Author: David Roddis

I am the old, gay white guy your parents warned you about. When I say "old," I mean "in my early sixties," which is bad enough; but as one of the last gasp baby-boomers you can be sure I'm voting for the upgrade that goes "seventy is the new sixty-five." If you want to be my friend, please do not use the word "spry" or say, "I bet you were a looker when you were young!" I can still bitch-slap you so hard you'll be explaining to your grandkids about the permanent, angry red imprint of my hand on your cheek. I write. Writing is the old fashioned thing where you put words one after the other to form coherent ideas that spark intelligent conversations. Sometimes laughter. If you can take something as serious as life less seriously, you'll be a whole lot easier to spend time with. I can help you with that. You can help me by visiting my blog and commenting/sharing/rating; visiting my online store; purchasing my book / reviewing my book. All of these sites are available on this profile. Glad you stopped by. Seriously.

SCANDAL!? Nothing we can’t handle!

The SNC-Lavalin ruckus isn’t really about SNC-Lavalin—it’s about Justin.

Gather around, boys and girls, as once again I pull my granddad pants up into my armpits and hook my Walter Brennan thumbs behind my suspenders. I’ve just awakened from a forty-eight-hour afternoon nap, which is why I’m so annoyingly perky, and though the time is long past when it was even remotely relevant for me to explain what the Tommy Douglas was going on with this Canadian SNC-Lavalin doodad, I need you to listen up and at least pretend to care.

As blessèd Saint Judy was wont to growl:“ATTENTION WILL BE PAID!” Now, could someone help me up off my knees?

I never promised you relevance, Murgatroyd McGraw. I promised you Marlboro breath so toxic it could singe your eyebrows, yellow teeth caked with butter tart filling, mysterious, noisome stains on my gusset and slyly humorous, flippant commentary in place of measured, in-depth analysis.

Measured in-depth analysis? How perfectly common!

So, while I clear my smoker’s throat, the better to hoark another oyster onto my signed, framed portrait of Stephen Harper—some pleasures never pall— it’s time for a Canadian Fireside Chat about politics, optics, and which one of the following options you find most attractive:

Progressive Conservatives: More guzzling of fossil fuels, privatized health care, blatant white supremacy, rolled-back reproductive rights for women, no seat at the U.N. Security Council and compulsory church attendance in calico habits modeled after “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Who?;

Liberals: Badly-needed carbon tax that will actually put money IN the pockets of taxpayers, a stab at equality, properly-funded universal healthcare, business as usual and a pretty—and pretty ineffectual—prime minister, but who, when you look at him, at least doesn’t make you feel like stabbing yourself in the eyes with remorse because you voted your country into a no-turning-back state of oligarchic theocracy run by climate-change-denying cretins; OR

New Democratic Party: You’re kidding, right? Though Jagmeet Singh, the national party leader, is right up there, for me, anyway, in the woody-popping hierarchy, what with that dashing, dark, handsome sub-continental vibe and the liquid music of his accent, which is to me as a moist, patchouli-scented tongue probing my hairy, crusted inner ear.

Though, pace Jagmeet, Sikhs can be a little homophobic, as proof of which I will share that the last time a Sikh guy popped round for a blow-job, he said something kind of, well, insensitive to me as he was doing up his trousers. He cast an incredulous look down his nose at me, and said,

“Why do you like men?”

Betsy DeVos Theranos! This is a tough one! Don’t forget your ‘Smores, eh?


There was once a time in Canada, a long-ago, simpler era when squawking blue jays landed on your outstretched index finger and friendly, efficient beavers in Harris Tweed vests valet-parked your car at the Royal York, when we were content with, even proud of, our de facto one-party system.

Every other year or so you could vote Progressive Conservative (PC) instead of Liberal, just so you wouldn’t die of boredom, and without afterwards having to blush and laugh nervously while explaining that you’d recently been thrown from your thoroughbred at Woodbine Racetrack and weren’t expected to recover full brain function for at least a few months.

There was no shame in voting for the party of John Diefenbaker, or even of Brian Mulroney. Diefenbaker, for example, in 1957, appointed the first female member of Cabinet, Secretary of State Ellen Fairclough, who is remembered for eliminating racial discrimination in Canada’s immigration policy.

Yes, the PC’s were for equality and advancing the role of women in public service. Kim Campbell, Justice Minister and Attorney General under Mulroney, passed important gun control legislation.

And here’s a quote from Brian M:

“I think the government has to reposition environment on top of their national and international priorities.”

