Parting With The Penny

Soon to be a relic like the $2 bill

It’s been on the chopping block for years but now it’s official. The penny is getting the axe! Come fall, the penny will no longer be minted and the ones in circulation will slowly be corralled and destroyed.

I’ve been dreading this day for some time now. That may seem extreme but eliminating the penny means the rounding up of prices, certainly not the opposite. It means $20 instead of $19.97 and in my experience, that couple of cents can add up over time and make for real savings.

I was lamenting about this penny business to my mom and she told me that when she was travelling though Europe many years ago, a number of countries had gotten rid of their one-cent coins. When an odd number came up at the checkout counter, vendors would dole out candy as a consolation prize. That gives penny candy a whole new meaning. Well you know what, Canadian Conservative government? If you’re even thinking of that silliness, you can keep your Tic Tacs! I want my one-cent and I want it now!

Inflation shminflation! The penny still has value as far as I can see. One cent’s worth, in fact! There may be people out there who don’t care about their pennies but what about those of us who do? What about those of us who pay for our coffees with the change lingering in our pockets? What about those of us who save our pennies and find that with the accumulated coins we’re able to actually purchase something? What about those of us who slip our pennies into slot boxes for charities at the grocery store or Tim Horton’s?

If the penny is more expensive to produce than it’s worth, why not mint something cheaper? Is killing the penny altogether really the only option? I guess it’s a good thing the new $50 and $100 bills are looking fancy, we’ll probably be shelling out more of them now. I’d like to see some data about how a penniless nation spends more over time.

Another irksome budget item is the cut to funding for the CBC. It’s a wonder the public broadcaster hasn’t been done away with like the penny. I can’t say I’m surprised. Chances are that if it revolves around creativity of any kind, the Tories want little to nothing to do with it. As the creative minds in this country multiply, funding for creative initiatives is reduced. It’s high time for a change, we’ve been putting up with this nonsense since 2006! Oh wait, Stephen Harper’s a bona fide musician isn’t he? He belts out Beatles songs given any chance. How dare I contest that the Conservatives have fuzzy feelings about art?

To conclude today’s short rant, I will leave you with some classic sayings and one song that will be meaningless to our future generations thanks to today’s sad news:

“A penny saved is a penny earned”

“Penny candy”

“That cost a pretty penny”

“In for a penny, in for a pound”

“Find a penny, pick it up, all the day you’ll have good luck”

“A penny for your thoughts?”

 

We’ve entered an age where alcohol is expected at gatherings rather than tea. This National Post post relates to my rant (coming soon) about alcohol adverts in our home and native land, Canada.

Straight-Faced at the Comedy Club

Laughter is an amazing thing. It’s the outward expression of joy and it comes along with a whole heap of health benefits. Laughing relieves muscle tension, reduces hormones related to stress, releases endorphins (the body’s feel-good chemicals), and generally creates a physical feeling of well-being. If wealth was measured in laughter, the wealthiest people would probably also be the healthiest. So if you have a choice between laughing or not, why wouldn’t you choose the former?

In the past few months, I’ve been making a habit of attending comedy shows. I’ve always been a comedy enthusiast, inspired by people who can get up on stage and crack jokes in front of strangers (often revealing intimate personal details in the process). It’s no easy feat to think on your toes and tell jokes on the spot, opening yourself up to hecklers and other spontaneities that arise in live performances. That alone is reason enough to always show appreciation. Comics get up there to make you laugh and hope for an open-minded audience that is prepared to do just that.

You would think that people attending stand-up shows would show up with their laughing shoes on, right? Well, in recent months, I’ve been amazed by the number of people who approach comedy performances with judgement and a holier-than-thou attitude.

