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January 23, 2021

What Norman Rockwell Left Out of the Picture

How old were YOU when you learned that when Hank Aaron eclipsed Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1974, he was subject to hate mail and death threats by fans furious that a Black man could outrank a white baseball legend? That his successes were snubbed by baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who would have been expected to congratulate him and didn’t?

I only found out this morning, myself, reading Hank Aaron’s obituary in the Toronto Star over my cup of tea, and I’m not really going to beat myself up that, because that I was reading an article in the sports pages at all was kind of remarkable. But it’s also typical of the limitations of my understanding and experience, as someone who grew up in the 1980s and came of age in the ’90s, believing that the fight for civil rights had long ago been won.

We thought a lot about Martin Luther King Jr., but never about the fact that someone had murdered him. I knew about Ruby Bridges from Norman Rockwell’s iconic image of the school girl, but never once in my life had I seen a photo of the ferocious mobs of white people (mostly women) who were screaming at her as she entered her school. I knew that baseball players like Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron had overcome adversity and racism to succeed as they did in baseball, but all that strife was kind of abstract. Until this morning, I’d never really considered the kind of violent rage that would cause someone to write a death threat to a baseball player, to put a stamp on it. That this is literally white supremacy—a phrase that gets tossed around a lot these days, but possibly because it’s everywhere: the unfettered rage of a white person at seeing a Black athlete shine.

A lot of people like to spend their time maligning “wokeness,” and in some ways I understand the cynicism, and I actually see the fallacy of viewing everything that happens in the world through a social justice lens, but I also can’t think of a better metaphor. That I must have been sleeping, for what other excuse could there be for having failed to notice that those furious white women screaming at Ruby Bridges didn’t just disappear with the Civil Rights act, and neither did racism? That even if “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” there are so many people intent on throwing obstacles in its way?

That the story of a hero like Hank Aaron isn’t actually one of triumph in the end, but instead that of an incredible talent who lost his love of the game, because racism and white supremacy beat it out of him—and this story is so exhausting. It often seems never-ending. And people who haven’t woken up yet, who continue to insist that race doesn’t matter, that none of us are or should be judged or valued by the colour of our skin, that “making everything about race” is a thing that people go out of their way to do in a world where men get death threats for hitting home run records, in a world where race seems to be about everything—they’re only making that story even longer.

December 9, 2020

Marching and Movement

We’re coming up fast to my annual winter internet holiday (away from the internet), which I am looking forward to (the number of books I can read while not scrolling Instagram is pretty epic), and I think it’s probably time for it. While I’ve been doing well and feeling fairly calm, I’m also in a weird post-publication creative freeze where I’m itching to start something new but I don’t know what it is yet (and you can’t rush these things) and I’m lacking the focus for blogging right now too, although I keep writing rather epic Instagram posts that turn out to be blog posts in disguise. I am looking forward to my holiday to give the spinning wheels in my brain a rest, to do some deeper thinking, and for a reset that hopefully will bring me #BackToTheBlog in the New Year.

But in the meantime, I want to write a bit about politics. About how while I have always been political in the choices I make, the stories I tell, and how I live my life, actual politics makes me squeamish. I think I hate being pinned down, is part of it, and also being told what to do. I hate speaking in chorus, can’t stand crowds, and/or suffering ninnies politely, and maybe I am deeply allergic to earnestness. All of this an aversion that four years ago, I decided to work to overcome, because staying on the sidelines was now out of the question with a burgeoning fascist regime in the country just south of us, a movement whose reach went well beyond those borders. How naive I’d been to imagine that politics (in the electoral sense) didn’t exactly apply to me. I was going to take to the streets. We were going to fight.

And we did. Kind of. There were placards on the porch and we marched, both in sunny weather and in snowstorms. We rallied for refugees, and for the climate, and over and over again in support of public education. I went to meetings and organized petitions and baked cakes and muffins and I’m not saying I did anything extraordinary or even was terribly involved (I like community in theory, but people, ugh), but I showed up. I stood up. It matters that people do so, even if there aren’t a ton of them. Even if nothing changes, standing up means one more person who did.

