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St. Joseph's

On Sunday, October 17, Brother André Bessette, founder of St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal, was canonized and is now Saint André. Thinking about him made me remember this lovely poem, written by Raymond Fraser. The poem first appeared in the collection Waiting For God’s Angel and it was also included in the selected poems, Before You’re A Stranger. Ray said I could publish it here — and here it is. I’m sure you’ll like it.

St. Joseph’s Oratory

It’s like a festival day Sunday afternoon at St. Joseph’s
although it was cold today when we went
the church and the yard were alive with various people
families and sweethearts, priests, pilgrims, urchins,
      old folks
they came by foot up the long pathway or drove in
      family cars
or came in pilgrim buses making a special tour

the restaurant that looks like a beach house was full
with people eating hotdogs and French fries and
and the souvenir shop was crowded
we went into the church Sharon and I and looked at
      Brother André’s heart
and at his robes and shoes and rubbers and his hat
and photographs of him
and we saw him in the wax likeness in his bedroom and
      his office
and dying in the hospital
we saw his picture everywhere on magazine covers and
      souvenirs and colour slides
and we saw the place where he’s buried without his
beside two coin boxes
while we were there a young husband and wife placed
      their infant
on his casket and said some prayers
there were long rows of candles climbing halfway up the
some lit and others waiting to be lit for a donation


we rode the escalator to the unfinished basilica with its
      massive organ
that thundered terrifying Catholic music
and its Egyptian-looking arches

earlier we’d been to the downstairs chapel where a
was giving a sermon in French
while tourists walked in and out
giving the place the once-over
we didn’t buy any relics or grace or merit of any kind
we saw in the guest book at Brother André’s tomb that
      Adam and Eve
had been there because they’d signed their names and
      they were from Montreal
when we left the church we went to the cafeteria and
      had hotdogs
and hot chocolate and then we went up to Brother André’s
      original little chapel
and looked at his room upstairs
we saw his statue of Christ with torn bloody flesh looking
something from a chamber of horrors
bloody and gouged like he’d been torn apart by lions
and we saw Brother André’s extra bed where he kept a
      friend for company
because of the visits he had from the Evil One which
      must have been harrowing
and then we went home half-froze from waiting for a

The Ontario Superior Court struck down prostitution laws yesterday which decriminalized many of the restrictions around sex work and paved the way for other provinces to do the same thing.

It is generally seen as a progressive move that will allow sex workers to ply their trade in safer and more secure conditions.

I was interested to read my own views on prostitution from my archives: this is a column that was written 20 years ago, in early 1990. I have edited it slightly and added some links.

As many feminists do, I have mixed feelings around the whole issue of prostitution. I think it is the ultimate form of women’s oppression and I hate the thought of any woman being forced into it to make her living or feed her children.

Not only that, I reject many of the myths about prostitution. I don’t accept that very many women work as prostitutes by choice; I think, rather, it’s a severe lack of choice. I remind people constantly that life for most women who work as prostitutes bears no resemblance to the life of Jane Fonda’s character in Klute – the life of the so-called high-class call girl. Instead, most girls and women who work as prostitutes live a dangerous, often-violent life, under male control, on the edge of male-made laws.

Some of these same doubts and mixed feelings are expressed in an article by Toronto feminist Susan Cole in a recent issue of the feminist newspaper Broadside. Susan has found herself in a conflicting position on occasion in conversation with women who work as prostitutes because she wants to believe them when they say prostitution is “just another job, just another skill – like typing” and yet her own instincts react strongly against the idea of women selling sex for a living.

In fact, Susan Cole has often been singled out by prostitutes’ rights groups as a personal whipping post, and has been assured that most women working as prostitutes simply want to be left alone to do their work in peace and safety and don’t want to hear theories of male dominance and patriarchy.

