What It’s Really Like Living In Toronto Under Rob Ford? Imagine A Fly…

In which the Elegant Bastard promises to avoid fat jokes as he explains to those unable to live in Toronto what it’s really like having Rob Ford as mayor.

Over the course of this thing we call life, others occasionally ask us to help them understand the essence of some experience we take for granted but that they are unable to share.   For example, I am a Canadian living in Toronto. Many are not so fortunate. I am therefore often asked to describe my world so that they might at least know what they are missing.

Examples are legion. A group of Detroit school children once insisted that I define and pronounce – repeatedly – that ultimate expression of our nationalism, “eh?”[i] (I understand they attempted a choral rendition when they returned home.) Two tourists from the UK loudly demanded that I show them dangerous bears or badly behaving Biebers and seeing neither, accused me of having deliberately hidden them. (I pointed out that we’d tried that with the Bieber but he kept getting loose and trying to sing.) And one unenthusiastic guest from New York  inquired as to whether we had anything to eat “up here” other than 1) wind 2) snow and 3) poutine (which she regarded as even less edible than the wind and the snow.) [ii] Add to these the usual stream of astonished “My God, just how big are your feet!” comments and it becomes clear that I should now be an expert at helping those who are busily trying to expand their minds and improve their educations.

Still, I do occasionally encounter a question I cannot answer easily. And by far the most challenging of these is also the one most frequently asked. To date, people from Paris, London, Chicago, Bruges, Vienna, Bratislava and something called Oxnard have declared their urgent need to know the answer to the following: What is it like having Rob Ford as mayor?

I can understand this curiousity. After all, the world has very few Rob Fords and they are all, not surprisingly, quite busy. Russia has its Putin[iii] but his hands are full beating up orphans, quelling pussy riots, harassing homosexuals and preparing to embarrass the entire Olympic movement. He can hardly be expected to run from one foreign city to another giving everyone a “Ford for a Day” moment. Dennis Rodman[iv] is America’s much taller version but he too seems to have landed a permanent gig pretending to play basketball for short North Korean dictators who are trapped in perpetual Bad Hair days.

That just leaves Toronto’s One and Only Original Ford.  And not only do we get to have him all to ourselves, we also have a spare in reserve! (Let’s call him Tweedledoug.) I fully understand that some of you may see this as completely unfair.  If so, I can only suggest that you play upon a key Canadian character trait – guilt.  If you first make us feel bad and then ask us very nicely, perhaps we would be persuaded to let you rent one of them for a while. I don’t think we’d charge much – certainly not by the pound[v]. In fact, a two-for-one deal is a strong possibility! And if you were willing to take Conrad Black, the CN Tower and the Maple Leafs as part of some overall package, we might even be willing to dispense with payment altogether.

Should you accidentally keep them all past the return date, don’t worry. Our other national trait will ensure you barely hear our protests for as you all know, Canadians are polite!

However, such complex trade negotiations are best left to others. You want the original question dealt with now and I think I have discovered a way to answer it effectively. You will, Dear Reader, be required to exercise a little imagination but having read your letters, I know that this will pose no problems whatsoever.

So, what is it like having Rob Ford as a mayor?

Imagine a fly. It is a very large fly, perhaps the largest you have ever seen. You are sitting quietly in your kitchen when you first notice it. You groan for you realize you have once again left the patio doors open, thus providing the creature with a window of opportunity.  Having achieved entry, it now flies in awkward and ungainly circles about the room, periodically bumping into walls and crashing into furniture. It lands and appears to stumble before it scurries off, first in one direction and then another, as if searching frantically for something. You notice a tiny puddle where it landed and you hope that it was there before.

The fly now spots a bag of icing sugar and instantly climbs upon it, buzzing excitedly and stamping its many feet in some bizarre version of a happy dance. But sadly (for the fly) the bag is sealed.  Now the buzz becomes louder, almost angry. It’s as if the fly is swearing. Suddenly it returns to the counter and stomps its way towards the window, trampling an innocent ladybug on its way. You notice another tiny puddle.

You are beginning to think it’s time you did something about the number of insects taking up residence in your kitchen. You are idly pondering whether or not to take a course in Effective Door Closing when suddenly the unthinkable happens. The fly flies up your nose.

In that brief moment, the once great world collapses inwardly upon itself and disappears. The planets are gone. The stars have disappeared. Asia and Europe have lost their romance and Africa its mystery. All is gone, all. Only two things remain: you and the fly up your nose.

