Saturday, December 31, 2011

Into The 2012

New Years resolutions are the worst. I always resolve to be a totally different person by February. I want to lose 20 pounds, become more professional in demeanor (not sleeping until noon every weekend!) and appearance (getting a salon haircut more than once a decade!), quit drinking, take up yoga and running, give up all the carcinogenic things I love - Coke Zero, cheap food, and nail polish - and be a better daughter, girlfriend, friend, lover, sister, employee and gym member.

For two days after these edicts come down from my brain, I am transformed. I get up early, I watch what I eat, and I pledge that I am never doing...something...again. And I am earnest! But then the next weekend hits, and it's January, which isn't a very inspiring month, weather-wise, and all I want to do is eat takeout food and half-watch episodes of Breaking Bad with my boyfriend while I read Chew. And then I feel guilty, and then I feel rebellious, and then I realize that my heartrate hasn't been raised in a few weeks, and then I decide to take a nice, long, world-avoiding bath, in which I stare morosely at my undefined waist and pledge, again, to lose 20 pounds and all the other crap.

So I'm not going to do that. I've already started a new gym routine, in preparation for bridesmaids duties in the late spring, so that's firmly underway. If that ends up with some more defined abs, that's great; if not, I'll take solace at the chocolate fountain and wear a forgiving dress.

I'm going to try to give up swearing. My boyfriend claims to like my pottymouth, but I live in fear of accidentally dropping an f-bomb in front of my boss. I've said it to my parents a couple times, in the heat of the story-telling moment, and every time, they graciously, if awkwardly, ignore it.

I'm going to try to eat healthier. Not undertake some sort of crash diet that ends up with my hound-dog style outside a cupcakeria, but a rational, body-conscious way of eating that makes me feel full, fed and tasty without being restrictive or weird. I know wheat sometimes does crazy things to my body - 2011 was the year I said "so long" to beer - and I should eat less gooey (but delicious!) cheeses, but the quest for delicious foods also means experimenting with new ingredients, smaller portions, and healthy sources.

There are a bunch of things I want to work on in the internal side - friendships that have soured that need reassessing, some anxities that need to be massaged, some fears that need to be confronted - but most of that is interesting only to me, so I'll leave them be. I'll work on forgiveness and competitiveness, two of my less endearing personality flaws that have gotten me into trouble.

I'll renew my pledge to love my boyfriend so very hard. I sometimes get caught up in wedding-want, but I'm so happy with my romantic life right now. I need to remember that focusing on galloping ahead means missing out on the sweetness of right now, and right now it's all very sweet indeed.

But mostly, I just want to take it easy. Living a good life doesn't mean banking crazy money or becoming wildly famous. It means, to me at least, that I wake up in the morning liking the person I am and the choices I've made, loving the people with whom I've chosen to surround myself, and learning from the weird moments when things go awry.
Happy 2012, everyone!

Monday, December 26, 2011

2011: Back To Front

Oh my god, dudes! I have totally fallen down on the blog lately. I know only a few folks read this, but it's less about my supposed readership and more about the practice of writing, often, and well. Anyway, I could blame it on being mega busy, or too full to type (my fingers are too fat and I keep making typos!), or I could just own up and say, sometimes there are times when I have less to say. But it's the time of year for the highlights reel to roll, so let's take a journey back to some moments I'm especially proud of.

First of all, I totally quit my job. Not the job I have now - I like that job, it's my jam - but the horrible, no-good job I was working at for the first six months of this year. I knew I was going to quit when I called my mom during a weekend shift from the Toronto Public Library's payphone, after one of my coworkers told me a vicious piece of gossip involving our supervisor and her allegations that the receptionist of the company couldn't, and I quote, "keep her legs shut" for the head of the business. I was agog, totally flabbergasted at the meanness and callousness of that tidbit, and the casualness with which it was tossed off. I called my mom to tell her the story and that I was quitting, and she cheered. That superisor still works there; the receptionist found out about that gossip a couple weeks later and walked out the door. The company, despite my not liking its staff very much, still does good work, but I could not be more grateful that it's out of my life.

Then there was the camping trip. Oh man. So, this was an 8-day venture into the wilds with my boyfriends and a group of people I knew only passingly well. There was shoe-sucking muck; spiders the size of five-dollar bills; rain; sunburns; crashing into rocks in a canoe; crashing into someones hand in a canoe; cold sores; fights; crying; running out of food; flat tires, and other adventures. Do not assume that I hated it, but it was definitely a challenge. I will probably do it again, for the same reasons mothers have more than one kid.

What else? There were concerts. Standouts include a sparsely attended by energetic performance by World Inferno/Friendship Society, and a raucous show by The Born Ruffians. I saw Weird Al at Massey Hall (I know!), Cancer Bats in a Parkdale basement, and Paul Simon in the worst concert crowd I've ever seen. I usually went with my boyfriend, but sometimes I ventured out with friends, and either way, music is such a good way to mark the time.

There were wedding-related things. Oh, keep your shirts on; not me. I went to my first non-secret wedding this year, which was pretty and gave me a taste of what's possible when you take radical matrimonial steps like inviting your parents (elopements 4 life!) - for example, an open bar. Closer to my heart, one of my girlfriends asked me to be a bridesmaid, so I get to go to gym and buy a blue dress, and I'm hella looking forward to it. We were talking last night at dinner about weddings - I asked my parents what their "rules" are: like, do we have to invite all the relatives? They were basically like, "We don't care, you don't even have to invite us," which made my sister pout and say that any relative of hers who got married without at least telling her would be on my sister's shit-list for a long time. It's slowly coming to light that weddings are a complicated thing.

We went to New York, this year, my boyfriend and I, and it was the first time I had really traveled without the company of a family member. He and I had an uproarious time, full of the big time touristy things and the smaller, less famous NYC stuff. It's whetted my appetite for more traveling, maybe something overseas.

And there was other stuff, too. Bad stuff, good stuff, meh stuff. My roommates were annoying and the bathroom was usually filthy. I ran out of money. I dropped my groceries all over Bloor Street, had panic attacks, fought with friends and lovers and family members, and sometimes cried. But there were also a thousand tiny victories - watering plants, getting a new job, laughing together with the man I love, making art, writing, reaching out, going dancing, having sleepovers, talking on the phone for hours, finally finishing The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and so many other moments. Sometimes, I fall down on writing about them, but I always appreciate 'em.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Why I Ring My Bell

I ring my bell because, now, in the darker, longer, colder, icier days of the year, drivers aren't used to cyclists on the roads. We catch them by surprise: I can see their eyes widen as their headlights sweep across my bike, and they jam on the brakes and stutter to a stop in a panic that speaks to the fact that they weren't expecting anyone to be where I am. Now is the time of year when I'm super-vigilant about lights, but the bell acts as a friendly - or not-so-friendly - reminder that yes, we're still out here, slogging through the bite of the wind, in the dark.

I ring my bell because I ride with quickness. Cars in the city spend long minutes idly in traffic, but I can, and do, squeak by on the edge of the road. Often, those cars aren't sitting mindlessly - passengers are getting in and out, drivers are pulling back into traffic - and when I ride by, I can be faster than they think. City biking is an efficient way to move through the world, but motorists seem to think they have a monopoly on speed. I ring my bell to remind them that I am a body in motion.

I ring my bell because I am often mistaken for an entire population when I ride. "You cyclists are all the same," people snarl. "You run red lights, you never signal, and you all ride without lights. You deserve to get hit." This mindset scares me. Drivers share the roads with all kinds of other vehicles - scooters, big trucks, other cars, motorcycles - but for some reason, cyclists ride with a target on our backs. Ringing my bell might do nothing to change the minds of people who resent our presence out there. On the other hand, a bit of eye contact and a friendly smile are the first step in reminding other road users that, behind the wheel/handlebars, there's always a person.

I ring my bell because it's my bike's horn. I do my best to follow traffic laws - like anyone out there on the road, sometimes I don't come to a complete stop, or signal - but when other people are counting on me to give them the information they need to keep me safe, I do it. Some people choose to ignore my safety in favour of inching ahead in traffic, or roaring past me, or even just scaring me for sport. I give an indignant ding of the bell when that happens, because I don't have the luxury of a deep, foghorn bellow.

I ring my bell because, when I ride in a group, sometimes the sheer joy of riding together overwhelms us. It's not the prettiest symphony (cycling bells are designed to be strident and attention-grabbing, so "melodious" falls pretty far down on their list of priorities), but the sound of a herd of bikers clanging together down the road, often with whooping and hollering, is fun and joyful. There's no explanation, no rhyme or reason. We're our own parade.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Office Party Politics

I'm relatively new to the office scene. Sure, my last gig was at an office, and there were perks there - for example, every two weeks, there was a mandatory two-hour lunch meeting, during which I, as the most junior staff person, was required to take notes. The upside? Those lunches generally featured some sort of free, delivered food (sushi! burgers! and so on), which helped offset the stomach-roiling anxiety of sitting in a room with all my coworkers. If I worked a weekend session, there would be pizza for lunch. Somehow, the little perks of that job, like free food, weren't enough to undo all the thousand little other despotic, horrible things about that place, though.

