counter on blogger

Pickle Me This

October 16, 2018

The babysitter is not here.

I need a babysitter. Literally, yes, but also more figuratively too, and I’m having trouble finding the one I need, because teenage girls are so much younger now than they used to be when I was a small child, when I regarded babysitters with the reverence Dar Williams articulates exactly in her song, “The Babysitter’s Here.” A babysitter like Elisabeth Shue in Adventures in Babysitting, pretty much the archetypal babysitter. But if you recall, Shue’s “Chris Parker” character was only available to babysit because she’d just had a date cancelled by her jerk boyfriend—in reality, seventeen-year-old girls are not very interested in  babysitting at all. Eleven and twelve-year-old girls girls are actually where it’s at, babysitting wise, but then it’s the same thing that all of us had to deal with when we examined The Babysitters Club series with a critical eye, and realized the girls in the club were just children. No offence to Mallory Pike, but I’m not totally comfortable leaving my children in your care (and besides that, you have a nine o’clock curfew).

But when I was a child and it was 1985, the seventeen and eleven were indistinguishable from my vantage point, and the babysitters all had feathered hair, and exotic accoutrements like braces and acne. Dangling earrings. To me, they were all beautiful, and fascinating, and a window onto my own future as an adolescent, although I would never be as amazing as they were. (It is likely that they were also not as as amazing as they were.) My babysitters were basically Nancy from the Netflix series Stranger Things, who (along with Winona Ryder) was mostly everything I actually liked about Stranger Things, pure babysitter nostalgia. They had names like Bonnie-Ann, and Sarah-Michelle, and Lisa and Heather. One time we even had one who was actually called Nancy, who lived in a townhouse near Oshawa Centre, and I must have come along when my parents picked her up or drove her home, because I think about her every time I drive down Dundas Street in Whitby, and it’s possible that I only ever knew Nancy for a couple of hours in my entire life.

But there is a kind of presence that babysitters possess, an easy authority. No babysitter ever had to yell at us, because my sister and I were in love with all teenage girls and would have done anything they asked of us. My one episode of defiance came about when my babysitter Lisa had her boyfriend over while she was babysitting us, and I was really uncomfortable with his presence, because I was aware that this was a transgression, but also I didn’t like him, and he was distracting our babysitter from lavishing her attention on us. So after I’d been put to bed, I called downstairs to Lisa and her boyfriend that my parents’s car had just returned to the driveway, even though it hadn’t, and she had to get rid of him out the side door fast. I don’t remember if she brought him back once it was clear that I was lying, or if she demonstrated her anger toward me, but I do know that that was the last time Lisa ever babysat at our house.

The most magical babysitter ever (“She’s the best one that we ever had…”) was Sarah Michelle, who was so pretty (“pretty” was an essential quality for babysitters to have, as far as we were concerned) and who played with us, which was novel, and she became a kind of legend (I think we built something out of a cardboard box) and I remember too that she came to babysit us again after a break, as she wasn’t magic anymore and didn’t play with us at all. Possibly she’d just turned seventeen and had just started had a date cancelled by her boyfriend, but I recall the disappointment viscerally, one off my earliest heartbreaks. The unsustainability of superstar babysitting, for most ordinary people, is an unfortunate reality. Except for a select blessed few among us, the novelty of time spent in the presence of small children is something that wears off fast.

Which is a fitting place to transition to my own experiences as a babysitter, and the children I was caring for factor very little in my memories of being a babysitter—and how Bonnie-Ann, Sarah Michelle, Lisa and Heather probably don’t think of me at all. My own babysitting memories are set in the 1990s with City TV late night movies on, most notably the 1982 film Cat People, about people who turned into monstrous black panthers, and which was so terrifying that I was afraid even to get off the couch and go into the kitchen and eat all of the pickles in the fridge leaving behind bottles of brine, which was my usual tactic as a babysitter. When I wasn’t eating all their chips and ice cream, that is. “Help yourself to anything in the kitchen,” was a dangerous offer to me in 1994, and many of my babysitting clients would live to regret it. You’d think they’d even stop hiring me, with thoughts toward conserving the grocery bill, but then babysitters are hard to come by, a most precious resource. You take what you can get.

