Laugh Track at the Beauty School

This is not a picture of my four sisters and me; neither is my next novel.

I am one of five sisters. I was born first and in exchange for having the best memories of our parents when they were young and cool, I missed out on adventures my sisters had together after I swore off women for a life with my husband and sons. Different combinations of my sisters have traveled to Disneyland, New York City, Winnipeg, Amsterdam, the Northwest Territories, and the old gravel pit in Prince George all without me.

This year, for the first time, I made it to one of their “girls’ trips.” I met the three of my sisters who aren’t currently breastfeeding (see, someone’s always left out – it’s not personal) in Calgary to spend a weekend together.

I am terrible at ordering and it was over a bowl of thick green sauce at dinner that I taught the girls a new word: sistering. It’s like mothering only just between us. And then I warned them about my second novel. It’s about a group of five sisters.

No, it’s not about us.

If it’s not a tribute to our family why stretch the cast over five main characters? Well, because it’s not a stretch. There were five Spice Girls, five Go-Gos, five Miss Bennetts in Pride and Prejudice, and, of course, five Dionne quintuplets. My mind isn’t the only place where a group of five girls is the only size that makes sense.

It was impossible to write the book-sisters without invoking bits of my real sisters. I used some of our quirks and experiences as inspiration, like any writer would have done. To add to the tangle, our family is large. On my side alone there are seven siblings, seven spouses, one ex-spouse, and twenty-two nieces and nephews. It’s hard to create characters and situations that don’t overlap in some way with people I know very well simply because I know so many people so very well. When we’re primed to look, even general coincidences can seem like deliberate rip-offs. For instance, one of the sisters is the book is a nurse, just like Amy. One is divorced, like Sara. One is married to a man who’s adopted, like Mary’s husband. These elements aren’t uncommon inside or outside literature. Moreover, my book’s story wouldn’t work without them. And the story definitely wouldn’t work without the intimate understanding of sisterhood we sisters have given each other.

None of this is the same thing as writing a story about my sisters.

Still, I submitted to the girls teasing me about the book for the rest of the weekend. They let me have it, with that sharp sweetness of theirs and lots of laughter.

The next day Amy had planned girlie activities for us. We spent the morning shopping. That was easy. The afternoon was more difficult. The other girls wanted to go to a spa together. The only place that could book all four of us at the same time was not exactly a spa but a beauty school. I don’t want to use its real name so let’s just call it – oh, I don’t know – Carvel Mollege.

I’d had a facial only once before. It seemed like witchcraft – a superstitious ritual in smearing stuff on my face and wiping it off, a cycle of application and removal. The key to a successful facial is to end it immediately after finishing a thorough removal.

I was about to learn this.

If I’d been a more experienced exploiter of the pink ghetto that is esthetics, I would have realized how strangely my facial was unfolding and made some kind of protest. As it was I laid under a towel that smelled like someone else while a college girl let facial goops drip into my hairline, while she failed to rinse the cocktail of creams and toners and tonics off my skin.

At some arbitrarily determined point she said we were done. My skin felt tight and tacky as I stood up and looked for a mirror. There was only one in the room, mounted too high for me to see much of my face in it. All I could see was a dark, oily perimeter where my hair had soaked up the skin treatments.

Not a good sign.

The supervising instructor was waved out of a classroom to inspect my student’s work. “How do you feel?” she asked me.

“Pretty sticky.”

“From the moisturizer,” she finished for me.

I went downstairs, fingering the gummy surface of my face. In the lobby, my three little sisters were sitting in a love seat meant for two. They looked great. But when they saw me, they looked concerned – and amused. That’s when I knew for sure something wasn’t right. While the receptionist ran my card through the machine, I flexed my sticky face until it cracked. I stood in the lobby and peeled a sheet of – something – off my face.

Across the room, my sisters were cackling. “Why’d it have to be Jenny?”

Between my fingers I held a transparent mask of most of my face. It reminded me of a bored habit I had in grade four, pouring white glue into my hand and letting it dry before trying to peel it off in one piece. This glue mask was a good one. Every hair of my left eyebrow was perfectly visible.

I rolled the film into a ball between my fingers. “I’m not paying for this.”

My sisters kept laughing.

“I understand they’re just students,” I told the receptionist. “But look at my sisters: they’re not down here peeling their faces off.”

No one argued about refunding my money. Maybe they should have. My sisters and I had spun the barrel in a game of college student esthetician roulette and on our fourth shot, my shot, the game fired its inevitable concluding round.

We got in my minivan and drove away, off to a dinner where I would order another plate of food I wouldn’t like. Mary told me how radiant I looked. Amy lent me some makeup. And we never stopped laughing. That’s my sisters: the laugh track of my life, calming me down, cheering me up, convincing me this drama is much more fun than any amount of reason says it should be.

When my new book appears next year (please read it) don’t skip the dedication page. But just in case, let me reveal now how it will read:

For Amy, Sara, Mary, and Emily

All of whom inspired, none of whom is depicted in this book

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!

