Republished February 2024
(A Toastmasters Project)
Originally published in Forte 2018-2019
The last time I was involved with any kind of journalism, I was in my 20’s. My home was the upper floor of an old brick house in Haileybury, situated at the top of a very steep hill leading to the town’s main street and the shores of Lake Temiskaming. I worked in neighbouring New Liskeard, one of three linked towns then known as the Tri-Towns.
The Temiskaming Speaker was a community newspaper, a weekly, with a lot of local impact. It covered everything with diligence: news, politics, community, sports, editorial. We were a staff of four and a half: the editor, me as assistant editor, a reporter, a sports reporter and a freelance music guy. We had a vocal editorial page and I had a weekly column with open format, so I wrote about anything and everything from politics to humour.
On warm summer days, I could walk down the hill to the beach and swim. In winter, long underwear was the first thing one did in the morning. The winters there were bitterly cold although strong winds were a rarity. Without the raw, biting wind that can render one powerless against the elements, the cold was manageable if appropriately dressed. At least, most of the time. The snow was deep, pretty much all the time in the winter.
The Speaker offices were on a prominent corner in New Liskeard, an old building with many stories in its history. It smelled wonderful, just like an old newspaper office should, redolent with ink and photo processing. Our office was upstairs, where we were all equipped with electric typewriters. Stories were produced on flimsy, smaller-than-average sheets of paper with an odd texture. We made carbon copies. When our story was complete, we typed “-30- “ at the bottom to confirm to the editor that no pages had gone astray. There was always something supremely satisfying about typing that “-30-“.
The main floor of the Speaker building housed the typesetting department, photo processing and archives. Panic ensued in Typesetting every week as the press deadline loomed. The photo processing was great. I’d hand over my film and they’d give me back a contact sheet with my negatives. The archives were also a wonder. History buffs could die of absorption in a place like that. Old yellowed newspapers, ancient photos, books.
My first Editor was a guy who had initials as his first name, a walking tome of information on any topic imaginable. He left to work for a larger paper, The North Bay Nugget.
His replacement was a fellow by the unlikely name of Forrest Greene. He maintained that it was his birth name but I had my doubts. We saw eye to eye most of the time and I liked him. The reporter was of German ancestry and deadly serious about having a career in journalism, but he let loose with abandon and was always fun in a social setting. Let’s call him Hans.
I’d always been a swimmer, and my routine included hopping a bus out of New Liskeard to a motel at the end of the bus route that serviced the Tri-Towns. They had a pool and I had a membership. One unfortunate day, Hans accompanied me for a swim. Afterwards, he took the wrong curved corridor and ended up in the women’s changeroom, staring at a totally naked me. I grabbed a towel and he was every bit the apologetic gentleman, but it changed our relationship. Let's just say that he no longer saw me as “one of the guys” after that.
Our sports guy was just a young pup and he had the demeanour of one, right down to wriggling with delight and panting with excitement about life in general and sports in particular. The music freelancer always brought an old movie character to mind, the short guy with the fedora and a scheme up his sleeve. He had a gorgeous and genuine girlfriend who was, as I recall, considerably taller than he was. I have no idea what became of any of them, but we were an amenable team for the most part and we had some good times.
The Editor let me pursue whatever stories I chose, provided we didn’t fail to cover the mandatories like events, politics and general news. That was and is my favourite way to work, and my story ideas led me all over the place. Through an abandoned mine in Cobalt. Up in a 2-seater plane which I got to pilot over the lakes and forests of Temiskaming. An amazing summer day spent with Temagami First Nation at Great Bear Island. A full shift riding on duty with the OPP. That was a fun one and the officer and I became good pals.
I did some snapshot interviews with folks I’d just seen around town and they always turned out to be interesting. One elderly gentleman was a scholar and a fount of knowledge about all the eras of civilization. I did a feature on him which he sent with pride to his grandchildren, and in return he gifted me with a beautiful volume called, “the Calendar of Creative Man”. He inscribed something quite lovely on the frontspiece. The book can still be found in my bookcase.
Another memorable piece involved spending a weekend with artist and author Muriel E. Newton-White in her home town of Englehart. She was a sweet, strong, inspiring woman who lived with passion and independence long before it was the thing to do.
