Monday, January 27, 2014

Muffins On The Ground: Why "The Middle" Matters

I have a vivid memory of muffins.

When I was about eight years old, my dad took me and my sister to this new store called "Wal-Mart." He had dragged us to do the household shopping, which I found just as unpleasant as a child as I do now. As we were leaving, he took us to the adjacent Tim Hortons and told Kayla and I that we could bring home muffins to have for breakfast the next morning.

I was excited; my sister was excited. We didn't often eat out, and we especially didn't often get a sweet treat for breakfast. The only cereals we had in our house usually had "flakes" in the title, and I still to this day have no idea what Cookie Crisp tastes like. I carefully mulled over the shelves and selected a chocolate chip muffin. My dad and sister chose the rest of the half-dozen, and we started the journey to the car.

It was a typical St. John's winter day: the sky was grey and hazy with drizzle, and the parking lot was a mess of slushy snow, salt, and discarded Tim Horton's cups. But nothing could bring me down this day; there were muffins to be had, after all! Filled with joy and needing to express it, I grabbed the hood of my sister's jacket, which had been flapping along behind her. I imagined we would begin a conga-line, which, to eight-year-old me, was the most fun a human being could have.

Unfortunately, my dreams of a Cuban celebration were dashed instantly. When I grabbed her hood and pulled backwards, Kayla's neck caught in the half-zipped front of her coat and she lurched backwards, coughing and sputtering. Not only did I nearly decapitate my sister, but the jolt backwards caused her to drop the muffins she had been carrying, the bag ripping and spilling all over the mushy ground, completely unsalvageable.

My dad was angry, and with good reason. To the casual observer, it looked like I had just tried to strangle my sister in the middle of a Walmart parking lot. I had also ripped the hood of her coat and turned tomorrow's breakfast into a seagull's dinner. Kayla was crying, and while my dad escorted us to the car, he reprimanded me for being foolish, aggressive, and fighting with my sister.

I tried to explain my actions: I wasn't trying to fight with Kayla, and I wasn't trying to be foolish and aggressive; I was trying to have fun. But I was eight, and the evidence was stacked against me. And no matter what I had intended, what actually happened didn't look anything like it.

I'm in my final semester of my MA. Since I began studying Communication, I've had to field questions about what it is I actually do. And beyond assuring people that I'm not getting a degree in social media, I've struggled to explain it myself. The areas and objects we study are vast and complex, and I've not had success in succinctly explaining it.

In class last week, we were talking about the idea of the basic right of communication. And it occurred to me how ludicrous that political jargon is, because the word "communication" necessitates that a sender delivers a message to a receiver. And a government might be able to ensure that a sender has the tools to send a message, but they can't ensure that a message will be received.

And that's when I finally realized that that is what I've been studying: the ways in which we send and receive information. 

I realize that sounds incredibly simplistic. And it is, on one level. But communication is also profoundly complicated: nuance, gestures, linguistics, noises, writing, speaking. Communication between a government and its people is vastly different - not only in the medium through which it communicates, but in tone, language, content - than a mother and young child. But we still use the same word to describe both forms of information transfer, and so we must study everything about what makes them so different (and maybe a little bit the same).

In the very first class of my MA, the prof asked us to draw a model of communication. I can't quite remember what I drew - something about person X and person Y, with a line between the two and bunch of squiggles around it to represent the possibility of miscommunication. 

Rudimentary understanding aside, the problem with that image was the straight line between X and Y. That line implied, to me, that the receiver would understand the intended message of the sender, as long as external factors were removed. And this couldn't be further from reality.

The message I was trying to send when I grabbed my sisters hood was that I was happy. The message she and my dad received is that I was being careless and cruel. 

And so it doesn't just matter what you are trying to convey, but how you convey it. 

In school, teachers focus a great deal on content when writing. What's firstly important is the meat of the idea, and the technical bits of writing don't matter as much. My years of tutoring writing and TAing first year students have taught me that this is not true. If you cannot write well, using the rules of syntax and grammar to help you shape your idea, then your meaning will be lost in the mess. I've edited countless essays where when I speak about it with the author, they explain to me: "what I meant there was..." and their sentence has a completely different meaning than they intended. The form - the transmission of the message - matters.

And this isn't just through written word; it's in every way that we try and connect with each other. A friend tells you she has been abused, and you react with anger and unwanted advice, even though you want her to know that are broken for her and you just want to cry and cry and share the hurt with her. You want a boy to know you like him, so you punch him on the shoulder and call him "bud," hoping he understands that means you want to kiss him. Your boss texts you this week's work schedule and you respond "thanks," even though you really meant "Thanks!!" and probably should've included a smiley face, because you truly are grateful.

