Author Archive | Mikael Bingham

How to Handle Your September Issues

This essay first appeared on Ballast on September 13, 2012. It is also featured in our new e-book, Northern Conversations: The Best of Ballast. If you like what you read below, please consider purchasing our e-book. You will be left $4.99 poorer in the bank, but $99.99 richer in character.

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September means different things to different people. For parents and children, it means back to school. For farmers, it means the beginning of the harvest season. For retirees, it means peak vacation time is over and they can finally go on their RV trips without being bothered by tourists.

For me, September means a subtle yet swift mood shift from satisfied to sour. It means the rapid onset of the September blues, which I try to stave off with indulgent behaviour, materialism and self-importance.

And there is no better aid in this admirable fight than the September Issue of Vogue magazine, which extols consumerism and vanity as the highest virtues, and pedals luxury and fantasy in an affordable paper format. So if you’re like me, and you find September trying, pour yourself a glass of wine — in fact, best take the bottle with you — slip on your most fashionable piece of loungewear and delve in. Here’s how I’d suggest you proceed:

Front Cover: Take a sip of wine and remember that Vogue isn’t about easy-to-assemble, I-bought-it-at-the-mall fashion. It offers daring, inspiring, outrageous style for women who know better. Feel conflicted about Lady Gaga’s fuchsia patchwork dress. The fuchsia really is fabulous, but the exaggerated hip may not work for you or most regular-sized women. Decide that legendary editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour, knows best and determine to give the exaggerated-hip look a try. Read through the subheadings, pause on “HAIR IS THE NEW MAKEUP” and wonder what sort of makeup Lady Gaga’s hairdo would be equivalent to. Regret your own boring hairstyle and resolve to do something about it.

Pages 1-76: All fashion plebs flip through the first couple hundred pages of the September Issue and comment, witheringly, on the fact that it’s all ads. Those people are idiots. What they fail to understand is that the ads matter — more than any article and possibly more than some of the editorials. Advertisements allow you — the select few who get it — an opportunity to see each designer’s collection as they intended it to be seen. They have chosen the models, photographers and stylists who best express their style message — be it cast-off-your-unglamorous-morality-and-buy-a-fur-coat or skinny-girls-look-great-in-mesh-dresses. Admire mixed prints and Irish Setters in the Ralph Lauren campaign; large hats and chunky eyeglasses in Louis Vuitton; Monica Bellucci in Dolce and Gabbana. Covet Monica’s see-through lace dress. Vow to work out more so you can wear see-through lace dresses. Toast the wanton fabulousness of the fashion world with a considerable slosh of wine. Continue Reading →

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The Pains of an Unpronounceable Name

Earlier this month, John Travolta made a huge mistake when he mispronounced singer and actress Idina Menzel’s name at the Oscars in front of an estimated audience of 43 million TV viewers as Adele Dazeem. The incident sparked a good deal of internet fun-poking, but Travolta was quick to apologize for the gaffe. It seems all has been resolved graciously and amicably.

Given that the fallout of this incident has been so minimal, you would think I would be able to let it go. It was a minor glitch in an otherwise pretty okay awards show, and the world has moved on. But not me. I still replay the moment over and over in my head, wondering what went wrong. You see, listening to the John’s of the world mangle a strange and uncommon name is an occurrence far too familiar to me to just shrug off because I, like the Chiwetels, Gaboureys, and Joaquins of the world, have a name that’s difficult to pronounce.

My name is Mikael. I bet you read that as “Mikhail.” As in Gorbachev. But it’s actually pronounced like “Michael.” Think Caine or Clarke Duncan. So I’ve got two name issues: I’m a woman with a traditionally male name, which is enough to cause confusion. But add to that the fact that my parents chose a unique spelling rather than the conventional M-I-C-H-A-E-L, and you’ve got a morass of uncertainty that almost all first-time readers of my name stumble into. Continue Reading →

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5 Minimum-Fuss Mustaches to Try Out This November

November is a big month for male facial hair. For starters, it’s Movember, the internationally observed awareness campaign that encourages ‘tache growth as a means of stimulating conversation about prostate and testicular cancer, and also about raising funds for their prevention and treatment.

But there’s more: November’s also an important month for die-hard facial-hair growers and groomers because of a certain competition that took place earlier this month in a little town located in southern Germany. On November 2, Leinfelden-Echterdingen was flooded with men sporting elaborately styled and meticulously groomed face hair ready to compete in the World Beard and Moustache Championships. You probably didn’t know that such an event existed, but I bet you’re not overly surprised to find out one does.

