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Pickle Me This

September 17, 2019

Waffles, Waffles, Waffles

A baking pan heaped with waffles. Photograph.

One of the things I am most proud of and amazed at having accomplished in my life is a Baby Book for my second-born child. I was never going to be a perfect mother, and being a second child definitely would inevitably suck in all kinds of ways (secondhand snowsuits, no one appreciating the miraculousness of things like you knowing how to roll over, and basically not being bathed for two years) but at least she was going to have a Baby Book, a record of those precious blurry days. Though it was less of a burden for me to assemble than it might have been for other mothers of two—her elder sister was all the way to four by then, and I also spent the first three months of her life on co-parenting duty instead of struggling alone because my husband had taken parental leave, which meant time for naps, and books, and writing down all the things that we’d never remember.

When Iris was two, I added a whole page of notes to the Baby Book, though she was not a baby anymore. But it seemed like there were more things worth remembering then, once she was able to speak, and her remarkable personality had formed. “Things Iris Says,” was how I’d titled this page, along with the date, and I turned to this page just the other day when Iris had brought her Baby Book down from the shelf (and how glad I am that she has a Baby Book, that I bothered to put the effort in. Both my children are so fascinated with their baby selves, and will look at all records of their early periods in a way that’s inexhaustible).

“Things Iris Says,” I read aloud, excited to see what forgotten treasures might emerge from this time capsule, but then. Oh. Almost everything that Iris said when she was two had basically found its way into our family vernacular, and it’s how we all talk all the time now. (Perhaps when I say “we all,” I just mean me.) “Atcheam,” for ice-cream, and “fuff-eye” instead of “butterfly.” And “ra-see-see-wah” for rice krispie square. But then Iris is a little bit like this, in our family as well as in her own peer group. Totally weird, completely absurd, and at first, we’re like, “What are you doing?” And then it doesn’t take long before we’re doing it too.

But really, I want to talk about Teen Titans and waffles. Not that I have actually ever watched Teen Titans Go, but it’s Iris’s favourite show, and somehow without me ever having actually watched it, it’s seeped into my DNA, and I think it’s also the inspiration behind what became our family’s new year’s resolution for 2019, which was Get a Waffle Maker. Part of our pattern of Keep the Stakes Low to Avoid Disappointment. If you package up all your dreaming in the hopes of picking up a secondhand waffle maker from Value Village for $6, things are probably going to work out fine.

Get a Waffle Maker became our family dream because there is a song from Teen Titans Go about waffles—like most things about Teen Titans Go, it’s catchy and also extremely annoying. I am also very impressionable, particularly when it comes to glutinous goods, and so eventually, I had waffles on the brain, perpetually. We got our waffle maker sometime in January, which means our annual goal was achieved, and as a family we could just sit back and relax and be delighted by having accomplished what we set out to do. And make waffles every Sunday.

The waffle maker has been a game changer. I used to make pancakes every Sunday, and they were good, but lots of work, and also results would vary. But now the waffle maker does all the work for me, in way less time, and all I need to do is pour the batter in and then read the newspaper and drink my tea while waiting for the light to turn green—so simple. I am partial to Smitten Kitchen’s Buttermilk Waffle recipe. I am also partial to adding poppyseeds and millet to everything. Waffles, waffles, waffles, indeed. I love them, their taste, and neat geometry, and how leftovers could be turned into cream cheese jam sandwiches for tomorrow’s lunches, and all the places where our children’s preoccupations take us.

Even if just to the appliance section at the secondhand store. Hooray for being goal-oriented.

August 19, 2019

I Found an Egg Beater

Of all the machines in a kitchen, the egg beater has always been my favourite, and while the electric version has its advantages (the beaters detach for optimum licking), it’s the manual (or “rotary”, like a phone dial, both rotating around an axis) that has long been an object of my fascination, even though I’d be wary of getting my tongue stuck in a thing like that. Probably I wasn’t, however, when I was a child.

