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Pickle Me This

November 30, 2017

Eating all the pies

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

October 26, 2017

Dozens of Umbrellas

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

ALL UMBRELLAS TWO DOLLARS AS IS

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

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

October 23, 2017

Leader of the Pack Conspiracy Theories

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

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

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

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

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

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

There it is, in a nutshell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 26, 2017

My Body Might Know What My Head Don’t

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 19, 2017

You can’t synthesize this

I’m of two minds. I usually am. I don’t know that’s such a bad thing, and the thing my brain gets up to when I’m swimming lengths or walking down the street is looking for synthesis. You can change the world and be the change to wish to see in it at once, I mean; I can “find ways to fight all of the systems that uphold my privilege while simultaneously standing up for myself when I am pushed down”; I’ve always thought that gender is a construct and mine doesn’t define me, but transgender people exist and so they should; I abhor violence, but want to punch everyone I see on a Segway; I love my children and I’m so grateful for my abortion. Etc. Etc. Yes, but, Yes, and. And in my head I’m always trying to put all the pieces together, to demonstrate that really we’re all on the same page. A grand unification theory, as it were. But a thing I’m learning as I get older is that while everything is complicated, everything is so complicated that we’re never to agree on just how. The tension is inherent to the project. It’s even often useful. And it’s never going to go away.

I wrote a piece for CBC online last week about our family’s choice to rent a home instead of buy one, and I was nervous about this project. I kept thinking about the furor surrounding the Toronto Life “We Bought a Crackhouse” family, all that entitlement. And here I am, a privileged person writing about our choices and our freedoms as a result of where and how we live, when for many people affordable housing is rare to the point where it’s a crisis. But that turned out not to be the problem at all. And for a day or so there was no problem, until the piece was featured on the CBC’s main page and got a lot of attention, inciting comments  on social media and on the piece itself—and they were ridiculous. Not about my failure to address income inequality and poverty (although that might have called for a longer article) but for the very point my piece addressed—that not buying into the cult of real estate makes other people go berserk. Not since the days when my peers debated sleep-training strategies on Facebook have I ever waded into anything so controversial—though naturally, I was of two minds about the sleep issue. I’m even of two minds about real estate, really—if buying a house were remotely in our means and didn’t require huge compromises in our lifestyle, I’d be all for it. I would love to have a house that was my own—although I wouldn’t be able to buy any furniture for it.

There is something about saying, “I’m going to have it all the ways,” that makes other people really angry. I notice this when I argue about abortion online—someone will always accuse a woman who has an abortion of being selfish. There is this needlessly puritanical fixation on sacrifice and selflessness, the idea that making a decision with one’s own happiness in mind is somehow suspect. When really, it just seems sensible to me. If you are lucky, you get to make the choice to do the thing you want to do—and how could you ever fault someone for doing so? But a lot of people do. And not just for something as controversial as abortion either, an argument whose “other side” I have some sympathy for (never mind the fact that you have to railroad over the lives of actual living breathing women to make it, and if you have no discomfort with this then you just might be a misogynist). But also for something as seemingly innocuous as real estate. Seriously, does anything ever provoke ire like a woman who declares to say in public, “I made a choice that makes me happy and I am satisfied”?

You can’t synthesize this. There is no thesis. There is only hysterical emotion and anger. People read my piece on renting and they really really cared what I said, and they really really thought I was wrong, so much so that they logged onto public forums to say so. None of this is a surprise to anybody who’s ever said anything online, but it’s the most read I’ve ever been as a writer, I think. It’s also the first time I’ve ever written anything that was of any interest in general to men. And this was interesting, although women were represented among the outraged. Fortunately, conversation was pretty cordial, and no one called me fat, or threatened to rape me, which means it was a good day on the internet. (Obviously, those two kinds of comments are barely comparable, except that they are the standard go-tos for people online who have feelings about something a woman has said on the internet.) Fortunately, also, the outrage in reposes to my piece was pretty darn funny and I got a lot of amusement out of it, and (shockingly) none of the financial arguments managed to convince me that our choice is the wrong one. The choice we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and built our lives around. It’s just fascinating, that anybody cared so much. And very sad about that one man whose comment was, “I’m never going to buy your book.” Oh no! How will I make it through?

Some things are not worth synthesizing. “The cult of real estate in Canada is so pervasive that I’d never before questioned whether buying a house would be our next step in adulthood,” I wrote in my piece, and the cult of real estate keeps trying to pervade. Which makes pieces like mine necessary, I think, not in spite of the way they provoke stupid outrage, but because they do. That’s my thesis, and I’m sticking to it.

