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Pickle Me This

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


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.

January 19, 2017

The 1980s: Macleans Chronicles the Decade

Three years ago, I wrote about the importance of using books as literal building blocks, but it’s true that our metaphoric bookish building blocks are always what’s most fundamental. I suspect that somewhere deeply twined into my DNA is the book The 1980s: Macleans Chronicles the Decade, published in 1989 by Key Porter Books. It is possible that no one, apart from the book’s editors, have read this book as avidly as I did, for years and years, and at point in my life too when my brain was still forming so that its images are now seared upon my consciousness—in particularly, unfortunately, a photo of Lech Walesa fishing in his tiny underpants. It would be years before I learned why Lech Walesa mattered, and even once I did, I’ve never been able to disassociate him from his weird blue plaid briefs.

1991, of course, was the end of history, according to Francis Fukuyama, and this is the lens through which I viewed this book, perused its pictures, fascinated. History was done. In my recollection, I was literally in my grade seven history class when the Soviet Union was dissolved—though I am not sure how this is possible because the coup was in August and the union was finished on Christmas, and at neither of these moments was I at school, but still. It’s the idea of a thing. Suddenly all of history was there in the past, and I remember wondering what The 1990s: Macleans Chronicles THAT Decade would look like. But my family never got that book. If history is finished, who needs a chronicle after all?

A copy of this book lives on my shelf, and I don’t leaf through with the same regularity I did as a child, but I did the other week, after two months of feeling so downtrodden, uncannily not at home within the world in which I find myself. I’d read somewhere about the psychology of nostalgia, and how for all of us the moment of greatness in the past lies precisely when we were on the cusp of everything, with so much hope. Remember the ’80s, I was thinking, a decade so ripe with possibility, Lech Walesa’s underpants aside. But then as I started flipping the pages, seeing those iconic, devastating images—the Challenger explosion, famine stricken children in Ethiopia, Bloody Sunday in Beijing, the body of a child buried in ash after the gas leak at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India; another dead child, lying with its mother, the casualty of poison gas attacks in the Iran-Iraq War; terrorist hijackings, albeit the retro kind when in the end the bad guys let the hostages go. But still. There’s an entire chapter entitled “Assassinations.” The ’80s were really terrible.

I want to hug the woman in the above photo who is protesting for the Equal Right Amendment to the US Constitution. “My foremother,” I want to say to her, “you don’t even fucking know.” Except she probably does, hence the look on her face. To think that 30 years after Henry Morgentaler, on the facing page, won his legal battle to strike down Canada’s abortion law, access to abortion would still seem so precarious (and only theoretical to Canadian women who live in so many places). #FuckThatShit has been my go-to hashtag these last few months as I grapple with “the absurdities that have been foisted on me and my neighbours,” to paraphrase Jane Jacobs. As Macleans chronicles the decade, things right now seem not much different from what they ever were.

None of this is a new story, in what I mean. Donald Trump and his ilk have always skulked the earth, knuckles dragging on the ground. Which is incredibly annoying and demoralizing, but also kind of reassuring too, that people have stood up against dark forces before and we can take courage from them. That goodness prevails, that things can get better.

The fight is never won, but maybe the winning is not the point, and instead the fight is.

January 17, 2017


The first definition of “reconcile” in the Merriam Webster is ” to restore to friendship or harmony <reconciled the factions>” but it’s the second definition that is more meaningful to me: “to make consistent or congruous <reconcile an ideal with reality>.”  This definition certainly resonating in general, because in the past two months my ideals and reality have certainly been at odds, and reconciling that has been a process. The world is more complicated than I ever knew, which makes “restoring to friendship and harmony” seem like a pipe-dream, except: restoring, how? Because when was there ever friendship and harmony? It all sounds a bit like the notion of making America great again—elusive and facile. The first definition is a misnomer. Reconciliation is a process, and in order to be properly it is a process that will never end. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about reconciliation lately, as I’ve been reading I’m Right and You’re an Idiot: The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean It Up. A friend of mine has also recommended Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair. I’m interested in and troubled by the way that people seem unable to constructively disagree with each other. (Another book along these lines that I’ve appreciated is Creative Condition: Replacing Critical Thinking With Creativity, by Patrick Finn.) I take some solace in the fact that people in disagreement, while inconvenient, is actually much healthier than the alternative, and that the potential for learning is infinite. A community in which everybody though the very same thing, and nobody challenged anyone or asked any questions, would be the very worst thing I could imagine. Worse even than the state we’re in now.

