Category Archives: Anarchist

Another Michael.

Once upon a time, I spent a few days at a communal farm on a wooded hilltop in southern Somerset, UK. I was there as a WWOOFer, but the weather was terribly stormy and the hosts didn’t really have much lined up for my friend and I to do. Mostly, I cut firewood in the rain, then dried out by reading Harry Potter aloud to one of the resident kids next to the woodstove in the common kitchen.

One night, all the residents were leaving to go to another community’s dinner, and for some reason or another it was impossible for my friend and I to join them. We accepted this, and bid them all adieu while curling up with books in the lounge hut (Which was a little thatched cabin! So rad!). The beams of their flashlights disappeared as they departed through the trees, and the rain pelted down even harder. Suddenly, a light appeared again, and then at the door was one of the residents: He’d had a change of heart, felt bad about ditching my friend and I, and returned to spend the evening with us.

He was old, this resident, wrinkled and wiry, like a stereotype of an eccentric British man who has decided to run away to a commune in the woods and wear gumboots every day. He’d been the one to pick us up from the local village when we arrived, and seemed more concerned with the role of host than any of the other residents. Not that they were rude, by any means, just… Distant. Distracted. Whereas this old dude was busy, but also making the effort to check in with us throughout each day.

There we were, in a tiny cabin on a rainy hilltop, and we started to share stories. The friend I was traveling with wasn’t exactly my friend really, more like a random punk I had met and decided to force friendship upon. So I didn’t know much about him, other than the fact that he was from Antigonish (anyone from Anti reading this? I know three other people from there, which means I know someone you know!). We were almost strangers, talking about our lives, and it was great.

The old dude told us about growing up in Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as he still called it. In the 1940s, his dad was involved in business there, so he spent his childhood on tea plantations. “I had a friend,” he told us, “Whose name was Michael, same as mine. We constantly got up to mischief together, and caused so much trouble!”

He paused, thought a second, then continued.

“Actually, that Michael moved to Canada later on. We haven’t stayed in touch, but I read about him once. He’s become a rather successful writer, I think. Maybe you’ve heard of him?”

I was all of 19-years-old and a know-it-all, so told him that I sincerely doubted it.

“Hmmm,” Michael said.  “One of his books was made into a film, I’m told. Won some awards. I never saw it… The English Patient, was its title. Anyway, yes, it was a marvelous childhood.”

Young FG’s jaw was on the (packed dirt) floor. I mean, really? As the offspring of a bunch of teachers and a librarian, I grew up in homes where Michael Ondaatje‘s books were practically compulsory reading… And this old dude on a hillside in rural England was his childhood friend?!!

How very strange, the places we end up.

Anyway, I told Michael that the other Michael’s books were indeed beloved by many people, including my parents. “Oh, how nice,” he said, genuinely pleased. “How nice.”

I was reminded of this conversation earlier today, when I heard Michael Ondaatje on the radio reading from his latest novel, which is a fictionalized account of his own life experience in Sri Lanka as a kid.  He talked about being very focused on seeking out trouble, and I smiled, remembering the night in the rain when I first heard about these adventures, from another Michael.

Me at 19 years old, traveling and being too cool for just about anything.

Why #2: Capitalism.

(For Why #1, click here)

Oh, hey, I live here.

This morning as I was getting ready for work, there was a piece on the radio about the skilled trades worker shortage. It’s a common theme, you’ve probably heard something about it: The journeymen are all speeding towards retirement age, and there simply aren’t enough apprentices coming along to fill the soon-to-be-available leadership positions. Listening to the on-air discussion, I grinned while lacing up my steel toed boots… Not only are there more and more trades jobs on the horizon, but us skilled trades workers are reaping the benefits of the effort of all those older workers!  These were mostly men, who negotiated contracts and wage standards meant to support their entire families, for which they historically were providing the primary income.  Which is to say, a “small” salary in the trades is a hell of a lot bigger than a “medium” salary in the world of administrative assistants… And let’s not even talk about the non-profit sector.

So here’s another reason why I chose to be an electrician: Because I wanted a living wage.

