Alison Garwood Jones

We eat with our eyes

July 5, 2017

For some gigs, I will make hyper-realist prep sketches to help establish the colours and boundaries for my final illustration.  To wit:

Eggplant lasagna sketch by Alison Garwood-Jones

 

I prefer the suggestiveness of gestural sketches, but I think for this job — menu illustrations for The Merchant Tavern) — realism helps. We eat with our eyes. This is The Merchant’s popular Eggplant Stack (a lasagna, if you can’t tell). Here’s the second version in watercolour first, then lightly defined in parts with waterproof ink:

Eggplant Lasagna drawing by Alison Garwood-Jones

 

Then there’s the Seafood Pot (same deal: watercolour lighly outlined in parts with ink):

Seafood Pot Illustration by Alison Garwood-Jones

The challenge here was making all the items in the pot legible. Most of the problem solving happens in the prep sketch, usually done in watercolour pencil.  Here you have to prove you know what you are doing. In the sketch you establish your colour scheme and the placement of the elements. The fewer the colours, the more harmonious the composition.

Seafood Pot Sketch by Alison Garwood-Jones

 

The watercolour sketch for the Merchant’s Traveller’s Salad was my idea of less is more. Even the buckling of the cheap paper I did this on worked in its favour. After all, lettuce ripples:

Traveller's Salad Sketch by Alison Garwood-Jones

For the final, I inked the shapes so the salad would be legible for people reading the menu and trying to choose a starter. I prefer the sketch, but there you go:

Traveller's Salad Sketch by Alison Garwood-Jones

Studying process is fun, isn’t it? For these sketches, I just stared at the wine glass in front of me and went for it:

Two wine glasses - drawing by Alison Garwood-Jones

Bottoms up:

High Ball sketch by Alison Garwood-Jones

Let’s finish with a cripsy fish sandwich and a side of fries:

Fish burger sketch by Alison Garwood-Jones

 

More on loving your job

June 17, 2014

He was all shiny and aquiline when he walked up to the lectern.* His face was pulled tighter than a drum. Jeff Koons, Julian Assange and Andy Warhol stood backstage and watched. Meanwhile, a team of caterers behind some swinging doors at the back were preparing to serve us His Menu of grilled salmon and blueberries. But we couldn’t eat until he had spoken. Our bosses told us to take detailed notes. The PR team putting him up was treating him like a Nobel Laureate. Everything about this felt wrong. Like, 911-wrong. Smart people I liked were pointing to him and nodding. My eyes bore into them as if to say, ‘Are you kidding me?’ They kept silent while the down payments on their mortgages accumulated. He laughed and snarked from the lectern, making us feel bad about ourselves while purporting to make us feel good. This man and his wares belonged in a museum of discarded scams, next to the butt-shaking exercise belts (but not the Victorian vibrators because they may have sorta worked). He kept us there for way longer than 15 minutes. And during question period, this Warlock of Syringes told us: “I’ll tell you what women want: only a beautiful woman is a satisfied woman.” He was bringing his promises to the Provinces. But we weren’t the land of Trophy Wives and Supermodels. Celebrities were as rare here as alligators in bathtubs. Still, he was determined to capitalize on time’s passage and expand his reach to librarians, streetcar drivers and tired moms for he too had a mortgage. Actually three: New York, Miami and Gstaad. He finished with a campy joke, and the PR team led the room in a thank you clap. He left the stage to lacklustre applause and promptly had a hissy fit behind the curtain. Jeff and Julian went “there, there,” and gave him a punch in the arm and a playful knee to the groin. Andy just stood there with his arms crossed, shaking his silver wig. Just then, the caterers came bounding through the swinging doors carrying trays loaded up with our identical lunches. The tension subsided a bit as the clank of the dishes took over. “Tighty whitey” — that’s what I was calling him — had returned to the room wearing a tiara and was now ignoring everyone at the head table, including the PR people doing figure eights around him. For the next twenty minutes, he stabbed the blueberries on his plate and checked his phone. After that he left. So did I.

*Parts of this are true. The rest was a dream.

 

Services

January 16, 2018

Alison Garwood-Jones in her home office.

