Monday, February 28, 2011

Never Say Never

Who could argue with Justin Bieber and the inspirational moment he’s sharing with the world through his new flick, Never Say Never.  Certainly not me.

Besides making money and having fun, the kid just wants to "let people know there's a lot of people that are discouraging in life and that will tell you you can't do something, but you just got to remember that the sky's the limit.

“You can do whatever you set your mind to as long as you remember to keep God first and stay grounded. So I think the movie really explains that, and it's really inspiring."

In other words. if someone says no, no, no (other than Amy Winehouse) you just gotta say ‘yes, yes, yes.’

Bieber’s a living embodiment of where Never Say Never can get you. We all know how important it is to have determination, chutzpah, extreme confidence (and in his case, God and Usher onside).

I’m already on record saying that I don’t disagree with the uplifting wisdom of the Biebster’s philosophy. It’s good. I just have a hard time taking life lessons from a sixteen year-old. It brings out the rebel in me, and probably doesn’t come from what Justin would consider a ‘good’ place inside.

Nevertheless, I’m finding myself trying to come up with a list of situations when Maybe It’s Ok To Say Never.  As in…

NEVER:  use margarine instead of butter in your baking…lie nude on the beach in Goa without SPF 15…take the last bite of anything on my plate, particularly if it’s the chocolate frosting I’ve been saving for last… forget to add parsnips when making chicken soup …tell someone it’s easy to lose weight, you just have to eat less…think water resistant is the same as waterproof…send in a resume without proofing it a hundred times first...tell me God has a purpose for everything…say ‘anyone can knit a sweater, it’s easy’…forget to say please and thank you…or think just because you ‘made it’ in the world, everyone else can.

Anyone else want to add to the list?

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Google’s New Recipe Search: Lasagna Redux

A tiny knife and fork icon has just joined the Google search family with the launch of Google "Recipe View," a niche search that lets home cooks search for recipes in new ways across the foodie universe.

According to Silicon Valley’s Mercury News, Google’s new recipe search function is a response to the proliferation of recipe websites, blogs and the like that are filling our search pages. Home cooks run more than 10 million recipe searches a day (I personally account for at least 500 of those) using Google's regular search engine, and though we all know it works, there are indeed problems.

Do a Google search for a Thanksgiving holiday condiment we all know and love, says the news article, and it will net you its botanical background, corporate information for Ocean Spray and concert reviews for The Cranberries before it gives you the exact relish recipe you’re looking for.

Opt for Epicurious and you'll get cranberry recipes straight off, but only the ones from their archives, mainly from Gourmet and Bon Appétit magazines. Can’t find exactly what you want, then do another search on  All Recipes, Food Network and any other favorite recipe sites you frequent.

Google's solution to this is a new tab, accessed in the same way you access Google's images, news or shopping searches -- with a single click from the home page. The recipe-only search feature casts its net across the entire web, including Epicurious and other recipe-centric sites, as well as foodie blogs.

With the new recipe search, all you’ll get is that. Recipes. According to the people at Google, their team has sliced and diced" the recipe results, so you can set your own search parameters -- by clicking boxes on the left side of the page.

You can specify what ingredients you have on hand, whether you need gluten free, how much time you have to cook, or the maximum number of calories you’re willing to consume on a brownie. If you don’t want to spend three hours making your lasagna or prefer it with béchamel instead of mozzerella, tell them. They’re there to please.

FYI: Google’s new recipe search isn’t the only game in town. Here are some favorite stand-bys.

This recipe archive includes dishes from Bon Appetit and Gourmet magazine as well as other sources;
AllRecipes: This immense site includes recipes created and reviewed by home cooks;

Food Network: Recipes, tips and videos from Food Network chefs and TV stars;

YouTube: This site includes more than 600,000 cooking videos posted by professional chefs and home cooks; Try Mark Bittman’s fennel and celery salad to start off. Trust me on this.

Chow: This San Francisco-based website includes professional-caliber cooking tips, recipes and food-related columns;  Always fun.

To be perfectly honest, I haven’t gone seriously trolling through the new recipe search engine yet, but I have put iGoogle on my home page for easy access to it.  I just typed in “lasagna” to see what would come up, and I’ve been asked to refine my request for better results.  The options I’m given include:
Vegetarian. Worldwide cuisine, Akins (sic), Diabetic, Seafood, Crockpot. Gluten-free, Frugal and Vegan.

So this selection thing is good, I suppose, cutting down on wasted time and all that. But I’ve got one reservation.

Sometimes I find really interesting stuff on the internet by browsing through entries I may not have specifically targeted. It’s like meandering. Oftentimes  a stroll is a nice thing to do rather than rushing straight to my destination. But only if I’m not in a hurry, of course. And how often does that happen? Not often. I guess that's why Google geeks get paid more than I do. They're one step ahead of me, and already figured that out.

So I guess everyone will have to love the inexpensive gluten-free seafood lasagna for diabetics I'll be making in my crockpot for dinner tonight. The search didn't have a box to check under the categories "tasty" or "delicious."

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Mandel Bread: the Jewish Biscotti

I met a friend for lunch today who’s part owner of what I think is the best Jewish bakery in Toronto, the Harbord Bakery. No one (I know) can resist their chocolate babka, cheese danish, rugelach, poppy seed cookies or sour cream coffee cakes. And there's no reason they should, I say.

When I asked my friend if she still enjoyed eating pastries after so many years in a bakery, she admitted, “I’m not one for drinking coffee without a ‘little something’ to go with it.” I understood. Neither am I. My friend Lupe was the same way. She loved her dark brewed espressos and cappuccinos almost as much as the not-too-sweet ‘little somethings’ she had with them. 

I’m with Lupe. Little somethings shouldn’t be too sweet. Fortunately, I have the perfect recipe. It’s for Mandel Bread, the Jewish version of biscotti, the perfect accompaniment to whatever. Lupe loved them. I loved Lupe. So all the ducks are in order here.

Mandel Bread isn’t hard to make, but it is a little finicky because you have to bake it twice. The first time you bake a dough in thick logs. Once baked, you cut them into slices, lay them on their side, and bake them again until they’re perfectly crisp (and great for dunking).

There are thousands of mandel bread recipes out there, but I like the way this one turns out. If the batter is a little too gooey to work with when you’re making logs, just add more flour. The recipe is pretty forgiving. You want more almonds?  Throw them in. Want to add some finely diced dried apricots, cherries or cranberries for colour? Throw them in, too.

This was my mother’s recipe. It pleases me to share it with the cyberworld, a world she never entered – until now.

Belle’s Mandel Bread

3 eggs
1 cup oil
2 t. baking powder
¾ slivered or chopped almonds
optional generous handful of diced dried apricots, cherries or cranberries or chocolate chips
1 cup sugar
pinch salt
3 ½ cups flour
1 t. cinnamon
½ t. almond extract

Beat eggs, oil, sugar and salt amd extract. Combine flour, baking powder, nuts (and fruits and cinammon. Combine two mixtures and mix well. Form into 4 logs. Place on greased baking sheet (or lined with parchment paper. Bake at 325 for 45 minutes (or until lightly browned). Cut in diagonal slices. Lay them on their side and bake again for another 10 – 15 until crisp. Cool. Enjoy!

