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Pickle Me This

March 30, 2021

Don’t Make Plans

Is there any way that I can possibly convey just how exasperating it is for Doug Ford, 13 months into this pandemic, to be telling me not to make plans?

Doug Ford, whose entire approach to handling the pandemic has been “no plans,” whose approach to school re-openings was LITERALLY “Let’s give this a shot, at least…and pray to god that everyone’s safe.” Doug Ford, who campaigned for the job of premier with a platform of “no plan,” whose Ministry actually thought it was totally okay for teacher-librarians to be finding out on Labour Day that the next day they’d be teaching kindergarten. Whose whole plan for the second wave was to do nothing until the pandemic was once again out of control, and whose plan for averting a third wave was to open up the province again while infectious variants are rising. Whose vaccine roll-out plans have been definitively NOT GREAT?

Who ever could have seen this third wave coming, not to mention the second one?


Right now, teacher’s unions are advising the province to move schools to virtual after Easter weekend, and then keep our delayed Spring Break, which I think sounds like a fine plan, but because this is a government that prides itself on not listening to unions or people who know things, perhaps they’re probably not going to take that advice, and this is the kind of instability that’s been a hallmark of this group of ding-dongs since they were elected.

And maybe the Premier doesn’t make plans, but I do. Like everyone, I had plans for 2020, plans that got cancelled one after the other, and I’ve been mainly uncomplaining as I cancelled those plans, because some things can’t be planned for and you can’t control what happens (when you’re not the government), but instead how you react to it. So I’ve stiffened my upper lip, and gone without seeing friends and family, and my children have been brave as they’ve made giant sacrifices in their own lives, and I’ve tried to live up to their example, and so it was with Easter last year, and I cancelled our plans for an outdoor Thanksgiving, and Halloween, and Christmas was my mom coming over in the afternoon with us all wearing masks and the windows open, which was freezing, and I haven’t seen her since then. We had picnics in the park six feet away from friends in the summer, but haven’t socialized with people outside our household since our kids returned to school, and I’m still not complaining, because you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do, and also I continue to be so grateful that we’ve all been healthy.

But today I hit my limit. I am finished with having all my plans cast aside because of this government’s complete lack of a plan, and over and over again. This is not like last spring when nobody knew what was going to happen, or what actions would be necessary to control the spread of the virus, when all of us (including the experts) were still in the dark. For months, medical experts have been advising the government to implement paid sick leave to slow the spread in workplaces. Others have been advising widespread testing and tracing, particularly in schools, and this still hasn’t happened. There are all kinds of plans that could have been put in place to avert this latest wave of Covid, and the government has heeded none of it.

And now the Premier has the nerve to tell me not to make plans for Easter? When Easter is literally FIVE FUCKING DAYS AWAY? With absolutely no respect, Doug Ford (because it’s been a very long year), you’ve got no business advising anybody about plans, or messing with mine, because it’s your absolutely failure to plan that’s resulted in our current disaster.

Doug Ford telling me not to make plans for Easter is so absolutely patronizing, disrespectful, and insulting.

Doug Ford telling me not to make plans is like the pot calling the kettle a failure of leadership. It’s like the doctor who missed the diagnosis complaining about the funeral. It’s like the guy who pisses on your boots, and tells you that it’s raining, and then hands you a ticket for standing in a puddle.

March 18, 2021

The Limits of Hashtags

For the last, well, seven years, to be honest, I have been frustrated by the limits of hashtag activism, not because the issues these hashtags have brought to the surface of public attention are not urgent and critical, but because they *are,* and I am not sure they are served by the simplification of a hashtag, which ultimately stands to coalesce a tangle of experience into a single narrative. The hashtag is a beginning, I think, but one single event or idea can never really stand for more than itself, because the world is so much more messy and complicated than that.

I was thinking about this all last week at news of the murder of a woman in London; I’ve been thinking about it with the news of the murder of 8 women, six of them Asian, in Atlanta. I have been thinking about how I want to resist the demand to share the same PowerPoint stories, employ the same hashtags, to use the same words as everybody else to respond to these incidents, because there is always more than one story and we ought to be suspicious when there isn’t.

How I want to respond with something more meaningful than adhering to that single story, as a tribute to the humanity of these people whose lives have been violently stolen. More meaningful than texting my Chinese-Canadian friends to check in with them as well, which seems kind of cringe worthy and cliched, and a burden for my friends. I don’t want to put a fucking candle on my porch. (Or a hockey stick. Good God, do I ever find public mourning rituals meaningless.)

Instead, I want to think, and share my process, and sometimes that takes time, and in fact it should. Instead, I will admit that I still don’t know what an appropriate response is, but that I’m rattled too, and that white supremacy is real, and that I am committed to anti-racism, which I think requires even more work than me yelling on Instagram in fact.

I learned a lot from reading Morgan Ome’s “Why This Wave of Anti-Asian Racism Feels Different,” an interview with Cathy Park Hong in The Atlantic, and so I think that is what I want to share now, in addition to the obvious show of love and solidarity. It’s linked in my profile and it’s great.

