Screen time

My cat is obsessed with television. Maybe this sounds funny to you. And it kind of is. Here is a picture of Huey watching Friends:

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And here is a picture of Huey two weeks later, still watching Friends:

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This began as you might expect. My husband and I thought it would be funny to show Huey a bird video, because Huey loves birds. He gets so worked up watching the birdfeeder in our front window, crouched into himself like a squat glob of toothpaste. “Look at me,” he seems to be thinking. “I am dangerously fluffy. If I just sit here, looking like a toad, those birds will fall into my mouth.”

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So one night, feeling bored and indulgent, we pulled up a bird video on YouTube. Huey was instantly hooked. He got super close and started making tiny, excited whines. He attacked the screen. He jumped and cat-shouted and made a general spectacle of himself.

Problem: After we turned off the video, he kept looking for the birds. He began batting at the laptop, darting around the back and attacking the Apple logo. When we took the laptop away, he scratched at the table beneath, still searching for his digital prey.

Problem: He never stopped searching.

Now, whenever we turn on Netflix, Huey runs over. I don’t know if he thinks the actors are birds, or if he thinks he’s hunting tiny humans, or if he just thinks “I am a thoughtless mass of instinct and reflex: stimuli, stimuli.” Whatever his motivation, he’s trying to be as close to the actors as possible, snugging his chest up by the number keys, not realizing that his excited breathing is pressing down the “esc” key over and over.

My husband asked our vet about this.

“Huh,” she said. “I’ve never really heard of that before. Maybe try waggling a toy in front of him while he’s watching?”

As you can expect, this worked about as well as someone chucking a Frisbee at me during a Veronica Mars marathon. Huey released three short meows, something between “You’re bothering me” and “I am actually a garburator.”

So, now we have this cat that’s obsessed with TV. And though it’s sort of sweet in a “So like us!” kind of way, it’s also somewhat unsettling in a “So like us…” kind of way.

Because we are now acutely aware of how much TV we watch. And I’m not talking about “Sunday evening Game of Thrones with popcorn and pals” TV-watching. I’m talking about “Half an episode of Roswell while I’m curling my hair” TV-watching. Huey is an uncanny reflection of our own habits.

You are two hours deep into TNG and you smell like cat food, this living mirror tells us.

We want our pets to be exempt from the banalities of human life. We want to see a dog wearing a bow tie, but not ironing a bow tie. Sometimes I see Huey unwinding in front of the TV after a long day of sleeping and I think  “Jesus Christ, is this what I look like to ghosts?”

Soon, I expect to see Huey paying bills online. Fumbling with the coffee maker. Absently flipping through Cosmo at the grocery store, searching for better ways to gnaw his belly hair.

It would be different, somehow, if he was watching the Criterion Collection. Or HBO. I guess I could start watching The Wire, so that Huey watches The Wire. Be the cat you wish to see in the world. But the very act of training my cat to watch HBO seems impossibly weird, less like an activity and more like an internet t-shirt.

My cat watches shows you’ve never heard of

For now, I’ve switched Huey over to RuPaul’s Drag Race. I think he’s rooting for Kim Chi. No spoilers though please. He’s not caught up.

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Greetings from your Fitbit

My Fitbit has been talking to me.

Not aloud, or anything. But daily, in large digital letters. I’ll look down and the Fitbit will flash: HI NICOLE. Or: UCANDOIT. It is a strange, watchful companion. Like a kangaroo peeking from a pouch, it rides in my pants pocket, offering stilted commentary on my life.

I know this is normal. I’m not under the impression that this Fitbit has selected me, special me, to bless with conversation. “I was just counting her steps, you guys, and I could tell by her gait that she wanted to know me.” No. These messages are pre-programmed. Still, I have a hard time not taking them personally. My Fitbit is pushy and demanding. It’s like a tiny personal trainer who knows that I lie.

MOVE IT, NICOLE

PICK IT UP

When I see these messages, I feel grumpy and defensive. Like, screw you, wellness pellet; I just walked four laps around the living room while eating a sesame snap—what more do you want from me?

Then I think of that Roxane Gay tweet where she said: “I always say thank you to Alexa so that when the machines take over they know I’m nice.”

My Fitbit knows I’m not nice.

But it doesn’t seem to care, because a few weeks ago, I was sitting on the couch and the Fitbit made a neon entreaty.

HOLD ME

I stared down. Surely I hadn’t read it correctly. But later it flashed the same words again.