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.

Weekend in Girlstown

Two of my sixteen nieces, lookin’ super girlie — and a little cranky

I was once pregnant with a child I hoped was a boy.  He was — so were his four younger brothers.  It’s been a long time since I’ve lived with any other women.  And it’s been even longer since I’ve lived with any girls.  It shouldn’t matter.  I was once a girl myself and there’s nothing about being sequestered with my sons that can alienate me from that part of my identity.  It should be true.  I believe it’s true.  But I still keep having awkward collisions with little girl culture years after little girls stopped being part of my daily life.

Some collisions are secret and subtle.  I’m not a very big woman.  Shopping for clothing can be frustrating for me.  One of my girl-friends, a lady born in the Philippines who’s learned how to deal with over-sized western clothing, gave me a tip: do some shopping in children’s departments.  It’s brilliant.  The first time I tried it I was like Homer Simpson at clown college turning around in front of the mirror saying, “I’ve never had pants that fit so well.”

Then the saleslady noticed me out on the floor, picking through the kiddie-jeans.  “No daughter with you today?”

“Uh – no,” I said.

“That’s okay,” she allowed.  “If they don’t fit her you can always bring them back with the receipt.”

“Great.  Thanks.”

I skulked away.  I felt furtive and a little ashamed.  I am not a girl.  That’s supposed to mean I don’t belong in the store, let alone in their merchandise.  I don’t know.  Maybe it’s a bit like what closeted transvestites cope with when shopping for clothes outside the ones socially prescribed for them.  I am not a boy but since I have sons, I feel perfectly natural stomping around in the boys’ section stocking up on jeans and navy blue sweatpants for my kids.  But in the girls’ section, in the company of the specter of my fake daughter, I am a pretender – unfit and unworthy.

This weekend, girl culture and I collided again.  My sister was staying at my house while her daughter, my most glamorous ten-year-old relative, competed in a dance festival.  I counted four costume changes – peacock feathers, rhinestones, ruffles, crinolines.  She was plastered in makeup and hairspray.  And my sister – a nursing instructor who can thread a tube into a trachea – struggled to glue false eyelashes to her lids.

My niece is warm-hearted and adorable and had no idea Auntie was eyeing her dance gear with the detached skepticism of a smug anthropologist.  I shouldn’t have been surprised when she asked me to come watch her dance.  The invitation rattled me.  Accepting it meant detachment was not an option and I was being drawn into her culture – one I had abandoned ages ago.

I arrived at the auditorium all by myself.  It felt awkward enough to make me wonder if I was in the right place.  I  asked the ticket seller, “Is this the little-girl-dancing-thingy?”

Inside the theatre, I found my sister.  The lights went down and the first ballerina came out.  She was a sixteen-year-old dressed like a fairy princess.

“Look!  She’s seriously wearing a tiara!”

My sister smirked at me.  “Yes.”

The next number was a whole troupe of teenaged ballerinas.

“They’re all wearing tiaras!”

My sister smirked again.  “Yes.”

“If they’re all wearing tiaras, isn’t that the same thing as none of them wearing tiaras?”

“Shh.  You have to stop laughing or the other moms are going to get really mad.”

“What?  I’m just delighted.”

It was not completely true.  I was vaguely delighted but it was a patronizing outsider’s delight – amused but not quite charmed by the spectacle.  I stuck to my social scientist persona.  The dance numbers – with all their kitschy props and maudlin narratives – had names like “Imagine” or “Grace” or the risky “Images of Grace.”  Even my sister laughed when the lyrics of one of the songs earnestly crooned, “If I could put you on top of a cake I would ice you.”

If there’s a perfect age for amateur dancing it’s got to be the one my niece is at right now.  She’s technically good enough to actually be dancing but not so old that she’s starting to look silly and lumpy in her fancy leotards.  If I was ever going to be able to enjoy this part of her life, it was now.  Her first number was supposed to be a sad commentary on class divisions – at least, that’s what she told me.  But she couldn’t stop smiling while she performed.  The adjudicator complained about it but Auntie loved it.  And by the end, in the dark, up at the top of the auditorium, awkward Auntie became sappy Auntie had to wipe her eyes.

No one gets to be a girl for very long.  And some of us – like me and maybe like my niece too, depending on what the future brings her – end up moving farther away from girl culture than we ever imagined we would, back in the days when it meant everything to us.  Honestly, I don’t miss it.  It was silly and distracted from much of what is truly important.  But maybe there’s no need to be embarrassed about celebrating it every once in a while.  Maybe there’s no need to grudge the breasty teenaged ballerinas for spinning and tip-toeing through their final days in tiaras.  So what if we’re all wearing one from time to time?  We’ll have to set it aside soon enough.

Korean Boy-Bands and Their Feminist Sub-text

I have never actually touched an issue of Tiger Beat magazine – or anything like it.  Even though I was a teenage girl in the days of New Kids on the Block and the Corey phenomenon, I was never into the boy-idol scene.  At the time, it all just seemed totally embarrassing – totally.

