Positive Mental Attitude
A love story
“A forest is a cathedral,” said my husband, a font of obscure but beautiful quotage, as we gathered under the most resplendent tree canopy to watch my wonderful cousin Ben get married a few weeks ago. We listened to a bargain Borscht belt (redundant?) Rabbi wax wise and witty, as my cousin and his gorgeous bride turned their vows into Borat impressions (my wife!).
Can a heart explode? I’m not sure if it was the juxtaposition of so much beauty and hilarity, or the fact that the celebrations have been too infrequent during these sealed-off times, or the gummy bear my cousin’s cousin had given me, but I felt deeply appreciative of the wondrousness of the moment.
This feeling of awe carried over to Ben’s speech, where he channeled our grandmother, a Bronx-born bon vivant who lived light and loved joy. Benny cited her oft-uttered mantra, Positive Mental Attitude, or PMA, in his remarks, and it dawned on me that this tiny, perfect phrase was her legacy. It has done its work on me. And it has done its work on Ben, a true mensch of a person and teacher, and an ever-optimistic force of calm and cheer, despite losing his dad before he turned 10.
Two Ladies, an animated documentary about my grandmothers, 2003
When I think of the originator of this mantra, I marvel at her strength. She lost her husband when he was just 39, but somehow managed to find a job (despite no education), raise three daughters, and delight in the small but mighty coterie of great friends she cherished in her newfound home of Montreal, a place she’d been transplanted to at age 20.
When I was young, I bristled a bit at this idea of Positive Mental Attitude. Because I wore corduroy with superfluous safety pins and went to punk shows and pretended to like punk music.
In my late twenties, I chafed at PMA for different reasons — I couldn’t find the positive. As I reckoned with the deep effery of the world, hope eluded me, and, summarily, positivity.
In my mid-thirties, I found PMA, and wrestled with it for a final, different reason: It felt wrong to be positive in the face of so much horror and imminent destruction. How can one be joyful amidst all this suffering?
But in the years since, I’ve made peace with this duality, and come to realize that PMA is the only way, and that it’s both a privilege and a responsibility to champion it. Which is not to say that it’s not a struggle. On days where news of irreversible climate breakdown drops with nary a blip, I have Barb and Star reckonings. I ask myself if the relentless positivity is actually just glib noxiousness. To which my inner Kristen Wiig responds with a high-waisted and effervescent nopers.
Why this gradual coming round to PMA? Simply because it’s my only way to move forward. Unlike Sunny Ways opportunism or blind optimism or lazy hope, PMA is about mindset. And I am about mindset. (There is no zealot like the one who discovers Carol Dweck at 30.)
I think this framing helps create the space between the reality of a world hurtling towards 2 degrees and finding a healthy way to exist in that world. The mindset is a bearing, a disposition, a structure. It doesn’t mean that we don’t acknowledge the frustration, the scary reports, the permafrost melting, and the gossamer tenuousness of democracy as we know it. If my grandma were me, PMA would be translated into 21st century lingo: it’s a vibe. But not in a “good vibes only” kind of way. It’s more of a “May I invite you to join this vibe” kind of thing.
Not PMAing the heck out of life also means denying the beauty of a world full of kindness, of kids saying hilarious things, foggy mornings, chocolate chestnut ice cream and Taika Waititi in white loafers. And so I’d rather err on the side of a mindset that appreciates said beauty, and sausages it into positive output as best it can.
I’ve often thought of my grandma’s life as rather small. She didn’t take up a lot of space, didn’t consume a lot, didn’t even stray too far from her little corner of Montreal. My sisters and I would take her to plays or restaurants in neighbourhoods she’d never been to and she would be absolutely dazzled. This was fun, but in some ways I judged a bit. Marveled, too, at the smallness of scope and the lack of desire to do big things or make marks, even though she was an accomplished sculptor and printmaker.
