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Chop Wood, Carry Water

January 27, 2012

Each January, we stick a label on it, and that label says THE ONE. As in, this year is going to be ______. And then we begin to assemble its parts, like a Lego village, like a bed frame, like building a bowl of tonkotsu ramen.

It starts off as an untouched virgin of a year, one that isn’t going to deliver shit by the cubic yard like the dirt-guy who comes to my parents’ house each spring and dumps mulch for my mother’s garden in a mound on the boulevard. To further that metaphor: I know. The mulch looks like bad news but is precisely what the garden needs. And sure, sure, sometimes a year that dawns like a heap of driveway shit is likewise what we need to get someplace good. And yet, no one likes to shovel that mulch; no one likes to smell that mulch; no one likes to contemplate that mulch too deeply. We like looking at the flowers that bloom in August better than gazing at that daunting mountain of shit in April, and the same goes for a year that shows signs of teaching a lesson, building character, or being cobbled together from nothing but work.

When I was six, I worked through each meal to reach dessert, not because I liked anything on my plate. Peas? Gah. Carrots? Fine, but fine is not the same as good. Chicken? A thing I would chew till my mother grew tired of watching me grind my teeth through protein, then I would ask permission to spit into my napkin. Being six was all about the payoff — one that either swiftly followed an ordeal (like cookies after chicken) or which was immediate and unconditional (cookies themselves).

After essentially behaving like a six year old throughout the December holiday season, albeit one who can legally purchase and consume liquor, and knows how to hail a taxi home at the end of playtime, it’s tough to shake the desire for instant gratification. Therefore, I think we tend to perceive a new year that dawns with an attitude as a bad sign of what’s to come.

And so, each January, we snap on our optimist goggles and decide that the brand new year is going to be The Shit, rather that shitty. It’s going to be the one that sees a friend get out of debt, another make a baby, that one dump a loser, maybe someone else find a mate, earn a credential, make a big and good decision. This year will be the year that pays a reward. Cookies after chicken, or maybe even cookies on a plate with nothing first.

By 2011, I pretty much had a standard January refrain, which sounded like this:

THIS year is going to be MY year; I’m going to get a job I at least don’t break out in a rash contemplating each Sunday night; also, I will meet someone who isn’t a complete fucking fucktard and barring that, someone I can spend 90 minutes with, a meal and good conversation between us. Preferably someone who, once we remove our pants in tandem and press parts of ourselves up against each other, isn’t additionally removing his pants and pressing his parts against the rest of Toronto. The Bullshit Floodplain is going to recede while sunshine comes my way instead.

I felt pretty confident smacking an ambitiously hopeful label on 2011 because throughout 2010, I had worked like mad: toward a career; toward getting published; toward completing a book about kids who spend a night island-bound at an amusement park. So, looking back on the writing and publishing bit? Well, it remained a bundle of works in progress, but they at least seemed to be progressing…at a glacial pace, but hey, we all know what wonders the glaciers ultimately wrought.

It was, however, major news that in 2010, I worked hard at my career for the first time since accepting that The Office Job was no longer paying my way through school, nor was it killing time till I get my real career off the ground. The Office Job was here to stay, and I was working it on purpose. In 2010, I “applied” myself to my office CAREER, and it wasn’t horrible. In fact, it was rather great.

I also applied myself to trimming the dead weight. So! Much! Dead! Weight! Ugh.

2011? Mmmm hmmm, I thought. Bring it on. My cookies on a plate after all that applying of self would surely be an even better job, and I felt confident 2011 would be The One, the year that was All Mine. The one that was going to elevate things from ” chop wood, carry water”.

During my first of several ultimately unsuccessful attempts to earn a degree, I studied contemporary American literature, which included a handful of Horatio Alger texts to establish the American Dream trope followed by a reading list of increasingly disgruntled, disaffected and down-trodden protagonists who came face to face with the truth:

Hard work does not necessarily pay. And sometimes, really damn lazy people get the stuff some hardworking person should’ve received instead, if only the world were a fair place.

The works we studied also covered some lesser (but no less jarring) truths, like “bad things do happen to good people” and “good people can quickly become crummy people if they surrender to base desires”. Sister Carrie cautioned that kept women have nice gloves and sweet chapeaux, but they also have seamy reputations and one day (worse still) they will grow old and fall out of favour with their patrons. The Invisible Man is narrated by someone who grows to understand that all his hard work has failed to spring him from the constraints of twentieth century racism. The abject ex-pats favoured by Hemingway, Stein, Ford and others plainly begged to contract diseases — from one another and from their own corrupt behaviour — as they drank, ate, and screwed  their way through a world war. And so on, right up to the 1980s when protagonists shuffled off the burden of trying, failing, and wallowing in disappointment in favour of not giving a fuck in the first place.

In short, I should have known better than to believe that applying myself would pay off in the short-term. Admittedly, that first degree-attempt took place in 1993, and my memory holds water like a tin can perforated by a screwdriver dozens and dozens of times. But still…if there is one thing I have a good memory for, it is stories, so I should have remembered all those books.

An extremely wise woman once told me that sometimes, Monday to Friday will feel like nothing but a job of work, and during those weeks, I ought to plod toward that fortnightly pay cheque, grateful that I walk in at 9 and out again at 5 and get money for simply showing up. And, she was right. Mine are, as they say, First World Problems and if the crappiest thing that happens to me one day is feeling unfulfilled at work, that is a mighty fine day for most citizens of the world.

