Cross-Campus Conversations

I walked around campus for a week having strangers divulge the questions they get asked the most often, as well as those they least enjoy responding to. Unsurprisingly, we all get a lot of “What’s up?” and “How are you?” in our daily lives, and more than half the students I spoke to mentioned one of these as their most hated query. The major complaint? These supposed conversations starters don’t really start anything at all.

Are there questions that would initiate a more sustained conversation? I asked the same respondents to share what they wish people would ask them more often. And in an effort to test the bounds of anonymity and intimacy, I had another group of students—entirely unknown to the first bunch—respond to their questions.

Do you have time to go for a drink?

• Sure. I’m always down for going for a drink.

• Right now?! Is it nearby so I can leave my stuff in the Robarts reading room? I can go for about an hour but I’ll have to come back to study after.

• Always. Especially with you.

• Only if it’s a Pepsi. Coke is ubiquitous all over campus and it pisses me off.

• Are you buying? If not, the answer is still yes.

What are your goals in life?

• To be completely at peace with myself and, in turn, the rest of the world.

• To get a decent-paying job I enjoy, be happy, and eventually settle down somewhere I like.

• To find a way to leave a dent in the world around me and make the world a better place. Yes, it is a vague goal, but if I was any more specific, I would not be honest. Sure there are things I want to accomplish, but my only goal is to make those accomplishments matter.

• Hahaha! You’re funny. What are your goals in life?

• The only clear and well-defined goal I have right now is to live at least until I am 34 so that I can say I outlived Jesus. Oh, and I want to ride an elephant.
alt text

Do you want the answers from last night’s homework?

• Really?! That’s so nice of you! Wait … actually … what was the range of your GPA from last semester? Just an approximation is fine if you aren’t comfortable telling me the actual thing.

• No, I prefer to do the work myself.

• Well, last night’s homework was an essay, so I don’t see how giving me the answer will be useful at this point. But if you just want to talk about it, sure. If not, get out of my house.

• We’re not in elementary school anymore.

How are you feeling? No, seriously—how are you feeling?

• I’m feeling suicidal. You?

• Generally good, but on an overall level, absolutely terrified. I’m graduating. I’m poor. I don’t know where I will be in a few months. The one thing that is keeping me together is the knowledge that if I stick to my guns, it will work out. This keeps me content enough to press on. So yes, I’m generally good. And you?

• Fine, really, to the first. To the second, there are too many things happening, but one always manages to cope.

• I’m not the best at describing how I feel. I never really give it much thought—maybe out of fear of what I will discover. In all honesty though, as much as I have lots of great friends, I still can’t help but feel a bit lonely. I really wouldn’t mind being in a relationship or at least having someone to cuddle with at night. Besides that though, I am feeling alright. My life is pretty uneventful, can’t really complain.

• I am feeling fine. Seriously? I am feeling seriously fine. Oh, but now I am feeling hilariously fine. Or is it ridiculously fine? Seriously ridiculously fine. So “good,” I guess. Why would you ask in the first place if you weren’t really interested in knowing?

Do you like what you’re studying? Why?

• On some days I do … the thing is, when you are happy about life in general, you are happy doing everything and nothing. But when you have one of those days when something is getting you down, everything else sucks, too. At U of T, my days are mostly of the latter genre, which is why I’m rarely happy with what I’m studying.

• I love what I am studying. It is interesting, somewhat rewarding, and just fun. It is not very useful or practical, though.

• Yes! It involves everything, plus a healthy competition which makes it great to watch, like a never-ending team sport.

• Yes and no. I love history and learning about the past. I believe it is essential to understand the present. I’ve become disillusioned with political science and don’t like to study it anymore and turned it into a minor. (I once planned on majoring in it.) And I’m really enjoying the courses I’ve been taking for my new minor of Book & Media Studies. Courses titled “The Newspaper in Canadian Society” and “Readers and Readerships” are perfect for someone like me who is a news junkie, loves Canada, and loves books.

What do you believe in?

• If this is a religious question, I believe that there is no way I can ever understand or know what made me or why I am here, but if there is some sort of supreme being(s), they would want me to treat others with respect and not be a jackass. If this is another type of “belief” question, I believe in the importance of the Latin phrase carpe diem, and the fact that everyone should see Dead Poets’ Society at least once in their life.

• I was raised as a Roman Catholic (and my parents still go to church every week), but from the time I was a teenager, I’ve become lapsed from my faith and haven’t really given much thought to it. I believe in some sort of higher being—whether it is God, Buddha, Allah, or whoever else, remains to be determined.

• I believe in unicorns, leprechauns, Odin, Batman, evolution, pygmy ponies, that better living is achieved through omniscience, that to have a beard is to rehearse a battle with the universe, and that fairies wear boots.

• Why are you asking me? I’m barely over 20!

• I don’t know anymore … [proceeds to cry]

Wanna make out?

• Sure.

• It hadn’t crossed my mind. Get back to you?

• Oh my god, you’re like the coolest person I’ve ever met. And I think you just made my day.

• Wanna buy my drink first, or at least let me buy you a drink?

• Yes, but don’t take pictures and put them all over the Internet.

What are you working on right now?

• A brutal essay which is taking forever. But that’s what any one of the 10 million students on campus would have answered, so…

• Everything and nothing. It’s called “multitasking.”

• I’ve recently started making music with a new band. We’re collaborating with each other a lot and it is really turning into something special. That is probably the most important thing I’m working on aside from essays for class. By the way, you should come see us play. We rock some mean folk!

• An essay on the following topic: “Assess the extent to which race shaped Billie Holiday’s sense of personal identity.”

• I am working on a comic, an essay, and trying to have a coherent argument celebrating mediocrity.

What is your background?

• Take a guess! I usually tell people I’m a quarter Russian simply because of my hair colour and skin tone. Some postulate that I’m Japanese. This conversation often gets really interesting.

• I’m Canadian. I was born and raised in Ottawa and lived there until I was 18 … Although very few of my extended family are francophone, I went through the French public school system (not French immersion!) back in Ottawa. It’s because my mom did the same when she was a kid, and because of that I also consider myself a Franco-Ontarian.

• My mother is a working-class Calgarian and my father descends from the British upper-class, or says he does. It only recently occurred to me how bizarre a marriage this was.

• My family comes from a long line of Irish Catholics. My Grandpa came over to Canada in the 1940s.

• Beartato. Oh, you mean, like, racially. Half-space goat, half-awesome. Okay, fine, Jewish Rastafarian. Okay, just Colombian. I hate this question.

What are you doing on Saturday?

• I am having brunch with some friends. Do you want to meet up after that?

• I’ll be running experiments in my lab. I love life. I really, really do.

• Homework, band practice, and other things. In the evening, I may go to a pub with my roommates … or stay in and watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer on DVD with them. We’ve been watching them in installments. We’re on Season 2.

• Usually watching Hockey Night in Canada with a few beers before either going out with friends or just staying in for the night and relaxing / doing schoolwork. I usually don’t do too much on Saturday nights—I tend to go out on Friday nights.

• Recuperating productively.

What are you reading these days?

• Everything but my textbooks. I also keep on buying books that I tell myself I’ll read, but I never do because there just isn’t enough time.

• Well, a lot due to the nature of my program. I recently finished the new Nick Hornby book Juliet, Naked, and it was good. The best book I’ve read recently was called -My Name is Will: A Tale of Sex, Drugs, and Shakespeare by Jess Winfield. Seriously one of the funniest books ever written.

• Just philosophy essays and books for class and webcomics. I dream of being able to read novels in my free time again, eventually.

• Billie Holiday’s autobiography—I need to write an essay on it for one of my classes.

• Recently it occurred to me I wasn’t reading anything outside of school. Then I realized I spend several hours a day reading things on the Iinternet. Just ‘cause it ain’t in print don’t mean it ain’t there.

Want to get out of here?

• I think I just fell in love.

• It depends if there’s innuendo hiding in your question.

• Maybe. Where are we going? I’m pretty content here in Toronto. I like to travel, but I’ve come to the realization in the last year that I like living in Canada.

• Sure. Let’s go for an adventure.

• Yes, just let me finish my drink.

What kind of music are you into right now?

• I’m really liking Datarock. They are Norwegian and very fun, danceable, and have ridiculously silly lyrics. I’m also listening to the song “Chavas” by Molotov (a cover of “Girls” by the Beastie Boys) at least once a day because the bass is awesome.

• I’m always listening to a mix of everything. On heavy rotation on my iPod at the moment: the new Hot Chip album, Brandi Carlile, Ariane Moffatt, Jean Leloup, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Grizzly Bear, St. Vincent, Mumford and Sons, Thrush Hermit, and Illadelph Halflife by The Roots.

