The Diner

Queen Star

Could this possibly have been the Western Dream? A wife and husband slaving over a stove day and night, and for once the literary usage of “enslavement” feels apt; they are always there, glued inexorably to that grill top, adhered to the small business idea that presented itself when they first came here, when, in the 90s?

The son plays the waiter but does so poorly, in shabbily over-worn clothes. His scarcely-concealed anger never seems directed at any one customer, precisely, but rather hangs permanently in his demeanor, where it seems it will always remain. He sees the rope that knots his parents to this building, suspects likewise that life has few pleasant surprises in store for him.

He clatters an order of coffee roughly to the table of yet-another hung-over young urban professional patron, their hair styled to look accidental, yet requiring many minutes of futzing around before the bathroom mirror each morning. As the coffee glops and splashes around the rattling mug, the young waiter’s eyes wince in pained pantomime, the scalding muddy fluid slopping atop the patrons pant leg.

Father-hen, meanwhile, is over at the grill watching the whole thing happen, arching his back in despair at yet-another display of his son’s lack of care, passion, and bodily coordination. Silently he ponders, “Does this kid truly not understand our sacrifice?” Aloud he proclaims, “Aiya!”

 

You sit politely in your seat wiping the mess of coffee from your table, shirt, pant leg, not wanting to make a big deal of it. You could’ve easily made this food at home, so why did you come here?

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Wasting my time, and maybe yours.

On November 1st I sat down at my computer and attempted to just write until the words came to their natural conclusion. What follows is the result:

First day of the month; first stab at a free write. This is a total coincidence, this “first try on the first day” thing, though it’s the kind of anecdotal coincidence that’s sure to have some nimrod droop their head knowingly askance as they nod in some smug affectation of understanding, as if to imply that FATE BROUGHT ME HERE. I wouldn’t call it fate. Though, I wouldn’t necessarily call it deterministic; I’m fighting against a wall of apathy, of laziness, of a desire to just turn away and do something else.

This shouldn’t be so hard to do. Just sit, write, lay it out, let the words go go go and take you onwards and onwards to the next thought or idea, be it dialog between two (or, heaven forbid, more) characters, or interminable dissections of competing belief structures. Invariably I’ll get inward looking – The Age of the Personal Essay and all that – and it all becomes so immediately trite, so painfully unnecessary. I’m not yet convinced these words hold much value to you, dear reader, even as I am convinced that it’s probably good for me. What’s good for me doesn’t, it seems, have to be good for you.

But to hell with it. If I continue to question the worth of this exercise any longer, I’ll abandon the whole enterprise (and my own free-wheeling thought structure along with it).

Given the amount of dialog I’m seeing sludge forth from the internet I become increasingly aware of how censorship is not the dreadful future-state we all should have been afraid of. I’ll not be the first to say it, but context is everything, and I find myself increasingly astray of context every time I step outside. Every minor subcommunity is so relentlessly self-reinforcing that one could reasonably fall down a billion rabbit holes and be wholly convinced that their particular area of interest was meaningfully worthy of everyone’s time. No one is censoring anyone from saying anything; if anything, the reverse is true.

At a cursory glance, I’d imagine you could find thriving communities devoted to the evolution in packaging of Crayola-brand crayons, Belkin smartphone case fetishists, devotees of Linux so fierce they’d make an Apple fan blush, lifelong fans of certain central-african made styles of toenail clippers, writers so introspective they create entire webpages filled with their own writings which are then completely locked off from the public, conspiracy theorists who think with all heartfelt sincerity that the civilized world is a puppet-show which is soon to come crashing down in a fiery blaze of righteous brimstone.

Any belief you want is supported, validated, honed, attributable to years of writing and fellowship and online camaraderie, and every voice suddenly becomes valid in accordance with the sacred and necessary dictums of net neutrality. Every page is equal, we’re all citizen journalists, no one should trust anyone, and suddenly we realize “fake news” has been proliferating ever since the first angry letter to the editor was ever sent into the local newspaper.