So Susan has recently come to a new conclusion about these conflicts. She’s decided that only ex-prostitutes can bridge the gap between “sex-critical feminists and prostitutes’ rights groups.” She decided this after meeting a representative of – in what must be THE acronym of the year – WHISPER: Women Hurt in Systems of Prostitution Engaged in Revolt. This is what the representative, Sarah Wynter, ex-prostitute, said:

We started to organize because the cultural mythology didn’t reflect the reality of our lives. I’m referring to the line that prostitution is a free choice; that it can be decontextualized from the patriarchal society we live in; that it can be fixed by unionizing it, legalizing, decriminalizing it; that the relationship between a pimp and a prostitute is a love relationship; that prostitutes are on the cutting edge of women’s sexual liberation and that prostitutes control tricks and rates of pay…

I was sold into prostitution and control of my life was taken away from me. I learned that prostitution is an abusive institution that benefits men. The pimp gets money, the john gets sexual gratification. Prostitution gives men access to women’s and children’s sexuality limited only by their ability to pay. I’ve yet to meet a prostitute who hasn’t experienced some kind of abuse. That’s why we founded WHISPER, because we know that women whisper about the things that happen to them.

At Stepping Stone in Halifax, women didn’t have to whisper. Stepping Stone is the agency set up a few years ago to support, help, and counsel women who work as prostitutes. It, in turn, was supported by both women who work as prostitutes and women who used to work as prostitutes.

I’m still confused about where I stand on prostitution, but I too vigorously support Stepping Stone. Since its inception, it has had to struggle and fight for every penny of government support – as do most agencies that exist to help women and children – and it’s now in danger of closing its doors as the governments turn their backs.

It’s nothing short of outrageous. Male politicians – provincial and municipal this time – pay lip service to caring about the safety of women and children. In fact, where prostitution is concerned, they care about only one thing: that it be kept out of sight so “respectable” citizens won’t be offended.

These men who run our society are responsible for the economic conditions that force girls and women into prostitution. They’re the ones who administer our woefully inadequate safety net which somehow, allows women and children to fall through and face either hunger and eviction or a job on the streets.

The refusal to fund Stepping Stone is just another in the long list of callous acts that can be pinned on these cold, uncaring governments.

Stepping Stone was founded in 1987 and it continues to do its work in Halifax. It has reacted to this week’s decision by the Ontario Superior Court.

My new favourite television show is Curb Your Enthusiasm.

I watched a few episodes in its early seasons when it was being shown on one of the commercial channels. The strong language was all bleeped and I found it almost impossible to follow — certainly not possible to enjoy. My impression was that this is a show that is almost completely made up of bad words and I lost interest. (I don’t really mind strong language in a program but if it’s every second word, it’s just tedious. Trailer Park Boys, I’m looking at you.)

I have long been a fan — and a self-proclaimed expert — of Seinfeld. Most days, I watch it more than once; sometimes, I watch the same episode more than once in the same day. I don’t know why — I know most of the lines by heart at this point — but I never seem to get tired of it. I can answer all the trivia quiz questions and in fact, I think I could make up a few quizzes myself.

Last year, I read somewhere that the Seinfeld cast would be guests on Curb Your Enthusiasm doing a quasi-reunion show. I pretty well had to see that so we subscribed to HBO Canada and I became a dedicated watcher of Curb Your Enthusiasm. (A little sidebar: The language is raunchy but not unlike what you’d hear in most social circles and not nearly as tiresome as Trailer Park Boys – or the movies my teenage son and his friends watch. My conclusion: The bleeping gives a false impression and makes the language sound more offensive than it really is.)

Somewhere along the way, as I watched, I developed an intense fascination — bordering on a harmless obsession — with Larry David, the show’s star and creator.

Larry David
Larry David

I had seen the name “Larry David” for years, at the beginning of every Seinfeld episode as co-creator, and at the end — during the first seven seasons — as executive producer. I was vaguely aware of the parts he played as the voice of New York Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, as Frank Costanza’s lawyer, as a news vendor. I knew that he was considered to be the person that George Costanza’s character was based on.

And that was about it.

Once my obsession developed, I read everything I could find about him, I watched countless interviews and clips from talk shows on YouTube, I checked him out on news reports every day. I was relieved and quite pleased to learn that he’s a pretty nice guy — intelligent, kind, compassionate and, of course, funny.

I liked it when I heard that when he was doing stand-up in the comedy clubs, all the other comics who were in the club would gather to hear him do his act. He didn’t really like the audience most of the time — he likes undivided attention and patrons in a comedy club are drinking alcohol and often distracted. One night, he came out, looked slowly around at everyone, said, “Never mind,” and walked off.

