Family Lines

stories for you

Tag: Toronto (page 1 of 2)

Okay

I went to Ryerson University in Toronto for my journalism degree. I was taking a course on non-fiction writing and one of our assignments was to write about a recent experience. The following is a story I wrote about an evening in 1995.

 Okay

I was sitting on the subway. Feeling fat, loveless and cranky. On Feb.14.

It was late at night, around 10:30. A woman and a little girl got on the train. I wondered what the girl was doing up so late on a school night.

People were scattered everywhere in the car. There was a man with big glasses sitting across from me. My roommate reading a book beside me. The mom and girl sitting a couple of rows down. But I didn’t turn to look at anyone. I didn’t want to see them.

I was drowning in the hum of the subway and the problems of the world. With me in it. How the ozone layer is dying. How children are starving. How humans are killing each other. How Valentine’s Day is just one more day to make money out of something that I can’t even get for free. How far away I feel from home. My real home in Nova Scotia with a dog and cats and warmth and family and friends. How cold the bright lights of the underground are. Making everything harsh. Making the blemishes stand out clearly. The red pimple on my roommate’s nose, the greasiness of that guy’s big glasses, dirt and grime and grossness.

Then I heard someone singing. And I turned around.

All I could see was the top of a beret further down the train. I stood up. Looked.

A woman, sitting alone, was singing. She was singing “Everything’s going to be okay. Everything’s going to be all right.”

I recognized the tune; a Bob Marley song. Other heads turned. The woman with the child smiled. The man with the glasses picked up his head. My roommate put down her book.

For a moment, the world stood still and I actually believed the minstrel. For moment, I believed everything was okay. Everything was all right. For a moment, everybody listened and everyone heard.

Ode to my Rad Pants

Rad pants.

Look at how Rad those pants are…

I’ve had my Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) Rad pants for many, many years. I got them from my roommate in Toronto in 1995. Mo liked my Guess jeans. I liked her Rad pants. We made a trade. I think I got the best part of the deal. The jeans would have been out of style a long time ago. The Rad pants, however, just met their end last week.

Ode to my Rad Pants

You once sheltered me from the sun

and kept me warm when there was none.

You protected me from rain, snow and sleet

and went with me to the mountains where my friends meet.

Your blue-sky colour always made my day

and we’ve been to many places, even Lutsel K’e.

Through thick and thin you’ve been the trousers of my heart

I’m thankful for your years of service but we have to part.

I’m so sorry to say goodbye and put you in the bin

but you’ll go to MEC heaven with a grin.

May you frolic in green meadows and sing and tap dance

Because you’re Rad… Pants.

Pants in bin.

Farewell…

Moments of the past and the present and the future

Rice field.

Rice field in Jindo.

I recently returned from a vacation that took me to Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea. It was my first time landing in Malaysia and Singapore but not South Korea. I had been an English teacher in Korea almost 20 years ago. When I was there, I wrote a bi-weekly column for a Nova Scotia newspaper about my experiences. I’m doing that again except this time, the columns are for my own blog.

South Korea
Part III of Singapore ‘16

While planning our trip, my husband Jason and I tried to figure out how to get to South Korea from Singapore. Flights from Changi Airport were expensive. Flights from Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) were cheap. We decided the best way to get to Korea was to flying back to KLIA from Singapore and then go on from there. So that’s what we did.

South Korea was my home for six months in 1997. I went after graduating from journalism school in Toronto and not being able to find a job as a reporter. (I had a job at The Gap.) As well, the guy I had been dating broke up with me and broke my heart and I decided the best way to mend it was to go far, far away. Where I knew no one and no one knew me.

I spent a lot of time on my own my first two months as an English teacher in Korea. I couldn’t speak or read Korean. I was illiterate and didn’t even understand street signs. However, my experiences forced me to grow up. Now, almost 20 years later, I was going back to Taejon, where I had once taught.

teach er and students.

My teen students twenty years ago. Photo credit: 이광림.

Jason and I landed at KLIA, an airport well-known to us by now. We planned our incoming and outgoing flights with many hours in between in case anything happened. Jason whiled away the eight hours by reading and I went from shop to shop trying to spend all our Malaysian ringgit, currency we wouldn’t be needing anymore. (I bought postcards, a Singaporean cookbook, tea and cookies. We still have a few ringgit left.)

