Week’s end

June 7, 2008

I have decided to grow my hair out again, partly as an aesthetic experiment, partly out of economic necessity – perhaps ‘decided’ isn’t the most accurate term. And as the humidex pushed the temperature close to 40° today I remembered the particular kind of pleasure in being able to pull my hair off my neck and pile it on the top of my head instead. While I’m never happy about this sort of oppressive heat, I’m at least thankful it waited until my parents’ visit was over. We walked around the city for three days, and I finally made it to the Botanical Garden (pictures forthcoming on flickr). They brought homemade, dog-safe cookies for Alice, and my gift is breathing beside me – a bottle of my favourite baco noir. So the string of summer visitors is officially underway, as another pair arrives in a week.
Rather surprisingly, I turned down a dinner invitation this evening, opting instead to unfold my largest lawn-chair (those metallic clacks bringing back dozens of similarly sticky summer nights at my brother’s softball games, my friends’ cottages, small-town Canada Day fireworks), and work on my dissertation, a chapter of which The Supervisor insists is due on Monday. Now, with only one meaty part unwritten, I’m mulling over the week’s events, and, admittedly, keeping an eye on my portly neighbours’ ardent window-front make-out session; others are drunkenly belting out “Paradise By The Dashboard Light.” Ambience.
My parents and I got along well. More than that, I genuinely enjoyed spending time with them. At times my relationship with my mother is rocky, and my father can get self-righteous and grandiloquent when he’s drinking (you can keep your quips about heredity to yourself). But the familiar – familial – tensions and triggers never appeared, and we went through a lot of wine. While the parent/child dynamic didn’t fully fade, this was one of a handful of instances in which I actually felt like an adult (mooching meals notwithstanding).
This is not the only relationship on my mind. People like to make lists of reasons why a romance has ended. With a mental catalogue of such lists – about me, as they have been recounted to me – I’m noticing themes. In the bold light of day I write them off as the result of consistently gravitating toward the wrong kind of guys. In the dark, when no one can see me being self-indulgent, I wonder if they sketch out an innate undateability. Neither easy explanation is the entire truth. It’s frustrating, though, to think that you carried through with lessons learned, to believe that you did better this time around, to feel that your performance showed improvement, just to get the same report card at the end. It’s like failing a test for which you had a cheat sheet. In there, somewhere, a variable is unaccounted for. I should start working in pencil.

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Thanksgiving…

October 11, 2007

the Ontario habit my parents won’t let me shake. I made new mixed cds and we hit the road. The glove compartment was air-conditioned – such decadence! GB pointed at the train each time it raced alongside the highway, snapped pictures out the window as we crept up on my hometown. The sign for kilometre 666 is still missing on the 401 West. The layover in Toronto went by too quickly. Drunk in my parents’ basement we giggled like teenagers, tiptoeing excessively to sneak out late at night for a smoke. We clambered down rocks determined to make our way to the base of the waterfall, we sunbathed and swam at the beach (seriously). The meals were enormous. I stocked up on Baco Noir at the LCBO. We dallied long past Monday; it’s somehow now the middle of another week of meetings and lectures and I’m terribly unprepared, but at least the weekend is fewer days away than usual.

