Saturday, April 2, 2011

In pursuit of ______________

Love is patient and love is kind - so says the trusted words of First Corinthians. But there’s another old adage of equal importance and truth that we need to be reminded of just as often - and that is that love is blind.

Many good career counselors will offer one piece of advice to those seeking their fortunes and their dreams, and that is, “Do what you love and the money will follow.” I remember heeding that advice as far back as my final year of high school when I was weighing my options in an effort to choose the “right” university. It’s what led me to a liberal arts eduction in communications at the University of Western Ontario (well, that and Western’s reputation for being a bit of a party school, but I digress). I made that choice and over the course of those four years, never once regretted it.

Communications was a field that drew me in; it was an area of discourse that spoke to me and in response I soaked up all that I could. Besides the core classes, I took exciting electives where the course names were items like “Organizing post-war masculinity” and “Killer culture: war and the mediation of reality” and “Witch-hunts in the modern era.” I studied Innis and Habermas, Adorno and Horkheimer, Foucault and McLuhan, Debord and Baudrillard, Chomsky and Ehrenreich, hooks and de Beavoir; I studied the Frankfurt School and marxism; postmodernism, poststructuralism, postfeminism and every other kind of post-ism there was; queer theory and critical theory; hegemony and propaganda and simulacrum; appropriation and globalization and exploitation and the public sphere and “ceci n’est pas une pipe” and the political economy of this, that and the next thing.

And I loved it.

I wrote my final paper on the dominant economy of phallic sexuality in our society and how female pleasure exists only to serve the heterosexual male fantasy, and I felt like I was doing something important. A prof of mine asked me if I was considering grad school and suggested that I think about it, but I declined that opportunity. I thought I had bigger fish to fry. I thought I had to exit the Ivory Tower. I thought the world was waiting for me.

Universities are great places, but they can do that to your ego; they can make you think your ideas are invaluable and that everyone will want to hear them.

I can see now how naive I was then. I remember the feeling of being “done” school, and thinking that the world was my oyster and I could do anything or be anything or live anywhere - and that was all true, I could have. But what I didn’t appreciate was that I was in another world. I was outside the bubble. I was in a place where opportunities didn’t fall safely onto my lap and where pursuits were going to cost money. I needed a life plan if I was going to figure out exactly what I wanted. And that was a tough lesson. I knew what I had loved to study but struggled to find its moneymaking counterpart in the “real world.” I considered the teaching abroad angle but never followed through. I tried jobs and quit jobs that were way below my skill set. I continued to live at Mom and Dad’s for free and pondered ways to “do what I loved.”

And then one fall, off I went to journalism school. And while it led me to some of the most interesting people I’ve ever encountered (one thing about J-school is it does tend to attract the eclectic, true writers; soulful people who dream in colour and live passionately and want grand things - like I did), ultimately I was turned off by the manner by which I felt journalism sucked the lifeblood out of its people. It shouldn’t have shocked me so much, but I didn’t like the way journalism functioned as a business. It seemed wrong to me that while we were learning how to stylistically write for newspapers and magazines, how to take a good photograph, how to set up a website - we weren’t also being asked to read “Manufacturing Consent” as a required text. Where was the balance of ethics? Where was the history of journalism and the purpose and the function of journalists - besides selling newspapers? And maybe all of that was simply a wake-up call to remind me I had long left Kansas - that university was behind me and this was real career training and it was up to me to re-read Chomsky on my own time and balance any ethical dilemmas on my own with what I was learning in school. But I wasn’t ready for that. I felt like we were cogs in the college wheel and we would be churned out with every other graduating class kind of the same - we would all apply to the same internships and then jobs and we would all move to small towns where the winters are 10 months long and work for peanuts because everybody knows that’s the price you pay to do something you love.

So I dropped out. And then I worked for two years in jobs that were below my skill set. But I moved out of Mom and Dad’s and got a place downtown and was able to live the life that I wanted. I paid off my student loans and had disposable income, and even though my apartment wasn’t spectacular, it was mine (and my roommates’). And all I had to do was give myself five days a week to these sad, dreary offices and put up with pathetic office politics and work hard at it. That was the trade-off, and though 9 a.m. on Monday’s were rough, 5 p.m. on Fridays felt like the ultimate freedom and truly, I had everything I wanted.

But after two years, my ego caught up with me when it occurred to me that I had a higher level of education than my boss and was being asked by HR (as a favour, not as part of my job description) to write up various internal communications for the company. I knew I could do more and I knew that I deserved to be paid for it.

So I enrolled in a postgraduate corporate communications program. And I’d really love to say that it’s all worked out and I’m on the right career path now. I’m certainly on a career path, and that’s a good thing.

But three months out of my internship and working on a contract, I feel once again angry and dismayed. The majority of the internships available to my colleagues and I didn’t pay an hourly wage. Many of us were lucky to receive a minimal stipend or a transit pass in exchange for our labour.

In theory, I don’t have an issue with employers not paying a co-op student, or paying them very little for their efforts. I appreciate that taking on a student can be a bit hit-or-miss, and may not always be beneficial to an organization. Many companies are small and can’t afford to pay a student. I can also appreciate that the student is receiving invaluable experience (well, sometimes) and networking with important people and overall may receive benefits one may never find in the classroom. In theory, that’s all good.

I just have one little problem with it - and it doesn’t have to do with egos of university-educated people such as myself or greed or impatience to start paying off student loans. It’s really very simple - and that is we are all human beings, and as long as we are human beings participating in this society, there will be a cost of living. Isn’t that the reason minimum wage exists?