• I always listen to my iPod on the way to class, so I like stuff that pumps the adrenaline in preparation for the imminent hours of sombre focus.

• Well, a lot. I really like the most recent Jens Lekman album, A Night Falls over Kortedala. It really is brilliant. Belle and Sebastian are a constant favourite, as is St. Vincent. But most recently I’ve been getting really into the Nostalgia 77 sound. Long live jazz revivals!

• I listen only to lecture recordings.

Can I have your phone number?

• I dunno. Do you have a girlfriend?

• Not if you publish it. Ask me later.

• I thought you already had it? If you lose it again I will de-friend you on Facebook.

• Sure. I’m having fun and this conversation is quite stimulating, if not one-sided. I’d like to ask you these same questions another time.

Do you want to go shopping?

• I can’t … I just went yesterday … I can’t spend any more money.

• Uh, ok. But you then have to help me find rare comic books throughout the city afterwards.

• Probably not. Never been a fan, really.

• Are you kidding? I’m a s-t-u-d-e-n-t. Don’t get me wrong, I’m quite privileged. I just don’t have any spare money to go shopping, as much as I’d enjoy your company.

In all honesty, what do you think of me?

• Why don’t you add me on Facebook first?

• I think you are a great person. One of the best people I know. You are a great friend that will always be there to help. But I think that unless you change parts of your lifestyle, you will be dead in less than 10 years, and this worries me.

• If I’m answering your questions this honestly? Quite a lot!

• I think that you are an easy going person, [who is] curious about those around them. I like that you care about the answers to the questions you are asking. You seem warm-hearted and kind, but don’t be offended if it takes me a while to trust you. It usually takes me a bit of time to really warm up to people.

• What do I think of you? What do you think of ME?


12.30 AM

I’m standing in a bar on Bloor Street West. There are more people here than I thought there would be for this time of night on a Tuesday. I’m a little unsure of where I should start, so I take a seat at the bar and get, of all things, a Strongbow. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m already feeling tired, but I feel like I should go for the wimpy drink to start things off, and I just can’t bring myself to buy a Corona.

I watch the hockey game for a bit, until someone sits down beside me. He’s a younger guy, shaved head, diamond studs in his ears, and—with glaring prominence—a gold tooth in the front of his mouth. I decide to break the seal on the night and strike up a conversation. He tells me his name is Duel. I can’t stop staring at the tooth.

12.57 AM

“Ok, it’s 1 on a Tuesday night. Why are you hanging out alone in a bar?”

He thinks it over for a moment. “Well, actually I have an exam on Thursday, a couple of essays due next week, and I just needed some time to unwind. I’m a student, but I need to enjoy life to its fullest.”

I’m really bad at trying to mix work and bars, so I ask the obvious, “Isn’t it pretty late at this point?”

“I came here for a couple of drinks and I met these people [gestures to group at the back of the bar yelling about Jägerbombs] and suddenly I’m drinking like, five pints of beer.”

“Well it’s good to get out and get away from all that school crap, it kind of ruins you after awhile. How much longer are you going to stay out here?”

He gestures to his half-empty beer. “This is my last drink ‘cause I just got a shot. I don’t know what it is.” I look at the tiny glass of dark green liquid and scowl.

“That’s Jägermeister,” I say, furrowing my brow. God, I hate Jägermeister.

“I have no idea what that is,” he says. I’m not entirely sure what it is either, but I want to guess that it’s made out of herbs, vodka, and garbage.

“I don’t know, it’s repulsive. Tastes like old feet.” Duel laughs, and looks back at the group behind us, who are now cheering on their friends who are doing Jägerbombs. I hold my tongue as I think about what a waste of beer that it.

“Well, these guys [gestures again to the Jägerbombers] are students as well. I’ve never met them, but I got a shot, I had a smoke with them outside … It really humanizes you. They say U of T is a very anti-social school because everyone’s so focused on what needs to be done, so when you come here, that doesn’t matter because you’re a person here. That’s what’s fundamental about being here so late.”

1.30 AM

The bartender is a girl maybe a few years older than me, with long, brown hair and a nice smile. I’m considering talking to the Jägerbombers behind me, but instead decide to strike up a conversation with her. She introduces herself as Ashley.

As the first professional night-timer I talk to that night, I ask her if she could tell me any stories. She laughs, and gestures to the groups sitting around us. “A good story about working here at night? Honestly, you’re looking at it right now.” She pauses for a second, “Uh, there’s fights. Fights happen, they’re regular around here.” I try to press for more, but that appears to be all the detail I’m going to get. It would become a running theme through the night that while people are more than willing to talk about why they love being up at all hours, the fine details are lost to the daytime.

Ashley wants to step outside for a smoke, so I follow. Since it’s a Tuesday night, there are a few people milling around in the front, all of whom Ashley seems to know. “Industry folk,” she says. At first I think journalists, but then I realize that she means other bartenders. “On Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays, it’s a lot of industry people because that’s when we get our days off, unfortunately. We have to work weekends and we can’t afford to take days off.”

A random guy smoking nearby chimes in, “No real weekends.” He sees the recorder in my hand and turns away, back to his cigarette.

“Does this mess with your schedule? It feels like it should.”

“Oh, totally, completely. I start at 7 and I work till 3 a.m., and by the time I head home, I don’t get to bed till 6 or 7 in the morning, and I get up around 4 or 5, so I never see daylight.” She takes a drag, and blows a thin line of smoke in front of the door. “All I really do is eat, sleep, and work. Last week, one of our girls was sick and I was coming in at like, 5 p.m… I left my house at 10 minutes to 5, and that was the first time I had seen sunlight in years.”

I contemplate this. I love the night, and haven’t seen a bed before 2 a.m. in my entire university career, but I wonder what it would be like to stop seeing the sun. It’s starting to get cold out, and as she heads back in, I take my leave to head further west, down a much emptier street than I’m used to.
alt text

2.05 AM

One thing that I’m beginning to notice is that there are a lot of cabs on the road. There are lots of cabs normally, mind you, but by this time, they are all that is out there. Also, while I’m still running into the occasional person on the street, pretty much everyone I’ve seen since I left the bar has been a particular type of guy, usually between the ages of 25-40. I see a younger guy coming out of a nearby grocery store with an armful of bags. I jog up to him, assuming that if he doesn’t want to talk and takes a swing at me, I should at least have enough time to duck—thanks to the plastic bags hanging from his mitts.

I run over and explain what I’m doing, and how I’d like to talk to him. He looks at me like I’m crazy, and goes, “Sure, why not. I’m … Will.” I guess that he’s giving me a fake name, but I don’t bother pushing him. Without warning, he launches into his story. For him, the night had started at a bar with his friends, and had taken a turn for the dramatic. His girlfriend had called him asking where he was, and here he was, at 2 a.m., with groceries. But why?

“I’ll make this interesting: she called me up about how I never take her out and got all angry at me, from which I inferred that I should go back home so we could spend the night together. But one beer and another beer led to another … I had promised her that I was going to pick up groceries, and that is the reason why I’m carrying three bags of groceries right now. I don’t want to have to be carrying groceries right now.

“Writing a paper on nightlife … there’s going to be a lot of drama involved. I live with [my girlfriend] which makes things complicated. The relationship is kind of going stagnant and I didn’t want to have to go home right away,” he says. I can already feel any of my set questions slipping away from me, into the dark void of relationship drama. I keep quiet and hold the recorder up a little closer as we walk together.

He continues on, “I got a call around 10 to come out to a show, and I could be at a show probably right now having a really good time, and I’m in fact FORCED to go back home to my girlfriend, whom I love and built a relationship with, and we really do in fact love each other, but we never have time alone anymore.” I’m starting to wonder if the stress in his voice is from the relationship issues, fatigue, beer, or a mixture of all three.

We walk a little farther, and split up at Bathurst Street. Before he goes, I ask him what’s been on my mind the whole time: “What did you get from the grocery store?”

“Uh … mushrooms, Mr. Noodles, onions, some organic potato soup, and some cheese, and a whole lot of junk.”
alt text

3.06 AM

I pull up to Robarts just after 3 a.m. I’m really starting to get tired now, and plan to start chugging as much caffeine as I can once I get inside. By the front door there are two guys standing and smoking. Since fatigue leads me to have far less tact than I normally should, I stand in between them and say, “Hey! Do either of you want to do an interview for The Varsity?”

The taller guy near the Robarts sign stares at me for a second, and then agrees. He tells me his name is Ghirmay, and offers me a smoke. As I’m lighting it, I remember the fact that I don’t smoke. However, the nicotine buzz will probably help to keep me alert.