Provincially, we had exemplary conservative leaders in John Robarts and Bill Davis (who appointed Margaret Birch as the first female Cabinet member in the Ontario Legislature in 1972).

Empowered women! Gun control! Prioritizing the environment! Are we through the looking-glass yet, did we nibble the wrong side of the giant mushroom, are we mad as hatters? These were “conservative” men and women with some bold ideas (and some dubious ones such as NAFTA), but they were, on the whole, advocates of fiscal conservatism. Whatever their private beliefs might be, they understood that as public servants they were in office to work for the benefit of all Canadians.

That government had a role to play in the lives of voters, that government could and should be a good custodian of the environment, that government should protect and recognize the worth of all its citizens—these were not “radicalized extreme-left socialist agendas.” They were givens.

Only when the execrable slime-bag Mike Harris took power—on the rebound from Bob Rae and the NDP— in 1995 did the conservative shredding of the social contract begin in Ontario. This of course was nothing but the same old conservative playbill, turbocharged and disguised as a “Common Sense Revolution.”

When populists and demagogues start making like Uri Geller with English, co-opting concepts like “common sense,” “revolution,” “freedom,” “democratic” and “people,” and bending them into new, sinister shapes, you know it’s time to pack your weekender from Frank & Oak with rolls of bandages and a big bottle of aspirin, in case your future includes an extended stay in the basement of the Presidential Palace, where they don’t even bother to soundproof the interrogation rooms; and whatever you do, don’t forget your Roget’s so you can look up the exact opposite of whatever they’re promising to deliver.

Mike’s “Common Sense Revolution” involved a typical, explicitly anti-labour, anti-social safety net stance (get those queens off welfare!), gerrymandering by way of the amalgamation of the City of Toronto and its suburbs into a “megacity,” the downloading of once-provincial costs to municipalities, and pedaling the snake oil of “deficit reduction” and privatization: all of this based on the premise that government itself is the problem, and therefore the correct and only model for government is that of a department store holding a fire sale.

Example: Ontario had built and was managing a toll highway, the 407, the world’s first with no toll booths and automatic, electronic billing. This public project was based on the startlingly novel concept that greedy, entitled car drivers should actually pay for the infrastructure that they require and should also compensate for guzzling black gold, with the tolls collected contributing much-needed revenue (deficit!) that would support health care and other social services. This one was a no-brainer, and would surely be Ontario’s golden goose for many decades.

But Harris, following his personal mantra of “if it ain’t broke, break it, then declare it needs privatizing,” sold the highway’s operations to a business consortium in the late 1990’s for $3 billion to “reduce the deficit.” Now, twenty years later, none other than SNC-Lavalin is selling ten percent of its share in the toll highway for $3.25 billion.

Nice business acumen, Mike.

Other highlights of his term in office include the Walkerton tragedy, in which a couple of buffoons in charge of the well water supply to a small town failed to chlorinate the water (which had been contaminated by manure run-off from a farmer’s field), make accurate reports, undergo yearly mandatory training, or indeed to do anything except help themselves to a cold brew from the fridge at the Public Utilities Commission and try to cover their criminally incompetent tracks.

Although the Ministry of the Environment had repeatedly ordered the managers and staff to follow the correct, current testing protocols, no one had ever followed up to see if this had actually happened (it hadn’t). Water testing had been privatized, and it can’t be denied that government was smaller as a result.

So was the population of Walkerton, down by a body count of six unfortunate victims of E. coli-contaminated water and thousands of others laid low by life-threatening gastrointestinal infection as a result of ignorance and bad management.

But let’s look at the bright side: At least we balanced the budget.


Getting back to our “scandal:” SNC-Lavalin is a Canadian company whose executives have, in the past, been rather overly fond of bribing Middle Eastern despots in order to obtain lucrative contracts. (Business as usual in that part of the world, you might understandably murmur, and many did.)

This is old, old news; all of the executives guilty of buying their business are long gone and justice done. Any scandal had been dealt with long ago, yet the stars decreed that SNC-Lavalin would be thrust into the spotlight once more, apparently to provide our new Justice Minister and Attorney General, Jody Wilson-Raybould, with her inaugural trial by fire.

The stakes: Prosecute SNC-Lavalin, after which they would be forever banned from taking government contracts; or treat it as a civil matter and administer a sharp financial slap on the wrist.

Wilson-Raybould was determined to take the prosecution route. Justin Trudeau, understandably anxious about the potential loss of nine thousand jobs just before a federal election, picked up the phone. In fact, he may have picked up the phone a few times before having his morning de-caf, and he may have insisted more than once, as it’s his duty to do so, that there was an alternative to going hard-line and prosecuting.

