The New Normal

“Normal”, I have a bone to pick with you. Sure, you’re popular. You get invited places, and people nod their recognition when you’re thrown into conversation, usually with other popular words like “nice”. For a long time, you made people feel safe and comfortable. You were a quick, effective bandaid to throw on awkwardness and fear. Like your friend “nice”, however, you’re starting to mean less and less, becoming a shiny, candy coating with no chocolate inside.

I’ll be blunt with you, “normal”. I’d like you stricken from the record, taken out of rotation. Here’s why:

  • We’re currently up to over 7 billion on this particular planet, and that’s just humans, the ones that are still alive. Logistically speaking, a word like “normal” seems really stupid. Trying to get that many organisms to conform, to be normal, is the most vivid example of herding cats I can think of. We’re a busy planet, and I think our time could be better spent doing other things.
  • Can I be blunt with you, “normal”? You’re a judgy, cliquy snob. You act like you’re all about collecting us into a group, but really you only serve to exclude. As I said a minute ago, there are an awful lot of us, and when, inevitably, one or more of us don’t fit into your confines, we’re made to feel like crap. You’re a jerk, a creep, a standard that’s just as damaging as it is unattainable.
  • You don’t serve any common good, not anymore, anyway. When we’re in a pickle (and we seem to be in a few of them at the moment), you don’t help. Einstein once said something clever about doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, and when we insist on being “normal”, we do just that. We’re at a point in our history when we need as much not-normal as we can get, people who are willing to run screaming from you and try something different, think of something new.

So, I think we’re done with you, “normal”. It’s time to give you your walking papers.

But what do we replace you with? I’m going to be optimistic and hope that whoever invented you in the first place did so in the spirit of bringing people together, of highlighting what we have (or hope to have) in common. A little unity isn’t always a bad thing, right? After all, no one wants to have “abnormal” associated with them either. “Abnormal” is the stuff of funky moles and e-coli counts in scummy swimming pools. Being different has some nasty connotations.

Could we just simply learn to use you, “normal”, a lot more sparingly, for things like seasonal temperatures, or radiation levels, stuff from which it’s actually bad to deviate? Can you keep your big nose out of things like gender roles, career choices and population demographics? Is it possible to utter your name without making someone feel like they don’t belong? Can we be factual about our differences without getting judgmental?

What if we replaced you, “normal”, with “shared”? Would that leave room for us to feel connected to one another without expecting us to be the same? Could we use “shared” for little, but important things, and still have a whole spectrum of stuff that can be different? Could we celebrate the things we have in common without making them mandatory, and without stigmatizing those who, for whatever reason, don’t share them?



Our Next Assignment


Ahem. Class (i.e. 21st century humans), it’s come to my attention that you’ve been slacking in your studies lately. No, that’s an understatement. Not only have you fallen behind in what you’re supposed to learn, but you’ve managed to un-learn a whole lot of what someone (i.e. civilization) painstakingly taught you. You’ve been half-assing your assignments, turning in work that isn’t your own, making up random rubbish, not playing well with others…it ain’t pretty.

So, I’m assigning you some make-up work, a simple essay to get you back on track. No, it’s not optional, and given the current state of things, there won’t be extra time or extensions.

Topic: Why I Say What I Say and Do What I Do

The details:

  • 1000 words- no more, no less. I want to see sufficient detail, but I also won’t put up with pointless rambling. If you use a giant font to make yourself look impressive, if you play with the margins, or if you triple space, you fail. Don’t spend time trying to mess with my perception. Think and then write.
  • Use simple, clear language, and get to the point. If I read “Webster’s dictionary defines x as…” or “Since the dawn of time, mankind has…”, you fail. I’m so very tired of useless rhetoric, and you don’t get to make up your own words either. There will be no “alternative” phrases here.
  • Your work should be organized into coherent paragraphs, with one following logically from the one before. It’s an essay, for Pets’s sake, not Whack-a-Mole. I need to be able to follow your train of thought, not just what you’ve decided to chuck onto the page at random.
  • For pity’s sake, proofread your essay before throwing it out into the universe. Remember that once someone reads it, once they’ve absorbed your words and mulled your ideas around in your head, you can’t take them back. “Words, once spoken, like eggs, once broken…”
  • Most importantly, give evidence and explanation for your points. You’ll notice that the first word in the assigned topic is “why”. If the rest of our essay reads like “because I said so” or “because that’s the way it is” or “because everyone thinks that” or any other fallacious nonsense, we fail. You aren’t automatically entitled to your opinion, at least not if your opinion is a horrible misnomer intended to disguise hatred, fear, or ignorance.

You can stop rolling your eyes now. I’m not giving you this assignment as punishment, or because I enjoy the extra marking. I’m burdening you with this now because all of us have seemingly lost the plot, as of late. At the world seems to be operating as a random crap generator, a veritable blue and green blob of “just cuz”.

