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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Why Women Don’t Know Much About Current Affairs

According to a recent British study led by James Curran, director of the Goldsmiths Leverhulme Media Research Centre, women know less about the ins and outs of the political world than men. The study found that this holds true even in countries where gender equality is on the rise and in nations considered to be world leaders on this front. Women, it seems, simply know less about current events than their male counterparts.

Canadian men, for example, correctly answered nearly half of the study’s survey questions, while Canadian women got only a third right.

As to why this gendered knowledge gap exists, the study offered some explanations.

Over all, the researchers found that news is heavily weighted towards male sources, even in countries with high levels of gender equality, and in the 10 countries in the study, women were only interviewed or cited in 30 per cent of television news stories.

Women appeared a lot in every country as sources in longer news pieces, and in soft news topics that included family, lifestyle and culture.

“Such under-representation and topical bias of women in news media may curb women’s motivation to acquire political knowledge actively, and discourage them from political participation, and even prevent women from engaging in citizens in a democratic society,” co-researcher Professor Kaori Hayashi said.

Other theories put forward include the possibility that women are generally busier than men and therefore less likely to spend their time reading the newspaper, or that lingering and outdated social norms preclude women from consuming news. Continue Reading →

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Has the Reign of Victor the Unpopular Come to an End?

Come close and let me tell you the dreadful tale of Victor of clan Toews. Legend has it that his mother was a starveling orphan girl who used her telepathic powers to discover the identities of internet pornographers and his father was a wanderer from a distant land who carried a magical staff made of petrified money stolen from subsidized day-care centres and public libraries.

On a stormy night, when the thunder rumbled and the trees shook from the force of the wind, Victor was born in the home of a kindly gun enthusiast who had taken pity on the orphan girl. With a flash of lightning, the child burst forth into this world screaming with the voice of a banshee, “onliiiiiiiiiiiiine surveeeilllance.” Then mother Toews and her ill-fated son wandered back into the Canadian cold.

Little did anyone know that the child born on that dark and stormy night would become Victor, Grand Prince of Public Safety, Scourge of the Left, Destroyer of the Long-Gun Registry. Long has he reigned. Unpopular have been his proclamations.

But hark! Whispers come forth from the halls of Parliament. Rumours of resignation abound:

Word was spreading Tuesday night in Ottawa and Winnipeg that Minister of Public Safety Vic Toews is about to retire.

Some sources said Toews, 60, would retire as early as Wednesday. Others said it will happen, just not Wednesday.

They say Prince Toews will retire from public life and retreat into the private sector. His enemies rub their hands together in anticipation. Perhaps an end to the reign has come. Continue Reading →

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My Teenage Crush on Chris Hadfield

Ok, so there’s this guy I like and he’s really — omigod — he’s like soooooooooooooo cute. But he’s like also really smart and funny. His name is Chris and it’s like, we have so much in common because he likes David Bowie and so do I. Y’know?

But like he doesn’t even know I exist because so many people are in LOVE with him. He has something like a million Twitter followers. So, I mean, I don’t really stand a chance because he’s an International Space Station game changer who like speaks to millions of people around the world, and I mean — school kids, media guys, politicians — everyone is all about Chris. I heard this one Member of Parliament going on about him and I was like ok seriously, calm down and back off.

“He has been a phenomenon, and I mean that in the most positive sense,” says Marc Garneau, Canada’s first astronaut who later led the CSA and is now a Liberal MP.

“Not only was he setting a new precedent for Canada in becoming the first ever Canadian commander of the International Space Station … but in addition to that of course he has been a remarkably effective communicator to the ground.”

Effective communicator is a total understatement, but whatever, Marc Garneau, I guess you’re a politician, so you know best, right? I think Chris’s serious fans would describe him as like totally AMAZING and down to earth and really easy to learn from. He’s like your friend’s cool dad you have a crush on. And your friend’s like ew, that’s seriously weird and you’re like whatever, I just like think your dad is awesome, ok? Continue Reading →

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Atari Becomes Archaeology

Because of their place in video game history, Atari products now have a certain retro prestige. They’re 20th-century historical artifacts that remind us of our pop culture past. Collectors can find games and consoles in specialty shops and on eBay. Thrifters may occasionally come across bit of Atari memorabilia at junks shops or flea markets.

