Finding my voice again: a work in progress

Image: A vintage microphone, with sound waves vibrating in the background. Photo by stux on Pixabay.

It’s been almost two years to the day since I posted my intention to take a break from the blog to consider a new direction—ruminations that ultimately resulted in the transition from a reviewing platform to one of personal creative expression. At the time, I mentioned being inspired by recent participation in creative projects in theatre (Andrew Batten’s last play The Sad Blisters), visual art (ARTiculations’ 2019 Curio Shadow Box Show) and film (Compy Films’ adaptation of Catherine Hernandez’s Scarborough, which premiered at TIFF 2021)—and how these reminded me of how much I missed the creative process. For a time, my art was talking about other people’s art; and I decided I needed to make time and space for my own work. However, this was only part of the reason—one that I felt comfortable going public with at the time.

What I didn’t mention back then was, I was also considering my place in the reviewing world. The arts community was becoming increasingly aware of, and proactive in, addressing issues of inequity in diversity and representation—in administration, programming, directing, writing and performance, and reviewing and arts criticism. And I began to think that one of the best contributions a middle-aged white woman (albeit LGBTQ2S+) like myself could make to this movement was to get out of the way and make space for other voices.

So, there was a lot going through my mind back then.

Fast-forward to this past week, and in light of our recent attention to mental health, I also want to mention that I was burnt out at the time. And this was in the Before Times, prior to COVID-19 turning our lives upside down. I’d been struggling as a reluctant freelancer during the day, weathering the stressful reality of feast or famine with work projects and income, and attending and reviewing performances in the evenings and on weekends. Spending time with family and friends is a priority, so this left me very little space for downtime and solitude—something that introverted homebodies like myself both crave and require in order to rest, rejuvenate and return to social life.

I’ve also been navigating anxiety and depression for most of my life; and have been working with a therapist off and on for a good portion of my adult life. And I knew that something needed to change.

In the two years since transitioning the blog—which just happened to coincide with the onset of the pandemic—like all of us, I’ve been pivoting my life: following by-laws, restrictions and public health measures; getting vaccinated; and generally taking good care of myself, my loved ones and our health care system. Living alone has presented its own set of challenges; and I’m grateful for the company of my grey tabby rescue cat Camille; and the support of, and connection with, family, friends, work colleagues and health care providers, even if remotely. And, like many of us, it’s all taken a toll on my mental and physical health.

I’m still working out time and space—and a place—for my creative voice. With a multitude of interests in the performing, literary and visual arts, there are a lot of options. And, while public health measures have placed certain limitations on artistic practice, there are a lot of opportunities for mindfulness, taking stock of priorities and percolating ideas.

And, while it’s often been a frustrating time of impatience and false starts, I’m continually reminding myself: it is a process, after all.

Guest post: Jeff Cottrill on the inspiration for Hate Story

Image: Hate Story cover, designed by Brett Bakker. The grim reaper rises up between silhouettes of a man and a woman, speech bubbles floating like ghosts. Subtext reads: Online shaming is a myth … or is it?

Above the title, a blurb from Giles Blunt, bestselling author of the John Cardinal mysteries: “From Twitterized mobthink to Facebook fact-bashing to knuckle-dragging attacks on science, our current reality—online or off—presents formidable problems for the satirist. Cottrill takes up that challenge and runs with it, skewering journalists, online vigilantes, and cyberbullies with undisguised glee.”

Jeff Cottrill is a Toronto-based writer, actor, journalist and spoken word artist. His first novel, Hate Story, published by Dragonfly Publishing, is set for a launch via Zoom on Saturday, March 19 at 3:00 p.m. (EST).

When Jeff and I were messaging back and forth about the possibility of him writing a guest post, the question came up: What should he write about? A long-time fan of artist process and inspiration, I suggested that he talk about what inspired him to write Hate Story. Here’s what he had to say…

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I’ve frequently quipped that my upcoming book, Hate Story (Dragonfly Publishing), is “my seventh or eighth attempt at a first novel.” This is accurate—or at least, it feels accurate—as I’ve suffered several embarrassing false starts over the past 25 years in my attempt to pursue my original dream of being a novelist. But it may be more honest to say this was actually my second crack at Hate Story.

I first got the idea for this book—the basic, skeletal idea—around 2007 or 2008. I was looking to film for writing inspiration, as I’ve been a lover of classic movies since I was a teenager. Orson Welles, in particular, is one of my cultural heroes, and a re-watching of Citizen Kane around that time gave me a weird idea: What if you made a new version of Kane, but instead of telling the story of a famous Hearst-like tycoon, it’s about this pitiful, obscure loser that everybody hates?

