No Coincidence, No Story

A coincidence, by definition, is a striking occurrence of two or more events at one time, apparently by mere chance.

chance

Most of us encounter coincidences regularly in our day-to-day lives: we run into a friend having dinner at the  same restaurant, meet someone who shares the same birthday, or read a word in a magazine only to hear it on TV seconds later. But is “chance”, i.e. just dumb luck, really the culprit?

Some people believe that coincidences aren’t really “random” at all, but can be mathematically traced back to some sort of underlying probability.

Others, like Deepak Chopra, believe that coincidences are not mere happenstance, but clues from the universe that hold some sort of sign or underlying message.

deepakchopra

While I don’t consider myself a particularly spiritual or religious person, the romantic in me is sort of inclined to agree with the latter. I’ve always been a big believer in fate; serendipity and sliding doors and all that. Every time I miss the subway, I wonder whether it has altered the path of my life forever. Had I not stopped to check my curling iron was unplugged for the 15th time, perhaps I would have met the love of my life on that train. We might have bonded over the fact that we were both listening to the same song on our iPods, and before long, I’d be cutting my hair, dyeing it blond and carrying his baby.

………..Ok, so that’s sort of the plot to the actual movie Sliding Doors. But hey, it’s my fantasy here.

slidingd

Given my preoccupation with coincidences, I was excited to discover that this week’s podcast of This American Life was all about that very topic.

TAL_color2

Have you noticed that I am macking all of my blog post ideas from podcasts lately? I should really channel this energy into creating financial derivatives. That sh*t would be far more lucrative.

Anyway, the title of the podcast is based on an old Chinese maxim: No Coincidence, No story. In other words, if there were no coincidences, there would be no stories.The episode featured some of the best coincidence stories sent in by This American Life listeners: from an engaged couple who discovered that their respective parents had nearly gotten engaged years earlier; to a girl’s chance encounter with her biological father at a bus station. ( I won’t spoil the surprise for you in case you want to listen yourself- which I highly recommend you do!)

coincidence

All of this got me thinking about the coincidences that have occurred in my own life. I racked my brain and came up with the following list:

  • My niece Lola and I are both adopted and both left-handed (the only ones in our family who are)
  • I ran into a girl I went to elementary school with here in Toronto recently. This was surprising for a number of reasons:
  • We grew up in a small town of 5,000 people over 3,000 km away from here;
  •  I don’t know a single other person from my hometown who lives in Toronto;
  • Where we met was nowhere near where either of us live. We both just happened to be walking there at the same time. I found it crazy that in a city this big we somehow ran into each other.
  • The day before I flew to Toronto for my job interview, I was anxious and on edge. I didn’t know if moving to Toronto was the right thing for me, and was feeling insecure about my qualifications. So I went for a run in Point Pleasant Park in Halifax to blow off some steam. Just as I was turning a corner, a blue jay flew directly in my path. I had never seen a blue jay in that park before, and given its association with TO, I took this as a sign that all would work out and I was meant to be here.

bluej

Admittedly, these “coincidences” are deeply personal, and probably not very remarkable to anyone else. And that makes sense. Studies have shown that we have an egocentric bias towards our own coincidences: we find stories that happen to us inherently far more interesting than those that happen to other people.

While they are undoubtedly special memories that I will always cherish, I can’t help but feel sort of gipped that in a canvass of my entire life, these were the best coincidences I could come up with. I’ve never dialed the wrong number and ended up with a new best friend, or met a long lost cousin on a train to Uzbekestan. In the words of Drunk Uncle, “That’s not me”.

drunkuncle

I kind of wish it were though. I feel like then my life would be inherently far more interesting.

At the end of the podcast, the host concluded that regardless of what you believe about coincidences, there’s a beauty In even noticing them in the first place. And I kind of agree. At least that’s what I tell myself when I’m standing alone on the subway platform :)

Question of the Day: What is the most interesting coincidence that has happened to you?

