Happy New (School) Year!

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Some may start their year on January first, smarting a little after an night (or a month) of excess. Maybe it’s followed by a day of atonement, or comes in under a zodiac animal, or is marked with the end of the harvest. For me, the beginning of a new school year is it. Having sat on both sides of the desk, this time of year always feels like the end of something, and the start of something else.

Before you start thinking I’m weird, I was born into a family of teachers. I started school at a fairly early age, and stayed a student for a pretty long time. Then, I was a teacher. Then I worked with teachers. Then I had a little person of my own, and I became a parent of a student. When you’ve been dancing to a certain rhythm for this long, it’s hard to imagine any other.

The beginning of September, for me, brings a lot of new year-ishness. I get the same feeling of momentousness, the same mental listing of everything I did and should have done in the months before. I make resolutions about how things will be in the next twelve months, all that I’m going to accomplish, bad habits I’m going to break. I can sleep through a midnight countdown and Auld Lang Syne, but the night before school resumes, I’m staring at the ceiling, willing my eyes to close and my brain to turn off. I feel compelled to stock up on notebooks, new shoes, and snacks that come in bar form. I don’t know if I have very many clear memories of New Year’s Eve, but I can still taste the fruit punch my mom packed in my lunch on the first day of kindergarten, still picture the sensible brown shoes with buckles, the blue sweater, and my hair tucked back with plastic barrettes.

I don’t think a person has to be from a teaching family, to feel all of this. There are parents and kids, of course. This morning, social media was plastered with sweet, still-tanned little faces, toting backpacks and holding signs with grade levels. I imagine that there are a number of parents who dropped their kids off, then skulked back to the privacy of their car to cry a little and think “How did another year get by me like that?” There were notes in lunches with a reassuring “You got this!”

I have a sneaking suspicion, however, that even those who aren’t involved in school anymore, who aren’t rushing a student out the door in the morning, still feel something. Maybe while they’re stopped at a crosswalk, waiting for a dozen little feet to scurry across, they have a flashback of a worn, dog-eared copy of Lord of the Flies, or they remember the way a basketball sounds against playground pavement. While picking up printer paper, they secretly wish they had occasion to buy one of the cartoon pencil cases on display. They miss sandwiches with the crust cut off, just a little bit.

Happy New Year to everyone. May it be one of big ideas and much learning, inside and outside of school.

Canada, 150 Ain’t Nothin’ But A Number, Eh?

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I am fiercely proud to be Canadian. No doot aboot it. Yeah, it’s a tad on the chilly side here at times, and we’re not perfect, but this country is pretty amazing. It’s sufficiently amazing that our 150th birthday is reason enough for us to overcome our trademark shyness and brag a little. Becoming your own country is a big deal, and staying together in a relatively peaceful manner is also a big deal. Go us! Put on some Tragially Hip, eat some poutine, get dressed up in red and white, and light some sparklers!

I do, however, think it’s important to point out (as many Canadians online have been this past little while), that who we are as a country spans a whole lot more than 150 years. We don’t want anyone patting us on the head and telling us we’re an adorable baby nation without having a deeper understanding of what went on long before the BNA (important document, look it up) was signed.

Here’s a small, but important sampling of Canada, pre-1867:

  • First Nations: There’s a reason the word “first” is used to describe our indigenous cultures. According to the archaeological record, they ventured over here a good 20-30,000 years before anyone else. There are over a million Canadians with this as part of their heritage, forming 634 nations, and speaking 50 distinct languages. I mean, come on, the name Canada itself is First Nations in origin. If this isn’t the right time to (finally) show a little respect, I don’t know what it.
  • Vikings: Our rocky shores called to these guys over 1000 years ago. Okay, they didn’t stay all that long, but it’s still pretty cool to think that Canada was an important stop on their illustrious journey. Some of them (my family included) found their way back again eventually.
  • The French: They got a fair bit earlier than the English did too (mid-1500’s to be exact), and a whole lot of what’s amazing about Canadian culture stems from the fact that we have two official languages. It’s so much more than having two sides to the cereal box.
  • Canadian Inventions: That’s right kids, lacrosse, hockey, the fog horn, the odometer, newsprint, kerosene, and oh yeah, a little thing we like to call the telephone, were all invented in Canada, before it was officially its own country, and these are just modern examples. Let’s not forget the contributions of indigenous people and early settlers to our proud technological history.
  • Can Lit: For more than 150 years, people in these parts have been slaving away, sticking together words and ideas, putting pen to paper, and churning out some pretty influential stuff. Long before there were “official” Canadians, there were writers and storytellers galore, and what’s even more cool to me is that a nontrivial percentage of them were female. Our literary tradition gained its footing at a time when women were also finding their voices.

