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Pickle Me This

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?

May 2, 2017

What’s Your Dream Denim?

“What’s your dream denim?” is an actual question a GAP employee asked me not too long ago when she had discovered me wandering her shop in despair and confusion at whatever had happened in the world of pants since the last time I’d gone shopping. Not even on the clearance rack could one locate a pair of the low-rise skinny jeans I’d been wearing since 2009 when all pants basically became elasticated, the greatest revolution in leg wear the world has ever known. In their place instead was boyfriend jeans, and girlfriend jeans, and wide legged cropped jeans (WHA???), destructed jeans, and the most horrifying pair of jeans I have ever glimpsed: super high-waisted button-fly bellbottoms. What the actual fuck?

But revolutions in leg wear have always caught me unaware, the GAP’s late-1990s Khaki Swings Campaign notwithstanding—I bought a pair of those pants because I wanted to learn to dance like that, although it didn’t work. But I remember actually wearing tapered acid-washed and thinking that dark denim was a fashion crime, and then suddenly there we all were wearing dark-navy jeans with flares. And then one day about a decade on it was clear that flares were dying, and I vowed to never go tapered again, making fun of people who wore jeggings…until one day I had my own pair. Where did they even come from? I cannot tell you. If someone had told me fifteen years ago that I’d be wearing tapered jeans at age 37, I would have said they were crazy, but here I am, and frankly, I am terrified. Concerned that the pair I’m wearing right now might be the last pair of low-rise jeans in the world—who thinks high-waisted jeans look good on anybody? They make lithe 22-year-olds look dumpy, so what hope is there for the rest of us? It’s my one real complaint about millennials, their ridiculous waistlines—it is possible that none of them were ever taunted for pulling up their Buffalo jeans too high in 1991 so they have no idea about the grade-7 trauma their terrible pants could possibly induce.

But if fashion history is any indicator, about 15 months from now I’m going to be zipping myself into a pair of jeans whose waist rises to my clavicle. Maybe they will be flapered, which is a term I’ve just invented for a leg that is tapered just below the flare. In the boyfriend’s-cousin’s-hairdresser cut, which is like the boyfriend jean, but more tailored to one’s figure if one happens to be shaped like a broomstick. There is no dream denim, it is only a nightmare.

April 4, 2017

Dear Pottery Barn Kids Sherway Gardens

Dear Pottery Barn Kids Sherway Gardens,

Thank you for following me on Instagram. You have over 1300 followers, which is no small potatoes, and you are an internationally known brand located in a very good mall, so I should be flattered. And you’ve not only followed me, but you’re engaging with my posts, sharing baguette-related humour and being all ’round pleasant and fun. I feel like you and I could be friends…except you are a store. And you’re not just a store, you are a store that I can’t afford to enter because in order to afford your merchandise, I’d have to move up at least two income brackets. Do you know that I bought my kids’ bunkbed out of an actual garage in an industrial park at Jane and Finch? If you knew that, would you unfollow me? I showed my children a photo of the bunkbed on your feed that was built to resemble a playhouse, and they both went a bit gaga. They said, “Mommy, could we go there?” By which we all knew they really meant, “Is it possible to have another kind of life?”

I don’t know how they do it, those people who “engage with brands on social media.” How do you engage with a brand? When they make a joke on your instagram post, do you respond with, “Ha ha that’s funny by the way you’re a store”? Don’t get me wrong, I like stores. If I could afford to buy the playhouse bunkbed I’d be all over that shit. If you were having a clearance sale, I could possibly come in and purchase a facecloth (but only one that was on deep discount because a customer had bought it and returned it and the packaging had gone missing and someone had actually washed their face with it). But I don’t know how to talk to you. Everything in your posts is literally wearing a price tag or from a catalogue. How do you engage with a floor model? I don’t know what you look like. Do you even have a face?

Does a store dream, Pottery Barn Kids Sherway Gardens? Do you have hopes and fears? Do you cower at night in the silence of your mall and worry about climate change? As yuppies and their offspring traipse their dirty boots across your carpets in the daytime, do you ever wonder about the point of it all? What’s your favourite book? Your favourite recipe? Have you ever suffered from sexual dysfunction? Do you like cilantro? The artificial flavour for banana? What’s your favourite season? Do you have economic anxiety? Are you a public company? Do you ever consider your responsibility to your shareholders and then get really scared?

I want to know you. I want to be your friend and celebrate your birthday, and maybe even buy you a cup of coffee—but I can’t. So close you are, but still a world away. But maybe one day I’ll come across your wares on Craigslist and snap up something—a storage solution or an organic duvet insert—and maybe then this arrangement will all make sense. Perhaps one day I will understand.