That said, it makes my spleen ache to contemplate disliking the way  I spend my days but choosing to do nothing to improve it. I worked a job I loved for a long time, surrounded by a perplexing combination of the most interesting people I’d ever met plus three of the most soul-destroying, back-stabbing, politically screwed-up individuals I’d ever met. And so, part of the 2010 policy of self-application was to find another job, one that wasn’t perhaps as esoteric, but where my days would not be punctuated by a colleague reciting her list of reasons why First Nations people in Canada deserved the cultural eradication they experienced through the mid-twentieth century. A job where people did their jobs without complaining about the unfairness of having to perform to standards. A job that made me think, and made me try really hard, and where sometimes work would land back in my lap marked “not good enough” and would force me to learn new things all the time.

I lined up several interviews, but of them all, one was especially sweet-sounding and I crossed fingers it (like all those new Januaries) would be The One. Travelling to the interview by public transit, dressed in a suit and heels on a 40 degree day, I fainted midway there and had to sit on the curb awhile after disembarking the streetcar at my stop. Confident I could shake it off and breeze through the screening (which included A TEN-MINUTE POWERPOINT PRESENTATION, FOUR-PERSON PANEL INTERVIEW AND HALF-HOUR WRITTEN TEST), I carefully placed my hands to shield the scuff mark on my blouse from where I hit the streetcar floor on my way down, and got on with things. It is now office legend that I cruised along in a complete brain fog, and in response to the panel’s question about how I deal with high-pressure situations, competing deadlines, and the simple fact that some days I will not be able to complete everything that is required, I said, “I just remind myself that work is just a place I go every day.”

What I meant by this was, if you get stressed about workload, deadline pressures, demanding clients and the constraint of having only 24 hours in a day, you will fall even farther behind, mess things up, make poor decisions and get nothing done. Instead, I basically informed the hiring committee that hey, work is just this thing I do, so when things get tough, I remind myself it’s not that important. And? I got the job. Apparently, on the basis of that answer.

And so, job landed, I applied myself, riding the high that came from deciding to leave an unfavourable situation and snickering from time to time about how I stepped into that business suit, fainted, said crazy shit, landed the job and was now clearly on my way. Cue the lessons of Alger et al.

2011? Imperfect, but littered with some very, very good things.

2012? More like building a good soup. Rather than affixing an annual label, I am quietly layering components, thinking it all through without over-thinking.

One of my favourite and least-favourite things last year was the debut of Lucky Peach, a magazine devoted to grungily reporting on high-end culinary pursuits. It’s a magazine that showcases thousand-dollar knives, international reknown, the F-word, highly engineered denim, and guys putting incredible effort into a meal then eating it like total animals. Its tone bugged the crap out of me, but was strangely comfortable and familiar. By issue #2, a girlfriend and I had figured it out — we were repulsed by the dude-centric kitchen thuggery, but compelled to keep reading because it reminded us of the boys we grew up with and remain close with now.

Our guy-friends have a joke about which animal would win in hand-to-hand combat: gorilla or bear?

This conversation has been raging since approximately 1995, and after many weeks of discussion via our pre-Facebook Yahoo chat group, no conclusions were reached. By that point, the debate had expanded to the various advantages each creature would hold over the other, as well as grave analyses of their weak spots. It’s a debate that continues to surface even now. “If he was allowed to use hammers, the gorilla would win for sure.” I feel like victory in such a fight, were it to actually take place, would be predicated on a similar principle as my theory of work: chop wood, carry water. Whichever animal can set to the task and plod through it without overthinking, this is the animal that will triumph.

In issue #2, the Lucky Peach boys brought forward the identical question: gorilla versus bear. Which would be the victor? This alone has potentially secured my loyalty as a reader, regardless of the alienating tone and content of the articles. I feel like that question demonstrates the magazine’s potential in a way not accomplished through all its pieces about small-batch bourbon, injecting foam into cracklin’, cooking eggs at high altitudes, and locating the king of all noodles in a remote alley inaccessible to pretty much everyone.

I love that fight question in a way that’s tough to articulate. It’s not as simple as “I like it because it reminds me of the boys I’ve loved for 20 years” or “I like it because it’s silly and familiar.”  I like it because it encouraged me to look at a magazine that was immediately off-putting (despite its excellent feature on ramen varieties and assembly), and to not be put off after all, much like the year that starts off looking like shit can turn out mighty fine. And, whether I appreciate their posturing hipsterism or not, those Lucky Peach guys? They work fucking hard. They apply themselves, whether there’s a cookie now or a cookie not till later. And, as I set my mind to another year of applying myself to something that might get me no place fast, this is a work ethic I could really write on a label and slap on 2012.

Wagon Week

January 8, 2012

Right now, my Gmail in-box is jam-packed with messages sent from me to me, things I’ve seen online and want to remember for later. Delicious links marked “important” and waiting for January’s austerity, restraint and righteousness to be replaced by February and a bit of Fuck It, the Holidays Are Done and Gone, the Winter Seems Here to Stay, the Skies are Grey and Like I  Said…Fuck It. These messages have subject lines like “chocolate mascarpone brownies”, “lemon curd with sun-dried cherries”, “a great big gigantic cake for baking and shoving in your face”, “endless wine”, “nothing but non-stop eating, drinking, and eating and drinking”, “the best cocktail syrup of all time, ever” and “gin, seven ways”.

But, right now, it is January. Early January. Those recipe-containing emails will have to patiently wait.

2011 made me happy, and it tuckered me out. It was a year made of good things and frosted with sweet stuff, too. And, the year was hard. Really damn hard. I worked like a total banana, at work-work, at creative-work, at life-work, and getting-it-together-work, and worked at going easy(ier) on myself. In an effort to balance out how much energy I was funneling toward things like learning labour case law, collective bargaining strategies, sussing out a book outline, and wrestling with insomnia, I decided it was ok to say “no” from time to time, to stay home, quiet and idle instead. I also worked to convince myself it was ok to decline freelance work and not freak out that retirement poverty would be a direct and immediate result. Reminded myself that there are roughly thirty-five years remaining in my pre-retirement work span, so quite likely the opportunity would arise to recoup the financial loss of saying, “that project sounds great but I am so busy I simply cannot squeeze 10 hours of copy editing into October, 2011.”