The co-op coordinator for our program advised us that employers such as Disney and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment never pay a nickel for co-op students, specifically because we are a dime a dozen (excuse me, $0 a dozen). While it doesn’t surprise me, it certainly bothers me. It’s always the places where people really want to do the work, that the money is mysteriously not there. People will do it anyway, because they love it. And for some reason no one benefiting from it ever sees it as pure and unadulterated exploitation.

Those disagreeing with me often say, “well, an internship is part of your education. If you were in class instead of at your internship, nobody would be paying you to learn.” True. Except when you’re in school, you’re not devoting 40 + hours a week to it. Many students manage a part-time job on the side to help with living expenses. They also benefit from student loans - something not everyone qualifies for once formal classes have ended and the internship begins. There’s also a growing trend in this industry for people to do second, or even third internships, and still humble themselves to make a couple dollars an hour - even though graduation day was months or years ago.

Is this just the reality today?

What about those kids who chose different career paths? Co-op is a very common option for a lot of practices today - in fact, it’s so common that it’s arguably become a necessary gateway to many careers, begging the conclusion that students don’t have a lot of choice about whether or not to pursue an internship, if they want to get their foot in the door. The University of Waterloo’s co-op page states that first-year engineering co-op students can expect to make $500/week. Certainly not a competitive salary in the long-term. But in my PR internship, I made $500/month. No, I’m not an engineer. But I am a communications professional with a B.A., a postgraduate certificate and five years of work experience. $500/month? Seriously?

After my internship, I was hired on in a contract role, and though I now make more than minimum wage, I can still tell you that I’d be taking home more an hour as one of those people who stand on street corners giving out free limes.

And we were told that in school. We were told to be prepared to take entry-level jobs that offer salary ranges that are well below what I was making when I had a job I was overqualified for. I know I won’t be in entry-level all my life (here’s hoping), but it does seem more than a little ironic that after pursuing a higher level of career training and padding my resume with new skills and experiences, I should expect to be making less than I made before, all because I went back to school to re-train so that I might be happier, more fulfilled, and better qualified for my next job. And to top it all off, after going back to school and spending a four-month period scraping by at an internship, I’m close to $20,000 in debt again. And I’m three years from turning 30.

So maybe I’ll be cheeky and say that career counselors ought to revise their instructions to be, “Do what you love, and you’ll be paid shit.” Am I really that far off?

Maybe corporate communications and PR will lead me to something I really love. Maybe one day when I’m older and wiser I’ll have a job that doesn’t feel like torture, will allow me to utilize my talents for the better of an organization -- and will pay me for it accordingly.

Or maybe love is blind, and I should have just gone to Business School.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The bar can’t get any lower - my experience at Spice Route

Recently, I had an opportunity to endure what I could probably call the single worst customer service experience I’ve ever encountered.

It was a good friend of mine’s birthday, and in honour of the special day, she decided to have a birthday dinner at Spice Route (owned by Liberty Entertainment Group) in King West. Since she was expecting somewhere in the range of 16 - 20 guests, she requested two booths of 10. She was told by the booking coordinator that the restaurant had a policy about large parties - and that to get two booths together there would be a minimum spending requirement of $1000.

My friend told the coordinator that she wasn’t interested in committing to a $1000 minimum (who would?) and asked if there would be a charge for booking a single booth. The answer was no, and so my friend asked if she could reserve two separate booths. My friend figured it didn’t matter if we all had the chance to sit together - not for an astronomical price like that. The booking agent confirmed that two booths could be reserved, not together, and with no minimum expense requirement.

On the night of the birthday, we arrived to find that the two tables were beside each other. Thinking it was a lucky break, we all sat down. Our server spoke to my friend, and told her about a “minimum spending requirement” that we had allegedly committed to. My friend contested this, told the server about what she had agreed to on the phone, and the server said there was nothing she could do about it but my friend could speak to the manager.

In the meantime, we all sat at the table starving to death (Spice Route apparently has another customer-friendly policy - no one is allowed to be seated until the entire party arrives. Since all 16 of us didn’t arrive together, and since some who weren’t planning on eating dinner decided to join us later, the rest of us had to stand around and wait for everyone to arrive before we could even sit at our table).

And while my friend was working out the details with the manager, our server completely ignored us. We didn’t even receive bread at our table. If we tried to make eye contact with our server or say, “excuse me,” she pretended not to see us or hear us.

When my friend returned to the table, she looked stunned. She said that she’d been trying to explain to the manager that there had been some kind of miscommunication over the reservation, but that he refused to listen to her and threatened to kick her whole party out of the restaurant if we weren’t happy with their policy. When he calmed down, he said he’d let us stay if we spent at least $750. My friend stood her ground and said she’d never agreed to any policy at all, and she shouldn’t have to negotiate a price. She wasn’t trying to pull a fast one - we didn’t want to eat at Spice Route that badly (have you had their food? Trust me, if you’re looking for asian cuisine, you’ll get it better in Chinatown and for a lot less). If she had ever been told that she would have to commit to a silly policy like this one, she would have made the reservation elsewhere. They are not the only show in town.

In hindsight, this is when we should have left. But with 16 guests, at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night, by this point ravenous enough to eat the napkins, we knew we weren’t getting in for a dinner reservation anywhere other than McDonald’s.

We decided to start ordering. The thinking was, maybe we would spend the minimum amount and the argument would be moot. Maybe we would spend at least enough that they’d be willing to waive the remaining amount. We thought, we are paying customers in this restaurant, can’t we expect a little bit of rationality from the restaurant management?

When the bill arrived, we were $220 short of the $750 (before tax and gratuity I might add - with those items added we were at $1000 anyway), so $220 was added to the bill.

