TIME Profiles

Meet the Woman Trying to Save Your Kids From Their Screens

Author and artist Keri Smith just released her latest book this fall, The Imaginary World Of ... (Perigee; 192 pages). Jefferson Pitcher

A conceptual artist and author is luring kids into questioning the world and appreciating every smell, texture and mystery in it

At 42, Keri Smith still writes to a pen pal. She deeply appreciates secret passageways. And she sometimes rolls dice to determine which way she walks down the street. That won’t surprise her readers who have followed instructions from her bestselling books like Wreck This Journal — a tome that asks “users” to cover the pages in dirty fingerprints, smells and drawings made by strangers.

What they might not know is that Smith, a rosy-cheeked Canadian now ensconced in Northampton, Mass., is secretly trying to spark a political movement with her whimsy. “What I’m doing is trying to get kids to pay attention, to look at the physical world more, and to question everything,” she says, leaning across a bowl of yellow heirloom tomatoes on her kitchen table. “I am trying to get kids out of the house and away from screens. Someone is needed in this culture to speak up and say this behavior is dysfunctional.”

Courtesy of Perigee

Out this fall is Smith’s 12th book (depending how you count books that often defy what a book should be), The Imaginary World Of … . Readers can complete the title with their name. Inside, they won’t find aspersions against the corporations Smith believes are “blandifying” the youth or commands to live without TV, as her family does. Instead they’ll be asked to make a list of things they’re drawn to: textures, people, sounds, colors. Then Smith will guide them through painting their own universe with that palette. Her unspoken message may be discovered along the way, if kids or adults notice their utopia didn’t include a Target parking lot or seven hours of media use per day.

In Wreck This Journal (2007), her best known work which now has more than 3 million copies in print worldwide, readers are asked to rip a page out, write a note on it and sneak it into someone’s pocket. In Guerilla Art Kit (2007), Smith presents a how-to guide on pastimes like seed-bombing, flashmobbing and situational graffiti. In How to Be An Explorer of the World (2008), she encourages readers to wander aimlessly until they have lost all sense of time and place. In Mess (2010) she instructs readers to bury the book, to do everything with the “wrong” hand for a day, and to take an existing mess and make it much, much bigger. Sometimes her fans turn those messes into more organized art.

Smith knows it’s hard to muster the kind of abandon it takes to eat colorful candy and make “tongue paintings” in one of her books, if you’re not a carefree toddler. She was once a middle-class girl in the suburbs of Toronto, where her mother suffered from a brain tumor and a rather unhappy marriage. Fights would send Smith retreating to her room to draw. By high school, Smith had turned to more destructive tools, experimenting with drugs and cutting herself in an effort to cope with home life.

Her first muse on the road to success and inhibition came in the form of a teacher who reminded her that she found solace in art. On his advice, Smith entered the Ontario College of Art and Design as a mature student a few years after dropping out of high school, a place where she was given “the permission to do whatever.” The second was her husband, an experimental musician who moved into her small farmhouse in the town of Flesherton, Ontario (pop. 700) after they wed in 2004.

Jeff Pitcher, a California native, was unprepared for the dark days that last nearly half the year, and in a moment of stir-crazed desperation, he and a friend put on headphones, walked out into the snow and started wildly dancing on the side of the road to music no one else could hear. That exercise eventually became the documentary short The Winter of the Dance, a study of “shedding predictability” and returning to a child-like state. Eventually Pitcher convinced his wife to try ecstatic heel-shaking beside a busy street. “It was life-transforming,” Smith says. “You have to force yourself into a situation that is slightly uncomfortable, because when you come out the other side it is the most freeing thing imaginable.”

From that well sprung Smith’s obsession with the precise moment a person decides to do something they are hesitant to do — like jump off a dock into numb-cold water. And her books are training manuals that make people more willing to leap. Of course, not everyone takes kindly to her exercises, which repeatedly flip the bird at convention. “In order to be who you are as a human being, you need to be willing to upset people,” she says. Smith certainly has, almost being sued after young readers followed (now defunct) instructions to “burn this page” and rub a blank page on a dirty car (which can scratch up a vehicle fast).

Despite a few detractors, Smith has a bevy of loyal followers and gets flooded with thankful letters from recovering perfectionists, school teachers and unhappy teenage girls who have been drawn to harming themselves as she once was. “I think they respond to what was my healing process, my journey out of that bad place,” she says, a combination of art and looking outward through books. Smith is a big believer in books as therapy (so long as they’re not made for that purpose), just as she is a big believer in long strolls, playing with one’s food and clandestinely chalking inspirational quotes on sidewalks instead of playing video games.

Her way of thinking may be a hard sell to children weaned on the bright, cartoony, introverted stimulation of an iPad or to parents scrambling to get their kids into computer programming classes. But she says that to fight technology doesn’t necessitate being against it forever. She knows her two young kids will have computers. “You need it to be a part of society,” she says. “I’m just hoping my children will get enough of a foundation to remember what it was like before technology, how good that feels. Because I remember.”

