Saturday, December 26, 2009

A series of questions

I got a collection of articles by Lester Bangs for Christmas. He was a rock music critic in the '70s for Rolling Stone. His writing is in the same "new journalism" category as Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe - first person, stream of consciousness, lots of parties and drugs and weirdos, etc.

This has inspired a series of questions.

1) Whatever happened to this "new journalism?" Why do I get the distinct feeling I would not be nearly as successful if I tried to launch my career with a first-person dope-fueled 3,000 word article written on a cocktail napkin at a Hell's Angels party?

2) Speaking of which, I shout this question into the cyber-void for the millionth time: What's with the hysteria over kids these days posting pictures of themselves drinking on Facebook? These guys wrote about dropping acid as casually as a Gen Y might write a status update about going to gym on the way to work. And everyone thought they were cool and gave them sweet jobs with major magazines.

3) If these guys were writing today, who would they write about? Do we even have youth subcultures any more? Are hipsters the Gen Y answer to beats and punks? Wow, is that ever depressing.

4) Why is Gen Y so boring? At least Gen X was ironic and postmodern about selling out. I'm not sensing the irony.

5) Is there a fake Hunter S. Thompson Twitter account? If not, I might have to create it.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Who's trying to kill the babies?

Last week I joked to Sonya that I was going to pitch a story investigating a conspiracy to kill babies through faulty consumer products. It seems like every day I hear about another baby product recall.

Am I crazy? Consider this:

- Nov. 9: Strollers that amputate fingers recalled
- Nov. 23: Drop side cribs that trap babies in the side recalled
- Dec. 8: Baby hammocks that can wedge babies into the fabric recalled
- And today's coup de grace: ALL roll up style blinds recalled because of the potential for baby strangulation. This message is brought to you by a creepy and obnoxious cartoon superbaby, a spokesperson for the Window Covering Safety Council (I'll save that for a future blog post: I Can't Believe it's an Organization).

SuperBaby #4 -- Roman Shades, Roll Up Blinds Product Recall from Window Covering Safety Council on Vimeo.

Seriously, someone call Nancy Drew or the Scooby Gang before any more babies get hurt.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Riots, not diets part II

I have been going to a new gym for the last two weeks. It's a franchise of a certain popular chain. While I was walking downtown one day, I noticed it was right next door to where I was going to be doing an internship, and thought to myself that it would be really convenient to go there after work. I looked online and discovered it had a deal - 14 days for $14. Perfect. I signed up.

I was informed that there was a free orientation for new members. Great, I thought. I figured this would be where they do a fitness assessment and give you a training session with a bunch of exercises to do.

I showed up and looked around. It was shiny and new looking. The change room had hair driers and bamboo plants. I had never seen so much Lulu Lemon in my life.

I met the woman who was assigned to give me the orientation. I filled out some forms. She walked me around the gym - "These are the cardio machines." "This is where they have the group classes." "This is our fitness machine circuit."

She asked me where I usually work out. I said the Carleton gym. "Oh, we get a lot of people here from Carleton. They say they just can't handle that gym. I hear it's horrible and crowded."

Actually, this here gym was more crowded than I had ever seen Carleton's, which is saying a lot. The Carleton gym has a brand new cardio room with big screen TVs. It has a lot less scary looking men on steroids. Also, it's free.

She kept asking me what my goals are. I wasn't sure what to answer. Keep fit and have fun? "No, but what are your GOALS?" Be fit enough to survive the zombie apocalypse? Jeez, I dunno.

Then she sat me down at the same table I filled out the forms and extolled the benefits of a one year membership. I figured this was coming. It was kind of fun, actually, trying to see her figure out a way to convince me. "I'll knock off a bunch of money for you." "I have no idea if I'll be in Ottawa past April." "You can transfer your membership to any other location." "No, you don't understand. I might be in New York. I might be in Singapore. I might be in Iqaluit." "Ummm.... so you're really not interested in a membership." "Nope. Sure aren't."

At this point, she looked significantly less interested in me. She asked if I had any questions. I said: "Well, I thought this was an orientation to, you know, the gym. Like, how to use things, not just where they are."

"Oh, we have that too." "How much is it?" "Free."

Well, sign me up, lady. I'm going to milk these $14 for everything they're worth.

I showed up the next day to discover that two other people had been slotted in to receive the same "orientation." A beefy guy showed up ten minutes late. The orientation consisted of him having each of us try an exercise on the weight machine circuit. Real helpful.

One girl who was also doing the orientation kept asking the same types of questions. How many calories does this exercise burn? Is it true that you shouldn't do ab exercises if you're trying to lose stomach fat?

Then I started looking around me and realized something. I was working out in Eating Disorders "R" Us.

The walls are covered in posters that have pictures of pudgy ginger bread men that inform me I should keep going to the gym because the average person gains seven to 11 pounds over the holiday season. My membership card has a little chart on the back where I'm encouraged to track my weight loss. Other posters inform me that I can lose 80 per cent more weight three times faster if I work out with a personal trainer (I have NO idea what that can possibly be based on, unless they mean I can lose 80% more weight in my wallet).

I also figured out why that lady kept prodding me about my "goals." She wanted me to say I want to lose 10 pounds and two inches in my waist before going on my New Year's cruise in the Caribbean, or something, so she could suggest more things that cost money to help me "reach my goals."

If I told her that, the ethical thing to do would probably be to suggest I see a doctor about my body image issues. I have a feeling she wouldn't, though.

Do you see why I have such a weird relationship with working out? I'd be lying if I said weight maintenance wasn't part of my motivation for staying in shape. But this part of gym culture sickens me, and this is the worst manifestation of it I've ever seen: Keep people paranoid about their weight so they'll keep shelling out dollars for your stupid swanky gym membership.

I recently discovered Stumptuous from Bitch magazine. It has a post about lies they tell you at the gym. You should look at it. I was told a lot of those lies over the past two weeks.

But the woman behind that website also made a great point in the interview I read that helped me set aside a lot of my feminist guilt about going to the gym. It's a good thing for women to be strong. You can be invested in being in shape without being fat-phobic. There's a big, beautiful, happy medium between being a couch potato and being an anorexic, fat-hating aerobics addict.

Anyway. I miss the Carleton gym.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Limited time offer!

I've been chase producing for a morning radio show. That means booking guests, thinking up ideas for guests to book, and writing scripts for the host, mostly. I like it a lot.

But lately I've been thinking about how the skill set necessary for journalism is very similar to the skill set required for a certain other, much less desirable occupation: Telemarketing.

Things you have to be good at for both telemarketing and journalism:

1) Calling strangers out of nowhere. All day. Over and over. I've lost all sense of telephone social boundaries.

2) Convincing people to do crazy things. I imagine the skills required to convince someone to come to the station at seven a.m. so the entire City of Ottawa can hear about their former OxyContin addiction over breakfast is similar to the skills required to convince someone to Act Now for Five Easy Payments of $20 and a Free Gift!

3) Walking the fine line between scaring people off and closing the deal. It's really hard to figure out when I'm crossing the line into pushy. Especially since I don't have social boundaries any more. But it also sucks to lose someone you could have convinced if you'd tried a little harder.

At least I'm employable in one field.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Discovered: BiblioCommons

It's internship time again. Today my producer plunked an article about this library catalogue social networking service Ottawa just started using. She asked me to see if I could get the founder on the show.

Turns out the first library system to try out this cutting edge high tech thingamabob is my home town of Oakville, Ontario.

It's sort of like Amazon, but for library catalogues, but cooler. You can review books and other stuff you've checked out and make lists of favourites, and you can follow people whose recommendations you like. You see the reviews every time you browse the catalogue, whether you use the social networking features or not. And if you follow people who have similar tastes to yours, it makes recommendations for you based on your reviews.

According to the article I read, this guy DavidB is 29 and lives just down the street from the White Oaks branch and won $1000 in book gift certificates for using BiblioCommons the most. I also grew up just down the street from the White Oaks branch. I'm wracking my brain to figure out if I known any 29-year-old David Bs.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Say hello to my little friend

The other day I came home from school, turned on the light and screamed. There was a mouse on my counter. It ran under the dish drainer.