I'm at a new job now, and loving it. I also happened to join the company at a very opportune time - three weeks before Christmas. This means that I've been invited to join both the company party and the office party.

"What?" I can hear you saying (Not really, all I can hear is my roommate slamming her door for NO REASON, MICHELLE), "two Christmas parties?" Yep. Explanation: My office is in a fairly progressive workhub that features over 100 different organization, most of which focus on some sort of socially transformative mandate. There are web developers, farmers' market administrators, courier services, magazines, social media experts, and more. Most of them are fairly small companies, ranging from one to let's say seven people, and while interaction between folks is highly encouraged at this place, they also employ people to help lubricate the process of settling in and working there. Hence, the office party, which was organized by "community animators" and featured, among other treats, a cookie contest and a cocktail shakedown.

The night before, my boss had treated her staff to a lovely dinner out - a smaller, more upscale event that left me feeling grateful and full. My boyfriend and I walked around the neighbourhood, enjoying the unseasonably warm weather - raindrops! In December! - and after dinner, I felt grown-up and like I was a part of something. It was a feeling I realized I had missed in my last job, despite the generosity with food in meetings.

I've worked at places with an end-of-season shindig before. One of my favourite work memories was going to the Owen Sound drive-in with my summer coworkers in 2005, eating piles of baked goods and watching Grind. There are many, many terrible movies out there. Grind is totally one of them. It reinforced that, for me at least, the possibility that work and jobs are infinitely more tolerable if you surround yourself with amazing people. That job was tough - I worked counter service at a french fry stand on the beach, where people would walk up and order funnel cakes, hot dogs, and fries. I had to wear a collared shirt. It was not air-conditioned. After sundown, the place was frequented by drunk college students. One time, someone put poop in the vending machine. I went home every shift smelling like grease. It wasn't amazing. But my boss had the foresight to staff it with people who got along, who could see the humour in situations and who bonded together over the late-afternoon hot-dog rush. At the end of the summer, a blowing-off-steam party was a right. We needed to cut loose, even for just a night, even if it was at the drive-in.

The same principle applies to the Christmas party. It's a natural way to mark the end of the year, to celebrate all the work done in the past twelve months. At mine, since I'm such a new addition to the team, I sort of slunk around, stuffing brownies into my mouth and avoiding the women wearing novelty hats. For the people who have worked together for years, it can be a test - are we friends, or just co-workers? - but I mostly got to observe. The folks at this party seemed to like each other - there was a healthy amount of cookie-related smacktalk - but it was also unfussy and generous and nice just to be there.

Both the office party and the company party made me feel connected to my worklife. At my last job, my mom observed that I often seemed to be having an out-of-body experience when I was working: my brain was just watching my fingers type, screaming "Why are you doing this?" silently for hours. Here? Not so much. Usually we celebrate rebirth around Easter, but this year, at least, Christmas is my time to feel good.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Troy (And Abed) Around The Clock

I'm on a Donald Glover kick right now, and friends, it is wonderful. He's the mastermind behind Childish Gambino, he's a righteously funny stand-up comic, and he plays Troy Barnes on NBC's Community. He's also incredibly foxy, which, you know: bonus!

I cam late to the game on Community. It was half-way through the second season before I tuned in, and it took a couple episodes to really get the hang of the humour. Originally, Troy was supposed to be paired with Chevy Chase's character Pierce, and the two of them - grumpy old man and dumb/smart jock - were going to act as the salt in the sugar shaker. Fortunately, the chemistry between Troy and Abed, the autistic-y film buff played by Danny Pudi, outshone the odd-couple Troy/Pierce matchup. Troy and Abed have become this weird spin-off-inside-the-show: they have pretend breakfast television shows, they build elaborate blanket forts, and they have one of the most homosocial relationships ever depicted on TV. Chandler and Joey were friends; Troy and Abed are best friends. They elevate the normal friendships that we all have, which are equal parts gossip, in-jokes and rants - and which are totally necessary to live - and just, like, puts in on TV.

Childish Gambino and Glover's stand-up act are a different animal. His rap rhymes are thoughtful, personal and often hilarious, and he addresses race, loneliness, sex, relationships and all the other personal juggernauts the way "the only black kid at a Sufjan concert" really can. Listening to his new album, Camp, makes me laugh, because some of it is really funny. It also makes me a little sad - there's naked emotion in some of the rhymes: "I miss the sex when we kiss whenever we're done," gets to me, because it's not that he misses sex (dude is an exceptionally fine-looking man, I'm sure he gets laid on the daily), but he misses intimacy. What?! And then he talks about in public? Double what?!! This isn't an album about guns and drugs and fine-looking bitches; it's about growing up a little poor, having parents who worked hard, being black in an otherwise all-white school. In other words, feeling weird even if you're normal. Who can't relate to that?

In other times, Troy Barnes would have been the token black character, in the mix to give street cred to the other white-bread characters. One of Community's strengths is that it takes its diversity for granted. These people are sort of losers, having washed up at a fourth-tier community college, but nobody's a bigger loser because they're old, a woman, or a minority. Joel McHale is the sole straight white dude in the principal cast, and he's matched beat for comedic beat by everyone else. Troy and Abed have become scene-stealing imps, and the show's off-beat comedy is strange and addictive, like salted caramel chocolates. And if sitcoms aren't your thing, try the stand-up. If the comedy leaves you wanting, try the album. And if you can't into any of it, then take a seat - I'll be with you when NBC returns Community to the airwaves.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Breaking You Off

Now that I'm back at work - and can we all just take a moment to sigh along with me, in relief that I've found something that seems to suit me and that, once I get past the stage fright of meeting new folks and learning new things, will allow me to thrive? AHHHHH....that felt good - I remember the thrill of the weekend.

I've written before about the special joys of the long weekend, and about how having a short weekend can ruin one's life. I was chatting with a girlfriend tonight, and she said that having two days off in a row is a terrible thing for her. She just lazes all day the first day, and rushes joylessly around on the second day. She doesn't really enjoy either. Me, I need a proper weekend, but everyone's different. Some people need a two-day workweek. Some folks need ten minutes to gulp down a cup of coffee and check in with their nanny. We call those people ER doctors, and we don't pay them nearly enough money.

Work psychologists encourage people to take mini-breaks during the day. Stare out the window for a minute, walk around the office, take a brisk walk at lunch. It can be so easy to forget to take those moments in the business of work, and I often put them off when I'm deep into the expense reports. But those mini-vacations are help us function. They relieve eyestrain, stretch out tight muscles, and get a dose of vitamin D. They also keep the brain alert: mistake to stand up when things are viewed with a fresh pair of eyes, and they keep frustration at bay. I'm not saying that y'all should spend our work hours staring out the window, but stand up for yourself: breaks are important.

My old boss was stingy with break time. Lunch hours were carefully monitored, and employees were instructed to sign in and out very day. There were no coffee breaks. The expectation was 100% work, 100% of the time. Coupled with that six-day work week, my life became threaded with work, and it was impossible to de-escalate the stress I felt at the constant demands. That's never a good sign. Bosses might give breaks grudgingly or generously, but they should give them.

I've slipped back into a high level of productivity at work, which is terrific. In my off-the-clock hours, I sometimes forget to breathe. I'm feeling the pressure of DOING THINGS on the weekend. I've got girls' brunch on Sunday, an ushering gig at night, a movie party on Friday, and a friend date during the day. Every last moment is scheduled! I love my friends, but it turns out that my downtime is precious. Like gold. Sometimes, I need to take breaks from my highly scheduled life - take a break from having plans all the time, take a break from heading from the gym to the movies to the doctor's to my bed. Downtime is so good for me - it lets me have my creative time, to take long showers, to sleep in those extra ten minutes. And then when I step into my work, or hang out with my friends, I feel recharged and enlivened, ready to take on gym, doctor's expense reports, brunch, drinks, movies, and more.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Secret Life Of The 25-Year-Old Girl

I don't read Toronto Life, because it's rarely relevant to my life: despite living in Toronto, and loving it deeply, I don't move in the rarefied circles of charcuterie gastropubs and $500 purses. Their beat is to cover the lifestyle habits of the upwardly mobile and aspirational Torontonians, and they do it thoroughly and well. TL's major faux pas isn't that their topics are narrow in scope, but that there's a first-person smugness ingrained in their articles. The writers aren't encouraged to draw a larger picture for the reader, so I wonder about the relevance of a story about, say, controversy about a fight at a Toronto private school that might otherwise draw me in.

With their recent cover story, "The Secret Lives of 13-Year-Old Girls," TL lays bare Alexandra Molotkow's cybersexual coming-of-age story. Reading certain sections, I found myself nodding, because I could identify with the longings of young teenage girls. We desperately want to know about sex - more than just body parts, but feelings and experiences. At the same time, 13-year-olds are too young to have any meaningful mastery of their interiour sex lives, and the ones who are sexually experienced at that age often seem damaged later on. The internet provided a safe barrier to explore and express sexuality, without the danger of engaging in real, hands-on, consequence-y sex.

