Thursday, 28 March 2013

What I Don't Know For Sure...

Hello Friends.

A few years ago, I worked at a retail chain that was descending into bankruptcy. Refusing to acknowledge that is was the business model itself that was flawed, upper management blamed us lowly employees and spent what remained of its cash on an expensive set of videos about customer service training. Every week, we would have to watch a new "lesson" on one of these videos and fill out a worksheet. The host of these videos was a weak-chinned, hair-gelled motivational-speaker type named Kevin. Kevin would wax and wane about simple service ideology like he'd just thought of it himself and couldn't wait to share it ("Find out what your customer is looking for and give them that product or service"--holy shit, really? Back up, Kevin).

The indignity of being condescended to for half an hour every shift was compounded by the fact that we couldn't practically apply a great number of the "tips" in this particular workplace because we lacked the resources to do it. One of the main points Kevin kept returning to was, "Don't BS your customers. If you don't know something, don't be vague, find out the answer and tell them." Kevin always used the euphemistic BS when he meant bullshit, but it wouldn't have mattered what phrase he applied because our corporate model was built on bullshit and every answer we gave had to be purposefully vague. For instance, we sold coupon books that had vouchers you could apply throughout the year (2 for 1 this in January, a free that in February, and so on). We had to keep selling these coupon books to hit corporate quota even though our neighbouring stores were closing all around us, and we were likely to be shut down next, and so most of these coupons could never be used. Customers would ask, "So you guys are staying open, right? If I buy this I'll be able to come here and use these coupons?" And we would go, "Yeeeahhhh...?" when in fact we had no idea if we were staying open another month. We were even encouraged to pre-sell items to customers without knowing whether or not we'd be able to give it to them. A customer would pay a deposit for an item we might never get in stock, but we were just supposed to cheerfully take their money.

This preamble is all to say that bullshit is a pretty standard form of communication in business and in life. I think of my friends, some of whom are starting out in professional fields, some of whom are parents, some of whom are both. That's just awash in bullshit, isn't it? If you're a corporate underling, you "fake it till you make it." If your three year-old asks you where the water goes when it drains out of the bathtub, you say, "The sewer somehow? I guess there are pipes?" And then pretend to slip and fall so they laugh and don't ask follow-up questions.

Last week, I wrote about things I feel pretty confident I know. It was a short entry. But now I'd like to share some things I definitely don't know. Unlike work or around nosy, awful children, this is a safe space where I can freely admit I don't know a whole lot of stuff.

Dream: Determine what it is I definitely don't know for sure.

Goal: Achievable. The philosophical idea that goes something like "The only thing I know for sure is that I know nothing" is attributed to Socrates, but maybe it was Mr. Bean. In any case, you get the point. We're all just faking it. But I'm interested to see just how ignorant I am, compared to everybody else.

Plan: Write down a few things I don't know anything about so I have a public record of topics about which I am clueless. For instance:

  • If microwaves make things hot in just seconds, why don't we just replace ovens with big microwaves? Why can't a microwave roast a chicken or bake a ham?
  • Why is the studio audience always fully lit on Ellen? Aren't they all just baking under tv lighting for an hour? I don't want to see them.
  • Why is it called Planned Parenthood when it bills itself as a resource centre for unexpected pregnancy? Call it Unplanned Parenthood!
  • Why does it take longer to get somewhere than it does to come back from somewhere?
  • Where did Mr. Rogers Neighborhood take place? Was that his house? Because he always put on his coat and shoes and left at the end of each episode. Where was he going?
  • Why are there such extensive security precautions to get on a cross-country flight, but you can board a Greyhound bus headed across the country practically carrying a lit bomb and a hockey bag full of guns?
  • Why don't we have sweet-flavoured Doritos like cinnamon? I'd eat the shit out of a cinnamon Dorito.
  • Has there ever been a store in history where if something doesn't have a price-tag on it, it's free? I hear that at least once a week from a smart-ass customer and I want to stare at them, and say, "Of course it's not free! What kind of system of commerce do you think we're running here, you unbelievable moron!"
  • Why does the 24-hour news channel tell me to visit their website for more information? I'm watching you, the news, right now. You give me the information! That's what I'm here for!
  • Why do we behave like we used to have control over the weather and now we don't anymore? "You know it's supposed to snow tomorrow." "IT BETTER NOT!" Or what, tough guy? What are you gonna do?

What a sad list. I'm sure there's more. Could it be I don't know how much I don't know?

