On Vision in Municipal Politics

I’ve been a relatively close observer of municipal politics for a few years now, especially Toronto’s. I really started paying attention in the early 2000s, which means I’ve witnessed three election cycles and, well, it’s fascinating to see what’s won the day each time.

And so I compare not the leadership style of our current and previous mayor, but the campaign each ran. Because as mayor, they are practically polar opposites, and it’s hard to believe that the same city went from one extreme to the other in one fell swoop. But when you consider their election campaigns, well, it starts to make sense.

Mayor the Current: Rob Ford. Right-wing politician. Businessman, longtime councillor and half-term mayor. Hates taxes, loves helping the individual citizen and perpetual lone wolf on council. His approach to the budget is to pick a number and force departments to stick to it, believing that efficiency can deliver the same service with less waste. Won a big battle against city unions. Votes against funding many social programs, gets publicity for insulting friends and foes alike when they disagree with him. Outright ignores certain media outlets. Skips council meetings to coach high school football, yet is present for nearly 90% of all council votes. Oh, and he just got booted from office by a judge over a piddling conflict-of-interest suit he could easily, easily have avoided several times over.

Mayor the Former: David Miller. Left-wing politician. Lawyer, longtime councillor and two-term mayor. Big on tax-and-spend policies, social programs, transit building. Lost a big fight with city unions in his second term; widely perceived to have blinked unnecessarily. Big on city-building initiatives, establishing lofty social and environmental goals and the ‘quality of life’ for residents. Levied two unpopular taxes (vehicle registration and land transfer) to fund his initiatives. Absent for nearly half of all council votes.

Polar opposites, really. How did they both win?

One word: Vision.

Both candidates sold a compelling vision of what the city could, should and above all would be on their watch. To Mayor Miller, the City is a place where all citizens live, work and grow. It is a place where everybody pitches in a little extra and in return can expect smart growth, green space, top-notch service and targeted support for your community’s specific needs. To Mayor Ford, the City is a place that runs like clockwork on a lean, mean, clean budget that meets your needs for rock-bottom prices, keeping more money in your wallet to spend as you, the individual citizen, wishes.

And their competitors? In truth, I don’t remember who Miller was up against, but what I do recall is that nobody was selling much of anything. They all had a pet project or two, but not much else. With Ford’s election, I do recall the candidates, and they were similarly without substance. Rocco Rossi wanted to extend a highway. Sarah Thomson had a transit plan. George Smitherman wanted to be George Smitherman. Joe Pantalone wanted to keep David Miller’s programs in place. Who was actually selling anything? Oh, right. Rob Ford.

They say that controlling the story is the best way to win an election, and why not? Humans respond to stories more than anything. They teach us lessons. They keep traditions alive. They inspire us. And in an election, who are you going to vote for, the guy who wants a freeway to the waterfront or the one who tells you how awesome it’ll be when he’s in charge?

Politics have nothing to do with it. Vision is everything, especially in an election when your opponents are vacuous distractions at best. It’s a shame that Miller and Ford never ran against each other. That would have been a race to remember.



On Kids’ Cartoons (And Why They Rock)

I’m a fairly big nerd – let’s just admit that up front. That means I’m liable to geek out over the meta aspect of anything, not least of which is this blog, which is largely me writing about writing, and about how I have to be OK with that, because that’s clearly where my brain is now, so embrace it and blah blah blah…

It also means I get carried away with things, but that’s not what I’m trying to get at. Tangents!

As a nerd, I like to dissect things, to see what makes them tick. This usually results in a certain amount of objectivity, where I’m willing to enjoy and even love a movie that I know is crap in every sense of the word. It also means I can see why something is amazing, even if I hate it. (Was I alone in finding Hurt Locker dull as drying paint?) And thus do I arrive at kids’ cartoons, those unsung sources of humour, irreverence, genius and occasional darkness that put so much of adult prime-time dramas to shame. And that many adults shun why? Because they’re for kids, duh.

