My latest, on the cover of the September issue of Toronto Life. The Higher They Climb: bidding wars, bully bids, and the stress of finding an actual house to buy in Toronto.
Alright, so here’s my two cents on Toronto Life’s current exodus to the suburbs story. A few notes before I begin:
I write for TL a fair bit (including a story in this very issue! About insomnia! Don’t sleep on it!), and I’m not going to trash the mag in favour of some mythical Toronto publication that gets it all right (more on this later). I’m also friends with Philip Preville, so aside from this—PHILIP, YOU LITTER? GROSS!—I’m not going to trash him either.
Others have already done a good job exploring the rather obvious point that the story has a packaging problem. I agree that it’s not about the suburbs, but small towns that are becoming exurbs whether they like it or not. So I’ll stay away from that, too. I’m going to focus on two things: economics and demographics.
Let’s start with the money bit. I don’t care if suburbanites/exurbanites don’t want to live here, but it’s ridiculous that we let them sneer at the overcrowdedness of the TTC and then turn around and take the money that we need to fix the TTC up to Uxbridge. What the story reinforced for me is that if people need Toronto to fund their gorgeous new Annex-mansions-in-Dundas, Toronto needs to stand up for itself. Most (all?) of the families interviewed have at least one partner who is relying on Toronto for a salary; meanwhile the city is suffering from years of provincial downloading and federal derision. Whether it’s via road tolls, or disincentives for companies with offices in the 416 to hire outside the city, or something else, it’s time for this financial engine to demand some cash money respect.
I also wondered about the effect of flush Torontonians buying up the nicest Victorians in Cobourg’s Rosedale on the current residents of the small towns in question. (Ok, I’ll say it: the focus on gorgeous real estate is sooooooo Toronto Life. It’s hilarious that the one family that lives in a typical nouveau salmon-brick suburban house is shown in their backyard.) Funding a 705 lifestyle with 416 money would seem to replicate awful Vancouver-y real estate markets. That kind of sucks for the original 705-ers. I can’t figure out if I think The New Exurbanites are contributing to sprawl. I suppose if they buy up the old houses, then people who work at lower-salaried jobs are left with new builds, but that’s pretty indirect. I’m still musing on this one.
Random thought unrelated to my points of focus: it’s my understanding that parenting is a fraught and paranoid practice everywhere, and I highly doubt, Philip, that you’re trusting your kids with random friendly small-towners. I was in Kingston this past weekend (itself a lovely town where a four-bedroom, 150-year-old, heartbreakingly gorgeous stone house was $539,000, sheesh) and shuddered when passing the penitentiary. Paul Bernardo’s worst crimes happened in St. Catharine’s, remember? Evil and goodness are not location specific.
On to demographics: There’s no mention of diversity at all, except for a weird comment about the Toronto-ditchers missing the food here. As far as I’m concerned, every single piece of journalism that claims to be about any meaningful shift in Toronto’s demographics has to tackle ethnicity head on. Otherwise, the half has never been told. And it’s fine for the commenters at Spacing to insult TL for white blindness, but let me take this opportunity to say that I don’t think any publication in this city consistently parses GTA diversity in any quality way. Good thing the Ethnic Aisle is planning a Suburbs vs. Downtown issue for September.
Months ago, a (white) friend told me that he and his (white) fiancée figure they’ll eventually move out of Toronto. They want the space and the quiet and all of that. A number of my white friends have talked to me about their desire to leave the city, for the usual reasons, from lower house prices to less road rage. During one of these convos, last spring, my reaction was visceral, i.e. rude: I blurted “well, enjoy life among all white people.” I apologized afterward, but I’m still bothered. I just can’t escape this nagging feeling that when people say they like the “simplicity” of the exurbs (or cottage country), it’s at least partially a code word for “homogeneity.” Everyone loves udon and dosas, but dealing with all that language-barrier stuff at your kid’s public school is so complicated. On Metro Morning, Philip said that his research shows that it isn’t just white people that are moving out of the city. The omission of that info from the actual article is a major flaw. If Toronto’s weaknesses are leading the entire region to self-segregate, that’s something to be obsessing over, not ignored.
Did I say anything new here? I dunno. When I was writing this, I kept humming LCD Soundsystem. Toronto’s having a hard time right now, and sure, it gets me down. But you know what? This is my hometown and I love it. I want to fix it, not flee.
