Episode Thirty Eight: The Academic Industrial Complex

IMG_20150321_104646Virtute lingered around me meowing in a very annoyed tone.  It seemed so long since we last played catch with his favourite 1.5″ mylar crinkle ball.  Instead he’s seen me come home ragged and tired from hours walking in circles on the picket lines, and then setting to work on writing my dissertation, editing journal articles I am sending to publication, preparing job applications, scholarship applications, and presentations for academic conferences.  Beyond all these things, like many of the other folks I’m walking the picket lines with, I try to contribute to my family in meaningful ways – cooking, cleaning, caring, supporting – things that make home possible.  But frankly, it’s difficult, and I have met many folks on the lines in far more precarious life situations than me.

Virtute, however, has not appreciated the lack of ball play.  He confronted me the other day, “There are 16 days left until the regular season and you’re going to be out of playing shape if you don’t play catch!”  He was right, of course, but I could only muster some kind of muttering about needing to meet publication deadlines. He scoffed and paced around the house before coming back to me with some advice.  “It’s easy to fall into the academic-industrial-complex trap. It’s really nothing more than a pyramid scheme, where those on the top benefit from your intellectual labour while the communities that you are most connected to rarely see the fruits of your work.  That’s the most important work of all.  Publications in obscure academic journals that have paywalls and restrict the freedom of academic sharing aren’t a priority.  Remember, the book you’ve been most proud to have published only ran one copy: Diaries of Cat Named Virtute.  We co-wrote that book for the people. Not for the academy.”  I suspect he’s right in his analysis.  The way that York has treated us during this strike really highlights the way they see academic workers as disposable and replaceable units.

Virtute, ever the contrarian, stopped me mid-thought.  “Now don’t go about feeling sorry for yourself,” he interjected. “You will have to make important life decisions over the next year and you have to make sure that those decisions include contributing in meaningful ways to the communities of struggle that have shaped your life so profoundly.”

Just then, Gumption walked by and so I asked her what she thought.  “I learn lots from Virtute,” she said. “No need for school”.  And that was the first A+ answer I’ve heard in a very long time.

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Episode Thirty Seven: Home Cooking

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I’ve come home every day the past two weeks drained, sore, and exhausted from being on the picket lines.  As glorified as the tactic is within labour movement history, it requires a significant exertion of emotional energy and can be pretty mundane. It’s tough being away from home and away from Virtute and Gumption, but I feel as though it’s a responsibility we have as current graduate students to fight for a better deal for those who will come after us.

This morning, I spent some time in Roncesvalles picking up some Polish food items that my grandparents used to feed me when I was little.  While I have been eternally grateful for the generous students, faculty, staff, and supporters who have brought delicious treats, snacks, and morale to the lines, it was important for me to take the time to prepare foods that remind me of home.

As many of you know, Virtute is a bit of a foodie, so I asked him if he had any foods that helped him through an especially emotionally draining time. He stirred from his morning sun worship and thought before responding, “Yes. Absolutely.  As you know I enjoy various types of foods, I like wet canned food, dry kibble, anything that is in Gumption’s bowl, and an assortment of other strange things, but there is nothing I enjoy eating more than mama Jenny’s steamed fish with soy, ginger, green onions, and garlic.  The moment I smell the fish steaming, I make my way to the kitchen to let her know how lovely it smells, and when I get a small morsel to nibble on, I feel truly a part of the family. Food helps to feed our bodies, but it also helps to nourish our souls. I always try to show my gratitude to her with fish-breath kisses.”

I told him that I picked up some Makowiec for dessert this evening and he smiled. “It will help you go back on the lines with care and love in your heart. Though your kisses might smell more like poppy seeds. The greatest struggles are won through expressions of deep love. I’m glad your grandparents’ old recipes have shown you this path.”

And so we reminisced about our favourite treats for another half hour as we watched the snow begin to melt.

Episode Thirty Six: 9

IMG_20140712_014517Virtute stretched out in the warm sun. He languished for a moment before running full stop down the hall.  He slammed on the breaks making a quick 180 degree turn as his back feet slid along the vinyl nearly giving out.  It was that time again, the sign of the new year, not the Gregorian/Roman new year or the Lunar/Solar new year, but the new year that mattered most to us: spring training. Filled with hope and excitement, we spent the afternoon getting our creaky frozen muscles loose and chatting about the season ahead.

