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September 27, 2017

Niceness, kindness and goodness

I loved writing my essay, “Why we need to stop teaching girls to be nice” for Todays Parent because it was such an exercise in figuring out what I was thinking about. (If only all life’s dilemmas came with built in editors to underline parts of your understanding that are vague or ill-formed.) I got to think about goodness and kindness, and my discomfort with too much of an emphasis on empathy and that my daughters should feel that their responsibility is other people’s comfort. But also my puzzling out that teaching my daughters to care for themselves and take care of others is not necessarily incongruous. Even better, I get to reference So I Married an Ax Murderer, AND Joan Didion. I hope you will appreciate what I came up with. Thanks for reading! 

September 19, 2017

You can’t synthesize this

I’m of two minds. I usually am. I don’t know that’s such a bad thing, and the thing my brain gets up to when I’m swimming lengths or walking down the street is looking for synthesis. You can change the world and be the change to wish to see in it at once, I mean; I can “find ways to fight all of the systems that uphold my privilege while simultaneously standing up for myself when I am pushed down”; I’ve always thought that gender is a construct and mine doesn’t define me, but transgender people exist and so they should; I abhor violence, but want to punch everyone I see on a Segway; I love my children and I’m so grateful for my abortion. Etc. Etc. Yes, but, Yes, and. And in my head I’m always trying to put all the pieces together, to demonstrate that really we’re all on the same page. A grand unification theory, as it were. But a thing I’m learning as I get older is that while everything is complicated, everything is so complicated that we’re never to agree on just how. The tension is inherent to the project. It’s even often useful. And it’s never going to go away.

I wrote a piece for CBC online last week about our family’s choice to rent a home instead of buy one, and I was nervous about this project. I kept thinking about the furor surrounding the Toronto Life “We Bought a Crackhouse” family, all that entitlement. And here I am, a privileged person writing about our choices and our freedoms as a result of where and how we live, when for many people affordable housing is rare to the point where it’s a crisis. But that turned out not to be the problem at all. And for a day or so there was no problem, until the piece was featured on the CBC’s main page and got a lot of attention, inciting comments  on social media and on the piece itself—and they were ridiculous. Not about my failure to address income inequality and poverty (although that might have called for a longer article) but for the very point my piece addressed—that not buying into the cult of real estate makes other people go berserk. Not since the days when my peers debated sleep-training strategies on Facebook have I ever waded into anything so controversial—though naturally, I was of two minds about the sleep issue. I’m even of two minds about real estate, really—if buying a house were remotely in our means and didn’t require huge compromises in our lifestyle, I’d be all for it. I would love to have a house that was my own—although I wouldn’t be able to buy any furniture for it.

There is something about saying, “I’m going to have it all the ways,” that makes other people really angry. I notice this when I argue about abortion online—someone will always accuse a woman who has an abortion of being selfish. There is this needlessly puritanical fixation on sacrifice and selflessness, the idea that making a decision with one’s own happiness in mind is somehow suspect. When really, it just seems sensible to me. If you are lucky, you get to make the choice to do the thing you want to do—and how could you ever fault someone for doing so? But a lot of people do. And not just for something as controversial as abortion either, an argument whose “other side” I have some sympathy for (never mind the fact that you have to railroad over the lives of actual living breathing women to make it, and if you have no discomfort with this then you just might be a misogynist). But also for something as seemingly innocuous as real estate. Seriously, does anything ever provoke ire like a woman who declares to say in public, “I made a choice that makes me happy and I am satisfied”?

You can’t synthesize this. There is no thesis. There is only hysterical emotion and anger. People read my piece on renting and they really really cared what I said, and they really really thought I was wrong, so much so that they logged onto public forums to say so. None of this is a surprise to anybody who’s ever said anything online, but it’s the most read I’ve ever been as a writer, I think. It’s also the first time I’ve ever written anything that was of any interest in general to men. And this was interesting, although women were represented among the outraged. Fortunately, conversation was pretty cordial, and no one called me fat, or threatened to rape me, which means it was a good day on the internet. (Obviously, those two kinds of comments are barely comparable, except that they are the standard go-tos for people online who have feelings about something a woman has said on the internet.) Fortunately, also, the outrage in reposes to my piece was pretty darn funny and I got a lot of amusement out of it, and (shockingly) none of the financial arguments managed to convince me that our choice is the wrong one. The choice we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and built our lives around. It’s just fascinating, that anybody cared so much. And very sad about that one man whose comment was, “I’m never going to buy your book.” Oh no! How will I make it through?

Some things are not worth synthesizing. “The cult of real estate in Canada is so pervasive that I’d never before questioned whether buying a house would be our next step in adulthood,” I wrote in my piece, and the cult of real estate keeps trying to pervade. Which makes pieces like mine necessary, I think, not in spite of the way they provoke stupid outrage, but because they do. That’s my thesis, and I’m sticking to it.

