Friday, January 29, 2010

Don't Work For Free

It's really that simple, people. Four words that could start a revolution, if everyone suddenly started abiding by them. Some people reading this might be saying to themselves, "What the hell is she talking about? Work for free? That's preposterous!" You, my lovably naive friends, are clearly not working in the arts. Because if you were, you'd know that working for free is a generally-accepted norm, a given, a supremely discouraging reality. Until we decide to change it.

There may be critics out there who would say, "Why shouldn't artists and sundry other creative types work for free? That's the price they pay for not working in a real job." To them, I would say, among other, more inflammatory things, that you can go ahead and keep adhering to that view. But you must live without music, books, movies, theatre, dance, painting, get the picture. Maybe all some people need is an XBox and a 2-4 of Bud Light to have an entertaining weekend. But I'd like to hope that most humans crave more out of life than that. So premise number one of my argument: we need art. Can we all agree on that? Good. Let's move on.

Other critics of my position - perhaps even some people working in the arts - might argue that asking those pursuing careers in the arts to work for free early on in their career development is perfectly reasonable. If one doesn't possess the precise qualifications for a particular position, one should be willing to work for free until such time that one possesses said qualifications. Hence the popularity of the internship, where the opportunity to work in a given job is supposed to be payment enough for one's labour. Not only that, but interns are routinely expected not to get paid working anywhere else for the duration of their internship (or to work "without distraction" as it's commonly, euphemistically phrased). While these kinds of assumptions do crop up in other sectors of the economy, nowhere are they more prevalent than in the arts. Arts and culture job listings are dominated by internships and volunteer work. It's well-nigh impossible to gain work experience and be paid for it. In what other industries is this acceptable? Banks pay their employees to learn how to count money. Auto makers pay their employees to learn how to make cars. McDonald's pays their employees to learn how to flip burgers. But if you're answering phones for a film production company, or writing copy for a new on-line magazine, it's likely you're doing it for free.

Hold on, my critics will say -- there's one huge difference between banks, auto manufacturers and McDonald's, on the one hand, and film production companies and on-line magazines on the other. The former are reliably profitable (more or less -- I recongize the auto maker example is a weak link), the latter are reliably unprofitable. The worker has a choice: pursue the career of your dreams without getting paid, or abandon it to pursue a job where you will get paid. Fortunatley for them, those who dream of becoming construction workers, computer programmers, engineers, teachers, lawyers, or even fast-food workers rarely have to make that choice. Life's not fair. Deal with it.

Such is the prevailing view that has allowed working for free to remain a norm in the arts sector, particularly in the entry-level echelons. As if this harsh outlook isn't discouraging enough, we are still as a society very much under the sway of harmful Romantic notions of who artists are and how they tick: eg., they are perpetually starving (by choice), garret-dwelling (now, more commonly, basement apartment-dwelling), drug-addicted, solitary, moody, pasty, all-around unpleasant creatures who thrive on their own discontent while producing work that will inevitably only gain public admiration post-humously. While there are a few artists today that match this stereotype, the vast majority do not. They have families, mortgages, student loans, pets. They pay taxes, vote and are, by most counts, fine upstanding members of their communities. They don't want to die at 27. They also don't necessarily care about becoming famous (although it would be nice). They just want to make a living doing what they love and are good at.

I'm not arguing that those working in the arts should get paid the same amount or more than workers in other sectors of the economy. I'm just arguing that they should get paid. Period. Part of the responsibility for change lies with employers. My message to you: don't hire people to work for free. Be responsible to your employees. Recognize that they'd like to eat three meals a day and hopefully not live with their parents until they're forty-five. If they do work for you, pay them. It doesn't have to be much. Minimum wage will do for a start. And if you can't afford that, don't hire anyone.

My message to workers: don't work for free. I know it takes a tremendous amount of fortitude to pass up an offer of unpaid work that comes along with a golden promise of future paid work, or portfolio-building, or networking or whatever other kind of carrot is being held out to you, in the hopes that you will agree to labour for free. The trickiest part of all of this -- and the reason why my hopes are slim that my "don't work for free" campaign will ever succeed -- is that we all have to stick together. Solidarity, my friends. Employers can only ask us to work for free as long as there are those out there who are willing to do so. But what if we all just said no? If employers really need our time, labour and skills, they can pay us for them. And maybe they will, if that's their only option.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

This One's for Dougie

It's a sports-themed night here on Our Time on the Edge. Not that I care remotely about NFL football, but I did catch enough of the Super Bowl to formulate the spanking-new POLL on the right. Vote early and often!