And here's a link to another food site with mandel bread recipes. But try mine first!

Mandel Bread

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Musical Royalty: the next generation:

I wonder if  Viva Katherine Wainwright Cohen, born February 2 in Los Angeles, is already feeling the pressure. I don't know how she can possibly escape it, poor thing. Even I'm excited about her entry into the world, and we're not even related. Nevertheless, I have high hopes for her future.

Singer Rufus Wainwright just announced that he's become a dad. Of course I'm happy for Rufus, but news of his parental status isn't reason for my relative excitement. Nor, on the surface, is his announcement that the proud parents are Lorca Cohen, Rufus Wainwright and Deputy Dad Jorn Weisbrodt, though why shouldn't I be happy for all of them too, while I'm at it.

What's got my juices going is the genetic backdrop that little Viva was brought into the world with –  and where, if she's so inclined, these genes will take her. Viva's mom is the daughter of Leonard Cohen. The dad, according to Rufus's website is Rufus himself, Daddy #1 as he calls himself.

"Daddy #1 would like to offer everyone a digital cigar and welcome the little lady in with a French phrase from his favourite folk song, A La Claire Fontaine:  "Il y a longtemps que' je t'aime, jamais je ne t'oublierai," Wainwright wrote.

Like astrological signs, Viva's genetic markers are all lined up in perfect order. Not only does she have Leonard Cohen as her grandfather on her mother's side, she also has Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwrght III on her dad's. And to add to her genetic stew, Lorca Cohen's mother is Suzanne Elrod, the woman Leonard Cohen's famous song Suzanne is named after. Quite the grandmother, too. So as far as I'm concerned, Viva was born into musical royalty, with Leonard and Kate as King and Queen, respectively.

So could our little Viva hurry up already and start singing. Her loyal public, moi, is waiting.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Musical Heaven

I’m in love, and as close to heaven as I’m ever going to get. I’ve recently met Radio Paradise. And just as the millions of other RP fans must be thinking, I’m positive we’re made for each other.

The backstory. My husband gave me a Squeezebox Internet Radio this Chanukah. I kindly said thank you, then wondered what I was supposed to do with it.

“You can listen to any internet radio station in the world with it,” he said, knowing how eclectic my musical tastes are. Saying that, he assumed everything would fall into place. “You can get reggae straight from Jamaica, TED podcasts, bluegrass from Alabama, Rihanna and Eminem on a Top 40s station, Soca straight from the streets of Port of name it.”

Problem was, I didn’t know the name or call numbers for any station other than my own trusted CBC 99.1, so how was I going to pull anything up. I felt useless with this beautiful shiny black box I was presented with. But I knew in time, everything would unfold as it should. It did. Within a few hours, I found an All Van All the Time station. Van Morrison 24/7. How much better can you get than that, I thought. Much better, as it turned out.

“They’ve got Staff Picks” to start you off,” my husband said. “Why don’t you tune into some of their suggested stations first. You’ll find something you like. Start there.’

He was right. I went first to check out what my new best friend Andy thought. Of course I didn't know anything about Andy other than he was an employee of Squeezebox and presumably liked music, but what kind, I hadn’t a clue. Andy sent me to Sofaspace, Ambient Radio, SomaFM – Groove Salad and Radio Paradise. I didn’t know where the stations were coming from or what kind of music they coughed up, but the names were fun. But before I made any moves, though, I wanted to check out Ben.

Ben’s first pick was Radio Paradise, followed by selected Podcasts, TSF Jazz Paris, SomaFM Groove Salad. The names were intriguing, so I moved onto Michael next. Mike likes Radio Paradise, DRS3 Couleur3, and the Real Music Peter Gabriel Station.

An entire Peter Gabriel station, too? Cool. But since I was on a Staff Pick Roll, I looked to Steven next. He directed me to DeliciousAgony, Groove, then Radio Paradise. Last but not least was Tom. He was pretty clear. Radio Paradise stood alone.

At anytime, all I had to do was push the button on the dial where their fave radio station was listed. It would send me directly there. But I held back to get The Long View before I made a move. Since Radio Paradise was a common denominator to all my new buddies at Squeezebox, I just pushed a button, and up it came, straight from Paradise, California. I didn’t know a thing about them, so just sat back for a listen.

And that’s when I fell in love. 

Turns out, RP, as they say on their website, is a blend of many styles and genres of music carefully selected and mixed by two live human beings. They play modern and classic rock, bluegrass, folk, world music, electronica even a bit of classical and jazz What you won’t hear are random computer-generated playlists or commercials.

This sounds like hyperbole, I know, (and I am prone), but in my first few hours of listening, I loved everything. I had never heard of many of the recording artists before. I was familiar with some, and some turned out to be members of my Hit Parade All-Stars.

Here’s a selection of who I heard: Pearl Jam, Kate Bush, P.J. Harvey, The Wailin’ Jennys, Neko Case, Rodrigo Y Gabriela, Teddy Thompson, Steppenwolf, Snow Patrol, Lifeboats, Coldplay, White Shadows, Porcupine Tree, Natalie Merchant, Paul Simon, Bjork, Los Lobos, Emmylou Harris, CSNY, Chris Isaak, Robert Plant, Black Keys, Cowboy Junkies, Crowded House, Sam Phillips, Verve, Aimee Mann, Frou Frou, Orbital, Harmonia, Billy Bragg & Wilco, Leo Kottke & Mike Gordon, and last but not least, Leonard Cohen.

I usually listen to the radio while doing a million other things around the house. I never give myself permission to turn on the radio and just kick back. It’s always background music for me. And honestly, since I’m such an information junkie anyway, my radio is usually turned to the CBC FM talk station that has news, eclectic current affairs and arts programming.

But the first songs I heard on Radio Paradise were so great, I decided to devote my whole entire being to the station for a few minutes – a few minutes that turned into hours. I first tried listening while lying on my bed with my eyes closed in order to really relax and get into the music. But that didn't work because every time a new song came on, I started searching for my glasses, raised my head off the bed and looked up at the radio so I could see who and what was playing. Hardly relaxing, but I wanted to make note so I could seek the musicians out again. It happened repeatedly.

Yes, they were all that good. The owners of Radio Paradise really knew what they are doing. That’s why Radio Paradise was on everyone's Staff Pick at Squeezebox. Though I don’t know for sure, they too may be in love.

Check out Radio Paradise. You can listen on your computer, Mp3 player, even iPhone app. Go to to find out more.

RP has a great website too. The folks there are trying to build a community of like-minded listeners and musicians, and they’ve got a knack for pulling you in. I, for the first time in my life, signed up for a Forum discussion.  Love will do that to you.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Purveyor of Social Capital

Qui?  Moi?

A heard a man interviewed on the radio yesterday talking about a party the previous night. At one point in the evening he was speaking with three other people, and in the course of their short conversation, all had taken out their SmartPhones to see if they had just received any messages or tweets. Each of them, he said, were checking back roughly every three minutes.

Whereas I would have been offended, this gentleman was relatively pleased. The experience confirmed his theory. He had recently finished writing an article about the relationship between our use of social media and gambling.

