Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Farm Fresh

As a preteen, one of my most prized possessions was a magnetic address book. It was issued by the Girl Guides of Canada and in blue script on the its gold front it said "Make new friends but keep the old." I liked to thumb through its accordion pages, looking at all the addresses and phone numbers I had acquired at various camps and events. 

To be honest, I think I was more interested in making new friends than keeping the old.

I wrote that first paragraph a couple of days ago, with honourable intentions to write a blog post about the following: unlikely friendships; why freelancing is awesome; and why local food is important, but organic food is overrated (complete with quotes from a farmer named Wilf).

But I've been insanely busy getting paid to write (that's right, I had work this week!) and suddenly it's 10:30 pm on a Wednesday and I'm leaving for Peru tomorrow. I'm not even done packing yet.

So there will be no words tonight. Instead, please enjoy some photos of my week, which hopefully convey these three thoughts adequately:

All geared up at the Organic Meadow factory. (And yes, of course I asked them about the milk bags. They had no reasonable explanation and also seemed to think it's a little weird. Or at least that's how I read it.)

The lovely Melissa makes a rescue.

More on the turtle here. 

(I want a grown-up camera. I borrowed Chloé's this week because my editor requested photos. Now I'm hooked.)

And then there was this day. Chris (who is one of the guys I met at the bar months ago with an inappropriate self-introduction) graciously offered to take me on his pick-up route. Twelve hours seated in a diesel truck on a bench seat in between two guys resulted in some hilarious conversations.

Don't these salad greens look delicious? I'm seriously turned off the produce at Metro forever.

I don't even like strawberries, but I'm still regretting not stealing one of these beauties. 

Tim to go finish packing. See you all in two weeks!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Outhouse

"It's a really nice outhouse," one of the interns at The New Farm told me. "It's actually my favourite place on the farm." 

I couldn't tell me whether she was joking or not. "No, seriously, it's nice and quiet," she said, explaining that privacy at The New Farm is at a premium.  "You need to try it." She pointed me down a path and behind the barn. 

It smelled like cedar and there was little graffiti. Despite the cobwebs, it earned points for having plenty of toliet paper. As I peed, I looked out onto the green field under grey skies. In the distance, cars roared past.

She was right. It was a very nice outhouse.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Good Riddance

If you could give one piece of advice to graduating students, what would it be?

As my Facebook newsfeed fills up with prom photos (courtesy of that one time I spent a week in Punta Cana with 275 high school students), I've been grappling with this question. Unlike Mary Schmich, I'm not sure that instructing students to wear sunscreen would be my primary concern.
I guess the more I think about it, the more that I'm beginning to realize that the real question is if you could give any piece of advice to your graduating self, what would it be?

I was smart at 18. I knew certain intrinsic truths that a high school student shouldn't know. I knew then that I wouldn't always have pink hair or weigh 110 lbs. I knew that after graduation, my best friends wouldn't be my friends. (This was a truth that I should have kept to myself. Maybe it was a self-fulfilling prophecy in that way.) I knew that most of the girls in my graduating class would stay in Cold Lake and have families--and I knew that I didn't want that for myself.

When I was 18, I hated the phrase "when you get into the real world." High school is part of the real world, although it's an unforgiving and harsh version of reality.

I knew that it was useless to try and figure out what I wanted to do with my life, because it would change along the way. I knew that I was going to travel, although I'm not sure I realized to what extent. I knew that regret was a wasted emotion. I knew that I had to wear sunscreen.

But there's a lot of things I didn't know.

I knew I wouldn't stay in Alberta, but I never thought I'd move to Ontario. I had no idea that Cold Lake would someday become just another part of the rural mythologies that I'd regal Toronto friends with. I didn't know that it would take me six (!) years to finish school. I thought I'd never drink. I didn't know that my idealistic conquests would, in fact, become less important and that as a result, I would become less self-righteous.

I had no idea that people would cut me out of their lives, for reasons I still can't even begin to understand. I didn't know that my family would come tumbling apart and that home would never be the same. I didn't know, or even believe, that I'd ever fall in love. (And I've fallen in love more times than I can count.)

But it's the things I knew that helped me along the way. 