We’re juggling countless arguments with ravenous bands of aggressive strangers and we all think we’re smarter than each other and literally no one is able to provide us any guidance.

On a recent trip in the States I ended up tuning in to Fox News each night before bed, trying to get a taste of what the ‘other side’ was watching. To it’s credit, it was not holistically bullshit – there are some banal points of reporting for which no degree of political spin can be effectively applied – but there did exist an overbearing tone to the content that invariably validated the beliefs of a presumed right-leaning audience. We’re used to nighttime talk shows lambasting Fox News for their unsubtle reporting style, but more worrisome were the small details: the little facial ticks; the knowing nods to the camera; the glances between agreeing hosts as they silently commiserate over the “absurdity” of a guest who disagrees with them. Fox News was providing a context, and it was fulsome and ever-present. It said, “We’re seeing the same world you’re seeing.”

I’d love to trash it to the hilt, but I get the same vibe watching MSNBC, with the tilt merely skewed towards progressivism. This dovetails nicely with my beliefs, but it doesn’t mean I can’t see the context at play. When progressives criticize Fox News they rightly do so as a matter of principle, fighting against their manipulations, but honestly, that argument cuts both ways, and it leaves both sides tattered.

I find myself in search of middle ground, essentially unable to find it. I don’t know where to look for it, nor who can provide it. We’re searching for steady voices in the crowd – the way our parents used to talk about evening news anchors – but those traditional voices aren’t loud enough to overcome the wave of dialog that the internet has brought us. I read more on Twitter than I do from newspapers (shamefully), and lo and behold, Donald Trump leveraged that Twitter-first to speak loudest of anyone in the room.

It’s a broken system, then. We need leaders, and cannot find them. We need balanced context, but find it lacking.

Perhaps the case is this: That you choose to live around a lot of other people, or you choose to carve out your own little kingdom. You hang in your backyard, or you go to a park. You drive an SUV, or you take a streetcar. Either you integrate your daily routine with strangers, or you work to segregate yourself from others as much as possible. The only context you’ll ever feel most at home is nestled within one of those two groups of ideologies; living with strangers, or living apart from them. This is not a value judgment on either way of living, merely an observation on how countries and societies tend to speak and vote.

People can break free of these routines or ideologies, but it seems absurdly self-evident that the socio-cultural conditioning you achieve by living and working around strangers feeds into a direct and specific set of beliefs that run contradictory to people who live and work with fewer people around. I can watch Fox News all I want, but I can’t put myself in the shoes of one of their lifelong followers, nor can they reasonably presume to step into mine.

That we have so many ways to talk at each other, while conversely so few ways to actually interact, is disheartening. The internet did such an immensely effective job of bringing our multitudinous sub-communities to the fore, and yet has done so little to allow them to talk to each other.

 

So, there. The first free write. Let me know what you think.

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Jester Lambasted for Mocking Diminutive Baron

King and Jester, early 15th century From the book Short History of the English People by J R Green, published London 1893.:

(Originally published in the New Amsterdam Times, 1637)

Today a jester from the court of King Lorne was lambasted and spat upon in the public square after her attempt at jesting was considered a gesture of contempt towards young Baron Trump. The courtly gentleman, ten years of age and billions of dollars in social standing greater than the quipster, was defended by a group of angry villagers armed with pitchforks and burning torches. The jester has lost the graces of King Lorne’s court as a result of the kerfuffle.

Not since a tramp uttered curses of “pussywillow” and “poppycock” during the Feast of Borborygmus has there been such uproar at an attempt at revelry from the common classes. Young Baron seemed unperturbed by the perceived slight and continued on in his daily routine of flogging vagrants who dare look directly at those above their standing and forcing tramps to dance by throwing nickels at their calloused feet.

