The Varsity Interview: John Waters

Even if you’ve never seen Pink Flamingos, Polyester, Hairspray, Cry-Baby, or the rest of his colourful filmography, you probably still know plenty about the American institution that is John Waters. He’s the dandy with the pencil-thin moustache who turns up as talk show guest, essayist, documentary talking head, and all-around droll raconteur. He’s the provocateur whom William S. Burroughs famously called “the Pope of Trash.” A modern-day Wilde, if Wilde had been inordinately interested in serial killers and bizarre sexual fetishes. And yes, he’s the one who filmed Divine eating dog doo in that movie all those years ago, though perhaps you’re a little tired of hearing that too.

Waters is one of our leading ironists, which is why Role Models, his third prose book following Shock Value and Crackpot, is something of a surprise. It is a personal collection of profiles of Waters’ influences, a group that includes mainstream entertainers Johnny Mathis and Little Richard; underground pornographers Bobby Garcia and David Hurles; artist Cy Twombly; and even “Manson Girl” Leslie Van Houten, a friend of Waters. He writes about these and others with a mixture of affection and — here’s the surprising part — respect.

The Varsity: The book caught me off guard because compared to Crackpot and Shock Value it feels a little more personal, a little less arch. Because a lot of your work deals in irony, did this book’s tone seem like more of a challenge, or maybe a little intimidating?

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John Waters: Well yeah, I don’t think it’s ironic at all. No, it came really naturally to me, because I wanted to write about people I really did respect even though, y’know, when people think of “role models” they wouldn’t usually pick some of the people I’ve picked. But still, I thought that every person in this book I do look up to for being braver than I have to be, or even because of something maybe they did that was terrible, or maybe because they’ve had great success, or maybe because they’ve had a tiny bit of success with just one thing. Each one of those things involves a certain progress in being able to deal with it to get through life, and I think they all have, so I’ve learned something from every one of these people. I didn’t write about one person, ever, that I thought was “so bad they were good,” which certainly I have written about in the past.

TV: I found the chapter where you talk about your friendship with Leslie Van Houten and advocate for her parole unexpectedly moving. I know you published it on the Huffington Post about a year ago — what sort of reaction has it had?

JW: I published that because it was the 40-year anniversary of Helter Skelter and I knew there would be a lot of sensational coverage, and, y’know, let’s be honest, it’s pretty clear that the people convicted of that crime don’t have many good reviews. But I think I did more than the defence lawyer because I also put in all the most devastating things that the victims’ families had said against her release, which I think I had to do.

I was very serious about it. I do like Leslie, she’s my friend, and she’s told me since that she can feel the difference the article has made just in the visiting room, with people saying stuff to her, and the guards and everything, but she was, I think, fairly brutally turned down again [for parole] this summer. They didn’t use [the article] against her, which is something I feared. But it’s a tough case, and it’s just too famous, and she did do a terrible thing and no one is ever saying she didn’t do a terrible thing, but she didn’t think it up, and she was a 17-year-old girl and met a madman. She does not say that, I say that. She said, “It’s my fault for making him a cult leader, because you can’t be a leader if you don’t have followers.” You can never turn back the hands of a clock – the only thing you can do is what she’s trying to do, which is become a better person than she would be if she’d never committed the crime. And I think she is that person today. Whether that is ever enough? From society’s viewpoint, I think that is. From a personal viewpoint of her victims? I can’t answer that.

TV: There’s a recurring motif in the book of people being very suspicious of you when you ask for interviews.

JW: I would be too! With Johnny Mathis, his lawyer was, although I don’t think the lawyer knew me, and then if he Googled me, oh god, I don’t know what comes up first. The funny thing was, some of Leslie’s supporters were uptight about it, and she’s like, “God, somebody’s gonna hurt MY reputation? That’s quite a feat.” But I don’t think that happens too much anymore. I mean, Johnny Mathis was a good sport. He certainly didn’t know when I came to interview him for that chapter in the book that I was also going to be writing about killers, or, y’know, my apartment, but I did use him as a springboard in a way, and I think I respected him, and every time I do a TV or a radio show now they play “Chances Are” when I come on. I would have been really upset if anybody that I wrote about didn’t like it, and I’ve heard from almost everybody and they’ve been very favourable about it. I would have been very devastated if they hated it.

TV: Your reputation does precede you. There are certain things I’ve read about you maybe a thousand times, like Divine eating the dog shit in Pink Flamingos – – -

JW: Well, that’s the thing. I mean, yes, that happened, and there’s nothing you can do about that. Yeah, I’m proud of that too – it was part of me. I actually realized the other day I filmed that scene 40 years ago this fall, that’s when it was shot. So, it is certainly from a long time ago, but my sister said, “Y’know, it just opened in Washington again, it’s playing as a midnight movie.” Isn’t that amazing? It certainly never became old hat.

TV: There’s also that quote, “If someone throws up at one of my movies – – -”

JW: Oh, that quote. Well, that’s an old quote. Y’know, that was said in Shock Value, and Shock Value is still in print. It’s never gone out of print since 1981. What can I say? I said that as humour then, and…what was the line? “If somebody throws up at one of my films, it’s like a standing ovation”?

TV: Yeah, I think that’s it.

JW: Depends which film! For Pink Flamingos it doesn’t hurt. It’s good for publicity in the old William Castle kind of tradition. I remember some theatre owners used to put sawdust down. It was just a joke, but at amusement parks, that was the easiest way to clean up vomit, they always put that outside the rides. It’s more theatrical, so I should have hired fake people to puke – that would’ve been good!

