It Began on a Biplane

At age 8 I was invited to a week-long writing workshop at the Farringdon Hill Enrichment Centre. Ostracized by my elementary classmates for already knowing the difference between pair, pear and pare, I found my people at Farringdon. The first day of the workshop we were buckled into biplanes and flown across the frozen corn fields of Brantford, Ontario and later encouraged to write about our mind-enlarging experience.

The following morning, an eccentric local chef dominated the classroom and demonstrated how to make perfect “Eggs in a Nest” (two slices buttered bread, use wide-mouth glass as a cookie cutter and create a ‘nest’ by pressing top of glass into centre of the bread. Remove buttered bread circle cut-out. Fry bread in pan with Ina Garten-amounts of butter and crack egg in centre of ‘nest.’ Allow egg to poach, salt and pepper accordingly. It’s still my dad’s favourite thing that I make).

On day three, John Lee, a loopy Brantford poet arrived with Hugh Grant –tousled hair, an ascot and Colonel Sanders eye glasses perched on the tip of his nose. He read from his latest published work–quirky poems about shitting in a farmer’s field, and his shit being the colour of black licorice. “The clouds appeared like an old woman’s sagging breasts in the sky.” Protective parents were outraged! He shouldn’t have been reciting poems about shit and breasts!

I loved it.

After that initial plane-ride-fried-eggs-poetry-about-shit stint I was selected to join the full-time enrichment program and was mentored in writing an autobiography over the course of the school year. The secretary transfered our tell-all’s to hard copy (via a typewriter of all things), and was diligent in tabbing and entering enough spaces to allow for family photos to be incorporated into the final work.

My grade 3 autobiography was far from epic, largely chronicling Friday Gigi’s pizza nights and Chinese food Sundays at Nan King (where my siblings and I were high scorers on the 2-man Pac Man arcade game in the bar area). Not surprisingly, my blog, Twitter and Facebook posts are still all about what decadent things I’ve eaten.

I’ve kept diaries since too, although not consistently. But Africa, the Galapagos and a three-month sojourn in the jungles of Costa Rica are as well-documented as my 13-year-old crush on Robert LeBovic.

In those days, I fancied myself to be a professional birdwatcher a la Roger Tory Peterson, with my very own indispensible bird guide. But writing has always been my constant.  At times I think that I should drink more scotch, or wear an ascot and have a more miserable demeanour to channel the writer’s life, but I’m content with my edginess (and gin).

At 18, when I was as gay as a peacock and strutting my gay self up and down Davie Street in Vancouver, I  actually landed my dream job—freelancing at Cockroach magazine (almost as popular as Chatelaine!). I wrote about grizzly bears being caged and exploited for their bile, about how Barbie kick-started bulimia and raw protest pieces about the deforestation of Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island. My poor mother was certain I would be arrested and dragged away from some logging road. I earned $400 a month, and thought I was truly living the bohemian life. I was a freelancer! I lived on buttered garlic bagels from Seagels and skipped dinner to collect sand dollars from Jericho beach. I made arty things from bald eagle feathers and exoskeletons of crabs. I drank coffee that arrived in care packages from my parents, sweetened with melted cinnamon hearts because I refused to spend money on real sugar. 

My first real confirmation of writing being in my blood and breath was when I left Vancouver (and that not-so-high-paying dream job)and voluntarily transplanted myself in Costa Rica for three months. I volunteered with Youth Challenge International in the Monteverde Cloud Forest, mapping the trails and illustrating a flora and fauna guide. In the second phase of the project we travelled to a remote village called Alto Cuen, far from any flight path, phone booth, chocolate bars or appliances. I didn’t bother to write home about the drug runners that passed by me on a daily basis with AK-47’s and flour sacks full of marijuana from Panama. I was living in a hut with a palm frond roof, no walls and a tree bark floor.  My dreams were coming true faster than I could create them.