But my children have never seen an egg beater, which a) explains some of the trouble they’ve had in swimming lessons and b) was confirmed to me when Iris and I were reading a book in which an egg beater featured, and Iris only shrugged. I’d had an electric egg beater once upon a time, but I got rid of it when I got my first stand mixer over ten years ago, and back then the children were not yet in existence.

And then we were at Value Village on Saturday, exploring kitchenware, which is one of my favourite things to do. And it had occurred to me that I like exploring kitchenware at Value Village just as much when I don’t discover any treasure as I do when the search yields a new Pyrex bowl or midcentury crockery (I am mad for midcentury crockery) because when I don’t find anything, it means I don’t have go about locating a place to put it in my very crowded kitchen.

But I found an egg beater, in fact there were two—in additional to so many cocktail utensil sets. There are too many cocktail utensil sets in the world, and also George Forman grills, but we’re not yet overrun with rotary egg beaters, so I chose the one that wasn’t rusty, even if there were pieces missing from the plastic handles on the other. (Why corrupt such a wonderful object with plastic anyway?)

Iris was overjoyed to recognize the object, and then everybody started fighting over who gets to turn the handle and make the wheel turn, and we hadn’t even paid for it at this point. But it is so satisfying, the whir of the blades, the smoothness of the motion, the perpetualness of it. How I use my own energy to turn the handle, which makes the big wheel spin, whose grooves connect with the two little gears atop the beaters, and what genius thought of such a perfect machine? (Willis Johnson, according to the BBC, in 1884.)

“It’s an amazing thing,” I told my kids. “It doesn’t use any energy, and you can even make a cake when the power’s gone out.”

And then Iris came up to me hours later, as though she’d been thinking about this throwaway comment. “How do you see when you’re baking in the dark?” she asked me. “When the lights are out.”

But how do we even turn the oven on at that point? (We have a gas oven. Perhaps it might work?) I imagine us making a soufflé by candlelight.

In 48 hours, we’ve used the egg beater twice, to whip egg-whites for the Sunday waffles, and Iris got to do that because Harriet was playing Nintendo. And then yesterday evening I was making muffins for the week’s lunches, and Harriet wanted a turn, and then the two of them started fighting because Harriet was going too fast and all the eggs were getting beaten, and it really is such a clever little gadget, no matter that it’s disrupted family harmony.

Better than a fidget spinner—I could run that thing all day.

June 22, 2019

Reflecting on 40

Not since the dawn of the millennium have I felt such pressure to mark the turning over of a year—and let me tell you, I don’t thrive under such pressure. I ended up spending the evening of December 31, 1999 eating chips in my parents basement, which was better than the world’s infrastructure crumbling as the clock ticked over, of course, but it was really only memorable because it was not a good time. (There might not even have been chips, but I just added that part for extra detail.)

So this was reason I wanted to keep things low-key for my 40th birthday this week, indulging in the everyday pleasures that I am fortunate make up the bulk of my life. The everydayness is the point…but then did I want to see my friends, but our apartment is too small for a party (it wasn’t once upon a time, but once many of our friends had children and then those children grew, the situation became untenable), and I can’t afford to book a venue, and I don’t want to spend the energy to make a big production, but…and here I was on the same tangent that led to me greeting the new millennium from a basement, so best to ease back if I don’t want that to happen again.

I am not good at milestone birthdays. My 30th birthday was only better than my 20th birthday, because my 20th was the birthday where I drank too much and ended up falling in a puddle of my own pee. (At least it wasn’t someone else’s.) When I turned 30, I was hardly standing upright either because I had a three-week-old baby and life was really hard, and that was also the day that my computer crashed, losing everything I’d worked on in my twenties. (Hindsight: this was NOT a tragedy.)

Kerry and Harriet in Younger Days

So I am hoping we can set the bar at this: my 40th birthday will be more pleasant than my 30th, whose highlight was that my newborn baby slept for twenty minutes will we ate our dinner and I was able to sit in a chair unencumbered and enjoy half a glass of beer.

