Thursday, March 15, 2018

I Am an Elite

My name is Jamie, and I am an elite.

In the present context of how the term is used by populists in a derogatory fashion, I proudly claim use of it to describe myself.

What are some of the attributes I claim as an elite in the current political climate?

  • An elite is a person who cares about their community, and the welfare of those within it.
  • An elite is a person who knows the intrinsic value of things, rather than knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing.
  • An elite is a person who has striven to be educated by whatever means works for them (on their own and/or via institutions), and remains open to learning more.
  • An elite is a person who strives to improve conditions in society, without resorting to (as much as possible) appeals to baser emotions, to prejudices, to age-old distrusts and hatreds.
  • An elite tries to be constructive, not divisive.
  • An elite listens instead of talking over others.
  • An elite looks at the lessons from the past, contemplates them, and figures out to best apply them to current conditions.
  • An elite values truth above convenient, cynical lies.

Are these elites perfect? Hell no. We all screw up and will inevitably alienate others. You can’t please all of the people all of the time. Improvements, especially controversial ones, take time and effort to win over majorities to see the value in them. Right now, we’re doing a lousy job of it, allowing populists to hold sway over sections of the public who feel defeated, mocked, worthless, or, at worst, don’t give a damn about anybody else.


These thoughts flowed through my head while out for an evening walk on a day where I emotionally bottomed out. It’s been a tough winter mentally for various reasons, and I’ve exacerbated it with a daily diet of informational radio. My final breaking point occurred while sitting in my car, listening to a recap of an interview CBC did with the new leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative party, which he spent trying to turn the tables on the interviewer instead of providing anything remotely resembling a straight answer.

I turned the radio off before the clip was over. My heart sunk. This was a man who has a strong chance of becoming the next premier of Ontario behaving like a total jackass. Behaviour that a swath of the population embraces, or will tolerate because they can’t stand the current government.

Those who know me well will tell you I’m an emotional sponge who soaks up sensitivity. At that moment, I felt the cumulative effect of a growing feeling inside that the type of person I’ve always striven to be is currently not valued by society, or at least the loudest segments of it. My brain had one question on repeat: does it pay to be a respectful person anymore? What is the point of trying to educate others about the past, to listen to other viewpoints, to seek truths, to make a better place for all, if nobody will listen or others will mock you for your thoughts and efforts?

Why should I give a damn if nobody else wants to, or if other humans are too interested in preserving their own interests with the potential to harm others?

I see this play out daily. We yell at each other in public and online. We try to get ahead by a few seconds on city streets, with potentially fatal consequences. We see politicians do everything but make serious attempts to fix problems. We complain, complain, and complain some more, without offering constructive criticism or praise where merited. We stick to our partisan silos. We increasingly see black and white, instead of shades. The art of nuance feels like its vanishing.

I picked up my wife after the walk. I decided we would go for a drive to unwind. As we drove, rather than accept her help, I stewed in my misery, feeling like I was taking on the weight of humanity when I didn’t need to. The forces of misery held the upper hand.

But, to her credit, she continued to try even if I wasn’t up to playing along at the moment. She noted too much info about the current American administration and Canadian populists was too much for anyone to have a reasonable psychological handle on. That there are people doing good things out there, from assisting refugees to small acts of kindness. These are not the sexy stories, but they are the ones that matter more than somebody’s latest outrageous statement. She repeatedly asked me to name something I was grateful for (I finally responded that it was sitting next to me).

So, besides embracing the derogatory label of “elite,” I’m going to make a few changes. While not withdrawing from social media, I am paring down my feeds to reduce the number of references to certain political figures. I am taking a break from listening to NPR and CBC, and looking for more creative, enlightening shows and podcasts to listen to (feel free to leave suggestions in the comments).

I’m not checking out of life, but re-embracing it, and hoping that this spring provides many opportunities to re-engage with friends, my personal work, and my community, without most of the bullshit currently in the ether. I want to feel less despair about my world, or at least accept less despair than some forms of media push. I will continue to provide in my professional work context that hopefully means something to somebody.

The populists may have an upper hand at the moment, and they just about did me in. But, in small ways, I’m going to fight against their intolerance and instability and work on being the best contemplative/respectful person I can be. 

There is no shame in using one's intelligence.

There is no shame in using one's compassion and empathy.

Elitist or not.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Pressing Questions of the Moment Department: Toilet Paper Roll Size

Nearly all packages of toilet paper proudly proclaim that they contain "double" or "triple" rolls. Yet I don't know if I have ever seen a "single" or "regular" sized roll.

Are they referring to a size nobody has seen since I was born? Is "regular" the one-ply, sandpapery stuff preferred by budget-conscious public toilets? Or are manufacturers inventing value that doesn't exist?

