Monthly Archives: September 2012

The Master – another brilliant movie I probably won’t enjoy

The Master is coming out – it stars Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman and critics are raving about it in that “best film I’ve seen all year” way.

I read the review – the acting sounds brilliant, Philip Seymour Hoffman is one of my favorite actors, but I don’t think I’ll be rushing out to see it. It carries the classic hallmarks of the Amazing Critically Acclaimed Movie that I am not going to enjoy. I’ll be impressed, but will I have any fun? Even a lot of black humour films just make me cringe. I couldn’t watch a lot of Seinfeld because I couldn’t stand watching George humiliate himself. I also have trouble with Sacha Baron Cohen’s movies. I enjoyed about 2 minutes of Borat and I hated Bruno. It was just embarrassing. I haven’t seen The Dictator because I’ve learned my lesson.

So many movies are in this category and now I have a sense of what to avoid, thanks to these excellent films:

  • Doubt – I love Meryl Streep but this was not fun to watch
  • Requiem for a Dream
  • No Country for Old Men
  • The Road
  • Leaving Las Vegas
  • Rachel Getting Married and the other wedding film, Margot at the Wedding – not painful but cringe-worthy
  • Fargo – I know it’s supposed to be funny but I found it painful, although I loved the Frances McDormand character
  • Glengarry Glen Ross
  • Lars Von Trier films – Breaking the Waves, gah; Melancholia, double gah
  • Precious
  • Larry Clarke’s Kids – I had nightmares for weeks after this one
  • Once Were Warriors – ditto
  • Paris Trout  – ugh
  • Eyes Wide Shut – for god’s sake
  • Baise-Moi – my French isn’t very good; I didn’t research this before going with a group; I thought it would be a charming French film with subtitles – subtitles yes, charming no! I actually had to leave.

It’s not that I don’t like dramas or indie films, but certain things I find really repugnant to watch. Or I’m embarrassed for the actors. Or the subject is just so depressing. I read a lot; I know bad things happen but it’s just so disturbing to see it presented visually, I’m depressed for days afterwards. Sometimes these films are boring and painful. That’s entertainment!

(While I’m talking about painful movies – this is painful, but worth seeing):

I saw the Japanese film Graveyard of the Fireflies a few years ago; it’s animated, so I didn’t realize how harsh it would be (it was made by Studio Ghibli, the same company that produced Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away). It’s harsh. I cried so hard I had to put a pillow over my face so I didn’t wake the kids. It’s a really good, very powerful, heartbreaking, anti-war film. But when things are animated we tend to have certain expectations. (I blame Disney for this.) Things go downhill, but eventually the cavalry arrives. The cavalry doesn’t arrive in this one. I should have known; Japanese films don’t follow the same storytelling patterns Western ones do. I was so upset afterwards I couldn’t sleep; I had to go downstairs and comfort myself with ice cream. I told the story to Justin the next day and he got teary just hearing my description. I arrived at Japanese preschool to drop the kids the next morning and my face was all messed up from crying all night and the other moms were like, “Are you ok?” All I had to say was, “I saw Graveyard of the Fireflies last night.” They had to process that into Japanese but then they were all, “Ohhhhhh.” But I recommend it. It’s as important a film as Schindler’s List. It’s also, like Schindler’s List, based on a true story. I know; waaaaaah! snif

Yet I love certain types of horror movie. But that’s another post.

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This is a great blog post – and this happens to me all the time! It’s so awkward when I forget people’s names. I’m ok with faces, but that’s because I’m so visual. And at this point in my life there are so many ways in which I could have met someone; it’s not always right there in front of me, memory-wise. So here are the rules!

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Social Media and Food Criticism

This article in the August 13 issue of Maclean’s magazine really struck a nerve.

It’s about people who visit a restaurant and then tweet negatively based on perceived (not always justified) inadequacies – and then the restaurants feel that they have to rush to appease this person who is trumpeting their displeasure. We have also had this experience. It’s amazing to me that people who do not bother to mention their dissatisfaction to the restaurant manager, or their server, or even directly to us via our website or by calling, will then make a sputtering fuss via Twitter or a blog  about their perceived negative experience. Of course their behaviour was perfect, so if there was any dispute at all they blame the restaurant staff and call them rude. We’ve had people who have got drunk and done terrible things and disturbed other guests as well as staff then pretended later that they didn’t do anything wrong and the police were called for no reason at all. It’s all our fault, of course! Every restaurant has similar stories.

I used to write restaurant reviews and if I couldn’t write something positive I’d skip that review altogether. Because…you don’t know. When do we feel a tweet is justified? Well…if you’ve spent many years in the industry, and you can tell the difference between a server having an off night, or the kitchen experiencing an equipment malfunction (happens all the time) and an establishment that really doesn’t care, and if you’ve spoken to the manager and he essentially tells you to pound sand, then, maybe. But not really. It’s courtesy. You didn’t like it? Don’t go back.

We really care about our food and service, so when we catch a tweet like that we do a lot of forensic work – we contact the tweeter, ask them which location they visited, when they were there, where they were sitting – because we do want to improve service and make guests happy. It’s our entire raison d’être. Why open a restaurant otherwise? But we really wish they had said something to the manager when they were on the spot, because it would be much easier to figure out what went wrong – and to make amends then and there. But it’s interesting that these people are often quite shy in person, so they’re reluctant to talk to a human being. But a vicious tweet is totally within their comfort zone because they feel safe and anonymous! Usually when we ask the manager when we’re trying to follow up one of these complaints, they will say that the table was fine and seemed to have no problems. So why the nasty remark? There’s some unjustified arrogance here. Not to mention bad manners.

