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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.

January 23, 2020

Ten Years

I had some strange feelings about reflecting on the 2010s, mostly because I didn’t. There was a meme going around Instagram stories on New Year’s Eve in which we were supposed to list a highlight from each year, and I even tried to post it, but couldn’t figure out how to get the text to fit, which maybe means that the 2010s were the decade in which I stopped being technologically savvy.

But also, the years all blend together, and so much stayed the same. The decade before was much more filled with upheaval and revolution (they were my 20s after all) but in the 2010s were where the pieces started to fit. I stopped having babies, I began to have something like a career, I finally started publishing books, I made some wonderful new friendships, and maintained old ones. It’s been good, but the decade itself, its distinction, just seems particularly arbitrary. Like—even more than a decade should.

Or do I only think that because when the decade started, I was sitting in the very same place that I’m sitting right now?

Okay. not the exact same place. (We finally bought a new couch, remember?) But the same address, our apartment, which we moved into twelve years ago this April, the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere. I moved in as half of a young married couple, and now I’ve got two kids and I’m forty, and have been married almost 15 years. The little kids who lived next door moved out and went to university, and then moved back in again, although it didn’t do me much good when they did, because now they’re too old to babysit. But, as the middle section of To the Lighthouse, so astutely put it: Time Passes.

Imagining our own story as told from the perspective of the house as Woolf does in her novel (except with less war and death). The people coming and going, coats and jackets hung up on hooks and taken down again, early morning alarm clocks and dinners, and house guests, and holidays, and the quiet weeks where we’ve all gone away, and coming home again, an explosion of luggage, and the babies arriving, and late nights with the lights on while the world sleeps, and the babies grow, and all the books that come in and those that go back out again (returned to the library, or left on the garden walls for any takers), and the birthday parties, play dates, first day of schools, pencilled lines in the door-frame measuring from small to tall, and boots and shoes and sandals in a pile at the door, and the triumphs and disappointments, throughout anxiety and contentment, and these walls have contained it all. Even as spare rooms turned into nurseries and cribs turned into bunk-beds, and empty space turned into clutter—Lego, puzzles, and play-doh—and that ring on the carpet from where I put down a teapot and it melted. How places seem to hold us, even more than time does, and how a single place can hold so much, and so can a life.

November 3, 2019

Neither Useful, Nor Interesting

Oh, yet another blog post that begins with me talking about something I heard when I was listening to a podcast. The Mom Rage Podcast, no less—am I predictable yet? This one was about vaccines (it was so good!), featuring a conversation with medical anthropologist Samantha Gottlieb about the HPV vaccine and “vaccine-hesitant communities.” She spoke about how many people are put off by doctors’ refusal to entertain questions about vaccines at all, which only serves to underline skepticism. When the facts are that vaccines can cause risks, that vaccine injuries and reactions do happen. They happen on a disproportionately tiny scale, with risks minute. It’s more dangerous to get in the car and drive down the road, and we all do that all the time, but still. Doctors don’t want to admit it. It complicates the narrative, and complicating the narrative of vaccination is perilous, literally life and death.

Of course, I like complicated narratives. To complicate the narrative is to get as close as we can to something called truth. I don’t want to live in an echo chamber, a bubble. I relish conversations with my economist friend about the virtues of capitalism; I appreciate the activists who’ve open my eyes to the violent reality of racism; my morning routine is basically putting on shoes, but I’ve got big respect for people for whom make-up is a form of personal expression. On Twitter, I used to actually follow the person whose booking at the Toronto Public Library has created such controversy over the last few weeks, because her take on sex-work complicated what so many of the other feminists in my feed were talking about, and I found that complicatedness useful and interesting… until it wasn’t. I unfollowed this person when she started writing online attacks on the grieving father of a dead teenaged girl. When I realized this “journalist” (whose platform is her own website, which she likes to call “Canada’s leading feminist website” [according to whom?]) relishes attention more than any kind of truth, and had figured out that courting controversy was the fastest way to get there (and solicit donations). When I realized she was more invested in dogma and ideology than the feminists whose thinking (and actual lived experiences) she purports to oppose and complicate. This person is neither useful, nor interesting. She is sensationalist, and purely disingenuous. She is the anti-vaxxer of gender politics. She is not “just asking questions.”

