Today, some ladies and I got to talking via email about women we feel helped make us who we are, get us to our current station in life, or form our ideas of self, place and strength. I’ve been tied up by work for several months now and in consequence made no time for writing for myself. After sixteen hours at the office, there was no place for story-telling at the end of my days. Now, what I wrote to my ladyfriends made me pretty happy — it was lovely to write, easy to say, and exciting to share. And I trust they won’t mind that I spread my part of our conversation a little more widely here.
The question, paraphrased: what women helped you along the way?
My answer, in three parts:
I have a lot of different answers to that one. Mostly because I think getting to the place I am today took a lot of right and wrong turns.
1.ladies/ lady-forces that shaped who I am today (negative):
When I was younger, like junior high age, I read a lot of trashy YA novels. Sweet Valley High and so on. Not because I liked them or felt any connection to the material, but because I felt like I was doing everything wrong and that reading “girl books” would help me get myself in line. So, in a funny way, all that trash did inform who I became, because half the contents was totally foolish and the other half was stuff I attempted in an effort to fit in but still made no headway on. And ultimately, because I figured I had done everything I could including following a handbook of girlishness, I gave up trying to “fit in” and just let things be.
2. ladies/ lady-forces that shaped who I am today (positive):
Funny women have made me ok with who I am. Ladies who write about being messy and sloppy and discordant and who perform from an honest place. Dorothy Parker, Tina Fey, Carol Burnet, Bernadette Peters, Andrea Martin, Catherine O’Hara, Judy Tenuta, Winona Ryder, Elvira Kurt. Ladies who think it’s hilarious to swear, who have a sense of self-reflexive (not self-deprecating) humour, and who use their humour to poke fun as much at women who feel compelled to conform as at the men and women who expect this conformity. But, also “nice” ladies. I have no time for the “bitch” motif and no interest in demanding things from the world. I don’t believe in ass-kicking my way through life. I don’t respect a “fuck you, this is who I am” attitude, because it lacks civility and ultimately makes people doubt that you deserve to be respected and taken seriously. Which brings me to my third formative influence.
3. well-mannered ladies and gentlemen too:
I think the singlemost lacking thing in today’s world is good manners. This goes for at table, in public places, online, in day-to-day discussions, in how people relate to others close to them and to colleagues and strangers, in the media (both official and social), and in how we debate and discuss things that are important to us. I think too many people lack manners when approaching difficult subjects and emotional situations, and that the western world has lost sight of how far a little politeness goes. I can’t speak for other parts of the world because I have never been to those parts.
I think dress codes (not proscribed school uniform stuff, but more codified understandings) are important. I think it’s gross that we leave the house in yoga pants, track suits, cargo shorts, flip-flop sandals, with bra-straps slipping out beneath collars or sleeves. I think it’s gross that we eat while walking down the street or leaning against a building on lunch-break. I think it’s gross that people need to be asked to give up seats on public transit or reminded to remove their satchels because they are unaware of the space they occupy and how others might need to share it. It’s especially gross that we move from place to place while wearing head-phones so that we can’t hear someone saying “excuse me”, and that asking someone to turn down the volume on an i-device so we can’t all hear their music leaking out is a situation that even exists.
I think the current fixation on “bullying” as a trend and a cause to rally against is really more centred on chickens coming home to roost–we have raised three generations of children without proper manners and without suggesting that there is a difference between appropriate and inappropriate, and without curbing freedoms on kids to at least a certain degree…and now they’ve grown up a right pack of little assholes who think they are not accountable for hurting others and don’t seem to appreciate that actions have consequences.
And so, the third group of ladies who helped me become the person I am today is well-mannered ladies. Old-fashioned and contemporary. Emily Post, Miss Manners, ladies with advice columns, the lady who taught my comportment class when I was small. But also ladies in general who do or did move through the world with grace and class, and who remind me that swearing might be hilarious but it’s not classy or nice, that sometimes covering my tattoos is the smart choice (and does not compromise my identity or disguise who I am), that sometimes the proper thing to do is give up something I “want” in favour of something I “should”, and that how one lays a table is important.
Now — commence with the jokes about the table getting laid.