I felt silly for having such a stereotypical response to seeing a mouse. It really wasn't anything to scream about. It was cute and little.

The person subletting my apartment during the summer told me she had a mouse problem, but I hadn't seen any evidence since I moved back in. I'm not sure why he decided to come back. I guess it's getting cold outside.

I have decided to name him Rex Mousey.

I keep meaning to set the no-kill trap my dad gave me, but I haven't been bothered. As roommates go, Rex isn't so bad. He doesn't seem to be eating my food or building nests out of my toilet paper, just hanging out and staying warm.

He poops on my counter and doesn't pay rent, but hey, nobody's perfect.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Carleton's Master of Journalism program: Education you can't get anywhere else.

Things I learned last Monday:

1) If someone from a Parliamentary committee says you can film their hearing, you still need a press pass.

2) If you don't get a press pass, you're going to have an interesting time getting your camera equipment through security.

3) That person who said sure, you can film the hearing, I'm sure it won't be a problem, ACTUALLY means she will ask the committee at the last minute and there's a good chance someone will, in fact, have a problem with it.

4) You can't film in the hallway of Parliament without permission from the Sergeant At Arms.

5) If you try to explain to the Sergeant At Arms' assistant why you need to film in the hallway of Parliament without a press pass, they will basically tell you you're an idiot and call the head of the Press Gallery.

6) The head of the press gallery will actually tell you you're an idiot, but if you pull a sad puppy dog face and emphasize you're just a lowly student and have now learned your lesson, he might let you film in the hallway anyway.

7) Every security guard who walks by will ask you what the hell you're doing and who said you could do that.

8) When you finally leave and need to shoot some B-roll of the Parliament buildings, there will probably be some guys filming an amateur hip hop video and you'll have the lyrics "I cheated on my girlfriiiiieeeeennnd..." in the background of your shots.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside

Some day, I'm going to make a photo essay of Ottawa's hidden ugly side. Homeless people smoking crack in front of Parliament. The canal in that muddy, smelly stage between drying up and freezing over. People lining up at the Salvation Army across from tourist trap restaurants in the market.

A lot of it would be done in a three block radius from my apartment. Hell, a lot of the pictures would be OF my apartment. The abandoned convenience store next door looks like the Blair Witch house, and of course, my front porch still has those delicious grill marks from last year's fire.

All cities try to hide their urban decay behind a picturesque and tourist-friendly front. But Ottawa does it so well it actually fools people. You have to actually live here to see beyond Parliament, beaver tails and well maintained waterfront bike paths.

My bike has been in the shop for the past week, so I've been walking to school. The stretch of Bronson from my apartment to Carleton has some of Centretown's worst urban decay. When I'm biking, I take a less depressing side street. Walking by these houses and the people who live in them twice a day is a whole different experience.

These houses are huge and bordering on historic. They're in a prime downtown location. And most of them are vacant or inhabited by a mix of students and drug addicts and crumbling to rot. It's fascinating.

And that's just the part that looks ugly on the outside. There's a whole world of office buildings and restaurants that look world class on the outside with who knows what kinds of backroom political and business deals going down on the inside.

Some day I'll make this photo essay. Right now, let's stick with breaking blogger's block. Sorry about the three week hiatus, everyone.

Monday, October 26, 2009

To whom it may concern:

Dear major national newspaper/public broadcaster/Starbucks:

I believe I am an excellent candidate for a summer position as a reporter/chase producer/barista.

I have been a fan of your newspaper/radio or television network/coffee’s crack-like effects for as long as I can remember. My intimate familiarity with your editorial approach/network’s tone/caffeine-induced gut rot will allow me to hit the ground running.

My biggest strength is my multimedia and web proficiency/creative story ideas/ability to look at your coffee cup inspirational messages all day without vomiting. In my previous work experience, I have written stories on a wide variety of topics/worked on tight deadlines/worn a lot of hair nets successfully.

Working with your newspaper/radio or television show/franchise would be an important stepping stone on the path to my career goals as a James Bond-like international correspondent/Rachel Maddow/broke 20-something who lives with her parents.

I look forward to hearing from you.



Saturday, October 24, 2009

Subject verb object

Know what makes me laugh?

All my friends in journalism school write their emails in news style now.

One sentence per paragraph.

Sometimes two. But not very often.

All my profs do it too.

I have an academic reading review due Tuesday. I don't remember how to write any other way.

I find myself thinking "What's my lead going to be?" for 15-page research papers and cover letters.

It's a sickness.


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Downtown Ottawa destroyed in birthday rampage

A 30-storey Japanese monster known only as Megababe destroyed most of downtown Ottawa in a Sunday night rampage.

“I’ve never seen anything like it in my entire life,” said Pam, a 78-year-old Ottawa resident who declined to give her last name.

“I was returning from Maxwell’s, I mean Diver’s house, I mean my bridge club meeting at around 2 a.m. when I saw Megababe stumble right into the walkway connecting the Rideau Centre to The Bay.”

Only a charred and flattened path from Kent and Lisgar to the Byward Market remains. All residents in the area have been evacuated until further notice.

Employees of a number of nearby LCBOs and Beer Stores are in treatment for shock after Megababe swiped off the roofs of their buildings and lumbered off with their supplies of gin and Max Ice. Police estimate 80 people were injured in a 157-car pile up when the creature stopped to drink her stash in the middle of the intersection of Rideau and Sussex.

Miraculously, no fatalities have been recorded.

Police air-lifted the giant sleeping creature into custody at around 5 a.m. Part of the Peace Tower, which she was spooning at the time, was uprooted in the process.

The incident has sparked a viral “Megababe for P.M.” movement on the Internet. Liberal insiders say she may be nominated for the party leadership as a result of her newfound popularity.

“A 24-year-old, 30-storey tall, binge drinking Japanese monster with purple leggings and a duff puff would be just the breath of fresh air this party needs to attract women and youth back to the Liberal party,” said the unnamed senior source.

The behemoth’s roar of “BIRTHDAY” throughout the night is the only clue officials have as to why Megababe chose this time and place to strike. Some residents claimed to have seen her jump into the Rideau Canal last year, leaving them to wonder whether she would soon return.

“I shrugged that off as just another Ottawa urban legend,” said one Ottawa police officer. “I didn’t think anyone would be crazy enough to jump into that cesspool, even a drunk prehistoric harbinger of doom.”

“Next time we’ll take those reports more seriously.”

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Blind luck

Know what's weird? How no one in Carleton journalism ever seems to hand in something that's complete and total crap.

I'm not talking about things that aren't very good. That business article I wrote for Reporting Methods, where I used Sonya's accountant cousin as my financial expert and pulled a quote from an interview with a Rogers media relation person who told me I had no story, comes to mind.

I'm talking about things that are the product of so many things falling through at the last minute you can't pull yourself out of the hole you've dug. Articles with no sources, for example, or quotes from totally irrelevant people. TV stories with three minutes of dead gasping fish rolling behind the voice over (OK, that was one time). Radio shows with dead air filled by the host tap dancing.

It would be nice to think this is because we're all so amazingly talented and professional we wouldn't let this happen. But part of it is definitely total, sheer, statistically mind-boggling luck. Someone always calls at the last possible second. Suddenly, you overhear a couple at the grocery store and discover they're exactly the source you're looking for. Crazy things like that.

One of the hardest things about journalism is a lot of it depends on other people. If no one calls you back or agrees to be interviewed, you're out of luck. But somehow, something always pulls through. Seriously. Always. Like I said, there's never been a complete, total unsalvagable disaster.

What are the odds? Hopefully I'm not jinxing myself.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Discovered: Awful Library Books

OK, so I discovered Awful Library Books a long time ago, but their most recent post is so hilarious that I decided now is the time to enrich your life as well. It's a blog by two Michigan librarians. Other book titles include "Those Amazing Leeches," "A Passion for Donkeys," and "Jewish Chess Masters on Stamps."

It's comforting to know that anybody can be cool.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Warning: Not for the squeamish (but why are you squeamish?)

I'm starting to feel like I blog about Penelope Trunk all the time... this is the third post where I mention her (the other two being Discovered: Penelope Trunk and my last J-School TA blog post where I link to her time management article). But I have to say, this video solidified my fan-dom.

