A political hurricane

According to documentary filmmakers Carl Deal and Tia Lessin, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was the decisive turning point in public opinion for George W. Bush. It was after his cataclysmically lackluster response to the devastation in New Orleans, according to The Wall Street Journal, that his approval ratings slipped irreversibly into the 30s. Compared to other Katrina documentaries (notably Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke), Bush plays an ostensibly peripheral role in Deal and Lessin’s Trouble the Water (opening this Friday in Toronto), but the atmosphere of political outrage lingers over every frame.

Trouble the Water, one of this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Documentary, follows Kimberly and Scott Roberts, two residents of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, as they attempt to piece together their lives after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. The opening scenes, filmed by Kimberly on a mini-DV cam, document the events up to and including the hurricane with startling immediacy, including a devastating scene in which the couple climbs into their attic, panicking as the water levels rise higher and higher. This is some of the most gripping documentary footage in years.

“Our original vision was to do a story about the Louisiana national guardsmen who had been in Iraq when Katrina hit,” says Tia Lessin in an interview with The Varsity. “These are people who had signed up to protect their own communities in case of storms or what have you, and they were ten thousand miles away.”

“Most of them were in tours of duty in Iraq, and had just come back and were sorta shell-shocked,” says Carl Deal. “All of a sudden being at home in this post-apocalyptic nightmare, [they have] to pull guns on American citizens and recover dead bodies. We just felt like those soldiers aren’t the problem. The problem is the people who make the decisions of where they go and what they do.”

After losing their access to the Red Cross shelter in Alexandria, Louisiana (for “asking one too many questions,” says Deal), Deal and Lessin had a chance encounter with Kimberly and Scott Roberts. Impressed by their footage, Deal and Lessin followed them back to New Orleans, where relief was slow and insubstantial. By the end, the film suggests that New Orleans today is in worse condition than ever.

The National Guard, Deal and Lessin’s original subjects, aren’t given a flattering portrait in Trouble the Water. One of the most excruciating scenes sees Kimberly, Scott, and other homeless people escorted away from an abandoned naval base at gunpoint, despite the fact that their base could have theoretically sheltered hundreds.

For Lessin, the blame lies not with the guardsmen. “It was the Bush administration [and] the commander in chief that failed to change the standing order. I mean, the standing order at a naval base is to keep civilians out, but at this time of crisis that standing order should have been changed and the person to do that was the commander in chief, who at that time was George W. Bush.”

With any documentary about the aftermath of Katrina, the elephant in the room is the president, whose well-documented response (or lack thereof) to Katrina’s devastation could be charitably described as tepid. I ask Deal and Lessin why they think Bush demonstrated such a lack of caring. Lessin is surprisingly direct in her response.

“First of all, I think the federal government, after a quarter century of conservative rule in America, had been systematically dismantled by the right wing. The safety net in our country has been systematically dismantled. So I would say the institutions had failed Kimberly and Scott long before Katrina, long before the levees broke. And I guess it’s not even a surprise considering that the Bush administration was so out of touch with the suffering of people around the globe, and had caused so much suffering. It’s not surprising…although it’s still an outrage.”

“These were poor people in America who he had been turning his back on, and he and his father and the Reagan administration helped create this level of inequality. So it’s not even that they didn’t care, it’s that they systematically, as a family empire, created this kind of institutional neglect. He had turned his back on poor people a long time ago, and this was the logical extension of that.”

For Lessin, who worked with Deal as an archivist on numerous left-wing documentaries (including several by Michael Moore), outrage over Bush and the Republican Party has been a central motivating factor in her career. “It’s not just about New Orleans—it’s about America. I think a lot of America looks like the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Many communities in cities throughout the country have failed public school systems, people without healthcare, failed infrastructure…just a mess.”

She pauses. “It almost gives him too much credit to say he didn’t care.”

Trouble the Water opens Friday, February 13th.

Happy birthday, Darwin

This year marks the 200th birthday of one of modern history’s most influential thinkers, Charles Robert Darwin. It is also the 150th anniversary of the publication of his most influential work, The Origin of Species.

Charles Darwin was born in England in 1809 to a wealthy family who expected him to enter the clergy. Instead, Darwin managed to gain passage aboard the HMS Beagle and the rest, as they say, is history. His trip aboard the Beagle brought him to South America, the South Pacific, and most famously, the Galápagos Islands. This voyage not only gave him the inspiration to write the popular travel book The Voyage of the Beagle but also provided the fodder for a revolutionary theory.

Darwin postulated that evolution, speciation, and the explanation for the wide variety of living organisms could be driven by a force known as natural selection. His theory explains how the coupling of environmental and sexual pressures can select for variation both within and between species.

Notably absent from Darwin’s theory is the mention of a divine creator. Darwin was acutely aware of how inflammatory his theory of natural selection was, especially in a Victorian setting, and therefore kept it under wraps, only discussing it with a few supportive naturalists.

It was only when he received an essay from Alfred Russel Wallace describing a similar theory that Darwin was pushed to submit a co-written paper on their theories. Because he waited an astonishing 20 years to publish his findings, Darwin was able to amass a large amount of data to support his claim.

Dr. Aneil Agrawal, an associate professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Canada research chair in the genetics of evolutionary interactions, emphasizes that it wasn’t “just that [Darwin] had the idea, he collected a lot of data.” Through his work, Darwin formulated questions about evolution that researchers today are still trying to solve.

Darwin dedicated his life to understanding the forces that shape species and their behaviours. “It’s remarkable how much Darwin got right, and how much he was able to explain,” says Agrawal. Although Darwin had no knowledge of genes and the manner by which traits are genetically inherited, he did have an understanding of how new variants might present themselves as adaptive characteristics. Agrawal highlights that in an evolutionary biology seminar, it is not uncommon to hear speakers acknowledge that Darwin also considered the problem they are about to present. Darwin often had the correct answer. “It’s only now [that people have] the data, that it turns out that Darwin was right,” says Agrawal.

Darwin had a knack for seeing what we today take for granted. “[Evolution is] clear only once someone has pointed it out to you,” says Agrawal. “In some ways, evolution by natural selection is fairly simple. We can explain [the theory of natural selection] pretty well to first year undergrads. We don’t, for example, teach [Einstein’s] theory of relativity to first year undergrads. It’s easier to grasp the idea of what [evolution] is and how it works.”