Heavy metal was never about the music, at least not until I was grown up and not really its target anymore. The genre seems like an acquired thing, a taste you get trained into young or never manage at all. The same principle governs elementary school language classes and explains why women don’t wait till their thirties to step into their first pair of high heels. Although the music wasn’t an official part of my life, the culture is stamped all over the place, and junior high is tagged with more metal than my garage door, which some local dickweeds have chosen as the testing ground for their death metal band names.
Metal is the kid who sat across from me at the quad of little tables pushed together to form our fourth grade desks. He wore a scowl to disguise the train-track braces slapped into his mouth over summer holidays and a Pat Benatar t-shirt with black sleeves, its dirty-white body yellowed in the wash. He told us he settled for Pat because his brother called her “sexy” and because his mom wouldn’t let him wear the one with Lita Ford. “Too much underpants and not enough clothes on that girl” for a little boy to sport her picture on his chest.
Metal is the kid who lived in the townhouse kitty-corner across our unfenced lawn, who owned K.I.S.S. records and seemed like maybe, already, he was headed for trouble. His family’s sofa was upholstered in cracked black leather and their dog was allowed to poop in the grass but no one ever shoveled it up, and we were warned to never go visiting barefoot. He built bike jumps in the road right there in the middle, but didn’t really do the part right where you lift the handlebars to extend the leap, and was always bagging himself on the cross bar. I remember the album covers he showed me bore snakes and chalices and gave me the creeps.
Metal is the reason my junior high yearbook is filled with photos that crop at least three inches off the top of everyone’s bangs.
It’s the reason I owned eyeliner in a greasy shade of blue that formed nuggets of crud in the corners of my eyes from colouring it onto the inner white part of my lids, and which would have been disgusting and unladylike except that everyone else looked that way, too.
Heavy metal is also the reason we had to get up before sunrise in order to tease our feathers, comb on three coats of mascara and sink all those earrings through holes in our lobes. Gathered in the bedroom of the girl who lived closest to our bus stop, we studied magazine photos of men with frosted bangs and kerchiefs knotted around their thighs and tried to copy the angle of their blush streaks. This girl’s bedroom was more like a salon than a place to study or sleep, curling iron smoking, Aquanet fumes low and thick, drugstore perfume arranged by bottle height on the bureau. The phone rang every few minutes, if not for us then for her older sister whose girlfriends wore kitten heels and packed their asses into acid wash shorter, tighter, cooler than ours would ever be. One morning we knew it was a boy telephoning for us, a fact her sister was sure to broadcast from one end of the bus to the other if she beat us to the call, and in our scuffle to snatch up the receiver first, someone spilled nail polish into the ghetto blaster cassette hatch, trapping Bon Jovi in there forever.
Metal meant partying in a mostly badly behaved way.
In my neighbourhood, metal was boys with peach-fuzz mustaches and growling cars with ten of us loaded in back, headed to the bonfire at the toboggan run called Devil’s Elbow where one time, a sled full of kids towing a couple more on black garbage bags overshot the hairpin turn and slammed right into a tree. Metal was hash and Jack at those parties, and at least one guy who was way too old to be hanging out and at least one girl who knew how to administer blow jobs too young.
And, metal was my brother in winter, laces untied, stovepipe jeans stuffed into black leather high-tops not quite high enough to beat the snow. Jacket unzipped and fingers grey-blue and furled into fists that he could retract up his sleeves. No hat because it would smoosh the layers on his two-tiered cut: blocky bangs hanging to his eyelids, the rest a long mess parted in the middle and scraggling its way toward his shoulder blades.
Metal wasn’t so much music as it was logos snipped from band t-shirts and pinned to the back panel of denim jackets. It was really just the fashion and the kids who wore it while skipping class to slouch in the school-approved smoking section on the sidewalk out front of the building. Then, I turned nineteen and moved out west and met a guy who played in a death metal band, who knew how to play guitar a little but his real thing was drums and no one talked about anything but how crazy it was he could play that fast and keep three different beats, one with each foot and another up top with his sticks.
