Twenty-two hours in Toronto

“We’re fucked,” I scribble in my notebook as the meeting opens. Inexplicably it is in a small committee room rather than the Council Chambers, so they’ve had to open two overflow rooms and set up a projector and chairs in the lobby. With over 300 people registered to speak, the meeting is going to be ridiculously long. Nevertheless, proposals to move to the Council Chambers and take an overnight break have just been summarily shot down. A motion is passed to let people with children and people with disabilities speak first, but not without Councillor Mammoliti protesting that now everyone will claim to have a disability. This pettiness from the Executive Committee does not bode well for the process ahead, which Mayor Ford describes as separating the “must haves” from the “nice to haves”.

As you may know, KPMG’s “opportunities” for savings are not what strike most people as merely nice to have. They include the Toronto Atmospheric Fund, library branches and services, the Affordable Housing Office, the Community Partnership and Investment Program (which funds, for example, public health initiatives, youth activities, and cultural events), Wheel Trans, and more. (There are murmurs of indignation in the overflow room as the consultants give their presentation.)

This raises the question of how wise it is to cut them for one-time savings. What will the long-term impact be? Might, say, cutting funding that aids the homeless add a larger burden to policing or public health, and end up not saving money at all? Not to mention that many of these programs also save us money or stimulate the economy and receive funding from higher levels of government, so we must also look at how much revenue we stand to lose. But when the visiting councillors brought this up with the KPMG consultants, they replied stolidly again and again, “That was beyond the scope of our report.”

Only a few deputants are able to speak before it’s time for the lunch break. It’s drizzling in Nathan Phillips Square. People with umbrellas line up at the food tents for jerk chicken and ceviche and samosas. A small group of historical re-enactors from Fort York do military drills to a fife and drum. Yep, just a typical day in Toronto.

Later in the meeting the committee will just want to get things over with, but the earliest deputants receive multiple rounds of questions from councillors. Budget chief Cllr. Del Grande attempts to badger the deputants into making all the numbers add up, provoking cries of “That’s your job!” from the overflow rooms. Cllr. Mammoliti reminds each person from local Arts Councils that “of every dollar the provincial government collects in taxes, we get eight cents.” Eight cents, man! And you would have us squander it on art and culture!

Memorable deputants include Kim Fry, who likens this to the Harris government’s “manufactured crisis” and fires back spirited retorts to skeptical right-wing councillors; a neurosurgeon who brings in her very young son “to give him a voice” on zoos and libraries; a young blind woman whose voice shakes with rage as she describes her long struggle to qualify for Wheel Trans; and Kevin Clarke, who swoops in in a blue cape and promptly gets tossed out by security.

A young man named Miro Wagner shares a short fable about “a house called Toronto”, and a foolish contractor who knocks out the ugly pillars in the basement, then declares the house is too heavy and talks the residents into selling off all the furniture and appliances so the house doesn’t collapse. This is just the first of several creative deputations—later on, a guy in a Radio 3 T-shirt reads a speech which I gradually realize is a poem off his iPhone; at the peak of absurdity, Desmond Cole delivers his deputation through a sock puppet named Roy (sadly, no councillors asked follow-up questions); and Susan Wesson delivers her defence of libraries through song.

One woman actually gets a laugh out of Rob Ford as, summing up their political differences, she says, “…and I ride my bike to my gay friends’ wedding!” The only other time he shows interest is when a deputant mentions being a football coach. He drinks can after can of Red Bull and vanishes for long periods of time. Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday takes over. He comes across as a bit more chill—for one, he lets people finish their sentences as their time’s running out, and has a less sulky demeanour in general. But the most dedicated councillors aren’t on the Executive Committee; it’s mostly Janet Davis, Kristyn Wong-Tam, Adam Vaughan, Gord Perks, and Mike Layton who rarely let a deputant go by without questions.