Apparently "regular" size rolls exist in the United States, and they sound skimpy. This coming from a country where you can buy single rolls at the supermarket, which may reflect customers who are occasional toilet paper users, on tight budgets, prefer it over Kleenex for general tissue needs, or require an emergency roll for their backpack/car/visit to a public place.

All I know is that regardless of the alleged sizing, most rolls disappear in a hurry.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Motion Pictures Will Boost Canada (and a peek at Moving Picture World)

lp 1913-02-14 motion pictures will boost canada
Lindsay Post, February 14, 1913.
A look at the early days of the Canadian film industry. The Battle of the Long Sault (1913) has an IMDB entry, though the only information it provides is a capsule description from Moving Picture World magazine.

Since the Internet Archive has posted back issues of Moving Picture World, let's take a look at what other movies were discussed in its April 26, 1913 edition.

The most historically important film listed was The Bangville Police, which was one of the first appearances of the Keystone Kops. "More laughable absurdities, in which Fred Mace appears as police captain in a home-made automobile. As a whole, this reel is very pleasing and full of laughs."

Which is a longer description than what was printed about Edison's The Rocky Mountains in Winter:  "Some good views of snowy hills and valleys." One can hear the copy writer straining for something nice to say. Not that MPW wasn't capable of being critical--the short comment about Pathe's The Happy Home calls it "A picture with an unusually poor scenario. The director couldn't save it."

An ad for upcoming films from Universal. Only a drama spotlighting one of the leaders of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution earns an adjective. At the time, Universal would have celebrated the first anniversary of its incorporation.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Public Transit Department: " A Small-Sized Riot Nipped in the Bud"

Toronto Star, October 25, 1918.

I wonder how much this situation may have been exacerbated by the Toronto Railway Company's overall poor public PR image. Other newspaper stories around this time hinted at the eventual public ownership of all of the city's streetcar lines after the TRC's franchise expired in 1921. 

Speaking of public transit overcrowding, check out John Lorinc's Spacing piece on the possibility that years of not properly managing the subway system's passenger capacity will have fatal consequences.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Scary Pitchmen Department

Rummaging through old newspapers, I frequently encounter startling illustrations in ads that make you wonder if the advertiser was trying to draw customers or scare the bejeezus out of readers.

Here are some recent finds.

Toronto Daily News, November 17, 1917.

This fellow topped an ad for a downtown Toronto furniture store. The pinprick eyes and dark shadows surrounding them suggest something alien or robotic. Is a trace of an evil smirk detectable? Or is he hypnotizing the reader into buying beds and victory bonds?

When he talks, it's in a slow, mechanical, increasingly menacing way.

"How may I help you? Interested in that chair? It's not within your financial limitations. What you should buy is a bond. A Victory Bond. A bond to help the war effort. Our war effort. BUY THAT BOND TO-DAY. It's good bih-zi-NESS! It's pay-tree-OT-ISM!!! We will win the WAR! CONQUER! ANNIHILATE!!!"

(At which point the store manager comes to unplug our creepy friend, apologize to the scared customers, and sell them more bonds).

Lindsay Watchman-Warder, February 17, 1910.

Cure-all patent medicines used illustrations of "customers" testifying to the miraculous powers of their product. Sometimes, you might accept the stuff worked. Not so sure in this case. Mrs. Minnett still doesn't look too happy (she had been in pain for 60 years, and was possibly suffered from phantom remnants of her long-term ailment), unless she simply hated the camera. Maybe it's the low-grade reproduction, but when Louisa and I looked at her picture, we decided she was the offspring of Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy and Cloris Leachman as Frau Blucher from Young Frankenstein. Also, her hair was possibly sculpted from clay.

star 1933-02-09 scary moved like a doll ad
Toronto Star, February 9, 1933. 
This ad does not make a strong case for the effectiveness of Kruschen Salts. Before, our testifier moved like a wooden man. After, he looks like a wooden man, with an unnatural smile only a ventriloquist's dummy can flash.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

"Possibly the most daringly dramatic development in the field of contemporary literature"

While sifting through my possessions prior to moving in with Louisa a few years ago, I found a box of comics I thought I had gotten rid of. The contents were longstanding parts of my once massive collection that I probably held on to for sentimental value. Since these comics were half-forgotten, the sentimental pull wasn't that strong, so they quickly wound up in boxes designated for selling off.

Among the issues I found was one of the first 1960s Marvel Comics I owned: Fantastic Four #41, cover dated August 1965. I bought it in Ann Arbor at Dawn Treader Book Shop in the late 1980s, when it was located on the north side of Liberty Street. Dawn Trader was part of the first circuit Dad and I utilized when I began going downtown with him instead of following my mother and sister to Briarwood Mall: Afterwords, Borders (the flagship store, then on State Street), David’s Books, Dawn Treader, and Schoolkids’ Records. Only Dawn Trader survives of that quartet, notable for the amusing items lining its outdoor bargain racks. Its current space is far roomier than the one I bought FF #41, which contained the narrowest aisles I've ever encountered in a used book store. We are talking airplane or subway seat wide. Aisles narrow enough that a chunky pre-teen had to slip through sideways. One sensed the owner maximized their limited basement space to display as much as possible.