HOLD ME, NICOLE

Had the Fitbit progressed to personal demands? Did it actually want me to cradle it? That this occurred the day before Valentine’s Day only made it extra creepy. The singularity happened, you guys, and all the machines want is a date for Wednesday night.

Later that week, I picked up the Fitbit and it made another plea.

HUG ME

Then this morning, I saw another message.

LOVE YA

I don’t want to sound cocky here, but it really seems like this Fitbit has a crush on me. And now I feel cautious around it, sure that any day now I’ll wake up to a series of flashing messages.

SO, WHAT

ARE WE

DOING HERE

ANYWAYS,

NICOLE?

ARE WE LIKE

A COUPLE…

OR WHAT?

How do you let a Fitbit down easy? I don’t want to avoid my Fitbit–I rely on it to productively shame me. Maybe I’m just reading the situation incorrectly. Maybe the Fitbit is focused on total wellness, and somehow it’s decided that I’m lonely. That might be it. Maybe it has a built-in censor that dings if someone watches 10 Things I Hate About You more than once in a month.

Just in case, I will ask my husband to speak to it. “Hold this worried pellet,” I will say. “Hold it very gently, and tell it that I’m loved.”

Dear YM

Recently, I was thinking about embarrassing stories. You know, like the ones you used to read in Seventeen and YM. “My tampons fell out of my purse and I got pit stains from explaining it to my crush who then told me I’d had spinach in my teeth the whole time.” Those kind of stories.

Little known fact, YM was my first publication. As a young teen, I used to go to Chapters every Friday and read it for free while my mom worked on lesson plans at Starbucks. At thirteen, I cared about three things: bangs, boys, and butterfly clips. YM reported on all of these.

The embarrassing stories were my favourite section. They were a testament to junior high survival. They taught me what it was like to cough into someone’s mouth while kissing. They taught me all the ways snot could show up like a trickster god to ruin your pubescent life. Reading these stories was the most exciting part of my week, which says nothing, because the second most exciting part was playing Microsoft pinball.

I wanted to submit my own embarrassing story. Problem: I had never coughed in someone’s mouth. I avoided public speaking, and I’d been lucky not to soil myself lately. Though my behaviour was rife with built-in embarrassments, I lacked the awareness to see them as such. I did not tell YM that my bangs were styled in such a perfect barrel wave that Point Break could have been filmed in them. I did not submit the list I’d made of things I wanted most in the world, which included “shimmery blue gloves” and “an Oscar.”

Instead, I drew inspiration from a fashion camp I’d attended the previous summer. I owned three happy-face t-shirts from Claire’s, so of course I wanted to be a fashion designer. At this week-long camp, I’d “designed” a 60s-inspired “outfit” that was basically just a puff of yellow fur attached to a pea-coloured sack. Woodstock. At the end of the camp, we all wore our outfits in a mock fashion show. The made-up story I submitted to YM (I had no moral qualms at that time about fabricating it) went something like this:

I went to a summer fashion camp where we designed our own outfits. At the end of camp, we all wore the outfits in a fashion show. All my friends were in the audience. Even my crush was there. My outfit was a halter-top with beaded straps. As I walked down the runway, the straps snapped, and I flashed the whole audience! I tried to run off stage, but I slipped on the beads and sailed into the crowd. I landed on my crush and threw up all over him.

They printed everything but the vomit.

Why don’t I hear stories like this anymore? Do adults lose their capacity for this particular breed of over-the-top embarrassment? Maybe we’re all desensitized by the constant, small-league embarrassments of workplace screw-ups and linty pants. I remember when people used to swap embarrassing stories at parties, feeling secretive and risqué. I went to a party recently and talked about life insurance. Is that the embarrassing story in and of itself? I miss sitting in giggly circles and hearing who farted in front of the hot Blockbuster cashier.

I was thinking about all this a couple weeks ago, and then I went to Winterstart with some friends. Winterstart is a 5-mile night run in Banff. I go every year with my husband and our pals, who are casually athletic in an “of course I own a foam roller“ kind of way. I never participate in the actual run, but I do cheer from the sidelines and leech onto the after-party, which is held in an underground parkade.

The parkade offers free beer for runners, but lately the organizers have been cracking down on free beer for leeches. And it’s not much fun to hang out in a parkade sober, so a couple friends and I decided to sneak beer in.

