Matt W Cook

writer.former fundamentalist.christianly fellow

Tag: toronto

Gods and Dogs: A Review of André Alexis’s Fifteen Dogs

I tend to start my judgment of a book on two points: how long it takes to finish reading, and the opening line. I read all 171 pages of Fifteen Dogs in two days, and its opening line is great: “One evening in Toronto, the gods Apollo and Hermes were at the Wheat Sheaf Tavern.” A crisp sentence that puts two of our favourite gods in Toronto’s oldest tavern sets the stage for an engrossing modern myth.

Apollo and Hermes have a friendly argument about whether or not humans are very special, as far as mortals go. Hermes thinks we are. Apollo not so much. In the course of the evening, after five Sleemans each, they make a bet.

Apollo wagers “that animals–any animal you chose–would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they had human intelligence.” Hermes takes the bet, “on condition that if, at the end of its life, even one of the creatures is happy, I win.” On the way home, walking down King Street, they pass a veterinarian clinic. The fifteen dogs staying overnight receive human intelligence, and quickly figure out how to open their cages and escape.

The story is enticing. Each of the fifteen dogs has to negotiate their relationship with the sudden intelligence they have been given. Like the classic myths, Fifteen Dogs can be dark and violent. For this reason I wouldn’t recommend the book to dog lovers per se. It’s an apologue (a moral fable with an animal cast), not one of those tender tales of human-animal bonding. Fifteen Dogs is probably best suited to people interested in Toronto, classical mythology, and those nagging existential questions of humanity.

Like any good fantasy novel, there are maps in the beginning. The setting is integral. The dogs leave the vet’s clinic as if through a portal and the Toronto they emerge into is charged with the fantastic. My apartment is just a couple blocks from High Park, where much of the story takes place. Walks downs Roncesvalles and along the beach will be different, having gotten a dog’s-eye view of it. Or rather, a dog’s-nose view, because some of the most evocative moments are olfactory scenes of the beach in summer and the park in spring. If you’re from Toronto, Fifteen Dogs might enrich your city. I mean, who wouldn’t want a drink where Hermes and Apollo frequent?

The gods are Greek, thus capricious, unpredictable, and often distant. They aren’t in the business of making everything alright in the end and don’t have a habit of saving people. The gods in Fifteen Dogs are the same ones who pestered Odysseus and brought down Troy. The novel may not be The Iliad, but it fits nicely in the lineage.

Some books tell a good story, some explore big ideas. Fifteen Dogs manages both. Despite the initiating wager, the real interest of the book is not the pros and cons of human intelligence. “Really, it was a matter of pure chance who died happy and who did not. Which is why, of course, [Apollo] and Hermes had bet on the outcome in the first place.” The bet sets up a more subtle philosophical discussion. Now, if you don’t care for philosophical discussion, don’t let that push you off. The story stands on its own and the philosophy doesn’t get in the way. But if you’re up for it, the dogs have to deal with questions like:

  • What happens when you recognize the cruelty in the activities you love?
  • What happens when you realize something you love cannot last?
  • What happens when you recognize the gulf between yours ideas and your actions?
  • What happens when you chance so much you can’t remember who the real you is?
  • And on it goes.

In short, Fifteen Dogs is about fifteen dogs who become humanly reasonable one night, and they handle it just as well and poorly as the rest of us do. But since they’re dogs and live in a very realistic Toronto, we are able to see the humanity in them a little clearer than we tend to see it in ourselves. The book grabbed my attention from the very beginning, and it held on until the end like I was a chew toy. It explores deep human truths without getting preachy and brings an authentic sense of Greek myth into a very local-feeling Toronto. I heartily recommend it to anyone who didn’t cry during Marley & Me.

The thing about university and family

Life is what goes on.  Life is what I’m doing.  Right now, even.  Writing this blog is life.  It’s not something I do in life.  Right now, it’s life.

My family is life.  Because it’s what I do.  When I roll around on the floor with Joseph, it’s life.  When I build Lego spaceships and princesses with Asha, it’s life.  When I crawl out of bed at 3am to feed Deva, it’s life.  When I slump into a chair beside Ruth for a pleasant moment with tea and anime, it’s life.  It’s not something I have to do.  It’s what I do, and that makes it life.

University is life.  Because it’s what I do.   I feel bad for these teens who have been stuck in school for twelve years.  University is just the next grade for them and I can’t imagine how hard it must be.  But for me it’s easier.  The essays and papers are not obstacles.  They are what I’m here to do.  They are life.