1. I think there’s an inflated sense of self-importance in the sphere of social media. (Yes, I realize the irony of blogging this.) If you collect a lot of Twitter followers (here’s how hard this is: you follow people and out of courtesy they follow you back) or have people following your blog, you start to feel that your opinion carries more weight than maybe it should. We have found some food bloggers are at the point where they consider themselves very influential, at par with professional print reviewers, and they often demand comped meals, freebies, and they expect to be treated like royalty. So you wonder about the level of integrity here. Mind you, there are a whole host of food bloggers who do great work and are respected by industry professionals including us. They do their research, they generally base reviews on more than one visit, they get to know the staff, they are thoughtful and even-handed and they do not expect to be comped. When they have reservations, so to speak, about a restaurant’s performance they try to be fair and not vindictive. Plus, their writing is often delightful and inspiring.

2. The Dark Side: It appears that some Twitterers have figured out that a lot of restaurants will comp meals or provide gift certificates in order to persuade a tweeter to say something positive next time. The Maclean’s article suggests that some negative Twitterers are playing this game. If so, bad karma and shame on them!

I think that, overall, if you have a negative experience in any establishment, be it hospitality, retail, service, whatever, you owe it to the establishment to let them know first and give them the opportunity to rectify the situation. If you’re going to complain, have the guts and the courtesy to complain to someone to their face, not behind their back. If you have a positive experience, then trumpet away. I’ve written a few glowing hotel reviews for when I’ve had great experiences. When I’m disappointed, I let management know and I keep my mouth shut. I think anything else is cheap, petty and irresponsible.

(Just my opinion as a restaurant owner and as a reviewer of restaurants and hotels myself, not the official position of the restaurant. Because the restaurant’s policy is:  RUSH to address complaints, and we even appease spouters of negative social media!)

I actually wrote this post about a month ago but I didn’t post it; I consulted with some senior staff first. They liked it but I hesitated to post. But just today we had a negative tweet and it seemed like the right time:

Tweet: “still can’t get over the rude service we received last nite”

Our response: “Sorry to hear about your experience. Did you follow up with a manager in the restaurant? Many don’t and take to Twitter.”

Their tweet back, complete with grammatical errors: “we’ve talked her but she did nothing about it and left us… People have the right to know via twitter and other means.” (I love this; people also have a right to know that the twitterer’s behaviour was less than exemplary but I guess there isn’t enough room in a tweet to include that part.)

Our last response: “As you can imagine, it is very hard to follow up with so little info. If you could, please email us at….”

The manager at that location emailed us about this – apparently someone booked a large party of 8, but then arrived with 10 people. We always let people know if we need the table back for another reservation later and if they don’t like that then they don’t continue with their booking; this person was fine with it (I’m starting to think we need to make people sign something to prove that they agreed because the odd one fusses about it later). So they were late for their reservation and then were outraged when they were told that we needed the table for the next party. The person who made the reservation and agreed to the time limit then pretended that she didn’t and called the server a liar! The manager spoke with them but they were impossible to appease and were very, let’s say, difficult, so of course now our staff is upset. And then she tweets about us? Not to mention they refused the 18% automatic gratuity (for large parties) and left a $4 tip on a $200 bill.


What kills me is that the managers are being so sweet about it – they are asking that we tweet asking these people back (!!) so we can shower them with kindness and try to change their minds about us. They are bigger people than I am.

There are days when I wonder why we thought the restaurant industry would be a fun place to be. Incidents like this are destroying my faith in human nature. I know that there are some miserable people who are impossible to please and we shouldn’t worry about them, but I just wish they wouldn’t come to our restaurants and upset our staff and then say unfair one-sided things about us via social media.

OK, going to have the rest of my Sunday….


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Kate Middleton, the invisible royal – not!

Back in July I posted about the whole Queen-humiliates-Kate fuss and I opined that Kate would know her place and do the royals proud.

Um, not so much and she didn’t waste any time about it either. She must think she’s invisible. Take off your clothes and you’re totally undetectable! This is what happens when people fuss about what you’re wearing all the time, I guess. You just want to be free!

Was her privacy violated? Yes. Should she fully expect it to be? Yes! By the time you’re in your late twenties, you should be able to assess any situation you’re about to involve yourself in. So, marrying a royal? Pros: fame, riches, meet interesting people, lead a privileged life few get to experience, and of course, prince charming. Cons: your entire life is under a microscope and you’ll have to watch your step every minute. Actually, this was the deal before they were married. Kate’s a smart girl; she went to university. I’m sure she had reminders from palace minions hissing in her ears every chance they had. So there’s no way she should be surprised by telephoto lenses. But now she feels all violated. I think. That could just be the party line. For all we know, she wanted the world to see her topless.

