The Week's Conversations: Grammar, Naturalistic Floral Design, Kendrick Lamar, Love Letters, Anne, New Underground Railway, Duterte

A weekly conversation between friends.

Grammarians, Beware

Grammar is not art. Writing is, and as an art form, best achieves its function when it is not rigidly boxed in by grammarians preoccupied with formalism. Grammarians who filter all language through a grammar-rubric, where all writing is judged and altered to conform to a set standard, are missing the point of the exercise: communication.

That is not to say that grammar or the rules of language should be ignored. Rather, it must be adapted to the situation. Language is contextual, it evolves, and good writing not only captures what is being communicated but the intricacies of the speaker, audience, and circumstances. My DMs are written much differently from how I draft legal facta — to the point where readers may find it difficult to believe that they were written by the same person.

Grammar rigidity is also an exercise of power. The “right” way is often defined as being so for representing the approach to language of the privileged class. Any deviation is a denigration of the language in its “pure” form; dialects, slang, and linguistic creativity are ridiculed. Imposing rigid grammar standards to achieve a “correct” writing form becomes a process of exclusion.

Grammar is fiercely debated by editors of theread. Formalistic grammarians frequently clash with critical linguists more concerned about substance than form. However, there is agreement between all on at least one point. Regardless of form, any writing that appears in the newsletter must be of sufficient quality to warrant its inclusion. That is our assurance to you.

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Can Naturalistic Floral Design Be Mainstream Already

About 10 years ago, I discovered Sarah Ryhanen’s work on the blog Design*Sponge. Even at the time, her simple mason jar arrangements were revolutionary, and her blog, an irreverent mixture of flowers and business, felt so of a piece that it was easy to become obsessed, to feel that I knew her. As she pushed herself to explore the boundaries of naturalism and traditional floral design every week, she expanded my understanding of flower arranging and its possibilities, and I was not alone in that experience.

Anyways, fast forward a few years, and the flower revolution continued, with Sarah largely at the head. She wouldn’t necessarily consider herself the leader, but certainly she was the most visible member of a growing group of floral designers dedicated to working in a more naturalistic style and seeking out locally-grown flowers. They celebrated the beauty of individual stems of fritillarias, recalled the scents and old-fashioned delights of sweet peas, cut flowering branches with abandon, and tried to incorporate leaves of kale.

Flower farmers suddenly become venerated heroes in the new movement, and the symbiosis of farmers who grow specialty flowers and the floral designers who market and use the product has only become more intense in recent years. In Canada, we now have cut flowers being field grown in places as cold as Northern Alberta, and Winnipeg. My god. It was unimaginable even five years ago. But that’s the power of Instagram and the internet for you, where these floral trends have led to wholesale lifestyle changes. It’s highly fashionable to be a farmer florist now, haven’t you heard?

This week T Magazine featured Sarah’s work in an article on the new naturalism in floral design and how social media has been integral to powering it into the mainstream. It’s well worth a read to understand and see cutting edge floral art, and they’ve helpfully provided a list of Instagram accounts to follow as well. As someone who’s been following all these designers for years, it’s remarkable to me how even two years ago they were still very obviously influenced by Dutch Masters, but now a Japanese minimalism and colour palette inspired by the 80s has emerged. There’s even backlash to the garden-esque lushness that has been the bread and butter of the movement, with anthuriums and dyed flowers making a comeback in NYC in a big way. Why

Trends come and go, but naturalism looks to be here to stay, and in case you were wondering, I’m still completely obsessed.

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The Return of Kendrick Lamar

Yes, it was a big week for Drake, whose More Life ‘playlist’ — his seventh number 1 album — broke the record for most streams in a single week, with 385 million in the US alone.

Far more interesting, though, was the return of Kendrick Lamar, who unexpectedly dropped “The Heart Part 4” last week, his first new music in over a year.

