Wednesday, November 14, 2012

CTTC Toy Report Released

Miya with one of the 'Best Bets' of the year.
Photo courtesy of Post media.
This summer, I wrote about how Miya was busy testing toys for the Canadian Toy Testing Council. Yesterday, with much fanfare and media buzz, the Council released its annual Toy Report.

The Ottawa Citizen describes the Toy Report as "a barometer of children's changing play preferences and toy trends from year to year." The Ottawa Sun calls it something to "help shoppers make 'smart toy purchases'. Global News even sent a reporter to get the low-down from some of the testers at the media launch.

It's rather satisfying to see the attention this report is getting, not simply because Miya's input is among that of roughly 400 kids who tested and evaluated toys - but because I wrote the report.

I have spent the last few months writing up approximately 420 toy descriptions for this report. Each description is about 100 words - a small space to try to convey a description of the toy and a summary of the key strengths and weaknesses reported by testing families. It was an interesting exercise in writing - especially since my editor did not allow the word 'fun' as an adjective - and toys and games were often described by testers as, you guessed it, 'fun'.

So if anyone is looking to buy some new toys for kids this Christmas, you may want to check out the report. There are a lot of manufacturers and distributors out there making recommendations for the best and most popular toys. But what is unique about CTTC's report is that the non-profit organization behind it has no vested interest in toy sales. So if a toy really doesn't perform, we're not afraid to say so. You'll also find helpful info about toys such as ones that work well on-the-go, ones that encourage active play, and those that require a lot of batteries.

Here at home, we're big fans of the cooperative games from Peaceable Kingdom - like 'Snug as a Bug in Rug' which Miya is playing with in the above photo. With everyone working together to a common goal, there are not individual losers. Quick to play and easy to learn - they're perfect for preschoolers.

So what do you think are the best new toys of the year?

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Byron Path Parade II

Yesterday was the 2nd Annual Byron Path Parade - a fun, community event to celebrate Westboro's Byron Path.

Last year, the parade took place as the community was rallying to protest the over-development on the convent site - a property formerly owned by cloistered nuns which was bought by developers. Ashcroft, the developer, was defying city zoning guidelines and development plans and the community was incensed.

Many years ago, the Byron Path was a tramway line. Now it is a cycling/foot path. No matter the time of day, you can see people cycling, strolling, and walking their dogs under the bordering canopy of mature trees. Before and after school hours, the path is especially busy with children hurrying to and from classes.

Last year, Ashcroft threatened to cut a road through the park. The community fought back. This wasn't just about green space and over-development, it was an issue of safety for all the kids and families using the path. Finally Ashcroft back down. Or so we thought.

Shortly after I had started organizing the parade, the news came that Ashcroft was again filing for a road to cut through Byron Path. If I had wanted extra publicity for the parade, I couldn't have picked better timing. A local paper even picked up the story and my tweets got some traction on Twitter.

On Friday, the day before the parade, Ashcroft withdrew this part of its request (it's still asking for other things, like an extra story and a cut through a small residential street). I'd like to think it was the parade's superheros and fairies who scared them off.

So yesterday was a celebration after all. The fight against Ashcroft is not over, but many people expressed their relief that this valued path will be spared. We joyfully jangled, rattled, tweeted and clanged our way past the development site. We know that what we have is worth fighting for.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Ottawa Summer Bucket List

Hard to believe it is already the first day of August - summer is halfway through. And while the heat doesn't seem to be letting up, the days are getting shorter and fall is just around the corner.

If flipping over the calendar page makes you feel a little nostalgic for the fleeting days of summer, it's not too late to make up a summer bucket list of things you want to do before the leaves start to fall.

Here are 10 things on my own summer bucket list:
1. Go to an outdoor festival (music, theatre, arts... lots to choose from in this city)
2. Get out in a canoe
3. Swim in a lake
4. Lie on my back and look at the stars
5. Hear Janet Cardiff's Forty-Part Motet at the National Gallery before the exhibit closes on Aug 26
6. Have a nice cold drink on a patio
7. Hike in Gatineau Park
8. Check out 3 different farmers' markets
9. Join Ottawa City's Sunday Bikedays
10. Organize a neighbourhood parade

Here's 10 more for me and my kid:

1. Go to the Toronto Zoo (this weekend - so excited!)
2. Visit 5 different splash pads / wading pools (find a map of locations on the City of Ottawa website)
3. Watch the Changing of the Guard on Parliament Hill
4. Play hopscotch
5. Make mud pies
6. Finger painting outside
7. Have a picnic
8. Fly a kite
9. Go on a scavenger hunt
10. Make a balloon sculpture

What's your bucket list for the remainder of the summer of 2012? I'd love to hear your suggestions! Please add them in comments below.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Toy Testing

My little volunteer is once again hard at work, although she has shifted her philanthropic focus from visiting seniors to monitoring toy quality.

