Five random facts about me

Elan Morgan tagged me in an old-school meme project to share five random things about myself. Interestingly (randomly?), she also tagged Vikki, at whose dining room table in Minneapolis I am currently blogging. It’s like duelling bloggers around here: me coming up with five random facts about myself downstairs while Vikki comes up with five facts of her own upstairs in her office. That’s how we roll. (Elan also tagged, for the record, SuebobAlexis Hinde, and Eden Riley.)

Without further ado:

1.       My undergraduate and master’s English degrees both focused on African-American slave and post-emancipation literature. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and my MA thesis on “passing” — the complicated phenomenon (and I won’t do it justice here) of black people passing for white and vice versa, as well as queer people passing for straight, etc. I was so consumed by that literature, by thinking through and analyzing those texts for patterns, trying to make meaning of it all. And while I imagine that all that thinking has shaped the way I look at life today, that period of intense academic analysis now seems so far away.

2.       When I was about six, my parents took what I believe was their first-ever holiday without children. They went to Aruba, and my father’s mother stayed with me and my brother, in the spare room. While my parents were gone, their bed caught on fire. A frayed wire from my father’s clock radio sparked on their metal bed frame, and that spark caught their bedspread, and — flames. I remember being woken up by my brother yelling “Fire!” I remember the smoke billowing out of my parents’ bedroom. I remember witnessing that smoke, and then going back into my own bedroom and getting back into bed. To this day, I can’t quite decide if this story is one of immeasurably good luck or of immeasurably bad luck.

3.       I used to teach yoga.

4.       I am missing a tooth. My right adult eyetooth just never materialized. Since I was 12, I’ve had a series of more and less successful prosthetic teeth and bridges. Occasionally, a bridge has come loose and I have had to spend the weeks or days before I can get to the dentist holding my tooth in place with my tongue. Sometimes, this results in hilarity.

5.       I assign personalities and memories to inanimate objects and unrelated moments. The colour of paint in Isaac’s room reminds me, every time, of an otherwise insignificant friendship I had in grad school. At a certain point in a exercise class in the gym, I always think of a certain client. Related, I used to imagine that that dust motes dancing through sunlight were fairies. I used to think that I must be the only person who experienced the world in this way, but now I imagine that most people do. That's both comforting and kind of disappointing.

Who will I tag? That's more difficult. Okay, I will spin the bottle and call on Sarah Gilbert, Stacy Morrison, Karin Cope (who supervised that undergraduate thesis), Rebecca Keenan and Deb Rox.

Friday favourites, brought to you by Benedict Cumberbatch and more

Here are some things that have made me happy lately:

The Sunday New York Times in general, but this copy of the New York Times in particular, because my friend Nikki brought it in specially for me from Ottawa after my somewhat desperate call for newspaper culture. Thank you!

 

This quote from Flaubert, which I got out of a previous edition of the Sunday New York Times (you’re sensing a pattern here, aren’t you?), from an interview with the actress Julianne Moore: “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois so that you may be violent and original in your work.” Apparently, this is how Moore structures her own life. I’m thinking there’s some merit there.

Knitting! I am re-ravelling, slowly and gleefully, my unravelled guilt-blanket. So far, I’ve made this:

And I’m onto a second one, and a third one (because multiple projects on multiple needles, yo — I’m going to learn how to do cables this time round). On the Monday of the Thanksgiving long weekend, I spent a blissful couple of hours on the kitchen floor, sorting and untangling and colour-coding yarns, which are now propped up on one of my office bookshelves for inspiration. 


Come on over and make something. Yes, that is a double-dog dare.

Come on over and make something. Yes, that is a double-dog dare.

Inspiration is contagious: Rachel is now knitting a scarf, and Isaac is getting in on the action with some gods-eyes (is there another name for that craft with the popsicle sticks? If so, let me know).

This post by my friend Elizabeth Jayne Liu, which combines stunning writing with stunning beauty:

I’m not a fan of hard work, but very occasionally, I can force myself to do it. So at the end of June, when I made the commitment to get real and work through the ugly shit I’ve kept cordoned off in dark corners, I thought that a monthlong break would be enough time to address my demons, and I would come back, like, perfect. Allotting 36 days to clear away debris like addiction and anger and depression seemed pretty generous, and I actually made a list of things I might try in case I finished a few days early. I watched a tutorial on how to make an owl zipper pull using the Cra-Z-Loom, and of course that bitch was #1 on my list.

I’m not sure how 36 days turned into 102, but I just want to take this opportunity to mention that if any of the coping mechanisms you use to stay functional involve pushing down grief and pain and rage about your past or your present, and you unlatch the gate that’s been corralling those feelings and they all escape in a mad rush and you have to chase each one down to see if it really belongs to you or it can be returned to the wild, um, you’re not going to have time to make that owl zipper pull. Yeah, I know, it was a surprise to me too.

Letters — as in, letters handwritten (or typewritten, but only on vintage typewriters with no connection to the Internet) on paper and sent via the post. When Ello came out, something visceral twisted in me. I don’t need more online social networks and status updates — I need deeper, one-on-one, social connections; long, meandering, run-on paragraphs. Ink on paper. The New York Times. I’ve sent a few missives into the world in the last few weeks, and several have found their way (or are on their way) to me. Alexandra sent a bunch of clothes, including this greased-lightning belt, for Isaac.

He wouldn't stay still for a picture, but he loves this thing. We had to take it to the cobbler to get it resized. He's worn it almost daily.

He wouldn't stay still for a picture, but he loves this thing. We had to take it to the cobbler to get it resized. He's worn it almost daily.

Brent sent a bunch of pig-themed notecards. I’ve sent chocolate, and books, and notes and letters out into the world — and I’m sure some knitted projects are going to find their way into envelopes and to the mail in the not-to-distant future (see how I tie that up so nicely there, bringing it back to the knitting?). Write to me. I'll write back.

Benedict Cumberbatch — yes, yes, I know I’m very late to this party, but on Wednesday evening I saw his 2011 performance as the monster in Frankenstein, piped in via satellite from London’s National Theatre. And man, he was brilliant. He and Jonny Lee Miller traded the roles of Frankenstein and the monster each evening — and now I can’t decide if I want to see Miller’s version of the monster or whether I just want to hold on to Cumberbatch’s brilliance. For reasons beyond my control, I can't embed the link to the preview, but it should be playing at various theaters in North America next week. You should go see it, and we can compare notes.

Have a good weekend, full of things that inspire.

Trapping

You know what I love? You know what makes me feel lighthearted and fancy free and oh-so-breezy? When Isaac says, “Mama? Don’t come in my room, okay?”

Fortunately, neither of my kids is particularly good at keeping secrets yet. Although I don’t how long Isaac could have kept this particular secret. Maybe only until someone walked into his room and punctured their foot on one of the couple of dozen or so industrial nails he’d masking-taped to the floor. Tips upward. Ready to thwart all intruders. “But it’s my trap,” he said, in response to my, “Oh, no. Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no. No.”