In the brand new Grid, the first of my regular real-estate roundups. This time: four homes at Toronto’s average price, $460,000.
This is probably the most interesting, exciting story I’ve ever worked on. In Toronto Life, the story of Byron Sonne, a computer security consultant who became obsessed with testing the security apparatus at last year’s G20–and who’s spent almost a year in jail because of it.
In the latest Eye Weekly, a pretty awesome photo essay about a day in the life of a Scarborough strip mall, with photos by Sandy Nicholson and interviews by meeeeeee.
Last weekend, a bunch of lady friends and I vegged out by the pool, lazily flipping through a stack of old Sassy magazines. One of us had cleverly hung on to her teenage pile, resulting in the perfect summer afternoon of nostalgic media debate. On the agenda: ’90s fashion, teen angst flashbacks, and how the clever, groundbreaking stylings of Sassy were ground to a halt by conservatism. We also reminisced about YM and Seventeen—the first lightweight, the second staid, both shaken up at the time by Sassy’s rabid popularity.
So, I thought I’d flip through a recent copy of Seventeen and see what teen girls are being told by magazines these days. My first thought is: I am so not a teen. I have no idea who any of these celebrities are. I’m happy to see a Latina on the cover, but I couldn’t tell you one…tv show?…that Selena Gomez has been in.
Good things: Decent diversity in both ads and editorial, with plenty of “real girl” comments and pics sprinkled throughout. While user interactivity is a 21st century no-brainer, I’m still saying Sassy’s reader integration is another reason actual teens are in Seventeen today. Another sign of my aged disconnect is an inability to tell if the clothes here are reasonably priced. Teen-wise, $30 seems decent for a jacket, and none of the jeans are over $80. Barely anything tops $100—this seems realistic to me, but I’m sure many parents would beg to differ. Old-fashioned “magazine” “articles” are scarce, but the two first-person pieces are genuinely moving—a girl whose sports coach secretly filmed her naked, and another struggling with self-harm. The tips on avoiding these problems are a little light, but the stories seem relatable. A one-page short story contest winner by a reader named Kelly Reardon is really tight and quite good.
Things I don’t like: So. Much. Product. I mean SO much. I remember 1990s Seventeen as being quieter, with longer articles. All in all, I consider this less of a general interest mag than a fashion mag, so I shudder to think what Teen Vogue is like. There are pages and pages and PAGES and PAGES of clothes and makeup in here. I’m glad there’s a reference to pepperoni being “weird and full of preservatives” in a healthy lunch chart, but it’s hypocritical when every other page encourages under-18s to regularly smear chemicals on their faces. A new makeup look for every day of the week? I know mags need to please advertisers, but this excessive coverage (no pun intended) hardly has teens’ best interests in mind. Aside from the two first-person pieces, there’s hardly anything “real” here—no politics or environmental articles at all, no A&E coverage aside from pics of celebs’ cool outfits and smooching shots.
Design: neon onslaught. Aside from copious amounts of actual advertorial, plenty of the editorial pages look exactly like ads. Having nail polish spills on the masthead is kinda cool though.
Biggest problem: no grit. Namely, no sex. This is what brought Sassy down—despite having 800,000 subscribers, the magazine lost all of its advertising due to a Moral Majority-orchestrated letter writing campaign. A decade later, publishers have learned their lesson, and the September 2009 issue of Seventeen exists in a world without teen sex. There are a few mentions of french kissing, and one dude says he’s ashamed of his “boners.” No safe sex, no GLBT anything. One mention that being drunk is lame, and then nothing on drugs, either. In an age where teens are supposedly done with dating and rely entirely on no-strings-attached “hookups,” when abstinence-only sex ed is a reality and drugs I’ve never even heard of seem to pop up daily, this is a huge hole. This negligence leaves teens to learn about these things from more nefarious sources, and that is a sad story for everyone.
Verdict: 15 years after Sassy died, everyone is still afraid to treat teenage girls like real people.
At the corner of Bloor Street West and Avenue Rd in Toronto, there’s a stately old building that used to belong to U of T. I can’t quite remember what the stone-etched sign says, but it’s something like “Department of Household and Domestic Science.” Back in the day, women attending college to get their MRS. degree would head here to learn how to cook, clean and raise children. Today, it’s a Club Monaco outlet, selling readymade clothes to busy people who fit cooking, cleaning and child-rearing in between making money and doing important things.
