Mothers of All Brothers at the Mall

My sister had just posted a new picture of her baby on Facebook.  In it, my big-eyed, beautiful niece was wearing layers and layers of frilly pastel ruffles.  Beneath the picture, I wrote, “I didn’t know ruffles were the big thing right now.”  Even for idle social media chatter, my ruffle comment was pretty idle.  I didn’t expect anything to come of it.

But then, out of the vastness of time and space, through the miracle of post-modern social networking, another comment came answering back from an old friend of mine.  I didn’t know she and my sister were in touch.  I was surprised.  Frankly, they hardly know each other.  Frankly, my friend and I hardly know each other anymore.  We were closest during our early teenaged years, before I outgrew the worst of my hideous phase and started encroaching on her boy-chasing territory.  Things had been very quiet between us for a very long time.  But now that ruffles were on the table, she had something to say to me about them.

“That’s because you are the only girl in your home,” she told me, “And I don’t think that ruffles were ever your thing…”

She was right about that.

“…Little girls LOVE ruffles,” she continued, emphasis in the original.  “And sparkles, and tiaras, and glitter, and magic wands.  Maybe you should see if you can get a girl to balance out all of that boyness in your house.”

Maybe I’m crazy but it read like a smack-down.  It sounded like my family of nothing-but-sons was being called out as karmic.  She may as well have written, “You like boys, do ya?  Well, take THAT, boy-stealer.”

I replied by doing what anyone put in my position would have done: I quoted out-of-context Bowie lyrics at her.

“There’s only room for one and here she comes, here she comes.”

Unlike me, my old friend – the ruffle expert – has a daughter.  She goes shopping for tiny frilly dresses while I’m pushing a cart full of black and navy sweatpants.

I’ve heard people remark how tragic it is that mothers of boys don’t have as much fun shopping as the mothers of girls.  The idea is familiar enough to make it feel like everyone must agree.  But who actually makes this complaint?  I took a straw poll, pulling comments out of Internet parenting forums dedicated to mothers of all-boy families.  I was looking for any self-reports of mothers being disappointed about not being in the market for pretty dresses for anyone but ourselves.

Here’s what I found: hardly anything.

Every now and then, a long, sad venting post would appear where a mom of boys lists everything about parenting that hurts her.  Once she’d started brainstorming her disappointments, she’d usually toss in a line about shopping.  But in pages and pages of healthy, happy chit-chat about raising boys, it was nearly impossible to find any boys-only moms complaining about the lack of sparkles in their laundry.

So who keeps talking about how sad we must be?  It seems the people most likely to think shopping in the pink section is important are people who are actively enculturating a little girl with prissy, Western notions of acceptable gender roles.  These people care very strongly about it.  But guess who doesn’t care much about it?  Everyone else.

Groaner at the Scholastic Book Fair

Groaner at the Scholastic Book Fair

Shopping may be a strange and backward place for flagrant plays of gender politics but it’s a real one.  Most of the time, gendered shopping is a marketing tool meant to get parents with kids of both sexes to buy double the merchandise they need because pink bicycles burst into flames if boys try to ride them.  It’s got nothing to do with what’s good for the human psyche and everything to do with selling products.

When it comes to underwear and tampons, I can see the wisdom in dividing the marketplace between the sexes.  But when I walked into the Scholastic Book Fair at my kids’ school this winter and saw a table labelled “Books for Boys,” I got angry.  Thanks, Scholastic, for making sure arbitrary gender division in education and the arts stay staunchly and clearly defined.

And thanks, I guess, to everyone harbouring any compassion for women who only mother children of the opposite sex.  Go ahead and feel sorry for us.  In truth, there are reasons for boy-moms to feel a little lonely – a little empty.  They’re real and I believe they’re profound.  The reasons women might mourn for never creating another human in their own image are existential, rooted in our personal identities, our senses of our own immortality, and our fears about dying alone.  And that makes the suggestion that our feelings are all about vapid unfulfilled shopping fantasies outrageously offensive.

Sign Seeker

There I was, walking across the University of Alberta campus in 1992 – stupid, lonely, horrible — and at my feet on the concrete outside the Central Academic Building was a playing card, face down.  I’m a believer is signs and wonders (and I was thinking seriously about dropping out of my statistics class) so there was no way I could walk any further without drawing the card – a wild card, free-range, occurring naturally in the earth.

A Card in the Wild

A Card in the Wild

The back of it was printed with some tiny, uniform pattern, white and blue.  And I wasn’t so bad at statistics that I could fail to know the odds were ten to thirteen – excellent odds — that the side of the card still pressed against the ground would bear a number, pips.  There was a three out of thirteen chance it would be a face card with eyes and hands, a crown and a weapon, footless.  There was only a one in thirteen chance it would be a queen.  As I stooped to flip it over, I decided that if the card was a queen – just lying here, at this precise time — it would mean something.

