It’s Me, Writing in “The Awl”

It’s Me, Writing Psychoanalytic Feminist Film Criticism

This week, I drafted a blog post I liked too much to keep to myself.  Instead of posting it here, I sent it to a cool New York City website called “The Awl” and 48 hours after pitching it, the story was published.  It’s doing well — getting tweeted and shared and picked up by other news sites.  There is an audience out there who gets it.

However, I realize all the psychoanalytic feminist film criticism in it might be off the beaten path for many of the kind people who know me personally and read my stuff out of love.  The “Awl” article assumes readers have already heard of and dismissed the trope — the flat, stock film character — known as  the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl.”  The term was coined by critic Nathan Rabin in reviewing a movie where a sad young man is rescued by a “psychotically chipper” woman.  Rabin explains, “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”

My article is a cheeky look at a possible source of this self-indulgent, embarrassing character.  Something tremendously compelling must keep male-writers coming back to it.  The piece was a lot of fun to write and I’m enjoying people’s reaction to it.

Maybe give it a read here:

Manic Pixie Dream Mom – The Awl, Jan 10, 2014

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.

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.

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.

“Bring it On” — A Sexist Challenge on Childbirth

“I had a lady friend years ago… who was a mother of several children. She had a bout of shingles. She told me she would rather give birth. I have had shingles. Bring it on.”  — A male friend of a friend on Facebook.com, July 26, 2013

mumjoe

My mother and her first grandchild

Facebook is a hurt-feelings-machine.  It’s an Offense-O-Matic.  It’s a Jerk-A-Tron.  It can make ordinary strangers sound like idiotic, sexist monsters.  We all know this.  However, Facebook is also the only place I can reliably see pictures of my nieces and nephews so, like most users, I have reasons to put up with the website that outweigh the heaps of garbage I find there.  But the comment quoted above – one made in response to a comedy sketch about a bogus medical device that transfers the pain of childbirth contractions from mothers to fathers — reads as particularly loathsome to me, even by Facebook standards.

When it comes to empathy for the ordeal of childbirth, I prefer quotations like this one:

“I’m sorry.  I didn’t know it could be like this or I would have told you.”

That’s what my mother said to me moments after my first son was born.  She didn’t say it because she was ignorant of childbirth and hadn’t worked hard enough to prepare me for it.  She had borne seven children herself and been frank with me about her experiences.  She knows much more about childbirth than most people will ever know.

But my mum was still shocked at how differently childbirth unfolded for me.  Unlike Facebook-Shingles-Man, there’s no bravado, nothing dismissive or smug in her response to my very personal passage to motherhood.  Standing at my hospital bedside, Mum knew my labour had been twice as long as any she’d ever had.  She had watched me struggle with the second stage – the pushing part where things usually developed quickly and fruitfully for her.  For me, it went on for hours, until the whole debacle finally ended in a traumatic, complicated delivery of a baby whose size was so out of proportion with mine that the doctor had said, “I can’t believe he was in there.”  My mum knew if we hadn’t been in a modern hospital that night, it would have been the night that I died.

Shingles.

My son’s birth was not what my mother had expected – and that was something I hadn’t expected.

Birthing a child is different for everyone, even closely related people like mothers and daughters.  And every time I had a new baby, his delivery was different from the other ones I’d weathered.  I don’t know why.  Maybe it had something to do with my age, the babies’ sizes, the tides, the placement of the pins in some Voo Doo doll – I don’t know.

Apart from physical differences, childbirth medical interventions also vary based on where we are, who attends us, and our personal choices.  My boys were delivered by four different doctors plus a boomtown nurse left alone with me while a fifth doctor was on lunch.  Even though I asked, none of my deliveries worked out so I could have much pharmaceutical pain relief.  Every time my children were born, I was right there for all of it – mind, body, and soul.  That’s certainly not the case for every mother.

Our bodies are different.  Our surroundings are different.  Our babies are different.  In addition to concrete factors like these there are innumerable emotional, social, cultural and other issues colouring our childbirths – enough factors to keep the experience infinitely variable.