This was remediation, involving hefty fines but saving the nine thousand jobs, a rather sensible-sounding approach made possible by recent legislation that had been fully endorsed by the PC’s. In this scenario, there was scope for judicial discretion and prosecution was not inevitable. Remediation would provide transparency, promote confidence in the just outcome via that hefty fine and avoid dragging innocent employees into a quite unnecessary, because redundant, criminal investigation.

Wilson-Raybould, whose staff had examined the legislation and concluded that SNC-Lavalin was not eligible for remediation, was having none of it.

Why was Wilson-Raybould so rattled when the PM, along with other members of the boys’ club, advocated vigorously for remediation, and why did she dig in her heels? The more Justin and other cool heads tried to persuade, the more stubbornly she pushed back. Was she handicapped by the thinnest skin ever sported by a member of Cabinet or, for that matter, a lawyer? Was she revealing that she simply couldn’t cope with the demands of the post?

Trudeau’s lobbying has been spun as “undue pressure,” obstruction of justice, a sneaky attempt to let criminals off the hook, or to pay off business cronies, but all these descriptions are quite false. His lobbying was neither inappropriate nor shady.

Did Trudeau attempt to influence the attorney general’s decision? Of course he did, because this is exactly what is expected in our adversarial legal system. Every day, in every court, lawyers attempt to influence: They advocate vigorously, even aggressively, for the solutions that they feel best serve the public interest. This is not sleaze or scandal or interference; this is how our legal system works.

Now Wilson-Raybould proceeded to have an extremely public melt-down that cast Trudeau in an extremely unfavorable light, and she stirred the contents of this teacup so relentlessly that we can justifiably question if her concern was actually about justice.

Wilson-Raybould’s trump card, and her most gasp-inducing error of judgment—or deliberate act of sabotage, take your pick—was to produce, like a cheesey Las Vegas illusionist producing a white rabbit from her top hat, a recording of a phone conversation she’d had with the PM—a recording she had made secretly, without Trudeau’s knowledge or consent— and every nuance of whose content was now parsed and analyzed in the press ad nauseum.

Seriously, friends.

Such cloak-and-daggerism is not the meat and potatoes of the highest levels of Canadian government. This is high-school drama, the sort of subterfuge the nerdy, overly-sensitive President of the Debating Society deploys on the mean boys in the motorcycle jackets who tease her about her acne.

I draw the following conclusions:

There is no scandal or wrongdoing to be found, and no one is seriously claiming there is. This whole affair was a cynical, calculated exercise in throwing mud and seeing how much would stick. Progressive Conservatives and their official mouthpiece, the Globe & Mail, were more than willing to leverage public ignorance of our government and our legal system and to misrepresent both the substance and context of events.

Let’s see what we have: A Native MP, a woman, being hounded by the “feminist” PM; “punitive” demotions and Cabinet shuffles; sudden resignations, corporate criminals going scott free; secret recordings! Perfect ingredients for the perfect spin, a narrative that could create enough doubt to cast the prime minister as a sneak and a bully, and make Canadians question his judgment and even his legitimacy.

The ultimate goal? Bring down Justin Trudeau at any cost.


Is SNC-Lavalin a great, big, heavy-duty Glad bag full of sleaze? Sure, but no more so than any other corporation doing what capitalism does best, i.e., feed itself. Is Justin Trudeau an entitled, opaque, overgrown brat who expected business as usual with the boys in the backroom and who doesn’t understand how his apparent belief that he is not obliged to justify any action, or tell the whole truth, ever, reveals him as shifty and arrogant? It would seem that way.

Were any laws broken? No. Did anything happen that was even out of line? Apart from maybe Nancy Drew and the Case of the Secret Phone Call, not even close.

This was a scandal-free scandal, a big helping of Nothing-Poutine, yet the Progressive Conservatives made a meal of it, bulking up the thinnest material with insinuation and indignation. More insidiously, they caught the attention of the white male demographic that despises Trudeau; despises him for being his father’s son; despises his patrician upbringing and gentility; despises what they see as his “girliness,” his drama teaching days, his avowed feminism, never acknowledging that he grew up breathing politics as the son of Pierre, our most flamboyant and also most intellectually rigorous statesman, the man who held this country together with his bare hands when it threatened to disintegrate and would not let go until it was out of danger.

The trolls and the disgruntled slingers of mud forget Justin’s long years of political dues-paying and his resounding success in 2015; and they are apoplectic at Trudeau’s inclusiveness, his generosity, his uncanny ability to unite Canadians, to embody our pride, to build and articulate our identity and our collective vision for this brave, fragile confederation, this country that is barely more than a wish, a dream, an idea of a country.

