Thursday, July 28, 2022

Your Summer 2022 Flowerscopes

Aries: It is amazing to me how little a thing needs to be scary before I am scared of it. From movie trailers to green skies, to sending a text where I have to say no (especially to a social invitation), I balk and quake at the slightest thing. Is this a trauma response? Anxiety? A reluctance to maintain my own boundaries? Well, it depends. Sometimes, things really are scary, and I'm having the right reaction to it. And sometimes, they're not. The trick is to know which one is which.
Suggested hobby: kickboxing

Taurus: When I'm not walking in the woods, I want to be. I crave light dappled through the trees, birdsong in the air around me, a pair of sturdy hiking boots. But when I'm actually in the woods, I get a little panicky. Why is that man behind a tree? What if I roll my ankle?? Who knows I'm out here, really??? But I want be outdoorsy, so either I need to find a place where I can see any would-be creepers coming a mile away—the Scottish Highlands? Iceland?—or I need to cultivate a community of likemindedly skittish forest nerds. Which do you think would be easier?
Suggested hobby: Dungeons and Dragons

Gemini: In 2024, the Olympics will introduce the sport of breakdancing to its roster of games, and I am thrilled. Breakdancing was one of the first things I ever used the internet for; my sister and I somehow found a page about "how to breakdance," and I still remember its black-and-white line drawing illustrations of the turtle. We were absolutely bad at it—poorly coordinated and lacking upper-body strength—but just trying it made us feel a world of possibilities. We could have been breakdancers, in 2000. We could have been anybody.
Suggested hobby: karaoke 

Cancer: Part of the problem—the "problem"—of modern life is that everything lasts forever. Songs from every era become TikTok jams, or pulled into hit TV shows, themselves set in some other age, from the Regency to the 1980s. Streaming services offer reruns of media from our childhoods. But it's not just media—your stupid ex is still Facebook friends with your friends, and there are pictures of everyone everywhere, starting in about 2008 and going...forever. I miss the days when the past was in the past. It makes it hard to look forward sometimes.
Suggested hobby:
collage

Leo: I think we all felt it when Beyonce sang "I just quit my job" over a bouncy house beat, didn't we? Like, if Queen Bey is dropping out of the rat race, surely us mortals can take a nap. Over the lat six, four, and definitely two years, I have been craving rest like nothing else. I schedule breaks in my workday. I lie down after lunch. And still, it's not enough. What I need is brain rest, the kind where my thoughts are more like fluffy clouds and less like a red eyeball. I want soul rest, where I feel cared for and loved, even if it's just finding my way to back to myself.
Suggest hobby: cookie optimization

Virgo: In 2020, when the west was burning, a huge cloud of smoke found its way over Ontario, like a dirty contact lens over the dome of the sky. It was strange and terrifying—not the immediate terror of what was happening in BC and California, but that existential clench of oh, this is a dying world. But you know something, Virgo? The sunsets were fucking spectacular that month. It can be nearly impossible to find pleasure and joy in rawest existence, but that doesn't mean we should stop looking.
Suggested hobby: elaborate kitchen dance party choreography

Libra: Are you a grudge-holder? I'm a grudge holder. I come from grudge-holders, baby. It's an ugly part of me, for sure. I'm trying to unlearn it, because usually the person I'm grudged against either 1) has no idea or 2) does not give a single shit. The grudge hurts me and me alone, by letting the injury live in my head. But...at the same time...I don't know how to heal from some things. So what do I do with them?
Suggested hobby: DJing

Scorpio: You're supposed to be the sultriest and sexiest of the zodiac, the most lipstick-and-red wine among us, and I admire that about you, I do. But what of the Scorpios out there who like a pretty sundress and a white wine spritzer? Who spent their middle schools arranging their stuffed animals on their floral bedspread? You, who are no less serious, no less important, just because your heart is pink rather than blood-red. I see you, airy Scorpio. I love your light.
Suggested hobby:
romantic comedies

Sagittarius: My favourite genre of music is something we might call "an absolute banger," the kind of song that, when you hear it, inspires you to throw down your hardest, to leave it all on the floor. This is agnostic to originator—an absolute banger is just as likely to come from an African artist as a UK one, from the pop charts and the indie studios, from a guitar or a drum machine. It's more about the feeling they inspire—slightly destructive but ultimately generative of blood, sweat, tears, love, energy, possibility, etc. It's music to have weird sex to. It's music to scream to. A banger.
Suggested hobby: writing erotica

Capricorn: There is someone in Stratford who has very posh taste in shoes; for whatever reason, they ditch their footwear after only a handful of wears, and instead of selling them on Poshmark, they just drop them off at the local Value Village. And then I find them! It is fascinating to me to be part of the thrifting ecosystem, where the hunt might surface nothing more than a pair of Joe Fresh flip-flops, or it might bring you something that feels like a literal gift. Our joy often spreads much wider than we ever consider.
Suggested hobby: knitting

Aquarius: Well, it's 2.5 years after the pandemic started and it's now unclear to me how we're all doing. I got boosted today and am waiting to see what the side effects are this time around—previous rounds have knocked me back, and I'm like ??? for this one. Collectively, our small talk game is really bad right now, and we're also definitely in a seventh wave, which everyone is treating as inevitable even though it was not. And also I miss my friends. So where are we, these days, really? What axis are we measuring ourselves along today?
Suggested hobby: Pinterest hairdos

