Real. Estate.

Back on New Year’s Day – the first time I pledged to blog more often – I created a document about what I wanted to write about for the coming year. I cleverly named this document Random Ideas and Possibilities, then promptly forgot about it. Digging around in my Google Drive the other night unearthed it, and I can honestly say there are some excellent points. Good job, slightly hungover me! One line that made me laugh out loud, which I had completely forgotten I had written was this: Stay away from the dead parent posts. It’s been done, move on, no one cares.

Now this isn’t to suggest that no one actually cares about my dead parents, obviously, it was more a reminder to me that there are other topics out there, and for my own sake I should probably move on. I tend to dwell. And to be fair, there is a lot of processing that goes into losing one then both parents, and if you like to write, that processing might take place on the page. And it might continue to take place on the page, 5, 6, even 10 years later. And maybe that processing ultimately turns into my book! Aha, more incentive to take it outside. Or at least off the blog.

So dead parents are, for the moment, off the table. Instead, I would like to talk to you today about real estate. Specifically the batshit housing market in my city, and in particular in my neighbourhood.

There is a house on the street perpendicular to ours that is for sale. This in itself is kind of unusual, our neighbourhood is not known for high turnover rates. It is one of those “sought after” neighbourhoods that real estate people like to talk about. Close to schools, shopping, etc. And it is. And it’s nice. It’s fine. It’s a fine neighbourhood.

We bought our house in 1999 and paid the astronomical-at-the-time amount of $169,000. Granted, things change, and this isn’t to say that housing prices will always be at that level, but for quite a few years, they definitely were. About ten years ago that all started to change, when we began seeing houses like ours in the 300s and sometimes even the 400s. We used to laugh “haha we can’t even afford to live in our own neighbourhood anymore!” But wait. There’s more.

The house I mentioned that is for sale? It’s a 1.5 storey house, lovely from the outside, and nicely done inside. Three bedrooms, one bathroom. Nice yard. It’s listing price is $629,900. And, chances are, it will go for considerably more than that, this seems to be the norm in this city right now. Recently, I heard about a similar house selling for over $850,000.

I can’t. I mean. That is a LOT of money for a wee house. And yes, Toronto is much worse as far as real estate prices, and so is Vancouver, but we are talking about Hamilton, here. Great city, yes. But still. Wow.

It’s location, I get that. It’s proximity to the 403, the gateway to Toronto and beyond, and I get that too. But now – for absolute real – my family could not afford to live in this neighbourhood, should we be in different circumstances, looking to buy our first, or even our second house.

They say the bubble will burst, and that there are plans to cool the jets of this skyrocketing housing market. But what then? I don’t pretend to have answers, economics, etc. is not my bag, but I can’t imagine, in the current situation, ever recommending home ownership to anyone. A nearly one million dollar mortgage seems terrifying to me, although I get that I am coming at this from the sheer privilege of having purchased a home in a completely different housing market, a completely different time in the life of my city too.

So these houses that are selling for three quarters of a million dollars or more, where are their people going? As I mentioned, there hasn’t historically been a lot of turnover in the neighbourhood. People like it here and they tend to stay. So perhaps these are older people moving into apartments or condos. Or maybe they are empty nesters who realize the house is too big, and want to downsize. Or maybe they are thinking what I’m thinking, which is take the money and RUN. Take your near-millions, and buy something in the north or east end, where housing prices are still (mostly) normal. Or what I still think of as normal.

Six years ago I had to sell my family home. I grew up in an area that isn’t, and has never been, “sought after,” but the houses on my street are lovely. At the time I remember having a figure in my head about what it could probably sell for, recognizing even then that I was probably blinded by childhood memories, and isn’t your childhood home priceless? So I tried to be fairly conservative in my estimate. But still, it’s a 1.5 storey, 3-bedroom, 1.5 bath, with a gorgeous landscaped yard, finished basement…you get the picture. The agent listed the house for just over $100,000 and I was devastated. Surely it was worth more than that? “It’s just…this…” he said, gesturing in the general direction of Barton Street. It turns out that not all neighbourhoods are created equal.

I wondered, at the time, how much more it would have been worth, had we been able to pick it up and transport it to the neighbourhood where I currently live. And now that 1.5 storey homes seem to be worth close to a million dollars, I guess I have my answer.

 

 

 

The sweetest hangover

And just like that it’s over, we tend to our wounded we count our dead…

Wait, no that’s not gritLIT Festival. That’s Yorktown, from the Hamilton soundtrack.

For those of us on the committee, by Sunday night we sort of felt like walking wounded. It’s a lot of time to spend in the gallery, the hotel, running here and there, organizing, etc. But it was, as the kids say, WORTH IT.

gritLIT happens over four jam packed days in April, and while it goes by in an absolute flash, I’ve always found it takes me a few days of post-festival processing, reflecting, and regrouping, to put my thoughts down in blog post form. In fact, in looking through my drafts, I found my gritLIT wrap-up post from 2016. Partially completed, never posted. Whoops.