Maureen O’Reilly of the Toronto librarians’ union receives one of the most enthusiastic receptions as people file in with stacks and stacks of petitions and everyone in the room—the rooms!—claps and chants “Save our libraries!” This Youtube clip gives you a pretty good idea of what the night was like: Cllr. Mammoliti being a dick (he threatens to move to adjourn the meeting), Mayor Ford mangling poor Cllr. Mihevc’s name, Cllr. Davis being a mensch, Cllr. Perks essentially thumbing his nose at the Mayor as he asks Mihevc’s question for him, and the public cheering their heads off.

And the seventeen-year-old girls from Crescent Town, talking about how their community centre has improved their neighbourhood; and fourteen-year-old Anika, sobbing as she begs the Mayor not to close libraries; a zookeeper and a parks worker, a med student and a professor; countless ordinary middle-class people saying that they will happily pay higher taxes to keep these things open, because it’s just the right thing to do.

A couple times Cllr. Perks dashes in with freshly refilled pitchers of water. “That’s how it should be,” says someone approvingly, “they’re supposed to be serving us.”

The guy sitting across the table from me brings a box of Timbits to pass around the room. Then suddenly there’s boxes of coffee from Tim Hortons and Starbucks, and cookies, and crackers, and juice. Pie and vegan desserts appear from nowhere. Fresh fruit. (All this in the wee hours of the morning. Where is it coming from?!) There is a general feeling of camaraderie between complete strangers. The people sitting next to me apologize for not being able to stick around to hear my deputation and wish me luck as they leave. Those of us near the end of the list commiserate about the long wait.

Finally I go up and say my bit, and listen to some of the people who have been there since the morning finally getting to say their bit. Himy Syed reels out a list of practical tips for each councillor, culminating in “Councillor Matlow, please unblock me on Twitter.” Dave Meslin, in plaid pyjamas and toting a stuffed bunny, commands great respect as he speaks calmly to the Committee about his disappointment in the whole process.

There is certainly a lot to be disillusioned about. When I read about the Mayor saying he would sit there for days, as long as it took to hear everyone, I guess I assumed that he would do just that—listen. Instead he clearly wanted to get it over as quickly as possible and made no attempt to engage with people. And having the meeting run all night shut out a great number of people who wanted to have their say. I am upset about Mammoliti, who went out of his way to be an asshole to as many people as possible. I am just generally let down by how the Executive Committee were really just there because they felt obliged to be, and those hours and hours of words just went in one ear and out the other. Like Meslin said, the process itself was disrespectful. It was designed with one end in mind: cutting public services as quickly as possible. That’s all.

But I was elated to be there, because it was also a celebration of Toronto. As one deputant (who had been there since 9:30 in the morning; I sat next to her first thing) said near the end of the meeting, “The nice-to-haves are what make this city worth living in.” It was a long, riotous, passionate, often irreverent tribute to the best of our city: art, nature, diverse community. It was a plea for (and by!) the poor and hungry, and a defence of the neighbourhoods some people call “bad” but which we know as our vibrant, resilient homes. It was testimony to the power of public libraries, which I now believe to be the very soul of Toronto. I am so proud to see my neighbours affirm that the fortunate should help out the needy, and that our worth is not measured in a budget surplus, but by how we treat our most vulnerable.

Pardon a little digression. After I came out as queer, I found I couldn’t just carry on as before, with the only change being the number of genders I was attracted to. Rather I came to discover entirely new ways to love, some which I have no name for, some that I had never imagined, some which I never thought I would feel. And it is still happening, and it’s surprising and a little frightening every time. What I learned last week was how it feels to really love my city.

It’s a pretty good feeling.

What I’m Reading, #32: Frederik Pohl, Gateway (1977)

“You are living with it, Bob.”

“Do you call this living?” I sneer, sitting up and wiping my nose with another of his million tissues.

“[…] Let me strike home for once, Bob. Let this sink in: you are living.”

“…Well, I suppose I am.” It is true enough: it is just not very rewarding.

Yesterday [July 13] was a rough day, but at least it was productive and I can rest for a bit instead of excoriating myself for being lazy. I have always had a very hard time getting myself to make phone calls. It’s even worse now because, living in a basement apartment, I get poor reception and often have to go outside to ensure the person on the other end of the line can hear me and I don’t get cut off. And sometimes I have trouble getting to the point where I can leave the house, which is probably hard to understand for anyone who has no experience with clinical depression. It takes a long time to wake up and get dressed and feed myself, and sometimes the mere thought of being around other people—even just fellow tenants or passersby on the street—is just too intimidating.

