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Pickle Me This

January 14, 2021

Celebration Wednesdays

#CelebrationWednesdays is a thing I made up yesterday as an excuse to be baking a cake with rainbow sprinkles in the middle of a roller coaster week. Roller coaster week in the pandemic sense, of course, which meant that I barely left the house, but the world has been hard and the weather is grey, and I’ve had plugged ears since Boxing Day that have only become worse since I started squirting random liquids into them in order to ameliorate the situation.

And so the answer was cake. (The answer is always cake.)

I made Smitten Kitchen’s confetti cake with butter cream icing, and it was so very delicious. And I determined that, for the duration, we’ll be celebrating something ever Wednesday, no matter what. And yesterday, that celebration was vaccines. The friends of ours who work in health care are beginning to get theirs. Our friends in New York are getting theirs too. A friend told me that school staff in Ontario will be among the Stage 2 vaccinations too, which is the best thing ever, and it all makes me so happy and is definitely reason to celebrate. It will be some time before I get the shot myself, I suspect, but seeing as I don’t get out much these days, I’m willing to be patient.

Right now I am reading Penelope Lively’s A House Unlocked, the story of her grandparents’ house in Southwest England and the role it played as a backdrop to the tumult of twentieth century. During World War Two, Lively’s family sheltered six small children evacuated from East London, and she put the story in a context I’d never considered before, having taken these evacuations for granted as part of history. But how bizarre it must have been—officials would come to rural homes and take stock of their capacity, and then inform residents of many people would be arriving. People who would stay for years (and had nits and wet the bed). Can you imagine going through that? What mass organization must have been required. And some of it was very disorganized—Lively writes of plans made for specific people to billeted in particular places, but when the time came, the London stations were so overwhelmed with passengers, they had no choice but to just put them on the first trains available, no matter where they were going.

She also writes about the national spirit in 1939, which I’ve never really thought a whole lot about. During the past year in particular, I’ve found myself wondering if my grandparents ever looked at each other and muttered, “Goddamn you, 1943,” but then of course they didn’t, because my grandfather was away at sea. But Lively writes about the very beginning of the war, about the catastrophic predictions for aerial bombardment from the Germans, which experts had been talking about throughout the 1930s. This was no 1914, “this will all be over by Christmas.” Lively writes, “Anyone alive to official anticipation of what would probably happen in the first days and weeks of war would have been expecting the end of the world they knew.”

The story of these mass evacuations was also one of extreme poverty, vast income inequality, a need “to preempt… mass panic and consequent breakdown of law and order” as attacks began.

Anyway, it all made me think about how there is nothing new under the sun… And about the strangeness of living through history, which I never experienced properly before the last five years or so. I was 22 on September 11, 2001, but for me that was too young to properly understand the implications of those events, or how I was connected to them. One day I think I will write something about how it was watching Mad Men that prepared me for the tumultuous times that we’ve been living through. The visceral way that the show presented what it was to experience the 1960s, the deaths of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. (“WHAT IS GOING ON?”)

Anyway, the great thing about Celebration Wednesdays is that they lead to Leftover Cake Thursdays.

Whatever gets you through.

November 11, 2020


As most people don’t care about in the slightest, for good reason, I have complicated feelings about Remembrance Day. Sometimes I feel like the messaging and symbolism are manipulative, an idea whose simplicity belies it’s true complexity. My grandfathers were proud of their service in WW2, but it was also them who taught me (in addition to “Don’t tattoo anchors on your forearm”) that what a waste is war. The trauma for the people who fight our wars and their families is often insurmountable, and these people do not receive sufficient support. War is bad for everyone, and while I understand that it can’t be obliterated altogether, I am sure there would be less of it if we didn’t have a massive industry that relies on its existence. The most amazing way I can think of to honour those we’ve lost in wars is to stop sending more people to be traumatized or die, instead of glorifying the waste of human life as sacrifice. One other way is to resist fascism in all its forms—my grandfathers (Canadian Navy), maternal grandmother (WW2 nurse), and paternal grandmother (held down the home front while her husband was away for years) were my OG anti-fascists and may their righteousness be our guiding light.