But, all work and no play makes Welltailored a dull boy(ish girl), so I made sure to offset my industry and studious dedication with an equal quantity of laziness, indulgence, insobriety, late nights and activities strictly predicated upon fun. There were cookies…cookies shaped like lobsters! Cookies shaped like bunnies for the lobsters to chase, and pig-shaped cookies to give the lobsters a good run in return.

There were bittersweet truffles filled with white chocolate, marzipan and liqueurs. Parcels of red meat straight from farm to butcher to me then stewed in jacuzzis of port and red wine, bobbing amidst onions and herbs and other things entirely devoid of fibre but loaded with cholesterol and salt and good times.

And, there were evenings on the sofa, glass in hand, head propped against cushions, athletic pants on legs, and nothing resembling physical activity going on. Mmmm, those were tasty nights (and afternoons).

The Collective We says this every January 2nd, but enough was ultimately enough — it was time to call the indulgence off. I’ve said this many consecutive January 2nd’s, and thirds and fourths. Said that I need to give my belly and liver and head and heart and calendar a break, and to become more intimately and regularly acquainted with physical exercise. Actually developing, declaring then attempting to enact a New Year’s Resolution, though, is a recent thing.

In my teens, I believed — indeed knew, just like I knew everything else back then — that I was shit-hot, in great shape, invincible, and destined to never gain an ounce more than I wanted on my frame, nor contract a disease or develop a condition as a direct result of poor habits (because my habits weren’t poor, they were cool plus also great and some of these habits made for such great stories, it would be criminal to give them up). I didn’t need resolutions because there was nothing better than my life at that moment, precisely as I was living it.

Probably in my twenties, I invented some resolutions as a joke between friends or as The Thing To Try. Probably, they lasted till morning, just like the plans my friends and I would cook up shortly before sunrise after a really long night of drinking and chatting and solving whatever we believed then ailed the world. When 30 successfully came and went without a flinch, I suspect I revisited my teens and the attendant arrogance of “why would I change?” Indeed, what could be more awesome than being thirty, looking barely twenty, and still easily slipping into the same clothes I’d worn in high school? (PVC trousers adorned with rubber bats! You can’t buy shit like that anymore! So lucky mine still fit!) Clearly, I was doing something, perhaps everything, right.

But, then along came 2010 and its cousin, 2011, to kick me in my smart ass. I gained weight. Stopped sleeping, not that my sleep had ever been great. Developed horrendous bulges on the sides of both feet, which my doctor swiftly labeled “bunions, with a touch of arthritis”. A condition developed directly from bad habits, for instance wearing high heels and eating too much red meat. Often, I arrived home from work so damn tired I took naps while dinner roasted in the oven. Juggled chores and tasks and pleasure and meals and travel and family and friends and plans and commutes and dates and bicycle rides and skating meets with girlfriends at the park around the block. Attended friends’ weddings and met their new babies and congratulated their old babies on completing high school, earning a driver’s licence, or moving up to grade nine. You get your own locker in grade nine, and have spares between classes. Grade nine is awesome. I remember it pretty well. Grade nine was, well…it was a bunch of years ago. Two bunches…big ones.

Recently, a girlfriend joked, “everyone left our party before 11, and we had the place tidied by midnight. Old age: it’s here!” We agreed that we kind of like it, this “old age” thing. Going to bed early rocks. Not feeling shitty and hung over on Sunday is awesome. Gathering together and behaving like adults is really the wave of the future, and we’re glad it’s the status quo of our present, too. Not so much old, we are at least, at last, grown up.

This New Year’s Eve, we all laid low. Well, perhaps “lying low” is a stretch, but when we lay down, we slept quietly in the top bunk. There was public fun, but of the civil sort. There was dinner with friends, there were taxis and discussions of where to be at twelve o’clock. There was dressing up…there was a replica Michael Jackson coat with zippers and adorned with a keychain-sized Rubik’s Cube received as a Christmas cracker prize. I wish I was the one wearing that coat, but the credit goes to someone else. There was a DJ and dancing and my local spot for a quiet glass of wine was transformed into a press of bodies that prevented people from reaching the back of the space in less that fifteen minutes; a room that normally takes thirty seconds to cross.

I know. I just needed to see that photo a second time. Isn’t it great? The sleeves come off, and the back has about forty pockets, none wide enough to contain anything broader than a straw (which perhaps, back in 1985 when it was invented, might’ve been all a body needed for a night out).

January 1st was delightful. No hangover, unlike previous years. No willing my cat to stop prancing on the blankets and making such a head-splitting racket. No crumpled pantyhose on the floor in the hallway, bits of Bandaids gummed forever into the heels where unseasonal and tall footwear (also discarded nearby) had done their best on the dancefloor to rub my feet raw. The counter was not a city skyline of glassware short and tall, stems affixed to Formica by dribbled champagne. My hair didn’t stink like perfume, my face wasn’t riddled with blanket crinkles. I looked forward to breakfast because it would be delicious, not because I thought bacon might be the only thing with the power to save my life.

This was it. I was going to start the year right, for real this time. I was going to embrace moderation in all things: work; wine; yoga; time with people; time spent alone. Time spent online. Time spent at the office. Time spent thinking about the office. Time spent thinking about the things I ought to be doing instead of what I am doing right now. Time spent thinking about old shit, and time spent wondering about upcoming future shit. Delicious moderation! And what better way to launch a balanced year than with a super-ultra extreme month-long detox? Resolution made!