Even after being told dozens of times that "high school is the best time of your life," I knew that it was only going to get better.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

A Sucker for Science

On Fridays at 9:00 am, Dave* would take my blood pressure, hand me a breathalyzer and make me pee in a cup. If I wasn't drunk or knocked up (which, luckily, is typically the case on Friday mornings) he would hand me the pill bottle. One by one, I'd swallow the blue capsules, chasing them with Five Alive.

And then, I would wait. It would be nearly three hours before the medication kicked in.

The windowless waiting room was like the land before time. Once I was done catching up on all the celebrity gossip from 2004 (don't worry guys--Jen and Brad aren't going to break up!), I'd read the Toronto Star's speculations about the mayoral race. Feeling sleepy and bored, I'd peruse the VHS collection (Mickey Blue Eyes and a copy of Jumanji taped off TV) before giving in and watching the Price is Right. (Unfortunately, it was the only thing of this decade--Drew Carey instead of Bob Barker.)

Two hours and 45 minutes later, Dave would return and the testing would begin.


Only months before, Jay had been livid when he found out that I had called a pharmaceutical agency. In exchange for the right to give me mystery injections, they offered $10,000. To me, it seemed like a small price to pay. But to Jay, it was the worst idea ever.

I barely take ibuprofen, he reminded me. Why did I want to risk my health, just for quick cash? I tried to reason with him. "But I could be part of the test group," I argued. "Maybe for $10,000 they would just give me a placebo!" He wasn't having any of it. So I promised him that I wouldn't turn my body into a wasteland for yet-to-be-approved drugs from Big Pharma.

And yet that didn't stop me from occasionally replying to ads on craigslist. (I don't know if it was the boredom or the poverty that made me do it. Unemployment makes you do strange things.) Selling my eggs was off the table, because I don't even know if I want my own babies, so I don't know why anyone else would want them. I tried to sign up for a brain imaging study at the U of T, but they never called me. And as it turns out, all the postings for market research groups are a scam.

So when I saw the posting for the gambling study, I felt like I'd hit the jackpot. It wasn't testing for side effects of medications--instead, it was looking at the pharma-neurological effects of different Health Canada approved drugs. Most of these drugs have been in existence for years and are readily available. And I'm 100% healthy. What could possibly go wrong?

One telephone interview, in-person consultation and doctor's appointment later, I was declared eligible for the study. (All I had to do was sign a contract, give five vials of blood and two urine samples, get hooked up to an EKG and undergo a hour-long psychological exam in which I had to discuss everything from Kenny's suicide to my fear of heights. It was easy, really.)

It seemed too good to be true."I'm a lab rat," I happily told anyone who would listen. I was getting paid to gamble. It was going to be awesome.


After what seemed like hours, Dave came in to collect me from the waiting room.

First, we'd go into a room decorated to look like a pub, complete with '70s vinyl walls and bottles of liquor-coloured liquid behind the bar. Two slot machines sat in the corner and for 15 minutes, I'd sit alone and hit the button to spin the wheels. Then it was time to do some rapid reading tests on computers that ran on MS-DOS. By 2:00 pm, after sufficiently burning my retinas on the 486 computer screens, I had earned my $200 for the day. I was discharged by the nurse and sent home in a cab.

It was easy money and most of all, it was interesting. During my first year at the U of A, I participated in uncompensated studies just for fun. What can I say? I'm a sucker for science. 

But two weeks ago, after my second test session, I was so exhausted that I nearly fell asleep in the cab home. "It's just the medication," I reminded myself, "I'll go home and sleep it off and be a good as new by 5:00 pm." 

Brock whined at me as I stumbled in the door. I ignored him and went straight to bed. I tried to wake up at 5:30. And again at 6:30. And again at 7:00. Jay came home and I tried to come downstairs. But my vision was blurry, my depth perception was off, I couldn't stop pacing and I was exhausted. It burned behind my eyes and nothing seemed real. I went back upstairs to bed.

And I slept. 

When I finally did wake up nearly 24 hours later, I didn't feel any better. I bit the bullet and cancelled my own birthday party before going back to bed.

As I lay in there, barely lucid, Jay read aloud the Wikipedia entry for haloperidol, the drug I had been prescribed. "They used it in the Soviet Union to punish prisoners and to 'break their will,'" Jay told me angrily. "No wonder you feel like this--you've been given an antipsychotic." 