I've always thought that it was the intention - the thought - that counted. But I don't think it's enough, anymore. The application of the thought - the middle between X & Y - is just as important. How am I going to tell you? How can I best communicate my thoughts to you so you will best understand my message? How can we best understand each other?

It's hard. It requires a lot of work. But I think it's probably worth it, so your muffins don't end up all over the ground.

Current book: Signed, Sealed, Delivered - Nina Sankovitch
Current TV series: The Newsroom season 2
Current nail colour: "Watermelon" - Barry M

Thursday, January 2, 2014

And A Happy New Year

I walked home from work a few nights ago, half an hour after the clock had struck 2014. The temperature was well below -20 degrees and a fresh layer of snow covered the sidewalks, so my boots made that satisfying soft crunch as I trekked home.

The streets were dead - not at all unusual for an Ottawa night in a bougie area, but a bit unexpected for New Years. But as I rounded the corner to my street, a few people were leaving houses, waving goodbye at the door and shouting final "Happy New Year!"s as they climbed over piles of snow to their cars and into cabs.

I hate New Years. I have since I can remember. I wasn't very good at staying up late when I was young, and when junior high/high school hit, I hated the pressure of having to find something to do. I hated the inevitable discussion of "well, this year we won't dress up! Just PJs and junk food and TV!", always said with the unspoken knowledge that we really should be trying harder to have a fancy New Years. When I went to university, I was that person. You know, the one who lamented "I don't even know why we celebrate the changing of a day! New months come every 28-31 days! And why do we need the new year to make changes in our lives? Shouldn't we be striving to be better every day?".

This was my first time working on New Years Eve. I expected it to be mundane and boring and uneventful, which it by and large was. But I noticed that (almost) every customer who came through the doors had a grin and wished me a jubilant "Happy New Year!" as they stamped snow from their boots - a far cry from the nasty glares and heavy sighs and exaggerated eye rolls from the Christmas shoppers just a few weeks earlier. Customers asked me how late we were open, and expressed genuine sympathy (however unnecessary) that I had to work until 12:00am.

2013 was an incredible year for me. In fact, I think it might have been my best year ever. I've had a lot of personal and professional successes this year, ranging from the relatively insignificant to anyone but me (comedian and actor David Mitchell reading my blog and tweeting about it, for example) to the bigger deals (writing for What Culture and having my articles viewed by over 40,000 people). I survived the most difficult semester of my 9-year post-secondary run, and produced some academic work that I am quite proud of in the process. I started a job where I get to talk about makeup and people trust my opinion, and I've started to carve out a small corner for myself in the online book review world.

But even more than all that humble brag stuff (sorrynotsorry), this year has been so great because I have been so happy. I remember waking up in my month-old apartment at the end of May, sunlight streaming through my window because I didn't yet have curtains, and thinking, This can't continue forever. Having this much fun and being this happy is not sustainable for much longer. And I was, surprisingly, very wrong.

I've been trying to place my finger on what's made me so consistently content this year. Obviously I live in a city I really like, surrounded by really fantastic friends who are smart and funny and whose company I genuinely enjoy all of the time. I love my apartment, and my roommate is fun and shares her clothes with me and sometimes even makes me breakfast. I even have regular access to a cat.

But I don't think these things are enough. I mean, they are. But I've had good people and a nice home and lived in beautiful cities before and it hasn't made me as happy as I am now.

I was at my friends' J & A's house about a month and a half ago. I was eating toast and snuggled under a blanket, watching Top Chef and providing colour commentary while J iced a cake and A prepared for Sunday School. It was mundane and wonderful all at the same time, as these evenings often are.

As I was leaving, J looked at me and, unprompted by anything, said "Jill, you are really great, you know. I mean it. You are a wonderful person. You are funny and smart and pretty and just so lovely."

It took everything in me not to break down into tears in her porch. Her words really struck me, more than anything nice anyone had ever said to me before. And I realized later that it wasn't just the generous gesture of saying kind things that made me feel overwhelmed; it was that, for the first time ever, I actually believed them.

And it's not that I've always hated myself, or thought I was an awful person. There are a lot of things I really like about myself: I'm very open and honest, friendly, smart, funny, generous, empathetic. But I also know that I am aggressive, impulsive, unrefined, not a great listener, obsessive, gossipy, and a little bit weird. And for so long, I just thought that all the bad things cancelled out the good things, so that I was always in a state of neutrality. It just had never occurred to me that when the bad things are bad, the good things are still good. My personality, my worth, is not a zero sum game.

And that is what I will take away from 2013: this is the year that I not only truly learned what it means to like myself, but also that I am somebody worth liking.

And as I walked home in the first minutes of 2014, I thought about how much discovery comes from reflection, and how much hope the promise of new beginnings brings. The chorus of "Happy New Year" ringing through the street didn't sound cliche or forced, but truly joyful. Almost, even, uplifting.

Happy New Year.