Sunday, May 31, 2009

Vintage week: That's a ballsy move

More old Ottawa Sun column fun.
July 17, 2007

Lululemon is prone to eye-catching windows.
But anyone walking past Edmonton's Whyte Avenue location last month could have been forgiven for doing a double-take.
The window featured two male mannequins with their pants around their ankles and several cheerful signs pasted to the window urging male passersby to "Play with your balls!"
Store merchandiser Karla Silva said the display was a cheeky way to get men thinking about the risk of testicular cancer.
"When guys scratch themselves, we laugh," she said. "So this is kind of aimed at what guys already do, but making it with a purpose."
Silva said the reaction to the window, which carried the balls theme throughout June, was great.
"One man came in and he was almost in tears, because he had lost a friend to testicular cancer," said Silva. "He thought it was awesome, because we're saying, 'this is what you have to do.'"
Lululemon has reintroduced a dressing room awareness tactic originally launched in late 2005: hanging waterproof self-exam tip sheets (breast self-exam instructions are on the other side) customers can take home and hang in the shower.
The how-to guide points out that an abnormality in the testicles does not necessarily mean cancer, the only way to know for sure is to be checked out by a doctor.
"Waiting and hoping will not fix anything," it cautions.
Lululemon, a yogawear and gear company devoted to good lifestyle and health, is all about starting conversations, says company spokeswoman Sara Gardiner.
Years of campaigning mean breast cancer is now an open topic, and they'd like to see the same thing happen with testicular cancer, she said.
"We're very much about taking conversations from the back room and bringing them to the forefront," she said.
Celebrities like actor Tom Green, figure skater Scott Hamilton and cyclist Lance Armstrong have already done a lot of work to get the issue out there, as have storylines in now-defunct television shows like Sex and the City, Felicity and The Drew Carey Show. Years later, the summer of 2007 is turning out to be a ballsy one, and not just because Lululemon is on the case.
New York Mets reliever Scott Schoeneweis, a testicular cancer survivor, was behind last month's Testicular Cancer Awareness Night at Shea Stadium in memory of a local broadcaster.
On July 7 the B.C. Cancer Foundation held its second annual Underwear Affair, a five- and 10-km walk/run to raise funds for below-the-waist cancers including testicular.
And Toronto student Rob Salerno debuted his new play Balls! -- a tragi-comedy about testicular cancer starring him and Adam Goldhamer -- at the Ottawa Fringe Festival in May. He is taking it to fringe festivals in London, Ont., this month and Hamilton, Ont., next and if all goes well, he hopes to stage it in Toronto and take it on a wider tour next summer.
Toronto-based Salerno, 23, wrote the play based on experiences with his pal, Vince Fazari, who died at 21 in 2004 after his testicular cancer spread.
Testicular cancer may be rare, but it's the most common form of cancer among young men and is usually treatable if caught early.
The topic has become less taboo since Fazari died, but more needs to be done, says Salerno, because guys usually just don't want to talk about their own, or anyone else's, private parts.
"There's definitely that fear, 'I don't want that happening to me,'" he said. "To a guy your balls and your d---, they're so important to your identity. If you don't have them, you're not a man."

Update: A good friend of mine died when he was 30 after ignoring his testicular cancer for years. Don't ignore things and hope they will go away!

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Vintage week: I met my match in Minnie the Mouse

Due to vacation, have pulled out an old lifestyle column I wrote for the Ottawa Sun.