I remember exchanging emails with a boy from summer camp, trading stories about what we would do to each other next summer vacation. These were pornographic short stories, and my parents stumbled across them, which led to a major screaming match over what would have happened if my younger brother (who was six years old at the time) had found them. My parents weren't actually worried about my grade-school brother; they were worried that I was somehow going to end up a victim of a sexual predator, even though, in those X-rated emails, I was definitely the more crocodilian of the two of us.

I find, when I talk to my girlfriends now, a common, obsessive theme in our early high school years: we were fascinated by sex, and completely unable to express our fascination. Fearful of being branded a pervert, or worse, I kept my interest carefully hidden away, but I wondered what it would be like to kiss, to touch. Online, where I was a far better writer, I could express some of those desires without the burning shameface that broke out if I even thought about saying my feelings out loud. Molotkow graduated from online chatrooms to early social networking sites, inadvertently becoming a schoolmate's cyberstalker. She finds solace online: it's an escape from the unrelenting shittiness of high school. Going online makes her feel less alone, reassuring her that there are others like her out there, even if they don't go to her school, or are her age.

She shrugs off the alleged dangers of the anonymous internet by flashing her bullshit detector: "I suppose I should have been afraid of meeting strange, older men from the Internet....[b]ut these men passed online background checks: they were friends of online friends, and their 'netiquette' was okay." It was a common trope in the 1990s for news media to report that your children were at risk if they surfed the internet alone - that unsupervised kids were being lured into online chats with old perverts pretending to be frisky young teens. In reality, more than 95% of adults engaging teens in chats owned up to their age, and they were also forthright with their sexual intentions. Without exception, the victims were older than 13 - the same age that Molotkow was when she started cybersexing. To top it off, studies have shown "there is some evidence that adolescents who visit chatrooms are more likely to have problems with their parents, to suffer from sadness, loneliness, or depression, to have histories of sexual abuse, and to engage in risky behavior than those who do not go to chatrooms." In her article, Molotkow admits to three of those four risk indicators - it seems like, more than anything, her prodigious smarts saved her from some potential abuse, and she was luckier than she was smart. Trusting your gut on the internet seems less safe than your average blind date, but there are actually very few incidences of straight-up molestation. In the most recent stats I could find, internet-related events account for about 7% of statutory rape cases in America. It's a tiny minority that garnered huge media attention, because the internet, at that time, was new, and the rules were unwritten.

It's the same story with sexting now. Molotkow poo-poohs the idea that sexting is worth getting riled up over, dismissing it as a younger generation's chatroom, and hey - at least the kids are doing it to each other and not anonymous Russian human traffickers. Unfortunately, she undercuts her position by recounting the dramatic tale of "Jessi Slaughter:"

I’m disturbed by the antics of kids today: take Jessica Leonhardt, an 11-year-old Floridian known as “Jessi Slaughter.” Last year, on a teen message board called StickyDrama, she was accused of sleeping with a musician popular among 11-year-olds. She posted a video of herself to YouTube refuting the claim and threatening her haters: “I’ll pop a Glock in your mouth and make a brain slushy.” [...] In yet another online video, her father yelled at the attackers, saying he knew who they were and invoking the “cyber police.” Unfortunately, there is no such thing as cyber police. In Leonhardt’s last missive, she claimed to be in foster care; her dad passed away of a heart attack this summer.
There are issues with the article - the passages describing her early masturbatory successes were uncomfortable, to say the least - but what's most frustrating is that Molotkow's experience is normal without being representative. The inability to capture the salient issue is Toronto Life's biggest stumbling block, and again, they made me wonder about how this woman's emerging online sexuality had any bearing, other than squicky feelings of retrograde voyeurism, on my life.

Writing an article about what technology means to teenagers is one thing, but this was a more personal (and dated) narrative. She didn't bother talking to any current thirteen year old girls about their technologically enhanced dating/erotic/sexual adventures. She didn't even speak to other women, now in their 20s, who would have been the same age and having the same experiences. Molotkow is a funny, quick-witted writer with an instinct to overshare, and it eats up words that could be used to widen the scope of the article. Like all nostalgia pieces, it's most interesting to those who were there when it happened, and it's likely that a thirteen-year-old girl reading the piece would have no idea what she was talking about: the technology has changed, the rules have changed, even as teenaged girls and their animal need to know their own sexuality remains constant.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Happy 29th Birthday, Future Me.

Birthday! Cake! Ice cream! Fresca! Yoga! Cuddling! Walking in the November rain! Mexican food! Yay! In the spirit of the new year - it's my birthday tomorrow, and I'm going to be turning 28, which makes me feel simultaneously unformed and totally old - here are my New Year's Resolutions for The Age Of Twenty-Eight:

  • to get smart about money. I have vague notions about where my money goes - rent, food, Coke Zero, second-hand CDs from Sonic Boom - but it tends to move through my bank account like it's acting of its own accord. Grown ups don't live like that. I mean, some grown ups do, but I want to be one of those responsible-style people who pays off student loans and shit. I have aspirations for myself that involve money, and it's likely that the banker (who, for some reason, is wearing a monocle and those old-timey armbands in my head) will take a careful look at my bank statements and say, "You spend roughly a third of your paltry income on Coke Zero. You can't buy a house. You can't even buy a tent. Get out!" and then I'll have to cry on the sidewalk looking very miserable indeed.

  • to be nice to my body. I finally kicked that ED habit last year, but I've also gained some weight, and I want to look and feel my best. As previously discussed, trips to the gym will definitely help with that.

  • to start thinking of myself as a real writer. I got a sweet gig as a producer's assistant, a ten-month contract that ends next September, and I'm inordinately pleased with myself for getting that job. But, at the same time, I want to take a page from my pal Kelli's book. During her last 9-to-5 contract, she started building her writing network, and landed a weekly page at the Globe and Mail and a full-time spot at Torontoist. That is what's known as "awesome" in my book. I don't do the same kind of writing as Kelli, but there's no reason I can follow the same kind of path. I imagine that it's lined with incredibly awkward white-wine-fueled small talk at magazine launch parties, but hey: that's why God invented Xanax.

  • to be kind to myself. This is really the big one, and feels very ashram/flowing yoga pants on paper, but I spend so much time being hard on myself. When my boyfriend and I fight, it's tough not to immediately jump to "He hates me and we're breaking up!" When I gain a couple pounds, I can see myself ballooning up past Dress Barn sizing and ending up in one of those outfits that is less outfit and more wearable tent. When I don't land a writing gig (curse you, Hairpin! Your articles make me laugh and I want to join your club!), I start self-talking myself down in a pit of talentlessness and self-loathing. And so on. I want 28 to be the year I knock that shit off. It's okay to have a bad day, to have a fight, to take a swing at a job and miss. That's called "being a human being." After spending years of my life hating myself every time I made a mistake, this is the year of getting over myself and taking my lumps without a lump in my throat.

So, check back in with me in a year. Will I have gotten paid for my words? Will I be svelte? Will I be sort of muscular with enormous hooters, which is pretty much the most likely scenario? Will I still be spending boatloads of money on Coca-Cola products? I'll see you in 2012 with the answers. Safe money is definitely on Coke Zero, though.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Gym Math

Every few years, I go through the urge to totally revamp my body. I have friends who have become aerobics instructors, who have run half-marathons, who have taken up yoga and who have transformed themselves, through the power of Youtube workout videos, into more toned, svelter versions of themselves. My roommate has stunk up our hallway with her in-room workout B.O. for the last few months, but I can't deny the end result. She looks terrific. Her skin is clearer and she's lost weight, which makes all the times I had to see her doing jumping jacks in a bra and cotton panties worthwhile. For her.

I do not generally enjoy exercise. It's not that I hate being active, but there's a mental block about going to the gym - it's far, I'm cold, I don't have the right clothes, I don't have the right playlist, I don't have enough time, I'm already too fat for a forty-minute workout to change anything, I'm hungry, I don't want to leave the house, and so on, ad nauseum, forever. I equate going to the gym with unpleasant tasks like getting my teeth cleaned: it's good for me, but I don't enjoy it.

But here's the thing: one of my friends is getting married in six months, and she is a bona fide babe. It's borders on ridiculous: she's got this face and nice hair and a smokin' hot bod. She's also smart and funny, which is generally my territory, since I don't have "pretty" on 100% lock. I have to bring my A-game to this wedding. You can't tell if someone is smart or funny in photos - you can, on the other hand, definitely tell how many chins they have. I've made a pact with myself to be my funny, smart and generally awesome self while doing my bridesmaid duties, but since this is going to be a photo-heavy look good doing it.

So: the gym. When I get there, I usually have a good time. I like the crosstrainer and the rowing machine, both of which are mindless and fun. The last time I was there, I was listening to the new Childish Gambino album, and I almost launched myself off the crosstrainer with laughter at some of his more risque lines. The time before that, I attended a Pilates class; I got the giggles and just could not stop. Despite my not loving commute trip there, it turns out that being at the gym makes me laugh. It also gives me a chance to catch up on my reading - although reading a magazine is actually kind of tough on the more aerobic machines, it's perfect for the stationary bike.