And, resolution immediately revised. Between bites of bacon eaten for its own sake and not to stave off death by hangover, I sipped coffee and ticked off things I was going to give up for this month on my fingers. Bread. Not just bread but all things made from flour. Not just wheat but ALL flour. Only whole grains allowed. Liquor. Sugar in all forms but honey. Red meat and perhaps pork, too. Definitely coffee and perhaps milk, too, since the only way I really consume it is with espresso. What else? Late nights. Weeknight social engagements. Shopping except for necessities and staples. Buying music and renting movies on iTunes. Taking the streetcar home after work, when it’s perfectly practical to walk. Chocolate.

By the time my plate was cleared, my resolution had ballooned into the sort of insanity that brought me to such an imbalanced place to begin with, and I had begun to scale it back. A month had been reduced to “as long as it all seems practical, or until it becomes so preoccupying that it begins to feel slightly foolish”. The list of give-ups had been tailored to a more rational length and scope. But, it remained stringent enough to actually feel like it’ll do me some good.

A friend emailed me a few days in, asking how I was doing with not drinking wine after work, a thing we both really enjoy more for the sake of the ritual and gesture than for the alcohol intake. I admitted that I was cranky about it, but only sort of. But almost, actually, not really. She told me about an article she’d read online, which claimed a month of abstention delivers pretty much zero health benefit, and that a more sensible approach is to never consume more than two drinks per week. Fair enough. Diets are not like Catholicism — you don’t get to behave like an asshole your entire life then offer contrition and gain entry to heaven when all’s said and done. Your body is unforgiving, and your arteries really know how to hold a grudge. Your face might look younger than your years but nature knows how old you really are, and being good each January doesn’t earn a free pass on eating and drinking like a monster the rest of the year. This is to say nothing of your liver, which can be pretty understanding and will take your shit for a long, long time. But eventually it’s going to get tired of being your bitch.

And so, Week One passed in a wineless, beefless, late-night-free state, and was a success on other fronts, too. All but one pair of jeans refuse to fasten over my holiday belly, and the ones that do were purchased just last week so they don’t really count. The same girlfriend that generously shared the Internet’s advice about not being a total idiot all year and thinking you can make up for it each January also had some tips for keeping day-to-day indulgence in check. The trick is to own one pair of brutally uncomfortable pants made of denim that is utterly unyielding. Jeans that fit across your belly like a board. Pants so rigid you practically have to propel yourself forward from the knees, legs swinging like pendulums from the hips. The moment you can no longer sit down in a chair and consume a meal while wearing those bastards, THAT is the moment you need to scale things back. Those jeans? They are the lifestyle police.

I think she might be on to something.

Over Steak Dinner and Rye

January 2, 2012

Me: Man, driving is so great. If I could do it, i would definitely do it a lot.

H: No, you wouldn’t. Driving is terrible. If you could drive, you would drive as little as possible.

Me: But the getting-around! The not lugging all this shit in bags and arriving home with tired arms and shoulders. I would drive so much. All driving, all the time.

H: I repeat. Driving is terrible, you would never drive.

Me: …

H: Seriously. Terrible. Just because you can does not mean you would.

Me: Yeah, I guess that’s like saying, “If I were tall, I would wear a lot more pants because they would look great on me then.”

H: Right. “Oh, look, I’m so tall, aren’t my pants great? This is great, being tall in pants! Pants are the best, they’re so great, if you’re lucky like me to be so tall.” Totally not how it works.

Me: Yeah. Thanks for driving me home.

H: Happy New Year.

Number One the First

January 1, 2012

Clean slate.

New pants. Ones that fasten without the aid of a piece of camping equipment (see photo, above).

Thirty days in the hole; no sugar, no flour, no liquor, no beef, no coffee. Perhaps. We’ll see about that last one. No need to be crazy about this business.

A little bit of writing.

A lot of stretching.

Hopefully some sleeping.

More of this; less of that.

Breathe. Begin.

Happy new year!

Messy Drawers

November 13, 2011

I live in a really small place. This, coupled with my tendency through my twenties and early thirties to move at least annually, curbed a youth of collecting, keeping, and having no idea what to do with tonnes of junk. I wasn’t a hoarder, stashing triple copies of a single magazine issue beneath thousands of other useless periodicals. Nor did I officially collect. I didn’t have shelves lined with dolls or salt and pepper shakers, special issues of comic books, or every concert t-shirt from every show I had ever attended all stacked neatly and never worn. I didn’t make impulse purchases or bring pocketfuls of shells and stones home from beach strolls and nature hikes. Yet, somehow, I always had too much shit lying around. Cupboards were jammed, I had fifteen pairs of shoes and an entire sector of the kitchen was lined with mugs. I’d leave a small nest of coffee cups at the curb and swipe my palms together…slap slap slap…there, that’s better, so much space freed up! And, the moment I dropped my guard, the Mug Clones would stop by and behold, a hundred new mugs to replace the five I just chucked.

For about five years, I’ve lived in an apartment with only three rooms. Short, narrow foyer with bathroom to the left, opening into kitchen and divided by a half-wall, this lets onto The Other Room, the space that does quadruple duty as bedroom, office, yoga studio and entertaining space. Anything that is not cooking, eating, bathing or peeing takes place in there. (Ok, for the literal-minded, Number Two also does not take place in there.) In summer, the balcony off the kitchen nearly doubles my space, with room for a container garden, maple tree, barbecue and table that seats eight. It’s a modest space, and when I inherited it from a friend, she cautioned me, “it’s a refrigerator in winter, but that’s what the bathtub is for. And, you won’t really want to have people over except for summertime, but imagine you live in the coolest place in New York City, and it’ll all come together for you.” She also shared that during the two years she lived here, the apartment had become her sanctuary, the place she laid low, worked, rested, wound down, and took time to herself. It wasn’t big enough for entertaining, but this was perfect because if she wanted to see people, she simply went out. This struck an excellent balance between remaining too isolated during chilly winter months (when the icy-cold apartment drove her out into the warmer world to socialise), and the dreamy stretch of summer months when she stuck close to home, gardened and cooked and languished outdoors, and took stock during quiet evenings when she neither extended invitations nor accepted ones to go out.

