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Pickle Me This

February 11, 2019

On Asking for Things

I think I’ve been audacious precisely twice in my life, and I’ve written about one of those times before: the time I encountered hydro workers on a country road and pulled over to ask if I could have a ride in their bucket. “I can’t think of a reason why not,” was the worker’s incredible reply, and so we had an adventure, just because we’d had the nerve to ask for it. But such nerve, for me, was uncharacteristic, and while I will forever wish I was the kind of person who was ever asking for bucket rides, that day was an anomaly. Instead, I’m pretty religious about following the rules, keeping to the speed limit, staying in my lane, and watching spacing.

(“If we give one out to you, we’ll have to start giving them out to everybody,” I once told a patron when I worked in a library, and he’d asked to borrow a pencil. Libraries, with their decimals and rules, are my natural habitat, and the habits I acquired there have proven awfully hard to break. At my local branch, I still get rankled when I see children eating crackers by the board books, scattering crumbs across the floor.)

The other time I was audacious was completely by accident, or ignorance. When I was seventeen, I spent a week in Edinburgh, where my aunt, uncle and cousins were living for a year, by which I meant that my youthful naivety (and stupidity) was unleashed on the international community. I was a ridiculous human being, and insisted on wearing pyjamas on the plane, WHICH WAS NOT GLAMOUROUS. I also thought the whole point of travel was to try out the McDonalds menu in other cities. In Edinburgh, the commercial streets were lined with signs that said, “To Let,” and every time I saw one, I pointed and shouted, “Toilet!” I had to purchase a second suitcase in a charity shop in order to bring home the supply of chocolate bars I’d bought on my trip. And even with all this, my cousin consented to spend time with me. She is a very understanding person, and to this day (mysteriously, on her end) one of my dearest friends.

We spent a week together, aimless and kind of dumb, eating McDonalds, and visiting castles, and TopShop, and then one day we walked past a hair salon and there was a sign in the window: OAP Haircuts, £3. Which I thought seemed like a very reasonably price for a haircut, so I went in and asked for it. “I would like an OAP haircut, please.” I recall how the staff responded kind of strangely, but I just wrote that off as being because they didn’t much chance at this salon to cut the hair of a nubile young lass with long chestnut hair—everyone else in the place was kind of old, see? And afterwards, all this was just a funny story I told, about the time I went to Scotland and got my hair cut (which is far more characteristic than the bucket ride, if I’m being honest). We even took a photo to remember it by.

It was not until years later that I figured it all out, what an OAP haircut actually was, why everyone else in the salon had come in for a set. That an OAP is an “old age pensioner” (surely this had come up in Adrian Mole. How had I missed it) and what must the woman at the desk had thought when I walked into the place asking for a senior’s discount? (On the other hand, I was foreign. Being foreign helps you get away with so many things. Which makes me realize that “I think I’ve been audacious precisely twice in my life” is not exactly accurate, because doing the year we lived in Japan, we did audacious things all the time. As gaijin, no less was expected of us.)

My biggest takeaway from all of this is that sometimes, if you want a thing, all you’ve got to do is ask for it. Sometimes, due to sheer audacity—accidental or otherwise—the person you’re asking will have no choice, but to just give it to you. (Unless it is a pencil, and I am working at the library circulation desk. Because if I gave one to you, I’d have to give one to everybody.) That being naive and ignorant enough ask for a thing can sometimes actually be the key to getting it. And that’s not the whole story, of course, and anyone who tells you that your consciousness is the key to unlocking the universe IS LYING. But still, there is power in asking. Sometimes it’s as simple as that.

January 31, 2019

On Meeting the Austins

Like many bookish people, A Wrinkle in Time played a big role in my literary foundation, although it was the third book in Madeleine L’Engle’s series, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, that I was really passionate about, and have reread many times since. Because although …Planet is fantastical and concerned with time travel and parallel universes, it is very much of this world, which has always been what I’m interested in most. My favourite parts of A Wrinkle in Time were the scenes set in Meg Murry’s kitchen, the meals her mother cooked on her bunsen burner. Likewise, in …Planet we’re back in that same place as the Murry family (Meg pregnant with her first child) awaits perilous news in global politics, a ruthless dictator with his finger on the nuclear button…and Meg’s brother, Charles-Wallace, travels back through time with a unicorn, to mend the brokenness through history that led to the current crisis, brokenness that has always been rooted in family connections or lack thereof. I love this book, and it has brought me tremendous peace and comfort many times.

As a child, I had the fourth and fifth books in L’Engle’s “Time Quintet,” which Wrinkle begins, though I never had strong feelings about them and it’s possible I never actually finished reading An Acceptable Time. I also had some of the books in L’Engle’s other well-known series about the Austin family, but I remember finding them kind of strange and disorienting, which is odd because they are wholly set on this planet and do not feature centaurs. They’re mostly set in kitchens. You’d think they’d be straightforward—more on this in a moment. I have also long been intrigued by the idea that L’Engle consciously had set her books in two difference universes—The Time Quintet is set in a time she calls kairos (“real time, pure numbers with no measurement”) while the Austin series is chronos (“ordinary wrist-watch, alarm-clock time”). And that there are characters who move between the two is so fascinating. So when I saw the first three Austin books in beautiful recent paperback editions at the library, I signed them all out, and began to embark upon a new reading project, which was discovering Madeleine L’Engle from a different point of view.