My friend tried her luck with the manager again. He was even more rude, dismissive and condescending than the first time. He cut her off before she finished speaking. He told her she had to pay it and she didn’t have a choice in the matter. He raised his voice. He got nasty. She still stood her ground.

Seeing that he wouldn’t listen or reason with her, she put her foot down too. She told him that she wouldn’t sign the bill with the bogus charge, but if the server brought her a bill with the amount that we actually spent, minus the $220 fee, she would be happy to sign it.

He told her that was fine, she didn’t need to sign it, he had her credit card number on file anyway from her booking.

We told her to call her credit card company and contest the amount - what other option did we have? We got our coats and got ready to leave, when the manager approached our table. With him were four burly bouncers.

The manager barked at us, “Nobody leaves. Nobody gets up until you’ve paid your bill. I’ve called the police.”

We were flabbergasted. We thought it was a joke. There we were, a group of young nicely dressed twenty-somethings, entirely sober (did I mention a party of 16 didn’t add up to a $750 bill?), trying to share a nice evening of good food with good friends to celebrate a birthday. And just like that, we were captives, held hostage in a restaurant.

At 1:15 am, the lounge was packed and dinner patrons were starting to head home. And there we sat, with four guards monitoring our every move. It was unreal.

45 minutes later, the police arrived. They listened to my friend, and then they spent some time talking to the manager. And just like that, the server returned to our table with a new bill - one without the $220 charge. My friend signed it, and we were free to go. And the manager was no where in sight as we parted ways with the now infamous restaurant.

I was in so much shock and dismay over the way we were treated that in the next couple of days I tracked down the email address of Nick Di Donato, President and CEO of Liberty Group, which if you haven’t heard, owns half the bars in Toronto (for a complete list, see the end of this post).

I wrote to him about my experience, laid it out in fervent detail, and expressed my extreme disgust with the manager of Spice Route and my overall experience. I guess I was hoping he'd be appalled. I figured he would at the very least take some ownership and responsibility, and tell me that customers at his establishments aren't usually treated so horribly. Instead, his response was what I consider a half-hearted apology, if that. According to Mr. Di Donato, both parties were at fault and therefore he can not “sympathize” with the way we were treated. The following is Mr. Di Donato’s response, via email:

It is unfortunate that this situation occurred and I do apologize for managements actions.

I do believe that if you were told when seated that there was a minimum charge, you should just have left. it would be your choice to do so.  I don't feel it appropriate for you to decide to stay and completely ignore our policy. I would be able to sympathize with you had you not been informed of the minimum charge policy but from your email it appears you were informed of this policy upon your arrival. The manager cannot just decide not to follow policies and your refusal to comply with the such put him in a difficult situation.

It is completely your prerogative to speak negatively about Liberty Group but I feel it is totally inappropriate for you to do so as you are just as responsible for the situation as was management.   It sounds like both parties are in the wrong in this case.  Management should not have let this situation escalate to the level it did. They should have taken the higher road.


Nick Di Donato P.Eng, B.A.Sc.
President & CEO
Liberty Entertainment Group

Mr. Di Donato thinks it’s inappropriate for me to speak negatively about Liberty Group. I think it’s inappropriate to hold your customers hostage -- I guess that’s the difference between he and I. What he doesn’t seem to understand is that my speaking negatively is not my own concoction - the experience itself was the negative part - all I’m doing is telling people about it.

I responded to Mr. Di Donato to reiterate my disappointment with his position and to point out to him that in no situation, no matter what has transpired, is it okay to kidnap your customers. It is not okay to yell at them, belittle them or make them feel like criminals. He never responded. I guess he didn’t agree.

I don’t expect much to change. As far as I’m concerned, based on some of the reviews I’ve been reading and some of the experiences I’ve been hearing from other friends of mine (since I started posting this story on Facebook), Spice Route is building a reputation for having terrible service and will eventually sink itself without any help from me. If they keep it up, people will get tired of being treated like filth and give up going there. Spice Route will shut down, and Liberty Group will open up a replacement down the street, and probably churn out an even better profit for being the “new and different” place to go in town (as if such thing exists in King West).

I get that’s how it works. In most industries, customers are king (even to a point where perhaps they shouldn’t be). But for some reason, even in a poor economy, the bar/entertainment industry thrives on treating their clientele like slimy, despicable unwanted creatures who are trying to bust in to their classy, high-end establishments (how dare they!).

Why will people line up to get into a bar? Why will they pay $20 just to walk in the doors? Why will they dish out $200 for a bottle of vodka that costs $30 in a liquor store? Why will they pay hundreds of dollars for a bottle service booth - just so they can be treated a little better than the rest? Why is there a premium to be treated well? Aren’t we the customers? Aren’t we the reason these places make profits? Aren’t we the demand to their supply? Aren’t we necessary?

Not so much, it would seem.

I don’t work in the bar and service industry (clearly), and maybe I don’t get what drives it. I know it is an industry that operates by separating patrons into different classes of people, so to speak - why do you always see multiple lines outside of every coveted bar? These days, there’s usually a VIP bottle service line, a guest list line and a regular line. There’s nothing particularly special about a guest list line, other than you called ahead and asked to be on it, but there is value in letting people feel like there is a certain order to things - and people either feel more special for being in a faster-moving line (even if it isn’t), or it makes them wonder what they have to do to get into it.

It’s also an industry comprised of establishments that are bound to experience feast or famine. For a new, unknown bar with little notoriety, the owners will beg you to come in and if they’re smart, drinks will be discounted (Blondie’s in Parkdale was great at this when they first opened; Libra Lounge - in King West, in fact - is also fantastic at treating their customers well. Drinks are often on the house for big parties, and let me tell you, there is no charge for sitting at a booth).