The jest in question is said to be in such poor taste that some respectable publishers refuse to further its infamy by way of reprinting. But for the sake of journalistic inquiry, let us judge if the offending epithets are sufficient folly for the professional buffoon to have lost her place in the court and to have been pelted with turnips in the town square. Rapier warning: the following tomfoolery may alarm the recently poxed and others of weak constitution. Jester Rich was said to have remarked before the royal subjects that young Baron has the physiognomy of a charlatan who may one day guillotine his fellow pupils.

While the aristocrats and their servants are up in arms about the ill will brought upon the young nobleman from the royal Trump clan, others are not so moved by a small jest against the richest and most powerful diminutive lord in the land.

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the bubble i live in

i still remember going to sleep the night george w. bush was reelected and waking up the next morning in disbelief. no, couldn’t have happened. he’s a buffoon. every comedian i watched, every musician or rapper i listened to, every tv show i tuned into critiqued his lacking loquaciousness or his intellectual ambivalence in some blatant or subtle way. there was no possible way a majority of americans could entrust him with four more years in office. i wrote a friend an email that night confessing as much.

it’s with that same feeling of shock, surprise and dread that i went to sleep last night, with news that a con man–and narcissist, misogynist, racist, and punchline–donald trump will, barring some miracle, become president-elect of the most powerful country on the planet. i don’t get it. just like i didn’t get it 12 years ago. the hosts of every podcast i listen to were so confident, smug even, about a hillary win. no one on my twitter or facebook feeds held up a strong argument for the man, for his policies. the soundbites i did see of trumps or one of his sycophants–chris christie, rudy giuliani, newt gingrich–disgusted me. but he hung around, he had a base of support. i sought out theories for how trump had come so far. there were new yorker features, wnyc radio series that went searching for the trump supporter and made compelling arguments–about a disaffected white working class’s alienation from a professional elite (clintons et al) that mocked them and how this group was courted by a cynical republican party coalition of evangelical christians and business interests that will no doubt exploit it; how talk-radio’s lunatic conspiracy fringe (received by droves of americans who no longer trust mainstream media outlets) became the blueprint for trump’s ‘tell it like it is’ rants and his rise in popularity among those who are fed up with the establishment.
still, i never thought this possible. but i should have and, in hindsight, i think how i feel tonight has something to do with the comfortable bubble i live in on twitter, on facebook, in my social circle. a day didn’t go by in the last 18 months where i didn’t share some astonishment at work, at ball, at home, at the pub over some trump insult, or retweet a gaffe or anti-trump meme, or like a comment from a friend lampooning the orangecicle or the combover. i never took trump seriously, but then when he won the primary, i had to take him seriously, but i still didn’t really take him seriously. i don’t know how you can take him seriously, but seriously, he’s the president of the usa.
the mea culpas are already coming from some of the major us news networks, as they wonder aloud whether they should have given him so much airtime, broadcast his every word, gone along with his con the whole time. on the otherside, the alt-right stars like alex jones are claiming victory and their part in this upset. (it will be fascinating to see how quickly they turn on trump.)
if you look at america, it’s become a nation of two bubbles–with two separate versions of history and two separate visions for the future, chugging along on two tracks that only ever seem to meet up every four years (or two, i suppose, with the midterm elections.) i don’t know what the future holds for that country, so obviously fractured. i don’t know what this means for canada, which owes a lot of its security to the usa and hasn’t, in my lifetime, ever dealt with an aggressive southern neighbour. (what happens when president trump comes calling for our water when drought hammers california next summer?) what i do know is, i never saw this coming because i live in an echo chamber of like-minded opinions. i imagine i’m not alone–in fact, the collective sense of surprise that many on my twitter and facebook, and in my social circle feel, tells me that they were reading, retweeting and liking the same shit. that we can go along like that, for so long, and feel so shocked when something like this happens–it’s almost as scary as the results tonight.
i went to sleep in shock and woke up, still in disbelief. i will probably check twitter and facebook–and turn on the tv–a little less often for the next while.
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Behind the Brand: When your brand is no longer your brand

Tim Hortons was sold to Wendys or Burger King or some other notable American fast-food corporation a few months ago, and though the news triggered panic, fear, grief and outrage in some corners North of the 49th, I think we’ll actually be better off for it.

