Wednesday, June 22, 2016

A few days in Toronto

I can’t help wondering how many Americans have visited Toronto.  For those in Northeast Ohio, it’s a mere five hours drive – give or take traffic. But it’s like a different world.

Toronto is a lovely city, well planned and executed, with a nice, balanced energy.  In a way, it’s a larger version of the city that Cleveland could be - if city, county, and state leaders would work together and execute long term plans to properly develop the lakefront, downtown, and revive the neighborhoods.  Wouldn’t it be great if Cleveland had a lakeside landmark like Toronto’s CN Tower?  To do that, Cleveland would have to close Burke Lakefront Airport– Hopkins could easily accommodate Burke’s traffic.  Closing Burke would free up a massive slice of lakefront property that could be developed into Condos/Apartments, Retail, and other beachfront amenities.  But, enough about Cleveland for now.  

Toronto skyline, with the CN Tower

Toronto is very clean, well maintained, and boasts excellent public transport.  We did not avail ourselves of any of the public transport options, but used the PATH – an ingenious network of underground and elevated walkways – for getting around during hotter periods.  But we did get outside enough to see the variety of architecture – from preserved old homes and other buildings, to new skyscrapers – a good many still under construction.

A Toronto Streetcar - built in Cleveland

The Royal Ontario Museum is sort of a mix of the Cleveland Art Museum and Natural History Museum.  The collection of dinosaur skeletons there is the most impressive I’ve ever seen.  There’s also an excellent section on the First People of Canada.  The only issue I had with the ROM is that there wasn’t a clear flow from room to room.  Further, the ROM consists of two interconnecting buildings which makes navigation confusing – even with a map.  We also visited the Bata Shoe Museum – a specialist place that appealed to Daniel more than I.

Outside of London, Toronto is the most ethnically diverse city I’ve ever seen, with particularly large numbers of Asians.  The diversity extends to religions, and we in the United States could learn a few things from our northern neighbors.  In a previous post I pointed out that Muslims can be found in every corner of the world.  Toronto is a case in point.  I saw Muslim men and women in every area of the city I visited, from Eaton Centre mall to Church & Wellesley.  Muslims are an integral part of the social fabric of Toronto, yet I saw no sign of social tension as one would see in the United States.

Despite the effects both the mainstreaming of LGBT people and the Internet/App culture have had on gay neighborhoods, Toronto has a vibrant LGBT scene, with the Church-Wellesley area being the most notable gayborhood.  There is a generous selection of gay clubs and bars there, catering to every taste.  We were particularly fond of Woody’s (famous from Queer as Folk), and the Statler.  Daniel & I were moved to see a memorial to those slain in Orlando earlier this month, as well as the names and ages of every victim stenciled on the ground.   We have never felt safer as a gay couple than our days in Toronto, not even in Provincetown or in the Soho neighborhood of London.  We were able to walk through most of the city holding hands, with no one batting an eye – and we were far from the only same sex couple doing so.  Even at Eaton Centre, Toronto’s largest mall, there were teenaged same sex couples, holding hands, embracing, and looking at each other the way only people in love do – what a difference from when I was their age!  Canada is therefore far ahead of the United States in social tolerance and public safety.  Of course, when you’re in a country where guns are sensibly regulated, safety is a reality, not just a feeling. 

Church & Wellesley

As we were only there for a few days, Daniel & I did not have time to take a “deep dive” into the culinary scene.  Highlights were the ChurchMouse, and Smiths (both on Church street), and Elephant & Castle, on Yonge Street.  Smiths had the most perfectly balanced salads imaginable.  While ChurchMouse and Elephant & Castle were traditional British pubs - with the latter also being sports oriented.  We were there enjoying a late dinner during game 7 of the NBA Finals – and happy to learn most of the crowd was pro-Cleveland, judging by the reactions.

On the flip side, there were a large number of homeless people, on practically every block we walked on - more than I’ve seen in any American city or in London.  This was a surprise, given Canada’s strong reputation for social welfare.

Daniel and I stayed at the Chelsea Eaton, which proved to be both convenient and well appointed.  We can recommend it for anyone looking for a comfortable place to set their heads down at night – with the added bonus of an excellent fitness centre, several restaurants, and central location.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016


During the early hours of Sunday morning, when most are either sleeping, partying, or recovering, I was at work.  In the I. T. world, changes and elevates most often occur during the wee hours, in order to minimize disruption.  At around 3:00am, my phone started beeping with alerts, as the news began to trickle, then flood with reports of a shooting at an Orlando nightclub.  At first there were reports of injuries, then deaths, then more deaths.  Then the perpetrator was identified as Omar Mateen – a New York native (born in Queens, as was my mother) – the child of Afghan immigrants.