As soon as a bar becomes a hot spot, customer service goes out the window, and the bar will start gouging the customers with cover charges and treat everyone with a little less respect -- I guess because they can. Maybe it even boosts their popularity to do so. And what does that say about us, the clientele, who return? Are we that masochistic?

I don’t think so. Nobody wants to be treated poorly. The only reason people will go back to a place that rewards the “special people” is for the chance to work our way through the crowds to get to those VIP lines. As long as there’s another line, then there’s something else we can aspire to. And the club will keep turning a disgusting profit. And when the customers finally get fed up, they’ll shut it down and open up a new spot next door, and start all over again.

And that’s the way it is. Maybe it’s the way it always will be.

I do know that no Liberty Group bar is ever going to see another dime from me, and maybe that’s all I can do.

I just think we all owe it to ourselves to demand a little bit more respect, a little more class and a little more dignity. Let’s face it, if we weren’t a society addicted to alcohol, this kind of thing wouldn’t fly. If we’re gonna keep going to the bar, I think we should all expect that establishments start raising it.

Nick Di Donato, I’m looking at you.

Liberty Entertainment Group owns the following establishments in Toronto:

Spice Route
Tattoo Rock Parlour
Phoenix Concert Theatre
C Lounge
Liberty Grand
Ciao Wine Bar
Velvet Underground
Lakeside Eats at Harbourfront

Thursday, November 25, 2010

It’s the most wonderful (nondescript) time of the year!

Well, it’s that time of year again. Just when you thought you had 364 shopping days left before you had to worry again, out of nowhere creeps the season that lulls you back into the quiet comforts of family, friends and unabashed consumerism. You know what I’m talking about. The season of joy and mercy and giving and getting. That one day of the year where we all get the day off work and sit at home so we can open presents, eat turkey and get ripped off the eggnog with our estranged relatives. The fact that you know what I mean is probably a good thing, since I’m not really allowed to name it.

I can call it the “holidays;” I can call it the “festive season;” I can wish you good tidings, greetings and cheer. What I can’t do, in the name of all that is politically correct and culturally inclusive and holy (or, technically, unholy) is call it by its name. But, you already knew that. You’ve already attended many a “holiday” party, or received a card in the mail that read, “Season’s Greetings,” from your second cousin you hate or been ambushed by a sweet smile from a sales clerk who wrapped your purchases and exclaimed, “happy holidays!”

Maybe you liked it; maybe you grumbled under your breath; maybe you didn’t even notice or better yet, maybe you didn’t care. After all, regardless of whether you celebrate it, does giving it a new name change what the day means to you? You will continue to celebrate it (or not celebrate it) the way you always have, and everyone around you will do the same. A day by any other name still smells as sweet, right?

Yeah. I guess that’s all there is to it.

I mean, when it comes to taking the higher road and choosing to include everyone so as not to offend anyone, it’s only natural and mature of all of us to go ahead and agree that the emperor is indeed wearing clothes and the sight of him is certainly pleasing.

Except, there’s just one thing that doesn’t make sense to me, and maybe I’m being childish, but, it’s that calling this day by its generic equivalent does offend. It offends me as someone who celebrates it. And I (like a lot of card-carrying Dec. 25 observers) don’t even go to church.

See, I don’t want to get into a religious debate. I don’t want to start something over whether Canada is a Christian country and that’s why this day is a national holiday or whether the multicultural mosaic we’ve become should be reflected in the methods we choose to celebrate.

Frankly, is this even about religion anymore? As far as I can tell, Baby Jesus (can I even say that?) was removed from this holiday a long time ago. With him went the little drummer boy, King Wenceslas, the three kings (was one of them Wenceslas?), harking herald angels and all references to stars, mangers and holy nights. Growing up, I knew that nativity scenes had a place in the privacy of our own home. Public displays of celebration were about Santa Claus.

But then something weird happened. Somebody somewhere decided to up the ante and declare that even Santa Claus was taboo. Good old Saint Nicholas had become an iconic image representing the same holiday that the birth of Christ represented, and therefore an extension of all the religious connotations we were trying so hard to avoid.

Wait, what?

This year, as planner of my company’s work “holiday” party, one of my tasks was downloading songs to play as background music. Only, the songs had to be “non-denominational.” Meaning, they couldn’t reference the day of which I can not speak. This was fairly challenging. Do you realize how many songs reference this day? Pretty much all of them. There I was, contemplating whether Ella Fitzgerald’s timeless rendition of “Sleigh Ride” fits the bill as non-denominational when it’s really just about a sleigh ride in the snow, or if there’s a subtext to this song linking it to the birth of Christ. The lyrics actually don’t reference any holiday, other than this dude Farmer Grey’s birthday, and other than, perhaps, Jehovah’s Witnesses, celebrating birthdays is welcomed by all religious and cultural sects... right? But then as soon as I hear this song, I think of presents and turkey and egg nog-induced warm and fuzzy feelings, so, is this appropriate or not?

Does anyone else have a headache?

So we’re calling this day by another name. But as we’re busy gazing at our Holiday Tree and patting ourselves on the back for slipping one past everybody, are we missing the giant pink elephant in the room? Where do we draw the line?

I mean really, no Santa Claus at the holiday party? When did secularism become the new religion? Is nothing sacred? Will we soon subscribe to a giant pool of nihilistic realism where nothing means anything to anyone, and we don’t even know why we get the day off work?

Or will we go the route the retail underworld is headed, and never close our doors, but stay open and keep working 365 days a year? After all, if we don’t know what we’re celebrating, why celebrate at all? Does anyone even know why we exchange gifts?

