco the less remembered about which the better...

Now it's dawn Saturday morning and we're strewn around Frankel's deck in our goddamn underwear and overcoats, the skull upturned on the table with these absolutely obscene pink drinking straws sticking out, like where the neck should be, and two bottles of J&B one of which is half full of cigarette butts.

Alice keeps dunking her head in a bucket of cold water but I don't know where the hell it came from.

Frankel is sitting in full lotus talking to me about Toronto restaurant reviews, which are a pet peeve of his.

'There's just no restraint, no responsibility,' Frankel is saying.

'I agree Frankel, totally unreliable. Nothing ever gets less than three stars. There's no integrity.'

'Well,' Frankel gets that gleam in his eye, 'we should do something about it.'

Alice is making guttural noises deep within the bucket. Bubbles and such like breach the water's surface.

'Nobody would read our reviews, Frankel. Nobody!'

The last time Frankel and I went out to eat - Alice came too - we brought our own music, a giant Boom Box, double D batteries and everything, except the only goddamn tape I had was of The Ring Cycle. Plus I was wearing at t-shirt with 'HIV neutral' embossed across the front, which was getting all kinds of sideways glances, and Alice was sitting there with her skirt pulled up around her hips and knitting her underpants; the very same pair she was wearing!

And that freak show skull was in the middle of the table, with Frankel asking the waiter for three of his finest drinking straws, please.

09 January, 2012

Jimmy Kimmel Made Me Cry

Have you seen the bit from a December episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live! where parents sent in videos of their children opening intentionally bad Christmas presents? Kimmel asked parents to let their children open one gift a few weeks early and then post the reactions on YouTube under the title ‘Hey Jimmy Kimmel I gave my kids a terrible present’. The result was a video montage that is definitely hilarious and outrageous but I submit to you also terrible and insidious and bad.

By way of disclaimer, sort of, the argument here is not going to be PC or wet blanket-ish or otherwise down on making sport of children. Those claims are certainly out there for the making but this mini-essay is about something different, viz. just why the Kimmel piece is funny, and how this is sort of hard to see, and why all that’s terrible and insidious and bad. The reason for this disclaimer is probably obvious, but happily that very same self-consciousness ends up being germane to what gets discussed and unpacked below, which involves the way in which certain kinds of humour – especially as deployed on a show like JKL!, where the audience knows they’re watching a show, and the people doing the show (Jimmy et al.) know the audience knows – and so how at least this kind of humour not only invites but requires the same involved self-reference that makes writers like yours truly worry about where readers will think a mini-essay is going before it’s really underway. (Hence also the prenominate ‘sort of’, meant to indicate this disclaimer also declaims.)

The basic gag in the Kimmel piece is that children receiving bad presents react in ways the rest of us recognize as awful, horrible and grotesque. Some of the reactions are funny by virtue of being extreme (e.g. at 3:01, a rejected gift is thrown across the room), but the real humour trades on an underlying sentiment that’s hugely and obviously terrible: that it’s OK to reject a gift because you don’t want it, to deploy – in the face of the giver, no less – a boundless selfishness that recognizes gift giving as exclusively for the recipient’s satisfaction. The implications for generosity, caring, affection, really any kind of other-directed thinking are also poor, as when at 4:19 parents who profess to having thought very hard about their failed gifts are admonished, deadpan, ‘Well you didn’t do a very good job.’ We (=audience) know this kind of reaction is precisely the opposite of what’s required or appropriate, and it’s the gap between what the children are doing and what we know they should be doing that shocks and appals and ultimately delights; in a way, we’re embarrassed on the children’s behalf.

The children in the videos react so poorly because they don’t know any better, more specifically, that they haven’t yet learned to see themselves as objects and not just subjects. Think back to when you were a child and how often you thought other people were the centre of their very own universe. If you were anything like me, you thought precisely the opposite of this: that everything existed always and only for you, that your own mind and thinking exemplified all minds and thinking. This way of being is something like pre-solipsistic, I think, because in order to be a solipsist you have to first recognize the possibility of other ways of being and thinking. It’s this possibility the children in the video have yet to learn, and so from their perspective a terrible gift is inconceivable: If I know what I want, how could you not also know? The children’s reactions are not only poor but in some cases literally hysterical, like 2:45’s camera charge.

