The Cards in Our Hands

So, I’ve been part of this really cool role-playing game for a while that I want to tell you about (stay with me, non-nerds).

Officially, I’m a Fair Maiden of the Realm. (There’s no specific wardrobe, but I like to imagine my character wears a renaissance-queen-meets-fairy-meets-ancient-goddess kind of outfit that’s all flowy and beautiful and ethereal, because that kind of thing appeals to the weirdo in me.)

The game itself is a bit complicated, but the short version for the purposes of explanation is simple: there’s various quests, and everyone has different skills, talents and titles, plus a handful of playing cards that add or subtract from your total strength.

There’s hundreds of cards. For example, I’m currently holding a +3 Magic Locks of Blonde, a +2 Scholar, a varying +1/-1 Treasury, a -2 Habitat Location (offset by a +1 Cottage Holding), a -1 Ancestral Trauma, and a +1 Trusty Steed. There are other cards in my hand (-2 Body Size, +4 Physical Ability, +2 Village Membership, and -3 Lady Parts, to name a few).

Some of the people I play with have totally different cards: -3 Plague of Sadness, +5 Lord Parts, -4 Mystery Affliction, +3 Family Estate, +2 Royal Connection. When I set out to slay a dragon, save a village from a raid, or recover a sacred text, the success of my quest is determined largely by the total of my cards, and the cards of my team.

Some of these cards I got in my opening hand when I first started playing, some I earned along the way, and some I just picked up here and there. Of course, to a degree, that old “how you play your cards” adage holds true, but not always – some of the cards make navigating the quests really easy or really goddamn hard. Some cards almost guarantee a victory; others can keep you stuck in your cottage, unable to even get out the door and on the road. In fact, I’d even say that each player’s perception of how fun the game is depends largely on the plus-minus balance in their hand at any given time.

It’s pretty intense, all in all.

Want to play?

Guess what … you already are.

Just in case my over-the-top analogy isn’t already super-duper obvious: those cards are how privilege works. They include skin colour, income, family background, country of origin, gender, sexual orientation, mental health, physical health/ability, education … and many, many more. They all have varying plus or minus values, and where and how they intersect provides the framework for your quests, and how you get to play the game

They’re all aspects of privilege, having it or lacking it. People don’t like this word, privilege, for some reason. They look around and think: well then, where’s the royal treasury I ought to have by now? Where’s my castle? Where’s my adoring kingdom? Where’s all this privilege I keep being told I have when I’m still just here in my little cottage trying to figure out how to get hay for the cow?

Privilege doesn’t mean you always slay the dragon. But it does mean that your path through the forest might have fewer roots to trip on, that your shoulder bag has some extra cheese in it, and that your sword is of better quality, once you get to the battle. 

And yes, sometimes, despite all that, the dragon is still going to slay you, instead of the other way around. 

If you can see how it works in Dungeons and Dragons or a round of Munchkin (and I suspect you can) then you can also see how it works in real life. Because the reality is that no one’s hand looks like yours, and pretending that some of your cards aren’t better than the player sitting next to you doesn’t make it so.

Acknowledge your plus cards. Share them when you can. Use them wisely. Be generous and empathetic and kind – point out the root in the forest path, share your cheese, step in with your sword when needed. 

Any other manner of playing this game is, in the end, an empty victory.

(With apologies to Munchkin, the best, goofiest, nerdiest game ever invented. Chicken on the Head for none, Kneepads of Allure for all!) 

 

 

 

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A Furbaby Brouhaha

Coffee-shop loud-talkers, here’s your warning: everyone is listening.

Obviously, you know everyone is listening – you’re out in public, in close quarters, and you’re shouting. But sometimes people like me – you know, opinionated writer types – are listening.

First off, no judgement on the loud talking itself. I can be a loud talker. Mostly I’m a loud greeter-and-hugger, or a loud squealer-of-excitement, or a loud thanker-of-staff. I don’t mind loud. Loud is a function of participating in life outside your own house. Sometimes there are loud kids, loud cars, loud espresso machines. Life is loud.

When I take my laptop up to the local Starbucks for a change of scenery (the view from my dining room table gets boring after a while) I have zero expectation that I will get to work in silence.

I do, however, have great hope that I won’t have to listen to your petty opinions.

Again, I have nothing against opinions, just like I have nothing against volume. I have a great many opinions and they do not always coincide with the opinions of family, friends and strangers. I like hearing your opinions, and trying to understand why and how they differ from mine. Politics, religion, parenting – oh, so many opinions. And assuming you’re not being a racist, sexist, ignorant jerk, I will happily seek out your opinions and share mine in return.

Opinions drive the world – they make us re-evalute things that need re-evaluating, shake foundations, change the way we do things for the better. It would be terrible if none of us had any opinions about things.

But, lord baby jesus in his high chair, do you really have nothing more pressing to put your judgement to than the manner in which people refer to their pets? 

I spent a good 10 minutes listening to a loud, opinionated discussion on the use of the term furbabies. According to the loud talker I was forced to listen to, this was weird and creepy and they’re not babies, for god’s sakes. 

As someone who has a cat and also has two children, I can assure you that my cat is indeed not a baby. She’s far more independent and bitchy than any baby I’ve ever met, thank god – plus she cleans her own butt, which is fantastic.

In truth, it has never occurred to me to call her my furbaby. But I do love her an awful lot. I snuggle her, even though her claws will one day pierce one of my arteries. I secretly love the fact that she prefers me out of all the humans in this house, like it’s a strange feline popularity contest and I’m the human winner. And even when she’s sitting quietly outside the shower judging my nakedness, she makes me very happy.

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Tally Cat: best cat ever, stares at me while I shower, has claws that are probably made of adamantium, like Wolverine.