Clocking in at just under 5 minutes, the track is a striking reminder of Kendrick’s reigning supremacy as a rapper, his flow shifting flawlessly between speeds and rhythms as he covers substantial lyrical ground (what other artist is able to weigh in on Russia’s interference in the US election and the beef between Jay Z and Drake on the same track?)

It’s also worth noting that “The Heart Part 4” sounds significantly different than To Pimp a Butterfly and its counterpart untitled unmastered. Instead of the complex neo-soul and notorious avant-garde arrangements that those releases were known for (click here), the track features a moody, stripped-down beat that percolates just beneath the surface, leaving Kendrick plenty of space to do his thing.

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I Don't Write Love Letters Anymore

When I was younger, I used to write love letters. Well, love e-mails, notes, and postcards to be more precise. Whatever medium that was accessible to me in my transformative early 20s, and could best convey my feelings.

But, that relationship ended, and with it my desire to write love letters (e-mails, notes, postcards, etc). Life became more structured and less dynamic, and in the process, the desire to write romantic messages seemed to disappear. My forays in love since have been mechanical and largely unspectacular, but it's unclear if this is a cause or symptom of no longer caring to share my feelings as I did before.

Occasionally, I will come across an email that I had sent, and am bewildered by the depth of the emotional intimacy contained. Not out of regret, but of surprise that I had conjured up such feelings, and had the audacity to express them in such a clear and purposive manner at 21. I admire my younger self, and wonder if that romantic passion will ever return.

Unsurprisingly, I am not the only person who enjoys reading old love letters. As outlined in The Love Letters of Manly Men, love letters are keenly sought out by manuscript collectors, who pay top dollar for those penned by historical, mainly male figures. And according to dealers and appraisers, high figures "depend on the revelatory nature of the content" more than the fame of the writer or the rarity and condition of the document.

For instance, the most paid for a love letter at auction was $700,000 in 2002 for a note from Abraham Lincoln to Mary Owens. What stood out for collectors, and earned it that sum, was its emotional depth: a young, unsure Lincoln seeking reassurance from Owens that "she really does want to marry him, despite his meager income." Lincoln's insecurities conflict with our popular understanding of the man as a decisive, formidable leader, and add an additional layer of complexity that is easily recognizable.

My writings have less significance, but I cherish them for the glimpse they provide into a former, better self.

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A Wary Endorsement of Anne

Despite having to pause the first episode of Anne within mere seconds of hearing the opening chords of the theme song to do some angry deep-breathing (I watched the damn live concert, isn’t that enough??), I was quickly enamoured with the very 2017 production. It left me fizzy and glowing in exactly the same way the book and the 1985 adaptation do, no matter how many times I’ve read/seen them.

While I can’t say I’m 100% in favour of realism* infringing on what has been one of my most stalwart retreats from the everyday for over 20 years**, episode 1 seemed to suggest creator/writer Moira Walley-Beckett intended to make changes that developed Anne’s character for a current (unfamiliar) audience, rather than to increase drama unnecessarily. Anne’s fiercely open and imaginative personality does seem all the more compelling in the face of the new PTSD flashbacks, and the emphatically feminist bent is welcome. It also helps that actress Amybeth McNulty is absolutely captivating, bringing a grittiness to Anne (my beloved) Megan Follows lacked, and that Walley-Beckett has been faithful to Anne’s verbosity.

Despite the annoying cliffhanger ending of episode one, I looked forward to number two all week, and woke up this morning to a promising text from another theread editor (who has never read or watched Anne of Green Gables before) who found it "Intricate, complicated, great acting.”

I could hardly get through it.

(Spoilers in this paragraph only) L.M. Montgomery’s writing in Anne of Green Gables is all lush descriptions related to nature, quick dialogue, relatively low-stakes drama, and few obvious jokes or dark brooding on social matters from the author herself. In comparison, episode two felt practically Dickensian with looming orphanage cinematography, a playfully absurd milkman, desperate panhandling, a hectic journey to Charlottetown followed by gratuitous head injury, a tearful reunion after Matthew finds Anne and calls her his daughter, plus an overwrought church picnic with towers of biscuits. There was even an extended lunch scene with closeups of burned toast and (what I imagine are) over-boiled eggs!

