Friday, May 29, 2009

Friday Night Play List: In the future

I am going to go out on a limb and recommend two movies that I have yet to see. Both have gotten overwhelmingly 'Fresh' ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, but more importantly, they both focus on senior protagonists. As the Baby Boomer generation enter their twilight years, advertisers are quick to cater to such a significant consumer population, and senior citizens have become more visible in the media. Only time will tell if depictions of old age will be more like these movies or more like Grandpa Simpson.

Up (2009) - Everyone has seen the trailer with the cute old man, the cute boy scout, and the cute talking dog. What I have only heard about is the touching six minute intro that encapsulates the protagonist's life with his late wife. I fear that I will sob my way through a wad of tissue, like I did with Wall-E.

Away From Her (2007) - Twenty-something year old Sarah Polley surprised everyone with her directorial debut about a couple whose 50 year marriage is threatened by the onset of Alzheimer's. The wife's self-imposed exile into an old age home to prevent herself from becoming a burden to her husband is the stuff of my most realistic nightmares. Worth another box of tissue, for sure.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Rehab for the masses

As is probably the case for the majority North Americans, I have struggled with food for the majority of my life. When faced with tasty food, I have often lacked the will power to simply stop when I feel full. My recent Kichadi fast experience has definitely confirmed the idea that the sensory rewards of food, and not satiation, is what compels people to overeat.

Dr. David Kessler, former Commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, was on The Current today in a segment called "Overeating" and he equated commercial food with a drug, "optimized for bliss" with the perfect combination of fat, sugar and/or salt. Add the "emotional gloss" of advertising campaigns and you have a socially acceptable addiction waiting to happen.

As with any addiction, consumers must reprogram their routine and perceptions to overcome the problem. The strength of sensory cues (sight and smell of food) needs to be acknowledged the same way it is understood that placing bottles of alcohol in front of an alcoholic is asking for a relapse. Addicts must reprogram themselves by breaking unhealthy food's association with a positive experience ("It tastes so good") and instead link them with the negative effects ("The satisfaction is only temporary and then I'll feel bloated and guilty").

Dr. Kessler admits that the lure of food can never be programmed out completely, much like for a reformed alcoholic or smoker. However, replacing the positive stimulation of unhealthy food with a negative connotation will be easier than attempting to exert control over the desire with dieting or willpower. As Kessler states at the end of his segment, "If you want that donut, even if you know that it's not good for you, there's nothing (anyone) can do to get in the way between you and that donut (...) once your brain has been activated."

Monday, May 25, 2009

Like the Littlest Hobo...but angrier

After just over two years at my current position, I may be on the lookout for greener pastures. It appears that I have assumed the role of my boss's least favourite person in the office, since the previous occupant took mental stress leave. Initially, I was comfortable being the lone person to say 'no' to my boss's panic-driven initiatives, like photocopying, addressing and distributing 200+ copies of a union booklet in an afternoon for fear of being reprimanded by the union. Yet, being the lone dissenter has its downsides.

Recent drama in my workplace have included:
  • My boss checking with my immediate supervisor regarding my workload and deciding to add to that workload without consulting me. It is worthy to note that I had just returned from a holiday, was catching up and actually had plenty to do outside of my immediate supervisor's jurisdiction. I was challenged to list all of my current projects then met with predetermined hostile indifference.
  • Asking for vacation time only to be taken into a meeting where my job description was cited like a contract negotiation. When it occurred to me that my boss had made up her mind before I ever had the chance to offer possible solutions, like unpaid overtime prior to departure, I was forced to listen to the boss and immediate supervisor tag-team me with repetitive officiousness.
Since it has become clear that my boss's reflexive dislike of me will henceforth put me at a disadvantage in terms of work and benefits allocation, it is probably time to find a new position. As they sing in "The Littlest Hobo": "Maybe tomorrow, I'll want to settle down. Maybe tomorrow, I'll just keep moving on." How I hated that show.

2009 Doors Open recap

Joe has been considering hopping onto one of the double decker bus tours of Toronto just to get an outsider's view of the city that we live in. However, the financial commitment and the shame of being seen on a tourist bus still holds us back. In the meantime, we engaged in the closest thing to becoming a hometown tourist while retaining self-respect by attending the 10th Annual Doors Open Toronto.