The last few bits of the last long weekend are ebbing. Tomorrow the fall semester officially starts, which actually means very little – this is the first September in six years that I won’t be teaching. Both of my parents (teachers as well) retired in June; we’re trying to revel but there’s an undertone of trepidation. How do we fill time now? My answer seems so simple – write the diss (it’s not my diss now, but the diss; a crucial distinction, as lately it’s been writing me). But first, snippets of how I spent my summer vacation:
Socializing: Added up, more than a month was spent entertaining visitors. The last (not counting one arriving this week) left yesterday. Having my space back is both appreciated and a little lonely (I might even miss the cat). Such serial visits make one observation unavoidable: my friends are fabulous.
Travelling: Retirement parties, a shower, a wedding, a funeral. Flurries of activity and stockpiley trips to the LCBO.
Biking: Useful and economical – 12:30 is too early to call anything quits, and cabs are financially unfeasible for someone of my proclivities, (un)employment status, and geographical location. I tried so hard to enjoy biking everywhere. But I just don’t. I’m a pedestrian.
Writing: I wrote a decent draft of about a third of the diss. Not as much as I’d have liked, but summers here are notoriously unproductive. I blame Montreal.
Fucking: I slept around a bit. It was fun. And easy (which isn’t the same as uncomplicated, but what’s summer without a little light drama?). I like how thank-you emails are becoming de rigueur.
Running: I hit the 10k mark mid-June, and have been doing that three times a week ever since. I’m toying with the idea of training for a half-marathon, but could just be looking for an opportunity to toss around the word ‘fartlek.’
Preening: I officially if grudgingly accepted that I look good in hot pink.
Listening: Boxer by The National. Writer’s Block by Peter, Bjorn and John. The Reminder by Feist.
My parents will be gleefully sleeping in tomorrow morning. I’ll be up, futzing with the coffeemaker and wondering how to organize my non-semester. I’m not comfortable with unstructured time. Summer is always a needed reprieve, but after four months I’m antsy again. Sans students until January, I’m compiling a list of fall distractions, er, plans. My tentative triangulation: the St. Henri pool, a diner with free refills, and Allez-Up.

Birthday

August 21, 2007

It started innocently enough – me reaching into the back of the cupboard to draw out the Baco Noir that had waited in reverent darkness for almost a year. The bottle and I curled up on the porch and watched the cats hunt, the moths bounce off the balcony’s bare bulb, the night pass. My doorbell rang early Saturday morning and the rest of the day I shopped with an old friend, picking up our rhythm like it hadn’t been paused for the past ten months as lives and careers moved us to different countries, time zones. We came home to find a more recent friend climbing my back stairs. He held out his hands – in one a bag of young green shoots poking hopefully out of their training pots; in the other, bacon. More people materialized as the day wore on, some were even found serendipitously on the street. The bar closed its doors as we left and stumbled sideways for poutine.
Morning: coffee, Advil, bacon. Sunglasses before venturing out for the afternoon’s provisions (the market for strawberries and the SAQ for white wine). We sprawled carelessly on the balcony and devoted the actual birthday to our characteristic conversational swings. As dusk dropped we dressed up and pranced prettily through the door of my favourite restaurant. The waiter applauded the alcohol consumption, saying most women would have passed out under the table. We drained an expensive bottle of red upon our return, christening the just-renovated porch with its first set of wine stains.
And now… Stash’s vodka has been roundly depleted, days with the California blonde ostensibly left us with nothing to talk about and yet we couldn’t stop. She’s flown back to San Fransisco, and I’m on a train to London, my black skirt and shoes stowed safely in the overhead compartment.
I knew my grandfather had died. I knew halfway through my parents singing “Happy Birthday” – my father was hammier than usual and off the phone quickly. But for the rest of the evening I pretended, like my parents, that I didn’t know. They called early the next morning and everything has been in motion ever since… rent a car or take the train? Quickly send emails postponing or bowing out of the week’s obligations. Find a cat-sitter to take over my cat-sitting, and get a spare set of keys cut. Slide down to the floor and sob my way through a Cat Power song. Decide train, definitely. Call a girlfriend in London and ask her to make up the spare bed. Do a load of laundry, freeze the rest of the birthday bacon. Water the plants, change the cat litter, just keep moving…
The Tetris-like tension of such details breaks as I’m on the train. The tourists in front and behind me (Eastern European and Australian respectively) are captivated by the postcard scenery. My eyes are just as fixed out the window, but I’m seeing different things. The sunlight drops behind heavy clouds and light rain as the train hurtles further west; I try not to read too much into this. I’m quietly anxious. My brother is picking me up at the train station; until then, I tuck my legs under me, turn up the volume on the iPod, and keep staring out the window.

