What did it take for the most famous and widely read American film critic ever to hand out his lowest possible rating, issued only a few dozen times in a 10,000-plus review career?
“No matter how far we drove, I looked back and I could still see them.”
If it somehow took Milo’s appearance to reveal Bill Maher’s true form to you, perhaps you have some reckoning to do with your own Islamophobic bullshit.
Let me start with an admission: I don't find Bill Maher funny and I'm convinced that no one else does either. His guests rarely laugh out loud in any convincing way, but rather maintain a strained rictus grimace at every groaner, as though in the inheritance-based thrall of a particularly racist but rich father-in-law. Without Maher’s own cues (you can tell he's got a zinger coming when the balls of his shiny cheeks rise toward his eyes like they're ready to salute or fuck whatever comes out his mouth next), I’m not sure anyone would know that a joke just happened. The time he’s spent looking around to make sure people are laughing adds up to the average lifespan of a Galapagos tortoise. Jokes die and go to hell before Bill Maher knows they’re dead, then he uses their mirthless wake to blame the politically correct for not getting it. I say all this so that, on the slim chance Maher ever sees this, he can reassure himself in the knowledge that my contempt for him has, at least initially, aesthetic underpinnings. I thought he was a hack before I knew he was a bigot.Discussing Maher is potentially a waste of time. Even those without new releases to promote, longstanding friendships with him that apparently trump their supposed progressiveness, or toxic ideologies to flog have been giving him a wide berth for a while. And for those who feel like whatever cause they need to espouse is to be valued over avoiding someone who calls trans people “weirdos” and says ISIS and Islam are the same thing, it’s unlikely they’ll, at this juncture, turn down a TV appearance. But Maher remains inexplicably popular, the original “rogue” Twitter account, all machismo and liberal pandering bluster, and this past Friday, he brought Milo Yiannopoulos onto his HBO show, Real Time. It was a cringe inducing, seemingly endless display of obsequious protester bashing and fag jokes, but by god it got folks riled up, so now’s as good a time as any to revisit Bill Maher’s place in our culture as serial faith-misunderstander and smug truth-bomb bore. We were promised jetpacks and instead we got this Jamie Kennedy-looking motherfucker spouting “liberal values” horseshit to the DNC end of the Gamergate spectrum.Getting the Milo episode out of the way, let’s just say if that if open and vigorous debate is your ostensible steez, then it’s good and proper to actually debate. That’s not what happened with Milo. Maher made gay jokes, defended Lena Dunham, and found common cause in hate for Muslims and the trans community. His other guests for the evening said “fuck off” a lot and bathed in applause, but there they were, trying to split the difference between taking a fascist seriously enough to appear on a panel with him but not enough to do their homework. They didn’t destroy Milo. They “destroyed” him, only in the Facebook share sense. It was an embarrassing shitshow for all involved. But if it somehow took Milo’s appearance to reveal Maher’s true form to you, perhaps you have some reckoning to do with your own Islamphobic bullshit. (Just a few days later, finding the line that even Trump conservatives won’t cross, Milo managed to take himself down, but his views were already a cornucopia of awfulness—the pedophilia aspects just cast Maher’s judgment in an even dimmer light.)Whether Maher himself has always been an Islamophobe or if it’s just some late-career Hitchens pivot is up for debate. Some argue that his early and, to my mind, correctly vaunted moment of courage was when, post-9/11, he acknowledged that flying a plane into a building, while inarguably disgusting on every conceivable level, is not something one must necessarily call “cowardly”; his more recent critics, usually coming from the anti-imperialist left, claim that even then, the statement was said in the service of accentuating the evil of Islam and pushing for Western retribution. Not knowing the man’s heart, but preferring a robust narrative arc, let’s assume good faith in that show-cancelling utterance. He was okay, and then, as man goes from crawling to walking to walking with a cane, he now sucks.As late-night monologues have long been the first refuge of the white tool bag, it’s of little value to dwell too long on Maher’s. They are, taken as a whole, just as smirking an examination of “what’s in the news” as the rest. Even his most ardent defenders refer mainly to the guests on Real Time. And, for the most part, his guests are fine. If seeing Tomi Lahren (again with this most meaningless of Internet praise) “destroyed” or “eviscerated” is satisfying on some primal level (and it is), then there’s value there. His discussions with people like John Legend, Sarah Silverman, and even Ross Douthat can be illuminating. They’d likely be equally worthwhile moderated by any gregarious grump—say, Colin Quinn—but credit where it’s due. And even if Maher’s grotesque palling around with Kellyanne Conway grates the soul, he’s certainly not alone in that regard; silver-haired boys’ club types love that asshole. And while we’re being generous, we can even, for now, set aside Maher’s tiresome anti-PC shtick: presumably he has some sort of soul/damnation arrangement with the ghost of Bill Hicks that requires he misunderstands “maybe call people what they wish to be called” as some sort of magical reverse Spear of Destiny election loser.But, for a free speech absolutist, Maher sure doesn’t have many Muslims on the show who will challenge him. Part of the problem is that, in the last few years, most (such as Reza Aslan or Rula Jebreal) have not seemed eager to reappear on a show hosted by a man of Maher’s weird obsessions. But it is also clear that Maher has decided on his narrative that Islam is “the motherlode of bad ideas” and cannot be dissuaded—not by empathy, the sheer overwhelming number Muslims just living their lives, or history itself. He’s had enough (non-Muslim) guests, like Ben Affleck, try to very simply and calmly explain how deranged he’s become, which only reinforces his notion that they are all “self-loathing liberals.” This is his religion now. So Maher will happily join Sam Harris in slandering Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour, albeit for reasons that seem to have more to do with Berkeley and how she hurt his feelings than any Sharia Law nonsense. (His willingness to use Sarsour to throw the Woman’s March under the bus is also entirely consistent with how he treats many of his female guests.) If Sarsour were actually on the show, he’d be forced to interact with someone who puts into actual progressive action all his liberal posturing and who wouldn’t find his chummy bigotry endearing. Instead, he invites Trump supporters like Asra Nomani and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, nodding thoughtfully while using their bodies and lives as a shield for his particularly specific brand of warped Zionist-infused atheism.As disappointing as it may be that Obama finally appeared on his show, undoubtedly in an attempt to marshal any spare vote for Clinton that he could, it’s no wonder he demurred for so long. Maher helped set the tone from the left that allowed the very idea of a “Muslim president” to fester until it could be deployed (and interpreted) as a slur—to suggest it was an inherently insulting proposition, and that the lie should have mattered one way or another, even if it had been true. (And if Obama’s a secret Muslim, he made for a garbage double-agent; he could have at least closed Guantanamo.) Maher can denounce Trump all he likes while genuinely thinking that people not finding him amusing is the reason Trump won. It's the solipsism at his core: he wants to smoke pot and say “faggot” and cosplay Denis Leary and make broad denunciations of a religion that he, like all of them, barely understands. Environmental policies aside, for all his Trump bashing, he seems more offended by the president’s general bumbling than his politics—in Trump’s greatest fearmongering, the discredited idea of a clash of civilizations, the two men are the least strange of bedfellows. It’s just a question of who’s the bigger spoon.*Myself, being a center-leaning leftist and vegetarian, Bill Maher occasionally says things that make me feel nice. I nod my head along with everyone else when he badmouths the current president or says I’m smart and pretty because I live on the coast. It’s nice to feel nice. For someone who rails against the left for focusing too much on “feelings,” he studiously tells his base what they want to hear. And, as I said, he’s a competent moderator. But what’s relevant now, under Trump/Bannon, is Maher’s view of Islam. Like a lot of pop-culture atheist pundits, Bill Maher hates all religions equally but Islam the most. He’s taken it as a personal crusade to “reform” the religion, because this is an alternate timeline where Trump is president, Dennis Miller lives in Maher’s strangely popular skin as a libertarian/liberal hybrid, and the last one hundred years of American foreign policy never happened. There are no Dulles brothers, no Soviet/English/American razing of the Middle East, just an obviously evil Islam in desperate need of the wisdom and sure hands of a late-night carny and Richard Dawkins’ sentient dandruff, Sam Harris. Sam Harris, that excretory creep, who cries about Obama not saying “radical Islam” with a revealingly glib, "Presumably, he's not been bombing the Amish," as though the bombing is correct, but the refusal to name and shame is the issue.Muslims are not—and there’s no way to put too fine a point on this—human beings to these men. They talk about them the way the Victorian English would talk about anyone right before they set up shop and stole all the tea. That Sam Harris could be held up as a determiner of what's ethical and reasonable tells you what you need to know about Bill Maher’s worldview at this point. There’s no shortage of resistance in the media to Trump; what's relevant is Maher’s bigotry and scorn for Muslims. Let his love of marijuana and the whales be rendered as footnotes. With a Steve Bannon as co-president, and all that entails, liberal pieties are so much chum when coupled with a bigotry that satisfies the needs of the state.So I’m glad that people are turning on Bill Maher, even if the renouncement would have perhaps held more weight during the Obama years, back when killing Muslims was a cause shared across the American body politic. But from the comfort of my New York apartment, overlooking One World Trade Center, able to scan and delete hateful online comments left for my Muslim fiancé before she sees them, I have the luxury of saying, “better late than never.” Not that I think Maher (or Harris, or even Milo) shouldn’t have a platform. I call for no boycott or defenestration, though I’d shed no tears at either. It’s simply that Bill Maher is a fatuous joke-murdering dogmatist, a colonialist gibbon who spent so long fucking nuns that he can’t even get joining the church right, and opts instead for a cheap unthinking atheism that resembles the dullest tentpole revival. If he was ever funny, or wise, or worth a good goddamn in any respect, that time has passed. If his decline results in finding his true calling as a mentor to online cultural-blip fascists with bad posture and worse postures, I wish him exactly as well as he deserves.
What did it take for the most famous and widely read American film critic ever to hand out his lowest possible rating, issued only a few dozen times in a 10,000-plus review career?
In the summer of 1980, Roger Ebert stepped into Chicago’s now-defunct United Artists Theater for a matinee of a low-budget horror film called I Spit On Your Grave.Ebert and his colleague Gene Siskel often attended exploitation movies for their PBS show Sneak Previews, where they would review a “Dog of the Week.” If he was looking for a movie that would arouse his ire, he certainly found it.“A vile bag of garbage named I Spit on Your Grave is playing in Chicago theaters this week,” wrote Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times. “It is a movie so sick, reprehensible and contemptible that I can hardly believe it's playing in respectable theaters.”I Spit On Your Grave is about a womanwho rents a cottage in the country to complete a book, only to be beaten, raped, and left for dead by four hicks. She survives, and spends the last act of the film killing her assailants one by one. “This movie is an expression of the most diseased and perverted darker human natures,” wrote Ebert. “Because it is made artlessly, it flaunts its motives: There is no reason to see this movie except to be entertained by the sight of sadism and suffering.” Ebert was even more disturbed by the audience:How did the audience react to all of this? Those who were vocal seemed to be eating it up. The middle-aged, white-haired man two seats down from me, for example, talked aloud. After the first rape: “That was a good one!” After the second: “That'll show her!” After the third: “I've seen some good ones, but this is the best.” When the tables turned and the woman started her killing spree, a woman in the back row shouted: “Cut him up, sister!”I wanted to turn to the man next to me and tell him his remarks were disgusting, but I did not. To hold his opinions at his age, he must already have suffered a fundamental loss of decent human feelings. I would have liked to talk with the woman in the back row, the one with the feminist solidarity for the movie's heroine. I wanted to ask If she'd been appalled by the movie's hour of rape scenes. As it was, at the film's end I walked out of the theater quickly, feeling unclean, ashamed and depressed.By conservative estimate, Ebert reviewed at least 10,000 movies during a career that spanned from 1967 to 2013. Most of these films were graded on a scale of four stars to one-half star, but I Spit On Your Grave was awarded zero. His exhaustive website, RogerEbert.com, includes only sixty zero-star films (not counting films to which Ebert did not assign a rating, including Deep Throat, Behind the Green Door, and the first Human Centipede, and a handful of films that RogerEbert.com has misattributed the rating, including Murder at 1600, Erendira, and Lumiere). For Ebert, the zero-star grade was locked in a glass case, to be broken only in case of emergency. In his review of Death Wish II, he stated, “I award ‘no stars’ only to movies that are artistically inept and morally repugnant.” On his blog in 2008, he claimed to reserve the rating “for movies I feel in some way or another are a transgression against humanity, if that doesn't sound too lofty.”Ebert was thirteen years into his career as a film critic when he saw I Spit On Your Grave, but evidently hadn’t yet learned what P.T. Barnum said about bad publicity. His newspaper columns and TV appearances slamming the film helped turn I Spit On Your Grave into a minor box office success with a long legacy (including a series of remakes and an upcoming sequel). His review has also coloured every piece of critical writing about the film ever since—most notably Carol Clover’s book Men, Women, and Chainsaws, which offered a feminist reappraisal of the film.This is not to say that Ebert was wrong to condemn the film so harshly, but rather to point out what a zero-star review from him represented. Roger Ebert was the most famous and influential American film critic who ever lived. What does it mean when the most famous and widely read American film critic regards a movie as “artistically inept and morally repugnant”?*Before answering this question, maybe we should ask: what makes someone the most famous and influential American film critic who ever lived? Ebert was not necessarily fated for the job. He joined the Chicago Sun-Times as a reporter and feature writer in 1966 at age twenty-four. In 1967, he was told he would become the paper’s film critic—movies were a young person’s art, so the paper put its youngest reporter on the beat. “At the time I thought that five years would be enough time to spend on the movie beat,” he wrote in his 2011 memoir Life Itself. “My master plan was to become an op-ed columnist and then eventually, of course, a great and respected novelist.”Ebert was acquainted with the classics through his campus film society, but by his own admission, he learned on the job. It helped that he landed the job during a particularly fruitful period of film history: in these early years, he reviewed Bonnie and Clyde, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Easy Rider, Blowup, The Graduate, Weekend, Faces, Who’s That Knocking On My Door, and The Battle of Algiers. He was one of the youngest major critics in the country, and on these revolutionary films he found himself on the right side of the generation gap.In 1975, Ebert became the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize. But it is safe to say that his fame exploded in the ‘80s thanks to his popular TV show with Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel. The show (originally titled Sneak Previews, then Siskel & Ebert when sold to syndication) offered the novelty of seeing two average-looking journalists having tetchy three-minute arguments over movies. Natural rivals, the two critics parlayed their anti-chemistry into lucrative media careers, doing regular Sunshine Boys shtick for Johnny Carson and David Letterman. Their “Two Thumbs Up!” verdicts became ubiquitous marketing tools.Ebert’s preeminent position among critics is interesting when considering the range of writers whose careers his partially overlapped. There was Pauline Kael, known for her intoxicating prose (no one better described sensual experience of watching a movie) and merciless certainty (she claimed never to see a movie twice). Andrew Sarris brought the auteur theory to America, helping popularize the idea of the director as artist. Manny Farber found art in the highbrow and lowbrow, and scorned the middlebrow. Jonathan Rosenbaum alerts readers the ideological factors that determine a film’s distribution and reception. J. Hoberman explores how films reflect the eras and dominant ideologies from which they emerge. Armond White specializes in contrarian, often racially charged takes that seek to unmask the hidden prejudices of the critical community. John Simon was a proud snob and aesthetic conservative with a Platonic approach to film as art.Why Ebert and not any of these writers? All of them are niche tastes; Ebert was the exact midpoint between a scholar and a hack. Most of them sought to alter our