Nothing Gold Can Stay

Brooke (1998)

Nothing Gold Can Stay

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf,
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day
Nothing gold can stay.

– Robert Frost

It was the first week of February, and I had been away for 9 days in France, at a short film festival. It hadn’t been a particularly good trip. I was socially awkward and intimidated by the French language and the very professional and cliquey nature of the crowd. I’d stayed too long and missed home. And so I came home, and something between Brooke and me was just slightly off. When you’ve known someone nearly 20 years, you know when things are slightly off.

Later that week we went out for dinner and it seemed like Brooke was trying to pick a fight with me over the continuing joke/disaster of my “career” (or more accurately, my lack thereof). I knew it was one of our issues, but it didn’t seem to be that big of an issue. When we got home, I pressed her to tell me what was really the matter. And then she collapsed into tears.

Through sobs, she told me that on the night I left for my trip, she’d gotten together with an old university friend for dinner. He was in town for a conference and they’d decided to catch up. She’d briefly told me about her plan on the day I left, which seemed odd because she mentioned it so offhandedly at the last possible minute. What I didn’t know at the time is that this friend was someone with whom she’d had a brief flirtation way back in 1992, but she’d been involved in a serious relationship and so they never pursued it. He found another girlfriend, studied law, got married, had four children and now had a very successful career as a Crown Attorney in a small town about five hours from Toronto. But he shared with Brooke that he was unhappy, and that he’d always “carried a torch” for her. And I guess this unleashed her own feelings of regret and “what if?” She confessed that they had spent the night together. Even worse, they were planning a long weekend together the next month which is why she was trying to fight with me. She admitted that she was hoping to manufacture a crisis so that she could say we “needed time apart” so she could be with him. I was completely blindsided.

But I wasn’t yet angry or even very fearful. I thought it wonderful that Brooke was getting flattered and told how desirable she was. She’s a very attractive woman and sometimes it’s good for your self-confidence to have someone (other than your spouse) tell you that. And over the years, I’d had my own silly flirtations and attractions and could understand that feeling of infatuation. But it quickly dawned on me that this was something much more serious. Although I decided to let things play out, thinking the infatuation wouldn’t last, I have to admit that letting her spend an entire long weekend at some hotel in our own city with some unknown guy did crush me. But surely she’d get this out of her system and see that what we have is worth keeping, right?

Except that that hasn’t happened yet. And I don’t think it’s going to happen. I hastily made plans to escape to Montreal for a few days in early April. When the time arrived, I was miserable and didn’t want to go to another city just to be alone. She informed me that he was going to take advantage of my absence to spend a few more days in Toronto with her. Another horrible few days for me. And when I got home, I didn’t know what to expect. I kept telling her she needed to decide, but have finally come to the conclusion that her actions have spoken louder than any words. She’d already decided. She’s chosen him over me.

And I’m devastated. Anyone who knows me well knows that I take my relationships more seriously than just about anything in this world. I certainly take them more seriously than my “career.” I’ve put every ounce of my strength over the past nearly 17 years into being the best boyfriend, and then the best husband, that I knew how to be. We didn’t have a perfect relationship. No one does. But we had a damned fine one, full of love and affection and great communication. I love Brooke and I loved being married to her, and so this is the hardest thing that I have ever had to face in my entire life.

Though we haven’t yet decided to divorce, Brooke will be moving to her own place on June 1st. Strangely, it’s just across the street from our current apartment. And I’ll stay here, at least for the summer, though the effective doubling of both of our rents is going to be harsh. Maybe I’ll turn our office back into a bedroom and try to get a roommate. Or maybe I’ll move to another part of the city, though I’ll need to share a place and I have no idea what that will be like. To top it off, I’m still woefully underemployed and will need to bring in a lot more money just to keep going. But really, that’s how it all started for me.

It was almost to the day 27 years ago that my mum died. I was 22, just finishing college and hoping to embark on my career. But life got in the way, you see. My dad’s support cheques stopped coming, and I ended up staying on at my summer job much longer than I wanted to. Then followed a period of taking in roommates, sometimes too many at a time, to make ends meet. I often feel that my career restlessness is somehow rooted in this “work for survival” period of my life. Hopefully it serves me well again now.

I’m familiar with grief. And with struggle. Hopefully I can find the strength and resources, within myself and with my friends, to come through this okay.

Best Music of 2013

So here again is my totally haphazard selection of the best music released in 2013. As always, I find just as much joy in discovering old music that’s new to me as I do in keeping up with actually new music, so I listened to a shockingly small number of new releases this year. It’s interesting that my method of discovery has evolved over the years. I’ve long since stopped listening to radio, so my musical discoveries now usually come from friends or even just random Internet excursions.