I have a whole lot of life going on right now.  It’s a totally different game from the one I’ve been playing.  It’s a harder game.  The controls are a lot more complex and the levels are tougher to beat.

But who wants an easy game, anyway?


A theatre packed to hear her speak.
Are you here for the grades and degrees?
Or are you all just pleasantly thirsty
like me?

The thing about university

I went down to the campus. Frosh week was in full swing and the big deal of the day was the clubs. Every U of T club had their booth out and the crowds were thick. More clubs than I ever thought there could be. Academic clubs, music clubs, sports clubs. Clubs for Ukranian students, Korean students, Indian students. Clubs with signs in languages I could not read. Clubs for MMORPGs I hadn’t heard of. At least a dozen Christian clubs, a Muslim club and a Hindu club. There was a Marxist club, a Conservative club, and an NDP club. A club for anime lovers, a club for kendo fighters. A club for literary scientists and for the invisibly disabled.

I was old enough to feel out of place, if I had wanted to. But looking around at every kind of interest represented in this circle of scholars, I really felt no need.

The thing about university is … well, I’ll find out.

The thing about heaven

IMG_20130612_130405Asha is in her bed. Joe is in ours, just a little too unnerved to sleep on his own due to stories about Bloody Mary he heard from day camp. Deva is swaddled up in the corner, his form barely illumined by the light of our computer screen. We are continuing our game of Heroes of Might and Magic 3, sharing chocolate and trying to keep our laughter down so we don’t wake our sons.

Then the chocolate is gone and we decide  to catch up with some of our favourite TV shows. We slip into the living room, depositing Joe in his own bed along the way. My HDMI cable is finicky, and it’s a while before we can connect the computer to the television. By the time it’s done we’ve forgotten all about Dexter and Breaking Bad. We lounge on the floor while watching our favourite anime opening themes on YouTube. We laugh together as we share the last beer.  We make out under the light of the TV screen. We slip outside and make love on the balcony, wrapped in Toronto’s fragrant darkness.

Later, I sit alone staring at the city skyline, indulging in a rare cigarette and reveling in a now-familiar settled joy. The night air is gentle against my face.  The moon climbs the sky while I watch.

The thing about heaven is that it’s right there–in my grasp, in my heart. I sip my cool water and wonder why it took me so long to figure that out.

My Toronto Flood Story

The subway only took me as far as Jane, where shuttle buses had been called to stand in for the flooded underground. There were hundreds of us spilling onto the street, trying to see over each other’s umbrellas to glimpse any coming buses. The rain was not cold, so it didn’t bother me that I seemed to be the only one without an umbrella. It was a very Canadian moment, because we all seemed to be in reasonably good moods, considering. I smiled when I looked up at the dark sky. A woman made a joke as an empty bus drove by. Laughter rippled across the crowd.



Our shuttle arrived and we pushed our way on it with surprising gentleness. We weren’t a mob trying to get that last seat. We were a crowd banding together to weather a storm. And there’s something wonderfully fun about banding together with strangers.

The bus sped down dark streets that were usually alive with noisy lights. We pressed tightly against each other, forgetting how awkward it is to be around strangers. It was one of those rare moments where Toronto and rural Pakistan meet. The crowded bus. The dark city. The tightly-packed strangers. The absence of anxiety. When we had to detour because of flooded underpasses, we joked about it. When the bus began to stall and the lights flickered, we trusted our driver who told us that she would get us to Kipling, come hell or high water.

She got us through the high water. But we didn’t come up against hell until we arrived at Kipling Station.

Many of us needed to transfer to the 45. It pulled into the station just as we arrived. The crowd clustered around it had little of the positive energy the shuttle had. Even as the doors were opening to empty to bus for us, people were yelling and swearing at each other. There were threats of violence as people shoved each other out of the way to cram onto the bus. Being swift of foot and small of frame, I was one of the lucky ones who made it.

The ride was angry and long. The people were angry because the bus driver was late in returning to his seat. The bus driver was angry because people would not keep behind the white line.

“I’ve been waiting four hours!”

“I’ve been working six!”

Emotions escalated until the driver threatened to pull over and kick us off. That shut the noise off, but did nothing for the atmosphere. It was a different feeling as we crawled up the dark streets that time. We weren’t a community struggling against a storm. We were strangers fighting for limited space.