I think the case of shingles is actually a good example of how social and psychological factors exacerbate suffering.  My mum taught me this too.  Only for her, it wasn’t shingles.  When I was an elementary school kid, she was hospitalized for kidney stones.  She said it hurt a lot, like having a baby, only there was nothing to hope for at the end of it.  There was no mounting sense of love to convince her that the pain was meaningful and worthwhile.  In light of that, I’m sure she, like Facebook-Shingles-Man’s “lady friend,” would have said she’d rather give birth than pass her stones.  Birth is hard but, unlike disease, it isn’t a bad thing.  Heck, I’ve been mired in arguments so painful I would have rather given birth than listened to another word of them.  But that doesn’t mean the experiences of birth and disease, or birth and a nasty argument, are equivalent.  What it does reveal is that the meaning of suffering affects our perceptions of it.

And there’s far more to withstand in childbirth than just pain.  There’s also fear and panic.  Birth is scary.  For some of us, the fear grows worse every time.  I was nervous when I was admitted to the hospital the morning of my first labour.  But by the time I arrived in an ambulance for my fifth labour, I was terrified – phobic and crazed.  No one in the comedy sketch that started me on this tirade had any comic device for transferring the fear of childbirth from the mother to the father.  Maybe even they know there’s nothing funny about that.

Yes, I get punchy when I hear people talking about birth as if it’s some kind of syndrome – a universal experience we all live through in exactly the same way.  I get especially punchy when that person is a man out to appropriate the most powerful and sublime of female powers for himself by equating it with a disease he’s suffered.  Clearly, what Facebook-Shingles-Man said was sexist – disgustingly so.

And then it’s more than sexist.  It would have been offensive even if it hadn’t been a man who’d said it.  What arises from the bad assumption that birth is the same for everyone is the worse assumption that we’re qualified to evaluate and pass judgment on each other’s reactions to childbirth – or anything else we suffer.  Looking at somebody’s suffering and joking about it or daring them to “bring it on” is never a decent thing to do.  It’s a perversion of empathy.  It’s a mistake my mum – someone wise and acquainted with the breadth of human experience called motherhood – taught me never to commit.

Commencing Countdown, Jewelry On

The countdown to the release date of my novel, Love Letters of the Angels of Death, has passed the point where the time is measured in months and moved to where it’s measured in days.  Look, it’s right there in the column of widgets beside this post.  The moment has come to start opening the windows on my advent calendar.  The book’s release date is practically here.

Sometime I feel like dressing up like someone who wrote an artsy, Gothic love story because, well...

Sometime I feel like dressing up like someone who wrote an artsy, Gothic love story because, well…

In preparation, my literary fairy-god-sister, author Fran Kimmel, came along last week and held my hand as I booked a venue for the novel’s launch event.  It’ll be happening here, in the small-ish town where I live, on August 29.  The timing – a Thursday night right before the last long weekend of summer – is terrible.  I know that.  It won’t be convenient for anybody.  In my head, I’m already composing the passive-aggressive email I will send to all my first degree relatives living within a 100km radius of my house.  The message will explain that, while I will try my best to act like a grownup, if any of my nearest and dearest skip my launch party, I might be stuck thinking very, very hard about their absences for a very, very, very long time.

Yes, I’m fighting against an inclination to take the book’s release and launch far too seriously.  I keep coming back to that line from the sappy radio follow-your-dreams pop song that made me cry in the car on the way home from the venue last week: “I don’t want to waste this.”

In what was probably not a great moment in Feminism, I spent an hour in my closet trying to figure out what to wear to the launch.  My closet is usually a happy place.  It has everything from thrift shop finds to fancy satin bridesmaid dresses.  But nothing seemed quite right.

I thumbed through the hangers and thought about Trish – one of the many weekend editors I freelanced for at a car-crash of a boomtown newspaper during our years in the north.  She was tall and what someone writing a romance novel might call “willowy” – burgundy lipstick and dark, Morticia Addams hair.  She wasn’t satisfied with the mug-shot the last editor had been printing beside my columns and called me down to the office so she could take a better one.  When we met, she pulled her elegant spider-leg eyebrows together and tried to imagine my face in her new, fabulous arts-chick vision of the newspaper.  All she said was, “Oh, you’re such a mom.”

At the time, I hadn’t yet turned thirty and I had three children under the age six.  I hadn’t slept through the night in years.  I didn’t own any clothes that couldn’t be tossed into a washing machine.  The lipstick I’d put on in the rear view mirror minutes before had a distinct rouge-on-the-dead look to it.  I typified the shabby, faded waste of talent this lady (who did become a friend of mine) called “a mom.”

There are a host of arguments I could make for why she was wrong and why she was right and why looking like a mom can be glorious.  But in the closet, a month before my book release, none of that mattered very much.  I was mired in one of the shallower depths of my consciousness – one that dreads anyone seeing me at a podium with my novel and thinking, “Look at her.  Oh, she’s such a mom.”

