Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Let's Talk

All right, Bell Canada. You've launched your #BellLetsTalk campaign for the fifth year in a row, promising to donate five cents from every call and text made today from a Bell Canada-serviced phone, and every tweet and Facebook post that includes #BellLetsTalk. It's a noble idea, and you claim you've raised over 67 million dollars in support of Canadian mental health. You've got Howie Mandel (Team OCD), Clara Hughes (Team Depression) and Michel Mpambara (Team Bi-Polar) lending their images and voices to the campaign, and it's kind of cool to see a big conglomerate taking on the issue of mental health. It's not easy, like cancer or HIV, and it's not sexy.

Mental illness can be a big, thorny problem, and it takes many forms. Ranging from the homeless schizophrenic who scares people at the local Shopper's Drug Mart, to the young mother who copes with her post-partum depression by drinking too many Baileys and ice after the baby goes to bed. It can be long-term and lingering, like alcoholism; it can be acute, like psychosis. It is often insidious and difficult to recognize.

Many of the people I follow on Twitter are upset that the Let's Talk campaign has found a corporate sponsor in Bell, and I can't say I blame them. Bell isn't known for its tender touch when it comes to customer service. And besides, the tweeters say, shouldn't the onus for raising awareness fall to governments? Shouldn't it be part of school curricula? Shouldn't this be more than a day? Shouldn't it already be de-stigmatized?


But it's not.

If Bell has decided to take on mental health, then y'know what? I don't mind. One in five Canadians will have a mental illness at some point, and two-thirds of the people who suffer mental health issues don't get help - they don't recognize themselves in the stories, or they're afraid, or they're trapped in the wild arms of their illness and can't get out. There are lots of big and small agencies that serve those folks, or try to, but they often lack the capacity to really fund-raise or raise awareness. When I think of mental healthcare providers, I usually think of CAMH, Toronto's big local name. But there are dozens of other agencies in the 416 alone. Some of them focus children and teens, some of them focus on emergency services, some of them focus on long-term care and rehabilitation. All of them are doing important, valuable work.

Maybe it's not fair that Bell's grants range from $5K to $50K. That's not a lot, I know. In an ideal world, we'd be able to throw unlimited money at depression, anxiety, OCD, eating disorders, and the myriad other internal challenges. And maybe $5K is enough to start a yoga program for people with bi-polar disorder. You never really know.

I hate Emily, Bell's voice-activated automaton, as much as the next frustrated 310-BELL caller. But I actually kind of have to give it to Bell: the campaign does kind of, sort of, maybe open up a safe space for people to talk about their own struggles with mental illness. These diagnoses are tough. It's entirely possible to look normal from the outside. But when I talk about those years when I drank too much, and when I binge-ate and purged, and when I could.not.get.out.of.bed, I can stick a little hashtag on there. I can talk about my business and raise fifteen or twenty cents for the cause. It's not just the money. It's the billboards. It's the radio ads. It's the fact that we're talking about mental health, and talking about how we talk about mental health. That's not so crazy, is it?

Image via Textually

Friday, January 23, 2015

Modernist Farmer

It was with great concern that I read this week that Modern Farmer would be ceasing production after seven issues; it was with great relief (and, I'll admit, some lingering concern) to read only a few hours later that it still planned on publishing. The EIC has left, along with the staff, but the publishing remains confident that summer 2015 will offer a new issue. (I would like to suggest they put an alpaca on the cover, because that would please me.)

I bought my first issue of Modern Farmer expecting it to be a joke: a larkish parody of the glossy, fetishistic magazine devoted to say, pre-fab houses (Dwell), or some of your more specialized aviation or gun magazines that haunt the back aisle of the local Indigo store.

