Your Choice

December 1, 2009

I’ve been on the Roadshow for just over two months and I’ve done a total of 14 different jobs. While I haven’t yet surmised where I want my career path to go next, I have gleaned an inside look at many interesting professions. So far, most of the Roadshow stops have been through referrals or people contacting me. Now I’ve decided to put my fate in the hands of my readers. Yup, that’s right: you. I want you to pick where I go next. Because I believe you will come up with jobs that I never would. (Think of it as a chance to act out your secret desire to be a high school guidance counselor.) So if you have suggestions on what type of work I should do, or a particular organization or company that you think I should work for, send me an email or leave a comment.

I’ll take the most frequently suggested and best ideas, put it to a reader’s vote, and then try to arrange a Roadshow stop doing that job. Please send me your ideas by Dec. 16th.

Just in case you haven’t, be sure to visit the Roadshow Rules before making your suggestion. And in particular, pay attention to Rule #1. And as a recap, I’ve so far done the following:

Jewelry Designer (upcoming post)
Carbon Project Developer (upcoming post)
Film Executive (upcoming post)
Dog Walker
Personal Trainer
Software Developer
Acquisitions Editor
Film Swing
Sous Chef for an Underground Supper Club
Transportation Planner
Business Reporter
Graphic Designer
Line Cook

Looking forward to your suggestions! Send them here by Dec. 16th.


Roadshow Stop: Dog Walker
Roadshow Mentor: Laura Davies, Creature Comforts

You only need walk a few blocks on Vancouver’s 4th Ave or in Yaletown to see evidence of our society’s dog devotion–bakeries, spas, stylists, couture–all dedicated to the canine. Dog’s have their own magazines, therapists, accessory lines, portrait artists, gourmet foods, hotels–there’s no shortage of puppy paraphernalia and canine-centric services. Honestly, I find this abundance of doggy swag and pooch pampering all a bit mind-boggling. I understand that people love their pets and want to spoil them. And I get that there’s an element of showboating involved. But I think there’s more to it than that. I think that some dog owners who indulge themselves and their pets in this doggy decadence really believe their dogs need this stuff to be happy. (My cynicism may stem from the fact that I have seen perfectly healthy dogs being pushed in baby prams, sans baby, one too many times.)

Don’t get me wrong, I do love a dog in a sweater, and I have what some would describe as puppy fever. I’m known to stop strangers on the street to pet their pooch. I do want, and have always wanted, a dog. (Growing up we were a cat family.) But I refrain from getting myself a “man’s best friend” for a few reasons, the biggest being: commitment. Adopting a dog means (ideally) a minimum ten years together. That’s a long time (especially in dog years). I worry that I’m not responsible enough to provide a stable home for a furry little friend. I especially worry that once I have a job, I would have to leave my dog alone for 8-9 hours a day. That seems like a cruel thing to do.

Our group: Pacey, a black lab mix; Robi, a black lab; Mickey, a sloughi; Kiwi, a duck trolling retriever; Skye, a golden retriever; and Cody, a chocolate lab

Many pet owners find themselves in this dilemma. Some are lucky enough to bring their dogs to work. Others, if they can afford it, hire the services of a dog walker. I always assumed that a dog walker was the neighbourhood kid you paid $20 a week to take your dog around the block after school. Apparently, I still live in the 1980s, because:

1. No one trusts neighbourhood kids anymore.
2. Dog walking is a big, and competitive, business. The Google business directory lists more than 1500 dog walking companies in the greater Vancouver area.

For this stop on the Roadshow, I joined Laura Davies, a dog walker for Creature Comforts. Laura’s relatively new to the dog walking business and had only been at it for two weeks when I joined up with her. But she’s no stranger to animals–she rides horses and has had pets all her life. Like me, Laura is part of the recent economy’s wake of under-employed. She moved to Vancouver just over a year ago from Toronto, where she was an audio engineer for eight years. Unable to find full-time regular work in her field, Laura set up her own company, In Ear Audio, but business is slow. She needs other employment to supplement In Ear Audio’s income.

“I gave retail a try. But I discovered I’m not much of a people person,” she says with a laugh. “So dogs seemed like a better fit.”

I met Laura at the start of her one-hour group hike. She had already done her collection–gone around and picked up six pooches–and brought them to Pacific Spirit Park. When I arrived, the dogs were anxiously awaiting release from the back of the little red pick up truck that caged them. Once each dog’s leash was securely clipped on to Laura’s cross-chest harness, she lowered the tailgate and out they hopped. They were excited to get going and they knew the way. The rushed towards the path entrance with Laura in tow.