But the pandemic changed things for me. Though I was already tired—when everything fell apart in March, we’d been through a winter of labour unrest in our public schools. Before schools closed altogether, there had been rotating strikes for two months, and the ways things were going, they would only have escalated. And of course, we stood up with our teachers, for education. We showed up. So many days standing out in the cold, but this is no real hardship. Public schools matter more, and I have a very warm coat. But it was dispiriting, is what I mean. I really missed the era when I just sent my children to school and never thought of it again. Being a parent of school aged children in Ontario since 2017 has been stressful and heartbreaking, the constant erosion of all those things we care about, denigration of people and institutions who are the bedrock of our communities.

At some point, I had to stop going to meetings. Any political action I undertook would leave me to collapse into an emotional wreck three days later. I was way too emotionally invested, to the point of being unable to function sometimes. How do other people do this?

And then the pandemic hit, and I was just fucking done. I did spend about two weeks wracked by incredible anxiety, convinced we were all going to die (this was my Crocodile Dundee phase), but even after I got over that an stopped having heart palpitations and nightmares, my appetite for politics was even smaller than it originally had been. I guess at a moment when so much was at stake, doing anything other than having people work together just seemed counter-intuitive and just irritating. The pandemic, to me, underlined how perilous was absolutely everything, like absolute threads we were all just hanging by, and everything political just seemed made up and phony. Like, nobody really knows anything, and we just made all this shit up to feel important, to provide ourselves with purpose, but it’s nonsense, all of it nonsense. I mean, of course, there is meaning in life and in the universe, but almost everything else is just a whole lot of posturing.

I didn’t want to march anymore. It was a performance. There was no end-game. I was tired and bored, and also proximity to others had become potentially fatal. Which was the reason I gave for not marching with Black Lives Matter in June, which was a month that shifted my perspective in terms of police funding (ie defund it) and kept anti-Black racism in the forefront of my mind. A moment in which the radical point of view managed to touch if not infiltrate the mainstream, and that’s amazing. Shifting the dial, and that’s something, not nothing. But still—I was thinking of the Black woman in Toronto who was killed in an encounter with the police during the same time as people were rising up in the wake of yet another police killing in the US. And my discomfort with the way this woman’s death was meant to be a symbol of everything rather than the specific thing that it was, a thing I knew almost nothing about. I didn’t feel certain enough to go marching for that. Plus there was a pandemic on, and (also) I didn’t want to march in the first place.

I am reading the book Me and White Supremacy now, and to be honest, not finding it particularly revelatory. I am also reading Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson, and it’s blowing my mind. I think the former book would be more useful for the type of person who hasn’t been following Black women on Twitter since 2014 (except she’d never buy it) because everything Me and White Supremacy is telling me, I already learned from them, women like Mikki Kendall and Tressie McMillan Cottom, and so many others. Caste, however, is making my head explode, bringing the world into shocking, bewildering clarity and I know that I am only deepening the furrows on my brow as I read it, because my expression is perpetually, “What the actual fuck???”

But one interesting thing that Me and White Supremacy has me questioning is why I didn’t go marching in June, because the pandemic, I think, was definitely mainly an excuse. (That I did absolutely nothing else during this period with large groups of people is less important than it seems.) It has me wondering why I was willing to attend climate marches (two, I think) though I would not consider myself a climate radical by any means, but would be averse to marching for racial justice jus because I didn’t agree with absolutely every single item on the agenda. I mean, I agree with racial justice, obviously. But recall my previous point about the problem of the specific case standing in for the entire problem and my discomfort with that. Why do my scruples pop up sometimes and not others?

Part of the problem is the typical white person’s problem of seeing racism as a problem that does not concern one if one happens to be white. Fearing tension too—am I welcome at this party? Maybe also not knowing enough about what was going on. (Something else I’ve become tired of re activism and social media is the idea that everybody has to be aware of every single thing that’s occurring in every single place. Like, Instagram powerpoints: Why You Should Be Paying Attention to What’s Happening in the Back Shed of a Blue House on a Road in Dayton, Ohio.)

