Book blurbs for fun: Missed Connections

The cover of Missed Connections, by Brian Francis, featuring an illustrated pen drawing out the title, a pile of letters and the silhouette of a man walking away.

Time for another book blurb: Brian Francis’ memoir Missed Connections, published by McClelland & Stewart/Penguin Random House Canada—I got my copy from Glad Day Bookshop (Toronto). I also saw the SummerWorks 2018 production Box 4901.

Those who saw Brian Francis’ SummerWorks 2018 stage production Box 4901 will recognize the personal archive of unanswered male-seeks-male personal ad letters, and the cast of characters he draws from them, in his candid, humourous and sharply drawn memoir Missed Connections. Both self-deprecating and self-aware, the storytelling is nostalgic, introspective, and rife with the wisdom of age and experience—tying the past to the present with ruminations on body image, coming out, desire, relationships, and perceptions of masculinity and aging. Told from the perspective of a gay man navigating his own life and identity, from his small-town roots, to conservative city university experience, to big city life as a writer, Missed Connections is a funny, poignant and thoughtful testimonial to his 21-year-old self and the 13 men whose letters went unanswered.

Book blurbs for fun: Why I Was Late

Why I Was Late book cover, design by Emmie Tsumura, in collaboration with author Charlie Petch. Illustrated images of wrestlers, everyday objects, clothing, a dog, an outstretched hand, a saw.

I recently added a book blurbs page to the blog, as I realized it’s another creative pursuit that I really enjoy and wanted to share. Even though I’m no longer doing reviews, I thought it might be cool to write some blurbs for books I’ve recently read—for fun.

First up: Charlie Petch’s poetry collection Why I Was Late, which I ordered online from Toronto’s Glad Day Bookshop.

A genuine and compelling collection of poems, Why I Was Late weaves memory, observation, and reflections on sexuality and gender identity, into pieces that balance on the knife’s edge of haunting nostalgia and candid insight—the storytelling delivered with the sharpness of broken coloured glass, veteran entertainer timing and melancholy recollection. If you’ve had the pleasure of seeing Charlie Petch perform live, you can hear the mesmerizing strains of the musical saw and the whimsical chords of the ukulele that accompany some of these pieces (music accompaniment noted at the beginning of each piece in the book) as they sit us down to tell us a tale. From takes on childhood, to working on film sets, Star Wars character slash, and wistfully gritty recollections of encounters and relationships, Why I Was Late is a moving, rhythmic, at times erotic and funny, exploration of love, life and humanity.

Life lessons from my cat

My cat Camille, a grey tabby, lounging by the window in the crow’s nest section of a cat tree, with a bit of gold ribbon beside her. Photo by the blogger.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic had many of us hunkering down and working from home, I’d already been working from home for most of the previous four years. After being phased out of my full-time position as the in-house copy editor/proofreader/writer at a Toronto social/market research firm, I took up freelancing as I searched for a new permanent position, which meant organizing a work-from-home routine.

This meant that I was spending a lot more time at home with my cat Camille, a grey tabby I adopted 12 years ago from the Annex Cat Rescue, when she was about two years old. And when things shut down during the pandemic, I found myself spending even more time at home. With the cat.

And something interesting happened. I’ve always been pretty observant of my cat’s behaviour—from both an entertainment and feline health perspective—but with even more time alone and at home, I found my thoughts turning to how many aspects of her life seemed to be pretty healthy. Inspirational even.

So here, in no particular order, are some things I learned about healthy living from my cat:

  • Stretch. It’s good for you and feels so good. This is especially important if you’re working a sedentary job. Get up. Give your neck and shoulders a gentle roll. Stretch those hamstrings. Be a little tea pot.
  • Rest. Good sleep hygiene is vitally important, especially during stressful and uncertain times. Taking breaks, downtime, vacation/staycation time—ditto. In the summer of 2020, I shifted to a four-day work week and loved it so much, I made it permanent (with flexible Fridays for urgent projects only). And, this year, I decided to take a couple of extra weeks off—long weekends and that week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, when my clients are shut down for the holiday, are just not enough.
  • Ask. Camille has no trouble asking for what she wants. Food. Cuddles. Get lost, human. Often, she even uses her words. This is a tough one for me, as I have issues about being a burden or a pain in the ass, but I’m gradually getting better at it. I also often use my words.
  • Detachment. Cats are really good at this. Doing their own thing when, where and how they want. Zero f*cks given. While I would caution against the cat extreme of this concept—we do, after all, live in society—I find it’s something that I’m mastering more and more with every passing decade.
  • Solitude. While Camille can be sociable, she’s also very good at taking space for herself. Aware that I require a certain amount of solitude, I’m pretty good at this too. And the additional isolation during the pandemic has made me realize where the edges of that envelope are for me. An introvert at heart, I need periods of solitude in order to regenerate and refill—and I find that social gatherings/events, even small ones with my nearest and dearest, drain my energy. A lot. Too much solitude, and I end up living in my own head way more than I’d like to be. And, trust me, you do not want to be hanging out in there too long.
  • Resourcefulness. Over the years, I’ve purchased a number of cool cat toys. What does Camille want to play with? Plastic/wire binding coils, bread bag tags, that little plastic stopper thingy you pull out of the milk carton spout, tissue paper—and boxes! Use what you have. This came in very handy during lockdowns, when non-essential stores were closed or money was tight (like when your monthly income is just a bit too much to qualify for CERB). I’d always wanted a white board; and found I had an extra piece of foam board with a shiny side that actually works with dry erase markers. Instant white board!