February 5, 2021

Dizzy Righteousness

“…a rising army of impossibly unhappy people, their ambitions both vague and vast, who have come to understand that the dizzy righteousness of that derangement is the point.” —David Roth, “The March of the American Kooks”

For a long time, quitting Twitter—for me— seemed about as possible or likely as quitting oxygen, even if the whole experience was so much less rewarding. I didn’t like Twitter (anymore—once upon a time it had been a source of friendship, inspiration and fun, but that all changed around 2014 or thereabouts) but it was necessary, it seemed. It was true there were things I knew from Twitter that were tremendously worthwhile. If not for Twitter, I might have travelled to the UK at year ago this March, but I was put off by disturbing tweet threads by Italian ICU doctors with perspectives that weren’t yet being reported in the newspaper. Twitter was how I found out about everything, from breaking news to pop culture scandals to political developments. It was the platform from which I interfaced with so much of the world…and then it began to occur to me that this was the problem. That while the world was difficult, Twitter only made it worse.

There was a reason that I quit Twitter, finally, but now I can’t even remember what it was, and perhaps this is the point. When I finally logged back onto Twitter a few weeks after my first break—I still have an account but check it every 60 days instead of 60 times a day, which is a big shift for me—Scott Baio was trending for arranging mugs in a department store, and that really just clinched it, because what if I’d never found out that had happened? What else could I have done with those brain cells?

I had spent the last three years on Twitter being furious, mainly about our provincial government and various terrible things they’d done, and while I found solidarity and community with other people who felt the same on the platform, the platform for practical purposes wasn’t useful to me. All my online fury actually gave me a peculiar sympathy for the kind of person who gets radicalized through online groups and decides to drive his truck from Manitoba to Ottawa to smash into the gates at the entrance of the Prime Minister’s residence. Because online rage is a self-perpetuating spiral, and spitting one’s feelings into the online void only underlines how impotent most of us really are, and that only makes you angrier (and the cycle begins again). My furious responses to the Minister of Education’s tweets were not useful to me, nor him or anybody, and it wasn’t like he was even reading them. This performance could not be more similar (or futile) than screaming into the wind. The only entity that profited was the social media platform because it seemed I couldn’t quit it.

Sometime last summer I began to insist that I could no longer view our government as an adversary. Which is not to say that our government was not an adversary, but this arrangement was making me irate and unhappy, and it didn’t make anything better. Further, my children were to be heading back to school in September, and I really decided that having some trust in the system was necessary for me to be a functioning citizen. Like, I’d rather trust and be wrong than end being that guy in a tinfoil hat. And I realized too that my online interactions were so much of the reason why I was angry all the time. That normal people didn’t necessary function this way, and maybe there was something more targeted and effective I could do with my energy than be constantly furious or full of anxiety, waiting for the next calamity to come across the timeline. And that if I just decided not to be furious all the time about the government, flicked it off with a switch, would that make an iota of difference to how the government functioned? It wouldn’t make anything better, but it also wouldn’t be worse.

“I feel like everybody on social media is always yelling at me,” I said the other night to one adult person I spend all of my time with these days. Trying to articulate just what it was that was making me uncomfortable—not just with Twitter, but the Facebook and even Instagram with its weird powerpoint social justice stories. I can’t stand them. “And it’s not that I don’t care about social justice,” I continued, but I am beginning to think of “social justice” as an abstract principle as an ambition that’s also vague and vast. I am still really tired of social justice memes and wish that people would write their own stories, feel their own feelings, share their own ideas instead of parroting somebody else’s.

This is not an “everybody on the left is brainwashed, it’s a cult, cancel culture, blah blah” kind of post. I still stand by guiding principle that one should never do anything for which Jonathan Kay or his mother might leap to their defence. A lot of people who’ve spent less time online than I have imagine themselves bravely rallying for free speech, due process, and against slippery slops, and they don’t know that they’re being manipulated by so many bad-faith actors. I’m not “just asking questions” or wondering if political correctness has gone too far. And I am definitely not saying “Goodbye to All That” to “the church of social justice” (as one viral essay once put it), or talking about “both sides.” I know what side I am on, and it’s the side of anti-racism, alleviating poverty, supporting marginalized people, lifting up the oppressed, supporting workers’ rights and helping make the world a safer, more gentler place for weirdos to be who they are. But I just have recently become dissuaded of the notion that social media is the place to make all this happen. (Blogs, on the other hand…) Considering that there are other ways to be engaged. That perhaps what social media is isn’t even actually engagement.

David Roth’s “The March of the American Kooks” is one of the most interesting, succinct and illuminating pieces I’ve read about the lunacy of American politics at this moment, articulating so much of what I was trying to get at as I rambled on about everybody yelling at me on the internet. And there is no doubt that the far-right fringes have become a clear and present, violent danger. When there are people marching in the streets with literal Nazi flags, and you’re still going on about “antifa,” I think you’ve missed the point, or you’ve been watching the wrong television channels. I am still confused about how after Nazis went marching in Charlottesville in 2017, perfectly reasonable people wanted to remind us that the left has its extremism too. January 6, 2021, my dudes. This is what comes of both-sidesing. The threat and danger is clearly situated along one specific branch of the political spectrum, full stop.

But part of the reason it’s especially threatening and dangerous is that “dizzy righteousness of derangement” which stretches right across the board, that is not just specific to conspiracy theorist kooks. Which makes it difficult to turn vast and vague ambitions into anything tangible beyond clicks. Fed by social media platforms designed to stoke our rage (Elamin Abdelmahmoud writes about this here), we’ve all bought into this idea that righteous online fury is the way to the change the world—but I think we’re being played. This notion has given us nothing substantial or useful to meet the moment—and its clear and present danger—with. It’s also profoundly uninteresting.