The theory of natural selection is accessible, at least at some level, to anyone who has observed the natural world. This may explain the fascination popular culture has with “survival of the fittest,” a phrase that makes most evolutionary biologists cringe. “People are broadly familiar with the idea of evolution and natural selection. Even if they might not understand what it is, they’ve at least heard of it,” says Agrawal.

Today it’s easy to look back at Darwin’s theories and think, “that was obvious, I could have thought of that.” But as Agrawal points out, many bright thinkers before and after Darwin have considered the origins of Earth’s diverse species, yet none have contributed an idea as grand as his to the field of evolutionary biology. Every scientific discipline has its great hypotheses, and Darwin’s theory of natural selection is as big as they get. “There aren’t many of those ideas,” says Agrawal. “Ones that are powerful, yet not that complicated.”

The theory of natural selection set the groundwork for an entire field—evolutionary biology—which has had biologists thinking about selection and the pressures on living things ever since.

Sitting in his bright office that overlooks a tree-filled courtyard of the Earth Sciences building, Agrawal describes how, not unlike the father of his field, he took an interest in animals from a very early age. “I was one of the rare people who always knew from a young age that I wanted to be a biologist.” Being a biologist only got better once he recognized that math could be a part of it. “When I was a little kid I would have never imagined that I would be interested in applying math to biology. But when I was older, [math was] what really attracted me to evolutionary biology.”

Dr. Agrawal has already received a number of awards for his work, including the 2007 Robert H. Haynes Young Scientist Award and the 2004 Theodosius Dobzhansky Prize, both for promise as an evolutionary biologist. He now leads an evolutionary biology lab at U of T. Dr. Agrawal and his team are interested in a number of evolutionary biology problems, including the evolution of sexual reproduction, a concept Darwin also tried to understand.

The overwhelming majority of organisms on Earth reproduce through sex, which demonstrates that it has advantages over asexual reproduction. However, sexual reproduction incurs a number of costs to the individual, including sexually transmitted diseases, the large expense of searching for a mate, and increased risk of predation while mating. What, then, is the advantage of sexual reproduction? This is a question to which Dr. Agrawal devotes a lot of his time. “If I knew the answer to [why sex occurs], I think that I could go home,” he jokes.

Current theories ascribe the evolution of sexual reproduction to its ability to manage the effect of parasites, DNA damage, and the appearance of deleterious mutations. “We’re getting a lot better at eliminating ideas… and a lot better at identifying what are the key issues and the best ways to approach this [question].” Dr. Agrawal notes that there are a multitude of theories to explain sexual reproduction, and that the correct one is likely nestled among them. “The idea is probably out there, but a bit more complicated than however it has been originally proposed.”

Much of the research in Dr. Agrawal’s lab is carried out on the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, which they believe explains a lot about the effect of deleterious mutations on evolution. This was an aspect Darwin didn’t really think about. Dr. Agrawal hypothesizes that Darwin probably would have thought deleterious traits would arise but would be eliminated by natural selection, making them unimportant.

Although deleterious mutations are eliminated from the population by natural selection, they are also constantly being introduced. “They can actually, under fairly reasonable conditions, have dramatic effects on populations,” says Agrawal.

Using fruit flies as a model, the Agrawal lab looks at how genes interact and what effect the environment can have on genetic interactions. Flies make wonderful models for this, as their genes are easily manipulated. As well, there is a wealth of information available on easily observable genetic defects that affect traits such as wing shape, eye colour, and the bristles on a fly’s back. This permits the direct observation of environmental effects on visible traits.

Even within a species, different positions, or loci, of the genome are subject to varying selective pressure. Regions that encode spermatogenesis—the development of sperm in the male testes—and proteins important for the immune system appear to evolve faster than the rest of genome. This makes sense in light of the extreme evolutionary pressure on traits involved in sexual selection. For genes involved in the immune system this can be explained by the pressure to avoid the cost of parasites.

Dr. Agrawal admits that many questions in evolutionary biology still loom large over the scientific horizon. Chief among them are the questions “Why sex?” and “To what extent do the four evolutionary forces—genetic drift, migration, mutation, and natural selection—shape the genome?” He also wonders about the factors that lead to speciation.

Where will these answers come from? Dr. Agrawal believes they will take a concerted effort from field workers, experimentalists, and theoreticians to solve. “I could be hit with my greatest idea ever and figure out what could be the right idea for the evolution of sex. But, you’d still need to do some pretty nice experiments and ultimately field work to provide the data to show it’s true.” He adds that the “revolution in genomic[s] … and the bioinformatics tools for interpreting those data are making big inroads into [these] questions and are sure to continue to do so.”

Darwin would be proud of the progress.

New rez boots Engineering student groups

Student groups are facing removal from yet another space on campus after the Academic Board declared the university’s property on 245 College Street as “surplus.” Following Governing Council’s rubber stamp on March 4, U of T plans to lease the building to a private developer to build a residence.

“The idea here is that by leasing this piece of land to developers we will be able to provide hundreds of beds to students who need it,” said U of T spokesperson Robert Steiner.

Currently the space is being used by engineering student groups including the U of T Aeronautics Team, Human Power Vehicle, Concrete Canoe, and Skule Night. Collectively, the clubs spend upwards of 200 hours a week designing projects for non-academic activities.

The property was previously owned by the U of T Press before the university purchased it in 2007 to influence the development of sites adjacent to the St. George campus. Private developing company Knightstone Capital acquired the adjacent lot and offered to buy the building, which the university agreed to lease out instead.

According to Steiner, the plan is to construct a 1250-bed residence on the consolidation of both plots. The agreement will provide the university with $350,000 per year, for student life programs and services

“It’s a 99-year lease to them, they run the property, they get the rent from the students living there. And they will be paying us some of the money they get from their revenues, so it’s sort of a win-win all over the place,” Steiner added.

Student clubs now using the space find it more difficult to get hold of permanent space due to the nature of their projects.

“[The Design Teams] are moved around quite a bit, because […] most clubs just require an office space, but they require a large amount of space to build cars and canoes,” said Jimmy Lu, VP of Student Life at Engineering Society, who found out the space from the Faculty of Engineering. He was told at the time that the space would be temporary.

“Student club activity is generally quite prevalent but it’s not as prevalent as it should be, as [it is at] some other universities. If they were to leave this space for student clubs to use it would go a long way in actually promoting student clubs and encouraging them to do better,” said Nishant Bhatt, manager of the Aeronautics Team.

