The Mindy Kaling Awesome Guy Challenge: Family

Tip No. 8: Your girlfriend’s siblings or parents might be totally nuts, but always defend them.

“Always. All a girl wants to do is get along with her family, and if you are on the side of making it easy, you will be loved eternally. It might be easier to condemn them – especially if she’s doing that already – but, remarkably, even if they are murderers, she will find the good in them, especially if you start trashing them. Be the guy who says: ‘Hey, let’s go visit your brother in prison on prison visiting day.’ Most likely she’ll never make you actually do it, and she will always remember you offered.”

I’m back east right now, visiting my family for the holidays. As far as families go, mine’s on the sizable side – two sisters, a brother. My parents are still together. The family is extending into niece and nephew territory. Christmas lists are getting longer. It’s nice to spend time with them, despite the moments that remind me why I moved out in the first place.

My immediate family has always been close, but relatively sheltered from my aunts, uncles, and cousins, many of whom I haven’t gotten to know due to geography- and family-drama-related issues. Both of my grandfathers died before I was born, and I didn’t have much of a relationship with my grandmother on my dad’s side before she passed away. I suppose that’s why I find it strange to become close with a girlfriend’s family, which usually takes on a form completely different from my own.

The idea has always made me a bit nervous. I worry that they’ll think I’m not good enough, or that I won’t be able to relate to them and they’ll think I’m being judgmental, or that they’ll regard me as this temporary presence in her life that shows up at barbecues yearly and largely keeps to himself. I came to realize after my last relationship that not making the effort was a mistake, one that I’m hoping to correct the next time I become involved with someone. When you’re at those barbecues, it’s important to pick up a damn horseshoe and toss it, to not sit there like a lump on a picnic table. More than that, you should look forward to it, because it will mean a lot to her. They’re responsible for who she is, in a lot of ways, and that deserves respect.

On the flip side, I think this is decent advice for awesome women, too. Even though I’ve been in a couple of three-year relationships, I’ve never spent a Christmas with a girlfriend. I think when you’ve reached the point where you’re hopping in a car to make it to at least two houses, which may be located in entirely different cities, in order to avoid the passive-aggressive wrath of the people who gave you life, you’ve reached a level of commitment I’ve never really experienced. That’s kind of a shame. My last two serious girlfriends met my parents a total of one time each. Whomever I’m with next is going to have to step up too.


The Mindy Kaling Awesome Guy Challenge: Drink

Tip No. 2: Have a signature drink like James Bond.

“It’s silly, but I’m always so impressed if a guy has a cool go-to drink. Obviously, if it has a ton of fancy ingredients, like puréed berries or whatever, you can look a little bit like a high-maintenance weirdo, so don’t do that. If you like Scotch, have a favorite brand. It makes you look all self-actualized and grown up. (You don’t have to say your drink order with the theatrical panache of James Bond. That’s for close-ups.)”

I’m a beer drinker. I wasn’t always. When you’re a teenager and you find an in for alcohol (when all else fails, ring dial-a-bottle – they don’t want to waste the gas), you want to try every kind of crazy liquor under the sun, and always in bizarre combinations. The single worst drink I’ve ever concocted was a mix of pear liqueur and grape juice. My rationale: they’re both fruit. That was 13 years ago and I’m still shuddering at the thought.

I became a beer drinker slowly and out of necessity. Beer fit my budget a lot more soundly than those 26ers of root beer schnapps that would surface at every party for a year before they were finally finished on a dare in some card game. You have to develop a taste for it, and when you do, you’re rewarded with a wide variety of preparation methods and locations and subtle, surprising hints of flavour. A good beer goes down easy, once you’ve trained your pallet to clear a path.

The same has to be said for hard liquor, but I’m clueless when it comes to a “good Scotch” – most liquors taste relatively the same to me, if “harsh” and “volatile” can be likened to tastes. You know those scenes in Westerns where cowboys order shots of whiskey and down them like they’re Fresca? I always wait for them to gag or react somehow, because that’s what shots of straight liquor have always been about for me: the immediate squishy-faced aftermath, the “I can’t believe we just did that” quality of the experience.