So yeah, I’m offended. “Holiday” tree at a “holiday” party? Isn’t everyone offended?

Just so you know, I’ll be blasting “Santa, Baby” every day for the next 30 days, in protest, while I ponder all the items I’ll be putting on my “holiday” wish list. After all, if we’re not a Christian country, then by golly, we’re a capitalist one, and no one can take that from us.

Merry (four-letter word) to all, and to all a good night.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

And this is what a blog is for... My letter to David Walmsley, National Editor at the Globe and Mail, in response to Margaret Wente's latest tirade

Dear Mr. Walmsley,

I'm writing to express my extreme disappointment in Margaret Wente's latest column - "Why are bloggers male?"

Frankly, I don't know the demographics of bloggers (and based on Wente's column, I don't think she knows them either; besides asking her 24-year-old friend Sarah, I don't really see any research she has done to punctuate her assertion), and maybe demographically-speaking there are more men blogging than women. But then, there are also more men in high-ranking management roles than females, so I wonder if Wente's next column will be about how men like to be powerful and in control, and women like to be subservient and weak (I'm joking, but somehow I don't think I'm far off) - and that alone explains the disparity.

For a newspaper that I have generally respected for its journalistic integrity, I am dismayed at the level of sexism Wente conveyed in this column. I am shocked that she wrote it; I am even more shocked that it was published.

If she wanted to take aim at there being way too many poorly written blogs out there, many of which attack her on a personal level, and many of which are written by men, then so be it. But she didn't need to take women down with her on her tirade.

For the record, I am a female, I'm 26, and I blog. Sure, I can count on one hand the number of followers I have. And I don't write anywhere near as often as I would like. My blog posts aren't what you might call focused in any certain way - I've written film reviews, shared personal and embarrassing childhood memories, and discussed how a failing economy might devastate the professional sport industry. I am all over the place. But I do write. Publicly. And when I'm not formally blogging, I'm linking articles (sometimes from your paper) to my Facebook page to generate comments and discussion, commenting on others links and following others' blogs. I've seen - and participated in - discussions on the Afghan detainee issue, the controversies over Canada's representation to the world during the Olympics, and the "Adam Giambrone sex scandal," just to name a few of the most recent.

Offline, I'm currently in a post-graduate Corporate Communications program where 90% of the class is female. Most of our professors are male, and I can assure you that they would tell you we are anything but quiet when it comes to sharing our opinions.

So what I want to say is, really, Ms. Wente? Shy to raise our hands? Lacking in confidence? Holding back our ideas? Is it 1950?

What Ms. Wente might not understand is that whether to blog or not to blog is not a gender issue; if she absolutely needs to find a reason why she's falling behind in the social media circuit, then maybe she should revisit those demographics she's a party to and realize that it might be her age bracket, not her hormonal distribution.

Wente's column seriously detracts from the integrity of this newspaper. But all that means is that this is just another reason why people will be reading the papers less and participating more in their own democratized search for real news.

But that's just my opinion. One that I guess I'm not apt to share, or share publicly, since I'm a woman.

I think I'll post this letter on my blog now. If you're interested, here's the link:


*To read Margaret Wente's article:

Saturday, November 21, 2009

It's the end of the world as we know it... and I want my money back.

I get it. We like roller-coasters, we like horror flicks, we like apocalyptic tales of total destruction and annihilation. We like to be scared. Maybe our lives -- too planned, protected and Purell-ed are too boring and we long for the thrill of knocking on death’s door just to see if anyone will answer. Or maybe, our day-to-day activities are so mundane we cling to reminders of what we value most - the chance to see and breathe and live another day. Maybe Tyler Durdin was on to something when he terrorized that convenience store clerk at gunpoint just so the clerk would wake up the next morning and value life more than anyone else ever possibly could. Then again, Tyler Durdin was a crazed figment of one man’s imagination and more importantly, Fight Club should never be a film to live your life by.

But I get it. The adrenaline rush that comes with the prospect of losing everything you hold dear - and then the rush of satisfaction when you get it all back. Isn’t this why we flock to theatres to see these “end-of-days” movies? At least, movies that toy with the idea of the end-of-days but are never actually the end - because let’s face it, who would want to go see a movie where every human being actually died and everything was lost and there was nothing but total despair? That would be, probably, kind of a downer.

Besides, if we really want to see war, destruction, despair, and the suggestion that we’re headed towards our own apocalypse, don’t we just need to turn on the news?

And that might beg the question, is this why 2012 - Roland Emmerich’s latest global destruction flick - is hopelessly cheesy and ridiculous? Because the death of civilization is too possible; too real - that he has chosen to hand us a parody of what the end of the world might look like so as not to make any of us feel uncomfortable in our ever-increasingly insecure post-9/11 world?

Or is Emmerich really just that terrible of a writer?

2012, for those who haven’t seen it (and I really don’t recommend that you do, unless you have 158 minutes of time you really need to waste and a REALLY good sense of humour), is an unforgivably bad movie, and easily the worst end-of-the-world movie to have come out of Hollywood in the past couple decades (although maybe I should re-view Armageddon before I make that claim; I was 15 years old and in a Ben Affleck haze at the time and may have found merit in some of the wrong places...).

And maybe the claim that 2012 is the worst of the bunch is a bit unfair - I mean, the Americans (er, I mean humans) did save the world in Independence Day by uploading a virus to the Alien spaceship’s mainframe -- miraculously and mysteriously compatible with Jeff Goldblum’s Windows laptop -- and then blowing the ship to smithereens with this feisty line from Randy Quaid: “in the words of my generation, ‘Up yours!’” It’s not like anyone can argue against the silliness and the tongue-in-cheek pro-USA rah-rah-rah nature of Emmerich’s first disaster movie - and maybe 2012 isn’t even any worse in that regard; It certainly does have its own tongue planted securely in cheek for much of the film (really, the governor of California is an Austrian former actor who dies when Armageddon hits California first? Yeah, there’s subtlety).