One of the most interesting things that happened to me this year was being invited to a metal show by my friend Tom Hall while on a trip to New York this summer. An old high school friend of his from Michigan manages an up-and-coming band called Battlecross. I can’t remember having such a great time at a live show. The band played with such an amazing sense of joy, even if the music might seem aggressive. And I found the sincerity and work ethic of the band inspiring, too. It’s since led to a new appreciation of the metal music I had pretty much dismissed since I discovered punk in the late 1970s, and it’s been a lot of fun to “find my place” among all of metal’s subgenres.

But I haven’t abandoned my love of shoegaze and post-punk and it’s great to find more bands mining that territory, even if some of it sounds just a bit too familiar. I can’t be too critical, though. If I find myself listening to something a lot, it’s going to make my year-end list, and so without further ado, here are my favourite releases of the past year.

Beach Fossils - Clash The Truth
Girls Names - The New LifeHolograms - Forever
Carcass - Surgical SteelSuede - BloodsportsSmith Westerns - Soft Will
Battlecross - War of WillOkkervil River - The Silver GymnasiumSin Fang - FlowersArctic Monkeys - AM

In list form, if you’re not visually inclined:

  1. Beach Fossils – Clash the Truth
  2. Girls Names – The New Life
  3. Holograms – Forever
  4. Carcass – Surgical Steel
  5. Suede – Bloodsports
  6. Smith Westerns – Soft Will
  7. Battlecross – War of Will
  8. Okkervil River – The Silver Gymnasium
  9. Sin Fang – Flowers
  10. Arctic Monkeys – AM

Honourable Mentions:

  • Wax Idols – Discipline & Desire
  • Sebadoh – Defend Yourself
  • Jim Guthrie – Takes Time
  • The Joy Formidable – Wolf’s Law
  • Death Angel – The Dream Calls for Blood
  • Local Natives – Hummingbird

Just for fun, here are some of my previous lists:

How about you? What were some of your favourites?

P.S. If you still haven’t caught up on all of 2013′s music (and I definitely haven’t), I’d recommend downloading this massive 184-song annual collection from Fluxblog.

I Was a Welfare Case(worker)

Here’s an interesting story that I don’t believe I’ve told before. It’s from the days before blogging. At this time twenty years ago, I was collecting welfare.

I’d spent the 1992-1993 academic year in Grand Rapids, Michigan, attending a teacher training program at Calvin College. I’d applied to all the Ontario teachers’ colleges but hadn’t been accepted, despite strong grades. At the time, teaching was one of the hottest careers going and everything about the profession was very competitive. I enjoyed a very good year in Michigan and learned a lot, personally and professionally, but when I returned to Ontario in the summer of 1993, I had absolutely no contacts here. I was living with my dad, on a bed behind the sofa, and having gone into debt to attend teachers’ college, had no money at all to support myself while searching for a teaching job. My dad had recently exhausted his severance after taking early retirement from IBM at the age of 49, so he was suffering financially as well. Wanting to devote myself fulltime to finding a teaching position, and thinking it would only be for a month or two, I applied for welfare. My monthly cheque was for the princely sum of $663, $400 of which went to my dad for room and board. In those pre-Internet days, I had to send out resumés by mail and search for information at the library. The library was really the only place I could get out of the apartment without spending any money.

Although I had a few interviews, they were only for private school positions or to be added to the public school supply lists. As I mentioned, things were very competitive, and I had no local teaching experience. I taught a day or two as a substitute at a local Christian school, and volunteered at the junior high school next to my dad’s place, but nothing better came along. After spending so much time and money preparing for this career, I didn’t want to give up too easily, but really, $663 a month meant I’d never get out of my dad’s apartment.

In the spring of 1994, during a meeting with my caseworker, she looked at my qualifications and mentioned that the municipality were actually hiring caseworkers and that I should apply. Coincidentally, one of the other Torontonians who I’d met at Calvin had been hired as a caseworker several months before. With her encouragement and guidance, I aced the preliminary exam and in May, 1994, I was hired. I’d gone from one side of the desk to the other.

It was a demanding job, but one which, for a while, made me feel like I was helping people. Then in 1995, Ontarians elected Mike Harris, a Conservative whose “Common Sense Revolution” promised to lower taxes and punish those on social assistance. Welfare rates were slashed (single people saw their assistance cut from $663/month to $520/month, and those rates remained in place for many many years) and “workfare” programs were drawn up. My job became much much harder. For instance, people on social assistance were required to report any and all income they received, and it was to be deducted from their monthly cheques. If you lived in the city of Toronto, $520 wouldn’t even cover rent, never mind food, so unless you were living with family or several roommates, it was very tempting not to report income. And how could I blame my clients?