TV: I think what I’m trying to get at is, I sense an undercurrent of the book where now that you’re older and all this is in the past, you’re kind of dealing with “the John Waters persona.” You know what I mean?

JW: I think…yes, I’m proud of my career. I don’t think those days are “better” or anything, and I don’t have many regrets, but I think some of the stuff I talk about in the Leslie chapter I do regret because I was pretty inconsiderate of the victims when I made humour of it [in my early films]. But many, many people use Manson in the punk rock way. There’s Marilyn Manson – I mean, it’s not just me who seized on that as basically a Halloween costume, ‘“merica’s boogeyman.” But the problem with that is, these are real people, and the people that were in his cult were, I think, victims themselves, also dealing with interminable guilt of something they never would have done and would never do again.

TV: The book profiles some people, like Little Richard and Johnny Mathis, who are very different from you, and others, like the ‘Outsider Porn’ filmmakers, who seem like extreme versions of you.

JW: No, I think the opposite: I think I’m more like Johnny Mathis and Little Richard than I am like the outsider porn people, because as much as I respect them, I don’t think I’m an “outsider artist” at all. An outsider artist is naïve; an outsider artist doesn’t care if the world notices. I think I’m much closer to Johnny Mathis and Little Richard — not comparing my talent, but the fact that I’ve had a long career in show business and have had to always reinvent myself to keep going, whereas the outsider porn people are compulsively driven. They don’t have a choice but to do what they do, and I find that fascinating, but I think I’m much less like that in real life.

TV: Maybe I’m getting distracted by the fact that in the Johnny Mathis chapter, you talk about how he’s had mass middle-American success, and reaches a certain audience that you don’t. Is that something you desire?

JW: Well, in a comic way, yes. I’m not losing sleep over it. I love my audience, and I think I have great fame, because the kind of fame I have means you can always go out, and the people that recognize me are the people I probably wanna meet… Do I want their life? No, but I always tell every publicist I ever have for a book or movie, “The only magazine I really want to do is be on the cover of Parade!” I don’t know if you get it, but Parade is a weekly supplement that goes in every Sunday newspaper in the country, and it’s incredibly middle-of-the-road.

TV: All I really know about it is they used to have Jerry Lewis on the cover every year for the Telethon.

JW: Well, I’m jealous of Jerry Lewis, too, in a way. Oh, I love Jerry Lewis, but I don’t know that he was a role model because his personality seems to be a little…off base to me. [Laughs] So, I jokingly say I want that kind of fame, but…everybody does! I talk to everybody all the time, even peers my age who have had success, and they say, “Why do we keep doing this?” I had someone who said to me, “What are you trying to prove? God, do you ever stop?” And no, we never can stop, because we’re insecure, that’s why we’re in show business, and we have to keep being driven to have other people tell us we’re good, which is really a sickness. So, I think everybody in show business is basically insane. Including me.

John Waters will be participating in a reading/interview for the International Festival of Authors on October 22, 8 p.m. at the Fleck Dance Theatre. He will also be introducing a screening of Salo, or The 210 Days of Sodom on October 23, 8:30pm at TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Making a run for it

I would be gasping for air, have pains in my sides, sweat rolling down my face, and aches in my leg muscles. In elementary school, I was a track-and-field star, and in high school I tried out for the team in the ninth grade. Back then, I could run laps for hours and I loved that feeling I got when I was finished; as if the wind had been knocked right out of me. Panting was a positive thing and pain was an almost pleasant feeling. Dripping in sweat was a sign that I had given it my all.

Now years later, the most running I do is when I’m rushing to catch the subway. When I flop down on the seat, winded, in my work clothes, and a little too sweaty for comfort, I wonder how I could have loved it so much.

Why do people run?
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The recreational runner

Some runners run to lose and maintain their weight, reach other athletic goals, or for the company.

Joallore Alon, who is in his 30s, has a hectic work schedule and uses running as a stress reliever. He also said it helps keep him young because it’s constantly “kicking his butt.”

“I run because it’s convenient and great for cardio,” said Allore, a digital content specialist.

Jermaine James, a 23-year-old who is on the roster to be signed to a professional European basketball team next year, runs to stay in shape.

“Most of why I run is to keep my endurance,” said James, who currently plays for the University of Guelph. “It helps me stay in the shape which helps me stay in the game.”

Gwen Elliot, 21, runs recreationally now but she didn’t always love running.

“I ran cross country in public school because I had to to play basketball. And I hated it. It was awful. It was the worst,” said Elliot, a former radio and television arts student at Ryerson University.

She was the worst of all of her friends, always coming last in relay races and getting the most winded.

“When you’re the worst at something, it doesn’t really encourage you to keep going,” she explained, but she decided to revisit it recently in order to take on a new challenge and get into better shape.

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“I started running again because my friend encouraged me to try it,” said Elliot. “She was having a lot of fun and it was like, ‘Why not?’ It was ultimately for the challenge and the camaraderie between runners. Runners are the happiest people I’ve ever met. They’re all just happy and cheering you on and asking you how you did.”

Heather Dianne Torres, 29, started running in the summer of 2004 as a way to stay fit. It became such a positive part of her life that she decided to push herself to the next level. She ran her first race, the Bluewater Bridge Race, a 10 km run in Sarnia, in the fall of 2005.

Since then, she has ran in six half-marathons — three in Canada and three in the United States.

“Running is such a great feeling and a way to clear your mind and compete with yourself and with your personal goals,” said Torres.