I mostly call her Tally (that’s her name) or The Cat (because she is) or Weirdo (she is a cat, after all) but if I wanted to call her my furbaby, I would call her my furbaby and it would never have occurred to me to consider this a strange or unusual thing.

But apparently this discomfort expressed by the coffee-shop-loud-talker is a thing. At one point in the rant, I heard her say something about having read an article about this topic, which I quietly and internally scoffed at – who would waste their time writing about such an innocuous topic? But when I got him and googled it, she was right. There are countless threads and message boards and bloggy opinion pieces about why people should stop using the term furbaby. (One article started with the line: Nothing makes me cringe more than when I see someone use the term furbaby. Nothing? Holy moly, that’s a narrow window you must be looking through.)

So it wasn’t just this lady in the coffee shop. Lots of people have their feathers in a ruffle about this furbaby thing.

HAVE YOU SERIOUSLY GOT NOTHING BETTER TO DO WITH YOUR TIME?

(I recognize this is rich of me, as I type away, adding my own voice to this debate.)

BUT SERIOUSLY: ARE THERE NO OTHER ISSUES OF LOCAL, NATIONAL OR GLOBAL IMPORTANCE THAT MIGHT OCCUPY YOUR ANGER AND FRUSTRATION?

See, this has me all riled up. Now I’M the one being loud and judge-y, writing in all caps and getting grumpy and sarcastic.

Deep breath.

I know people whose pets are, simply, pets – friendly companions. I know people whose pets are their family, whose pets are the reason for them to get out of bed, whose pets give them love and affection that they do not get anywhere else. I know people who struggle to connect to other people, due to anxiety or depression or a history of abuse, but who come alive around their pets.

And if the argument is somehow that calling a “mere animal” the same thing we call a human (aka: baby) takes something away from the human, I feel confident in saying this is utter nonsense. I promise, there’s no risk your actual baby will be shortchanged in the process. If anything, recognizing the value of animal-human interaction might be a positive – for both animals and humans.

If you don’t like it, don’t do it. And then you need to let it go. Because I just can’t, for the life of me, understand how this affects anyone, ever. I’m baffled that this is an actual conversation in the world, not just the opinion of a single one-off loud-talker next to me.

In a world full of genuine injustice and inequality – against humans and animals and the earth itself – surely you can let go of this strange notion that expressing love towards a creature whose very existence depends on their human caretakers is weird. 

And if you really can’t be shifted on this, can you at least save it for another venue? No one needs your loud-talking furbaby opinions as accompaniment to their latté.

Cool? Cool.

 

 

 

 

 

On memory and memoir

I grew up all over, but partly in a town in eastern Ontario, home to a pulp-and-paper plant whose smell plays large in many of my childhood memories. We lived on a street with lots of little houses, most of them filled with big families. There was always someone to play with, if you wanted the company – and someone to play with even if you didn’t want the company, too.

It was the kind of place (and the kind of time) where we kids still had the run of things – the now-cliché “out on bikes till the street lights came on” sort of world. There was a forest at one end of the street – deep and dark and as heavily treed as I imagined the Black Forest to be – and a huge creek at the other end where we’d catch tadpoles in empty margarine tubs.  (The plan was always to take care of them until they grew into our very own pet frogs, but inevitably we’d forget about our little charges and the next day discover a margarine tub full of murky water and dead tadpoles still sitting on the front step, warming in the summer sun. We were terrible caretakers.)

A few blocks off our street, train tracks ran along the border of the neighbourhood, close enough to the houses that the trains slowed to a near crawl while passing through. Sometimes, some of us older kids would ride over there, leave our bikes in a pile, and take turns running behind the caboose, attempting to jump up on the end ladder. I was really good at this: I could run fast and I had good timing, but mostly it was that I acted as though I was fearless, buoyed by having an audience and the occasional suggestion that perhaps I ought not to, being a girl and all. (Unsurprisingly, this combination of factors still motivates a degree of courage in me today, when required.)

But … the trees and tadpoles and the trains aren’t the point and I’m getting off track. This story is actually about the dog and the kinda-car crash and the hill. See, our house was at the bottom of the hill, and the forest (the deep, dark, scary one) was at the top of the hill. We’d ride our bikes to the top and then take a great pause before pushing off, picking up speed as we raced back down. You had to be careful – good grip on the handlebars, eyes on the road. It was the very knife’s edge of danger, to ride so recklessly down that huge hill and attempt to maintain control.

One afternoon, having been in the woods building complicated forts with broken branches, I said goodbye to my playmates and headed off for home. I walked my banana-seat-hand-me-down bike out onto the street and climbed on. The merest push of my tip-toes on the pavement got me started, what with all that gravity helping me out on this mountainous peak.

Just as I got going, an enormous dog came chasing out of one of the nearby driveways, barking, angry and salivating, like he’d spotted a raw steak flying past. My heart leaped and my skin prickled; I was electrified by terror. Bewitched by fear, I turned my head back in his direction,  and then barked – “RUFF RUFF RUFF RUFFFFFF” as loudly as I could. It worked: he stopped, puzzled, and I (pleased that my magic spell had been so effective) grinned at him.

My smugness was short lived. Turned as I was, gloating, I didn’t realize there was a car parked at the edge of the road – one of those big, old-school Buick jobs with a trunk as big as a king-size bed.

BOOM. I hit it dead centre, flew over the handle bars, and went face first into the glass of the rear window. I lay there stunned for all of three seconds, then shook myself off, looked around to be certain no one had seen me, and then hurriedly walked my bike the rest of the way down the hill … an endless walk of shame. My face burned, part humiliation, part face-meets-glass injury.

It is one of the clearest memories of my childhood. The bike flying so fast, the wind in my hair, the dog making chase. All of it is as vivid as though it had happened just yesterday, though it is now 30 years gone … which is where we get to the point of this story, which is otherwise just a self-indulgent wander down my own personal memory lane.

