Science reporting on flu

It’s that time of year when all good science-based critical thinkers share articles about flu vaccine and unintentionally dissuade fence-sitters from getting the jab.

When dealing with a species that remembers facts by going through the emotional centers of the brain first it’s no wonder that we often react on instinct more than fact. Science thinkers have spent years training their brains to work differently from the average person. Which is why, I think, they are sometimes bad at communicating with the average person.

Huge needles
Cold and clinical, devoid of feeling.
When people are pictured they look anxious.
Or otherwise in the throes of faking flu misery for the camera.

You get it. You’ve seen these images hundred of times at the start of flu season. Usually attached to a fact-based article with good intentions, or — and please don’t be one of these people — a fear-mongering article full of cherry-picked statistics designed to scare you away from vaccination.

As I tend to know a fair number of people who make a living communicating science facts to the public I’ve made it a small personal mission to ask them to share their flu facts with photos that feature HEALTHY people not sick people — the vaccine helps keep us healthy but you wouldn’t know it based on the photos attached to the average article or FAQ poster. And please don’t feature the needle because a lot of regular folks are scared of those and an article featuring a needle is guaranteed not to get as many shares.

Once in a while I get a true science nerd like the science journalist I asked to reconsider his photo policy last week who responded by asking if I have any evidence that the photo makes a difference. What an excellent question. Actually, no. There are heaps of sociological studies that investigate what increases vaccination rates among specific populations but nothing about how the science is reported.

So the evidence is my gut and personal experience. But you have to admit that when you look at this photo the CDC connected to their seasonal piece about flu vaccine you have a different emotional response than you do to the images above.

That smiling face makes a huge difference.

The push back from science types wondering why I would even bother to suggest this small but important change in their reporting frustrates me. They will bemoan the stupidity of the masses for getting the facts wrong but I think they’re missing the crucial emotional element in their effort. It’s a deeply human mechanism that their fear-mongering anti-vaxxers have no issue co-opting for their own goals. And I think this oversight is why the side with reality is losing ground in the fight to spread vaccine not bullshit.

[If you do know of studies that show the effect of imagery used — to either result — please let me know and I will link it in this piece. I’ve searched over the years and never found one.]

Reflections on 9/11 and all that

We just passed the 11th of September, a date where many native New Yorkers avoid social media because we don’t want to see images that can still trigger PTSD. Falling Man in particular will never be okay for me — even linking to that amazing piece of writing made my hands shaky.

Also on social media one finds the polarizing effect of the Concept of 9/11 writ large. You’ll find lefties and libertarians lamenting the way 9/11 was used to strip individual freedom and you’ll find right-wing types posting “never forget” patriotic memes.

The USA just keeps getting weirder and more polarized. It’s now in a state I call the Cold War Civil War. Every topic has two sides, no nuance, and lots of anger.

Listen, some posts on my website are intended for my children to know my thoughts even after I’m gone. A repository for mommy’s OPINIONS about all sorts of topics. Because I’m an opinionated person. So I suppose it’s time for me to set down my thoughts about a momentous historical event. Particularly since I lived through it. But I admit that I avoid the topic and any discussions of 9/11. People have strong individual attachments to the event and I don’t like to impose my own sadness on whatever they’re feeling.


Then you see the “real patriots” jump down the throats of people like my friend above when they post what I consider a perfectly apt response to the way 9/11 is used by the dominant culture in America to foment more conflict. She got a huge lecture from relations and older Americans about how the country came together in the weeks following the attack and how real patriots simply wish lefties would be unified behind the president and the nation once again.

What a load of bollocks. We were never unified.

In the days after 9/11 New Yorkers (read: liberal elites) were terrified. One of the dominant things they were most scared about was how the horrible President Bush (fils) would use the attack as an excuse to wage war on brown people. How they’d use it to strip our individual liberties. And most lefties I know weep at how all of their worst fears came to pass.