Pisces: "The cure for anything is salt water; sweat, tears or the sea." Karen Blixen, an actual baroness, wrote those words under her pen name Isak Dinesen, and often when I'm having a hard day, I think of them. Research into depression has shown that submerging into frigid water can help the brain battle its darkness—hell, even dunking your face into ice water will do the trick. And when I'm maxed out on childcare, I will sometimes plunk the child into a bath, cool or warm, and watch with half an eyeball as he shrieks and dunks and splashes until he has reset himself and I have done the same. How do reset yourself, my dear little fish?
Suggested hobby: trying new flavours of sparkling water

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Pocket Utopias

The other day, Noah and I were walking down the street when we passed by a truck stopped at an intersection. It was a family vehicle—bearded dad behind the wheel, a blank-faced tween in the passenger seat—the kind of truck people buy when they have very large dogs, or snowmobiles, or they like to camp. There was absolutely nothing remarkable about this truck, except for the trans flag that had slid down the dashboard and was peeking out the front windshield.

I have no idea if anyone in that family is trans. They might have attended the local Pride march a few weeks ago, stuck the flag in the truck, and then forgotten about it. They might have gone to a queer event—it is June, after all—as leaders, participants, or allies. There was nothing about that split-second observation—stop sign, truck, trans flag—that revealed any kind of story. 

And yet: I felt my heart get lighter. It's the kind of thing that would have been nearly impossible a couple decades ago, and difficult a few years ago. A casual show of support or of identity, jumbled in among regular truck-stuff, driving around in a small town in a blue riding. It's remarkable by being unremarkable. 

This has been a tough few years (hell, it's been a tough few days), and I find that the deluge of bad news turns me into a reluctant news junkie: analyzing the latest Supreme Court decisions from a country in which I do not even live, or trying to parse wastewater Covid graphs from my local health unit despite achieving no higher than a C+ in either math or science for most of my high school career, or reading the names of shooting victims or the location of another residential school mass grave. Being online means that I hear about this stuff; being a human means that it fucks me up.

So I live for these pocket utopias, these tiny signs that things are kind of good, maybe even great. 

An aside: this year, I made a decision to stop complaining about the summer. This season is challenging on many levels, from sun-triggered migraine to unhappy anniversaries to oppressive heat. I understand one hundred percent when people are unhappy from May to September; like, I get it. Plus, there's this existential dread that hangs over every hot day, like, "you think this is hot? You just wait" and then the heat-dome goblins come and turn everything into a 43-degree hellscape.

But at the same time? I have to take a step back from being miserable, because it's so easy to default to that. Besides, there are things to truly love about this time of year. The lushness of the season is a special luxury: the flowers and the backyard gardens, the leaves on the trees. I know that many things come with a dark side—hello, pollen, my old friend—but that also implies a bright side, no?

I'm not trying to be delusional in my optimism. I can credit mindfulness and radical joy for this shift in perspective. Mindfulness has given me the tools to actually notice all the microscopic loveliness in the world; radical joy gives me permission to celebrate them, even when things are certifiably shitty. And it's not a secret that things are bad! So many lines on the graph are heading up: food prices, ambient temperatures, number of people killed in mass shootings. I'm not trying to ignore that. But also, after two years of what feels like fairly unrelenting bad news...I'm ready to grab onto whatever positivity I can find. I'm ready to seek that shit out like it's drugs, baby. 

It's the reason I joined my local climate action group. I know, on an intellectual level, that there are zero things that I can do to stop the climate crisis. The people in charge know what they should be doing, and they just...don't? Instead, they spend hundreds of millions of dollars on space rockets and buying social media platforms and union-busting, and it's bad. Or they run through another filibuster, or approve another pipeline, and it's also bad. And there's nothing we can do about! 

But it turns out that being together with people as we name the problem—grief, powerlessness, rage, bureaucratic inertia—can actually help a lot. I have felt a lot of climate grief in the last five years, and this little group of cycling nerds and retired pastors and policy wonks and gardeners has allowed me to feel like we can grieve together. It's not a quite a pocket utopia, but it's edging in that direction. 

A pocket utopia doesn't solve the problems of the world, or even the household—it is a tiny, beautiful vision of change and possibility, and a slice of an easier and more loving future. They are always all around us—the new world is coming, after all—if only we can see them roll by.

Sunday, May 29, 2022

For the Love of a Good Magazine


I have to say, of all the print and written media I can access in my life, I love me a good magazine. I'm constantly looking for new titles and stores to browse, seeking out that perfect balance of tone and content and design that elevates a magazine experience from forgettable to one that I cherish.

Magazines are, by their nature, ephemeral. They're designed to be recycled, forgotten on airplanes, used as kindling. They're snapshots of a certain moment in time: our collective interests, hot takes, emerging trends, thought leaders, fashionable outfits, anxieties that ebb and flow as we discover new great and terrible things about the world, and, sometimes, a crossword. Intellectually, they stand in opposition to books, which are supposed be permanent and to signal a certain brainy rigor: a whole text, devoted to...whatever. Magazines are shorter, lighter, and skip from topic to topic with a charmingly dilettante approach. As a sidebar: this is an absolute blessing in the face of the phenomenon I call "the book that should have been a magazine article," which is exactly what it sounds like: a snappy, talented nonfiction writer trying to spin straw into gold for 180 pages, padding the content with repeated ideas and irrelevant quotes, instead of just accepting his fate as someone who should have written seventeen extremely good and memorable pages and not pressed his luck. Magazines win that round! Relatedly, books by start-up bros should be illegal.

