All things come to a beginning

Monday, February 26, 2007

We and I

I'm taking French this term - and working hard at it. I feel the language slowly coming back to me after having been neglected for so long, and I'm letting it pour into my head through all possible media. Edith Piaf albums, the French news (the élections présidentielles take place in April, so there's plenty of men bitching to each other about things that are "pas possible!" and "tout à fait ridicule". They don't get into it the way the Italians do, but the odd throbbing vein is entertaining enough) and French magazines. In last week's "Vif/L'Express" there is an article on, a website "explores human emotion" by measuring the general mood of the blogosphere. It's amazing - I urge you to check it out. You can select the age of the blogger, their location, what the weather was like at that location when they posted, how they felt when they posted or a combination of all of these variables and after a few seconds you get a list of international - English spoken - blog excerpts.

My initial sense of awe at what the creators of this site set up was quickly replaced by a dull, uncomfortable feeling. Maybe it's all the marketing courses I'm taking this term, but it is pretty depressing to watch how the feelings and statements and cries for help from millions of people have been poured into a system and classified. As much as people strive for normalcy, being categorized in such an obvious way is a rude wake-up call. Any feeling you've ever had, there's a few million people out there who have been there before. Any age you have, you're part of a specific demographic with its own marketing campaign. Any country you've been, there's a couple hundred associations for people who've traveled to those exact places.
I get the same sense of claustrophobia on Facebook. Sure it's fun to find people online who are into the same things as you, be it a language, a band or a club. And few people are members of the exact same groups, everyone picks and chooses and combines to their preference. But is that who we are? Are these the building blocks to our own individual identity, a group DNA?

I've been working on a photography project & as part of my research I've been clicking around Again, there is something depressing about knowing millions of other people are into photography, and just like you, take semi-artsy shots of streets and hills and their friends. But I like browsing this site. Maybe it's the lack of words, but it seems less of a people barrel. People post their pictures not necessarily to be seen and judged and approved of and accepted, making it a place with less social control and more oxygen. The flickr homepage has a list of the most popular tags. It's alphabetic, but I've reorganized them (Is that ironic in a post about classification? Ainsi soit-il.)

Times: '06, August, autumn, birthday, Christmas, day, December, Fall, Halloween, holiday, honeymoon, July, June, night, road trip, Spring, Summer, trip, vacation, wedding, Winter
Places: Africa, Amsterdam, Australia, Barcelona, Berlin, Boston, California, Canada, Chicago, China, church, city, England, Europe, Florida, France, Germany, Hawaii, home, Hongkong, house, India, Ireland, island, Italy, Japan, London, Los Angeles, Mexico, museum, New York, New Zealand, Paris, Rome, San Francisco, Scotland, Seattle, Spain, street, Sydney, Taiwan, Texas, Thailand, Tokyo, Toronto, UK, USA, Vancouver, Washington, zoo
Animals: Animals, cats, dog
Colours: Black, black&white, blue, colours, green, red, white, yellow
Things you do: Camping, hiking, travel
Things you're into: Architecture, art, graffiti
Things you have: Cameraphone, Canon, Car, food, Nikon D50
People: Baby, family, friends, girl, kids, me, people, portrait
Nature: Beach, clouds, flower, garden, lake, landscape, light, live, mountains, nature, ocean, park, river, rock, sea, sky, snow, sun, sunset, trees, water
Events: Concert, festival, film, party, show
Qualities: fun, geotagged, live, macro, new, urban

With the possible exception of "geotagged" (what?), this is one of the happiest lists of words I have read in my life. Every word makes me think "I've been there and it was awesome!", "I totally want to go there!", "I love that!" or "Those are the best!". Why does the blog site fill me with queasiness, while this list makes me all mushy inside? Is it simply because the photographers let their images speak for themselves instead of spewing out words and longwinded explanations about the hows and the whys of their life? Is it because people tend to take pictures when they're happy and relaxed, and write when they are confused and stuck? I honestly don't know.

Saturday, February 24, 2007


Back when I was a waitress in a local Irish pub, I used to make a mean Irish coffee. Delicious dark coffee, the sweet whiff of whiskey and and the tingle of cold whipped cream on your upper lip... I got to pick a free beverage of choice after every shift, and the choice wasn't hard. I used to sit on a table right by the bar, stretch my achy back, smile at the manager (Sue - tattoos, a motor bike, the works. She was awesome) and take in the smokey, darkened, laddish atmosphere with as much of my 18-year old misplaced sense of romance as I could muster.

Not as easy at it looks, though, making an Irish coffee. Dunking the Jameson into the coffee is simple enough. But when the whipped cream isn't cold enough it doesn't stay afloat but sinks and melts. Instead of the gorgous contrast between the glowing caffeine and the white fluffy cloud on top, you get a murky light brown liquid. Sensual? Not so much anymore. My manager - who was nice enough never to give me a hard time for these kinds of faux pas - would take a look at the glass, and ask me about the customer. Was he Irish? Start over, drink it yourself (no use wasting the alcohol). "Belgian? Serve it, they won't know. And if they do, they won't have the guts to protest".

