Summer in the city

Posted by Marlinee on Jun 22, 2014 in Travels

There is no better cross section of fashion than public transit. Or let me correct that, public transit in a large metropolitan centre. I have had the good fortune not to take the subway for a while, however recently it was necessary to brave the experience of teaming masses of commuters. But I pride myself in being able to make lemonade in situations of adversity so I turned my journey into an anthropology observation. The objective of this particular observation was to compare and contrast summer fashion while determining the fashion motivation, destination and/or occupation of the subjects.

Subject Number 1: Woman wearing black tights, a black pencil skirt, and a black sweater. Oh, and a black raincoat over top. It was not rainy. First and foremost, this person is clearly in summer denial. She is probably from a country that is much, much, hotter than ours. She likely also lost her luggage on the way here and has no other clothes to wear.

Subject Number 2: Man wearing pastel green pants, a pink seersucker jacket and a white polo shirt. This is someone who has grasped the concept of the season that starts on June 21. Or perhaps someone that has way too firm a grasp on summer. The big puzzle is where this person works. But on second thought maybe he was on his way to a fancy golf course. A golf course so fancy that they store your clubs for you. But anyone that fancy would never be taking the subway. So he must work in a menswear store.

Subject Number 3: A teenage girl wearing short shorts and a facsimile of a sleeveless t-shirt that ended somewhere north of her navel. At first I thought she was going to the beach or the park. But then I realized it was way before noon, which is not a time of day that one is likely to encounter a teen spending leisure time. No, the only possible explanation is she was off to summer school, an institution with which I have considerable familiarity.

Numerous subjects: About half of the subway train was wearing sunglasses. Inside. At 7 am. Perhaps they were afraid that if they took them off for the journey they would accidentally leave them on the seat and forget them. And no one wants to brave the trip to the lost and found where you can locate crutches, tricycles, and baseball caps but never anything that someone else might find remotely useful. But I digress. Maybe they all work the night shift and are on their way home. Except why would you need to wear sunglasses at night unless you are Cory Hart?

Subject Number 4: A woman wearing an impeccably tailored sleeveless dress with matching jacket and platform pumps with about a four inch heel. No, unfortunately this was not me. First of all she was much younger than me and also I would never wear heels on the subway. The fact that she had inappropriate transit footwear indicates that she has a job somewhere in the fashion industry as an assistant to someone like Miranda Priestly, where it is career suicide to be spotted less than fully accessorized. Oh, and she was also wearing sunglasses.

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Everywhere you go, always take the weather with you

Posted by Marlinee on Jun 15, 2014 in Travels

I am going to go back to school to become a weather person. Could there possibly be a more cushy job? You can be completely wrong most of the time and never lose your job. You can even make do with one all purpose prediction every day: mix of sun and cloud, chance of showers. If it turns out to be sunny, you are a hero.

Even the robot weather predictors can’t get it right. I have one that shows a smiling man that adds and sheds layers of clothing based on the outside temperature, although he seems to be from California because he thinks that 19 degrees Celsius requires a jacket and scarf. He also carries an umbrella when he thinks it’s going to rain. This is usually when there is not a cloud in the sky, but to give him the benefit of the doubt, he’s stuck inside and can’t see out the window from his perch on the kitchen counter. Come to think of it though, he is a perfect example of a successful implementation of artificial intelligence because he behaves exactly like a real weather man. He’s always wrong.

I think the reason we cut weather people so much slack is because we are fascinated with weather. We certainly talk about it enough. We talk about what the weather is doing, what it might be doing, what it should be doing at this time of day or time of year, and what we wish it was doing. There would be awkward silence at the beginning of conference calls if we had no weather to talk about. No one would care about climate change if it didn’t involve weather and weather is even powerful enough to be the proof point on both sides of the climate change belief system. Deniers will point to the arctic vortex that terrorized us this winter, while believers will cite heat waves in Australia.

The problem is there will always be ample evidence of anything anybody wants to believe about the weather. This is probably because weather is a zero sum game. If it’s rainy somewhere it’s got to be sunny somewhere else. When it’s cold in one half of the earth it’s warm in the other. I think I’m already getting the hang of this weather person thing without having to take a single course.

Weather people also have a strange affinity for airports. As George Carlin used to say, why bother always telling us what the temperature is at the airport when no one lives there. Although on second thought, some of us feel as if we do live at the airport although that rarely results in experiencing what’s going on outside.