But when I started to read, it became clear that Modern Farmer wasn't intended to be funny. Sure, they had eschewed cover models for farm animals—a particularly clean pig, or a well-coiffed donkey—but the pages inside managed to offer a rigorous, if somewhat indulgent, view of modern farming. There was a column featuring agriculture ministers from around the world; there was gift guide that suggested a $415 wool coat that offered "lot of pockets." There were articles on mead producers and the social niceties of urban farming (no chickens where their morning cock-a-doodle-doos were likely to raise hackles), on barns converted into art spaces, and why jellyfish should be considered an edible crop.

This could have easily veered into parody—half these headlines might work on The Onion, skewering what one of my friends derided as "so stuff-white-people-like." The magazine's readership is small, and presumably mostly urban. It's clearly tailored to people who shop at Whole Foods but haven't actually been to a farm since a sixth-grade field trip. But reading closer, the articles about emerging farm technologies (LED lights! antibiotic alternatives!) could conceivably pique an actual farmer's interest. In the same way that both civilians and practicing interior designers subscribe to House & Home, it seemed possible to intersect the interests of the layperson and the practicing professional. That's where Modern Farmer hits its sweet spot.

We're a culture that has grown practiced at thinking about where food comes from. We shop organic, we shop free-range, we shop fermented and slow-cooked and hormone-free. Our hip restauranteurs shout out their herb purveyors and farmers on social media. The word "locavore" means something. We imagine that the animals we eat were happy before we turned them into food; we want farms to be idyllic places where a couple of flannel-wearing farmhands and big green tractor is all it takes to feed the masses.

So Modern Farmer takes those ideas, and those ideals, and gives us a visual. We get to see those converted barns, we get to see those tanned young WWOOFers beaming out from behind a farmer's market booth, we get to see those beautiful animals. It's not exactly realistic, but it's unreal in the same way as the "after" pictures in a home renovation story: plumped up and primed for print, but also still a real place.

Modern Farmer offers agriculture as an aspirational lifestyle; in a society that's often very removed from the production of its food, this position can seem almost ludicrous. But: I believe, as I imagine most Modern Farmer readers do, that this lifestyle is an integral and important part of all our lives, even if we rarely recognize it as such. The chance to glamourize and celebrate the muddy boots and 4 AM wake-up calls of a working farmer, to offer some insight into what they do and how they live, and to package it in a way that is so drop-dead gorgeous, is an endeavor that I can't help but support. I hope Modern Farmer rights itself quickly, for the sake of all us rurbanistas.

Image via Like Cool

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Brutal Romance

Toronto is currently locked in a bright minus-19 day, the kind where the sun hurts your eyes and the wind freezes your nose. It's lovely, but it's also bleak in the way that only a city in the winter can be bleak. Seriously: give me a stickish, gnawed-on clutch of trees in a matted field. It's better than a dusty gray parking lot any day of the week.

Right around this time of year, I generally fall in love with the brutal romance of the Arctic. Or, at least, the idea of the Arctic. I've been north of the Arctic circle once, and it doesn't count because it was July, it was hot, and we all got sunburns. I've never known the despair of long nights, the crackle of the aurora borealis, the howl of a vicious wind that's picked up speed as it's swept a thousand miles south from the North Pole. I just don't have those experiences in my mind, and try as I might to imagine them (reading Le Guin helps), I have a hunch that, like childbirth or making sourdough bread, it's an experience that doesn't really translate into print.

I'm not sure why the Arctic is so alluring, especially when, in Toronto, I can go outside and get a blast of cold air any time I feel like it. I think there's something to be said about the forced hunker-down mentality. I mean, I've seen The Thing. I know the importance of choosing your winter-over companions very carefully. But at the same time, I also know that forced coziness can have a real impact. (All you September babies, holler!) It really does feel like a frontier. Miles from anywhere, you have to plan your approach very carefully, lest you end up Franklin-ing yourself. Here, the winter doesn't force you to do anything, except add another 15 minutes onto your commute on those bad snowy days. Life, for the most part, can ignore nature's intrusions.

That ability to ignore - some would say rise above - the elements is one of the major themes of modern life. The natural rhythms of the world don't have to affect us. We can take the same buses, sit at the same desks, shop at the same grocery stores. Sure, there are seasonal shifts. We lose the figs and gain the blood oranges. But for the most part, July and January have the same look.

