Vancouver, I need a housing hug. Work with me!

KizmitWent to the really great marketing ploy, Gesamtkunstwerk (be careful how you pronounce it), to listen to Jeff Derksen, a poet and English prof at SFU speak to the future of the city and how social housing might be re-imagined in Vancouver.  Enjoyed some wine and a very tasty pretzel bun dipped in grainy hot mustard too. Thank you very much.

The first thing I learned, or had reinforced, given that I already sort of knew it, is that if you want to market something, give it a really cool name that’s hard to pronounce for everyone who isn’t fluent in German.  Get some intelligent, in-the-know and interesting individuals as speakers. Put it in a stark space. Include an exhibit with architectural drawings and small models. Turn it into a “go-to” event. They, whoever they are specifically, did a really great job at putting this on.

Derksen was comparing the approach to social housing in Vienna versus Vancouver. What I’m saying here is my bastardization of what he said. But it will give you the idea.  They actually have a will to do social housing in Vienna which ranks as the top place it the world for livability.

In Vancouver, social housing only ever seems to gets imagined in a very unimaginary way and always in relation to those on the lowest rung, (actually, they’re not even on a rung, they’ve dropped onto the street). In contrast, in Vienna, 60% of people live in some form of subsidized housing and Vienna is ranked as the No. 1 livable city in the world. Gee. I wonder if there’s a correlation? Ya think?

There is imagination in Vienna around social housing that is apparently lacking in Vancouver. Or given the gold mine of creativity that exists here, I guess it’s really just the will that’s lacking. Derksen did seem to be treading lightly of course, given that the people hosting him have the main goal of selling more condos.  Specifically at a cool looking place called Vancouver House.  Interesting but not quite as exciting for those of us who can barely afford the furniture in the lobby of new said building when it’s done, let alone a whole condo in an architectural sculpture. And just to be clear, I’m not knocking it. I just want Vancouver to provide more options based on a spectrum of bank accounts.

Sometimes when you live in Vancouver and purchasing a place to live is not a option, you begin to feel like it’s normal to be on the outside looking in all the time. Like that’s the way God wanted it.  The chosen ones are in condos. You’re not. Oh well. And it’s not that I even desire to live in a condo. I’d rather live in a yurt or a couple of shipping containers that have been architecturally renovated, one arranged like a block on top of the other and in a little sunny clearing in a forest. That’s way more my style.  A condo does not factor into my dreams.

It isn’t until you go to a talk like this that you begin to think, hey, just a minute, who made the rules anyway? Who said that the only thing dictating everything has to be money?  Is it enough for a city to receive all the love? Doesn’t it have to give some back? This unrequited love thing might have gone too far in Vancouver.  Is there any other city in the world that’s as self loving as Vancouver? If so, let me know where. I don’t ever want to go there. Is it enough to love a city or should we also expect that the city might give more of us, proportionately, some love back? This is sort of what Jeff Derksen asked. Read his essay on it (unless you’re over 50 and then the teeny, weeny print will mean you won’t because it will be too hard to read).

While you’re at it. Take a look at this short description of the approach to social housing in Vienna where 5,000 to 7,000 social housing units built each year and that equals 85 percent of the new housing stock there annually. It’s a  big fat bear hug if not outright love. It’s commitment to everyone, rich, poor, elderly, youth.

So, that’s the long way of saying what kind of city would you rather live in. Exclusive or Inclusive?

* The photo above, taken on Salt Spring, is the entrance to the house behind a very creative little coffee place/gallery called Kizmit that’s kind of its own little exhibit, Salt Spring style.

Fundraiser for a Revolutionary Daughter: Carmen Aguirre

AguirreBefore I went to the Salmon Arm Writer’s Festival, I knew next to nothing about playwright, actor and author Carmen Aguirre. I’d heard her name. That was it.