As the saying goes, everyone talks about the weather but no one does anything about it. As a weather person I think I could truly make a difference. You want a sunny day for your golf tournament? I’d be happy to oblige with an appropriate prediction. You want lots of snow for your ski trip? I’ll make sure to put snow in the forecast. And in a bid to become the most accurate weather person in the world, I am willing to go way out on a limb and tell you that without a doubt, there will be weather tomorrow. You’re welcome.



My address to the graduating class of 2014

Posted by Marlinee on Jun 1, 2014 in Work

The main point of finally finishing school is to enter the workforce, but of course deciding what to do, unless you have taken a course of study that ends in a ready-made profession, is not that easy. Even those of you who did graduate as a proto-engineer, nurse, teacher etc. may have already figured out you would rather do something else if you only knew what it was.

There has recently been a backlash against the ‘do what you love’ mantra espoused by everyone from Steve Jobs on down. And I think this is well warranted. Finding work is more often like an arranged marriage than love at first sight: if you match up some essential skills and aptitudes with the requirements of a job in a particular industry or function eventually your level of confidence and comfort in a position will rise to the point where you feel competent, valued and challenged.

Another aspect of a happy work life is the right corporate culture. In fact, one of the most important questions to ask in an interview is about the corporate culture and the key things the company thinks defines their culture. Then put your propaganda detector on high alert. Another good question is ‘what do you do for fun?’ One company I interviewed with said the most fun thing they did was have birthday cakes. Now if you think that’s the pinnacle of levity I’d be happy to pass along their name, but my interpretation of that answer was that the notion that work and fun could have some sort of intersection was not part of their corporate lexicon.

Something else to watch out for in the quest for minimal drudgery is companies that tout they look out for their employees’ ‘work life balance’. These are the ones that have kitchens stocked with microwavable food and cappuccino machines, and access to a concierge service to pick up and drop off your dry cleaning or schedule your dentist appointment. Note that all of these ‘perks’ centre around doing anything in their power to not have you leave your desk.

In the end though, we can’t all sit in a corner office and invent new handheld devices. Someone has to take out the garbage, make the sandwiches, look after other people’s children and stock the shelves. And anyone can do any of these things with a smile on their face if they like working with their colleagues. I have had terrible jobs that were bearable because we were all united in hatred of our boss. I have had wonderful jobs that were that much more fabulous because of the people I worked with.

You may think the people you met at school will be your friends for life. Some of them will, but on balance you will all go your separate ways. Your true source of lifelong friendship will be the people you sit side-by-side with as you dig into your working life. And what’s not to love about that.

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Don’t shoot me, I’m only the piano player

Posted by Marlinee on May 25, 2014 in Middle Age

If Craigslist is a valid statistical sample, it seems you can’t even give away pianos these days. Almost every week a few of them show up in the ‘free’ section. And show up again and again until presumably the owners give up and cart them to the curb. Of course there is always a catch with ‘free’ things. In the case of pianos, the lack of perfection usually involves missing keys, dubious tuning, and most of all, the fact that you will need to pay someone to move it.

But the larger issue is that pianos have apparently fallen out of favour. Clearly we have many more options for amusement than they did when a piano was the entertainment hub of the house, but I can’t help but think that the demise of the piano is yet another bellwether of the decline and fall of civilized culture as we know it. Here are some reasons why pianos deserve more respect.

• Pianos are perhaps the only practical demonstration of the use of physics. I personally have not had many occasions to trot out my vast physics knowledge gained in Grade 10, but some Italian guy called Bartolomeo Christofori figured out how to do something useful with it. Apparently there is a fundamental mechanical problem of piano design because the hammer that gets activated when you hit a key has to strike the string, but not remain in contact with it because this would interfere with the resonance of the sound. The hammer must also return to its rest position without bouncing violently. Mr. Christofori bent physics to his will to give us a piano that works. I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to say that if we give up on pianos we are also giving up on the usefulness of physics.

• Back in the day before the turntable, it fell to the lady of the house to spin the tunes via the piano keyboard to give everyone something to do after dinner. This required lots of skill beyond knowing how to play, including a good memory, the knack of choosing an appropriate repertoire for an audience and the ability to sit on a piano seat for extended periods of time. After dinner (or in many cases, during dinner) entertainment now consists of earphones and laptops or tablets, as everyone consumes his or her preferred visual and audio distraction from the real world. I defy anyone who thinks this is an improvement.

