Twilight of the Bomb Shelter Brands

Velveeta cheese. Kraft Mac & Cheese (Kraft Dinner, if you're Canadian). Tang. Kool-Aid. Cool Whip. Sandwich Spread.

Once, these brands were the food gods of North American kitchens. They ruled lunchtime like ambassadors of bland, as cheerfully artificial in look and taste as a polyester shirt.

No more. With the recent mega-buyout by Heinz, the Doomsday clock on the wall of the Kraft Kitchens is ticking closer and closer to midnight -- especially when it comes to brands that appear to be rapidly approaching their best-before dates. Of all these toppled giants, perhaps the one with that has made the biggest splat on the linoleum floor is that eponymous symbol of jiggly fun, Jell-o gelatin dessert.

There's always room for Jell-o, TV ads used to gleefully proclaim. Not so much these days. Despite repeated attempts at rebranding, Ad Age describes Jell-o as "struggling" with "sluggish" sales.

You might assume that the reason for this taste shift is simply greater awareness of good nutrition and the evils of sugars and artificial additives. But I think there is a deeper reason that the brand is wobbling: we're just not paranoid enough for Jell-o anymore. If ever a single food product seemed destined for the storage shelves of bomb shelters and hollowed out mountain hideouts, powdered gelatin could be at the top of the list.

Huddled around the dinner table, the nuclear family of the postapocalypse would be looking for foods so reassuringly artificial that they could be confident it hadn't been grown or grazed on irradiated lands. (However, according to one source, gelatin is made in part from pigskin, which calls into question why it never became a popular a menu item at tailgate parties.) According to the blog Eat By Date, powdered Jell-o can be stored for up to 18 months and unflavoured powdered gelatin can last for years.

Another quality was particularly appealing during the Watergate years of the 1970s: transparency. Make a packet of Jell-o in a glass bowl, let it set for a few hours and hold it up to the light. You can see right through it! Its sunshiny, nothing-to-hide-here-ma'am quality was highly valued at a time when dirty tricks and cover-ups could take down the most powerful man on earth.(Did Nixon enjoy Jell-o? Not sure, but I see him as more of a tapioca pudding man.)

Let's not forget that Jell-o is easy on the stomach, the first thing your mom plunk down in front of you after a bout of stomach flu. Think about a food tray in a hospital: it's easy to picture a little bowl of Jello under one of those institutional lids, isn't it?

And Jell-o's flexibility as a cooking ingredient is legendary. Mix up a bowl of Jell-o and before it sets, dump in a can of tomato soup, some shredded carrots and a bag of frozen corn and voila -- tomato aspic! Toss it into another Cold War basic from Kraft -- Kool-Aid -- stick it in the freezer and you've got Kwik'n E-Z popsicles. Throw it into a punchbowl with pink lemonade, grenadine and ice for a cooling summer drink, perfect for bridal showers and other festive occasions. Or if you're a shooter fan, you must have tried Jell-o Shots -- basically, Jell-o and vodka. (Check out some recent recipes from the Kraft Kitchens including Jell-o Jigglers and Campfire Goo.

In fact, gelatin is so flexible it's used for things that seem at odds with the notion of food at all -- like the stuff synchro swimmer's use to keep their hair in place underwater, or the glossy finish that gives printed photographs their shine.

Whither Jell-o? Perhaps rather than yet another rebranding, Jell-o needs to reinvent itself as a whole new product. Why does it have to be a food, full stop? Maybe Jell-o could multitask. Examples:

Floor polish so shiny, yet palatable, that you could literally eat off your own floor.

Edible bubble wrap! Just unpack your latest Internet purchase and chow down on the packaging or recycle it with the organics. (Is Jell-o recyclable?)

An exciting new variation on the IKEA ball pit. Fill pit with Jell-o cubes. Immerse squealing children for hours of healthy, imaginative play. Hose down child in IKEA parking lot.

And what should we do with jello moulds - those mysterious lobsters and peaches that made Jell-o look like something real? Could they be turned into attractive headgear? Breastplates for Role Playing Games? Face masks for fashion-forward hockey goalies? Could the Hamburglar of the Ottawa Senators be transformed into the Jelly Defender?