With a pack of six large dogs, I expected far more chaos. But Laura somehow managed to keep order. Even though she had only worked with them for a couple of weeks, the dogs knew her and obeyed her. When she commanded they all move to her left, they did it. And it was obvious that although she had only known these dogs a short while, some just a few days, she was already attached to them. She interacted with each dog as we made our way along the path. Mickey, the timid one, she spoke to softly. Cody, Skye, and Robi–the playful dogs who were allowed off leash–she would call to and they would come bounding through the woods at the sound of her voice. Pacey and Kiwi, the mellow and complacent dogs who trotted on-leash beside her, she would murmur to almost subconsciously, as she reached down to stroke their faces.

For the most part, it was a pleasant walk through the woods. We had to occasionally call for the off-leash dogs who had strayed a touch too far. And there was a lot of poo to pick up. It was pouring rain, but the rain forest canopy provided enough shelter that it was barely a drizzle. About halfway through the walk, it was my turn to take the dogs. Laura held the leashes of Pacey, Kiwi, and Mickey and wiggled out of the chest strap. Still keeping a good grip on the leashes, she threw the harness over my head like a lasso. Once I had it snugly secured across my chest, she let go. I wasn’t expecting the dogs to have quite the force that they did. I felt like I had a team of small horses strapped to me and I was simultaneously the stagecoach and driver.

CBC Associate Producer Rob Easton, the dogs, and me

I worried the dogs might realize they had an amateur in control of them, but they continued on their walk as though they were oblivious to the changeover. Until about five minutes into it.

“Uh-oh,” Laura said. “Hold on tight to their leashes. Try to keep them close to you.” Following Laura’s instruction, I saw in the distance what caused her concern. It was another dog walker–her colleague, in fact. And apparently, of the seven dogs he had with him, one of them had the potential to be aggressive. Because he, unlike the five male dogs we had care of, still had his balls.

For about thirty seconds, it was a big mess of humans, leashes, and dogs. And then it was over. Following the loud and firm instruction of Laura and her colleague, the dogs separated themselves from the big dog pile, with not even a growl, and continued on their way–panting, sniffing, running, and chewing.

Before I knew it, the walk was almost done. Laura and I had chatted the whole way (you would never know she’s not a people person from her pleasant and friendly demeanour) and the hour flew by. I gave Laura back the reins, and started the next round of poo pick up. (The dogs knew it was almost time to go home so they made sure to do their business.)

Once the dogs were back in the truck, I gave each one a treat and let them nuzzle my face as I said good bye. I spent only an hour with them, but they nonetheless each doled out a generous amount of love. (It could have been the treats.) There was something so precious about their uncomplicated and unwavering affection. It made me want to take every one of them home. They were so content from the hour walk–and it was hard not to interpret it as gratitude. As they panted happily, and nosed my hand, I realized that there was a big difference between dog walking and the more frivolous dog services. Because dogs need to walk. They may not need their portrait done. And they might not need a designer sweater to be happy (although they look pretty darned cute in them), but they do need to walk. Laura was fulfilling this intrinsically dogly need. And the dogs relied on her and loved her for it.

As Laura unhooked the leashes and gave each dog a pat before closing the tailgate, it was clear she was also content from the hour walk. She was wet, muddy, and cold, but from the big smile on her face as she cooed to each dog, it was clear that a need of hers was also being fulfilled. Although unable to find full time employment as an audio engineer, she had found interim work that engaged her. Dog walking was a long way from manipulating and editing sound, but she had managed to find the enjoyment in spending a few simple hours a day with her six new best friends.

To invite me to work with you, or just say hello, send me an email at helen@unemploymentroadshow.

Intentional Exercise

November 23, 2009

Roadshow stop: Personal Trainer
Roadshow mentor: Steve McMinn

Irv’s pull-ups. He barely needs my assistance.

My pull-ups. Steve is doing most of the ‘heavy’ lifting here.

Pull-ups are harder for women than men. It’s how we’re built. However, I am not 64-years-old and diabetic. Nor have I had eight coronary by-passes or high blood pressure. Irv has. You would think this might even out the playing field a little. But I got schooled.

Irv’s physical prowess for a man his age with his health record can be attributed to the twice weekly exercise he does with personal trainer Steve McMinn. They’ve been at it for two years. And it’s made a huge difference. Before training with Steve, Irv could hardly walk up a flight of stairs without the assistance of a hand rail. Now he can kick a 33-year-old (moderately) fit woman’s ass in pull-ups.

Irv pressing a kettlebell

But ever the gentleman, Irv assured me with a big smile, barely discernible beneath his giant strongman-style mustache, that with practice and training, I could easily match him pull-up for pull-up in no time. Still breathless from trying, I rolled my eyes and laughed. He winked at me and in his soft voice said, “It’s true.”

“He’s right,” Steve said. “With practice you could do it. Anyone can.”

Steve had just done most of the work pushing me up to the pull-up bar five times. But he seemed unfazed and not the least bit breathless from hefting all 175 cm, 70(+)kgs of my squirming, flailing form to the bar. After demonstrating five unassisted pull-ups of his own, he explained in technical detail what muscles were involved, why it is such a difficult exercise to do, and how I could train for it. From the simple plan he laid out, I believed I might be able to do it.

