The Week's Conversations: The Handmaid's Tale, Canadaland, Rostam, #vanlife, Low Maintenance Gardening

A weekly conversation between friends.

The Handmaid's Tale Will Ruin Your Week

I watched the first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale this week. Based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, the much-hyped new show tells the story of the Republic of Gilead, a dystopian, totalitarian theocracy in which the few remaining fertile women are enslaved to bear children for the ruling class. A relatively faithful adaptation of the novel, the show is expectedly dark, sombre — disturbing, even. There are scenes of execution, torture, and a particularly intense depiction of a protest crackdown. It’s pretty depressing, and will ruin your week. But it’s really good TV.

The acting is superb, led by Elisabeth Moss (Peggy from Mad Men), whose impressive eye-ball acting is paralleled only by Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, and an excellent supporting cast. The production is top-notch, from the eerie costume and set designs (those drab, nauseating color schemes) to the sweeping cinematography.

But perhaps most importantly, the show successfully adopts the heavy feminist themes that are central to Atwood’s oeuvre (despite what the show’s [male] producer and its star think):

"It is a story about the ways in which women are oppressed in a society run by men for their own benefit (no one involved seems to have a problem with the word “patriarchy”), and about how certain women take advantage of the situation to ally themselves with male power for personal gain. It’s also full of warnings about the danger that comes from failing to recognize that such oppression is categorical, and gendered."

[For an excellent, spoiler-heavy recap of the show's premiere, and a compelling exploration of the ways in which misogyny informs  the power structures of Gilead, click here.]

However, much of the media attention showered on the show has focused not on the story’s feminist themes, but on how ‘timely’ or ‘prescient’ it is in the era of Trump. Predictably, this has led to a backlash of think-pieces, explaining in labored detail the unlikeliness of a Gilead. This seems to me a waste of everyone’s time.

Indeed, Atwood has many times described her work as “speculative fiction” that satirizes the social, political, and religious trends in North America. Describing The Handmaid’s Tale, she explains:

"This is a book about what happens when certain casually held attitudes about women are taken to their logical conclusions. For example, I explore a number of conservative opinions still held by many — such as a woman's place is in the home. And also certain feminist pronouncements — women prefer the company of other women, for example. Take these beliefs to their logical ends and see what happens."

By presenting an extreme vision of the future, good dystopian fiction, from 1984 to Brave New World, can effectively highlight or uncover the subtle (and not subtle) misogyny, or the hidden power structures, or the quiet injustices that characterize our society, and can inspire us to adopt a more critical political perspective. The defunding of Planned Parenthood, for example, is not going to lead to the 'farming’ of women, but it is a move based on the misogynist, Gilead-like assumption that the state, rather than women, ought to be the arbiter of reproductive rights.

That being said, Atwood has also pointed out that even the most disturbing aspects of Gilead, do in fact have precedents within the history of the Christian West:

"I made a rule for myself: I would not include anything that human beings had not already done in some other place or time, or for which the technology did not already exist. I did not wish to be accused of dark, twisted inventions, or of misrepresenting the human potential for deplorable behaviour. The group-activated hangings, the tearing apart of human beings, the clothing specific to castes and classes, the forced childbearing and the appropriation of the results, the children stolen by regimes and placed for upbringing with high-ranking officials, the forbidding of literacy, the denial of property rights: all had precedents, and many were to be found not in other cultures and religions, but within western society, and within the "Christian" tradition, itself."

In other words, The Handmaid’s Tale should not be understood as a roadmap to the future, but a symbol of our darkest instincts and our collective illusions.

Click here for a recent profile on Margaret Atwood, “The Prophet of Dystopia”.

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Canadaland's Contribution to the Media Landscape in Canada

I remember when Canadaland launched. At the time, its founder Jesse Brown described the podcast as a platform to provide substantive critiques of journalism in Canada, which he found lacking in the mainstream media.

