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?

Saturday, March 9, 2019

(Un)Lovable


Back when I was learning French, there was this common giggle that would sometimes run through the classroom: the mixing-up of "je suis" and "j'ai." For the non-Francos in the reading audience, "je suis" means "I am," while "j'ai" means "I have." Every year, some remedial case would mistaken say "je suis chaud!" and one of the classroom pedants would snarkily reply, "Oh, you're the human embodiment of heat?" (NB: that pedant was sometimes—but not always!—me.)

It might make no sense to read it "j'ai chaud" as though it meant "I have heat," like you were a dog or a menopausal woman, but in reality, that's exactly how you use it. You are not, in fact, the human embodiment of heat; you are someone who feels the effects of heat on your body, possessing the qualities of warmth for a time, and then being released from them as your dad inevitably turns the thermostat down, again, he's not made of money you guys. It's a key difference between English and French; it sometimes pops into my head to remind me that English, the lingua franca of the Internet, has funny quirks and weird effervescence that we don't always see with the naked eye.

It was the same reason "Tammy Pierce is Unloveable," the comic memoir that ran on the back page of BUST magazine, made me so uncomfortable. The Roz Chast-style illustrations—all manic wavy lines and haunted grimaces—combined with the awkwardness of adolescence, was just a scootch too familiar. Tammy Pierce was a gong show, for sure: constantly getting her period in the middle of gym class and accidentally brushing butts with the school's resident dreamboat. She was an ur-teen: horribly relatable to all but the most well-adjusted high schooler.  But combined with that declarative, inviolable IS UNLOVABLE, right across the top of the page? Suddenly, Tammy's whole normal, awful human experience had been indicted as unworthy, alien...unlovable.

Look, I know that I read too much into things. I have an English degree. I was trained to overthink a text in the same way a doctor can take a temperature; I can think in themes the way a composer thinks in melodies. This is great if I want to explicate the homoerotic themes of Billy Budd; less awesome if I start thinking too critically about myself and my own life.

In my late 20s and early 30s, I was...kind of an awful person? I had finally reached the pinnacle of human achievement, which was having a steady boyfriend. I had a job that paid enough that I could be low-grade snotty to my parents without real repercussions. I had enough time to work out, so I was looking [insert flexed-arm emoji]. And I hadn't yet internalized the idea that other people might not love being gossiped about, might not think jokes at their expense were hilarious, that an apology wasn't a "Get Out of Jail Free" card for thoughtless behaviour, or that the perfect outside-looking-in scene wasn't a replacement for a messy, imperfect, interiour relationship.

In the couple years after I got married, but before my whole world fell apart, I lost two close friends. In the process of disengaging from our friendship, they both said basically the same thing: you're not really all that nice, you're not really all that kind, so we're gonna...go. And go they did.

In the moment, I thought I would be fine! I was like, "Pfft, those girls don't know what they're talking about. Have you seen how hot my body is these days? I'm fiiiiine."

Reader, it took a while to kick in, but I was not fine. I coasted along for a few years, but in the span of about 30 months, there were some huge traumas, only some of which were of my making or under my control (parental cancer! birth trauma! eviction! homelessness! an affair! hell, let's throw a cockroach infestation in there for good measure!) and suddenly, the inside of my head was a pretty scary place to be. I struggled with the idea that, if I had made different choices, like not having a baby, we wouldn't have been evicted or my dad wouldn't have gotten sick. I responded to all these injuries with rage, or emotional shutdowns, or suicidal-ideation-level anxiety. I made jokes. I stopped sleeping and eating. I ate a lot. I looked out the window at a white sky, and felt a sweeping, paralyzing fear that my life was unfixable, that I was unlovable, that I was being punished for not being all that nice or all that kind.

Some days, I still feel that way. I feel like the turns my life took was a sort of punishment for letting those friends go, for being kind of a shitty person. In my early 20s, I was bulimic and a binge-drinker. I took eight years to finish a four-year degree. I have always been a late bloomer, and not a little emotionally stunted. In my early 30s, all that dumb shit came home to roost. I had done a bit of therapy, but honestly, it was like knowing how to paddle a canoe in the face of a tsunami. It's not quite the same skill set.