Trudeau inspires; white male conservatives, fuming with hard-hatted rage at their diminishing hold on power, carp and threaten and bury their heads in the tar sands and call, shamefully, for a return to “European values.”

They are full of that odious, passionate intensity; the very worst, as always, dragging down the very best.

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I am Washing the Kitchen Floor…

… and I’m sad about Glenda.

Alice, Glenda x 2, Kate.

I AM SCANTILY CLAD AND ON MY HANDS and knees in the middle of the night, but on this particular occasion, curiously, there’s no one else here saying, “Hey, pig, fancy a toot of this?” or, less encouraging, “You were a lot thinner in your pictures!”

I’m known for my high standards, which I outsource to everyone else so I can be disappointed more easily; but I’ve decided it’s time to start on-boarding Muggins McMe with this grown-up whatsis agenda I keep hearing about.

I am going to, as they say, own this.

That’s why, at around 2 AM, I’m on all fours, wearing nothing but a baby blue bath towel and accessorized with a simple, large yet tasteful bucket of scalding hot water and Pine-Sol, would you excuse me for a sec?—

Hi mom! Are you listening? They have Pine-Sol in flavors now! And I’m so glad you died because that means I didn’t have to! —

As I was saying: A bucket of scalding hot water and Pine-Sol, plus, from The Busy Bee— my local convenience store—the cheapest available sponge, which has about as much relation to a once-living creature from a coral reef as does a politician compare to the dimply, cooing ingenuousness of their two-year-old former self, before they learned to hide the peas by stuffing them up their nostrils then deny they ever got served peas.

And I’m rubbing and scrubbing my kitchen floor, an unlovely checkerboard of once-white tiles flecked with black, in a dogged, circular motion. I suppose the tiles were meant to suggest Carrara marble to people who’ve never seen it, but as they were left unsealed this has allowed them to soak up every splotch of ketchup, every dollop of pesto or splash of coffee, every dribble from my bursting bladder relieved in the sink, damn the fine china, I’ve got anti-bacterial Palmolive. My kitchen floor is a grimy, garbage-y sixteen-year palimpsest of condiment spills, pretentious dinner parties and avoidable crises.

Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.


Percy Bysshe Shelley

I’m thinking as I scrub of my favorite Kate Bush song, “Mrs. Bartolozzi,” treating as it does of a forlorn housekeeper wiping up mud from boots and dutifully, wearily, scrubbing the floor “until it sparkled…” Although my adoration of Ms. Bush only grows year by year, it is usually despite, not because of, her poetry, which I usually find too reminiscent of a cliché teenaged girl’s lyrical diary (“It was just so beautiful, it was just so beautiful, it was just—so —beautiful!” are the words which nearly cause me to run screaming from the room and ruin the second half of “Aerial” for me) but this song is different.

This song is full of pregnant pauses, this song has a perfect and serene depiction of the washing machine, washing machine and its soothing mechanical splishy-sploshing as it gets “the dirty shirty clean;” the aching emotions—loneliness, sorrow, above all, yearning—of its ritornello transport you to every moment you’ve ever spent doing work you detest, every moment when you wished your life away.

This song is not really about the never-ending drudgery of daily life, that unending cycle of banal routines that I endlessly chafe at. It is about the ripple, the dazzle, the shimmer; the unveiled reality that suddenly manifests and evokes our gasp of recognition.

Mrs. Bartolozzi has a laundry epiphany.

“I watched them go 'round and 'round
My blouse wrapping itself in your trousers
Oh the waves are going out
My skirt floating up around my waist
As I wade out into the surf...”


— Kate Bush, "Mrs. Bartolozzi", from Aerial (2005)

And a shirt on the washing line, waving in the breeze, becomes the arms of—who is it? Lover, husband, son? “And it looks—so alive…”

Kate Bush understands that a strangled cry at a phantom on the washing line, or a guttural growl of Wow, are necessary colors in the singer’s spectrum. And it’s just—so—beautiful.


ALICE MUNRO, ONE OF THE TWO OR THREE greatest writers of short fiction now living, is Canadian. She won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2013, and I imagine she must have an awards room, the way Imelda Marcos had a separate building for her shoes, so many has she received.  So you could say, without much fear of contradiction, that Alice Munro is no slouch in the writing department.

The other day I asked someone if he liked her stories, and he said, “Who’s Alice Munro?”

