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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.

February 21, 2020

Calm

2016 was the year in which I spent a lot of time waking up and not recognizing the world I lived in anymore, which was certainly a privileged position to be in (or emerge from), but that didn’t make it fun. “If somebody’s not safe, then none of us are safe,” was a phrase I heard that stuck with me, as violence and tyranny in faraway places crept closer and closer, as we stumbled through 2017 and I started getting massacre fatigue. I kept thinking about Syria, and all those people who’d been living regular lives up until just a few years ago, and how what separated me from those people’s experiences was mostly nothing.

To be anxious at this moment in time is certainly not to have one’s feelings be unfounded, of course. And while it’s in my nature to compare right now to other difficult periods in history (in the 1960s, everyone supposed they’d all die in a nuclear war, for example, which is the thing I remind my daughter of when she wonders if she’ll have a future because of climate change), that is not the same as saying we don’t have to do anything about what’s going on. And I’ve become especially resistant to people insisting that everything is fine, and that, moreover “there are good people on both sides” in order to justify such a position. Anyone who starts in on The Militant Left, as white nerds in stupid khaki pants take up their tiki torches and parade through the streets of major cities. Certainly, everything is not okay, and the oceans are riddled with plastic and the forests are burning.

But it somehow got to the point where every time a plane flew over my house, I supposed we were all going to die (and guys, we live under a major flight path). I got emergency weather alerts on my phone, and would have heart palpitations. Every time there was a wind gust, I’d be thinking about cyclones, and patio furniture flying off condo balconies and that poor person in the west end who was killed by a flying STAPLES sign during a storm in September 2012. It all became more than a little overwhelming.

And then it stopped, with the end of November. Like that. I wish I could tell you how it happened, but I really don’t know. (This shift did correspond with positive results from one of my various annual cancer-screening medical appointments [#Thisis40], but surely that’s not the reason I’m not afraid of the sound of airplanes anymore?) And there have been a few times since where I’ve sensed the anxiety creeping back, which has itself made me anxious, because I don’t seem to have much control over this thing, but each time the anxiety over the anxiety has proved worse than the anxiety itself, which quickly retreated and was never as enveloping as it had seemed before.

But it’s not gone. It’s there, but at a remove. I can note it, acknowledge it, and choose not to indulge it, as I lie under my covers in bed at night and hear a howling wind outside. I can make a choice to hear the wind and stay calm instead, which did not seem to be an option before.

The night of January 3, I opened my laptop and checked Twitter (I don’t have Twitter on my phone, as a kind of self-preservation) and saw that #WorldWarThree was trending after the US’s targeted killing of an Iranian military official, and instead of scrolling and scrolling in a futile search for reassurance and understanding, I closed my laptop again. In contrast, when the Russian ambassador to Turkey was assassinated in December 2016, similarly leading to hysterical tweets about Franz Ferdinand, World War, and ominous phrases like, “Here we go…,” I couldn’t close my laptop for days. But this time I had enough to perspective to consider that all of us could probably benefit from calming right down.

Similarly a week after the targeted killing, when we received the devastating news that a passenger airplane had been shot down “by accident” outside of Tehran, killing everyone on board. It was news that hit particularly close to home, as 57 Canadians were on board and many more were also en-route to Toronto, and grief hung low just like a fug, but. “I am working at channelling calm as I head into today,” I posted on Instagram that morning. It seemed particularly important for my own mental health, but also on a broader level, because it had been escalating military attacks (the opposite of calm) that had led to the tragedy in the first place.

During the past couple of weeks, our country has been (I’m not going to say GRIPPED BY, because gripped isn’t a calm word, and I also don’t think it’s particularly accurate) following the protests set up along rail lines in solidarity with people fighting against the construction of a pipeline in the Wet’suwet’en First Nation in Northern British Columbia. These rail line protests have blocked the transport of goods and also passenger trains, and yes, its all very complicated, because the Wet’suwet’en people (consistent from what I understand of all groups of people ever) have divided opinions on what exactly should be done about the protests, not to mention the pipeline itself. I really do not have a comprehensive understanding of the matters at stake—though such a lack has not stopped other people from opining—but have appreciated the government response, which some might term as measured. Or calm. Even though Twitter partisans are raging that the Prime Minister doesn’t know anything about power, and the rail companies with record profits are following through with layoffs they were already planning but blaming the blockades so they don’t have to take the heat for their actions, and it’s reminiscent of the immediate aftermath of last month’s plane crash when the very same blowhards were calling on the Prime Minister to declare Revolutionary Guard in Iran a terrorist organization. It’s all just so incredibly stupid, because none of these people know what the answer is anymore than I do. None of it’s simple, and the only way toward an answer is work, which is what’s happening now all around us, and we need to be patient. And calm.