In October, I had the privilege of attending the Canadian Comedy Awards and one of its showcase events. The night of stand-up was graced with the presence of such comedy greats as Shaun Majumder, Steve Patterson, Nikki Payne and Laurie Elliott. My company for the evening was a few television executive types. These people worked in and, you would think, knew comedy. What they didn’t know, unfortunately, was that front row orchestra is definitely not the same as front row balcony so we wound up sitting as close to the stage as possible, staring straight up at the comics. I slouched in such a way that I wasn’t too uncomfortable but, of course we were the only people the comedians could really see since the spotlights would have rendered their far-sightedness useless.

Being right in the comics’ line of vision, I wanted to make sure they knew I was enjoying myself, which I was. I laughed uproariously and clapped enthusiastically. I let myself just roll with the jokes, even when they weren’t entirely my style. The people I was with, however, couldn’t have seemed less engaged. They half-heartedly chuckled at really funny jokes, they barely cracked a smile at the more subtle ones, and they failed to applaud virtually every time a comedian finished a set. Their seeming lack of enjoyment was only really broken when Nikki Payne told a joke about throwing feces like monkeys, particularly at co-workers at the office. At this, my company practically rolled out of their seats with hysteria yet the rest of the evening they had watched with an air of superiority. The attitude they exuded said, “We know comedy and compared to what we’ve seen, this show ain’t nothing.” Well bully for them!

The following month, I attended the Tim Sims Encouragement Fund’s Cream of Comedy – an evening showcasing fresh-faced comics competing for a cash prize, a scholarship for the Second City Training Centre, and serious bragging rights. Spoiler alert! Half of the comedy troupe “British Teeth” that won the 2011 prize hailed from the same high school as yours truly. Pretty great stuff!

I also attended this show with some friends who work in the business of television and comedy. These folks were younger and had far less input into what actually makes it on the air than the people I went to the Canadian comedy showcase with. These friends were also in less demanding jobs, and were less stressed out so I just assumed they would generally be in better humour and would let themselves really enjoy the show. It turns out I was wrong. I was laughing the night away and hearing crickets beside me. One friend later said to me later that she wished she had sat next to me. She felt like a pariah for laughing while the others looked on with straight faces.

At the same show, a man sitting within my line of vision also caught my attention. As with most comedy shows, there were a lot of crass jokes being told and plenty of imitations. This guy couldn’t have looked less impressed. All of his friends were cracking up but he was just shaking his head and putting his fingers to his temples. These jokes were evidently giving him a headache. I just don’t understand what people expect out of events like these. If he was looking for highbrow, classy entertainment, he should have gone to the opera. The same goes for everyone else who just refused to enjoy the evening.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to another evening of comedy. This event was a fundraiser for a cancer support network called Gilda’s Club Greater Toronto. It was called “That’s What She Said” and it was the fourth year that the show had gone on. The event is, and has always been an all-female line-up of comedians. As you might imagine, there tend to be many jokes about gender stereotypes, relationships, and everyday life. I see it as a pretty strong showing of feminist ideals, even when the jokes might poke fun at the classic power divide between men and women. Well, the woman sitting next to me was not at all open to the jokes about sex, love and family roles. She shook her head and scoffed the whole night. She seemingly found the jokes degrading. I don’t think she was entirely familiar with devices such as satire and sarcasm.

At the end of the show, a staff member from the charity got up to thank the very funny comics for their wonderful performances. In her thank you, the staff member dared to use the word “girls.” The woman next to me would have none of that. She loudly huffed, “women!” Then she looked around for other disapproving audience members (of which there were none). Granted, “girls” was probably not the best word choice but come on! Lighten up! That wasn’t the point of the message and it was just a slip of the tongue by someone who isn’t particularly comfortable speaking in front of a crowd. Had she let her guard down for a moment or two, this woman may have seen just how impressive, empowered, and gosh darn funny the evening’s comics were.

