On Thursday, August 14, 2003 at 4:11 PM, everything stopped.
In my memory, two big events occurred in Toronto that summer of 2003: one was SARStock and the other was the power blackout that affected all of Ontario and parts of Northeastern and Midwestern United States. It was the world’s second most widespread power blackout in history, with 50 million people affected by the outage. For some, the blackout lasted a couple of days, for others it was as long as 14 days, depending on where you lived.
Ontario originally caught the blame for the gigantic outage, but over time the source would be traced to a stretch of road in suburban Ohio. Weak areas in the electricity grid of U.S. and Canada further exacerbated the situation.
For a high-level technical explanation of the situation, I’ve borrowed some text from blogTO.com.
August 2003 had been a scorcher. Hot weather and heavy demand for electricity had put the local grid in Ohio under unusual strain, causing power lines to sag into overgrown trees and short out. When the Eastlake coal-fired station near Cleveland went offline it was like knocking over the first in a line of 50 million dominoes.
One by one, power stations across the northeast U.S. became overloaded then automatically powered down as they tried to compensate for other downed stations in neighbouring areas. The blackout rolled northeast from Ohio, round Lake Erie into Ontario, knocking out power to cities and towns as it went.
Systematic faults meant tools used to track and monitor blackouts either failed or didn’t work as intended. Ontario was left 8,000 megawatts short – 500 megawatts usually spells trouble – as nuclear plants in Bruce, Pickering, and Darlington became hopelessly hobbled. When the blackout finally stabilized, 50 million people were left without power in the United States and Canada.
Maybe now they’ll learn to shut the lights off up there…
An American woman on a local newscast, trying to blame the outage on Canada’s power consumption
My memories of the 2003 blackout in Toronto
At that time in my life I was still working at Canada Life Assurance in the downtown core of Toronto, at Queen Street and University Avenue. I remember the outage hitting just at the start of everyone’s commute home from work. It foiled a lot of attempts to get home that Thursday afternoon – the GO trains weren’t running, there was no subway, the downtown core was so clogged with cars that no one could move. Out of our team of about a dozen people at work, I was the only one who lived downtown so guess where everyone came for food, rest and some strategic planning to get home.
It was Vince’s day off that day so he was at home. He had put on a huge slow cooker of stew early in the day, which luckily was now ready. I had been unable to reach him to let him know that there would be a dozen of us descending on the house but the phone lines were all overloaded and jammed so it was impossible to get through. It was a big surprise for him when a dozen people showed up on our doorstep for dinner! Over the course of the next 4-5 hours we all ate stew, had lots to drink and watched the Jarvis Street pedestrian parade and revelry from our balcony – oh, the sound from the streets! It was one really big party out there – the streets were jammed with people, cars and party fiends who were simply making the most of the unusual event.
Cell phones did not work, as cell towers are powered by electricity, during the blackout, so there were only land lines available (imagine no cell phones for a day!) Using my one wired phone on a land line, one by one my guests for the evening took turns using it to call home to arrange a pickup or to give a status update.
When you have a dozen guests who are eating and drinking for any length of time, there is an inevitable need to use the bathroom. When you live in a high-rise, one of the downsides of a power failure is the lack of water (the water is electrically pumped up to the units), so guess what – the toilets can’t flush. The bathroom turned into a communal toilet during the course of the evening (was I ever glad when the water came back on!). It was all good though, as by the end of the evening everyone found their way home, be it by cab, shared ride or pick up by a family member (no Uber or Lyft in those days).
For about three days, the hustle and bustle of Toronto came to a stop. People slowed down, became friendlier, and just seemed to enjoy life a little more during this unusual time. I have memories of Vince and I sitting in the food court in College Park, just killing time along with so many others. These were calm, happy, patient people – something you rarely find in downtown Toronto. Our part of the world, or so it seemed, had stopped all its rushing about and bustle.
Meanwhile, In New York City…
Chaos reigned supreme:
It was an amazing and unique time no matter where you lived in the blackout region. I’ll never forget that hot summer of 2003 when the lights went out.
As someone with a keen interest in 1970s pop/gay San Francisco culture, one of the characters I admire from that era is Harvey Milk. He is one of my heroes and has inspired me in so many ways. As a gay man living in the 21st century, many of the unprecedented gay rights I now enjoy can be linked back, directly or indirectly, to the work and struggle of Harvey Milk in San Francisco during the late 1970s.
