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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?

October 30, 2019

It’s Not About the Vision Board

Be your own vision board…

I want to go back to Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror, the parts about scams and delusions. That we exist in a moment where people are trying to sell us their 5 simple steps to becoming millionaires, or having body confidence, or achieving career success. That the only difference between you and that superstar you emulate is something corny like, “She dared to dream, and then she did it.” I have to confess to a mighty aversion to vision boards, especially since the images are usually cut out from magazine advertisements. Do I really want my vision to be borrowed from an ad for Hyundai? What are the limits to empowerment by hashtag?

And yet. A thing I’ve learned in the last few years, during this year in particular, is that we have more power than we realize. The point, of course, is just to use it, and certainly confidence is a factor. I turned 40 this year and what this new decade has delivered me is the confidence to realize I really do have something—skills, knowledge, experience and insight—to bring to the table. After a decade and more of not taking myself too seriously (because people who do can be insufferable) I’ve learned the value of doing so—while not being insufferable, I hope.

But it’s not about the vision board. It’s not even about “daring to dream big.” Instead, it’s about looking at the world head on and figuring out what needs doing. Asking “What if?” and daring to follow through. It’s about the doing, not the dreaming.

I note this example all the time, but it’s emblematic of many other things I’ve achieved on a larger scale: when my neighbours had a baby, I brought them a loaf of banana bread. And in doing so, I made our street, this world, a place where things like that can happen. A small thing, but I don’t discount the value of small things. I think they’re everything.

Anyone who attends a protest makes a world where people care about things. Anyone who reaches out to someone in need makes a world where people care about people. 

The foundation is an understanding that you matter, and therefore the things you do will matter. And then you’ve got to do the things, which is where, of course, the work comes in.

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October 23, 2019

We are stardust, we are golden 

One single quotation that bugs me in its vacuity even more than Madeleine Albright and her special place in hell for women who don’t help other women is that excerpt from a poem by Rumi that goes, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

A line that maybe isn’t so offensive on its own, and I think that Rumi was talking about the spiritual realm, but I’m not sure it really applies here on Earth in the meantime, where people who insist on hanging out in that proverbial field are likely to come home at the end of the day with black eyes and bruises (because they’ve been cavorting with neo-Nazis), and possibly they’ll also have measles.

So, yes, Rumi, I will meet you there, but in the meantime, there’s the land right here before the field beyond wrongdoing and rightdoing, where we’re all trying to puzzle out this thing called existence and how to get along with each other, to do better than emblematic opposition, us and them, love is a battlefield. Where we need better metaphors, which is the central thesis of Eula Biss’s On Immunity, in which she uses the issue of vaccination to explore ideas of societal (dis)trust and polarization (and also the history of public health, and motherhood, and everything).

It’s not quite as simple as shrugging off right and wrong, heading out to the field. Different strokes for different strokes. Because of course, in innumerable ways, our lives and our choices all intersect. There is indeed such thing as society, and a public of which each of us are a part. Eula Biss calls on the work of Rachel Carson, who writes, “For each of us, as for the robin in Michigan or the salmon in the Miramichi, this is a problem of ecology, of interrelationships, of interdependence.” 

Biss writes, “We are…continuous with everything here on Earth. Including, and especially, each other.” 

My favourite part of On Immunity is in the endnotes, when Biss credits the women in her personal circles “who complicated the subject of immunization for me.” (Emphasis mine.) This same idea is repeated in the book’s acknowledgements: “I am grateful to the community…who complicated my thinking, argued generously, and pointed me in new directions.” 

(In the endnotes, she goes on to explain her use of “mothers” when she might have used “parents” throughout the text. “This does not mean that I believe immunization is exclusively of concern to women, but only that I want to address other mothers directly. In a culture that relishes pitting women against each other in ‘mommy wars,’ I feel compelled to leave some traces on the page of another kind of argument…that does not reduce us, as the diminutive mommy implies, and that does not resemble war.”) 