It’s fucking surreal sometimes, to really think about the fact that the best work I’ve done is also the stuff that’s contributed least to paying my rent. Earning enough money to not only cover my expenses but also get out of debt (and avoid getting further into debt) has been a huge distraction from all the excellent stuff I could be doing. You know when people say that they wouldn’t work if they didn’t have to? I simply don’t believe it. Oh, sure, I imagined they’d take a few months to veg out and clear their minds… But after that, I really do honestly have faith in the human desire to feel needed, to find satisfaction from doing something useful.  Wages get in the way of us finding our callings:  We’re too busy trying to make a living.

So anyway, yeah, capitalism’s not doing too well right now, in case you haven’t noticed.  Never having been a big fan in the first place, I can’t say that I’m terribly surprised:  It’s simply unmanageble, this twisted economic system.  Having said that, I’ve yet to visit the encampment of my local Occupy movement… Because I’m too busy working, at the first decent-paying job I’ve had in years.  How totally bougie of me, ha!

Seriously, though, it means a lot to me, to be able to count on making enough money for more than just my expenses…  And not just so that I can buy boots!  Hmmm… Actually, that’s a good example:  It’s a relief to be able to invest in quality footwear that will last me a couple years, instead of having to either continue to make do with the old (and literally crumbling!) pair or buy some crappy cheap thing that’ll need replacing in another few months.  It’s a small thing, but so important to my personal quality of life.  So: I have a steady union job, I’ll continue to get raises every six months as I gain experience, I’m learning useful skills that will make me increasingly employable, and I can afford decent boots…  This is how capitalism drove me to become an electrician.

Pride, and little creations

Monday morning after the big local Pride Week finale, and you’d think I’d have slept in. Instead, I was awake at 5 am, tired but buzzing with happy thoughts: A recurring theme these past several days. It’s hormones, I’m sure, but hey, at least I’m not wallowing in despair or full of inexplicable rage, as has been the case in the past.

On Friday, the Pride event for under-19-year-olds that my queer dance party collective organized was AMAZING. Around 50 kids showed up, and I personally was so nervous about everything going terribly wrong that it was more than halfway over before I realized how great it was. During the last minute organizing decisions, most of which centered around creating policies to safely deal with intoxicated youth, I realized that I’ve got no knowledge about or experience in working with teens. Luckily, lots of rad people stepped up with excellent ideas and protocols for creating respectful, fun, safe spaces! And I stuck to serving (non-alcoholic) drinks at the bar all evening, which gave me a great chance to have brief chats with most of the youth. I also had a fantastic view of the dance floor, so I can tell you with good authority that the youth were really into the DJ. At the end of the evening, we had a couple parents thank us as they picked up their kids, and even a few of the teens themselves made a point of letting us know how much they appreciated our work. I can’t say for certain that we’ll take on such a party again next year, but for now it feels nice to have had this success.

Yesterday at the Pride festival itself was another first for the collective: We actually had a table! For a loose, anarchistic group like ours, this was a big step. Since we still had the button maker we’d borrowed for the crafting station at the youth dance, we decided to bring it plus all the required supplies to Pride. It was so cool… People loved making buttons! And they couldn’t believe we weren’t charging anything. The funniest thing was how many folks asked if we were some kind of promo gear company, or other media business. No, just your local radical queer dance party collective, making stuff and having fun and co-creating a revolution… You know, the yooj.

I made A LOT of buttons, mostly just mini collages of text and images from magazine, plus glitter glue.  Almost all of them got snapped up by the people who stopped by the table but didn’t want to make their own… Which is going to be fun:  I hope I’ll randomly see these little creations of mine around town in the coming months!  I did manage to keep a few though, including the three on the left in the pic above… Oats made me the one on the right, because she said it looked like me.  Note to self:  Pink barrette? Also, consider sculpting eyebrows.

Dancing, dancing, revolutionizing

It was about a year ago that shit hit the fan with a group of folks with whom I’d been putting on an annual dance party celebration weekend.  I’d been involved in organizing that event since it started years ago, and yet felt like I wasn’t welcome, mostly due to my queerness but also because of my stance on the need for vocal inclusionary policies:  I wanted us to make it clear to all attendees that we were not going to put up with sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, bullshit behaviour, and that such actions would be grounds for removal. 

Apparently, this sort of policy “ruins the mood”. 

Hey, you know what really ruins the mood?  Being targeted for assault because of your gender, race, sexuality, and/or body!

