Wednesday, May 27, 2009

What the...?

While cycling to work this morning I passed a road construction site. In what I can only see as an attempt to reinforce stereotypes about city workers there was one guy working (digging with a shovel) and about eight other guys standing around watching. And then I noticed something extremely odd. One of the onlookers was not a man at all. One of the onlookers was actually a giant, stuffed, lime green turtle, that stood about two feet tall and wore a yellow hard hat. There was a shovel resting on its shell. Okay, seriously, if stuffed animals are being employed by the city now the job is too easy. How's that for randomness!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Old Dog

Who says you can't teach an old dog new tricks? In dog years I'm just about on death's door but I've still managed to learn all sorts of new things since moving to Vancouver. After tackling skiing, wakeboarding (okay, that one wasn't too successful) and hiking the Grouse Grind without dying of exhaustion, I have now moved on to driving standard. I admit, I actually have no desire to do this, but M.'s car is a standard, his parents' cars are standard, and it seems I have no choice but to drive standard if I want to have any form of driving autonomy (no pun intended).

So M. has been brave enough and kind enough to allow me to learn to drive using his car. My father says that he must love me A LOT. This is probably true but I suspect the allure of not having to ferry me around has something to do with it as well.

My first experiences with driving standard make me wonder why everyone didn't just trash their standard cars when the automatic was invented and not look back ever again. Driving is stressful enough without having to worry about all the extra coordination required to drive a standard car. And Vancouver, with all its hills, is probably just about the worst place in the world to learn. On one of my first trips out (a tour around and around and around two city blocks in first gear, and then finally in second for short bursts) I stopped at a stop sign. The street was a bit inclined and I was just getting ready to attempt to start driving without rolling backwards when a red Ferrari convertable pulled up right behind me. It was like this big cosmic joke. Here I am driving a mustard yellow 1979 diesel Mercedes named Dijon, I don't have the capacity to shift into third gear yet, all my "hill" starts (I admit that these hills are more like vague upward inclines) have resulted in rolling backwards at least a couple feet and then frequently stalling, and a freaking FERRARI pulls up behind me when my chances of initiating an accidental game of bumper cars is at its absolute highest!

So I did what I felt was most logical--I gripped the wheel until my knuckles turned white and refused to move. M. had to wave the Ferrari past at which point I was able to breath a sigh of relief, let out the clutch, roll backwards a bit with nothing to hit but the curb, stall, and then finally get around the corner. I don't, at this point, feel that I will ever be ready to drive this damned car in anything resembling real traffic. I'm a safety hazard, there's no doubt about it. I didn't really like driving in the first place, even when I had access to an automatic vehicle, but driving standard makes all the other driving I've done seem like pure luxury.

I assume I'll get the hang of it eventually. People keep pointing out that I got the hang of skiing. But they seem to forget how many times I crashed before getting it right! I'm hoping my crash to success ratio will be about 100% smaller in the car. Although, I've already hit the curb. I was doing a three point turn; I thought I was in reverse; I wasn't; and it just so happened that I got the clutch thing right and managed to move...forward...instead of backwards...rather quickly...and CRUNCH. Oops.

"That's okay," says M. "You're not in reverse." He's the absolute picture of calm. It's like having Jesus teach you how to drive.
"Oh," I say. Clutch in, put the car in reverse, clutch out, take foot off break, roll backwards a bit...damn this is ridiculous!

But all of this is working to prove to me how wonderful M. is. He has not once freaked out or tried to grab the wheel or crawl over me to slam on the brakes. When learning to drive initially about 8 years ago in an automatic car my mother had this tendency to take deep hissing intakes of breath and jerk over to my side of the car in an attempt to steer for me. She was well intentioned but this was a bit nerve wracking.

So far with driving standard the only person freaking out is me. If I could grab the wheel from myself I probably would, not that that would be particularly useful since a second me couldn't drive any better than the first. In any event, if you're on the road and see a mustard yellow Mercedes I would probably take a different route.

Friday, May 22, 2009

A Brief Rant

Okay, so Facebook has decided it wants to become more like Twitter and now when I look at my home page it's covered with one sentence status updates. I would like to think that people would take this as a challenging opportunity to say as much as possible in as small a space as possible--to harness the power of concision and say something thought provoking in just a single sentence. Instead, people seem to update their status constantly and manage to say absolutely nothing! Their updates are often so cryptic that they probably shouldn't bother saying anything at all. It's beginning to annoy me. Do people KNOW that they're sending these updates to hundreds of people? Because if they did why are they posting messages like:

"Why did this have to happen again?"
(your "this" is missing a referent. And unless you put in a referent I have no freaking clue what you're talking about, so WHY did you bother posting at all?)