Yours respectfully,

Me.

February 19, 2017

Speedy Deletion: How I Tried and Failed to be on Wikipedia

Because I tell you everything, you have to know that I’ve wanted a Wikipedia page since 2008. This was the year my friend got a Wikipedia page. At the time, I barely had a “Published Works” page on my website, and my website was on Blogspot, and I had a long, long way to travel still. And all these details are a little shameful to admit, because we’re all supposed to be cool about this sort of thing. Like, “Oh, do I have a Wikipedia page? I had no idea, because I certainly don’t google myself weekly.” In my next life, I hope to be that cool, but in this life, I’m the woman who finds every mention of me or my work two days before Google Alerts does. Just once I would like Google Alerts to surprise me—for me this would be a definition of success. It would mean not only that my online mentions were turning up in substantial volumes, but also that I have better things to do than hunt about on the internet looking for them.

Anyway, last summer I decided that the time had finally arrived. I’d amassed a small body of work, some prizes, publication credits, and had a debut novel on the horizon. Because it would be cheating to create my own Wikipedia page (although I have been told that this happens all the time) I asked my husband to make mine for me, a really romantic gesture. And he did. It was really nice, and there I was amongst Canadian authors, and Canadian authors born in 1979, even. But it hadn’t even been a day before the Kerry Clare wiki was causing trouble.

The trouble at the start was kind of innocuous. They wanted references and citations, and this was understandable. There was nothing personal about it. I filled in the blanks and added the details. And then the next problem flagged was that my page was not connected to other pages, or referenced by them. Never mind—I’d fix that too. I connected my page to that of authors who’d been published in my anthology; I linked to an author who’d published me in her anthology. If I could I would have literally underlined that I am in fact a National Magazine Award-nominated author, or bolded the text at the very least. And this, the fact of being a National Magazine Award-nominated author, is really a very Canadian thing—you don’t even have to win. But the Wikipedia editors didn’t know this. (Perhaps “this” is also kind of sad. Don’t think I didn’t consider it.)

It was about four days into my career as a person with a Wikipedia page that  things got more personal, that the notes on the discussion page began to be written by actual people as opposed to the template messages about links and additional citations. The people, who volunteered their time as Wikipedia editors, were not at all impressed by my accomplishments. And for awhile, I tried to engage with the process, to answer their questions, to fill in the blanks, to vouch for my own notability. But the more I tried, the more adamant the editors became. “Being nominated for an award does not make a person notable,” the editor explained. “She didn’t win the award. And her publication date is so far off into the future that it is likely, especially with the current state of publishing, that her book will never in fact be published.”

At this point I finally gave up. Although saying this suggests I had more agency in the matter than I actually did. Even if I hadn’t given up the fight to be on Wikipedia, I was on the shortlist for speedy deletion and it was probably going to happen anyway. But when I did give up, it was because it had dawned on me that battling to remain on Wikipedia was going to have to become my full-time job, and it was exhausting. Turns out I’m not so unnotable that I had absolutely nothing else to do with my time except battle it out with Wikipedia editors. If I’d devoted my life to staying on Wikipedia, I’d never be able to do anything else that was notable again.

I know some people who are as notable as dirt stuck to the bottom of my shoe, and they’re still on Wikipedia. How, I wonder, have they managed to pull it off? Perhaps it’s such a feat of incredible endurance that it makes a person notable after all?

A few lessons I took away from this: first, that the whole exercise is remarkably gendered. (The dirt on the bottom of the shoe people I refer to are male.) It was not lost on me that I am a woman who does have some accomplishments, and that my work was entirely dismissed without hesitation by a group of men who really knew nothing about those accomplishments, and who did not necessarily have any accomplishments of their own. Perhaps I am wrong about this final point, and I would be ecstatic if I were, in fact, but it does occur to me that profoundly successfully (or notable people) don’t necessarily have the time to be editing Wikipedia in the middle of the night. Anyway, the idea of mediocre men undermining a successful woman was not so mind-blowing—I don’t know where exactly, but I’ve heard that one before…

And the second lesson? That it’s really healthy for a person (especially a person who googles herself on a regular basis) to be reminded of her insignificance. I’m not being facetious. And that Wikipedia notability and other such metrics are not those with which we should necessarily gauge our success in the world. I mean, it would be nice, but these aren’t the things that matter. It’s good to know too one can be a total failure in all these respects, and still be entirely happy, and worthy of existence.

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Mitzi Bytes

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