You know what? I guarantee that the aristocrats are saying things like, “Well, of course she wasn’t born to it, so she doesn’t know how to behave properly,” conveniently forgetting Diana’s misbehaviour. Whenever someone who has jumped classes screws up, it’s always attributed to their origins. Remember Fergie? Because it’s all about class. I’m thinking that Kate isn’t so worried about the Queen; she’s worried about her mom. I would be. When I wore a yukata (summer-weight kimono) to a matsuri (Japanese festival) my collar was away from my neck a couple of inches because I didn’t put it on properly; my mother was mortified because apparently that’s kind of slutty, the Japanese equivalent of J-Lo’s navel-low Versace neckline. That was just two inches of the back of my neck! What must Mrs. Middleton be thinking? All their new posh friends are suddenly remembering that she and her husband were once flight attendants. I bet Pippa’s all, How do you like me now? Not to mention Harry.

I’m just shaking my head. I don’t wander around my house without clothes on and I don’t have paparazzi hiding in the shrubbery. What did they need to be naked for? Is it that thrilling? Didn’t Kate learn in her early twenties, like the rest of us, that going topless is overrated? It takes just 5 minutes of uncovered chest in the sun of the Southern Hemisphere to get burnt and it’s very awkward trying to scratch that sunburn. Lesson learned! I guess that was before she was married; she minded herself then, but now that they’re legal, it’s like, What are you going to do? That’s pretty cheeky!

I just can’t understand how Kate and William can imagine that they can be naked in public anywhere and not have their picture taken by some intrepid photographer. I’m sure this guy can’t believe his luck. It’s not like he broke into the place either – they were right out there and he was across the street. And then for the royals to demand jail time? Because Kate and William were being foolish? Seriously, the one who belongs in the Tower is Kate.

…with Harry who should be in there for all that Vegas nonsense. Why can’t these people keep their clothes on? Are they competing to see who can be naughtiest? Someone needs to tell them that streaking is passé. Soon there will be enough photos of royalty unclothed to produce a coffee table book called Naked Royals. Yes, the human body is a natural thing, we shouldn’t be ashamed, etc., etc., but who are we kidding? If you absolutely must take your clothes off because you need to be all sexy in public, keep your cool when the photos come out and don’t act all outraged and righteous about it.

These are yukata. Mine is arranged in a way that says, “Hello Sailor!” My sister’s is arranged properly. Here’s why: I arranged hers and she arranged mine. To be fair, neither of us had any idea that one of us was dressed like a slut, but there you go. This embarrassed my mother no end. I’m going to bring up Kate and remind her about this.


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The Baked Donut Marathon Weekend

I’ve been enjoying Sally’s Baking Addiction blog – there are lots of good recipes on there and they’re all very easy. Nice! I made Sally’s Peanut Butter Frosting for some chocolate cupcakes for my husband’s birthday. Sooooo good.

She has a few recipes for Baked Donuts! I was like, Baked Donuts? I’ve stayed away from donuts (actually in Canada we call them doughnuts) since I found out the calorie count from one french cruller. It’s been sad; donuts and baked goods are my favourite things. Once in a while I’ll have a donut hole but that’s it. So the idea of donuts that are baked was a revelation and I immediately got some baked donut pans and set to work:

I made some vanilla donuts with strawberry frosting from Sally’s blog – I found that the donuts essentially tasted like muffins in a ring shape and the recipe was very muffin-y (dry ingredients; wet ingredients, oil-based, etc.) so there’s no surprise there. The icing was quite nice; the girls said the doughnuts looked like big doughnut strawberry Pocky and kind of tasted like it too.

Next I tried chocolate donuts from the Bakerita blog, another fun baking site. These were wonderful and very quick to make:

Baked Chocolate Cake Doughnuts

I’ve made some edits; here’s Bakerita’s original recipe.

  • 1 c. all purpose flour
  • 2 T. cocoa
  • 1 t. baking powder
  • 1/4 t. baking soda
  • 5 T. sugar
  • 1/2 t. nutmeg
  • 1/2 t. salt
  • 2 T. unsalted butter, cold
  • 1/2 c. buttermilk
  • 1 t. vanilla
  • 1 egg

Oven: 350

Spray 2 doughnut pans with nonstick spray. In the bowl of a food processor put the flour, cocoa, baking powder and soda, salt, sugar, and nutmeg. Pulse to combine. Add the butter and pulse until crumbly. Turn out into a medium bowl.

Combine the buttermilk, vanilla, and egg. Add to the flour mixture and stir until almost but not quite combined. Spoon into a Ziploc bag or pastry bag (this process will finish the mixing) and pipe into the doughnut forms.

Bake for about 8 minutes or until doughnuts spring back when touched (toothpick test is also a good indicator). Let cool on wire rack before glazing.

The first time I made these I used Bakerita’s chocolate glaze – it’s delicious but not really doughnut glaze, it’s more of a ganache. Nothing wrong with that but I wanted something more like glaze that hardens a bit. The second time I used Alton Brown’s Chocolate Doughnut Glaze and it was more like what I had in mind.

Bakerita’s Chocolate Glaze (ganache type)

  • 3/4 c. chocolate chips
  • 2 t. butter
  • 1 T. light corn syrup
  • 1/4 t. vanilla
  • 2 T. milk

In a microwave proof bowl, combine all ingredients except the vanilla. Melt for 30 seconds in the microwave then stir. I let this sit for a bit then stirred; it didn’t need additional microwaving. Add vanilla.