I vaguely recall hearing about her book: Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter. It was published in 2011. Aguirre spent 8 years writing it plagued by fear of what telling her story might mean for her safety and for what it might mean for the future of her young son.

I did not know that she was out $60,000 in royalties because the Bank of Montreal called a loan on Douglas & McIntyre which put them into bankruptcy according to Howard White who through his Harbour Publishing purchased the bankrupt company.

Aguirre’s book, although it came out to critical acclaim, sold barely 1,500 copies when it was first released.  Typically, a publisher won’t take on a book in Canada if it thinks it can’t sell a minimum of 3,000 copies. Then, Canada Reads happened in 2012 and the singer Shad backed Aguirre’s book. It won the Canada Reads competition that year and suddenly it began to sell and she became an in-demand guest speaker on talk shows, thrust into the spotlight, meeting with First Nations leaders and even an unlikely guest speaker at Vancouver’s exclusive Terminal City Club.

In Salmon Arm in May, I took Aguirre’s workshop because it was about memoir and monologue but mostly because it sounded interesting. Some of her advice: “Put your theme in capital letters and keep it in front of you when you write.  Find one word that describes your theme. Then, find the opposite of that word. What is the conflict? When there is no longer conflict, when there is no longer a struggle, the story is over. The character(s) have to have a super objective; they have to feel that they will die unless they achieve it.  Do this in every chapter. Every chapter has to have an objective that will move the story forward.”

During the workshop, the best workshop I attended there of many good ones, when Aguirre spoke, what I noticed most was her personal strength communicated through the precision of her words. Think of a sword slicing a blank page in one fell swoop. That is what comes across in the way she speaks with such intensity. She knows where she’s going in front of an audience. She wants you to find your own committed path to where you’re going as well, at least on the page.

In 1997, on vacation during a Christmas vacation, I was standing in the lobby of a hotel in San Cristobal de las Casas when our GAP tour leader explained that there had been a massacre, 22 kilometres away at a place called Acteal. Fear rose inside me but only momentarily. Then, like a suitcase ready and packed, that horror, distant, unreal, nothing to do with me, easily slipped back inside, remote. A remoteness born from a Canadian upbringing and ignorance about the realities that occur in the lives of people who aren’t as lucky in the random geography of their births.

Outside the workshops when I passed her on the wharf she seemed remote. Maybe a little bored. Professional. Polite. Given her past, perhaps that remoteness is a way of being that can’t ever be fully released. Her face is riveting. Her jawline as sharp as the edge of the tool that plastered the walls Diego Rivera painted his murals on.

This morning I finished Carmen Aguirre’s memoir and it is the kind of book that will accompany you forever once you’re done.  I can’t begin to imagine how it would be possible to experience what she describes on the pages and then to return to Vancouver in all its safe and pleasant banality and not feel that you weren’t in a constant state of disassociation. Moving forward and embracing a future might be surreal in a very different, yet just as unsettling way. I don’t know. I’m just surmising.

On June 9th, there will be a fundraiser for Carmen Aguirre put together by those who worked on the book at D&M and bringing together communities her life intersects with in publishing, the theatre, literary.

It’s taking place at Heritage Hall on Main Street, 7:30 – 11pm. You can contribute virtually without even attending.

Get tickets and/or contribute through the Eventbrite website.  Online sales end June 8th.

Just add personality

personalityforwebsmallIt’s pretty obvious, after going to countless number of book readings over the years, that it’s no longer good enough to be a great writer.

If you’re a great writer and you’re really boring then do yourself (and the audience) a favour and don’t read in public. Bask in the book sales that your story, your intellect, your unique take on the world, or your research has garnered.  In other words, let the audience read your magic but don’t inflict yourself, in person, on them. None of us can be all things to all people and it’s good to know one’s strengths.

Not only do writers have to write a great story these days but they also have to be able to tell the interesting stories behind that story, to be equally enticing a character as the characters they’ve brought to life on the page.  Are you worthy of a paragraph or two according to someone other than your mother?