And then I had a vision that stuck with me: The newsreel funeral that opens the movie, “1941’s biggest, strangest funeral,” turned into a low-attended memorial service that erupts into violence of some kind. (I may have subconsciously been thinking of the funeral scene in Charade, too.) And the reporter—the Thompson equivalent—would be tasked with finding out what the deal was with the funeral riot and what this guy did to make everybody hate him so much. The reporter’s investigation into the dead person’s life story would reveal, as in Kane, that the man was both more and less than he seemed.

From this, I came up with a character named Paul Shoreditch—a dorky, socially inept man whose every attempt to assimilate into mainstream society backfires catastrophically. One character whom the reporter interviews would be a woman of dubious credibility who makes some alarming accusations against Paul. And for the reporter part, I thought of an underemployed young woman who takes the assignment reluctantly. I think I named her Rebecca or Rachel or something.

Out of these ingredients, I wrote a few chapters and scenes under the pretentious tentative title Interred with Their Bones. (It’s part of a couplet from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, which I’ve kept for an epigraph.) But for some reason, I just couldn’t make the bloody thing work. It was too cartoonish and extreme, and I didn’t have much confidence in my fiction-writing ability at the time; I was focusing on spoken word and journalism. So Interred just fell into the clutter of my unfinished projects and was forgotten.

Fast-forward to late 2018. I’ve been taking local fiction workshops and classes, learning to love writing stories again. I feel ready to tackle a novel once more. One idea I’ve been playing with in my head (inspired in part by the infamous “Shitty Media Men” list that was passed around in 2017) is a fictional, anonymous website devoted to hating a person—the exact reverse of a fansite, I guess. What if all the people who hate you teamed up to trash you on a public web forum? All your exes, all your school bullies, all the people who find your habits annoying – all ganging up on you virtually? I found the idea funny and terrifying at the same time, and it didn’t seem too implausible in the era of mass social-media mobbing.

That was when Interred popped back into my consciousness. What if I combined the two ideas? The hate website could be about Paul Shoreditch, and the reporter could explore it during her investigation. And it would be the perfect opportunity to satirize an issue that has fascinated me for some time, the disturbing contemporary trend of online shaming – or what some call “cancel culture.”

[A word about “cancel culture.” I try to avoid this phrase these days because it’s become so overused, misused and misunderstood (maybe even by me). Extreme right-wingers like Matt Gaetz use the term when they’re facing just consequences for genuinely bad actions, as if any accountability were an overreaction. On the other hand, left-wingers either say “cancel culture” is a myth or think it means nothing more than boycott – as if every Twitter pile-on were as heroic as the Montgomery bus boycott. I think both interpretations are wrong and dangerous.

I prefer to use the terms “online shaming” or “Twittermobbing.” Or “socially acceptable cyberbullying.” Because when I talk about this issue, I’m referring to the tendency for people to use social media to attack an individual, sometimes en masse, with the intention of ruining the person’s career or reputation. I don’t care so much for privileged celebrities and politicians; the cases that make me livid are ones in which an ordinary person unwittingly gets their 15 minutes of fame because they said or did something dumb. (Or they didn’t, but it gets taken wrong.) We now have the collective power to destroy anyone with the power of Internet mobs, whether the person deserves it or not, and I’m troubled that a lot of otherwise smart, rational people I know seem to think this is a good thing. I’m baffled when people can’t see the difference between Justine Sacco and David Duke. Or between Aziz Ansari and Paul Bernardo. Nuance, distinction and critical thinking seem to leap out the window for many people on this issue.]

Anyway.

So I restarted the book from scratch, aiming for a broad satire of online shaming, although the plot structure remained a loose parody of Kane. And from there, inspiration kept coming. The accusing woman evolved into Kathy McDougal, who runs an online gossip and news website, and who serves as a kind of Cancel Culture Incarnate. And Rebecca or Rachel transformed into a wonderfully rounded, complex protagonist named Jackie Roberts. Jackie sees herself as a progressive and likes to pick fights with people online, but unlike Kathy, she doesn’t mean to hurt anybody. What comes of her exploration of toxic Internet culture changes the way she sees online discourse for good.

Making Jackie an aspiring film critic allowed me to take direct inspiration from classic movies. There are specific references to Kane, of course, and Jackie has dreams and fantasies in which elements from Apocalypse Now, The Jazz Singer, A Clockwork Orange, To Kill a Mockingbird and It Happened One Night comment on recent events. The way I figured it, if Nick Hornby can write about pop music all the time, why shouldn’t I take inspiration from movies?