July 18, 2018

Astral Weeks

We were away last week and we brought our portable stereo and listened to the same CDs over and over, which are the same CDs we always listen to when we’re at a cottage—Bon Iver and Kathleen Edwards’ Voyageur, and the Beach Boys, and I bought Joni Mitchell Blue. And also Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, which I would listen to when I was in the cottage alone in the morning when I was drinking my tea and not ready to get dressed yet and my family was already down by the water.

And those mornings listening to Astral Weeks when I was all alone were like a time machine, taking me back to 2004, when I bought the CD. My friend Kate had mentioned it in an email, I think, and I looked for it at Tower Records the next time we were in Osaka. We were living in Japan at the time, which is why my copy of Astral Weeks comes with Japanese liner notes and lettering on the CD case. I bought the CD, and immediately fell in love with it, and “Sweet Thing” has been my favourite song ever since. That lyric, which I really understood having not long before undergone a season of tumult: “And I will never grow so old again.” (I also liked that the “garden all misty wet with rain” from “Sweet Thing” is referenced in Caitlin Moran’s new novel, How to Be Famous, which I read last week in less than a day…)

In 2004, Stuart and I lived in a tiny apartment and slept on a tiny platform below the ceiling that we had to climb a ladder to reach. We were both working as English instructors and had the same work schedule, except for Tuesday mornings when he worked in the morning and my shift was in the afternoon. So on Tuesday mornings I was by myself, and I’d put on Astral Weeks, music that I am quite sure was not long after encoded into my DNA. It’s partly the flute, something about the flute. I don’t know that I know another pop song with a flute in it, or at least that I’ve noticed, but the flute on “Astral Weeks,” the opening track, is one of my favourite sounds. And that lyric, “To be born again. To be born again.” I could relate after getting my life back on track, and beginning to move forward. That momentum—it was exhilarating. And the memory of all that possibility is what overwhelms me when I listen again to Astral Weeks.

The album is the soundtrack to all my memories from 2004 (except the ones where I’m singing “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” at karaoke), though I’m not sure this was really the case. It could have been though, because I had a mini-disk player and later and iPod shuffle, and I’d possibly downloaded “Astral Weeks” onto both these devices, and perhaps it was Astral Weeks that was playing the very first time I read Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, on a trolley ride from Hiroshima to Miyajima. It might as well have been, the two are so connected in my mind—they actually came out in the same year. I feel like Joan Didion would have known something about being caught one more time, if not up on Cyprus Avenue: “And I’m conquered in a car seat. Nothing that I do.” (She probably had a migraine from the Santa Ana.) Madame George also seems like a character from one of her essays—one of the ones where the centre does not hold.

I was also discovering Margaret Drabble for the first time in that period, so her books are connected to Astral Weeks as well for me. The first novel I read was The Radiant Way, whose Esther Breuer lives at “the wrong end of Ladbroke Grove,” which is where Van Morrison saw the subject of “Slim Slow Slider” walking, and maybe he even saw Esther too. And falling in love with Margaret Drabble (and Joan Didion) was such a big deal for me as began to discover who I was as a reader and writer. It was a period in which I developed a habit that I’ve never been able to get back again—underlining words I didn’t know in books and looking them up in the dictionary. I kept a list, and one of them was “avarice,” and I’m not sure whether I encountered that one in a book too, or else it was just the line from “Astral Weeks.”

I was keeping the list because I had been accepted to graduate school for the following September, and I was hoping to improve myself enough in order to be smart enough to warrant being there. (It didn’t really work. Do you know what it is to arrive at graduate school with absolutely no knowledge of critical theory? It is NOT FUN.) I was looking forward to moving back to Canada, and I was also planning my wedding (to someone who never mentioned driving his chariots down my streets of crime, but I know he would do it if I asked him), and really, we were on the verge of everything. I knew it, so it was overwhelming to be there in 2004, the sun shining through our window and rendering everything golden, and outside a pachinko parlour on the horizon. Not long ago, I found our old apartment on Google Maps, and the parking lot next door had sprouted a building, so the sun doesn’t shine through that window anymore, but I’m so glad I was there when it did, listening to Astral Weeks.