It was a queen – the queen of clubs.  It’s the lowest suit, the flower queen, dark-robed, white-faced, grim.  No one writes songs about her.  And what is that clover thing of hers supposed to be good for anyways?

I picked the card up, right in front of everyone else walking by, as if it was mine.  No one asked.

I took the card to the library, found some kind of book – I have no idea anymore what it was called or even what term I would have typed into the clunky database to find it.  All I remember of what the book said about the meaning of the queen of clubs is one word: worry.  That was my sign.  Worry — it wasn’t good but it was true.

I kept the queen of clubs, took it home, taped it to the wall beside my bed, right next to a colour print of a detail from a painting of the Virgin Mary that had fallen out of a different library book and landed on the desk, as if it was a sign too.  This Mary was languid, brown-haired like she’s supposed to be.  My hair is yellow.  They always said it would turn brown but it never did.  That’s why it was never me but my sister who they got to play Mary in the pageants at Christmas.  They told me to be the angel – which was embarrassing because, in the book, the Christmas angel is clearly a boy, a white-haired boy.  Little, neuter, dirty-blonde me, the fake Christmas angel standing on a kitchen chair.

The signs stayed posted on my wall until I moved.  The first time I unpacked, I hung them up again.  When I moved for love, they stayed in a box.  They’re still here somewhere – I think.  I could probably find them again if I wanted to but – signs change.

And today, as I walked over the wet ice and traction sand on the road in front of the mailbox, I stepped over a single playing card, face down in the freezing, dirty water.  Its back was printed in a pattern called “bicycle,” white and red.  I’m more of a believer in signs and wonders than ever and I did end up with an improbable A in that statistics class so there was no way I could walk any further without drawing one more wild card.  Signs may change but odds don’t.  The odds were still just one in thirteen that the card would be a queen.  If it was a queen, I would have no idea whether it meant anything.

I stooped in the middle of the road and picked it up.

I’m not stupid, okay.  I know that if this was fiction, I’d have to write this story so that the card was not a queen.  It would have to be something else or we’d all hate this story.  It would be silly.  We’d be right to sneer at it.  But this is a real story – the kind that doesn’t need my permission to be a little bit perfect.

Here I was, on a Tuesday in November, two hours before my kids got home from school, with a new sign,  a real sign — the queen of hearts.

What Not to Say About My Sick Family Member

In an eerie coincidence, the same week my book was published – a family saga with the word “death” right in its title — a close family member was diagnosed with a serious illness.  It’s a liver disease that’s been seen in our family before with fatal results.  Though not hopeless, it is at best an extremely difficult crisis.  It is the boogeyman.

We’re not the kind of family to hit the social media circuit with alarming, heart-wrenching announcements.  We suffer best in intimate surroundings.  But as time goes on and the disease muscles its way into everyday life, it becomes necessary to tell people outside our inner circle why things are changing.  Some of the people who should respond with the simple sympathy and support we need choose another route.  They respond with unwanted, quack-tastic theories and advice about what went wrong.

Questionable health advice is part of social life in the Google age.  When it’s aimed at me – a healthy person just entering mid-life – I can grin and listen to it.  If an idea is important to my friends, I can make it important enough to me to bear a thorough, good-humoured airing of it.  That’s empathy.  But when Google-lore is leveled at my loved one’s acute health crisis, it becomes a different matter entirely.  Suddenly, the onus is no longer on me not to be callous about my friends’ attachments to their pet beliefs.  It’s now on them not to be callous of my grief and anxiety.  That’s empathy.

I understand that no one I know has any malicious intent toward sick people or their loved ones.  At the root of unsolicited advice about magic grease and mega-minerals and super-berries is an earnest desire to be helpful – to give me the information I need to escape the suction of the awful yellow-green vortex swirling in the depths of my gene pool.

And I do have friends and relatives – people with decades of education and experience in both conventional and alternative medical fields – whom I shamelessly pester for unpaid, informal advice on health matters.  The problem isn’t that I’m too proud to seek out or listen to advice.

The problem is the subtext people like me, who are dealing with sensitive situations, can read into well-meant advice.

Let me explain what it sounds like when I’m told by anyone other than an attending health care worker how to save my loved one and myself.  It could be any kind of advice, like do not, under any circumstances, drink sweet, fizzy drinks.  (Yes, someone once told me pop is the worst thing anyone can drink.  Actually, I’d wager mercury is the worst thing anyone can drink – or molten lava, or tailing pond-water, or bleach, or a broken-glass smoothie).  The advice could be warnings never to eat gluten or dairy or red meat or unicorn hoofs.  It could be voicing suspicions about all those sinister vaccines.  It could be nothing more than pushy chatter about positive thinking.