New Yorkers were disgusted by the makeshift tables of swag set up down at Ground Zero for tourists to purchase Twin Tower pins and ‘never forget’ hats. They were even more appalled that this weird pilgrimage to the crater became sanctioned as a kind of patriots’ march to Mecca. People who hate New York and everything that city stands for will travel to NYC just to go do all the things 9/11. It’s super gross. Reminds me of what we know of how people behaved at public executions.

When I was in NYC this past summer with my girls my eldest did ask me why we were skirting the area and not going in with the crowds to go and visit the giant fountains. Not realizing the depth of my animus I did launch into a monologue about how it cost half a billion dollars to build a massive water-wasting hole in the ground during a time of climate crisis. How it costs $60 million a year to operate and don’t NYC public schools and mass transit need that attention more than a memorial for what was ultimately only a few people?

My fiscal anger used to only get set off when passing the Irish Hunger Memorial (measly millions to create and operate by comparison) because there are no longer starving people in the world the Americans can afford to build a hillock on a city block to honor the dead of long ago? What a tremendous waste of civic energy.

After listening to my 9/11 Memorial rant for a while my eldest wisely suggested that the City of New York should have built an international food court instead “because everyone loves food” and the symbolism of tourists from all over the world coming together in a place where people were murdered over ideological differences and breaking bread instead and celebrating the food of many cultures would be far better and more satisfying than operating a giant hole in the ground. I had to agree with her.

I do understand how the “real patriots” feel about 9/11 though. I felt the same way in the days immediately after the attack. I wanted revenge. I wanted to stay in my pit of anger because it was easier to feel that than to feel pain. Riding mass transit we saw fights break out with an explosive anger that New Yorkers don’t normally exhibit. I was in a rage. I had witnessed people get murdered by unknown brown people and if I’d been a bit more racist, a bit more testosterone fueled, and a bit less heartbroken, and a bit more drunk I expect I could have done something stupid like vandalizing a nearby business that represented the enemy in my mind. When they flashed images of middle easterners celebrating and told us that was because they were happy Americans had been hurt I was livid. Just like other “real” Americans. I was too emotional at the time to recognize that we were getting played.

It took a few days but eventually my seething anger settled and I was able to start mourning enough to recognize the government was using it as an excuse to wage war. The eternal war of the USA. Keeping citizens controlled through fear.

In fact, I’ll tell you the exact thing I said when I watched the second tower collapse in real time (oddly watched most of it standing in a replica of a 1960s TV lounge with my museum colleagues). “Well. We’re all Israeli now.” What I meant was we were now always in a state of conflict. F-15s buzzed overhead as though to punctuate the thought. Something I never expected to see in the skies over NYC.

In the days that followed I quickly realized the enemy was the fear and the way people were handing control to the government. The enemy was not fellow (brown) citizens or foreigners with evil intent.

Cliche and yet we don’t internalize it enough.

My friend on Facebook was also told earlier this week that she wasn’t old enough at the time of 9/11 to permit her to have a valid or accurate opinion on the matter. As someone who was plenty old enough I will reiterate that I am not here to tell you how to feel about the event. Some things are big enough that they have an impact on everyone and I am not here to tell you how to feel about it. I am here to tell you that once feeling has been burned in you need to take a beat and think about it. A lot of real patriots seem to forget that second step.

A few days after 9/11, I was trying to get back to normalcy and I went to a screening of Black Hawk Down with an Australian friend. Not realizing the depth of the trauma I’d suffered I was shocked to experience what turned out to be my very first panic attack after the movie. I went into the lobby with my friend after the film and after he’d left my chest went tight when I was left alone. A piece of paper on the floor of the movie theater lobby set off memories of papers and ash flying in the air and I started hyperventilating. Now, mind you, I was not even near the Twin Towers when they fell. I was all the way up in Queens watching from the relative safety of my workplace at the Museum of the Moving Image. But all of the war images in this movie set me off. Because my city felt like a war zone. And soon my entire nation would feel like one, too.

Clearly, it would be a while before I was okay with any of it. It appears it’s taken me nearly twenty years to even write this post. So for a lot of us, the events of 9/11 are woven into our psyche so deep it’s almost too difficult to process it.

