Saturday, June 20, 2009

Incompetent Book Critic Extraordinaire

Life, lately, has involved a great deal of retching and sobbing and laying semiconscious and wishing for the sweet release of death. Providing respite from my own morbid thoughts has been the only form of entertainment which has been mildly tolerable: listening to audio books.

Listening to another person read a book out loud is a favourite past time of young and illiterate children, the blind, and the incompetently lazy. I have gladly found myself in that final category. I can brush my dog (or chop off all of his fur), or try to apply mascara, or lay with my eyes shut and try to quell the urge to projectile vomit, all while experiencing any number of literary works. There is probably something very blasphemous about this, and I’m sorry if any readers are offended by my laziness, but the Vancouver library has offered this service to me (and to you, too!) free of charge via library-to-go, and I would be stupid and lazy not to take advantage (as opposed to being merely lazy).

Having now “read” more books than I have since I started my bachelor degree and lost my taste for reading, I will now take on the role of incompetent Literary Critic. Please enjoy.

The Camera My Mother Gave Me by Susanna Kaysen - The author of Girl, Interrupted presented a second memoir from later in her life, and so I downloaded this book without any idea of its content. I found that there was no camera, and there was no mother. There was, however, a sore spot on the woman’s vagina. This was the entire subject of the book. I have never thought of myself as opposed to listening to a woman talk for extended periods of time about her sore vagina…but then again, the opportunity to do so had never really come up. I did enjoy the book, sort of - the writing was good, the characterizations and dialogues adept - but the splendours of genealogical exams make for a slightly off-putting subject matter (and I am aware that saying so probably makes me a prude and a very bad feminist. I am sorry.) Grade B-

Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen - Really, this is the book I wanted to read to begin with. The author’s writing style is perfect for describing the oddities and inconsistencies of life, or more specifically two years of young adulthood within a psychiatric hospital. The movie, which everyone the world over has already seen, is similar but strikingly different in many fundamental ways - most of the major plot points are fabricated, along with the character arches and Susanna’s pursuit of ‘recovery.’ Instead, the book simply presents the facts, which make a far more interesting portrait of the world: Susanna met with a doctor she had never seen before, and after twenty minutes (and the fact that she had scratched a pimple) she was admitted to a hospital for two years, where she hung out, met many other young women, and then was released two years down the road without any major changes or epiphanies. Did I say interesting? Perhaps I should have said ‘disturbing.’ Or simply ‘realistic.’ I would definitely recommend the book - which is short enough to manage even if you can’t find someone to read it aloud. Grade A-

The Dogs Who Found Me by Ken Foster - I was very sick, and this book seemed easy to take. It was, but the adventures of saving a few stray dogs, coupled with a straightforward and somewhat annoying writing style, don’t make for anything compelling enough to recommend to others. The author does take on a moral stance of ‘just trying to do the right thing’ which I think is a message that needs to be heard - he starts noticing abandoned and stray dogs shortly after adopting his own dog, while other people ignore or simply don’t see them at all. This rings disturbingly true. I have myself successfully returned two strays to their owners - but both in the last year, since I’ve had my own dogs. Maybe we should all try a little harder to notice stray dogs, and stray children, and stray cell phones…and just be better neighbours in general. And if you can do that, there’s no need to read this book. Grade C

If I Stay by Gayle Forman - I had placed a hold on this book ages ago, and when I received a notice telling me to download it, I couldn’t remember why. It was a young adult novel. It featured a happy family. The characters were compelling, relatable, and endearing…but I don’t go out of my way to read anything so blatantly happy and well-adjusted. And then, two chapters in, the family gets in a horrible car crash and everyone, save the teenage daughter, is killed. Oh. Well that sounds like a book I’d read. Now, through flashbacks and observing her own injured body as it makes its way through surgery and the ICU, the young woman must decide whether or not she wants to go, to be with her parents and her little brother, or if it is worth it to fight to live, and stay. The book is well written, the characters are all compelling, and the author is guilty of tugging on heartstrings in an obvious but effective manner that will have all but the most black-hearted readers curled up in the fetal position and sobbing, again and again. My recommendation is coupled with a recommendation for Kleenex, a loved one, and a solid afternoon to recover from the wrenching ordeal. Grade A

The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J. Maarten Troost - This book is written by me. Or, it would have been, if I had a slightly better vocabulary, the willpower to write an entire book, and a far more interesting life involving graduate school in Washington followed by a relocation with my wife to an isolated island in the South Pacific. The adventures of the surly author, as he can feel his freckles “morphing into something interesting and tumorous” on a tropical paradise/hellhole, make for a hilarious and thoroughly enjoyable read which has me wanting to drop everything and move to Kiribati or, far more likely, going to Chapters to buy his second book. Grade A+

Friday, June 19, 2009

How You Can Save the Map Van

How YOU can save the MAP Van (assuming you’re so inclined)


We need your support Tuesday, June 23rd, between 9:30 pm and 10:30 pm when we will stand together for the MAP van.