February 18, 2004

The mouse landed in the middle of the night.
I awoke with a start, to a high-pitched squeal coming from the bathroom. My 23lb. cat had the mouse cornered behind the door.
Half awake, I ran to the kitchen and grabbed a mop, wrapping it in a bunch of newspapers and fixing them in place with an elastic. I was apparently planning to kill the mouse with a newspaper-covered mop before I realized a mouse is not a mosquito or a fly. So I tried to catch it in everything from a cottage cheese container to a garbage can. I laid a trail of cheese bits leading out into the hall, hoping it would recognize an opportunity and leave gracefully through the front door. I went back to bed, hoping the 23lb. cat would take care of it for me.
As I suspected, the cat was utterly useless.
Now I like to think of myself as fearless, and by that I mean someone who can overcome most problems and scary things and take care of myself. I don't like asking for help. Once when I was too broke for an auto body shop, I rented a sander to tackle the rust on my first car (and quickly learned bodywork should be left to professionals). I've moved multiple times for various jobs and travelled throughout Europe, where I fended off lecherous, evil-minded drunk men and survived a gang-style mugging, all on my own.
But the mouse in my house had me beat. Any time it appeared I was reduced to a quivering wimp.
I phoned up Phil Gour, a technician with Ottawa exterminator Germex, who told me mice are quite happy to live outside in winter, under the snow. But when it gets as cold as it has been this year, they'll scramble in through any hole they can find. If they start coming out in the open, he said, "it's not a good sign."
I called in the landlord, who at my request laid several humane traps laced with peanut butter. Several days went by, and they remained empty. I named the mouse Minnie, wondering if it would be possible for her, the 23lb cat and I to learn to live together.
Minnie grew bolder. She crept out into the living room as I watched television. She scampered across the counter as I prepared dinner. She climbed on my head while I was sleeping.
That's right. I woke up at 5 a.m. on a Saturday to a mouse in my hair. As my screams subsided, we all took off in hot pursuit of the living room: Minnie, the 23lb. cat, who'd been sleeping at the end of the bed, and me. When I arrived, Minnie was gone. The cat was lying down, washing behind her ears.
"You woke up and it was on your head? Well, that's surprising," said Gour. "When you deal with pests, there's an exception to every rule, that's one sure thing I can say."
I didn't go back to bed that day. Screw peanut butter. I sent the 23lb. cat to stay with friends and paid a visit to Canadian Tire. There, I gathered all the supplies I would need to turn my apartment into a killing field.
I placed bowls of poison and water near sticky sheets designed to Venus flytrap the little critter. My landlord contributed some old-fashioned traps, the kind that can snap your finger. And I fell into a fitful and shortened sleep, towels stuffed under my bedroom door.
The next morning I found Minnie. During the night she'd been caught in the sticky trap, and then somehow she and the trap got tangled up in my small vacuum cleaner. It was horrific.
I'm sorry, I mouthed, outside by the dumpsters behind my apartment building, as I shoved the entire mess into a garbage bag and beat it violently with the aforementioned mop. A day later my landlord located and dealt with a Minnie 2, who was dying a slow death stuck to a second sticky trap under the stove.
Sticky traps don't work, Gour confirms when I ask, because they make "a horrible mess" of everything. The most humane method of catching mice is a multiple catch trap, but Gour relies on good old poison to work quickly on mice, which then crawl away and dry up. He knows what he's talking about, having chased down his first rat with a tennis racket at the age of five, then following his dad Pierre into the family business.
I learned a lot the day I put Minnie and my vacuum cleaner out in the trash.
Sticky traps are about the least humane method of mouse catching around, despite what their package promises. But waking up with a mouse on my head can dramatically alter one's definition of what is humane. And although there are probably a lot worse things to contend with than a couple of little old grey house mice, I'm still glad they're gone, so I can go back to being fearless.

Update: The cat died several years later of a condition we all suspected was made worse by her obesity. I moved to a high rise, and then I moved to Abu Dhabi. Have seen plenty of cats, no mice.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Vintage Week: Redneck Uncle Bob Spoke Volumes