At the time, I saw it as only slightly mischievous. Because I was part of the inside crew, I didn't feel too sorry for the misguided customers. The harsh reality, though, is that the same principle is applied on a daily, global basis in each and every business sector. Anything - from medication over cars over gasoline over refrigerators - are held up to the highest quality and safety standards when it comes to the European, North American and possibly also the Japanese market. Mind you, they're not perfected as much as they could be. It is perfectly possible to make a washing machine that never breaks down. The know how is there, both for technological perfection as for ecological innovation. But perfect, economical machines don't get replaced and don't consume as much. Which means no repeat purchases and less sales. In other words, sublime quality is bad for business. You want to aim for a nice upper middle level. For a highly effective sales technique, provide a cheap, low quality model A, a pricy decent quality model B and a ridiculously expensive model C. Most people will choose model B and go home feeling like they took a responsible decision - not having spent the maximum amount of money, and not being cheapskates either. Meanwhile, your average quality products are selling like hot buns at ambitious prizes. Everyone wins!

Now, inevitably there will be products that fail to meet the highest quality and safety standards. Throw 'm out & start over? Nah, that would be a waste. It's all good, the legal standards in, say, South America are far lower. Your products are not as safe as they should be? Less robust? Not as effective? Contain a higher level of toxics? This plane was deemed unsafe for the transportation of European passengers? Dubious side effects? Well, hey, it's their laws, right? As long as they're interested and willing...who are you to say no? Don't worry, they don't have the guts to speak up anyway.

Fuck. I mean...this is written down somewhere. Printed. Officialized. With stamps and signatures and entire departments aware of the situation. There have been meetings about the risks. Suppose it crashes/explodes/poisons/kills? What's the most trouble we could get in? What are the odds of a civil lawsuit? What do you pay in these countries for "emotional damages"? Really? That little? Man. It sure is good to be living in this part of the world, eh guys?

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Tak for aften

Yesterday night, I took the train into Brussels to meet up with Oline - a Danish/Canadian friend I hadn't seen since my year in Denmark. While we were on exchange, she met a Dane (Morten - he's tall & blonde & the epitome of Scandinavianness. We all love him), fell in love & today they are living together in Arhus. Oline is here on a school trip with 44 other Danish students but had yesterday night off, so we found each other & went for dinner. So nice to speak, and especially hear Danish again! The waiter was hilarious, the food delicious, the tourist center of Brussels fairylike (we had snow for the 1st time this winter).

Just as I expected, it was a wonderful night. Lots of laughs, lots of "yes! That's exactly how it is!". It's funny how well you bond with people abroad. And how even years later, things are still nice and familiar between you. I'm not sure what it is...Is it because you're both on exchange and isolated from your friends & family? A bond out of despair type thing? Is it because you lived an extended adventure together (kind of like a long summer camp, or a travel group)? Dumb luck? Or...are there just thousands of super nice people around us at all time, all of whom are potential friends, but we just don't bother to introduce ourselves to each other often enough?

Which brings me to this. Hey, you. I know you saw me when we got on the train in Leuven, and I know that you recognised me. Vaguely perhaps, but you know who I am. I didn't think I could sustain a lengthy (close to 30 minutes) conversation with you, so I just sat down on the opposite side of the aisle, hoping you would somehow make the first move. But, instead, I read my book & you stared at the window (it was too dark to see anything outside, you must have only been able to see reflections) and tapped your foot (we're going to have to work on that). I guess you didn't see any point in talking to me either. Then, lo and behold, I take the train back to Leuven a good three and a half hours later and looky here, so are you. Fun. And what a great story to tell the grandchildren! You sit down and I again take the seat on the opposite side of the aisle. I continue reading my book. You have a paper in your hands this time. You start texting, call a friend on the phone to ask if anything's going down tonight. When we get to Leuven, you race off. See, I know that I'm a big coward in these situations. I know I skulk. I'm not sure why, but I have very little social courage that way. Unless I have a few drinks in me or am with a group of people. But if you're going to be just as shy & scared, we're letting opportunities go by. And that's a shame. Cause I think we could be cool. Not necessarily grandchildren cool, but cool. Cool as in, hey, maybe next time you go to a gig in Brussels (obviously I overheard your phone conversation, come on, the train was pretty quiet) we could go together.

