Yellow With White Polka Dots

Reposted from the January 2014 post of the same name from  Bunch Family website with permission of the author, Anne, whose name has been changed for privacy reasons

Some of you may know that my kid likes bow ties. He loves to dress up. What you might not know is that he also likes dresses. At home, he ties blankets around his waist as skirts, and occasionally he will wear one of my shorter dresses. He likes to put on my high heels and walk around the house. My only rule is that he shouldn’t run in them.

Ben is very gender-fluid. This means that since he was very little, he’s told me that some days he feels like a girl, some days he feels like a boy, and most days, he just feels like Ben.* My partner Drew and I honour his feelings and encourage him to express them however he wants to. He has gone to school with wigs and nail polish, and sometimes he’s been laughed at.

There have been occasions where he’s been heartbroken, which makes my own heart seize up and want to spring to his defense. There have been times when I have taken his offenders on, ready to spit fire until I realized that they themselves are just kids. Instead, I have tried to engage them, question them on why they think the world is made up of rules that boys are this, and girls are that. Sometimes we get somewhere, and everybody is fine. Sometimes these kids run off, and I don’t know if it will happen again.

Drew and I try to teach our son resilience. I tell Ben he needs to learn how to stand up for himself. I tell him about being beat up when I was six years old for being different. When I do, my kid actually turns it around and comforts me, and I realize how childhood wounds surface in my parenting of him.

I try to remember that we are different people – perhaps Ben is living in a changed world, and he is better equipped with language and an understanding of paradigm shifts than I was. I tell myself that, but I am not convinced.

On the weekend, Drew and I took him to the mall. As we were walking, Ben said to me, “Remember how you said it was okay if I was a girl some days?”

I said yes. He said it was time that I bought him a dress. So, we walked into the Gap and went to the girls’ section, and Ben picked out a dress, bright yellow with white polka dots. He said he loved it. He immediately put it on when we got home. Drew and I told him he looked pretty, beautiful, lovely – all the words we reserve for girls, and boys don’t get to hear nearly enough.

This morning, Ben decided to wear it to school. I asked him if he was sure, and cautioned him that people might laugh and bother him. Ben said he knew that, and he could manage it. He said that he would yell, STOP LAUGHING. IT’S NOT FUNNY. IT’S JUST A DRESS AND BOYS CAN WEAR DRESSES TOO. He had a plan.

We went to see his grade one teacher this morning before class, and his teacher was loving and supportive. Andrew gave her a book to read to the kids in case she felt she needed it. It’s called 10,000 Dresses by Marcus Ewert —  about a boy who loves dresses but is not allowed to wear them, so he imagines 10, 000 beautiful ones.

I held back my tears as Drew tied the ribbon on Ben’s dress into a bow. I held back tears when Ben marched into school along with his classmates, even as I heard some kids start to say, “Hey, you’re not a girl!” I held back tears when some older kids patted Ben’s back and said that he was “waaay cool.”

Now he is in there and I don’t know how it’s going, and I let the tears flow because I am so proud of this child for having such tenacity and self-love. I am crying because I am terrified and didn’t realize that I would have to send my child out there and have to trust the world so soon. I am crying because it is a precious thing when someone values pleasure above the risks in order to feel truly themselves.

If by now you are still reading this and feel irked – then I ask you to examine why that is, and how you are invested in the ways that gender is constructed.

I want you to think about how you would feel about my kid because he is wearing a yellow dress with white polka dots. Would you feel like it’s a harbinger of spring and make you smile? Or would you change your mind about everything else you might already know about him – that he’s funny, quirky, friendly, smart, beautiful?

Because my kid is, regardless what you think or believe, beautiful. And I ask that you never make him, or anyone else who goes against what your prescription of gender should be, feel any less gorgeous and brave.

* names have been changed for privacy


Epilogue from the author, Anne:

So, some kids laughed at him (he ignored them) and some kids complimented his dress (he thanked them). Ben said, “It was awesome wearing a dress to school! Can we go shopping again and get another one?”

I marvel that there was acceptance from most of his classmates, affirming that sometimes, six-year-olds do know better than us.

When I first posted this story on my Facebook timeline, I wasn’t certain how it would be received. I knew I would get some support, but I was unprepared for the huge number of people in my community and family who flooded Ben, Drew and I with love and encouragement. My friend Lynn observed how brilliant it was that all the comments became part of the story.

It gave us hope, and expressions of desire and longing for the world that my son wants and believes should be. I realize that what began that morning with my young child taking his first leap of faith had a ripple effect. It may be a little thing, a simple garment, a small act — and yet it wasn’t. Maybe one day, it will be.

– Anne

The McCormick Family and the Pill

The Pill turns 55 this year and it has changed the lives of women across the globe.  The story of the creation of the pill is an interesting one that involves eugenics, a devout Catholic who was trying to use science to help women who couldn’t conceive, and one very rich and forward-thinking woman.  This woman inherited most of her fortune from Stanley McCormick – the brother of Mary, after whom our little park and community centre are named.

stanleymccormickStanley McCormick
 was the youngest of 7 children, the “sensitive” child of Cyrus McCormick, inventor of the mechanical reaper.  Stanley graduated with honours from Princeton University and belonged to the Varsity tennis team. He was attracted to the arts and hoped to become an artist but in the end, being good with numbers, Stanley eventually entered the family business.  Throughout his life, he suffered from indecision, stress, and what we now know as obsessive compulsive disorder. Stanley kept 6-8 different weights of underwear and every morning he had a hard time deciding which type to wear.  In 1903 in Boston, he met up with his childhood friend Katherine Dexter.

katherinemccormickKatherine Dexter, like Stanley, came from a wealthy family.  Her father was a prominent lawyer in Michigan and died in 1890.  After his death, Katherine and her mother Josephine moved to Boston.  Katherine attended MIT and was the second woman to graduate there, although it took her 8 years to accomplish this because of the hurdles she faced from being a woman.   Katherine was in her senior year in 1903 when she met up with Stanley, who became very attached to her.  He was into socialism at that time and wanted to discuss politics with the left-leaning Katherine. She appreciated his intelligence and his interest in the arts but Stanley proved to be too much for her.  He admitted to being addicted to masturbation and had a leather harness made to restrain him against pleasuring himself at night.