In passing, I mentioned my wardrobe silliness to my publisher.  I think a part of me wanted her to send me a uniform – a matching Linda Leith Publishing t-shirt and cap, maybe even an apron and hairnet.  Instead of sending me a kit, Linda’s advice was simply to wear something that made me feel terrific.

Something terrific would be something I could forget about – something that could fade into the tone and rhythm of the reading and talking and celebrating I’d be doing during the launch.  And I was beginning to form a vague, shadowy notion of what that might be.  Ever since I signed the publishing contract last winter, I’ve been slowly dressing more and more like someone who’s written an artsy, Gothic love story because – dangit — that’s who I am.  I knew the spirit of what I wanted to wear but couldn’t yet read the letter of it.

My glamorous sister-in-law understood.  We’ve been together for over eighteen years.  That’s her entire adolescence and adult life.  She sees me from an angle similar to the one her brother, my husband, uses to look at me – one that somehow makes me appear genuine and beautiful and at the same time, one I hardly recognize when she describes it to me.  She took me to her favourite jewelry shop – the place where a nice old hippie guy once diagnosed me as psychic – and helped me choose a pendant I could use to anchor my launch-day wardrobe.

It’s set in silver and shaped like an eye – a blue eye like my eyes, my husband’s eyes, and the ten blue eyes I assembled from the atoms of my own body as the mother of our sons.  There — that’s me.

Misogynizing Modesty and the Male Brain

Jessica Rey is also a Power Ranger

Here it is: my first blog-post to begin with a disclaimer.  I love my friends.  It doesn’t matter if I haven’t seen them in years and I’m mostly just a part of their facebook landscapes.  I find them smart and good and kind.  In my horribly flawed way, I want to reflect the same qualities back at them.  And with that, I hope what I write below will, as my wise friend Debbie says, “be taken in the spirit in which it was intended.”  I don’t mean any harm. I don’t think any less of anyone. I’d just like to share a different perspective.

Now I’ll blurt it out: I can’t take much more of this recent, popular video clip.

It’s a speech given by Jessica Rey (yes, the actress who plays the White Power Ranger on the kids’ TV show).  She heads a company selling swimsuits to women who want a bit more fabric in their swimwear than most mainstream clothing manufacturers offer.  It’s not the sales pitch in her speech that bothers me.  And I take no issue with Rey’s personal desire to dress modestly or her efforts to make modest clothing more available to consumers.  For many reasons, I also prefer clothes that cover my torso and I know how limited my options are when it comes to shopping for clothes, especially swimsuits.  I’ll even take it a step further and say I believe we’d all enjoy a healthier, happier, more egalitarian world if we’d reserve some of our loveliness for home use only.  Rey and I and all my friends who re-posted this video clip are on the same team.  Go Go Modesty Rangers!

But I still do not like this speech.  Rey does manage to make some good points.  However, she spends much of her time on stage mentioning (I won’t say “citing” because no attempts at citation except dropping the name of an Ivy League university are ever made) conclusions she’s derived from studies done on men’s neurological reactions to viewing images of women in scanty clothing.  She says researchers found that viewing these images lit up the same areas of the male brain used when looking at objects like tools.  The men appear to be relating to the women as objects rather than connecting with them as human beings.

Let’s set aside controversies over these kinds of studies and take the research and Rey’s analysis at face value.  It looks like men have a problem. Men dehumanize women when prompted by immodest clothing.  The suggestion that women and girls could help men deal with this problem is a good suggestion.  After all, there’s not really any such thing as a male problem or a female problem.  Every problem is a HUMAN problem.  And in light of that, the solution to the human problem of men objectifying women cannot be simply to keep women’s bodies covered.  It must also be to change the way men think about us.  Women can’t fix this for men.  We can help.  But men need to work at it too instead of denying their part in favour of blaming us.

Another thing that bothers me about arguments like Rey’s is the implication that if something can be registered on a brain scan, then we’re dealing with a “natural,” inescapable fact of life and we’re all powerless to change it.  We’re stuck with it.  We’re helpless and the best we can do is to lower our expectations of each other.  It astonishes me, over and over again, how often these “natural” neurological effects appear to excuse bad male behaviours.  It’s plain old neurosexism.