Walking into the venue, I felt self-conscious. I’d tried to raise my hood as we left the hotel, forgetting there was a can of Molson Canadian inside. My secret had whacked me on the neck. Now, I tried to move naturally, hyperaware of the cans in each pocket. I have an inborn fear of rule-breaking that was condensing in my armpits. I was Homer Simpson, hoarding candy in a custom-made coat. I was Ocean’s Eleven.

I made it across the parkade and slunk into the protection of my friends. The mood was celebratory. They’d all just run a run! There was a security guard sitting about 3 metres away, but I felt at ease among my sweaty comrades. I settled into a folding chair.

That’s when I heard the clunk.

Thinking little of it, I reached toward my pocket to retrieve my contraband beer.

The pocket was empty.

With horror, I turned around. The can was rolling across the parkade floor, as if in slow motion. It made a graceful turn, slowed to a crawl, gave me a can’s version of a saucy wink, and then landed right in front of the security guard.

The guard stood. He walked over to my contraband beer and picked it up. We made charged, knowing eye contact. Then he walked over slowly, very slowly, and handed me back the beer.

And then I vomited.

Just kidding.

But I did blush so hard that my face lit up the night sky, like that scene in Hocus Pocus where they open the devil’s book. I blushed so hard that it generated a whole football team of teenage poltergeists who screamed “Touchdown! Touchdown!”

It was mortifying. It was electric. It was strangely delightful. I was filled with sensory nostalgia and unfiltered shame.

I had seen the proverbial unicorn, and I’d coughed right into its mouth.

How to send a stressful email

Procrastinate. You may think you need to send the email today, but what is today but the beginning of tomorrow? Today is the foreplay for tomorrow—enjoy it. You wouldn’t want to jump the gun. So just sit on that email. Keep sitting on it. You are the hen of that email.

Eat mindlessly. Eat half a chocolate bar. Eat the other half of that chocolate bar. Eat directly from a jar of peanut butter, and then inhale a bag of soy nuts. When you think you’ve eaten all you can, eat some popcorn. Sprain your tongue while extracting a kernel from your molar. The pain you’re now experiencing will make the task ahead seem mild.

Consult people about word choice and tone. Consult not just friends, but people who have always seemed cold towards you, people who don’t hate you quite enough to attempt sabotage, but who never laugh at your jokes. Pay these people $10 for their input. It is a gamble, yes. But you want this message so tight that a Lannister would respond with a smiley face.

Embrace nihilism. This email is just another drop in the big bucket of nothing. Put on some Nine Inch Nails and slip into the existential crisis that will serve as your makeshift confidence.

Divide the actual work of the email into two activities: the writing and the sending. Do the writing part fast. Rip off this email like a band-aid. Then edit it. Edit it for a long time. As you do, take comfort in the fact that the email is not actually happening…yet. This is just you drafting the email. This is just a role-playing exercise. This is just a hilarious dream.

Drink. Get kinda drunk. Come home and hit send on that draft. BAM. You did it. And you don’t even care because you’ve had three beers and now you just want a pizza pop. Do not, under any circumstances, edit the draft before hitting send. If you do, revert to Step 1 and begin writing your apology email.

How to curb your cat’s excessive shedding

  1. Brush your cat every day. Your cat will try to bite the brush. Convince yourself that this is part of his wellness routine: grooming + dental hygiene
  2. Buy a “self-grooming arch.” Demonstrate usage by rubbing your wrist against it. Get a contact rash from the bristles. Return the arch to the pet store
  3. Buy something called the Furminator. Speak to your cat in an Austrian accent as you attack his downy undercoat. Watch as he tries to eat the mound of collected fur
  4. Buy “shedding control” cloths. These are Swiffer cloths for your cat. Discover, upon opening them, that they are damp and slightly fragrant. Your cat now smells like cherries
  5. Mix salmon oil into your cat’s food. Omega-3s are good for the coat. Your cat now smells like cherries and salmon. Your cat is a furry buffet!
  6. Contemplate getting a Roomba. Hear a story from a friend about a dog that pooped on the floor while its owners weren’t home, and how their roomba spread the poop across the entire main floor in a perfect grid. Postpone your Roomba purchase
  7. Reduce your cat’s stress levels. Hum him Blue Rodeo songs. Light a candle and recite your cat’s attributes
  8. Look meaningfully at your cat while holding a jar of pomade
  9. Introduce your cat to positive role models. Watch Austin Powers together. Watch that Friends episode where Rachel sells Gunther a Sphynx. Hug your cat and whisper “hairless” three times
  10. Give up. Collect your cat’s fur. Make felted sweatbands for all your friends

Working from home

As many of you know, I spent last spring/summer working on my thesis. Most of this work, I did from my kitchen table. My fiancé was kind enough to keep the lights on while I did this, so I was privileged to spend a few solid months researching Dunkaroos and Jurassic Park. Along the way, I learned a few lessons, and I’ve devised a tool-kit for anyone else who ends up writing their thesis next to their microwave.

