Alison Garwood Jones

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.

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The gambler

April 19, 2015

Back in the fall of 1999, this quote by Richard Ford in The Globe and Mail seemed important enough to scribble down. Translation: it rocked my little whitebread world which, true to form, consisted of Enya, getting lost in Kenny G’s mane, Mac matte lipstick and a shiny black Nissan Pathfinder.

“My view of writers I admire is not that they are sturdy professionals with a specific set of skills and how-tos, clear steps for career advancement and a saving ethical code; but, rather, that they are gamblers who practice a sort of fervidly demanding amateurism, whereby one completed headlong endeavour consumes almost entirely its own resources and generally leaves its author emptied, dazed and bewildered with ringing in [their] ears.” 

I stopped driving that Pathfinder after I tried writing for real. I was too dazed and confused to focus on the road. Kenny has since been remaindered in a yard sale or two.

Kenny G

Kenny, words fail me.

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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.

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Nail Art

March 24, 2015

Emily Carr drew on her fingernails. I imagined that in my own drawing.

My latest promotional poster for the Art Canada Institute.

Within about an hour of posting this, The AGO picked it up, hat tipped us and used it to promote their Emily Carr exhibit opening on April 11th in Toronto.

This is when social media and digital creativity are really really fun!

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David Carr (1956-2015)

February 13, 2015

David's Peanuts

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Why I didn’t work it

February 8, 2015

I don’t normally take requests on my blog. But a good friend of mine who has been watching me play at this piano for the last six years, and who has more than once thrown encouragement in my tip cup, says he wants me to write about beauty. My beauty.

“I keep talking about beauty and its effects on the world with people, most of whom aren’t beautiful,” he said to me in an email back in 2009.

“These people find the interaction of too much beauty and too many brains of great interest.”

For context sake, this friend is a fellow writer, 25 years my senior, and male.

 In 2010, he picked up the thread again and wrote:

“As you know, Alison, I keep wondering how you deal/have dealt with the issue of being a beautiful woman. That is, did you ever wake up in the morning thinking, Geez, I wish I wasn’t so pretty so that guys could more easily relate to me as a human being and not a creature in an objectified dream.  A constant theme in Hollywood movies — for example, Pretty Woman — is a guy learning to see beyond a woman’s beauty. What I can’t tell is if this mental reconfiguration really happens, particularly in the work world?”

I read my friend’s emails with interest, but didn’t follow up on my blog because I wasn’t sure what to say.

Then my friend had the actual experience of not being able to concentrate on a women’s ideas because her beauty got in the way. He immediately fired off another email to me:

“Alison, I was just at a conference. The sessions were on how public health has dealt with swine flu and one of the speakers was this incredibly beautiful, slim, sexy, Bollywoody woman. What she presented was data and facts and lots of technical things, but you couldn’t hear them very clearly because what you saw was beauty and its transcendently loud voice. I wondered if she found her attractiveness actually got in the way of her professional life. If she some times wished she was somewhat less pretty so people could hear her science and not her allure. This might be a good freelance piece for you. Could get you a name if you were interested.”

And early last month, after I wrote about my experiences in grad school, this note landed in my inbox. Same friend, same subject:

“I would love to read about your sense of how physical beauty has shaped your life. I say that because one of the other things I have always been struck with is how you didn’t use beauty as a kind of common currency in your life. It was there. It undoubtedly helped you get certain jobs – Elle, for instance – but you didn’t market yourself as a beautiful person. And you could have.”

OK, friend, I give up.

Here’s the thing. Since my teens, when the air started swirling around me and model scouts in malls started handing me their business cards, I knew I wanted to be a creator, not a creation. Big difference. It’s the difference between Being and actually Doing.

I’m one of millions of women around the world who want to change the whole Men Do/Women Just Are paradigm. This paradigm still persists in the workplace, but not the home where women Do way too much, while also holding down day jobs. Luckily, I have lived my whole life on the side of the world where such a goal — to be a Creator, not a creation — is slightly more possible.

Even as a 16 year old girl, I was acutely aware of the fact that my intelligence would outlast my brown hair, so cultivating something that could grow and last seemed like a pretty worthy mission to me.

