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Pickle Me This

April 19, 2018

What that chip means

Everything about the world that I didn’t learn from reading I know about from the stretch of city block below our front windows which are usually open in the summer. Every few months, a couple breaks up while sitting on our garden wall, and other couples break up elsewhere but not before fighting on our curb in the middle of the night. I’ve learned so much from snippets of conversation from people passing by, from people riding by on their bikes screaming at someone on the phone, and from the disproportionate number of individuals who stand outside rapping, beat-boxing or singing acapella. We still wonder about the person who once breezed past on his skateboard while demanding of someone on the phone this curious question, “Who goes deep inside you?” Who indeed?

I don’t get out much. And can you blame me? I’ve got British crime dramas on Netflix, and plenty of books, and venturing outside would only mean engaging with all the weirdos outside my door. Next year I’m turning forty, I work from home, and I’m pretty ensconced in my bubble. I like my bubble. But the price of my bubble is that whenever I go outside of it, I’m tremendously uncomfortable. It is most likely that I’ve been more socially awkward in my life than I am right now, but I’ve never been so aware of it. It’s like walking around with a sign on my back, but I’m not wise enough to decipher it—so I imagine every possibility.

The other week I spent the afternoon in a coffee shop while waiting to pick up my daughter, and while the place had a certain charm and also wifi, it was kind of shitty. But crowded, so the only place available to sit was at this counter at a window where the sun was too bright even though it was overcast. Two hours on a stool made my back hurt, because I am old, and there was no place to rest my feet because the part of the wall that was under the counter was a part of the wall that was nearly falling off the wall. But the tea was good, and there was baked goods. I had work to do, so I sat at my laptop, feet dangling, and listened to curious conversations from young Bohemians, like about whether it was a good idea to apply for a job at Soulpepper (“because of all the drama” [ha ha, but it wasn’t a joke]); about “Savoury Scone Lady” who comes and clears them out of the cheddar thyme scones on most mornings and refuses to make a special order so that they never have any left for the rest of the day, “But it’s good for business,” and there’s the quandary; and about the differences between math metal and Dungeons and Dragons metal, which are both genres of nerd metal—who knew? What a think to imagine yourself as a central character, and then to receive these glimpses into worlds, cultures, stories, in which you do not remotely factor.

It was not a bad afternoon. It was just strange to think about how much of the world goes on without me, how much of the world manages not even to ride its bike past my house screaming obscenities. My angst was existential, but then it usually is. I’d posted a photo on Instagram of my tea cup, which was a chipped cup. And then someone posted a comment: “Oh, Kerry, I don’t even want to tell you what that chip means.” I didn’t know this person. I thought, “If you don’t want to tell me, then why even let me know the the chip has meaning?” I’d just assumed it was part of the wall-falling-off-the-wall aesthetic of the place. I’m pretty  accustomed to crockery chips—have you looked in my cupboards?  But it turns out that I had been had.

Because I am totally normal, I went for the logical conclusion regarding what that chip means. Naturally, it’s the mug they all ejaculate in. Obviously. All coffee shops keep such a mug in reserve, maybe having a ceremonial communal wank at closing time on Fridays. And everybody knows about this except me, and I’m such an idiot that I unwittingly took a photograph as evidence and posted it on Instagram.

I couldn’t think of any other possibility, and did what I always do it times of distress, which is, I called my husband. I said, “I think I drank from the jizz cup.” He said, “The jizz cup? What’s a jizz cup?” I said, “It’s the cup they keep at hipster coffee shops and all ejaculate into, and then they serve people with ugly winter coats their tea in it.” He said, “What are you talking about?” I said, “I don’t know, but this person on Instagram doesn’t even want to tell me what that chip means, and what else could it mean?” He said, “I don’t know, but probably not the jizz cup.” He said, “There’s no such thing as the jizz cup.” And I said, “How do you know? As Princess Diana’s butler Paul Burrell once reported the Queen informed him, ‘There are powers at work in this country about which we have no knowledge.’