This year, thanks to a renewed passion for writing and blogging, I vowed I would rejuvenate this tired old girl (the blog, not me) and inject some life into it. There are multiple reasons for this, one of which involves gritLIT, and, as I said on Twitter, what better time to resurrect something than Easter weekend. This is also, in case you don’t already know, the time to watch Jesus Christ Superstar because of Jesus, obviously, but also because who doesn’t need a little funkiness during their holiday weekend? Also, last year I watched it and LiveTweeted it, and Ted Neely, who was Jesus in the film, retweeted me AND tweeted at me, so GOALS.

But back to gritLIT. This was my second year on the organizing committee and the first time I really felt fully invested and fully a part of the festival. Probably because I knew the ropes more or less, but mostly because I felt I had more of a role this year. The first year on any committee you join is kind of observational – at least for me it is – but this year I was ready to rock. And I did.

As always, the festival opened with an evening of poetry, and this might have been my favourite event of the entire festival. But wait, you say. How can the first event be your favourite, when everything else has yet to come? Well never fear, I would be heard to say after EVERY event “I think that was my favourite” so bear with me. We heard from Robin Richardson, two poets from Hamilton Youth Poets, and then from the incomparable Vivek Shraya. They were all so electric.

Another highlight from Thursday was the chance to hear Iain Reid read from I’m Thinking of Ending Things, which was a book I loved even though it confounded me – or maybe because it confounded me. Rebecca Rosenblum read from So Much Love, (now on my to-read list) and both authors joined us in the hospitality suite after their readings to chat about books and beer and all things Hamilton. It was lovely.

Friday was an action-packed evening, and I was able to join Ann Y.K. Choi, Diane Shoemperlen, Lesley Livingston, and Leslie Shimotakahara for dinner at Rapscallion prior to their readings. And honestly, what a treat to be surrounded by these fabulous authors, so generous with their time, so patient with their answers to questions they’d likely been asked a thousand times before. One of the things I love most about gritLIT and mingling with authors is the mutual respect, admiration, and engagement among them, and that was in full effect at our dinner, and then later on during the readings and the discussions that came after.

Saturday, when I try to recollect it, is a blur. There was an incredible and important conversation with Bev Sellars led by Annette Hamm – everyone needs to read Price Paid, this is not an exaggeration. Then we came to ANOTHER of my favourite sessions, a panel with author Kerry Clare, who read from Mitzi Bytes, and Merilyn Simonds, author of Gutenberg’s Fingerprint. And oh my goodness, the cartoon hearts were shooting from my eyes from the very beginning, and they just didn’t stop. I read and loved both books and adore both authors, but I think the greatest part of their panel was their chemistry, how well-aligned they were, how much they enjoyed the other’s company, how much they enjoyed the other’s writing. Truly lovely, and truly inspirational.

I also was lucky enough to host Kerry’s blogging workshop  later that day which was great, and was also the kick in the ass I needed to find my blogging mojo, so I will be forever grateful to her for that.

This brings us to Saturday night, WHICH WAS MY FAVOURITE.

I have adored Denise Donlon since she first appeared on my television and in my living room hosting The New Music, and I have always been fascinated by her incredible career, so I was over the moon to learn that she would be coming to gritLIT. Her chat with Annette Hamm did NOT disappoint, and she was as charming, funny, and wonderful as I’d always known she’d be. Denise also joined us in the hospitality room Saturday night, so now I can say I’ve had drinks with her – bucket list, check. Denise came back on Sunday for a highly emotional panel that featured Chris Pannell (Love Despite the Ache) and Teva Harrison (In Between Days), and she wowed the audience – and me – yet again. I purchased Denise’s book and she signed it for me, and as she was leaving she hugged me and thanked me for bringing her to gritLIT. And then I pretty much floated down to Mills Hardware for our final gritLIT 2017 event.

There is so much more to say – about the festival, about the incredible authors who joined us, about the wonderful committee who put it all together – but I will stop here. If you were there, thank you for being part of the festival. If you weren’t, I hope we’ll see you next year.

We have our wrap-up meeting next week, then our first planning meeting for the 2018 festival in a month or so. But first? I am just going to nurse this love hangover for as long as it takes.

 

 

The Tales of Yadda Yadda

Do you know The Tales of Hoffmann?

It’s an opera. By Jacques Offenbach. The same Offenbach that wrote Orpheus in the Underworld. No? It has that Can-Can music, you know the one. Ok, good.

Today is International Women’s Day, so I thought I would tell you the story of an opera I saw on the weekend, brilliantly performed by Opera Laurier – Laurier is the university my son  attends. He is not in the opera, but he is in the orchestra, and you can’t have an opera without a hard-working orchestra, so we were there to whoop whoop whoop for the musicians, because, as you know, they never get to dance.

But back to Hoffmann.

The synopsis of Tales of Hoffmann is that Hoffmann is a writer, a poet. He is in love with Stella, an opera singer (how meta).  Hoffmann also drinks too much (see above, writer/poet), and is struggling to find his muse. Funnily enough, his muse appears to the audience at the very beginning, and tells us she is trying to convince Hoffmann to return to her, to reject all other love, and devote himself solely to her. Noble!