My fears about looking stupid are also kind of off-base. I do look stupid, but not outside the bell curve of stupid-looking gym rats. For every lipgloss-wearing 22-year-old in all-black workout gear and a high, shiny ponytail, there are thirteen middle-aged men in fleece tracksuits with sweat pouring off them, trying not to expire on the treadmill. There are six old men with enormous guts and spindly little legs doing bicep curls in the middle of the room. There are three school-aged children furiously peddling on excerbikes they won't be big enough to use for at least another three years. And that's only in the gym room - there are whole dance studios and pools full of uncoordinated, old, fat, unfashionable people for me to just blend right into.

The other side of the coin is that, no matter what I eat, I seem to be bloated, gassy and generally smelly. My boyfriend can attest to this - I burped in his face (by accident!) the other day and he was like, "What is WRONG with you? What have you been eating?" He was right to be put out. I am not a good little digestor. I think I can trace it back to a nasty bout with whooping cough in the ninth grade, and the subsequent run of nuclear-grade antibiotics that were prescribed to knock the retro disease out of my system. Antibiotics, as it turns out, kill all bacteria, even the good ones in your gut. They don't just come back, either - Wired points out that, even two years after a course of antibiotics, gut flora just isn't as diverse. A lack of diversity in gut bacteria can lead to obesity, which in turns flattens the diversity further. And so on, forever, until we all become those big fat blobbos like in Wall-E.

My dirty little secret is that I'm a pretty healthy eater. Maybe my portions are too big, but I eat a varied diet of leafy greens, orange fruits and vegetables, and low-fat proteins. I don't eat that much dairy, or bread, and I don't gorge on pasta. So it's infuriating that I'm past the high end of the healthy BMI range, and I'm active and smart about diet. Like, what do I have to do to lose weight? Do some bloodletting? Cut my hair? What? I'll do it - I don't want to be the fat bridesmaid in my pretty friend's pictures. You know, the one that looks like the hot air balloon with legs.

Obviously, the secret is going to be more gym and less food. Not much less food, because I love snacks - seriously, yogurt with almonds and blueberries are my jam - but there's always room for 10% less food and 50% more gym. That means feeling 60% hotter on a day that is 100% not about me, and that is going to be awesome.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Scmecks Ed

This weekend, the New York Times Magazine ran an interesting and reader-provoking article called "Teaching Good Sex." Focusing on a private school in Philly's approach to sexual education, the article raises the interesting question: what if we actually taught kids about sex? Not just abstinence, contraceptives, or disease prevention, but actual pleasure and intimacy?

The article is quite sweet, which isn't surprising. In 2009, the magazine ran a charming piece on the perils and triumphs of coming out in middle school. That author spoke to several young men and women about their experiences, including one boy who realized at the age of eleven that he didn't want to live a lie. In the midst of It Gets Better messaging, the writers focused on children for whom it had already gotten better. The article didn't gloss over some of the negative parts of being out at such a young age - the naysayers who crow "It's all a phase," or the specter (and reality) of bullying, especially in the smaller schools and towns - but overall, things looked bright for these kids.

However, both articles exist in sort of an alternate universe. American public policy has largely been divided over sex ed for kids - from 1996 to 2010, about half of American states offered truncated and morally judgmental courses in their public schools through funding from a policy called Title V. In order to get that funding, school boards had to commit to teaching things like "abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school-age children" and "that sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects." Support for the program came from parents and social conservatives, who felt that any mention of contraceptive use diluted the message that sex = married, monogamous sex.

As a Canadian, I was exposed to a variety of sex education throughout the years. In the fifth grade, I labelled parts of the penis and vagina. I somehow missed the canonical demonstration of condom use - roll it down over a banana, girls! - but I ended up with a fairly thorough understanding of what diseases might erupt or what a penis looked like. We talked about rape and sexual harassment, and about sexual orientation, but I don't remember any conversations about pleasure, intimacy, or the importance of communication. Sex is about so many things - procreation, intimacy, power relations, gender politics. It's about reclamation, like the girls who participated in SlutWalks after being told that rapes were a result of too-sexy clothes. It's about commitment, sometimes. Other times it's about joy. But running through it all, sex should be about pleasure.

With all the worry about gay kids, pregnant teenagers, and chlamydia outbreaks in the rest home, we so rarely touch on the basics. Sex is fun (mostly), but it comes with its own communication skill set. Just as marriage isn't a natural state of being (even if the conservatives tell you it totally is and that you're a freak if you're not in holy matrimony), talking about sex isn't something that just comes naturally to adults. It's like long division or good grammar: it needs to be taught, the younger the better. It's not like your husband slides a wedding ring on your finger and you're DTF with mad skillz.

The gap between "aware of sex" and "ready to have sex" isn't huge. All the better to fill it some positive, communication-heavy theories, then. Not talking about sex doesn't mean it doesn't happen. People are engaging in unsafe behaviours because they can't talk safely or openly about their experiences. Disrespect never gets called out. You might feel kind of gross when your boyfriend takes your heads and not-so-subtly steers it towards his erection, but if someone doesn't cock an eyebrow and validate your squicky emotions, the shame and weirdness of that moment can act as a barrier from bringing it into the light. Worse, if you mention it to your girlfriends and they all know exactly what you're talking about, it can perpetuate the normality of not-okay behaviours.

Teaching about something and giving permission to do it isn't the same thing. Students learn about space launches and the Holocaust, but nobody's telling them to get out there and reenact 'em. Sex education for kids and teenagers falls under the same ideology. It's important to have authority figures who are comfortable addressing the vagaries of the human experience from all angles. Sex isn't just about penis-in-vagina; it's about being open with your partners and being comfortable. The article talked about one student who had been the target of a nasty Facebook post implying that she was giving oral sex at parties; the incident came up during the sex ed classes as an example of "things that are not okay."

I don't know what the future holds for American students. The program profiled in this article was offered at a private school, and many of the online commentors expressed the sentiment that teaching sex ed was what was holding America back from being an Old Testament utopia/a math-and-science powerhouse/free of teen moms/whatever. I like to think that the graduates of that class have much better skills to work with in the soft science of sex, and even if they choose never to have sex with anyone, the ability to talk through a tough situation. Sex is hard. Love is hard. That's why they should teach it in schools.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Community Service

Community fans have been up in arms about NBC's recent decision to put the cult-inspiring sitcom on the shelf. The fear has come out in many forms (tweets, blog posts and soothing insider reports from New York magazine and others) that the show won't return, or will return in a truncated, rag-doll version of itself in the desolate summer months. The fear isn't totally unfounded, since Community pulls in fewer viewers each week than the almost universally reviled Whitney, but NBC has remained with underperforming shows in the past.

We all have our favourite under-the-radar choices. My boyfriend got me into Community, and he rolls his eyes every time I get overly excited about it, because, as he points out, he was into it first. I retort with Fever Ray. He comes back with E.T. (my childhood had some pretty serious pop-culture gaps in it), I point out the Crumpler bag he bought after I dragged him into their store, and then we just devolve into our reptile selves and slither around for a while, dragging our pop culture discoveries hideously behind us. We all do this. I crowed for months about King Of Kong, the amazing documentary about the world of arcade video record setting: "I showed you that!" I would cackle every thing it was mentioned. It's not pretty.

Mister Boyfriend was the one who first exposed me to Community, through their second-season zombie Halloween episode. I showed up half-way through and was completely flummoxed. Watching Community requires a basic understanding of who's who: the group dynamics aren't complicated, but you need to know that Jeff Winger is a bit of a juicebox, for instance, or that there's love quandrangle stuff between Britta, Annie, Jeff and Troy, and then the jokes will start flowing. Watching a few episodes of the first season is basically all anyone really needs to understand what's going on at Greendale, but it's not like Friends: viewers who benefit most from the sitcom's delights are the ones who pay attention and watch each episode multiple times. Casual viewers are likely not to enjoy it quite as much. For a drama like 24 or Lost, networks are comfortable allowing storylines to develop week-to-week and leave late-arriving viewers out of their loop, but sitcoms are expected to be accessible to even the most unaware viewer.

The show, in the last season, has started departing from its original premise of "mismatched friend group" and started looking more at the mechanics of storytelling. It started with the genre episodes, which collected cliches from action movies, zombie flicks and spaghetti westerns and spun them out into great, glorious 22-minute mindfucks that exist, somehow simultaneously, as spoof, homage, commentary and A+ example. Characters who were still wholly themselves found themselves transposed onto other types: sweet, high-strung Annie, for example, can exist as herself, but also become a leather-shorted paintball outlaw with a heart of gold in the western episode and, a few episodes later, be a cracked-out production assistant on a commercial shoot gone horribly wrong.

I want to talk for a second about the last episode NBC aired before yanking Community from its slot. Last week focused on Dean Pelton's attempt to update his college's recruitment commercial - what starts as a simple one-day shoot turns into Heart Of Darkness. Like, literally. Abed, who barely appears onscreen in this episode, films the school's descent into madness, which involves unzipped hoodies with no undershirt, a possum, a Chinese man wearing a blond wig under a baldcap, forced hugging, mo-cap suits, and Luis Guzman. The Dean's attempt to elevate a school he barely believes in to perfection drives him insane, and Abed's camera is there to capture it.