Or, even more surprising, would want to do it.

I have mixed feelings about exercise. As a kid, I skipped school the days we had to do our fitness challenges, which included things like the dreaded pull-up. As an adult, I like it best when I don’t realize I’m doing it (like skiing or biking). But I need to exercise five times a week to stay in shape and keep the stress pit bulls at bay. So I force myself to run, swim, and go to the gym. But I’m most happy the moment it’s over–because this means it’s the longest period of time before having to do it again. (Probably not the healthiest attitude for my day as a personal trainer.)

Struggling (and failing) to do an unassisted pull up

I figured to be a personal trainer, you have to possess a blind addiction to exercise, replete with saccharine enthusiasm or testosterone-fueled pumping iron zeal. But after my day with Steve, I discovered that personal training (a least successful personal training) is more about relationships than being a gym nut. You have to be apt at reading people and sussing out what motivators will work for them. Because I’m not alone in my aversion to intentional exercise.

Steve’s been a personal trainer for the past seven years. And he’s not a gym bunny or a meat head. In fact, he’s really normal. He’s ebullient and sometimes a bit of a goof. (Like when he described to one of his clients the best way to defend herself in a knife fight–from his enthusiasm it was hard to tell if he was being earnest–as though this young, middle class Realtor would ever realistically find herself in this situation. The answer, by the way, is run like hell). But somehow this, along with his unruly mop of brown curls, makes him even more approachable. I always associate trainers with making me feel bad about myself because I drink too much wine, or inadequate because I’m not fit enough. But Steve doesn’t dole out the judgment. Instead, he motivates his clients with genuine encouragement. And probably most appealing for me, he’s not infallible. He occasionally eats junk food (he had McDonald’s for lunch that day) and skips work outs when he’s feeling lazy.

Irv and Steve doing a timed circuit with a kettlebell

Steve believes being a successful trainer is about having the right personality. But he also believes it’s crucial to keep abreast of the latest developments in physical fitness. The best practices in exercise are constantly evolving, and he feels an obligation to his clients that he be on top of the most recent research–not the most recent fads, but effective techniques to safely improve fitness levels. It was through this kind of study that he came across his principle mode of training: kettlebells.

A kettlebell

Kettlebells are an ancient form of Russian weight training. They look like cannonballs with handles. Although old, they fit with proven modern techniques of safe and effective weight lifting. According to all of Steven’s clients, hefting and swinging these cannonballs around is fun. And having fun is integral to Steve’s method of training. He believes it’s essential for people to actually enjoy their work out, or they won’t keep up with it long term.

Irv and Steve

After saying our goodbyes to Irv, we packed Steve’s kettlebells into the trunk of his silver Volkswagon beetle and headed off to meet the next client. Through the course of the day, we met with five personal training clients, and then did an evening group kettlebell class. (Personal training is not cheap, so to make it more accessible, Steve offers a variety of different programs, from individual training to group classes.) The day started at 7:00 am and finished at 7:30 pm. (We were supposed to start at 6:00 am, but thankfully for me, that client cancelled.) There were breaks between clients, but it was still a long day. Steve didn’t seem at all tired–or if he did, he was really good at hiding it. He maintained the same energy for his 6:30 pm class as he did for his 7:00 am client.

Irv's (successful) unassisted pull-up

I think his stamina stems from not only a genuine (and non-annoying) love of physical fitness, but more importantly, a real love for inspiring and motivating the people he trains. Because he’s not just helping them shed a few pounds. At least that’s not what it feels like he’s selling. While that may be an end result and a goal for some clients, Steve seems to derive the most pleasure out of seeing the difference it makes in their lives. Irv is the perfect example of this–he claims Steve saved his life, and in many ways he probably did, or at least vastly improved the quality of it. Irv is far more active and mobile in ways he never thought he could be. (Including kicking the butt of a 33-year-old in pull ups.) And admittedly, Steve’s ebullience is infectious. He has a way of making his clients believe they can succeed–and once they believe that, they almost always do.

Post pull-up fatigue

So even for someone like me, who would avoid exercise at all cost if I could, Steve’s somehow convinced me that becoming a pull-up champion (or at least be able to do one on my own) is a possible and even desirable goal.

To learn more about Steve and his kettlebells, visit his website.

The Computer-Inclined

November 18, 2009

Roadshow stop: Nitobi Software

A rudimentary (and homemade) pictorial depiction of my day at Nitobi Software.

The lights were low and the place was filled with the constant accumulative hum of high powered computers. In the entrance way sat a Foosball table, the little plastic men, abandoned from a recent game, pointed all askew. A half assembled soap box derby car was propped up haphazardly in a corner. In the board room were stacks of empty pizza boxes. Desks were littered with jars of salsa and half-drank bottles of Dr. Pepper.