If you're a freak like me, you keep your magazines. I have dozens of white boxes in my office, organized by topic and title: independent magazines like The Gentlewoman, parenting magazines I bought in 2006 (well before I had a child! I just liked the outfits, I acknowledge I am a monster), old issues of Wired that somehow feel timeless even though nothing on earth ages faster than an issue of Wired. I have magazines from 1980s Japan, archived because they ran advertisements featuring yours truly—I was, in fact, a child model in Japan, a thing about me that is very weird—and I have New Yorkers from just a few months ago, which I haven't fully digested. 

When I was in high school, you could find quality independent magazines at the gas station; I have a memory of picking up the inaugural issue of NYLON from a 7-11 because it ran a feature on Beastie Boys uniform chic. In our small town, we had a downtown store that was stacked with issues of Jane and US and YM, magazines about poetry and yachting and interior design and celebrities, magazines about DIY culture and fashionable parenting and homebrewing. The store also sold cigarettes, and with the decline of both print culture and the number of smokers, it should surprise no one that that address is now a fancy bicycle shop. I love biking, but I miss magazines. 

Blame the internet, as always: the magazine market lost about half its value between 2012 and 2022, declining at a faster rate than most information-sector segments—think books, movies, newspapers and TV—and many titles have transitioned to a less frequent publishing schedule, gone online-only, or folded altogether. And I get it: very few people want to keep an entire issue for a single look or recipe or project; that's why Pinterest exists and blogs get traffic. But I love being able to skip around in a magazine, discovering things I wouldn't have otherwise seen. It is hard to Google and get a true surprise, but magazines can be full of the unexpected and experimental.

I think I'm nostalgic for the of celebrity that prevailed in my teens and early twenties. I'm thinking about Rolling Stone covers shot by David LaChapelle and Annie Leibovitz, and when world-domination bands would share the reviews page with first-time indie artists, when they were still doing long-form articles about school shootings. I miss women's magazines, especially ones that had a snarky, irreverent, slightly shit-disturbing POV (think Jane and the radicalized Teen Vogue). I miss celebrity coverage from before the Perez Hilton era, when the tone really shifted from interested/laudatory into "I hope she falls down the stairs." There are gifts in living in the influencer age—the rise of hot, fat women, for instance—but the curse is that we are all products, all the time. Let me turn my gaze to a silky supermodel, not a craven entrepreneur/reality star/wellness guru. Let me be the object, not the subject. 

I am waiting for magazines to rise again, the way vinyl and cassettes did, because I feel like there's really nothing that compares. Social media moves too fast, a whitewater of information and images; websites are great but discourage cross-pollination (it's no surprise that my favourite post of any website is a link roundup: a chance to read some curated articles!); newspapers, because the world is a drag, are a drag; 'zines will continue like the punk phoenixes they are every generation, but have limited distribution. Magazines stand alone: beautiful, interesting, visual, intellectual. Weirdly disposable and yet nothing leaves a mark like they can. Join me in my weird archives any time.

Friday, April 29, 2022

And One to Grow On

I am going to be 40 years old next year!? In nineteen short months, I will forty fucking years old; my husband already refers to us as "middle aged," which Wikipedia tells me is incorrect and which drives me legit bananas, but my clicky ankles know better: it's coming, boys. These ankles know that in 580 days, I will enter my forties, the time when I am required by law to get a certain haircut and maybe have some sort of crisis re: death??

I have barely scratched the surface of anything at all; I spent most of my 20s and 30s trying to get my brain and body and life into a place where my choices weren't going to ruin me. I got my degree and worked at some good jobs; I no longer have an eating disorder and I got right with my relationship to alcohol and my desire to have a child; on the days I feel like obliterating myself, I no longer reach for the nearest thoughtless man. I've made progress! But I also miss some things from that era, like loud music at one in the morning as I'm kissing someone that might become someone; parties and pool-hopping and all-night art escapades; dumb outfits and good hair; feeling like anything might be possible, good and bad, like love was right around the corner and if this thing didn't work out, something else would. Remember those days? Before we felt locked into this track, a monorail life? Before I was tired all the time?

In the spirit of absolutely panicking about my encroaching mortality, here's a list of things I'd like to do by the time I turn 40 next year: 

  1. Travel. I really want to go to New Zealand because it looks beautiful and like Small Canada, but I doubt that I'll get there by next year. I could probably pull off a trip somewhere a bit less antipodal, like Europe?

  2. Decide what I'm going to do about my boobs. These things, man. I've had huge breasts since I was thirteen, and I'm pretty over them. They give me headaches and they never fit into bras; they look crazy in photographs and are just Too Damn Much. But at the same time, they're mine, I've never not had them, and I don't know how I feel about a breast reduction. So I should spend some time with the idea.

  3. Sew fearlessly. I am always very scared about sewing, because I'm a perfectionist and I hate doing things when I'm bad at them; at the same time, I like the idea of sewing, so I should sew more. Practicing the thing! Doing the thing! 