Finally, it was check in time for our overnight flight to Korea on Vietnam Airlines. We went to the counter where the agents scared us by telling us we may be turned away at customs in Korea if we didn’t have a return trip booked. We had tickets home — albeit on a different airline — and when we showed them our itinerary, they checked us in and we were good to go.

Our first flight landed in Ho Chi Minh City at night. The airplane taxied past Air Force One on the apron. Turns out U.S. President Barack Obama was in Vietnam. But he wasn’t hanging out in the terminal, where we parked ourselves amidst noisy French tourists. For some reason, they had to congregate right by us even though there were rows of empty seats a couple of steps away. They chitter-chatted loudly, interrupting my thoughts and sleep, until their plane to Paris left an hour before our connecting flight.

Our second flight to Incheon International Airport was late leaving but that was fine. We didn’t have another plane to catch, only a train, and they ran numerous times a day. We were going to Taejon (also known as Daejeon) first, where I had lived for most of my time in South Korea. In my head Taejon, a city 140 km south of Seoul, hadn’t changed at all. But of course I knew it would be different. How different, I wondered.

After an almost seven-hour flight, we had outrun the heat and arrived in a cooler Incheon at 6:30 a.m. among what seemed to be a billion Rotarians from all over the world. (There was a Rotary International Convention going on in Seoul the last week of May.) Jason and I got our bags (both of them) and went downstairs to the Korea Train Express (KTX) station. We had missed the first train to Taejon but another one was coming along at 9 a.m.

I don’t think there was an express train to Taejon when I lived there. I took the bus everywhere then. But the train is certainly a faster way to travel – speeding up to 300 km an hour at some points. I was excited to go to Taejon. Excited to be back in a place I once knew as home. But entering the outskirts of Taejon, nothing looked familiar. Sky high apartment buildings, new to me, sprouted out of what used to be rural rice fields. I didn’t know where I was.

Street in Taejon.

Street in Taejon.

At the train station, Jason and I stowed our backpacks in a locker and found a tourist information booth. I wanted to find out just exactly we were. I don’t remember this station in 1997 and I thought if I could figure out where in the city we were, I could get us to my old neighbourhood.

When I told the tourist information officer where I wanted to go, she had no idea what I was talking about. Taejon had grown, grown, grown and was huge. There were many new communities, too many to know. I did remember that I had lived near a large department store, Say, and asked where it was. She pointed it out on a map.
IMG_1696
Jason and I went outside into the sunny afternoon and I was pulled left by an invisible force. I knew we had to go left. Checking the map, that was the way we were supposed to go. We walked and walked. Walked some more. Walked by Say and the park where I had played with the toddlers enrolled in my school. Jason and I walked by markets and shops that I must have visited a long time ago. Except it didn’t seem like a long time ago.

As I’ve said before, my experiences in Korea made me grow up. Yet being back in Taejon I felt like I was the same person. I didn’t feel any older or wiser or mature. How could twenty years have passed? They had. The grey in my hair told me I was no longer a young adult. The streets that had multiplied in Taejon said it wasn’t the same place. Then we got to a place that hadn’t changed at all: the river.

I stood on the bridge and looked down at the water. It still moved in the same direction. It still rippled when the wind hit it. It still offered herons a place to fish. People still walked along the pathway beside the Geum River. I used to run alongside it. I used to mull over what I was going to do next with my life. I was lonely and mourning a Toronto boyfriend when I was here the last time. I had no clue what I was going to do next. I had been lost. Now here I was, with my husband, no longer wandering and wondering. I knew my future was secure. This river was a conduit to a different time. Moments of the past and the present and the future chained together.

Geum River.

Geum River.

We walked on and found my old neighbourhood but couldn’t find my Taejon home or where I had worked, Kwak’s English Country School. We had already been walking for over four hours and had to turn around. A former student of mine, Suzan, was meeting us at our hotel room and Jason and I had to boot it back to the station to pick up our bags before we checked in.

