Yes, gentle readers, today’s theme is “disasters, real or imagined” and to kick off, I must apologize for my absence from these bloggy parts during the last few weeks. You know how much I crave your attention, and the very quickest among you will therefore deduce that only the very choicest disasters Contents: OneAcme Premium Fuck-Up (keep refrigerated until use) would prevent me from lying naked on my front lawn, under the ever-judgmental eye of Joyleen, Timbercreek’s Tenant Total-Compliance Manager and unofficial red-hot mama, and wallowing in it.
Well, right you be, and this particular chunk of premium personal disaster, which thudded into my life like a chocolate-covered cluster of Santa’s leftover coals, managed to glom together:
The calculator-wielding gremlins of the Canada Revenue Agency, who for some reason has wanted my response concerning six years of unfiled taxes, and for which I have apparently discarded all of my receipts and records, and resorted to the sleazy low-ball strategy of assessing me at over forty-thousand owing, garnisheeing my pension then freezing my bank account;
And the task of placating and managing two pissed off potential roommates, pissed off because I promised the room to a new one, then got cold feet and backtracked, promising to continue renting my room to the current one, then changed my mind again and promised it for real to the second one, then backtracked again and sort of, kind of, promised both of them that they’d probably overlap and it would work out OK for a month, though secretly wishing the first one would storm off in a huff and solve my problem for me.
So you see how all this could sideswipe one’s delicate creative process.
I will not spare you the update, which goes:
I am finally preparing my delinquent tax returns, aided by my long-suffering buddy, a former corporate tax lawyer, who has taken his duties so much to heart that he is literally gasping for breath during our phone meetings and bombarding me every minute with over-determined, lengthy text messages about the exact percentage of my bedroom that can be used as a business expense but only during neap tide and in years that are divisible by three, and saying huggy stuff like, “You might be in serious trouble!” so that my brains plop out of my ears in chunks, like boiled cauliflower, with the stress. Check!
And what was the other one again?
Of course, the roommates: I figure I’ll just let them both believe they’re exclusive occupants of the room, set up a webcam on June first and sell tickets to my new reality show on YouTube. Because they can’t hate me any more than I already do. Can they?
Oh, yeah—I think someone, I have no idea who, has the keys to my apartment. It’s always good to keep a potential disaster in your back pocket, just in case life starts jumping in the puddles and singin’ in the rain.
Nip that in the bud!
I am constantly reminded that there are some goals I won’t achieve, qualities that will elude me no matter who I pay or what I practice; and though it makes no difference what the cause might be, you can blame it, if you like, on brain cells now walking with canes or too many distracting, shiny objects in my field of vision.
One of these elusive qualities is relevance.
In case you haven’t been paying attention, or have just wandered in by mistake while searching online for a homemade poultice that will improve your bad temper, know this: I will never be relevant.
Waiting for timely commentary from me is like being bathed in the attenuated light of a supernova that exploded two billion years ago, around the time that we were single-celled plankton just beginning to figure out how to torture each other and smirking behind the reinforced windows of our gated plankton communities at the plankton wannabes, the plankton rapists and murderers, the hungry and undeserving plankton, and above all the loser plankton who didn’t realize they were supposed to be born rich plankton and thought they’d just rely on the kindness of algae.
Didn’t work then. Doesn’t work now.
So it happens that I am the last lonely voice in the blogosphere responding to the supposed catastrophe that is the loss of the roof—the roof, mind you— of Notre Dame de Paris, that saucy little French tramp of medieval cathedrals. This disaster, I will add, resulted in the loss of not one single life, which, let’s be honest, is kind of major underachieving for the Catholic church. You’re not going to win hearts and minds with that kind of complacency, Holy Fathers! Take those choirboy dicks out of your mouths and focus!
For if this, the loss of just a centuries-old roof and some resulting bruised French egos, is a disaster, what should we call the religion that caused Notre Dame to be built?
Here’s a “religion of love” whose First Crusade alone was responsible for over a million “infidels” slaughtered—who knows what the numbers might be when we reckon with the extirpation of pagans and “heretics” (by the Inquisition, who put Galileo under permanent house arrest and executed Giordano Bruno); those slain during four crusades, the “witches” burned at the stake, the toll from religious wars, the forced conversion and genocide of native peoples and Jews?
The Holocaust alone, at six million victims, is beyond comprehension, and that is only a drop in the bucket of the atrocities committed in the name of Christianity and its hippy-haired, anemic Prince of Peace.
Think of those souls lost to us: the artists, writers, scientists and philosophers who never walked the earth and whose genius might have transformed our destiny beyond recognition. Think of the brilliant ideas snuffed out, the awful silence which sublime music might have electrified. Think of the great loves, the life-changing friendships, the Alexanders and Hephaestions, the John Cages and Merce Cunninghams, that never happened.
So, I ask you, why? Why the great affection for and allegiance to this Shriners’ convention of maniacs? Why the weeping and wailing from Parisians who cannot all of them, I reckon, have attended Mass that regularly, practiced what was preached, or successfully avoided coveting their neighbour’s wife, ox, Renault or Le Creuset enameled bakeware?