But where are we marching to, exactly? And is this what’s going to get us there? And let me tell me, my appetite for marching diminished even further once it became the primary pastime of right-wing nut-jobs. I honestly think there is nothing I would march for in December 2020, because marching has officially jumped the shark. We’ve brought the broomsticks in from the porch, finally, and the streets belong to the anti-maskers now. I think we have to find another way, and thinking about what this is is my new challenge.

Or am I just making excuses for doing nothing at all?

Because, of course, I have a lot invested in the status quo. And I don’t say this entirely glibly. I’m not a believer in the BURN IT ALL DOWN school of politics, because what this year has taught me is that it’s all just a tinderbox, and a house of cards anyway, no matter your leanings. This year has taught me a lot about the London Blitz, which is that it was probably a shitshow, but we just forgot about that part, and everybody is rational and stoic in the historical record. But that’s not how people work. People are messy, and muddly and it’s always bananas, and every good thing that ever happens maybe only happens by the skin of our teeth. And what if progress is actually that?

November 16, 2020

Normalize THIS

Something I struggle with is how to express my discomfort with people being eternally scolding in their politics and on social media without being scolding myself, which is pretty much impossible, and so this is why it’s great to have a blog, because here’s a place to put these sentiments but no algorithm is going to send anybody to read them and therefore my blatant hypocrisy will be less of an issue.

But seriously! If I read one more post demanding we normalize something, my head is likely to explode. STOP YELLING AT ME.

And do you know what very ambitious but in fact still a far more achievable goal than demanding that everybody you encounter accept your point of view?

Deciding to give absolutely no fucks about what what anybody thinks of you.

None. Nada. (And it helps to be at least 40.)

Normalize your existence by unabashedly existing. Everybody else can suck it.

November 5, 2020

If You Have US Election Anxiety…

If you have US Election Anxiety, I really recommend you revisit my recent post “You Get to Frame Your Own Picture,” and then start listening to the You’re Wrong About podcast. Unlike most people, I am having a GREAT week. Partly because I went to bed Tuesday night convinced of defeat, and woke up to that peculiar emotion called optimism that I’ve not experienced in years. Like, the climate might have a fighting chance? It’s an incredible thing, but in the meantime when there’s nothing to see or know yet, I recommended refreshing your browser instead to the absorbing stories of Chandra Levy and Gary Condit, Dan Quayle v. Murphy Brown, or the Preppy Murder, just in case you needed reminding that America has always been more than a bit ridiculous but also really hard to look away from

October 8, 2020

You Get to Frame Your Own Picture

You don’t have to read the books on the shortlist. You don’t have to watch the debates. The world won’t end if you don’t know the latest numbers, unless you work for Public Health. Your timeline isn’t neutral. Neither are your Google searches. You are allowed to not be interested. You are permitted to sit this one out.

What gets to be important? Did anyone catch the sunset last night? I’m thinking about a person who doesn’t have their head in the sand, and how they have absolutely no idea what’s going on underground.

Who’s been keeping up with the cloud formations? Do you know how little bearing the stock market has on most people’s lives? The way the patch of sunshine travels across my kitchen table, which is a story I’m tracking. It’s important to pay attention.

A long time ago, you got to design your own internet, with the assistance of your aunt who’d send your forwarded jokes. She was a curator then, although we didn’t call it that, but the rest was up to you, the sites you bookmarked. I had a Google reader, and a list of blogs and websites that I’d check in with everyday.

But then Google killed their Reader–it’s harder to drive advertising with users who navigate the internet on their own say-so. And now it’s Facebook who decides what we should see, what we will watch, what we read, and what we’re thinking. And while at least newspapers and journalists control the narrative with some degree of responsibility and a sense of the importance of their role, it’s still never been the entire story. Always, there’s something else going on outside the frame. And something else is almost everything.

This week, I’ve been listening to the “You’re Wrong About” Podcast, after at least two people recommended it online. While various overwhelming calamities have been occupying the minds of many, I’ve been all wrapped up in the courtship of Charles and Diana, and I’m not sure why this matters any less than all the other kinds of other soap operas going on concurrently.

The other night, I was reading to my children from Madeleine L’Engle’s A Ring of Endless Light, and it referenced “Cartesian,” but my daughter thought I meant “Khardashian,” but it didn’t matter anyway, since she doesn’t really know anything about one or the other.