I didn't recover until I woke up on Sunday morning. My first order of business was to send Dave an email, letting him know that I would be dropping out of the study. Jay was right--no amount of money was worth sacrificing my health for.

The moral of the story is this: Sometimes, when someone says, "I told you so," it's not enough to simply say, "You're right." Sometimes, you have to write an entire blog post about your own stupidity and lack of foresight in order to really admit your faults.

I was very wrong. And Jay told me so.

*Name has been changed.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Portfolio Site Launch

Exciting news! After months of owning my domain name, I finally uploaded work samples to my portfolio site. Take a look and let me know what you think:

There's still some glitches on the site and I definitely need help: I need to make the background image static (or is it supposed to be dynamic?) so it doesn't move when the window is resized. Ideally the sidebar would always appear as I have it in the screenshot above. (You can click to enlarge.) If someone with a solid understanding of CSS/Blogger templates could give me a hand, it would be appreciated!

Friday, June 03, 2011

Things I Really Hate

It's been over five years since I wrote my first official (yet incomplete) list of things I hate. So I thought it'd be an interesting exercise to revisit that list.

The rules are simple: any item on the list has to be something that isn't inherently hateable. So, for example, you wouldn't find "bad drivers" or "dog shit on your shoe" on the list, because nobody really likes those things. In other words, items on the list are things that you know you're supposed to like, but you just, well. . .don't.

Things I Hate

1. Slow walkers/cyclists

The only time slow walking is appropriate is if you have a limp, are carrying a television down the street or are a 63-year-old Asian woman in Chinatown on Sunday morning. Then it's okay.

2. Sandwiches 

This refers mainly to cold sandwiches. You know the ones--they come on a party platter from the grocery store surrounded by cherry tomatoes and parsley and oozing tuna. They're often served at funerals. Gross. I don't even need to explain why this is the worst thing ever. (Grilled cheese sandwiches or paninis, however, are in a league of their own. Mainly because they're delicious.)

The worst is Subway sandwiches, particularly if you're vegetarian.

3. Tuna

It smells gross, it contains mercury and it kills dolphins. There is NOTHING to love about tuna.

4. Celery

Celery's only redeeming characteristic is its ability to hold peanut butter. It has little nutritional value, tastes disgusting and is stringy.

5. Snorkelling

Why wouldn't you just put a mask on, put your head under water and hold your breath? Breathing through a disgusting, unhygienic tube just seems kind of pointless. 

6. Paddle boats

Paddle boats always seem like they're going to be really fun. (Even I get caught up in the excitement.) But then you get inside and you're like, "Man, this is way too much effort for way too little fun." Fact. 

7. Stand-up comedy 

I can't get over the contrived aspect of stand-up comedy. It also usually relies on bad impressions and stereotypes about gender, race and midgets, which makes it incredibly not funny. Situational stand-up comedy on public radio is sometimes okay, though.

8. Leather couches

Gross. (Although now that I have a dog, I'm beginning to wish I could clean my couch with ease.)

9. Windy days

I don't like having street filth whipped at my face. Windy days are only permissible in the following two situations: when I want to fly my kit and when I want to go sailing. In any other circumstance, wind should never exceed a gentle, caressing breeze.

10. When smokers throw their butts on the ground

Listen, if you're going to smoke, that's your prerogative. But when you throw your smoke onto the ground (especially when you're standing directly in front of one of the new public garbage cans with a space specially designed for cigarettes) that just pisses me off. These same people wouldn't even consider throwing a used coffee cup or plastic bag on the ground. But a cigarette butt? They do it all day, every day. Litterbugs!

11. Amusement parks

In what other situation would you spend between $50 and $100 to be able to stand in line all day surrounded by screaming, whining children? In an eight-hour day at an amusement park, you experience 17 minutes of fun (if you're lucky) and 463 minutes of standing in line inhaling germs.

At Canada's Wonderland in 2006. A rare moment not standing line.
12. iPhone users

I'm a luddite, I know. But seriously, I'd love to go out for dinner with someone without them checking their Facebook or using Maps to figure out where we are. (Speaking of, everybody needs to go read this article from the Walrus about how GPS technology is rewiring and rotting our brains.)

