Another Christmas is nearly at our throats.
And you know what? It's not so bad this time.
This is the first holiday season since childhood that I can remember that's free of angst and uproar. I'm excited about having friends over for a feast on the big day, and not in the least anxious about anything, except perhaps the fact that I haven't sent out all my cards yet. Whoops!
Why this shift in mood? I blame TG. I don't think I've mentioned it here yet - partly due to my desire to keep away from the personal details, partly because I wanted to make sure that all of the relatives and close friends were told in person first (I hope I haven't forgotten anyone - please forgive me!) - but TG and I are engaged! He proposed to me at the cottage last August with an incredibly cool ring that he designed and had made for me (and it is incredibly cool - people ask me about it all the time, and a friend of mine who does jewellery design - probably the most stylish friend I have - said, "that looks like soemthing I would design!"). We'd been discussing marriage for a while, but didn't have any plans at all, and his proposal came as a wonderful surprise and swept me off my feet. I couldn't imagine anything more perfect, and it's a complete honour to have been asked in a place so important to him, as well as to his entire family - they have been summering at the cottage for seventy-five years. His family have all been very welcoming, and I am so pleased that I will be joining them this April.
I guess so much of the holiday angst has to do with feeling like everyone else is happier than you are, that everything is too much of a struggle, that everything is forced rather than natural, an illusion likely to fall apart at a moment's notice. There is this struggle to make the decorations perfect, to buy the perfect presents, to get the most elegant wrapping paper, to have the most sumptuous feast - all of these cosmetic fixes for problems that lurk deep inside, these fixes that never work.
This year I don't have that angst. I feel content just knowing that even if it was just TG and me and no one else, it would still be enough.
Of course, all of that other stuff is nice, too; I have a twenty-pound turkey waiting to be roasted, and mincemeat tarts and a chocolate-chestnut torte to bake, and a pound of organic coffee from my local roaster, and umpteen bottles of wine. And of course, a tree - just a small one, with a handful of mouthblown glass ornaments, Victorian tin tinsel, and a whole pile of gingerbread men and other cookies.
But this year, all of that other stuff has been a pleasure to do. It's been a joy rather than a chore, because I'm doing it for the fun of doing it, not in an attempt to hold the ghosts of Christmas past at bay.
It just hit me the other day when I heard someone complaining about all of those sickening happy people snuggling in café booths surrounded by their holiday shopping. And I thought, hey, that's us!
When I was single and dating and going through boyfriend angst, I remember how irritating I found it when my married friends said "when it's right, you'll just know," and "when it's right, everything will be so easy."
I never would have believed it until I met TG. I never believed I would meet someone so strong and so gentle, so goofy and so serious, so loving and thoughtful and just plain cute.
Those irritating married people? I'm happy to say that I'm happy to say that they were right!
rant updated 23 december 2004. permalink
First World Syndrome
A new disorder is endemic in Canada. First World Syndrome, or FWS, can have any manner of symptoms, although it's most common symptom is a feeling of general malaise, unaccompanied by any other problems.
The most recent victim is Dawn Rankel, a Calgary woman who wants to be adopted. She's 45, has a loving husband and six children, and is estranged from her parents. A few years ago, she suffered some difficulty, and wished she had parents to run to for help. Oh, for the sense of security and warmth that having parents better than her own would bring! Her husband's parents live several hundred kilometres away, and are too difficult to get to. How sad he feels when his co-workers talk about their fun holiday plans, and he only has six offspring and a spouse to share the holidays with, because his family is sooo far!
Please pardon my disdain.
I probably wouldn't be so repulsed by the utter selfishness of this family had I not heard their sad tale so soon after world AIDS day.
Here in Toronto, I heard a woman speak who only sees her family once a year. All of her siblings in Zambia have died of AIDS, leaving behind children who have to fend for themselves. Five million people are dying of AIDS every year. Not to mention the millions more who are starving, the real orphans they leave behind. She is working to adopt her late sister's children - she considers them her own - and is fighting against a corrupt bureaucracy and ten thousand miles of distance.
And yet she remains remarkably cheerful.
One of the primary signs of FWS sufferers is that their angst is all out of proportion to their reality.
Another is that the sufferers continue to blame their parents for all of their problems well into middle age. While most people recognize that accepting and getting over your childhood is something that you do by twenty-five at the latest, unless you are the victim of utterly horrifying circumstances. Which sufferers of FWS are not.
Scientists theorize that people are born to feel stress. We need to feel stressed out in order to feel fully alive. Some feel this need more strongly than others, and when these people are not confronted with any actual stress in their day to day lives - no hunger, no poverty, no war, no strife - they invent stress to keep their adrenal glands active. They manufacture problems so they will have something to talk about in their weekly therapy sessions. If they have food, they choose to starve themselves, or sometimes they binge for the pleasure of feeling guilty about it after. If they have a loving family, they invent missing relatives to grieve.
Of course, most people who are capable of lower mathematics would realize that a 45-year-old who expects to be taken care of by her parents is a few decades too late. At that age, it's time for the parents to get taken care of themselves. The ability to draw this kind of simple logical conclusion appears to not function in sufferers of FWS.