After graduation Katherine escaped to her family’s chateau in Switzerland but on the way Stanley accosted her on the wharf in New York.  He followed her to Switzerland and through his persistence and deep love for her, finally convinced her to marry him.  They honeymooned in Europe for 9 months, but apparently the marriage was never consummated — both mothers disapproved of their union and visited them throughout their trip. Stanley would never come to bed, spending his nights writing letters.  When they did try, Stanley couldn’t make it happen, blaming it on his masterbation habit and on a sexual encounter with a Parisian prostitute he admitted to having had years earlier.

After their honeymoon, Stanley and Katherine lived apart – Stanley in Chicago working at the family reaper business and Katherine in Boston.  In 1906, Stanley had to resign because of his mental illness and he moved in with Katherine.  As his mental state improved Katherine encouraged him to produce an heir.  Stanley turned violent, attacking a dentist, an elevator operator then eventually a German tutor.  Katherine checked Stanley into the McLean Institute in Boston, one of the most famous mental institutions in the United States.  On the admission form under “heredity”, doctors noted “family of nervous temperament, mother eccentric, sister insane”.

It’s at this point that Katherine and the McCormick family began to clash and would continue to disagree for the next 40 years.  Nettie, Stanley’s mother and Anita, his sister believed that it was Katherine who caused Stanley’s insanity and they fought against the treatment Stanley was receiving.  Katherine was devoted, visiting often and writing letters to Stanley.  Adolf Meyer, one of the United States’ top psychiatrists at the time, was brought in to diagnose Stanley. Being hired by the McCormicks, Meyer suggested to Katherine that she should divorce Stanley.  Katherine wouldn’t have any of it, and managed to persuade Anita to move Stanley to the estate Riven Rock, in Montecito, California, the house Stanley originally supervised to be built for his sister Mary.  Stanley lived the rest of his days there, with hired staff and in-house physicians.

Once Stanley was situated in California, Katherine turned to other interests.  In 1909, she joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association, soon becoming the vice-president and treasurer.  Eventually she would help organize, alongside Carrie Chapman Catt, the women’s right to vote in the United States in 1920.  Finally, she became Vice-President of the League of Women Voters.  During this time she met Margaret Sanger – the founder of the modern birth control movement.  Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the U.S. in 1916 and the first one staffed by females in New York in 1921.

margaretsangerMargaret Sanger was an influential early feminist who used her writing in support of the new cause for birth control for women.  In 1914 after publishing her newsletter The Woman Rebel, she faced going to jail, so she fled New York to England by the way of Montreal.  Sanger is still a contentious figure today.  While she is held in high regard as a feminist, having saved countless women from performing abortions on themselves, her birth control ideas went hand in hand with the idea of eugenics – selective breeding to improve the human race.  The placement of her clinics in the poorest immigrant and black neighbourhoods has been perceived as a way to control the population of these people.

Almost thirty years after meeting Sanger, Stanley passed away and Katherine gained full control of her inheritance ($10 million from her mother and $35 million from Stanley, 85% of which was taken by inheritance tax). Katherine was able to get in touch with Margaret Sanger again and help to fund birth control.   Sanger put Katherine in touch with Gregory Pincus, a biologist studying infertility.

gregorypincusGregory Pincus was a jewish biologist from New Jersey.  He attended Cornell University and then Harvard. Eventually he became an assistant Professor at Harvard in 1931.  His first breakthrough came in 1934 when he was able to create in-vitro fertilization in rabbits. In 1944 he co-founded the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology to research the relationship between hormones, heart disease, cancer and schizophrenia.  In 1951, Margaret Sanger’s  Planned Parenthood Federation of America had given the the Pincus’ foundation a small grant to conduct hormonal contraceptive research and Pincus and his partner Min Chueh Chang, were thus able to confirm that progesterone could act as an inhibitor to ovulation.  (It was in 1938 that Russell Marker first synthesized progesterone from a Mexican yam, making it much less costly than pulling the hormone from animals).   In 1952 Katherine McCormick met Pincus and increased funding for this research (by 50 times); one year later Pincus and Dr. John Rock began trials of progesterone on humans.

johnrockJohn Rock was born in Massachusetts and graduated from Harvard medical school in 1918.  He  was a Catholic, married with 5 children.  Like Pincus, Rock was a pioneer in in-vitro fertilization as well as sperm freezing, allowing many of his patients the ability to conceive.

The rhythm method was (and still is) regarded by the Catholic Church the only moral from of birth control. In the 1930s Rock founded a clinic to teach this method to clients and he was the only Catholic physician to sign a petition to legalize birth control at this time.  In the 1940s, he taught a curriculum at Harvard which included birth control and also co-wrote a birth control guide in 1949 entitled “Voluntary Parenthood”.

Rock and Pincus began human trials in Puerto Rico in 1954.  Rock was using birth control in an  attempt to make women more fertile.  They would take progesterone and then stop and try to conceive.  The women in the trials had an encouraging 15% fertility rate using this method.  By 1955, Enovid, the first brand name birth control pill was approved by the USFDA as a menstrual regulator and by 1960 it was approved for contraceptive use.  Enovid was the first pill humans took that was not a treatment for illness.  The pill was not available to women in all of the United States until contraception became legal in 1965 and then legal for unmarried women in 1972.  Contraception became legal in Canada in 1971.