During undergrad, I was the guy who used to go on long diatribes about the campus newspaper’s failure to properly cover stories, and on more than one occasion, would seek out journalists at the newspaper to criticize them personally on their lazy reporting. Naturally, I was thrilled with the emergence of Canadaland, and even tried (unsuccessfully) to convince another theread editor to quit his job and apply to work at the podcast in its early days.

But, my enthusiasm waned after the first year, and especially when Canadaland launched other platforms to discuss culture and politics — important topics that I think it does a poor job of covering (not to mention this exceptionally idiotic piece raising a non-existent conflict of interest between the judge in the Ghomeshi trial and Marie Henein because the judge’s son works at the same 100+ lawyer law firm as Henein’s brother). I still listen regularly, though I am much more critical of the positions taken and whether the most informed voices are included in the discussions.

Canadaland is at its best when it focuses on journalistic criticisms, wading behind the headlines to provide perspectives on the stories behind the stories, and the ethical issues that arise. This is the podcast’s contribution to the public discourse in Canada, which is both meaningful and unrivalled. Brown, both personally and through Canadaland, has helped to normalize critiques of journalists and their reporting, which is difficult in a country with a small journalism community and where news publications are highly concentrated.

Here are a few episodes over the last couple of months that demonstrate Canadaland’s significant contribution to the media landscape in Canada:

  • The Ugly Anglo” — an exploration of Quebec’s news media and its nuances, which is often overlooked by the rest of Canada (guests: Les Perreaux of the Globe and Collette Brin of Laval University).
  • Post-Postmedia” — what happens when Postmedia finally dies (guests: Kady O’Malley and Stephen Maher).
  • Who Buys a Newspaper Chain in 2017?” — Mark Lever’s purchase of 28 newspapers in Atlantic Canada is questioned in the context of the ongoing labour dispute at the Chronicle Herald, the publication Lever owns (guests: Stephen Kimber and Parker Donham).
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New Music from Rostam

The music video for ‘Gwan’ opens with Rostam walking through a Central Park underpass, then proceeds to take us around Manhattan: the steps of the High Line and the Met, the West Side Highway and Times Square at sunset, the narrow streets of Chinatown and the strangely empty ones of the West Village. It looks like it was filmed last week, with the cherry blossoms visible but light jackets still on, that chilly spring wind blowing.

When people say that cities are so crowded, that New York would drive them crazy, I want to show them this video. It is what it feels like to walk around the city after you find your spaces. Everyone else is just window-dressing, set extras under external direction, irrelevant to your own. Sure, Times Square is still unbearable, but the presence of people stops constantly intruding on your own solitude. With your headphones in, playing a song, maybe this song, on repeat, New York takes on a surreality that is liberating.

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Live Like Me (and Look at Me)

The New Yorker piece by Rachel Monroe on #vanlife explores the uneasy transition of a movement and lifestyle:

"There is an undeniable aesthetic and demographic conformity in the vanlife world. Nearly all of the most popular accounts belong to young, attractive, white, heterosexual couples. “There’s the pretty van girl and the woodsy van guy,” Smith said. “That’s what people want to see.” At times, the vanlife community seems full of millennials living out a leftover baby-boomer fantasy: the Volkswagens, the neo-hippie fashions, the retro gender dynamics."

She traces the roots of this type of lifestyle to the sense of unease the millennial generation has about finding work and meaning:

"The rise of contract and temporary labor has further eroded young people’s financial stability. “I think there’s a sense of hopelessness in my generation, in terms of jobs,” Foster Huntington said. “And it’s cheap to live in a van.” And so, like staycations and minimalism, vanlife is an attempt to aestheticize and romanticize the precariousness of contemporary life."

Another offshoot of a way to simplify life has been a concerted effort to live a minimalist lifestyle. In a piece in the NY Times, Jacoba Urist, outlines the challenges of living this type of life:

"Minimalism as a lifestyle creed is pretty simple: The less you own, the happier you’ll be. Pare down and declutter, the thinking goes, and your mind will have room to exhale. But minimalism is also meant to project taste, refinement and aesthetic knowledge."

