Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Stop Me Before I Subscribe Again!

"Hi, my name is David, and I'm a magaholic..."

Those are my first words to students in my second-year magazine writing class. It's just a cheeky way of acknowledging my passion for the subject and my hope that some of them will come to share my obsession with magazines by semester's end.

But recently, I've been wondering (and so has my Canada Post deliverywoman, I suspect) if my fondness isn’t more of a sickness. A month ago, I’d been reading Gabor Mate’s In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, a book about addiction, the author’s medical practice in the Downtown Eastside, and—oddly enough—his own “addiction” to buying classical CDs. (He says he is no way equating his Mozart collection, a habit that cost him eight grand one week, with mainlining heroin, but still...)

My love of magazines is the closest I’ve ever come (and hopefully ever will) to an addictive personality trait. I grew up around magazines (my parents both subscribed to several), and began getting my own from as early as I can remember: Chickadee, Owl, The Electric Company, dozens of Marvel comic books. That was followed by magazines to match every strange teenage hobby or interest I developed: Dragon (during my spotty-faced D&D years), Circus (my spotty-faced heavy-metal era), Soldier of Fortune (my, uh, weird obsession with mercenaries phase), Outside (my discovery of outdoor adventure, or at least reading about it).

If I am to admit I’ve got a problem, I’ve got to first come clean about its extent. Herewith, the magazines that enter my house every month.

Magazines I subscribe to:

  • Bicycling (see below)
  • Harper’s (my longest-running subscription at more than 20 years)
  • Maclean’s (Canada’s chattering class may hate Ken Whyte’s politics, but he’s an editorial genius and turned around this once-moribund newsweekly; plus, it runs the hilarious Scott Feschuk)
  • The Atlantic (I haven’t got my first issue but was suckered into an impulse sub by a “professional deal”)
  • Chatelaine and Today’s Parent (I get these for my wife, and flip through both)
  • Maisonneuve (the little mag that could, out of Montreal)
  • The New York Times Magazine (the main reason I get the Sunday Times, which was even better when they also published Key and Play magazines)
  • National Geographic (how else will my children inherit an attic full of moldy Nat Geos?)

Magazine’s I’m subscribed to (there’s a difference):

  • The New Yorker (world’s best birthday present—thanks to my father in law for renewing annually)
  • Sports Illustrated (from my sister in law—does that make them both enablers?)
  • The Torch (from UVic) and Queen’s Alumni Review

Magazines I get for free as a contributor:

  • explore
  • 2 Magazine
  • Financial Post Business
  • British Columbia (my wife works there)

Local magazines I pick up for free:

  • Monday (sadly, more of a conventional alt-newsweekly than a true magazine after rounds of freelance cutbacks)
  • Focus (a strong arts and politics monthly)
  • Boulevard (I don’t always grab it but know several of the columnists)
  • Wavelength (for kayakers...and I’m not really a kayaker!)

Magazines that my father in law brings for me whenever he visits:

  • Toronto Life and The Walrus (which I used to have subs for)
  • The Literary Review of Canada (a bit wonkish, but otherwise decent book coverage)

Magazines that fall out of the newspaper and that I flip through:

  • Driven, Sharp, Douglas, Western Living, Report on Business

In-flight magazines that I take home when any sane person leaves them in the seat pocket:

  • Up! and EnRoute (Canada is lucky to have not one but two in-flight mags that run more than just boring travel bumph)

I’ve likely missed some in there, and I haven’t mentioned the many magazines that I once subscribed to, or my impulse buys of individual issues at grocery stores and airports, or my large collection of obscure, international or regional magazines, or the online-only magazines I browse, or the magazines I think I should subscribe to or wish I could justify, or the books I buy that are about magazines or that anthologize magazine stories...

Of course, there is no way—even if I didn’t have a full-time job and two small kids—that I’d ever have the time to read every issue of every magazine I get. (So, yes, my habit has an environmental cost, too.)

So you tell me: fondness or sickness?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The 100-Mile Ride-It

After a couple years' hiatus, I recently resubscribed to Bicycling magazine. (Long story short: I'd been trying, vainly, to curb my rampant magaholism.) My first issue arrived with a rather anti-climactic main coverline ("Lance Rides Again: Why he can win"—or not as it turns out), but I still enjoyed the other lead feature, by Todd Balf, "My Family Gave Up Driving for 30 Days to Stick it to the Man".

At first I thought, "Big deal! One lousy month! My family has been car-free for going on nine years!" But Balf and his clan faced bigger obstacles to their experiment in low-carbon living. They live in a community (Beverly, Mass.) not especially conducive to biking (certainly not compared to Victoria, B.C.), in a climate (the U.S. Northeast) not as temperate as the Pacific Northwest. His wife has a long, complicated commute to work. And his kids are at that tween-ish age when they have lots of after-school activities at out-of-the-way locations.

It's easy enough to justify your own "inconvenience" of not operating a car. It's a lot harder—as I fear I will soon discover—when it means forcing social, and even educational, sacrifices upon your children

While the Balfs experienced a few bumps and scrapes along the way (and plenty of weird looks from other families), the story is an otherwise humorous recollection of their month of logging miles on two wheels rather than four. I was fascinated by the quiver of bikes the author used to entice his family into riding: an electric hybrid, an extend-a-bike, a single-speed, a fold-up bike, a tandem. And I was impressed with how many times he ended up cycling home, while ferrying one (or even two!) of his kids' bikes along with him, because they'd decided to catch a lift home with a coach or a friend.