“And I will raise my hand up into the night time sky, attract the star that’s shining in your eye, ah just to dig it all and not to wonder, that’s just right. And I’ll be satisfied not to read in between the lines.”

June 20, 2018

Us.

Kent Monkman, The Scream

‘Politically speaking, tribal nationalism always insists that its own people is surrounded by “a world of enemies,” “one against all,” that a fundamental difference exists between this people and all others. It claims its people to be unique, individual, incompatible with all others, and denies theoretically the very possibility of a common mankind long before it is used to destroy the humanity of man.’ —Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

“Not they. Us” —Hassan Ahmed

Please forgive me for stealing my epigraphs from Rebecca Woolf’s Instagram feed. But I just want to take a moment to think about books, to think about Zlata’s Diary, a book about a young girl being a young girl during the siege of Sarajevo in 1993, a book that was compared to The Diary of Anne Frank, much to Zlata Filipovic’s consternation, I recall—because Anne Frank died and Filipovic didn’t want to. I remember reading both these books and imagining my way into the lives of their writers, the recognizable landmarks of girlhood, childhood. There was nothing extraordinary about their lives or their worlds, and that was the very point—how perilous was safety, was everything. How easily these people could be me, and didn’t you think this too when you read book like this? When I used to think that books about the Holocaust were even over-taught (my childhood was absolutely saturated with Holocaust novels), although I don’t think that anymore. Not since I learned that not everyone is reading, or at least reading and realizing how easily it could be any of us. Which is what I thought when I read Sharon Bala’s The Boat People, or even An Ocean of Minutes, which is also about being a refugee, about that desperation. I’ve read so many of these stories that imagining my way into the minds of people who risk everything for the chance of a better life is like a reflex—there is no difference between that mother and me. And I’ve seen enough of the world during these last two years politically and even in terms of climate that has undermined all my certainties about who we are and where we’re going that I’m unwilling to be sure that my own safety will never be in peril, that I will never be the kind of person who has to run. We are all that kind of person, or we all could be, and that’s only my selfish reason for condemning the separation of children and their families at US borders. Let alone the humanitarian one. Acknowledging too that I live in a country with a shameful history of separating children from their parents, a history that lingers on into the present—so this “not them. us.” as well. The Thomas King quote: “You see my problem. The history I offered to forget, the past I offered to burn, turns out to be our present. It may well be our future.” Let’s be as loud and brave as girls in storybooks and ensure that’s not the case.

‘In grade school we studied WWII. Learning about the genocide and the concentration camps and the way a whole group of people were dehumanized and carted off like cattle, many of us said, very earnestly: “I’d never let that happen.” Well now we are adults and guess what? It is happening. We are watching it happen.’ —Sharon Bala. (And now read her blog post, “What to do.”)

June 11, 2018

Hanging On The Telephone

I used to talk on the phone the way I browse the internet today, aimlessly, for ages and because I was bored. I used to lie on my bed and talk for hours, winding the coiled cord around my fist and then unwinding it over and over again until the cord lost its coils altogether. I used to call up people for absolutely no reason, and if nobody answered, I’d move on to the next number in my phone book, and then the one after that. I used to talk so long on the phone that my parents would come on the line and yell at me, which was always mortifying, but that wasn’t so bad because everybody’s parents were yelling at them on the phone sometime. Sometimes in the late 1990s, it was difficult to call people with big brothers because the line would be busy and the brothers were on the internet.

