Monday, November 11, 2019

How to Be a Fan in 23 Easy Steps

 1. Be a teenager.

2. Become aware of the Giant Pop-Culture Book Series and Literature Event for Children (GPCBS&LEFC) as the first few books are published.

3. Read the first two books. Feel slightly smug when you, a high schooler, do not get caught up in the same whirlwind of readership that your younger sister, a middle schooler, enjoys when the third book is released. Ignore the subsequent books as being "for children."

4. See the first two movie adaptations in theatres. Be vomitously hungover for both. Leave the theatre during the giant-spider scene. Use that opportunity to sweat in the bathroom, away from your parents.

5. Let sixteen years pass. Get dumped a few times. Have a kid. Get evicted. Have people you love get sick. Be in your 30s.

6. A friend—a good friend, a friend whose opinions you trust—reads the GPCBS&LEFC. She reads the whole series in a summer: on the beach, during work breaks. She like them.

7. Look at your life's to-do list and realize that you've written "read an epic book series" on it. Ask your friend if she would recommend the books. She does!

8. Get the books out from the library. Realize that the hold system for these books—that they are still on hold 20 years after their initial publication—means that you can't just read them straight through. There will be lag times. There will be binges. Read in floods and droughts.

9. Read 300 pages of the fifth book of the GPCBS&LEFC in one night. Feel that there is something happening inside yourself. Do not say anything out loud.

10. Take an online quiz about which characters you are most like in the GPCBS&LEFC. 

11. Finish reading the books. Watch the movies. Realize the movies are utter garbage compared to the texts, which are themselves a C+ literary experience, but absolute BANGERS when it comes to plot, world-building, and general immersive fun.

12. Unrelated to this reading project, ask for podcast recommendations. A friend will recommend a queer-inflected, feminist, very funny podcast that does a critical reading of the GPCBS&LEFC. Download every episode of the Feminist Podcast. Listen to every episode while knitting.

13. Start giving TED Talks in the shower about how toxic masculinity presents throughout the GPCBS&LEFC. Give other TED Talks on family-building, and on PTSD, and on depictions of queerness. Credit the Feminist Podcast with giving the texts enough life to do these kinds of deep dives. Wonder briefly if you can go to graduate school for GPCBS&LEFC Studies, and if so, where.

14. Discover by accident that the city you literally just moved away from has a store devoted to the world of GPCBS&LEFC. Go to the store. Feel sort of ashamed as you poke around the merch, because the merch for the GPCBS&LEFC properties is often sort of...dumb. Or, at least, it feels a bit like getting a teeshirt on your high school trip to Italy that just says ITALY in big letters, and doesn't capture how it felt to stand under the Sistine Chapel and quietly know that this is a Big Moment in your life, maybe a touchstone, maybe you'll major in Art History and come back in seven years during graduate school knowing so much more about Michelango and Italianate art in the High Renaissance, and that the ITALY teeshirt sort of represents all of that, but also does any of it zero justice.

15. Buy a GPCBS&LEFC patch and sew it onto a knitting bag. Understand that you are deeply, deeply nerdy.

16. Listen to the GPCBS&LEFC audiobooks as you walk your child to preschool three times a week. Listen to them when you knit. Listen to them in the tub. Try your best to forget the film depictions, and instead imagine each chapter in your own head. Be careful that you don't accidentally adopt a British accent.

17. Finish the sixth audiobook and realize that you're not ready to start the seventh book because you're not ready to be done. Feel sort of silly. Honour that feeling.

18. Google "GPCBS&LEFC podcasts." Find a new one, a chapter-by-chapter reading done through a queer lens. Listen to four episodes. It's just the hosts braying "That's fucked up" at each other for 40 minutes. Unsubscribe quickly.

19. Google "GPCBS&LEFC podcasts." Find a new one, a chapter-by-chapter reading done by divinity school graduates. Listen to 27 episodes. Find their focus on gratitude, blessings and connection to be surprisingly healing. Remember that one of your life's unmet needs this decade is to find a spiritual community that doesn't have "believe that Christ is a god" as one of its entrance exam questions. Remember that you don't want to be spiritual alone in a field somewhere; you want other people, in conversation. Realize that living a life of gratitude, blessings, and connection is choosing a life full of those things. Realize also that choosing those things doesn't protect you from getting dumped, evictions, sickness, loss, or grief. Continue listening to the podcast. Feel a lot of feelings.

20. Buy GPCBS&LEFC fan art, including pins that you are too shy to put on your actual clothing, so you put them on your bedside table and look at them fondly and often. 

21. Go to the GPCBS&LEFC-themed bar in the city you moved away from. Watch as the bartender lights every third drink on fire. Talk loudly to your tolerant husband about the books. Delightedly receive a GPCBS&LEFC-themed gift from your tolerant husband.