We googled it. I am still not sure what the chipped cup means, to be honest, and maybe I am only underlining my humiliation, but the most we were able to discern was that chipped mugs are extremely unhygienic. Chips can harbour all kind of bacteria that cause disease…but honestly, who cares? It’s the reason I was born with an immune system. And if I seem particularly blasé about it, it’s only because it’s better than the jizz cup.

April 5, 2018

Love and rope and goddamn determination

“If there is wisdom, it’s nothing I know. It’s all just birds and storms and hauntings. We look behind and scoff, as if those ahead aren’t doing the same.” —Rachel Lebowitz, The Year Of No Summer

I’ve been thinking this week about conciliation, about reconciling disparate things. All week I’ve been reading Ausma Zahanat Khan’s latest Esa Khattak novel, A Dangerous Crossing, which takes place in communities of migrants and refugees in Lesvos, Greece, who are hoping to be in transit to elsewhere. The thing about the book is how Khan shows how civil war has undermined notions of community. A point I’d never considered—how Syrians arriving in Canada don’t necessarily want to live among other Syrians, because after a Civil War there’s no longer an assumption that these people are your neighbours. The notion of a camp in Turkey for refugees who are dissidents from Assad’s regime, and who need to be protected from other Syrians who were brutalized and traumatized by these very forces. And then in the Greek camps, Greek Neo-Nazis on the fringes—there’s a terrifying scene of a group torching one of the camps. All the other countries being stingy about helping people in need, and amongst those people in need will inevitably be some who are corrupt and criminal—particularly since these are qualities that would help one survive in a war zone. And there will be rotten people in every population—including amongst the NGO and aid workers, those there to help but who instead are preying and abusive. How far go the waves of people’s capacity to be broken and awful?

I’ve also been listening to the CBC Podcast Finding Cleo, by Connie Walker, this week, another story of violence and trauma, improbable connections, and the ways in which abuses are replicated over and over. I’ve got three episodes left, but have been riveted by the story telling, by the personal stories, but also how the personal stories stand for what happened to thousands of Indigenous children across Canada for generations (and keeps happening today). A failure of systems, just like in Khan’s novel, and a failure of humanity. All these broken parts—how do we make something out oflf the pieces? Conciliate. Not to make a story, as Connie Walker has done so brilliantly, but instead to create something tangible that offers more than a promise that the story we tell in the future could be a different one.

I became unnerved on Tuesday evening after commenting on a Facebook thread (I know: why?) about my recent essay on family and abortion. This reminds me of a comment I’d heard years ago with Gloria Steinem in conversation with Jian Ghomeshi (I know, right?) about how when she first woke up to the message of the women’s movement, she thought creating change would be as simple as just explaining things so people would understand. Which was my intention with the essay, really. I will lay it all out and people will get it. Or if they don’t get it, they will still comprehend that there are things beyond their understanding—what a thing. But no.

I hope that some readers did come away from the piece with a different understanding of abortion than they had before, but these weren’t the ones posting on Facebook. I decided to leave polite comments anyway, thinking that even some dim awareness that the person who wrote that piece was a human being could represent progress. A tiny light bulb. I said, “Thank you for reading. I hope you might have learned something from considering my point of view.” But no, again.

“I have learned nothing,” one person responded. “I’ve just had it confirmed that we live in an evil world where people try to justify murdering children.” And sigh. Because what do I do with that? Furthermore, I know that many people who hold these beliefs do so because of deeply entrenched personal experiences—parenting a disabled child, experiencing miscarriage. These people’s convictions are so fundamental to who they are—I understand that. But what do we do with that? How do I, as a person without religion, reason with someone who tells me that one day I will have to atone to God for what I’ve done? And what does that person, for whom faith is everything, do with the fact that my own beliefs undermine the foundation of their moral universe? I could see how that would rankle. How do we put these pieces together? (Although the other person would posit that we don’t, that it’s the next world, the world I don’t believe in, in which all the pieces will finally fit.)

Can you see how my sleep on Tuesday night was restless and uneasy? And then I woke up on Wednesday morning and the weather was calling for high winds, and we were to beware of falling trees and flying objects. Which seemed, as my friend Nathalie put it, like perfect pathetic fallacy. I’d been wary of such things all week, metaphorically speaking, at least. And how exactly is one supposed to take care? Even wearing a helmet won’t suffice, and also wearing a helmet would be totally weird.