I blow a line of smoke into the wind, and ask, “Why are you at Robarts at 3 a.m.?”

“I think the TV is so bad sometimes, [laughs] at home I can’t study, and I’m a night person.” His voice is incredibly soft, and I have to lean in to hear him.

“When do you think you’ll be done at Robarts?”

“I’ll be up until 7, and I’ll nap for about an hour, and then start my day, and I’ll do it all week. I’ve adapted.” He finishes his cigarette before me and walks inside. I stand out there smoking for a little bit longer, only to remember again that I don’t smoke. I stub out the cig on the wall, but I feel myself starting to get jittery, and for the rest of the night my coat would smell like tobacco.

3.48 AM

Upstairs on the second floor of Robarts, there’s the usual smattering of quiet studiers and people passed out on chairs and benches. I walk over to the west entrance, only to find three people sitting at a table with hula hoops. I sit down on a bench and open my cola. They introduce themselves as Melissa, Kasia, and Rehanna. I start off with the most obvious question: It’s 3 a.m. and you’re in Robarts with a hula hoop. Why?

Kasia: “We all have exams that we aren’t studying for.”

Melissa: “Stress relief.”

Kasia: “It’s good exercise, especially after eating pizza.”

Rehanna: “Hula hoops make studying normal.”

Kasia: “If Michelle Obama can do it, it’s good. Someone’s got the right idea somewhere.”

Oh-kay … so, why Robarts at 3 a.m.?

Rehanna: “It’s a night out to go to Robarts.”

Melissa: “We prepare food, hoops, caffeine …”

Kasia: “Aspirin …”

Rehanna: “Fatigue, headache, the hunger … It’s the Robarts hangover.”

Does it feel better or worse than drinking?

Melissa: “It’s more depressing.”

Kasia: “I don’t know, I kind of like it. At least you feel useful afterwards.”

Ever see anything weird?

Melissa: “We tried to get the security guard to hula hoop.”

Rehanna: “We had a friend sleep under the table once.”

Any tips for being here late at night?

Kasia: “Save yourself a spot, and run away for an hour when the cleaners come around.”

Do they run you over with the sweepers or something?

Melissa: “There’s no point in being here with the vacuum cleaners, they will eat you.”

Rehanna: “Oh, don’t forget your TCard ever, they will eat you.”

Melissa: “Even if you come here every day and you don’t have your TCard once …”

Kasia: “You know you’re here a lot when the security guard compliments you on how nice you look with your hair down.”

As I leave, they pull out the hula hoops and start doing tricks by the revolving doors. I’m starting to get really hungry, so I decide to find food as my last stop on my trip.

5.16 AM

I’ve been wandering around for a while, and I’m starting to get hungry. I pop in at Fran’s on College, and I’m the lone customer in the place. I order a breakfast plate from a waiter with giant gages in his ears, and after severely burning the inside of my mouth on a very hot home fry, I invite Ryan (the server) to come join me. I can feel my mouth blistering on the inside as I talk. “How’d you end up doing this job?”

“I got into the restaurant industry as a basic job about 15 years ago. It just works for me with my life, because I also do music, and the days and the evenings are the only two times when rehearsals and auditions are. I’ve got my own project right now, and I’m playing in an Aerosmith tribute band that hires me on weekends, and I also do freelance session work when it comes around. I’m busy as I can be.”

“How much sleep do you get in a week?”

“I get off at 8 in the morning. If I’m really tired, then sometimes I’ll rehearse from 8 at night, so I’ll get up at 6 in the evening and go to rehearsal from 11 until midnight, and then work ‘til 8 a.m., so I’m dead by 4 a.m., but I’ll have a few coffees and get through it.”

I’m tired just thinking about that. “Do you miss having some sort of a normal schedule?”

He laughs, “I don’t even know what that is. On my days off I’ll reverse my schedule so I can feel a little bit normal and get stuff done. I’m just not a 9-to-5 person. Besides the look,” he gestures to his ears, “it’s the mentality I can’t deal with. The people at nighttime, they’re more relaxed and they relate to me better.”

I decide to ask him about stories he might have from working night shifts. He responds, “I’ve seen pretty much everything. I’m sure there’s many things I haven’t seen, but the late-night scene downtown in a big city and you serve so many people; some are sober, some are high, some are drunk, some are a mix of everything. You don’t know what’s going to come through the door.”

It’s late enough that I’m starting to feel contemplative and dozy. I start the trek home, passing more and more people as the night winds down. It’s still dark, my legs are freezing, and the caffeine has worn off. I’m now sick of this article, and just want to get into bed.

6.15 AM

At home, I crawl into bed beside my boyfriend. I jab him hard in the side.

“Steve, why are you awake at this hour? The Varsity wants to know.”

Steve looks at me, bleary-eyed. “I’m awake because you just woke me up, what the fuck?” He gives me a look and rolls over. “I don’t understand you or your journalism stuff.”

Wrapping my arms around him, I ask, “What would you like to tell the readers?” He doesn’t respond, and has already fallen back asleep. I try to join him in rest, but my body won’t relax, and instead I lie there, watching the hours tick by in silence. The rest of the world is getting ready for their day, welcoming the sunshine and enjoying the brightness like it’s their first time in the sun.

Private Life

Dressed in full camouflage, covered in yellow and pink paint, with welts all over his body, Eric Hsia bursts into laughter. “I have uniform inspection tomorrow!” he wailed. As the rest of us peeled off our coveralls after a solid day of paintball, Eric was trying to figure out what to do. He could have spent the $40 for coveralls like the rest of us, but why let fully functional camo go to waste? This was my first memory of Private First Class Hsia, a U.S. Marine.

Eric and I grew up in Monmouth County, New Jersey, right off the notorious Jersey shore. We have 16 Facebook friends in common, all of whom I’ve known for at least eight years. Eric and I went to the same prom and once we even had a chance encounter at a hot-air balloon show.

Eric’s always been a goofy kid, although now he’s not the same guy I knew back in high school. He still plays video games, but there’s something intangibly different about him. He’s been in the military as long as I’ve known him, following in his parents’ footsteps. He started in Junior Navy ROTC in 2002. (The Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, for those not familiar, is a voluntary program in the U.S. for young people interested in getting involved in the military.) He joined the U.S. Air Force Civil Air Patrol in 2005, did Navy ROTC Marine Option in university—though he didn’t finish—and enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in March 2008. When I call him up two days before he ships out, he’s laughing. “Woo! It’s exciting being interviewed!”

Eric deployed for Afghanistan on Valentine’s Day. When asked what he named his rifle, he tells me, “The current one, I just named Helen. There’s this girl Helen that if I wasn’t deploying, I can pretty much one hundred per cent say we’d be together—no pressure on her … She’s a keeper. I’ll be thinking about her while I’m away.”

I ask Eric what he would have done if he hadn’t pursued the military, but the truth is that it wasn’t an option. “Well, prior to joining the Marines, I attended SUNY Maritimes College in New York, and I would have been pursuing a degree in merchant shipping with the Merchant Marines and doing ROTC,” he explains. “My degree was like a business degree for imports and exports. But then I enlisted. Either way, I was ending up in the military, either enlisted or as an officer.”

In the end, university wasn’t for him, but he values the college experience. “College students are people that make huge changes in the world. They’re young and they’re in an environment where their brainwaves are moving. Anti-war protests in the ‘60s and ‘70s, even if I didn’t agree with them, are part of our history; they changed the world. I really think students are a reflection of what’s going on in our world. If they’re riled up and really care about something, you feel it. If something’s going on and they can’t be bothered to care, it means it just doesn’t matter in the culture.”

Eric would have become an officer, a higher rank than Private First Class when he enlisted, but he didn’t submit his transcript. “It was the timeframe: I had to drive all the way to the Bronx. I would have had to pick up the transcript in person from my university and then deliver it in person.”

As for why he enlisted, Eric explains that he wasn’t doing well in university. All his focus was on the military component of his life. “I realized if I had the itch that bad, it was time to go be a Marine.”

Eric’s wanted to be a marine since 2000. He blames the movie Top Gun and an experience in Grade 8. “I was in Barnes and Noble and picked up this book and read it from cover to cover. The title of the book was Marines. So since I was 12 years old, that was my dream, just to be a Marine. The elitism, the sense of camaradery. Giving yourself to a cause greater than yourself. People say you don’t truly appreciate freedom until you’ve sacrificed it, and as cheesy and cliché as it is, I really believe that.”
alt text

Yet, he’s still not sure if he’ll make a career out of Marine life. He doesn’t know how the experiences ahead will shape him, but says that what has happened so far has definitely changed his outlook.