My sister is in Ontario this week for work, and made a detour through our old neighbourhood, taking photos to text back to my brothers and I. It’s not the first time we’ve seen pictures of our old street, but it still took us by surprise all over again, shaking our notion of what we remember as real and what is, in fact, truly real. Our huge hill, our deep dark forest, our meandering creek winding its way through the wilderness – none of them, in fact, exist.

Here’s the “hill” (our house was the dark red one at the left, with the grey car in the driveway. The forest is at the top of the street.)

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It is, at best, a slight slope. Slope is, in all honesty, a generous word for it. A very marginal incline is perhaps a better description. “Nearly flat” would also do.

Here’s the “forest.”

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It is just a lightly wooded park, through which one can see the other side of the neighbourhood. No deep, dark trails to be lost upon. No Black Forest.

And, finally, here’s the “creek.”

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It’s literally just a ditch. A ditch. 

(I checked out google earth to see if the train tracks existed at all, and was mollified to discover them, a few blocks off, like a long stitch running alongside the neighbourhood. I followed the path we took to get to it, in my memory, and compared it to the zig zag of streets laid out in the satellite image: just about exact, but not quite.)

The four of us were baffled by the difference between our memories and the reality. We all remember – to one degree or another, dependent on our ages – the enormous hill, the wild patch of creek, the endless forest. As the oldest, my memory should be the best – it clearly is not. And if I hadn’t spent so many years working as a news reporter, and I didn’t now write almost exclusively creative non-fiction, I’d probably just have a good chuckle and not think much about it at all.

But the entire episode has me pondering again, as I often do, the nature of memory and memoir, of truth and stories.

If I wrote a book of my life that included the small and silly story of racing down the hill, of the enraged dog chasing me, of my body flying into the rear window of that car, am I being truthful? It is true in my memory, certainly.

But it isn’t really true, not in a scientific, documentary sort of way. How could it be? There’s no hill. Was the dog even grumpy? How hard did I hit the car? Did I really go ass-over-tea-kettle onto the trunk? Is the story I tell about this moment in time a colourized, photoshopped facsimile of a vaguely similar event?

How much does the fluid nature of memory affect how we write our stories? And, as a consequence, how much truth can a reader expect?

I have always believed that there is a “deal” between the reader and the writer – and that this deal shifts a little depending on what one is reading. The deal is different when reading the New York Times than it is reading David Sedaris. Most readers know this instinctively. We expect Woodward and Bernstein to be giving us facts; we are perfectly happy for Erma Bombeck to have told us stories based on her life, with a comedic exaggeration. Our assumption about the precision of what we are being told varies along the spectrum of non-fiction. As someone once said to me: when you read the childhood account of a dramatic event – a child who survived the Holocaust, for example, and goes on to write about it in their 60s or 70s – do we assume that the dialogue is a precise word-for-word accounting or do we assume that the writer has done their best to relay the dialogue as they remember it? The latter, of course.

To my seven-year-old self, on a bike without training wheels, that slope was a mountain. To my seven-year-old self, the ditch was a wild creek. To my seven-year-old self, the park was an endless forest. There’s no dishonesty in calling them as such – because the reader knows that I am telling a story from a particular vantage point, in a particular moment in time. That’s our deal, the reader and I.

My job when writing non-fiction, regardless of genre – whether it was all those city council stories over the years, or a submission to a literary magazine about a childhood memory – is to write what I know is true. In journalism, this is technically easy: the city council meeting has an agenda that is a matter of public record and the reporter attends and takes notes of what is said. Literary non-fiction is a different beast entirely – it relies on our memories and perceptions and opinions of thing.

Knowing that this gulf exists, it can feel all the more scary to set out and tell true things about our own lives. What if we mess it up?

There’s only two options, it seems to me …

One: don’t write at all, ever, anymore.

or,

Two: acknowledge that the reality of a memory may be different than the memory itself and pledge, despite this, to write the truth as you know it, to not embellish or add untruths, to be brave and clear and honest, so that the story behind the story – the meaning of it, the value in it – is a small, real, important gift from your life to the world.

It’s a little bit scary … as scary, I’d say, as riding down a huge hill being chased by an angry dog.

Scary … but always worth the ride.

 

Consent and cheese, please

(I posted this as an informal, off-the-cuff rant last week on facebook. People have subsequently asked me to post it here so that it would be easier to find and to re-share to others. I’ve resisted the urge to clean it up, re-write, edit or otherwise tidy … so it appears as it originally did on FB, aka a little bit messy and scattered. Thank you for the shares, PMs and comments and I’m grateful it’s been useful to some of you in conversations with your kids, friends, etc. xoxo – Christina)

I wish we would stop talking about consent, and start talking about informed, engaged, enthusiastic consent. Let’s call it the consent trifecta. I wish we could talk about consent in a more expansive manner, teach our kids to think of consent in a bigger way, and expect and demand consent from our partners that goes beyond legally defensible definitions.

Talking about consent is like talking about … I don’t know … let’s say cheese. You don’t just offer your guest some “cheese” and expect them to say yes. They want to know what kind of cheese. Stilton? Goat cheese? Blue cheese (that’s a hard pass for a lot of people.) How long has it been in your fridge? Is it safe? Where did you get this cheese? Is it going to come with some salami and some olives and, like, artisan jams and a whole board of yummy stuff?

So, yeah, saying “consent” is like saying “cheese” – it’s not super descriptive. It may legally be consent/cheese but what else can one say about it? Why would you want your guest to be like “ummm ok I guess since you bought this cheese, I’ll have some. Yes, sure, give me this cheese.”