For many characters and incidents in the story, I borrowed liberally from my own life. An early scene in which Jackie gets lectured at work for swearing, for example, came from a similar, ludicrous incident that had recently happened to me. Ditto for the bullying in Paul’s childhood, which echoes some of my own experiences. Part of the reason I focused so much on this was because I see little difference between aggressive 1980s teen jock bullying and contemporary online shaming. They both come from the same psychological instinct.

I don’t want to get too specific about real-life inspirations for the characters, though I admit there’s a lot of myself in Jackie and Paul, and maybe a little in Paul’s childhood friend Beef. Paul was partly inspired by a boy I knew in middle school, an extremely shy and awkward loner who almost never spoke to anyone unless it was forced out of him. And the universally repulsed reaction to Paul’s looks and manners was somewhat inspired by a certain “cancelled” celebrity I won’t name, one whose perceived “creepy” vibes bias many people against him immediately, regardless of what he does or says.

Writing a novel is a journey, and this one has taken (on and off) roughly 14 years. It’s a long, risky trip that involves a lot of false starts, wrong turns, delayed stopovers and revised routes until you finally reach your destination. From the strange funeral to the final Rosebud revelation, Hate Story has been a rewarding writing experience—and, I hope, is an equally rewarding reading experience.

Word of the year 2022

Image: The word “kindness” carved into a river rock, on a bed of river rocks. Photo by Allihays on Dreamstime.

Several years back, I was inspired by Boss Lady Mondays co-host Lisa Humber to start choosing a word to live by for the year.

For a couple of years, my word was LOVE—in the sense of choosing love over fear.

Then, I fell out of the practice and was reminded of it once again when Proof Strategies VP of Client Relationships Liz Carson recently posted her word on LinkedIn.

My song of the year came very quickly to mind, but the word took a while.

In the end, I chose KINDNESS. Inspired by my recent participation in Mindfulness Without Borders’ Mindfulness Ambassador Program workshop, facilitated by my friend Valerie Gow, this word really resonates with me on both a personal and community level.

What’s your word for 2022?

Call for artist submissions: Jan 12 deadline

The word “ART”, spelled out vertically in well-loved wooden alphabet blocks. Photo by the blogger.

Hi all, just received this alert from the folks at Shakespeare in Action:

CALLING ALL ARTISTS! Shakespeare in Action, Central United Church & The Weston Historical Society invite artists to submit works or proposals for a three-day public art event, Weston: Then & Now, to reflect on Central United Church’s 200th Anniversary. This heritage event is open to multiple responses in the form of storytelling, visual art, multi-media art and performance art creation to activate spaces throughout Central United Church in exploring and reflecting on Weston’s past, present and future.

This will be a free three-day event March 25-27,2022 inside Central United Church that amplifies its two-hundred year old history, and while engaging artists and storytellers to create installations in the Church around the theme “Weston Then and Now.” On the event’s dates, we will open the doors of the Church and guests will be encouraged to roam around the various rooms to experience the various installations.

This event is open to varied interpretations of the subject, from literal or narrative-inspired to far-ranging or symbolic. Representational images of remembered sights, activities, impressions or atmosphere, as well as surrealistic or abstract evocations related to the subject are welcome. This is a PAID opportunity for Artists.

DEADLINE: January 12, 2022. 
Please find the application form below with further information regarding submission, event details and artist compensation! Any questions can be directed to foh@shakespeareinaction.org. We look forward to hearing from you and creating something special for the Weston Community.
https://forms.gle/vMF9yvs2C4coWRLa9

Theme song of the year 2022

The sunrise breaks through clouds at dawn over grassy hills, a mountain range stretching out in the background. Photo by kareni on Pixabay.

Hey again. So, my theme song for 2022 is… <drum roll> … Aerosmith’s Dream On.

What’s your theme song for the year?

It was a very year

Image: A rollercoaster. Photo by Pedro Velasco on Unsplash.

As we gradually wrap up 2021 and celebrate the holidays, I’ve been taking stock of the past year. The good, the bad and the ugly. The holiday is both very different and much the same this year; we now have vaccines, but with the emergence of an even more contagious variant, we must continue to take extra good care as we gather with loved ones—not an easy thing to do, as we were all hoping to have more of a sense of normalcy by now. As of this writing, public officials haven’t said to stay home, but they are recommending reducing contacts—so, it’s hard to tell if my siblings, their partners, my nephews and I will be able to get together for our annual Boxing Day feast this year.