Yes, Notre Dame is an iconic landmark, but so is the Chernobyl exclusion zone. And at least land denuded and rendered sterile by a nuclear meltdown doesn’t peel your skin off in shreds while telling you it’s for the sake of your everlasting soul.
Denuded land wouldn’t delude itself like that.
Some argue that, despite its little failings like mass murder, the Church was at least a repository of “knowledge” during the Dark Ages. True enough, if you don’t care whether your knowledge contains any facts, and if you put high store on the ability to illuminate manuscripts or to determine the number of angels on the heads of pins. But in that case priests were nothing more than a class of scribes, which would have existed in some form or another; and besides, the Renaissance replaced the weird fairy tales of Scholasticism with its revival of Classicism and its change of direction towards the observable, the logical and the open-ended.
The truly useful and advanced knowledge that had existed in the classical world—that the Earth was round and even the measurement of its circumference; the engineering marvels of aqueducts; knowledge of crop rotation and irrigation—had already been swallowed up by Europe’s collective amnesia. All the Church provided was more classy busy work, the single approved pastime of the era that didn’t involve creative use of cow dung or lancing boils.
The French must be forgiven for their utter lack of dignity around the Notre Dame fire. They spend so much time worrying about the purity of their culture and not bathing that they end up a little low on genetic variety and a little high on insecurity and neediness.
They over-react a tad.
They suspect, rightly, that they are mostly crashing bores who distract us with eye-popping fashion, caloric desserts and post-structuralism. These are all fairly useless finials on the curtain rod of culture, but hey. One secret of success is to get there first and write all the rules, taking care to ensure that the rules highlight your strengths.
The primary French strength is writing, then following, the rules.
Not for the French that messy, roll-up-your-sleeves,in-for-a-penny-in-for-a-pound British amateurism, that let’s have a go,make do or mend, it’ll all come out in the wash attitude with the lashings of ginger beer and the hearty slaps on the back.
No way. The French are not on board with a bit of cello tape and a bobby pin and who cares as long as it works; the French would not conceive of baking croissants at home, or attempting a five-star Michelin dinner. Too much is at stake, and if the result cannot match the original, why make the attempt? Muddling through just for the fun of it is simply not a thing.
Take the French Revolution, for example. They can’t just have a nice unruly protest, get some concessions, hire back the useless aristocracy to run their former stately homes as care-taking staff and costumed tour guides and then be done with it. Oh, no.
The French are either/or thinkers, rigorous intellectuals, and once the aristocracy are brought low and thoroughly humiliated, the revolutionaries must rewrite the rules. They will wipe the slate clean, and in its place substitute a new and perfect society, which just happens to be more rigid and intolerant than the one it replaced.
Rules, in other words, rules and perfection, enforced by the new tyrant who used to wash your underwear or resole your clogs, will replace the concept of justice.
That episode is affectionately known as “The Terror.”
For perfection is all very well and commendable when it’s Fauchon: Rows of exquisite concoctions in a bakery window with every dollop of ganache glossy as lacquer, icing sugar stenciled just so and a platoon of strawberries standing identically at attention.
Not so great when your tendency to perfectionism leaves the pâtisserie and runs amok in the real world, building instruments of torture and preparing concentration camps. Society’s perfection is a fascist fantasy, populated with happy workers and rosy-cheeked peasants whose memories have been wiped clean and replaced with the party line; perfection must cram many-faceted, multifarious human beings into an assembly line of identical, dutiful square pegs, and truth reverts to the medieval format, “because I say so.”
Fascism can be understood as turbocharged bureaucracy, with electrodes as back-up when computer says no fails. And the French are the ultimate bureaucrats. They’ll guillotine a cartload of nuns as soon as look at ya if the civil code says atheism’s the flavor of the month (renamed and shoehorned into the calendar like an ugly sister’s foot into a Louboutin pump), for they apply the same exacting standards to their citizens as they do to their pastries.
Then, like, just throw it all out and another king.
Muddling through or perfection? The English, muddlers from way back, developed a free-wheeling, uncodified system of common law, law created on the fly by judges, and by which future judges would be bound—so long as the facts of the case were similar.
This puts great store on the judiciary as the source of law and justice, and the idea that we would limit the discretion of judges is one we find suspect (think of how offended we are at the rigid “three strikes” laws and minimum sentencing guidelines of the United States).
We even developed a second discretionary system, the law of Equity, to rectify the inevitable injustices that might occur by applying precedent.
To keep everything ship shape we enshrine top-level concepts—inalienable rights and freedoms— in a constitution or charter, and trust judges to interpret the law according to these principles. Constitution above statute, above equity, above common law. Two systems of discretion, but ultimately trumped by codes and charters.
Quel horreur! Discretion! Interpretation! Where are the rules?
The French opted for a civil code, a nailing down of law, much like the Constitutional originalists in the States would like to nail down its meaning strictly according to “original intent” of the Founding Fathers—slave owners and misogynists and “well-meaning” perpetrators of native genocide in a pre-technological society.
