Saturday, June 25, 2011

No Justice, No Peace: Penny Bethke 1950-2011

Penny Bethke was, in the words of former CCRI president Emmett Ferguson, "a grand old dame of co-op." She was feisty, and would go to the mattresses on all kinds of issues. She was smart as a whip, and was never afraid to talk someone's ear off until their own personal little light bulb went on. She considered herself a teacher, was proud to be a pain in the ass, and was an expert on community-driven initiatives like credit unions and co-operative housing, having immersed herself in that world for decades.

Penny passed away a few weeks ago, and I miss her. I find myself looking at people who look like she did on the street, and I wonder for a second how she's doing.

My first experience with Penny was through my co-op's board of directors. Primarily made of students, the board offers two of their twelve seats to alumni members - people who had lived in the co-op and then moved on. Penny had been a resident in the 1970s, and had worked for the co-op as the summer rentals girl. The co-op's always been a little bit rough around the edges, and in the summers, that loosey-goosey attitude goes through the roof. I can imagine that the co-op, with its proximity to the hippies in Yorkville and the bikers in Rochdale, was a crash-pad for the young, disenfranchised and drug-addled. In other words, not a job for the faint of heart.

When she returned as an alumni director, she was in her 50s and was able to bring scads of financial and social expertise to our often-inexperienced group. When I first met her, I was coming in to talk to the board about my dissatisfaction with the food services the co-op was providing. It had been an eleventh-hour agenda item, one that I was asking for a decision on, and Penny was irritated. "Something like this should be on the table well before a meeting," she pointed out acidly, "so we can have time to review its merits...or lack thereof."

I pushed on - I needed an answer now, dammit, because my housemates were filing their teeth into points and looking murderously at one another, and I couldn't wait another month for the board to reconvene with all the details and fooferaw at hand. Inside, I died. I had been roundly chastised by a woman I barely knew, in front the directors, some of whom were my friends, and I deserved it. I got the motion passed, I went back and told my housemates we would have more freedom to decide on how we spent our food money, and I mentally noted the importance of planning ahead.

Now, seven years later, I sit on that board, and Penny had become our General Manager. Folks will regularly show up, making all kinds of demands with minimal notice, and we sigh and send them away to write something up, check on our policies, and work with staff members. It's annoying when people just appear out of the blue and make demands, a phenomenon that occurs with tiring regularity in cooperatives. I learned from Penny that when you push people to work for what they believe is a birthright - a free pass, an exception to a rule, a change in the system - the lazy and faint of heart will often disappear to gnash their teeth and complain. The people worth working for, and with, will come back with a better proposal, a more complete outline, and a good attitude about the changes that you ask them to make.

I learned that volunteering is a great way to spend my time and get experience. I was never a student-government person, and the kind of activism that really raises my hackles often involves an entitled white person, identity politics, and a trip to some underfunded area filled with poor brown people. But I think it's important to be involved in one's own community, and the easiest place for me to start was with my housing co-op. Getting to know Penny over the last few years was rewarding, because she thought along the same lines. She also stressed the importance of a learning curve - new things are hard! - and once told me that it was okay to be intense. She was well aware of her own intensity, and used to to cow the people she disdained and elevate the people she admired.

It's a trite thing to say, but sometimes when we lose a friend, triteness has a fresh gravity: her spirit will live on. She was respected and admired by her community, and she influenced and taught the next generation of co-op leaders what they were doing, and moreover, why they should do it. While I'll miss her, I know that her voice will carry through the years because she has influenced hundreds of people. She will continue to inspire.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Scott Pilgrim Vs. My Brain

When I first read Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, I was in my mid-20s, sort of floating around, working crappy jobs and half-heartedly entangling myself with mildly disresputable young men in an attempt to work through some of the heartache my Big Ex had landed on me in the midst of our fraught breakup . In other words, I was the prime-time demographic for this graphic novel, and the blend of Toronto city landmarks, sarcasm, video-game tropes and weirdo 20s love was intoxicating.