I just took another corporate training session at work, but this is at another job where orientation is provided by the company itself (not outsourced to Kevin and his 3rd party nonsense) and there is far less bullshit. It's the sort of job and the sort of business model where if I don't know something, I can legitimately find it out pretty easily. But Kevin's condescending tone will stick with me for a long time. Funnily enough, I don't think we got to finish the program before the company completely dissolved and laid us all off, our former customers clutching their coupons angrily. I wonder when forget that so often the guy behind the counter has a boss and a customer both giving him shit. I don't know why we tolerate that, but we probably shouldn't. Sometimes what we don't know will hurt us.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

What I Know for Sure...

Hello Friends.

While it is not the actual definition of the term, it's conventional wisdom that defines insanity as repeating the same action over and over again expecting a different result. I understand how that applies, but I wonder if it makes us all a little mad, sometimes.

For instance, in terrible bouts of vanity, I will occasionally get that little area between my eyebrows waxed by a hairdresser, as I did last weekend. It is not especially painful, and any stinging I experience I attribute to the fact that this method works far better than tweezing the affected area or swiping at it with a razor. The problem is that I'm so satisfied with with the soft and smooth patch of skin that I can't stop poking at it and fingering it, which I'm sure looks super-attractive and also, it gives me pink eye. This has happened before and it's happening again. I had to buy pink eye medicine at the pharmacy today, like the mother of a filthy four-year-old. It's like I'm being punished for my narcissism. Once, the day before a first date, I decided to go tanning, thinking the results were instantaneous. I emerged from my infrared coffin looking as pale as ever, dissatisfied with the experience. The next day, I went on a date with a pleasant enough fellow who looked at me over our third cup of coffee and said, "Sorry, but is your skin getting darker?" The point is, I pay for my vanity, and I always forget.

Dream: Stop forgetting simple truths I always forget.

Goal: Achievable. I know this is an asinine premise, but it bears repeating. I'm trying, as I get older, not to have such hard opinions on things. See more shades of grey, be more open to new ideas. Having said that, there are a few things I know for sure. Or at least I think I do.

Plan: Write down a few truisms so I have a public record of things I know to be true now, if not forever:

  • Having not consumed much of either, I'm still pretty sure marijuana does far less harm than energy drinks
  • You can tell a great deal about a person based on the way they treat a waitress
  • Fat people know that they are fat
  • Bars with a lot of people in them are loud and there is often nowhere to sit
  • Winter is longer and colder than you think it will be. Christmas is not the end of winter, nor even really the midpoint
  • Someone you know really well is going through hard times you know nothing about
  • Stress is healthy and essential, but it will kill most of us
  • Shop for clothes with a well-built friend and prepare for an afternoon of hating yourself
  • It is more awe-inspiring and humbling to consider the world we live in resulting from random permutations of science than the intentional acts of a God
  • Nothing is funnier than a person in a place falling off of thing
  • The popcorn and the coke combined will cost more than movie ticket
  • Some people are legitimately hard done by, but some other people are assholes
  • A house without books in it is not a home

That might be it. If you asked me at 19 what I might know at 29, I think I'd guess at a longer list than this, but there you have it. Maybe this is one of those things where the more you learn, the less you know. I raise what's left of my eyebrows at that notion, for it seems insane to me.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Take My Word For It...

Hello Friends.

I am at a crossroads,
but it's a boring crossroads of a professional nature. Basically, I'm conflicted about how to proceed, career-wise. Part of me thinks I need to wise up and head back to the schoolhouse for education of a more practical sort. I could teach, maybe, or learn how to build boats. I'm probably too old to be folding sweaters for the bulk of my income and hustling for the occasional super-fun side writing gig with no job security and health bennies. But another part of me thinks a great opportunity could be just around the corner and I should keep doing what I'm doing (whatever that is). It could be as simple as one agent returning an email, one publisher accepting a script, one production company reading a pitch, and something fantastic could develop that is challenging and rewarding and exciting. It's probably not that simple, but what if it is? You know?