Last week's episode was one of the most interesting things I've ever seen on TV. The Dean's character, who is usually a punchline, was awarded a gravitas that didn't feel forced - he's a lunatic, sure, but usually he's a benignity. Give the man some power (something, interestingly, he doesn't get in his role of head of the school) and his drive to make the most of it creates some very weird moments. It was so over the top, but...thinking about the Dean over the last two's possible to see the seeds from which this madness would sprout. His perfect costumes? His excitable nature? His upbeat yet despairing attitude towards what his school can do for its students? Those are all there since day one. The Dean's craziness in this episode is what happens when you take the Dean to extremes. Not any other character. Annie's craziness looks different. So does Troy's. The writers are good to their characters, and the actors respond with performances that had me literally on the edge of my seat. I kept turning to Mister Boyfriend with my mouth agape, like, can you even believe they'd put this on TV?

I don't know what the future holds for Community. Part of me wants the show to end next season - four years of school, four years of amazing, game-changing show. Donald Glover's rap career will take off, Dan Harmon can move to Shocase to start producing whatever new craziness his brain is going to dream up, and the show can live forever on DVD. Part of me wants what Troy and Abed treat as a mantra for Cougartown - "six seasons and a movie!" Most of me just hopes that the show comes back from its hiatus refreshed and invigorated. Abed's cocked eyebrow closes the last episode; we'll be waiting, Abed, spreading the word, forcing our friends and families to watch this weird, wonderful gem. I won't even say, "I watched this first."

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Font-ain Of You

Good design aways freezes me cold. Nothing showy: I'm talking about the ubiquitous, IKEA-brand design that everyone has, the stuff that just sort of quietly exists in the world without call attention to itself. I loathe lucite chairs and mirrored dining room tables, just as I've grown weary of the kitschy, Mary Englebreit-looking design. Things that scream "Look at me!" give me the willies - it's the same reason I rolled my eyes at Agyness Dean and generally find the Kardashians to be a total mystery, fame-wise.

I just watched Helvetica, Gary Hustwit's debut documentary about the iconic font that's used everywhere from the New York City subway system to American Apparel signage. The doc discusses the font's visual impact - it looks so clean and modern, it inspired a whole slew of corporations in the mid-1950s and 1960s to move away from the swirly, comic-sans, exclamatory advertising style they had been working with and re-brand themselves as sleek, transparent, modern companies, in large part because the font could convey that they were sleek and modern. It sparked a movement towards clear, clean design that some designers would decry as soulless and oppressive - but we see Helvetica on the daily, because that sense of crisp professional trust is still embedded in its lines.

Font love is the natural resting place of the object fetishization that has dominated design for decades. It's hard not to get drawn in when designers talk about their favourite fonts - comic sans and papyrus seem universally reviled, but to the untrained eye, there's nothing inherently offensive in them. They might be less gorgeous than some of the more widely-used fonts, but folks also seem to love using them. Design snobs make me lose my mind, because they judge people who legitimately don't have a preference between Arial and Helvetica to be rubes, when the reality is that most untrained people a) can't tell the difference and b) don't care at all.

The design saying "form follows function" took me a long time to wrap my head around - like, form does the what now? But I finally started to get it when I read the New York Times Magazine article a few years ago called "The Road to Clarity," an insider's look at the ins and outs of designing highways signs. The author was swept up in the minutiae of the font choices, because in that case, it can be a matter of life and death: how heavy the letters are, how far apart they sit on the sign, how readable the final product really is, can all impinge on how quickly drivers can comprehend the information contained therein, and, obviously, make choices about what to do next. The function of the sign - conveying information - dictates the form of the font - being as legible as possible.

Bu why, then, isn't there just one or two fonts? After all, the information's going to come at us anyway, so why not just standardize the whole world? Make it all crisp and clear! Helvetica forever!

Looking around my room, I can see lots of fonts: the label on the Campari on the windowsill, for instance, features elegant serifs rimmed in gold and set against a navy background. The effect is one of casual, retro opulence - nothing too fancy, but especially when set against the bright ruby colour of the liqueur itself, it reads in my mind's eye as vibrantly upscale. The Coke Zero bottle beside me features a wealth of fonts and symbols: the classic swoopy font is set in red against the black background, and the bottle itself is a voluptuous curve; together, the elements work to create an image that's both trustworthy - that classic logo! - and modern. The choices that are made in product design may not save lives the same way highway signs might, but they all matter to someone. Just look at Coca-Cola's bottom line: you know those guys aren't messing with that look without some serious head-scratching.

I take a little bit of umbrage at the over-the-top opinions expressed by the designers interviewed in Helvetica - not because it's not important, but because they're such dicks about it. In the past, we were much less savvy consumers, because the products were much less intelligent in their marketing. We look at vintage buzzwords and laugh at how naked and needy they seem, and it strikes us as preposterous that anyone would fall for those snake-oil jobs. Now, though, we need to work through several layers of meaning in a design moment: images, products, packaging, and signage have all thoroughly and insidiously infiltrated our world.

There's a great shot in the movie of poster proofs hanging on a lightbox behind a designer's talking-head interview: it's the same image (crowded skateboarding park, big dusky sky, oversaturated purples, navies and electric yellows), and the time/date/place information done over and over, each proof using a different font. And each poster feels slightly different: the fatter, statelier fonts giving an ironic gravitas to the event, the electro fonts making it feel energetic, and so on. It wordlessly illustrates how important design can be, and how good design creates something you may not even be aware is orchestrated: it just leaves you feeling like you've learned something new.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Grateful Scott

I'm feeling sort of hungover from an art closing party/dance marathon last night, so I'm going to take it slow this morning. I've said before that list entries are the refuge of the lazy, but when the seasons change, and my parents have been especially kind lately, sometimes it's good for the soul to take stock of what I'm grateful for.

Which include...

...DMX. Yeah, I said it. He was never an amazing MC, and what I remember most about DMX was my bestie Rachel, in high school, being sort ironically/not ironically at all obsessed with "Party Up," his indisputably catchy anthem. There's something for everyone, including a call-and-response for everyone to meet him outside, but she was fond of spitting the song's hilarious dis "I love my baby mama, I never let her go," like, fifty times a day. Mister Boyfriend and I went to New York a few weeks ago, and after a trip to the Tenement Museum, we stopped into a hole-in-the-wall Southern barbecue joint for pulled pork sandwiches. The guys in the kitchen were blaring DMX's greatest hits. And you know what? It was all sorts of perfect.
...Yo, Is This Racist?, a new blog where people write in and ask the anonymous blogger/guru if something is racist. It's amazing: hilarious, thought-provoking, not claiming to be at any level of special expertise beyond "human being who is paying attention," and it also exposed me to the adorable video of the infant who loves Biggie Smalls. I'm sure the whole thing will either collapse in on the meta questions of racist/not-racist at some point, but for now, it's a super-fun read. Also, the swears make things really funny. parents. Those two people are just outrageous: they give pep talks, they give action plans, they listen, they treat me nice with dinners out, my mom makes amazing granola and banana breakfasts, my dad brought me super thoughtful gifts from his trip to Australia, in generally they are two of the nicest, most generous, most hilarious people I could ask for in my life, and it's a marvel that I get to know them. Parents! Man!

...this bootie trend that Toronto girls are all over right now. I've been seeing all these wedge bootie-heels on girls all over town, and just drooling. The other girls all have booties made from ostrich skin and mine are felt. I don't even care. I feel fashionable. I got myself a pair of thirty-dollar heels in one of those cheap mall stores where people just try on the dresses over their sweaters because, like, whatever: the dress costs about six dollars and if it doesn't fit, you can just put it out on the side of the road for some other girl to pick up. boyfriend. One of my girlfriends and I were chatting and she said, "I'm not a good communicator - I think or feel something, and then think that, if someone loves me and I drop subtle hints, they should be able to read my mind. And when that doesn't happen, I get disappointed and doubt that they love me." I was like GIRL WHAT YES VIGOROUS NODDING. Last night, two of my girls were like, "I'm moving in with my boyfriend!" and while I am super-happy for them, it's tough to avoid playing the comparison game with my own relationship, which is nowhere near being ready for cohabitation. But I love him, and when I get down on myself for not "being there yet," he's quick (and right) to point out that our time is not their time. Most of the time, he's not even a dick about it, which would be easy.

...cacti. Unless normal plants, these fuckers thrive under my half-hearted care. Makes me feel good.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Scrubbing The Community Out Of Your Mother's Office

I'll admit it: I get way too involved in TV people's lives. When Michael Scott left The Office, I was like, I'll cry at that. Hell, when Jim and Pam got married in their crappy Niagara falls romp where it seemed like the only people they knew were from their workplace (which they're ambivalent towards) and Pam had bridesmaids we'd never seen before, and she was pregnant and Dwight, I think, punched one of those bridesmaid in the face by accident? I cried. I won't even pretend I didn't cry, and to make it worse, I totally watched it at the university library, standing up at a kiosk, as other non-internet chumps sighed and shifted from foot to foot. That damned Chris Brown song? Oh, brothers and sisters, I bawled.

I mean, I know what my limits are: I never asked for The Rachel, and I don't follow fictional people on Twitter. That's just weird. But I do overanalyze certain TV shows - The Office, Community, Walking Dead, How I Met Your Mother - because, hell, if I'm going to spend half an hour a week with those people for years, I might as well invest. That's more time than I spend with a lot of my friends.