I was still thinking of my exchanges with the pro-lifers, the one who could not comprehend what I meant when I said that my daughter had really only existed when she was a five week old fetus because I was visualizing her as a baby, the one I desperately wanted and already so desperately loved. Because a five week old fetus is almost literally nothing, is what I meant, physically speaking. Pregnancy at five weeks is overwhelmingly perilous, but even still, I bought my daughter her first book when I was five weeks pregnant and read it to her before she had ears. But no. The woman on the Facebook thread didn’t get it. I’m not going to go back and recall what she said, but it was something along the lines of how horrifying it was that I’d be so narcissistic as to think that a person’s existence was determined by my perception alone. Which was ironic, because this person had no qualms about thinking that a person’s existence could be determined by her perception alone. Which was kind of my point all along, the way that one person’s embryo is another person’s baby. But this person was not in the mood for duality; she didn’t understand at all.

I was still thinking about this exchange when I read my All Lit Up Poetry Cure for the day (I’ve signed up to receive a poem a day in my inbox from All Lit Up Canada for National Poetry Month). The poem was “Five Weeks” by Rob Taylor (and aren’t they doing an uncanny job of very specifically curing our existential ailments; who planned that?):

Anonymous. A lima bean, they say.
No eyes or brain beneath
the flesh and blood and membrane
of my wife. But O my burning baby
anchors love within me.
One day
you’ll wonder if any of this matters,
if you and it share a common bond,
if Love’s a word we pin to things
thin-skinned enough to pierce…

And here is where I thought perhaps there were answers. That I could send this poem to the woman on Facebook, and say, “This! This exactly.” Though I feel as though she’d appreciate the poem just as much as I’d appreciate her advice about what to tell God when I finally get to heaven.

While my own heart was mollified with the “Five Weeks” poem, it was still very windy, and I didn’t know how to watch out for falling trees and flying objects, let alone to make sense of the tragedy of Syrian refugees and cultural genocide. But then another poem arrived via one who knows well that poems are an everyday necessity—Vicki Ziegler. The poem was “Problems with Hurricanes,” by Victor Hernández Cruz:

A campesino looked at the air
And told me:
With hurricanes it’s not the wind
or the noise or the water.
I’ll tell you he said:
it’s the mangoes, avocados
Green plantains and bananas
flying into town like projectiles.

How would your family
feel if they had to tell
The generations that you
got killed by a flying
Banana…

Which is just it precisely, reconciling the miracle and and amazingness of life itself with the absurdity of flying bananas. Later, “If you are going out/ beware of mangoes.” Always, I am aware of mangos. Of the strangeness, the sweetness, the awful violence, the golden flesh, the miracle of life, the inexplicability of everything.

“You think sometimes that things are holding still, or that just one thing is happening. That the volcano is erupting. That the Thames is freezing. That these men are fishing. That this couple here is drinking coffee, and all that is happening is the coffee in the cups, but all this time, the earth is changing, the babies and men and women are blowing off the cliff, or being held on by love and rope and goddamn determination.” —Rachel Lebowitz, The Year Of No Summer

February 7, 2018

Instagram Like a Mother

On Sunday morning I knew my panel would be on the second hour of The Sunday Edition, so I was listening when I heard Michael Enright say, “And coming up next we have three smart and funny young women…” And, oh there we are!, I thought, speaking aloud to wonder why he’d be calling us young when our collective age divided by three was at least forty. And then by the time I’d finished my sentence, Enright had already intro’d the segment, which was about Instagram and featuring three guests who were each twenty. Another panel. And I was kind of mortified, because the distance between the person you are in your mind (“a smart, funny young woman”) and how the world actually sees you is something usually best kept to oneself.