The point of this tirade is that it’s not worth it let a single opportunity for laughter to slip by you. Life is so much more enjoyable when you let go of your inhibitions and see the humour in every situation. If you don’t feel that way, it’s your own loss but don’t show up at an event that’s supposed to be funny just to be a stick in the mud for everyone else. Seriously, if you’re ill humoured and not laughing, the jokes better be really terrible or outrageously offensive. There isn’t a problem with simply not laughing too excitedly, the problem arises when people approach comedy shows with a closed-minded, bad attitude. If you recognize yourself as one of these people, try lightening up next time and allowing yourself to laugh. You’ll find that you leave the event recharged and feeling great, and you’ll think twice about being so judgemental next time.

Freaking Fracking

A sign in protest of fracking (℅ Chiot's Run - Flickr)

I recently watched a documentary that truly horrified me. It’s called Gasland and it’s all about the practice of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) that has been going on in the United States. Fracking is a process used to extract natural gas from otherwise impenetrable shale underground. As far as environmental abominations go, fracking might blow the rest of them out of the water.

Gasland was produced in 2010 but it recently came into my radar when I heard of a documentary filmmaker and his crew being arrested for trying to record a public hearing about hydraulic fracturing. Being a thorough journalist, Josh Fox is working on a sequel to Gasland and was hoping to capture the meeting, which was pertinent to his research. He was asked to turn off his camera but when he refused, citing his rights, he was handcuffed and arrested for “unlawful entry.” That’s right, he was arrested for “unlawful entry” into a public hearing.

This happened in a country that prides itself on its Constitution and Bill of Rights, especially the first amendment. You know, the one that encompasses freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Josh Fox knew his constitutional rights but that didn’t stop him from being forcibly removed from a hearing about a serious environmental threat that everyone should be made aware of.

Before watching Fox’s documentary, I knew what fracking was, and knew that it was a catastrophic and irresponsible method for tapping into natural resources (then again, there aren’t many methods for natural resource extraction that aren’t) but Gasland really opened my eyes to what was going on beneath the crust with this filthy process.

Gas companies approach property owners promising large sums of cash for permission to lease pieces of their land to drill for gas. Many are swayed by the sweet smell of Benjamins and so begins the drilling on their land. The companies drill into the earth and force pressurized fracking fluid into the ground, breaking a pathway for the natural gas to escape. This fracking fluid isn’t just water though. It’s made up of hundreds of toxic chemicals – known carcinogens and others.

The fracking fluid comes back up. At least, some of it does. Then it sits in pits of earth until the big bad gas companies come to collect it and haul it away. Meanwhile, the chemical water leaches into the ground and evaporates into the air, doing all kinds of damage in the process. If that isn’t bad enough, the companies actually spray the wastewater into the air as mist so it will evaporate faster. They don’t want to be responsible for hauling too many truckloads of the stuff back. Not that there’s anywhere safe to put gallons of chemical-infused water.

Oh yeah, remember how this disgusting water was forced into the ground to break a pathway for the gas? Well, that pathway isn’t just one smooth channel. Small veins break off from the main corridor, allowing natural gas and leftover wastewater to find its way into the water systems surrounding the gas line. The companies assure people that fracking will change nothing about their way of life. The landowners are told their air and drinking water will be just as it always was. Yet many people who have had their land tapped find themselves sick, find their animals and crops suffering, and find their drinking water so contaminated that it can literally be set on fire.

This is possible because under the Bush administration, gas companies performing hydraulic fracturing for natural gas were (and still are) exempted from adhering to the Safe  Drinking Water Act. That means they are given carte blanche to drill for gas without having to be accountable for their unsafe methods and without being required to seek out and implement safety precautions.

If the process itself isn’t enough of a nightmare, fracking uses some 3.5 million gallons of water! When the world’s supply of fresh water really starts to thin out, what will be thought of such wastefulness? How can squandering and contaminating so much of one of Earth’s most precious resources be justified for the purpose of fracking? When you consider the materials it takes to complete a frack job, do gas companies really reap more than they sow? Does the general public?

In addition to the millions of gallons of water required for fracking, it takes hundreds of truckloads to complete one job. I’d be interested to know how much fuel it takes to make hydraulic fracturing possible. I wouldn’t be surprised to find less gas is procured than is expended on the whole circus itself.