This year we became members of the Canadian Toy Testing Council (CTTC), a non-profit organization that has been testing and reporting on toy quality for 60 years. As members, we get toys which Miya diligently tests over a 6-8 week period. It's hard work, but she selflessly gives of her time to evaluate the 'play value' of each toy we receive.

This weekend we were testing a cute little cupcake craft. Sorry, can't tell you the toy name, that's strictly confidential - but basically it's glorified play-doh in a cupcake theme. While there are some toys I have to encourage her to play with, there was no begging or pleading with this one. Squishing, pressing, mixing - then sorting into little paper cups - these are all activities my little 3 year-old loves. Luckily for me, she's too young to care that her 'cupcakes' look nothing like what's shown on the box

After making 13 little colourful treats, she hosted a cupcake party for 13 of her favourite stuffed animals. As she was setting up, she took Frog aside to tell him that now it was time to sit still and that he had to stop running and jumping around while he was eating. Now where would she have heard that before?

I used to worry that I was depriving my child, since the number of toys we have is woefully small compared to most of her friends in the Westboro 'hood. But now with a steady stream of new toys, I don't need to feel so bad. And my consumer-conscious side is still mollified since at the end of our testing period we get to take them back - something which is especially great for those big toys which she plays with for about 3 days and then ignores. 

At the end of the testing period, I answer the questions in the testing report, noting things like how well the toy stood up to regular play, whether or not anyone got hurt while playing with it, and how well it sustained my daughter's attention. I'm also one of the evaluators who compile reports from 5-6 families. And to top it off, I've also been hired by CTTC to write up the Toy Report this year. Toys, toys and more toys around here.

The next toy-testing season will begin in the spring of 2013 (testing season runs from about May-September so that evaluations can be compiled for a pre-Christmas release of the Toy Report). If you're a parent of kids under 16, perhaps you'd like to join?

And do you know of any other fun ways to get your kids involved in volunteering? I'd love to hear about it.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

My top 5 lessons in social media from Social Capital Ottawa

If you happened to be at Algonquin College in Ottawa yesterday and noticed an inordinate amount of people tapping away on iPhones, tablets and other mobile devices, you might have spotted me in the crowd.

Yesterday was the 2nd annual Social Capital Ottawa conference - or #SoCapOtt as we trended on Twitter. This was an event where it wasn't bad manners to be typing away during a workshop or keynote address - you were just adding to the virtual conversation being held simultaneously. Wondering what you were missing in one of the other workshops? Just check the twitter feed for updates from people in that room.

I don't consider myself a newbie to social media. I've had this blog since 2005, been on Facebook for several years and Twitter a few less. But any knowledge and experience I have in social media paled in comparison to some of the people I met - like Andrea Tomkins, who's been writing her blog, a peek inside the fishbowl, since 1999 and has become Ottawa's most celebrated parent blogger - and who was also kind enough to find and return my indespensible phone which I'd set down to get some water and briefly forgot.

Since launching myself into full-time freelance writing and communications work, I've been networking like mad. So being at a conference aimed at connecting people and sharing wisdom on how to best use social media to connect even more, was fantastic. It didn't feel forced to just walk up to a stranger and start talking - everyone was doing it. And in addition to meeting some friendly and savvy folk, I happened to talk to someone who has hooked me up with precisely the resources I need for a contract I'm currently working on.

And in case you're wondering what are some of the tips I learned, here are the top 5 pieces of social media wisdom I took home yesterday.

#1. When using social media, don't think like a publicist - think like a publisher. The point is not to put everything out there, but to put out good, interesting content that people will respond to.

#2. Know what your goals and key messages are - especially if you are using social media for your business. Be strategic.

#3. Measure your impact. If you want to know if what you're doing is working, then use some of the tools out there - like Follower Wonk, Social Bro, and built-in tools in Facebook - to see how well people respond to you. If you get a lot of 'likes' but not much actual engagement (comments, RTs, etc.) then you might want to tweak what you're doing.