Being a die-hard Leafs fan, the truly great sports moment of the weekend for me was watching Doug Gilmour's #93 get raised to the rafters of the A.C.C. There aren't really adequate words to convey just how beloved Gilmour was, and still is, by Leafs fans -- especially those like myself whose first real taste of Leafs glory was their 1993 Cup run, led by Dougie, Clarkie, and the formidable Pat Burns, my all-time favourite NHL coach. Not to mention superstar young goalie Felix Potvin, who my 13 year-old self was determined to marry ("Jordan who?").

I get choked up just thinking about watching those 1992-1993 and 1993-1994 seasons with my Dad, who was just as enthralled with the gutsy, hard-working team that reminded him of how it had felt to be a Leafs fan thirty years earlier, in the last glory days. After the 1993 Cup run, the Leafs put out a video called "The Passion Returns", which detailed the highlights of that miracle season and heralded the dawn of a new era for Leafs fans. I still have it and watch it from time to time, with a Kleenex box close at hand. It was a truly magical time to be a Toronto fan and I am so glad that I was a part of it. But wow, it's starting to feel like a long time ago.

It's easy to get down about the Leafs these days. Since I moved back to Toronto in 2006, the magic's been scarce and fan morale has dipped dangerously low. The Leafs' own coach wrote this season off before it even started. Not a good attitude, in my opinion. But even at last night's game, when the distance between the golden days of Gilmour and the present seemed insurmountably great, there were glimmers of hope. Like, for example, my favourite new Leaf, rookie Luke Schenn, who dealt a f***ing awesome hit to Evgeni Malkin right in front of the Pens' bench, then took it upon himself to pound some sense into Tyler Kennedy when he came yapping after him for it. I love this kid! And a kid he is -- he would have been only three years old when Gilmour was scrapping with Marty McSorley in 1993. But he's got the true Leafs spirit -- something we haven't seen enough of in the past 16 years. However, we still remember the golden years well enough to recognize it when we see it, and being a true Leafs fan, I have to believe we're going to see it more often.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Living in the Now

I realized that, as of late, my posts have been a little heavy on the nostalgia. While one of the key motifs, if you will, of my blog is paying tribute to the pop culture of my past, I don't want to write about the past so much that folks will start to wonder if I've left my house since 1992. In other words, it's time for granny to get off the porch, quit bitching about "kids these days" and write about some of the things I'm enjoying this very moment, in 2009. Besides writing about 1989, that is.

Music: City and Colour - Bring Me Your Love (best album of 2008, according to me)
M.I.A. - "Paper Planes" (DFA Remix)
Guns N' Roses - "Better" (new single from Chinese Democracy)

Movies: Slumdog Millionaire
American Teen (now out on DVD)

Books: Don Cherry - Hockey Stories and Stuff
Slash - Slash

Food and Drink: Pad thai noodles from the "new" (old) Green Mango
Cranberry juice and lime Perrier

Fashion: My new sunglasses, the cost of which I will avoid mentioning here, as I'm still a little
embarrassed to have shelled out so much for something I could potentially
leave behind on a bus.

Fun: Second City improv classes (highly addictive)
Guitar Hero World Tour (especially when I get to drum...or sing Pat Benatar)

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Booths of My Youth

As my most seasoned readers will recall, the name of this blog is a reference to the immortal words uttered by Billy Hicks in the climactic scene of St. Elmo's Fire. That film was iconic of another generation, but the phrase "our time on the edge" resonates for mine as well. There are a lot of ways in which kids my age were living on the edge of a new era. Take, for example, the realm of technology. At my high school, we were the last class to learn how to type on typewriters in Grade 9 Business. The school set up an internet lab in our library the year that I graduated, but practically no one I knew I had e-mail. I'm pretty positive we were the last teenagers to go through their entire high school years without the "information superhighway" (as it was then known - did Al Gore coin that corny phrase?) being an integral part of our daily lives. I got my first e-mail account the summer before I started undergrad -- hard to believe how much has changed since.

Then there's the cell phone goes without saying that cell phone use, never mind ownership, was entirely out of the question for teens in the early to mid-1990s. My family even held the touch-tone revolution at bay for as long as possible. Our collection of rotary-dial phones were quite charming, although it got increasingly frustrating to obtain movie times, concert tickets, or basic customer service of any kind.