Come out along the MAP van route and,
light a candle.

Rallying Points:
Hastings and Gore
Dunlevy and Cordova
Hastings and Jackson
Hastings and Hawks
Hasting and Campbell
Franklin and Raymur
Franklin at Commercial Drive
Victoria and Triumph
Clark at East Georgia
Grandview Park on Commercial Drive
Commercial at 7th (meet on the bridge)
Kingsway and Nanaimo
Kingsway and Joyce

Please mark your calendars: Tuesday, June 23rd, 9:30 pm

Show the Premier and the Provincial Government that women on our streets are at terrible risk without the MAP van.

Give the new Solicitor General, Kash Heed, a battle to win for survival sex workers

· MAP(Mobile Access Project) is an essential overnight service providing women sex workers with options for health and safety
· MAP is operated through a partnership with WISH and PACE
· We can never forget the 67 women who went missing from the same streets where the MAP van works every night.
· What is the social cost of taking the MAP van off the road?
· Show the government that they can make the difference between life and death
· 95% of all "Bad Date" reports are made to the MAP van staff, providing the only and immediate warning for sex workers against violent predators

To find out more about WISH:
To find out more about PACE:

The Map Van

The Traded Sex and The Map Van: how saving one small ambulance can save the world

Two weeks ago, a small converted ambulance that patrolled the streets of Vancouver at night and provided a lifeline to many sex trade workers as they stood on street corners, disappeared.

The Mobile Access Project, or the MAP Van, was an essential service to many of the city's most vulnerable. Now, it is gone. The Map Van was a victim of provincial budget cuts. And in a way, so are the countless women who used the van's services, and who make easy prey for so many other predators.

Please read the Vancouver Sun's pieces on the topic, while I go try to drink some clear fluids.

Victoria Cuts Off Funds to Service that Protects Sex Trade Workers

Women will be at greater risk of violence, advocate says

An advocate for Vancouver sex-trade workers says they will soon be at greater risk because the B.C. government has cut off funding for a van that cruises the streets at night, watching out for the women.

Losing the van means a greater risk of violence and less access to harm-reduction supplies, first aid, and bad-date reports in the overnight hours when sex workers are most active, said Kate Gibson, executive director of the WISH Drop-in Centre.

The van, which supplies the only overnight services to sex workers, is stocked with condoms, first-aid supplies, a needle exchange, coffee, fruit juice, water, referrals to support services, and posters showing missing women and dangerous johns.

It stops along the most popular strolls or at specific locations requested by sex workers. Each night, 40 to 50 women show up for supplies, support or companionship over a cup of coffee. The van's last run will be on June 12.

The province, citing financial pressure, has not renewed the $250,000 needed to keep the van running for another year.

The solicitor-general's ministry said the project's funding request is under review.

"The provincial government, like other jurisdictions around the world, is facing challenging and unprecedented economic times, requiring some difficult decisions," the ministry said in a statement Wednesday to The Vancouver Sun.

Laurel Irons, who has staffed the van since 2004, said sex workers "are already very upset, concerned and feel just really left out in the cold, wondering why such an important service to them is being taken away."

Irons said she has intervened at times when sex workers were stalked, pepper-sprayed and assaulted.

"I don't know what a lot of women are going to do without having somewhere to turn in those desperate moments," she said.

Kate Shannon, a research scientist at the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, said services that keep sex work above-ground are essential for ensuring women's health.

"We need to scale up mobile services to sex workers. The closure of the mobile access-point van is a huge step backwards," Shannon said.

The City of Vancouver is considering how it can help restore funding, Coun. Kerry Jang said.

Cutting off Funding for street prostitute van is unconscionable

Vancouver Sun
June 17, 2009 9:34

It's common to hear politicians at all levels of government speak sympathetically about the plight of prostitutes who work on street. But doing something about their plight is another thing entirely.

We know that the 20 per cent of prostitutes who work the street are in far more danger than the 80 per cent who work in escort agencies or out of apartments or hotels. Indeed, almost every one of the more than 100 prostitutes murdered in British Columbia in the past two decades has been a street worker.

We also know that street workers tend to be among the lowest functioning prostitutes, as many have endured horrific abuse and are frequently battling addictions and psychiatric illnesses.

Consequently, we hear politicians speak about how we need to provide better services for such women, including exit services to help them leave life on the street.

Yet exit programs remain scarce, and mental health and addiction services are still inadequate. So despite the rhetoric, "survival" sex workers -- those who must sell their bodies to survive -- remain on the street.