22. Continue giving TED Talks in the shower. Continue listening to podcasts. Continue thinking deep thoughts about healing, compassion, forgiveness, grief. Start PTSD counseling. Google "churches without Christ" + location. Hold off on starting the seventh audiobook. Listen to podcasts. Feel a lot of feeling.

23. Feel a lot of feelings.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Your Fall Horoscope

It's Scorpio season, motherfuckers! Time to pull on a goth sweater, light a dank/legal joint, and flirt aggressively with basically everyone who crosses your path. Here are your fall horoscopes.

Aries: Time to embrace all of your so-called "embarrassing" pastimes. You know the ones: the hobbies you don't bring up until the seventh date (Gilmour Girls Trivia nights!); the unsexy kinks; the obsessions that you keep hidden because you're scared of letting your freak flag fly. You know why? Because, despite your ongoing conviction that everyone else is cooler than you, this is patently wrong and you need to come into your adulthood in this final way. Get weird. Own your weirdness. Put it on a leash and walk it back and forth in front of your neighbour's house. Make direct eye contact.

Taurus: I have basically zero patience for people who sign up for something and then shirk their responsibilities. (Is this about my former landlord, who declined to provide pest control, which is definitely part of being a landlord? Maybe. Motherfucker was a Taurus if I ever met one.) Have you committed to things that you're feeling half-assed about? Time to commit. People are counting on you. This goes double if you're slacking off on commitments to yourself; your unused gym membership/pile of unread New Yorkers/filthy bathroom is not the Everest that you envision. Just do the things.

Gemini: I want to encourage all my favourite Geminis to embrace this fall and winter as the season where you integrate your inside self and your outside self into one amazing, imperfect, human being. Geminis are secret-keepers, by nature; your twin halves are private and public, and you keep them rigorously separated. But I will tell you a secret, Gemini: all of you is worth loving. Your secrets, your inside-self, the part you keep hidden away because it seems unbearable to share it? That part, still. You can't lock it away. Let some folks peek in on that part of you, and shine a little love on those secret corners.

Cancer: I always like checking on your self-care. Are you going to your appointments? Scheduling those follow-ups? Are you getting your veggies and/or your protein? Have you slowly pulled back from the people who wear you out and wear you down? Have you thrown away your uncomfortable and too-small underwear? Treat yourself the way you would treat a beloved friend who has just had a minor surgery: move slow, examine your incisions, and keep your health bar high.

Leo: I am afraid of heights; but that's not quite accurate. I'm afraid of the barely-controllable urge I sometimes have to throw myself from a great height. Sometimes this urge is funny, but when it comes in a blue mood or a dark season of my life, it takes a new dimension, revealing to myself that I'm actually not as okay as I want to believe. It's a neon-sign way of checking in - do I feel abject terror at height? Or just butterflies? The answer will often reveal a deeper truth about if I need help. This fall, look intentionally for your neon-signs, and pay attention. Are you backing away from the edge slowly?

Virgo: When I was a kid, my mom set up a book club for me and some other nerds in my fourth-grade class. It was pretty awesome: we read The Great Gilly Hopkins and ate popcorn balls and there were at least three girls named Jennifer in the club. I really look on that experience fondly, and I hope that one day, I can do the same for my kid, and whatever he is into. Creating the chance for someone you love to experience something they might love is such a heady part of loving someone. Virgo, have you done this for your favourite people lately? Not done something, per se, but rather, have you created an environment where they could do something rad for themselves? If not, think about where you can inject some of that into your relationships.

Libra: I recently discovered that, aside from being Sagittarius, nearly all my other planets reside in Libra. My high school bestie was a Libra, and suuuuuper into it for a long time; I, on the other hand, never really connected with my Sag side. I am neutral about travel and prudent about drugs, so typical-Sag excursions like taking molly in Bali sound tiring, not #goals. It was a relief to find out that we are entitled to many dimensions in our lives, many facets, many houses. We can constantly discover new versions of ourselves when we dig a little deeper, and what we find may attune to who we actually are.

Scorpio: You are red wine and gummy bears. You are making out in hot tubs in mid-tier hotels. You are death's head hawkmoths. You are ankle boots and rainy days. You are paying bills the day after they're due. You are a job interview where you feel nothing after. You are windows that don't open. You are fine, not fine, knowing you're not fine, feeling buried under a mountain of not-fine, and pretending, because you are who you are and in the families you're in and have the obligations you have, that you are fine. But Scorpio, you gotta move through all that bullshit and sadness and fear and come out of it, because you are so much more than your pain. Crack yourself open. It will feel like a heart attack, but do it anyway.

