Alison Garwood Jones

Using my voice

May 21, 2015

This week I unwittingly joined the ranks of Robert Redford and Pierce Brosnan when I lent my voice to a PSA on monarch butterflies for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

The NRDC is an American environmental organization, but Canadian farmers, especially corn and soybean growers, have permission to use the same glyphosate-containing chemical mentioned in the video that is wiping out butterfly caterpillars in the US. It’s a North America-wide problem.

While dandelions are on the rise in Ontario due to a province-wide cosmetic pesticide ban, butterflies are on the decline.

You may shrug, but this “butterfly effect” is serious.

Here’s why:

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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.

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Printemps

May 5, 2015

orange and purple tulips

Orange tulips smell like oranges. In a loud way.

Purple tulips … you guessed it. They smell like grape! Not real grape, grape popsicles.

I have no idea why this is so.

But it’s marvellous.

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A good read

May 2, 2015

I don’t want Auden chopped up
And sprinkled in my Twitter stream.
Or van Gogh’s letters reimagined by
A ginger beard mugging for YouTube.
Keep Khayyam on the pages of the World War I chapbooks,
Complete with my grandmother’s soft pencil annotations.
What presence!
And Yeats?
If you get that fucking gadget anywhere near him …
I’ll get Vermeer after you.
He’ll chase you through the market
And alongside the canals until
You fall into the water with all the other bloated rats.
Back home, in the quiet of my study,
I’ll read everyone’s frozen words by candlelight.
The book is dead. Long live the book.

* I heard this last line uttered once by designer Irma Bloom. Of course, it riffs on the line, “The King is dead. Long live the King.”

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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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