40 and ... a Tease?

This past weekend, my friends wanted to celebrate my upcoming 40th birthday. They took me to a small beach town where it promptly rained so much we moved the party inside.

Their goals were:

-Get me drunk
-Make me prettier
-Determine that life doesn’t end at 40 (they are a couple years behind me)
-Eat ice cream
-Make something crazy happen (as result of all of the above)

They achieved everything except the last two. I forgive the ice cream – controlled as it is by weather – but I do not apologize for the absence of crazy, left as it was up to me.

They determined that I look too “natural,” and thus needed a makeover. I was willing to go along with anything, so I succumbed, and found myself in the bathroom reviewing curlier hair, dark eyeshadow, bronzer, and better-defined brows. More on that in a minute.

I am admittedly wilder than the two of them. By the time we got to the bar, peppered – then overtaken – by locals ranging from Hells Angels to grandmothers, I was sick of the sweeter drinks and settled in to four shots of whiskey in a row.

Between two of those shots, I went up to the bar to order. I turned around to glance at my very reserved friend, and basically before the ass print on my chair cushion filled back in, a dude had sat down next to her, moving in for the kill.

He was sweet, probably about 22. I went back to the table, and he interviewed all of us (“Did you meet in preschool? Kindergarten?” “No – PhD”), questions inevitably leading to my having to display the “40 and Hot, Buy Me a Shot” sash they’d put on me (which does not work, by the way) to explain why we were there.

“Oh.” He said. “You don’t look a day over 30.”

And then he got up so fast, he nearly knocked his chair over.

If I had known the deterrent power of this sash, I would’ve bought it 15 years ago.

He was kind, but I actually look many days over 30, and I’m glad for that. The reason I look so “natural” is because 40 basically frees up a bunch of time to do whatever it is you’ve always wanted to do but didn’t have time because of all the blowdrying. This is nothing new to anyone who’s welcomed the freedom of 40, so I won’t waste time talking about it. I’m just enjoying it.

But the encounter made me wonder if I’m a bit of a tease. I mean, I should’ve been straight up with the 22-year-old, and just said look, I’m old enough to be your mom. Instead, I kept us all in the conversation, getting him to confess his country music favourites (Luke Bryan, Tim McGraw, not that older stuff) before scaring him away.

And I wonder if I should keep on being a tease. This year, I’ve promised myself to several men who wish to hold private book clubs with me. Actually, all the private book clubs have been my idea. It’s resulted in me juggling men – and books – like a series of quick Tinder encounters lined up over two nights. “Sorry I missed your text with that lovely quote from pg. 240. I’m just busy with work... No, I’m not reading something else. How could you ask me such a thing? Are you reading something else?”

I should note that my main book club allegiance is with a group of ladies, and it’s going on something like its 10th year, so whatever, it just so happens that some of those ladies don’t have the time or inclination for books that I’m reading in these miniature versions of the club. And the men I know do.

I've turned this year into the year I read things people recommended to me, and as a result, I'm in touch with all these guys who've given me, lent me, or are re-reading books with me, but honestly it's getting to be a bit of a difficult bottleneck.

As such, I’ve teased you into thinking this is a post about being 40, but it’s actually just a mid-year book review. Ha!

(I mean who cares about being 40? All it means is you’re far more willing to put down a shitty book halfway through because you’ve got slightly less life left to fit them all in.)

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These are not ranked.

1. A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James
Might I quote my friend Jake here, because he took the time to write a truly thoughtful, in-depth review of it, and I couldn’t possibly say anything better.

“This book is about sufferers. It describes the ghetto of Kingston and its dehumanizing, never ending grip on all of its inhabitants. All the character development arcs out from trauma. Copenhagen and The Eight Lanes are Jamaica’s open wound, and local and global, cold war politics conspire to twist the knife. But certain types like The Singer (Bob Marley), and the complex and mercurial Nina, my favourite character, manage a partial escape. Others remain and are consumed in turf war and the struggle for ghetto supremacy. A winner eventually emerges as the incarnation of psychopathic, expansionist, raw power. This character, like many in this book, is based on a real historical figure, Lester Coke, who became huge in the North American drug trade. Griselda Blanco, the female, Colombian drug boss is also profiled and referred to by her actual name ... I loved the strings of exhilarating pages that pass without a single coma or period. They coincide with the extreme psychological crises of their narrators: Alex in bed realizing that there is an assassin in his room, teenaged gangsters in the act of killing or being killed, and Nina’s ambivalent, stilettoed pacing outside The Singer’s gates in the dead of night. (brought to mind Golyadkin attempting admittance to the ball). Marlon James’ doesn’t just portray the sublime terror of heightened, non-thinking states. His style and pacing mainline these states into the reader.” 

2. The Power, by Naomi Alderman
The power of this book to me is not the concept, which is certainly imaginative. Rather, it’s the difficulty of conceiving of a whole world, and leaving no piece unexamined or thread dangling. I marvelled through the whole book at her ability to foresee reactions and consequences of characters’ decisions, and the arrival of this power on Earth; what it would do to overturn the conventional structures of domination. That is why it works as a book; I can’t wait to see it on screen.

3. The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception, by Emmanuel Carrere
I believe Carrere and I have the same obsession with death: it is not something to be feared or resisted or conquered, but something that deserves as much consideration and thought and discussion as anything else in life. Yet we so diligently avoid it. This, like Lives Other than My Own, is a nonfiction piece, only this time it’s not about the inner beauty of the characters who face death, and their connection to others, it’s an exploration into the mind of someone whose deception ran so perilously on the edge for so long, they were compelled to kill anyone who might find them out.

4. Blue Nights, by Joan Didion
My student gave me this, saying it’s the place to start with Didion. I’m guessing she was right. Again, an exploration of death and illness in a way that is unthreatening, and somehow reassuring. I don’t know how that’s possible, given what Didion went through. Still, the accomplishment here is so great, it’s undeserving of my amateur take on it – her ability to talk about losing her daughter without ever really giving us information about her daughter is remarkable. You’re only in Didion’s head for the whole book.

5. All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr
A little late to this one, but it was worth the wait. I’m pleased with myself for delaying this gratification. And it feels like the whole book is delayed gratification, that you’re hovering over a plot but never being pulled into it, that his language is so beautiful and exact, you’re only ever unravelling it, not racing to the next page to see what happens.

6. Manhattan Beach, by Jennifer Egan
When I heard about Manhattan Beach on all the book podcasts, I thought, meh. Somehow I decided to start the first page when I was too tired to read anything heavier, and I got pulled right in. I have what I call “subway books,” books that I only read in e-copy on my phone in transit, and while this was one of them, it got so good during the last third that I’ve taken to reading it in bed as well. That’s some book, the one making such a leap.

You might notice that the last two books feature strong, spirited young females fighting against paralyzing expectations of them during World War II, and who have special connections to their fathers. I was almost doing that in three books simultaneously with Gillian Best’s The Last Wave, but 150 pages in, I thought, ah, this isn’t doing enough for me to keep going and I returned it to the library. After all, I’m almost 40. And there’s a lot left to read.

How the Bullet Journal Predicted My Feminist Failure

I had a six-hour astrology reading last year.

Coincidentally, it was on the day of the eclipse. While Joey Bada$$ was burning his eyes out, I was sitting inside some air-conditioning, across from a determined astrologer. She’d printed out reams of sheets on my personality and natal chart, a multi-coloured spreadsheet on all the “upheavals” I was going to experience in the coming year. It was supposed to be three hours. At the four-hour mark, she got us a snack of cheese.

“I don’t believe in eclipses the way other astrologers do,” she said as I came back in from checking it out.

One thing she did tell me was I have a tendency toward lofty thinking, big ideas, and though I’m organized (a quality enjoyed by my boyfriend, whose chart she also read), I tend to plan big and wobble on the details.

I hadn’t thought of myself that way before. And anyway, I was in the midst of a summer of FINISHING THINGS. I wrote a 57,000-word romance novel. I cleaned up five issues of my journal that was overdue and sent them out. I threw away old socks and my PhD notes. I didn’t go anywhere. I wasn’t sure I believed her.

Around that time, my friends were all getting bullet journals. They’d whip them out at writer’s group, show off their lists and designs and calligraphy, and I’d think wow, that’s cool, but who has time to decorate their to-do list? Plus, my attempts at decorating would inevitably look like my blind cat had knocked over a can of paint and walked in circles for the rest of the day. I was cool with my to-do lists as they were:

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Then the call of the bullet journal grew too enticing to ignore, so I put it on my Christmas list and got two. Not knowing what to do with the series of dots, I did a search on YouTube and entered a very deep, and largely female, world.

Insane! I thought. I don’t want to track my period, or my workout sessions. But I did sort of want to make a list of the books I’d read. And then there was the savings chart; that was cool.

I had some rough starts.

And thought about going back to the dollar-store notebook to-do lists.

Instead I bought coloured pens and forged ahead, making a Sunday-night ritual out of drawing a calendar and mapping out my days with colourful, reasonable expectations.

