Tuesday, 29 April 2008

In Defense of the Self-Help Book

Reading Katy McColl's Should I Do What I Love? Or do what I do so I can do what I love on the side?

I'll confess my bias from the beginning: I adore Katy McColl. For years I followed her work in Jane magazine. As far as writers go, she's got a sharp, amiable wit of the sassy best friend whose emails leave you grinning all day. So when I found out she had written a book, I ordered a copy immediately. It could have been about the history of drywall, I didn't care, I still waited by my postbox every morning. But what did arrive was this book; a savvy life manual for people like me. It's for people whose artistic sensibilities are full of drive but lacking in direction. McColl's smart, witty advice on finding a creative career is encouraging without being patronizing (a common flaw, I've found, in the self-help/life coach field). As she says, "...what induces a so-called quarter-life crisis is taking on jobs that are already out there, when the truly fulfilling trajectories are the ones you create for yourself."

The first section, "When You Don't Know What You Want to Do," includes tips on how to pinpoint your goals, career and otherwise, and refine them from broad ideas into precise plans. Heck, I did the exercises just for funsies, but came out with much more focused goals than my ambivalent life motto, "be a writer." The book discourages higher education as a means of delaying the post-grad decision-making process, saying, "Trust me, there are many more delicious ways to go into debt than running a tab with the U.S. Department of Education."

A section for those who doubt the paths they're taking is "When You Don't Like What You Do but You're Too Old to Start at the Bottom - Again." Here, McColl talks about transitioning from a drone job to a creative one, working your connections, and selling yourself effectively. These tips are helpfully peppered with relatable quotes from other struggling quarter-lifers trying to find their creative career paths.

She explains how to pick a smart starter job in "How to Survive Being an Assistant," with plenty of tips for maximizing your beginner status in the field. Among other things, McColl suggests choosing a boss who can be a role model, and using the connections you make. My favourite quote? "[Networking] sounds like a gauche and greedy pastime when in fact, networking is just a wonky synonym for Charming the Pants Off People." Here there's great advice on how to meet insiders in your field without coming across as shameless or pushy.

Those who have known since preschool that their passion lies in design/film/cooking will benefit from the second half of the book. Here, there is a collection of advice and success stories from professionals in different creative fields. These tips are in the form of candid, friendly advice from some OMG names like DJ AM, novelist Jonathan Ames, and NYC fashion designers Heatherette.

Immediately, I passed this book on to every friend on the radar with a little bit of career confusion. After all, I'm currently teaching English in South Korea with thousands of twentysomethings, and "I'm not thinking long-term about jobs," might as well be the mantra for our kind.
My friends, however, had some self-help skepticism. "I can't read it on the subway or in coffeeshops," they explained, "I don't want people to see that I'm reading a self-help book."

"But it's not!" And it isn't. McColl doesn't push any self-pity, self-aggrandizement, self-hugging or self-obsession. Rather, it's a wise peptalk from a sage friend. It's a long, hard conversation with your most admired aunt or sister-in-law. It's the closest thing to a grown-up guidance counsellor that many people can get.

So stop being too cool and buy the book already. You won't regret it.

Monday, 3 March 2008

The Creative Process

Musings, wit strewn latinate words and musings.

Words that flow as read and words that convey exactly what needs to be mulled over.

It's always been a difficult process for me. Having a qualification in the creative process of writing hasn't been a boon to my page strewn verbal spewage. I never for once imagined that such a qualification would lead me to articulate my thoughts better, even when I suddenly decided that I should take up Creative Writing in an academic sense. At the time it was a form of escapism. A chance to prolong the working world for a few more years. At least until I could afford a haircut and a set of smart, presentable and conformist clothes.

Even now I feel uneasy about reading what I've just typed.

I had kept the daily grind and office drudgery at bay for as long as I could.
I had spent three years of thinking that improvised witticisms in a syntactically sound form could pass as a decent attempt at acquiring an artistic degree.
I had confused my escapist urges.
I had resorted to a collection of musings, wit strewn latinate words and musings.

Another three years have passed since I graduated. I promised myself I would at least continue some form of writing. I hope that I can maintain that promise. Mostly, I'm just grateful for my friends for setting up this site and being patient enough to wait until I've actually gotten around to writing something. I hope to rectify my writing habits even if it means a strict exercise regime for my fingers. I'm also looking to get re-acquanted with spell checker as well, there's been many a night I've been kept awake by those red squiggles demanding that I pay better attention to my writing and I've not had the chance to use the F7 key for any other purpose.

In all, I shall always be in awe of those who can articulate their feelings well.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

My iPod is My Therapist

Who needs expert counseling when you can always rely on the sage advice of rock stars?