150 really isn’t all that meaningful by itself. It’s a symbol, a landmark, but it doesn’t really speak to who we are and how far we’ve come as a nation. It doesn’t say anything about the diversity of our population and our culture. It’s not a big enough number to express how we’ve managed to stay united. It’s way too small a number to indicate how far we still have to go, and how much we still have to learn about one another.

Yes, on July 1st, I will be wearing a dorky t-shirt, fake tattoos of maple leaves on my cheeks, belting out our national anthem and doing a myriad of other hokey things. But it won’t just be the signing of a document that I’ll be celebrating. I’ll be raising a glass to tens of tens of thousands of years of human beings learning to be happy and fruitful on a big, frosty chunk of land. I’ll be congratulating the ones who stayed (including the more recent additions) and who made us who we are. I’ll be appreciating the fact that this country took my family in, and that it continues to do so for others. I’ll be waving a banner for our artists, our thinkers, our leaders and our makers. On Canada’s birthday, I’ll be thinking what I think every year on my own birthday: it’s just a number. Now, let’s have cake.

Not Sorry. I Enjoy Being A Girl.

This song is corny AF, and it in no way reflects my version of being a girl. I don’t do any of this girly stuff. I pretty much despise doing all this girly stuff.  I’ve never even seen this musical. Yet, whenever I find myself in despair at being a member of the fairer sex (sorry, threw up in my mouth a little as I typed that), I find myself singing this tune. It’s mostly in an ironic sense, but at least the title itself rings true.

Lately, I find myself having to sing it more, now through gritted teeth and my eyes rolling dangerously far into the back of my head. Lately, I have to sing louder, placing a whole lot more emphasis on the last word. Lately, it feels like we’re sliding back downhill (more like we’re been pushed), and singing corny crap like this has become more of a battle cry than a cute little ditty. It’s not like we were at the top of the hill to begin with, and it what little foothold we have took forever to gain.

It’s been hundreds, if not thousands of years, and we’re still having to apologize for being female. Yeah, that’s right, I said apologize. It’s 2017, and there’s still this stinky, floating cloud of “Oh, you’re a chick? Wow, tough break.” We go into science with the caveat that we’ll be working exclusively in healing and education, you know, the nice, friendly end of science. When we set foot in the business world, we do so with cutesy terms like “lady boss” and “femmepreneur” on our name badges. Want to go into politics? Be prepared to prostrate yourself over everything from the colour of your shoes to your choice of haircut. Are you kick-ass at sports? Don’t expect to be allowed to sweat or wear practical, comfortable clothes. If you’re lucky enough to get a voice in the media, it’ll be with the understanding that you’ll have to appear half-naked in a push-up bra, your squishy underbelly exposed. Sorry, sorry, sorry.

We suck it up and keep walking when we get cat-called on the street. We foresake stuff we like to eat- even really, really good stuff. We tint our language with hearts and flowers. Worst of all, we apologize for our daughters being female by basically sending them out in gooey pink halloween costumes, and telling them they’re princesses instead of queens. Again with the sorry, sorry, sorry.

As we bow our heads in shame over being female, we get to watch other people apologize, because if half of the population has to do it, why not smaller groups too? If being a girl is a source of remorse, why shouldn’t people who are different colours, different sizes and shapes, different nationalities, who are of different economic statuses, who have different ways of loving, and who have different types of abilities all be expected to say sorry as well? All kinds of sorry, sorry, sorry.

And here’s the end to all of this constant, infernal sorry-ing: we get less. Less pay, less safety, less confidence, less room for big ideas, less control over our basic physical being. And as we’ve seen from the previous paragraph, sorry spreads like a bad rash.

I really do enjoy being a girl. I’m happy with the body and mind I was given, not in spite of it being female, but because of it. It’s not a blessing or a curse, it’s just a fact of who I am, and I’m good with that. So I’m done apologizing, for something that is neither in my control, nor a bad thing to begin with. I’m not sorry that I’m smart, or driven, or capable, any more than I’m sorry that I’m loving and sensitive and compassionate. I’m not sorry that I’m funny, or stubborn, or a little bit tactless. Not sorry for my big arms, or my loud Scooby-Doo laugh. I’m not going to apologize for doing this “girl” thing in my own way, nor am I going to apologize for supporting other girls who do the same (even the ones who truly love pink).