I think therefore I am?

This is the book where Grandfather, anticipating Twitter in 1980 (when the book was published), says to Vicky, “Maybe instant information isn’t good for us. We can’t absorb it.” And I think about this all the time, about how there is nothing “natural” about the news cycle. It’s as organic as the economy. And the idea that we have a duty to pay it our attention, to centre our experience of the universe around it. Like its a fire we’re all drawn to, but it’s not, and who profits?

Ten years ago, I started working at 49thShelf, which means that for a decade, people have been sending me lists of books and authors. In the beginning, most of the time those authors were white, and around 2012 people started calling this out. Why were so many of them men as well, and there were people who got angry about this, people who didn’t see race or gender, but just focused on excellence, and it was just a coincidence that all their favourite books were written by white men.

In 2020, very few people would dare submit a list that includes only a handful of old white guys, and not just because doing so would make me go YIKES!, but also because it’s just really boring. Because it betrays the narrow limits of a reader’s experience, and most of us don’t like to brag about those, and all this is relevant because it shows how arbitrary is the way that things are framed, among them literature, and “the canon,” and how I used to take those all-white-guy lists for granted.

The way I used to see them and think I was looking at everything.

April 22, 2020

Making Sense of What We’re Going Through

Spiritually speaking, magazines were a really terrible part of the first very bad weeks of this devastating global crisis, the new issues that arrived like vestiges of a different world, a world where there were events in March and April, arts festivals, hockey games, book launches, and photography shows, and museum exhibits. A world where one might require easy weeknight suppers, there being anything else to do on a weeknight besides cook an elaborate feast. Heartbreakingly, the April Toronto Life was “Best New Restaurants,” which is too much when you consider more than a few are unlikely to reopen again. The ads for the Winnie the Pooh exhibit at the ROM broke my heart—it was really the most delightful show, and such a draw for the museum and I am so glad we got a chance to see it before everything stopped. (I was also REALLY not into the outdated issue of The Guardian Weekly that arrived in mid-March with the headline, “The Coronavirus: Reasons Not to Panic.”)

It was an incongruity that only underlined how much absolutely nobody had seen this coming or knew what was going on, that there wasn’t a script for any of it, a template. “Unprecedented” the word that everybody was using, and I tried to stay positive by focusing on how much of what had precedent was truly awful, and also on what it meant it to learn that so much that seemed impossible actually wasn’t. But still, it felt like there was nobody at the wheel, not just in terms of leadership, and science, but also storytelling, all such a vast unknown. All the atoms in the universe just falling, and us having no idea where they’ll land. (We never do. Our current situation just exposed the illusion.)

For me, there is something tremendously heartening about the power of story. When I read Ali Smith’s Autumn in April 2017, I remember feeling hope again for the first time in almost a year. Because someone had gone and created art and story out of the mess of our time, post-Brexit and that Orange monster, and the very fact that someone could render art from it all had made me feel like maybe we were possibly a society worth salvaging after all.

And I felt the same when the May issue of Toronto Life appeared in my mailbox the other day, like we’d turned a corner somehow, the world we live in finally beginning to align with our idea of it again. It’s a miraculous issue for so many reasons, not least of which that it was put together in a matter of weeks once our reality had shifted. With eerily beautiful photography, stories of Torontonians weathering the storm, our current situation in all its mess and complexity. Context. (My understanding is that Toronto’s Spacing magazine has a similar issue coming down the pipes—I just purchased a subscription based on that promise.)

I’m so grateful for the writers who are doing the work of making sense of what we’re going through. Their work is invaluable.

April 20, 2020

A Note to a Tree

Dear Tree,

You are a silver maple or a black maple—I can never remember. Which doesn’t mean I love you less, because you’re everything. A home for birds, squirrels and a family of raccoons. Your shade means there are a handful of days in which our lack of air conditioning matters. Because of you, we live in a tree-house, a different view of you from so many of our windows. I have revelled in your gorgeous foliage as I relaxed beneath you in my hammock. Spending all year cleaning up after you, white blossoms in the spring, your maple keys afterwards, those yellow leaves that fall in November, and the sticks and twigs that break in winter with the ice. I can set my clock by you.