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I bragged to my partner about it so much – you set normal goals given the amount of time you have each day, and they actually get done – that one week we went to the same art store and got him two little books. Wow, this is great, he said. Every time I look at him, he’s holding his notebook, either scratching something out or adding to the list. His isn’t super pretty.

He keeps scratching things off his list.

There are things I am not scratching off mine. Look closely, you’ll see what they are.

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The easy argument is I’m locked in full-time work mode, so any creative projects must stand by until a break is forthcoming. Or that my brain is so full of constant demands that coming home and writing a chapter will result in nothing but trash bin dumbassery.

The less obvious, but more appropriate argument is I’m deflecting anything that would help me move creative projects from “big ideas” to completed works of art, because I don’t think I deserve that time. It’s the same reason I used to – and still do – read furtively, flipping pages on my phone on the subway, in bed at night, for an hour with the TV on in the background so people think they’re interrupting something if they call. I can’t imagine any better way to spend my time, so I don’t. Somebody must need me, I must have failed at a task, maybe there’s marking in the Assignment folder? Surely I need to send an email.

To assume one’s sole purpose on earth is to serve others seems a largely female phenomenon. I know lots of male academics and writers and musicians who understand that their work is a central building block of their identity, whereas it’s something we ladies often slip in when we catch a moment’s reprieve. It’s awfully essentialist of me to say that, considering any man with kids is likely struggling to find a corner of the house to create something in silence too. Still I watch as male colleagues give students an abrupt No, I’m leaving now, while I let them come in and cry over their essays. I am wracked with guilt when I say no to a meeting with my boss because I planned to stay at home and write that day. Even now, I’m neglecting the to-do list and writing a blog! So many things will carry over to tomorrow.

Initially, the bullet journal seemed like a way to set reasonable expectations of myself. Imagine going to bed not feeling like the day was a failure, I thought. That could be amazing. And alongside those lists would be teeny celebrations like I finished this book and rated it! or here’s a list of concerts I saw last week! Somehow the journal is proving otherwise, illuminating my rejection of myself as a creator, favouring the self I’ve constructed out of others needing me to help them cross the things off their list.

Well, maybe I’ll go check to see if there’s something to grade.

 

The Power of the Bite-Size Romance

Sometimes middle age hits with surprising force. I noticed it one rainy evening when I got together with my 40-something girlfriends, the girls I usually see with glasses of wine in their hands as we talk about “books” at our “book club.”

We shook out umbrellas and piled up at a table in a dark pub. A singer-songwriter burbled her way through some dull tunes. Two of us ordered a “half litre” of house wine to share; the carafe was so full, it could’ve been a Tahiti Treat bottle from an 80s birthday sleepover.

And like those sleepovers, our conversation centred on hot guys. Or, one guy in particular: Armie Hammer, the lead in Call Me By Your Name, which we’d just seen in the theatre. My friend, obsessed with the film, had insisted we go. She was right, considering most anybody could use a good dose of two hot men kissing no matter what their situation. Flattened as we were by kid duties, overwork, and lack of sleep, two and a half hours of shirtless Armie dawdling through Italian piazzas, lounging by the pool, reviewing his manuscript (shirtless), and caressing Timothée Chalamet’s face as they made out was crippling. He’s so gorgeous, one of us said. He wasn’t near as appealing as the Winklevoss twins, said another.

We came to the conclusion: This guy is so beautiful in the film, he’s as untouchable, as life-altering, as a work of art.

I’m generally not prone to liking blond, or built, guys, nor movie stars, but now that I’m reading the book that inspired the film, I can’t get him off my mind. Like my friend. This has nothing to do with Armie, though his beauty does help.

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Instead, his character – initially awkward at the best of times, frosty at the worst – blossoms throughout the story, to reveal someone deeply invested in connecting with another human who compels him. The passion that then erupts is thus what we all have felt, or yearn to feel. Oliver (Armie’s character), in making himself available for love, receives the profoundest kind of love in return. It manifests repeatedly in the book in the line, “You’ll kill me if you stop,” applied not just to their sexual encounters, but their connection, affection, lived out fully in the limited time they have together.

What attracts us to stories like this? I believe it is the restrictions placed on them. No romance can survive the realities of differences in age, experience, background, and geography like these two had. Nor can it withstand the imposition of daily life and duties in a more mundane setting than northern Italy in the summer. Moreover, the secrecy of it, as with most compressed, passionate affairs, is part of its appeal. Turn off your world, I’ll turn off mine, and we’ll create this tiny one together. At the end, the two men go on a short trip, the alternate surroundings and time limit offering a setting neither would have to return to once they were apart.

Naturally, I likened this kind of romance to a song. I always enjoyed “Static on the Radio,” sung by Aimee Mann and Jim White, for the way it revealed its characters’ interiority, and felt like you were caught in an intimate embrace between the two.

When it’s done, it’s done. You snap back to reality, go about your day; nothing in your regular business sounds or feels like this.

I once had a romance whose terms were clearly defined. This can’t last forever, we told ourselves. It’s not sustainable. On this day, we stop seeing each other. And we held to that, bawling like pathetic babies as we counted down the minutes. Snap: it was done. Nothing in our regular lives felt like that.

Therein lies the power of the bite-size romance. Unlike snacks, its power is not reduced by its scope.

I can see how it was appealing to our group of middle-age ladies, tied as we are to our long-term partners, sometimes unclear as to what still binds us. Not that I’d assume unhappiness on their parts, nor suggest my own romance is dullsville. It’s just that mine is more like this song:

Where every day could either progress as before, or log a surprise shift that takes us in an unexpected direction for a while, only to return to the familiar. We’ve got the time to sort it out, see what transpires. Not to mention we’re also bound by a mutual love of Geddy Lee. (Is this not the dorkiest?)

Call Me By Your Name was mostly compelling because it was a story that took me several weeks to understand. Why was I invested in these characters? What makes us care? As a narrative arc, it traces the impossible to the potential to the real; from the faraway dream to the fantasy to the realization of them. Long-term love may start this way, but its trajectory is defined by its length, not its limitations. Perhaps the constraints forced on these two are ones we rarely, if ever, encounter – though I’d argue it’s just these constraints that make a good story.

Year in Review

In a vain effort to keep the art of criticism alive, here’s my contribution to the year-in-review wasteland. There are about four people who have the same taste as me – and we’ve had some kick ass conversations! – so this is also an attempt to get more people consuming the things I do in my ultimate cultural takeover. Or, more kindly, a contribution toward the community pile of cool stuff to share.

A lot of these have nothing to do with 2017, only that I discovered them in 2017, making them incredibly relevant to your life.

4. Linda Ronstadt, “Blue Bayou.”
My steel teacher tossed this to me to learn, and though we never returned to it, it’s become a staple in my practicing. Although the steel on early Ronstadt recordings is killer – check out “Only Mama That’ll Walk the Line” or “Silver Threads” – this song tugs at me because I always connect it to Billy Cowsill’s voice and the first few times I listened to the Co-Dependents Live at the Mecca record. And I did see them at the Mecca! I’m one of the few truthful tellers of that tale.

3. Skinny Dyck, 20 One-Nighters
One thing that pulls me back to working on Wide Cut Weekend and writing about Alberta artists is the community of musicians there that I haven’t found the same way in Toronto. Steel guitarist Dyck’s collection of tunes with 20 songwriters is the best example of that this year. Not only are half of them now living in the “new Calgary” (Lethbridge), they also appear in a series of portraits inside the disc that kept me occupied for half an hour trying to label all the faces. Anchoring all the tunes is the Dyck’s steel, making him the best player to come out of the province in ages.

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2. My Spotify List
I opened up Spotify to see what I’ve been listening to, and it came up with an offer: “Review your year! Tap here.” Convenient. I’m not worried about big data at all. Why are you?

Top song: “Rusty Cage” by Soundgarden. Interesting. I wouldn’t have guessed that, but the song indeed makes me crazy. I really got into them after – ha, sorry – Chris Cornell died, and the NYT Popcast did an episode on him. And then the album was a romantic backdrop, along with a Max Martin playlist, on a drive to the Annapolis Valley. We decided on that drive that the line “Am I sexual?” from the Backstreet Boys’ “Everybody” (Backstreet’s Back)” (from where??) is one of the stupidest lines ever. And not sexy.

Other top songs on my spotify list:
“Whiteout” by Warpaint (killer)
“Outshined” by Soundgardern
“Want you Back” by Haim
“In the Dark” by Vanduras – oh man, this band was on constant rotation this year; surfy pedal steel, and it totally drowned out the baby that moved in downstairs. Yes, moved in.
“Dwight Yoakam” by Sarah Shook and the Disarmers
“Control” by (sigh) Janet Jackson
“Pulling Mussels (From the Shell)” by Squeeze

1. Plastic Machine by Tom Phillips
It feels like Tom got a makeover, and that nothing changed at all. His band got one though. I’ve spoken at length about the quality of his character and music elsewhere, so I won’t repeat myself here. All you need to do is listen to “Swallowed a Bird.”