I’m tempted to be sorry for those who spend so much time expecting apologies, whose worldviews are tentatively stacked upon others feeling small, insignificant, and generally awful about themselves. But I’ll get over that. It’s their choice to miss out. Those of us who figure out how to stop being sorry tend to do some pretty fun stuff.

Sorry, not sorry. Resume corny show tunes.

 

They Can Rebuild You. They Have The Technology.

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My kid still had gills when a friend of ours, who is pretty intuitive about these things, smiled and told us our wee one would be a human BS detector. She had the distinct feeling that our little fish would likely be the kind of kid who refused to be lied to, who wore her heart on her sleeve and spoke her truth, and maybe made a few people uncomfortable along the way. Staring into the great, mysterious expanse of impending parenthood, I considered this good news. I was, and had always been, a little bit guarded. I was the kind of person who would swallow crap with a smile, who chose angry, bubbling silence over confrontation. Putting a child into the world who would manage to bypass all of my passive aggressive nonsense seemed like an accomplishment. I looked forward to meeting the paragon of honesty that I was incubating.

My kid has managed to live up to the reputation that preceded her. She’s now more of a hammerhead than a little fish, but yeah, as predicted, she repels falsity. There are no little white lies in her world, no comforting layer of artifice or pageantry. She demands the truth, from herself, and from those around her, and is profoundly disappointed and unsatisfied with anyone who claims to be more or less than themselves. She loves unapologetically, gives loud, booming voice to her passions, and punctuates special occasions with “Aaaaah! Best. Day. Ever!” I’m at a loss as to how someone like her came from someone like me, but hey, she’s freakin’ cool.

What’s even cooler is that since becoming her mother, I too am bolder, more resolute, far less willing to accept crap. I don’t sit up nights wondering if I’ve sugar-coated my opinions enough, or if I should apologize for things that aren’t my fault. Things I was afraid to say and do seem far more say-able and do-able. Since this little girl joyfully moshed her way into my life, there’s been an addition built onto the wussy, wet noodle parts of my self. She’s given me an additional story that I didn’t even know I needed.

I’d love to understand the mechanism behind all of this. Recent research into genetics has revealed that an unknown percentage of babies leave behind genetic material in their mothers after birth, extra bits that can linger for decades. Did my progeny leave her DNA as a hostess gift? Did she spend her gestation period taking inventory of who I was, and was she born armed with insider knowledge of who I could be, who I should be?

Or maybe it’s just a matter of me having to rise to the occasion. A kid like mine requires parenting that goes up to eleven. She requires stamina and resoluteness, bravery and authenticity. With her, I have the choice of either growing a proverbial pair, or getting left behind as she takes the world by storm. I’ve chosen the former, even though it requires me to be more and do more.

Regardless of how it happened, nature or nurture (of me, not her), there’s been more of me since I had my daughter, and I don’t mean the jiggly stuff I try to get rid of with crunches. With my kid, I am Wonder Woman, wound up in my own lasso of truth. I’m newly-equipped with a megaphone, my brain racing with new an important things to say and the drive to say them. I’m upgraded, re-engineered, Me 2.0. This has been accomplished by a being who doesn’t know how to tie her shoes properly. Pretty impressive.

It could be that at the heart of every parent-child pairing, if you look closely enough, there’s an opportunity for rebuilding, restructuring, improvement. The world will grind you down, but if you let them, your kid will re-stack all that’s been toppled over, usually in a new and interesting configuration. All the years you spend telling them “You can do this. I know you can”, they will hit back with “Yeah, well you can too” and they’ll be right.

Mother’s Day is approaching. I think I’ll be spending it back in the lab, happily getting my bolts tightened.

Embracing Our Feminine Whys

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This is Simone de Beauvoir. I spent a lot of time reading her stuff as a grad student. Some of it was brilliant, and some of it made me wrinkle my forehead. I also read a whole bunch of stuff put out by the critics of her time, and the forehead wrinkling became jaw dropping, and nail biting, followed by muttering bad words under my breath. What struck me wasn’t the fact that they questioned her philosophy (that’s supposed to happen), but rather that so many of them couldn’t get over the fact that she was female, and a famous thinker’s girlfriend. The very fact that she was a thinker in her own right seemed to not only offend them, but outright baffle them.