Virtute knows I’m an enthusiast of advanced baseball stats, what some people call sabermetrics, and he was asking me how some of the stats were calculated when he stopped me mid-sentence. “Why is the most important number in baseball 9?” he asked pointedly.  I hadn’t ever thought about it. It’s true that there are 9 innings, 9 players on the field, 9 hitters in a lineup. A perfect inning is 9 straight strikes. But I couldn’t explain how the old Knickerbocker teams settled on these numbers when they were formalizing the rules of the modern game.  I told Virtute, I simply didn’t know. “I have a theory,” he responded, clever as always. So I asked him to let me hear it.  “Well, it’s kinda out of left field,” he began, proud of his baseball pun.  “You see, cats consider the number 9 to be very important, we have 9 lives after all.  In Chinese culture 9 is a homonym for the word longlasting – and well that’s definitely true of baseball. But most of all, nine aligns baseball with the planets – the nine planet’s of our solar system.”

I interrupted Virtute to remind him that since Pluto was disqualified, the number of planets was technically 8.  Angry, he spun around and blurted, “Don’t you ever say that again, unless you want to play baseball without a rightfielder! Can you imagine the imbalance that would create? It is the first composite lucky number. It is a beautiful number that signifies balance in the heavens and on earth. It is a number the symbolizes perfect balance, just like the game of baseball.  Don’t believe me? Try multiplying any number by 9, then add the resulting digits and reduce them to a single digit, it always becomes a 9.”

I spent the rest of the afternoon calculating, 9 x 134 = 1,206 = 1+2+0+6= 9, 9 x 832 = 7,488 = 7+4+8+8 =27 = 2+7=9…..and like an asymptote I travelled along an endless line, ungoverned by the rules of time, only by the rules of 9. Virtute had taught me a lesson about baseball, it was impressive.

Special Guest Post: Remus the Cat’s Birthday Greetings

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Not long ago on a very quiet afternoon while I was catching up on my winter readings, I caught Remus, my 5 year old faerie main coo when he interrupted me, saying “although I distrust technology, I keep finding myself drawn to its useful qualities, for example, snapping up a picture of me reminds me that sometimes, I may look a little bored or aloof, but most of the time, I’m just anxious and awkward. I think a lot about that, I prefer memories and I try to remember, as best as I can”

His thoughts got me thinking on how important it had been for me to preserve memories in the form of words and pictures. I recently came across a post I made about the passing of our little Minerva, who came into our lives alongside Remus half a decade ago. As if he had read my mind he said to me “I like looking out the window, to remind myself of when I was outside with that little white cat. We were found together, you know that right? I look at the stray cats in the alleyway in front of our house and it reminds me of her, today it’s been 5 years since she left us”

There are so many of my own memories that don’t actually have documentation. Like the time I met Craig for the first time in a place called The Hole in The Wall, and we karaoke’d to the rythm of mojitos, and the rallies, time spent together and the hard times.Or the first time I hung out with Virtute on the roof of Chester House. I found myself remembering that some of the most awesome memories still live in my brain, so I asked remus if there was anything he wanted to say about that “I finally got to spend some quality time with Craig this summer, and we had good chemistry. I was kind of glad he doesn’t enjoy picture-taking as much as you though, my fur on a sweaty summer day is not flattering at all. As for Virtute… is that an alter ego of his’, a place to ponder on humanity itself? or is he truly a living cat?

For anyone who knows Remus, his skepticism shouldn’t come as a surprise, his own life experiences have left him with difficulty trusting others, usually running right underneath the bed when hearing footsteps or laughter.

On the topic of birthdays, Remus added “Birthdays are all kinds of complicated, but I feel like these are moments that warrant documenting them. It’s awesome to see your friends grow into themselves, and it’s always fun to look back at who we were that got us into today.” A little while later, after eating dinner, Remus jumped onto my bed and said “memory is habit sometimes, like looking out the window, sweet friendship memories, or having a favourite spot on the bed, I don’t need pictures to show you that I’m always little spoon”

Happy birthday Virtute and Craig! and Minerva, you’re always with us.

Episode Thirty Five: You & the 6

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As you might recall, Virtute is one of the biggest Drake fans of all time. So when the new mixtape “If you are reading this it’s too late” was dropped surprisingly this week, Virtute pretty much spent the whole day listening to the album on repeat.  In fact, the whole house fell silent safe for the prophetic, yet hyper-literal, lyrics of Toronto’s prodigal son.