HOW I CAN HELP YOU

Content Marketing: I help brands tell stories that address customer questions, needs, and concerns in a fresh and compelling way. Since content marketing is a “relationship-building, awareness-making, loyalty-boosting tool,” and not a direct sales tool, we will not be telling stories about why folks should buy your product. Old fashioned push marketing is (a) not engaging, (b) not useful to your target audience, and (c) annoying. Some of my clients have included The Merchant Tavern, The Art Canada Institute and a growing number of former print journalists.

Your Custom Profile Illustration: Does your bitmoji express the real you (even with 1.9 septillion options)? Not in my books. Hand-drawn portrait illustrations catch the flutter of your spirit and reveal your hidden strengths way better than the frozen stare of digitized art. Email me if you’re looking for a custom illustrated About Page or social media profile picture. This form explains how to order your one-of-a-kind likeness. Choose from one of three styles: tinted brush pen, loose gestural, and the Superhero option.

Illustrated portrait options by Alison Garwood-JonesGraphic Recording: As an artist consultant and graphic recorder to brands and non-profit organizations, I provide a fresh perspective for those looking to clarify their marketing message or solve a problem, be it organizational, financial, social or cultural. I have worked with TEDx (female momentum in society), Lean In Canada (tackling gender bias and diversity in the workplace) The City of Toronto, (crafting a gender neutral budget), The Merchant Tavern (new menu items) and Montecito (window art).

Alison Garwood-Jones, graphic recorder at TEDx Toronto.
Alison Garwood-Jones working as a graphic recorder for LeanIn Canada.
Alison Garwood-Jones Alison Garwood-Jones, graphic recorder at The City of Toronto. With Kristyn Wong-TamThat’s me with Kristyn Wong-Tam after the Gender Equal Budget meeting, January 2017.

Still not convinced? I made this short video to explain the difference an artist consultant can make for organizations looking to forge new strategies and business outcomes:

Workshop Leader: I am a workshop leader and conference speaker on social media strategy and tactics for brands and freelancers. Clients have included IABC Toronto’s PIC (Professional Independent Communicators) and Bishop’s University (Morris House Reading Series, SWEET).

Instructor: Since 2014, I have been an instructor (online and in-class) in Foundations of Digital Communications Strategy and Social Media at The University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies. I am also a member of the Program Advisory Committee for Social Media Week Toronto and The School of Media Studies and Information at Humber College. As a member of the Quadrangle Society, I am also a mentor to Junior Fellows at Massey College at the University of Toronto.

 

Accessible Design in Canada

August 30, 2016

FIFTY YEARS AGO, graphic design meant two things: working in print and kicking out mind-blowing creative. Wait, make that three: insisting on your own vision. The brash antics of Madison Avenue’s “Big Idea” branding campaigns, personified by George Lois and his “my way or the highway” client dynamic, have long since been replaced by a more cautious, self-conscious, albeit powerfully democratic push toward user-focused (UX) design, with its emphasis on utility, accessibility and user satisfaction. In Ontario, accessible (or inclusive) design is the law.

The future is here, it's just not evenly distributed.

Accessible design has set itself a lofty mandate to leave no one behind, while serving the widest range of permanent and temporary accessibility issues imaginable—from visual, linguistic, auditory and motor to vestibular, cognitive and everything in between. Proponents like to joke that if you plan to live past the age of 45, then UX’s clear fonts, generous point sizes and proper colour contrasts are for you! Heck, if your optometrist has sent you into the subway system, eyes flooded with pupil-dilating drops, inclusive design is your friend, too. “Basically, we’re building the future for ourselves,” says Adam Antoszek-Rallo RGD, the founder and creative director at Catalyst Workshop, Inc.

At a time when Internet access is being upheld by the general public and the United Nations as a basic human right, Ontario is surpassing Madison Avenue, Silicon Valley and all of Europe in defining and developing how inclusive design should look, act and feel for print, web and the built environment. “I’ve done Google Trends searches on ‘web accessibility,’” says David Berman RGD, “and I’m amazed how Toronto and Ottawa come up as top cities on the planet.” Berman, who was the RGD’s first elected president, is currently a GDC Fellow and a roving consultant on the logistics of implementing accessible design in all contexts. He’s worked with the Canadian, Irish, Mexican and Omani governments, to name a few, and “Everyone is saying, ‘How do we replicate Ontario’s success?’”