In mapping out our destinations, we aimed for the buildings that we would not normally have access to like the National Ballet School, the Carlu, and the Royal Canadian Military Institute. However, we were impressed by familiar yet unexpected gems like the Toronto Dominion Centre, where we were granted access to the 54th Floor Boardroom, which retains much of the meticulous Modernist style of architect, Mies van der Rohe, and Old City Hall, which I have never actually entered. Architect, Edward James Lennox aimed to impress visitors with an imposing entrance that leads unexpectedly into a bright main hall, and 110 years later, his design is still effective. I never knew that the heavy-looking building was actually hollow, with an interior courtyard, and full of large windows, to lessen the reliance on the then-untried technology of electricity.

While waiting in line for the National Ballet School on Saturday morning, fellow attendees were already relaying tales of the legendary lineup outside the Don Jail. What was a 'must see' on our list was quickly crossed off with regret. However, happy news after so many visitors were turned away from the Don Jail during Doors Open: the Don Jail will be open to tourists starting June 1 for an admission price of $20. Then, in November, the Jail will be gutted by Bridgepoint Hospital and converted into office space. Having visited Alcatraz in San Francisco, I think Toronto is destroying a future tourist attraction in its plans for the Don Jail, but gutting the Jail will be in keeping with Toronto's tradition of destroying its past for short-sighted convenience.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A Victoria Day Weekend for nerds

After attending a Red Eye this past weekend, it has become apparent that zombies are very fashionable right now, at least in my immediate gaming circle. In addition to the previous Red Eye favourite, Left 4 Dead, we enjoyed Call of Duty's Nazi Zombies, and Flowers vs. Zombies. The latter is a single player PopCap Game but its pedigree did not prevent it from turning members of the party into intense, zombie killing gardeners.

It is hard to say what makes zombie killing so appealing for everyone but for myself, I enjoy the guiltfree killing spree that I can engage in. The practice has all the moral satisfaction of weeding but with the bonus of the weeds being human shaped, mobile and hostile to my well-being.

When the gaming was over, Joe and I went to see X-Men Origins: Wolverine because we already saw Star Trek last weekend (and it was excellent). I am in agreement with the majority of critics that Hugh Jackman is the only strength in an otherwise mediocre movie. However, in an exchange after the credits had rolled, a fellow audience member and a theatre employee put it best:
"It was better than X-Men 3."
"Yeah. At least Brett Ratner couldn't touch this one."

Friday, May 15, 2009

Kichadi and Iceland - The End

Technically, I'm supposed to continue my Kichadi Fast until Saturday but I intend on breaking my fast tonight with dinner. It will not be steak or something fried because I have been advised to ease back into regular food. However, even a salad sounds like flavour country right now.

I do recommend the Kichadi Fast to others, if only to gauge how many calories you consume when taste is taken out of the equation. I do not recommend visiting friends for a home cooked meal while on the Kichadi Fast. If there was a low point of this past week, that would definitely have been it (I am so sorry, Fiona).

A final note on Iceland: I mentioned previously how aloof Icelanders can be and our Hotel Bjork concierge, Oddur, was a perfect example of this. He failed to smile when we arrived and was initially all business, but was soon engaged in an ongoing joke about his perpetual presence at the front desk in the most hilariously deadpan manner. By the end, we were selling Canada to him as a vacation destination and he seemed genuinely interested. I must remember to seal the deal by sending him a Canadiana postcard.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Kichadi Fast update

I am eating my Kichadi as I write because writing in my blog will hopefully provide just enough distraction to force feed myself.

If the Kichadi fast has taught me anything, it is that I enjoy tasty food. I used to think that I was an indiscriminate eater but, it turns out that I am a flavour connoisseur. When flavour is taken out of the equation, I would rather starve until hunger pains force me to take in some form of sustenance.

On the plus side, I haven't felt any discomfort other than the aforementioned hunger pains. I think the psychological deprivation of not being able to eat at will has been dampened by my previous experience with weekday vegetarianism. And in an attempt to distract myself from my Kichadi breakfast on Sunday morning, we caught the 10:20am screening of Star Trek, which was awesome, and free of kids, weekend warriors, and delinquents.

An unexpected side effect of my fast is that Joe is not eating well either. To be clear, he is not participating in the Kichadi fast but, he feels bad about eating regular food in front of me and has taken to putting off eating until necessary. Between the two of us, our home is now reminiscent of the Nebuchadnezzar in The Matrix, in which its crew ate unappetizing but nutritious gruel that would not distract them from their duty. Except, my duties are less exciting than fighting genocidal machines so I find myself daydreaming about food a lot.