Remember my mantra for 2017, “Listen. Be Better.” I’m trying. It’s a challenge, and such an opportunity. Once upon a time, when I was young and things were simpler, I fervently underlined the following bit from Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, a play I loved: “This is the best time possible to be alive. When everything you know is wrong.” Such a prospect is more terrifying than I ever thought it would be, now that we’re kind of here and, you know, with the collapse of the world order, but still, there is something extraordinary about it too. I’m thinking about reconciliations big and small, in terms of domestic politics and literary criticism, even. Literary criticism, especially, because I wonder if this is a constructive metaphor with which to understand the process that has to happen in order for anything to happen.

Literary criticism, the best kind, is a conversation. A back-and-forth, a broadening, the prying of a text wide open. The best kind of literary criticism isn’t just about the text itself, but it’s about everything, and it invites big questions and many different answers. It provokes debate and causes the reader to change her mind—about the text, about the world. It’s not about whether a text is necessarily good or bad, but about the things it makes us think about, the places it takes its readers beyond itself. Literary criticism is a process, a collaborative ongoing pursuit which requires generosity, openness, consideration and respect on the part of the players involved. If no one’s listening, nothing happens, but if everyone is willing, anything can.

I was thinking about all this as I read Debbie Reese’s review of the award-winning picture book, Missing Nimama, which I reviewed in 2015—and you can read my review here. I am a huge admirer of Debbie Reese’s scholarship and advocacy about representations of Indigenous people in children’s books—she’s taught me a lot and she challenges my understanding in uncomfortable and constructive ways. She’s not afraid to go up against really popular authors—see her review of Raina Telgemeier’s Ghosts. I don’t always agree with her assessments of certain books, mostly because there are so many lenses through which readers approach a book, and hers is one, but I’ve never found her to be wrong.

While I still appreciate Missing Nimama and celebrate its success, Reese’s review shows me my own weaknesses in approaching it as a writer and a critic. Reese writes: “To me, however, Missing Nimama …. strike[s] me as something Canadians can wrap their arms around, to feel like they’re facing and acknowledging history, to feel like they’re reconciling with that history.” She continues, ” To many, this review…will feel harsh. Most people are likely to disagree with me. That’s par for the course, but I hope that other writers and editors and reviewers and readers and sponsors of writing contests will pause as they think about projects that involve ongoing violence upon Native women.”

And this is just the point. The pause, the reflection. Disagreeing is even okay, but it’s failing to consider that is inexcusable. The point is the conversation, the questions that are asked, which are far more important than the answers. And how we take these questions with us, this broadened perspective, with the books we read and the books we write. The point is to listen, and then be better.

UPDATE From Carleigh Baker’s review of Katherena Vermette’s The Break:“A generous storyteller, Ver­mette does not take it for granted that all readers will inherently understand how damaged the relationship between indigenous people and Canadian society has become. As readers, we can honour this generosity by not allowing ourselves to be lulled into a satisfying sense of camaraderie, having suffered alongside fictional characters. We can honour it by not repeating over and over how strong the women in this book are. It is true, they are strong. But let us not nod our heads in grim recognition of this strength, as if acknowledgement equals solidarity [emphasis mine]. Let us not pull our lips into thin lines and furrow our brows and express amazement at their resilience, as if its origin is a mystery. This makes it too easy to dismiss.”

