I Survived Haiku Deathmatch!

mightier than swords —
warriors with pens unsheathed
stand ready to fight!

So yesterday, against my better judgement, I took the long bus ride into Toronto to compete in the Toronto Poetry Project‘s Haiku Head-to-Head Battle. In doing so, I learned a very important lesson.

My “better judgement” can be a bit of a wet blanket sometimes.

Six haikusters stood up, and only one remained. Me! It was the first time in more years than I care to count since I’ve stood up and read anything that I wrote in public, and the reaction was phenomenal. The competition got the crowd going with some quite clever and rather raunchy pieces. The silence from the audience when I read my poems made me nervous, but in the end, it turns out silence is golden. As in medal. As in I won it.

Thanks to TPP, ringmaster Cynthia Gould, the organizers, judges, my gracious audience, and the folks at Supermarket. And special thanks goes to the Haiku Ninja for sparing my life.


Shaving the best for… ah, forget it.

I was going through my archives today and ran into this little gem from 2003. The piece is titled, “The Luxury of Shaving,” and it was for the program guide for a trade show called New You (I have another article from that publication in my portfolio here). I remember this one being fun to write. My interviewees were happy to talk to me, people who loved their jobs. That’s always refreshing. Looking back on it, there’s no way I’d be able to write this article today without getting into the whole body-shaving phenomenon that’s sweeping the industry now.

According to archaeologists, men have shaved their faces for about 20,000 years. For much of that time, men had a simple choice to make before applying the shark tooth, flint blade or razor to their faces: soap or no soap.

Frank B. Shields changed the course of history when, in 1920, he invented Barbasol – the first “brushless shaving cream” to hit the market.

“Barbasol is one of the most recognized names in the shave industry,” says Janis Morgan, product manager at Perio Inc., current owners of Barbasol. “Since it went into the aerosol can, the formula has stayed pretty much the same.”

Shaving cream in an aerosol can was introduced in the 1950s. It would be over 20 years before shave gels, the next big thing in shaving, would come along to challenge the shave cream market.

Fast forward to the 21st century. A look at any department store, salon, or catalogue finds the once-simple shaving market evolving to a new level.

“There is a whole range of new products that men are looking for,” Ross Barclay says. Mr. Barclay is the proprietor of The Trafalgar Shop (www.trafalgarshop.com), an online store specializing in high-quality men’s grooming products. “They want natural products, a variety of fragrances, different styles of packaging, and they also have an eclectic selection.”

Mr. Barclay says that the most important factor in driving this new market is that men are starting to let a little luxury into their lives.

“Overhauling the shaving routine, which most men do every day, is a natural and straightforward place to start,” he says. “With a badger hair shaving brush, a British shaving cream and a few minutes of peace and quiet, it’s possible for a man to match the type of enjoyment women have been getting from things like facials or manicures.”

Brands such as Nivea and Neutrogena, enjoyed by women for years, have recently released skin care and shaving products for men. This is not only seen as proof that the market for luxury men’s shaving products has reached the mainstream, but it has also worked to raise awareness of other brands that may be hard to find.

“When a man tries one different product, he’ll usually start looking for others,” says Mr. Barclay. “A man may start with a heavily-advertised product and enjoy it, which will make him all the more likely to seek out and find similar manufacturers without advertising budgets.”

The growth of these higher-end shaving lines has not gone unnoticed by stalwarts such as Barbasol. A lot of boys grew up watching their dads work the foam from those rusty-bottomed cans into their faces before a shave, and Ms. Morgan says her company will use that brand recognition to expand its own line.

“I don’t know how soon that will be, but you’re always looking at what’s out there, what people are concerned with,” she says.

Still, there is room in the market for those who prefer to stick to tradition.

“Classic shave creams is a declining category,” says Ms. Morgan. “We are the only brand that is growing in sales in a declining category, which is amazing.”


Think Twice… Again

The last few months have been spent waiting for and then recovering from surgery. It gave me plenty of time to sift through some of the ballooning data taking over my hard drive. How the heck did I almost fill up 500 gigs on a brand new computer in less than a month?!

Anyway, among the lost gems I found buried beneath multiple directory levels were copies of Second Life, a ‘zine I produced three issues of back in 2004 (before a certain video game of the same name swept into the public consciousness). “The art, culture and business of used, vintage, antique, recycled and repurposed goods” was a fun beat to write about. I won ‘Zine of the Month awards from indie arts stalwart Broken Pencil for two of the three issues, and I even found myself being interviewed for articles in other magazines.