Blech.  Whatever.  As I’ve written before, the good thing that came out of that experience was my decision to throw my energies elsewhere:  I got involved with another party-organizing group, this one queer-focused with an anti-oppressive mandate.

Together we’ve hosted 5 events in the past 10 months, including one just for teens that absolutely blew my mind with how rad it was… How rad the teens are!  Seriously, if you’re down in the dumps and want to get back some hope in the world, try spending an evening making buttons and playing board games with a crew of young folks.  They were so fun to hang out with.  I’m now friends with a couple of them on a social networking site and have learned how they personally face a ton of homophobia and transphobia at their schools. Knowing this makes it all the more special, the connection we made… Not to be cheezy, but I felt like it was actually doing something to make it better, moving beyond simply telling them “it gets better”.

Of course, in a lot of ways, it isn’t getting better.  I’ve sometimes been asked why I’m involved in putting on radical queer dance parties, when there’s a gay bar in our city.  Well, this is why:  In many gay bars, a commitment to supporting gender and sexual diversity is not taken seriously.  It’s all about being the right sort of gay, as Miss T.R. Gendered writes so well:  If you fall outside the “norms”  for your perceived gender or sexuality, you’re got to face the Gay Police, who’ll make you feel unsafe simply for being who you are.

Tying together my rambling thoughts about queer youth socials and the lack of safety for certain bodies at gay bars is a recent big decision made by my radical queer dance party collective:  We were approached by the organizers of the local pride festival and asked if we’d put on their official youth dance, in exchange for some funding and the use of their name and promotional clout.  After many long discussions that bounced all over the place, we said no to their money and credibility (?), but yes to the task.  We’d already been planning our annual celebration of queer resistance dance party for that week, and as we hold such events as fundraisers anyway, we decided to simply channel the profits from this one into a huge queer youth dance party the next weekend.

One pride week, one small radical dance party collective, two dance parties!!! I have no idea if we’re in completely over our heads here or not, but I’m totally excited.  I feel like we could have taken the offer from the offical pride group and it woulda been okay… Eventually, I’d probably have gotten over my initial sense of being a sell-out. Having said that, I’m thrilled.  More than anything, the decision to do it on our own makes me feel proud of us:  Proud that we’re willing to test our limits, to see what we can accomplish, to risk financial autonomy in a capitalist economy, to stay as true as possible to our mandate for providing alternative queer space.

For the record, we did thank the organizers of the local pride festival for thinking of us, because it is a tribute to our group’s reputation, that they’d consider us good enough to host the youth dance… And we believe that partnerships such as the one they were suggestion can be pretty great.  Going it alone seems to be a good deal for both groups, in this case though, since they’ll get to put their funding into other pride initiatives and the youth still get a dance party… And we get a crash course in putting on a really big youth event!

Does it change things, does it make them better, to have such firm ideas about creating queer spaces outside those sanctioned by a larger society?  I’m sensitive to stoking the flames of in-fighting among members of the minority group that is made up of those of us whose lives include sexual and gender diversity, and I don’t want to waste energy hating on those queers who’d tell folks like Miss T.R. Gendered to put their shirts back on… I’ll be writing those letters of complaint to the bar management, of course, and telling everyone I know to boycott the place, but I need more.  I need to turn this fury inside me into something pro- in stead of anti-, something fiercely loving instead of angrily frustrating.  Dance parties meet that need for me.

It’s not exactly revolutionary, to organize a liquor license and a sound systems and few DJs, but I like to think it’s part of a long queer tradition. Before gay bars were legal, in places where they still aren’t, all over the world and through history, this is something we’ve done: Gotten together to shake our booties, lick our wounds, meet new lovers, visit with old ones, share in a temporary oasis of fragile safety* in a world that would have us silent or dead or simply pretend not to exist.

* (Safety for some… Sadly, as with any community event, fucked up shit sometimes goes down at our parties too.)

As I Hiked One Early Spring Afternoon

Oh, the flowers! Blooming everywhere...