One of my friends worked clean up at the site and called me because he’d collected an arm off a rooftop earlier in the day and needed someone to talk to who wouldn’t fall apart when talking about grisly stuff. I had the honor. I shared in his nightmare day. He wept and I held it together. I thought I was fine until I had that panic attack a few days later. A coworker was dating a cop at the time and she had a similar experience, he called her weeping and almost unable to explain what he’d witnessed at the crash site. Some of us stood in the hallway and watched her take the call. Her face passive as she repeated what he was saying to her. “You’re worried you’re breathing in bits of the people. I understand. It’s probably just cement, honey.”

Then, we spent the following decades witnessing people who don’t even live in NYC use our personal nightmare to wage perpetual war. We watched them spend millions of dollars to honor the dead and turn the entire nation into a war zone. Except worse because instead of empowering citizens like a real military family they treat them like children and keep them scared so they can be more easily controlled.

Having excellent episodic memory skills kinda sucks sometimes.

Weeks later, I was in Grand Central Terminal waiting for a subway. I stood on the platform, nearby one other young guy around my age. It was very late. Suddenly, a dozen soldiers (cops?) in full fatigues and assault rifles rushed the platform and told us to get down. The dude and I both hit the deck. His eyes met mine and his face became permanently imprinted into my memory by our shared moment of fear and vulnerability. It was yet another bomb scare but we didn’t know that at the time. We were waiting for an explosion.

We stayed on the ground, only our heads lifted, he with his arms over his head as though we were getting arrested, holding eye contact with me and keeping our wits about us until the soldiers helped us up and instructed us to clear the area. No trains running. We stumbled upstairs in a daze. The young man and I worked our way up through the station as silent wraiths, amazed by the complete emptiness of even the main concourse. Outside in the cold October pre-dawn our eyes were blinded by dozens of flashing lights from emergency vehicles surrounding the train station. The stranger at my side and I parted ways as we went searching for taxis to take us home. “See ya,” he said. And I still do. Forever. United by our lizard brain terror. I can only hope his fear didn’t make him grow up to vote Republican.

Fringe fest chamber opera

One of the great joys of being an artist is knowing other creators and seeing their new works on opening night.

I briefly worked with talented Roan Shankaruk who is leaving us shortly to study with Tracy Dahl at the University of Manitoba. But before jetting off, Roan created a chamber opera now showing at the Vancouver Fringe Festival entitled The Woman Who Borrowed Memories that I encourage you to attend.

The Woman Who Borrowed Memories, Dinah Ayre and Roan Shankaruk

Based on a short story by beloved Finnish writer Tove Jansson, The Woman Who Borrowed Memories is akin to the campy thriller film Single White Female crossed with the music and mood of Riders to the Sea.

Riders to the Sea

It’s rare to see opera that passes The Bechdel Test as this one manages to do. This is essentially two women in an increasingly claustrophobic room discussing old times and old flames and old friends with a pervasive sense of menace. Even discussions about men, the unseen ex boyfriend Sebastian for instance, takes on a glint of potential violence.

Ultimately, Roan creates an exploration of gentle madness, the kind that keeps many women locked inside a prison of their own making. Her Wanda character, safe in her small apartment behind multiple locks, reminds me most of Miss Havisham. Havisham and Wanda are visions of horror written specifically to spook women. A future unfulfilled — passion tamped down or else merely borrowed. Or worse — stillborn. Wanda’s inertia threatens to drown anyone who falls into her vortex of anxiety and toxic nostalgia.

Roan succeeded in sending a chill up my spine with merely two women singing to each other in a small room. Brava.

On moths and butterflies

As we watched a moth banging against the bathroom window my youngest asked me to reflect on the difference between moths and butterflies two nights ago and I confessed that I had no idea.

Good ol’ internet tells me the difference is that butterflies rest with wings closed while moths rest with wings open. I admit that this is the last difference that would have come to my mind. I had focused on diurnal versus nocturnal behaviors and a moth’s tendency to fly based on the light of the stars. Moths apparently also make a “silky” cocoon while butterflies use a famously shiny chrysalis.