What I did write about Costa Rica, was the harrowing rescue at the end of our stay. Relentless February rains had flooded the area and the Cuen River was like a roaring beast. Rocks rolled along the riverbed at night, slamming into each other at such a decibel that we could hear the fury a mile away. The angry river water was the colour of chocolate milk with the skeletons of entire trees floating by. Our group of 12 had to be helicoptered out of the jungle as the footbridges had been washed away and local villages were receiving emergency food supply drop-offs. When the Panama army happened upon us, subsisting on flaccid carrots and marmalade, they promised to return at day’s end to fly us to the naval base as half the group was immobile with malaria.

Despite sitting in my cushy Victorian flat on some fancy Italian stitched-leather bar stool with a glass of merlot beside my laptop in the dead of downtown Toronto—I can still hear the thunder of the Chinook blades as the helicopter landed by the river that evening. The palm trees splayed, the children ran far from the whir and commotion, and we piled in, terrified and grateful, following the commands of the GI Joe-like crew.

In that moment I knew I was having a Reader’s Digest Drama In Real Life moment. It had to be written about. What I did write, oddly, won me a trip back to where I had come from—a return flight to Costa Rica, but the gentler side of it. It was a sparkly resort with a resident sloth in the treetop just an arm’s reach from the balcony, with hot black coffee, pastries and mango in the morning– and all the pleasures that my previous volunteer stint lacked. Like running water, electricity, dubbed Baywatch and appliances.

It’s been 15 years since that double-bladed Chinook pointed northeast and sped like a bullet along the coast of Limon, just like the opening scene of China Beach.

 But when I write, the jungle days always present themselves. I am reminded of how words provide vicarious experiences across the miles. It’s a great responsibility when you travel, in how you have to accurately convey a place for those sitting in such a radically different landscape. Like capturing the squelch of the mud as it sucks the boots off your feet, the sting of the blood oranges on chapped lips, and the awe of a dozen toucans landing just above your head in a noisy riot. And what does the jungle smell like? It’s hot and wet, salty and fermenting.

When I returned from Costa Rica I had an insatiable need to write about all that I had seen and felt. I signed up for a course through the Ottawa Writing School that promised a lucrative career and Atwood-esque fame. I thought I wanted to write whimsical children’s books about jungle adventures, but after I submitted a profile to my instructor, he asked, “so you’re gay, do you mind exploiting your sexuality?”

I didn’t mind. I was as gay as Liberace and eager to share all my innards with the world. I went from Jungle Jules Reader’s Digest Drama in Real Life to writing lesbian erotica in a snap. My first published piece was a dirty bedroom scene with Marge Simpson. She let down her tall, blue hair and slipped off her slinky, avocado dress—and I went from there like a Californian forest fire. It was printed in Karen Tulchinsky’s anthology, Hot & Bothered and earned me a huge pay-out of $50 CAD(plus two copies of the book!).When Karen toured in Ontario, she asked if I would like to do a reading with her—of course! Imagine the whole Torti family at the Hamilton Women’s Bookstop. They brought flowers in cellophane and champagne, and stood amongst a crowd of 50 hairy-armpitted dykes while I read about having sex with Marge Simpson. Yes, even my dad was there. And I said a lot of words that don’t normally constitute a father-daughter conversation.

Bravery and pig-headed confidence gets you everywhere. I was so confident with my publishing success in the erotica field, I sent jumbly work to Chatelaine and Maclean’s—the target audience my mom was hoping I would write for. I was rejected flat-out by both for very good reason, but rejection is admirable too. As long as it doesn’t happen at the bar from the foxy girl you buy a drink for.

When I lived in BC, I boldly signed up for writing courses at Douglas College, “to hone my craft.” The first day of class, my instructor, Joe Wiebe, said my verb was doing something I had never heard of. He talked about bildungsromans, and I thought it might be best if I snuck out of the classroom, unnoticed, while I could.