For those not familiar with Harvey Milk, he was a gay rights activist and politician in 1970s San Francisco. He was the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California, as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Harvey served almost eleven months in office, during which he sponsored a bill banning discrimination in public accommodations, housing, and employment on the basis of sexual orientation. The San Francisco City Supervisors passed the bill by a vote of 11–1, and it was signed into law by Mayor George Moscone. On November 23, 1978 Harvey Milk was assassinated, along with Mayor George Moscone, inside San Francisco City Hall by disgruntled and mentally disturbed fellow City Supervisor, Dan White. There is still so much more to this story as a whole, which you can read here if you’d like to learn more.
There was a Hollywood biographical feature film (Milk) of Harvey Milk’s life released in 2008 featuring Sean Penn in the starring role. The film was released to much acclaim and earned numerous accolades from film critics and guilds for Sean Penn’s performance, Gus Van Sant’s directing, and Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay. Milk received 8 Oscar nominations at the 81st Academy Awards, including Best Picture and went on to win two: Best Actor for Sean Penn and Best Original Screenplay for Dustin Lance Black.
For perhaps a little more realistic insight into Harvey Milk’s life, I think the 1984 documentary film The Times of Harvey Milk is far and away the better film; it’s considerably less “Hollywood” in nature, for one thing. The Times of Harvey Milk won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1985, and also took the Special Jury Prize at that year’s Sundance Film Festival. Randy Shilts’s 1982 biography of Harvey Milk – The Mayor of Castro Street – is also a worthy read.
Harvey Milk was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 from President Obama; the award was accepted by Harvey Milk’s nephew Stuart Milk.
Below is Harvey Milk’s famous “Hope Speech” in its entirety, delivered at 1978’s Gay Freedom Day Parade in San Francisco. He was assassinated in November that same year.
My name is Harvey Milk, and I’m here to recruit you. I’ve been saying this one for years. It’s a political joke. I can’t help it. I’ve got to tell it. I’ve never been able to talk to this many political people before, so if I tell you nothing else, you may be able to go home laughing a bit.
This ocean liner was going across the ocean, and it sank. And there was one little piece of wood floating. And three people swam to it. And they realized only one person could hold onto it. So they had a little debate about which was the person.
It so happened that the three people were the Pope, the President and Mayor Daley. The Pope said he was the titular head of one of the greatest religions of the world, and he was spiritual adviser to many, many millions. And he went on and pontificated. And they thought it was a good argument.
Then the President said he was the leader of the largest and most powerful nation of the world. What takes place in this country affects the whole world. And they thought that was a good argument.
And Mayor Daley said he was the mayor of the backbone of the United States. And what took place in Chicago affected the world. And what took place in the Archdiocese of Chicago affected Catholicism. And they thought that was a good argument. So they did it the democratic way and voted. And Daley won seven to two.
About six months ago, Anita Bryant, in her speaking to God, said that the drought in California was because of the gay people. On November 9, the day after I got elected, it started to rain. On the day I got sworn in, we walked to City Hall. And it was kind of nice. And as soon as I said the word “I do,” it started to rain again. It’s been raining since then. And the people of San Francisco figure the only way to stop it is to do a recall petition. That’s the local joke.
So much for that. Why are we here? Why are gay people here? And what’s happening? What’s happening to me is the antithesis of what you read about in the papers and what you hear about on the radio. You hear about and read about this movement to the right, that we must band together and fight back this movement to the right. And I’m here to go ahead and say that what you hear and read is what they want you to think.
Because it’s not happening. The major media in this country has talked about the movement to the right, so the legislators think that there is indeed a movement to the right and that the Congress and the legislators and the City Council will start to move to the right and the way the major media want them. So they keep on talking about this move to the right.
So let’s look at 1977, and see if there was indeed a movement to the right. In 1977, gay people had their rights taken away from them in Miami. But you must remember, that in the week before Miami and the week after that, the word “homosexual” or “gay” appeared in every single newspaper in this nation in articles both pro and con. And every radio station and every TV station and every household, for the first time in the history of the world, everybody was talking about it, good or bad.
Unless you have dialogue, unless you open the walls of dialogue, you can never reach to change people’s opinion. In those two weeks, more good and bad, but more about the word homosexual and gay was written than probably in the history of mankind. Once you have dialogue starting, you know you can break down prejudice.
In 1977, we saw a dialogue start. In 1977, we saw a gay person elected in San Francisco. In 1977, we saw the state of Mississippi decriminalize marijuana. In 1977, we saw the convention of conventions in Houston. And I want to know where the movement to the right was happening.