Sagittarius: I am a Gryffindor sun, Ravenclaw moon, Slytherin rising. I resisted my Gryffindor-self for a long time, despite literally every online quiz, include the official Pottermore one, sorting me into the red-and-gold house. I felt it was...hacky? Too obvious? I wanted very much to be a Ravenclaw, dreamy and intelligent. But truth be told, I am persistent to a fault, and brave in my own way (I am much more of a Neville than a Harry, tyvm). Like we all do, I have elements of the other houses too: my Slytherin side, which is cruel and conscious of social status, is present, but I do my best to tamp it down or use it for good. And these days, I aspire to Hufflepuff-ness: close to the kitchens, deeply loyal, deeply kind. The house system is, obviously, about as fake as astrology, but I feel like attaching these labels to ourselves sometimes helps us understand what we want to embrace and what we want to resist. We are all more complex than a quartet of houses...but are we?

Capricorn: The most delicious cereal is Honey Nut Cheerios and I will brook no argument. Much like the best diet is Paleo (and keto can go fuck itself), or cycling is the best mode of transportation, or Temp #9 is the best cider, it can be reassuring to decide that something is The Best. It feels final. But sometimes we grow out of our childhood favourites (although I actually still think Honey Nut Cheerios is the best), or what used to work stops fitting into our lives so well (Paleo is great if you don't have a toddler who only eats pasta; cycling is great if you live within 4 kilometers of all your friends and family). What favourites are you hanging onto that still actually click, and which ones are carry-overs from other days?

Aquarius: Whenever I think about Aquarius, I think about swimming at sunset, the water washing over us deep purple and sparkling orange, the waves crashing around our bodies as we get tired and hungry but stay in the water still. I think about golden moments, tinged with a faint sadness because golden moments don't last. My dad and my son and my grandfather, all Aquarians, none of whom are strictly golden but whose shine is shot through with deep thoughtfulness and care: the deep purple water over which the golden sparkles shine. It is possible to carry light and dark in us, and you Aquarians are the best at it. In these dark months, unleash that golden shine and remind us all of August days.

Pisces: Here is your reminder that it's fine to go to bed with the dishes unwashed and the counter unwiped. It's fine to not put every piece of kid art on the fridge. It's fine to spent an afternoon reading in the hammock, and not reading the book-club selection, but something frothy and encouraging instead. Unwind yourself a little. Unclench your jaw and your ass. Let things go undone. Let your life be about more than just your to-do list, and relax. We don't think of fall and winter as chill-out times, but do your best to channel that hammock energy in an ice-storm season.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Captain's Log: Random Thoughts Edition

- I've started knitting my first sweater and boy howdy, I have signed up for a process. I'm knitting a  fingering weight sweater (read: skinny-ass yarn) in an oversized style and because of the way the gauge is working out, I'm going up two full sizes. At one point, there will be over 500 stitches in a row. I'm excited and nervous: this is by far the largest knitting project I've undertaken and I usually go for fast, complicated projects (socks!) rather than lonnnnng ones.

- Okay, but seriously, why isn't Hermione in Ravenclaw?

- This summer has been the living end for sunsets in Sauble Beach, and I wish someone could invent a camera that really captures what it looks like, because everything I take a picture of ends up looking yellow, instead of the deeply vibrant orange/pink/red/purple we've been actually seeing

- I am feeling rather bored with my kitchen right now, and I'm hoping for some inspiration. I've been doing another deep dive on Six Seasons, which I use mostly for food-porn reasons and less as an actual cookery text, but its autumn section does have some intriguing recipes, and I should just commit to it. Most of my fun food energy goes into preserves, so I need some weeknight dinner slam-dunks. (Oh my god, I sounds like a parody of a middle-aged white woman, but f'real, y'all.)

- Last fall around this time, I started dreading the winter so hard it was almost palpable. I'm really trying to pay attention to myself in this regard again this year, because last winter was one of the hardest things I had to get through and doing another stint sounds like a goddamn nightmare. However, reassuringly (?), I do not currently find myself at that level of anxiety. I have this dream of booking a last-minute getaway to somewhere hot and safe and easy, and even though I have no real way of manifesting that without doubling my non-zero credit card debt, I just have this sense that somehow, for no good reason, this winter will pass a little easier.

- Okay, but seriously, is Ron Weasley even a very good wizard? Like, I know Harry Potter is a bit of a chode, but he is remarkably talented and can somehow hold his own against Voldemort while still a teenager, and clearly Hermione is even more talented than Harry, but what does old Roonil Wazlib bring to the table? Snide commentary?  Is he literally just there for friendship reasons? Please explain.

- In a few weeks, I'm going for my first haircut in over a year, and I'm at a loss as to what I want her to do. Is "fix my whole messy life" too much of an ask?