If any "young folk" are reading this (unlikely, but you never know), you're probably wondering, what in God's name did we do without cell phones and text messaging? Well, back then, it was all about the exciting and sometimes dangerous cultural institution known as the Pay Phone.
We used them everywhere -- at school, in our dorms, at the mall, in dimly lit alleys and totally sketchy was the only option we had. And what's happened to them now? A few months ago, I began an investigation into the fate of the Pay Phone in downtown Toronto. Unfortunately, the results weren't pretty. But they remain on our streets as a reminder that not so long ago, we were still living on the edge of a technological revolution that had yet to happen. We didn't know how behind the times we were. And that was OK, believe it or not.

Here's a few from my collection, which I hope to expand before these cultural landmarks are erased from our urban landscape...

The Booths of My Youth - Photo Essay 1

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Growing Up Grunge, Part. 2: Let's Back This Up a Bit

In a previous post ("Growing Up Grunge, Pt. 1"), I reflected on what it means to have come of age not just in the 1990s, but with the 1990s -- turning 11 in 1990 and 20 in 1999. I've been doing some more thinking about this lately, in particular about why the explosion of grunge had such a huge impact on kids my age. I should specify that I'm referring to when grunge music hit the mainstream -- that generation-altering year of 1991. It had, of course, been around since the mid-1980s. But for many kids like myself - who didn't have bad-ass older siblings and grew up in a sleepy small town - grunge did not enter our vocabulary until Nevermind and Ten hit the charts. To be honest, I was still pretty clueless about Nirvana and Pearl Jam even then. They were just so far removed from the poppier than pop Top 40 music I'd been grooving to all through grade school. And it is to that music, and the pop culture in general of the fabulous twilight of the 1980s that I will now turn.

Earlier I made a cursory list of grunge era icons, eg. Doc Martens, thrift store shopping, mosh pits, greasy hair, flannel, heroin chic, rock star suicides, and so on and so forth. Keeping those in mind, I'm going to now conjure up a similar list reflecting pop life as I knew it from about 1989 to 1991:

(For the full flashback experience, I recommend cueing up Waiting For a Star to Fall by Boy Meets Girl. Hit play now...)

OK, so here goes: Madonna's Like a Prayer (first cassette I ever bought), Pretty Woman, Wilson Phillips, Beverly Hills, 90210, movies starring the Coreys (Haim and Feldman, of course), Cotton Ginny, New Kids on the Block, Paula Abdul, The Wonder Years, hair scrunchies, sticker collections, Amy Grant's Heart in Motion, Salt-N-Pepa, chintz leggings (hello first day of junior high), Uncle Buck, Home Alone, Taylor Dayne, Milli Vannilli, my parents' Chevrolet Caprice, Murphy Brown, Parker Lewis Can't Lose...

And, oh yeah, the Gulf War. And the recession. But we won't get into that. Actually, maybe I will, if only to note that it seems bizarr-o to me that pretty much all of the pop culture that I can recollect from the "turn of the '90s" is so insanely fluffy, when the news was so bleak. But then again, I was only ten years old, and my biggest concern was whether Jordan Knight would be willing to wait for me until I was legal to marry him.

Point being that you cannot find a pop culture experience farther removed from the grunge era than that which immediately preceded it -- especially as experienced as a kid. Then 1991 came along. Did everything seem different only because we became teenagers? Or was it a real watershed? All I know is, Bryan Adams' Waking Up the Neighbors and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves were a friggin' far cry from Pearl Jam and Reservoir Dogs. But they existed in the same moment.

There has to be some lasting scars on my generation from being forced to sacrifice our love of smiley, squeaky-clean pop idols like New Kids on the Block and Paula Abdul in exchange for the angry, brooding and bedraggled likes of Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder. By late 1991, everything we loved as kids just was NOT cool anymore. There wasn't any time for sentimental good-byes. But maybe that's what becoming a teenager is all about -- leaving happy fuzzy childhood behind for a dark, uncertain, and possibly painful future. Interestingly enough, for kids of my generation, grunge took over the music scene at the exact moment we needed to articulate just how much it sucked to be a teenager. Therefore, I would argue, it's even more potent for us than for any other demographic in history. How's that for a sweeping statement? It feels right to me.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Edge of 29

Today is the first day of the last year of my 20s. Up until a month or two ago, I hadn't put any thought into milestone birthdays since my 19th, which was all about the promise of a new era of drinking and clubbing (a la Last Days of Disco - sans the clap) . Not surprisingly, I've had heavier issues on my mind leading up to my 29th.

