Monday, April 27, 2009

The Mystery of the Matching Tracksuits

We've all seen them--it's that couple that is out for a walk or a jog on a sunny day and they're wearing identical baby blue track suits, matching Nike running shoes, and carrying the same Nalgene water bottle. You stare at them in horror and resist the urge to vomit. You then wonder how on earth they ended up dressing like middle aged fraternal twins. You try to imagine them standing in the sportswear section at Wal-Mart saying to each other, "Oh, wouldn't it be nice to have matching baby blue track suits. Then everyone will know that we're basically a single person rather than two individual beings, and it will be easier to find each other if we get separated in a crowd!" You judge these people harshly, thinking that they must have lost their minds sometime after 10-20 years of marriage, and you promise yourself that if you ever get married you will assert your independence and never buy a track suit that matches your husband's. In fact, you plan to buy a hot pink track suit with sparkles on it and a little Hello Kitty appliqu矇 on the pocket, just so your husband will never, NEVER dream of buying the same one.

But, I am here to tell you that things are not quite as they seem. I am beginning to understand that these couples do not set out to wear matching track suits and carry identical accessories. It happens by accident, in increments so small that you don't notice until it's too late. It's like a slow-moving disease, insidious and invisible until there's no way of backtracking. I know this because it's happening to me and I'm powerless to stop it. It began last summer when M. and I went to the Mountain Equipment Co-op to buy hiking boots. I tried on ten pairs of shoes in the women's section while M. tried on a bunch of shoes in the men's section. When we had both picked out the boots we wanted we re-grouped in the center of the store to find that, against all odds and with a creepy degree of symmetry, we had picked out the same pair of boots. Apparently we both found them to be the most comfortable ones. M's shoes were were a slightly different colour than mine and we left the store hoping that no one would really be looking at our feet anyway and would be unlikely to notice our matching shoes.

We joked about becoming one of those couples in the matching track suits, and vowed that we would not let it go so far. But such vows cannot stop the onward creep of couples conformity. Just yesterday we were in the MEC again. This time to buy sunglasses. And it turns out that we have the same taste because once again it was clear that we were going to buy the same pair. M. bought his with red frames and I bought mine in black to try to distinguish them, but the bottom line is that they're the same glasses. They come with interchangeable lenses so that you can tailor your glasses to fit the lighting conditions outside. We thought it would be convenient to be able to share the extra lenses. See! This is how it starts! It seems practical, it seems rational, and then 20 years later you find yourselves sitting at the table eating breakfast in matching bathrobes, getting ready to go for a run in matching track suits, after which you will go to sleep in matching pyjamas. It's horrifying but there is truly nothing I can do to resist.

I would like to think that it's going to stop here but I know that it's only the beginning. After I bought my new bicycle, M. started thinking about buying a bicycle as well. And he thought that mine was a pretty nice one, and maybe he would just get the same one. Did it come in a different colour he wondered.

So now when I see those couples in their matching track suits, I don't laugh at them behind their backs, or assume that they have succumbed to an as yet undiagnosed psychological illness. I look at them with compassion, and know that it wasn't their fault. They tried to buy different track suits, but fate conspired against them. They tried to go in different directions only to find that they ended up in the same place over and over again. Maybe, in the end, this is what love is.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Earth Day and Beyond

I recently bought panniers for my new bicycle and have been eager to put them to good use. So yesterday, with the recent passage of Earth Day in mind, I hooked up the panniers and set off to Choices to do some earth friendly grocery shopping, with a minimal carbon footprint. As I rode down East Boulevard I passed a man turning over dark earth in the community garden that lines the railroad tracks there. Okay, so clearly I could be more hard-core about this earth thing. I could be out there along the tracks planting my own tomatoes and attempting to reclaim the ground from the clutches of industrialization. I could make clothes out of discarded burlap potato sacks and knit my own shoes. I could start bathing in the ocean to conserve water...alright...this might be getting out of hand. I tried not to let the man in the garden belittle my own efforts at reducing my impact on the earth and continued on to Choices feeling fairly virtuous.