But it’s not fair, you say. Writing the damn thing was hard enough. Now you want me to be Margaret Cho as well?

A friend who was a bookseller a decade or two ago told me her Farley Mowat encounter story the other day. She was in her twenties or thereabouts. She was standing with another young attractive female employee outside the bookstore at a large department store in downtown Vancouver where Mowat was going to be reading/signing books. When he showed up and  they went to the door to greet him, he said, “I won’t come in unless you kiss me.” He was in his late 40s or thereabouts then.  I’m not sure that’s personality as much as just your run-of-the-mill randy old guy (and he wasn’t that old then) but on the wake of his death it captures an aspect of his personality that, apparently, was well known. Afterwards, he went on to write a salacious little snippet in the book purchased by the other young woman.

Of course I want to hear a bit of the author’s writing when I attend a reading but mostly I want to hear the stories behind the story. Why this idea? What prompted that plot? Your struggles with writing it. Your process. The people you met while you were standing on that desolate beach trying to get a feel for the place. All the other wannabe writers hoping one day to be on that stage where the featured writer is presenting are just as eager to receive a PetSmart-styled literary treat as well.

I think back to a few of the personalities who also happen to be able to write who are/were masters at entertaining their audiences:

Tomson Highway at the Vancouver Writer’s Fest some time in the 1980s reading from The Fur Queen.

The late Peter Matthiessen on Salt Spring at ArtSpring in 2008 because of the stories he told about the on the ground research he did in writing The Snow Leopard.

The late Maeve Binchy in the first very funny 15 minutes of her intro to the reading of her book Tara Road back in 1998. At least, I think that was the book. See. I’m a little unclear about the book, but I didn’t forget her intro at the Vancouver International Writer’s Fest.

Patrick Lane at a reading at the Sechelt Writer’s Fest introducing his new book, There is a Season: A Memoir. I now can’t even recall why but the way he was, his persona, stood out for me.

Gail Anderson-Dargatz because she is really funny and once again, I’m not positive but it may have been the release of her book Recipe for Bees, but it could just as likely have been Rhinestone Button. I don’t remember. I do remember it was at Sechelt and she kept the audience in stitches leading up to her reading.

The late Frank McCourt at the Chan Centre at UBC, in his glory, centre stage, and yet he might as well have been having a chat at his local pub with the audience sitting in the next booth eavesdropping his interaction he was that elegant in the casualness of his storytelling. Damn Irish! They’ve got an advantage.

The biggest shock to this day, for me, was probably Margaret Atwood. Maybe circa 1985. UBC. A Saturday night on a cold fall evening. She was wearing a floor-length black cloak, hood up, and when she opened her mouth to read, I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe the voice of the woman whose words on the printed page had kept me riveted was as monotone as white paint drying. It was almost painful/irritating to listen to her. It’s still hard for me to believe that the person I saw and heard then is the same Twitter feed personality now, and with a sense of humour. I guess she’s loosened up a bit.

You get the idea. I don’t live in New York.  I haven’t been to too many readings of the cream of the crop of glorified literati. And my choices have been limited by my ability to remember.

What about you? Any really interesting authors who are also great readers/presenters stand out for you? Do tell! Or maybe you find the whole idea of authors having to be dog and pony shows offensive. Whatever.

Homelessness or that other way, the one we can’t find


The wanderers. The fringe dwellers. The pulling their belongings behind them scavengers. Us and them. Square pegs. Visible ghosts.

Nothing to do with the endless traffic and nine to five, vacation plans, family dinners. Life’s window shoppers. There but for the grace of God we go.

I watch her sometimes, that tiny woman who walks by every day and I wonder of her past. What’s her nationality? Vietnamese? Japanese? Chinese? Filipino? Canadian? I wonder about her childhood, her parents, and how she got here, pop cans her meager savior.

