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?

The Dead-ends in Life

When I think of the dead ends I have followed over the years and the amount of time I spent on walking those futile pathways, I must have wasted much of my life. Let me itemize a few of these duds that would not offend friends or family (the rest, you will have to imagine!):

1) Earning four academic degrees, none of which I have any recollection of putting to practical use, except on my ever changing resume. I use Microsoft Office applications more than any other, and these tools I taught myself
2) Trying several times to immigrate to the wrong country (whose name will remain unmentioned) and then, by freakish accidents, ending up in two places I never knew I would ever live in. Dubai in the 80’s was pile of sand attracting only labourers and housemaids; I ended up there for seven years, like Ulysses on Circe’s island seven times over, until I was panting to get out. I then landed in Toronto which had hitherto only been a name on those old paperbacks that claimed “this book is published simultaneously in New York, London, Toronto, Sydney & Auckland”; well, I thought, at least they read in Toronto—must be a nice place. And it was! Why did I take such a circuitous route?
3) Reading hundreds of books, many of which did not advance my understanding of this world one iota, especially the formulaic fiction that everyone was reading because these books were “so cool, and recommended”
4) Writing dozens of stories and novels, only a few which have seen the light of day. The others are making good doorstops or keeping the Post Office solvent with their to•ing and fro•ing
5) Sending out hundreds of job applications and attending dozens of “play•act” interviews only to find employment through the people I had known all along and hadn’t asked
6) Joining, forming, or playing in many music groups, all of which finally collapsed on their own success, leaving me holding onto my lonely guitar, back at square one
7) Pursuing the dot•com phenomenon. Oh, weren’t we champions of that promised new economy during those heady days of the new millennium, creating new business models by the day, taking inventions out of every basement crackpot and trying to find customers for them, and finally imploding when the banks and venture capitalists cut off their financial pipelines.
8) Rebounding to pursue this social networking thing now (Hello! Who’s out there? Are you listening? Do you even care? Do you wanna be my friend? No? THANK YOU!) No one knows where SN is heading, or how it will end. Will it be another dot•bomb?
9) Joining volunteer movements in order to make the world a better place. Instead, this planet has become worse. Oh, you egotistical sod, you were but a solitary spermlet in a sterile ejaculation that could never transform the elusive egg!

I could go on, but I would only end up depressed. A wise man once told me that Planet Earth is not a place for accomplishments but a place for learning hard lessons, often making one end up empty handed but spiritually enriched. If that were the case, I must be well on my way to earning a PhD in this joint soon. But I wonder if I will ever use that credential either?

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.

Who was on first?

Okay, so I had this grand idea back in 2002 that I had to write a novel about the end of the known world—destroyed by a giant flood in 2012. The new world order would be dynamically different. Giant nations like the US and Canada would go bankrupt (aren’t they almost there already, after the bailouts of 2008?) and city states like Toronto would be self•governing. The Internet would survive given that it was built to outlast a nuclear war. Dominant ideologies would polarize the remaining planet and we could choose from either going ultra•socialist or ultra•capitalist – both being forms of Fundamentalism that we try hard to pretend does not grow in our own backyard – oh no, we say– Fundamentalism belongs only to those people who live in the desert, who wear turbans and carry machine guns and shoot our poor soldiers trying to keep the peace over there.

So I wrote this book, and of course no one wanted to read it. Who gave a damn about what was going to happen in 2012 which was still 10 years away at the time? People were only interested in what was happening quarter by quarter; they had been conditioned by the stock market and by large corporate anxiety cycles.

As the date of my book’s action neared, I wondered if I was going to have to trash this labour of love that I had been writing and rewriting umpteen times to make it the best thing I had to offer in my still emergent oeuvre. Last year, my publisher got interested – after all, the Mayan calendar was going to end in 2012 and suddenly my book’s date was beginning to sound interesting. Besides 2012 is now only three years away and world has been sobered after raking huge materialistic gains in the boom years of the stock market. Now we that we are in an economic depression, mortality is a higher concern – hence my book’s premise is starting to look really good.

But then I realized that others had been nursing similar ideas. The famous Margaret Atwood is releasing a book called The Year of the Flood ( thank God there is no water in hers as it’s called the Waterless Flood – perhaps a bit more sinister, as Atwood’s writing is known to be?) and Hollywood is releasing a movie in November called 2012 about a giant flood destroying the planet. And my book is launching in November of this year too. I am pretty sure that, unlike me, these folks don’t have to wait years before their output gets released to the world. And I am pretty damned sure that the first question on everyone’s mind will be, “Who was on first?”

Being Mr. Nobody compared to these two heavyweights, the odds are that everyone is going to point the finger at me and purr, “Copycat!”

They say that agglomeration leads to higher sales: that’s why shops converge on shopping malls, furniture outlets litter Kennedy Road and Chinese restaurants line Spadina Avenue in Toronto. Maybe hanging on to the coattails of Atwood and Hollywood will help me sell some books after all. We three could form Doomsday Mall and gather futurists and doomsayers into our midst and have one big sob•fest for mankind on its one•way trip to Armageddon. And somewhere amidst the buzz we create I will be able to shout out aloud, “I was on first!”

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.