So there you have it. Stuff I learned about healthy living by observing my cat. Some, or all, of these cat life principles may be helpful for you too. Which of these resonates the most with you?

Time Limits Dropped on Easter Sunday @ Toronto Fringe

Time Limits Dropped on Easter Sunday poster design by Lynn El-Khoury. Image: A vintage watch disintegrating in a cloudy sky.

Hey, all—I hope you and yours are keeping well as we all continue to stay safe and get shots in arms.

As many of you know, due to ongoing public health measures, Toronto Fringe is going digital this year, offering several programming series for your Fringing fun and enjoyment from the safety of your homes. And I’m happy and proud to have worked with Wonder Jones Productions’ playwright, producer and actor Erin Jones, director Meg Gibson, and cast and crew, on the digital production Time Limits Dropped on Easter Sunday.

Four bereavement group friends meet via EtherWebb on Easter Sunday to embark on an unexpected and mystical virtual adventure of memory, revelation and closure. Written by Erin Jones, directed by Meg Gibson, with research/editing by Bruce Huston, costume/prop/set consulting by Andra Bradish, and video editing by Marcus Kage. Featuring Georgia Grant, Olivia Jon, Erin Jones, Dayjan Lesmond, Cate McKim, Twaine Ward, Jamie Joong Watts and Paula Wilkie.

Big shouts to our team of amazing Fringe student volunteers for their mad skills in editing, graphic design, and marketing and social media: Christine Ahn, Lynn El-Khoury, Melonly Manikavasagar and Kirsten Rowe.

Using minimal editing, with some additional effects and graphic elements added in post, Time Limits Dropped on Easter Sunday was recorded live over Zoom, including practical effects, to provide the audience with as much of a live theatre experience as possible.

Tickets are on sale now; the festival runs (virtually online) from July 21 – 31.

Check out our first trailer: Pandemic Do’s and Don’ts (aka “Don’t be a Trevor”)

You can keep up with Wonder Jones Productions and Time Limits Dropped on Easter Sunday on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok.

And you can check out team interviews (with more to come) on Wonder Jones Productions’ media page.

Interview: Erin Jones

Photo of Erin Jones by David Fitzpatrick.

Erin Jones is a writer, actor, playwright and emerging director who has performed in theatre and independent films across the GTA. After debuting her first play, Lovingly Yours, Olive in the Next Stage Community Booster Series at Toronto Fringe, she returns to this year’s digital festival with her new play Time Limits Dropped on Easter Sunday, produced by Wonder Jones Productions. She also supports the performing arts behind the scenes with publicity, articles, newsletters, social media, grant writing, governance, photography, director hiring committees, and Respect in the Workplace committees.

I asked Jones about Time Limits Dropped on Easter Sunday and the process of producing a digital theatre production.

Full disclosure: This project is near and dear to my heart; I had the honour of participating in the play development readings, and was invited to join the final cast for this Toronto Fringe 2021 On-Demand digital production.

Hi, Erin. Thanks for taking the time from your super busy schedule to talk about your upcoming Toronto Fringe digital production Time Limits Dropped on Easter Sunday. Tell us about Wonder Jones Productions and its creative vision.

Wonder Jones Productions was born out of a love for theatre! It began as a support to other theatre groups to promote live theatre and keep it alive. It evolved when I realized that I should be using it to promote my own projects. The creative vision is to tell untold stories that are relevant, positive, respectful and inclusive. A key guiding principle is to write stories that accurately reflect our community and our Canadian history. This means creating rich roles that engage many people, including BIPOC, ACPI and LGBTQ+ artists.

And what inspired you to write Time Limits Dropped on Easter Sunday and the themes it addresses?

