All posts filed under: Memoir

Circling Back to My Grandfather’s Judaism, Seventy Years Later

I was born in Toronto in 1942. My earliest memories were Jewishly buoyant because of the excitement in my home and close-knit community around the rebirth of Israel as a sovereign nation in 1948. It was only when I was a teenager that I became fully aware of the cataclysm that had preceded this miracle. Until the 1950s, there was a kind of taboo about discussing the Holocaust with children—or even discussing it at all. It was too recent. I knew, but didn’t know. North American Jews needed time to absorb the scope and originality of the horror they had been spared. The public high school I attended was almost entirely Jewish. (Our district was mostly gentile, but almost all the gentiles sent their children to private schools.) Few of us were prepared when our history teacher showed us a film about the liberation of the concentration camps. I was shocked by the newsreel footage of stacked corpses, the skeletal camp inmates staring, stunned, at their approaching liberators, the mound of children’s shoes, the numbers. …

The Troubled Maker: Transgressive Art, Public Shame, and Mike Tyson

In many ways, my personal experience with life after public shaming has gone exactly as one might expect: depressing, painful, and weird. Yet, at some point over the past three years, after managing the existential crisis of fractured identity, and learning to refrain from scratching at the phantom limb of my reputation, I’ve noticed something strangely liberating about it too. I no longer struggle to reconcile my blue-collar background with my former aspirations of being a successful and cool artist; I no longer find it necessary to cultivate the avant-garde persona of an active performance artist and theatre director. Instead of worrying about every detail of ignominy, I can finally indulge in vulgar interests like Monday Night Football, Bo Jackson YouTube compilations, or Mike Tyson’s latest exhibition bout against fellow boxing legend Roy Jones Jr. I didn’t even watch the fight, to be honest. I didn’t need to. At this point in his career, I’m more interested in Tyson’s redemption narrative than what remains of his athletic prowess. So I tuned in just in time …

My White Privilege Didn’t Save Me. But God Did

Following the furore over Netflix’s Cuties movie in the fall, Quillette editor-in-chief Claire Lehmann tweeted that the creepy conservative obsession with paedophilia is as bizarre as the feminist obsession with rape. I took umbrage, and noted my annoyance—though I knew what she meant. Sexual violence, particularly toward children, is becoming more of a marginal topic. Rape, while a serious problem in every society, has been in historic decline in the west. I am not naturally conservative, and I do not exhibit the required antagonism toward men to qualify me as a decent feminist. But in the area of sex, rape, and paedophilia, I am unable to separate my politics from what is fashionably called my “lived experience.” As a young girl, I was raped, as were other members of my family (not all of them female). It was only in my reaction to this tweet that I started to think of how those experiences, and the circumstances that surrounded them, shaped my politics. My experience is not uncommon among those who share my socioeconomic background. …

Farewell, Alex Trebek

On Friday, November 6th, between 1 and 2pm Pacific Daylight Time, I participated in an audition for the TV game-show Jeopardy!. Normally auditions are conducted in person at various regional locations around the US. As a Northern Californian, I should have been attending a live audition in San Francisco. But COVID and the quarantine have played havoc with everything this year, and the King of American Game-Shows is no exception. And so, along with eight other hopefuls, I was auditioned via a Zoom call from Southern California by John Barra, the show’s contestant producer. He informed us that, since the onset of the pandemic, roughly 237,000 people had applied online to be Jeopardy! contestants. The show selects about 400 contestants each year. This was in fact the second Zoom conference call in which I had participated with the producers of Jeopardy!. On September 2nd, I participated in a sort of pre-audition meet-and-greet with seven other potential contestants and a different producer, whose name I’ve forgotten. By the end of the November 6th audition, the nine …

On Remembrance Day, Celebrating Two Canadian Prisoners Who Took Down an Entire Shipyard

To compensate for Japan’s manpower shortage during World War II, the country’s military commanders often shipped their prisoners to the Japanese mainland, where they worked as slave labourers in mining and heavy industry. As someone who made such a trip after my own capture in 1941, I can attest that the journey to Japan was terrifying in and of itself. Because the Japanese didn’t mark prisoner transport ships with a red cross or some other agreed-upon symbol, thousands of prisoners were lost at sea when unsuspecting American submarines mistakenly torpedoed some of these transports. One such ship, the Lisbon Maru, carrying about 1,800 British POWs from Hong Kong to Japan, was sunk in the South China Sea on October 1st, 1942, by the American submarine USS Grouper, whose captain had no idea of the precious cargo in the hold. Eight hundred and forty-six prisoners died, either by drowning, or were shot by the Japanese as they tried to swim clear of the wreck. This was the backdrop when the first group of 1,180 Allied prisoners—including …