Nicole’s Five Tools for Work-At-Home Success

1. Pedometer 

Unless you have a very large house, working from home is not exactly an aerobic challenge. No bike commute to this job, no long walk up the office stairwell. A “business trip” is a move from the kitchen table to the couch. By investing in a pedometer, you’ll be reminded that you now move less per day than some Disneyland animatronics. This knowledge is both a blessing and a curse. It nags at you, but it also encourages sprightly laps around the kitchen table.

Speaking of that kitchen table: you work there! It’s a weird thing, to work so close to your fridge. You can indulge culinary urges you’d normally have to suppress at work. This office has a stove AND a mandolin. Let’s make potato chips! Craving something sweet? Let the internet tell you a story called “700-calorie mug cake.” I regret that I now know how to turn half and half into subpar buttermilk, but I suppose there’s no going back. You haven’t worked from home until you’ve mixed up a batch of ranch dressing at ten a.m.

2. Jeggings

As a woman who owns a variety of wearable blankets, it was important for me to make a “no pajamas” rule early in my work-at-home adventure. I got up every day by 7:30, dried my hair, and put on non-flannel pants. I did not, however, make a rule about pant elasticity, so I had settled into jeggings by day three. Jeggings were my uniform and salvation last summer. They were half the ingredients of every outfit. Picture one of those “mix and match!” outfit sets from Ricki’s, but every top is a wash-worn v-neck, and every bottom is jeggings. HIRE ME.

Fact: after spending six months in jeggings, “slacks” will feel like zippered jail. You will—at your new office job—keep thinking about that scene from Six Feet Under where Claire dreams of ripping off her pantyhose. You will wonder whether dyeing jeggings black might make them “office appropriate.” You will resent the words “dry clean only.” Really? You want me to take these stretchless pants to a dry cleaner’s and pay ten dollars so I can wear them again? Furthermore, am I really supposed to sit in this office for eight hours without frying myself a single egg?

3. Sense of gratitude and awe

If you have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning, it’s dangerously easy for work-from-home to become work-from bed. Work-from-bed then becomes work-from-cafes-so-you-don’t-work-from-bed. If you’ve reached that point, you may begin to resent your workplace freedom. Your freedom has made you sluggish. It has cost you a lot in latte purchases.

If this happens, take a moment to appreciate the odd opportunities awarded to you by your situation. To name a few things you can do at home that you can’t do in other offices:

  • Take a break to clip your nails
  • Eat 25 cherries while hovering over the sink
  • Do leg lifts and watch Justified on your lunch break
  • Extend your lunch break into a four-hour Justified marathon, necessitating that you work for 12 hours the next day to compensate

4. Self-discipline

To balance that healthy awe, you’ll also need self-discipline. I consider myself fairly motivated, and I still ended up procrastinating for at least 10% of the day. A few ways you can procrastinate at home that you can’t procrastinate in other offices:

  • Try to say “Raylan” to yourself in a convincing Kentucky accent
  • Do some jumping jacks in the hallway (pedometer approves!)
  • Wash that piece of the floor between the dryer and the wall
  • Google Marilyn Manson for literally three hours (only the first two were research)

So, probably best to make a schedule and stick to it.

5. Supportive partner

If you work from home, and your fiancé/partner/roommate does not, it will often look, to that person arriving home from their conventional job, like you spent your whole day sitting at the kitchen table, staring at an unchanged computer screen, listening to Blink 182 and picking at a dish of pistachios. But really, you only spent like, three hours picking at those pistachios, and you were working that whole time, and the Blink 182 thing is research, and you wrote like 4000 words today, and you’ve read four entire books this week, and only one of them was a Roald Dahl cookbook.

It’s also possible, when you work at home, to spend at least 48 hours straight in your apartment without noticing, so it’s nice to have someone come home and say, “Hey, let’s go for a walk!”