First of all, Tim Hortons, believe it or not, is just a company that sells coffee. (Pretty shitty coffee, I might add.) That, I guess, and some donuts, a strange panini sandwich with painted on grill marks and a whole range of bland and oddly divergent food items that it seems to roll out at random every few months.

But that’s not what it really sells. Nope, its biggest asset is how it’s been able to associate itself so closely with our national identity – or that esoteric notion of ‘what it means to be Canadian.’ (If we’re being completely honest, it probably ranks up there with hockey and the CBC in importance, right?) Tim Hortons has shamelessly self-promoted the lie that, all across this immense country of ours, anyone can walk into – or ‘drive-thru’ – a Tim Hortons, grab a cup full of hot, 20-minutes-or-less fresh Canadiana, breathe in that familiar smell and suddenly feel at one with the hockey dads, zamboni drivers and, umm, CBC radio hosts between Victoria, B.C. and Saint John’s, Newfoundland. (Especially the hockey dads, zamboni drivers and CBC radio hosts living in the funny-named places like Flin Flon, Moose Jaw, etc.)

I hate to break it to you, but it’s so obviously total horse hooey. And to remind you of just how flimsy and contrived this idea is, have a look at a TV ad Tim Hortons recently broadcast to an American audience. (WARNING: You might feel shafted. You might feel betrayed. I bet you it will even break your heart a little.)

Weren’t you waiting for the narrator to reveal that the secret to the Tim Hortons magic is… Canada? Didn’t it feel like a parallel universe, like Canada no longer existed in a Back to the Future 2 alternate reality? Do you see now how they’re just selling us this idea: that their coffee, their honey crullers, their weird panini sandwiches with the painted on grill marks, their company, their entire brand relies on this shameless, hackneyed association to our shared experience. Without that messaging, Tim Hortons is just a boring, uncreative company that sells bland coffee, honey crullers and weird panini sandwiches with painted on grill marks.

There’s nothing intrinsically Canadian about Tim Hortons. We’re not losing part of our national identity. Canada isn’t somehow diminished because an American conglomerate bought up a coffee chain that couldn’t sell its products on its own merits but had to cash in on our own collective insecurities by purporting to be a symbol of our nation. Because, really, if our national identity hangs on a coffee chain, then that’s a real problem.

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Behind the Brand: Who wants a Big Mac, fresh from the McDonald’s System?

Just a little McNugget from McDonald’s latest quarterly report. Here’s the honest-to-Jah press release intro quote from the CEO:

“The McDonald’s System is committed to creating the best experience for our customers by offering great-tasting food and beverages and a memorable and contemporary experience,” said McDonald’s President and Chief Executive Officer Don Thompson. “During the quarter, we evolved our strategic Plan to Win framework to enhance our focus on the customer through insights, planning and actions. To reignite momentum over the next 18 months, we’re focused on fortifying the foundational elements of our business by concentrating our efforts on compelling value, marketing and operations excellence to become a more relevant and trusted brand.”

(Please note the areas the McDonald’s System plans to focus its efforts. Nothing at all to do with product.)

LINK: http://phx.corporate-ir.net/phoenix.zhtml?c=97876&p=irol-newsArticle&ID=1949670&highlight=

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Horror stories from the gym, in Kunming, China.

Our good friend Jonah moved to Kunming, China in January. He joined a gym. It’s been an experience. It’s better he tell you about it than us. You can also check out his blog here.

* * *

After moving to China, I found myself with a lot more free time than I previously had in my Canadian life as a full-time worker. For the most part, my only commitments have been the 10 hours of Chinese lesson and 4-6 hours of English tutoring I’ve had each week. With all that time on my hands comes a sense of responsibility to do “the right things,” which of course includes finding a gym and staying healthy. Finding a gym in Kunming is not that hard, but as is the case with most things, you more or less get what you pay for.