A week or so ago, Michael Pollan published a New York Times magazine piece on food celebrity called “No One Cooks Here Anymore.” Pollan is a personal favourite, both as a food writer and biology journalist. But, like many other women, I wasn’t thrilled with how, in the cooking piece, he linked feminism to the decline of cooking and therefore, the increase in poor health and obesity. Or rather, I didn’t mind that. What I did mind was how Pollan idealized the kitchen, suggesting that women (and men, which he said numerous times) should return to cooking because it’s an essential quality that makes us human. It’s not, he said, like those other dreary chores we’ve thankfully abandoned because of feminism—for example, sewing.
It is a shame that women saw cooking as drudgery, but in holding it above other domestic tasks, Pollan refuses to see just why we did. His oversimplification obscures the fact that cooking three meals a day for four (or six, or ten) people was just part of the housekeeping package—women were also planning the meals and buying the groceries, doing everyone’s laundry and cleaning the toilets, plus rearing the kiddies and providing elder and healthcare. Then we were supposed to put on lipstick and suppress any of our own issues before hubby came home from the “real” world. To idealize cooking and ignore the rest of it is to again devalue the big, exhausting whole of domesticity, which is exactly why women sprinted out of the house in the first place.
The loss of all Domestic Sciences has left us worse off. We need to figure out a way to bring ‘em back. Take sewing, Pollan’s example. Mass-produced clothing is often made under heinous labour conditions, then comes home with us in plastic bags that find their way out to the ocean. Real sewing (classified and priced as an essential, not a hobby) could go a long way in fixing that—to paraphrase Pollan from the piece, have as big a wardrobe you like, as long as you make it yourself. As for cleaning, using the non-toxic stuff indeed requires more effort and time; I fit it in, cause for me that’s far better than using brand name products with potentially poisonous outgases. Childcare is a vast, unwieldy topic—suffice it to say I was shocked to see a City of Toronto brochure given to my new mom friend with “tips” like “Don’t leave your baby alone in the bath.” Losing centuries of domestic knowledge has actually put us in danger.
I was born a feminist, and I do find it sad that definitions of “equality” so often devalue the home. What’s always been needed is a way to properly value domestic work, in the same way all that money- and stuff-making is valued out in the public sphere. (First step: men contributing a fair and equal share.) Ten thousand years ago (in the 1980s), New Zealand economist Marilyn Waring began advocating that tasks like child-rearing be included in countries’ GDP, a provocative idea that’s still fascinating today.
Of course, no one does that. Instead, we eat processed foods, wear pesticide-soaked clothes made by Third World children, and make ourselves sick trying to clean things. Attending to our essentials is a chore to finish as fast as possible, so that we can run out and do something that matters. Home-cooked meals are important, but getting everyone back in the kitchen is just a start.
I’m researching Oprah for a short bit I’m writing for Report on Business, which is quite an experience. I mean, Oprah: the most successful black woman in the world, a political powerhorse and a really annoying advocate of Hallmark-y affirmations. It’s both thought-provoking and unbearably saccharine to immerse myself in her world.
So I read last May’s interview with Elizabeth Edwards, and it’s been lodged in my craw every since. The setup is that Oprah visits the Edwards and their children in their home, to get the real story on how Mrs. Edwards is coping with terminal cancer and the news of her husband’s infidelity. Now, I thought it was pretty tacky of John Edwards to run for president while his wife was dying, and when news of the affair broke, I really felt awful for her.
But now, I’m thinking she’s complicit in this whole slimy mess. Because there were a few things that Mrs. Edwards said that just made me want to puke. She refers to her husband’s possible illegitimate child as “it,” and says that even if the DNA test is positive, her family won’t change. (I assume this means that John isn’t allowed to interact with his illegitimate offspring—the baby deserves a fatherless life for being a bastard in the first place.) She makes a few disparaging comments about John, but really focuses the blame on the Other Woman. She coyly refuses to say Rielle Hunter’s name, stating that Hunter’s motivation was always public attention. The bit that bothered me the most was this: Liz recounting the phrase with which Hunter reeled in her poor husband. “She was standing in front of the hotel and said ‘you are so hot’—I can’t deliver it, I don’t know how to deliver a line such as that,” she says to the Mighty Opes.