... And that leads me to BOOKS.
Tom was also the person who convinced me to tackle Infinite Jest in 2018; though others have tried, he was successful. In the meantime, I attempted to read 40 books in 2017. I was close, and am a mere few short Harlequins away from meeting my goal. While those definitely do not top my list, here are a few that do.

4. The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston
The main story seems too crazy to be true, and also crafted for one of those Discovery channel melodramas – snakes, horrific weather, corruption, etc., but it’s also a sharp commentary on the tolls climate change and its facilitation of the spread of disease will take on marginalized island nations. Too real, and too scary.

3. Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
My partner and I formed a “rogue” book club wherein we actually talk about the book. (At my book club we’ve become such good friends, we sometimes forget, and get on to other topics like babies and feminism.) With his three best friends and their partners, we agreed to read Underground Railroad. And read it. And ... never met. Still, in passing we noted its powerful, sparse writing, terse storytelling, and mounting tension: will she make it? You’re never sure, but also what can making it possibly mean?

2. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Fuck, I mean holy fuck, wtf was that book? I was glued to it from start to finish. It should have been five times longer. I suppose this makes me a bandwagon jumper, something all my hip radars tell me to avoid, but this time it’s for good reason. I’ve never read such a structurally messed up book. It could have been disaster. It was brilliant.

1. Lives Other Than My Own by Emmanuel Carrere
I am suggestible, especially if those suggesting are every single one of the NYT Book Review hosts. One by one they read Lives this year, and one by one came in gushing about it. So I fell for it, then fell into it. No other book has treated illness and death so kindly and beautifully. I had a library copy, but I’m going to buy it now as a reference guide to getting sick and handling it with grace. Lincoln in the Bardo was a close second, but this won out.

CONCERTS
Janet Jackson
Dwight Yoakam

See them before you die.

FOOD
These cookies I made last week.

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Also, haloumi cheese, first grilled by the great Helen Johnston, now a permanent resident in the dinner repertoire.

Dehydrated watermelon.

Now that I’ve entered the realm of the silly,

IN MEMORIAM

Apostrophe. b. beginning of language. d. 2017.

I thought I was going to murder the next person who incorrectly (or didn’t, didn’t, DIDN’T) deploy an apostrophe, but then I realized: someone already murdered the apostrophe. Shame, since its rules were actually not that bloody hard to learn, but whatever. I guess it’s now only for iphones and people born before 1985 to know.

Happy holidays! Im dreaming of a white Christmas I hope you are too.

 

 

 

 

Voices in My Head

If someone were to animate me, they would draw a big headache. I don’t know what that would look like, nor am I suggesting I’m a nothing but hassle. I think. But I spend most of my time dodging the dreaded headache, ducking like it’s a bomber flying above threatening my day with total destruction.

I think headaches are assholes. Just like there are different types of assholes, there are different types of headaches. It occurred to me last night that I could draw up a comprehensive headache typology, and for your benefit, identify them by the singing voices I most despise. You’ve got your Win Butler headaches, your Ed Sheeran, etc.

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1. Migraine With Aura, or Janis Joplin.
You walk into a Shopper’s Drug Mart and you’re staring at the dental floss, and you’re like, is it … happening? Is there a hole in my vision? And you reach for the Reach and realize it’s six inches to the left of where you thought it was, so you turn to the right and stare into the distance until you realize you’ve been giving a baby who just materialized a creepy stare and the mother hustles the stroller around the corner to get away from you, that’s like when you hear the strains of Janis Joplin over the intercom and you’re thinking, is it … happening again? Do I really have to hear her voice? And as soon as you realize yup, it’s her, she’s SCREAMING IN YOUR EAR with that horrible scratchy voice and you’re wobbling around trying not to crash into a stack of halloween candy, searching in your purse for some advils, and, too late, it’s all Janis Joplin in your throbbing ears and snowy television screen vision and people are asking you what’s wrong but you’ve lost the ability to talk, so you shake your head and point to it, and grope your way home where the only thing you can do is listen to repeats of Nashville on very low volume, because the show doesn’t require you to actually watch the five-second eruptions between characters that make up each scene. This process repeats itself several times over the next few days.

2. The Sore Back, or Nickelback.
You’ve been standing on your feet all day, and what started as a small oof when you bent over to pick something up has morphed into back pain that scorches up your spine, tightens your shoulders, and grips your jaw, the same feeling you get when you’re reminded of who Nickelback really is, a bunch of dudes complaining about girls in grinding repetitions of trying to get that piece of steak lodged in Kroeger’s throat out once and for all.

3. The Bad Weather, or Ed Sheeran.
“Wow, nice”: a phrase applied equally to a radical change in barometric pressure leading to some break in the weather and to Ed Sheeran’s meekly misogynistic songs about women’s physical attributes disguised as romance. Both are fine as the background to a date (when there’s nothing else to talk about: “Hm, looks like we’re finally in for that storm!” “I love the shape of you.”) but not for the head. This usually manifests as one pinpoint over the left eye, making you feel like the rest of the world must finally see you as the cyborg you really are until the snow stops falling or the chinook has turned the streets into a river of melting ice. You cower under the blankets while everybody else puts on a pair of shorts in the middle of February. “Thanks for the weather forecast!” says your friends. No problem.

4. The Monthly, or the Rob Thomas.
This one, for whatever reason, is always a shock. The same reaction when you hear a Matchbox 20 song on the radio, TWENTY YEARS after they were not popular. Why? Why is this happening again? And there’s no buildup, it’s just like wham, let me slam the front of your head in a vice and make you wonder what the point of being alive is, usually while you’re in the middle of something where you have to appear smart and not fog-headed like this is doing to you. And you go home thinking, was it something I ate? And then Flo visits and you’re like, oh yeah, even though you had Clue going on your phone to tell you “PMS is happening today,” etc. You’re still somehow always surprised.

It's just the worst? Why did this ever happen?

5. The Ocular, or the Sarah McLachlan.
This one is the headache who’s always trying to get on your good side, maybe with a nice tune about the usual heartache, delivered in smarmily poetic lyrics, saying I’m smarter than the other migraines who are equally annoying but not as darkly intelligent, because I don’t actually turn into a headache. I just threaten, covering it up with disingenuous earnestness and sincerity. Perhaps this gasp will make you come around, or this slight hiccup in my overwrought delivery. I hang in the air, never leaving, manifesting as a giant white spot in the shape of Africa, annoying you every time you look around, but never really doing anything objectionable.

6. The Lingerer, or the Win Butler.
As a headache, this is the most annoying, sitting as it does in the background, never amounting to much, but stopping all enjoyable activities like reading or sex, or reading during sex, because it’s a vague annoyance, slightly diminishing one’s ability to truly feel good. Like just man up already and stop it with the warbling and be a real headache! Jeez.

It’s My Birthday; I’m Gonna Be An Asshole

I am supposed to be perpetually offended by myself.

I’m a thirty-something white woman, who grew up in the suburbs consuming the worst products pop culture had to offer: NKOTB. Saved By The Bell. Street Cents (remember Street Cents?). Barbies. 90210. You name it, I was into it.

Then I grew up and, after a million years of school, basically became an anti-capitalist. A miserly-socialist- (if that’s a thing) who still wears camisoles full of holes so I don’t have to spend money – the system is telling me to deploy my credit card in the name of fast fashion! – slash-cultural-anthropologist who now views these once dear products as artifacts to be endlessly analyzed. In the name of better understanding my kind. Or, keeping my job.

White women are the enemy of culture. What we like is mindless, frivolous, dumb. Consumerist, uncritical. We are fickle. We are drawn in by gossip and cat fights, men with bare chests, our comrades perpetually angling for a marriage proposal. My critical distance from these things, facilitated by my many graduate degrees, allows me to coolly proclaim I once enjoyed, but now find fascinating, the objects of my youth, the targets of my desire. But no, I do not enjoy them anymore. Should I briefly fall into the trap of unadulterated joy, I can right things by performing speedy self-analysis. Phew. I thought I felt something. I just let down my critical guard! Back to distanced objectivism, right after these messages.

Well, fuck it, I decided this week. It turns out I really love country music, and yes, I’m a white girl, and ooh I’m from Alberta, how obvious, and well, just, who cares. So I let it crawl in my lap and snuggle in and make me feel something, and basically I did it because it was my birthday and I’m nearly 40, and if I don’t care about my undershirts or frizzy hair, then why do I care if I LOVE COUNTRY MUSIC?

Well, there’s this.

Right, so (to begin a sentence like all guests on CBC Radio – which, by the way, is hip), it’s a little dangerous to love country music right now. A student recently undertook the Toronto bro country fan base as the subculture to study for her essay, and – to paraphrase – she was horrified at the Bay Street types who barely managed to loosen their ties before they got shit-faced in high-end downtown bars while classic artists like Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line played in the background. Let’s keep the money rolling through the white community, yo. Let’s listen to borderline rapey songs while we ply the ladies around us with drinks. Let’s let loose at these mega country festivals on the summer weekends, leaving piles of plastic waste in our wake as homage to how great things used to be, when we suburban folks could do what we pleased without repercussion.

So, there’s that. You say you like country, you run the risk of being, well, that.