My mom's the same way: she cried when Michael Scott left the office. My sister? Totally teary when Rachel got off the plane to be all, "I love you, Ross!" at the end of Friends. I am fully aware that if and when Ted Mosby finally ever meets his blasted wife, that show had better recognize that there's a mondo emotional payoff in the works. I'm talking about one of those only on TV, Kardashian-style weddings that totally undercuts Ted's profession as either an architect or a professor (why give your leading man one dorky-yet-sexy job when you can give him two?) when they marry Ted off in a gazebo at the edge of space. Let's face it, by the time young master Mosby actually finds, courts, proposes to, has the inevitable sitcom staple of cold feet regarding, and marries the mother, those kids he's talking to in the episode intros are going to be toddlers. (Actually, how awesome would that be: "Psych! I'm not your real dad! Now go get me a beer." Future Ted might be sort of a jerk.)

In the past, people had to set their VCRs and record their shows if they made real-world plans with their real-world friends. Now, with the invention of the PVR and streaming/downloading online, we can tap into any episode from any season pretty much instantaneously. Classic moments can be revisited, Halloween costumes can be impeccably replicated, and lines can be quoted from here until the end of time. If I want to binge on a particular show, I just buy the DVDs and sloth around my apartment for a few days. After a while, it's not a long shot to say that I'm emotionally invested in those character's lives. After a particularly awful few days in the summer, my boyfriend went out and bought Scrubs - like, a lot of Scrubs - which sort of helped distract and ease the pain.

In the time of the instant, constant access, I sometimes need to remember to see my real friends. Usually, when I don't see a friend for a couple weeks, it's a scheduling thing - folks are busy! We wake up at noon! Sometimes, we don't leave our neighbourhoods for months at a time. But nobody's busy 24/7, and sometimes I want a night in to get caught up with favourite characters - ones that might be called friends if they were real. Studies have shown that watching a favourite TV show often triggers the same neurochemical reaction that hanging out with real friends does: relaxation, good dopamine levels, good cheer. I'm definitely not saying that you should go out and replace your Thursday night knitting circle with a shelf full of DVDs. But the next time someone blows me off to catch up on a show, I'm going to give them a knowing smile.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Comforting Food

When the weather turns cooler and the sweaters become less a fashionable choice and more a necessity for getting through a life lived in skirts, I find myself fantasizing about hearty soups, grainy breads, homemade preserves and thick, spreadable cheeses. I start buying more meat - tonight, I roasted a pork loin and threw thin slices into an Japanese-inspired noodle soup (it was delicious). A bite of ginger cookie or pumpkin hummus and I become completely undone.

Fall brings out my desire for heartiness in food. A slurpable noodle is a necessity, as is a gourmet sausage. I look forward to winter citrus and spiced Christmas cookies. Summer cooking is mostly an avoidance game - how many meals can I assemble without turning on the stove? - but in fall, I dive back into baking and cooking multi-part meals. I like turning to other cultures for inspiration; our recent trip to New York left me with a hankering for Tex-Mex and barrio-inspired dishes, up to and including fish tacos (yuk it up, you dirty minds).

Summer has a reputation as an eat-a-thon: grilled skewers and frosty brews, made roughly a thousand times better for the fact that we're eating it all outside. Canadian summers vary wildly, but Toronto runs absurdly hot in July and August, and the unrelenting heatwaves can usually only be assuaged by chilled melons, pilsners, avocado and brie sandwiches, and iced coffees. We get up early and go to bed late, and small snacks fuel the summer citizen's need for energy without greasy faces or heavy bellies.

But once that mercury drops, man, we love to just stuff ourselves silly. The kickoff is Thanksgiving - held in October, thanks, and just as full of tryptophan-laced foods like turkey and wine as its American counterpart. We do the seven-layer nacho dip, the pumpkin pie and the turkeys, but this year, we ate dinner outside on a deck overlooking Lake Huron. That's just not possible in November. This year I also attended a chosen-family dinner, with delicious green beans and carmelized root vegetables, and a bread pudding/caramel sauce combo that was so delicious that all the men in attendance, and some of the women, declared publicly that they wanted, and I'm paraphrasing here, to make respectful and tasteful love to their desserts. A few months later, we'll get Christmas, which usually incorporates multiple rounds of family visits and dinners, and the corresponding metric ton of food. Vegetarians, lock up your morals, because tonight, we eat ham.

Comfort food can be many things to many people: some folks get the warm-and-fuzzies from Kraft Dinner with tuna and tomatoes; others long for mom's trademark nachos. Depending on your background and where you grew up, you crave different things in your hour of emotional need. My dad claims to remember something called "milk soup" from his childhood, a dish of dubious authenticity. I love Japanese candies and cookies: long plane rides between Japan and Canada as a toddler left me with a strong association between Koala's March chocolate-stuffed cookies and airport adventures. If your parents are immigrants, you might have eaten goulash or tamales while your grade-school friends chowed down on broccoli or the aforementioned KD; you might have been a picky eater, so white toast and peanut butter were your self-imposed preferences.

I turn to comfort food like banana muffins or a great cookie recipe when I want to feel accomplished. I've made those recipes so many times I know them by heart. I try recreating my mom and dad's dishes when I want to feel close to them - we were a family that ate every dinner together, and often weekend breakfasts, so making up a hash of potatoes, peppers and onions in a pan brings me right back to sitting at the kitchen counter while my dad wore a yukata and a pair of moccasin slippers, unselfconsciously showcasing his globe-trotting as he made brunch for his kids and wife. There's a direct link between those moments and the weekend breakfasts I love making for me and my boyfriend. Pancakes, sausages, bacon, fresh fruit, cheese and yogurt, fried eggs and elaborate omelets all benefit from the two of us working together: he slices melons and flips omelets, I work the toaster and slice up veggies. Our harmony is something I associate with the very finest of love, since it comes from taking care of each other and ourselves. What's more comforting than that?

Monday, October 31, 2011

Day Of The Dead

Dia de los muertos is happening now. The marigolds are being strewn on the graves of dead friends and family, along with their favourite sweets and drinks, as people visit cemeteries to honor their dead. Although, never having been to Mexico, it's likely that I'm making this up from details gleaned from children's television programming, tattoo art, and generally not knowing what I'm talking about. In North America, this past weekend we celebrated Halloween - a time for candy, jack-o-lanterns, and college girls dressed up as sexy versions of blue-collar professions.

As the days get shorter and colder, we're inexorably edging towards winter. The trees this fall have been outstandingly colourful, with brisk, sunny days. Sweaters have been put back into rotation, heavy tights have been pulled on, and our flip flops have been retired in favour of boots and sneakers. It's a time of cozying up, of final patio beers, of moving parties from the porch inside to the kitchen. Picnics turn into potlucks, beach days turn into game nights, and instead of spiking our ginger beer with buffalo-grass vodka (trust me), we're stirring creme de menth into our hot chocolates (again, trust me).

Spring has rebirth symbols like whoa. The birds come back, the buds on the trees burst into fresh green leaves, and the days get longer. It also holds the most important Christian holiday, Easter, which is literally about the resurrection of Christ. If you're into that sort of thing, it's a potent idea, resonating with images about life after death and the cycles of the natural world.

But I think we also need a way to talk about death, proper-styles. Not that if-you-are-of-me-you-shalt-be-reborn stuff Christianity offers; we are, culturally, not terrific at handling the idea of death, and the reality of death in our lives. Halloween is a perversion, but not in a Christian-right sort of way; I'm not offended that we use the day to transform ourselves into scary monsters, or elements of our personalities that usually remain hidden (ergo, "the day of id," and I'm looking at you, frat boys in drag). That's pretty harmless.

Samhain, a Gaelic predecessor to Halloween, originated as a way to mark the end of harvest season, and the costumes we associate now with Halloween were used to confuse the dead as they walked the earth with us. Over time, the holiday shifted from its agrarian roots into a children's festival centering on candy and UNICEF boxes. Parents deck out front lawns with spooky accessories: ghosts hung from trees, skeletal hands wrenching out of the ground, witches, goblins, cauldrons, headstones, giant spiders, giant rats, and gourds. All the hallmarks of a haunting are there, and the entertainment industry usually puts out a scary movie or two, or at least a Halloween episode of our favourite shows, to get in on the action. Halloween is small potatoes compared to a shopping mega-festival like Christmas, but the candy windfall is an enjoyable blood-sugar spike in a rapidly darkening fall afternoon.

That shift, though, towards making it a children's holiday, has meant that the dead the day originally honoured have been swept aside. We're a more medically advanced society than the medieval Celts, but I doubt that we know any more about what goes on On The Other Side than they did. Our fascination with the undead is longstanding, but we can never quite reconcile the idea that our dead - family members and friends who have passed on - are one of the spooky Halloween Dead, out to mischief-make while the door between this world and the next is ajar.