Reading Meet the Austins was curious, because it was all very familiar. There were several sentences that I came upon and realize they’d been long ago made indelible upon my mind. I remembered the story from the book’s opening, when Meggy Hamilton comes to live with the Austin family after her pilot father is killed in a plane crash (which also killed his co-pilot, a friend of the Austin family, and his wife was made Meggy’s guardian but she’s a concert pianist who tours the world, so would not be able to provide a stable home life for the child). Possibly the story confused me as a child because it did not go according to trope—Meggy, the orphan, was not remotely plucky. Her presence is a hardship upon the family. Vicky Austin, the book’s narrator, is struggling with questions she’s having trouble answering, and thinking about her place within her family and her family’s place in the wider world. The family is idyllic. The parents are wise and cultured and are interested in their children’s ideas about the state of the world. Their dynamic is similar to the Murry’s, except that Vicky’s father is a family doctor and not an astrophysicist, and hasn’t been trapped inside another dimension. But the conversations they have as a family are the same, as the questions Vicky is grappling with similar to Meg Murry’s. Looking up at the stars and wondering what is our place in the cosmos—except that Vicky is doing so from the vantage point of a comfortable spot on a grassy hill.

I loved Meet the Austins. I found it intelligent and comforting, and I knew that Harriet (age 9.5) would love it too. There is not a plot exactly, instead episodes as the characters move in and out of weeks and days. I loved the way that Vicky understood that her family was a kind of cocoon and the questions she was asking about the world outside it, and her apprehensions were the kind that so many children have (and that I have never entirely been able to abandon). It’s a novel that respects its reader, and I enjoyed reading it so much that for days after I lamented that I did not have those few hours to go through again, when I had sat down with this book and been so thoroughly satisfied.

Meet the Austins was published in 1960. In 1962, L’Engle would publish her most famous work, A Wrinkle In Time, which must have meant that by the following year, when The Moon By Night (the next Austin book) was published, her world was a very different place. The world in general was a different place, however, and The Moon By Night is wholly infused with that ominousness, post-Cuban Missile Crisis and the imminent possibility of a nuclear strike. Also, Vicky Austin is 14, which is never a great age, and the world as she knows it has, in fact, already ended—her family are leaving their small town for a new life in New York City, but first, they’re about to drive across the country, a summer vacation never to be forgotten.

It’s a long journey, and on page 83, Vicky’s sister asks her older brother, ‘Hey, John, couldn’t you just tesser us there?’ and Vicky thinks, “It would have been nice if he could have, like Meg and Charles Wallace Murry, but that as Kipling would say, is another story.” Which is the first place L’Engle’s two universes intersect—I love the idea that Vicky Austin has read A Wrinkle in Time too.

The Moon by Night is remarkable for introducing the most irritating character in all of literature, Zachary Grey, certified beatnik, Holden Caulfield redux, as he’s been kicked out of prep school and calls everyone phoneys. He’s travelling across America with his own parents, who are disinterested and self-absorbed (although you might be too if Zachary Grey was your son). It’s the end of the world as we know it, but Zachary Grey feels fine, and he’s blasé about nuclear annihilation, and patronizes Vicky for her religious leanings. He is an appalling fuckwit, who latches onto Vicky as soon as they meet and calls her Vicky-O, and none of the other Austins can stand him, but Vicky finds him interesting which makes me concerned she’s going to spend her whole life attracted to damaged men who need fixing. He’s also a chauvinist, but who’s not in this novel. When Harriet read Meet the Austins, she was furious about the ways that Vicky is subservient to her brilliant older brother, and the gender dynamics are far more overt in the second book—”Daddy doesn’t like women in pants…” Oh, please. Vicky spends the entire book a passive agent as she’s passed from one jerky boy to the other. Her dad also uses judo kicks to take down a gang of “hoods” attacking their campsite. There’s a prowling bear, deadly floods, and at one point Zachary hides for hours so Vicky will worry come find him, that manipulative bastard, and there is a landslide and they’re trapped for hours, and she doesn’t even let the fact he’s put her life in jeopardy make her consider that she should never ever speak to him ever again.

Does it sound like I didn’t like this book? Not so. Weird ‘sixties slang and other factors aside, I still really loved it. And that I loved it in spite of all the reasons it was terribly annoying is a testament to its value. It’s a novel for a much older reader than Meet the Austins, maybe ideally one who is 39.5 years old and is worried about the state of our world. There is a line in it about Vicky and Zachary’s being the first generation who’s not assured of there being a future, and not the last then, I supposed, and there is some comfort in that, that our world has known peril before. Vicky thinks about her uncle, who was killed in the plane crash in the first book, and the genocide against Native Americans across the country they’re travelling (and it’s remarkable that L’Engle was using the term “genocide” in 1963), and Anne Frank in the Holocaust, and as they travel back east through Canada, she learns about the landslide in Frank, BC, and it haunts her just as much as everything does.