We were sunburned and our feet hurt by the time we made it to our room. Tired too. Suzan came by at 6 p.m. and took us out for a drink. She was 13 when I last saw her. Now she was over 30. She had been one of my favourite students because she was spunky and said what was on her mind. We had stayed in touch via letters, e-mail and Facebook through the years.
IMG_1683Over grapefruit Soju (a distilled rice drink), I reminded Suzan that she once said she was never going to get married. She laughed and told me her parents were trying hard to match her up. Maybe if she visited Canada we could find her someone? Suzan’s friend Sun-Mi joined our little party and suggested we go to a traditional Korean restaurant in a village about 30 minutes away. Jason and I had been sleepy but the conversation (and drinks) gave us a boost of energy and we said sure to the offer. I’m glad we did.

Sun-Mi and Suzan drinking rice wine.

Sun-Mi and Suzan.

The place was truly magical. The sun was setting behind some large pottery kimchi jars (jars used to make a fermented spicy cabbage dish) and the air glowed blue behind them, profiling the mountains in the distance. I had seen this before. Not this exact scene but this setting. It was a perfect Korea moment. One made richer by the presence of old friends and new memories.

IMG_1684

Part 1 One and a half days in KL

Part 11  Who we used to be, who we are     

 

Golden moment

two dogs.

Two of my family dogs: Jasper, the golden retriever grandpa, with Kola, a cute fuzzy and energetic puppy.

It was 1996 and I was going to Ryerson University. I was in the Journalism for Graduates program and I had to write a non-fiction story for my course Magazine Fundamentals. The class was taught by writer David Hayes and he asked us to write about a “golden moment.” I wrote about my family dog, Jasper. He died not soon after I wrote this piece. I’m glad to have these memories of my old friend.

He walks crookedly. And he is big and red and he loves me. It’s just me and my dog. We chase Sasquatches and bears and run away from bees. We like to go fishing and swimming and diving for rocks. We used to go on bike rides and he would follow me everywhere. But now he’s too old.

Sometimes he’s bad. He once ran away from home for a whole week. It was a very long week. I called his name and looked up and down the lake and searched the cow corn fields. The morning he dragged himself down the driveway, hurt and scared and hungry was a blue sky day. For the next few weeks he had to wear big casts on his front legs. He looked silly. He looked like he was wearing oversized sports socks.

We watch TV together. He lies on the floor and I put my head on his stomach. I can hear him breathing. I always try to match my breath to his but he is always slower.

He can’t see well anymore. He won’t go through the kitchen to get to the music room. I think the glare of the floor tile is too bright for his eyes. I put him on a mat and drag him into the next room. He thinks it’s a lot of fun. He thinks he’s surfing.

When we go cross-country skiing he messes up my trail. I break two perfectly narrow tracks in the deep snow. Perfect so I’ll be able to go faster on the way back. He gets lazy and walks right in the middle of my hard work. His feet get balls of snow tangled in the fur and so he lies down in front of my swishing skis. As he chews off the snow, I have to wait.

I saw him kill a rabbit. He was savage and he scared me. He bit the rabbit’s neck and spit on its fur and looked crazy. I tried to save the rabbit. I put it in a wood barrel but it started to convulse and scream and its eyes rolled up into its brain.

Jasper thought it was funny. I saw him laugh. I know when he laughs. His lip curls up on one side. He does this especially when I’m around and he’s happy to see me.

Jasper is all my golden moments. When I think of my dog I can see the woods we walk through, the streams we wade through, the snow we trudge through, the stars that fall, the flames that wave to the sky and my best friend.

Where to go from here

Rogers Communication Centre.

Standing outside of the Rogers Communication Centre, home to Ryerson University’s Journalism program.

When I graduated from journalism school the economy was in rough shape. It was 1997 and there was a global economic crisis. There’s a recession now too and journalism grads are in the same boat I was in almost 20 years ago. One recent go-getter grad e-mailed me and asked for some advice. I met him a couple of weeks ago and shared what I learned about being an unemployed and young journalist.

In 1997, the global economic crisis hit Asian countries the hardest. That’s when I decided to teach English in South Korea. I had been working at the Gap in Toronto and wasn’t getting any bites on my green journo resume. I left for Korea and spent several months there. While I made next to nothing, I wrote a biweekly column for a newspaper back home in Nova Scotia. It gave me a chance to hone my skill writing to deadline, as well as share my insight into a different world with people from home.