Katherine McCormick continued to fund birth control biology throughout the 1960s and donated almost the entire $2 million ($27 million today) it took for research and development.  She funded a residence for 200 women at MIT, and when she died in 1967, she donated $5 million to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, $5 million to the Stanford University School of Medicine for women doctors, and $1 million to Gregory Pincus’ Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology.  Many of the priceless paintings she had bought with Stanley on their honeymoon were donated to the Chicago Institute of Art.

Historically, birth control has been a contentious issue and we don’t know if that will ever change. One fact that everyone can agree upon is that the pill has had a great impact on our society.  The invention of the pill allowed many women to be in sexual relationships without the worry of unwanted pregnancy. The autonomy afforded by the pill contributed to opportunities for women to take on more varied roles than wife and mother.  It’s hard to know how closely tied the sexual revolution of 60s was to the invention of this little pill, created by the many personalities all connected in some way to the McCormick family.

I believe that Katherine’s difficult and strange married life allowed her to devote time and effort to the suffrage movement and birth control.   Could this have happened if she had gotten pregnant with Stanley McCormick’s child?  If Stanley hadn’t suffered such mental illness would he have supported Katherine in her efforts?  While no doubt Gregory and John Rock were well on their way towards the science of the pill, how long would it have taken for the pill to become available for general use without the McCormick fortune?  Looking back on history it’s interesting to think about these questions and to think about how we are connected to each other.  In our community, we use the McCormick name on a daily basis on our way to the park but that name really goes deeper than we think…  Anyone who’s taken the pill or been with someone who took the pill is related in some small way to the actions of Katherine Dexter McCormick.  It makes me wonder about the choices we make in our own lives as well as the chance events and encounters we have.  How might they affect society, and the future?

Further Reading

The Pill at 50: Sex, Freedom and Paradox
This hour has 7 days interview with John Rock
Letters between Katherine McCormick and Margaret Sanger

Gender Bender

We’re in interesting times here.  As far as thoughts around gender go, we’re in some pretty unchartered territory. It’s becoming more acceptable for men to love other men and women to love other women and for men to turn into women and women to turn into men.  More women are doing the jobs that men used to do and more men are doing the jobs that women used to do.  For the first time in history it also seems that men are starting to question what it means to be male instead of just being it.

It can be argued that this revolution started in North America with the right for women to vote but really got going during the sexual revolution when the pill let women take control of when they wanted to have children and sex and didn’t have to worry from month to month if they would lose their jobs.  Read the article about how the McCormick family fortune almost solely funded the creation of the pill which changed and still changes lives for all sorts of women.  In Small Histories I also look at a different revolution, of how the Pride Parade started and the history of the Rainbow Flag.

The more you think about gender and the people that break the rules the more confusing it can all seem — what exactly is male?  or female?  What is learned from our society and what is controlled by the different hormones or genes in our body?   There are so many things learned in our society that favour being either one or the other, male or female.  It’s acceptable for boys to be wild, even aggressive, while girls are bogged down with appearance as soon as they can walk and talk.

Maybe it’s not so black and white.  While this issue has a smattering of thoughts and ideas around gender, The Blok unfortunately couldn’t cover all the different possibilities.  There are all sorts of ways to be and we believe as long as you are not hurting or taking advantage of anyone there is no reason why you can’t be whatever you want to be.  It would be nice to think of gender not as an all exclusive club but a great big party that we’re all invited to.

Small Histories: Flags, Riots and Faggos

The Rainbow Flag, San Fransisco 1978

I’m always interested in the history of things, and I wanted to find out how the rainbow flag came to be a sign for the Gay, Lesbian, Trans, and Bi movement and was there really a connection between Judy Garland “Over the Rainbow” and the pride flag?

The flag first flew in a Gay Freedom Day Parade in San Francisco in 1978.  The flag was designed by artist Gilbert Baker and was inspired by the flag of the Races (which had white, black, yellow, brown and red stripes).  Gilbert’s flag design consisted of 8 colours, each colour had it’s own meaning.  From top to bottom, hot pink – sexuality, red – life, orange – healing, yellow – sunlight, green – nature, turquoise – magic/art, indigo/blue – serenity/harmony, violet – spirit.  The first flags were hand dyed and hand stitched for the parade.

In November of that year, when Harvey Milk was assassinated, the demand for the rainbow flag grew to use for Gay Rights demonstrations.  The hot pink colour was dropped from the flag because that colour fabric was difficult to find.  By 1979, the flags were hung along lampposts on Market Street, obscuring the middle stripe, and the easiest way to remedy this was to drop one of the colours to have 3 colours on each side – the turquoise colour was removed to leave 6 colours and the flag popular today.  It’s interesting that the 2 colours dropped are most closely related to the light pink and light blue associated with baby boys and baby girls.


The Stonewall Riots, New York, 1968

Gilbert Baker was also inspired by Judy Garland’s song “Over the Rainbow”.  Garland was a gay icon at the time and her death has been said to spur the Stonewall Riots in Greenwich Village in New York City.  On June 28, 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn which was a hang out for drag queens, transgendered, young gay men and homeless youth.  At this time in New York, police would arrest any man dressed as a woman and it was typical at these raids that drag queens were escorted to the bathroom by a female officer to prove that they were women!  This particular day, and it’s been suggested that because of Judy Garland’s death that the people in the Stonewall that night were feeling particularly fragile, the drag queens wouldn’t go and the patrons of the bar who were kicked out of the bar stayed outside.  As patrons of the bar began to come out handcuffed and put into patrol wagons the crowd grew more and more hostile. Other people on the street joined the mob.  Coins, bottles and bricks were thrown.  Police bats were used.  The patrol wagons were attempted to be flipped and some of the police sped away while ten officers barricaded themselves in the Stonewall.

A crowd of 500-600 were now gathered and they uprooted a parking meter to smash down the doors of the bar and climbed in through windows.  The Tactical Police Force arrived and formed a line to control the crowd but the mob just mocked the police forming a kick-line and singing.   This encouraged the police to use their night sticks to hit the crowd.  By 4:00 am the streets were cleared but the feeling of empowerment continued over the next few days with crowds gathering along Christopher Street and in front of the Stonewall Inn.