I am looking forward to eating regular food again come Saturday, if only to enjoy the freedom to eat what I want, when I want.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

eg tala ekki islensku - Part 3


I am only on the first day of my one week Kichadi fast and, already, I am regretting my public commitment to this endeavor. I am kind of hungry but the Kichadi is so tasteless that I shudder at the thought of eating it. Maybe if I think of Iceland, I can stave off insanity...

The ultimate guided tour
I have never been a fan of bus tours so when the opportunity to explore Iceland in a jeep presented itself, we took it - hefty price tag be damned. Our party of four was picked up at 9:00 in the morning by Lully, our guide, and fellow passenger, David, an elderly man. When David mistook us for Americans, we tried to return the favour by guessing that he was Welsh, but we got it right so we all laughed for the wrong reason.

Our first stop was Þingvellir, the site of Iceland's first parliament in 930 AD, and where the European and American plates meet. It was beautiful, to be sure, with the crystal clear water and a range of mountains in the background, but I found myself disappointed by the many tour buses that accompanied us.

Our next stop were the hot springs. We had all brought our swimsuits, David included, but were informed by Lully that the water bubbled out of the ground at 100C. Sure enough, steam filled the area like a heavy fog. The hot springs were followed by a visit to some volcanic waterfalls, where water poured, seemingly, out of the ground. Both sites were interesting to see, and less heavily visited than Þingvellir, but they did feel like accessible tourist sites.

I must admit that the prospect of visiting Langjökull glacier, our next stop, did not excite me. My previous experience with glaciers was in Alberta, and they were comparable to a dirty snow parking lot for mega-wheel tour buses. However, as we approached the glaciers, Lully told us that Neil Armstrong had used the surrounding landscape to simulate a walk on the moon and it was easy to see why. The volcanic rock created an alien environment and the remoteness of the region was otherworldly.

Lully's jeep climbed 1000m above sea level before it became mired in the snow that covered the glacier, and we were forced to stop. Surrounded by nothing but snow, there was no visual cue to indicate how far the summit was. We made a go at it, running up the mountain through the snow, but could only chart our feeble progress by looking back at the parked jeep. Lully seemed concerned by our behaviour as we continued giddily on; Joe decided to roll down the mountain then I attempted to do some yoga moves. Photos fail to do the glacier justice but believe me when I say that we were inspired by beauty, and not oxygen deprivation.

Climbing down into a volcanic cave did not quite measure up to the glacier but was still off the beaten path and wonderfully unsafe. Lully provided us with helmets and headlights but, otherwise, trusted us to climb over jagged, icy rock in low light conditions unassisted. 100m into the cave, we turned off our lights and found ourselves in complete darkness. It was unnerving to think of what would have happened if technology failed us and panic did its work.

Like spent children, we passed out during the return to Reykjavik. Lully was still peppy, perhaps fueled by his numerous snacks. His sweet nature was definitely the cherry on top of the best tour that I have ever been on. Well worth the credit card bill that met us on our return to reality.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

eg tala ekki islensku - Part 2 (+ Kichadi Fast prediction)

And, now, more about Iceland...

Tastes different
In my last blog entry, I mentioned how great the tap water in Iceland was. I just finished my stash of Icelandic tap water last night, fearing that it might become stale if I left it bottled up for too long. I savoured it like fine wine and tried to memorize the flavour: slightly sweet, very smooth, untouched by chlorine.

Our food experience in Iceland was similarly excellent. We ate fresh seafood until we feared the onset of gout. Lobster was readily available at all restaurants but their small size surprised us; the lobster tails were no longer than 4 inches. Of course, fish was also a staple of the local menus as was lamb, which I ordered repeatedly. Three highlights of our eating frenzy were:

1. Sandholt bakery on Laugavegur - their pastries and smoked salmon sandwiches were a comfort to us on our first wet and cold day in Reykjavik

2. Bæjarins beztu pylsur - a hot dog stand by the waterfront that has served Bill Clinton. The sausage itself is a blend of pork and lamb. Toppings included remolaði, a mayonnaise-based sauce with sweet relish, and fried onions.

3. The Sea Baron - owned by a former fisherman, various seafood shish-kebabs are grilled on demand. This was where we ate Minke Whale and realized that whale tastes like steak. It was a revelation because we had expected whale to taste like fish, or the standard fallback, chicken. The lobster soup was also very flavourful.