Alton Brown’s Chocolate Doughnut Glaze (I halved the recipe and made a few changes)

  • 1/4 c. butter
  • 2T. milk
  • 2 t. light corn syrup
  • 1 t. vanilla
  • 2 oz chocolate chips
  • 1 1/2 c. icing sugar

Combine butter, milk, corn syrup and vanilla in a medium saucepan and heat over medium heat until butter is melted. Remove from heat and whisk in chocolate until melted. Add icing sugar and whisk until smooth. This icing seized up on me and I had to add a tablespoon of hot water and whisk until it was smooth and glossy again.

With this glaze, you also have to work quickly and at one point I had to reheat the icing in the microwave. But it makes a more doughnut-shop type of glaze.

Two sets of doughnuts do not a marathon make. But wait for it:

While trolling the Internet for baked doughnut recipes, I found this recipe for Baked Yeast Doughnuts. I love yeast-based doughnuts and I immediately brought down my bread machine from its home on top of the fridge.

Baked Yeast Doughnuts

If you are using a bread machine, add these ingredients in the order they’re listed:

  • 1 c. milk, heated for about 1 min in the microwave
  • 1/4 c. warm water
  • 2 t. butter, melted
  • 2/3 c sugar
  • 2 eggs, at room temperature and beaten lightly
  • 5 c. bread or all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 t. salt
  • 1/4 t. nutmeg
  • 3 t. instant yeast

Set the machine for dough and wait. Make some Chocolate Doughnuts, there’s lots of time. When it’s done, pry it out of the machine, knock down and continue.

(If you are not using a bread machine, combine the milk, water, yeast, butter, sugar, eggs, salt and nutmeg in a large bowl. Add the flour, 1 cup at a time, mixing well after each addition. By the last addition you’ll need to knead the dough until springy and elastic and not a shaggy sticky mess. Add flour as needed but sparingly; too much flour will make the dough tough. It should make a nice smooth ball but by now you are probably wishing you’d got a bread machine. Roll in oil or flour and let rise in a bowl covered with a piece of waxed paper and a tea towel, in a warm place, for about 2 hours or until doubled in size. Knock down and continue.)

Roll dough out to about 1/2 inch thick on a lightly floured surface. If you have a doughnut cutter, cut out doughnuts and place on a parchment-lined half-sheet pan. I don’t have a doughnut cutter, surprise, so I used a large biscuit cutter and a pop bottle rim for the inside holes. The girls quickly discovered that you can then shoot the bits of dough from the bottle by squeezing it and blowing them across the counter. Fun times! Cover with waxed paper and a tea towel and let rise for approximately 1 hour.

Oven: 375. Bake for about 8-10 minutes or until the bottoms are just golden. They will not get brown on top (I’m working on this). Remove from the oven and let cool 1-2 minutes.

Cinnamon Topping

  • 1/2 c. melted butter
  • 1 1/2 c. granulated sugar
  • 1 T. cinnamon

Combine sugar and cinnamon. Dip doughnuts in butter, then in cinnamon-sugar mixture and place on rack set over waxed paper.

I made a donut glaze (Alton Brown again) and dipped half the doughnuts in that. But the cinnamon-sugar coating was better. My husband had the last one two days later and remarked that it was just like sweet bread. They were better the day they were made and even if they were more like sweet bread than like doughnuts, they were mighty fine anyway.

Sally’s recipe made about 6 donuts. The Chocolate Doughnut recipe made 12. The Yeast Doughnut recipe made 24. Needless to say, the girls and I did not eat 42 doughnuts. We tried one of each, kept a few for our breakfast next day (and one for Daddy who was opening a restaurant in Toronto even though he wouldn’t be home for another day or so) and took the rest down to the staff at Hapa Kits:

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Yoga for Hockey Players

My husband and I work out twice a week with trainers – it’s the only way we’ll do it. When you have an appointment, you make the time. But we’re aware that we should be doing at least one other activity every week. I thought yoga would be a good supplement to our program and the trainers thought so too.

Here’s the thing about yoga: I don’t want any philosophy.  I don’t need to be told what to eat or how to think. I’ll laugh when something is funny. I don’t mind the breathing thing but it only takes me about 30 seconds to figure it out. I just want to stretch and move from pose to pose in a fairly swift manner because I’m easily bored. I don’t want to breathe in and breathe out and breathe in and breathe out for fifteen minutes. Inside my head one big scream just builds and one day it’s coming out. Not very yoga, I know. Apparently this means I need it more than anyone.

I tried Bikram yoga a few times but the high temperature caused me to nearly faint on one occasion. On another occasion I got so dehydrated I got a terrible headache afterward. On all occasions I’m put off by the fact that the temperature in there is so high that it’s essentially turned all the sweat into steam and I’m breathing in the steam of other people’s sweat, OMG OMG OMG. Bikram is popular so the classes are usually crowded; this means your head is usually in fairly close proximity to someone else’s feet. You’d think people would get pedicures. Also, the heat, the moisture, and the fact that they run many classes per day makes you wonder about the state of the walls. I bet there’s some black mold in there. Sometimes the rooms are carpeted! They literally squish with moisture.

So, no Bikram. No Kundalini. I haven’t tried Ashtanga or Power or Hatha yoga yet because I haven’t been able to find a class to fit my schedule.