The male grooming-and-facial-hair-care market is growing. Not since family photos from the early ’80s have so many men sported a ‘tache so proudly. Which — admit it now — is weird. Let’s not pretend that mustaches aren’t generally unloved. Very few women find them attractive, and very few men wear them, I suspect, because of the whole very few women find them attractive thing.

Granted, that’s a slightly 21st-century North American viewpoint. At various times throughout history, mustaches have been a necessity for fashionable men. In many parts of the world, mustaches still command respect. For example, as recently as 2004 in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, police officers received stipends for growing mustaches, because it was believed that upper-lip hair made them appear more dignified and intimidating.

But this is now and this is Canada, where mustaches are not an everyday sight. If you’re going to commit to Movember — and it’s a great campaign, so why not? — keep in mind you might get looked at askance, and remember you can’t all be super-mustachioed award winners like Patrick Fette or Burke Kenny. For starters, you just don’t have enough time to grow something that spectacular. According to Hairfinder, facial hair grows at a rate of approximately half an inch per month — a rate of growth not nearly fast enough for some of the more sculptural styles that were on display at this year’s championships in Germany. No, based on both pragmatic and emotional realities, you will need to be more circumspect. Here are a few slightly less ambitious mustache styles to consider this November: Continue Reading →

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Can I Eat This Cheese?

We’ve all been there, smacked in the face by temptation. It’s in your fridge, it’s in the dairy aisle, it’s in the window of a specialty shop giving you that come hither smile, whispering dirty propositions into your ear. Creamy and mild, pungent and surprising, maybe a touch piquant. You crave it. The shameful possibilities flood your brain — grated on pasta, sliced on a sandwich, melted into a casserole. Irresistible, undeniable. Cheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeese.

As famous TV personality Cliff Fadiman put it, “Cheese — milk’s leap toward immortality.” So true. Who would have thought off milk could be so delicious. But can you eat it? Should you?

In a perfect world, the answer to the question can I eat this cheese? would always be yes. Yes you can, yes you should. Yes, this cheese will make your life so much better than it previously was. But ours is not a perfect world. It’s full of food intolerance, pregnancy, and medications that don’t mix with dairy. Tragic, but true: all roads, in this flawed world, do not lead to cheese.

But some do. All you need to know is which path to take, which door to choose, which tine of the fork in the road to plunge into a square of Edam. We can help with that. Let’s start with the basics.
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A Loss: Getting By After a Miscarriage

October 15, I bet you didn’t know, is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day. I won’t say miscarriage is something that doesn’t get talked about — because it does — but it’s not like the day is publicly observed by masses of men and women across the country. I know I won’t mark it with any special ritual.

While I admire and respect those families who do, I’ll likely just go to work and maybe give my husband an extra long hug in the evening. We probably won’t talk about it. We’ll pass through October 15 as we pass through most days: doing our jobs, talking to friends and colleagues, eating, watching TV. And, in a way, that’s the most appropriate way for us to remember our miscarriage, because a relentless pursuit of the usual is how we got by.

I’m certain there’s no universal miscarriage experience and no set of standards to compare others against. I’m certain that every woman who loses a pregnancy will deal with it differently, and every man who has grieved an unborn child will know a very unique pain.

Being certain of this, however, I’d like to tell you how it looked and felt for me. How, in the process of losing my first baby, sorrow collided daily with the reality of managing a body in revolt. How the pragmatic concerns of regular life intermingled in bleakly ridiculous ways with the pain of loss. How I coped, day-to-day, by watching too much TV, sneaking off to cry in public washrooms, drinking to excess, swallowing Advil by the handful, listening to sad songs, and just plain burying sadness, anxiety, shame, and fear beneath a thick layer of getting on with life.

Ostensibly, my pregnancy ended on a Wednesday night in late September 2012. My husband and I walked into a Vancouver ultrasound clinic with a baby and left with a non-viable fetal pole. There was no discernible heartbeat, the radiologist told us, which was not uncommon. One in five pregnancies ended during the first trimester, he said. We had heard this statistic. We had heeded this information, because we are realistic, sensible people. But the thing is, we never imagined it would be us. I suspect very few couples do. We knew in our heads that miscarriage ends 20% of all pregnancies, but we believed in our hearts that our baby wouldn’t be one of the many to turn into a loss. The odds were on our side. We just assumed our little one would be one of the four out of five who made it. We were wrong in that assumption, and we were ill-prepared.