#4. Create an editorial calendar. Whether it's for a personal blog or for a business communications strategy, map out the next annual quarter. Chart the milestones (holidays and big events, product launches, etc) and the topics you plan to cover. Mapping everything out will relieve that common stumbling block of not knowing what to write about. (Wish I'd thought about that for my 365-year of blogging!)

#5. And finally - content is king. Even if you're writing from a basement cave 5 miles from nowhere, if you have good content, people will find you.

Have I missed anything? If you have any tips for making the most of social media, please add them as comments.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Books: Who Do You Think You Are?

Who Do You Think You Are? is a book of related short stories by Alice Munro, published in 1978. That same year it won the Governor General's Award for English Fiction.

Alice Munro has truly mastered the art of writing a short story. The narrative is so natural and honest that is seems effortless, but anyone who ever tried to write a short story will know what a challenge it is to write a good one - let alone craft such masterpieces as does Munro .

This book is a collection of 10 short stories, each one tightly woven and superbly written. Yet while each could stand alone, they are all about the same person - a woman named Rose.

Rose grew up in a difficult household, surrounded by poverty. She was beaten by her father and step-mother and in school she "learned how to manage in the big fights that tore up the school two or three times a year." As she gets older and tries to build a future for herself, she still struggles finding her place in a world that can be harsh and unforgiving.

Rose is not one of those protagonists that I identify with or am inspired by. But through Munro's gifted writing, she does become very real - and like people who are real, she possesses strengths and faults. Her choices are not mine, but I am able to understand why she makes them.

Interesting that I should have happened upon this book after reading Larry's Party, for that was also a work of fiction arranged as a collection of short stories. Both books offer the reader glimpses into the central character's life. The authors do not attempt to construct a chronological breakdown of every significant event - and yet they create vivid and memorable characters with their of revealing the unique essence of an individual.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

3 years-old

To celebrate turning 3, Miya invited approximately 30 guests to her back yard for a spring planting party.

Each young guest received a clay flower pot. There were paints for parent-assisted decorating (water-soluble paints don't work so well on things that will be watered), dirt to fill the pots with (or just dig around, as many chose to do), and flowers to plant.

Giving toddlers opportunities to play in the dirt is a pretty safe bet for a easy entertainment - although parents may have wondered about the combination of dirt and finger foods. Would you like some potting soil with that penguin cracker?

 Miya's daddy produced some fantastic cupcakes - the chocolate ones with sprinkles on top were a big hit, both a tasty snack and a fashion accessory.

A new website

Having recently returned to freelance/consulting work, I've been itching for projects to dive into. So this last week I dived into one of my own making.

I created the site Critical Social Justice as a platform to write about the issues I care about and follow - and to engage with others in the community. I've also inviting people to write guest articles and hope to develop a rich resource for those interested in social and criminal justice.

For anyone who has been following this anitaxpressmyself blog, some of the entries may seem familiar since I adapted several of the blogs I wrote over the last year for this new site (which had the extra benefit of not only giving me some quick content, but making it look like the site has been around longer than it has).

Since my goal is to find writing, research and public engagement gigs, I plan to use this site to demonstrate my style of writing and engage with individuals and organizations in the social justice community. The whole self-promotion side of being a consultant has never been my strong suit, but I'm working on that.

Feedback and comments on my new site are most welcome!

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Books: Larry's Party

Larry's Party, by Carol Shields (Random House, 1997) is a beautifully constructed maze of words which twist and turn, leading us into the person of a man named Larry Weller.

Shields is an exceptional, Pulitzer Prize winning writer. When I read her novels I'm immersed as much in her style of narrative as I am in the story itself. She's a writer's writer who inspires me to write and to think about the craft of story-telling and novel construction.

Larry's Party is about a rather ordinary man, born in 1950 to working class parents. He lives what could be described as an unremarkable life driven by happenstance, yet his remarks and observations, his questions and uncertainties, about this life are what make this work so remarkable.

Partly by chance, Larry becomes a florist after high school. During the honeymoon in England with his first wife, he wanders through a maze and eventually into a career as a maze maker. Mazes become a theme throughout the novel, explored as metaphors and subjects. This is effective, especially given Shields's narrative approach which winds around events rather than coming at them straight-on. As readers, we never witness the key events in Larry's life - his two marriages, the birth of his son, the death of his father - but these and other events are central to the mazes of his life and we walk him as he skirts around them, drawing closer and then father away.