- I have some real garden goals for next summer, but I have no real garden experience. I want a garden yoda to help me grow food for myself! I have visions of hyper-local food sovereignty.

- I feel very creatively juicy right now, and even though my cooking and knitting both feel like chores at this moment, I know I'll get back into it. In the meantime, I'm daydreaming about my next-next knitting projects, and learning (teaching myself?) how to screenprint, and maybe some one-page fiction challenges, and sewing! Oh, sewing. And hanging art and then designing a little she-shed for myself, and creating a personal sigil and a family tree and a map of my own personal hotspots. I love creative projects, and one of the things I like best is daydreaming and percolating over them for months, sometimes years, before I really launch myself into them. I like really sitting with an idea for a long time, because then it's just like, boom, execution, done.

- Okay, but seriously, can we agree that Dumbledore is, in fact, the very worst character in all the books? Fuck that guy times a million for letting Harry stay with and get abused by the Dursleys, and even though JKR ret-conned a reason into the fifth or sixth book, it's not fucking good enough.

- Three is a tough age for both the three-year-old and the person spending time with the three-year-old, and I will leave it at that, but I do feel like the people who complain about the terrible twos have standards that are too high, and also maybe three is just sort of a bullshit time. Thank god for preschool is what I'm saying.

- I love my kid though. And I love my family, and Celebration cookies, and my new bed, and the yarn I have coming to me, and the dates I have planned for my husband, and I love peeking at the cute guys at the coffee shop, and meeting new mom-friends and friend-friends, and getting invited to people's weddings and baby showers, and the sunlight over a field of brown-and-orange soybeans, and dark fall skies, and slowly, slowly, feeling like maybe the ground beneath my feet might be okay, even just for today.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

How Harry Potter Saved Me

I had a bad few years. A lot of us did—there was something about a Trump presidency that seemed to shake things loose in the worst way. The planet is dying, our governments are a disaster, late-stage capitalism is a huge bummer, and Drag Race devolved into the All-Stars 4 season, which we can agree was basically the nadir of recent human history. In 2017, my personal life was a bit of a wreck, too, what with the evictions and the rocky marriage and the living in a former laundry room and whatnot. All of this to say: things were dark, friends. Things were real dark.

I hadn't read a lot since I graduated from the University of Toronto in 2010. I mean, I had been reading—the news, the New Yorker, Twitter, Facebook, Harper's, the Patagonia catalog, and the expressions on my friend's faces when we talked about the future—but I hadn't dived into a serious B-O-O-K in...a while. I didn't really want to. For the first five years, I was burned out on literature. I had read so much for so long that I was bored by the very act of reading. After 2016, I was stuck in the infinite loop of parenting a baby and trying to catch snatches of information and stories in and around the moments the baby was asleep. I didn't have time or energy, but I did have a lot of respect for my friend Liz, who was constantly plowing through giant novels in a very low-key, NBD sort of way.

One of the piles of novels Liz went through was the Harry Potter series. I scoffed a bit, internally (and maybe to her face?): aren't those, you know, children's books? To me, Harry Potter was something my sister was into when I was in high school, back when I was busy with Very Important Things like wearing a corset, listening to the Beastie Boys, half-assing an interest in Buddhism, and staring creepily at my crushes from across the room. Those books were for little kids who were into, like, magic and brooms and other things because I hadn't read the books all the way through.

But Liz was like, "Yeah! And they were great!"And as much as I scoff, I respect her opinion deeply, so I decided to follow her lead.

I checked the first one out from the library and it was as I remembered it: a little juvenile, sort of boring for non-eleven year olds, and awful in parts (The Dursleys! What the actual F!). But it was also...sort of magical. As it should be, because it's literally about magic, but the process of discovering Harry's world was delightful. Diagon Alley, the wizarding world's Mall of America, is a place I'd like to go: so many bang-pop tricks and old-timey curios! The use of quills and parchment and owls, rather than computers and emails, feels like a respite from my inbox. And Hogwarts, the wizarding school Harry attends, is the ultimate academic milieu. If you're of a certain disposition, going to boarding school to make friends and get away from younger siblings is the actual dream.

I pressed on. The second book is...not great. But by third, though, things pick up. Characters from outside Harry's common room start to appear: friends of his parents, for instance, both good and bad. The fourth book introduced a much wider world, with two new wizarding schools, a whole governing body, and international sports! And on it goes, with the fifth, sixth, and seventh books expanding and contracting around Harry as his world grows and shrinks during his quest to avenge his parents, defeat The Dark Lord, and repress his homosocial love for Ron Weasley. 

I won't rehash the whole plot; there are wikis and podcasts for that. But thematically, we can look big: good and evil, what it means to be a leader, bravery, the importance of friendship when we feel like an outcast, and how to grow up, especially when it's hard or you don't really have the tools.

