Tue, Jul

On Toplessness

I saw a woman walking topless in downtown Kitchener today. I was in the passenger seat of my parents’ car, my father was driving and my mother was in the back, and my mother said, “what’s that woman doing not wearing a shirt? Or a bra?” And I happened to look, and got a bit of an eyeful. If I’d actually been driving, my car might have swerved.

My reaction may only be partly because I’m a heterosexual male. It may also be because this is the first time I’ve seen a woman topless on the street in, like, ever. And I wonder if it has something to do with this protest that took place earlier in the day.

It’s strange that we seem to be having a debate on female toplessness this summer — maybe less so given that the heat and the humidity is making toplessness more of an issue. However, there have been a rash of people being told to cover up, and being told “it’s the law.

Except that it’s not. Pretty definitely not, thanks to Gwen Jacobs who, nineteen years ago, successfully overturned an indecent exposure conviction at the Ontario Court of Appeal, who ruled:

“…there was nothing degrading or dehumanizing in what the appellant did. The scope of her activity was limited and was entirely non-commercial. No one who was offended was forced to continue looking at her…” (Furthermore), “the community standard of tolerance when all of the relevant circumstances are taken into account.”

So, we’ve had this conversation already. We shouldn’t be having it again, especially when it comes to telling eight-year-old girls to cover up at a pool. It seems we have short memories.

Yes, I said above that, had I been driving when I spotted the topless woman walking down the sidewalk, my car might have swerved, but that’s my issue, not her’s. Mostly it was the surprise of seeing something that I hadn’t expected to see. Maybe if more people did this, it would be less of a surprise to me and I’d have less of a reaction.

Maybe I should rephrase that…

Then again, my car might not have swerved, because I might have been more aware that my hands were on a steering wheel, and swerving could be very dangerous indeed. It has always offended me when men (invariably, they are men) complain about what women are wearing, suggest either implicitly or explicitly that they are bringing unwanted sexual attention onto themselves. As if I, as a man, am unable to control my reactions, and don’t have the intelligence to think about what is safe in this situation, and what is acceptable. It’s an insult to me, and it should be an insult to all men.

Yes, society sexualizes things more than I would like. The rant about gender-specific clothing for boys and girls under the age of six would take up twice this space on this blog. But the important thing to note is, on this extremely hot and humid day, there was nothing sexual about a woman choosing to walk bare chested down the street. I jerked with surprise, but I was easily able to not stare, and continue about my business. That should be the end of it, and for me it was.

We as a society need to be less stuck up. Gwen Jacobs walked past several people, including two police officers, without incident, until a mother complained that Gwen Jacobs had been seen topless by one of her children. Gwen Jacobs was not the problem. The mother’s attitude was. But like the summer silly season in the news media, hopefully this too will pass.

So, finding ourselves with a rare childless evening, Erin and I rented Ex Machina yesterday. This is a story about an uber-genius software billionaire having invented AI (played by Alicia Vikander) bringing aboard this brilliant computer coder to perform a Turing test to ensure that said AI had actually achieved consciousness.

I do feel richer for having seen it. The script feels intelligent, and the director (Alex Garland, who also wrote the script) was clearly inspired by Stanley Kubrik. And as much as watching a human and a machine face off and ask each other Turing test questions might sound like a waste of two hours, it's not. It's a quiet movie, but one that carries a lot of creep to it. The special effects are of the type that you hardly know they're there, and that's what makes it so brilliant.

I'm not sure about the ending, however. I can't decide whether I'm disappointed by the decisions the characters made (which were, fictionally speaking, entirely consistent), or whether we're left with more questions than answers and if the central question of the movie (can a machine achieve consciousness) was left unresolved, or whether leaving that central question of the movie unresolved was a brilliant piece of writing.

I'm still thinking about the movie, twenty-four hours later, though, so that has to count for something.

We're mostly recovered from being on California time, although that took a while. The kids went to art camp this week, and getting up at 7:30 to get them up before 8 was a chore and a half, but we did it, and the kids enjoyed art camp, even Vivian who was sceptical, at first.

I'm getting back into some writing work, including more articles for my real estate client, and columns for the Kitchener Post. Here's a selection:


While avoiding working on things I should have been working on, I wrote down the acknowledgements (admittedly prematurely) of my as-yet-unpublished manuscript, The Night Girl. Here’s an excerpt:

You can take the boy out of Toronto, but you can’t take Toronto out of the boy. For the first nineteen years of my life, I lived and went to school in downtown Toronto. The rest of my life was spent in Kitchener-Waterloo, where I and my neighbours, the local media and the local government lived very much in Toronto’s shadow.

That’s both good and bad. The fact is that all of the media, located in Toronto, tends to flood out the local news, such that people in my current region perhaps know more about the goings on at Toronto’s City Hall than they do their own city hall, especially when Rob Ford was Mayor of Toronto. That alone is a reasonable source of resentment when it comes to dealing with the big city. At the same time, I’ve often likened my current relationship to Toronto as being similar to the relationship a grandfather has with his grandkids: you get to play with them and hug them, and when they start to throw a tantrum, you get to leave.

But I’m fiercely proud of being a Torontonian, even though the cliche is that it’s fashionable, even necessary, for the rest of the country to hate the city. The city shaped me in ways few other places could. When other teenagers rushed to get their drivers’ licenses seeing the car as a source of personal freedom, I didn’t learn how to drive until I was twenty-three. For me, public transit was my first car.

And I admit that I clung to the “world class” touchstones that Torontonians point to in order to hide their own insecurities, such as the Yonge Street being the world’s longest street (a lie), that the United Nations named us the most diverse city in the world (an urban legend, though our population is very diverse), and the CN Tower being the world’s tallest freestanding structure (until Burj Kalifa bested us in 2007).