These events encouraged members of the LGBT community to organize themselves to fight for their rights.  Christopher Street Liberation Day on June 28, 1970 marked the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Pride parades across the globe are inspired by these events and still take place on the anniversary of these riots on the last week of June every year.


Faggos, Toronto, Late 80’s

One of my first encounters with a gay male on TV was that of Scott Thompson of Kids in the Hall.  I was a huge fan of the show that ran between 1989 to 1995.  I would record the show on VHS and watch it over and over again.  A skit that comes to mind immediately for me and one that I knew I had on tape was the skit “FAGGO’s”, where Thompson goes through all of the letters in the word FAGGOT and decides that it’s the T (that reminds everyone of Christ dying on the cross) that makes the word “faggot” upsetting.  In the end he says “C’mon Faggos! Let’s sing!”

The Kids in the Hall were so edgy back then and there hasn’t been anything as funny on CBC since. The CBC really needs to have more than just political humour and the usual CBC incestuousness. The funniest comedy comes out of the stuff that people are afraid to talk about.  If you watch some of the old Kids in the Hall, it’s still edgy today.  Take the “Scott’s Not Gay Anymore” for example, it talks about sexual freedom in the most hilarious way. I love it when Mark McKinney comes in with the gay paraphernalia.  Watch it below.

I remember hearing an interview with him after Ellen DeGeneres came out saying something like “WTF?  I did this like 10 years ago!!”.  This is when funny Canadians were out there pushing the boundaries.  Are Canadians as funny as they used to be?  In these Conservative times, I’m not so sure.


Les Nobles

Sarah Couture McPhail is an artist, resident of the Brockton community and the creator of Neighbourhood Fan Mail.

About Les Nobles

I’ve been taking pictures of women who mean something to me (friends and family) and photoshopping them into old english paintings, then tracing the images and turning them into prints. I then write playful historical bios for them that are based on their accomplishments. The project is as much about the process as it is about the people featured in the prints. It is a lengthy method but it’s comforting spending time with the my people in the prints. Meditating on who they are and what they mean to me is validating. The history of women being reduced to their physical attributes is very long and rooted. I have added modern elements to the images too to ground them in the present though they are dressed up in the past.

The Honourable Baroness Karin

Aquatint on 4×4 inch zinc plate.

Baqi, Karin, LL.B. Esq. Born in the town of Nepean to parents immigrated from Bangladesh. Baroness of No One is Illegal; attorney under the Law Society of Ontario; scholar of the Humanities; protector and advocate of new Canadians and of the undocumented; political champion of the downtrodden on the streets in the land of Toronto; loving and devoted daughter and aunt; lover of ales and all things crafty.

Lady Mega

14 x 20 inch block print
McPhail, Megan. Lady of the T.O.R.D. Born in the small town of Timmins. Admirer of Sappho; scholar of networking computing devices; superior carpenter; master of the round flat track; known for her brute strength, her amiability, her love of ales, and her vociferous astuteness; she is a legendary aunt and a loyal sister and daughter.

Dame Nira

 Aquatint on 4×4 inch zinc plate.

Elgueta, Nira, Dame of Dundas. Born in Chile, immigrated to the land of Toronto. Scholar of women studies and of the arts; volunteer to the needy; executive to houses of refuge; benefactor of time and servitude to the destitute; advocate of the promotion of peace and social justice; mother of Lia and Simon; beloved friend to all.

Duchess Lia

14 x 20 inch block print


Reyes, Lia, Presider over Dundas West, born in Chile, nurtured in the land of Toronto; threefold threat of thespian arts; wielder of the long and short board; melodic player of the ukulele; lover of dancing and of whimsy; kind and loving daughter and sister; fun and loyal friend; immanent full and rewarding life ahead; best laugh ever.

Vicereine Carrianne

Aquatint on 4×4 inch zinc plate.

Leung, Carrianne, Ph.D. Vicereine of Brockton, born in Hong Kong, immigrated to Canada and grew up in the land of Scarborough. Doctor and scholar of Sociology and Equities; writer of fictions and of reality; beloved professor of modern English; co-owner of an Organic Grocery; mother of Fenn and her dogs Kuro and Ruby; partner of Andrew; steadfast friend.


Princess Jaclyn


Ray, Jaclyn, Princess of the Annex Territories and Liberal Indiana, born in Toronto and came into adulthood in London town of Ontario; master of mending fabrics and friends; celebrated organizer of people and materials; horticulturist of lavish gardens; gatherer of communities; missed wherever she leaves; dedicated friend; matched partner of Jason; lover of animals big and small.

Inside Out at the Roseneath

How do you get a group of teenagers to discuss homosexuality, bullying, and teen suicide?  It would be difficult to be in that room without witnessing nervous laughs, sweaty hands, and sideways glances.  Playwright Paul Dunn and the Roseneath Theatre have come up with a good starting point for discussion, a play entitled Outside about a young gay man who comes out to his peers.  Watching this play and participating in a short question and answer period afterwards is a great way to move past the awkward feelings that might typically be experienced during this discussion.

The Roseneath Theatre operates out of St. Anne’s Church at Dufferin and Dundas.  The theatre has existed for 30 years and moved to this place in August of 2008.  The founding/former artistic directors, Robert Morgan and David S. Craig, created the company while living on a tiny street called Roseneath Gardens (near St. Clair and Oakwood) in 1983, and David has been living on the edge of Dufferin Grove Park since the late 80s.  Andrew Lamb is the current artistic director and the director for the play Outside.

Roseneath Theatre tours schools all over Ontario.  I was fortunate enough to see a dress rehearsal for Outside in front of its first audience.  City View Alternative School, Grades 7 and 8, joined me for an engaging hour to preview this inspiring new play.  Gretel Meyer Odell, the Education and Marketing Manager of Roseneath, lives in Brockton Village and invited me for this unique opportunity.  Starting the week of April 13, 2015, Outside started touring high schools and middle schools across Ontario.