I would have been a terrible frontierswoman: I am prone to complaining and dithering over minor injuries, and I need far too much coddling in the form of frequent baths and baked goods. I have absolutely no idea how food works—how does one make flour? Or butcher a pig? Or grow a head of cabbage? (Sorcery is my best guess, especially for flour.) But an Arctic lifestyle would force my hand. A short summer and a limited agricultural scene makes you get creative. Plus, who doesn't like cured meats? I know this creativity runs rampant in Nordic countries: you only have to look at the culinary or music scene for proof. (Sadly, Canada's Arctic, being chronically underfunded and neglected, doesn't have quite the same cultural cachet.)

Honestly, I think this is another manifestation on my ongoing modern-life malaise. I want to get back to the land. I want to taste food that I grew. I want the solstice to mean something. And I want the stakes to be higher than they are now. I want to turn the heat down, and see what happens.

Image via Lovely Dark & Deep

Saturday, January 10, 2015


 I'd like to issue the following corrections to the world: 
  • Despite the fact that they had a wildly successful radio hit with the song "Mr Jones," and that their frontman had a hilarious hairdo for most of the 1990s, the Counting Crows should be recognized as one of the biggest bummer bands of all time. If you've actually listened to August and Everything After, you know that it's pretty much a paean to suicide, depression, lost loves, and angst.

  • None of the male Friends was worth a hill of beans, and Ross Gellar especially. I feel like he was the ultimate Nice Guy/friend-zoned doofus. AKA: ugh.

  • Working in non-profits doesn't mean that you should be paid less than a living wage. Anyone who tries to convince you otherwise maybe doesn't understand how truly sustainable and socially conscious organizations function. It's a widespread understanding in the non-profit world that the good feels people get from changing the world can somehow be converted into rent money, but this is not the case.

  • The comic Sex Criminals is not about actual sex criminals.

  • Unless you have an impeccably curated Instagram account, other people rarely find your children nearly as adorable, intelligent, or engaging as you do. (I say this fully aware of the fact that, if I have kids, I will do my damnedest not to let them become my only topic of conversation, and knowing also that I'll fail.) I have, however, come around on the whole "we're pregnant" thing, so you guys did win that round.

  • The hashtag #amwriting was recently derided on my Twitter feed for being something only posers, punks, and needful amateurs use. Fine. All you professional/full-time writers have fun in your miserable cocktail parties, comparing notes about how each sentence you write destroys your soul a little more, and how anyone who might mention writing in the spirit of fun and enjoyment is an awful person who Doesn't Get It. I'll be over here, merrily humming away, trying my best to finish stories, and celebrating the fact that I'm trying at all.

  • Knowing a problem exists is not the same as solving that problem.

  • Replacing your wheat flour with coconut flour, your rye flour with almond flour, and your spaghetti noodles with yam-starch noodles is the jankiest, laziest, most "I don't wanna give up the things I love" way of doing low-carb or Paleo. You want to do those diets? Fine. But don't front like your 1300-calorie slice of coconut oil bread has anything to do with cavemen.

  • Confidential to my sister and mother: you have seen the northern lights. I wasn't there. We have this conversation literally every time we talk about the aurora borealis. I still haven't seen them.

  • Spending time on Pinterest is not the same as making crafts.

  • The sentence "I wasn't interested," is complete and, contrary to that one intense dude that's at every house party, a 100% legit reason to not engage with media that doesn't appeal to you. No-one is under obligation to watch Breaking Bad, read Noam Chomsky, play Halo 4, listen to Serial, or whatever else. Don't let that intense dude make you feel bad.
Image via The Moscow Times

Friday, January 2, 2015

My New Year's Resolutions (For Other People)

Every year, people launch themselves into byzantine and elaborate self-improvement plans: lose ten pounds! Quit smoking! Get up early to meditate/write/run/observe the sunset/whatever! Forgo takeout! Only eat takeout! It's getting dull. I want the best for myself too, and after a couple weeks of hard ciders and Ferraro Rochers, I can definitely tell you that a personal short-term goal is "not eat like a fucking maniac."