From Roth’s essay: “The politics these people profess is not about helping anyone, lord knows, or really about any kind of ideological program at all. It is about an obsessive and even loving taxonomy of and fixation upon enemies and problems, and the way it works is through relentlessness, and through a refusal to ever stop performing weird arias of anger and umbrage.”

The outcomes are different, and perhaps so too are the extremes, but the symptoms are the same, and I’m done with it. When you can see yourself in an article about a bunch of conspiracy Q-uacks, it’s time to close the browser, turn the page.

January 25, 2021

On Teaching Algebra During an Insurrection

I was sitting in the kitchen when I learned about the riots at the US Capitol on January 6, alerted by an Instagram post around the same time that my daughter in the living room heard about it from this kid in her class who seems to be streaming CNN during virtual school. This kid is always first with breaking news, and that day it was their math class he interrupted to inform his teacher and his classmates that a terrifying mass of marauding thugs were storming the Capitol, and then their class went back to their regularly scheduled programming, which was algebra.

I was a wreck that day, whacked out on stress and anxiety. I took my children for a walk after virtual school was done for the day, and my youngest daughter said, “If this was a dream, it would be a bad one.” I had gotten no work done all afternoon, and I was grateful—as I often am—that I’d never gone to teacher’s college, “just to have something to fall back on” (as they say). Because this means that I will never have to teach a Grade 6 algebra class online during a global pandemic as terrorists mount an insurrection in the nation next door.

The following morning when both my children returned to class, they had their headphones on so that I could hear only their (particularly shouty) ends of the conversation, teachers apparently guiding them through discussions about what had just transpired in Washington. The Grade 2s were talking about voting and fairness and democracy, and over in Grade 6, my daughter was indignant about the latitude granted to those in the Capitol rampage when compared to police crackdowns on Black Lives Matter protesters the previous summer.

As a society, we ask our educators to carry a heavy load. This was the case even before the pandemic, staff at my children’s school forming task-forces to assist families living in poverty (collecting winter coats and boats, canvassing to furnish apartments for families moving out of refugee and domestic violence shelters) and to help students deal with skyrocketing levels of anxiety and other mental health challenges. All this is on top of the usual fare—sports teams, choirs and bands, lunchtime clubs, answering parent emails on the weekends, plus curriculum nights, and holiday concerts, which educators are expected to volunteer their time to.

For two and a half years, Ontario teachers have been serving on the front lines of our government’s reckless cuts, including reductions to minimum wage, cutting supports for the opioid crisis, cuts to social services, autism support, healthcare, housing, mental health problems, domestic violence, poverty—you name it, and never mind the cuts to education. Helping to stop up these gaps in our social fabric has become what teachers do every day in their work, in addition to teaching (which teachers do well).

And then the pandemic happened, school closures pushing working families to their limits—underlining the foundational role that schools and their staff play in the day-to-day functioning of our society, a role that so many parents had always taken for granted. When Ontario schools reopened in September, amidst so much fear and uncertainty, teachers masked up and returned to the classroom, my youngest daughter’s teacher telling me, “There is nowhere else I’d rather be.” And she was assuring me, of course, because this is what our children’s teachers do, taking on our burdens and struggles as parents, and our children’s struggles too, helping to make the load a little lighter. Teaching is about so much more than teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic, and more than ever in 2021, as we all navigate challenges that sometimes seem insurmountable.

The other morning, I got to listen in to a bit of my daughter’s Grade 6 class before she got wise to my eavesdropping and put her headphones on. Her teacher mentioning an article she’d read about people having trouble sleeping. “These are stressful times,” she said, and she surveyed the class to see if anyone else was having trouble, opening up a conversation about mental health, about anxiety. A throwaway conversation, so it seemed, but of course it wasn’t, instead a vital check-in, the kind of thing all good teachers now need to weave into their curriculum in this most unprecedented age, but so seamlessly that it is easy not to notice. 

It is so easy to underestimate what educators do, and the outsized role they play in supporting the wellbeing and prosperity of all Canadians. For some, it seems like a reflex to malign the entire profession for their good pay and holidays, as though to value the work of educating and supporting future generations was foolhardy and not instead an investment that pays out for all of us. But the events of the past year have made clear the limitations of this point of view, showing us all how essential educators really are.

This year, teachers have shown up for us, and I hope many of us will return the favour in years to come by showing up for them, electing governments that value and support their role instead of constantly undermining it.

June 3, 2020

Thoughts about Being Okay

I started having panic attacks again on Monday, the kind I was having back in March when “all this” began. I’d been feeling sad and overwhelmed since Thursday, on Saturday our summer holiday got cancelled, and that afternoon helicopters circled the sky as protesters took to the street to stand up for Black people’s lives and the roar of those machines was dark and ominous. The scenes in the US were getting more and more upsetting, and Monday ended with news of the US “President” assembling troops to attack citizens in the street, and also peaceful protesters being cleared with tear gas so that dipshit could pretend he was going to church. (Dude did not know it was Monday.)

