Saturday, July 4, 2009

I am Not a Hipster

When all of one’s basic needs have been seen to, irony may well be the result.

Picture the 19th century Oscar Wilde, reposing on a velvet-lined sofa, in his hand a lavishly-frosted cupcake, which he nibbles between biting criticism, directed at whatever curious object happens to be crossing his attention. Too much idle time meets too much vocabulary, slathered across a lap of nubile luxury, and Dorian Grey is born.

The assumption of wit and luxury’s commonalities is hardly new, but examples seem all the more pressing in modern times, with the advent of the (fucking) hipster. Today’s hipsters are widely criticized for many things, including the downfall of society in general, but the irony-clad youngsters have faced few condemnations more damning that their ties to gentrification and generally sipping at the teat of their capitalist, middle aged parents. With 20% unemployment in an imploding economy, but relatively few deaths from starvation, the evidence seems damning - surely hipsters are children of the excesses of the modern world.

But we should recall - hipsters are not without angst. Hipsters vehemently hate all (other) hipsters and refuse to acknowledge their allegiance to this group. If that doesn’t scream self-hatred and repression, I don’t know what does. Inside their decadent, frosted, second-hand exteriors, a seed of neglected sadness cries out like a beacon, ‘I hate you! You’re stupid! Please love me!’ repeat.

It’s here that we should recall that poor Oscar Wilde served two years hard labour because he happened to be gay, and was widely hated by a great many people throughout his life.

Those thoroughly indoctrinated within a culture and experiencing excesses of angst have few options when attempting to rebel - or in the cases of hipsters, they have an excess of options, but none of them truly viable. How does one rebel against consumerist culture while themselves remaining a consumer? How does one reject gentrification when they inevitably bring it wherever they go? How does one criticise the West when they remain the very embodiment of the West?

Well, you have to hate yourself, to start with. And then you become a Hipster.

(And seriously, for the record, I'm not a hipster. At all. Those who have seen me will attest to jeans are not nearly skinny enough.)

Friday, July 3, 2009

Shit, Assholes, and You

Shit happens, and sooner or later, shit is going to happen to someone you care about.

This is unfortunate, because most people are not well versed in the task of dealing with shit.

This makes sense - shit is uncomfortable, and it is smelly, and a healthy and self-interested individual does their best to avoid shit whenever they can. Unfortunately, sooner or later it will happen to you or someone in your life, and when it does your reaction will be one which renders you a supportive loved one or, more likely, an incompetent, insensitive asshole.

Since no one intends to be an insensitive asshole, we must address the fact that there are a great deal of people out there that want to do the right thing and simply don’t know how. They are unwitting assholes, if you will. And since no one likes calling someone an unwitting asshole to their face, I will use the medium of the internet weblog to facilitate: You, sir, reading this, are likely an Asshole, whether you know it or not. But there is good news…You don’t have to be!

Please follow this step-by-step guide to your future as a supportive and caring loved one, and put an end to your uncomfortable history of crude jokes, missed calls, and awkward silence.

1. If someone you care about it having a rough time, this likely will make you sad, frustrated, or even angry. While you can vocalize those emotions to your friend or family, acting them out or taking them out directly are likely to make things much worse. Sobbing every time you look at your cancerous friend? Not great. Hysterically yelling at your depressed colleague? Unhelpful. Saying: ‘It makes me feel helpless and sad to see you this way’ or ‘I’m so angry at the person who did this to you,’ stated at normal volume…Yay! Supportive!

The person you’re supporting likely is experiencing some of the same emotions you are…sharing how you feel is a kind of direct connection which can make them feel less alone. But acting out emotions puts your loved one in a position of having to support you, or, worse, just makes them scared and uncomfortable in your presence. Proceed with caution.

2. Support yourself. Never take on more that you can reasonably manage, and use other support systems to get you through this rough period. Encourage your loved one to seek other supports, and do the same for yourself. No matter how loving and competent, one person is rarely enough - and the desire to do anything and everything you can will often lead to fatigue, resentment, or general unhappiness. This is a bad thing for everyone.