But this is one of those hypothetical situations that a lot of creative-types face, and nobody's advice is particularly helpful because everyone's outcome is different. I know a guy from a little town
, for instance, who is a really good actor, dancer, and singer. After high school, he opted not to go to university, moved to a big city, went on a handful of auditions and landed a tv series within months of his arrival, and is now touring with a Broadway show. I know another guy with a fantastic, preternatural aptitude for fiction writing. He won scholarships to several universities, got his Masters in New York, got his PhD in London, now he freelance edits for a publishing company and works in a bar. It's all a crapshoot, I understand that. But it doesn't keep me from feeling insecure and questioning my decisions. And I find the best way to conquer insecurity and avoid making any life decisions of your own is to piously give advice to others. I don't have to look at my own problems if I can mull over yours. It's like how hairdressers who give fabulous cuts and styles to other people have awful hair themselves. Ignore my crap hair, and let me advise you, won't you?
Dream: Have an advice column.

Goal: Unachievable. I could never really have an advice column because I don't have random people asking for my advice, and nothing is more off-putting than asking friends to tell you their problems so you can solve them on the internet.

Case in point: Several years ago, when I was a Smaller City James, I knew I guy that I'll call Hot Dave. Hot Dave was really hot, and an excellent fair-weather friend. The type of guy who has the innate ability to make you feel engaging, even if you're not, and he can pretend to care, even when he doesn't. We met at a party, went out for exactly one coffee one time, and though we ran into each other several dozen times at Smaller City's one gay bar, never became more than acquaintances. But Hot Dave had a way of accruing acolytes, and I was one of them. Anyway, Hot Dave had a blog and I, along with a few dozen Smaller City gays, read it every week. Hot Dave decided he was going to have an advice segment and asked for submissions. People lobbed him softball questions like, "Should I still be texting my ex-boyfriend?" or "What should I bring to a gathering when I know the hosts don't drink alcohol?" (My answers, by the way, are No and Cake). 

But ONE guy, a hopeless Hot Dave fan, whom I'll call Fair-to-Middling Earl, took the advice thing to the extreme by asking something like, "How do I tell my adoptive parents that I've found and befriended my biological mother?" How the fuck is Hot Dave supposed to respond to that? Presumably, FtM Earl hoped to ingratiate himself further by placing waaaay too much stock in Hot Dave's opinion, but... come on, man. Uncomfortable.

Plan: Find questions that people have asked of legit advice-givers and offer my unsolicited opinion.

This question was asked to sex and relationship expert Dan Savage in his weekly column
SavageLove  but I will pretend it was meant for me.

Dear James,

I'm an 18-year-old male about to head off to college in the fall. I'm not the best-looking guy—skinny, pale, some acne—and I'm afraid that I'm going to be one of those college freshmen who aren't getting laid. What can I do to help make my potential college sex life better? I'm a smooth-talking guy in some ways, but it doesn't work a majority of the time and I don't understand why.

College-Bound Boy

Dear College-Bound Boy,

The reason smooth-talking doesn't work is that the recipients aren't as stupid or horny as the person trying (and failing) to be smooth. Despite what pop culture might depict, there is no real currency in swagger, so drop the act. Also, change your objective. If you're just looking to get laid, you won't. If you want to find a girlfriend, you might. Finally, don't hold ladies to a higher standard than you've set for yourself in the looks department. If you're pale and acne'd, don't expect a Megan Fox or Kate Upton or... I don't know, Helen Hunt, to give you the time of day. Find your tribe. It'll work out.

This was a quandary put to Dear Abby.
Dear James,
The adage, "If you don't have anything nice to say ..." is easier said than done. When I am tired or stressed, I have a tendency to be less tolerant of others' quirks, and sometimes I voice my annoyance. While my opinions do have a basis, I sometimes feel guilty about insulting or hurting the person's feelings. I envy those who are strong enough to not allow the stress of certain situations to affect them.
I have never been a believer in "killing them with kindness" because that seems to enable their behavior. My intolerance is probably due to unhappiness about my own life. So how do I allow these annoyances to roll off my back and bite my tongue?


Dear Can't Tolerate...

Well listen to you! First of all, I'm sick of the whole, "I call them like I see them" and "Sometimes I shoot my mouth off and some people can't handle it but that's just how I am" thing. That's not a personality trait, it's a weakness of character. I appreciate that you're trying to be more tolerant, but what you're asking isn't really a question. How do you bite your tongue and be nicer? You bite your tongue and be nicer! It doesn't take much to mind your P's and Q's and keep opinions to yourself. And if you really can't help yourself from judging someone's behavior, at least have the decency to wait until they leave the room, and then talk shit about them to other people. It's only polite.

