Posts by HW

Feeling out Dark Table

dark table

(Above: A quick preview of my most recent Vancouver dining adventure.)

Key ingredients to a fully satisfactory foodie experience – presentation, garnishes, flare – don’t merely add colour and contrast to a meal. Visual plate appeal whets appetites, teases our taste buds and, after sense of smell, is the second part to enjoying a meal before chow, fare, food, grub or an absolutely alimentary masterpiece passes our lips.

At Dark Table, though, guests pay $39 to skip the visual digestion of the average dining experience over a three-course meal in complete, blinding blackness. The dark dining phenomenon – which has brought blackness to restaurants in Bangkok, Hong Kong, Toronto, Boston, Berlin and Zurich – has found a permanent home in Vancouver, giving diners the opportunity to not see what they place on their forks (or more accurately, in their hands) as they eat in public, and leave their blindfolds at home.

We chose our mains in broad daylight outside the West Broadway restaurant’s pitch black interior. Garlic prawns with citrus risotto and seasonable vegetables was the last thing to catch my eye as we were escorted into a waiting room.

From dimness to darkness, we congo-lined into the room around raucous laughter, clinking silverware and the sounds of guests taking stabs at what they were eating, and then attempting to do the same with forks. My hands on our waitress’s shoulders, my date’s on mine, we strategically weaved our way to a table-for-two, enveloped in darkness, surrounded by bodiless dinner guests

We felt our way around our table – one fork, one blunt knife and an individual packet of butter on what felt like a clean table cloth. I could have sworn it was red, but that was only a guess.

All wait staff at Dark Table are visually impaired. There are no night vision goggles, and communication relies on calling out over diners overcompensating for the loss of one sense by loudly filling up another. After glasses of red wine – Shot in the Dark, of course – our surprise starters arrived. Feeling my way around a fruit salad, which turned out to be half-made of vegetables, I struggled to identify grapes – which were actually blueberries – and honeydew – actually cucumber – coated in a mint dressing that didn’t quite appeal. The starter was messy, and forks just weren’t an option.

Eating in blackness toys with your mind. It lacks the romance of a dimly lit dining room, but brings an odd sense of personal intimacy that leaves you feeling alone with your thoughts and slightly disconnected from whoever you’re sitting with. The boundaries between you sitting as an individual, with your date, with everyone else, are completely in your head. Your actions are yours to judge. I imagine I can see my hands. I can picture where we’re sitting. But as the kitchen door occasionally opens and sheds light on the scene, I get glimpses of how disoriented I really am.

Dark Table is a cacophony of sounds: the occasional shatter of a glass, guests calling out pleadingly for Rose – who seems to be the only waitress working – and over-analytical guesses mumbled through full mouths about what’s going into those mouths turn a private dinner-for-two into a loosely shared group experience with people you won’t ever see again, and never really saw to begin with.

The main was manageable with a fork, with the prawns de-shelled and steak pre-cut. The meal was filling, but you pay for the experience. Dessert was an underwhelming palate-cleansing chocolate cake.

It was a unique experience that left me with a greater appreciation for how big of a role sight plays in the enjoyment of a fine meal – not to mention how challenging a simple meal out becomes without visual cues. Despite the fun we had guessing what we were eating, and our slightly amused anticipation to find out of how much food we’d spilled down our outfits over the two-hour sitting: Dark Table, like the annual ice-chilling Polar Bear Swim or trying soft shell crab – is an experience I feel completely satisfied trying only once.

Friday night lights

night lightsI once had a library book out from October to January – 2011 to 2013. I’d exhausted my three renewals, but was determined to finish the book. As December came (the first time around), Christmas lights and cozy nights in distracted me as I worked my way through the much more interesting reading list I’d put off in the fall. Once the new year came, there was no hope. After re-starting the book on four separate occasions, I had lost interest anyway. And completely forgot I still had the book.

The reason I’d wanted to finish the autobiography in the first place was because the author caught my attention by alluding to how he would come to lead two very distinct, separate lives. Unfortunately, I never made it past his in-depth analysis of his own adolescence. (Don’t get me wrong, I like Christopher Hitchens, but the writing in Hitch-22 was too rhetorical.)

This interested me because I’ve struggled with whether to combine what I could describe as my two lives – personal and professional – or whether I should purposefully keep them separate.

But like I can’t entirely cut and halve myself, so will my two separate personal and professional blogs live on the same site. This post is on my newly created personal blog page; the home page is reserved for posts about writing, journalism, issues and current affairs.

It’s all personal, really – both will provide commentaries, subject to being filtered through the same medium (me). But I’d like to differentiate between anecdotes about what I consider more serious topics, and stories about my casual venture into journalism – thoughts, comments, photos that I want to post simply because they, or something else, happened.