 

Maybe it’s me, but sometimes, there’s just no room for a little bit of flexibility. Sometimes, things are just a bad idea. Sometimes, you have to take all the sharp, pointy, industrial nails off your floor right now, because there is creativity, and there is stupidity (not to mention liability), and I know which side of the line I would like to be on. Even as I admire his ingenuity. Even if I'd love to see him take out a warthog.

Because I am a terrible mother, I insisted on him taking down his trap. And because I have at least a shred of common sense, I took it down for him when he stalked away huffily. But of course I took pictures first, because, seriously? His trap was amazing.

RIP, NYT


This? This is the last Sunday New York Times I will be able to buy in Thunder Bay for the foreseeable future. I picked it up on Thursday and I’m going to try to read it as slowly as I can, savour every last word. I’ll probably even read the sports section — I often do anyway, because it’s that good.

I’ve written recently about trying to bridge the distance, close the mental gap between where I live and where I wish I lived, about trying to be here now, be here happily, even. And, truly, there is much to love about this city, chief of which are the people who live here. But it’s also true that part of what makes this city livable for me is that I get to leave it a fairly regular intervals for doses of big urban spaces, the chance to lose myself in cities.

And when I’m here, part of what makes living here possible has been the Sunday New York Times.

When we first moved here from Toronto, 10 years ago, you could still get the Globe & Mail delivered daily. And that was a decent thing, but the best thing about it was that if you were a Globe subscriber, you could also get the Sunday New York Times. I admit, after a while, I started vacation-stopping the Globe during the week, emerging from my pseudo-vacations long enough to have the Times arrive on Sunday. I felt bad, but I started to get tired of seeing the same stories from the Sunday Times appear in the following week’s Globe. And with babies and toddlers, I didn’t have time to read a daily pretty good paper, so why not hold out for one, fabulous, newspaper that would carry me through the week? My sneaky workaround came back to bite me in the face when the Globe & Mail — you know, Canada’s self-declared national newspaper? — stopped delivery to Thunder Bay, leaving us with the digital edition at best, and a sudden dearth of Sunday Timeses.

And no, I don’t want the digital edition, so don’t ask me about that. I stare at a screen all day, anyway. I want paper.

So, when some guy in Thunder Bay — let’s call him Gary — began driving to the border each week to pick up all the good newspapers for us diehards, I was elated. First, Gary delivered them to the local comic shop, but after that got to be too inconvenient the owner, he switched over to Charley’s Ticket World in the mall, where I lined up dutifully each Sunday afternoon with all the other addicts, although they were mostly buying lottery tickets and cigarettes, and I was buying the paper. And every time I got my paper from Charley’s Ticket World, I was always kind of surprised it was there, because really, how long was it going to be before Gary decided that driving an hour and a half minimum each way on a Sunday to cross the border to bring back newspapers in generally inclement weather was going to get old?

Not long at all, my friends. Not long at all. Gary, bless him, has seen the light, and I am counting out my last Sunday New York Times pages and trying to see how long I can make them last.

And yes, let’s go on and on about our First World problems, and say what you will but I adore this paper and I really wish I lived somewhere real big enough so that I could read it regularly without relying on the crazy kindness of enterprisers like Gary.

So: a plea. If you happen to be lucky enough to find yourself on a Sunday in a place real, I mean, populated enough to carry the Sunday New York Times, and you happen to be travelling shortly thereafter to Thunder Bay: message me? See if I’ve managed to get my hands on a paper for that week, and if I haven’t, please do pick one up for me. I will pick it up from you. I will pay you back for it. I’ll even bake you cookies. I just want my big-city culture fix. I hate that it’s so much to ask.

What's always been within

I’m reading Pema Chӧdrӧn’s How to Meditate. (What do you mean, how do you meditate? You just sit there and breathe, right? And focus on your breathing, right? Well, yes. Go.)

I want to underline everything Chӧdrӧn writes, just whole pages of underlines and highlights, because, thus far, pretty much every single sentence resonates, like I could pick each one and write pages and pages about what it means to me, even as “the settled nun” suggests that, as you develop a meditation practice, as you begin to “really get in touch with the feeling, the underlying energy, of your emotions … you begin to let go of the words, the stories, as best you can, and then you’re just sitting there.”

Just sitting there.

I wonder if there’s a special category of meditation for writers and storytellers.

Right now, though, I’m not meditating. I’m just sitting at my computer, dictating words into the screen while I knit, and I am thinking about this particular passage:

Meditation is a transformative practice, rather than a magic makeover in which we doggedly aim to change something about ourselves. The more we practice, the more we open and the more we develop courage in our life. In meditation you never really feel that you “did it” or that you’ve “arrived.” You feel that you just relaxed enough to experience what’s always been within you.

What’s always been within you. Transformative practice. The yarn I’m knitting with is yarn I’ve had for close to two decades, maybe more. When my brother got engaged, I decided to knit a blanket for him and my future sister-in-law. I picked this crazy Kaffe Fassett tumbling blocks pattern — dozens upon dozens of colours and strands of yarn, woven together in this complicated, three-dimensional riot. I spent weeks measuring out yarn and winding it onto individual bobbins, weeks and months more beginning to knit it, and I don’t know how much longer fretting over it, cursing every dropped stitch or tiny mistake and all the implications that followed from those. And then, finally, I gave it up. I never gave my brother and his wife a wedding present. And I shoved all that gorgeous yarn into some bins in the cedar closet in my basement.

Recently, though, I’ve retrieved the wool from its basement prison. I’m in the process of unravelling my work, pulling out all those painful, painstaking, jubilant, beautiful stitches, rewinding the strands onto the bobbins. I’ve looked up new patterns, for simpler projects, ones that won’t tax my hurt arms and wrists, that will keep me and other people warm, that will harness the beauty and the potential that have been sitting there for so long, waiting. (Rowan and Isaac are so upset by the apparent destruction of this project; they want me to keep it, finish it, and while I love their faith in me, I'm hoping that maybe they will learn something about boundaries and letting go from this example. But I guess that's their business.)

What’s always been within. Transformative practice. The yarn is there. Just like the yards and yards of fabric that I cut, years ago, into strips for a log-cabin quilt. There’s a longer post there, but the short version of it is that in the past couple of months, I somehow managed to resurrect the project yet again, to begin again the seemingly overwhelming process of sorting and pinning and sewing and pressing and ironing tiny bits of cloth into larger versions of themselves. (It helps so much that Isaac is interested in the project and that he can now iron. I have a homegrown quilting buddy. That's awesome.)

What’s always been within. I’ve wanted to learn how to play guitar for God knows how long, and now I am slowly teaching myself how to, by the simple virtue of the two friends who have dropped off guitars, no strings attached (oh my God, I didn’t even realize that was a pun, let alone such a bad one, until I reread that — both guitars had literal strings attached, for the record), for as long as I need them to learn, by the boundless resources of my friends who play, by online teachers. It was never difficult to get supplies or knowledge, but the impetus has always been within me, just waiting for me to sit down and commit to figuring it out, to showing up and focusing so hard I find my tongue poking out of my mouth as I try to play an F chord fluently. I will one day, won’t I?

