My New Little Book

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Humble brag…nah, just regular brag. I’m really proud of this newest creation. I partnered up with a wonderful photographer, a super-cool illustrator, and for the first time, I wrote something for little kids, and I wrote it in verse. It was something a little bit different for all of us, and the process of bringing it to life was a joyful one.

“Zoom In, Zoom Out” is a guessing game that challenges wee kids to question what they see, which I think is a pretty important skill to develop as early as possible. It’s light and fun, but also visually rich and thought-provoking. I’m hoping it finds its way into bedtime routines, cuddles on the couch, classroom discussions, and family vacations.

Authors don’t generally go into projects with the expectation of becoming rich, but we do rely on book sales to help pay the bills. This one’s really good, and I think you’ll like it. You can find it here in print form, and also on Google Play and iTunes.

Now, I’m off to dream up my next one…

More: A Holiday Story (and a Request)

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Warning: (somewhat) gushy holiday story ahead.

A few years ago, just a little before the holidays, I was stomping through a grocery store parking lot. It was chilly, and it was crowded, and I was in the festive, stressed-out state many of us find ourselves in this time of year. As I was heading into the store, another woman was heading out, and for a split second, we made eye contact. So I smiled. I do that sometimes, for no particular reason. I reckon my parents done raised me right.

The woman then stopped me and said thanks, leaving me a little blindsided. She said she’d been duking it out with grumbling holiday shoppers for hours, and was relieved to have someone show some sort of human warmth. She told me I’d made her day. I wished her well and we both went on our way.

Before I let this story dissolve into a Hallmark movie of the week, I’m going to tell you that when I look back on that brief, positive encounter with another human being, I don’t feel all warm and squishy inside. I don’t feel like I make the world a better place, one smile at a time (ugh, hurts to even think stuff like that). To be honest, I’m a little disappointed and dismayed that a smile was all it took to make her day. People around her were acting so crappily that me turning up the corners of my mouth for a few seconds was the highlight of her afternoon. It’s not life-affirming, it’s just an indication that we’ve set the bar pretty low for our fellow human beings.

Have we really reached the point as a species that we hold a smile as a gold standard of kindness? Are we really so divorced from one another that anyone who acknowledges our existence in a polite way is seen as doing us a favour? Forgive me, but I don’t think we should be settling for smiles.

Humans, I am holding you to a higher standard. I expect you to stop honking at each other in traffic, and cutting in line at the drive-thru. I expect you to get over this fascination with dumping all over one another online. I expect you to stop uttering phrases like “those people.” I expect you to share what you have, be honest, be sensitive, to listen to what someone else is saying and to try and be reasonable. There will be no more marks for participation in the world. Your perfect attendance counts for nothing. You’re going to have to produce some decent work once in a while.

Okay, yes, keep smiling at other people. Smile at cute babies in strollers. Smile at old men playing chess in the park. Smile at joggers racing past you, and the lady who delivers the mail, and complete strangers who walk past you on the street. It’s all good. It’s just not enough anymore. Not even during the holiday season.

#Enough

The best hashtag I’ve seen in a long time is #enough. It’s short, it’s poignant, and it expresses what a whole lot of people are thinking this week. Enough violence. Enough discrimination. Enough hatred. We probably reached the “enough” point thousands of years ago. According to a couple of famous political thinkers, history is littered with moments of “enough”. It fuels great literature, music and film.

So here I am, in 2016, sitting at my desk, and I really, really want to help. Besides trying hard not to be violent, discriminatory, and hateful myself, I’m not sure how my one pair of hands, my one little brain, my one squeaky, sarcastic voice can make a meaningful contribution to all of this long-needed, long-awaited “enough”.

Here’s the only thing I know how to do:  I’m adding more “enough” to the list.

First, enough pretending that being a thinker is something that can be left to academics. Enough shrugging our shoulders when asked about something important, something like justice, equality, identity, and saying things like “I dunno. Whatever.” Enough excusing ourselves from big questions because they’re difficult, or uncomfortable, or because we’re afraid that our ideas won’t matter. If there’s one thing that’s become clear over the past few weeks, it’s that the way we discuss questions about justice, equality and identity (and a whole lot of other important things) really does matter. It matters as much as cutting the grass, getting a haircut, watching TV, or the myriad of other things we spend time doing every day. It matters so, so much more than any of these things. Enough letting a day go by where it’s not important to think about these things.