"Waiting for the results"
(God! Results of what? Pregnancy test, mid-term exam, testing for some horrible disease? Why do people post things like this? The ambiguity is infuriating, and also allows readers to assume that their long-lost friends are waiting to see if they've caught an STD)

"Can't wait"
(Can't wait for what? We're having a problem with referents again. If you think it's important to share your excitement and joy with 300 near strangers, you would think you'd at least have the decency to share what it is you can't wait for.)

I am once again tempted to delete my Facebook profile entirely and so separate myself from ambiguity induced stress and frustration, but I'm still too scared to do it. It's like I'll be adrift in the world all alone if I can't check to see who has just had a soy chai latte at Starbucks, and who can't wait to get off work, and who drank too much beer, and who is feeling sad, and who is feeling happy. What would I do without invitations to do a quiz that will tell me what my stripper name should be, or what Disney character I am, or what animal I was in a previous life? The superficiality of it all is mind-boggling. This is not the equivalent of making a real human connection! And yet, I can't seem to pull the plug. As much as I'm desperate to declare Facebook dead and take its sad remains off life-support, I just can't do it. The illusion of a connection with hundreds of people is powerful, and I'm afraid that if I leave I'll miss something important. Like maybe one day one person will say something profound and earth shattering in their status update and I'll say "Yes! That's why I'm here. That's why I check Facebook a dozen times a day. Thank goodness I was present for that! That was the diamond in the rough I've been waiting for all this time." It might happen. But I sort of doubt it.

Thursday, May 21, 2009


Human beings are clearly creatures of habit and ritual and comfortable repetition. We do things because we have always done them, and often don't stop to question why we are doing them. The fact is, we don't care why, because we like the certainty that comes with doing things the same way at the same time year after year. Into this category of well loved habit falls the annual camping trip to the Okanagan on the May Long Weekend. This was a tradition started by M.'s friends, and one that I have now participated in for the second year in a row. I'm not saying it's not a good time, because it is. And I'm not even suggesting that things should necessarily change in the future, but when the question of "why?" is applied to this annual excursion to Oyama, British Columbia, one has to question the sanity of the people that keep this tradition alive. If an anthropologist were to observe the particulars of this camping adventure they would probably scratch their head in puzzlement and go home completely confused about the behaviour of those assembled.

I provide here an imaginary anthropological report, based on real events of our May Long camping trip:

I have been following a group of adult humans, identified as WN09, for nearly two years now. Most days they do fairly regular things--go to work, bitch about the Vancouver housing market, and gather on occasional weekends to drink beer and eat chicken wings. But annually, on the occasion of the Victoria Day long weekend in May, they leave the quotidian behind, pack backpacks and coolers in a frenzy, and strike out for a small patch of grass by some train tracks in Oyama British Columbia. This happens every year without fail, regardless of the weather, or the particular day of the month that Victoria Day falls on. I can only hypothesize that this group has, like birds, an innate drive to migrate at this time of year. It is the first weekend each spring that they let their pasty Vancouver skin see the light of day and as an observer I find that sunglasses are necessary to look at them without being blinded by the glare.

One of the major rituals enacted on this trip is freezing to death. I believe that this is maintained as a right of passage, a way to re-test dedication to the group cause. Those who freeze together create a deeper bond, or something like that. Friday night, though it began comfortably, quickly took on an icy quality. It being May, I hadn't thought to bring my winter coat. I figured I could layer enough clothing to stay warm, but I was wrong. I got into my sleeping bag that first night wearing a thermal undershirt, t-shirt, sweatshirt, wool sweater, fleece jacket, rain coat, wool hat, pyjama bottoms, and socks. I still couldn't sleep because I was freezing my ass off. In the morning, others related tales of midnight woe, where they battled against air so cold it felt like you were breathing in ice chips. Those who claimed to have remained warm were glared at.

Another integral activity is eating as much meat as is humanly possible. A typical camping menu goes something like this:

Breakfast--maple syrup sausages, bacon, eggs, and coffee
Lunch--Bratwurst on a bun, mustard, chips
Afternoon snack--Smokey with coleslaw
Dinner--two polish sausages on buns, grilled peppers, baked potato
Evening snack--one chorizo sausage and one hot Italian sausage, cooked over open flame and eaten immediately.