I think there is room for questions and nuance in conversations about gender. Unlike the speaker who was provided space at the Toronto Library, I think that none of this is simple. I wish that the City Librarian had listened to so many smart and respected voices calling on her to cancel the speaker’s booking—the milquetoast mayor called her on it, for heaven’s sake. And no, these people weren’t “bullying the library.” You can’t bully a library. This is nonsense. But I also know that people too are complicated like their issues are, and there are many of them (myself among them) who don’t like being told what to do, to have demands made of them, who double down instead of considering the opposite. We put a lot of truck in unapologeticness in feminism, for better and for worse. I don’t think that we should be boycotting the library, because for so many people, especially marginalized ones, the library is their most accessible cultural institution. Because the library belongs to all of us. Because the people who have the least are the people that lose the most, and I don’t really know what the end-game is of a library boycott, especially now that the event is done and dusted. Though I commend all the people who’ve taken a stance and I do think it’s been hugely worthwhile—the turnout to the protest on Tuesday evening was an incredibly show of solidarity, and the issue has led to all kinds of conversations, which are necessary as we ask questions in generous and thoughtful ways, and figure things out as a society—a process that is far more useful and interesting than anything the speaker might have said on any platform. (This is the work, people. We’re doing it. Even if, or maybe especially if, you’ll only doing it all in your head.)

I do know what it’s like to have my body be the site of a debate. I’ve stood on the sidewalk holding a sign listening to men argue over the semantics of abortion, as to the precise point where the procedure should or should not be permitted, and I can tell you that it’s dehumanizing, insulting, ridiculous, and neither useful nor interesting. And so I have an understanding of where trans people are coming from when they refuse to entertain questions, conversations or debate about their bodies and their identities. When the field of debate is your lived reality, listening to people arguing in abstract terms and citing outlying circumstances as emblematic of the issue at hand—for anti-choicers, it’s all about the case of a particular doctor and abortion provider who was convicted of murdering infants, same as how the anti-trans crew is always going on about aestheticians and waxing, as though these are the actual goal posts and such things are happening every day—is exasperating, traumatic, and a gigantic waste of everyone’s time.

I think there is room for questions and nuance in conversations about gender, because we live in a world where there are no absolutes, but I am sure that insisting on those conversations at this precise moment is not the most pressing thing we’ve got on the go. That democracy and freedom hang in the balance, as so many others might put it in their letters to the editor. I think back to the vaccine analogy, and the distrust and violent suspicion at the heart of the anti-vaccine movement, which is not so far apart from that of anti-trans activists, really. In both cases, there is an over-estimation of vulnerability, and a convenient disregard for those who are actually vulnerable after all.

Of course, there are conversations that need to be had, questions that need to be answered, but not like this, not by this person. As with the vaccine conversation, the harms—here, it’s increased violence against and vilification of an already vulnerable population—really do outweigh the benefit, which is mainly the privileged and smug self-assurance of living in a society where any idiot gets to spout her rubbish in a public building. And if such self-assurance is our guiding principle, instead of listening to, learning from, and taking care of each other, then what does it say about us?

October 30, 2019

It’s Not About the Vision Board

Be your own vision board…

I want to go back to Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror, the parts about scams and delusions. That we exist in a moment where people are trying to sell us their 5 simple steps to becoming millionaires, or having body confidence, or achieving career success. That the only difference between you and that superstar you emulate is something corny like, “She dared to dream, and then she did it.” I have to confess to a mighty aversion to vision boards, especially since the images are usually cut out from magazine advertisements. Do I really want my vision to be borrowed from an ad for Hyundai? What are the limits to empowerment by hashtag?

And yet. A thing I’ve learned in the last few years, during this year in particular, is that we have more power than we realize. The point, of course, is just to use it, and certainly confidence is a factor. I turned 40 this year and what this new decade has delivered me is the confidence to realize I really do have something—skills, knowledge, experience and insight—to bring to the table. After a decade and more of not taking myself too seriously (because people who do can be insufferable) I’ve learned the value of doing so—while not being insufferable, I hope.