13. Cottage country

Don't get me wrong, I love going to cottages. I just think there's something inherently depressing about the concept of cottage country. I still haven't pinpointed this hatred yet, but it has something to do with working in a disgusting polluted city for 340 days of the year, just so you can afford to go be "with nature" for the other 16 days. Unless your profession demands that you live in Toronto, why wouldn't you just move someplace where real estate costs are lower and where you don't have to check smog warnings in the morning?

It's not cottages that I hate. It's just the concept.
14. Food with a face

If I never have to see someone eat a whole lobster again in my life, I'll be happy.

Things I No Longer Hate (and why my feelings have changed)

1. The LCBO

All my original arguments still apply. But it's become a fact of life. I have no other options.

2. Pennies

They're readily available on the ground and a valid form of currency. Free money, everywhere, on the ground? Yes, please! (Also, I like to pay for things in exact change.)

3. MySpace

This was a very 2006 pre-Facebook type of hate. MySpace is now great for listening to music.

4. Dr. Phil

I think this appeared on the list because I was still living at China, where it felt like the TV was on all the time. Again, is Dr. Phil even still around?

5. Emoticons

Back in 2006, I spent a lot of time on msn messenger, like everyone else. Remember the days?

I'm curious: what do you really hate and why?

Thursday, June 02, 2011

May Savings: Year of the Deal

Tracking My Spending

May was the worst possible month to start tracking my spending in. (Mainly because I spent a lot.) I still don't know how to dissect or use the information yet, so I'm going to continue tracking my spending over the next month or two before I start creating a budget.

As for May, here's a couple of examples of areas I spent way too much (although sometimes justified):

  • Transportation: $249.59

  • This makes me cringe. I paid $75 to have my bike fixed, but then the weather was so crummy that I took the streetcar for 90% of the month. I took a taxi one night because it was pouring out. I also drove an AutoShare car out to the airport to meet my brother (who was on a layover) for lunch.

  • Entertainment: $179.45

  • Since it rained all month, I went to the movies three times. This is going to be a hard expense to cut down on.

  • Fitness: $112.99

  • New running shoes. My toes were literally popping out the side of my old ones, which I purchased for $30.00 at Payless three years ago.


    I've started to track my income and file away my invoices in some sort of logical manner. Yay me!

    But I still don't have a handle on how to manage the ebb and flow of incoming money. It seems like I keep getting paid for projects in big chunks, followed by periods of time where I don't have any income. (For instance, I just got paid this month for work I did in February, but I anticipate that I won't have any paycheques again until July or August.)

    Debt Repayment

    I have no idea how to track my debt repayment vs. the amount of debt I accumulate in a money. (For instance, new credit card charges as opposed to what I pay off. And how does interest factor in? So many questions!) To further complicate matters, there's currently a constant flow of money between Chloé and I (for Peru trip bookings), and Jay and I (I do most of the shopping and he pays me back half).

    I seriously need help. If, by some miracle, I'm selected as Moneyville's blogger, this is the first thing I'll be consulting with an expert to figure out.

    Free Stuff

    Chloé suggested that rather than just tracking everything I spend, I should also record all the free stuff I get. Here's everything I got for free in May:
    • Purex laundry detergent sample (ordered online)
    • Ticket to the Railway Children (through media connections)
    • $20 Metro gift certificate (redeemed Airmiles)
    • 6 cupcakes (Groupon rewards) 
    • Wine and appetizer from College Street Bar (through media connections) 
    • Vector cereal (free with coupon)
    • Wine and appetizer at Enoteca Sociale (through media connections)
    • Poutine and milkshake at Stampede Bison Grill (through media connections)
    • $100 at Shoppers (bonus redemption weekend) 
    • John Frieda shampoo sample (Facebook fanpage)
    • Express Abs class (30 minutes) at FlirtyGirlFitness
    • Crystal Light samples (Facebook fanpage)
    • Free lunch at Boston Pizza for driving Chloé to a secret mission

    It was also my birthday month. I was spoiled this year! (This dress was a gift). 

    Year of the Deal: May Savings

    Grocery Purchases: $329.49
    Pharmacy Purchases: $118.97
    Total Spent: $448.46

    Coupons Used: $187.02
    2011 Total Coupon Savings to Date: $321.97

    Our use of coupons this month was amazing! Although costs in general were high, on one grocery shop we used more than $40.00 in coupons. (The manager actually came over to watch. "We've got some extreme couponing going on over here," he said. It was mildly embarrassing.) We redeemed Airmiles this month, as well as our Shoppers Optimum Points on a bonus weekend.