I found out about a yoga called Yoga for Runners – apparently it’s a no-nonsense yoga and this sounded good to me. So we dropped in on a class.


This is Justin doing yoga, only not so flexible. Or in a tux. I couldn’t find Ken’s board shorts and the girls have him dressed to get married. Again. We have about 50 Barbies and only 3 are male so you do the math. It’s like Bountiful only with snazzier clothes; check out Ken’s pink tux. (If you are not from B.C., “Bountiful” is a town in British Columbia run, essentially, by a Mormon-ish cult. Like all cults, the main thing is the older men securing all the young girls for themselves. Our Bountiful scenario here is actually not accurate; in Bountiful they would have have given Justin Bieber five bucks and a peanut butter sandwich and run him off and Ken and John Smith (from Pocahontas) would be running the show.)

Back to yoga.

We spent a lot of time sitting on our feet, it was like one long Japanese tea ceremony. We would then go into a downward dog, then plank, then do a slow pushup, then downward dog again. Lots of this. We got up on our knees once:

Justin Bieber is actually pretty good at yoga

But that, plus some lunges, was it. Oh, and sometimes we lifted one leg off the ground:

John Smith can really maintain this pose

The instructor was good – very self-deprecating, funny, and he was very responsive when people seemed in pain. He spent a lot of time with Justin (not Bieber). I heard the words “rotator cuff” a few times, and my hands were actually killing me from all the pressure. (I think I’m getting a little arthritis in there. After a session of Beethoven at the piano my hands go all stiff and clunky.)  It was hard for me to remember to breathe properly because I was so worried about my husband; it was difficult to refrain from checking to see if he was ok. Waves of pain were emanating from the mat on my right.

Finally we got to go into “corpse” position for about 10 minutes. Justin was asleep after about 2 minutes; I could hear his breathing change.

Verdict? Well, we’re not runners, so it was probably best for actual runners. I liked the instructor but I wish we had moved into more poses. So I’m going to keep looking. I have a few leads and will check them out. Justin needs Yoga for Hockey Players; he’s incredibly stiff. He makes the Ken doll look like a Beanie Baby. Also, he injured his shoulder a year ago playing hockey and informed me the day after yoga that it felt like it was injured all over again. This is, of course, my fault.

Justin is going to try Bikram.


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Piano lessons begin; Tiger Mom trims her whiskers

We began private lessons for my 6-year-old last week. Last year she did Group Piano which was fun (due to the fact that we did them with my girlfriend and her daughter; my friend and I texted and giggled silently through the class – hey, it kept me sane) but when the option came to have private lessons right away instead of going through Group Piano Year 2, I jumped at it like an Olympian gymnast. I’d already had two years of Group Piano with Daughter #1; it was like Groundhog Day doing it all over again.

One of the highlights of Group Piano last year was observing one of the mothers and her son. She was clearly fiercely committed to his being excellent at piano, and he was clearly determined to switch to hockey. She would grab his fingers and force them onto the right notes. He would slouch and fart and wriggle on the bench. She was very tightly wound (indicator: perfect hair) but her son had an untucked look that said, “I’d rather be rolling around in the grass.”  It was a recipe for disaster. They would hit each other! In class! It was extremely entertaining. I don’t know what home life looked like, but they made Group Piano for me.

Needless to say, they were Asian. As was 98% of the class, including me and my friend. OK, 97.5% because I’m only half.

It was particularly interesting to me because I’d read The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua (in one day on vacation) and it screwed me up for the entire year. I started the year with two kids in piano. The older one was starting private lessons and the younger one was starting Group Piano. The demographic at the music school we attend is about 98% Asian. All I could think was:

  1. The piano teachers tend to cut the bottom 20% of their students.
  2. The tiger mothers are driving their kids like mules.

Ergo, if I don’t act like a tiger mother my kids are going to be fired!

I talked to everyone who would listen. I asked the piano teacher, the director of the music school, all of my friends (god love them), and my mom. The music teachers said things like, Don’t worry, it all levels out by the time they’re in Grade 7. OK, but what if they get fired before then because even though they’re progressing normally for a 6-year-old, they can’t compete with a kid who’s being browbeaten into performing and has no social life?

Some of the parents at the music school would claim that their kids just practiced on their own, they loved the piano, and they themselves never made them practice, etc. This is just out of the blue; I didn’t even ask. I would watch their kids racing up and down the halls like monkeys with ADD and think, Right, sure.

But maybe Amy Chua and her ilk had something going on here. Let’s face it, it’s a tough, competitive world.

I started standing over my older daughter, who was 7 at the time. I play the piano, so it was frustrating to watch her make mistakes. I’d try to explain that when you make a mistake you have to focus on it, break it down, and go over and over it until you create muscle memory. Maybe that was too much for a 7-year-old. She would balk, I’d get angry, she’d cry and need to hug, I’d be frantic because we’d be running out of time, and my husband would come out of his office and look at me like, What the hell is going on?

All I wanted was for her to learn how to work hard, fix mistakes, and get to the point where she loves the sounds she makes with the piano. Perseverance is one of the most important lessons you can learn in life, right? But I’m not a good teacher. I’m impatient, I say stupid things like What’s hard about this? and I think I expect results too quickly.