I'm extremely fortunate in that the really important stuff in my life -- relationships with family and friends who I love more than anything -- is going just fine. There's just this little, tiny thorn in my side called "Lack of Career Fulfillment" that's really starting to drive me nuts. The enlightened side of me (grossly undeveloped as it is) wants to ignore it. You aren't what you do, so why should what you do matter? I've tried to burn that mantra into my psyche, but so far, it's just not working. I've grown up believing one's career is a huge part of one's identity. To which enlightened me counters, "Identity is an illusion!" Maybe so, but it keeps me awake at night.

So, my goal this year is to figure out what to do with my life. I'll write updates here and we'll see where I am this time next year. Maybe I'll find some answers, or maybe I'll develop my enlightened side to the point that I won't care about answers anymore. Either way, it's going to be heavy, man. I'm glad I have cake in the fridge.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Growing Up Grunge, Part 1

I recently completed my third round of revisions on my third screenplay - my life's obsession since the summer of 2007 - and for the first time it feels like the end is in sight. At the same time, I'm at the very beginning of a brand new story. I've got the concept down, but the characters are just shadows at this stage. The more I work on it, the more I'll come to know.
Right now, one thing that's for certain is that the characters I'm writing will be my age, and given that, the question that I'm pondering tonight is, what are the lasting after-effects of growing up grunge?

I started junior high in 1991, the year that Nirvana's Nevermind and Pearl Jam's Ten exploded into the mainstream, causing a paradigm shift in rock'n'roll and pop culture as a whole. By the time I started high school in 1993, grunge was the mainstream. It defined my teenage generation, even though by about 1995, grunge was already starting to fade into the past, painfully superseded by the rise of Oasis, Dave Matthews and, eventually, Britney and the Backstreet Boys. It was around this time that I began to shun new music altogether and sought solace by fantasizing about what it would have been like to go to high school ten years earlier -- from grade 11 on, my music collection was almost exclusively devoted to New Order, the Smiths, the Cure, early U2 and the Psychedelic Furs. I don't know that I would be the 80s music fanatic that I am today if music hadn't been as goddamn awful as it was in my last two years of high school (notable exceptions: Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails and the Foo Fighters. Youngsters these days might accuse me of being downright delusional for claiming that the era that produced these brilliant bands was a dark time for the rock'n'roll business. But they didn't have to live through the horror that was Hootie).

So far I've been writing more about the end of grunge than the era of grunge itself. With respect to the latter, I could free associate about Doc Martens, thrift store shopping, mosh pits, greasy hair, flannel, Reality Bites, My So-Called Life, black eye-liner, heroin chic, rock star suicides and overdoses, Lollapalooza, Woodstock II, Queen Street west (to Bathurst -- one needed to go no further in those days), Kurt and Courtney, SPIN magazine, Pulp Fiction and the cult of Tarantino...the list of icons goes on and on. What I want to nail down is how having one's teen years roughly coincide with the duration of the 1990s affected us, how growing up over any other span of time would have felt very, very different, even if it overlapped the era that I'm writing about here. We started grade 7 in 1991 and turned 20 in 1999 -- my gut feeling is that our experience was somehow unique. Perhaps not coincidentally, there were next to no contemporaneous teen icons in the media during those years, save for our generation's patron saint, Angela Chase in My So-Called Life -- perhaps the first and last time that a major network cancelled an overwhelmingly popular teen show, for seemingly no other reason than that it was just too damn good for television. As far as teen movies go, there were really only two -- Dazed and Confused (1994), which was, ironically, about being a teen in the mid-1970s, and Clueless (1995), a cheeky, uber-unrealistic adapation of Jane Austen's Emma, directed by Fast Time at Ridgmont High's Amy Heckerling. Both were great films, but neither reflected the reality of high school in the 1990s. Beverly Hills, 90210 came before us, Dawson's Creek came after. We were the teens in between, and there is virtually no pop culture record of our existence. Maybe that's why I'm so determined to try to define it, to articulate it, to convince those who didn't live through it -- and maybe even some of those who did -- that it actually happened. To one degree or another, we grew up grunge. What that means is yet to be determined. But I'm pretty determined to figure it out.