Thicker than water

August 18, 2007

I’ve been thinking my family lately, as my grandfather isn’t faring well and the anxiety reverberates. There are repeated themes that cut across the tales of families I’ve heard from my friends; there are the interactions I’ve seen that give me pause. One boy in my past referred to his parents as Mother and Father. Not that strange, I guess, until I noticed that they always called him Son. Never his first name, not once. An incredible distance existed between them, despite their shared history and how much they knew about each other… a pattern that, over time, came to play out between him and I as well. We find ourselves re-enacting what we know. Families – patterns that have sunk in the furthest, remarks with a tenor that cuts the deepest, support that can mean the most.
My mother was not pleased with my choice to go to grad school; her indictment of my decision has surfaced regularly, if passive-aggressively, over the past six years. She and I have very different visions of my future: she sees a handsome, wealthy husband and a handful of healthy grandkids, I see tenure and book residuals and happy pets – or, as she spat vituperatively in front of her friends one day, “That’s all I have to look forward to, a series of dogs” (I was never entirely sure if she meant my canine or male companions…).
When I was home at the end of June I made the rounds of my parents’ social engagements – end-of-term parties, wedding showers for the children that had found the wealthy husband or willing housewife. Smalltalk with my parents’ friends inevitably turned to what I think of Montreal, the requisite appreciative “Ooh, McGill,” numerous polite inquiries into when I think I’ll be finished. And in almost every exchange I was told how my mother raves about me, how proud she is of me. Proud. I didn’t what to say. This was something I had never heard before. Part of me was happy, relieved…
And part of me was so angry… why hadn’t I ever heard this before? I have been staring at blank pages that I can’t find the words to fill, at bank statements that balance precariously around overdraft, at dark ceilings in the middle of sleepless nights wondering if I’m only heading down this path because it’s the one I know, and always with the sense that as far as my family is concerned, I’m in this alone. And yet I do believe she’s proud of me, precisely because she’s never told me so. We don’t do emotion in my family. We do quippy deflections and sublimation and can look the other way like few other families you have seen.
Which brings me back to my grandfather. My grandfather is dying. A retiring man, he sits at the edges of the room drawing slowly on his pipe or his cigar (I will always love the thickness of that smell), raising his eyebrows at the conversations going on around him, opening his mouth to say something rumbling and trenchant, and then closing it again. He is an ardent fan of documentaries. His home brew was the first beer I ever tasted, frigid and yeasty, foaming out of the mouth of a cloudy stubby bottle. He took me aside one year at Xmas, pointed to the humidifier he had just given me, and made sure I noted the divot in the top – “You can put weed in it. Make sure it’s a small room and all the windows are closed.” I am counting on our genetic stubbornness to keep him around until the first fall paycheque so I can go to him and say goodbye.
My father has already lost his mother and his brother. My uncle died unexpectedly seven years ago, and that was the first time in my life I had seen my father fall apart. My father keeps his feelings shunted and through a regime of merciless mocking and irascible retorts made sure we did the same. In the middle of his eulogy he bowed his head, shuffled his papers, and I could barely breathe when I saw tears sliding down his stubbled cheeks. He drank so quickly and so heavily that he passed out just over an hour into the wake.
He was silent after my grandmother’s funeral (three years ago this coming October), staring at the doors of the Catholic church that was the centre of her spiritual life, and turning to point at a cluster of trees across the street. “That’s where your uncle and I would sneak out for a smoke during the service,” he told me. “Those trees have hardly grown.” He didn’t say another word for hours.
My brother and I have talked since about my father’s alcoholism. We had wondered, in the brief moments when we could talk freely on the phone, in the first few years after my uncle died. But we’re a family of drinkers – on both sides – and the other family alcoholics are never referred to as such, they’re just “going through something” or “having a hard time lately.” All we knew was that there was a sense of desperation, a determined move toward the relief of stupor, that hadn’t been in my father before. I had made it home earlier than usual for Xmas two years ago, and when it was just the four of us at dinner one night my father filled a conversational lull by saying he thought he might have a problem with alcohol. It hung there, in the silence that characterizes my family’s ability or willingness to confront cries for help and the weakness we were told they imply.
Things have been spiraling ever since, an awful outgrowth of our collective incapacity to bite back our now-instinctive tendency to turn confession into comedy. When I was home my father’s weight loss was staggering, almost as implausible as the amount of alcohol I watched him put away (and my own tolerance is remarkable). He told me, in a tone that both defied and begged me to help, that he quite literally cannot stomach more than a few morsels at a time. My mother confided in me later (emboldened by the few beers she had just had, us being rather comfortable with irony) that she was worried, that she didn’t know what to do, that he wouldn’t listen to her.
And I don’t know what to do either – there is a frustrating hierarchy in my family, he certainly won’t listen to me. The ten-hour distance feels insurmountable at times. I hear that now-familiar tone in his voice when he updates me on my grandfather’s health, of wanting to say more – to admit to being scared, being sad – and not knowing how.
We re-enact what we know, but learned habits are poor justifications. When my brother called to say that he told his girlfriend he loves her his exhilaration came not from the feeling but the telling; he told me because he knew I would recognize the distinction. I make an effort now to talk with my mother about my work. She never asks, but I tell her anyway. I ask my father what he had for dinner, when he is going to the doctor. Change does not come easily and provocation is only acceptable on the provocateur’s terms, tempers flare and silences stretch as the phone is handed to someone else. Even living within the dynamics does not guarantee you a map of the terrain.