How do you live your life, how can you have faith any, knowing it could all just end at any moment for absolutely no reason? How do you love a world that is home to so much that is just awful? Questions I’m thinking about all the time, so The Moon By Night moved me, decades later. I appreciate too that L’Engle’s religious themes have a universality about them so that the answers apply to those of us who are not Christian, and further that her Christianity is underlined by such largesse, generosity, such grace.

Zachary Grey is one of the characters who appears in subsequent books featuring the Murry/O’Keefes. (Fingers crossed it’s just repeated scenes in which his eyeballs are pecked out by crows.) I want to read them now and see who he is in that other universe, and I look forward to the next Austin book now too, which apparently has its realism shaken a bit with the appearance of aliens. I can’t even… The Young Unicorns is next. I will keep you abreast of my progress.

January 23, 2019

We Hold Each Other Up

I like people in theory, but I have to tell you that in practice, I find a lot of them kind of annoying. Which makes me despair sometimes, because this is a political moment in which solidarity, allyship, and cooperation have never been more necessary. And what can you do at a moment like that when you’re kind of a misanthrope? Which is overstating it a bit, I realize. People are fine, but it’s not like I want to invite every single one of them over for dinner, you know? I’d rather read my book than chat to a stranger on the subway. I’ve unfollowed people on social media for being on a juice cleanse. I don’t want to deprive anyone of their juice, but I reserve the right to not to have to hear about it.

So I felt a bit strange about the Women’s March held in Toronto this Saturday, kind of inauthentic as a political person, the kind of who has a pot of chilli perpetually simmering on the stove and everybody is welcome at her table always. I feel uncomfortable aligning myself with political movements, with partisanship, even though I realize that failing to understand that politics is everything has never ever changed the world. I still resist the idea of chanting in a crowd of people, scripted call and responses. Even though I know that such noise can be revolutionary, and there is so much that really has to change. I do believe that this is a historical moment in which it’s necessary to declare what side you’re on, and I know what side I’m on. As per the sign I carried on Saturday, I marched for midwives, Black lives, clean water, Indigenous rights, sex-ed, public schools, for teachers, for the environment, for justice, and so much more. This is my feminism. I was there for my city, my province, my country, for my daughters. (And so grateful to the people who did the work and made the march happen, who were too busy with boots on the ground to be hemming and hawing about simmering chilli.)

It was a joyous occasion, albeit one held in a snowstorm. But we were prepared with multiple pairs of pants, and scarves plus neck warmers, and before we marched, we had breakfast at Rebecca’s house, where she had poster-making supplies, and we all got to work. (Because fighting the patriarchy is more fun with friends.) We arrived to hear the last few speeches, and then to join the parade up University Avenue to Queen’s Park, snow piling on everybody’s hats and heads. I pulled up my hood with its furry trim, and loved the cocoon of it. That I couldn’t properly hear or see what was going on around me (hoods are the enemy of peripheral vision), and everybody else was tucked inside their own hoods, each of us in our separate warmths, and yet moving all in the same direction together.

And it was that simple. We didn’t need to have chilli. At the end of the march, we’d all go our separate ways, most of us on public transit. But the march was a reminder and a commitment to the fundamental ways we are all of us connected whether we want to be or not, however uncomfortable it makes us sometimes. Because people aren’t easy, but people are the project, the point of it all. We don’t all have to be friends, but we have a responsibility to still care for each other, to listen to each other (which is not the same thing as having to agree). Because, as Iris’s sign said, riffing off a book we love, We Hold Each Other Up. And it will never not be interesting.

January 16, 2019

This is Not a Metaphor

I understood it as a metaphor: it is okay to fall. It is okay to fall, to flail, to plummet. As much as can be expected from an ordinary human, I know this. I have lived it. Accepting, and even embracing, imperfection and failure has been key to any success I’ve managed to achieve along the way. But I have never managed to embrace this idea on a concrete level, concrete being the word, which is a hard and painful surface to have one’s body strike even at a moderate velocity. And it doesn’t even have to be concrete—for a few winters midway through my childhood, I used to go skiing, and I hated it, the terror. Where is the pleasure of sending one’s fragile physical self down a steep icy hill? I used to weave my way down slowly, slowly, repeated the mantra: Please don’t let me die. And then one day I occurred to me that I didn’t actually have to endure this anymore, so I didn’t. Why would I?

I took up ice skating four years ago with my daughter, who was five at the time. The task of teaching her to skate would fall to me, because it turned out I was the best skater in the family, even though I hadn’t skated in 25 years and never really enjoyed it as a child. Winter sports are not my thing. Sports in general even really aren’t, but at least in summer it’s not cold. I have memories of skating on canals when I was little, and these are mostly memories of freezing. And sore ankles. I mean, at least with skating you aren’t sending yourself down the edges of icy mountains, and the fall is never going to be so far. But still, there is falling. Even worse, there is fear of falling.

But for the last four years, I’ve been trying to commit to enjoying the winter outdoors, and skating has been part of that. It’s fun. Of course, I don’t enjoy skating as much as I enjoy having skated, which is my favourite part of the process, followed by hot chocolate. But I like it, and it’s free, and it’s been interesting to relearn an old trick, and to be learning alongside my daughter. I think it sets a good example for her too to see that acquiring new skills is not just the jurisdiction of children, and is important to keep doing this throughout one’s life. Her father and her sister have since joined in our skating life, all of us learning together. Harriet now gives me a run for my money as the best skater in the family, and last night Iris skated around the rink multiple times without holding onto my hand at all.