I first read On Immunity in 2015, which seemed like a polarized period at the time, but appears somewhat utopian when one looks back from our post-November 2016 world. And in the years since I read the book, I’ve continually returned to that idea of complication as a kind of service, a gift, something to be grateful for. Not always succeeding in my understanding, of course, failing more often than not, because it’s no small thing, to be grateful to the people who complicate your vision, your understanding. An astounding and rare feat of generosity, in fact, to be grateful to the people who keep the world from being simple…but this is the kind of achievement that I’m aspiring to, a way one might make it here in this place entrenched by ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing. This is how one might get beyond this place and manage to still have a soul. 

“…it isn’t the clinging to answers but the embracing of ignorance that drives science,” Biss writes, but not just science—it drives everything. And to embrace ignorance is another way of asking to make it complicated. Tell me how the medical establishment has a centuries-old habit of undermining women’s knowledge, and that some of the first public health initiatives had people vaccinated at gunpoint. Tell me (as Biss does) how “a refusal to vaccinate falls under a broader resistance to capitalism,” but then complicate that. She writes, “But refusing immunity as a form of civil disobedience bears an unsettling resemblance to the very structure the Occupy movement seeks to disrupt—a privileged 1 percent are sheltered from risk while they draw resources from the other 99 percent.” 

Or tell me how Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring alerted the world to the dangers of DDT, but also inspired a line of thinking that is not disconnected from the fact that one African child in twenty now dies from malaria as DDT is now discouraged for use against mosquitos. “For each of us,” as Carson herself said, “this is a problem of ecology, of interrelationships, of interdependence.” 

It’s complicated. As they say

Biss rejects the possibility of a middle-ground on vaccinations as facile, a middle-ground simply reinforcing the binary or this or that, and a divide instead of a connection, when the reality of most things is not so neat and simple. Bad guys and good guys? “[M]ost people are both,” writes Biss, and then quotes Naomi King, who knows something about monsters, because her father is an author called Stephen. She says, “If we demonize other people and create monsters out of each other and act monstrous—and we all have that capacity—then how do we not become monsters ourselves?” 

On Immunity is preoccupied with the metaphor of vampires, and Dracula, but this passage had me thinking of Frankenstein, or rather Dr. Frankenstein, who, in creating a monster, has himself been transformed in into a monster, at least in the public consciousness. 

However, now we’re back here with Rumi and the field beyond, basically, imagining that monstrosity is relative, but here’s the thing: I do think some monsters are real. And there is a distinction between the people who complicate things, and the people who set those things on fire. There is arguing generously, and there is arguing disingenuously, dangerously. Dog whistles. (That point where you start asking: am I being paranoid? Akin to someone who regards the polio vaccine as an global conspiracy?) 

Possibly one benefit to restricting the bounds of your argument to apply to mothers, when certainly lessens the likelihood that you’re having your ideas complicated by someone who keeps body parts in the freezer, though no doubt (it’s complicated) there are even exceptions to that rule. 

But now I’m back to Dr. Frankenstein again, and I don’t know what to do, but maybe complicatedness is the point. Complicatedness is reality. And the point is not untwining, but the twine, like ivy, and now I’m thinking of Biss’s final metaphor—for the body, for society. A better one than war, instead, the garden.

“The garden is unbounded and unkempt, bearing both fruit and thorns. Perhaps we should call it a wilderness. Or perhapscommunity is sufficient.” 

A wild tangle. An exasperating mind-fuck. Sustaining, and but exhausting. Maybe that’s exactly what it’s supposed to be. 

I reread On Immunity because it’s a Book Club Pick for the Mom Rage Podcast, a podcast which I’m embarrassingly enthusiastic about. I think they’re going to be talking about it on next week’s episode, but if you haven’t yet, you might as well just listen to all of them.

October 15, 2019

Cities Work

I understand the circumstances that have resulted in an increasing number of people on our streets, but what I cannot understand is how someone could walk on by someone who is unconscious on the sidewalk and do nothing, which happens all the time. “If that were me lying on the sidewalk, I’d want someone to help,” I tell my children. “If it were you, I would want someone to help.” Today we called an ambulance for the second time in recent months for someone who was in trouble. Because that guy on the sidewalk, he’s our neighbour. We share this city together, and cities work when we take care of each other. 

