[In Movie Trailer Man voice] "Picture a world where a TV show descends on our lives in such a monumental way because it never talks down to its audience, encourages fat-positive storylines, sparkles with snappy writing, deals with straight and queer relationships with unflinching honesty, and stars one of the most under-rated SNL comedians of the past decade."
This world is right now, friends, thanks to Shrill, a Hulu original based on the book of the same name by Seattle writer Lindy West, who rose to public attention when she wrote about being a fat woman in a society demanding body conformity, which is a surfacing theme in this fantastic show.
Why am I stanning so hard for Shrill? Aidy Bryant slays, firs of all. She was always a standout comedian IMO, especially when she showed her range on SNL. She can face-act with the best of them, and there's something about the realness of Bryant's personality that comes through in everything she does, especially in Shrill.
To go as spoiler-free as I can, Bryant stars as Annie Easton (Lindy West=Annie Easton...Get it?) a journalist for an alt-weekly paper called The Thorn, and also dipping her toes into a relationship with dopy Ryan (Luka Jones). Thing is, she's not really happy with either situation, the dating game made even worse when Ryan mumbles to Annie how he wants to keep it casual, just sex and nothing more committed than that.
Season 1 focuses on those dynamics, and flushes out Annie's passion to tunnel deeper into essay writing. She wants to discuss what it's like to be a fat woman in media and online, so much so there's this standout episode where a troll goes too far with Annie and she-
I'll stop myself there, for fear of your damn-you-for-spoiling-Shrill! hate mail. Let me just say, the writing is so sharp and realistic and crackling, it makes every episode a pure joy to watch. The recent second season flew by to me because each episode's pace never relented and the characters became even more compelling to follow.
One of my fave surprises in this show was discovering British actress Lolly Adefope, playing Annie's best friend Fran. Her queer relationships shift us into another perspective on what it means to be alone as a couple, to be single for the sake of avoiding pain, and navigating the awkwardness of being openly queer with conservative parents.
I don't remember seeing an entire TV series (as opposed to a scene or half an ep) that dealt with fat-shaming as confidently as Shrill has, and it's refreshing to hear Bryant's and West's perspectives on the struggles they faced growing up in a skinny-obsessed world. But what makes this show so nuanced is how it shines a light on the camaraderie these women feel with each other, made particularly clear in an episode starring a plus-sized pool party delighting Annie to no end.
For some reason, no one is talking about Shrill. I haven't talked to friends recommending it or seen Facebook posts from less-than-friends praising its binge-worthy glory. But I will. Gladly. It's a must-watch show no matter where your experience lies with dating, body image issues, struggling to make it as a writer. What matters is that Shrill is the definition of #realtalk, and gives a voice to marginalized groups of people who deserve to share their stories now more than ever.
When Joy Buolamwini, a PhD student at MIT, was conducting facial recognition experiments using artificial intelligence, she ran into one key setback: the technology couldn't accurately process her face. Investigating further, she found out that these programs struggle to register women more than men, and have a very difficult time identifying black or brown faces.
When Buolamwini places a white mask over her face and again used the facial recognition software, the AI immediately identified what was in front of the camera as a face.
She realized the AI has a race problem: Because machine learning is only as robust as the dataset fed into its system, allowing it to recognize objects or people based on the photos already in its "brain," if the information it's given is of only white faces, it won't recognize black faces. And because AI tech is predominantly created by white male scientists and engineers, very few diverse photos are used to develop the foundation of AI datasets.
Buolamwini's story is the main current running through the new documentary Coded Bias, debuting in Canada at the online Hot Docs Film Festival. Directed by Shalini Kantayya, who previously quarterbacked a doc on clean energy, Coded Bias uncovers the dirty secret behind AI, and not just what Buolamwini discovered about facial recognition's bias.
A slew of other algorithm-based technologies push out diverse populations: trained automated risk profiling systems disproportionately identify Latinx people as illegal immigrants; credit scoring algorithms disproportionately select black people as risks and prevent them from buying homes, getting loans, or finding jobs.
Boulamwini told Frontline in 2019 (a quote which isn't part of the doc): "When these systems fail, they fail most the people who are already marginalized, the people who are already vulnerable. And so when we think about algorithmic bias, we really have to be thinking about algorithmic harm. That’s not to say we don’t also have the risk of mass surveillance, which impacts everybody. We also have to think about who’s going to be encountering the criminal justice system more often because of racial policing practices and injustices."