Knowing everything I’ve learned about him has changed the way I watch — the way I see — Seinfeld and has given it a whole new life.

Larry David plays a version of himself in Curb Your Enthusiasm, as a multi-millionaire writer/co-creator of the most acclaimed sitcom in television history — which he is. The episodes are unscripted with each of the characters — some of them playing themselves, others playing a role — being given an outline of what the situation is and they play it off the tops of their heads. He is described in this part as the “reigning curmudgeon of television.” He is a curmudgeon but it’s more complicated than that. He says and does outrageous things. Some of what happens in Curb is truly cringe-worthy.

And yet, he usually seems so innocent and vulnerable that it’s hard to hold the outrageousness against him. If he asks a supremely insensitive question, it doesn’t seem that he’s mean or malicious — just that he really wants to know the answer. The answer often annoys him terribly and he expresses his annoyance honestly and openly and quite often, embarrassingly.

I don’t know why this should be so funny but it is. It makes me laugh out loud and I assure you, things that are embarrassing and humiliating and cringe-worthy are not my usual sources of amusement. It’s just something about Larry.

You can read as much about him as I have — this piece from the New Yorker‘s archives is really interesting and you can watch interview after interview and lots of clips from the show on YouTube. This is the first of a series of interviews about the show and the characters and their methods. They’re interesting and entertaining.

An eighth season of 10 episodes is in production now and will be available on HBO in 2011.

We’re just back from vacation. In the last few weeks, we’ve driven from Halifax to Antigonish, St. Stephen, Boston, Freeport, Fredericton, Miramichi (Chatham), Halifax again (for 24 hours), then Cavendish, PEI. The final trip to Cavendish included four friends of William’s so we had five teenage boys staying with us at a cottage for five days.

I dearly love summer. I love the heat and I don’t care if it’s humid. I just feel better in every part of my body if the weather is hot.

Having said that, what I like about the fall is the getting back to routine. I always feel very ambitious as September looms and make many plans about what I’ll accomplish in the coming months.

I’ll be back here with a few observations about things that happened on vacation and about the unfolding of the new season.

Meanwhile, did you read that piece I wrote at The Writing Resource about the use and misuse of some of our grand words? Check it out here and feel free to leave a comment.

I went to a party last weekend. It was a big party — a post-wedding party — with lots of people, loud music, dancing and free-flowing booze. At one point in the evening, one of the young men who was there gestured toward my bottle of water and said, “I see you’re on the hard stuff tonight.”

I did find that funny and he didn’t require any response or explanation so that was a relief.

I don’t drink wine — or any alcohol — any more. For some people, that wouldn’t be a surprising statement but, for many years, I was an excellent wine drinker and for some people, the sight of me at a party without a glass of wine in hand would be unlikely. I always drank wine with dinner and in fact, poured a glass much earlier to sip on as I cooked. I had a glass of wine at lunch — if I were lunching out — and I was on a first-name basis with the people in my local provincial store.

In late May of 2007, I became ill, an illness that started with the loss of my voice and that continued with random symptoms that came and went over the next several weeks. June is a very busy month in the school year and our son was finishing elementary school and moving into junior high which meant a lot of things going on that I couldn’t participate in. I was never deathly ill — just sick enough that I could get up for an hour or so during the day but I would very quickly reach the point of saying, “I have to go lie down.” Altogether, I spent about seven weeks functioning at a very low level, treating a variety of cold symptoms, getting one under control only to have another pop up the next day.

In late July, my illness reached a bizarre climax. I was in the bathroom late one evening, preparing to go back to bed when I looked in the mirror and saw a most unusual sight. My nose was a brilliant scarlet. I had never seen anything like this before. I couldn’t think of anything else to do so I put some cream on it and went to bed.

By morning, the colour had crept over my cheeks, up to my forehead, and was beginning to move toward my chin. My skin was intensely red but had the texture of orange peel. It was raised and rough.

It was easily diagnosed as Erysipelas (pronounced air-a-sip-a-luss), also known by its more colourful and dramatic nickname, St. Anthony’s Fire. It’s caused by streptococcus and it responded readily to antibiotics.