Meyer Odell:  “The play will be performed  55 times for approximately 50 schools (20,000 teens!) not just across Toronto, but in Simcoe County, the Sudbury Area, Marathon, Thunder Bay, Ottawa, North Bay and even Red Lake (a tiny Ontario municipality which is almost at the Manitoba border, a 22 hour drive from Toronto).”

I was interested to find out how this particular play came together.  Was it Roseneath’s idea to introduce this theme around homophobia or did it come from the playwright?

Director Andrew Lamb:  “Paul sent in an application to Roseneath and we were quite taken by what he proposed to explore, which resulted in us recommending funding for the project.  After reading the play, which was very compelling even at this early stage, I then invited Paul to participate in developing the piece further from Jan-Dec 2014.”

I asked Paul why he decided to write a play dealing with this theme.

Paul Dunn:  “I wanted to contribute to the dialogue happening in this country around homophobia and bullying in schools.  I was particularly inspired by the Gay-Straight Alliance movement, and the young people who are struggling to start and maintain clubs in their schools.  This play is a bit of a love letter to those kids.”

The first scene begins with Daniel, the main character (played by G. Kyle Shields), talking to the audience as though they are a “GSA” or a “Gay Straight Alliance”.   So right from the outset, the audience is engaged and is an integral part of the play; this strategy works beautifully.

Dunn:  “I deliberately cast the audience in the role of Daniel’s allies; he speaks to us as if we are fellow members of the Queer-Straight Alliance at his new school.  This allows Daniel the freedom to share the details of his story with us, and for the students in the audience, the opportunity to hear his story from a unique angle, and perhaps a new perspective.  I wanted to reinforce the idea that the students in the audience are part of the solution.”

Daniel begins to tell you about his experience of homophobic bullying at the school he previously attended and introduces his friends there (Krystina and Jeremy, played by Mina James and Youness Aladdin) through flashbacks and parallel time sequences.  It was the flashbacks that were the hardest part of moving the play from paper to the stage.

Lamb:  “Locations and flashbacks were probably the biggest challenge in bringing Paul’s script to life.  We worked closely with Michael Greves our set designer and Lindsay C. Walker our costume designer in advance of rehearsals to address these challenges. This resulted in the creative and seamless way we were able to deliver these shifts with clarity to audiences.”

The set is a series of chain-linked triangles that spin into different configurations.  Some of them include classroom doors (one turns into a hospital bed), and some show lockers.  These lockers have screens mounted on them that mimic a smartphone screen.  It is on these screens that we see the nasty texts Daniel receives from his peers.  The play shows how smartphones and texting have now become one of the most prominent ways in which teens are bullied currently in schools.  The actors put on and take off articles of clothing with the chain link sprayed on them (reminiscent of something Arcade Fire might wear on stage)  to distinguish at what point in time we’re watching.


Krystina and Jeremy, Daniel’s old friends from his previous school, are setting up a GSA after the events Daniel went through there.  These two are the only ones in the group at the moment and they are trying to find ways to approach others to join up.  Through their candid and often humorous discussion, the audience learns how to become an ally.  Krystina, the “good student”, is quick to support Daniel, while Jeremy, “the jock”, struggles within his crowd to express his friendship towards Daniel.  All these characters have depth, although it is often Daniel who is the most honest about his feelings and opens the door for the audience to enter.

Dunn:  “Jeremy is the way into the story for a large portion of the audience.  I created him to bring humour into the play, but also to have a character that can ask the questions many of us might be afraid to ask.  It’s okay to feel ‘stuck’, and I want the audience to know that.  Jeremy is also the voice for forgiveness in the piece, for giving people a second chance, because he knows what it’s like to act out of peer pressure, and to make mistakes.”

This play deals head on with some dark issues, and eventually Daniel attempts suicide.  The play is very powerful because it talks to students at their level and in their language. I asked Paul what was it like to write a play for teenagers versus some of the plays he might have written for Buddies in Bad Times.

Dunn:  “The best advice I heard about writing for teenagers was to not worry about trying to ‘target’ my play to a specific age group, and instead to just focus on telling a good story.  So, in the beginning, I didn’t worry about tailoring the play to teens, and instead just wrote the play I wanted to write.  In the development process, we did get feedback from educators and people who specialize in dealing with the issues of homophobia and bullying, and we adjusted some language and story points to ensure that the play was an effective and useful tool in a school setting.  There was also the time consideration (it needed to be under an hour), which meant choosing carefully the points that I needed to make, and questions I needed to raise.”


Bill 13 just passed in 2012 paving the way for students to create Gay-Straight Alliance clubs.  This kind of play with this kind of content could not have toured Ontario schools previously.  Homophobia is an important topic that affects the lives of many teenagers.  30% of teen suicides are from LGBT youth.  After I watched the play, I thought to myself  “THIS is what theatre should be about.”  There really is no better way for students to understand the thoughts and feelings of someone going through what Daniel suffered than through the medium of theatre.  A book wouldn’t engage the same way because reading is a private experience; a speaker doesn’t allow for the same vicarious experiencing of emotions.  Watching actors play out this story does engage because it provides the necessary distance for students to be able to get it, to think about it, and to discuss it.   I asked Andrew about what it meant to experience this play being viewed by such a large audience.

Lamb:  “As an openly gay man who married my husband in 2011, it is difficult to put into words what producing and directing this play means to me personally.  Even though July 2015 marks the 10 year anniversary of gay marriage being legalized across Canada, there is still a lot of work to be done around homophobia.  My hope is that this production will help keep the conversation going, which I truly believe is the one thing we can all do to improve our communities and become allies for those in need of our support – to call out bullying, discrimination, homophobia and transphobia when we see it and work together to create a better and safer environment for us all.”