Let's think outside the cheery cardboard box. Do an endangered brand a favour. Help make it an underground retro hit, like Gourmet Mac & Cheese. Drop by your favourite hipster diner and order up a heaping bowl of Jell-o today.

Just be ready to explain to your server what it is.

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Beauty Tips For Girl Astronauts


“Why, a woman going anywhere but the hospital would always take makeup, perfume, and jewelry...That's basic equipment.”

Lisa Fremont in Rear Window (1954)


In Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, a bedridden woman, Anna Thorvald, disappears one steamy night from her Greenwich Village apartment. Her husband Lars (Raymond Burr) claims she’s gone to visit her sister. But through the powerful close-up lens of wheelchair-bound photojournalist Jeff (Jimmy Stewart), who lives directly across from the Thorvalds, fashion editor Lisa Fremont observes that Anna left all her makeup, perfume and jewelry behind. In Lisa’s words, she left home without her ‘basic equipment’. Lisa assures Jeff that no woman would do such a thing unless she was ill –– or, in Mrs. Thorvald’s case, chopped up into little pieces and dumped in the East River.

    NASA make-up kit Someone at NASA must have been a Hitchcock fan. In a recent trip to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C., I saw the Space Shuttle Discovery, retired after an astonishing thirty missions in space. Having just written a novel about a young woman who believes she prevented World War III by stopping a plummeting SkyLab space station from flattening the Kremlin in 1979, I was interested in seeing mementoes from the actual SkyLab and early Space Shuttle missions.

     A display case next to Discovery held some of the personal care items that astronauts took into space in the post-Apollo era. While high-tech astronaut diapers starkly answered the question of how you pee and poo in space, the most weirdly fascinating item would have been easy to overlook: a simple plastic cosmetics case containing a crème blusher, mascara, liquid foundation, lipstick and eyeliner – a NASA-issued makeup kit that women could take along with them on the Space Shuttle. Judging by the hot pink colour of the blusher, I suspect the kit dated from in the early eighties. That means that when NASA’s first female (and at 32, youngest) astronaut blasted off in 1983 – the aptly named Sally Ride –– she could have been carrying more makeup than I use today on Earth. Why? Because as Lisa Fremont said: It’s basic equipment.

     Having managed to survive camping trips without benefit of makeup, perfume and jewelry, I was surprised to discover that NASA thought that women engineers, physicists and scientists wouldn't want to be hurled into the mesosphere while sitting on top of an explosive oxygen-hydrogen mix without their lip gloss and Big Lash Mascara. Maybe those early women rocketeers appreciated that little touch of girliness for those quick touch-ups in the most hostile environment imaginable.

     On the other hand, I’ve read that NASA engineers asked Dr. Ride if 100 tampons would be enough for her on a seven-day mission, which may indicate that these guys didn’t know much about women. Reporters peppered her with questions before she left Earth such as “Will you wear a bra and makeup in space?” I’m happy to say I can’t find a record of her answer, and hope that it was unprintable.

     I leaned in close to the display, nose to glass, trying to identify the lipstick shade. I wondered if it might be Revlon’s best-selling red, Cherries In The Snow, or something more typical of the Me Decade, like fuchsia or mauve. You couldn’t rock those colours without a can of Vidal Sassoon mousse and a blow dryer for that distinctive big hair look, balancing the padded shoulders of the blue, cinched-waist flight suits. (I noticed in a newspaper flyer that you can get that 1980s astro-girl look today in the Spring 2015 collection at Winners.)

    Discovery Because every ounce of extra payload means those precious solid rocket boosters have to work harder to get the shuttle through the region of maximum dynamic pressure, an astronaut girl needs to know how to edit, Lisa Fremont-style. Her basic equipment: one good strand of real pearls, a set of diamond studs (they go with everything and can do double-duty in a laser cutter), two bras (one white cotton, one black lace for those formal evenings with the Russians), a couple of pairs of DIM tights and a Flashdance headband. Perfume: Poison or Charlie. Toss in a pair of cute flats and Reeboks aerobic shoes for jazzercise in zero gravity and you’ll look stylish anywhere, from the ISS to the dark side of the Moon. Pack it all up in one of those adorable, candy-coloured Caboodles boxes and you are good to go into orbit.     