Okay, I was reading her work, and the work of her “trolls”, with the bias of someone born decades later. Things had changed, right? Sure. Except they hadn’t. Not that much. As it turns out, they still haven’t, and while I don’t get regular strips taken off me like Simone did, far too often I come across a comment for my own work that begins with “This woman…” as if my being female needs to be declared in advance of any critique of my ideas. I still run into too many people who think that a bad day can be turned around with a pedicure and good cry. I still hear about women who are feted because they are “fabulous women” in this industry or that career field.

Say whatever you like about Simone de Beauvoir, but she never, ever gave up on women as thinkers- not female thinkers, just thinkers. She admonished the patriarchy for practicing bad faith when it came to females, blaming nature for inequality. She also slapped womankind on the wrist for buying into all that rubbish, for not embracing their freedom to think, for feeding a system that not only held them back but required that they hold others back as well. She expected and demanded more from both women and men. I do too.

It’s 2017, and it’s International Women’s Day, and if we’re hoping to level the playing field, the one that should have been leveled a long time ago, we need to start embracing women as thinkers. Logic and reason will be on our side if we (and by “we”, I mean all points on the gender spectrum) decide to use them. In short, I think we’re still in the “that woman” frame of mind because we’re still prone to knee-jerk reactions instead of using our “Why?” “Why?” is the great leveler of playing fields. It’s one-size-fits-all, and can be worn to any occasion. It’s intersectional, multicultural, age-agnostic, and as far as three-letter words go, it accomplishes a whole hell of a lot. We can use it for ourselves, and we can use it on behalf of those who aren’t allowed to use it.

And no, I’m not suggesting being feminine is a bad thing. There are plenty of positive qualities associated with being a woman, and anyone who thinks being female (or male, or gender neutral) isn’t a part of who they are is kidding themselves. Be nurturing, be kind, be sensitive. It’s all great. But also be critical and discerning. Be curious and reflective and outspoken. We should all be on a mission to make asking “Why?” as quintessentially “girly” as shoe shopping or pink cake pops.

So stick “Why?” on your Pinterest board. Write it on the mirror in lipstick, or text it to your girlfriends with coordinating emojiis. Make it part of a collage or get it tattooed on your shoulder. Bedazzle it on your purse. And for the sake of all that’s good, ask it. A lot.

 

Yay and Boo: The Dangers of Extremes

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Anyone else watch “Fractured Fairy Tales” cartoons as a kid? They were already “retro” by the time I got to them, but I gobbled them up, along with other stuff produced by the same studio, like “George of the Jungle” and “Super Chicken.” What I loved most about all of these series, and what sticks in my memory, is the use of townspeople as a sort of Greek chorus. They reacted to events in the episodes with a simple “Yay!” or “Boo!”, and when I say simple, I mean that they used a handful of voice actors unenthusiastically muttering”Yay!” or “Boo!” They were instantly either really in favour or something, or really against it, and their opinions could change at the drop of a hat. There was no grey area. As a kid, I loved its simplicity. In a five-minute, satirical cartoon, this kind of polarity was perfect.

Outside of those particular cartoons, however, this kind of knee-jerk extremes are a little scary. Scratch that. They’re a lot scary. We’ve become the cartoon Greek chorus, and regrettably, we’re exhibiting the same shallow aversion to subtleties. We stand on the sidelines and yell “Yay!” or “Boo!”, changing our minds by the minute. We either passionately love and support something, or we’re deadset against it.

If you want an example, log in to Facebook (other social media platforms will do as well). Pick a post, maybe something a little controversial, and read what people put as comments. Post something they like, and you’ll be showered with compliments. You’ll be lauded for your beautiful world outlook and generous heart. Post something even remotely unpopular, and you’ll be handed your tushy on a platter. There isn’t a whole lot in between.

A few things about this phenomenon are concerning. First, social media is put together with these nifty little algorithms that try to feed you stuff to which you’re likely to say “Yay”. Say “Boo” often enough, and the yucky stuff will start disappearing from your news feed. We all need a little “Boo” in our lives now and then. “Boo” makes us aware that not everything is meant to be “Yay.” “Boo” presents us with things that make us a little uncomfortable. It pushes us to think about things a little more. You take away the “Boo” and you take away growth, progress, reflection. You see where I’m going with this.