As the facial mask faded, I gradually began to feel better. I had eaten very little while I’d been ill and had lost a lot of weight — which was good. My appetite returned and I began to enjoy food again but — and this is the point of my whole story — I never regained my taste for wine. The thought of it is not repulsive or anything specific. I simply feel indifferent to it and, in three years, it has never crossed my mind to pour a glass for myself. I still serve wine at my dinner table, I cook with wine and, even as I write this, there’s a lovely bottle of a prize-winning Nova Scotia white in the fridge and a Portuguese red on the kitchen counter. I still tremendously enjoy eating out at any of Halifax’s fine restaurants. I drink Perrier or San Pellegrino. Sometimes, I ask the bartender to make me something refreshing and tasty and not-too-sweet. At Jane’s, I always order the Rhubarb Cordial.

I’m often surprised by the things some people say: Oh come on, one glass won’t hurt you. Well, that’s true. But I don’t want it, thanks. Do you miss it? No, I don’t. If I missed it, I would have it. I guess it’s hard to grasp that no one is forcing me not to indulge and it isn’t deprivation of any sort. Some people say, Good for you, when I say I’m not having any. Then I have to explain that it isn’t as if I’ve made a “moral” decision or any kind of decision. It’s not virtuous. It’s just a preference, based on my own wants and needs.

Finally, I think a legitimate question is, Do you feel better? I don’t think I feel much different, to be honest. I like having lost the weight but in most other ways, I feel much the same as I’ve always felt.

I’ve saved a lot of money in the past three years though. It’s a good thing because I needed a new wardrobe.

There’s a television show that airs on the Food Network called The Best Thing I Ever Ate. I’ve never watched it but I’ve seen its promo, many times. It involves Food Network chefs reminiscing about something wonderful they’ve eaten while a variety of culinary samples are paraded across our screen.

I don’t think any of their choices look particularly appealing but it’s all a matter of taste, isn’t it? Literally.

And I began to wonder what my response would be if I were asked: What’s the best thing you ever ate?

Well, let me tell you.

Years ago, on a trip to Portugal, we had landed in Lisbon late in the evening and decided to get up early and head for Faro, the capital of the Algarve, much to the south. We got to the train station just in time to be herded aboard — we heard the conductor use the word “Faro” so we assumed we were in the right car — and in spite of a crushing crowd, we managed to get a seat. A wooden seat, if I remember correctly. We figured that once we got going, there would be some kind of vending service available — we’d had nothing to eat or drink since the night before — and we’d be able to get a cup of coffee, at least.

About 15 minutes into the trip, all the people around us began hauling food out of their bags from under their seats: spicy, garlicky sausages, cheeses, chunks of crusty bread. Bottles of red wine and water. They looked at us very kindly and offered to share their food but we didn’t really know quite what to do and we thanked them and tried to look as if we had already eaten.

The train was old and slow and a milk-run. It chugged through the Portuguese countryside and stopped at most towns and villages. If we hadn’t been in such need of food and coffee, it’s possible we might have enjoyed the scenery and the atmosphere. At one point — I have no idea how long into the trip it was — when the train stopped, most of our fellow passengers stampeded off and returned minutes later laden with food and drinks from a platform outside the station. If only we had known what they knew!

It was early evening when the train pulled into Faro. I picture us being the only passengers getting off but we probably weren’t although many of our fellow travellers had disembarked at different stops along the way and the train had definitely emptied out. Faro seemed quiet and dusty and deserted. I felt we should have been riding in on horseback.

(This is a generic picture of Faro. It still looks quiet.)

We walked from the station to the centre of town — exhausted from sitting on those wooden seats all day and, of course, hungry and thirsty — and went into a dim little bar. The waiter brought us cold beer and we managed to communicate to him that we’d like some food too. He was solicitous but we were able to understand that the kitchen was closed. He gestured encouragingly, however, and seemed to say the equivalent of, “Just a minute, I’ll see what I can do.”

He disappeared and came back in a few minutes and placed a plate on the table. There was a crusty roll with a piece of meat inside — meat fried in olive oil and garlic. The oil was soaking into the bread — and that was it. Bread, a piece of meat, olive oil. The meat was not melt-in-your-mouth but it was not tough. It had texture and resistance. It could be chewed.