And as ever, I was so grateful for the kindness of first responders who accorded this man his dignity. Firefighters and ambulance arrived and took care of him, as a Falun Dafa Parade came up the street, an amazing marching band. We’d left by then and were across the street watching the parade half a block from where the firetruck and ambulance were blocking the road, and this tension, these intersections, and connections are why I love cities so much. Why I love this city so much. 

It’s a miracle that any of it works, but sometimes it does, and it can be beautiful and so absurd, the golden autumn day a glorious backdrop. 

By the time the parade had arrived, the emergency vehicles were gone, the man taken to the hospital, which I know is only the beginning of the story and unlikely to be the end of his struggles. But I hope it helped, and I loved the marching band and their music, and I am so grateful to be connected to all of it, to be part of this messed up, gorgeous, incredible world.

October 10, 2019

October

This month marks 19 years since I started blogging, and I’ve also been thinking a lot about where I was here a decade ago, when life was very different, when I was the new parent of a small baby and the universe was made of a million tiny little pieces that would eventually find their way together to make…my life. A life where the children go out of town for the weekend—WHAT? But yes, they went to Girl Guide Camp and Stuart and I were left on our own for 36 hours. So curious to slip back to the life that used to be, when days were wide open, we could walk until our feet hurt, and once the supper dishes were washed, we didn’t have to put anybody to bed. It helped that the day was golden, beautiful. We visited Little India in the east end, where we’d never been before, and then walked along Gerrard all the way from Coxwell to Logan, and it was so interesting and fun, and a great treat to return to that expansive life for a little while, and have my house clean. But oh, the children, with their complications and fascinations, and when they came home, we were glad to have them. Always, we are glad to have them. And lucky. And it occurred to me on Monday, when I was reading Theresa Kishkan’s blog, that I love her blog so much because she’s as mystified and fascinated by this particular thing as I am, the banal and extraordinary fact of the passage of time. How did we get here, far more interesting to me even than where are we going ever was.

September 26, 2019

On Beauty

If there is one mistake of mine that it’s really important to me that my children could learn from, it is this: leave your eyebrows alone. More important than not smoking or getting ill-advised tattoos, because there is no coming back from eyebrow ruin. During the early years of my life, I had perfectly acceptable, unremarkable eyebrows, and I could have stayed that way, were it not for a teenaged need to perform womanhood with stupid grooming rituals.

So I went and got my eyebrows waxed, and waxed, and waxed and waxed, and there was a point in 2001 where they were tiny little lines, skinnier than I’ve ever been, and there was also the women who did my brows the day before my wedding who nicked me with the tweezers and made me bleed, so I gave her an extra big tip so she would feel less bad about the whole thing, and being a woman is so idiotic.

And then one day a couple of years ago, I decided I didn’t want to wax my eyebrows anymore. I didn’t even want to tweeze them anymore, standing before the bathroom mirror, hair-by-hair, each pluck making me sneeze. I don’t have time for that, because it always grows back. The same reason I’ve sworn off dieting, and colouring my hair, and running on treadmills—the whole thing is Sisyphean, and I refuse to be pushing a boulder for the rest of my life. These are losing battles, and I will not engage.

But the result now is that I have terrible eyebrows, sprawling and patchy. Would be that after all the waxing, my eyebrows would have thinned out altogether, but instead they’ve grown back in wide but with bald spots, a shape that is so far from a shape, and I just don’t care. And also I do, because I’m already on my fourth paragraph writing about it. But I just can’t go in for the incessant demands of grooming, and most of the time I don’t, which is one great benefit of being in a romantic partnership with someone who is terrifically far-sighted.

I was listening to a podcast today (which is the way that I start most of my sentences lately) when the host came on with an ad for some kind of skin care product I wasn’t paying proper attention to, and she talked about how much she loved her nightly skin care regimen, how it was just so fantastic that it gave her “me-time,” and I almost died of despair right then. The saddest thing I’ve ever heard, though perhaps I’m reading more into this than I should be. It is possible that no podcast host is quite as enthusiastic about the product she’s endorsing as she sounds like she is, and I actually really hope she isn’t, because that’s the saddest excuse for “me-time” I’ve ever heard.