Personally, it’s been a year of extreme ups and downs. On the down side: struggling with health issues (both mine and my cat’s); a close long-term friendship was severed; navigating a particularly slow work period this Fall (making the extra expenses of cat health and laptop repair all the more stressful); and having to agree to disagree with my parents’ decision to resume their snowbird travels to Arizona, which has high case counts and low vaccine uptake. Witnessing the rollercoaster ride of this fourth wave (are we now in a fifth wave?), with government hesitation and inaction, and aggressive and violent citizen actions, have made an already challenging situation even more difficult for those who are doing all they can to keep themselves, their loved ones and health care system safe. And our already overworked, worn-out health care workers being subjected to aggressive and demoralizing protests—and even threats—not to mention salary increase issues.

On the upside: I got to workshop and perform in the digital production of Erin Jones’ new play Time Limits Dropped on Easter Sunday (Toronto Fringe and Calgary Fringe); and did voice-over tour guide narration for some ArtworxTO 2021 subway and neighbourhood art tours. The film adaptation of Catherine Hernandez’s novel Scarborough, produced by Compy Films (which I have a small part in) ran at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF); it was first runner-up for the People’s Choice Award, received an honorable mention from the jury for the Best Canadian Film award, named the winner of the Changemaker Award, and included in TIFF’s annual year-end Canada’s Top Ten list for 2021. I was invited by my friend Valerie Gow to participate in Mindfulness Without Borders’ Mindfulness Ambassador Program (MAP) workshop; Valerie facilitated the first half for her certification practicum, then offered the second half as a fully certified facilitator. And I learned how to give insulin shots to a cat. Communities and public health units are bringing information and vaccines to where people are. And holiday food and toy drives are operating at full force in the face of great need. People are opening their hearts and minds—and accomplishing amazing things!

Despite the challenges of the past year, I have a lot to be grateful for. I have a supportive and loving network of family, chosen family and friends/colleagues. I was able to get vaccinated in a timely manner, including the flu shot; and my COVID-19 booster is booked and within walking distance for early in the New Year (still on the hunt for an earlier shot). Even with the recent freelance work downtime, I haven’t struggled with housing or food insecurity. I’ve used the lag time between work projects as time to read, make art, reorganize my storage spaces, sort through clothing and items I no longer use for donation—and take some physical and emotional R&R. And watch a lot of Netflix. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve enjoyed letting my mind drift as I look out the window. Watching the clouds float by, the rain pelting down, the snow wafting through the air or the wind rustling the trees is a very peaceful, even meditative, exercise. And it’s a particularly lovely pastime when I have a soft, warm, purring cat stretched out across my chest.

Lately, I’ve been pondering my theme song for 2022. I was a bit late choosing one this year, so wanted to get on it sooner. I think I’ve got one now—stay tuned for my post in the New Year.

I hope that, whatever highs and lows you and your loved ones have weathered this past year, you’ve been able to find resilience and hope, and space for celebration. Have a happy and safe holiday!

Top 10 holiday movies (+ a bonus)

Although holiday music, movies and television have been running since November, I like to wait till December 1 before diving into my holiday favourites.

Here, in no particular order, are my 10 favourite holiday movies (some are set during the holidays and not so much about the holidays).

A Christmas Carol (a.k.a. Scrooge – 1951 version)

The Bells of St. Mary’s

Elf

Love Actually

The Holiday

Last Holiday

Uncle Buck

Scrooged

It’s A Wonderful Life

Miracle on 34th Street (1947 version)

A Christmas Story (Bonus listing! Thanks to Mum and Dad for letting me know that I forgot this one.)

Wishing you and yours a safe and happy holiday season—and all good things for 2022!

Book blurbs for fun: Missed Connections

The cover of Missed Connections, by Brian Francis, featuring an illustrated pen drawing out the title, a pile of letters and the silhouette of a man walking away.

Time for another book blurb: Brian Francis’ memoir Missed Connections, published by McClelland & Stewart/Penguin Random House Canada—I got my copy from Glad Day Bookshop (Toronto). I also saw the SummerWorks 2018 production Box 4901.

Those who saw Brian Francis’ SummerWorks 2018 stage production Box 4901 will recognize the personal archive of unanswered male-seeks-male personal ad letters, and the cast of characters he draws from them, in his candid, humourous and sharply drawn memoir Missed Connections. Both self-deprecating and self-aware, the storytelling is nostalgic, introspective, and rife with the wisdom of age and experience—tying the past to the present with ruminations on body image, coming out, desire, relationships, and perceptions of masculinity and aging. Told from the perspective of a gay man navigating his own life and identity, from his small-town roots, to conservative city university experience, to big city life as a writer, Missed Connections is a funny, poignant and thoughtful testimonial to his 21-year-old self and the 13 men whose letters went unanswered.