But we are slow. We are slow, and we skate in terror of those fast skaters who weave in and out among us slowpokes, or else the little kids who are skating haphazardly in the wrong direction and moving right into our path without consideration for the fact that none of us actually knows how to stop. None of us skate with ease, although my children have a bit more ease than I do because they’re more comfortable with falling. They’re closer to the ground anyway, and they’re fundamentally bouncy and less breakable, and with all the padding from their snowsuits they’re well protected. Neither of them likes falling, but it happens, and that’s okay.

I, however, have never fallen. Hardly something to brag about, because I’ve only never fallen because I’ve never being moving fast enough. From the metaphor, I know that the only people who never fall are people who’ve never been high enough to do so. As a skater, I am so cautious, nervous. I have been skating for four years with so much fear of falling—and then last night it finally happened.

I skated over a leaf, a dead leaf that had blown onto the ice, and I don’t know why it so destabilized me, but I felt it, the ground no longer steady beneath my feet. “It’s finally happening,” I realized, and there was so much time to think as it did. A brief attempt at re-finding my balance, but then then it was all over, and down I went. Landing with a spectacular crash on my bottom, which was better than my head taking the impact, or my wrists. “And it’s actually okay,” is what I was thinking as I lay there on my ice, except it wasn’t entirely because I’d knocked my littlest daughter over in the process (let’s not make a metaphor out of that, okay?) and she was screaming. Attracting the attention of the ice skating attendant, who came over to see if she was okay, and, “She’s fine, she’s fine,” I said, dismissing her pain. (But she was fine. Walk it off.) And then he helped me up, and I was almost euphoric, so much so that I forgot to even be humiliated.

Because the very worst thing had happened: I had fallen. And I hadn’t fractured my elbow or even sprained my wrist, or received a concussion. I didn’t break or shatter, which is what I’d always imagined. That I was fragile—but it turns out my body is stronger than I thought. And there really isn’t even a lesson beyond that—I’m still going to skate slowly, I’m not thirsting for opportunities to fall down again. It wasn’t like one of those Instagram memes where I thought I was falling, but it turned out to be flight, because it definitely wasn’t flight as I lay there on the Dufferin Grove Ice Rink staring up at the glow of the artificial lights. It was falling, but it was fine.

January 11, 2019

I think your bullet journal is stupid.

Slightly insulting confession: I think your bullet journal is stupid. I’ve always felt one could get her shit done way faster if she just does it rather than mapping out a plan to do so in especially decorative ways…but then I have really terrible handwriting and always lose my good pens, so I would think that, wouldn’t I. It’s also possible that I’m jealous of your bullet journal, because if I had one, if would probably look like my grade nine math book. And that I wanted to write a provocative headline to get you to read this post.

Which is unfair, kind of, and I also don’t really know what bullet journals are, except that people share images of theirs on Instagram (and I swear I once read a post where a person was complaining about how difficult to was juggle all seven of the bullet journals she maintains, which seems pretty obvious). I’ve also been very fortunate in that I’ve not really required lots of strategizing in order for professional opportunities to happen for me. This spring marks ten years since I quit my job to become a freelance writer, which is something I did without any of how to make it work. It seemed slightly scary at the time, but I was also caring for a new baby, which was ten times more terrifying, and my professional life really did seem to require less maintenance in comparison. So if you asked me now to recommend a route to making a living as a writer based on my own experience, my advice would be mainly: wait for people to email and ask you to do stuff. NOT HELPFUL. (Note though that nobody’s going to do that if you’re not chipping away at building your blog oeuvre, which would these days be considered “building your profile,” but I wasn’t thinking in those terms, which is probably why I was even enjoying what I was doing.)

Part of the reason I’m also resistant to bullet journals is because they seem to be part of the online entrepreneurial culture that I’ve been resisting with all my heart and soul. The kind of culture where you use hashtags like #GirlBoss and #SheHustles, and sell skincare products via a pyramid scheme, and it’s so entrenched in capitalism in the very worst way, and for most people is a dream that never comes true regardless of the hustling. I was once trapped on an airplane full of women arriving at a multi-level marketing conference, and as we were stuck on the platform, the woman beside turned and said, “So: what’s your Plan B?” And I wanted to die and there was no escape, and sometimes the internet in general feels a little bit like that.

And it’s the opposite of everything that, for me, is fundamental to blogs and online connection. It’s about human voices, not selling products. It’s about telling stories, being a human, not being a brand. My blogging courses have always been defiantly anti-marketing, anti-strategy. Don’t target your audience. Don’t outline your goals. Instead, make it up as you go along. Figure it out and grow in the process. Dare to get lost, and then report back from the place you ended up. My blogging advice was never for people who wanted to grow their audience, but instead for people who wanted to write a blog that could serve them and be sustainable. And while these days I feel like I know less about blogging than I ever did (not necessarily a bad thing— ‘It’s the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong.’ —Tom Stoppard, Arcadia), I still believe in all that. A blog, like all the best things, is a wild thing, and should refuse to be tamed with plans and bullets.