It is also possible that she has nicer skin than I do. Most people do. Earlier this year, I turned down a prescription for rosacea from my dermatologist, so I’m hardly an expert on any of this. I’m just kind of lazy when it comes to grooming, and also would prefer to squander all my money on books instead.

Which is not to pass any judgement on those people who heavily invest in their aesthetic appearance—they’re are a million ways to be a woman after all, and who am I to tell another person what to do with her body, but this is kind of just my point, that the whole world is actually telling us what to do with our bodies, and I wonder sometimes if the whole thing is a conspiracy to keep us from doing anything more useful.

All those boulders we’re pushing, even once we’ve refused to push the boulders. I have no idea what liberation might look like.

September 17, 2019

Waffles, Waffles, Waffles

A baking pan heaped with waffles. Photograph.

One of the things I am most proud of and amazed at having accomplished in my life is a Baby Book for my second-born child. I was never going to be a perfect mother, and being a second child definitely would inevitably suck in all kinds of ways (secondhand snowsuits, no one appreciating the miraculousness of things like you knowing how to roll over, and basically not being bathed for two years) but at least she was going to have a Baby Book, a record of those precious blurry days. Though it was less of a burden for me to assemble than it might have been for other mothers of two—her elder sister was all the way to four by then, and I also spent the first three months of her life on co-parenting duty instead of struggling alone because my husband had taken parental leave, which meant time for naps, and books, and writing down all the things that we’d never remember.

When Iris was two, I added a whole page of notes to the Baby Book, though she was not a baby anymore. But it seemed like there were more things worth remembering then, once she was able to speak, and her remarkable personality had formed. “Things Iris Says,” was how I’d titled this page, along with the date, and I turned to this page just the other day when Iris had brought her Baby Book down from the shelf (and how glad I am that she has a Baby Book, that I bothered to put the effort in. Both my children are so fascinated with their baby selves, and will look at all records of their early periods in a way that’s inexhaustible).

“Things Iris Says,” I read aloud, excited to see what forgotten treasures might emerge from this time capsule, but then. Oh. Almost everything that Iris said when she was two had basically found its way into our family vernacular, and it’s how we all talk all the time now. (Perhaps when I say “we all,” I just mean me.) “Atcheam,” for ice-cream, and “fuff-eye” instead of “butterfly.” And “ra-see-see-wah” for rice krispie square. But then Iris is a little bit like this, in our family as well as in her own peer group. Totally weird, completely absurd, and at first, we’re like, “What are you doing?” And then it doesn’t take long before we’re doing it too.

But really, I want to talk about Teen Titans and waffles. Not that I have actually ever watched Teen Titans Go, but it’s Iris’s favourite show, and somehow without me ever having actually watched it, it’s seeped into my DNA, and I think it’s also the inspiration behind what became our family’s new year’s resolution for 2019, which was Get a Waffle Maker. Part of our pattern of Keep the Stakes Low to Avoid Disappointment. If you package up all your dreaming in the hopes of picking up a secondhand waffle maker from Value Village for $6, things are probably going to work out fine.

Get a Waffle Maker became our family dream because there is a song from Teen Titans Go about waffles—like most things about Teen Titans Go, it’s catchy and also extremely annoying. I am also very impressionable, particularly when it comes to glutinous goods, and so eventually, I had waffles on the brain, perpetually. We got our waffle maker sometime in January, which means our annual goal was achieved, and as a family we could just sit back and relax and be delighted by having accomplished what we set out to do. And make waffles every Sunday.

The waffle maker has been a game changer. I used to make pancakes every Sunday, and they were good, but lots of work, and also results would vary. But now the waffle maker does all the work for me, in way less time, and all I need to do is pour the batter in and then read the newspaper and drink my tea while waiting for the light to turn green—so simple. I am partial to Smitten Kitchen’s Buttermilk Waffle recipe. I am also partial to adding poppyseeds and millet to everything. Waffles, waffles, waffles, indeed. I love them, their taste, and neat geometry, and how leftovers could be turned into cream cheese jam sandwiches for tomorrow’s lunches, and all the places where our children’s preoccupations take us.