Stella had written a note to Hoffmann, telling him to meet her after the performance, but the letter is intercepted by Lindorf (dunh dunh duunnnnhhh) so you know something is afoot. An intercepted letter is always the start of evil. Once Hoffmann arrives at the bar, he entertains his friends with a story, but then Lindorf asks Hoffmann to tell everyone about his three life’s loves. Aaaand here we go.

The first woman Hoffmann falls in love with is ACTUALLY NOT A WOMAN AT ALL, but a wind-up doll. Hoffmann dons magical glasses – rose-coloured glasses, actually, prompting my husband and I to have a conversation as to whether this is the first instance of “seeing life through rose-coloured glasses” or nah. We don’t have an answer, so if you know, let me know!

The rose-coloured glasses allow Hoffmann to see Olympia (doll-girl, in an ACTUAL box, but pay that no mind, H) as a REAL WOMAN and someone he promptly falls in love with. It is worth noting that she performs a fantastic aria, but mostly Hoffmann seems to like it best when she says “Oui! Oui!” Eventually things go down, and Olympia is destroyed. Hoffmann is heartbroken.

Lesson: Men like their toy women to say “Oui! Oui!” and little else, and when they break, and they can’t play with them anymore, it makes them sad.

Then there is Antonia, another singer! Her father has hidden her – HIDDEN HER – from Hoffmann, because she has some illness that will kill her if she sings – tragic, obviously. But of course her father doesn’t TELL HER that she is sick and that singing will kill her. Oh ho ho, why would you inform the girl?!? Jesus. Anyway, Hoffmann finds her, hears the news about the death singing and convinces her to give up her singing dreams but HE DOESN’T TELL HER WHY EITHER! Then an evil doctor tricks her into singing and she dies. Like seriously, maybe if she KNEW THE CONSEQUENCES, she would be all, I’m good, actually I will play that violin like you suggested after all, dad, great idea!

Lesson: Men don’t like to burden tiny lady brains with important details about their own health, even if it might kill them.

Finally there is Giulietta, a courtesan. Offenbach’s word, not mine. Hoffmann loves her (because of course he does) and he thinks she loves him too, but, oh those tricky women! She merely seduces him to steal his reflection (seriously, what?) because another dude promised her a diamond if she did. Then there is some Hamlet-grade mix-up of poisons or something, and she dies.

Lesson: Ladies only pretend to love you, but then they friendzone you and take up with douches who give them diamonds, and why can’t these bitches ever like Nice Guys(tm)  amirite fellas?

Finally, the tales have been told, and Hoffmann reveals that all three of those women – the innocent girl, the artist, and the courtesan – are all parts of the same woman – Stella. Who he now rejects because, like Alfalfa sang in The Little Rascals, he’s through with love.

Don’t you see though? Hoffmann SUFFERED at the hands of these women, by falling in love with them, and then not getting them! Never mind that they all DIED, it’s all about himmmmmm.

This opera was first performed in February 1881, and what amazes me most is how well it’s held up with society’s interpretation of what women are and what they should be!

Seriously, though. I could not stop thinking about this story and how current these themes really are. There are Men’s Rights Activists giving voice to some of the most horrific people in the world, men who have a sadz for their rights, because some ladies dare to demand some rights of their own. There is a government (although I use the term loosely) to our south who wants to remove pretty much all reproductive rights and access to healthcare from women, because they feel they know all women’s bodies better than women know themselves. There are still man-children who think women are dolls to play dress up and satisfy their every need/whim, rather than living, thinking, breathing, HUMAN BEINGS.

I’m not blaming Offenbach. Ok, maybe I am. But I’m definitely not blaming Opera Laurier who absolutely KILLED this performance. Unfortunately, it’s really hard to laugh at 130-year old themes that should be silly and far- fetched in a kind of “oh those crazy Victorians, look at the crazy stuff they used to think, not telling women what they need to know about their health and falling in love with DOLLS!” when in actual fact these things are still happening everywhere, every single day.

Happy International Women’s Day, indeed.

But! It’s not all terrible. I mean, so much of it is, but The Tales of Hoffmann is an excellent opera, in spite of its MRA themes. And if you’re one to enjoy opera, allow me to end with, while not the best piece from the score, certainly the most memorable. And by memorable, I mean ear worm. I give you Kleinzach! Enjoy. I mean, you deserve something for reading over 1000 words on my opera hot take. Love you all.

 

Writing, creatively.

In 2016 a couple of pretty great things happened to me. Well, if I am being perfectly honest, a couple of pretty great things happened because I made them happen. I understand that 2016 was a clusterfuck/dumpster fire of a year for a lot of people, and I am not trying to be”that guy” but I just want to say outright that I have had worse years. And sure, fuck me, right? Absolutely. But I just need to get that out of the way.