In addition to the Harry Potter books, a friend hipped me to the most marvelous podcast, Witch, Please, a feminist discussion of Harry, the books, and the concerns of the wizarding world. The two hosts, Marcelle and Hannah, are two self-described "lady scholars" who are 1) very, very funny; 2) clearly good friends with each other, and 3) learned on history, literature, feminism, queer theory, film, social justice, and about three dozen other things that make their readings of the HP universe so much more textured and deeply considered. I listened to all the episodes—I love a good podcast while I knit!—and by the end, it was like spending time with two very smart, funny, feminist friends who only wanted to talk about Harry Potter. A nerd's utopia! A woman's dream! Ravenclaws, unite and put in your headphones!

(Sidebar: there is an episode of Witch, Please wherein Marcelle gives pointers to would-be podcasters, and she says that she never edits out the sound of her and Hannah laughing because "women's laughter is political," and that sentence shot through my heart like a rocket and gave me another dimension to understanding how and why seeking out pleasure and joy is an act of courage and self-love, and I would be remiss if I didn't mention that. They are wise, those women.)

Hannah and Marcelle's deep readings of the books gave me permission to really engage with them, to think broadly and deeply about models of family and of masculinity, of illness and heroism, of racism and colonialism. For a series of "books for children," there are lots of examples of all of the above, and more, and studying the books like you might study any other canonical 20th century text (ahem, Philip Roth) gave me a lovely sense of unity with the series. Critiquing a book is one way of loving it; it's saying to the text, "Let me take you very seriously, indeed."

What a relief it has been, then, to immerse myself in this world. Self-care, as the internet meme goes, is creating a life that you don't need to escape from, but sometimes, in trauma work, even your shrink will be like, "Imagine a cabin in the woods. You're alone. There's a soft animal. Pet it," so your brain can stop fritzing out for, like, one half-second and you can take a breath. Hogwarts, for me, became that breath. Witch, Please became that breath. Knitting was too. All three together became a refuge, an narrative-audio-tactile escape hatch where heavy things like Trump and Doug Ford and Brexit and climate change and birth trauma and sad relationships and loneliness were replaced by a a castle, a fictional fascism, and friends who rose up and fought back.

When I say Harry Potter saved me, what I mean is: for a long while, the inside of my head was a terrible place to be. I had spent so long immersed in trauma and graduate-level Life Shit that all my fuses had been burned out and I was a sad lump of a human being. I didn't like my life very much. In order to keep living it, I needed meaningful, loving, lovely distraction. People shit on distraction because we're all supposed to be doing the Very Hard Work of healing the world and ourselves, and I agree, but jesus, even the government mandates one half-hour and two fifteens. Rest is important. Pleasure is important. Choosing fun, and seeking it out, can be an act of resistance. Chasing that feeling can be salvation. I like to knit and listen to Harry Potter audiobooks and podcasts about Harry Potter and at the end of the day, I feel good. Just that, in the aftermath of a bad few years, can feel like a huge gain.

Harry Potter isn't a gentle world: people die, people leave and do not return, friendships creak and strain, romances fizzle, politics suck, parents are fallible and abuse is real. But somehow, combine it all with a wand and a hippogriff and a castle full of cheerful ghosts, and it became a good time. It's a world that's both big enough to feel wonderous and small enough to feel manageable. In a dark time, that can be a balm. Add in the icing on the cake that is a thoughtful, hilarious, well-structured podcast, and it was something to look forward to. A reason. A communion.

I don't want to live in the Harry Potter universe, but god damn, visiting there has helped me rebuild my soul.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

In Their Defence

 There is a certain kind of pedant—the kind that used to be called a "grammar Nazi," back before actual Nazis made their grand re-entrance from the sewers and deep South boardrooms from whence they had been hidden in plain sight—that is overly invested in the "right" way to use language. These are the folks who insist that the noun "YouTuber" is a meaningless collection of sounds, that shortening words like "totes" (totally) or "bae" (babe) is a bastardization, and the pronoun "they" can only be applied to a group of people.

You will brook no complaint from me on the first issue, and I will roll my eyes at the second, but the third? Oh, my friends. Let's journey back, to the time of Shakespeare and Quakers, to an explanation of why your—pardon me, thine—gatekeeping is wrongheaded and also spiritually impoverished.

First, a quick walk through the garden of pronouns as they exist today. When there's only one referent—the entity to which the pronoun is being applied—we call that singular; more than one, and it's plural. My grammar is a little rusty, but let's dive in anyway.