It boggles my mind that in an era that ought to be defined by enlightenment, such foolishness persists. And what for? Great sums of money for a great few. Every human being should have a vested interest in the well-being of the environment. Without it, there is no future. That money can blind in such an alarming way, as is illustrated by fracking, is a terrifying thing.

At a time when the focus should be shifting swiftly to alternative, renewable energy sources, it is a disgrace that practices like fracking continue. It is also scandalous that many governmental representatives including presidential hopeful Mitt Romney tout fracking, paying no mind to the perils behind it. This practice promise nothing more than to send our planet spiraling more quickly into ruin. This may sound dramatic but the situation is grave and the fear is that there’s no reversing the unthinkable damage that has already been done.

I hope to see a day in my time when we collectively smarten up and work towards a more sustainable way of life. Until then, I commend the filmmakers (like Josh Fox), journalists, environmentalists and laypersons that strive to spread the message that our way of life needs to change, and it needs to start mattering what the results of our actions are.

When this message finally catches on, processes like fracking will seem as barbaric as cannibalism and human sacrifice, and we will have overcome what will surely be remembered as a dark age in human existence.

Unemployment Enjoyment: Making the Most of Joblessness

When you’re unemployed, it’s easy to fall into a bad pattern of waking up late, staying in your pajamas, eating sugar cereal, and wasting time with television and Facebook. You wish that every day could be Saturday and that you could be eight-years-old again and what better time to recapture childhood joy than when you’re inundated with free time?

There’s something to be said about taking a breather for the first few days of unemployment. Whether you’ve lost your job, your contract ended, or you’re transitioning from student life to the working world, it’s important to take a little time to reflect, relax, and recharge.

Once you’ve had your break, it’s time to start acting like a functional adult again. There will be no more marathons of every show you’ve ever heard of and no more 2:00 p.m. sleep-ins (except for on the weekends, of course). The more time you spend idle, the less motivated you’ll be to take the next steps in your career so the following are a few tips for making the most of your jobless days.

The best thing to do to ensure productivity is to schedule your time. Figure out what it is that you want to accomplish each day and map it out. Are you focusing on job search? Are you writing a screenplay? Are you looking into further schooling? Whatever your priorities are at the moment, write them down and make time for them. It’s easy to let things slip off the radar but by making a schedule, you remind yourself to complete tasks.

If you’re the type of person who likes a timeline, outline your tasks and give yourself targets for when you want to have them finished by. If you’re better at prioritizing on the fly, make a list of things to accomplish each day and check them off as you go. You’ll find that knowing precisely what needs to get done will help you manage your time and energy more efficiently.

An essential part of scheduling yourself is waking up! Once you’ve figured out what you want to do the next day, determine how much time you’ll need to do it and set your alarm accordingly. By getting up early and seizing the day, you’ll get a great deal done and you’ll have extra time in the evening to relax and even play.

There’s nothing worse than waking up as it’s beginning to get dark again and realizing that everything you had wanted to do that day will have to be put off yet again. By waking yourself up early and having an idea of what you want to achieve, you will ensure that you waste as little time as possible.

When it comes to advancing in the workplace, there’s an old rule that actually goes a long way towards climbing the ladder of success: “dress not for the job you have but for the job you want.” You’ll never become the CEO if you look like a high school co-op student. The same rule applies when you’re unemployed. If you don’t take yourself seriously enough to get dressed in the morning, who will?

You don’t have to put on a suit if you’re looking for office jobs or a tutu if you’re an out-of-work dancer but you should wear something more respectable than your fuzzy wuzzy house coat while you’re going about your daily duties. After that alarm clock sounds, your first order of business should be to get yourself dressed and cleaned up – just as you would if you had to get to work. When you’re wearing something practical, you’re more likely to feel functional and ready to get things done. There’s just no changing the lazy day associations we have with pajamas.

Now that you’re up and at ‘em, you’re all set to get out of the house. Make it your goal to leave the confines of your home office at least once a day. Even in the dead of winter, a little fresh air and exercise goes a long way to reinvigorating your body and mind.