I was trembling, my heart was palpitating. I knew I was going to be in some trouble, and so after my children were in bed, my husband and I sat down to talk and try to calm me down, which helped a bit, but it still wasn’t finished, and the only way out of panic, I’ve found, is through. My mind so highly strung, and I was scared. We have a fan in our room, for ventilation and white noise, and I started imagining I was hearing the sounds of more helicopters. Trying to convince myself otherwise, but I was lying in bed awake for hours, my mind a million miles and hour, and it was the sound of people shouting and screaming I heard next, and what was happening outside? To this world?

I got up to find out, and went to the window, where perspective shifted—and I realized the sounds I was hearing were birds. I’d been up so long that the birds were awake. And the fact that birds were singing was a lulling thought, this ordinary thing instead of the nightmare I’d been imagining. And I fell asleep finally sometime around 4 am.

Spending the next day bleary-eyed and with a headache, the panic still there, and it was hard to function. I barely did. And then the panic was finished, and I still was tired, but I was calm again, and there was light to see, and the birdsong was birdsong, and world a place I recognized. Such relief in that—euphoric, even. Like an illness and the absence of pain—I was so glad to be through it.

But of course it’s not over. I feel okay again, but it’s not okay again, and I don’t think it ever has been. I was thinking too about how it’s important, perhaps even essential, for white people to feel uncomfortable. And how the greatest reason for my fear when I’m overwhelmed is usually connected to my children, my fears for this world into which I’ve brought them. And the lightness of my imaginary helicopters when compared to the concrete fears of other parents for their own Black children, to feel like that all the time. The people for whom the sounds don’t turn out to be birdsong.

I get relief from my fears—I acknowledge the privilege in that, and how different my experience is from those of other parents all over the world, in my city, even. I get to feel better, which is not a bad thing, because my panic was debilitating, short of rendering me unable to function. But the point is that now that it’s done, I need to remember that my feelings are not the end of the story of inequality and injustice, of battles that are still going on and which we need to be fighting regardless of what I’m going through.

But also that I can be okay when things are not okay, and that is okay too.

June 1, 2020

Calm Is Still a Superpower

It was my fault—all of it.

Do you do this too? Do you have a whole host of reasons why the disastrous spring of 2020 was a product of your own consciousness? Covid-19 has got me out of both jury duty and a colonoscopy, and it’s crossed my mind that I’ve likely engineered all this, my ability to control the universe gone terrifically awry. (I am sorry.)

But the worst of my crimes was this blog post, the one I published on February 21, when I wrote about how after months and years of freaking out over everything (natural disaster, WW3, and mass slaughter, and every theoretical terrible thing), I finally accepted that nothing TRULY bad was really going to happen and calmed down. And even though unrest and instability, war and tension continued throughout January and February, I met it with my Zen approach, because I’d mastered consciousness, and was basically a yogi.

And then the universe said HA.

Or it didn’t, because the universe isn’t so responsive, and I don’t actually reside at its centre (so I’ve been told), but for a long time, I thought of my February blog post and felt sick to my stomach. When I’d been feeling sick to my stomach anyway, because there was a whole week in March where I couldn’t eat for a week, or sleep, or even sit down and look at a puzzle without having heart palpitations—and that I was looking at a puzzle at all is indicative of how bad things were at. I am not a puzzle person, but I couldn’t even read.

I thought I’d figured out anxiety. What a lark! And that was back when I only had abstract notions to be anxious about, when I could shop for groceries or take my children to school without fear of a deadly contagion. When the President of the USA wasn’t sanctioning police violence in the streets. It seems laughable now.

And yet, the answer is the same. And at least I wasn’t giving a prescription in my February post and I acknowledged there was uncertainty, a wavering—I’d never really claimed to have mastered anything. But I was observing a point in my process instead.

None of it’s simple,” I wrote, “and the only way toward an answer is work, which is what’s happening now all around us, and we need to be patient. And calm.”

Which doesn’t mean passive. It doesn’t mean waiting and doing nothing, and eliminate the necessity of action, but instead.

It means breathing. It means grounding. It means thinking, and listening, and connecting, and learning, and (in the words of Ann Douglas) calm is still a superpower.

Maybe more than ever.

March 26, 2020

What Are You Going Through?

“What are you going through?” is the question, a line from Shawna Lemay‘s Rumi and the Red Handbag (which I’ve included on a new list at 49thShelf of books in my library I want to reread). And it’s a particularly pointed question for right now, when we’re all going through it, when “we’re all in this together,” except we aren’t, of course. I’m still struck by the essay I read yesterday about a woman whose husband has been brutally ill with the Coronavirus, and this from the perspective of their teenage daughter:

“I took out the kitty litter,” CK says, “and I saw some people standing on the corner, and I was like, I want to see strangers! And then I heard them saying: ‘It’s actually been really nice. It’s been a chance to connect as a family.’ And I was like, No, actually, I don’t want to see strangers, and I came back in.”

My hardships pale. Compared to those who are ill, or caregiving, or grieving. Those who are unable to find childcare, or who are put to work in unsafe situations for minimal pay, or who struggling to put food on the table. For those whose support services have been cut, or whose lifesaving treatments have been cancelled. Compared to those workers who head into the eye of storm, while the rest of us are hiding in our houses. Even comfortably. Sheltering in place.