It’s also a little scary (okay, a lot scary) that everything in social media has to be either a “Yay” or a “Boo” in the first place. Okay, the spectrum of emojiis and response icons available to us has expanded over the past couple of years, but they’re still mostly about really liking or really disliking something. There isn’t much of a a “Hmmm….” option, no “Why?” or “Discuss.” What would your reaction be if you checked your feed one morning to find someone had stamped something you posted with a big ‘ole question mark? #confused.

The big worry is how all of this yaying and booing has translated to life outside of social media (yes, there is life outside of social media). We’ve come to expect the pendulum to swing all the way to one side or the other, becoming more willing to be ridiculously offended by something than being undecided or curious about it. If recent political events have shown us anything, it’s that we’re hopelessly devoted to being on one side or the other, so desperate for change has to be sudden, radical, and complete. Ironically, the word “extremist” has become a dirty term, even though most of us are guilty of it to some degree. We “like” before we look, and get defensive if anyone questions our hastiness.

So why were “Yay” and “Boo” so flippin’ hilarious in the cartoons I watched as a child? Well, comedy is built on the notion that what’s happening is just a little unrealistic, just a tad unbelievable or too silly to be true. Maybe, even as a kid, I somehow recognized that the comical reactions of the townspeople were just that- comical, not really meant to represent how the real world worked, or at least not how it ought to work. We’re not a cartoon mob, watching a jungle man crash into a tree or a feathery superhero save the world. More importantly, we get (and need) more than five minutes to decide if we’re going to yell “Yay” or  “Boo”, or if we want to yell either one in the first place.

It’s a Cold and it’s a Broken Hallelujah

Malcolm Gladwell is right in his analysis of Leonard Cohen’s magnum opus Hallelujah. Its genius lies not in the original composition, but in the fact that it gets just a little bit bigger and richer and more complex with every iteration. Before yesterday, I knew of at least four or five versions, each surprisingly different from the ones that came before. Last night, I heard it performed by Chris Hadfield and Amanda Palmer, as a cap to an evening of talks by hopeful, optimistic innovators. Today, this came through my twitter feed:

Before you roll your eyes and click away from another post about the loss of Leonard Cohen, I should tell you that this isn’t about him, at least not entirely. It kind of also involves last week’s presidential election in the United States. Again, before you roll your eyes and click away from another post about the election, you should know that it isn’t about that either, at least not entirely.

I like Leonard Cohen’s work a lot, but I don’t think anyone could call me an expert on it. Similarly, although I’m interested in the politics of our neighbour to the South, I’m still pretty much a neophyte when it comes to the mechanics and subtleties of their electoral system. What interests me, and what struck me as I watched Kate McKinnon re-envision Hallelujah as Hillary Clinton, is the way the universe often throws such interesting (sometimes mortifying) combinations of things at us at once. As Shakespeare once said, “When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.” There’s the initial shock of it all, the “It’s too much to bear all at once” part, but if one waits and takes a breath, it’s sometimes possible to reflect on why those particular things happened at the same time. What does this particular mix of events have to tell us about life, the universe and everything?

So let’s pretend we’re in Ms. Leask’s grade 12 English class, and we’re analyzing Hallelujah as part of our poetry unit. Well, the biblical references aren’t hard to spot, if you’re at all familiar with the bible. Some of them speak of grace, of pilgrimage, of devotion, in essence, the divine in us. Other lines deal with the dark, the battered, the utter exhaustion of being human. As I said, I’m not a preeminent scholar of Cohen’s work, but I’ve read and listened to enough of it to know that he’s pretty good at presenting this kind of dichotomy. Song of Bernadette speaks of a woman exuding kindness, but who is ignored by those she tries to save. Bird on a Wire describes profound love through instances of frustration and disappointment. Cohen’s verse juggles the divine and beautiful along with the profane and ratty. It’s both honest and cruel, celebratory and cynical. As he himself admits, “It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.”

So why did the universe see fit to take Leonard Cohen away in the same week as the election in the US? Well, whether you saw the results as a victory or a disaster, there seems to be consensus worldwide that many things are broken. Even if you are overjoyed with the new president-elect, you still have to admit that there’s so much work to be done. Is it a coincidence that while the political snow globe begins to settle in the US (or maybe it’s about to be shaken up again, repeatedly), Hallelujah has been playing on heavy rotation in the background? For extra credit, you can take a look at 2016 as a whole, the deaths of great creative and influential minds, political upheaval, the myriad of tragic attacks and shootings…it hasn’t been a year that’s made a lot of sense, now has it?