Update: Check out Carin Makuz’s wonderful post about Shirley and lawnmowers, and life’s complicatedness, and how there really is no one right way to be. 

May 30, 2017

Big As Life

I fell in love with Sara O’Leary’s picture books back when I wasn’t even into picture books, before I had children. I discovered her via the blog Crooked House, when Stephany Aulenback published an interview with her in 2007. (Stephany Aulenback delivered me to all the best things, and I miss her blog: she is also the reason I read Harriet the Spy.) I loved O’Leary’s first picture book, When You Were Small, and it’s where my love of Julie Morstad’s work began—we’ve now got a print of hers hanging in our hallway. All of which is to say that Sara O’Leary’s work has been a part of my life in an essential way for a long time now.

And so I was particularly delighted by the opportunity to write about her books for The Walrus, an adventure that had me revisiting microscopic books at Toronto Public Library’s Osborne Collection and calling them up to clarify just how many miniature books they had—amusingly, all online references noted the collection of miniatures was “sizeable.” I got to revisit The Borrowers, and read Rumer Godden’s The Dolls’ House and T.H. White’s Mistress Mashem’s Repose. I was also recommended Jerry Griswold’s fascinating book, Feeling Like a Kid: Childhood and Children’s Literature—the chapter on “snugness” was my favourite.

So much stuff I came up with didn’t make it into the final piece (1800 words is not so long…) but it was all so fascinating. Everyone was sick in my house on Christmas Eve, which was annoying but left me free to read the entirety of O’Leary’s collection of short stories for adults, Comfort Me With Apples. (Note: she also has a novel for grown up children forthcoming next year, a ghost story which, unsurprisingly, features a dollhouse…) I was particularly struck by O’Leary’s preoccupation in these stories with so many of the ideas that would surface in her work for children a decade or more later—children with indeterminable origins, the fundamental unknowability of mothers, families that weren’t the way they were supposed to be, subtle allusions to nursery rhymes, and particularly ideas about size and scale.

I found O’Leary’s novella in the collection, “Big As Life,” made for the most fascinating companion to her Henry books. It begins with a woman sharing her first childhood memory, which her mother informs her is not a true memory but more likely something she dreamed once. This mother too who wishes to foster a more equal relationship with her daughter, to be like roommates who where the same clothes, which reminds me of the mother in When I Was Small who tells stories so she and her son “can be small together.” Lost photographs, so the woman is unable to corroborate anything she remembers from when she was small. The mother talking about her pregnancy, explaining, “Even though I was getting bigger all the time it felt like I was disappearing.”

This one extraordinary part where the women recalls the stories she used to tell her baby brother about when he was small: “I tried to tell him about who we were, what we’d been doing before he came along…I never prayed when I was a child, but somehow, telling my baby brother all I knew about life so far, I came close.”

And then this one incredible paragraph, from the perspective of a child watching her mother:

“The expression on her face—it was like she was aloft in a hot air balloon and we were all rapidly diminishing to the size and importance of ants on the ground below. It was as though soon we would grow too small to be seen, disappear, never to have existed at all. This, at least, is what I imagine, years later, trying to remember why I had grown suddenly enraged at the sight of my mother reading a book and smoking a cigarette.”

I am not sure at the connections one could make between the two works, what they mean. From reading the picture books we know that ants are actually pretty important after all and there is reverence for smallness—but perhaps you have to grow up in order to fully understand this. I think you also have to be grown-up to appreciate a mother’s desire to sometimes float away.

Parent/child relationships are complicated and fraught, it is true, but as I write in my Walrus piece, O’Leary’s picture books offer the suggestion of connection—just one of the many possibilities of small things.

I hope you’ll read it here.

April 30, 2017

A Remarkable Week for Mitzi and Me

As excellent weeks in the life of Mitzi Bytes go, I don’t know if any other will top this one. On Monday, I had the great pleasure of listening to my interview with Shelagh Rogers on The Next Chapter. On Tuesday, in preparation for the 1000 Islands Writers Festival (next weekend!!), I published a post on Mitzi Bytes and ambivalence on the festival blog. On Wednesday, I drove to Waterloo to partake in the Appetite for Reading Book Club event, which was so much fun, totally delicious, and dear friends were there, part of a room packed with avid readers—you can see some of their smiling faces above.

Thursday evening was the thoroughly bonkers and wholly enjoyable Toronto Library Bibliobash, which took place at the Toronto Reference Library, which is one of my favourite places on earth. It was hilarious fun and also a privilege to be able to support the library in such a wonderful way. It was very exciting to see Mitzi Bytes in such a setting…

And the next day I would discover it somewhere just as lovely—in Shawna Lemay’s beautiful response to the book at her blog, Transactions With Beauty.