When I was small, the phone was mounted on the wall in the kitchen, and eventually I would be taught to answer it, to say things like, “Yes, just a minute please,” or, “No, she isn’t, but can I take a message?” (although in my teenage years, I would have difficulty taking a message and then actually delivering it). In the mid-1980s, my family got “portable phones”, which were large with antennas, and at least once someone left one on the car and then drove away and lost it. A few years after that, I used to go to sleepovers where we’d go through the phonebook and call random people we sort of knew from school, or just dial strange numbers altogether, and say provocative things like, “Hi! Is this Kentucky Fried Chicken? Do you have any breasts?” I used to also spend hours perusing the phone book, tracking down vital info about the people I knew, like what their dad’s name was, and what their address was. Some of the people listed in the phonebook were our teachers.

I remember rotary dial, and my fascination with the little piece on the end of the dial that caught your finger and kept you from dialling around and around and around. I loved the way you could poke your fingers in the holes, and the letters attached to each number, whose purpose I could not understand. My grandparents’ phone was not attached to the wall, and it had a long cord, so you could carry it into the next room and even close a door for privacy. I remember, “Please hang up and try your call again. This is a recording.”

My parents had an antique telephone that still hangs on the wall in my mother’s house, a big wooden box with a face (bells for eyes, a big honking speaker for a nose) and I loved that phone’s expression, and how you could make the bell ring by turning a crank on the side. This phone has confused my children’s sense of chronology, however, as they now associate it with my mother, and imagine it was the kind of phone they had when she was a little girl, and therefore she is approximately 170 years old.

I used to have a plastic Fisher Price phone with a face that you pulled on a a string, but so did everybody, so I don’t have to tell you about this.

Some of the very best song about phone calls are “Sylvia’s Mother”, “Tell Laura I Love Her”, “Hanging On the Telephone”, “Beechwood4-5789”, “867-5309 Jenny,” “Hotline Bling,” and “Hello.”

When I was a teenager, my yearning for a phone in my room was overwhelming, and I wrote out a detailed three page plan in order to convince my parents I was responsible enough for this privilege. When I went to university, I had to stand in a very long line-up in order to secure a telephone line of my own, and this was amazing because then I got to record musical messages on my voicemail that I changed weekly and usually were thematic. It was at this point too that the telephone company put a $20 limit on monthly long-distance charges, which was revolutionary, and also meant that you could call people before 6:00 and not have to declare bankruptcy. And therefore I could call my friends in their university dormitories across the country, because this was still easier than having to go to the library to send them an email.

Around this time, some people started getting cell phones, but it was complicated, because they were wary of you calling them because they could be charged for the phone calls. Which I think was the beginning of me being put off phoning people. After university, I moved to England and then Japan, which were miles ahead of Canada in terms of mobile phone technology (like the phones had cameras, guys!) and maybe it was living in radically different time zones from the people I loved that got me accustomed to not receiving phone calls. When we moved to Canada, phones were crappier and plans were expensive, so I didn’t have a cell phone for years, which was fine, and here was the point where the only people who ever phoned me were my parents. I used to have everybody’s phone number in my head, but I don’t even know my own cell phone number. There was about two years where I did have a cell phone, but it didn’t have a SIM card, so basically my cell phone was a tiny expensive computer whose Wifi I utilized and carried around in my handbag.

(I phone my husband at work all day long, and he phones me in the half-hours in between that. We generally talk about nothing. I am always delighted when the phone rings and call display tells me it is him. This is how I know it’s love, fifteen years and a half years after we met. He is mostly the only reason I still have a phone.)

I hate talking on the phone now. I don’t like being bothered. I don’t like to call anyone, because I don’t want to bother somebody else. Sometimes there is a sweet spot where I’m making dinner or washing dishes, and you can phone me then and I’ll be glad to talk, but otherwise, I’d rather you didn’t.

My children don’t know how to use the phone. The only people they talk to on the phone is their grandparents, and they lack the skills to have a proper conversation this way. Recently I watched my daughter attempt to dial a number, and realized she’d never done it before. And last week our phone kept ringing off the hook because there was an election on Thursday and we’re one of the handful of people left in the province with a landline, and everyone wanted to make sure we got out to vote. The phone rang on Wednesday and I was indisposed (i.e. sitting on the toilet scrolling through Instagram) and I called to Harriet to answer it. I heard her say, “Hello,” and then nothing else. I came back downstairs and asked her what happened. She said they’d asked to speak to her mother, and she didn’t know what to do. “So I hung up,” she said. She didn’t see why this was unreasonable.