I was a bit concerned when I signed the lease and moved in. Would I end up a winter shut-in, declining valuable invitations to go out and instead burrowing into a cold apartment during the long, dark months that often do my heart wrong? Would I love the personal sanctuary, or go a bit weird around the edges, forgetting to clock enough hours in the company of others, instead prowling my three tiny rooms and developing freaky habits like eating off my lap six inches from the TV and scratching the tip of my nose absentmindedly with my fork? When I was small, my mother often had to make me put down my book and go out to play. “Go see some other children,” she would say. “Playing with people is good for you.” I’d argue that I was playing, I had a perfectly grand game of whatever going on already and couldn’t she see she was breaking it up at a critical point in the action? “Bullshit. Go outside, go meet the girl who lives behind us. Cheryl down the block said she spoke with her mother, and she really wants to play with you.” Thirty years hasn’t made me any more proficient or eager a social butterfly, and a modest apartment built like a cozy warren seemed like hermit fodder. Nonetheless, I moved in. If questioned, my friends might present a different account of things, but I think me and my apartment and my social skills are getting along just fine.

The place is too tiny to house a collection of anything extra, and I like to believe my possessions are minimal, if not flirting with sparse. The first handful of times I moved house, I railroaded hungover friends into lugging 45 crates of books, a dozen boxes of random crap, and 15 sacks of clothes up and down and up and down stairs and elevators and moving van ramps. By the fifth or sixth move, I began to embrace the pre-move purge, and by move number twenty, I’d just plain stopped buying shit. Partly, I learned, like most people do, to be more critical about items and objects, only buying a frying pan that looked sturdy enough to survive a decade or longer, and thinking really hard about how practical (or not) an end table might prove, before claiming it from someone’s trash and dragging it home by bike. Earning better wages also had the curious effect of dropping my spending habits, since the better the quality I could afford to purchase in the first place, the less often things needed to be replaced. Picking up a new set of curtains to replace the old, worn, bacon-stinking ones in the kitchen, I’d hang them, step back and admire my handiwork, then launder the bacon out of the old ones and carefully fold them and pack them away in the closet “just in case”, alongside the pot with a handle, the jeans that tore after a single wearing, and the sneakers with cracked soles that might come in handy if I painted my walls and needed shoes that I didn’t mind ruining with paint dribbles. Now, I accept that if something needed replacing, then it warrants discarding once its successor is hired.

This past summer, a local corner shop/ restaurant/ cafe went into a space down the block formerly occupied by a convenience store, and the owner hosted a kitchen drive a couple weeks before they opened for business, offering coffee and snacks in exchange for household goods. They posted signs asking for utensils, pans, dishes, and small appliances people might have hogging space in their own homes and which could save the shop from making unnecessary purchases while trying to open on a modest budget. I liked the environmental spin of this approach—asking for things people aren’t using, rather than buying brand new stuff for no good reason. Anything people donated that the restaurant didn’t want or couldn’t use, they donated to a local shelter, if it seemed like something practical and in good enough condition to pass along.

that magic way “timing” sometimes has, I’d already put a cardboard box on my table, intending to fill it in a passive way. Anytime I rummaged through a cupboard for something I wanted and came up with something useless instead, into the box it would go. The shop’s call for donations stepped up this process and after an aggressive pantry raid, I had a carton too heavy to carry that far. I balanced it on my bicycle seat and escorted my excess stuff to its new home. In exchange for a cup of coffee, I passed along a half-dozen cake pans, baking trays, some bowls and cutlery, baskets, and things that seemed good for stirring when I bought them but which hadn’t been dipped into a pot in years. I loved the lightness of giving things away, and took a a humbling moment to contemplate just how I’d come to own this much “too much” stuff in the first place.

Despite reflection, contemplation, austerity measures, and grown-up resistance to owning unnecessary things, my apartment, my tiny three-room home, harbours pockets of curious debris. Nostalgic, wasteful, bobbing like the island of plastic and garbage floating in the Pacific. It congregates in unexpected places, hiding behind seemingly practical, essential stuff, things I use almost every day, things I move and shift about. Things I pull off the shelf or push aside so frequently, it should give up the concealed things like a kid who’s really crummy at hide-and-seek. You know, the one who’d pick a bad spot, try to win by yelling ollie-ollie, stand corrected on how that clause works, then turn you in to “It” with a pointing fingers and “she’s totally over there in the hamper!” before running away to have snacks.

But somehow, a single kitchen drawer, one of the narrow ones that jams if you stack the tin foil atop the plastic wrap, ended up harbouring a whole nest of stowaways. A cache of junk so large and so charming that I must admit, after pulling it all out, appreciating and documenting its variety and bizarreness, I carefully put it all back again.

Behold, the walkie talkie purchased seven years ago for a party my housemates and I planned to coordinate using three sets of these babies. We were subletting an incredible, three-storey Victorian in Parkdale, and imagined the hilarity of communicating from floor to floor about cocktail service, ice supplies, the coat-check room, and DJ duties. Instead, we played with them all afternoon and by fifteen minutes into the party, the batteries were dead. By an hour into the party, one of us was barfing in the bushes after chugging a vodka cooler someone had buried in the garden as a joke two years prior during a summer blackout (city-wide electrical, not personal and alcohol-induced). And, by midnight, someone else was discovered hiding beneath my bedroom rug, claiming it made her feel way better just lying tucked in there. It’s probably for the best that our communication powers were limited to a ten-metre radius, rather than spanning the three kilometres promised by the walkie-talkie user manual.