Of course, maybe getting adopted is just what the Rankel family needs. Maybe suddenly finding themselves with an eighty-year-old on their hands would teach them a little about what it means to have real problems. And I'm sure there is more than one eighty-year-old in Calgary who would be happy to have someone to pay for their medication and do their driving and heavy-lifting and housework and all of the things that become more difficult with age.
Perhaps there is a cure for First World Syndrome after all.
rant updated 13 december 2004. permalink
More and more, I find myself secretly grateful when plans get cancelled. "No worries," I say blithely, not wanting the canceller to feel they've let me down, but also not wanting them to feel put out if I seem too thrilled to not have the cance to see them.
I also find myself saying "Why don't you come over here." It's so much easier to clean up the detritus (that's what the dishwasher is for!) of dinner guests than to have to actually leave the house. And it's cozy, and grownup too.
How is it that I got to be such a fuddy duddy overnight? Well, not overnight, I guess; it's been happening for a while now. For a number of years I have vowed on Sunday night to not make any plans during the week! Or, to spend at least two nights not going out! Only to be seduced by one invitation or another until I'm too busy to think.
People complain. "I never see you." I'm terrible that way. But it's hard to make plans when you're longing to do laundry and turn in early. And it's easy to fall back on letting other people call you, especially when they do. There's not a huge incentive for calling people when your dance card is already overfull. And it seems kind of inane to call someone up and say "We should get together!" and then be unable to get together. And so, I tend to wait until I have more free time. And that wait can be long.
I guess that's why I've started hosting more parties lately. It's so much easier to say, "hey everybody, come on over!" And thus get a month's worth of socialising done in one night.
And there's just so much more socialising to do these days. That's the thing about being in a relationship: you double the number of friends and social obligations.
Work does it too. Working in the arts & entertainment industries means there is always another show to go to, or another launch party.
This is a good thing, of course! There are few things I like more than meeting new people.
But I can only handle so many before it's hibernation time again.
rant updated 17 november 2004. permalink
The mad ones vs. the happy ones
The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes "Awww!"
- Jack Kerouac, On The Road
I used to think this too.
Funny how much energy you can expend keeping up with the mad ones, being enthralled by them, trying to match them, trying to recover from them, and all of keeps you so distracted and drained that you don't realise how much has slipped away, how much you've expended on everyone but yourself.
The mad ones are endlessly entertaining and engrossing.
The problem is that the only thing an entertainer wants is an attentive audience. One that laughs in the right places and cries in the right places. And most people don't want to be that. Not all the time. Not twenty-four hours a day.
So the mad ones get impatient, demand more attention, more devotion. Their demands are impossible to meet, and make them and those around them miserable.
I'm not so drawn to the mad ones anymore.
I remember when I was a kid, watching Annie Hall, thinking the characters were all so sophisticated, I bought into the notion that being crazy and needing therapy was a desirable thing, sophisticated and mature. When really, the more accurate version of madness is described by Annie's brother Duane:
Can I confess something? I tell you this as an artist,I think you'll understand. Sometimes when I'm driving... on the road at night... I see two headlights coming toward me. Fast. I have this sudden impulse to turn the wheel quickly, head-on into the oncoming car. I can anticipate the explosion. The sound of shattering glass. The... flames rising out of the flowing gasoline.
i.e., more trouble than it's worth.
I'm not sure when I realised that one of the differences between happy people and those of us who are always getting tied up in psychodramas is that happy people don't give themselves away to the mad ones. Happy people accept the mad ones in their chosen role as entertainers, and don't get too close. They don't rush the stage, don't try to sneak into the dressing room. They applaud, they say "that was fun!" and they go home unscathed.
I remember someone telling me that maybe my problem was that I sought out drama, and I was appalled. I denied it. But in truth, while I didn't seek out drama, I did seek out dramatic people. I surrounded myself with friends and lovers who exploded like fireworks, and were filled with firework stories.
Maybe it was watching friends make bad decisions about the people let into their lives - the conversations that seemed to be on endless repeat, as the same mistakes were made over and over again - that made me aware of the problem in myself.
When I realised that I was doing it too, I stopped. I started standing back a bit, assessing more, instead of rushing headlong into friendships with people who are maybe overfilled with the kind of unstable passion that's born of dissatisfaction and loneliness.
It's amazing how simple it was, really. Stop giving time to crazy people. Make room for nice people. But somehow the simplest lessons are always the hardest to learn.
rant updated 10 november 2004. permalink
What it all means.
Okay. Last month I was in Philadelphia, reading at the 215 Festival. While there, I did a bit of window shopping. I went into this store that had all kinds of gorgeous clothing - the kind of stuff I love - and I couldn't buy anything. It was all made in China, or India, or Pakistan - countries that don't exactly have great track records for their labour practices (especially China, which is well known to use prisoners - including political prisoners - as free slave labour [yet somehow China is good, and Cuba is evil. Wha? But I digress.]).
I try to buy stuff made in Canada, for the most part. If it was made here, even if the factory isn't the most pristine, at least I know that the workers have access to health care and all of the other first-world amenities we take for granted. But sometimes I can't find the stupid tag until after I've taken the thing home and worn it.