The main big, great thing was that I was able to leave my soul-crushing job of nine years to get on with my life. I had no job to go to, no real plan at all. Except that I was going to write. And I did write. Some of the writing was this blog, some was another blog that I write for a friend’s business, and some of it was just personal shiz that I wrote and that may never see the light of day. I also volunteered on a couple of committees that kept me fairly busy, and perfected my pizza dough. In short, it was a pretty great, pizza-filled few months.

By the end of the summer, I knew that if I truly, truly wanted to write, the thing I needed to do was to get myself enrolled in a course of some sort that would force me – FORCE ME – through assignment deadlines and the like, to actually spend a lot of time writing. Not just thinking about writing, but actually doing it. So I did. And then, one Saturday in early September, I found myself in a classroom at Sheridan College, eager to get started in Creative Writing 101. (That is not actually the course code, but you know what I mean.)

For twelve weeks I participated in class discussions, wrote and handed in assignments on character, point of view, setting, and more. Some assignments were easy and fun, others were a damned struggle. On some days I would think that I have written what is probably one of the best 350 word passages ever, and then the very next day I would considering burning my notebooks and jumping off a bridge. I have been told that this is actually what the writing life is like, so it would seem that I might actually fit in.

We would also read our assignments in class. Out loud. To each other. This was terrifying. At least at the beginning. It was a lovely group of people, all very supportive, and eventually I started looking forward to reading my work to them, hearing their feedback, and providing feedback of my own. We were a good group.

The final, culminating assignment had us taking the techniques we learned throughout the course, and putting them all together, to create a short story. We had two full weeks to do this, and then we read our stories to the class.

My story is below.

I’m not putting it here because I am supremely proud of it. I think it is ok. It’s an ok story. I worked hard on it, and I got a good grade, and it’s ok. I know that it is not 100% polished, not 100% perfect, and that too is ok.

I am putting it here because it’s my first story. First ever story. Hopefully, it’s not the last, hopefully it’s the first of many. And eventually, after many, many stories, I like to think that there will be one or two that I am supremely proud of, one or two that are 100% polished. The only way to find out is to continue to write them.

If you read it and you like it, please let me know. If you read it and you don’t like it? Well, I’d like to hear from you too.

Finally, please know that when I handed in this assignment, I had proper paragraph indents, but when I copied to WordPress all my formatting disappeared. Go figure.


Eaton’s Basement              

“You know you have to do it. It’s all she ever wanted.” Carol’s words come back to me as I stand in the centre of the downtown mall. Waves of people move around me. The lunch hour shoppers trying to get their errands done before heading back to their desks. High school kids hitting the food court instead of the cafeteria. People coming from the market with bulging shopping bags, quietly saying excuse me as they try to get around me, and then saying it again, not quite so quietly. I’m definitely in the way. People don’t stand still in shopping malls.

The coldest, rainiest April has given way to the hottest May in recent memory, wreaking havoc on heating and cooling systems everywhere, and it is stifling. I consider taking off my jacket, but then I would have to carry it, along with my purse and the large tote bag I have brought with me. I leave my jacket on, cursing the weather, cursing my jacket, cursing everything.

The food court on the lower level is busy, and the noise of chairs scraping across the tile floor carries up to the main level where I am standing. This, combined with the heat and the too-loud piped in music, is grating on my nerves. The container bounces in my tote bag, and the sharp corner edge bangs against my hip as I walk. There will be a bruise there later. Sweat runs down my back and the handles of the bag dig into my shoulder as I ride the escalator down to the basement level, eyes closed, trying to remember, to get a feel for the place. Memories come in flashes. I see it, and then I don’t. It’s there and then it’s gone, like a dream you can’t remember once you wake up. The more I try to force the images, the further they retreat from my mind. I hate this place.

I didn’t always hate it here. For decades, this place was not a mall, but a large department store, the grande dame of the Canadian retail world, The T. Eaton Company. Or, more colloquially, Eaton’s. I loved every bit of it. Eaton’s was six floors of magic that you were granted access to courtesy of the white-gloved ladies who opened and closed the elevator doors with a flourish, and announced the wonders that awaited you. Second floor, shoes. Third floor, ladies wear.

Or, if you preferred, you could ride the wide, quiet escalators from floor to floor. I loved the escalators because they let the excitement build as the next level came gradually into view. Each floor held something different, and as a child, it was the most incredible place I could imagine. If you had told me Disneyworld was better, I wouldn’t have believed you. I still don’t.

You could buy anything at Eaton’s, and you could do it surrounded by beauty and luxury, in the form of high ornate ceilings, marble stairs, and polished wood trim. The revolving doors at the James Street entrance made a soothing whooshing sound as you moved through them, ushering you into another world where perfectly made up saleswomen offered spritzes of perfume as they moved amid the glass-topped cosmetics counters. It was a world where jewelry and watches, leather gloves, and scarves were laid out in perfect rows, a mixture of elegance and practicality. Handbags and wallets, purses and hats. All this on the main floor alone.