There’s even an exception that proves the theory: the young girl receiving a half-eaten PB&J sandwich, about 1:40, who seems genuinely torn between feelings of disappointment and the desire to show thanks and appreciation for her mother’s gesture. Witness an empathetic inflexion point? If that phrase isn’t just off-the-charts pretentious.

The kind of humour in the Kimmel video reminds me of stand-up routines by guys like Chris Rock, Dane Cook, Dave Chappelle, even Robin Williams or the early Eddie Murphy: comedy that’s intentionally loud, coarse, kind of brutal, like savage social caricature. The television equivalent (just shows I’ve seen and can remember off-hand; doubtless there are others) would be Married With Children, The Simpsons, Family Guy, South Park, maybe even Roseanne, all of which feature characters behaving in ways that are unabashedly selfish, personally indulgent and gross. The humour is satirical, deeply lampooning, and depends (it seems to me) on the audience knowing there’s something not quite right – even radically dysfunctional – about what’s being said and done, plus also knowing that the comic/actor/writer knows that the audience knows this. Just imagine an actual racist doing a Chris Rock sketch, or reading a script from South Park to your friends without telling them that’s what you’re doing. There’s just no way. And so the I know you know business is also the reason we’re comfortable laughing at all; what makes the jokes satirical and not just base and mean, a kind of catharsis for what we wish we didn’t know about ourselves.

Indeed, just this week the New York Times Magazine published a profile of Stephen Colbert, host of Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report, where comedian Jon Stewart makes precisely the same point about Colbert’s on-air appeal: ‘The third dimension is him [=Colbert]. That’s the thing we started to see here. He is so interesting, smart and decent. He’s a good person, and that allows his character to be criminally, negligently ignorant.’

The thing about the Kimmel piece, though, is that we (=audience) know the children aren’t acting; that they don’t know what we know. Their reactions are perfectly unironic and sincere, which means they really do think the purpose of gift giving is the receiver’s satisfaction. The children’s reactions are funny until you think about being in the room when it’s happening: take seriously 3:42’s ‘You stupid parents! I hate you, I hate you all!’ and try not to shudder. It’s a hideous selfishness made manifest but stripped of exculpatory subtext. We’re definitely laughing at children made to cry on our behalf – a dangerously PC and wet blanket-ish concession that’s also plainly true – but what’s worse, way worse, is that the crying children aren’t proxies for pro calibre comics or writers with serious cultural awareness and savvy. Kimmel isn’t telling the children what to do.

Except… am I the only person whose initial reaction to the piece was unadulterated belly laughing? Of the kind – like exactly the same kind – ordinarily stirred in me by superlative comedic writing and display? (Comedic derring-do, if that makes sense?) That’s at any rate why I watched the clip a few times straight away, and it was only after the second or third viewing that I started to feel something like That’s still pretty funny but I’m not sure I should be laughing, and then it took a further while and still more viewings to think about and parse just what was happening, and why maybe it wasn’t so funny after all; and then on still further reflection it occurred to me that what’s actually going on is that the piece isn’t funny for the reasons I’d originally thought. In other words, that the joke I was laughing at was different from the joke being told.