The mind is its own place and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
– John Milton

Love on the TTC

I sat under the brightly-lit overhang at Kipling Station, waiting for the 45 to take me to work.  The night was bright and living, a perfect urban evening.  A girl sat on the bench next to me, hugging her knees and hiding her face.  A boy sat on the bench next to her, trying very hard to look the other way.  When the 45 came, he mumbled something to her and walked off.  She dried her eyes and followed him.  I followed them both onto the bus.  They sat together and I sat across from them and pretended to read.

They were angry at each other.  Or sad at each other.  Or just tired.  They were probably going to spend the whole trip sad at each other.


But then one of them spoke to the other.  And the other said something back.  And they were talking.  I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but I could feel it.  I could feel the sadness in the girl’s voice and its mirror in the boy’s.  The girl fidgeted with the boy’s backpack while she talked.  The boy started to look at her face instead of the floor.  They sounded defensive.  They sounded accusatory.  But they kept talking anyway, even though it looked like the words were making them feel worse.

Then there was a sudden and startling change.

The girl threw her arms around him with a sudden sob.  The boy squeezed her tight and said something loud and affectionate.  Something that spoke of promise.  The girl laughed.  The boy kissed her on the mouth and she melted into it.  Others on the bus grew embarrassed.  I grinned at them.

Thank you, you delicious people who refuse to settle for sadness and broken relationships.  Thank you for sharing peace with each other in a public place so I could watch and remember that peace is out there for anyone who wants it.

And thanks for wanting it.


Diversity of culture and opinion is like genetic diversity in a population. Without it, people become stagnant and get all sorts of nasty, cancerous ideas.

Without diversity, a population has very few new and innovative ideas. Generally they just continually repackage old ideas, try to put newish labels on them, and pass them around to each other. This is why those fundamentalist religious groups always seem to be two or three decades behind the rest of the population their in. Because those kinds of places don’t mix well with people who think and act differently than they do. And the more closed-minded the religious group, the further back in time they seem to be. Walk into your local Gospel Hall if you don’t believe me. You’ll feel like you’re in 19th century Scotland. Cool singing, but pretty messed up ideas about gender roles, science and how to live life.

That’s one of the reasons I love where I’m living now. I used to live in Thorncliffe Park, a predominately Islamic area. A place where everyone kinda dressed and acted and thought the same. A place where there was not much in the way of new, ricky ideas. A place where most people did what they did so that everyone else would approve of them.

But when the population is diverse, people feel empowered to try new things. SInce everyone is so obviously unique and living life the way they think it should be lived, there is not much pressure to conform to a pre-established pattern. You’re free to live life according to your own conscience, instead of the conscience of some dead role model or abstract system.

And whose conscience should you be living according to anyway, if not your own?

I’ve lived in Toronto for almost four years. But only now am I beginning to see how wildly awesome this town is.

So here’s to diversity. I hope and pray we get butt-loads more of it and that it spreads to all those neat places where it hasn’t been welcomed before. It may be uncomfortable for a lot of people, but without it we become cultural inbreds. Slow to accept change and ill-equipped to deal with real life.

A Sense of Life

There is an intense sensation that I’ve found only in a few places.  A sensation of deep reality.  Of trueness.  A sort of clarity of life that reminds me that I’m alive and so is everyone around me.  Earthy.  Dirty.  Wondrous.

I first noticed it in Pakistan.  I had it every single day.  It was as if every bit of artificial life was taken away and nothing but the raw, pulsing trueness of life remained.  I think it was this sense that made me love Pakistan so much.

I have felt it in other places, too.  Sporting events.  Protests.  Certain types of bars.

I had expected it to be in Thorncliffe.  After all, Thorncliffe was supposed to be mini-Pakistan, wasn’t it?  I was surprised to find that Thorncliffe didn’t have it, though.  It was wonderful to live there for four years, but the spark wasn’t there.

But it seems to be on Bloor.

I took my bike down to the coffee shop near our new place.  I could feel it there.  The dangerous, moving life.  The sense that everyone I see is interesting and beautiful and full of so much potential love and power and happiness.

I’m going to enjoy living here.

Short Story – Layali

I was hoping to throw something else up before putting up another short, but Easter weekend being as busy as it was there was not much else to do.

Layali is a short story from about a year ago. It’s about a young Afghani girl struggling to find her identity in suburban Canada.

People are a lot more complicated than we usually give them credit for. We prefer things to be black and white. We like our films to have definite good guys and definite bad guys. We don’t like ambiguity. We don’t like things we can’t label. And that hurts people. Hurts lots of people.