Things are different for journalism students today. I got out of school with my degree and had a good possibility that I was going to be hired by a news agency, eventually. Now with the shrinking (and outright shutting down) of newspapers, news programs and news magazines, the possibility of solid work for journalism grads is slim. But there are other places to go, especially when you’re 23 and don’t need to support a mortgage or family.

Take a look at the International Youth Internship Program (IYIP). I went to The Gambia, West Africa as part of an IYIP internship. I was the publications officer for a human rights non-governmental organization, a position that required me to use all the skills I had picked up during my six years of university. I learned a lot and the experience taught me more than a job in an office in Canada would have. Take a look at the internships available today.

Newspapers are important but they’re becoming extinct in urban Canada. In northern Canada, many still rely on the paper for news. People are excited to see their children’s photo on the pages of a community paper. I worked as an editor for the Slave River Journal, (called The Northern Journal today) and it was fantastic. There are a lot of issues and news north of 60. Working at a small paper broadens your perspective on Canadian culture and you meet

forest fire.

Flying over Wood Buffalo National Park and checking out a fire.

people from all walks of life. You get to do cool things too like go ice fishing or take a ride in a helicopter to check out a forest fire in Wood Buffalo National Park. See if these places have openings for reporters/editors:

NWT
Northern Journal
Northern News Service
Hay River Hub

Nunavut
Nunatsiaq News

Yukon
Yukon News
Whitehorse Star

This site was invaluable to me when it came to finding jwork: http://www.jeffgaulin.com/ I hope the journo grads reading this find it useful too. Good luck.

Media meltdown

Old Herald desk.

Drawer full of reporter graffiti. Names and doodles from an antique Herald desk drawer on display at the City of Calgary Corporate Records, Archives.

The newspaper industry across Canada was dealt a massive blow last week. It hit me personally as my husband was caught in the layoff tsunami. We need more trained journalists, not fewer.

I know there are other sectors hurting and the economy in Alberta is weak right now. At a Calgary Chamber of Commerce event a couple of weeks ago, I talked with a member about how she’s dealing with the tough economic climate. She said there have always been booms and busts and it’s part of the cycle. She’s been through it before and said she will weather this storm too.

I’ve been through it as well and was laid off from my newspaper job in 2009. I’m not employed as a journalist today. It’s a sad time for all media across North America and many don’t seem to see the worth in news anymore. I read the comments section of the CBC Calgary story on Postmedia’s move to combine and gut the Calgary Herald and Calgary Sun newsrooms (as well as similar mergers in Edmonton, Vancouver and Ottawa) and it made me sick to see what people were saying about papers. That news should be free and journalists only write what Big Business tells them to write. Conspiracy theories from commenters who don’t value the job of reporters.

Walking amongst the tall buildings and business workers in downtown Calgary on Friday, I overheard a woman telling another woman, “Change is good. Remember that.”

Change can be good and in fact, journalists live for change. It’s one reason why we get into the news business. But change can also leave spaces, voids, gaps in information. These holes deprive us of stories, stories that explain what’s happening in our city or country or world. Stories that unite us with other people and connect us to our neighbours.

Bloggers might be able to fill some of the cracks, but they’re not trained to follow and uphold time-honoured journalistic standards of accuracy and fairness. To separate fact from opinion. Being a journalist is not just an occupation: it’s a profession; it’s a calling. The newspaper landscape of Calgary has been indelibly changed and not for the better. As journalists disappear from newsrooms, so does the record of our city’s history, our stories.

Floppy disc discovery

floppy disc.

Floppy disc driving at the Calgary Public Library.

While home for the holidays in Nova Scotia, I found a treasure trove: some old, old floppy discs. Not those round ones that look like records but the hard square ones. I brought them back to Calgary and wondered how to get the data off them. Who has a computer with a floppy disc drive anymore? The Calgary Public Library.

I went to the third floor and asked for a floppy disc drive and plugged it into a port. Then I popped the first disc into the drive and it spat and whirred like an ancient engine being turned on for the first time in 100 years. The noise was loud and I was hoping no one was going to “Shhhs” me. It is a library. You’re supposed to be quiet.