Virtute’s been playing the track “You & the 6” over and over today though.  As usual, I’m curious as to why some songs really appeal to Virtute and others he discards quite quickly (I guess it’s a whole generational thing). Anyhow, Virtute was a little annoyed that I was disturbing his listening experience, but he relented and explained, “This song hits home. I think a lot of my mama, Jenny, she really raised me, her and this city have craddled me. It was Jenny who taught me how to fetch and who gave me cuddles when I was anxious at night. She’s always learning who I am and who I am becoming and she’s learned to let me be me.  At the same time, this city shaped me as well. I’ve explored rooftops on Chester Avenue and scary stairs on Dufferin and I’ve laid low in the garden here on Dublin.  All the while that tower looked over me, let me know things would be ok. It’s funny what cradles us, isn’t it?”

Virtute can be so melodramatic when it comes to Drake songs, but in some ways he was on point. Jenny & the 6 raised him right, probably saved his life.

Episode Thirty Four: Year of Ox

IMG_20150210_103440Next week is going to be an important time in our house.  Over the last few years, as a family, we’ve tried to observe the lunar calendar in a variety of ways.  We’ve tried to celebrate solstices and equinoxes, we’ve developed traditions based on the moon phases, and we’ve started to incorporate teachings about Chinese lunar/solar holidays into our family rituals.

Virtute particularly enjoys these things since he is probably the most connected to the moon out of all of us, though perhaps Jenny would dispute this given her wolf-like proclivities. Anyhow, I was mentioning to Virtute that this year we will be celebrating the Year of the Ox.**  While Virtute is normally quite joyous to take part in celebrating each new year, this year he became quiet and distressed after I brought it up.

I was uncertain as to what had caused him to get into such a funk, so I asked what was the matter. The first few days of prodding yielded little results and it wasn’t until the full moon last week that he divulged what was on his mind.  He approached me in the middle of writing and flopped across my arms. Then he blurted it all out. “Year of the Ox,” he heaved his inflection so fiercely that the sound of the word “ox” sort of lingered in the air like an echo.  “Year of the Ox,” he repeated.  “Of all the animals in the zodiac, none was more useful to civilizing regimes.  The ox was the most useful animal in rice-based statist regimes and many upon many of Indigenous peoples fled into the mountains to avoid the fate that would beset them should they be confronted with the various dynasties intent on creating these hierarchies. But many could not flee and they became overwhelmed.”  I knew that the ox had been one of the first animals to be effectively domesticated to help in rice paddy production, but I didn’t understand his consternation.  So, of course, I had to ask.

Normally contemplative, Virtute responded promptly, “These were the first of the animal beings to be saddled with domestication and domination.  They represent all the animals who have become partially or fully domesticated: goats, pigs, dogs, cows, gerbils, even us cats. This year is an important year. This year is a year that we must re-focus on our collective liberation, we must remember the teachings and traditions we held before the march of progress, and we must always reflect on the longstanding struggle of the ox and the sheep and the horse and all those other animals like the Atlas Bear and the Passenger Pigeon who were made extinct because they refused to succumb to these systems of domination.”

Virtute, resolute, hopped back in his cat condo and began conspiratorial conversations with Gumption. I slid back into my seat and watched the moon glow brightly outside my window.

**Note: Our friend Anabel kindly informed us that the animal that Virtute and I were discussing on the lai si envelope is actually a Goat – so alas this year is not The Year of the Ox, but The Year of the Goat. Fortunately, goats hold the title of “beast of burden” for the same reason as the ox, so we have concluded that this post can still stand.  Let this year be the year of the insurrection. 

Episode Thirty Three: Mean

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Virtute has a bit of a reputation for being mean.  I can’t say that it’s warranted, but I do think that he does have spurts and bouts of desire to dominate or to annoy that seem to suggest that he’s doing it on purpose. For instance, a few days ago he spent over an hour crying loudly at Jenny’s door to be let in, only to stay for a moment and then begin crying loudly to be let out. And last night he ate a large dinner and then skulked around waiting for Gumption to finish her tiny portion in order to ensure that he could get to her dish to finish it off – hungry or not.

It’s not a good look.  This morning I decided to ask him why he sometimes acts mean.  Rather than push back and get defensive, which is what I expected, he instead tried to be reflective and put his behaviour into a larger perspective.  “I think cats have that reputation in general,” he began. “There’s this idea that cats are mean and dogs are kind, it’s all over the Internet and it kind of sets us all up in some way. But there’s also some truth to it. I think part of the impression that we are mean comes from our desire to maintain some control within and against the process of domestication.”