But these objects aren’t old enough to be dug out of the ground like bits of Roman pottery or scraps of Inca cloth. At least they wouldn’t be if Atari hadn’t gone through the trouble of burying truckloads of their games in a modern day midden heap. That’s the story at least, and now a Canadian creative agency is going to find out if it’s true.

Fuel Industries is set to undertake what amounts to an amateur archaeological dig to determine if a persistent rumour related to the 1983 crash of the North American video game industry can be verified. The story goes that Atari’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, based on the film of the same name, was so awful and sold so poorly that the company was forced to dump a few million copies of the game into a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Shortly after the E.T. debacle, the video game industry collapsed in North America and Atari was sold by its parent company for well below its peak value.

The National Post describes the flop thusly:

To this day, E.T. remains one of the biggest disasters in video game history. In 1982, with their company standing at the height of its power, Atari executives paid out as much as $25-million for the licensing rights to Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

Then, with an eye to getting the game out in time for Christmas, the company signed up one of their top game designers and gave him a deadline of only five weeks; less than one quarter of the time taken to design any of the other major titles in the Atari catalogue.

“I was either the golden child selected to do the project, or I was the only one stupid enough to take on the challenge,” designer Howard Scott Warshaw told PC World magazine in April. When his rushed creation finally hit shelves for Christmas 1982, children across North America switched on a game that has since been described as “unplayably bad.”

Unplayably bad, mind you. Not very bad or even terrible. This game was the Waterworld of video games — a mega-flop that precipitated the collapse of a multi-billion dollar industry. A failure so huge that Atari decided its best option for getting rid of the game was entombment in a junkyard grave. Or so the story goes. Continue Reading →

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What a Prom Was and Is, and How You Can Still Join In

She wears a fancy dress. He buys a corsage. His mom helps him rent a tux. Her besties do her hair and makeup. They share a limo with friends, have their photo taken, dance to all the hit songs, and maybe sneak an alcoholic beverage or two.

As any normal teenager will tell you, prom is special. It’s a chance to look your snazziest, show off your best moves, and make out with someone you think is cute. Once prom is over, only weddings offer the same combination of dressing up, dancing with people you mostly know, and trying to hide from your elders the fact that you’re a bit tipsy. It’s a magical, unmissable night.

The prom we know comes from a long-standing tradition with origins dating back to the upper-crust courtship rituals of olden time America. The word prom is derived from promenade, which refers to the introduction of guests as they enter a ballroom to begin a formal event — a practice common in the U.S. during the Victorian era. It’s thought that prom began as a lower-class reproduction of the debutante ball, where young women of the upper class “came out” as eligible for courtship by suitable young men. Starting in the 1930s, high schools began documenting proms in their year books (those great repositories of historical information — HAGS! I think we were in gym class together?), and with the growth of the middle class in the 1950s, the event became a staple of teenage life.

The prom of today may look like a different beast than the formals of yore, but despite the sight of teens twerking rather than hand-jiving or wearing dresses from David’s Bridal rather than McCall’s patterns made by moms, modern versions of the event are quite similar to their antecedents. Formal wear, dancing, some bad behaviour — your parents did it way before you did. Continue Reading →

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A Guide to Wedding Season Etiquette

Summer is upon us, and with the increasingly warm weather comes beach volleyball, Frisbee golf, barbeques, and making excuses to lie in front of an oscillating fan all day instead of participating in outdoor activities. It’s the season for being outside, picnics at the park, chillaxing, and keeping your toenails trimmed.

It’s also the season for weddings. Indoor, outdoor, church, destination — they come in all shapes and sizes, and range in levels of formality and degrees of tolerated raucousness. Some weddings kick off with Chris Brown and end only when the reception venue finally gives the boot to all the drunk straggler guests. Others require floor length dresses, tuxedos, and decorum.

Regardless of what kind of wedding you’re attending this summer, there are a few things you must do, a few niceties you must attend to. Here’s how to be an exceptional guest this wedding season:


Before you do anything else, you need to RSVP, which means you must REMEMBER to RSVP. RSVP-ing isn’t hard. Usually, all you have to do is go to the wedding’s custom website and follow a few simple prompts.

