The Walrus Blog

Monthly Archive: May 2011

The Traveler Is Lost

An excerpt from the author’s new eBook, How I Came to Haunt My Parents
How I Came to Haunt My ParentsECW Press

My dear Julie,

This morning on my walk I watched a house catch fire. I was walking down the empty road, staring at my black shoes turning brown with dust, and something made me turn and stare through the shimmer of heat. I knew that I should be in the Gulf Hotel, working at my desk, constructing a virtual version of this day and of this place to wire around the world. I looked back at a house that I had just passed and I saw nothing, just a flat roof and some broken windows. Then it seemed as if the roof were rising. I thought I saw black birds escaping, but it was smoke and ash, and in the time that it took for the dark transformation of those birds the house suddenly caught — struck like a giant match — and it was blazing in the middle of the morning beside an empty street. Blazing away and all the air above it turned black and I thought of the bedsheets catching fire inside and writhing across the mattress, and the white pillows smoking, and the curtains evaporating.

I thought of your necklace with the cherry wood beads. I thought of a song that I memorized in high school. I thought of the little plastic boat that used to float in the tub with you, holding your perfume and your scented oil. I thought of you sitting in the tub with your face flushed and your hair in a ponytail, and you covering your teeth to laugh. I stood and I watched the house fall in upon itself the way that my thoughts were falling in upon themselves. I felt thirsty and my eyes stung.

Here, I should tell you, crows fly into ruined houses and spend the night. My easy rhetoric does not dispel the ashes. In the day there are, of course, loud noises that you would find unbearable and I have become somewhat hopeless at my job. The waves break before the shore and I imagine what it must be like to live here always, drifting through the hot and noisy days and sleeping through the quiet dreadful nights and feeling no ambition, no ambivalence beyond the war. It seems as if people have ceased to be like living things, like animals, and now we only tread through time. We are detached from ourselves. Every action and reaction here has politics. And so you think before you buy three bananas and a loaf of bread whether it is right. Do I need three bananas today or should I buy just one and another tomorrow? Should I buy twenty? What will happen? (more…)

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Posted in Chapter and Verse  •  1 Comment

No. 10: Pepper

From a series of posts about the chimpanzees of Fauna Sanctuary
PepperFrank NoelkerPepper

My Time with the Chimps appears simultaneously on The Walrus Blog and Andrew Westoll’s The New Animalist. To read more about Andrew’s book, The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary, click here.

In the early years, Gloria invited some of the lab technicians who used to work with the chimpanzees to visit Fauna. Although these visits were ostensibly for the good of the chimpanzees — some of them had built genuine friendships with the techs — Gloria had an ulterior motive for them. She wanted to know the truth about life inside biomedical laboratories, the truth the researchers and companies don’t want the public to hear. And she quickly discovered that when lab workers are off the clock and experiencing extreme emotions, they often feel like sharing.

“When people come here, they tell me stuff,” she says. “Horrible stuff. Chimps with no fingers left because they’ve chewed them all off. Chimps with concussions from hitting the ground after being darted. Chimps who have such horrible wake-ups from anesthesia that they nearly kill themselves as they thrash around their room. Did you know the only time the chimps were allowed pain medication was after they’d had their vasectomies? They weren’t even allowed a Tylenol, because it would interfere with the science.”

Gloria collects these stories obsessively. They are crucial pieces of ammunition when it comes to swaying public opinion and getting the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act passed into law. But she also collects these gruesome tales because she is terrified that no one else will.

“Over the last twelve years, I’ve realized you can’t force people who worked in the lab to speak out publicly,” she says. “You can’t. Because they live in purgatory, in their own little hell. Most of them will never be able to deal with what they saw, what they did, what they were a part of – the crimes they committed against the chimps.” (more…)

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Posted in My Time With the Chimps  •  No Comments

More Than a Game

A Hot Doc, reviewed: Grinders explores professional poker’s working class blues

Do you like poker? Toronto filmmaker Matt Gallagher does. He’s long been a decent player, and now that he’s broke — small child, recession — and apparently lacking in transferable skills, he decides to try it on as a career. He becomes a grinder.