Photos by John Packman from the 2015 production of ‘Outside’ by Roseneath Theatre, featuring G. Kyle Shields, Mina James and Youness Aladdin.

‘Outside’ received two Dora Mavor Moore nominations this week in the Theatre for Young Audiences Category!

Outstanding New Play – Paul Dunn
Outstanding Performance – G. Kyle Shields

FREE OUTDOOR PERFORMANCE at the Dundas West Fest, Saturday June 6th, 11:00 am on the corner of Dundas and Gladstone.  The Roseneath Theatre will be performing Spirit Horse that chronicles an incredible adventure involving two urban First Nations children.  The play is recommended for children grades 4-8, however it is suitable for most family audiences.
Bring a lawn chair, blanket or cushion to sit on!

P.S. I ❤ You

Sarah Couture McPhail is an artist, resident of the Brockton community and the creator of Neighbourhood Fan Mail.  She’ll be at the Dundas West Fest again this year on June 6th between 11am and 2pm.  Instead of being in the St. Claren’s parkette, look for Neighbourhood Fan Mail in a tent at the corner of Dundas and Margueretta.


■ – What is Neighbourhood Fan Mail?

Sarah Couture McPhail  – The Neighbourhood Fan Mail project encourages handwritten fan letters to local shops, restaurants, neighbours and friends —letting them know how they are appreciated.

This community engagement endeavour explores city life through handwriting letters about people in specific neighbourhoods and delivering other writers’ works.  Participants are encouraged to think about what makes their community better and then discover new places they might not know. The results functions as creative expression and social exploration of participants surroundings, and also reaffirms individuals and their place within the community.

■ – Who are you a fan of in the community?

SCM – My neighbour, the one we call Grandpa Joe. He has boundless energy and runs and plays ferociously with my kids. In his seventies, he is a model of health, strength and good nature. Neighbourhood kids know him and love him. When my kids see him, their eyes sparkle. If he isn’t deserving of fan mail, I don’t know who is.

Many people in this neighbourhood deserve acknowledgement. Our local grocer, whose smile never fails to brighten our worst day. Our favourite coffee shop, who saves our heads from aches with their delicious and always fresh coffee. The person down the street who curates the most amazing garden and has inspired our own verdant thumbs.

■ – Who can participate?

SCM – Participation has no age requirement, no language barriers, or requisite social standing. It doesn’t even necessitate that participants reside in the community. People must however acknowledge the neighbourhood’s greatness.

■ – Are there any other rules of Fan Mail?

SCM – First Rule of Fan Mail: In order to write a fan mail people MUST FIRST PROMISE to deliver someone else’s fan letter. Once this commitment is made, participants write/draw/decorate their fan letter. When they are finished, they drop their letter off in “Outgoing Mail” (attach letters to the hanging display using a clothespin), where they can also pick up someone else’s mail. Then they are expected to deliver the mail while they are walking through the neighbourhood. Keep it positive. Be creative. Have fun.


Slow Dance

Alison Bates is a proud member of the Brockton community and co-chair of the Shirley Street Parent Council.  You may have seen her wandering around the neighbourhood with her two kids chasing down ice cream trucks in the summer. Last year, she and Sarah Couture McPhail started “Slow Dance: No Excuses” at the Dundas West Fest.  You’ll find them both once again at the at this year’s event.

■ –  How did “Slow Dance: No Excuses” come about?

Alison Bates – We all have the need to burn off some energy, let loose, and just have some FUN once in a while! How often have you thought to yourself “I need to go out dancing”? Last year’s Slow Dance: No Excuses was sparked from this idea. Because really excuses might pile up, but sometimes we just have go out dancing!


■ – Slow Dance premiered at last year’s Dundas West Fest. What was that like?

AB – It was great! We trimmed the grassy area in at the back of St Clarens parkette with lanterns and flags. And like back in high school, it may have started off with a touch of nervousness but once snowball was called, it was an all-out party. Although the dance party is called “Slow Dance” there were many fast, up beat songs to dance to as well! Adults, teens, kids, toddlers… everyone was dancing. And suddenly our nerves disappeared. Everyone danced and laughed the evening away. It was a great end to a wonderful day at Dundas West Fest.

■ – How do neighbours take place in this year’s Slow Dance?

AB – This year we’ve decided to make the dance a masquerade. On Saturday June 6th from 7:30pm to 10:30pm, the St Clarens parkette will transform into a community ball room of our dreams filled with feathers, glitter, super heroes, and animal costumes, anything you like! We’ll also have a tickle trunk of costumes mostly all donated by Brockton’s own dancing crossing guard, the lovable Kathleen, to make things even more fun! The Goodtimes have signed on to D.J. the party. And, if everything falls into place, we may all be delighted by a surprise or two.

In preparation for the dance, we are having a mask making workshop on May 23 during the Brockton yard sale. We’ll be sharing some materials and costume ideas, and get excited for the big event, (if you missed it, visit the event page to see what we made and get inspired!).

■ – Are there any rules on who you should dance with? Who danced with whom, last year?

AB – There are no steadfast rules to the dance, other than to be respectful and kind to one another. Kids danced with parents and friends. Friends danced with friends. Actually, the dance acted as a kind of ‘date night’ for a few people too! That was great to see.

■ – What makes you want to run this yearly event?

AB – Toronto may have nearly 3 million people living within it, but it can still feel like a small town especially here in Brockton. Thankfully, we are a city of amazing neighbourhoods. The hope with this dance is to demonstrate other ways neighbours can use their local outdoor green spaces. Last year’s dance was a great success in bringing together neighbours new and old to Brockton. Perhaps in the future we can organize another community dinner, a theatrical performance, an active game day, or have even more dances in the park too! There are so many options!

■ – Slow Dance is also part of the 100in1Day Festival. Can you tell me a little about this?