I remember my mom driving us home. I remember someone praying for us. I remember staring at our bedroom wall and wondering what we were supposed to do next. I couldn’t sleep that night, so I sat up in our living room watching reruns of Absolutely Fabulous. All through the night and into the next day I swung wildly from desperate hope to catatonia to ugly, face-contorting sadness. I kept thinking, One in five — how can that be? How come I didn’t hear more women crying through the paper-thin walls of my apartment? Why didn’t I see more women breaking down on public transportation or in the food court at the mall? Of course, we knew couples who had dealt with the loss of a pregnancy, but it quickly became apparent that the kind of grief you live with during and after a miscarriage is a lonely one. How can you expect people to mourn someone they’ve never known? No one knew her but us, and even we knew her only as plans and aspirations. How were we to mourn? Continue Reading →

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Where Have All the Jack Ryans Gone?

Tom Clancy, best-selling author and progenitor of the fictional Deputy Director of the CIA (and later President of the United States of America!) Jack Ryan, passed away Tuesday night in Baltimore at the age of 66. The cause of Clancy’s death has yet to be confirmed.

Clancy’s political thrillers and spy novels were known for their accuracy, as well as their resonance with the prevailing sentiments of the American public:

Clancy’s works closely tracked Americans’ security fears, moving from Cold War face-offs to terrorist attacks and both fascinated readers with their high-stakes plots and enthralled military experts with their precise details.

In his thrillers, many of which were turned into big-budget action films, good and stalwart Americans fight terrorism and government corruption, stage daring rescues of American civilians and military personnel, and prevent international disasters. Ryan, Clancy’s most famous character, has been played by some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck — fine examples of American square-jawed hunkiness — have all taken up the Jack Ryan mantle to varying degrees of success. More than 100 million Clancy-penned books have sold worldwide, and the Maryland-based novelist’s work has even received presidential approval from the Gipper himself.

Even former U.S. president Ronald Reagan was a fan, praising The Hunt for Red October during the mid-1980s and telling reporters that it was “a really good yarn.” That endorsement helped vault the book to the top of the New York Times bestseller list.

My knowledge of the Clancy cannon is, without a doubt, limited.  I’ve read a couple of novels from the Jack Ryan series while on vacation and I watched Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger back to back one day while I was sick with the flu. However, despite my scant knowledge of the Clancy-verse, as I watched those movies and read those books I felt proud to be an American — and I’m not American in any way, shape, or form. Continue Reading →

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5 Types of Blues Worse Than the September Blues

I know a man who squanders his August fretting over the slow and steady advance of September. Half his summer is spent in a state of meta-stress, feeling depressed about all the depression he will feel upon the arrival of that dreaded month. Like a damsel in distress tied to the train tracks, he watches with an anxiety that gradual builds to panic as autumn closes in on him. His is a fairly severe case of the September Blues.

For other sufferers, the September Blues arrive like a bug up the nostril. You’re humming along, enjoying the summer, maybe even feeling optimistic that autumn will come gently and envelop you in a swirl of crisp, coloured leaves that smells of damp morning air, but then, out of nowhere, September hits you in the face — deeply embeds itself in your face — causing turmoil and agitation.

To be clear, for the purposes of this list, the September Blues (which can quickly become the Autumn then Winter Blues) are the blunted, everyday version of Seasonal Affective Disorder, a genuine mood disorder. Think of them, then, as a low-level melancholy that arrives at the outset of the colder months rather than a serious depression caused by a shift in seasons.

There’s nothing worse than being told to think about all the people who have it worse than you when you’re feeling particularly shitty, but that’s what I’m going to do. Although September may be drawing to a close, its namesake blues tend to linger into October, November, and, yes, even December. For those of us who suffer as the warm weather turns cold and the days get shorter and shorter, perspective must be gained. Just think of all the types of blues you could have that are worse than the September Blues. Here are five to get you started. Continue Reading →

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Everything I Know About TIFF I Know Through Hearsay

As a child, Tiff meant only “Tiffany” to me. It was a simple diminutive for a girl’s name, and the Tiffs in my life included a perky classmate, a character from the TV show California Dreams, and a flame-haired pop star who I knew more for being the girlfriend of my fifth favorite New Kid on the Block than for her music.