In the end, the feature is an honest yet still inspiring account of the challenges (and rewards) of riding against the grain of a culture in love with the car—and one of the reasons I started subscribing to Bicycling in the first place.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Facts & (Many) Arguments

I don't usually read the "Facts & Arguments" reader-written essay in the Globe & Mail (usually too cute or maudlin), but I was struck by the illustration and the accompanying personal memoir in today's section. Well, struck is definitely the wrong word.

The story is a haunting and poignant account about getting hit by a truck while cycling, dragged for 100 metres, nearly dying, and then slowly and painfully recovering until the author could bike again. Brutal stuff, close to home, and vividly written. (A caveat: avoid the online audio version read, I'm sure, by a cheesy "voice actor" and not Kyle G. Brown himself.) There's hard-learned wisdom, too:

One year on, the driver who ran me over has yet to be tried. If convicted, he faces a maximum fine of $120 for making an unsafe turn.

But my fury isn't focused on him as much as on a society that honours pseudo-virtues of comfort and convenience at the altar of the automobile. It's directed at people who profess a love for the environment while driving distances a brief bike ride away. My ire is aimed at commentators who characterize the building of bike lanes as part of the “war on cars.”

Unlike most "Facts and Arguments" essays, this one set off a flurry of online comments and debate that reveal (surprise!) that drivers and cyclists are still a long way from seeing eye to eye.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Underage Driving vs. Homicidal Firefighters

I'm not sure what makes me more nervous as a cyclist—the thought of seven-year-old kids driving (at least the gum-snapping boy seems to be paying attention to the road rather than text-messaging) or the thought of getting shot at by a driver—a firefighter no less!—who stopped to tell me it's unsafe to be cycling with my child!

Maybe I'm getting paranoid. Maybe I feel more aware of how vulnerable cyclists are and how many distractions are already on the road (before you add an Egg McMuffin and a BlackBerry) after a month on the other side of the steering wheel. (I rented a van for July, to go on family vacation etc., and likely added at least five pounds of inactivity weight in that short time.)

Whatever. For the first time in Victoria, I've taken to cycling with a whistle around my neck and often in my mouth, at least when commuting with the kids in tow. (It would, I agree, look kind of silly on a mountain bike or even a road bike.) Bike bells are useless, I learned during 3.5 years of commuting in Toronto, while dodging drivers and trying to convince taxis that cycle lanes aren't high-speed passing lanes. Whistles get people's attention.

More attention than I'd intended, given the weird looks I got from drivers during the last few days—and I haven't had to blow the damn thing yet. Do I look like a lifeguard or a referee late for work? How is pedalling with a whistle any more strange than, say, the guy I saw driving while wearing full-on audiophile headphones and one of those wraparound-the-chin mics? Was he planning to land his car on an aircraft carrier? Or maybe play a round of Halo at the next stop light? How am I the crazy-looking one?

Oh well, as long as seven-year-old drivers aren't busting a cap in my helmet, I'm happy enough for now...

Thursday, August 6, 2009


Last week, Russell Smith of the Globe and Mail had an interesting column about the fine art of parody. Like Smith, I've also had writing students do assignments in which they have to parody the prose voice of another writer, with the understanding that they're not mocking the writer's style but trying to channel their literary spirit in a new context. It's a surprisingly difficult exercise, and one that really gets them thinking about the specifics of diction and syntax, and how any one writer establishes a unique way of communicating on the page.

Smith ended his column with a call for sample parodies, of one paragraph in length, aimed at either the humourless elevated lyricism of so much CanLit (aka, the school of Michael Ondaatje and Anne Michaels), or even his own hyper-urbane prose style. I was procrastinating over a massive to-do list (still am, in fact), and thought it might be fun to do my own version of Russell Smith, transported into an unlikely context. Here are the results:

How Conservative

Stephen stood in the gloom of the grand foyer at 24 Sussex and confronted his double. Before the mirror, he had tied the half-Windsor seven times and yet something still felt amiss. The oceanic blue of the Italian silk contained a leitmotif of grief that perfectly complemented his two-buttoned jacket, hand-cut to hug his newly svelte physique. (The kelp diet and Pilates had done wonders). And yet he was gripped by a sartorial uncertainty that he knew Iggy—he of the foreign surname and casual worldliness—could never share, not with a hockey-loving Reach for the Top nerd from Leaside. His RAZR trilled in a pocket—a lambent bar of Donizetti—and he flipped the phone open with immediate regret. “’Sup, S-Man? It’s Stock. The ride’s here and this blow ain’t gonna snort itself!” Stephen glared into the driveway and saw the limousine idling and, emerging from its black steel and smoked glass, the grinning visage of the Okanaganite. Stephen was seized by a Proustian despair, a sense of lost time. The Okanaganite had tried to match a fuchsia Farmer John wetsuit with a pair of tan brogues—after Labour Day! How could he ever conquer the nightclubs of Bytown, let alone bestride the international catwalks of power, Stephen wondered, when he couldn’t keep his own caucus in pleated slacks?