May 29, 2018

On Selfies, and Learning to Recognize My Face

My husband took this photo of me at Woodbine Beach eleven years ago, when I weighed thirty pounds less than I do now, had no grey hair, an unlined forehead, and my thyroid had yet to sprout a conspicuous tumour that I am grateful for because it is benign. As you can see, I was also not allergic to the sun then, and I even had a tan—and do I ever miss having tans, as I huddle here in my hat and SPF clothing. I was so beautiful, and I kind of knew it, which was why I had this photo taken in the first place.

But taking this photo was a terrible experience, which I recall very well, and no doubt my husband does too. It was such a beautiful day and I wanted a photo to remember it by, a photo of me, but it took about twenty-five shots to finally get one I was happy with. Which is why I’m looking away from the camera, I think, because I felt better about the photo when only part of my face was in it. Because my face was the entire problem, mainly that it looked nothing like the way I imagined I looked. My face, my self—it would always surprise me. Who was this person, who you’d think I’d be an expert on, and but everybody else looked at her more than me. I didn’t know my face at all, and the person in the photos was a stranger.

There are so many reasons I’m glad I’ll never be twenty-eight again, even if it means I’ll probably never be thin and tanned again either. Oh well, because at least I recognize my face now. I’m fond of it, I even love it, and this is why I will never malign selfies and selfie-culture either, because it was selfies that taught me this. With selfies I began to see my face for the first time, to become familiar with it and comfortable with it. When somebody takes my photo now, I’m rarely surprised with the result, because I know that woman since I see her all the time. And while she sometimes looks a bit haggard, many-chinned, and her face was broken out in another rash, I still claim her. I could choose to be vain or I could choose to be otherwise, but I’m always going to end up with the same old face. And I actually walk around with it all the time, and everybody seems to find it fairly tolerable.

This is my face, and there are people who like me. There are even people who love me. And eventually I decided it was only fair that I should do the same.

April 30, 2018

What Goes Around: Remembering Bill 160

I was a special kind of stupid in 1997, the kind you can really only be when you’re 18-years-old and you think things are simple. I think that was the year in which a more worldly classmate drew me a diagram to explain the political spectrum, because the only thing I knew was that once there were Nazis and that there hadn’t been communists since history ended a few years before. None of it seemed relevant. We weren’t political people. I knew that my grandparents voted NDP, because they always had a lawn sign, but we regarded that as an eccentric quirk, like a hat with cherries on a little old lady. I didn’t know the stakes of anything. I was in my final year of high school, and then our teachers went on strike, and for two weeks we had sleepovers every night, and it was also the first time I got drunk.

When the strike was over, I recall a couple of teachers expressing vague disappointment that more students hadn’t joined them on the picket lines, and I found this comment outrageous. We were students, I remember thinking, and we had no business choosing a side. A side in a conflict that, from where I stood, seemed abstract and complicated. I didn’t read the fine print. I don’t think I read any print. It was easier to be neutral. Politics is not my problem, I remember thinking. What’s my problem is that my school year is being disrupted, and all I care about is that the grown-ups work it out so that everything could get back to normal.

Somewhere out there exists a photo of a group of protesters in my town and I’m in the group holding up the placard that says, “We Are The Future: Listen to Us!”  I don’t remember why I went to this event when I was so firmly committed to my neutrality (and also sleepovers and getting drunk) but I think it was some sort of student-organized thing at a union office and it was very exciting and romantic to be part of it. I’d never held a placard before. And now when I think about what was written on my placard, I definitely want to die, because for all my imploring of “Listen to Me/Us” I had absolutely nothing to say. A day in the life of a human vacuum.