The book is broken into thematic chapters that don't follow strict chronological line, but move both forward and backward, advancing the narrative but also returning to previous events and encounters. This suggests a series of related but stand-alone short stories - each one its own maze. My one complaint is that when reading this book quickly - as I did over the course of a few days - the repetition of certain facts (i.e. that Larry earned a degree in floral design in 1969) can become tiresome. Yet if you think of how we narrate and describe our own lives, there is often just such looping back and repetition of certain key facts.

Overall, this was a very satisfying read and a book I would highly recommend. Its funny, wise and well-crafted - a book which Maclean's fittingly described as a "resounding confirmation of the mystery of the ordinary."

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Where land and water meet

Do you ever get that feeling, when going somewhere you haven't been before, that this is a place you've been missing?

We just got back from a short visit with family in New Brunswick and managed to visit several beaches while we were there. We picked our way down a steep, mossy slope to a little private beach, found an inlet where waves from the Bay of Fundy rolled around us, and stood on a stretch where sand and rocks met with grey water reflecting a grey, cloudy sky.

For our three-year old daughter, her first experience of beaches had an immediate appeal. Despite cool temperatures and rainy skies, she would have stayed all day tossing rocks and dodging the waves that lapped at her toes.

For me, I always have a feeling of coming home when I am at the edge where land and water meet. Although I grew up completely landlocked, I discovered the beautiful northern lakes of Saskatchewan as teenager and something just clicked.

I love the reflective quality of water - how it enhances and amplifies the quality of the day. On a warm and sunny day, water dances with light and the promise of refreshment. On cool, rainy days, the grey waves add somberness and depth.

Though there is little time for reflective stillness when visiting beaches in the company of a young child, I appreciated the opportunity to drop in on an old friend. Here I am now. This is my Miya. It's so nice to see you.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Books: The Fire Dwellers

Continuing with my Margaret Laurence read-a-thon, I recently finished her fifth novel, The Fire Dwellers (1969). This is the story of Stacey MacAindra (sister to the protagonist of the Laurence's previous novel, A Jest of God). To put it mildly, Stacey is a dissatisfied housewife - but this is far from being a literary version of Desperate Housewives. Laurence's writing is nuanced and layered, Stacey's character is sharp, funny, annoying, strong but confused and lacking will-power. She drinks too much, second-guesses herself constantly and can rarely figure out how to say what she really wants to.

If this sounds tedious to read, I'll admit that at times it was. As with other Laurence characters, sometimes I just want to grab her by the shoulders and shake some sense into her. But it is a mark of a gifted writer who can create a world within her novels filled with people as we are - filled with unique combinations of strengths and weaknesses, virtues and flaws.

Although I didn't find this the most satisfying read of the Laurence canon, it is a significant book in many ways. At the time it was published, women's liberation was just moving into general circulation and the idea of writing a novel about a housewife was practically unheard of. It was a bold decision to write about one - and not to make a superhero out of her, but to explore her very humanness.

I found myself  often frustrated with Stacey and her endless worries about her taciturn husband, her brood of 4 children, and her role as wife and mother - she feels trapped in a life that she hadn't bargained for and can see no way out. Yet when I felt that she could be trying harder to move beyond the confines of her narrow role, I realize how much I am a woman living in 2012, not 1969. More than a textbook on feminism or the 'feminine mystique', this novel offers a detailed examination of a culture in which women were not expected, nor barely allowed, to dream beyond having a hard-working husband, well-behaved children, a clean house and a social life of tupperware parties and bridge nights.

In many respects, this book is timeless. Women, especially mothers and partners, will be able to identify with Stacey's insecurities and questions. But in several key ways, this book is also a valuable historic work, showing how women in the 1960s struggled to break the constraints society placed upon them.

Miya's big race

On Sunday, Miya and her family participated in the 2012 Minto Run for Reach. This intense competition pitched our young Ottawa native against some of the best athletes in the region - including Paralympian runner Jon Dunkerley.

Though she had been keen to face her rivals in the Half-Marathon competition, out of consideration for her mother (who, to her daughter's chagrin, is a hopeless runner), Miya consented to limit herself to the 3K Family Walk/Run. Since this event was not timed, when her decision was announced there was an audible sigh of relief among other racers.