Tales from the Altar

This week’s assignment for my writing class was to write a piece of dark, transgressive humor that pushes the boundaries of what’s socially acceptable. Our teacher provided us with some Sarah Silverman and George Carlin videos as inspiration, and encouraged us to be “outrageous” and really go for it.

I guess I’m a total prude, because I found this extremely difficult.  I worried everything I said was too offensive. Eventually, I just said f*&k it, and came up with the piece below.  Admittedly, I PG-ified it a bit for you – but in the event that I still offend anyone, I’m sorry. Breezy don’t mean no harm, y’all.

And Mom: Please, please do not disown me over this. I love you and I know you have done everything in your power to prevent me from turning out this way.

Enjoy!

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Whenever anyone asks me about my religious proclivities (or, if I just want to make things really awkward at a dinner party), I tell them that I am a lapsed Catholic.

A lapsed Catholic, at least in my case, is someone who was raised Catholic, in a good Catholic family, was baptised, received First Holy Communion and was Confirmed, and despite all of this, has not stepped foot inside a church for the past five years. Why? Well, how long do you have?

It’s not the whole sexual abuse and rampant discrimination thing (although, that doesn’t help). Or the rigidly formalistic ceremony and all of that damn sitting, standing and kneeling. It’s not even the intense and unrelenting Catholic Guilt (which, of course, I am experiencing intensely as I write this.)No. The real reason behind my estrangement with the Catholic Church stems from my brief, albeit traumatizing, history as an altar girl.

*Not me or anyone I know. Poor bastards.

Serving on the altar was never a role I coveted. I was forced into it by my mother, who, as a young girl, wanted nothing more than to don that miniature white robe herself, but was not permitted, due to her pesky vagina.

But in 1992, in perhaps the only development the Catholic Church as made in the past 50 years (besides installing bulletproof glass on the Pope-Mobile), girls were finally allowed to sit on the altar.

Since my older sisters were already in high school at the time and had aged-out of the “target demographic” (if you know what I’m saying), I alone was left to carry the weight of my mother’s lifelong dreams on my shoulders.

I begged and pleaded not to have to do it, all the while cursing my mom for not having a better lifelong dream, like “being a fairy princess”, or “eating the world’s biggest hoagie”. But resistance was futile. The day after my 10th birthday, she marched me down to the Glebe House to sign up.

For those of you who aren’t familiar, at each Catholic mass, there are between 2-4 boys or girls who sit beside the altar and assist the priest with the running of the mass. They set up the altar, fetch items as necessary, hold the bible open on their heads for the priest to read, etc. In essence, they are basically glorified stage hands. Or towel racks. I remember for some reason always holding a stiff, white towel on my arm. It didn’t seem suspicious at the time….

Soon the time came for me to put on my unflattering, off-white robes (which I’m convinced were actually old curtains from an abandoned convent) and make my altarial debut. I was instantly anxious about being “on stage” in front of so many people. At the age of 10, I was, to put it mildly, at an “Awkward Stage”. I was prepubescent, mildly overweight, and extremely clumsy, and had no desire to call further attention to myself; especially in that get-up. Each Sunday, I would say a silent Novena that I would not spill any wine, trip over my own feet or generally make an ass of myself.

Well that, my friends, is when I learned that there is no God. Every week, without fail, I fucked up. I stumbled up the stairs. I dropped things left, right and centre. Once, I even knocked over a candle backstage and started a small fire. I had to use three spare altar robes and a bucket of holy water just to put it out.

Almost my church.

Another time I had an allergic reaction to the Easter Lilies while on stage. I began sneezing like crazy and clutching my throat in an attempt to breathe, while 2 Eucharistic Ministers rushed to my aid and escorted me offstage.