AB – This is 100in1Day’s second year in Toronto. It takes place all across the city and is fueled by civic engagement – people who want to make their city a better place by having small initiatives that spark change. Check out their website for a list of the interventions or to get info if you want to host one yourself!

■ – Slow Dance sounds like a lot of fun.  I can’t wait to get my dancing on…

AB – Come by to say hi, and have a dance or two! It’s going to be a great night!



How do we get through the winter in Canada? Some of us find that being creative breaks up the long months of winter.  It feels healthy to challenge the mind to come up with new approaches to doing routine things.  But our bodies get sluggish in winter too. One way to avoid getting bogged down in winter is to lose yourself in exercise, where you can switch off your sadness, get rid of the chills, and warm up your bones. Being part of a community, working towards a common goal, getting out and skating on the ice, seeing and talking with other people, despite the weather, also helps chase the winter blahs away.  Anything that gets us off the sofa and out of our own heads, I think, has just got to be good for us.

In this issue, I’ve looked back at our local community centre — the hub of recreation for our neighbourhood, and dug up the story of its namesake, Mary McCormick.  This led to finding out about the origin of the playground movement in Toronto. Remarkably, our local plot of land has been pumping up residents’ heart rates for decades, with various sports teams and wide-ranging programs for children. And it continues to do so.  If you tracked the movement of people up and down Brock Ave. or Sheridan, I’m sure that most of them would be heading to the rink, the park, or the community centre.  Did you know Brockton has its own hockey team?  Read on to find out about it.

I’ve also focused on what’s been building in the past few years with the Friends of McCormick Park.  These lovely folks give their time to make the park a more engaging place for all and with their creativity and hard work, continue to make this neighbourhood a better place to live.  They’ve helped with the renovation of the park, including the introduction of a cafe and the building of a skating rink. Also, they’ve brought in bocce and the little free library through bake sales.  In this issue, I want to help tell their story and encourage others to join them in their efforts to keep improving our park and our community.

This being the sophomore issue of The Blok, it was a real challenge.  I thought that I could make this into a monthly zine, and I was always cursing myself when week after week I couldn’t get this issue together.  But now here it is, although some articles are put out later than I had originally planned. Mike Mulqueen wrote a wonderful article encouraging locals to get out and skate on the McCormick Rink, and as you read this it is melting away.  There is an article on The McCormick Minstrels, a local minstrel troupe in the 1920s, to celebrate Black History month, which has already passed. But the story is still fascinating and hopefully encourages us to celebrate diversity more than just one month of the year.

Thanks for reading.  If you can see yourself writing or making something for this and want to be a part of it, please get in touch.

Thanks also to all the contributors, and to Amada Estabillo for her help crafting some of these stories and thanks as well to her mother Karen Estabillo, who has donated her time editing all of the articles for both of these issues and deserves much praise!

Last thanks to Aimée Bomers, my 7 year old daughter who created the “Bird Playground” collage above.

The Mystery of Miss Mary McCormick

Mary McCormick is the name of our local park and community centre.  But who is she?  The Blok digs deep to bring you the fascinating story of this mysterious woman.

At the pumpkin walk this year I ran into Joe who lives across from McCormick Park (and is part of the group Friends of McCormick Park) and I told him about this magazine and how I was searching around for some history of the neighbourhood.

During our conversation Joe brought up a question; “Who was Mary McCormick?”  And that idea led to this article. The first problem I encountered searching online was how common a name Mary McCormick was in early Toronto. After a trip to the Toronto Reference Library and wading through old articles from the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail I began to unravel the mystery of this unusual woman.

In the archives there are old photos of McCormick Playground with the date 1911 scribed on the bottom. I searched the Toronto Star database for “Mary McCormick Playground” looking for the earliest entries. Bingo! Here is the headline that I found:


The Gift of Miss McCormick, Promised Recently, Received by Chairman Brown To-day.”

The genial face of Trustee C. A. B. Brown was one broad, beaming smile to-day.  The reason was that lying before him on his desk when he came to his office this morning was a letter which contained a check for $10,000.

It was a gift of Miss Mary B. McCormick to the Toronto Playground Association.  The check was made payable to  Mr. Brown as president of the association, and the $10,000 is to be used to equip the new Cottingham Square playground.

Miss McCormick is the daughter of the founder and head of the famous McCormick harvester manufacturing firm, and is reputed to be a millionairess.  She came to reside in Toronto recently, and bought the residence of Senator MacDonald on Avenue Road hill. She has interested herself in the playground movement, and her interest is practical as well as sympathetic.

The plans for the equipment of Cottingham Square playground have been examined and revised by Chicago’s park superintendent, and it is designed to have this Toronto playground go the Chicago south side playgrounds one better.

“It will be the finest in the country,” said Mr.Brown.  “We cannot say too much for this fine gift of Miss McCormick’s”.

It seems that after this, Mary became well known in the Toronto scene as “Miss McCormick.”  At that time women were usually known through their husband’s first and last name and “spinsters” such as she were known as just “Miss”.  Armed with this piece of Victorian etiquette I had more luck. “Miss McCormick” turned up more than “Mary McCormick” and soon enough I found what I was looking for from the Daily Star, March 1, 1912.


A visual of the structure that existed at the McCormick playground with Miss McCormick’s name attached.  Next I found the following article from the Toronto Daily Star, December 31, 1917:


By searching Oaklands and McCormick I was able to come up with even more information about the enigmatic Mary McCormick.  I learned her middle name, Virginia, and some interesting facts about her home and her personal bathing preferences…

“Oaklands” was the name of Mary McCormick’s house on Avenue Road.  It was purchased by her in 1905 from John McDonald (not John A., but the first prime minister did make him a Senator). Miss  McCormick installed “…a needle shower, her own private bowling alley, and a dentist’s chair.”  A needle shower is basically a stand-up shower, which was very uncommon in those days, as I am guessing a dentist’s chair might have been too!  I also learned that McCormick had “…her own private black band.  She was wont to call upon them at any hour of the day or night to perform in the ballroom.” Additionally, it turned out that Mary would hop aboard any horse-drawn carriage, even a grocer’s cart or an ice cream wagon and drive off.  Each fall, she would leave for California, using 14 limousines to get her there. A particular portrait of Mary McCormick was beginning to take shape in my mind:  an independant woman of means who could afford to indulge her eccentric tastes. I thought about the splash this would have made in the conservative Toronto neighbourhood where she lived.