Basic Human Right

Of course, not all designers are as gleeful as Berman by their province’s leadership and knack for good governance. Who hasn’t heard a colleague, drink in hand, moan at some industry event how accessibility is “the bane” of their existence? Meanwhile, having to explain to a client why a particular font or hue doesn’t pass the test is a common scenario. As Stüssy Tschudin, the RGD’s current president and principal of Forge Media + Design, sees it, “The province’s accessibility standards may limit our pure graphic approach, but they force us to think about how our work is going to function in the real world, and that’s an improvement on our design abilities.” Antoszek-Rallo agrees: “It’s an opportunity and body of knowledge that’s growing all the time.” Work, he says, can get boring after a while. “You end up repeating yourself. But this challenges us to make our creative better and resonant with more people and more consumers.”

The paradigm shift toward accessible design started with the passing of The Accessibility for Ontarians With Disabilities Act (AODA) in 2005. At the time, Queen’s Park gave government offices, businesses (with a minimum of 50 employees), non-profits and public sector organizations until 2025 to become fully accessible. It bears mentioning that these standards are non-existent in the rest of Canada. Manitoba has an act but no regulations yet, Nova Scotia is working on legislation, and BC is “a long way off,” says Berman. Still, there’s hope: the federal spring budget saw the government commit to restoring millions of dollars to greater accessibility and to creating a Canadians With Disabilities Act.

Not Helvetica Again

All along, the RGD has played a key role in figuring out how to explain accessibility, govern it and make sure it goes well. In 2010, in conjunction with the Accessibility Directorate of Ontario, the RGD published an easy-to-read handbook covering accessible design for print, web and environmental graphics (see sidebar, p. 34). This was followed by a second, web-only accessibility handbook that riffs on Web Content Accessibility (WCAG 2.0), the accepted international standard on web accessibility. “Accessibility is also a part of the certification process for all our members,” says Tschudin.

In the four years since fully accessible websites were mandated (any website built in or after 2012 must comply with WCAG 2.0 standards—see sidebar, above), a growing number of designers have found ways to push the rigid guidelines further than “do-good” design, to design that’s actually good. “You can’t treat WCAG 2.0 like it’s the Holy Grail,” Antoszek-Rallo explains. “It’s a man-made document written in 2006 before the first iPhone came out. We should be thinking beyond it.” Berman agrees: “If you follow everything, you lose your typographic tone of voice.” Both challenge designers to do better than Arial and Helvetica, the two most recommended typefaces. Experiment, says Antoszek-Rallo. “Find a style that works for the sighted and users with limited sight.” To get away with italics (a WCAG 2.0 no-no), he says, “You need to bold it and increase the amount of letter spacing.” This is not about ignoring compliance. “I just think there’s a difference be-tween the rules and the spirit of the rules.” When it comes to italics and typefaces, designers need to figure out where and when and how. “We should be thinking of the people who need it,” says Antoszek-Rallo, “but use our tools, like the No Coffee Chrome Extension (see sidebar, above), to test what actually works.”

There's the Rules

As for print, “[accessibility] is on the minimal side,” says Tschudin, and mostly about contrast, font choices, point sizes, hierarchy and non-glare printed surfaces, most of which were relevant before inclusive design thinking. “The main parts we’re interested in, and testing for, are web and environmental compliance.” And the blending of the two. Donna Saccutelli’s problem solving in information design, in collaboration with Seneca College’s Paul Schecter and Jutta Treviranus at OCAD’s entrepreneurial hub, Imagination Catalyst, show we are on the cusp of a redesigned landscape and retail environment where Universal Product Inclusive Codes (UPiC) printed on packaging are closing the loop between the physical world and the cloud. Provided their phone’s native accessibility settings are turned on, they get a readout of the product name, brand, ingredients and nutrition facts. Saccutelli even hopes to embed brand jingles into the app so the blind can hear Tony the Tiger’s “They’re great!” when they pick up and scan the Frosted Flakes box. “We’re creating a store that’s turned on,” she says. As William Gibson famously said, the future is here—it’s just not evenly distributed.