But I do knowingly buy stuff in China sometimes, i.e. when I am in Chinatown. There, you know at least one Chinese person is getting something out of the sale, even if it's the guy behind the counter rather than the guy on the assembly line. Also, shopping in Chinatown, I feel somehow more connected to the origins of the item. Being in a beautiful, lush environment, discreetly decorated with fake antiques, hardwood floors, high ceilings and gentle lighting - it just seemed too far removed from the day-to-day reality of the people who had actually made these items, thousands of miles away, in a dimly-lit factory with not enough fire exits. I left the store empty-handed, pining for things I couldn't bring myself to buy, feeling a little dirty.
Then I went for breakfast, and read the newspaper. There was a big article on the recent hurricanes which devastated the south-eastern United States. In particular, the repeated onslaught of storms did serious damage to the levees around New Orleans. Accordning to the source in the article, one more storm could have caused them to collapse, leaving New Orleans - which is below sea level - underwater.
New Orleans is the United States' busiest shipping centre. 16% of all goods imported into the United States pass through New Orleans.
It's also extremely central to the oil business; 25% of the nation's oil and natural-gas production is in the New Orleans area.
Which is to say, if New Orleans goes down, it's taking the rest of the country with it. Or, as New Orleans' director of emergency preparedness, Terry C. Tullier put it, "A week after a hurricane here, you wouldn't be able to find underwear at a Wal-Mart in Des Moines."
Can the shipping systems of the world's richest nation really be that vulnerable?
When I got back to Toronto, there was a sign on the door of the local grocery store: "Can't find what you're looking for? Due to the recent weather disturbances, we have been unable to re-stock certain items."
Seemed kind of inevitable, really.
I guess the "think globally, act locally" people are even more right than I thought.
rant updated 4 november 2004.< permalink/p>
I thought I'd check out the official United States Government Elections website, to see how their system compares to ours.
For starters, there is no official United States Government Elections website. There is a website for overseas voters, but no one website for the whole country. Instead, we have this:
The following links will take you to the official sites of the Secretaries of State and/or Directors of Elections in the 55 states and territories. If these offices do not have an official Web site, you will be taken to the official Web site for that state. Links to these sites should not be construed as an endorsement of the views contained therein.
I decided to check out everyone's favourite swing state, Florida, which does happen to have an official website for its Elections office.
First off I was pretty horrified to see that they are using touch-screen voting stations in this elections. Has anyone ever seen a touch screen work properly? Especially under heavy use? Any time I have encountered a touch-screen, there were inevitably portions of the screen that required not "touching" but "intense thumping."
What ever happened to good ol' pencil and paper and drawing an X in a box? We still do that here. Seems pretty foolproof. I can't imagine that touch-screens are more reliable, more cost-effective, or more clear.
Next, I checked the Voter Registration page, to find this:
Yikes! Twenty-nine days? Oy! I think I have only been registered that early for an election maybe twice, because until recently I moved too frequently. Nine out of ten elections, I have just showed up day of, with my driver's licence or a utility bill or something, and registered on the spot. Even those occasions when I was registered ahead of time, I lost the voter registration card (natch) and had to go through the process again at the polling station.
Then I checked out the Minnesota Secretary of State website, where I couldn't find the registration deadlines easily, but discovered that Minnesota is entitled to 10 electors, which I always thought of as similar to ridings, except that everyone in the state has the same choices, and can only vote for one party or the other. This seemed weird to me - no regional representation? - so I checked a bigger, more populous state: California.
More touch-screens and punch-cards. Why? And the registration deadline is fifteen days before election day. Why? I couldn't figure out how many electors California has, or whether the system allows for regional differences within the state.
Finally, I went back to Google and found this site.
Here I learned that 48 states - i.e., almost all of them - have this "winner takes all" method. Which just seems crazy! It seems to mean that if one candidate had a narrow victory in a slight majority of electoral colleges in the states he won, and another candidate had a huge margin of victory in the remaining electoral colleges, the first candidate would win, even if the majority of actual votes cast went to the second candidate. That's even worse than the system we have here!
Also, the explanation on the website is so complex it's making my head hurt.
I used to think Canada really needed electoral reform, but now I'm thinking someone else should be at the front of the line.
rant updated 2 november 2004. permalink
Down to brass tacks.
There have been a lot of letters in the paper lately about dispassionate language.
"Really?" I hear you ask. "I never thought anyone would care about such a thing." Well, apparently, they do.
The current kerfuffle started when certain CanWest newspapers began rewriting wire stories from Reuters to reflect what the CanWest editors consider to be a more accurate worldview. Where Reuters wrote "insurgent" or "militant," CanWest would put "terrorist."
Now, I have no intention to delve into the finer points of Middle East policy, as most editorialists and letter-writers have done. But the lack of impartial reporting has been bothering me for some time now.
There was a feature in Toro a while ago on the demise of the National Post, and one of the articles summed up something that's bugged me for a while: the article argued that, contrary to most newspapers' high opinions of themselves, the idea that the advent of the Post meant that "all the newspapers got better" is patently false. The papers didn't get better, they got more opinionated. Every writer, the good the bad and the ugly, was given a "column" featuring a photo with the byline, and the right to pontificate on anything and everything.