But Ben’s speechifying about Positive Mental Attitude popped something in my brain. Because although my grandmother had always said them to me, seeing another person, my beloved cousin, share them out with a whole new crowd sent a ripple of positivity out into the world, and made me realize that had probably happened more times than I’d been privy to. Her positive charge had a grand effect well beyond what I know.
This planet: Positive Mental Attitude
What’s your take? Let a D-list Kristen Wiig know.
Last planet: Badvertising
A dark money follow up. New friend and colleague Michael is doing the brilliant work of unearthing all the horrible PAC money campaigns. Who designs the close-cropped flying pigs behind this 100 million dollar campaign feeding misinfo to swing voters? Would love to know.
• I’m beyond excited to be on the jury for the inaugural Rewilding Arts Prize, which provides $2,000 for artists working on the theme of rewilding. It’s the brainwild of my friends Jode Roberts of the David Suzuki Foundation, and Kat Tancock of Rewilding Magazine, and it’s awesome. Read the beautiful article on climate art that accompanies the announcement here. And share with all the climate creatives you know!
• I didn’t want to read this David Wallace Wells piece, but I’m glad I did. He manages the delicate dance of admitting 1.5 is slipping away, while still talking about what we’ve saved, and brings in voices from all sides, without both-sidesing it.
• There are so many incredible parts to this David Roberts interview on systemic justification with Dr. John Jost. Roberts and Jost unpack what it means to identify as a progressive, and yet be constantly called out for not being progressive enough. Which is by definition what being progressive is all about: Evolving our thinking as new ideas come to light. But there can be a redoubling to systemic justification on the part of lefties when one’s once-progressive positions get poked by fresher ideas, and Roberts candidly admits to feeling this woundedness at times.
Which is where a growth mindset of PMA can work as a cudgel against this tractability, as a less-defensive lens that helps you greet new information as opportunity, not criticism. And build the adaptability and resilience we’ll need in an ever-warming world.
• Our province is waging a war against education and women. It’s unbearable. One-third of education workers use food banks, and yet our government would deny these employees, who earn an average of $39,000 a year, a basic living wage to keep up with inflation. Nothing’s changed since I drew this comic years ago, and I fear for the state of public education when this government is done with us. Well-funded public schools are the key to a stable society in which every child has a chance to succeed.
• Do the words Consumer Reports and electrification send a thrill of pleasure coursing through your body? A. That’s weird. B. You should come work with me! It’s a key role on a rapidly growing, super fun team peopled with smart, generous thoughtful souls. Not biased at all.
What makes a city? Our ability to take over the streets for people-powered celebration. Also, good bread. But I love when our city shows it can be more than just $8 croissants and a bunch of much-ignored social issues in a trench coat.
Thank you so much for reading! I appreciate you. This is something Americans seem to say all the time, and Canadians rarely do. It feels so sincere and earnest. But it’s also how I feel. As I think about what to do with this newsletter in the new year, I’d love your feedback. You can always send me a note. Some key things I’m working on:
• MVP will always be free, but I’ll have a paid option for people who want to donate to a climate fund I am working to start up. I appreciate all the queries about where to get the most bang for your climate buck, and while I’m no Charity Intelligence, I’ll do my best to share what I think is most important and why.
• Community. My time is limited. Yours is too. Substack has rolled out numerous social tools in recent weeks, no doubt to compete with a temperamental baby on another site whose credibility is approaching nil. Would you use these features? Quick poll:
Thank you so much for reading! Hope you are great. Have a gorgeous weekend.
I really enjoyed the small movie you made because I think often of my 2 grandmothers [and grandfathers, just sayin'] and the love and lack of judgment, the example by their very doing, and the care I received.
Thank you for what you do... very encouraging.
Have you noticed the website Wren.co ? I like their focus on what we can do to protect the environment, fund and create solutions to the climate crisis worldwide.
I thought about doing a chat but then realized I’d have to be there all the time! So, comments work fine.