What’s always been within. Transformative practice. Like how little, really, we actually need to go grocery shopping. The pantry, the chest freezer, the cupboards — they’re all overflowing. For a few weeks, now, I’ve been avoiding the grocery store, trying to see what I can whip up with those dried beans, that odd cut of meat from the quarter cow we purchased back in November, that can of rice-stuffed grape leaves, the beets and carrots and zucchini and garlic from our own garden, that cylinder of gourmet tea. I’ve written about this before: It’s amazing, what’s here already and what we can create from it.

Just like it’s amazing how many pairs of shoes I have, how many beautiful items of clothing that I forget about until I pull them out and try to combine them into new outfits. There are so many books to read in this house, and more at the library. I have some of the best friends imaginable, and they are lovely and generous to talk with. I have thousands of hours of music that I barely listen to. I can get on my year-old, gorgeous bike and be somewhere new in minutes, can drive out to the Cascades and lose myself in the rush of water and the permanence of rock.

Same with writing. The material is there, if I dig deep enough in the cedar closet or the pantry or the shed or wherever it is that I happened to stick and ignore it. I finished a draft of a short story today, one that's been brewing for close to a decade. (I wrote it while knitting; some kinds of multitasking seem to work together, the hands busy with their repetitive stitching while the words flow.) All I had to do was sit there (with the Internet turned off and my phone hidden in my underwear drawer, obviously) and get the words down, sometimes slowly, sometimes awkwardly, but down.

There’s a mistake in the knitting project I’m working on now — a knit stitch that should have been a purl or vice versa, several dozen rows down from where I’m at now. I’m ignoring it.

I’m trying to stay in this space, to remember it especially when a longing or anxiety or dissatisfaction (the Buddhists call it dukkha, Pema tells me) take hold of me. I'm trying to remember how much of this action is very likely propelled by that very dukkha, that I can do all those things when apparently consumed by it. It doesn’t actually matter how I feel. And I can do all those things in the hopes that the dukkha will dissipate, but mostly I just have to do them to do them.

I’m not intending to be all Pollyanna-ish here. I’m not chastising myself or anyone else for our blindness to our plenty. I'm not ignoring the reality that many people don't have the resources, the space, the time, the sheer luck and the luxury of having so much and the space and time for transformation. I’m not saying that everything will be better if we just wake up to what’s within. I’m just trying to stay awake and alive to what’s actually, objectively, almost always available to me if I simply slow down enough to access it, work with it. And sometimes I look up and realize that I’ve forgotten about everything else except the next stitch, the fashioning my awkward fingers into the next chord, the peeling of the beets, the downward thrust of my foot on the pedal. It's always, all of it, already there.

 

 

 

The Gideons — not just for hotel rooms, apparently

I haven't been called a fascist by total strangers in what must be WEEKS now, so I decided to write a little post for Today's Parent on why in the H-E-double hockey sticks I will not be giving the Gideons permission to give my fifth grader a New Testament:

Sure: the Gideons don’t just hand out the Bibles any more — although they used to. Sure: I do understand that, nowadays, parents do have to give permission. But the fact that it’s even an option to give permission is problematic. Permission forms that come home from school aren’t neutral, no matter what anyone says. When my kids come home with permission forms, it’s understood that the default, encouraged answer is YES. Yes, Johnny can go ice skating with the class. Yes, Fatima can go on a field trip to the museum. Yes, I give permission for Enrico to join the chess club. Yes, Sook-Yin will take part in the public health dental program. Permission forms imply good things, wholesome things, healthy things, things you should participate in. Just by sending home a permission form, the school has already set itself up as suggesting that receiving a Bible is a good thing. And it may be, and it may not be, but it’s simply not a decision that a public school board should get to make for any of our children.

(Seriously — I can't believe that this practice is continuing at the Lakehead Board of Education. It's been discontinued at the public school boards that cover the overwhelming majority of Ontario's students: Toronto, Peel, York, Durham, Hamilton, Kitchener-Waterloo, Bluewater, Ottawa-Carleton and Niagara district school boards, among others, as well as in most of BC, New Brunswick and in Iqaluit. Why is it still happening?)

 

So, you want to be a parenting writer? Prepare to be humbled. And maybe saved.

I never get tired of seeing my byline, gotta say.

I never get tired of seeing my byline, gotta say.

Back in the summer, I got an assignment from Today’s Parent magazine to write a story for the “behaviour” section of the book. The topic? Ha. A thousand words on — wait for it — why kids don’t listen and how to get them to. 

You know, no biggie.

I’ll admit it: wrapping my head around that topic and writing a coherent article nearly broke me. Such a huge subject, so many perspectives, so few words, so much at stake. In a behind-the-scenes article for the magazine’s website, I talk about exactly why this article ate my emotional lunch, and what I learned from it:

I was … wracked with anxiety. How on earth would I ever do justice to the topic when I couldn’t even get my own kids to close the refrigerator door or come downstairs for breakfast? And how on earth would I even begin to approach a topic that enormous? Almost every parent I know could fill pages just listing the ways in which their kids ignore their seemingly reasonable requests: What could I possibly say that could make a difference? […]
I realized that I needed to rethink my whole approach to the subject—not to mention the way I interacted with my own children. Here are some things that I learned:
First, kids don’t listen to us, their parents, because kids are human beings with their own agendas. And sometimes—often—our agendas simply don’t match up with theirs. My agenda might be to make sure everyone gets to school on time. My seven-year-old’s agenda, though, might be to find and rearrange all the glittery rocks in his room into a three-dimensional collage that simply has to be finished right now, because that’s where his creative vision lies. My nine-year-old’s agenda, on the other hand, might be to read the book that he is reading, in bed, in his pajamas, even though, “Breakfast is ready, Rowan. Rowan, breakfast is ready. Rowan, if you don’t get up and get dressed right now and come down for breakfast you’re going to be late. Rowan—are you listening to me? I’m not going to say it again: You’re going to be late!”
[Ten minutes later: “Late!”]

You can read the rest here. The full article — with all its transformational tips and tricks and insights and good stuff — is out now in the magazine’s October issue (and online). Check it out! And fill free to leave me a comment with your best tips or your most maddening “not listening” anecdote. Or both.

 

Space

Lately, I’ve been craving vastness.

I’m blaming it on small-town (fine, small-city) life: not enough urban density, strip-mall architecture instead of cityscapes and soaring buildings, the same old same old round of a half-dozen restaurants and bars and cafés. I keep thinking of big cities, everywhere I’ve been in the last 12 months — San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta, Toronto, Montreal, Los Angeles — and I’m chafing against the familiarity of this place, the way I can recognize the supermarket cashiers, the way everyone looks the same. I’m longing for somewhere big enough to be anonymous at the same time as I’m aching for my far-flung comrades. I’m chafing against the stark contrasts between home life and vacation life and my desire to integrate them, find some way to find the common ground between room service and no obligations or bedtimes and packing lunches and taking out the garbage and, oh, working for a living.