Enough allowing ourselves to think things like “Well, everyone’s entitled to their own opinion.” We can no longer put stock in just opinions. Our new currency has to be arguments- reasonable, well-explained arguments. I’m not saying that there are concrete, clear-cut answers to difficult questions like these, but it should be pretty obvious from the events this week that some answers are better than others. Some answers clearly aren’t working for us. Enough with the “anything goes” approach, and of being afraid to challenge what’s already there.

Enough of not doing everything we can to encourage our children to ask these questions too. I’m not proposing that we sit them down in front of gory news footage or present them with vivid descriptions of recent events. We fuss over what our kids wear, what they eat, what they play with, how long they brush their teeth, but their reasoning skills, their ability to think critically, their insatiable drive to know “Why?” are often considered cute distractions, even annoyances.  Enough putting this on the back burner because, let’s face it, we’re not sure how to tackle these questions ourselves, as grown-ups. Yeah, parenting is hard, and awkward, and exhausting. If I’m going to finish the day completely spent, I’m okay with it being because of my kid’s incessant questions. Enough assuming that these questions don’t belong in their daily routine.

Enough assuming that I’m not part of the problem too. Yeah, if I turn over rocks, I’m going to find creepy stuff. While asking these really difficult questions about justice, equality, and violence, I’m probably going to find I’ve contributed, even if it’s just in very small ways, without realizing it. But I can’t fix something unless I know that it’s broken.

Enough wishing and hoping that everything just fixes itself. We’ve had a long time as a species to smarten up, and we haven’t. In fact, we seem to be making an even bigger mess. What’s different about this particular moment in time is that technologically speaking, we now have the capability to share. Sometimes the sharing is of the bad news itself, the shock and the horror, the disbelief. Maybe this in and of itself is a good thing, at least a catalyst for change. It’s much more difficult to excuse one’s self from difficult questions when there’s video evidence that they need to be asked. Enough thinking we don’t have a means to talk to one another about these things. Enough bemoaning social media or other mass communication for being vapid or unsubstantial. Let’s actually learn to use them for something important. What’s more, enough using these tools to be violent, unjust, or hateful.

Here’s my humble suggestion: once a day, after you’ve cruised Twitter or Facebook, after you’ve read the paper or watched TV and you’re properly horrified by what’s been happening, take a few minutes and formulate a question. Make it a big one, one that begins with “Why?” and one that doesn’t have an immediate resolution. Think of an answer. Turn it over and over in your mind for a bit and see if you can find holes in it (you probably will, so don’t be alarmed). Sometime later in the day, try another answer, and another, and another. Then ask someone else the same question, and be patient and respectful when they give their answer. Patiently and respectfully turn their answer over and over, looking for weak spots, just as you did with yours. Repeat the process. A lot. Like, all the time. Share. Discuss. Listen. Respect. Keep going with all of this, knowing that even though you’ve had your fill of tragedy, when it comes to asking big, important questions, you will never reach “enough”.

I Made A Cartoon!

Once a week, I sit down and empty out my head, and somewhere out in the universe, a handful of nice people indulge my ranting and read my stuff. Some of you even send me nice comments.

Today, I am a producer who has just release her first movie. Along with some very smart, very creative people, I’ve spent the past year and half building an idea into something concrete, and now it’s out there. So I’m going to brag a little and do a shameless plug. I hope you’ll indulge me again.

Here is “Sophia Gets Wise”, an interactive animated series for children! It’s based on ThinkAboutIt: Philosophy for Kids, a series of books and apps that I wrote about five years ago. I’m on a mission to make room for big questions in the everyday lives of kids, and on top of all that, I want the experience to be fun and entertaining. If all goes well, and the populace of social media gives it a little love, there will be many more like it.

 

Of Love and Comedy: For Valentine’s Day

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In spite of myself, I’m a fan of Valentine’s Day. I really hate anything pink. Sloppy poems that rhyme make me cringe. I wholeheartedly agree that for the most part, this whole thing is a commercially-constructed strategy to get people to shell out for chocolate and flowers. The story about the original St. Valentine secretly officiating for soldiers and their partners is kind of sweet, but it may have been massaged a fair bit too. So if you take the mushy stuff out of Valentine’s Day, what’s left to love?

Here’s what I think is cool about this particular holiday: Humans in love are hilarious. It can be any kind of love- for a partner, for a child, for a parent, for a pet, for a house plant…it doesn’t matter. When hit by cupid’s arrow, we become frickin’ clown shoes. We might as well be wearing pointy hats with bells on them, riding miniature tricycles.