Who’s Alice Munro…

If this were Japan, Alice Munro would be like Mount Fuji, or the person who invented life-sized sex dolls, or the one remaining Buddhist monk who can explain how to dye silk using vegetables according to a one-thousand-year-old method.

She would be made a “Living Treasure” and would be revered “by young and old alike”. Every Canadian would be proud of Alice Munro; we would have read all of her stories, voluntarily, and stage adaptations would be common. We’d attend the premieres of these plays, and afterwards go to a coffee shop and argue about how faithful it was to the original.

We’d wear Alice Munro T-shirts while gardening, and we would understand how Munro has recorded a uniquely Canadian angle on life that is as subtle as Chekhov, also as funny (because in this fantasy we also don’t say, “who’s Chekhov?”).

On the day the Nobel Prize was announced, a national celebration would have occurred. Children would have been given the day out of school; window washers and bankers and kids on skateboards and those down on their luck, and everyone’s wife and boss, if they had these, would have had a holiday, too.  

Alice Munro would have been the centerpiece of a grand parade, with her own float, a parade heading from Christie Pits, all along Bloor Street then down Yonge and ending up in Nathan Phillips Square; little girls dressed in white would have accompanied her, throwing flowers at the spectators as she passed by.

She would sit on her special throne on the float, wearing bright-colored slacks, Spectator pumps and a plain white blouse with a big bow in the front. Her silver hair would be beautifully layered. She would look genuinely pretty, with a touch of coral lipstick her only make-up.

She would look like the first generation of women who called themselves “liberated,” which they were only in comparison to their mothers, the first generation to dare to wear pants to work, where they worked mainly if they wanted to, or even to make a point, but not always because they had to.

She would smile rather shyly and wave at the crowd with sincere affection and you would sense she might want to cry from overwhelming emotion, but would not indulge herself; you would understand that she is a writer and would be observing the occasion a little more than she would be participating.

You would sense that she was deeply honored and aware of her responsibility to her fans, but also thinking, “I’ll be glad when this is over and I can go home and take off these damn shoes.”

That evening, outside New City Hall and after the fireworks display, she reads her latest story, broadcast nation-wide. The audience listens in enthralled silence; children are told, “You’ll remember this when you grow up!”  At the end of the story, grandfathers wipe the tears from their eyes; women weep openly.

Then, a great roar of appreciation and hats in the air:  Our greatest living writer!

When she appeared in public in her kimono we would rush up to her giggling and prostrate ourselves, and she would laugh and say, “Who do you think you are? Arise!” And when she passed on, which could be tomorrow, because she’s really old now, we would go into mourning nationally and cry uncontrollably, like the traumatized Parisians watching Notre-Dame’s spire collapse in flames, and we’d be given time off work to deal with our collective grief.

But this is Toronto, where we say, “The Arts generate a lot of money! That’s why they’re important!”  in a really chirpy voice, while everyone rolls their eyes then checks the latest stock prices.


GLENDA JACKSON IS ANOTHER cast member in the ongoing sixty-four-part epic, vast, eclectic cultural survey and revamped Mickey Mouse Club that is my life; another name that evokes blank stares from Young People whenever I try to explain who she is and what she did, what she is still doing, why they should care even though they won’t, and how she underpins my favorite movie: Ken Russell’s masterpiece,“Women in Love.”

(Of course, there are far too many concepts here to absorb, at least for a Young Person’s mind unused to absorbing more than one fact at a time, and especially facts that do not have immediate application for getting someone to cook dinner for you and/or that involve anything that happened more than six months ago. This pile-on might approach trauma-inducing levels if you’ve mentioned that you “own this movie on DVD.”

(The panic in their faces is heartbreaking, which you will notice if you’re lucky enough to catch them during the daily ten-second window during which they look up from their device and blink.)

Women in Love may well be the only movie that’s actually greater than the book on which it’s based, or, alright, then, if you must, as great as.

Glenda Jackson’s presence is elemental in that movie; her voice like the chalumeau register of a clarinet, measured, honeyed, even as she torments Oliver Reed (as Gerald Crich, a wealthy mine owner who’s besotted with her); torments him to his eventual suicide under a brilliant, comfortless winter sun. She is the quintessential femme fatale but translated into Anglo-Saxon terms, rejecting her hapless male, despising his servitude yet refusing to leave until his destruction is complete.

I remember most vividly from that movie a picnic scene on the Crich estate, where, suddenly menaced by a herd of bulls she chases them off with a transcendent, improvised dance that is a celebration of female mystery and power. As she half swoons in a kind of spent, solipsistic afterglow, Gerald rushes up to save her. But he’s too late and already irrelevant; she’s drunk with her victory.