No, I wasn’t in my college boyfriend’s shared apartment. The furniture was too nice and the place too tidy to be mistaken for that. This was my Roadshow stop at Nitobi Software, a software development firm that builds web and mobile applications. Although one of the shortest commutes for me on the Roadshow (they’re located in Gastown), this, so far, was the furthest leap for me professionally. (As may be gleaned from my homemade drawings.) I don’t know the slightest thing about building software. I don’t speak the languages–PHP, Javascript, HTML, to name a few–or understand the jargon–complete UI, open source, wire frames. And, pre-Roadshow, I worked in fundraising and publishing–both predominantly female industries. (What’s the opposite of a sausage party?) So Nitobi’s all male staff of 14 was also a new one for me.

My mentor for the day was Brian LeRoux, a software developer who’s been with Nitobi for four years. (Before that he was ‘playing video games and pumping gas’.) According to him, his responsibilities include coding and client management. As well, he said with a laugh ‘evangelism and general’ (No, that’s not developer jargon–he meant the universal language of bullshitting). Brian explained to me that software development was more like gardening than manufacturing–it wasn’t just building, but creating something that needed to be tended and maintained because of its ever-evolving nature.

After chastising me for not bringing my laptop (“Who comes to work at a software development company and doesn’t bring their laptop?” he asked) and mocking me for the analog notebook I did bring (spiral bound with ruled sheets), he told me to go check in with the ‘guys’ to see what kind of work they were doing.

I started with the front room, which housed about five developers. Some of the developers eyed me warily, curious as to what the heck I wanted. Others avoided eye contact. Some slipped on their headphones. (I wondered if they were suspicious of my lack of a Y chromosome or if they were just busy.) But these avoidance tactics weren’t going to stop me. I grabbed an ergonomically correct desk chair and rolled up to the first work station. From here, I hopped from desk to desk getting tours from each developer on what they were working on and what kind of projects they had worked on in the past.

I learned all about PhoneGap, which is an open-source tool that lets anyone (well, anyone who knows how) develop mobile apps with javascript. I was given a quick run through of a virtual social forum on Canada’s Arctic created for the Vancouver Aquarium. And a mobile petition application created for I was shown an application that can give virtual tours of museums and art galleries, all on a smart phone. It was all amazing stuff.

Some of the developers were working on what they called their ’20 percent’. Nitobi has an 80/20 policy, meaning 20 percent of developer’s time can be spent working on individual and personal projects. According to Andre Charland, co-founder of Nitobi, product development has proven to be a good source of revenue, and he felt what better place to create these products then with his staff. PhoneGap is an example of a successful product built in-house. So eight hours of an employee’s 40 hour work week can be spent on doing his own thing–and he gets paid for it. Sounds like living the dream.

It was clear that fun was an integral part of this workplace. And not just the appearance of fun you sometimes see in big corporate offices to placate over-worked, over-stressed, and under-appreciated employees. These guys seemed to actually enjoy what they did and enjoy being in the office.

“We take work seriously, but not ourselves,” said Andre.

“Nitobi is the idealized fantasy of what software development is all about,” said Brian. “Other software companies are mostly cubical farms.”

At the end of the day, I was told I would be sitting in on a meeting with Mark Scott, President of D&M Publishing. As I made a few notes and waited for the meeting to start, I noticed a small group gathering around Andre’s computer. They were ogling a girly calendar–the Rad Boob Club Calendar, which was created by female skiers to raise money and awareness for breast cancer. It features photos of (fully dressed) female skiers doing daredevil moves off cliffs, soaring over highways, and plummeting down vertical drops. The guys appreciated it with the same enthusiasm one would expect from a swimsuit calendar.

As they admired ‘Miss December’, Brian proposed cracking a beer. Andre suggested waiting until Mark arrived. I assumed he meant waiting until after Mark had come and gone. Clearly I was new to the world of software development as beers were distributed ten minutes into the meeting. (And everyone, including Mark, took one.) With icy Pilsners in hand, the developers, designers, and Mark went through some of the finishing details of Book Riff, a new publishing website that will allow users to pick and choose from published books, add their own content, and have a book printed, bound, and shipped within 24 hours.

Admittedly, going into a day of software development, I figured I would be immersed in a world of computer geek stereotypes. But I was dead wrong. This office wasn’t filled with socially awkward, ill-dressed, girl-fearing men. What I discovered was quite the contrary–smart, creative, self-assured professionals who love their jobs, make super neat stuff, and work in an almost utopic office environment. Okay, maybe I have a residual soft spot for the computer-inclined because of my college boyfriend, or maybe it was the fact that they gave me free beer, but after a day of hanging out with software developers, I think they are, and what they do, is cool as hell.

Follow-up Thank You Email
Thanks for letting me come in and follow you around. It was fun. And will definitely provide me with some good stuff for a post. It will probably take me a week or so to get a story fleshed out.
Thanks again. It was a real pleasure meeting you. Oh, and thanks for the pils.

eh no worries — glad it worked out for you / let me know if you need any more details. feel free to stop by and drink our beer any time!