Bhatt believes that clubs have a direct, and far greater, benefit to students than student services.

“We represent U of T in international competitions. If we have space and funding, there is a lot more we can do to work on our competitive edge,” he said.

Ryan Campbell, EngSoc member and a student representative on GC, maintains the impending deal to be a wise choice, as much of U of T’s debt arises from building student residences.

Currently, there is an unmet demand for student housing on St. George with all on-campus residences fully occupied. Upper-year and international students are often forced to look for housing off campus. Steiner said rent would be set according to market rates in the new facility.

Campbell had approached the EngSoc in a meeting and detailed the finer points of the deal. According to him, the majority were supportive of the idea.

Furthermore, he said 245 College street is unsuitable for teams such as Concrete Canoe to carry out their activities.

Student groups outside the engineering faculty are also critical of the deal.

“In principle, we oppose public-private partnerships for services that the university should be providing independently. Projects like this always risk setting a precedent for future developments, particularly if the trend of under-funding universities continues,” said UTSU VP university affairs, Adam Awad.

The point after

Adam Cole: When Denver traveled to San Diego in the last game of the season, they got crushed by the small statured Darren Sproles. They became the first team in NFL history to lead their division from the first game until the final game of the season—and then not make the playoffs.

Behnam Nowrouzi-Kia: Without a doubt it was the Super Bowl. Usually the game is a giant letdown, but this year it lived up to the hype.

Dan Rios: The greatest moment of the season came early on. This year’s Shot Heard Round the World had huge implications for the AFC East conference when Tom Brady’s knee exploded in Week One after a vicious hit by Bernard Pollard. This allowed the Bills and Jets to have a legitimate shot at the division title for once, while reducing the Patriots’ chances of making the post-season with untested backup Matt Cassel (although, surprisingly, the Pats didn’t suck). With the regular season ending in a three-way dog fight between the Jets (led by a revitalized Brett Favre), Pats, and Dolphins, all eyes were on the AFC East. The Bills, predictably enough, choked after a blistering 5-1 start. Who knew Tom Brady’s knees were so important?

Gaurav S. Thapa: What was better than Steelers linebacker James Harrison’s 100-yard interception return with zero seconds left in the half? Simply amazing.

Andrea Yeomans: Mike Singletary’s first post-game press conference as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers was one of the best press conferences ever. He said what every head coach in the NFL should be saying: that he isn’t interested in working with players that do not work well with others. “It is more about them than it is about the team,” said Singletary. “Cannot play with them, cannot win with them, cannot coach with them. Can’t do it. I want winners. I want people that want to win.” Somebody should pass this message along to Terrell Owens.

Best story of the season

DR: The Cardinals’ unlikely ascent is the greatest story of the year. Years of impotence and frustration were washed away with a Super Bowl XLIII appearance. Kurt Warner’s incredible season and the unveiling of future superstars Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald provides hope for a repeat performance next year.

The second greatest story was the performance of two rookie quarterbacks. Joe Flacco had a great year with a Ravens team that was not expected to compete. Flacco’s fearless play—throwing blocks with little regard for his own safety—and his strong arm have him poised to become a franchise quarterback. Matt Ryan of the Falcons capped a great season with a playoff berth, and a close loss to the eventual NFC champion Arizona Cardinals. The Falcons under coach Mike Smith show no lasting effects from the Michael Vick scandal. They are once again a contender.

GST: The Miami Dolphins making it to the playoffs after a 1-15 season a year ago. The Detroit Lions can certainly learn from this example.

Worst story of the season

Brian O’Neill: Brett Favre. He has a spot already reserved in the Football Hall of Fame, but the constant Favre barrage was deafening, especially when considering that the Jets didn’t make the playoffs. For all the hype, Favre has only one Super Bowl ring. Hopefully Favre will retire for good this time.

DR: The Detroit Lions defined futility with the wrong kind of perfect season. The Lions became the first team to go 0-16, punctuating years of failure and paper bags. It is a long road ahead to redemption, now the Detroit Lions must start walking it.

The Bills match-up in Toronto against the Dolphins may have been the worst game of the season. This game was a real snoozer: after having been hyped ad nauseum, fans had to sit through J.P. Losman’s dreadful play and an uninspired Dolphins offense. The low point was when the Bills tried their own variation of the “wildcat” formation with little success. Exorbitant ticket prices, a guy showing off his O.J. Simpson jersey on the Jumbotron, and zero touchdowns left a bad taste in fans’ mouths. And where did all those Dolphins fans come from?

Biggest Surprise

BN-K: Arizona’s Super Bowl run was the most surprising. They barely made the playoffs, yet managed to beat three very good NFC teams, falling just short of winning the Super Bowl.

BO: The fact that Norv Turner escaped the 2008 season with his job intact was shocking, as his Chargers managed to beat the Colts in the playoffs, after finishing with an uninspiring record of 8-8. The year before Turner took over as head coach, the Chargers finished 14-2. Under Turner, they have steadily gotten worse. There is no doubt Turner is counting his blessings that the Chargers play in the terribly weak AFC West.

DR: The biggest surprise of the season has to be Miami’s dramatic turnaround. After going 1-15 last year, the Dolphins winning the tough AFC East division was a surprising development in a topsy-turvy season. A combination of Chad Pennington’s precise passing and the defence-confusing “wildcat” formation led the ‘Fins into the playoffs for the first time in seven years. It all came down to the last game of the season, in which Pennington beat his former team and managed to knock the Patriots out of a playoff berth for the first time since 2002.

GST: Larry Fitzgerald.

AY: The Broncos firing Mike Shanahan. He is a great coach and didn’t deserve to be let go. It’s disappointing that a coach that guides his team to 138-86 record over fourteen years falls one win shy of making the playoffs and gets fired.

Did Peyton Manning deserve the MVP Award?

DR: Manning’s nine straight victories was a masterful performance. After a slow start—due in large part to Peyton’s lingering knee problem—Manning essentially willed his team to the playoffs with his exceptional play. However, the Colts are always perennial favourites, so making the playoffs is nothing special. The award should go to either Kurt Warner for his leadership, or Chad Pennington for his clutch play, as neither team was expected to make the playoffs.