His hair was enormous but his voice was – I think – rather tiny, and he decided I needed an education. Unlike the things other dudes thought I might be up for learning and were disappointed when I refused, the drummer stuck strictly to metal and taught me all I know about the music part. I was dismayed that understanding the music didn’t bring with it an understanding of the imagery — burning skulls, loops of snake, chicks strapped into leather “bikinis”, all those album covers with flames and junk I just do not get. His band was fairly terrible even if you’re into that sort of thing, and their songs had titles that were too embarrassing to speak aloud. They toured the local boozecans then hit the road for Seattle where grunge was still big but metal huddled on the sidelines waiting for kids to grow tired of how wholesome the indie scene had become.
And then, thinking my metal education was complete, I found feminism and Riot Grrrl and realised my drummer had done me wrong, not once mentioning all the ladies who were hammering away on instruments and belting it out a couple hundred miles south of my home, or all the ladies who’d kicked it onstage for decades before we came along. Just as I was growing righteous and indignant, I remembered one more place metal cropped up.
Metal was the roller rinks and community centre dances where so long as a woman was singing it, somehow it was ok for the tough music to sneak in.
It should be a short trip from my door to Tryharder Headquarters in Brooklyn, but this time took especially long. First, my flight was canceled. Then canceled again. And, a third time. At that point, things went a little Lord of the Flies in Terminal A, with hundreds of passengers who’d been trying to reach New York for 24 hours or more, either for travel or because it was home, each seeking a stand-by seat that might get them to their destination(s) that day…or even the next. I had tickets to the theatre that night; I overheard another lady explaining to the ticket agent that her cruise was departing New York in three hours and she’d been attempting to get there all weekend. A monk in orange robes chatted with a crazy lady who’d been his seatmate during one of our botched boardings; he seemed pretty laid back about the delay, but eager to return to his communal living quarters in Manhattan and get on with his day.
Theatre tickets aside, I was concerned about the number of hours on my hands, hours to fill with concerns about flight. I hate to fly, but love other places, which presents an essential trade. I want New York? I need a plane. My fear stops short of B.A. Baracus, but it’s pretty ugly all the same. Another thing I hate? Not being in control of the circumstances under which I board the plane. Tell me the airport location, the time I need to clear security, and when I might expect to become airborne, and I’ll take care of the rest. The breathing and meditation, snacks, distractions, mantras and personal coaching. A toy rabbit tucked in my jacket pocket, whose ear I will stroke for comfort during take-off. I will stow my luggage overhead and listen up while you talk life jackets and seat belts. Just stick to the schedule and we’re good.
Just…come on. Do not fuck with my departure routine. That kind of thing is just not on.
Eventually, as with all things, the plans came together, I made it to New York, I had exactly enough time to catch the bus from La Guardia to Grand Central, the subway to Grand Army Plaza, to walk a few blocks, climb a few flights, shove a slice of life-saving, ice-cold watermelon into my face, descend a few flights, hug two friends, and catch the subway back into Manhattan in time for the play.
And after all that hustle, I jettisoned any concrete plans I might’ve cooked up for the rest of the week, and decided to take New York slow. An oxymoron, to be sure. In that city, I look up more than I do at home. I didn’t realise this until I scrolled through my photographs later on and noticed how many were shot pointing upward. At home, I look around plenty, and often spot charming secrets like the apartment door carved like a ship or the pay telephone broken and sculpted into the shape of an elephant’s trunk. But, its charms are weighted in favour of eye-level, while New York is awfully tall.
And, imagine all those neighbours. Fifteen buildings slouched against one another to form this block-long complex — my camera lens could frame just three.
When I took my apartment seven years ago, it was a reasonable facsimile of “rent control”. The friend who passed it on told me the landlord would commit to raising the rent only $17 when the lease changed hands, and reminded me that while the place seemed small, it came equipped with a balcony that doubled its square footage in warm weather, and encouraged me to think of it as “the best apartment in all of New York”. It only seems cramped, she said, because I was thinking according to Toronto standards.
What else about New York? Instantly, my feet ache in a way they never do at home, even after stupid choices like walking home from work in mid-height heels.
Things that irk me at home, like strangers fussing over my unexceptional tattoos, are charming in New York where ladies seem to have modest tattoos if any at all and I am far more of a spectacle than at home. A Japanese girl chased me a block in four-inch foamtread creepers and grabbed my shoulder, spun me around and asked to take photos of my calves. I suspect she’d have crouched and gotten down to work even if I’d refused, but she looked so expectant that would have seemed bitchy, cold and uselessly mean.