I asked him what he meant, and his explanation began to hit home. “Look, it’s not like you’re immune to this either? In fact, I’d say that most people organizing against capitalism, racism, colonialism and other forms of power structures come off as mean.  It’s tough being the one’s who are pushing back against what feels like a powerful tidal wave.  And frankly, there’s truth to that too. You folks on the radical left tend to be mean. You tend to be judgmental and quick to anger. You tend to concentrate on telling people what they are doing wrong and not trying to invite people into different and potentially better ways of being.  It’s not necessarily fair, just like for cats, that you folks get labelled as mean by those resistant to different ways of being, but there is truth to it too.”

Feeling a bit humbled, I apologized for calling him mean.  “Don’t apologize,” he snapped back, perhaps a little too briskly.  “I’m glad you brought this up with me.  I definitely want to fight this domestication, but I also want you and those around me to know that I love you and know that I want to invite you in – to struggle together.  So I will think about ways that I can be kind instead of mean.” Sheepishly, I asked what he thought I should do or at least those of us on the left should do to be less mean. Lowering his eyes and staring me down, he replied, “Listen to your movement elders. You know, Grace Lee Boggs once said, ‘We urgently need to bring to our communities the limitless capacity to love, serve, and create for and with each other,’ and that requires acting out of kindness rather than meanness. One day I’ll tell you about the etymology of kindness.”

And there we sat, two mean kids trying to be kind in a cruel world. I’m glad to have Virtute as a friend to work these things out.

Episode Thirty Two: Takes Flight

IMG_20141029_192920Virtute has a secret. I’m not supposed to share this secret and I feel bad that I am going to post this anyway, but sometimes Virtute can be far too humble.  Each day, during the mid afternoon, Virtute takes flight.  I’m not talking about wearing Air Jordan shoes and attaining significant vertical before a slam dunk, I’m talking about flying.  He takes flight. He springs into the air and just proceeds to float there for an inordinate amount of time until finally gravity proves too strong and he comes back to earth. Many people believe this is a myth, but a few of us have seen it with our own eyes.

I realize cats cannot fly, but maybe they can?

Here’s the thing. I’ve asked Virtute about this on a number of occasions and he’s always been very reticent to discuss it.  But last week I must have caught him in a particularly sharing mood because when I asked him, “How is it that you can fly?”, he shifted nervously and instead of scampering away he decided to respond to my question.  “I fly because…because I believe I can fly.” This was all starting to sound like a bad R.Kelly song, but before I could get my jab in, he continued. “And I practice.  I practice and I believe and then I let myself go. Most of the time I hit the ground pretty hard, but what are 9 lives for if you don’t use them all, right? Anyhow, a very very very long time ago – I’m talking millions if not billions of years ago our ancestors in the water wanted to reach the sky and the land. They were probably curious, maybe they feared for their existence, maybe they wished for the impossible, but there came a time when swimming wasn’t enough.  They believed that life could exist outside of water and so they practiced and practiced and practiced.  And slowly, over millions of years, they willed themselves to explore the skies – and they flew.”

I am somewhat aware of evolutionary theory, although all of this seemed a bit haphazard, but I indulged him – you or your species haven’t had millions of years of practice, how come you can fly? He seemed hurt.  He replied, “You choose to stand sixty feet from another human on a hill throwing a ball at extreme velocities at you and swing a bat and hit the ball. That’s pretty improbable. I realize that the success rate of doing this is quite low.  But you will yourself to do it for pleasure or pain or possibly for spiritual fulfillment. You practice and then you let yourself go, you practice surrender. I do the same thing. Maybe it’s not recognized as such, but I believe in the improbable.  We should all believe in the improbable. But we should always practice. It helps to be prepared.”

And with a yelp and a loud meow, he pounced in the air, hanging for longer than usual before falling back to the ground satisfied with himself.


Episode Thirty One: Indie 88

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Yesterday I spent most of the day recuperating from a lingering ear infection/head cold. Virtute, ever the nurturer stayed mostly by my side to hang out and keep me company. Realizing that it must not be a lot of fun for him to just lie around while I sniffle and toss around the bed, I decided to flick open my little green radio.  I spun the dial through the stations until I found a moderately acceptable song to land on and dozed off.

I awoke to find Virtute distraught and flustered.  I asked him if he was alright and he responded tersely, “Of course I’m not alright! How could you leave the radio tuned into Indie 88?”  I felt bad. I definitely shared his sadness.  Indie 88 is the corporate radio station that replaced the vibrant and grassroots CKLN, a station I had volunteered with as a programmer for the Word of Mouth News show.   I explained that I simply wanted to find a station that was playing modestly decent music and didn’t even consider what station I had landed on.