Right now, this kind of advice all sounds harsh and denunciatory.  No matter what anyone intends when they say it, none of this feels like good will to me.  Instead, it’s like being told my loved one deserves to be sick because he’s not as smart as the people on Google and he fricked up his body, like an idiot.

And that’s not true.

Even if it was true, what good would it do to lavish scorn on someone’s choices now that he’s already sick?

So save it.  When someone cracks the door open and makes the darkness of their tragedy visible, don’t shoulder through the gap and start tripping around wreaking havoc in the gloom.  Accept what they’ve shared and tell them, “Oh my gosh, I am so sorry to hear that.”  Sit and listen.  If you can, find out where that sick loved one is and go shovel the snow off his sidewalks. Or tell that struggling friend how it was when you were living in the same kind of shadow.  Say a prayer.  Give a hug.  Shut your face.

Bon-Bons and Soap Operas and Other Stories

Stop asking me what I do all day.

I’ve been wanting to say that since 1996 when my sister arrived at my apartment during one of the fifteen-minute intervals when my ravenous newborn baby was asleep and found me standing in my living-room flipping through a board book about farm animals.  My reply to “what do you do all day” used to sound noble – the kind of thing that gets championed on Facebook by mothers in need of recognition and respect and, heck, some social justice.  When I was raising my little boys I would have been justified in replying with something like, “I spend all day making human beings from my own guts and mettle, you ignorant boors.”

Oedie, the blue lineolated parakeet. She’s nuts.

1996 was a long time ago.  It’s been ages since that original farm animal board book fell into the toilet and passed out of our lives.  But questions about what I do with my daylight hours remain.  In fact, I’m getting questioned about them more than ever.  My youngest son started full-day school last month.  From 8:25am to 3:40pm, no one has any business being in my house except me and my deranged parakeet.  When my last son left the building, so did my best “excuse” for being at home full-time.

Sometimes I admit my life is now all soap operas and bon-bons, all day long.

But when I’m not feeling sarcastic, I’ll go on and on about how when I’m not doing all the cleaning, errands, shopping, and emergency interventions my family of seven still needs during the day whether any of them are inside the house or not, I’m at home working on my writing career.

These days, enough people work from home that we should all understand it’s not a sham for lazy folks.  Working from home may not be slick and pretty but it’s real.  And it’s an especially common practice for people working as writers.  Still, claiming I’m working as a writer just triggers more questions.

“Working?  But you already wrote your book, didn’t you?  What’s left to do?  What do you actually do all day?”

As far as occupations go, writing is pretty flaky.  I get that.  There’s no tool belt, no lunch kit.  And sometimes working as a writer means looking out the window, driving around crying, or using all the hot water zoning out in the shower.  Yeah, it’s pretty flaky some days.  But in between all those black-box creative cognitive processes there is real work to do.  We write at our big projects but we also write smaller pieces, read and review other people’s books, scour listings for new places to send our work, and manage systems for tracking what’s been submitted to where and how long we should wait before we give up on getting a reply.

For new writers, publicity is vital to success.  It doesn’t come naturally for most of us and it takes a lot of time and energy.  In addition to doing spoken and written interviews (if we’re lucky), we maintain social media presences on three or four different platforms and most of us write blogs.  Sure, some people do this stuff for fun.  I happen to thinking mowing lawns is fun.  But that doesn’t mean people who get paid to mow lawns aren’t really working.

In many ways, writers bring the perception that our jobs are jokes upon ourselves by talking about our work in terms of a lot of goofy, mystical claptrap.  It might help us feel gifted and precious in our own minds but if we’re going to indulge in silly, fanciful claims that make our skills sound like dubious super-powers, other people aren’t going to relate to our work the same way they relate to their own jobs.  People don’t really believe in super-powers – and frankly, neither do writers.  So let’s stop it.

If we catch ourselves beginning sentences with “Only a writer would…” or “You know you’re a writer if…” we ought to know we’re being pretentious and throwing away our professional credibility.  We’re begging people to ask us what we do all day.  I know it may be fun to think we’re doing the opposite – getting people to take writing seriously by astounding them with the “specialness” of it.  But it doesn’t work.  Stop it.  Let’s get off the “Memes for Writers” Pinterest boards and Tumblr blogs and grind our way through some word processor software instead.  That’s what writers do all day.

Kleines Mӓdchen: Little Girls on a Book Tour

Reading on the Road

Reading on the Road

I never meant to cram a month’s worth of book promotion into seven days.  It just happened — an unforeseen consequence of good luck, good will, and good publicists.  I was so busy last week my kids actually noticed and mentioned how little time I’d been spending in my pumpkin shell.