You want them to be informed, and engaged, and enthusiastic about the cheese. It might require some conversation that you’re not used to, but guessing if they want the cheese isn’t an option.

It isn’t hard: it just requires us to be decent human beings, to assume the best of each other, and to want nothing less than respectful, satisfying, engaging sex, regardless of our sexual orientation, our kinks, our quirks, our bodies, etc. for ourselves AND our partners.

Ok, so maybe that is a little hard. Because it requires changing the way we talk and think and being brave and honest. It requires getting rid of old ideas that most of us grew up on like “it’s a boy’s job to want sex and a girl’s job to stop him.” (Which is as idiotic as suggesting that a girl doesn’t like cheese. I FREAKING LOVE CHEESE.)

It’s also hard because we all want slightly different things when it comes to sex: physical, emotional. Some of us need pretty simple stuff. Some of us are kinky AF. Some of us have issues that complicate what we want – medications, depression, physical limitations. Some of us have sexual histories that make us hesitant, uncertain, scared. Some of us have had empowering sexual experiences. Some of us don’t really want ANY at all. Some of us want a LOT (And no, the wanting a lot versus wanting none does not fall along gender lines. This is the most infuriating old-fashioned idea of all time. Raging libidos belong to women, too.)

So. Informed. Engaged. Enthusiastic. Consent trifecta. Here’s what that looks like to me…

Informed: I am not just legally old enough to make a decision in the place I live, but I understand what’s going to happen here and the potential impact. I have had access to sexual education, health resources to keep me protected, and have knowledge about my body. I am not going into this ashamed, with false beliefs about my body and my sexuality. (This involves how we parent, our health system, our education system, and ourselves.) Of course none of us come from this utopian ideal – who among us is without baggage, or has perfect sexual education behind us? But we can learn ourselves and know where those gaps are. Do that. Seriously. Spend some time thinking about where your childhood and young adulthood messed up your ideas about sex. Think about how your culture has done the same, how movies and books and past relationships have shifted your perceptions. Self examine. And raise your kids with all the education they can get: my rule is there is no question you are not allowed to ask. If you teach your kids that the safest person they know – YOU – do not want to give them permission to ask ANYTHING, they will never ever expect more from a partner.

Engaged: we’ve talked about this actively, we are both in agreement, we want to do what we’re about to do, and both of us feel safe to ask for what we need (be it in respect to our sexual health or our sexual needs.) No one has had to persuade the other. No one is uncertain or hedging or uncomfortable. No one has once uttered the phrase: Come on, you know you want to. The engine is revving. Which leads to…

Enthusiastic: HOLY CRAP I’M SO EXCITED THERE IS LITERALLY NOTHING ELSE IN THE WORLD I WOULD RATHER BE DOING RIGHT NOW THAN THIS EXACT THING. HECK YES. YES! YES FROM THE RAFTERS WITH A LOT OF EXCLAMATION MARKS!!!! YESSSSS. F*CK YES!!!!

Consent is not boring. Consent is really sexy. Consent is taking your whole self and agreeing to meet another person (or more than one) in a place where you are going to enjoy each other. Where you feel safe. Where you explore. Where you can enjoy your body, and their body, and feel kind of awesome. Consent may also include all manner of activities that – in the absence of consent – would be top-order wrong (aka: if I have to read one more analysis of kink-related activities being “bad” I’m going to lose it … you don’t have to like a thing to be able to recognize that someone else DOES like it and can willfully, intentionally and happily consent to engage in it.)

I’m not so naïve as to believe that even informed, engaged, enthusiastic consent equals UH-MAZE-ING sex every single time. It won’t. Because bodies are weird. They don’t always do what we want them to. Mid-sex farting is a thing, no matter how sexy you think you are. Sometimes our ghosts come back to haunt us after, and we feel strange and weird – which is when you need to re-engage, re-inform, re-evaluate. This, too, can be respectful and inclusive and loving. (But, no, I am not conflating love and sex here, either. You can have some great sex, IMO, without being in love – but that’s ME. Your take on that may be different, and that provides YOUR framework for informed, engaged and enthusiastic.)

And I know that abusive sexual interactions – coerced consent, sexual violence, being punished for turning someone down, etc – will probably always exist. (And this doesn’t take into account a whole slew of systemic issues around inequality, power, the legal system, etc. – I’m just talking about consent itself here, within dating and relationships.)

But I’m enough of an optimist to believe that if we can change our own thinking and raise the next generations to have a better grasp on this stuff, then enough of us will demand informed, engaged, enthusiastic consent that – eventually – anything less will become an aberration.

Nothing less than consent is acceptable. If this year has taught you nothing else, hopefully at a minimum this one primary thing has sunk in. But consent that is informed, engaged, and enthusiastic will kick plain-old consent’s ass every single time.

Why settle for cheese, when a little effort would have given you the best goddamn charcuterie platter of your life?

Enough inspiration, already

I’m a sucker for a good quote. Give me a notebook of Oscar Wilde’s best lines and a box of Turtles for Christmas, and I will love you forever. (Seriously, that’s all it’ll take. I’m easy like that.) I’ve spent 25 years building up the courage to have a line from an Albert Camus story tattooed on my body (still not there yet, but someday.) I’ve started more than one news story with a quote as an opener – everything old is new again, or to be or not to be – which is hackneyed and cliche but sometimes it just fits and I can’t help myself.

On my best days, the right quote can make me believe myself capable of anything; on my worst days, it can pick me up and dust me off and give me a high-five and a cookie.

But somewhere over the last few years, in the magical cauldron of good and evil that is social media, the quotable quote has become a weapon. Especially, most of all, the so-called inspirational quote: a ridiculous hammer of opinion wrapped up in fuzzy feel goods that mostly don’t make us feel very good at all. Any jerk with a computer can put a few words over a photo, give it a pretty font, and start it circulating. And they look so pretty and so good and they sound rational and all of a sudden we’re sharing them along, even though on some level they actually don’t make sense.