     I feel comforted that the reason I myself never qualified for astronaut training may not have been my motion sickness, fear of heights, near-sightedness or lack of a PhD in Engineering Science, but because I could never get the hang of eyeliner.

     I doubt Dr. Ride took along her basic equipment on her two shuttle missions. In the NASA photo gallery, she and other women astronauts of her generation all look wonderfully fresh-faced. Not a glossed lip, curled eyelash or highlighted cheekbone in the bunch, just flinty-eyed competence, intelligence and curiousity.

     Online interviews and profiles of Sally Ride focus on her groundbreaking achievements in space, her commitment to science education for girls, her athletic prowess, and her courage. Not a word about her eye shadow preferences, but plenty of intel about her ability to catch a satellite with a robotic arm. Since she was a triple-threat English, Physics and Astrophysics major, I’d like to believe that she left the makeup kit behind and took along some light reading –– say, a few eighties feminist comic books, like Tank Girl or Love and Rockets.

     Sally Ride died too young, at 61 years of age, in 2012. When my novel is published, I'll quote Sally Ride in the epigraph.

     Oh, and the Silver Surfer, too.




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Writing On The Wall Of Death 

Like every other writer I know, I feel guilty any time I'm not writing. When I'm not not-writing, I feel guilty about not-blogging.

Guilt breeds excuses, so here's mine: I haven't been blogging because I've been writing. Two weeks ago, I finished the fourth draft of my novel Sputnik's Daughter: A Radioactive Love Story. It has now gone to live for a while in a mysterious alternate universe where it will be judged worthy (or not).

Writing a novel is a lot like riding a trick motorcycle on the Wall of Death.

Wall of Death acts have pretty much vanished, along with the travelling carnie sideshows they called home. The last one I saw was at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto about 15 years ago. Motorcycle riders whipped around the inside walls of a silo-shaped arena, known as a silodrome. Ringed around the top edge, the audience watched the riders spiral higher and higher at gravity-defying angles. (I suspect that the stunt must have begun with daredevil farm kids discovering that, at the right speed, they could ride their motorbikes around the inside walls of empty grain siloes.)

 Inhaling exhaust fumes, the rev of the Indian Scout Motorcycle engines ricocheting off our eardrums, we'd hold five-dollar bills over the yawning mouth of the silodrome as offerings to whatever fuel-injected gods were stopping the riders from falling on their unprotected noggins.

The riders knew how to build suspense, kicking it up a notch by riding no-hands or while standing on the saddle like a bareback horse rider, until they were circling high enough to snatch the money out of our hands.

Sometimes three or four riders rode the wall together, looking for ways to tempt fate and amaze us with their bravado, like show-offy slam poets who never read off the page.

Here's the trick: they had to trust in their ability to keep moving at the right speed or they'll stall out and fall from a great height. Worse, their still-running Indian Scout Motorcycles might fall right on top of them.

Somewhere not far from the Wall, an old dog would doze, waiting for the riders to pack up and head off to some other sideshow, in some other town. The dog would answer to Smoky or Dusty or Sam. He'd hang around to comfort the riders when they were not on the Wall, but talking about it. And they were always talking about it.

When the riders closed their eyes, they would see the wooden boards of the silodrome flickering on the backs of their eyelids.

In daylight, when they were doing everyday, non-daredevil things, like going to the Money Mart for a payday loan, or ordering steak-and-eggs at four a.m., or scratching Smoky's ears, they were nagged by the feeling that they should be on the Wall. The riders didn't exist at all, really, except inside the silodrome.

Writing a novel is a lot like that -- like riding your very own Wall of Death, only slower. The silodrome of a 90,000-word work-in-progress can be scary as hell until you discover how to open 'er up and really get going.

You have to build momentum with nothing holding you up but your ability to control an invisible power -- centripetal force in the case of the trick rider, imagination, in the case of the novelist.