Nevertheless, the great proportion of country music – like 80 years’ worth – and country music fans – millions’ worth – does not celebrate this entitled white man assholery so prevalent in bro country right now. The problem is we’re just at a crossroads, perhaps even an impasse, where should we continue on this trajectory, we might end up looking back on bro country as the warning bell for a scary white nationalism.

Pushing aside that very pragmatic reason for distancing myself from my taste, why not investigate some other reasons why I don’t readily admit to it? Just kidding. You thought I was performing self-analysis!

I went to see Dwight Yoakam the other night. I’ve waited twenty years to see the man, and he delivered. Surrounding me at the show, I noticed, were people … like me? All white. Mostly over 35. Being in a room full of white people in Toronto is one of the weirder experiences one can have in life. It’s so noticeable, you feel more conspicuous than you do as a straight girl at a bar on Church Street on a Saturday night. Except everyone is conspicuous, because where did they come from? Like, the country? What else do they do for hobbies? Watch 90210?

Performing self-analysis at the show, because I was watching my alcohol intake and was thus sober enough to be in work mode (notice how smoothly I deploy “thus” in a sentence. Do I ever turn it off?), I wondered, why do I like Dwight Yoakam?

There’s the dance, of course.

And there are the wonky lyrics.

And the very relevant lyrics, depending on one’s station in life.

His general air of mystery – he said all of six sentences to the crowd.

Oh, stop it already. I like him because he makes me feel good. There, I said it. I LOVE COUNTRY MUSIC. I LOVE DWIGHT YOAKAM.

But if we really want to perform Gillian-slash-cultural-analysis here, we could say that Gillian has a tendency to appreciate the sort of country artists who are traditionalists, but not revivalists, those who “instead of evoking a bygone past,” prefer “to evoke a familiar, unchanging present.”

Revivalism is the stuff of (white) people with leisure time, or no sense of the relevance of their own culture. Turning to a past era, a bygone way of life, or something exotic (e.g., made by an artist of a lower economic class) makes one feel good, like they’re tuned into something real. I’m not talking about the revivalist religious movement of the 1700-1800s, though that’s not to say similar analyses don’t apply. That explains why you’re more likely to find white people my age at a string band show, or listening to something under the roots umbrella, than attending a new country performance by a 1980s artist. It is cooler to do that than to listen to something that can’t be referred to as “nostalgic,” in other words, the Top 40 country songs from the late 80s and early 90s.

So I can say to people, “I went to Dwight Yoakam, and it was great.” And they say, “Oh yeah, good for you, who is he?” And I can’t really explain, other than to say he was the bad guy in Panic Room. And they go, oh yeah, right.

But then if I say, “He did a four-song set dedicated to Merle Haggard,” I get the wow response. Because, you know, Merle Haggard was old, and just died, and was “the real thing,” went to jail, etc., etc., a sort of Johnny Cash figure for people who know slightly more than average about country music. They might even know “Silver Wings” or “Mama Tried.” But they probably don’t know “Pocket of a Clown.”

I end up in this weird position of liking something that isn’t cool, and yet my participation in something now not as mainstream as in the 80s, and unknown to most listeners – some of the main determiners of cool – does not yield me any cultural capital. So I think my solution is to say, It’s my birthday, and I like country music. So there.

A Music City Manifesto

The other day, progeny of escaped High Park capybaras Bonnie and Clyde were bestowed the names of Toronto legends Geddy, Alex, and Neil of Rush. If I can be honest for a second, I was briefly miffed, since the names I had picked out for my next cats were Alex and Geddy. Thieves!

Then I got over it, because this is the best demonstration of how a big, apparently unfriendly city creates a community. Geddy (the person) in particular is a fixture here, prompting the city to mark Rush’s dedication to their hometown with varied honours, including this. But because the capybara names were decided on by vote, we all felt in on it. Even if we didn’t vote. It still felt like a meaningful moment. It helps that we as a city also spent time earlier this year wondering where Bonnie and Clyde were gettin’ it on during the months they were missing from the Zoo. Geddy’s flower garden? Perhaps.

I also got over it because maybe that’s a sign my own cat will hang on a little longer, until those names go out of fashion. And I further got over it because I have another destination to add to my “Important Rush Sites” tour of Toronto that will mark the last year of my 30s later this month.

I brought this capybara business up in class because we’d done a unit on the band (naturally) and realized later that it’s a fairly specific class where news like that is actually relevant, aside from being another reason to make fun of the teacher. I don’t teach “Mating Rituals of the Capybara,” nor do I teach “Influential 20th-Century Composers: Rush” (though now I’m going to propose that for Fall 2018!). Music and the City instead examines how urban centres facilitate (or impede) musical activity.

Since the course was due for an overhaul, I did a bunch of research on the idea of music and the city. My maddening findings included the innovation on the part of the City of Toronto to feature local artists on the 311 hold music, and their City Hall concert series. Other bold thinkers have paved the way for local musicians to “network,” or found ways to increase outside musician traffic to Toronto, suggesting that it could be musical tourism destination because we have “international acts.” There was even a vote! Toronto City Council was unanimous on making Toronto a Music City. Because, you see, it wasn’t before the vote occurred.

Not one of these initiatives considers how to keep ALREADY WORKING musicians in Toronto. In fact, both Music Canada and the Toronto Music Advisory Council produced studies that suggested one of the first ways to keep any culture – musical or otherwise – in an urban setting is to make space available and cost of living cheaper. You may not know this, but you can’t actually make money as a musician anymore. So if you want a creative fucking city, be fucking creative.

Anyway. Initiatives like Making Toronto a Music City are draped in bureaucratese, turning the straightforward and specific into bumbling platitudes of vagueness. What have they done so far, you ask? Why, “facilitated links to other City departments,” of course. “Provided business-to-business connections.” What could be achieved with a couple of full-time employees instead morphs into tripping subcommittees of ineptitude, resulting in a mayor who “doesn’t have time” to visit sister city Austin during SXSW and stalled debates on whether liquor licensing for venues should differ from pool halls or restaurants. We also get the reports proudly detailing the economic contributions of musical activity to the city, reducing creative processes to dollars – and, supposedly, jobs. “Productivity” wins again. Let’s only value music by comparing it to how many cars are shipped off the assembly line rather than as a central component of any place with good standards of living.

Toronto, and other North American cities, might do well to sit in Oslo, or Copenhagen, for a day or two, where going out to hear music, and building spaces for it to be made, is quotidian. Not special. Because the problem is not that we’re incapable of doing things like reducing artist rent, offering spaces to create, extending the hours of public transit so people can hear music later, reducing rent for music venues, improving parking and loading zones around venues, creating city-sponsored events and concerts, etc. etc. We could do all of that in relatively short order. Instead, we have to change our thinking about what music is. It’s not a commodity the way it might have been in the past. It’s not a generator of “economic activity” – or if it is, that’s a lovely byproduct, not a goal. It’s a social activity, a community generator, a way of life for many people. But if all we do is work, and focus on the output rather than the process, then we misunderstand music – or any art’s – purpose.

What if, in a radical move, governments offered days off to go listen to music events that it funded? What if everyone could be done work in an 8-hour day so they could go out at night? (It does happen in other countries.) What if music was seen as a vocation that could generate a sustainable income rather than a commercial product to be created in one’s offtime and sold in a market oversaturated with competitors? What if there were more tax breaks for presenters and venues and people taking music lessons?

All of these things require a substantial shift in ways of thinking about art. These ways are deeply entrenched. I don’t expect anyone can make that happen.

But it’s the only way to start actually creating a music city. And if there’s ever a moment where that shift is apparent, and we head in the right direction instead of applauding for institutional soundbites, for promises without follow-through, then I’ll get three more cats and name them Peart, Fripp, and Squire in the name of true progressiveness.

Such a Waste of a Beautiful Day

The New Pornographers have a new album out. It’s pretty good.

Just kidding. It’s really fucking good. What are you doing still reading this blog? Go buy it; stop withholding your cash from actual talented people who are way better than you. Come back to this blog when you’ve listened to it at least four times, because they deserve your attention more.

I listened to it on the way home last night. I was trying to read a book at the same time. It was distracting. The book or the album? I don’t know, but I chose the album. Listening to it on a train, on your regular route home from your regular shift is weird, because all the songs sound like you’re supposed to be doing something more epic, like prepping for your first space flight, or dying your hair blue before you go roller-disco-dancing at the club. But no, I was just sitting on the sideways seat, swaying back and forth, looking at the dirty floor, the way I did going in to work, and the way I did 4,942 times before.

I noticed the sneakers on the dude across from me. He was doing something on his laptop that made his mouth hang open, but his sneakers were nuts. The socks didn’t help: clashing patterns and bright colours and all sorts of craziness that were more apt for the tune in my ears. By this point it might have been “Whiteout Conditions” or “High Ticket Attractions.” The continuity of the phrasing in NP songs is partly what makes them good. It worked with the socks.