  4. Make more art. You know: stuff I can put on my walls that tells me about myself.

  5. Commit to my body. I am the fattest I've ever been and sometimes that bothers me—like when I see a picture of myself and I'm like, "who is that?" At the same time, I love not hating myself for what I'm eating or what size I am. This would be more an act of care for my primal home, which needs tenderness and some ass-kicking now and then. I love feeling strong and feeling sexy. I love looking good, even when I'm heavy. I am vain! I am hot!

  6. Commit to my friends. I am extraordinarily blessed that I have smart, amazing, creative, generous, kind, loving friends who have chosen me; I'm cursed with dumb jealousy and a tendency to dwell on the friendships that have soured, which really spoils the whole damn cake. This is a reminder to both pursue the people who feel good, and to revel in the relationships that work well now.

  7. Audit and edit. I have many, many things: magazines from 2002, skeins of yarn with no planned project, clothes that may never fit again, habits that make me crazy, relationships that feel stilted or distant. Taking a hard look at all my things and deciding which should be mended and salvaged, and which can be thrown away, is a great turning-40 project.

  8. Love my kid. Oh my god, I love my kid so much. I love his tender heart and his mean streak, his goofball jokes and serious play; his awful, beautiful, transcendent humanity. I love watching him with his friends and his grandparents. I love bedtime after we turn off the lights and he asks me to tell him a secret, after which he'll tell me a secret—a six-year-old confession of misbehaviour or a bad feeling, and I'll take the weight off his heart and carry it in mine. He's perfect, he's flawed, he's my absolute favourite person.

  9. Publish some fiction. I just started a writer's group and maybe this will be the kick in the ass/support I need to actually submit some stuff? To places? That publish?? Also, just accept the fact that I will never be a Serious Literary Person and write what makes me happy, which is science fiction and fantasy, and I'll never be in the New Yorker and that is fine.

  10. Write some non-fiction. I've been giving these really detailed and—I think—promising shower talks to myself about ritual and community, but when I sit down to actually write about these topics, I feel like a) an imposter and b) the weight of all the things I want to say are yoked around my neck and I need to get it right. What I actually need to do is just get it out, draft one, and then go from there.

  11. Make a quilt. Specifically, a quilt made from Noah's baby and toddler clothes. No, you're feeling tender.

  12. Decide on a home. I once read that "home is not where you're from; home is where all your attempts to escape cease," and so I don't know that I'm quite home yet. If Toronto called and invited us back, would we go? Will we buy a house? Will I throw my life into the sea in order to live in a yurt in the Scottish hillscape? Stay tuned!

  13. Therapy? We are currently seeing a couples counselor; I have also seen my fair share of therapists and done everything from CBT and group therapy to EMDR. What I'd like is a therapist who focuses less on all my weird-bad thoughts and more on my weird-bad body feelings when I have those thoughts. Does this exist? I'm so tired of talking.

  14. Sex stuff. I know my mom reads this so I'll just say: there are some things I'd like to do in my lifetime. They're on the list so I can check them off when I do 'em.

  15. Hair and makeup. This is so vain, but I just want to look predictably good at some point in my life. This is a two-parter: I want to figure out my wild-n-curly hair, which is sometimes an angelic cloud of curls, but more often a donut bun I wear on my crown because I don't like it touching me. I also want to figure out what I need to do so that I feel super pretty but with minimal daily touching-up. Is this brow tinting? Lash extensions? Fake freckles? A chemical peel? Better sunscreen? Who knows? Not me! I could try harder.

  16. Dance like a goddamn maniac. I love dancing. I love losing myself in a dark room, three drinks in, sweating, music too loud, going outside to cool down, going back in to ramp up. I love it. None of us have had in the last two years—most of us—and I didn't have it for a few years before that, due to solo parenting and baby-rearing and all the sundry parts of new-family life. But god, I just want to dance.

  17. Eco-grieve. I feel many kinds of ways about being a person on planet Earth these days: worry, guilt, anger, rage, fear. I fret about how to keep Noah in a place that might become fundamentally scarier by the end of this century; I worry about how I'll manage when I get too hot or too cold or food comes off the shelf or whatever other disaster hurtles towards us. I need to feel this thunderous grief for our mother-Earth; ignoring it makes it worse.

  18. Be with people. I don't even know what this looks like, but I do know that after two years of isolation and more years of feeling on the outside, I want to just be with people. Hanging out on the porch, digging in the garden, pushing kids on the swing, dancing on a hill, making art in a garage, volunteering, walking in the forest, trading eyerolls, all of it. 

  19. Cure the clicky ankle. And not just the clicky ankle: the sore hip, the itchy boob, the jaw that doesn't open all the way on one side, the uterus with a fibroid the size of a whole other uterus, the intrusive thoughts, the sinus pain. Because of my family's tendency to be diagnosed with bad things when we go to the doctor, I often go absolutely insane in advance of very routine medical appointments, and I will sometimes just avoid the doctors altogether if I think I can get away with it. Tending to my body as I get older as a way of loving that I am getting older. Ugh! Forties! Yay!