I like to think that there’s method in the collective madness sometimes. Even if these two events coinciding this week wasn’t part of some cosmic plan (or joke), this strange mash-up can serve as a point of reflection, an opportunity to turn inward and look at the darkness that seems to keep piling up. Maybe, if these two things hadn’t happened, together, neither would have had the same impact, the same opportunities for change and growth. To borrow another image from Cohen, maybe this is just the kind of week that exposes the cracks, the ones through which the light comes in.

Unbound: What You Can Tell From A Wardrobe

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T’is the season for the changing of the wardrobe. Around this time of year, when the temperature drops a little, I say a bittersweet goodbye to the wispy garments of Summer, and pull out the chunky polar fleece numbers. This twice-yearly ritual concludes in me arguing with my vacuum cleaner and a couple of those air-tight storage bags (last year’s squabble ended with a dent in my forehead), and then I’m ready to face the coming Canadian winter.

So, hey, what’s the point of completing a chore like this without a quick, introspective dip into something deeper, right? One’s wardrobe is more than just layers of warmth and protection. It’s an opportunity to examine a world view. Here’s a quick synopsis of mine:

  • There are no high heels.
  • There’s nothing that requires a second person in order to zip up or undo.
  • My clothing is decidedly wedgie-free, and fits without the aid of spanx or other major scaffolding.
  • There are only breathable fabrics, ones that don’t make me sweat like a teenage boy.
  • Tags are quickly yanked and anything scratchy is either reconfigured or chucked.

Okay, just so you don’t think I dress like a nun (I don’t), it would be accurate to say that my clothes are eclectic. I love weird prints and jewel tones. I proudly parade around in bold graphics and sarcastic t-shirts. I feel no need to “dress my age” or be “appropriate” in any other sense. One might even call some of my stuff weird or tacky. My wardrobe stands not only as a sampling of my personal tastes and interests, but also as a testament to a dearly-held belief:

I am entitled to be comfortable.

It’s a lesson I learned from my mother, who, throughout my young life, insisted that I be allowed to get dirty, get changed in a hurry, climb, roll around, run, jump, and not sustain any clothing-related injuries. This same wise woman also refused to French braid my hair, teach me how to put on make-up, or make getting in and out of a car in a ladylike manner a priority. She made it very clear to me that although it was fine to want to cultivate my own style, look presentable, or make a statement, torturing myself with the contents of my closet was just stupid. I remember her smirking ironically as she uttered the words “One must suffer to be beautiful.”

Fast forward a few decades, and now I’m the one stocking the cupboards for a little girl. I’m the one making choices about whether she should “look nice”, or be able to go about her business unencumbered. Maybe it’s a remnant of my own upbringing, somehow passed along genetically, or a product of my endless rants about the perils of pink frilly crap, but my daughter’s made it easy for me to pass along my mother’s teachings. At age three-months, she shrieked in agony as we tried to stuff her into a frilly frock. At two, she told me to throw out a pair of stiff jeans because they were keeping her from lifting her legs high enough to climb. Once, during a shopping trip to a vintage store, I held her hands and steadied her so she could try shuffling around in a pair of stiletto heels. She gazed frantically into my eyes and told that she wanted out of them before she broke her legs. Fancy barrettes and headbands seem to slide off in a matter of minutes, as if her hair itself is rejecting the inconvenience they present. This little grasshopper learns fast.

I am entitled to be comfortable.

I could (and often do) rant about the vile messages little girls are delivered via the children’s clothing industry. Everything (and I mean everything) has pink on it, even if it’s just a bow or a set of buttons. Most items are covered in lollipops, fairy folk, or insipid messages like “Daddy’s little this or that”. The way little girls’ clothing looks is disturbing, but I think  I could suck it up and deal with it if it weren’t for the way it actually functions (or doesn’t). Clothing for girls is thin. It’s short. It requires tights and belts and ribbons to hold it all together. It bunches, and creeps up, and requires hand-washing. The shoes sometimes have heels, for Pete’s sake. It’s bad enough that my rug rat might have to apologize for being a girl by sporting something cute and sparkly. The fact that she might not be able to move, breathe, or even think straight while wearing these tot-sized contraptions leaves me worried.

For the time being, she doesn’t fight me when I put out leggings and a t-shirt for her, and is more than happy to slap on a pair of runners. But I know the time is coming (maybe sooner than later), when she’s going to fight me on this one. It’s likely that one day, she’ll feel compelled to stuff herself into something uncomfortable for the sake of social acceptance.  She may spend formal occasions unable to exhale or eat much. Her feet will blister and ache in horrible pumps. There will be chafe marks and pit stains. If truth be told, I too went through years of this nonsense before I figured out that my mother was right.