And that means the few services that offer them a minimum of protection become all-important. Services like the Mobile Access Project, a van that roams the streets and back alleys of Vancouver between 10.30 p.m. and 5:30 a.m., offering street workers refreshments, condoms, needles, information and protection.

Perhaps we should say the van "roamed" the streets, because it is no more. Thanks to the B.C. government's decision not to renew funding for the project, which is run by the Women's Information and Safe House (WISH) and Prostitution Alternatives Counselling and Education Society (PACE), the van no longer takes to the streets.

This means that during the hours when many of the most vulnerable prostitutes work, and are therefore in the most danger, there will be no services available at all.

This is tremendously unfortunate, given that the van would, among other things, keep records of missing women and of "bad dates" -- street slang for being assaulted or abused on the job.

The project would also supply police and social service agencies with information about these events, which means it could well have saved the lives of many women.

And it is nothing short of extraordinary that the province would eliminate funding for a project like this in a city still reeling from the murders of scores of women.

The van also prevented abuse in a more direct way: According to an evaluation of the project, 16 per cent of van users said the van's presence prevented them from being assaulted.

The project has also helped prevent the spread of blood borne infections like HIV and Hepatitis C, as it distributed condoms and clean needles, while collecting used ones. And given the tremendous cost of treating even one such infection, the van clearly proved its cost-effectiveness.

Finally, regarding exit strategies -- the project happens to be one of the few that provides work experience for street prostitutes, as it hired former prostitutes to work with those who are still on the street.

Hence, if we're really interested in helping vulnerable women leave the street, the van should be among our highest priorities.

To be sure, governments everywhere are under significant financial pressure, and must carefully choose what projects to fund.

But to eliminate funding for a program that is cost-effective -- and cost-averting -- is unwise, to say the least. And to eliminate funding for a cost-effective program that saves and improves lives is unconscionable.

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

***Please let the Premier know you've been following the story in the media:

Gordon Campbell, Premier of BC
Telephone: 250-387-1715
Fax: 250-387-0087
Parliament Buildings, Room 156
Victoria, British Columbia
V8V 1X4

The Decriminalization Debate

The Traded Sex - The Decriminalization Debate, and why yelling with your fingers in your ears isn’t solving any problems

Everyone who does know Canada’s laws will be able to tell you that Legalizing Prostitution is not the solution, because, as I’ve mentioned, the practice is already perfectly legal. It’s just the talking part that’s illegal, and the indoor facilities that house the messier bits…which of course makes perfect sense.

The raging debate tends to be over whether or not prostitution should be Decriminalized…that is, should we regulate the process and put women indoors in windows a la Amsterdam and rake in tax revenues? This is a stance taken on by several feminist organizations and pragmatists in the name of cleaning up the streets, regulating the now chaotic industry, and stopping the women involved from fearing the agencies meant to protect them, like crown prosecutors and police.

This regulation would ensure condom use, HIV tests, and clean sheets. It might provide security, saving some lives in the most direct way. And since the survival sex trade is already visible to anyone driving down Hastings or Kingsway, then we might as well have window displays, and make a few bucks of revenue in the process. And so the argument goes.

Others feel that the practice should be outright illegal, and there’s a lot of feminists and pragmatists on that side, too. The act of selling one’s body, often fuelled by forces of extreme poverty and desperation, is degrading and speaks to social problems that should be solved in other ways. The fact that most sex trade workers are women (and often are girls) speaks to the misogynistic nature of the industry - this is not something that the government should sanction. Amsterdam, with its safely enclosed spaces and sexy window dressings, has a dark underbelly.

HIV positive women and those with addiction issues rarely work in the legally sanctioned brothels, but they surround them, and live off of the tourist industry of Johns that pours into Amsterdam to seek out an easy lay. Legalized prostitution rarely solves the issue of survival sex workers, who remain on the outskirts of the law and are the most likely to be victimized. The legalization of prostitution creates not only a boom in Johns from far and wide, but also women - women from Eastern Europe or Asia or Africa, sold, enslaved, promised a job elsewhere, put into debt by their journey, beaten, raped…it’s not a nice story.

Those interested in Human Trafficking, or how women the world over are bought and sold so that men can buy sex, should look into the subject - the movie Lilya 4 Ever is a stunning film based on poverty, prostitution, and sex slaves, and will having you sobbing into your puppy for weeks on end.

The argument between Decriminalizing or Criminalizing waged on and neither camps were saying much to the other besides ’you’re stupid,’ and ’you hate women.’

This created an impasse which went nicely with the stance of most politicians, who didn’t want to have to talk about Prostitution anyways.

A nice update has come from the land of ice, snow, and vampires…aka socialist paradise Sweden. Sweden passed a law a few years ago which criminalizes pimps and johns but leaves the sex trade workers themselves alone, and thus capable of going to police, reporting bad dates, and seeking out social services.