Sunday, March 27, 2022

The Baby-sitters Club and the Lonely Girl

To a lonely girl, books are a lifeline. It's a cliche, but it's true. The Wakefield twins, the Babysitters Club, Claudia Kincaid, Marcy Lewis, Turtle Wexler, April Hall: for the girls reading books between 1989 and 1996, that's a list of girl-heros and dreamboat high femmes, off on dates and running businesses, escaping their humdrum lives by moving to museums and, occasionally, the moon.

We moved around a lot when I was a kid. It wasn't until much later in life that I realized how much that had affected me: not having those deep roots, not hanging out in the same schoolyards with the same kids, and always feeling a bit like I was on the outside, not quite able to read the room. I was easily stressed and fairly anxious, laughed too loudly, used big words, and didn't always pay attention. I went to the same Brownie troupe for a year and didn't know a single other girl's name. I didn't know how to ask.

But I was a terrific reader. I read a lot, returning again and again to the same series, often the same books, until I had passages memorized. I wanted to live in their lives, astral-project myself into the pages of my favourite books. I wanted to be their friends, date their brothers, crash their motorcycles. Some books I owned; some I checked out many times from the library. Some were lost in moves or to leaky cottage roofs or fires. Some were lost to the merciless urge to rid yourself of relics from your worst years. 

***

Middle school was awful. I was bused to a collector school in another town—an hour in the morning, and an hour after school. In the first few weeks of grade six, I joined up with a group of girls from other elementary schools and for the first time in a long time, I had friends; by the time Halloween rolled around, something had changed, and I was out, baby. I wasn't allowed to sit with them, or talk to them. They made fun of me, my body, the way I spoke, and my confusion at their sudden cruelty. Because those girls were popular, others followed their lead; suddenly, I was the kid eating alone, the butt of jokes. Suddenly, I was the kid no one would talk to. I didn't know what my crime had been—a joke at the most popular girl's expense? A crush on the wrong boy? Did my boobs grow too fast that year?—but I was ostracized, persona non grata, and utterly marooned. The ones who rode on my bus put things in my hair, told me I smelled, kicked my backpack away from me. Written down, it sounds like nothing, it sounds like you could not be injured by this, but it was very bad.

This bullying went on for nearly two years, much of hidden from my parents until I was on the verge of collapse and wanting to die. Imagine that you are going through puberty and a friendship apocalypse at the same time. Imagine that you have acne for the first time and it is bloom, that you have braces and glasses and your hair has gone from softly straight to wildly frizzy, that your chest aches all the time. Imagine you know nothing about living in your own body; now imagine that your body has become a punch line to people you had considered friends. Imagine being bad at friendship in the first place. Now, not knowing what to say or how to say it is a life-ruining liability. Imagine being twelve years old and feeling utterly, completely, catastrophically alone.

In the intervening years, I've blocked out a lot of those middle school experiences. I remember the OJ Simpson verdict in 1995, someone listening on a contraband Walkman radio and then bursting into class, interrupting the teacher, to announce it: "Not guilty." I remember the South African girls whose parents made them wear long braids and long skirts. I remember Mark Bundy, small for his age, who would talk to me after all the other kids got off the bus, and I remember Kevin Jadayel, who teased me mercilessly as soon as he got on. I don't remember the names of the girls who shut me out. I don't remember the names of the teachers who watched it happen. I don't remember much. 

***

What I remember is reading a lot of Baby-Sitters Club books. I loved them. I read Sweet Valley High and a lot of Paula Danziger as well, but the BSC had a special place in my heart: I, too, babysat my siblings. I lived in a little town near a big city (metropolitan Ottawa!). But the differences were actually the key bit: they had friendships; I did not. 

I read them...a lot. For longer than I should have. I wanted to be carefree and sunny Dawn, or fashionable Stacey, or artistic Claudia. I was probably more aligned with reserved Mary Anne or bossy-ass Kristy. But they all loved each other, or liked each other, and even when they screwed up or flaked out or kept secrets, they stayed friends. This wasn't my experience: my friendships usually ended, either in that conflagration of abuse, or simply because we moved away. Here were girls who had been friends since they were babies, but who made a point of welcoming new friends. Here were girls who were humane. 

There was the 1995 movie, which I owned on VHS. There was rumour of a TV adaptation, which I never saw (HBO in Canada in the 1990s was some serious satellite-TV rich-person shit), and there were endless, endless books. There were super-specials about ski trips and putting on a play; Dawn moved away; new members joined; Mary Anne had a boyfriend and Claudia's grandma died. But the whole point was that they were each other's constants. Their web of friendship held them in dark times. I wanted that so badly. I craved it. If I couldn't have it for myself, these books were a dreamworld I could enter when I needed.

***

It's become trendy to talk about wounds in pop psychology—the kind of thing you would see an Instagram meme about—and for me, those two middle-school years of friendship and identity rupture were a big goddamn deal. Even writing about it today makes me feel sweaty, as though someone is going to read that I was once bullied and start the whole circus up again.  I almost never talk about it. Many close friends do not know this was something I went through. I feel ashamed of that part of my life. It left a huge scab on the part of my soul that deals with friendship.

In the intervening years, I have had that scab peeled off in a number of painful ways. I'm a human being with failings—I can be too direct, or make teasing jokes, and I struggle with jealousy—and I have had friendships end. In the aftermath, I've been made fun of. I've had former friends stalk me online. I've been left out of parties and fun things. And I've tried to let it all go, because I want there to be no wound. I want to be fine. 