I saw scores of new Canadians, families who’d immigrated after being promised that their professional qualifications would lead to good jobs in Canada. They were disillusioned and sometimes angry. I had ex-convicts who couldn’t get jobs or who talked about doing odd jobs for cash. My most trying period was when I had a caseload of more than 150 single mothers. Caught between finding child care and pursuing child support, it was difficult for these women to think about finding meaningful work, even if they had enough education to find good jobs. There were also a lot of bad boyfriends whom we often suspected of living with our clients, sometimes contributing financially and sometimes sponging off the already meagre income of the households.

Over time, the work became more and more stressful as I realized that as a front-line employee, I had no power to change the legislation I was enforcing. I grew frustrated not being able to really make much of a difference in the lives of people who wanted help. Even more frustrating was seeing how many people had given up completely, simply content to take whatever small amount they could get. I saw some of my co-workers who’d been there a long time treating people rudely and without compassion. Things must have been bad enough that when an opportunity to sell computers in a retail store came up in 1998, I saw that as my ticket out.

I could have had a long career with the Department of Social Services. The friend who helped me get the job just received her 20 year pin from the City of Toronto. She probably has a very nice pension plan by now. I’ve thought about re-applying for my old job. That would certainly be interesting. And should I find myself back on the other side of the desk, well the rates have gone up in the past 15 years. A single person can now collect up to $626/month. Yes, that’s right. It’s less than you’d have received 20 years ago. Good thing rents in Toronto haven’t increased, right?

Meeting Aaron Swartz

By now, quite a few people know who Aaron Swartz was. It’s a shame that the world has only become acquainted with this brilliant young man because of what happened on January 11th of this year. Aaron took his own life after the stress of multiple felony indictments became too much. Aaron’s crime was downloading academic journal articles from a database that only academics were meant to access. His principles led him to want to share these terabytes of knowledge with the world rather than keep them locked up for commercial exploitation. Yes, you could say he was idealistic, and rash. But his life is being widely remembered and his influence being felt much more strongly now. After reading this lengthy New Yorker profile by Larissa MacFarquhar, I thought I should put up my much more innocent remembrances of meeting Aaron.

It was as the South by Southwest Interactive conference in 2003, long before he had turned his intelligence away from simple programming to more political pursuits. And, sadly for me, this was the only time I met him, but he made an impression, on me and on my crowd of online friends, many of whom have gone on to shape the Internet in one way or another. Here’s an excerpt from my post-conference diary:

Wednesday March 12, 2003

A highlight of this year’s conference was the presence of the wee Aaron Swartz (www.aaronsw.com). He’s 16, but two years ago formulated what became RSS 1.0 and he’s working with Lawrence Lessig on Creative Commons. Obviously, this kid will buy and sell the rest of us in just a handful of years. But the funny thing is that every time someone discussed him, they gave the universal hand signal: holding the palm down and waving it back and forth about four feet off the ground. I did it myself last night at Castle Hill and Brad and Mike just cracked up. Then we did a whole bunch of jokes about Lessig dressing the kid up like Mickey Mouse and taking him to court where he’d plead “Free the Mouse”! I love geek jokes. I also said I was going to Photoshop a picture of The White Stripes with Ben and Mena Trott’s faces pasted on. The reason was actually due to a post on Aaron Swartz’s weblog. He said that there were cracks that Ben and Mena weren’t married but were actually siblings, because no one had ever seen them kiss. The White Stripes pass themselves off as brother and sister but were once actually married to each other. Not sure how many other people would get it, but I think it’s funny. There could be lots of Photoshop fun. I think a photo of Mickey Mouse could have wee Aaron’s face pasted on. Maybe I’ll post them to SXSWBlog anonymously.

Another funny thing about Aaron was that due to his age, he couldn’t check into the hotel room he’d booked online. Eventually he went to stay with Cory Doctorow at his hotel, but before that Min Jung took him up to her room to leave his bag, and while up there, she mixed some drinks from some booze she’d brought with her. Since she needed help carrying them, wee Aaron was recruited. She took a lot of flak for basically corrupting the lad.

I remember all of this with a rueful smile. A line from Larissa MacFarquhar’s profile resonated with me: “Despite his public presence, he was small and frail and shy and often sick, and people wanted to protect him. He was loved intensely, as a child is loved.” Even in his brief time among us at SxSW 2003, you could sense the tragic truth in those words.

I would post those Mickey Mouse Aaron Swartz Photoshopped pictures here, except of course that I never made them. For all of our joking around, I didn’t want to do anything to hurt his feelings. Or, despite the fact that he might not have even remembered meeting me, to make him think less of me.