GST: At the end of the day, it’s all about making the playoffs. I would give the award to Steelers linebacker James Harrison, but it seems that the MVP has to go to an offensive player. Peyton Manning was the greatest quarterback during the regular season.

AY: No, Peyton Manning shouldn’t have been the MVP. Though the Colts mounted a huge comeback after a shaky start, Manning was not the sole reason. Indianapolis is a great team because they have a lot of excellent players—Reggie Wayne, Marvin Harrison, Joseph Addai, Bob Sanders—all as valuable as Manning. A more worthy MVP would have been Kurt Warner. He’s the reason the Cardinals made it to Super Bowl XLIII. Arizona would have floundered had Matt Leinart been at the helm, regardless of the play of Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin.

Next year, the Pro Bowl will be moved from Honolulu to the Super Bowl host city, and played one week before the Big GAME. Is this a good decision?

BN-K: I am a fan of making the Pro Bowl more relevant. However, this decision will force the Super Bowl teams to withdraw their players from playing in the Pro Bowl.

BO: This change is pointless. Nobody cares about the Pro Bowl, and moving it a week before the Super Bowl will not change that. Media Week is much more enjoyable, and fans care more about the hype leading up to the Super Bowl than some pick-up game, with no incentive. If the NFL really wants to make a change, they should drop the Pro Bowl altogether.

DR: Moving the Pro Bowl to before the Super Bowl is a good decision. Although the Super Bowl teams will probably rest their players, this change should increase the number of people watching the game, and build excitement for the championship. However, it’s a shame that the result of this all-star contest is meaningless. If there were some kind of incentive for a conference to win the game, it might make for more compelling football.

GST: I’ve never seen the Pro Bowl, and likely never will. In a contact sport like football, it’s pointless to have a game without aggressive tackling. This decision will probably garner higher TV ratings, because nobody watches the NFL after the Super Bowl is over.

AY: Moving the Pro Bowl from Honolulu is a good decision. There are a lot of fans that would love to see the Pro Bowl but cannot afford to make the trip to Hawaii. Holding the game before the Super Bowl is a bad decision. This puts the Pro Bowl in the shadow of the biggest game of the season, defeating the purpose. Being selected for the Pro Bowl is important for many players. It doesn’t seem fair to make these players share the spotlight with the Super Bowl. When the Pro Bowl is held after the Super Bowl, all the players are back on level playing field: the season has ended, records are back to zero, and everyone can relax, playing a relatively carefree game of football.

Hopes for next season

GST: A season similar to this one would be awesome. There were lots of upsets and hopefully, this time around, the underdog can win the Super Bowl in overtime.

AY: My biggest hope for next season is that Andy Reid returns as Eagles head coach and finally gets that elusive “third challenge.”


New investment policy ready for a test run

U of T administration has finalized the terms of reference for an advisory committee to oversee and direct investments made out of the university’s $5 billion in assets. The committee, made up of students, faculty, and alumni, will accept nominations starting Feb. 23.

Existing investment policy directs the U of T Asset Management Corporation, an independent subsidiary of the university, to manage investments based on a profit-maximization model.

The committee will concern itself with human rights, environmental sustainability, corporate governance, and health issues that come up in the university’s investments. In the past, appeals from the university community to drop ethically dubious investments have been processed by standing committees struck by the Governing Council. The university divested from the South African Apartheid regime in 1988, and sold its tobacco stocks in 2007. More recently, GC rejected a student group’s appeal to withdraw from corporations operating in Darfur.

According to Thomas Felix, president of the Responsible Investment Working Group, the premise of the new committee is to allow the U of T community to have a say in the investment process. The advisory committee will set the agenda at the beginning of each year with the area of focus depending on faculty support and research. It will make recommendations to the administration.

“Traditionally investment managers for U of T were instructed to vote in the shareholders’ interests.” said U of T VP business affairs Cathy Riggall. “Now a group of people believe that we should be more specific in how to vote proxies.”

“At the moment we are very passive with proxy voting. We don’t really vote against management. We’ve seen the policy records,” said Felix. The new arrangement would make for an investment environment conducive to the values of the institution, since the university would be able to use its weight as a shareholder on corporate policy decisions. Felix said this will allow the university to protect the long-term value of their funds. The new advisory committee will address these major issues.

Organizations with advanced social funds such as Harvard University, Brown University, and Canadian Social Funds have adopted similar investment models.

This committee will be reviewed in three years and could possibly make recommendations directly to the business board.

Applications for nominations and the terms of reference will be available on the Business Affairs website. Nominations for the standing committee will be due on March 6.

Firsts… And Lasts

The First Embarrassing Romantic Gesture

In Grade Seven I was, as I continue to be today, woeful in all of my interactions with women. Now, I know to keep my mouth shut—in Grade Seven, the idea genuinely hadn’t occurred to me yet. While my colleagues had been raised on a diet of football and cars, I had an emotional affinity with my mother, a mother who encouraged blind romantic ambitions in me for no good reason. Why else would she have shown me An Affair To Remember, or Casablanca before I was 10?

The girl of my potential affections was lovely—musical, pretty and, against all odds, nice to me, or so I perceived it. Thinking back, the only time I can remember us interacting was when she had asked if my “face was ok” after a bad outbreak of acne. I must have confused that for interest at the time.

But I had no way in. No common interest by which to initiate the cosmetic niceties that eventually give way to a caring relationship. While she was a prolific violinist, I had no sense of rhythm or music (a teacher had once told me to abandon musical ambitions “for everyone’s sake”); while she was nice and gregarious, I was afraid of both crowds and being alone.

I eventually decided the easiest way to get her attention without actually talking to her was also the most unnecessarily complex. My student council was selling “candy-grams”—little pieces of chocolate that would be attached to heart-shaped notes—to raise money. I convinced myself that this would be my vessel for initiating contact, though I was too afraid to make a direct pitch for her affections. Instead, I included what I perceived to be a “code” for my name—instead of actually writing my name out, I would include numbers that corresponded with the letter in the alphabet of my first name and last initial. I could just imagine it—her reading the numbers, puzzled yet oddly excited, and, in a moment of epiphany, realizing that I was the mystery man of her dreams.