There's been quite a bit of controversy over a tweet Penelope Trunk sent recently: "I'm in a board meeting. Having a miscarriage. Thank goodness, because there's a f----ed-up 3-week hoop-jump to have an abortion in Wisconsin."

I have to admit, when I read that, my initial reaction was shock. I clearly wasn't alone. She says 70 people un-followed her. OK, I thought to myself, I'm all for people getting used to and getting over "unprofessional" personal stuff floating around on the internet. But that has to be crossing some sort of line.

Then I read her blog post defending it, and watched that video where she totally takes the interviewer to task (in my opinion). She points out:
- A lot of women have a miscarriage at some point in their life. Miscarriages take weeks (I didn't know this). If they're working, women can't just take the whole time off. That means there are a lot of women having miscarriages at work. Why is no one talking about this?
- Almost all the reaction was about her talking about her miscarriage in such a public way. Only one person, apparently, commented on the fact she has to wait three weeks and drive to Chicago to get an abortion. Whether you agree with abortion or not, it's a right women have in Wisconsin, and that's a huge burden.
- To all the people who are shocked at what they see as her casual treatment of losing her pregnancy, she says: "A miscarriage is preferable to an abortion. Even the Pope would agree with that." Touche.

Are we really all so totally disgusted by women's bodily functions that we rush to shut up anyone who wants to talk about them? Apparently, the answer is yes. I've never had a miscarriage. But I can imagine that sitting at work or in class for three weeks while you go through one, knowing that everyone would think you're disgusting and unprofessional if you brought it up, would be a terribly lonely experience.

You convinced me, P-Trunk. Nice work.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Goin' on a coug hunt, gonna catch a big one...

Sometimes I'm amazed by how easy journalism can be. Sometimes you get lucky and things just fall right into your lap. That was the case on Friday night.

I had to do a radio doc for Midweek, a weekly current affairs show on the campus radio station. This class/show may kill me, by the way - every week I have to come up with more than one item, often long form like a five minute doc, plus possible same day items. Anyway, I watched that new Courtney Cox show Cougar Town and I thought I would investigate the mating habits of local cougars. I did some googling around and found out that Maxwell's, a bar on Elgin, is famous across the country as a cougar and cougar bait destination. I showed up on Friday night with a microphone and hoped for the best.

I want to preserve some material here that I’m not sure will make it in. I won’t use full names because these people probably would rather not have this blog come up if someone googles them.

Andy, the bartender who has worked at Maxwell’s for 22 years. Explained to me the cougar history of Ottawa: Apparently there was a bar called Hartwell’s that was a true cougar bar. It closed seven years ago and the clientele moved to Maxwell’s. Has witnessed a middle aged woman named Olga dump her beer in another woman’s purse who stole her seat, then hide behind the bar as the woman chased her.

Zak, a 20-year-old bus boy who gets groped when he goes onto the dance floor to clear glasses. “The worst I had was a woman fully wind up and spank me, so I just continued walking and decided not to acknowledge it… I don’t like to really acknowledge it. I think it’s awkward.”

Rod, bar staff. Once experienced full frontal cuppage as the woman looked him in the eye and laughed. “It’s not Chippendale’s or anything…. If a guy did that to a girl, he’d be tossed out in the street, but she was old enough to be my mom.”

Joe, 25-year-old cougar bait/cougar hunter. On why he loves cougars: “They teach you some things. They like to be in control.” On whether he thinks cougars are trendy right now: “I’d say that’s pretty accurate. I pretty much love cougars right now. And I’m planning on picking up several tonight.”

Pam (not her real name), 53-year-old self-identified cougar, grandmother, and Maxwell’s regular: “I just find that every once in a while we’ll get a younger crowd who will look at us and seem to think, you’re too old to be here. Like, oh my god, you’re too old. And to me, I think everybody should be lucky enough to know that at this age, we can still have fun. And at 53, what do you expect to be at this age? Do you expect to be at home knitting for your grandchildren?”

Monday, September 21, 2009

Liz: A Tribute

As I prepare for a day that will start with a TA meeting at 9 am and probably end with tears in the radio editing suite at midnight, it seems like an appropriate time to tell the world how much I love my friend Liz.

The last time I saw Liz, she was wearing the kamikaze headband you see pictured here and a big red button button that said "je suis capable." She was drinking Old English out of a martini glass with ice she had scraped out of Michelle's freezer. She wasn't running around yelling "I'm a meercat! I'm a meercat!" like she was in this picture, but I bet if I had showed up a couple of hours earlier she would have been.

Liz likes to find strange boys at bars and parties, introduce them to you, say "I think you two would reeeeaaaaally get along," then run away and laugh as you try to get rid of them for the rest of the night. Liz once went to Canada's Wonderland and at the end of the day showed up on Michelle's lawn wearing only a bikini and a helmet. Liz does what she wants.

Liz just came back from a year of teaching in South Korea. She's about to jet off to South America, where she'll wear terry cloth tube dresses and drink more things out of martini glasses.

Liz likes to have existential crises about the purpose and direction of her life. Hopefully it will make her feel better if I admit that sometimes I'm jealous of the way she lives hers.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Fear and Loathing in American Politics

I've been thinking a lot about the stuff that's been going on in American politics recently: the health care debates, the speech to school children, the guy who called Obama a liar in Congress. Partisanship, political divisions and racism are heating up to the point where it scares me.

There have definitely been insults hurled and accusations made that don't deserve serious debate or argument (the whole "Obama is secretly a Kenyan Muslim" thing being the most obvious to come to mind). But I really think the problem is that neither side makes an effort to understand the other. People tend to camp themselves in either the left or the right at a very young age and stick with it. Having a political position is fine: good, even. But refusing to make a serious effort to empathize with and learn about the arguments made by the other side is dangerous.

I read this essay by Mark Lilla today called "Taking the Right Seriously" and it really made an impression on me. He argues that it hurts liberals to teach courses that treat conservative thought as a pathology, and that it hurts conservatives to engage in a liberal academic witch hunt. He wrote about a professor, Paul Lyons, who taught a course on American conservative thought:

"The students had loud debates over Reagan's legacy, Bush's foreign policy, religious freedom, abortion, even the "war on Christmas"—and nobody broke into tears or ran to the dean to complain. And the more the students argued, the more they came to respect one another. According to Lyons, students learned that that conservative guy was no longer just the predictable gun nut or religious fanatic. And the conservative students learned that they had to make real arguments, not rely on clich├ęs and sound bites recycled from Fox News."

Saying universities are full of lefties and socialists is kind of a cliche. But I had plenty of undergraduate classes where the reading lists didn't have one single book or article that didn't come from a leftist point of view. And, to be fair, I'd be willing to bet the opposite is true of the schools in the United States that have abstinence-only sex ed and teach creationism in science classes.

This is how you explain conservatives in the US calling liberals terrorists and commies, and liberals calling conservatives fascists and nazis. It doesn't get anyone anywhere. It breeds hate and hysteria. But if you're only exposed to one side of the argument, that's all you know how to do.

I'm not sure how you break the cycle. But it's a serious problem, and it's not just an American problem. I'd like to take a class like the one described above. I bet a lot of other people would too.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Ode to Cambridge Food Mart

My apartment doesn’t have much going for it, but living in the slanty shanty (a phrase I 100% stole from Laura - it describes it so well) has a few perks. These include:

- The world's cutest coffee shop, Raw Sugar, which is right across the street

- $1 samosas at the Indian grocery store around the corner

- Nine billion Chinese/Vietnamese/Japanese/Korean takeout restaurants within five minutes walking distance

- 10 minute walk home from the bars on Bank Street

But the biggest perk of all is now gone. I returned to Ottawa to find the convenience store that used to be next door is closed. Very closed. Stripped down, abandoned and probably soon home to vagrant squatters closed.

Convenience Store Man warned me this would happen. A few weeks before I moved out for the summer he told me rent was getting too expensive and he'd be forced to shut down soon. I took this for the latest in his constant stream of endearing cantankerous old man complaints, but it turns out he wasn't bluffing.