No problem, right? Here’s the thing — you’ll forget to do it. You’ll get the invitation in the mail, stick it on your fridge, mark the date on your calendar, then forget to inform the happy couple that you intend to show up. The RSVP date will come and go, and you’ll not even think about it until weeks later when you see the bride-to-be at a function (possibly her bridal shower) and she awkwardly reminds you that you’ve neglected to confirm your attendance at her wedding. Don’t ask her if she can take your verbal assertion as an RSVP. Go home, go to the website, and do it properly. No excuses. You’re a grownup after all. Continue Reading →

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I Voted: Give Me a Prize

On Tuesday night, after a long day at work, I walked two and a half blocks to the polling station nearest my home and participated in one of the fundamental activities of a democratic society. Despite being tired and not really up for it, I voted in the B.C. provincial election.

Now give me a prize, please. I’ll take money or a gift certificate. At the very least, I’d like a tax break. It doesn’t really matter; just give me something so that next time someone asks me why I bother voting — or the next time someone tells me she or he’s too tired to leave the house, or that there’s no point in marking a ballot — I can tell her or him that you get a prize.

When it comes to elections, there’s a sense of self-importance common among Canadians. We like to think of ourselves as a politically engaged populace, far more active than our neighbours to the south. Sadly, we’re not.

In the last American presidential election, voter turnout was only 58%. Pretty low, it’s true, but our numbers are no better. Only 52% of eligible B.C. voters bothered to discharge their democratic responsibility in this week’s election. Out of 3.1 million voters in Canada’s westernmost province, approximately 1.6 million actually showed up at a polling station. Which means approximately 1.5 million, for whatever reason, didn’t.

That represents an abysmally low voter turnout, and it’s not unique in Canada. In the last federal election, voter turnout was approximately 61%. Not terrible, but not great, either. Provincially, we’re much worse: Manitoba’s last election drew 57% of eligible voters, while Ontario got a staggering 49%. Voter turnout at the Vancouver civic election of 2011 was approximately 35%, up from 31% in 2008. Continue Reading →

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Material Proof That Geekery and Nerdom Are Now Mainstream

There was a time when the best it got for fantasy and sci-fi dorks was the Sunday afternoon triad of Hercules, Xena, and Sinbad, and a smattering of Star Trek spin-offs scattered throughout the week.

But things are different now. Big budgets, lush production, great acting — nowadays, fantasy and sci-fi are cooler than they’ve ever been. They’re more credible and more marketable. The Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings films were a huge boon to this process of legitimization, and the increasing popularity of the Joss Whedon oeuvre certainly helps. Hollywood’s attempts to de-kitsch Comic Con staples such as Star Trek and Batman haven’t hindered the cause, either.

Late last month, the return of two particular shows to our television sets proved just how readily the general public is willing to embrace nerdom and geekery in all its epic manifestations. The premiere episode of the third season of Game of Thrones broke records for both ratings and downloads. A few days later, following an uncharacteristic mainstream marketing campaign, Doctor Who‘s seventh series returned after a hiatus and also drew strong numbers. Since then, both shows have been doing well and gaining traction in the non-nerd world. Buzzfeed lists, Community‘s Inspector Spacetime, Saturday Night Live sketches — the sky’s the limit.

Yes, the Doctor is back on TV, as are the Lannisters and Starks. You don’t even have to hide the fact that you’re happy about it. You can celebrate it, in fact. Incorporate it into all the mundane and spectacular moments of your life, including: Continue Reading →

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Should We Give Prime Parking to Parents with Young Kids?

Being a parent, particularly of infants and small children, is hard. Very few people would argue that. And based on the number of horror stories floating around about grumpy toddlers going on their very first plane rides or infants squalling the entire drive from Vancouver to Kelowna, it’s safe to assume that travelling with children is much harder than going it on your own. Even short distances — from the front door of your home to the grocery store and back, for example — can be perplexingly complicated with a small child in tow. There’s the carrying, the hand-holding, the buckling and unbuckling into strollers and car seats. There’s the inexplicable screaming, the entirely explicable yet equally exasperating temper tantrums, the darting out of your sight and potentially into traffic or the arms of a terrible stranger.

Those of us who aren’t parents understand these anxieties from babysitting, nannying or caring for our nieces, nephews and godchildren. Those who are parents understand them from experience. If we could make quick car trips easier on parents (and babysitters, nannies, grandparents), why wouldn’t we? That’s the logic behind designated pink spaces — parking spots reserved for pregnant women and the parents of small children. Malls and box stores have already begun offering parents with little ones parking, and Charlottetown, P.E.I., may soon be the first Canadian city to offer city-designated pink parking spots:

Proponents say the special spots, which might be painted pink, while disabled stalls are painted blue, would help attract busy parents aggravated by the lack of parking downtown. New mother Angela Court, whose daughter turns a year old this week, raised the idea after having avoided the downtown for much of her daughter’s life over parking frustration. Charlottetown councillor Edward Rice, who represents the core, has vowed (along with other councillors) to promote the idea to the police committee and council. He expects little opposition.