I’m blaming it on this parenting gig, the way it circumscribes my schedule, keeps me close to (closed in by) home as I navigate life with two small people in tow. Rachel is out of town, and so I am feeling acutely the pull and stress of amusing children, getting them to their various activities, the driving and the drop-offs and the back-and-forth of where are you and are you safe and can you wait to talk to me until your brother is done? It’s hard to leave the house some days with these two sets of often-competing interests, but of course staying home all day on a rainy Sunday leads to sure and utter disaster. The kids are alright, just fine, but I’m telling myself that parenting isn’t necessarily expanding my horizons at this very moment.

I’m blaming screens. I’m blaming the one I’m staring at right now as I compose this blog. I’m blaming the ones about which my children negotiate constantly. I’m blaming the tiny one that goes with me everywhere, its constant feedback or lack thereof both a lifeline and a stranglehold. Again, it's the problem of integration: how to come to a place of peace between virtual and physical worlds? How is it that the vastness of the Internet can fit into my pocket and give me tunnel vision? I had a massage yesterday, and my lovely, snarky massage therapist worked all the angry muscles in my neck and arms and shoulders and said, gently, “Do you think that you might look down a lot at your phone? Do you ever take a vacation?”

I’m blaming, I’m blaming. And even as I blame, I know that all this railing and blaming don’t particularly expand my horizons. And so what I try to do when things feel small, when my ribs constrict my lungs and my heart doesn’t have space to beat and pounds against my chest, is to stretch, find space.

On Sunday, that meant availing myself of a lovely friend to babysit and then getting on my bike and riding as fast as I could to the movie theater to see Boyhood — revelling in the big screen, in the Houston and Austin cityscapes and the hugeness of Big Bend Ranch State Park. Last night, it meant actually shelling out for a babysitter and watching (with the same friend) Gillian Anderson, Ben Foster, and Vanessa Kirby in A Streetcar Named Desire — even if I couldn’t be at the Young Vic Theatre in London, I could watch the live satellite stream of the production, and that was pretty amazing. (Yes, what I wouldn’t give to have been in the flesh-and-blood audience, but I’m trying here, people…). It means playing hooky from the obligations in my head to have a beer with a grieving friend on a weekday afternoon, and finding myself surprised by the intensity and emotion of the conversation that ensued at that bar. It means taking a chance on Tomlin, a new restaurant in town, and feeling life relax and melt over pork chicharrones and charred broccoli and grilled trout in a lovely space that could have been anywhere else I’ve been over the past year.

And, many days, making my life feel bigger means this: the Cascades. You walk a short distance through the woods and then end up on a vast, exposed chunk of the Canadian Shield, some of the oldest rocks on Earth. You can't get cell reception at there. Yesterday, a friend and I went there. We had planned for a quick walk around the neighbourhood to save time, but she showed up at my door and said, “I really think we need to go to the Cascades,” and I hugged her. And we scrabbled up and down the worn stone, next to the rushing water. And we talked — another one of those so many conversations I’ve had of late that brings tears, unexpected, to my eyes, nothing in particular so sad, just that everything right at this phase seems to bubble and rush to the surface.

And in that space, so big, so old, so primal, things shift — at least temporarily — into the proportions that I need. For a few moments, in this exact space, in this exact moment, life is the right size in relation to everything else.

I'm trying to learn how to hold onto that.

Little boxes

I've mentioned before that one of my superpowers is getting artists to sell me works of art that they don't actually want to sell.

It's not as though I'm some mercenary art trafficker, stealing art-babies from their sad parents just for kicks (which makes it sound as though the LAST thing that any working artist would like to do is — horrors! — sell a piece of work). It's more that I seem to hone in, coincidentally or not, on the pieces that resonate with their creators. I prefer to think it's not coincidental, that I am in fact some kind of artist-whisperer who can tell, just tell, when an artist is truly in love with something they've made and then earns their trust enough to let me give their work a new home.

All of which is by way of saying that Kathleen Baleja did not want to sell this little series of nested glass boxes to me. And yet, here they are:

I bought these pieces when Rowan was a baby. Kathleen was participating in a cross-border studio tour featuring Thunder Bay and Northern Minnesota artists, and we packed the baby into the car and went for a drive to see pretty things, counting on him to be fairly placid in the car and to fall asleep on the drive back. Which he was, and did, and it's nice to have memories of when babies did sleep as well as all the memories of when they didn't. I remember, vaguely, singing lots of "If you're happy and you know it" on that little road trip, and popping in and out of studios to see whether Rowan was still asleep in his carseat. It was during that stage of babyhood where I could leave him for 45 seconds to, say, pee, and he would grin and coo and clap his hands when I came back into the room. EXACTLY like he does now. Except silently, in his head, while reading a Big Nate book.

BOXES! Sorry.

I've always had a thing for tiny treasure boxes, vials, wee lidded ceramic jars, what have you — they hold the possibility for endless potential, for surprises every time. Isaac has a similar fetish: his room is littered in layers of mason jars; fish tackle boxes filled with beads and Rainbow Loom elastics, sparkly rocks, coins pressed into clay, sand, glitter, Valentines, metal curtain brackets.

And these stained-glass boxes take the concept to an entirely new level: one inside the other like rainbow-hued Russian Matryoshka dolls (also totally fascinating and evocative to me as a child — and check out these ones), until you get to the red one (the size of my thumbnail!), which holds a tiny feather. Kathleen said that she was experimenting to see just how small she could go to create a functional container, and that was it.

Both kids adore the glass boxes, and will frequently ask to look at them. Sometimes I say yes, when I can handle the thought of a child’s fingers opening and closing delicate glass lids, sliding one highly breakable tiny glass box into another. Sometimes I tell them I'm simply not up for the stress. I want the boys to get as much tactile and visceral pleasure from the work as I do, but I also want to work to survive. So, mostly, they sit quietly on my desk, and sometimes when I'm working, I un-nest them and line them up next to me on my desk (they are lined up just so right now), and I open and shut their hinged lids just like Isaac and Rowan do, and I check that the feather is still there (it is). And I stack them one on top of the other, and I, eventually, put each one back inside its sisters, and I took them gently away in my little desktop altar of things that inspire.

My gay husband — New post on VillageQ

IMG_1539[1].JPG

Hey there – today on Village Q, I'm talking about why everyone needs a Gayhusband, even queer women:

Back in August, I came home one day to find my gay husband on my back deck, sweaty and intense, his arms elbows deep inside my … barbecue. What did you think I was going to say, gutter mind?
My gay husband, whose actual name is Rob, was deep-cleaning the barbecue. That’s one of his jobs, as was assembling the barbecue. He also washes dishes, makes lattes, occasionally batch-cooks vast quantities of stew or gazpacho (depending on the season), acts as our in-house tech troubleshooter, and holds the ladder while I clean out the eavestroughs. (He holds the ladder with one hand, while in the other, he manages to balance a latte and browse Grindr on his phone.)

Go thee and read the rest  posthaste. 


Labour Day

Skipping stones, Hazelwood Lake, last light.