Do you have any idea how fantastic it is to live next to a convenience store?? When I ran out of milk part way into pouring it on a bowl of cereal, I bought more and came back before the cereal got soggy. I drew the line at going there in a bathrobe or a towel, but other than that, I bought my morning Globe and Mail in all sorts of states of dress and undress. He even had movie rentals. Movie rentals! Next door!

I will miss your very convenient store, Convenience Store Man, but more importantly, I will miss you. I'll miss the way you responded with "I'm used to it" every time I apologized for interrupting your chain smoking to buy something. I'll miss the sign you put up in the winter, informing customers to Please Watch their Step as the Landlady has Repeatedly Refused to Remove Ice from the Front Walk and Stairs. I'll miss the way you asked me the same questions about the weather in the same order even if I had already been there twice that day, like a tape recorder, or a robot.

I never knew your name, Convenience Store Man. I would be willing to bet you don't remember mine, either. But you and your amazingly convenient store were a part of my life, and now you are gone forever.

Gone, along with my credit card information, which I handed over when I opened my movie rental account.

I've got my eye on that Visa statement.

An eye misted over with tears.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


So I have this new job.

I'm the "TA Mentor" for journalism. Basically, the idea is that an experienced TA helps new TAs with training and support. I was invited to apply for this job in the spring and I did, without having much information about what I was getting myself into.

Here's the thing: In other departments, the mentor's main job throughout the year is to organize workshops and informal meet-ups for the TAs. I said in my application that this absolutely will not work for journalism, because every hour of free time is precious. If somebody had tried to schedule monthly meetings "just to chat" about how our TA jobs were going, we would have spat out our red bull as we burst out laughing and gone back to our laptops. If someone had tried to force us, there would have been blood.

I repeated this in a meeting I had yesterday with the new graduate supervisor and the director of this mentor program. I suggested that if I was going to run workshops, the best time to do it would be during orientation week, before the insanity started. This seemed like an especially good idea since this year they're not doing the three-hour giant lecture that's essentially an introduction to being a TA. Instead, they get a one-hour pep talk on why being a TA is important and why you shouldn't slack off, and that's it.

"Great," they said. "We can schedule you in for one hour."

That's right. I have one hour to teach people who have never taught in their lives how to be a TA. One. Hour.

"So what else do you think you should do throughout the year, since you don't think anyone will come to workshops?"

Blink blink.

So here's what I have to work with: One extremely short hour with a captive audience, and one extremely long year with a group of people who are likely to react with murderous rage to anyone trying to add anything else to their plate.

Here are my extremely vague ideas for how I will justify my existence and paycheck:
- Make a lot of it web-based. There's a WebCT site that I'm supposed to run, but WebCT sucks and no one remembers to check it. So I'm thinking of starting another blog, with links to resources on stuff like time management and basic teaching skills, and inviting people to post on the blog as well. It would be nice if there were a way to make this private so that people can actually be candid about problems they're having, but I'm not sure how to do that. I think Yahoo Groups kind of work like that, but that would, again, be something you'd have to remember to log into. Is there a way to make a blog private? Or I could make it a Facebook group?
- Get people to write down what their teaching schedule and office hours are, so I can drop by and see how they're doing. Creepy? Helpful? What do you think?
- Get the MJ1 TAs in J1000, media law, and multimedia journalism together with the MJ2s who had that job last year together for a drink at Mike's Place
- Technically, since they're getting rid of that 3-hour lecture and there's no Gatineau retreat this year, the TAs will have those five hours of training that they're supposed to finish. So technically, they are supposed to go to workshops. What kind of workshops would be the most useful?

Last year after the "intro to being a TA" lecture, I remember a lot of people saying: That's it? That's all the training we get? I'm supposed to go and run a discussion group and decide people's marks now? So seriously: What kind of training and support do you wish you had, and what's the least annoying way to deliver it?

Seriously. Please tell me. I didn't realize when I was applying for this job that I wasn't just applying to be a "TA mentor," I was applying to DESIGN the TA mentorship program for journalism.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Reporter Barbie gets a makeover

Alright, this is getting ridiculous. First I started actually wearing makeup and non-sweat pants to class last year, and getting my hair cut more often than once every six months. Then it was the Lulu Lemon yoga pants. Now I find myself seriously considering taking things to a whole new level. I might just get a pedicure tomorrow.

I know, I know. But they're so cheap here. And my feet have taken quite a beating over the summer. I haven't worn socks in months, except to go running. I think they could use a little more care than my usual DIY amateurish slop of nail polish.

But the more I think about it, the more I realize I have questions. So many questions. Questions such as:
- Should I remove the aforementioned slop of nail polish before I go, which is now chipped to hell and embarassing?
- Should I clip my toenails first?
- Do they clip your toenails FOR YOU??? Ew.
- Will they judge my cracked heels and blisters?
- What kind of bourgeois monster am I, taking advantage of my powerful Canadian dollar to make some poor soul touch and stare at my horrible feet for that long?

I have heard that you're supposed to shave your legs before you go. Suddenly, I have a reason to be thankful for the months I spent last summer working at a pool store with a bunch of Oakville rich kids home from business school. Most of that summer was spent trying to keep my eyes from glazing over as my co-workers talked about pedicures. "I hate it when customers don't clean their automatic vacuum cleaners before they bring them in to be fixed. That's like going for a pedicure without shaving your legs first," is one gem of wisdom that has for some reason stuck in my mind.

That's about all I know, though. Help.

Monday, August 17, 2009


Things are wrapping up here in KL. The second annual sexuality rights festival, Seksualiti Merdeka, finished yesterday. Merdeka means independence, and it's timed to occur during the same month as Malaysian independence day.
Volunteers painted the walls of the art gallery where it was held. A lot of the art had political messages. It was a really lovely thing to see.
"I am HIV positive. So what??? Don't let me down... my friends, my family and my lover."

There were two bulletin boards where people could write stories of discrimination or acceptance on pieces of cloth and pin them to the wall.
"I was put in prison just because I'm a transsexual under the syariah law. In prison I was molested, teased, bullied, humiliated, just because I'm different. Why are people so cruel to us?"
"When I was nine, at the school assembly, a girl told everyone loudly that they would sin if they look at me because I don't wear a tudung (head scarf). My non-Malay friends asked if they will sin too, and she said yes. No one looked or talked to me for a whole week."

I really felt I was witnessing the beginning of something exciting. The air practically crackled with energy. It was a safe space, but it was also an open space. Straights, gays, transpeople, queers - the event brought all types together.

On a rational level, I don't believe in things happening for a reason. On a non-rational level, though, it's amazing how often things just... work out. I didn't plan to be in Malaysia for Seksualiti Merdeka. I didn't know the story of a budding activist movement was going to unfold right before my eyes. I didn't know anyone here at all - all my contacts were made over the internet.

In a way, Kuala Lumpur reminds me of Toronto. If you're only here for a few days and only see the obvious sights, it seems pretty dull. It's only when you scratch the surface and get to know the art, activism, and music going on underground that you really start to appreciate it.

And, like Toronto, I've started to think of it as home.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Jalan Jaksa

I planned my one-week trip to Indonesia with no guide book. I made my decision to spend half of it in Jakarta based on nothing other than the fact that it seemed to make sense to visit the capital city. A few days before I left, I did some research online to see what there was to do there.

This is how the Lonely Planet online describes Jakarta: “Whether you love it or hate it, there is no escaping Jakarta, Indonesia’s overweight capital. This ‘Big Durian’ is filled with all the good and bad of Indonesian life... The first – or only – thought on most travellers’ minds is how quickly the city and its polluted streets can be left behind.”

I am fluent in Lonely Planetese. This is the translation in normal English: “Jakarta is a polluted, noisy, crowded and stressful city with not much for tourists to do. Bet you wish you read this before you booked your flight. Enjoy. Sucker.”

The Lonely Planet was right. The very first thing that happened to me was my taxi driver from the airport misunderstood or ignored my directions and dropped me off at an overpriced guest house in the middle of nowhere. I debated wandering around the city with no map and my heavy backpack looking for somewhere cheaper. Laziness won.

After I went to the film festival and met the organizer for lunch the next day, I found myself wandering around the city getting cat called and nearly run over. Not sure what to do with myself, I wandered in to a cafe to order an iced coffee and read a book.