While the process for regular masses was bad enough, it was even worse during church Holidays. At Easter, we pulled out a massive crucifix that I’m pretty sure had to be air lifted in, and set it up on the altar for the entire congregation to come and kiss Jesus. My job was to stand there, with one of those stiff white cloths I always had, and wipe the lipstick and saliva droplets from Jesus’ emaciated nether regions after each churchgoer was done. (Which, incidentally, is also a form of torture used in many Siberian prisons.)

Another ceremony we had at Easter was what I call the “Fucked-Up Holy Water Parade”. This is how it worked: I carried around a bucket of holy water while the priest dipped a sceptre-like device into it and waved it all over the people in each pew. (I don’t know why he just didn’t just use a Supersoaker. It would’ve been so much easier.)

Like this, only the bucket was allll me

I inevitably got soaked every single time. Looking back, I guess I was just really blessed, but at the time, I only remember feeling damp.

I thought that it would at least be interesting to get a behind the scenes look at the priest; the “man behind the robes”, if you will. But I soon realized that he was just as boring in real life as he was during his homilies. He would breeze in 5 minutes before mass, put on his jazzy robes and get to business, speaking little, if at all, to us kids. Which I guess makes sense, because it’s probably hard to stifle deep-seeded urges and make small talk at the same time.

My career as an altar server was ultimately short-lived. Admittedly, my commitment was pretty lax. Due to my aforementioned childhood obesity, I would rather watch TV or eat Passion Flaikies than actually move my appendages. Eventually, I started doing everything I could to affect my own constructive dismissal. I wore jeans on the altar (a big-no-no) paired with a too-short robe. I skipped my shifts. I started salacious rumours about my fellow altar servers. And, need I remind you of the infamous backstage altar fire of 1997? Enough said.

Eventually, my name began appearing on the schedule less and less, until one month it was nowhere to be found at all. My mother was devastated; convinced that this was yet another sign of the Church’s developmental retardation. They didn’t really want girls on the Altar. It had all been just a sophisticated ploy to appease the masses. She hugged me and told me to not let it get me down; that despite that awful Priest, girls in this world could still do anything! She insisted that we say the rosary together and pray for guidance. And as I knelt down and began saying my “Hail Mary’s”, I stifled a smug grin of victory into my folded hands.

Question of the Day: How do you feel about dark humor? Do you push the boundaries, or stick to what’s PC?

What Happens at Summer Camp….

What do you get when you take 100 young professionals, a few stocked coolers and an unlimited supply of house music and put them all on a secluded, picturesque island in Muskoka for a weekend? The makings for a really great blog post, that’s what. Also maybe a reality show. Or the sequel to Shark Night 3D.

It was the perfect summer vacation……

I just took that to a really dark place, didn’t I? Moving on.

Since moving to Toronto, I’ve been introduced to a group of friends who I would describe as “active fun-seekers”. Unlike my prudish, brooding self who likes to stay home and look at old movie stubs on the weekends, these guys are all about planning their next incredibly fun, outrageous adventures. If they’re not jetting off for ski weekends in Mont Tremblant or Vail, Colorado, they’re planning all-day beach parties on Toronto Island, or themed fundraising galas. The majority are lawyers, accountants, MBA’s and other professionals who like to work hard and play hard, and firmly believe that if you’re not wearing a costume, then you’re not having a good time.

For their latest project (enticingly dubbed “Summer Camp for Adults”) they rented out an entire children’s summer camp about 2 hours north of Toronto and invited over 100 friends to attend. Each of us paid a fee that covered the cost of transportation (by schoolbus of course), meals, and lodging for the weekend. Sounds sort of epic, right?

I’ll admit that I was a little wary of how I would fare with the whole “camping” thing. I never went camping as a kid, mostly because my mother despised it. Her war-veteran father had been convinced that spending time close to nature helped “put hair on your chest”, and forced my mother and her 5 siblings to spend a portion of each summer in the woods of Nova Scotia, “roughing it”. Because of this, she vowed never to put her own children through that same hell.