Try to avoid comparing your pain to that of the person you’re supporting. Their pain doesn’t negate the fact that you, in caring about a person in pain, may also be experiencing some pain of your own. Take a day off, see other friends, and make sure you’re injecting enough joy into your own life to keep your caring activities sustainable.

3. Don’t bring up your own shit in an effort to relate to another's shittiness. Your role is to support, and part of supporting can be relating - but only if you’re self-aware enough to bring the conversation back to the person in need.

Far too many people will delve into their own lives and wallow, consequently putting the person in pain into a supportive role. You can tell them of your experience, briefly, or focus on what made things better during your difficult time…but then move on.

4. Think of sadness as the absence of joy.

In expressing your frustration or fears to your friend, or in taking time to care for yourself, you may stumble upon the belief that your friend, in their difficult time, is causing you pain and sadness. This, fortunately, is simply not very true.

The pain of a loved one does hurt - but only as much as you care about that person. Along that line of thinking, a friend’s illness is painful because their health brings you joy; their absence is harrowing only as much as their presence brought you happiness. The negative feelings that tragedies bring is very much the absence or loss of a positive - an assumed future together, the energy of good health, the comfort and pleasure derived from spending time with said person. These absences do hurt, a lot, but we’re a lot more able to cope if we understand their source - the loss of a positive.

A person who’s depressed will often claim that they feel like a source of pain to others - make sure to express that (you now know) this isn’t true. And if you yourself are feeling engrossed in pain and depression, it’s a good cue to step out and take care of yourself before returning to support your loved one. Again, sadness is the absence of joy - so get yourself some joy. Puppies, children’s books, happy dances, a feeling of accomplishment in another area of life…all good, joyful things.

5. Ignoring things doesn’t make them go away - but many people, in times of crisis, retreat to this age-old belief. They fervently avoid the topic of whatever is causing present shitiness, or avoid the afflicted person like the plague. Unless the person actually does have the plague (or something equally contagious), avoidance is a pretty insensitive and asshole-esque thing to do. So please, don’t.

Many people fear that the person-in-question is tired of talking about whatever it is that’s causing them pain…and this is sometimes true. Many others, however, have been dealing with elephant-in-the-room syndrome and would love for the topic to be addressed directly, and either way, bringing it up is the right thing to do. From there, take your cues from them - if they say they don’t want to talk about it, let it go, but remind them later that the offer to talk (about whatever) stands. This is a key skill for those wishing to be supportive.

For those who would rather run for the hills, please remember that the experience of shitiness of often a very isolating one, and your presence is usually greatly appreciated. The person may not be able to ask for help or love when they need it, and even if you’re not a usual support person or a BFF, you can provide a much-needed escape from the realities of being engulfed in a flaming pile of shit.

Try to be aware that the person may have limited energy and is not there to entertain you…you are there to support them. And for god sake don’t invite your friend with skin cancer to go sun tanning at the beach, or anything equally callous…this is a one-way ticket to an irretrievable realm of assholedom.

6. The topic of ignoring can also be applied to emotions themselves. A person experiencing shitiness of whatever cause is likely to be feeling a lot of sadness, fear, or anger. Ignoring those feelings, or trying to distract the person with something shiny, is not a great coping method. Emotions simply…are. Distraction can be nice and make someone temporarily feel better, but eventually they’re going to return to whatever was bothering them to begin with, assuming it’s something fairly big.

Acknowledging and naming emotions, and sitting with whatever implications they bring, is often the only thing that a person can do. It can also be a hugely supportive act - many, many people feel that they should not feel a certain way, or that they are wrong to address their feelings directly to others. A well-timed ‘of course you’re angry - it was awful what happened,’ or ‘I can see how sad this is making you,’ can be some of the most understanding things that a person can say.