Every day a marathon. Down back lanes, across streets, along sidewalks, lifting dumpsters, poking inside bins. Focused. Purposeful.

I have no doubt that she knows more about the people who live in this neighborhood than I will ever know. She knows this from what we discard.

On Easter Sunday, her finds were bundled into the largest sized green Glad garbage bag. The metal tins poke their roundness against the plastic. Today’s bundle resembles a gigantic Easter egg. It’s perched precariously above one of those silver grocery trailers that older women use. She pulls it behind her like it’s an impossible toddler.  Around that bulging package she has wrapped a strip of a second orange plastic bag, a ribbon of small possibilities.  Almost festive. She carries on.

Later, downtown in Vancouver Public Library. In the washroom beside the Alice McKay Room, that other woman is there again. More often than not she’s there whenever I use that washroom. If you have been there, I bet you know the one I mean. When I wash my hands, I intentionally choose the sink right next to the one she’s using. I look over at her and say hello.

She looks back at me a little surprised. “Hi,” she says.

She’s washing something. Dark blue, teal blue, squishy and knitted. Maybe it’s crocheted. I can’t tell.  I mistake it for socks.

“It’s a hat,” she says. “I put it in this bag with water and dish washing soap and then I swish it around.”

“Good idea,” I say hating the way these interactions always mimic the lacking.

I walk to the blower to dry my hands, look to see that no one else is here so that she retains her dignity, get out my wallet and hand her a $20 bill.  I forget what I say exactly. Why does giving to those who never ask always make the giver and the receiver feel bad?

“That’s too much,” she says. My heart breaks a little. We all know that it won’t solve anything, not any of those things that have led her to where she is now.

I get the feeling that she’s going to keep it, in plastic, hoarding it the way she hoards the last of those things that she protects in her shopping cart trailer.

“I wish there was some other way,” she says.

“So do I,” I say as I walk away wishing I had a way in, to get to know more about this person and the path that has led her here.

But what is it?

Did you know that New West has a Homelessness Coalition?

On Wednesday, April 30th, Megaphone, Vancouver’s Street paper, launches its Voices of the Street Literary Issue at Cafe Deux Soleils from 7-10 pm.

Are you a cultural entrepreneur, an artist, or both?

paintpeelingabstract“Too often creative people do not recognize that by allowing themselves to be exploited they are contributing to the exploitation of their fellow artists and writers, as well as aspiring artists and writers, and by allowing exploitation of themselves, they are inadvertently helping to shape an economy of exploitation on a societal scale.” – Kate Oakley, PhD.

I heard this the other day at a talk at SFU given by Kate Oakley, a professor from Leeds, who participated in SFU’s Dream Colloquiam on Entrepreneurship.  

When she made the above statement, I thought it was so true for so many, except for, perhaps, the most accomplished.

And then I wondered. Does Douglas Coupland ever feel exploited, monetarily that is? I know you’re probably thinking, of course not, he’s wildly successful. But, I really wonder if people ever nickel and dime him asking if he could just give them the art for less? If the exhibit could be paid for at that price but could they have it for a few extra months?

Are the people at the very top of the creative pool whose work is coveted commercially, the only ones who should expect to be paid adequately while the majority should expect to scramble for whatever meagre dollars they can be paid even if others are making money because of their content?  Think about whether that’s true for any other industry.

Did you know that the so called Creative Class is more male, white, and more middle class than in any other industry and it’s getting worse according to Oakley. This is certainly true for newspapers (which may explain their continuing demise).

What are the differences between artists and entrepreneurs?  Oakley said one difference is in how they approach work. Artists typically do not like to do the same thing twice. Entrepreneurs won’t walk away from something if it’s commercially successful even if they have to make a million widgets.

Why is it that it’s okay for some to make a decent living from your contribution to their newspaper, their magazine, their art gallery, their publishing company and yet so many writers and artists are mere weeks away from introducing Friskies Cat Food into their daily diet?