Book blurbs for fun: Why I Was Late

Why I Was Late book cover, design by Emmie Tsumura, in collaboration with author Charlie Petch. Illustrated images of wrestlers, everyday objects, clothing, a dog, an outstretched hand, a saw.

I recently added a book blurbs page to the blog, as I realized it’s another creative pursuit that I really enjoy and wanted to share. Even though I’m no longer doing reviews, I thought it might be cool to write some blurbs for books I’ve recently read—for fun.

First up: Charlie Petch’s poetry collection Why I Was Late, which I ordered online from Toronto’s Glad Day Bookshop.

A genuine and compelling collection of poems, Why I Was Late weaves memory, observation, and reflections on sexuality and gender identity, into pieces that balance on the knife’s edge of haunting nostalgia and candid insight—the storytelling delivered with the sharpness of broken coloured glass, veteran entertainer timing and melancholy recollection. If you’ve had the pleasure of seeing Charlie Petch perform live, you can hear the mesmerizing strains of the musical saw and the whimsical chords of the ukulele that accompany some of these pieces (music accompaniment noted at the beginning of each piece in the book) as they sit us down to tell us a tale. From takes on childhood, to working on film sets, Star Wars character slash, and wistfully gritty recollections of encounters and relationships, Why I Was Late is a moving, rhythmic, at times erotic and funny, exploration of love, life and humanity.

Life lessons from my cat

My cat Camille, a grey tabby, lounging by the window in the crow’s nest section of a cat tree, with a bit of gold ribbon beside her. Photo by the blogger.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic had many of us hunkering down and working from home, I’d already been working from home for most of the previous four years. After being phased out of my full-time position as the in-house copy editor/proofreader/writer at a Toronto social/market research firm, I took up freelancing as I searched for a new permanent position, which meant organizing a work-from-home routine.

This meant that I was spending a lot more time at home with my cat Camille, a grey tabby I adopted 12 years ago from the Annex Cat Rescue, when she was about two years old. And when things shut down during the pandemic, I found myself spending even more time at home. With the cat.

And something interesting happened. I’ve always been pretty observant of my cat’s behaviour—from both an entertainment and feline health perspective—but with even more time alone and at home, I found my thoughts turning to how many aspects of her life seemed to be pretty healthy. Inspirational even.

So here, in no particular order, are some things I learned about healthy living from my cat:

  • Stretch. It’s good for you and feels so good. This is especially important if you’re working a sedentary job. Get up. Give your neck and shoulders a gentle roll. Stretch those hamstrings. Be a little tea pot.
  • Rest. Good sleep hygiene is vitally important, especially during stressful and uncertain times. Taking breaks, downtime, vacation/staycation time—ditto. In the summer of 2020, I shifted to a four-day work week and loved it so much, I made it permanent (with flexible Fridays for urgent projects only). And, this year, I decided to take a couple of extra weeks off—long weekends and that week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, when my clients are shut down for the holiday, are just not enough.
  • Ask. Camille has no trouble asking for what she wants. Food. Cuddles. Get lost, human. Often, she even uses her words. This is a tough one for me, as I have issues about being a burden or a pain in the ass, but I’m gradually getting better at it. I also often use my words.
  • Detachment. Cats are really good at this. Doing their own thing when, where and how they want. Zero f*cks given. While I would caution against the cat extreme of this concept—we do, after all, live in society—I find it’s something that I’m mastering more and more with every passing decade.
  • Solitude. While Camille can be sociable, she’s also very good at taking space for herself. Aware that I require a certain amount of solitude, I’m pretty good at this too. And the additional isolation during the pandemic has made me realize where the edges of that envelope are for me. An introvert at heart, I need periods of solitude in order to regenerate and refill—and I find that social gatherings/events, even small ones with my nearest and dearest, drain my energy. A lot. Too much solitude, and I end up living in my own head way more than I’d like to be. And, trust me, you do not want to be hanging out in there too long.
  • Resourcefulness. Over the years, I’ve purchased a number of cool cat toys. What does Camille want to play with? Plastic/wire binding coils, bread bag tags, that little plastic stopper thingy you pull out of the milk carton spout, tissue paper—and boxes! Use what you have. This came in very handy during lockdowns, when non-essential stores were closed or money was tight (like when your monthly income is just a bit too much to qualify for CERB). I’d always wanted a white board; and found I had an extra piece of foam board with a shiny side that actually works with dry erase markers. Instant white board!

So there you have it. Stuff I learned about healthy living by observing my cat. Some, or all, of these cat life principles may be helpful for you too. Which of these resonates the most with you?