I told them, “Look, I took a seventeen year mat-leave.  You’ve got nothing to complain about.”

Sure, it was a maternity leave full of freelance work and “will-you-just-let-me-finish-this” but I was here, in the house with them, for almost all of it.

The week started early Monday (because, that’s when it always starts) when I went into my closet — the room in the house most like a radio booth — and did a telephone interview with a talk-radio station in Edmonton.  It was a “top-line” interview meant to promote an appearance I’d be making in the city the next day.  It went well until the very last question.

“So,” Mr. Radio asked, “who’s taking care of the kids while you’re [in Edmonton]?”

Instead of musing, “You know, when my husband gets interviewed by the media, on the courthouse steps, no one ever asks him who’s looking after his kids,” I laughed it off.

“That’s their problem,” I told the interviewer.  “The oldest is seventeen so it’s Lord of the Flies over here when I’m gone.”

So far, no visit from Child and Family Services.

By bedtime that evening, I was gone.  I was at my sister’s house in Edmonton, getting ready for another “top-line” interview on the most terrifying of all media: television.  I haven’t watched television for years and I was scheduled to appear on a morning news show I’d never seen before.  What I remembered from TV was mostly how it’s been used to make “real” people look foolish and grasping.

In the morning, I got dressed while it was still dark — high black boots, skinny black pants, white top, black jacket.  Looking in my sister’s mirror, I finally saw it: I had subconsciously dressed myself to look like the black and white magpies on the cover of my book.

After a breakfast of Diet Coke with the coolest girl in Yellowbird Elementary School, I was on the freeway.  I got to the studio early enough to meet the other author being interviewed that morning.  In the green room was a man my age wearing a raspberry-coloured suit with a peach handkerchief tucked into the breast-pocket.  This was self-proclaimed over-dresser and Edmonton literary institution, Todd Babiak.  I thought I might run into him here.

“Don’t get nervous and start making fun of him,” one of my little sisters had warned me.  “That’s what I’d do.”

This was good advice.  It turns out Babiak isn’t a TV watcher either and we sat in the green room puzzling at the monitor on the wall as the program wound its way toward our segments.  He nodded at the anchor-lady on the screen.  “She’s actually read my book,” he said because, in a top-line interview, this is remarkable.

Left alone in the green room, I watched Babiak’s interview.  Of course, his raspberry suit had to be acknowledged on-air, just like my five kids at home had to be acknowledged on the radio on Monday morning.  The boys — they’re my raspberry suit.

Walking the hallway to the studio, I asked the producer with the pixie-cut hairdo, “There aren’t going to be any questions about who’s taking care of my kids, are there?”

She smirked.  “Any what?”

I told her about the radio station and we all scoffed together.  The anchorman who interviewed me was sweet in a clean-cut-captain-of-the-football-team kind of way.

I spent the rest of the day in the city, visiting family, calming the frick down before I went to a reading in a bookstore downtown.  The guests at this reading included some old friends I hadn’t seen in this century.  One of them reintroduced herself in case I’d forgotten her — which I certainly had not.  A wonderful thing about a book tour is the way it’s also a time machine.

After two days of massaging social media, the time came for another reading.  This one was closer to home, in the city my husband commutes to for work.  The Red Deer venue was warm and cozy and the time machine coughed out a long lost aunt and cousin.  There was a question from a woman — a fellow artist — who earnestly and innocently wanted to know how I “do it” with so many kids in my life.

I shrugged, “By being a crap mother, I guess.”  This might be my new pat-answer.  Put it right in the press kit.

fmroad

Get your kicks on Route 63

The last event of the week was the most ambitious one of all.  The person stepping out of the time machine this time would be me.  The  machine took the form of my black pickup truck — the kind they issue everyone crossing into Alberta’s borders.  I picked up my sister (the third sister in this story) and we went north, to Fort McMurray.

I’m no carpet-bagger, no oilsand opportunist.  For five years during the early 2000s, the city was my hometown.  I bought my first house, repaid my student loan, met bears, planted trees, and had two magnificent babies in the city.  An entire chapter of my novel is set in the Wood Buffalo region.  To get there, we drove for five hours — me boring the heck out of my sister with all my “Wow, this is so different.”  I alternated between, “I can’t believe all this is here” and “I can’t believe all that is gone.”  No matter what the Old Man says, the region is not Hiroshima.  It’s not a wasteland.  But it’s not like it used to be either.

In seven years, the city’s service industry hasn’t changed.  We arrived at 2:45 pm but we couldn’t get into our hotel room to change our clothes.  It was still a mess.  I’d be appearing in public looking like I’d spent the day in a pickup truck.  We hadn’t had a meal all day and we went to a fast food restaurant with milk and grease smeared all over the sky-blue tabletops.  This was familiar too.  The restaurant couldn’t hire enough staff to have anyone to clear the tables.  Customers go there knowing they’ll have to do it themselves.