It's Labour Day. With a U, because we are in Canada. And I'm writing this at 5:24 in the morning, because — yet again — I can't sleep. Which reminds me of what it was like to be pregnant and constantly awake. Which is making me think about how the summer itself parallels pregnancy: nine weeks, instead of nine months, ending with a Labour Day.

At the beginning of it all, you're sort of surprised and giddy and excited and just slightly nauseated at the thought of summer: on the one hand, I mean, you made it through that craptastic winter. But now the reward is, you know, nine unstructured or only semi-structured weeks to carefully fill with day camps or travel or camping trips or — what we're doing right now — JUST HANGING OUT.

By the middle of the summer, like the middle trimester, you're more or less used to how summer works — the slower, more casual pace, the later bedtimes, the raspberries and swimming, the not deciding what will be for dinner until half an hour or so before dinner when you throw something on the barbecue. You're even enjoying yourself. It's like it's always been summer/like you’ve always had a tiny human growing inside you and it always will be/and you always will. And it's manageable, sometimes even pleasant, if occasionally slightly unsettling.

But now, at the 11th hour of summer vacation, at Labour Day, I'm done. I am done with the free-flowing schedule and the lack of structure. I am done JUST HANGING OUT and its accompanying nonstop requests for screens or to bake cakes or to arrange playdates, of juggling work obligations with childcare, of trying to write between 7 and 9 AM and conducting magazine interviews with two boys and two friends thundering screaming to the house. I am ready for these children to vacate the premises, much as one is ready, at 40 weeks, for said infant to vacate the uterus and give you back your body.

Except. Except that our school district, in its infinite wisdom, has seen fit to add a [insert loooong string of exclusives here, beginning — ironically — with "mother”] PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT DAY IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWING LABOUR DAY to the school schedule. What kind of asshats schedule a PD day for the day after Labour Day? (I know what kind: the number-crunching, budgetarily minded kind, but that's a different blog post.) For the record, I really haven't experienced full-out labour: Rowan was breech and therefore a planned C-section; Isaac emerged naturally after approximately eleven minutes of intensity. But I kind of imagine that this is the equivalent of being told, after 24 hours’ worth of mind-numbingly painful contractions, that one is only two centimetres dilated and, well, nothing to do but push through the next 24 hours.

Which is what we’re going to have to do.

When these two children leave the house for school on Wednesday (Wednesday!), I will take their picture, and I will hug them both tight, and I will — very likely — get teary. And those tears will be equal parts joy — at my two enormous, beautiful, growing boys making their way out into the world — and part relief: that the labours of summer are over and those two enormous, beautiful, growing boys are back, thank God, in school.

An open letter to my son, on who gets to be safe on our streets

– Hey Isaac?

– Yeah?

– How did you feel about walking to B’s house all by yourself yesterday?

– [Two thumbs up]

– Did you feel like you knew you were doing?

– Yes.

– Like you knew where you were going?

– Yes, but I had to stop and smell some of the roses along the way.

In my post this week on Today's Parent, an open letter to Isaac about just which of our sons get to be safe on our streets:

[,,,]

You probably could’ve taken this step—this series of steps—earlier. You’re seven, starting second grade. But we’ve held off  for several reasons, chief of which is fear. Not fear that you couldn’t do it. Not fear that you might be abducted, hurt, or worse. We were scared of what people might think of us for letting you walk down (not to mention cross) neighbourhood streets alone at age five, six, seven. We were scared that we might get arrested, or cited by the Children’s Aid Society.

 Which is ridiculous on so many levels. Statistics Canada reports that Canada’s crime rate is the lowest it’s been since 1972, both in terms of absolute numbers and severity. Child abduction by strangers is astonishingly rare here, too—overwhelmingly, children who go missing are taken by family members and close “friends.” In other words, our kids may be better off playing alone or with their peers in the park than under close supervision by people they know—although you wouldn’t know that when police in the United States lock up parents of seven-year-olds and nine-year-olds for walking by themselves to or playing alone at the park (things I did freely at your age, by the way, Isaac).

I resent that fear. I resent its effects on your own freedom and independence, as well as on mine. I resent the warped view it gives us both of society and its relative safety. I resent the misplaced focus on this so-called well-being of our children, of the misguided reliance on police involvement to keep them safe—and I resent it these days especially in light of the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the police shootings of so many other young black men in the United States. Sure, lots of people are not safe on North American streets, Isaac, but (and this is entirely unfair) you’re not one of them, at least not on our street. And I deeply resent, on behalf of society as a whole, the sharp racial and class divides that make going to the police unthinkable for some people and entirely too easy for others.

You can read the rest here. Have a peaceful weekend, everyone.

Friday favourites: Platinum Dirt, Ski Queen, Until the End of the World

Here's some stuff that's inspiring me lately:

P1040049.JPG

The soundtrack from Wim Wenders’s Until the End of the World. I saw the movie with my friend Peter sometime during a Montréal summer in 1991, and then I listened to the soundtrack obsessively for years. I pulled it out it out during a recent road trip and it's still so evocative. I need to watch the movie again. The premise — (loosely) people becoming addicted to revisiting their dreams — seems so prescient/relevant these days, when so much of our lives is chronicled and available online. How long will it be until we can see each other's dreams? Here's my battered CD copy.

(Speaking of movies, we watched the original Karate Kid for family movie night a week or so ago. Still totally awesome, and I love the kookiness of its premise: in six weeks, YOU TOO can not only get the girl but ALSO become California's reigning black belt karate champion! All you have to do is landscape Pat Morita’s yard! More seriously, though, I love how director John G. Avildsen just lets the story unfold in its own sweet time. They don't make patient movies like that any more.)

New pens! I’ve been writing with these since forever and still love them.

My new “shark” bag from bag Platinum Dirt: I splurged on this one while I was in California, and am now regretting not splurging further on a couple arm cuffs and other accessories. You guys, this bag curves around my body and is made from recycled Cadillac leather upholstery. Plus it has two inside pockets and one of them is lined with fuzzy, fuzzy material. It holds everything, and it doubles my cool quotient just by wearing it. Plus it looks like a shark fin in backpack mode. 

This cheese. I hear Norwegians eat it for breakfast, which is another reason why Norwegians are so sexy. It's like caramel. But cheese.

An atheist walks into a synagogue with her kids…

I made these. For reals.

I made these. For reals.

My latest post on Todays Parent explains why, as an atheist, I still take my kids to synagogue. Reason #1: Community.

Community: We live in Thunder Bay, Ontario, population 110,000. Of that 110,000, approximately 50 people are Jews. I’m not kidding. When I take my kids to synagogue and they celebrate Shabbat and Hanukkah and Rosh Hashanah with a couple of dozen (or just a few) other Jewish people, it lets them know that they’re not alone, that they’re part of something larger, that they’re not freaks.