So I went ahead with it, assuming my cleverness would be rewarded, and my deep sense of romanticism would immediately sweep my girl off her feet. Little did I appreciate how badly publicized the whole “candy-gram” program would be and that mine would, in fact, be the only candy-gram purchased that year, making its delivery to her classroom an uncomfortably personal affair. Worse yet, I did not realize that my “code” should have been proof read, and that by putting a “04” as my last number instead of a “02”, my friend “Chris D.” would be accused of sending the message (“at least she figured it out,” I would later lament). Feeling guilty, I had to eventually fess up to the girl that I was responsible for the message. It was, and remains, the most uncomfortable conversation of my life.

I’ve never been one for subtlety, and this did little to improve the fine skills of my emotional intelligence. It would be four years before I went on a proper date, but by then I had at least realized that women like directness. Or at least that they dislike creepy heart notes with cryptic numbers attached to Hershey’s kisses sent to them in class.

The First Time I Got Fingered

I was 17 the first time I got fingered, although it wasn’t until months later that I would come to enjoy such a gesture. It was after my Grade 12 semi-formal winter dance (I, uh, grew up in Oakville?), in some kid’s mansion on Lake Ontario. I was determined to kiss this one guy who I’ll henceforth refer to as Ron, who was skinnier than me, shorter than me, listened to a lot of hip-hop and was super enthusiastic about watching sports. It was back in the days when I still thought guys who wore basketball jerseys over t-shirts were acceptable conquests; in my defence, there’s not a ton of selection at prep school (thank God for MySpace).

Things didn’t work out so well with Ron, because he showed up at the party with a girl on each arm (probably a good argument for why upper-class high school boys shouldn’t be allowed to watch Entourage). Enraged, I got a cigarette from this guy I’ll nickname Big Bird, because he’s tall, blonde, and has a massive nose. I had never smoked a cigarette before and this seemed like a good time to start. Big Bird seemed to understand my problems, and did I want to go into the bedroom with him so we could talk about our feelings? I’m not sure what led me to say yes, whether it was my desperation for a man’s touch, or my first dose of nicotine, but off I went. (Here’s where I’ll mention that I’d been drinking warm Goldschlager from a flask all night.) So the next thing I knew we were tangled on some leather loveseat as he mauled my face and struggled to pull my tights off. You’d think a 17-year-old boy would have watched enough porn to be able to locate the clitoris, or that he’d at least trim his nails beforehand. It was like he was trying to play the bongo drums. Who slaps a vagina right away? It was terrible! I remember lying there and thinking, “I must be a lesbian.”

Yeah, the situation couldn’t have gotten much worse, but it did. Big Bird forgot to lock the door to the bedroom, and about 30 seconds later, five dudes burst into the room. My vagina, never before exposed to a male, was now on display to six of them. Quickly closing my legs and screaming “GET THE FUCK OUT!” I managed to regain poise, quickly getting the fuck out of there myself. The following Monday, a rumour was spread that they had walked in on me losing my virginity. So yeah, I’m pretty happy to be out of high school.

The First Kiss

He didn’t remember our first time.

I don’t blame him entirely. After that fateful night, I didn’t see Michael again for years. During that period, I mostly shied away from other guys. Occasionally, I’d go dancing with Johnny, who sent me love notes with my name spelled wrong, or Aaron, whose punk-rock spikes freaked out my parents satisfactorily. I never felt much for these boys: somewhat precociously taking a page from Vonnegut, I was loving whoever was around to be loved. Michael, though, was the real thing.

We’d been riding a motorcycle borrowed for the evening from an acquaintance. Steppenwolf was blasting in the background, and we lip-synced every word. (Fire all of your guns at once, and explode into space!) Michael was the most beautiful boy I’d ever seen, with steely blue eyes and a perfect left dimple. I quietly admired him all summer long, while all the other girls chased him more resolutely. In the end, he told me, that’s why he chose me—he liked that I was quiet. I blushed, unable to come up with a sufficiently mysterious response. Luckily, he wasn’t expecting one, and he planted his lips right on mine.

Now, when you’re eight years old, this kind of thing is a big deal. But the fact that the whole scene (motorcycle, Steppenwolf, and all) had occurred during a skit at summer camp made the whole episode more incredible. My first kiss had been watched by a crowd! As the summer faded away, so did my attachment to Michael, but I held strong to the mythology of the kiss.

I ran into him at a party in Grade 10, the type of suburban shindig that almost always requires cream soda and Green Day playlists. Michael was as cute as ever, though he hadn’t grown —I still towered over him at five-foot-three. In my 15-year-old mind, fate had reunited us for a reason, and we were soon Frenching behind a staircase. I thought I was being tremendously coy when I whispered, “You’re even hotter than when we met!” But Michael replied confusedly, “10 minutes ago?”

Maybe he didn’t make the connection that I was the same girl he’d kissed on a motorcycle when we were eight. Or maybe he’d stolen smooches from all of my grade school pals in 1996, and I was nothing special. So I tried to forget the Michael of my first kiss. There was a pressing matter at hand, and his name was Michael, too.

The First Time Doing What They Don’t Describe In Health Class

Every high school student feels a mounting pressure to lose their virginity by the end of senior year (I am, admittedly, of the American Pie generation). The latter part of my high school experience consisted of so many of my “bro”-friends regaling me and our smoker’s group with tales of their first time having sex, I began to feel left out. I met my high school boyfriend on Myspace (yes, I’m also of the MySpace generation). He went to the high school across the street from mine. Like any good homosexual high school relationship, mine consisted of hanging out in this dude’s basement on weeknights, watching our favourite MTV series The Hills, cuddling, making out, and the occasional and abrupt session of oral sex on his couch. But my stories during the post-first period smoke break the next morning never seemed to stand up to my heterosexual buds.

Finally, after dating this dude for four months, I felt like it was time, you know, to consummate our adolescent romance. That day happened to be Victoria Day, 2007. On paper, it was actually really romantic. We started off the evening with our usual channel 50-something viewing and cuddling, where we feigned interest, passion, and moved, tongues locked, into his bedroom. He lit some candles, dimmed his fluorescent bedroom light, and put on his pre-made playlist of Death Cab for Cutie. Outside his basement-bedroom window, his younger siblings were in the backyard lighting off fireworks in celebration of the holiday. On my back, I was prepared for something monumental, something romantic, something that would validate my sexuality, and effort towards this young man. What I was not prepared for was the pain. Not understanding the dynamics of anal sex, or the sacrifice made by the “bottom,” I realize now that no amount of lube could have made the loss of my virginity any less excruciating. With Ben Gibbard singing softly in the background, my boyfriend tried awkwardly to get his fully erect, nearly foot-long genitalia into my…well I’m sure you understand how that goes. Needless to say, despite Transatlanticism, I basically passed out from the pain and he freaked out. I’ve ripped open my eyelid and undergone gum surgery, and none of these experiences compare to the pain felt in my bowels—not just in the moment, but for two days after. Yeah, I got a story out of it, but my buddies the next day could do nothing but laugh hysterically at my horror story of losing my virginity. My boyfriend and I broke up a week later.

