Friday, February 27, 2015

Write On


Last week, a friend of mine, who happens to also be one of the Editors-in-Chief of Torontoist, emailed me asked if I wanted to write a review of Fabricland. Not a concert or a stage play, not a restaurant or a book. A fabric store. And not a hip, happening new place, the kind of see-and-be-seen joint that sometimes inspires hipsters to take up handicrafts - looking at you, City of Craft! - but Fabricland. That slightly dumpy, unflatteringly lit, cotton-poly blend of a retail experience. Fabricland.

When I wrote the article, I realized that I was treating the whole experience like a puzzle: how would I situate this story? Should I write about the gender politics of craft? The condo boom that will ultimately close this location in less than two years? The way pop-up stores have influenced retailers? What was my thesis? What pieces of the puzzle could I leave in the box, and which would I need to tell this story?

God, I loved writing it.

When I first started writing this blog, I didn't really have any hopes for it. I had graduated from all-about-meeeee Livejournaling, and I just wanted a place to experiment. I want to write about stuff, not just myself and my own hang-ups and feelings. I had big opinions about everything: cycling, Leah McLaren, Lost (can you tell I started in 2009?). I didn't have a beat. I just wrote about whatever I wanted to.

After a while, I realized I could use this blog to my advantage. I sent out links to Spacing and was offered an internship. I bounced over to a sex 'n' love blog. I slowly built up my portfolio, and my writing skills. Even though I dropped down to one post each week, I usually look forward to writing it. There's always this little engine part of my brain that's thrumming: maybe I could write about it, write about it, write about it. And having other outlets, like Torontoist or XOXOAmore (RIP), just meant that part of my brain revved more.

Some people process their lives through music. They are, like my husband, the Rob Gordons of the world: not creators, exactly, but those whose biographies are akin to soundtracks. They can put a pin in "my first concert" or "the first time I saw that band live" or "when we went to that city and saw that show." Traveling with M has always included a live music component: beautiful punk shows in Oakland, weirdo Brooklyn Halloween shows, Icelandic hometown heroes playing a free concert under the midnight sun. Remember that time we saw this live? And we can.

I like music, but it's not how I process my shit. I need to write it out. A friend of mine said the words "reflective writing" the other day, and it reminded me of being forced to keep a journal for certain high school classes. (Obviously, I was one of those kids who always faked it in a mad scramble at the deadline, which is a shame.) I'm a person who learns by writing it out. I often don't know how I feel about something until the fast tikky-takky of the keys is almost hypnotic. I've written letters I've never sent: to former lovers, to siblings, to people I no longer want to know. Writing it down is, as our guidance counselors always said, a way of getting it out. (I also chat vivaciously with myself in the shower and plan conversations that way. People are weird, man.)

Every few months, I come back to this realization: I like writing. I'm good at it. (I mean, I'm not, like, Joan Didion or anything, but that woman had her own hangups.) When I do it, I feel better. It's magical and mundane. I am blessed with this knowledge, and also cursed, because the time I allot in my current life for writing that feeds my inner she-beast is pretty damned small. And that she-beast can't always be ignored.

Perhaps in the coming weeks and months, I'll be more aggressive with my time, and devote more energy to things that make me feel better. The days are getting longer; the tide is beginning to turn. Putting pen to paper is the best way I know to stretch out and enjoy it.

Image by Kevin Dowd via WeTheUrban

Friday, February 20, 2015

Twelve Scenes From Other Worlds

 1. I live in a tiny cottage on the edge of a Nordic country. I am a widely celebrated poet who writes small, still paeans to the natural world. I have never had sex, and I never intend to; I am confident this will add to my mystique after I am dead. Instead, I pour my erotic attachments into odes to rounded fruits, thick glossy leaves, and gnarled root systems. I take long walks from my cabin into the fjords. One day, I am swept out to sea. There is a postage stamp in my honor.

2. I am part of a husband-and-wife real estate team. We are the most successful agents in the city, and we advertise that aggressively. We are photographed standing back-to-back, arms crossed, smiling warmly into the camera. My wife is naturally blonde, and my hair is the perfect shade of brunette. The colour costs nearly three thousand dollars each year to maintain. We write it off as a professional expense.