August 17, 2016

Abortion Baskin Robbins


In her essay, “When Life Gives Your Lemons,” Lindy West notes that she’d rarely think about her abortion anymore  if she wasn’t driven to speak out against “zealous high school youth groupers and repulsive, birth-obsessed pastors” who win ownership of the abortion conversation by default—possibly because most other people acknowledge that abortion (and pregnancy and life in general) is messy, nuanced, intensely personal and not very well or cleverly served when batted around like a rhetorical badminton birdie. I identified with a lot of West’s essay, but not this one bit. Because the truth is that I think about my abortion all the time. It’s a matter of geography, and I can’t even help it, Abortion Baskin Robbins being case in point.

It’s a juxtaposition that amuses me, abortion with an ice cream shop. Some might be uncomfortable with the idea, but it’s the word “abortion” spoken aloud that usually troubles people, not necessarily the ice cream. Some might thing I’m being flippant, and the truth is that I actually am, and I’m still a bit high on the liberation I feel at finally being able to say that word, abortion, over and over. Even in an ice cream shop. (Can you imagine how it feels to have the point on which your adult life has hinged be an event that is meant to be literally unspeakable? Can you imagine how empowered you feel when it isn’t anymore?)

But it’s not all flippancy and irreverence—there is meaning there. This spring and summer, Abortion Baskin Robbins is where we’ve turned up as a family after my children’s Thursday night soccer games in a school playground a few blocks north. The fact is that while the last fourteen years taken me to amazing places, geographically speaking I haven’t left the neighbourhood. The sidewalks I travel in my daily life are the same ones I took when I was people I don’t even remember now, including a girl who was once so sad and relieved to obtain an abortion during the summer of 2002. So that my children’s post-soccer ice cream joint is the same place I went to with my friend immediately after my abortion all those years ago. My children order ice cream cones that turn their lips blue, and I can’t help think about the connections between my abortion and my life as a mother, which are everything. The foundations I’ve built my life upon. (Is it any wonder that I’m grateful for the freedom to design my own fate?)

It was a long time ago, distinctly not fun, and I was pretty drugged, and so it’s so surprise that I don’t remember a lot of it well. I’ve probably got some of the details wrong, and lost most of them altogether, and I cannot actually recall what it was to be the first-person protagonist of any of these events, but there are fragments to rise to the surface. The trip for ice cream for one, the advent of Abortion Baskin Robbins (although it wouldn’t be properly named for more than a decade—but what it means to be able to name these things, these pivotal landmarks in our lives). I don’t remember what I bought there, if it was a cone or a sundae or an ice cream cake. If it offered any satiation, or if it helped me feel better. I remember that my friend was with me, the friend who must have taken a day off work and travelled with me on the subway and the bus. (What an incredibly thing to do for someone—I am sure I was not sufficiently appreciative. How could I have been?) And then we went back to her house and I think we had a stack of movies, and I recall that I’d required they all be empowering feminist films. I wanted battle armour. A bunch of other friends came over and we ate indulgent snacks and watched the movies—I think that one was The Legend of Billie Jean. I was completely, unequivocally supported, and even though in my experience of accidental pregnancy I’d felt isolated and impossibly alone, after the termination I had a circle around me. It is possible that it never even occurred to me that I wouldn’t.

(“Abortion is women’s work, I guess,” writes Heidi Julavits in The Folded Clock.)

All this is on my mind because I’m reading a collection of writing about abortion, and realizing that my experience of support was not something to be taken for granted. That it makes all the difference in the world for a woman coming out the other side pretty unscathed, and not having to carry around a terrible secret shame for the rest of her days. It’s the reason why I’m able to link a medical procedure to ice cream instead of trauma. It’s why I’m able to say the word out loud now. It’s the reason I was able to get on with my life and steer it in a directly of goodness and fulfillment. I cannot even fathom what it would have been to have to go through all that alone, or ashamed. I don’t want to begin to speculate on what would have happened to me.