The protests in 1997 were against the government’s Bill 160, which was to redefine how education was funded in Ontario. And while it’s doubtful I would have been swayed from my determined, “Don’t put me in the middle of this, bros!” stance, I wonder if something might have been different if I’d been tapped on the shoulder and respectfully told, “In twenty years, your children will be going to schools where the bathrooms are falling apart, where there aren’t custodians to sweep the floors, or education assistants to support a growing segment of the population with complex needs, the office is partly staffed by parent volunteers, and there will be a $15 billion backlog in school repairs.”

I joined the School Council at my children’s school in September, which has given me a window into what teachers and administrators are dealing with right now, and even just being in the school more often (like every day two weeks ago when I was doing admin work for a fundraising program) has informed my perspective. I’m thinking about John Snobelen, who was Minister of Education in 1997, and his comments about “manufacturing a crisis in education.” And, well, here we are, two decades later. As our Parent Council works harder and harder to fundraise and fill in gaps, as teachers exercise amazing feats of ingenuity to keep children learning in buildings that are crumbling and where resources are spare. The education funding formula does not serve anybody. The system, as it is, is not sustainable. And that Ontarians at this moment in time would be considering electing another Conservative government parading promises of spending cuts is such an absolute nightmare. It would be a disaster.

I’ve been thinking a lot about public schooling since September, about how it’s not a sexy cause, about how all the philanthropists who seem to be the only ones able to fund anything these days send their children to private school anyway so it’s not on their radar. How it’s abhorrent that the state of our education system is such a low priority for so many Ontarians. Just imagine the repercussions of the province not having made a serious investment in education for decades—or maybe we don’t have to imagine. I wonder about the cuts to educational assistants and how history might have been different if the perpetrator of the van attack in Toronto had received exemplary support during his school years. I’m thinking about the children who are growing up now and who will become our nurses, computer programmers, lawyers, surgeons, police officers, foresters, novelists, social workers, and engineers. I’m wondering about the effects of our children growing up in an inferior system where they’re made to understand that nobody with power thinks they deserve any better.

We were warned—that’s the worst part. There I was with my stupid neutral placard, and I wasn’t listening to anybody. Did I really think the teachers enjoyed their labour action? Full disclosure: there are always people who are never happier than when they’re taking labour action because it’s exciting and romantic, the way I felt when I was holding a placard, and those are the people who put a bad taste in my mouth regarding politics anyway, those who see politics themselves as an end rather than a means to the end…but I digress. It’s a preoccupation with these people that made me think that neutrality was a noble stance, when our teachers were so clearly right. They saw it coming.

I am absolutely ashamed now when I look back and realize I did nothing, and now my children (and your children!) are paying the price.

February 20, 2018

Ten Years on Lucky Street

All last week I was nostalgic for ten years ago, our miraculous trip to San Francisco. 2008 was an incredible year, somehow the pieces having come together for us enough that we could fly to California on a whim. We were both making good salaries, beginning to leave our nomadic twenties behind us with relief and gratitude, lived in a city we loved with many good friends—and, beside the point, but still it was kind of magical, I was also effortlessly thin, which is nice for a person to experience a few times in her life. Of course, not everything was magic—we were still in our twenties enough that our jobs made us bored and unhappy; I had written a novel that wasn’t the triumph I was hoping my creative writing masters degree would culminate in; it was the grossest, iciest winter ever, and you couldn’t walk up the sidewalk without falling; plus the neighbours in the basement kept having explosive arguments, terrible crashes as they’d hurl their “LIVE LAUGH LOVE” and “JOY AND PEACE” signs at each other in the middle of the night. We were going to have to move before one of them set the house on fire, and besides, we wanted to have a baby, and do something about our jobs because if we didn’t they could last forever and that was not the kind of life either of us wanted to live. 2008 was the edge of everything, particularly meaningful as we sped down the Pacific coast on the edge of the continent in a rental car, and we knew it in the moment, so much of what we were experiencing rich with significance, possibility and lasting effect. Nothing was inevitable and anything might happen.