Go for a walk when your concentration begins to wane in the afternoon, go to the coffee shop with your laptop and continue working there, or take a stroll to the library and take advantage of its many free resources. Why not take time to enjoy a part of the day you might otherwise miss in a work environment?

Another great reason to get out of the house is to network. Even if you don’t have a job interview, talking to people who are successful in your field can be a great way to get ideas, find out about job openings, and expose yourself as an available candidate worth consideration. Most jobs are found through networking and you never know who will pass your CV on to the person who will offer you your dream job. So don’t hesitate to send meeting requests to your contacts or to people you are interested in learning from. Talking to someone face to face is always a good way to demonstrate all of the great qualities that render you a prime employee so put yourself out there.

It’s unpredictable how long unemployment can last. You may find a gig right away but it could take a while for the right position to come up. This is why it’s important to create your own opportunities. Invent projects for yourself that will add something to your roster of skills and experience.

Are you a web designer? Create your own website and take on freelance projects. Are you in construction? Accept odd jobs or document the work you put into your own home to show potential employers. Are you an artist of some sort? Teach classes or approach local venues about putting on performances/shows. You never know, your downtime project could just become your full time occupation. Don’t underestimate your ability to create your own destiny.

Following these tips alone probably won’t get you a job but they will certainly help you get into the mind frame necessary for all the resume updating, cover letter writing, portfolio organizing, time, and energy it takes to become gainfully employed.  Remember, being productive is not mutually synonymous with being employed. Make the most of the time you have to yourself and you will feel all the more fulfilled when you finally do find work.

Pushing Buttons

This model served me well for over 6 years

This shall be my first ever blog post from my “smart phone.” Ergo, please excuse any spelling and grammatical errors I’ve let slide as a result of my phone’s spellcheck-less-ness. Wait, is there and app for that?

I recently upgraded to a Samsung Galaxy after being a proud owner of a Nokia whatchamacallit for over 6 years. Seriously, I’m not really sure my old model even had a name. It was just your basic, run of the mill mobile phone. It could make phone calls, it could send and receive texts, and it even had a pretty decent camera (a feature I would have appreciated more if the phone’s memory were half as decent). It was adequate, durable, and it served me well. It once went missing in Toronto, ended up being found in Ottawa, and still made it back to me. If that isn’t loyalty, I don’t know what is.

I always said I would keep my nifty Nokia until the day it failed me and that’s exactly what I did. Up until recent days, the device had been everything I needed but with the rise of “smart phone” ownership, the little phone that could, just couldn’t anymore. I was increasingly losing the ends of texts, and the battery had started to die every time I made a call. As archaic as it sounds, I do enjoy a good chat on the phone over a tizzy of texts every now and again.

With the retirement of my little camera phone came an open door for me to change service providers and start anew. So far, the switch has been refreshing. I’m paying less for more, there are countless apps that have come in handy – particularly those that act as a crutch for a directionally challenged lass like me, and it’s nice to have the option to look information up at any time if I need to. I like to refrain from doing this when sitting down for a meal mind you, but therein lies another rant!

No longer do I have to call 411 when the paper I wrote the address of my destination on goes missing in my bottomless purse, no longer must I send a multimedia message or multiple texts if I have more than 160 characters worth of information to relay, and no longer is the vibrate setting on my cell phone louder than the ring tone!

Yes, I’m happy to have upgraded but there is one thing about my little Nokia that I miss dearly – buttons! In fact, it’s one of the reasons why I strongly considered going for a Blackberry or Blackberry knockoff rather than a touch screen. I figured that if and when my phone falls, I could at least cope for a while because buttons would still allow for phone calls. A bad screen break on a touch phone will render it useless and in need of immediate replacement.  Being that I’m a natural-born klutz, this could be problematic and expensive for me.