You can read the other reasons here

 

On pain

cracking up, holding together

cracking up, holding together

I’m working on a big client project right now. The subject? Ha. Pain. Specifically, pain for cancer patients: what it is, what causes it, what it feels like, how to talk about it, how to treat it, people’s fears and emotions around it. Yesterday, I spoke with a lovely, lovely man who was so open and generous with me about his (ongoing) physical pain: what he lives with, how this disease has bankrupted him, how difficult it was to make his needs for relief to hospital staff understood and respected. He broke down a couple of times during the conversation, and we sat in silence for several moments while he collected himself and I focused hard on keeping collected.

And yet, the first thing he said to me when we got on the phone was, “You sound tired.”

I am tired. I’m not sleeping all that well. These are painful times for so many of us, at so many levels. Acute and chronic individual physical pain; anxiety and depression, as so many of the responses to Robin Williams’s death have brought up; the ongoing atrocities in Ferguson, in Gaza, in Syria, in places too numerous and scary to mention. It feels as though we’re all living a little closer to the surface right now, more nerve endings exposed, rubbed raw and referring outward, pinging off of other things so that we don’t know exactly why we’re weeping in the grocery aisle, doubled over in the archway between the kitchen and living room.

From this project and others similar to it, I know that people find it hard to describe their pain, to remember it once it’s passed, to articulate it in the midst of it. Personally, I've found it difficult to say much articulate, coherent, about world events, but I'm not comfortable sitting in silence either as people's humans rights are violated, over and over. I don't want to be the hospital nurse who could do something to alleviate the pain and chooses not to. It’s exhausting to live in the midst of pain, to get up as it literally and figuratively knocks you over again and again, to stand and move forward. Some of us don’t get to stand up and move forward. Too often, that’s through no fault of our own but an accident of geography, chemistry, skin colour, gender, sexuality, heritage. And guess what? In my research for this project, I came across this: “Inadequate pain treatment in patients with cancer remains a significant problem and appears to be more frequent among minorities,” who are nearly twice as likely as white patients to receive inadequate pain treatment. 

No wonder I’m so anxious these days.

Pain is information. It’s a sign that something is wrong, that something needs to change. We need to change things, because we are all too tired, rubbed raw and living too close to the edge. We need to take care of each other, every single one of us, to ask what we can do, to do what we can without being asked. We need to say, "You sound tired,” to open up about what’s going on and — if nothing else — sit in silence for a moment or two of acknowledgment, and then find some way to speak up, to help. 

My new digs — aka, Why you need to redesign your blog

Let’s backtrack a bit here: have you noticed this blog redesign? This entire new website? Are you kvelling the way I am over this new space? Because — I’m just going to say it — it’s gorgeous, isn’t it?

It was a long winter, as you may recall, and maybe the longness and coldness of that winter lulled me into thinking that I’d feel more like writing once things had thawed. And that may have been at least partially true, but a truthier truth was I didn’t feel like writing in large part because I had outgrown this blog’s old home.

When I first started blogging, 35 weeks’ pregnant with Isaac, who is now seven, it was a side project, an experiment with a platform and a technology and a practice. I began blogging as a way of creating a sustained personal writing practice, without much understanding — and how could I have known? — where it might all go. The short version is that it’s gone many, many places and that, now, blogging is no longer a side project but an integral part of my career and my (writing) life.

So I talked to writer, website designer (and friend and roommate extraordinaire) Elan Morgan over at Shmutzie.com about how to create an online space that reflects more accurately my creative and professional writing. And together, we (by which I mean mostly her) came up with this.

Early on in the process, Elan sent me a design questionnaire. When I couldn’t easily pick a single colour palette or choose the top 10 words that describe my writing (ironic, I know), I countered by sending her photographs of things in my home that I love to look at. Including several sculptures by my friend and client Sarah Link, a local ceramic artist with an international reputation.

I don’t think I’ve written yet about Sarah, which is a shame, because I’m constantly in awe of her work and amazed and grateful that I get to be privy to a small part of her creative process. I first became aware of her brilliance when Rowan was about two. You know when you’re at a gallery and for weeks after you regret not buying a piece that spoke to you? That’s what happened. In my defense, Sarah had gathered together a dozen or so delicate, creepy, ocean-inspired clay sculptures in a low wooden box filled with sand. And all I could think was, “I love that, but I have a toddler.”

But then I couldn’t stop thinking about those pieces. And I searched out Sarah online and made contact. And she very gently blew me off. And then, a few Octobers ago, I discovered that she was participating in a local home and studio tour. And that she lived two streets over. And so I gathered up Isaac (because what I really liked to do back then was to take my four-year-old to pottery studios) and hustled over. And Isaac was reverent. And so was I.

I don’t know if you know that one of my superpowers is getting artists to sell me things that they’ve decided to keep for themselves. I honed in immediately on two huge ceramic bowls in Sarah’s studio — the last two pieces, she told me, from a residency at the Medalta historic kilns in Medicine Hat, Alberta. (I love this fact: those tiny holes in those bowls? Made with the tip of a ballpoint pen. Over and over.) They weren’t for sale, she explained, because she needed to keep them to remind herself of that time. And I commented that maybe that was the key difference between her kind of art and mine: if I sell a story, I still get to hold on to it. And she said, “You’re a writer?”

And the upshot is that those two bowls are sitting on my kitchen counter, and Sarah can come over any time she likes to visit them and all the other wonderful pieces of hers that make my home more beautiful. I write articles about her and her work for various galleries and trade magazines, and she pays me in beauty. I’m totally winning.

But that’s not even the real point. The real point is that Sarah and Isaac have built their own friendship. The real point is her ridiculous generosity; the way she has spent hours with him at the wheel, showing him how to build pots, and glaze them; the way she takes his creative vision so seriously; the way he brings her pretty rocks that he thinks she’ll like and the fact that she displays them on her studio shelves next to her own work.

So when I sent those photographs to Elan, and she said, “You know, what really stood out were those sculptures,” I knew we were onto something. With Sarah’s permission, I set about photographing the various rocks and eggs and pods and other works around the house — many of them touchtone pieces that I hold in one hand while I’m trying to figure out an approach to an article — and sent the photos to Elan, who helped to shape them into what you see here, on this site.

So, sure: on the one hand you could argue that I sit alone in my office at my computer for hours each day. But the truth of the matter is that this so-called solitary writing life is always a collaboration. You just have to know where to look.

(P.S.: Shameless self-promotion, but in celebration of the relaunch of the site, don't you think you should sign up for e-mail subscriptions or — if you haven't already – like this blog on Facebook? You can do both with the handy links to the right. Thanks.)

 

When an eight-year-old asks, "Who's the real mom?"

No one asked them. Toronto, circa 1972.

No one asked them. Toronto, circa 1972.