Saturday was the third Authors for Indies day and I had the pleasure of a road trip with CanLit superstars Kate Hilton, Jennifer Robson, and Karma Brown, who were so much fun and (unsurprisingly) delightfully bookish. We went to Curiosity House Books in Creemore and Forsters Book Garden in Bolton, which was so wonderful because there is nothing I ever love more than a destination bookshop. It was terrific to meet the booksellers and the readers…and of course I bought a few books on my own. There was much raucousness and the snacks were great…

…and I arrived back home in time to listen to the rebroadcast of The Next Chapter with my family! (Happy to see Mitzi Bytes included on “15 books you heard about on CBC Radio this week”!).

One more thing—the new issue of The Hamilton Review of Books is up and it’s really great. And it also includes my review of Marianne Apostolides’ memoir, Deep Salt Water, which was such a joy to puzzle out and write about. I’m very pleased to be included in this issue. And I’m closing out here with a photo of Marissa Stapley and I from my Toronto Library Eh List Event on April 13. Marissa was wonderful and it was such a good night—one of many I’ve been experiencing lately.

January 19, 2017

I don’t want to tell them, “Nothing.”

“One day my daughters will ask what I did to save the world for them, and I don’t want to tell them, ‘Nothing.’” I wrote a piece for Today’s Parent about why I’m taking my daughters to the Women’s March here in Toronto on Saturday.

See you there, or in solidarity?

October 27, 2016

Without Apology: Writings on Abortion in Canada

without-apologyIn 1969, abortion was legalized in Canada, but only when the procedure was performed in a hospital and had been approved by a committee of doctors. In response to these restrictions, activists launched the cross-country Abortion Caravan in 1970, Canada’s first national pro-choice protest. Though plenty of road has been travelled since then—the problematic abortion law was struck down in 1988 – the fact that it’s still radical, 45 years later, for a woman to talk about her abortion in public suggests the fight isn’t over yet.

What has changed is the conversation’s tone. While passengers on the Abortion Caravan carried a coffin symbolizing women’s deaths from illegal abortions, contemporary campaigns—such as the viral #ShoutYourAbortion hashtag from 2015 – are more likely to focus on women’s lives….

Thanks to Quill & Quire for the opportunity to review Without Apology: Writings on Abortion in Canada, edited by Shannon Stettner. Read my review in its entirety here. 

October 20, 2016

In Praise of Coconut Oil

coconutoil“No one has ever asked me how they can get skin like mine.”

But even though they haven’t, I still wrote a post for Plenty about how you can do so…by using coconut oil as a facial moisturizer, including my top five reasons for doing so.

It begins with its amazingly low smoke point, and concludes with the wonders of toast crumbs for exfoliation, and it’s not even entirely tongue-in-(greasy)-cheek.

Read the whole thing here! 

September 20, 2016

Review: Are You An Echo?

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Japan was my home for a while more than a decade ago, and it’s a place I’ll always be grateful to for its generosity, goodness, and what living there taught me about being a person in the world. And so I was especially pleased by the opportunity to review Are You An Echo?, a new book that’s part poetry collection, part biography, and a remarkable collaboration between many different people. It translates Misuzu Kaneko’s poetry into English for the first time, the poems complemented by her difficult life story, and also by the lost-and-found story of these poems themselves, which were “rediscovered” by the Japanese public when the poem “Are You An Echo?” was aired in public service messages on television after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

From my review:

…it seems fitting that Are You an Echo?, a book that brings Kaneko’s work and life story to English readers, is also an exercise in connection. The effort is a unique collaboration between American writer and translator David Jacobson, Canadian translator Sally Ito, Japanese translator Michiko Tsuboi (who studied at the University of Alberta), and Japanese illustrator Toshikado Hajiri. Editor and translators’ notes explain the fascinating creative process involved in this genre-bending mash-up, including on-the-ground research in Japan.

Read the whole thing here.

August 3, 2016

Summer Reads on the Radio

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I was so pleased to be on CBC Ontario Morning today talking about great summer reads, and sharing the books that so delightful occupied my July. If you missed the show, you can listen again online at 33.15 minutes—I hope you do and take me up on some of these suggestions. This is a fine, fine stack of books.

June 6, 2016

Globe Review: Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety

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So grateful to the folks at Globe Books for the chance to review Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety, the debut novel by Ann Y.K. Choi, which appeared in the Globe and Mail on Saturday.

‘The question of “relatability” has come to be one upon which many a Goodreads review has hinged, much to the consternation of proper critics, who would like to see literary works seeking loftier ideals.

But while the reader’s desire to see her reflection in literature may tell us something of her solipsism, it sometimes reveals more about where the canon comes up short….’

Read the whole thing here. 

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