• Many of us took piano lessons as a child for at least three or four months or however long it took for our parents to succumb to the torture of getting us to practice and listening to the endless repetition of scales and beginner piano pieces that bare little resemblance to anything anyone might want to listen to over and over. Piano lessons were also part of the larger realm of music education. These days it isn’t at all necessary to learn anything about music to create it because all you need to do is locate snippets on the internet and combine them together. But I’m not quarreling with the advances the worldwide web has brought. My real beef is that if piano lessons go the way of the dodo they are yet one more thing we needed to endure that new generations do not.



Brush up your Shakespeare

Posted by Marlinee on Apr 27, 2014 in Middle Age

Apparently Shakespeare turned 450 this week. This event went unheralded by Google (which thought Earth day was a more worthy doodle of the day), so there is of course some doubt as to whether this anniversary actually took place. Much like there is still some doubt that Shakespeare actually wrote everything that bears his name. But let’s put aside these petty controversies.

Shakespeare is one of those cultural touch points that is part of virtually everyone’s (at least in the English speaking world) experience. Or in fact, everyone’s shared trauma, because no man in the history of the world has inspired such universal loathing. The only people who got out alive in my high school were in the ‘non-academic’ stream and got to watch West Side Story instead of reading Henry IV Part 2.

I have many bones to pick with Shakespeare. Here are some of them.

The soliloquies. A soliloquy is defined as “an utterance by a person who is talking to himself or is otherwise disregardful of any hearers present”. And here lies the essence of my problem: generally, the only person interested in what someone who is talking to himself is himself. Also, for some reason, teachers of Shakespeare think that memorizing a soliloquy or two is essential to the process of understanding the play in question. I’d be happy to recite the first soliloquy by Prince Hal in Henry IV that I was forced to learn about 40 years ago. That’s because it is still taking up some of my brain cells, regardless of whether I could probably use them for something else, like remembering where I left my glasses.

The quotes.There are 2,810 Shakespeare quotes that have been catalogued. You probably know the top of the hit parade, like “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them” and “All that glistens is not gold.” And I have no quarrel with these. What bugs me about Shakespeare quotes are the misquotes that have taken on a life of their own. For example, the witches did not say “bubble, bubble, toil and trouble” but “double, double toil and trouble”. This was supposedly Walt Disney’s fault, who thought he could re-write Shakespeare. Oh wait, I guess he did, rather successfully as I would bet a random poll of people on the street would quote Walt’s version rather than Will’s.

The words. We all know they talked a different breed of English back in the Shakespearian day. Some words have completely disappeared, while others mean something completely different. “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” actually means ‘why are you’ not ‘where are you’ (see also, misquoting). But that’s not the worst part. For some reason people feel it is necessary to use what they think passes as a Shakespearian accent when appropriating his words. As well, Shakespeare felt the need to just make words up. About 2,200 of them at last count. Mr. Shakespeare, you are a cold-blooded arch-villain who has disheartened many a student’s eyeball. Good thing you are already dead or we’d have to assassinate you.

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Here comes the sun

Posted by Marlinee on Mar 23, 2014 in Middle Age

Spring is the time for cleaning. Or at least, the time when your windows shame you into cleaning. Or if you have no shame, the time when you avoid looking out the windows in the middle of the day if the sun is shining. But for me it’s less about the clean part and more about the spring de-cluttering exercise. This is a result of spending too much time indoors and the resulting excessive familiarity with the things inhabiting the house that breeds contempt. For example, the hanging pot rack seemed like a good idea at the time. All of those pots and pans right at the ready! All of those pots and pans that are less than shiny. All of those pots and pans, period. Who really needs five frying pans?

Even though I am pretty good at editing my collection of stuff, there are some things that are impossible to get rid of. Some of this has to do with nature of the objects themselves, especially if they are objects of nature. For example, take my collection of rocks. They aren’t boring old pebbles. They are crystals and geodes and granite with flecks of fool’s gold and pink beach rocks. They are also completely useless.

The same goes for the collection of shells. Conch and clam and spiny things and Neptune things and sand dollars that are a few pennies short of perfect. One artful glass jar full of shells is a lovely feng shui addition to any room. Ten jars full is a dubious decorating decision.

Then what about those University text books? I think the problem is the amount of money I paid for them and also the fact that philosophy really doesn’t change, especially the thoughts of the ancient philosophers and even the 20th century ones that happen to be dead. Of course I have no desire to read them again (and in fact I had about the same amount of desire to read them in the first place). But they still sit in a box in the basement because how can you possibly throw out wisdom?

My copy of Bleak House also still prevails. I just cannot get rid of something that consumed countless hours of my life I will never get back, as if somehow by keeping it as an (unread) hostage I’m returning the favour. It’s also a talisman that reminds me not to finish any book I don’t completely want to read.