It was heaven, and then it was gone. I had taken it for granted, assuming it would live forever, but almost overnight all this beauty became a pile of rubble and dust. The store was eventually replaced with another Eaton’s, half the size of the original, and attached to this generic mall decorated in the awful 1990s colour scheme of seafoam green and peach. No grandeur, no beauty. This place has not aged well, but it is this place in which I now find myself, tired, overheated, and searching for what would have been the basement of the original Eaton’s, in order to fulfill my mother’s only dying wish: for me to scatter her ashes there.  

Nine days ago I was sitting in Carol’s kitchen, the urn that contains my mother between us on the table, to the left of my large glass of red wine. Carol is my mother’s best friend. Was her best friend. It’s still so hard to think of her in the past tense. Tall, silver-haired and sharp-tongued, my mother was the polar opposite of Carol, a short, blonde, and sweet-tempered woman twelve years her junior. But their friendship worked, in spite of their differences, and the bond they had was one of the strongest I have ever witnessed.

I knew Carol was struggling through the grief of losing her best friend, grief that was different from mine, possibly even deeper. I thought of my best friend, tried to imagine my life without her, and I couldn’t. You think your friends will always be there. But they won’t. They can’t be. Everyone goes, eventually. Even my larger than life mother, who stood nearly five feet ten inches in bare feet, has been reduced to a small pile of ash. And now that small pile of ash is on Carol’s kitchen table, in an urn.

At the cremation place, while the man in charge talked about the costs of cremation and options for urns,  I walked through the room and ran my fingers over the ones on display. SAMPLE ONLY, the labels read. I casually lifted the lid of a brass one shaped like an angel, and peered inside. It was empty. The labels, thankfully, were correct.

Urns are big business and the cremation place promised a style for everyone and something to fit every budget, but none of them looked right for my mother. I told the cremation man we were going to scatter her ashes, eventually. I started to tell him about  my plan to take her to where Eaton’s basement used to be, and that this, one of her favourite places in the whole world, would be her final resting place, but he told me he didn’t need to know the details. It was probably just as well.

I don’t remember when my mother first suggested I scatter her ashes over the sales tables in Eaton’s basement. The bargain basement was her favourite part of the store, everyone knew that. Her friends, family, even the Eaton’s ladies who were always interested to see what fantastic deal she would end up with on her regular trips downtown. It started as a joke, something she would say at a party, laughing, after a couple of glasses of wine. A joke that showed not only the reverence she had for Eaton’s and for a good sale, but also illustrated her irreverence, and the way she flew in the face of expectations, and scoffed at traditions. But at some point, as she got older, it became something more than a joke, something important and more urgent. Then later, as she became sicker, the ‘scatter my ashes on the Eaton’s basement sales tables!’ battle cry became real, and it seemed I would be required to carry it out.  

“Well, for scattering ashes,” the cremation man told me, “you don’t need a decorative urn, you can just use the basic container that the crematorium provides.” This was a practical solution, and my mother would have approved. Basic black, recycled plastic, and also recyclable once we were done with it. Ashes to ashes, dust to blue box.

I finished the last of my wine, caught up in these thoughts. I looked over at Carol who was quiet, and then to my mother’s container, also quiet. So unlike either of them. I stood up and addressed the urn, arms outstretched, “Well, I guess I have to do this, don’t I? Think I can?” I smirked and raised an eyebrow. Carol started to laugh. My mother had an opinion on everything, especially when it came to my ability or lack thereof to get a job done. We stared hard at the container, waiting for guidance. It remained silent.

Carol walked me out to my car, we said our goodbyes, and I watched her head back into the house with an overwhelming feeling of loss. She was here now, but one day she too would be gone. Like everything else.

I dig my phone out of my bag and call her.

“There’s not a lot to go on,” I tell her. “I mean, I checked with the archives, looking for floor plans or layouts or anything, really, but there wasn’t much. I’m mostly going by memory, but it’s so confusing!” My voice but not my voice. Desperate, pathetic.

“I know it’s hard, but you can’t give up. You can figure it out, you just have to keep trying,” she told me. Her words were meant to be supportive, helpful. But at that moment they just made me angry.

Keep fighting. Don’t give up. You can do it. These words were said over and over to my mother, from other well-meaning friends, as she lay in her hospital bed, the cancer eating at her brain. It was maddening. There was no fight, no positive thinking that could stop the tide of malignant cells.  These friends would tell me the same thing, that she needs to keep fighting, there has to be something that can still be done, let her know we’re pulling for her. Hollow platitudes, as unwelcome as the hugs that I accepted with fists and teeth clenched. Stay strong, they would say, stroking my cheek. Like there was another choice.

When she was still conscious, and the doctors said it was only a matter of time, I told her, “We’re going to lose you.”

“I know,” she said with a shrug, “but when your number’s up, your number’s up.” “But it isn’t fair!” I was sobbing.

“Life isn’t fair, and sometimes things don’t turn out the way you want.” Practical to the very end, she had accepted what so many refused to. Shit happens.

I ride the escalator back down and try again.

