Centennial Baby Blues

Our anointed queen

Our anointed queen

I am not a patriot. I have never bought a plastic made-in-China Canadian flag, tee-shirt or any other red and white trappings on July 1. As a gay Torontonian, Pride takes precedence for my family on that particular long weekend. There are Canada Day/Pride hybrid paraphernalia for the festively conflicted, but I am not one of them and have never indulged in a rainbow maple leaf temporary tattoo. While I do appreciate my extreme good fortune in being born Canadian, and applaud the courage of my parents who, separately, and both impossibly young, left all they knew in England to make a new life, I had nothing to do with it. My parents met, married, and procreated here. Luck made me Canadian. I didn’t earn it. It was thrust upon me in what was, ironically, the most patriotic of years.

I was born in 1967—aka The Summer or Love—two weeks before the country’s much ballyhooed centennial. Amid all the hoopla that included nickels emblazoned with bunnies, a confederation train, and a brand new font—The Jacques Cartier typeface—there was even a push for fornication in the name of the nation. I cannot claim the title of The Centennial Baby—that honour is bestowed upon Pamela Anderson—yes, that Pamela Anderson—who entered this earth on July 1, 1967 at 4:08 a.m. in Ladysmith, B.C. I am, however, numbered among the lesser Centennial Babies, some 370,894 of us, including Pamela, our anointed queen, who, according to Stats Can, collectively squalled into existence as our respective parents’ personal centennial projects. It was not a popular contest, apparently. There were 16,816 more live births in 1966.

While I have seen enough of human frailty in the form of early cancers and chronic pain to greatly appreciate the fact that I am still on the right side of the turf and in sort-of-okay shape, I can also tell you this—no one enjoys turning 50, not even Pamela Anderson. So, amid all the colonial claptrap celebrating 150 years of nationhood as defined by a dead white Scottish dude, I have a request. Can the Federal Government remember the now saggy pool of surviving Centennial Babies and cut us all a cheque? It doesn’t have to be a big cheque, but please do make it symbolic. How about $670, because, and I think we can all agree on this, $67 is just a little too cheap. The $670 would be fair recompense for the inability of any of us to avoid our 50th birthdays. For those of us who want to try to forget, it will also be more than enough to keep ourselves and those closest to us sufficiently lubricated or numbed in our drug of choice to deaden the cloying effects of all that orgiastic flag waving. One last request, and I think I speak for the remaining 370,893 of us who are still alive when I say this—please do go ahead and cut a special cheque of $6,700 for Pamela Anderson.

An American obscenity

This feels like the dawn of a brutal new world when I thought we were on the cusp of full equality at last. Instead of a strong, smart, compassionate woman at the helm, America has elected a sociopath. The American response to the worst refugee crisis since World War Two is defined by hatred. The spectacle is eerily and historically familiar—a charismatic celebrity on stage, reducing all complexity and nuance to over-simplified sound bites. Rabid nativism and misogyny dominates intellectualism and basic human decency. The ones to pay will be all of the Others—the scapegoats, the targets of this monstrous dumbing down of all things to one, terrible reality—American democracy now trembles on a knife edge.

Funding the lucky few

Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 10.58.24 AMI’m lucky. That’s all. I was lucky in December when some faculty members at the History Department at York met to decide which SSHRC proposals they would ship down the line, to the Faculty of Graduate Studies. Someone liked mine. Maybe two someones. I thank them, whoever they are. Then I got lucky again, when even more anonymous someones from different York faculties found my proposal worthy. What constitutes worthiness, in this case, is more luck, plus a dash of sex appeal. My proposal isn’t safe sexy. It’s more American Horror Story sexy. I study a virus that wiped out between 50 to 100 million people, most of them, over the course of about four months. You would have to be in a coma or studying for comps not to notice the appalling viruses that have been all over the news for the past year or so. I also benefit from a great news hook – the 100th anniversary of the 1918 influenza pandemic is coming up. That’s it. That’s why my proposal was sent on to Ottawa, while the majority of those of my equally hard-working and talented fellow grad students in the department of History at York, were not. And now, my odds of securing a SSHRC are about 50/50. So, not great. And, if I get lucky again in the spring, and do secure a SSHRC, I will have reached the pinnacle of what most full-time grad students can ever hope for: $20,000 a year for three years. This is how much we value scholarship in Canada.