Failed Child Prodigy

That was my semi-ironic title for the piece the Globe and Mail published on February 8, 2013 on the back page of the Facts and Arguments section. At least that’s where I think it appeared. I was out of the country and only saw the online version. They changed my self-deprecating title to the more desperate sounding headline “I’m a reading prodigy, but now I’m falling behind in life.” Wow, that really sounds dire. Still, I’m proud of the piece, although I was asked to add 200 words at the last minute, while Brooke and I were on holiday in southern California. I hope you can’t see where the padding is. This is not the best thing I’ve ever written, but I’m still proud that it was published in “Canada’s National Newspaper.”

I was also delighted to receive some fan mail the other day. One piece was a card from the 91-year-old patriarch of the Cusimano family, still living in the same house on Cassandra Boulevard, and who sent me two photos of his family: one from the 1960s, roughly around the time they appear in my piece, and another of the extended family in the present day. The other piece of fan mail was from a septuagenarian from BC who encouraged me to remain a free spirit, to live my life to the fullest and to regret nothing. What amazing gifts! Here’s the piece as it appeared:

American abolitionist and escaped slave Frederick Douglass famously said, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”

I have not found that to be the case.

As a child, I was a bit of a celebrity.

When I was three, I found my way to the local elementary school and asked to be let in. They told me I was too young, but, after telephoning my mother, allowed me to sit in on their kindergarten class for the day.

I found it a bit slow.

You see, by the age of three, I had already taught myself to read.

I am not sure how I accomplished it.

We had a lot of books lying around, but the only one I can remember now is Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever.

By the time I had started school for real, it was hard to keep my ability a secret.

One time, on the way to school, I was stopped by a couple of the rough-and-tumble Cusimano boys.

One of them had a paper route and rode a special bicycle with a big metal container on the front full of newspapers.

I recall them pulling one out and asking me to read the headline aloud, and then, amazed, the rest of the article.

Early in my school career, I was asked to come to the principal’s office – not because of any misbehaviour, but to demonstrate my gift.

Mr. Malcolm took a book, seemingly at random, from his office bookshelf and asked me to open it to any page and begin reading.

A few days later, I found myself moving from Grade 1 to Grade 2, right in the middle of the school year.

Looking back at my report cards, I find it hard not to laugh.

My Grade 1 teacher called me bright and inquisitive.

But by the end of the year, my Grade 2 teacher had lamented that I was immature and that some of my stories were “silly.” I was seven at the time.

Classroom reading exercises in the 1970s involved ubiquitous boxes of SRA cards.

This ingenious system made learning a game, allowing individual students to progress through each of the dozen or so colour-coded levels independently.

We’d read a story contained on a large card and then answer questions to test our comprehension of what we had just read.

Of course, because I already knew how to read, this stuff was easy and fun for me.

We also had the Scholastic book club, through which we could order books at school and have them delivered to our classrooms each month.

I was very glad to discover that this is still going strong.

I also loved when our teachers would read books aloud to us.

I can sometimes still hear the voice of Mrs. West in my head whenever I read one of my favourites, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.

I continued to excel in school and, unbeknownst to me then, my parents rejected the school’s advice to skip me another year after Grade 6.

They were concerned about my social development, and it turns out they were right.

By Grade 8, I was tired of being called a “brain” and helping everyone else with their homework.

I wanted to be accepted, but I didn’t want to stand out.

My report card that year warned that I appeared to be holding myself back.

I got a further comeuppance in high school, where it quickly became apparent that math and science were not my strong suits.

My childhood ambitions of becoming a surgeon or a biologist started to fade.

But so what? I could do anything, couldn’t I? And there’s the rub.

If anything, I think being able to read from such an early age spoiled me.

Having the world open up through books might seem like a wonderful thing, and when I was a child, it was.

But as I grew up, and continued to feel like the world was forever opening up to me, at least through books, I became more and more restless.

I have been part of the work force now for more than 30 years, starting with my first summer job selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door.

But I’ve never held a job longer than four years, and any grand idea of building a career, never mind a vocation, has long since evaporated.

From time to time I blame the new economy, or the Internet, or the rise of unpaid internships.

But the truth I cannot avoid is that I think I’ve always just been an intellectual nomad.

I have been spoiled by reading.

My head has been filled from toddlerhood onward with the magic of worlds created by words.

To this day, I cling to the illusion that if I am sufficiently interested in a subject, I can make a career there.

But the truth is that I am still the daydreamer I was as a child.

Back then, they thought I was just bored with the standard curriculum.

Perhaps it was simply that the real world could never compete with the world I found in books.

Perhaps a better quotation about reading would be George Bernard Shaw’s, about the slightly ridiculous “hero” of Cervantes’s novel: “Reading made Don Quixote a gentleman, but believing what he read made him mad.”

Oh, and the Cusimano boys? All doctors and lawyers. One is even, if you can believe it, a brain surgeon.