This was written to Oprah's Experts of Entertaining in a 2009 Christmas issue of O: The Oprah Magazine that I don't have a hyperlink for because I "commandeered" a copy from the lobby of my apartment building

Dear J: The Jprah Jagazine,

I'm planning a holiday party next month and we'd like to serve a variety of cocktails, so we need a lot of ice. My question is: is the bagged ice you buy at the store safe to put in your drinks?

-Happy Hostess

Dear HH,

I don't even know where to start with you! First of all, yeah it probably is. People have been using bags of ice at parties for a hundred fucking years, no one's gonna get mercury poisoning at your holiday soiree. Secondly, do you know who edits this magazine? Oprah does. Oprah is one of the most famous, powerful people in the world, and this is how you're going to use your chance to communicate with her? Finally, this party is happening so far in advance that you have time to pen a letter, send it to Oprah, wait for it to be published, go to the store, buy it, and find out? Hey how about, in the interim, you buy some trays, fill the with water, and make some fucking ice!

By the way, in case you're wondering, Oprah's Entertaining Experts also concluded that bagged ice was perfectly safe. Jesus Christ.

This last one is from a YouTube series called Ask Amy where teenage girls write to Amy Poehler and she gives really heartfelt advice.

Dear James,

I really like this guy. We have a lot in common but I don't think he knows about my feelings. I'm sort of shy but I want to be with him. What should I do?



I know people are going to tell you to just tell the guy that you like him. That's what Poehler said, and I believe everything she says because she's awesome. And you probably should do that, if you're strong enough. But if you're like me, the thought of verbalizing feelings of this nature to a crush is terrifying, so here's what I suggest: pine. Think about him, talk about him to your girlfriends, make collages, plan fake dates. Enjoy the fantasy of him for awhile. Yes, there's a chance that this fantasy might become a reality, but if it doesn't, what a terrible bummer. Crushes pass the time. They make bumping into each other in the school hallway a momentous occasion you can journal about for weeks. If the pining is painful, if it crushes your soul not to be with this guy, then by all means, be a mature adult and tell him and let the chips fall where they may. But, if you're anything like I was when I was a teenager, you'll find the fantasizing a welcome distraction, and the possibility more charming than the reality.

It's weird, I don't feel all that better after telling people how to live their lives. I thought advising people would make me feel superior, but now I'm just questioning everything. Who am I to behave like a Hot Dave when I'm at best a Fair-to-Middling Earl? I guess the future will unfold as it will unfold and my choices will create realities with more insecurities and more questions, and that's just what life is about. For something so complicated, it's really that simple.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

The Adult Introvert...

Hello Friends.

This article first appeared in the March 2013 issue of Saskatoon Well Being Magazine. If you're in Toon, pick it up today! If you're not, read it here:

Has this ever happened to you? You meet the young child of a friend of yours who walks up to you on the playground and says, “Hi! I’m Leslie and I like basketball and horses! I live in a blue house and I’m in grade two and I’m good at drawing and I’m happy!” Don’t you just want to hug a child like that?

Then, you meet the new boyfriend or girlfriend of a friend of yours who walks up to you at a party and says, “Hi! I’m Pat and I’m into yoga and the Riders! I’m in a condo downtown and I work in marketing and I’ve got a lot on my plate right now, so I’m just trying to, like, find myself.” Don’t you just want to punch a person like that?

Isn’t it interesting that some of the advice we heap on children is the same we don’t heed as adults? Clean your plate, for instance. When’s the last time someone congratulated you for being “a good eater”? We demand naps of children that we never take ourselves lest we miss a tweet or a Facebook photo of a friend’s homemade dinner or fingernails. And we encourage a kind of forced extroversion in children that, while cute and precocious in a six-year-old, is creepy and off-putting in a 26-year-old.

In the above hypothetical scenarios, I adore the happy, bubbly child and despise the overzealous party guest because they are extroverts and I am not. I was a kid with a fantastic childhood and I wish, in retrospect, that I was more relaxed and carefree about it. But rather than engaging in conversation with my parents’ friends, I was busy practising Stop, Drop and Roll, and preparing my response for when I was inevitably offered drugs (“That’s not my scene, fella! Now scram before I get an adult!”). Now, too, I enjoy a fantastic adulthood, but am far too plagued by insecurities to engage in conversation with a stranger at a party. I’m busy practising holding my stomach in and preparing my strategy should a guest accidentally overdose on drugs (“Hey, let’s cool it with the drink and smoke! If I get a bowl of regular-strength Acetaminophen for the table, will everybody have some? Come on, let’s splurge!”).