I found a lot of photos I had scanned and put on disc in 2003. I also uncovered stories and homework assignments I had written at Ryerson University in 2006. The following is a piece I wrote when I lived in residence only steps away from the core of Toronto. I had a room (that I called The Coffin because it was tiny) in a four bedroom apartment. Each unit in Pitman was designed the same way. I had three roommates (women) and we lived on a co-ed floor. Here’s a vignette from 20 years ago. (Really?)

Noise. A man’s laugh is projected from one bedroom. Haunting pagan music follows from another. The sounds mix and float out of the hallway, pooling in the living room. Sarah and De sit in a circle amidst it, making their own noises.

Sarah’s arm drags across paper. Making a swishing sound as she writes. Bright purple socks sticking out of brown cords and pushed into brown boots is Sarah. De’s making clicking sounds. She’s an interior design student and she’s crouched on the floor and tediously gluing tiny, straight sticks together to make a giant octahedron. Click. She’s gluing the sticks into triangles. Click. She’s building the complex design slowly in case it collapses. De has one leg tucked under her. It’s as if she is trying to create the same symmetry in her design. Sarah walks over to help. Swish. Her cords make a rough noise like her arm on the paper. She sits the same way as De.

Pitman Hall.

Common room at Pitman Hall.

Two shadows are thrown over De and Sarah. The white wall outlines a couple. Two people in a slow dance. The shadows move together and then apart.

Swish. John comes out of the shadows. He’s carrying a plant. “Look,” he says, “it’s real.”

He gives the plant to Maura, who has also come out of the shadows. Bang. John slams the door. Maura takes a seat beside Sarah.

The room fills up with chatter. Talking, talking and talking. The conversation is light and easy. Meringue on lemon pie. Chitchat about classes and octahedrons. Nattering about New York and Chicago. Dirty dishes.

“There is no volume to it.” De mutters to her creation.

Crack. Maura’s knees break as she bends to show De pictures. Her knees sound like octahedron sticks snapping half. But De keeps going with the glue gun. “Psst,” it says. The glue gun wants to tell a secret.

“Psst, come here.”

Rustling paper. Sarah returns her focus to her writing. Maura looks out the window. Not much talk now. A few expletives from the glue gun lady. Maybe she’ll shoot someone. Psst, psst and pssssstttt!

Then smooth silence. A few strains of music escape from the room down the hall. Phone rings. Thud. Everyone jumps up. Pattering feet. Who’s it for? The circle is broken. Everyone has left and so must I.

Welcome to the work world

Scarf.

This isn’t a Gap outfit but I am wearing a scarf. This photo was taken in New York City.

Every time I walk into a Gap, I have the urge to tuck tags into shirts and fold sweaters that have been messily discarded by shoppers. The Gap was once a major part of my life in a time when I was falling apart at the seams. (Insert joke here.) Now the retailer is closing a quarter of its stores, maybe even the one I worked in.

It was the late nineties, spring, and I had just graduated from journalism school. This was degree #2. Confident I would get a reporting job in Toronto, where I had been living for two years and where my boyfriend was, I stayed in the big city. That’s where all the opportunities would be anyway. Right?

There was a recession during that time and it slowed down the job market. No one was hiring a green journalist right out of school. No matter how much I made my resume stand out. (I had seen job seeker experts who told me to do something different with my CV. So I put a photo of me rock climbing.) The eye-catching picture along with the aspirational headline about no challenge being too tough, did not net me any work.

In early September, I was finding life a little more difficult than I thought it would be. My boyfriend broke up with me and I hadn’t realized my dream of becoming a globetrotting journo. I also only had $4 to my name and I couldn’t even take it out of the bank machine because withdrawals had to be at least $5. There was no way I was asking my parents for money. I’m an adult now, I thought. Independent. Independent adults look for any way to make a buck. Not just in their fields.

After a week of terrible one-day jobs like shilling bulk tickets to a comedy show, I was wilting. Who knew being grown-up was so hard? A friend saw my distress and helped me. His sister worked at a temp agency and she hooked me up with work. My first placement was on Bay Street with a well-known investment firm.

The night before work, a woman from the firm called me and told me to dress appropriately. I was to wear nice trousers and a nice blouse and nice shoes.

“Oh, and don’t forget to accessorise. Wear a scarf,” she suggested.

That wouldn’t be a problem. I always got compliments on my fashion sense. I’m sure that I’ll blend in with the rest of the corporate employees. In the morning, I left feeling fine and dandy and ready to work. Here I come working world!