Ottawa Sun
June 5, 2005

I couldn't help laughing when the man Lynn Warren calls his "redneck uncle from Arizona" got up during his wedding reception and made embarrassing comments about his sexy 24-year-old daughter and lewd suggestions about Warren's gay friends and their sex life.
Hey, I thought, straight people have been putting up with these sorts of wedding antics for years.
Lynn Warren and Alex Ali became reality stars recently after appearing on CBS's The Amazing Race 7. They married this past week, here in Ottawa of all places, at the invite of radio station Hot 89.9.
Whatever you think about them, one thing that strikes most people is what a devoted and in-tune couple they are. I don't think I've been at a wedding where the love between those saying their vows was as palpable.
When Warren told Ali "I don't have a doubt in my mind," I fully believed him. And wondered how many other people walking down the aisle can say the same thing.
When they aren't being feted by them, the couple is getting flak from the gay community for being too gay. Of course, after spending time with Warren and Ali, I believe Warren when he says "we really are this gay."
And that's another thing that was nice about this week. I realized it when they released two white doves into the air as part of the ceremony -- a kitschy moment which under other circumstances might have prompted me to teeter out of the church on my new pale pink pointy shoes in disgust -- and the reverend talked about them being symbols "of who we long for and have a right to be."
I don't think there's a person around who hasn't strugged with the notion of just exactly what that is. The unabashedly freebie-grabbing, attention-loving, sarcastic and hilarious Warren and Ali seem to have gone at least part of the way to figuring it out. And that, no matter what you believe, is a nice thing to see.
Which brings me to the hate. And specifically the hateful messages I've received after writing about gay issues. The ones that felt like a punch in the stomach. That made me feel I can't even begin to fathom the fear driving their words.
Last year, in a column about the Pride Parade, I received a Unabomber-style tearsheet covered with scary profanity. The "c" word even. This week, someone passed on the nonsensical e-mail message "so, did your parents have any children that lived?" -- good one sir, btw -- and congratulated me for "supporting the unnatural." Another person said Warren and Ali were no better than farm animals.
I assure them: They have excellent manners and actually smell very good. I watched a Givenchy rep present them with a new fragrance that's not even on the market until fall.
For all the merriment surrounding Warren and Ali this week, they know of the kind of animosity I have only grazed. There was a reason their voices trembled when they talked about how it felt to be celebrated by our city.
I'm not going to get into my beliefs about the spiritual world here, not really. I sometimes admire the blind faith that seems to soothe those who tout religion as the answer to everything.
But I have noticed much of the anti-gay sentiment floating around these days comes from the religious -- and closeted, self-loathing gays, and those who are just plain uncomfortable with their own sexuality, whatever it may be, but that's another column -- and I have to wonder how and why. Sure, you can quote the Bible on the topic and you'll probably shoot me down every time. But can you answer this: If there is a God, and he is responsible for everything in this big old crazy world just like you say he is, then do you suppose he made it all just to love and accept some of it?
Does that make any sense at all?
Warren and Ali got married this week, and as they pointed out, nothing bad happened. Gay couples in Ontario marry all the time now, and on June 16 when the federal same sex marriage bill goes to the House of Commons for final debate, I can only hope the Liberals succeed in having those rights extended to all of Canada.
For all Warren and Ali praised this country for not only tolerating them, but celebrating them, we won't be a truly accepting society until every gay person in the country has the right to have someone like Warren's Uncle Bob from Arizona make an ass of himself at their wedding reception.
Warren just laughed and pretended to choke on his champagne at his inappropriate uncle, and I don't blame him.
Redneck or not, he showed up. He embraced them. He doesn't judge.
And mostly, that's what matters.

Lynn and Alex are still together, and are also successful gossip bloggers and LA radio personalities

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Vintage week: I'll keep holding out for butterflies

In Australia still; here is something I wrote when I was a lifestyle columnist at the Ottawa Sun.

June 18, 2003

He's funny, and smart, and successful, and thoughtful, and he doesn't take himself too seriously.
And tall, dark and handsome, and travelled, and curious. He has nice eyes. He came from far away, leaping out of a past I hadn't given much thought to, grabbing my attention and piquing my curiosity.
He bought me dinner, he made me sushi, he listened and remembered stuff about me. He dropped off coffee while I was working and paid compliments.
He wants a relationship, and kids.
And as I started to suspect, though he ostensibly came here on business, his ulterior motive was to tell me something.
He thinks I'm pretty cool too. And has for a long time.
I listened; touched, flattered, confused.
And then later, he left. And we're both still alone.
For any person who has wanted to settle down, who has stumbled across a person who is perfect on paper, fitting all criteria real or imagined, tangible or not, but it just doesn't feel right, this little scenario seems like one of life's cruelest jokes.
Some people call it the "X" factor; a long time ago Calista Flockhart's Ally McBeal missed "the tingle" she didn't feel after kissing a female co-worker. It's the spark. You know, the thing.
I tried to explain it to a married friend, as I told her about my bizarre, week-long "maybe we will, then probably we won't" experience. She didn't understand what the problem was right away. After all, he seemed perfect for me.
Then I reminded her of that feeling. The one you get when you kiss someone you just know is going to be important in your life.
The moment you melt and then think, "I'm in trouble now."
This undefinable, almost inexplicable quality that has us dating wildly inappropriate people and sending the perfect "catch" on their merry way. It's why a matchmaker can set up two of the best, most compatible single people on a date and they won't hit it off.
The girls on Sex and the City dubbed it "zsa zsa zsu" in the last season's finale, which, for obvious reasons, is now my all-time favourite. The main character wondered if maybe it wouldn't just be easier to give up the tumultuous, uncertain search for Something Right and settle for Something So-So. If butterflies and the spark and the tingle and all that aren't just an elusive dream some people manage to find and others don't.
It's a subject which single and married people can debate for hours, with those lucky enough to be hooked up interjecting to remind us butterflies, sex and passion all fade. Friendship, dedication, communication, loyalty, family.
Those things, they'll say, remain.
But I can't help but think when that moment in a marriage comes, when one half looks at their partner and wonders how they got there and how they'll stay, the memory of those butterflies might come in pretty handy.
And I'm fully aware, having taken the stance that nothing less will do, I could face a mid-50s Gloria Steinham-like discovery women aren't like fish and men aren't like bicycles. Or end up alone, gray-haired, rocking back and forth while bellowing at a television game show: "I didn't settle, I didn't settle."
In the closing moments of the Sex and the City episode I referred to earlier, the camera closed in on a gauzy shot of a flickering butterfly in a scene swathed with beautiful summer colour. The main character's bittersweet voiceover summed up this conundrum in a better way than any I'd heard:
"Some people are settling down, some people are settling, and some people refuse to settle for anything less than butterflies."
I'll admit I get a little scared and pretty sad every time a perfectly good guy walks away, whether it was his doing or mine. No matter how much I pretend otherwise, the clock is ticking. And though I know it's unlikely, I can't help but wonder whether he was my last chance.
But I won't budge on the butterflies. They are not negotiable.