  • I and we are both first-person pronouns, used when the speaker is referring to his or herself, or a group that he or she is part of. I go grocery shopping, we went to the Taylor Swift concert.
  • You is a second-person pronoun, used when I am addressing someone directly. Have you had lunch?
  • He and she are third-person pronouns, used to refer to another person not directly addressed; they does the same thing for a group. He eats a peach, they went camping.
Notice something interesting about that second pronoun set: We use you as both singular and plural forms. You went to the mall, you found a wedding ring on the beach. Without context, it's not possible to tell if the you in those sentences refers to one people or a group of them, which is why there's an ongoing debate on if the proper pluralization of you is y'all, a construction that I love dearly and with all my heart.

But you wasn't always the only form of the second person. Anyone who's read any Shakespeare knows that those texts are littered with thou, thee, and thine: all singular forms of you. Thou art an idiot, pick up thine socks! 

It's a little more complicated that just singular and plural. Royalty were routinely addressed as you (a construction that we still use today in "the royal we"), in order to demarcate the idea that royal people contained the multitudes of their countrymen, allowing that single person a plural pronoun. Over time, this pronoun trickled down to nobility and general fancy-pants people. Thou was used broadly for people on your own social level or below; those above would get addressed with ye or you. We still see this in other languages: French, for instance, has both tu and vous, used with social equals and authority figures, respectively. If a cop pulled you over in France, you'd best address that person as vous, but you'd call your wife or your co-workers tu. In olden times, you'd probably address the King/your priest/your lord as you, but call your kids and neighbours thou.

Over time, as English and American society (sort of) equalized, the boundaries between high-class and low- or service-class people blurred. People started using you to refer to their social equals, and that slowly become everyone—or it was impossible to tell, and you didn't want to insult someone by calling them thou when it should have been you. Thou stopped being relevant. This happened in the last 150 years; it's not ancient history. Your great-grandparents probably used thou and thee, especially if they were from the the outland parts of the British Isles.

Now, why do I bring this up? Because folks who insist that they can only be used to refer to groups, and not, say, trans or non-binary individuals? I spit in thine eye!

English has a rich and relatively recent history of sea change in pronoun usages, and one that was driven primarily by the desire to be connected and respectful. What better reason, then, to adopt they, as requested by some of the trans/NB community? If they word feels clunky in your mouth, that's fine: imagine how much out of practice you are with all the various verb tenses for thee and thou, and count your blessings. If you are going to be such a pedant about they, then I expect thou wilst fight the good fight to stamp out you usage, too.

Oh, not interested in doing that? Your bigotry is showing.

In all seriousness, this grammatical history lesson just goes to show that words only mean what we all agree they mean. Names are another area where people get their their noses out of joint when it comes to trans or enby folks, but accept it from cis people, who choose and change their own names all the damn time. Why readily accept the concept of a married name or nickname, but resist when someone renames themselves in a gender-affirming way? Oh, right: that bigotry again.

To be honest, I shouldn't need a whole blog post to explain why they and you and we are malleable. Just use the pronouns people want you to use! That spiritual impoverishment I mentioned before comes from the idea that rules are more important than people's feelings and emotional health; that the ability to be right and be a language cop comes at the expense of someone else's comfort,  safety, and right to self-identify and self-determine.

In identity politics, there are lots of ways that rules are used to oppress. Grammar resists being enlisted in this particular project because those who try to deploy grammar in order to gatekeep gender identity and affirmation aren't doing so out of respect for the language—otherwise, they'd be all over the thees and thous. They're doing so out of discomfort with the actual living, breathing people who use they.

If you have the privilege of being called you instead of that low-down dirty thou, then extend that courtesy to those around you. Even if it feels clunky in the mouth, even if it's "wrong." You is "wrong," too: grammatically, of course, but also philosophically.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Chef's School

I don't want to go to chef's school.

I do love to cook. I love the dance of a new dish—will this work? how will I know? (I trust the process and my decades of experience in throwing food together and making delicious things happen.) I love seeing something online or in a cookbook and then meticulously following the steps so that I know what it's supposed to be, and I also love doing that so many times that I know by feel how much is just right, the angle of the knob on the stove, the smell of doneness and almost-but-not-quite-overdoneness. I love playing with new ingredients, going to upscale markets and plebeian grocery stories and import monoliths. I love the behind-the-scenes energy of making my own sauces and condiments—why bother, except to learn how to do it and how the science works—and the little jewels of finished product on my plate and in my pantry.

I love reading about food—strange ingredients from all corners of the planet, hot young chefs, kitchen politics, best-of lists, memoirs of lives lived among grease spatters and tiny bowls. I love to leaf through cookbooks to understand different parts of the world. I love photos of people at the market, bicycles piled high with greens or noodles or fish or bread. I love interviews with people who care deeply and passionately about their kitchens and what gets made inside them.