His theory is this. The randomness of who’s trying to connect with us, share a link, send a photo or video gets us into trouble, like gambling. We never know when someone’s trying to send us something – equal to striking it rich, as it were. We’ve lost all boundaries in our social behaviour because our quest for the (random) next hit is so strong. Something really good might come along at any second. We’d  better go check. And we forget to even say “excuse me” when we do. Cuz we’re addicted.

We’re simply Purveyors of Social Capital, he says. We’re using social media to create community, and we need it bad. Unlike face-to-face interaction, messaging with anyone in the world can be instantaneous. And the randomness of possible interactions means they can come at any moment. You never know, do you?  Nope, better go check.

I understand what the guy is getting at. I’ve found myself pulling out my cell to check for texts or messages –  in the middle of a meeting, walking across the street, while in conversation with my husband. I never thought it would happen, especially since I hate it so much when someone else does it. But yes, it’s become a bit compulsive. Who and what could possibly be so important that I can’t wait a few minutes, even hours? Please, tell me.

You can’t.  So I’ll tell myself. Maybe one of my kids needs me. Well, maybe they do. But at this very moment? Most likely not (and they’re just my excuse, anyway). But since an emergency call could come in any second, i.e. randomly, I lose my boundaries, not to mention scruples and marbles. I wind up pulling out my phone, which is tantamount to telling (implicity, not explicity) the person or people I’m with that someone else may be more important at this moment than you are (like call waiting). I’ll just check to find out. Be back shortly.

It’s time for me to set better boundaries. No longer a constant Purveyor of Social Capital will I be. I’m taking this so seriously, I’m off to a birthday party tonight and will leave my cell phone on the kitchen table while I’m gone, charging. I'll try cold turkey.

I'll let you know asap how it goes. Check back soon. But since you won't know exactly when I'll be getting home, you better make that often, not just soon. That's the problem with randomness.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Spring Sprung?

The weather here in Toronto moved into double digits (Celsius) yesterday. It was a treat. We’re all getting sick of winter, right on schedule. Every year, right about now, we start complaining about the winter, though efforts are made to hold off as long as humanly possible.

I actually try not to complain at all. It’s not that I like winter. I once did, but now don’t. Seriously don’t. I’m quite sure it’s got something to do with age. Don’t skate or ski anymore, hate the slush, hate the cold, hate the ice and worry about falling on the damn stuff.

But I don’t complain, at least not in conversation. I have other problems. I happen to be one of the few people (besides my husband) who absolutely can’t stand the heat. Warm is good, so is sun, but not hot, steamy weather. It just does me in. It makes me wither. I don’t want to move in it. You want me to do something for you? Ask me in spring, fall or winter.

So I give myself permission to complain about summer. Winter?  No. I decided it’s just not right to complain about more than one season if you don’t want to sound like an unhappy crank.  Plus, I don’t need to complain. Everyone else is doing a fine job.

Though the temperature dropped back down today, signs that spring is on it’s way seem to be buoying my neighbors’ spirits. And that, too, is a treat.  Hope springs eternal for spring, especially on Toronto Island where I live. The backyard naturalists are coming out of hibernation and starting to share their sightings.

The first one came a few days ago as an email on the “egroup” we have in our community. The egroup is a place for neighbors share info about upcoming events, items for sale, bicycle thefts, search for lost mittens and now, thoughts of spring.

My neighbour’s subject head read: Snowdrops in Bloom!

“We have a big clump already flowering. To join in the early snowdrop race, watch where the afternoon sun 
hits your yard these days, and where the snow melts first. If you can 
find some spots by south or west-facing walls, they will work best. 
Then stick markers in, and plant some snowdrop bulbs there in the 
fall. It's easy, and it works.”

Lovely. A day later, the next one showed up. Subject head: The mergansers are courting like crazy

“The mergansers are courting like crazy.
The snow it is fading away

I went for a walk with no gloves on –.
And guess what?
It was really okay.” 

Because our sidewalks are always a “mess” in our community once the snow melts, I responded to my neighbour with my own, albeit more smartass email. I couldn’t help myself.  My missive? “Spring is sprung? Watch out for dung.”

A note on today’s egroup alerted us: “spotted, a lone trumpeter swan just off the wall in the eastern gap.” I’ll be out soon for a look.

And at a dinner party last night, our hostess told us she had that day heard the beautiful sweet song of the white-throated sparrow. It’s a much-loved bird around these parts, one that generally flies though sometime in April.

Though sorry to burst her bubble and sound like a curmudgeon, I had to tell her. “I think it most likely was the spring call of the chickadee. It sounds remarkably similar to the white throat.”

She agreed. “But the spring song of a chickadee is still pretty exciting.” I couldn’t agree more.

Fortunately, I have lovely neighbors who delight in spring and all that comes with it. I’d hate to live next door to Dorothy Parker. This is what she had to say about spring.

“Every year, back comes Spring, with nasty little birds yapping their fool heads off and the ground all mucked up with plants.”

I’m going to search around on the internet now in case Dorothy has a little negative something to say about the unbearable days of summer. Something I can actually relate to.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Sluts 'r' Us

A police officer in Toronto who suggested women can avoid sexual assault by not dressing like “sluts” has apologized, saying he is “embarrassed” by the remark and that assaulted women are “not victims by choice.”

The apology, made one month and a lot of bad press after the remark, is undoubtedly a good thing. I don’t need to add much to what the officer said. He got it right this time around.

But does he really believe what he said in the apology? Or was he told what to say because of the controversy brought on by his remarks. The guy’s been on the police force for years. Did his worldview about women honestly change in just a matter of days?

I know this sounds heretic, but I think it’s good that the police officer said what he did about women ‘asking for it’ by the way they dress. Though comments like his cause damage (and this one probably has), it’s important we know what people really think, especially if they're in important places or wield power, like on a police force.

I am sure the officer is not the only one in the police force to think the way he does. The difference between him and the others is that he was stupid enough to say what he thinks. The others probably know (or were taught) when best to keep their mouths shut.

A lot of narrow-minded people, misogynists, racists and just plain insensitive creeps are walking around out there. Perhaps we need to be reminded from time to time if they're in high places.

It’s easy to be complacent and think everyone thinks the way we do (whatever that may be) if we hang around with like-minded people. And if you happen to be a person not overly fond of racism, misogyny, anti-semitsm, or anti-Muslim thinking, for example,  you might be led to believe, from what people say publicly, that such narrow-minded sentiments have long been weeded out from our major public, political and corporate institutions. 

Not true. We are living in a time of political correctness. Politicians and corporate executives have handlers. They’re being trained about what is and is not acceptable to say in public. But what they say isn’t necessarily what they’re thinking. Unless they blunder and shoot from the hip, we’ll never know. Therefore, if we trust their scripted banter, it's easy to think they’re ‘nice’ people with ‘nice’ policies. Let’s buy their products. Let’s vote for them. Let’s put our trust in them.

So I liked it, in my own sick way, when Tony Hayward, BP's chief executive said, after the oil spill last summer, that he would "like his life back." It was a tactless comment, considering that 11 workers had been killed.

But it did let us know exactly how much, or how little, he really cared about what had happened. It helped us better understand how it was possible for Mr Hayward to spend the day sailing off the Isle of Wight as confusion raged over who was in charge of the clean-up operation (and therefore, no clean-up action could be taken).