To the horror of many, we made a point of eating at the only McDonald's in Reykjavik, located in Kringlan Shopping Centre, one of only two malls in town. Kringlan was like any other suburban mall, catering to teenyboppers and their parents, and our McDonald's meal was similarly underwhelming in taste. What did thrill us was the gender specific packaging; only the nutritional information for women was displayed (see photo at the top). We could only speculate that if a male consumer buys a meal, then he gets the male packaging with corresponding nutritional information. Inefficient and fascinating.

Obviously, I broke my weekday vegetarian routine while in Iceland. In an attempt to make up for my vacation, I will be undergoing the Kichadi Fast for a week. This diet sent friends on a meat frenzy after a mere three days but prompted them to change their eating habits nonetheless. I am going to speculate that I will be able to last the seven days and be a ray of sunshine throughout.

Bitchy blog entries about Iceland to come.

Friday, May 01, 2009

eg tala ekki islensku - Part 1

Gullfoss waterfall

We're back from Iceland and we loved it. We did our bit for the Icelandic economy though we have very little to show for it in terms of materials items; the majority of our funds were spent on food and experiences.

In an attempt to curb anecdotal diarrhea, and prevent readers' eyes from glazing over, I will try to bunch my stories under subject lines.

Icelanders are different.
We knew that we had entered a new country as soon as we boarded our Icelandair plane. Not only were the air stewards and stewardesses perfect Aryan specimens (blonde, blue eyed, about 6 feet tall), but the women wore the jaunty stewardess caps of old and one even wore 4 inch stilettos (!). The music selection on Icelandair was also hipper than that of any airline I have ever flown with: it featured homegrown stars like Bjork and Sigur Ros, but also Mark Ronson,
MGMT, and Radiohead. And they kept the entertainment units going even as we landed, as opposed to shutting them down half an hour before landing, forcing passengers to focus on the descent without distraction, like other airlines. So, I landed in Keflavík International Airport while listening to "15 Steps" from In Rainbows (sweet!).

During the rest of the trip, we found Icelanders to be standoffish but usually willing to assist and enthusiastic about International cuisine - not unlike Torontonians. However, unlike in Toronto, service does not require tipping, and they do not believe in price gauging. Once engaged in conversation, Icelanders tended to have a dry sense of humour. Residents of downtown Reykjavik were unbelievably stylish, even the parents of young children, who were dressed in equally covetible multicoloured outfits. They have clearly given up on dressing for the weather, which dictates a waterproof jacket and layers. Instead, residents pranced around in leather jackets and stylish high heels, putting my practicality to shame.

Strokkur geysir

Nature dominates in Iceland
As cosmopolitan as the locals are, they number at around 320,000, making them no match for mother nature. The weather changes rapidly throughout the day, going from bright sun to pelting wind and rain within hours. Umbrellas are rarely used by anyone. On the plus side, Icelanders enjoy cheap utilities due to geothermal heating and glacial springs. The water from the tap tastes like spring water and is not chlorinated; neither are their geothermic public swimming pools, which thus require all users to scrub their nether regions vigorously prior to entry.

Largely untouched and uninhabited, the landscape of Iceland is breathtaking. Within an hour's drive of Reykjavik, one can experience expansive grassy plains or volcanic fields covered in thick moss, surrounded by rows of mountains. One of my best experiences was
visiting the Langjökull glacier, which unlike the Canadian glaciers, was pristine and virtually untouched by visitors; the feeling of having such a majestic view all to ourselves made me giddy, though that could have been attributed to being 1km above sea level. More popular and accessible tourist attractions like Gullfoss waterfall and the nearby geysirs, were also unmarred by human contact. Living close to a international landmark like Niagara Falls, we were blasé about seeing any waterfall, but were pleasantly surprised to find out that Gullfoss is elegantly multi-tiered. Plus, we were able to get closer to these dangerous demonstrations of mother nature's power than we ever would back home. A mere string, hung one foot off the floor, politely suggests where tourists should stop. However, if a tourist wanted to get closer to the powerful plunging water or receive a 100C jet of water to the face, they are free to do so.

That's more copy than two subject lines would suggest, so more on Iceland in the next blog entry.

PS, "eg tala ekki islensku," meaning "I don't speak Icelandic," was printed on a t-shirt that I bought shortly after landing in Keflavík International Airport. Strangely enough, the best deals in Reykjavik were to be found at the Airport. For an explanation, please refer to 'Icelanders are different' above.