That's why she and other like-minded AI analysts formed the Algorithmic Justice League in order to publicize the racial and gender bias embedded within AI systems. This is the kind of civic action that can be encouraging to those who think certain technologies will always hide in the shadows, their inner workings shrouded in mystery, only to spit out results that the public accepts without question.
The film also goes across the pond in London to profile Silkie Carlo, the director of Big Brother Watch, an organization that monitors the use of facial recognition A.I by British law enforcement. Carlo explains how civilian civil liberties are violated with this technology, and points out the growing number of citizens being misidentified. For example, Big Brother Watch found that the use of photo biometrics produced 2% identification accuracy for the Metropolitan police force, while South Wales police is only 8% accurate.
Coded Bias does a fantastic job in warning us about the sly racism found in technologies that will only become more popular in the coming decade. After all, we have AI tech embedded in Siri/Alex, camera phones, chatbots, Google Images, etc, and if we want to level the playing field and ensure racism doesn't creep further into this sector, we can't just stand still.
What I would have liked to see more of in this film, though, is the perspective of those white male scientists creating AI tech for major firms such as Amazon and Google. Are they going to bring more diversity to their datasets? How do they respond to Boulamwini's discovery? If there is going to be change in this field, the major companies have to own up to their own biases, but we never get to hear them on camera explain their position.
This doc is inspiring for those us who have long been interested in AI and its future. But it's also frightening to recognize how biased this innovation can be, and how the determination of researchers such as Boulamwini and her Algorithmic Justice League could tip the scales to favour racialized voices who have long been discriminated against offline and now online within AI systems, too.
You can still catch Coded Bias on the Hot Docs website by purchasing tickets to stream the film here.
This is tough. Perhaps tougher than you thought it would be. It definitely has been a learning experience for me, as I recognize both the power and loneliness of stillness, of having more time for self-reflection, and also how much I miss social experiences and simply seeing another neighbourhood than my own. I've thankfully gone through some ground-breaking moments, such as coming up with some intriguing ideas for future creative projects, but I've also lulled myself into boredom when the work day has come to a close.
Netflix and reading have often become my nighttime habits, along with watching Raptors highlights on YouTube, but I also found a few ways to entertain and educate myself during this pandemic. What's the point of wallowing in self-pity and doing the same old when you can see a few silver linings among all the grey clouds?
When I first began writing as a journalist, I was worried. I had spent years believing I would grow up to become a fiction novelist or creative writer of some importance, and here I was delving into media law and CP style and wondering if my passion for writing fiction would wane in light of my new workload at Ryerson University's School of Journalism.
I shouldn't have been so anxious. What training as a journalist gave me was discipline, a trait I took for granted when I wrote almost daily in high school. I loved writing as novelist with zero stakes pressuring me to do so, but when I had to write for a deadline, that challenge instilled in me the will to make that date, no late hand-in's allowed.
When I later worked full-time as a journalist, both as a freelancer and a writer for Digital Journal, I began to see more clearly the value of deadlines as a creative writer. I knew I didn't have any "hard" date that I needed to finish a poem by, say, but I began to place that on myself so I wouldn't get lazy or wait for the Muse (whoever that is) to grace me with her divine inspiration.
It almost feels like a game, now that I think about it: make an arbitrary date to finish a haiku or short story, put my ass in a chair because that's where it belongs when you're a writer, and work on the piece like I'm writing an article that requires that same kind of steadfast focus. It likely wasn't a sparking first draft, but, as Anne Lamott says, "Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend."
You might think that deadline add unnecessary stress to a relaxing hobby such as writing. But it's still a craft fuelled by a regiment dependent on not just God-given talent but also the hunger to get better. And you don't get to be a strong writer by writing whenever an idea strikes, but also when you don't want to write.
I'll likely write another post or two on what else journalism has taught me about creative writing beyond the discipline of it all, but for now, I want to share with you some advice: If you're a poet or novelist or playwright and you're looking for a stable (somewhat, especially now) career that also harnesses your skills, try journalism. As a creative writer, you're a storyteller, no matter what your project is, and the same holds true when you work as a news reporter.