7. Address untrue statements if they come up…but only ones you can reasonably disprove.

Some people in pain will use untrue statements as a way to test their supporter. A declaration of ‘nobody loves me!’ or ‘I’m so ugly,’ is an opportunity for the listener to disagree. While this fishing for compliments can be annoying, now is probably neither the time or place to address the behaviour. Give in. Remind the person that you care or that you think they are gorgeous…They need to hear it right now. Alternatively, support the emotion, while making your disagreement clear. ‘It must suck to feel that way,’ or ‘I disagree, but I’ve definitely had times where I’ve felt ugly, too.’

Other statements may represent a genuine truth from that person’s perspective - they genuinely feel hideous or unlovable. They may feel as though their current situation is never going to end, or that they will never get through it…if you see a clear silver lining that you feel they are missing out on, it’s probably worth bringing up. Don’t argue the point, and don’t negate their emotions in the process - they can feel like this pain is going to last forever and know that it will be entirely over by Tuesday…the brain is a very special place where such points are allowed to coexist.

And some points might be entirely irrefutable. A person may genuinely want to die, or may really have lost all hope. Things may not get better. These are realities which exist, and the listener will be hard pressed to disprove them. You don’t have to agree - but the person feels that way, and you as their friend can support their emotion, whether or not they turn out to be based in fact. Feeling sad that they are sad, or sad that they feel that there is no hope, may be all that you can do in such moments.


And those seven points, my friend, are the Key to Not Being An Insensitive Asshole. Apply liberally and often for best results.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


A week of deaths.

Ed McMann.

Farrah Fawcett.

Michael Jackson the brilliant performer.

Michael Jackson the...other guy.

But one I had overlooked...

Billy Mays. Billy Mays?

The ShamWow Pitchman of infomercial stardom? The man with the beard who yells at you until you buy his products?? He died? OH MY GOD!

What a terrible world.

No Menu

What do you want? It’s a question asked dozens of times every day, and we answer, and we choose the blackberry yogurt with the ridiculous fat content, and the red and blue shirt, and the glass of water, and all before getting out of bed. Choice is the summation of the human experience, and for those who choose unwisely or incompetently, it is the very definition of all that makes existence intolerable.

I’ll explain, because for those without said affliction, choice has never been a problem. Such people know what they want. Such people, more specifically, are attuned to their fundamental likes, dislikes, and deepest desires, and they live their lives according to such whims in a way which makes them fundamentally stable and happy.

And then there are the rest of us. The people who wonder whether they like the blackberry yogurt because it really tastes better or because it was so highly praised on that food website they read, and because organic food is supposed to taste better, and whether the blue and red shirt is really cute or if they just think that because their friend has one like it.

And am I eating this yogurt with a fork because I’m trying to be ironic and quirky…in front of an audience of myself? Or am I just too lazy to wash a spoon, because I expect such slovenliness from young adults, or have I internalized the cleaning habits of my family of origin? Such conundrums can easily swallow a mind whole, especially before 9am.

Ask a two year old what they want, and give them some options, and they’ll gladly respond. Studies have been done. Nineteen out of twenty toddlers prefer crackers to broccoli (and the twentieth two year old was most certainly a very odd little child). Broccoli is avoided, crackers are sought out, and a life-plan is born. The rest falls into place. Yet as our tastes mature, we no longer know if we prefer crackers or broccoli, or feta, or pesto or antipasto (or what difference lies therein).

Life has become more complex. Factors of social class, ethnic cuisine, pop culture trends, health benefits, and the cooking styles of mother all take their toll, until our taste buds are eroded and we stand confused in the grocery aisle.

I do not know if I like broccoli at all.

When asked what I want, (what I really, really want), I shrug and furrow my brow and try hard to think of what others would want for me, or what I would want for others, because somehow this is supposed to make things easier. Doing is easier, and in an instant I can incorporate all of the social factors and pressures and influences into a single collective action…or more specifically, a choice. But when options are infinite and the questioner specifies that it’s supposed to be what you want, I falter. I don't know. I think.