 

I’m not gonna lie. This was more or less my ethic for a really long time. It sounds good, right? Just get ‘er done. You’ll get there eventually. One foot in front of the other. But sometimes, how you feel makes this really hard. Sometimes your brain might just make this impossible. Or your body. Or whatever chaos is dogging you today. Maybe “get up” is literally as far as you can manage. Cool. Do that.

 

more of what makes you

Great idea. I will spend the day listening to Post Modern Jukebox, ordering knee socks off the internet, and trying out youtube tutorials on how to victory-roll my hair.

Seriously. If I did more of what makes me happy, there’s a good chance no one in my house would get up in time for school or work, and then we’d spend the day reading Oscar Wilde in a field of wildflowers while existing solely on Turtles.

I love writing and the outcome of writing makes me happy but sometimes the process is heartbreaking – I dredge up all sorts of things I’d rather not remember, because writing about them is good in the long run but hard in the moment. Last month I published a long piece about my post-partum depression that ended ten years ago, and I sobbed through writing every single word. But I couldn’t be happier that other people are reading it and getting something from it.

Activists will often tell you that their work is exhausting, draining, emotional, and even terrifying – it doesn’t make them happy. But they keep doing it, because it’s important work.

So sure, do more of what makes you happy. But not everything “good” makes us happy.

ethic

Sigh. So much sigh. If work ethic was the difference between success and failure, then every single person I ever shared a minimum wage kitchen job with in my youth would be goddamn millionaires. This stereotype of the lazy minimum wage worker is a myth we tell ourselves as a culture to justify the fact that people work really hard and can barely get by. It’s their own fault. And quotes like this one suggest that if you are struggling – if you have more month than money – then you just aren’t working hard enough. You aren’t hustling enough. You don’t want it enough.

It’s bullshit.

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Yeahhhh, not true. Sometimes, it’s true. I do wish that I’d told that guy I saw everyday on the Broadway B-Line bus on my way to undergrad classes UBC (circa 96-2000) that I thought he was really cute and we should probably go do bad things to each other. (Broadway B-Line guy, if you’re reading this, get your people in touch with my people, and let’s make this happen.)

I do wish I’d bought that red pill-box hat with red netting and feathers that I spotted in a milliner’s shop in Whistler last year.

I do wish that the last call I made to my dad had been made an hour earlier.

But there are chances I’ve taken that I do regret. There are people I let into my heart that I shouldn’t have. There are things I said that I thought were right, and they weren’t. I’ve hurt people by taking a chance and doing something I shouldn’t have.

I have spent long hours staring off into space thinking about the things I would undo if I could. And you know, I think that’s ok. I think it’s ok to regret a chance taken. Maybe it stops me from doing it again the same way later. The inspirational quote would argue that’s not regret but lesson learned, and it seems a pretty minor distinction to me. A thing that has gone wrong is both a regret and a lesson learned, and it’s foolhardy to believe that life can be lived without regret of any kind.

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Hahahahaha. Ok, thanks for the map, Dreams. I see that you’re instructing me to move to Bora Bora. AWESOME! Also, this map seems to indicate I should never do any work for pay that doesn’t fulfill every corner of my soul, because boring work is for suckers, right? I’m going to manifest all the good things by thinking about them! And sitting on a beach! And reading all the books!

I know I’m being hyperbolic. This quote really just means: if there’s a thing you want to do, you should.

But I’m so over this notion that the only fulfilled lives are those who chucked the day to day grind to do what they really wanted. 

If you put in an honest day’s work and it doesn’t lift your soul at every second of the day that’s ok. Your life is valuable. And it’s bullshit to be told otherwise. Follow your dreams, for sure, but don’t for one second believe you’re a failure because your job is mundane or not what you thought you would do when you were growing up.

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Are you alive? Great, your life has already begun. I hate this sort of inspirational quote. It’s just another version of the “follow your dreams” nonsense. It’s telling you that if your life is small, if you haven’t done something magical, if you aren’t doing every single goddamn thing your spirit moves you to do  then you have failed at life.

I know someone who has more or less dedicated a huge portion of their life to caretaking another person. Someone has to do it. They have set aside pursuing the risk of a different job, travel, love, all manner of things, so that they can caretake a loved one who needs them. 

Their life would be deemed “small” by observers. But it is invaluable.

If you’re waiting for fame, drama, excitement, and money as signs that your life has begun, you’re waiting on the wrong things. Your life has begun and you get to live it however you want to – and sometimes, however it NEEDS TO BE LIVED. Those choices are not always our own to make.

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Um. I get it. I get what this means and I actually can get behind it. Don’t compare with others. Don’t decide you need the house, the spouse, and the 2.5 kids and then be sad when you don’t, because it’s probably not all it’s cracked up to be. That’s a philosophy I can get behind.

But I need to add my two cents here: it’s not really the thing that screws us up the most. Not really.

The thing that screws us up is the unexpected. The accident. The cancer. The divorce. The unexpected change.

When we believe statements like this one, we slowly begin to absorb that we are responsible for how crappy our lives are. That we’ve set ourselves up for failure by comparing and by not being happy with what we have and so on.

The reality is: sometimes life is crappy because it is crappy. Sometimes we find out that our primary relationship has disappeared overnight. Sometimes we discover that the job we thought was secure is not. Sometimes we discover that small strange symptom we’d ignored for years is a huge problem.

The thing that screws us up the most is not “ourselves.” It’s life.

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Awesome. Because I was thinking about leaving my kids home alone for a few weeks while I used my endless bank account to fund a trip around the south of France. IT’S NOT IMPOSSIBLE!