But it’s not about the vision board. It’s not even about “daring to dream big.” Instead, it’s about looking at the world head on and figuring out what needs doing. Asking “What if?” and daring to follow through. It’s about the doing, not the dreaming.

I note this example all the time, but it’s emblematic of many other things I’ve achieved on a larger scale: when my neighbours had a baby, I brought them a loaf of banana bread. And in doing so, I made our street, this world, a place where things like that can happen. A small thing, but I don’t discount the value of small things. I think they’re everything.

Anyone who attends a protest makes a world where people care about things. Anyone who reaches out to someone in need makes a world where people care about people. 

The foundation is an understanding that you matter, and therefore the things you do will matter. And then you’ve got to do the things, which is where, of course, the work comes in.

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October 23, 2019

We are stardust, we are golden 

One single quotation that bugs me in its vacuity even more than Madeleine Albright and her special place in hell for women who don’t help other women is that excerpt from a poem by Rumi that goes, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

A line that maybe isn’t so offensive on its own, and I think that Rumi was talking about the spiritual realm, but I’m not sure it really applies here on Earth in the meantime, where people who insist on hanging out in that proverbial field are likely to come home at the end of the day with black eyes and bruises (because they’ve been cavorting with neo-Nazis), and possibly they’ll also have measles.

So, yes, Rumi, I will meet you there, but in the meantime, there’s the land right here before the field beyond wrongdoing and rightdoing, where we’re all trying to puzzle out this thing called existence and how to get along with each other, to do better than emblematic opposition, us and them, love is a battlefield. Where we need better metaphors, which is the central thesis of Eula Biss’s On Immunity, in which she uses the issue of vaccination to explore ideas of societal (dis)trust and polarization (and also the history of public health, and motherhood, and everything).

It’s not quite as simple as shrugging off right and wrong, heading out to the field. Different strokes for different strokes. Because of course, in innumerable ways, our lives and our choices all intersect. There is indeed such thing as society, and a public of which each of us are a part. Eula Biss calls on the work of Rachel Carson, who writes, “For each of us, as for the robin in Michigan or the salmon in the Miramichi, this is a problem of ecology, of interrelationships, of interdependence.” 

Biss writes, “We are…continuous with everything here on Earth. Including, and especially, each other.” 

My favourite part of On Immunity is in the endnotes, when Biss credits the women in her personal circles “who complicated the subject of immunization for me.” (Emphasis mine.) This same idea is repeated in the book’s acknowledgements: “I am grateful to the community…who complicated my thinking, argued generously, and pointed me in new directions.” 

(In the endnotes, she goes on to explain her use of “mothers” when she might have used “parents” throughout the text. “This does not mean that I believe immunization is exclusively of concern to women, but only that I want to address other mothers directly. In a culture that relishes pitting women against each other in ‘mommy wars,’ I feel compelled to leave some traces on the page of another kind of argument…that does not reduce us, as the diminutive mommy implies, and that does not resemble war.”) 

I first read On Immunity in 2015, which seemed like a polarized period at the time, but appears somewhat utopian when one looks back from our post-November 2016 world. And in the years since I read the book, I’ve continually returned to that idea of complication as a kind of service, a gift, something to be grateful for. Not always succeeding in my understanding, of course, failing more often than not, because it’s no small thing, to be grateful to the people who complicate your vision, your understanding. An astounding and rare feat of generosity, in fact, to be grateful to the people who keep the world from being simple…but this is the kind of achievement that I’m aspiring to, a way one might make it here in this place entrenched by ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing. This is how one might get beyond this place and manage to still have a soul. 

“…it isn’t the clinging to answers but the embracing of ignorance that drives science,” Biss writes, but not just science—it drives everything. And to embrace ignorance is another way of asking to make it complicated. Tell me how the medical establishment has a centuries-old habit of undermining women’s knowledge, and that some of the first public health initiatives had people vaccinated at gunpoint. Tell me (as Biss does) how “a refusal to vaccinate falls under a broader resistance to capitalism,” but then complicate that. She writes, “But refusing immunity as a form of civil disobedience bears an unsettling resemblance to the very structure the Occupy movement seeks to disrupt—a privileged 1 percent are sheltered from risk while they draw resources from the other 99 percent.” 