As William Gibson famously said, the future is here—it’s just not evenly distributed.

This article originally appeared in the August issue of Applied Arts Magazine.

 

Poolside

June 21, 2016

pool umbrella and beachballPool Tiles by Alison Garwood-Jones

Los Angelenos have never waited for nature’s ice block to melt. Their blue horizons dance and sparkle all year round.

Torontonians watch, stare and tentatively strip to expose their chicken skin the moment the city pools drop down their Open signs. Lineups form around the block. Every body type joins the parade.

Here come the breasts like beach balls, the Ashkenazic chest pelts,* the melting hourglasses, the afros that hold at least two cups of pool water and the kids with their slippery dolphin skin.

The kidlets dive bomb. The adults, being Canadian, test the water first (even though it’s temperature-controlled). We can’t escape nature’s grip on our psychology.

Try telling L.A. in the front seat of her convertible that everything is not possible, and expect a toothier grin, a narrowing of the eyes behind her aviators and foot press on the accelerator.

Tell that to a Torontonian and he’ll say, Well, duh.

But for the next three months, everything is possible. So long as it’s not too hot.

*I didn’t come up with the term, “Ashkenazic chest pelt.” That was Martin Short describing Eugene Levy’s bare chest in the 1972 Toronto production of Godspell. It frightened the children in the audience, so Levy agreed to put on an undershirt. 

 

Enid, Bruce & Pierre

October 16, 2015

P.E.T. or Bust

“Hey, what’s up with Fergie?” asked Jacob Meier, one of the boys in Enid Ferguson’s Grade 9 Canadian history class. Someone had to explain her absence. It was a Wednesday morning at Rideau Academy and Enid had called in sick one day after dragging herself to school in lumpy drawstring track pants and shock-absorbing runners. Jacob, the runt of the class, was ballsy despite his size (a future lawyer, for sure) and kept pressing his classmates for answers.

“So, what’s up with Fergie?”

“How should we know?” snarked Queen Bee, Jessica Twombey, speaking for all the girls.

Jacob was only asking what every boy in the school was wondering. All of them — the straight and the eventually gay — had a vested interest in Enid’s breasts, legs, hair and the fashionable wardrobe that concealed this landscape. Enid had always gravitated to high-heeled boots, fitted skirts, clingy turtlenecks and one-of-a-kind necklaces — a new one every day. There were strands of polished stones from South Africa (Tiger’s eye, Malachite and Carnelian), as well as winking crystals and aboriginal beads purchased during Via Rail train stops across Canada. She also wore what the boys called, “her love nuts”:  whole walnuts, acorns and Brazil nuts in the shell that some craftsperson had drilled holes through and strung together with invisible fishing line. Enid liked her necklaces long so they followed the rise of her breasts and dangled over the edge, swinging midair like a rock climber in trouble. The metronome action of her necklaces against her breasts lulled the boys into a trance through most of Confederation.

Now nondescript tops and track pants were obscuring her lines. The necklaces were gone, put back in some mysterious storage spot. The boys felt hurt and abandoned by this recent turn of events. The girls, meanwhile, intuited something was up and feared for their futures. “It looks like Bruce is pickin’ out her clothes?” concluded Jacob, still trying to solve this case. What other excuse could she possibly have for dressing like this?

Bruce was Enid’s husband. He taught phys-ed to the Grade 9-12 boys, showing them how to kick, jump, swat and tackle like men. An ex-fullback for the Ottawa Chargers, Bruce was big: 6’3”, 240 lb with triangular calves and hairy forearms whose crisscrossing tendons sprung to life with the slightest exertion. He had a full head of dark hair and a thick, well-groomed moustache threaded with ginger spikes. And apart from some greying chest hair, bad knees and too many matching track suits, Bruce felt good about life. Sure his body still smarted from tackles inflicted 25 seasons ago, but it wasn’t anything that Ibuprofen and yoga couldn’t fix. Overall, there was an ease about him that one could only pinpoint to his iconic status. Bruce was one of the lucky few to have sipped champagne from the Grey Cup. Every day, the halls of the school echoed with the cry, “BROOOOOSSS!” This was how the boys genuflected in the presence of a national sports hero. For his part, Bruce mostly deflected the adulation. Sometimes he conceded, though, cracking a half-smile and then squinting at the horizon to make it stop.