But this year, instead of coming up with my own resolutions, I've decided to hand them out like unpopular party favours (here's looking at you, Quality Street chocolates!). I think this is a testament to both my strong moral fiber, and also to the tedium that comes from telling myself every year that I am not good enough as-is, which turns out to be a lie.

Online retailers: Please stop only featuring size-two models in your look books. It's tough enough to tell if something will be flattering when I'm holding it on the hanger. It's dad-blasted impossible to judge if the item that you're selling online will look good on me. I know it looks good on the model. That's the thing about models. It's their fucking job to look good in the clothes they're selling. But here's a little secret: this is also true of plus-sized, short, and otherwise "alternative" models. Please show me what your clothes look like on a wider range of bodies, and I will be more likely to say, "Hmm, that might actually look good on me," and spend my money.

Women's magazines: I have all but given up on you, ladies. I can't even tell what you're about these days. There are many body/fashion variants, like Self, Vogue and Cosmopolitan, and they're terrific, provided I want to learn what type of crunches will really define my obliques, which emerging unpalatable makeup ingredient is going to prevent me from getting crow's feet, or which "new" (read: your mom did this to your dad, for sure) sex position will really "rock his world" (read: make him worry that he might accidentally flip you off the bed and break your neck). I am so bored of this. I'm also not at the stage where I can read The Gentlewoman, because I don't know enough about esoteric Japanese designers; Milk and Naif are both parenting magazines for rich people; and Bitch isn't quite my cup of tea.

What I would like, and I'm not alone in this, is Esquire in a dress. I want luscious and glossy fashion photography. I want cheeky advice columns. I want profiles of interesting and powerful women. AND I ALSO WANT GOOD WRITING, especially on topics that aren't "women's" issues. There are only so many articles I want to read about HPV or date rape or birth control. I would also like to read about women in the military, or scientists who're in the Arctic researching climate change, or conceptual artists who worked in post-Katrina New Orleans, or any of the other literally thousands of cool women (and men too, I guess, but jeez I am tired of hearing about men) who exist and deserve buzz.

Facebook phone app: Quit tweaking your interface every six weeks. This is annoying.

Hollywood: Please stop abdicating women's narratives to television. What did we get this year? Maleficent? Tammy? I know lady-oriented television was a big deal over the past couple years, what with Orange is the New Black, Scandal, Broad City and Girls, not to mention American Horror Story and Orphan Black. These were all television shows that made no bones about being about women—and not just about how they orbit men, either. Fully realized characters had interesting story arcs that were about being female in the world, and it was really interesting! It made me feel like my own stories might actually mean something! It started training me to notice when stories were about white dudes having a crisis (this is literally like 85% of filmed media), and to notice if I was bored by seeing the same damned story, with minor tweaks, eight billion times in my life!

And then we looked to the big screen, and there was...sweet FA. Do better.

Paleo cookbook writers: Please stop pretending that paleo baked goods are a thing. You cannot make a delicious cake without sugar and/or flour. Paleo "muffins" are just little lumps of wasted ingredients, because trust me, you'll eat one and then throw the rest in the garbage. There is plenty good about the paleo diet, and lots it does well. Baking is not one of them.

There we go—that's five, y'all. I know there are other pet peeves, annoyances, institutionalized issues, and bothers that will surface this year. Can we all agree just be less horrible, generally? Because that would be really super.

Image via FYVM

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Things that Happened in 2014

January: I finished the first draft of my "long story," a novel-length murder mystery set on a post-apocalyptic farm. I did my due diligence and set out copies to a half-dozen friends for review and comment; they were generally kind, which gives me hope. I haven't had time since then to pick up the story for more work, but I think about it every day.