understanding of film; Ebert was more like cinema’s ambassador. Those “Two Thumbs Up!” verdicts were a little dunderheaded, but he also used Siskel & Ebert to highlight foreign and independent cinema. He ran an “Outguess Ebert” Oscar contest for the Chicago Sun-Times, but he also led shot-by-shot discussions of Citizen Kane at universities. He released book collections of his pithiest pans (I Hated Hated HATED This Movie and Your Movie Sucks), but his biweekly “Great Movies” column also offered smart, jargon-free analyses of the classics. For a generation of aspiring cinephiles, these “Great Movies” essays were a roadmap to the canon.As a prose stylist, Pauline Kael wanted to dazzle the reader. Ebert was also a good writer, but his first-person reviews are plainspoken, digressive, proudly subjective, and unintimidating. Consider this passage from his review of the Jackie Chan vehicle The Tuxedo (2002):I have been waiting for a dehydrating villain for some time. My wife is of the opinion that I do not drink enough water. She believes the proper amount is a minimum of eight glasses a day. She often regards me balefully and says, “You're not getting enough water.” In hot climates her concern escalates. In Hawaii last summer she had the grandchildren so worked up they ran into the bedroom every morning to see if Grandpa Roger had turned to dust.Because of his fame, there was a sense that Ebert was the critic who “mattered”—the critic who, more than any other, was the bellwether of mainstream taste. He was also an arbiter: without Ebert’s advocacy, it is unlikely that Hoop Dreams or My Dinner With Andre would have found an audience, and his support was crucial to the careers of Martin Scorsese, Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, Ramin Bahrani, and Ava DuVernay. In 1999, he launched his Overlooked Film Festival (renamed “Ebertfest”), still an annual event in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.There were inevitably movies where he veered from consensus, but he was not provocative or idiosyncratic by nature, and didn’t have an antagonistic relationship with Hollywood. For the most part, you didn’t go to Ebert for an against-the-grain take. He wrote for the Friday-night moviegoer, and tried to find the good in anything (sometimes a little too hard, as his three-star appraisals of the Garfield films can attest). His reviews sometimes strike an awkward note between personal essay and consumer report: he wanted to articulate his feelings about a movie while also predicting how the target audience might respond. He defended his approach in this amusing 1973 passage:I sometimes find myself the advocate of what might be called a generic theory of film criticism. That's to say I think movies should be judged, in part, in terms of the expectations we have for them. A handful of movies rise above their genres: Bonnie and Clyde is no gangster film, for example, and Stagecoach is more than a Western. But most of the time, when we go to the movies, we go seeking more modest rewards: A decent spy picture, for example, or a passable musical. If you can accept this system of judgment, then The Devil in Miss Jones is maybe a three-star dirty movie.If Ebert had a critical philosophy, it came in the form of a few maxims he quoted frequently. First, by Robert Warshow: “A man goes to the movies. The critic must be honest enough to admit that he is that man.” And then, three Ebert originals: “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it’s about it”; “We live in a box of space and time. Movies are the windows in its walls”; and, “The movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears.”*Maybe a third of Ebert’s zero-star reviews are for movies that are just plain bad. There is nothing particularly “morally repugnant” about Burn Hollywood Burn, Frozen Assets, Erik the Viking, North, Speed Zone, Jaws: The Revenge, or Mad Dog Time, unless you consider it morally repugnant to waste an audience’s time. These films have been mostly forgotten, and Ebert’s withering review of North (“I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it.”) is probably better-remembered than the movie itself. A few are movies that offended Ebert on political grounds, like John Wayne’s Vietnam puff piece The Green Berets and the death-penalty thriller The Life of David Gale. At least one zero-star review is inexplicable: Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead. “As a movie,” writes Ebert, “this material, freely adapted by Stoppard, is boring and endless. It lies flat on the screen, hardly stirring.” (Fair enough, but… zero stars?)Ebert was basically a liberal humanist, and this point-of-view is evident in many of the zero-star reviews. Writing about the Andrew Dice Clay concert film Dice Rules (1991), he enumerates Clay’s targets as “The handicapped. The ill. Minorities. Women. Homosexuals. Anyone, in fact, who is not exactly like Andrew Dice Clay is fair game for his cruel attacks.” Shot at the height of the Diceman’s popularity, the film captures two sold-out performances at Madison Square Garden, which triggers Ebert’s recurring concern about the audience. “Watching the way thousands of people in his audience could not think for themselves, could not find the courage to allow their ordinary feelings of decency and taste to prevail, I understood better how demagogues are possible.”A lot of Ebert’s zero-star movies are the kinds of nihilistic horror films that often get a rise out of critics: The Human Centipede 2, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003 version), Wolf Creek, The Hitcher, and Chaos. Earlier in his career, he went overboard with offense (“Guyana—Cult of the Damned has crawled out from under a rock and into local theaters, and will do nicely as this week's example of the depths to which people will plunge in search of a dollar”). He went on a memorable tirade during his TV review of Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984):Just think of the message this film offers to its teenage audience: “The world is a totally evil place,” this movie says. “It’ll kill you. It doesn’t matter what your dreams and hopes and ambitions are. It doesn’t matter if you have a new boyfriend or a new girlfriend or you’ve got plans for the future—you can forget those plans ‘cause you’re going to wind up dead.” … I think the people who made this movie ought to be ashamed of themselves.In some of the Siskel & Ebert shows from the ‘80s, the critics come across as self-styled public servants: they warned parents about the so-called “Video Nasties,” and shamed the makers of Silent Night, Deadly Night. Ebert was a lifelong Democrat who often used his platform to campaign against censorship, but it’s no surprise that these sorts of segments resonated in the Reagan and Thatcher years. John Carpenter took a swipe at him in They Live (1988), when two Siskel and Ebert-like critics are revealed as being among the film’s alien ruling class. (The Siskel alien says, “All the sex and violence on the screen has gone too far for me! I’m fed up with it! Filmmakers like George Romero and John Carpenter have to show some restraint!”).Whatever these seeming contradictions, Ebert’s reviews do articulate a consistent worldview. He gave positive reviews to horror films that used violence in the service of humour and social commentary, notably Last House on the Left, Evil Dead 2, and The Devil’s Rejects (“A kind of heedless zeal transforms its horrors. The movie is not merely disgusting, but has an attitude and a subversive sense of humor”). Later in his career, Ebert took a more resigned—and, in my opinion, persuasive—tone in his zero-star reviews. Reviewing Chaos in 2005, he wrote, “The filmmakers want to cause disgust and hopelessness in the audience. Ugly emotions are easier to evoke and often more commercial than those that contribute to the ongoing lives of the beholders.”*It’s a tired old truism that the worst response to art is indifference. With that in mind, it’s interesting that among the films in Ebert’s zero-star canon are a subsection of movies that are actually pretty interesting. None of these are perfect, and some are even bad, but they deserve a more nuanced take than Ebert was able to provide. These are the reviews that show Ebert’s limitations.Perhaps the best zero-star movie is Paul Bartel’s Death Race 2000 (1975), a media satire in the form of a violent exploitation film that anticipates the work of Paul Verhoeven. Ebert does not register the satiric elements, and spends most of his review reviewing the audience—according to Ebert, the R-rated film attracted mostly children. “I was torn between walking out immediately and staying to witness a spectacle more dismaying than anything on the screen: the way small children were digging gratuitous bloodshed.”When it comes to his takedowns of two difficult artists—Andy Warhol and Jerry Lewis—your mileage may vary. You may agree that Warhol’s I, a Man (1967) is “an elaborate, deliberately boring joke,” or you may be transfixed by the rigorous gaze of Warhol’s camera on eccentrics like Nico and Ingrid Superstar. You may agree that Lewis’s Hardly Working (1980) is “one of the worst movies ever to achieve commercial release in this country” (as per Ebert), but you may be interested in how it continues Lewis’s preoccupation with the loser in an uncaring society. Comparing the film to Lewis’s earlier The Bellboy, Jonathan Rosenbaum writes that Hardly Working “is both looser and more tragic—not merely in depicting the vain efforts of an out-of-work circus clown to hold down a steady blue-collar job, but in showing the effects of aging and lessened stamina in its star.” In both cases, I think Ebert’s is the less interesting take.The same can be said of his reviews two revisionist historical epics, Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971) and the notorious Caligula (1979). In the former, Ebert goes for brittle sarcasm: “It is about time that someone had the courage to tell it like it was about Loudon, a seemingly respectable provincial town beneath the facade of which seethed simmering intrigues, unholy alliances, greed, fear, lust, avarice, sacrilege, and nausea.” In the latter, he chooses outraged hyperbole: “Caligula is sickening, utterly worthless, shameful trash,” he writes. “If it is not the worst film I have ever seen, that makes it all the more shameful: People with talent allowed themselves to participate in this travesty.” He continues his dismissal along moralist lines:You have heard that this is a violent film. But who could have suspected how violent, and to what vile purpose, it really is? In this film, there are scenes depicting a man whose urinary tract is closed, and who has gallons of wine poured down his throat. His bursting stomach is punctured with a sword. There is a scene in which a man is emasculated, and his genitals thrown to dogs, who eagerly eat them on the screen. There are scenes of decapitation, evisceration, rape, bestiality, sadomasochism, necrophilia.Caligula was and is a notoriously troubled production—and, frankly, a bad film. Originally titled Gore Vidal’s Caligula, the esteemed author removed his name from the film after conflicts with director Tinto Brass—and then Brass removed his own name after producer Bob Guccione locked him out of the editing room (and inserted hard-core pornography). Ebert asks, “What in the world could it mean that this film is ‘Adapted from an Original Screenplay by Gore Vidal’?” The film is an indigestible slog, but it’s not hard to place it within Vidal’s lifelong interest in subverting heteronormative sexuality and popular history.Like many critics of his time, Ebert detested Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi, the Italian filmmakers who specialized in lurid “shockumentaries.” Ebert gave zero stars to two of their films: Africa Addio (1966), about the end of colonial Africa, and Farewell Uncle Tom (1971), a mockumentary about American slavery. Ebert is rightly appalled by the filmmakers’ latent racism, and for their abhorrent ethical failings (he cites a rumour that an execution was delayed by twenty-four hours so the filmmakers could capture it for Africa Addio, and notes the degradations inflicted on the extras in Farewell Uncle Tom), but “zero stars” is too simple. Though its colonialist politics are difficult to accept, Africa Addio is also a stunningly vivid document of a continent in transition, and Farewell Uncle Tom remains the most realistic and uncompromising film about the horrors of slavery. Neither film is noble, but neither can be dismissed so easily.Speaking of uncompromising films about slavery, we have Mandingo (1975). Ebert was a supporter of films that dealt with race in America—he ranked The Color Purple, Mississippi Burning, Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, Monster’s Ball, and Crash as the best films of their respective years—but Mandingo is a violent, sensationalistic movie that does nothing to comfort its audience. Ebert calls the film “none too subtly exploitative of the subject of interracial sexual intercourse,” and chides the theatre for selling tickets to children. In Sexual Politics and Narrative Film, the Marxist academic Robin Wood wrote persuasively of Mandingo as an intersectional work. “If Mandingo is the greatest Hollywood film about race, it is because it is also about sex and gender. … If we genuinely wish to end racism we must attack it at its sources, of which the irrational dread of miscegenation is perhaps the most fundamental.” For Wood, the film was a condemnation of a patriarchal capitalist system that turned women and black men into commodities.But the most frustrating of his zero-star reviews is of the 1997 re-release of John Waters’ Pink Flamingos (1972)—a rich, complicated object that Ebert is incapable of properly analysing. Ebert dismisses the film as a freak-show curio, writing, “Pink Flamingos appeals to that part of our psyches in which we are horny teenagers at the county fair with fresh dollar bills in our pockets, and a desire to see the geek show with a bunch of buddies, so that we can brag about it at school on Monday.” Ultimately, he dismisses the film as something its writer/director had grown out of:John Waters is a charming man, whose later films, such as Polyester and Hairspray, take advantage of his bemused take on pop culture. His early films, made on infinitesimal budgets and starring his friends, used shock as a way to attract audiences, and that is understandable. He jump-started his career, and in the movie business, you do what you gotta do.Ebert is not wrong to view the film as a canny piece of ballyhoo, but he doesn’t see why it resonated. Waters’ “filthiest people alive” could have only have emerged from the post-Altamont, post-Manson, Vietnam-tinted atmosphere of 1972. Its cavalcade of perversions must be considered in the context of a decade of movies like Mondo Cane, I Am Curious: Yellow, and Deep Throat, which pushed the boundaries of “obscenity.” Ebert is also blind to the radical queerness of Waters’ cinema: how the filmmaker creates worlds where everything that mainstream society regards as “ugly” becomes beautiful, and vice versa.Ebert shows more imagination reviewing Freddy Got Fingered (2001)—his zero-star pan might actually count as one of the kinder reviews that Tom Green’s neo-Dadaist provocation received. Comparing the film to Un Chien Andalou and acknowledging its place “in the surrealist tradition,” Ebert writes, “The day may come when Freddy Got Fingered is seen as a milestone of neo-surrealism. The day may never come when it is seen as funny.” A year later, in his (one-star) review of the Stealing Harvard, Ebert writes:Seeing Tom Green reminded me, as how could it not, of his movie Freddy Got Fingered, which was so poorly received by the film critics that it received only one lonely, apologetic positive review on the Tomatometer. I gave it—let's see—zero stars. Bad movie, especially the scene where Green was whirling the newborn infant around his head by its umbilical cord. But the thing is, I remember "Freddy Got Fingered" more than a year later. I refer to it sometimes. It is a milestone. And for all its sins, it was at least an ambitious movie, a go-for-broke attempt to accomplish something. It failed, but it has not left me convinced that Tom Green doesn't have good work in him. Anyone with his nerve and total lack of taste is sooner or later going to make a movie worth seeing.*Ebert did not feel the need to stay faithful to his old positions. As times changed, so did he. “What I believe is that all clear-minded people should remain two things throughout their lifetimes: Curious and teachable,” he wrote in a 2009blog. “If someone says the kung-fu movies of the 1970s, which I used for our old Dog of the Week segments, deserve serious consideration, I will listen.” Revisiting The Good, the Bad and the Ugly for a 2003 “Great Movies” essay, Ebert wrote, “Looking up my old review, I see I described a four-star movie but only gave it three stars, perhaps because it was a ‘spaghetti Western’ and so could not be art.”The unusually deep bond that Ebert formed with his readership had a lot to do with passages like this. His reviews convey the humanity of the person writing them. That bond intensified in the last seven years of his life, after he underwent surgery for a cancerous tissue in his jaw in 2006. Shortly after the surgery, an artery burst, leading to the removal of part of his jaw and the loss of his ability to speak. Attempts to reconstruct his jaw failed, and Ebert remained speechless until his death in 2013. In these difficult years, he became more prolific than ever, expanding his online presence through his blog, Twitter account, and website, plus writing an autobiography and producing a TV show (Ebert Presents: At the Movies). He wrote regularly and candidly about his ailments, and allowed his final months to be chronicled in unsparing detail in Steve James’ documentary Life Itself (2014). He became a symbol of strength in the face of adversity: no one who glimpsed him shuffling between screenings at the Toronto International Film Festival could fail to be moved.Ebert’s reviews were deeply subjective, but his position as America’s most famous film critic means he represented something bigger than himself. His perspective was that of an educated, middle-class, white, liberal American male, and his zero-star reviews are a reflection of what the average educated, middle-class, white, liberal American male was willing to accept at any given moment. Ebert’s forty-six-year body of work reads like an intellectual autobiography. There are few writers who I’ve spent more time reading than Roger Ebert. There are few culture writers who inspired more people to follow in his footsteps. I’m surprised by how seldom I’ve revisited him since his death.
A requiem for a greyhound.