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.

April 16, 2019

For This Moment

After listening to a discussion on Metro Morning about a new poll showing that 42% of Canadians “think there are too many non-white immigrants” coming to this country, we left the house today having a conversation about how baffled we are by people’s attraction to this kind of right-wing populist thinking.

I mean, on one hand I get it—here, there is certainty, as well as apparently enticing conspiracy theories on YouTube. It’s about something to belong to, someone else to blame for our disappointments, easy solutions to difficult problems, and it’s easier to just lock the door altogether rather than do the painstaking work of community. Scapegoating an “other” is a great shortcut to community really, or at least its illusion, keeping people from worrying about the problem of how to get along with the neighbours you’ve already got, the ones whose skin tones are the same as yours. I thought about this a lot when Kellie Leitch was going on about “Canadian values” during her failed run for the PC leadership, and considered how far apart her ideas are from mine about so many things, and yet this country has room for both of us. This, I’ve always figured, is kind of the point of this country.

So I get it, but I still don’t get it, how it might be possible to fall under the spell of this kind of dangerous rhetoric.

“I feel like everything important I’ve ever been schooled in was actually training for this moment,” I told my husband this morning on our walk, who said he felt the same.

And it’s not that either of us grew up with deeply progressive values in our families, or in places that were remotely cultural diverse. But it was in the stories I was raised on about my grandfathers fighting against tyranny in World War Two, and lessons learned from the Holocaust, and even Hiroshima. About the brutality and waste of war, the horrors of genocide, of human beings’ capacity to do evil things others. The dangers of nationalism, Japanese internment camps and an immigration policy that was, “None is too many.” (It would have been Indian Residential Schools too, if we had learned about them in schools, which we didn’t, but now kids do.) It was in “Never Again” and Remembrance Day ceremonies, and the wreaths I watched my grandfather lay at cenotaphs to honour fallen soldiers and freedom and democracy. It was in the Underground Railroad, and the words of Martin Luther King Jr., and the books I read, from The Diary of Anne Frank to The Cat Ate My Gymsuit and Iggie’s House. It was what I learned about the atrocities of history, and the necessity to be our better selves, to stand up against injustice, and the fact that one day we might be called upon to choose one side or another.

Didn’t you also imagine Germany in 1933, what side you would have been on? Didn’t you also say, “I’d never have let that happen”? Do you also look around at this moment and see circles where racism has become acceptable, people with dangerous ideas being elected into office, leaders undermining democratic values and institutions just because they can—and they’re even supported? Abortion bans as a harbinger—honestly, did none of these people read their Paula Danziger? We’ve got to stand up now, simply because we can’t do it any sooner.

December 11, 2018

Ode to a Parkette

That the park is being bulldozed doesn’t affect my daily life in the slightest, because we don’t even go to the park anymore, and it’s mid-December so we wouldn’t even if we did. But it’s at the symbolic level where it gets me, this park where I spent some of the best years of my career in motherhood, where I came of age as a mother, so to speak. This park where certainly things have changed over the years—the mysterious disappearance of the bumblebee bouncy toy, leaving the ladybug all alone; the tree in the north end was cut at some point; the tree in the south end that was planted to honour somebody’s grandmother, where the leaves were always changing, and falling, and the ground would turn from ice to mud to summer. Where my children changed—they don’t eat the sand anymore, for example—and certainly I did, but the fundamentals stayed the same. The bench on the east side that was missing a slat, and the boarded-up house behind the baby swings that made all of Harriet’s baby photos look like she was swinging out front a crack den, and the little hill on the south side which was perfect for tobogganing on days when you just don’t feel like climbing big hills. 

