Wednesday, September 25, 2013

No Means No More Silence

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, September 18, 2013, by Sara Mattinson.

This is a true story and also a local story. It came to me the same way most stories get around: Someone told someone who told someone else. In this case, my husband heard it from a friend.
A young man was showing this friend photos on his phone. The photos were of his former girlfriend who was 16 when they were dating. The photos were more than intimate, more than suggestive; they were explicit. 
And this young man was showing them around.
Private moments made public. Without the girl’s consent.  
According to my husband, the friend said nothing but he admitted his shock to my husband. 
 “Do you know what the appropriate response would have been?” I said when I heard the story. “Your friend should have picked that young man up by the neck and held him against a wall while explaining how wrong it was to show anyone those photos. Then he should have taken the phone and crushed it under his boot.”
My best friend, whose husband is a cop in Ontario, had a better idea: “Take the young man and his phone to the local RCMP detachment and see what they think of the photos.”
I heard this story months ago but with the Saint Mary’s University frosh chant scandal making news, and Rehtaeh Parsons burned into our minds, it needs to be pointed out that this kind of devastating, thoughtless, potentially harmful behaviour is happening everywhere. We have sent 18-year-olds from our community away to school this month but they are not in danger only in the city or on campus; they are at risk right here in our community. 
This is my message to my husband, and his friend, and to all the other men who are part of this story, or part of a similar one: SAY SOMETHING. 
“That’s wrong,” would be a start. A brave male voice in the wilderness. 
Of the silent bystander, he needs to ask, “What if that was your daughter in the photos?” 
If no one speaks out, if no one sets a new example, this behaviour -- new to those of us who reached adulthood before social media and smart phones took control of our lives -- will not stop.
Twenty-five years ago, I was a first-year university student. It was the beginning of the “No Means No” campaign; posters were all over campus and banners hung from dormitory windows. What made the greatest impact, however, was the impassioned speech my English professor gave to the class. 
To the boys in the class.  
He told them that no matter what state they were in and what stage they’d reached with a girl, if she said No, if she said Stop, if she said she wasn’t sure, “Pull up your pants and get out of there,” he said. He told these 18 and 19 year old boys that No means No, without exception, without negotiation. 
“You have no right to go any further,” he said.
That was a man talking to young men. Imagine if an entire generation of young men had heard that speech in their first year of university. Imagine if an entire generation of young men heard those words long before they reached the age of 18.    
Perhaps we wouldn’t be talking about “rape culture” in 2013.
In this age of camera phones and social media, of rampant underage drinking and prescription drug abuse, that talk about “the birds and the bees” is much more complicated – and absolutely necessary. After all, we armed children with what Lisa Gregoire, writing in The Walrus magazine,aptly  calls “relationship-warping technologies”. If anyone created the blurred lines, it was adults, with our ignorance of technology and our neglect of drastically updated conversations about sex and relationships, personal space and privacy. 
In the 21st century, a 16-year-old girl needs to know that any photo taken of her will last forever. How can she make an educated decision about Yes or No if she doesn’t  know the real facts of life? 
When I was 18 years old, I learned that the voice of a man can make a difference. Yet 25 years later, in a much more complicated world, when verbal cruelty is considered entertainment and smart phones have put an end to real conversation, there is still a need for that lone male voice that speaks out and tries to make a difference.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Country Girl Gets Booked In The City