Never mind that I no longer enjoy beer at all (alcohol affects my sleep, which has become my biggest vice as I move into this new decade, and then it’s hard to get up first thing in the morning for my daily swim, which is my SECOND biggest vice as I move into this new decade. It is a really good thing that I never hoped to die before I got old because it’s too late for that…).

I am so happy to be 40…or just two days short of it, as I write this. I’ve seen enough of my contemporaries die of cancer in the last ten years that my perspective on aging now is that it’s nothing short of a gift, and I feel so lucky to receive it. And grateful for my thirties too for what they delivered me, how far I’ve come since then, all the amazing things I’ve been able to make and see and do and meet, not least among them books, friends, adventures, challenges, and so many extraordinarily beautiful days. (Like Albert from Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum, I continue to collect good days like other people collect coin or postcards. Unlike Albert, I did not die in WW1.)

That exhausted new mother sitting in a chair with half a glass of beer would have had her mind blown by the way it’s all unfolded. I feel so incredibly lucky.

I am reading Judith Viorst’s poetry collection How I Did I Get to be 40 and Other Atrocities, which is fun and also fitting because it was ten years ago that I was reading her It’s Hard to Be Hip Over 30 (and how—oh, and her most recent collection about nearing 90 [!] came out not too long ago...) And while I am loving the book (especially the design, since my library copy is decidedly vintage now), for me it has turned out not to be the poetic word on my new decade, because I recently read Marita Dachsel’s collection There Are Not Enough Sad Songs.

From her poem, “the forties”:

We are fabulous. We are stronger than we’ve ever been,/ because we know ourselves, and we love ourselves. Our bodies are finally our own…

(Get a glimpse of the whole thing here.)

May 29, 2019

My Ill-Fated Career in STEM

I spend a lot of time grateful for being a parent in the age of the internet, online bullying and Insta-perverts notwithstanding, because it means I’ve not only got at my fingertips birthday party ideas, assurances in the event of weird health symptoms, and recipes whose ingredients are whatever random vegetables happen to be shrivelling in my fridge, but that I’ll never be as lost as my mother must have been on that afternoon in 1988 when I came home from school and informed her that I needed to have a science project to take to school the following day.

And so began my ill-fated career in STEM, a career that was managed by my mom, from whom I might have received my lack of proclivity in the sciences, but who also taught me everything I know about being a parent who shows up for her kid. She must have called around our subdivision and found a book of home science experiments, and somehow that night she managed to help me put together some experiment involving a bottle and a balloon that inflates. I don’t remember what the science was. I don’t suppose I ever knew. I was oblivious to a lot in 1988, not just to science, but also to life-management in general, which was underlined when I took my project to school the next day, and learned I’d gotten mixed up and the science fair was not until the following week. Which meant that I was just ahead of the game, I thought, feeling cocky, until the science fair finally arrived, and one kid had built a solar powered barbecue, and here it became clear—with my pop bottle and balloon—that perhaps this was to be a field in which I wasn’t destined to shine.

We resolved to do better the following year, or at least my mom did, coming up with an ingenious solution—and indeed, this would be the zenith of my scientific career: she found someone else to do my project altogether. It wasn’t cheating, exactly, because the whole thing was transparent. Somehow, without internet—if I can remind you—my mom managed to track down contact information for Canadian Astronaut Marc Garneau, to whom we sent a list of interview questions and a cassette tape on which he could record the answers, which he did, sending it back with photographs, stickers, and other cool things that made an excellent display. At the Science Fair, I played his answers on a tape player, and won a prize in my category, and felt pretty good about what I’d accomplished here, although I secretly wanted to build a model of the solar system like everyone else was doing, but my mom thought that was cliched.