February: I visited my friend Jess in Montreal for her baby shower; she's my first close friend to have made a kid. Last year, I went through some Big Feelings about kids/fertility, but somehow, it's been easy being her friend through her pregnancy and new motherhood. Most of that credit goes to her: in addition to talking about maternity leave and breastfeeding, she also knows about things like Serial and Straphanger and Jian Ghomeshi. She's pretty rad, as far as motherhood role models go.

March: I started a new job, and the results, as they say, have been mixed. However, I did make headway on a my work-related anxiety and confidence. So there's that.

April: M and I got engaged. We had been talking about marriage for a while, but when we went for a walk up to Casa Loma on a beautiful spring day, I didn't know he was about to get down on one knee and propose. It was pretty magical.

May: We really started to dig deep on the wedding planning. Five months is not a long engagement, and there was so much to do: what would we feed people? Where? What would I wear? Who would we invite? How much is postage? There were so many moving parts, and each one took time and intense conversation.

June: I interviewed two people who cited their workplace's community and connectedness as a major plus for them, and I realized that this—since I worked alone—was a perk that was lacking in my own job. These two interviews are probably what began 2014's maddeningly slow thought process about my own professional story: What do I like to do? How do I turn that into work?

July: Technically, Emmett's annual Dominion Day party was in June, but it felt like the kick-off to this summer. We ate mad barbecue, drank whiskey, went on a meandering hike, and I read White Noise by Don Delillo, which was weird (and I liked it). There was also a huge bonfire, which conveniently doubles as a lazy metaphor for personal rebirth and renewal.

August: Honestly, I spent a lot of August feeling pretty lonely. Our wedding loomed large and unconquerable on the near horizon, my bank account was being drained like a fatted pig, and I felt unshakeable workplace ennui. I also was loathe to talk about it, since that felt very spoiled: "Gather round, friends, as I complain about my life choices!" I cried a lot. I read about Detroit. I made kombucha.

September: Then M and I got married. Our summer had been filled with filthy work weekend and aching muscles, but all of the work paid off big-time. We had two lovely, shining days: a teeny ceremony at city hall (+ dim sum), followed the next day by 88 of our closest friends and family eating tacos, drinking cider, and dancing until 2:30 in the morning. M and I had often turned to each other in the weeks leading up to our big days and said, "If we can get through this, we can get through anything," and I really do think that's true.

October: One of my oldest friendships ended. It was a long time coming, and it was honestly for the best, but I felt pretty crummy about it. It made me ask myself uncomfortable questions about what my boundaries are, and how much evil I carry in my heart (we all carry some), and my abilities to sustain any long-term relationship if I couldn't keep this one going. I miss my friend, but I don't miss feeling terrible about our friendship.

November: M took me to Luma for Taste of Iceland, and we all got really (really!) into Serial.

December: My first Christmas as a married person was also the shortest one I'd ever had: two and a half whirlwind days with my in-laws, my parents, my dad's extended family, and my husband. I made the decision to wear control-top underwear to Christmas dinner, which was miserable and masochistic. I enter 2015 as a woman who will never again be punished by restrictive panties.

Image via Mathew Borrett

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Threads of Truth

When we were in Los Angeles this fall, we went to LACMA, where we toured the Japanese Pavilion and looked at kimonos from the mid-20th century. They were so strange, these hybrid things. They were the shape and design of something medieval, but meticulously decorated with contemporary inspiration: strands of DNA, loose interpretations of Sputnik, geometric Frank Lloyd Wright-ish lines and colours. They were beautiful, but also kind of sad. It was hard to picture who, exactly, would have worn these outfits, and where.

I've thought a lot about those kimonos in the past few month. For me, they've become a kind of symbol of the balancing act we all do in building up our identities. The contradictions we contain.