We humans have always prided ourselves on being the rational ones on the planet, the ones capable of rising above our baser natures. I have to say, other creatures are lapping us in this race, shaking our heads as they pass us, ready to hand us our asses. We’re falling behind, in danger of failing both ourselves and the rest of the planet.

Clear of your desks, sharpen your pencils, make yourselves a snack and be prepared to hunker down for the night. It’s time to demonstrate that, at some point, you were paying attention.


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.

Yay and Boo: The Dangers of Extremes


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.

Keep Your Head Up (Please)


A CEO of a large company once told me “It’s easy to be a good manager when things are going well.” There’s a fairly large nugget of wisdom in this. We praise people who are successful, laud their leadership skills and marvel at how they’ve brought out the best in their teams. However, we’re rarely privy to their moments of doubt, to the times when things weren’t going swimmingly, when it wasn’t so easy to captain a ship that was being tossed about on stormy seas. Being a good manager in times of tumult sucks, and it’s really hard. Ironically, when the brown stuff hits the fan, that’s when rising to the occasion matters most.

Try replacing the word “manager” with “thinker.” Think of yourself as a manager of your own thoughts. When things are going well, there’s clarity. There’s time for reflection and dialogue, and even creativity. When things get difficult, however, we tend to resort to knee-jerk reactions, to wishful thinking and narrow-mindedness. We throw around words like “rational” and “logical”, as if the mere mention of them implies that they’re actually being used. When it counts the most, when we stand to gain the most from being effective “managers”, we flake out.

My friends, there is a great deal of brown stuff in mid-flight at the moment. The world is screaming for a bit of rational thinking, for some level-headedness, and rather than stepping up as managers, we’re giving our notice and turning in our keys. If it was ever easy to be in charge of one’s thoughts (maybe it never was), it ain’t anymore. While I’d never presume to tell anyone what to think (kind of defeats the purpose, really), there are a few trusty guidelines on how to think:

  • You don’t get to decide something is true (or false) just because you want it to be. This one is a crusty little pill to swallow, as it often means we have to give up something we like, something we’re comfortable with. It’s fine that there are different definitions of truth itself (so meta), but slapping it on as a label should occur only after careful scrutiny.
  • You don’t get to declare someone else’s ideas as dumb or silly or wrong just because they’re “other”. Every single person on the planet is “other” (thanks, Sartre), and we are “other” to everyone else. You stick your fingers in your ears while others are talking, you miss out on a lot.
  • Famous and popular do not equal smart…or useful…or right. This applies to ideas just as much as it does to celebrities or fads. Humans like stupid things sometimes. Big groups of humans like stupid things sometimes. Case in point: Tamagotchi. ‘Nuff said.
  • Thinking well isn’t something you get to scratch off a to do list. There is no squishy philosophical bean bag chair into which you can wedge yourself for the rest of your life. Good thinking is like one of those posture-correcting, metal folding jobbies they use in band class. It’s uncomfortable, and it demands that you stay alert and squirming. But at least you know you’re sitting up properly.
  • There is no winner in an argument. We need to stop thinking about crushing our opponents and start thinking about putting our minds together to figure stuff out. If you’re feeling competitive, play a round of Chubby Bunny with mini-marshmallows, or go bowling.
  • If you’re wrong, admit you’re wrong. Contrary to popular opinion, the human mind is fallible (well, duh). There’s no shame in realizing that your idea isn’t going to work. Stubbornly clinging to an idea with more holes in it than Swiss cheese is guaranteed to make you look pretty foolish.
  • Start teaching people to be better “managers” when they’re really small. Kids pee their pants more often than adults, and they have questionable taste in snack foods, but they’re not just cute little morons. Count the number of dorky plastic toys your kid has, double it, and that’s how many big ideas your kid has swimming around in their head at any given moment. They can handle them.

Okay, I’ll admit that there’s probably never a time when being this kind of manager is easy. Human lives are complex and often difficult. That’s what we get for climbing out of the ooze and becoming sentient. There are, however, perceivable peaks and valleys in our collective happiness, and I think we may be facing the latter at the moment. If you’ve never considered yourself to be management material when it comes to your own thoughts, well, congratulations, you’ve just been promoted. If you have, please don’t cash in on your vacation time now. Time to get to work.


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


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?


“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.


Living On Spec: Why Don’t We Like To Pay Artists?


There isn’t a creative type on the planet who hasn’t heard at least one of the following:

  • “It’s a hobby, right? So, what’s your real job?”
  • “If you’re so passionate about it, then why does it matter if you get paid?”
  • “Why don’t you do a sample for free, and if I like it, I’ll pay you for the next one.”
  • “Aren’t artists supposed to be starving? Isn’t the romantic part of it?”
  •  “How do you put an hourly rate on creativity?”
  • “We’ll pay you in sample copies.”
  • “Isn’t exposure enough of a reward?”