This was getting interesting.  This Mary McCormick would have been a shoe-in for a reality TV series.

The Full Picture

Armed with Mary’s correct title and name, I had the key to a wealth of information about her and her family. Her story is a sad, unusual one that criss-crosses the continent. Never would I have imagined that my local park’s benefactor had such a history.

Mary Virginia McCormick was the first-born daughter of Cyrus H. McCormick and Nettie Fowler. Cyrus was the inventor of the first commercially successful reaper, a horse-drawn machine to harvest wheat.  He was born in Rockbridge County, Virginia.  By 1858 the McCormick Co. of Chicago was the largest farm equipment supplier in the United States with assets totalling more than 1 million dollars (approximately 28 million today). In 1859, Cyrus married and two years later Mary Virginia was born. In 1880 at age 19, Mary was diagnosed with “…dementia praecox of the catatonic type” or schizophrenia.  Cyrus died in 1884 but his fortune bought land in Santa Barbara, California, and Mary’s brother Stanley supervised the building of “Riven Rock” for her.  Mary lived here from 1898 – 1904.


Wisconsin Historical Society, Gray, W. C., 1901, Mary Virginia McCormick, 42526. Viewed online here

At this time in Mary’s adult life and there seemed to be attempts by her family to protect and support her in light of her mental illness.   No doubt it would have been difficult for a wealthy family during such conservative times to deal with this disease in social circles and perhaps this is why Mary moved among different residences all over the continent.  It’s hard to know how much control Mary had over her own life and which choices, if any, were made by her.  In any case, there seems to be no shortage of funds, and no expenses spared for Mary’s lifestyle.

At the turn of the century, Mary was moved to Alabama.  No doubt, the McCormick family was attracted to the sanitorium and resort hotel there in the town of Viduta (derivative of the Spanish word “Vida” meaning life).  People had been coming to this area near Monte Sano, (the spanish words for “Mountain of Health”) since the 1820s. The sanitorium opened on June 1, 1897 and closed early in the 1900’s.

The closing of the sanitorium coincides with the purchase of the estate called “Kildare” in Huntsville, Alabama.  Mary was supported by a large staff the under the guidance of Grace Walker (the one mentioned in the newspaper snippet above).  Mary McCormick’s philanthropy seems to have begun during her stay in Huntsville, Alabama.  She funded “…several YMCAs in the mill villages surrounding town, an African-American wing for the then-segregated Huntsville Hospital, and a hospital at Alabama A&M University.”  It’s been suggested that it was Grace Walker who influenced Mary’s philanthropy.  Grace Walker remained an assistant to Mary for over 30 years.  Grace grew up in Canada and was the daughter of a minister.  She served on the national board of the YWCA of Canada for 25 years and was a long-time member of the Housing Board of the City of Toronto. It’s unknown when Mary met Grace, and perhaps Grace is the reason she ended up coming to Toronto.  It is also unknown how much time Mary and Grace spent in Alabama during each year (it was possibly a stopover on the way to and back from California?) but the house there was used for many social events, including Christmas parties for children, Easter egg hunts, and a celebration for Virginia’s birthday in May. Eventually, Kildare was sold by the McCormicks in 1932.

The Kildare estate is now known for its ghost stories.  Mary’s ghost supposedly haunts the basement where it is believed that Mary was locked up because of her mental illness.  The last owners had such a problem with ghost chasers that they built a huge fence around the property and fought with city council about it. The estate is now slated for demolition, but there is a Facebook page out there trying to raise funds to save it.


Time in Toronto

By the time Mary McCormick came to Toronto in 1905 she would have been 44 years old and back then a true “spinster.”  Mary did not live in the neighbourhood of Brockton; her house “Oaklands” was near Avenue Road.  Her donation to Cottingham Square was transferred to Brock Avenue because the rail tracks were too close to that park.  It was actually McCormick’s mother who came up from Chicago to the opening of the Toronto playground in 1911.  Perhaps Mary was in a poor state of health or in Alabama or California at the time.  During Mary’s time in Toronto, she was mentioned in the newspaper as attending many events and hosting talks or parties at her home “Oaklands.”  Oaklands is now known as De La Salle College; a co-ed private school.  There are ghost stories about this place too; many people have heard her private black band playing late at night, decades after she had moved away.  You can rent Oaklands on AirBnB!

Mary McCormick’s estate in Toronto “Oaklands” , this picture taken in 1891


Around 1926 Mary McCormick contracted a throat ailment and gave up on Toronto and Alabama and moved to California permanently.  An estate called “Quelindo” was built for her in 1929 in Santa Monica and she lived here as a recluse for 17 years. She died in 1941.

This property is now for sale for $23 million.


The story of Mary McCormick leaves many unanswered questions; the most puzzling for me was why did Mary McCormick come to Toronto in the first place.  Was there treatment for her affliction available here in Toronto that didn’t exist anywhere else?  Was the family trying to hide Mary’s illness from their family and friends in the States?  Did Mary herself choose to come here for a new start in her middle age? How does Grace Walker fit into Mary’s life? Was it her upbringing in Toronto that brought Mary back here? We don’t know the answer to these questions. We can only speculate about the events and motivations for these moves.  In any case, we have the mechanical reaper and Mary and her family’s generosity to thank for our local playground, which at one time was built to be one of the best in North America.  Unfortunately, while I’ve spent many hours at the park and the community centre, I’ve yet to witness the ghost of Mary McCormick.