In reality, the physical and electrical landscapes of our brains can change and develop over our lifespans in response to the behaviours in which we choose – choo-choo-choose – to indulge.  In other words, it’s impossible to tell if men’s brains react to women in scanty clothing as objects because men are born that way or if they have this reaction because, over time, men have trained their brains to file us in the same mental drawer as screwdrivers.  Maybe they’ve permitted this to happen.  They may have even nurtured it into being.  The mere fact that a phenomenon is visible in a scan doesn’t tell us nearly as much about its source as some of us would like to believe.

Immodest clothing may be muttered as an excuse for disrespecting or even assaulting women.  But I challenge anyone to name a time in history when men have not objectified women and reduced them to sexual props.  It doesn’t matter what the clothing customs of the day were, every culture has struggled to keep women safe from abuse and assault.  It’s more evidence that what makes objectification such an enduring problem aren’t the clothes women choose but the terrible choices made by the men around them.  In our imperfect world, clothing may be a factor but it is not a cause.  Male will is the cause.

I’m currently raising a family of boys.  I don’t have a daughter to take swimsuit shopping.  However, I do have sons who need to be schooled in how to see women and girls.  They live in a home where their baby brothers were breastfed, demonstrating the true purpose of breasts.  They need to be taught about equality and their personal responsibility to meet every other human with respect.  They need to be decisively corrected when they do or say something sexist. They need a loving but socially subordinate relationship with a woman to whom they can have no sexual connection at all — that’s me.

Any efforts women make to dress modestly are helpful as I try to teach my kids to see women as more than sexual objects.  But it’s all secondary to the real solution.  The change needed to correct problems like the ones Rey talks about must happen at the source of the issue: in the socially moulded minds of boys and men.

Maybe Jessica Rey meant to say all of this but got distracted promoting her business and ran out of time.  I sure hope so.  Here’s what I want instead of speeches like hers:  I WANT US TO STOP TALKING ABOUT MODESTY ONLY IN TERMS OF MALE SEXUAL RESPONSE.

Yes, this includes slogans like “Modest is Hottest!” whether it’s used as a cheeky catchphrase or as the trade-name of merchants admonishing us to “show you are hot, but don’t show a lot!”  As I understand it, using the adjective “hot” to describe a person’s physical appearance originally referred to specific physiological responses including raised heart-rate and increased blood-flow in another person.  Increased blood-flow – there’s an eight-letter “e” word for that and it’s not always a good thing to elicit in someone else.  It seems even the backlash against scanty women’s clothing hasn’t extricated itself from a fixation with male arousal.  Whether it’s done by showing skin or not, emphasizing how important it is for women to be “hot” is part of the problem.

Modesty has benefits other than “hotness” and these are the ones we ought to be teaching girls.  We can still talk about male responses but we ought to present them as male problems, not the results of shortcomings of women.  We can present modest dressing as something generous that helps men improve themselves instead of making it into a responsibility we bear alone.  Modesty is a good choice because it can be a sign of a woman’s confidence in her mind, strength, and character.  It throws down the crutch of physical allurement and meets men on their own terms.  It can be a sign of the respect we feel for ourselves and demand from others.  It’s comfortable.  And it makes the sight of the parts we keep hidden more scarce and, thereby, more valuable and meaningful when we do choose to expose them.  Modesty preserves our social power including – but not only – our sexual power.

Selfhood, Motherhood, Childhood and How They’re All the Same

My son says this Fever Ray video reminds him of me. Is it the hair, the skinny legs, or all the going off to do weird stuff by myself?

I’m in a thrift store with my sixteen year old son.  (Anyone who doesn’t have a sixteen year old son should get one someday.  It’s kind of like having a stupid, darling high school boyfriend again only without all the icky tension.)

We get to the furniture section of the store – the part set-up like a dozen crummy little living rooms butted against each other.

“It’s like some old grandpa’s house,” my boy says.

And then, as I often can, I track of his train of thought.  It’s passing through the stop called “grandpa,” chugs in and out of the station called “the only dead person I know well” before it screeches to a halt in the busy rail yard labeled “death.”

“This is where they bring people’s stuff after they die,” my boy says.

“Yup,” I agree.  “This is where you’ll bring my stuff after I die.”

He doesn’t choke or get maudlin but he does say, “I won’t bring your stuff here.  I’ll keep it.  I’ll take your computers and find everything you ever wrote and print it out and save it.”