R.M. Vaughan (1965–2020): A Beautiful Mind Silently Extinguished in a Time of Fear

We were extremely close for about five years. He was my confidante and my support system. We were best friends. Never lovers—though many thought we were. It was a dark time for me, and I needed him. Canadian gay writer Richard Murray Vaughan (1965–2020) was found dead by police in Fredericton, New Brunswick on October 23rd—10 days after being reported missing. No foul play is suspected. This is in part a remembrance of R.M. (as he was widely known, including to his friends), but also a reminder that the campaign against COVID-19 can create its own kind of harm. I don’t pretend that this essay is one Richard would have authored (though he did write about COVID-19 and mental health shortly before his death). He and I were different men and different writers. But I do think my old friend would have agreed with at least some of what I have to say. I met Richard when he entered my office at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre—142 George Street, Toronto—in 1991. Initially we talked about …

My Brief Spell as an Activist

I knew a few social justice campaigners in high school. They were advocates, they liked to remind the rest of us, and they were endowed with holy outrage and an acute awareness of inequality and a passion for tolerance that never quite translated into actual kindness. They wore t-shirts that bore slogans like “The Future Is Female,” they crusaded against “oppressive” dress codes, and they confronted a patriarchal grading system. They were practised in the art of derailing conversation with accusations of heteronormativity or cultural appropriation. The battles they won (“We can wear tube tops now!”) were triumphs of resistance, while those they lost only accentuated the ubiquity of the inequity du jour. No matter how petty and irrational their grievances became, these students eluded criticism from peers, teachers, and administrators alike. Nobody wanted to take them on. After all, who wanted to argue with the pursuit of justice? Throughout high school, conversations were had, discourses were dismantled, lived experiences were brandished, and I sat through all of it silently. I was more bored by …

A Poor Farrier’s Journey to Political Sanity

I’m a 26-year-old American working-class college dropout who owns and operates a small business. From the time the COVID-19 lockdown began, I’ve had to scramble to ensure that I could keep working. The company that employed me in northern Nevada had me working nearly full-time during the first quarter of 2020, doing repairs on federal buildings in the western states—a job that presented an opportunity for upward mobility and education within the building trades. But when governments abruptly restricted projects in March and April, and limited outside contractors from their facilities, the work dried up long enough to get me moving. So I moved to Northern California, where I’d previously lived and worked. Sleeping on the floor of a friend’s home near Sacramento to begin with, I reconnected with clients in need of wildfire risk mitigation, as well as handyman and landscape services. It’s been stressful juggling work, finding a place to live, and dealing with unexpected costs. Getting set up in a decent mobile home ate up about three-quarters of my savings. I felt …

My Military Jail-Time in Israel

I have never done time in a civilian prison. But military jails are another matter. During my long service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF)—during 1967–1969 as a conscript and, thereafter, until 1990, as a reservist—I spent three stints, as far as I can remember, under lock and key. Each of them tells us something about the history of Israel and the IDF. I The first time was like a bad joke and brief, almost a non-event. It was sometime in mid-June 1967, a week or so after the IDF had defeated the armies of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria in the Six Day War. In the days after the shooting had ended, the IDF was engulfed by chaos. On the front lines, at the eastern edge of the newly-conquered Golan Heights and West Bank, along the Jordan River, the forward combat units dug in, waiting for what the politicians would decide—to hold in place, to withdraw, to shift the units about. (The troops remain there, more or less along the same lines, to this day, …

Guilt Trip: A Son’s Memoir

The Southern Tier of New York State is a bleak place in the dead of winter. The days are dark and short. Snow is piled high on the sides of the two-lane roads that connect towns like Olean, Wellsville, and Hornell, where I was born. You can drive for miles, past farms and houses standing alone, and see no one. In December 1968, I returned home for the Christmas break after my first semester as a sophomore transfer student at Reed College, in Portland, Oregon. I took a bus from New York City after the night flight from the west coast; it moved westward on Route 17, through the grey wooded hills, the freezing air deadening the smell of stale cigarette smoke and diesel fuel whenever the door opened. I had not yet settled in at Reed, had yet to feel any strong spark of intellectual curiosity or ambition. I moved through my classes as a ghost. No professor had any impression of me, as I almost never spoke in the small seminar classes. I …