No longer do newspapers offer simple news. Instead of facts, they offer badly-written tugs at the emotions. Every article on crime seems to begin thus:
The sun is shining brightly on the leafy street where Mary Smith lives, but she doesn't smile at the flowers in her garden anymore. No, she can not smile, ever since her beloved puppy was ripped cruelly away from her by...
... you get the idea.
Why? Why must we have this drivel? (And don't even get me started on inappropriate and clumsy misuse of the present tense, as in "last week I am eating lunch with Hollywood's new favourite matinée idol...")
If your story is backed up with facts -- and it should be, if you're writing for a newspaper -- you shouldn't need manipulative filler to make your point. If the facts are valid, they will stand for themselves. If the facts can't stand for themselves, you need to do more hard research.
Whenever I read a story bolstered by opinion rather than investigation my first thought is: what is the reporter hiding? Is he trying to distract us from the fact that he didn't finish his homework? Or does he know, on some level, that the story he is telling won't get the reaction he wants if viewed impartially?
A reporter shows his lack of trust in and respect for his audience when he embroiders a story with his own opinions.
Never trust a reporter who gives you anything other than the dispassionate truth.
rant updated 23 september 2004. permalink
T-minus four hours and I still don't know what to wear.
Yes, it's film festival time again, that time of year when the bars serve till four o'clock in the morning (people who are new to the festival don't always realise this, and figure, "it must be earlier than I thought, since there still serving." This spells nasty, nasty hangover), when tourists roam the streets looking for celebrities and try to sneak into Bistro 990, when pale and bleary-eyed cinéastes wander from big screen to coffee shop and back, endlessly, never seeing the light of day.
It's also the time of year when you get to see people you didn't see since the last festival, people you only remember hazily, the filmmakers and festival circuiteers who drive the whole thing.
This is the best part: getting to meet people you've admired (that would be you, Jay), getting reaquainted with people you once knew, discovering connections you never knew existed (I realised the other day that I know or have at least met almost the entire cast of Prom Night IV).
Of course, this is also where a little bit of dread comes in, and a few bad memories. Will psycho ex show up? I met him at the festival, after all.
But best not to think of that. Tonight's event will be full of people I know and love, and I know a fair number of the security staff as well.
It's always good to have an ace in the hole.
rant updated 10 september 2004. permalink
Casuistry: the art of sophistical, equivocal, or false reasoning or teaching in regard to duties, obligations, and morals
A Toronto controversy has been reborn. A few years ago, a couple of “artists” made a video of themselves torturing, disemboweling, and skinning a cat alive. Eventually, they killed the poor creature by beheading it. The stray, nick-named Kensington, gained posthumous renown, as animal rights activists, artists, and ordinary people who wouldn’t normally give a thought to the arts or to animals drew attention to the ensuing court case in order to ensure that justice was served. The three people involved received sentences of varying lengths, which some criticized as being too short.
When the Toronto International Film Festival announced its programming last month, included in the line-up was Casuistry: The Art Of Killing A Cat by filmmaker Zev Ahser. When the news got out, the protests began. Some people approached TIFF and asked them to remove the film from its programme. Some followed up with threats of violence. At least one group has promised to picket the festival once it opens next week.
I'll admit, I wasn't really aware of the controversy until the foundation I work for -- a sponsor of TIFF -- started receiving emails of complaint (interestingly, the filmmaker had applied to our foundation for a grant to make the film -- and was turned down). At first I was horrified -- how could they programme the work of these criminals? Is TIFF just looking to generate controversy and thus publicity?
Not quite able to believe that TIFF would programme a feline snuff film (would such a thing even be legal?) I did a quick google for more information.
As it turns out, the film in question does not include the infamous fifteen minutes of torture. Casuistry: The Art Of Killing A Cat is a documentary. It features interviews with the "artists" in question, journalists who covered the story, the police officers who investigated the incident.
Documentaries often explore uncomfortable subjects, delving into the motivations of people who do things that seem inexplicable to the world at large. Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (and subsequent films about Aileen Wuornos) generated similar debate when it was released: was it trying to exonerate an admitted murderer? By concentrating on mitigating circumstances and the strange cast of hangers-on who tried to profit from Wuornos' story, did it diminish the suffering of the victims?
You could ask similar questions of any number of documentaries. The purpose of documentary -- or any art form -- is not to tell people what they want to hear, but present issues and make people question the assumptions they hold.
Are there limits to how far an artist can go in the name of free speech? Yes, and the three criminals who made the fifteen-minute video of torture crossed that line and were punished for it.
Zev Asher did not cross that line. He did not torture anyone or anything in order to make his documentary, nor did he stoop to sensationalism by including the torture footage in his film. Asher's film covers both sides of the story, and according to Star critic Geoff Pevere:
In the context of the film, their presence ensures the death of the cat, posthumously named Kensington, never becomes a mere issue or abstraction. They remind you that we're talking about a creature that lived, suffered horribly and died. Because of this, to consider the film as an endorsement of what the cat-killers did is absurd."
The critics of the film who claim otherwise have not even seen it.
Documenting a crime is not a crime. Nor should it be. Otherwise every trial journalist would be in jail.