This law will often be summarized as “criminalize the men, help the women.” And while I agree with the nature of the law itself, I dislike the stereotypes it implies, and the anti-male sentiment which encourages (mostly male) politicians and law makers to not go near the issue of prostitution, and discourages an entire half of the population from caring. I myself am as guilty as anyone in this respect…so I’ll take this moment to try and correct myself: Both men and women and boys and girls can be, and are, sexually exploited. There are male and female sex trade workers, male and female pimps, and male and female consumers of sex. Women can commit horrible actions, just as men can. The language of ‘men = johns’ and ‘women = workers’ is meant to represent the vast majority of situations and victimizations, as well as my personal knowledge on the subject. However, that is not solely the case and we would do well to remember that, too.

And finally: occasionally, individuals will cite ‘moral objections’ to the legalization of prostitution. Morality, being a vague and individualistic term, is difficult to pin down, but can usually be translated as follows: a) it makes me feel icky, b) it is unfamiliar to my cultural norms and therefore confusing and/or hateful, or c) I lack further evidence and therefore am citing my view as a religious stance to support an otherwise unfounded argument. And sometimes, people use the term ‘morals’ as a synonym for ‘ethics’ - if you yourself do this, please don’t. Ethics are discussion of right, wrong and permissible behaviours based on logic, reason, and orderly thought. Morals are…not.

What's Legal, What's Not, and What It All Means

The Traded Sex - What’s Legal, What’s Not, and What It All Means

Like many Canadians, I learned about the legal system from my television set. Shows like Law and Order paved the way - the system represented was American, but the crimes, and their appeal, crossed the border with ease. Enough television shows and movies centre around our fascination with crime that viewers gain a plethora of knowledge worthy of a bachelor’s degree, at least, and I find myself knowing a far deal more about the justice system of New York than my own city’s bylaws - chickens are legal, you say? Exactly.

News media in Canada usually bridge the rest of the gap. Canadians are obsessed with our American neighbours and at the same time desire to be autonomous and independent without ever quite understanding what that means. This makes any noted difference between Canadians and Americans, no matter how small or anecdotal, incredibly newsworthy. Consequently, every Canadian knows that the drinking age in the States is 21 (but not the drinking age of New Brunswick), the laxity of American gun laws (but not those of their own province), and the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony (but not their Canadian equivalents, or if the system translates at all). I even know that conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor is a felony, thanks to Legally Blonde. Pop culture education, you have served me well.

Where this education system fails, miserably, is when the law system doesn’t make sense. It is in this unknown realm that Canadian prostitution laws lie. Pop culture doesn’t known what a bawdy house is or how it relates to procuring a sex act, and they don’t even know if trading sex for money is legal. Surprisingly, it is.

The following should summarize Canada’s laws.

1. If, in a non-public space (like a home or hotel bedroom), a person trades sex for money or money for sex, this is a perfectly legal transaction.

2. If in a public space (like a street corner, or often a car with an open window) a person “communicates for the purpose of prostitution,” or, say, asks a working girl how much she’s charging, that is illegal.

3. If in a non-public space (like the hotel bedroom used legally in Scenario 1) is used repeatedly by one or more prostitutes as a place of work, then that place is designated a Bawdy House. Just hanging out in a Bawdy House is illegal.

4. If you encourage a minor to work in the sex trade, that is illegal. If you ‘live off the avails’ of a sex trade worker, that is illegal - this is a law meant to criminalize bad boyfriends, or pimps, and madams. If you coerce anyone into working in the sex trade, that is illegal.

And those are Canada’s laws.

The convoluted language and outdated terms relates to the age of the documents, because these laws are really freaking old. The reason they haven’t been updated is because no one seems able to agree on a solution, and the messy nature of poverty, addiction, mental health, and women’s rights has no politician eager to touch these laws with anything but a disinfectant towelette.

Also of interest in the legal department is the fact that prostitutes can be beaten, raped, and robbed, just like anyone else, and that this is not okay.

I don’t want to dwell on this subject, so I will only say that a great many of the people who purchase sex (“johns”) view sex trade workers as a kind of disposable woman, like a plastic cup, or a latex condom. The ‘bad date sheets’ that are distributed to sex trade workers are filled with the acts of such men, which are incredibly violent and coloured by a sadism that is hard to grasp.

...Worker was sprayed with bear spray while man stood by, laughed…woman was held in apartment for three days and raped (vaginally and anally) repeatedly by men and their friends…woman was kicked in stomach, robbed of purse, and left on a strange road...

And on and on.

Working With Women In Vancouver's Downtown Eastside

The Traded Sex - Working With Women in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside

People sometimes ask me what I do, and they’re usually not asking how I waste my days and read Wikipedia entries and water my lemon tree. They are asking how I pay my rent, or more specifically, my job.