Continue Reading →

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Bollywood Is Rising

Bollywood. It’s the butt of countless unjust jokes, the subject of many non-Indians’ private obsessions and the soundtrack to an increasing number of women’s aerobic dance classes. It’s arguably also the biggest film industry on the planet and the cinematic home to some of the world’s highest-paid movie stars, and it just spent a few days in beautiful British Columbia.

This past weekend, Vancouver played host to a big event on Bollywood’s 2013 calendar: the innaugural Times of India Film Awards. Bollywood mega-stars such as Aishwarya Rai and Shah Rukh Khan descended on the city for the lavish event, which caused a bit of controversy by costing the B.C. government something around $11 million.

Although rumours of underperforming ticket sales circulated and some B.C. residents worried that the event was a poor use of public money, TOIFA was ultimately a crowd-pleaser, and whether you view the event as a sly political move by the B.C. Liberal Party to garner ethnic votes or a well-intentioned, well-executed celebration of the province’s increasing South Asian population, it’s a sign of things to come. Bollywood outpaces Hollywood in growth, and though it’s not too common yet, a smattering of Hollywood celebrities have made appearances in Bollywood movies and vice versa. It’s a big industry that’s only getting bigger. Considering the popularity of films such as Bend it Like Beckham and Slumdog Millionaire, the appeal of South Asian cinema and culture to international audiences is patent. Continue Reading →

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Panda Diplomacy: The Politics of Giving Pets as Presents

PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) would have you believe that giving pets as gifts is a bad idea. They would also tell you that wild animals should not be put in zoos, but left to roam free in their natural habitats. Neither of these are surprising positions for an animal rights organization.

Politics, however, suggests that PETA is wrong. In the world of international politicking, the gift of an animal is entirely acceptable. It can demonstrate cooperation, special friendship, camaraderie and so many other variations on the theme of goodwill. So, if I give my sister a puppy for her birthday, that’s bad. She might get bored and abandon it at the pound. But if Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev gives the former Finnish president a cute little kitten, it’s solidifying bonds between nations. If North Korea’s Kim Jong-il and South Korea’s Kim Dae-jung exchange puppies, it’s symbolic of peace.

Basically, you can’t put a pet under the Christmas tree, but if a foreign dignitary visits your home and leaves behind, for example, a horse or a rabbit or a large wildcat, it’s a good sign. The gift means that his or her country and yours are friendly.

The arrival of two giant panda bears on Canadian soil earlier this week caused a bit of a stir, partly because they’re cute and partly because, as a gift from China, they say something about the increasingly close ties between our two nations. The pandas, Er Shun and Da Mao, will remain in Toronto for five years before heading to Calgary for another five, filling zoo visitors with the warm and fuzzies that officials hope will be associated with China. Continue Reading →

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The B.C. Family Law Act: Marrying Couples Without Consent

Traditionally, the only widely accepted option for couples who wanted to cohabitate was marriage and all the legal, cultural and social obligations and expectations that went along with it. Times are changing though, and, while I took the marriage vows and signed the marriage license, many of my peers have chosen to do otherwise.

Their reasons are diverse and manifold. There’s a general cynicism about marriage among… well… everyone, as Canada’s divorce rate of roughly 40% isn’t exactly reassuring. There’s also less stigma nowadays for couples who choose to live together without matrimony, and breaking up is simply easier when you don’t have to deal with a signed government contract as well as a love grown cold. For couples who split amicably, the lack of marital bonds can prevent a world of hassle.

Today, more than ever, you get to choose the type of union that best suits you and your spouse/partner/significant other. Our country allows for all kinds of legal provisions and privileges for all kinds of partner relationships. All you have to worry about is whether or not you want to enter into any of them. At least, that’s the way it is in most Canadian provinces.