And this is why I think the Kimmel Christmas video montage is terrible and insidious and bad: it gives the impression of one kind of humour that’s well-known and legit, when the actual humour in play is almost unambiguously odious and foul. (Note the actual humour is o. and f. for reasons not necessarily squeamish and PC (although the phrase child baiting definitely comes to mind), because, as mentioned, the children really do think they’ve been maligned; 4:25’s not kidding when he says ‘This is the worst Christmas I’ve ever had’.) The Kimmel piece gives the whole gruesome production a sheen of regularity by situating it within some broader comedic gestalt, although it’s almost impossible to infer any sort of intent or wilfulness to the folks at JKL! without falling into a kind of infinite suppository regress: they know that we know that they know that… (As declaimed back up top, JKL! and other shows like it – possibly all television shows – thrive on the sort of hyper-meta exchange that’s just terribly abstruse and difficult to parse, a veritable Mobius strip of innuendo and nod-wink, which is why the argument here’s getting pitched at the level of effect and not cause.) It’s like we’re watching just another comedy sketch… except that we’re not, really, and so there’s a different criteria in play for whether what we’re watching is still funny; or maybe it’s that our laughter has different implications in different circumstances. (Recall the 1990s show Kids Say the Darndest Things, hosted by Bill Cosby, basically live and inadvertent child stand-up that no amount of reviewing has made me think is anything other than wholesome and funny and good.) The upshot is that Kimmel’s piece and its funniness require a different kind of thinking altogether from what’s implied by the context and maybe even the initial pass, possibly a warning sign like DO NOT ENTER OR EXIT.

04 January, 2012

To the cinema.

Going anywhere with my family is a major event. There are only four of us, but the potential for hilarity and disaster looms large. While most families are the worst kind of inside joke - the kind where everyone's sure something's funny but no one can explain it to anyone else - our family's hijinks seem to bear up well under retelling. To wit:

On Boxing Day we decided to take in a film. My Week With Marilyn. The theatre was the AMC 20 at Kennedy Commons, one of those typical firebomb strip malls for which suburban Ontario is famous. All the stores are of the Big Box variety, and surely this is the world's only parking lot with its own set of traffic lights. (As in to direct traffic within the parking lot. Four ways, two lanes each way.)

As luck would have it, a person in a motorized wheelchair eschewed the generous sidewalks and was moving upstream just as we turned into the parking lot's multi-lane entrance, causing my father to exclaim with the kind of piteous and disbelieving opprobrium that only he can muster.

"Oh for crying I don't believe that's just holy Christ."

Conversation on the drive over was light but focused on whether my parents were eligible for the theatre's senior discount. My father is a man who knows his limitations - and has courage enough to admit these - so the decision was taken that my mother would buy the tickets and thus deal with any potential 'Are we seniors or not?' fiasco. "You're much better at that stuff than I am", my father humbly confessed.

As it happens, my mother does have superior abilities when it comes to making arrangements and otherwise getting things organized. (She takes extraordinary pride, for example, in her ability to pack a suitcase or the trunk of our car to 'within an inch of its life'.) Clearly, however, mother is used to dealing with just herself and my father, and the added complexity of my sister and I needing tickets - definitely not seniors' tickets - stretched her organizational memory to its limits: she approached the wicket and recited, trance-like, "Two seniors, one student and one adult, please. Oh, and we have cards." My mother thrust three loyalty cards at the cashier and breathed a sigh of relief at having discharged her duty without forgetting anyone's ticket or price status or the opportunity to accumulate loyalty points.

(My father, by the way, always keeps a respectful distance during these exchanges - currently standing about six feet away, in front of an unattended wicket - either because he doesn't want my mother to feel like he's supervising or he really can't handle the stress.)

After an appropriate pause the young girl cashier asked, with one helluva straight face, "What show would you like to see?"

"Oh!" exclaimed my mother. Mortified. "Ah..." [Looking sideways at my father, who has become fascinated with a small sign attached to the wicket glass in front of him.]

"My Week With Marilyn." I decided to shoulder some of the burden.

"Honey, that sign says seniors are people over 60, so we get the discount." My father joined us in the queue and delivered his report.

"Yes, dear, I told the lady already, it's all taken care of."

"The sign says the discount applies only during the day," my father elaborated his findings, "but I wonder if that also includes the night?"

We are buying tickets to the 3.40PM show.

As my mother collects our tickets a young man at the next wicket is describing the show he'd like to see to the cashier. "Was there a film that was released yesterday? With extraterrestrials? They come down like this..." He's gesturing with his hands how the ETs come down as we walk away and into the theatre.