Even if just to the appliance section at the secondhand store. Hooray for being goal-oriented.

August 19, 2019

I Found an Egg Beater

Of all the machines in a kitchen, the egg beater has always been my favourite, and while the electric version has its advantages (the beaters detach for optimum licking), it’s the manual (or “rotary”, like a phone dial, both rotating around an axis) that has long been an object of my fascination, even though I’d be wary of getting my tongue stuck in a thing like that. Probably I wasn’t, however, when I was a child.

But my children have never seen an egg beater, which a) explains some of the trouble they’ve had in swimming lessons and b) was confirmed to me when Iris and I were reading a book in which an egg beater featured, and Iris only shrugged. I’d had an electric egg beater once upon a time, but I got rid of it when I got my first stand mixer over ten years ago, and back then the children were not yet in existence.

And then we were at Value Village on Saturday, exploring kitchenware, which is one of my favourite things to do. And it had occurred to me that I like exploring kitchenware at Value Village just as much when I don’t discover any treasure as I do when the search yields a new Pyrex bowl or midcentury crockery (I am mad for midcentury crockery) because when I don’t find anything, it means I don’t have go about locating a place to put it in my very crowded kitchen.

But I found an egg beater, in fact there were two—in additional to so many cocktail utensil sets. There are too many cocktail utensil sets in the world, and also George Forman grills, but we’re not yet overrun with rotary egg beaters, so I chose the one that wasn’t rusty, even if there were pieces missing from the plastic handles on the other. (Why corrupt such a wonderful object with plastic anyway?)

Iris was overjoyed to recognize the object, and then everybody started fighting over who gets to turn the handle and make the wheel turn, and we hadn’t even paid for it at this point. But it is so satisfying, the whir of the blades, the smoothness of the motion, the perpetualness of it. How I use my own energy to turn the handle, which makes the big wheel spin, whose grooves connect with the two little gears atop the beaters, and what genius thought of such a perfect machine? (Willis Johnson, according to the BBC, in 1884.)

“It’s an amazing thing,” I told my kids. “It doesn’t use any energy, and you can even make a cake when the power’s gone out.”

And then Iris came up to me hours later, as though she’d been thinking about this throwaway comment. “How do you see when you’re baking in the dark?” she asked me. “When the lights are out.”

But how do we even turn the oven on at that point? (We have a gas oven. Perhaps it might work?) I imagine us making a soufflé by candlelight.

In 48 hours, we’ve used the egg beater twice, to whip egg-whites for the Sunday waffles, and Iris got to do that because Harriet was playing Nintendo. And then yesterday evening I was making muffins for the week’s lunches, and Harriet wanted a turn, and then the two of them started fighting because Harriet was going too fast and all the eggs were getting beaten, and it really is such a clever little gadget, no matter that it’s disrupted family harmony.

Better than a fidget spinner—I could run that thing all day.

June 22, 2019

Reflecting on 40

Not since the dawn of the millennium have I felt such pressure to mark the turning over of a year—and let me tell you, I don’t thrive under such pressure. I ended up spending the evening of December 31, 1999 eating chips in my parents basement, which was better than the world’s infrastructure crumbling as the clock ticked over, of course, but it was really only memorable because it was not a good time. (There might not even have been chips, but I just added that part for extra detail.)

So this was reason I wanted to keep things low-key for my 40th birthday this week, indulging in the everyday pleasures that I am fortunate make up the bulk of my life. The everydayness is the point…but then did I want to see my friends, but our apartment is too small for a party (it wasn’t once upon a time, but once many of our friends had children and then those children grew, the situation became untenable), and I can’t afford to book a venue, and I don’t want to spend the energy to make a big production, but…and here I was on the same tangent that led to me greeting the new millennium from a basement, so best to ease back if I don’t want that to happen again.