I have two jobs, but my major position, which I’ve held for a year, involves working at a drop in with a clientele of mostly female survival sex workers. (My other job is also at a drop in, but that one mostly houses a lovable bunch of older men with mental health issues…kind of like the characters of One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest as they would appear today.)

Those that are not scared off sometimes ask what exactly I do, or how I fill my time at the centre. This question is much harder to answer, and it varies greatly depending on the night. I wipe tables and mop floors. I am kind of a janitor, I guess. I call shelters and make referrals to community agencies, sometimes. I sit down and talk to women and joke about the clothes they’re wearing and try to build rapport. I hand out band-aids, I watch volunteers do dishes, I clean up various bodily fluids…This is my life.

A coworker answered the question after a particularly heinous week: “Apparently, I help street people clean out abscesses for a living.”

On busier or more difficult nights, I often call 911.

Medical emergencies happen and people have seizures or vomit blood. Abscesses grow to the size of baseballs and threaten to cut off breathing. The suicide rate is high, and sometimes it’s a mental health emergency that prompts the call. Other times, it’s violence.

It’s here I must add that I am not the bulkiest or beefiest of women. I am short, and gaunt, and wholly miniscule. Many of the women who use the centre are not much bigger - they are malnourished and fighting various illnesses. Still, almost every woman in the centre could tell a harrowing story about how they left some guy lying unconscious in a pool of his own blood, and I’d believe them. They are toughened and hardened; I am not even scrappy. This makes me a most incompetent bouncer, but that’s a role I take on, too.

Unlike a few of my coworkers, I have been lucky. I haven't even been punched.

Why, Ivy, who is small and sick, would you choose to work in such a place?

The answer deserves much more attention than I can give it at the moment, but most people have known at least the tiniest urge of wanting to change things that aren't working, to sit with someone when they are sad, and to do one's part to make the world appear a little more like the utopia you would like it to be. This urge, unleashed, can draw people to the darkest corners of the universe, or at least their own city. Luckily, once there, people often discover that those they are "helping" are beautiful and worthwhile human beings who just want to be loved, supported, housed, bandaged, kept safe, etc., etc..

And that is what I try to do.

The Traded Sex

From the Ivy Donegal Encyclopedia of Opinionated Knowledge, I proudly present The Traded Sex, a series examining Vancouver’s sex industry, the legalities of the sex trade and their personal ramifications, and the untimely closure of the MAP Van, it’s impact, and what you can do to save it.

Please bare in mind that I am not a lawyer, or a legal expert of any kind. I am not a representative for sex trade workers, or workers who work with sex trade workers, or any group of people, anywhere. I am an opinionated person with a blog where I talk about boys and puppies. I also happen to work, in one of my jobs, with survival sex workers in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, and have an uncanny memory for facts presented in lectures heard two years ago in my Psychology of Human Sexuality class, among other relevant material. If you feel that parts of this series are incorrect or misleading, please inform me of such and I will do my best to correct them.

Also, I happen to be sick. So the original majesty of this series has died, a little bit, along with my lymph glands. Articles are less edited and complete than they normally are, and I would be sorry, except I need to go vomit, and that's taking up most of my attention.

You may now read on…

The Traded Sex - Working With Women In Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside

The Traded Sex - What’s Legal, What’s Not, and What It All Means

The Traded Sex - The Decriminalization Debate, and why yelling with your fingers in your ears isn’t solving any problems

The Traded Sex - The Map Van: how saving one small ambulance can save the world

The Traded Sex- Save the Map Van: what you can do

Future Articles:
The Traded Sex - When Universal Health Care is Not Universal
The Traded Sex: ‘Whores,’ ‘Prostitutes,’ and sometimes even ‘People’

Also of Interest:
Ode to the Cookie Man
Watching the Little Girls Dance
Prework Ramble

“One of my favourite girls at work is currently on methadone and told me today that she is no longer working - she is trying to get her act together and is considering going into rehab. This thrills me to no end - I know that her odds of staying clean are slim, and that addiction is cyclical in nature, but having the willpower to consider ending that cycle...Huge.

This girl is nineteen - she is one of the youngest women to use our centre. People are quick to note how a traumatic street life can age people, but the reverse is also true. When you are living day-to-day and in the throws of addiction or violence, you don't meet your developmental milestones in the way that regular children and young adults do; you can remain stuck, a time capsule of your former self.

To me, this girl is barely thirteen - she is negotiating life the way that your average middle schooler would, and trying to make the best of it. You don't become a heroin addicted sex trade worker overnight - the average age of entry into the sex trade is fourteen, and I think perhaps she was ahead of the curb.