I started looking at everyone’s shoes. They fell mostly on the crazy spectrum. I am perhaps not the most qualified to speak on the issue, given my choices are limited by my size 11 feet and a package of requirements I take to the store that include fashionable, comfortable, reasonable (price), durable, etc. Still, what is up with everyone’s shoes. First the girl beside me left the train on a pair of royal blue sneakers, then a woman came in with velcro wedges. I kid you not. Three strips. Another guy with turquoise-and-blue sneakers. Sneakers are among the worst offenders. It was a veritable shoe circus.

Shoes, I realized, are one of those commodities that facilitate a sense that you’re both individual/cool and fitting in/alike. Small variations on general homogeneity that don’t make you feel too out of place. Also, bonus, they are “necessities” so you don’t have to feel bad purchasing your primary form of transportation, or replacing the old crazy with the new using an entire paycheque, because “they would eventually wear out anyway.”

Since we’re all in the business of routinely switching our identities, shoes can be doubly functional: don’t cut your foot on dangerous objects outside, plus, be somebody different from who you were earlier today! While you are stepping out in your current weird shoe, look at pictures of yourself on your phone to determine who you should be next, or perhaps check and see how many likes that most recent selfie got. If you didn’t get enough, maybe it’s time for a new shoe.

I was covertly spying on the shoe wearers’ phones last night, wondering what sorts of treasures they were drowning in. By and large, it was pictures of themselves. They were either scrolling through libraries of their own snapshots, or looking at pictures they had posted of themselves. There seemed to be a sort of shoe/self-absorption aspect ratio, wherein the level of shoe crazy could predict the amount of time spent staring at one’s posed version of the self now available for widespread consumption.

I got on the bus. A guy sat next to me; he was good-looking and quite large, so my body reacted in that way where contact is intimate but not necessarily acceptable or unpleasant. Sort of like the dream I had the other night where I was in Stockholm with Knausgaard and I was trying to tell him I slept with Khal Drogo by accident and as I was explaining it I was drawing lazy lines on his bare back while he sat next to me and we stared out to sea, and then I woke up with that warm feeling of intimate love only made possible by dreams. (It is no secret what my pop culture-literary inputs are at the moment.) I looked down at the bus guy’s shoes, and lo and behold they were quite classy loafers. Wow, I thought, and as I did, he lifted his foot to cross his legs, thereby displaying in all its glory the loafed foot for me to admire.

He took out his phone. I kid you not. And – I kid you not again – he did not look at a picture of himself. He checked his emails. And he had none, so he put it away.

I got off the bus. Such a waste of a beautiful day.

I Want to be the Filling of an Open-Faced Sandwich

Part of the trouble with being middle class, I’ve discovered, is you’re not supposed to want to stay there. It is an aspirational position from which you should want to move up. Or down. You lack the glamour of the nouveau-riche; saying I “started from the bottom” now I’m here doesn’t sound so good when all I’ve got is a cookie-cutter suburban bungalow and a ford taurus. And it doesn’t have the working-class exoticism of eating pork n’beans straight outta the can, or the edge-of-your-seat drama of maybe not paying the rent on time. So, it’s time to move.

The middle is a bad place to be. Think about it: middle of a staircase? A little dangerous. Go up or down. Middle seat in a car? Your knees touch your chin, and not in a life-affirming way. You’re reminded of your monster butt as it’s crushed under neighbours’ hips. Middle of a book? You cannot post on Goodreads that you’re done. Middle of a storm? Now, the centre of a hurricane is fine, but of course centre suggests purpose, the point around which all else circles. Middle is, well, middling. Boring, without direction or motion. Undefined. Blobby.

Take the middle of a sandwich: its contents are rarely defined clearly. I mean, tuna can be like tuna with mayo or without, perhaps with added onions, pickles, celery (ew). Ham and cheese could desire a dollop of mustard, perhaps a wisp of lettuce. Basically, the middle is constantly striving to be something else, because, you see, it doesn’t want to be like all the other middles. And isn’t a sandwich defined by its bread? Not what’s in between the bread. What makes a sandwich a sandwich is that something exists between two breads.

Except in the case of open-faced sandwiches, where things seem a little more equal opportunity.*

I’m entering my moment in the sandwich generation. I modified my own middle by choosing a cat instead of a child, and now said cat is dying even though she’s younger than me. Bad choice, perhaps, but the care doesn’t differ all that much. A typical afternoon goes like this (all cat utterances approximated, naturally):

Pumpkin: Hi. Do you know where I am?
Me: You just woke up from a nap in your bed.
Pumpkin: Oh. Right.
[sits down]
[keeps sitting]
Pumpkin: Hey, I have something to show you.
Me: Alright. [gets up from boring computer work]
Pumpkin: Where am I?
Me: I know you’re blind, but there’s only three rooms in this place.
Pumpkin: Right, right. I think I want to go in the bathroom …
… no, no, I want to go in the bedroom!
Here we are.
Me: What do you need?
Pumpkin: I think I need to be lifted into my bed.
Me: Like this?
Pumpkin: Yes, that’s what I needed. Thank you.

Five minutes later

Pumpkin: Hi. Do you know where I am?
Me: Sigh.
Pumpkin: I have something to show you.

This generally goes on repeat 20+ times a day.

I wonder, as I care for Miss Senile, if I was supposed to aim higher? Like, be somebody? Or was I just supposed to stay here and stop trying: show up to work, do duties while zoned out, collect paycheque and spend it on aspirational whiskey (Drake’s Virginia Black looks good on the sideboard (which is a wealthy person’s piece of furniture)), and stop working on other projects? Start something: ‘I have big plans! I’m going to achieve this thing and be quite famous!’ and then stop because it got in the way of watching Riverdale and being tired from getting up to go to work, and fun weekend activities like mowing the lawn and taking yoga classes in my neighbourhood. But even Riverdale reveals, as Emily Nussbaum says, people may look happy, but are “just faking it.”

Let’s see what one of my favourite middle-classians, Chris McDonald, has to say on the subject. “On the one hand, to belong to the middle strata of society, is, for many, to be mediocre, average, another face in the crowd … On the other hand, middle-class values emphasize upward mobility and self-improvement; the central belief is that the individual’s hard work, innovation, and initiative will lead to material gain, satisfaction in life, and personal distinction.”

Yes. That is what will happen: I will become great. I don’t know if I’ll finish this project, however, since I am a dull nobody with nothing to say.

Hm. Maybe I’ll turn to my hero Knausgaard instead: “As far as the larger picture was concerned, I never had any doubt that I could attain whatever I wanted, I knew I had it in me, because my yearnings were so strong and they never found any rest. How could they? How else was I going to crush everyone?”

Oh yes, right. I am great. Nobody who came before me did this thing quite like I’m doing this thing. I will conquer! Achieve! I have a new routine: get up at 5 am every day and complete this amazing artifact I’m making. Someday, I will be adored. Someday, I will be the filling in an open-faced sandwich. And nobody will think twice about the foundational bread on which I was created.

*You know where open-faced sandwiches are popular? Denmark.

I Don’t Find You Very Funny

Put Me on A Pedestal, and I’ll Only Disappoint You

Hello.

I have just graduated from my program. You might find this impressive. I’m fairly certain my entire sense of self depends on what you think of me. Please accept my:

-Job application
-Grant application
-Program of study proposal
-Book proposal
-Material for review
-Summary of Twitter followers
-Digital platform

I look forward to your prompt response.

I will get up every morning and check my email to see if you have replied. I’ll double check your voicemail message to see if you are in the office this week. You are? I wonder why you haven’t responded. Maybe I’ll just have a quick look at my analytics again – no, no sign that anyone in your city viewed my pages. I wonder if my [application/proposal/self summarized in set of statistics and likes] ended up in your spam?

Finally. Oh ho! Today we have a response.

“Thank you for your [application/proposal/self summarized in set of statistics and likes]. We are intrigued by the bundle of skills you have offered us. You have accomplished quite a lot in your short time on this earth! You stand far above your fellow applicants. Perhaps we could offer you a sense of a potential opportunity, upon receipt of more evidence that you are indeed the candidate we are searching for? Please send additional materials at your earliest convenience.”

“Hello. Thank you for your swift reply to my initial email. I hope this finds you well. I have attached here evidence of my flexibility. You see, I am everything you need: ‘the business, the raw material, the product, the clientele, and the customer of my own life,’ I am the ‘headline star and enraptured audience of my own performance.’* I’m quite sure you will agree. I look forward to your reply.”

“Dear applicant,

Thank you. We have found someone not as intriguing as you, but they are more flexible, have social media training, and they are quite a bit cheaper. All the best in your life endeavours.”

Tell Me I’m Exceptional and I Promise to Exploit You

Hello.

I’d like to send you this material for consideration. You see, I’m trying to “make it.” I can’t “make it” without you. In particular, I’m in need of “good reviews.” I understand you are normally a paid reviewer, but I am young and in the beginning of my career, and as such have nothing to offer other than good thoughts.

I’ve heard that in the past, you and I wouldn’t be having this conversation. My paid publicist would contact your editor and I would not have to cold-email you. Seems like a time when people had no self-motivation, if you ask me.