Basic training was not what Eric expected. “The whole time they tried to teach you to know what a Marine really is. I mean, I never really knew what the word ‘sacrifice’ meant until I ended up there. You really don’t until you get into situations like that. All three months you’re yelling from the minute you wake up until you go to sleep, and sometimes in your sleep. There are really guys who go to bed and sort of sleepwalk, going through the motions and ‘sleep dress,’ standing next to their rack all night long.

“It’s such a culture shock. You truly meet people who have been shielded their whole life. People from Spanish-speaking countries who can barely speak English. Guys who are really meeting the first black person they’ve ever met. I mean, you go in knowing that you’re going to meet guys from every part of the country but you don’t realize that until you’re there.”

Eventually, Eric and I start talking about the past, back when the Iraq War started. It was a big deal for us back then. I still remember everyone sitting in the library, huddled around the TV during lunch. The Iraq War affected us all, but war has now affected Eric’s life much more drastically: “For me, I had to try to write a will.”

As for his civilian friends, “they are very supportive—even the ones that aren’t pro-war.” But Eric’s not “pro-war” either, nor is he anti-war. “I really agree with Plato on ‘only the dead have seen the end of war.’ Human conflicts and politics are all on the basis of war. Having gone to college, I got to see both sides of things.”

Even though Eric is deploying within 36 hours of our phone call, it’s way later than he thought he’d be out there. “I’ve been waiting to leave since November. We’ve been under a lot of stress, with things like delays and last-minute gear issue. But overall it’s like, wow, we’re really doing this, seeing what it’s like to make a difference.”

He adds that one thing the public just doesn’t seem to grasp is the stress that delays cause for the troops. “Politicians change what they want and don’t want from us: where they want us to be, how many of us they want to send. It’s stressful on the individuals when you’re put on standby so long. I just want to say, ‘Make up your damn mind!’”

According to Eric, another point of contention that escapes public discourse is that of how much the troops get paid. “Private defense contractors, basically mercenaries, make $140,000 and on our first deployment, we make $12-14,000. I mean, come on, a factor of 10? We’re risking our lives here.”

I ask Eric how being a Marine has changed his opinion of what it’s like to be an American. He responds: “Not to say that people who aren’t successful in life aren’t good Americans, but I think being a citizen of any country is all about being a productive individual. That’s what being a citizen is, being productive, trying to better yourself, even if its for your own selfish reasons. It’s the freedom to pursue happiness. I don’t care if you’re pro-war, anti-war, as long as you’re pursuing your goals and trying to better yourself. College kids, they’re there because they want to. I feel pretty damn smug knowing they get to do that because they don’t have to do what I’m doing.”

“I’d say anyone can do what we’re doing in terms of being in the military and the Marines. It’s all a mindset. Most people in their lives don’t get a chance to push themselves one hundred per cent to their limits. In training you really have to push yourself. No matter what type of person, you don’t have to be reckless, but push yourself as hard as you can mentally and physically to discover a new side of yourself. That’s what being a Marine is really about. I think everyone could benefit from that. The minute you quit on yourself, that’s when you’ve lost. You need to find something that really matters to you.”

Eric Hsia was deployed on February 14, 2010. The U.S. Marine Corps currently leads an offensive of 30,000 U.S. and NATO troops against the Taliban stronghold in Marjah.

Rethinking the architect

He’s not a typical architect, and he is certainly not a typical academic. With several degrees, he also has tremendous pop cred, having appeared on the Colbert Report and last year showing up in Rollingstone’s list of 100 People Changing America, Wired Magazine’s list of 15 People the Next President Should Listen To, and most recently presented at the TED conference in Long Beach, CA. Mitchell Joachim, PhD has effectively set out to redesign, or re-imagine, nearly everything about the way our cities work.

Big problems require big solutions, and Joachim has developed proposals that, even if they’re never implemented within the next hundred years, open up a dialogue about what the future will look like and offer plausible strategies for how to get there. If we can’t live without the car, at least let us live with the model Joachim helped develop at MIT: a soft, omni-directional, shared-ownership vehicle that collapses to take up the space of a shopping cart when parked. If we’re not going to build houses in pristine green fields, at least let them contribute to the ecosystem. Joachim’s Terreform ONE studio has developed a “Fab Tree Hab,” a single-family dwelling that will operate within a frame of living, breathing tree branches. His solution for suburban sprawl involves the creation of a “linear burb,” where highways are equipped with infrastructure to support nomadic homes on wheels that drift slowly between communities where they might “park” for any length of time.

Prominent architects are increasingly getting involved with the social, environmental, economic, and political processes operating beyond the bricks-and-mortar of the buildings themselves. The Obama administration has named an architect as head of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, for example. For Joachim, the title “Architect” is a proud one, yet his work reflects his capacity as a mechanical and civil engineer, urban planner, arborist, and philanthropist even with forays into military strategy. Maybe Mitchell Joachim is the Architect of the future.
alt text

Sarah Rafson: So, what do you do for a living?

Mitchell Joachim: I am an architect and urban designer and I am cofounder of a non-profit organization called Terreform ONE in Brooklyn, NY. And essentially what we do is come up with plans for people, communities, and environments that can’t afford access to elite architects and designers to do that. I also teach, I am currently the Frank Gehry Chair at the University of Toronto, but I also teach at Syracuse.

SR: Why did you found your non-profit Terreform ONE?

MJ: When I graduated MIT, I formed an organization that would give me the freedom to think about concerns, and I’m being a bit selfish, about the environment without any client limitations. I didn’t want to work as a normal architect where I have a client and they have a specific project and I work like a seal and jump through flaming hoops and catch fish with my mouth. I wanted to work on projects where there were no limitations, and respond to specific needs of the environment or a community and to do that I went non-profit.

SR: In terms of the humanitarian capacity of an architect, do you ever feel powerless?

MJ: There’s only so much that you can design, the rest depends on being linked up with other systems or organizations.

I see what you’re getting at, and I do think that architects are the good guys. I think that unfortunately we have to work with developers and contractors that have more of an economic motivation and a return on investment that drives them while architects are more arbitrators that point out things in the context in which they’re building, i.e., the needs of the local constituency or the needs of the flora and fauna in the area. Usually that is the case, although in the larger firms, the mega architecture firms, those filters of reason dissipate quickly. You get projects that are large glass and steel buildings with little concern for those aspects that I just mentioned. They’re all about the bottom line, the dollar.

SR: But that’s not an architect’s fault, right?

MJ: Exactly. That’s right. Architects are usually on the side of helping. They understand the large issues that are motivating to make sure that the positive side of those issues get through. However, at an academic level, architects aren’t really trained to be humanitarians per se. One can make the argument that architecture school is learning how to be a plastic surgeon, not a triage doctor. It seems like we do specialize in the beauty and fetishize the culture and the affective posture of image and form over solving problems with the appropriate means as a triage doctor would over a plastic surgeon.
alt text

(Image from Joachim’s Terreform ONE and Terrefuge)

SR: So now that you’re a visiting professor here at the University of Toronto, how do you put that philosophy into practice? How do you encourage students to overcome the “plastic surgeon” mentality?

MJ: I teach a studio and a seminar and in the seminar we do just that, we question what it means to be a plastic surgeon as an architect. We look at the historical figures that have been responsible for large thoughts in urbanism and environmental design and we hearken back to the 19th century and we bring it all the way back to today. So we look at figures like Patrick Geddes, who invented the regional planning and the concept of bioregionalism and the effects of man as actor and agent on the environment. And take it it all the way to someone like Al Gore, who is the contemporary version of Patrick Geddes, and his effects on architects and cities and development and infrastructure. Certainly this is extremely relevant today because Obama has made a point of putting out a call for rethinking the American smart-grid. Rethinking infrastructure in the United States is extremely important. He’s reviving what’s called the WPA [Works Progress Association], to have architects on board to remake America, or to rethink America and reform it from its previously terrible over-consumerist and industrial practices.

SR: So much of the environmental change we need to cope with impending environmental crisis can’t be designed per se. What good is it to redesign plastic containers if consumer habits don’t change? How much of the designer’s work is compensating for social problems?