The people were always changing too, and in the beginning there were none of them, just Harriet and me, and we went to the park since I couldn’t think of anything else to do with a baby, because there are only so many hours a day you can spend at the library. Even though parks aren’t really ideal for babies, other than the swings, and pushing one of those for hours is boring, although less so when you do it while reading a book. I remember Harriet falling face-first in the sand there once, and how she got up licking her lips. Our baby days at the park were as aimless as life in general then, but then she got a bit bigger and things got a bit better, and one of the all time greatest afternoons of my life was spent at that park when Harriet was two and she was content to pretend to be driving the jeep toy for hours, and I sat sprawled across the backseat and read an entire book cover to cover. (It was The 27th Kingdom, by Alice Thomas Ellis.) 

It was around this time that I’d met my friend Nathalie, whose children were older than mine and who was blazer of many paths I would follow, chief among them Huron Playschool. When Harriet was two, she urged me to register, but I didn’t make enough money at that time to justify it. Still, when Harriet and I were in the park, I’d seen Nathalie’s son in the park with his play school class, and consider the impossibility of Harriet ever being as old as that. And by the time she was three, she would join him there, skipping off down the sidewalk. Every day at playschool, the children played in the park, and it was where I’d pick her up at the end of the morning. I remember sitting around the sandbox with Harriet during her first week of school, and also I was pregnant, but nobody else knew it yet, and the women I was hanging out with there would eventually become my friends. All those hours we spent in the park, on playschool co-op shifts, and also after, because Harriet had stopped napping and we had no reason to hurry home, and it was spring, so early, but we took our shoes off, and buried our feet in warm sand. 

All the children were there. Among the trees, in the arms of statues, toes in the grass, they hopped in and our of dog shit and dug tunnels into mole holes. Wherever the children, their mothers stopped to talk.” –Grace Paley, “Faith in a Tree”

I wrote a blog post about that spring we spent at the park, about the woman who were so kind to me during my second pregnancy, and supported our family in incredible ways, and comforted me through difficult times and promised it would all be okay. Most of these women I see rarely now, if ever, and our children would not know each other if they met, but they were there for me at such a pivotal moment, and in my memory of them all, the sun is shining always. Although I’d read Grace Paley wrong, I’d discover a couple of years later. What a thing—the most shocking revelation of my literary life. “I really thought that they’d been it, those mothers in the park. I really had thought she meant that this, the mothers stopping to talk, was the most important conversation. But it wasn’t, her revelation. Faith needs more than that, chatting women lounging in trees. The world needs more than that, at least if we ever expect to do anything about it.”

The first time I took both my children to the park alone, Harriet got stung by a wasp while I was breastfeeding on a  park bench, which was not the most auspicious start, but we found our groove, and as a mother I really found my stride.

There’d be one evening in the years to follow when a friend and I would have pizza delivered to the park, and we’d all eat dinner there, in lieu of home and tables, which meant I was a long way from being that woman aimlessly pushing her baby in a swing, and I didn’t even get to read anymore, because there was usually somebody I wanted to talk to. 

Eventually, the park became more special occasion than every day, because daily life became more structured. We’d meet up at the park on weekends and holidays, and during the summer of 2016, there were picnics and potlucks and always pie. I’d see mothers who were there with their babies, and I was a million miles away from them, without a clear idea exactly of how I’d arrived here, although the place was the same. I had two kids who could conquer the big climbers, and they’d fly down the steep slide, and I wouldn’t even have to watch them. I had officially retired from pushing swings.

Last summer, our good friends moved out of the neighbourhood, so we haven’t had pies in the park for awhile, and that the city decided to bulldoze it now doesn’t seem so incongruous. (We did enjoy walking through the park in the autumn, however, on our way home from school, when the park was being excavated as part of a project by the university’s archeology department. Old maps had indicated there had been dwellings on the site, and significant finds included bricks and teacups.)

The park is going to be redeveloped along with the expansion of the University of Toronto Schools next door, who are going to be building a facility underneath it, some of the playground equipment being temporarily located to the vacant lot across the street in the meantime. And by the time it’s all finished, my children will likely be too old for parks at all—who’d ever have thought it? And the derelict house on the other side of Huron is finally being developed, after more than a decade, at least, so maybe we can definitively say that absolutely nothing stays the same, which is the point of cities, and parenthood, and everything. 

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


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.

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