Torres is an example of how recreational running can easily evolve into something more.

The competitive runner

When a runner decides to get competitive about the sport, it indicates that they enjoy running for the challenge.

Andy Johns, who runs and writes about running, is one of those runners. He runs marathons to explore and compete.

“I run because I want to see what I’m capable of doing,” Johns wrote in a January 2009 article entitled “Why do people run marathons?” It was written for MadeToRun, a website designed to aid runners in learning more about running as a sport, a pastime, an innate human ability, and to share this passion with runners of all types.

“Sitting in an office 50 hours a week doesn’t necessarily give me the opportunity to find out what I’m capable of, physically at least. Nor does sitting in an office all week allow me to see the world, which is another reason why I love to run. I can’t think of a better way to see the world and interact with it than to do so by foot,” said Johns.
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Richard Koo feels the same way. He started running in high school, but stopped through university and didn’t manage to integrate it in with his work schedule for some years.

When a coworker recommended he get back into it, Koo joined the Running Room.

“Once you get out of university, you sort of lose the opportunity to meet new people,” he said. “When you’re in the office with people eight hours a day, you’re kind of drawn together out of necessity as opposed to common interest. Once I joined the Running Room, I met a lot of new people through the running. It’s a bit of a social network.”

Koo has now found time to fit running into his lifestyle and takes it quite seriously. He knows the level of commitment it takes to run in marathons. For him, it’s an annual process.

He typically focuses on fall marathons. In the winter, he takes a bit of a break, still running, but not long distances. Then he starts training again in January leading up to heavy training during the summer months in preparation.

He has since run six marathons in various cities that include Toronto, Ottawa, London, and Chicago.

“Other than being crazy, which I certainly attest to being, I run because I enjoy it,” said Koo, laughing. “There’s something a little OCD about running marathons, I think. I freely admit that. But there’s something somewhat addictive to being healthy. You get into that cycle where you’re fit and you don’t want to lose it.”

The varsity runner

Chloe Conlon has been a track star at school for the majority of her life. She started running when she was just 7 years old. Conlon is currently in her last year at Notre Dame Catholic High School in Brampton and once she graduates, she hopes to go to the United States on a track scholarship.

“I do it because it’s a good workout and every time you finish, it’s like you’ve accomplished something,” said Conlon, 18, who has been running at the school and provincial level since she was four. “It’s exhilarating and it works every muscle.”

Conlon currently holds three Ontario records. In 2006, she won the 1600 meter run at the Hershey’s Track and Field Games in Pennsylvania while representing Ontario.

Conlon believes that the reason she does so well at running is because she focuses on her goal.

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“When you run, you don’t think about anything, you just run,” said Conlon, adding that she gets in the zone by keeping her eye on the finish line.

“I dream about going to the Olympics, but for now, I just hope to do well and keep it in my life,” she said.

Much like Conlon, Eadaoin Quinn, a University of Toronto Varsity Blues runner, started running when she was just 9 years old, with her elementary school track team.

“Everyone in my family had done it at some point so it was just kind of natural,” she said. “I remember when my dad told me what cross country was, saying that you get to run through the forest and over the logs and stuff, and I just thought that sounded like the coolest thing ever.”

She’s been running ever since, almost completely without a break — until last year. Quinn ran for four years at McGill, while taking her undergrad in Biology and International Development Studies.

When she came to U of T, Quinn thought she was done with that part of her life, but after spending her first year doing her Masters of Forestry, she decided she needed it back and joined the Varsity Blues cross country team.

“It just feels natural for me to be with a group of people, training every day,” said Quinn, 24. “Track is usually thought of as an indivudal sport, but there’s some really intense bonds you experience when you have to put yourself through a lot of pain.”

Taking some time off from running made Quinn realize how much she really wants it in her life.

“I’ll run my whole life,” she said. “I have hopes that I’ll be an old lady with crazy coloured shorts and be still running.”

Photos by Nathaniel Dart, Rich Gibbs, Hester Sharpe, and Cynthia Black

Who’s who in Wards 20 and 27


WARD 20: Trinity-Spadina

Dean Maher

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The five main points of my campaign platform are fiscal responsibility, public transit, housing affordability, neighbourhood livability, and environmental sustainability. Many of these will improve the lives of U of T students, some sooner than later. If elected, I will continue to work on ways of making transit more affordable for U of T students and try to find ways to build affordable, subsidized student housing. Many students pay expensive market rate rents. I want the city to invest in social housing specifically for students so we can offer subsidized (or in some unique cases, free rent) for students, based on their individual circumstances. This will help students focus on their studies and not be preoccupied with how they are going to pay their rent. I will also demand that proactive (preferably environmentally friendly) pest control is completed on campus-supported accommodations to avoid any bed bug infestations.

Adam Vaughan

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From Kensington Market, Chinatown, the Waterfront, Harbord Village, the Grange, the Annex, and Seaton Village, Ward 20 is home to a diverse mix of students, artists, workers, academics, professionals, small business owners, and entrepreneurs. Sustaining livability and opportunities for all of these constituencies is at the core of my values. In my first term as councillor, I delivered real change. I fulfilled a campaign pledge to build more family housing downtown — delivering six times more than the previous decade. Local parks in every neighbourhood are being redeveloped. With local residents I developed a neighbourhood plan for Alexandra Park, the first public housing revitalization project in the city’s history that will not require funds from Ottawa and Queen’s Park. We need relevant and affordable city services, and our transportation systems must address the needs of the local residents. I am asking to be re-elected so that we can finish the work we started to ensure our neighbourhoods are affordable, inclusive, beautiful, and green.