Update: This guy was furious about this column. So angry. He's married now, so I am betting he's over it.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Vintage week: Race is on for a cancer cure

I am actually on vacation in Australia for the next week, so I've decided to run a few old Ottawa Sun columns. Forgive, I may have been going through a bit of a Sex and the City phase in some of them. I also seem to have been obsessed with cancer.

June 1, 2001

No sleep for me tonight.
Or for 2,000 or so others, people who have spent weeks pestering co-workers and friends for cash, just to shiver in between turns circling the Lansdowne Park track for 12 strange and emotional hours.
I'll wager when the Canadian Cancer Society's Relay For Life is all over early tomorrow morning, after things get a bit weird and kind of desperate and downright frigid sometime in the 4 a.m. flickering candlelight, we'll be glad we did it.
Mike Hale is one of the reasons I and more than 80 others have joined forces under a Bushtukah Great Outdoor Gear/AMS Management Systems Inc./Bruce Moore Russell Direct banner, forming six of 115 teams in the event. The 29-year-old IT consultant met most of his thick-as-thieves friends, a remarkable, hilarious group which has now swelled to include wives and girlfriends and errant others, after joining a basketball league when he first moved to Ottawa in 1995.
A former Queen's University varsity basketball player, nicknamed Pistol after basketball star Pete Maravich, Mike was recovering from surgery to remove a germ cell tumour in his chest the size of a videotape three years ago when the relay first began.
The shocking news he had cancer jolted him and high school sweetheart Julie Lamb right out of their post-university, just getting-started-on-careers-and-life frame of mind into months of doctors, chemotherapy, tests, nausea, fatigue and overwhelming worry.
Mike credits his and Jules' family and friends, the ones who will be looping around the track in the wee hours of tomorrow, for helping him forget about cancer when he needed to most.
The same buddies who came to his head-shaving party made sure to organize outings to Mac-Laren's for brunch or Woody's for a beer whenever Mike was able. The guy who later stood up as best man at his wedding called him every day for more than four months, while another trio of jokers made him laugh so hard passing the phone around between them he pulled muscles around his ribs that were more painful than "any of the surgery," said Mike.
Also on our team is Mike's former office manager Edith Sullivan, the woman who smoothed his way at work during his recovery only to find out later she had breast cancer. Edith had her final treatment the day of last year's relay -- our first as a team of 30 -- and has since married and moved to New York.
The fundraiser was first tested three years ago in Ottawa, and appears to be well on the way to becoming a signature event for the Cancer Society, with events planned for 25 Canadian cities this month. In Ottawa, it has swelled from 42 teams the first year to filling Lansdowne Park and prompting organizers to search for a bigger site for 2002, said event chairwoman Sue Rosborough.
When I'm huffing around the track hours from now, I'll also be thinking about another Mike, one who entertained children as a teenage clown and went on to be an animator; who could make me laugh so unexpectedly I once spewed a mouthful of coffee all over the white kitchen of his London flat, who could have been in his early 30s today if he hadn't put off seeing a doctor until it was too late.
And my mom Christine, who loved being a nurse so much she continued to wear her white cap and uniform years after it was no longer required, who almost four years ago taught our family that sometimes life gets turned upside down by one grim bit of news, and all you can do is deal with it as gracefully as possible with the time you have.
Mike says one of the hardest parts of being a cancer survivor is the fear it's going to come back. That's why the most emotional part of tonight will come when he, Edith and some 200 survivors get together for a victory lap before the relay kicks off.
"There's all those other people who are there who are better and have been better for a long time," he said. "It sounds cheesy, but it's like a big celebration of beating cancer and not being sick anymore."
Mike continues to be amazed by the fundraising power of a group of his friends and family, aiming to raise more than $20,000 towards this year's $300,000 goal.
"What are we going to do when we find a cure for cancer?" he joked this week. "We're just going to be 88 people standing around wearing the same shirt."