And yet. I know that while this is true, I also know that part of my resistance to being more strategic and entrepreneurial in approach to my career is that I am afraid any other approach might end in failure. When your aim is to get lost, it doesn’t really matter where you are, but when you’ve got a plan, a goal and a strategy, and well, if you fall flat on your face, people are going to know about it. But something else I’ve learned from blogging is that sometimes being afraid of something is the very best reason to go there.

But then I start to worry again—and of course I am overthinking this. To be a successful blogger is to have made a career out of overthinking things. But I also think that 75% of the nonsense people are peddling online in terms of empowerment and entrepreneurship is absolute nonsense. I probably wouldn’t even be writing this post right now if it weren’t for these sponsored posts I kept coming across on Instagram by this woman—who I hadn’t even followed because she was way too much of a shallow marketing shill—about how I can grow my business via Pinterest. Which at first I dismissed as meaningless to me and irrelevant to my interests…but then at a certain point I thought, “Gee, maybe I should sign up for her free webinar!” And there it is: I have brainwashed. The moment I consider engaging with anything called “webinar,” it’s all over. Next up, I’ll be hash tagging #bossbae. It’s like a cult, and I don’t want to join it.

But I also know that I could certainly use a little direction, professionally. How many more books could I sell, followers could I get, opportunities could I receive, readers I could find, if I set out with intentions of being more deliberate in these areas? If I gave any considerations to being deliberate at all, instead of wandering, exploring, making it up as I go along. I’ve got a lot to show for ten years of approaching things in that direction, but aimlessness comes with its own wasted energy. I’m not saying I want to hustle, but surely there is some way we can meet in the middle.

Today I listened to Amanda Laird’s Heavy Flow Podcast with Kelly Diels on “resisting the Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand,” which articulated a lot of my discomfort on this topic. Sarah Selecky does much of the same in her novel, Radiant, Shimmering Light, which surprised me when I read the book because Selecky herself has been so successful with an online business, and yet she’s also able to critique it in a really pointed way. I still don’t remotely know what I think of anything of this yet, but I’ve decided to find out by setting three professional goals for this year relating to developing my career. Which is really scary, actually, but also exciting, and I’ll keep you posted—and if I get lost, at least I’ll have something to report back on.

December 12, 2018

More on Year End Lists

When I say I posted the above tweet last week in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, I am mostly lying because I was quite serious. In fact, I think I was even more annoyed this year than I was last year when my book did not receive significant acclaim as one of the great literary events of 2017, which is totally stupid, but also underlines that it is never not stupid to be furious that your book has failed to cause an earthquake, that publishing a book turns out not to be a catapult after all. The feelings are legitimate, but these are also feelings that one must necessarily pack away so one can carry on, because what a lucky thing to even publish a book in the first place. Get over yourself, is what I mean. 

Although it’s easier to be so magnanimous when your book did not actually, this time, qualify for all those year-end lists it failed to turn up on. Also when you have spent the second year of your novel’s life receiving sweet and not infrequent reminders that the life of a book is long—my book was a Sweet Reads pick in January, I signed copies at a literary festival this fall, on random Saturday nights someone tags their cover in an Instagram post. And finally it’s really easy when you are in fact author of at least three of those year-end lists—the most important ones, in fact. Which possibly provides a little bit of perspective on how arbitrary* the whole process is.

*Which is to not undermine my authority as a literary critic. My year-end lists are amazing. 

 I have loved so many books this year, and I actually love year-end book lists because it’s one of the few ways that we know how to make books part of a wider conversation. (We need to think of more of these ways. I recently read a statistic that put the percentage of adults who read for pleasure in the single digits, which is shocking. Book clubs are another way, awards lists too, and Canada Reads, and I think those of us who love books have to try harder to make books and reading relevant and find places for them in people’s daily lives.) 

So that the real challenge then in coming up with year-end lists for Chatelaine, 49thShelf (which was done in concert with my colleagues), and here at my own blog was not having the lists go on forever. 49thShelf, at least, had the restriction of being Canadian books, and we tried to focus on independent publishers and books we’d featured on the site in order to showcase our content. The Chatelaine list was to be more marketable and broadly-appealing, with each book needing to be markedly notable beyond the fact that I just liked it. Which brings me to the Pickle Me This Books of the Year list, which will be up this week or early next, which is thoroughly my own creation, and which is probably the hardest of the three lists to turn up on, meeting a rigorous standard that I can’t properly articulate, and I don’t even have to. 

I guess in some ways, year-end lists are a little bit redundant. The books that didn’t matter to me are the ones I never read in the first place, or else the ones I read in private because I’d decided to keep my opinions to myself. I’ve been keeping a list of My Favourite Books of 2018 (SO FAR)—49thShelf, so Canadian titles only—and while not all these will be on my whittled down final list, they all are certainly contenders and I recommend them heartily. I’ve also been recommending books all year on the radio too, and stand by these picks. Basically I’ve been drowning in a delicious sea of wonderful reading, and these lists are my attempt to find a door to float upon. Also. and it’s distinctly possible, that it all comes down to the fact that I’ve got a list-making compulsion. 

October 16, 2018

The babysitter is not here.