SecondLIfe1 SecondLife2 SecondLife3

(If you’re going to download these, please keep in mind that the contact info for myself and, quite probably, everyone else mentioned in these magazines is 10 years out of date.)

Three issues was as far as this project went. When I started Second Life, I went in not wanting to be one of those people who puts out a publication on the backs of unpaid writers. I had some great contributors who deserved more than just another piece of paper with their name printed on it. I made some big plans and set out to tackle issue number four by myself. I even managed to snag “www.secondlife.ca” (again, not knowing about an eponymous Internet venture — I have since let it that domain name go) with plans to generate income through banner ads, classifieds, memberships, all those Internet money-making schemes that seem quaint to the point of ridiculousness now.

Poverty, computer problems, and the realization that the phrase “Second Life” was quickly starting to gain a new significance in the online world conspired to end my little magazine. By the time I felt like getting back into self-publishing, another project had piqued my interest. That, however, is a tale for another post.

Stop Googling Yourself

someecards.com - The secret of your obsessive self-Googling is safe with me.Back in blogging’s early days, when I was writing blogs about everything from indie bands to a short-lived yet unhealthy obsession with Sailor Jupiter, I had a tradition. Every year around this time, I would enter my name into a search engine, see what would come up, and then rant or rave about every little trace of myself I found in the digital world. It’s been a while, so I’m going to go through this exercise again.

I’m old now, so I won’t be doing much ranting or raving, but there are a few interesting tidbits out there. I’ll skip the usual junk like my name and address appearing on social media sites I’ve never signed up for or even heard of — those things that the armies of Internet robots create for all of us. And, unfortunately, it would seem that most of the writing I’ve had published over the years has disappeared from the digital consciousness, either eroded through time or caught on the wrong side of a paywall.

That’s why I’m delighted to find out that everything I wrote for Torontoist is still online and available. Not only did I write for them, but I did a lot of photography as well. I should probably save and print those stories before they, too, are forgotten.

One of my favourite Torontoist stories to write was a short piece about my Glen Rouge camping experience. It was the first time I’d gone camping since I was a kid, and I did it on a bicycle from my downtown apartment.

Thing is, though, other than that, there’s very little that comes up about me other than a few random photos — like this one that ended up in a slide show on the Frommer’s travel site, or these at the bottom of this real estate agent’s page — and a couple of nonsense comments I’ve long since forgotten leaving. About two-thirds of the way down this page, there’s a review of my old Second Life Magazine (which is a story I’ll get to in a future blog post), but there used to be many more of those. Sheesh, I used to be all over this Internet thing, back when I was working for newspapers, magazines, web development companies… Looks like I’ve been away longer than I thought. I’d better get to work, take control of my brand, get search-optimized and whatever else the kids are saying these days.

On another note, other people who share my name include the Chief Operating Officer of Konica Minolta, and the Vice President of Sweeney Real Estate in Providence, Rhode Island. Checking back further, Johannes Widmann is credited by Wikipedia as the inventor of the “+” and “-” signs. Also, according to unverified Internet sources, this humble barn, built in the 1560s, may be where my last name is rooted. Weird, eh?

Funny How Time Flies

2013 was a heck of a year with a lot of changes. I actually turned my back on writing, opting for a return to the technical services field. That year taught me a lesson I already knew: fixing computers is much more fun as a hobby than it is as a job. After some soul searching, I’m back to living by my motto, which is also the subtitle to this blog.

It feels good to embrace the writing life again. I’ve dusted off my style guides and reference books, reconnected with a few people. I even got TESOL certified and have started the journey to teaching others how to use this language that I love.

Part of the process has been digging through the old portfolio binders looking for reminders of success. Going back all the way to the spring of 1996, I came across this story that was published in The Coast in Halifax:

On the surface, small-town life is simple. The neighbourhood has changed very little in decades, high school sweethearts are now married and the general store up the street is still run by the same ageless old man. To city folk, the small town represents idyllic tranquility; everything seems peaceful… on the surface.

In his new book, Blood On Steel, Michael Melski breaks through the ice of rural life, delving into the turbulent waters beneath. Characters in the two plays published in Blood On Steel – Joyride and Heartspent and Black Silence – are at once chillingly real and too absurd to believe. Melski himself seems as unassuming as one of his rural Nova Scotian characters, hardly looking the part of the playwright (or playboy as he refers to himself).

“I never wanted to play a part in my own life,” he laughs over copious amounts of coffee.