Sunday, February 04, 2007


Months ago, I picked up a second hand book (I had to wipe off the cobwebs and some spider corpses, fur realz. The owner is hilarious, she's this older, grey-haired woman with a German accent who spends her entire day behind her computer. She barely keeps an eye on the store, doesn't talk to her customers, and obviously spends no time cleaning. I always picture her talking online to some dude on the other side of the planet who thinks he's talking to some spunky Claudia Schiffer type. Too awesome. And for some reason, the filth doesn't bother me too much) called "The Brain Story - Unlocking our inner world of emotions, memories, ideas and desires". Just because.
Now that exams are over, I've finally been able to start reading. And, through the randomness that is life, I actually will be interviewing the author in a couple of weeks, so the least I can do is go through a bit of her repertoire. The medical bits, interesting as they are, throw me off. I can't for the life of me distinguish between all the different lobes & stems. The stories about patients and surgeries and illnesses are pretty fascinating, though. And one bit I particularly liked talks about how our mind tricks us and how, to an extent, we see what we expect/hope to see, rather than what is actually there. The book also says that our brain activity is not all that dissimilar when we dream and when we are awake:

In both wakefulness and dreaming, but not in ordinary sleep, neurons in the thalamus and cortext are synchronized, with both areas generating rhythmic waves of electric signals in step with each other [...] Professor Llinas' research suggests that our brains are in a constant state of dreaming - that they are continually generating images to manufacture the world inside our heads. 'The outside world is a projection, you put it there', says Llinas. 'It is not happening out there, it is happening inside your head. It is, in fact, a dream, exactly like when you fall asleep. We need to see, we need to perceive, we need to dream actively - because this is the only way we can take this huge universe and put it inside a very tiny head. We fold it, we make an image, and then we project it out.'


Friday, February 02, 2007

Ugly is as ugly does

Because "Ugly Betty" is such a hit show, I decided to YouTube it & watch some clips. It does look pretty addictive, I can easily imagine people getting caught up in the story lines. Unattractive, naive Betty trying to make her way in the harsh fashion world, where she has to deal with being laughed at, sabotaged, and publically humiliated. But she perseveres, fights, finds some allies and makes it work.
When the actress who plays Betty won a Golden Globe a couple of weeks ago, I caught her acceptance speech on TV and teared up. As much as I know that it's all fake & a sham & that I've been predicted by a team of marketing slugs to feel the way I do, I couldn't help but be moved by what she said. About how girls tell her every day the show makes them feel worthy and lovable and like they have more to offer than they thought. A bunch of women (just the women...) in the audience are shown to tear up too: Salma Hayek, Annette Benning, Sienna Miller.

What gutted me today was watching a clip that showed America Fererra accepting the award, but included the two minutes that followed. She walks off the stage, where a TV reporter is talking into the camera, announcing what is yet to come in the awards show. America stands there. And waits. And waits. Walks off camera, looking confused, like "someone told me to come stand here, but should I?" (I picture a production assistant with a throbbing vain on his/her forehead waving frantically for her to step aside). Finally, the reporter is done blabbing, re-enter America. Instead of congratulating her, she fires off her first question: "So, how does it feel now, with all those people who didn't want you to play Betty?" The actress's smile fades, and she stammers "Um, I don't...I don't know. I don't know who those people are". To which Bony Bitch cheerfully replies "You know, there were some people who didn't want you for the role, but then Salma Hayek stood up for you?". Wow. She couldn't give her a minute of sincere joy, before reminding her that she was at the mercy of others for getting time, attention and praise. Before pulling the rug of self-confidence out from under her. Before encouraging her to be as merciless and arrogant as the other characters on the show and give "those people" a big FU, just because she could. That part was not staged by a single publicist (possibly by a black hearted TV producer, though).

Who thinks like that? Who gets satisfaction out of acting that way? I wish I could repeat myself and say "I don't know how those people are", but the truth of the matter is that I do. Pretty much everyone carries the potential in them. If you knew beforehand who would betray you, who would enjoy keeping you down, who would purposely make you feel about an inch tall, it wouldn't hurt as much. But inevitably, they are people we like and trust. Friends. People from work. Exes & currents. Family. People who know our weaknesses, and their own strengths, and rub our faces in it. That being said, I remember walking to school when I was 12, 13 and having to pass an all boys' school on my way. On several occasions, I got singled out - I have to admit I was an easy target, I was a poster child for how awkward that early teen stage is. One guy enjoyed standing in front of me and yelling "ugly!" into my face. I have no idea who he was, I still don't, but I would be lying if I said that his anonymity made it suck any less.

Not throwing a pity party, though. I have definitely done my own share of mocking, laughing at and looking down. You know, like calling someone a "bony bitch". Words & acts that shouldn't & don't make me proud.
So how do you move past that? Being bitter and refusing to trust a soul - solidly entertaining though it might be (which reminds me, the woman who played Darlene on "Roseanne" is expecting a baby. Apparently she's 32 now, that makes her way older than she pretended to be on the show, no?) - is not the way to go. Relying on yourself is a pretty safe bet, but hard to keep up. Forgiveness, I guess, without taking that too far. Growing a thick skin can't hurt. Blocking out the bad and focusing on the good. Not letting one person in a whole crowd ruin a perfectly good moment. Being the bigger person. And trying to treat people right - no trampling, no clawing, no knee jerks.