Update: 20 minutes after posting this, I ran into anti-abortion protestors on the street. I had five minutes to pick up my kid at daycamp, but had to stop. Again, I cannot imagine what it would be like to endure such unnecessary nonsense, to have to defend my life choices to a twenty-something twit who wouldn’t know an ovary if it punched him in the face, if I didn’t have an Abortion Baskin Robbins in my history. These people have no idea what they’re messing with. (Why do you magnify your images so much, I ask him. Because we want people to see them, he said. Doesn’t it mean something quite significant, I told him, that otherwise you’re grossly inflating the situation [quite literally] they can’t?)

June 6, 2016

The people we used to be

IMG_20160601_084118I was crossing the street in April when I heard somebody calling my name. I turned around to see a familiar face, a friendly one, but I couldn’t quite place it. My first instinct was that this was my best friend from grade 7, but as we spoke I realized it wasn’t her after all. This woman had a different job, a different narrative, it emerged. But I’d greeted her with such familiarity, that she had no idea I was confused. We kept on talking, and then finally I realized that it was my friend’s younger sister, who I hadn’t seen or spoken to in about twenty years, though our parents in our hometown kept tabs on our whereabouts. I knew a bit about what she’d been up to and we reconnected for a few minutes, and she informed me that her sister, my friend, was about to have her first baby, had gotten married, had found herself in a pretty nice place in her life.

So naturally I went home and googled my friend and her husband’s name, and I found them on Instagram. And since then it has been really nice to get a glimpse into her life and to provide her a glimpse into mine, because while we drifted apart when we went to different high schools, throughout grades seven and eight, she meant a whole lot to me. Our friendship was hugely formative. We were two weird and awkward adolescent girls, but we were weird and awkward in such complementary ways—both of us had our eyes on bigger prizes in life, though we didn’t know what they were yet. Both of us were utterly unimpressed with popular culture at the time (and for good reason—this was 1991) and obsessed with nostalgia. We used to listen to “American Pie” over and over again, and feel like something essential was forever lost to us. I was crazy about the Beatles and wanted to be a hippie, someone bohemian, and my friend had a bit of that bent herself—her parents weren’t into materialism, and I recall that she didn’t have cable or perhaps a TV, which was as radical as it got in the circles I travelled. What I don’t think we ever articulated but were forever circling around was longing, for the kinds of lives we’d heard about in songs our parents sang. I didn’t want to live a conventional life, but I was so conventional, I didn’t even know how to go about articulating that.

And I can’t help but think how useful the internet would have been to a couple of funny girls like us. Yes, the internet and adolescent girls is a disaster, but not entirely. I recall how lonely it was to be a weirdo in 1991, to love old music and want to wear flowers in our hair. Yes, grunge was starting to happen, but we were sheltered, and we were never wild enough to do teenage rebellion proper. We weren’t grungy. There wasn’t any kind of culture out there that we knew about, that we could tap into, so we made our own instead, in the songs whose lyrics we memorized and analyzed, and the objects we revered, and all  the things we talked about, the questions we tried to answer in circles. I recall we kept a notebook in which we wrote each other back and forth, and I remember lists like, “Things I want to be,” “Things I want to do.” I remember the goodness of a friend like that who made those things seem possible.

I sent my friend a message on Instagram this morning. I wrote to her, “Do you remember that 23 years ago today we went to see Paul McCartney play at Exhibition Stadium?” My dad took us. It was magical. I think the weather was terrible all day long, and then it wasn’t just in time, and then a guy offered us a free rickshaw ride. And then there was an actual Beatle on the stage, Paul McCartney promoting his album, “Off the Ground.” I have never felt so small in my life as I felt in that crowd, one of so many fans in the stadium, and Paul McCartney couldn’t see me—it was first time that it had occurred to me that he had no idea who I was. But I could see him, and it felt like I was engaging in something real for the first time in my life, a religious experience of a sort. I was part of something bigger than myself, and gave me an inkling that there could be a place in the world for a girl like me after all.