Perhaps it’s that down-to-earth attitude that has allowed him to enjoy the success he has had, without losing his sense of self. Melski hails from Cape Breton, a place that he describes as “part Brigadoon, part Hell’s Kitchen… like a Roger Whittaker/Van Halen medley.” He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the University of King’s College, and has studied theatre at Dalhousie as well as film at the Ryerson Polytechnical Institute in Toronto. His first two plays performed in Halifax, Hello From Sirius and The Trout Fisher’s Companion, were produced at the 1993 Halifax Theatre Explosion, which he helped establish. Joyride was first staged as part of the 1994 Atlantic Fringe Festival and premiered in the US in 1995. Last year, Melski was accepted as a writer-in-residence at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-On-The-Lake.

“I went to Shaw in July last year and worked on a new script called Burning Schoolhouse, which is about the investigation of a sex scandal in a small-town high school,” he remembers. “I had a wonderful time at Shaw. I met some of the best people in Canadian theatre. They were very supportive.

“I had a funny experience at Shaw,” Melski continues. “Perhaps it was due to exhaustion – this was my sixth play of 1995, and I was pretty burnt – I started to change Burning Schoolhouse to make it more Victorian. Big mistake. It was pointed out to me by a couple of people that, compared to my other work, it wasn’t my natural voice. I was being too polite. When I got back, I immediately got a grant to develop Joyride further, and haven’t had a chance to get back to Burning Schoolhouse. I’m dying to get back to finish it. It says some things that I’m quite proud of.”

Melski can pinpoint the night Joyride was conceived, linking it with a change in the community spawned by the murders at a Cape Breton McDonald’s restaurant. “Some people think it’s about the McDonald’s case, but it very specifically isn’t. It’s a similar account of a crime that’s similar in nature, but the facts are very different in this case.

Joyride is by far the most popular thing I’ve written,” Melski continues, “but Heartspent is closest to my heart.” Heartspent and Black Silence was first produced by the Eastern Front Company as part of the On The Waterfront Festival in the spring of last year. It revolves around characters that hit close to home: a young couple struggling to make ends meet while dealing with a gambling addiction.

“I got the idea about a year and a half before I wrote it, when I was in Toronto. I picked up a Greenwood racing form, and I actually saw Heartspent in one race and Black Silence in another race. It all came to me, sitting there over one cup of coffee, the idea of these two characters, where the play would be set, the mood, the tone, even the governing metaphor of wild horses tearing these two apart.

“I interviewed a lot of addicts doing the research for this,” Melski recalls. “As dark as what happens at the end of Heartspent is, it’s not as dark as reality. When you hear people say it and it’s not fiction – it happened to this person sitting across from you – it really strikes home. We want to beat the system, we want to beat the man at his own game. The sad reality is that most times, we can’t.”

Currently, Melski has many projects in development. Among them are an adaptation of Hamlet for this summer’s Shakespeare By The Sea, and a short film production entitled Young Offenders Act, which was a runner-up for the National Film Institute’s 1996 Drama Prize. He will also be attending Norman Jewison’s Canadian Film Centre in Toronto in June. With so much on his plate, it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll see Michael Melski’s name soon on a stage, screen, or bookshelf near you.

This isn’t cutting-edge journalism by any means, but it was an important stepping stone in my career. The day this article was published, I was walking towards Halifax’s famous Pizza Corner for lunch when I saw some crazy dude almost kill himself trying to run across the street. Turns out that dude was Michael Melski himself. His impromptu game of human Frogger was sparked by his desire to shake my hand and thank me for being to first person to “not misquote” him in an article.

For me, that acknowledgement was a pretty big deal. I was 25 years old and had been struggling as a writer, being told by many people that I’d never make a living at it because nobody ever does. It was part of the reason why I up and moved to Halifax in the first place. Having a writer near my age who was actually making a living at it cross a busy street to thank me for a job well done was one hell of a confidence booster. Even now, it reminds me that while there are a lot of downs in this business, the ups are worth it.

Go East Young Man (Part 2)

Been a long time coming, hasn’t it? Maybe I’ll tell the story of why it took so long for me to get around to writing this blog post another time. Or maybe I won’t. That’s the beauty of being in control of content.

The CoastIn October of 1995, I stepped off a train carrying the aforementioned two duffel bags and a knapsack and stepped in to the East Coast sunlight for the first time. I had no idea what I was going to do next. Looking back, I’m amazed at how unperturbed I was with the prospect of not having a roof over my head. I walked across the street to the nearest car rental place thinking, “If I don’t find a place to crash, at least I’ll have a car to sleep in for a few days.”