Those magazines, newspapers, art galleries depend on creative content to make the decent living they have become accustomed to, and yet, somehow, historically, they refuse to adequately pay for it from the people who make it possible.

Our society loves creative work in general it would seem. It enriches our lives. Do we want to pay for it? Yet we pay millions for hockey.

Creativity for creativity sake. Take the commercial out of it. Is that the answer? Is the answer to change expectations. Is the answer to refuse to be exploited, refuse to participate in being paid less than?

  • When I learn that a community newspaper in the Yukon owned by Black Press is essentially paying only slightly better than the starting wage for reporters 20 years ago, it makes me shake my head.
  • When I learn that a magazine in Victoria is paying less now for  freelance than just a few years ago when the rates were already crappy, it makes me angry.
  • When I learn that a national real estate magazine is paying $30 cents a word which would be $300 for 1,000 words, I have a problem with that.  Shouldn’t I?
  • I want to know whether AdBusters is actually paying writers when they put out a call for submissions to one of their themed issues or does AdBusters need to be busted for their hypocrisy in how they might be treating some of the people who provide their content.

It makes me think about Mona Fertig’s project on Unheralded Artist of BC. (Video)

Were the Beatles both cultural entrepreneurs and artists? What about Mick Jagger?

How have you reconciled your desire to participate in creative work and your need to to be able to support yourself and balance the two?

A few links about Creative Entrepreneurship, which, I know is different from art, or is it?

Sun Yat-sen and Three Men



I was down at Sun Yat-Sen Gardens in Vancouver on Sunday. I hadn’t been there for a few years and I’d forgotten how beautiful those gardens are, especially on a sunny day in early November.

So many shapes and sizes of red, gold, and shades of tear-dropped and spiky green leaves. The reflections off the pagodas made more interesting from ripples. The pudgy Koi were swimming leisurely under smoky pea soup-coloured ponds.


We spent quite a long time wandering, soaking up the sun.


We admired the shadows, the shapes from the white window cutouts that were emphasized that much more in the sunshine, the nooks and crannies, the bamboo, black and green, the mosaic of rocks that form the pavement around the pond. Gwen even managed to hit the gong for good luck with a dime or a nickel or whatever she threw at it.




Afterwards, we walked by a new store on E. Pender called Bam Design Vancouver. The guy who owns it with his partner had spent three months doing a massive restoration on the inside of the large space. The walls were now fully exposed original brick and towards the back, the patina of wood was like an art installation, attractive in all the variety of tones. He was selling furniture, and other artifacts, made locally and he was a really nice guy.

Near the back against the wall was a large glass cabinet. He’d put the artifacts that he’d found behind the walls inside. There was a scrap of pink floral wallpaper, a postcard from the early 1900’s, a small piece of scrap paper ripped out of a notebook that said, “Fuck you Dave” written in both Cantonese and English.  I should have  been paying closer attention. We really liked that he’d saved some of what he’d found from the history of the place.

Afterwards we wandered to New Town Bakery to get warm. We sat at a round communal table, cupping our hands around the plastic cups made hot from the liquid inside.

It was really busy, even though it was mid afternoon, so we sat down at a table with two men. One was originally from Hong Kong, the other from the Philippines. They were both immigrants who had come to Canada and started small businesses.

The older man recommended the steamed pork buns. “Best pork buns anywhere,” he said and he was right. “Best location of New Town,” he said and I can’t comment on that.

After he left, the man from Hong Kong told us that the other man was a really well known art dealer. He then flipped open his iPhone and began showing us photos of the ceramics and pottery that he had collected since meeting the other man. They were gorgeous sets in perfect ceramic symmetries. He must have had quite a big house to display it properly.

As Gwen pointed out, if we’d made assumptions about these two guys based on their outward appearance, we would not have pegged them as entrepreneurs.