You might not even know where you're going half the time, and those watchers at the top, hooting encouragement and waving banknotes over the edge, are likely to turn their backs and wander away for a sno-cone, pocketing their bills just as you're about to touch them.

What have I been doing on the Wall of Death? With the assistance of the Toronto Arts Council and the Ontario Arts Council Writers' Reserve Program, I have been fine tuning Sputnik's Daughter and getting Pagans (the sequel to The Proxy Bride) on the road.

Sputnik's Daughter: A Radioactive Love Story is a novel written as the fictional memoir of Debbie Reynolds Biondi, an aging comic book writer whose cold war superheroine, Sputnik Chick, Girl with No Past, was a cult favourite turned commercial hit -- 25 years ago. Today, Sputnik Chick is a fading brand, the lineups of costumed fans at comic book conferences getting shorter and shorter.

At a fan's request, Debbie's decides to write an origin story to revive interest in Sputnik Chick and in so doing reveals her not-very-closely-held secret: that Debbie herself is Sputnik Chick, time traveller, heroine, and savior of the plant from a nuclear holocaust that was always destined to happen.

An excerpt from an early first chapter of Sputnik's Daughter appears in Room Magazine's Geek Girls Issue, published in September 2014. Look for it at your bookstore or visit Room Magazine.


Photo credit of Terri Favro. taken at the "Words Without Borders" reading at the Inspire! Toronto International Book Fair (Nov. 2014): Cole Anthony Capilongo

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Driving in fog, and other truths about the writing process

“Tag, I'm it!”

Thanks, Lisa Di Nikolits (author of four novels, most recently “The Witchdoctor’s Bones”), for tagging me in this blog-to-blog game of “What’s Your Writing Process”?

Having enjoyed both “A Glittering Chaos” and “The Witchdoctor’s Bones” over the past year, I was fascinated by Lisa’s total immersion approach to novel writing – not so very different from my own.


1. What am I working on?

I’m always working on multiple projects at once. My primary project right now is a speculative fiction novel, “Sputnik’s Daughter: A radioactive love story”. It’s about the creator of a cult comic book who is struggling to write an origin story for her fictional heroine, ‘Sputnik Chick, Girl With No Past’ –– but who has, in fact, lived the alternative reality-shifting life she depicts in her comics. I’m also working on ‘Pagans’, a novel-in-stories sequel to my novella, “The Proxy Bride”. And I’m working with my real-life husband and creative partner on a graphic novel called “Bella and the Boy With Bedroom Eyes”, the third installment of the Bella comics published by the small but mighty Grey Borders Books.

2. How does my work differ from others in the same genre?

Everything I write is part of one large story that I think of as the Shipman’s Corners Chronicles. Having set characters in motion in “The Proxy Bride”, I’m continuing to follow them and other characters from the same place, a rustbelt, post-industrial town in the Niagara region, based on my hometown of St. Catharines. Border towns offer some meaty stories, especially when it comes to shady activities like smuggling.

My work has been described as very dark, humourous and a combination of both –– I think my voice is fairly distinctive, in that my work can be gritty, edgy, sexy, violent and funny, all at the same time. And I never met a just-slightly-over-the-top love scene I didn’t like.

I also write creative non-fiction, which could be described in the same way as my fiction. I want my readers to laugh and be mildly horrified and possibly titillated – all at once.

3. Why do I write what I do?

I write the kinds of stories I like to read. I enjoy stories with a lot of forward movement with characters who are complex, unpredictable and under some type of stress. I want my characters to face problems that are human and ‘real’. But above all, I want them to be in some type of trouble –– I’m fairly nasty to my characters, because it’s more interesting to see them working out problems and facing danger, whether it’s physical, emotional or self-imposed. And I want a satisfying ending.

I look for ways to create epic stories about ordinary people –– that’s what I wanted to achieve with “The Proxy Bride”, and that I’m hoping to bring to both “Sputnik’s Daughter” and “Pagans”.

Put simply, when I read a story or a book, I want to laugh and feel my heart breaking. I want to feel the reality of each character’s experience. I want to be frightened, totally absorbed in the lives of these characters and also a little excited. That’s why I write the way I do.