Until I hear about a transit bus running down a pedestrian on a rainy morning (today) then I remember why I chose to live in the country.
But a day like yesterday when it's sunny and windy, and readers and writers and lovers of all things wordy gather in one spot to celebrate all things wordy -- it's a great day. 
We had to make an early start to our pilgrimage from the country since I wanted to attend the magazine panel at 11 o'clock. Worth it! It was like 45 minutes of professional development. I also was able to introduce myself to Trevor Adams, editor of Halifax magazine, who makes me laugh at his funny editor tweets, and Jon Tattrie, fellow magazine freelance (we both had articles nominated for an Atlantic Journalism Award in 2011 and I've been wanting to meet him).
My mother was kind enough to keep me company so I treated her to another wonderful lunch at her favourite restaurant, Murphy's. When you live in the Maritimes, any food eaten by the water tastes better. 
But what made the entire four-hour round trip drive worth it was the CBC readings in the afternoon. I'll go to any of Stephanie Domet's readings because she is a delight and following her was the event's headliner, Jian Ghomeshi of the CBC program, Q. 
What a stellar entertainer he is. Who knew he was so funny? Had the audience eating out of his hand from the moment he stepped up to the microphone and welcomed himself to St. John's! He was 90 minutes of riveting storytelling, reading from his book, and engaging with the audience. I dare you to find someone who left there NOT completely enamoured with him.

I'm part of the adoring crowd just to the right of the microphone cord! Blue sweater and glasses. 
(Photo by David Blomme, CBC Nova Scotia)

On a personal note: all the readings were a great lesson in being a writer and a reader. The tricks? Smile, engage emotionally with your listeners, and be funny. Laughter is such a winning way. 
It was a great day, very inspiring and motivating. Oh, and yeah, I bought books too!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

In Conversation With...Ben Smith

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, September 11, 2013 by Sara Mattinson.

When I walk into the bright, cluttered kitchen of Ben Smith’s home on Crawley Road outside of Pugwash, he’s shelling peas into a large steel bowl balanced between his knees. His two children are playing with toys; Midge the dog lies at his feet; his wife is working her booth at the farmers’ market. Fish cakes are frying on the stove. 
Ben appears perfectly content with the stillness of his current task yet this is a man who juggles many interests and projects. He builds and maintains raised beds for the couple’s market garden and he is a landscaper, working mainly with stone. He is a singer and songwriter who plays guitar and the bass violin and has hosted the  Friday night kitchen party at the cafĂ© in Pugwash for five years. He plays baseball, coaches high school baseball and teaches disc golf to schools then trades the bat and glove for a goalie mask and stick during the winter. He works two days a week running an afterschool sports program at the Y in Amherst. He even wanted to homeschool his son and daughter but they really wanted to go to school. 
His four-year-old daughter hands him a mess of yarn twined around a large comb. Kadance and her six-year-old brother Avery pop peas into their mouth as her father patiently unravels the yarn. 
My first question to Ben could be the facetious ‘When do you sleep?’ but rather, I open with something that might explain how Ben accomplishes everything: ‘What is your guiding principle?’ 
“I live by the Tao,” he tells me, referring to the Tao Te Ching (the ‘book of the Way’) written by the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. “It talks about doing tasks to completion. When you’re completely immersed in something, you become the task. So my guiding principle is that each thing I do, I try to do it completely and immerse myself in it. Not worry about the results. Do my work and step back, that’s the only way to longevity. With a couple of my other self-employed friends, we’ve been kicking around this idea that if you just keep doing good work, eventually things will fall into place.”
Born and raised in Amherst, Ben has been exploring his skills and ideas since he was a teenager. 
“I was involved in sport really heavily and at 15, I made a choice. I could continue on the path here or I could try to take a shot down in the States so I did a year of private school hockey down there,” he says. He returned to Amherst for Grade 12 and attended Dalhousie University. 
“I thought I was going to do sport and teaching but I realized that job prospects and the constraints of the education system weren’t going to be my most effective use,” he says. “It was the same thing when I went to the States and played hockey; I realized that’s not what I wanted to do.”
So he explored university (dropping out during a long strike), worked for eight summers as a tree planter in Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and BC, and travelled. 
“I hitchhiked across Canada at 18 then did it three more times,” says Ben who only began playing guitar when he was 19. “I decided I wanted to see North America so I’ve been to every state and every province, up north and down south.”
He’s called a lot of places home. In his early twenties, he lived for awhile on a farm in Jemseg, outside Fredericton where he got into gardening and reading and discovering the joy of being alone. As he talks about this time, I recognize the stories from some of his songs. After leaving Dalhousie, he ended up tree planting in northern BC (where he met his wife) and made enough money to buy his bass viol and later, a home. They moved south to the city of Vancouver where Ben thought he had found his dream job at the age of 26. 
“I worked for a professional baseball team, the Canadians, and I thought that was going to be it. I was ‘head of the interior’ [he wasn’t playing]. I was promoted quickly to have my own crew.”
The work was perfect for him: it was self-directed and the stadium was eight blocks from home. But…
 “I realized it was artificial,” Ben says. “Professional sport is really a strange game but again, I’m glad I got to do that work. I did, I tried, but this is better.” 
All the travelling, all the different jobs, was intentional.
 “It helped me realize that much of the experiences we have are shared experiences, whether you do them in Canada or Korea or wherever,” he explains. “I wanted to understand where I come from. It helps me have some kind of grounding for relative experience. That’s why I love living here so much. 
Ben, now 33, and his wife settled in Pugwash over five years ago. 
“Because I’ve been other places, I realize not everybody gets a hundred acres of nature reserve behind them and quiet and the opportunity to flourish with money and culture,” he says. “It’s very subtle here but it’s all here. When we lived in Vancouver, there were five hundred other potters doing what my wife does. There were a thousand other landscapers doing the stuff I was doing. Here, there is an overwhelming amount of jobs and opportunity, you just have to have the wherewithal, the gumption to take it on.”
Our conversation keeps circling back to his guiding principle, which Ben says he’s been developing all his life. 
“You learn to be quiet and listen to what really is happening. I think my one benefit is that I made some mistakes early and learned from them. That has led me to all these things. When you do something, you do it fully. Success is a by-product of hard work but the difference between success and failure is so thin, you might as well focus on the hard work and see where that takes you.”