I started spending all my spare time in libraries, poring through biographies (my road maps), atlases, art books and sitting on the floor next to rows and rows of National Geographics. When I wasn’t in libraries, I was hanging out in watch stores testing out my favourite fountain pens. I know my high school friends remember that girl. I walked around with a cripplingly heavy book bag over one shoulder and a black art porfolio in the other hand that was stuffed with my pencil sketches and watercolours. Living inside my head was such an amazing place to be! I deliberately ignored boys to gain footing in that world. Luckily, my height (6’1″) kept most of them away. My plan was working. I had breathing room and time. While they got on with the business of growing up, I got on with the business of exploring the world as if I had no restrictions on me and, really, I didn’t because I ignored restrictions.

Had I been born 20 years earlier, the pressure to lead an entirely different life would have derailed me. My acute awareness of this arbitrary stroke of luck only made me more determined to hunker down and push back against expectations.

Through my twenties, even my thirties, I continued my private campaign to live from the inside out. That was no small feat when cat calls and genuine compliments were coming at me like a spray of bullets. All of them, whether deliberate or not, were attempts to bring my concsiousness back to my outsides. My goal continued to be self-development. It still is. I didn’t get an agent for my looks. What on earth for?

Then came the warnings: as I was approaching “the peak of my beauty” (not my term), I was told I better act soon. I was 27. What did that mean? Did they want me to mount some kind of variety show with a dance number for the guys? I suspected they wanted me give in and let them drink me up in advance that so-called Best Before date stamped on women the world over. During this time, one guy even said to me, “What a waste,” when he found out I wasn’t modelling or married. This was yet another social force I found completely unacceptable.

It’s funny, but I’m only just piecing this together in my forties. The extent to which I deflected sexist and negative comments was huge. My life has been proof that to be the person you want to be, you have to “ignore everybody.”That’s how cartoonist Hugh MacLeod described it in his book by the same name. I lived in a headspace where sexism didn’t exist because I didn’t accept it. I moved right through it and past it. I’m guessing the way I looked helped me get away with that kind of defiance without having to raise a placard or my voice. At the same time, though, I had enough good sense and humility that I didn’t act entitled, just hyper focused. And grateful.

I’m sure I created plenty of confusion in my wake. The most confused and annoyed guys threw the word “frigid” at me. I said nothing because enlightening them felt as pointless as  enlightening the anti-vaxxers. I kept going. For the record, I wasn’t frigid — scared maybe, disenchanted by guys who would say that, most definitely. Overall, I was stubborn, as stubborn as a salmon swimming upstream.

This is where I cue up Nick Hornby, author of About a Boy, High Fidelity and most recently, Funny Girl. My respect for Hornby went through the roof last week when I heard him tell Daniel Richler on the CBC Radio program Q that he found the journeys of young women far more moving than young men’s:

“I think a lot of male characters, the reasons they’re not allowed to do the things that they want to do is because of what’s going on in their own heads. Let’s face it, if you’re male there isn’t an awful lot stopping you. Whereas young women, in previous times, had all kinds of obstacles placed in their way. And to overcome those obstacles shows, of necessity, courage and heart and intelligence and drive. And those are pretty interesting qualities to write about.”

Acceptance of women’s creativity, drive and opinions, whether these women are considered physically beautiful or not, is still a work in progress. It will only be normalized by doing. I continue to say, be twice as good, be kind and ignore everybody. And make sure your story is really good, especially to you.

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News really is getting mobile

February 5, 2015

News organizations that have been focused on their online real estate  — i.e. stuff they own, like their websites — need to start thinking more like train-hopping vagabonds.


This means going homeless and filling their rucksacks with original stories formatted for mobile-only apps, then hitting the road and stopping at a variety of destinations along the way that are boom towns now, but could very well be crossed with tumbleweed by next year.

Instead of worrying about permanence and stability — as in, “We’re dropping our bags in this oil/mining/car town, building a homestead and working until we can retire in comfort” — they must be willing and able to skip town at a moment’s notice.  Creating story packages that travel well and adapt to the next place everyone is headed to is a must.

Right now, SnapChat is one of those places. For the last two years, people have been predicting that messaging and chat apps would be the next area of growth for online news. Now it’s finally happening in a big way.

Last week SnapChat introduced Discover, a go-to news source for mobile-formatted stories. So far, ten publishers are on board including Vice, Yahoo News, The Daily Mail, National Geographic, CNN, People, MTV, Cosmopolitan, b/r (Bleacher Report) and The Food Network. It remains to be seen if The New York Times and The Guardian will sign on. Stories are packaged in a variety of ways, including looping videos, 15-minute docs on hard news topics, silly animations and text-based articles. What’s more, advertisers are coming along for the ride. Here’s a screen shot from my phone of Discover’s home page.