I've got a million strategies — some more effective than others — for dealing with invasive questions about my family. But what happens when the questions come from kids? That's the topic I take on in my most recent Today's Parent post

I can easily see how the subject could become contentious: Forcing a kid (or a grown-up) into an inane conversation peppered with unanswerable questions seems like a surefire recipe for frustration, or worse. I, for one, do my best to be matter-of-fact and move on. Because, frankly, either you get queer families, or you don’t. If you do, we generally don’t need to explain the more philosophical questions about exactly what constitutes a “real mom.” And if you don’t, well, then you’re generally not looking for answers to your questions. Too often, you’re trying to get me defensive about my family. And I have better things to do than defend my family’s reality against people who can’t really deal with the fact that it exists, right there in front of them. Reality bites sometimes, dude.
But I will talk to kids, because kids do what kids do, which is test, and ask questions, and gauge from your words and your openness and your body language just how comfortable you are with a given subject. When kids ask questions—questions they already know the answers to—they’re trying to figure out the bigger picture, to solidify their own place in the world relative to everyone else’s, and see how we all fit together.

Two nice counterpoint to this whole discussion are my blog-girlfriend Casey Casey-Brown's recent post on SheKnows: Stop Asking Me Where I Got My Daughter, and Vikki Reich's (to whom I am blog concubine) article "How many moms does she have?" on VillageQ.

Between 10 and 19

I have two anniversaries, as one does: the anniversary of the day we first got together, and — as more and more of the gays do these days — a wedding anniversary.

Today is the first anniversary, marking that evening that in 1995 when Rachel and I both showed up at that big old house in Toronto’s Annex, where our friend Kathryn was house sitting (for one of our mutual women’s studies profs, natch) and had decided to have a sleepover party. I remember arriving, tingling, knowing that that girl would be there. And we sat under a grape arbour in the lush backyard, all vines and leaves entwining over our heads, and I was thinking of John Wyndham’s post-apocalyptic novel when Rachel said, “Have you ever read Day of the Triffids?” And I was all like Deal, sealed.

Funny, that.

We got married in June 2004. I was pregnant, as one is. And at our wedding our friends Jodi and Caitlin gave us a bottle of wine and told us to open it on our 10th wedding anniversary. And then June 2014 came and went and she was at a soccer tournament and I was away and then she was away and children and life and commitments and I don’t feel like drinking tonight and it took until two nights ago for us to finally crack open that bottle, closer to the second anniversary than the first, but somehow that seemed appropriate.

You guys, I worried about uncorking that wine. I was surprised that the bottle had lasted as long as it had — that it hadn’t broken, hadn’t been accidentally drunk at a party. Frankly, I was also somewhat incredulous that we had lasted the full 10 years, not to mention the 19. Because relationships are hard. Relationships are work, a lot of it, almost all the time. A lot of that work is boring: as Isaac is fond of saying to us, "All you guys ever talk about are washing machines and refrigerators." And then you add in one baby and then another and the actual work that pays you money if you’re lucky, and getting older, and all the other things that make up a life and it’s a wonder any of us stay together for more than a drink or two.

 

But there we were two nights ago, with the entire house to ourselves and doing the kinds of things that parents do when their children have been whisked away by angelic other people — cooking a real dinner (risotto with local chanterelle mushrooms, since you asked); eating late, outside, music on; lingering over an entire bottle of wine.

We hadn’t stored the wine properly — just stuck it on the top shelf of the wine rack and let it be, subject to light and heat and temperature fluctuations. When you have toddlers, children, a single bottle of wine has to fend for itself, a couple of rungs lower than the cats. And I thought, Well, if it’s corked, that’s not a sign. It’s just a thing that happened. We’ll open something else. It’ll be fine either way.

But, really, I wanted it to have lasted. I’m too hooked on metaphor and imagery to not have had a pang or two for the bottle that represented so much hope a decade ago to have withered away to vinegar.

The wine wasn’t corked. It was rich and complex and interesting and delicious. And we ate our dinner on the deck we built for the house we bought together. And it was lovely.

Look: I have no idea where I’ll be 19 years from now, 10 years from now. Even a couple of years from now is a quantifiable unknown. Around me, relationships crack and heal and scar and dissolve and re-form, although you wouldn’t know it on Facebook, at least not until after the fact. I can tell you what I do know about me and that girl at that house in the Annex: I know that wherever we are, it will be as the result of doing that daily work and how well we do it. I also know that even if we do a great job, the results aren’t guaranteed.

So this isn’t going to be one of those “Happy anniversary!” posts where I say, “Here’s to the next 19 years, babe!” Because who knows? What I do know, for sure, is that no matter what happens (and so, so much fantastic stuff could and likely will happen) over the next decades, no matter where we end up, that I hope to always be able to sit down with you over a great bottle of wine, and spend an evening in rich, complex, interesting, delicious conversation. 

Baggage

I’m trying to learn how to travel light.

It’s an ongoing quest, this push toward bare essentials. I fantasize about perfectly organized, lightweight suitcases; about wearing everything I bring and longing for nothing. The reality is a little messier: just one more black T-shirt, one more pair of shoes, the perpetual agony about whether to pack workout gear, the tension between bringing the clothes I know and love and wear every day and bringing the more experimental, “special,” clothes (hello, funky silver pants, blue dress!) that I feel I should wear but never quite do.

I pack for weeks in my head before any significant trip. It’s a coping mechanism to deal with travel stress; I know this. If I focus on acquiring travel-sized toothpaste; that go-with-everything lightweight black wrap; a party clutch that will hold my phone, a couple of chargers, business cards and room key; then I don’t have to think about the leaving, the people, the money spent, the social interactions, whether I’ll make an ass of myself at a conference session or on the dance floor. If I can just get that magical packing part down, then everything else will fall into place and the pre-trip deadlines will meet themselves and I’ll even sleep the night before I leave.

Oh, I’m adorable.

I’m getting better — I managed to get everything for my recent weeklong trip to California and the BlogHer14 conference into a single carry-on (plus a fairly hefty “purse”). And this is because, instead of packing for weeks in my head, I finally caved to my demons and made a proper list: toiletries, jewelry, tech, documents, a list of outfits for each occasion, lingerie and sleepwear, reading materials, shoes. Always the shoes. I used fancy headings and columns and checklist bullets, and my stress levels decreased almost immediately. That’s one of the best things I ever learned from life-hacking guru David Allen, author of Getting Things Done (read it; it’s life-changing): things are on our minds because (a) we don’t know what we want, (b) we don’t know what to do next, or (c) because we know these things but we haven’t created some kind of trustworthy system — i.e., a list — for remembering them:

“Until those thoughts have been clarified and those decisions made, and the resulting data has been stored in a system that you absolutely know you will think about as often as you need to, your brain can’t give up the job. You can fool everyone else, but you can’t fool your own mind. … Even if you’ve already decided on the next step you’ll take to resolve the problem, your mind can’t let go until and unless you write yourself a reminder in a place that knows you will, without fail, look. It will keep pressuring you about that untaken next step, usually when you can do anything about it, which will just add to your stress.”

Amen. So, the list. The day before the trip, I gathered every item on it, threw it on my bed (my voice dictation software keeps typing in “threw it on my dad,” which I find inexplicably funny, but no mind), rolled up everything into tubes and stuck it in my carry-on. And then I threw in a few more things, until the suitcase was full.

The upshot? Middling. The photo at the top shows everything I took with me to California. The pile on the right is all the stuff I actually wore. The pile on the left contains things like the silver pants and the blue dress and the extra black T-shirt — mostly, stuff that wasn’t on the list.