In choosing a signature drink, I wanted something classic that would expand my pallet and make me appreciate how liquors work in combination with very simple ingredients. I did a bit of research, came up with three classic cocktails, and hit up the Pourhouse in Gastown. Basking in its roaring-twenties aesthetic and low-lit wood-paneled atmosphere, I bellied up to the bar and placed my order with the bartender, who was dressed to the nines and more than willing to welcome me into the ritual of cocktail preparation.

I started with the Old Fashioned, the original cocktail. This is the kind of thing modern macho-man throwback Don Draper drinks in between (and during) his affairs. It requires muddling a sugar cube with water and bitters in the bottom of an Old Fashioned glass, filling the glass with ice cubes, and adding a shot of bourbon, scotch, rye, or brandy. My bartender recommended Rittenhouse 100-proof rye and further swore allegiance to American whiskeys. He then added an orange slice, a maraschino cherry, and a lemon zest that he used to wipe the rim of the glass. What’s really appealing about the Old Fashioned is its bouquet – your nose takes in the aggressive citrus smell of the fruit as you drink, and it mingles exotically with the hardness of the liquor, all capped by that familiar warmness in the chest.

A couple of friends showed up, so I left the bar to sit with them at a table and was unable to watch the prep on my other two cocktails. I went with the Sazerac next, a New Orleans original that’s similar to the Old Fashioned but has absinthe as an added ingredient, removes the ice, and strips the fruit down to a lemon zest that’s twisted over the cocktail and either added or discarded. But don’t take my word for it. Watch Chris McMillian, who is quite apparently the greatest bartender in the world, take you through it:

I finished things up with a Manhattan, the only cocktail of the three I had tried before. The Manhattan is served in a cocktail glass and typically forgoes the sugar and water of the previous drinks, drops the ice, trades out the Sazerac’s absinthe for vermouth, and of course adds a maraschino cherry as a garnish.

The verdict? If I had to rank them, I’d put the Sazerac just over the Old Fashioned, with the Manhattan trailing in third place. In addition to having the greatest taste (the absinthe really does it for me, reminding me of the kid who used to try dangerous booze for kicks), it also has the most intriguing history and a colourful place of origin. That said, I love the sensory experience involved in drinking an Old Fashioned. The Manhattan is slighter by comparison. Of course, this all has a lot to do with how the Pourhouse prepares these particular drinks. Another bartender in another bar in Saskatoon might have a Manhattan to die for. I’m looking forward to finding out who knows their stuff, and who can play a solid variation on a classic.

The Mindy Kaling Awesome Guy Challenge: Skin and Hair

Tip No. 9: Kiehl’s for your skin, Bumble and Bumble for your hair.

“Maybe a comb. That is all you need. And when girls look in your medicine cabinet (which they will obviously do within the first five minutes of coming to your place), you’ll look all classily self-restrained because you’ll have only two beauty products. You’ll look like a cowboy.”

This is my face. I’ve had it for a while now. It’s changed a bit over the years. I’m starting to get lines under my eyes. I don’t have as much hair as I did 10 years ago. It’s a pretty good face though, I think, as far as faces go. Nothing too unseemly about it. I’m relaxed in this photo, which underscores the fact that I naturally look like I’m kind of upset, like I always have something weighing on my mind. Kurt Cobain once said that he thought about shaving his eyebrows off so that people would stop asking him what was wrong all the time. I can identify with that.

A brief history of my skin: I had a pretty bad case of acne from about the age of 16 through to my early 20s. Acne has left my forehead a bit more ragged than most foreheads, but otherwise I came out of it pretty well. I really feel for kids who have to go through that incredibly awkward phase. Like a lot of teenagers, I experimented with my share of skin treatments, and finally settled on washing with Cetaphil twice a day, and applying Clearasil or whatever before going to bed. Everyone’s skin is different, but sticking with Cetaphil worked out in the long run. Eventually I quit using the Clearasil because the soap was enough to prevent breakouts, and after a while I was able to stop using the soap. For the past few years I haven’t used any kind of cleanser to wash my face.