I tell him he’s sweet and we leave the store, bound for another thrift shop.  So far, we’ve bought a 1970s era Charlie Brown paperback and a discarded copy of a book I contributed a couple of essays to but we still haven’t found the t-shirt with the graphic of a killer robot with a Korean speech bubble that will be my son’s find of the day.  We get into the car, tune the radio to one of our favourite CBC shows – the one I work for a few times a year, – and we back into the Saturday afternoon traffic.

See it?  My life – including my life as a writer – forms a part of my son’s life.  It’s something he sees as enduring and inseparable from the imprint I leave on the world he is in the process of inheriting from me.

A recent article in The Atlantic entitled “The Secret to Being Both a Successful Writer and a Mother: Have Just One Kid” assumes motherhood and a stellar career as a writer are irreconcilable competing interests. The article’s hook of a headline (which was was not written by the author, Lauren Sandler), is beside the point.  This isn’t so much a piece about family size as it is about the level of personal investment it takes to write for a living.  On its way, it looks at mother-writers like Susan Sontag and Joan Didion to examine whether these women’s single-child families are the compromise that made it possible for them to excel at their careers while raising children – er, a child.

Of course, there are writers who do have more than one child and Sandler suggests that some of these women preserve their careers by hiring someone else to look after their kids.  Her other suggestion is that women writers can thrive in families willing to invert traditional gender roles and cast men as their children’s primary caregivers.

Sandler doesn’t seem convinced that any of these strategies is necessarily enough to transform an artist into something considered a good parent.  The article presents examples of writer-mothers being absent, self-involved, and dismissive – sending their lone children away with “Shush, I’m working.”  By the end of the piece, it’s acknowledged that there’s a difference between motherhood and “momish-ness” and artists often set the latter aside.

Right now, weeks before my debut novel is even released, I’m not what The Atlantic would consider a successful writer.  But I’m still free to fret over my own experience raising five children while writing.  Am I devastatingly dismissive?  Am I “momish?”  Do I have to be?

I admit I’m missing some of the traits of momish-ness – especially in the kitchen.  If my sons want cookies, they bake them for themselves.  I might make something special on holidays but I always garnish it with demands for praise and thanks.  “Hey, I made cookies.  Aren’t I good?  Look at how good I am.”  Honestly, I don’t even cook dinner very often.  My husband usually does that, without complaint, after a full day of demanding non-domestic work.

But is neglecting cooking enough of an an explanation?  Why do I still get prickly when I’m asked how I find time to write?  No matter how kindly it’s meant, the question seems to imply neglect and self-centredness – a lack of understanding of my own situation that misleads me to believe I can do two incompatible things at once.  I must be either willfully negligent of my kids or witlessly oblivious to reality.

Sometimes, I do put my kids off with my own version of, “Shush, I’m working.”  But there are reasons why being shushed by their writer-mother isn’t a developmental disaster:

1)      When my sons leave home, they will not be met with people who jump to satisfy all their wishes for food, attention, money, housekeeping, technical support, etc.  If I raise them to expect instant service, I do them and the other people who will live and work with them a disservice.

2)      By ignoring traditional areas of housework, I help the boys see distinctions between housewifery and motherhood.  They are not the same, they are not the same, they are not the same…

3)      Because I work inside the house where my kids’ lives are centred, they get plenty of “quantity time” so there’s not as much need to orchestrate fancy “quality time.”  I don’t arrive in the house as a celebrity here for a limited engagement.  I’m not a special attraction so I can relax and forgo behaving like one.

4)      All mothers have interests that eat up time they could spend with their children.  It might be paid non-writing work, making fancy scrapbooks, training for marathons, stoking reality television habits — anything.  When it comes to maternal attention, my kids aren’t that different from anyone else’s.

5)      My sons are not strangers dropped here at random.  They’re very much like me.  They are writers, artists, and creative people themselves.  Maybe they understand better than other people the importance of this kind of work.  They know it makes me happy because their own similar projects make them happy.  Maybe my self is overbearing enough to convince them to value in themselves what I value in myself.

The self – that’s the core of the problem I have with Sandler’s approach to writer-mothers.  She writes of our need to “negotiate a balance between selfhood and motherhood.”   I don’t know how these two -hoods could be separated, let alone set on opposite sides of a scale and balanced.  The self is far more like a casserole than a bento box.  (Hey, it’s a cooking simile – aren’t I good?)  Motherhood hasn’t effaced my self but it has been integrated into it.  A healthy self is a pliable one, not a brittle one.  It’s dynamic and able to accept how impressionable it is to powerful forces including – or especially — kids.