4. How does my writing process work?

E.L. Doctorow once wrote: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” That’s exactly the way I approach writing a short story, creative non-fiction essay, graphic novel or novel. I set out on an adventure with my characters, and let them show me the way.

The writing process has always seemed rather mysterious to me. I don’t know why I’m so into it, or why it has become an obsession: it’s always been that way for me, starting at about four years of age when I’d make up stories for other kids in my neighbourhood or to scare my younger cousins.

When I have a specific project on the go, I write almost every day, usually for a few hours in the evening or early morning. I’ve been lucky enough to receive some grant money, which has allowed to me to take short periods of time off work and focus on a project.

At the beginning of a project, I usually allow myself to play, writing about characters in various situations until the storyline reveals itself. I don’t write detailed outlines, but I like to write a short summary to remind myself of what the story is about and where it’s going. And I like Stephen King’s method of posing a ‘what if’ question and allowing the characters to work out the answers. I’m sometimes very surprised by where that leads me.


Next up: I'm tagging Michelle Alfano, author of the Bressani Award-winning "Made Up of Arias" and editor of DESCANT. Read about her writing process and what she's writing now here.


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Cycling through the CBC Literary Prize shortlist

 I've never thought of myself as a particularly competitive person. When I was still a race-runner, I was always happy with a participant medal and a t-shirt. All I wanted to do was finish the 10K or half-marathon, maybe run a few seconds faster than last time, go home and have a nice glass of wine.

It's ironic, then, that most of my published work is, in one way or another, connected to contests. Even The Proxy Bride was published as co-winner of the Ken Klonsky Quattro Books Novella Award Contest. This year, in an effort to help publicize the book, I entered many literary competitions. I was a finalist in the Broken Pencil Indie Death Match, the Fish Memoir Competition (Ireland), the CBC NFB Hyperlocal essay competition and a winner in the Red Line "End of the World" Contest (U.K.).

And then, as I was busy pedaling around Ontario with my husband Ron, I was shortlisted for the CBC Literary Prize in Creative Non-Fiction for a memoir essay called "Icarus". The publicist from the CBC kept in touch with me as Ron and I moved from B&B to hotel, crossed the Rainbow Bridge by bike into upstate New York, and met characters like Walter the righteous cycling activist dude in Niagara Falls, New York, who had cycled around all the Great Lakes and filled us in on the cycling culture in the States. (Walter deserves a blog post of his own, which I hope to provide soon.) I was also delighted to receive tweets from strangers who had read and enjoyed "Icarus", and let me know.

Honestly, it was wonderful.

The shortlist was picked up in the literary press - Geist gave a shout-out to Matthew Hooton of Victoria and me -- both of us on the shortlist, and both Geist contributors. The shortlist also popped up in Quill & Quire and The Toronto Star, among other places. Open Book Ontario did a question and answer interview with all five of us. (I wrote my answers one evening while we were doing laundry between legs of our trip.) Both as a writer and a cyclist, these two weeks have been wondrous and surreal.

Although social media and mobile technology have their detractors, and can certainly interfere with private life, and break down the boundaries between work and non-work time more than any of us would was fantastic to be able to cover so much territory by bike while staying in touch with readers all over the country via Twitter. (And for any of you who might be reading this blog post, and who also read "Icarus" and let me know your thoughts and reactions, please understand that I am incredibly grateful to you. This has been one of the best experiences I have ever had as a writer.)

Tomorrow morning, Monday, July 22nd, CBC will do the big reveal of the Ultimate Winner of the CBC Literary Prize for Creative Non-Fiction. I honestly don't know if it's me but my spidey sense is no.

And while (of course) I would like to win the whole shebang, the shortlist of five (out of 2,.700 creative non-fiction essays) is an amazing place to find myself. It has been gratifying to share the list with these four fine writers, to receive money for my work, and to be published online.

Thank you, CBC Canada Writes. Thank you to the team of CNF readers at Canada Writes who put me in the final five. And thank you to everyone who read "Icarus", both before and after publication.

I am verklempt.

And now, I'm going to get back on my bike.



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