I don’t know whether sufficient remedial follow-up will be taken within the Toronto police force. I don’t know if BP or Mr. Hayward will pay a ‘price’ for the harm they’ve done to communities in the U.S. south, not to mention the environment.

I can only take a little hope from the case of Mel Gibson (I know, it’s a long stretch from Mel to Toronto and BP). But Mel’s career did completely fall apart after his arrest in 2006 for drunk driving. While handcuffed in the car, Gibson asked the arresting officer if he was Jewish. When he said he was, Gibson supposedly said: Fucking Jews...the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world." It's not a good thing to think if you make your living in Hollywood.

Gibson is not the only mislead soul to think this about Jews. But since he does, let’s get perfectly clear about it. IMHO, his film Passion of the Christ was as anti-semitic as you can get, but somehow that didn’t get him into the requisite hot water it should have. Therefore, I'm thankful (in my odd way), about the remarks.

So let’s let people blunder, say what they think in those unguarded moments. Yes, let’s take them to task, but be quietly glad at the same time that they’ve exposed their true colours.

I’m hoping, but not necessarily confident, the American public will get a good glimpse of Sarah Palin’s stupidity because of the blunders she makes in the media, and therefore not vote for her. But I worry she’ll get ‘trained’ out of her spontaneity and start talking sensibly or intelligently. Alas, so far, I needn’t worry.

In November of last year, Palin was appearing on uber right-wing Glenn Beck’s radio show. When asked how she would handle the current hostilities between the two Koreas, Palin shot back. "But obviously, we've got to stand with our North Korean allies."

Her lack of knowledge about who is and is not a U.S. ally should be enough to scare the American public, but then again, George Bush got elected twice, and he was the guy who when asked what was talked about at a recent summit he attended as President, said, “We spent a lot of time talking about Africa, as we should. Africa is a nation that suffers from incredible disease."

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Six Word Memoirs

Never really finished anything – except cake.
Graduated college without coffee or internet.
Searching for girlfriend. Got hamster instead.
And I still make coffee for two.

Everyone has a story. Can you tell yours in six words like those above? It’s a fun challenge, one I plan to take really soon.  Alas. Procrastination: the story of my life.

Six-Word Memoirs is a project founded by the U.S.-based online storytelling magazine, Smith Magazine. Similar to the overall aim of Smith Magazine, Six-Word Memoirs is participatory in nature. They welcome contributions from its readers. Have one? Enter it online at

I intend to do so, but I’ll have to come up with a different one than I created above. I wasn’t being completely honest when I said that about procrastination. I’m usually quite good at getting a job done. For the past few years, I’ve been writing a memoir, and the first draft of my manuscript has come in at 99,000 words (typical for a regular-length book). Being that I can’t easily sum it up in six words (though it’s probably an excellent exercise for me), I’ll try out the following instead:  Will I Ever Find a Publisher?

Smith was founded in 2006 by Larry Smith and Tim Barko. Taking a cue from novelist Ernest Hemingway, who, according to literary legend, was once challenged to write a short story in only six words, Smith Magazine set out to do the same. The six-word story that started it all: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

In November 2006, Smith' editors gave the six-word story a twist. They asked readers to tell their life story in just six-words.

In 2007, the Six-Word Memoir book series was born with Not Quite What I Was Planning. A second, expanded version is titled It All Changed In An Instant. 

In addition to covering everyday people with everyday stories, Smith has also attracted a number of famous Six-Word Memoirists:

    * Stephen Colbert: "Well, I thought it was funny"
    * Joyce Carol Oates: "Revenge is living well without you"
    * Joan Rivers: "Liars, hysterectomy didn't improve sex life!"
    * Aimee Mann: "Couldn't cope so I wrote songs"
    * Terry McMillan: "I have to constantly reinvent myself"    
    * Dave Eggers: "Fifteen years since last professional haircut"
    * Chuck Klosterman:  "Nobody cared, then they did. Why?"

Smith’s vote for Best Wordplay?  “Living in existential vacuum; it sucks.”

I’m going to end with a rather profound and moving story about a six-word memoir that was relayed to the people at Smith on a radio show. But before I do, I’d like to encourage you all to write your own six-word memoirs. I can already see that it’s easy to create more than one, though I like the idea of coming up with THE ONE – one that takes a good long overview of your life and in essence, sums it all up in six words:

Is it possible? I don’t know.

Now the story. Anne from Hell’s Kitchen in New York shared her six-word memoir, “I found my mother’s suicide note.” She talked about how important it was for her to come to terms with her mother’s death, and the role of the note in that process. The note, she explained, was just six words: “No flowers, no funeral, no nothing.”

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Truth, Lies, Vaccines and Autism

 A true tragedy should evoke pity and fear on the part of the audience.

So said Aristotle more than two thousand years ago. Fear and pity create emotional cleansing (catharsis), he said, and though he couldn’t possibly know it, they sell newspapers, too. If you’re going to give the public bad news, play it up. Make sure they feel pity, and give them something to fear.

That’s why the recently re-emerged scandal about the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine and its (non) link to autism continues to make headlines around the world. The story, going back to 1998 when Dr. Andrew Wakefield announced a link between the two, has created an enormous amount of press. Readers are given grieving parents of children with autism to feel sorry for as well as fear and loathing of vaccines. Bingo. News desk editors found a goldmine with this story, and they’ve been playing the Pity and Fear Card ever since.

Unfortunately, in the wake of selling newspapers and giving the public what it craves, a lot of misinformation has traded hands.

Then Brian Deer came along. He’s an investigative news reporter for the London Sunday Times newspaper. On a routine assignment for the paper seven years ago, Deer was asked to follow-up on a story about Dr. Wakefield.

In the course of his research since 2004, Deer discovered that Wakefield had a major conflict of interest when he presented his research. Contrary to the “dispassionate scientist” he represented himself as, Wakefield was paid $750,000 by lawyers representing scientists developing an alternative vaccine to replace MMR. He was thereafter paid on an ongoing basis to keep the story brewing.

Wakefield’s data was found to be skewed and manipulated. The children studied didn’t necessarily have autism nor did they develop problems after the vaccine was given. He selected and recruited cases. He didn’t report symptoms correctly He changed diagnoses.

After seven years of ongoing study and court cases, judges allowed Deer and a medical panel to review the medical charts of children cited in Wakefield’s study. Public hearings were held for 217 days. The verdict. Autism? No. Within 12 days of receiving the vaccine? No.

Wakefield has been found guilty of three dozen charges of fraud, four of dishonesty, and twelve involving the abuse of developmentally disabled children. His medical license was revoked in 2010 and the medical journals he was originally published in – Lancet and the British Medical Journal – have called his research findings an “elaborate fraud.” Did they think he may have made a mistake in his research? Might he merely be incompetent? “No,” they said. He intended to mislead.

I heard Deer at the Ryerson School of Journalism today. Speaking to budding journalists, he emphasized the role newspapers played in the scandal by courting an audience through fear and pity. Front page photographs of teary-eyed mothers holding their disabled children sell newspapers. Courting fears about vaccines sell newspapers, too. So much so, an epidemic of mumps erupted in England in 2008 based on the reduced numbers of children being vaccinated.

But most importantly, Deer cited the shabby and oftentimes complete lack of homework from journalists covering the story.