I choose…I like…I want…

…other people to like me?

My counsellor shakes her head. This is the wrong answer. I am wrong. I have failed the test. I am doomed forever to wander, alone, in grocery aisles.

This is the collective fate of the indecisive.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Anecdotally Yours

The following facts are true and freely donated to you via the deep recesses of my brain, which is a fountain of mostly-useless knowledge. Most facts are stolen from articles and lectures encountered over the past ten years or educational television of the 1990s. Enjoy.

Nestlé Kills Babies

Well…‘killed’ babies. But still, dead babies. The story is this:

Back in the early 1970s, the majority of babies in Europe and North America were fed on formula, not breast milk, and Nestlé was the major producer of infant formula for these Western babies. All that changed when the World Health Organization issued a statement that breast milk was nutritionally superior and generally better for the health of babies everywhere…Nestlé was not pleased.

As breastfeeding became more and more popular, Nestlé was desperate to make up for the loss of customers and income. To do this, they turned to a yet untapped baby market - in Africa.

Nestlé began aggressively marketing to poor and uneducated mothers throughout Africa, providing free samples, professing the benefits of formulated milk, and in some cases dressing up as nurses, going into maternity wards, and placing infants on formula themselves.

As the mother’s own breast milk dried up, many women found they could not afford to buy Nestlé’s no-longer-free infant formula. Their babies starved to death. Others did not have electricity or refrigerators necessary to keep the formulas cooled and heated appropriately. Their babies died of infection. And countless others did not have access to a clean water supply necessary to prepare the powdered formula. Those babies were eaten away by parasites.

And in the end, over a million African babies died.

This was a long time ago, and a lot of our ethical business laws came to be in the 70s precisely because of the magnitude of Nestlé's heinous crimes...or, what we would now call heinous crimes, which happened to be perfectly legal in the early 1970s.

Today, Nestlé still produces infant formula for Western consumers as part of its vast food empire, but it is strictly forbidden from marketing any infant formula in the third world, despite many ongoing requests and a large hissy-fit in the early nineties. And as recently as two years ago, a nursing coach in Surrey, BC quit her job after employees of her hospital were all invited to a ‘conference’ run by Nestlé to extol the virtues formula feeding…such activities are considered unethical, and are also largely illegal.

Nestlé remains the most boycotted brand in the word. And now you know why I never eat Stouffer’s, or Kit Kats, or Haagen Daz, and only succumb to Turtles on very special, rare occasions.

You Use More Than 10% of Your Brain

Do you find my brain? - Auf der Suche nach mei...Image by alles-schlumpf via Flickr

This popular belief is hard to disprove because there are a lot of stupid people out there. However, stupid people, just like the rest of us, use a full 100% of their brain…not 10% or 30%, or whatever you remember believing was true when you heard it as a child.

Part of the reason that this belief persists is that very few people have any understanding of how the brain works at all, and no one understands it completely. However, every person who’s ever read a CAT scan, or a functional MRI, or completed three years of a degree in behavioural neuroscience knows…people use all of their brains. All the time. Every neuron has a function as is being constantly used; the only variance is in the intensity of activity in different structures and parts of the brain. But every neuron is being used, at least a little bit.

Which is why, when a person gets shot and loses half of their head, the emergency room doctors don’t respond by saying ‘Oh, no worries, that was part of the 90% of his brain that he wasn’t using. He’ll be fine!’

And if that doesn’t convince you, perhaps this will…the entire concept of using 10% of your brain emerged in the 1930s as part of an advertisement campaign. A company selling flash cards which were supposed to improve mental acuity to make you into the next Einstein insisted to would-be consumers: “You only use 10% of your brain.” Their product, assumedly, could help you use the rest of it, and the slogan, repeated over and over, made its way into the popular culture as an anecdote, a phrase, and a ‘fact.’

And now you know.

