Thursday, December 23, 2010

...I just play one on TV

Talkin' 'bout Jesus in the kitchen...
This is my fourth time working the dinner shift at Out of the Cold at the local church. Not an auspicious start. J not 100% so she doesn't come with me. I give her a stern lecture about fulfilling one's obligations. Tears ensue as does guilt (for me).

R has to go to a viewing for his uncle who just passed away a few days ago up in the upper reaches of Scarborough on this icy night. I'm in a cranky mood because... I don't know... I am just not feeling the Christmas spirit this year for some reason.

The materialism is really irking me. I love getting together with the family. I love decorating the tree and making the house more Christmasy but the gift giving is getting to me. R and I have reached a point where we have so much stuff we honestly don't know what to get each other. When things like umbrellas and belts start showing up on people's wish lists haven't we pretty much gone as far as we can go with this?

My good friend D. is not scheduled to work tonight so it is just little old me.There must be something in the air because at least a dozen people don't show up for their shift. Not a good situation for the shift supervisor or the other people on shift. It is a full house tonight - at least 60 people I would estimate. The Elvis impersonator is back to serenade the troops with a disturbing new shade of auburn in his hair and a not so cheerful look. And, oh no, he is playing Blue Christmas...

I am assigned to table number three. Four people sit down at my table. That's great for me - as the table seats eight. I serve the first course: turkey vegetable soup for four. I bring four bowls. There is always pride before the fall... When I get back to the table there's a new face. I get him a soup, then there is another new face, then another, then another. For a total of eight. Now that's a  party...

One young man at my table attracts my attention. He is a light-skinned young black man, very nice looking, who is trying to catch my eye. When he does, he asks me if I am "mixed". I say, "No, next best thing: Italian." "From what part?" he asks. "Sicily," I say. "I thought so, you look like my sister," he says sweetly. Why sir, I'm blushing...especially as I could be your, ahem...older sister.

Two places over, we have caught the attention of a man and a woman who are eating together. The man says, "She's Sicilian." and points to his partner. She nods shyly. And I see, yes, the face of a paesana. That surprises me somewhat. But why? Because I don't imagine anyone who looks like me eating in a church hall for the homeless? I don't imagine that she foresaw she'd ever be doing that either.

When I go back to the serving station to get the main course (meatballs in sauce with mashed potato and mixed veg) I am still musing out loud to myself. I say, "There's a girl over there who's Sicilian..." "Are you?" asks P, the food server. "Yeah!" "So am I!" he responds. What are the chances folks? P is from Dalia, a village perhaps forty miles away from my parents. He has a warm, friendly face and I often see him here.

The last person to join my table is a Lady of Indeterminate Sexual Attributes - let us call her Lisa. She sounds like a woman; she looks like a woman but she has facial hair which is throwing me off a bit. She is also a little manic. When Lisa asks for milk I check in the kitchen and am told we don't have enough to serve as a complement to the meal and can only serve it with coffee or tea. No problem for Lisa she just (I suspect) keeps asking me to refill the little milk dispenser and draining it.

And Lisa doesn't like the meal, she wants cake, like now. I can't oblige her until the kitchen is ready but she asks for it repeatedly. Politely, of course, but she is truly plucking my last nerve as it proves to be a hectic night.

In the kitchen, some young Christian girls are talking about Jesus...really? Really. There are distinct groups here: happy Anglo Christians, the quiet Asian Christians, the teenagers who have community involvement or religious obligations to fulfill and the Riverdale do-the-right-thing mom/offspring duos like J and I. I have to say the happy Christians unnerve me a bit but I guess I (we) should just be grateful that there are people like this who are willing to give up their time so gracefully to do this on a Friday night and approach it with a positive attitude unlike myself. But most people here are kind and courteous and that goes a long way for me...

I serve the cake with ice cream - carrot cake or orange flavored cake. It seems to be a hit. The table slowly clears. I am assigned tables one to four to wipe down and disinfect. A young man helps me - which I am grateful for. I saw him talking to "The Professor" earlier and when the professor left, he thanked the young guy for chatting with him. I have not achieved the casual banter bit. I am still too self-conscious. I feel I am smiling too much to make up for my inner grumpiness. The ever smiling get on my nerves - by all means be pleasant but really, is this a happy occasion for the guests? Eating in a church hall because you don't have enough money to buy your own?

The setting up of mattresses goes smoothly...we are soon finished and exactly on time. The shift coordinators are very efficient in designating final tasks.