MJ: It’s a people problem, because plastic containers don’t design themselves, they don’t purchase themselves. So people design the plastic containers, and the first signal of human intention is in the design. That’s where the power comes from. So if you design something to be disposed of, it’s essentially a human fault. It’s also the value system that exists. If people are interested in purchasing this, that could be because they don’t have the option of purchasing anything else, or they enjoy the convenience, or there’s no educational system in place to tell you what alternatives are available, then they’re also part of the system. But it’s definitely not the fault of the plastic container in and of itself. Maybe that’s too obvious of a statement, but it’s coming from both directions; bottom-up and the top-down. It’s the machines feeding the machine. And we all know better, it’s just that at some point, to break out of the cycle, it takes a lot of inertia. And that inertia’s here. The green revolution is done. It’s now a mainstream thought. It’s very hard to argue with its principles. I mean “save the earth, keep it for the children, think about future generations, and stop polluting the atmosphere,” it’s just a clear way to go. Who wants to die? I think the inertia is just now happening with our generation. Thank God, actually. We can head on. It seems to be the problem of the times.
alt text

(Image from Joachim’s Terreform ONE and Terrefuge)

SR: A lot of your propositions, although feasible, seem like they would be difficult to implement. Soft stackable cars, nomadic suburban homes, houses out of grafted trees, to name a few. Have any been produced yet? Or which ones would be the first to enter the market?

MJ: Two answers to that one: one is about architectural technologies, and the other is mobility technologies. The car ideas that I had, for instance the soft car, it’s not meant to be built by any one manufacturer, it’s meant to be in every vehical everywhere. Like the airbag. The airbag is just a good idea. It doesn’t belong per se to any one company in particular. Part of what I do is create a lexicon of ideas that all car manufacturers can use to rethink their vehicles. The soft car has already seen reification from BMW in a car they call the Gina, the Gina is a car that came out post the architecture of the soft car, it’s absolutely beautiful and made out of flexible material.

It’s still not soft in the sense that we were talking about soft, it’s still a shiny metal box, the material is really taut like cloth wrapped around a metal frame, but it’s almost there. And it appeared on the market by demand. Jeep came out with an omni-directional armature system that we designed. We didn’t lay claim to it, but I don’t really care about who does what, these are things that benefit all of society.

The architectural answer to your question is that I’m not in a rush. Daniel Libeskind, the guy who did the ROM, was 61 years old before he built his first building, which was the Jewish Museum in Berlin, and it was a masterpiece. So if I had the choice between being an architect that designs 400 schlocky brick boxes for his whole life, or do a lot of theory, practice, and research, and by the time I get the perfect client, the perfect city to do the perfect building and create a masterpiece, I would choose that direction. Obama would be a pretty good client … if he actually had any power.

SR: Have you met with him yet? According to Wired Magazine, you are one of the 15 people he should be listening to right now.

MJ: No, I was just at the TED talks so I had the chance to meet Al Gore. I haven’t met Obama yet. I had the chance to meet the McCain folks. That was during the election, so a very different time. I did get to talk to the Obama administration at the American Foundation in Washington, DC. Still haven’t met Obama yet, but eventually it will happen.

Who wants to be the mayor?

It was late afternoon. I was sitting on a bench in a small park when a man approached me. He talked, bent with an incessant fervor and gripping charisma, clad in a tan sports coat and a red bow tie. I was an impressionable 15-year-old then, and though my parents had taught me not to talk to strangers, I found myself captivated. The man talked about youth and purpose, his words pulsing with importance as he monologued in the park, pacing in front of picnicking families and lunching shop-girls. He started talking about invention. He wanted to create cities in the ocean, perfect cities that were created from nothing. The idea was fantastic. The man spoke with such conviction that the impossible, to him, seemed to be the only step towards the future. He was a leader without followers, a man going for a walk—but he had a vision. And to him, that vision was worth confronting strangers in the park and it was worth sounding a bit unhinged.

For the first time in the past seven years the Toronto mayoral race is without an incumbent, and a staggering 24 candidates are registered and rallying to replace the regime of David Miller. I spoke with nine candidates, who ran the gamut of the fringe to respected Toronto politicians. Though some of their campaigns seem redundant (why is science fiction writer Andrew Barton, who works for a communications firm with 15 fans on Facebook, bothering to run a campaign?) and some of their platforms seem downright cracked (truck-driver John Letonja wants to build the city using the city’s trash and to plant literal “money trees” downtown), they all speak with the same fervor as the man in the park did of his cities in the ocean.

alt text

So what do Don Andrews, a neo-Nazi and member of the unofficial white supremacist Canadian Nationalist Party; computer geek and software designer Mark Cidade; data-analyst Stephen Feek; science fiction writer Andrew Barton; truck driver and self-professed “hobbyist” John Letonja; Women’s Post founder, Sarah Thompson; ex-SAC president and young lawyer Rocco Achampong; councillor Giorgio Mammoliti; and Liberal entrepreneur Rocco Rossi all have in common? Well, they all want to be your mayor, and they all have a vision for Toronto. And they all think it’s worth fighting for.

“People don’t vote municipally, because they don’t see that they have options beyond the frontrunners,” says 40-year-old Stephen Feek as he emphatically explains why he’s decided to leave his “very quiet life” and register as a mayoral candidate. “If you only know of two or three candidates and you don’t like what you see, you’re not going to vote.”

“We, as a city, have tried the politicians,” he continues. “So maybe not all of my solutions to our problems are great and not all of them will work—but an idea will spawn other ideas. The city is doing the same thing it’s been doing for years and decades. It’s like we’re stuck in the ‘90s and we’re stuck in debt. It’s time for a new vision.”

Software designer Mark Cidade perks up when I ask him about his vision of the ideal Toronto, going from blasé to impassioned. “Toronto would be a circle: it would be clean, it would be healthy,” he explains. “There would be magnetic levitation trains to get you anywhere you want to go quickly. There would be high-speed planes to get you in and out of the city. There would be psycho-education in schools to teach you how to be happy—and Toronto would be a happy and productive city which would create and produce, not consume.”

“Rome: it would be Rome to the power of 10,” says U of T grad and lawyer Rocco Achampong with a penetrating stare and intoxicating excitement. He looks up from a black leather folio filled with notes and an ever-buzzing BlackBerry in the lobby cafe of City Hall. “There would be gold-leaf statues and art everywhere. Even the least-fortunate person would be educated. Because why do people continue to visit Rome? It isn’t because it’s still the most powerful city in the world; it’s because of the art and because of the culture. A city can be an empire and we are one of the most multicultural cities in the world; we have a story to tell; we are a city to be reckoned with.”

“It would be Luminato, it would be TIFF,” Sarah Thomson, a business owner of 24 years and the publisher of The Women’s Post for the last eight years, adds in an almost sickly-sweet tone. “It would have cultural events that are constantly bringing the world to Toronto.”

“I think the enormous opportunity comes from the fact that we have a city filled with city-builders, and people who are passionate about making a difference,” Rocco Rossi says, seated next to his PR representative, clad in a pink cardigan and pearls, in a Timothy’s Coffee at Yonge and St. Clair. The Liberal candidate has the incredible knack of making perfectly bottled answers sound genuine—if a bit trite. “We’ve got a tremendous arts community, we have what we did with Luminato, and we have what was done with the AGO, with the ROM, with the Opera House. In all of these cases, you never hear ‘we did this because City Hall made this possible,’ instead ‘we did it despite City Hall.’ My ideal Toronto is a Toronto that isn’t about stopping bridges, it’s about building bridges to the enormous pool of talent and passion that we have here to help solve problems.”
alt text

“Toronto needs a stubborn mule like me to make sure that we reverse some of the decisions we’ve made, and isn’t really going to care about political correctness in order to do that,” councillor Giorgio Mammoliti says matter-of-factly. He’s a formidable man with a thick build who sits next to his magnanimous desk in an office busily nestled in the upper levels of City Hall. “I think that how we run this city and how our policies shape us have to be changed. We have to think differently on how we collect money and how we spend money. I mean a complete reversal of what we’re used to in this society. The first year of my term has to be a very autocratic, not a democratic one. And I think it has to be autocratic in the sense that we have to say no to a lot of people. We have to say that we are starting over again, and you have to prove to us why your expense is truly needed in the city.”

“We need to fix our transit system, and we need to fix our budget,” Sarah Thomson explains more simply, before elaborating on her plan to form citizen boards to analyze City Hall’s spending.

“My ideal city is a city in the black,” says Stephen Feek.

“The horse is out of control,” adds Rocco Achampong, “We need to limit redundancies—how many people does the mayor really need to fetch him coffee? I plan to take a hard line against wages and services.”

While some of the candidates’ proposals may sound outlandish, it’s nothing compared to the deplorable platforms of some of their contenders. In the case of an outspoken racist fringe-runner, there’s apparently nothing keeping him from running. The only rejection he faces in the mayoral race is the one continually offered him by Torontonians at the ballot box.

Don Andrews, the perennial mayoral candidate who hopes to represent the “white man’s viewpoint at City Hall” says, “I run to bring an important message to the city regarding race relations and the saving of the white race and civilization. The first major issue is black crime. The second is the graffiti from the gangs. The third is the wild spending. And the fourth is the lack of help from the federal government, who have thrown all of these people from the third world into the city. I’m asking for $20 billion for three years of no taxes and no fees for Toronto tax-payers.”