Binding the walkie-talkie antenna to the spaetzle maker was a tangle of ribbons saved from parcels, packages, gifts, and trimmed from clothes. There’s nothing quite like a mess of ribbons and string to keep a drawer organised. And, when you decide to tidy up, it speeds things up by hauling the entire contents out in a big, jumbled lump to fall on the floor and maybe some of it breaks. This can be helpful if you’re having a hard time deciding what to discard. The broken stuff, of course. Definitely keep the rest. Put it back right where you found it. It’s perfect where it was!

Definitely don’t throw out the seeds that failed to germinate, or the herbs that, once planted and sprouted, whipped the cat into such a frenzy that she devoured the entire stand of grass then barfed it on the rug. Hold onto the cookie cutters shaped like hearts while stick to every dough known to mankind and tear even the sturdiest shortbread into gluey chunks. And for sure keep the Break-Up Tiara. It fits so nicely into the feeder tray part of the spaetzle maker. Oh, and totally hold onto that fucking spaetzle maker, even though it’s wrecked every batch of dumplings it’s ever met.

I feel like it’s super important to have a supply of matches at hand, matches in a quantity large enough to light all the fires I might ever want to light, if all the match factories were to cease producing matches at once. Oh, and keep that box of matches, too, in case lighting all the fires ever is still not fire enough.

And, neatly fold and keep the napkin handed out at a friend’s fundraiser, an event where I became very messy indeed, only to discover the fabric was selected more because it took the printed decal nicely than because it absorbed chin-spills or finger grease. It’s really nicely designed, though, and of all the weird crap in the kitchen drawer, it seems like the most sensible thing to retain. the napkin—definitely most important…

Almost. The napkin, actually, comes in second.Well, the napkin wins on the nostalgia and design scores, since it reminds me of a really lovely evening, a really wonderful date, and has a connection to a friend. But, there are other things on the scoreboard, and overall, napkin? Runner-up.

The most important thing to keep? Not the matches, not the tiara, not the walkie-talkie, nor the napkin. The most important thing to hold onto is definitely the single, perfectly formed chocolate chip. Unmelted, unblemished, entirely without bloom, that little pea-sized chip traveled across the kitchen to take up residence in the drawer. I imagine a really determined ant lugging a chunk of sugary goodness down the cupboards, across the floor, deking around my cat, up the baseboard and over the heater and onto the other cupboard, and down the backside where the molding is a bit cracked and stopping to catch its breathe only to discover, like sticking your head through a railing and it sliding there just like butter but ending up trapped, there was a way into the kitchen drawer but no way out. Not carrying its golden cargo, at any rate. And so, it left behind the chocolate chip in exchange for its own ant-y freedom, and a good tall tale, of course, to tell the rest of the ants back at the ant hill.

Inspired by the first ant’s big talk, or perhaps hoping to prove it’s all a great big lie, other ants will follow in pilgrimage, and it seems only right to restore that chocolate chip to its official spot in the kitchen drawer. Not because I especially want a hoard of ants thronging up my cupboard and boiling into the pantry, but because after that first guy worked so hard to get the chocolate chip home to share, and gave up only after every exit route proved impassable, it’d be a shame for those efforts to be shattered by a row of skeptic ants traveling in single-file and taking my cleanliness for evidence that the chip never existed at all.

Chocolate chip, napkin, matches, tiara, spaetzle maker, shitty cookie cutters, poppy seeds and Chinese lantern seeds, walkie talkie…back in the drawer. The ribbons are out.

Cooperation

November 8, 2011

Too bad my pie slices didn’t watch this helpful lesson before hopping into their box and travelling to my house from the bakery:

The Great Worm Rescue of October ’11

October 31, 2011

This guy crawled out of my lettuce tonight, after nearly three weeks spent chilling in the crisper. He was probably in a sort of suspended animation, because it wasn’t until the sausages were grilled, potatoes mashed, wine uncorked, and table set, salad ready to wash then toss that he introduced himself.

Once he warmed up and did a few stretches, that worm made a break for it, past the baco noir, around the radish, straight for the edge.

I wasn’t super interested in watching my cat chase a thumb-sized worm around the kitchen while I tried to focus on vinaigrette and not skinning my fingertips on the vegetable mandoline, so before it got too far, or slithered into the path of an oncoming knife, I scooped up the worm and let it choose a better fate.

Safely aboard a leaf of the same lettuce it had called “home”, I escorted the worm outside to the balcony garden and tucked it in amongst the straggling rosemary and a little nest of crumpled maple leaves. It was almost too cute to document here, cute encroaching on the territories of precious and quaint. If the worms survives long enough to divide himself in half and start a new worm colony, one day he might gather the smaller worms close and tell them the story of the rescue back in ’11, just before the snow fell.

The narrow escape over the colander and the sucking sound of water going down the sink drain. His narrow miss with a seriously interested black and white cat, and once outdoors how quickly the ground froze, how little time he had to choose a good spot and fall asleep till spring. How shittily the lady had treated her garden the previous summer and how dead and drained the soil had become. Barely fit to feed a worm, never mind the plants she lazily attempted to cultivate. Major worm hardship. I think he’d like the ring of that so much, he’d probably work it into the story over a few tellings until it became not a descriptor but a personal title. Major Worm Hardship, brave founder of the balcony worm colony, the one who divided in three and started it all.