Non-descript neighbourhoods scream “Law and Order scene”: THIS exact location could be where someone gets found slumped in his car in the wee hours and with no business being in that area (“But he told me he’d be at a meeting uptown!!!”), thereby kicking off the plot.
In New York, I eat $15 salad and wine for lunch like it’s a regular part of my life. When I return home I have a hard time forgetting how great it felt to languish at a table midday doing whatever I felt like. Restored to my office chair, fingers typing, brain thinking, my belly goes off like an alarm — 1:15 PM salad and wine bell — for the better part of a week.
Back home, I’m frustrated by how long it will be until I see my Brooklyn Lady Posse again. I feel like they’re frozen in time, waiting for my next visit and that if only I lived there too, they would always be at my disposal, up for the same sort of good times we have during the week I visit each summer. But of course this is no more true than how often I see my home team. Which is not often at all.
The most special thing New York has going for it is that it’s an escape. A place where I do things I’d never do at home. Eating while walking or traveling from place to place. Staying up till and waking up at curious hours and knowing I can spend them as I please. Not caring that I’ve sweat through my shirt and worn mucky prints into the pearl-grey insoles of my cute shoes. Wiping my hair from my forehead and letting it stick up.
The shine would likely wear off those things if I were to marry my baker-friend and set up home there for good, like we joked over dinner with the Posse on our last night together. Because I’m always exhausted and really quite done by the time my trip is up. It doesn’t matter if I was there for the weekend or stretched my trip into two weeks. The morning I head home always feels like exactly enough.
The kind you have to travel to a special shop and buy then rush it home, tucked in a special bag. Plastic sack of ice, a thermal grocery carrier, a cooler, a zippered lunch pack. Last summer, I bought these for a dinner date with a girlfriend — pistachio kulfi with saffron threads, and dark chocolate peanut butter. Instead of dinner in with fancy ice cream, we rode our bicycles across town to drink fancy drinks. The ice cream languished in the depths of my icebox, sprouting crystals and becoming spoiled, eventually taking on the smell of chicken stock, even though my freezer contains zero chicken stock. A lesson of sorts: if you’re going to over-spend on ice cream, you’d better eat every drop.
I can never own an ice cream maker. Aside from breaking the number-one rule of my kitchen, which is “no single-use appliances”, there is not enough exercise in this world to address the situation that would sprawl across my ass if I had ready access to ice cream without leaving my home. Every summer, as each fruit and berry passes into then out of season, I revisit the issue…how awesome it would be to churn white peaches and sour cherries into sweet treats. And then I come to my senses: No. I must never, ever own an ice cream maker. Ever.
3. Parlour Style
Sometimes ice cream just plain needs to happen, NOW. Nothing fancy, nothing planned, nothing tough to fetch. Straight up ice cream: the junk from the supermarket; the kind from the corner shop (the lone pint of vanilla-almond shoved way in the back of the dairy case, riddled with icy hunks and gluey across its top from thawing and freezing and thawing and freezing again, each time the sketchy electricity cut out). The freaky shit off the truck that doesn’t melt when it hits the sidewalk but instead slumps against its own cone in a homogenous glob. Sometimes, ice cream needs to happen even when the sky is threatening rain. Best part about that? The storm washes the drips from between your toes during the walk home.
I have a habit of lugging things from place to place. A ridiculous quantity of things, all at once. As though I haven’t the sense to make a couple lists instead of just one. Or to divide and conquer my errands, carving them into territories or lumping them into categories — hitting one neighbourhood or one type of shops, or doing things in order of priority, according to urgency. This is weird, because I think of myself as a very organised and pragmatic person. I feel so strongly about these powers that I will even use “very” to describe me, although I know from years of copy editing experience the word “very” is so empty, inappropriately used and unnecessary that there is rarely a time when it shouldn’t be edited out.