I get that life is too short to strive for packing perfection. I get that packing is not a zero-sum game. (And, yes, it is understood that if one can blog about one’s special silver pants from the safety of one’s own home then packing is a first-world problem.) I get that sometimes you need to bring a bathing suit or a warm jacket that you will never wear but that you might need. I get that maybe the hotel will have a gym and you’ll be really happy you brought your sneakers, but that mostly you won’t. I get that sometimes you don’t know exactly what a trip, a city, an occasion, will call for and that it is always good to have a party dress and shoes you can hike in — and that life is too short to dance in shoes that hurt. I get that I might want to wear the same thing three days in a row, or I might wear the same thing at this conference that I wore at the last conference and that I’ll just have to hope that it’s true that nobody really cares, or even notices. I get that you may leave your favourite jacket on a train, and that you can always, in a pinch, buy more underwear.

What I’m learning, though, is that at least half the weight of my baggage is emotional, and that maybe I can learn how to leave that stuff behind.

As an editor, sometimes I get so caught up in the cutting, in honing down stories and paragraphs to their barest essentials, as though efficiency is writing’s only or best virtue. But of course it’s the flourishes — those extra, well-placed quirks or digressions — that, ultimately, add personality, make the piece. And the same, perhaps, is true for baggage: you know, less is more, except when it’s not.

Also, I bought the shoes, because the Internet told me to, And because they may just be the sexiest things I own.

Also, I bought the shoes, because the Internet told me to, And because they may just be the sexiest things I own.


Ink

So, this happened.

Of course, it didn't quite just "happen": like I woke up from some bender with a typewriter on my arm. 

But it happened, in the sense that I walked into San Francisco’s Black Heart Tattoo on Valencia with one idea — a sailor heart with “MOM” on the banner — and ended up with this instead. But that’s sometimes how these things go: all the planning, all the analysis, and then you find yourself in the chair, being inked with an image that came to you in a flash and that you knew, immediately, was completely right. Or at least close enough.

My dad worked for IBM when I was a kid, and one of the highlights of visiting his Vancouver office in the early 80s was getting to call my Toronto friends long-distance on the company dime. The other was typing for hours on the heavy, humming IBM Selectrics that populated the office, crunching out words and sentences in analog before we even knew what that was. 

I wanted one of those machines, desperately, but they were out of my price range even with the family discount, and so when I was 13 I plunked down, on a whim, $300 for a lesser-quality electric typewriter at Woolworth’s. That machine — more specifically, seeing my words in type — gave me such a sense of power: what a rush, to press a key and have a machine respond so immediately, so eagerly, to my touch, to feel the speed and the weight of metal keys striking real paper, nothing between them but ink.

I don’t remember what I wrote on that typewriter, nor do I know what became of it — our family acquired a PC and a dot-matrix printer shortly thereafter, and that’s what I begin using for school assignments, letters, stories. My dad got me my very own PC when I started my undergrad degree, and it was on that computer’s internal modem that I first hooked up to the Internet sometime in the mid-90s. (“Guess how many e-mails I got today?” I once remember my friend Kim asking excitedly: “Twelve!”)

And the rest, you might say, is history: from e-mailing and primitive online chat to Facebook and Twitter, Facebook, blogging, Instagram, all of which I participate in fully, knowingly, even as I no longer actually type — three-quarters of a lifetime on keyboards and mice long ago blew out my forearms and wrists, and so now I dictate into my computer and my words and images appear magically on the screen, all over the world, with the silent push of a button and who knows what kind of behind-the-scenes machinations.

“What do you all do?” asked Cody, my taciturn tattoo artist, inking in the keys. (Everyone in the place was taciturn, not quite unfriendly but definitely not going to give me the benefit of the doubt — just another fortysomething walking in off the street without a clear vision and mostly virgin skin. The resplendently tattooed Farrah Braniff, who was with me and took all these photos, was determined to warm them up with a steady stream of Texan charm and tattoo cred, and eventually Cody got talking and laughing.)

160A8723.jpg

"Um, I’m a writer,” I said, gesturing to the stencil of the typewriter on my right bicep. He asked what kind of writing I did, and I explained: magazine, essays, blogs—

“Hey — there’s a blogging conference going on in San Jose!” he said, and we laughed, because that’s where we had just come from: BlogHer 2014. “A couple ladies came in last week were going to that.” And so we put two and two together and midway through my tattoo I was Twitter DMing, one-handed, with Tiffany and Christine, whom I’d met at the conference, and who now sported Cody’s seahorse and butterflies respectively. And of course I was fielding Facebook chat about the process, all the while Instagramming the ink, as Farrah took and shared photos.

Funny, isn’t it? The way these two worlds have merged? I spent a week in California, three days deep in Silicon Valley, discussing new paradigms for publishing, the increasingly visible Web, live-tweeting everything, texting and DMing and Facebook sharing privately and with the world so many of the details.

And yet, as always, what the conference was really about was direct connection: conversations over lunch and brunch and dinner, a quick coffee grabbed between sessions (thanks, Liz — and now I’m noticing sentence fragments everywhere, including the ones in this post), stealing away with my roommate/blog girlfriend for blog-girlfriend conversation the midst of it all, all the dozens of micro and macro connections made in real time, the way you can meet someone for the first time instantly know she’ll be your favourite.

And, as always, the best conversations and moments are probably the ones we don’t necessarily Tweet right away, or ever. Instead, they inform our writing, our work, our perspectives, get distilled into the words and the art, the bigger picture, keep us thinking, help keep us focused on the next project or adventure even when we can’t quite see how it will turn out.

I didn’t bring my computer to the conference — one more thing to weigh me down when I already have baggage about carrying too much — but after a week in California without making time to journal, I wrote eleven (yes, eleven) longhand notebook pages on the plane, taking up the better part of two hours just getting down thoughts and impressions, barely any analysis.

I didn’t take enough photos, don’t have the energy to write out all eleven pages’ worth of details here, and even if I did you wouldn’t want to read them all. But what I came away with from the conference is that, for me, blogging is still about the writing. Even if writing is no longer only about ink on paper. I led a session with Meiko Patton on self-editing at the conference, and when people asked about things like SEO, I just shrugged my shoulders. It’s not that I don’t care about the numbers, about visibility. Of course I want my posts to pop up first in searches, to reach a wide audience. But mostly, I want to play with words, write headlines that will make me happy, even while the blinking light in my SEO indicator stays firmly in the red. I don’t care if it goes green — I just hit publish when the words are ready (enough) to go.

In a world where so much is digital, it’s good to remind myself of that. It’s good to come away from the epicentre of technology reconfirmed in what I’ve almost always known: what I want most is to get the words out, to get them down, indelible. What I need most in this loopy, hybrid, digital/analog world are the words, as immediate as possible. Pen on paper, metal keys striking through the fabric ribbon, or my voice transmuted through microphone onto a blank page — that’s what that typewriter reminds me of, Cody’s hands etching it into me, metal needle on skin, nothing between the two but ink.