You may want to reconsider your unconditional offer of free beer to someone who has no gainful employment. You may live to regret it! Will let you know if I have questions/need details. I’m sure I will.

nah, anytime — fairly certain no guys here are going to complain. shit, bring some friends. =)

Roadshow stop: University of Texas Press
Roadshow mentor: Casey Kittrell, Acquisitions Editor

When I worked at Whitecap Books, my favourite days were the ones a new shipment of books arrived from the printers. The Marketing and Sales Manager would circulate the office dropping off a copy for everyone–the spine still uncracked, the dust jacket smudge and fingerprint free. I would stick my faces between the pages, take deep breaths of the new book, and rub the smooth pages against my cheeks. For each new title, I would spend a few minutes like this with my nose pressed into it.

Indicative of a glue-huffing addiction? Perhaps. Mildly perverted? Probably.

But I’m guessing this sensory experience won’t creep out other book enthusiasts–especially ones who have worked in the industry. I think they’ll understand the compulsion to take in every detail of the book, not just the words in between the covers. Because book lovers really do love books. They frequent blogs like this one, dedicated to the design of cover art. Or this one that gives the origins of a book’s title. (Did you know it was originally supposed to be called Catch-18?) Book lovers aren’t just avid readers. They’re a breed apart.

When I was visiting my sister in Austin, Texas, I was invited to spend a day at the University of Texas Press, shadowing an Acquisitions Editor. And although I have already worked in publishing, I jumped at the chance for two reasons:

1. If I said no, I would be breaking Roadshow Rule Number One.

2. I clearly have a thing for books.

University Press
A University Press operates a bit different than a private publishing house–obviously, they publish a large list of academic books, including books for college courses. More important, profit is not explicit in the press’s mission. While they publish many books that are widely read and reviewed, others are so specialized their audience is not large enough for even modest commercial success. So UT Press uses its nonprofit status and connection to the university, to fundraise for their most specialized scholarly books–a credit line not typically found in the ledgers of corporate houses (Surprisingly, a title like De-colonizing the Sodomite: Queer Tropes of Sexuality in Colonial Andean Culture is not often a contender for the bestseller’s list and may require a little funding from the alumni).

For my afternoon at UT Press, I sat in on two meetings–the Big EC and the Little EC. (Editorial Council). The first meeting was a check-in with all the departments needed to bring a book from concept to creation–editorial, production, design, accounting, rights & permissions. As with most industries, the creative and the financial departments had the occasional head butt, and there were a few murmurs and suppressed smiles when discussing the ‘marketing plan’ for a book with a proposed print run of 500 copies and a title like The Geometry of Modernism: The Vorticist Idiom in Lewis, Pound, HD, and Yeats. But overall, it was a mostly civilized conversation about books.

The Little EC was comprised of the editors and the director. In a round table discussion, each editor pitched projects that they had recently unearthed. The group would discuss the book concept’s potential and then decide whether to pursue it, research it more, shelve it, or bury it. It was another conversation about books with people who loved them as much as I did. And who understood the magic and thrill of how a book proposal or idea could take so many shapes before it became a bound, finished product.

Smart people and Books: Two things I love that face potential extinction

After hanging out at UT Press, part of me wanted to jump off the Roadshow and throw myself back onto the publishing bandwagon. To surround myself with smart people and books. Sure the job has its drawbacks–the pay is lousy, and authors can occasionally get all diva on you. (My personal favourite at Whitecap was a D-list celebrity chef/cookbook author who reamed me out for 45 minutes before I could get a word in to tell him he had dialed the wrong extension.) Overall, however, it’s a pleasant environment to work in.

But part of me is reluctant to re-enter the publishing realm and not just because it’s tough to get into. But because there’s an elephant sitting in the office of every North American publisher—people simply aren’t buying books like they used to, in volume and in format.

There are a lot reasons for the grim state of the book business, some well-documented and some still theoretical. According to my mentor at UT, Casey Kittrell, part of it can be attributed to online access to cheap, used books.

“The Internet revolutionized used book sales,” Casey says. “To the extent that most brick-and-mortar stores now function more as offices for online sales rather than browsing spaces. And it IS wonderful that if the old hippie bookseller down the street doesn’t have a $2 paperback of Noam Chomsky you can have one 24 hours later via an old hippie in the next county, state, country. Ah, Noam doesn’t need the royalties anyway.”

But online used sales are just the trunk of the elephant. There’s also a decline in the number of people reading—people have shifted their attention to other forms of entertainment, such as film, TV, video games, and the web. The analog book is suffering a popularity slump compared to its digital competition.

Digital publishing is another piece of this literary Dumbo. Google announced last month its upcoming launch of Google Editions, which will allow readers to buy books that can be read on their laptop or smart phone. And serial literature is making a comeback on blogs, and in Japan, on cellphones. (Keitai Shosetsu) To what extent these new trends and technologies will affect traditional book publishing in North America remains to be seen.