Every relationship is based on, you know, relating; it's a two-way street, where each person starts with his or her own values, priorities, interiour language, sense of humour, justifications, dead zones, and boundaries—what Anne Lamott refers to as "your emotional acre." In the process of creating a friendship, you hope that enough of those things match up, and that there can be an honest flow of emotion and good vibes. I think that's what people mean when they say "we grew apart": that the street just got a little too long, that the middle was too sparse. Sometimes, there's an earthquake, and a rift will open up right between your zones, and there's no way to clamber over the wreckage without getting exhausted. 


It's funny, because I don't fault either of those people for ending their friendships with me. Going through that process, in addition to all the other stuff that happened, has given me a what pop-psychologists might call a growth opportunity: a chance to take a step back and examine who I am in a crisis, who I want to be, and where I need help. I had been a shitty person; was I still? Was my behaviour who I was, really?

Last summer, when the affair and the cockroaches were all I could think about, I lost my sense of humour. I didn't want to talk about it all the time, but the inside of my brain was just screaming, constantly. I didn't know how to say, "Fuck, I need to talk about this but I can't have another sympathetic look or another piece of advice or another person say, 'god, I don't know how you do it, you're so resilient,' because realistically, I'm thinking about taking the toaster into the tub with me right now, as we're talking, so I'm going to smile and nod and then say I'm tired, which I am, and that I'm going to sleep, which I'm not." So pardon me if the jokes are thin. Losing my sense of humour, which I had carried with me through what I had thought were the worst times, made me feel fucking awful. It made me feel unlovable. It was like I was constantly seeing myself through the eyes of those old friends: the people for whom I was not nice, and not kind.

Maybe that's just...who I am? Maybe mean, shitty people deserve a mean, shitty life.

Or maybe not. I mean, look at capitalism: if that whole shitty person = shitty life thing was real, we'd have honest politicians and great HR departments.

My most favourite people are not unscarred by their own traumas. They have lost parents and partners, become estranged from family, been evicted, lost jobs. They are still kind. They're my goddamn role models these days: the people who are smart, funny, compassionate, kind. The people for whom anger isn't a dirty word, but neither is it a guiding force. There's a meme that surfaces every now and then, saying something like, "the kindest, softest people got that way because their life was harder than you can imagine," and for some people, I think that's true. The wolf you feed is the wolf that grows, right?

That whole growth opportunity that surfaced before comes down to this: I have a choice these days. I choose to keep living, which is an obvious one, but sometimes, I have to say it out loud. I choose to try to improve myself: read the books, do the therapy, wait ten seconds before speaking, find the forgiveness. I choose to try to improve my life: move, get fulfilling work, try to maintain the friendships that work and, these days, forgive myself for losing out on some that didn't. I am imperfect, both in who I am and what I do; I choose to accept that, too. My own emotional acre got blown over and dug up and infested with cockroaches; it's not going to be a rose garden any time soon. But the soil is fertile, and I'm trying to make some things grow.

Maybe I am unlovable. But I don't think so, these days.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

A Hermeneutics of Food

Food should be delicious.
Food should feed at least two of your three hungers (mouth, belly, heart).
Food should avoid being precious.
Food should avoid trying to be something it isn't: vegan hotdogs, for example, just should not.

Food should be made to eat quickly, standing up over the sink.
Food should be made to eat while driving, or riding on public transit, or pushing a stroller.
Food should be made to eat while sitting at a restaurant while four teenagers or college students hover nearby with water carafes and table brushes.
Food should be made to eat at dusk, after the sun sets into the water, and the grill is hot and everyone is just a little drunk.
Food should be made to eat at a desk, which you hate.
Food should be made to eat at a table for two on a vacation that has been in the works for over a year.

Food should be made to seduce, to impress.

Food should be made by women, but men-chefs get all the attention.
Food should be made by cooking school instructors who themselves were taught by old men, so that everyone who is anyone is still learning mother sauces as if anyone wants them.
Food should be made by your mother, so pay attention when she's in the kitchen, because her food will form the spine of your memories and when she's gone you will grieve her by grieving her potato salad.
Food should be made by your father, who will try to put pickled banana peppers on dishes they have no business being.
Food should be made by apprentice chefs who work long, long hours and who live in small, empty-fridge apartments.
Food should be made by people who do not give one single fuck about what they're cooking, but need to pay their rent.
Food should be made by eccentrics who live on Patagonian islands and cook like angels for groups of four.
Food should be made by immigrants who came here to have a better life and who know what the hell they're doing so just show them once and leave them alone, Martin

Food should allow you to recall other fine moments in your life.
Food should allow itself to be forgotten.
Food should be simple.