I had been freaking out about the Coronavirus for a while, since the end of February, waking up at night with anxiety, which seemed weird and almost laughable, but it kept happening. We’d been booked to travel to the UK last week, and I’d worried about travelling at such a heightened moment, about the coughs kids always have, and I’d been worried about us staying healthy before our flight anyway, which is a gamble at the best of times. We were applying hand sanitizer quite religiously, perhaps obsessively. On the last Monday before school ended, I had a doctor’s appointment, and friends were taking my children to their swimming lessons that night, and the anguish I was feeling at this situation was definitely out of proportion, though it didn’t help that I was sitting there in the waiting room with the 24 hour news channel screaming from a big screen.

Something wasn’t right, and I started seeing Twitter threads of devastation in Italy. We were leaving for the UK in less than a week, and cancelling our trip was just impossible. (So many things were impossible two weeks ago.) So much money on the line, and we couldn’t throw that away. (Since January, I’d been reading about people living under lockdown in China with absolutely no understanding that such things could ever been connected to me.) On Tuesday, I spent two hours on hold with the airline, only to be told that since there was no travel advisory, we weren’t eligible for a refund if we cancelled. What if we went then, I wondered, but ordered a boatload of face masks? I even looked them up on Amazon, which is anathema to me, but there was no availability anyway until early April.

By Wednesday it was clear though—things were bad. To travel to Europe would be lunacy, whether there was a travel advisory or not. I was starting to realize there was space between the lines of what public health officials were saying, that they were telling us we could go abroad…but that was not the same thing as saying we should. That there was really no one in charge here was something astounding to consider, but also that we had the power to use our own minds and make responsible choices. I did a panic shop that afternoon after picking up my kids from school, which sounds less shameful when you consider that I don’t have a car and had to carry home everything I purchased, and my children are still pretty excited about that trip to the grocery store “because you let us buy everything we wanted.” Mostly chips.

On Thursday, Harriet went to school, but we kept Iris home with a cough we would not have paid any attention to under normal circumstances. Over the course of the day, Stuart gradually stopped fighting my state of high alert and conceded that this was something. This was the day after all the sports were cancelled and Tom Hanks got diagnosed, and Sophie Trudeau the next day. I’d stayed up on Twitter late into the night, and then woke up in the middle of the night in a panic that was only abated by me going downstairs and turning my computer back on to discover that Twitter was not as terrifying as my mind was, which is really saying something.

I kept both kids out of school on Friday and Stuart worked from home, and it was here where our self-isolation began, and the idea of us ever having not cancelled our trip became hard to imagine. We were over it, though still profoundly disappointed, especially as Stuart’s dad has been very ill, and we were due to meet our baby niece, and it’s very hard to be apart from family with so much dire business going on. (This was also while the official UK policy was “Many people are going to die….”)

I could not eat. I wasn’t sleeping. I discovered that phoning friends was a lovely kind of reprieve, something I hadn’t done in years. I felt safe and comfortable at home, lucky for so many reasons, glad we’d done the panic shop early and avoided the rush. I felt overwhelmed by grief and sadness, and sorry for my children, and so much disappointment, and the idea of so much devastation still to come. The idea that nobody really understands what is happening, or how to fix it. Glimmers of hope too. Thinking of my relative comfort, and how to hold that in the same space as my fear for the future, but also awareness of the much more difficult situations that other people were going through. The nurses. The clerks at the grocery store.

I did not do very well last week. I kept calling it my roller coaster/ hamster wheel. I’d be doing a puzzle and have to go lie down because I was having a panic attack. The weight on my chest that is either anxiety or a deadly respiratory illness. I kept looking online, desperate for good news, but there was nothing, and I kept waking up at three o’clock in the morning, convulsively shaking. I was so scared, my body on high alert, and I had been right about everything, is what I was thinking. For weeks I’d been in a panic, and everything I was afraid of kept coming true.

And I keep thinking about all those people who are much more experienced at living with uncertainty than I am, how naive and silly I must sound. “Welcome to my world,” is what they’re all polite enough not to be saying out loud.

On Wednesday night, I watched Crocodile Dundee, which I can’t stop talking about, but it was such a turning point for me. I went to bed and slept all night, though waking up feeling okay in the morning made me not vigilant enough to resist indulging in behaviour I’d come to be sorry for, a whole afternoon refreshing Twitter, bad news and more bad news, and that night I went to bed and had legitimate nightmares. I started to see that feeling okay would have to be a conscious choice here, one that took more work than the submitting to the lazy river of media consumption (when will there be good news?). I’d spent too long scoffing at the idea of mindset and staying positive—what’s the use of that when everything is shit? But when everything is shit, I realized, mindset is all you’ve got, and being unable to eat or sleep, or get through the day without five panic attacks is not the way to stay healthy.

So what has helped me?

