Alison Garwood Jones

Gord’s triumph of narrative

August 22, 2016

 Drawing of Gord DownieGord Downie in his last concert by Alison Garwood-Jones

When I was a student at Queen’s University in the late 1980s and early nineties, my tape collection alternated between love anthems (Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey), girl bands with matte lips and cool hair cuts (Wilson Phillips) and duos with no hair cuts (Indigo Girls). Throw in some salsa from the Gipsy Kings and you pretty much have my music profile from that time.

Like every Queen’s student, I knew about The Tragically Hip and saw posters of their next show staple gunned to hydro poles around Kingston. My classmate Leslie even married their lead guitarist, Rob Baker. A week after their nuptials, she returned to our small seminar on British art with a quiet perma smile. Still, Gord’s voice (his singing voice) and overall weirdness didn’t cut through my AM Radio bent. Strangely, though, his lyrics “38 and never kissed a girl,” unknown to me then, did cross my mind one night 25 years ago when my friends and I were at a pub in Kingston and turned around to see David Milgaard sitting in a corner. Alone.

This is one of many examples of Downie’s ability to capture a feeling, a moment and a place, all the while tapping into the two central preoccupations of Canadian poetry and fiction: survival and victims. (h/t Margaret Atwood). And now that I’m truly delving into Gord’s lyrics and poetry (thanks to my friend Marie), I’m going specific and broad in my thinking. I’m seeing how the Hip fit squarely into The Triumph of Narrative journalist Robert Fulford described 15 years ago in his Massey Lecture on storytelling. Fulford described how human lives shape stories and stories shape human lives.

Last night’s nationally-broadcast concert shows us that as we grow further away from 1867, that lack of conviction we’ve consistently exhibited through the decades whenever we or someone else asks, “What does it mean to be Canadian?” is being progressively overwritten by this surprisingly intense and nuanced behaviour as complex and changeable as love itself. It’s nothing like America’s self-love — so sure, so entitled, so prone to devolving into the grotesque. The Rio Olympics showed us where that can take you with Ryan Lochte and the traitor backlash Ashton Eaton experienced when he donned a Canada hat to cheer on his Canadian wife, heptathlete, Brianne Theissen-Eaton.

If I can paraphrase Fulford, last night’s concert in parks and squares across the nation provided us with a glimpse of inner lives being lived around us. “The glimpse will always be brief and tantalizing, like landscape being revealed for an instant by lightning, but it suggests a wondrous richness, a splendid variety. It rebukes glib assumptions about the blandness of our fellow citizens.” And, if I may add, it builds on itself.

Thank you, Gord, for bringing us into our lives and our country.

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This is it

August 18, 2016

Cleaning up the remains of our parents’ days has been a long process for my brothers and me. Five years to be exact.

FullSizeRender_3From left to right: Alison, Richard and Peter. We’re probably watching Wimbledon or the U.S. Open.

Yesterday, as I was studying the photographic evidence of our childhoods inside a non-descript industrial storage unit, I experienced a sense of peace and order I wasn’t expecting and haven’t truly felt since the days when orbiting the very alive Catherine and Trevor was the only way of being the three of us knew.

FullSizeRenderThere she is, the dynamic Catherine Garwood-Jones with her kids. Photo by Trevor.

And here I am today living in that future that the wee, then lanky girl in the photos was being groomed for. This was before she knew what form it would take. I’m sure my brothers are also flipping back and forth between past, present and future. I’ve read enough “Passages”-style pop psychology to know that we all think about this stuff.

Those books and magazine articles said that the moment would arrive when you realize that the bright future that was once so far ahead of you is officially more behind you. It’s like crossing the continental divide. I did that in a riverboat tour on the Danube with my dad six months before he died. The captain of the ship blew the horn and let us know when we had ceased our connection to the land and were now officially being drawn towards the open ocean.

I share this not to bring myself or the reader down. I’m writing it because it reinforces something in me that has been the only information I’ve ever had about the world. And now I know why.

Yesterday, during our organizing session, my brother placed in front of me a stack of notes in our mother’s handwriting.

Notes by CGJ

At some point, forty plus years ago, she thought it important to organize her thoughts on the best way to raise secure, independent children. Some of it sounded like her voice, the rest read like a textbook or a medical journal. A quick Google search showed that she was pulling ideas from The Intelligent Parents’ Manual, by Dr. Florence Powdermaker and Louis Grimes. Can’t you just see them in their clinicians’ jackets? Such models of medicine and home economics! Having lived in London, England throughout the 1950s in a flat lined with beige and orange Penguin classics, I’m guessing that our mum had the 1956 Penguin edition (the cover art is charming).

5146J-ZGUEL._SX314_BO1,204,203,200_Powdermaker and Grimes’ book is now out of print. This is the 1956 Penguin edition.

But beyond the Penguin cool factor, what truly caught my breath was coming upon the phrase, “Alison and her drawings” inserted into a paragraph about art and storytelling. Finding a parent referring to you, years after they have died, gives you an unexpected new wave of love and encouragement from them you weren’t expecting on your average Tuesday.