It wasn’t good for our relationship. We both dreaded piano practice. But I was spurred on by the knowledge that the competition was fierce. And she was progressing. She found satisfaction in lessons that went well. I tried backing off and found that without my help, she didn’t perform as well in lessons and the teacher would make her repeat songs that she should have finished in one week.

What to do? I talked to one friend, who has two sets of children, one by her first husband and one by her second. She told me that, being Korean, she and her husband worked very hard on the first two kids. Homework, music – they were hard-core. The kids had to be in private schools, they had to be at the top of their classes, they had to excel in language and also in music. But she said that when these two got to university age, they wanted to do it by themselves – and couldn’t. They had become so accustomed to being externally motivated that they were unable to be self-starting. And music? They don’t touch their instruments now.

Her advice: Enjoy your kids. Let them fall on their faces when they’re little, so that they figure it out for themselves when the stakes aren’t so high.

(The irony is that she’s married to a music teacher and their kids are taking intensive music lessons.)

It was comforting advice, and wise. On the one hand, I agree with Amy Chua that our job as parents is to prepare our children for the world. So they need discipline, manners, and a good work ethic. Asian thinking is that confidence comes from mastering something you thought you couldn’t do. I agree with this. I think it’s wrong to praise children for doing…nothing. Self-esteem shouldn’t come from false praise. It should come from actual effort and accomplishment. And when the kids work they need to learn to self-motivate. There’s no point if it’s the parent’s energy being channelled into the child, like a puppeteer with a marionette. When that energy is removed, the puppet sags on its strings. So they need to learn a work ethic and the earlier the better. On the other hand, I believe in balance. Life should be a mix of work and play.

Not according to Amy Chua, though.

Chua’s book disturbed me on so many levels. Is it just me, or is it sort of abusive to stand over a kid and deny them bathroom breaks to make them practice music? She’s clearly a driven person with energy to spare, but what those girls’ lives must have been like I shudder to think. When her older daughter played at Carnegie Hall (in a minor auditorium, which Chua resented), it was clear that the triumph was Chua’s. She’s the one who rented a room in a hotel to host a reception. You can just see her standing there accepting the congratulations. And rightly so; it was her victory, after all.

When her younger daughter, aged 13, hacked off her own hair in protest, didn’t Chua think, Whoa? That’s a serious sign that something’s wrong. She’s lucky they don’t have eating disorders, that they’re not cutting themselves. Well, maybe they are self-destructing; she certainly wouldn’t admit it.

I Googled her book when I got back and found videos of interviews that she’d done when the book came out. She was clearly defensive. Joy Behar in particular was quite hard on her. Chua tried to say that the book was supposed to be funny. Funny? Witty and clever, yes. Funny, not so much. She kept insisting that she wasn’t back-pedalling, but she clearly was back-pedalling in the face of serious criticism. She said, in her defence, that she asked her daughters if they approved of the way they’d been brought up, if they would bring up their kids the same way. She claimed that they said Yes and Yes. That is desperate. I think there’s a little Stockholm Syndrome going on there, what do you think? They’re teenagers, they’re clearly enthralled and totally controlled by their mother. Let’s ask when they’re 40. I bet we’ll hear a different story then.

I was deeply touched and affected by Emily J.’s blog post about being raised by a tiger mother. (It inspired this blog post.) Her story reveals the dark side of ambitious parenting, and her point is that at this extreme, it’s not about the kids, it’s always about the parent, the parent’s ego, the parent’s need for praise and approval. Cases like this go beyond dysfunction, beyond ambition. I think Emily J.’s mother suffered from a kind of pathology and it is to Emily’s credit that she is aware of her mother’s mistakes and is not about to repeat them.

So, what did I do? With all this contradictory influence and evidence churning around in my head, I raced around getting the kids to their lessons, fretted about homework and piano, and eventually got so sick that I popped a rib from coughing. My doctor told me to reduce my activity, and after some consideration I decided to let my older daughter quit piano and we cut down on ballet too, so that I was at the music school twice a week instead of three times. It wasn’t an easy decision; I felt like I was throwing in the towel. Failure! And of course both her piano teacher and her group teacher said that she had talent and should continue. Now they tell me. But our relationship improved and we all lightened up a bit. My younger daughter seemed to be thriving on her group lessons and we didn’t clash over practising so we kept going.

I wish my decision hadn’t been prompted by my own sickness and my doctor’s advice, but my older daughter is now taking martial arts and drawing, and is really excited by that. I ask her once in a while if she’d like to go back to piano but so far, she’s not interested. My younger daughter is doing well with her piano lessons and practices without being told. I do help but I’m not allowed to shout “B! B!”; I’m only allowed to make a sound in my throat when she makes a mistake, and it’s not usually necessary. She self-starts and self-corrects. It’s a relief.

So…even though I think that we do have to put some energy into guiding our kids into learning about the value of hard work, sometimes you can’t force a kid into an activity they’re not interested in investing their own energy into. Yes, it took me over a year to figure this out. The main block was the fact that given the choice, kids would rather play than work; Amy Chua made this point many times. But I don’t think the only options are either slaving away at an instrument with no playmates or fun, or a life wasted on Facebook. The girls seem genuinely involved in their activities and don’t need coercion to work independently at improving their abilities. We’re working on a happy medium here. I’m sure a lot of people are thinking, “Can we have a duh for Lea?”