“How are they your cattle,” she says, with palpable contempt; “Did you swallow them?”

She gives his face a swift, unexpected smack with the back of her hand, and the gesture is all the more demeaning for its lack of forethought. It’s the way you’d brush away an annoying insect, without any energetic investment or sense of struggle.

That film, from 1970, Russell’s greatest, presents Jackson in her youth; last week, I called up the New York Times online to read about her celebrated turn as King Lear (she’s returned to acting in her eighties, after twenty years in the British House of Commons as Labour MP for Hampstead and Highgate) and I experienced the shock of seeing her for the first time as an elderly woman.

Glenda Jackson looks like a sock puppet that’s been left out in the rain, then dried on a radiator. Her unconventional but undeniable beauty, equal parts dewy English rose and bovine sensuality, has contracted, no doubt in part to her smoking habit, into a loose, sagging face that’s an accretion of wrinkles.

With most people you can trace how they’ve traveled from there to here, still unearth the familiar features, but Glenda Jackson is unrecognizable in a way that defies all my attempts to connect my youthful memory of her and how age has since worked her over.

Her face is a desert scored by cracks and fissures, something Edward Burtynsky might photograph as a warning to us all; her face is an apple that you’ve stuck in the fridge and forgotten, retrieving it a year later to find it brown and withered, and from that face she peers at us with an expression that is part amazement, part defiance.

I’d give anything to see her turn on Broadway as Lear, but I’m afraid. I’m afraid of her voice of righteous anger, in full throttle arguably the least maternal and comforting sound ever to issue from a woman’s body. I’m afraid of what she has told me about how the most beautiful can turn monstrous and alien under the pressure of time.

I am sad about Glenda Jackson, and you will not need your psychology degree to understand that that is another, less blatantly self-interested way of saying I’m sad for myself, about getting old.

You looked a lot thinner in your pictures.

That’s why I continue scrubbing the floor, in a dogged, circular motion, with my sponge dipped in near-scalding water and lavender-scented Pine-Sol. I will persist at this chore that I previously despised, and I will get this done.

When my snarkier friends criticize my housekeeping standards, I’ve usually responded with this:

“When I’m on my deathbed, I won’t be thinking,I’m glad I washed the dishes.

“I’ll be thinking, I’m glad I wrote a book, took beautiful pictures, helped a few people when I could, said kind words when I could have said unkind ones.

David who? I’m hedging my bets, here. I’ll have to get famous before anyone can fail to recognize me, and in the meantime I’m determined the kitchen floor will be clean and sparkling, ready for that unspecified day fast approaching when I’m not around to defend myself.

ҩ

Lectins: Just in case you thought it was safe to eat something.

Maybe… frosting?


I had a brief acting career, beginning in London in the late nineteen-eighties and continuing in Toronto in the early to mid nineteen-nineties, and the scary quotes around acting are so much a given that I spared myself the trouble of including them.

In London I awarded myself the status of “alternative theatre performer,” often regaling audiences of one whole person, whom I would have bribed with beer to leave the actual drinking area of the pub and follow me to the tiny pub stage.

On certain red-letter days, and how intoxicating they were, I entertained real audiences of tens of people at venues such as the “Mandela Theatre Company,” at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (this was, of course, the brainchild of a bunch of overly-earnest white boys from London’s East End).

Then London was over, it was time to head home again after sixteen years, and somewhere above the mid-Atlantic, with a couple of Valium and a few gins-and-tonics under my belt, I graduated from happy-go-lucky, alternative-weird singer-songwriter cabaret artiste to grimly determined official union-status-seeking commercial auditioner.

My London adventure, three thousand miles from the raised eyebrows and tut-tuts of my family, had given me the anonymity to be whoever I liked, which frequently turned out to be a self-consciously eccentric, head-turning, leotard-wielding androgyne singing Sondheim with sparkle on my cheeks.

Once home again, however, I downgraded the quirk and upgraded my leotard to a suit, lost the piercings, combed my neatly cut hair and basically transformed myself into the dullest employee in the Acme Widget Corporation so as to maximize my chances of offending no one.

I’d had the naïve idea that acting would liberate me from faceless dronery, and ended up presenting for these new, commercial auditions a more conservative persona than I had ever presented at a real job.