Calm is a superpower. This is a line from Ann Douglas’s latest book which is ostensibly about parenting, but which is really more about community, and connection, building a village, and learning to be better understand and support each other. And while Douglas is indeed speaking about parenting directly when she talks about calm being a superpower (and oh my gosh, is it ever), this advice is just applicable when it spills over into everything.

Perhaps it’s the closest thing we’ve got to an answer to anything right now.

February 13, 2020

I Know What I’m Doing

There are lots of memes and online posts where somebody writes about having no idea what they’re doing, but they’re doing it anyway, pushing through, persisting, and as someone who loves the idea of process, obviously I am pretty fond of this idea. “I don’t know what I’m doing but I’m doing it anyway,” could have been the tagline for this blog throughout its many evolutions over the last twenty (20!) years, and maybe the tagline for my whole life….but I wonder if too often we (me?) are focusing too much on the first half of the idea and obfuscating the second clause. It’s the doing it anyway that’s the point, instead of the undermining of our expertise. There are undoubtedly people who know exactly what they’re doing and who don’t do anything at all, and so at least you’re not in that boat, is what I’m saying. And that it’s only by “doing it anyway” that you’re ever going to figure out what you’re doing at all, and sometimes this is even possible. Not even in the “fake it ’til you make it” way (which is also a very good technique, so I’m not trying to undermine it) but for real. “I know exactly what I’m doing,” is a thought that really does occur to me from time-to-time (albeit never about sourdough), and it’s so empowering when it happens. To feel good and confident about a thing you have made, and not even be pretending—or is this just what it feels like to be 40?

February 10, 2020

18 Ways That Having a Sourdough Starter is JUST LIKE Having a Baby

  1. Somebody just handed me this living thing, and its existence does not entirely make sense to me.
  2. Care and feeding of this living thing is a little bit overwhelming and I spend lots of time texting questions to my friend who has had a sourdough starter for six weeks longer than I have and therefore knows EVERYTHING.
  3. I am worried I am not to be trusted with this living thing, and keeping it alive is causing me anxiety.
  4. I spend evenings googling the things that confuse me in particular about the behaviour of my sourdough starter, and perusing sourdough forums to find experiences I can relate to.
  5. I discover sourdough forums, where opinions are strongly held and factions end up fighting amongst themselves.
  6. My sourdough starter is a bit weird, and I have trouble mapping my experience onto the ones that everyone else is writing about.
  7. There are a lot of different ideas and philosophies about care and feeding of a sourdough starter, and how a sourdough starter (and in particular a loaf) eventually turns out seems to be completely unrelated to any of these ideas.
  8. Every loaf you make will be completely different from all the others.
  9. People have their sourdough starter ideas, and get a bit tetchy when you decide to raise yours differently.
  10. They’re worried you’re not feeding yours enough, or that you’re feeding it too much.
  11. I can’t stop sniffing it.
  12. Heated online debates can be found between those who discard their starter every time they feed and those who don’t.
  13. I start to think my sourdough starter is perhaps a little exceptional.
  14. My sourdough starter keeps me up at night—or at least, I am unable to go to bed until I’ve gone downstairs to check on it just one more time.
  15. I have to plan my days around it, not only the feedings, but baking a loaf of bread is a 24 hour process.
  16. I start to realize that it doesn’t actually matter what I do with my sourdough starter, or rather than I can follow my instincts and just do what feels right.
  17. I learn that I can google anything about my sourdough starter, and find an article online to justify what I believe to be true not based on any scientific information whatsoever, but instead my gut feelings about sourdough starters.
  18. With my sourdough starter, I can bake everything I baked without it, but just with more labour and less convenience. And somehow, mysteriously, sometimes it even seems worth the trouble.

January 27, 2020

Free. But Haunted.

Farewell to our garage-sale acquired breadbox, which has been part of our family for the last decade. And never actually had bread in it very often, but was mostly used as a storage cupboard for odds and ends, and crackers, and coffee filters. And whose most salient feature was its tendency to have its door fall open just after something had been placed on the counter in front of it—last week, I lost a Pyrex bowl of egg-whites. (The bowl, mercifully, survived.) Several wine glasses being used by visiting friends also met their demise in such a fashion, and caused considerable embarrassment for all involved. I took to taping the breadbox shut when we had people over, which worked, but it still managed to catch us unaware. A poltergeist? (Or an ineffective bolt? But that’s boring…) And then yesterday, or next-door neighbour brought us over her breadbox, which is of a similar vintage (albeit without those delightful flowers). They’ve given up gluten and just had their kitchen remodelled, so the breadbox was redundant, so they passed it on, and now ours is the redundant one. We’ve put it out on the curb, but with a warning post-it. There are have been no takers. YET.

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