However, it seems I need a bit of practise to pull off this environmentally conscious, physically fit Vancouverite thing because it turns out that commuting to a grocery store by bike is actually a bit awkward. First I had trouble locking my bike to the rack outside the store. The prongs of the U-lock kept getting stuck in my spokes, then the fender got in the way, then I wasn't sure I had actually locked a part of the bike to the rack that would prevent someone from stealing it. Ten minutes later my bike was locked up, and I was out of breath from the effort of manoeuvring it into a prime locking position. Yeah, not so suave. The next problem was making my way through the grocery store with two pannier bags and a helmet. Turns out I didn't have any extra hands for a grocery basket. After a bunch of juggling, which likely made me look like a failed circus performer, I had to procure a cart so that I would have somewhere to put my gear while I shopped. After that I perused the aisles happily, buying strange allergy free foods like a cereal made out of sorghum, sweetened with honey and concentrated raisin juice. It was only after I got home that I realized my helmet had put a scary looking dent right in the middle of my forehead so I probably looked like a freak while I was deciding between cashew butter and pumpkin seed butter and making sure that the loaf of bread I was buying was truly 100% rye and didn't have any sneaky traces of wheat in it.

My next challenge came at the check-out when I had to pack the food I had just bought into my panniers. There are lots of things to consider when doing this like making sure the weight is distributed evenly, and making sure you don't forget a bunch of your stuff at the grocery store, and actually retrieving your Visa card from the cashier. Luckily there weren't too many other shoppers in the store because it took me quite a long time to get the panniers satisfactorily packed up, zipped up, and secured. But in the end I made it home and added my purchases to the produce I had bought earlier.

And speaking of produce, I recently discovered the joy of leeks. I have had potato leek soup once our twice but really didn't have any sense of what to do with a leek other than that. The market had some exotic looking leeks so I bought one, determined to figure out what to do with it. I ended up roasting it, and that went quite well:

Cut a leek into thirds or quarters lengthwise (a lot of websites tell you to discard the green leaves at the top of the leek, but this doesn't actually seem necessary. With enough cooking they're quite edible, tender, and tasty). Fan out the leaves and rinse thoroughly.

Coat leeks with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, basil, thyme, and sea salt to taste.

Roast in the oven at 400 degrees for about half an hour, or until tender. The outermost leaves will probably be golden and crispy, but be careful not to burn them. You can turn the leeks once or twice during cooking to avoid burning.

Leeks have a surprisingly sweet flavour, with a slight oniony taste. Yum!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Day of the Date Stamp

Sometimes, when life isn't too exciting you just have to take what you can get in terms of day brightening events. For me, the injection of joy into my work day is coming in the form of my very own date stamp. Oh yes, it's going to be a top of the line date stamp with rotating dates and the name of my workplace engraved around the outside. What this means for me is that I get to increase my sedentary time in the office because I will no longer have to go to the front desk to borrow the date stamp there. This will likely save me about 50 steps a day. This also means great autonomy in terms of my stamping power. With my very own date stamp always at my disposal I can stamp just about any paper that comes across my desk. And on slow days I intend to do just that. There is something deeply satisfying about pressing a stamp into the ink pad and watching the image transfer onto the stark whiteness of a once pristine page. I imagine this is how dogs feel when the pee on fire hydrants. leave your mark in a place where no one else has gone. Stamping pages has the same allure as being the first person to walk on freshly fallen snow where you can then look back and see the perfect outlines of your boot clad feet trailing in your wake. It's like putting your handprint on a sheet of that shiny finger painting paper they gave you in kindergarten.