And still, I lug. I know better, and could plan better, but I don’t. Living downtown, I’ve never been compelled to earn a driver’s licence, and frankly, having started to learn nearly four years ago and growing more and more terrified of the process each time I hit the road, it’s probably never going to happen. Maybe someday when I visit my friend in the desert, he can take me to a long, straight road with nothing but cacti and buzzards for miles on either side, and get me over my fear. Either that, or it’ll go down something like the road trip scene in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
I used to think driving would be great, but experience has changed my mind. Friends’ children successfully earn their licences while I flounder and freak out and do erratic shit like pull over in the middle of traffic and force my passenger to take the wheel. They rarely take much convincing; tearful, hands flapping like angry sparrows, declaring I will get out of this fucking car right fucking now and walk home and take the keys and the police can ticket the car then tow it for all I care because I am not driving it one inch farther…this goes a long way toward establishing unfitness to continue my lesson.
And so, I remain unlicenced and unable to take advantage of neat modern conveniences like Zipcars anytime I need to purchase something like enough dirt to feed my depleted garden, a flat of perennials, all the groceries in the world, or a case of wine. (See how neatly that fit, “needing” a case of liquor?) And so, I lug things from place to place by bicycle, no matter the distance and no matter the nature of the lugging. You read things about how in many parts of Africa, the only way to get around and bring home your daily necessities is by bicycle. I see no reason I shouldn’t do things the same way.
Sometimes, an outing starts off with no signs of the lugging to come. For instance, a simple commute home or a Sunday trip along the waterfront. But then I’ll think about the laundry soap and the olive oil and the library books that will be such heavy arse-pains to lug home in a satchel. Or I’ll spot a neat rock at the side of the road, or some other damn heavy thing that I can’t pass up. Or I’ll think of the friend I’ve invited to dinner and her appetite for red wine, plenty of it, and meanwhile I have stocked only white. And soon, I’ve pulled over ten times, neatly loading my basket with a pound of potatoes (for gnocchi), a bag of nuts and seeds and oats and shit (for granola), two bottles of wine (because while my friend drinks one, I’ll probably drink another), three bottles of dish soap (because it’s on sale and this means I won’t have to buy more for nearly a year) and a trio of potted plants (because now that I’ve hauled my weight in top soil home, I might as well buy something to sink roots into it).
A few years ago, I was an editor for an online journal; we published wonderful pieces that showcased particular themes, all told in the first person by someone close to that topic. The quality of the material was tethered to how well each interview went — a great subject could tank over the course of a dreadful conversation, while a topic that started off dull could really shine when the story came out of the right person’s mouth. Once, tasked with beating an especially bad interview transcript into a meaningful dialogue, I considered sending our intern back to the guy he’d spoken with and having him give it a second go. His assignment was to meet with the owner of a restaurant in the Meatpacking District, a guy who’d been around for decades and was the self-described soul of the neighbourhood, which at that time was poised to aggressively gentrify, wiping out history and kitsch in favour of cash and fine dining. It was plain from the transcript that the intern was no match for this man’s ego or agenda, and although his story was a compelling one, the guy came off sounding like a complete asshole with nothing much to say. If he had just shut the fuck up from time to time and allowed the intern to be the interview’s rudder, it all could have been so great.
I wanted the story to work, and at its heart sprouted a kernel of hope: his meandering monologue about dull, arrogant stuff created a diversion from the good bit hiding inside, a thing about refrigerators and how people give away their true natures by the contents. He quickly wrecked his own momentum with another lame tangent, but for a brief moment, his idea was really on. He talked about how when he begins to date someone and stays the night in their home, he offers to cook breakfast the following morning, or to prepare a midnight snack. Under cover of a good deed, he gleans information about his prospective partner’s life. Does the person own only condiments and an array of chilled booze? Packaged wieners and American cheese and other food not made from food? Do they rationalise an empty fridge by claiming life is too hectic to shop, by extension suggesting that if they don’t have time to stock a pantry then probably the sort of relationship they’re up for looks a lot like beers and fucking on Fridays but not much else?
I feel like my lugging habits tip my hand the same way. The contents of my bicycle basket are a current events broadcast about my life. I lug a lot of things, but not much of any one thing — probably, I live alone and cook for myself and my lunch the next day. I garden (or just really like dirt), I make preserves (or eat a lot of fresh fruit and raw sugar), I plan to be the local wine runner if prohibition is ever resurrected (it’s the only reasonable explanation for all the chablis). I’m a reader (the bundle of library books). I own some extra shoes (I might be an office lady, but am resisting the slide into keeping pairs of heels in a desk drawer). Chances are I tend to be chilly; even on the hottest days, there’s a sweater or jacket rolled up and stuffed in there. Bag logos show off that I purchase my clothes from expensive stores, but my basket doesn’t tell whether I buy things full-price like a sucker, or wait till items that no one generally fits are marked for sale.