Two Dutch sisters, Dionne and Lianna, sat down at the same table as me. We drank martinis. We went for dinner in the market food stalls. They invited me to come for a drink at a bar on Jalan Jaksa, the main backpacker street where their guest house is. This is the street I was trying to find when I was leaving the airport.

“Our guide book said it’s like Khao San Road in Bangkok,” said Dionne, rolling her eyes. “It is NOT like Khao San Road.”

Oh man, were they ever right.

Khao San is famous/notorious for being a 24-hour circus, where you can drink on the street and can’t escape the blaring techno music or people trying to sell you gigantic lighters. In a way, Jalan Jaksa IS sort of like Khao San - if it stuck around partying in Southeast Asia for a few too many years and woke up one morning realizing it was bankrupt and suffering from arthritis and alcoholism.

On Khao San, you can’t escape the neon signs and seizure-inducing strobe lights. On Jalan Jaksa, all they have is one sad looking banner spelling out the name of the street in sagging and half burnt-out Christmas lights. On Khao San, everyone drinks like it’s New Year’s. On Jalan Jaksa, everyone drinks because if they stop drinking, they’ll remember they’re on Jalan Jaksa.

Anyway, so there I was, sitting on a plastic patio set drinking beer with two Dutch sisters, trying to forget I was on Jalan Jaksa.

One of the bar owners took a liking to Lianna. Dionne and I resisted their attempts to get us to sit at their table until they started brandishing a bottle of tequila.

So there I was, sitting on a wooden bar stool, doing tequila shots with two Dutch sisters, a Brazilian guy who came out of nowhere when he saw the tequila, and the two gap-toothed and robustly moustachioed men who own the bar. One of them decided I was his new friend. “My daughter, my daughter,” he kept calling me.

So there I was, dancing at the front of the bar because Lianna had taken over the microphone. The ladies of the night were linking arms with the cockroaches and doing the can-can. The sewer rats were clinking shot glasses with the bar owners and the Brazilian guy.

So there I was, in my bed in my overpriced guest house far away from Jalan Jaksa. Afternoon sunlight was peeking in through the curtains.

Jalan Jaksa, man.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

That's the way, uh huh uh huh, I like it.

Part of the reason I came to Indonesia was because I wanted to do a little research into what gay life is like in Malaysia's neighbouring Muslim majority country. I discovered through some online researching that a queer film festival was showing its closing film on the night I arrived in Jakarta.

I emailed the head organizer, explained what I was doing in Malaysia, and asked if I could get on the invite list. He said sure - but the film was going to be in Indonesian with no English subtitles.

I decided to come anyway, figuring it would be a good way to meet people. I imagined the movie would be something weighty and serious. I didn't expect to understand what was going on except during the sex scenes.

Instead, I got Benci Disko.

Benci Disko is about... well... it's about a sailor and a really over the top gay guy who wears a leopard print tank top and heart shaped sunglasses for most of the movie, who I think are brothers, and this girl, who I think is their sister, and they enter a disco competition, for some reason. That's about all I know, and that's about all I needed to know. And I haven't actually watched the trailer above because the internet here is too slow, but I sincerely hope it gives you some sort of idea of how hilarious this movie is.

I met the guy I was exchanging emails with for lunch the next day and asked where I could get a copy. Sadly, it hasn't come out on DVD yet, but he said he would mail me one when it does. I'm going to email him once a month until it does. Then I think we should have an Indonesian disco theme party and watch it.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Kuta Beach in Bali kind of sucks

As my taxi drove me from the airport to my hotel in Bali's Kuta beach, I looked out the window and judged it within 10 seconds with a sigh and a shrug.

I knew I was staying in Bali's most touristy area, but I guess I was expecting it to be a little bit less... lame. Giant signs for MacDonalds, KFC, and overpriced boutiques jut into the sky like the novelty wooden penis carvings you find at every tourist stall lining the streets. The resorts and restaurants are all designed to look like temple ruins, which gives the place a weird Vegas-y feel. And the place is overrun with families with children. I have never seen so many sunburned knee high mini-people.

Last night I went on the hunt for 20-something backpackers looking to go on the piss (a charming English expression for getting wasted and dancing). I knew they had to exist - beach + $1 beers + Southeast Asia = backpackers. I wandered in to a restaurant, overheard mixed accents at the table next to me which meant they weren't travelling together and had probably met that day, and joined them.

This is how I found myself at a cocktail stand in a back alley drinking something neon green and lethally strong out of a plastic cup with a lid and a straw. These holes in the wall are Bali's version of Thailand's bucket stands, and if you're ever in Bali wondering where the backpackers are, this is your answer. And this is also how I became aquainted with Bali's community of a very specific type of backpacker - the kind that never leaves.

This is globalized capitalism's little loophole. The western dollar is worth so much more in these countries that you can spend your life working for a few months at home, then living the life of a Southeast Asian beach bum for another few months until your money runs out. I'm a millionaire for the third time in my life right now - I've also been a Vietnamese millionaire and a Laotian millionaire. Sure, it's a life of alcoholism and instability, but it's basically a philosophical choice about the meaning of life. If you don't think slaving away at 9 to 5er for 45 years to scrimp and save for a meagre retirement is a particularly meaningful way to live your life, either, you can literally just drop out and run away.

This is a totally rational life choice to make and, quite frankly, I don't understand why more people don't make it. What does bug me, though, is when this type deludes themselves into thinking they're having some kind of deep cultural experience. "There's just something about this place that draws me in," I kept hearing. Yeah, dude. The thing about this place that keeps drawing you in is the fact that it's intentionally designed to cater to your every desire. You want cocktail? You want massage? You want girl? Of course you do. Cheap cheap.

Personally, if I were going to drop off the face of the earth in Bali, I would do it in Ubud. Ubud is a little town north of Kuta that I drove to on a motorbike yesterday. You have to brake to let chickens cross the road. It's surrounded by rice paddies. And this is no exaggeration - every other building is an art gallery. A lot of the art is mass produced souvenir crap, but there are also a lot of serious gems. I biked away with a backpack full of paintings and a big smile.

I would love to spend more time here and bike further afield to the volcanoes and tiny villages and jungle temples. But sadly, I'm only here for three days, and I'm too hung over to do anything today besides blog and go to the beach. Next time, maybe.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Good signs

The other day I sent my MRP supervisor a massive email detailing everything I've done on the project so far, and everything I plan to do. I told her that if I'm doing anything wrong, she'd better tell me now, because once I leave, that's it. It's not like I can hop on a bus and do follow-up interviews from Ottawa.

She had two main concerns:

1) I'm trying to cover too many themes. Surprise surprise, I'm neurotically over-researching.

2) WTF???

OK, so she didn't actually write WTF. What she did write was something more along these lines: So let me get this straight. You found a professional drag performer with a Yale degree, a guy who checked himself into a Singaporean Christian ex-gay ministry a la But I'm a Cheerleader only to later renounce religion and become the main organizer of KL's version of Pride, and a closeted dude who confessed his entire life story to you at a gay bar out of nowhere for no reason then agreed to do it again on tape?

Are you sure these people are for real?

The answer is yes, I'm sure these people are for real, although now I have to do some annoying fact-checking to appease my supervisor (Hello, is this the Singapore division of Straight is Great? Did you ever have a resident by the name of...).

And I'm going to take this as a sign things are going well, since nothing sells a story like a good WTF.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Riots, not diets

Earlier today I was lacing up my new running shoes to go for a jog around the lake. The cleaning lady comes on Saturday, and my roommates were out. I asked her to tell them where I was if they asked.

"Good," she said. "You are getting fat since you came here."

This is probably more shocking to you than it was to me. In Southeast Asia (maybe all of Asia, I don't really know), people say things like this. They're not insults, they're observations. The sky is blue. The earth is round. I am getting fat since I came here.

I laughed and said I know. Malaysian food comes in two categories: carbs fried in fat and fat fried in carbs. The only way to avoid weight gain is to have the will of Hercules and cut portion sizes.

But she didn't stop there. "Yes, face, fat. Back, fat. Exercise good. But you need to eat less too."

OK, this was crossing the line. I still tried to laugh it off.