As I write my daughter is practicing piano – on her own. I’m just going to remind her to curve her fingers.

(It took me over a week to write this post – isn’t the beginning of the year the craziest time?)

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Book Review: Jan Wong’s Out of the Blue

Jan Wong is one of Canada’s most famous journalists and one of my favourite writers of all time. She’s written for The Globe and Mail for something like 20 years. Her books include Red China Blues, Lunch with Jan Wong, Beijing Confidential, and there’s another one but I can’t name it without going to the Internet. Looking in my bookcase isn’t helping because the thing about really great books is that I lend them out and then I never get them back. I keep forgetting to write down Who has What so I can track them down. Ah, Jan Wong’s China.

Anyway – in 2006 there was a shooting at Dawson College in Montreal; Wong was sent to cover the story. In her article she mentioned that the shootings in Quebec were by immigrants and she wondered if there was disenfranchisement occurring in a province where “pure laine” is a valued quality, referring to one’s French-Canadian heritage.

“What many outsiders don’t realize is how alienating the decades-long linguistic struggle has been in the once-cosmopolitan city. It hasn’t just taken a toll on long-time anglophones; it’s affected immigrants, too.

To be sure, the shootings in all three cases were carried out by mentally disturbed individuals. But what is also true is that in all three cases, the perpetrator was not pure laine, the argot for a “pure” francophone. Elsewhere, to talk of racial “purity” is repugnant. Not in Quebec.”

(Sounds like a recipe for racism to me, especially when you know how one-note they are about the French thing.)

The backlash was tremendous, a tsunami wave of hatred, racism, sexism, and just about any kind of ignorant mud you can sling at someone. And for some reason The Globe and Mail failed to support her. They even kept publishing abusive letters to the editor that attacked Wong personally. The onslaught of abuse and the lack of support caused Wong to fall into a depression, which is bad enough, but then she had to fight her employer’s denial of her condition. It’s a chilling story. She had to publish it herself as her publisher got frightened by the controversy (and also didn’t want to lose The Globe’s sponsorship of a book fair) and withdrew the contract. She also had to fight gag orders in order to publish at all and tell her story.

Her writing is amazing, and this story is personal, moving, and also a great piece of journalism. Mental health issues are huge and too few employers recognize mental illness as equal to physical illness. Loved it. I’m not even going to go into it further because it really was disturbing and I wanted to march in protest of this injustice. It just made me hopping mad. But I was also tremendously inspired and not a little intimidated by Wong’s spirited determination, even when in the throes of depression. Jan Wong is an incredibly brave, tenacious and principled person and we’re lucky to have her. Keep writing, Jan! You are my hero. And I love that her book is on The Globe and Mail’s bestseller list.  Click here for Jan’s bio.

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Book Reviews: Song of Achilles and The Flight of Gemma Hardy

(I keep meaning to get to my fashion post but haven’t cobbled it together yet. Why writing about shopping should be harder than writing book reviews I don’t know.)

I adore historical fiction, and I’ve just read these two amazing novels that are revamped classic stories. So there’s a theme here today.

Ancient historical fiction stands in a class of its own because there is a lot of scope for creativity. If you’re going to write about the Tudor era you’re dealing with a period that is quite well documented, whereas in a story set in ancient Greece you can go nuts because there are so many blanks to be filled in. We just don’t know that much about the ancient world. I read an amazing book about the Minoans recently and there is a theory that they were wiped out by a tsunami – and conclusions about this were partially drawn from evidence from the 2004 tsunami.  (The Lost Empire of Atlantis by Gavin Menzies, if you’re interested.) So we’re still learning about the ancients.

There are so many thrilling stories by ancient Greek writers like Homer, Aesop, Hesiod (we’re not even absolutely positive it was them, but we think so). But their renditions (I’m talking about the English translations and I know some are better than others) don’t have the depth of characterization and richness of description that modern writers employ when telling the same tales. On the one hand, everyone knows the story so the plot is pretty much laid out already and the reader can anticipate the story. But I always found something lacking in the original tales. I know this is totally subjective, but it seems to me that you have to extrapolate a lot from very little when you’re reading old Homer. On the bright side, you have to use your imagination, and then when these stories are retold there’s a lot of leeway for the writers to get creative.

 The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller is one of the best retellings of the Iliad that I have read, and I’ve read every one that I can get my hands on. It’s from the point of view of Patroclus, and is essentially a characterization of Achilles, and a story of the love between Patroclus and Achilles. It’s one of the most beautiful love stories I’ve ever read, and – this isn’t a spoiler because everyone knows already – the grief expressed by Achilles at Patroclus’ death was absolutely real and heart-wrenching. (I got very weepy.) There is also exposition into the reasons for some of the baffling things Achilles did during the Trojan War, from the perspective of his closest friend and lover; very illuminating. I enjoyed Miller’s characterizations of the other characters in the Iliad as well; the scene where Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphegenia in order to coax good sailing winds out of a recalcitrant god is shocking and moving. Overall, as a retelling of the Iliad it’s so convincing that it’s become my new “reality” of Homer’s story. (Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon has become my “reality” of the Arthurian legend. It just makes sense!) It’s beautifully written and wonderful fun to read.