Mike Yen

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Students rarely vote. This is why City Hall has not placed importance on the voice of students, but U of T students graduate to become lawyers, doctors, politicians, teachers, community planners, etc. — our community’s leaders. They are the future of today’s community and it’s important that their voice is heard now and not just when they graduate. The city is changing and we need help from these future leaders to shape it for a better tomorrow. Many students worry that they can’t find jobs and that city services are too expensive and inefficient. Let your voice be heard. Vote! Students, you tell City Hall what you need and not the other way around. Once elected, I will provide a better platform to engage students, to hear their voice and foster opportunities for them to be more involved in our community. Your future is now!

Ward 27: Toronto Centre-Rosedale

Enza Anderson

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One issue that is at the forefront in my campaign is the issue of landlord licensing. Licensing landlords will ensure students are dealing with legitimate property owners who provide fair housing costs and regular maintenance. Students deserve to be protected. The cost of transit is another issue that impacts the lives of many U of T students. While a reduced student Metropass program has been introduced, I would advocate for an even lower fare rate and make the passes transferable (currently photo ID is required on the student passes). Many students cycle to campus. Having a comprehensive bike plan is important. We need more bike lanes that interconnect but more importantly, place them on arterial roadways that are safe for cyclists and motorists. I also believe in maintaining a quality of life outside of school studies. As city councillor I would lobby to reduce student user fees at city-run facilities.

Ben Bergen

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Although the City of Toronto has no direct control over the University of Toronto’s academic affairs, it has a major influence on the quality of student life. Post-secondary students rely on city services and infrastructure every day. As a U of T student myself, I am deeply aware of your needs. Your concerns are literally my own. Many of my proposals would affect students’ lives for the better. I advocate expanding the transit network and instituting a fare freeze to keep that access affordable. Building more bike paths and better transit would make getting around Toronto easier than ever. I want to improve and add public spaces in the downtown core so there are more places to study, relax, and enjoy the city. Increasing funding for arts programs and events like Nuit Blanche would give students more opportunities to add to Toronto’s cultural scene.

Ken Chan

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As a graduate of the Rotman School of Management, it is great to know that many University of Toronto students live in Ward 27. City Hall must be a champion for making our city an attractive place to live, learn, work, and play. For that to happen, I will champion for a public transportation system that works; for neighbourhoods that are safe; and for a strong local economy so that you have access to well paying jobs today and when you graduate. Having lived and worked in a world metropolis like London, England, I know firsthand what it takes to make Toronto a true world city — universities located downtown play an integral part in building economic prosperity and a vibrant arts and culture sector. I want to work with you to build a bright new future for our great city and in doing so, unleash Toronto’s potential.

Joel Dick

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I envision a vibrant, sustainable, and prosperous Toronto that provides opportunity for all of its residents. We must invest in transit. I will work toward a system that is efficient, safe, and affordable for students. I am also committed to completing the network of bicycle lanes proposed in the Toronto Bike Plan. I believe in a pedestrian-friendly city. Many students are tenants and the city needs to be more aggressive with bad landlords. Bylaw officers should be inspecting rental housing to make sure landlords are living up to their responsibilities. We must build more affordable housing. I will meet with student governments and groups on a regular basis to ensure that your ideas are heard at City Hall. Visit joeldick.com and check out my ideas. I want you to vote for me, but whatever you decide, please take the time to vote on October 25.

Susan Gapka

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My name is Susan Gapka and I am seeking to earn your vote on October 25. I’m a tireless and effective campaigner for social justice, addressing issues of affordable housing, post-secondary education, mental health, community safety, and LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual) issues. My record of success is strong since coming out as a community leader on Church Street more than 10 years ago. After graduating from Community Work at George Brown College, I studied Public Policy and Administration at York University where I graduated in June 2009 with a degree in Political Science. While at York, I served on the Board of Governors, Senate, York Federation of Students, and Canadian Federation of Students Ontario. In 2003, we secured a two-year tuition freeze and I was able to codify the “Student Experience” in the York Academic Plan. With my student experience and your support, we can create the strong leadership that deserve [sic].

Jonas Jemstone

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My campaign platform is based on short and long-term objectives. The three most important short-term concerns with urgent attention are: safety for Ward 27 residents, employment opportunities for the marginalized ward residents, and the deteriorating environmental conditions, including garbage recycling and incineration. For long-term objectives, I’ll fight against wasteful spending of taxpayers’ money, improve the transport grid system within the GTA, and tackle the $3 billion city deficit. The only way I can generate employment opportunities for the distressed visible minority communities of Ward 27 is by negotiating with real estate developers to hire minorities from the ward. Everyone should know the official youth unemployment rate of Canada exceeds 19 per cent, and most of the unemployed youth are from the GTA. It’s time for the youth to stand up, the support of all U of T students throughout Toronto is essential to fight for the interest of future generations.

Gary Leroux

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I was born, raised, and educated in the city of Toronto. I currently teach at York University in the Department of Design. I have a strong sense of community and have volunteered on different committees. I ran for councillor in Ward 27 in 2006. I am running as a candidate for The Toronto Party in Ward 27. Here are some of my priorities: to put a freeze on taxes, wages, fees and new spending in year one, while council reviews city budgets and introduces greater efficiencies in government departments. I want to repeal the car registration fee, and the land transfer tax in the first term; introduce term limits to ensure that fresh thinking happens at City Hall; and revamp the transportation system in our city to get subways built and get Toronto moving.