“I don’t know how to deliver a line such as that”—this bloody phrase has been stuck in my head for almost a week. First of all, spare me the virgin/whore dichotomy. Second of all, and this is so obvious I don’t even want to say it, but maybe if you told your man he was hot once in a while…well, you know. But more than that, quit it with the lies. You lied to the public by pretending to be happy candidate’s wife when you knew about the affair, and you lied to yourself by pretending to believe it was a one night stand. Now it’s time to stop telling yourself that the affair was all about sex, and that Rielle Hunter was a starfucking skank that tripped up your innocent spouse. This level of denial is shocking: Elizabeth Edwards would rather erase her own sexuality than accept that her husband had a long-term relationship with someone else. She can’t bear to speak Rielle Hunter’s name, but she sure can spin a fairytale about her nymphomania.
I’m sorry for your troubles, Elizabeth, but I can’t stand a woman who vilifies other women and lets men off the hook. And a woman who invites TV cameras into her home when her school-aged children are dealing with both their mother’s illness and their parents’ public marital troubles? Golly, I might call her a famewhore, even if she can’t tell her man that he’s hot.
Just reading this magazine was an act of perseverance: on my way to Algonquin this past weekend, half of my water bottle spilled on it. It dried out and I read Kelefa Sanneh’s thoughts on Michael Jackson’s death—and learned about a Cameroonian musicians named Manu Dibango. Apparently, Dibango invented disco, included the catchy, seemingly nonsensical refrain of MJ’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’:” “Ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma coo sa.” Dibango sued Jackson for copyright, and ended up his friend. This is what makes a fantastic magazine writer—not only did Sanneh write 800 tight, engaging words on the shortest of deadlines, but he took a subject that’s been milked to death and offered something new. Now, must hear some Manu Dibango.
So then the crinkled mag was returned to my backpack in favour of hours of paddling through beautiful scenery, setting up camp, cooking a rough but delicious salmon-over-the-campfire dinner, and enjoying some Tetra pak wine and conversation with friends. Went to bed around 11:30, I’d say, and around midnight it began to pour. And pour. And pour. And pour pour pour some more. Soon, SJ and I were sleeping (or rather not sleeping) on a puddle, and were forced to get up and move the tent, sans shoes, socks or (in my case) eyeglasses, at 5 a.m. My entire bag was soaked, including a waterlogged New Yorker.
Amazingly, it held together. I spent Saturday afternoon turning the pulpy pages, as the sunshine and clouds fought for space in the sky. Ariel Levy’s profile of Nora Ephron made her seem so resilient, smart and likeable, I almost forgot that I don’t really like any of her movies. I definitely want to dig up Heartburn, her late ’70s novel-then-film about being cheated on while she was pregnant. Perhaps I’ll like that one. As with every other writer whose opinion I’ve read about the the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, Hendrik Hertzberg neglected to mention the presence and importance of trannies during the demonstrations (no, “gay” doesn’t cover everyone, and Frank Rich I’m talking to you too). Still, his Talk of the Town comment outlined the Defense of Marriage Act and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell battles ahead, and was encouraging towards the gay rights activists who are pressuring the Obama administration to start acting on its campaign promises.
In the books section, Malcolm Gladwell took on Chris Anderson’s notorious Free, and made some clever points. Haven’t read Free myself, but apparently Anderson glorifies YouTube as one pinnacle of free content. Gladwell points out that YouTube is still a loss leader for Google, and any ad revenue is due to paid content from established providers. He also contrasts Anderson’s glorification of genetic pharmaceuticals with the $300,000 annual cost of Myozyme, a treatment for rare Pompe disease. Gladwell concludes that, at this point in the media game, it’s impossible to say which revenue streams will fluorish and which will dry out—so don’t underestimate the hidden costs of content. I haven’t read enough about Free to know: although he’s giving the book itself away, does anyone know what kind of payment Anderson got up front?
Still to read: wrinkly-page fiction by Lorrie Moore, and Raffi Khatchadourian’s piece on whether a group of soldiers in Iraq took their colonel’s murderous training too far. I am sure the piece is well-reported and wonderfully written, but I never know why people are surprised that lessons in violence result in violence. What am I missing here?