Dear Master,I have a picture in mind today of the first time you met Martha, my sister. I see you having a chin wag on my sofa on matters literary, artistic and culinary. I was just the parlour-maid at the time, drawing Nespressos from the machine. I know my place. You took to Martha immediately, remember? And we met on the doorstep, you and I having dawdled merrily on the way back from our afternoon walk in Regent’s Park, in our North London neighbourhood, to spot her turning the corner of the Close a few paces ahead of us. I knew you’d get on famously, because you waggled your head in greeting and your tail swished through the air and you tossed your long head back and started up a greyhound roo, something you rarely do outdoors, and even more rarely upon first acquaintance. A greyhound roo is very musical, stirring, indeed, and I explained this to Martha, about the roo, how particular it is to the greyhound, how close to a wolf call and full of special information. I note that you roo for joy and in appraisal, and for those amongst my friends of whom you especially approve. You never roo for me, but we don’t need such telegraphy. We have a language all our own.This memory puts me in mind of two things, Master. Seeing you and my sister on the sofa the day you met reminds me of the day we first met on a warm May afternoon in Norfolk not two years ago and, of course, it reminds me that I promised a piece of writing for an anthology book, which would be a dialogue, as I envisaged it, between your voice and mine. I was always your cheerful amanuensis. What a partnership it would be! What larks we would have! But you died, Master. Four weeks after I promised this piece, you died after an unexpected illness of lightning speed and violence. You were not yet four years old.What do I do now? Tell me what to do, please. Without you. I loved you so much. Where shall I begin?- Mine anatomy! Discourse upon mine anatomy!- Yes, Master. Good idea.*One of the most famous descriptions of the greyhound comes from the 1486 Boke of Seynt Albans, a book of monographs for the gentry on hunting, hawking and heraldry with a chapter on fishing added some ten years later. Call it The Field of the fifteenth century. In the Book of St Albans, Dame Juliana Berners wrote thatA Greyhound shold beHeeded lyke a snakeAnd neckyd lyke a drake,Backed lyke a beam,Syded lyke a bream,Footed lyke a catte,Taylld lyke a ratte.I first saw Master on the website pages of a greyhound rescue in County Kerry, Ireland. There were several photographs, one with him looking straight to camera in a racing yard, on the end of a rope, a tight leather “fishtail” collar round his neck and a rusty water bucket at his feet. And there were several in profile, mugshots. I was captivated on the instant.The nose. Aquiline, Roman.I was drawn to his name, Master (racing name: Jeffs Master), and his sheer blackness. I did not know at the time that black hounds and male hounds tend to linger longest in rescue. The racing world abounds with the offspring of Master’s grandfather Top Honcho and great-grandfather Head Honcho, both famous Australian champions, both black and both epic stud dogs, their sperm frozen for posterity in a spirit of hopeful and ambitious breeding. Not all the Honcho descendants are black, of course. And not all are good at racing. Jeffs Master wasn’t. He ran two trials, winning one, and five races at Tralee and Galway stadiums, taking second, fifth and six places in an undistinguished grade. According to the race comments, he had, variously, EvCh (every chance), was SlAw (slow away) QAw (quick away), set the EP (early pace), and Blk (baulked). He was Crd (crowded) several times. He finished sixth in his final race despite running on the inside. Losses and wins are gauged by tenths of a second.It is interesting that black in a greyhound should be deemed unfashionable today when, from the time of the Medieval Forest Laws, unbroken colours were always favoured by the nobility for whom greyhound ownership was a special preserve. A blue, fawn or black greyhound is so easy to see. Brindle colours may well have been bred into the hound in an effort at camouflage, because greyhound-ownership had been outlawed for commoners in the early eleventh century, a law that endured for hundreds of years. Master evoked one of the two solidly coloured female hounds, one black and one blue, in the famous portrait of “Rolla and Portia” painted by the Swiss artist Jacques Laurent Agasse in 1805.Agasse (1767-1849) grew up happy and wealthy, spending much of his time in the family stables and kennels in town and country, and drawing pictures of animals copied from volumes of Natural History. His father sent him to art school in Geneva before Jacques Laurent furthered his study of animal anatomy at a veterinary school in Paris, after which he returned home, where he met the aesthete and corinthian George Pitt, Lord Rivers. He painted a portrait of the Englishman’s dear departed dog, which pleased Lord Rivers immensely, and Agasse was eventually persuaded to follow his patron to England. Here, Agasse was in his element, achieving handsome landscapes and refined portraits of horse and hound for the predilection of the gentry. Jacques Laurent is buried in St John’s Wood.He must have enjoyed the London Zoo, Master, which we skirted nearly every day. He surely loved the zoo and, what with being a favourite of the nobility, I daresay he was granted special access by Fellows of the Zoological Society. I daresay his spirit wanders there still and he saw you, Master. He admired your comportment and elegant anatomy and was reminded of Rolla and Portia. The prepossessing black greyhound in his painting could be your grandgreymother.Master! Your silken coat! How it came to shine, to gleam. To shimmer, at times, with iridescence.*The Regent’s Park.Regent’s Park became our second home, our reward at the end of my writing day. The first time I let Master off lead was by mistake. In early days, I attached an equestrian lunge line to his lead and worked on recall for short spells as he learned his name. In the racing life, a hound will almost never be addressed by name or looked in the eye. One day, on his regular lead in the central playing field in Regent’s Park, Master began to spin and dance for sheer joy and I dropped the lead for fear of hurting his neck as he sprang forth. He ran in beauty with a greyhound grin on his face, speeding in grand laps round and round my startled self, but when I whistled once, then called his name, he galloped my way to stop at my feet, ears pricked and eyes like sparklers. This was his first zoomie, an impromptu of dazzling style, and unforgettable.Your zoomies, Master, were an ode! An incarnation. I laughed open-throated to see you, became aware of my heart in all its parts and functions, the circuitry and oscillations, the vital coursing of blood.Day after day we wandered the park, strolling the avenues and sniffing the blooms and doing zoomies in the fields, drinking from the fountain, resting in the shade of his favourite tree, a London plane by the Broad Walk off Gloucester Gate. We watched the ducks and geese and heron in the wetlands and scouted for ogres on the Long Bridge known to us as “Troll Bridge” for Master’s strange wariness there, bewildered as he was by the sound of roosting pigeons on arch and truss beneath the beams. And I fancied we were shadowed by a crow. He followed us everywhere, often at several paces. I named him Misha of the KGB. What adventures we had, Master, in these our bucolic hours, our paradisiacal days!I see you everywhere.*There are spirits everywhere. No, that is not quite true. It is safer to suggest that certain people, certain creatures, are so very singular they simply raise the dust. They are templates and touchstones for their perfection of form, for their personality. They are just a little closer to the gods. Master was a head-turner, an eye-catcher, his presence was moving, fetching. One had to gawp. And when we bestrode Regent’s Park or walked on moor and seashore, I swear I could see the spirit of his antecedents in the broad afternoon! I took many photographs. Sometimes they appeared there, his ancestors. I drained the colour from photos, I applied a vignetting and lo, there surely was Master’s grandgreyfather bestriding Regent’s Park or the Yorkshire moors, or looking out to sea! To look at Master closely was to see history, to see into the past and forwards again, to all there might be to come. I saw so very far. He made me see so very far.*Heirlooms and legacies.Master’s forefathers were not competitive racers until the early twentieth century. Chasing an artificial lure round an oval course for a wagering public did not begin as a sport until the first track opened in California in 1919. The first meet in Britain was held at the now notorious Belle Vue Stadium, Manchester, in 1926. Greyhound coursing, a sighthound sport not exclusive to greyhounds, and involving pursuit of the live hare, has a much longer history, and is originally a noble pastime as old as Ancient Greece. In its modern competitive form, open coursing took shape in England with The National Coursing Club forming in the mid nineteenth century to regulate an increasingly popular sport that declined, however, with the advent of greyhound racing. Coursing is now illegal in the UK, though closed coursing still thrives in Ireland, that land of dreamers and inveterate gamblers.It is without doubt in a greyhound’s genetic makeup to run. That is his heritage. It is in his blood to run, but not always torace. It is exhilarating to watch a greyhound run and I can understand the instinct to harness that talent for sport. It’s what we do. We do war and we do sport and we enlist the services of beasts in both fields. We do war and sport very well, but not grace. We do not do grace very well, and regardless of the arguments for or against greyhound racing, it behooves us to remember the hound never chose to race or course for money in an organised fashion or to be bred almost entirely for such purposes. The power of choice does not necessarily dignify man over beast, so it behooves us further to remember that the greyhound cannot influence the conditions in which his career is conducted, he cannot quit of his own volition, but only when gainfully retired, or retired injured beyond further capacity, or dumped, destroyed, and failed. This is where I came in—when a racer failed. Here is where I tried to show a little grace and take responsibility for the often sorry consequences of man’s decision to assign the noble greyhound a new job description, a new reason for being, thus turning the consort of princes into a sporting machine. Master was a failed racer. He needed rescue.*Rescue Remedies.Dear Master,Everything hurts. I am finding it so hard to sleep. The moment I close my eyes I see terrible things, I see your last moments. My eyes burn by day and I am coming out in inflammations and chilblains and fiery rashes. I am having silly accidents in the kitchen due to fatigue and carelessness. Friends send me advice and ointments and dietary recommendations. The Neosporin +pain relief ointment “soothes painful cuts and provides temporary relief from pain.” That’s good. I thought I might spread it around the heart region and across the lobes of my brain. Someone suggested I dose myself with Bach’s Rescue Remedy. This is a natural dilution of five flowers—Rock rose, Impatiens, Cherry plum, Star of Bethlehem and Clematis in a 50:50 mix of water and brandy. It is a “vibrational” or “energetic” medicine for the healing of depression, insomnia, stress. For the spiritual crisis in a person. Well, well. Spirits again. Rescue Remedy has never worked for me and frankly, for not a great deal more than the roundabout £10 I require to procure myself a scant 20 ml of it, I can purchase a bottle of bison grass Zubrowka vodka, which surely has tremendous naturopathic properties due to its infusion of bison grass—or “holy grass”—an aromatic comestible favoured by the sole remaining wild bison herd in Europe, grazing in the primeval lowland forest of Northeastern Poland. It did make me smile, though, as I toyed with that tiny dropper bottle of vibrational medicine at the pharmacy. It made me think, I was it, Master, wasn’t I? I was your rescue remedy in May 2011 when I met you, and five weeks later when I finally took you home. For the kennel stress you were suffering. For the possibility of euthanasia pending.*The average age of the “retired” racer is two and a half years. Master was almost two years old when he came into rescue in Ireland on February 20, 2011, shortly after which I saw the photograph taken in the racing kennel yard on the Kerry Greyhound Connection website. He looks scared in the photograph. The profile notes told me Master had run seven races and that he displayed a fine temperament, such as they knew it thus far.But, oh what a prepossessing head!I was struck by the greyhound-long muzzle with a slight Borzoi bend, a nose described in his short biography as “Roman.” His Roman nose, it read, lent him a “regal” air. And that is true, it really did. I studied all the notes, all the snapshots of other hounds seeking homes, and kept returning to Master. The last picture in the sequence of photographs taken in late February 2011 upon Master’s official retirement is also the one on his pedigree page on the Greyhound Breeding and Racing Database, the one showing him in the kennel yard in an uneasy stance, with fear and uncertainty in the eyes. Notwithstanding the fear and uncertainty, he is seen in relatively good condition, quite unlike the hound I met in Norfolk on May 7.Jeffs Master, I learned in the spring of 2011, had been shipped from County Kerry to a support branch in Cromer, Norfolk, and then on to an animal sanctuary in Woodrising, Norfolk, to make room for an emergency influx of rescued racers. When I rang the animal sanctuary they told me he had been moved to a local kennels, but when I rang the local kennels to arrange a meeting, he was no longer there, but back at the sanctuary. Apparently, he suffered badly from stress at the kennels and had acquired bleeding sores. Apparently, he refused to lie on anything soft. And, I was told, he was a little underweight.*What a piece of work is a greyhound!A greyhound’s coat is short and his skin very thin with no subcutaneous layer to speak of, making him particularly prone to lacerations and even de-gloving. The greyhound heart is larger than in other breeds of dog and his blood work significantly different, the red blood cell count noticeably higher and more concentrated, with his cardiac output increasing fivefold in the course of a race when he is capable of pumping his entire bodyweight in blood in the space of a minute. Only the cheetah accelerates faster. A greyhound can reach a speed of roughly 70 km/h in 30 metres or six strides, at his constant stride frequency of 3.5 strides per second using a rotary gallop with two flight phases—that is to say, limbs extended and limbs gathered, and all four of his paws leaving the ground twice in one running cycle.Greyhounds tend to be raced underweight. They develop a thicker undercoat, known as a “kennel coat,” to withstand the cold and often have bald patches (Bald Thigh Syndrome) due to cage-rub, hard surfaces, cold, diet and metabolic conditions such as hypothyroidism, amongst other possibilities. Alopecia can come and go. Though there is some dispute, and certainly great variation in quality, where the racing diet is concerned, it is fair to assume much of what is fed is moist and not exactly conducive to dental health. The diet is high in protein and a hound coming off such a regime when retired can be a little wound up. A bit “keen.”Jeffs Master raced at a weight of 28.5 to 29.5 kg. He had attenuated to a ghastly 22 kg when I first beheld him, a bag of bones with bleeding lacerations on rump and shoulder and a kennel coat heavy with scurf and dull as dust. His thighs were not bald, but the hair was sparse there and he had obvious muscle wastage. His young teeth were encrusted with yellow plaque, his ears greasy and he smelled of warm dung. Yet he was alert and merry upon greeting. I was allowed to see him briefly without his muzzle and he lapped me once on the chin as I crouched, a nervy darting lick, much as a child plays with a flame. I found him beautiful.Master! Someone wrote this on your Greyhound Data page: “Sadly deceased Feb 2013—the most loved dog in all of England.”*My good friend Dr. Diana Weinhold drove me to Norfolk. She is a professor of Economics at the LSE and highly articulate, with a rigorous mind and a marked lack of sentimentality. She also has a lifelong experience of dogs. We walked Master round the paddock where he greeted an amazing bestiary with perfect affability: feral cats, llamas, horses, white peacocks, goats and, finally, a row of keyed-up dogs (not greyhounds) behind kennel bars who roared at him as he passed. He was enchanting. I asked the sanctuary to reserve him for me, pending a home check, and on the drive home to London, Diana remarked, not without compassion, that Master was clearly a “sweetie,” but looked terrible. She said he looked as if he might drop dead very soon.It is interesting, not only that there are so many expressions and combining forms featuring the word “dog” in our lexicography, but also that they are almost universally pejorative. A dog’s trick, a dog’s dinner, dog eat dog. Die like a dog, not a dog’s chance. The list is long. I was dogged in my pursuit of Master, in the politest fashion possible. The OED has this entry for hound: "v.t. 4. Harass or persecute relentlessly." One might say I hounded the sanctuary for news of him and for my home check.I knew that because of their minimal body fat and peculiarities of metabolism, greyhounds do not tolerate anaesthesia well and the protocols for administering this medication are necessarily different than for dogs in general. Master was due to undergo a routine castration before I could expect to adopt him and he was so drastically thin, I worried he would die of anaesthetic. I rang the sanctuary often. I waited four weeks for my home check, during which time I not only hounded a contact from the Kerry rescue organisation, a woman who no longer had any say in the matter, for advice on how to expedite matters, but fussed inordinately in my quest for Master’s necessary accoutrements, despite a vague anxiety I might be tempting fate. I began a search for the martingale collar I knew I must have due to the specifics of greyhound anatomy. The greyhound’s neck is larger than his head, which means he needs a collar that he is unlikely to slip, once it is properly adjusted. And it must be fine, not to chafe the delicate skin. These are the requirements of the sighthound martingale, often with a narrower section between two brass D loops, which should almost but not quite meet behind the ears when drawn close. I remember finding it quite extraordinary to see so many sites with such elaborate collars and vestments. It seemed most certainly special to the breed. Why do greyhounds have such beautiful things? What moves people so to adorn them in this extravagant manner, I wondered. I thought of that scene from Fitzgerald, from The Great Gatsby, when Daisy Buchanan is shown Jay Gatsby’s house and she weeps over all his English shirts in his dressing room. Daisy weeps. She says,“It makes me sad because I've never seen such—such beautiful shirts before.”Before long, Master likewise had a wardrobe of singular depth and flourish.Master, you were a shooting star. Unparalleled for personal dash! And what a race to the finish! The metabolism is so quick in a greyhound, death struck like lightning. Greyhounds do most everything fast.*When Cécile Soyer, the oncologist at the Queen Mother Hospital, Royal Veterinary College, in Potters Bar, Hertfordshire, rang me for the third time on February 13 to impart the latest news, I listened until I could no longer hear and so I gave her a friend’s number, as that friend had suggested to me in the course of that awful day, having anticipated I might lose control of my faculties. And then my friend rang again to tell me in the gentlest of tones that things were very bad indeed and there was nothing to be done and I must hurry back to Hertfordshire. I poured a glass of wine and stood in my duffel coat watching the clock for the time I should meet Nancy, my lovely Flemish friend who was to drive me for the second night running, coming to my aid both nights at a moment’s notice. As did your illness, Master. Your illness and death came at a moment’s notice. How you adored Nancy and her greyhound Mary, racing their way across Regent’s Park whenever Nancy called your name! I watched the clock that Wednesday evening, February 13, and paced the floor and drank with difficulty, because my throat was closing and my jaws clattered uncontrollably, a sound of castanets. I had to hurry to Hertfordshire.In Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly ever happen. Oh, but they do. Yes, they do.The popular and somewhat twee expression for a greyhound’s passage from this world to the next is the crossing of the “Rainbow Bridge.” It no doubt applies to the demise of other breeds, yet I heard it here first, in the greyhound community. It is sad and silly and wishful all at once and, at my most fanciful, I see the departed prancing there in the great beyond over the rainbow bridge. Stretching, play-bowing, doing zoomies, as is it is fondly known in greyhound-speak. Effecting a greyhound waltz, the greyhound terpsichorean.*June 12, 2011It was five weeks before I returned to the animal sanctuary in Woodrising, Norfolk to sign adoption papers and bring Jeffs Master back to London with me in the car my friend Lincoln rented for the purpose.“GREAT looking dog!” he exclaimed. Lincoln beams with good nature and optimism at all times. Only the rain can dispirit him. And he meant it, great looking dog!“Yes, he is!” I said. “A bit thin at the moment. A bit—”“Ahh! He’ll be fine!”When Lincoln lifted that dung-smelling, scarred and scurfy bag of bones out of the car in my street in Camden Town some hours thereafter, Master had left a sea of scurf upon the thick mat we had laid in the back for him. The vehicle smelled like a farmyard. Master had done a lot of stress-panting and farting during that long car journey and insisted on wobbling precariously on his long legs for some time before finally lying down. We had a fairly extraordinary first night together, quite aside from the fact that recently retired greyhounds are wholly unused to houses.In greyhound vernacular, the prospective adoptee is described as looking for, not his “forever home” as the typical saying goes in animal rescue, but his forever sofa. The greyhound predilection for sofas is partly due to being accustomed to a raised, straw- or shredded newspaper-filled pallet in racing kennels, and partly due to his thin coat and skin and prominent anatomy. It is also due to an instinct for finer things no amount of hard knocks can eradicate. Though Jeffs Master arrived in Camden Town on June 12, 2011, un-housetrained and new to the business of staircases, it took him perhaps two hours to discover my sofa.And there, after a brief while, we developed the habit of reclining together to watch Jon Snow on the Channel 4 News most every evening and, perhaps once a week, to share a dozen soft-boiled quail eggs between us. In our ritual, I peel the eggs one by one and dip an end in celery salt, biting that half before offering the other to him. Master had a big thing for quail eggs.I proudly sent photographs of Master on my sofa at home, and of Master in a garden in Worcestershire in his first week or so, to my contact in Kerry. She was quite taken aback and asked for more, particularly of Master standing. She remarked that when I had mentioned his weight and poor coat in earlier correspondence, she had thought he might well have lost condition due to kennel stress, which can strike some hounds hard. She thanked me for the photos, “though my gods,” she added, more than a little surprised he had been homed in such a state, “am I angered by his condition!”There are many reasons a shelter or charity can let a creature down. The shelter can be overstretched and overambitious and, as in this case, if it is not a dedicated greyhound rescue, where most hounds are to be found, the charity may simply be ill-equipped to cater for his more specialised needs. A greyhound is a singularity. I have been to a racing kennels and watched a greyhound pogo into the air repeatedly in his box to the vague distress of his kennel mate. I was staggered to see this, how high he could jump, straight as a rocket, and how long he persisted. I am told this is not unusual. I know of one other hound who went “kennel crazy” in this manner at career’s end, still no doubt flying high on the protein-rich racing diet he was taken off too hastily. He incurred grave damage to the hip.O ye gods and little fishes, Master! But just look how you gleamed by autumn! And we had adventures, did we not?