Highlights of my gigs included spokesperson for an early cell phone infomercial, where I was undone by a sudden, total inability to pronounce the word “cellular;” an audition where I accidentally, I think, let a baby fall flat on its little back; and a student filmmaker’s version of a wonderfully nasty short play by Harold Pinter, whose principal role I ate up like a handful of Smarties and in which I gave my best performance in anything, ever—and which could never be screened because the student filmmaker hadn’t bothered to acquire the rights.

Then the day comes, as it must to any actor, that tests one’s commitment to The Muse. This test can take many forms, but for me it was the day I was sent to audition as a tomato.

Oh, you heard.

East Side Mario’s bada boom bada bing was the restaurant, I was to be Mr. Tomato Head and a young boy was to be my son, the small, possibly cherry, or even grape, tomato. We were fitted with gigantic papier maché tomatoes that covered our actual, human heads but contained no eye holes, and the audition was that dad and son, tomato-headed like prisoners at Guantánamo Bay undergoing sensory deprivation, were to move our dadly-sonly tomato-heads from side to side, rhythmically, to music.

Does this not sound like a shoo-in? Alas, little Tommy Tomato, apparently taking after his mother’s side of the family, lacked a truly swingin’ sense of rhythm, or at least the same sense as me. We held hands, we swung our tomato heads to the left, two three four, and to the right, two three four, and every so often my little sun-ripened offspring would get out of step and add a five or forget the four and our hollow tomato-heads would clunk resonantly together. This was only funny the first time, if by funny you mean desperately or, in fact, not remotely.

I didn’t receive a call-back for this one—some evenings I still fall to my knees and ask forgiveness of the Black Virgin of Katowice for briefly hoping that little Tommy Tomato might spend his final days in Sick Kids’ Hospital as mascot for the Make a Wish Foundation—but at first I took my failure as a tomato with a measure of resilience.

I left the casting call full of swelling pride, thinking, “Is this why I studied Shakespeare and read the complete works of Charles Ludlam? To play a tomato? I think not! Pastafazool’—!”

But, as I am easily discouraged, my mojo was consumed by a slow-simmering ragú of resentment, and my acting career from that day seemed to me nothing but sour, tomato-y leftovers..


My nemesis the tomato has returned, but in a more apocalyptic form, as the latest food scourge terrorizing the public, for tomato skins are brimming with lectins, the new bad thing that once again wipes the slate clean of what you thought was safe to eat.

Grains, pulses and dairy have already bit the dust, and I gather we will soon be celebrating brunch with no-salt flax chips washed down—a phrase perhaps intended to evoke Sir Galahad and his fellow lusty knights clinking their tankards together, but which actually makes me think of waste sluicing down a drain—with gulps of flavor-dropped water, to ease through our gullets a pomegranate cutlet, a raw, unwashed organic carrot and either lots of eggs or lots of tofu, depending on whether you want a coronary for yourself or breasts for your new boyfriend who’s cheating death by breathing slower.

Lectins—and this is just off the top of my head, but as I’m reporting on a shaky-science food fad masquerading as doctorly concern, accuracy is the last thing we need—are something that tomatoes, potatoes, beans and eggplant all devised through natural selection to make themselves unpalatable to predators, including us.

Thus, goes the reasoning, they will shred your gastrointestinal tract more efficiently than if you’d swallowed a box of safety razors and chased them with Javex, and are additionally responsible for your overweight, your loud expulsions of gas during client meetings, your allergic response to getting a job, your surly mood and your dwindling Rolodex of people you can call for a good gossip at three AM.

Besides, most of these culprits are also nightshades, like tobacco, as I learned when I was macrobiotic, which is the spiritual system of eating according to the seasons, your health and your geography, except just throw that all out and if it’s Japanese, it’s ok. And god knows you might as well smoke three packs of unfiltered Gauloises before your breakfast sides of tomatoes, potatoes, and bacon. Why not just have a plateful of deep-fried tumors garnished with polyps, for christ’s sake!

But for the lectin-wary, there is hope. Maybe, just maybe, goes this week’s new old wisdom, maybe if you follow the Italian method and peel your tomatoes, sieve out the seeds and cook the tomatoes for twelve hours while wearing nonna’s black wool knee socks, cardigan and kerchief, occasionally fiddling with the hairs that are sprouting out of that mole on your cheek, maybe then you can have the occasional tomato without actually having your stomach prolapse out of your rectum one night as you’re having a freshly squeezed acai berry Shirley Temple during the first intermission of “Parsifal”.

But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

This whole thread reminds me of the endless negotiations I have with my roommate about vegetables, which Mike considers a crime against humanity or a least a gradually evolving plot.

