Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Message In A Bottle

There's something so magical about the dive bars of my misspent youth. Serve me 50 in a bottle, throw some microbrews on tap, stuff a bearded hipster behind the bar and wrap the whole damned place in christmas lights, and we've cracked the code for the Dive Bar©. I'm a person who used to be super-obsessed with high-end fanciness in the food arena - hello, Canoe, I've missed you so - but the special disgustingness of a crappy bar is delectable in its own right.

The Toronto lowbrow bar scene is a veritable wonderland of trashy palaces. From Sneak's to the Green Room, from the Bistro to Tortilla Flats, from the Communist's Daughter in the west over to the east-side Blue Moon, the "decor" is standardized and the drinks are cheap. In the hipper places, you might get some heat lamps on the patio and some overstuffed couches to lounge on. In the real crapboxes, the seats are vinyl and the overhead lighting is flourescent. This are places where the business is drinking, and business is always good.

I love these places, because drinking is inherently a messy thing. Oh, don't let wine snobs and expensive bottles of tequila fool you - alcohol is a poison, just like we all learned in health class. Despite what folks claim about a glass of red wine being good for the heart, booze isn't all that great for your body...although, in the right quantities, it can be good for the soul.

Oh, I know. Not too much. Too much of anything is a bad thing (like how eating too many carrots will turn a gal orange, reason enough to avoid the damned things altogether). I'm struggling right now to define what "too much" alcohol means to me, and dive bars and my affinity towards the seedier side of boozing it up has definitely been both a joy to explore and a burden on the brain. As Mae West said, too much of a good thing might be wonderful, but that wonder doesn't extend to the moment when I can't lie on the floor without holding on.

Much like Oscar Wilde, I myself can abstain from everything except abstinence, which I think is the trick when it comes to both dive bars and alcohol in general. Trying to strike a balance, and then paradoxically trying to make the effort seem effortless, is one of the toughest things I'm working on right now.

Dive bars cut out the justifications, the faux-highbrow snootiness about "notes" and "character" in wine, the city snobs who deign to drink Canadian, and the bullshit. I also strive to eliminate as much bullshit as possible, and that includes lying to myself about what dives bars mean to me. I love them, because that's where they keep the booze, and I hate them for the same reason. It's tough to gunsling your way into a hole in the wall and then ask for a mint tea; the places are designed to feed people alcohol. Tough, but not impossible. I have a feeling that my money is just as capable of buying Diet Coke as it is of buying lager; I only have to put myself to the test to find out.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

National Treasure: Book of Health Care

I just flew back from Washington DC and boy, are my arms tired! God, I love dated, hackneyed humour. Anyway, yes, I just returned from your nation's capital (mine is located in the ice-locked and demi-French 'burg of Ottawa, which is notable for its cuisine and for its proximity to Quebecois gentlemens' clubs) and I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

America just seems so full, you know? There are, like, ten times as many Americans as there are Canadians, in a space that's almost as big as Canada but with way fewer places in which you can potentially fall asleep and freeze solid. Plus, there's all that storied history! The Civil War, the birth of modern democracy, the invention of the atom bomb! Malcolm X, Henry Ford, Neil Armstrong, Shirley Temple! Hollywood, California! New York, New York! Fargo, Minnesota! It's a veritable tapestry of glorious history; you can't spit in Washington without it landing on something that memorializes something or celebrates some other damned thing.

There were some highlights. The Museum of the American Indian, far from being culturally guilt-ridden and boring, was one of the best-designed and -curated explorations of historical and contemporary Native culture that I've ever seen, especially since it encompassed the whole pan-American scene and ran its scope from the Baffin Island down to Chile. Canada was represented well, which is kind of embarrassing when we come home and look for an analogous experience on our own turf. The National Building Museum was totally beautiful, and managed to make an exhibit on parking garages kind of sexy and interesting. Plus, their gift shop was perfect.

There were also lowlights. For those of you residing in the greater Washington area, may I advise you with an expert opinion? The oyster roll at Sakana Sushi equalled 48 hours of food poisoning, including one15-hour stretch that was notable for the amount of barfing it contained (a lot! A lot of barfing!). Might want to avoid that.

But the thing about travel, even to a place just infested with culture - nay, especially to places like that - is that vacation burnout is a total bitch. My entire family caught the same cold. There was the aformentioned food poisoning. Plus, your eyes get tired from reading museum placards, the hotel air doesn't circulate, your feet hurt from doing the tourist-zombie-shuffle, and the hotel pillows are too soft. Eating in restaurants, which is a nice treat when you're at home, is kind of a drag when it's the only option on the road. Whole personal schedules and rhythms are thrown out the window in favour of seeing ever more historical venues and other such trip-necessitated agendas.

Don't misconstrue my tone: I am grateful for the trip. All I'm doing is pointing out that culture-based ventures like the one I'm recently returned from, they're exhausting. Trekking to museums isn't the same as lying on the beach, sipping mai tais and silently judging other people's bathing suit bodies. And we all know from recent experience that family time, especially the extended-remix we tend to indulge in over Christmas time, is rarely the kind of melodious enterprise depicted on TV. There's yelling.

All family vacations are susceptible to that kind of friction, though. What makes a trip to Washington frustrating for Canadians is the inevitable comparison between us and them. Canadians and Americans are both just, like, totally obsessed with America. It's hard not to feel like a weedy younger sibling: America is muscular and burnished with the radiance of her own achievements. The architecture alone practically holds your imagination for ransom, what with its harkening back to the cradle of Western thought and the larger-than-life presidential statuary.

We, on the other hand, invented the robotic space arm.

See? Sour grapes. We're just different, as a mom would point out: America is older, has more money, and is more independent. Canada is gayer, smokes more weed, and has to rely on some lady to play Red Light, Green Light with our freaking government. On the other hand, we don't have Nicolas Cage and Ben Stiller desecrating our collective patriotic memories with terrible pieces of cinematic floss.

Plus, we have free health care. That trumps free museum admission any day of the week. Man, it's good to be home.