Times have changed. Of course, typewriters are now found only in antique markets. Photography is now digital and the days of film and fixer are long gone. Preparing for an interview meant reading up on prior printed articles if any and then showing up with a steno pad, pen and a headful of questions. Thanks to social media, it’s now possible to get the gist of the story and a load of pictures online before an interview even takes place.
The Tri-Towns have now merged into the Municipality of Temiskaming Shores. The Temiskaming Speaker is alive and well, now boasting a glossy website and online news. As for me, I’ve walked many miles in many different shoes since those days but I’ll always remember it as an exciting time laced with thought-provoking experiences, fascinating people and the unlikely union of a disparate group of personalities who, dedicated to their craft, worked like dogs and took great pride in producing a newspaper worth reading every week.
My second apartment was in Toronto's High Park district, just north of Bloor and close to the subway. It isn’t worth mentioning my first apartment since the place was a cockroach headquarters and I didn’t stay long.
The second place seemed a great abode at first, notwithstanding a few oddities. It had no door. My digs encompassed the upper level of a brick house owned by a Greek family. Parents, two teen boys. It was a great space with a huge bay window looking out to the street. My understanding was that none of the family members would invade my premises barring some sort of dreadful emergency, but I soon discovered that the youngest son had his own opinion on the matter. It was clear that he was a troubled fellow, and quite a large one at that. He hovered outside my bedroom door at night. I came home from work to find him in my bedroom a few times. One evening, he was the only one home. There was a tremendous banging going on in the kitchen and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t cooking.
I decided my best course of action was to evacuate the scene. Backpack in tow, I aimed for stealth mode all the way down the curving, creaking old staircase. When I got to the bottom, a glance back to their kitchen saw him framed in the doorway, holding an enormous butcher knife. I set my personal best on the sprint to the subway station.
Time to move. My next place was a gem, south of Bloor just off Roncesvalles, the entire ground floor of an old house. What a neighbourhood that was! Still largely Ukranian and Polish to the south, with shops selling everything from distinctive wooden products to pastries and sausages. Roncesvalles was home to the renowned Roxy Theatre, where I first saw The Rocky Horror Picture Show many years later. Further to the north, the first health food store I encountered.
I stayed there for quite a long while, but eventually ended up further northeast at St. Clair and Spadina, another marvellous area to explore in those days. I met some characters in the building. My next-door neighbour was a hostage negotiator living with her fiancé, an undertaker. They were good people if somewhat reminiscent of the Addams Family in appearance. The guy on the other side was a fiery Scottish dude who had his fingers in pies of every flavour going. I left Toronto for a few years after that, moving to Northern Ontario. Check out Reporter Reminiscences for that story.
On my return, I settled in to Lawrence and Keele. My unit was ground level and beside a ravine. I thought the greenery would be lovely, until I learned that a multitude of hoary little biting spiders invaded the place every spring and survived until October.
In fact, it was great. I never had the slightest qualm about going down to the basement laundry room at night. The guys were friendly and we all pretty much kept to ourselves otherwise. At least we did until we had a building garage sale. I don’t think anyone made much money, but my cheeks hurt from laughing when the day was done. I learned that my neighbours were highly vocal when it came to expressing appreciation for attractive male passers-by and, at Jarvis and Isabella, it was usually reciprocated and then some. That wasn’t quite my style, but I have to admit that I couldn’t fault their taste most of the time.
There was always a strong police presence. Between that and the obvious fact that no evil deed-doer was likely to concern themselves with a petite woman as innocuous as myself in such a pulsingly sexual environment, I felt very safe there. Having said that, any smart woman living in the city avoids putting herself in potentially compromising situations and I did that, although the stars failed to align a couple of times.
I used to go to a bar in the seediest section of the east side with a woman I knew from work and her friends, all of whom had experienced a much rougher, tougher life than I had. Dancing was involved and we always had a great time, so it became a regular for me on Saturday nights for quite a long spell. They were biker chicks. They had a strong community, and they welcomed me in to it. Their tradition was to celebrate each other’s birthdays with a cake decorated in edible male genitalia both large and small, crafted in chocolate, icing or meringue. I’m sure it’s unnecessary to paint a picture of the drama with which these delights were consumed. I hung out with them long enough to earn my penis cake and, despite the absurdity of it all, I felt quite honoured at the time.