  • Music! The radio is usually a constant soundtrack in our house, but lately it’s just upsetting noise. In very 20th century problems, our CD player broke last week, but then we finally signed up for ad-free Spotify and now I have all the music in the world at my fingertips.
  • Avoiding the news: I was turning to the news for answers, but nobody has any of those (yet). Once a day or so, I will read the news online at a reputable source. I have stopped following charts and tallies. They are not helpful. Everything is bad. I know it. I don’t have to steep in it.
  • No social media after dinner: The exception is Instagram, which is just wall-to-wall sourdough bread right now. Stupid movies and TV shows are good. Books are even better. Rereading Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie books is the best thin ever.
  • Counting my blessings. Even though this makes me feel guilty and I wish that blessings were more fairly distributed.
  • Little rituals: good things to eat. Watching the sunset. Hugs with my loved ones. Talking to friends and family on the phone. Making food last longer. Making somethings out of nothings. Leaving chalk drawings on friends’ sidewalks.
  • Connection! On Zoom, Skype, out the window, across the street, on the phone, etc. etc.
  • Moving! This really helps me with sleep. I have been riding my exercise bike, which (another blessing!) mercifully I never got rid of, even though it’s been sitting in my closet for four years. Taking walks when we can. We’ve also done a couple of online fitness classes, and I really loved these (especially when the instructor’s cat walks in…)
  • Feelings check-in—and sharing my feelings with my children, when appropriate. I think it’s helpful for them to know that complicated and difficult feelings are to be expected in hard times, and that sharing those feelings is normal and even helpful.
  • Everyone in Italy is not dead. I am not being flippant. The situation in Italy is terrible and we should be (and are) doing everything we can to avoid it, but also remembering that most people in Italy are perfectly well inside their homes and waiting for some semblance of life to begin again is something that keeps me going when it seems like the entire world is on fire.
  • Things in China have gotten better. My high school classmate who lives in Shanghai has written a post about how things have gotten better there—and how we know a whole lot more now than they did when things started getting bad there in January. She also has some really practical tips for getting through the weeks ahead.
  • You don’t have to fix everything. You don’t have to save all the local businesses, and carry the burden of healthcare workers, and feed the homeless, and hold the anguish if all those who are ill. (If you can, however, maybe donate to your local food bank.) You don’t have to feel terrible if you cannot do all these things. It doesn’t help anyone if you do.

I’ve been functional for almost a week now, which is not so important in the grand scheme of things, but which is hugely important if you happen to live in my head, or in my household. Staying at home and not falling to pieces honestly is the best thing I can do for our overburdened medical system at the moment, and if this is what’s required of me, then I am happy/grateful to deliver.

I hope that you’re able to take care of yourself too. xo

November 20, 2019

Bits and Pieces

I want to blog, but I don’t know where to start, where to end, where to focus. Which is not only a blogging problem specifically, but also a broader statement about my current state of mind, which is scattered and anxious, as well as mostly fine. But the anxious part is weird, and I’m annoyed because I’ve spent the last while piggy-backing on my husband’s mindfulness, for the sake of efficiency. He’s gotten really into meditation and it’s helped him a lot, and it’s helped me too, because whenever I’m starting to lose it, I call on his knowledge and wisdom, and it’s hugely restorative. But maybe mindfulness-by-proxy is not a great long-term plan, and I might have to start meditating too, but how? There are not enough hours in the day, and of course, I’d rather be reading.

It’s the flip-side though of something I believe fundamentally, which is that the little things we do make a difference, that they matter. But this can also start to feel like an overwhelming kind of pressure. I was talking to a friend of mine who is a paramedic the other day, about CPR, and how I could never remember anything I was ever taught in a first aid class, but how he has restarted hearts and there are people walking around who are only alive because of him. But as I said these words, it occurred to me that if you get credit for all that, you’ve also got to take on all the people who you couldn’t save. The same as how you can’t believe your good reviews, or else you have to believe the bad ones too, except book reviews are less involved with literal peril.

Of course, because we’re talking about me, who never saved anyone, the stakes are very different. I honestly had a crisis sometime earlier this fall because I read an article about a cheese company that was going out of business, and the weight of having insufficiently supported the local cheese industry was weighing heavy on my shoulders. Does it officially count as a first world problem if you’re feeling anxious about your failure to support the cheese industry? I use this example to show that a) I am ridiculous and also b) the idea that one person can make a difference comes up short, is a scam, and diverts from the necessity of all of us working together, but then working together is hard.

Last fall was a difficult time. All our friends moved away, and my novel was rejected (this is when I wrote a post called Publishing a Book is Not a Catapult), and my husband tends to struggle in the fall in general due to cyclical things involving the seasons and his workload, so it all was not the best. This fall, however, even with some of our friends having moved back and new friends, and my book deal—it was still hard. Maybe fall is just hard? And I forget about it over and over with the promise of September and the glorious beauty of trees on display against a sky that tends to be impossible blue.

Last Friday I took my children to a play that turned out to be in December, but I’d thought we were late and the theatre turned out to be three blocks east of where I’d thought it was, so we were running to get there, but instead we were a month early. And then we went to get something to eat, and a crowd of teenage girls at a nearby table were staring at us and then laughing at us, and I still don’t really know why. (No doubt it was for a very complex and interesting reason, right?) They got up from their table and left, but didn’t leave altogether, instead lingering around a corner peering around to look at us and make faces at us, and why was I so upset and intimidated by a group of actual children? And I felt so powerless, and sad, which is never a great way to feel around your own children, and I wish I didn’t crumble under the scrutiny of a bunch of stupid kids, that those girls didn’t take me right back to when I was their age and intimidated by the power of girls like that. I grew up, but they still have that power. Why do I give it to them? Where is my spine?

Although nothing has taken me back to childhood social dynamics like watching my own child navigate those waters. I feel as though I haven’t fundamentally grown or learned anything since I was that age, because her struggles take me right back there. There is no perspective that I have to offer, except that the life I made (my friends, my people, this family that my husband and I have made together) is like a raft that I cling to on the turgid waters of life itself, and all I can hope for my children is that they get one like it.