I am soon on my way home but in a somber mood. When I reach my street and try to cross at the crosswalk some young fool almost cuts me off on his bike. I take exception to this and loudly tell him so - he calls me a name associated with dogs - I tell him to go forth and procreate. Merry Christmas buddy!

Hey, I don't claim to be a nice person, I just play one on TV.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Who’s afraid of what comes after Virginia Woolf?

I would not say that I am afraid of the modernist masters such as Virginia Woolf (she is a personal hero of mine - God I adore her). Nor the departure from reality and into the realm of stream of consciousness, or the injection of the writer into the narrative. But the literary movement which followed modernist literature does leave me quaking in my proverbial boots as a writer and a reader.

My queasiness with post modern lit began, I think, when the members of a now defunct book club I belonged to in the 1990s selected David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest as our next book selection. At 1079 very long pages, I refused to participate, much to the surprise and dismay of my fellow club members.

Please, I thought, I just can’t take that on. I have just had a child, I’m tired, I‘m irritable, I'm sleepless and sleepy. I’m sure I have lost brain cells (literally) during this pregnancy…

Even just examining the book, the heft of a brick or two, was distressing, the footnote upon footnote, the rabid reviews for and against it in the literary news, the excitement with which my male friends approached it. The footnotes, Foster Wallace explained, were a method of “disrupting the linearity of the text while maintaining a portion of the narrative’s cohesion, for readability”.

Hmm. I’m reminded a little of a remark that one of Bertolt Brecht’s colleagues made to him when he said that the radical nature of his theatre work was meant to remind the patron continuously that they were watching theatre at all times. The wit replied, something to the effect that, where else would the theatre patron think he was while he watched the production?

On paper, when I read about postmodern lit I am completely on board. In an essay called “Some Attributes of Post-Modernist Literature” by Prof. John Lye at Brock University he mentions a few attributes (there are many more – my apologies to Prof. Lye for abbreviating the text) such as:

· challenging of borders and limits, including those of decency
· exploration of the marginalized aspects of life and marginalized elements of society
· an attempt to integrate art and life - the inclusion of popular forms, popular culture, everyday reality
· a crossing or dissolving of borders - between fiction and non-fiction, between literary genres, between high and low culture

And as I read these descriptions I think I’m there! I’m so there… willing to jump on the po-mo train of literature and give it a go. And yet…a glimpse at the plot lines of said books send me spinning. Query me on the now deceased Kathy Acker and her work (which I have read) and I am put out. Compel me, as on a dare by my partner, to read a recent Paul Auster book and I am left with a guilt induced headache of resentment as I grit my teeth and read it.

Dare I say it? Post-modern tomes bore me. Perhaps they require too much thinking, too much sleight of hand? Am I too lazy to peruse them? Am I resentful that I don’t fully understand the purpose of what is written? They seem to be written by a very odd subspecies of writer whom I don’t fully understand or appreciate.

But, Lord, I have tried. You cannot say I have not tried.

Published in an altered format on February 20th, 2007 at

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The more dead the better (perhaps)

The more dead the better is my policy regarding writers of fiction and the reading of their work. Distance is a great stimulant for the aspiring writer and avid reader. It permits the conjuring up of powerful, intense constructs.

When I read fiction I imagine what influences worked upon the author to produce the work. Is it biographical or informed by political views? Is it warped by maltreatment of the author? Did they care what others thought of their work and the secrets that might be revealed in producing that piece of fiction?

Flaubert, a flawed hero of mine...
Usually, the less I know about an author the better off I am as a reader although I hunger for more information. Do I need to know that Philip Roth is a misogynistic, cruel husband? No. Do I need to know that Anne Sexton’s child accuses her of molesting her? No. Do I feel I need to know how the womanizing, syphilitic Flaubert treated the women in his life? No. Should I be privy to the Oedipal fantasies of crime writer James Ellroy or the long dead Sylvia Plath? Probably not. It interferes with my image of the writer and an assessment of their work.

I don’t want their work to be coloured by their misogyny, racism, self-hatred or obstreperous personalities. Or by our 21st century standards of politically correct values. I would like to experience their visions purely, unpolluted by biographical details and my own narrow-minded prejudices.

And yet there is that guilty frisson of pleasure when you are looking at a book by a minor Canadian author that you knew back in the day and remembering that he was a self-absorbed idiot or that she was an insufferable, selfish bore. Is there that glimmer of satisfaction that you know what they are really like? Absolutely.

And, am I intrigued by the misbehavior of writers? Yes. Drawn to biographies of troubled writers? Yes. Fascinated by scoundrels, whores and miscreants? Yes, yes and yes.