At peas with himself...

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Parker Needs A Permanent Parking Spot

Marilyn Williams, who writes "Marilyn's Musings" for the paper, is well-known for her advocacy work on behalf of local animals. She is president of the Lillian Albion  Animal Shelter in Amherst, and also, separately, started a successful, ongoing campaign to have stray and feral cats in our communities spayed and neutered. Donation boxes for that cause are available at many local businesses.
As a tireless and enthusiastic advocate for dogs and cats. she walks the talk.
Marilyn is now asking for helping finding a special cat named "Parker" a new home. Parker was discovered in the park in Wentworth and was so badly injured, he ended up losing a leg. Marilyn says he is adjusting well to life on three legs and needs a home ASAP.
"He would do well in a quieter home with even one other cat that is friendly," Marilyn says. "Parker is loving, has a great purring machine and perhaps even has some Burmese in him. We are sure at one time he was someone's house cat."
Parker is now living at the Northumberland Vet Clinic in Pugwash and they can be reached at 243-3999, or call Marilyn at 661-3183.

Handsome boy. 

Friday, September 13, 2013

CTV Community Correspondent

I love this little gig on CTV Morning Live! Always trying to give a little plug for the vibrancy of rural life and the joys of living in the country.
Here is this morning's chat with Cyril Lunney -- it looks like I got a little excited about the petting zoo at the Sunset Community Fall Fair this Saturday!  Plus there's mention of Oxford's Terry Fox Run and the start of the Girl Guides season in Wallace.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Dream Catchers, Dream Squashers

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, September 4, 2013, by Sara Mattinson.