Last night I walked down to False Creek, where a group of young artists sang Beatles songs around one of Vancouver’s outdoor pianos. The photo above is from a fabulous Friday night.

Sunday at the track

It’s a dangerous game when it feels this good – but when you’re up a few bucks and winning at the track, it’s hard to remember how losing the last 29 races felt. 

Betting on horses is a lot like life. You pick a path, a plan, a method that you use to help you get ahead. When it works, it explains yours wins and boosts your ego.

For a moment, you’ve got it all figured out. The cash starts to add up. You’re in the green. You suddenly know what it means when Panic At The Disco is heading the herd right out of the first third with odds at 8-1. It makes sense that that jockey’s horse would show instead of place. It really does make a difference that Number 6 has one more win this year over the next best runner. The sun is shining on the track; you see it all so clearly. You buy into the anticipation at $2 a pop as you wonder how much you’ll rake in this round.

And then something happens – your pick doesn’t place. Or win. Or show. It’s last by a mile.

Something went wrong. Your method is broken. It’s time to change gears; or is that unlucky? Do you bet on the horse or do you back the driver? It seems safest to bet with the odds – but even 1-1 isn’t a sure thing. If you’re playing for money, you go to the highest payout. If other people catch on, that system breaks too. Betting ahead of the crowd could leave you with a poor-track record and even poorer odds. If you wait too long, you may forget your pick altogether. Actually, sometimes that works.

With all the unpredictability, there are perhaps only two certainties when it comes to gambling. The first is that highs will inevitably be followed by lows. If you’re lucky, they may eventually be re-followed by highs. But that’s if you keep at it: It’s a numbers game after all, and the more you bet, the more chances you have to get lucky.

All of those numbers mean something. They must mean something. Other than serving as excuses for why you just can’t catch a break. The weather, the music, the number of beers you’ve had, the black cat that didn’t cross your path as you were entering the casino, are also great justifications for why you’re slightly off.

But if methods and justifications aren’t as reliable as we hope, then they really only serve to explain our losses and wins to those around us: Your big winning secret; how to properly choose a winning horse based on its name alone. 

And that’s the second certainty – that betting on horses is a lot like life in that the company you keep as you spend your change and as you spend your time is what makes any day, including a day at the track, a success.

 

Neutrality vs. religion

So the Quebec government has proposed restricting all public employees from wearing visible religious symbols. It’s to create an inclusive society, says Premier Pauline Marois. To liberate women from subservience. To keep a neutral face on the public, she says.

A neutral face on society is Orwellian rhetoric – and it’s scary. What is “neutral”? Is it to appear atheist and secular? In which case, this neutral face isn’t exactly neutral anymore. When it comes to religion and science and disbelief in either of those, there is no default, because they all offer a different answer to the same question. The default for all of mankind isn’t atheism, nor is it the Big Bang or Christianity or Islam. The problem in thinking that secularism equates “neutrality” is that for those who live lives led by religion, excluding religion from certain parts of their lives is sacrilegious. It’s okay to think that your way of seeing the universe is the way, but no one should impose that on anybody else. Especially not a state.

Are we not a multicultural society? Is Quebec not part of this great Canadian mosaic that forms the basis of our country’s confused identity? Nobody is “neutral.” I’m a woman, and I like to think that I look like one. I’m caucasian, and my tan isn’t significant enough to persuade otherwise. Nothing is over, but here in Canada we like to claim we sorted out our issues with racial discrimination ages ago, and that today, we’ve made progress in gender equality. Why do we get so squeamish when it comes to dealing with religion? 

Not being of any religious affiliation myself, I can’t speak for the more devout. But from my understanding, your religion isn’t just a hat you put on when in your private home – or at your church, mosque, synagogue, temple – only to take off when in public. Sure, assuming free will, it is a choice to be religious, just like it is a choice to uphold the values of your chosen religion. But let’s not forget that religion isn’t just a source of personal identity: It’s a belief about the world that encompasses all of the people in it and all of their actions; how we came to be, where we’re meant to go. It permeates not just one aspect of a believer’s life, but all of them. Religion is a way of life, and not being allowed to practice your way of life in public contradicts the point of religion. This applies across the spectrum, from lying to eating certain foods to wearing religious garb: If you act one way half of the time, and another the other half, are you really a believer? And it’s a totally different situation when you aren’t allowed to choose how closely you choose to follow your religion of choice. Such a mandate, like Quebec’s proposed charter of values, is doubly controversial: It impedes practicing your religion and it removes the personal choice of how you practice your religion.