Evidence of my own work ethic is contained within this enclosed offering. You can’t deny my ability to entrepreneurialize my self. I worked on this thing from start to finish, including the Go Fund Me campaign that paid my rent for the time I worked on it.

I promise to pass your good name on to anyone else who requires a “good review.” Many thanks in advance! Please let me know if I can send you additional materials.

Give Me All Your Money and I’ll Make Some Origami, Honey

Hello.

I know you think I’m lazy and entitled. Quite the opposite: I’m not in this for the cash. That is what we in the biz call “selling out.” If it is not evident from my [application/proposal/offering], I’d be pleased to do this thing for free. I mainly do this for the “love of it” and if that means cleaning toilets to pay the cell phone bill, so be it.

I heard, actually, that you might have a small cash offering at the end of my service for you, though that this is contingent on “available funding” and a “review” of my work. Fair enough; I mean if you’ve got it and you’re willing to offer it to me, I mean, I could perhaps with it purchase a new self via office-appropriate attire. After all, the loss of this job will require I tailor an entirely new persona that is pleasing to other employers/reviewers/granting bodies. I will have to “forget my past and become a different person.”* I will be without paycheques, and all I have to blame is “some immobile attribute of [my]self.”*

I will have to alter my online self in order to appear ready for the next cash-free offering, thus ever destabilizing my identity. My Facebook page, a “jumble of unexplained tastes and alliance, the melange of which requires the constant care and management by an entity that bears some tenuous relationship to the persona uploaded, but who must maintain an assured clear distance from it,”* will change. I’m already planning it.

I Think You’re a Joke

Hello.

I come home from a long day in the self-management-online trenches – oh wait, I’m already at home – and I make fun of you. You dangle importance in front of me: you say you can make me “someone.” That “persistence pays off.” That you too worked long, hard, insecure hours before you “became someone.” And god knows, all I think about is how to become you.

I cook spaghetti. I will not tell you about this meal tomorrow, when you are describing the new “bistro” you went to with our colleagues, where you left half a bottle of $200 wine on the table, because you all “had to work” in the morning, and anyway, your expense account is covering it. You tell me “I’ll understand” someday when I’m as “important” as you, and I too must get back to the grind in the am. After all, the only thing I’m doing right now is altering my quiddity “in an ongoing adjustment of agency to the requirements of social and physical adaptability to shifting market forces.”* That’s not real work.

I tell you that I’m trying very hard.

You laugh. “Tiny little thing,” you say. “You’ll understand someday. When you’ve reached the magical age I’ve deemed old enough to allow for some sort of shaky alliance between us. Only then, I’ll be accusing you of refusing to understand my newly vulnerable position as an elder. I’ll be expecting you to pay for my inability to pay for myself. After all, I left the world in good shape for you to flourish.”

But I Don’t Find You Very Funny

*From the Book Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste

Annual Review: Am I Meeting My Middle-Class Responsibilities?

Hello! You might remember me from one year ago, when I was but a young entrant into that elusive tax bracket we call middle class. What an exciting time it was.

This position elicits great respect. And with great respect comes great responsibility. As per all honourable titles, I am now up for my annual middle-class review, and it’s nothing but good news from the M-C trenches.

First of all, let me apologize for the late delivery of this report. You see, after my last tax appointment, I was distracted by the new episode of Riverdale. I felt I must complement the renewal of my middle-class status with a dose of TV designed for the masses; who else would be watching it if not me? And then, quite honestly, I went to Hidden Figures and was accordingly emotionally manipulated, feeling contempt for my fellow white man, sympathy, great regret at our troubled history, etc., on cue. I capped that weekend off with an episode of Nashville, wherein I truly felt something during the choir-girls-in-the-hospital-room bit, and followed that up with appropriate anger whenever someone finished off a two-minute conversation that had relatively little time to escalate with angry outburst and out-of-room stalking.

Phew. My job was done! It was all in preparation for the next day’s water-cooler chat: I was ready to offer my summaries and opinions on the important cultural events of our moment, with a good dose of levity and slight ashamedness at consuming such trite pieces of garbage. One bit that’s confusing about middle-class cultural consumption is how I’m actually supposed to feel. Bloated? Hungry for more? I’m unsure. See, if I don’t watch these things, I may be cast out of my social strata, unable to make over-the-boiling-kettle small talk in the office kitchen. However, if I am too eager about Rayna’s car accident, or the stilettos Veronica and Cheryl Blossom wore at their sleepover, I might not feel so hip should I bring it up with a couple of bearded dudes judging Ryerson’s Battle of the Bands with me.

Hm.

At the same time, I am awfully entertaining at book clubs and dinner parties, offering a critical recap of my “guilty pleasures” to raucous laughter, because you see, everyone knows I’m being sarcastic. I don’t actually like these shows. Or do I? Or is the uncertainty just so postmodern and hilarious? Nobody can know who I actually am or what I actually like. Identity is malleable. Subject to external influence.

Oops, I’ve gotten off-track here. You’re curious as to whether I was buying things last year? because my primary duty as a middle-class person is to consume things and keep the economy running. My patriotism reflected in brandishment of brand-name handbags and shiny new versions of kindles on which I read a combination of the latest bestsellers and other literary Mount Everests. I pretend it’s David Foster Wallace, but it’s really Danielle Steel. Etc. I post my progress on Goodreads. I am cultured.

I don’t think I bought as much as I was supposed to. Is there like an average amount to spend, or number of things to acquire each week? I confess to being obsessed with saving money on groceries (old habits die so hard), so I’ve been buying multiple packages of toilet paper and cheese when they’re on sale, and there’s no room in my fridge for artisanal bread crumbs or hand-crafted olives because the cheese takes up like the whole bottom shelf. Note to self: this is an area for improvement in 2017.

And then I realized I should have an inordinate preoccupation with various underclasses and marginalized peoples, since I am now a privileged person and have a) much power and b) time and c) a voice that is quite important. As such, I’m supposed to be taking up a lot of airtime and bandwidth, etc., espousing my opinions on issues like Black Lives Matter and for working-class women who don’t actually get time to write feminist blogs because they’re working six part-time jobs. But one problem with this is, I went to my massage therapist and she said that a lot of my back problems are from carrying too much change in my purse, so I started throwing all my extra coinage into a jar at home, and carry nothing more than toonies, but now what am I supposed to do about the people asking for change? Again, I am confused.

Am I failing this review?

I must have a hobby! I decided, to calm my agitated hands and alleviate wealth guilt. I have this pedal steel guitar (voice of the Southern American working class! Yeehaw!), and the vibrato I can generate from my deep levels of anxiety being worked out with the bar is quite something. I have also taken to bird watching, a new obsession of the white 30-somethiing female crowd who apparently find some solace and grief management techniques in staring at beaks and feathers through binoculars.

Most importantly, I am to sustain an unmanageable level of debt, one which should wake me up from a dead sleep in the middle of the night. Bam. Covered. I still have nearly half of my student debt remaining. Oh, except I guess I wasn’t supposed to take on extra work and cut all frivolous spending in an effort to kill it in less than two years. Another area for improvement.

Long-term goals:
1. Buy more things. The more clutter they create, the better. By 2019, I should have a storage space with rent equal to my apartment’s to hold said things.
2. Express more concern for pressing topics of the day, mostly through angsty Facebook posts, not any tangible action.
3. Find more distracting TV, and if possible, do less reading.
4. Make sure all reading that is accomplished is of high literary value, so as to be conversant with the upper class to which I aspire.
5. Vote for whichever party says they are going to cut taxes.

I hope my review has been sufficient in demonstrating my promise as a member of the middle class. Should you require additional information, or wish to review anything herein, please do not contact me.

Going Off Brand

I’m backed up to a free air hose.

That’s a sentence I’ve always wanted to say. Not necessarily because I want to be pregnant – which is what being backed up to a free air hose is in western parlance – but because I want to say awesome phrases that have no apparent connection to their meaning. “How are you, Gillian?” “I’m backed up to a free air hose.” “No way!” “Congrats!” Etc.

Granted, the origin of getting oneself backed up to (into?) (onto?) a free air hose is mysterious; as such it may be meaningless. I found it in the back of a cowboy song and poetry collection and I’m trusting it’s correct. May the cowboy gods punish me should I ever misuse the phrase.

I wonder if the cowboy gods roil in the sky while mortals co-opt their words for other nefarious purposes.

“Giddyup.” = Party. (Not, you know, go.)
“Joy Juice.” “Kansas Sheep Dip.” = Whiskey. (Ok, that stayed.)
“Pecker.” =   (Actually means appetite.)

Brand.
To burn.

Brought over from German, the old English use of brand is to refer to burning, sometimes more specifically to a piece of burning wood. Use of the word increased in the late 1800s and through the early 1900s as cattle were subjected to the process; use skyrocketed in the early 2000s when the former middle class, shunted through modern capitalist life like confused cattle, opted for a self-imposed, less smoky but no less painful, version.

Well, I sure feel like I’m burning. (up?) (out?)