What is wrong is criticizing a film (or book, or painting, or...) without seeing it first. I was pretty surprised and horrified when I first heard that TIFF had programmed a "torture video." But before offering my opinion of the situation, I looked into it, and found the truth was something other than what I expected. Is the film any good? I can't say, as I haven't seen it. But if it doesn't show torture, it's not a "torture video." And should not be maligned as such.
If you want your opinions to garner respect, you had better make sure they're informed.
rant updated 3 september 2004. permalink
A relationship more fraught...
Last time I typed up a storm here I was going on about weddings.
But there are relationships as intense, and more perilous for the lack of courtship.
I'm talking roommates.
Before you'd think of moving in with a romantic partner, you'd spend time getting to know each other, discussing expectations, coffee, drinks, dinner, eventually deciding to take things to The Next Level, and the one up from that, working your way through "seeing each other" to "dating" to "boyfriend/girlfriend" to "fiance" (sometimes) and then to cohabitation.
You wouldn't advertise for a spouse, spend twety minutes chatting about dishwashing habits, and then shack up.
But that's what I'm doing.
I've been a bit lazy, I admit. I don't like the idea of random strangers trooping through my home. So far it's been okay; I've had three people in, one of whom may have "issues," two who seem completely okay.
Still, the process seems a little insane. We chat, then we move in? What, no dinner? No wooing?
And there is the question of who woos whom; do I woo a perspective mate for his rent, or should he be wooing me for my skylights, laundry, decks, and bbq?
A little of both, I guess. With any luck, it will all be settled soon.
rant updated 16 august 2004. permalink
Wedding season is upon us once again!
Everyone's getting married! There are weddings galore going on. Last weekend, TG and I had two weddings to go to, so we had to split up. It's like the new craze or something!
I love going to weddings. Dressing up to celebrate something happy is one of the most wonderful things in the world. As a wedding-lover, I get confused sometimes by people who don't "get" the idea of marriage. What's not to get? You love someone who loves you, and you celebrate that by promising to take care of each other for the rest of your lives. Sounds great to me.
And yes, I know, there are no guarantees, people get divorced, etc. But I believe (perhaps naively) that if you get married for the right reasons, it will last. And if it didn't last, chances are you (and/or your ex) married for the wrong reasons.
I read an interesting statistic the other day: the divorce rate is artificially high because it compares the number of divorces to the number of marriages, rather than looking at how many times individuals marry and divorce. Marriages between first-timers have a much higher success rate than marriages between people who have been married before (cf Zsa Zsa, Liz, J.Lo, Britney [she's on her way down that long and winding road]).
These morons and others like them are doing more damage to "the institution of marriage" than a million gay men in love.
If I ran the world (and I really should, you know?), I would let anyone marry anyone they wanted -- even marry more than one person, if everyone involved was keen on the idea -- on the condition that they take a marriage-prep course (say once a week for twelve weeks) before even getting engaged. And then they wouldn't be allowed to get engaged if the course instructor/advisor didn't think they should. No exceptions.
I don't think that's too restrictive. You could still even meet and marry someone in the space of three months. Courses could be taught by churches (as they are now) as well as secular groups for us heathens. People would be forced to really think about why they're marrying who they're marrying. And maybe some people would change their minds.
Sure, it wouldn't eliminate divorce entirely. But it would do a lot more to "preserve" marriage than demonizing minorities does.
rant updated 1 august 2004. permalink
It's election day!
So get out and vote. Doesn't matter who you vote for (well, actually it does, but I'm being all democratic here today), as long as you do it.
It ain't participatory democracy if you don't participate.
Also, if you don't vote, you forfeit and important right: the right to complain about the government.
Sure, you can try to complain if you don't vote. But people will say, "So, I guess you voted for [fill in name of whomever doesn't win] then?" And you will have to shamefacedly confess. And your friend will say, "So, what right do you have to say anything about it then, if you've already shown that you don't care enough to do anything about it?"
And he'll be right.
Sure, you can say you don't like any of the candidates. That not voting is "sending a message."
Problem is, the message it's sending is, "I'm apathetic."
If you really can't see a candidate worth voting for, spoil your ballet. Write in the candidate you'd like to vote for who isn't on the list. Or write, "none of the above."
Can you imagine the reaction if we had 90% voter turnout but half of those were spoiled ballots?
Now that would send a message.
rant updated 27 june 2004. permalink
Which fast-food hamburger do you think is the best-looking after you've unwrapped it?*
An interesting study of reality vs. perception is happening in the pages of New York magazine.
First, Will Leitch wrote an article about his participation in focus groups.
Then, the Focus Group people responded. Here's a fun quote from a letter drafted by the Marketing Research Association, Qualitative Research Consultants Association, Council for Marketing and Opinion Research, American Association for Public and Opinion Research and the Council of American Survey Research Organizations:
"Printing the article is akin to telling readers how to cheat on the law boards, falsify medical credentials or steal from their employers. For your publication to further this unethical behavior is unconscionable."
I don't know anyone who takes focus groups seriously, or sees them as something other than either a way to make a quick buck, or a blight on the face of the planet.
Focus groups are notorious for ruining movies. And how many times have we seen a product or ad campaign which is completely idiotic or offensive get a huge marketing push only to be withdrawn as soon as it hits the ground? My first thought when this happens is, didn't this have to get approved by a dozen different people (I've worked in marketing, so I know)? And my second is, ha, I bet they gave it to a focus group.