I didn’t get a reply from my friend. Not long after, a photo popped up on her husband’s instagram feed—their baby had arrived. On June 6, I marvelled to myself. How auspicious. It probably hasn’t occurred to her, but it means something to me, and  how wonderful anyway, to paraphrase Joan Didion, to check back in once in a while with the people we used to be.

January 12, 2016

The Babysitters Club, or What Comes Down Through the Ages


Whenever I start to worry too much about shaping my child’s cultural consciousness, I remind myself that at the age of ten I read The Babysitters Club series exclusively and that I once cried at receiving Swallows and Amazons for my birthday instead of Mallory and the Trouble With Twins. (Remembering this is why I try to read classic children’s books with my daughter, rather than expecting her to gravitate to them on her own.) I used to tick off BSC books in my Scholastic Book Order like they were going out of style, and refused to believe that they ever would go out of style. I remember a conversation with my mom about how it was a shame the books weren’t in hardcover because they fell apart in paperback and how was I ever going to pass them onto my own children the same way my mom had given me her Trixie Beldens and Cherry Ames. (I think had different ideas about hoarding then.) I recall my mom was skeptical about the books’ everlastingness.

It’s odd to realize that I was kind of right, however. The first book in Ann M. Martin’s iconic series (iconic, that is, if you were a certain kind of age in a certain type of place), Kristy’s Great Idea, was rereleased in 2006 in graphic novel form by the award-winning Raina Telgemeier, along with three other titles. Although it stayed peripheral to my experience until our friend Erin bought Harriet her own copy of Kristy’s Great Idea, and Harriet was hooked. She loved it. You can’t imagine how strange it is for your daughter to be telling you about how Kristy Thomas’s two brothers are called Sam and Charlie. That this kind of knowledge is the sort of thing that gets comes down through the ages. Who knew that The Babysitters Club would actually be a series of books that got passed on to my children?

bscBut it’s not really so surprising, when you think about it. There’s always been something generative about the series. The characters themselves are types, but also specific down to their accessories (or lack of them—not everyone can pull off dangly parrot earrings), and that the books were told from all their different points of view enabled readers to try on these roles for size. This is just a starting point for how readers have taken ownership of these familiar characters and their favourite books. These are characters who live beyond the page, as attested to by the popularity of Babysitters Club fan fiction communities online. The books have generated blogs including those revisiting the entire series and another exploring its characters’ tastes in fashion.The series are also Buzzfeed bait: note The Definitive Ranking of All 131 Babysitters Club Covers Outfits. Artist Kate Gavino designed a series of book covers imagining the series had it taken place in 2014. I recall a few years back someone was making notebooks out of recycled BSC book covers. Not to mention that the series was self-generating—so many spin-off series, so many…recycled notebooks. Plus board games, movies, dolls, etc. And the imitation babysitting clubs the books must have inspired as well—though I do wonder if any of these were successful. From an entrepreneurial point of view, it was not the greatest business model. As a parent it would be most inconvenient to only be able to schedule babysitters twice a week and if Kristy Thomas had been a proper capitalist, wouldn’t she have kept all the babysitting jobs for herself?

Anyway, it makes sense, with Martin’s wholly realized fictional world, that Telgemeier would have so much to work with in these stories, and that the graphic novels themselves would be so successful. The books are empowering and feminist (these girls may have worked as caregivers, but caregiving was their business; strong feminist role models, paging Kristy Thomas’s mother, anyone? [before she married a millionaire], and how about their author who lived seemingly single in New York City and hated to cook?), and, as I’ve made clear, most inspiring.

Perhaps we should be collecting them in hardback after all.

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Mitzi Bytes

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