There is absolutely no doubt after this week that Anne is an adaptation inspired by the book, rather than guided by it. I recognize that Anne is being introduced to a new audience and Walley-Beckett wants to ensure she’s understood as imaginative and innocent by her own choice, full of conviction yet age-appropriately devoid of empathy (as she often is in the book), and absolutely resilient. I’m even willing to overlook the cacophonous church picnic scene as a necessary evil to underscore how readily communities close ranks and bully outsiders (which is apparently one of Walley-Beckett’s themes). But the whole Charlottetown charade of episode two was fast-forwardable, and I recommend you do so, so that you can continue to enjoy this new series.

*Except why are there so many out of season flowers?! If it’s spring, with flowering cherries and apples, then there can’t also be fall-flowering Japanese anemones, and I highly doubt they would have had those just growing under random trees in Charlottetown in the late 1800s. And don’t get me started on how impossible her flower crown combination is…

**Must not become like those 1995-BBC-produced-Pride-and-Prejudice diehards, I’ll take Keira any day.

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A New Underground Railway for Refugees?

As the Conservative leadership races draws to a close, candidates are taking a hard stance on immigration and refugee policy. Kevin O’Leary wants to “use the Constitution” to prevent migrants who cross the border illegally from claiming refugee status. Maxime Bernier has upped the ante, and proposed that the government ‘deploy the military’ to crackdown on illegal border crossings.

Granted, there has been a slight uptick in the number of refugees crossing the Southern border in recent months, but neither of these tactics actually consider the individuals whose lives are at stake. I highly recommend checking out this terrific bit of reporting by Jake Halpern, who argues that a modern variant of the Underground Railroad has developed, as refugees flee across the US border. (In Canada, refugees are for more likely to be granted asylum, and have better access to social services.)

Halpern documents the epic travails of several refugees. including an Eritrean woman trying to reunite with her family in Edmonton, and a Colombian clarinet player, who was forced to trek through uncharted forest on his way to Quebec.

“When Fernando was lost in the wilderness, he took a selfie: if he survived and became a Canadian, he thought, he might one day appreciate the image. After taking the photograph, he studied it in the darkness. Mainly, he saw desperation. But he also saw himself through a stranger’s eyes, as if it were a photograph in a newspaper, and he was moved by how far he had come. He still looks at the picture from time to time.”

It’s important to remember that refugees crossing the southern border illegally are not trying to cheat the system — they are acting out of desperation, and risking their lives to avoid violence and persecution. Canada needs a safe border and a robust immigration system, but treating refugees as criminals, or as a threat to be neutralized, is not is principled solution.

Click here for an op-ed by a fellow theread editor on a better way to deal with migrants entering Canada through our Southern border.

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Duterte and the Slide Towards Dictatorship

I’ve written here before about Rodrigo Duterte, the populist President of the Philippines, whose brutal anti-drug campaign has resulted in the deaths of more than 7,000 people over the course of 9 months (a death toll, it’s worth noting, that exceeds that of President Ferdinand Marcos, whose dictatorship lasted 20 years).

This week, The New York Times published a shocking profile on Duterte, which details his history of violence, privilege, and scandal. As a child, his mother beat him so often that she “wore out her horse whip.” In university, he shot and wounded a fellow classmate whom he accused of bullying. In the late 80s, he started a death squad in Davao City, and took part in the extrajudicial killings.

“The dissonance between the image of the gentle, caring grandfather and the brutal strongman spilling blood on the streets is just one of many in a common-man president who was born to the elite and has lived a life surrounded by violence,” writes Richard Paddock.