I need a babysitter. Literally, yes, but also more figuratively too, and I’m having trouble finding the one I need, because teenage girls are so much younger now than they used to be when I was a small child, when I regarded babysitters with the reverence Dar Williams articulates exactly in her song, “The Babysitter’s Here.” A babysitter like Elisabeth Shue in Adventures in Babysitting, pretty much the archetypal babysitter. But if you recall, Shue’s “Chris Parker” character was only available to babysit because she’d just had a date cancelled by her jerk boyfriend—in reality, seventeen-year-old girls are not very interested in  babysitting at all. Eleven and twelve-year-old girls girls are actually where it’s at, babysitting wise, but then it’s the same thing that all of us had to deal with when we examined The Babysitters Club series with a critical eye, and realized the girls in the club were just children. No offence to Mallory Pike, but I’m not totally comfortable leaving my children in your care (and besides that, you have a nine o’clock curfew).

But when I was a child and it was 1985, the seventeen and eleven were indistinguishable from my vantage point, and the babysitters all had feathered hair, and exotic accoutrements like braces and acne. Dangling earrings. To me, they were all beautiful, and fascinating, and a window onto my own future as an adolescent, although I would never be as amazing as they were. (It is likely that they were also not as as amazing as they were.) My babysitters were basically Nancy from the Netflix series Stranger Things, who (along with Winona Ryder) was mostly everything I actually liked about Stranger Things, pure babysitter nostalgia. They had names like Bonnie-Ann, and Sarah-Michelle, and Lisa and Heather. One time we even had one who was actually called Nancy, who lived in a townhouse near Oshawa Centre, and I must have come along when my parents picked her up or drove her home, because I think about her every time I drive down Dundas Street in Whitby, and it’s possible that I only ever knew Nancy for a couple of hours in my entire life.

But there is a kind of presence that babysitters possess, an easy authority. No babysitter ever had to yell at us, because my sister and I were in love with all teenage girls and would have done anything they asked of us. My one episode of defiance came about when my babysitter Lisa had her boyfriend over while she was babysitting us, and I was really uncomfortable with his presence, because I was aware that this was a transgression, but also I didn’t like him, and he was distracting our babysitter from lavishing her attention on us. So after I’d been put to bed, I called downstairs to Lisa and her boyfriend that my parents’s car had just returned to the driveway, even though it hadn’t, and she had to get rid of him out the side door fast. I don’t remember if she brought him back once it was clear that I was lying, or if she demonstrated her anger toward me, but I do know that that was the last time Lisa ever babysat at our house.

The most magical babysitter ever (“She’s the best one that we ever had…”) was Sarah Michelle, who was so pretty (“pretty” was an essential quality for babysitters to have, as far as we were concerned) and who played with us, which was novel, and she became a kind of legend (I think we built something out of a cardboard box) and I remember too that she came to babysit us again after a break, as she wasn’t magic anymore and didn’t play with us at all. Possibly she’d just turned seventeen and had just started had a date cancelled by her boyfriend, but I recall the disappointment viscerally, one off my earliest heartbreaks. The unsustainability of superstar babysitting, for most ordinary people, is an unfortunate reality. Except for a select blessed few among us, the novelty of time spent in the presence of small children is something that wears off fast.

Which is a fitting place to transition to my own experiences as a babysitter, and the children I was caring for factor very little in my memories of being a babysitter—and how Bonnie-Ann, Sarah Michelle, Lisa and Heather probably don’t think of me at all. My own babysitting memories are set in the 1990s with City TV late night movies on, most notably the 1982 film Cat People, about people who turned into monstrous black panthers, and which was so terrifying that I was afraid even to get off the couch and go into the kitchen and eat all of the pickles in the fridge leaving behind bottles of brine, which was my usual tactic as a babysitter. When I wasn’t eating all their chips and ice cream, that is. “Help yourself to anything in the kitchen,” was a dangerous offer to me in 1994, and many of my babysitting clients would live to regret it. You’d think they’d even stop hiring me, with thoughts toward conserving the grocery bill, but then babysitters are hard to come by, a most precious resource. You take what you can get.

October 9, 2018

The Ontario Government’s Consultation on Public Education (or: WORST ONLINE SURVEY EVER)

As a woman who literally came of age reading magazines in the 1990s (graduating from Seventeen and YM to Glamour and Cosmo—in fundamental ways, Bonnie Fuller built me), one would think that I’d have more enthusiasm for an online quiz. Certainly, I’ve taken my fair share, including one that determined what kind of kisser I was based on the shape of my lipstick (“mostly a’s!”), which was particularly illuminating seeing as I was fourteen, had never kissed anyone, and didn’t wear lipstick.

And since then—particularly as my media consumption moved online—I’ve dutifully checked the boxes to discover if I was Blanche or Dorothy, Samantha or Carrie, what my ultimate travel destination was, or what new hot foodie trend I should be trying. Although I will admit my quiz-taking enthusiasms were dampened by recent disclosures that online surveys were actually harvesting data with which to undermine our online privacy—but by this point I had a good-enough grasp on what kind of kisser I am (STELLAR) and my Golden Girls character (Dorothy—I will own it) that quizzes in general were much less of a fascination. There was the question too of the value of my time—I charge a whole lot more than the chance to win a free iPod for a quarter hour, my friends, and so too should you.