Update: Check out Carin Makuz’s wonderful post about Shirley and lawnmowers, and life’s complicatedness, and how there really is no one right way to be. 

July 25, 2017

The Ravines of Smeared Disarray

“English, strictly speaking, is not my first language by the way. I haven’t yet discovered what my first language is so for the time being I use English words in order to say things.”

Last week I got tired of narratives that were all too predictable, and so I decided to pick up Pond again, the little book with the gorgeous cover that has been shelved on my staircase since last August. My staircase is book limbo, the books that aren’t to be either shelved or given away. They’re the books I haven’t quite finished with yet, although there is a chance they could linger in unfinishedness in perpetuity. I bought Pond last summer after reading A.N. Devers’ review in which she makes connections from Woolf to Walden, and decrees the narrative as “muddy”:

“Muddiness is not typically a positive description for a narrative, but this mud is sparkling, full of mica and minerals that glitter with color when the sun’s rays hit. It’s through this glistening mud that Bennett’s readers get to mudlark, mucking about in prose that is alternatively deliberate and crisp, surrealistic and unknowable, to find real gems of observation and language.”

I recall that I liked the book well enough, but couldn’t remember any more about it. It hadn’t satisfied me. If it weren’t for the absolutely brilliant cover, to be honest, I might not have even read it all, let alone read it again. (The UK cover was completely unremarkable, not a bit of mica or mineral. It was also marketed as a short story collection there, but as a novel upon its US publication, which is interesting to consider, and also how different the two books must be regarded by different readers as a result of these things.) Anyway, I picked it up again, finally, and was quite delighted to discover inside a postcard I sent myself last summer, which seems sort of fitting with the book’s interiority, and then I got to use the postcard as a bookmark.

The book is curious and amusing, domestic minutia. Disorienting—nobody draws us a map here. The narrator lives in an old cottage on an estate near the coast of Ireland and in one of the stories a neighbour is having a wedding, for which the narrator gives them bunting. And that the narrator owns bunting at all seems kind of incongruous from what we know of her—when does she string her bunting ever—but she’s not telling us everything. In fact, it’s the telling she takes offence to. She is bothered by a sign that’s been put up beside the pond on the property, purportedly to stop children from toppling into it. A sign reading, unsurprisingly, POND: “As if the Earth were a colossal and elaborate deathtrap. How will I ever make myself at home here if there are always these meddlesome scaremongering signs everywhere I go.”

All of which is to say that nothing is labelled in Pond, and everything is mutable, in particular the line between indoors and out, home and away. It’s an uncanny narrative. The lines between then and now are blurry too, in this place so steeped in history, tiresomely so. The thatchers come to do the roofs, and everyone is very excited, but the narrator finds these workers offensive and disturbing. They bother her view. “A leaf came in through the window and dropped directly in the water between my knees as I sat in the bath looking out.”

So yes, I was thinking of Walden and Woolf, and the person who did Thoreau’s laundry, of course. But in the chapter titled “Control Knobs,” I started thinking about Barbara Pym. And about this is a book that contains all my favourite things, actually—jam and bunting—but in a kaleidoscopic fashion. The familiar made unfamiliar, of course, but still, one is home, in a readerly sense. The chapter is decidedly Pymmish in its fixation on ordinary details—the objects assembled in bowls on a window sill, for example, and how light shines through a jar—that are standing in for something deeper, darker and more resonant. Bennett writes, “There are a number of regions in any abode that are foremost yet unreachable. Places, in other words, right under your nose, which are routinely inundated with crumbs and smidgens and remains. And ill-suited specks and veils and hairpins stay still and conspire in a way that is unpleasant to consider, and so one largely attempts to arrange one’s awareness upon the immediate surfaces always and not let it drop into the ravines of smeared disarray everywhere between things….”

This is the chapter where the narrator is referring to the knobs on her stove, which is not a proper stove, but a kind of hotplate one finds in a bedsit, “the two-ring ovens [that] are synonymous with bedsits… One thinks of unmarried people right away, bereft secretaries and threadbare caretakers, and of ironing boards with scorched striped covers standing next to the airing-cupboard door at the end of the hallway.” And then she takes it darker, suggesting that part of its design as an implement for people who live alone in small spaces isn’t just about space considerations, but that one couldn’t kill oneself with such a device, if it came to that. “I certainly couldn’t get my head into my cooker without getting a lot of grease on the underside of my chin for example—and it stinks in there.” Even suicide—as are most things for this narrator—is a matter of practicality.