FF #41 sat in a box of $2 comics,  a small fortune compared to the pennies I spent building my collection at stores like City Lights in London. Most issues in this box were mid-1960s vintage, titles I was discovering through endless borrowings of histories of comic books from the Windsor Public Library and a serialized history Marvel published at the time, Marvel Saga. It dawned on me a few years later that they might have been slightly undercharging for early Marvel superhero titles like Strange Tales and Tales of Suspense, but by that time, the box was long gone.

From the box I picked out three comics: an issue of the first volume of the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe (the second volume was being published at the time, which was nirvana for a nerdy budding historian dipping into the world of comics); Tales to Astonish #72 (a classic Marvel split-book: one half featured the Sub-Mariner in the midst of the long quest which launched his 1960s solo adventures, while the other starred the Hulk, temporarily sharing Bruce Banner’s brain, worrying about returning to human form lest a bullet in his head kills him upon transforming – drama!); and FF #41.

It may have been the age of the issue. Or that I was regularly reading Fantastic Four at the time, even if 1987-88 was not one of the series’ finest hours (this was the period where the Thing resembled a spiky pineapple). Or that it was an honest-to-God Stan Lee and Jack Kirby comic book.

Or it may have been the cover blurb: “Possibly the most daringly dramatic development in the field of contemporary literature.” Even at that age, I sensed Stan was pushing it, but in a charmingly hyperbolic way. This was a period where Marvel went full-tilt with long-running sagas in its titles, where storylines stretched for as long as two years without taking a breather, as opposed to wrapping up in an issue or two.

The story for FF#41 began five issues earlier, with the introduction of the Frightful Four, who was comprised of two villains from the Human Torch's solo series (the Wizard and the Trapster), a Spider-Man foe (Sandman), and a mysterious new character named Medusa. Over the next few issues, the Frightful Four caused an explosion which removed the FF's powers...just in time for Doctor Doom to snap out of a hypnotic suggestion Reed Richards had placed on him and decide to kill the team once and for all. With the aid of Daredevil, the FF regain their headquarters, then their powers. But for Ben Grimm, becoming the Thing again is not a happy moment, and he nearly kills Doom. Pissed off at being forced to be a freak again, the Thing quits the team.

Which leads us into FF #41. That daring development promised on the cover? Ben is brainwashed by the Frightful Four. As Supermegamonkey puts it, we know the Thing has gone bad "because he chain smokes his ceegars, even during fights." The fighting ensues for two more issues, during which the Human Torch pretends to be brainwashed (there are plenty of scrambled brains in this run of FF). This then leads into Reed and Sue's wedding, then a 17-issue sequence which introduces the Inhumans, Galactus, Silver Surfer, and the Black Panther.

Some thoughts on why this run of FF and a simultaneous stretch of Thor satisfied the growing number of Marvel readers, from Will Jacobs and Gerard Jones's book The Comic Book Heroes:

To the loyal Marvel fan, who had followed the plot developments from their inception, these two years of Thor and The Fantastic Four were like a wondrous tapestry of lost worlds, distant galaxies, and uncanny creatures; a trip to the newsstand or the drugstore each month became a new step in a voyage into uncharted realms that seemed to have no bounds.

These voyages continue to inspire today, as elements from these runs fill movie theatres.

My comic book collection grew steadily after picking up this issue, as I scoured bins for old comics that were rarely in pristine physical condition. At its peak in the early 2000s, it covered several rows of bookshelves in my Mom's basement. But then it was time to cull, down to its present state of a shelf of collected editions and graphic novels, and a tiny sampling of single issues. Selling off the rest kept me financially afloat during one of those dry periods freelancers encounter.  I don't regret that decision, since there are plenty of sources for whenever I feel like indulging in more daringly dramatic developments in 20th century graphic literature. 

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Celebratory Posters Department: The Contributions of African Canadians

Contributions of African Canadians poster at Malvern Community Recreation Centre (1)
Click on image for larger version.

A trek to find research material for upcoming articles led me to Malvern this afternoon. The local community centre was full of activity, ranging from quiet reading to ice skating. The smell of movie theatre popcorn drifted from the snack bar.

Contributions of African Canadians poster at Malvern Community Recreation Centre (2)
Click on image for larger version.
Along the passageway from the ice rinks to the library were a trio of posters honouring the achievements of 16 African Canadians ranging from 19th century political figures to Hall of Fame athletes.

Contributions of African Canadians poster at Malvern Community Recreation Centre (3)
Click on image for larger version.
Malvern is one of four library branches housing the Rita Cox Black and Caribbean Heritage Collection, which has been a valuable research resource since the mid-1970s.