It is a constitutional right to have freedom of religion, as well as freedom of expression. We also have the right to not be discriminated against based on race, gender and religious beliefs. I don’t think we have the constitutional right to all public services – I am not entitled to services for people with disabilities, and I don’t claim entitlement or argue for it with some distorted idea of all-for-one and one-for-all equality. We are all legally entitled to certain things, but that’s entirely different from being constitutionally guaranteed certain rights and privileges. This would mean that if someone feels uncomfortable because they’re seeking a public service from someone wearing a religious symbol, their claim to “not have to feel uncomfortable” gets pitted against the rights of someone expressing their constitutional freedom of religion. Wouldn’t the onus be on the person feeling uncomfortable to just go elsewhere? The concept of “entitlement” versus “fundamental rights” is complex, tricky and all but clear.

I get inclusivity, I also get fairness. And I think that people feeling weird about religion should not have a whole system that protects inclusivity brought down to their narrow-minded standards.

Speaking of fairness, I was going to say that the only “fair” thing about this unfair proposal is that it would apply to all religions equally. That was before I saw this poster.

charter_poster

The first three images show what “non-ostentatious” symbols would be allowed in public under the proposal; the five underneath them are examples of what will be banned.

There has been a lot of backlash to the proposal – from the federal government to local business leaders to those partaking in Montreal protests. Some people have it wrong, others have it right. A quote from Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, in the Globe and Mail: “It is important for people across Canada, and particularly in Quebec, to know that if they don’t feel welcome in that community, they’re certainly welcome in this one.”

Wag of the finger

Let’s play a friendly game of Guess Who…

“Once completed, this memorial will teach future generations how millions lost their lives and suffered in inhumane conditions at the hands of Communist regimes. It will also serve as a reminder […] that glorifying Communist symbols insults the memory of these victims…”

…I’ll give you another clue:

“We must never take for granted our core values of freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.”

Canadians, Jason Kenney has a message for you, and it goes something like this: We, Canada, do not condone communism.

Two weeks ago, Kenney, our Multiculturalism Minister, announced that up to $1.5 million of taxpayer dollars will go towards building a Tribute to Liberty anti-communist monument on Parliament Hill. According to an article in the Ottawa Citizen, this monument will serve as “a memorial to people killed by communist regimes.” Its title, according to Tribute to Liberty Chair Ludwik Klimkowski, is “A Memorial to Victims of Communism, period.” (Note: For the sake of inclusivity, the previous name “Monument to Victims of Totalitarian Communism” was scrapped in favour of a broader, more ambiguous title. Apparently nobody really cares whether China gets offended. Sorry China.)

The announcement coincided with Black Ribbon Day, which marks the anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a non-aggression agreement signed by the Communist Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in 1939. BRD remembrance events are held across the country, and according to a 2011 government press release, the House of Commons unanimously agreed in 2009 that the August 23 be Canada’s national day of remembrance for “the victims of Communism and Nazism.”

In the same release, Kenney stated that: [I]t is only fitting that we pause every year to commemorate the hundreds of millions of people who have been victims of Communism and National Socialism, among the worst examples of totalitarianism in our history. Additionally, the release mentioned that the government was working with Canadian communities affected by “Communist and Nazi totalitarianism” to erect monuments of remembrance to “the victims of Communism and to the victims of the Holocaust.”

Now, let’s take a moment to entertain whether it is at all possible that nobody at the senior levels of Canadian federal government understands that there exists a difference between Stalinism and communism.

Unlikely.

Which leaves us with the slightly more worrisome possibility that nobody cares that there’s a difference. That, or that the lack of clarification was intentional, which is arguably the worse explanation of the three.

If we take this news the way we were probably expected to take it – at face value – what we have is the creation of a monument that pays respect to the victims of Nazism and Stalinism, two atrocious ideologies that caused widespread suffering, and the death of millions. But let’s not assume that this is the doing of “communism.” (An assumption that blames a theory, not its executors – a potentially more offensive line of thought.)

The victims we are supposed to be remembering were victims of two oppressive regimes led by ruthless extremists. They were not victims of communism. And even though many were victimized while living under communism, the causality is far from simple.

Communism is an economic ideology. In and of itself, it theoretically does not victimize. And given that its purpose is to provide people with a model for how to most effectively and efficiently run organize society, unless based on twisted fundamental values, it wouldn’t aspire to victimize. But even if it did when applied in practice, the victims would presumably be sufferers of the economic variety (even though a major point of communism is to establish economic equality).

Under Stalin, people were victims of Stalin. Just like under Hitler, people were victims of Hitler and Nazism, and not “fascism” per say. The 21st century equivalent would be claiming that victims of Osama bin Laden’s extremist political and religious views were victims of Islam.

Is there anything intrinsically wrong with communism, to the point where it should be ostracized as a legitimate point of view? It may have flaws, but so does capitalism. So does the whole spectrum of political ideologies, democracy included. And speaking of democracy: What we value in Western society, as Kenney so eloquently put it, are our freedoms and our human rights. Democracy is just an ideology that is conducive to giving us what we value. Democracy isn’t reality; nor is it a value in and of itself. What it represents – political engagement, the protection of rights, etc. – is what we value. If there were another political model that worked better , would we ever say to ourselves: “Oh, but it doesn’t give us democracy…”? In a capitalist country like Canada, does anyone ever say: “This is great, except for the fact that it’s missing some communism…”?