You briefly wonder why it chose to do this to you. Was it cold? Was it hungry? Did it look up at your nostrils and imagine them to be two subway tunnels? But then you stop seeking understanding. What does “Why” matter when you have a fly up your nose?

Solutions begin to present themselves. Blow your nose. But wait! Blowing out requires first breathing in. What if you simply draw the fly in deeper? And nose blowing requires nose gripping! What if you accidentally crush your unwelcome guest? What’s the only thing worse than a fly up your nose? A dead fly up your nose!

An agony of indecision invades your entire being. Meaning is lost. So what that you have access to concert halls, opera houses and glorious shopping malls? Who cares that thousands of restaurants wait to serve your every need or that there are legions of pubs and bars and coffee houses dedicated to various forms of stress management? Forget the promotion, the deal, the bonus and the perks! What does life mean any more?  There’s a fly up your nose.

And as you writhe in helpless torment, you hear a sound. It’s a sinister new drone and it’s approaching fast. You close your eyes in denial; you grip your chair in fear. Nothing can save you now. A moment later you discover something much worse than even a mutilated fly up your nose. Its brother has arrived. A fraternity of flies is now camping in your nose!.

Nor is your situation helped in any way by the fact that three million other souls are also suffering, each with its own two-fly burden. Knowing the state of my neighbour’s nose brings me no comfort. In moments like this, I am my nose and my nose is me. A fly enters one nostril; love, sympathy, sharing and compassion instantly fly out the other. And even if I were that rare individual who could see past his own nose and gaze in brotherly sorrow upon yours, what practical good is such empathy? Are you expecting a helpful finger? It’s not going to happen.

In fact, a flies-in-the-nose epidemic like Toronto’s instantly proves false the notion that misery loves company. If anything, tensions rise dramatically. Approximately one third of the population either refuses to admit it has flies up its nose or claims to be enjoying the sensation. Another third is obsessed with denying any and all personal responsibility. They proclaim themselves innocent victims, undeserving of their flies. And the last third strides around the city, pointing sanctimonious fingers at others and chanting, “Who let the flies in? You let the flies in!”

Then, slowly at first, but soon with increasing speed, things fall apart.

And the low grey sky teems with grieving crows.
A brooding pathos in my dark soul grows.
Are there some who would stand and strike brave blows?
I won’t.  You see, there are flies up my nose.

And that, Dear Reader, is what it’s like having Rob Ford as mayor.

Any questions?

As always, please feel free to send me your comments. If you enjoy the post, by all means :share: it or :tweet: it. You could also print it, roll it up and use it to ward off furious flies.

Since the links in the footnotes are not hyperlinks, I’ve provided them here. The definition of “eh” can be found at http://wp.me/p3cq8l-6n

The piece concerning new Canadian snack foods can be accessed at the at the following: http://wp.me/p3cq8l-1K


[i]  For the definitive definition of “eh” and other small marvels of meaning, see The Elegant Bastard’s “Dictionary of Helpful Words and Phrases” here: http://wp.me/p3cq8l-6n

[ii]  For the answer to her crudely put question, see The Elegant Bastard’s learned treatise on the subject of potential new Canadian snacks. The piece is called “Do You Want Bieber Chips with That?” and it can be read here: http://wp.me/p3cq8l-1K

[iii]  Yes, I know his name is Putin, not Ford – but as Juliet reminds us, “What’s in a name?”

[iv]  See Juliet’s comment above.

[v]  I’m sorry. I said no fat jokes. But I’m only human. I made a mistake. Nobody’s perfect. I’ve apologized. That’s all I can do.

Sunday Morning Coffee: This Week’s Ups and Downs (I)

A bit of silliness in which the Elegant Bastard attempts to predict whether the week ahead is likely to be worth the effort.

A note: If, Dear Reader, you have chosen not to live in Toronto the Good, then you might not be aware of the way the concept of “Mayor” is being redefined here. My references to the current holder of that office may thus seem strange. If this is the case, then be aware that you apparently have lucky stars and should even now be thanking them. – E.B.

I do not know why my Sunday morning coffee has acquired an importance that elevates it far beyond the many others I drink each week. I do not rank my showers or my transit rides or my lunches or any of the other physical and intellectual functions occurring regularly in any seven day cycle. A sneeze on Tuesday has no more meaning than black forest ham on Thursday.  Yet there is something about that second cup of the first day of the new week that carries with it a feeling of vague anxiety mixed with new hope and a dash of nagging fear. (The first cup – powder in hot water – brings only the caffeine jolt required to make me capable of actually brewing the second.)