(Once I also looked out my window to see an arborist trimming your branches in a rain storm, smoking a cigarette like it was nothing. One of the most memorable performances I have ever seen.)

I am afraid of losing you. Desperately. You are 150 yrs old, so this is not an irrational fear, and when I am afraid of heavy winds, you’re what I am thinking about. How our homes, our lives, and all of us are so vulnerable. I cannot imagine this place without you, who was here before anything else.

But you have also taught me that strength is bending, that deep roots can endure, and how much everything is so connected.
We’re so lucky to be your neighbour,
xo

(You too can write a #notetoatree for a chance to win a collection of nature books from Groundwood Books in celebration of the publication of Andrea Curtis’s A Forest in the City. Head over to Twitter or Instagram and check the #notetoatree hashtag for more details. Two days left to enter!)

March 20, 2020

Crocodile Dundee

The only thing I am properly equipped for at this time (except for keeping calm and staying home, of course) is writing about Crocodile Dundee, which I watched on Netflix two nights ago, and it was so terrible, but fascinatingly so, and also short. The strangest thing about the film is that I am sure that I was taken to see it in the cinema when I was seven, and while the movie is not inappropriate exactly, it doesn’t really seem really appropriate either. Similarly, while the movie is really short with lots of action scenes, nothing much really happens in it at all. It’s just so bad, and not just because the female lead is a journalist whose boyfriend edits the paper she works for and her dad is the owner. She’s late coming back from Australia, because she’s got a lead on a terrific story, about a guy in a remote territory who was attacked by a crocodile and survived. She meets him, and it turns out that he is very greasy, skin like leather, appears to be literally coated in dirt. So naturally, she develops sexual feelings for him, or kind of. Also, she treks through the jungle without a hat or bug spray, which I just couldn’t get over. She has a bodysuit for every occasion, as you do on a jungle trek, I suppose, and her bodysuit has a thong, which we learn when she takes off her skirt to bathe in the lagoon (where she gets attacked by a crocodile and Mick Dundee saves her).

And then she decides to invite him to come back to New York with her, because wouldn’t that make a fish out of water movie! Her boyfriend greets her at the airport, and it turns out that Mick Dundee doesn’t know how to use an escalator, and later he has the same problem with a bidet, and he doesn’t even know how to use a bed. Sue has absolutely no character development and her fundamental purpose in the film is to find Crocodile Dundee adorable in a childlike way, simultaneously sending confusing sexual signals, all the while having zero chemistry. And her boyfriend is so rude and unattractive! And the parties that she takes Mick to are totally weird and boring! And he keeps grabbing people’s genitals, and it’s supposed to be funny, but it’s horrifying. Also why does Sue have no friends?

The “that’s not a knife” scene lived up to my memory of its epicness, but everything else is terrible. In the movie’s final scene, Sue and Mick meet in a crowded subway station and to get to her, he hauls himself up to the rafters and literally walks across the crowd, stepping on people’s heads, and it’s supposed to be charming. It was not. The movie was awful, and yet somehow it was exactly what I needed.

March 17, 2020

On Being New to Handwashing

As I’ve written many times, I blog to make sense of the world—but I’m not quite ready for that yet in terms of how this crisis is unfolding, as I’m cycling through all the feelings at supersonic speed, and the ground underfoot just feels ever-shifting. We are not in a place to make sense of any this yet, but in the meantime, and in response to recent judgy internet memes, I want to write a frivolous explanation for one specific instance of poor personal hygiene.

And I’m talking handwashing, which has become all the rage these last few weeks, to the point where our hands are chapped and bleeding. Whatever it takes though to protect our health and that of others—SIGN ME UP. But yes, it’s true that obsessive handwashing is kind of a new thing for me. “I washed my hands before it was cool,” so goes the judgy meme, and I did too, I guess, at all the obvious moments, but never while singing Happy Birthday.

I have never been very squeamish about germs, which is good, because I have children, and when my daughter was two, she ate part of a cheese sandwich she found under a table in Glasgow. When I’d take my children for walks in their strollers, they liked to reach out and touch the garbage cans on the sidewalk as we strolled by. They licked subway poles, and the bottoms of shoes, and I’d read that scientific study about how picking your nose and eating it builds immunity, so I just decided to let it go.

