All posts filed under: Memoir

Leaving Portland

Portland, Oregon, has been the most politically violent city in the United States since Donald Trump was elected in 2016. Just a few days after the result, a peaceful protest against the incoming president turned into a riot when anarchists broke off from the main group and rampaged through the Pearl District, a renovated SoHo-like neighborhood adjacent to downtown packed with art galleries, loft apartments, bookstores, and restaurants. Vandals used baseball bats and rocks to break cars, plate glass windows, bus shelters, electrical boxes, and anything else that looked smashable. The election-night mayhem was not an attack against Republican voters. Donald Trump received a paltry 7.5 percent of the vote in that precinct. It was an assault on the urban middle class and bourgeois society itself, and it was perceived as such by most people who lived there. (The protest organizers, not incidentally, raised tens of thousands of dollars on GoFundMe and disbursed checks to damaged businesses.) I was born and raised in Oregon, and it’s where I live now. I spent most of my …

Bunker Boy: Preparing for Apocalypse Since 1979

When I was 11 years old, back in 1979, my mother helped me build a nuclear bunker. It was kitted out with about 50 cans of beans and pulses, tuna, and peaches; every shelf was stuffed with bags of rice, crisps, and chocolate bars; I lined the walls with tin foil (to protect us from gamma radiation from the impending nuclear blasts), and we had three torches, a huge supply of batteries, a home doctor manual, a first aid kit, iodine, a ton of toilet roll, and a bucket for human waste. Although it wouldn’t have been particularly effective in a nuclear war and was little more than the closet under the stairs with all the shoes and mops thrown out to make space, this was my first serious attempt at “prepping” for the end of the world. I spent a lot of time in that little bunker reading up on what to do when the bombs fell and the end began. I recall being worried that I might have to choose between my dog …

I Retired First

It’s Sunday as I finish writing this, and I’m reflecting on work on this biblically traditional day of rest. Specifically, I’m thinking about not working, i.e., retirement. The ultimate rest for the dues-paid-in-full working stiff. I didn’t plan it, but I retired first. Before any start to a career. Through my four-year college degree program that took seven on-and-off years to complete, and a few more years on top of those, I spent my time doing a host of things one associates with a traditional retirement: playing golf, reading, hitting the beach, doing a range of odd jobs to make some money, keeping my “nut” as low as possible to match the lean cash flow, taking classes to keep my brain in the game, writing in my journal, doing some traveling, offering some folks and good causes time and help, reflecting on life past and future, learning a couple of new hobbies, hanging with similarly positioned friends, and observing with secret satisfaction all those other people who spin themselves into a frenzy in their workaday existence. …

To Skate—Perchance to Soar

Nairobi, January 2021. Saturday morning. I whizz joyfully around the multi-coloured skatepark. Beneath my feet, the board responds with twists and turns. I apply pressure with my toes and heels. I pop its tail and jump. It rises into the air, lifting me with it. My confidence grows. Now I decide to drop in from the edge of the kidney shaped pool. My heart races. I fly into its deep end and carve around the bowl’s steep edges. But I am coming back over the hip when, abruptly and unexpectedly, the skateboard slips away from me. My fast-moving body obeys its own trajectory. I fly up, then down, before crash landing—arms splayed, chest first—on the hard concrete. The impact knocks the breath out of my lungs. I roll onto my back, gasping. Faces appear above me, silhouettes against the blinding equatorial sun. They keep saying sorry. What for, I wonder? It’s not their fault. It might seem odd, given that I am in a skatepark and far from the written word, but gathering my breath, …

Circling Back to My Grandfather’s Judaism, Seventy Years Later

I was born in Toronto in 1942. My earliest memories were Jewishly buoyant because of the excitement in my home and close-knit community around the rebirth of Israel as a sovereign nation in 1948. It was only when I was a teenager that I became fully aware of the cataclysm that had preceded this miracle. Until the 1950s, there was a kind of taboo about discussing the Holocaust with children—or even discussing it at all. It was too recent. I knew, but didn’t know. North American Jews needed time to absorb the scope and originality of the horror they had been spared. The public high school I attended was almost entirely Jewish. (Our district was mostly gentile, but almost all the gentiles sent their children to private schools.) Few of us were prepared when our history teacher showed us a film about the liberation of the concentration camps. I was shocked by the newsreel footage of stacked corpses, the skeletal camp inmates staring, stunned, at their approaching liberators, the mound of children’s shoes, the numbers. …