Update: Mike is still fine, married with a baby; his former office manager Edith later developed cancer and passed away

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Vintage writing, the good old days, or just a vain attempt to keep you coming back until I return

I am actually on vacation in Australia for the next week, so I've decided to run a few old Ottawa Sun columns. Forgive, I may have been going through a bit of a Sex and the City phase in some of them. I also seem to have been obsessed with cancer.

June 6, 2004

Whenever I see a picture of a yoga-loving celebrity like Gwyneth Paltrow or Madonna toting their little rubber mat on the way to or from class, I can't help but think about the, um, farting.
You see, no one ever talks about how the vigorous yoga poses they do can bring on sudden bouts of flatulence. I've heard it with my own ears. Last year, I participated in a power yoga class in which the teacher softly chanted "let it go, let it go, le-" when a nearby male student let a loud one rip.
A male friend once witnessed a wiry female yoga devotee fire off two large, explosive farts in succession -- "If I was sitting at home alone, I would have been embarrassed," he said -- only to inform the teacher after class that she'd found the music distracting.
Going to a yoga studio these days -- you won't have to search far, they're popping up in just about every neighbourhood -- is like entering another world. For all the benefits yoga enthusiasts trumpet about their practice -- inner peace, a toned bod, better focus, increased flexibility, longer life -- the world of yoga is more than a little out of control. And not just because it's the only place where it's perfectly acceptable to break wind in a crowded room.
An ancient practice of physical exercise and breathing control has morphed into the exercise of the mostly well-to-do. At more than $10 a class, it's an expensive option.
People who do yoga are rarely fat and often quite hot, outfitting themselves in pricey, colour-co-ordinated ensembles, sporting trendy, lower-back sundial tattoos as they sip restorative containers of Emergen-C.
Students are reminded to try to clear the "clutter" from their minds and stay "present." Yoga teachers say things like "if you aren't able to stretch very far today, that's okay, use what's available to you."
I try to imagine saying "it wasn't available to me" when an editor asks for my overdue copy or the landlord asks for his rent.
One might think people who do yoga are the most patient bosses, generous and understanding co-workers and thoughtful friends. But I'm suspicious. A pal is fond of telling me about the time he spotted a man we believed to be a spirited, serene yoga studio owner in Starbucks. The man may have been wearing hemp, but he was also chugging coffee and snapping at his wife.
During popular sessions like Bikram or power, I've had a teacher drip sweat on me, found my face inches from someone else's nasty toenails, grown testy with a student going overboard on his "pranayama" breathing and been flabbergasted at having to work out inches from of a hairy man wearing nothing but a purple Speedo.
Maria Jensen, a Los Angeles playwright, made so many observations about yoga she penned a topical satire about it, Yogi A Go-Go, which is running at the Santa Monica Playhouse until June 20.
After practising yoga in the celebrity-obsessed town for eight years, Jensen has seen it all, including an impatient SUV driver who started riding her bumper blocks from the studio, squealing ahead, cutting her off, stealing her parking spot and bolting up the stairs, only to next be seen quietly sitting Zen-like inside the studio, waiting for yoga class to start.
Jensen points to the irony of a bleached-blonde with breast implants doing yoga, only to later puff on a cigarette over a steaming mug of cleansing white tea. And then there is the male teacher-as-guru, who seems to prefer adjusting the better-looking, fitter female students in the front row over the less-practised in the back.
Somewhere along the way Jensen started wondering, as I often have, if all this introspection and serenity-searching can be good for us. If yoga has become a way of escaping, of turning inward, rather than doing the hard work of engaging in society.
"Is it enough to just go to yoga and say 'well, I feel good, and that's all that matters?' " Jensen asks.
Jensen's play, promoted with flyers featuring a cool smoking Buddha flashing a peace sign, has been well-received by West Coast yoga enthusiasts who, for the most part, have been surprisingly willing to laugh at themselves. She's even thinking of bringing the show to cities like New York and Toronto.
Meanwhile, I'll be here, poking fun at yoga from the back row and giggling as I ponder whether Gwyneth and Madonna ever accidentally cut the cheese while sculpting those unbelievable bodies.
I can't sell the benefits of yoga enough, but hey, let's remember all the flat abs and meditation in the world don't mean much if you can't laugh, be kind and refrain from wearing purple Speedos.