Concessions: mother remains in charge of orders. As we approach the front of the queue my father whispers in her ear that he'd like a large popcorn and a large Coke. Then he moves to take up his perimeter but remembers just in time to lunge back in and whisper to my mother - just as she's about to give his order to the cashier - "...and butter."

"What?" My mother's focus, shot to hell.

"Oh, it says you get your own..." My father wanders off to investigate the butter station, which is indeed self-serve.

"Honey, our theatre's that way". My mother points in the opposite direction.

"No, I know that." My father clarifies his intentions. "I'm just going to see the butter, which it says is over here."

"Hi." My mother addresses the cashier and gives our order. "And we have cards." She fans our three AMC loyalty cards meaningfully before the till. It occurs to me that neither my sister nor I live at home anymore, so at least one of those cards is dubious. No matter, though, as the cashier shrugs off my mother's Royal Flush of accumulated discount. "Sorry, those are only good at the Box Office."

"What did he say?" My father has sidled-up after successfully reconnoitering the self-serve butter.

My mother repeats the cashier.

"What does that mean?" My father's a corporate lawyer and so knows a defined term when he hears one.

"It's the place where we bought the tickets."



The film is very good. Michele Williams plays the lead, brilliantly. Her Marilyn teeters between innocence and delusion, for most of the film balanced precisely, exquisitely in between. Beguiling even to herself. It's a compelling performance that's strangely apposite to at least our foursome in the next-to-last row.


We emerge from the theatre at dusk, the western sky bands of blue getting lighter towards the horizon. A brilliant new moon hangs low, the polished edge of a tarnished silver dollar. We stand together and admire the indifferent beauty shining down over six concrete apartment towers, eighteen lanes of highway traffic, what my mother estimates as “the busiest Chapter's book store in the city”, and a red-roofed Casey's Bar & Grill that probably seats 150 but in the Kennedy Commons looks like an outhouse with (of course) it's own parking lot.

For almost a minute nobody says anything, just squints against the sodium glare of streetlights and listens to the white noise of highway traffic. Then we turn, all together, and walk away from the theatre with the kind of fearlessness and certainty that only lifelong suburban residents can summon while trying to remember where somebody parked.

02 January, 2012

Happy New Year

01/01/2012/14.16h. Happy New Year. Watching the bleary-eyed and bloodshot great 2012 from my office at the bar in The Lakeview. This place never closes. Reading Hunter S. Thompson and taking stock with the staff. It's 40 minutes for a table but there's always space at the bar.

Various girls I've met and offended at local bars wander in and pretend not to see me.

Frankel and I held a private celebration last night. Sat around his living room drinking wine and talking about a story I'm pitching around, about the time I went to the KKK's national congress. The racial angle could go either way in these times when the Globe & Mail won't even report 'the N-word'. Not even a quotation.

'Why do we give that word so much power?' Frankel's probably the only guy who can look intelligent with or without a rolled-up five dollar bill sticking out of his nose.

'It's a question of sensitivity - of not using a word you know causes pain.'

'I'll admit the sensitivity point - fully. But I'm talking about reporting something that actually happened. It's very troubling to me. Very troubling.'

We make plans for a retaliatory t-shirt saying something like 'You fucking N-word'. I'll probably end up wearing it, though, because between the two of us I look the most like a grade school boy scout liable to being taken advantage of by roving gangs of racist jackboots.

The line for tables is backed out into the street now, but it's still just me at the bar, labouring over this first article of the year. My shirt's on inside out, which may be scaring people away from the stools.

Jesus, I just remembered: the amount of blow on the table last night was making me sweat, and I never touch the stuff. Taking a deep inhale around Frankel sometimes knocks me out for an afternoon; he has to wash his credit cards before flying to the U.S.

A woman just left wearing a rabbit fur coat and aviator sunglasses. That's a helluva good omen, so I'll just say 'hello' to a few tables filled with girls who never called me back and head out into the afternoon's cold indifferent rain.