But spring is also a time of optimism and renewal, which gives me the strength to move forward. Those extra frying pans – couldn’t they be ironic birdbaths if mounted on the top of a tree stump at the cottage? And how better to throw out rocks than to artfully incorporate them into the edge of the garden. And while I’m at it, those shells would have an ironic and artful existence as random follys in the midst of the forest. A few problems solved. Now if only I could figure out how to throw out a garbage can.



Private eyes are watching you

Posted by Marlinee on Mar 16, 2014 in Travels, Work

I now have my fingerprints on file. This might be a good thing in case something bad happens to me (and a note to all: if the basement floor looks recently enrobed in concrete, please ask some questions). On the other hand I now have my fingerprints on file, which places certain constraints on future activity if I don’t want to end up on the cover of the National Enquirer.

This is because I am now an officially trusted traveller. I don’t know why they didn’t trust me before because I am certainly very trust worthy. To become a trusted traveller you need to supply approximately the same amount of information to the government as you need to fork over to the Kremlin to get a Russian visa. I am not quite sure why Russia makes it so hard to get into the country, since last I heard people would rather make the migration the other way over the ocean. Just in case you ever need to go there, to get a Russian visa you need to fill out the (paper only) form. Make sure you have your job and travel history for the past 10 years handy and if you have ever served in the military, good luck with that. Then take your form in person to the Consulate office with your money order (no electronic payments going on here) and wait in line, which would be your first introduction to Russian culture. Oh and I forgot to add, you will need an invitation letter explaining why on earth you would want to visit.

Once the Russian officials have checked your credentials, you will need to surrender your passport for about 6 weeks to process the visa, probably manufactured by members of Pussy Riot in a Siberian jail. This is a little disconcerting to say the least, especially when you are not sure if you will need it in the interim and how exactly would I explain to U.S. border control that I do have a passport but currently it’s in Russia?

But I digress. I am now the proud owner of a Nexus pass that (theoretically) allows me to breeze through North American security and border control. In practice this only works some of the time. That is, it only works at airports in very major cities. You can breeze through Toronto security and not have to take off your shoes or even talk to a U.S. official when you are on your stateside journey.

Things went a little south on the way back north. Boston, for example, does not believe in Nexus no matter how hard I tried to convince them I did not really have to take off my boots because I was proven to not be a shoe bomber . Unfortunately my own border also let me down. Of the four machines that welcome the iris of my eye back on sovereign land, only two were functional. Scratch that. The two functional ones kept going out of business once they had decided I matched my eye credentials. I tried not to take it personally, but I am now gaining a new respect for Russian efficiency.

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The Taxman

Posted by Marlinee on Mar 9, 2014 in Work

I have recently become the object of some unwanted attention: I have a tax stalker. This is completely my fault because I made a very big mistake on my 2012 tax return. This mistake was so bad that a file was opened (probably a red file) and I gained a personal relationship with a tax department official, whose sole task is to protect the national treasury of tax dollars and make the world safe for law abiding citizens (and surely I was not a member in good standing of that community).

This all began with a voice message from the tax department that asked me to call them about an issue with my 2012 return. We then played telephone tag for about two months. I considered it a good sign that trading phone messages seemed to stave off any potential escalation of attempts to contact me, but I did go on higher alert for ‘dry cleaning’ vans loitering outside my door.

During all of this I had no idea what the problem might be that also gave me ample time to speculate. Did they object that had plowed most of my earnings into (government approved) tax shelters and didn’t in fact pay any income tax that year, making me eligible for a rebate on my home energy costs, which means the tax man was actually paying me instead of me paying them. Had I inadvertently included veterinary fees in my medical expenses (and really, no jury of my peers would quarrel with that). Was it a no-no to have billed my time through a third party corporation (and just being able to say I have a relationship with a third party corporation puts me dangerously close to Conrad Black territory, or at least Martha Stewart territory).

Right about then I started to make the plan for what to do to keep myself busy in prison. Perhaps making ponchos would not be out of the question but maybe writing a book might be a better bet. I decided I would call it “Red is the new Black” in honour of my file folder, my hair colour, and also (you probably noted) a clever reference to Mr. Black. How could NetFlix possibly resist?