Strange as though her point of view might be, Pond’s narrator is a sensible woman, preoccupied by compost, which she is meant to empty often, but there isn’t time for that, and so it piles up. She is aware of decay is what I meant, (and of course there is the leaf through the window—this idyl is not perpetual spring),  and the bowl gets empties, or else it doesn’t. She refuses to be pinned down. As might be the case in a novel that used to be a collection of short stories, this narrator contains multitudes. “The postbox gets damp, you see, causing letters or so to pucker and leak, so occasionally I am quite diligent about emptying it and other times my mind is such that I just don’t care enough about what happens to other people’s post.” (Do you love that???)

This woman is alone, and unabashed about being not understood, but she is all right. She is nutty, but she had friends, and parties, and lovers. People stop by and sit on her step for a chat, and she has a pot of parsley growing in soil there, though don’t take that to mean she has a propensity for growing things—she bought it sprouted from a nearby supermarket where it was packed in a plastic carton. She isn’t lonely. She has free time, it seems, but “there are always things that must be done.” Check the postbox, sweep the dust out—because the outside keeps on coming in. And she has one of those doors that open in half, after all, so this is inevitable. The home is not apart from the world, but part of it, and therefore the things we do to care for our homes is work of the world as well. The things you could write about a kitchen hearth are as profound as thoughts about a (Walden) POND just say. It makes me think about doorsteps, and thresholds, and the liminal, and sublime.

Strange and surreal too. I’m still not done with it. I’m feeling like Pond might be going back on the stairs, for another day down the road when I want to read a postcard to myself and to have the ordinary and obvious quite complicated. Like housework, it’s a task that will never be finished, a work-in-progress, the stuff of life.

July 24, 2017

Lost Umbrella Empathy

Avid readers here at Pickle Me This will remember that I’ve been keeping track of lost umbrellas in literature for some time now, whose authors have included EM Forster, Virginia Woolf, Cordelia Strube, Barbara Pym, and more. I think the sign I saw in a park yesterday counts as literature, don’t you? Particularly the line, “The umbrella is meaningful to me.” I know all about it; I’ve had many a meaningful umbrella in my time. Clearly I’m not the only one, as the sign’s response makes clear. Umbrella empathy, it seems, is endemic. Oh, I do hope her umbrella will be all right…

June 21, 2017

Places I’ve Gone With A Book in My Bag

  1. Our neighbours’ backyard party last Saturday evening. This was the event that occasioned this list, as it made me consider whether I might actually have a book-in-the-bag problem. I was definitely not intending to read at this thoroughly enjoyable social event (and I didn’t) but when I considered the slight prospect of one of my children having to go the hospital (perhaps after falling out of a tree?) and a five hour wait in the ER waiting room, not bringing a book just seemed dangerous.
  2. Hospital waiting rooms: Oh, the splendid hours I’ve been reading in such places. The best ever was when Harriet poked me in the eye during a heat wave in August 2010* and I left our sweltering apartment to spend hours and hours in air conditioned splendour, rereading Slouching Toward Bethlehem for the zillionth time and waiting for the doctor to tell me that I would not be going blind. *Note that I have all the details on this matter because I wrote a blog post extolling the virtues of waiting rooms as places to read back when I had a one-year-old and life was harder.
  3. The park. Always, in the park. My worst nightmare, in fact, is not of anything involving hospital waiting rooms, but instead the prospect of a sunny day where my children don’t want to go home but I’ve got nothing to read save for the organ donor card in my wallet (and I’ve already read that). I will never forget the summer day when Harriet was two and I spent a whole afternoon sprawled in the backseat of the climbing frame that resembles a jeep at Huron Washington Playground reading the entirety of Alice Thomas Ellis’s novel The 27th Kingdom while Harriet pretended to “drive.”
  4. Out for lunch. Sometimes because the book is to be my lunch companion (oh, and what a joy is that!) and even if my companion is to be actual human being, a book in your bag means you can read while she goes to the bathroom.
  5. On the subway. First, because the subway is a very good place to read, but also because what if your subway car gets stuck in a tunnel for three hours? How would you bear it without a book to read?
  6. The Bookstore. This is where it gets really stupid. I always have a book in my bag, but half the time the only place I ever go to is a bookstore anyway. But still, if I went to a bookstore without a book in my bag, I’d have nothing to read in transit. And think about if the subway got stuck in the tunnel, right?? But then, what if you were fifteen pages away from the end of a book? This is when things get complicated. Because you need to bring a secondary book to start reading when you finish the first one, and perhaps a tertiary book just in case that second title turns out to be a bit of a dud. I could possibly come up with a very good reason why you should never go to a bookstore without thirty-seven novels in your rucksack. Anything less would be reckless.
  7. Harriet’s birthday party. We took eight small girls to the movies. Sadly, I didn’t get a chance to read at all.
  8. Playschool co-op shifts. I don’t know why I ever thought I’d have the chance to read on a playschool co-op shift, particularly since I never ever have. But still, you don’t want to take a chance like that.
  9. The Shovels and Rope concert at the Phoenix in October: I was reading Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth before the show while Stuart was in the loo. The security guard who checked my bag thought it was weird that I had a book.
  10. My own book launch. I was reading Big Little Lies. I didn’t get a chance to read it though.
  11. The hospital, where I gave birth to my second child. This is not so weird, but it is weird when you consider that I brought nothing else except for a pair of shoes to wear in the shower. I was hoping to give birth at home, and perhaps thought packing clothes would jinx this. Instead, it just meant I spent a lot of time naked. But at least I had a book.