Questions I’m supposed to be asking myself right now include: Am I on brand? What if my message is off brand? Can I speak, write, produce something that is not on brand, and if I do, what are the consequences? Perhaps I will confuse someone! Is questioning everything I’m told to do a brand in itself, and if so, is there a logo for that? Because I could use one.

Entrepreneur.com tells us in their “Basics of Branding” article that “your brand is your promise to your customer.” (I have to have customers?!) Am I the “innovative maverick” or the “experienced, reliable one”? Hmmmm.. So many choices! Apparently I am supposed to build brand equity, like Coke did, and then I can charge my customers more.

Let’s see what the cattle have to say about this, as originators of the process.

Okay, so first of all, you have the bosses (investors?) leading the way, saddlin’ up the horsies, and their assistants, the dogs, hanging out, tongues a’waggin’, looking forward to kicking some cattle ass ahead. Everything’s cool, everything’s cool. They go up to the cattle and they’re like, don’t worry, this is going to be a great time. Just come with us. And the cattle are thinking yeah, okay, I mean I had nothing planned today, might as well, and they all head down together, just joking around talking about their weekends and stuff. Even at 0:32, there’s a couple dudes who are pretty keen and jogging, and then at 0:36 you can see the brown guy’s thinking, uh, maybe this isn’t for me. But then he goes along too.

The horses know what’s happening. They’ve seen it before. The guy at 0:58 stares into the horizon with a flash of regret.

So everyone’s gathered in the pen and it seems like a good time, some even run to get the front row, and then. And then. The real reason they’re gathered becomes clear and all hell breaks loose. Have you ever tried steer wrestling? It ain’t easy. The party is knocked into a cocked hat, as they say.

Cattle who until this moment felt unique, in charge of their destiny are rounded up, roped, held down; unspeakable acts done to them, one of which is a logo branded on their ass. I’m pretty sure they didn’t want this, as evidenced by the little brown guy’s turn at 2:22 where everyone’s like, shit, you didn’t tell us it would be like this! And the other cattle are freaking out, trying to help him but they get stopped by Horse.

Once he’s branded, he gets up and runs off, but never the same will he be. You see, he’s offering a promise to his customer. My Ass Logo = Premium Beef. If my Beef does not live up to the brand you’ve come to know and love – Innovative Maverick Beef – please call the customer service line imprinted on my hoof and we’ll refund your money right away. He sort of feels burned in other ways too, yet this seemed like the right thing to do.

I mean, everyone else is doing it.

 

De-clutter Your House, De-clutter Yourself!

As a newly-minted member of the middle class, I decided this summer it was my duty to de-clutter. After all, I would not be middle-classian were I to hold on to goods that no longer did me any good. Apparently the prevailing reasons to de-clutter – to consume less, to reduce one’s impact on the environment, to save money (no, of course I’m totally fine during my unemployed months), to recycle goods through one’s community rather than let fester or throw out before purchasing anew, to clear a space in order to clear the mind, to use one’s self-power to create, grow, cook, and build – are not genuine. They are the claimed disingenuous reasons of a mad, de-cluttering, privileged population, who, unlike their lower-class counterparts, would not deign to head to a Wal-Mart or Dollarama for cheap garbage bags, light bulbs, and knick-knacks.

Garbage bags made in China? Never. Mine are local, hand-crafted, artisan garbage bags. My stuff will linger in the landfill in luxury.

IMG_1447 (Mobile).JPG

How do I feel, you ask, as I lug eight bags of books to the second-hand shop? Great. These books mostly represent failure – my failure to ascend the gold-plated ladder of academia, my failure to pay off my student loans expediently with the middle-class salary I was supposed to receive at age 30 or earlier, my failure to find an extra 8 hours in the day to actually read them – so why not cast them off to an ambitious lower class at reduced cost and make those readers feel even worse for not reading their second-hand books and achieving greatness at an efficient rate?

I feel even better when I go to hurl my bags of clothing in the drop bins across from the grocery store and a lady behind me demands she be given the opportunity to root through said bags before I do it. She’s at least 70. I’m a foot and a half taller than her. No, I tell her, with great privileged pride, these gently-used socks* are for the Oasis Addiction Centre, not you. I muster up all the strength built from years of seizing opportunity and heave the bags through the slot.

The worst thing one could do in the de-cluttering process is set aside items for re-sale, since the duty of the well-to-do is to grasp the latest trends of upcycling, repurposing, or trading. If not donating (your first duty, naturally). Well, I’ve already confessed to making an appointment at the bookstore, so I might as well go all the way and just say I’m in it for the money. I mean, who doesn’t want more money? Yup, I might sell some DVDs or unworn dresses, or even a Best Buy store credit from the godawful Acer mini with Windows 10 that I thought would be useful for my European jaunt, but turned out to not even be able to turn on, because wtf else am I going to buy at Best Buy? More DVDs?

Of course, none of these things are weirdo gifts bestowed on my by people who don’t really know me but felt compelled to purchase something upon one of my “achievements” (getting married, moving, finishing a PhD, aging 365 days), nor are they items that I see as having paid “rent” for and can now move on to someone else after I reclaim some of my deposit (I don’t need to watch season two of The Office more than once). Because that would mean I’m a jerk. After all, are we not only defined by our stuff? How else will people know who I am unless they come into my 400-square foot apartment, after lurching up 35 steps, and brush the dust off my 421 books?

YES THAT’S RIGHT. I OWN 421 BOOKS. I counted.

Or how else will I keep my job unless I change my outfits every day for five weeks, so as to keep students’ attention, because lord knows they’re not looking at the notes?

In other words, we need our stuff. So as good as my intentions are – say, stuffing dried chickpeas into a reuseable cloth bag at the bulk store, then storing them in a reusable, washable jar at home, and making many salads, refusing to eat lunch out as way to save money and just, for God’s sake, work less – I’ll probably in the end succumb to using my sold-stuff revenues to buy that awesome new hair-straightening brush and several books on cowboys and western songs that I’ll do nothing with, because I’ll be working to pay off the mastercard bill instead of writing compelling peer-reviewed articles on “The Strawberry Roan.”

*There is no such thing as gently-used socks.

Welcome to Hel, Part I

For those thinking about being a true adventurer like I am, might I offer the following guide? If you follow these simple tips, you’re bound to have a vacation like no other.

1. Prepare.
What is it they tell you in Girl Guides? That’s right: Always Be Prepared. In the modern era of travelling, this means not filling up your phone with notes of witticisms you come up with in the middle of the night and pics of your cat, so that you have enough storage room for offline maps, English – Another Language dictionaries, and apps that help you buy transit tickets.

As you embark on your trip to another city (let’s say, for example, you are heading to Helsinki from Stockholm), make sure you’ve got the following loaded up:
- offline map
- Google directions to get from the airport to your hostel
- a Finnish dictionary (with pronunciation)
- your boarding pass
- a transit ticket to the airport

Great! You’re ready to go.

Oops. You’ve turned the roaming off on your phone, because the carrier is charging you $5/MB. Okay, at the train station, turn it back on temporarily to buy a transit ticket.

Oh no! It doesn’t work? Didn’t you renew your international plan last night? You did? Did they confirm? Yes? Then why isn’t it working?

I’m not sure what to tell you. Try buying a ticket at the counter from the guy. Hurry – you’ve got to make it to the platform in 4 minutes, because the next train doesn’t come for half an hour.

2. Don’t yell at your phone.
Try not to get angry at your phone while on the train, because nobody is awake at 3 am in Toronto, and you probably won’t get any service. Try to remember how people travelled in the olden days.

3. Print your boarding pass at the airport even though you have one on your phone. I don’t know why. Just do it so you don’t keep getting sent back.

4. Print your baggage sticker.

4a. IMPORTANT: ATTACH BAGGAGE STICKER TO YOUR BAG BEFORE PLACING IT ON THE CONVEYOR BELT.

4b. When the bag is torn from your hand and rocketed down the conveyor belt with no tag, DO NOT FREAK OUT.

4c. Also, do not get ON the conveyor belt to chase bag.

4d. Try to remember what bag looks like; this may be the last time you see it.

5. Find a lovely Norwegian Air host to help you with your predicament. She will assemble a team of no fewer than four people to retrieve your bag and will also take you back to cool places that have guys with braided beards operating luggage elevators.

6. Always carry two Advil on hand to pop when you get a migraine from the above scenario and can no longer see.

7. Apologize profusely for “being a fool,” while secretly wondering why the directions tell you to first place the luggage on conveyor belt before scanning ticket, without mention that bag is setting off on adventure of its own.

8. Trust that very nice Norwegian host will track down bag and send it your way.

9. Clear security. This should be no problem, since you have nothing left.

10. Eat lunch. Try to keep more than a piece of bread and one slice of cheese on hand, but it should get you through.

11. Begin online chat with Bell representative who will claim they cannot look up confirmation numbers. Don’t take it. Keep bugging them until they get you back online. *Also, don’t let the chat prevent you from boarding the plane on time.*

12. On the plane, search “sauna” on your offline map.

13. Kiss your bag hello when it returns to you on conveyor belt in Helsinki. Or wherever you landed. It doesn’t have to be Helsinki. This is really just a “for instance” scenario.