I am amazed by her optimism and strength - I hope things work out. She could have an amazing life.”

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A Sometimes Fictional Childhood

The events describes herein, while not necessarily based on “facts” in the traditional, boring sense, certainly contain an emotional validity driven from the profound and inexplicable experiences of the heart…and really, isn’t that more true than anything you’ve read on Wikipedia?

A Sometimes Fictional Childhood

It was the start of another tormented school year.

I had been forced to pick a descriptive adjective starting with the first letter of my name, which I was told to write in front of my name and then colour, brightly, so it could be posted on our classroom bulletin board.

Joyce picked ‘joyful.’ Leslie picked ‘little.’ Kate picked ‘kind.’ This was a ballsy and blatant lie, but the teachers were happy to ignore Kate’s disregard for facts and civility so long as she used the right letter.

I was determined to use this project as a insightful exercise in self examination. Plus, my first name was a mere three letters long, and so I needed a suitably large descriptor if I was going to be able to use five or more pencil crayons in the colouring portion of my masterpiece. If I chose a lame word like ‘imp’…not that I would…I would find myself at the bottom of the colour spectrum, failing to beat even Loyal Lu, who didn’t speak much English. That would be disgraceful.

When I failed to think of a suitable alliterating adjective in class, I took the project home and pulled out our family’s bulky dictionary.

“Indigenous!” I cried. My mother eyed me skeptically.

“I think it’s a word that’s used for aboriginal people.” My mother said, and I asked her if I was aboriginal. She informed me that I was not, and in doing so crushed my dreams.

“Indignant!” My mother said this was accurate, but could be perceived as an attack on the project itself and the teachers who created it, which was not the sort of thing I wanted to do so early in the school year.

I sighed and closed the dictionary. My mother suggested ‘Irish.’

I stated that I was not Irish.

But my name was Irish, and my ancestors came from Ireland, she argued, or at least a few of them did.

But I wasn’t an Irish citizen, and I didn’t have an Irish passport, and real Irish people would laugh at me and call me a poser. The humiliation of this possibility did not impress my mother, who knew there were no real Irish citizens trolling the halls of my school and analysing the artwork of young children, but she let the subject go. I pondered how the colonial legacy of North America had left me unable to claim the title of Irish or Indigenous as my own. I couldn‘t even write ‘immigrant,’ because I knew I wasn‘t one of those, either. I would have been happy to write ‘Canadian’ or even ‘confused,’ but neither of those started with the letter ‘i’.

I asked my mother why she hadn’t named me Clifford.

“You could call me ‘Cliff,’ or ‘Cliffy.’” I stated, shocked by her lack of foresight.

My mother went to the other room.

I continued to brainstorm all the names that would have been easier to work with, until my brother heard of my project and ruined my fun.

“Impostor.” He yelled from the couch, watching Ninja turtles. “Impolite. Immature. Embarrassed.”

Neither of us knew that the last was not an i-word at all. I grew angrier and my face turned red.

“Inflamed. Infuriated. Injuring me!” I had only punched him once on the arm. “In trouble. Ha.”

My mother came back from the kitchen and banished me to my room, which was actually a small corner of my sister’s room. She had been playing quietly on the floor and was approximately four years old.

I asked her if she knew any ‘i’ words.

“Illiterate.” She responded. I eyed her suspiciously.

The troubles with my name had been in the works long before I was ever conceived. My great grandmother’s middle name was Anne, and my grandmother’s middle name was Anne. My mother, her firstborn daughter, had the middle name Anne. And so I was destined to have the most boring and common middle name for my own, whether I liked it or not. I didn’t.

My last name was to be Donegal; I have no issues with my last name. But the pairing of Anne and Donegal created an uncomfortable set of initials. My mother liked ‘Beatrice’ for a first name, which spelled B-A-D, ‘bad.’ My father liked Michelle, spelling M-A-D, ‘mad.’ Even ‘Hailey,’ which they both thought was pretty, seemed pejorative when they knew I would be ‘had.’ Sad, fad, lad, wad…none of these seemed especially nice labels to saddle on a tiny baby girl.

Clifford would have worked, but my parents were too conventional. My father hated names that were androgynous, having himself endured the name Shannon. My grandparents already had two boys and thus declared that their youngest child-to-be would be a Shannon, hoping a double x chromosome would take the hint and follow suite. It didn’t, and Shannon the boy had spent his entire life being mistaken for Shannon the girl.

My brother’s name, John, was chosen by him as a stance against all things ambiguously gendered.

Neither of my parents ever expressed any real enthusiasm over my name or could describe why they had picked it, specifically. It had been a compromise and a necessary task of late pregnancy, much like taking out life insurance or deciding whether or not to get an epidural.