“Allow experimenting and doing things in new and different ways,” wrote the authors, and so transcribed my mother. “Let them paint in their own way instead of always imitating others and sticking to the hidebound, conventional ways. Let them paint what they desire instead of copying some model that may mean little or nothing to him. “[Alison and her drawings]. In music, drawing and storytelling, the child’s own spontaneous and undirected expression should be encouraged.”

I suspect my mother’s own good instincts on how to encourage children (and people of all ages, for that matter) were there all along and only reinforced by this book. Hence the notes.

I was so glad my brother found this stash at a time when all three of us are looking towards the open ocean. I’m handling the waters by writing, drawing, canoeing, pulling my friends closer, eating more expensive cheese and artisanal olives, and searching for poems and biographies that describe the thick stew of emotions that form after you lose both parents. For whatever reason, fiction is leaving me cold. This stew has sometimes slowed me down to a crawl on par with folks much, much older than I am. My sluggishness and hazy contemplation are completely at odds with the frenzied, convulsing and not particularly welcoming workforce we’re all participating in right now. It’s not something you can really explain to others.

Being reminded by my mother in notes taken over forty years ago that I need to “experiment and do things in new and different ways, and portray what [you] desire,” compels me to get back to the unconventional path that has me steering myself somewhere between writing, drawing and teaching, all the while paying no mind to convention.

I was. She saw. Hence, I became.



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Tuesday sketchbook

August 9, 2016

PenBrush sketch by Alison Garwood-Jones

She looked to the horizon and thought, …

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Carol Shields

August 9, 2016

Carol Shields by Alison Garwood-Jones

Carol Shields' Life Lessons

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Sunday sketchbook

July 18, 2016

Golfer preparing to putt. Pentel Brush Pen drawing.

Calloway golf bag. Pentel Brush Pen drawing.

Dandelions. Pentel Brush Pen drawing.

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The one you feed

July 12, 2016

“An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life.

‘A battle is going on inside all of us,’ he said to the boy.

‘It is a terrible fight and it’s between two wolves.

One is evil: anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego.

The other is good: joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.

This same fight is going on inside you—and inside every other person, too.’

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather,

‘Which wolf will win?’

The old Cherokee simply replied, ‘The one you feed.'”

I found this on Facebook. What a pocket of silence it was before the next round of noise. Thank you, Erin Cooper-Gay for posting the story as told by video. 

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July 10, 2016

Joe DiMaggio pen brush sketch

Joe went from living with Marilyn Monroe to living with his sister.

Ponder that.

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July 8, 2016

Black pen drawing of Picasso by Alison Garwood-Jones

“Let’s believe in something, just in case.” ~ Picasso

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Brotherly love

July 5, 2016

Brotherly love

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Sunrise, sunset

June 27, 2016

Sunrise 2Sunset

Sunrise, sunset. Then sunrise again.

In a roundabout way, this art project involving paint, foam board and a my new butcher block desk as a background, was inspired by an essay by the writer-turned-broadcaster, Hanna Rosin. Her resonant piece talks about giving up mastery and dropping back down to zero. But, really, it’s about a skills pivot and a rebirth.

Rosin’s essay appeared this week in Lenny Letter. Here is the full piece.

By Hanna Rosin

I realize that leaving a job you love and do well can be construed as an act of pointless rebellion, like wearing flip-flops to a wedding or smoking in an airplane bathroom. Who are you making uncomfortable but yourself? But last year, I did exactly that. I’d been a working writer for 20 years. Hundreds of bylines plus two books easily gets me my 10,000 hours of practice. I had achieved mastery, at least by the Gladwell clock. And then, I gave it up. I dropped back to zero.

The person to blame is my friend Alix, who hosts the NPR show Invisibilia. One night late last summer, we went to see a movie together. Afterward, I mentioned a crazy experiment involving an oil rig where they trained the big men to cry and share their feelings and basically behave more like women. Alix said it would be perfect for one of her shows. Then she said: “Leave your job and come work with me.”

The movie we’d just seen was Straight Outta Compton. For a moment, standing by the inky, moonlit Potomac, I thought, If Cube and Dre, why not us? I had loved the first season of Invisibilia. And maybe I was restless and needed something new to do. Whatever it was, pretty soon I had an NPR badge and was present at “listening sessions” critiquing radio stories and pretending I knew what to say.

In his new book Late to the Ball, about learning to play serious tennis in his 60s, former New York Times Magazine editor Gerald Marzorati asks: “When is the last time you improved at anything?” Let me reframe that for my purposes as: “When is the last time you sucked at something you had to finish on deadline?” When I started, my grasp of basic radio skills was weaker than the average NPR intern’s. True, I couldn’t hold a microphone properly, but I also didn’t know how to write a script, or record narration, or choose music, or pretty much any necessary thing.

Early on, we all sat in a room listening to a taped interview about an old lady and a lion. When the lady said certain things, my colleagues would all light up and write stuff down. It seemed little to do with the content of her words — I had no idea what they were hearing. Sometimes I’d ask the closest person for help, and they would laugh nervously. I think this is because by your 40s, you’re supposed to know things. But what else could I do?