I think many planets aligned the day that I began writing this play. I was inspired to write about a positive future, and I had recently finished another script that delved into science fiction. I enjoyed writing that story so much that I decided to keep exploring futurism, science fiction and the supernatural. My original goal was to explore Black Canadian history, and I realized I can continue to do that while exploring these genres. It was also inspired by a desire to preserve the memory and legacy of those we have lost—to give voice to those who may no longer be able to speak for themselves. The story explores how four people each deal with love, grief, forgiveness and healing with elements of intrigue, mystery and surprise. While they go on a very unusual Twilight Zone-type journey, their stories are relatable.

I wrote Time Limits Dropped on Easter Sunday especially for the Toronto Fringe Festival. They decided to go with a digital platform this year, to promote safety in light of the pandemic. They encouraged productions that could be delivered in a digital platform.

So, with all of these elements combined, I was inspired to write a play that could be safely rehearsed and performed remotely.

Due to COVID-19 health and safety measures, the development, rehearsal and recording process all needed to be done virtually—in this case, via Zoom. What was that process like for you, director Megan Gibson and the cast?

Theatre is amazing in that there are several moving parts and, somehow, we manage to pull it all together and create a show! This process required a lot of risk-taking, steep learning curves, planning and experimentation. Where to begin?

I workshopped the play to receive feedback and fine-tune it. This was an incredibly important step. I encouraged actors, writers, producers, and trusted colleagues from diverse backgrounds and lived experience, to give me feedback on the script. This was critical. Some playwrights don’t do this and it can result in characters that lack authenticity.

Casting was another important piece. It was essential that we cast respectfully to honour the diversity of the characters. This had a few challenges, but that was mainly due to scheduling conflicts and tight deadlines. Overall, this was a terrific opportunity to work with very talented actors that reflect our diverse Canadian diaspora.

Figuring out what technology to use and how to use it was important. This was a big learning curve for all of us, since we were used to in-person rehearsals, blocking, etc.

Planning the rehearsal and filming schedule was another step in the process. “Digital blocking” was a new skill! We all had to become our own technician, stage manager, prop handler and set designer! We worked collectively to figure out our settings, cameras, eye line, lighting, practical special effects and more. The key was to be flexible and work with what we each had. This was fascinating to watch how we each evolved with this.

Rehearsals and recording were cleverly planned so that we could honour live theatre while working digitally. What audiences may not realize is that the play was performed in real time. While the actors were in different locations, they still performed as an ensemble. Most of the effects were practical.

Post-production was another key aspect. Luckily, I worked with an editor, and we added sound and effects. This was another huge learning curve. It is hard to explain, but it was just as much work as all the previous phases!

You wrote the play with the digital Fringe in mind—and the play is set in a Zoom chat, so lends itself very well to this format. What creative opportunities and challenges did you encounter as a result of this hybrid stage/film production?

As theatre artists, we are used to being with each other in person. Using a virtual conferencing software is challenging because each person has a different computer, settings and internet services. We had to figure out how to work with those limitations. One of the biggest challenges was seeing each other on a screen. The actors had to look at their cameras rather each other. It was an adjustment to act to the camera rather than another person. However, the cast was terrific and they adapted beautifully.

How do folks get to see Time Limits Dropped on Easter Sunday?

With the Fringe On-Demand series, audiences will access content on Fringetoronto.com with the purchase of a membership pass. Tickets will go on sale July 7, 2021.

Now for the fun part: James Lipton’s Pivot questionnaire. What’s your favourite word? I don’t really have one, but the word “grand” comes to mind.

What’s your least favourite word? I cannot repeat those! Anything profane that I won’t want my Grandma to hear.

What turns you on? Good manners.

What turns you off? People who have no integrity.

What sound or noise do you love? Ocean waves.

What sound or noise do you hate? Snoring.

What is your favourite curse word? I don’t like curse words. 🙂

What profession other than your own would you like to pursue? Running a blank on this one. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a ballerina, scientist and movie star all at the same time.

What profession would you not like to do? Not sure. I just don’t want to get like some who doesn’t put their whole self into their work and become bitter.

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “Welcome. You are safe and loved. And don’t worry, your childhood pet cats are here too!”

Anything else you want to shout out?

I want to give a shout out to the cast and creative team. The actors gave their all. The director skillfully pulled out great performances! The video editor brought ingenuity. The student volunteers brought creativity. The Toronto Fringe Team brought knowledge and resources to support us. And finally, our loved ones who brought the inspiration.

Thanks, Erin!

You can catch Time Limits Dropped on Easter Sunday as part of the Toronto Fringe 2021 On-Demand series, available from July 21 – 31. Tickets go on sale on July 7.