But I'm not fine. That part of me will always be tender.

The last few years have been really tough. Like most people in their 30s, I still have a hard time making friends—I worry about coming on too strong, or not strong enough, and I have no idea how to be like, "so, what are your top three traumas and do you like your parents?" I'd probably be fine with dating—after all, there's an expectation of intimacy in romance—but in friendship, without an anchor like being classmates or colleagues or roommates, I drift. In Covid, we can't spend enough time together to draw close, compounding the problem. What would normally be a weekly playdate with our kids, or a regular coffee date, has become a "next year in Jerusalem" sort of timeline. We have been on hold for so long that it's hard to know where to restart.

 I'm lonely again. I crave friendship, again. I never really stopped, to be honest.

***

One of the things that got me through was the 2020 Netflix adaptation—now cancelled—of The Baby-Sitters Club. It is a very well-cast and well-written show, with very 2020 sensibilities (some very woke characters, some unexpected LGBTQ characters, et cetera), that has made me laugh out loud multiple times and covet several many outfits. And it's also just a really nice show. The stakes are fairly low. I don't feel stressed out when I watch it. The adult marriages are mostly okay. Alicia Silverstone plays a mom! I mean, it's just chill. We need more chill scripted TV these days. My nervous system is shot and I can only take so many baking shows, you know? 

But it's also been an enormously healing show. Seeing these healthy middle-school friendships embodied on the screen has been such a balm for the part of me that still hurts, 26 years later. These girls seem to like each other. They're connected. No one is sitting alone at lunch. I love that. I need to see that, again and again, to train my brain to believe that it's possible. 

The only other time in my life I've gotten as deep into a fictional universe as I did in middle school with the BSC was in 2018 with Harry Potter—a time when my life was falling to pieces, when I needed an escape hatch, and so I blasted myself into this alternate magic world. The BSC was another escape hatch, both then and now, and I think many of us desperately need more stories like it. 

I know this is a lot to put on a show about teenage babysitters, but the stories we come back to usually speak to a part of us that needs love. We need stories that heal us, that soothe us, that remind us that our stories aren't the only ones. Stories that remind us that friendship and love and connection are still possible.

Saturday, February 26, 2022

The House in the Woods

I turn 39 this year, which means I'm edging ever closer to my midlife crisis. As Millennial nostalgia is now in high season and Gen Z is embracing trends from my own puberty (rude), I get to consider myself having Lived A Life and can start planning for the inevitable next phase—the crone years, the apocalypse maybe, or at least thinking about having a clean house. 

At the beginning of COVID, people were talking about the end of COVID as birthing a kinder, gentler, more community-oriented world. Two years later, as we stumble towards yet another checkpoint disguised as a finish line, it's harder to be assured that this kinder-gentler version of the world still yearns to be built. I have seen friends go into delusional wormholes about vaccines and mask mandates; I have seen Black people in America and my own communities rightly march in the street against police violence; I have cried, watching my son play in the our backyard, knowing that thousands of Indigenous children in this country were stolen and killed or allowed to die at school. As I write this, there is war in Ukraine, food prices in have shot up, and Canada is under the Emergency Act because protestors shut down the Canadian border with anti-science demands. It's a time, you guys. It is a time

Back in 2018, I had an appointment with a social worker, who listened to me for a while and then said, "Yeah, it doesn't actually sound like you have anxiety. It sounds like you're reacting appropriately to what's been happening in your life." She encouraged me to visualize a place of safety and security in my mind, one that I could visit any time I needed to, as an escape from my ongoing crises. This advice struck me as odd, since visualizing an escape is not usually productive. But I was into what my brain conjured up: a cottage in the woods, with a little garden and a trail down to the water's edge. 

I've long been fascinated with all the paths I could take but don't. Some other version of me is in a Master's program, or is a full-time freelance writer. There's probably a version who has three kids, or no kid; one that stuck it out in Toronto and one that never went there in the first place. There are versions of me with dogs, or short hair, or who still smoke and drink like a monster, or who went vegan in 2008, or who powerlift competitively, or who teach Nia, or traveled more, or who got divorced, or who told that guy about my feelings for him in 2010, or who never lived in co-op, or who still has those friends. There are so many ghosts out there: choices I made and didn't make. 

An aside: for many years, I wanted to be a gardener. Someone who could grow flowers, and, importantly, food. My paternal grandmother was the kind of gardener who grew corn in her backyard, and I admired that about her. But for most of my adult life, I didn't put much effort into keeping green things alive. Houseplants withered, outdoor garden space was nil, and so I just assumed that I wasn't much of a gardener. 

In 2020, like many people, I frantically put some seeds into potting soil in the spring, and was astonished when they actually sprouted. When I put them into the ground, they grew. I read about how to care for them and how to make them bear fruit. And several months later, we had a bounty of tomatoes and zucchini and pumpkins. 

It turned out, I could be a gardener, if I wanted it. If I tried. 

It turns out some paths are not permanently washed away. 

I keep thinking about the experiences I want to have in my life: are they a shopping list? Am I trying to become someone I'm not, or am I trying to expose the core of who I really am? When I look at lists of values, I think, "Well, these all sound pretty good!" and it takes me a while to drill down on what it means when I say I value, say, gratitude. 