Like most Americans, like most right-thinking people across the world, I felt a sense of horror and outrage at the news of the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. 

I cannot truthfully say, however, that I was shocked.  Over the last 20 years, with events like Columbine, Newtown, and San Bernardino, I have lost my capacity for shock.  It has been replaced with weariness, disgust, a simmering despair.


In the aftermath of the attack, the talking heads were quick to offer their own two cents.  And Donald Trump was quick to offer self-congratulations and even imply that President Obama was somehow responsible for the carnage in Orlando.  What a loathsome creature Donald Trump is.  He is a reflection of the worst of America, a walking mass of rage, stupidity, and insatiable Id.


I’ve seen three explanations for this attack.  Some are calling the attack Islamic terrorism.  Some are claiming it was the work of a lone wolf with easy access to an automatic weapon.  Some are claiming the killer was a self-loathing homosexual.


It’s likely that all three claims are correct, to an extent.  By any measure, Omar Mateen was a seriously warped individual.  Mateen’s first wife described him as someone who beat her regularly.  People who knew Mateen as a teenager remembered that he cheered when the towers fell on 9/11.  Co-workers knew him to express both Islamic extremist and virulently homophobic viewpoints – at one point causing him to be reported to the FBI.  Doubtless he learned some of these viewpoints from his father, who posted videos in which he voiced his support of the Taliban and hatred of LGBT people.  The apple didn’t fall far from the tree.  When Omar Mateen remarried, it was to a woman who was so submissive she wouldn’t even report his activities to the authorities - even as she was trying to dissuade him from the atrocity.  Obviously, Noor Mateen has blood on her hands and should be charged as an accessory.


Omar Mateen apparently carried a deep hatred of homosexuals.  As is common for those who are referred to as “homophobic”, his hatred was rooted in religion – in this case, a fundamentalist brand of Islam he learned from his father.  It is also becoming increasingly apparent that Mateen’s homophobia was not merely on religious grounds, but was internalized – again, this is all too common.  He was a semi-regular at Pulse, according to patrons and staff.  Indeed, on at least one occasion, he was tossed out of the nightclub after he became belligerently drunk – alcohol is strictly forbidden in Islam.  He was also using gay dating apps.  


It’s easy for reactionaries to shout “Islamo-fascism.”  Contrary to claims by some, including Trump, it appears that Mateen was not in direct contact with ISIL or with other Islamic terror organizations.  He could best be described as a fellow traveler.  But let us not forget that religious extremism comes in all stripes and colors, as evidenced here and here.


Religious extremists can be found in every nation of the world.  Homophobia, both internalized and non, can be found in every nation of the world.  But why is the United States unique, among the first world nations, in terms of the scale of the carnage from these kinds of events?  Contrast the United States with the United Kingdom, for example.  The worst terror attack in recent British memory was the 7/7 attack, which required the coordinated efforts of no less than four suicide bombers.  52 people were killed – so this event had about the same fatalities as Orlando.  But while mass shootings are nearly a weekly occurrence in the United States, they are exceedingly rare in the UK.  The most recent attack in London was not a shooting but the December 2015 knife attack, in which there were no fatalities. 


The difference between London and Orlando, or course, lies in the easy access to firearms in the United States.  Not merely handguns, which are deadly enough, but automatic weapons such as the AR-15, which caused the bulk of deaths in Orlando – and which can be tied to numerous other incidents.  Imagine what would have happened at the Leytonstone tube station if Muhaydin Mire had had a gun.  It’s also worth mentioning that London has a far greater percentage of Muslims than any city in the United States, except possibly for Dearborn, Michigan.  So, to explain away Orlando as Islamic terrorism and nothing else seems glib, at best.


I’ll never forget the time my father told me, in all earnest, “You know who’s gonna save this country when the Russians invade?  20 million NRA members.”  Nor will I ever fathom how a man whose own brother died in a gun accident could become so obsessed with guns in later life.  Gun nuts are fixated with a twisted interpretation of the Second Amendment – which they claim grants them unfettered access to any weapon, any time.  But I doubt that America’s Founding Fathers, when they drafted the Amendment, intended it as a gateway for psychopaths to gain access to automatic weapons  - provided they could have even conceived of such weapons.


It’s time for common sense regulations on the purchase of these kinds of weapons.  True, gun restrictions won’t eliminate violence, enabled by guns or other weapons, in our society.  But they will increase the likelihood that someone seeking such weapons will be caught before an attack such as that in Orlando could take place.

Friday, June 3, 2016

André Watts - "Complete" Columbia Recordings

Sony Classical has reissued their "complete" recordings of pianist André Watts.  Well, almost.  Click here to read my review.