In 2004, ten of the thirteen doctors who originally reviewed Wakefield’s studies withdrew their claims that the study was valid. Instead of looking closely at their evidence or how their original review of Wakefield’s data had been faulty, the headlines were asking “Is Wakefield being grievously smeared and abused?" Was there a conspiracy to debunk him? Was he a victim of Big Pharma or other dark forces? Was he David to their Goliath?

Deer is sympathetic to the strong (and large) lobby of parents who have children with autism who see Wakefield as a brave hero who dared to stand up and take on the medical establishment, only, in the end, to be crushed by them.

No amount of scientific data or ‘expert opinion’ is going to change minds about Wakefield or connection between the vaccine and autism. People cling to their conspiracy theories, and it’s understandable. Governments perpetrate conspiracies. Corporations, including Big Pharma have themselves created false data. Experts lie.

That’s why we need good, old-fashioned slogging journalists like Brian Deer. But in the day and age of newspapers with reduced budgets, they can’t afford to pay people like Brian to do the tedious and prolonged investigations required to get to the bottom of stories like this. And not everyone knows how to ask the right questions.

Deer worries about this, too, and believes the internet may feed into the problem. “This story reminded me of the HIV doesn’t cause AIDS campaign.  The internet can be a superb “crank magnet” and source of misinformation. It can bring people together who are nasty, not well-meaning or have axes to grind. It becomes a vortex of dissent and confusion.” Fears can be kept alive in this new environment, he says, because people pass themselves off as experts. “In previous decades, people could be abusive in their own communities. Now they can go online and fan flames internationally. They draw people together and galvanize them in a cause.”

We mustn’t underestimate the need for solid, fact-finding journalism, especially in stories that make us feel pity and fear. If we don’t demand it, lazy or sensation-seeking journalists are just adding to the pool of people, like Wakefield, who know how easy it is to manipulate us with stories about good and evil.

The world is so much less complex when we know who’s good and who’s bad. That’s why we need more people like Brian Deer when the two are hard to tell apart.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Nerd or Intellectual Disability: Where's the line? Is there one?

This blog is about a television show on Corus Entertainment’s YTV network (the Y stands for Youth). It’s called It’s So Weird, and contains a skit series called Daniel Book, a takeoff of a children’s show called Daniel Cook.

Daniel Cook is good. Daniel Book is not. I consider it so insensitve,  I'm hoping it will be removed immediately from the air (with apology). But I’ll get to that later.

Before you read any further, please take a glimpse at the shows in question so you'll have some idea what I'm going on about:

If you don't have time for a look, please read on anyway. I start out with what may appear like a digression from the tv show issue, but it's not. Bear with me.

The term nerd has been thrown around a lot in recent years, possibly attributable to the rise of the computer industry and reference to some people as computer nerds. Because of it, our culture seems to have shifted somewhat, from socially ostracizing nerds to celebrating them as we watch 'nerdy' people like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg accumulate large fortunes and other measures of social prestige despite their social awkwardness.

According to Wikipedia, nerd is a term for a person who avidly pursues intellectual activities, technical or scientific endeavors, esoteric knowledge, or other obscure interests, rather than engaging in more social or conventional activities. It often carries a derogatory connotation or stereotype.

The nerd may be awkward, shy and unattractive. Therefore, a nerd is often excluded from physical activity and considered a loner by peers…at some point, the word nerd took on connotations of social ineptitude (emphasis mine, not Wikipedia’s).  

The first documented appearance of the word 'nerd' was the name of a creature in Dr. Seuss's book If I Ran the Zoo (1950), in which the narrator Gerald McGrew claims that he would collect "a Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker too" for his imaginary zoo.” Who knew?

Stereotypically nerds appear to lack confidence, be indifferent or oblivious to the negative perceptions held of them by others, with the result that they become frequent objects of scorn, ridicule, bullying, and social isolation.

Now that I’ve given you a short version of Nerd 101, I’ll return to YTV’s It’s So Weird, as promised.

If I were to be kind, I’d say the producers of Daniel Book were stylizing the actor in the title role as a nerd, though I don't know that Daniel pursues intellectual or scientific endeavours. Rather, they show Daniel Book learning how to kiss, go on a date, get a job. He bumbles his way through each episode, making a food of himself. The audience is supposed to find his ineptitude funny. It’s considered comedy.

Maybe it’s okay to make fun of nerds if they’re making billions of dollars. Perhaps the joke’s on us poor fools, in that case. But it’s probably not the case. Has it ever really been okay to make fun of nerds?

As I said, if I were to be kind, I’d say the producers of Daniel Book were portraying him as a nerd. But I can’t be kind. I’ve looked at episodes on YouTube, trying to see what the creative geniuses who wrote and produced these scripts were thinking (or not). I wonder how the skits got on the air without a fuss. YooHoo executive producers, anyone there?

Daniel Book isn’t a nerd. He’s a young man with an intellectual disability, developmental disability, or just plain disability, whatever you want to call it. And let me tell you, all the real Daniel Books in the world, along with their families, suffer plenty. The world isn’t always a kind place to people with these disabilities, as the TV show so beautifully exemplifies. They get laughed at. And it doesn’t stop there.

My son, who has Fetal Alcohol Syndrome has a few of Daniel’s traits. The characteristics generally belong to other diagnoses though, sometimes Asperger’s Syndrome or Down Syndrome, to name only two. But the names don’t matter.

Following is a short list of what (some) people with intellectual (or other) disabilities may at times (and certainly not always) do. Funny thing, it’s what Daniel Book does too.

They touch people inappropriately and too often (not necessarily sexually), poke them, invade their ‘personal’ space. They repeat questions over and over, ask inappropriate personal questions; are self-centred in their conversation. They don’t pick up on the social cues people are giving them (like…you’re talking too much, you’re crowding me, I’m uncomfortable with the questions you’re asking, you’re not listening to what I’m saying…). To put it (overly) simply, they don’t connect well.

So what’s so funny about that? I can’t think of a thing. But I can tell you what’s so hurtful about it. But I probably don’t have to. You can figure it out yourself, I’m sure.

Then why didn’t the people at YTV?  What were they thinking? Are they so isolated and insensitive that they don’t ‘get’ it?  I’m bringing up the whole issue of ‘Nerds’ in this blog because I’m honestly wondering if the YTV people use the excuse ‘we were only poking fun at nerds like Bill G and Mark Z.”  But honestly, how funny is that? It’s a lousy excuse.

I have to refer them back to the first few paragraphs of my blog – the ones that talk about social isolation, bullying and exclusion.

I am not the only parent of an intellectually disabled child who is fuming right now. We’re writing emails to YTV, Corus Entertainment and Canadian Broadcasting Standards Council. We’re hoping to get Daniel Book off the air.

But that alone won’t satisfy me. I want the producers, creative teams and management at YTV to do twenty hours, minimum, of volunteer work at Community Living Toronto, an organization that provides support and housing for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. There are some special people there they should get to know.

Compassion and empathy are good things. More people should have them.

 See what you think about the show yourself:

Want to contact the Standards Council?

Or what about YTV?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Divine Valentine

When I was younger, I always wondered whether  nature or nurture determines who we are. After I had children, I changed my answer from nurture to nature and haven’t looked back since.