I had never heard of Kiehl’s before reading Kaling’s book. The company has a shop down on Robson between Burrard and Thurlow, which I now refer to as Awesome Guy Alley given its proximity to other stores suited to the challenge. Kiehl’s has a complete line-up of guy grooming products related to cleaning, shaving, and moisturizing. Kaling isn’t specific about what kinds of products to use, nor on what part of the skin, but I thought I’d settle on my face, since she includes the skin advice alongside the hair advice.

I keep a beard, obviously, so Kiehl’s shaving products don’t do me much good. I decided to go with their Facial Fuel energizing moisture treatment, and grab a couple of samples of their energizing facewash. (The store is obsessed with giving out free samples.) Kiehl’s stuff is pricey, but they had a deal on involving a $15 gift card good for January, so I’m going to go back next month and pick up a bottle of the facewash. They also have a hardcore-looking scrub soap that I’d like to try.

I hadn’t heard of Bumble and Bumble either. I’ve been meaning to pick up a good hair wax forever – I love the way my hair feels after it’s been cut and waxed at the barber’s. I haven’t been a big gel user over the last year or two, chiefly because the crappy gel I use always leaves my hair looking patchwork-styled and out of control. Part of the problem, I think, is that I don’t have it cut often enough (maybe every five months), so that’s going to require a bit more dedication on my part. Sumo wax is nice because the product looks invisible.

So here’s my face again, post-skin and hair treatment:

Like night and day, isn’t it?

Now, about medicine cabinets: do women really do that? I’ve never judged a person by their medicine cabinet. It’s just such a weird idea, maybe because I’ve never had anything overly incriminating in mine. Obviously, that’s where people are going to keep their medicine and grooming stuff, and I suppose I just don’t care enough about it to notice. What kind of nightmarish items do people usually have? Here’s a shot of my medicine cabinet:

It’s mostly just messy. There’s a bunch of stuff in there that’s either expired or past its point of use. I cleaned it out and restocked it with only the items I might need, including my new awesome guy purchases:

The funny thing is, I think there are actually now more beauty products in the cabinet than there were before. Maybe the line to balance on is between taking pride in your appearance and not taking too much. Yippee-ki-yay.

Eau de Hilarity

After reading a bit more about colognes, I’ve made the switch to an unscented deodorant that I’m wearing in combination with the Gucci. I’ll say this about using all of these products: I smell fantastic. It caught me off guard at first and made me realize how accustomed I’ve become to my own scent. But everything from the soap to the moisturizer to the deodorant and cologne smells great and makes me feel like a million bucks.

I also ran into a video of Mr. Franco offering outtakes from his Gucci commercial. You can watch it on Funny or Die, who need to get their WordPress embed coding act together.

The Mindy Kaling Awesome Guy Challenge: Cologne

Tip No. 7: Have one great cologne that’s not from the drugstore.

“Just one. Wear very little of it, all the time. I cannot tell you how sexy it is to be enveloped in a hug by a man whose smell you remember. Then, anytime I smell that cologne, I think of you. Way to invade my psyche, guy! Shivers down spine central!”

I have a bottle of Adidas sport cologne that my aunt gave me for Christmas six or seven years ago. It’s still about a quarter full. Like my dress shoes, I typically reserve wearing cologne for nights out, and only when I happen to spot it in the medicine cabinet. Needless to say, I’ve never been a voracious wearer of the stuff. It’s not that I’m against cologne – as with a fair number of the items on Kaling’s list, I’ve simply never seen the need to invest in an odour. I wear Speed Stick. It’s glacier scented. I routinely smell like a centuries-old ice formation. Good enough.

My criteria for a new cologne was simple: something subtle yet distinctive that didn’t smell like my dad’s Old Spice. I went to Sephora and sniffed my way through probably about 25 different kinds. There are some thoroughly rank colognes out there, to be sure. Gucci won me over with its refreshing quality. There’s a trustworthiness to it. Looking into it now, I discover that it’s a cologne James Franco endorses in one of those hilariously over-the-top senseless artsy commercials:

I think Kaling is bang on about the olfactory trigger of colognes. I’ve known some women with distinctive scents, and thoughts of them always hit me like a ton of bricks when I come across the scents in daily life. The trick, of course, is using just the right amount. recommends applying it “sparingly around your neck and upper torso.” Usually I’ll walk into a spritz and take the excess around the nozzle for other areas. I’m going to try out the pulse point strategy of wrist-to-neck application.