The kids always come up with the most delightful questions and I enjoy it when I get stumped. Like last year when the oldest asked me if butterflies pee. In fact, they do release a water when they’ve taken in too much moisture from nectar. Which I joked was a delicacy among faeries and used by witches in their love potions. “It’s terribly difficult to get a butterfly to pee. You have to have the patience of a witch.” Which has become a shorthand in our household. “I was so patient, Mom. I was like a witch waiting for a butterfly to pee.”

Guilt. The white kind.

We all step in it sometimes. Social faux pas after social faux pas. As a big talker — hello @bigmouthdiva — I step in it all the time. I get unfriended and unfollowed on social media quite often. As someone who cracks jokes and has big opinions and tries to put myself at ease with patter I do have a tendency to offend. But I think it’s okay. It’s better to step in a mess than avoid it altogether.

I’m not suggesting white people go into black spaces and take over, but didn’t I learn a ton about USA life by attending meetings of African-American organizations over the years? Did I go with an open heart and try to lend my ear and then signal boost the message I found there? Was a large chunk of my social identity not formed by the marginalized voices of America?

It was starting out with a bit of an advantage as I was an outsider as the French kid in a New York school and later a Yankee in a southern school. Already ostracized in some ways and literally told to “go back where you came from” on a regular basis I was free to move into any social groups I wanted to explore. I’d always be the freak. The group that was the most welcoming to a drama queen like me happened to be the LGBT+ community and from there I learned self acceptance in the face of all opposition. Self acceptance even in the face of hatred from ones own kin. Freaks must develop a spine of stainless steel.

That lesson, one I learned young and leaned on during dark times (a lesson of self love that keeps me grateful to the queer community in more ways than I can count) is also what allowed me to listen to the voices of other marginalized groups and to absorb those messages of acceptance in the face of racism.

But then there was white guilt among my own people. White guilt when they talk about being fearful of stepping on toes or offending or getting crushed by call-out culture. These are all perfectly legitimate fears and yet they’re bullshit. That guilt is really fear of being uncomfortable and it prevents most people with social capital from attempting to understand people they don’t know as well as their own community. Most often their own community is one comprised of folks that look and sound and earn like themselves.

Embrace your otherness. Visit communities where you do not fit in. Listen and learn and set aside your discomfort. Do not ask your black friend to guide you, go it alone and know what it’s like for marginalized groups when they’re expected to operate in the dominant culture. Feel it in your bones. Sink into your otherness. See what you can learn from communities that are not like your own.

So no matter how many people I offend I will continue to try with my whole heart. From the first time I worked as the only white person at an all African-American nonprofit when I was sixteen years old and then a TV show about a local subculture followed by even more places where I did not really fit in, until the near future where I am somehow helping to teach white kids about our local indigenous community (Me? Yeah, okay, sure.) I’ll keep putting myself out there. Because guilt is useless if it isn’t occasionally set aside in favor of healing action.

Sam Chardin Vancouver Mom Top 30 Blogger

Yours truly was honored to be a part of the Top 30 Mom Bloggers in Vancouver by and given the opportunity to mingle with a group of motivated writer moms. If there’s one skill I’ve perfected it’s how to parallel park. Second to that is working a room and meeting new people at an awards event.

Rule #1 for attending an awards show: Only attend if you’re nominated or presenting. I learned the hard way attending awards show in Hollywood that unless I have a reason to be there I will hate it. Also, go with the goal of meeting three new interesting people.

Tip #2: Dress for the camera not the room.
You better believe my many years with movie stars taught me how to test an outfit by photographing it; with flash and all. Polaroid used to be particularly useful for this purpose as it was unflattering and revealed any material that might be translucent with a flash pop. For the room I was overdressed but for the camera I was spot on. That’s a polka-dot pun, my sweeties.

Tip #3 Make friends with the photographer
This isn’t merely self serving. Angela Hubbard Photography was working her dang butt off and I want to always acknowledge and celebrate the hard work of those who are running around with equipment making us look fabulous. She said, “I never have my photo taken!” and that’s precisely why we’re posing together, honey.