Ram Narula

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I have a BSc, a Master’s of Interdisciplinary Studies in fifteen subjects, and a Certificate of Teaching from U of T. I have taught in Ontario high schools for 20 years. Students face financial pressure. I will, therefore, create a trust fund of 25 per cent of my salary (about $25,000 per year) in scholarships for needy students in Ward 27. Education is the key to a successful and fulfilling life. They need health education to reduce health costs (currently 42 per cent of annual budget). I am a teacher of yoga, meditation, ayurvedic medicine, and motivation. In the last 25 years, I have taught 20,000 people techniques for self-development. My knowledge and experience of happiness and peace, health and success will soon be available on YouTube. I am available to share knowledge with students in person.

Ella Rebanks

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I am running for city councillor because I don’t like the waste we see at City Hall. Wasted money and wasted time just wastes opportunities to make Toronto better. The public’s goodwill has been abused by City Hall and it must be re-established. I use city services and know how important they are to you. I don’t like to see them hindered by bad planning and bad spending. Transparency in city spending and increased accountability in city works projects will ensure that Toronto has the finances needed to protect these services and to continue the critical work to improve the TTC. I have extensive experience in politics, communications, and community advocacy. I am a pragmatic thinker who knows how to listen and how to get things done. I would be honoured to have your vote on October 25 and to serve as your councillor.

Kristyn Wong-Tam

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As a past student of Woodsworth College, I bring to City Council a history of student activism, community advocacy, and business experience — a rare combination in municipal politics. Our city must be a safe, vibrant and healthy environment for residents to study, work and live. As a board member to the University of Toronto Arts Centre, and as a donor to the President’s Circle, I am an active supporter of your university. I am committed to affordable housing and transit for students, local food security that provides affordable, healthy meals, and family housing for students in residence. Together with the Toronto Workforce Innovation Group, I seek to create jobs and opportunities for you after graduation. Working with my community, I will support smart economic growth and sustainable development while preserving the core values that make Toronto such a world-class city.

Simon Wookey

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Upon graduation, you will be starting your careers in the middle of the worst recession since the 30s. The last thing you need is a civic government that is driving business out of the city. Toronto is a great city to live in, but not if you don’t have a job. As your councillor, I will fight to make it easy to do business in the city again. I will reduce commercial taxes, cut red tape, and bring back those jobs that are moving to the 905. This will allow you to continue to live in Toronto and enjoy all of it arts, culture, and nightlife, without being forced out of the city to look for work.

Where to vote

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Illustration by Alex Nursall

Toronto the good

In the months leading up to the upcoming Toronto municipal election, the city has found itself repeatedly caught in the crossfire. If some campaign speeches, newspaper columns, blog posts, and op-ed sections are to be believed, Toronto is a city perpetually in crisis. This kind of obnoxious discourse is, unfortunately, a fact of life in today’s media and political landscape, but it has the mutually-beneficial effect of keeping the intellectual underclass of angry, barely-coherent online news commentators off the streets. What’s more worrisome is how commonplace it is to have a vague dislike of the city. It’s such a subtle and commonplace phenomenon that it can be easy to miss, but when was the last time you heard anyone (besides a politician) say that they like, let alone love, this city? I am by no means innocent of the offense of offhandedly speaking ill of our city, but enough is enough: Toronto, it seems, has become a city that everyone loves to hate, and nobody takes the time or inclination to appreciate it.

The most common gripe, at least among students, is the TTC. It’s a complaint that has a lot of validity behind it—fares are among the highest in the world, vehicles break down, signals fail, streetcars are often missing-in-action at the most inopportune times, and the drivers aren’t always the most friendly or communicative bunch. Everybody has a collection of juicy TTC horror stories in their back pocket. While the TTC is a mess anecdotally, the fact is that, for the most part, it gets the job done. Around 1.5 million trips are taken on the TTC every day, and it’s safe to assume that all but a small fraction of the trips are relatively painless. Terrible anecdotes are always unfortunate, but if there’s one thing that I hope most take away from this election, it’s that no amount of anecdotes are a valid substitute for a sound argument. The TTC, at the very least, does quite a good job with what it has—it’s the only major city transit system that’s entirely self-funded.

The TTC aside, Toronto is often characterized as a boring, sterile, less culturally-significant version of New York. It’s unfortunate because, while Toronto shares some characteristics with New York — most notably the mix of big city and neighbourhood, multiculturalism, and the strong financial industry, characterizing Toronto in relation to a city that could be fairly described as the financial, and perhaps cultural capital of the world is bound to lead to unfavourable conclusions. PricewaterhouseCoopers, in a joint study with Partnership for New York, recently ranked Toronto as the single most liveable city in the world. This year, Mercer ranked Toronto 16th, and The Economist ranked Toronto 4th. These studies are of questionable real-world value, but they do demonstrate that sane minds are viewing Toronto as a competitive, if not thriving, city.
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Meanwhile, Toronto is better at being Toronto than any other city in the world. Neighbourhoods are effortlessly, genuinely multicultural—between Spadina and Parkside one can pass through Kensington, Chinatown, Little Italy, Little Portugal, Roncesvalles, and Koreatown. Besides the obvious culinary choices, you wouldn’t have a hard time finding Indian, Carribean, Greek, Middle Eastern, Japanese, or Thai gems in between. The multiculturalism rarely, if ever, feels stilted, and though some neighbourhoods are relatively culturally homogeneous, there’s never a sense of tension — it just feels right. This isn’t a forced, show-the-tourists-what-they-want multiculturalism—it’s authentic. Toronto’s neighbourhoods, cultural or otherwise, are its greatest strength, and have an atmosphere few other cities can match.