Oh My God, Shoes

Kate writes: “You should retire your square-toed slip-ons. Mindy forgot to mention that, but she meant to include it. You need laces, you need a slimmer toe. Doesn’t have to be pointy, but a square-toe looks like an IT guy kind of shoe. Not a winning cut.” I agree. I’ve had those dress shoes for a few years now, and it’s probably about time I got another pair. That will be an aim in the new year. Kate also recommends something along the lines of these boots for the inclimate Vancouver streets:

The style is a bit too layer cakey for my taste, but I like the cut. A great point of reference. Thanks Kate!

The Mindy Kaling Awesome Guy Challenge: Peacoat

Tip No. 1: Buy a well-fitting peacoat from J.Crew.

“Or wait until Christmas sales are raging and buy a designer one, like John Varvatos or something. Black looks good on everyone (Obvious Cops) and matches everything (Duh Police), but charcoal gray is good, too. You can always look like a put-together Obama speechwriter with a classy peacoat. Oh, and get it cleaned once a year. Sounds prissy, but a good cleaning can return a peacoat to its true-black luster, and make you look as snappy as you did on the first day you wore it.”

J.Crew is only just starting to open branches in Canada. Regardless, I bought a single-breasted Jonathan Robert peacoat in 2009 at a men’s clothing store in the St. Laurent shopping centre in Ottawa. (For all I know, Jonathan Robert is Varvatos’ mutant half-brother who in between manufacturing coats builds model suburban neighbourhoods out of crackers in the attic he’s being kept in.) I’ve never had it dry cleaned – or anything else, for that matter – so I brought it over to Busy Bee Cleaners on Commercial. I also had them repair a torn seam in the lining. New to the dry cleaning world, I experienced a small thrill when the employee flicked the switch that made the huge garment conveyor belt bring my coat up to the front, like it had just won an award. For best coat.

Anyway, it looks good as new. Peacoats are simple, elegant, classic. The coat was one of the first real adult clothing purchases I made, in the wake of nabbing a government job. Previously, I’d been wearing a hand-me-down that was super warm, perfect for Ottawa winters, but that made me look like a giant blueberry. A good coat is hard to find.

Rachael writes: “I love, love, love your Mindy Kaling challenge. I don’t really agree with her suggestions, they seem kind of shallow, but like you said, it’s a fun project anyway.” I suppose I should clarify that I’m starting with the appearance tips first, the “out” part of the “inside and out,” which take up about half the list. The remainder is all humorously particular things about how to behave with women. They’ll be fun to discuss, if nothing else.

The Mindy Kaling Awesome Guy Challenge: Jeans

Tip No. 3: Own several pairs of dark-wash straight-leg jeans.

“Don’t get bootcut, don’t get skinny – just a nice pair of Levi’s, without any embellishments on the pockets. No embellishments anywhere. At all. Nothing. Oh my God.”

This is no doubt on the more gratuitous side of crotch shots, but, well, there you go. I picked up two pairs of Levi’s 514 slim straight jeans, my first pairs of Levi’s ever. Two pairs doesn’t mean “several,” I suppose, but I find it hard to believe I’d need more than two pairs, considering that until today I’d been getting by on one.

A little about my pants: after being a jeans wearer for pretty much all of high school and college, I axed jeans from my wardrobe entirely for a generous portion of my 20s, preferring to wear slacks and trousers. I put jeans back into the rotation a couple of years ago, in part because I’d forgotten how decent I looked in them. Jeans tend to look good on everybody, although I’d never be caught dead wearing skinny or embellished ones.

I’ve long despised shopping for new clothes, electing instead to wear thrift-store numbers and whatever people (usually family members) would give me as presents. Smaller, name-brand retailers tend to intimidate me, but I’ve been learning how to deal with them lately. I was rather proud of the way I walked into Levi’s and demanded these jeans like a total boss. Well, maybe on the politer side of bossness.