"When you come back, you eat. Jogging will do nothing if you eat."

I jogged away, trying to suppress my rage and keep myself from thinking about how I apparently looked to everyone else: A fat, sweaty white girl trying to choke back tears as she ran.

Now, here's a confession: I am fairly obsessive about my weight. I just don't talk about it. Ever.

I don't talk about it because my fat-phobia comes with a generous side helping of feminist guilt. I know that even at the heaviest end of my weight range, I'm still squarely within the healthy body mass index for my height. Therefore, the only reason for me to care when I gain weight is because of an unrealistic body image created by the patriarchal corporate mass media etc. etc.

In other words, every time I eat an apple instead of a candy bar or expend brain power counting the calories in my lunch instead of reading a book, the patriarchy wins, a little. This sucks. I hate it. But the way I feel about myself when I let things slide and gain weight sucks more. So I keep doing it.

Lose lose situation.

I blame this largely on the fact I was a fat child. When I saw "Little Miss Sunshine," I immediately thought: Dear God, they invented a time machine, plucked me out of my desk in the fourth grade, and cast me as Olive in this movie. Ask Sonya. She's seen pictures.

I came back 45 minutes later. My roommates had brought me lunch. I gave the cleaning lady a dirty and triumphant look as I threw away most of my rice.

I could practically hear The Patriarchy laughing.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Discovered: Rozz

UPDATE: I typed the link to Rozz's website wrong. Should work now.

Last weekend I went to Penang, an island on Malaysia's west coast. My editor at TNG gave me the phone number of a guy she's known for a long time who does drag performances at a bar there. I texted him to arrange an interview. Cramming interview requests into single text messages is a skill I did not expect to develop, but I find people here get freaked out if you call them out of the blue, and that texting for work-related reasons is much more common.

I wanted to reproduce the conversation that followed exactly, but my phone appears to have mysteriously erased its messaging history, so this is a rough approximation:

Me: Hi im claire wrkin on a doc abt sxuality in msia jacq gave me ur # wld u do an invu?

Rozz: I don't know how conducive it would be, but you're welcome to come to my show tonight. Starts at 10.

Me: Sounds good ill be there

Rozz: I won't be hard to spot. I'll be the loud obnoxious drag queen.

Me: I like you already.

So I went. The bar was gorgeous - garden out front, arched front porch, retro 70s decor and a fountain off to the side of the dance floor. I was there with a guy I was traveling with doing research on a similar topic for an international gay rights group (long, boring story - in a nutshell, small world). We ordered Blue Hawaiins because they had a half priced student special and drinks at gorgeous retro 70s bungalow lounges on Malaysian islands ain't cheap.

I already knew Rozz had sung in Broadway shows and was likely to be pretty damn good, but was unprepared for what was about to hit me.

Check out his website, a music player will launch. Sort of a cross between Michael Jackson and Mariah Carey, no?

Anyway, Rozz told me to come back two nights later and do the actual interview. "Whatever else you write about me, make sure you tell them the nails are real," he said. I inspected. He spoke the truth.

The interview lasted about half an hour. Then I just sat there and talked to him for about two more. He's hands down the most interesting person I've ever met.

Rozz was born to Muslim parents (but wasn't raised Muslim) and went to high school in Malaysia. I asked when he started doing drag performances. "Well, I guess it was when I did my first performance." He said no one ever bullied him in high school, and no one's ever harassed him in Malaysia or tried to raid the bar he sings at in Penang.

I asked him why he thinks that is, and he basically attributed it to having a loud mouth - he said the jocks in high school were more afraid of him than he was of them.

So many people I meet in Malaysia seem to have this paralyzing fear of rocking the boat. Of course, there's a lot to be afraid of - detention under the ISA, for one thing. But the more I learn and the more people I talk to, the more it's clear that fear of what family and peers will think is a bigger factor keeping LGBT people quiet than the fear of being arrested and charged.

Rozz doesn't just rock the boat. He decided this boat sucks, is cramped and smells funny and has a poorly lit makeup mirror. So he jumped out a long time ago, and prefers to swim.

This seems to be working out pretty well for him.

Friday, July 17, 2009

So long, TNG.

Today was my last day at The Nut Graph. I took my blazer and got out. Literally. I kept it in a drawer attached to my desk.

They're finally starting to run all the features I had backed up in the server, from when we weren't sure if I was going to get my student visa or not and they couldn't publish my byline. So look out for articles on KL's changing indie music scene and why Malaysia isn't likely to revoke its sodomy laws any time soon, as well as more feature interviews in the Found in Malaysia section.

That internship was the most challenging thing I've ever done. I often wanted to beat my head against the wall. I frequently found myself getting home at 9:00 wondering what in the world made me think being a reporter in Malaysia was a good idea. And the fact that all my hard work was sitting backed up in a server made it even more frustrating.

But damn, am I ever glad I did it.

I got tons and tons of contacts for my MRP. I was even able to make my interviews for the sodomy laws article do double duty, and now have one of the leader of the opposition's lawyers and a conservative Muslim member of parliament on tape. That's a blog post for another time, possibly titled "Putting the 'fun' back in 'fundamentalist.'"

And more so than that... it was just really, really cool to work for that organization.

In Malaysia, the print media is controlled by censorship laws. Because the laws only mention print and broadcast media, online news sites can't actually be charged under them. So they're popping up like crazy, and criticizing away.

I have never heard of this happening anywhere else. You hear about people turning to blogs for their information in countries with media censorship, but I've never heard of entire, fully functioning newsrooms developing a parallel media system.

The Nut Graph is the coolest one. It's like a hybrid between Canadian lefty news commentary stalwart and The Toronto Star. It does these intellectual feature news analyses that are sort of a news story/op-ed hybrid, but it also does daily news reporting. This is what I think is missing from the "alternative media" in North America like rabble - it's not really news media, because it's not gathering and reporting the news. It's letting the usual corporate suspects do that, then ripping them apart for having a corporate agenda, as if this is surprising.

The Nut Graph has a political agenda, definitely. But in Malaysia, being in favour of free speech and against detention without trial makes you a rabid radical in many quarters.

I really liked writing these news analyses. I really liked being allowed to use my own brain to deduce what the implications were of the interviews I was doing, instead of having to call an "expert."

This week in the journo blogs, everyone is blowing a gasket because the editor of the Financial Times predicted almost all news websites would start charging for content within a year. Cue the usual self hating journalistic whining. You can't charge for content, because newspapers don't produce enough original content of value for it to work, goes the argument.

Want to make a subscription based pay wall work for your news website? Get the government to pass sedition and censorship laws against the print and broadcast media. That's why Malaysiakini, a competitor site to TNG that focuses more on breaking news, is so successful - if you want original content of value, it helps if it's illegal for your competitors to produce it. In fact, Malaysiakini is the only successful paywall news website I've ever heard of.

Perspective, people. Perspective.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Why I’m going to stop listening to grown ups

Recently, the blog and Twitter-spheres have been a-flutter over a report written by a 15-year-old intern at Morgan Stanley about the media consumption habits of teenagers. The report states, among other things, that teenagers don’t like to look at banner ads or pay for things online, don’t read newspapers, don’t listen to the radio, don’t use Twitter and like to play video games.

The first wave of blog coverage treated this like a revelation from above. My God! We traditional media types really are in trouble! And teens don’t use Twitter? My entire world has been turned upside down!

The second wave was a backlash. People started to point out things like the fact this “report” contained zero objective research and was, in fact, just one 15 year old’s opinions and observations. One from the BBC also pointed out that he and his friends don’t necessarily represent every teenager on the planet.

My first thought was actually that someone should investigate Morgan Stanley for employing child labour, but never mind.

The original rush of coverage was a very interesting exercise in how tuned in these supposedly tech and media savvy commentators actually are. Anybody who thinks that the fact 15-year-olds don’t read newspapers and don’t like online banner ads is breaking news... well... hasn’t talked to one in a while. A long while.