Discover by SnapChat

To my surprise, there’s some fairly substantive reporting. Take this February 3rd story on Obama’s budget. It was a whopping 1073 words and because it sat on a native app, making it completely independent of the web and search, there was no link back to Yahoo’s home page. In fact, there was no direct tie between this Discover story and the stories on Yahoo’s main hub, only similar stories. Like all things SnapChat, the story disappeared 24 hours later and was replaced by a fresh news cycle.

Yahoo News on SnapChat's Discover

The message is clear: the real story, the “complete” story on Obama’s budget, is where you are right now. We don’t take hostages and force them to back to our homepage.

In another example, a February 3rd CNN Supreme Court story called “Judgement Days,” a web throw at the end of the piece invited readers to visit, but, again, because it sits on an app it was NOT a live link and so the chances of folks going to the homepage are slim. When I checked, the exact same story did not appear on CNN’s website. Other journalists have reported that stories prepared for Discover by The Daily Mail were cut-and-paste jobs from stories on their homepage page. So far, that hasn’t been my experience. News organization are adapting to the space and not pushing hard for their own way.

Takeaway No. 1:

SnapChat’s news delivery format has finally forced the detachment between print and digital. For much too long, digital has been sitting way too tightly next to print. They’re like siamese twins whose parents know they need to be separated because one of them will die eventually. But the parents keep putting off booking the operation because the surgery will be bloody and complicated and death to one or both will come very fast since they share organs. So the parents stall.

Takeaway No. 2:

By creating app-only stories that are formatted with the same design as updates from friends, which are just a few thumb swipes away, these first ten news organizations on Discover are finally acknowledging that they need to go where people are, not where they want them to be or arrogantly think they should be (i.e. their homepage) – h/t Joshua Benton. Millennials trust social media to keep up to date on what’s happening around the world and generally don’t give a second thought to the homepages of news organizations. In fact a recent poll conducted by SkyNews in the UK found that only 18% of 16-24 year olds turn to mainstream media for current events. The rest use social media.

Does this now mean that news organizations should shutter their homepages — like shuttering the family homestead — and only become app jumping vagabonds? Maybe. Time will tell. The homestead may just become one big storage locker whose visitors are a smaller band of rabid news and context geeks.

For now, I think Discover may prove to be the better way to get your news than the Facebook feed. The latter relies way too heavily on what the algorithms determine is news and a whole lot of accidental osmosis. And if it’s true that Facebook is dead to Millennials, then apps are the only immediate hope for news organizations for placement of their work. At least Discover isn’t aggregating like Facebook. It has editorial control, content ownership  and ad placements so discrete I couldn’t even find them.

All aboard!


 All of the hand-drawn illustrations in this post are by the Canadian-born artist, Jay Hambidge (1867-1924), and were commissioned by the now defunct, Century Illustrated Magazine (1881-1906). From my research, they appear to be in the public domain. If that is not the case, please let me know at alison(dot)garwoodjones(at)gmail(dot)com.

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Virginia speaks

January 26, 2015

What a find! This is the first time I’ve ever heard Virginia Woolf‘s spoken voice.

Her written voice is very familiar to me.

Her book, A Room of One’s Own, is a Bible to me and most of my friends.

Silkscreen of A Room of One's Own by Alanna CavanaghA Room of One’s Own, Silk Screen Print by Alanna Cavanagh. From a fifth edition of 20 prints. Signed and Numbered. Printed on Acid Free 100% Rag paper. Stained with Coffee and Tea.

Hearing Virginia read her own words wasn’t something I was expecting while sitting around in my apartment on some random weekend in January (h/t The Paris Review).

Woolf recorded this essay on “Craftsmanship,” the only known recording of her voice, at the BBC’s London studios back in 1937. No doubt, she spoke into one of the broadcaster’s iconic Type A Marconi microphones.

Here she describes the challenges of capturing the essence of life through words. ”Words don’t live in dictionaries,” she said, “they live in the mind.” The challenge is knowing how “to combine old words in new orders so they create beauty and tell the truth.”

As her particular vocal tone soaked into and spread across her sentences, plumping out each word, I felt like I was being presented with even more answers to life’s Big Questions. Some women’s minds do that —Virginia, Gloria, Maya, Joni— they make you stop everything and listen hard.