The First Time I Had Sex With Myself

The first time I had sex with myself was about a year and a half after I had lost my virginity proper. I was 19-years-old. Prior to that wonderful, transcendent afternoon I had had, as relationships will allow, successful intercourse countless times. But ever since high school, non-copulative activities, such as handjobs and blowjobs, had always been miserable failures. Hands, with their hard, clumsy grip, and mouths, with their unwieldy, serpentine tongues, made me go limp faster than I could say “It’s not you, I promise, I’m just tired, please don’t leave me.” My penis wanted vagina, and only vagina. So it was that I had my first real orgasm the first time I had sex, rendering me hopelessly and destructively dependant on the affections of women.

It’s not that I had never tried masturbating. I just, unlike my friends, didn’t persevere. For a period of about six months when I was 13 one of my best friends would call me up every Saturday night. As we ogled the women of Sex and the City in our separate basements he would jerk himself off while I, in the spirit of good sportsmanship, made all the appropriate grunts, sighs, and “Oh yeah, Charlotte, fuck me’s.” It was no foreskin off my nob—you can’t miss what you haven’t had.

In March 2006, I lay bored in bed and decided to give autoeroticism another try. As always I had no trouble getting erect; I was single at the time and my pent-up sexual energy was back to its Herculean adolescent levels. But as usual, I felt nothing but discomfort after that. Suddenly, the (some would say obvious) epiphany came: I should imitate a vagina. So, imagining how my penis felt inside someone, I started experimenting with angle, force, and rhythm until everything clicked at once and, in a moment of pure and true ecstasy, I exploded all over my stomach and chest. “Fuck!” I cried, as much from joy as from the realization that I had stained one of my favourite t-shirts. About five minutes later I tried again, just to make sure it wasn’t a fluke, and again—again! —was able to give myself what previously I had only been able to get from someone else. I thought, free at last, free at last, thank God almighty I am free at last…and I’ve been blissfully independent ever since.

The Last Kind Gesture

Last year, I was sitting on the subway, as were many other people. But unlike everyone else, I was in an army uniform with all my military equipment. There was a general in town so he needed to be acknowledged by members of the Canadian Forces like myself who couldn’t have cared less about him but still needed to respect the rank. I had forgotten my iPod so I started to polish my boots. I knew the civilians were watching me, they always watch me, even if I’m just sitting there looking at the subway ads. All of them seem to think that I don’t notice them outrightly staring at me. Apparently there is something very intriguing about a young woman in uniform.

Not too far from me was a man in a typical business suit holding a single rose on top of his briefcase. That’s when I realized it was Valentine’s Day. Not only was I single, but I was going to a base on a Friday evening and on Valentine’s Day.

My stop was coming up so I got up, heading towards the subway doors just as they opened. All I heard were the fast-paced footsteps behind me. For a split second all I could think of is, “Great, someone wants to mug this soldier.”

I stopped and looked behind me. Standing there was the businessman. He handed me the rose, smiled and said, “Happy Valentine’s Day.” I couldn’t help but smile at him like an idiot. I thanked him. He smiled and walked away.

The Last Time I Felt Bad After Sex

The last time I felt bad after sex was in El Jadida, the coastal town where Welles shot Othello. I saw the cistern, approached fading minarets, took grey photographs of a cloaked man walking his bicycle along a thin ocean wall. Outside a supermarket I met a young man named H—-. “Let’s go to a club,” he said, “let’s get some girls.” “Not tonight,” I said. “Tomorrow.” The next day we met at the beach. I asked if he had any condoms and he pulled one out of the pocket of his jeans. It was dry, unpackaged, and had a bit of sand in it. He turned it inside out and brushed it off as we walked.

Outside the small concrete building where H—- lived stood a large woman in a djellaba with whom we exchanged pleasantries. We went through a door, then ducked under a hanging sheet into a room with some cushions on the floor and an old tape deck. We sat down and a boy of 12 came in with tea. Pictures of girls were produced. Phone calls were made. No one was available. I gave the boy money and he went out and bought red wine, vodka, cigarettes, and condoms. We drank and listened to cassette tapes (gnaoua, Rod Stewart). More phone calls. No girls. H—- stumbled outside and I heard him persuading, pleading in whispered tones with the woman out there. Finally she came in, sullen and shy. H—- went first, while I waited on the other side of the sheet, sipping wine. He came out smiling and perspiring, then it was my turn.

She was fat and middle-aged. I tried to get inside of her but it was awkward. She was too tight, too afraid. I wondered how H—- had managed. I took my condom off and she sucked me for awhile and then I jerked off until I came. Her faced was flushed and she didn’t make eye contact. After she left we drank more and then H—-’s older brother came home. He had a chiselled face and gentle eyes. He showed us a bag of heroin he’d found on the street. We cooked some chicken on a gas burner and a neighborhood girl of about 15 came in and sat on the floor to eat with us. We tried to get her to drink but she wouldn’t. Her eyes were dark and really shiny.

The Last Time I Indulge Someone Else’s Fantasy

A long time ago, I was dating an older guy who liked to discuss the multitude of his previous sexual experiences (being very gullible, I only doubted their accuracy after we broke up, when I realized that his threesome story sounded exactly like every porn flick ever made). When the relationship started falling apart, I thought that maybe I could salvage it by indulging in one of his fantasies that my younger, less experienced mind had previously felt weird about.

Thus, ignoring my dime-store feminist (and intellectual) instincts, I dressed up as a schoolgirl to try to please this guy, who had a bit of a “barely-legal” fetish going on. But when I presented myself, complete with shortened kilt and itchy knee socks, he couldn’t even sustain an erection. That night as I passed out drunk, lonely, and sexually unsatisfied, I could swear I heard Gloria Steinem whisper, “I told you so.”