Preparation for the Sunday second cup (actually, I use what I think is the world’s largest mug, given to me 27 years old) has taken on the status of ritual: the beans, roasted the day before, are ground by hand; the filters are imported from Italy, the carafe from Germany; the water started life in what I am told is an Icelandic glacier. Boiling water first pre-soaks the filter then baptizes the added grounds so that they “blossom”. A long slow pouring process follows and alchemy turns out not to be so difficult after all.

If that were all there was to it, then slipping into Brave New Week would be easy-peasy. However, there is another essential element: the Sunday morning news. Like most of us on a Saturday night, I carefully tuck the world away after making it promise to behave itself a little better when it gets up in the morning. If the Sunday news – on balance – shows evidence that a Putin-free period of peace and prosperity might be in the offing, then hope will take me striding into Monday with a smile upon my face. If instead it looks and sounds like the world will be  throwing the same tantrums as the three under-6’s who live next door, then my interest in finding out where Mayor Rob Ford gets his non-prescription drugs goes up – way up!

Does that sound logical? No? Well, to each his private madness, no? And since you are here, Dear Reader, why not join me. Is your coffee ready? Do you have your copy of the New York Times? Is your computer set to CNN, the BBC and the CBC? Is your television tuned to the most banal local news channel you can find? Then let’s see what’s in store? Shall it be an UP week or a DOWN week?

Hmmm. Something called an Austin Mahon is coming to Toronto. It looks like a Bieber. Something called a  Cody Simpson is coming to Toronto. It also looks like a Bieber. I look out my window. I am in Toronto. We are not off to a good start. And whatever happened to biodiversity? DOWN

Thousands of people are out in the pouring rain taking part in a run to raise money for research into prostate cancer and none of the runners looks like a Bieber. In your face, Big C! This is an UP.

I read that someone once wanted to start a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Buildings. The romance of the notion cheers me instantly. I wonder how many others I could talk into joining something like this. Perhaps we could retroactively save the Royal Ontario Museum (currently being eaten by what looks like a gigantic alien sent from outer space.) A definite UP.

North Korea announces that it is ready for talks with the U.S. Apparently the Valium is working, But Kim Yong-un remains on the Rob Ford diet. The  UP is balanced by the DOWN so it all remains ambiguous. But then, what did you expect from North Korea.

(I am too taking this seriously!)

Turkey’s leader announces that the demonstrators his police are now waterbombing in Istanbul are “international thugs and terrorists”. We all know this cannot be so because all the international thugs and terrorists are busy tormenting that nice Mr. Assad in Syria. This, of course, makes us think of that nice Mr. Mubarak in Egypt and that nice Mr. Gaddafi in Libya and that nice Mr. Duffy in a province to be determined. Forget “No Fly” zones; can we please have a “No Lie” zone? All in all, it’s a BIG DOWN.

Toronto’s police chief performed what can only be regarded as silent contortions as he attempted to avoid incriminating Toronto’s largest still standing structure, its mayor. Never doubt the power of unspoken words. Hilarious.  UP! High UP. (But not as high as Mr. Ford.)

(Of course it was a cheap shot. It’s Sunday. Ok, I promise. No more Ford stuff.)

Last week’s media star, Mr. Edward Snowden, is apparently losing some of his glitter. The predictable voices – Michael Moore, The Guardian, Julien Assange, professional “activists” – continue to deify him, but others have been probing a little more deeply. A more balanced and less hysterical picture is emerging. It is entirely possible that what some need to see as heroic and others are desperate to call a traitor is just another sad little man. No surprise. Whistle blowers who say “Look at that!” are necessary; those who say “Look at ME!” are not. We see you, Mr. Snowden. We see you. Sanity is prevailing – barely. This is an UP.

Warner Brothers is making previews available to churches all over the US as it tries to market  “Man of Steel”. Its claim? Superman is really a Christ figure. The evidence?  “Startling” similarities between the life of Jesus and the life of Superman. One of the more powerful “proofs” is the fact that at one point, Superman comes down to earth – arms outstretched – before taking off again. Crucifixion and Resurrection, right.

Setting aside the fact that birds, squirrels airplanes and most drunks come to earth with appendages outstretched – and then take off again, the “shock” that a western film or literary hero might have similarities to Christ is not newsworthy. A brief list of Christ figures would include Jim Casey (Grapes of Wrath), R. P. McMurphy (Cuckoo’s Nest), Harry Potter, Jim (Huckleberry Finn) , Simon (Lord of the Flies), Jim Conklin (Red Badge of Courage) and Billy Budd.