Which brings me back to Mexico. While it sucks that they set aside only one or two days out of the year to honour the dead, it beats the hell out of our zero. Fresh mourning means that folks go through phases of honouring and ignoring their recently-passed loved ones: sometimes, you want to hang their picture, light some candles, and talk to them, even if it gives you the craziest feeling of knowing you're that talking to someone who can't hear you and hoping against hope that they're hearing you anyway. Other times? Not so much. Much like the bible's commandment to honour your parents, honouring our dead doesn't mean that there isn't resentment, anger, sadness, relief or any other complicated feelings under the veneer of love. And those feelings sometimes mellow with age, but they never go away completely.

I've seen a lot of Day of the Dead-inspired Halloween costumes this year; maybe I'm just keyed in, because that was my costume, but there were a few of us floating around. I wish there was a way to incorporate that system into our lives up here, to honour and celebrate those we've lost throughout the ages. Let's take Halloween back from the kids and invite everyone, living and dead, to the party.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Naked Lohan

A few years ago, Vanity Fair ran their famous "It's Totally Raining Teens!" cover story, where they posed a myriad of up-and-coming young actresses - including, among others, the Olsen twins and Mandy Moore- on their slick pages. The cover girls were decked out in frilly, shiny, sparkly pink outfits, with lots of strappy metallic high heels and size-00 pants. The overall effect was one high-end cotton candy, sitting on our collective palate for a moment and then disappearing.

In July of 2003, I was 19, on the tail end of these girls, most of whom would have still been in high school had they not been professional working actresses. They were making me think weird, uncomfortable things about beauty and bodies: this was right around the time of Mary-Kate Olsen's extremely well-publicized eating disorder, and it was clear to the young women of North America that being "a girl," which was what this cover story was all about, was to be young, white, skinny, straight-haired, pretty, non-threatening, lightly comedic and highly conscious of one's image.

For the most part, the shoot inside carried the same visual aesthetic: Alexa Vega cavorted in bubbles; Kaley Cuoco, in a bikini, in a faux-tug-of-rope tableau; Solange - Beyonce's little sister - posed in a weird graffiti shot that makes it clear that VF thinks Black youth is composed primarily of hip-hop and scariness. It's all glossy and highly produced, and the colour scheme ranges from pink to magenta to fuchsia. Lots of bikinis and high heels, lots of movement and energy. The magazine highlighted a few entertainers with more serious shots: Alexis Bledel and Mandy Moore, both constructed in the accompanying interview to be more serious members of an otherwise forgettable cohort, got sultrier poses and actual dresses instead of mesh shirts and feather skirts.

Buried among the other actresses is a young Lindsay Lohan. She was redheaded, still seventeen and looking it, with a full body and a silly, endearing grin. This was before the terrific Mean Girls catapulted her into the upper echelon of young actresses, so Lohan was riding a goodwill wave from Disney remakes of The Parent Trap and the then-unreleased Freaky Friday. She doesn't even make the main cover; she's the last girl on the fold-out spread, tucked onto the very edge. Inside, she's in a flurry of feathers, casualties from a stylized pillow fight with Hilary Duff, and she's wearing a a demure tank top and PJ pants.

In the years since, she's nabbed two solo VF covers, one famously purporting an eating disorder that she vehemently denied, both styling her like a latter-day Monroe. One featured artful nudity.

For those who are unfamiliar, in the eight or so years Lohan's been on the scene, she dated Wilmer "Fez from That '70 Show" Valderrama and Samantha Ronson; she launched a line of leggings and almost killed the fashion house Ungaro; she's crashed her car more than once, been arrested more than once, been accused of doing drugs on film (!); been accused of stealing; been to rehab; been to AA; watched her divorced parents reconcile and then split again; had a much-discussed weight roller coaster ride; watched her younger sister do the same; and professionally gone from a well-respected young actress who could open a movie, to being stunt-cast as a stripper, a gun-toting vigilante nun, and a fake-pregnant administrative assistant. Lohan's ongoing legal troubles have meant that producers can't insure her, and her last starring role was in 2008. She's remained, through her probation violations, plastic surgery allegations and widely-accepted-as-true drug rumours, a tabloid fixture, but the complicated fallout from her years-long downward spiral has left us all flummoxed, and it's much easier to move on to Real Housewives, Teen Moms and other, newer, less depressing pop-culture narratives.

I still find her fascinating, because in an industry where image is everything, she's the alpha and omega of former child stars. For a while, it seemed like the Olsens were going to take that title, but MK's put on some weight and their fashion house is hella successful; meanwhile, Lohan has lost her touch. Her most recent cover story won't be for the genteel Vanity Fair, but for Playboy.

It's been a long time since Playboy represented anything more than T 'n' A, and although they have a history of running interesting journalism - "I read it for the articles, really!" - in the age of internet porn, their curated raunch is quaintly middle-America-goes-to-Vegas. In a way, Playboy represents a natural nadir for the nymphets profiled in VF so many years ago: they both utilize the same high-gloss brand of femininity, the same carefully edited image-making, the same emphasis on bodies rather than bodies of work, and the same understanding that there is precious little art involved in this star-machine.

Nudity isn't necessarily a roadblock to greatness, and actresses as diverse as Kirsten Dunst and Nicole Kidman have bared it all for a role. But Lohan's foray into porn isn't artful, no matter how coyly it's shot - it's a strictly commercial transaction, one where she's selling one of the only things she has left to offer. Lohan is likely rationalizing the decision based on what her role model Marilyn has already done. Monroe, however, posed nude in her hungry days, and while she went onto become a star not fully in charge of her own image or her own mental health, Monroe's decision to pose for Playboy launched her as a sexy but bankable young ingenue. Lohan, eight long years into the game, is just trying to stay culturally relevant. Girlfriend doesn't need a cover shoot with anyone at this point - she needs a nap, a walk in the woods, time away from the pressures of a Hollywood lifestyle that, largely because of her excesses, is no longer seen as enviable by the tabloid-reading masses. Her decision to go nude exposes nothing but the naked desire to remain a star. That ship that sailed once this actress stopped being able to book acting parts; now, she's just going to show us her private parts. Lo

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Take The Cab

When people ask me why I ride my bike, I always think of an episode of the British TV show Top Gear. The challenge was to get from one side of London to the other, and the guys were using a bicycle, an SUV, public transit, and a speedboat along the Thames. Through some serious huffing and puffing, the bike arrived first, followed by then speedboat, then transit, trailed by the SUV. The car was a distant fourth, an embarrassment of stops and starts and wrong turns and congestion, but a recent article in Harper's suggests that London's transit system needs a serious look as well: patrons have been forced to walk along the tracks between stations in some instances, and they estimated that transit delays added an extra three days to the constant battle of getting to and from work.

On Saturday, it took me an hour and a half to travel the 7 kilometers from Queen and Broadview to Dupont and Spadina in Toronto. Google suggests I could have walked there in the same amout of time, but, since it was late and I was tired and didn't want to walk through the crowds of last-call hooligans infesting the entertainment district on a Saturday night, I chose transit.

It was a mess from beginning to end. The streetcar was on a short turn, which meant that they weren't coming to the stop I was waiting at - they were picking folks up on the other side of the intersection. Two streetcars had gone by before I twigged to the fact that a location change might solve the problem, but by then it was too late: I had missed the last subway. I walked over to the nearest north-south route at Spadina, going alone through the gangs of young men who were coming north from the club district, only to find a sizable crowd waiting for the streetcar. I started walking north, making almost all the way home before a streetcar came up behind me and carried me to the station. Of course, it was another 15 minute walk home after that, and by that time, I was both exhausted and enraged.

There's a game that people play that goes something like, "Well, who will pay for it?" and "Why do we need it in the first place?" when we start talking about Toronto transit. Let's do the second question first, mkay?

We need a transit system that works because people need to get around. Some folks choose to drive or bike or walk, and these are all fine options. On the other hand, biking and walking, which are totally feasible in June, become less attractive in January. Or during a summer monsoon. Or at four in the morning. There are risks involved based on season and time of day, and as a young woman with experience in the matter, I can tell you that walking home through Parkdale is very different at 5:15 PM after a day at the office, than it is at 3:45 AM when I've just shut down the bar.

There's also a part of me that wants a world-class transit system because I believe that Canada is a world-class country and Toronto is a world-class city. Great cities and countries give their citizens choices on how best to move through them, and our corner of the world lacks some very basic infrastructure. We do some things right: Greyhound and the GO system are remarkably good at getting people to places, often for relatively cheap. On the other hand, ViaRail is expensive, frequently late, and tends to seize altogether in inclement weather. And the TTC, along with myriad other local transit systems, is a disaster any time other than rush our. Canadians and Torontonians accept that we aren't going to see improvement, because we've gotten so used to the decline. What is that?

I look at countries like the Netherlands and wish that we could have their bike lanes, and places like Bogota, where the buses work. Toronto, as much as I love it, suffers from a real lack of vision when we plan our urban spaces, and we voters haven't bullied the transit providers into providing workable solutions to ongoing problems. We deal with congestion? Make people pay if they want to drive downtown. We need better transit? Accept the provincial and federal funding, make the system fair to users by installing peak-hour fares, and run it on time. Put a cap on cab fare. Install transit to the most populous areas: Brampton, Aurora and Vaughan are only going to get bigger. Make it easier to get from Hamilton to Montreal by getting a high-speed rail corridor. Reduced the airport levies at Pearson, currently the highest in the world. And so on.