I’ve written before about the very first Family Day in 2008 when, high on California, we decided to make some changes about the way we were living our lives, and these changes set us on the course to this precise moment. Ten years ago this April we moved into this apartment, which has been so good to us, the most wonderful home. Dreaming of the children we were going to have, the first a daughter who turns nine this spring. Ten years ago this summer we painted her bedroom, which she now shares with her little sister, sleeping in a bunkbed that’s far too big for the room, because we didn’t measure it, but then we never measured anything. Which makes the miracle of how well it’s ended up fitting together all the more momentous. We have been so lucky—those two funny people doing prikura in the Japan Centre Photo Booth in San Francisco thought they knew, and they kind of did, but they had no idea either.

January 24, 2018

That Random Person on Twitter Isn’t Stalin

I honestly don’t think about Stalin very often. I read Rosemary Sullivan’s biography of Svetlana Alliluyeva last month and it was actually revelatory to be reminded that Stalin actually happened, that the story wasn’t inevitable, and to glimpse the awfulness of living within that terrible present which would unfold into the brutal and murderous history. When Svetlana moved to America, the idea that she’d enrol her daughter in public school was reprehensible to her, and she had no truck with American socialists, the fellow travellers. Her response to living under Stalin and his successors was not exactly nuanced, or considered, I mean, but then I think that’s probably a lot of ask of anybody.

Still, I don’t think about Stalin very often, but last week I started to think maybe I was alone in this. This was the week that Margaret Atwood published an op-ed defending her feminist credentials, and reiterated that a lack of dude process regarding sexual assault cases was analogous to Stalinist purges, and then someone else on Facebook got upset because a small press declared a poet’s books out of print (after his public announcement that he’d only got them published because he knew the right people to have drinks with) because this was apparently Stalinist-era censorship, and just yesterday a couple of men on Twitter were comparing poets on Twitter to the East German secret police, which wasn’t referencing Stalin exactly, but it’s all in the spirit of the thing.

It turns out that a lot of people are thinking about Stalin all the time. And they see him everywhere they look, on Twitter threads, and Facebook conversations, in the back of the closet, and under the bed, but never, oddly enough, in the mirror. And while one might say that my lack of engaged consideration about Stalin on a regular basis may be to my detriment, because those who don’t know history are condemned to repeat it, I’m not convinced. Because while I don’t think about Stalin very often, I think about him enough to realize that random person on Twitter yelling at Margaret Atwood is not him. And neither are women circulating a shitty men list, or calling out sexual predators by name, or Indigenous people who have thoughts and ideas to express about cultural appropriation. Even if those people are angry. That woman who runs a small press? Not Stalin. That person who is attacking the thing you said, or the story you wrote, or the tweet you tweeted? Not Stalin. In particular if that person is trans, or disabled, or a person of colour (and yes, I know Stalin was also a minority, being Georgian, but that’s not the same thing), because what Stalin had was power to oppress people with, and the people you’re accusing of being Stalin? They don’t have much power at all.

That annoying woman on Twitter whose feed is full of weird politically correct jargon that is very irritating to read is not Stalin. That strange person with blue hair whose preferred pronoun is an unpronounceable word you’ve never heard of is not Stalin. That very earnest person who’s currently going around Twitter calling out anyone with the nerve to be reading Margaret Atwood right now is not Stalin. She’s kind of an idiot, but that’s not the same as being Stalin, and I think a lot of people are having a lot of trouble telling the two things apart. Even the person who’s going to be upset for me for making fun of people with blue hair and weird pronouns two sentences back is not Stalin…unless that person happens to have the power to throw me into prison for an indefinite period of time.

It’s not that I’m trying to minimize the crimes and atrocities of Stalin and his tyranny, in fact I’m doing quite the opposite. It’s because I know that Stalin is possible—and that power can make a person so dangerous—that making distinctions between the man himself and annoying people on Twitter is really important. Making the distinction is also important, because it seems like Stalin-hysteria is a reflexive response to moments in which people who’ve been oppressed are seeking to redress a power imbalance, when one might be feeling as vulnerable as a Romanov in 1917. Except that it’s 2018, and you’re talking about somebody on Twitter with 278 followers, and you’ve decided that your possibly legitimate fear of the USSR happening all over again means that, as a matter of principle even, you don’t have to listen to what other people have to say.