Similarly, I felt like the restaurant guy’s fridge theory had some unfair holes. Maybe his Thursday night date didn’t have eggs and butter and milk at hand due to an exciting and fun excuse. Maybe the person had a really good explanation for all those freaky condiments. Maybe he’s sleeping with an emerging culinary genius — think of the crap that must vie for space in Christina Tosi’s fridge during recipe-testing marathons and the dessert empire that wouldn’t exist without those shelves jammed with “junk”. Maybe his date just wasn’t counting on some loudmouth showing up for a one-nighter then barging into the kitchen, bent on messing the place up by cooking midnight eggs.
Like my reluctance to write off that interview as a waste of space and never publish it (remember: the kernel of hope!), the stuff I lugged last month reflected my stubborn reluctance to let something go and to give up.
The first week of May, my sweet little cat, who was only three years old, got really, gravely, sick and I didn’t know what to do. After a son-of-a-bitch of an autumn and winter, I had looked forward to languishing under summer skies, sweating through shirt after shirt, drinking wine with my feet up and watching my garden grow. And, to brushing soil off everything inside my house and out, as my kitten dug to China in my garden, hunted the long decorative grass and fashioned a duck-blind from the hostas, which she would hunker behind to watch the local birds. Nothing has ever lightened my life like watching that cat mess around in my plants, or running through the apartment with a blade of grass jutting from her mouth like a pipe.
The sicker she became, the more carefully I selected seedlings and herbs, lugging them home in carriers fashioned out of bags and boxes and string. I tied sage and oat grass to my handlebars so the stems wouldn’t snap when I hit pot-holes, and used soft things purchased at the bulk store — rice, quinoa, milled spices and flour — to make nests for the really tender plants, the violets and pansies and vines and other things that might bruise. I figured that so long as I kept believing it was important to landscape this season’s garden with a cat in mind, there was a chance she would be ok.
I lugged home groceries, too, really tasty things I figured I could trick myself into eating even though fretting and sleeplessness had flipped my appetite off like a switch. One night, I grilled a lovely steak; the thing was perfect in all ways. Balcony door open, I dined outside and stared at the sky, mostly carving the meat into little slices and pushing them around my plate. I thought Birdo might come out for fresh air and to put in a bit of work (that hole to China isn’t going to dig itself), but no. The sun dropped and the bats came out and the sparrows turned in for the night, and eventually so did I. Birdo stayed in all evening, curled in the shape of a tea-cosy or moving restlessly between hiding spots, whiskers pointing into corners like a gesture of security.
Our last weekend together was a rough one. The weather was the perfect blend of sun and puffy clouds and light breezes and gently muggy heat that persists after nightfall and keeps you lingering around a table outdoors with friends and wine and grilled meat. The sort of climate I live for, passing through autumn and winter then spring in a frustrated, angry sulk about how come Ontario is so stupid and why can’t it be summer all year. I managed most parts of that; the lingering, the smoky grilling, and after dark watching the stars. But I was sad and it was pretty hard.
And we drank, probably (definitely) way too much, which under the circumstances I decided was fine.
Birdo spent those days beneath my armchair, making the tiniest, saddest sounds I’ve ever heard and breaking my heart. And, she spent the nights creeping around the apartment on legs that didn’t really work so much anymore, while I crept after her through dark rooms, looking for her flash of white fur that set her apart from the shadows. And mostly, together, we cried.
Once she was gone, I figured I would feel relieved — that’s what people describe, after a long, hard time of things and a tough but necessary decision. Instead, in addition to learning how much it costs to help a cat leave this earth, I learned some things about how my bicycle basket correlates with my heart. I am a lugger. I lug things. Old things, fresh things, dumb things and smart ones, too.
This month, I’m trying to lug a little less of everything — tangible and abstract — because it’s not always a kernel of hope that you’re cupping in your palm. And even when it is, it’s often ok to let that seed-tiny weight fall from your hand, because hope is heavy, too. Let go, and ride a little lighter.