Update: People doing yoga in Abu Dhabi are just as annoying. So far I have not witnessed anyone breaking wind; just a bunch of really over-the-top pranayama breathing.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

I am sure Kevin Costner flies Turkish Airlines ALL the time

Ten things I still can't get used to about the UAE

1 No chai tea latte, cold or hot, in Starbucks. This, despite the proximity to India.

2 People keeping the original plastic on their car seats - for years.

3 The empty taxi illusion: when I think the taxi coming in my direction is empty, failing to notice the tiny, fully-veiled Emirati woman in the back left seat.

4 How to instruct a taxi driver to "turn, next left" without him slamming on the brakes and trying to take "this" one.

5 Why so many people come into the theatre one-third, a half, or two-thirds of the way through the movie.

6 Khandooras (long white gear that is the traditional dress) and baseball caps.

7 How late the little ones stay up.

8 That grocery stores and malls can be that busy.

9 A kiss on Friends is cut, yet Sex and the City airs in its entirety on Showtime.

10 Calling the corner store and having anything I want from it delivered to my door five minutes later.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

An interesting choice for car seat covers

As my colleague John Mather wrote about in The National's m, the Saturday magazine a few months ago, for years the cartoon cat Garfield has boxed up the troublesome kitten Nermal and label it "To anyone, Abu Dhabi".

So although these would be an interesting choice of seat cover at the best of times (surely an adult drives this car?) I found it even more compelling when considering the context.

Apologies for the poor picture quality - it was obviously evening when I took this.

Monday, May 18, 2009

They do it because they have to

I went into Aramex the other day, to pick up some packages. (Aramex is a service that gives me a post office box in the US and UK, I can order stuff and have it shipped here without disappearing, like both my birthday packages last year) I love going to Aramex because one of my favourite people in Abu Dhabi works there, Tariq. I am pretty sure I have written about him before: he darts around, doing seven things at once, sliding on his shoes across the floor to go faster. He is always happy and full of energy; he has a great smile and is an excellent mimic. In short, he is just about the world's best employee.

I knew he was heading back to India for a month to visit his wife and toddler, a little boy. I saw him a couple of days before he left and he was bursting to get there. So I waited to pick up my packages, thinking I could see him when he got back and ask how it went.

I walked in, oddly, the only customer there. Tariq was behind the counter, in his regular dress. It was like someone had yanked the light out of him. He'd just returned that morning, he said. Clearly a man with a heartache, he pulled out his mobile phone to show me a picture of his (much bigger) boy, the one he won't see now for another year.

"It's getting harder and harder," he said. "I see that they need me."

Snap caption: Cute kid

Friday, May 15, 2009

Pork, glorious pork

I checked out the Spinneys pork room this week; I am pleased to report pork is back on sale. And yes, I thoroughly enjoyed my ham sandwich.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Quote of the day: Defending the sale of six burgers in one

"Burger King's introduction of the six-pack Burger Buddies is consistent with this approach, and is meant to celebrate the spirit of sharing by allowing family and friends to share in the excitement of sharing a single meal."

-Yasser Abdel Azim, director of marketing for First Food Services, which operates the Burger King franchise in the UAE

A moment of silence, for Al Mashwa

The Lebanese restaurant around the corner from work that made hummus so creamy and nutty and delicious I hold it personally responsible for this, has closed down to make way for another outpost of a mediocre Italian eatery in town.

I ate from this restaurant at least twice a week, with their delicious and reasonably-priced salads and shish tawooks delivered right to my desk. Right now I am looking for answers: how could such a brisk business close? Did the owner sell enough mixed grills to retire?

As a friend of mine put it, with the business from The National, it could have been tipping oil as Abu Dhabi's most profitable industry.

Publishing job, "numpties" need not apply

Advertisement for a publishing company hiring in the Middle East, with this kicker:

"If you are one of the many hysterical, workshy publishing numpties we seem to bump into all the time, we're definitely not for you."

Snap caption: Where window treatments go to dry out

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A word or two about "sand boarding"

It's rubbish, as the Brits say. My father took this picture on a really good safari we went on in Abu Dhabi. Here I am, exhausting myself, only to find that my sand board would barely inch down the mountain. I have no idea how he managed to miss capturing it on film, as it was the most painfully slow downward journey I have ever taken.

Whoever invented this "sport" has some answering to do for it.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Random conversation with a cab driver about my fictional husband

I haven't made up a husband in awhile here in Abu Dhabi. Perhaps I now carry an air of weariness that suggests I did not just get off the boat (actually, the Etihad plane, but whatever), but cab drivers just don't seem to be as curious about me as they used to be. But the other night Mohammed from Afghanistan was very curious. (He also made a rough grab for my knee as I was paying from the back seat, so I deleted his number, which he had ordered me to put in my mobile phone for the next time I need a lift – but only if I happen to be "near", whatever that meant.)