Tip #4 You’re there to celebrate your achievement so don’t hide.
Now, I have been caught mid-sneeze in a group photo and that’s always a sad moment, but the one thing I can control is not to hide away. Flaunt. There is room for all of us to show it off.

Tip #5 Take photos with the banner.
Years from now you will have forgotten what this event was for in your albums full of red-carpet events. Attending so many cool events I had to learn to take a picture of myself in front of the event poster in order to keep track.

Tip #6 Wear comfortable shoes.
Because life is too short to be uncomfortable.

Singing tips

Some of us are born with a nice singing voice, but regardless of natural ability there are things we can do that will improve our ability. Whether you’re singing on a stage or around a campfire, don’t be shy about practicing and leveling up.

Firstly, whether you’re new or not you should always rehearse with scales. Warming up is important but the reason why singers doing scales is a cliche is that you’re looking to push into the edges of your ability. Just as an athlete works out their muscles to exhaustion so they can get stronger, you want to sing to just beyond your comfort in your high and low notes. This will expand your range and strengthen your ability. Don’t expect your very high and very low notes to sound good when you’re practicing. You’re not looking for beauty here, only expansion.

While you’re practicing, move around sometimes. It’s important to keep moving and flowing while you’re singing. This helps solidify your technique and will force you to stop thinking about what you sound like. When I was stuck in my head I had a coach make me do rolls across the stage while we were working on an aria. You don’t have to get that wacky with it but squats and even some dancing can be helpful to release areas of tension.

Visualizing helps me and I find this one particularly helpful:

The power line is the breathing on the vowel, which never stops releasing a steady stream of air. The birds are the consonants of the word, which blocks the vowel but does not stop the flow of air or sound. The exception to this is a staccato sound but most of the time we’re expected to create a bel canto sustained and smooth tone. The power line is the air always creating a tone, the birds don’t stop the sound, they merely touch down on the power line of constant sound, they don’t stop it completely.

It’s also important to learn your own range and voice type. Once you know yours then a lot of your song choices will fall into place. Note that your voice type is probably not the one you’re attracted to listening to most of the time. It’s almost a perverse truism that we prefer to listen to the voices of people who do not sound like ourselves. For example, my partner kills at karaoke but had a tendency to choose higher-pitched pieces suitable for a tenor. I had to tell him he’s actually a baritone and should be choosing to croon along to Tom Jones.

I’m trash at karaoke despite having a large set of pipes. Reason being that most pop music for women is written for the alto / mezzo voice and not my high-pitched insanity. Try not to beat yourself up if that’s also the case for you.

So you can be good at one type of music and suck in another. I’m terrific on Verdi and terrible at pop music. Which can also be a bit of a gut punch when you’re dying on the karaoke stage.

You good?

New Yorkers use the question “you good?” for a far greater variety of situations than most. One way I’ve seen it employed as a form of allyship is when riding public transit.

Picture a young woman getting hassled by someone on a bus and a big fella sitting nearby takes off his headphones and gives her a head bob and a quick, “You good?” If she doesn’t answer, he comes over to sit next to her.

I’ve employed it myself. Seeing a couple in a the middle of a drunken fight. I’ll follow them for a while until there is a break in the shouting and I can make eye contact with the woman. “You good?” She might wave me off. Or she might give me the pleading look that says, stay with me. Stay here. Stay as a witness.

I know a lot of people dislike taking public transit because they prefer the safety of their car but I have found transit is the best place to be a good ally. It helps if you have this question at your disposal.

MomChoir & finding your soulmate

I’ve been fortunate enough to have a partner who supports my creative endeavors and does everything he can to allow me space and time to write weird novels about fertility cults and so I can perform in operas. He’s a mensch.

Sam wins the trifecta at the Nice Hippodrome de la Côte d’Azur as her man looks on in disgust c. 2003

There did come a time in recent years though where I felt myself spread too thin. My girls are young and I wanted to be there for them, and even starting my own proofreading business that allows me flexible hours, the commute to performances on nights and weekends was a step beyond what I could reasonably handle.