But then along comes our new Provincial Government with their populist leanings and fervour for “consultation.” They want to be listening “to the people”—although not so much that I’ve yet received a response from my letters to the Premier and Minister of Municipal Affairs in August about their undermining of Toronto’s upcoming municipal election, or any engagement from my tweets to the Education Minister about her government’s decision to cut a $100 million fund for school repairs among many other issues. Alas, this is a government that prefers to communicate via online quiz, for better or for worse—but mostly for worse.

I know it’s mostly for worse because last month I attempted to fill in their survey on public services, my thinking being, “I’ve got lots of opinions, and I’ve been filling out quizzes since Bonnie Fuller was editor of Flare.” I was definitely feeling pretty quiz-confident, but when it came time for the survey, I actually just shut down. Because the quiz was really, really long, and asking my opinion on matters I know nothing about. I’d come to the survey through through my interest in early childcare education in Ontario—but here they were consulting me as well on social services, Northern affairs and mining, and unemployment benefits. And not to paint this government with the evil brush or anything, but I also couldn’t properly be sure that if I skipped the parts of the survey of which I have no knowledge, interest, or relationship that they mightn’t see my lack of engagement as a way to excuse government wriggling out of providing these services altogether. (“We consulted Kerry in Toronto, and based on her feedback, we will no longer be providing infrastructure to communities in Northern Ontario.”) As I failed to complete this survey, I also found myself wondering why I was being consulted about issues I know nothing about. Aren’t there experts on these matters? Mightn’t it be more valuable to be consulting with those experts instead of with me? Oh, wait

But not content with their very crappy online survey about public services, this government is back with their consultation about public education. “We invite everyone – parents, students, educators and interested individuals or organizations, and also that guy screaming at the sky and the woman obsessed with anal sex who ran for PC leadership – to provide feedback on the education system in Ontario,” the survey begins. They don’t care who you are—if you are a religious zealot who is convinced that the previous sex-ed curriculum was developed by a pedophile; if you are a father who’d prefer his daughter not know the name of her body parts than be protected from sexual abuse; if you are someone who’s been sending hate mail to LGBTQ families in your community. It really doesn’t matter—they want to hear from you.

Which makes it very important that they hear from me too, even though this survey is just as stupid as the other one, and even though it’s a giant waste of my time, and I can’t believe that I and even people who are stupider than me are being given a say in how our public education curriculum is developed—when we have teachers and other pedagogical experts who know a whole lot more about teaching and education than we do. Which was basically my answer to most of the questions in the survey—that teachers need to be the ones deciding the curriculum and that our educational system means nothing if teachers are not empowered, and also that I want my children to be learning about gender identity, LGBTQ families, about consent and protecting themselves online, because my children live in this world and not some imaginary one the anal sex lady is trapped inside (and somebody let her out, please? It doesn’t seem nice in there).

It truly was the worst online survey ever (“Mostly C’s: You are Burning With Rage at the Stumbling Incompetence of This Province’s Elected Representatives Who Should Be Too Embarrassed To Get Out of Bed in the Morning, Let Alone Posting Self-Congratulary Tweets That Have Nothing to Do With Their Portfolios“). But it’s our civic duty, my fellow Ontarians—particularly those of us without ideological axes to grind and children in the public system aka a stake in the game—to step up and do the work. Be consulted. Use your voice, and let the government know that you want a robust and well-funded public education system that supports teachers and the spectacular work they do for our children every single day. 

June 11, 2018

Hanging On The Telephone

I used to talk on the phone the way I browse the internet today, aimlessly, for ages and because I was bored. I used to lie on my bed and talk for hours, winding the coiled cord around my fist and then unwinding it over and over again until the cord lost its coils altogether. I used to call up people for absolutely no reason, and if nobody answered, I’d move on to the next number in my phone book, and then the one after that. I used to talk so long on the phone that my parents would come on the line and yell at me, which was always mortifying, but that wasn’t so bad because everybody’s parents were yelling at them on the phone sometime. Sometimes in the late 1990s, it was difficult to call people with big brothers because the line would be busy and the brothers were on the internet.

When I was small, the phone was mounted on the wall in the kitchen, and eventually I would be taught to answer it, to say things like, “Yes, just a minute please,” or, “No, she isn’t, but can I take a message?” (although in my teenage years, I would have difficulty taking a message and then actually delivering it). In the mid-1980s, my family got “portable phones”, which were large with antennas, and at least once someone left one on the car and then drove away and lost it. A few years after that, I used to go to sleepovers where we’d go through the phonebook and call random people we sort of knew from school, or just dial strange numbers altogether, and say provocative things like, “Hi! Is this Kentucky Fried Chicken? Do you have any breasts?” I used to also spend hours perusing the phone book, tracking down vital info about the people I knew, like what their dad’s name was, and what their address was. Some of the people listed in the phonebook were our teachers.

I remember rotary dial, and my fascination with the little piece on the end of the dial that caught your finger and kept you from dialling around and around and around. I loved the way you could poke your fingers in the holes, and the letters attached to each number, whose purpose I could not understand. My grandparents’ phone was not attached to the wall, and it had a long cord, so you could carry it into the next room and even close a door for privacy. I remember, “Please hang up and try your call again. This is a recording.”