This morning I was delighted with Erika Thorkelson’s essay, “Margaret Atwood’s Books Taught Me To Listen to Women,” and not just because—most refreshingly—she doesn’t mention Stalin or the Gulag even once. It’s a beautiful piece about the importance of listening, which, Thorkelson writes, “requires full body presence. It requires you to soften and let go of the fear, the urge to argue, and the instinct to control the narrative. It takes a comfort with silence and a willingness to accept that your turn to talk may never come, that what’s happening might not be about you at all.”

What’s happening might not be about you at all. What a thing! It might not even be about Stalin…

Thorkelson continues, “The greatest block to really listening is not the noise of the world, but that voice inside that protects us, centers us, rattles with outrage or disbelief.” The voices that tells us that Stalin is hiding under the bed, and that you alone are the last bastion against evil and tyranny, when, in your refusal to listen, it might be tyranny (and/or the shoddy status quo) that you are, in fact, upholding.

January 5, 2018

Measuring Life in Chesterfields

Can you measure a life in chesterfields? Or in couches, of sofas, or even settees? I’m beginning to think so. In university, my roommates and I had a set compiled of half a rumpled 1970s’ sectional reupholstered with a pineapple print salvaged from my parents’ basement and a red Ikea specimen that was literally made of styrofoam, and I don’t know where either of these eventually disappeared to—presumably the landfill. When Stuart and I moved to Canada in 2005, we were living on very little money, so couldn’t afford a couch, and purchased a futon instead, which seemed positively luxurious compared to sitting on the floor. It was also the first piece of furniture we ever bought, which seemed terribly sentimental (and it would stay with our family for years and years, eventually becoming our first child’s first proper bed, never mind that there was nothing proper about it…)

By 2007 we had arrived though, and we bought a proper couch from the Brick out on the Danforth. Yesterday we had a conversation about why we’d bought that couch exactly. “Because it’s really ugly,” we said. “It’s always been ugly.” Which is true. “It must have been cheap though.” “And probably we sat on it in the showroom.” Which would have clinched it, because it’s the most comfortable hideous couch in the world. Ask anyone who’s ever slept on it—and that’s a lot of you—and they’ll tell you the same. It is a giant stuffed toy of a couch, good for bouncing, and sliding, and also for naps. We were so incredibly proud of it, because it was even more grown up than a futon. And for the last decade that couch has been the centre of a lot of action, taking so much abuse from our two children who christened it in every way imaginable. So much so that the hideous couch has become even uglier, rumpled and sagging. Still loveable, still so comfortable. But we really felt it was time we got ourselves a couch that nobody in the history of the world has ever peed on.

It arrived this morning from Article, the Ceni Pyrite Gray Sofa, which has its own hashtag—our brown couch from the Brick certainly didn’t. And I’m absolutely delighted with it, its stylishness and comfort, that it wouldn’t look out of place in Don Draper’s office (but don’t worry—he hasn’t peed on it either). To complement it, we also bought a new coffee table, which has the incredible distinction of being the first coffee table we’ve ever owned that we didn’t take out of somebody’s garbage. Plus, the coffee table comes with book storage, and you know what that means—we have to buy more books. And we’re just very very happy here in this new era we’ve arrived in, of toilet trained children who don’t think that cushions are necessarily trampolines, being lucky enough to be able to afford a new sofa (which is as central to home as the kitchen table is), to live in the home we do in a place we love.

All of it is such a very very good life—and we look forward to barrelling through the next ten years on a couch as splendid as this one.

December 8, 2017

#2017BestNine

My Instagram #2017BestNine is pretty Mitzi Bytes-centric. I am grateful to everyone who helped make the experience of publishing the book a pleasure. Grateful too that my adorable children in their Jane Goodall/Woman Woman Halloween costumes snuck in there as well. Rad Women all around.

Next Page »

Mitzi Bytes

Sign up for Pickle Me This: The Digest

Best of the blog delivered to your inbox each month!
Twitter Pinterest Pinterest Good Reads RSS Post