Got something to say about this post? I'd love to hear your feedback on Twitter or Facebook!
Like a streetcar doing the motions, waving hi and bye at the party.
Like a shy street, all coy and dimples, knees touching in awkward glee, never stepping into the sunlight like this before.
Like a cough executioned with a dagger glance. Watch what comes out of your mouth in more ways than one.
Like a baby in a stroller just suddenly making you ferklempt, choking up a cauliflower in your throat, could it be that you hate seeing someone so innocent and clueless be living in the same era of an invisible enemy wiping out broad strokes of people, and scaring everyone else?
Like Facebook posts begging for Netflix recommends, like an IG story loaded with so many dashes because what the fuck else is there to do?
Like 20 minutes watching Pheonix Suns guard Devin Booker play Fortnite because right now you'll take any dust mite of competition, something to just powder your palate, even though you really don’t get Fortnite. And let's be honest, you don't really like Devin Booker either.
Like also not getting how to fund your social wallet with enough currency to keep you afloat. And you don’t need much. A drunken high-five, a chill poetry cypher outside the Drake, a smattering of tennis with Andrew.
Like scrolling on Twitter for five minutes and realizing you now have five minutes worth of new tweets that could reveal vital information nuggets about how upside-down today is about to get. Again. It won’t make you feel better. Just overwhelmed, like you ordered too much at the BBQ place on Gerrard East and now you’re just stuck with brisket breath and chicken-wing sweats.
Like more masks and less small talk at farmers markets. Oh wait, there are no more farmer markets.
Like sunsets the colour of a fresh baseball glove.
Like a skateboarder smiling as gracefully as his curving ride along the middle of a deserted street.
Like two strangers walking towards each other on the street, now stepping into a new odd dance, of oh, excuse me, let me go wider around you, oh, you're widening? ok, I'll just walk straight, don't make eye contact, cool cool cool.
Like a run for coffee feels so risky you actually swell with dumb pride when you bound out of Timmys, clutching your trophy until your skin screams.
Like unearthing recipes gathering more dust than your Metropass.
Like a raccoon's scream actually being welcomed under the cemetery of midnight. You'll take any sound right now.
Few books have me dog-earing pages and scrambling to a new Word doc to type several sentences that strike me right away. But when an engaging non-fiction book pulls me by the eyeballs into its compendium of factoids, I can't resist, and that's how I felt reading Bill Bryson's new book The Body: A Guide for Occupants.
I've always enjoyed Bryson's work, especially Mother Tongue which broke down the history and nuances of the English language. He has an attractive technique of simplifying complex topics so much so you crave this kind of teacher could multiply himself into every classroom around the world.
I've always been fascinated by biology and I regret never taking science beyond grade 10 but I like to think I can compensate for those poor decisions by dedicating some of my reading time to non-fiction as educational as it is compelling. So below are 10 facts (among many more) I learned about the human body that may also open your eyes to what's swirling madly under our skin:
I tried to tally the total amount of shows I've hosted since I began taking the stage in this capacity around 20 years ago, when I first brought Suburban Spoken Word to North York. It has to be in the 200s, garnished by my MC duties at weddings, workshops, tech conference panel discussions at the Future of Media, etc.
Due to my retirement from Toronto Poetry Slam this month, I wanted to take a moment to offer advice to anyone who wants to try this whole hosting thing, or wants to polish their on-stage skills if they're already on the mic (and not just at poetry slams but comedy shows, conferences, benefits, etc.).
Below are some tips I'd recommend following, and if you have any questions about any of the advice below, contact me anytime.
Getting on stage as a performer is one thing; taking the mic as a host is another platform altogether, one that many in the audience take for granted. It might seem simple to host an event, but in reality you need to recognize the many ways you can make a show sparkle with your personality and banter chops.
Listen. I know going into the Continental guns a-blazing I had a very good chance of getting instantly murdered by John Wick. He's barely broken a sweat in the past 200 kills. And yeah, we're the kind of gang that knows what we're up against but, unlike many of my sad-sack mates, I was brimming with confidence when I crept into that basement pool area, scope out, focus on-point, ready to take down this dude who's been easily plowing through us with this gun-ninja shit.