I was born in a period when social scientists convincingly told us that our social and physical environments played a primary role in shaping who we were, how we looked at the world, and how we chose to live our lives.

But then I had children, and what I saw changed my mind. They both seemed to come into the world with very specific temperaments and personalities. No clean slate there.  I believed my husband and I would play some role in shaping their lives, for better or worse, and it was our job to provide an environment which allowed their true selves to unfold in the best way possible. But I stopped thinking it was much more than that.

Now that my children have both hit their 20s, I still think the same. They came into the world who they are today. A few tweaks and adjustments were made here and there though parental guidance. Coupled with a few life-altering bumps and bruises that undoubtedly massaged their DNA and affected their ‘outcomes,’ they are who they are. 

That brings me to my nomination today for the most Divine of all Valentines. Alice Herz-Sommer, a woman who reeks love from every pore. Alice, is the oldest Holocaust survivor in the world, and at 106, still plays piano every day.

Alice went through a ‘rough patch’ as the English so understatedly referred to WWII. Because her rough patch had a concentration camp in it, by all rights, Alice could be excused if she came out a little testy. But that’s not what happened. Not even Nazi SS officers could shake Alice’s foundations. Watch the video, you’ll be amazed (and inspired).

I’m sure we’d all like to have the strength, courage, fortitude and beauty that Alice possesses in spades. I’m not sure we all can. I don’t think we can berate ourselves for it, either. Is it  something we can just decide to be and by hard work achieve? Not sure. Whatever it is, nature or nurtture (I still say nature), Alice got it right.

Enjoy the video. I think Alice might steal your heart. Happy Valentine's Day everyone,

Home Alone: The Grammys and Me

I’m going to be lonely this coming Sunday night, really lonely, feel sorry for myself lonely. Since I already know, you’d think I’d do something to prepare myself or change the situation. Unfortunately, there’s little I can do other than 1) dump my family and friends and 2) get new ones. Though tempting, it’s probably too late

It happens every year around this time. The Grammys are on Sunday, and once again, I’ll be in front of the TV, cheering on Eminem, Cee Lo Green and Arcade Fire all by my lonesome. The only other person I know who shares my love of the Grammys (and therefore knows how to have a good time) is my older sister, but she’s thousands of miles away right now. So there’s not a soul I can talk to about what Beyonce’s wearing or whether the reason Jennifer Lopez still looks so gorgeous is because she’s had a recent facelift. Oh yeah, or about the music.

You see, everyone else I know would either be bored by the Grammys or stick their noses up and thumbs down to the glitzsy, Hollywood extravaganza that celebrates what they think of as superficial pumped-up mediocrity, otherwise known as pop music. They’ve moved on in their musical tastes, far from mainstream sounds served up on AM radio airwaves.

I, however, remain enamored of many of today’s major hits and artists. I love the beats, the stories they tell, the swagger. Everything about them makes me want to dance, or at least shake my hips, and that’s a very good thing.

These songs are perfect for keeping me going on the treadmill and the best of the videos are pure performance art (though cut with all the near-naked females, guys. Time to lose the ‘tude and get more creative).

Other than that, it’s all fun. Even Eminem’s blistering diatribes and Kanye’s narcissism make me smile. The guys are smart. You want your art to tell stories of anger, love, sorrow, fear, hurt, betrayal, redemption, and, the odd time, joy? Why not get it with a great beat? The Bible can’t do that for you.

So I think my friends and family are missing out. I tell them, but they still don’t get it. Last year, my husband kindly sat with me in front of the TV for awhile. But it wasn’t long before I noticed he was spending more and more time making snacks in the kitchen. Eventually, he forgot to return.

Maybe  they’d be more open if they had seen some all-time great Grammy moments (all available on YouTube), like Kanye West, Jamie Foxx and their marching band posse singing Gold 2006; Eminen in duet with Elton John singing Stan in 2001; the return of Tina Turner in 2010, and Christina Aguillera’s knockout  rendition of It’s a Man’s World in honour of  recently-deceased James Brown (yes, you’re right, she’s lost it since then).

And what about: Aretha in 1998 stepping in at the last minute to cover for an ailing Pavarotti; Beyonce singing and dancing anything (she’s up to 16 Grammys now), and Gnarls Barkley’s 2007 performance of Crazy… my handlers tell me I should stop here, so I’ll leave I’ll leave it at is.

As I said, I’ll be rooting and tooting on my own again this year, looking forward to some great tunes, dance, and outfits (though not from Lady Gaga. She’s Jumped the Shark).

So who exactly am I rooting for? Though I fret sometimes about the lyrics in Eminem’s Love The Way You Lie (featuring all around bad-girl Rihanna), and love the catchiness of Cee Lo Green’s F*** You, I’m rooting for the former for best song.

It would be nice to see Montreal’s Arcade Fire jump from Best Alternative Music category into the Best (all around) Album category with Suburbs (go listen to it, NOW), but I’m still rooting for Eminem. His comeback with Recovery deserves notice, and no one tells a story more honestly, or better. I take comfort thinking Arcade Fire’s bound to come home with something in hand, and if there’s a god, Katy Perry won’t walk away with anything other than Russell Brand.

It would be nice to see Drake, Degrassi Street homeboy, take Best New Artist, but what’s the chance against the (near homeboy) Beibs? And, it’s true, I want Lady Gaga to take home Best Female Vocalist for Bad Romance, Check out the video.

Word has it that Bob Dylan will be performing. My hearts thumps in anticipation. I pray his performance will stagger and soften enough young people to create one more generation of followers. How can we not praise the Grammy organizers for bringing Bob on for a number, though being Bob, we can’t possibly predict how he’ll play it.

So if you need me, you know where I’ll be tomorrow night, 8 p.m.  Since it’s best not to be alone, I’ll have a big bag of chips at my side. I’ll still feel sorry for myself because I’ll have no one to do a running commentary with (e.g., were those sparks or daggers flying between Rihanna and Drake?), but I’ll try finding my sister afterward, traveling on the road somewhere.

My hunch is that wherever she and her husband settled in for the night, her agenda included the Grammys, and she’ll be thrilled to get my call. Like me, she doesn’t have anyone to talk to about the important stuff going on in the world. 

Thursday, February 10, 2011

South of 8 Mile

I went home to visit my family in Detroit last fall. Though I grew up in the city proper, all my family members live in the suburbs. My childhood home was near 7 mile Road, one mile south of the street that rapper Eminem referred to in his movie “8 Mile.”

In Detroit, “8 Mile” is more than just a street name. It separates Wayne County from its more affluent counties to the north and is the understood divide between the City of Detroit and its white suburbs. In movie terms, “8 Mile” represents an obstacle for the movie’s main character, loosely based on Eminem, to overcome in realizing his dream of becoming a white rapper.

Though I had issue with the misogyny in Eminem’s lyrics, I was an early fan. The release of his movie in 2002 was so important to me, I let my then twelve year-old daughter stay home from school so we could go together to its opening here in Toronto. I knew that the film would give an insider’s look into the grit of Detroit’s present-day urban life, as well as the still strong music scene coming from it, things she would never experience during our visits to the relatives.