Add to that our often-overlooked wealth of green space and natural attractions within close proximity to the downtown core — think Toronto Island, High Park, Allen Gardens, the Beaches, Ashbridge’s Bay, Dufferin Grove, Rouge Park, and the Botanical Gardens — and Toronto’s unique, but solidly world-class character is apparent. Despite the common refrain that the city is resting on its laurels, recent developments such as Sugar Beach, Sherbourne Common, the Evergreen Brickworks, the Bell Lightbox, and even the conversion of Gould Street and Wilcocks Street to pedestrian zones show that progress is still happening, provided that you’re looking for it.

It seems to me that complaining about one’s city (and really, complaining in general) is a near-inextricable part of modern urban living. The ability to communicate surface-level insights to a mass audience and to receive instant feedback, is a reality of modern life where pessimism is in style, the world is smaller than ever, and sanitized accounts of the lives of others are all-too-accessible. In short, it’s never been easier to be cynical. One of the few things that most can agree on is our apparent shared disdain of our city, and there’s a certain comfort to that.

It’s almost certainly the case that living in Toronto has never been better. Despite the hysteria, cynicism, and grass-is-greener syndrome that has taken a hold of discourse about our city, life goes on. And for the most part, life is good.

THE START.

A few years ago, a series of brilliant essays appeared in the New York Times, which enhanced the reputation at once of the writer and the paper. They were subsequently collected and published together in a single volume with the remarkable preface — “I have been urged to unite these dissertations in book form by the wishes of numerous and malignant enemies.” By contrast are we reminded of this literary incident. The Varsity starts upon its career unattended by malevolence, and amid the hearty “God speed you!” of friends. The chief incentive however, has not been encouragement, but the consciousness of a capability to supply what is beginning to be looked upon as a trustworthy indication of vigor and intensity of life in a university. We lay bare the spring of action with a reluctant hand, because exposition of motives is, not infrequently, mistaken for indulgence in an apologetic strain. An appeal to charitable forbearance would be sinister to any statement regarding the opportuneness of the Varsity’s appearance. If there is conviction as to such a statement having foundation in fact, then all color of extenuation should be bleached from the above given exposition. Indifference to the misapprehension we have anticipated might also be taken to argue against adequacy of conception with respect to our proper sphere of employment. The present undertaking is meant to serve advantageously the general good of a community whose professed passport to consideration is intellectuality of character. The first impression conveyed by this declaration may be, that the claim advanced is pre-eminently arrogant; that the implied assumption of competence to act efficiently in this field of operation is destitute of any responsible warrant. We hasten with the corrective. The justness of the impression would be unimpeachable if the Varsity presumed to pose as the guiding star, as the interpreter even, of a Canadian school board, or of graduate and undergraduate humanity. In reality our intentions are very demure: not a guiding star, not an interpreter, but a register of opinion in and out of the University in matters of education as unbiased annalist of University life; and, in this last connexion, a strenuous advocate of what constitutes individual well-being. Efficiency from each of these points of view will demand from the undergraduates intellectual effort of no small significance. The maintenance also of a passable standard of excellence is not to be reasonably expected unless such effort is supplemented by highly participative exertion on the part of the graduates. Finally, there is needed the moral accessory of strongly-expressed sanction from the generation whose recollections of academic life have become gilded athwart the distance of many intervening years. Few will be disposed to detect extravagance in these stipulations; a close spirit of exaction would be inconsistent with the enlightenment of an auditory gathered round a prominent seat of learning. At most, insistence will be laid on the conventional engagements of full liberty of discussion and fair play — engagements which are entered upon in an earnest spirit of determination to abide by in these columns. At the same time we decline to offer a field for the exhibition of religious proclivities, and to afford an outlet to the ardency of youthful political partisans.

Set phrases and popular formulas, however acceptable to the multitude, act as irritants when appealing exclusively to an educated audience of men and women. Hence, in forecasting the course of the Varsity, the affection of very precise language has been discarded. Yet we have an avowal to make which barely escapes the stereotyped form: Whatever element of ambition or audacity lies latent in our programme, it is wholly bound up in the desire that the University of Toronto shall possess the best university paper in America and an unrivalled index of the progress of educational systems.

From No. 1, Vol. 1 of The Varsity, published Oct. 7th 1880

Virtue key message of Hancock Lecture

Dr. Jordan B. Peterson practices what he preaches.

As a clinical psychologist in the study of the psychology of belief, including religion and mythology, as well as the assessment of personality, he has dedicated his life to attempting to understand why people do what they do.

“Virtue is of central importance,” Dr. Peterson, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, told a sold-out crowd at the 2010 Hancock Lecture, entitled “The Necessity of Virtue.” Not even the torrential rain kept students, fellow psychologists, and general supporters away from Hart House theatre on Wednesday night.

After spending hours every week for years helping people sort things out, Dr. Peterson says he has learned one core fact from all of his studies: virtue is necessary. His lecture addressed why being virtuous is, in fact, necessary for living a fulfilled life.

“People who don’t live virtuous lives or are surrounded by people who don’t live virtuous lives, live bad lives, live poor lives, live lives that don’t justify themselves,” Dr. Peterson said, speaking with a cadence to accentuate the point.
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His research and observations have taught him that the best way to live a virtuous life is by way of honesty. He follows the mantra of “honesty is the best policy,” making an effort to always be honest, even if it means being offensive or hurting someone’s feelings.