I’m slightly concerned that my kids’ idea of mythology will be ineluctably tainted by their early exposure to Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and Jason series. The books are great fun, and Justin’s enjoying them too, but Riordan really takes the original myths by the scruff of the neck and gives them a good shake. Result? Unrecognizable. I liked the myths as they were and would love a Madeline Miller rendition of them, where the plot line is followed but the story is enriched by description and insightful characterization that enhance but do not contradict the original.

I need to rush out and get more Margot Livesey, because I enjoyed The Flight of Gemma Hardy so much. It’s another retelling – the Jane Eyre story, set in the 1950s and 60s in northern Scotland. Yes, you can improve on the original, may the ghost of the Brontës not strike me dead. I actually preferred this to Jane Eyre, yes I did! The original is wonderful but I just love the details, the inner monologues, the characterizations – in Livesey’s hands this story really comes to crackling life. I know Jane Eyre is plenty lively but I have a taste for this kind of writing and I preferred Livesey’s take. I know, I feel rather apostate writing that but it’s just my opinion and Jane is immortal anyway, she doesn’t need my approval. Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea was also an interesting take on the Jane Eyre story – from the point of view of Rochester’s first wife. That was pretty lively too.

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I Survived the Aritzia Warehouse Sale 2012

I’m spending the weekend working. It’s totally numbing my brain. I took a break and read some blogs and this post blew my mind. So smart, so thought-provoking but I couldn’t summon up anything intelligent to add as a comment. I was all, “Yeah!” but that was about the extent of it. I wanted to finish my work so I could write up some book reviews but I’m not sure I can manage it. Maybe I can manage a quick note about the Aritzia Warehouse Sale (Aritzia is a local fashion house that is extremely popular here, they have outposts across Canada and one in New York):

Bad pic taken with my iPhone but you get the idea: this is lineup 4  of 4, you can almost see the promised land from here

I went with a friend so it was fun, but there were four lineups to get through and we estimated that they covered about 1 km length total. We just chatted happily in line as we had no expectations. Well, I thought I had no expectations but it turns out I did:

  1. That when people shove by you they would say, “Excuse me.”
  2. That when people knock things off hangers onto the floor they would pick them up.

I was wrong on both counts, silly me, and by the time we had to go I was relieved because I was worried I was going to snap if I saw one more person behave rudely. We commiserated with the staff who were trying to reload racks from all the stuff dumped on the floor. Stuff on the floor would be collected and put into big boxes which were then pushed to the side of the room so that they could be rehung onto racks that could then go back onto the floor. But people were removing clothing from the refilling racks, examining them, then dumping them back onto the ground or into the box, so the half-filled racks would soon be empty again and then the staff would have to reload them for the third time or whatever. If you rehang the same shirt three times within 3 minutes you could get a little tightlipped but these girls were great, just resigned and good-natured about it all. Mind you, it was just midday on the first day of the sale. I shudder thinking of the girls working the last day. Apparently people were lining up at 2am the night before.

I was just amazed by the behaviour. Monkeys at a buffet show more restraint. There were girls with heaps of clothing trying things on round the edges of the room. I would have taken pics because it looked just like a refugee camp but they were literally in their underwear so I didn’t. The changing rooms were communal and there were actual mountains of clothing in them that people were picking through like beggars on the trash heaps of Manila. I heard that if you were not careful with your own clothing in there it could be picked up and taken, especially if it came from Aritzia in the first place.

It reminded me of the time I was in a shoe store and had to take off my big winter socks in order to try on some sandals. I was walking round and looked back to see another customer putting on my socks to try on some boots! It was awful on so many levels. The salesgirl saw too and she and I exchanged looks and giggles. I had to wait until the customer finished trying on about 3 pairs of boots before I could reclaim my socks although by that point I didn’t even want them back.

Fashion warehouse sale = bunfight. And this was a quiet area. I don’t know why they had sizes posted, as though jeans in that size would be found beneath the corresponding sign. I found a pair of size 26 jeans under the “31” sign.

Anyway, I got a few tops, some exercise shorts and a pair of jeans for about 1/3 of the regular price just to justify the trip downtown. My friend found a nice wool winter coat but it was missing its belt. We carried that coat around for 30 minutes trying to find the belt (looking on the floor, mostly) and eventually found it in Accessories (cardboard boxes full of stuff) near the exit. So finally she got to try the coat on but it didn’t look right. I was exhausted and unable to specify why it wasn’t right, I could only make that tooth-sucking noise that the Japanese make when they want to yell, “No!” but can’t because Japanese don’t say No. We were saved by another woman who said, bluntly but kindly, “It doesn’t fit. It’s too big and the length is wrong for you,” and I was like, “Yes! That’s it!” and we all had a big laugh and left the coat neatly but wrongly in Accessories because we just had to escape.

We left the employees cheerfully toiling away and the incoming lineup patiently waiting for the perceived retail heaven inside, god love them, and walked outside in the sunshine, with mussed hair and the expressions of those who have escaped unscathed from some epic disaster.

OK, back to work. I usually like to have movies playing in the background while I work at home because I like to hear the dialogue. “Warrior” just finished and I have no idea what happened, chiefly because it’s about brothers fighting each other in UFC. I think. Also there’s no dialogue to speak of. Fight movies make me ill.  Justin recommended it, but now I think it’s because I made him watch Downton Abbey.


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