What that is is a record of what happened last year. What we must do is make sure that 1978 continues the movement that is really happening and that the media don’t want you to know about. That is the movement to the left. It is up to CDC to put the pressures on Sacramento, but to break down the walls and the barriers so the movement to the left continues and progress continues in the nation.
We have before us coming up several issues we must speak out on. Probably the most important issue outside the Briggs which we will come to, but we do know what will take place this June. We know that there’s an issue on the ballot called Jarvis-Gann. We hear the taxpayers talk about it on both sides. But what you don’t hear is that it’s probably the most racist issue on the ballot in a long time.
In the city and the county of San Francisco, if it passes and we indeed have to lay off people, who will they be? The last in and the first in and who are the last in but the minorities. Jarvis-Gann is a racist issue. We must address that issue. We must not talk away from it. We must not allow them to talk about the money it’s going to save, because look at who’s going to save the money and look at who’s going to get hurt.
We also have another issue that we have started in some of the north counties. And I hope in some of the south counties, it continues. In San Francisco, elections were asking– at least we hope to ask– that the US government put pressure on the closing of the South African consulate. That must happen.
There is a major difference between an embassy in Washington, which is a diplomatic borough and a consulate in major cities. A consulate is there for one reason only, to promote business, economic gains, tourism, investment. And every time you have a business going to South Africa, you’re promoting a regime that’s offensive.
In the city of San Francisco, if every one of 51% of that city were to go to South Africa, they would be treated as second class citizens. That is an offense to the people of San Francisco. And I hope all my colleagues up there will take every step we can to close down that consulate and hope that people in other parts of the state follow us in that lead.
The battles must be started someplace. And CDC is a great place to start the battles. I know we are pressed for time, so I’m going to cover just one more little point. That is, to understand why it’s important that gay people run for office, and that gay people get elected. I know there are many people in this room who are gay who are running for a central committee. And I encourage you.
There’s a major reason why. If my non-gay friends and supporters in this room understand it, they’ll probably understand why I’ve run so often before I finally made it. You see right now, there’s a controversy going on in this convention about the gay governor. Is he speaking out enough? Is her strong enough for gay rights? And there is controversy. And for us to say that there is not would be foolish. Some people are satisfied. And some people are not.
You see there is a major difference — and it remains a vital difference — between a friend and a gay person, a friend in office and a gay person in office. Gay people have been slandered nationwide. We’ve been tarred and we’ve been brushed with the picture of pornography. In Dade County, we were accused of child molestation. It is not enough anymore just to have friends represent us, no matter how good that friend may be.
The black community made up its mind to that a long time ago. The myths against blacks can only be dispelled by electing black leaders so the black community could be judged by its leaders and not by the myths or the black criminals. The Spanish community must not be judged by Latin criminals or myths. The Asian community must not be judged by Asian criminals or myths. The Italian community must not be judged by the mafia–myths.
And the time has come when the gay community must not be judged for our criminals and our myths. Like every other group, we must be judged by our leaders and by those who are themselves gay, those who are visible. For invisible, we remain in limbo. A myth. A person with no parents, no brothers, no sisters, no friends who are straight, no important positions in employment.
A tenth of the nation’s supposedly composed of stereotypes and would-be seducers of children. And no offense meant to those stereotypes but today, the black community is not judged by its friends but by its black legislators and leaders. And we must give people the chance to judge us by our leaders and legislators.
A gay person in office can set a tone, can command respect, not only from the larger community, but from the young people in our own community who need both examples and hope. The first gay people we elect must be strong. They must not be content to sit in the back of the bus. They must not be content to accept pabulum. They must be above wheeling and dealing. They must be, for the good of all of us, independent, unbought.
The anger and the frustrations that some of us feel is because we are misunderstood. And friends can’t feel that anger and frustration. They can sense it in us, but they can’t feel it. Because a friend has never gone through what is known as “coming out.” I will never forget what it was like coming out and having nobody to look up toward.
I remember the lack of hope, and our friends can’t fulfill it. I can’t forget the looks on faces of people who have lost hope, be they gay, be they seniors, be they blacks looking for an almost impossible job, be they Latins trying to explain their problems and aspirations in a tongue that’s foreign to them. I Personally will never forget that people are more important than buildings.
I use the word “I” because I am proud. I stand here tonight in front of my gay sisters, brothers and friends, because I’m proud of you. I think it’s time that we have many legislators who are gay and proud of that fact and do not have to remain in the closet. I think a gay person upfront will not walk away a responsibility and be afraid of being tossed out of office.