My Apartment the Jelly Donut

October 26, 2011

Back in the summertime, I made a pact with myself, to represent culinary things gone awry as much as (at least as much as) I showcase the fussy, perfect little cakes and tarts and truffles and things I crank out of my kitchen. Formerly an avid consumer of food reviews, cooking shows, baking blogs, cookbooks and journals dedicated to pondering so-called good things to eat, I felt exhausted and grossed out by how precious food-talk has become. And, pointing the finger as much at myself for carefully curating shots and articles glorifying my oven, counter top, garden, and pans, I decided I would show the pulp, the mash, the stains, and the burnt shit caked to the bottom of my secondhand Corningware roaster, which no puff of steel wool could ever hope to scour clean.

Off to a good start, I took pictures of blemished pears, smeared pots and spoons, sloppy take-out from a place I would’ve been embarrassed to be seen carrying home (stowed in an opaque sack). Moving quickly from baby steps to serious progress, after a stormy tantrum, I sucked it up that a rodent had broken into my home and ravished the perfect cupcakes I had perfectly baked and which were going to be just perfect for a weekend pig roast. It’s possible I cried, but afterward, I accepted the lesson, “perfect: not always required”. I acknowledged that, in the case of the pig roast and the violated cupcakes, I was in fact baking for an audience unlikely to be ultra-critical: guests age six; adults who’d spent the day drinking in a barn and in a field, under the hot sun. I acknowledged that we’d be eating the cupcakes as chasers to plates full of baked beans and pork cracklin’, while mosquitoes fought us for the crumbs.

And, I acknowledged that just because I didn’t have time to painstakingly remake the bazillion ruined treats, I did have enough time to bake them again by taking shortcuts, skipping steps, cutting out the tantrum and getting my ass in gear. That evening, I threw all the ingredients into a bowl…not just enough for one dozen, but a multiplied for a triple batch, churned them together and spatula’ed the batter into paper liners set in unequal rows on two mismatched cookie sheets. Baked without a timer, pulled from the oven from time to time to test for doneness. Oven door yanked open in reckless violation of the ten-minute rule. (No cake should be disturbed during this critical part of the process, the loss of heat and steam causing the edges to brown then burn while the centres remain underdone, to sink and cave as it all cools in a mess on the wire rack. None of this occurred.) Rubbing my fingers through the icing sugar rather than sifting, plopping whole pounds of butter into a bowl then jamming and digging at it with a wooden spoon till a decent (and delicious) icing came together. I repeated these short-cutty steps five times, and by midnight, my apartment was a three-room jelly donut, smattered with jam and custard  fillings and glazed in a crisp shellac of icing sugar, butter, milk and sweat.

That weekend at the farm, six friends helped me frost and decorate, dumping sprinkles onto pink icing, mini candies in each middle. Lined up on trays and presented with dessert in the shed, they were perfect for that day, if not perfect for my all-time favourite most graceful baked-goods photo shoot. This was not Cupcake Top Model; this was haystack, gravel road, insect repellant, no napkins that’s what pantlegs and socks are for.

But since then, I haven’t written anything, and I haven’t baked that much. I put aside jamming and preserving this year in favour of lounging in the grass. I was the ant. No wait…I mean the grasshopper. The bug that plays fiddle and believes there is all the time in the world to put up supplies for winter. So, instead of a pantry lined with every fruit and vegetable I might wish I could eat fresh come February, I have just three litres of peaches in tea syrup, two half-pints of blueberry preserves with lime and tequila (we already ate two more over waffles and creme fraiche last month), and four jars of white peach butter spiked with bourbon, which I am having a tough time resisting the past rainy week. Oh, and a botched batch of cranberry-pear marmalade, its sweetness so sickinating I’m not sure it can be repaired.

Autumn is here, and for weeks I have played the ant. Fiddle set aside, I have worked like an idiot till I’m so tired I can’t stand myself. Tonight, I came home from the office intending to do “nothing”. It’s funny, because it turns out “nothing” actually looks a lot like “lots of things, one after the other and a couple things done all at once”. I think this is alright though, since one of those things was cleaning the bath before drawing an irresponsibly full tub of steaming hot water and steeping myself till I was blushing and pink. Another of those things was cooking a really massive porkchop. This seemingly responsible task was offset by the fact that I jettisoned my plan of reserving half my supper to take for lunch, meaning now tomorrow there is no lunch except the one I will purchase at work, likely from the same embarrassing take-out place. This time, I might not request a concealing sack. And, another of those things was finding a draft of this story saved weeks and weeks ago, and which I had decided read like crap. Instead of deleting it or agonising over whether the idea was perfect enough or not, I have now just cranked this out. Consider it the messy spoon on my kitchen counter in the background of the photo of the thing that looks rather tasty, but which distracts you while you admire the other things in the shot.

 

If They Spells a Word

October 1, 2011

I really REALLY like mistakes that come from words. Well, the mistakes, I suppose they come from us and how we use the words. Like this one in the photograph — a book dedication I transcribed recently for a freelance client, which was actually quite sweet and lovely, generously crediting his aunt for inspiring his career path and guiding him in developing his professional and personal values. Mercifully, the typed word scans more clearly than the hand-written, sparing his by now quite elderly aunt a vocabulary lesson I’m not sure the lady would be prepared for. There was a moment though, after my laughter had subsided (this was a long, long project, completed after-hours through the summertime, and which competed against sunshine, hot weather and  two other jobs for my time), I proof-read the manuscript…because, I, too, had typed up the offending word as it appears at first glance. Not sure the publisher is ready for that vocab lesson, either. I know my editorial reputation isn’t at any rate.

As for words and the ways in which they go wrong. I feel like there’s a pre-teen boy in my brain, guiding my sense of humour from sophisticated down the path toward childish and crass. I sometimes refer to it as the Twelve-Year-Old Snicker Panel. Run something by it, and if it elicits a smothered chuckle, then you know there’s a double entendre, homophone (snicker), or outright lewd reference in what you just said. Names, places, titles, slogans, catch phrases.