Some publishers are embracing digital publishing so much that they are redefining not only how books will be read but how they are created. Book Riff, created by Douglas and MacIntyre and Nitobi Software Inc., melds book publishing with user-generated content. Users can pick and choose content from existing publications, combine it with their own, and have a book bound and shipped within 48 hours. But Book Riff is well ahead of the game. Because the majority of publishers don’t seem to be engaging digital publishing with this kind of innovation or zeal. Many are sticking to business as usual.

But information and how readers consume it, is undergoing a continuous transformation. And, as much as I don’t want to admit it, the book can’t continue to hide between its covers–eventually readers will demand (for some genres at least) that books, and book publishers, catch up to the digital revolution.

So although I loved my day with smart people and books, I’m not sure I’m ready to jump back into book publishing. But I am intrigued by what direction digital publishing and other upcoming technologies will do to the book. Perhaps this impending and inevitable publishing ‘revolution’ will present a new industry and a new opportunity worth exploring. Although, I’m not sure if pressing my nose against the screen of an e-book reader and taking a deep whiff of glass and plastic will hold for me the same level of sensory satisfaction.

Wood If

November 10, 2009

Roadshow stop: Set of Wood If
Roadshow role: Swing


Low-flying helicopters in Chicago

There were military trucks everywhere. Police cars. Ambulances. There were even two tanks parked on the Clark St. Bridge. It was downtown Chicago, August 2007. Crowds of people lined the banks of the Chicago River to watch the action. Two helicopters buzzed past flying so low they were amidst the skyscrapers. I pushed my way to the front of the crowd.

The helicopters did another dive along the river. And two minutes later, again. Was it a terrorist attack? Was there an important political figure in town? Was the city under siege? Then I noticed the cameras. And it turns out, it was all three. They were filming a scene from the The Dark Knight. I stayed and watched the helicopters make their pass between the buildings for another hour. They shot the scene at least two dozen times. The scale of it all floored me. I see movies being filmed in Vancouver on a regular basis, but rarely do I spend more than a cursory glance to see how they’ve re-fashioned Gastown to resemble New York City, or if there’s an actor I might recognize. But this was such a grand, over the top production. I had never seen anything like it.

A year later, when The Dark Knight opened in theaters, I was eager to see the scene I witnessed. I figured from the amount of time, effort, and money devoted to shooting it, the scene would be pivotal to the movie, or at least part of an epic action sequence.

It was less than three seconds long.

The shot had no real relevance to the film. It was filler. Or what in the ‘biz’ would be called an ‘establishing shot’. Perhaps in one iteration of the film, it had more significance. But if so, it never made it out of the editing room.


Judson's 'Beaver Cabinet' (Photo ©Kyla Day)

For this next stop on the Roadshow, I had mostly forgotten my behind the scenes glimpse at The Dark Knight. But it all came back to me when I stepped on set—the cameras, the lights, the sound equipment. The big difference, of course, being I wasn’t on the set of a major blockbuster film. Quite the opposite. It was a short (two-minute) film being made for Bravo!FACT Presents, a branch of CTV that produces short films highlighting Canada and the arts. The short, Wood If, featured the Dr. Seuss meets Guillermo del Toro-style artwork and furniture of Judson Beaumont and his company Straight Line Designs.

Judson's Dr. Seuss meets Guillermo del Toro-style (Photo ©Kyla Day)

There wasn’t a multi-million dollar budget, a crew of thousands, a 12-month filming schedule, or any on set divas. It had to be filmed over the course of three weekends with a budget of $15,000 and the crew, which was less than 20 people, were all volunteer. They weren’t paid for their long days or hard work, but did it because they believed in the film and in Judson’s art. Comparing the two productions seemed like an exercise in apples and oranges.

But there was one big similarity–shooting a film of any scale or budget requires a lot time and effort. A smaller production, however, doesn’t have the luxury to sink hundreds of thousands of dollars into a three-second scene. Instead, they have to maximize each second of their day as they shoot on a limited budget with limited resources. Creativity, innovation, and dedication take the place of ample bankrolls.


Composer & Sound Recordist Dany Gagnon on the sound stage (Photo ©Kyla Day)

Our first location was a 2800-square foot all-white sound stage. Judson, dressed in black, was being shot with one of his dressers. The white stage with its curved corners took away all depth perception and made Judson and the dresser appear to be floating in nothingness. The abstruse setting seemed an appropriate backdrop for Judsons’ playful and logic-defying furniture. The crew was filming a long shot, which had Judson walk towards his dresser, open a drawer, and then walk toward the camera. The scene had to be shot over and over again to ensure everything was just right: from Judson’s walk to the camera angle to the correct lighting to the optimal sound capture.

Director of Photography, Henry Chan, preparing for the long shot (Photo ©Kyla Day)

It was a lot of repetition. And a ton of ‘hurry up and wait’. But no one seemed to mind. It was just part of the process–and vital to the end result.