The fact is, for all their surface-level immaturity, kids’ cartoons are written by adults. Often incredibly intelligent, learned, savvy adults who manage to get their own age-appropriate kicks in while still pleasing the young ‘uns. Think of it as the Pixar effect – how many adults paid to see Finding NemoThe Incredibles and WALL-E. for themselves, no children in tow? Plenty, and for one simple reason: kids and adults can appreciate the same content for entirely different reasons, and just as often exactly the same ones. Tell me you haven’t had the Simpsons experience of watching a classic episode only to discover a dozen brilliant new jokes that you didn’t even know you’d missed as a kid.

All of which brings me to Danny Phantom. Now, the lifecycle of any television show is dicey to begin with, and I’m sorry to say that Danny only lasted two three seasons, but at least it got a couple of feature-length special episodes for its troubles.

The best kids shows for adults, in my experience, deal with some aspect of your standard coming-of-age tale. And no matter how zany, candy-coloured or irreverent the show, at some point the main character will come face-to-face with a defining moment that involves a good, hard look in the mirror. And those moments can be incredibly powerful. Because as responsible adults, our job is to look at our own ugliness daily and actively choose to do better. And man, some days that is tough work.

Danny Phantom features Danny Fenton, son to ghost-hunters extraordinaire Jack and Maddie Fenton. One standard science lab accident later and Danny is half-ghost, a fact known only to his two closest friends and all of his enemies. On top of the standard action-hero stories you expect, there’s razor-sharp, rapid-fire wit and humour (at one point, his father invents Fenton toast, which is just toast shaped like himself) that make you smile no matter your age. There are brilliant characters, including a relatively useless villain known as the Box Ghost and an ever-expanding cast of humans who become increasingly aware that ghosts exist, ratcheting up the pressure on young Danny to keep his secret. And it’s real pressure, the kind you can feel weighing on his shoulders more and more.

What’s impressive is how the writers never temper Danny’s angst. There are few quick fixes, and his darkness often persists despite the requisite happy endings. Sure, specific issues get addressed in a given episode, but overall, Danny genuinely and consistently changes despite the status-quo reset button you’d expect the show to hit. In its Christmas episode, an angry Danny pisses off the Ghost Writer, who creates a rhyming narrative of Danny’s ruined holiday. Danny is trapped in the story until he resolves it, and the all-is-forgiven finish doesn’t come across as treacly or saccharine. This is mostly because even after he saves the day, he’s still miserable. Heroics don’t fix your problems at home, and the episode lets that hang for a minute or so before the final hug-a-thon. Plus, the rhyme scheme was dope.

In another episode, some time-travel hocus-pocus allows present Danny to face a future, evil version of himself, and the creation of this self wasn’t arbitrary. In one possible timeline, young Danny causes the death of his parents and in a fit of genuinely affecting misery, separates his ghost and human halves in an effort to end the pain (resulting, naturally, in Evil Danny). Present Danny nearly gets killed by his evil self in a brutal sequence that is seriously no fun. Like, 27 Hours-level, about-to-die harrowing, and he has to dig deep to fix things. Kids can handle that kind of danger when given the chance. It’s good stuff, as effective as any of the best drama for grown-ups on HBO.

And did I mention the guest stars? Danny attracted names like Will Arnett, Ron Perlman and David Carradine, so, come on. Ever wondered what happened to Worf after Star Trek? Turns out Michael Dorn’s a good voice actor.

In the finest tradition of the AV Club and Television Without Pity, methinks I’ll start recapping my favourite shows, starting with Danny Phantom. Expect updates once a week, in addition to the two I’ve already promised to keep on delivering. Maybe on weekends? I’ll figure that part out…


Write What You Know

Way back when, on the final exam for my grade 12 Creative Writing class, I wrote a short story. I came up with it on the fly, banged it out, received a satisfactory grade and to this day it remains a high-water mark for me. I pretty much stopped writing my own creative stories after high school, realizing I had a talent for helping other writers focus and develop their stories instead. I sat down to do my own work a handful of times since then, and have never been satisfied.