Four bereavement group friends meet via EtherWebb on Easter Sunday to embark on an unexpected and mystical virtual adventure of memory, revelation and closure. Written by Erin Jones, directed by Meg Gibson and edited by Marcus Kage; and featuring Georgia Grant, Olivia Jon, Erin Jones, Dayjan Lesmond, Cate McKim, Twaine Ward, Jamie Joong Watts and Paula Wilkie.

Poster for Time Limits Dropped on Easter Sunday, for Toronto Fringe 2021. Image of a disintegrating clock, set against a cloudy sky.
Poster design by Lynn El-Khoury.

Wish list

Five dandelion seed pods float on the breeze in a clear blue sky. Photo by Kranich17 on Pixabay.

Back in October, I posted a list of firsts, interrupted by the second wave of the pandemic and the reintroduction of stricter public health measures. And, since the third wave hit—with accompanying variations of lockdown and stay-at-home recommendations and/or orders since the Fall for where I live—I’ve found it hard to hope, or plan what I’d do once public health restrictions are loosened or removed altogether.

Now that more and more people are getting vaccinated and/or eligible to book an appointment—despite some ill-planned provincial rollouts and misplaced priorities (that are finally and gradually being amended), vaccine supply interruptions and evolving information on safety issues, and vaccination booking challenges/confusion—everyday people are demonstrating that they want to do everything they can to get to the other side of this pandemic. In some cases, spending hours in lineups at pop-up clinics, or online or on the phone to book through the provincial portal or at a pharmacy, people are devoting significant time and energy to making themselves, others and the health care system safe—with many doing so in the face of work, household and vaccine inequity struggles.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve found myself finally able to exhale—even if just for a moment—and, as I saw that more family; friends; and fellow Torontonians, Ontarians and Canadians were getting their first shots, I allowed myself to feel a sense of relief and hope. I found myself daring to dream about what life will be like once stay-at-home orders and other public health measures are relaxed, and we’re able to safely gather again. For well over a year, not socializing and deciding to pare things down to simple, necessary elements, I haven’t been wearing my watch and rings; and I’ve been super casual with the wardrobe—sometimes wearing the same pair of jeans for a whole week, and the same running shoes pretty much every day. Yesterday, I put on a different pair of shoes. Today, I put on fresh cotton pants, as well as my watch and rings.

And, gradually, I’m making a wish list, including—but not limited to:

  • Seeing family in person (fingers crossed for a gathering in my parents’ backyard on a weekend near the July 1 holiday)
  • Seeing friends in person (my friends Lizzie, Zoltan and Val have space on their building’s backyard patio for distanced outdoor dining and movie viewing)
  • Random, spontaneous stops at a convenience store or coffee shop
  • Adding a painted rock to Lucas Walker’s rock snake (in The Beach neighbourhood of Toronto)
  • Collecting driftwood and beach glass (see location above)
  • In-store shopping at thrift and art supply stores, and book and record shops
  • Seeing live outdoor performances and art shows
  • Walks and coffee with friends
  • Getting a hair cut

And I’m feeling like, in the near future, these will be actual, do-able things.

In the meantime, I have a dental checkup booked for next week (my first since October 2019). And my parents and I are planning a safe visit for my birthday next month (similar to our Christmas visit, with masking and distancing, even though we all have our first shots).

What’s on your wish list?

Languishing but not totally broken

A stone cemetery monument featuring a relief sculpture of a mourning woman with long flowing hair, her head bent in sorrow as she leans over an urn. Photo taken by the blogger, at St. James Cemetery, Toronto, ON.

Hello!

It’s been a while, I know. So much going on, collectively and personally. And, frankly, my thoughts and feelings have been leaning towards rage and despair so much lately—not at all conducive to expressing any clarity of thought.

So I will try to write here. Because I need to. And because I want to keep this blog alive—and to do that, I need to post.

The past couple of weeks have been rough—I’m sure for many of us. I’ve been living with anxiety and depression for most of my life, so living alone while navigating this pandemic has been a struggle. But the extra-strength fuckwittery exhibited by the Ontario PC government a couple of weeks ago broke me.

Thankfully, restrictions on playgrounds and enhanced police powers were quickly dialled back after huge public outcry (I’m surprised we didn’t break Twitter that day); and push-back from opposition parties, police forces, public health officials and the province’s own Science Table. But the thing that killed me the most—and I know I’m not alone here—is the government’s insistence that they acted “quickly” and were “listening” to the Science Table; when in fact, they’ve been consistently reactive, too little and too late, and not acting on Science Table or health expert advice. And it’s not lost on many of us that this third wave didn’t have to be this bad. That so much illness and death, and damage to our already fragile health care system, could have been avoided had Doug and friends heeded the warnings of modelling presented back in February—and acted on it immediately!