My parents had an antique telephone that still hangs on the wall in my mother’s house, a big wooden box with a face (bells for eyes, a big honking speaker for a nose) and I loved that phone’s expression, and how you could make the bell ring by turning a crank on the side. This phone has confused my children’s sense of chronology, however, as they now associate it with my mother, and imagine it was the kind of phone they had when she was a little girl, and therefore she is approximately 170 years old.

I used to have a plastic Fisher Price phone with a face that you pulled on a a string, but so did everybody, so I don’t have to tell you about this.

Some of the very best song about phone calls are “Sylvia’s Mother”, “Tell Laura I Love Her”, “Hanging On the Telephone”, “Beechwood4-5789”, “867-5309 Jenny,” “Hotline Bling,” and “Hello.”

When I was a teenager, my yearning for a phone in my room was overwhelming, and I wrote out a detailed three page plan in order to convince my parents I was responsible enough for this privilege. When I went to university, I had to stand in a very long line-up in order to secure a telephone line of my own, and this was amazing because then I got to record musical messages on my voicemail that I changed weekly and usually were thematic. It was at this point too that the telephone company put a $20 limit on monthly long-distance charges, which was revolutionary, and also meant that you could call people before 6:00 and not have to declare bankruptcy. And therefore I could call my friends in their university dormitories across the country, because this was still easier than having to go to the library to send them an email.

Around this time, some people started getting cell phones, but it was complicated, because they were wary of you calling them because they could be charged for the phone calls. Which I think was the beginning of me being put off phoning people. After university, I moved to England and then Japan, which were miles ahead of Canada in terms of mobile phone technology (like the phones had cameras, guys!) and maybe it was living in radically different time zones from the people I loved that got me accustomed to not receiving phone calls. When we moved to Canada, phones were crappier and plans were expensive, so I didn’t have a cell phone for years, which was fine, and here was the point where the only people who ever phoned me were my parents. I used to have everybody’s phone number in my head, but I don’t even know my own cell phone number. There was about two years where I did have a cell phone, but it didn’t have a SIM card, so basically my cell phone was a tiny expensive computer whose Wifi I utilized and carried around in my handbag.

(I phone my husband at work all day long, and he phones me in the half-hours in between that. We generally talk about nothing. I am always delighted when the phone rings and call display tells me it is him. This is how I know it’s love, fifteen years and a half years after we met. He is mostly the only reason I still have a phone.)

I hate talking on the phone now. I don’t like being bothered. I don’t like to call anyone, because I don’t want to bother somebody else. Sometimes there is a sweet spot where I’m making dinner or washing dishes, and you can phone me then and I’ll be glad to talk, but otherwise, I’d rather you didn’t.

My children don’t know how to use the phone. The only people they talk to on the phone is their grandparents, and they lack the skills to have a proper conversation this way. Recently I watched my daughter attempt to dial a number, and realized she’d never done it before. And last week our phone kept ringing off the hook because there was an election on Thursday and we’re one of the handful of people left in the province with a landline, and everyone wanted to make sure we got out to vote. The phone rang on Wednesday and I was indisposed (i.e. sitting on the toilet scrolling through Instagram) and I called to Harriet to answer it. I heard her say, “Hello,” and then nothing else. I came back downstairs and asked her what happened. She said they’d asked to speak to her mother, and she didn’t know what to do. “So I hung up,” she said. She didn’t see why this was unreasonable.

June 5, 2018

Comedy Girl

A thing I’ve learned recently is that a really good pair of sunglasses (plus lipstick) can do remarkable things for one’s self-esteem. Pictured above is me en-route to my comedy debut (and retirement) last week, the recital for the Comedy Girl Toronto class I signed up for way back in the fall and was terrifically unnerved for when April came around and the class was no longer theoretical. But I did it, slowly, slowly. In the first week, I learned that telling a funny story was not the same as telling a joke, and by the fourth week I was concerned because my jokes still seemed at risk of never becoming funny. It was also a remarkable thing to be a novice, to be a student in a classroom for the first time in years. The first class was strange because I had to swallow my instinct to be a smart-ass and make wisecracks, because I was not the funny one. None of us were the funny ones, although we all secretly fancied we were, or else why be there in the first place—but if we were already funny, what was the point. And so I shut up, and listened, and followed directions, and piece by piece our acts started coming together (although only half of our class would make it to the finish line). I worked so hard on my jokes, changing word orders, recording it over and over again—and I began to identify with the adult students in my university classes who I always resented because they were such keeners and made the rest of us look bad. If I can’t be funny, I thought (because the lesson of the class is that I’m less hilarious than I think I am) at least I can be unbridledly enthusiastic? Two weeks before the end though, I came up with a joke that was actually funny, which was a tremendous milestone—maybe one day I’ll tell it to you. I also memorized my whole set, which was a feat I didn’t think I was capable of, because I have a hard time remembering a ten-digit-phone number. And Wednesday night was the triumph, our grad show, which was so terrific because the audience was kind and generous. It was the best, and I’m pretty proud of having risen to the challenge. Grateful to the friends who came to the show as well, because taking an evening out for someone’s amateur comedy show is no small thing. I am certainly a lucky lady.

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