I’m determined to complete my latest attempt, however, no matter how much I dislike it. And boy howdy, do I dislike it. It’s a generally accepted fact that artists, musicians, writers and designers alike will produce a lot more work than actually sees the light of day – for every masterpiece there’s a pile of scrunched-up paper balls containing rough sketches, abandoned ditties or narrative shreds that didn’t pass muster. The key is to realize that without those abandoned projects, the masterpieces would never come to be. The story I’m struggling to write isn’t just a product of the effort I put into it, per se, but of all the writing I’ve ever done in my life. When I teach skiing, I’m quick to remind my students that it takes hundreds of kilometres to commit any new technique to muscle memory. I shudder to think of how much dreck I’ve got to write before I begin to like any of it.

In thinking about my writing heyday, I tried very hard not to slip into nostalgia. None of that Hank Hill “Oh, the glory days when I was a high school quarterback” nonsense. The past is the past and now is now; either way you write what you know. But in thinking about the past, I realized something: I write exactly the same stuff now as I did then. The trouble, the reason I don’t like it, is that I want to do better than I used to, and I haven’t put in the practice in over a decade.

That story I wrote for the exam stands out in my memory as a favourite, mostly for the concept: A conversation between a bodyguard and his charge, an alien ambassador, on their walk back from the consulate to the official residence. They suffer assassination attempts along the way, which the bodyguard handles in stride, all while carrying on a philosophical discussion about the nature of violence. Get it? Crazy stunts and hijinks alongside a highbrow discussion (the literary equivalent of this). Juxtaposition! The alien’s dialogue consisted of inhuman noises, a language I never translated but that the bodyguard understood – you had to figure out what he said based on the bodyguard’s response. Clever!

Interesting concept? Definitely, and the fact that it was a short story – probably not more than 1,000 words – masked its glaring weaknesses. Namely, my story had no narrative, and no characters. Honestly, neither the bodyguard nor the alien even had a name. The alien was nothing more than a Socratic stand-in, and the bodyguard a straw man to illustrate the point of their conversation. There was no story, just a conversation dressed up with action scenes to make an otherwise dull conversation worth reading.

And that’s where I still am. I’m actually very good at fleshing out ideas and concepts. I can come up with the details that make a world unique and genuine, the rationale behind an abstract concept that makes the whole endeavour worthwhile, and if given someone else’s story, I’m adept at writing scenes and dialogue (if I say so myself). But for my own writing, I have a great deal of trouble getting past the story concept. My characters feel empty. The story strikes me as an excuse to explore the world, not the other way around. Far from wanting to regain my high school glory days, I want like hell to move past them.

And that’s where I am . What do I know? The angst of writer’s block. So that’s what I’m writing about, here and now. Maybe I’ll look back at these early blog posts in a decade and decide this was my ‘meta’ phase, when I relied on writing about writing to generate writing instead of just getting down to the job of writing about other stuff. I’ll take it on faith that embracing where I’m at bears doing, because how do you move on to the future without exploring the present?


Crowd Culture on the TTC

Many months ago, I was pleased to find myself in an empty subway train. When you’re feeling tired and on a long commute home, nothing beats having a train to yourself, grabbing a front-facing seat and settling into your best slouch.

At the next stop, another passenger came on and sat in side-facing seat right in front of me.

What the hell?

Everyone knows that in any kind of public arena, you’re entitled to at least an empty seat on all sides until it gets crowded. (See the rules of packing efficiency, minus the bathroom setting.) I’m a relatively tall guy, and I was not pleased to lose my leg room. Here we were on an empty train, and now I had to sit up straight so my knees wouldn’t encroach on someone else’s personal space, when it was my space that had been invaded in the first place. But, if I moved to a different seat, I’d be acknowledging that I had a God-given right to that space, making a mountain out of a molehill, and what kind of person would that make me? I can’t kid myself – that’s one heck of a molehill take drastic action over.

So I sat and stewed for the rest of the ride. Not exactly an improvement, but at least my public face said “I am a reasonable person, happy to sit up to make room for others, and not at all filled with expectation that I have a right to isolation on public transportation.”

Torontonians in general have a peculiar attitude toward crowded buses, streetcars and trains. We know perfectly well that the system is overloaded and that people often get bypassed by a stuffed-to-the-gills vehicle. We’ve all probably been the ones to get passed by at least a few times. And, almost assuredly, we’ve been left on the platform for a vehicle that wasn’t even full.