*There are three tall sash windows facing the close in the front room of my London flat. I had built the sort of flyscreen one sees quite commonly in Canada for one of my early Victorian sash windows out of strips of pine, fly screen mesh, Velcro, glue and small brass hinges and door furniture. The panels were window width and maybe 30 cm in height and, in summer, I would fit it beneath the raised sashes to enjoy the cool breezes while not simultaneously offering free room and board to all manner of winged things. I was quite pleased with my handiwork, but I shan’t be using the screen ever again, because in Master’s second month with me, I left him the run of the flat for the first time, thinking to minimise his separation anxiety by not restricting him to the hall, bedroom and bathroom, thus telegraphing my departure, and on that occasion he flew out of that sash window straight through the screen to follow me. I am told his scream was heard all down the street. I was barely ten minutes away when the accident occurred, alerted by a neighbour on my mobile, and I raced home to find Master all a-quiver, yet upright and miraculously intact, in a fearful lake of blood. I scooped up that 22 kg body and made for the Royal Veterinary College Animals’ Hospital, prepared to stagger there with a bleeding greyhound in my arms as fast as humanly possible, but a passing car of local security officers, called Guardian Angels, arrested the traffic at the sight of me and ferried us to the RVC at breakneck pace.Some months later, this same pair of Angels stopped me in the Camden High Street I was on the point of crossing with Master. They had to introduce themselves because I did not recall their faces from that wild day when Master took to the sky, entering the world of flight. I embraced the community officers in the High Street. I would not forget their kindness.Guardian Angels, Master. Where were they in February 2013? Why didn’t they come? I have a recurring dream these nights, one of many. In this one I kiss a stamp, a document, something, and it shrivels and curls, desiccating instantly. It flies to the air like ash.*In an imaginary trunk in an imaginary attic, along with a desiccating pile of imaginary photographs of Master’s grandgreyfathers, there is also a photo documentary and a bundle of diaries recording the marvellous adventures of the twenty months and a day we enjoyed together. And now there is a letter I wrote to him in the aftermath of his death.Here is the letter.Twenty Months and a Day.Dear Master,I have so much to tell you and in no very particular order. Order is quite beyond me at the moment, which is why I rose very early this morning almost directly upon wakefulness to try and write you this letter. Writing is my chief instinct, my compulsion and my succour. Writing is my thing and might save me, which brings me to number one.1. You were my compulsion and my succour likewise, and saved me daily, yes, every single day. I loved you so much.2. Since I last held you, I’ve had a few hours of blessed semi-consciousness, call it sleep, crawling into bed out of sheer exhaustion, hoping to find you there in our most private place, but bed is desolate without you, and that’s number two.3. I am wearing the same outer garments you collapsed against on Wednesday night 13 February 2013 at the Royal Veterinary College Queen Mother Hospital in Potters Bar, Hertfordshire. In that dreadful moment I thanked you for being in my life and for living with me. There are two dozen quail eggs at home I will find so difficult to eat without you, I said. Then you were gone. I do, in fact, regularly wear the same outer garments day after day. You were the one with the ever-changing bespoke wardrobe and that brings me to number three. You required no adornment, Master. You were so prepossessing, a hound of epic beauty. I never tired of taking in the sight of you. It was merely my fancy and pleasure to adorn you.4. My life is littered, so very suddenly, with small agonies, this obstacle course of pain. The sparkling sight of your bowls I polished with Astonish stainless steel cleaner in anticipation of your return. The Master coaster I just placed my long Nespresso on at 5 a.m. this morning, the one designed by my friend Susan in the style of ancient Greek pottery, designed for us specially, because she fell in love with you, too. The sepia screensaver of you on my MacBook Pro I opened for the first time since Wednesday afternoon. The goat-hair baby brush I felt against my skin as I reached for something in my bag yesterday, the one I carried everywhere so I might brush the dust from your body any time it should fall upon your lustrous self. The silver whistle I touched in my pocket as I fumbled for a tissue; your tooth mug; your Virginian Rebel Rooster stuffie toy, also a gift from Susan, the Virginian; your folded pyjamas. A hundred things, Master. A hundred and counting. The terrible empty Forever Sofa. Your paws not alongside mine wherever I step. I cannot fathom how you are no longer there. Oh, walk with me.5. My Canon Powershot S100 lies undisturbed in its leather case and I have not touched the camera function on my iPhone 5 since Tuesday night. On Wednesday night, it was, of course, unthinkable. Though I took thousands of photographs of you in our twenty months, they are merely a secondary impression, a rearrangement of light at one remove. Were my mind’s eye so untrue.6.There are a great many messages from friends and acquaintances I have not been able to read yet for lack of courage and because I cannot clear my vision for any sufficient length of time. My eyes are veiled with tears.7. The shocking speed with which you were struck down by a rare and dark union of two vicious cancers in your very prime, one month shy of your fourth year, was a blessing. I grasp that now. The shocking speed was a blessing. And how brave you were in those last days, I grasp that too. Your heart was so strong, whispered Cécile the oncologist, as she helped you die.8. My own heart soared daily as I watched you play and do zoomies, and pant with merry exertion, and explore and flirt and beseech, stroll and wander with me, eat and drink, and charm without guile and go grrr with mild-mannered irritation, and disport yourself with such singular grace and elegance except when tripping up the stairs, falling out of bed, getting stuck in open doorways or bumping your head against my table.9. I wanted to be with you always, and take you everywhere I went, and it worried me deeply there might be places where that would not be possible, because not everyone in the world, strangely enough, has the sophistication to see we ought not to be apart. Not ever. I planned my life cheerfully with our togetherness in mind and now look what happened. You went somewhere I myself cannot follow, not yet. In a way, Master, my dove, my love, I can at last take you everywhere, absolutely everywhere. I require no permission. So, come on. Let’s go. Walk with me.10. Sounds. The ringtone on my iPhone 5 sounds like a bell. The terrible calls that came, on Tuesday 12 and Wednesday 13 February 2013! My phone tolled like a bell, a death-knell. I’m expecting a further terrible call, this from a crematorium about a delivery of a plain box filled with ash, ash like the taste in my mouth, a taste of dust and ashes. That’s not you, Master! It can’t be you, never you! Emma, be polite. Accept the box.When that box comes, I’m going to walk it to Regent’s Park. I’m going to place it in the big field and stand under your big tree and make a great sound of my own. I’ll call your name and out you will leap to race my way at exhilarating speed with that marvellous light in your eyes and your mouth open in a greyhound smile and your paws in air as much as on ground, thundering brightly. Oh, what a sound!Master!
The screenwriter and co-creator of Billions on breaking into the industry, getting married young, and the genius of Garry Shandling.
“Listen, here’s the thing. If you can't spot the sucker in your first half hour at the table, then you ARE the sucker,” says Matt Damon as New York City card sharp Mike McDermott in Rounders. That line, which jumpstarts the film, ended up being a hell of a lede for screenwriter Brian Koppelman, who entered the silver screen by co-writing the legendary poker fable. In a way, Damon’s opening dictum was prophetic. Hollywood unearths, uses, and discards screenwriters at an alarming rate. Here today, gone tomorrow. But Koppelman has had a keen eye for spotting the suckers since the inception of his career. As a result, he’s still at the table, alive and kicking. A modern day Renaissance man, he’s the creator of Showtime’s drama Billions, which comes back for its second season this weekend, the host of Slate’s podcast The Moment, and a sporadic director of feature films, including Knockaround Guys and Solitary Man. Sam Fragoso: Let’s start with Rounders, which is one of my favorite movies of all time.Brian Koppelman: One night I walk into an underground poker club called the Mayfair Club in New York. I lost $750 that evening and when I walked out, it was 3:30 in the morning and I called Dave [Levine] and said, “I think I know the world we should write about.” The way these people talk, the way these people express themselves, the fact that they live from sundown to sun up playing cards set up the story we wanted to tell. He came back with me the next night and agreed, and we just started hanging out at various Poker rooms in the city and reading every morning and writing and outlining our movie.Were you just completely intoxicated by this scene?Oh, yes. It was two years of playing cards almost every day. I would play a lot of poker out in (legal) Los Angeles clubs, and I was reading a bunch of books about it. But I walked into a club in New York and saw that there was this other component to it; it was people who cared enough to do this thing in a very grey area in regards to law that I really realized it was this whole world.What’s fascinating about Rounders—and The Hustler—is that you treat playing cards as a serious discipline. It doesn’t feel like Matt Damon is gambling in the movie. The Hustler is a great reference for us! But pool is always considered a game of skill, even if they’re gambling, people can watch other people play pool and they understand that it’s a game quite similar to golf in that it requires the physical component, and because you have to put that in practice. But luck plays a very small part once the actual game starts. I think you’re right that in poker, many people before Rounders thought that the luck predominated it.So you’re around these poker players for two years. Is there any part of you that almost gets wrapped up in playing cards rather than screenwriting?Well, then it did. Both things were dawning on me at the same time, really. Because I wasn’t writing then; Dave had started writing, but I hadn’t yet. They were intermingled things. Look, I’m still completely taken over how you’re supposed to play Aces on the button, three handed games in a late stage tournament, I could think about that for hours. I mean, unfortunately, I’m not a world class poker player. My skills really are in how to tell the story of these things or how to dive in and try to understand the mindset of someone who’s world class at that, or someone who’s world class at investing or, world class at being a con-man. I watch someone play poker and can’t fathom what it would feel like to be that in control of your state at a card table while crunching all those numbers and getting reads on everybody and understanding optimal play and when to deviate from optimal play and thinking about ranges, and all the stuff that these guys today are staggering. Yeah, man, I’m still completely captivated by it.Was it hard to leave behind?Oh yeah, but we wrote about it and we did it and I still played a lot of poker for a long time. The movie was originally a bomb in movie theaters, making $21 million. It didn’t really become the thing until the DVD, and then it became a hit. The first year was interesting, because we knew the movie was a really good movie. It took a couple of years for the thing to really catch on to where it is today.In the first year, where that public response wasn’t immediate, did you doubt your ability as a writer?There were a few reviews in places that mattered to us; and more than that, a few people in the poker world told us we got it right, and I knew that we had gotten it right. But also we had moved on. The weekend Rounders came out, we were already researching our next movie. We were in the middle of the country researching for Knockaround Guys. We moved forward because we had the sense that we better continue if we wanted to be people making stories. There are ups and downs in any career that is a show business career. There are times where you feel your work is in demand and there are times where you feel like nobody’s interested. No matter the period of time in our careers, we would write a spec script. Whether that’s Solitary Man or Billions. You take all those other questions out of it, because you’re showing up and doing work whether someone’s paying you to or not. And then you’re just betting on the fact that if you do the work, and you do it really well, they’ll finance it.You sound pretty healthy for a writer. I definitely eat too many bagels. You gotta understand: I’m [now fifty] years old, and I was thirty when we wrote Rounders, so I had the time to absorb these lessons and figure out the creative rituals to keep myself centered on doing the work. Plus, I married the right person. We have kids that we love, my life long best friend is my partner in what I do creatively and professionally. I’ve been able to set this all up in a way that helps with sanity, because there’re a lot of different ways that this could go from when you first break into the movie or television business.Did you have problems with sanity before meeting your partner and having a kid?No! I was really lucky and married the right person at twenty-five and we had our first child before I even wrote Rounders. That was a huge blessing in my life.What was happening in your early twenties?I was in the music business. In college, I had discovered singer songwriter Tracy Chapman and made her first album. I was executive producer of that album, so I was an A&R person in the music business right up through when we wrote Rounders.Reservations about getting married that young? I had no reservations. A definite thing that I have is that I don’t lie to myself and I’m able to recognize when things are real and not real, and when I met my wife, Amy, I just knew what that was, and I was like, “Oh, this is the person I want to spend the rest of my life with.” The same way I could look at Tracy Chapman on a stage and know that she was better than anyone else playing music in that moment, even if it didn’t seem like the music she was playing was the music people would buy. Or how I could walk into a card club and say, “Hmm, there’s a movie here and here’s why.” I think it’s a similar thing that allowed me to, when I met Amy, recognize that this was the right person I should get married to, and I should try to do this right now. I’ve made a series of decisions like that in my life, and for some reason, they’ve turned out to be right.So what room did you walk into to make Billions? Someone had sent us a book about the boiler room time during the ‘80s, like The Wolf of Wall Street thing, years ago, when we were making Ocean’s Thirteen. And I remember us looking at that thing and saying, “You know what, this is not the next story in the financial world. The story is the hedge fund story.” So I was living in Manhattan, and Dave was living in Greenwich. We were around all these people. Then, somehow, the US Attorney idea came to us, too, and we started thinking about the kind of unfettered power that US Attorneys have. To us it became clear these billionaires are like nation-states and these United States Attorneys are like kings, and it became something unexplored but worth exploring about the intersection of these people, about the influence that they wield and about the way that they live their lives.There’s something primal about the battle in the show: greed versus justice. On one level they want justice, but I think Chuck Rhodes has some conflicting desires, and so does Bobby Axelrod. It’s these forces against one another. The show also lets us see all these people manage their victims. You’re looking at three kings managing their own kingdoms and then readying their kingdoms for war.In the writing, were you cautious about making sure the pendulum doesn’t swing too much in one character’s direction, either Bobby or Chuck?It was great to see people leaning one way, and watching the resolutions of episode 8, 9, or 10 [of the first season]. Watching people recalibrate their opinion of Axe and having to grapple with, Wait, what did he do exactly? How am I supposed to feel about him? I thought that I loved him and that the hedge fund guy was heroic, but, what?Do you feel like you’re playing god when watching these reactions?[laughs] No, man, no! What’s great about doing this is that you’re telling these stories and you don’t know what’s going to land. That’s the great thing about being someone who creates narrative fiction for screen. You don’t know, but all you can do is follow your instincts, and when it lands the way you hope that it lands, it’s incredibly rewarding. This experience of Billions has been the most rewarding that Dave and I have ever had creatively. That audiences would be okay with the fact that we don’t say all hedge fund people are evil and all law enforcement people are good is amazing. It’s great, to me, to make television in this era of the recap and Twitter. I love that we were able to finish the first season before the first episode aired. We were able to not be influenced by what anybody wrote because we locked the whole season.You engage pretty frequently on Twitter. It seemed to me where there’s this real community and you really can see and feel what people are talking and thinking about. So, why wouldn’t you be a part of that?That’s definitely one side of it. You’re not bothered by the toxicity of Twitter?When it’s directed at me, it doesn’t faze me. I hate it when it’s directed at other people. I think if I were a woman, it would be almost impossible. Women are often targeted in a way that’s incredibly vicious. If someone’s trolling me, I’m not asking for trolls, it’s not fun. I’m happy to answer questions from some people, I’m happy to try to help people.The positivity is refreshing.If you listen to my podcast, you know there’re a hundred-plus hours of me and my guests talking about this kind of thing. I’m somebody who gets up and gets to do basically what I want. And I’m rewarded for it in all sorts of different ways. Why wouldn’t I interact with the people who are engaging with the material and who are interested in what I’m interested in? I’ve talked a ton about it on my Vines, my podcast, and in stuff I’ve written on my blog, but I was a blocked writer until I was thirty. Until I walked into that club, until Dave and I said to each other we were going to do this, I was somebody who had a really hard time figuring out how to take these feelings that I had and make something out of it. So, if I’m able to help somebody else who wants to do their thing, why wouldn’t I? I often think about Lester Bangs in Almost Famous and how he says, “Oh, I’m too busy to do whatever,” and then he shows up and sits with the kid.How have people been engaging with the podcast? I get emails telling me that the podcast has helped them take a creative risk that they were too scared to take before. And podcasts take a lot of time. The financial rewards of a podcast are very, very slender. The podcast is truly something I do because I’m fascinated with talking to people, and the response is so consistently grateful. I’m always wondering whether I’ll be able to continue it, and it’s possible that I won’t at some point. Because I won’t ever phone them. It takes time to prepare and to think about what I want to talk to the guest about, and book the show. But it's becoming harder and harder to do.In thinking about the show, do you have certain episodes that stick out to you?This conversation that I had with Chuck Todd. He was really forthright and introspective, and human, and I loved that. I loved the conversation that I had with Jon Acuff, and there’s so many. The one with Mario Batali. There’ve been many of these conversations. People really responded incredibly strong to the conversation I had with my wife, Amy Koppelman.The David Lipsky one was excellent.He’s a really fascinating person and is incredibly well read, so we got to really talk about books. I could sit and talk about Murakami all day long. There’s just not always the opportunity to do that.Is there a part of you that wants to be a novelist?In Billions I’m able to write about the stuff that I’m interested in. The great thing about writing characters like Axe and Chuck Rhoades is that I’m writing characters smarter than I am, and they can say anything. I never feel constrained, or, Ooh, I wish I could write a novel.Do you see yourself in the Billions characters?That’s a hard question to answer. Everything you write has parts of you. But, no, there’s nothing autobiographical in Billions. I’m more of a Metallica fan than the Replacements. I love Bob Dylan, and so does Chuck.Let’s talk Garry Shandling. He was a big influence on you.If you asked me to name the five best television shows ever made, The Larry Sanders Show is on that list. In episode eleven [of the first season of Billions], two characters say, “Hey now!” We shot that [the December before Shandling died].When he passed, you wrote about how he a distinct point of view. Murakami, in his work, can locate himself and the spot from where he’s looking. In the same way Michael Stipe did when he was in REM and the same way Bob Dylan does. All the stuff you do as an artist—learning about other art, reading, watching movies and theater, listening to music—you take all that in and reflect on it and think about it, read the newspapers, and follow what’s going on in the world, I think you begin to form opinions. In creating the work, you’re testing your theses about how the world works or how it should work, and you’re examining it. It doesn’t mean that the work itself makes a direct statement, but somehow, within the exploration, if you’re being true as a creator of things, your point of view surfaces, and that’s certainly true of Garry Shandling. And you can watch those first stand up slots on Letterman, and then you can watch the The Larry Sanders Show, and you understand the way that person saw the world.Does the testing ever stop?I don’t know, probably not! Perspective and point of view is what separates hacks from artists.And are you on the artist side?[laughs] I’d never say that! Are you kidding me, man? I’m searching and trying really hard, but I’d never say that about myself.