And so washing our hands just wasn’t really a thing, unless maybe your fingernails were green, or you’d just gone to the bathroom, or had been finger painting, or digging in the dirt. Definitely after handling raw chicken, and usually before. Yes, I am gross, but “better gross than neurotic” was honestly my kind of slogan.

Of course, I’ve since gone over to the other side. Now I watch TV and see people shaking hands, touching their faces, and my heart starts palpitating. Ordering takeout and fetching the mail seems fraught. I am going to have to go out grocery shopping one of these days (we’re on Day 5 of Keep Calm and Stay Home) and the ideas honestly terrifies me. Potential contagion everywhere. I am washing my hands constantly, even though I don’t leave the house, as though lather was a kind of prayer, and maybe it is.

March 4, 2020

My Barbies Always Got Pregnant

Maybe it’s genetic? Because we were listening to our children playing Playmobil the other day, and one little plastic figure or another in their game had gotten knocked up, and my husband said, “It’s just like you!” Because my Barbies always got pregnant, always. I didn’t even really have Barbies, but I played when them at my cousin’s house, and the narrative of our game would inevitably reach the point where I’d stuff a pile of clothing under my Barbie’s voluminous blouse (my cousin’s Barbie fashions were very 1970s and a-line) and suddenly it would be A Very Special Episode. I don’t recall that my Barbie ever had a partner, because who could be bothered with Ken, who underpants were moulded to his body, so it wasn’t like that old Barenaked Ladies Song. I don’t recall either where I got the idea for this Barbie story line—it is possible I was unduly influenced by the movie Look Who’s Talking, but that movie didn’t come out until I was 10, and I think I’d been playing Pregnant Barbies for years before that. And it wasn’t even Barbies—any kind of imagination role-playing game would, for me, inevitably lead to me getting pregnant (with clothes stuffed up under my t-shirt, natch), to the point where people didn’t want to come over and play with me anymore—although it’s possible there were other reasons for that.

Other pop-cultural pregnancies that influenced me: Elyse Keaton’s shark-jumping pregnancy late in the Family Ties series (she goes into labour while wearing a brown velour track suit that I think my cousin’s Barbie had); Elizabeth McGovern’s pregnancy in the movie She’s Having a Baby, with co-star Kevin Bacon, which I never even saw, but I was obsessed with the trailer and where she said, “I stopped taking the pill”; when Martha Plimpton gets pregnant in the movie Parenthood (and perhaps that entire movie); and the Molly Ringwald vehicle For Keeps, which I am not sure I ever saw either, but I sure did read the back of the VHS tape at my corner store. And yes, Look Who’s Talking, and maybe the source of all of this is that I figured if I got pregnant, at least I’d end up with John Travolta in the end. (And Kenickie and Rizzo in Grease. Even though that was just a false alarm.)

I also spent my childhood reading newspaper articles I didn’t properly understand about stories like Baby M, and Chantal Daigle.

Anyway, it occurred to me—as I listened to my children following my imaginative footsteps, as I was going through copy edits for my brand new novel that is forthcoming in October—that my Barbies never actually quit getting pregnant, and that I just started writing their stories down in stories instead. Because my fictional characters always get pregnant too. Or they don’t—I’m currently writing a short story about a man whose wife, an online influencer, decides to monetize her infertility. In 2014, I edited an anthology of essays all about the experience of getting pregnant, or not getting pregnant, because these are the big turning points in a person’s life. A year ago I wrote about how I do love me a good fictional abortion (which is not to say that the nonfictional ones aren’t worth having, obviously) but I think I can take a step back from that and consider that it’s pregnancy in general (desired or not, realized or not) that most intrigues me from a narrative point of view. It’s why, to be frank, books about men don’t interest me that much, because men’s lives don’t offer the same possibilities, the same questions and potential for transmogrification. The hero quest? Yawn. Instead, the possibility of having your entire life railroaded (by a pregnancy or the failure to have one), not being architect of your own fortunes, so much left to chance, hope, luck. It’s in all the fairy tales, some of our oldest stories, Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel, even the old woman who lived in a shoe.

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