    My pharmacy purchases look high, but it actually reflects that I bought all my allergy medication for the summer. We've also now got enough personal care and cleaning products to last us for the next six months. I love Shoppers, but I'm going to try a ban this month to compensate for the very expensive month of May.

    Unemployment/Work Update

    Um, can I just skip this part? It's a constant cycle of pitch and pray.

    Wednesday, June 01, 2011

    I am probably not Moneyville's next blogger.

    So, I haven't had any story pitches shot down lately. That's a good thing, right? Only problem is that I also haven't heard back from any editors. Sigh. So I figured it didn't hurt to put another pitch out there, this time in the format of an entry to Moneyville's Next Blogger Contest:

    (The truth is, I just wanted an excuse to repost this picture of Canice from 2006.)

    I’m going to be candid here—I’m not a financial expert. In fact, I’m financially illiterate. I’m a walking episode of ‘Til Debt Do Us Part. I’m Britney Murphy in Uptown Girls. I’m Biggie Smalls, still waiting to sip champagne when I’m thirsty.

    So you’re probably wondering—what am I doing blogging here?

    Here’s my story: After six years, I graduated with a bachelor’s degree. My debt made it impossible to take an internship in my field, so I got a job working for a non-profit organization. For three years, I happily lived paycheque-to-paycheque.

    Then came the layoff. I had no assets, no emergency fund and a staggering amount of debt. It was a situation I didn’t plan for. (And I’m not the only one. According to the Task Force on Financial Literacy’s 2010 report, young Canadians are not only struggling in making ends meet—they also don’t know how to plan ahead.)

    The problem is that I just don’t get it. I’m not ready to discuss portfolios, unless you’re talking about a new kind of cute handbag. While my peers break down mortgage payments with ease, I feel like I’m making major steps forward just because I found a coupon for $0.50 off toothpaste. The most embarrassing part? My dad is a financial planner. (I’m cursing myself for skipping “take your kid to work day.”)

    But here’s the good news—while I may not be a personal finance guru, I’m smart enough to know I need help.

    Over the next three months, I’m going to share with readers my journey to become financially literate and self-employed. This won’t be a blog about high-end investing—it will be about the basics that 20-somethings need to know to get out of debt. I’m going to ask experts all the stupid questions so you don’t have to.

    But where should I start? Should I be clipping coupons, building an investment portfolio or saving for retirement? I spoke with Jeremy Vohwinkle from Generation X Finance to find out. Here’s what he recommends:

    1. Build a budget. “Nobody likes to budget but it helps put things into perspective,” Vohwinkle says. “Once you get a handle on that, it’s a lot easier to put a little extra towards retirement.”

    2. Take an active interest in educating yourself. Unlike Gen X, which was in what Vohwinkle calls “the dark ages” when it came to personal finance, Gen Y has access to a wealth of online knowledge.

    3.  Don’t get carried away with investments—but do plan ahead. “People think they have to wait until they get their debt under control before they can start saving,” says Vohwinkle. “That’s a mistake because the more time you have, the more that compound interest can do its magic.” He recommends putting away as little as $25 to $30 per paycheque.

    4.  Determine your long-term goals. “The younger you are, the better position you are in to begin putting a dent into those goals.”

    My Best Financial Tip: Hard up for bus fare? For quick cash, scour money off the floor of your favourite dance bar. Watch out for girls in high heels, though. They will pulverize your hands.

    I even got Ramsey in the act of going through the couches at Stone's Place.

    What I would blog about next:

    Idea #1: How do you know when your business is generating enough revenue to declare yourself self-employed? I talk to Revenue Canada and an accountant who specializes in self-employment to find out. Plus: I consult with a psychic to determine long-term goals--and readers weigh in on whether I should follow the advice.

    Idea #2: How do you safely consolidate your finances with your common-law partner? I make less than $30,000 a year. My partner makes three times that amount. I find out how we should protect ourselves financially as a young common-law couple. Plus: I talk to a relationship counselor about navigating the relationship hurdles around unequal income.

    Idea #3: Want to know how to coupon for your lifestyle? Not sure what to do with all those diaper and infant formula coupons? No room to build a stockpile in your 600-square-foot condo? I share with readers the secrets to couponing for the urban young professional.