Focus groups seem in the main to be populated by people who have an agenda to undermine the work they're supposed to do. (I'm reminded of an old Doonesbury comic strip where the Republicans, after extensive research in the field, decided Dan Quayle would make a good running mate, since all women would vote for a guy who looks like Robert Redford. The punchline: researchers forget to take sarcasm into account.)
The problems with focus groups are twofold.
First, you are guaranteed a skewed sample. The people they are trying to reach -- people who have disposable income and spend their free time disposing of their income -- are not going to want to waste their time under fluourescent lights debating the merits of SunnyD. The only people who participate are people who want and need money, and people who like to think they are pulling one over on the world (these are the same people who will happily waste an hour a day playing headgames with telemarketers, as a way to "punish" the telemarketers for "wasting their time").
Second, people are weird. You cannot accurately predict, know matter how much pseudo-science you apply, how people will react to something. Some of the most popular songs of all time were made up in the studio as filler. Some of the greatest films of all time were released quietly and expected to lose money. Who could have predicted the rise of the Chia pet and The Gods Must Be Crazy?
Not focus groups, that's for sure.
As corporations grow in size, they breed useless offshoots that devote themselves to mindless busy work. Market research groups belong in this category, spitting out polysyllabic words they don't understand, in order to confuse executives into thinking that they are necessary.
I worked in market research, albeit briefly (one month). I quit as soon as I found a real job. We conducted telephone interviews. We were "monitored," but the managers were extremely willing to bend all sorts of rules in order to meet quotas.
Does it matter in the long run? No. Sure, some companies will make idiotic choices and regret them later, but in the grand scheme of things, marketing is one of the least important endeavours on the planet.
To pretend that exploiting market research companies -- companies that are begging to be exploited, just as long as no one admits it out loud -- is a crime comparable to "falsify[ing] medical credentials" is the stupidest thing I have ever heard.
What's more stunning is that the Marketing Research Association, Qualitative Research Consultants Association, Council for Marketing and Opinion Research, American Association for Public and Opinion Research and the Council of American Survey Research Organizations think that they have some sort of golden reputation to uphold. Let's take a survey on that one.
rant updated 23 june 2004. permalink
And now, a word from our sponsor.
Well, not really. It's just free advertising.
It's a mockumentary about a new style of breaking up -- no pain! no angst! no kidding!
And the producer is a nice guy.
So support independent Canadian film, support funniness in comedies, and support a guy named Jim. See this movie. I'll post a review next week.
rant updated 14 may 2004. permalink
Something always goes wrong when things are going right.
I love summer. I've said that a million times in the past week.
Problem is, in addition to the blooming flowers, the aphids and earwigs start crawling out from under rocks.
Okay, maybe that's a little mean. Maybe. A little.
For those of you who haven't guessed already, I'm referring to my ex. The one who wouldn't stop calling and emailing. Until I had the police ask him not to. The one I bumped into this morning.
The big fear here is of course that this will mean things will start up again. Not that the hang-up calls from "blocked number" have ever stopped; it was only a month or so ago that I got eleven such calls in one evening. I keep adding notes to my little file of weirdness, waiting for the line to be crossed that means no more kidding myself, time to contact the police (again).
Obviously, I hope it won't come to that. Obviously, that's the worst case scenario. And obviously, if I'm let with no choice, it's what I'm going to have to do.
rant updated 13 may 2004. permalink
Our long national nightmare is finally over.
Spring is sprung, et cetera. Thank goodness.
In the past few weeks, we've gone from snow to summer. I have pansies on my patio. I've barbecued on numerous occasions. Society in general has stopped complaining about the cold and started complaining about the humidity.
This past weekend, I even went to the cottage. Not for a full weekend, mind you, and the exploratory foray to Wendy's cottage in the Gatineaus was rained out. But I did manage to get to TG's ancestral cottage, if only for a few hours. They've been summering on Cameron Lake for a few generations, and the cottage is a classic -- chimney peeking out of a gabled roof, screened in porch wrapping around the building. We'd have gone for a canoe trip if the paddles weren't locked away inside.
Even though it was on the cold and damp side for our little visit, just knowing that cottage season is here again, just seeing buds and baby green leaves sprouting at the edges of the treetops, mists of pale lime over the grey haze of the leafless forest, just these promises of warmth and sun are enough to make me happy. Maybe the fields are still largely bare now, but by the time I make my next trip home, I know I'll see fields of daisies and blue chicory reflecting the sky against a field of deep alfalfa green. I'll have the windows down and the air rushing past will be warm and will smell of hay and honey. I will splash around in the soft water of a lake and complain how cold it is! and shiver and dunk my head before running up onto the grass. I will stretch my bare wet legs in the sun and let the warmth and light lull me into a hammock nap.
rant updated 5 may 2004. permalink
When I rule the world.
When I am king of this country, there will be some changes made. Lots of changes. But most importantly, these three:
Think how much better the world would be if these few simple changes were implemented! I for one would be much happier and less stressed out.
rant updated 7 april 2004. permalink
Okay, here's the scoop.