What is new is the studio’s use of America’s churches as marketing tools. Clearly the hope is that crowds will stream directly from church to Cineplex. Does this mean the churches will start previewing sermons in the movie houses in order to send those crowds stampeding back? Churches? Movie Theatres? Can either of those two institutions handle this much honesty?

For the crassest use of a religious space since the money lenders in the temple, Warner Brothers gets a DOWN.

The clincher has to be a New York Times article in which Facebook is blamed for its members’ posting indiscreet pictures of themselves. Apparently the lure of “Like” is so strong that morality and propriety and shame all get tossed out the window. “Facebook made me do it.” is becoming the great new excuse, even more than the international thugs and terrorists. The crazy thing about this is it sounds absolutely convincing. Absurdity saves the day. After this great UP, there can be no doubt.

It’s going to be a great week!  See you next Sunday.

Of Rob Ford and his Tribe of Little Men

In Which the Elegant Bastard Determines that Size is Not Everything!

Despite my status as the oldest (only) male in my family, I have made it a point to impose few rules regarding the behavior of others. True, this has as much to do with the fact  my family regards rules as bulls do red flags, ants a picnic and televangelists a dollar than it does with any notion of “live and let live”. Still, I have on occasion drawn my own lines in the sand, circled my wagons (difficult as I have only one) and stood with my back to my wall.

The issue is simple: the naming of descendants.

People being people, the need to name babies comes along fairly regularly. I am rarely asked my opinion regarding whether or not new off-spring will be sprung off. Therefore, given that I will be required to share with these new arrivals everything from a last name to the scandalously small amount of dark meat on a turkey to post-mortem unspent money, I claim and defend my right to exercise certain naming rights.

My rule is this: under no circumstances will any child whose diapers I might change, buy or stand within olfactory range of be named Genghis. Attila is also off limits, as are Napoleon, Charlemagne, Tamerlane and Thutmose. I do not jest! Let those with expectations of beneficiary status take warning – I ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie here. (I will also not allow the name Dixie.)

My intransigence has nothing to do with iambic or alliterative weirdness, although none of these first names would go well with Smith, Ali, Singh or Li. It simply acknowledges the fact that children named after the great military heroes and butchers of the past rarely go on to great and glorious lives in the present.

Allow me to offer two final proofs of the above. The first is self evident. Have you ever met a cute little sprite with blond curls, a pink dress and a lollipop whose parents had named her Boadicea? Of course not! Add to that fact the following:  Toronto, the Big Little city on the shores of the Big Little lake is experiencing some fundamental and profound pain. To many, it has gone from wannabe World Class City to Local Joke, even as its downtown towers multiply and grow taller. (Our city planners seem to have decided if they can’t have the biggest they’ll at least have the most!)

The reason?  In 1969, a male child was born and carelessly named. Here follows a tiny bit of Scottish history.

In the early 1300’s, a man by the name of Robert the Bruce, born of a powerful mother and an obedient father, spent much of his early life joining whatever army happened to be winning at the time. He ended up being both King of Scotland and a major figure in that nation’s roster of heroes. Legends abound, not the least of which was one cackled often by my grandmother, who delighted in telling me that Scotland’s greatest king was famous for gnawing on the bones of those he slaughtered, something that I never doubted given my own early experiences with Scottish cuisine. Still, while this might explain my attitude towards haggis and oatmeal, how does it relate to Toronto’s recent history?

Because, Dear Reader, our large and decidedly imperfect mayor is named Robert Bruce Ford. The poor wee mite never had a chance.

A large group of over-weight men are outside trying to determine what exactly one does with a football other than bounce it noisily and repeatedly off the pavement and each other. Forgive me while I go and make a suggestion.

You shake your head at “wee”, I know, but size is not merely to be measured in vertical achievement, horizontal displacement and in the case of Wee Robbie, tonnage. The breadth, height and length of things may interest engineers, cooks and the occasional pervert but those of us in search of Truth know she will not be quantified so easily. And so we recognize that ‘wee” here refers to the inner Robbie, the one we have observed wolfing down KFC, giving the finger to passing motorists, introducing adolescent football players to maiming tactics and public transit, suggesting that cyclists killed in traffic were asking for it, and otherwise making it perfectly clear to all that he is no renaissance man – or even a renaissance mouse!.

A recent article in Toronto Life alluded to any number of reasons why our Robbie does not generally play well with others. There are references to a powerful mother, a father at once too generous and too demanding, an older bigger brighter sib (o.k., not bigger!), a mother-in-law who makes all the stereotypes too true, a failed football career, and a mound of other baggage designed to make one both little and aware of one’s own littlehood. And so perhaps it is to compensate, to appear to be as large as he wishes he were, that he turns – as so many have before him – to the public stage, or in his case, the political arena. Which forum is chosen matters not at all; the essence of both is performance. And Robbie performs.