“I liked it. I thought it was kind of pretty.” My mother claims, trodding all over my self esteem. She loves my little sister’s first name. She loves my older brother’s second name, which is her father’s first name.

I think of her describing me, her middle child, to strangers: Oh, Ivy. I like her, I guess. She’s kind of pretty.

And the story goes downhill from there.

Because ‘Ivy’ proved too hard a name to repeat incessantly, my mother and grandmother often shortened it down. This was difficult, as my name was only three letters to start with and relatively easy on the tongue. The resulting nickname was ‘Ives’ or sometimes ‘Ive.’ They were ineffectual short forms, as they took nearly as much energy to say and equal or greater energy to write, but that wasn’t my major problem.

I had several majors problems.

First on my list of grievances is the fact that ‘Ives’ sounds a lot like ‘hives,’ a skin condition of itchiness and clustered, ugly bumps that results from exposure to a triggering allergen. Much like the rash resulting from exposure to Poison Ivy, which was what my brother called me. No one likes hives, and no one likes Ives. Unfortunately, my mother did not grasp this abstract concept.

Second, no one seemed capable of figuring out what ‘Ives’ stood for, though this never stopped them from trying to guess. Having heard only ‘Ives’ from my mother, a foreign adult would then refer to me: Ivory? Ivanhoe? Yvonna? Ivan? (Note: two of those names are male. My father would be appalled.)

Ivy was difficult to guess, because regular parents do not name their offspring after climbing and poisonous plant life.

After a dental hygienist called me Ivory in front of us both, and we’d later retreated to the car, I crossed my arms and announced that I might as well just change my name.

“Ivory’s a nicer name anyways.” I groused.

My mother raised an eyebrow and wondered if I wanted to be named after the poached tusk of a dead elephant. I did not. But then again, it was unlikely that my mother would call me ‘ivory’ even if it was my real name. She would shorten it to something uglier and be impervious to my protests.

This brings me to my final point.

A person should never be called by something that they don’t want to be called, no matter how lovely a name or nickname it objectively may be. If your kid does not want to be called ‘Ives,’ a reasonable adult should quit calling her Ives. And if her only response to the name is always ‘Stop calling me that!’ and anger at your continued obstinacy, then you should certainly quit calling her Ives. And if, twenty years down the road, when she calls you on the phone, and someone else in the background asks who’s calling, and you answer back ‘it’s Ives’ and a part of me dies...Seriously, Mother. If you’re reading this, I love you, but you have got to STOP calling me Ives. For the love of baby Jesus.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Creepy Things

A terrified and pleading young woman is undressed in front of a few hundred theatre-goers before being feasted upon by a troop of vampires (pretending to be humans pretending to be vampires). I’ve seen this movie enough times that I know this scene is coming, and retreat quietly to a different room.

“Don’t you like it?” Asks a friend.

“I do. It’s just that gang-rapey scene.” As though the use of ‘rapey’ as an adjective did not imply this, “I find it a little disturbing.”

“But they’re vampires.” She says, and waits, and I wait too, hoping to grasp her point. I don’t.

My friend is transfixed. Vampires, the dark overlords of the culture’s underworld psyche, stalk through the night and feast upon the blood of unsuspecting humans and animals. These humans are usually somewhat deserving - mostly women, promiscuous, or prostitutes, and whether this is a morality tale or a reflection of ease-of-access that mirrors real life serial killers, it doesn’t really matter. We humans are enraptured by our pale fictional friends, and I know one or two young women who would gladly sacrifice their jugular for the cause.

I liked Interview with the Vampire, and I cheered on the smiley and sociopathic Tom Cruise (and rolled my eyes an effeminate and moralizing Brad Pitt). I can certainly relate to the allure of the Dark Side. A great deal of the allure, I think, lies in its simplicity - we don’t need to know why Bad Guys are bad. We don’t need to hear about Tom Cruise’s tragic and neglectful upbringing and the fact that in his early vampire years he adopted a scrappy kitten named Philippe who died tragically in a house fire…we don’t know, and we don‘t want to know, because the title of ‘kickass bad guy’ contains all the information we need. Tom Cruise remains self-interested and unrepentantly evil. He is powerful, vengeful, intelligent, and crazed. He is nothing more, and nothing less, and if you try to cross him by feeding him the blood of the dead, he will kick your ass, Kirsten Dunst.

This lack of moral nuance has faded out of popularity in recent years, which is a bit of a tragedy. We miss the simple tales of our youth, where bad was bad and good was good and the answer to ‘why’ was ‘because I said so.’ Prisons today keep choosing to rehabilitate criminals instead of just torturing them…well, most prisons. And ‘hate’ has become a word reserved for the parents of adolescent children instead of an emotion freely spewed at people of different races, municipalities, and those who cut you off in traffic. This left-leaning trend of understanding and shades of grey has left a void. We miss our black and white world of old and, most of all, we miss the badass men lurking creepily in the dark.