Similarly, Republicans would like effectively to do away with judicial discretion simply by stacking the Supreme Court with right-thinking, pun intended, judges. This ensures that any possible discretion will be the correct, pre-determined flavor.
And this brings us to Québec’s Bill 21, “An Act respecting the laicity of the State.”
Bill 21 could be considered the province of Québec’s version of the medieval sumptuary laws, which set out what colors and textiles might be worn only by the aristocracy, and what was permitted to the peasants.
Bill 21 hides its true intent behind a veil of equality and religious freedom, while banning any form of religious expression by anyone in a public service job, and especially anything that covers the face. This applies equally should you present yourself to receive a service and need to be identified.
In effect, it bans clothing. Clothing. A law that dictates what you can and cannot wear.
By a neat coincidence, these face-covering religious symbols just happen to be worn only by Muslim women, which leaves them with a distinctly oppressive choice: Follow their religion by quitting their jobs and staying at home, or venture out in public and break the law, subjecting themselves to the disapproving glances of the “pure laine” (“pure wool”, meaning direct descendants of the original French settlers in the province).
Forgive me if I recoil ever so slightly at the concept of “purity” raised in tandem with race or heritage, and if the means to achieve “freedom of conscience and freedom of religion” is applied selectively.
(In theory, the ban also extends to turbans worn by Sikhs, but by a twisted, obscure logic these particular non-whites, being males, are spared the spotlight: Partly because they’re non-white and therefore don’t really merit the attention, partly because turbans don’t cover the face to render the wearer anonymous, and partly because—well, they’re men, and we don’t want to push our luck, you know?)
It is the business of the state, the Act declares, to maintain a secular society, and this means that certain public expressions of religion are banned. These are, apparently an intolerable intrusion on the sensibilities of the non-religious.
Of course. This is why the good, secular people of Québec make like so many Nosferatu’s and shield their tormented vampire eyes from the sight of church steeples; and should those church doors be open on a Good Friday, I plug my ears against the invasive assault of the St Matthew Passion of Bach, which must threaten my very sanity, not to mention I keep bumping into lamp posts and parked cars because of the sensory deprivation.
This is why I welcome the burning of Notre Dame de Paris, and my only regret is that some snowflake apparently called the fire brigade in an act of wishy-washy accommodation.
Is our inalienable freedom respected, by default, by non-intervention? Or is freedom state suppression to prevent offence? If so, whose offence will take precedence?
For your answer, I suggest you look to the graven image of a naked man nailed to a cross, an object which holds pride of place above the chair of the Speaker of the Québec National Assembly and has done so for nearly eighty-four years. This crucifix was affixed in its current position by Maurice Duplessis, the conservative premier of the time, in 1936, around the same time he first referred to the Assembly as “Le Salon de la race;” that is, the Assembly of the pure French.
But isn’t this a religious symbol intruding in an intolerable manner on the secularity, the “laicity” (a word straight from Revolutionary rhetoric) of the state?
Not at all, for Chapter 4, Section 16 of Bill 21 states:
“This Act must not be interpreted as affecting the emblematic or toponymic elements of Québec’s cultural heritage, in particular of its religious cultural heritage, that testify to its history.”
Assemblée nationale du Québec, Bill 21, “An Act respecting the laicity of the State,” 14.6
In other words, we are white and we are Catholic, we are descendants of white Catholics, we are pure laine, and the crucifix is part of our history, not a religious symbol.
Crisse de tabarnac, ça c’est fucké!
Look to another bill, Bill 62, the “religious neutrality” bill put forth by Québec Justice Minister Stéphanie Valée and passed in 2017. This provided that women wearing the niqab or burka would have to request and be granted official accommodations to access any of hundreds of public services, from bus rides to libraries to health care, or be forced to unveil. Vallée explained that such accommodations would have to be considered on a case-by-case basis, and precedent would not be created by any accommodations granted. The Québec Superior Court suspended this particular section of the bill twice, pending a legal challenge
This is neither neutrality nor justice. This is an aggressive act of racism and religious intolerance. This is not truth. This is the argument from authority, because I say so.
This is fascism.
If we want to perfect society, it is obvious that we will have to admit whose perfection we’re talking about; admit that these bills have nothing to do with religion, but with race: with protecting Québec’s pure, white wool.
Pure laine. In my mind, that phrase conjures up an inescapable and chilling vision of the pure white hoods that veil the faces of the Ku Klux Klan.
I HAD A BRIEF ACTING CAREER, beginning in London, England, 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.
Breakfast, already captioned “heart-attack-on-a-plate” by the British, who fry slices of bread in bacon fat and would deep-fry the cutlery and place mats if they could figure out how, must now be consumed wearing a nuclear jumpsuit, so hazardous to human health are its grilled tomatoes, hash brown potatoes and bacon.
who lust for its fried-everything grilled tomatoes, hash-brown potatoes, and bacon, the toxic dietary equivalent of plutonium for the reckless
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?