Women Writers Make Less

Women writers in Canada make 55 cents to every dollar that male writers earn. That is the buried lead in the  latest survey figures from the Writers’ Union of Canada. And no one is talking about it

We are talking about the troubling figures that don’t really surprise any of us who have been scrabbling to pay bills  as writers over the past 15 years: Canadian writers earn 27 per cent less today than they did in 1998, and must work almost twice as hard to get it. The average writer’s income is $12,789 – or, $36,000 below the national average. In 1998, I was in my second and final year of journalism school. For most of my career since, I have hustled as a freelance writer and editor. I’ve done well, by industry standards. I even have several National Magazine Awards to my name. I had long-form feature articles (remember them?) published in many Canadian consumer magazines. And yet my 15-plus year career has been on a steady downward economic trajectory. If I were to publish a book tomorrow, for my trouble, I would make 55% less than a man doing the same damned thing.

This statistic, and evidently, the fact that there is a difference at all between what men and women make as writers, surprised Kate Taylor. In Friday’s Globe and Mail she said: “The Canadian survey also revealed a surprising gender gap: For every dollar reported by male authors, female authors were only reporting 55 cents. It’s a shocking difference in a field in which women are as prominent as men, in a country with a literary tradition in which the first names that spring to mind are female, including those of Margaret Laurence and Marian Engel, the pair who founded TWUC.”

Fifty-five percent. Is this 1955? Am I the only one who is enraged by this? Why are women writers so undervalued, and why is everyone so surprised that we are? In this post Ghomeshi Canada, are people really shocked that hipster dudes can also be misogynists? If these statistics are right, then our industry is far more sexist than others. The latest statistics for the gender wage gap in Ontario is 74 cents to the male dollar.The United States even looks like a feminist haven, comparatively. There, on average, women make 77 cents to the male dollar. In 1987, the year that pay equity legislation was passed, the gender wage gap in Ontario was 36%, meaning that women earned 64 cents to the male dollar. And that’s still nine cents more than the gender wage gap that exists today in Canadian writing.

So perhaps it is not surprising that I was never able to make a living solely on writing and editing. I didn’t realize my gender made it more than doubly difficult to do so. I have always been honest with my students. “If your freelance,” I tell them, “make sure you also get some corporate writing work.” (Also a difficult task, but that’s the subject of another blog). Now I will also say this. “If you are a writer and you are a woman, and you publish a book, you will make 55% less than your male counterparts in this country.”

I remember the advice of a dear friend,  a man who taught me more about great journalism than anyone else I know. Years ago, he also told me that writers don’t ask for more money and they should. I took his advice. I always brought up money and was never shy to ask for more. I often didn’t get it, but at least, I thought, I put it out there. I’m a good writer, and an experienced one. I naively believed in the old adage “you get what you pay for.” A few years ago, an editor contacted me. I did not pitch the story, keep in mind—she reached out to me. This editor had read a piece I had done for another magazine and wanted me to do something similar. Great, I said. And then I asked about money. The amount was so low, so insulting, I actually laughed. She had approached me, I pointed out. She wanted me based on my writing, but also based on my expertise in a particular area. If anything, I would expect a little more than my usual rate. There was a brief silence. A curt goodbye. I never heard from her or her publication again. I now wonder if my name had been Ken and not Kate, would she have hung up quite so quickly?

And why, I also wonder, after reading the smattering of coverage in various news outlets that picked up on this appalling story about the sad state of Canadian writing, was the gender wage gap the last point anyone made?