My role for the day was Swing–meaning I would help out wherever I was needed. There were only ten people on set that day, so an extra set of hands was in high demand. After shooting the scenes on the sound stage, we tore down the equipment, packed it into a half-ton truck and headed over to Judson’s workshop. At the workshop, I assumed the role of grip (or lug would be more appropriate) and spent the next two hours hauling equipment into Judson’s studio with one of the crew’s actual grips, Melissa Beaupre. And there was a ton of equipment to haul: cameras, cranes, dollies, lights, cables, scaffolds, electrical boxes. Just because a film is only two minutes long, doesn’t mean it needs any less equipment.


Getting the light just right (Photo ©Kyla Day)

When all the equipment was unpacked and organized, Melissa and I watched from outside Judson’s office as the director, J.B. Sugar, and director of photography, Henry Chan, filmed Judson sketching. It was almost 6 pm and they had been going steady since 8 am. But there was no waning of enthusiasm. J.B. and Henry were keen to make their own art from the art being created in front of them. And they shot take after take to ensure they got it right.

Judson sketching in his studio (Photo ©Kyla Day)

There were no helicopters or tanks on this set. But it didn’t need these big price tag props. Because all day long there was an air of exhilaration of something big happening, something important being created. The crew was charged with the possibility of accurately portraying Judson’s spirited personality and artwork. And even though the process was slow going and ate up their weekends, the crew was driven by the prospect of playing a key role in the creation of this two-minute final product.

The Crew
Writer / Director J.B. Sugar
Producer Liz Levine
Artist Judson Beaumont
Director of Photography Henry Chan
Steadicam Bob Findlay
1st AC Francis Kramer
2nd AC Jeremy Lundstrom
Assistant Director Matthew Blecha
Composer & Sound Recordist Dany Gagnon
Gaffer Rory Soderman
Key Grip Benoit Lamarche
Grip Melissa Beaupre
Grip Garrett Lalonde
Grip Richard Burton
Grip Dawson Oatt
Location Manager Oliver Rappard
First Aid/Craft Service/Props/F.A.C.S. Sara Quine
Driver Jameson Parker
Editor Jason
Stills Photographer Kyla Day

The Underground Supper

November 4, 2009

My Mentor: Robin*
Details: The Swallow Tail Supper Club


Two-thirds through her sommelier certification, Robin knows her wine

With the commencement of the Roadshow, I’ve had to put one of my favourite past times–dining out–on hiatus. I’m not alone in this–for many, economic belt-tightening means slashing non-essential expenditures like eating out. But as a foodie, I don’t have the patience to wait for my current economic situation to change before I can frequent restaurants again. I want to satiate my culinary cravings with delicious food, too much wine, and the company of good friends. Thankfully, there is a financially viable answer for the fiscally challenged: the underground supper club.

Underground restaurants are burgeoning in popularity. This surge could be attributed to this past year’s credit crunch. But it might also stem from the growing throngs of non-industry food-obsessed. Or the increasing number of people concerned with food security and commercial farming practices. Or it could be these underground establishments can now easily net crowds and generate a meme through social media. Most likely, it’s a combination of all of the above. But whatever the reason, more of these not-quite-illegal restaurants are sprouting up and opening their doors (often of their homes) to hungry, budget-minded diners. It’s become the hot new trend on the culinary scene; like last year’s poached egg, they’re popping up everywhere.

But it’s by no means a new phenomenon. Vancouver’s Apartment 12B, run by Chef Todd, has been open since 2007. My first venture into underground dining was in 1998 at one of Cuba’s paladares restaurants. Underground establishments have existed in Argentina for at least 30 years, known as estaurantes de puertas cerradas, or locked door restaurants. But in North America, pirate restaurants are garnering more media attention, and in turn, more clientele. I wouldn’t be surprised if Saveur magazine named underground supper clubs as the cuisine of 2009.

For this stop on the Roadshow, I got behind the scenes of one of these ‘by-donation’ restaurants. (It’s a legal grey area, but not quite illegal, so I haven’t broken rule number one.) I joined the chef and hostess, Robin, as she prepared dinner for eight for her underground supper club: Swallow Tail Suppers. In her East Vancouver home, Robin serves dinner to groups of 6-12. In the summer, guests dine outside, surrounded by a lush garden and shaded by fig and pear trees–the fruit of which often appears on the menu. In the winter, people sit at a long wooden table in her front room.


Robin cooking in The Swallow Tail's kitchen

Robin started her supper club this past February as an offshoot of her B.C. tour company, Swallow Tail Tours. Focusing on the province’s food and wine, Swallow Tail offers seven to one-day hiking, snowshoeing, culinary, and cycling tours where guests can eat and drink their way through the Okanagan, the Gulf Islands, Harrison Hotsprings, or Vancouver. Robin started Swallowtail Tours about a year ago after leaving a ten-year career as an art director for a video gaming company. She wanted to pursue her passions: food, wine, and B.C.’s outdoor fun. The supper club seemed a natural extension of the tour company.