Bruce was a man in love. A decade of ups and downs with Enid had somehow convinced him  — this Hummer of a guy — that he was lucky to have been chosen by her. At lunch, regardless of how Enid had treated him at breakfast, Bruce always crossed the floor of the school cafeteria — the entire room following him with their eyes — and gallantly pressed a long kiss on his wife’s cheek. “Hey, I haven’t seen you for six hours,” he’d whisper in her ear, while his hand resisted sliding down to cup her rear in front of the entire student body. How Enid responded was hit and miss. When it worked, she turned her head and fed his ear with something that made his moustache pull back to reveal a set of very straight, white teeth. One or two cocky souls usually clapped and whistled when he was scoring (Jacob Meier, or some other dedicated extrovert). Mostly, though, everyone just watched the couple’s movements with the mouth-breathing intensity of a Prime Time miniseries.

Bruce was husband number three. Maybe it was sports that had taught him never to walk away from a challenge. Or, it could have been the Buddhist readings that helped him make the transition away from pro ball.  For a jock, he had a remarkably deft touch with women. Well, a woman. Enid. Husbands number one and two “were god damn wimps” (Enid’s words). They started out worshipful, but soon decided that second fiddle was an unnatural place for a man to be. Enid walked the moment they tried to write her schedule and control the attention other men lavished on her. They begged her to return, but her buttery leather boots were long gone.

Bruce made none of the mistakes of husbands one and two, but, still, he was worried. His up-for-anything bride — the same girl who wore red and white patent leather go-go boots to Expo 67 before switching to bare feet, a lace mini dress and a crown of wildflowers for her first wedding — was sputtering in her comet-like trajectory through life. Like most guys, Bruce knew what Enid was feeling was coming. He had just hoped it wouldn’t be so soon, if 49 could be considered too soon.

Standing in Bruce’s grey track pants before her grade nines, with sweat trickling down her temples and what looked like a plop of dried toothpaste on her top, Enid was leading a discussion on the October Crisis and defending her man — “Um, excuse me, guys, but Prime Minister Trudeau crushed civil liberties to protect civil liberties” — when a sharp pain crossed her abdomen. Fearing she would lose it, she instructed her students to review Chapter 7 in their text book and made a run for the toilet. Ever determined, she still got in a parting shot: “Uchh, the Separatists can leave for all I care.” Slam went the classroom door.

The air was still aswirl after her mad dash to the bathroom. The keeners in the front row turned in their seats to look at the slackers in the back row, then everyone in between. No one shouted, “Party!” or left the classroom to light up on the smoking island out back in the school parking lot. Enid had slammed the door to keep them in. They just stared at each other, shrugged, and turned back around to get on with their readings. Without Fergie there to witness their quips, there was no point in acting up.

Mr. Trudeau would have been bemused by this episode. He needed all the support he could get standing up to the Separatists. But then he never had cramps like Enid’s. Maybe the occasional pulled muscle from tough frisbee catches or the odd paper cut from the stacks of parliamentary documents piling up on his desk, all of which he read from front to back. Nothing seemed to sideline Pierre. He ran at life with the energy of a 17-year old in love. For a long time, Enid wanted to be the one Pierre ran to (not for anything serious, of course). In her prime, she looked better than Margaret in a bikini, if that were possible. Moreover, she was the one with the real “connaissance intellectuelle.” And Pierre knew it.

Enid was that girl from the Summer of ’72 who stood on the sidelines during the height of Trudeaumania wearing a tight sleeveless sweater embroidered with the slogan, “Vote for P.E.T. or BUST” across her untethered breasts. Nick, president of the Young Liberals of Canada, a fellow Ph.D candidate and Enid’s first husband, was standing right beside her at a gathering on the Hill when photographer Duncan Cameron pushed past everyone to get to her. Dropping to one knee, he captured Enid’s form against a diamond clear sky. The country went nuts wondering, who’s that girl?