I cannot begin to describe how good that sandwich was. I can taste it to this day, as I write about it, and I can hear the crunch of that crusty roll as I bit into it. I have tried many times to duplicate it in my own kitchen but I’ve failed. I never expect to succeed.

I’ve eaten in many fine restaurants and been fed by family and friends who are excellent cooks — and I’m a pretty good cook myself. But I don’t think I’ve ever eaten anything that I remember and can describe with such relish as that simple sandwich in Faro. It’s the perfect case in point for the expression, “Hunger is the best sauce,” — which I’m interested to see is usually attributed to Cervantes in Don Quixote.

I keep trying to picture what it would be like if I were the intended recipient of one of those very public — often called “romantic” — proposals of marriage. You know the ones I mean: the “Will You Marry Me, [insert name here]?” that shows up on the jumbotron at a major sports event or pulled along by a small airplane at an airshow or, most recently, on the bow of a P.E.I.-bound ferry.

I can hear myself, upon noticing a sign that says, “Will you marry me, Sharon?”, saying, “Thank God” — as emphatically as I can possibly say it — “Thank God that message isn’t intended for me!”

And then, I turn around and see the proposer, possibly on one knee, and I say . . . nah, forget it. You’re better to say nothing, at that point.

Of course, somehow, if the proposal is directed at me, it has to be turned down. Does that ever happen? We only hear about the ones where the bride-to-be says an ecstatic “yes” and the groom-to-be fishes a ring out of his pocket and they live happily ever after.

Or for all we know, maybe the proposee is just being kind when she accepts the public proposal. Maybe it’s a different story once they’re in private, alone together.

As for me, I’d say, “Not a chance, honey.” It’s my essential crankiness. I’d be glad though that I caught a glimpse of this side of his personality before the wedding and not after.

When I first started my website, I wanted it mainly so I’d have a place to bring together all my archival writings — interspersed with occasional pieces dealing with present-day issues. I have always called it, “my website.”

Others though, refer to it as my “blog.” Now, I think of a blog as a journal, a diary, a regular life-update — indeed, a “log” which is the part of the original word “weblog” that gives the blog its common nickname. I don’t mind that people refer to it as my “blog.” It just has never seemed accurate to me.

So I have decided to remedy the inaccuracy. I’m turning it into a blog by which I mean I will write here much more regularly and the nature of the writing will take on a different tone. I will still deal with issues, of course, because that’s what I think about a lot of the time. Because I’m closely related to the Nova Scotia NDP government — by marriage — I will avoid writing about provincial issues and will leave that to others.

But I will write on a variety of topics that interest me — and I hope interest you — because really, interesting things do happen every day.

For example: A few days ago, I was browsing in the produce department of my local supermarket. I observed one of my fellow shoppers, casually roaming around choosing her vegetables wearing a see-through dress. It wasn’t “see-through” the way a sheer fabric would be or the way a piece of plastic wrap would be.

It was something like an eyelet cotton, something like this:


It was short — a few inches above the knee — and she was wearing a black bra and panties underneath, and that’s all. I should also say — because you’re wondering — that she was not a nubile teen nor a sexy supermodel. She was middle-aged, average build, a little stocky maybe.

I confess that my first reaction — aside from bemusement — was a little judgemental. Did she look in her mirror before she left home? What could she have been thinking? Tsk, tsk.

But as the days have passed, I keep asking myself the same questions but now, not rhetorically. Did she, in fact, look in her mirror before she left home? What could she have been thinking?

It isn’t as if I have anything against alluring/revealing clothes. Quite the contrary. But am I uncomfortable in this case because she was middle-aged and didn’t have a perfect body? If she had been a five-feet-eight, 120 pound, 22-year-old in a see-through dress, would I have forgotten all about her before I got home?

We talk a lot about the hypersexualization of young girls but not too much about the sexuality of middle-aged women. And was she sexy? Not to me but I wonder if she felt sexy. Or was sex involved at all? Maybe she was just in a hurry to grab that broccoli for dinner and she didn’t even take the time to consider what she was wearing.

Going out shopping in your barely-covered underwear: another feminist issue to ponder. Do you have any thoughts about this?

Canada Day

The Toronto Star’s fearless feminist columnist/feature writer, Antonia Zerbisias, wrote recently about beauty pageants and some of today’s high-profile women who have spring-boarded to their current positions from their pageant participation. Antonia believes we shouldn’t knock beauty contests because it has helped some women get ahead and she gives some interesting reasons and examples.