Perhaps because it had taken on a bit of a forbidden fruit element, I longed for the camping experience as a child. I remember having romanticized notions of what a family camping trip might be like. My siblings and I would roast hot dogs and make each other daisy-chain headbands while my dad regaled us all with local ghost stories. Then we’d all sing Kumbaya and go to sleep in our giant, 7-person tent. It would be just like in The Parent Trap.

One summer, I finally convinced my mother to let me go to sleep-away camp. I was 13, painfully awkward, and still firmly within the grasp of that unforgiving b*tch they call “puberty”. But nevertheless, I believed that this was going to be the best summer of my life. I could hardly contain my excitement about all the friendship bracelets I was going to make.  And the boys! So many boys to have “crushes” on! Or at least that’s what my YM magazines told me.  Needless to say, it was not exactly the summer I had imagined. 13 year olds can be a vicious bunch, and I struggled to fit in amongst a group who had been attending camp together for years. Also, somehow, the fact that this camp had a strong, Presbyterian mandate eluded both my devoutly  Roman Catholic mother and I… and when I came home singing “Ezekiel saw a wheel a rolling” and talking non-stop about some dude named “Calvin”, well, let’s just say that was the end of that.

We didn’t make this craft. But I wish we had.

But after a 13 year hiatus, I figured it was time to give camping another shot. A few friends and I opted to make the drive to Muskoka, rather than take the commissioned school bus,  but unfortunately didn’t leave the city until 4pm. AKA: Traffic Armageddon O’Clock. The drive, which should have taken approximately 2.5 hours, took us almost 6. We arrived at 10pm, in pitch darkness, and began unloading our stuff onto the dock, where we were to be transported to camp by a short boat ride.

The fact that I was a camping novice became immediately apparent when I looked around at what everyone else had packed.  Instead of a practical, and travel friendly sleeping bag, I had chosen to bring  a duvet and 400 thread count sheets. Rather than Bud Light Lime and local Ontario craft beer, I brought Rose. Although the darkness prohibited me from seeing the contents of the other campers rucksacks, I was quite certain they didn’t include a curling iron, half the contents of the Holt Renfrew beauty counter, and enough clothing to last the entire summer.  My foray into camping was beginning to look about as promising as Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s “cut the waist” challenge.

I quietly shoved my two blackberry devices out of view and under the copies of US Weekly in my designer handbag and focused instead on the faint noise of motor approaching in the distance. What appeared to be a glorified canoe pulled up to the dock, and we were met by an enthusiastic young man named Daniel wearing nothing but a smile and a camouflage Morphsuit. “Welcome to Camp Tamawkwa!” he said.

So this was to be our captain. Our good-times Sherpa, if you will. Meh. I thought. He’ll do.

I struggled to load each of my bags onto the boat, while  saying a silent prayer to the Saint of $17 Eyeshadows that all of my MAC would make it across alive.

Not Daniel. But this is what he looked like. Actually, it could be Daniel. Who knows what’s going on under there.

Now let me just say that being on a boat in the middle of the night in total darkness is not my idea of a good time. Although I’m sure the scenery was beautiful, I did my best to block it out, along with the scary noises and shadows, and focused instead on Daniel’s Morphsuit. How did he get into that thing? And why did he need to be in camouflage? Was he planning to hijack a pirate ship after this? Unfortunately, Morphsuit Daniel’s role of serenity began to unravel when he started regaling us with tales of “Axe-Man Jack”, the Axe Wielding, infamous ghost of the island. Great. Not only did I have foam mattresses and outdoor showers to contend with, now I had to deal with an axe-murderer too? What was I going to do if he approached me, smother him with my duvet??

Luckily we soon heard the sound of house music and the glow of mini lights from a distance.  The night’s planned festivities,  a “grade 8 dance”, was already in full swing. “The party’s been going on for a while,” said Daniel. “I’ll take you to your cabins so you can get your costumes on and join the others.”

We looked at each other blankly.

“Wait…” he said, “You did bring costumes, right?”

Things, it seemed, were about to get interesting.

Stay tuned for part two…………….