Outfitting a wardrobe, whether it’s for an adult woman or for a little girl, is a political statement. That’s probably not the first thing on a mother’s (or father’s) mind in the midst of wrestling a squirmy little kid into their clothes before breakfast, but it’s there in the footnotes of everyday parenthood. There are deeper, darker notes to comments like “Suck in your stomach so I can zip this up.” and “You won’t be able to run in these.” I’m desperate for my daughter’s version of style, whatever that turns out to be, to include both literal and figurative freedom of movement, of being able to accomplish what she needs to accomplish. When her friends and associates think of “being in her shoes”, I don’t want any of them to cringe.

I hope that she chooses well. I hope that she wears her clothes, and not the other way around. I hope that one day, while she’s putting away her summer clothes and she surveys her wardrobe, she smiles to herself, takes a full, uninhibited breath, and utters the magical words:

I am entitled to be comfortable.

Is TV All Out of Happy Endings?

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“You ain’t ready.”

“No one is safe.”

“You’ll never be the same after this one.”

This is now common lingo in promos and previews for a lot of television shows, at least the dramatic ones. As viewers, we’re no longer invited to come along on an adventure, or to become invested in something deep and meaningful. We’re basically warned…no it’s even more blasé than that, we’re informed, that the brown stuff will be hitting the proverbial fan. Again. This time for serious. No really, not kidding. It’s no longer a plot twist to have someone die (usually for ridiculous reasons), to see lives ruined and to generally have the world crumble into a big steaming heap. It’s just par for the course in television these days.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m by no means Little Susie Sunshine when it comes to what I watch. Syrupy sweet, cartoony endings make me throw up in my mouth a little. I despise when I’m moved/manipulated into happy tears when everything works out just right. I like conflict. I can take a little darkness in my entertainment. I am, however, worried that some producers (and maybe some viewers too) have abandoned the notion of a happy ending. It feels like one has to dig pretty far into a plot in order to find even a tiny nugget of hope, and even then, one must resign one’s self to the fact that said nugget will probably get stomped on as well.

Here’s why I think, even in the midst of ennui and malaise, television can’t be all corpses and thunderstorms:

  • People watch shows, at least partially, because of the characters. We see ourselves in them, even when they’re fighting zombies, developing telekinesis, or performing the world’s first brain transplant. We like them, and we get attached. The minute an audience starts to assume that their favourite personage could have a piano dropped on them at any second, the deal is off. If I’ve got one precious hour of quiet to spend on a show, I’m going to go for one in which players I care about are likely to be there again next week.
  • The whole issue of desensitizing people to violence thing-yeah, that. I’m ashamed to admit that I don’t even watch fight scenes or gratuitous violence anymore, and it’s not because I can’t take them. It’s because it’s been done and it’s boring. I’m an adult with a pretty decent set of critical thinking skills, and a more than acceptable level of empathy, and I’ve still gotten to the point where someone getting blown up, run through, or squashed is just background noise to me. In real life, I’m appalled by human cruelty and misery, but on television, it doesn’t even register. I know I’m not alone in this, and it’s not only an unfortunate side effect of having the worst things happen in shows, but it’s a dangerous mindset to develop.
  • I’m not convinced that having everything go wrong is all that realistic. Admittedly, I’ve lived kind of a charmed life, one in which my safety and well-being isn’t up for debate on a regular basis. But even when I’ve spoken to people who’ve experienced thirty-one flavours of hell, they’ve still had stories to tell about things going right, about laughter and celebration, and hope. Perhaps life really is cruel, and we’re just wired to see rays of light because we need to get out of bed in the morning, but so what? If that’s what life is really like, if that’s how human beings function, then shouldn’t television plotlines reflect that?

In truth, the way people consume media is shifting constantly, and with things like alternative broadcasting, online viewing, and binge watching, television is becoming a meritocracy. Our behaviour as viewers is telling showrunners that we’re not willing to wait a week or sit through commercials unless there’s a really compelling story to be found. In my mind, the “everything is going to go wrong” approach to storytelling is not much more than a series of cheap parlour tricks. It’s using shock instead of creativity and careful planning. Really, it’s just sloppy and lazy, and I’m kind of done with it. My eyeballs shall be reserved for programming in which, just every so often, my favourite character isn’t used for target practice, not everything goes to hell in a handbasket, and once in a while, something interestingly nice happens.