“Honesty is a big part of living a virtuous life,” explained Dr. Peterson, hands in his pockets. “Honesty is difficult because a lot of things you experience and a lot of the things you think aren’t necessarily what you would like to experience or what you would like to think or what you would like to tell people.”

Throughout his many years of addressing crowds and dealing with people on a daily basis, Dr. Peterson has become a very confident public speaker. His speaking style is effective, with a loud nature and a particular poise. He knows when to pause, when to ponder, and when to play off his audience’s energy. The audience was consistently silent, anticipating Dr. Peterson’s next assessment, dissemination, or observation.

From 2005-2008, he was nominated by TVOntario as one of Ontario’s Best University Lecturers, and according to his former student, Yunjie Shi, he deserved it.

“He was the only class that I found myself looking at my watch not to see when it would end, but because it was so mind-boggling, I didn’t want it to end,” said Shi when introducing him at the lecture.

“As Dr. Peterson walked into my first lecture, setting up his laptop, my first reaction was ‘Hmmm, this guy looks a lot older than he looks on his website,’” she joked. “It didn’t really take long, however, for me to realize to overlook the fact that he neglects to update his website and to start really appreciating his lectures.”

Shi described Dr. Peterson as “really something,” adding that she had never before seen someone who had so much knowledge and passion about what they taught but also had the uncanny ability to give people the kind of treatment he thought they deserved based on who they were through their actions.

“He tells you exactly what he thinks all the time which is a great risk to take because he might offend you and make you think negatively of him,” she explained. “He’s someone whose words you can always trust, who never says things just to please you or just to put himself in a favourable light.”

Being in Dr. Peterson’s class taught Shi that she was “doing it all wrong,” giving too much to people, and therefore becoming resentful as a result of it.

“Keeping them oblivious to the true consequence of their behaviour denies people the opportunity to grow as individuals,” she said, speaking loudly and closely into the microphone.

Once Shi realized that she was actually boing people a disservice by being overly nice to them, she started to put Dr. Peterson’s recommendations regarding how to treat others in practice and immediately noticed improvements in her relationships.

“A lack of virtue makes people ill,” said Dr. Peterson, calmly and slowly at first, but quickly elevating to a booming, high-speed voice. “People feel resentful because they feel like they’ve been taken advantage of. Resentment puts you on the road to cruelty and atrocity. Misery loves company.”

Shi told the audience that Dr. Peterson’s methods challenged her thinking and transformed her life, and she has faith that he will continue to impact many more.

Dr. Peterson has also done experimental and theoretical work on self-deception, neuropsychology, aggression, alcoholism, drug abuse, and motivation for social conflict. He is the Vice-President of Examcorp.com, a neuropsychological assessment company and has written over 70 articles published in academic journals, making regular appearances on Canadian radio and television current affairs programs.

After graduating from the University of Alberta, Dr. Peterson went on to earn a PhD in psychology at McGill University in 1991. He spent his post-doctoral fellowship at McGill’s Douglas Hospital. In 1993, he became an assistant in Harvard University’s psychology department before securing a position as associate professor. He came to U of T to become a professor in 1997. Even after leaving Harvard, his work was recognized by the university with a nomination for the Levenson Teaching Prize in 1998. In 1999, he wrote Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, which was later made into a thirteen-part televised series on TVO.

Dr. Peterson is currently working on a new book that will assess brain function and the nature of experience.

The downside of work flexibility

Ever feel overwhelmed trying to balance work and home life? Well, you are not alone.

“People who report being very or completely in charge of their work schedules are much more likely than others to report multitasking at home. The same people, in turn, report more work-family conflict,” says researcher Scott Schieman, a University of Toronto sociologist.

Schieman examined data from a large sample of American workers to explore the factors that increase work-family interference. That is, the frequency that work-related conditions spill over into non-working life.

“Most people probably would identify schedule control as a good thing — an indicator of flexibility that helps them balance their work and home lives. We wondered about the potential stress of schedule control for the work-family interface,” he said. “What happens if schedule control blurs the boundaries between these key social roles?”

“We were motivated by the fact that this is a common stressor that can have consequences for psychological and physical health, as well as the quality of social relationships,” said Schieman.

Schieman and PhD student Marisa Young asked study participants their experience of work-family interference, the nature of work life, and a range of other socio-demographic variables. Some questions they asked the participants were to outline whether they control the start and end of their work day, whether they work at home and multi-task, and whether they experience conflict between those two roles.
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“We found that many work-related demands were related to higher levels of work-family interference. But we also found that some things that people see as resources (like schedule control at work) were also related to higher levels of work-family interference,” said Schieman.

Schieman has also noted that “[they] found several surprising patterns. People who are well-educated, professionals, and those with job-related resources report that their work interferes with their personal lives more frequently, reflecting what we refer to as “the stress of higher status.” While many benefits undoubtedly accrue to those in higher-status positions and conditions, a downside is the greater likelihood of work interfering with personal life.”

Asked if he found these findings shocking, Schieman said, “not so much “shocking” but more surprising because most people assume that some higher status work conditions should be related to less stress, not more stress.

“We found the opposite in some cases. The findings for schedule control were the most interesting. Long work hours were related to more work-family interference among people who had the most schedule control — this was unexpected based on the “flexibility” model.”