Trudeau smiled when he was handed the paper the next day. He was still smiling fifteen years later when he instructed one of his assistants to contact the National Archives to secure the rights to include Enid’s picture in his memoir, Thoughts on a Just Society. On p. 121, there was Enid right below a photo of Pierre doing a double tuck off a high board into a hotel pool and right beside a shot of Barbra Streisand leading him at intermission through the crowded lobby of the National Arts Centre.

Like Maggie, Babs, Liona, Margo, Gale and Kim, Enid had her own file in the Prime Minister’s mind. Ultimately, though, she would go on to write about him instead of being a source of light entertainment. The sweater paved the way to many interviews with the Prime Minister for both her books: Being Canadian: It Beats the Alternative (a love letter to her country) and Profiles in Compromise (a compilation of her best ass-kicking columns for Maclean’s). Every time Pierre opened the door for Enid to his art deco home on Pine Ave. in Montréal, he made it clear that he thought it humorously wonderful she had become a historian. Enid forgave him for his vague patronizing and let the tape recorder roll. Post-interview, she repeatedly turned down his offer of a sauna, but did say yes to sharing a joint with him because it turned his condescension into full-on camaraderie, and resulted in some deep philosophical conversations and a ton of good quotes. For hours, their laugher bounced off the marble surfaces inside his art deco home.

The boys in Enid’s classes all knew about her untethered past. Most of them kept a xerox of “ Bust a Vote,” as they called it, in the back of their binders. Some even went to the trouble of laminating their pictures. As a result, the school’s copy of Thoughts on a Just Society did more splits than Elfi Schlegel. The strain of all that photocopying on the book finally proved too much for its binding and it eventually cracked into two separate parts right at page 121. “No, it lifted and separated,” snickered the boys. The memoir had to be replaced twice by Mrs. Harstone, the school librarian. After that she kept the newest copy of Trudeau’s memoir on the reference shelf behind the check-out desk and only granted signing privileges to students with written permission from the head of the History Department. As a result, photocopies of photocopies of Fergie proliferated down the grades making her outlines harder and harder to make out.

*Every effort was made to source the copyright holders of the photo, “Vote P.E.T. or Bust” (I have an extensive collection of Canadian history picture books and none did). If anyone knows, please notify me at alison.garwoodjones@gmail.com

 

Director’s cut

August 27, 2015

Recently, my friends Nicki and Rogie came to me with a request: “Ali, we need a map of our farm so visitors can find their way around.”

My friends are hosting workshops on equine education and will be moving from point to point around the property teaching things like pasture management, nutrition, hoof care and equi-bow therapy (translation: horse massage).

I’ve been to the farm many times, but have always had a glass of wine in my hand lending to a delightfully vague sense of my surroundings.

The first thing I said was, “Send me pics of all the buildings and a few animal shots and I’ll turn them into drawings.” Nicki roamed the property with her Samsung and sent an entire album of farm shots to my iPhone.

Garage and Coop fixedThis is the garage where Rogie parks the tractors and has a man cave. That’s a chicken coop at the back.

Shelter This is one of many paddock shelters to protect the animals when the sun heats up their coats or raindrops start falling.

Horse PNG

This is Sky.

Barn TransparentThis is the barn where Sky and her friends live, including this wacky character, Tucker the mini paint.

FullSizeRender-27

 Don’t say the word “gingivitis” in front of him. (I’m kidding, Nicki takes great care of his teeth).

FullSizeRender-28

Tucker’s a little sensitive about the wandering eye.

Shit Pile

Plug your nose, we’re going past the manure mound.

Bees for blog

We’re so relieved the bees are back (for now).

Tree Transparent

I knew I’d need some trees, so I prepared a maple that I could duplicate dozens of times (like a Flintstone background).

Cedar transparentI needed a few cedars too.

Wildflowers PNG

Nicki even planted a wildflower patch.

While I was waiting for my paint to dry, I said to Rogie, “Send me the Google Earth view of the paddocks and barns.” And he did. I drew in the fences in black and the gates in red with a digital stylus.