In B.C., however, something has changed. Since last Monday, couples who have lived together for two years or more are now subject to the same rights and responsibilities as married couples, whether they like it or not. If you’ve been living in B.C. with your partner for more than two years, let me be the first to congratulate you on your in the eyes of the law marriage. Continue Reading →

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Everything World Figure Skating Championships

Picture it if you can. Draw it out from your memories, if it’s there. Pull it from your imagination, if you have to. It’s 1993. You’re a pre-teen, too young to remember the Battle of the Brians or Elizabeth Manley’s silver medal triumph at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics, but you’re just the right age to know that it’s going to be a big year for Canadian figure skating. In Prague, at the World Figure Skating Championships, Canadians Kurt Browning and Elvis Stojko take the gold and silver, respectively. Isabelle Brasseur and Lloyd Eisler win the gold in pairs. Yes, it’s a big year.

Fast forward roughly a decade and picture this: Canadian pairs skaters, Jamie Salé and David Pelletier perform a brilliant long program at the 2002 Olympic Games and are declared the winners by American and Canadian commentators. Yet the scores put the Russian pair in the gold medal position. The backlash from media and fans is  immediate and fierce. Then scandal strikes when a French judge admits that she was pressured into giving the Russians winning marks no matter how the other pairs skated. The judge is suspended and, in the end, Salé and Pelletier share the gold medal with the Russians. To prevent future cheating, the International Skating Union replaces the long-standing 6.0 system with a confusing Code of Points method. In the wake of this debacle, the sheen goes off the figure skating world.

Canadian figure skating has produced some great moments since 2002. We’ve had beautiful stories — Joannie Rochette’s bronze medal win at the 2010 Olympics only days after her mother suddenly died — and we’ve had success on the world stage. Still, Canadian audiences have pulled back a little since the glory days of Elvis and Kurt and Bourne and Kraatz. But, if there were ever a time to start returning figure skating’s calls, it’s now. This weekend, if you’ve got time. The World Figure Skating Championships are here on Canadian soil, in London, Ontario, and we’ve got real chances and proper champions. It’s exciting. Let us catch you up on the details. Continue Reading →

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A Handy Household Guide to Polishing Your Silverware

Did you know you can polish your tarnished silverware without exposing your fingers to all the harsh chemicals of store-bought products? All those teaspoons and forks you collected from thrift shops for crafting. All those antique plates you received when your grandparents downsized (seems like people back then marked all major life events with an engraved silver plate). All that shiny prettiness hidden beneath years of neglect and tarnish. With only a few run-of-the-mill household items, you can make it all sparkle anew. Just follow these simple instructions:

1) Line your sink with aluminum foil… crap… dishes in the sink and no foil. But don’t get discouraged. Pour yourself a glass of whisky and slam it back like stressed-out people do in the movies. Lean against your kitchen counter and shake your head. Something needs to be done about this sink full of dishes and not a lick of tinfoil situation. RIGHT. NOW.

2) Ok, so quickly do the dishes. All except the empty peanut butter jar that’s been “soaking” for the past two days. Throw that in the garbage. Cleaning soggy peanut butter from inside a greasy plastic container so you can properly recycle it is not on today’s priority list.

3) Go to the shop and buy some aluminum foil. Also, you should try to parlay your feelings of competence into lottery winnings, so buy a scratch-and-win card.

4) And you know what? You may as well buy some baking soda, too, because, really, when was the last time you baked anything? You also need baking soda for this little project, and there’s no guarantee there’ll be any at home

5) Go home and… ok, so you DID have baking soda, but whatever — now you have more and there are surely all kinds of household tasks you can accomplish with baking soda. Google “baking soda household tasks” and read through a list of 75 Extraordinary Uses for Baking Soda. Use #44 is intriguing. Pour a cup of baking soda into your toilet to test its efficacy at taking away bad bathroom odours. Watch for neat chemical reactions… nothing. Ok, give up. Continue Reading →

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Canada’s Prostitution Laws Could Go One Way or Another

Almost a year ago, Ontario’s highest court ruled in favour of more lenient prostitution laws, striking down both the bawdy house and living off the avails provisions of the Criminal Code. In plain language, the ruling means that prostitutes in Ontario will be allowed to work in their own brothels and hire auxiliary staff — the idea being that conducting business indoors, with the aid of bodyguards and receptionists, will make prostitution safer. As the Globe and Mail put it, the court agreed that “it is senseless to have a law that compels prostitutes to work in dangerous isolation, given that prostitution itself is legal.”

Critics of the Ontario Court of Appeal’s ruling rightly noted that the legal reforms will do very little to help the industry’s most marginalized members, who work on the streets to support addictions and often suffer from mental illness and other diseases. Without a clean bill of health, these women won’t be able to work in sanctioned brothels. Those opposed to the decision stressed that the struck-down provisions were in place for good reason: the bawdy house law allowed police to seek out exploited women working in massage parlors and micro-brothels, while the living off the avails provision shielded women from abusive pimps and traffickers.