At the event — a launch party for the latest edition of NorthWord: A Literary Journal of Canada’s North  I was invited to read first.  I chose the chapter set in the neighbourhood where I now stood reading.  And when I got to the part about the trees along the highway — the ones that now exist only in my imagination — I choked into the microphone.  Maybe it’d sound noble and Neil Young would pat me on the head if I tried to say I was having a fit of environmental conscience.  It wasn’t that.  It wasn’t the trees.  It was me.  There was some kind of awful longing rising in my throat with the words I read.  The whole time machine idea — it’s wrong.  This place that I love had moved on without me.  I was abandoned.  And I hadn’t even known it.

Part of the NorthWord event was in impromptu poetry contest.  The theme was contrast.  I jotted some lines and signed my sister’s name to them.  The poem was about the dirty tabletop at the restaurant.  It was silly and pretentious right down to the lines I wrote in German.  The judges got the joke and it won a prize in the contest.  But my sister was too embarrassed to let them announce it.  Fair enough.

Sister-Sleepover

Sister-Sleepover

When we were finally let into the hotel, we put on pajamas, got into one of the beds, put our heads together, and watched YouTube on my sister’s tablet — a sisters’ sleepover, just like old times, only not at all like old times.  Neither of us had wi-fi or a credit card or an ex-husband or a book to tour when we were little girls.

Still, those German words — the refrain from our winning poem — they were these:

Kleines Mӓdchen.

Return of an Edmonton Cleaning-Lady as an Audreys Author

The best thing about being from nowhwere is being from everywhere.

I lived in thirteen different houses by the time I moved away from my happy, nomadic family at age eighteen (only to have them move right along after me a few months later).  That counts as growing up everywhere doesn’t it?

When I made my first solo move, the place I went was Edmonton, Alberta.  Don’t know Edmonton?  It’s a metropolitan area of about a million people at 54 degrees latitude.  If anyone’s thinking, “That must be a pretty great city for people to put up with living that far north,” they’re right.   I went there to get an education at the University of Alberta.  I met my husband on Whyte Avenue, earned my degree, published my first guest column in the Edmonton Journal, and my two eldest children were born in Edmonton.  I was there for eight years — longer than I’ve lived in any city.  My Edmonton days were happy but not glamorous.  Most of the time, I lived in Strathcona walk-up apartments like this:

The Apollo Apartments, just off Whyte Avenue

The Apollo Apartments, just off Whyte Avenue

Even this place was only affordable because I worked as the resident manager and cleaning-lady. I don’t live inside the city limits anymore but if the weather is good, I can get to them in under an hour.  Edmonton is still one of my many hometowns — part of the everywhere I’m from.  In fact, several of the chapters of the book I wrote are set in city — University of Alberta campus, the High Level Bridge, Cloverbar Waster Transfer Station — all Edmonton.

This coming Tuesday night, I’m bringing my book home to Edmonton.

A few weeks ago, my novel was nicely reviewed by Edmonton Journal book columnist (and fellow newly debuted local author) Michael Hingston.  He called it, “A surprising, thoughtful and captivating debut that uses death to illuminate all that’s at stake in life itself.”

The good local review sets the stage for my author reading hosted by Edmonton’s indie bookstore mainstay, Audreys Books. (No, there isn’t supposed to be an apostrophe in the name.  It refers to more than one Audrey and is grammatically above reproach.)  Audreys is a place little girls slogging away at their Arts degrees, and young-mother-cleaning-ladies writing indignant guest columns keep in their minds as the setting for scenes from the futures they want for themselves.  The store is a landing-pad for Edmonton writers in traditional, book-length publishing.  I am beyond happy to be appearing there.

And since my publicist, Sarah, is a total animal, I’m getting right up in Edmonton’s face about my homecoming.  I’m doing a radio interview with talk radio station 630 CHED on Monday, Sept 23, at around 7:20am.  The morning of the reading itself, Tuesday Sept 24, I’ll be interviewed outside the safe, blind box of radio on television with the CTV Edmonton Morning show.  I’ll be on for just a few minutes at around 8:40am.  So crazy!  And if I botch it, remember that we must never speak of this again.

The Head Sneer-Leader Takes to the Field

We knew by the way he sacked the basemen as he ran around the tee-ball diamond that football was the sport for our fourth son.  That was when he was five years old.  Now, at age eight, he weighs 100lbs, is tall enough to look his mother in the eye, and is finally old enough to play for our town’s Atom Chargers football team.

athletes onlyOne month into the season, he looks great on the field – shoving and sauntering.  But it hasn’t always been that way.  The first two practices were disasters.  He ignored the coaches, walked while everyone ran, and eventually wound up standing with his helmet pressed against the goal post in a self-imposed timeout.