Speaking with the author of Frontier City about how downtown and the suburbs misunderstand each other, how the Fords anticipated Donald Trump, and the hills progressives choose to die on.
Toronto is growing, but it’s not growing everywhere. According to the 2016 census numbers, released this month, the lion’s share of growth is occurring south of the east-west Bloor-Danforth subway line, and between the city’s two rivers. Meanwhile, parts of the city’s inner suburbs are dealing with sharp population declines as demographics shift and jobs move elsewhere. These are places where the nostrums of Canadian urbanists ring most hollow, where prescriptions like mixed-use-mid-rise (almost always said as a single word) or bike lanes or transit run up against a half-century of planning for cars first, cars last, cars forever.It’s this part of the city that Shawn Micallef explores in his new book, Frontier City: Toronto on the Verge of Greatness. Micallef, one of the city’s ur-urbanists, has nevertheless insisted that his readers spare at least some time to focus on the city’s inner ring suburbs—the onetime cities that joined Old Toronto to create an amalgamated megacity twenty years ago. It’s these places where the story Toronto tells about itself is actually true. As the downtown becomes ever-more stratified along racial and class lines, the suburbs are the places where an actual mixed-income, multicultural city is struggling along.It’s also this part of the city that produced former mayor Rob Ford, and elevated him to the city’s highest office in 2010. Four years later, many of the wards in the city’s periphery would throw their support to his brother Doug. Not without dissent, though: Micallef walked the streets with candidates challenging incumbent councillors and school trustees across the top half of the city, through lush ravines and packed highways, in parks and parking lots. 2014 was a year in which Toronto was trying to answer what had gone wrong—“a city election is like a civic autopsy”—and Micallef takes us along with the people who tried to answer that question.*Hazlitt: This isn’t the first book about our city’s time with Rob Ford—Ed Keenan, Ivor Tossell, Robyn Doolittle, and others have all put out books about and around him. Ford has been gone for a while now, but we’re still digesting what he did while he was here. Where did you start with that job?Shawn Micallef: The book started at the height of the drama at City Hall, I think June of 2014. It was before he went into rehab, and before the cancer diagnosis. So he was at Peak Rob. It seemed like we needed a book about this. I knew Robyn was doing Crazy Town, the day-to-day drama of Ford was being told. It was history, and I could tell people were going to get tired of it fast. I was trying to figure out, how am I going to cover this? How can I get at this in an interesting way?Urbanists, city-builders, whatever, people who are plugged in, we knew there were problems. But there was still a sense the city as a whole was moving forward, and yet, and yet … we elected this person. How could Toronto, this urbane city with three universities and shelves and shelves full of reports detailing its problems, how could this analytical think-y city elect Rob Ford?Also, the geography is so big. How do you go about writing about a city this big? I realized writing this book I don’t understand how mayoral candidacy works in this city, because it’s so big. How do you drill down to the neighbourhood?The best way, it seemed, was that these interesting candidates kept coming up in my Twitter feed. Candidates from Ward 1 to Ward 44. I found some in other ways, but Twitter was this interesting ear to the ground in the city. And that’s sort of when the lightbulb went on. I asked if I could go on walks with them, and ask them to show me their Toronto. Show me the good stuff, show me the bad, but show me what you’re passionate about.They’ve got such an intimate reading of their neighbourhoods. They do just endless knocking on doors. I was exhausted just doing these short walks with each of them, but they got up every day for a year and went for these walks.After the 2010 election, the Globe and Mail ran an article that was kind of a postmortem on George Smitherman’s unsuccessful run, and the last line has always stuck with me: near the end of the campaign an exhausted Smitherman says, “Holy lord, it's big. You think you know the city well, and then you run for mayor.”Even in wards themselves, the candidates I walked with were generally underdogs and didn’t have big machines behind them. A few helpers and very little money. The way they’d speak about their wards themselves was a bit daunting; 55,000 people is a lot of houses, and every one I walked with said, “I’m not going to be able to reach every one.” The downtown wards you can walk across in fifteen minutes if you’re a fast walker. The suburban wards, those would be hour-long walks or more. That kind of geographic separation doesn’t really come across on the map. There’s challenges to democracy at the ground that are different than in downtown. Even simple proximity within the city.You walked with a number of underdog candidates. Every one of them, at least the ones running for council seats, lost their campaigns against sometimes pretty unpopular incumbents. You’ve written for years now about Toronto’s suburbs not getting the attention they need from City Hall, but when you look at the election results there’s a lot of complacency. How do you square that?You could come down and lecture, whatever, condemn low voter turnout. But even in the engaged wards it’s pretty low turnout. It’s just gradients of low. When you’re in Ward 44, Ward 2, the CN Tower is this little stick, this little pencil, a toothpick. That’s where the power is, but when you’re that physically removed from the power it seems natural that the general tendency to ignore municipal politics would be increased.When you’re down here, you see City Hall more. You’re also closer to the drama of politics. If there are strikes, marches, protests, there’s a sense of politics down here. When you think about the civic political dramas—and there are not really that many—you really see it downtown. In the suburbs it’s tucked away in halls, private and hidden.In chapter after chapter though, you show places where there’s either a feeling of resentment over City Hall’s priorities, or more commonly just a pronounced sense of absence. The absence of attention, parks left unmaintained, potholes that don’t get fixed, streetlights that don’t light up. The absence of civic attention is keenly felt, but these places keep electing the people who are disappointing them. That’s one of the paradoxes in your book I’m wrestling with.I hope I didn’t let people off the hook completely. People do have to take some responsibility for who they vote for. But the chapter on [Ward 7 councillor Giorgio] Mammoliti was interesting to me, reading other people’s work, especially Daniel Dale—who [Ward 7 challenger] Keegan [Henry-Mathieu] and I walked with. Why do people vote for this guy, who was the original Rob Ford? [Mammoliti] has been Rob Ford for twenty years in the area. It’s kind of incredible, the power of retail politics. All it takes is someone doing something good for you, fixing a sign at the end of the street, fixing a pothole, and suddenly they’ve done something good. City politics so often feels at arm’s length—it doesn’t affect you personally until it does.Maybe that’s why garbage strikes are so powerful. It affects everybody, and it builds up. Everyone smells the stink, that’s why it’s so toxic literally and politically, because it touches everyone. In Mammoliti’s ward, people could see their park falling apart and they couldn’t get into it, but if he did something good for them that emotional connection was made. I think I was naive about how much of a role emotion plays in local politics, and politics in general. Telling someone they matter was something Rob Ford was really good at, whether he meant it or not. That connection is political gold, if you can do it.The Mammoliti example is worth sticking with. In Ward 7, the city had closed a park to car access because of complaints about late parties and messes left behind. It’s a suburban example, but in this city, it could have been anywhere. Like, if people want to stay in your park late with their friends, that’s a sign of success.People are terrible and they’re messy, and when you’ve got a lot of them in the same place, a city, they’re going to leave a mess.But there’s nothing about that choice, to close the park to car traffic, that’s really urban or suburban—it’s just Toronto’s particular narrowness coming through. You could find analogs in downtown.It manifests differently downtown, that urge to not do what it takes to make the thing run.We seem to be unable to accept the balance of having people live in and use the city.The theme I discovered [was], in different ways, of Toronto not accepting that it’s a big city. We’re going to have parks that people play in, there’s going to be kids there, there’s going to be noise on main streets at night. There’s going to be nightclubs. There’s a legitimate debate to be had about how many clubs and how noisy, but there’s a knee-jerk rejection of urbanity that’s a downtown thing and a suburban thing.Today, you pointed out the Toronto Star’s coverage of the Matador, a music club that has been closed for ten years and counting and may never re-open, despite Toronto’s claim to being a “music city.” It’s a mental landmark for me because when I first moved to Toronto in 1992 I lived just a block away, in a neighbourhood that was struggling through the recession.You should have bought a house.I was eleven.I guess.But it’s this amazing example of how we can’t overcome the roadblocks we put up ourselves.It’s such a perfect Toronto story, where we’ve got this plan with the support of everyone from the mayor on down, and [it’s undermined] immediately and nobody can seem to fix it.You’re telling the story of Toronto as it is, not the story Toronto tells itself. The downtown is not, in fact, the beating heart of multiculturalism in Toronto. If we want to talk about middle-class mixed-race neighbourhoods, your stories don’t go south of Eglinton. But you’ve been telling this story for years now. Were you surprised by Rob Ford?Absolutely. Totally. That’s why I went back and opened the book with the visit to FordFest in 2010. At the time I was surprised, but in retrospect I was surprised that I was surprised. I should have known better. I’m a bit embarassed that I also thought Rob Ford was also a joke. But that was hopeful, too, right? This joker from the edge of town that says funny and dumb things. Seeing all those people there, a mix of Toronto, was an early eye-opening, and that’s how I got hooked into following it passionately.Outside of the book, a couple times I’ve gone to give guest talks at University of Toronto’s Scarborough Campus, which in my head is just “the other part of U of T,” right? But when I go there, for many students there the centre of gravity in Toronto isn’t downtown—their centre is located somewhere out there, maybe not at UTSC, but their daily life is in a different place.I was from the suburbs but I was always in love with downtowns; I believe in downtowns because they’re downtown—Petula Clark singing her song—there’s a reason downtowns are where the action is. But not everyone shares it.That view from the suburbs has a sinister side, though. You mention the G20 summit in 2010 in your book, but aside from the obvious stain of mass arrests I remember Rob Ford and other suburban councillors dismissing the police misconduct by wondering what people were doing downtown on a weekend, as if hundreds of thousands of people didn’t live there.Think about how people talk about neighbourhoods. They get these reputations—a place is “dangerous” because of a violent five seconds in a year. In the same way that downtown is misunderstood by the suburbs, people downtown misunderstand the suburbs as a barren, boring wasteland.It’s disheartening that even in a place like Toronto, which is big, but not that big. It’s not a country, it’s not a continent. But even though it’s relatively small those false perceptions of each other can grow. I think a lot of it is wedge politics that’s useful for some people to crank up. I think a lot of it is really imaginary.On wedge politics: despite the fact that you write sympathetically throughout about Toronto’s suburban wards, nearly every chapter contains some glaring example of racism, or sexism, or homophobia. Those might get amped up for cynical reasons, but there’s an ugly side to all of this, and I’m wondering if the vein of homophobia set your teeth on edge.It was strange watching it at the 2014 FordFest in Scarborough, watching LGBT protesters get confronted, seeing their signs trampled on. It was almost imaginary, you know? Because that kind of demonstrative homophobia—it tends to be more subtle, I think—it seemed like a movie, which is maybe just the state of watching too much media. It was heartbreaking, because you want the place to be better than that. But maybe there’s some anger about that, and perhaps taking the lid off the illusions of Toronto might have something to do with that.I don’t want to sound naive, as if there’s no homophobia downtown. But you’re writing about these suburban races and if it had only been one or two councillors—if it had only been Rob Ford it would have been bad enough!—but it comes up again and again and it’s hard to avoid the pattern.That’s where it happened during all of these events, but there’s plenty of it downtown. I was rammed off the road while riding a bike on Dundas once, by four guys in a car, yelling “faggot.” It happened. I should have included that, maybe, to balance the homophobia throughout the city.Maybe it’s under the lid more, because the community is so visible from the Village to Queer West. Maybe it’s harder for homophobes to be themselves. Maybe they’re in the closet more because the community is more demonstrative. But if they’d held FordFest downtown I’m certain those things would have come out. FordFest was a kind of politics that enabled that sort of opinion to be spewed, and if the Fords had it at the CNE, or somewhere downtown, it would have happened there. This is where the Fords created the political space for this to happen.It happened in 2014, not in 2010. Ford had at least as much popular support in 2010, but four years later something about Ford’s time in office had taken the lid off of something we thought had been contained.The lid was still tightly on in 2010. It was still Toronto The Good keeping it down. It’s just like reading about the rise of Trump, and the increase in racist, homophobic, and anti-semitic attacks since then. You give permission for it to happen. Thinking about this, is that the best state of things? Is that the best we’re going to get, a leader pushing back on hate because the hate is always going to be there? Or is it better to let it unleash and try to solve it honestly? I don’t know. It feels daunting, and it feels like a constant struggle.I get the impulse to unmask these things, but I have a hard time believing things have gotten better in the U.S. in the last six months, or will in the next four years.I think that’s why I was so upset about [Toronto Mayor] John Tory being unwilling to cut off [campaign strategist/consultant] Nick Kouvalis. He equivocated on everything. To be a leader, you have to push, you can’t just talk all the time. By leaving the door open, you’re letting it come back in.You were pretty restrained, all things considered, in the use of Donald Trump in the book given the obvious parallels between him and Rob Ford.I had a lot more, actually, that we chopped. The revisions were all put to bed at the end of June, and I had a bunch more because I was seeing it happening. But we worried about what if he loses, right? So we tempered it.While I was writing over the last year there was Brexit happening, then Trump. I’d have the TV or radio on in the background writing about the last four years of Toronto, and the deja vu of that, the U.K. and America, was pretty severe. The analogs were pretty direct: Trump saying he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue; Doug said Rob could kill someone in front of City Hall. So yeah, we had a lot more. But I chose to focus more on Toronto. Also, because the reader can see those things without me.One of the Americans lamenting Trump said, “from this point forward we will always be the country that elected Donald Trump.” It feels like one of the hopes in 2014 with John Tory, or maybe anyone—that we would just move on as if it never happened. But we’re still the city Rob Ford made us.Or even just be able to condemn it. But is it actually an animal anyone will have to ride? You can’t just banish it—not ignore it, but beat it back with force? Which I think, rhetorically, condemning Kouvalis and his message would do. It would create a political space where this isn’t allowed. But that door is open now. Is it impossible to close? Or is that just Tory? I hope that’s just Tory.All of the candidates you followed had more ambitions for city politics than simply keeping taxes low and picking up garbage on time.I looked for city-builders. I didn’t care what part of the political spectrum they came from. There are some who argue that city-building really can only be left-wing. Jean-Pierre Boutros considers himself a Red Tory. Same with Bryan Kelcey in the David Soknacki camp. I didn’t want it to be left-right, I wanted them to be espousing something bigger, but they were mostly from the left’s side.But one of the problems city-builders face is that there prescriptions aren’t the solutions suburban voters want. There’s a breach between what progressive politics is offering and what’s being sought.Part of the problem is the hills progressives choose to die on. I’m as angry as anyone that they removed those bike lanes in Michelle Holland’s ward, because when you go there you see kids riding on the sidewalks. There are bike riders there! But the progressive city-building wins could articulate differently there.The everyday lived experience of the suburbs, the struggles of traffic, figuring out how to get to the store, maybe that’s a longer-winded way of getting city-building ideas into places where the built form doesn’t lend itself to the same downtown solutions.But I think this is part of a broader problem for progressives. Look at Trump, who won states where the most people benefited from Obamacare, or parts of the U.K. that benefited most from EU membership voting most heavily for Brexit. The solutions on offer from progressives are often resented.Yeah, the nostalgia politics. The status quo doesn’t work in these places anymore, there’s just too many people trying to drive everywhere. Nostalgia’s a powerful thing, whether it’s Trump—Make America Great Again, Make Bungalows Great Again. Mel Lastman’s North York, early Etobicoke, these were actually great moments for suburbia. The idea worked for a while, with all of its problems. For a while, it was utopia. The city was there, but you could drive everywhere in your part of it easily.For so many it’s still living memory. Maybe once it’s no longer something so many people remember as the Good Old Days, maybe that’s when the nostalgia politics won’t have that power. There’s still a lot of baby boomers and we’ve got a lot of good health care, so maybe it’ll be a while yet.There’s also this weird nostalgia for pre-condo downtown Toronto, which was a sea of parking lots. I think people would be shocked, if you brought them back just to 1998, how sparse the city was even then. It gets back to what we were talking about at the beginning, the resistance to the city-ness of Toronto. The success is the same thing that makes people nervous, that it is a dense place.Part of the problem is a general resistance to change everywhere, not just in the suburbs, but certainly among some of the councillors elected there.John Parker, who lost his seat in 2014, is a funny example. He was a Tory in provincial government and he’s joked, I think, that coming to city politics made him a socialist. There’s just something more hands-on about city government that will always need more rules. You can’t have millions of people in one place without rules for them all to get along.There’s no more regulated place than New York City. There’s no more capitalist, free-market place than New York City. Those two places exist on the same island. I was having this argument on Twitter about parking signage, and someone saying this is “such a Toronto problem.” I complain about Toronto problems all the time, but look at New York! It’s even more regulated, but people here don’t call New York a nanny state. People just accept that a million people on a small island need those rules.One of the constant things that happened to me during the Ford years, and I’m sure it happened to you, was friends and family basically asking, “Is this really happening?” As if people wanted either to be told it wasn’t, or to be let into some secret about what was happening at City Hall. What’s true for you now that wasn’t before?One thing that’s true is that the plans I thought were good city-building plans—Transit City, Tower Renewal—might be good, but it’s really hard to communicate that to people that feel—justly or unjustly, truly or un-truly—burnt and cynical about the cynicism. What’s true is the cynicism, about the city and the institutions about it. It’s deep, and it’s a force.One reason I have hope, one hope I took out of this project, is that the city is so close to the ground, maybe this is the place to remake those connections between civics and constituents and jump over that cynical divide, that’s grown like a hide. Look at the resistance to Trump: it’s happening in cities. Maybe that’s something to be excited about: when times are very dire, these other questions get pushed aside and we rally.