3. I am the mother of identical triplet girls. When they were babies, I wrote numbers on the soles of their feet with indelible marker. I insisted on giving them flowery, vaguely European names—Francesca, Angelina, Bianca—but despite my best efforts, two of them grew up to be lesbians. The third moved to Shanghai as a missionary, and doesn't speak to any of us.

4. I am a very successful artist living in New York City, where I'm part of a polyamorous "constellation" made up of other artists. Once a month, we have a live sex show, which always sells out. We deliberately serve crackers that I know taste terrible. The New Yorker once called me "the next Yoko Ono." Sometimes, I put on jeans and huge white sneakers, buy a bag of cherry-flavoured licorice, and I go to La Guardia and watch the planes take off.

5. I bartend. I have three earrings in each ear, and I chew a pack of gum each night. I have always been proud of my legs, and wear sheer black stockings and short skirts. When the pint glasses come out of the dishwasher, I polish each one by hand. At the end of the night, my hands smell like soap and stale beer, and I like that very much.

6. I was a child actor; now, I'm a Twitter sensation. I live in Los Angeles and tweet about traffic and watching sitcoms on TV, and for some reason, this is a huge hit. I'm invited onto late-night television, and offered a book deal. Later, I see this book at an remaindered bookstore at an outlet mall in Atlanta, Georgia, and my feelings are hurt.

7. I am a mid-level manager at an international firm. When I have an affair with a woman in another department, her personal assistant discovers our secret. I threaten to kill her if she tells anyone; terrified, she exposes us. My lover and I are both fired. When I am escorted out the building by security, I am holding a plant in a cardboard box. I realize I have seen this moment in a movie.

8. I am a stand-up comedienne. One night, after a show, a fellow comic slips a sedative into my drink and fondles my breasts in the green room. Seven months later, he is offered a pilot for a network. I tell no one about what happened.

9. I am an art therapist. I specialize in international child refugees who have escaped war zones. I hear about severed limbs, about burning houses, about bodies floating in rivers. During our sessions, the children draw these scenes for me. Later, I throw their pictures away. I never feel unconflicted about this, but I also know I can't keep a mountain of paper devoted to horror in my office. I drink a lot of white wine.

10. I am a radio producer. I spend three months in Antarctica, working on a story about isolation. I sit with a Czech marine biologist in a very hot sauna. We are both drunk and naked. After we are dizzy from the heat, we run outside wearing only thick white boots and a scarf. It is -100 degrees, which is colder than the moon. The steam rises from my body like a thick white cloud, and I see the aurora australis. I can't see the Czech in the darkness. I feel utterly abandoned, and this exhilarates me.

11. I am a grad student. My girlfriend lives on the other side of the country. We keep in touch by Skype, texting, and the occasional visit. I no longer know if I love her, or if I've grown accustomed to our arrangement. It occurs to me that I have never lived in a place longer than two years.

12. I work part-time at a gourmet deli, going in early to make rigorously healthy salads. In the afternoons, I write columns for several print and online publications. I am fast, thorough, and my editors adore me. I have two children, and a husband who is close enough to perfect that he sometimes seems like an alien who has learned how to be human by studying romantic comedies. In the evenings, I knit and volunteer for local non-profits. We do not have a backyard, but we live close to a park. I sleep horribly, and I never lost my baby weight. I am happy.

Image by Pat Perry via This is Colossal

Friday, February 13, 2015

A List of Happy Things


Here is a brief, incomplete list of some of the things that are making me happy in these dark, miserably cold, winter days:
  1. Adventure Time, which is ostensibly for children but is also 100% ba-nay-nays and likely to freak out/enchant those who are even the slightest bit high. In the post-apocalyptic land of Oo, the human boy Finn and his shape-shifting dog companion Jake fight demons, woo princesses, and go on quests. They also eat pancakes, play with their video game system, and end up in impromptu dance parties. It's so many things at the same time: odd, genuinely terrifying, heart-warming, and funny. I can't figure out if it's really meant for kids, or for adults, or what. But it's pretty great.