Mohammed: You have children?

Me: No.

Mohammed: No children? What problem? You go to doctor?

Me: No.

Mohammed: Your husband go to doctor?

Me: No.

Mohammed: Me, no children. Then, go to doctor, two years, two girls!

Quote of the day

“A reshuffle is introduced when there is a need for it and when we find that it suits an active handling of the need of national demands.”

-Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, answering questions about possible Cabinet changes on his website last month. There was a major reshuffle yesterday, which saw two new deputy prime ministers appointed

Sunday, May 10, 2009

It's getting harder to trust living in a place that clearly does not trust me

Banks are now demanding that people who buy cars using loans – ie most people – provide large, up-front payments to be able to take them across the border. Several banks are demanding a deposit the size of the outstanding loan or a guarantee from another bank that you've got it. Apparently banks are worried you are going to steal the car. And don't try to take a rental car to Oman for the weekend, without securing a no-objection letter from the rental agency. A surge of thefts have led to people being held up for hours and/or turned away. I feel claustrophobic just thinking about all this.

I went to buy a Blackberry on Saturday and left the store, frustrated, without one. I am travelling to Australia for two weeks on Friday (I've been blogging ahead - so keep coming back while I am gone!) and need to be able to make calls back to North America. My frustration came because I was told that to get a phone that will work in Australia, allowing me to make outgoing calls should I need to, on a post-paid plan, I would need to lay down a Dh2,000 deposit - more than 600 bucks Canadian!

Things are already so tenuous here (and everywhere, I realise) I hardly want to sign up for a year commitment anyway, for anything, let alone hand over that kind of cash just to be able to use my phone when I travel. Although the Government is looking at extending residency visas for those who are laid off so they can search for another job, as it stands, without a job and a visa sponsor, you have a month to leave.

The fellow in the flat I rented was just a month or two shy of the end of his Etisalat internet contract, yet because he was leaving early he had to pay the company Dh2,500 to disconnect it. Someone else I know had to pay back a fraction of their furniture allowance (As if you buy furniture in equal increments throughout the year - and I realise people back home are scoffing, thinking "furniture allowance!" But that's the way our pay is calculated here, a core base and a bunch of allowances) and deal with an electricity conundrum, due to a snag where his employer needed proof that he had it turned off, yet he still needed to live in the flat for several days.

I can't imagine paying a deposit to use the phone I bought, or putting up the same amount of cash I owe on my car or being laid off, in a mad panic trying to leave the UAE and figuring out where the %$#& to go, and wandering around the city trying to collect deposits and pay bills I was not aware I owed.

I can't help thinking all these mini-barriers added up, while understandable as a protectionary measure, serve to encourage trepidation by people with commitment issues about living in this country, thus discouraging any real investment by them.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

This is really quite something

Couldn't some North American newspapers use this kind of advertising? For two days this week Northrop Grumman, the US defense contractor, took out full page ads in The National advertising its E-2D Advanced Hawkeye (that's it reflected in the hawk's eye, if you didn't notice), an early warning, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft.

Northrop Grumman, "Keeping a watchful eye and safeguarding today's peace and tomorrow's promise".

Friday, May 8, 2009

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

Living in the UAE for a year now, I realise I have come to view my home and native land in an impossibly rosy light. I catch myself saying "back home" a lot, and pondering good old days when people didn't pervert the word "inshallah" to mean "never going to happen"; a girl could kiss her guy on a street corner without fear of being arrested and foreign workers weren't blatantly exploited with no fear of reprisal. Right. Turns out the Toronto Star, one of those rare papers that still funds major investigative journalism, has revealed otherwise. After interviewing two dozen foreign workers, reporters Ron Cribb and Dale Brazao found that dreams of working abroad instead lead to fraud, mistreatment and misrepresentation - if not no job at all.

The pieces have even swept up the federal Multiculturism and Youth critic, Brampton MP – and Liberal darling – Ruby Dhalla, who is accused by two women employed by her family to care for her aging mother of an assortment of mistreatment, including withholding their passports.

I sniff an NNA for this one:

A Toronto Star investigation has found that the popular federal Live-In Caregiver Program has become a nanny trap. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of foreign caregivers have paid $5,000 or more to come to Canada to care for children or the elderly during the last decade – jobs that too often turn out to be fake. Once here, their federal contracts are void. Faced with what is for them a crushing debt, some are forced to work illegally at part-time, sometimes menial jobs; others are deported.

