The Good Sport

Scheme Magazine is currently featuring my story The Good Sport. My piece is kicking off the second run of their series on cultural identity But where are you really from?”

Excerpted from the original story

I still remember the bright yellow menus, the ubiquitous TV screens and the lingering smell of chicken wings in my hair. As an undergrad, I spent many nights serving tables and scouring my apron for extra packets of dill sauce.

A sports bar may seem like a strange entry point for a reflection on race, so I should mention that my ethnicity came up all the time. My customers asked“where are you from” about as often as they asked about the actual hotness of the hot wings. When they tried to guess, they would point to all kinds of obscure indicators, like my ethnic-looking earrings or my vague resemblance to a friend of theirs from Peru, India or Lebanon. I was the kind of server who wore a smile as if it were part of the uniform, entertaining customer curiosity without question.

The first time I played this guessing game at the restaurant, I was serving a table of four men.

“How are you guys doing over here?” I asked in my patented chirp. We engaged in light banter as I collected their empty pints and ravaged nacho trays.

“Just curious,” said one man.

“We’ve been wondering–where are you from?”

Although there was no game on that night, these men still seemed like they had their wagers set. I scanned the restaurant, which wasn’t too busy, and stood there holding a non-committal grin.

They placed their bets: Persian? Brazilian? Filipino? Portuguese?

“I speak Spanish,” I hinted, “and I was born in a small country in Central America.”

One man responded with a tentative, “mmm-Mexico?”

“El Salvador,” I finally said, “I was born there and moved to Toronto when I was two-years-old.”

This brief explanation felt worn-in like a well-read novel. I had shared it for as long as I could remember, and I didn’t feel much of anything when I repeated it.

Over the years I had somehow internalized that this was a geography game, not a history lesson, and that talk of the civil war and my fleeing family wasn’t good repartee. Particularly when on the job, I’d never say “Canada,” “Toronto,” or some other version of “here.” I’d let customers indulge in distancing my Canadian-ness: I would be agreeable and they would be satisfied. I admit, by temperament, habit, and job-description, I wanted to people-please. And I usually didn’t mind playing along if the customers seemed well intentioned. In fact, if they asked about my last name, I’d even mention my far-flung Italian roots.

I was loath to think this laid-back attitude was anything less than a personal choice. No big deal, right?…

If you enjoy the following excerpt, you can read the rest on Schema’s website.
You can also check out
other stories in Schema’s “But where are you really from?” series.


Learning to Listen

“A wise old owl sat in an oak. The longer he sat, the less he spoke. The less he spoke, the more he heard. Why can’t we be like that wise old bird?” – anon.

Radio’s charm has changed. It used to be both intimate and fleeting–and while it’s still the former, we can now skip forward, select segments, go back, replay, tune in when we like and, importantly, we can easily share.

For a moment, I’d like to pretend we’re in a cozy living room and I’m inviting you in to sit with me by the radio, in an old rocking chair, and enjoy some milk and cookies.

There’s something special about closing our eyes and taking in a beautiful story, or allowing our minds to focus on the language of an incisive and stimulating debate.

For me, it started with audiobooks. I loved the way authors read their own stories. Over the years, as they’ve become increasingly accessible, I’ve fallen in love with a few really great podcasts.

As a seasoned listener, I’ve made attempts to lay out my best sample for skeptics.

If you’re starting to explain why it’s not worth it (you’re too busy, you always listen to music, you think radio is boring)…shhhh. Turn your speakers to a comfortable level.

Here’s a fantastic piece with which to start:

Recently, the team at This American Life produced an episode called Island Time, which took on several very difficult questions about relief efforts in Haiti.

Months after the earthquake–and months after stories about reviving fading interest have themselves faded–this story grabbed me by the ears and affected me profoundly.

Among other things, they ask: why, after so many years and so much money, is this country getting poorer? What does it matter that so much Haitian artwork was destroyed? Why should anyone care if their mangos are bruised? How many would-be-heroes have left Haiti without finishing what they came to do?

It’s so well done, and so important to pass on. This is the kind of journalism that really matters, and that we really need to support.

Photo credit: “African Owl” By Bill Hails on Flickr.

The women of the Toronto Star radio room

We’ve introduced ourselves on the Toronto Star intern blog.

According to Roger Gillespie–senior editor, training and development–the post has been attracting lots of traffic from both twitter and facebook.

In a profession that used to be an old boy’s club, this set of fresh faces does indicate that something big is (and has been) changing in journalism. At the face of things, I’m very proud . . . but I do want to make something clear.

All of these amazing female journalists are much more than pretty young faces. We’re coming up through the system, and we’re getting ready to claim more corner offices.

As the following video illustrates, this progress isn’t something to be taken for granted. The narrator mentions news women about 5:00 minutes in, but quickly notes that they basically stick to the women’s pages, writing about household tips and social events: “Women find it difficult to compete with men in general reporting jobs.”

(Although I have no interest in the attractive arrangement of a table, I’d make a stronger case for reporters who work the phones.) Continue reading

No comment: the hidden face of feedback

Photo by Flickr user AJU_photography

There are many names for people who read blog posts but don’t comment on them: internet introverts, digital wallflowers, the silent majority…

The CBC’s Jim Lebans lists all of these nicknames in his short essay “In defense of lurking.” In it, he explains why he doesn’t chime in at the end of articles, despite having reasoned opinions.

Of the few comments following his piece, this was the most telling:

But I’d venture to guess that, unlike Jim, most don’t decide not to comment–they probably just don’t think to. Others just don’t want to: they may have something to say but, all things considered, it’s way easier to scroll down and roll out.

(The opposite of a “lurker”, by the by,  is the infamous troll, who I mention for the sole purpose of plugging this College Humour video.)

The rarest kind of reader, in my experience, is the one who writes something thoughtful, attaches their real name to their statement, fills in their actual email address and maybe even checks back to see if the conversation has moved forward.

But what about the online conversations that happen because of, but outside of, the original blog post?

In my case, most of my feedback comes to me through Facebook. Sometimes the links I post spark long and complex debates. Often, the people participating don’t even know one another and yet manage to engage in very critical yet respectful conversation.

Meanwhile, the original blog post is surrounded by singing crickets.

By way of example, I recently posed a question on this blog as well as the a Toronto Star blogShould reporters be allowed to protect whistleblowers?

If you check out both posts, you’d think only two people had thoughts on the matter. Well, today I am bolstering the numbers by ousting a few of my Facebook friends.

Their responses ranged from the curious to the impassioned, but they all took the time to think through the issue through and engage with others. I think it’s a shame that the resulting discussion should remain locked behind the gates of my Facebook privacy settings. (At least, in theory.)

What follows is a comment thread you were never intended to see. Hopefully, its content will inspire some more of you “eyeballs out there” to activate your fingers and get in on the conversation. Continue reading