I think we can all agree it’s a well-intended sentiment but some things ARE IMPOSSIBLE.

Sometimes we have responsibilities we can’t control (see earlier references to care-taking a loved one) or mental or physical health issues that stop us from doing things we’d like to do, or systemic poverty that cuts off at the knees a huge swath of “possible” things.

I really do love the idea of this quote. The whole “boost you up” philosophy is a great one – but the onus for failure is not always that you didn’t try hard enough, or work hard enough, or dream big enough, or want it enough.

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It’s ALL ON YOU. Your family, your background, your skin colour, the language you speak, how much money you have, your access to clean food and water DOES NOT MATTER. It’s zero luck and ALL HUSTLE. If you have failed so far, it’s not anything systemic in the culture you live in, it’s ALL YOUR FAULT AND YOU SHOULD FEEL REALLY BAD.

No.

The cult of hustle makes me want to roll my eyes so hard I’d probably fall over backwards if I gave into the urge.

Look, I believe in hustle. I hustle myself, every day. I work at what I want.

But my hustle exists in a framework. I don’t work full time and my bills are all paid (thanks to a partner who makes a good enough wage to make this possible). I’m Canadian, in a major urban centre. I don’t have to boil water to make it ok to drink. I have no mental health issues. I can buy any kind of fruit or vegetable I want to, within a 5 mile radius of my house. That is extraordinary good luck.

Someone else with less luck is going to have to hustle exponentially harder in a different framework. And I’m sure others with more luck have it easier than me.

The point is: one hustle does not equal another. And you are kidding yourself if you don’t believe that luck has something to do with it.

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Well, ok. This one IS true. I am absolutely one-in-a-flipping-million. (Genetically speaking, we kinda all are, so don’t get too excited.)

So from here on out, I’m sticking with these immortal words from the wisest soul of all.  Chewbacca, you’re the man. Or dog-like man? Or sasquatch-y thing. Whatever. Thank you for your insight, Chewbacca. I think it speaks to each and every one of us.

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Boots, spoons and tipping points

I bought my boy a pair of boots this week.

I spent 20 minutes scouring through the kid section, looking for something, anything, that would fit. He’s at that tipping point: too big for kid stuff, too small for man stuff. But he’s been at the tipping point all year, and I keep telling myself he’s not going over the edge of it because, damnit, he may be topping five feet now and know everything-about-everything-about-everything, but he’s still only 10 (and a half, as he reminds me often.)

No amount of wishing was going to make it happen though: not a single pair of kid boots could be squeezed onto his suddenly-so-big-he-trips-on-nothing-ten-times-a-day feet. And after he suggested for the fifth time that we ought to go look in the “man” section, I finally relented.

Relented, grudgingly.

“They won’t fit. They’re too big. They’re for grown-ups,” I told him, tutting but willing to spend a few minutes looking, if only to prove myself right.

He spotted a pair he liked – massive lace-up things, a cross between a hiking boot and a winter boot, right up his “nerdy-camping-fisherman-Scout” aesthetic alley – and went digging for the smallest size.

When he was a baby, I let him use his own spoon from the time he was able to grab it in his chubby little fingers. My mother would cluck at the mess, and she was right: he got hardly any of the pureed peas or carrots or lentil-chicken-yam-whatever-paste in his mouth, and instead thoroughly covered his head, his body, the high chair and sometimes the floor and wall, too.

But I’d read something, once, in a haze of sleep-deprived fogginess, that had seemed the most precise bit of parenting wisdom I’d ever seen: that at every stage, in every task, in every thing you do, the goal of parenting is to encourage an ever-more independent person, so that this little human being who once relied so entirely on you that they shared your blood will ultimately be encouraged to not rely on you at all. 

It sounds a little clinical and cold. It’s not meant to be. Within the obvious framework of loving your kids, the point is this: you’re not meant to be the landing site, you’re meant to be the launch pad. 

This bit of sage wisdom has undergirded almost every decision I’ve made along the way: give him the spoon before he can use it properly and he’ll learn. Let him (and at times, make him) do things for himself so that he will be able to. Assume he’s capable and then let him be capable.

I’ve never been sentimental about the march of time, never wished back my children’s baby years. Every stage has been my “favourite”, every new thing – every new degree of independence – has been welcomed.

But as he hunted through the stacks of boots I couldn’t help but think of him waving around that little spoon, mushy carrots and peas flying, and wonder how we’d gotten here.

Because we’re not just at the tipping point between an extra-large boy’s shirt and a men’s small shirt. We’re at the tipping point of the mountain of parenthood, and we’re about to start the fast descent down the other side.

He needs me so much less than he did before. He makes his own toast, and takes out the garbage, and knows how to use technology better than I do. And that’s good. That’s all the way it should be.

Remember, I thought, as he dug through those shoes: be the launch pad, not the landing site.

At last, he found a pair of men’s size 7, and pulled them on.

“They fit! They’re perfect!” he exclaimed, pleased with himself (he loves being right – apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, I guess.)

I kneeled down and pushed on the toe, and had to admit he was right – there was his big toe, just where it should be, a little room yet to grow.

“You’re right. You were totally right, bud. These fit, they’re perfect,” I said.

He beamed. Kneeling as I was, under him, looking up, he seemed suddenly 6 feet and counting, not barely 5 feet and a fraction of inches.

I had to look down, fast, and wipe my eyes.

My baby boy. My big boy. My going-to-be-a-man-soon-boy.

I wanted to hug him, pull him down into my lap, cuddle him and tell him what I always tell him: that he’s the love of my life, the light of my day, and the best thing I ever did. (He likes to ask if that means I love him more than his sister, but I tell him that she’s all those things too, just different – he was my first, and she was my baby, and those are both pretty special.)