Corrected Layout

Looking things over, I decided a drawing of the farm would look better if I took the eye over the horizon. So I altered the image in Pixlr to create a vanishing point:

Diagonal shot for Blog

Then I created a base wash drawing:

Tinted Map with Road

Note how you can still see how the wetness of the watercolours created buckles and shadows on the paper. I brushed those out digitally, layered on my renderings of animals, trees and buildings and produced this final map:

27 Aug Version

Ta da!

This post was inspired by one of my favourite books, Austin Kleon‘s Show Your Work. If you think it’s imperative to hide your process from prying eyes, I encourage you to read this book and be open to changing your mind.

 

Mothers

May 10, 2015

Melissa and Joan RiversPhoto from the Melissa Rivers Collection

Joan Rivers was by turns vicious, smart, snarky and deeply caring.

Back when when I watched more TV I occasionally landed on one of her fashion rants, but never stayed long. Most of the time, I don’t find that kind of aggression entertaining. But I felt her talent, so I paid attention to her comings and goings.

In more instances than I can recall, the social commentary I got from Joan Rivers and Robin Williams (about things other than fashion) was smarter and more to the point than any explanation laid out in the op-ed columns of the world’s best newspapers.

I especially paid attention to Joan after an interview she gave to a local radio station in Toronto seven or eight years ago. Rivers spent a lot of time in Mississauga, “Toronto’s Hoboken,” as she called it, pushing winking brooches from her Joan Rivers Classic Jewellery Collection to Shopping Channel viewers. She’d coax the phone lines to light up by placing two brooches on her pant suit jacket, right over her nipples. “This’ll draw attention.” Or else, she hammed it up by donning a mystical fortune teller’s puffy cap. “I know why you’re here, [to buy jewellery],” she intoned in her raspy Borscht Belt delivery. It was a direct rip off of Johnny Carson’s Carnac The Magnificent.

In that radio interview, Joan did as Joan did: alternating between jokes, acknowledging her husband’s suicide, the cancellation of her ’80s talk show, the temporary estrangement from her daughter, Melissa, and the countless patch-ups to her nose, eyes and lips. But here’s the kicker: I don’t remember exactly what it was that Joan said that made me go, Wow. I think it was something about perseverance. But I vividly remember how she made me feel. That’s when I added her to my list of beacons. From that chaotic mess of talent, ambition and missteps sprung this humility. It wasn’t plotted out ahead of time like the jokes she filed away on thousands of recipe cards. She didn’t even know it was coming. It was air-distilling, though.

Six months after her mother’s death, Melissa Rivers is struggling to adjust to life without Joan. This weekend, in an LA Times profile by Amy Kaufman, the younger Rivers noted that “when your first parent dies, it’s a comma; when your second is gone, it’s a period.” Stating that second part has been hard for Melissa, says Kaufman. “You can almost see her squaring her shoulders.”

If it helps, in my experience that sense of finality wanes. In a commencement speech she made in 1989, Joan told Melissa and her fellow graduates at the University of Pennsylvania that “as long as you’ve got a parent left, you can always be a child to someone. The light is in the window.” 

I think, given time, that period will have turned back into a comma and she’ll feel the light again.

 

Out of the woods

April 25, 2015

Hildegard walked the forest in a squeaking body of armor. Her chest plate was bronze and had dings from all the arrows that had tried to pierce her heart, but never made it. Her waist was tiny and bound by a wide leather belt fringed with hard studs designed to keep hands off. Her long legs were sheathed in brown leather too tough to rip, and she kept her flowing hair — so black it shone blue — tucked under an iron helmet to avoid attracting too much attention.

Hildegard only wanted to be noticed for her quick reflexes and artistry with the sword. She had a habit of driving the instrument’s sharp point at potential lovers and enemies — she couldn’t tell the difference — and bellowing, “Stand back!” Some took her on and clanked swords, but eventually they realized they were no match for her looping blade and fancy footwork. Let’s face it, though, her premature victory cries — in French, no less — made even the staunchest romantics turn and flee into the forest never to be seen again.