Initially published in an altered form on February 16th, 2007.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Into the English vortex

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, my immediate family and the extended family of my mother’s generation, for the most part, did not read. Oddly, this afforded me a particular kind of liberation as an aspiring writer. 

I think, subconsciously, I reasoned that if no one would read what I wrote, I would write about whatever I wanted to, free of reprimand or censure: teenage abortion, adulterous husbands, sexual abuse, bisexuality, miscegenation, violent love affairs, marital strife, abuse of children, cultural dislocation, blatant and subtle forms of racism.

Ah...the unlikely benefits of a book free home and adolescence! And, in print, I was bolder, ruder than someone who thought they might have a close relation peering over their shoulder as they wrote which I know has hampered some writers of my generation and background. No need to be nice or pleasant or dutiful. No more sweet stories about one's grandparents or the struggles of immigration and assimilation. A (Not So) Nice Italian Girl was born...

The likelihood that an older member of the family would pick up an issue of the literary journal The Capilano Review or the Journey Prize anthology or even an ethnic specific magazine like the now defunct eyetalian, was slim. If a book of mine was ever to be published, they would likely peer at it in wonder, politely ask for a brief précis (having had it filtered through an equally bewildered younger relation) and then, I’m sure, promptly forget about it.

I could rage against the villainous and forbidding elements of my young adulthood: sexual repression, xenophobia, sexism, into an English language vortex with impunity. I could describe and barely disguise that odious family doctor, that first deceitful boyfriend, that pinched, sadistic nun in grade school, that villainous male relation who tried to stifle me.

I could rage at, fume about, regret, sentimentalize, lust for, cry for, dozens of persons dead and alive, who would be none the wiser for it.

Initially posted in an altered format on February 14th, 2007 by

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Ciao Ciao Gastown

ALC emoting for the assembled 
group at the Bressani Prize
A rough night. I was afraid that I would sleep through the alarm (which I have never done in my life by the way). I had to be at the airport by 10.30a for an 11.30a flight. So civilized. In Toronto, I had to be there two hours before to fly domestically. I get scanned for the first time. Okay, I think, but this won't be pretty. I try not to think of what they will see on the scan. But it's very quick - literally two or three seconds.

Breakfast at Griffins restaurant downstairs in the hotel. I treat myself to a $5 coffee and a light breakfast. Ouch, I feel guilty even just writing that down. Taxi to the airport. Goodbye Vancouver I hardly knew ye ... but wish I had gotten to know you better. I fell in love with you - it was like seeing a beautiful face that you have never met before across a room, so fleeting and yet it left an intense impression on me.

Exterior of the VAG
I feel a special connection to the city because R's parents were born here. After the internment, his maternal grandparents Tsunekichi and Yei Hayashi were driven out of Vancouver (with thousands of others) and forced to relocate east. They ended up in Lemon Creek in Slocan, B.C. in an internment camp during WWII - the entire family: his grandfather in one section, the grandmother and four young children in another part. After the war the Japanese-Canadians were forbidden to stay in the west and they slowly made their way to Ontario to find work and accommodations which was difficult as many would not rent to Japanese Canadians. Imagine trying to do that as the head of the family with six children? The humiliation and stress of that? What that would do to a proud man's ego...

As successful and resilient as the Japanese-Canadians are (and they are very) I know that the war did irreparable harm to the families involved. The stoicism with which they have endured the destruction of their families, livelihood and basic civil rights is unbelievable. Sometimes when J feels timid or uncertain about something I remind her that she has the blood of both her Sicilian and her Japanese grandmothers in her veins and that they faced many more hardships than we ever did...

Never buy into that hogwash about how racially tolerant Canadians are versus our American cousins. Read your history. Know your past.

Whenever anyone refers to R's Japanese heritage I am quick to append Japanese-Canadian and to let them know that his family has been here in Canada for almost 80 years. If he ain't Canadian I don't know who is.

Imagine if the war had not happened, that the Japanese-Canadians had not been interned by the government, that they had not been forced to give up their businesses and move east to Ontario. R could have been in B.C. the whole time and I would have been stuck in Toronto alone. Gulp. I don't even want to think about it. This is a long and very sad story that, one day, I hope to write about with the help of my Japanese-Canadian in-laws.

Elevators leading to the Istituto
The flight home was uneventful. I read, I watched Inception. I copy-edited the latest issue of Descant. I pretended to understand the convoluted plot of Inception. The truth is I have no idea what I was watching but I was intrigued.

On the plane, I am itching to get home. Each day I left a heart on J and R's fb pages to remind them that I am thinking of them. One heart for day one, two hearts for day two, etc ...