It was during a painting workshop, as I was getting more and more frustrated because all the swiping and splashing and splattering I was doing was not rendering on canvas anything close to the still life on the table, that a memory popped into my mind. 
A memory that had been suppressed for 25 years.
I remembered the last thing Mr. Livingston, my Grade Nine art teacher, said to me as he handed back the sketchbook I’d been filling for the past ten months (this was before high schools went to semesters). He said, “I don’t think you should bother taking any more art classes.” 
And he didn’t mean because I was so talented, there was nothing more for him to teach me. 
I was 15 when I heard that but I didn’t remember it until I was forty years old and trying to understand the urge to paint that had tormented me since I moved to Nova Scotia. 
An urge not fully destroyed by the words of that teacher when I was a teenager. 
It’s an understatement to call Mr. Livingston a terrible teacher. The sketchbook that he handed back (which I still have) is evidence of effort and improvement; some assignments even received a mark of 10 out of 10. Mr. Livingston’s comments indicate areas of my work in which he should have been offering further instruction. My potential was clear not only in my sketches but also in the fact that I’d signed up for art in the first place. I wasn’t a bad artist and IT WAS GRADE NINE, my first year of daily art instruction at the age of 14. 
A pivotal time in the life of a teenager. 
Knowing what I know now, I honestly believe he altered the course of the rest of my life. 
As students head back to school this week, allow me to say: Unless the activity is something that could lead to injury, addiction, disease or pregnancy, NEVER EVER discourage a young person from pursuing something that he or she shows an interest in or especially a talent for. It doesn’t matter if you think you know best, it doesn’t matter if you have your own failed dream – you will be wrong. 
My friend Jane, now in her fifties, announced at the age of 15 that she wanted to be an auto mechanic. 
“I liked tearing things apart and putting them back together,” she says. It’s an inclination that has never left her. “I like tearing things apart. I’ve always had the ability to look at something and know what needed to be done.”
She once fixed an 8-track player with a bobby-pin.
But when Jane said she wanted to be a mechanic, her mother responded by telling her that girls didn’t do that kind of work.
“You don’t want to come home with dirty hands every day,” Jane’s mother told her.
“That has stuck in my craw all my life,” my friend admits now. “I was 26 years old when the light bulb came on.”
I asked her why didn’t she just go ahead and become a mechanic anyway?
“I never said No to my parents,” she answered. “And I didn’t have their support.”
It’s the rare, brave and lucky person who knows herself well enough and has enough chutzpah to defy the opinions of those with the greatest influence over her in order to pursue what she truly wants to do.  
Louise Cloutier is the art teacher at Pugwash District High School. Like Mr. Livingston, she’s been teaching art to high school students for a long time so I put the question to her: “Would you ever tell a student that they shouldn’t bother taking any more art classes?”
“No, I wouldn’t do that,” she says. 
When I explained why I was asking, Louise tells me the story of Faith Ringgold, a prominent American painter, who was told by a high school art teacher that she’d better find something else to do. He’d looked at her painting of mountains and had told her they didn’t look like mountains.
“She lived in Harlem,” Louise explained to me. “She’d never seen mountains and that was her interpretation of them. His comment empowered her to prove him wrong and she did.”
Ringgold, now a university professor who paints and publishes books, is the recipient of more than 75 awards including 22 honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degrees. 
“Students at that time are so vulnerable that if they think someone doesn’t like what they’re trying to do, they shut down,” says Louise. “It’s such a mistake. It’s an easy way to squash a dream and who are we to do that?” 

If you're curious:

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

You've Still Got Mail

Our rural mailbox, which fortunately for us is located well off the main road, passed inspection.

Not that it will matter in a few months. Once all the "dangerous" mailboxes are taken out of service, there won't be enough of us left on the route to justify our rural mail delivery.

The end is near for another unique joy of country living.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

You've Got Mail

Nice to receive a package in the mail, even nicer when it's a little taste of "home", as in my hometown of Cobourg, Ontario.  T-shirt looks pretty good next to Oxford's big blueberry!

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

In Conversation With...Edith Wood

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, August 28, 2013, by Sara Mattinson.