The DeVos family believes “patriotism and politics are inseparable from Christianity.” I grew up in the same church as the education secretary: her flaws run deeper than religion.
Is the heavy artillery of theology still aimed at children?Undoubtedly. I should have a stronger opinionas to whether this was good or bad for myself or my peersand, at one time, I did. The teachers were kind.– John Terpstra, “Cathechism Class”When I returned from my tour, many people asked me what Germany was like. I said I had no idea. "But weren't you just there?" they inevitably asked. "Yes," I told them. "I was just there. And I don't know what it's like at all."– Chuck KlostermanBetsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s new secretary of education, has become a homegrown celebrity from the religion I grew up with. The denomination in which DeVos was formed—the Christian Reformed Church (CRC)—is also the denomination that formed me. She and my mother both went to Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan; my mother graduated in 1972 and DeVos graduated seven years later.Calvin College is named for John Calvin, that reformer usually associated with his brutal-seeming ideas about elections—that God has known since time began whether you or I or anyone else was predestined for eternal reward or eternal damnation. Connecting lines have been drawn from this doctrine through the work ethic to the prosperity gospel, which, maybe, can connect us to the Amway fortune of DeVos.My mother never interacted with Betsy DeVos, but she knew of the DeVos family, who contributed money to Grand Rapids renewal and to its CRC schools. In those times it was a kind of family joke to call Grand Rapids “our Jerusalem,” and, though I am keenly aware of how offensive such jokes can sound, it is also the case that the CRC had adopted a sense of chosen-ness and that we strongly identified with the Hebrew people of our scriptures. We were never the sort of Christians who were unaware that Jesus, like most of our Biblical heroes, was Jewish. In the Calvin College of the seventies, some of the students were Michigan residents, wealthy and well dressed, and some of them were homesick out-of-towners like my New Jersey-born mother. Most of them were ethnically white Dutch, a whiteness that has diminished over these years, though Calvin is still reported to be mostly white. Those of us who grew up in the CRC and its schools called it “the bubble.”*Everyone’s upset about DeVos. Or, at least, most of the people I know are. These days, I’m in a new sort of bubble, populated with likeminded people who are not CRC, but who are, I guess, “liberal elites.”Betsy DeVos is comically terrible. When asked about whether guns should be allowed in schools, she answered, Palinesque, that teachers and principals needed to guard students from grizzlies. When asked about laws meant to protect students with disabilities, she appeared ill informed. When asked whether she supported “equal accountability for all schools that receive federal funding,” she eventually answered that she did not. With her millions of dollars of contributions to the GOP and to the senators who would confirm her, she seems to be yet another aristocrat in our blooming oligarchy: all morals and money, no sense. Why is she, a person who has never set foot in public schools, so keen to destroy them?Perhaps DeVos was taught, like I was, by some of her elders that the public schools were an evil, full of vice and secularism, with poor reasoning and bad morals, and teachers who, because unionized, cared only about their paycheques and pensions and not about their students. Perhaps she really believes this to be true. Perhaps DeVos is like the students I had, briefly, when I taught in a Christian University, who had many things to say about atheists, and what they believed and how hopeless they were, and how wrong. I asked my students: “Do you know any atheists?”The answer was no.*A recent Mother Jones article made DeVos’s milieu in Holland, Michigan, out to be a place of extremely pious isolation: “They wanted to keep American influences away from their orthodox community. Until recently, Holland restaurants couldn't sell alcohol on Sundays." While Calvin communities might seem to outsiders like a place for homogeneity, a place fearful of “dangerous” ideas about evolution, maybe, or sexuality and gender, it is not anti-intellectual the way many Christian settings are assumed to be. Yes, my mother’s rules for Sunday behavior growing up were strict, and even as a child in the ‘80s and ‘90s I wasn’t allowed to shop on Sundays or take the Lord’s name in vain, but Calvin in the ‘60s and ‘70s was not a place untouched by American culture. While my mother was at Calvin, she participated in a fast for the victims at the Kent State Massacre, and she and many of her fellow students were engaged in discussions about and actions in solidarity with the civil rights and women’s movements. She was the daughter of a milkman and a homemaker, and Calvin College expanded her world: “My life was changed by a handful of professors who had faith with intelligence, imagination, grace, and subtlety,” she says.When, as a kid, I told people that I went to a private Christian school, they always thought they knew what I meant, and they were always wrong. The subculture that was my whole world for 18 years was more intensely religious than the publicly funded Catholic schools were, but was also unlike the even more sheltering evangelical schools you hear so much about. We prayed several times a day, and we memorized Bible verses, but we did not fear novels, even those featuring witches and wizards. Like the Puritans, we only wanted the right to practice our religion in our own way, to educate our children in the faith we understood to be the best of all possible worldviews. Our campaigns were not evangelical but educational.When I was a high-school student demanding that my mother tell me why the Big Bang wasn’t a good explanation for where we came from, or why abortion was wrong, she told me about her Calvin professors who had taught her to be open to scientific explanations of creation. She offered poetic descriptions of the case for pro-life, which had to do with our knittedness-together in the womb by a loving God, a God who told us in the book of Jeremiah, I know the plans I have for you. These poetic answers were always a consolation to me, even though they never actually answered my questions. Throughout my peculiar Christian education I was taught, relentlessly, that it was good to grapple with difficult questions and to dwell, often, in a place somewhere between one side and another, always arguing and thinking and asking and making art and praying and feeling humbled by how little we knew.*There is some trouble when translating attitudes of grappling and openness and ambiguity to politics, a realm for certainty and action. Before DeVos was confirmed as Education Secretary, representatives were barraged with phone calls. We of the Women’s March took it on as an important next action to oppose her confirmation. People were distraught by her lack of experience and her apparent lack of interest in preserving the public school system. We laughed at and we lamented her stupidity, as we had once laughed at and lamented Sarah Palin and George W. Bush.I know DeVos is wrong, but I do not want to outright reject her. I want to educate her. Because of her proximity to me, because of our shared community, because she is the only Dutch Reformed person to have reached such prominence, I have trouble dismissing her. But I can see that this sympathy for her teeters closely to the edge of the thing we are all now facing: that people voted for the person they thought seemed most like them, that they voted tribally, primally, many of them without thinking compassionately or well.The DeVos family believes “patriotism and politics are inseparable from Christianity.” Many people believe this: that religion is determinate of the political right in America. But we weigh religious belief too heavily when we consider what shapes a person. We tend to see religious outlook as different in kind from other parts of our identities, such as political affiliation and wealth. These, with patriotism, are far more influential factors here.That DeVos is from Holland, Michigan, home of “windmills and tulips, wooden shoes, and signs that read ‘Welkom Vrienden,'" that she went to Calvin College and was raised CRC, tells us less than it seems. All sorts of people come out of these schools and churches; some become conservative Christians like DeVos, some lose their faith, many others are lefty believers. Recently, over 700 alumni of multiple generations of Calvin College signed a letter stating that they did not believe Betsy DeVos is qualified for her position. As Abram Van Engen writes, “religious traditions can be highly formative without yielding predictable results.”*After I left the CRC bubble for the wider world, I, who had never known any unbelievers, was suddenly in love with one. I had an epiphany one day as I sat in a movie theater, which now seems paltry but then seemed deep, because I had never felt the force of it before: these were all just other people. I was not set apart; I was not special. We were—and we are—all in this pit together. To listen to those who are unlike ourselves might provide a necessary corrective of humility and uncertainty to our politics, which is called for given the heterogeneity—not a mere two-sidedness—of our population. I want to think my problem regarding DeVos is productive, but I am no better at listening to her because of it. She certainly won’t be listening to me or to countless others who are disturbed by her record. It’s hard to be optimistic right now, about politics or religion, about the possiblity for conversation, but I’m sitting here, as always, in that sliver of overlap between outright terror and foolish hope.
“Snag Beach” would make a great name for an Indigenous dating site—swipe right to check attached genealogical records to see if your match is also your cousin.
If you like me, why bring flowers? Dead plants you can’t eat or dry into tea. Bring me totes of salmon so fresh their blood smells like the sea, brined seal, shucked cockles, moose roasts. My loving gestures include gifts of wool work socks and value packs of cotton underwear. Also, jam.*I know that romance sells and I would romanticize the hell out of my Indigenous culture if I had a romantic bone in my body. Even my clan is unromantic, the ever practical Beaver clan, who are best known for their hard work and cranky disposition. I’m involved in three clan feuds with my various extended families. I didn’t start the feuds; I won’t end them. My job is to pick a side or have everyone involved hate me. You’re here, my family reminds me, to chew the leather.I come from potlatching cultures. We hold feasts in the sacred season, the dead of winter. Contrary to popular beliefs, we don’t give away our goods willy-nilly. We redistribute them to the people who bear witness. We validate our claims publicly and your job, as a witness, is to remember accurately and repeat honestly. You tell the truth. We’re matrilineal, which means I should be Eagle clan, but I was adopted into my father’s clan, the Beaver Clan (or, more accurately, the Two Beavers Sharing at the Tree of Life Clan). I have a name but haven’t thrown a potlatch yet; I don’t have the rank to throw a potlatch. I have to attach my business to someone else’s. My name is good, but not that noble. Think Fergie rather than Diana.A part of my duty as a clan member is to help prepare the feasts. I’m continually busted down from potato to carrot peeler during feast preps because of tardy work. When I first moved back home, this stung, to be peeling at the table with the ten- and twelve-year olds. Women my age are usually put in charge of the soup pots for the feasts, a position of heavy responsibility. I have burnt soup. It is possible. Simply sit at your desk and type an op-ed no one’s asking for and forget that you’re cooking until the smoke alarm goes off.*My mother is Heiltsuk from Waglisla and my father is Haisla from Ci’mot’sa, both small First Nations reserves hugging the rugged shores of the northwest coast of British Columbia. I live an hour and half drive from the Alaska panhandle, on the main Haisla reserve, a small plot of land between towering coastal mountains and the ocean. Alternately called the Kitamaat Mission, Kitamaat Village or just The Village, our traditional name for this place, Ci’mot’sa, means “snag beach.” The Kitimat River washes down tree stumps from the temperate rain forest and they gather on our waterfront, Cthulhu-shaped roots that wander with the tide. In pow wow culture, to “snag” is slang for “hook up.” I think “Snag Beach” would make a great name for an Indigenous dating site where my profile would probably run something like:Eden Robinson, 49, matriarchal tendencies. Doesn’t have a pressure cooker, but knows how to jar salmon. Her smoked salmon will not likely kill you. Hobbies: Shopping for the Apocalypse, using vocabulary as a weapon, nominating cousins to council while they’re out of town, chair yoga, looking up possible diseases or syndromes on the interwebs, perfecting gluten-free bannock and playing Mah-jong. Swipe right to check attached genealogical records to see if she’s your cousin.*The only blind date I ever went on was in my twenties. I lived in East Van at the time, two blocks from my gran. She was excited, more excited than me, about the possibility I could be “marrying back” into her Heiltsuk community. She knew my date’s family, their history, how they’d performed in the All-Native Basketball tournament over the years. He picked me up and we had an awkward dinner. Neither of us had dessert. Thirty seconds after I opened my door, Gran phoned, wanting to know how things had gone and where he was taking me on our second date. I said I didn’t think there’d be a second date; we hadn’t sparked. There was no chemistry.“Oh, don’t worry,” Gran had said. “I’ll talk to his mother.”Dating on the coast requires extreme vetting. When I was living in Victoria, I’d had a few dates with a man who thought I was hilarious and cute. He laughed and laughed and I marvelled at how much he sounded like my uncle So-and-so.“Hey, my dad’s name is So-and-so!” he said.As we began to connect the dots, we both realized he was a first cousin, through a relationship my uncle had had when he was a teen.Note to self: the first question we ask cute Native dudes is not just who’s your mother, but who’re your parents?*And for those of you reading this who were taken out of your communities, who were adopted out, and now find yourself on the outside, we know this awkward dance between longing for connection and being afraid of disappointment or rejection. All the news you hear, all the stories about how broken we are, how damaged—it’s true and it’s not true. Yes, we have our troubles. But when you come home, you’ll find us unafraid of your complexity. We get real fast. I will tell you about my inflammatory bowel disorder or my struggles with chronic depression at the drop of a hat. Any rez I’ve been, any urban centre, any gathering, the fronting is limited. The bullshit gets called, the teasing can be rough, but we’re ready to tell stories long into the night and laugh, and sing, and dance. We’re messy, but fun.Eden Robinson’s latest novel, Son of a Trickster, comes out in Canada in February. Her most famous one, Monkey Beach, is in its 26th printing in paperback.