In summary: I’m very lucky I got to experience working from home, and I got so much done (seriously), but it was a strange time. I also just noticed that my list of must-haves does not include a desk.

Banff on a budget

For those who live in Calgary, Banff is the go-to destination for day trips. Celebrating your first Valentine’s Day with a significant other? Banff. Feel like getting drunk in a hotel? Banff. Banff is where we embrace our alpine selves. The town has taxidermied elk and picturesque skating rinks. It has caramel apples and thongs printed with “grizzly sex positions.” Navigating the many faces of Banff can be a fine, and often expensive, art. As a born and mostly raised Calgarian, here are some budget-friendly tips for your trip to Alberta’s winter wonderland.

Instead of:
Staying at the lavish Banff Springs ($500/night)

Lurk around the lavish Banff Springs

Tip: you don’t need to spend half your paycheque to feel out of place in the Banff Springs. Just walk right in there and start strolling around. Spend fifteen minutes in the hotel’s mini museum, where they store old menus and that picture of Marilyn Monroe golfing. Read about how much buttered peas cost in 1925. Then spend twenty minutes sitting on oversized armchairs, working “well-heeled” into mundane sentences. Head outside. There’s some scenery out there. Slide around the lagoon in your Soft Mocs for thirty minutes. Head back inside and spend seventeen minutes peeking covertly into ballrooms and choosing your favourite draperies. Spend one minute using the bathroom, because the hotel creeps you out and you’re always afraid you’ll see a ghostly bride in the mirror. Finally, spend seventy minutes drinking hot chocolate and playing Exploding Kittens in the hotel’s cheapest cafeteria. Smile at the unimpressed staff. Think about how well-heeled you are while playing the “cheetah butt” card. Then partake in mild ghost hunting until asked to leave the hotel.

Cost: $5 for hot chocolate

Instead of:
Eating dinner at Grizzly House ($50 – $90/person)

Eat lunch at Grizzly House

Grizzly House has two mottos: “For lovers and hedonists” and “The stories you’ve heard are true…” The story I heard is that it used to be a swinger hangout, which is why there are phones at every table. You can use these phones to call other tables in the restaurant. “Sit back and listen to the non-stop 70s music” the restaurant’s website says. Listen to this music at lunchtime, when it will cost you 60% less to eat melted cheese and play with the phones. At lunchtime, there will be exactly six other people in the restaurant. Try to muster the nerve to prank call two of them from the bathroom. Look up their number on the table map, but only work up the nerve to call your own table. Say, “Hey, uh…it’s Nicole,” then hang up.

Cost: $15/person to split an appetizer cheese fondue

Instead of:
Buying anything at the souvenir stores ($10 – 200)

Explore the sensual side of Rocks and Gems Canada

Rocks and Gems Canada is a mineral emporium that sells $50, 000 fossils and $5 agate slices. Check out their many varieties of spherical gems. Hold each sphere in your hand for forty-five seconds. Discuss their varying hefts. Put them all down. Smile at the unimpressed staff. Buy nothing.

Cost: Free!

Instead of:
Taking the gondola up Sulphur Mountain ($42)

Hike Johnston Canyon

Johnson Canyon is a series of frozen creeks and waterfalls that’s pleasant and easy to hike. Wear good socks and head there with a few pals. Gawk at every icicle like it’s an apparition of the Virgin Mary. Talk about your chances of surviving a fall from various points on the trail. Once your company tires of your narration, stop speaking, admire the frozen landscape, and revert to looping “Let it Go” in your head.

Cost: Free except the mental toll of “Let it Go”

Instead of:
Visiting the renowned Whyte Museum, which would surely be worthwhile ($8)

Go to that store with the horizontally cut taxidermy.

Venture into the back, where you’ll find Banff’s famous “Mummified Merman.” Look at it very closely. It will always just look like a monkey hot glued to trout.

Cost: Free!

Instead of:
Buying a park pass for the day ($20)

Borrow a park pass from a friend’s parents

It is a timeless truth of Banff that your parents do not own a park pass, but your friend’s parents do.

Cost: Free!

Instead of:
Going to the hot springs ($7)

Go to the Cascade Mall food court

Stand by the steam at Edo Japan. Open your pores but not your wallet. Or just pay for the hot springs. They’re really fun.

Cost: Free (or $7)

Total base cost for the day:

$5 – Hot chocolate
$15 – Lunch at Grizzly House
$20 – Unavoidable impulse purchases (mostly fudge)

= $40