Not that it surprises me.

La Maison Rose

la maison roseWhen I was about three or four years old, I told my parents I didn’t live with them. I lived in The Pink House. At first, they chalked it up to a childish fantasy — an imaginary friend sort of problem they quietly hoped would go away before they might have to go public with it. I imagine my mother distracting me in her sing-song English accent. “Katy, do come and read this book with me.” My father would have tried an ice cream. But I was adamant. “I don’t live here. I live in The Pink House.” In fact, at the time, we lived in a large white stuccoed house in Oshawa on busy Simcoe Street North. The first week my parents moved in, my father built a tall fence because I developed the disconcerting tendency to dash out towards traffic. meanddadAlso, I could climb. Here we are in front of the fence, around the time of my pink house obsession. It made no sense. My parents wracked their brains trying to figure out the source of my odd fixation. There were no pink houses in Oshawa in 1970-71, as far as they knew. I wasn’t surrounded by hyper-gendered toys. Sure, I had the ubiquitous Barbies, but I never played with them, unless cutting off their hair and hiding them in the back of a closet counts as “playing.” Mostly, I liked toy cars, Lego and a cool six-shooter cap-gun my father acquired in Calgary when you could still buy kids war toys with a clear conscience. But there was one doll, just one — a beloved companion I dragged around by its hair and named Pink Baby.

Fourth birthday party. I'm the one in drag.

Fourth birthday party. I’m the one in drag.

The Pink House, my reasonable parents surmised, was the combination of a type A personality, a favourite toy, and, what my mother called a “vivid imagination.” It wouldn’t last. They were wrong. It got so bad that my parents decided to let me leave and “go home.” On the big day, I talked incessantly about finally going to The Pink House. But I couldn’t play with the bath toys. They belonged to the little girl who lived with them, not to the girl from the Pink House. My mother thought that would work. But I was undeterred. They let me go so far as to put on my coat and shoes, and start walking up the driveway to The Pink House. At this point, the way my mother tells the story, worry had my father skirting the edge of a total nervous collapse. I suspect it was my mother in that state. Regardless, they let me leave and held their collective breath. I walked down the driveway, looked one way, then the other,  and paused —what seemed a very long time. Then I turned back and came home. I never mentioned the Pink House, my real house, again.

It’s in Montmartre. Tour guides will tell you anything to keep you interested and won’t necessarily let the truth get in the way of a good story. With that caveat in mind, this is what we were told and what I want to believe about The Pink House in Montmartre. Towards the top of the wending Rue de l’Abreuvoir it sits, where it sat in 1916 for Maurice Utrillo’s famous lithograph, and where it sat in 1886-1888 when Van Gogh lived in the neighbourhood. According to the tour guide, it was a brothel in Van Gogh’s time, and he was a frequent customer. Perhaps this is where he took some of the little pleasure he ever experienced in his tortured life. Certainly he would have passed by it often. Today it is a restaurant and where Kim and I chose to spend our last evening together in Paris. It has taken me almost 48 years to get to Paris. Of all the places in that city I have read about maison rose nightand imagined in literature and history, Montmartre is at the beating heart of it for me — the one that artists called home. We saved the best for last. After walking through Montmartre, we spent a few hours at a little table th-2on the cobbled street outside La Maison Rose. We stayed until the sun went down. I know that Cafe Terrace at Night was set in Arles. But when the lamps came on, just for a minute, I imagined that the first piece of art I ever knew — the print that hung in my parents’ living room for 20 years  — could have been born here. We walked the route Van Gogh would have traced back home, perhaps after a prostitute he loved kicked him out for another paying customer. It was a short downhill trek, to the big blue door of number 54 Rue Lepic, made gloomy in the night. I curled my hand briefly around the spiralled brass handle and squeezed, as he would have done. Perhaps he would have leaned his weight against the heavy door to get in. Alone.

Kim and I walked on, our fingers laced together.lamplight