I am not good at milestone birthdays. My 30th birthday was only better than my 20th birthday, because my 20th was the birthday where I drank too much and ended up falling in a puddle of my own pee. (At least it wasn’t someone else’s.) When I turned 30, I was hardly standing upright either because I had a three-week-old baby and life was really hard, and that was also the day that my computer crashed, losing everything I’d worked on in my twenties. (Hindsight: this was NOT a tragedy.)

Kerry and Harriet in Younger Days

So I am hoping we can set the bar at this: my 40th birthday will be more pleasant than my 30th, whose highlight was that my newborn baby slept for twenty minutes will we ate our dinner and I was able to sit in a chair unencumbered and enjoy half a glass of beer.

Never mind that I no longer enjoy beer at all (alcohol affects my sleep, which has become my biggest vice as I move into this new decade, and then it’s hard to get up first thing in the morning for my daily swim, which is my SECOND biggest vice as I move into this new decade. It is a really good thing that I never hoped to die before I got old because it’s too late for that…).

I am so happy to be 40…or just two days short of it, as I write this. I’ve seen enough of my contemporaries die of cancer in the last ten years that my perspective on aging now is that it’s nothing short of a gift, and I feel so lucky to receive it. And grateful for my thirties too for what they delivered me, how far I’ve come since then, all the amazing things I’ve been able to make and see and do and meet, not least among them books, friends, adventures, challenges, and so many extraordinarily beautiful days. (Like Albert from Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum, I continue to collect good days like other people collect coin or postcards. Unlike Albert, I did not die in WW1.)

That exhausted new mother sitting in a chair with half a glass of beer would have had her mind blown by the way it’s all unfolded. I feel so incredibly lucky.

I am reading Judith Viorst’s poetry collection How I Did I Get to be 40 and Other Atrocities, which is fun and also fitting because it was ten years ago that I was reading her It’s Hard to Be Hip Over 30 (and how—oh, and her most recent collection about nearing 90 [!] came out not too long ago...) And while I am loving the book (especially the design, since my library copy is decidedly vintage now), for me it has turned out not to be the poetic word on my new decade, because I recently read Marita Dachsel’s collection There Are Not Enough Sad Songs.

From her poem, “the forties”:

We are fabulous. We are stronger than we’ve ever been,/ because we know ourselves, and we love ourselves. Our bodies are finally our own…

(Get a glimpse of the whole thing here.)

May 29, 2019

My Ill-Fated Career in STEM

I spend a lot of time grateful for being a parent in the age of the internet, online bullying and Insta-perverts notwithstanding, because it means I’ve not only got at my fingertips birthday party ideas, assurances in the event of weird health symptoms, and recipes whose ingredients are whatever random vegetables happen to be shrivelling in my fridge, but that I’ll never be as lost as my mother must have been on that afternoon in 1988 when I came home from school and informed her that I needed to have a science project to take to school the following day.

And so began my ill-fated career in STEM, a career that was managed by my mom, from whom I might have received my lack of proclivity in the sciences, but who also taught me everything I know about being a parent who shows up for her kid. She must have called around our subdivision and found a book of home science experiments, and somehow that night she managed to help me put together some experiment involving a bottle and a balloon that inflates. I don’t remember what the science was. I don’t suppose I ever knew. I was oblivious to a lot in 1988, not just to science, but also to life-management in general, which was underlined when I took my project to school the next day, and learned I’d gotten mixed up and the science fair was not until the following week. Which meant that I was just ahead of the game, I thought, feeling cocky, until the science fair finally arrived, and one kid had built a solar powered barbecue, and here it became clear—with my pop bottle and balloon—that perhaps this was to be a field in which I wasn’t destined to shine.

We resolved to do better the following year, or at least my mom did, coming up with an ingenious solution—and indeed, this would be the zenith of my scientific career: she found someone else to do my project altogether. It wasn’t cheating, exactly, because the whole thing was transparent. Somehow, without internet—if I can remind you—my mom managed to track down contact information for Canadian Astronaut Marc Garneau, to whom we sent a list of interview questions and a cassette tape on which he could record the answers, which he did, sending it back with photographs, stickers, and other cool things that made an excellent display. At the Science Fair, I played his answers on a tape player, and won a prize in my category, and felt pretty good about what I’d accomplished here, although I secretly wanted to build a model of the solar system like everyone else was doing, but my mom thought that was cliched.