Law and reality, however, often differ, and there are many who would argue that historically these rules have punished the very women they were meant to protect.

On either side of the debate, there are supporters and detractors making compelling arguments that touch on issues of women’s safety, freedom of choice, gender equality, child abuse, morality, human trafficking and public health. Proponents of the Ontario decision point out that many experts say brothel prostitution is safer than street prostitution. Critics are concerned that decriminalization will lead to greater demand for paid sex and an increase in trafficking and coercion. Supporters believe that consenting adults should be able to do whatever they want. Skeptics worry that state-sanctioned prostitution implicitly validates the sexualization of women.

Whichever side you’re on — or if you’re not yet on a side — with the federal government appealing the Ontario decision and bringing the debate before the Supreme Court of Canada, and with a similar case currently making its way through the B.C. courts, Canadians may very soon get to see for themselves the consequences of a decriminalized sex trade. Continue Reading →

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4 Ways to Write a Character Out of a TV Series

The harsh reality of TV fiction is that your favourite characters are played by actors who sometimes want to move on from your favourite shows. In such cases, television writers are faced with the challenge of “writing  out” the very characters whom many viewers had hoped would stick around for long and beautiful story arcs. There are many ways to get rid of a character, but not all are guaranteed to satisfy the viewing public.

Last week, in the series finale of Downton Abbey, the decision to kill off husband and father Matthew Crawley with a car accident was perceived by some fans as an act of cruelty. We loved Matthew; we had hopes for him. We wanted him to go on forever. Unfortunately, actor Dan Stevens only wanted to play Crawley for a very finite three seasons. In an interview with The New York Times, Julian Fellowes, the show’s creator, defended the decision to end Crawley’s life:

When an actor playing a servant wants to leave, there isn’t really a problem — [that character gets] another job. With members of the family, once they’re not prepared to come back for any episodes at all, then it means death. Because how believable would it be that Matthew never wanted to see the baby, never wanted to see his wife? And was never seen again at the estate that he was the heir to? So we didn’t have any option, really. I was as sorry as everyone else.

For TV writers, the comings and goings of actors necessitate both difficult choices and unique problems. Whereas the novel writer controls his characters entirely, the television writer is subject to real people with real personalities and real ambitions. In honour of Matthew Crawley and the writers tasked with offing him, we offer this short guide to writing out TV characters. Continue Reading →

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What You Should Do When the Zombie Apocalypse Arrives

This week, Canada became the favourite country of nerds everywhere when Quebec announced they’d be hosting a zombie-apocalypse training session for participants at an annual civil security conference. But then they cancelled it:

The provincial government has stepped in to cancel plans for a zombie-themed emergency training exercise. Participants at an annual symposium on civil security had been planning to use a hypothetical zombie attack to test emergency preparedness. Such a theme has been used elsewhere. The logic behind it is to use something that can never actually occur, as opposed to a flood or an ice storm, because that way emergency-preparedness officials might think of new problems and solutions. News of the plan had elicited many guffaws this week, along with some complaints about wasteful government spending.

It’s the kind of shoulder-shrugging, whoops, we didn’t realize… thing that our nation occasionally gets caught up in. We’re not a scary enough country for this to cause any real concern, and we’ve stockpiled enough international goodwill to get away with a zombie-themed gaffe every once and awhile. Seems like anyone paying attention went, “That’s ridiculous, but also RAD!” and then chuckled and moved on. Oh Canada, you get up to some kooky stuff.

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that we were onto something. Of all the monster movie plots, the zombie apocalypse somehow seems the most plausible. Surely, there’s a yet-to-be-discovered virus lingering insidiously in some bushmeat somewhere. Surely, there’s a pharmaceutical corporation performing unsanctioned medical tests that give subjects a taste for human tissue. Indeed, modern zombie films make the soulless, flesh-eating undead seem like an inevitability. So what if it happens, and now, because of a few complaints about wasted public funds, our civil servants (or Quebec’s, at least) have no idea how to respond?

Based on extensive research (read: watching Resident Evil, 28 Days Later and Shaun of the Dead while “we” were feeling a bit sick over Christmas break), here are a few suggestions to help you respond to the zombie apocalypse in a truly Canadian, truly civil manner. Continue Reading →

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