Imagine that: a random find on Facebook was bringing all the disparate thought lines in my head together to a single point. Rocks that that usually felt heavy, were light. It coloured the rest of my Sunday.

As you listen to this, I recommend not focusing on the aristocratic roll of Woolf’s r’s, or the way she trills so primly like Eleanor Roosevelt or Julia Child (judging from the comments on the Paris Review’s website, lots of readers couldn’t get past that).

Every generation and social class has had its particular vocabulary and way of speaking. That shouldn’t distract you from the universals Virginia lays out. Humming below the surface of her posh elocution is the sound of a mind painfully receptive to the ups and downs of work and existence. She reads her own writing with so much conviction. By the end of the recording, you may find, like me, that you’ve gone beyond the ideas she expressed and are reacting equally to the tensile strength and frequency of her presence, which is decidedly more tuning fork than talking head.

Now imagine if Jane Austen’s voice was suddenly available to us?


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Dude, you inspire me

January 23, 2015

Just before Christmas I attended an ACI artist’s talk at Massey College. At the end of it, I turned to the woman sitting next to me and said, “Wasn’t that good?” She agreed and we shared our favourite ah ha moments in the life and career of Paul Kane.

Kane was born 150 years before Neil Young, Bob Dylan and the rise of sixties counter culture, but there was something about the experimental and itinerant life of this buckskin-wearing bon vivant that felt modern. And relevant to today.

Paul Kane, Canadian Artist

The Painter, Paul Kane, c. 1850s, M.O. Hammond Collection

Holding back his personality behind a frozen pose — the limitations of Victorian photography insisted upon that — I sense a guy with the same energy as some of the artist bartenders, lumbersexuals and guitar pickers I work with. Blame the bedhead, the buckskin and the sleepy “Cho, dude” vibe in his expression. Here’s a guy who clearly smells of unwashed hair, suede and wind. Beyond the lens, his studio is the experimental mess of a serial entrepreneur, I’m sure of it.

Kane was not the kind of man you’d expect to see walking in downtown Toronto in the 1850s and ’60s. He lived at Isabella and Church, future hub of individuality and misfit pride. If you knew Toronto then, it was not the cool Guardian and New York Times-stamped city it is now. Artistically, it was mute and inward-looking. English writer Wyndam Lewis dubbed it “a sanctimonious ice box.” (h/t Robert Fulford). Vast and distant colonies were like that at the height of Britain’s power. They didn’t assert themselves and they didn’t feel entitled to their own adventures. Originality was feared and frowned upon. You can confirm that with Australia. The books by the late Robert Hughes reveal many cultural parallels between our two nations.


Wyndham Lewis Quote

Kane either forgot or ignored all that. He looks like a man who burned and inhaled all manner of plant life to maintain his chosen take on life. Historians describe him as ”one of the first ‘tourists’ — as opposed to explorer, trapper or surveyor — to travel the northern fur-trade route from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Ocean.” His goal: to record his perceptions of North America’s Aboriginal communities. No one sent him. He sent himself. He saw a need to understand the people who populated a significant swath of this land before the rest of us arrived by boat. Kane funded his adventures painting society portraits every time he was back in Toronto.

Kane’s highly unorthodox goals and determination to do as he saw fit resonated with me and my seat mate on that snowy night last month. I think it’s why our conversation went the way it did. On discovering we were both bon vivants crossing this new digital frontier (I write, she edits), she told me, “We have more security than most people.”

“How so?” I asked.

“Because we know every project we take on has an expiration date. We’re not psychologically crushed when opportunities dry up or people stop needing us.”

I nodded.

“We just tap into our contacts and find something else,” she said, almost with glee.

That was just what I needed to hear as I search for my next opportunity. Along the way, I hope I smell like big sky, prairie wild flowers and lots of glee.

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Saying no is hard

January 7, 2015

For writers, social media is like a hole in a tire. It’s a drain on your energy, productivity and ability to sustain a thought.

Sometimes the leak is slow and silent (like the daily Facebook checkin). Other times (Rob Ford), it’s this giant fucking “POP!” Afterwards, you’re left with a big flabby thing that won’t turn. Not the ex-mayor, silly, your inspiration.

All of this would explain the parade of writers who publicly announce their impending estrangement from Twitter. It’s like giving up chicken wings. Or sex. Many of them conduct farewell tours, but are back online in a month.

Their jitters during withdrawal were bad. One can only conclude that being unhappy online is preferable to being unhappy offline.



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