Food should be consumed on a melamine table off a paper plate while sipping from a plastic straw.
Food should be eaten languorously, like a cat who is playing peekaboo with a can of tuna.
Food should be scarfed down without ever looking at it, never taking your eyes off a smart phone. 

Food should loosen your chest and allow you to breath easier.
Food should quicken your pulse.
Food should make your shoulders stronger, from kneading and pushing and stirring and whisking.
Food should make your belly softer.
Food should cut across your tongue with a lash of acid, followed by a blurt of fat, each balancing the other out.

Food should not be too hot. It can sometimes be too cold.
Food should not be a challenge to those eating it. (I see you, lobsters.)
Food should not make the eater feel bad or stupid, in the case of "not getting it" when it comes to chefs with Opinions About How Food Is Done.
Food should be a mix of all foods, from all places.
Food should be sacred and separate, according to passport and time zone.
Food should be prepared according to the eater's religious deferences.
Food should tell you when it contains insects.

Food should be taken home from a farmer's market and cooked that same day.
Food should be packed up in boxes when you move houses.
Food should be forgotten in the fridge until it liquifies and is awful.
Food should be purchased in a hurry from a chain grocery store while you try to head off a tantrum from your toddler.
Food should be eaten only with good wine or filtered water.
Food should be eaten only after at least one beer.
Food should never be eaten with a beverage.
Food should always be eaten with a beverage.

Food should avoid making you feel silly when you eat it.
Food should not be fancy just for the sake of being fancy.
Food should not be low-brow just to prove a point about fanciness.
Food should not avoid its own truth.
Food should try to be plain, unless it is very fancy, in which case it should just go ahead and be fancy.

Food should be delicious. It should be simple, unless it's impossible to make simply, in which case it should be extravagant. It should be seasonal and fresh. It should make your body feel good; if not your body, then your heart, or your mind. It should be familiar, unless it is truly the first time the dish has been prepared in human history, in which case it should be sublime. It should be a real part of your day, but feel free to ignore it in favour of more pressing matters. It should be delicious, though. Don't eat it if it's not delicious.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Sagittarius at Gunpoint



I have this theory about memories and moving. It goes like this: when you stay in one place as a kid, you're connected to your past in a way that people who moved around a lot aren't. You can walk past a park and say, "That's where we went sledding every winter," or "That's where Dan's brother knocked his own teeth out with a bottle rocket." You grow up with the same group of people: elementary school, middle school, high school, bachelor parties, first communions, whatever. Your parents are friends with the same people they went to school with. There's a web. When you're a kid, it's invisible. When you're a teenager, it's stifling. But when you're an adult, it's reassuring to know that you can, kind of, go back to the same old haunts. I know, I know: change is the only constant. But even when they rip out the bank where you opened your first account and replace it with an A&W, you can still remember the bank.

I moved five times before I turned thirteen. My dad worked for IBM, so we would relocate, stay in a place for a few years—three, three and a half—and then he would get promoted so we would pick up and move somewhere else. It was never just down the road: we moved from Toyko to Calgary, from Ottawa to Victoria. I went to five different schools before I started high school.

On paper, this is glamorous. "Oh, you lived in Japan. You were a child model. You rode elephants in Thailand and spent Christmas in Hawai'i. Must have been amazing." And I'm sure it was! I have mementos of those experiences, like a little Thai outfit that I will one day stuff my own child into, or a tee shirt from 1985 with a whole travel itinerary applied in iron-on felt letters down the back: Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia. But I don't actually remember much about that time in my life. I was too young, and everything was too transient. Nothing is truly foreign to a young kid, because everything is happening for the first time—there's no context that says, "whoa, this is unusual!" because every damn thing is out of context. Childhood is literally creating context. (Exhibit A: we took an infant to see the Chihuly exhibit at the ROM and I was blown away and he was like, "Oh, more colourful shapes, like the rest of the world.")