Hence it had been weeks and I still hadn’t called to schedule a doctor’s appointment or get in touch with my social worker. I finally decided that it was easier to go to the hospital (where my family doctor is) and make an appointment in person than to phone (and it was, despite being about a gazillion degrees out), and on the way back I stopped in the park to read Gateway and work up my nerve to call the social worker.

Gateway is a Big Dumb Object novel, set in a future where Earth and the colonies on Mars and Venus have become desperately overcrowded and resource-poor. Gateway is an asteroid-turned-spaceport long since abandoned by the (apparently) vanished alien race known as the Heechee. It’s filled with small ships programmed to go on round-trips to specific destinations. The problem is, there’s no way to figure out where they’re going to go and what’s at the other end. Enterprising prospectors might bring back priceless Heechee technology—or end up burned to a crisp or dead of radiation sickness or simply travelling so long they run out of rations and starve.

Our hero, Robinette Broadhead (“in spite of which I am male”), heads to Gateway hoping to strike it rich and escape the mines of Wyoming forever. The story switches between his time in Gateway and when he has returned to Earth, fabulously wealthy but spending a lot of time with his robot psychotherapist, alternately denying he has a problem and shying away from a place of acute emotional pain. Something awful happened during his trips out, and nearly all the book is spent hinting at and building up to that revelation.

I was expecting sensawunda along the lines of Chiang or Watts, but Gateway is primarily an exploration of the human mind. Well, one very fucked-up human mind, at least. When Broadhead gets to Gateway he loses his nerve and spends most of his time in a state of boredom and terror, distracting himself with other prospectors’ going-away or coming-home parties, or sex—with a woman who, despite her previous experience, has also become too scared to ship out. Of course, eventually he does go—and most of the trip is also stultifyingly boring, spent crammed in a can uncomfortably close to his fellow explorers.

(Some novels are said to have a good “sense of place”; Gateway has sense of time. The way anxiety drags out time, or compresses it.)

The therapy scenes (lying in the grass, sweating through my shirt even in the shade of a tree) really got to me, a lot more than I thought they would. I hate talking to doctors and psychiatrists and psychologists and social workers and such, I generally don’t like telling them about that kind of thing, and I’ve had to do it for years. So even the scenes in Gateway, with Broadhead snarkily parroting Freudian jargon to Sigfrid, rattled me.

I think what I hate is the feeling of exposure. Self-loathing, maybe; I feel like I’m an ugly, mediocre mess beneath a fragile veneer of normalcy. So having to open myself up to examination, whether it’s a psychiatrist asking about my depression or a social worker inspecting my bank statements, is just the most terrifying thing. Perhaps because of so much therapy in my childhood, or not getting a lot of privacy growing up in general, I have an urgent need for privacy now.

(I couldn’t explain any of this to my social worker, though. I could only say, yes, I know I should have phoned you weeks ago. No, I can’t explain why I didn’t. No explanation is coming. I just want to be let alone.)

You just sort of have to keep going, and let yourself feel things as they happen. Looking back on things, I think I prefer the fear and anxiety and self-recrimination and all that. It’s better than numbness, because it feels like you’re actually losing time—like time is going by and you haven’t spent it doing anything. I hate drifting. It’s just hard to pull yourself out some of the time.

“It is exactly what I call living. And, in my best hypothetical sense, I envy it very much.”

What I’m Reading, #27-31

27. Mary Gentle, Golden Witchbreed (1983)

An envoy to the planet Orthe, dominated by a low-tech, communal, quasi-medieval culture, learns it’s not so “primitive” after all. The hard way. If you don’t look too hard at the science and focus on the political intrigue and culture-building*, it’s great. I don’t want to say more, lest I spoil it. I think I only counted three uses of “sardonic”.