As I listened to the segment though, I started to be grateful for that distance, for how far away I am from being twenty-years-old. Because while I think of myself as essentially twenty, give or take a decade, and also more than obsessed with Instagram, that I live in the virtual world differently from these women became quite obvious. We might as well have been on different platforms altogether. They talked about their experiences of taking photos, tens and tens of photos, evaluating the angle of their nose, skin tones, and then the next step in the process is sending these photos to a whole bunch of friends to find out which ones should be posted. And the photos that make the grade are posted—but if they don’t receive the requisite number of likes in a moderate period of time, the photos will be deleted. A failure of nose angle, skin tone, and personal brand.

“That sounds like the worst thing ever,” I thought, listening to the women speak. It’s like they took the essence of being twenty—coming up with a tentative self and testing the waters, putting your face in the world and asking, “Could you like me? Could you like me?”—and made it concrete with an app. When for me, Instagram is all about colour, and wonder, and noticing things. It’s about paying attention, and marking a moment, and no matter how mundane my pursuit or photograph, there’s bound to be at least five people in my community who “like” it and they each give me such a boost. It’s about marking days and moments, seeing the ceremony in ordinary things. And even selfies, much maligned, have made me grow accustomed to and even fond of the way my face looks. I didn’t used to feel like that. Part of it was that I used to be twenty, which is a hard age to have self-esteem at, even with unlined skin and just one chin, which I never appreciated properly at the time, but also Instagram and selfies have helped to decrease the distance between the person I am in my mind and how the world sees me (even if I still overestimate my perception as ‘funny and young’). Instagram and selfies have helped me get to know me better.

“I should teach these women how to Instagram,” I was telling my husband later, the same way I teach people in my blogging courses. To make peace with imperfections, to use the aspirational side of online life to aspire to good things, to use blogging/social media as a space to wander, to grow, to get lost in. To turn the lens outward, and develop your eye as well as your I.  “How to Instagram like a Mom,” is what I’d call it, and seeing as twenty-year-old women these days have a penchant for mom jeans, maybe it might even catch on.

“Or you could call it, ‘How to Instagram in a Way That Doesn’t Make You Want to Die,'” said Stuart, “since that’s what you’re selling.”

“Except they’re twenty,” I remembered. “If they had to make the choice between being like me or dying, they would probably choose the latter.”

Because even though it’s been awhile, I remember that about twenty too.

January 31, 2018

14 Seriously Underrated Reasons to Marry Somebody

  1. They make excellent sandwiches.
  2. They don’t snore.
  3. They are happy to lend you the ‘u’ from their Scrabble tiles so that you can spell “wondrous.”
  4. They always share their snacks.
  5. They remember where you left your hairbrush.
  6. They buy you new shoes when you decide to start jogging. When you quit jogging three weeks later, they never say a word.
  7. They don’t hold your bad taste in pop music against you, and even dance in the kitchen.
  8. They know how to build websites.
  9. They send you texts after you finish doing something new and exciting asking, “How did it go?”
  10. They go to the gym but don’t talk about it or make you come.
  11. They will go to the bookstore for you. They will also come to the bookstore with you.
  12. They are as good at navigating as you are at driving.
  13. They are good at back rubs.
  14. They put the kettle on before you’ve even asked.

January 17, 2018

There Will Be Blood

So the post I was going to write last week, before I got all riled up and furious, was a story about flossing, and also about Fargo, the perils of watching too much TV, and how excellent it is that I finally (after a decade) discovered a television show I like as much as Mad Men. And I will situate the beginning of this story about fifteen years ago when I had this fervent belief that flossing was unnatural and even harmful. “I’ve just got an aversion to anything that makes me bleed,” was the way I used to put it, but then I got health benefits, in addition to a lot of cavities, and started a serious relationship with my dental hygienist (seeing her at least once every six months) and now I find I’m putting my money in the pockets of Big Floss on a regular basis.

Basically, this is a story about life in my thirties and the wild incredible risks I take in my every day life. And about how I started watching Fargo in November was immediately infatuated, its characters living large in my mind after each episode ended. I was thinking about Molly Solverson all the time, and how both seasons one and two are partly about being a woman in a man’s world and negotiating with reality on those terms. And also how, like Mad Men, Fargo is a show that throws out the conventions of storytelling, skipping large blocks of time, having important details like weddings happen off-scene. And what I loved best about Fargo was how it doesn’t manipulate its viewers, how we usually know what the outcomes are going to be—who survives and who doesn’t, will they fall in love or won’t they—so that the details that keep us riveted are not those you’d usually expect, that it’s a different kind of tension. Not the what, but how. And how the writers have to come up with different ways to surprise us, hold us, than the usual twists of narrative.

