Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Pageant perfect posture

Admittedly, I have bad posture.

Wait, no, I take that back. I have peculiar posture. After all, I don't slouch. I'm a shoulders back, chest out, head held high kind of girl. Instead, my posture problem is one that has puzzled chiropractors and led to schoolyard nicknames like "bubble butt."

This is my natural posture. Shoulders back, butt out. And up until now, it really hasn't been much of an issue. But suddenly, two weeks of turbojamming and Flirtygirl classes later, I've realized that it makes me look about five pounds heavier than I actually am.

Here's the difference. With a simple posture adjustment alone, I could be a before and after for some sort of weight loss detox product. (If you've never seen bigger Bigger, Faster, Stronger, check out the video clip below.)

I'm kicking my fitness regime up a notch over the next week, which serves the dual purpose of preparing me for my upcoming medical mission in Guyana. But I'm also taking Gill's advice when she told me, "I would be much happier to have a stunning Miss Canada who enjoyed her food than a tired looking one who starved herself." I would also much rather enjoy my mini apple pies and homemade saskatoon scones.

I don't need to diet. I just need to work on my posture and enjoy my health.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

On (un)employment

With four months to prepare for my layoff, I had more than enough time to daydream about the utopia that would be my unemployment. It was going to be a nirvana of casserole baking, errand running, photo scrap-booking and novel writing. Our freezer was going to be full of baked goods, my abs were going to be Miss Universe-worthy, and literary fame was just on the horizon. And in my "spare" time, I'd volunteer at a youth centre, take night classes and become a hot air balloonist. Simple goals, really. Attainable, even.

But here it is, 3:45 pm, and I haven't even picked up my dry-cleaning yet. The morning was spent in meetings, the early afternoon was spent organizing my life. (I wrote a to-do list of all the to-do lists I need to write, organized by category: Guyana Preparation, Baking & Casseroles, Household Projects, Puppy Preparation, Pageant Preparation.) I remain the busiest unemployed person I know. It seems that no matter what I do to remain unemployed, I keep on finding myself gainfully employed.

Despite this, I've found myself defending my employment status often over the last couple of months. The question, "What are you up to?" yields a very complicated answer involving one part-time job (that I had previously quit), one contract position with my former employer (yes, the same one that technically laid me off) and a short-term contract with a medical team in Guyana (no, I'm not a doctor or a public health student). It's easier to just tell folks that I'm unemployed right. And more often than not, they respond with a raised eyebrow and ask when I'm getting a job.

I get where they're coming from. I used to be the type of person who criticized people who "work" the system. Why claim EI when you could easily be gainfully employed? Isn't the system there to protect the disenfranchised, those with few skills and fewer opportunities?

Maybe it is. But after two and half years of paying into EI, I want my money back. Each EI paycheque is money that's rightfully mine. It's hard-earned money from years of work at a non-profit, where I earned very little, but was taxed a lot.

So, I'm technically unemployed, but I'm busy. And though I may not have a six-pack or a successful freelance writing career yet, I did find the time to make mini apple pies last week. In a way, unemployment still looks a little bit like my heaven.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Breakfast of Champions

Losing five pounds in three weeks isn't an entirely impossible feat. Unless, of course, you're me. Remember that one time I said that the plate of nachos was my last meal? Well, I'm either a liar or have absolutely no self-will.

Here's a sampling of my dietary choices over the last week:

-Boston Pizza's seven-cheese baked ravioli, with a starter caesar salad
-Deep-fried buffalo perogies from Kelsey's
-Kraft Dinner with cream cheese (Jay's speciality)
-A cheddar, jarlsberg and apple grilled cheese sandwich on raisin-walnut bread at the Gladstone
-Betty Crocker frosting by the spoonful (when Jay caught me eating this, he literally chased me up the stairs, cornered me and took the spoon away)

The worst part is, my goal of eating healthier (and eating out less) is coupled with my goal of spending less money. Basically, I'm writing this to shame myself further.

As for exercise, does watching The Last 10 Pounds Bootcamp while thinking about exercise count? (According to this study, it does.)