I love to think about issues of food writ large—how the systems of capitalism and globalism and colonialism have combined to create a society where Taco Tuesday is a thing but they still want to build a wall. About why women cook at home and why men cook in professional kitchens. I love to think about how food traditions are passed down through generations, and what happens when that tradition is disrupted. I love to think about how all the broken parts of restaurants can be better—how to temper the substance use, the aggression, the machismo, that seems baked into every restaurant I've ever worked in.

But I do not want to go to chef's school.

I don't doubt that there's much to be learned about all those topics, and more. My technique is imperfect. I don't know how to debone a rabbit or make a ballotine or press my own head cheese. I don't know which wine goes with which meal. (I like rosé, with everything, except spaghetti.) I don't know the finer points of fine dining, like which of the several grades of service staff is responsible for wielding the little brush that will dispose of the table crumbs, which is half a chastisement of you, and half a hilarious bit of pretend housekeeping that does not make the food more delicious but sends a clear message about the type of person they want you to be. (Usually, it's the type of person who opts for the seven-course tasting menu and the wine pairings, kthxbai.)

Chef's school beckons and I want to know about food.

But! I do not think French or Italian cuisine is special or even foundational to cooking, and those are the cuisines that baby chefs master when they get their Red Seals. I think the type of cooking and service chef's schools espouse is on the way out, and the schools have not done enough to respond to regionalism in cooking, international influences, and social questions around who belongs in the kitchen and why. Chef's schools, like all educational institutions, are not especially nimble at responding to social shifts; they tend to keep grinding away at the canon. Going to chef's school is buying into the story that the best chefs are white men, and that I need to uphold their traditions in order to be taken seriously. File that story in the fiction section, please.

I've eaten and worked in upscale joints. I've eaten and worked in down-low places. I'm supremely tired of feeling like French cuisine is the One True Light of professional cooking. French cuisine, to me, is fine, but only fine. Fusion cuisine, in which international flavours are married to a French style, is...I mean, yes, but also, gussying up a taco with dusts and infusions and glazes...I dunno. We can talk until the house lights come up about the foundations of cooking, about how learning how to cook in the Bocuse style means that you can launch yourself into other cuisines, but the reality is, graduate from one of those places and you might always think that a big white plate next to a glass of wine is the definition of good food. Recent trends (that have been emerging for, like, a decade or two) like molecular gastronomy, New Nordic, or the boom in fermenting and preserving are unremarked or minimally covered. Hell, even topics like artisan and local foods are glossed over.

What I would love is the chance to go to chef's school and learn more about the stuff that means something to me. I want to be taught from a kaiseki tradition as well as a tasting menu one. I want to talk about why charging $3 per dumpling on top of a $12 Negroni misunderstands the function of a dumpling. I want to learn about feminism in chef's school, and about why we look to women for domestic cookery and why we accept turbocharged drunks as industry leaders—and then I want to know how to challenge that. I want to talk about burnout and self-care in an industry with 2% profit margins and 70 hour workweeks. I'd love to take a rougher-hewn approach, one that strips off the white gloves and looks hard at things like pop-ups, food trucks, cruise ships, cafeterias, supper clubs, take-out joints, catering companies, camp cooking, and more. I want to learn how to cook for people who have just given birth or just lost someone close to them, not just people with company cards or anniversary dates.

I want to understand, in a real and tangible way, how food makes communities happen, and how to feed communities.

Home cooking will always be special to me; and going to chef's school to get really good at home cooking is like getting a Masters degree in Literature so you can be the smartest one at book club. (I don't doubt both have happened.) I want better theory, more light in dark corners, more appreciation for the folks who are grinding away on a four-burner electric stove, trying new shit, playing, experimenting, learning, wanting more from themselves and their food.

One day several years ago, I was biking in Toronto at dusk and I blipped by a side street. In the middle of the road there was a long table, and people were bringing out bowls and platters and setting down mismatched plates. In the blink of an eye, I had a whole portrait of a community of people who liked each other enough to cook together and for each other. It was a magic moment: the light, the street, the smell in the air, the wind in my hair, the feeling in my heart as I got to witness this microscopic moment of togetherness that was built around food. I would bet my last dollar none of them had gone to chef's school; I would bet that dollar again that every last bite was delicious.

Teach me that, chef's school. Teach me that.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Fear of Writing

For many years, the way I processed basically everything was by writing about it.  Had a bad day or a personal success? Write about it! Had a relationship fall apart or get sweet? Write about it! Had an opinion about a pop culture moment? Write about it! Had an emotion, a body feeling, or literally any experience at all? Write about it! I knew that, at some point, I would sit down at the computer and a bunch of words would come pouring out, and at the end, I'd feel different. Maybe better, maybe worse, often relieved, but always different.