I was also intrigued by the show’s questions and considerations of morality and character, and good and evil, which recalled Mad Men in their complexity, nuance and lack of a clear answer (which is why its all so interesting). The presence of a moral centre made the exploration of evil and villainy so much more palatable and the violence less troubling than it might have been. Mad Men was much less fixed that way—everyone was always selling out someone. (And now I’m thinking about the scene with the tractor in “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency,” and in its gory absurdity it was absolutely Fargo-esque.)

Usually I just watch TV one or two nights a week, because I tend to spend most of my evenings reading, but because the holidays are not for moderation, we got to watch Fargo every day. Which had a downside, because I started talking with the accent and saying, “You betcha” and became more than a little bit obsessed—our children had to ask us to stop talking about Fargo because our behaviour was not just alienating, it was boring. We finished up Season 1 in the week before Christmas, and went straight into Season 2, which was so different but I came to love just as much, although it was Season 1 that hit me hardest. The season finale was so full of tension I could hardly stand it, and kept having to leave the room and get away from the waiting for something to happen (which was never going to be the thing you saw coming after all…).

I’d left the room to get dental floss, because not only have I sold out to the dentist, but also because one of the great pleasures of my every day these days is the experience of going to bed. But I couldn’t stay away too long, not wanting to miss whatever happened next in the show, as much as I couldn’t stand to wait for it. So I came back, floss in hand, and perched delicately on the arm of the sofa, watching the screen over my husband’s shoulder. Dental floss wrapped around my two index fingers, so that my hands were essentially bound, and the floss and my fingers doing their work in my mouth so that I was basically gagged as well—a vulnerable position if ever I saw one, but at least I wasn’t dressed in just my underwear and running away across a barren Minnesota plain in the dead of winter. A season of Fargo had made clear that certainly things could be much worse.

But then I fell off the couch. In a few seconds that stretched out into an eternity in my mind, and I could see it all happening as it did. “This is completely ridiculous,” I thought, as I teetered on the edge, unable to call out to my husband to steady me, unable to reach out for support. Bound and gagged, I plummeted to the floor, landing with a crash that must have disturbed the downstairs neighbours. Free-falling is less romantic than it sounds, and nobody ever writes songs about the landing. It’s been nearly a month, and my wrist and elbow have been aching ever since.

But I continue to be cavity-free.

January 15, 2018

“The umbrella exists in a state of flux…”

“Nowadays, in a time when most umbrellas aren’t worth the stealing and are tossed aside like sweet wrappers when they fail, umbrella theft and ‘frightful moralities’ have been largely replaced by general indifference. Like pens, plectrums [guitar pick: who knew?], and Tupperware containers, the umbrella often seems an entity that is not owned but exists in a state of flux, travelling from person to person, taken up and left behind according to various states (or absences) of mind. Think of umbrellas doing endless loops on the Circle line, the inevitable bundles in the corner of lost property offices, the umbrellas in the staff room that nobody seems to own, or forgetting which they do own, they are afraid to take one away lest it actually belong to someone else. I would suggest that modern-day umbrella ownership has less to do with a specific object than the category as a whole: one possesses an umbrella, not their umbrella.” -Marion Rankine, Brolliology: A History of the Umbrella in Life and Literature.