Surviving the consumption of six pounds of sausage meat a day is one of the challenges of the May Long trip. The females tend to be a bit more reasonable and look at their male partners in horror as they scarf their sixth sausage of the day. The men, however, seem to think that being on a camping trip entails the magical enhancement of their digestive powers, and take a certain amount of pride in stuffing themselves to the gills.

The trip involves a few elective excursions which various WN09 members participate in. One is going out on a power boat on the lake that most likely just thawed two days ago, putting on a big rubber suit, strapping your feet to a board, and being dragged behind the boat at alarming speeds while you try to stand on the board. Since falling into the water is pretty much inevitable this also seems to reiterate the camping dictum to freeze to death. I courted death and hypothermia by attempting this activity last year, and refused to do it again this year.

Another popular excursion involves getting completely inebriated and whacking a small white ball with an iron stick. I did not get to witness this outing first hand, but M. tells me that it involved females in various states of undress due to a rule stating that one must either chug their drink or take off an article of clothing if they have the worst shot. Apparently nudity was preferable to becoming annihilated.

The final annual ritual involves going fishing, but never actually catching fish. The guys go out on a boat, bragging about their manly skills as hunters and providers. They take fishing rods, lures, and (this year) an entire container of pink maggots to entice the fish. They trawl for hours and, inevitably, come back empty handed. The WN09 women comment on how it's a damn good thing we don't live in the stone age where survival would depend on the men's fishing skills, because otherwise we would be starving to death as well as freezing to death. The men respond to this criticism by drinking lots of beer.

On Monday morning everyone packs up quickly, as if an inaudible alarm has gone off in their brains signalling that they must return home where they will practise more acceptable levels of personal hygiene and eat far fewer sausages. And so it goes, year after year, a strange gathering, and a collection of stories that will no doubt be embellished over time until fact can't be separated from fiction, and experience becomes collective myth.

[Thanks for a great weekend guys!--and fodder for my blog]

Monday, May 11, 2009

Magical Thinking

With M. away for a friend's stag this weekend I took the opportunity to spend some quality time by myself. The world changes when you're alone. When I have no one to talk to I instead focus more closely on the experiences at hand, I become more silent and introspective. I move through the world a bit more slowly, noticing how the absence of someone I love shifts my experience of each moment, tingeing it with an awareness of that absence but also with an acknowledgement of the fuller presence of the self.

I've been meaning to go to the Central Library downtown for quite some time now (somewhere in the region of three years!) but had never gotten around to it. But this weekend, with no other plans, I had run out of excuses and went. It's quite a lovely library, and I happily perused the rows and rows of books, drinking in the very nearness of words and endless expression. Libraries are powerful places, housing the sum of our cultural knowledge and allowing access to the deepest thoughts and flights of imagination that people produce. I checked out a few things, including Joan Didion's "A Year of Magical Thinking," a memoir about the death of her husband and the year that followed, and a book I have been meaning to read for awhile. It's a difficult read because it strikes at the heart of our innate drive to deny the possibility of death. Didion finds, after the sudden death of her husband, that she is engaging in "magical thinking"--saving his shoes, for instance, because he will need them when he comes back. Didion battles with her own consciousness which seems to believe that, by some yet unknown magical process, her husband will return to her. It is perhaps one of the most heart-wrenching things I have ever read, and also one of the most frightening, because I recognize in it my own penchant for magical thinking in the form of an irrational belief that death will not be able to touch me or the people I love the most. It's not a beach read, but well worth a look.

I took my collection of library books to Gorilla Food to have lunch. It's a vegan raw food restaurant that I've been wanting to try. Now before you get the wrong impression, I don't intend to become either a vegan or a raw-foodist. Raw food diets in particular seem extreme and, paradoxically, not very healthy. The truth of the matter is that there are a lot of foods that we can't digest well if they're raw, and limiting yourself to raw food means a dangerously restricted diet. However, due to the restricted nature of the food I could actually eat EVERYTHING on the menu, even with my host of allergies, and the novelty of being able to order anything off the menu is what drew me to the restaurant in the first place.

I ordered a Tropical Twist juice (that had carrot, ginger, and pineapple in it, and was a startling shade of orange) and a pesto "pizza." I found the the ginger in the juice was a bit too strong, but the pizza was strangely delicious. The crust was dehydrated grains and the "cheese" was ground up walnuts. I would recommend trying this place out. It was definitely an experience in a food counter-culture. It's located at Richards and Hastings and is staffed by people who definitely look the vegan/raw-foodist part. The thought of eating meat anywhere in the vicinity of the place feels like sacrilege.

All in all a good afternoon, with books for the mind, sun for the soul, raw food for the body, and a good dose of absence making the heart grow fonder!