I spend time trying to figure out what the common factors might be: Is it, for example, squishiness? No, he hates raw carrots because they involve biting into and crunchiness. I see, it’s anything that’s work—this is all coming together!

So would he like carrots that have been cooked with a roast until meltingly soft and glazed? “Maybe,” he says, with obvious suspicion about what I’m planning to pull on him.

“I had some peas when I was about fifteen,” he says. I know that he’s humoring me by saying nice things about vegetables, hoping I’ll go away. “I didn’t mind them too much. They were small so I could swallow them whole so the taste wasn’t a problem. Otherwise I might have hurled.”

I only mentioned broccoli once, before I learned that Mike was Secretary of the Toronto Anti-Brassica League.

“Most people are highly allergic, or at least sensitive, to a compound in broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cabbage,” he says. “Like, a squirrel can die after eating Brussels sprouts.” He gives me a moment to let this sink in.

I respond that at pushing forty he will need to get accustomed to at least pretending to like certain things, or any dinner party that’s not a table for four at Swiss Chalet and a box of Cracker Jack will be, how can I put this, a social challenge.

This is, of course, only relevant if he plans to leave the house anytime soon.

“Maybe you could shred Brussels sprouts and put them in a cake,” he says.


Who knows when the rot set in? I remember that in the late fifties and early sixties my mother, like millions of others, was in thrall to the convenience and space-age wonder of instant beverages, pudding mixes, canned or dehydrated soups, cakes made with Miracle Whip, and TV dinners, though technology had not yet advanced to the point of having the alien-tasting Salisbury steak and the apple crisp simultaneously hot.

Soon, we were certain, we’d be squeezing boeuf Bourguignon into our mouths out of toothpaste tubes, thereby maximizing the two extra days we’d have for leisure by the swimming pool once computers had relieved us of workday drudgery.

Yes. I know.

That wasn’t science, it was marketing; food voodoo. In the nineties, it was Stop the Insanity! (remember Susan Powter?) as we were scolded about fat. Fat makes you fat! What could be more obvious? And we measured out our oil with teaspoons and bought hydrogenated margarine, and had salads with just vinegar for dressing, and took the crispy skin off chicken. Boneless, skinless! No monastery could have devised ceremonies more penitential than our “fat-free” meals.

Until it became equally obvious that “carbs” made you fat. What do they feed cattle to make them fat? Carbs! Grains! (Yes, and to make them sick, too; cattle evolved to eat grass, but that’s another horror story.) At the height of the Atkins craze, I heard a member of something like the Citrus Fruit Production Board interviewed, and I still remember her exasperated cry: “People are not getting fat eating oranges!

Oh, please! Fob us off with your agenda-pushing, self-dealing, half-assed nod to common sense, why don’t you?

For me, the lowest point was the anti-bread hysteria. Bread is such a potent symbol for nourishment, home, togetherness: the staff of life, our daily bread, breaking bread, companion (someone you share bread with…) even, for the religiously inclined, a substance that might represent the physical presence of God… that to reject bread was to throw out a body of knowledge that was not exactly scientific, but at least empirical, amassed by means of trial and error, and from that perspective concrete, demonstrable. To curse bread was to reject our particular cultures, daily lives and even language; to pretend that all this time we knew nothing.

How did mankind manage to survive this long, I wondered.

And, sadly, in our collective amnesia, we’ve forgotten that food is a sensual pleasure. Taste those Omega-6 fatty acids! Thrill to those bioflavinoids! Seriously. This is not the way we need to think about food.

We feast on pseudo-science and quackery, and forget that strawberries in January, flown in to Ontario from California, are as bloated and tasteless as they are inappropriate to the season. We’ll buy anything branded “natural,” but, really, our all-consuming greed is impatient with nature’s timing. If we’d wait until June or July, we’d remember—and experience—exquisite strawberries that we’d treasure for their taste, as glorious and ephemeral as summer.

Humans are omnivores, eaters of potentially everything, and the “omnivore’s dilemma,” as explained by Michael Pollan, is basically, “How do we know what to eat?” or even “What is permissible or safe to eat?” The answer is given to us subliminally, in the wisdom passed down from one generation to the next, at tables where, together with our families and companions, we learn traditions around food, perfectly calibrated for the seasons, for our local climate, even for the time of day. This is miraculous.

We just need to remember that, to find that culture, we have to dig back about two generations, when we weren’t afraid, when we could trust food enough to leave it, and ourselves, alone.

Now I’m going to lie in a dark room, staring at the ceiling, with a can of Betty Crocker vanilla frosting and a spoon. But no cake. Are you kidding?

Cake is the worst thing.