The world made one more step towards minimalism with offering the sale of MUJI homes last week. The $27,000 homes that have less than 100 square foot are the next step to living a well-balanced, eco-friendly, packed-suitcase lifestyle.

Adopting a lifestyle that is based on aesthetics, and developing social capital can feel counter-intuitive to those that are about letting go.

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For Lower Maintenance, Plant More Plants in Less Mulch (Please, I'm Begging You)

I am sick of seeing straggly potentillas, some Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’, and a few conifers plunked in the middle of some squares of mulch be considered adequate landscaping jobs for front yards. It's embarrassing. And it’s not low maintenance.

You know what’s low maintenance? A deep bed of gravel on top of landscape fabric. Actually scratch that, in my experience you will still get weeds and self-sown delights such as poppies and violas. The will to live is strong in the plant world. But I digress...

For those of you who have decided you do like some plants and would perhaps enjoy sitting in a garden, but want to spare me the pain of having to look at your hideous seas of mulch (or god forbid, dyed mulch), might I entice you to spend a bit of time with Thomas Rainer?

In the past few years he has risen to prominence by advocating, alongside many others, for managing landscapes using a system or community of plants, as opposed to individuals. His book Planting in a Post-Wild World, written with Claudia West, expands on this idea and helps translate it for gardens of all sizes. Or you can take a peek at Rainer’s own urban front yard.

This week he was featured in the NYTimes in conversation with everyone’s favourite garden blogger, Margaret Roach.

"Start by looking for bare soil. It is everywhere in our gardens and landscapes. Even in beds with shrubs in them, there are often large expanses of bare soil underneath. It’s incredibly high-maintenance. It requires multiple applications of bark mulch a year, pre-emergent herbicides and lots and lots of weeding.

The alternative to mulch is green mulch — that is, plants. This includes a wide range of herbaceous plants that cover soil, like clump-forming sedges, rhizomatous strawberries or golden groundsel, and self-seeding columbine or woodland poppies.

The big shift in horticulture in the next decade will be a shift from thinking about plants as individual objects to communities of interrelated species. We think it’s possible to create designed plant communities: stylized versions of naturally occurring ones, adapted to work in our gardens and landscapes. This is not ecological restoration, it’s a hybrid of ecology and horticulture. We take inspiration from the layered structure in the wild, but combine it with the legibility and design of horticulture. It is the best of both worlds: the functionality and biodiversity of an ecological approach, but also the focus on beauty, order and color that horticulture has given us. It’s possible to balance diversity with legibility, ecology with aesthetics.

And it is a shift in how we take care of our gardens: a focus on management, not maintenance. When you plant in communities, you manage the entire plantings, not each individual plant. This is a pretty radical shift. It’s O.K. if a plant self-seeds around a bit, or if one plant becomes more dominant. As long as it fits the aesthetic and functional goals. We can do much less and get more."

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Elliotte Friedman is Boring

Last Wednesday, ESPN laid off roughly 100 of its 1000 ‘front-facing’ employees, including on-air reporters and long-time journalists. This most recent round of layoffs (300 employees were fired in October of 2015) is part of the network’s search to “cut costs and adapts to changing consumer habits, with fans increasingly watching video clips on their smartphones at the expense of traditional highlight shows like ‘SportsCenter.’”

It’s always a shame when journalists are laid off, especially those who are dropped in the midst of a lengthy and respected career. That being said, I’m not particularly surprised by the move, nor disappointed, from a purely selfish perspective. With the Oilers in the playoffs for the first time in a decade, I’ve been watching a lot of hockey on TV, and have noticed how distinctly boring the majority of the commentary is. Honestly, I’d much rather scroll through Instagram, or  get my sporting news from one of the newer, edgier sports publications like The Ringer, than listen to 4 men speak solemnly about hockey analytics (in their matching, vibrantly navy blue suits, I swear you can see Nick Kypreos slowly transforming into Elliotte Friedman, who in turn is slowly widening into Kelly Hrudey.)