they might be the type of people who get really giddy the first week of their retirement. They might call you around 2pm on a weekday to ask how to make Jell-o shooters, and not believe you (with good reason) when you say you don’t know. They could threaten to look it up on the internet. And you could spend the rest of the afternoon really glad you shell out the extra few bucks a month for call display.

I can’t imagine living in one place all my life – to not have that dialectic of leaving and returning, moving between pasts and present, the liminal space of the highway. My one-week tour of places called home was both predictable and revelatory (revelations saved for later). Quintessential Ontario moments: being back-slapped by a biker, at the skeezy pub ordering a 50 (and then another, and another), swatting in frustration at mosquitoes the size of quarters, the Quebec license plate on my rental car prompting someone to shout “Go back to your own country!” The expanses – of roads, of fields, of skies, of water – provoked a profound inner quiet that I desperately needed to find again. I was overwhelmed, as always, with wanting to linger in the way it was just a little bit longer: the slow-running comfort of familiar conversations and faces with long histories. My girls, my wine. Life carries on with little regard to how hard that can actually be …

What is hardest to accept about the passage of time is that the people who once mattered the most to us are wrapped up in parentheses (John Irving – I know, I’m sorry, but it’s true).

I cried at the wedding – don’t tell anyone (and that was even before I started dipping into the fountain of cosmopolitans). Not at the legally-obliged-to-be-everlasting-love, but at watching two people so dear to me dancing and smiling and nothing but each other, oblivious to the fireworks of camera flashes. Quintessential wedding moment: the inevitable dance with that guy who spills his beer down the back of your dress as he’s trying to grab your ass.
Final tally: 1860 kilometres on the rental car, three awkward conversations with my mother, one drunken 4 a.m. limo ride, two pieces of wedding cake, five in-transit Tim Horton’s coffees.

Homeward bound

June 26, 2007

Of course, expecting my mother to be waiting silently for me is too much to ask; she’s always got something to say. I leave tomorrow morning for about a week, home for a few days and then to a wedding. My bags are packed and I’m ready to go… except it’s not a jet plane, it’s a compact rental car. Travelling and visiting in the summer isn’t like the holidays. There’s less chocolate. The car windows stay down the entire trip. And without extended family around to mediate, my mother’s comments become more unpredictable. She’s been uncharacteristic lately – asking about my writing, supporting some of my decisions, offering sorely needed financial assistance. Then there’s the wedding – a reunion of sorts for me, since I haven’t been back in two years. Anticipating the acres of ground to cover with old friends at the same time as I’m looking back on what’s been trod with more recent ones, there’s a pervasive sense of shifting emotional continents. The motion of a few friends’ lives has picked up – jobs are changing, cities are changing – and along with it there’s a scramble to check the anchors. Some fixed points are necessary for navigation: the ones that know who you are now, the ones that know you so well you can’t see behind you without them. Such thoughts recur each time I head home to stretches of sky and of water and of stars. This time tomorrow you can find me standing in the field behind my parents’ house, staring upwards, marvelling.

Sibling rivalry

March 18, 2007

Some of you may remember the entertaining photoshopped picture of me that went out as an invite to my birthday celebrations last summer:
Not liking to be beaten at his own game – my brother’s photoshopped picture advertising his birthday celebrations (25, my gawd) this past weekend:
My brother looks better in a gold bikini than I do. At least I’ve got bigger breasts.