Virtute rebuffed my response and in a patient, though evidently annoyed tone began, “Even the name ‘indie” in Indie 88 is an attempt at a theft of the true independent spirit of CKLN.  From Norman Otis Richmond to Queen Nzinga; from OCAP radio to Don Weitz’s memorable voice rattling out ‘stop shocking our mothers!’, CKLN for over three decades was the heart and soul of grassroots community organizing in this city.  It nurtured real independent music like Lal, D’bi Young, and a great number of underground hip hop, punk, reggae, and other musicians.  CKLN explored serious political issues that normally don’t make it onto the airwaves: Indigenous resistance, anti-colonial struggles around the world, sex worker struggles, migrant justice, anti-capitalism.  It’s replacement by the base and empty vapidness of Indie 88 is made worse by the station’s attempt to claim some sort of radical/social justice cred.”

It was hard to argue with Virtute, while I’ve never fully rejected listening to Indie 88 or actively boycotted the station, there are times when I have such a visceral reaction to something the djs are talking about or a song that they are playing that I have to turn the dial or risk getting into a car accident.  Virtute reminded me what it was like that day in 2011 when the CKLN director came into the studio and told Ryan, Yogi, Sheila and I that the station would be going off the air forever in two minutes and we’d have to close it out.  He finished, “I was just a kitten lying on Jenny’s bed listening to your show streaming online when that happened. There was no way for you guys to do the station’s history justice.  But the memory of CKLN lives on in the spirit of independent and interdependent media that continues to blossom in our communities and though it might have stolen the sound dial and laid claims to some of the station’s cred, Indie 88 will never erase the spirit and histories that CKLN planted in Toronto.”

I turned off the radio and threw on a track by Lal, Virtute smiled cuddled up next to me and we healed together.

Episode Thirty: 2014 Year in Review

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Recently, Jenny’s sister Joyce and her husband Tomi purchased Virtute and I the most thoughtful gift, the critically acclaimed book How to Make Your Cat an Internet Celebrity: A Guide to Financial Freedom. We’ve been reading the book together and picking up some important strategies for improving our blog. Virtute has complained ad nauseum about some of the cheeky “cute cat” strategies that he calls “base and crass,” but we’ve both been able to agree on one piece of great advice from the book – we need a “year in review” post.

Since this month marks the one year anniversary of Diaries of a Cat Named Virtute, we thought this week is as good a time as any to do one.  I asked Virtute if he could talk about some of the more profound moments for this year: the good times, the bad times, the music that touched him, the memories he made.  He’s been pacing around the house all day and I wasn’t sure that this would actually come out before year end, but then he finally sat at the foot of my bed and began:

“I think I’ll remember 2014 as a year of intellectual and emotional development, one where  I started to reflect upon home & belonging, about what it means to live in Toronto and all the small things that make this city so perplexing.  It’s been a year where we’ve spent a long time talking about the meaning of friendship, community, family, and our responsibilities to each other.”

I asked him if he could reflect on some of the challenges he’s faced this year.  “Well, it’s been a year full of them, hasn’t it?” he replied.  “There was the deep pipe freeze in January, the famous battle against the hated Lunchbox, the time when Gumption went missing, my bladder obstruction, but there was nothing more challenging than the day that Jenny played Coldplay. I think we’ve mostly come out pretty good this year though.”

When prompted about his favourite music of 2014, he noted “I did take a peak at the Pitchfork Top 50 of 2014 and frankly I was disappointed that Taylor Swift’s 1989 did not rank #1. I mean #31 is still respectable, but only Pitchfork could dig up 30 albums that could possibly have made my booty shake less than T.Swizzle.” Then without prompting, he acknowledged that he already had a best album of 2015. I asked how that could be possible? He said, “Well if Drake keeps his promise and drops Views from the 6, then I can’t see any album being as incredible. It might be the album of the century!” Virtute is loyal to a fault.

Finally, I asked him what it was like to have such an open persona online.  The mood turned a bit more serious and he flicked his tail in the air cautiously before imparting, “It’s definitely intimidating – I mean everyone now asks me about my love of etymology, they chastise me about my relationship with Gumption, and mostly I’m reminded of my responsibilities to my adoring fans.” He smiled and then asked, “Do you think we’ve completed the 5 major steps to achieve media dominance in this post?” before quickly replying, “you’re not going to include that last part are you?”

Onwards to 2015! Year of the Cat.