I digress. Back to the story. My friend’s sister was a taxi driver and she usually delivered me from home to the bar and back again. I got there okay, but something happened. She left on a venture of some sort and never returned. Nobody had cell phones then, so I waited for her until it became inarguably evident that there would be no reappearance. By that time, the buses had stopped running. I learned that cabs didn't hang out in the east end.
Living in Toronto was always an interesting ride. Back in the High Park era, I hung out regularly at the El Mocambo where I was fortunate enough to hear many of the old blues greats like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon. The gentlemen were always charming and most took the time to come to our table for a chat with the young’uns who liked the blues. Entertainments changed through the years from the flashing 80’s clubs to the elegant restaurants, but it never failed to please.
I loved the vibe of city life throughout those years. Its vitality and despair, its wealth and its need, its sophistication and its tawdriness. Those days will forever be part of who I have become, and I am grateful for the experiences.
Did you catch the story yesterday about seven women who donned nude underwear and protested on the streets of London, England outside the busy Victoria’s Secret shop in Oxford Circus? This was a follow-up to the company’s “historically narrow-minded” runway show of the year. The article was published by Huffpost.
The initiative was launched by Joanne Morales, founder of an all-inclusive UK lingerie brand called Nunude, and Sylvia Mac, childhood burn victim and advocate for people with scars and skin conditions in mainstream media and pop culture. The pair “called on their communities of followers and customers to participate in what they agreed was not an angry protest but rather a way to celebrate diversity. Their shared mission was to provide an example of what it’s like to be size inclusive but to also be inclusive of race, ability and both visible and invisible illness.”
“We were fed up seeing these so-called perfect body images online,
with there being just one perceived beautiful body type,” Mac told HuffPost.
Noble goals to be sure. I’m as much for inclusivity as the next guy, but let’s be honest here. I didn’t need to see this nor did these women need to stand on the street all-but-naked to make their point.
I wrote a blog yesterday saying that humans are programmed to appreciate art and therefore we can’t help but appreciate beauty in a purely aesthetic sense. In this politically correct, everyone-is-beautiful climate, we are perhaps sacrificing a wee bit of honesty with ourselves and others.
I totally get the beautiful body type thing and I do understand that unattainable images of perfection cause problems. On the other hand, let’s not pretend that we are comparing apples and apples here. There are people out there who are simply beautiful in a traditional aesthetic sense. They are not flabby or scarred or overweight or old. They are works of art and, in my view, there is no crime in acknowledging and appreciating that.
Back to the protestors.
They would have had more dignity if they’d kept their clothes on.
This was not the only protest in the wake of the annual Victoria’s Secret Angels extravaganza. There was another in New York in November, arranged by supermodel Robin Langley and backed by a team of known models representing inclusivity and positivity. All shapes and sizes were represented, from voluptuous to statuesque, clad in gorgeous clothing designed to highlight their individual assets. The protest made a statement with class and impact. Every one of those women was stunning. Point made.
There can be too much truth in advertising.
Aside from my personal belief that the protest in Oxford Circle was ill-advised,
hats off to the seven women who strutted their stuff with passion and grit.
There’s a lot of talk about authenticity these days. There always has been, really. The ancient Greeks inscribed “Know Thyself” over the door to the Temple of Delphi. One of Shakespeare’s characters in Hamlet proclaimed, “To Thine Own Self Be True”. Playwright Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself. Everybody else is taken.” In a more contemporary take, the Urban Dictionary defines authenticity as “being who you are, listening to yourself and making your own decisions, rather than buying all the crap society foists on you.”
What does it really mean to be authentic? To be true to yourself, certainly, and not to pretend to be someone or something you are not. To accept your strengths and weaknesses, and value yourself for what you are rather than belittling yourself for failure to be something you were not destined to be. To stand up for your rights, most definitely, and not be persuaded by subservience to suffer abuse or undertake things that are not right for you.