November 30, 2017

Eating all the pies

I felt very liberated when I read in a cookbook about pies that one should use store-bought puff-pastry always, because attempting to make puff-pastry from scratch was just stupid. I don’t really know if the author of my pie book is an authority (according to wikipedia, she’s an interior designer and pies are just a sideline) but I’m not going to ask too many questions, because puff-pastry makes pies so easy. Savoury pies, I mean, as in for a meal. I still have pretty strong feelings about pastry from scratch for fruit or dessert pies. But puff-pastry means you could have a meat pie on the table as an easy weeknight supper. And we were all over that while we were reading The Piemakers, by Helen Cresswell, which our librarian recommended to us recently and we read-aloud with pure delight. A story that reminded me so much of The Borrowers in tone that I kept forgetting that the characters were not miniature—although the giant pie dish in which they float down the river didn’t make the scale any less confusing. It’s about a family of pie-makers—the daughter is called Gravella, named for Gravy—and it all goes wrong when they get the opportunity to bake a pie for the actual king. (Too much pepper, cough cough.) But then they get another chance to redeem their pie-making reputation, and everyone in the village pitches in, and (spoilers!) the result is a pie-making triumph. We loved it. But it made us hungry. And let me tell you the other best thing about store-bought puff pastry? That it’s sold in packages of two.

October 26, 2017

Dozens of Umbrellas

“In the meantime, I found work in a dollhouse shop. We sold tiny things to put in them, from lamps to Robert Louis Stevenson books with real microscopic words in them. Peter got a job in a graveyard, installing tombstones, digging graves, helping with Catholic burial processes, and cleaning up messes. He would find diaphragms, empty bottles of spirits, squirrel kinds left over from hawks’ meals, and dozens of umbrellas. He brought the umbrellas home, until our apartment started to look like a cave of sleeping bats. I had an umbrella sale one Saturday when he was at work:

ALL UMBRELLAS TWO DOLLARS AS IS

It was an overcast day so I did well for myself. ”

—From “The Mouse Queen,” by Camilla Grudova, in The Doll’s Alphabet

October 23, 2017

Leader of the Pack Conspiracy Theories

The whole thing just sounds incredibly dodgy to me: “I met him at the candy store,” Betty explains to her friends. “You get the picture?” But no; we don’t. Because what kind of self-respecting motorcyclist, let alone one who rises through the ranks to become the actual leader of the pack hangs around at a candy store? The very idea is embarrassing. What was he buying: Big League Chew? Unless it’s a candy store that’s a front for a pedophile ring, or something else just as sinister.

“Hey, Betty, are those Popeye cigarettes you’re smoking?” “Uh, uh.” 

But before we go leaping down “Leader of the Pack” rabbit holes, I want to start at the very beginning, possibly a problem of chronology. Or else the ridiculous insensitivity of Betty’s “friends” who can’t stop talking about her boyfriend and say to her, “Gee, it must be great riding with him. Is he picking up up after school today?” Betty’s reply being negative. Because, obviously, he’s just been killed in a fiery crash, and her friends must have known about this because at school everyone stops and stares when Betty can’t hide the tears, and she doesn’t even care.

Are Betty’s friends just really really cruel and they’re merely toying with her in order to start her crying again? Are Betty’s rampant emotions just a game to them? Although another possibility is that in this era of boyfriends killed in fiery crashes (Teen Angel, Tommy who told Laura he loved her, and the poor fellow who was driving the Jaguar XKE in “Dead Man’s Curve”) Betty’s friends had come to take such incidents for granted, the same way we don’t think a lot about breathing, or gravity, and maybe Betty’s boyfriend’s recent tragic death had simply slipped their minds.

One important clue to the entire song lies in a lyric that follows Betty’s initial exchange with her friends, and after she recalls the way her folks were always putting him down, her friends pretending to play a supportive part by functioning as a literal echo chamber—and let me tell you, tonally speaking, there is something disingenuous about they way they ask her, “Whatcha mean they say he came from the wrong side of town?” Obviously, these girls know their local geography. Betty’s parents aren’t saying anything that Betty’s friends haven’t said amongst themselves. But can you blame them for their disloyalty? I’m not sure we can…

I’ve still not got to the clue yet, but bear with me. All this thinking about the complex and troubling narrative of “Leader of the Pack” has come about because my daughter is obsessed with the song (as I was at her age; it’s a song about boyfriends and candy, which is very appealing to eight-year-olds and a reason why eight-year-olds have a prime demographic of the terrible pop song “My Boy Lollipop” for decades now). And in thinking about “Leader of the Pack” in the context of having a daughter, the line that stands out for me is one that I sang with unawareness for years and years but which terrifies me now, and it is, “They told me he was bad; but I knew he was sad.”