In typical fashion, I wasn't terribly worried or concerned about the launch of itch: the reading series until it was hours away. Suddenly I was remembering all of the things I had meant to do, all of the details that must! be taken care of. And I still had to pick an excerpt from Sundowning and have a practice read through or two.
Saturday wasn't too late a night, thank goodness (TG and I went to see The Musical Box in concert -- he was more excited than I was, being a Genesis fanatic, but I actually really enjoyed the show -- I hadn't realized before what a freak Peter Gabriel is -- but I digress). So, I was semi-well-rested on Sunday when I started to panic, so my panic was pretty inconsequential. I changed clothing at the last minute, threw a bottle of wine in the fridge for after, and dashed out the door only slightly late.
Jill and I met beforehand for nibbles at the Queen Star with Lisa, our lovely doorperson. They hadn't been to the Art Bar before, and spent some time oohing and aahing at the lovely brick walls and general perfect reading atmosphere. We also spent some quality time hamming it up with the mic. I alternately panicked that either no one would show or too many people would show. We had the perfect number of people as it turns out -- no seat was empty, no one was turned away. I introduced the evening and Jill, who read from her novel-in-progress, Free Evenings and Unlimited Weekends (aka "Book Two"), and then I read from Sundowning (I ended up deciding on Chapter Two). Jill definitely wins in the funny category -- the audience erupted regularly with that kind of oh-my-god-yes laughter that escapes your body before you can tame it to a level suitable for mixed company.
After a short break (the Art Bar is a non-smoking venue, you know), we returned for the open-mic part of the evening. The inimitable Amy Pearl got up to read -- I hadn't read any of her stuff before, but I've seen her tear up the mic freestyle under her rap persona, Miss Butter. Amy had everyone laughing and gasping in shock at the same time.
Check the Liberty Gleaner and the Gladstone Bag for stories about the event in their upcoming issues. And of course, if you're in Toronto, come out for the next one!
rant updated 30 march 2004. permalink
It's Shameless self-promotion time.
My friend Jill and I have been busy putting together itch: the reading series, hosted by us. It will take place the last Sunday of every month at seven o'clock at the Gladstone Hotel Art Bar. We have writers lined up through the end of June, and to kick it off today, Jill and I will be reading from our novels.
I'll post a full report tomorrow on how it all went. Promise.
rant updated 28 march 2004. permalink
A friend of mine got published in the Village Voice today. Big blinky link on the front page of their website. Great news, right?
But it appears that Whitney Pastorek's humourous take on how blogs ruined her life was less amusing to some.
I read the piece as, basically, "ack, I feel all left out because all of my friends are doing this thing that I just don't get." Others read it as biting the hand that feeds, or sour grapes, or another saltier proverb I won't mention in order to keep from getting hobbled by net nannies. The gist of the reaction was "how mean!" and "how dare she?"
It just seems like so much over-reaction.
I don't consider myself part of the blogosphere because I don't read blogs (except very occasionally) and they don't read me, and I don't write like a blogger for the most part (based on my limited exposure to blogs): I write long essay-ish entries instead of quick hits, and instead of multiple daily updates, I write, um, rarely. A true blogger wouldn't have people yelling, "update your damn website already!" But I did skim through the blog world today, just to see the reaction.
Blogs about blogs about blogs about an article about blogs.
Maybe it's because I've been participating in online newsgroups for far too long (uh, ten years? twelve?), but I make it a point not to fly off the handle online. Better to say nothing. Breathe deeply, count to four hundred and twelve, wait till the urge to respond is well and truly dead. Then say nothing.
Also, I tend to avoid getting too personal in my writing. Why worry if someone might consider my portrayal unflattering -- just don't mention them at all! I try to stick to the general and the generic, unless I'm blathering about public figures whom I will never meet, and who will never read this. Occasionally I'll write something nice about somebody dear to me, but even that is pretty rare.
It's an issue that I've actually put some thought into -- a deliberate policy choice rather than an accident, and one I spelled out in the beginning.
And now I've just undone it all. Years of careful tip-toeing thrown away by referring to a real person and thus indirectly to the real people who were offended! Oh no!
Oh well. If you don't want people talking about you, don't put anything in print. That goes for Whit, me, and all the bloggers in the world.
rant updated 2 march 2004. permalink
Some people's confidence astounds me.
When I applied for a grant last spring, it was with a certain trepidation and no expectation that I would actually be awarded anything. I'd just about forgotten I applied when I got the wonderful news that I was among the lucky ones.
So I'm amazed at the people who apply for grants with a combination of mercenary fervour -- re-applying with the same project; demanding reasons for rejection, even though it's a competitive field with hundreds of applicants and only so much money -- and lackadaisical confidence, being surprised when late applications are set aside for future deadlines, or belligerent when told they have to finish one project before asking for funds for another. When I got my grant, I felt honoured to have been chosen -- to think that strangers thought my work was okay -- some other people's attitudes seem downright arrogant in comparison.
But some people are like that. Some people have this shining confidence that allows them to push the boundaries.
Like the kid who was recently in the news for defrauding a BMW dealership. He called them up pretending to be a wealthy grownup, negotiated a deal over the phone, then called pretending to be a bank verifying that $122,000 had been wired to the dealership. They bought it and delivered the car -- to his high school no less.