My day on Bay Street revolved around putting mail in people’s inboxes. That’s the extent I remember. It wasn’t the best job but it wasn’t the worst. I was getting paid.

Gap store.

I once worked at a Gap. And spent many an hour folding.

I went home that evening and my roommate and I celebrated my new job by getting lost walking around Toronto trying to find a Dairy Queen. Later that night, around 10 p.m., the investors woman called me and asked what I had worn to my new job that almost-done-day. I told her and emphasized I had even put on a scarf. This didn’t impress her.

“They told me you looked like you worked at the Gap,” is what she said to me. “Don’t come back.”

My Bay Street days were over. Now what was I going to do? Even though the investment company woman was incredibly rude and kind of hurt my feelings, she gave me an idea. I was going to apply to work at the Gap: and I did.

I was a “sales associate” at a shop on Queen Street West. It wasn’t a great job but it paid me and I got a clothing discount. Besides that, I leaned some valuable customer service lessons that I use to this day. The Gap was a weird anchor for me in a time that was frustrating and sad. While it was a time I don’t want to re-live, it was a time that gave me lots of perspective and now, funny stories.

Beginning, middle and end

Toronto.

Toronto skyline.

I instruct writing workshops and one thing I teach is a story has to have a beginning, middle and end. An easy way to accomplish this in a piece is to remember to use the three o’s: objective, obstacle and outcome.

To get the point across I split a class into groups of three. Then I have everyone write an objective (beginning) and pass their paper on to the next person. That person then has to add the tale and write the obstacle (middle) of the first person’s story. After he or she is finished, they pass the story on to the next person, who concludes the story with the outcome.

The end result is usually a pretty cool story: even though it’s been written by three people. But the point is not to write a masterpiece but to show how easy it is to craft a story when there’s structure. Some amazing tales have come out of this exercise. Here is one:

Oct. 23 2013

It was supposed to be a nice day and he hoped the sun would keep shining. He had a ring in his pocket and a proposal on his mind. He loved his girl and it was time to make her his wife.

The only problem was she lived in Toronto and he lived in Calgary. Neither of them had enough money to visit each other in person, even though we were able to converse over e-mail. The man had heard that sometimes web dating didn’t work out because a lovely woman could turn out to be a burly guy. But in his heart, he knew his situation was different.

“That’s it!” he said to himself. “I have to get to Toronto. Nothing will stand in my way.”

He took the ring and pawned it. With the money from the trade he bought a ticket to Toronto. If she loves him as much as he loves her, she won’t care that he don’t have the bling.

Stand by your (NHL) man

Maple Leaf Gardens

Maple Leaf Gardens in 2009.

Don’t laugh at me but I like the Leafs. Yes, the Toronto Maple Leafs. My team hasn’t done well all year and definitely aren’t in the running for the Stanley Cup so I’m rooting for my next favourite team, the Calgary Flames. (Update: they lost last night.) My husband is a diehard Montreal Canadians fan and I’m not going there.

I went to Ryerson University in downtown Toronto. My second year, I lived in Cabbagetown, east of Yonge Street and about a 10 minute walk from class. Going to and fro I passed Maple Leaf Gardens, the large brick building that was the home of the Maple Leafs.

I didn’t favour one hockey team over another back then. The Maritimes don’t have an NHL team, so I never felt an affinity for one squad or another. But being in Toronto and having Maple Leaf Gardens nearby made me a Leafs fan. I used the see the players walking in and out from a game or practice. On cold winter nights that turned the outdoor light blue, joyous crowds would cram through the Gardens’ doors and hit the streets. I weaved my way through their happy (most of the time) braying and would hear their dissections of the winning goal.

Sometimes I saw players from the visiting team standing outside, like Wayne Gretzky and

Leaf jersey.

Go Leafs! (Next year.)

Marty McSorley when they played for the L.A. Kings. They were getting ready to hop on the bus parked on Carlton Street. Headed home. Like me.

Those moments created a member of Leafs Nation. It wasn’t any specific hockey stat, player, or game. I actually haven’t seen them play other than on TV. But it doesn’t matter. I will never Leaf them. Although I’m crossing my fingers (and toes) they pick up their game next season.

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