The only thing better is a typo or error someone should’ve known better than to make, or doesn’t know better than to make. Both funny, for different reasons. For instance, 90% of the reader comments posted to online news stories. Thank goodness for the little nicknames we make up to identify ourselves in those forums, because I’m going to guess that Torontocansuckit42 probably doesn’t want his children knowing that, in addition to hating cyclists, non-whites, the poor, and the left, he can’t string a sentence together proficiently enough to pass grade four. Speaking of grade four, I am not above exposing my own wordy stupidity here. In a recent email-based rant against the laziness that passes for news writing at the CBC these days, I informed a friend that even a fourth garder could do a better job than whoever is writing the online reports for that network. I think it took five short seconds for my friend to reply that yes, by fourth garde, we all ought to be spelling and writing better than that. Heh.

This morning, it is icy cold in my kitchen, and likely in the neighbourhood outside my house. I’m taking no chances going out there, considering the blasting wind, the trees leaning parallel to the ground, the squirrels flattening against the lawn to avoid being swept aloft and blown soaring over the fence. The sunshine has that peculiar brightness that, no matter which season, tips the hand of the sky and calls its bluff — it is NOT warm out, simply because it’s bright. So, while my gentlemanfriend sleeps off a super-late work shift from last night, and my cat sits curled into a bagel-shape on a cushion in the corner, I’m eating toast, drinking everything hot I can lay hands on, listening to the random crap I decided to purchase from iTunes last night (note to self: 1 AM is not the time to pick things, even if they do cost only 99 cents), and reconsidering the writing retirement I sent myself into back in July. And, reading up on things I’ve lost track of while avoiding my computer and the Internet this past month. Once the aforementioned freelance marathon ended, the last thing I wanted to do was spend another minute hunched in front of a screen, hands poised like tippy-tappy claws, neck craned, face bathed in computer glow.

And so, while reading a few blogs that I like(d) to follow, and checking the weather forecast over and over in hopes that the number would climb higher than 8, and dicking around on Facebook, trying to understand why everyone but me seems to be freaking about privacy issues and “change”, and searching  for The Perfect Recipe for panna cotta which I intend to prepare at dinner tomorrow night, I came across a food and (I think)  decor magazine I’d never heard of before. Its production seems pretty solid, and I think it might also exist in print (like its focus, which might or might not include home stuff and suggestions for fancying up a place, it was too hard to figure out whether a print version exists, which I suppose is a stroke against solid production after all), and the photographs paired to each recipe, craft instruction, and decorating/entertaining demo are lovely enough to count as a curious sort of pornography. But, the best part? The five-sentence post dated yesterday, about building book-ends out of random stuff such as wooden die-cut letters, glued together with a hot-gun.

“I got my letters at the Brooklyn flea. Its cool if they spells a word.”

That was the crux of the post. Two sentences out of five, both with easily avoided, easily detected, “fourth garder” errors. And, strangely, somehow charming. To summarise: Brooklyn Flea is an event, capital letters all around; “it is” reduced to contraction requires our buddy, the apostrophe; and, they probably doesn’t spells any words at all. In fact, the wooden letters selected and glued into a book-end-like stack for the blog post were strung together to read “dera”, which is not any kind of word I’ve seen before. (Having once written a letter to a childhood friend, when we had a serious penpal thing going on, circa 1989, and joking “what’s up, no letters in two months, what’s your excuse, I sure hope something’s on fire or someone died” only to be informed eventually that yes, his grandmother who raised him in place of his mother had died three months prior, and he’d put writing on hold while he grieved, I feel I ought to be careful here, joking about how dumb someone’s craft project is. For all I know, the poor writer is blind, dyslexic, or learning English for the very first time.)

Yesterday at my office, a company-wide communication was emailed to us from an executive-level project team. The letter was two pages long, addressed a major strategic business initiative, which itself is highly contentious and costly and important to complete, and, there were nineteen errors of the “fourth garde” kind. It was signed off by not one but two execs, which means it was proof-read by at least six executive assistants, and staff even more senior than those executives themselves. A handful of mistakes is still not really all that acceptable, but I appreciate that decision-makers are often not essay writers, or even good email or letter writers, and this is why support staff exists. It’s the difference between whipping off a quick blog post and penning a major announcement about a million-dollar venture. It’s why my dad had a secretary in the 1980s, and why someone else types that doctor’s manuscript (i.e., me), and why the mayor does not write his own speeches. Well, in my city, it’s possible the mayor does write his own speeches, but  that’s because no one else could come up with such crazy crap, and anyone he commanded to take dictation (snicker) likely turned on her heel and stalked from the room once they reached paragraph two.

I suppose it’s about venue. That it’s funny rather than off-putting to see a shittily written blog post at a site that commands incredible attention and enjoys massive success. I sometimes find myself absorbing especially great mistakes into my library of expressions, a vernacular developed amongst friends, an in-joke not unlike shouting “doh” in Homer-voice after dropping a full carton of carnival french fries on the ground. And, I suppose it’s the lingering nerd in me that finds badly crafted language one of the funniest things of all. I almost barfed laughing at David Sedaris’s essays about learning to speak French. Pointing to a tray of brains and asking his butcher, “are them the thoughts of cows?” Purchasing groceries in quantities larger than one as a work-around to learning the gender of words…

When it comes to jokes, it’s good if they spells a word.

Thirty-Eight

September 18, 2011

Started the day in a mismatched tracksuit, drinking coffee from a paper sippy-cup and eating pastry straight out of the bag; ended the day in a black velvet opera cloak lined with creamy white satin, lily-white gloves, and a cocktail called the Kick in the Pants.

Well played, I would say.