Compare this to the reaction this blog post got. The title kind of says it all: “Why being an employed journalist is the best thing that ever happened to me.” It challenges a lot of what has become the new conventional wisdom: Traditional journalism jobs will soon no longer exist. Journalists will have to learn to build their own websites and become entrepreneurs to survive. Everyone will have to learn to be a one-man multimedia marching band, equipped with video camera, three blackberries and a microphone for every assignment. Oh yeah, and this is a good thing, because of crowd sourcing and community building, or something. Grit your teeth, grin, and enjoy the future of journalism.

This post also makes these arguments: Readers care more about reporters uncovering new stories than filling websites with multimedia doodads, learning a beat inside and out is more valuable than learning web design for a journalist, and this controversial kicker: Journalists have valuable skills they deserve to be paid for.

Check out the angry comments.

I read these media type blogs in a rather lazy way: I subscribe to an RSS feed called Journalism Blog Mashup that aggregates a lot of the biggies. I’m glad I started reading them. This Fleet Street Blues post came to me through it, for example.

But I’m even more glad I read the initial wave of reactions to the Morgan Stanley intern report, because now I know that they often don’t know what they’re talking about.

If these people, who supposedly know so much about the changing role of media, are surprised that teenagers would rather listen to LastFM than traditional radio, why should I listen to them when they tell me I will never get a real job and had better start learning HTML yesterday?

I’ll make the same disclaimers Fleet Street Blues did in a follow-up post: Of course learning computer and multimedia skills are important. Of course journalism is changing like crazy, and nobody knows where it is headed. Of course a lot of traditional jobs are becoming redundant. Of course there’s more J-school grads than jobs.

Also, I’m no luddite. I think citizen journalism is awesome, not something to be afraid of. I think social media and the internet are revolutionizing the world. Also, I’ve decided I don’t really care if newspapers survive or not, as long as journalism does.

But still. I think there’s a bizarre trend of self-hating journalists cropping up. Boo hoo, we deserve to descend into poverty, we’re so irrelevant, everyone wants to read blogs instead of us and we deserve it.

This is a totally useless attitude. I’m going to gleefully stop paying attention to it.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A little perspective

I don't read Canadian news much these days, but I did hear about the hooplah around Stephen Harper accepting and possibly pocketing a communion wafer at a Catholic service.

Here are some words I've seen used to describe the scenario: scandal, outrage, desecration, controversy, sacrilege.

Strangely, a communion scandal erupted in Malaysia a few days later. Except this took things a step or two further.

A writer for the magazine Al Islam decided to go undercover at a Catholic mass to see if he could find any evidence of Muslims being converted to Catholicism, or the church using the term Allah. Conversion out of or into Islam is, to make the understatement of the year, a rather touchy subject in Malaysia.

Muslims are covered by a parallel, state-level syariah legal system. Some states require Muslims converting out of Islam to undergo counselling and have an official body rule on whether they can convert or not; some charge apostasy as a crime. Also, if it's not totally clear what religion someone is, it can be tricky to figure out things like inheritance. And if that wasn't complicated enough, Malay Muslims and indigenous people get special treatment under the constitution, which translates into affirmative action type quotas in education and business.

Remember when I said Malaysia was the most complicated country on earth? Anything I write about Malaysia for non-Malaysians seems to require an encyclopedia of background information. Also, please don't draw conclusions based on this about Islam or Malaysians. As far as I know, Malaysia's unique in the way it ties up Islam and Malay ethnic identity in its constitution. Also, scholars disagree on what to do about Muslim apostates, but the Qu'ran says there is no compulsion in religion.

Anyway. The communion thing. So this guy from this magazine goes undercover at a Catholic mass. He writes that he sees some people who look Malay, but doesn't see any evidence of attempts at conversion or the use of the word Allah (The use of the word "Allah" by other religions is also a touchy subject). When the time came to take communion, he accepted it, but spat it out and photographed it. The photograph was published along with the article in the magazine.

I'm not a religious person. Also, I'm a journalist, and I'm not supposed to have opinions. But it seems pretty clear to me that this is ACTUAL blasphemy and disrespect of communion. Poor Harper was just confused. Either that, or he ate it off camera, and the whole controversy is over nothing, like he claims.

Other things Canadians don't have to deal with that we shouldn't take for granted include detention without trial and sedition laws.

All of this also reminds me of a guilty moment in my own childhood. I used to sing in a Catholic church choir, even though I'm not Catholic. The first time I sang at a service, most of the other kids in the choir got up to take communion. I went with them, but I had a vague feeling I was doing something wrong, so I put the wafer in my pocket.

That's right - I actually did what Harper was accused of doing. Although in my defence, I think I was about 11.

I told my mom about it and she was kind of half shocked and half thought it was funny. She explained the whole "body of Christ" thing to me. I asked if I could eat it. She said yes. So I did.

In conclusion: Communion and religion are confusing. And count your blessings. Both the secular and the religious ones.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Discovered: Joe Kidd and Malaysian punk rock

I've been working on an article about how venues for indie music have changed over the years in KL. I got the idea for it because my roommate took me to an opening party for a merch, zine and CD shop called Ricecooker the day after I got here. The guy who runs it is named Joe Kidd and he's pretty much the father of Malaysian punk rock. I'm gonna guess he probably wouldn't characterize himself that way, but he definitely plays a big role in spreading punk and DIY culture in the country. Say hi to Joe:

As you can probably guess, not everyone in Malaysia is thrilled about kids spiking their hair up, rebelling against authority, and playing loud, noisy, political music. Joe says the cops regularly urine test everyone at shows in rural areas for drugs. A few years ago there was a big raid on a New Year's eve show where about 400 people got rounded up, loosely based on the perception of black metal being tied to satanism. And just last year, Joe's band provoked what has been described as a riot at a rally for the opposition coalition when they performed a song about "ass-licking" that ended with the lead singer showing three inches of his boxer shorts to the crowd.

The opposition coalition in Malaysia is a weird and often unstable mix of a socialist-leaning party, a social justice/reform-minded party, and a pro-Islamic state party. Some members of the latter were less than thrilled about these antics - although as Joe pointed out in the interview, some defended him and said a lot of his band's criticisms of corruption were "spot on."

I asked Joe if there are any upcoming happenings. He said that soon, there's going to be a show in a very small town on the east coast, half an hour away from where he grew up.

This is where I need you to help me. Do you find all of this fascinating? Because I sure do. But it's also extremely possible that I've developed a weird, niche interest in Malaysian misfits that is not shared by my fellow Canadian citizens. Also, I have a soft spot for kids making home made punk rock shows in unlikely venues, because I, too, was once a 14-year-old rebel who was known to bust out a skank and a mosh at Oakville concerts held at the YMCA and ice rinks.

The reason I'm asking is because I'm wondering if I could tag along to this concert and try to freelance something out of it.

To me, the story is just the sheer "WTF??" factor, the contrast of kids embracing this subculture and making it their own in a small, rural town in a developing country. There's also a kind of circular-ness to Joe returning to the region where he grew up. In terms of what's "new..." well, I dunno. I'll find something.

But seriously, if you journalism-savvy classmates of mine think it would be a waste of time, please tell me.

"We ain't got no place to go, let's go to a punk rock show, come and take me by the hand, we're gonna see a punk rock band..."

Saturday, July 4, 2009

So white I'm clear

Yesterday I woke up, made my morning Starbucks coffee, and got ready to go to work at my unpaid internship with a non-profit alternative news website. Sadly, I live too far from work to ride a bike like I do in Ottawa, so I take the monorail. I selected The Low End Theory from my full, illegally downloaded discography of A Tribe Called Quest albums to listen to on my full-sized iPod. Both at my flat and at the office, I'm the only white person around, which is totally adding to my authentic cultural experience abroad. So different from last year when I took a year off to backpack and just hung out with other tourists - erm, "travelers."

Sadly, this also means I'm of limited usefulness as a reporter since I don't speak Malay - but I'm totally trying to learn it. I even listened to an online audio lesson the other day. Saya tidak boleh bahasa Malaysia. That means I don't speak Malay. Being a vegetarian is also infringing on my cultural experience, as is the fact I just can't bring myself to eat with my hands yet. Good thing I eat fish and have a "what I don't know won't hurt me" policy - which I've been told is very Muslim of me.

