Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Urban helplessness hits new low

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TORONTO --About a week ago, one of the smartest women I know sent me a note. She had just read a newspaper life section, and was understandably in a state of serious despair.

"Such easy-peasy stories," she said. "The 'how-to' as if we are all retarded or so deeply unsophisticated that we are felled by the task of opening a bottle of bubbly."

I dug up the note, after three of my friends and I had gone for our usual 6 a.m. run and lived to tell the tale, despite an "extreme cold weather alert" from the City of Toronto bureaucracy and grim warnings from climatologists, whose predictions that exposed flesh "will freeze in a few minutes" at that point had been breathlessly reported by Toronto media for almost 12 hours.

Three of us ran for almost 40 minutes bare-faced; the fourth had her ears covered but head exposed. Not one centimetre of our flesh came close to freezing.

So are we medical miracles or freaks of nature or has urban helplessness reached a new low? Hint: The question is rhetorical.

As further evidence, I give you a story which ran this week in my old newspaper, the Globe and Mail, or at least on the paper's website.

Its subject was "how to properly fold a sweater," it went on for 500-plus words and it broke down the care and feeding of the sweater into a series of steps, which are roughly as follows.

First, take a good look at the sweater to get a sense of its dimensions or maybe even "use a tape measure to record shoulder to shoulder, sleeve, bustline and bottom-edge lengths" then swish it in cold water and put it on a towel; reconstruct the shape; finish by rolling up in the towel.

Think that's the end of it? Not so fast.

Then comes pill removal (by hand or with tape, straight razor or fabric shaver), followed by four or five fat paragraphs on how to fold the sucker.

The writer then noted with what is the paper's trademark confidence that those matters it deems important actually are, "There are a couple schools of thought regarding where the sleeves belong in the grand scheme of box folding." Really?

Shall I tell her where I think the sleeves belong? Or what the chances are that a normally busy person will be measuring her damp sweaters? Or what I'd like to do with the fabric shaver?

I am the embodiment of ineptitude. I practically need instructions on how to breathe. To the astonishment of those running pals I mentioned, I still regularly get lost on the same routes we've been doing three times a week for almost seven years. I am hopeless at just about everything.

But I'm buggered if I'm going to look for instruction on how to fold a sweater, name a child or pet or open a bottle of champers and I don't need the municipal bureaucracy to tell me that it's cold outside.

And if I was going to ask for help with any of that, the very last place I'd look is the typical newspaper life section.

I know whereof I speak here. For about five or six years, I wrote for one of these sections, though I believe in those days it was called "lifestyle," which was the name most newspapers moved to when "women's" sections were deemed patronizing and sexist.

But the old women's sections were about something; they gave readers recipes, stern advice columns (Dear Abby or Ann Landers) and fluffy features. You knew what you were getting. And through it all, there was an implicit understanding that the reader, even those in Toronto, had at least a quasi-functional brain: Recipes may have told you how to make an omelette, but the writers didn't feel compelled to also tell you what an omelette was or what it's called in seven other countries or to spell out the various omelette controversies.

I was my section's humour columnist. Once, cursed with a huge pimple, I wrote an entire column about it. (My favourite line was that if Garth Drabinsky, who was then a mover and shaker whose company ushered in the multiple-movie theatres that are now the norm and who is now a guest of Her Majesty, ever got a gander at it, he'd multiplex it and I'd have 10 pimples.)

I even wrote the occasional recipe. (Sliced bananas: Take two bananas. Peel. Slice. Put in bowl. Add milk.)

It was a complete lark and the easiest job I ever had. I once wrote five columns, or a week's worth, in about 47 minutes.

I have no idea if any of it was funny but my saving grace was that I knew enough not to take myself seriously. And I never for a minute thought anyone would or should look to me or that section for actual advice. None of us working in it did. It was meant to be a laugh.

Mind you, in those days, we all knew enough to come in from the cold, or not. Up north, where I grew up and where it was genuinely bitterly cold if only for six months of the year, I always knew that when I stuck my tongue on the metal poles in the schoolyard and it stayed there, it was time.


Christie Blatchford is a columnist with Postmedia News.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 9, 2012 A10

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About Christie Blatchford

Christie Blatchford is the national columnist for Postmedia News.


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