June 12, 2017

Grounds For Hope

On Saturday night somebody attacked our lavender bush with a sharp stick, clearly with the intent of destroying it. Yes, the lavender that we bought two years ago in order to replace the shrub that someone tore out of our garden in a (we think) drunken rage. It was discovered Sunday morning half dug up, roots torn, sad and limp. Particularly sad because it had been so lush, flowers just on the verge of blooming. Poor little lavender, and we speculated about the culprit—was it a man who (like someone rather close to home) had become frustrated with his wife’s compulsion to add lavender to everything, and just decided he couldn’t take it anymore, every single bite of everything tasting more than a little like perfume? Or someone further over the edge, plagued by demonic lavender visions, a stake in the root the only real solution?

Anyway, we have found that tending a community garden is an excellent exercise in living with the world, in coming to terms with its realities. What kind of asshole would so something like that? But the thing about the world is that there are all kinds of assholes, and accepting this is part of life. And so we focus instead on other things, that we have a community gardening group to whom we could direct our gardening emergency questions: Can This Lavender Be Saved? I got an email back in a half hour or so, that depending on root damage the plant could possibly survive by being trimmed back and repotted in a small container for the summer and given a restful summer. We got on it straightaway and the lavender looks much less sad now. Also, the city is donating plants for community gardeners and we’ll be able to order a new lavender for our planter. All is not lost. We’ll keep tending our garden, and putting up with the jerks that try to wreck it and/or steal our plants is all part of the experience. We’ll keep planting our seeds and helping them grow, because this is the world we’ve got, and when it isn’t awful, it’s really beautiful. The one and only too.

Today marks a year since the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, an event that was terrible in itself but also marks the beginning of what I think of now as The Very Bad Time, one that hasn’t yet concluded. Jo Cox’s murder, then Brexit. I remember walking home from soccer last summer on the most beautiful evening (there were rainbows) and then hearing news of atrocities in Nice. The election in November, so much awfulness since. And more devastation in London and Manchester these last few weeks, each of these events strung like beads on a terrible, awful string. It is a difficult time to be in the world. Life is so hard and random, even when there aren’t maniacs committing acts of murder on busy streets. There is uncertainty, and sadness, and so much loss. So much awful commemoration.

Such much juxtaposition too. How do you make sense of it? I remember the Pulse Nightclub news at the end of the most splendid summer day, a day that smelled like sunscreen, tasted like ice cream, and sounded like the splash of waves on the beach. It was a day that became legend in our family, because we hadn’t had a plan at all—it just happened. And then yesterday we wanted to do it again, to return to the Beaches Arts and Crafts Sale, to have a picnic in Kew Gardens, play on the climbers, have dinner on Queen Street, and so spend so much time that time slows down hanging out beside the lake, collecting beach glass, and looking for other interesting things.

Efforts to orchestrate good days can easily go a bit wrong. There has be room for them to happen, and I was thinking about this yesterday as we planned our day. (“Isn’t it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no terrorist attacks in it yet?”) Plus, I was wondering about the beach. Water levels are at record highs—more dread of course, global warming. Will there even be a beach? I’d seen photos of the lake right up against the boardwalk.