I wasn't first on the scene - the books started coming out in 2004, the series wrapped up to huge fanfare last summer, and I started reading sometime around volume 4. Scott and his romance with the mysterious Ramona Flowers was progressing about as well as you'd expect: he was living (and sharing a bed) with his gay roomie, not working and mooning over Ramona, while she zipped around, delivering packages, dying her hair, and alternately making Scott miserable and terrifically happy. In other words, it was the perfect encapsulation of what most of Canadian slacker-types go through in our mid-twenties. We grow up, albeit dragging our heels and moaning about it the whole damned time.

I love Scott Pilgrim. I love Ramona Flowers. I love all the weird side characters, like Joseph, the incredibly bitchy dude who engineers Scott's band's horrible album. I love Kim Pine, the drummer of that horrible band, because she wears a warm-up jacket in every panel and can be friends with Scott while simultaneously knowing he's a moron. We all have friends like that - people we know are idiots, whom we hold dear because they're funny, or play bass passably well, or because the people we're friends with between the ages of 17 and 26 are often bonded to us in a way that brings to mind shamans and blood-brother ceremonies.

The movie, which was released last year to great critical success and indifferent audiences, captured some of the comic's delights. The supporting cast was superb, but Scott was whiny and Romana never once cracked a smile. It was hard to imagine why the two of them would even date, let along battle seven of Ramona's evil exes in order to be together. The comic, with its meandering storyline and jokey asides, allowed for the readers to get a glimpse of Scott's neuroses outside of Ramona: the absentee parents, the recalcitrance about getting a job. It also showcased Ramona as Awesome Girlfriend. She was funny, sweet, caring, and genuinely seems to dig Mr. Pilgrim despite, and maybe because of, his flaws. It becomes much easier to see what works about that pairing when we're allowed to sit back and watch the relationship take form.

While the spotlight tends to be trained on Ramona's evil exes, Scott also needed to work out his romantic shizz. Cue Knives Chau, the hilariously obsessed 17 year old Scott ditches for Ramona, who gets her own story arc. The awkwardness of hanging out with a teenager when you're in your early twenties is so well-done in some scenes that I cringed. That dynamic can be so tense - we all like to pretend that we're so much smarter than people five years our junior, but the things I've learned since I was 23 include "check the pasta sauce for mold," and "you can't wear monthly contacts for 56 days in a row." Knives would appeal to an underachiever like Scott, but as Scott grows up, girls become less appealing than women. Knives, with all her excitable fervor and devotion, is a girl.

Likewise, Kim Pine is also a Pilgrim ex, and the relationship they've created, based on music and pretending that their romance never happened, isn't exactly a foreign concept. We all have people we adore as friends who were auditioned for the girlfriend/boyfriend role - maybe even understudied - but never quite made it to opening night. Scott, gratifyingly, works through some of it. Some of it stay unresolved, because Brian Lee O'Malley is smart, and his comics, though they feature video game-inspired fights, are pretty honest.

I don't know if the comics are going to be timeless, or if they'll become a time capsule of early millennial Canadian urban angst. Maybe both. Re-reading the comics recently, I was struck by how funny they are. The characters make fun of each other, fall down, aren't perfect. Scott's comebacks are often "You...something....mean words!" which is pretty much exactly how most people's brains work when faced with surprising meanness. The characters go to shows, come out of the closet, go off to university and have wilderness sabbaticals. They also make terrible music, have fights with their ex-boyfriends, and get kicked out of their apartments. They keep trying. Scott and his buddies are some of the most perfect 20-somethings ever created, because they radiate that indomitable spirit of the young adult: anything is possible, nothing can't be conquered, and flying, fanged ex-boyfriends are nothing compared to the ass-kicking getting a job will give you. Oh, and falling in love with the right person? Worth fighting for, both with your fists and your heart.