John Letonja, a hobbyist and truck driver, speaks authoritatively and urgently on subjects from bridge building to sports: his lack of engineering training would not stop him from designing and building a bridge from Toronto Island to the mainland, and he invented a new sport called “Wacky Ball,” played by hitting a ball back and forth across a field and seeing how far it goes, which he wants to make the new Torontonian pastime.

He also has the most creative solutions to Toronto’s fiscal crisis. Where other candidates bemoan redundant bureaucracy and suggest cutting services, funding projects with help from corporate sponsors, and even opening a casino or a circus in the GTA, Letonja suggests that we rebuild the city using our trash and utilize our prisoners to work on public projects, throwing them a pittance salary to avoid the stigma of slave labour.

“We ought to run this city as a business, not as a collection of people,” Letonja says as he jumps into his plan for Toronto before I’ve had a chance to ask a question. “For all the recycling we have, you can make sidings, shingles, boats out of these plastic bags and sandpaper out of cardboard. I could say, as mayor, I’m going to be cheaper than a Jew. We need to be a city of Jews.” He reminds you of your hopelessly ignorant rambling uncle who has more ideas than words to express them.

“Realistically, I know that I’m not going to win,” says Barton, putting things into perspective, “But I have a lot of ideas and desires, just things I’d like to see in this city. I just want to get my ideas out there, and then maybe someone else will look at them.”

“We need youth,” Achampong asserts. “We need energy, vitality, a breath of fresh air. It’s about language. We need somebody who speaks our language.”

“What distinguishes me from the other candidates?” echoes Mammoliti. “Well, for one, I have hair.”

“Well, my mother loves me,” Rocco Rossi retorts, running a hand over his bald head. “If Mammoliti can have hair, I can have the fact that my mother loves me more than all of the other candidates.”

“The fact is that Miller is stepping down,” concludes Mark Cidade. “It’s time to see what the rest of the candidates have to say. Toronto needs a fresh start.”

Second illustration by Cristina Diaz Borda.

The strange and beautiful days of campus news

Lewko Hryhorijiw was a student journalist and photographer at U of T from 1979 to 1983. From 1982 to 1983 he was the editor of The Strand newspaper. He is now a freelance photographer who can still be found photographing events on campus from time to time. This interview began with one question: “Tell me your stories from your university journalism days.” These are Lewko’s answers.

On U of T’s surprising honorary degree:

I believe in ‘82, U of T gave an honorary degree to a very left-wing, very radical gentleman from Zimbabwe: Robert Mugabe.

It was at Convocation Hall. I got him to myself in a room, and it was just the three of us: Mugabe, myself, and his foreign minister. Then I photographed him.

Mr. Mugabe was funny. He was charming. He was gracious. He was kind. And things changed, I guess, over the course of almost 30 years.

alt text

On painting the SAC [now UTSU] dome:

I remember a time a bunch of us decided to find some ladders and go up to paint the SAC dome. Word to the wise: have a beer afterwards; because when you’re up there, there’s a little bit of vertigo. It’s quite a few feet down and you don’t want to be hurting yourself that way.

It was right before Vic convocation so we decided to paint the dome scarlet and gold, appropriately enough. So we’re up there, doing our thing, and the U of T police show up. I guess it was a slow night, because all five or six cars showed up. We must have had seven or eight constables waiting down on the lawn for us.

Have you ever painted the SAC dome, yourself? Well, put it on your to-do list because it is a U of T thing. You get a ladder, and you put it up to the lower platform. Everyone climbs up to the lower platform, and then you pull that ladder up against the tower and then you climb up to the dome with all your paints and paintbrushes—don’t use rollers, because the dome itself is curved and you’d be there forever.

So anyway, the U of T police showed up. They said, “You guys come on down!” We weren’t done yet, obviously. It was a warm summer night just before June convocation, and the orchestra was practising at Hart House, so there was this beautiful music wafting through the warm summer air. And we continued our painting.

When we were ready, we took the ladder and climbed back down to the lower platform and put the ladder back on the ground, at which point one of the junior officers kicked down the ladder and it fell to the ground with a noise that must have woken the dead. Then he said to us: “Jump down!” Now, we were crazy but we weren’t insane, and 10 feet is 10 feet and that’s broken legs. We didn’t want that. So, the other officers who were there had to help this young fella put the ladder back up.

Now you’ve got to remember, we’ve been up and down this ladder with scarlet and gold paint. So these poor guys, they’re getting this paint off the ladder onto their hands, onto their uniforms, onto their pants. Needless to say, they weren’t really happy. And the rookie who had knocked the ladder over, they weren’t too happy with him.

So down we climbed and he’s got to make a really good showing. He’s got to be very intimidating. So he whipped out his flashlight and there’s the eight of us—three women and five guys, and everybody was into this—and he’s shining the flashlight in our eyes and saying [in gruff voice] “Look! I’m going to look in your faces and I’m going to remember those faces, and if I ever see any of you guys on campus just stepping on a crack in the sidewalk, I’m gonna write you up!”

He gets to the last two guys in our group, and they got a little silly upstairs so they put on dabs of paint to make themselves look like they were wearing warpaint. So, the constable gets to these two guys and says “I’m gonna remember these faces!” and we all broke out laughing. Of course, the U of T cops—the senior guys—they’d seen this all happen before, and they were back in the car just rolling with laughter. It was a lot of fun.

On the great newspaper rumble:

One day in the springtime, when it was just getting nice and warm, we happened to be reading the UC Gargoyle, which we always called “The Gargle” to be mildly insulting. You know, because gargoyles are cool but you gargle when you have a sore throat or bad breath. Things that are, you know, icky.

Anyway, I forget the exact wording, but they had done an ad hoc survey of college newspapers at U of T and somehow they had not done The Strand justice, and we felt slagged. We took that as a challenge, so we decided to respond to that challenge with a very friendly duel on Philosopher’s Walk, which we thought was very poetic. We weren’t allowed to duel with pistols, but we figured if we showed up with a couple of antique rapiers and clanked some swords around it might be fun. So they accepted our challenge to do that, and we showed up with some rusty old poking things.

The folks from The Gargoyle showed up with a golf bag and they were ready to rumble. The least innocuous thing in that bag was a baseball bat with nails driven through the end of it. They had nunchuks and steel bars and chains and stuff that you’d find in your local torture chamber.

So our first dueller went out there with his little sword and they, you know, smashed the tip off of it. Now my plan was that we’d clank a few swords around and then find a bar that was open and drink ourselves silly by noon—because we were crossing swords at dawn—and I thought it would be a nice way to socialize. They thought it would be a nice way to SPILL BLOOD!

We, of course, wrote it up in our own fashion: we were the victors because we were the classier bunch. But they said they were the victors because they showed up with more hardware than the sixth fleet. What a hoot.

On getting started in student journalism:

U of T is a very big place. For your own sanity, you’ve got to try and carve out your own niche. I decided to come to Vic because they had The Strand, an outstanding newspaper, and they had a yearbook, and they had a darkroom. I knew people that were working on this very bold upstart publication called The Newspaper. The guys who started this were very gutsy, and they’re still doing things in journalism.

I did a lot of stuff for The Newspaper and The Varsity. I tended to switch between them from year to year depending on who had the higher film budget, you know, the money to spend on a bulkload of black-and-white film and whoever had a snazzier darkroom. Back then, The Varsity’s darkroom was in a back room on the main floor and it was kind of icky. Whereas, at The Newspaper, I actually helped them build a darkroom that was big and had a nice big sink. So The Newspaper wasn’t a tough place to hang around in and take pictures for, and then do a ton of darkroom work afterwards.

On the perils of the pre-computer newsroom:

I walk into The Newspaper office or The Varsity office now and people are sitting at screens. For us, there used to be so many more intermediary steps. For instance, you had someone called a typesetter, and he or she would sit at this machine which would spit out these long, narrow columns of copy, and you would have to lay it down on a board. And you were trimming the white edges off the stuff and you’d have to be careful not to cut into the copy, and you were using exacto knifes, so every now and then someone would slice off the tip of a finger. I sliced off the end of my left index finger. The rule was, don’t bleed on anything important.

Two authors in conversation

Neil Smith was a late bloomer. “I didn’t start writing until I was in my mid-thirties. A university professor told me I’d need to study literature before I could write. Since I would have preferred to commit hara-kiri than go back to school, I didn’t attempt any writing for a long time.”