The Troubled Maker: Transgressive Art, Public Shame, and Mike Tyson

In many ways, my personal experience with life after public shaming has gone exactly as one might expect: depressing, painful, and weird. Yet, at some point over the past three years, after managing the existential crisis of fractured identity, and learning to refrain from scratching at the phantom limb of my reputation, I’ve noticed something strangely liberating about it too. I no longer struggle to reconcile my blue-collar background with my former aspirations of being a successful and cool artist; I no longer find it necessary to cultivate the avant-garde persona of an active performance artist and theatre director. Instead of worrying about every detail of ignominy, I can finally indulge in vulgar interests like Monday Night Football, Bo Jackson YouTube compilations, or Mike Tyson’s latest exhibition bout against fellow boxing legend Roy Jones Jr. I didn’t even watch the fight, to be honest. I didn’t need to. At this point in his career, I’m more interested in Tyson’s redemption narrative than what remains of his athletic prowess. So I tuned in just in time …

My White Privilege Didn’t Save Me. But God Did

Following the furore over Netflix’s Cuties movie in the fall, Quillette editor-in-chief Claire Lehmann tweeted that the creepy conservative obsession with paedophilia is as bizarre as the feminist obsession with rape. I took umbrage, and noted my annoyance—though I knew what she meant. Sexual violence, particularly toward children, is becoming more of a marginal topic. Rape, while a serious problem in every society, has been in historic decline in the west. I am not naturally conservative, and I do not exhibit the required antagonism toward men to qualify me as a decent feminist. But in the area of sex, rape, and paedophilia, I am unable to separate my politics from what is fashionably called my “lived experience.” As a young girl, I was raped, as were other members of my family (not all of them female). It was only in my reaction to this tweet that I started to think of how those experiences, and the circumstances that surrounded them, shaped my politics. My experience is not uncommon among those who share my socioeconomic background. …

Farewell, Alex Trebek

On Friday, November 6th, between 1 and 2pm Pacific Daylight Time, I participated in an audition for the TV game-show Jeopardy!. Normally auditions are conducted in person at various regional locations around the US. As a Northern Californian, I should have been attending a live audition in San Francisco. But COVID and the quarantine have played havoc with everything this year, and the King of American Game-Shows is no exception. And so, along with eight other hopefuls, I was auditioned via a Zoom call from Southern California by John Barra, the show’s contestant producer. He informed us that, since the onset of the pandemic, roughly 237,000 people had applied online to be Jeopardy! contestants. The show selects about 400 contestants each year. This was in fact the second Zoom conference call in which I had participated with the producers of Jeopardy!. On September 2nd, I participated in a sort of pre-audition meet-and-greet with seven other potential contestants and a different producer, whose name I’ve forgotten. By the end of the November 6th audition, the nine …

On Remembrance Day, Celebrating Two Canadian Prisoners Who Took Down an Entire Shipyard

To compensate for Japan’s manpower shortage during World War II, the country’s military commanders often shipped their prisoners to the Japanese mainland, where they worked as slave labourers in mining and heavy industry. As someone who made such a trip after my own capture in 1941, I can attest that the journey to Japan was terrifying in and of itself. Because the Japanese didn’t mark prisoner transport ships with a red cross or some other agreed-upon symbol, thousands of prisoners were lost at sea when unsuspecting American submarines mistakenly torpedoed some of these transports. One such ship, the Lisbon Maru, carrying about 1,800 British POWs from Hong Kong to Japan, was sunk in the South China Sea on October 1st, 1942, by the American submarine USS Grouper, whose captain had no idea of the precious cargo in the hold. Eight hundred and forty-six prisoners died, either by drowning, or were shot by the Japanese as they tried to swim clear of the wreck. This was the backdrop when the first group of 1,180 Allied prisoners—including …

R.M. Vaughan (1965–2020): A Beautiful Mind Silently Extinguished in a Time of Fear

We were extremely close for about five years. He was my confidante and my support system. We were best friends. Never lovers—though many thought we were. It was a dark time for me, and I needed him. Canadian gay writer Richard Murray Vaughan (1965–2020) was found dead by police in Fredericton, New Brunswick on October 23rd—10 days after being reported missing. No foul play is suspected. This is in part a remembrance of R.M. (as he was widely known, including to his friends), but also a reminder that the campaign against COVID-19 can create its own kind of harm. I don’t pretend that this essay is one Richard would have authored (though he did write about COVID-19 and mental health shortly before his death). He and I were different men and different writers. But I do think my old friend would have agreed with at least some of what I have to say. I met Richard when he entered my office at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre—142 George Street, Toronto—in 1991. Initially we talked about …