Well, it's time to go grocery shopping. I have to turn all the apples I picked this weekend into delicious mini pies. Because nothing says commitment to weight-loss like homemade pastry.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Process of Elimination

Alright, since everyone keeps asking me about the process, here's how the Miss Universe competition works:

First, each applicant had to submit a paper application and two pictures. Although I don't know how many applicants there were in the GTA, I've heard that upwards of 3000 women from across Canada apply each year. Accordingly to organizers, approximately 250 were chosen for the group interview session, which is what I participated in last week.

Following the group interview session, participants (I'm not sure how many, but I'm going to ballpark 150), were invited to participate in a runway and choreography session. The upcoming session will determine how well the candidates follow instruction and--if I read the invitation correctly--how good they look in a bikini and heels.

From the runway and choreography session 44 delegates will be chosen from the GTA and Central Ontario area to compete in a preliminary pageant in early December. From the preliminary pageant, 10 girls will move onwards to compete in the Miss Universe Canada competition next spring. One girl will emerge the winner, who will then go onwards to represent Canada at the Miss Universe competition.

My personal goal (other than to become Miss Universe, obviously) is to make it into the preliminary pageant in December.

It's strange, but ever since I got the email this week inviting me to attend the next round, I'm suddenly taking this quite seriously. Serious enough, that I know a spray tan is in order. Serious enough, that I attended a class today at Flirty Girl Fitness called Hard-CORE. Serious enough, that I know all my jokes about masochistic behaviour suddenly are no longer jokes.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Measuring Up

Everyone keeps making Drop Dead Gorgeous references. But really, I think my life right now is more akin to Best in Show.

Apart from appealing to my ironic sense of humour, the whole point of applying to Miss Universe was to defy the system. I'm not, by any means, a beauty queen. I am the former co-Editor-in-Chief of a campus feminist magazine and have spent the last two years working for a charity that, among other programs, implements gender equity programming in developing countries. As I filled out my paper application, complete with some fictitious measurements, I visualized going through the process and breaking down traditional beauty standards with my flab, my sometimes hairy legs and my tattoos. I would actively embrace my "real woman-ness" until I eventually got disqualified.

But the feminist in me is having her hair pulled by the competitor in me. I've never excelled at sports, or mathematics, or even eating competitions (although I am unusually good at hula-hooping). This seems to be my one true opportunity to compete. So instead of defying the system, I'm playing neatly into its requirements--or in this case, its measurements.

I only have three weeks to become the measurements I claimed I was on my application. (None of which are unrealistic. I'm even sure that with the help of a Bumpit, my height could probably be recorded as 5'6".) Although I've never gone on a diet, over the last three years I have spent multiple six-week periods preparing for all-inclusive tropical beach vacations. The only difference is that when you go on vacation, you can rest assured in the knowledge that no one is judging you--there will always be someone else on the beach who has more stretch marks than you do. But in this case, the sole purpose is to be judged, without the added benefits of a tan and oceanside mojitos.

And then, there's the tattoos. (Sadly, this is not Miss Tattoo. And if it was, I'd just be trying to fit myself neatly into a different set of beauty standards.) I can easily hide my stretched earlobes, but I have a sizeable tattoo on my lower back. As far as I can discern, I don't think tattoos are against the rules, but much like cellulite, they won't win me any points.

I have three weeks to try to figure out how to cover up my tattoo. And I have three weeks to develop washboard abs. It should be a piece of cake--except without the cake.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Everything I know about beauty pageants, I learned from Sandra Bullock

It was the kind of email that caused a grin to grow across my face, spreading slowly from ear to ear:

It was also the kind of email that made the fear and self-loathing set in with four key words: "bring a bathing suit."

My last meal was chosen carefully. Although I would have preferred poutine, I opted for a plate of nachos at Squirrely's--thick and oozing with cheese and calories, just the way I like it.

Monday, September 13, 2010

We Live in Public Loudly

After spending Saturday at the Cabbagetown Festival representing, I curled up on the couch with Jay to watch We Live in Public. Afterwards, I felt so unsettled that I couldn't even make my habitual nighttime Facebook check. The residue of the documentary lasted well into Sunday afternoon.

And while I don't think that Josh Harris' experiments represent the general populace (I mean, c'mon--what do you think will happen when you give guns to the same type of people who have volunteered to live in a bunker and shit in public for a month?) under the same circumstances, I've felt a little reticent about blogging every since. I'm sure it will pass. After all, I've been living in public loudly on and off for over 10 years now.