After Dade County, I walked among the angry and frustrated night after night. And I looked at their faces. And in San Francisco, three days before Gay Pride Day, a person was killed just because he was gay. And that night I walked among the sad and the frustrated at City Hall in San Francisco, and later that night, as they lit candles on Castro Street and stood in silence, reaching out for some symbolic thing that would give them hope. These were strong people whose faces I knew from the shop, the streets, meetings, and people who I never saw before but I knew. They were strong, but even they needed hope.
And the young gay people in Altoona, Pennsylvanias, and the Richmond, Minnesotas, who are coming out and hear Anita Bryant on television and her story. The only thing they have to look forward to is hope. And you have to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a better place to come to if the pressures at home are too great. Hope that all will be all right. Without hope, not only are the gays, but the blacks, the seniors, the handicapped, the “us-es.” The “us-es” will give up.
And if you help elect the Central Committee and other offices, more gay people — that gives a green light to all who feel disenfranchised, a green light to move forward. It means hope to a nation that has given up, because if a gay person makes it, the doors are open to everyone. So if there’s a message I have to give, it is that I found one overriding thing about my personal election. It’s the fact that if a gay person can be elected, it’s a green light. And you and you and you — you have to give people hope.
I believe this one has been around for a while but I just heard it today for the first time. It’s beautiful and so perfect.
And on the 9th Day God looked down on his wide eyed children and said they need a companion
So God made a Dog
God said I need somebody to wake up and give kisses, pee on a tree, sleep all day, wake up again, give more kisses, and then stay up till midnight basking in the glow of the television set.
So God made a Dog
God said I need somebody willing to sit, then stay, then roll over then with no ego or complaint dress in hats they do not need and costumes they do not understand. I need somebody who can break wind without a first thought or second thought. Who can chase tails, sniff crotches, fetch sticks and lift spirits with a lick. Somebody no matter what you didn’t do, or couldn’t take, or didn’t win, or couldn’t make will love you without judgment just the same.
So God made a Dog
God said I need somebody strong enough to pull sleds and find bombs, yet gentle enough to love babies and lead the blind. Somebody who will spend all day on a couch with the resting head and supportive eyes to lift the spirits of a broken heart.
So God made a Dog
It had to be somebody who would remain patient and loyal even through loneliness. Somebody to care, cuddle, snuggle and nuzzle, and cheer and charm and snore and slobber and eat the trash and chase the squirrels. Somebody who would bring a family together with selflessness of an open heart. Somebody who would bark, and then pant, and then reply with the rapid wag of tail when their best friend says lets go for a ride in the car.
So God made a Dog
God said I need somebody who would stand at your side when the world around you collapses. Somebody to lie next to you during the long nights of pain and sorrow when it hurts to move, or talk, or think, or be. Somebody to stand guard, play games, snore for hours, and repeat as needed. Somebody to give you strength when you have none of your own. Somebody to fight when you have no fight left, to hold onto your soul as if it were their favorite toy, playing tug of war to keep you in this world. Somebody to be your companion and guide in this world and the next. Somebody to wait for you on the other side or stand guard in your absence until they can join you for eternity.
Continuing in a Yeats vein, I’ve always enjoyed his poem Among School Children. I look upon the poem as a commentary on growing older and, hopefully, wiser.
I walk through the long schoolroom questioning; A kind old nun in a white hood replies; The children learn to cipher and to sing, To study reading-books and history, To cut and sew, be neat in everything In the best modern way—the children’s eyes In momentary wonder stare upon A sixty-year-old smiling public man.
I dream of a Ledaean body, bent Above a sinking fire, a tale that she Told of a harsh reproof, or trivial event That changed some childish day to tragedy— Told, and it seemed that our two natures blent Into a sphere from youthful sympathy, Or else, to alter Plato’s parable, Into the yolk and white of the one shell.
And thinking of that fit of grief or rage I look upon one child or t’other there And wonder if she stood so at that age— For even daughters of the swan can share Something of every paddler’s heritage— And had that colour upon cheek or hair, And thereupon my heart is driven wild: She stands before me as a living child.
Her present image floats into the mind— Did Quattrocento finger fashion it Hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind And took a mess of shadows for its meat? And I though never of Ledaean kind Had pretty plumage once—enough of that, Better to smile on all that smile, and show There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.