On my last visit, my sister, brother-in-law and I decided to drive into the city, not far from the downtown core, to visit our childhood homes, and those of our deceased grandparents. We had been reading a book about life in these neighbourhoods during our growing-up years, and wanted to see how much, if any of our history, was intact.

As we drove along the city’s main streets to the first neighbourhood, stores were boarded up or empty, front doors blowing in the wind. No one was on the streets. There were no grocery stores, gas stations, green grocers, barber shops or hardware stores. Nothing was open. No commerce whatsoever. In previous visits, I remembered at least seeing home-grown storefront Baptist churches. Even they were gone.

We turned onto the residential street and found the apartment building my grandparents lived in after they were married. The shell of the once-grand art deco brick building was there, but abandoned. All the windows were smashed in, weeds were a mile high around it, bricks were crumbling onto the sidewalk. Garbage was everywhere.

Houses along the street were in no better shape, though some were inhabited. Fire had nearly destroyed the first house on the block, now empty, left to rot, windows smashed.

The house next door was boarded up, but it appeared like someone may have been living in it. The house next to that, clearly inhabited, had metal security bars on the front door and windows, but was dilapidated and crumbling.

Then, right next door, was an extremely modest but well tended home with a little front garden with bright orange marigolds. Curtains hung in the front windows. It had all the signs that the homeowners – come hell or high water and no matter how bad the decay and desolation was around them – were going to make a nice home for their family.

Seeing this house and a few others like it in the midst of other residential horrors was incredibly moving, and a testimony to the strength and optimism of people trying desperately to rise above the poverty and despair around them.

The other neighbourhoods we traveled to were the same. No stores, few people, houses in ruin, stores boarded up, abandoned, burned or crumbling. Huge tracks of land in the heart of the city where houses once stood had been bulldozed and lay empty. Some of he derelict homes were undoubtedly crack houses. Yet amidst all this, there were signs of hope. There is always hope for Detroit.

I wanted to take pictures of the streets we saw to show people back home. I truly believed no one could really understand how bad everything was. But I didn’t pull out my camera. Every once in a while a few kids would pop up on the street. I didn’t want them to see us white people, in our nice car and with our little point and shoot cameras snapping pictures of them and their homes as if they were objects of art and social commentary– something to show to the folks back home. It didn’t feel right.

In the 1920s, Detroit was known as the Paris of the Midwest. Now, the literacy rate in the city is 56%. The schools are in such dire shape and in need of money, my sister can't understand why Oprah W had to go to Africa to open a school when Detroit, a neighbour of her own Chicago, goes begging. 

There are no grocery stores or big box stores in Detroit's city limits. People have to travel miles to buy their food and clothes. Anyone with a spare dime is leaving or has left the city for the suburbs.

There is, of course, history to all of this. The automobile companies faltered in this one-industry town and unemployment soared. Expressways criss-crossed the city, dividing neighborhoods and communities. 

In 1967, racial tensions exploded into one of the most violent urban riots in American history. The population exodus from the city accelerated and whole neighbourhoods began to vanish. Outdated downtown buildings emptied. Within fifty years Detroit lost more than half of its population.

I am forever hearing plans to revitalize Detroit. I hope one day one of them works. I often hear good things about the rebirth of neighbourhoods and plans to bring back jobs. My fingers are crossed.

I am sure there are many, many people in Detroit living fruitful, positive, vibrant lives, whether in good physical surroundings or not. Though I was born and raised in the city, I am an outsider, and outsiders cannot begin to know the real truth of other people’s lives, communities or culture. But I can see what has changed, and what has changed for the worse. That is all I can comment on.

Though I didn’t take pictures in Detroit, many others have. For a glimpse of the Detroit I have tried to describe, please go to:

Everything you’ll see is south of 8 Mile.  What you’ll see north of 8 Mile could be Anywhere, U.S.A.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Weapons of Mass Affection

As a kid, I remember being seriously jealous when boyfriends gave boxes of candy to my two older sisters on a holiday called Sweetest Day.  My oldest sister’s boyfriend knew how to buy my affections, as well as hers, by giving me my own box of milk chocolate coconut clusters. They must have been damn good if I still remember them. Or perhaps the chocolates remain so vivid because it was my first encounter with a Weapon of Mass Affection. The chocolates won my heart.

When I grew older, I learned that Sweetest Day was not a universal holiday like Labour Day.  It’s celebrated mainly in the Great Lakes region of the U.S., including Detroit, my hometown. It was invented in 1931 by the Retail Confectioners International as “an occasion which offers all of us an opportunity to remember not only the sick, aged and orphaned, but also friends, relatives and associates whose helpfulness and kindness we have enjoyed.” Have you ever heard such horse shit? Really, was it necessary to go to such lengths to say “Buy candy.”

Which brings me to Valentine’s Day, another holiday I’ve long considered concocted by interested parties, mainly Hallmark. I’ve therefore lumped Valentine’s Day in with Sweetest Day, Secretary’s Day, even Mother’s and Father’s Day. My cynical side scoffed at the invented holidays because, naturally, everyday should be secretaries’ day, mothers’ day and fathers’ day and valentines’ day. We should be honouring these people without the self-serving help from retailers.

I’ve rethought my position. It’s not a perfect world. The truth is, kids aren’t always appreciative of mom and dad, especially between the ages of eleven and eighteen (did I get the numbers correct?). Bosses aren’t always good to secretaries (do they actually exist anymore?) or even know to thank them when thanks are due. And lovers quarrel, take each other for granted, forget the nice things that make a partner’s heart flutter.

So I’ve decided it’s not such a bad idea to set aside special days to remember and honour people who make our lives good. But it still bugs me that commercial enterprises are ‘pushing’ this love thing with overtones of a competition, as if the more you spend on coconut clusters, diamond heart necklaces, cards or silk lingerie, the stronger your love is for said object of devotion.

So my thoughts turned to the preferability of homemade Valentine’s touches when I received an email from artist Barbara  Klunder a few days ago. She was asking the people who live in my community to make “heart-stoppin’ great paper hearts….any size…with a secret message on it” to decorate the hall for our Valentine’s Day dance this coming Saturday. Ever the wordsmith as well as artist, Barbara ended the email by saying. “Looking forward to them…your Weapons of Mass Affection.”

Well, what could be a more lovely turn of phrase (as it is indeed a turn of a phrase). And what a lovely sentiment the phrase conveys. So this Valentine’s Day, why don’t we all take up Barbara’s call to create our own, homemade Weapons of Mass Affection for the people we love or admire. We can do it in whatever form we choose, be it food, words, paper cut outs, banners or marcrame plant holders.

And once we’ve developed the hang of it, why save our WMAs for Valentine’s Day only. Maybe we can sprinkle affections across the globe as the powers-that-once-were pretended the nuclear Weapons of Mass Destruction were going to. Maybe we can win wars, not just hearts with our WMAs.

And we don’t have to wait for Sweetest Day.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

I Share, Therefore I Am

 I pride myself on the fact that I don’t go around railing at the younger generation’s softness. You’ll never hear me say “In my day, I walked twos mile to school in my bare feet,” (though it’s true). Nor do I worry about handing over our world to a generation, who when ordering morning coffee say, without a hint of self-consciousness, “ I’d like a Venti, sugar-free, non-fat, vanilla soy, double shot, decaf, no foam, extra hot.” I know enough smart, curious, caring and generous ‘young people’ to make me very optimistic.