I mean, can he just maim us instead of straight-blasting our brains? I thought he was going to spare Jordan, Kill #89 but badass Baba Yaga wanted a perfect kill count, doesn't he? What a dick.
So here I am with protective vests and one heckuva helmet to shield me from any of his bullets, but of course John Wick throws me into a pool so he can show off another cool slaying. As if shooting my buddies while hanging off a horse careening through NYC wasn't brazen enough!
I'm heading to the pool area when I hear a flurry of shots - of course - and the grunts of my guys going down super quick. Almost too quick. So when I see Wick fighting with Derrick, or was it Teddy, damn, everyone looks the same under that boring body armour. I jump into this weirdo fighting us in a black suit with his tie cinched to his neck like he's about to hit up a book launch on the Upper West Side.
Within a second, Wick shoots me twice in the stomach, but he knows I have that armour on so he throws me in the pool. Alrighty, I got a chance here! Some separation between me and Wick underwater means we're almost on equal footing and so I blast him a couple times but he dodges the bullets blazing super slow in the pool, for some dumb ass reason. Almost...Matrix-like, dare I say.
Thing is, I had a chance here!
But maybe that's what Jordan or Derrick or Teddy thought too.
As he does with every one of us lackeys, Wick grabs me by the neck, pulls up my helmet so he can press his muzzle against the back of my head and KABLAM! just like that I'm John Wick Kill #276 out of 299, just another notch on a belt that this bastard somehow uses to also fuck up trained assassins.
This guy could kill you with a ketchup packet and fingernail clippings.
A plume of blood clouding the pool and I'm just an afterthought. Nine second of airtime. That's all I got.
But at least I was the Pool Kill. The Guy John Wick Killed In Such a Cool Way in the Hotel Pool. Or so I saw on reddit. Not even an IMDB credit though. Man, it's hard out here for a John Wick corpse.
If there's any outdated, overplayed, under-whelming, uber-awkward and unnecessarily aggressive segment in live sports, it's the Kiss Cam. Why it still endures to entertain crowds at NBA, NFL and other games is beyond me. Call me an outsider, but I was never entertained by a shtick urging a couple to kiss on camera.
Frankly, it sucks. And I'm not talking about the sloppy kisses some guys lay on their girlfriends or wives.
The Kiss Cam doesn't do it for me as a respite from the in-game action. I'd rather have T-shirts blasted into my face from a makeshift cannon.
Watching forced kissing is oh so painful to watch at times too, when a couple refuses to kiss for...whatever reason. They don't have to tell us why they don't want to smooch in front of thousands of strangers. Maybe the Raptors game is their couples therapy. Or, dare I say it, the two affectionate people on camera aren't lovers but siblings or good friends and KISSING IS THE LAST THING THEY WANT TO DO.
I know what you're thinking. Killjoy Dave, out to PC-ify another entrenched bastion of fun and playfulness designed to be harmless entertainment.
Sure, it's supposed to be fun to watch but it really isn't, when you compare the Kiss Cam to dancing toddlers, air-guitar-playing seniors, karaoke-loving super-fans. I think the Kiss Cam remains a key cog in the routine of in-game segments because it always has been, much like that halftime show starring a woman who can balance cups and dishes on her head until she resembles the Leaning Tower of Fine China.
But just because something has always been a tradition doesn't mean it should continue without question. The Kiss Cam had its moment in the spotlight, for whatever reason, but it's time for the brains behind sports teams and stadiums to get with the times and stop turning to a bit that has overstayed its welcome.
All arena producers and marketers should come up with original and refreshing interludes that are still enjoyable to watch but don't push people to do something they may not want to do, extending that uncomfortable feeling onto an audience.
Do all fans really get a kick out of seeing consensual boundaries get torn down by a nosy camera and an announcer insistently yelling "Kiss kiss kiss!"? I sure don't, and I doubt I'm alone.
When I was a kid, I had no intention of stepping foot back into the classroom as a teacher, even on an ad hoc basis. But that's exactly what I did in the past 10 years, developing myself both as a poet and an educator by visiting classrooms to teach classes about spoken word poetry.
That's not the only angle in my life jutting out from a path I always thought I'd go down: journalist, event organizer, host, sometimes social media manager. But isn't that the fun thing about life? You juke when you thought you just needed to sprint. You smell something new in the air when you try to develop yourself, whether spiritually, intellectually or artistically.