All Hail The Bots!

retro robot

Anyone else visit Tomorrowland at Disney as a kid? Anyone else a little disappointed that, contrary to predictions, we are not currently zooming around in flying cars, chowing down on food pills, and plugging our brains in to our computers at work? Okay, maybe I’m not so disappointed that the last one didn’t happen, but I distinctly remember being excited at the notion that technology would one day make life idyllic. I was an adolescent when I made the pilgrimage to this magical place, and menial labour was about as appealing to me as dental surgery. I couldn’t imagine any human being turning down an offer to have something else take care of all the stuff we couldn’t or didn’t want to do. I had rosy visions of Rosie from the Jetsons, squeaky-wheeling around my house, with her marvelous New York accent and her purely-decorative apron.

Decades later, I still wouldn’t complain if someone told me I didn’t have to clean, lift, manufacture, maintain, or venture into anything I didn’t want to. And yet, on a regular basis, I read things like “Robots are taking our jobs!” My fellow humans are terrified of being usurped by machines, of being unceremoniously bumped from their place on the planet by gadgets of their own creation. How deliciously Frankenstinian, and a perfect opportunity to ask why robots make us so very uncomfortable. Yes, let’s, shall we?

I have several thoughts on the presence of our future robotic overlords:

  • Robots are cool, shiny and slick. Humans are sweaty and awkward. Robots aren’t whiny, argumentative, or entitled like humans are. Robots not only do all kinds of stuff that we usually do, but they look awesomely composed doing it. And herein lies the rub, or at least part of it. They make us look pretty inept. What’s more confidence-ruining than having someone shine a big ole’ spotlight on our derpiness? They do things faster, more accurately, and in the process, they make work look good. Sigh.
  • Those menial things we want robots to do might mean a lot more to us than we originally thought. In our primeval, larval stage (like, when we’re kids), we revel in dirt and activity. It feels really good to do stuff. The other day, I hauled about 10 wheelbarrow loads of dirt into the back yard. And I kind of liked it. I also like getting to the bottom of a basket of laundry, and assembling sensible, Swedish-made bookshelves (please, please don’t judge me). What if physical exertion and general hard work are a bigger part of who and what we are than we originally thought? Are we giving up something essential in having machines exert themselves on our behalf? Might we actually miss doing things for ourselves?
  • With robots doing the menial, dangerous stuff we don’t want to or can’t do, we’re forced to find something bigger to do with our new excess of spare time. With our hands now free from toil, we might be expected to be inventive, creative, or perish the thought, rational. We might be required to use more of our brains. Scary.
  • With robots taking over physical labour, we no longer get to put a stigma on humans who do it. Okay, we can still look down our noses at machines, but in truth, they give very little in the way of a satisfying reaction to our air of superiority. In the presence of worker bots, humans who still choose to work with their hands may become recognized as artisans, craftspeople, and historians.  We already praise things that are “hand-crafted” or “hand-made”, so why not admire “hand-shoveled”, “hand-driven” or “hand-scrubbed”? Maybe robots will remind us to value all kinds of effort, all kinds of work.
  • Ever noticed that a lot of the robots who do our physical work aren’t built to look human? I’m not sure we could bear having them pick up after us if they actually looked like us. We’re assured over and over again that robots don’t have thoughts or feelings of their own, but what if we’re afraid they might someday evolve to have these things? Can you imagine becoming dependent on an automated workforce for just about everything, only to have it turn around and give us the finger for making it do our dirty work? How deliciously robo-marxist!

I’d like to close with something that should go without saying. As cool and shiny and pervasive as robots may be, we do still have the power to say no to them, at least in our everyday lives. Okay, maybe we can’t personally fire the ones making our cars or scanning the bottom of the ocean, but it’s not to late to eschew things like automated coffee makers and the little hubcap-shaped dudes who clean the floor. Perhaps our nail biting over robots taking human jobs is largely because their presence reminds us of what we have that they do not- free will. We make robots. We put them there. If we don’t like the idea of them taking over our jobs, we can stop being apprehensive about them and choose to not have them there. We won’t even hurt their feelings if we make them go away. In the end, robots are things we create and use to make our lives easier, better. Believe it or not, this is kind of the point of most technology. If having robots work for us just ain’t working for us, we have the power to just say no. There’s probably even find a robot who’d do that for us too.