But there’s something missing here. Independence Day was made in the NINETIES. Pre-9/11. Pre Iraq and Afghanistan. Pre-economic devastation. This was a funny, cool, kick-ass movie. Our enemies were these twitchy, foreign entities, arriving from outer space with every purpose to destroy us, and without any reason why. Watching the White House blow up was comical because at the time, it seemed impossible. We got the 30-foot drop roller-coaster thrill of watching it explode; while we still had the seatbelt safety of knowing the real White House was tucked away on Pennsylvania Avenue. It was fun to be afraid during a time when people felt they had nothing to fear. The US was all-powerful; untouchable; infallable. There was right, and there was wrong; and when the alien enemy was blown to Kingdom Come, we celebrated with 4th of July fireworks.

Fundamentally Independence Day was a celebration of war; of fighting; of winning - during a time when the United States was not at war -- but seemed to have a kind of misplaced, nostalgic yearning for it.

I think my biggest issue with 2012 is that thirteen years later, the template for the end of the world hasn’t changed much (and if I may interject a footnote here - I know I’m skipping over The Day After Tomorrow - and partially because as cheesy as it was, I thought it was a better film. It at least flirted with the idea of dealing with the very real issue of climate change, even if ever so comically. I could easily dissect it too but that’s not the point of this post. Besides, who can argue with the delicious irony that was the tongue-in-cheek in that film - Americans illegally crossing the border into Mexico? Well done). The only real change from the template in 2012 is that this one is bigger, louder, and faster (and frankly, more annoying). The earth gets destroyed on a much bigger scale. Time seems to run out more quickly for everyone (except for John Cusack and his family, who are excruciatingly always a half second ahead of certain death for the ENTIRE MOVIE - someone please explain to Roland Emmerich the concept of overkill), and the repercussions for the planet more dire (more people die in this film than in any other).

And aside from the mere cinematic point of view that thirteen years later, audiences deserve a plot with more sophisticated storytelling, dialogue, plot devices, character development, and so on (and I could go on - and I do think this is a valid point entirely on its own), I think I take much bigger issue with the fact that within the past thirteen years our social and political landscapes have irrevocably changed, and this film doesn’t even attempt to reflect that. This film is at best, a total joke, and at worst, offensive to our intelligence and sensibilities. We arguably live in apocalyptic times. We live with the threat of nuclear war at our doorstep; we are ever-so-slowly (or, increasingly, quickly) causing the decay of our planet, rendering it potentially uninhabitable for our own species. There are wars and famine; there is disease and overpopulation. Now is a time that is ripe for apocalyptic rhetoric - and maybe we’d all be looking in the wrong place if we looked to an Emmerich film to recite it, but still, I think I’m offended by the mockery of it.

And I don’t mean that I wanted to see a dark and depressing portrayal of a true end of the world; as pessimistic as I can be, I believe in hope and I believe in a future for humanity (and I like entertaining movies where things blow up just as much as the next person). I just think there’s a way to channel apocalyptic possibilities without making them look so false; so cartoonish. Comedy had a place in Independence Day -- people were rallying around a common enemy and that made everyone giddy. In 2012 there is nothing to rally around except for John Cusack’s stupid, unlikable family. Comedy is intermittent and misplaced in this film. One never knows when a moment is meant to be serious or whether it’s intentionally that flaky; then you see a character die and you sort of think “I guess I shouldn’t be laughing right now.” And here’s a question - when the generally nice step-dad dies at the end (sorry to spoil) for no reason other than to make room for John Cusack’s character to reclaim his throne as the family patriarch, is that supposed to be darkly funny? Or did Emmerich just really hate his own step-dad?

I think there’s a lot that could have been done with the concept of this supposed Mayan prophecy of the end of the world (though Mayans today think the whole thing is a lot of hogwash, but I guess that’s just another footnote). Emmerich seemed to skip over the intrigue of prophecy entirely to cut right to the CGI. There was no chance to build a plot; there was no chance to introduce characters that any human being would have recognized as one of their own. More importantly there was no chance to portray unity of human spirit. There was no chance to even portray fear, or the appreciation for life. Everything happened too fast, and in the end, everyone in the world died except for a few arks full of the wealthiest people on the planet who paid 1 billion Euros each to get a seat (with a few Chinese factory workers thrown in for good measure), oh, and also John Cusack and his family. Everyone else died and there was no remorse. And there was certainly no sense that the end of the world was in any way the responsibility of humankind (people died due to the shifting of the continents by way of crustal displacement, which flooded the Earth, except for Africa it seems - how nice, too, that since likely no Africans made it on to any of those arks, the wealthy people of the world got to go expropriate Africa and exploit its resources. Again. Handy, that Africa).

If this movie had been made in 1996, it would have been just as bad (albeit with better effects), but it wouldn’t have bothered me this much that it was this bad. And maybe I’m looking into it way more than anyone should, but I actually take offense to it. Does Emmerich really think we are this stupid? Wait, how much money did this movie make on opening weekend?

If it had been parody, I might have said Emmerich is a genius. Then again if Ann Coulter’s books were considered satire, the same could be said of her.

But we already know that Ann Coulter is just a crazy, inflammatory nutcase.