  2. Rock climbing! M and I went last weekend, and it was bonkers. I was expecting to be better than I was—I mean, I work out! I can flex my abs and shit!—but even though I totally fell off the wall like forty times, and gave myself a blister, and could barely open jars for days afterwards, I can't stop thinking about it. Rock climbing seems to be a sport where you have to get out of your own head to do it with any proficiency, and getting out of my own head is a thing I'm trying to do more of.

  3. Caramel corn. Even though I'm paleo-ish, caramel corn is the food of angels.

  4. Weight lifting. I read a wonderful article in Maisonneuve about the impact that lifting weights has on women, and this line in particular stood out for me: "A 2001 study found that college students who completed a course of weight training reported an increase in body strength, lower physical anxiety and general improvements in body satisfaction, while concurrent aerobic exercise was found to have no effect on body image." This totally jives with my lived experience: the more I lift weights, the more I appreciate my striated shoulder muscles, the curve of my bicep, and the subtle-but-definitely-there definition of my obliques. I built my body, and size two or not, I'm damn proud of it.

  5. California daydreams, which have been sustaining me during stressful times at work. It's become easier and easier to recall our beautiful honeymoon: the heat, the sun, the landscape, the sense of adventure. The ions in the air from being so close to the ocean. The laconic SoCal drawl of the shop girls. The preponderance of really excellent tacos. The sense of togetherness we had. Whenever I feel bummed out at work, I imagine M and I walking down Sunset and stumbling into Amoeba. I imagine us goofing around in the organic grocers on Haight Street. I picture us hanging out on the train into LA, after a day of watching brown hills, studded with barrel cacti and the occasional burro, roll on by. Travel is magical in the moment, but it nourishes us for the rest of our lives.

  6. New Kelly Link! She seems to publish a book whenever I'm having a sucky time at work, and I am so effin' jazzed that she's back with a set of nine new fantastical, weirdo stories. She is a delight, I love her, I can't be more pleased. The first one had foxes in it. Foxes!

  7. So, much to my annoyance, my friend Abe turned out to be right about podcasts. (I will continue to keep my distance from This American Life, because, even though I can't explain it, Ira Glass make me twitch.) I've been mainlining episodes of 99% Invisible for nearly two weeks, and it's awesome. So far I've learned about modern Warsaw's semi-fake historical district; how basketball developed the shot clock and became exciting; whether or not modern prison designers violate human rights standards by designing buildings that might literally torture its inhabitants; how to communicate with humans who will be alive in 10,000 years; and why a particular hotel in Illinois is purple.  This show is fascinating! I'm interested in design—if I was more focused, I might have become an architect or a interior designer—but the stories are also just so charming and addictive. I even listen through the sponsor shout-outs at the end of the show, because I want to know what host Roman Mars' sons have to say. Dammit, Abe. You've won this round.

  8. Honorable mentions go to ramen noodles, Vanilla Coke Zero, our mega-cozy blanket from Cambie, my slick-looking Sorel boots, the ring my mother gave me for Christmas, M's and my screen-free days, mid-week dinner parties, a boozeless (so far!) 2015, sunshine, Straphanger, my so-far-so-good  Facebook hiatus, and great sleeps. Even in the darkest winter, there's enough to keep us going.
self-image
A 2001 study found that college students who completed a course of weight training reported an increase in body strength, lower physical anxiety and general improvements in body satisfaction, while concurrent aerobic exercise was found to have no effect on body image - See more at: http://maisonneuve.org/article/2015/01/29/making-gains/#sthash.DDVyspMt.dpuf
A 2001 study found that college students who completed a course of weight training reported an increase in body strength, lower physical anxiety and general improvements in body satisfaction, while concurrent aerobic exercise was found to have no effect on body image. - See more at: http://maisonneuve.org/article/2015/01/29/making-gains/#sthash.DDVyspMt.dpuf
A 2001 study found that college students who completed a course of weight training reported an increase in body strength, lower physical anxiety and general improvements in body satisfaction, while concurrent aerobic exercise was found to have no effect on body image. - See more at: http://maisonneuve.org/article/2015/01/29/making-gains/#sthash.DDVyspMt.dpuf
A 2001 study found that college students who completed a course of weight training reported an increase in body strength, lower physical anxiety and general improvements in body satisfaction, while concurrent aerobic exercise was found to have no effect on body image. - See more at: http://maisonneuve.org/article/2015/01/29/making-gains/#sthash.DDVyspMt.dpuf
A 2001 study found that college students who completed a course of weight training reported an increase in body strength, lower physical anxiety and general improvements in body satisfaction, while concurrent aerobic exercise was found to have no effect on body image. - See more at: http://maisonneuve.org/article/2015/01/29/making-gains/#sthash.DDVyspMt.dp
Image via Ffffound