When I keep a man at arm's length, reject him coldly, then feel bad for the next girl he dates, who will no doubt bear the brunt of his newfound intimacy issues:
Lola by the Kinks

When I question my path in life and long for a deus-ex-machina figure to appear from the sky and point me in the right direction:
Should I Stay or Should I Go by the Clash

When I'm ashamed of my hangover:
Alright by Supergrass

When I have guilty daydreams about jumping on a plane to go be anonymous someplace:
Tempted (by the fruit of another) by Squeeze

When no one in the world has ever felt a heartache worse than mine:
The World Has Turned and Left Me Here by Weezer

When I spend more time planning travel goals than career goals, then worry that my backpack-happy lifestyle will one day leave me penniless and alone:
I've Been Everywhere by Johnny Cash

When I can't wipe the morning-after smile from my face, and I feel a bit guilty for feeling so good:
Can't Get Enough of Your Love by Barry White

When I feel like an outsider in a sea of cynics, wondering why so many people equate optimism with naivety:
Peace, Love and Understanding by Elvis Costello

When I meet people abroad who speak no English except "Coca-cola" and "Manchester United," and I feel guilt on behalf of all overbearing media from the west:
Life on Mars by David Bowie

When I'm cocky enough to pity unrequited love:
Every Day I Love You Less and Less by Kaiser Chiefs 

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

How NOT to Fall in Love

The moment I met Simon, I felt a connection.
But don't worry, this isn't some flowery love story. It's not a love story at all.

We met in Bath, England's hotspot of history and Jane Austen tourism. I was on a minibreak before starting a new job. He was having a weekend reunion with his old Bath University flatmates. When his rowdy friends invited me to dinner, I warily accepted. But down at the pub (for a pre-dinner pint, naturally), it was Simon, the quietest one in the group, who sat beside me on the crowded wooden bench. Instantly, we were chatting away.

Simon was Australian, handsome, easygoing. At 24, he was already working a plush 9-5 high-tech job in London. But the suit-and-tie lifestyle, as he explained to me, left him both bemused and uncomfortable with himself.
"Sometimes I look around on the tube," he said, "at all the other guys dressed in suits like me, going to jobs like mine. It makes you feel faceless, you know? I can't let work take over my whole life."
Instead, he filled his downtime with all things dear to him; good friends, cricket and rugby, and travel whenever he had the chance. In my mind, he was a model for us quarter-lifers; successful but still fun.

And as the group trekked through tiny Bath, to a Spanish restaurant, to another pub, to another pub, Simon kept me laughing. While his friends reminisced about wild uni parties, Simon spoke modestly. He asked me questions. He told witty, insightful travel stories, about monks in Burma and protesters in Paris. He made me laugh. A lot. And when the flatmates wandered into the crowd to find pretty girls and televised football, Simon and I sat at the bar, observing.

"I love coming back to Bath," he said to me. "It's not like this in London. It’s not as friendly. I don't really have conversations like this," he motioned to the air between us, "with you."

I couldn’t help but laugh. "Come on. I bet women go mad for your Aussie accent."

But he didn't laugh back. He said women in London were so serious. That they were so interested in his job, in their jobs, in other people's jobs. He said they would rather dine in posh cafes than picnic in the park.

"But of course, all women aren't like that," I said. "Maybe you're going to the wrong pubs."

He took a long, steady gulp of beer. Finally, he spoke. Rather, he yelled. "I'm so sick of trying to fall in love in bars!"

I could feel myself flinching. Behind us, the bartenders exchanged nervous glances. Simon raised his beer to his mouth again, draining the glass in one determined chug. Neither of us spoke. What was there to say? That I was sick of it too? That if funny, handsome Simon had no luck in the single game, what hope was there for the rest of us? That if we weren't parting ways the next morning, I'd be planning our honeymoon destinations in my head? Instead, I just smiled. That patient, shoulder-to-cry on smile that friends give.

Because that’s what we were, really, fleeting bar-friends. But for all the singles who want to scream out like Simon, there’s some comfort in the fact that you’re in good company. Smart, witty, handsome company. Let the search continue…

Saturday, 15 December 2007


By Elsinki

Listening to the Fiction song: 40 boys in 40 nights by The Donnas

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Korean Couple Clothes: yes, they're serious

A couple sits across from me on the Daegu subway, playing on their mobile phones. The woman' s clothes are typical Korean weekend-wear; sneakers, jeans, a green sweatshirt with an English slogan not quite suited to clothing (in this case, "Creative Director Style," with a picture of a telephone). She has an orange scarf, a black baseball cap ( "Helmet Game "), and a brown leather shoulderbag. Altogether, the outfit is quite average. However, the boyfriend beside her, without a hint of self-consciousness, is wearing the same thing. Exactly the same thing. The same sneakers, same jeans, same telephone shirt and " Helmet Game" hat, same scarf, and as icing on my this-sure-isn't-Canada cake, the same brown leather purse.