I think I heard someone say that never.

Both democracy and capitalism are fundamental to Canadian society: Our culture, history, reputation would be unrecognizable to us had either or both been different. But because our everyday lives are steeped in both ideologies, it’s so easy to assume that the way things are for us is the way things are naturally. It’s easy to think that the way things are is the way. And that, is a scary thought. 

To someone who decidedly and informedly chooses to believe in democracy and capitalism as good operating systems, that appropriating communist symbols is now considered wrong may not affect you or your life in the slightest. However if you make your decisions informedly, you should be aware enough to realize that a politician calling communist symbols disrespectful to victims of communism is complete and utter propaganda. 

Scheduled to be completed in 2015, the Tribute to Liberty monument will stand between the Supreme Court and the Library and Archives in our nation’s capital, where it will espouse our supposed tolerance for a plurality of views (including anti-communism) by knocking one of those views.

And now: A humourous – but poignant – tribute to the victims of capitalism.

Unlearning

I aggressive-compulsively flip from catty radio channel to catty radio channel every morning in my car. Brave passengers would challenge that this happens any time I drive, but considering I’m usually doing those people a favour by driving them, their argument is rendered invalid. In full honesty, it’s mostly a morning thing: Setting the appropriate tone for my day is important, so this annoying habit flourishes unbridled between 7:45 and 8:15am.

My “right” to be annoying about changing channels is questionable – how important could setting my “day tone” really be when I refuse to just listen to my iPod (because I don’t listen to my iPhone) or the CBC? Leaving my attitude up to chance is rather risky, and the odds get worse as the chances that something of quality will pop up on one of my car’s preset stations are slim. But what can I say, I live on edge.

My obsessive desire to land on the right song in the right moment meant I heard “and [dah-non] has come under fire…” as I casually clicked past before frantically clicking back. Where in the world is Dah-non? I thought with a knot in my stomach and a pang in my head. A foreign attack reported in prime listening hours… This must be huge.

Well I have one word for you, and it’s yogurt. Excuse me for being “cultured” and thinking Danone was a Kazakhstani city.

Next.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about thinking – the kind where you condescendingly analyze that voice in your head that condescendingly analyzes everything else. I’m not a judgmental person, truly. But my mind is on autopilot when it comes to interpreting other’s behaviours, as they relate to me.

This thinking-about-thinking exercise came about after every pre-set radio channel decided to air ads simultaneously. Either a regional marketing conspiracy, a sign from God or a frustrating coincidence – take your pick. Whatever it was, I started to break down the things I’d been told in an introductory seminar the previous night:

The motivation behind another person’s any given action? No way of actually knowing it.

We can make informed guesses, and maybe a majority of the time, they’ll be generally accurate, especially if you’re condescendingly analyzing somebody you know. But at the end of the day, you can’t know why somebody did something the way you can know that two apples plus two oranges will leave you with… two apples and two oranges. And if you claim otherwise, the word you’re looking for is trust. Which is faith. Which is not logic.

A few big ideas on why it’s probably true that we simply cannot know – difference, statistics and moral hazard. We’re all human, but we’re also all different – or my personal favourite: we’re all unique, but no one is that unique. Statistically, there will always be doubt, and there will always be risk. No matter how informed you are about anything, there’s going to be that chance that you are, however informedly, wrong. Morally, people do things and promise things with no intention of committing to them. We’re all guilty of this one. And because there’s no mental transparency, not even professional micro-expression reading can avoid mathematics.

This “moral hazard” thing is applied to a range of concepts, most notably economics, which I’ve been studying a lot of. 

In September, I will re-attempt Microeconomics 101, although I think I’m past the point of no return: Too many courses across many other disciplines has created a cocktail of cognitive dissonance in my head. I’m going backwards, straining to accept the rudimentary principles that were intended to serve as a starting point. Now, they seem more like sweeping statements, so broad that while they may largely be right, I already know they’re far from whole.

The whole concept of having to “unlearn” something in order to “relearn” something else is an interesting one. I’m tempted to say that I think “unlearning” is more like learning to recognize beliefs you hold as beliefs you hold, before going on to challenge them. Unlearning doesn’t quite fit with “forgetting.” But if unlearning always precedes relearning; isn’t relearning to unlearn unlearning? To eschew critical analysis only to adopt a different set of beliefs?

I’ve written this post over the course of two days. I did not eat yogurt this morning; I had potato salad. With a yogurt-based dressing, but that’s okay. I’m not one for extremes.