Want some examples? Think of your first awkward kiss as a youngster, and you’ll either cringe or giggle. Funny, right? Go look up the lyrics to “My Funny Valentine” (preferably the Ella Fitzgerald version). It’s right in the title. Want to get a little more intellectual? Read Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, in which he basically says his true love is a bit on the gross side, but whatever, he still loves her. Better yet, watch A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which bunches of semi-clad weirdos buzzed on magic flower juice run screaming through the forest in search of love (you shouldn’t have skipped that week of English class, really). Take your pick of any romantic comedy. There’s a reason why an entire genre has been built on the idea that people in love are basically cute, bumbling little idiots.

I think that as humans, we’re at our most honest, most authentic when we’re being funny and goofy, when our guard is down and the more absurd side of our nature is on display. There’s an awful lot you can learn about a culture, or about individuals, from the jokes they tell and the things at which they laugh. Huge, difficult issues can be more easily digested when coated with humour. I think our ability to laugh at ourselves and at one another is one of the reasons we’ve survived as a species.

We’re really, really good when we’re funny, and humans are never, ever funnier than when they’re in love. Love is one of the few things that hasn’t yet been fully explained by science. Love requires us to be vulnerable, to put aside pride and decorum and accept the possibility that we might be made to look like an ass. During the most serious, sincere, grand, sweeping gesture of love, we walk a very fine line between the sublime and the ridiculous. The passionate, physical stuff is even goofier (just ask any actor who’s had to fumble their way through a love scene). It’s okay that it’s funny, that we’re funny. I don’t think we’re robbed of anything important by thinking of love this way. Stripped of the syrupy cards, the jumbo stuffed bears, and those nasty little candy hearts with messages, Valentine’s day is, at its heart, a celebration of our willingness to get completely dorky about the people and things we care about. That, all by itself, is worth a holiday. Okay, the chocolate doesn’t hurt either, but I digress.

May we all spend today, and hopefully many others, stupidly, foolishly and laughably in love.

 

A Love Note For Paris

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I must be about the millionth person to be sitting down at their computer tonight to say the kinds of things I’m about to say. My favourite city in the whole world is in tumult at the moment, and I’m not entirely sure what I can do to help. Pontificating about politics and morality just doesn’t seem like the right thing, as I’m a starry-eyed ignoramus on the other side of the ocean. So I’m going to send love and positive thoughts, and because I’m a writer, I’m going to put something into words. I hope you’ll humour me.

The first time I visited Paris, I was utterly lost. No, I didn’t take a wrong turn in Spain, I was lost in an existential sense. I had a lackluster job that made me feel like I had a head full of steel wool. I was living in a house that felt like it still belonged to someone else. I was creatively stunted. I spent a lot of time coiling and uncoiling, like an angry slinky. It only took about a week in Paris to change all of that. We soaked our tired feet in the fountain at the Trocadero. We found out how big the Venus de Milo’s feet were, and how small the Mona Lisa was. We discovered the biting, yellow miracle that is Tarte au Citron. We felt what it was like to sit at a table and give ourselves over to a slower pace, to the quirks of passers by, and to the simple act of sipping a cup of tea. We came home, and soon after, we quit our jobs, and we moved. Smiling, we blamed our new life on Paris.

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The second time I visited Paris, it was as a philosopher. I had my birthday dinner in a cafe once frequented by some of my idols. We visited cemeteries and left thank you notes and flowers for rebels and revolutionaries. We marveled at The Thinker and imitated his furrowed brow. I swooned at Victor Hugo’s writing desk (I swear, I didn’t jump the rope and sit at it) . There was a debate about educational reform with a sandwich vendor, and advice sought from a waiter about how to properly caramelize apples (both in French, I might add). Yeah, it’s cliche for a thinker to find inspiration in Paris, but there’s a reason for that. You can’t swing a baguette without smacking it against something literary, historical, or philosophical. It’s magnificent.

My third visit to Paris was as a mother, and I saw an entirely different side of the city. There were romps in parks and playgrounds that had been around since the Napoleonic era. We gobbled endless warm croissants, and crepes with gooey chocolate creeping out the sides. We retraced the steps of Madeline, practiced our “merci” and bought whimsical wooden toys. I have vivid memories of a toddler in a giggly Marilyn Monroe moment atop a vent near the Moulin Rouge, and of tiny feet dancing in the grass in front of the Eiffel Tower as it twinkled.

Three trips, each with a different purpose, and every one transformative in some way. When a city gets as much hype as Paris does, it seems impossible that it will actually live up to it. But it does, it really does.  It’s a little bit sweet and nostalgic, a little bit clever and aloof, and a little bit over the top and opulent. Three times, Paris has sent me home a little more like myself. With any luck, there will be a fourth time, and a fifth, and a sixth. While Paris holds its breath and waits for life to make a little more sense again, I’m going to mentally squeeze all three trips into an imaginary parcel and send it along. It’s the least I can do.