At the same time, I know that I’ve called my city insecure, and I stand by that statement with loving respect. I do feel that we drove too hard, especially in the late 1980s, to acquire certain big projects because we wanted to prove ourselves “world class” on the International stage. We spent $600 million on a domed stadium, unsuccessfully chased two Olympics and one World Expo, and failed to spend money on bread and butter infrastructure like rapid transit expansion and maintaining public housing. Today, too many Torontonians wring their hands about a lack of world class architecture, and too many bland glass towers, even though our city is building and growing, and that’s a record that many a city can look at us with envy.

We Torontonians don’t need to thump our chests and proclaim ourselves world class, or waste money chasing such a dream, but we should take the time to look up and around and see the beauty of what we have, along with the challenges of what we need to do. I find beauty in the Toronto PATH Network, which I continue to call “The Underground City” in defiance of all edicts, that justifiably claims its own entry in the Guiness Book of World Records as the world’s largest underground pedestrian complex. I love to walk the back streets that the tourists do not go to see. And I love the people, who live and work and make do as best they can while the politicians struggle and occasionally make fools of themselves.

My home town is not perfect. There’s a lot of work to be done. But we’re doing some important things right, and that’s world class enough for me.


Erin snapped this while at a Beverly Hills hotel as part of her book promotion tour.

Erin’s feeling is that the sign didn’t help. I agree.

injured-piggybank.jpgI'm a little leery of writing this out loud, since I know the Fates sometimes seem to delight in making mischief with proclaimations. We all know we shouldn't say "what's the worst that could happen?" or "This'll be the best Christmas Walford's ever had!" so perhaps it is the height of irresponsibility to say anything optimistic about the economy anywhere where someone else can read or hear.

And yet, we've been constantly told that we're on the verge of a recession, or are in a recession. Finance Minister Joe Oliver is frantically denying it, likely for political reasons, but the banks are aligning against him. The Bank of Canada recently announced an interest rate cut from 0.75% to 0.5%, and the Canadian dollar has dipped below $0.77 US. The Progressive Conservative government of Alberta fell partly on news that they were facing a $7 Billion deficit in 2016 (though they posted a $1 Billion surplus this year), and economists are doubtful that Joe Oliver will meet his balanced budget goal.

Admittedly, I've razzed Oliver's lengthy vacation on the Denial River. Governments never like to admit that a country is in a recession. In the early 1980s, the Liberals downplayed economic woes with wordplay, and were quoted by comedians as saying "this isn't a depression, it's a recession". In the early 1990s, Mulroney tried to avoid the r-word by substituting another one, "retrenchment". You hear other words out there used to try to soften the blow, like "downturn", or "correction", or possibly, "it's the Greeks' fault."

I can't argue with the official definition of what a recession is, to whit: "a period of temporary economic decline during which trade and industrial activity are reduced, generally identified by a fall in GDP in two successive quarters." However, I have to admit, from where I'm sitting, this doesn't feel like a recession.

Where I'm sitting is Waterloo Region, near the Greater Toronto Area. Whenever I go out to eat, the restaurants are comfortably full. There are few, if any, closed storefronts in downtown Kitchener or uptown Waterloo. There are no announcements of major layoffs, and no new plants are closing (though, arguably, most have closed already. Budd Canada is now a field of broken concrete awaiting redevelopment, and Schneider's passing has been anticipated for nearly a decade). There is no major uptick in the unemployment rate for local media to trumpet with doom (we're at 5.5%, compared to 6.8% for the rest of the country).

And, recently, we finally brought in roofers to update and restore the roof of our new house. This procedure took several weeks, even after we selected a roofer. Some roofers were too busy to take us on. "It's peak roofing season," they told me. "The schedules are booked up." The ones we got showed up on schedule, about four weeks after we booked them.

If the Canadian economy is doing poorly, the Waterloo economy is doing well enough to put enough money in the pockets of enough households to keep several roofing companies busy throughout the spring, summer and fall. You can hardly cross the city for all the construction that's taking place (and the jobs that are associated with it). People are working, and people are spending. People seem confident.

This isn't to say that there aren't things to worry about. Housing prices remain at ludicrous levels in the Greater Toronto Area and people are justifiably worried about a housing bubble, the bursting of which could change our attitudes in a hurry. And while Ontario has seen no increase in its fiscal deficit, the fact remains that the deficit remains, and it's proving stubborn to defeat.

But if the true definition of a recession is "a recession is when you know a friend that has been laid off, and a depression is when you yourself have been laid off", I haven't met the criteria over here. And, yes, I'm saying this with my fingers crossed so as not to jinx things. However, I'd still hazard a guess that my part of my province is doing fine. I wondered this about 2008 as well. In that case, we had abandoned houses in the United States, and the replacement of fiscal surpluses in Canada with sharp deficits, but while the local unemployment rate reached nearly 10%, things didn't feel as dire as they did in the early 1980s recession, or the early 1990s one.

Again, fingers crossed.

The fact that Canada as a whole appears to be dipping into recession, according to the media, according to the Bank of Canada, and according to the official definition favoured by economists, and the fact that Alberta's economy has staggered enough to topple a 44-year-old government dynasty, leads me to wonder if there is a particular culprit in our economic downturn. Economists are pointing to the shocking drop in world oil prices as a major cause. But much as I feel sorry for anybody being caught in economic turmoil, I think this highlights the risk of tying our economy too closely with one resource sector, not to mention the benefit of not putting all your eggs in that resource sector's basket.

Canada is a big and diverse country, and it has a big and diverse economy to match. Fostering that diversity may have helped us where I live, and if the Canadian government's finances are falling due to economic issues, perhaps the government of the day hasn't done enough to foster that diversity where it governs.

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