You know what I’m talking about. People won’t have moved to the back of the bus. You’ll see a smattering of empty seats while the straphangers are packed like sardines on a streetcar. The subway boasts empty space between the doors where another 10 to 15 riders could easily squeeze.

Compare that to the Japanese, who pack themselves in so religiously that it is now a paying job to stand on the platform and shove people in so the doors can close (skip to the 30-second mark):

Do we shove our way in, knowing there’s room to spare? Not usually. Are we likely to be one of the offenders, leaving a seat empty or an extra foot or two of space on either side just for our own comfort, knowing that fellow comrades-in-transit are stranded curbside? Probably. Because we Torontonians, broadly, are perfectly OK with valuing personal space over efficiency. We strand ourselves, secure in the knowledge that we’ll do the same to whoever’s behind us in line. Plus, the next bus is only what, 40 minutes away?

Unless – and here’s the cute part – someone calls us on it. Call it transit guilt. The overriding, invisible Toronto acceptance that we’re all selfish, that we accept the selfishness of others and that we plan to be selfish again, all of that goes out the window when someone challenges it. Students may use empty seats as their luggage rack, but see how quickly that bag moves to their lap when another rider moves to take the seat. Watch how one impatient rider on the platform forcing his or her way on board results in everybody silently acknowledging that yeah, we can move in more, we guess. Watch how I was so embarrassed at my expectation of a two-metre isolation bubble that I refused to re-establish it once breached. When that one special rider challenges the herd, you can almost feel a tangible wave pass through the crowd. Nobody is willing to admit that they hogged personal space on purpose, and nobody is willing to act like they had a right to it in the first place. We just make others fight for their ride. I mean, if they want it badly enough to push for it, then who are we to argue?

It’s wait and let wait out there.


You in a Nutshell – aka Cover Letters and Resumes

Conventional wisdom has it that your resume shows your job history, and your cover letter shows you. The resume is technical, the cover letter is explanatory. And you should always, always, always customize both, inputting key phrases and terms from the job posting for a bit of extra oomph. Voilà! The hiring manager is impressed and your candidacy is assured.

So why the heck don’t interviewers ever ask me about what I’ve written in my cover letter?

It hasn’t come up once, in fact. Holding on to that old conventional wisdom, I would use any letter that ‘got me an interview’ as a template for every subsequent application, on the assumption that by getting an interview, I surely had written a good letter. A friend of mine does a lot of hiring in his job, and he donated the following advice:

Brian, circa August: Break up your resume visually so it’s not just a wall of text. Hint at your aesthetic and how you present information in general by making your resume strong on both content and formatting. That’s what I look for when I do hiring. That, and I want to see that the application has been customized to the job posting.

One pretty-pretty resume and four months later, I ran it and my letters past another friend, one who is notorious for getting a response seven out of 10 times on her applications. She works in communications (my target field) and has done some hiring herself.

Michelle, circa November: Your resume is very graphicky [sic]. It’s definitely not bad, and I’ve seen worse. You need to make it more ‘boom-boom-boom’ on content, showing who you are and what you’ve done. They don’t care about your personality, and they only look at your cover letter if your resume is decent. Your letter should just describe what you’ve done in your career. Don’t waste time customizing your letter or resume – I use the same one for every job I apply for, and they know exactly who I am and if I’m a good fit.

Ok, so that’s different. But are hiring managers really that diverse? I rather like the personality I injected into my resume based on Brian’s advice, but absolutely see the rationale behind Michelle’s – not least because it explained why no interviewer has ever asked me about my letters. And I’ve given similar advice to tons of people writing application essays. “Cut to the chase,” I’ll say. “The second an admissions officer has to wade through personality-laden enthusiasm before hitting the meat of your paper is the second you get tossed in the trash. Be direct. Be businesslike.” Good advice, eh?

As I touched on previously, it’s hard writing for yourself. An application isn’t like an article you’ve been assigned with defined parameters; it’s literally writing about you for you by you. What could be scarier? Give me the job of writing about someone else any day.