With half an hour left in the second practice, I stood up from the stands and headed onto the field.  “You’re not going to want to make a habit out of that,” my friend, a seasoned football dad warned me.  He’s right.  But watching my kid bouncing his own head off the goal post over and over again was more painful than storming onto the field as “that parent.”

I got to the goal post, took my boy by the arm, and said, “You have exactly one more chance to do what the coaches say or you are grounded from the computer and all the video games.”

“Okay, Mom.”

So began his football career.  He’s still the slowest guy on the team but he’s playing a position where his job is to get in the way and knock people over.  He’s a natural.  Wherever he is at this very moment, he’s probably getting in the way and knocking things over right now.  He will never touch the ball during a game.  For a kid like mine, playing on the line, football is more a martial art than a ball-game.  And I am shocked at how much I – a former high school football sneer-leader – am enjoying watching my son playing sports.

Yes, it’s taken me four sons to finally have one involved in team sports.  Before him, I didn’t have any first-hand knowledge of how kids behave in organized sports.  Along with that ignorance, I didn’t have any experience with how parents behave while watching kids play sports.  I’d heard horror stories about parents cursing at coaches, threatening referees, yelling at kids, running out onto the ice or the field, embarrassing and upsetting everyone.  It seemed like craziness.  I didn’t disbelieve those stories.   But I didn’t understand the complexities of them either.

Not every parent meddling in his or her kid’s game is out there abusing coaches and trying to bully kids into far-fetched pro-sports careers.  Some of them are just trying to get their kids to do flaming anything.  When my son zoned out in the end zone, I could have got all tender, sighed something about how he wasn’t interested in football after all, unlaced his brand new cleats, and taken him home to our soft couches and lovely, glowing screens.

Big Mic in his practice gear

Big Mic in his practice gear

The fact is if my kids had it their way, they wouldn’t do anything that wasn’t easy for them.  They’d be charming writers, artists, and readers but they wouldn’t know how to swim or ride bicycles or speak French or do any number of other things that make them happy now that they’ve mastered them.  Young kids – like my linesman — don’t know anything about work or rewards or regrets or how everything in life but real love comes with an expiration date looming over it.  When my kid acted like he wanted to quit football, he wasn’t thinking about the day disillusioned adult-him might come brimming with blame, asking why I didn’t push him hard enough to make a difference when he was still a kid.  He’s not thinking of old-lady-me trying to justify to my daughter-in-law all the times I failed to kick his butt, leaving her to do it.  (I, on the other hand, am constantly thinking about my daughters-in-law.  I want those harpies happy.)

Someone owes it to kids to give them chances to learn new things – hard things.  For some parents, giving a kid a chance means writing a check, dropping him off at the sports field, and watching the magic happen.  For slow-to-warm-up kids like mine, giving them a chance often means riding them until they figure out what’s important for themselves.  And for other parents, like the guy I saw calmly carrying his screaming son off the field after the kid ripped off his cleats and threw them at his dad’s head, it means knowing when certain horizons are already as broad as they’re going to get and moving on to different ones.

So to all those parents of the eager, easygoing kids, don’t take those kids’ good attitudes for granted.  Thank them for it.  And take it easy on all of us “that parents” out on the field mixing it up with our more difficult kids.  We’ll try to go easier on ourselves too.  If it helps, let’s think of our different parenting-styles as CFL versus NFL football.  To people who don’t know much about it, the games look the same — but they’re not.

Oh, and go Chargers!

Marriage Tips of the Angels of Death?

My Mr. and Me

My Mr. and Me

I wrote a novel about marriage.  It’s a novel, not a manual.  It’s meant to start conversations about love and relationships, not necessarily to resolve them.  Recently, I had one such conversation.  It was a discussion about whether the marriage I wrote is truly a happy one.  Would my main characters actually love each other if they had to live in the real world?

My position, of course, is that they would.  Most of my reviewers agree — but not all of them.

I’m not a marriage counselor.  When I’m writing, my job is not to lecture but to describe what I see in life and in my imagination.  That’s where the marriage I wrote came from – not from relationship theories but from inspiration found in things I’ve seen, heard, felt, and (as one reviewer pointed out) smelled.  And, since this is the Internet, I’ll write some of what I see in happy marriages in a list.  Maybe everyone’s list would be different.  But this list is mine – and ya won’t find anything on it about toothpaste caps or crapping with the bathroom door open.

Quick Disclaimer: I’m speaking of marriages where both partners are fairly healthy emotionally and socially.  I don’t mean situations of abuse or flagrant craziness where self-preservation demands a different list entirely.