Admittedly, this is mostly an NHL problem — hockey’s suppression of personality and controversy is well-charted. In fact, I was watching an American feed of the Raptors game last night, and found the banter between the panel during intermission far more laid back, and far more entertaining. There was even a segment that featured a clearly high 2 Chainz shooting hoops with Kevin Garnett. But alas, I’m sure that even Shaq making fun of Charles Barkley’s weight on a nightly basis eventually gets tiresome, too.

I want my sports coverage to be exciting, and dynamic. I want it to be controversial sometimes, and political. I want humor and edge. These are the things that make recent sports documentaries, like O.J.: Made in America or Last Chance U so damn good. And I’m not sure that mainstream sporting networks are currently equipped to break the mold.

So while I don’t celebrate the loss of these jobs, I am cautiously optimistic that the future of sport coverage might be moving in the right direction.

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Links From This Week's Thread

Trump Voter Feels Betrayed By President After Reading 800 Pages Of Queer Feminist Theory.

In an interview with Marc Maron, Mac DeMarco describes growing up in the “homophobic hockey town” of Edmonton: “It’s like cold Texas—even crazier.”

In France, a movement is growing to reject the two choices for president in the upcoming election. "Ni banquier, ni faschos," "Ni fascisme, ni libéralisme" and "Ni patrie, ni patron." All are expressions of their distaste for two wildly contrasting yet equally unacceptable options: Le Pen's nationalism and patriotism, and Macron's links to the financial world and the establishment”. Which begs the question: when did liberalism become as bad as fascism?

Wouldn’t it be amazing if the Internet operated like cable television? Where you had to pay for different levels of access and content? No. That would be fucking terrible, and undermine free expression and access online. But, that’s the trajectory that Donald Trump is orienting the United States towards. Not only are his appointees in the FCC seeking to do away with the net neutrality policies adopted by the Obama Administration, but they are also criticizing Canada for vigorously defending the principle.

In a follow up to our piece on working on coffee shops, HotBlack Coffee in Toronto has shut off its WiFi to customers.

China has banned certain religious names for babies in the western region of Xinjiang, home to  roughly half of China’s 23 million Muslims. This is part of a wider crackdown by the ruling Communist Party on what they deem religious extremism: “Young men are banned from growing beards in Xinjiang and women are forbidden from wearing face veils.”

The rise of right-wing populism in the USA and Europe has created renewed interest in the The Frankfurt School — an influential group of European neo-Marxist (and eventually left-democratic liberal) philosophers who focused on the threat of fascism in late-capitalist societies, and the oppressive effects of mass culture and entertainment: Ex. 1, Ex. 2, Ex. 3.

Trump continues to cozy up with Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte, whose authoritarian crackdown on drugs has killed an estimated 7,000 people. According to Human Rights Watch: “Trump should recognize that he has cut a bad deal for the people of both the United States and the Philippines if he rolls out the red carpet for a Duterte visit without carefully weighing the implications of hosting and toasting a foreign leader whose links to possible crimes against humanity for instigating and inciting extrajudicial killings has already prompted warnings from the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.”

Another gem from The New Yorker: Things I Learned About Finance Bros By (Briefly) Dating A Finance Bro

Susie Cagle addresses Facebook’s dystopic future much more concisely than the New York Times, and she does it in cartoon form!

Chrissy Teigen gives an open accounting of her postpartum depression.

In the US, courts are using proprietary software and algorithms to assist with sentencing and parole decisions, saying data can help identify the likelihood of future violence and recidivism. No worries though, criminal law and policing have never been racist, so the data is probably fine.

So you’ve decided to drink more water

ProPublica (with The New Yorker) doing excellent public service journalism with this piece on the immigrants who work in American chicken plants

Celebrating the heroic feats of immigrant aunties

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Amy Sanderson