In the '10s, I wanted to dip my toes into theatre. I had a lot of performing spoken word on stage, but something was missing. That longform style of storytelling spoke to me as a journalist, and its appeal began to shine on me when I thought of how I need to stop writing for a stopwatch (slam poets, where you at?!) and give oxygen to a deeper segment of my life. And that piece of me I rarely showed the world was my relationship to Judaism.
Thankfully, writing and performing my solo show Jewnique was enriching for both me and audiences. I still can't believe I've memorized a 60-minute show. I had a blast bringing this "performance journalism" show to life, so much so I know I'm going to be digging deeper into which other stories I can tell in a solo show.
Another risk I took was trying to write poetry with a flavour somewhat new to my pen, er, Macbook: sci-fi poetry. Or spec poetry, depending which era you were born in. Kelp Queen Press asked for a poetry collection where I could weave in sci-fi, horror and fantastical themes, which was one heckuva challenge. Sure, I love me my Clive Barker and Harlan Ellison and Salman Rushdie-esque magic realism, but to write an entire 30-poem book of that stuff?
Sure. Why the hell not?
For my book, As Close to the Edge Without Going Over, to receive the reception it got, to inspire my friends and family to support my first collection...I was verklempt, as my people say. Overjoyed to the point of welled tears. I don't often feel my work in my hands in print, since my journalism usually lives online instead of in mags and newspapers, and surely this nicely-bound book was a sign of the trust I had in myself. The trust to stretch my imagination. To develop range in a craft I truly never thought would be so entwined in my everyday.
Which brings me to a braid that I will soon be unbraiding, a risk I'm taking since, well, it's so new for me to step down from this lifelong hobby. In 2020, I'm stepping down as artistic director of Toronto Poetry Slam, which I founded 14 years ago. A review of how the past decade has affected would be riddled with holes if I didn't be straight up with how the show I founded has inspired me immensely. From the talent on stage who shared such a big piece of themselves with us every slam at the Drake to the fellow organizers at Toronto Poetry Project making this slam what it is, I am never going to take for granted the role the slam scene has had in opening my eyes to the beauty inside this beautiful community.
Part of the vision of building Toronto Poetry Slam to where it is today included the passing of the guard. You always want to say goodbye to a role like producer and host when you're not sick of the scene, when you're still enjoying your time at the show and with the volunteers and fellow organizers. So I know I'm leaving at the right time, when TPS is still on top in many ways, when the love for our shows at the Drake (and our workshops) is at an impressive high.
Also, I've never known an adult year of my life NOT running poetry shows. Ride-or-die friends will remember my Suburban Spoken Word series in Thornhill where it all began, where I got the bug to curate poetry shows, no matter if 10 or 150 people showed up. So yeah, it'll be a nice departure from a norm I've experienced non-stop for 20 years. Change can be good for the soul.
My last slam as artistic director and member of TPP will be at our Finals on February 22 at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, and if there's any place that makes me feel at home it's with 600 folks looking forward to hearing poetry on a Saturday night. God, that sounds as cheesy as deep-dish when I write that, but it's true. The lovers of words, the finger-snapping fans of open-heart poetry, these are my people, no matter what my position is in the community.
I've grown so much by taking these risks as an artistic poet and writer and organizer. I've learned about when to submerge myself in a project, and when to say no (like that time I left a podcast project I knew was going to soak up too much of my time). I leaned into trusting my instincts, despite the nagging chirps of disapproval buzzing into my ear. I tried out initiatives I simply wanted to see exist, even if I had no prior training to bring these ideas to life, like my Pitch Like a Pro journalism workshops on how to make it as a freelance writer. I found the courage to look more introspectively into what I want to be as a creative person, even if I thought that answer was always "poetry and creative nonfiction", like a fortune cookie that just spoke the same refrain every meal.
Looking into a new year, a new decade, I feel an energy I haven't felt for awhile. Maybe it's due to the many more outlets at my disposal, like how I've been thinking about a new idea for a solo show, or how this movie script idea has been tugging at my attention more than I thought, and I could see some new platforms attracted me to give them a whirl in the coming year. After all, staying static is boring. It's why it puts us to sleep.
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