“Some key work-related conditions are central influences on these stressful processes and outcomes. So, if people are aware of these things, they might be able to cope more effectively with them,” said Schieman.

Interview: Olivier Assayas on Carlos

The Varsity: How was Carlos conceived? Could you give me an overview or outline of the film’s conception? What prompted you to make Carlos?

Olivier Assayas: It’s kind of a long story. It’s a long story because it starts awhile ago. And it starts pretty far from where we ended up. It was initially a project that was brought to me by a French TV producer and he had a very basic outline — about four pages based on how Carlos was arrested by the French. I was not really interested in doing the movie. I did not see any angle that was really exciting. But when he sent me his project, he included research that a journalist was doing for a while around Carlos. There was a thick file of facts, basically a chronology of what is known of the story of Carlos. After reading it, I thought it was great. I thought it was amazing. So I said to him, “I am not interested in the way you approach it. But if you are okay starting from scratch and doing it like the story of Carlos seen through the eyes of Carlos or something like that, I am interested in giving it a shot.”

So basically, I started writing it and the film grew out of proportion. Pretty early on, I understood that it would not fit into one film, so I thought it was going to be more like two films. And then even with two films, we didn’t have the space to tell the whole story…. Well, I always thought about it as a five-and-a-half hour film. But then I knew that I would also be doing for the multiplexes a shorter version cut that would be condensed of the story….

TV: Was this conceived as a film or a hybrid of television and film? Because most movies are not five-and-a-half hours long.

OA: No, no…the financing is a hybrid…and you can’t get movies on that scale financed, really.You know if I had brought this project to a film producer and tried to finance it on the movie side, I would have got nowhere because no producer is going to spend that kind of money on a film that long because you know, it’s, you just can’t sell it. I think in only one way which is the one way I know how to make movies. Basically, it’s cinema. It is not like I am going to use some kind of different language because it is TV financing. The DNA of the film is not exactly the money that you use to make it. The DNA of the film is your inspiration.

TV: On that topic, where did your inspiration come from for this movie, considering that you were reluctant in the beginning?

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OA: A lot was exciting about it. I grew up in the ‘70s, so it’s not like a world that is alien to me, like European leftism of the 70s. So you know I was a kid but still I lived through it and when I was writing the dialogue I realized that I still speak the language, this kind of specific political language of the time. It’s something that I just realized that I was fluent in it…

TV: What do you have to say about…well, I’m younger and I don’t speak the political language of that time. There’s a lot of political discourse in the film — operations, negotiations and discussions — could you comment on that within the framework of the film?

OA: One side of it is about recreating those times, recreating the inner-working and logic of those times. Another side of it is showing how terrorism is connected to geopolitics. That it is not some angry individual throwing bombs, that bombs are not about ideology but bombs are about messages that are being sent by one power to another power. And so there’s one media side to it because you do get it on the first page of the newspaper. But on the first page of the newspaper you don’t have the explanation really of what happened and why it happened. The explanation is something that will surface much later because it was part of the politics of the time.

Again, it’s about geopolitics. You have politics, you have diplomacy and when both don’t work you start using terrorism. And when terrorism does not work you use war. But it’s one of the tools politicians use. And so what I’m trying to say is that it can be relevant in terms of looking at modern events, you know, because the logic is not very different ultimately. It has an aspect that is about reflection on what terrorism is and how it connects with contemporary politics.

TV: Ok, I see what you mean. In terms of the protagonist of the film, Carlos…the film is inspired by real events and based on extensive historical research presenting twenty years in the life of this international terrorist. However, since much of his life is unknown, you had to speculate on some of the more personal aspects of his life on screen. How did you go about doing that?

OA: It involves a level of responsibility. You know, you have some stuff that is established, like what happened during that operation. You have stuff like when there is the shootout in the small studio; you have police reports on basically what happened, what the individual said, and ultimately the dialogue is based on transcripts. So you have a lot of material that is extremely accurate.

And then you have stuff that you do not have access to because there were no recordings and people have not written their souvenirs or is simply classified, like dialogues with [Waddie] Haddad. That stuff is not accessible. Or even anything that has to do with Syrian intelligence: in terms of the Eastern secret service or the Hungarian state security, the files have been opened up after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Some of that stuff is available. But in Syria, there has never been something like a Berlin Wall that has fallen. It’s still pretty much the people who were in power at that time that are in power now. So obviously that stuff gets made up. You have to make it up, and here you have to be very careful. You try to use only known facts. You make people speak but ultimately what they say is things that are more or less established. I am not trying to use any kind of psychology or I am not trying to interpret things or whatever, but still, it’s a thin line.

TV: What I am trying to get at is that when you were making these things up, what did you have in mind for Carlos as a character? How did you want to present him? Because by the way you present the material, you will shape people’s perception of it?

OA: My approach was that I do not have an agenda. I don’t have in the back of my mind an overall idea of Carlos I want to transmit to the audience. To me, what is exciting about it is just being as incredibly factual as I can. And that through the accumulation of actual fact, there is a bigger picture that will emerge which ultimately you know people will basically make their own idea. … Carlos is a different person at different ages of his life. And somehow you can’t say Carlos is this…I think Carlos is this and that and that and that…I mean he kind of morphs, he changes, he evolves, he adapts to an ever-changing world. I suppose there are some characteristics which is this kind of Latin, machismo and this kind of violence he has, but at the same time he adapts and he ages. So you know he can’t do the things when he’s forty that he was doing when he was twenty.

Carlos opens Thursday at TIFF Bell Lightbox.