TIME Culture

Meet The First Openly Transgender NCAA Division I Athlete

NY Premiere of MTV and Logo TV's "Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word"
Kye Allums attends the premiere screening of the MTV and Logo TV documentary "Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word" at the Paramount Screening Room on Thursday, Oct. 16, 2014, in New York. Scott Roth/Invision/AP

As school authorities and sports associations develop new policies for transgender athletes, TIME talks to an early barrier-breaker

Correction appended Oct. 28, 3 p.m. ET

Advocates for transgender rights are waging their battle on many fields, including athletic ones. Authorities that oversee school sports are adopting new policies that outline who can play on which team and under which circumstances. In October, for instance, the Arizona Interscholastic Association for the first time gave a transgender student the go-ahead to play on whichever team, male or female, that aligned with their gender identity.

To protect that child’s privacy, no details about the student’s gender or the sport were released, but older athletes—playing in college sports or for a spot in the Olympics—have put themselves in the spotlight to make a statement about how their gender identity and love of sports matters more than what’s under their jersey. And among the best known of these barrier-breakers is Kye Allums, the first openly transgender NCAA athlete to play Division I sports.

Now a 25-year-old activist, Allums came out when he was playing on the women’s basketball team at George Washington University in 2010. Today, he travels the country letting students ask questions about what it means to be transgender and is one of the stars in Laverne Cox’s new documentary The T Word, an exploration of what it’s like to be a young transgender person.

TIME interviewed Kye about putting himself out there, how much hormones really matter and what advice he has for other athletes who might be mulling the same decision.

How did you decide you were ready to tell people you were transgender?

I needed to be comfortable. Playing on a sports team, you become very close. These girls were like my sisters and having them refer to me using female pronouns every single second of the day and not knowing how that made me feel, I couldn’t keep playing like that.

How did their use of female pronouns affect you?

Hearing female pronouns would make me dysphoric. It’s like being sick. It’s like having the flu. It’s like you want to rip the skin off of your body. It’s the most uncomfortable, unbearable feeling in the world. I could not focus on basketball feeling like that. All I wanted to do was escape my body and run away. … To bring that focus back to basketball, I needed to hear male pronouns.

Did you encounter any negative reactions when you came out?

Yes. Some people would tell me that I was not a guy, or that I was confused. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. I know who I am.

Kye Allums (50) of the George Washington Colonials battles Shenise Johnson (42) of the Miami Hurricanes for position during the NCAA basketball game between GWU and the Hurricanes in 2010. JC Ridley—AP

What about teams you played basketball against?

At other schools, we were anticipating a lot of negativity, but the schools were actually very supportive. Some would reach out and offer a gender neutral space for me to change. With the players, it was all business. The fans were different. Whenever I walked onto the court, people would just stare at me. They would stare at me and point, as if they were expecting me to be a 10-foot monster.

The main point of angst when it comes to transgender athletes is often this notion of the unfair advantage a transgender woman might have, as if a 10-foot player might suddenly be on the girls’ team.

People talk about that as if men are super-human, as if just because you were born with a penis, that means that you can defeat every single female. And that’s not true. This world values men. We value men. We value male bodies. We don’t value women … People need to stop placing limits on how strong people can or should be, and what their bodies should look like.

There is a strong connection between testosterone and generally being bigger, having more strength. How do you view that?

I’ve been taking testosterone for three and a half years. I am a little bit bigger. But just because I now have more body mass is not going to give me an advantage that I couldn’t get without practicing or without training.

Do you have advice for young athletes out there who might be considering coming out?

Make sure you have a positive support system around you. Come out only if you’re ready, and just because you come out does not mean that you have to come out to your entire team. You should be able to go to an athletic director or a coach … Also there is no right or wrong way to be trans.

In general, how do you feel about athletic policies dictating which teams transgender people play for?

You’re asking somebody who is all about the best athletes competing against the best athletes, regardless of gender. If you want to identify as being a gladiator, as queer, as gender nonconforming, I really don’t care. Are you going to make this basket when it counts? Sports is about winning. It’s about competing. It’s about respect. And it’s about how you play the game. It’s not about the body you’re born into.

What do you hope the audience will get out of watching The T Word?

I hope the audience will begin to see that trans people are human beings, who deserve to be treated with respect, just like anyone else.

Do you think America’s attitude toward trans people is changing?

Everyone’s attitude towards trans people is not going to change overnight, and for some they may never change, but I think as long as us trans folks continue to be our true selves, and fight for what we believe in, change will continue to happen whether people are ready for it or not.

Correction: The original version of this story stated that Allums was the first openly transgender NCAA athlete. He is the first openly transgender NCAA Division I athlete.