The food court is quieter now, most of the shoppers have gone back to work or school, and I slowly walk the length of the lower level trying my best to remember.

Step off the escalator and the bins of records and tapes are right here, sporting goods over there. I move to the right, the restaurant comes into view, and its orange vinyl booths are vivid in my mind. I keep walking. The thin wisp of memory is close, but I am afraid to let it take over, afraid that if I let it in, I am going to lose it. Then the fog lifts and I see them. Two large, square tables, shallow bins on legs, heaped with clearance items: socks, toys, cutlery, china. Books, candy, stationery. My mother in her camel coat and pink mohair hat, peering in, shifting items to get to something interesting, picking it up, putting it down again. Picking up something else, showing it to me, smiling. And me, too warm, always too warm, dragging my coat behind me, trying to be patient until it’s time for lunch, grilled cheese and chocolate milk in the restaurant, and then maybe a visit to the toy department on the fifth floor.

The image fades, and I am standing facing an electrical panel and a large potted palm near what had been a dollar store, vacant now, a For Lease sign in its window. This area of the mall is deserted. I reach out and touch the leaves of the palm, and my fingers come away dusty. Fake. I pull out my phone to call Carol, to tell her I am successful, but I don’t dial her number.

The bus is nearly empty for my ride home so I open as many windows as I can, and place the urn on the seat beside me. The air is warm, but the breeze picks up my hair, cooling my neck. I let my arm rest on the urn, and close my eyes.

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl

In 2007 I began reading an excellent blog called Shapely Prose. I don’t remember exactly how I discovered it – likely a link from another blog, something like that – but it was, for the 3+ years that it ran, one of my favourites. The contributors were sassy, smart, feminist; the founder, Kate Harding, was and is one of the best writers out there, writing on topics that were new to me at that time, topics like fat acceptance and fat politics, as well as feminism, and everything in between. (Note: She also seems like a super cool woman, and I am still mad that I couldn’t get to her reading in Toronto last fall BUT I DIGRESS)

One of the first posts I think I ever read on Shapely Prose was this one by Harding, The Fantasy of Being Thin, and it was a massive lightbulb moment for me. I encourage you to read it, because not only is it an excellent piece of writing, it’s an important one. Even if you are someone who has never struggled to lose weight, it can really do a lot to help you understand what (can) go on in the minds of your fat friends, fat family members. It blew me away all those years ago, because I could relate – oh my god could I ever relate! That was actually me circa 1994 thinking “if only I could lose 25, 30, 40 pounds, watch out I will be unstoppable!” And I did lose that much weight. And guess what? Like the lady says, I was still me. Pretty great, but not the superwoman I fully expected to be once I dropped 4 or 6 sizes, you know?

This post was on my mind the entire way through Mona Awad’s excellent 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, because Lizzie’s story is in a lot of ways this fantasy of being thin. She starts out a fat girl, and, spoiler alert, when she does get thin through an excruciating regimen of diet and exercise and sacrifice, she is still the same person: Lizzie, from Mississauga. Somewhat awkward, often difficult, unmotivated. Go figure.

And if you read Kate Harding’s Fantasy post, you’ll understand where this excruciating regimen of self-punishment can come from, and how the roots of this fantasy take hold. When society tells you from day one that thin is the only way to be, and you’re not thin, and there are hundreds of ads and commercials and billboards screaming at you daily that all you have to do is try harder, fatso, and you too can live out your fabulous life as a thin, worthwhile person, well it’s no wonder so many of us buy into that fantasy. It’s a hard cycle to break.

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl is Lizzie’s journey from fat teenager in suburbia, to thin, almost-30-year old woman, and along the way we get to meet her friends, her parents, her early love interests, and the others who shape her outlook on life, her self-worth. There is Mel, her friend and sometimes competitor – for attention, for guys. There is her mother – herself fat, and only proud of Lizzie once she starts losing weight. And there is Tom, her boyfriend then husband, who got together with fat girl Lizzie, but becomes increasingly distanced from intense, over-achieving, weight-loss Lizzie:

“I did this for you, you know, she always tells him.

Did you? he wants to say.

Because he doesn’t remember ever asking for kumquats or hybrid cardio machines, but who knows? Maybe all this time, all the little ways he looked at her and didn’t look at her, all the things he said or didn’t say or didn’t say enough added up to this awful request without his knowledge or consent, like those ransom notes made from letters cut from different magazines.”

Lizzie’s relationships with family and friends, while not particularly healthy to begin with, become strained and more difficult, as her relationships with food and exercise become more and more disordered. As the story progresses, as she herself begins to disappear, the miracles that are supposed to accompany thinness don’t occur, life goes on. And when that life is one you’ve been keeping on hold until you were a certain size, a certain weight, there is always the feeling that there is more to do, more to lose, another size to drop.

Awad does a great job of getting the mindset of this fat girl turned thin, the mindset that never allows you to feel you’ve accomplished enough. The mindset that has you waiting and waiting for the amazing life you were promised, once you became thin enough, once you become acceptable enough to society.