When he finally started writing, however, he proved the professor’s wisdom dramatically wrong: the first story he wrote was accepted for publication and nominated for the Journey Prize—Canada’s most prestigious award for short fiction. Several of his following stories were accepted for publication as well, two more were nominated for the Journey, and before long Smith had a deal with Knopf for a short story collection with international distribution. The collection, 2007’s Bang Crunch, won the McAuslan First Book Prize, was a finalist for the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction, and was named a Best Book of 2008 according to The Washington Post, among others.

Now 45, Smith lives in Montreal, where he works as a translator. He was able to take time out of his work to correspond with writer Stephen Thomas over email.

alt text
Steven Thomas: I remember reading something David Foster Wallace said about the reception to his novel Infinite Jest. I think it was Charlie Rose asking him how he felt about the success he’d garnered, which had been considerable, and he said something like, “You know, no matter how successful you get, it never lives up to the grand world-shattering images/ambitions you had for yourself.” Do you feel the same way?

Neil Smith: Today I got a fan email from a girl in England and a message from a publisher in Italy who might put Bang Crunch out in Italian. Unlike Mr. Wallace, I’m very satisfied with that kind of success. I’m not after world domination. I’m not after fame or the Nobel or even the Giller. I’m far happier getting an email from a girl in London who liked the book.

I haven’t read Wallace, but Bang Crunch just came out in Germany, and a reviewer there mentioned the resemblance. I should read him.

ST: It’s interesting to me that you started writing relatively late. I wonder how you feel about your “career” as a writer, or, from a more personal perspective, how you feel about what you want to accomplish as an artist before you, you know, die. Do you think about these things?

NS: I have a hard time looking beyond the next book. At the moment, I just started working on draft two of a novel. My goal at this point is simply to finish my novel and publish it with the same publisher, Knopf. I do think commercially. Bang Crunch has been published around the world. I want my second book to please, say, my German publisher and my British publisher. I want the second book to attract even more readers than the first. I want commercial success simply because the resulting money enables a writer to write more books.

ST: I’m curious about the actual process of being a writer in Canada. Do you maintain your own website?

NS: Yes, I put together the website. I didn’t have a site when the Canadian version of Bang Crunch came out. But my American publisher recommended a site.

ST: Your story “Jaybird” depicts a competition of sorts between the protagonist and his friend, Dany. Do you feel competitive about success with friends and ex-lovers, or even current lovers, or boyfriends, or partners, or whatever, in the same way?

NS: Luckily none of my exes are writers! I’m sure that the competition would kill me.

When I wrote “Jaybird,” I didn’t actually know any other writers. But I did know about the world of actors and theatre, thanks to a friend who worked for a talent agency. I did imagine, though, that backstabbing and envy existed in the writing world, too.

When I went on tour for Bang Crunch, I started meeting other writers. I must say that the ones that had achieved the most success—Barbara Gowdy, Elizabeth Hay, Miriam Toews, Vincent Lam—turned out to be the nicest people. That said, I did meet one successful writer whose head was the size of hot-air balloon.

ST: Are you friends with other artists and writers? That is, do you feel like you’re involved in any kind of literary scene on a personal, day-to-day level? And more broadly, do you feel involved in some kind of Canadian literary scene (as the Toronto literary scene is satirized in Andrew Pyper’s mystery/thriller The Killing Circle) or in the state of fiction in Canada?

NS: I haven’t read The Killing Circle. I must admit that any book that focuses on writers would probably bore me. I don’t know much about the Toronto literary scene given that I live in Montreal. I don’t think that there’s a scene in Montreal. The anglo community is too small here. I live in the same neighbourhood as Heather O’Neill, Rawi Hage, and Madeleine Thien. So maybe we can start our own scene!

I don’t follow the state of fiction in Canada. I feel out of the loop most of the time. Not to say that I don’t enjoy Canadian fiction. In fact, I’m defending Jessica Grant’s whimsical novel Come, Thou Tortoise in The National Post’s Canada Also Reads competition.

ST: Are there any other Canadian writers that you follow?

NS: I’m fanatically obsessed with Barbara Gowdy. She’s one of the reasons I started writing. I love how that woman puts together a sentence, a paragraph, and a story. I also adore Douglas Coupland. I think he’s undervalued. His novel Eleanor Rigby is one of the most touching novels I’ve read. And funny and bright. I wish he’d win a Giller.

ST: It’s interesting that you mention Barbara Gowdy. Total tangent, but I’ve been thinking lately about weird sex in Canadian art, and Gowdy’s We So Seldom Look on Love seems like a great example. It seems like there are few interesting wide-ranging phenomena for an ambitious artist to get into in Canada, and so we turn inwards and try to extremify sex.

NS: What I liked most about Barbara Gowdy’s short story collection We So Seldom Look on Love is the normalcy. The book makes all these characters—a girl who floats, a mortician who has sex with dead men, a woman who wants to change into a man—seem so normal. The extreme nature of their lives seems much less extreme once we look really closely on love, as the title suggests. Rather than turn away from the things that revolt or frighten us, Gowdy takes a magnifying glass to them to understand our reaction. As a result, these things become much less revolting and frightening. She’s the kind of writer who enjoys putting herself in other people’s skins. In other words, her work is not autobiographical. In her novel The White Bone she even puts herself in the skin of elephants.

I’m not interested either in writing about myself. Recently the CBC asked me to write a true first-person story to post on its website. I declined because I’ve promised myself I’d never write a story about myself, especially not in the first person. I’d be more interested in writing about the life of a potted plant.

ST: When I was reading Bang Crunch, one of the things I kept thinking about was whether or not the main character was gay, and whether or not the location of the story was or was not Montreal, where you live. Is there any particular way you can articulate your aversion to writing about your own life? In your interview with Xtra, the interviewer said, “Smith made the conscious choice—refreshing for a new writer—to stay away from autobiography.” Is the general scorn of writing about your own life part of your aversion to it, or do you have your own reasons?

NS:I’m not opposed to people writing about themselves, but I think their life has to be pretty interesting for this to work. Take, for example, Dave Eggers’ memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. His parents died within two months of each other and he had to bring up his eight-year-old brother himself. Pretty interesting story.

Still, I’m more impressed by people who use their imagination to come up with something completely different.

I never write about myself for a few reasons: I want to escape my own life when I write; I want to see where my imagination will take me; I consider it unfair to write about my family and friends without their consent.

ST: Regarding gay characters and Canadian setting specifically, do you think about being accessible to a broader audience, be it straight readers or American readers? I’m writing a novel right now in which the central relationship is a gay one. Because I’m not gay, there’s this whole other issue of writing a different sexual orientation. Do you worry about writing straight characters convincingly?

NS: I imagine that you’re talking about “Green Fluorescent Protein.” The main character is probably gay (although maybe bi, for all I know). The city in the story is Montreal. In other stories, however, the city is more ambiguous. For example, the town in “Scrapbook” is a more generic place. The same goes for the title story. Writing about Montreal raises the whole language conundrum. How do you portray a bilingual city accurately without writing in both languages?

I do think about commercial prospects when I write books. My new novel, for example, has only American characters. Canada isn’t mentioned at all (maybe this is heresy). I’m hoping for universal appeal.

I don’t worry about writing straight characters convincingly. After all, I’ve gone out with girls in the past. Plus, I’m around straight people all the time. Good for you for writing from a gay guy’s perspective. I’m no expert in gay lit, but my favorite gay novel is Fruit by Toronto writer Brian Francis.

ST: Sometimes I get the sense that Montreal is a better city to be a writer in than Toronto. I think Sheila Heti wrote her only novel while living there. Yann Martel lives there (according to an outdated website). What is it about Montreal and writing?

NS: I have been asked this question before, but unfortunately I can’t compare the two cities because I know virtually nothing about Toronto. Don’t you have the cafe life on Queen Street West?

I loved Sheila Heti’s Ticknor. For some reason, reading that novel really relaxes me. It’s like yoga. Yann Martel, by the way, left Montreal years ago to live in Saskatoon. I also loved Life of Pi (I’m a sucker for any story starring animals). Also, his parents translated his book into French. How sweet is that!

ST: One more thing I wanted to ask you: are you able to read anything else when you are working on a project, or are you more of a dabbling reader when you are writing? Do you live your life differently when you’re deep into creating something?

NS: I understand your not wanting to read other people’s writing while working on your own project. There’s always the risk that other voices will infiltrate your own book or short story. But I find other books inspiring, even when I’m deep into my own book.

At the moment, I’m reworking my novel. So even when I’m grocery shopping or jogging on the treadmill or brushing my teeth, I’m thinking about the world I’ve invented in my novel. I’m trying to solve problems in the plot or characterization. It does become all-consuming at times.

Because my new book features only young characters (all age 17 or under), I’ve been rereading novels like Lord of the Flies and The Chrysalids. I even read Harry Potter for the first time.