Stamping comes with the ever-exciting challenge of attempting to produce a perfect transfer from stamp to paper with no smudges and no gaps in the lines. I find that success can be achieved by pressing the stamp down firmly and rolling it gently to make sure all parts of the rubber come in contact with the page. But there's always room for stamp technique improvement I'm sure. And with all the stamping I'll get to do with my new date stamp I'm bound to be a pro in no time. The next challenge will be changing the date without getting ink all over my hands--a tricky feat indeed, which I have not yet mastered. But, oh joy!, with my new date stamp I can practise changing the date to my heart's content until I can rotate the numbers without marring the whiteness of my fingers with the blue ink that makes me look like a sloppy pre-schooler. Just a few more days until my date stamp arrives. The ink pad is already ready to go and is just waiting for a custom made stamp to help it fulfill its inky purpose. Oh the anticipation!

(okay, okay, so it's been a slow day. It was this or no post at all. In hindsight it might have been better just to remain silent, but it's too late now. If anyone has something they want me to stamp, just let me know).

Friday, April 17, 2009

Travels in Spring

I recently spent ten days in Windsor, reconnecting with family and friends and sharing my first Easter at home in three years. I left Vancouver on a typical grey day--the trees still bare and shivering in the extended spring chill. I then spent ten days enjoying the company of people I have not seen in a year and struggling with a sense of dislocation. On all my previous trips to Windsor I have considered myself a displaced Windsorite travelling home. This time I was a Vancouverite going away for a visit. The difference was subtle. It had everything to do with perception of space and population. The people in Windsor (my family excluded of course!) seemed strange to me. The bodies that make up the human landscape in Windsor were alien and unfamiliar. I felt myself an outsider, not quite meshing with the particularities of the space, not aligning seamlessly with the people around me. The flatness of the streets was startling. The huge expanse of visible sky, uninterrupted by mountains, or shifting gradients of the streets, or massive trees, was overwhelming. There were familiar things too--my backyard, my books, the small errata that I had left behind. But even these familiar things became strange in the context of so much unexpected unfamiliarity.

My brother and I took a brief drive by my childhood home, and it too was dramatically altered. It has disintegrated over the years. The front yard where I used to climb our tree and roller-skate is now home to junk and debris. There is a hideous fence dissecting the driveway. The garden is in ruins. The house itself is peeling away--becoming bones and dust. It probably won't be long before it becomes just a memory. The house looks small and pathetic while I remember it as a place of joy and discovery, a place where I was loved, a place where I played hide and seek with friends and ate Popsicles in the sweltering summer. I loved that house and the unambiguous sense of home that it represented. I suppose I have never had such a distinct sense of home since then. Home was tangible in the days of early childhood when your mother had only to call out the window to summon you from your play to lunch or to dinner or to bed.

I returned from Windsor shaken by the clash between the strange and the familiar only to find that Vancouver had changed in my absence as well, but in a spectacular way. Where there were only grey branches and grey skies when I departed, the city, upon my return, had erupted in a cloud of cherry blossoms. Despite my jetlag I took a walk in the afternoon along streets now saturated with petals. The air was suffused with the light scent of flowers. The day was warm and a comforting breeze brushed my hair from my eyes. I nearly cried at the intense beauty of it and I was lifted up by the sudden arrival of spring.

Life is change: my first home slipping away, friends scattering to all corners of the globe, blossoms ebbing and flowing with the coming of spring, and finding that I have come home after all to a quiet street in Kerrisdale with the cherry trees waving outside my window.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Soy and Dairy Free Hot Chocolate

I had a sudden urge to make hot chocolate last night. But when soy and dairy products aren't an option this can be a challenging feat. After a bit of experimentation I have came up with a hot chocolate that is just as good as the regular dairy kind:

(Makes two servings)

2 tbsp cocoa powder
4 tbsp sugar (I used Demerara)
1 1/2 cups unsweetened vanilla almond milk + 2 tbsp
1/2 cup coconut milk
dash of vanilla extract