And finally...

Image by kalandradolphin's dancekas via Flickr

Dolphins are Assholes

Pretty and intelligent they may be, but your flippery friends are not the cuddly marine mammals that animal advocates would have you believe.

For starters, dolphins regularly practice infanticide. Much like lions, male dolphins regularly kill the offspring of their rivals in order to expediate the impregnation of the bereft mother. There is also a great body of evidence that some dolphins enjoyed killing babies so much that they then began to practice their skills on infant porpoises...the bodies of battered baby porpoises began washing up on the beaches of Northern Scotland, causing a great deal of environmentalist alarm, and until finally the deaths were traced back to a wayward band of lovable dolphins.

And when it comes to getting female dolphins pregnant to start with, dolphins love to gang rape. A group of three or four male dolphins will cordon a female off from the pod, bite and beat her repeatedly, and have sex with her for days at a time before finally releasing her. Many female dolphins die during this violent act, or miscarry as a result. Which makes one question the Darwinian benefit of male dolphins' actions...the only conclusion I can reach is that dolphins are the modern incarnation of Satan himself.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Ode to a Stomach Flu

You have very little to do with the stomach at all, which remains precipitously empty for several days as I writhe and moan and wish for death.

Evacuation orders have been sent to every ounce of energy in my body, and the essence of all that once was food escapes from the most convenient orifice.

I cry, and then remember that I must conserve my precious salty tears.

A piece of toast, a watering mouth, a hand grenade when the pin is pulled…you are all the same to me now.

And through feverish chills I wonder what could have been - what was - what you’ve taken from me, and what life there could have been in the weeks you’ve etched away.

Oh, nightmarish bacterial infection, you are.

Liquor and Happiness

I have held a variety of jobs of mild to moderate interest, and most relied on the menial labors which are the basis of a thriving economy. One such position was at a liquor store - a position made all the more interesting due to a quirk in Ontario law, which allowed me to be hired at eighteen, an age when I could not, myself, buy the liquor which I was selling to others.

I inevitably felt like an alcoholic might, ringing in throngs of purchases of forbidden fruit, learning to recommend and describe to the most discerning of palates, having never tasted a drop. Well, that wasn’t entirely true, but in the vast shelves of a liquor store it may as well have been. I performed my job well, but with an air of sadness, passing on to others everything that I could not myself possess, and sometimes reduced to red hot tears.

Bitch, cunt, stuck-up government brat…the insults rolled off the tongues of angry would-be customers, thrown over a shoulder as they stormed out the door. Flip flops smacked against the sand and they were gone, and I tried not to take things too personally. I performed my duties responsibly, erring on the side of caution, but always with a tone of respect. I suggested perhaps that they come back later if they find another, valid ID, with a more clear photo, and that should they choose to, we’d be open till ten.

These suggestions fell on deaf ears, burning with rejection and the loss of precious booze, brimming with hostility and defensiveness. We could all see through it, the bravado, the practiced smiles, and when they looked back at us, they saw themselves. Except we had the power. Their aim was to bring us down a notch.

“I love this job,” a coworker said, genuinely, as he restocked a beer cooler. “Because people are so happy to buy liquor, and I get to take that happiness away.”

For me, it was never quite so sadistic - I was merely playing my part in a complicated societal play. Their role was that of an underage drinker trying to purchase bad booze with a bad fake ID. My role was to make their lives slightly more difficult, so that they would need to employ a friend, or get better ID, or steal and then water down their parent’s booze; it’s a Darwinian principle, really.

But I admired the pleasure my coworker lapped up as he turned them away and back to the street, cussing and empty handed. There was a sparkle in his eyes that never appeared in mine, and sometimes I see it in others - in bus drivers pulling away from a stop (just before a screaming pedestrian reaches their door), in McDonald's employees who respond to rude customers by diligently salting the cholesterol-laden fries. Somehow, I think, they may have discovered a slightly perverse definition of True Happiness.