One day, as Hildegard was walking her favourite trail — the one covered with the dancing wildflowers — she stumbled upon a cave at the base of an escarpment. “Hell-o-o,” she called, “Is anyone there?” She pulled out her sword and held it in front of her as she walked down into the darkness. There was some commotion and a flutter across her cheek as a nesting swallow tried to move out of her way. Dripping water from an underground stream pinged against her helmet and thick mud tried to stop her in her tracks the whole way through, but Hildegard was determined to lift her legs out of the muck and keep moving forward.

At the back of the cave she came upon a room illuminated by tallow candles and saw a figure lying motionless on a plinth. It was an ancient hag. Hildegard stood over the old woman, watching the slow rise and fall of her chest and taking in the details of her waning body. Her wiry hair flowed in dry waves over either side of the platform. Her deflated breasts were heading over the edge too. She had pointy hip bones, like an old cow, and feet as gnarled as tree roots. Hildegard’s eyes were moving on to the colourful assortment of stuff happening to the hag’s hands, when the old woman opened one eye, then two, causing Hildegard to jump back.

“Why are you trying to outsmart love?” asked the woman.

“Because it’s not worth the pain,” said Hildegard.

“And how does it feel living a pain-free life?”

“It hurts.”

“So then take off that ridiculous chest plate and free those legs from their leather casings. And, while you’re at it, toss the helmet too.”

Hildegard unbuckled the shield encasing her soft chest and leaned it against the stone wall. She removed her helmet and her conditioned hair fell in a tumble down her back. The leather pants were the last to go. As she stood there in her camisole and thong, the old hag pointed a knotted finger to the storage space under the platform. Hildegard felt around in the darkness and dragged out a treasure chest into the middle of the floor.

“Open it,” instructed the old hag. The lid creaked like it had never been touched before. Hildegard held up a cream satin slip dress with the price tag still dangling from it, then fished out a pair of matching flats. She even found a Hawaiian lay of fresh flowers. “I dreamed of wearing those,” said the old hag, “but I kept putting it off.”

Hildegard dropped the dress over her head, slipped on the shoes and was adjusting the lay when the old hag said, “Now, go back out there.” As Hildegard turned to leave, she didn’t give a second thought to the expensive sword she was leaving on the floor next to all of her other top-of-the-line equipment. The light pulled her along. When she reached the entrance to the cave, the noonday sun warmed her face and the wind lifted her long hair.

A week later, the old hag arranged for Hildegard’s equipment to be returned to her by courier, with the note: “Keep the dress.” Hildegard took it one better: she kept the dress, the equipment (for regional tournaments), and said yes to coffee with the courier.

Decorative “H” courtesy of the talented Jessica Hische.

 

He wants YOU

April 15, 2015

When winter leaves, Canadians, for the first time in months, can take their hands out of our pockets, straighten their shoulders and look up. No need to act like battering rams against the cold.

The dog park is one of the first places I go to celebrate the glowing effects of the earth’s new position. But Spring is best experienced without Mark Zuckerberg. It requires all your senses. I don’t know about you, but my phone robs me of my sight and hearing. I also hold my breath when I’m scrolling through emails or looking for red dots to open on my Facebook dash. I actually deny myself oxygen.

Here is a replay of a vignette I posted two years ago about the here and now of friendship.

A man looks at his phone while his dog waits for him to throw the ball.

It’s Spring. A man opens the gate to a dog park and Rover runs in, ears flying. The man raises his “Chuck It” Launcher and hurls an orange ball across the dirt pitch. Rover drops his leg and runs like a maniac to retrieve it, then runs back just as fast and skids to a halt at his master’s feet as a cloud of red dust rises around them.

The man repeats this four times. At this point, Rover’s eyes are sparkling with engagement, his tongue is out and hanging heavily from the side of his mouth while his tail keeps time like a feathered metronome.

On the fifth throw, the man’s smart phone sends him a text chime and he lowers the launcher to see who it is. Rover stands motionless panting and anticipating the next round of fetch. When the wait goes on a bit too long, Rover barks to get the man’s attention. The man looks up, flings the ball, then resumes scrolling on his phone.

The ball lands with a thud across the park, but Rover is still standing motionless in front of his master. Not long after, his tail switches off. The game is over as far as he’s concerned. Why? Because dogs don’t care about chasing balls. They care about engaging with you. Children and spouses are remarkably similar. And equally needy.