And I also suspect my incipient midlife crisis could be both mild and deep: what I'm craving is beautiful landscapes, rest, creative time, and community. Some of those require a plane ticket and two weeks off; others require more serious work, a true deep dive into who am I and how I want to live out the back half of my life. (Side note: why does building true community feels exhausting and overwhelming at the best of times? In a post-pandemic world, when everyone's politics and personality defects have been on display for the better part of a year, it feels even more isolating to try to figure out how to create a web. And yet I feel the sort of loneliness that isn't met by a single friend or a partner—it's the craving for a network, a village, a circle. Why does that feel so weird and woo-woo and cringey to write about?)  

I know that the more I continue on as business as usual, the more time I spend on the work-kid-knit-cook-sleep-shower treadmill, the more entrenched I feel in this one version of myself. And I only get so much life to do it all. And I become more and more aware that those other versions are floating away, never to be born into being. 

What is the definition of a midlife crisis, and how do we meet it? Other than throwing seeds into the ground that have never sprouted before?

I keep thinking about that house in the woods. Sometimes it does look like a house in a thicket, with a path that leads to a stony beach and great tide-offerings of seaweed. Sometimes it looks like an apartment above a downtown shop, with tall windows and a tiny kitchen and bright white walls. Sometimes it's plane tickets and a beloved hand in mine. Sometimes it's an ecovillage or a yurt, a drinking tea in a shared kitchen, and dirt under my fingernails by dinnertime.

And sometimes it looks planting seeds in the earth, trying to expand who I am and who I could be. Growth, across the fields of my life.


Saturday, January 29, 2022

Wes Anderson, Ranked

 

I offer you: an extremely definitive ranking of the films of a one mister Wesley Wales Anderson, also known as Wes Anderson: a director, of course; a visual stylist rarely paralleled in contemporary Hollywood (maybe only Quentin Tarantino would be as easily recognized by a single frame); a whimsician to the highest degree; a North Star in my own personal cinematic constellation. 

Wes Anderson is, to me, a certain shade of pink; a particular font; characters in uniforms (either official or of their own choosing); a warm soundtrack, probably filled with both classical music and pop hits from the 1960s and 1970s; themes of family, escape, adventure, alienation, redemption, and death; lavish production design that is scrutinized down the dust jackets on the books; framing borrowed from French New Wave and signature shots that include the god's eye, dollhouse, and slow-motion. (Taken together, these elements have become easy to spot and easy to spoof.) He is the first director that I was aware of as a director, when I first saw The Royal Tenenbaums when I was eighteen, the first movies I claimed as being for me. We recently re-watched all ten of his films, stretching from 1996 to 2021, and developing a rating of enjoyment was, for me, a wonderful undertaking.

Let us begin:

Isle of Dogs (2018): A good litmus test for a Wes Anderson movie is considering what it would be like if this was the first Wes Anderson movie a viewer had ever encountered. In this regard, Isle of Dogs is probably a failure. It's a high-concept story about a retro-future Tokyo where the city's dogs, diseased and infected, have been exiled to a garbage island, and one young boy—the ward of a corrupt and cat-loving mayor—goes to retrieve his loyal pet/bodyguard, Spots. The movie drags in places; the voice cast, while superb, is hidden behind stop-motion animation and puppets; and half the movie is in untranslated Japanese. Worst of all, the decision to place the story in Tokyo reveals a weakness in Anderson's trademark whimsy: his visual heightenedness can easily turn to the stereotypical, and this movie is not so assured that that turn doesn't happen. Missable. 

The Darjeeling Limited (2007): One of the major through-lines of Anderson's work is "daddy issues," or his attempt to process whatever feelings he has about parents. Darjeeling is the clumsy, clunky version of this work. It's a mid-career movie that is so formalized that the emotion comes across like a telenovela or a 1920s drama: there's a lot of shouting, a lot of explication of emotion, and characters talk like they're in a play rather than than actually feeling anything. The Indian setting is utterly wasted on the three brothers as they whine and sulk their way across the subcontinent. This one is boorish to me.

Rushmore (1998): On re-watching Rushmore, I was struck by how much I never wanted to see Max Fischer again. Like, he's an asshole. On the other hand: this movie is the larval version of what was yet to come, and those elements are fantastic. We have Bill Murray in a sad-sack role; some improbably and extremely good high-school theatre; and a Scottish bully who calls Fischer a "wee dirty skidmark," an insult that is actually perfect, I have no notes on that. When I was younger adult, I was sort of charmed by Max's arrogance; now, older, I can see that it's 100% shitty, and the quick turnaround Max evinces over the last 20 minutes of the film feels forced and unearned. If the movie was about literally any other character than Max, I wouldn't have fallen out of love with it.

Bottle Rocket (1996): Anderson's first movie has some of his cinematic trademarks, like his in-camera slow-motion, and it also marks the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration with Owen Wilson. In all other ways, this movie is a generic love story/lazy heist movie. It's a bit slow, quite small, lacks a memorable soundtrack, and isn't all that quotable. I mean, it's based on his film school thesis, and it shows; it's enjoyable, but it's not really a "Wes Anderson" movie in the ways we've come to expect. I still liked it more than Max Fischer, though.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004): I once had a boyfriend for whom this was his fall-asleep movie, so I watched this twice-monthly for nearly a year, and reader, that is too many times. I remember being disappointed when it first came out—I found the quasi-meta-documentary set-up contrived, I missed Margo Tenenbaum desperately, and the animations were unserious—but considered next to Darjeeling, its daddy-issues duological twin, Zissou is more fun, has a stronger cast, tells a more cohesive story, and is probably one of his funniest films. Plus, the soundtrack is perfect, I have no notes on that.