Miya showed early promise as a marathoner, and  just a few days shy of her third birthday, she proved that she is ready to take on the challenges of road racing. Bolstered by the support of her family - mom, dad and grandma - as well as the companionship of Baby Penguin, she smoothly sailed to the finish line.

John Stanton, President and Founder of the Running Room who was the Run for Reach race starter, is rumoured to have been  studying Miya's running technique and may be introducing a line of pink croc racing shoes at his stores this summer.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Robocalls and other politcal voice spam

Seems like whenever I tune into the radio these days, they're talking about the robocalls which misled and misdirected voters in at least 43 ridings during the last federal election.

The investigation, which started after a report about crank phone calls in Guelph, has spread across Canada and Elections Canada has over 31,000 reports to investigate.

Anyone who has been reading this blog will not be surprised to hear me say I am about as far away from being a fan of this Conservative government as I am from manning the International Space Station. As I watch this government force through legislation that flies in the face of evidence and reason, see their bullying tactics and shameless refusal to back down on anything, I have felt increasingly discouraged about another 3 years of this tyranny.

It was this discouragement in part that had me, for the first time in my life, become a member of a political party. I couldn't just sit by and wring my hands anymore. Though just a drop in the bucket, I needed to do something.

But for all my outrage over the Conservative government and the developing robocall scandal, I have to admit that there is some annoying robocalling going on in my own political arena. As a 'card-carrying' member of the federal NDP party, I can vote in the up-coming election - in fact I received my ballot today in the mail.

But as the NDP leadership race heads into the final stretch, I am being inundated with emails and phonecalls. Just today, Ed Broadbent and Niki Ashton both left pre-recorded messages. I get dozens of emails each week. I do sincerely care about this race and want to see a strong, dynamic leader who can build a real opposition to this government and carry the NDP even further in the next election. But enough already! Back off, Ed and let me make my own mind up.

So for the record, let me say that not only would I like to see a reckoning for whoever was behind the shenanigans in the last election, I'd also really like my own party to let my phone rest in peace a little while..

Monday, February 27, 2012

Books: A Jest of God

Continuing with my journey through the literature by and about Margaret Laurence, I read her second Manawaka novel, A Jest of God.

In this novel, about a thirty-something 'spinster' named Rachel Cameron, a desperately lonely school teacher. Like her previous protagonist, Hagar Shipley, Rachel is trapped in a web partly of her own doing, party of circumstance. Living with a mother whose honey-covered barbs are almost painful to read, she is caught by the conventions and restrictions of obligation and societal norms. She is also self-conscious and critical to the point of being paralyzed into an uneasy stasis.

The narrative is intimately told from Rachel's perspective and while Laurence herself said it was slow to get moving, she felt she had to allow Rachel her own time and way to tell her story. Rachel's gradual transformation, from solitude to companionship, from constraint to cautious freedom, is a gradual process - and one that she does not earn without heartache and pain.

The ending of the book has one of the most beautiful and timeless passages of freedom I know.

"I may become, in time, slightly more eccentric all the time. I may begin to wear outlandish hats, feathered and sequinned and rosetted, and dangling necklaces made from coy and tiny seashells which I've gathered myself along the beach and painted coral-pink with nail polish. And all the kids will laugh, and I'll laugh, too, in time. I will be light and straight as any feather. The wind will bear me, and I will drift and settle, and drift and settle. Anything may happen, where I am going... I will be different. I will remain the same. ...  I will ask myself if I am going mad, but if I do, I won't know it."

As I've mentioend before, not only am I enjoying re-reading Laurence's novels, I am also reading her memoir, letters and a bio about her. Although she does not discuss much of a book while she is writing it, she admits to her fears and doubts about its viability. She struggled for months to find a way in to the novel - in fact she wanted to write about two sisters and for a long time worked on Stacey's story (which was to become The Fire Dwellers), but eventually realized that Rachel's story had to be told first.

These discoveries reveal just how closely connected Laurence was to her characters - and how real they were to her. It is this strength of connection and depth of understanding that enables her to write in such a memorable and honest voice.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Senate Committee on Bill C-10

Today I had the pleasure of attending the Senate Committee meeting regarding the review of Bill C-10 - the Omnibus Crime Bill I've been following for months. I was there to write a blog for the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition. Here's what I wrote:

During a 7-hour long meeting today, the Senate Committee heard from 13 individuals speaking to various aspects of Bill C-10. While most of the witnesses addressed the Bill’s immigration-related aspects, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo and AFN senior strategist ,Roger Jones talked about the negative impact the Omnibus Bill will have on Aboriginal Peoples.