Question of the Day: Did you go to Summer Camp as a kid?

There’s a Saint for That

Catholics have a lot of  hang-ups.

I’m allowed to say this, of course, because I am one. An estranged one maybe- but a baptized, confirmed, card-carrying member of the “feel-guilty-about-everything” club nevertheless. And if this alone doesn’t give me the right to poke some good-natured fun at my own kind, then I kindly draw your attention to the 13 years of catechism; endless religious ceremonies; and countless rounds of standing, sitting and kneeling I’ve been forced to endure over the years.

……oh, and this dress:

We good? Ok, back to the hang-ups. Putting holy water on everything…. drinking wine in the morning … sanctifying things…  not putting yeast in stuff that should have yeast in it… it’s all enough to make your head spin.

Perhaps the strangest/most interesting preoccupation of all held by Catholics, though,  is the idea of the Patron Saint.

For those of you who were lucky enough to escape attending the Stations of the Cross every Friday as a child, I’ll give you some background. A Patron Saint  is a saint who is regarded as the advocate or guardian of a certain group of people, place or thing. Saint Jude, for example, (who many hospitals and crisis centers are named after), is the Patron Saint of  lost causes and desperate circumstances. Saint Francis of Assisi, alternatively, is the Patron Saint of animals, and Saint Elmo is the Saint of abdominal pain (cramps- as we ladies know- are no laughing matter).

Yep- we Catholics even riddle our Saints with baggage and responsibilities in the afterlife, forcing them to listen and attend to the constant demands of whiny disciples . It must be a lot of work for these poor dudes- especially since some of them are the Saint of like, 85 things. Saint Michael, for example, has responsibility for police officers, sailors, ambulance drivers, hatmakers, fencing, swordsmiths, and Pensacola Florida. Saint Patrick, on the other hand, is not only the Patron Saint of an entire country (Ireland, fools) he’s also responsible for making sure we all get crunk and have an awesome time on his death-birthday. Imagine the pressure!

Growing up, I never encountered a problem my mother couldn’t throw a Saint at. The Catholic response to the Greeks and their ubiquitous use of Windex, one simple prayer to the appropriate Patron Saint was certain to cure whatever it was that ailed you. Lost something? Never fear- Saint Anthony, the Patron Saint of Lost things, is here!  Going on a trip?  Put in a good word with Saint Christopher, the saint of travel, and he’ll make sure nobody goes all Natalee Holloway on your ass.

For some reason, while not much else of Catholicism stuck, the Patron Saints thing still has me hooked. In one of the many ways I am slowly morphing into my mother, I find myself often praying to these guys for my friends and family.

Just the other day, for example, a friend told me about having a drink spilled on his laptop. In an attempt to be of assistance- I immediately consulted my trusty online Saint index (yep. you read that correctly) for “drink spilled on laptop”. No hits. I searched around some more, and after taking a few liberties (as we Catholics often like to do) I eventually went with my homeboy Chris, who also is the Saint against flooding.  I figured this was close enough.  Well- let me tell you, didn’t that computer get fixed right up! (some credit for this may/may not be due to the hairdryer used to dry that puppy out. Details. )

I guess maybe there is something to be said for knowing exactly who to turn to in a time of crisis.  Rather than directing your prayers to God himself, who is busy trying to deal with all of those displaced people in Haiti and crises in Pakistan (not to mention blessing Beyonce’s womb with Blue Ivy Carter), instead you can send your prayers directly to some wise old dude who has been specifically tasked with your particular problem.. and I think there’s something kind of comforting about that.

Plus, I like to think of the Patron Saints as God’s very own team of Ghostbusters. Except they aren’t unemployed parapsychology professors… and they exterminate way more sh*t than just demonic spirits called Zuul terrorizing Manhattan apartments. Come to think of it- I might be onto something here. Ivan Reitman- call me. I’ve got the perfect sequel for you.

Question of the Day: Who you Gonna Call??