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Marooned


Late last year, I saw a quote from Brene Brown - magical Brene Brown, whose 2010 TED Talk opened up a discussion about vulnerability and shame that has acted like a lightning bolt through my life - that read as follows: Unused creativity is not benign. It clumps inside us, turning into judgment, grief, anger and shame. I think most people are like, "right, yep, creativity, it's a thing, we should do it!" And then there's a certain sector of people who just winced when they read that, as if their soul was curling up like a leaf next to flame.

So, real talk: I spend my days staring at a 12" x 15" computer screen, which sits sixteen inches from my face. Because my boss does not like it when I leave the office, I often eat lunch at my desk. I try to escape at least once a day, but it's usually only for about twenty minutes. Most days, I go across the street and pick out a treat from the Lawrence Square Mall, like a Vanilla Coke Zero, or a sugar-free truffle from the bulk section of Fortino's. Some days, I don't even get that far: I just go and sit next to the radiator in the office building's back stairwell, staring at the words in whatever magazine I'm "reading" that afternoon. I tend to leave at the end of the day feeling very, very sad. Two days out of five, I get home and I cry brief, disgusted tears.

My job has some outlets for creativity, but they're sparse. An email template here, a survey there. It's "creative" in that specific, office-job way. I get a kick from reorganizing my files, or choosing which colour folders to use. But when I see my freelance writer/furniture designer/art director/poet/knitter friends post their latest article/chair/window display/chapbook/cowl, and I get all itchy and hot. It's not jealousy, exactly. It's like I'm a vampire, and they're drinking pint glasses of blood while I'm holding a thimble.

Anne Lamott once wrote that she is a writer because she's no good at anything else. My fatal flaw, the thing that feels like the nail in my creative coffin, is that I am good at other things. I can administrate and organize and draw up strategic plans. I like doing those things. It feels like a betrayal of the creative spirit to own up to it, but here we go: I am good at spreadsheets. I can write emails like a goddamn pro. I like writing reports.

And yet, do too much of that, and I feel disgusted with myself. I feel tired. I feel like half of my body is slowly filling up with an oily despair. The computer screen is too close to my face, and I can't get away.

If I was only good at the creative stuff, it would force me to hustle. It would force me to sit down every day and transform those skills into money. As it stands right now, I've banished myself from the island of creators - that wild jungle where tigers might eat you if you can't get your shit together enough to build a Swiss Family Robinson-style palace. I'm just floating along in the Sea of Vague Regrets: oh, look, there's Continuing Education Reef! Now I'm passing the Fjord of Damn Right I Am Somebody.

And I float on. I'm unsure of what to do with this sadness, this underutilized side of myself. Right now, I'm just sitting with those feelings, trying to feel them. It's a shitty process.

I'm starting to realize that I have a limited amount of time on the planet, and I don't want to spend it being an administrative assistant. I'm cultivating these amazing female role models, from my aunts who went back to school in their forties, to the moms I know who freelance, to my own mother, whose restless creativity has meant that we've grown up in beautiful, artful homes. The physically sensation of my unhappy days does look a lot like that unused creativity that Brown warned us about, and I'm so tired of feeling ashamed. I want to row back to the island—and I don't even need the treehouse; right now, a little lean-to would be plenty—but I'm not sure where my oars are.

Image of Fishermans Wife Knitting on Skagen Beach by Michael-Peter Ancher

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?

Yeah.

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