And as for Emmerich, it would seem that unfortunately, he’s just that terrible of a writer.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Bruno: Raunch, laughs - and a whole lotta oh-em-jee

I remember when Borat came to theatres, and the heightened sense of anticipation that came along with it - the anticipation that this movie might be like nothing we’d ever seen before within the realms of comedy.

And Borat delivered. Like gluttonous, joy-deprived little beings imprisoned by our own proprieties, we soaked up the in-your-face, line-crossing, taking-it-way-too-far satirical gongshow stylings of one Sacha Baron Cohen. He held a mirror up to society and we jumped all over each other to see what he had to show us - and it was us (or at least, Americans) in our least flattering state. Offended, shocked, disturbed - we laughed. And we wanted more.

This summer, we got it. Bruno is the next installment in this comedy-knows-no-boundaries style saga. Where Borat was ignorant, Bruno is fully up-to-speed on American culture, celebrity and fashion. As the former host of Funkyzeit, “ze biggest fashion TV program in the German-speaking world, not including Germany,” Austrian fashion-journalist Bruno is on the up-and-up, and instructs all on what is cool at the moment (autism) and not so cool (chlamydia), until a mishap at Milan fashion week in an all-velcro suit gets him fired from his job, dumped by his boyfriend, and shunned by the Austrian fashion industry. Learning an important lesson that the fashion world is “superficial,” Bruno packs his bags, takes his adoring assistant Lutz, and moves to Los Angeles to become a super star.

What follows is nothing short of jaw-dropping shock-value comedy at its raunchiest. The nudity, the sex (both real and suggested), the jokes and the acting all make the naked-man fight in Borat look like a G-rated Disney film -- seriously, if I may get preachy for just a moment, please do not take your children to see this film - though rated 18 A I saw numerous groups of young children at the theatre who weren’t even old enough to be in high school. Kids may have enjoyed the antics of Borat, but they won’t get the satire and more importantly, the sexuality is far and above anything they will understand - I’m an adult and I was disturbed!

But, disturbing is clearly the goal here. Bruno, who takes camp to the extreme, purposefully goes into some of the most homophobic communities in America (and elsewhere). He pushes buttons and provokes in ways that are so over the top gay, in places that are so over the top anti-gay, it’s almost too much of an easy target. Bruno does not know subtlety, and for the most part, the homophobic people he encounters do not know tolerance. He is like one big traveling Gay Pride Parade, moving into towns who don’t want it, and infiltrating the corners of the world where people would rather pretend homosexuality does not exist.

The gay innuendo, the visuals, the acts are meant to make us squirm - and we do - even the most progressive of us - because Cohen wants a visceral reaction. He wants us to face it full frontal, (no pun intended) and decide how we really feel about it. At the end of the day, homosexuality does not just occur behind closed doors - gay members of society walk the earth like everyone else - and they are just as vulnerable and victimized when their sexuality is understated as when it is on full, flaming display.

My only concern is whether Cohen really vindicates gays in this film or whether he makes a mockery of them. It’s just SO exaggerated - he does to gay sex what Tarantino did to violence in the Kill Bill franchise. The sex references are hilariously silly - gay people are seen to only enjoy leather, chains, bondage and exercise machines with dildos strapped on the end. But will straight people get the joke?

Beyond the shock, Cohen brings back the comedy in full swing, and when your jaw isn’t hanging open, you’ll be busy laughing your head off, or, fearing for Cohen’s life. A celebrity in his own right now, it is much more obvious that this time around interviews with unsuspecting American officials and celebrities are harder to obtain for Cohen. In a lot of places, the jig is up, and there are more questions now about what’s real, what’s staged, and who might be in on what joke. Still, he manages to get Republican Ron Paul to squeal out his homophobic feelings, insult Osama bin Laden while seated in a terrifying interview with a terrorist leader in Labanon, and get Paula Abdul to sit on “Mexican furniture.”

All in all, it’s shock and awe at its peak, and Cohen again needs to be commended on an explosive performance and the ability to never break character at some of the most tense moments. I only wish there could have been more interviews - some of the best moments, as in Borat, are when Cohen quiets down and the interviewee fully displays his own blatant discriminatory (or just stupid - see the scene with the LA PR firm girls) attitudes.

My suggestion - if you think you can stomach it, go see it. Or, go see it if you can’t stomach it. Maybe especially if you can’t.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Where the boys are

It isn’t that I grew up alone in a world of boys and men. It isn’t that I didn’t have a mother – I did; a lovely, warm, home-made-cookies-on-a-rainy-day kind of mother. It isn’t that I didn’t have girlfriends – I did; the best girlfriends in the world, willing to write stories and have sleepovers and share my childhood cynicisms with me. It isn’t that I necessarily favoured sports over dress-up, or Tonka trucks over dolls, or Transformers over My Little Pony.

But, I was an odd kid.

Though I did have my girlfriends, they were long-distance confidantes, having moved away when I was very small. For the most part, on my street and in my school, I made friends with the boys. There were endless games of street hockey, baseball, Capture the Flag and Night-time Hide and Seek. There were summer-long bike rides to pizza places and baseball diamonds and air-conditioned drugstores where we could escape the heat to buy banana popsicles and ride home with sticky fingers. There were toy guns aplenty, GI Joes hanging from wires in various staged set-ups throughout our house and front yard, and various hockey nets, baseball mitts, skateboards and tennis balls thrust hastily on the front yard. There was always mischief to be had, tall tales to be told of what antics which boys had gotten into that day; and always, always the riveting cry of “CAR!” breezing along from the street to the tree-lined suburban backyards, beckoning any child who hadn’t yet made the trek over to that day’s street game.