Things would never be that good again. The following year, I began suffering from basilar artery migraines, which really only happened a handful of times, but the diagnosis meant that I could pretend to collapse on the playground and spend time in the nurses’s room being the centre of attention, and then my mom would come and pick me up and I’d go home and watch TV. The doctor I was seeing suggested I could do a project on brains and migraines, and my mom and I jumped right on board, because it meant we didn’t have to think of a project ourselves. I did some research, and must have learned something, although I remember none of it, and wrote up my project to be displayed on the three panelled wooden boards we now had explicitly for science fair purposes, held together with hinges. (Where did my mom get this board? How did she enact such miracles? Perhaps I should have done a science project on questions such as this…).

But there was a problem: I had nothing to display. Everyone else would have experiments, and the proverbial solar system models, and the kids whose dads were engineers all would have built water filtration systems in aquariums. But then my mom had an idea: what if we got a brain? An actual brain. And because she was my mom, she somehow managed to get a brain. (Where do you go to get a brain? How does she do it? Especially when you don’t have the option of online.) A cow’s brain, from a farmer, which came frozen, and I brought to school in a pie plate. But in all the trouble of acquiring a brain, my mom hadn’t thought about another scientific principle, and obviously neither had I, because I don’t think I ever thought about science at all: what happens to frozen things kept at temperatures above zero?

And so that was the year my science project was basically a melting cow’s brain, whose sight caused more than one child to vomit as she perused the science fair, and so that day my table had a layer of sawdust on the floor before it, courtesy of the janitor. It goes without saying that this was another year I didn’t win a prize at all.

We would do better then. Maybe I needed to be a more active part of the process, and do an actual experiment, so the next year I resolved that I would do some inquiry and come up with a vital scientific question that needed answering, and then I had one. Eureka. What was it? My question was: Do Plants Need Air. Which, to be fair, was a burning question that science has been trying to answer for centuries, and because my mom’s approach to parenting was to make me feel like everything I did or made or thought was excellent (and/or maybe she really did think that the jury was still out on plants and air?), she was all in.

In order for my experiment to be a success, my mom managed to procure plastic water coolers, have the bottoms sawed off them, and then we could use caulking to seal the water coolers to piece of plywood. Some of the plants would grow as usual outside the sealed coolers, which the others would grow inside the coolers which (as we failed to note or perhaps my mom was just too busy sawing plastic to consider it) were themselves filled with air. Maybe we had failed to think this through. And how would we water the plants that were in the sealed coolers? A burning question that (although we didn’t admit it to ourselves) transformed the scope of my project into one addressing the even less burning question of plants and air to this one: Do Plants Need Water? (Spoiler: yes they do.) I don’t remember precisely what the conclusions of my project were, but I know that I did not win a prize. (Also, because I had a mom that made me feel like everything I did or made or thought was excellent, I was surprised and disappointed by this.)

As a parent, this might have been the point where I packed the whole thing in, or had my child bake a cake and bring it in and declare that this was chemistry. But my mom would not give in so easily, was not that into baking, and between us we supposed we’d learned about from science fair disasters to do an experiment that was actually good. But in order to be good, preparation was necessary, so we started six months in advance—I would do a project on fast food packaging and biodegradation. (This was back when McDonalds burgers still came in Styrofoam boxes.) I remember driving around town with my mom and going to various fast good outlets to ask for wrappers, boxes and other kinds of packaging to use, and then I buried these packages in containers of soil that we kept behind our furnace with labels on the container so that we’d know which establishment had supplied each one. Sounds good, right? An actual experiment, with social relevance, and possibly could launch my career as an environmentalist? My science project was all set before the school year had even started. We had triumphed. We were awesome. We would not be defeated by the science fair, for once in our lives.

Except that turned out to be the year that the science fair was cancelled, and so the wrappers remained in our basement and rotted (or didn’t), and after that I decided to focus on the arts.

February 11, 2019

On Asking for Things

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 31, 2019

On Meeting the Austins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 23, 2019

We Hold Each Other Up

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

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

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

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

January 16, 2019

This is Not a Metaphor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 11, 2019

I think your bullet journal is stupid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 12, 2018

More on Year End Lists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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