That being said, nothing is harder than looking in the mirror, and I wouldn’t be much of a writer if I couldn’t do that.

I struck a balance.

I kept some aspects of the formatting to avoid the ‘wall-of-text’ phenomenon Brian hates, but adopted the content-forward approach Michelle says gets her results. The first page is now my summary of qualifications, technical expertise and core competencies. Work history doesn’t show up until the second page! Just describing it that way almost feels like some kind of sacrilege, but looking at it side-by-side with my old one, I see the difference. Before, you had to dig me out of my work history. Now, the best parts of who I am are right up front. My cover letter? If hiring managers even deign to read it, they’ll get a terse, down-to-business prose summary of my career and accomplishments.

I’m probably mere months away (if not sooner) from yet another revamp of my applications, but I can ride out this experiment for now and see where it takes me. Who knows? Maybe I’ll get a job straight away and not have to worry about the hunt again for another few years.



Setting goals

Ok, here’s my commitment, out on the Internet forever and un-editable for all to see:

  • Two full posts per week minimum (spur-of-the-moment inspirations like this do not count)
  • Customize the layout somewhat by end of day November 9, 2012
  • Come to terms with the fact that goals can’t always come in threes



If a writer writes alone…

I haven’t written in years. Mostly. Since high school, anyway, I’ve never sat down and really written anything. Oh, there have been essays, articles, promotional ad copy, technical manuals, but all of that was for assignment. For school, for work, for others. Nothing for me.

Writing is a funny thing, at least when I set my mind to it. Because the truth is, I like to write. I actually love it. I love the satisfaction from seeing any sort of well-crafted message grace the page (screen, sorry – old-school habits die hard), and I’m a person who can be perfectly happy carrying on a half-hour debate about the merits of the serial comma.

Perhaps some background.

I think of myself as an editor, mostly. Even when I write, I think I’m editing. I’ve always been more comfortable working with someone else’s ideas, helping to flesh them out, give them shape and see them to fruition. It’s not a bad role to be in, really – the world needs good editors, people who can see the forest for the trees and all that. And can we honestly say that the last three Harry Potter books had a good editor hovering over Rowling’s shoulder? (Short answer: no.) I like being able to stand back, see the potential, prune away the excess and deliver a perfectly manicured bonsai tree of a project to whomever needed it done.

You might not think that applies to sitting down and being the primary writer, but it does. What’s that, boss? You need an article on space monkeys in the voice of The Walrus? I can see the content, shapeless, as though somebody else had already written the piece (badly) and just need a good editor (me) to pull it together (disclosure: I never wrote any such article). Consider the audience, the publication, adapt the tone and style, and boom: article produced. I may have cobbled together the words from nothing, but was it writing? Is writing still writing if you approach it as a problem to solve instead of a process of creation?

Which brings me to why I haven’t “written” in years, and to why I gave up my last blog after two dismal posts, and without having told anyone I’d started it in the first place (sorry, Blogspot). Writing for yourself is a very solitary exercise. Writing for others is not; it’s social. I may come at it from a problem-solving, editorial standpoint, but there’s something comforting about knowing that what you’ve written will be recognized by someone, mainly because they asked you to write it in the first place. What you’ve created exists, measured against criteria put in place by someone else. It’s validating.

Writing for yourself – oh, who am I kidding, writing for myself – is isolating. There are no standards to go by; it’s all subjective. What I write may never see the light of day. Maybe nobody will ever read my blog (I swear, I’m not usually this melodramatic). If I write alone, do I make a difference?

Here goes the assumption that yes. Yes, I do. Bothering to put my thoughts down for no other purpose than to have done it at all involves a kind of work I don’t put in when writing on assignment. Hopefully I’ll get comfortable enough with my own voice that I’ll stop stopping myself and start starting more often.

And maybe I’ll learn what I want to write about, too. And how I want to write about it. You know, pare away the excess. Focus on what’s important. Edit.

I started writing a short story recently. My first creative endeavour in over a decade. Cheers to whatever the heck it winds up being.