Writing my way through my life allowed me to understand my world, myself, and where the two intersected. It was also a way of explaining myself to other people. "I have a blog" is a pretty straightforward way of talking about the writing I did: it was opinionated, or thoughtful, or personal, or political. I know people who have read the whole thing, because they liked me or they liked my writing. (That is...a lot of reading. I'm a wordy bee sometimes!) Writing it propelled me forward, as well. This little blog opened some doors professionally, sure, but it also helped me work through some of the blunderbussing that was my late 20s and early 30s. Just a seemingly endless stream of words, all of them useful in some way, at least to me. The best ones were the ones I went back to ten or twenty times, obsessing over what I had written because they actually helped me get outside myself and realize what I had to realize. The worst ones were, at the very least, practice: a few hundred words a week to keep my fingers limber and my copy-editing sharp. Like doing scales, only less annoying to the neighbours.

In the last few years, some things have happened. Some good things, sure, but also some fucking bad things. And I realized, after my son was born, that I'd sort of lost the ability to write my way through it.

A while ago, I admitted to myself that I have a bunch of stuff I'm yearning to write about, on a molecular, soul-deep level, but I lack the courage. This is the shit that has made me feel exhausted, terrified, lonely, and ruined. It's nasty, gnarly, bone-crunching stuff. It's talking about sickness and bad marriages and mental health. It's naming names. It's admitting that I've been close to the abyss, that the ground has crumbled around me and a few solid people have held me up. Writing about all of it means really examining it, and to be honest, I'm scared.

Because some of what I've dealt with over the last four years or so has been mental health-related, writing about feeling crazy feels a bit like a conjuring trick: will laying it out bare give it more power, like oxygen to a flame? Or will it wither and die when exposed to too much light? Will putting it down on paper make it realer? Will people look at me sidelong, like I've lost some essential handle on adulthood? Will they take my kid away? Will they put me in jail? Will I lose my job or the respect of the people I care for? Does talking about feeling crazy actually make it so? Is it safer to shove that part away, shove it down, gag it, strangle it, starve it? Deny it exists, and put on another coat of veneer?

If it sounds like I'm being melodramatic, you haven't been listening to these howling, fucked-up thoughts in my head.

And it's not just the intrusive thoughts. Really talking about what's happened in my marriage is opening up a huge can of worms: shame, embarrassment, fear, rejection, sadness, grief. And if things are good, or at least improving, then what's to be gained by dragging all those damned skeletons out of the closet for closer examination? "Oh, detective, it looks like this one really had its feelings hurt!" Much easier just to keep them in situ, tucked behind my summer clothes and the pants that no longer fit.

But, then again. If writing is my process, and I'm not writing, then how do I process?

There are those old stupid adages "Do one thing every day that scares you!" and "Courage is feeling the fear and doing it anyway!" both of which are fine if you are naturally brave and/or have a chilled-out life. I know plenty of people for whom these could be a mantra, and the idea of writing about their 2016-2019 inclusive would be, like, a big ol' shrug.

Writing about this peculiar kind of writer's block is my roundabout way of admitting that some topics are top of mind, and to write about anything else feels horribly inauthentic. When I really want—nay, need—to talk about my emotional state, the idea of writing about, like, Game of Thrones or which politicians I currently hate the most seems, not even silly, but like an active lie. And it's also a weird way of asking permission: will I alienate the people I respect by diving deep on this stuff? Much of it is very unpretty; I haven't yet turned a corner on a lot of it, and I'm not going to be anyone's bubbly influencer guru on loss, grief, or that shitty voice in your head that will sometimes stand in the corner and list everything that's wrong with you.

And again: I'm scared. It sounds dumb to be afraid of writing, but there's something about what I'm currently avoiding that seems like it would open floodgates, or lead to realizations that I would have preferred to have left undiscovered, or drive off the people who had helped me stay sane. I'm scared of more loss and grief, and the fear of creating it through my own writing seems preposterous but it's very real. (And yes, I know, I could journal and keep it all under lock and key, but the process would be the same re: floodgates and realizations. At least with blogging, there's sometimes a sense of give and take with people who have had similar experiences, or who can at least remind me that I'm generally okay, despite my critical interiour voice and/or the wolves that sometimes sneak under the door of my brain.)

At this point, just writing about writing feels good. It's a stretch, a good one, like after a long nap on a cold day. But it's not the main event, and I know it. So I'm working up the courage to get in there and unpack allllll the shit that has been giving me grief over the last few years. There's a lot. It's not appealing. I've been a huge mess, and I've talked about some of it with some people but no one has heard the whole story. (This sounds so dramatic! It isn't. It's just above-average hardships for white people in their 30s.) And maybe I'm asking for permission, or encouragement, or waiting for the right moment, but none of that will really come meaningfully from external sources. It's coming from me or not at all.

So stay tuned, I guess? I guess this is me saying, I'm going to try?