A grinder, we’re told, is someone whose sole source of income is poker. Gallagher’s Grinders follows two of them: Danny, a well-intentioned, alcoholic dad, and Andre, a clown (“Mark, I love your money, bro! Oh, I love your money!” he declares after a win at the table, pouring the loser’s chips all over his own head). Both are found nightly on Toronto’s underground circuit, which appears robust. They play from 10 pm until 7 am, after which, bleary eyed, they might go to a casino to play more poker, or perhaps pick apples with the family. Both are overweight, speak in a Trailer Park Boys–like patois, and favour t-shirts emblazoned with gangster imagery and/or cartoon characters. Neither is proud of what he does for a living. Andre refers to himself throughout the film as a degenerate, warning us not to be fooled by his “beautiful house” and “two beautiful dogs”; Danny constantly reminds himself, and us, that he’s doing this for his daughters, whose pictures he keeps on the table when he plays. (more…)

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Posted in Moving Pictures  •  1 Comment

Back to Life

A Hot Doc, reviewed: Mika Kaurismäki’s Mama Africa revives the legend of Miriam Makeba
Mandela and MakebaHotDocs.caNelson Mandela and Miriam “Mama Africa” Makeba

Singer Miriam Makeba, known as Mama Africa, died in November of 2008. Ten months earlier, I saw her perform at the Palau de la Musica in Barcelona, Spain. At the time, I didn’t understand what I was witnessing — the denouement of a fifty-year career, the last tour of a woman whom millions would mourn as a saint. Makeba, a South African political exile, American civil rights activist, stateswoman, and brilliant musician, was a hero of the pan-African movement of the 1960s and ’70s, and an influence on virtually every South African singer who has followed her.

Mama AfricaFinal Hot Docs showtimeSunday, May 8, 1:30 PM
Isabel Bader Theatre, Toronto

In 1959, Makeba appeared in the anti-apartheid documentary Come Back, Africa. The filmmaker, American Lionel Rogosin, brought her to Cannes for the premiere. Come Back won the Critics’ Award; Makeba became an instant phenomenon, playing around New York and London, appearing on television, and recording under the guidance of Harry Belafonte, whom she’d met in the UK. However, when she tried to return home in 1960, she found that her South African passport had been revoked. Unable to re-enter her country, she lived in exile until Mandela was freed thirty years later. In the meantime, she introduced South African music (and, to a large extent, politics) to the West.

Mama Africa director Mika Kaurismäki grew up listening to Makeba’s songs on Finnish radio. His feature documentary almost wasn’t made, as Makeba passed away just before filming was scheduled to begin. Kaurismäki pursued the project anyway, partly from an urge to preserve the singer’s legacy. The film doesn’t suffer at all for the lack of its star — Makeba comes across intimately, her story as affecting as if she’d told it herself. Kaurismäki pieces her life together from interviews with Makeba’s grandchildren, former band members, friends, and prominent admirers, along with an enormous amount of wonderfully remastered archival footage. The portrait that emerges is of a woman without fault: a role model in the strictest sense. (Mama Africa mentions only two of Mama Africa’s five husbands.) This may be an unapologetic love letter, but few will object.

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Posted in Moving Pictures  •  No Comments

The Not-So-Great Recessionize!

A Hot Doc, reviewed

Trailer for Jamie Kastner’s Recessionize! For Fun and Profit! 15 Simple Steps!

“Funemployment,” “affluenza,” “recessionista,” “staycation” — the recession of 2008 and 2009 introduced a host of strange slang into the common vernacular. With Recessionize! For Fun and Profit! 15 Simple Steps!, Toronto filmmaker Jamie Kastner invents his own term, albeit ironically, he says.

“The way [this recession] was being covered, I realized, was part of the story and part of the event itself,” says Kastner. “The way it was being ‘cutesified,’ basically, and how it was being spun into almost a feel good story or a good news story even though it’s the worst imaginable news.”

Recessionize! premieres at this year’s Hot Docs film festival in Toronto (see sidebar for showtimes). Kastner’s previous documentary Kike Like Me, about Jewish identity, was among the best-attended and most talked-about films at the 2007 festival.

Kastner’s new film opens with archival footage of Great Depression–era New York City. Men in suits are climbing onto high window ledges as people below gawk and take photographs. In a voiceover, the director explains that, contrary to popular belief, these were not rich bankers jumping. Rather, it’s suicide rates among the middle class that increased during the Depression, as they have every recession since. In making Recessionize!, Kastner says he hit the road “to find stories to inspire my fellow middle class children of the free market not to jump.” (more…)

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Posted in Moving Pictures  •  1 Comment

Dear Mr. Prime Minister

A letter to Stephen Harper, leader of the new Conservative majority
Stephen HarperMarco Ventura

Mr. Harper, I would like to congratulate you on winning the majority government you have wanted so badly. I commend you without a hint of irony or facetiousness. This is an achievement you have been working towards for a very long time. You have helped build a small regional party into a truly national coalition — yes, coalition — that includes seats in every region, and a majority of voters from Ontario westward. You have done what would have been thought impossible a decade ago: reduced the grand Liberal Party and its century-long claim to being Canada’s “natural governing party” to a smouldering pile of rubble. And so, on your first day as leader of a majority government, I write you with best wishes, but also a request: handle us with care.