At the time, I thought I would remember that car for the rest of my life. All I can remember now was that it was some white domestic compact, fairly generic. What I do remember is how awed I was seeing Halifax spread out in front of the front window. I hadn’t been on a vacation of any kind since I was a little kid, and Halifax was the first new place I’d seen in years. And I live here now!

After a couple of aimless hours driving, I came across a bar called Gatsby’s. Fancying myself as a writer on an adventure, I took it as a sign. Walking in, I saw the customary wire racks of free newspapers that crop up in the doorways of urban bars. My eye was immediately drawn to The Coast, in large part because it looked like the Toronto weeklies Now and eye that had spent years ignoring my attempts at getting published. First things first, though. I had to see about finding a place to live.

It turns out Gatsby’s was a sign after all. The bar was part of a complex that included the Lord Nelson Hotel. In the “places to live” section of The Coast‘s classified ads, the hotel was offering rooms at $380 a month. In Toronto, I’d had dreams of rent that cheap, but never managed to find anything more than a musty basement room with a five-foot ceiling in that price range. In Halifax, $380 a month got me a hotel room bigger than my $600 Toronto bachelor apartment with a large tiled bathroom, weekly maid service and free local telephone calls. There were even free newspapers and coffee in the lobby! After about 10 to 12 hours of working on my American-hosted website in a month, I could pay rent and was left with almost $100 a week to live the Bohemian lifestyle I dreamed of.

After settling into the room and returning the car, I opened up The Coast again and called the phone number on the masthead. It was pretty late at night, but I didn’t want to give myself time to chicken out so I left a message detailing who I was, where I was from, and giving a quick list of my writing credits. The next morning, one of the editors of The Coast called me up and asked me if I would be interested in doing a phone interview with some members of a nationally-renowned dance troupe that would be passing through town.

That began six months of being part of the East Coast arts scene. In that time, I talked with artists of every stripe, business owners, government officials, successful writers who had started out by doing what I was doing. I even reconnected with some bands that I had interviewed while in Toronto. I didn’t get paid a single cent for a word The Coast published, but I was having the time of my life.

Alas, all good things must come to an end. While Prodigy was a big player in the online world of the 1980s, the mid-1990s saw its fortunes waning and, as a result, my Bohemian dream job disappeared. After a frantic job hunt, the only company that offered me a job was a call centre — exactly the thing that I had left Toronto to escape. Finally, I decided that if I was doomed to return to life in a cubicle, it’d be better to do it back in Toronto with my friends.

I can’t help but wonder what my life would have been like if I had held on in Halifax, but you know what they say about not being able to go back. I did leave the East Coast with a whole lot of new stories to tell my Toronto friends over pints, though. Sometimes it’s worth doing something just for the stories.

Go East, Young Man (Part 1)

The year is 1987, and NASA launches the last of America’s deep space probes. In a freak mishap, Ranger 3 and…

Oh, wait… I was thinking of something else. Sorry.

Today’s story is about the year 1995, and I was experiencing a phenomenon that would later become known as a “quarter-life crisis.” Four years out of school, I had built up a respectable portfolio of writing as a regular contributor to The Spill Magazine and What’s On Queen, as well as my writing and photographic contributions to What’s Up Toronto. Still, I couldn’t get a paid writing gig to save my life. I applied to every writing job I saw posted to no avail. I even experienced the most frustrating thing a young freelance writer trying to break into the business can face: meeting with editors to pitch articles only to be rejected and then read the articles I had pitched written by someone else. Tougher still was the fact that I was paying the bills by working in a call centre pushing insurance scams that made me feel dirty. Things needed to change.

And change, they did. Those early days of the Internet were also days of a low Canadian dollar compared to US currency. I was lucky enough to get a job creating a gateway from the then-powerful Prodigy Online service to some of the World Wide Web’s burgeoning music services. For about three hours of work a week, I was paid US$500 a month — an amount that translated into between $800 and $850 a month in Canuck bucks. It wasn’t enough cash to survive on in Toronto, but I was convinced that there was somewhere in the country where my new online life could work.

The mid 1990s also saw the rise of the Halifax music scene. Bands like Sloan, Jale, Thrush Hermit and Eric’s Trip were replacing Seattle bands on the radio waves. It occurred to me that if there were that many independent bands rockin’ on through the night, there must be some independent media outlets looking for writers. I quit my job, pared my possessions down to two duffel bags and a knapsack (including the heartbreaking sale or give-away of over 300 CDs), bought a train ticket and headed east.

To be continued…