What a Good Marriage Looks Like To Me:

1)      It’s Not Dating.  And thank goodness.  During his dating days, I had a miserable conversation with one of my brothers.  He didn’t want to live alone but at the same time he was worried marriage meant being trapped in a never-ending date – having to keep up a stream of witty conversation, fussing over the etiquette of opening car doors or not, orchestrating lavish events – all those company manners stretching on and on until someone in the couple mercifully dies and the other can relax.  Married people can go on dates but we are not dating.  Even if we aren’t holding hands at the movies every night, romantic moments can arise out of daily life – moments much more natural and genuinely loving than stunts copied out of hackneyed, soap-opera-inspired cultural scripts.

2)      It Maintains Physical Contact.  Look, it’s hard to stay mad at someone when she’s sitting in your lap.  The power of physical affection shouldn’t be underestimated.  Between people who love each other, it can take the edge off just about anything.  It can change fighting into flirting.  And it’s easy to use.  Slather it on.

3)      It’s Generous With the Benefit of the Doubt.  Everyone makes mistakes.  In a good marriage, mistakes are handled by thinking, “There is no way he meant that to sound so awful.  We must be missing something.”  When attributing motives to a spouse, it’s best to use a deductive approach – one that begins with the premise that the loved-one truly loves us.  From there, we assume the most basic motive is love.  We may be clumsy and unsuccessful in showing love but we try to see it underlying behaviours anyway.  We use humor and affection and warm, open communication to let partners know when there’s a glitch. We also use tenderness.  Frankness is not always a virtue.  Sometimes, it’s just laziness, malice, and thoughtlessness dressed up in a goofy costume made of 1970s self-help mystique.  Ironically, frankness can sometimes foster more misunderstanding especially when an issue calls for slow, delicate defusing to keep it from detonating and devastating the relationship.

4)      It Doesn’t Keep Score.  A good marriage has no tally sheet.  It doesn’t worry about “love banks” or throw down rules about how love must be proven or earned.  Marriage isn’t a corporation.  Instead of keeping balance sheets weighing good deeds against bad behaviours it just forgives and forgives and forgives.  It’s like a soccer game for 5-year-olds.  Try your best, have fun, concentrate on teamwork, forget the score, and it’s okay if everyone wins.

5)      It’s Not Preoccupied With Boundaries.  Individuality is the human condition, okay?  We’re all different and separate from one another.  Nothing anyone tries to do to us can change that.  For a romantic sap like me, the greatest challenge of our lives – including our married lives – isn’t to find ourselves but to find someone else and make them as much a part of ourselves as possible.  Marriage is one of those transcendent paradoxes about losing ourselves in order to find ourselves.

6)      It’s Open to Miracles.  This item on the list is important enough for me to break the Internet convention of limiting lists to five points.  Like I’ve said before, I don’t really know what makes marriage work.  It just does.  I have a good one.  Without much effort, I’ve been happily married to the same man for eighteen years.  But it’s not because we’re any better or smarter than anyone else.  There’s got to be a lot of luck – or something like it – involved.  A good marriage is not unlike a miracle.  And a miracle, by definition, demands faith that something unlikely can actually happen.  So believe in marriage.  Hope in marriage.  On many levels, marriage in the twenty-first century doesn’t make much sense.  But here we are.

So, Um, What Are You Doing Next Thursday?

Yes, this is me, asking you out.

Invitation to my book launch party

Next Thursday, I’m having a party to launch my novel.  Whoever you are — whether you know me in person or not, whether I can see your house from mine or not — consider yourself invited (unless you are a child who is old enough to walk but not old enough to keep your mitts out of the punch bowl and sit and listen to Auntie Jenny read stories about dead people).

If you can’t make it to the Lacombe launch party, I’ll be reading in Red Deer at Sunworks on Friday, September 27 at 7pm.  And if you’re a big city type, I’ll be reading in Calgary at Pages Kensington as part of Filling Station’s Flywheel Series on Thursday, Sept 12 at 7:30.

Look, I’m delicate and socially awkward.  Come see me.

It’s Not You, It’s Me – The Post-Fiction Movement and My Novel

A gravestone of a real great-great aunt at the real Butcher Hill Cemetery

A gravestone of a real great-great aunt at the real Butcher Hill Cemetery

There were cupcakes, pink tissue paper flowers bigger than my head, cupcakes, a sunny backyard full of people I love, and cupcakes. It was a family party – a birthday bash for one of my nieces.

Eventually, the conversation turned to the book I wrote that had been published exactly one week earlier.  My sister-in-law, who hadn’t read a word of the novel yet, was not quite kidding when she asked me, “So, which character am I?”

I could answer with confidence.  “None of them.  None of the characters in the book is anyone here.”  I glanced around the yard to make sure it was true.  It was.  None of the real people at this particular gathering cast any shadow on my fiction (except, I recall on rereading this, a few of my little sons).