And for the success of the local cheese industry, obviously.

Just once, I would like to be cool and laid-back. I would like to forget to bring that letter I need to mail, and instead of getting heart palpitations and reorienting my entire day to go back and get it, accept that it would fine if I just mailed it tomorrow. I would like to buy a block of cheese with no regard whatsoever for its origins (am actually quite good at this) and not even feel bad about it. I would like to genuinely not care if someone doesn’t like me. I would like to not be intimidated by teenagers. I would like to stop feeling guilty about decisions made months ago out of my own volition. I would like there to be be somewhere between my entire life being constructed of mundane to-do-list items, and everything going to shit because I didn’t bother to get it all done. I need to catch up on my emails.

I was sick for the last two weeks, a rather brutal cold that slowed me right down, depleting the energy stocks I count on, and they’re still not all back yet. I am really tired. I also was unable to swim the last two weeks, and I have come to count on swimming too as a kind of meditation and energy-release that keeps anxiety in check. I’ve also not done any creative work since I submitted my novel about a month ago, and I think I’m suffering from a dearth of that. So maybe it’s time to write a short story.

But in the meantime, I’ve managed to write this post, to process something of what has been on my mind. And as always, it’s cathartic.

November 3, 2019

Neither Useful, Nor Interesting

Oh, yet another blog post that begins with me talking about something I heard when I was listening to a podcast. The Mom Rage Podcast, no less—am I predictable yet? This one was about vaccines (it was so good!), featuring a conversation with medical anthropologist Samantha Gottlieb about the HPV vaccine and “vaccine-hesitant communities.” She spoke about how many people are put off by doctors’ refusal to entertain questions about vaccines at all, which only serves to underline skepticism. When the facts are that vaccines can cause risks, that vaccine injuries and reactions do happen. They happen on a disproportionately tiny scale, with risks minute. It’s more dangerous to get in the car and drive down the road, and we all do that all the time, but still. Doctors don’t want to admit it. It complicates the narrative, and complicating the narrative of vaccination is perilous, literally life and death.

Of course, I like complicated narratives. To complicate the narrative is to get as close as we can to something called truth. I don’t want to live in an echo chamber, a bubble. I relish conversations with my economist friend about the virtues of capitalism; I appreciate the activists who’ve open my eyes to the violent reality of racism; my morning routine is basically putting on shoes, but I’ve got big respect for people for whom make-up is a form of personal expression. On Twitter, I used to actually follow the person whose booking at the Toronto Public Library has created such controversy over the last few weeks, because her take on sex-work complicated what so many of the other feminists in my feed were talking about, and I found that complicatedness useful and interesting… until it wasn’t. I unfollowed this person when she started writing online attacks on the grieving father of a dead teenaged girl. When I realized this “journalist” (whose platform is her own website, which she likes to call “Canada’s leading feminist website” [according to whom?]) relishes attention more than any kind of truth, and had figured out that courting controversy was the fastest way to get there (and solicit donations). When I realized she was more invested in dogma and ideology than the feminists whose thinking (and actual lived experiences) she purports to oppose and complicate. This person is neither useful, nor interesting. She is sensationalist, and purely disingenuous. She is the anti-vaxxer of gender politics. She is not “just asking questions.”

I think there is room for questions and nuance in conversations about gender. Unlike the speaker who was provided space at the Toronto Library, I think that none of this is simple. I wish that the City Librarian had listened to so many smart and respected voices calling on her to cancel the speaker’s booking—the milquetoast mayor called her on it, for heaven’s sake. And no, these people weren’t “bullying the library.” You can’t bully a library. This is nonsense. But I also know that people too are complicated like their issues are, and there are many of them (myself among them) who don’t like being told what to do, to have demands made of them, who double down instead of considering the opposite. We put a lot of truck in unapologeticness in feminism, for better and for worse. I don’t think that we should be boycotting the library, because for so many people, especially marginalized ones, the library is their most accessible cultural institution. Because the library belongs to all of us. Because the people who have the least are the people that lose the most, and I don’t really know what the end-game is of a library boycott, especially now that the event is done and dusted. Though I commend all the people who’ve taken a stance and I do think it’s been hugely worthwhile—the turnout to the protest on Tuesday evening was an incredibly show of solidarity, and the issue has led to all kinds of conversations, which are necessary as we ask questions in generous and thoughtful ways, and figure things out as a society—a process that is far more useful and interesting than anything the speaker might have said on any platform. (This is the work, people. We’re doing it. Even if, or maybe especially if, you’ll only doing it all in your head.)

I do know what it’s like to have my body be the site of a debate. I’ve stood on the sidewalk holding a sign listening to men argue over the semantics of abortion, as to the precise point where the procedure should or should not be permitted, and I can tell you that it’s dehumanizing, insulting, ridiculous, and neither useful nor interesting. And so I have an understanding of where trans people are coming from when they refuse to entertain questions, conversations or debate about their bodies and their identities. When the field of debate is your lived reality, listening to people arguing in abstract terms and citing outlying circumstances as emblematic of the issue at hand—for anti-choicers, it’s all about the case of a particular doctor and abortion provider who was convicted of murdering infants, same as how the anti-trans crew is always going on about aestheticians and waxing, as though these are the actual goal posts and such things are happening every day—is exasperating, traumatic, and a gigantic waste of everyone’s time.