But there are times I wish I could ignore my introverted tendencies and let my extroverted impulses rule the day. It is my new Dream.

Dream: Become an extrovert when it counts.

Goal: Achievable.

Remember the viral video that launched Susan Boyle? Of course you do, it was inescapable. A mousy, frumpy woman took the stage of a reality competition show, awkwardly answered a few questions and then blew the judges and audience away with a stirring, show-stopping performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Misérables. The mass appeal of the video wasn’t just her voice, which was surely strong, but the idea that a meek housefrau yielded this kind of power, just by taking a heretofore-private talent to an extremely public arena. I think even the most private of introverts fantasizes about a Susan Boyle-moment where a sudden burst of extroversion changes the world. If she can do it, the reasoning goes, so too may I.

Plan: Determine the best situations to let my extroverted self shine. Situations like:

The First Date. Luckily, through trickery and dark forces, I’ve conned my partner into sticking around for a while, but before my main squeeze came along, I suffered through a bevy of awkward dates, all thanks to my top-notch mumbled shyness. Once, in a noisy bar, I worked up the courage to introduce myself to a real looker who misheard “James” as “Shane.” I wasn’t brave enough to correct something so gorgeous and so merely scrawled my number on a napkin with the message, “Text me! xo, Shane.” Never got that text, but might have had a better shot with the bar star had I said, “Oh, it’s James, actually! And I’m thrilled to meet you, but I have to confess, bars are loud and sweaty and I don’t care about this band and I hope you have a job with health/dental benefits and please don’t smoke pot or write poetry and can we agree that The Bachelor is a stupid show and I don’t ‘split’ desserts, I get my own. Are we down to clown?”

The Job Interview. Wouldn’t it be great to be charming and personable in a job interview as opposed to evasive and armpit-stained? I get so thrown by having to talk about myself that I either downplay my accomplishments and abilities, or lie about them completely. And I always wonder what the right answers are when they ask you to name your three worst qualities. I’ve heard variations on, “I just push myself too hard! I’m never satisfied unless I’m giving a hundred percent!” Honesty can’t be the best policy here, can it? “Well, I’m super-lazy. I hold my stomach in at parties. I steal things from work.”

The Injustice. I really want to work on this one, because I see petty injustice all the time. I’ll be in line at the grocery store and watch somebody yell at a defenseless cashier over the price of eggs. I’ll see someone cut in line for a movie, take up two seats on a crowded bus, refuse to hold the door open for the person behind them. It’s just obnoxious behaviour that deserves to be called out, but for the amount of times I see injustice and don’t speak up, it seems I’d rather drown than rock the boat. And this isn’t as bad as that worst moment…

The Heart-stopper. Have you ever experienced something where your heart stops and your guts churn and everything in your body, mind and heart is telling you to do something, say something, but you’re frustratingly, completely paralyzed?

I once saw a man run out of a store, pushing a stroller in front of him as he ran. I thought at first it was for the child’s benefit, a speedy ride to make up for a dull shopping trip. Then I thought maybe he had stolen something from the store and was trying to make a hasty getaway. Then I saw that he was running towards someone, his wife, presumably, the mother of this child, and when he caught up to her, he cuffed her in the back of the head. I froze. I saw a man strike a woman and was so shocked that I couldn’t move. Man and woman argued loudly, in front of the child, but moved farther away from me. Finally, I grabbed my phone and stared at it, dumbly. Was this a 911 call? Or was this not technically an emergency? What if I didn’t see what I think I saw? If a man had cuffed another man in the back of the head, or a woman to a woman, I wouldn’t have thought much of it. But this was domestic abuse. Wasn’t it? The worst part is that the most probable reason for why I never made any call was that I was afraid of being noticed myself, afraid that this violent man would overhear me on the phone and turn his anger on me. Finally, I grabbed a mall security guard who was walking outside and said, “That man just cuffed that woman in the back of the head!” and literally ran out of there. I’m haunted by my cowardice here. I can make up excuses about being an introvert, but this doesn’t speak to a personality trait, this speaks to a character flaw.

We try to teach children that they are special and deserve to be listened to. We want to instil in them a sense of self- confidence that transcends any circumstances, because we want them to be the generation that we were not. Maybe, as adults, we let too much slide in favour of not speaking up, not calling attention to ourselves, not making a fuss. So let’s not simply speak when we are spoken to; let’s speak up for the good of ourselves and each other. No excuses. I don’t care that you’ve got a lot on your plate right now. Clean your plate.