“Doesn’t matter.  When I’m reading it I’ll think one of them’s me anyway,” my sister-in-law warned, because she’s funny and she’s self-aware enough to know how hard it is not to see ourselves in everything.

The conversation jostled my latent social science senses awake.  What would I find if I did a good old “content analysis” of my novel, chapter by chapter, looking for traces of real life?

Here’s what I found.  The chapters of my book roughly fell into three categories of reality/unreality:

  1. Chapters almost completely ripped from real life:   7 out of 23

This proportion is smaller than I feared.  These are the chapters where a few identifying features are changed, the sequence of events is streamlined, but most of the action and reaction unfold almost exactly like events from my personal and family histories.

2.  Chapters I Made Up Almost Completely — Almost:  6 out of 23

Hey, there’s real fiction in here!  What a relief!  I was gratified when my mum’s BFF wanted to know who in our real lives a certain character from the book was and I could answer with a resounding, “He’s no one!  I made him up!”

3.  Chapters Made from Conglomerations of Fictional and Real Elements: 10 out of 23

Not surprisingly, this mixed category is the largest one.  What’s odd about these chapters is that it’s the reality in them that strains the hardest against plausibility.  If a reader ever looks up from the book and says, “Nah, I can’t buy that” he’s probably rejecting something I lifted from real life and then toned down with fiction to make it less jarring.  An old lady who sleeps on a saw bench?  No way.  A cemetery called Butcher Hill?  That’s too much.  An exhumation? Get right out, that never really happens.  It does.  It did.  As they say, I can’t make this stuff up.  Maybe I don’t have the guts.

Since before I was born, it’s been a Beatles cliché that it’s hard for artists to come up with anything new.  The world is old and full of people and stories.  Part of the art-imitates-life problem is genuinely accidental, especially for people from large families like mine. The more people a writer knows with the intimacy of family, the more difficult it is for her to avoid treading on real life situations in her work.

For instance, I have an unpublished novel currently circulating with my agent about a group of five sisters.  Not coincidentally, I am one of five sisters.  When it came to writing sisterhood, a group of five was the size that made the most sense to me.  I make no apologies for that.  However, I started to squirm when I saw that, in order to advance the plot, I needed one of the sisters to have a professional medical background.  Fine.  But in my real sister-group, one of us works as a nursing instructor.  Medicine is full of women and this alone could be dismissed as chance.  But then the story needed one of the sisters to have a husband who’s adopted.  One of my brothers-in-law fits this description.  Another sister in the novel needed access to the justice system.  That’s me.  And the plot was going nowhere without a sister with lots of money – enter another fact from one of my sisters’ lives.  I finished the novel, looked at all the parallels, and wondered what really happened.  Did the plot arise first and demand all these real life details or did real life tumble around in my imagination until it formed into the plot?  And was the same kind of thing happening in my published novel?

There’s a literary movement hatching out of this chicken-and-egg fiction conundrum.  It questions whether recounting real life is actually a problem.  It’s been called “post-fiction” and refers to writing that obscures boundaries between fiction and fact.  As critic Michael H. Miller of New York Observer explains,

This writing represents a chiasmus between the real and the made-up, blurring the two into nonrecognition, confronting the reader with all those issues one is trained by the Western academy not to look for: namely, the author herself, hiding behind the words.

Recently, there’s been a spell of writers – like Sheila Heti and Tao Lin – producing novels with real people from their lives cast as characters.  Those real people include themselves.  Sometimes, not even the names are changed.  These narratives have been called tedious by some critics.  They state the obvious, deal in the mundane, they can be repetitive.  Some readers dislike them.  Some think they’re brilliant.

Whatever they are, they make me feel a little more confident in my own post-fiction inclinations.  I’m so comfortable with it I’ve made this digital “scrapbook” where I collect images, quotations, and music that inspired or emulate my book.  In true post-fiction style, I borrowed the idea from fellow writer, Rebecca Campbell.  You can see it here:

http://lovelettersoftheangelsofdeath.tumblr.com/

Readers might be getting used to seeing the author standing in front of the lens, in the foreground.  Maybe I’m cheating them if they don’t see me.  And I’m hard not to recognize.  Like me, the main female character in my novel is a mother of a group of sons, raising them under the influence of her solid marriage and her rather jaunty death fixation.  She goes where I’ve gone and seen much of what I’ve seen.  We have matching root canals in one of our teeth.  We both said the same thing to our husbands when we saw they’d cut their throats shaving the morning before we married them.  But even after all this, she is not really me.  The very act of creating her made her different from me.  She’s a story I tell.

And in the same way, regardless of any likenesses, I promise, none of the characters in my book is you.