After a month of settling into Kunming I started my Chinese classes and was able to meet a fellow expat who was also looking for a gym. He did the scouting for both of us, and the price range for gym memberships was about ¥888 (~$160 CAD) for 1 year to ¥3000 (~$550 CAD) for 6 months. Considering that we were both unemployed expats, living off savings from our previous jobs, we decided to go with the budget gym at a cost of about $160 for the year. Overall, it had everything we needed – a squat rack, some benches, and heavy things to lift. Sure, it was a little dirty, the bathroom smelled and nobody put their weights away, but that seemed like a small price to pay. That was only the beginning.

heavybag

There’s nothing more distracting than having someone wildly kick a heavy bag right in front of where you’re squatting.

During the initial two weeks I couldn’t help but be amused by some of the quirks. Before I keep going though, I don’t mean to shit on the good people who showed up there to try and improve their health. Sure, they might have had some unorthodox or even questionable ways of doing so, but showing up is more than a lot of people do, so good on them. With that said, the gym etiquette (a term used very loosely here) was a big departure from what you might expect in the west. Most people showed up in whatever shoes or loafers they were wearing before their lunch break started. Jeans were also quite common, but shirts were optional. As for the people who did change clothes before working out, a fair number of them chose to do so in the actual gym.

A nice seating/napping area.

A nice seating/napping area.

smokebreak

Exhibits A, B and C.

Living in China, you get used to the smell of cigarette smoke just about everywhere. In restaurants, office buildings, elevators, hospitals. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised when I smelled it walking into the changing room. I think the only thing moresurprising was seeing the smoker posing naked in the mirror, then quickly acting natural when he realized he was spotted. Of course smoking isn’t just limited to the changing room; people are often smoking in the front foyer, and sometimes on equipment in the gym. Cigarette butts and ash next to a dumbbell is not an uncommon sight. If the smell of cigarette smoke while you’re exercising is a bit off putting, there’s a simple solution – go during lunchtime. The smell of smoke will be overpowered by the restaurant’s kitchen just below the windows.

Speaking of lunch, I was initially impressed when I found out this gym has its own restaurant. I also thought that the goldfish-filled pond was a nice touch too, until I noticed a few of them floating belly up and motionless. The restaurant also became less appealing when the large goldfish disappeared from the pond and the smell of cooked fish started coming from the kitchen.

The site of the former in-house restaurant.

The site of the former in-house restaurant.

pond

The site of the former fish.

change

The changing room in its death throws.

I was getting used to the gym’s quirks after the first two weeks, so when I came in one day and there was no power, I figured it’s just another day in Kunming. Then there was no power the next day. Or the one after that. Around the fourth or fifth day the sound of a generator could be heard from down the hallway. At no point did this seem like a good sign, but at least there was electricity. In addition to electricity, there were also a lot of fumes, being that it was a gas-powered generator. This effectively cut the usable area of the gym in half for a few days until someone clued in that maybe we were better off without any power. It was only when my girlfriend Coomi’s mom came home one night and asked which gym I go to that we figured out what was happening. It had been on the news that the gym was closing and moving to another location in June, and a few people were upset. I wasn’t as upset about that so much as the fact that they didn’t tell me. Even after bringing Coomi the personal translator with me, details were difficult to ascertain. We were just told that the new gym would be “better”.

High security for a very important branch.

The most noticeable effect of having no power or running water has been the smell when you enter the gym. It’s one of the worst, most overpowering smells I’ve had to deal with. I don’t want to get too graphic in case someone with a light stomach is reading this, but most bathrooms in China stink with running water, so imagine what one without it smells like after a few days/weeks/months, then add the smell of sweat, stale smoke and not ever being properly cleaned to that equation. After the gym I crave nothing more than clean water and soap to wash my hands now. On the plus side, the number of members has drastically dropped, as most of them have probably already found a new gym or gave up on their already halfhearted attempts. The fitness classes are also almost all cancelled, except for yoga, which apparently does not require lights or terrible C-pop blaring out of a stereo. I do, however, miss watching the most uncoordinated man alive struggle through the belly dancing class.