R picks me up at the airport which I appreciate because I know he is busy with work. Great to see his gorgeous face as I exit the baggage claim, weary and none too fresh smelling (me that is, not R). It's good to go away sometimes. Then you get a true sense of the wonderful things you have waiting for you at home.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


Atrium of the VAG
This city is so lovely, so beautiful in so many ways. I woke craving a strong coffee so made my way to the ubiquitous Starbucks nearby. Time to read, write, text my loved ones. Later I walked all the way down Granville (north?) to the water and took photos. I know that I’m in a high end part of the city when I pass Holt Renfrew, Tiffany’s, Sephora…

Harbour Centre
I love the architecture here. It’s mostly very modern but appealing – the Harbour Centre for example which looks like a space ship atop a building but there is also the older Sinclair building, the Hotel Vancouver, the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG to you neophytes!) which is across the street from my hotel.

I don’t spend much just a little secret something for J. I wander into the monster Chapters on Howe Street and am horrified to find a whole merchandising section on … how can I phrase it … accouterments for reading? It had boxed “Jane Austen candles”, incense, “reading throws”, and specially designed editions of Austen, Poe and other classics which matched in color with the merchandise… WTF - can’t we just read the damn books, why is there merchandise that is colour coordinated with the books?

Vancouver Art Gallery
Feeling slightly drained but happy today I go back to the hotel and rest. In the early aft, I go to the VAG and check out a photo exhibit by Robert Adams – all b&w photos of very haunted landscapes for the most part. The photos are depressing but beautiful as if these landscapes have been scoured free of humans.

On the heated terrace of the VAG, facing Howe Street, I am happy to have my coffee and listen to the woman behind me cheerfully sing Christmas carols at the top of her lungs as well as comment on the overheard conversations of the other gallery patrons. Possibly a street person but it is uncertain...

Christ Church Cathedral
Across from the hotel is a pretty church called Christ Church Cathedral. I go inside and light a candle for the old man for whatever place he is in now, hoping that this candle will warm him. I take a few pictures of the stained glasses images. One is of St. Michael I think (or perhaps I imagine it to be so).

As I leave a very disheveled but well-spoken man approaches me with a map claiming that he is an American who has lost his way. Obviously, with camera in hand and a dazed look, I also appear to be a tourist and unlikely to be able to help him until he tells me that he was recently mugged and lost a tooth. Uh, unfortunately, this man has lost many teeth many moons ago and the story is not plausible but he still touches me up for five bucks.

Hotel Vancouver
Back to the hotel to prepare for the reading – to read a comic or moving section? Sometimes merely reading about Seraphina the mother in the book (or worse still Turi, the father) completely undoes me. I opt for the scene where the three Pentangeli children try and concoct a magical meal for their father’s cousin Cristofero, a despised dinner guest.

The Istituto Italiano di Cultura where the reading will be is not far … on West Hastings and a few minutes away by cab. It’s in a grand old building which reminds me of those older buildings on the lower part of Bay Street in Toronto. When I buzz the ringer at the door on the 5th floor, a suspicious looking man surveys me. “I’m here for the reading," I squeak out. “Writer?” he asks gruffly. “Yes,” I meekly answer. “Come in,” he orders. Later I see is that he is our impromptu bartender.

Two of my colleagues are already there and we await two more. I meet the charming Alberta Lai, the director of the Istituto. We test the mikes, set up our books. The last thing to decide is sequence. I really dislike this part. I always feel that a disinterested third party is the best person to decide as every writer has his/her own agenda. Alphabetical? That would be to my advantage I point out to the group as my surname begins with “A” – is the group comfortable with that? Someone suggests girl/boy/girl/boy. The writer Genni Gunn who will also read with us quips, “What is this a dinner party?” Finally the order is decided: Michelle, Michael, Caterina, a break, Pasquale and then Genni. Ten minutes each.

Caterina Edwards reads
The crowd is small but appreciative. The readings go well. But again, two things perturb me: where are the young people and why is no one buying books? How do we preserve Italo-Canadian culture if we don’t write about it and how can we write about if we are not fairly compensated? This an issue I raise at dinner afterwards.

People seem more relaxed tonight. The crowd is friendly and intelligent in the brief Q&A.

Afterward Genni takes us to Robson St. for Japanese - Ebisu. I go from being famished (with no lunch or dinner) to being minimally hungry. Suddenly I feel very lonely, missing R and J. Is this how traveling business people and artists feel – the excitement of a new place, new food, new people and then an unexpected plunge into sadness because all you want to do is curl up with the person(s) you love?