The Last Time I Watched Porn

When I was a small child, about seven or eight years old, I discovered pornography. My grandparents apparently had a healthy interest in sex —their house is still filled with novelty items like cute modernist statues of two dogs having sex while their masters held them on leashes—and when I was a kid, my relatives really let it all hang out. I guess they figured that no kid would ever understand these things, but once I pulled a porno catalog off the kitchen counter and ran with it up to the guest room. I could feel my mind expanding as I poured over page after page of ludicrously large breast implants and knee-length dicks (this was the early ‘90s so there was a shininess to it all). I thought to myself, “No adults I know have parts like this!” This was still a few years before I understood penetration, so I thought that sexuality was a cartoonish display of the weirdest things adults could imagine. I had no way of understanding any of these images, but somehow they struck a major chord. I suppose it was cable TV that trained me to understand sexuality, and it seemed like I knew what to think from all the Janet Jackson music videos and car ads. From that moment on I knew: sex was awesome. I immediately showed the images to my little brother, who was about four, and began an odyssey for every vestige of porno that my underdeveloped hands could grasp. All the while I knew that if an adult caught me with any porn, my life would immediately end from sheer embarrassment.

But my desire to see and hear the performance of sex was too great. One evening, when the entire family was gathered at my grandparents’ house for some holiday, my brothers, cousins, and I were watching TV in my grandparent’s bedroom, and I had the clicker. While surfing, I found the scrambled porn channel and was immediately enthralled. My brothers and cousins were grossed out (they are all younger than me, so just imagine a room full of kids between the ages of two and eight watching scrambled porn together), and kept trying to steal the clicker to switch the TV back to Nickelodeon. But I asserted my dominance as the eldest grandchild and continued to jump on the bed and watch porn. Pretty soon my younger brother ran into the kitchen where the adults were gathered and yelled, “Daniel won’t stop watching the sex channel!” All of my relatives erupted into a loud and shrill laughter. I was mortified. It wasn’t too long before I decided that pornography was a juvenile activity, and that I would never have anything to do with it ever again.

The Last Time I Faked An Orgasm

If lesbian relationships are supposedly more egalitarian than their heterosexual counterparts, then why is it that I’ve had to fake so many orgasms? Perhaps it would be more efficient to not critique the structure of lesbian couplings, but rather my abysmal taste in women.

My problem is that I never follow my tiny, misshapen heart, or even my hairy crotch—I am drawn to women who are ridiculous by virtue and never amount to anything more than fodder.

There was one girl I briefly courted, only because she quickly designated herself as the token idiot in a friend’s class, and I had to incessantly hear about her antics. Later, trapped within the confines of her miniature childhood bed with her parents a few doors away, she asked me to pretend as if I were eating her breasts. This sentiment both shocked and appalled me, never being one to fetishize food or big tits. Before I could refuse, she sat on top of me, shoving her fleshy mounds into my mouth when she realized I wasn’t going to eagerly begin chomping on my own accord. Her orgasm tally would total three by the end of the night while I was scarcely able to reach arousal.

At my first and last kegger in someone’s dirty basement, I engaged in a threesome with two ladies—one akin to a rabid dog, the other a militant feminist. During this tryst, the aforementioned canine descendent bit on my nipple so ferociously that it actually split open. Minutes later, a head popped into the room to ogle the girl-on-girl cesspool, whipped their dick out, and pissed all over the carpet. From there, I ran with unfastened pants saddling my hips out into the night, sans orgasm.

Most recently, I got out of a quasi long-term relationship. We mostly tackled sex in a very generic, get ‘er done kind of way. One day, while wearing my strap-on, she requested I fuck her doggy style for the first time. As she assumed the position, I noticed remnants of shit in her ass that killed my libido to the point where I swear my silicone dildo went flaccid. I managed to feign fatigue, narrowly escaping an unwanted foray into scat play.

Lately, I have been logging onto XTube to help me get off, and for the first time, have no problems achieving climax.

The Last Time I Felt That Way

I met her on Halloween. My friend had bumped into her on the street outside of the bar and he was apologizing to her. I stumbled outside, drunk, and walked up to the two of them. I assumed that they were friends and I began talking to her as he left. She was going to the same party as us and walked beside me. Neither of us were dressed up as anything and we stood outside the party talking for hours while everyone we knew was inside, dancing, drinking, and being high. At one point she took my hand and led me through the party to find some water and then watched as I drank it. At the end of the night she gave me her number. When I tried to kiss her she backed away and, acting as if I hadn’t, she smiled.

A few days later we hung out. We went to the liquor store near her house and bought a bottle of cheap red wine. We drank it at her apartment, the top two floors of an old house on Dovercourt, where she lived with two roommates. I felt strange. I was 23 years old, freshly graduated, no job. She was 27, immigrated to Toronto when she was 13. She worked in a kitchen, and she had dropped out of art school.

On the third night that we’d hung out she took me to her bedroom and we made out on her bed and began to fool around. I undid her pants and put two fingers inside of her while we kissed, but she stopped me. We lay in her bed and she told me that we couldn’t be lovers, but that she wanted to be my friend, and that she never wanted to be anyone’s friend. I was confused and frustrated but I looked at her face and her big black eyes, told her that I didn’t want to be friends with her and left.

I kept seeing her for a few months after that. We would go out and drink and kiss and hold hands and we would fool around on the couch in her living room, but I never saw her bedroom again. I would fall asleep with her, wake up with my contacts still in, eight missed calls from the cab that I had phoned hours before. I would stumble out of her house on Sunday mornings, still drunk, walking past groups of people going to church. We had sad conversations about life and she constantly depressed me, but I felt comfort when I was with her. I saw her every other day. We made food and jokes and I kissed her neck and she smiled the most beautiful smile that I had ever seen. I tried to explain to her how I felt, but couldn’t really put it into words. I’m sure that she knew what I meant, but she would just look at me and smile and I’d stammer on to something else.

So, it fell apart. She started brushing me off. We hung out less. I went out of town for the Christmas holidays. We stopped talking. I thought about her constantly, but I didn’t call her. Weeks passed. Eventually I just assumed that I would never see her again, and I never did.

I’ve never been able to completely forget her and I’m always wondering if I’ll run into her in this small little town. But I never do.

What do you f***ing hate?