Everyone makes judgments when they meet people.  It’s impossible not to, within three seconds, if you believe the studies. But, it’s good practice to acknowledge the thought and let it go.

When it comes to guessing what people do for a living, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll be wrong.

It was a great afternoon. I really enjoyed myself.

I think Vancouver is a city in dire need of communal tables, especially round ones that force us to face each other, to talk with each other, to put down our phones.

I think I will dedicate this post to Mac Rymal, a friend who died early on the morning of November 5th, 1998, and yet it still seems so vivid to me.

Meet Pauline Johnson through City Opera Vancouver

He called her and she said sure she’d do it. That’s what Charles Barber said about asking Margaret Atwood if she would be interested in working on a chamber opera  about Pauline Johnson with Vancouver composer Tobin Stokes. There was no hesitation said Barber, describing Atwood as easy to work with and so incredibly smart, way smarter than you might even imagine.

Well, no, I thought. I think we all think she’s pretty smart.

220px-Tekahionwake_ca_1895image from Wikipedia

The event was part of the  Heart of the City festival in Vancouver’s downtown east side hosted at the Chinese Cultural Centre Museum and Archives (which I didn’t even know existed), just around the corner from the Dr. Sun Yat Sen Gardens. The festival runs to Sunday, November 3.

As we’d discover, each of the four people seated at the front of the room  have been working together on a new chamber opera (that means a smaller, more intimate opera) for City Opera Vancouver about the late great E. Pauline Johnson or Pauline Johnson to most of us. The “E” stands for Emily, which was her mother’s name.

If you’re Canadian, you, at the very least, are familiar with the name. Pauline Johnson. Poet. Performer. Mohawk chief as a father. English immigrant mother. She travelled around Canada, the U.S., and Britain entertaining, reciting her lyric poetry, playing up her half blood ancestry. She was an independent woman, way ahead of her time, travelling on her own when women just didn’t do that and living between 1861 and 1913.

She paddled her canoe in the waters between Coal Harbour and Lost Lagoon. Born in Brantford, Ontario. Lived a comfortable life as a child in a large house on the Grand River called Chiefswood that she spent the rest of her life missing and romanticizing. Never married (rumour has it her heart was broken)  but she had many suitors as they would say back then, and one special one whose photo she kept in a locket that she never removed.

She died penniless in a rooming house on Howe Street, looked after in her last days (when she was suffering the horrors of breast cancer at a time when there was no treatment) by the women of IODE. She is the only person to be officially buried in Stanley Park, with a monument north of the Teahouse or Sequoia Grill. You’ll find it if you really want to.

You can read the definitive biography, Flint & Feather by Charlotte Gray.

We met the opera company’s artistic director, Charles Barber, the director of Pauline, Norman Armour, who is the director of Vancouver’s Push Festival. We heard from the composer, Tobin Stokes, and the young opera singer, Rose Ellen Nichols who is to be Pauline Johnson on stage.

Nichols hails from Sechelt and the Sechelt Band and grew up fishing and hunting with her family. She couldn’t really explain how it is that she went from a simple rural childhood to moving to the city at 17 and then getting involved in Opera at UBC but she did say that like Johnson, she has always felt that she has felt torn between two lives – one back at home and the one she now lives in the city.

It was fascinating to be able to sit and hear Barber talk about what it takes to develop and stage this new opera (budget: $300,000), for five nights in May 2014. The event will take place in the York Theatre,  the newest addition to  The Cultch.

The group had just spent the day workshopping with Margaret Atwood in attendance.

It was interesting that Barber knew so many of the people in attendance on a first name basis; people who live in the downtown east side and who have probably attended other events at Carnegie Community Centre.

The premiere of  Pauline is set for May 15th and run for five days. But here’s the thing. There’s a performance (no costumes) set to run at Carnegie Centre on November 29th from 7-9 pm. It’s open to the public. The goal is to get feedback from an audience.

Are you in?