Nothing I'm saying is brand-new stuff, but for some reason, our discussion around transit is never about what we need, but what we can afford. I would challenge the people who make these decisions on a daily basis to use Toronto's systems to get home one night. There are thousands of people who work and play in the post-1:56 hours of the day, and the TTC needs to step up their game. Get 'em home safe. For god's sake, at least don't embarrass yourselves by making walking a faster alternative.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Ikea: A Guided Meditation

Ikea! Or, if you're pedantic about capitalization (and in these times of internet grammarian smackdowns, who isn't?), IKEA! I like to say it with a Swedish accent for added authenticity, but it really makes no difference. I also like reenact their commercials by barking "You feel sad for the lamp? DON'T!" at unsuspecting family members from time to time. But actually shopping at Ikea? Ay carumba.

For those of you who have never been, Ikea is a wonderland. It's also a hellhole. Let's go together, yes?

Enter the gigantic blue building through double doors. To your right? A child playground, where the kids are wearing numbered jerseys and being half-heartedly cared for. They are likely chucking ball-pit balls at each other or crying in the middle of the room. Don't worry! This is normal. Little Number Seven is only crying because there's a five-foot-long stuffed ant hanging from the ceiling (the theme of this childcare is "forest") and it will haunt his dreams forever. You can check them in there while you shop! When they've exhausted themselves through playing/hiding from the ant, you'll be able to pick them up and take them to the cafeteria. Make sure they are crying by then, or else they'll feel left out.

Wander upstairs. Grab a cart. Feel your sense of optimism - look at all these storage solutions! Be charmed by the faux-Swedish names of things. Oh, a Borgnine convertible sofa. Adorable. A chaise lounge woven from wicker and bamboo. Sustainable. A loft bed that will safe space and also sway like a drunken pirate when you attempt to make love in it. Remarkable. Feel a creeping sense of despair that the Ikea showrooms are nicer than anything you've ever owned. Hang on to that feeling - you'll be needing it when you attempt to put your new dresser together using only allen keys and curse words.

As you pass through the displays, note that the stylish display clothes are bolted to the walls and the display books are all in Swedish. Idly pick up a book as your family members debate the merits of the Svang chair when compared to the Jagerstruedel rocker for 57 minutes. Note that "idiot" in Swedish is "idiot." This will come in handy in the checkout lines.

Coming to the bedroom section, look around you at the children's rooms. Wonder if Swedes have a notion that childhood should be as Seussian as possible. Become irrationally attached to the bed canopy that gives the appearance of a covered wagon. Fall deeply in love with the small-spaces display - a daybed! A kitchen with little sink dividers! Fantasize about becoming an interior designer who specializes in treehouses and cruise ship cabins. Reject this fantasy when you realize how much school will be involved for what is probably a fairly specific market. Hate your day job.

Realize that you haven't seen a window to the outdoors in three hours. Or a bathroom. Realize none of the fake bathrooms have toilets.

Head downstairs to the small-items and pick-up zone. Pick up thirteen different styles of vase. Reject six. Reject nine. Carry around four vases until you find your shopping partner, who will have been staring at knives for ten minutes with a vacant expression on his face. Force him to carry the vases, and the tea-towels, and the gingerbread men cookie cutters, and the 100-pack of candles, plus plates, plus a seventeen-pack of shitty off-brand Tupperware. You will be dragging a rug behind you like an animal carcass; you can't carry the vases. Your hands are full.

Arrive at the warehouse. Consult the list you've compiled of items you want: dressers and beds and tables and entire kitchens, nay, entire apartments. You will see "aisles" and "bins" in your scrawling handwriting. Make sure you have been accurate! The warehouse is about the size of metropolitan Detroit and twice as depressing. The aisles and bin contain your choices. If you change your mind about colour, know that your alternate choice will be in another bin, in another aisle. Why? Because the warehouse has been designed by an algorithm written by a computer. Human beings would never do this to one another. The Geneva convention would not allow it.

Once you've piled your new furniture onto your cart - or what is probably your new furniture, because things here are labelled with codes, not names, not the the names would even help - go the checkout. If you've come on a weekend, you are a fool. Wait in line for 45 minutes. Weep softly, if no one is watching. On the other side of the cashier, there is a commissary, with 75-cent hotdogs and pasta in the shape of caribou. Coffee and fountain pop will never be as sweet as it is today. Over and over, pick up and set down the same candle holder with the absentminded grace of a sedated nun.

The rest is challenging, but you can go at your own pace: loading your hatchback with heavy boxes and stuffing the empty spaces with vases; frantically trying to get onto the freeway with zero rear visibility and weighing an extra 700 pounds; setting up your new belongings, which will take three hours longer and require, in addition to the allen key Ikea has sent home with you, a cordless drill, a stud finder, a hammer, a square-head screwdriver, and the help of your least stupid family member. Know that what you have made can never be unmade, because disassembling Ikea furniture is a mission for only the foolhardiest of movers. It's easier to chuck it out and start again.

On the plus side, we can all agree that Ikea's 99-cent chocolate bars are second to none, and they sell lingonberry soda, which will lead to much quoting of The Big Lebowski if your companions are the least bit human. Maybe you can watch The Big Lebowski tonight, as you sit on your new couch and idly wonder if the whole thing is going to collapse.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Barbie's Dream Job

Last week I wrote about Dream Jobs - god, how evocative is that phrase, even? Don't you feel like Dream Jobs have Katrina and the Waves playing in the background all the time, and the commute is you, in a convertible, on a freeway beside the ocean? And your office, even if you're a grunt who's on some no-health-benefits one-year contract, is massive and decorated with healthy plants. Oh! And there's another cute new-job person, and he's got a chin-dimple and clear eyes and is fun and easy to talk to? Dream Jobs! So good!

My last Dream Job was at a Toronto non-profit that specializes in housing. Given that I was fresh out of school and riding a three-year wave of enthusiasm for, and interest, in co-op and alternative housing options, I was so stoked. It was a real office job, with my own email account and a phone extension and everything. In hindsight, I should have picked up the fact that things were not totally right when 1/3 of the hiring committee was late to my interview: the company president showed up half-way through my Xanax-enabled babbling about agency and community and punctuality, and yet I still managed to get the gig.

Six months into that job, I was having anxiety-induced hallucinations. I had to get the hell out of there. My boss was rude and the hours stank, and the small company that I had admired on paper turned out to treat its employees like garbage. It's hard for me to buy into the idea that offices that ignore despicable behaviour - and this was a place that rewarded one particularly awful manager by giving her a spot on their board - can be places that really understand how to effectively implement social change. You know how charity is supposed to begin at home? It's my opinion that, for social-justice organizations, compassion begins at the office.

My Dream Job, when I was 18, was waitressing at a popular downtown noodle house. I loved it. I made a ton of money, got a name for myself as a cute local girl, was flirted with and tipped well. I was also working for a boss who, when I fell carrying a full armload of plates during a jam-packed Friday night rush, coldly told me to quit fucking around and get back to work. He was a man who was widely regarded as a jag-off and a meanie, generous one moment and enraged the next. I was nervous every time a table sat down - dealing with the public, despite a decade of practice, is still not something I really enjoy. And after a summer of Dream Job, I was burned out. I was working with a crew that focused on getting drunk and chasing girls, and since I rarely (at that time) drank, and I rarely (even now!) chase girls, I was lonely.

I've had a variety of idiosyncratic bosses and weird working environments - I had a boss who insisted that employees show up fifteen minutes before their shift started, but screamingly refused to pay for the extra quarter-hour. During the the blackout in 2003 that paralyzed the Eastern seaboard, we worked until it was too dark to see the gas fryers in front of us. While I heard stories later that friends of mine had enjoyed the blackout in various outdoor pools and states of drunkenness, we held off zombie-like hordes of folks angrily demanding french fries from the only open restaurant within a thousand miles. I've worked as a factory two blocks away burned to the ground, the heat from the fire strong enough to be felt inside our building. I've held jobs where we were required to evict drunk transients from student housing, where we found violent Japanese pornography, where we found a laptop bagged stuffed with fake penises.

But in those other jobs, I've felt a sense of cameraderie with the people I work with. Some were friends, some were just laid-back co-workers, but they always made me feel safe and secure. There was no loneliness in my workday, only the satisfaction of doing a hard job well. My Dream Jobs, despite the fact that they held the promise of new and interesting work, never made me feel like mistakes were acceptable. I lived in fear of screwing up.

My Dream Jobs now are a little vaguer: I love writing, but I also feel deeply satisfied when I tie on an apron and make meals in my kitchen. This fall, cupcakes and cookies have been pouring out of my oven with a regularity that borders on diabetes-inducing, but it's proving to be therapeutic to follow recipes and explore new cuisines. My reluctance towards returning to an office is tied directly to my last Dream Job, where I was so stressed out that my brain chemistry was changing. Safety, security, compassion: as it turns out, some basic things to consider when entering into a new workplace.

I hope to God that I find work soon. I don't need a Dream Job. I just need a job I like doing, one that isn't going to ruin every single day or make me anxious and crazy. I need Katrina and the Waves, I need sunshine, I need agency and punctuality. I need compassion.