The profile also reveals a disturbing irony in the fact that Duterte, who in his quest to rid the Philippines of drugs has filled the streets with death squads and murderous vigilantes, has himself struggled with drug abuse (back in December, he acknowledged his dependence on and abuse of the opioid fentanyl).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Duterte’s administration did not take kindly to the profile. Ernesto Abella, the presidential spokesperson, referred to the piece as a “well-paid hack job for well-heeled clients with shady motives.”

“One gets the feeling NYT is not interested in presenting the whole truth, only that with which they can bully those who attempt an independent foreign policy,” said Abella, who famously called on journalists to use “creative imagination” to understand the pronouncements of Duterte.

Last Friday, one of Duterte’s most vocal critics and long-time opponent, Senator Leila de Lima, was jailed on drug trafficking charges, in what many consider a retaliation for her criticism of the President:

“By arresting Senator Leila de Lima on politically motivated drug charges, President Duterte is effectively expanding his ‘drug war’ from the urban poor to the legislative branch of the government,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “Not only Congress, but other pillars of Philippine democracy, from the press to the judiciary, should be deeply worried.”

Duterte is often compared to Trump, but it’s important to ask: at what point do we stop referring to him a ‘boisterous populist’, and start referring to him as a dictator?

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Links From This Week's Thread

The Meaning of Nostalgia: “Nostalgia, most truly and most meaningfully, is the emotional experience — always momentary, always fragile — of having what you lost or never had, of seeing what you missed seeing, of meeting the people you missed knowing…”

Diversity hire. Ethnic. Person of color. Exotic. Urban. What racial terms make you cringe?

In the wake of the London attack, Elizabeth Renzetti reminds us that while terrorism is rare and less deadly in Europe, it receives far more attention and public sympathy in Canada than terror attacks in places like Nigeria and Yemen, where the frequency and number of casualties is greater.

A very important list for those following the Leah McLaren/Michael Chong breastfeeding debacle.

Flying while Muslim

We think this Beaverton article might have been written about Avnish, who this week recommends Making Oprah, a podcast series released towards the end of last year, and Episode 612: Ask a Grown-Up of This American Life, which features Killer Mike and El-P providing life and love advice to teenage girls.

Kraftwerk’s masterpiece Trans Europe Express is 40 years old. Here’s a 4 minute video that breaks down its importance.

I am continuously surprised when people argue Uber and other gig-economy jobs are “great” opportunities for people because, for example, they provide flexible work that you can fit in around other parts of your life. From now on I will quote Jia Tolentino at them until they go away: “Mary’s entrepreneurial spirit—taking ride requests while she was in labor!—is an “exciting” example of how seamless and flexible app-based employment can be. Look at that hustle! You can make a quick buck with Lyft anytime, even when your cervix is dilating.”

Chuck Berry took the Newport Jazz Festival (and let me emphasize that it was a jazz festival) by storm in 1958, in a performance Keith Richards recalls as “Chuck’s proudest moment.” Bert Stern, a fashion photographer, happened to be there and filmed the whole thing, including the dancing crowd.

humans of late capitalism is a tumblr account dedicated to exploring through images the shocking, previously unfathomable circumstances that are unique to our current era.

This New Yorker article on refugee children falling into coma-like states for months or even years at a time is stranger and more devastating than any fiction: “The apathetic children began showing up in Swedish emergency rooms in the early two-thousands. Their parents were convinced that they were dying. Of what, they didn’t know; they worried about cholera or some unknown plague. Soon patients with the condition filled all the beds in Stockholm’s only psychiatric inpatient unit for children, at Karolinska University Hospital. Göran Bodegård, the director of the unit, told me that he felt claustrophobic when he entered the rooms. “An atmosphere of Michelangelo’s ‘Pietà’ lingered around the child,” he said. The blinds were drawn, and the lights were off. The mothers whispered, rarely spoke to their sick children, and stared into the darkness.”

Aretha Franklin kills ‘You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman’ while playing piano in a floor length fur coat. Legend. Obama cries.

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Amy Sanderson