I think there is room for questions and nuance in conversations about gender, because we live in a world where there are no absolutes, but I am sure that insisting on those conversations at this precise moment is not the most pressing thing we’ve got on the go. That democracy and freedom hang in the balance, as so many others might put it in their letters to the editor. I think back to the vaccine analogy, and the distrust and violent suspicion at the heart of the anti-vaccine movement, which is not so far apart from that of anti-trans activists, really. In both cases, there is an over-estimation of vulnerability, and a convenient disregard for those who are actually vulnerable after all.

Of course, there are conversations that need to be had, questions that need to be answered, but not like this, not by this person. As with the vaccine conversation, the harms—here, it’s increased violence against and vilification of an already vulnerable population—really do outweigh the benefit, which is mainly the privileged and smug self-assurance of living in a society where any idiot gets to spout her rubbish in a public building. And if such self-assurance is our guiding principle, instead of listening to, learning from, and taking care of each other, then what does it say about us?

February 18, 2019

Lemon, it’s Wednesday

“Lemon, it’s Wednesday,” so goes the 30 Rock meme after Liz Lemon comment on the week that’s been, which is the way I was feeling last week about the month of February, when we weren’t even two weeks into it yet. We’ve had stomach bugs, and kid emotional turmoil, disturbed sleep, terrible weather, and so much snow shovelling. We have a provincial government whose sheer incompetence is the only thing between it and the destruction of our public institutions, and so last week I was out at two community meetings with galvanizing plans and discussion for how we can stand up for public education. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that most of my neighbourhood is covered in a thick and impermeable sheet of ice, which means that any walk down the street is a hobble, and I’ve got leaks in my boots. I’m feeling discouraged and sad about how my writing career is panning out, with a novel rejected in November and the one I did publish prominently featured in the chain bookstore clearance bin. And I’ve reached that inevitable point in my own plans for exciting things this year where I wonder if I’m fooling myself and everybody thinks I’m a total idiot. I was so tired last Thursday after running around taking everyone to their swimming lessons, and also having dinner ready early so that everyone could eat around their swimming lessons. “I’m sorry I was cranky,” was the text I sent home while Iris was practicing her flutter kick in the pool before me. “I think what I need is to just come home tonight and take a bath.” But of course there would be no bath, because before the night was out it would become clear that I have head-lice. Head-lice was the one thing my February had been missing.

My brain is still teeming. The itch. It doesn’t require proof or evidence. Thought is enough. You do it yourself. Lice. Imagine them crawling on your head. Claws touching skin. They pass over us, across this family. —Alexander MacLeod, “Wonder About Parents”

In the last few days, we’ve spent over a hundred dollars on expensive shampoo and a lice comb, and my husband has spent hours picking over my scalp with attention to detail. And it makes me wonder what the women who end up with lice who don’t have partners do? Let alone the women who have lice who don’t have a spare $80 lying around to buy the shampoo necessary to treat the whole family (and for best results, repeat the process in seven days). I feel outclassed by the people who are able to call in the lice-trepreneurs (this is a thing!), but at least I can afford Nixx. And it makes me think about the “Bug Economics” essay in Carissa Halton’s wonderful book, Little Yellow House, which I read in January. She writes about how many families are unable to afford the “kill-these-damn-bugs shampoo,” which might not even work anyway. She goes on to write about another inner-city scourge, bed-bugs, but the principle applies to lice as well: “While everyone can get [them], the poor are most likely to have to deal with the creatures longer than most.” I am lucky: I am not poor. Also, I don’t have bed-bugs. (Yet? February has a lot of steam left in it still.)

Lice. The third week. Head checks in the morning and head checks at night after the baths. You need to go slowly. A separate bath for every person. New water. Fresh pillow cases every night. New sheets. New blankets. The washing machine is going to die. Hats and T-shirts and hooded sweatshirts. Brushes and combs and hair elastics. Water boiling in the kettle. Everything that touches us needs to be scalded. —”Wonder About Parents”

Lice is a metaphor. Lice is also not a metaphor, which is the unfortunate part of this story, or at least one unfortunate part. (It is February. There is very little fortune.) But still, lice is a metaphor for the secret shame that creeps around your head, and makes you unfit for others’ company. It marks you and makes you less than, and everybody tells you that they’re attracted to people with clean hair, but nobody believes that anyway. You start contemplating pixie cuts, crew cuts, buzz cuts. The chance to be somebody different. Because what if I’m completely hopeless, and I’m just the last person to realize it? It’s taken me almost forty years to contact lice, and I’d always kind of thought that I was immune to it all, just like how I thought I was immune to failure. Or dared to hope my story would end up different than most people’s, is what I mean, that it could even be a story of triumph. Everyone gets lice sometimes (although usually it’s when they’re six and not thirty-nine), and everyone’s book ends up in the clearance bin, but still, who wants to be everyone? Necessary humility, certainty, but insufficient consolation.

The only way out is through.

Which is true for head-lice, and Februaries, and any period of unhappiness. It’s never easy, because you get to March and you’re still carrying February inside you, and maybe you’ve still got nits (although I’m really hoping I don’t). And to be honest, I don’t any advice that is better than that, to just keep going, in addition to washing one’s hair with vinegar, which might not even help, but I like that there is something else I can do—in addition to the chemical shampoo.

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