I was fortunate that an energetic singer, mom of three, and choir director started a new group in my neighborhood just over a year ago comprised entirely of local mothers. I joined MomChoir in September and it has been a large part of what is proving to be a transformative year for me.

MomChoir director Katy Cadman proving the adage that singers will always be featured in the press with their mouths hanging open. You know, like a carp. (Andy Prest / North Shore News)

Let me back up by saying I have always been internally opposed to sororities as a concept. When I attended Emerson College I was strongly encouraged by gorgeous young friends to join their professional sorority Kappa Gamma Chi and even ended up an “honorary” member as I lived with so many of them. But I never officially pledged. I was working a full-time job to afford the steep tuition and I didn’t think I could give them the time and money their Greek life appeared to require.

How funny now to find myself in a group of nearly sixty women I cherish. We have frequent social gatherings and I find nothing but support and mutual admiration. Unlike so many past experiences in groups of women where neuroticism and back-handed compliments seemed to rule the day (oh, Egg Pictures and the PTA, I’m looking at you right now), this crew has been nothing but delightful.

Soprano II Francesca Smilgin-Box made a cake for a casual gathering that proves the adage no one parties better than a mom on a babysitter deadline.

We’re busy professional moms who had ovaries of steel enough to audition for a choir. Many had not sung in public since high school, if ever. Many had to be lovingly bullied by their family into attending the audition. “Honey, I love you, but if I have to watch Singin’ in the Rain with you again I will smash the television with my left shoe.”

Many — if not most — have suffered loss. Perhaps it’s simply that no one gets through life unscathed, but this is a group that has known personal, physical, emotional life tragedies. They’re women who faced down demons and it made them kinder not harder.

Compassion is not an attribute I would have attached to a university sorority, but I’m learning that there is one overarching definition to sisterhood: Mutual Support. When done correctly? There is a bottomless well of love and admiration in a room full of women who’ve suffered.

I need to digress for a moment and talk about (of all things) soulmates.

Many years ago, in Yosemite National Park, I had a fella declare that I was his one and only soulmate. I kissed him in response, but in my brain? Y’all. I felt like he had just told me with all sincerity that he believed in The Tooth Fairy.

Yosemite in the ’00s is a timeless beauty.
The author in Yosemite in the ’00s is a timeless asshole.

This was not merely me being a cynical unromatic jerkface, I swear. Nor was it my basic requirement for evidence that a thing exists. Is soulmate a thing beyond zinging brain chemistry and compatible sexuality?

It actually took me many years to realize why I felt so much pity for him and only recent events that reminded me of a core basis for happiness. If you don’t know this already then let me shout it:

This is a reality that many people learn when they become parents.

That there are broken-hearted darlings out there believing that their one and only true love is gone and thus they may never be cherished again pains me. I know it might feel like a truth because western culture and the Romantic Ideal is a lie that we’re peddled by most of our pop culture from a very young age. You must choose between — you are not permitted to love multiple people. And I’m not talking about the ever-trendy polyamory here, although there is a space for that discussion another time.

It was a few weeks ago when I was awash in a Yosemite-sized cataract of emotion for my Mastery crew and thus pondering this truth anew. I was reflecting on how fortunate I feel to love a plethora of people all over this planet when this visual popped up for Pi Day. I don’t know who made it but it is wonderful.

This is what I’m trying to say right here.

I love a lot of people. Truly and deeply and for everything that they are. All of their broken parts and their scars.

One of my MomChoir sisters posted a behind-the-scenes video to a fight song we’re slaying with in an upcoming concert, and Sagan help me, I am done. If I make it through this song without tears down my face it’ll be a minor secular miracle.

So this is what artists do. We put our whole hearts into the world and we give you permission to break them because we won’t ever stop loving you even if you hate us. And we’ve hearts big enough to nurture the world.

Local fans can attend Sweet Scarlet‘s upcoming fundraiser for the Pacific Post-partum Support Society, It Takes a Village, with MomChoir.

Buy tickets here
for the 11 May concert, but it will sell out soon because we’re ADORABLE.

Members of MomChoir proving the old adage that there’s always that one.