And maybe I remember it all a little too nostalgically; in reality I know that I watched more of those street games than participated. And I know that the boys and I didn't quite share the same set of priorities. For instance, when I played with GI Joes I threw their weapons aside and made Scarlett and Snake Eyes get married. While my two brothers were choosing sides in games, one would always be the good guy, one would always be the bad, and I always elected to be “normal!" I never wanted to sink anyone's battleship, I made all my Lego and Fisher Price Little People go to church and school, and I had all my stuffed animals sit around in a semi-circle for story-time.

Still, I picked camouflage over pink; let my dog chew Barbie’s feet off so she’d be shorter than the other girls, and when my stuffed animals were done having stories read to them I would take my doll’s crib, flip it over and turn it into a prison so they could experience a lesson in survival.

While my girlfriends became doe-eyed for New Kids on the Block, I worshipped Ernie Whitt and crushed on Pat Borders. When the girls in my class were braiding each other’s hair, I was either watching them, baffled, or more likely, over at my friend Mikey’s house playing Excitebike on Nintendo. On separate occasions when I was pretty young, I asked my mom if I could get a boy’s hair cut (she said no), if I could try peeing standing up (again, no) and if I could wear swimming trunks instead of a girl’s one-piece (still, no). And it isn’t ever that I wanted to be a boy – I thought penises were bizarre and unattractive attachments – it’s just that very simply, I wanted to be treated the same as one. And even as a little girl, it felt like an eternal struggle.

For a while it had been okay. I was singled out but I was generally still included. And then an age hit and everyone seemed to notice I was a girl, and an imaginary line was drawn and I suddenly – and very quickly – had to learn how to make friendship bracelets, apply eye-shadow and figure out what purpose jewelry served. I was kicked out of the boys club. One of my best friends asked me to be his girlfriend, and in an instant I didn’t know how to act, or who to be. Confused by our swift change of roles, I chose to abandon him altogether, and felt for a long time that losing that friendship was one of my biggest regrets – and one of my biggest resentments.

And the girlfriends came and went; we got our periods and taught each other what we thought sex was and all realized that we wanted the boys to like us – that way. But I always couldn’t help but notice the crowd of boys in the corner, talking and laughing and sharing a secret camaraderie; a top-secret dialect that I no longer spoke.

The initial awkwardness of pubescent transitions led way to an adolescence that allowed young men and women to be friends again, but was punctuated by hormonal outbursts and angst, angst, angst. I liked being friends with boys again, but when they turned the tables on me, got dreamy-eyed in my presence and stumbled over their speech, I didn’t know how to react, and so I took offence. I knew the way that boys conversed with other boys. I had an idea of the vile, dirty jokes, and the crude comments that were made. I knew enough to know that they didn’t act this way around us – at least not the girls they liked. They changed. Became unrecognizable. It was kind of like we just appeared to them one day. They didn’t know who we were or where we’d come from; we just arrived from another planet, beautiful and interesting, but foreign and frightening. And it isn’t to say that I myself never liked boys who left me tongue-tied and nervous; it’s just that I had always known where the boys were; they on the other hand seemed to have forgotten I had ever existed previous to that very moment, or that I’d ever walked among them.

Eventually I got over my grievances and appreciated that it might be okay to have a man get nervous in my presence. I learned the tricks of the dating trade. I learned how to flirt, how to tease, what to say and when to say it. I learned that it wasn’t all that difficult. You play the game, you play your part, and then you go home to your respective teams and dish out the particulars. At the end of the day, your girlfriends are your home base, and though it’s not such a bad thing to have them there, if you’re someone like me, you can’t help but wonder what the boys are up to.

Eventually, dating becomes less of a sport and more of a pain in the arse, and you might even find yourself zeroing in on one person who makes you nervous – a single person to pair up with and share adulthood cynicisms with. And though it’s a wonderful, beautiful breath of fresh air – an incredible and fun new way of looking at male-female relating, I’m still learning that it comes with its own sets of challenges. Namely, boys sometimes still want to be boys.

What I’ve learned: there are times when a guy just wants to be with his guy friends. They may not be heading off to drink brandy, smoke cigars and discuss politics in the old boy’s parlours anymore, but they still want to get away. And maybe, to some women, it seems natural – it’s an opportunity for these ladies to retreat to their old home base; to go have umbrella-laden martinis with their former roommates and college girlfriends – their favourite people they gave up when they got involved with a boy. To me, it’s still a lesson in relating. Because I still want to talk sports, but my girlfriends aren’t always the most willing when it comes to discussing Zach Greinke’s sick slider or how the Yankees’ overindulgent new stadium may end up being their own curse (ok, maybe I’m not interested in all sports, just baseball). I grew up with brothers and little boy friends. On some days, guys still feel like my homebase - it’s just hard sometimes to recognize that they don’t see me the same way.

Some days, I forget that anything’s changed and I think I can follow them on their bikes into the sunset, wherever they’re headed. But I also know that some days, it’s just a guy thing, and I’m not invited. And I’ll admit that at times, I’ve let it get the best of me – an old familiar feeling recurs, and I feel like the door of my childhood has been slammed in my face, asking me to grow up and recognize my societal role (whatever that is).

But then I exhale, realize it’s not the 1950s, and know that we all need different things to make us happy. And I also need to realize that often, the lure is stronger than the reality – because I've also learned that sometimes all guys really do when they’re alone is tell dirty jokes, size up the waitress’s attributes and feel comfortable enough to pass gas, which, let’s face it, I can do without. Besides, it occurs to me that while I can hold my own in a group full of men anytime, sometimes I need to be alone with other women, too – there is another comaraderie there that is unique, and wonderful, and one that I now can't live without - and maybe it's time I spent less time worrying about what I’m excluded from, and more time delighting in those things I choose to include.