Merci Paris, et je t’aime. Soyez forts et courageux.

We’re All Wee Beasties: The Beauty of Halloween

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Don’t worry, this is not a rant about the plague of tarty costumes out there (although I’d like to throw Sexy Tapeworm and Sexy Rototiller into the list of options). It’s not a culinary review of trends in candy, or a cautionary tale about finding razor blades in apples.

This is an ode to Halloween, my very favourite holiday. It has the communal feel of Thanksgiving, the pageantry of Christmas, and the sugar highs of Easter. It’s easy-going and fun, just one evening of merriment and chocolate. All good things, but that’s not why I like it.

I think that on Halloween, we are at our most honest. Okay, that sounds a little weird, seeing as we run around in masks and capes, striving to look like anything but ourselves. Nonetheless, you can tell a lot about a person from their choice of theatrical garb. On Halloween, more than any other day, we dress to tell the world who we really are, or at least who we’d like to be. Over the course of my childhood, I temporarily disguised myself as a rabbit, a gypsy, a punk, a ghoul…all welcome changes from the shy, nervous little critter I was most days. When I got older, I was a glittering, winged fairy, cupid, a Star Trek officer, a cave woman, Queen of the Ocean, and Cleopatra. I think I may have once been half of Milli Vanilli, but we won’t speak of that. On each occasion, I was powerful, mystical, and unique, everything that I knew I could be the rest of the year, if only figuratively. I’m far too big to beg for candy now, but I still dress up, hoping to manifest some wonderful, but forgotten part of myself.

As for all the decorations, the spooky soundtracks, the ghost stories, the horror movies, that’s part of the honesty of Halloween too. Human beings, despite all of our good points, are just a little creepy. Most of us wear our weirdness in an innocent way. Call us amusingly quirky or eccentric. For most of the year, we strive to be “normal”, but at Halloween, we embrace our weirdness and praise others for embracing their own. For one night, we accept and celebrate that our species is far from perfect, and we dress accordingly. For me, this is what the fuss is all about.

The fun-size candy bars don’t hurt either.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Why Aren’t We Voting?

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I know someone who used to travel to newly-democratized countries to help with their first elections. In one instance, he was asked to wear a bulletproof vest, just as a precaution. He refused, realizing that the line-ups of people at the polling stations had taken great pains to get there, and he didn’t want to do anything to intimidate or frighten them. I was fairly young when he told me this story, and honestly, before that, I don’t think I gave much thought to how many people didn’t get to vote, to how precarious rights and freedoms are. His story made an impact on my mushy young mind, and any time there’s an election, it pops back up again.

The story comes to mind when it’s announced that somewhere women have been given the vote. It’s easy to be smug about women having greater equality in my neck of the woods, but really, we haven’t been allowed to vote here for that long either. Only a handful of generations have passed since it was thought that females participating in politics might destroy the family unit, maybe even society in general.

I think of it whenever I meet someone who’s new to the country and just getting settled in, or a teenager who’s just jumped over the line into adulthood and is now allowed to cast a ballot.

Most of all, I think of the story whenever I encounter someone who simply isn’t interested in voting. Sometimes it’s because they can’t be bothered, because they don’t know which party believes in what, because they don’t feel properly represented, or because they’re convinced that statistically, their vote doesn’t matter. Yeah, I feel some of this sometimes too.  Democracy is a far-from-perfect system, and it’s easy to feel like a tiny fish in the big sea of the voting population.

But I always come back to the notion that someone, somewhere had to stick their foot in it to be allowed to participate in the decisions made for their society. Somebody got thrown in jail, somebody got ostracized, and somebody got killed. Human beings had to argue that they were indeed human beings in order to be let into the fold. Someone I know was told to wear body armour in order to help the process along. I hear their collective cringe with every miserable statistic about low voter turn-out.

Voting is free. You might have to read a few articles or look a few things up on a website in order to get yourself up to date on who’s who, but other than that, it doesn’t take a ton of effort. As far as time commitment goes, you’ll likely stand in line at Starbucks longer than you’ll stand in line to vote. Shame on you if you like someone’s baby pictures on Facebook, or voice your opinions about what a celebrity is wearing, but you don’t bother to give your opinion where it really counts.

There are people out there right now campaigning to get your attention, so you’ll let them represent you when big stuff gets decided. If you don’t vote for the same one as last time, fine. If your choice differs from your friends and family, cool. Just pick someone already! You won’t even need to wear a bullet-proof vest to do so.

