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.

FN 999

My Uncle Jim loved cars. In this snap, taken not long before he died in 1979, he poses in the crown jewel of his collection – the Cord. On the back of this picture he wrote “the three thoroughbreds. sp sp?” My mother was an English teacher from England, which doubtless gave him grammatical pause. My cousin Peter is behind the wheel of the convertible, and while no one is in the Benz, and you can’t tell it from this pic, I can assure you that the license plate reads “FN 999.”

As in “fucking near 1000.” I’m certain that Jim did not run that one by my mother at the time. FN 999 entered the family lexicon of questionable acronyms, meaning anything overly expensive that any reasonable person would be a fool to buy. As in: “How much did that cost you?” — “FN 999.” You get the idea. So, it is with some pride and great fondness for my supportive family, the ghost of Uncle Jim included, that I announce the completion of stage one of my journey through gradual school. I have dubbed my Major Research Project FN 29,999. As in fucking near 30,000. Words, that is. I’d actually put a higher financial price tag on this sucker in terms of the blood, stress and tears it caused. The actual working title, as much as I’d love to just call it FN 29,999, is Breaking the News by Following the Rules. You’ll have to click on the PDF to read the sub-head to know what it’s all about. I don’t expect anyone to actually read the whole damned thing, my English teacher mother from England included. But if you do, I hope at least that you won’t be bored. Many thanks to my advisor, Prof. Michiel Horn, and Prof. Marlene Shore, the only two people who were forced to read it to the bitter 98-page end. At least, I’m pretty sure they did.

In the two weeks since completing the first thing I ever wrote to include a table of contents, Kim graciously gave me the best vacation I could have asked for. We spent one fabulous week at a rented cottage where the wildlife was fantastic. We have Mel to thank for the various sightings, because she made us get out of the canoe on a few adventures.  I discovered, for example,  that bears do, in fact, shit in the woods. After the cottage interlude, we nipped up to St. Catharines to visit my Aunt Rene (Jim’s widow) and take in the sights at Niagara on the Lake. I even got a visit in with my sister and nieces at Canada’s Wonderland. And on Saturday, we topped it all off with The Master Bash when we brought together a few new friends from gradual school with other friends, and celebrated our collective accomplishment. Here’s Graeme and his girlfriend Kate, basking in the glow of his Masters in History, after a long, arduous 11-month slog. Good on you Graeme! It was a great party. And yes, there were sparklers. Even better, there were burning school-house fireworks, another Kim brainstorm. In fact, it’s all thanks to Kim. So thanks love — I couldn’t have done it without you. Now, on to round two.

Going to pot

20130619-111237.jpg I confess to posting that opening pic just for the cheap laugh. I’m exceedingly good at cheap laughs. The subject of this post, is, however, a little more serious. It seems that in the 10 months since I began gradual school, my body has decided to join Clemmy, figuratively at least. Ten months and 15 pounds heavier. It’s almost an accomplishment. I wonder if professional eaters can boast that kind of caloric gain. I mean really. It’s quite something.

Here’s a shot of me at my recent skinniest.

20130619-111757.jpg It was taken in the summer of 2010, at my first swim race after Alcatraz. I’d dropped about 50 pounds since that incredible feat from the year before, and was fully obsessed with swimming and running. Here’s another shot from the same summer, taken by Mel on one of our runs at Albion Hills.

20130619-111948.jpg I’m pretending to be Wonder Woman. Compared to today, I was. The thing is, I always need something to obsess about. For a while, it was physical. This last picture of me recovering from some ridiculous feat with Lou of Sacred Memory says it all. I’m exhausted.


Then I broke my hip. That was a week before xmas 2010. Here I am hobbling around in the days after my lesser trochanter gave out on a run. Yes, I literally ran until my leg broke. Plans for training for an ultra with Mel were on hold indefinitely.

20130619-113940.jpg I spent that winter pretty depressed, I’ll admit. I wasn’t teaching at Ryerson that term and didn’t do a whole lot of anything while my leg slowly, slowly healed – after it took forever to get an accurate diagnosis from smug health professionals. (No one thought an overweight woman in her 40s could possibly have a real sports injury, let alone be an athlete). I finally got a diagnosis when a lovely woman took a nuclear scan of my leg. (Also, she was hot). The hottie technician let me see the pulsating white spot on the screen. Any idiot could see it was a break. The gormless sports doc confirmed what hottie already knew and what I had always known since I limped home from that fateful pre-christmas run. I had a stress fracture. Anyway, we got through all of that, and I slowly started to get back on track until the pinnacle of my late-life jockiness last summer when I ran (shuffled) to the end of a 25 km trail race with a cold, and then, in August, swam a 10 km race. Then I put away my running shoes, goggles, and all things to do with my physical obsession and switched gears. I became obsessed with school. I went from 100 to zero in a second flat. I’m almost proud of that. Who had time for the treadmill? I had 500 pages to get through in less than a day. Who had time for laundry? I had to write a paper about duelling. (Seriously, it was about duelling). Poor Kim. Anyway, 10 months ticked by and with it, a handful of half-hearted attempts to beat back the bulge with exercise and the usual bullshit. (Write down your calories, stay within a certain range, don’t drink booze, blah blah blah blah. Blah.) My heart wasn’t in it. I had no heart. I was all brain. It’s a miracle Kim didn’t trade me in for a better model. I was a royal pain in the ass. And that ass kept growing.

Until, here we are. Ten months later, 15 pounds heavier, and a form from my doctor to check my sugars and triglycerides because I’m not a 25-year-old who can subsist on Doritos and beer like the other gradual students I know. (Okay, I wasn’t actually eating Doritos but there was some beer). I recall the words of wisdom from a colleague at Ryerson, who also went back to school in her 40s to get her Masters. “The first thing to go,” she warned, “is exercise.” For me, it has to come back, or my PhD could literally do me in. So, as of today I have chalked up three open water swims and some time on my treadmill. I’ll venture outside to do a trail run soon – when I fit back into my running shorts. Until then, as I huff and puff in my sports bra and underwear, it may not be pretty, but at least it’s a start – if not an obsession. Yet.

the LAC

On a recent road trip, Dave and I visited the LAC. Sounds like an exciting open water swim destination, but, in fact, it stands for the Library and Archives of Canada. Fun, in a different sort of way for a couple of gradual students in History.

20130616-154208.jpg It’s an impressive building, all marble inside with a heavy security presence – who are all very friendly. What was more impressive was how close Dave managed to get us some fantastic digs near the archives. We stayed at the Albert on Bay which is literally a stone’s throw away. The hotel was far swankier than many of the dumps Kim has taken me to over the years. (Most recently, the fleabag motel we stayed in for last summer’s Barrie show, where I refused to take off all my clothes for fear of catching something nasty, comes instantly to mind.) Too bad I don’t have a picture of that place. Instead, here’s a shot of Dave, with a pre-archival beer in our fancy-ass hotel room before we set off to the Lac.

20130616-154700.jpg It was a most productive visit for me. The fact that it poured rain the whole time only added to the experience. (It’s not like we were wishing we were anywhere else.) I got to examine the personal papers of three different war correspondents while Dave acquired the services of an archivist to help him crack into some CSIS documents from the 1930s. CSIS makes it almost impossible for anyone to do any research about them in any time period, it would seem. Big surprise. The files are there, but the finding aid is kept top secret. Nice trick. Anyway, Dave did make some headway with the helpful staff while I was blown away by the view and the fact that the reading room is open until 11 p.m. Now I just have to write my MRP (that’s Major Research Paper in silly academic lingo.) I had best get started on that…