I do think Josh Harris got more than one thing right though; people really do want 15 minutes of fame every day. (Next up on my reading list: Hal Niedzviecki's The Peep Diaries.)

On a positive note about living in public, my blog post about Miss Universe got a mention on Five Star Fridays. Even if I don't get further along in the pageant process, at least someone thought my writing was worthy of five stars.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Guyana: Business vs. Pleasure

The following blog post can also be found on my travel blog.

I’ve always had a policy to never write about work, but to always write about travel. So, now that I’ve found myself fulfilling my dream of being paid to travel for the first time, it has put me a peculiar predicament. When work is the sole purpose of the travel, how do you separate the two?

The second limitation in writing about my recent trip to Guyana is that I was only there for a very finite period of time. And after spending more than two years working for YCI, I’ve become hypersensitive to the perpetuation of stereotypes by international volunteers, aid workers and travelers.

Travelers (myself included in this statement) have a habit of reinforcing stereotypes through their photographs, their words and their stories, particularly in the case of developing countries. They photograph children playing with machetes, but fail to capture televisions glowing brightly in grass huts. They make generalizations about entire countries, but are very specific about the peculiarities of individuals and situations they encounter. Travelers, in many cases, are no better than World Vision ads.

Facebook and Twitter have only compounded this problem, where users must succinctly sum up their thoughts and experiences in 140 characters or less. And what better way to sum up an entire continent of people than by stating, “This is Africa”? In his essay, “How to Write About Africa,” Kenyan journalist Binyavanga Wainaina writes:

In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don't get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn't care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.

But I’m digressing. After all, we’re not talking about Africa here, we’re talking about Guyana. (Which, for the record, much like Vanuatu, is not in Africa. Also for the record, contrary to popular belief, I’ve never been to Africa. And while we're fact sharing, I just want everyone to know that in all my years of wanderlusting, I’m somehow completed avoided ever having to take a bucket bath.)

Regardless, generalizations about Africa are the same as generalizations about any continent or country. Guyana is a large, sparsely populated country. With less than 800,000 people and diverse landscapes ranging from mountains to savannah, it’s difficult to sum up an entire country based on less than 10 days of experience in only two regions. With these limitations and self-enforced restrictions in mind, I’m only writing what I know. I’m censoring myself.

I also took very few pictures—almost every photograph I took is posted here. Why so few? For a couple of reasons: I was not a tourist, I was working. And in many situations, I felt that if I pulled out my camera, I would only be perpetuating a key stereotype about white North Americans.

So, instead, here are the facts:

After an intensely long day (waking up at 4:30 am in Vancouver, arriving at 2:30 pm in Toronto, returning to the airport at 8:30 pm and arriving in Guyana at 9 am after a sleepless flight that even two Ativan couldn't help), we were immediately driven to Parika, boarded a boat that took us down the Essequibo River and were in Bartica by noon.

I wasn't there to work. Well, not quite. I was there for training. And in the case of the short-term job contract that I'm fulfilling, training meant two things: visiting a lot of places and meeting a lot of people.

By day two, we were on a boat headed down the Essequibo to visit the Riverine communities near Bartica: Itaballi, Kartabo, Batavia and Karau.

And then, after a quick night in Georgetown, we headed to Ogle airport to fly into Kamarang, which is in the interior of Region 7. It's also known as the Upper Mazaruni.

On the way there, I snapped this shot of the bridge that crosses the Demerara River. It's allegedly the longest floating bridge in the world.

Flying into the Upper Maz, we got an amazing view of the Marume Mountains.

This is a photo of either the Mazaruni River or the Kamarang River, although I'm not sure which.

I was fortunate enough to spend one day travelling down the Kamarang River, then down the Mazaruni River (the two rivers fork and meet in Kamarang). Amerindian communities visited along the way included Waramadong, Jawalla, Quebanang and Kako.

The highlight of Kamarang, apart from being in the thick of the jungle, was where the two rivers meet (pictured above). "It's like being in The Heart of Darkness," my trainer Bekkie said.

According to Wikipedia, the river is full of piranhas, black electric eels and snakes, including anacondas. According to the locals, there's nothing in the water (apart from diamonds and gold), and if there is, they're more afraid of us than we are of them.

I opted for the local version of events and gladly washed away the day's sweat in the river. Even a few inches below the surface, my hands weren't visible in the rust-coloured water. Who knows--maybe eels were inches away from my feet, with piranhas close behind?