I thought of all the people who’ve been working so hard and sacrificing so much—especially our frontline health care and essential workers—and was enraged by the level of stupidity, negligence and gaslighting. A government turning the blame on everyone but itself for the dire situation we now find ourselves in. Hopelessness and despair hit hard; and for a couple of weeks, I had a moment, or three, pretty much every day of being on the verge of tears but unable to have a good cry.

During a recent phone chat, a friend highly recommended having a good ugly cry to let it all out. And we spoke of how we’re all going to be experiencing varying levels of PTSD with this pandemic. And I say this with full acknowledgement of my privilege: I have work and am able to work from home; I can pay my rent, in a safe home with food in the fridge; I have access to health care, including mental health; I have the means to connect with loved ones remotely; I became eligible for vaccination (by age) earlier this month and received my first shot a few weeks ago. I am grateful for my situation; and I also recognize my pain, isolation, loneliness, mental health struggles—and the need for self-care. And how I must stay healthy for myself, my loved ones and my health care system. I am fearful of how the prolonged periods of isolation will change me, a self-professed introverted homebody. I worry that I’m turning in on myself, and losing my sense of hope and enthusiasm for life. This New York Times piece by Adam Grant really nails the pervasive feeling of languishing right now.

It’s been inspiring to witness the individual and collective responses to a negligent, absent leadership—grassroots community groups sharing vaccine information and facilitating vaccination clinics; public health units exercising control over workplace outbreaks, and focusing vaccination efforts on hot spot neighbourhoods and workplaces; local politicians and municipalities, and organizations like Vaccine Hunters Canada posting vaccination eligibility and clinic info on Twitter; everyday people helping family, friends and neighbours with vaccine booking, and accessing groceries and essential goods and services.

There is so much good and so much to be hopeful for out there. And we need to continue to stay aware of what our leaders are doing—and hold them accountable for the policies and decisions that impact our province, especially its most vulnerable and its health care system. We need to seek out and share reputable health- and vaccine-related information as much as we can. And do whatever we can to keep ourselves, our loved ones and our health care system safe.

I don’t feel like crying so much these days. I’ve mentioned before that living through this pandemic is to experience the five stages of grief—and that it’s by no means a linear process. So I could very easily feel like crying again. But it’s comforting to remember that next year is a provincial election year.

City of Toronto COVID-19 and vaccination info: https://www.toronto.ca/home/covid-19/

Government of Ontario COVID-19 vaccination booking info: https://covid-19.ontario.ca/book-vaccine/

Health Canada info: https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/drugs-health-products/covid19-industry/drugs-vaccines-treatments/vaccines.html

Theme song of the year

Perspectival image of piano keyboard, fading into the background, by consorex on Pixabay.

Back in 2015, I decided to start choosing a theme song for the year—a song that reflected where I was at and where I was going, or hoping to go.

Since then, I’ve chosen a new theme song every year. Previous theme songs have included:

2015: I’ve Got This written and performed by Candice Sand

2016: Put on Your Sunday Clothes written by Jerry Herman, and performed by Michael Crawford and Barbra Streisand in Hello, Dolly! (but I like the Wall-E reference)

2017: Mary Tyler Moore Theme Song written and performed by Sonny Curtis

2018: Living on the Bright Side written and performed by Angela Saini

2019: Here I Go Again written and performed by Angela Saini

2020: Hey You written by Randy Bachman and performed by Bachman Turner Overdrive

I was a little late picking a song this year, what with the COVID-19 flipping life around and all. Eventually, I went with another blast from the past: Que Sera Sera written by Jerry Livingston and Ray Evans, and performed by Doris Day. It’s a song my mum used to sing us as a lullaby of sorts. Looking back on this as an adult, I initially found this to be a strange choice. The cheery delivery and arrangement are offset by the stoic, almost fatalistic quality of the lyrics. On the upside, it’s a reminder to live in the present and not fret about the future—and that’s how I choose to interpret it. After all, life’s what happens when you’re making other plans. Plans, which many of us are aware, God laughs at.

Messages in light #3

Image of 16 light box marquee messages regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, created and photographed by the blogger.

Once again, I’ve assembled the 16 most recent marquees into a collage. Messages of hope, support and perseverance.

Vaccinations are coming. In the meantime, and even post-vaccination, we need to keep up our work and keep up-to-date with public health measures and local bylaws.

Stay safe and don’t give up.