Giving up mastery involves a series of humiliations, some of which hit you when you think you’re on solid ground. For my first reporting trip, Alix and I went out together to interview some oil men. She showed me how to hold a mic, and I took it from there. I know how to extract information from people. I’ve been doing it for years. We sat down with a guy who’d worked on the rig. I got the guy to talk and talk and tell us some of the outrageous things the men had done on the job (teaser: foot massages). For me it was a proof-positive interview, the kind that confirms that yes, the story is true. As soon as we got into the rental car, I turned to Alix so we could squeal in mutual victory. “Well,” I asked, “how’d I do in my first interview?” “Honestly,” she said, “B-.”

Worse than losing competence is losing the ability to even tell if you are competent or not. If you give me a draft of a magazine story, I’m pretty sure I can tell you what’s wrong with it — if it’s too long or too short or underreported or overwritten or if the third paragraph needs to be switched with the 17th. But with radio, my judgment was off. I’d feel delighted with an interview or a draft and then look over and see Alix with her head in her hands. Perhaps I should have been sympathetic, but instead I was cranky and defensive. When Alix said that about the interview with the oil guy, I had no idea what she meant. I told her she was crazy and then listened obsessively to the interview to figure out what was wrong.

When I was feeling especially incompetent, I tried to remind myself of what they say in the books: You will gain inner grit! Reimagine your life! Autopilot is death! And some evenings, as I was walking home from work, I could feel that these things were true. Every day I was exhausted, the way you are when you visit a foreign country. You don’t speak the language and everything takes too much time and the people don’t act the way you expect them to and you are functionally a child. But the days go by fast, because novelty is a kind of drug.

I learned a ton of new things about myself, in the way you can only do if you are fucking up daily. I learned that I am defensive but trainable. That I have capacity for patience but that my immediate default is speed, bluntness, and ironic distance. That although I am used to working alone, I will happily collaborate. And that I really like working with women, even if they cry more during the day.

And I remembered a really nice thing: how to be goofily, absurdly proud of myself for figuring something out, a kind of pride I usually reserve for my children. This is the best part of dropping back to zero. The list of things you have to master is endless. And when you get one right — even a little, tiny one — everyone notices and gives you an adult version of an extra candy in your lunchbox. I got a lot of help. The people I work with taught me things the way you teach a kid to ride a bicycle — they were right on top of me, day after day. Still, nine months later I listen to the shows we produced and I can completely recognize them as my own.

Alix likes to say she gave me a mountain to climb, and that’s true. I get bored easily, and she probably saw a crisis coming and saved me from it. For that I am grateful. But that way of thinking makes me tired. Who wants to spend 10,000 more hours climbing another mountain? Instead I like to focus on another gift Alix gave me, which became clear to me once I’d figured out why I got the B-. Turns out that despite two decades of interviewing people, I’m not as good as I thought I was.

I’ve been told more than once that I have a machine-gun style of conversation. I do it in work interviews, but also with friends, and strangers at parties: Where did you grow up? Who is your mother? Do you like her? So, hate? Why are you cutting up your meat like that, in small bits? A therapist I saw, who was a beautiful Jungian witch, suggested that perhaps this drilling was my way of preventing any real confessional moments from slipping in. I didn’t believe her, until I watched Alix interview people.

In radio, information is not your goal. Someone can talk and talk and talk, but unless they talk in the right way the tape is useless to you. If they are distracted, or overly theatrical, it won’t work. (That was the problem with the first oil guy we interviewed: he was always putting on a show.) The aim is to get them to relive all the emotions they felt at the time, which will translate in their voice. This can be achieved only if you are patient and open, and take the time to establish a real connection.

I made fun of Alix for how slowly she talked in interviews, how she would stretch out the word “eee-mooo-shun-a-lll-eeee” until it had 24 syllables. But secretly I studied her methods. She sat very close to people. She cocked her head when she listened. She made herself inarticulate and vulnerable and told stories about herself that were models for how she wanted stories to be told. It looked like an imitation of a slightly inappropriate life coach, but it was magical. When she started to talk, she changed the air in the room. People were present, and their words became little freight cars of feeling.

After nine months, I learned to talk to people differently, at work and in life. I try not to jackhammer questions. I try not to give off the air that I need to get somewhere else. (An hour into a recent slow, meandering conversation, my friend asked if I’d taken Tylenol PM by mistake.) I try not to clock my hours, because screw mastery. Not knowing is its own kind of perverse pleasure.

Recently Alix and I did another interview together. I sat down very close to the guy (which was weird, because he was distractingly good-looking). I cocked my head. I spoke slowly. I had ten pages of questions to ask him that I needed to get through, but I didn’t let that speed up the clock. After an hour I looked over at Alix in the corner, and she had a tear in her eye like the little Jewish mother she is, because she was proud of me. She squeezed my knee under the table, relieved that she would not have to spend the rest of her days trailing me around and could finally work on her own stories. And then we both looked down and noticed the cute technical glitch: I had forgotten to press record.

Hanna Rosin is a co-host of the NPR show Invisibilia.


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