The sole picture of me in Guyana. Proof I was there, once upon a time.

On the subject of gold and diamonds, I heard rumours that it's projected Guyana has the largest deposit of gold (or was it diamonds?) in history. Every day in Kamarang, I inspected the airstrip for gold. Apparently, when the miners get drunk and pull down their pants to urinate, they drop the contents of their pockets, which at times can contain nuggets of gold. I found 40 Guyanese dollars, but will have to find diamonds on my next visit.

So, these were the facts. But it just doesn't seem like quite enough. So, a quick story, which may or may not perpetuate stereotypes, about an interaction I had in Capoey, the last community we visited in Region 2.

After a long day of travelling (first a car ride to Parika, then a boat ride across the Essequibo, then another car ride to Suddie and then onwards to the Capoey Lake Landing, and then finally, another boat to take us across the lake), we arrived in Capoey Mission, an Amerindian community of around 200 people. The lake was inviting after a day in the sticky heat--the water was warm and dark with minerals. After touring the community with a local teacher Esther, we walked back to her house so she could change into her swimwear.

We sat outside waiting, drinking fresh coconuts and talking to Esther's nieces, who we invited to join us. "We can't," the older niece told us looking at her cousin. "She has a problem." It doesn't matter what country you're coming from; "problem" was clearly teenage-girl speak for "period."

"That's not a big deal," I told the girls, "I have the same problem right now and I'm going swimming."

"No, it's not because of that," they told us. "They say if you go swimming in the lake while you're menstruating, you'll go mad."

Moments later, floating the lake, we asked Esther about the superstition. But to Esther, it wasn't a superstition. It was fact. "It's the lake spirits," she told us. "Years ago, our ancestors went mad from swimming in the lake. It makes the lake spirits angry."

So let this be the official record, in writing, that if I do ever official go mad, the lake spirits in Capoey are to blame.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

The Hard Life

I'm slowly discovering that I'm terrible at being unemployed--mainly because I keep finding myself, despite all efforts otherwise, employed.

The entire time I was in Guyana, I daydreamed about sleeping in, baking bread, cooking and freezing individual-sized casseroles, transferring computer files, writing long letters, and maybe even finally (finally!) editing and printing my photos from Vanuatu.

However, three days into my official unemployment period and I have yet to spend an entire day at home. A day hasn't passed without a meeting, an appointment or a social engagement. This morning, I had to force myself to sleep past 10 a.m. Once awake, my natural inclination was to get up and work. I had to bargain with myself to laze about in bed reading. (It's a tough life, I know.)

In short, I'm the busiest unemployed person I know. I have a number of reports to write, notes to compile from my trip to Guyana and will be working for the next three days at the Cabbagetown Festival. (Come say hi!) And somewhere in between it all, I'm slowly updating my travel blog.

So until then, to tide you over, here is a video from my trip to Guyana. (This marks the first time I've ever posted a video, which is somewhat notable after 11 years of blogging. For some reason it uploaded onto YouTube quite a bit darker than the actual video file. Hopefully I get the hang of the video blogging thing in time for my next trip back to Guyana at the end of October.) Enjoy!

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

A Lady of Leisure

Standing in front of the elevator were two giants. No, scratch that. Standing in front of the elevator were two amazons. One wore a skintight purple dress, with waterfall earrings and long dark hair falling to her waist. Her face was pretty enough, but what was most striking was her long and lean figure. She towered over me.

The second amazon, surpassing all logical reason, somehow managed to eclipse the first in beauty and stature. She was more than six-feet tall in heels, wearing a ruffled beige dress that matched her highlighted gold hair, a wide smile and minimal makeup. As she fluffed her hair in the mirrored door of the elevator, she spoke to the dark-haired girl in a soft Russian accent.

This was my competition.

I was clearly in for the two most masochistic hours of my life, surrounded by amazons in cocktail dresses. The only thing that stopped me from leaving was the $10 I spent in cab fare. (My EI claim has yet to be processed, so right about now, $10 is of the same value as the soul of my yet unborn first child.)

Leaving the two giants staring at themselves in the lobby, I went up to the 11th floor. It was completely devoid of amazons. Or anyone, for that matter. I had to be in the wrong place.