  • Orthe’s. The Earth that Lynne Christie comes from seems positively old-fashioned, especially with regard to gender, or maybe I just live in the future.

28. Joan Vinge, The Snow Queen (1980)

Picked this up because of Revisiting the Hugos. It’s sci-fi heavily steeped in fairytales and mythology. An oceanic planet named Tiamat cycles between long periods of Winter and Summer, each ruled by its own Queen. During Winter, interstellar trade and travel are possible; come Summer, which is dominated by traditional clans, offworlders leave Tiamat, taking new technologies with them. The current Snow Queen, seeking to maintain her power after the Change, secretly implanted several Summer women with clone embryos. The lone surviving clone, Moon, becomes a sibyl—a sort of oracle-mystic forbidden from the Winter city of Carbuncle. Nevertheless, she goes in search of her cousin Sparks, who has become the Snow Queen’s lover, and eventually to meet her own destiny. (Wow…I feel like I’m writing back-cover copy. Sorry.)

The part I enjoyed most, however, was the subplot about Jerusha PalaThion, a world-weary Carbuncle policewoman who gets drawn into the Snow Queen’s far-ranging schemes. It’s the little details that bring The Snow Queen from the mythic down to earth.

29. Octavia Butler, Dawn (1987)

The first Xenogenesis book. After an apocalypse, a woman named Lilith finds herself in the hands—well, tentacles—of aliens aspiring to redeem the human race, one hybrid baby at a time. There’s weird yet pleasant alien sex—does anyone write weird alien sex better than Octavia Butler? I’d like to read the rest of the series before making any grand pronouncements.

30. Geoff Ryman, Air (2004)

Trippy and awesome blend of magic realism and near-future sf. I loved Mae, the main character; she’s stubborn, petty, cunning, and dauntlessly entrepreneurial. Desperate to stave off poverty, she takes advantage of her access to the soon-to-be omnipresent technology called “Air” (the Internet in your head, basically) and attempts to educate—and prepare—her tiny village in the fictional Central Asian nation of Karzistan. She also has to contend with her failing marriage, rival neighbours, the return of a devastating flood, and Mrs. Tung, an old woman who upon death took up residence in Mae’s head. As you do.

31. Loretta Chase, Lord of Scoundrels (1995)

“In my dictionary, romance is not maudlin, treacly sentiment…It is a curry, spiced with excitement and humor and a healthy dollop of cynicism.”

I was SO ON BOARD with this Regency romance. You’ve got Jessica Trent, this feisty, ridiculously competent, nearly anachronistic bluestocking, and Sebastian Ballister, Marquess of Dain (just “Dain”), who is Tall Dark and Handsome Brooding Bad Boy squared. No, cubed. After an extended fiery Slap Slap Kiss flirtation, they get caught in a compromising position and Jessica lawyers up and gets him to marry her to Preserve Her Honour and all that. However, it takes them a little longer to become reconciled to each other. It’s so smartly written and consciously not quite over the top that I can forgive (and, hell, even enjoy) the spurts of bodice-ripping purple prose.

And then the plot made a sharp left turn that left me cold, and by “cold” I mean “throwing up in my mouth a little”. Jessica crosses paths with Charity Graves, a prostitute who has a young child (now a “ragged, filthy urchin”) by Dain. Dain explains how when Charity found out she was pregnant she wrote to Dain’s lawyer asking for—well, child support, basically.

“How much do you give her, by the way?”

“Fifty,” he said tightly. “More than enough to feed and clothe him—and let her spend all she makes on her back on herself. But I daresay the rags were all part of her game: to make me appear the villain of the piece […]”

“Fifty a year is more than generous. How old is he?” Jessica demanded. “Six, seven?”

And they also talk about how Charity totally could have gotten an abortion so she’s just a greedy bitch, plain and simple, and not once does Jessica get mad at Dain for, I don’t know, his habit of frequenting prostitutes all the friggin’ time. I was willing to chalk up the earlier slut-shaming to Jessica being jealous, but this just…yeeeeah. ?Did not finish.

What I’m Reading, #24-26

#21-23 will take a little while longer to write up.