Stupid lyrics are good for you. Bad lyrics are just bad.
My task here today is to explain a fundamental distinction. I am writing about the difference between bad lyrics and stupid lyrics.It’s understandable enough to ask why I’m doing such a thing. Believe me: I share your concern. Many matters of incomparably greater consequence hang in the air. I know who the President of America is. The ocean becomes acidic. Robots are increasingly outpacing humans. Things are going on out there.But, unfortunately, if the apocalypse occurs, I will still have a mind to witness it—a mind structured by my favourite songs, my favourite books. The words I’ve heard yelled in the street. As a sixteen-year-old Radiohead fan, my failure in gym class was lived in light of the lyrics “I’ve given all I can, it’s not enough.” As a twenty-seven-year-old Kendrick fan, my gross longing for mere gain made me recall the words “motherfucker you can live at the mall.” The words I love most form riverbeds in my mind where the world is received.But memorability doesn’t always require profundity. Sentiments can stick in a head by virtue of irritating it. Many phrases that come to mind aren’t shining moments of authorial competence: many are bad or stupid lyrics.Both bad lyrics and stupid lyrics are failures of erudition. There are many elegant ways to describe life on earth—neither are that. But, while the stupid lyric is a vital form of poetry that, through ineptitude, captures the clumsy sloshing of human life, bad lyrics are revolting attempts at conveying overwrought pseudo-insights. Stupid lyrics are good for you. Bad lyrics are just bad.*Bad lyrics, primarily, are inedible attempts at the indelible. They’re the greasy salesperson on commission trying to be your friend in the showroom. They’re a fortune cookie written by the worst kind of grad student. Bad lyrics are what you write when you think you’re Leonard Cohen, but you’re actually a Dorito.Let’s examine the worst bad lyric I’ve ever heard, a line from “Girl on the Wing,” a song by the Shins: “You're the girl on the wing of a barnstormer / The tidal rabbit who came of age before her time. “What the fuck is this? Well, it’s a clumsy attempt at high poetry: a poorly-made obfuscation of almost nothing. As far as I can tell, this lyric, paraphrased, is: “You’re young and hot.” This is fine. This is a worthy subject, about which basically everything has been written. From the "Song of Solomon," the lovely “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth.” From Toni Basil, the perfect “You’re so fine you blow my mind, hey Mickey!”But this Shins lyric is the garbled thought of a self-conscious creep. The apparent motive behind writing in such a fashion is that being attracted to a young woman isn’t proper without a bunch of fancy words. So, you put her “on the wing of a barnstormer.” She’s not only sexy, but she’s perched on a small-town political campaign! “The tidal rabbit who came of age before her time.” Oh, okay, so she’s not only gorgeous: she’s a rabbit. Nice!This is an example of a terrible writerly habit—thinking that word power ennobles a particular sentiment. This is also a habit of personality: thinking that you’re better than other people because you can describe your basic urges more elaborately (or more obscurely). This is the same habit that drives dudes to write incredibly florid OKCupid messages, hoping that the word “verdant” will get them laid. (And it’s all the more galling to me because I wrote messages like this when I was a younger, worse person. I also wrote lyrics like this during my mercifully brief flirtation with songwriting.)It’s totally possible that this lyric wasn’t the product of the amount of thought I’m putting into trashing it. Maybe it was, like many lyrics, written in the studio at the very last minute. Nevertheless, it betrays an instinct I really don’t like.This is what marks a lot of bad lyrics: the attempt to be lofty by wrapping random sentiments around the obvious. I prefer just the obvious. Another example, from John Cale’s song “Dying on the Vine”: “Smelling like an old adobe woman / Or a William Burroughs playing for lost time.” Does… does someone have a specific smell when they’re playing for lost time? This is two similes, one slightly outlandish, apparently chosen for its worldliness (adobe woman) and one nonsensical, apparently chosen for its literary cred (Burroughs). One or the other would be interesting. Both together make a showy flight of fancy that doesn’t serve any emotional or expositional goal. And this is really unfortunate, because the song is otherwise fantastic. Its chorus starts with the tremendous lyric, “I was thinking about my mother / I was thinking about what’s mine.” That’s a perfect understatement. There’s years of desperation in those twelve words.This kind of loftiness is sometimes magnified by over-dependence on the rhyme. That’s understandable enough: rhyming is easy, but earning a rhyme is hard. Joanna Newsom, who is frequently amazing, writes this stinker from “Only Skin”: “Scrape your knee it’s only skin / makes the sound of violins.” The image of a knee-scrape is poignant enough—recalling the clumsiness of childhood and the sheen of raw epidermis. Violins are also nice. But clump them together and you’ve got a lilac drowned in Courvoisier—two evocative elements that disimprove each other.Probably the single-most reliable source of bad lyrics is the Decemberists’ Colin Meloy, because he tries so hard, so often, to be poetic—refined, and high-toned. Let’s give him credit. Sometimes he succeeds: in “The Engine Driver,” he sings, “I’m a writer, a writer of fiction, I am the heart that you call home.” Top shelf. But then, in “We Both Go Down Together,” he sings, “Meet me on my vast veranda / My sweet, untouched Miranda.”Why is her name Miranda? Because there’s a veranda. Why is there a veranda? Because, like, it’s majestic, or something. Meloy’s character has to screw a virgin in alfresco Cinemascope with a three-syllable rhyme. Just get a room.At this point you’re probably getting a sense of what I mean. But while we’re at it, I’ll throw in another particularly powerful example, from Bon Iver’s “Flume”: “Only love is all maroon.” This lyric has taken on a truly epic task: describing love itself. And it completes that task nonsensically: love is maroon. Moreover, it says that love is the only thing that’s all maroon. It’s a large, painterly, ridiculous statement. It’s the very essence of a bad lyric: a treacly, frivolous phrase that declares its own impeccable grandeur.*Enough swimming in this mud. Let’s move on from the bad to the stupid. Stupid lyrics are an unexpected moment of eloquence from a concussed person. They’re an emotionally resonant thought that’s too dumb to say out loud. They’re the lyrical equivalent of sweet baby-talk or despairing mumbles.Here’s one of my favourites, from Interpol’s “Obstacle 1”: “Her stories are boring and stuff / she’s always calling my bluff.” This is really not a good lyric. The rhyme is incredibly simplistic: “and stuff” and “my bluff” are non-specific words, not especially evocative, obviously chosen only for syllabic content. But it’s like something a nervous rapper at the end of her rope would throw into a freestyle. It’s a Mad-Lib. It feels like an unplanned confession. And it describes something real and painful: a dull person who sees right through your bullshit.Ariana Grande’s “Into You” contains my favourite dumb lyric of last year: “A little less conversation / and a little more touch my body.” You know how porno dirty talk always sounds a little awkward? How sexts are always a little embarrassing? This is that. The puerility is vulnerability. It feels accurate. There’s no veranda—this is happening in a room that smells like rum and body odour.Bob Dylan loves dumb lyrics: one of his main literary tricks, and it’s a good one, is writing vivid images that turn into total applesauce. From “Visions of Johanna”: “The fiddler, he now steps to the road / He writes everything's been returned which was owed / On the back of the fish truck that loads / While my conscience explodes.” The deliberate overextension of the rhyme and the goofy image of the fish truck transforms the scene into a bizarre metafictional Japanese game show.Whereas truly great lyrics are a perfectly plated salad, stupid lyrics are a five-dollar burger leaking grease. Stupid lyrics spill their drink on you. No great lyric has the immediacy of EMA’s “Fuck California / You made me boring / I bled all my blood out / But these red pants / They don't show that.” Similarly stupid is this Stevie Wonder line from “Isn’t She Lovely”: “I never thought through love we'd be / Making one as lovely as she.” Stevie loves that love made more love. It’s not exactly Yeats. But in some ways, it’s kind of better.Don’t get me wrong. We need great lyrics. (We do not need bad lyrics—bad lyrics can drown in banana medicine.) Great lyrics are for weddings and epigraphs. I’ll always recall David Berman’s sparkling one-liners, such as “the alleys are the footnotes of the avenues.” That’s as pretty as anything.But I’m not as pretty as anything. Neither are most things I’ll ever do. Many of my conversations will contain stammering and casual lies made out of laziness. Much of the food I cook will be clammy or overdone. I absolutely will pick at my zits until they resemble military mishaps.Great lyrics describe my life as I might imagine it. Stupid lyrics describe my life.
Speaking with the author of 300 Arguments about crafting an experimental, lyrical form; treating writing as a game; and our shared affinity for Jenny Holzer.
In 300 Arguments, Sarah Manguso paints a mostly opaque, but at times penetratingly clear, self-portrait of a female writer at work. In a series of aphorisms, she oscillates between writing in first and third person—expressing her worries and hang ups just as she addresses the reader’s in an all-knowing, prophetic voice. With passages that are at times as short as a tweet, Manguso cuts past any superfluous descriptions or extraneous scene-building details to get to the heart of the matter—whether it be articulating a petty grievance, expressing an adulterous desire, or pinpointing a painfully specific failure.The narrator’s temper is mercurial; economical sentences range in tone from pithy and sardonic to tender and deeply empathetic. "There will come a time when people decide you've had enough of your grief and they'll try to take it away from you," she writes. But by the flip of a page, this wise and compassionate narrator descends into punchy one-liners that are darkly funny and sharper around the edges. As in: “Inner beauty can fade, too,” and, “Bad art is from no one to no one.”Anna Furman: 300 Arguments is an unorthodox book both in terms of structure and length. How did the project come about?Sarah Manguso: This book was a product of procrastination. I was trying to write this other book that I’ve been trying to write for about 15 years. It’s a book about whiteness in Boston and class and hate. I’ve started it many times, in many ways.While I was pretending to keep working on that big book I started looking away for a moment and writing a couple arguments. Occasionally, I would get one that felt good enough that I knew I had effectively offloaded some kind of worry or thought that I had ruminated on; there was that feeling that I had gotten it right and that I was done. It was actually a really great way to write a book: to just feel like the entire thing was playing hooky on my real book. When I had amassed about 200 of them, I thought: okay, this is substantial enough that it’s a project in its own right. So I decided to shoot for 300, which was a lot harder than writing the first 200.And why 300?Yeah, why didn’t I go to 500? There’s something a little grander about 500 than there is about 300. My tendency is to drag my feet when I have to write something to length. And honestly the last 50 or so were so difficult to write that I didn't want the project to turn into something that I wrote out of a sense of obligation. I mean, so many of [the arguments] are written with such pleasure. I didn’t have any of the anxiety that I have when I’m given an assignment. I think I was just trying to find the shortest form that I could convincingly present as a book and then once I had the go-ahead to keep it this short I was able to just really enjoy myself, trying to perfect it.Some of the aphorisms follow a chronological order while others aren’t necessarily sequential. How did you land on this particular order?For better or worse, I think of myself as someone for whom chronology comes with difficulty. Narrative is not a mode in which I have great ability; it’s not my natural register.For a long time I kept the 300 [aphorisms] in alphabetical order, which I realize sounds crazy. It was as arbitrary as any other arrangement but it pleased me in that there was a rubric and it was an objective thing. With great hesitation and significant doubt, I then started grouping them by topic or by theme, and I came up with seven sections — which seemed like a good number, it’s pleasing. The sections were: self, others, desire, art, work, failure, and death. I had them in that order, and it felt right. It felt like: there’s an arc, and it’s the human narrative.I then grouped them within the sections and it wasn't as terrifying a prospect as putting 300 things in order. It was more like putting 50 things in order by section. I broke it up into small pieces and then smaller pieces and then the transitions between individual arguments became something that I could see more clearly. I had some extremely helpful input from my editor who is thankfully very fluent in narrative. So the answer is really: they were written with relative ease and then put into order with relative difficulty.While reading this book I kept thinking of visual artists like Jenny Holzer, Tracey Emin, and Barbara Kruger’s work. Are they important references for you? Oh I’m so glad you hear the Holzer and the Kruger in it. Jenny Holzer was a huge influence on the piece. Her Truisms series, which has been disseminated in many forms, was originally in a show with large-format posters and approximately 100 of these aphoristic one-liners set in alphabetical order in eight posters. One of my college friends had the piece in her dorm room, and I just immediately fell in love with it.And then, in 2005, on a lark, I thought, wow, can you buy art on eBay? I found it for a couple hundred dollars, got it framed, and now the set hangs around me. They’ve hung in all of the places I’ve lived since then, in their entirety. So Holzer was a conscious influence, but also just having that text surrounding me in the living room, in the dining room—the places where I would work—I’m sure they wormed their way into my brain in a way that I can’t even really know the depths of.Are there other artists—visual, literary, or otherwise—that have informed your practice?David Markson’s novel Reader’s Block was very interesting to me because it’s a collection of very tiny compositional units; the way that the tetralogy set coheres is just so vivid and alive. While I was writing The Guardians I read a lot of Yiddish proverbs and I think those have stayed with me too. I found a website and printed out around 800 proverbs.All this material is just kind of swarming around me at all times. Especially the Holzer. The beauty of the one-liner form is that it’s such a supple form. If it’s the form that interests you, then you can hear it and see it everywhere. I even stooped to include a line in the book that I overheard in a cafe: “Get me one of those cheese sandwiches—Capri? You know, like the island where Tiberius died?” The material is everywhere. There are beautiful, very tiny literary and art forms in just about every medium I can think of.I was talking to a friend recently about collective anxiety and how the stress of the last two weeks since the inauguration has impacted our sleep cycles. This aphorism stood out to me: “You aren’t the same person after a good night’s sleep as you are after a sleepless night. But which person is you?” Which gets to my next question: how have you been sleeping?I sleep poorly. I haven’t been a poor sleeper, really, ever before. And it’s funny, when I got the note that you would need to call 45 minutes later, I thought: oh great! I’ll get into bed, I’ll take a nap, I’ll wake up refreshed, everything will be fine. And of course, I come to bed and the gears of my ruminant worry are narrowly turning around and around, and no sleep is happening.I’m not really sure what to do. I don’t really want to get addicted to tranquilizers again. That’s not really a long term solution to this. I do think that there’s a huge section of the world’s population right now that is on constant alert at all times. And it’s a population of people who probably haven’t had to live that way before. I was around during the Reagan administration, but I was barely conscious because I was a kid. I would pick up on people’s anxiety. But nothing like this. Now I’m an adult, I’m a parent of a young child, and I am aware that he’s picking up on my anxiety.We have to care for ourselves first, and then care for the civil and human rights of all other people. But we can’t do that if we’re all nervous wrecks.You wrote: “Depression is hard to describe not just because it’s complex and abstract but also because it occupies the part of us capable of describing things.” On the flip side of this, when are you at your best to describe things vividly and with nuance? Is there a specific time of day or a certain mood that enables you to really plumb the depths?There’s certainly not a magical time of day that I can rely on being articulate and attentive and open to the kind of associative thinking that is helpful to describe something, especially if it’s abstract. The ability makes itself known to me in a kind of way, and it can happen maybe a couple times a year. Maybe less. It’s something that doesn't feel responsive to my will, and so it fluctuates. It’s anyone guess as to whether that fluctuation follows a pattern or whether it’s just random.I found this aphorism amusing: “I keep three types of books: those that I want to read, those I want to reread, and those I want to reopen just to confirm how bad they are.” Which books currently fit into those last two categories?I can’t read Mrs. Dalloway and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie enough times. I dip into certain poetry collections but that isn't the same thing as reading books from cover to cover.The books that I want to re-open to confirm how bad they are: honestly, at this very moment I can’t think of one. I know there are a couple in there, but I couldn't possibly name them. That wouldn’t be nice.I wrote 300 Arguments when I was in a bit of a midlife funk. I was thinking about certain types of failure that just sort of collect at midlife. The idea of midlife is itself a sort of a cliché; it’s a very conventional mode of thinking about the human lifespan. It’s an assumption, to start, that everybody has the same life span. But there really is something to getting to a point in life where major decisions have been made—maybe they’re not permanent but they feel permanent. You choose a vocation and the thing that you do all day long. You choose your people, and if you have a family you’ve chosen the people to include in your family. What felt really sharp to me at the time that I was writing this is that there’s this experience of failure that seems fairly generally applicable to being in one’s midlife. All of a sudden there are these desires that felt obsolete to me that I thought would always feel necessary. There were thwarted ambitions. You sort of realize that failing is a skill of general utility.Because my work is writing, there are several arguments that address the specific failure of not turning out to be the writer that I thought I would be. Some pieces are embarrassingly petty or personal.There seems to be a push to make one’s financial situation a little more transparent in the publishing world. In the book Scratch, Roxane Gay shares what her book advances were, and Cheryl Strayed talks about going into debt while on the New York Times bestseller list. You wrote: “Every few years I decide I’ll write something purely for money, and I work on it for a long time. Then I wrap its carcass in plastic and seal it in a container and hide it under the house.” Have you taken non-writing jobs and are you comfortable talking about money?Well, basically all of my jobs are not writing because my writing is not a commercial enterprise. It never has been. This is not to say I’m proudly, staunchly anti-commercial. It’d be great if I could have a best-selling book and make a little money. I never labored under an illusion that whatever I wrote would wind up magically making money.So in the beginning, after I graduated college, I was a copyeditor. Then I started teaching a little bit, adjunct-ing, which in itself isn’t really a commercial enterprise either. But once I became a more consistent and experienced teacher, I started teaching more and copyediting a little less. I’ve found that it’s spiritually easier to work on my own writing and have the less regular day job schedule of maybe showing up a couple times a week to teach a class but otherwise I can just sort of loll around my house and do my lesson plans and write my work and not have to really clean up and go to an office somewhere.I’ve now published a few books and I enjoy the immensely privileged position of occasionally being invited to go and give a talk somewhere and to get paid for that. So current income streams include teaching, probably the biggest part of the pie, and then visiting institutions and giving talks. And then there’s magazine work, which I also do; I write for glossy magazines and semi-glossy magazines occasionally.And so the book writing, I’ll be honest with you, I got an advance in the mid-four figures for 300 Arguments—a book I worked on for a couple years. So, clearly, this is not a job. Writing these books is not a job. And I guess I'm lucky in that I never assumed it would be so I made other plans.So many of the arguments are under 140 characters and it seems like such a natural fit that you, as a short form writer, would take to Twitter. I couldn’t find your account and I’m assuming you don’t keep one. Why not?I’m not on it and I chose not to because I am an obsessive sort and I can correctly assume that if I get on Twitter I will be completely consumed and never clean my house again, and everything would just kind of deteriorate. That’s half kidding, half serious.The other thing is that I’m not a casual writer. Or I’m not a casual worker. I don’t just toss things off and have them come out in a way that I can tolerate sharing. And I’m not interested in producing writing that’s mostly crappy. Which is not to say that if you’re on Twitter you’re automatically a crappy writer. There are people’s Twitter feeds that I read from time to time, because they are absolutely brilliant at it. Sarah Kendzior, who I’ve been reading for a couple of years, has become one of the leading tweeters of the resistance. Her political commentary on and off Twitter is immensely useful to the world. And I love Megan Amram’s Twitter too.I’m just not that writer, you know? And in a sense it’s because I have the generally bad quality of turning resistant at the very moment that I’m given an assignment. So if you told me I have to tweet a certain amount of times a day, I will immediately not do that or I’ll immediately think, “Oh can I do like one-tenth as much but spend ten times more hours on writing it?” It’s just not a good road for me to go down, but I’m grateful that other people are good at it. I will also add as an aside that the founder of Twitter was my sixth grade crush, so there remains a kind of nostalgic cloud around the entire enterprise of Twitter.