Atleo spoke via video conference from his community on the west coast of the Vancouver Island. He made it clear that the AFN is very concerned about the direction Bill C-10 is headed in and that this legislation will not make Aboriginal communities safer. Unfortunately his testimony was cut short due to technical problems, so Jones fielded the Senators’ questions.

Jones told the Committee that the AFN searched high and low for elements within Bill C-10 that would improve the situation for Aboriginal Peoples – and couldn’t find anything.

He said the Omnibus Bill will compound the existing over-representation of Aboriginal people in the criminal justice system, such as through Manditory Minimum Sentences (MMS) for drug offences and the removal of judicial discretion with regard to such things as the Gladue principles.

References to the Gladue decision were frequent throughout AFN panel discussion. Gladue principles, based on a 1999 Supreme Court interpretation of Section 718.2 of the Criminal Code, provide that reasonable alternatives to imprisonment should be sought and particular attention should be given to the circumstances of Aboriginal offenders.

Senator Mobina Jaffer suggested that the Senate could recommend an exemption clause in Bill C-10 so as to preserve Gladue principles. 

Senator Fraser questioned how often these principles are applied. (Not often enough, Jones replied.) Senator Lang challenged Jones as to why MMS for such reprehensible crimes as child sexual exploitation should have exceptions for Aboriginal offenders. Jones replied that nature of the crime should never negate the need to look at the offender’s circumstances.

In contrast to the AFN’s detailed concerns with the Omnibus Bill, University of British Colombia Law Professor, Benjamin Perrin, noted his strong support of “all” aspects of the bill, suggesting it balances criminal law by enhancing the accountability of offenders and increasing the rights of victims.

He argued that more people charged with cultivating marijuana should be imprisoned and that 89% of marijuana production comes from organized crime groups and the majority of what is produced is destined for the United States, fueling serious border problems. This argument relies on the assumptions of supply suppression and drug probation which have actually made drugs more available and cheaper, and have undermined the public health system.

Indeed, all criminal justice legislation relies on certain assumptions – such as incarceration as a tool of deterrence and segregation as punishment – but as the AFN repeatedly pointed out today, these assumptions and their outcomes have resulted in a sustained failure to address the systemic roots of crime or how the justice system continues to fail First Nations Peoples.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Books: The Stone Angel

The Stone Angel is Margaret Laurence's most well-known book. Compulsory reading in most high schools, it is undeniably part of the CanLit canon. It was also one of the first books I fell in love with. I still remember being deeply affected by the proud, stubborn character of Hagar Shipley and in reading about the dying seagull, recognizing that this poignant metaphor of the desperate struggle for life.

I love my copy of The Stone Angel - well-loved and worn. It's shown in the photo beside a postcard I have of a real stone angel in the graveyard of Margaret Laurence's home town of Neepawa, Manitoba (where she was born in 1926).

The Stone Angel is one of the five books that Laurence set in the fictional prairie town of Manawaka. It was the first book she wrote about Canada - her previous works being about Africa.

When she began working on the novel in the early 1960s, Laurence seemed almost surprised by the story and unsure of how to manage it. "This daft old lady came along," she wrote to her friend, Adele Wiseman, "and I will say about her that she is one hell of an old lady, a real tartar. She's crabby, snobbish, difficult, proud as lucifer for no reason, a trial to her family, etc. She's also - I forgot to mention - dying."

But while Laurence was very sure of the character, she was not so sure about the novel. "The whole thing is nuts," she went on to Wiseman. "I should have my head examined... Sometimes I feel so depressed about this, I think I will take up ceramics."

Unlike her other books, in which she invested a lot of time and revision in crafting stories and descriptions about colonial relations and such issues, she seemed take aback that this book was "written almost entirely without conscious thought... I simply put down the story as the old lady told it to me."

Yet this book, and the voice she found as a writer through it, marked a profound change in in Laurence's career. It also marked a very personal transition for her. For her African books, Laurence had relied a great deal on her husband - for his editing and his approval. When she showed him her draft of the Stone Angel, he didn't like it. She tried to re-write it to suit him, but realized in the end that she had to be true to her original voice. Though not the only factor, this decision was part of the ending of her marriage.