The more recent vampire flick, Let the Right One In, speaks to this desire directly. A small ugly child is bullied by his peers amidst a bleak socialist wasteland in this independent Swedish film, until a vampire moves in next door and teaches him the true meaning of friendship…and revenge. The bloody rapture that follows speaks to the secret desires of everyone who’s ever been bullied or abused. In fact, we’ve all had moments where we will someone else to DIE!…and thankfully, we don’t have powers of telekinesis, and nothing ever comes of these fleeting homicidal fantasies. We aren’t immortal, and we aren’t all powerful, and we aren’t vampires…and so we must learn to forgive and forget and function within a regular society.

Vampires don’t have to obey any such rules. And so we all stand on the sidelines, cheering them on and living vicariously as they suckle upon the blood of the innocent…until the moment is reached that our stomach turns. Suddenly, the dazzling veil is lifted, and I realize I’m watching a bloodbath that victimizes women and treads dangerously close to a rape-and-murder fantasy that I don’t want to think too hard about. The revenge plot reminds me of school shootings, and the crazed glee of Tom Cruise’s Lestat seems a prelude to the actor’s sermons on the virtues of Scientology.

But a true Bad Guy is one who is neither demonized or humanized, nor examined with any real scrutiny. He remains conceptual, fictional, and the object of only a momentary fascination. The villain, the vampire, then disappears and emerges a decade later, unaged and in a slightly different form, from the prose of Bram Stoker to the dribble of Twilight. He shows up in a Swedish snowdrift, and then he’s gone, again, no more than a vapor in a dense and foggy night.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Smoking Room

Back in the 1960s, various health organizations began telling a story that would change our smoky world: cigarettes are bad for your health.

Until that point, while many had heard the tell-tale smokers cough, cigarettes had been as much a part of the North American experience as apple pie and pitchers of beer. When I asked my grandmother if it bothered her that her first husband smoked, she had responded, well, no. Everyone smoked. She had dabbled with cigarettes on occasion, until they became less fashionable and sifted their way into the counter culture, where her daughter, in the 1970s, would take up smoking in bathrooms stalls to be ‘cool.’

Today, the most worrisome demographic of smokers continues to be young women - the only demographic that keeps smoking at an increasing and alarming rate. This is also the demographic that is becoming the new face of HIV, and a host of other health problems previously relegated to completely different health groups.

This has the health organizations terribly upset and confused.

They keep using, with increasing desperation, the only message they have ever had: cigarettes are bad for your health. Cigarettes are bad for your health! Don’t you hear me? Look, I’ll show you a lung! See? Look! Cigarettes are bad for your health!

Young girls keep ignoring and taking up that filtered teat, and it’s no wonder: they all knew that cigarettes could and would kill them when they started smoking. They knew every harmful effect of cigarettes the day they bought their first pack…and they bought them, and continue to buy them, anyway. If you want to stop them from smoking, you’ll have to answer the question…Why?

Why do young women choose to smoke, even though they know that smoking will destroy their bodies slowly and eventually cut their lives short?

And hells if I know the answer - but I suspect that it’s an important one.

Perhaps there is a common factor in all the illnesses and behaviours that plague young women more-so than any other demographic. Smoking nestles in nicely with increased incidence of HIV and other STIs, coupled with dangerous or unprotected sex. Anorexia nervosa, bulimia, self injury, trichotilomania...all of these are behaviours found primarily in young women. All of these behaviours willingly and flagrantly sacrifice health. All of them persist despite the protests of health professionals, while rates of anxiety and depression among young women continue to soar.

But really, what do I know - I’m not even a smoker. I’ve thought about being one - in fact, I've spent long periods desperately craving a cigarette despite never having tasted one. This thought would not have entered my mind before working downtown, where I found that everyone smoked and that cigarettes were a valued commodity.

I bought my first pack to bribe women into liking me, and it worked. Staff who smoke have a better rapport - they can sit out on the deck and talk about life between drags, while I sit inside, alone, in the staff room, with my insidious, clean air. They get frequent breaks to sit outdoors and take long, contemplative breaths - a luxurious thing, really, that non-smokers rarely request for themselves. And I don’t envy the cyanide, or the tar, or even the nicotine…but the statement of not giving a shit, of knowing that you’ll die and smoking anyways, in a population that walks so very close to the edge of death…even that seems a little alluring.

When I ask them why they took up smoking, the answers don't tell me too much....all of my friends smoked, I wanted to be cool in the 80s, and I did it to get back at an ex-boyfriend. I was drinking a lot, or I wanted to stay warm, or I was already using and really, if you're smoking crack, cigarettes are the lesser of many evils. And so on.