Now, of course, I am a worldly grown-up lady with knowledge of more than just what’s immediately in front of me in person or on TV. I learned in my late teens (when we all learn about these artsy sort of things, no?) that TIFF was not just a nickname, but also a festival. The Toronto International Film Festival, in fact, attended by many celebrities and lots of other regular-type people who range from very to vaguely involved in the film industry. I’ve learned that TIFF is a big deal internationally and that, as far as Canadian film festivals go, its the big one. TIFF combines so many of my favourite things — movies, famous people, fashion, CanCon — that I feel I’m the appropriate person to tackle this event.

Unfortunately, having been on vacation for the past ten days, I’ve missed most… well, all of TIFF, actually. But never mind that. I listened to a bit of news radio while away and glimpsed a few bylines as I crumpled up the entertainment sections of various newspapers to use for campfire kindling. I’m almost certain that with that knowledge, beefed up with some friendly chatter and a sweep of the world wide web, I can summarize, if not capture, all the nuances and goings-on at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. So here it goes. Continue Reading →

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Losing It: On Women With Short Hair

Back in the first century A.D., the Apostle Paul wrote, “But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her.” Even now, in a world unfettered by religious maxims and traditional gender roles, long, flowing, shiny hair is revered as a glorious symbol of femininity. If you don’t believe this, watch a shampoo commercial and note the flicking, waving, and caressing of thick, lustrous female hair.

Yes, we like a pixie crop here and there, and of course a woman can go bald if she wants. Heck, even Beyonce is willing to try out a short style. But despite the dearth of hair options offered by glamour magazines and the many differences between 21st-century Canada and 1st-century Greece, the styling of hair still follows some general principles — the most basic of these being boys keep it short and girls grow it long.

Like I before E except after C, this is a very general guideline with plenty of room for deviation. Nowadays, neither long hair on men nor short hair on women are anomalies, and there are types of people we actually expect to sport these mildly nonconformist hairstyles. For male bikers, rockers, and hippies, for example, long hair seems completely obvious.

Likewise, there are certain kinds of women we expect to see wearing their hair short. There are waifs like Carey Mulligan and Mia Farrow, upon whom we always seem to project a certain vulnerability. There are impossibly chic French women, such as Jean Seberg and Audrey Tautou, and strong older women (royal or political ladies and the people who play them in movies) such as Hillary Clinton, Annette Bening, and Judi Dench. For any of these women, short hair is nothing beyond ordinary.

Knowing all this, you’d would think that more of us would be comfortable bidding farewell to our long locks. At the very least, we’d save money on hair products.

But it’s just not that easy. Like all things related to femininity and attractiveness, short hair is only really okay if it suits you. Which means — depending on what magazines you read, where you work, and what types of people you spend time with — if you’re too rangy or too athletic, if you don’t know how to wear makeup, if you’re neither passive nor spunky, if your nose is too patrician, your face too square, your neck too short, your jaw too weak, or your shoulders too broad — if any or all of these things apply to you and you cut your hair short, you run the risk of being perceived as unattractive, inelegant, or mannish.

You may hope that a short haircut will give the impression that you’re a confident woman free from the backward rituals of gender. You may think that it will show people you’re a cool chick who effortlessly marches to the beat of your own style-drum. But if you’re somehow wrong for it, you’ll be looked at askance and labelled a weirdo, undesirable to men and intimidating to women.
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Reconsidering Our Relationship With the Wild

Early Monday morning, two New Brunswick children were reportedly killed by an African rock python that had escaped from its enclosure.

The python then made its way through the ventilation shaft and spilled out into the living room where Noah Barthe, 4, and Connor Barthe, 6 were sleeping, having stayed overnight at the home of family friend Jean-Claude Savoie, who ran exotic pet shop Reptile Ocean on the floor below.

Although the final autopsy report has not yet been released, available information indicates that Connor and Noah Barthe died of asphyxiation.

While some people — snake owners and experts among them — are hesitant to believe that the python, since euthanized, could or would have killed the boys, their deaths have sparked a debate over the possible pitfalls of keeping wild animals as pets. The ordeal represents an extreme example of how the battle to pacify, tame, trap, or otherwise limit the natural world can go horribly awry.

In the Globe and Mail, Andrew Westoll called for a ban on exotic pets, such as snakes and big cats, citing both danger to humans and stress to animals as support for his appeal.

Regulation, for all its merits, would be an incredibly expensive undertaking, and would by proxy endorse the practice of keeping quasi-wild animals under lock and key. An all-out ban, however, would solve the problem right here, right now. A ban would also save countless exotics from spending lifetimes in captivity, which for many species is simply a euphemism for physical and psychological agony.