Why We Don’t Need to Win Arguments

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“I’d like to have an argument” begins the infamous skit by Monty Python. Maybe it’s a strange thing to say out loud, but sometimes it really is good to have an argument. It can be an emotional one that clears the air, or an intellectual one that presents a conclusion supported by reasons. Either way, I’m a fan. If history tells us anything, it’s that we’re all fans. What irks me is the notion that arguments have to have winners. The idea that an argument has to conclude with someone being triumphant and someone else defeated, seems to demean both kinds.

The emotional/mental/social value of everyday arguments, the ones that we have over taking out the garbage, being late to a movie or eating the last slice of pizza, I’ll leave to psychologists. I can, however, speak to the importance of the other kind. Properly done, an argument can dispel myths, present new viewpoints, and force us to be honest with ourselves. I’ve seen firsthand how empowering it can be for thinkers of all ages to put a strong argument together, to be able to present something and back it up with good, solid logic. An argument can be civilized, inclusive, ongoing, and yes, even friendly- more than can be, it should be.

Maybe it’s the whole debate club mentality that makes us think that arguments are meant to be won and lost. You show up, you get into teams, and you try to out-talk one another. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great exercise in public speaking and rhetoric, but not quite the same as an argument. Competition fits more in the realm of sports than in learning to think.

Perhaps it’s the “squeaky wheel gets the oil” mentality that feeds our need to win arguments. Even in the midst of logic and reason, we still seem to think that if we yell louder than everyone else, we will come out on top, even if what we’re yelling doesn’t really make any sense. Watch politicians go at one another, or tune into a daytime talk show and you’ll see what I mean.

If anyone should win an argument, it should be everyone. If a bad idea gets taken out of circulation, we win. If a harmful assumption or stereotype is challenged, we win. If we find a better way to think about something, or become more inclusive and open to different perspectives, we win. If we manage to dig our way past mere opinion into something more closely resembling truth, we win.

So how do we make sure there isn’t one winner in an argument? It’s incredibly simple…and incredibly difficult. We put aside ego, we drop the bravado, and we listen. I don’t mean the kind of listening you do in debate club or on a talk show, where you (pretend to) jot down your opponent’s points and wait for your turn to blast them. In a good argument, we admit that we might be wrong, that we might not know everything, and that there might be another way to look at things. Maybe we don’t get to yell, vent, or stick our fingers in our ears, but we do get a decent dialogue out of the deal, and if we’re lucky, we find fellow thinkers.

Feel free to disagree…if you can provide an adequate rebuttal.

Confessions of a Non-Tree-Hugger

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As I write this, my eyes are starting to resemble those of a fancy goldfish, and I’m sneezing in multiples. I never sneeze. The roof of my mouth feels like it’s covered in burlap. It’s that time of year again, and I’m being incapacitated by ragweed- a plant, and an unimpressive one at that. Mother nature is powerful in subtle ways, and once in a while, she likes to remind me that I am most certainly not at the top of the food chain.

This is not the first time I’ve been reminded of this. I’ve seen trees fall on cars in our driveway. I’ve had to look after my dog when he slashed his foot on zebra mussels. I’ve waited out a passing tornado in a hotel lobby. I’m always the first one to get eaten alive by mosquitoes. My relationship to nature is not a perfect one. In fact, nature scares me a little. I don’t camp. I don’t hike. I don’t consider all creatures cute and cuddly.

But that doesn’t mean that I don’t care about the environment. Mother Nature and I may not be warm and fuzzy, but that doesn’t mean I don’t respect her work, and it doesn’t mean I wish her any harm. I may be a geeky suburbanite who’s overly-dependent on my cell phone, but I’m also a proponent of acknowledging my place in the ecosystem in an honest way. I know that I’m a little speck, connected to all kinds of other little specks. If anything, being a little on edge in the great outdoors has made me more humble about my place in the great scheme of things.

No, I will never abandon my worldly possessions to go and live in a tree house. I don’t wear dresses made of wheat and yes, once in a while, I squish a bug instead of scooping it up and taking it outside. I admire people who are all in, environmentally speaking, but it’s not me. I can still, however, recycle, drive less, eschew pesticides and support free-range farming. I can refrain from thinking that my being human means that other organisms are meant to do my bidding.  Mother nature makes me itchy and frustrated, but then again, so do a lot of other human beings, and I don’t make a habit of stomping all over them. I prefer to see her and I as oddball roommates, both doing our thing and trying not to get in each other’s faces. I just wish she wouldn’t leave all this pollen all over the apartment.