The French Dispatch (2021): Anthology movies are tricky, because navigating shifts in cast, tone, and style can disorient viewers: here we were, having a nice time, and all of the sudden, that story is gone! Never to be seen again! The French Dispatch is filmed versions of stories appearing in a venerated New Yorker-like magazine: three main tales, plus an introductory section where Owen Wilson walks us through a faux-Paris where most of the action takes place (and, in my favourite joke, falls into a subway entrance). Like all anthologies, there are more and less successful segments: the first, a portrait of an artist told in flashbacks by the absolutely marvelous Tilda Swinton, is probably the best; the middle section, a student-uprising narrative ("the children are grouchy"), would be forgettable if not anchored by Frances McDormand and Timothee Chalamet; the last, a tale of food, queer loneliness, and a hostage situation, is about as meditative as Anderson can get while still featuring a chase scene animated in the style of Herge's Tintin. This is Anderson at play, which is fun! We like a not-totally-serious Anderson.

The Fantastic Mr Fox (2009): When Anderson first announced that he was going to be making a stop-motion adaptation of the beloved Roald Dahl book, I was like [insert Scooby-Doo voice] "Ruuhhr?" But here's the thing about Wes Anderson: because he adheres so closely to his regular themes (family, alienation, and coming-of-age) and his cinematic style (French New Wave), introducing new genres or audiences can actually feel quite thrilling. Not having read the book since I was a child myself, I can't tell you how closely the film hews to its source material; what I can say is that Wes Anderson's entry into the genre of children's film is technically marvelous, yes, but also tender, warm, funny, and interesting: all things a children's movie should be. (Tied with Grand Budapest)

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014): This was the first movie in seven years (!!) that Anderson made explicitly for adults. Ralph Fiennes is perfection in the role of M Gustave, the preening maitre d' of an Alps-adjacent hotel right before the start of not-quite-WWII. His young mentee, a lobby boy named Zero, will become his successor, and this is their story. The movie is a nesting doll: a tale inside a memoir at least two layers deep, and the cast, therefor, is absolutely riotous with Big Name Actors. If this movie has a failing, it is that, like Darjeeling and Isle of Dogs, the female characters are greatly underserved: few in number, and playing young-person or old-lady roles that shunt them to one side in favour of The Men and Their Feelings. But this is a darker, twistier Anderson than we've seen before, and it's rather delicious. (Tied with Fantastic Mr Fox)

Moonrise Kingdom (2012): I love this movie, and that is because of, and in spite of, it being thornier than some of the others on this list: the kids are moody young teens, the adults are swept up in their own extracurricular dramas, and the setting—a New England island before it's ravaged by a storm—feels cooler to the touch than Anderson's rumpled New York City or his extravagant hotel rooms. But I believe this movie is a bit of a trick: instead of being "for" adults, I actually think Moonrise Kingdom functions the way a young-adult novel from the 1960s-1980s would: high adventures, very interested in the process of becoming an adult (flawed though we may be), romantic without being super sexual, and keen to feel everything. It is dreamy and weird, and perfect for a phase in a young person's life where they themselves may feel dreamy and weird.

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001): This is where it all began, for me. We saw this movie as a family in the theatre—probably on New Year's Day 2002, or a few months later in New York City—and where I fell in love. I was nervous to watch it again, as it had been a defining event for me in my late teens and early 20s, but I haven't watched it in at least a decade. The story of a fractured family of former geniuses who are duped by their ne'er-do-well patriarch into coming together for a last hurrah, I fell in love with the characters, from the rumpled glamour of secret-smoker/writer Margot; Ritchie and Chaz, the damaged brothers; Etheline, their no-nonsense mother, and Eli Cash, the drug-addled novelist who always wanted to be a Tenenbaum. Leading the charge is Gene Hackman as the irascible Royal, who is always running some kind of con or jibe; Billy Murray plays a key supporting role, as do a number of other Hollywood legends and Anderson regulars.

Rewatching it, I am struck by how much Anderson's movies benefit from having women at their centers; both Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelica Huston are perfect, and their stories anchor the whole plot, which is unusual for Anderson and very welcome. This the last movie Anderson did on a relatively small budget ($21M, compared to Zissou's $50M), and the whole thing feels more organic, looser, and playful than the ones that came next; it wouldn't be until 2009's Fantastic Mr Fox that Anderson would make a movie that feels as playful as this one. While most of his movies traffic in redemption narratives, this one sticks the landing: the characters start out bedraggled shadows of their former selves and end the movie, however, shakily, where they're supposed to be. It's a love letter to all the ways families fail us and lift us up, and all the ways life swerves and dips, and all the ways we are wounded and we heal. When one of his sons says to Royal, "Dad, you were never really dying," Royal replies waggishly, "Yeah, but I'm gonna live!" What better motto do we want?