Now I think Korean fashion is altogether quite exciting. The painful high heels, the unapologetic use of rhinestones, the aforementioned English slogans; I think it works. Even the men with their purses are fine by me. But in a country with an anything-goes fashion sense, the one trend I can't quite digest is the one displayed here on the subway; the Couple Clothes phenomenon.

Rest assured, this subway sighting was no rarity. Every weekend in every Korean city, couples shop, dine, see movies, get coffees, all in matching outfits. I had to ask some Koreans about this trend. After all, back in Canada, no one dresses alike except twins or siblings, often under the hand of a zealous Mum during family photo sittings. But the feedback is unanimous. According to Koreans, this trend is "so cute!" Period. In a culture where couples rarely kiss or show affection in public, matching outfits are a non-offensive demonstration of a couple's commitment.

But the eye-rolling cynic in me isn't convinced. "You don't think it's too much? Maybe, a little too cute? " I ask my Korean friends. I try to imagine my couple friends in Canada, joining me for lunch in matching outfits. Even the mental image makes me shiver with discomfort. But the Koreans just smile at my skepticism. "They want to show the world they love each other. You don 't think that 's sweet?"

When I get off the subway, my couple-clothed seatmates stand up too, staring into each others ' eyes through similar thick-framed eyeglasses. The man gallantly takes his girlfriend 's purse, so that he 's now carrying two identical handbags on his shoulder. I admit, they are sweet with each other. Maybe this trend is like the rhinestones. Or the strange English slogans. Or the white leather boots I bought in a Korean mall and quickly regretted. While cute couples are universal, perhaps couple clothing is a concept that only works in Korea.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

That's What Fanta's For - praise for the worldly drink

When I was a student on backpacking trips to Europe, drinking Fanta was a tiny ritual that fit my budget nicely. While most Europeans probably grew up on the stuff, my first tastes of Fanta were during these epiphanous first tastes of travel. I drank it while picnicking along the Seine, exploring Dover castle, watching canalboats in Amsterdam. 

Of course, on these trips, I drank other things too. Loads, if I recall correctly. But amidst beers and wines and coffees, Fanta was the newest to my palette. Though the drink is as ubiquitous as juice on every continent, it is virtually unknown in my native Canada.

Tastes are often associated with memory. It's why we crave our mothers' cooking when we're sick. It's why everyone loves birthday cake. For me, Fanta evokes that giddy far-from-home feling, of backpacks and passports and guidebooks. It represents the amiable broken-English chats with absolutely anyone who will chat back. It represents eating cheap picnic lunches on the steps of pricey museums to balance out the funds for the day. For me, Fanta represents adventure; a symbol of the world beyond Canada, of flying away from the familiar and into the throes of the unknown.

Of course, I've gotten older. I've traveled further than Western Europe, and I've lost a bit of tolerance for shabby hostels and cocky gap-year Australians. But wherever I go, I always track down Fanta in these new destinations, and for tradition's sake, I always make sure to imbibe. 

I was traveling with a friend in China when I became briefly enamoured with green apple Fanta; a local flavour that was as new to my palette as peking duck. M friend and I had travelled and consumed Fanta together on three continents so far, and had spent many a long bus ride singing the drink's praises.  On one ambling walk through Beijing, we cooked up the idea of a Fanta-finding website. People could research the local Fanta flavours of travel destinations around the world. Had this site existed (and not just in the imaginary realm), we would have known that China also sells beetroot and orange-mint Fantas, and that an intriguing toffee-flavoured variety was sold in Taiwan, mere kilometres away.

Fanta flavours, after all, can give us a glimpse into the local palette. Who but the most popular fruits and flavours get idolized into soft drink form? Plum and lychee Fantas are sold in Japan. A handful of Scandinavian countries sell elderflower Fanta; Mexico boasts a tamarind-flavoured option; Grenada sells banana Fanta, and lucky Romanians can sip a seasonal cinnamon-rum Christmas Fanta. 

In Thailand, two regional Fantas are so locally-targeted, their names don't translate. Simply, they are "green soda," based on a popular Thai jelly, and "red soda," flavoured like the homegrown sala fruit. Visitors to Thailand will see open bottles of the drink on Buddhist altars outside people's homes. Of course, this is not a worship of Fanta itself, but a gesture of Buddhist faith. The red soda variety is a known favourite of the King of Thailand, and bottles of the drink are now used in religious offerings as a nod to His Majesty. 

It's local facts like these which have me happily maintaining my Fanta-drinking tradition. While the new flavours are exciting to try, my taste for Fanta is as symbolic as it is literal. To drink Fanta is to drink abroad, and for me, these travels can be as addictive as any sugary indulgence.