I set up an interview for an article I'm writing about spaces for indie music shows in Kuala Lumpur. I take notes in an ordinary spiral notebook because I wasn't able to find any moleskins before I left.

At night, I went out to a gay bar with some people I met last weekend - for research purposes, of course. You see, I'm making a radio documentary for my Master's research project about gay communities in Malaysia and how they have a vibrant, open presence here despite international impressions about the legal, religious and cultural environment. Finding subjects - and an internship, and a place to stay - was surprisingly easy: I met them all on Facebook before coming here. Isn't the internet spiffy?

Today I think I'll finish season two of The Wire. There's gotta be somewhere I can find a pirated copy of season three around here.

So that's 20 "Stuff white people like" posts that apply to me. And I bet I missed some. Should I kill myself now, or later?

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Serious research

Today I met Lisa's friend Phil and a bunch of his friends for lunch. Lisa and Phil, as you long time readers may recall, are the reason I got the idea to come here in the first place.

So anyway, it was a great big awesome queerfest. I got tons of interesting info for my doc. We're all going out gay clubbing next Friday - for research purposes, of course.

We ate dim sum for lunch, then went to a cafe for cake and coffee. One of the guys decided the waiter was cute. He and his friend gigglingly asked for a comment card so he could write his phone number on it. They didn't have comment cards, but told him he could write a comment on a piece of paper.

The two of them, giggling like schoolgirls, concocted an entire survey. "How was the service? Poor, fair, good, excellent (and hot!), check." They wrote the guy's phone number on it, made a cover out of the place mat (they even bound it with string), and presented it to the baffled waiter, giggling hysterically. Then they proceeded to act mortified and giggle more every time the waiter walked by.

Tragically, I was not running tape. I may have to find another cute waiter and convince them to do it again.

In conclusion, premise of doc confirmed: Despite sodomy charges against opposition politicians and fatwas against tomboyism, gay people are not exactly, shall we say, repressed, fearful and closeted in KL.

Don't get used to me posting every day, by the way: Hilarious things just keep happening to me lately.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Same same but different

A few days ago, I was sent to cover a court case appealing a ban on a book published by Malaysian feminist NGO Sisters in Islam. The case got postponed, and I didn’t even end up doing a story on it. But I did meet Brigitte, a law student from the States who’s doing an internship with SIS.

She invited me to a party last night. I went. It was at a very swanky condo and full of foreigners who were in KL to work or study.

In that sense, it was different from backpacking. In many other senses, it was deja vu all over again.

Everyone’s answer to the question “So how do you know these people?” was, “I don’t!” Seems that everyone got invited in a similar way: they met somebody who knew somebody throwing the party who said “Hey, you’re foreign too, let’s hang out.” This, of course, happens when you’re backpacking all the time: Insta-best friends are made for a day or a week, drinking ensues, and the memory lives on only on Facebook.

The United Nations of Drunks phenomenon was also a throwback. People there were from Tahiti, Thailand, Singapore, and Chicago. All we really had in common was that we were in Malaysia temporarily, and by extension had enough cash to do things like throw dinner parties at condos and go clubbing. Slightly different from backpacking, when the connection was that we had enough cash to buy a plane ticket to the other side of the world but not enough to stay in a hostel with an indoor toilet, but similar.

By the time we coordinated our collective attention spans for long enough to get out the door, it was 2:30. We pushed our way to the centre of the dance floor and danced like obnoxious lushes for approximately 15 minutes before the lights came on.

I had a serious flashback to The Heart of Darkness, a club in Phnom Penh frequented by gangsters and rich Khmers. It had a stage-like platform in the centre. Mega and I used to hop on and start line dancing. I’m still not sure how we learned to line dance, but we broke out the choreography as often as possible.

Dudes would hop on too and try to dance with us, but we’d refuse unless they let us teach them the line dance. Soon we’d have a gaggle of rich Khmer gangsters line dancing on a platform in the middle of Phnom Penh’s most notorious club.

I said Asia blog 2.0 would be more journalism and less gin buckets. It’s possible I lied.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Reporter Barbie does Malaysia

This morning, mid-commute, my phone rang.

I answered it, and had the typical "Hello?" "Hello?" "Hello?" conversation that happens every time I try to make communication happen in this country with a combination of zero Malay on my part and limited English on their part.

I deciphered enough to figure out it had something to do with an interview request. I told them I'd call them back when I got to work. Three seconds later I got a text message.

The text message I understood: It said the politician I had requested an interview with days ago was free this afternoon. Was I available to come and meet her at her office at one?

My deadline for that article was the end of the day today. I had finished writing it yesterday - or so I thought.

As far as I was concerned, the chance of that politician calling me back was slim, and the idea she would want to do an in person interview hadn't even crossed my mind. With that in mind, I had come to work in flip flops with wet hair and left my camera at my apartment.

I got to the office and sat down at my computer. I Google mapped the address. It was in another city.

I called my editor, who wasn't in yet.

"Hi, Jacq."

"Hi, Claire."

"So one of the politicians I called wants me to meet her at her office for an interview this afternoon."

"Where's her office?"

"In Selangor."

"Selangor is the state we're in."

"Oh, uh, I knew that. Shah Alam, it's in Shah Alam. How would I get there?"

"There's no transit, you'd have to take a taxi. It would take about 45 minutes"

"Uh, OK. Um, so, should I go?"

"Why wouldn't you?"

"Well, it's a 45 minute taxi ride away. Can I ask if we can do a phone interview?"

"A politician is granting you an in person interview. We are not lazy journalists."

So. I guess I'm going then.

So I put on my suit, which I keep in my drawer, over my flip flops. I scribbled some interview questions. I got in the taxi.

The taxi driver didn't get lost, thank God, although he did charge me an extortionary price. We got there about fifteen minutes early. I handed him a 50 ringgitt bill.

He didn't have change. The taxis next to us didn't have change. The reception counter didn't have change. No one in the city of Shah Alam (which is in the state of Selangor, as I now know) had change.

I have too much pride and too much experience with Southeast Asian taxi drivers trying to rip me off to hand him the bill and tell him it was his lucky day. I made him run - literally run - with me as I looked for the cafeteria in the state government building. I finally found it, bought a gross bag of chips to break my bill, threw the extortionary fee at him, and ran to the elevator.

I arrived breathless and sweaty at the politician's office. Her assistant informed me she was in a meeting and would be late.

The interview went fine. The taxi driver back to the office charged me an even more extortionary price than the first one. I ran up the stairs to the office and conversed with my editor, who decided that given the new information my article should now be a two parter - in other words, I had an entirely new article to write and the first to revise by the end of the day. It was 3 p.m.

I feel that my day highlights a number of key points about my experience in Malaysia so far.

Number one: I am insane. I picked the most complicated country on earth (I really believe this is true, possibly the subject of another blog post), with a language I do not speak a word of, to be a journalist in. Last time I was in Southeast Asia, I thought the language barriers involved in explaining I was a vegetarian were frustrating. Multiply that frustration by a zillion, and that's maybe approaching how it feels to try and interview a police chief about why he's revoked a permit for an opposition party to hold a political dinner.

Number two: I don't know anything about Malaysia. I thought I did. Then I tried to be a journalist here. I routinely do things as stupid as realizing I can't tell the difference between what state and what city I'm in, or thinking honorifics are people's names.

Number three: I am as stubborn as hell. Even though I'm so exhausted I can't move by the time I get home, even though I feel like a stupid baby pretty much every day, I'm determined to make this work. I literally came to the other side of the world, god dammit. I'm going to do what I came here to do.

The people I've met so far are awesome. The organization I work for is awesome. I think I wrote a pretty awesome two-part series of articles today. But there are certain things that can't be solved by awesomeness or stubbornness or journalistic rat-like cunning.

One is that I don't speak Malay, rendering me of limited usefulness to my workplace. Another is that the problems with my visa that cropped up out of nowhere are still following me around. I'm right in the middle of dealing with that extremely complicated loot bag of fun, so I'm not going to get into it, but it's majorly stressful (the worst that would happen is that I'd have to give up my internship, though - I could still stay on a tourist visa and do my MRP).

But I'm hoping that the problems that can be overcome by experience get, well, overcome by experience.

Anyway, I have to go find a cake to take to an expat party.