If you are by nature a compassionate, responsible, law-abiding individual, your authenticity is not likely to harm society or wound others. Authenticity is not and should never be an excuse for cruel or inappropriate behavior. It’s important to recognize the ways in which authenticity sometimes has to be trumped to serve your own best interests or the well-being of others. If, however, you consistently find yourself in situations where you are subjugating yourself to the wants, needs or dictates of someone other than yourself, you may want to think about a change to your environment that will allow you to be more truthful more often in your daily life.
The late Steve Jobs, the American entrepreneur who brought the personal computer to the forefront of society and co-founded Apple Inc., is quoted as saying: “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
We needn’t aspire to look like the 20-year-old photoshopped models we see on the covers of magazines, nor should we beat ourselves up for our failure to do so. The unrealistic images of womanly perfection are, thankfully, changing.
France, the long-time industry leader in the fashion world, passed new laws in 2017 regulating the weight of runway models to ensure that the bodies presenting the high fashion looks of the season to the world are not, in fact, anorexics who starve themselves to maintain the otherworldly long-limbed elegance previously thought to be the height of female chic. The fitness industry has been a major player in this revolution as well. It’s no longer considered unfeminine for women to flaunt some muscle.
The bottom line is that both of these social initiatives, authenticity and body positivity, are hugely important in defining the female role in modern society. We should embrace them with joy. At the same time, we need to recognize that moderation and balance are the keys to owning them.
Back in the 1960’s, a couple of psychiatrists put together a scale rating the impact of various stressors in life. The Holmes Rahe Stress Scale rates 41 life events, giving them each a number of points. The highest stresses have the largest numbers, called “life change units” (LCU).
Quite a few of the stressors on the scale are actually positive. Pregnancy. Outstanding personal achievement. Change of responsibilities at work. Vacation and Christmas even made the list, although they’re in the bottom three. It’s important to remember that all life changing events cause some stress, even though they may be the very thing that you’ve been working to achieve.
The upshot is that a score of 300 or higher in any given year is considered to be sufficient stress to make you sick.
The stress response is a biological inheritance from our earliest ancestors. They needed the surge of adrenalin from a “fight or flight” hormonal burst when faced with a potentially life-threatening situation. Maybe they needed the courage to face an unexpected encounter with an enemy from another tribe or run from a predator to avoid becoming dinner.
The burst of adrenalin we receive from the command centre in the brain increases our heart rate which, in turn, elevates pulse and blood pressure to fuel the muscles and organs with as much blood as possible. Breath rate increases and the airways in the lungs open, allowing us to draw in more oxygen. Oxygen also infuses the brain, increasing mental alertness and sharpening the senses. Adrenaline triggers the release of glucose and fats from storage within the body, supplying energy to all body systems in preparation to fight or flee.
This is a brilliantly designed biological system. We’ve all heard the stories of incredible strength created by the stress response, like a petite woman who was suddenly imbued with the superhuman ability to lift a car to save her child. Endorphins contribute to this phenomena as well. Those endorphins we love so much after a great workout also kick in during a stress reaction, suppressing pain and giving us the will and stamina to act without stopping to consider that there’s just absolutely no way we can do that.
We, however, do have all that going on and it can be pretty intense when combined with the personal situations we may be dealing with in our lives and, possibly, the internal demons like self-doubt that we need to face every day. One important operative concept here is that the stress response is triggered not only by “real” stresses, but by “perceived” ones as well. In other words, we have to beware of an overactive imagination, particularly when it comes to negative self talk.
Chronic bombardment with stress can have long-term impact, leading to high blood pressure and clogged arties as well as psychological changes that contribute to anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, digestive problems, depression and addiction. It can also contribute to weight gain and obesity in that elevated cortisol levels lead to increased appetite and fat storage. It goes without saying that many of these outcomes exacerbate the problem by increasing stress levels even more.
Try to compartmentalize your stressors into separate entities that can be challenged individually. This is where the Holmes Rahe scale comes into play. Remember that every one of these entities contributes to your total number on the stress chart. We all have unavoidable stresses to deal with. The goal is to remove the stressors that are unimportant and learn to readily recognize what we need to give to ourselves at any given moment to manage the rest.
You can find the Holmes Rahe stress scale here.