Things would never be that good again. The following year, I began suffering from basilar artery migraines, which really only happened a handful of times, but the diagnosis meant that I could pretend to collapse on the playground and spend time in the nurses’s room being the centre of attention, and then my mom would come and pick me up and I’d go home and watch TV. The doctor I was seeing suggested I could do a project on brains and migraines, and my mom and I jumped right on board, because it meant we didn’t have to think of a project ourselves. I did some research, and must have learned something, although I remember none of it, and wrote up my project to be displayed on the three panelled wooden boards we now had explicitly for science fair purposes, held together with hinges. (Where did my mom get this board? How did she enact such miracles? Perhaps I should have done a science project on questions such as this…).

But there was a problem: I had nothing to display. Everyone else would have experiments, and the proverbial solar system models, and the kids whose dads were engineers all would have built water filtration systems in aquariums. But then my mom had an idea: what if we got a brain? An actual brain. And because she was my mom, she somehow managed to get a brain. (Where do you go to get a brain? How does she do it? Especially when you don’t have the option of online.) A cow’s brain, from a farmer, which came frozen, and I brought to school in a pie plate. But in all the trouble of acquiring a brain, my mom hadn’t thought about another scientific principle, and obviously neither had I, because I don’t think I ever thought about science at all: what happens to frozen things kept at temperatures above zero?

And so that was the year my science project was basically a melting cow’s brain, whose sight caused more than one child to vomit as she perused the science fair, and so that day my table had a layer of sawdust on the floor before it, courtesy of the janitor. It goes without saying that this was another year I didn’t win a prize at all.

We would do better then. Maybe I needed to be a more active part of the process, and do an actual experiment, so the next year I resolved that I would do some inquiry and come up with a vital scientific question that needed answering, and then I had one. Eureka. What was it? My question was: Do Plants Need Air. Which, to be fair, was a burning question that science has been trying to answer for centuries, and because my mom’s approach to parenting was to make me feel like everything I did or made or thought was excellent (and/or maybe she really did think that the jury was still out on plants and air?), she was all in.

In order for my experiment to be a success, my mom managed to procure plastic water coolers, have the bottoms sawed off them, and then we could use caulking to seal the water coolers to piece of plywood. Some of the plants would grow as usual outside the sealed coolers, which the others would grow inside the coolers which (as we failed to note or perhaps my mom was just too busy sawing plastic to consider it) were themselves filled with air. Maybe we had failed to think this through. And how would we water the plants that were in the sealed coolers? A burning question that (although we didn’t admit it to ourselves) transformed the scope of my project into one addressing the even less burning question of plants and air to this one: Do Plants Need Water? (Spoiler: yes they do.) I don’t remember precisely what the conclusions of my project were, but I know that I did not win a prize. (Also, because I had a mom that made me feel like everything I did or made or thought was excellent, I was surprised and disappointed by this.)

As a parent, this might have been the point where I packed the whole thing in, or had my child bake a cake and bring it in and declare that this was chemistry. But my mom would not give in so easily, was not that into baking, and between us we supposed we’d learned about from science fair disasters to do an experiment that was actually good. But in order to be good, preparation was necessary, so we started six months in advance—I would do a project on fast food packaging and biodegradation. (This was back when McDonalds burgers still came in Styrofoam boxes.) I remember driving around town with my mom and going to various fast good outlets to ask for wrappers, boxes and other kinds of packaging to use, and then I buried these packages in containers of soil that we kept behind our furnace with labels on the container so that we’d know which establishment had supplied each one. Sounds good, right? An actual experiment, with social relevance, and possibly could launch my career as an environmentalist? My science project was all set before the school year had even started. We had triumphed. We were awesome. We would not be defeated by the science fair, for once in our lives.

Except that turned out to be the year that the science fair was cancelled, and so the wrappers remained in our basement and rotted (or didn’t), and after that I decided to focus on the arts.

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