You have your majority; you can work unimpeded by these annoying elections. Your power has proliferated, and now has four years to manifest itself however you choose. Please choose wisely. The country you still lead is a deeply divided nation today. Your party may have won support from coast to coast to coast, but it did so with only 40 percent of the vote. That other 60 percent includes a lot of people who voted ABC — Anything But Conservative — and awoke this morning feeling angry, afraid, and defeated.

In your victory speech last night, you seemed to extend an olive branch to the 60 percent, saying several times that your government would be a government for all Canadians, not just your party’s supporters. Yet, like the real and genuine concerns of Western Canadians that your party has long represented (and which the other parties, particularly the Liberals, have more or less ignored), the fears and concerns of the 60 percent are real and genuine. Mr. Harper, there is only one person who can ease them: you. (more…)

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Posted in Open Letters  •  51 Comments

Dear “Pierre”

A letter to an election day crank caller

Pierre, the Toronto Star is reporting that you are crank calling potential voters in Guelph, Ontario to report bogus, eleventh-hour changes to the location of their polling stations. What gives? I don’t know who you are, or who you work for. Perhaps you are driven by your own overzealous and paranoid imagination, triggered by fear that the party you support may lose today’s election. Perhaps a similar feeling has overtaken many others across the country who are doing the same ridiculous thing as I write this.

I sincerely hope that is the case — that you and your compatriots are merely a lunatic fringe bent on depraving engaged citizens of their right to select our government. I sincerely hope there is no systematic effort by those with power to undermine our democracy with such dirty tricks. Because you see, Pierre, what is at stake is not simply a few seats here and there, or a majority, minority, or coalition, or a perception of stability versus a perception of change. What’s at stake in this and every election is the health of our democracy, which indicates the health of our society — our ability to live together happily, peacefully, and fruitfully. If we’re able to confront our issues and share in discussion and debate openly, honestly, and honourably, then, at the end of the day, regardless the outcome of the vote, our democracy will remain strong and the institutions that enable and protect it will stay robust.

However, when the debate degenerates into personal attacks or ploys by a partisan government to avoid debate altogether, or when the discussion becomes a scripted performance of hate speech meant to divide and manipulate people in order for one side to win power over the other, well, then our democracy is in serious trouble. And when lowlifes like yourself — enabled or employed by this vicious partisanship — take to crank calling people to try and discourage them from voting, our democracy seems doomed. (more…)

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Posted in Open Letters  •  3 Comments

Party On

Vancouver’s Youth In Action Party livens up election day
The PartyCTV

The Party is a new web series from CTV presented in collaboration with a group of very funny comics from Vancouver. Based on the idea of what would happen if a group of Canadian youth created its own political party, the series is written and produced by Vancouver director Sean Devlin (of Shit Harper Did fame).

In Episode 1, the Youth In Action Party’s leaders hatch an idea for a photo shoot that uses different types of food to represent major voting demographics. (You know, because “young people are hungry for change.”) An example of their hilarious banter: “What is this photo saying? More importantly what is it not saying? It’s not saying jerk chicken! It’s not saying souvlaki platter!”

The first four episodes of The Party are streaming on now.

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Posted in Moving Pictures  •  No Comments

And the Nominees Are…

The Walrus receives thirty-five nominations for the thirty-fourth annual National Magazine Awards

The Walrus Foundation is proud to announce that for the fifth straight year The Walrus magazine has received the highest number of National Magazine Award nominations. The thirty-five nominations in 2010’s National Magazine Awards represents an increase from its country-leading total of thirty-three nominations at the 2009 awards. Our contributors were nominated for twenty-eight written, five visual, two online, and one special award. The winners will be announced at the thirty-fourth annual National Magazine Awards gala on June 10, 2011 in Toronto.

“We are delighted to again receive the most nominations, and are proud of the writers, journalists and artists who have been nominated,” said co-publishers John Macfarlane and Shelley Ambrose. “Our contributors are key to our mandate to create public debate on matters vital to Canadians and to continue to provide a forum for the Canadian conversation.”

Since its inception in 2003, The Walrus has won more National Magazine Awards than any other publication, including the 2006 award for Magazine of the Year. During that time, The Walrus has won forty-seven golds, twenty-three silvers, and one hundred sixty-one honourable mentions. (more…)

Posted in Online Exclusive  •  1 Comment
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