I was transported back to my first day at the Farringdon Enrichment Centre, before boarding the biplane that would inspire my future writing ambitions. Marg Simpson (not to be confused with the same blue-haired lady aforementioned)had  asked me to pass her the “acetate marker.” What the hell was an acetate marker? Clearly I didn’t belong. Richard Nott, the smartest person in the world, pointed to the overhead markers and my face stopped from almost catching on fire.

I’ve taken several courses since, even at George Brown in Toronto where I was positive the instructor had it in for me because I didn’t want to write about transsexual druids or zombies. I’ve had minor successes and cocktail bragging rights for book reviews in The Vancouver Sun that I secretly had near Chernobyl melt-downs over. But if you march in to the editor with the confidence of Sidney Crosby with a puck at the blue line, by god, they believe that you have what it takes!

I still don’t know what an “independent clause” is, and don’t particularly care either. That was on the Douglas College program entrance exam. I thought for sure it was a reference to Mrs. Clause on Christmas Eve. My participles probably still dangle, and I have run-on sentences of marathon proportions.

I have blog cheerleaders (thank you!) and the odd naysayer (boo).  My favourite comment though? It came from a reader who I will allow to remain anonymous. He responded to my post “Jann Arden Attacks the Architecture of the Human Heart.” In particular, he was up in arms with the sentence “It comes as no surprise that I love well-crafted stories and lyrics that are as layered as Jennifer Aniston’s hair.” Mr. Blog commenter responded: “No offence meant, but that was an awful, awful metaphor.”

Which brings me to this. The audience who (in my imagination at least), waits with unbridled anticipation for my latest blog post. Thank you for reading my ramblings and outpourings which just earned me the feel-good designation as one of the Top 100 Growing Blogs at (even though I come up with awful, awful metaphors. Surely the Aniston hair comment can’t be worse than clouds that look like saggy breasts and shit that resembles black licorice?)

We all have stories, and thank you for taking dedicated  interest in mine.

For more on the Robert LeBovic Affair, chronicled in my 13-year-old self’s diary:

Categories: Polyblogs in a Jar | Tags: , , , | 7 Comments

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7 thoughts on “It Began on a Biplane

  1. Fantastic account of your love for the written word, Jules. You are an adventurer, a gypsy, a warrior for the planet and her animals. I will cheer on your words for as long as you write them down!


    P.S. Jennifer Aniston has NEVER had a bad hair day – it made perfect sense to me.

    • “Gypsy Warrior” might be my new business card handle. Thanks Pam, this was the perfect response to wake up to. I think I will only use Jennifer Aniston metaphors from now on.

  2. kay lefevre

    Count me in as one of those awaiting your next blog entry. You’re a delight! I read your stuff and in the background keep whispering to myself she is GOOD that was clever.. I haven’t been so interested to read anyone’s work for years.

    Like the thrill of release day on an Arthur C. Clarke book. I was first in line and first to finish it and oh so wishing it didnt end. (taking my parents to see 2001 – A Space Odyssey was an epic novel in itself LOL..maybe I’ll get the chance to tell you sometime)
    I love the places you take me and all the humour you decorate it with.

    I feel like I’m in on the ground floor and can watch your career take off into the stratosphere!

    You set me up for the Robert LeBovic link too, now I have to go read it.

  3. Dax

    Jeez, I don’t even remember that you flew in a bi-plane. Damn. I also never knew our eggs in a nest originated from Farringdon.

    • Hopefully you also don’t remember all the times I locked you in the closet and whispered “Gremlins!” until you cried!

  4. Kiley Torti

    A biplane? I don’t remember that either. I do remember the gremlins though. I think that fits into the stealing the skipping rope; burying it in the sandbox while Shannon Hussey was bawling; almost missing the bus. My favourite was the cowboy boot kick to Dion Hoyt’s lumbar spine just because Shannon Johnson told you to. Even better that Flo defended you in the principal’s office with “well, he obviously deserved it”.

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