But that was before I started raising boys of my own.

Years before I had any kids, I already knew I would try my best to raise them as feminists.  Since it was a decision about my own behavior, it was a promise I could keep and control.  What I couldn’t control was my kids’ genders.  All of my children turned out to be boys.  The utter lack of peer females in our family makes teaching feminism more challenging than I expected.  At the same time, living with my boys has come with some surprising lessons for me about my own feminism.  I’ve found I learn how to be a better girl by raising my boys.

But it doesn’t always happen easily.  I need help.  And sometimes it comes from unlikely places – like East Asian pop-culture.

One night, when the boys were away learning manly things, camping at a mountain lake with their father, I was left alone, wandering through the Internet when I stumbled across this.  This was Super Junior – a staple of the recent East Asian boy-band movement.  It was spectacular and surreal and staggering — thirteen young South Korean men dressed up, made up, dancing, singing and posing while I sat transfixed, half a world away.  At the time, I couldn’t understand a word of anything they said – not even their English.  But that just made the group more charming.  Where the Coreys had failed, Super Junior succeeded.  I was an instant fan – an Anglo-Ahjumma.

When my menfolk got back from the wilderness, I didn’t show them what I’d discovered right away.  I guess I was a bit embarrassed.  Eventually, I showed them anyway.  And their reactions surprised me.

Based on the boy-band trash-talk of the male peers of my youth, I expected my family to hate Super Junior.  I expected to hear echoes of the hostile jealousy of male journalists who still write scathing critiques of boy-bands – rants about not playing their own musical instruments or writing their own songs, gravely benevolent warnings about how their charm is actually a corporate tool meant to exploit the hopes of real girls.  But that wasn’t how my boys reacted at all.  Instead, they seemed just as delighted with Super Junior as I was.

After watching the “Mr. Simple” music video a few times, my husband pleased the heck out of me by announcing it was time for each of us to pick our favourite group member.  Most of our boys chose Eunhyuk.  He’s the one with his hair dyed blonde, like theirs.  He’s the lead dancer who stands at the front of the formation doing tricks.  My husband chose Siwon, the one who comes across as masculine and powerful.  And my favourite was Heechul, the one heckling the rest of the group, being careful not to be caught trying too hard.  I found out later he’s also the one most likely to perform dressed as a woman – a very pretty woman.

Even when not in drag, there is an androgynous quality to all the group members – Siwon’s formidable eyebrows notwithstanding.  Their features are clean and delicate and enhanced with plenty of guy-liner.  Their hair is long and perfect and does not grow out of anywhere but their brows and scalps.  Their outfits are tailored and generously embellished with fancy accessories.

And we all loved it.  There was no shame in our enjoyment of it – no sense of competition, no stupid homophobic self-loathing.  There was just earnest admiration for the amazing show the young men and their stylists and producers put on for us.

The conventional wisdom of social theories about boy-bands usually talks about the pretty-boys as risk-free love objects we girls can cast in fantasy rehearsals of our earliest romantic relationship scripts.  I’ve always found this interpretation kind of sad and patronizing.  There might be some truth to it but I think it misses an important point – a point my heterosexual husband and teenaged sons demonstrated for me.  I could sense it in my own completely non-sexual fascination with the flower-boys too.  We didn’t choose our favourite Super Junior members based on characteristics we’d like to find in a romantic partner.  That wasn’t it at all.  We chose our favourites based on which members had characteristics we’d most like to see in ourselves.  My sons saw themselves in the hot-shot at the front.  My husband saw himself in the self-assured masterful one.  I saw myself in the bossy sophisticate.

Maybe our rationale can be extended to other boy-band fans – even the typical fan-girl who thinks she ought to be in love with them.  Maybe, on some level, she doesn’t admire the member she’d most want to date.  Instead, she might admire the one she’d most like to become.  Apart from being some pathetic attempt to prepare themselves for romance, maybe following a boy-band lets girls try on a male role – a fabulous one.  They’re reaching past the limits of their roles as girls – roles that are usually more constrictive when they’re young than at any other time.  They’re experimenting with being someone else, someone who is a boy.

Is that what male critics of boy-bands truly fear?  Are they afraid the gorgeous androgyny of boy-bands, the generous offering of their fabulousness, opens a breach in the brotherhood?  Maybe the biggest problem some men have with boy-bands has nothing to do with creative integrity or even with jealousy.  Maybe it’s that boy-bands are too dangerously easy for girls to relate to.  They make being a boy – looking like boys look, acting like boys act, controlling what boys control — seem like a role any of us could fill.

And who would want that?

Update: After reading this, a good friend of mine, the biggest Donnie Osmond fan I know, sent me a birthday present.  I am now the owner of a copy of Tiger Beat magazine dated September 1974.  The Tampax ads are spectacular.