Medical advances are turning once-fatal illnesses into manageable conditions, but what’s life like for patients whose existences become a liminal space between not-quite-healthy and not-quite-sick?
Eric Cazdyn, a professor of literature and East Asian studies, is a long-time patient at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. The hospital is a short walk from his office at the University of Toronto. He’s been coming here every one to six months or so since 2001, when he was diagnosed with a form of leukemia for which the first-line treatment is neither chemo nor radiation, but a pill. The medication, Gleevec, was approved the same year, and, with a ninety-percent response rate in its first trial, was hailed as a miracle drug. It works at the molecular level, targeting the specific mutated enzyme that gives rise to overproduced immature white blood cells that would overrun his body and keep it from producing the other blood cells he needs to stay alive. Taken every day, the pill stops production of the cancer cells altogether, and promises to keep his illness in check for the foreseeable future, perhaps indefinitely.“It’s interesting, cancer care is usually, to some degree, organized around the short-term,” he told me when we spoke in his west-end Toronto neighbourhood. “A lot of Western medicine is about symptom management in the short-term.”When Cazdyn was first diagnosed, his illness was not a long-term one: previous treatments pinned his life-span at five to ten years. But with Gleevec’s revolutionary arrival, the terminal illness was transformed into a chronic one—not curable, but almost certainly manageable.In Canada, Gleevec costs about $50,000 a year. Current research claims that people taking the drug can have a normal life span, that they’ll die of something else. As a medical student, I hear colleagues and supervisors enthuse about the new fleet of hyper-targeted drugs—exemplars in the pharmacologic movement of “Rational Drug Design”—that have transformed the treatments for cancers, autoimmune diseases, and HIV. The medical discourse surrounding these drugs is unquestioningly positive. And why shouldn’t it be? From the patient’s perspective, a life-long prescription is often better than a death sentence.The biomedical argument in favour of management frames chronic illnesses as more bearable, even enviable when placed in a hierarchy of sickness. An article by the former pharmaceutical researcher James Vermilyea and colleagues confidently stated: “As researchers unravel the molecular basis of an illness, manufacturers increasingly turn incurable diseases into merely chronic ones.” Gone would be the acid scene of wigs and IV drips, replaced by the bland routine of a pill taken every day at meal time.Cazdyn considered this medical paradigm shift in his 2012 book The Already Dead: The New Time of Politics, Culture, and Illness. He called it “the new chronic”: a system in which the utopian concepts of cure and revolution have been erased by the more practical need to stabilize.The new chronic, the book argues, “extends the present into the future, burying in the process the force of the terminal, making it seem as if the present will never end.” It kills the drive for cures and imagined new solutions, rendering us inhabitants of that perpetual present, the “already dead.” The conditions of contemporary capitalism that favour management over cure extend beyond illness and into social struggle: Instead of fighting for revolution, the new chronic leaves us instead to fight to maintain the status quo. It’s the same logic that encourages the most marginalized to make do in a system positioned against them, rather than question the historical and social conditions that left them disadvantaged in the first place.That is to say, to call a disease “merely chronic” implies a kind of dismissal. The chronic becomes a leftover, a meantime that doesn’t merit worry; we lack the emotional bandwidth to know how to react to something that will last for so long. Our hospitals are organized around acute symptoms, with no material way of acknowledging the periods of time in between and beyond. Employers and insurers run away from or ignore the chronic—it’s a liability, a sinkhole for profit. Perhaps to all of us, there’s something disturbing about the unpredictability of something so constant.“There are these narratives [people] need to put [illness] in,” Cazdyn told me. “It’s dire, it’s acute, it’s life-threatening—or it’s nothing to worry about. People are good at dealing with those moments of intensity, but they can’t sustain it, and then they don’t know what to do when it’s not one or the other.”Even at their most unsettling, people often know what to expect from visible instances of sickness, but life expectancy, treatment duration, hope for the future—all of these cut across the spectrum of illness, crudely dividing the acute from the chronic, intensive care from routine management. For those whose illnesses are chronic but managed, life becomes a liminal space between not-quite-healthy and not-quite-sick, where health is contingent on a daily regimen of extra tasks designed keep the body in check.“At what point do you stop talking about it?” Cazdyn asked. “You keep going to the clinic, and you keep taking the drugs. People don’t want to hear about it, but it’s still very much part of your life. Everyone must feel that in different ways.”*Ahmed was twelve years old when he was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, a form of bowel disease that involves inflammation of the colon. Despite having had a chronic illness for eighteen years, though, he doesn’t see himself as sick. It’s only when his symptoms—stomach cramps, fever, diarrhea, and rectal bleeding—manifest, typically in an annual flare-up, that he’ll take on the label.“I’m used to it,” Ahmed told me, slightly resigned. “Yeah, I’m frustrated that I get sick more often than people. But I know how to handle it, and I’ve learned how to best advocate for myself in the medical system, through my repeated encounters with it.”Chronic illness forces a constant uncertainty onto the people who live with it. Sociologists call it “biographical disruption”—the loss of certainty about the future, and about taken-for-granted assumptions, in the face of a diagnosis. The only guarantees are usually the ones you’d rather not hear. (People with ulcerative colitis are told by their doctors they’ll almost definitely develop colon cancer before age fifty.) Ahmed has been hospitalized three times for conditions related to his flare-ups, which have become more regular in recent years despite the daily medication regimen designed to manage his symptoms. His illness has no cure, and his dose of the drug is ongoing.“It’s something that I think people who don’t get sick very often might take for granted—that their body is always theirs wherever they go,” Ahmed said. “But once you check into a hospital you sign away … not the ownership of your body, but the control over it.”The lifeworld of chronic illness varies from person to person. Michelle is a student in her mid-twenties, who manages two long-term conditions along with full-time school and part-time work. Six years ago she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which the psychiatric community considers a chronic mental illness, and which is marked by episodes of depression and mania. More recently, she was also diagnosed with inflammatory arthritis, a chronic autoimmune disease involving painful joint swelling, stiffness, and damage that can limit her mobility.“It’s funny,” she said, nearly echoing Ahmed’s sentiments, “as someone with two chronic conditions, I don’t really see myself as someone who is going to be sick for the rest of my life. I don’t even feel like a sick person. I feel like a well person.”Still, she remembers periods after hospitalizations when returning to work was almost unbearable. Co-workers tried to pry into the reasons for her absence, all too curious to hear about a long unexplained hospital stay.“With bipolar disorder there has been an ongoing anxiety about whether I will be sick any time soon,” she said. “And so I have to pay attention to my thoughts in a way that I never did before, and in a way that a person who is well may not have to.”*Daily acts of negotiation are a routine but often invisible part of managing a chronic illness. They can vary from something as seemingly minor as the monitoring of one’s mental state to the tracking of symptoms, the planning of routes to find the one with the fewest stairs, the taking of drugs, and, often above all else, the act of managing drug side effects.While drugs taken for short periods are comparatively simple to track, chronic drug regimens introduce a dimension of uncertainty in reading one’s own body. There’s a strangeness to not being able to tell whether a symptom manifests itself because of the illness, because of the drugs, or simply because of the unexplained idiosyncrasies of the human body.Ahmed’s been taking medications for more than half of his life; side effects, he said, are just his “normal state.” Michelle has had to get used to a crescendo of drugs since her late teens to manage her conditions. Every night, she takes nine pills, except on Sundays when she takes nineteen. They make her feel like herself, she told me. She was satisfied with her current drug regimen, although in the past, medications she took for bipolar disorder included side effects such as weight gain, increased fatigue, and feeling “disconnected from reality.”“I think I’ll probably be taking medications forever,” Michelle said. “But I’m not so upset about that.” Still, she says, it doesn’t feel great to be dependent upon things.Beyond the day-to-day, staying on medication in the long-term forces newer, heavier conversations. One booklet outlining drugs for bipolar disorder provided by the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health explains commonly raised issues, like cutting down one’s dose, or taking medication while pregnant:“For any pregnant woman with a history of bipolar disorder, the question of taking mood stabilizers during pregnancy usually comes down to a risk-benefit analysis. All mood stabilizers carry some risk—some more than others; however, episodes of depression or mania can affect prenatal care and a mother’s ability to parent her newborn child.”The language of risk has a sterilizing effect when applied to real life. “Risk-benefit analysis” can’t convey the emotional weight of a decision to maintain or go off medication, to prioritize your own health over your child’s, or vice versa. Similarly, the decision to cut down one’s dose must take into account any current stress, the risk of relapse, one’s relationships, occupation, and future.In his 2012 book, Drugs for Life, the anthropologist Joseph Dumit describes the state of “dependent normalcy”—a state of relying on medication out of fear of relapse. “But normalcy is now truly in quotation marks,” Dumit wrote, “because it is now threatened with a series of dotted lines that indicate the dangers of going off the medication at any time.”“I’m not really itching to get off my medication,” Michelle said. “You might say, ‘Well, you never really know what all the long-term effects of all these chemicals are that you’re putting into your body. Would it be better to be off them?’ But with something like bipolar disorder, I think I’m more comfortable being on them, sort of as a safety situation.”Eric Cazdyn described the side effects of his medication as alien elements in his body. But as someone whose medications keep his life-threatening illness in remission, his main preoccupations have to do with what seem, by comparison, to be smaller, more immediate things; the pamphlet contained in each thirty-tablet box of Gleevec largely describes the drug’s side effects, from the “very common” (weakness, spontaneous bleeding or bruising, frequent infections) to the “rare” (vision impairment, seizure). But Cazdyn also shares waiting rooms with people whose cancers can’t be tamed by a daily pill. To them, cancer care still finds a better fit with war metaphors, where treatment can be just as dangerous as the disease itself. And to the clinicians treating every patient in that waiting room, a disease in remission with a daily medication sounds minor in comparison.But when health professionals treat an illness like it’s a minor inconvenience, patients are expected to mirror that impression. They don’t get the chance to frame their experiences in their own terms, and as a result, they can’t necessarily express feelings that would have otherwise come naturally. In a cancer-care environment, Cazdyn is expected to consider himself lucky that this is the worst thing he has to think about.“That’s always the hard part about everything being so centered on the high stakes of an illness, where you’re not allowed to become ridiculously neurotic about the small stuff,” Cazdyn said. “It sounds rich to be able to complain about your puffy eyes when you’re taking this life-saving medication.”*The latest class of miracle drugs, called immunotherapies, is poised to join to the ranks of targeted drugs for cancers, autoimmune diseases, and HIV—medications that can’t cure those diseases, but make them more liveable. They’re designed to activate the body’s own immune system to attack tumour cells in skin cancers and lymphoma. With their increased use, the familiar success narratives have cropped up in conferences and journals, newspapers and stock portfolios—the same legend of scientific ingenuity repeating itself, of people who once faced disability or death but can, at least for now, live a longer and higher quality life. And these drugs are, of course, something to celebrate.But in these narratives, we miss the stories of people who have still faced, in their own ways, a loss of health. Their incurable yet manageable illnesses leave them in a kind of limbo, caught between maxed-out insurance policies, questioned sick leaves, disability claims, and a system that can’t accommodate the unpredictability of being not-exactly-healthy and not-quite-sick. The longer a chronic condition lasts, the easier it is to forget that people lived different lives before they became ill—that they had expectations and hopes for the future, and habits that weren’t yet regulated by the demands of a disease that forced them to re-evaluate and recalibrate.“When I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I dreaded the future with every part of me,” Michelle said. “I mean, this is a part of bipolar disorder, and a part of coming down from a mania—but it was apocalyptic. My vision of what the world had in store for me, or what I had to offer the world in the future, it was disastrous. It was very painful to think about.“And then as time went on and as I learned to better cope with my manic episodes, that vision became less gloomy, and more realistic. Still with its difficulties, but definitely not a disaster.”Any attempt to universalize the chronic falls short—ignoring not just the intricacies and nuances of each individual body, but also how much race, class, gender, and geography shape how we accept or access treatment. There is no one-size way to digest a diagnosis into something the body can deal with. The point is not to find some universal explanation—but to trace where our modes of dealing with chronic illness have failed.Stretched over each illness is an environment that turns treatments into commodities, and uncertainty into liability. It’s a logic of capitalism that makes life-long prescriptions worthy research investments, and the resulting paradigm of management the symbol of scientific progress.What, then, would a better way look like? Stuck in this new chronic regime, as Cazdyn calls it, it’s hard to imagine an alternative to the utopian promise of cure; it feels like a betrayal to seek reform over revolution. But we have always had the capacity to listen—an ability that can radically displace existing relations of power. I see the missed opportunities for change in the uncritical stories we tell about scientific progress, that fail to track what’s left in the wake of progress. I see them in my MD training, where I’m taught the minutiae of diseases, but not what it’s like to live with them.I imagine what it would have been like to have Cazdyn, and not an oncologist, teach my first class on chronic leukemia. I think about how Ahmed’s hospital stays might have been less alienating if the spaces and services he uses had been designed by fellow patients. And I wonder whether the best reassurance for Michelle, early on in her experience with bipolar disorder, would’ve been another person who’d experienced mental illness and who could offer support.There are already spaces in healthcare where these shifts are happening—mostly notably in mental health, where peer support workers (people who have lived experience with mental illness) have begun taking central roles in providing care and medical teaching. It’s a shift that makes us listen to new critical voices who can imagine what others can’t. They can envision ways of living and caring for one another that one day will become obvious, but only in retrospect. The new chronic regime might underwrite a system convinced of its own endurance, but it may also inspire revolt.