There it is, in a nutshell.

I tell my daughter, “If you ever, ever, hear yourself uttering a line like that, don’t walk but RUN away from whatever relationship you’re in.” Never date someone who is bad but you know he’s really sad. Such knowledge is not actually knowledge at all, but instead it’s a delusion. If he’s really sad, you’re not going to be able to fix him, and then you’re going to have to spend the rest of your life riding sidecar to Melancholy Melvin, who cries all the time and hates your friends. And possibly everyone’s not wrong about him, and he really is bad—this is the Leader of the Pack who hangs out around the candy store, remember. He’s not even good at being Fake James Dean.

So what if Betty’s friends had heard her line about how she knows he’s sad, and decide there’s no other answer…but to mess with the brakes on Jimmy’s bike? Betty’s dad could also have in on the deal, making a point of informing his daughter that she has to find someone new on a day in which the weather forecast called for rain. The slippery streets and the messed up brakes meant that a crash would be inevitable. Though they’d all be also putting Betty at risk—presumably she’d be riding on his bike at some point, and maybe he’d even be picking her up from school that day…

Another suggestion is that Betty herself is responsible for Jimmy’s death, that her testimony about having begged him to go slow was completely a lie. I mean, she hadn’t even ensured that he’d heard her, right? So how earnest could she have been? Maybe the begging was a whisper in her mind. “I could speak this thought aloud,” she told herself, “or I could let him speed and die in a fiery crash, thereby freeing me from the burden of spending the rest of my life hitched to a biker who hangs around candy stores.” Betty’s obvious distress at Jimmy’s passing, as expressed in the song’s final verse, her inability to hide the tears, is mostly because Betty’s feeling guilty, but there is a part of her that also feels freed.

I wonder if the reality is more complicated, however, and doesn’t involve murder in the slightest. What if the entire song is the fantasy of a middle-aged Betty, living in the suburbs during the 1970s. She’s got five kids, one with special needs. Their ranch bungalow needs work and condensation keeps seeping in, fogging up the windows. The kids won’t stop bringing home puppies, and her eldest son is going to be drafted. Betty’s husband Jimmy can’t hold a job for more than a couple of months, and her parents have had to help them out time and time again. Jimmy’s teeth are in terrible shape from decades and decades of eating candy, but they can’t afford the dentist. He has a dream of opening a bike shop, working as a mechanic, but Betty’s lost her faith in Jimmy because his own bike’s been sitting in the carport for years and no matter how much time he spends fixing it, he can’t make the damn thing start. If the bike only started, Betty thinks, maybe her sad sorry husband could ride away, out of their life, and she’d stand a chance at a fresh start on her own.

“Leader of the Pack, and now he’s gone,” is the song’s final refrain, and the meaning is doubled here. First, as a projection, a thought about what could have been if Betty had been able to listen to her dad and break up with Jimmy—but she was already pregnant with their first child by this point, totally craving sugar, and Jimmy always had candy, which kept her coming back for more. What if things had been different, Betty wonders, almost able to see the hypothetical fiery crash in her mind, and hear the thing she  might have shouted: “Look out, look out, look out!” Or possibly she wouldn’t have shouted at all. (Also, what was he supposed to be looking out for anyway? So much goes unsaid in this scenario.)

But the refrain is also a more mundane reflection of her 1970s’ reality, about how Betty’s archetypal husband has morphed from a badass biker dude into a sad wreck of a failed mechanic whose white undershirts are stained yellow now and whose leather jacket is in tatters.

“Leader of the Pack, and now he’s gone,” and is he ever, thinks Betty, who is contemplating better things, the return to fashion of shoulder pads, and getting a job as a career gal in the city.