As it turns out, my grave error was putting my self-employed income on the wrong line of my tax return – the line that says ‘Other Income’. This income was earned by billing people an hourly fee for renting my brain. The contract(s) specified a particular number of hours it would take to complete the job, and at an agreed interval I would send invoices via an incorporated entity to avoid any inference of an employment arrangement with my clients. Near as I can tell, if I had never told the tax man I had earned this money, they would never have known that I had earned it. The essence of my crime, therefore, was a failed attempt at honesty. I am really not sure what the moral of this story is. Perhaps it’s that honesty is the best policy, except when it’s not.



Plastic Ono Band

Posted by Marlinee on Feb 20, 2014 in Middle Age

My favourite plastic food container died today. Actually, it wasn’t the container itself but the lid that bit the dust. Apparently plastic of a certain type is not destined to survive dishwasher treatment for more than 10 years or so. This particular container was better than many. It could hold a good swath of coleslaw or be a good interim home for leftover Thai food or politely nestle a swatch of polenta lasagne. I think its most redeeming qualities were indeed its only qualities: an oval shape and a lid that had an ample leverage point for forgiving the fingernail (and alas, the latter would be the nail it its coffin shaped shape).

The plastic food container has been around for many years since, but has never been as celebrated as when it debuted under the Tupperware brand in 1948, because it meant that the average housewife could more effectively save leftovers. But in the 1960′s, the products on offer evolved into essentials like popsicle (oops, I think that should be ‘ice pop’) moulds, salt and pepper shakers decked in transparent white and gray (which someone decided we really needed to figure out how to differentiate via a prominent ‘P’ and ‘S’ on the lid), and rolling pins (are you kidding me?). This also led us all to believe there were no colours other than green, pink, yellow and blue. But then again, we already knew that based on our experience with various siblings who had a nasty habit of not announcing their gender pre-birth.

There is no denying that the leftover food container (literally) bulks large in most of our lives. Who among us has not opened a cupboard door to be assaulted by random plastic vessels? And even more importantly, who has not wasted many minutes of life searching for the lid of the container that is best suited to carting our lunch to work. I recently spent a day sorting through and throwing out the miss-matched sets, and I still have as many orphaned containers as spare socks.

One might think the purpose of the leftover food container is to safely store food until it can be consumed at a not-to-later date. In reality, that later date usually becomes so much later as to create a new iteration of the food in question. So the purpose of the container is actually to contain the goo until garbage day. Then we put it in the dishwasher to be suitably disinfected enough to hold the next landfill offering. And then it breaks and must go into the garbage. And so the cycle continues.



Please Mr. Postman

Posted by Marlinee on Feb 17, 2014 in Houses, Middle Age

You probably know that Canada Post has decided to phase out the remaining bastions of door-to-door delivery. This would include me (the knowing part, as well as the soon to be without delivery part). The decline of mail delivery has been going on for a long time, so I am mildly amused with those who are currently having a hissy fit – not the least of which are mail carriers.

In fact, although I did not grow up in a super mailbox suburb, I did not grow up with a mailman. We had a post office, where you could inquire at the desk for large shipments, which were usually new wardrobe additions from the Sears catalogue, or more often than not, sigh in despair at the empty post box.

I now live in an urban center that provides personal delivery of mail, but for some time I have seen cracks in the postal service ‘service’. I think it started with my post guy complaining about my lack of mailbox. For the record, I have a perfectly good slot in the door that has served my house well since 1904. Unfortunately, in 1904 they didn’t have Vanity Fair magazines (the Hollywood issue being particularly thick). So being a good servant of the civil service, I spent $150 to buy a suitably suitable mailbox that wouldn’t clash with my antique brick work. I thought all would be well after that. Little did I know.

Apparently there is a hidden code of conduct for door-to-door mail delivery customers. The first rule is not to have too much mail because it is very inconsiderate. Some of this I can control (I admit to an alarming amount of periodicals), and some I cannot (BMO, I am talking to you). Anyhow, I apparently have too much mail, which makes it inconvenient to transport it to my extremely accommodating shiny new mailbox.

The second rule is to not have steps up to your house, at least on days when it is raining, snowing or not high summer, which make it even harder to schlep the mail to the vicinity of my doorstep. Much better to wrap it in an elastic and fling it on to the front porch. Even better if it actually makes it to its intended destination, as opposed to landing in the garden.

The third rule is the rule of three: why deliver mail every day when every third day will do? I know the nasty note about a glacier at the bottom of my stairs (see rule #2) may have been a contributing factor, although I did have note from Canadian Tire excusing me due to a lack of salt, but really Mr. Postman – if there’s a letter for me, I’ve been waiting so patiently. Just like I’m waiting patiently for winter to end.

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