Typical Sunday night insomnia.  It’s not anxiety-driven this time, which is a relief… I’m simply thinking too much to go to sleep.  Usually I take some melatonin, then lie in bed until it kicks in.  Sometimes, nights like these will see me applying for jobs, or schools, or once, an international work visa (Australia, as you may recall).  Tonight, though, I’m passing the time with some internet-related tasks from my to-do list, which’ll reduce the number of things I have to think about when lying in the dark.

I joined a group of friends for a long hike on Saturday, a strenuous adventure that was both invigorating and exhausting.  We started on a trail that I’d visited several times in the past, but then followed it for another hour or so beyond the section I knew.  All up and down, the path well-maintained but kinda intense, with amazing views high over the surrounding hills and inlet:  It was just what I wanted, really.  By the end of it, my throat was sore and the glands in my neck were swollen… Apparently, all that sweating was pushing some sickness out of my body.  So I went home and crashed, sleeping in late this morning.

I’ve been hiking a little every week recently, finding that time in the woods or on rocky peaks or next to the ocean are the perfect antidote to school.  Even gardening, which has also been a preoccupation lately, isn’t quite as appealing as a ramble down a trail.  Springtime is when I rediscover all the reasons for which I live on the west coast.

Mo loves a good ramble too.

Did you ever read Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning? Our recent sunny spring weather has been reminding of it, and of how that book had an impact on my life.  I was too young when I first picked it up, maybe ten years old or so, and even then I was taken by the romantic notion of walking to London, and to Spain.  Later, rereading it as teenage punk, I was surprised to realize that it was my beloved anti-fascist International Brigades that Lee went on to fight for, in the Spanish Civil War.  In a weird way, Lee was a traveller punk before traveller punks existed, busking on the streets and sleeping in vacant buildings… Though in his case, said buildings were collateral from World War I as opposed to modern industrial capitalism.  At any rate, Lee made it seem right, to walk out the door and experience life.  I like to think that’s how I ended up here.

Because I’m staying.

I met this queer punk kid back in the summer, when he came up to my stall at the farmers’ market and asked if he could have our leftover veggies. It was the end of the day, and a fair enough question, but I was busy with inventory and serving the last minute customers. Which is to say, I was abrupt with him: I pointed to the other punk going down the row of vendors and pulling a massive bike cart, and told him we give everything to that dude for Food Not Bombs, and suggested he ask them about volunteering.

My dismissiveness immediately made him blush, and he started explaining that he knows about FNB and is thinking about getting involved, but just arrived from Halifax and wasn’t sure about how things worked in this town. I cringed inside, suddenly feeling bad for being a jerk. I’m so mean sometimes… I didn’t intend for him to feel out of place. “Cool,” I said with a sincere smile, “Welcome to the West Coast.”

What I wanted to say was ZOMG-I-remember-being-you. And I remember meeting so many others, just like you. Young, excited, new in town, punker-than-thou yet full of angst, easily wilted by a mean femme who should be nicer.

I expected that he’d be gone by the time the rains settled in for the winter, trainhopping back east or riding his bike to Mexico or off on one of the other cliched sorts of punk rock adventures that zines are make of. However, he’s still here: I saw him in a cafe downtown the other day, and stopped briefly to say hi. “I have that stuff you wanted,” I told him, “It’s all ready to go. Call me.”

I’m giving him my silkscreening gear. I’ll be keeping my two wooden-handled squeegees, because they have sentimental value, but he’ll be getting the rest of the squeegees and all the screens, frames, hinges, half-empty ink jars, yards of synthetic silk, and even a jar of photo emulsion that I mixed last year in a half-hearted attempt to start printing again. It’s old, but I stored it in the fridge, so it should still work.

This will be the third time I’ve given away some of the same equipment. Like a cat in a song, it keeps coming back. Typical of island life, I suppose: I give it away when I leave town, then I come home again and the people who received it have decided to move away themselves, so drop it back on my doorstep. Each time I renew my aquaintance with these tools, I get excited about silkscreening… But a little less so, my enthusiasm tempered by growing self-awareness.

This latest house move made me realize that it’s time to let go. Despite the fact that I now have my own room for making lots of equipment- and space-intensive art, I am appalled by how many art supplies I have and I feel oddly restricted by it. It’s like there’s too many things to choose from and instead of actually making stuff I get overwhelmed by all the stuff I could make and so do nothing.