Buttons really are underrated. There are so many advantages to having something tangible to press rather than a screen to stroke. The first thing I realized I missed about my number pad was that I could no longer text and walk at the same time without bumping into people and things. I used to compose messages in my pocket, no seeing required. With T9, I had figured out what all the combinations of keys spelled and I could send my thoughts in a matter of seconds. Now it takes all of my attention to write quick messages to people and I’m constantly hitting the wrong letters on my QWERTY keyboard.

The other good thing about my keypad was that my phone never froze in locked position. Two buttons and it was unlocked, no matter what. It hasn’t happened much, but my new device sometimes freezes and it takes a few minutes before I can do anything with it.

In an emergency situation, such freezing could be dangerous. With phones that have keypads, 911 calls can be made even when the phone is locked. And isn’t that why cell phones became so widespread in the first place? Years ago people purchased them not to surf the net everywhere they went or to constantly be tuned in to their best friends’ lives, people bought cell phones to have on hand in case of emergencies.

As touch screen phones becomes sleeker and sexier, bulky phones with traditional keypads wane in popularity. It’s time to embrace the new wave of technology that is seemingly here to stay so forgive me for being nostalgic. As an homage to the buttons that most of us grew to love ages before the iphone changed the way we communicate, enjoy this song performed on an old school keypad.

 

Subway Sounds

Toronto's new Bombardier subway

When Torontonians found out about the new fleet of Subways that would be rolling out in the city, there was generally a sigh of relief heard across the GTA.

Sure, the new subways were a long way off – the city’s deal with Bombardier was penned in 2006 and the new “rockets” weren’t expected until 2011. And sure, the fresh infrastructure came with a hefty and controversial price tag – the Toronto Transit Commission agreed to shell out a whopping $548 million, possibly before more affordable avenues were explored. But the new designs were sleek, practical, and generally a welcomed improvement on the aged and crusty subways this city had come to cope with.

With five years to anticipate the arrival of the latest, greatest, priciest subway cars, the fine people of Toronto came to expect excellence! Yet months after the July 2011 debut of the new beauts, even the most frequent commuters have seldom set foot in the trains. That’s right, they’re still cramming themselves into the sardine cans that came before. How’s that for anti-climactic?

What will often happen at rush hour is this. A person will wait for several over-stuffed trains to pass, always hoping the next one will have just enough space for his or her body at least. Finally, a subway will come rolling up, honking its horn and instilling hope in the waiting commuter. There appears to be space on this one, and not just a little bit. The commuter gets hopeful that he or she might actually get a seat. Perhaps this is the morning to read on the subway, or catch that last 20 minutes of sleep. Then, as quickly as it came, the subway will race out the other end of the station leaving nothing but dust and broken hearts. What a tease.

It’s probably for the best though. For anyone who manages to get onto one of the ever-elusive new cars at rush hour, there’s an unpleasant surprising waiting. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’ve never been on the train at a truly busy time. It’s quite nice when there’s light to normal traffic flow. The seats are comfy and probably not too soiled yet, the electronic transit map is pretty neat, and the lady announcing the stops has a very soothing voice. Not to mention the partition-free design adds ease for panhandlers and flash-mobbers.

There’s a different vibe at rush hour altogether though. As soon as people start reaching for the overhead handlebars, beware! Once they are moved from their neutral positions, they let out merciless squeals that will have you blasting your ipod, shoving your fingers in your ears, or even listening to that co-worker you got stuck sitting next to on the way to work! Yes, you’ll do anything to avoid hearing the wretched sound of dolphins squeaking mixed with nails on a chalkboard. I daresay the sound matches the horrid screeches made by the Scarborough Light Rail cars. I know, it’s unthinkable.

The first time I heard this horrendous noise, I looked around to gauge the reactions of those around me. One woman was smirking and I don’t doubt she was thinking the same thing as me, “$548 million didn’t cover the cost of the oil for those handlebars?”

Perhaps the TTC should have shopped around a bit more after all. But considering what’s done is done, may I recommend an investment in some WD-40?