Mix cocoa, sugar, and 2 tbsp milk together in a saucepan. Warm slightly. Add the rest of the almond milk slowly and heat. Add the coconut milk and vanilla and heat to just before it begins to simmer. Enjoy really rich hot chocolate that is vegan and free of common allergens!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

In Pursuit of Slow

"Life is short, so we must move very slowly."
-Thai Proverb

It seems counterintuitive. Western society teaches us that we must move as quickly as possible in order to cram as much stuff into our days as possible. We latch onto technologies that promise to save us time. We scream at our computers when web-pages take more than a microsecond to load. We scream at bus drivers when they are more than a minute late. We strive to finish tasks as quickly as possible in the hope that we will find leisure time at the end of the day, but somehow that leisure time just never materializes. With the advent of a million time saving devices it seems, bizarrely, that we actually have less time than before. How many days this week have you reached the end of your evening and wondered where the time went, and why you didn't manage to finish even a fraction of the things you hoped to? We embrace a motto completely contrary to the proverb cited above--we in the West say "Life is short, and so I must move as quickly as possible so as to cram in as many things as possible." But it doesn't work, and I have slammed into this truth over and over again. Let me try to illustrate:

Let's assume that you are about to embark on a walk, of a fixed distance, a short distance, through the world's most luxurious paradise. There will be extraordinary things along the way. There will be heaps of tantalizing experiences to be had. So what do you do? Do you run along this path erratically in an attempt to experience as much of it as you can as quickly as possible, or do you walk slowly, letting experiences enter the field of your consciousness organically, taking as much time as possible to drink it all in? The fact of the matter is, that the person who runs along the path will get to the end exhausted, and without having experienced anything fully. The person who walks slowly actually spends more time on the path, experiences more, and comes to the end relaxed and energized. And while the runner might already be on to the next journey, and may in fact travel more paths in a lifetime than the one who walks, the runner doesn't experience any of these paths in a focused or appreciative way. The runner misses the paradise that is at hand because they are so focused on getting to the next one!

It seems to me that life is very much like this. Our lifetime is a path of a fixed distance. We don't have any idea how long it is, but we have a choice--we can run hurriedly along trying to cram in as much as possible, or we can take our time, enjoying what comes to us, not rushing towards the future or dwelling in the past. Such living is not accomplishment focused, but experience focused. In a slow life you aim for quality of experience rather than quantity and I have become increasingly convinced that quality is the thing to aim for. We are bombarded with quantity of experience--for example the constant barrage of status updates from Facebook and Twitter. But perhaps it would be better to have one real conversation, face-to-face, with a single person on your Facebook friend list, than to have six hundred updates from people you barely know telling you that they just drank a peppermint hot chocolate at Starbucks. We spend all our energy trying to process the high volume of communications from sources like Facebook, and in the meantime miss opportunities to have real discussions that might actually deepen our relationships with other people. I wonder how much spare time we could accumulate by avoiding Facebook completely for a single week. (Of course, I have fallen victim to these technologies like everyone else. I will eventually post this entry on Facebook, adding to the barrage of information available to my friends list. This is not, at heart, a criticism, but an observation.)

I wonder what would happen if we all slowed down. What if, instead of clicking on every icon on our desktops when our homepage doesn't load, we took those few seconds to marvel at how incredible something like the internet actually is. What if, instead of freaking out when our bus is ten minutes late, we enjoyed the opportunity to simply be, without travelling anywhere, without having anything particular to do except stand outside and exist in a space out of time where there are no obligations, no appointments, and nothing that must be done. Doing this is extremely hard. We are programmed to feel guilty if we are not achieving, accomplishing, doing something every moment of our day. We see stillness as a waste, slowness as impeding productivity. But what if the truth is completely the opposite? I feel that I am missing the world because I'm moving so fast. Everything becomes a giant indistinguishable blur. I've done a lot of running, but perhaps now is the time to slow to a crawl.