The kitchen isn’t an unfamiliar place on the Roadshow. I have already worked a day as a line cook. But with this gig, I was to be prep chef, hostess, waitress, and dishwasher. My tasks were pretty straight forward: chop zucchini, zest lemons, wash pots, build a fire in the grill, slice onions. It was a much simpler language than the one spoken in kitchen’s of conventional restaurants. And things moved at a much more relaxed pace. Feeding eight people is far less stressful than feeding 80.


Tiger Blue from B.C.'s Poplar Grove Cheese

Robin bases her menu on seasonal, local ingredients. Like most underground restaurants, she, not the diner, determines what’s for dinner. Her guests send her a list of dietary restrictions and culinary dislikes, but what’s served is her decision. And diners don’t find out what they’re eating until it is on the plate in front of them. She does, however, email her guests a suggested wine to pair with each course. And she can make recommendations with authority–she’s two-thirds completed her sommelier certification. Booze is one of the underground supper club’s big draws for the fiscally challenged. It’s BYO, which means no exorbitant mark up on what you drink.

At 6:50 the doorbell rings. Robin checks her calculator watch (guess the gaming geek still lurks within). The first guest is early. We pour her a glass of her wine–an Okanagan chenin blanc and one of Robin’s suggested wines–and she stands in the kitchen chatting as we work. When the others arrive shortly afterward, they congregate on the living room’s large, mint-condition cobalt blue seventies sectional sofa–complete with a wooden liquor cabinet built into its corner. It perfectly accompanies the wood paneled walls, white-washed fireplace, and taxidermy owls. Behind the long dining table, a huge fish-filled aquarium bubbles soothingly. It’s a combination of crisp modern design and hipster retro kitsch–a genuine personality, rather than one of the handful of predictable “concepts” or “aesthetics” reproduced by consultants all over town.

When the first course is ready, I usher the guests to the table, which is decorated with hydrangea, smokebush, and winterberry floral arrangements picked from Robin’s garden. We ladle and garnish the soup and deliver to the diners. Robin describes in detail the steaming consommé with pork dumplings; each local element of the dish, where it came from, and happily answers any questions as the guests begin to eat. She does this for each course, creating a sense of attentiveness and interaction with the chef not often found in regular restaurants.


Second Course: Zucchini in Balsamic wrapped with Prosciutto

After each course, the guests lounge on the sofa, hang about the kitchen, smoke on the back patio (an underground supper club luxury), and uncork more wine. By the third hour, between the third and fourth course, two of the diners have plopped themselves on the floor in front of the stereo, which happens to be located next to the kitchen. They flip through Robin’s record collection choosing what tracks they want to hear next–records are splayed out on the floor around them. They’re in the mood for a little pre-dessert eighties dance party. As Pat Benetar starts to spin, a few more diners join them for some booty shaking. Robin laughs as she mixes the batter for the pear crepes. As her forty-something diners rock out to ‘Love is a Battlefield’ she tells me that one of her favourite parts about hosting the dinners is how differently each group responds to the experience. Some linger at the table for the entire evening, others crowd just outside the kitchen watching her prepare the courses, and others sprawl about the house and treat it like a dinner party at a friend’s house.

When dessert is served, the guests call us to join them at the table. They pour us each a glass of dessert wine and we quickly fall into the table’s revelry. More wine is poured. And a little more eighties dance party booty shaking starts up.

At midnight, the last of the dinner guests head home, with hugs and thanks for us both.

As we washed up, I thought about how underground eateries are often described as modern-day speakeasies. The Swallow Tail Supper Club, with its quasi-illegal status, living room setting, ‘by-donation’ Mason jar on the mantle, and free-flowing wine, certainly qualified. But since none of the guests actually experienced Prohibition, the truth must be that these supper clubs are tapping our zeitgeist rather than our grandparents’. To me, these underground establishments have become restaurant 2.0–a dining experience that is defined by and relies on user-(or diner)-generated content.

The Swallow Tail’s dinner that night:
Consommé with Pork Dumplings
Zucchini in Balsamic wrapped in Prosciutto with Lemon Zest
BBQ Romaine with Tiger Blue Cheese and Double smoked bacon
Braised Beef Short Rib with New Potatoes
Pear Crepes with Chocolate Ganache and Cream Anglais
Cost $45

Learn more about Swallow Tail Tours or book your own Swallow Tail Secret Suppers.

You can also check out the Ghetto Gourmet, a social networking site dedicated to ‘pirate’ restaurants and underground supper clubs. To try out another of Vancouver’s ‘by donation’ experiences–this one vegan–check out Secret Supper.

To book a dinner at Swallow Tail Suppers or check out a Sunday open house, click here.

*Given the quasi-illicit nature of pirate dining, I’ve refrained from using Robin’s last name.