“I HATE THIS F*ING SCHOOL!” UTSU bets you’ve thought that at some time or other, and held a town hall Tuesday to get specifics. UTSU got what it asked for: roughly 40 students showed up for a spirited session. The most pervasive complaint, ironically, turned out to be a lack of communication. John, a history student, summed it up: “I never find out about these things. Maybe a lot of these problems would be solved if the UTSU or maybe the university in general were to rethink how information gets to us.”

Students also aired grievances about sustainability, poor representation of international students, the career centre, inadequate desk space at Robarts after hours, and the high price of club space. Bellyaching over food on campus drew applause from the whole room.

One student described “toxic” relationships between students and professors and said that high workloads lead to bad relations and poor learning. Rohan, an electrical engineering student, suggested advocacy for students when dealing with professors.

Discussion also turned to the lack of awareness about the Ombudsperson’s office, which offers advice and assistance with complaints unresolved through regular university channels.

UTSU itself drew some pointed criticisms. Karen Cao had a whole list: “I hate the fact that our student union could not negotiate a UPass; I hate the fact that we can’t opt out of our health care coverage,” she said.

“I hate the fact that our student union was voted in by 13 per cent voter turn out. I hate that the UTSU did not effectively publicize last year’s election, resulting in the fact that every single UTSU exec on right now did not run against a single candidate except for Sandy.”

“There is one thing that dropped this year, and that is club money,” said Mueen, a member of the Muslim Students Association. UTSU’s executive director, Angela Regnier, replied that Mueen’s concerns “have been definitely raised” in discussing the union’s newest budget.

One student called for better communication between students and their government. Antonin Mongeau, president of the French Club, then criticized UTSU’s lack of availability. “We elected them, and we pay for them, but they don’t really represent us,” said Mongeau, who was recently booted from UTSU’s Clubs Committee in a secret vote.

Regnier, the moderator, responded by pointing to Karen’s concerns about the UPASS. When Mongeau asked her to clarify UTSU’s availability, president Sandy Hudson entered the discussion.

But after a few exchanged words, Regnier interrupted with “Sorry, this isn’t a two way discussion […] if you want an opportunity to yell at [Sandy] and tell her everything that she has to feel then maybe you can do that afterward.” She then proposed to have a “show of hands of everybody who wants to see you sit here and yell at Sandy.”

As Adam Awad, VP University Affairs, put it, the purpose of the discussion was to “figure out a way for every member of the union […] to work together on issues to make this a better place for everyone, which is pretty much our mandate.” Here’s wishing UTSU, and students, good luck.

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

I’ve been sexually frustrated ever since I can remember. What started as curiosity became abject desperation once I hit puberty: acne prone, brace-faced, and sporting an eye patch thanks to Bell’s Palsy (a disorder that makes half your face freeze up), I was in no position to act on those first unendurable urges. The internet facilitated a couple of awkward first encounters, and for awhile it looked as though I was off to a good start. Then came art (high) school, with a girl to guy ratio of six to one. Virginity remained the monkey on my back for years afterwards, and I learned that masturbation is far from a quick fix: it’s a way of life.

Like a child with no friends, I developed a rich inner sex life, cultivating involved fantasies likely too horrible to realize. As I blossomed into a reasonably attractive young woman, sex became more and more elusive. I had more opportunities, but my inordinate drive was tempered by a neurosis which drove me to get HIV tests every time I got kissed. By the time I lost my virginity, I had dodged more than a few imaginary bullets. From then on, every encounter brought on weeks of sleepless nights as I Google-image-searched the strange STIs I knew I’d caught through condoms that must be defective. My relationships never lasted very long, because I grilled my partners about their sexual health records until what chemistry we had was neutralized. I thought everyone was trying to infect me.

But the stronger the suspicion, the stronger the attraction. I didn’t realize it then, but my sexual proclivities and mental tics had developed synergistically: some part of me wanted to be taken advantage of, while the rest worried incessantly that I would be. The result was a strange contradiction: my desires reached a dead end which eliminated the possibility of satisfaction, but gave rise to the desires themselves.

By a stroke of luck, I found someone with a compatible set of issues. Disease-free sex has been free and easy for over two years now (and I’ve always thought that getting over germaphobia was a matter of finding someone whose germs you don’t mind). It’s been nice, and God knows I’m thankful to have found someone willing to put up with me. But being in a stable relationship has only reinforced the gaping chasm between fantasy and reality. The sex is great, but it’s relationship sex.

My sex life and my private thoughts are completely independent of one another. Of course, comfortableness and attraction are markedly different states, and the honeymoon period only lasts so long. But when your fantasies involve an element of abuse, love and desire can be difficult to reconcile. The idea of “lovemaking” has always left me a bit nauseated, and the thought of donning a gimp suit while my boyfriend paddles me on the ass seems good for a gag at best. Ours is a sex life that can’t be mediated by accessories, or hardened through suspension of disbelief. Fantasy is more about intention than anything else. I don’t think my boyfriend could pretend to be a “bad man” if he wanted to, and that’s probably a good thing.

But what’s strange is that my boyfriend and I have fantasy in common: in fact, his porn addiction is part of what united us in the first place (a story for another time). A latecomer to sex, adult films were his only recourse until he lost his virginity at 24. And as everyone knows, reality doesn’t eliminate fantasy: it only pushes it further. So here we are, like two bashful kids at a makeout party, holding hands while our single friends do things we could only fumble towards before collapsing in limp resignation. Sure, we can talk about what we want, but we can’t do it with one another: there’s just too much respect.

This is a common lament. Every relationship requires a compromise where sex is concerned. If it were anything else, we’d get over it: after all, part of being an adult is dealing with disappointments and personal shortcomings. But we’re steeped in a culture of sexual one-upmanship, and everywhere you turn, someone is boasting about the fun that you’ve never had. While everyone’s resigned themselves to the adage “you can’t always get what you want”—the guy who sang it never wanted for sex in his life. The coupled get flak for rubbing their love into single people’s faces. Perhaps this is our best defence.

Now that I’m mostly cured of my hang-ups, a part of me wonders why I’m not doing anything about it. Could I mute my conscience just long enough to satisfy my curiosities? If I finally sold my boyfriend on the idea of an open relationship, could I make the most of it? The guilt would be unbearable—but it would probably feel pretty good, too. Rifling through my sexual to-do list, I’m not sure. Nothing is ever as good as it is in your head. There’s a good chance that I’m as satisfied as I’ll ever be. ❤