I love beach glass. I love that the intersection of humans and nature can result in something so precious and beautiful. I love that the story isn’t all bad. I love that beach glass by definition is sharp edges worn smooth, that collecting it is an exercise in paying attention. We started collecting beach glass last summer, to what end I’m not sure yet, perhaps just for the sake of having it. I usually resist the urge to own things I find in nature, but beach glass is different, and I don’t know that the lake really minds if we take it away.

And the thing I learned yesterday is that high water levels and diminished beach equals an abundance of beach glass—it’s all been swept ashore. We found loads of it, huge pieces, a veritable treasure trove. I think too about the high water levels in the context of Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s “Big Water,” about the lake reclaiming itself. The positive ecological benefits of what’s happening, all the things that might grow, might be discovered.

In spite of everything, and maybe even because of everything: we had a very good day.

“To me, the grounds for hope are simply that we don’t know what will happen next, and that the unlikely and the unimaginable transpire quite regularly.” —Rebecca Solnit, “Woolf’s Darkness”

May 11, 2017

Did you ever know that you’re my hero?

A thing that happened to me yesterday when I was working on the second draft of my new novel was that I realized I’d totally stolen a plot point from the 1988 Bette Midler vehicle, Beaches. Not so shocking, I guess, considering I am writing a story about two women’s friendship over decades. It’s the part where C.C. Bloom ends up with her theatre director, who’d previously slept with her best friend, and you’ve got to wonder if they’re together not just C.C. wants to be but because she wants to one-up her friend. Of course, my story is a bit different from this, I assured myself, but then I realized that it even takes place around a theatrical production—albeit one that is a very very terrible campus drama society play.

I should have known this would happen. It is possible that Beaches has been seared onto my DNA. That film was my introduction to all the best things—boardwalks, photo-booths, pen-pals, and Mayim Bialik. We had the record, and I spent hours gazing at the cover, the framed pictures on the piano documenting Hilary and C.C.’s history. I was obsessed with Beaches. I think I saw it in the theatre, and then we had the video. I can recite whole passages—”You did everything you said you were going to do, everything” and “That’s my robe,” and I actually do periodically utter C.C.’s line from when she asks the bartender to carry in Hilary’s bag and her tells her, “I’ve got a bad back.” She said, “You’ve got a bad attitude.” Exactly.

The New York apartment with a bathtub in the kitchen, into which Hillary moves while on the run from her upper-class destiny, where they string Christmas lights and sing, “Oh Come All Ye Faithful”—in Latin! Basically it stands for everything I ever wanted. I wanted to pound on a radiator while screaming, “Send up the heat!” Such romantic, bohemian deprivation. Remember when Hilary drove a Volkswagen bus and worked for the ACLU, and Hilary’s tousled up-do in the laundromat with C.C. asking her, “Do you really think I have talent?” I wouldn’t recall this scene at all, except I just watched the movie trailer and realized I’d spent my 20s quoting that line, not realizing I wasn’t its original author. I’m sure I’ve also had days where I’ve gone to buy a wrench because we didn’t have one. It is possible that Beaches is in fact my subconscious. I wanted that once-in-a-lifetime friendship that lasts forever, for sure—or at least until someone ends up with a terminal heart condition. (It is also possible that this film was the advent of my hypochondria.)

I loved that movie so much, and had a mass market paperback of the book on which it was based, in which Hilary Whitney  was called Bertie Barron, but still died at the end. I think I even read the sequel, Beaches II: I’ll Be There, although I’ve forgotten everything its plot contained. Interestingly (or not, all things considered) I am quite sure that Hilary Whitney’s family home in the movie is the same house at which Roger Sterling hosts his offensive blackface party and sings, “That Old Kentucky Home,” in Mad Men—when you watch a movie 3000 you come to recognize these things. Beaches is also the reason I developed a moderate crush on John Heard, and why when John Hurt died not too long ago, I wasn’t all that bothered, because at least John Heard was okay.

I am afraid to re-watch it. Not just because I have a feeling I might discover that it doesn’t hold up—the acting in the film trailer was kind of…awful—but because I might discover that everything I have I have possibly stolen from Beaches, that in fact I do not exist at all as a singular entity but instead as an amalgam of lines and ideas from late 1980s’ films in which beautiful young women die tragically (and gorgeously). What if all of us are just walking around in Gary Marshall’s dream—or even fragments of the imagination of Iris Myandowski the handwalking queer?

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