I don’t think that writers—particularly those of us just starting out—should worry about being overly influenced by other writers. A writer naturally finds his own voice over time.

Stephen Thomas is a writer who lives in Toronto. You can read his fiction on his website,

Neil Smith is a writer who lives in Montreal. His website is

Being the Walrus

The Walrus magazine premiered in September 2003 with the intent of creating a national institution comparable to American publications such as Harper’s and The New Yorker. Currently, it produces 10 issues a year and has a circulation of approximately 60,000 (10-15,000 in newstand sales and 40-45,000 in subscriptions), and functions as a charitable, not-for-profit organization. When Ken Alexander, one of the magazine’s founders, stepped down as editor in 2008, John Macfarlane took over the position. Macfarlane has acted as the editor of Toronto Life (1992-2007), publisher of the now-defunct Saturday Night magazine (1980-87), publisher and editor-in-chief of the Financial Times (1987-90), and director of news at CTV (1991-92). Marfarlane sat down with us to discuss Canadian journalism and the unique challenges of running “Canada’s best magazine.”

Tim Legault: Magazine sales are down across the board. How is The Walrus faring?

John Macfarlane: Newstand sales are down, but subscriptions may or may not be, because publishers can control their subscription circulation. Basically, the more money you spend, the higher your circulation. Some publishers have the money to kind of mitigate market trends and some don’t. In the case of The Walrus we don’t, but we have a high renewal rate. We are struggling at the newstands, like everybody. I can’t put it in percentage terms, but I think I read that Maclean’s is down 15 per cent in the last year at the newstand. We would be down less than that but we are down, yet our renewal rate is so high that our subscriptions remain relatively stable.

TL: Is there a big enough market in Canada for a general interest magazine like The Walrus?

JM: No, just as there’s not a large enough audience in the United States—a much, much bigger country—for magazines like Harper’s, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker. Harper’s is supported by the McArthur Foundation. The Atlantic is owned by a dot-com kajillionaire who’s content to continue to publish the magazine even though it loses money. If The New Yorker weren’t owned by a privately held company, Condé Nast, which has no public shareholders, I don’t think The New Yorker would be in the situation it is in today. So the answer to your question is: Canada is not a big enough country to support a magazine like The Walrus, just as it could not support a magazine like Saturday Night, where I worked in the ‘80s. The founders of The Walrus did something really smart: they set it up as a foundation, knowing that it was going to need philanthropic support, and put it in a position where it could go out and ask for that support and give people a tax receipt in return for it.

TL: Were there challenges you hadn’t expected when you came on as editor of The Walrus?

JM: One of my criticisms of The Walrus in its first five years was that it seemed to me a little unfocused. You should be able to figure out by reading a magazine what its mission is, and I couldn’t figure out what The Walrus’s mission was. I couldn’t have said to you, “This story belongs in The Walrus and this one doesn’t”—and you have to be in that situation. One of the first things we did was impose a definition on the magazine. The definition the staff and I agreed upon was that The Walrus should be a magazine about Canada and its place in the world. When I was at Saturday Night, its definition would have been that Saturday Night is a magazine about Canada, full-stop. [At The Walrus], we thought that the country had changed since the 1980s—that people are more inclined to think of themselves these days as both Canadians and citizens of the world. So we thought that last addition, “Canada and its place in the world,” was an important one. That is a huge challenge. It is a huge challenge because we have such limited resources, as you can see by looking around, and even if we had unlimited resources, it would be a huge challenge because to do that job, you have to have information that’s very difficult for any one person or group of people to have.

TL: Why is it so hard for a Canadian general interest magazine to be financially viable?

JM: General interest magazines have not been doing well anywhere for the past 25 years, and the magazines that do well are more targeted, with some notable exceptions. I mean you’d have to describe The New Yorker as a general interest magazine. But having said that, it’s a kind of general interest magazine aimed at a niche—a small niche. The real answer is: in Canada, which is a tiny, tiny country, the challenge is much bigger—because if you attract one per cent of the American reading public, you’ve got a huge audience. If you attract one per cent of the Canadian reading public, and you’d have to take Quebec out of there, so it’s one per cent not of 33 million but 20-some-odd million, you haven’t got a lot of people. Proportionally, it’s not a lot of people. You have to keep going back to my comment about Harper’s, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker: they are three magazines that in a country of 350 million people, struggle. Harper’s, which is 150 years old or something, has around 200,000 paid circulation in the United States. We have 60,000 paid circulation in a country a fraction of that size, so we’re really punching above our weight, as did Saturday Night.

TL: The magazine was granted charitable status in 2005. Right now the homepage for The Walrus website features a large banner asking for donations to help keep the publication running. Is it disheartening that a major Canadian magazine can only exist as a charity rather than as a purely commercial enterprise?

JM: Not at all. Do I find it disheartening that Harper’s can only exist with MacArthur’s $25 million? This is not an indication of failure. It is just the reality that a magazine that sets out to do what The Walrus sets out to do is not going to have 200,000 circulation in a country as small as Canada. Because it is designed not to have a circulation of 200,000, the fact that it doesn’t have an audience that big doesn’t make it a failure. On the other hand, it has to survive and so the only other revenue stream is fundraising. Look through the ages: great artists and great art always had to have patronage. I’m not saying The Walrus is great art, but I’m saying there’s nothing wrong with requiring patronage in order to survive. There’s nothing inherently bad about that. It’s not a sign of weakness.

TL: I don’t necessarily mean weakness on the publisher’s part. Is it disheartening that there isn’t enough demand?

JM: This is the great reality. The sort of elephant in the room, where culture and the arts are involved in Canada, is that it is a small country. High culture and the arts do not have mass appeal anywhere. That’s why the Canadian Opera Company needs supporters. That’s why the Stratford Festival needs supporters. There are a number of magazines in Canada, like Canadian Art, which also require patronage in order to do what they do.

TL: Are you seeing a change in what readers want in a Canadian magazine?

JM: I don’t think so, but as I said at the outset, we’re not a magazine that goes out and says to the marketplace, “What do you want, and we’ll give it to you.” That’s not the way the process works here. The way the process works here is that we take a look at the country and what it’s doing and what the people in it are doing and we say, “What’s significant? What’s interesting? What would I, as an intelligent Canadian who feels like a stakeholder in Canada—what would I want to know?” And that’s what we give them. As long as people write us a cheque once a year and say, “Please send me 10 more issues of your magazine,” we assume they are liking what we’re doing. That’s why, incidentally, paying for something is so important. If you give it away, how do you know if people actually like it?

TL: Is Canadian journalism experiencing a slow death or a gradual transformation?

JM: I think there’s a lot of hysteria out there right now about the state of journalism, which has been occasioned by the Internet, digital media, and the fact that newspapers, which were once—I hesitate to use the words “obscenely profitable,” but profitable well beyond what most businesses would have thought of as healthy profits—are no longer that profitable. Some of them are nevertheless profitable and many of them are not as profitable as they should be because during the ‘80s and ‘90s they acquired way too much debt, so they are having to service debt. The shareholders took out a lot of equity. Newspapers are having to work on a different business model, which is going to involve the Internet for sure, as are magazine publishers and book publishers. All of that is just plumbing. The Internet is just plumbing and what goes into the plumbing is what’s really important. I think good journalism today is much the same as good journalism was 25 years ago or 50 years ago, and I think it will be the same 25 years from now and 50 years from now. How it’s distributed and disseminated will change. We’re not seeing the death of journalism.

TL: Advances in information technology have made the world hungry for news not just about local or national issues, but the world at large. With a growing interconnectivity among countries, are Canadian publications dealing with Canadian issues as relevant as they used to be?

JM: The Walrus, from the very beginning, had an interest in the world and things going on outside Canada. But it doesn’t make any sense to me to attempt to do something you don’t have the resources, human or financial, to do. We do not pretend to be telling Canadian readers about the world. There are other publications that can do that part better than we can. We’re trying to tell Canadian readers about Canada and its place in the world. We go beyond Canada’s borders, in what we do, when there is an obvious Canadian connection, but beyond that, it just makes no sense for us to compete with The Economist or Foreign Affairs or whatever.

TL: What does the future hold for The Walrus?

JM: I hope that when you are as old as I am, The Walrus will still be around. I think our country deserves its own magazine. The problem with Harper’s, The Atlantic, or The New Yorker is that they are all great magazines, but they’re not our magazines and they don’t talk about us; they barely know we exist. I’d like our finances to become stable enough, soon enough, that we can do things like pay interns, pay writers more, and be able to spend more money on our journalism—to be able to spend more on travel, which is very difficult for us to do now.