Federal authorities are turning a blind eye to this exploitation.

Documents obtained by the Star show Canada Border Services Agency officials believe there is "ongoing fraud and misrepresentation" within the program, but the immigration and human resources departments are not taking action.

The Star presented its investigative findings to Immigration Minister Jason Kenney who said his department is aware there is abuse in the program.

"We have this whole industry, most of which is unlicensed and unregulated, and large numbers of unscrupulous operations in Canada and throughout the world who exploit people's dreams and hopes to come to Canada," he said.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Not what I needed it for, sir

So I went to the pharmacy the other night and asked for epsom salts, expecting to find a big bag of them like I would at Shopper's Drug Mart back in Canada. I needed them because my sister-in-law said I should put them in the bath, to draw out the toxins and help me get over what seems like a never-ending series of colds and sore throats.

The pharmacist plucked one of these pill bottles off a shelf. I was confused, as I needed way more than that for the bath, so I asked for four. He may have looked at me kind of funny.

When I got home and unscrewed the top on the first one, I noticed the bottle recommended taking a teaspoon "for the symptomatic relief of occasional constipation".

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Snap caption: The proof is in the pork sign at Spinneys

One step forward, too many steps back to count, and heartbreaking

On Monday a judge in Dubai's Sharia court ordered a 27-year-old woman from Lebanon to pay diyya, or blood money, for the death of her unborn child. She was nine months pregnant and driving when she got into an accident last fall, one that apparently severed the umbilical cord of the fetus. The judge ruled that the woman did not take proper care of her unborn child. In addition to the diyya, which was Dh20,000, or more than $6,000 Cdn, she was fined Dh1,000, or almost $320. The diyya is to be deposited with the court until the relatives of the baby - I am assuming the father's side - file a civil case with Sharia court to claim it.

A legal consultant in the UAE said there was a law establishing legal diyyah in the accidental death of a fetus, requiring it to be 10% of the regular amount of Dh200,000; it has just not been tested before.

A traffic prosecutor went on to caution that heavily pregnant women should avoid driving to protect their unborn babies.

Last month the UAE's 16 Supreme Court judges recommended diyyah be equal for men and women. Although it was equal in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Ras al Khaimah, the rest of the country required payments for men that were twice that for women.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

An update on Friday's "May Day" "fun" run

I spoke the reporter who was there (although typically, the event was organised in such a way he wasn't able to find the finish line, and I'd wager some of the participants couldn't either). The Bangladesh man who won had never even run a race before, let alone in 40+ plus heat. He was, as you can imagine, absolutely shattered. He did win Dh5,000, or about $1,600 Cdn, and everyone else who participated was given Dh500.

Apparently some of them got quite into it, while others walked. Not surprising. We could all learn something from these people; so many of them are masters of making the best of it.

Commas are indeed very important...

... and Grammar Sheikh's comment reminds me of this post.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Random bacon conversation

Friday morning, Beach Rotana, beginning of the body pump class. Penny, the instructor: "Has everyone had their breakfast? No bacon though, right? Boy I miss it."

And how Penny. And how.

Why wouldn't they want to run 4k in 40 degree heat on their day off?

So the Ministry of Labour decided to hold a fun run down on the Corniche yesterday to celebrate May Day. They rounded up hundreds of labourers to participate, on their only day off, gave them Carrefour trainers and running kits, and set them loose. Cash prizes on offer.

I am quite sure, after six hard, long days working in the blazing sun, labourers were jumping at the chance to enter a race they had not trained for, in shoes they had not broken in, in heat so intense I felt like passing out just walking from my house to the cab.

Brilliant. Just brilliant.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Everyone needs to calm the &%$# down (and pork IS a funny word)

So if I could roll around with a bunch of sick pigs and STILL not get swine flu, as it has nothing to do with pigs, why is Egypt killing all its pigs? Why has the UAE banned pork, a decision I am wagering will not get reversed anytime soon?

Saudi Arabia is not allowing incoming flights from countries where swine flu appears, and last night I read something on the wire to the effect of "WHO is still urging countries not to close their borders". Cold stab of fear at that, after all, could I have moved to a smaller country on my world adventure, and one that, now at least, I cannot even get a crummy piece of real bacon? What was wrong with Gabon?

If they close the UAE's borders I am stealing a small boat and get dibs on a particular British colleague who has almost rowed across the Atlantic twice (third time's a charm, I bet!)

How to be a happy expat

Because a cloud wall makes you want to take a selfie.  After 10 years living in the UAE, some of that time happy, some miserable and ...