As Harding says:

“The question is, who do you really want to be, and what are you going to do about it? (Okay, two questions.) The Fantasy of Being Thin is a really convenient excuse for not asking yourself those questions sincerely — and that’s exactly why it’s dangerous. It keeps you from being not only who you are, but who you actually could be, if you worked with what you’ve got. And that person trapped inside you really might be cooler than you are right now.

She’s just not thin.”

I loved this book. I love Mona Awad for giving a voice to the expertly flawed character of Lizzie (Elizabeth, Liz, Beth) who I adored in all her funny, sassy, complicated, and sometimes ridiculous glory, and I will be recommending this book to everyone I know, fat or not, girl or not.

You’ve been warned.

 

The Noise of Time

IMG_6943I read The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes over the course of about a week. It’s a smallish book, coming in at around 200 pages. I could have read it faster, perhaps in two or three days, but from the very first pages, I knew it was a book I wanted to savour.

 

The novel opens with Dmitri Shostakovich waiting by the lift in his apartment building. A few nights before, Stalin had attended a performance of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, a well respected, popular, and internationally renowned opera. He and his cronies left after the third act. Shostakovich had also been in the audience, and later picked up a copy of Pravda to read the denunciation of his up until then beloved opera entitled “Muddle Instead of Music.”

 

Composers are used to bad reviews, of course. All artists are. They are used to criticism of their art, and used to people not understanding their intentions or their vision. But a bad review under Stalin was not simply a bad review. On page 26, Barnes writes of the Muddle Instead of Music review:

 

“There were three phrases which aimed not just at his theoretical misguidedness but at his very person. “The composer apparently never considered the problem of what the Soviet audience looks for and expects in music.” That was enough to take away his membership in the Union of Composers. “The danger of this trend to Soviet music is clear.” That was enough to take away his ability to compose and perform. And finally: “It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly.” That was enough to take away his life.”

 

Such was life for writers, composers, dancers, actors, any type of artist at all under Stalin. In The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes focuses on the life of Shostakovich, and does a remarkable job eliciting and evoking this era in Soviet history, and a society that didn’t know how not to be afraid.

IMG_6994

The novel – and at times it was difficult to remember I was reading a novel and not an actual biography – is lyric and wry, funny and heartbreaking, often surreal, and always beautiful. It is also immensely quotable. Barnes has a gift for conveying feelings and ideas in very few, yet perfectly chosen words, causing me to stop and contemplate before resuming reading. In fact, I flagged over 30 lines, paragraphs, and sometimes even entire pages as potential quotes. Definitely too many to include in a short review, but enough to make me return to the book often, to read the passages again for their sheer beauty, their compact power. The novel’s structure adds to its beauty as well, with paragraphs that are short and succinct. These punchy paragraphs are not without impact. In fact, they trigger a sense of urgency in the writing; quickening the pace at times, and at other points in the story slowing the action down. Much like a composer or a conductor controls the way the orchestra plays music and therefore the way the audience hears it, Barnes is an expert in controlling the way the book is consumed by the reader. The result is lyrical, contemplative, and beautiful.

 

Back to the lift.

After the performance of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and Muddle Instead of Music, Shostakovich remained by the lift, night after night. On hearing it ascend, and preparing for the worst, there was relief when the doors opened and it was a merely a neighbour returning home:

 

“Words were never exchanged because words were dangerous. It was just possible that he looked like a man humiliatingly thrown out by his wife, night after night; or a man who indecisively kept walking out on his wife, night after night, and then returning. But it was probable he looked exactly what he was: a man, like hundreds of others across the city, waiting, night after night, for arrest.”

 

To me, to any of us sitting comfortably in a country that has never known a dictator, never known revolution or the fear of arrest for no other reason than your beliefs are no longer in line with those of the Party, it is extremely difficult to imagine how people not only lived under Stalin’s Great Terror, but continued to create. Music, poetry, theatre, novels, opera. Art not only thrived, it flourished. Some of the most incredible writing and music of all time came out of the Soviet Union under Stalin. This is mind boggling and fascinating, and is a testament to the power of the human spirit, and to the power of art itself.

 

Lenin said “Art belongs to the People.” Barnes writes,

 

“Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savour it. Art no more belongs to the People and the Party than it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time. Art does not exist for art’s sake: it exists for people’s sake. But which people and who defines them? He always thought of his own art as anti-aristocratic. Did he write, as his detractors maintained, for a bourgeois cosmopolitan elite? No. Did he write, as his detractors wanted him to, for the Donbass miner weary from his shift and in need of a soothing pick-me-up? No. He wrote music for everyone and no one. He wrote music for those who best appreciated the music he wrote, regardless of social origin. He wrote music for the ears that could hear. And he knew, therefore, that all true definitions of art are circular, and all untrue definitions of art ascribe it to a specific function.”

The Noise of Time is exquisite, and is currently among my top 5 reads for 2016 so far. I own a copy, and am happy to lend it. I will even remove the 3 dozen post-it note flags for you, so you can insert your own. Because you will definitely want to.