Instead, I just smiled.

“You’re getting very grown up,” I said.

He shrugged. Time is loose and ambiguous for children, the future a fuzzy concept.

“Can you …” he looked down at his boots, and pointed.

I frowned.

“Can you tie them?” he asked, pointing at the complicated hiking-boot lacing loops.

I nodded. And tried not to cry as I took the strings in hand.

Yes, baby boy, I can do your laces. You might be 10 (and a half) and you might know everything about everything about everything. And you might be big enough for man boots, but yes, I can do your laces, because even though I always tell you to try yourself, and you’ve watched me do it a thousand times, this is still a challenge for you.

I’m the launching pad, but you can’t take off all at once.

 

Confessions of an accidental thief

I have to tell you something: I am a chronic shoplifter.

It’s accidental thievery, I promise, and infrequent too, but nonetheless it amounts to the same thing. At last count, I had inadvertently stolen a case of soda, a pack of toilet paper, an electric fan, a pillow, a huge bag of rice and a bottle of vitamins over the last few years.

I blame a combination of distraction and technology. (And blissful ignorance, but I’ll get to that in a little bit.)

Let me explain:

Distraction accounts for the soda and the toilet paper. In both cases, the items had been stowed on the bottom shelf of a huge grocery cart full of food. I had my children with me, and anyone who knows my children knows it’s challenging to think with them nearby let alone do anything that requires concentration.

They are full of endless questions about the temperature of Mercury and whether the Ottoman Empire still exists and can they please have Fruit Loops please please please please. They’re also prone to trying to kill one another, in the way that siblings who are best friends and huge enemies will do at the drop of a hat. Last week, a battle royale broke out at the upstairs landing in our house over whether or not eggnog is good or gross, and I had to explain to them – again – that it’s not worth the bodily injury that results from falling in a two-person tumbling heap to the bottom of the stairs to debate an OPINION. You can agree to disagree over goddamn eggnog. Please. For the love of god. 

At any rate, you can perhaps imagine how it’s possible that I might unload groceries, bag them, move them back into my cart, all while fending off questions about the Ottoman Empire, stopping them from egg-nog-inspired violence, talking to the clerk (probably about something deep from our childhoods because that’s what I do with strangers), locating and handing over my points card and bonus card and member card and bank card and credit card and how many cards do you seriously need here, and THEN in the midst of all that not notice that the toilet paper has never made it up onto the conveyor belt.

In fact, it was fully onto the next day before I suddenly sat bolt upright and thought: DID I EVEN PAY FOR THAT TOILET PAPER?

When I confessed the deed to one of my best friends, she encouraged me to return it to the store, explain the mistake and pay the difference. I meant to, and kept the receipt in my purse, but I felt foolish and never got around to it.

Technology: in the case of the fan, I was on a self-serve checkout. I loathe these self-serve checkouts. I know that people love them because they like being able to do their thing without interacting with other people. I like the interaction (see previous description of delving into heavy conversations with strangers) and I also have these strange ideas about not replacing every human job (that pays for human food and human school supplies and human field trip fees and human rent) with machines. I’m weird like that.

On top of this propensity for enjoying other people, I am convinced there is something in my body (infinity stone? alien probe? sonic screwdriver?) that messes with technology. It is not creative license to tell you that I have never made it through a self check-out without the machine beeping madly or freezing, needing the help of a staff member, or being forced to start all over again from scratch. These machines don’t like me (and I don’t like them) and I avoid them at all costs.

But sometimes they’re necessary. Sometimes, in some places, they don’t man the regular cashiers until the store reaches a particular capacity. Sometimes all the other lines are really long and you have an eight-year-old who just announced that they might barf. You do what you gotta do.

I swiped all the items from my cart, set them on the weighted pad (don’t even get me started on the PLEASE PLACE ITEM ON THE BAGGING AREA nonsense) and then paid. The fan was in a box. I swiped the box over the scanner. I swear I heard the beep, and then I set it down – and because of its size, I can only assume that I set it back in the cart and not in the bagging area – and carried on with the next item in my cart. I even had a staff member come over and assist me when the system froze (because of the infinity stone inside my body, presumably).

In retrospect, I assume that when I thought I had swiped it properly, I had not. And because it went back into the cart and not onto the devil’s workshop that is the bagging area, the machine didn’t “realize” that I had a huge item that had not been paid for.

I didn’t realize either, obviously. I paid. I left. I set up my fan and enjoyed the glorious cool breeze in the midst of a heat wave. And a few days later, out of the blue, I thought to myself: how come my bill was only $54.35 that day? The fan ALONE was $40, and I bought a bunch of other stuff at the same time. Conclusion: you have stolen the fan, you thieving sinful girl. 

Again, I considered going back – but the box was gone, I couldn’t find the receipt, and I kept putting it off. I felt really guilty every time I enjoyed its cool breeze. My husband took to calling it the Shame Fan.

In other instances, I have realized what I’ve done right away, and corrected the problem: I got all the way to the car with a huge bottle of multivitamins tucked under one arm, and a bag of shampoo, conditioner, a lipstick and soap over the other. Everything in the bag had been paid for but the vitamins had not been – I had wandered the store picking things up without a basket, and when my hands got full I’d shifted the vitamins under the crook of my arm. And when I got to the front counter, there they stayed through the entire transaction. I didn’t notice till I got to the car and needed to use that arm to open the trunk. So I went back, explained the situation and they looked at me like a crazy person.

Just this week, I almost stole a leather purse when the harried, exhausted, overworked clerk behind the counter mistakenly assumed the purse was already mine and didn’t ring it in with the rest of my purchases. I almost walked away, purse in hand, before realizing what had happened: the tag was tucked inside the purse and he’d assumed I’d just set my own purse up on the counter while readying to pay for everything else. When I explained what happened, we both chuckled, and re-did the payment. No purses were stolen.