Sadly, he achieves mostly faint sound and feeble fury. As he struts and frets, as he smoulders and gesticulates, as he stabs his finger at invisible enemies and thrusts his belly forth in an awesome display of … well … belly, he achieves only noise and in a very limited way, spectacle. It’s as if a gladiator arrived at the forum without his sword or a lion without its teeth. In his mouth, language is badly served, and his mix of fatuous argument and flatulent style will no doubt give birth to whole new synonyms for fart. Yet he will persist. He will flail and fail. He will run after his name and his dream of greatness. For once the “Chain of Office” is well-named.

Does it appear as if I pity Wee Robbie? It would be easy to do so. I recall seeing him on his feet at Toronto City Council, spreading his arms as he made an entirely forgettable point, and he did rather look like a man attending his own crucifixion.

But I don’t. One cannot pity a puppet. And whatever else Robbie may be, as gross and gargantuan and ghastly as he is, he is not his own man. He is servant to a larger master. As soon as he entered the public consciousness as something potentially more than a crackpot voice from the wasteland, he was seized – caught – captured. He was taken by … The Other.

Some of us will now spend a brief moment or two exploring the existential concept of “The Other”. The rest need feel no guilt whatsoever if they choose to explore either naps or chocolate.

The normal example used to explain “The Other” requires you to imagine yourself as a peeping Tom, or, in the politically correct 21rst Century, a peeping Mary. As you kneel at your peephole, staring at whatever or  whoever busily doing whatever, imagine that you hear the floor creak behind you. Dying inwardly, you stumble to your feet while desperately fumbling with any loose ends. Shame thrusts itself upon you. You turn to face the judgmental gaze of … The Other.

In that moment, you have been captured, judged, labelled and defined. You will now be forced to rebel against that judgment, thereby being weirdly controlled by it or you will take the easier road, yielding to it and playing out the part it assigns. Wee Robby took the second path.

Yes, Dear Reader, I hear you.  Who, you ask, is Robby’s Other? Sadly, it is us, or rather, some of us, or rather, many of us, or rather, most of Etobicoke, Scarborough, York, North York and large chucks of Toronto. We are Wee Robby’s Other. We pull the strings to make him dance.

Have you ever trained a puppy? Puppy does his good boy dance and we lean forward, praising and offering a cookie. Puppy does a different dance and out comes the rolled up newspaper. (Be advised that this is a metaphor and that this technique does not work well on real puppies. It will, however, work superbly with Tim Hudak.)

Consider Wee Robbie in this light. He mutters about liberal downtown effete elites who screw the working stiff and tens of thousands of self defined stiffs lean forward offering cookies. He argues that subways belong to Scarborough by right and act of God and only Fat Cats and Pinkos would deny them their due. Scarborough chucks him under his little chins and offers even more cookies. He slams the lefty conspiracy (gays, cyclists, environmentalists, light rail lovers, men who don’t spit) that unfairly has more than you do since they have tickets on the gravy train and cookies avalanche in from everywhere. In short, he embodies the oldest commandment of all: Hate Thy Neighbour.

What we call Ford Nation is largely a Nation of Haters. They seethe inwardly, attributing the loss of their dreams to all around them. Everyone else is “in it for themselves”, a “rip-off artist”, “selfish”, a “cheat”, “not a real man” or  “a bitch”. Only they are patriotic hard-working Joes blessed with a little common sense. (And if they cheat a little on their taxes, so what. It’s their “hard-earned” money and “everybody else does it” eh?)

Wee Robbie simply says out loud what they may only whisper. And if he someday chooses not to speak the words they dare not, they will abandon him to his former littlehood. In fact, in the same way that Don Cherry’s jackets will need to get louder, so will wee Robbie.

Shouldn’t we then pity Ford? But why? Look at the man! If anyone were ever over-cookied, it is he! He will waddle on. Wrapped in self-love and swollen with the bile of others, he will avoid self knowledge unless some inconvenient law finally swats him down. Even if that does happen, he will seize on Noble Victimhood and charge thousands to deliver after-dinner speeches. Wee Robbie shall have cookies wherever he goes.

No, save your pity for Ford Nation. They rally around him as they have around others like him and they will continue to do so, worshipping in him their own unspeakable image.

And no one ever gives them cookies.