September 26, 2017

My Body Might Know What My Head Don’t

Two weeks ago I did a talk at the Brockton Writers Series about my journey from blog to book, which was a journey that never would have gone anywhere had I tried to plot it. The thing with blogs, with books, with everything, I explained, is that you have to understand that you’re not necessarily in charge, and instead you need faith enough to follow the words where they lead you. And as I was giving my talk on that Wednesday night, I could hear my voice wavering just the littlest bit—”Interesting,” I thought to myself. “I must be nervous. Who knew?” Certainly not me, because I’ve come to take for granted that I am comfortable speaking to groups and I’d arrived prepared for my presentation. If not for the nearly inaudible wobble in my voice, I might never have known what I was feeling.

And isn’t that weird? How much about ourselves and our inner workings, emotional and otherwise, it’s really hard to be in touch with? Even though I’m a person who thinks all the time, can’t have a feeling without expressing it (god help the poor person who runs into me on the street when I’m the least bit upset about anything) and checks in emotionally with social media status updates multiple times a day. And I’m not being flippant about that last point—I don’t think status updates are necessarily as superficial as they’re made out to be. Sometimes Instagram is my way of taking stock of where I’m at for my own benefit. #TodaysTeacup is not just about the mug.

Anyway, yesterday this little burst of self-awareness proved insightful as I was trying to diagnose exactly what nonsense was going on in my brain. For a day or so, I’d been unable to shake this feeling that everybody hated me and thought I was stupid. Which is not to say that some people don’t hate me and think that I am stupid, some for very acceptable reasons, but just that my baseline for this portion of the population had rocketed skyward and I felt like a total loser. I felt conspicuous, vulnerable, and ridiculously sensitive…and there was something very familiar about it. I’d felt this way for a few weeks after my novel came out, a time that should have been amazing and euphoric but was so much more complicated than that and led to an entire Saturday that I spent lying on the floor.

The tide turned after that, by the way, one evening when I had an event and drank far too much wine beforehand, and refrained from saying anything entirely inappropriate in front of the group but still managed to have more fun than I’d been able to have in ages. And I’ve been having fun with my book ever since then.

But then all of a sudden there I was on Sunday feeling terrible again, when I should have felt terrific, after a chance to read from my book at the incredible Word on the Street Festival, and then an afternoon buying books and listening to authors and meeting up with bookish people, and having a very nice time. But then I would come away from every social interaction thinking, “Oh my god, I am a total knobhead. Why did I say that thing? Is working from home destroying me socially, so that whenever I go out in public I turn into a giant ninny? I wrote a book that everyone thinks is stupid. And how old do I have to be before I learn not to be socially awkward?”

It’s not that I am NOT socially awkward, like how there really are plenty of people who legitimately can’t stand me, but just that anxiety about all these things can ramp up to a level that’s actually debilitating. And that’s the real problem. And I was trying to figure this all out, why I was feeling the way I was feeling, or just what it was that I was feeling, because I didn’t have a clue. My voice was even pretty steady. But then it occurred to me that I’d spent the last three weeks with a higher profile than usual, with events and publications, and that possibly all the visibility had got to me. Same as when the book came out—so much was riding on what other people thought of me, their perceptions and judgements. For a while you can take it in stride. Like how when my piece about renting was so widely shared the other week, and it didn’t bother me. Everything was fine…and then all of a sudden it wasn’t anymore. And consciously I didn’t even know this was the case.

It is sort of ironic then to respond to my discomfort with visibility by writing it all down in a blog post, but a) nobody reads blogs anyway (except you of course, and I am so glad you do…) and b) my blog is how I make sense of everything. And while I don’t know exactly what the answer is to feeling too visible, except maybe to rent a burrow and the fortunate fact that I don’t have any events for the next few weeks, even just figuring it out makes me feel a lot better. The problem is not that everyone hates me and that I totally suck, but instead something has coloured my perception to make me think that this is the case. Which seems like a less daunting problem to grapple with. Suddenly, I hardly have a problem at all.

Update: I want to share a link to Billie Livingston’s essay, “How a White Trash Girl Stumbled on Grace”, which is not entirely irrelevant to any of this and is simply one of the most beautiful things that I’ve ever read. Or maybe it just arrived when I needed it most. Regardless, I am grateful.

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Mitzi Bytes

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