TIME Profiles

How Europe’s First Female Poker Champ Made History and Learned to Compete With the Guys

European Poker Tour Launch
Victoria Coren Mitchell attends the launch of The PokerStars LIVE Lounge at The Hippodrome Casino London on March 4, 2013 in London, England Ben Pruchnie--2013 Getty Images

Victoria Coren Mitchell has made history at the European Poker Tour for the second time. She talks to TIME about the game, poker as a career and being the last woman at the table

British journalist and professional poker player Victoria Coren Mitchell made poker history for the second time in her career on Sunday, when she won the European Poker Tour and became the first person ever to win the tournament twice. The first time she broke records was with her win in 2006 when she became the first woman to take the title.

Though she might not be a household name in the U.S. — yet! — Coren Mitchell is a prolific writer, penning columns in the Observer and books such as 2011′s For Richer, For Poorer: Confessions of a Player. She’s also a part of British media royalty: her father, Alan Coren, was a legendary journalist, she’s married to comedian and U.K. television star David Mitchell and her brother, Giles Coren, is a writer for the London Times. With her latest poker victory, she’s also one of the all-time top 10 female earners in the game.

Coren Mitchell spoke to TIME about her win, learning the game and why you shouldn’t play poker with your spouse.

TIME: Victoria, hello. Congrats on your second win of the European Poker Tour!

Victoria Coren Mitchell: Oh, thank you very much.

When you won back in 2006, you became the first woman to take the title. Now you’re the first person – man or woman – to win it twice. How does it feel?

It feels incredible. I can’t really believe it. Obviously, when [I won] the first time and I was the first woman to do so, that was great too. It was a different sort of barrier to break. [This time] there were 97 EPT champions – only three of them women—all fighting to be the first one to win twice. I don’t think anyone thought it would be me who would get there – including me.

At one point during the tournament, you were in eighth place. When did you know you were going to win it?

When I knocked out the player who came third, Jordan, the American guy, I had a wave of thinking, my God, I’m going to win. We’d been playing for six days – it’s a long tournament – and at no point did I think I was going to win it. I had the lowest chips when there were 16 of us and I had the lowest chips when there were eight of us. To find myself with just one opponent when I had most of the chips, the writer in me thought, what kind of story would this be if I didn’t win it now?

I’m generally a pessimist and I try to be self-deprecating because that’s the British way, but when there were two of us, [I knew] that I was playing really well. Also, what they call Heads Up poker — where there are just two people at the table — I’m quite good at. When the play started I felt in control and I did think, I can outplay this guy. So when I won I was actually quite calm. I thought, yes, that’s what was supposed to happen. It was only the next morning when I woke up that I thought, what on Earth happened there?

In addition to being a champion poker player, you’re a busy journalist with columns in the Observer and British GQ and regular appearances on the BBC. What do you consider your primary job?

I really don’t know anymore. I don’t if I’m a writer who plays poker or a poker player who writes. I don’t know whether TV fits in at all.

I do feel incredibly lucky to be making a living at things I love doing. I never wanted poker to be a job. That’s partly because I love it and it’s fun and I didn’t want it to stop being fun and partly because, I suppose, something in me doesn’t feel right about calling poker a job. It’s not grown-up enough. But it’s a hobby that takes up an enormous amount of my time.

So when you fill out, say, customs forms when traveling you can just put “luckiest person alive” under occupation.

[Laughs] The problem with that is I’m really frightened of flying, so if I put “luckiest person alive” on a form before getting on a plane something terrible would happen.

You are a pessimist.

[Laughs] I really am!

Speaking of professions, you come from a very prominent family in British media – how did playing poker even come about?

Back in the old days, my brother [Giles Coren, writer for the London Times], who is three years older than me, would play poker with his friends in the kitchen and I just wanted to meet boys. I was at an all-girls school and I thought if I learned how to play this game, I’d get to spend time with boys and figure out what they’re like. Then I found that I was absolutely gripped by the game.

It happens or it doesn’t with poker. My husband [David Mitchell, the British comedian and star of Peep Show and The Mitchell and Webb Look] tried playing poker and he just found it really stressful. He didn’t enjoy it. People do or they don’t and I really did. I sat down to play cards with my brother when I was about probably 14 and I never really got up from the table.

So if your husband finds poker so stressful, I guess that means he never plays with you?

I don’t think that would be good for a marriage to play poker against each other. I mean, some people would say marriage is one long poker game against each other but I would say in the Mitchell sense, it wouldn’t be a good idea.

One final question: what’s your number one poker tip for beginners?

My number one tip is never play for an amount of money you can’t comfortably afford. That’s not just a moral thing — obviously people shouldn’t do anything they can’t afford and that doesn’t matter if it’s buying a car or a pair of shoes or getting into a poker game. But also, from a practical point of view, in poker you can’t win if you’re frightened. So you’ve got to play for an amount of money you can lose without it damaging you, because otherwise you’ll play scared and it’ll come to no good.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser