Standing on the Edge, Again

I recently bought a small place back in the Big Smoke. A bold move for a guy with indeterminate income who had started to get comfortable in semi•retirement, writing books and playing guitar in his small town by the lake. I will have to work again – I mean, really work – to afford it all, with a hovering recession and high unemployment that refuses to go away as my travelling companions. In exchange, I would be opened to the attractions and distractions that the city would offer: theatre, art, literary events, traffic, rent•a•bike, smog and crime. And I would stand once more at a window on the larger world of diverse and displaced people struggling to make it in their new home, just like I did, oh so many years ago.

I remember when I first “retired” from writing and moved abroad, in my early twenties, because at that time all the stories of my tender life experience had been written and I needed new fodder. I never thought that I would ever write again. I wanted to “do” not “dream.” The next 20 years of “doing” and screwing up gave me enough for a truckload of books and stories, but now that conduit too has slowed to a trickle. The time to hunt has begun again; the new harvest, or gathering, will have to follow at a later date. Life, it seems, full of new beginnings. What is the alternative? An ending? The END?

But now there are those reports of the “throwaway glass condos” springing up all over Toronto, buildings that are energy efficient yet not durable in the long term. Have I picked myself one of these lemons? Should I have stayed put in my cottage by the lake and buried my money under a mattress to escape the stock market’s never ending case of the hiccups? Am I suffering from buyer’s remorse? Am I scared of change, of the unknown? Isn’t life all about surprises? Couldn’t just the next medical check•up spring a surprise?

They say that growth happens on the edge, not in the comfort zone, and I am deliberately placing myself on the edge again I realize, hoping that it would bring me raw material for the next round of stories, whether that even includes personal loss. Unlike my last “retirement”, my life span is a lot shorter now, so I can’t afford another 20 years of “doing” before the next harvest of experiences. I am going to have to gather as I do and hope that the finished material falls into a coherent whole. Writing on the go will also help me deal with the fear of taking the plunge again.

Stepping off edges doesn’t get easier with age; on the contrary, it’s bloody scary, but exhilarating! What will I attempt next? Russian Roulette? Or bungee jumping off the CN Tower?

Toronto Public Library for sale? You’re kidding!!!

I was in a blog slump when I read about the Mayor of Toronto’s bid to sell off some theatres and the city’s public library (the largest one on the continent, I am told, in numbers of books borrowed) and I woke up pretty quick. Sell the library…what retrograde buffoonery is this? Sell the soul of the city?

I would like to offer this mayor—who has probably always lived in an environment of public libraries and who probably does not know the effects of the alternative—a view of what life was like without a universally accessible library nearby. I grew up in a country where there were only three libraries located in the capital city: one featured only Brit•lit, the second only American books, while the third one—deemed “public”—charged a membership fee. All three library locations were in the swanky part of town and involved a long commute for us poor Joes. Only two books could be borrowed per library per visit. That library system was symbolic of the class distinctions that segregated the society I lived in at the time; a society that succumbed to marginalization and civil wars due to levers of inequality and exclusivity, like its library system, that were hard coded into its fabric.

When I arrived in Toronto a quarter of a century ago, I was blown away by the selection and the services offered by the TPL (99 branches and unlimited books per borrowing with inter•branch exchanges—wow!) and I recall instinctively reaching into my wallet to pay for my new TPL membership card which I was sure was going to cost me a fortune, only to be told that there was “no charge,” that it was a privilege I enjoyed for being a resident and a taxpayer of the city. Just that statement alone made the painful act of immigration a wise move. I instantly realized how this city had flattened the peaks and valleys of opportunity I had experienced in the old country: through this vast public library network, knowledge was openly available to all without the need for money as the key to access.

Admittedly, delivery of library services can be enhanced and rationalized with the advent of the Internet and e•distribution, and libraries and readers should embrace these practices to streamline costs and save our beleaguered mayor. But these technological developments only underscore the pervasiveness of the library’s mission and add to its value. The library, in broadening the scope of services offered to its community—with job search programs, ESL classes and others— often carrying the load on behalf of Canadian embassies abroad by arming new immigrants with what’s required for success in their new home, has become more than just a place where you can borrow a book. And I would argue that if we sit our criminals down with a book so that could learn something useful for society, they would be less likely to be bothering our cops and pressuring our mayor’s finances.

Canada has entered a very pro•business era with Federal, provincial and municipal governments swinging right. There is nothing wrong in being business•like but the best business people are those who combine good balance•sheet acumen with a broad understanding of history and human behaviour. Venerable B•schools around the world realized this flaw in the last financial meltdown in 2008 and rushed to bolster their MBA programs with humanities subjects.

If our mayor argues that the municipality needs not be in the arts business, or in other “essential services” it runs, and continues to withdraw and privatize everything, should he also outsource the city’s police force that sucks up a greater chunk of taxpayer money in a period of declining crime rates and does not directly return anything to the bottom line? Is it fair to also request that he start returning portions of taxpayer money for “services no longer rendered?”

I think our honourable mayor has to get it through his head that a city is not only about feeding the belly: eating, drinking, shopping and working – that makes for a rather dull place. The city is also about feeding the soul: arts, culture, intellectual growth, knowledge, and other activities that do not necessarily add to a bottom line measured strictly in dollars. Dollars in, quality of life out, is also fair value.

If the mayor is a savvy politician he would not give away crown jewels like the TPL that only enhance his city’s world class value proposition. Because if he does, what will he be left presiding over in the end?

Men in Black – whose side are they on?

When I saw TV footage last weekend of the burning police cruiser in downtown Toronto, of the guys in balaclavas and black suits breaking windows of commercial establishments, and of the armour•bearing cops in black marching down familiar streets, herding protest groups into smaller segments to render them ineffective, I realized that our World Class City had finally lost its innocence.

The disconcerting factor was that I was unable to distinguish which of these groups of men in black were the good guys. The G20 leaders were calling their conference a success, so their goons must be in the right, eh? Wait a second, what about the balaclava brigade’s claim that unless violence happens no one pays attention – how about that, eh? And what about our oblivious citizens of Toronto, who have always taken their good city for granted, who were out that day walking their kids and their dogs and taking photographs of these costumed marauders, as if their streets had been taken over for the shooting of another one of those “Hollywood North posing as New York City” action flicks, and who were left wondering why they were suddenly being arrested and held in detention centres, or being asked for ID. “Damn it, I am a Canadian, eh, and a Torontonian, to boot! Don’t you recognize me, copper? This is a bad movie. Let me out of here!”

Just like our naive and hapless city dwellers who were stuck in the middle, we middle class taxpayers are now paying for the excesses of the men in black: $1bn in security costs and a bundle in property damage that will invariably find its way back into municipal taxes and insurance premiums for Citizen Joe Blow.

What also struck me was how similar these two groups of men in black were: in appearance, in their capability to do harm, and in their level of organization. Yet, they were on two diametrically opposite sides of the political spectrum. Have we polarized so much in what was once a middle class society, one in which everyone had enough to afford the basics of life, that we now have to take sides with either the haves or the have•nots, with either the ones with power or the ones wanting to grab a morsel of it?

My last book featured a protagonist who pursues the Middle Way, a back•to•the•centre approach, taking the best of Socialism and Capitalism and leaving the bad behind. Call it Enlightened Capitalism, or Liberal Socialism, if you will, a system, which once it takes root, eliminates the need for men in black, gated communities and beggars on the street. I was inspired by similar approaches taken by great teachers and wise political leaders in the past, albeit for brief periods in history, for greed always intervened to thwart their efforts. My “progressive” critics dismissed this approach as being archaic, utopian and idealistic. And yet, I wonder if our politicians have really found a better solution. When I saw that burning cruiser, I didn’t think they had.

The city we all bash – but it still works – too well!

We all like to bash old Toronto, especially these days with the garbage piled up and relatives from down there visiting and bringing their trash for us to “take care” of. Toronto, which as you approach along the 401, something catches in your throat and you realize that it’s not homesickness but pollution. But that city still works—let me give you some examples…

During the recent municipal strike, I visited the Toronto Islands. A speedy water taxi took me to my destination in faster time than the old public ferry and its lines of chattering holiday makers. The islands themselves were empty but for their residents, probably relieved to ride their bicycles and walk their dogs with no hordes of invaders from the mainland to bother them; the boardwalk was deserted and the views spectacular. And the towers of Toronto still gleamed imperiously from the other side. That was one of my best visits to the Islands ever.

I went into the heart of downtown TO last week and absentmindedly stepped out of a brand name coffee shop (where the price of a newly reduced cup of coffee is still higher than a glass of wine in my little town) with my empty disposable cup in hand. I looked for the nearest trash can. It was staring at me. There were trash cans all over the street – but they were clogged up to the mouths of their narrow openings with a month’s full of trash. I was about to stuff my empty cup in my bag and carry it back to my small town (like my city relatives had taught me) when I saw small plastic bags hanging off the sides of the overfull public trash cans. I also noticed that stuffed trash notwithstanding, the streets were still cleaner than the ones down south of the border. It was as if the people of Toronto go out at night on vigilante clean•up missions, sticking their fingers up at the striking city workers, determined to make their city work, unions notwithstanding. I deposited my empty coffee cup in one of the dangling plastic bags, feeling humbled and impressed.

Two days ago, I was in the city again at a business meeting that ran over time. I stepped out on to the street and my car, parked at a meter by the curb, had disappeared. Sure, I was guilty of being 15 minutes later than when my permit expired, but why the hell did they have to take my car as payment? My associate helped me call around to the various tow companies that operated that part of town and believe me there were lots of them. One number we were given to call ended up being the police, who promptly informed me that my car had been stolen. Never to give up, we continued to call through the unending list until one tow operator confirmed that they had my car. I was out there in a taxi like a speeding bullet (one note on taxis in TO – they rival New York now, or tow companies in TO – they are everywhere, thanks to the immigrant doctors and engineers who have swelled their ranks in recent times). I retrieved my car in the air•conditioned comfort of the tow company that accepted debit cards – a very smooth transaction, indeed!

Two hundred dollars poorer but wiser for my experience, I raced up the Don Valley Parkway, fleeing the Big Smoke, amazed at its efficiency. To salve my soul, I was determined to go back to my small town and park in the mayor’s parking spot (which I have used before in emergencies) determined to prove that I would not be tagged, towed or arrested, and looking for a bit of kindness and understanding over cold blooded efficiency.