I still love the act of printing, and see a well-executed print as the perfection of simplicity and beauty, but these days I’d rather buy prints from better artists (through JustSeeds!). The truth is I never made great silkscreened art. I mean, I could produce quality t-shirts and posters, but rarely of my own design. I excelled at technique, not artistry. And that’s okay. I did it for ten years, and I have the knowledge. In the past 4 years, I’ve barely touched my silkscreening equipment. The few times I’ve done any printing, I’ve gone back to the simplest, most do-it-yourself, handmade methods that don’t even require much in the way of gear, because that’s the sort of craft I like these days. So, why on earth do I still have all this stuff?

Looking through the boxes, I can see how it is: I’m holding on to it because it represents a person I was, in other people’s eyes, for a little while, a punkity person who taught silkscreening and lived the radical DIY lifestyle. When I started printing as a teenager, that’s who I wanted to become. The accumulated tools and supplies from a decade of developing the craft respresent the achievement of this dream.

Which is funny, because really, if being that person was so rad, then I probably wouldn’t be sitting here writing about it in the past tense: I’d still be loving life in a punk house, working to get by month to month, pouring all my spare time and energy into Food Not Bombs and doomed polyamorous love affairs, and getting ready for a springtime hitchhiking adventure. None of this really appeals to me in the least any more. Well, maybe the springtime hitchhiking adventure: That would be fun.

So yeah, it’s not so much silkscreening gear as it is an idea of myself, and since I’ve moved on, I think it’s about time that my equipment did too: Not because I’m leaving town, but because I’m staying.

As for the queer punk kid who’ll be the recipient of all these art supplies, I’m hoping he’ll stay too. I’m not placing any bets on it, this city being as hard to love as it is, but I’m hoping he’ll at least stick around for the rest of the winter.

Sales funnels make me want to hurl.

I’m not a salesperson. I think my friendliness and general ease with strangers makes people think I’d be good at selling stuff, but I’m not into it. Sure, I like chatting with just about anyone: That part of my new job is awesome. As long as I can pretend to myself that I’m only looking to find out general information about these water systems I’m responsible for calling, I’m fine.

But when I have to explain who I am, and what it is that I’ll be doing with the data I’m getting from the person I’ve contacted, I feel too awkward to enjoy the call. On one hand, I honestly believe that the water systems can benefit from the professional services offered by my employers, because often the systems are inefficient, hampered by aging infrastructure, and run by volunteers who may not be aware of the support they can access. On the other hand, years of anti-capitalist idealism and studies in cooperative business models make me clam up when dealing with “hard pitches” and “sales funnels”.

Often, the person I’m talking with doesn’t understand why I’m calling, so I can easily just get their email, send them an info package, and continue with my daily pitch goal. Sometimes, they’re sufficiently engaged with water issues to ask exactly what it is our company offers, tell me a few things about their water system, and have a good discussion. Even when these people figure they won’t need our services, I appreciate the fact that they’ll talk to me.

Then there’s the jerks, who get irate and acuse me of trying to sell them something, as if that’s a crime, as if I’m trying to scam them. This is where my own doubt comes to light: I want to convince them that I’m not trying to sell them anything they couldn’t use, anything that wouldn’t make their water safer and their systems easier to manage, but I can’t. Instead I just feel bad for being part the sales machine, and question my own beliefs and reasons for taking this job.

I can rationalize working here very easily, firstly because I need a job and secondly because access to clean water is a huge fucking problem that I want to help solve. Where I get lost is in my lack of confidence in private for-profit enterprise: Is this really the best way of fixing things?

From the limited experience I’ve gained during my 6 days of employment in the industry, I would say that one of the biggest problems in the water industry is communication: There’s no comprehensive public listing of water system administrators, no listing of grants available to them, no framework for engagement. Being a geeky organizer sort of person, I immediately want to make a website that does all these things, and I want to coordinate conferences and webinars and all sorts of other events that’ll get people educated and engaged with water issues. The more capitalist side of me will say that that’s exactly what this company is working on, for the good of the people. And that may be true, and if I really try, I guess I can see it that way. Then I read another email from my boss about “coaching” “prospects” through the “sales funnel” and I get all nauseous. Meanwhile, I’m at least learning to question my ability to take clean drinking water for granted… And paying the bills, which feels like no small feat these days.