24. Samuel Delany, Babel-17/Empire Star

I like my Sapir-Whorf hypotheses like I like my coffee: very strong!…no? Tough crowd. What I like about Delany is how central poetry and song and storytelling are to him. Poetry doesn’t seem really important nowadays, at least to me. You can’t make a living as a poet or anything. But in Delany’s stories (and maybe especially in Babel-17) poetry is vitally relevant. Rydra Wong, as a poet, can see the world in a different and valuable way, and her work makes a tremendous difference to people.

I liked Babel-17 well enough but preferred the convoluted timeline of Empire Star, which follows a boy coming of age and ascending in consciousness, and in which there’s fewer characters than first appear to be.

25. Nnedi Okorafor, Who Fears Death

In a postapocalyptic Sudan where magic coexists with (sparse, deteriorating) technology, a “child of violence” is destined to reshape her society. Brutal and uncompromising. Fills my head with vivid unearthly colours. The prose could be better, but it gets the job done.

(I have many more thoughts about this book, but they’re kitchen-table thoughts, not impersonal-Internet thoughts.)

26. Lois McMaster Bujold, Cetaganda

Enjoyable but not terribly memorable. Miles solves a mystery while he and Ivan are on a diplomatic mission to the heart of the Cetagandan empire, which is ruled by a genetic elite—ruled, in turn, by women working behind the scenes. I laughed out loud at “I don’t think it was ripe, Ivan.” I wondered if Bujold even knew about epicene pronouns.

One interesting aspect is how Miles uses disability stereotypes to fly under the radar—or, if you’d like, cover his ass:

“You would have taken the investigation away from me, you know you would have, sir. Everyone in the wormhole nexus thinks I’m a cripple who’s been given a cushy nepotistic sinecure as a courier. That I might be competent for more is something Lieutenant Vorkosigan would never, in the ordinary course of events, ever be given a chance to prove.”

Sadly, the library system has only one copy of the next book, Ethan of Athos, so it seems that I’m not going to be continuing the series for a while.

Sunday in Toronto

Last week I met up with G. and D., two friends I hadn’t seen in a while. We went out for dim sum, which was excellent, though we had to wait a while to get a table. Highlights included curried cuttlefish (G. and I are fans of Life and took the opportunity to explain cuttlefish mating habits to D.) and chicken buns—BBQ pork buns will always be my favourite, but the sharp green onion-spiked filling contrasts very nicely with the sweet steamed pastry. From there we wandered to a nearby Chinese bakery and then into Kensington Market to pore over potted herbs and spices and fruit.

G. suggested a trip to Riverdale Farm, which none of us had visited yet; it’s a long walk from Kensington, but it was fine weather. We meandered down College—G. works in the area, but D. lives in the suburbs and only comes to campus for classes, and living in the West End I don’t often visit those parts of town, so a walk through the downtown core (crowded, happy and unhurried as it can only be on a really beautiful Sunday afternoon in Toronto) is a rare treat.

We stopped at Allan Gardens to coo at the dogs in the park and wander through the greenhouse. The park’s lovely right now: tulips and daffodils still out, the maples adorned with spring-green spangles. Inside it’s an idyllic seasonless garden. (Took lots of boring up-close photos of flowers and such. My favourite room was the one with the cacti, though.)

From there it wasn’t that far from the farm, which is tucked away at the end of a sleepy residential street east of Parliament. It’s not really a farm, it’s more like the zoo in High Park but with farm animals; there’s barns you can wander through, with fowl and rabbits and baby animals, and outdoor enclosures with horses and goats and a donkey and such. There’s also little trails through the woods by the Don and lookouts over the trees and the wetland, where we sat for a while in the sun eating egg tarts and sesame balls and singing cheesy 80’s and 90’s songs, till the farm was closing (5 p. m.) and we walked back and went our separate ways.

I took the subway down to Queen Street and took the 501 west. There was a man sitting a few rows behind me in the very back of the streetcar, playing a peaceful melody on acoustic guitar. So I took out my earbuds for once and let the music and the city’s background noise soundtrack my way home.