All that to say: I’m a chronic (albeit accidental) shoplifter.

And up till now, I’ve mostly kept this secret (because I feel like an idiot) but my stolen Shame Fan has been on my mind a lot after hearing the story earlier this week of a young indigenous man who was repeatedly followed around a store.

Because what I’ve really realized over the last few years is that I can chalk up this accidental thievery to distraction or talk about the nonsense that is self check-out lanes, but the real reason this happens – the real reason that I do this without realizing it, and the real reason that no one ever stops me – is simple blissful ignorance.

To be more precise: I have fair skin, long blonde hair. I’m “respectably” middle class. I am (usually) well dressed, if casual. I am friendly, chatty and cheerful. I’m chubby but not big enough to draw disdain or stares. I am able-bodied. I have no odd quirks, tics, or behaviours.

And here’s the big question, which is really no question at all: if I HAD been stopped walking out of the store with an unpaid fan, or a case of Coke hiding under a full cart, or a bottle of vitamins tucked under my arm, what would have happened?

I can almost guarantee it would go down like this:

Me: shock, surprise, laughter, explanation. Turning around to go back in and straighten it all out while still chuckling. Pay. Smile. Leave. 

Store staff: pleasant, benefit of the doubt, look me over, believe me, let me pay, let me leave. Probably thank me on the way out. 

Why? Because I’m in the sweet spot: white enough, tidy enough, friendly enough to be deemed a good customer. I am visible enough that I get help as soon as I need it, and invisible enough that I can do whatever I want.

I live in a state of blissful ignorance. I get to assume that the world is trusting, good, and safe because for the most part it trusts ME, is good TO ME, is safe FOR ME.

This is privilege. I have learned that people hear that word and they get their backs up, immediately listing off all the ways that they, in fact, did not have any of this so-called privilege just by virtue of their skin colour (or their heterosexuality, or their family background, and so on). In other words: If I have so much privilege, shouldn’t my life be perfect? And since it’s not, this privilege thing is crap. Stop whining. 

I get it. I didn’t grow up rich (but I did grow up in largely “nice” communities). I didn’t have a perfect childhood (in fact, there were a lot of things about it that I’m still struggling with today). I didn’t have my education paid for (took me years and years of directing about a quarter of every paycheque to pay off the student loans), my parents didn’t give me money for a down payment on a house, I worked at a lot of crappy, sweaty, unpleasant jobs to pay my rent over the years. In truth, I probably had more months in which the money ran out before the calendar did for much of my young adulthood. I didn’t choose the most financially stable or well-paying career (I’m looking at you, newspaper industry) but got lucky with a good, long-term job. Like many people I know, I spent a long time building the life I get to live now – and today’s life is still hard in lots of ways, big and small. We look at all that and then we like to ask ourselves: how is that supposed to be privilege? It’s been hard, really hard sometimes. I didn’t just get lucky. I worked for what I got, right? 

But that’s not really what privilege is. It might be part of it, but “good childhood, lots of money, educated” is a small part of privilege. It’s the corner pieces on the puzzle that is privilege, and it ignores a massive system of day-to-day puzzle pieces that make up the rest of the picture.

Privilege is also being approached in a store to see if I need some help, and not ever being followed around to make sure I don’t steal something. It is not having to monitor and be aware of my own behaviour  – in fact, being so clueless that I don’t notice a bottle of vitamins under my arm as I walk right out the door. Privilege is my assumption that if I got stopped at the door, someone would listen to my explanation and think it was funny and not call the police. 

I watched a youtube video recently in which a man was arguing against the concept of privilege. He’d had a crappy childhood and struggled with an absent father, with alcoholism in the family, with poverty. He didn’t grow up to have a successful business and drive an Audi because he was privileged but because he’d worked hard for it.

Stranger on the internet: I wish you had not had a crappy childhood. I wish you had never gone to bed hungry – no one should have to, ever. I wish you had not had to work twice as hard as your peers who were sent off to college with full wallets. I see and respect you for the hard work you’ve done. I have no doubt that your life has been a challenge. No one wants to undermine you for that. No one is suggesting that your successful business and your Audi were handed to you just because.

But when you – an able-bodied, white, good looking, well-dressed man – get into your car and turn on the engine and back out of the driveway, does your brain even once wonder if a police officer might pull you over and assume that you do not own this car? Do you have to think in advance about what to say or do or where to put your hands if that happens? Do you drive your Audi in nice neighbourhoods and notice people watching you suspiciously?

My stolen Shame Fan and your ability to drive your Audi without worrying you’ll be pulled over for auto theft are the same thing: they are a reflection of the blissful ignorance we get to live in. It’s so blissful and so ignorant and so deeply entrenched in our existence we can’t even wrap our heads around what it would feel like to not be treated this way.

All of our beliefs about the world are built on the way in which the world interacts with us, and the reception we get when we step out into it. If you believe that the world is just, and that hard work is rewarded, and things are equitable, it’s because it has been that way for you. Maybe not 100%. Maybe not completely. Maybe you’ve had some hurdles to cross. But on the whole, the world operates in a way that seems just and fair and equitable.

Your gender, your sexuality, your social status, your able-bodied-ness and yes, most of all, your skin colour, and the way that these intersect with each other, all impact the view you have and the way that you walk in the world.

If you cannot see that, then me talking about my accidental-white-lady-shoplifting sure isn’t going to change your mind.

But I invite you, all the same, to think about what might happen if you got caught at the door of a store with something tucked under your arm that you’d forgotten to pay for – and if the notion is terrifying, or a little worrisome, or perhaps just slightly comical.

Your answer will tell you more about the world you live in than this long tale of stolen fans and fancy cars ever will.