Here’s the concept: nine notable Torontonians (chef David Rocco couldn’t make it)—or honorary Torontonians for the night—each get 10 minutes to share the one thing they think everybody should know before they die. Last Thursday, former Toronto mayor David Miller, singer Jully Black, TIFF CEO Piers Handling and others showed up at the Winter Garden Theatre to offer their collected wisdom at Stuart Knight’s second annual Top Ten Event in support of the Stephen Lewis Foundation. We showed up to receive said wisdom (and, of course, to fraternize with the bold-faced names at the exclusive after-party—Sandra Shamas now wants to be our Facebook friend. Just sayin’.).
1. Alan Cross, Radio Broadcaster
The Message: He who dies with the most stories wins (also, no regrets!)
The Highlights: Cross, the former host on 102.1 The Edge, regaled the audience with a pair of tallish tales: one about his humble start in the disc-jockey world, and another about a wild monkey he once met while on vacation. It wasn’t your average run-in with a wild monkey either, since it had a lit cigarette in one hand (which it was smoking) and the balls of a German surfer in a vise grip in the other. Poor surfer dude.
2. Anthony Maddox, Entrepreneur
The Message: Find your why
The Highlights: The token American on the bill, Maddox spoke eloquently about his own journey—from a rough-and-tumble upbringing in New Jersey to becoming an intern for Bill Gates to being homeless at age 26 with only $1.50 in his pocket to buying and selling Soul Train to finally landing as a consultant with Google. Through all that, though, Maddox always knew the answer to one question: what he called his “why.” For him, John Lennon expressed it best: “When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy.’ They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.”
3. Hana Gartner, Journalist
The Message: What’s the rush?
The Highlights: A bundle of bristling, unbridled energy, Gartner moved around the stage in a tizzy, all the while stressing the importance of slowing down to live life rather than letting it fly rapidly by (we get the feeling she learned this lesson the hard way). Even at university, one of her professors sat her down and dead-panned, “Hana, what’s the rush?” At the end of her frenetic 10 minutes on stage, she looked to the crowd, paused and held out her hands. “One moment,” she declared. “Now, I have that.” Then she exited the stage.
4. Ajay Virmani, Entrepreneur
The Message: To be an entrepreneur
The Highlights: As Stuart Knight joked after Virmani left the stage: “The exercise wasn’t to come up with 72 things to know before you die. It was supposed to be just one.” Virmani’s presentation was dizzily hilarious, as he bounced from anecdote to life lesson to digression and back again. We can’t say we’re entirely sure what his point was, but we know it had something to do with the importance of risks, accepting an arranged marriage and wearing loose-fitting underwear. (Life lessons and style tips.)
5. Mellissa Fung, Journalist
The Message: Forgive
The Highlights: While most of the speakers delivered their messages through humour, Fung’s words were neither sugar-coated nor a performance. She told the harrowing tale of being held captive for 28 days in Afghanistan, and how important it has been for her to find a way to forgive those who perpetrated the crime against her—so she can go on and live her life.
6. Jully Black, Singer
The Message: Let your past be your past
The Highlights: Luckily, there was an intermission between Fung’s and Black’s presentations, because while their messages were similar, their styles were wildly different. Black had the audience eating out of her hand, telling embarrassing personal anecdotes with the kind of aplomb only natural performers can muster. She revealed her personal difficulties in letting go of the past and shared all the anger she’s felt toward many people for many years. The audience laughed and sighed along with her. Then, at the end, she broke into song, with her big booming voice holding the room in complete awe and silence.
7. Piers Handling, Festival Director, Toronto International Film Festival
The Message: Love what you do, love who you do it with
The Highlights: Handling admitted to being a compulsive film junkie—at points in his life, he could not go a day without seeing a movie. Yet he’s loved every minute of his work—and the man has done a lot of work. He told stories about the commitment and dedication he has observed in all the great stars and filmmakers of his era, from Brad Pitt’s focus to Atom Egoyan’s uncanny commitment to his craft to Michael Moore’s unparalleled ability to, as Handling put it, schmooze.
8. David Miller, Politician
The Message: Listen to your mother
The Highlights: Oh, (former) Mayor Miller, how we miss thee. Miller was a true statesman—and, of course, a consummate politician. He reminded the audience that Torontonians and Canadians have always taken great pride in their values, including having a sense of social justice. He told a story about how a group of mothers in Scarborough, with the help of lawyers, businessmen, bureaucrats and politicians, rallied to give the youth in their neighbourhood a chance to make something of themselves. One such youth, who would later meet the former mayor, seized the opportunity and became a carpenter. He told Miller that when he walks the streets, people have to look him in the eye—because he’s a carpenter. For Miller, it amounted to one of the most important experiences of his political career.
9. Sandra Shamas, Comic and Writer
The Message: Be vulnerable; embrace the truth
The Highlights: Shamas says she tries to be as vulnerable as possible when she takes the stage. She only feels comfortable when she feels she’s giving and receiving the complete, unadulterated truth. And apparently, the truth is side-splittingly funny—because we were nearly crying with laughter for the entire 10 minutes she had the microphone. Once again, it was difficult to tell what, precisely, we were supposed to take away from her presentation. But who cares? It was hilarious.