Early in Kaling’s chapter on awesome guy tips (titled “Guys Need to Do Almost Nothing to Be Great” – probably should have mentioned that earlier) she notes that iconoclastic guys who go to the beat of their own drum will find her list insufferable. After I picked up the jeans I went to Starbucks for a coffee and sat and looked around at everyone else. This was down near Robson and Burrard, which as far as shopping strips in the West End go is certainly on the trendier side. Lots of really nice scarves and jackets and hair care products and so on. Vancouver is somewhat known for its prissy richness and ridiculously huge class divide. Lots of awesome guys, judging by the surface of things.

I’m not a rich guy. Beyond that, I’ve always hated following trends, and I’ve always found the notion of putting together a name-brand wardrobe a giant waste of time. While I’d like to look and feel a bit nicer when it comes to the way I present myself, I don’t want following this list to be about collecting slogans that I can slap on and brand myself awesome by default. I’ve never spent as much money on jeans as I spent today. Sure, the money probably would have gone to something else instead – movies, junk food, some new gadget. And at least jeans are something I’ll be getting steady use out of.

But I still felt a bit funny about it, so I figured another awesome thing I might do is donate to the local food bank, which the CBC has really been pulling for today. That’s something awesome that anybody can do, regardless of gender.

Christ, heavy-handed enough? Back to all things man-makeover-related next time.

The Mindy Kaling Awesome Guy Challenge: Shoes

As I mentioned in my last post, over the next little while I’ll be undertaking the Mindy Kaling Awesome Guy Challenge, based on the 12 guy-improvement tips she offers in her latest book, “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns).”

Reasons why I am doing this:

  1. For fun.
  2. The alternative is not doing it, which is decidedly less fun.
  3. Mindy Kaling is smart, funny, and perceptive, important qualities in the kind of woman I’d like to attract. I trust her observations.
  4. I’m far too lazy to come up with my own list, and it would be nowhere near as specific as hers.
  5. None of the tips include, “Don’t blog about trying to follow these tips.”

I’ll be doing these out of order. Let’s start from the bottom up, appearance wise, and go with shoes first.

Tip No. 10: I really think guys only need two pairs of shoes.

“A nice pair of black shoes and a pair of Chuck Taylors. The key, of course, is that you need to replace your Chuck Taylors every single year. You cannot be lax about this. Those shoes start to stink like hell. They cost forty dollars. You can afford a new pair every year. And if you can’t, why can’t you? You have much bigger problems. Stop reading this and go deal with them.”

I’m in a rare shoes-wearing period of not owning Chuck Taylors. For reference, they look like this:

I’ve been a Converse sneaker loyalist for years now. I’ve worn my way through a lot of pairs of Chucks, which routinely end up tearing in that weird way beside the toes just as winter is approaching. Sometimes I get bored of Chucks and go with another Converse model if it isn’t overly offensive (that popped-collar model they put out last spring is ghastly). I’ve been wearing this pair for the past couple of months:

I also have a pair of black dress shoes that I’ve polished up all nice for this photo:

I generally lack a reason to wear these, though I’ll usually put them on if I know I’m going out dancing. I’m in awe of the elaborate dress footwear on some of the businessmen I see downtown. Some of those guys turn shoe upkeep into a religion. My own closet is definitely shoe-tree-free. Back when I worked in an office I wore a pair of brown dress shoes that I kept on site to change into. I don’t own a car and rarely take any kind of transportation, so my shoe choices usually revolve around all the walking I do. And running and hiking, sometimes, which necessitate the other two pairs of shoes that I own:

I throw up in my mouth a little at the sight of Nikes in my closet, but they’re super comfortable.

So I’m at four pairs of shoes, two of which more or less conform to Kaling’s advice, depending on my mood. I think what deserves particular attention in this tip is her observation that if a guy can’t afford $40 a year for shoes, he has bigger problems. I buy a new pair of shoes at least yearly, but to be fair, Chucks are at least $60 in Canada if you get them at Foot Locker. It’s not that much more, but the idea seems to be that a guy needs dough in his pocket before he can enter awesome territory.

Fair enough. Most of this list is about getting one’s shit together, and if it requires finding common ground with good ol’ capitalism’s authority over proper shit presentation, so be it. I have a bit of capital.

I may add a pair of boots, however. Vancouver is a wet city, and I need something to combat the drifts back east. Maybe all the awesome guys are living in far more temperate climates.