I don't remember the bedroom I had when I was ten. I don't remember my teacher. I don't remember what our dining room looked like, or if we had a basement, or what the bathrooms were like. I remember snippets: getting a rug in the shape of a teddy bear and setting up camp, lamp and all, in my closet in Calgary, only to be told it was a fire risk; leaving a Japanese lesson having learned the word for octopus (tako), and thinking, "I'm never going to need to know that one" (never thinking that one day I'd greedily eat takoyaki on ramen dates in my thirties); taking the bus to my first date in Victoria (I saw the Fran Drescher vehicle The Beautician and the Beast, with Little Frank); my sister's second birthday party at my grandparent's cottage; ice skating at the Calgary Olympic Stadium; sitting in the car and eating McDonald's pancakes before skating on the Rideau Canal, my newborn brother's bellybutton stump and how gross it was. I barely remember any friends; I remember a handful of moments, with vague sketches of buildings or people in the background. Without that constant reiteration of this-is-where-that-happened, memories don't stay. I sometimes think about what it would be like to show up at our house in Tokyo and ask to take a look around. Would I remember things then?

I don't know that my parents ever thought of any one place as their "forever home." They had both come from small southwestern Ontario towns; as a family, we never discussed going back to either of them as any kind of "homeland." My mother's parents had been living near the Bruce Peninsula for a few generations, but my father's parents had escaped post-war Poland with zero fucks given. We've never visited, never been in touch with family over there. That side vanished into the forward-thinking ether. Our nuclear family was our whole world, for most of my life: aunts and uncles and grandparents lived a flight or a ten-hour drive away. Every few years, friends and teachers and neighbours would be in the rearview mirror. Aside from my family, I don't know anyone who's known me since I was a kid. Even as the world was big, our web was small.

If you're up at all on your star signs, you might be familiar with the idea that Sagittarians are natural travelers. We yearn for the road, wanting to see the world, never feeling settled in one place, never wanting to. But what if that's forced upon you? Would it be as fun? As urgent? Frankly, I'm a terrible Sagittarius: I'm rarely optimistic, change bums me out, and extroversion makes me sweaty. But the travel thing has always made me curious. If I chose it, would I love it?

The driving force of my adulthood has been finding home. It propelled me into relationships, and made my biological clock deafening. It has been seeking the place where I feel most myself, most human, and finding that most everywhere comes up short. (As I write these words, it occurs to me that the geographical cure for whatever is wrong with me was never going to work, because feeling outside is an issue with my insides; but, certainly, a sense of being from somewhere in particular might have helped define some edges.) Being nomadic in my childhood, keen on escape in my teen years, and evicted in my thirties, has given some broad strokes of why this particular concept might have eluded me. And honestly, I don't know that I'll ever be "from somewhere;" Stratford is the closest, and it feels good to be back; I'm still keenly aware of the history people have with each other here, stretching back to pre-K and sometimes earlier.

My main memories of childhood are of airports and flights. I remember a sunrise over the cloud cover during a red-eye back from somewhere far. I remember TVs suspended above seats, every screen playing the same movie, cheap headphones given out by stewardesses. I remember the different music channels we would tune into, and how the children's channel would loop every 90 minutes; on a fifteen-hour flight between Chicago and Narita, you could hear Peter and the Wolf ten times. I remember the in-flight meals, delivered on greige plates, the excitement of getting a whole can of ginger ale to myself, the little fake salads and gravies that were not the right colour. I remember how loud the toilets were when they flushed, and how thrilling the moving sidewalks were. I get knocked sideways by sense memories, like the particular smell of a jetway, or of a hotel with a pool.

And it's not like I feel robbed of anything, because I'm sure the experiences I had were valuable and formative, if not exactly seared into my conscious understanding of myself. But I also wish that I knew where capital-H home is for me, truly. Is it Stratford, where I went to high school? I've moved back, and it feels a bit like I'm pretending at rootedness. Is it Sauble Beach, our seasonal home since forever, but only during the summer months? Is it any of the other places, or somewhere further back? Would my Polish great-aunties welcome me? (Doubtful, if their surly New World counterparts are any indication.) I feel most alive when I'm on the edge of a great wind, usually next to a large body of water, with all the ions in the air. I've never lived there, but I've felt that wind, and it feels like it unlocks part of me I didn't know existed. Can I live in a gust of wind? Can I bring my toddler and husband?

Once, during a move, a hotel clerk tried some small talk and asked me where I was from. I didn't understand the question—we were moving towns, so technically, we were homeless, but the idea of being "from somewhere" was also just not something I had internalized. "Toronto," I answered, even thought I hadn't been there in years, and didn't know anything about it; I had been born there, so I was from there, right? She peppered me with questions about what I liked to do in the city, and I stared at her, blank-faced, because I wasn't really from there at all. I wasn't from anywhere, in that moment. And that is something I remember.