When I was in recovery, I encountered this idea of "radically accepting" one's own body. It works like this: instead of defaulting to self-loathing and disappointment every time I see or think about my appearance, I would just kind of...accept it. Attributes that were previously assigned a negative value were reassigned a neutral one. In practice, it meant that when I saw a picture of myself with a double chin, instead of hating the picture, and myself, and vowing to lose some weight, I would just go, "huh, I have a double chin in this picture," and then keep on keepin' on.

This is so hard. This is one of the hardest thing that I've ever had to learn. But in the end, I got better at it, and I realized that I could transfer this practice into other areas of my life. I could be in a shitty mood and all it meant was that I was grouchy, not that I was a bad person. Taking each thing as being its own tiny piece of a greater mosaic, and not the totality of my life, was revolutionary.

It allowed me to start recognizing contradictions, which doesn't often happen in black-and-white thinking. I could be both a good partner and also annoy my boyfriend. I could be attractive and also have frizzy hair. Both things could be true at the same time. The world, man! It's a big place! We can hold a lot of truth in here.

Anyone who listened to the podcast Serial can tell you that facts and truth aren't always super-obvious. Tracing the story of the 1999 murder of a high school girl, and her teenaged ex-boyfriend Adnan's subsequent investigation and conviction, the podcast was an unmitigated success. People made charts about the episodes. I texted a handful of people about the show constantly ("It's so good!" / "I KNOW SHH I HAVEN'T HEARD THE NEW ONE YET"). Someone even remixed the advertisement for Mail Chimp that ran before each episode; I know because I listened to that remix three times.

Serial was "about" Hae Min Lee's murder, but it was about so much more than that: how host Sarah Koenig schooled us all in investigative journalism; how the criminal justice system has blindingly bad flaws that are (slowly, sometimes) being corrected; about how defense laws do their jobs, and how inmates treat 18-year-old Muslim kids when they show up in the general population of a maximum security prison. But it's also about how we tell each other stories, and how those stories are—and aren't—always based on facts.

Sometimes, we need to chase facts down and beg them to talk: a Jay-on-Serial situation. Other times, we don't know if we can trust them completely: Adnan, definitely. Many times, we end up with a buffet of weird, conflicting information about a situation—or a person—and then we have to make a judgement call: what's happening here? Who is this person, really? And can I tell my facts from my feelings enough to know for sure?"

At the end of Serial, I wondered who Adnan was, really. He seems to be a contradiction: a guy who went to prison for murdering his ex-girlfriend, and despite his protestations of innocence, doesn't actually seem to mind it much. A model inmate in for life. A mosque kid who stole, a Muslim boy who had sex. A man convicted of a violent crime who got elected to the incarcerated equivalent of the student body government. A man who will never know a life outside of cinderblock walls—first in high school, then in prison—but who will make his friends barbecue sauce from scratch.

And some of the contradictions, I can understand. I don't think I could sustain the level of rage that I assume I'd feel at a wrongful conviction over multiple decades; at some point, I'd probably give in and at least check out the library. We know prison as a lonely and violent place, but I guess sometimes gregarious and good-natured people end up there; they need to fit in somewhere, too. Multitudes, man. This story has them.

But the way the podcase, and our brains, are set up is that multitudes are hard. We don't want conflicting evidence. We want a nice 140-minute action movie with an appropriate number of explosions and pithy one-liners, and we want the villain to be Russian, thanks. We want a yes/no: guilty or innocent? Beautiful or ugly? With Adnan, we have two truths: his, in which he is innocent, and the one belonging to the state of Maryland, which convicted him. He both is and isn't a murderer. It all depends on who you get your facts from. An entire identity follows suit.

Back at LACMA, those kimonos are arranged along a spiral walkway. You can either follow it up towards the vaulted ceiling, or down into the basement. Each garment is given its own special nook, and you can see many of them from any given vantage point. Sometimes, you can look down at see a kimono from an aerial view, and notice a detail of neckline or sleeve that would be otherwise undetectable. But you can't see all of them this way. You have to retrace your spiraled steps, go past the ones you've seen before, back down to the entrance of the building. Then you have to keep going, even further, to get to the others. It's the only way to see them all.