For the second time in less than five minutes, I turned on my heels to walk away, when I heard the receptionist call out to me. "It looks like you're here for Miss Universe. It's one more floor up." Instantly, a little self-confidence came back. If the receptionist knew, just by looking at me, that I was there for a beauty pageant, maybe I wasn't out of my league after all.

In the pre-interview room, I surveyed the competition. I didn't even have to be discreet about it--everyone else was doing the same. I was immediately relieved by two things: First, the amazons were nowhere to be seen. Second, I wasn't the fattest, the shortest, exposing the most cleavage (a girl with a see-through shirt and a low-cut bra won that prize) or even the oldest. But I was, quite possibly, the whitest. (Well, with the sole exception of a girl who was maybe white once upon a time, prior to her addiction to Fabutan.) And being a white girl from Canada is a clear disadvantage in the Miss Universe Canada solar system, where everyone else is exotic, with thick eyelashes attributed to their Eastern European, Persian or South Asian ancestry.

After spending five minutes filling out a questionnaire, we were called into the interview room for an information session and group interview.

And there they sat. The amazons. I had reason to be intimidated. The dark-haired girl was a two-time competitor. And the golden-haired giant? The current Miss Universe Canada.

First were the introductions. One by one, we introduced ourselves. Sure enough, all the cliches were there, including the 20-year-old from Brampton who wanted to become a lawyer because, like, she loves watching Law and Order. But for the most part, they were normal girls. Their moms or friends had convinced them to sign up. They had modelled in the past. They were students, or young professionals or just trying to find their way. They wanted to work in Kenyan orphanages or to start their careers in international development. They wanted to challenge themselves. They were just normal girls.

I am not a normal girl.

Then it was time for the beauty pageant question and answers. You know the ones. How do you feel about the death penalty? If your life was a book, what would the title be? Or, in my case, "What's the difference between wisdom and intelligence?"

I bombed it. While another girl was floundering on the abortion question (yes, the same girl who wants to be, like, a lawyer), a question I could have answered with ease, I was stumped on the difference between wisdom and intelligence. I tried to stall. I went for the laughs instead. "I'm feeling neither intelligent nor wise right now," I joked. A girl's cell phone went off. Everyone was staring at her. I answered quickly, while her cell phone was still serving as distraction, in hopes that my feeble answer wouldn't be heard.

And then, as quickly as it had started, it was over. My brief reign as a Miss Universe Canada applicant is over. It's unlikely I'll get much further in the process. Because at the end of the day, I was the whitest girl, one of the oldest, one of the shortest and, yes, one of the fattest girls there. (Relatively speaking, of course. In a room full of 20-year-old amazons-in-training, it's easy to be fat.) That, and I couldn't figure out the difference between wisdom and intelligence.

But here's the weird thing--even though this may have started out as a ironic experiment, I'm kind of sad that it's over. Because the truth is, after listening to the founder talk yesterday about the organization, I really do believe its sole purpose is to provide young women, particularly those who are interested in humanitarian causes (and who happen to look great in a bikini), with opportunities and support to achieve their personal and professional goals. And that's exactly the kind of support that young women today really need.

A Kept Woman

It was late Saturday night and I had just returned from the interior of Guyana. Exhausted, I was sitting in my hotel room in Georgetown, inspecting my toes for chiggers and idly picking at the mosquitos bites on my legs when I received this email:

"Hello Jessica,

You have been identified as a potential delegate from the GTA and Central Ontario preliminary area and as part of the selection process, we are conducting preliminary interviews in Toronto on Tuesday September 7th and you are invited to attend. . ."

Two thoughts immediately crossed my mind:

"That's the day after I get back from Guyana."


"Fuck, how am I going to grow one inch and lose 10 pounds in two days?"

I came back late last night and I'm far from in top form. I may be chigger-free, but every inch of my body is covered with scabbed-over mosquito bites, my hair has been bleached out from the sun, my nails are chewed to their ends and no amount of scrubbing will get the mud out of my cuticles. That, and I've been living on a diet of restaurant food, ramen noodles, peanut butter and Coca-Cola for the last 10 days.

Not getting a strong enough visual? Here's just how unglamorous I look right now:

So, sometime between now and 4:00 pm, I need to become very glamorous. It's a good thing I have this as a distraction, though. Only four hours into my life as a unemployed, kept woman and I'm bored.