Or tell me how Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring alerted the world to the dangers of DDT, but also inspired a line of thinking that is not disconnected from the fact that one African child in twenty now dies from malaria as DDT is now discouraged for use against mosquitos. “For each of us,” as Carson herself said, “this is a problem of ecology, of interrelationships, of interdependence.” 

It’s complicated. As they say

Biss rejects the possibility of a middle-ground on vaccinations as facile, a middle-ground simply reinforcing the binary or this or that, and a divide instead of a connection, when the reality of most things is not so neat and simple. Bad guys and good guys? “[M]ost people are both,” writes Biss, and then quotes Naomi King, who knows something about monsters, because her father is an author called Stephen. She says, “If we demonize other people and create monsters out of each other and act monstrous—and we all have that capacity—then how do we not become monsters ourselves?” 

On Immunity is preoccupied with the metaphor of vampires, and Dracula, but this passage had me thinking of Frankenstein, or rather Dr. Frankenstein, who, in creating a monster, has himself been transformed in into a monster, at least in the public consciousness. 

However, now we’re back here with Rumi and the field beyond, basically, imagining that monstrosity is relative, but here’s the thing: I do think some monsters are real. And there is a distinction between the people who complicate things, and the people who set those things on fire. There is arguing generously, and there is arguing disingenuously, dangerously. Dog whistles. (That point where you start asking: am I being paranoid? Akin to someone who regards the polio vaccine as an global conspiracy?) 

Possibly one benefit to restricting the bounds of your argument to apply to mothers, when certainly lessens the likelihood that you’re having your ideas complicated by someone who keeps body parts in the freezer, though no doubt (it’s complicated) there are even exceptions to that rule. 

But now I’m back to Dr. Frankenstein again, and I don’t know what to do, but maybe complicatedness is the point. Complicatedness is reality. And the point is not untwining, but the twine, like ivy, and now I’m thinking of Biss’s final metaphor—for the body, for society. A better one than war, instead, the garden.

“The garden is unbounded and unkempt, bearing both fruit and thorns. Perhaps we should call it a wilderness. Or perhapscommunity is sufficient.” 

A wild tangle. An exasperating mind-fuck. Sustaining, and but exhausting. Maybe that’s exactly what it’s supposed to be. 

I reread On Immunity because it’s a Book Club Pick for the Mom Rage Podcast, a podcast which I’m embarrassingly enthusiastic about. I think they’re going to be talking about it on next week’s episode, but if you haven’t yet, you might as well just listen to all of them.

October 15, 2019

Cities Work

I understand the circumstances that have resulted in an increasing number of people on our streets, but what I cannot understand is how someone could walk on by someone who is unconscious on the sidewalk and do nothing, which happens all the time. “If that were me lying on the sidewalk, I’d want someone to help,” I tell my children. “If it were you, I would want someone to help.” Today we called an ambulance for the second time in recent months for someone who was in trouble. Because that guy on the sidewalk, he’s our neighbour. We share this city together, and cities work when we take care of each other. 

And as ever, I was so grateful for the kindness of first responders who accorded this man his dignity. Firefighters and ambulance arrived and took care of him, as a Falun Dafa Parade came up the street, an amazing marching band. We’d left by then and were across the street watching the parade half a block from where the firetruck and ambulance were blocking the road, and this tension, these intersections, and connections are why I love cities so much. Why I love this city so much. 

It’s a miracle that any of it works, but sometimes it does, and it can be beautiful and so absurd, the golden autumn day a glorious backdrop. 

By the time the parade had arrived, the emergency vehicles were gone, the man taken to the hospital, which I know is only the beginning of the story and unlikely to be the end of his struggles. But I hope it helped, and I loved the marching band and their music, and I am so grateful to be connected to all of it, to be part of this messed up, gorgeous, incredible world.