Just one dirty corner of the abandonded portion of the changing room.  I decided to leave out the picture of the bathroom in order to prevent this post from becoming NSFW.

Just one dirty, blurry corner of the abandonded portion of the changing room. I decided to leave out the picture of the bathroom in order to prevent this post from becoming NSFW.

Back to the bathroom topic: one person must have found the lack of running water equally.  distressing, as he (or she) decided to take a shit in the stairwell between the third or fourth floors and leave it there, where it remained for about 3 more weeks before being cleaned up. Normally I wouldn’t have noticed this, since the gym is on the third floor, but for some reason the rickety elevators don’t stop on the third floor, requiring you to go up to the fourth floor, then walk down a flight of stairs. Of course, you could just use the stairs in the first place, but they have a tendency to provide less and less head clearance from floor to floor. I’m not sure if that was an intentional part of the design or just someone’s way of improvising on the construction of the building.

My favourite post-workout/anytime meal in China, 饵丝 (pronounced kind of like "arse").

My favourite post-workout/anytime meal in China, 饵丝 (pronounced kind of like “arse”).

It didn’t take too long to get used to not having any power though. There is ample natural light that gets in, and I’ve never been a fan on running or cycling in one spot. What has been a little more difficult to get used to is things like walking to the other side of the gym and back multiple times looking for the other 20-kg dumbbell, finding that dumbbell, discovering it has rolled over someone’s spit (and maybe ash too, for good measure), and then returning to the bench you were going to use to find someone sitting on it texting, playing a game, sleeping or having his girlfriend take pictures of him.

organized

Another strange scenario was when my friend was finishing a set of squats and had seven other Chinese guys stop what they’re doing and watch him, all while commenting in indecipherable Kunming dialect. After that, one of them stepped in and tried to do the same weight. It was a little bit uncomfortable, but mostly annoying. It’s also not unusual to see someone decide to abandon his shirt mid-workout and start blatantly posing in the mirror for most of his remaining session. This usually sets off a chain reaction, leading to a situation where most of the guys in the gym are shirtless, flexing in the mirrors between sets. In all fairness, I’m not going to judge if someone wants to check themself out while getting a pump; whatever motivates you, right? But for a lot of them, the only thing they seem to have pumped in the last few months is their guts, which makes me think maybe they should work harder, smoke in the gym less and stop imagining how ripped they are. Just a crazy idea.

A move called the "weighted nap".

A move called the “weighted nap”.

The current state of the new location.

The current state of the new location.

Yup, this must be the right place.

As of July 2nd, the gym was still in its original, utility-less location, although more and more equipment was lying on the floor in pieces, signaling that a move was in preparation. I figured this must be good! I took a picture of a sign at the front desk to bring back to Coomi for translation. By this point I already figured out that people selling you things in China will sometimes say anything to make the situation better. If their claim is true or turns out to be true, that’s just a bonus. June was more or less the hopeful estimate for a new location, but I had even heard some rumours from the expat circle that it would be December. In any event, I managed to find the “new location”, which ended up being locked. Upon calling them, I found out that the new location is actually only a new temporary location before they move to the new permanent location. Even more convenient is the fact that this new temporary location won’t be ready until September, if all goes well. In Chinaspeak, this means “September, but not September, because if we told you when we really think it’ll be ready, you’d be mad and I don’t want to deal with that, so I’ll make something up and hope it doesn’t come back to bite me or that I’ve found a new job by then”.

So that’s what happens when you buy the cheapest gym membership available in China. The facilities can be questionable, some of the people can be questionable, the staff can be misleading, but the experience is priceless. Actually, no. The experience is about ¥888/year, of which your membership will be on hold for two months until the new temporary location is ready, if everything goes well.

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