The Name Therapist Is Real In.

A couple of months ago I read The Name Therapist: How Growing Up With My Odd Name Taught Me Everything You Need to Know About Yours. The author is Duana Taha (odd name, yes, by her own admission) and I saw her speak at LITLive, one of the gritLIT Literary Festival kick-off events back in April. Duana was a funny, lively, bubbly speaker, and the topic of names – given names, that is – is one that has always fascinated me, so it’s no wonder I hung on her every word and bought her book.

According to the book jacket, Duana has never met another Duana. For a very long time, I could totally relate to this.

My name isn’t particularly unusual, or unusual at all, really. I have never experienced a “Oh, that’s exotic, where are you from?” or a “E…liz…what? Can you say it again?” kind of thing when I have introduced myself in a variety of different countries, so there’s that. I also know the name Elizabeth exists in lots of different cultures, with various spellings perhaps, and slight variations on pronunciation, but it’s still pretty recognizable.

So, with a relatively normal kind of name – for North American culture, anyway – what sparked my interest in names? Well, it’s probably due to the fact that for a long time, I really, really REALLY disliked my name.

It seems ridiculous now – I mean it’s a fine name, I have grown to like it, maybe even love it – but 40+ years ago? Oh hell, no.

Elizabeth, to me, as a child, was a name for old ladies. “But…but…!” people would stammer, “What about the Queen? What about Elizabeth Taylor?” Um, well yes. To a child those are OLD LADIES WITH OLD LADY NAMES. Get it? You are literally proving my point.

Elizabeth was the stern aunt in Emily of New Moon, who didn’t understand Emily’s desire to write. I have never forgiven L.M. Montgomery for naming that character Elizabeth. To be fair, Elizabeth was also one half of a set of twins in the book Twin Spell, by Janet Lunn, (now known as Double Spell) one of my all time favourite preteen reads. And, to be fair further, there are some pretty great Elizabeths in literature and pop culture, but remember, I was 7 or 8. I wasn’t reading Pride and Prejudice or Frankenstein back then.

And in the 1970s, in Hamilton? I never ran into another Elizabeth. Ever. In fact, I was an adult before I encountered another Elizabeth. There was at least one other Elizabeth in my high school, but the name only existed in the yearbooks, as far as I could tell. I never knew the girl personally (And yes, I scanned yearbooks looking for my name, doesn’t everyone. Never mind, I know the answer to that.)

The 1970s were a heyday for all the names I loved and wanted. Debbie? Yes, please! Lori, Tracy, Tammy, Sandy and Brenda. These were the girls I wanted to be. The girls who had to be known by their first name AND their last initial, because there were multiples in the class. Multiple people with your name! It made me giddy to think about it. I never got to be Elizabeth O. There was only ever me.

I asked my mother once (ok, probably more than once, if I’m being honest) why she called me Elizabeth. She didn’t have a definitive answer. It wasn’t a beloved grandmother’s name, it wasn’t that she was obsessed with royalty or the movie stars of the day. She just liked the name, and mostly she liked the name Beth, which my parents had intended to shorten my name to, but when I was born, I didn’t look like a Beth. So Elizabeth stayed. (Incidentally, if my dad had had his way, I would have been called Corinna, after the song “Corinna, Corinna” which you can listen to here. To this day I haven’t decided if that would have been worse or better than Elizabeth. It’s a pretty great name, but I have only met one Corinna in my life. Maybe she’s writing the exact same blog post. We’ll never know.)

In spite of my dislike for my (lovingly given) name, one thing I never did get the hang of was a short form for it. I’d already learned that Beth didn’t work, I never liked Liz, and maybe today I’d go with Eliza, thanks in part to the Schuyler Sisters, but when I was a kid Eliza seemed worse than just sticking with Elizabeth. (There’s a hole in my bucket, right? Sing it with me. No thanks.) The only exception to this was the time I tried to be Betty, because of The Flintstones. You know the episode where Fred gets hit on the head (or something) and goes all posh? And he starts calling Betty Rubble Elizabeth? That blew my mind, I wanted to be Betty! I went back to school after lunch and announced to my friends that they should now call me Betty. It never took. Actually kind of grateful for that, in the end.

Our names do kind of shape us, don’t they? And this is something The Name Therapist goes into in greater detail through stories and interviews – can your name determine your destiny? If I had been called Tammy, for instance, would that have affected my life immensely? What if Betty had actually stuck? What would be different in me if I had been the fourth Brenda in my grade two class? It’s an interesting line of thought, and one we can all relate to. With few exceptions, we don’t get to choose our name, yet it’s with us for the duration of our life. Those of us with children will tell you about the stress caused by making sure your child has the perfect name, the name that suits them perfectly. It can be very intense, and people can be downright hostile.

The Name Therapist is a great book, highly recommended. It’s funny and thought-provoking, serious at times and occasionally poignant. And in case you were afraid I was venturing into special snowflake territory with my stories about being the only Elizabeth, like, ever, Duana Taha set me straight:

nametherapist

Well played.