Yup, this is going to be another whiny blog post from an artist who would like to be financially compensated for her work. If you’d really rather look at pictures of kittens, or read about the latest antics of a reality TV family, feel free to click off (that sounded ruder than I expected). But I’ve got a few decent points I’d like to make, if you can spare a few minutes. This one’s on the house.

Here are a few reasons why we don’t like to think about paying artists:

1. We don’t see artists as having skills. Being able to put someone’s guts back together in surgery involves skills. Doing someone’s taxes  involves skills. Building a basement rec room involves skills. However, when it comes to creative stuff, not so much. Let me tell you first-hand that creative work does not get produced by chance. Artists go to school. They train. They learn from mentors. They practice (oh, do they practice), and they produce a lot of crap in the process of perfecting their craft. Are there crummy artists? Well, yeah, but there are also crummy surgeons, crummy accountants, and crummy contractors. Whether you wield a pen, a paintbrush or an instrument, it takes skill to produce anything good.

2. Along similar lines, we think anyone can produce art. Okay, this one involves a lengthy philosophical discussion about what art actually is, but seriously, have you ever watched the audition rounds of a talent show on television? It’s pretty clear that some are better at it than others, and wanting to “be a star” is not sufficient. We wouldn’t expect that just anyone could be a scuba instructor, sushi chef, mathematician, or zookeeper. Whether it’s because of a lack of natural talent, inclination or training, I don’t think I have any of these careers in me, and I praise those who do. I hope that those who aren’t adept with language will show similar respect to my writing.

3. We think all artists want to be rich and famous, and maybe the ones who are don’t always set the right example. I like not being recognized at the grocery store. I’m cool with not being asked to headline at festivals. Don’t get me wrong, I love knowing that people read my work once in a while. It’s thrilling to share ideas, and I don’t care if my work gets me a villa in Tuscany or a bronze statue somewhere. “Steady” is a word I would like to associate with my paycheque, not “gargantuan.” If, by some stroke of cosmic luck, I someday make a lot of money from my art, I promise I’ll behave myself and do something useful with it.

4. We’re really not sure what we get when we pay for art. You go to a baker, and you get bread. You go to a salon and you get your nails done. You go to a mechanic, and your car run stops making noise. Art is a little more slippery, a little less tangible. What do I take home after a concert (besides a souvenir t-shirt)? When I’m finished with a book, is it really just a wad of paper that lingers? What do I point to after I’ve left an exhibit? Art is a business of producing ideas and experiences, of calling forth emotion and memory. It’s much more difficult to box up and sell, and we can’t return it if it bugs us. From a product standpoint, it is admittedly ethereal, but we have to keep in mind that everything we love that’s artistic, from the music on our devices to the pretty shoes on our feet, had to come from somewhere, with a creative, talented person putting themselves out there.

5. We think artists have chosen a lifestyle that involves poverty. We think they secretly enjoy it. Nope. This wordy, idea-ish stuff happens to be what I’m good at (most days). I’m also good at eating, and would like to be able to pay for that. I’m good not living in the rain, and would like to have a roof over my head. I’m good at leaving my house and going out into the world, and I’d like to be able to afford a little of that too. Okay, you could say art is my calling, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t make a living from it, and let me tell you, between time and supplies, it ain’t free.

6. We see art as a luxury, something we don’t need or deserve. If there was ever a time when art wasn’t a luxury, it’s now. We’re in a little bit of pickle these days (thanks a lot, 2016), and while booze, weapons, and other distractions may provide some sort of outlet for our angst, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that whether you’re an artist or an art appreciator, there isn’t anything else that helps a human being deal more effectively and productively than art. It’s our collective soul. It’s universal. It’s primal. My human friends, we all deserve art. It’s not amusing or adorable. It’s freakin’ important.

Okay, now’s the part where I’m supposed to come up with a plan for how we should pay artists, who should pony up the dough, and I’m so sorry, but I’m still working on this. Could it be considered a civil service job, with the government footing the bill? Should we take a tip from Shakespeare and get wealthy patrons on our side? Do we just go on strike, and leave the world a little uglier and more dull until we get our point across?

My guess is that art needs to undergo a massive re-branding. We need to put our assumptions about art and the people who make it through the ringer. Before making one of the comments mentioned above, perhaps ask yourself “Would I say that to a lawyer, or a school custodian, or a daycare provider?” If the answer is no, and you feel guilty (or if the answer is yes, and you don’t feel guilty), consider paying some creative type for their hard work, even if it’s just giving a busker the price of your morning latte, going to see an indie film, or buying something locally-made to hang over your sofa. Don’t ask your musician friend to perform at your wedding as a favour, don’t ask a graphic designer to give you a freebie, and don’t balk at shelling out a few bucks for an eBook when you’re reading it on a $200 device. The more an artist is able to actually live off their art, the more time they’ll have to devote to it, and the better it’ll get.