Death by exotic pet is not a common occurrence — many people keep undomesticated animals as companions without losing loved ones. And it’s important to remember that even domesticated animals are capable of attacking and killing people on occasion. Even so, all this raises questions about what lengths people will go to interact with nature and how much safety they should expect while doing so. Continue Reading →

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10 Soft Rock Acts You Can and Should See Very Soon

While music festivals across the country are showcasing the best jangle-rock and synth-pop currently on offer and groups like Icona Pop and Daft Punk duke it out for the summer song of 2013, it behooves us to pause and remember that most acts on Top 40 radio, from Mumford & Sons to Ciara, owe a great deal of their popularity to soft rock. We may hear traces of Queen and Pink Floyd on Fun’s Some Nights, but listen more carefully and you’ll also find snatches of Hall & Oates. Justin Timberlake, for all his credibility, is just as indebted to the musical styles of Leo Sayer and Lionel Richie as he is to that of Marvin Gaye.

Since soft rock is generally thought of as wussy-rock — cheesy, predictable, watered-down for mass consumption — this heritage is something neither Top 40 artists nor fans are proud to admit. But what is radio pop if not songs crafted for consumption by the masses? Whether we choose to believe it or not, soft rock is often the magic ingredient that produces hit singles from the raw materials of punk, rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, soul, R&B, and even rap. Take a rough and ragged rock track, for example, then add a dash of Melissa Manchester, maybe a touch of Wings, and tah-dah! you’ve got yourself a song that Ryan Seacrest will play on heavy rotation.

I don’t mean to disparage either modern pop or soft rock; I only want to encourage music fans to delve a bit deeper into the world of easy listening. Give it a chance. Create yourself a playlist stacked with England Dan & John Ford Coley, Anne Murray, and Gino Vannelli. Or better still, check out any of the following Canadian concert dates. You won’t regret it. Continue Reading →

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Vancouver: ‘No Fun City’ No More?

Last year, a handful of changes to B.C.’s liquor laws made life in the Pacific Northwest a bit more fun for grownups who like an alcoholic beverage from time to time. Theaters can now sell alcohol when no minors are present, caterers can apply for liquor licenses, and diners can bring their own bottles of wine to restaurants. These recent amendments, however, may only be the tip of the fun iceberg, as the B.C. government is currently studying additional ways to update rules and regulations regarding alcohol consumption.

The study will look at a variety of issues surrounding liquor, including whether people should be allowed to bring alcoholic beverages to beaches and parks, according to attorney general Suzanne Anton.

Although the results of this study will affect the entire province, this news comes at a time when a certain B.C. city is taking its own steps towards raising the fun quotient. Yes, Vancouver City Council is on a fun-making binge, altering zoning rules to allow craft breweries to run designated tasting rooms and approving launch sights for kitesurfers who were previously banned from practicing their sport on public beaches. Vancouverites can also expect their municipal leaders to extend restaurant patio hours, which currently end at 11:00 p.m.

For now, it’s unclear whether all this will be enough for Vancouver to finally shed the nickname “No Fun City.” Not satisfied with merely beautiful and liveable, there seems to be a newfound vigour among its residents, writers, and politicians to re-brand their home as engaged, exciting, and cool — a “More Fun City,” if you will. Considering that they’re up against some outdated, fun-inhibiting bylaws and property values that many believe price out arts and entertainment, it’s going to be an uphill battle. Continue Reading →

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15 Things You Can Complain About This Summer

Cold, wet Canadian winters provide us with plenty to complain about — cars get stuck in the snow, outdoor activities are limited, and all that sidewalk salt tends to stain the hems of pants.

But what’s a grumpy Canadian to do from June through August when all is sunshine, optimism, and colourful cocktails? Below, we’ve compiled a list of summertime grievances that make perfect conversation fodder for those idle afternoons spent on a dock with a friend.

1. Trying to determine what type of sunglasses are in, and having to ask the young, hip salesclerk at the trendy shop about it.

2. Short shorts — because of cellulite and leg acne.

3. Having to make good on your promise to ride your bike more “when summer comes.”

4. Regretting your decision to buy a vintage fan that doesn’t oscillate because it was cuter than the new fancy one that does.

5. Sunscreen — because it’s sticky.

6. The pressure others put on you to eat more of your meals outside.

7. The heat — because when you’re cold you can always put on more clothes, but when you’re hot you can only get so naked. Continue Reading →

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