October 10, 2019

October

This month marks 19 years since I started blogging, and I’ve also been thinking a lot about where I was here a decade ago, when life was very different, when I was the new parent of a small baby and the universe was made of a million tiny little pieces that would eventually find their way together to make…my life. A life where the children go out of town for the weekend—WHAT? But yes, they went to Girl Guide Camp and Stuart and I were left on our own for 36 hours. So curious to slip back to the life that used to be, when days were wide open, we could walk until our feet hurt, and once the supper dishes were washed, we didn’t have to put anybody to bed. It helped that the day was golden, beautiful. We visited Little India in the east end, where we’d never been before, and then walked along Gerrard all the way from Coxwell to Logan, and it was so interesting and fun, and a great treat to return to that expansive life for a little while, and have my house clean. But oh, the children, with their complications and fascinations, and when they came home, we were glad to have them. Always, we are glad to have them. And lucky. And it occurred to me on Monday, when I was reading Theresa Kishkan’s blog, that I love her blog so much because she’s as mystified and fascinated by this particular thing as I am, the banal and extraordinary fact of the passage of time. How did we get here, far more interesting to me even than where are we going ever was.

September 26, 2019

On Beauty

If there is one mistake of mine that it’s really important to me that my children could learn from, it is this: leave your eyebrows alone. More important than not smoking or getting ill-advised tattoos, because there is no coming back from eyebrow ruin. During the early years of my life, I had perfectly acceptable, unremarkable eyebrows, and I could have stayed that way, were it not for a teenaged need to perform womanhood with stupid grooming rituals.

So I went and got my eyebrows waxed, and waxed, and waxed and waxed, and there was a point in 2001 where they were tiny little lines, skinnier than I’ve ever been, and there was also the women who did my brows the day before my wedding who nicked me with the tweezers and made me bleed, so I gave her an extra big tip so she would feel less bad about the whole thing, and being a woman is so idiotic.

And then one day a couple of years ago, I decided I didn’t want to wax my eyebrows anymore. I didn’t even want to tweeze them anymore, standing before the bathroom mirror, hair-by-hair, each pluck making me sneeze. I don’t have time for that, because it always grows back. The same reason I’ve sworn off dieting, and colouring my hair, and running on treadmills—the whole thing is Sisyphean, and I refuse to be pushing a boulder for the rest of my life. These are losing battles, and I will not engage.

But the result now is that I have terrible eyebrows, sprawling and patchy. Would be that after all the waxing, my eyebrows would have thinned out altogether, but instead they’ve grown back in wide but with bald spots, a shape that is so far from a shape, and I just don’t care. And also I do, because I’m already on my fourth paragraph writing about it. But I just can’t go in for the incessant demands of grooming, and most of the time I don’t, which is one great benefit of being in a romantic partnership with someone who is terrifically far-sighted.

I was listening to a podcast today (which is the way that I start most of my sentences lately) when the host came on with an ad for some kind of skin care product I wasn’t paying proper attention to, and she talked about how much she loved her nightly skin care regimen, how it was just so fantastic that it gave her “me-time,” and I almost died of despair right then. The saddest thing I’ve ever heard, though perhaps I’m reading more into this than I should be. It is possible that no podcast host is quite as enthusiastic about the product she’s endorsing as she sounds like she is, and I actually really hope she isn’t, because that’s the saddest excuse for “me-time” I’ve ever heard.

It is also possible that she has nicer skin than I do. Most people do. Earlier this year, I turned down a prescription for rosacea from my dermatologist, so I’m hardly an expert on any of this. I’m just kind of lazy when it comes to grooming, and also would prefer to squander all my money on books instead.

Which is not to pass any judgement on those people who heavily invest in their aesthetic appearance—they’re are a million ways to be a woman after all, and who am I to tell another person what to do with her body, but this is kind of just my point, that the whole world is actually telling us what to do with our bodies, and I wonder sometimes if the whole thing is a conspiracy to keep us from doing anything more useful.

All those boulders we’re pushing, even once we’ve refused to push the boulders. I have no idea what liberation might look like.

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