Reading The Stone Angel again for me is like meeting an old friend again - I'm filled with memories, yet struck with new insights. I never cease to marvel at Laurence's rich language and brilliant character portrayals - just as I never cease to feel a strong mix of frustration and affection for the character of Hagar.

As an interesting side note, the book was almost called 'Old Lady Shipley' and it was only just before it went to press, as both Laurence and her publishers were fretting over the title, that Laurence re-opened the book and recognized the image that is in the first sentence and which occurs throughout the book - the stone angel.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Karma in a loaf

I've always believed that if you do something nice, somewhere down the road, you'll get something nice back. This isn't exactly my motivation for doing good things, but it's nice to believe in.

And if I doubted before that the good does come back, I no longer can.

On Saturday, Miya and I stopped at the Bagelshop to pick up some bagels for lunch. It was a bitterly cold day, with a windchill driving the temperature down to around -30. A man was standing outside the Bagelshop asking for spare change, his bare hands chaffed with cold.

On our way out with a warm bag of a dozen fresh bagels, I asked him if he wanted one. He accepted and thanked us.

We were parked just around the corner and as I was pulling up to the main street, I saw a loaf of artisan bread in a plastic bag, lying on the middle of the street. It was still warm enough that steam clouded the bag. I looked around to see if anyone was coming back to pick it up - but there was no one around. I thought of just leaving it, but knew the next car to come around the corner would likely crush it. So, I opened my door and scooped it up.

Give a bagel, get a loaf of bread. Now that's some tasty karma.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Price of Sex

This afternoon I went to the Library and Archives Auditorium for the screening of a rather grim documentary called 'The Price of Sex'.

This feature-length documentary is about young Eastern European women drawn into sex slavery - tricked into becoming prostitutes, imprisoned in brothels, abused and discarded. It is narrated by Mimi Chakarova, a woman who grew up behind the Iron Curtain in Bulgaria and later emigrated to the United States. She returns to Eastern Europe to find out why so many women from Eastern Europe were become victims of sexual trafficking. Her story is deeply personal and very courageous. Working for over a decade, filming undercover and risking her own safety to gain access to people and places controlled by sex traffickers, she pulls back the curtain on the horrors of human and sex trafficking.

It was an honour to have the filmmaker, Mimi Chakarova, there at the screening today. After the film, after the applause had died down, she spoke a little about the film and then fielded questions from the audience.

After hearing theses stories (like that of a woman who fell more than 3 floors trying to escape her brothel prison, only to be returned to her pimps half-paralyzed, still forced to service clients), the audience not surprisingly wanted to know what we can do. How can we fix this problem? How can we stop this travesty??

Sadly, there are no clear answers. A rep from Human Rights Watch spoke about the challenges faced in addressing sex trafficking, such as the economic depression which has left many young women without any options to earn a living, and the corruption among police and intergovernmental agencies. There is no simple thing that we could go home and easily do in  order to feel better and forget that women as young as 10 are taken from their homes to become sex slaves in foreign countries.

Yet while there is no easy solution, there are things we can do, such as support the work of those NGOs who help trafficked women and lobby our own governments to effectively address human trafficking. But to be honest the problem is much bigger than all of us. It will take many hands and many voices to make real and lasting change.

But I, for one, want to be part of it.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Letter #1: Myself, 2013

My goal for 2012 is to write 100 letters.

The first letter, oddly enough, is written to myself, one year hence. When I was about 12, I began writing letters to myself which I would write in the early days of a new year, seal up and open the following year just after midnight. I wrote about this last year at the beginning of the 365-blog challenge.

Although I diligently kept up the annual letters throughout my teens and twenties, sadly in recent years I've let it slip. I didn't have a letter to myself to open on the dawn of this new year. But there is one sealed and ready for 2013.

I'm going to also create a sort of new year's letter with Miya for her to open a year from now. Perhaps I will sow the tradition with her. 

In writing these letters, I don't try to capture or sum up the whole year - I have journals (and this blog) for that. Instead I write about where I'm at in the moment and some of the things I hope for myself in the coming year.

When I was young, these letters were often full of dreams and longing. I had many new horizons to explore, places to discover. As I get older, these dreams change. But no matter how old I get, I don't ever want to stop dreaming.

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go. - Theodore Roethke.