14. Upon checking into hostel, go immediately to the sauna. Do not attempt to make up your bed with frustrating duvet cover, or do anything else while hungry and tired. Go to sauna and eat some dinner.

May your travels be as smooth and carefree as mine, friend.

Get to Work, Stockholm!

We have an issue: we are running out of soap. After "checking in" to our hostel (a key is left in our room because the staff does not work past 4 pm), we set out to make a purchase and are met with confusion at a store that seems like it would sell soap. This store, called Apotek (I looked it up; it loosely translates to "illusion of a drug store wherein requests for basic toiletries and other dispensary staples are treated with a combination of amusement and disdain by the staff"), has bags of bulk tampons and a small section of face cream, but little else.

We are dangerously dirty at this point, and everything is closing. Nobody seems to want to work around here. Even the rain is lazy; a wimpy, misty dribble hangs around instead of actual drops. 

Luckily, our hostel is a bastion of discomfort. If the two dudes occupying the lobby 24/7 staring at everyone who enters or the windowless rooms weren't enough, we are lucky to be joined by two families of 3-4 children each (we can't tell), whose only source of entertainment is slamming doors and running through the halls at 6 am. The phenomenon of taking your children everywhere and seeing what transpires upon setting them loose is fascinating. Except, it's not.  

So, we head out of town to a sauna on an island and do the rounds of jumping into the lake. We are recovered. 

The next night, the families are replaced by parents with a very tiny baby whose mealtime is 3 am. We wonder: who is benefitting from child vacation? The parents? The kids? Anyone?

I digress. I forgot to update you on the soap situation. After visiting several shops, we come across a bar soap "display" (3 kinds) in a grocery superstore. This calls for a conference. We figure out the unit price on the options, debate a five-pack ("you're going to run out next week again"), and leave with a twin set. Surely there will be proper drugstores in Helsinki or Oslo. Yes?*


Still nobody seems to be working. We hit the Glenn Miller Jazz Cafe and the first band checks their watches during the three-song set. 15 minutes in, they're taking a break. Turns out even the beer isn't working that hard: the bar doesn't have a license for regular-alcohol beer, so listeners and musicians get breaks in between sets to run across the street and have a proper drink at a different bar. 

The work ethic here is astounding. This, people, is socialism. You can't even get a good jazz set in this town. And lord knows all jazz musicians want to do is keep noodling away until you want the melody to please resolve. Can you just stop. 

After a couple of work-to-rule nights at the cafe, we opt for Konono No. 1 at the Fasching club. It is here, finally, and at the sauna the next day, that I figure the Swedes out. Without goals and reasons to work hard, these people fumble around with a lot of misdirected energy. You see it everywhere: they walk higgeldy piggeldy all over, mowing you down, unable to choose a direction. If you stand on a path by the water, you'll have, on average, 10-15 "serious jogging Swedes" run by you in 30 seconds. Instead of nice walks in the park, mothers challenge their 7-year-old daughters to fitness competitions. In the sauna, a group of women got right down to be business of getting naked, and having a solid afternoon of dry heat. And at Konono No. 1, as soon as the music started, the entire crowd got up from the tables - even those old folks! - and danced for the whole concert. 

The upshot? If you don't give people work to do, they won't know what their purpose is. And they might have fun in very odd ways. This was made clearer when we landed at a folk music gathering on our last day, took dance lessons in Swedish, were fed homemade soup, and everybody in every room made themselves look busy and important by playing fiddles. 

*No. No, there are not. 

Trying to Cope in Hagen

Man, if my tax dollars were going towards sending musicians abroad to spread Danish jazz, I would be so mad. I’d be writing to my MP. Daily. Ridiculous.

I’m in the land of looney leftists – bikes everywhere, kids sitting up with no seatbelts in baby carriages being pushed by dads. A lot of greenspace, where if city planners were actually with it, a condo could be built. I can’t understand why the prices are so high if Danes are paying 75% of their salary to the taxman. Returning to the bathroom issue – we paid $12 to consume a coffee that came with a bathroom. I went twice to get my money’s worth.

But you don’t need to know that. Began the day in Copenhagen with a stop at a food market, where the crowds were so thick I was not there five minutes before being savagely “Trudeaued” by a fellow shopper. I had to step outside and make sure there wasn’t permanent damage to my chest.

Pushing a stroller does not a feminist make, Mr.!

Recovery comes quick when the promise of spending money looms large. I returned, invigorated by the promise of gleaming gifts to bring home, and displays of fish

that deeply offended my prairie sensibilities.

Our downloaded free walking tour instructed us to start at the statue of Hans Christian Andersen. Let me construct a new walking tour for those who are planning to visit Copenhagen in the future: start at the correct statue of HCA (there are at least two) before attempting walking tour. Two hours later, we arrive at the starting point.

"No worries," to quote our barista, we saw a lot of plants along the way.

We blasphemously purchase two cheap beers at the convenience store and drink in the backyard of a church where a wedding is taking place out front. On to the waterfront!

Copenhagen, it is decided, is a more manageable Amsterdam. Instead of tourists, it seems locals are the ones out having a good time. They’re the only ones who can afford it. We decide to drink at home. “How is the Aquavit?” P asks, pointing to a bottle behind our cashier. “I don’t know,” she answers. “I’m not that kind of girl.” We get help from a sympathetic dude passing by.

I’ve decided since I can’t get on board with pickled herring, or sausage, or any of the food that lies ahead, I’m going to focus entirely on cake.

 

(How does one order a “Danish” in Denmark? Not sure what ordering a “Canadian” in Canada would produce.) (I can't take credit for that joke, but I did order a "pastry" just to be safe.)

One final note: complicated Danish washing machines have English instructions. Try to find them in the menu before you lose $4.

 

Prague Rocks

Czech it out! We’re in Prague. (Sorry) (I’m catching bad joke-itis from proximity to someone who may be peaking too soon in the trip)

First stop: dinner.

(If you don’t say no, these just show up on your table.)

We have no idea what the money means here. All I’ve figured out so far is I am NOT paying $0.40 to use the bathroom. That decision ruins a lot of days, but I work hard for my money, and I am not flushing it down the toilet. I know that logic doesn’t hold when I use the bathroom mere minutes after consuming a cheap beer, but even I have limits.

We are wondering about the phenomenon of paying to use the bathroom. Here are my objections to it:

-If I earn, on average, $20-30 per hour of work, then it takes me about 1 minute of work to pay to use a toilet. Let’s say I do that once a day for the entirety of the trip. That means I will have to work for about 40 minutes just for bathroom breaks. Convert that into tangible outputs: approx. 3 essays marked, or one and a half piano lessons.

-These washrooms are typically not clean and many lack supplies. So I should factor “price of towel” into my cost analysis.

-Said washrooms also usually manned by a man. Who sits behind a tiny window with a change saucer in front of him and peers through to yell at you to pay.

Is Europe not ahead on many aspects of life? For example, Prague seems intent on having a good time. Go out and have a beer at 10 am. In other respects: more bikes. Fewer cars. Smaller cars. Happy hour. (Everyday.) Webs of metro lines in cities of only 800,000. The option of low or high flushes on toilets. Waiters leaving you alone in a café if you want to work for four hours. So, do Europeans know something about using the bathroom? Like, will we find out it is actually uncivilized to use the bathroom, and only the most desperate, unsophisticated folk pay for the privilege? Or is it conversely a privilege to use the bathroom, therefore only those who work hard, earn their money, reach ever-higher levels of wealth and success can pee in public?

Anyway, Prague rocks.

We walk entire city (we proudly tell ourselves) over the course of the day, stopping for “rests” (AKA paying for a beer but taking advantage of the facilities) along the way. The final destination is the oldest pub in the city, where I have beer and also cheese made with beer.

We find Prague dogs.

At hostel, we discover we have 75 CKZ left. We go out again to see what we can do with it.

Turns out it buys you 2 beers at a neighbourhood pub!

(For those who are confused, it amounts to about $3.50)

Back at the hostel, we watch documentary on the history of communism in the city.

In the am, last thing before leaving the hostel, we make one last pit stop (we are out of change).

Next stop: Berlin.

 

I am a European Adventurer Part II

Amsterdam

1. Arrive. Find hostel – find hostel is actually an hour outside of town. Lament hostel choice.

2. Next morning: meet friends for breakfast at English tea house (? But it is quite good.).

3. Walk outside. No longer lament hostel choice, as we are swarmed by young English lads drunk by 11 am, boasting about last night’s high. We actually have one of those of our very own at the hostel, who we deem “not Russell Brand” both for looks and accent.

4. Get paddle boat, crash into wall several times, get in way of speedboats, see two canals, return paddleboat.

5. Eat dinner at same friend’s house – these two end up being our main source of good times for the next four days, aside from:

Cat named Elvis, who sleeps in the sun at a café, where I similarly do very important work.
The hostel, where we eat breakfast on a school bus and hang laundry in the sun outside our trailer.          

Vienna

Raindrops and free drinks and schnitzel with noodles.

Remnants of empire and crisp apple strudel.