It’s exhibition time and 4-H clubs from around the county are ready to show off their projects. Recognized by its distinctive green four-leaf clover emblem with the four capital Hs, the organization is celebrating its 100th anniversary (the first Canadian club began in Manitoba in 1913) so in honour of that, let’s all learn what those “haitches” stand for: Head, Heart, Hands and Health, as in, I pledge my head to clearer thinking, my heart to greater loyalty, my  hands to larger service, my health to better living, for my club, my community and my country.
Edith Wood of Linden has dedicated her adult life to fulfilling that pledge. Although she joined 4-H briefly as a teenager, she returned wholeheartedly when her three children joined the Linden club. She’s been a 4-H leader for 42 years.
“This is still happening today. A lot of 4-H kids have a 4-H background. Their families were all 4-Hers,” Edith says.
“When my kids came along, the club had become a bit stagnant by then and one of the other men, who had been a 4-H member too, decided we should get the club going again. I decided that since my kids were going to be in it, I should take part, too.”
4-H covers a variety of projects, including, but not just limited to, the livestock projects. Members also work on photography, sewing, woodworking, small engine repair,  or heritage, to name just a few of the possibilities. 
“You need a leader for each one of those things,” Edith says. “You don’t have the same leader every year. I have done a few turns at outdoorsman, crafts and gardening.”
But for most of her 42 years, she has been the leader for cake decorating projects. 
One might imagine she’s seen a lot of changes in almost half a century with the traditionally  (but not exclusively) rural club but Edith is emphatic about one thing that hasn’t changed. 
“The majority of 4-Hers don’t get into trouble,” she says. “They don’t have time, for one thing. These kids are busy. If they’re in 4-H, they’re in something else as well and most of them do chores at home. They’re not idle; that’s part of the reason they don’t get into trouble. In the 42 years I’ve been involved here, we’ve had one member that got involved with the law. That’s a pretty good record.”
According to Edith, 4-H members (ages 8 to 21) develop a respect for property and people, as well as social skills. 
Raised on a farm, she married a farmer and continues to live in the house they built in Linden even though none of her kids took over the farm. 
“Country life is great,” says Edith. “I think you have more freedom than you do in town. You’re not hemmed in. I guess you can take advantage of these wide open spaces and the views you have.”
At 84, her back and knees give her some trouble so she gets help with house cleaning from home care. 
“One little gal from Amherst said to me, ‘I feel so sorry for you folks who live in the country. You must get so bored.’ I said, ‘Bored? What do you mean, bored?’ ‘But you have nothing to do’.” 
Edith smiles and sighs. “Look at my calendar. Sometimes I get so many marks on it, I can’t see the days.”
Along with 4-H, she’s involved with her church and the community hall, as well as the local fire department and a small group of women that does fundraising for the Amherst hospital. 
“I think 4-H helps keep you young,” she smiles.
A knock comes and the door opens as a woman hollers, “Knock, knock, Edie, I need to use your phone.”
Apparently, her cell phone isn’t working. 
“The ditch is burning, opposite Lloyd’s, on our side,” she says into Edith’s phone. “You can’t see across the road, the smoke is so thick. Lands and Forest are there.”
After the woman leaves, Edith asks where we left off in our conversation.  
Then the phone rings, a neighbour wanting to know what’s going on up the road.
“There’s a fire in the ditch across from Lloyd’s. I’m not sure how it’s going to pan out. I’ll let you know. Oh, here they come now, I can see them now.”
The Shinimicas fire trucks go by the house as Edith hangs up. The phone rings again
“I’m fine. I’m in the middle of an interview. About that fire? The trucks just went by. It’s just across from Lloyd’s. No, not yet. No, the wind is blowing from the west. I’m fine.”
That was her son, Brian, a member of the Shinimicas volunteer fire department who had heard the call and wanted to make sure his mother was okay. 
Who says living in the country is boring? 
“They look after me, they really do,” Edith chuckles. “I tell you, the older I get, the more people I have looking after me. I tell you, this old age thing is great.”
Isn’t that part of the 4-H pledge? Helping each other, lending a hand, providing support. Ideas put into practice that  form the character of children and last a lifetime. 
“At this stage of my life, I can’t imagine being without youth around,” Edith admits. “Really, I would miss them something terrible. But it’s not only that; it’s the satisfaction, the feeling that I get that possibly I might have been able to help one or two live meaningful lives. I think I might have helped to structure their life a bit. It’s the same sort of satisfaction I get on Achievement Day and I see what these kids have done. You get a good feeling about it. You feel like you helped them achieve something.”
She pauses then adds, “I’ve learned a lot too. I have much more self-confidence now than when I started. You think you’re teaching them but they also teach me.”