However, I read an article in last weeks’ Globe and Mail that makes me worry for them ­­– and myself.

Seems that MIT clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle believes that our mobile Internet age has produced narcissistic, ‘digital natives’ who expect continuous connection, and experience profound discomfort in those rare moments when they are alone, or between ‘correspondences.’

“We’re relying more on more on Facebook, e-mails and Twitter,” she says in her new book Alone Together; Why We Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other, “because in a conversation, you have to deal with people.” She says we used to call that ‘getting to know someone.’

Ironically, using technology’s instant speed and response possibilities make us more demanding of each other, she continues, but “what we’re expecting back is not necessarily depth but velocity; we’re expecting back shallow and we’re expecting it back fast.”

Enough about Dr. Turkle for now. Let’s get back to me for a moment, shall we?

When my husband was in hospital, my daughter bought him a game called The Art of Conversation. It’s a deck of cards, and on each card is a list of possible conversation starters, like “The most positive person you have ever known or met?” or “The worst meal you’ve ever been served in a restaurant.”

The card that got the most conversation going was “Who would you prefer talking to on the phone rather than e-mailing?” When my turn came to answer, I heard myself saying, “Usually, no one,” I can’t be bothered half the time. I’m tired, or busy, too worried about the kids or have other things on my mind. In an email, I can get to the basics – make plans, relay important information or send kind wishes. All of which I can do without having to really ‘engage’ with anyone.

Since I value my relationships, I don’t see my response as a positive. When and why did I start turning off?

Turkle, founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, describes a younger generation compelled to answer their phone, keep up with Facebook accounts, tweet their every sneeze, and respond immediately to friends’ sneezes.

“Technology is making it uncomfortable for young people to be alone. In between waiting for that text back, you’re very vulnerable. You look for response as validation. It’s impossible not to be continually sharing what you’re feeling.”

Turkle calls narcissism a self-love that is so fragile, it needs constant support. “We’re not teaching ourselves to feel okay without constantly reaching for something. We can’t not have that constant validation.”

Which brings me back to me again. What is this blog other than exactly what Turkle is referring to. I’d be lying if I said I was only doing it for the love of writing or to keep a record of my thoughts. While those things do mean something to me, I still check back more than I should to see if someone left a comment. I want feedback. I want validation, and I want it NOW.

In the ‘old’ days, I’d write a magazine article (or the like). My editor would (maybe) give me some positive feedback, and if I were lucky, really lucky, I’d read a Letter to the Editor about the article in the next issue. That’s just the way it was. At best, I felt good about what I had written. Self-validation I believe we called it.

But no more. I don’t have that disciplined self-restraint like I used to. Within seconds of going ‘live,’ I fell into the trap technology allows for immediate response. My expectations have completely changed. I’ve become unsettlingly hungry.

What’s next for me? Could I become another Sally Field, who in her acceptance speech at the 1984 Oscars gushed thankfully to the world, “You like me. You really like me.”

Dear readers, you will get back to me on this, won’t you?

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Happy Sn(app)s

I keep telling myself I don't need an iPhone or Blackberry, but honestly, my so-called need is based solely on the cost of using them. Unfortunately, my needs and desires aren't necessarily in sync about the phones. I see how much fun people have with their little devices, and it makes me want to come out and play, too.

Nevertheless, I have a nice, little free cell phone and a $35 a month Koodo plan, so why complain. Why? Because the phone's cover is cracked, it doesn't tell me who a missed call came from, but most importantly, it takes lousy photos.

I didn't know this until last week when I was with my sister and we were both taking pictures of my husband lying in his hospital bed. Hers looked good. Mine didn't. 

Before then, the only time I used my phone was to take pictures at a Black Eyed Peas concert. I pulled out my phone and right then and there taught myself how to take a picture of Fergie and, just to let my teenage daughter know that yes, her mother really was at a Black Eyed Peas concert, but more importantly, was having a ball. Unfortunately, the only thing that showed up on the screen to show her were flashes of pyrotechnics on a black background.

Not surprisingly, the lighting conditions for my sister and me to shoot in the hospital were nearly as bad as the Air Canada Centre. My photo of my husband came out dark, fuzzy and worthless. My sister held up her iPhone, snapped away, and her images were fantastic. "Send me copies," I asked, forlorn.

That's when I decided I wanted an iPhone (or more likely, a Blackberry because it's Canadian). I love the possibility of taking decent shots, anytime and anywhere, without lugging a camera around with me.

I'm a lapsed photographer who has yet to make a successful conversion from analog to digital. It's mainly because I photographed only in black and white with an SLR, and for some reason, I haven't had good luck with b&w with my new digital point and shoot. Actually, who am I kidding when I say 'for some reason?' The reason is clear. I haven't sat down and mastered all the camera's buttons and settings and whatnots, all of which probably have some useful purpose if I were to use them.

But let's not digress. More on mea culpas at a later date.

I haven't yet acted on buying a new phone, but I got a step closer this weekend when I read about some new photo apps for SmartPhones which allow you to take pictures that give the warm, fuzzy feels of good 'ole analog prints. 

One of the apps let you choose different lenses, film stock and flashes. Another gives a Polaroid treatment to your photo and gets you to shake your iPhone to develop the picture (how much fun is that?). One lets you turn landscapes into miniatures, and another lets you choose filters for special effects. 

Of course I haven't tried any of the apps because I don't have a phone to use them with. But I've looked at the websites, and if the companies offer what they've promised, I think you'll have fun trying one or all of these.  Who knows, maybe before long it will be "we" instead of "you" who will be enjoying these happy sn(apps).

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Care for a glass of Chardonnay with your Tapioca?

A hospital in Indiana is reportedly thinking along these lines, probably in response to grumblings from patients about lousy meals they're getting there.

It's not a bad idea, of course, but perhaps hospital dieticians could make a few adjustments to the food before getting their patients inebriated, which, they undoubtedly hope, will reduce  the number of complaints.

My husband was in hospital for a week last month, and with each meal delivery, whether breakfast, lunch or dinner, we were amazed at how reflective the food was of the country's culinary tastes circa 1955. 

Desserts included, yes, watery tapioca pudding; syrupy fruit salad cups, pears in syrup, vanilla pudding and strawberry ice cream in little dixie cups. 

Main courses of meatloaf, stew or chicken were accompanied by white rice or instant mashed potatoes (though one night they came flecked with brown things which may have been potato skins). Lunchtime sandwiches were laden with some indistinguishable spread we assumed was either tuna, salmon or liverwurst. Carrots and green beans were remarkably (and properly) crisp, but utterly tasteless. With his eyes closed, my husband would have absolutely no idea what he was eating. The good news is that white bread has now been replaced by brown (though no fiber sightings were reported).

I know hospitals try to make foods simple, cheap and easily digestible. Fair enough. It's a tall order to do that and make them interesting, but really, improvements could be made, I'm certain. 

My hunch is this:  a consortium of hosptals went to Costco (or its equivalent), in 1962, made an enormous cost-saving bulk order of foods, put them in storage, and are still working their way through them until it's time to go shopping again. What other reason could there be for serving such processed, sugary, and I would think, unwholesome Anglo-only foods. Nostalgia?