He was caught not long after, of course, but still -- the moxie! Would you ever do something like that? I wouldn't. Such a thing wouldn't even occur to me.
The news is filled with this kind of story though -- from the con-artist with the fake literary conference in Banff to any number of corporate raiders. Not to mention the people that achieve great things on pure will -- like Roberto Rodriguez, submitting to medical experiments to fund El Mariachi. Or like any film producer, really; moxie and hubris are practically job requirements for that position.
It scares me a little. I'm such a minnow. I can write away to my heart's content, but it feels a little meaningless if no one's going to read the work. But if you have to be a shark to get noticed? Eek. I just want to jump out of the pool.
rant updated 24 february 2004. permalink
Another Valentine's has come and gone.
Were there always this many bitter people?
Maybe I didn't notice it in previous years because I was single myself, but it seems that the newspaper this year is overrun with people claiming that all couples are deluded and there is no such thing as romantic bliss.
These people insist they are completely content to be single. It might be a little more believable if they weren't so defensive.
People who are truly happy with their choices don't care what the world thinks or chooses. The mere presence of these adamantly-content-because-they-love-their-solitude-dammit in the papers kind of proves that they're not happy. If you're happy, you don't need to tell people that you're happy. It's usually plain to see.
There are two types of people in the world (and I'm going to resist the urge here to insert one of the many dumb jokes I know that starts out that way): people who are happy when they see that other people are happy, and people who seethe with envy.
These are the people who mutter cranky comments when they see a happy couple kissing in the street. They also tend to hate people who are thinner/better-looking/better off/more successful than they are.
Oddly enough, the seethers tend to spend more time in miserable singledom than do the happy ones.
The seethers also have a tendency to indulge in habits and hobbies that make them feel worse.
Complaining about other people's happiness is not a happy people thing to do.
In Douglas coupland's book Shampoo Planet, one character keeps bemoaning that his family is ruining their lives by doing "poor people things." He chastises his mother: "You shouldn't smoke, that's a poor people thing to do." As though by simply ceasing to do "poor people" things, the family would magically slide up the socioeconomic scale. It's a logic similar to that of graphotherapy, whereby improving your penmanship is supposed to improve your life (at any rate, it will improve your life as seen by handwriting interpreters).
If only life were so easy!
Still, it makes you think. There are correlations between certain behaviours and situations. Not necessarily causal correlations, but correlations nonetheless. Maybe changing one side of the equation can have an effect on the other side, too.
My application of this idea is to ask myself: is this a happy people thing to do?
It might seem like a simplistic way to approach life, but it seems to work for me.
For a long time, I allowed myself to be swayed by other people's definitions of fun. It didn't work out so well. I was following the instructions people gave me for what to do to make life more enjoyable, and it didn't seem to have the right effect.
Being an observer by nature, I started paying more attention to the happiness of the people who gave me advice. Beyond the surface noise, they didn't really seem particularly happy. There seemed to be a fair amount of underlying dissatisfaction. Their rules didn't work for themselves, so why would they work for me?
So I made my own rule.
I started looking at people around me, and asking myself: is this person happy? What are they doing differently?
For the most part, it seemed like the people who were happy were the ones who were grateful for what they have, accepting the wonderful surprises that life sometimes brings, but not pushing to make them happen.The ones who weren't happy were the ones who were always pushing, always worrying about what others thought about them, worrying about the things they didn't have. So for the past year, I've tried to stop pushing. I've tried to let go, and let things happen. And whenever someone tells me how I should be living my life differently, I ask myself: is that a happy people thing to do? And then I act accordingly.
I'm not saying that my life is perfect or anything. I don't think anyone's is. But there are a lot of things about my life now that I really like. And when you stop trying to control the world around you, when you accept the opportunities that life brings you, good and bad, and do your best to learn from them and concentrate on the positive aspects of everything life throws your way, life starts bringing you some nice things, and nice people.
rant updated 15 february 2004. permalink
Long time no see.
Once again I've been hibernating. Yep, spending all of my time with the boyfriend instead of being productive. Oh well.
But, I'm back! With a brand new host and not a lot of new content, but I swear as soon as I'm done here, I'll go and update the review.
So, what's new? Hmm.
Valentine's is almost here. Which is a nice thing, for once.
The Garglor and I were out shopping a couple of weeks ago, and saw many and various big heart-shaped boxes of chocolate.
"I have a confession to make," I said. "When I was a kid, I remember going to Morton's Confectionary, a tiny shop that sold a bit of everything and was run by Stan Morton, who ran the shop himself until his nineties, and he would have big boxes of chocolate, heart-shaped, made of red velvet and satin with bows on, and I've always wanted one of those."
TG looked perturbed for a moment, and then spoke.
"I have a confession to make too," he said. "I went into the candy shop near my work and bought one of those heart-shaped boxes of chocolate, and now I'm worried it's not fancy enough."
Two wonderful things:
It's so nice to finally be here, in this comfortable place, with a job I love, and a person I love, and an apartment I love. Everything has finally fallen into place.
I should be scared, but I'm not.
rant updated 9 february 2004. permalink
* when I worked in market research, this was an actual question I had to ask, along with, "How sexy do you find buttock hair on a man?"
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