What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap Honey of generation had betrayed, And that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escape As recollection or the drug decide, Would think her son, did she but see that shape With sixty or more winters on its head, A compensation for the pang of his birth, Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?
Plato thought nature but a spume that plays Upon a ghostly paradigm of things; Solider Aristotle played the taws Upon the bottom of a king of kings; World-famous golden-thighed Pythagoras Fingered upon a fiddle-stick or strings What a star sang and careless Muses heard: Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird.
Both nuns and mothers worship images, But those the candles light are not as those That animate a mother’s reveries, But keep a marble or a bronze repose. And yet they too break hearts—O Presences That passion, piety or affection knows, And that all heavenly glory symbolise— O self-born mockers of man’s enterprise;
Labour is blossoming or dancing where The body is not bruised to pleasure soul, Nor beauty born out of its own despair, Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil. O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer, Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole? O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, How can we know the dancer from the dance?
For some unknown reason these words have been going through my head the last couple of weeks. The line is from the poem The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats. I remember some of the poem from required reading of it in English Literature during my university days.
Written in 1919 in the aftermath of the First World War, the poem is also connected to the 1918–1919 Spanish flu pandemic. When read in the light of our current COVID-19 pandemic, it carries an eerie parallel.
In the weeks preceding Yeats’s writing of the poem, Yeats’s pregnant wife Georgie Hyde-Lees caught the Spanish flu virus and was very close to death. The highest death rates of the pandemic were among pregnant women—in some areas, they had up to a 70 percent death rate. While his wife was convalescing, he wrote this essential poem.
The Second Coming
Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand; Surely the Second Coming is at hand. The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert A shape with lion body and the head of a man, A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun, Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds. The darkness drops again; but now I know That twenty centuries of stony sleep Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle, And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Lately I have been reviewing, captioning and posting my travel shots and journal from our 2012 trip to Berlin, Germany. Looking over the pictures we took of the Holocaust memorials and remembering their impact at the time has put me in mind of the powerful First they came… piece of prose.
First they came… is the poetic form of a post-war confessional prose by the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984). It is about the cowardice of German intellectuals and certain clergy – including, by his own admission, Niemöller himself – following the Nazis’ rise to power and subsequent incremental purging of their chosen targets, group after group. Many variations and adaptations in the spirit of the original have been published in the English language. It deals with themes of persecution, guilt, repentance, and personal responsibility.
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics, and I did not speak out— Because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
This one has made the rounds before but as Remembrance Day approaches it is a great reminder to honour November 11th.
In France, at a fairly large conference, Former Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper was asked by a French cabinet minister if Canadian involvement in Afghanistan was just an example of “empire building.” Mr. Harper answered by saying:
Over the years, Canada has sent many of its fine young men and women into great peril to fight for freedom beyond our borders. The only amount of land we have ever asked for in return is enough to bury those that did not return.
You could have heard a pin drop.
A Canadian Admiral was attending a naval conference that included Admirals from the Canadian, US, English, Australian and French Navies. At a cocktail reception, he found himself standing with a large group of officers that included personnel from most of those countries. Everyone was chatting away in English as they sipped their drinks but a French admiral suddenly complained that, whereas Europeans learn many languages, North Americans generally learn only English. He then asked:
Why is it that we always have to speak English in these conferences rather than speaking French?
Without hesitating, the Canadian Admiral replied:
Maybe it’s because the Brits, Canadians, Aussies and Americans arranged it so you wouldn’t have to speak German.
You could have heard a pin drop.
When Robert Whiting, an elderly Canadian gentleman of 83, arrived in Paris by plane at the French Customs, he took a few minutes to locate his passport in his carry on.
You have been to France before, monsieur?
… the customs officer asked sarcastically. Mr. Whiting admitted that he had been to France previously. The official replied:
Then you should know enough to have your passport ready.
The Canadian said:
The last time I was here, I didn’t have to show it.
The customs officer replied:
Impossible, Monsieur. Canadians always have to show passports on arrival in France!
The Canadian senior gave the Frenchman a long hard look. Then he quietly explained:
Well, when I came ashore on D-Day in 1944 to help liberate this country, I couldn’t find a single Frenchmen to show a passport to.
The fog was rolling in a couple of days ago, and it put me in mind of the poem we learned in grade school – Fog. I seem to have retained this poem in my long term memory, I guess, due to its simplicity and imagery. I still love it all these years later:
The fog comes on little cat feet.
It sits looking over harbor and city on silent haunches and then moves on.