I feel differently about this. For those who think of feminists as an homogenous group with identical opinions on everything, this is a good example of how committed feminists can look at issues differently — and still hold a feminist view.

I wondered if I would agree with Antonia if the women she cites in her column — Carole Taylor, Helena Guergis, Sarah Palin, among others — had used their pageant success as a springboard to work toward advancing the cause of other women. It can’t be said that they did. The women Antonia names fit themselves very firmly into the status quo or, in some cases, are actively working to diminish women’s rights and take away many of the advantages women have gained over the past few decades.

Over the years, I have written numerous columns about beauty contests. I went to my archives and chose this one to share — a fairly radical column, more radical now than when it was written more than 20 years ago. (The only change I’ve made was to remove the name of the beauty queen in the story. It was 20 years ago. Who knows how she would feel if she saw this piece again?)


“When they called her name, Mary Smith* , Lunenburg’s Queen of the Sea, thought it was a dream. But when she opened her eyes and the tiara was atop her head and the sash fell gracefully from her shoulder, she knew it was real. She was Miss Nova Scotia . . . ”

Was this 1902 in Godwin’s Lady’s Book? Or maybe a 1910 edition of Ladies’ Home Journal? Not at all. This was written by Stephen Forest of the Truro Bureau of The Chronicle Herald and was published last week, August 29, 1989. Was Stephen kidding?

How far have we come, after all?

I’m regularly badgered to write a column about beauty contests. And I always ask, what more can there possibly be to write?

Beauty contests are standing-room-only affairs at all fairs and exhibitions; they command front page coverage in local newspapers; in the big time, they take over prime time and earn millions of dollars in advertising revenue.

So what’s the appeal in these rather silly contests which are, we assume, heartily sanctioned by our male-ordered society but are usually organized and attended by women? We know that they’re ridiculed in most circles and mocked by stand-up comedians and in sitcoms on television.

Not long ago, a man I know went to one in his hometown and described it to me later while laughing so hard he could hardly get his words out. This particular one involved 13 and 14 year-old girls tottering across a stage in high heels and bathing suits, talking about what might make the world a better place. This guy almost died laughing.

So what’s going on?

In centuries past, Chinese mothers bound their little girls’ feet in accordance with a tradition that made their daughters marriageable. Although it may not sound like something we would do, those mothers were aware that the fate of an unmarried female was much worse than painful, deformed feet and so foot-binding became not only a necessity for survival but a psychologically desirable ritual.

Mothers and daughters shared the mutilation with the mutual understanding that to please the male was the only true choice each of them had.

Our own male-pleasing rituals, those day-to-day habits that we have either to show we’re available or to maintain our position vis-a-vis our man, are less drastic but no less conspiratorial. Even though we now believe we can make our own choices — based on many things other than appearance — it’s still a rare woman who has given up the tools of an earlier trade: cosmetics, lotions, razors, tweezers, mascara brushes, three inch high heels, diets.

The extreme example of our homage to the male-pleasing ritual comes in that archaic form of entertainment, the beauty contest.

Unlike my male friend, I don’t see anything funny in the spectacle of young teenagers being put on ludicrous display. I don’t see anything funny in the comedians who make fun of the big time beauty contestants doing their baton act and speaking out on behalf of world peace and a clean environment. I find the first pathetic; I find the second embarrassing. I guess I just don’t have much of a sense of humour.

But I think the beauty contest has become a psychologically desirable ritual — in some women’s circles anyway — and has evolved into a symbol of women’s traditional dependence on catching a man: the young girls lined up in a competition to be judged on who has the best hair, the best skin, the best teeth, the smallest waist, the shapeliest legs.

At the local level, it’s just tacky. When they tart it up and put it on television, it’s tasteless and really harmful to the continued progress of women. In the end, it serves its purpose very well, by trivializing women and the role most women want to fill — in the workplace, in our relationships with others, mostly in how we feel about ourselves.

Supporters are, of course, quick to point out that looks are not the most important thing in a beauty contest — which they insist you call a pageant. They say that poise and personality count for a lot too.

Oh, please. Who cares?

*Not her real name.

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