We Need To Talk About Ben

She opens his backpack with a frisson of shame. She’s been a diplomatic spy, a princess, and now a general, but going through her own child’s belongings feels scummy, a low blow.

She’d brought him into the world with high expectations, at a time that the world felt on the cusp of better things. Breastfeeding, teething, toddling. Sure, she’d missed first steps for conferences, booked 3 shifts of nannies for interstellar trips to negotiate peace. Or plan for war. But just as planet after planet chose its own economic interests over allegiance to ideals, so too had her ability to really tune in to Ben’s world. It was clear now, how her questions – how was school? Did you eat lunch? Would you like to invite any friends over? – had been insufficient.

Of course she wasn’t the only parent in the mix, only the most judged. Ben’s father had been less connected when Ben was a baby, willing to take him but never having to be asked to give him over, each session of daddy-care coming with a series of inexplicable laundry – diaper on backwards, giving in to the ‘more more’ for 5 entire bananas within an hour – and the weight of being the one who has to find all the answers. She already was the go-to person for an entire galaxy of would-be heroes, and so perhaps it was inevitable that once the scoundrel wore off it was the added questions that made the relationship sag. He headed out for a contract and never really came back, the stretches between FaceTime sessions getting longer and longer until she realized she didn’t know which planet he was circling and didn’t actually care.

But that had made for a resurgence of fatherhood, when he did return to find a child that walked, talked, could learn to shoot and reenact the Kessel Run. This was the golden era of daddy-worship, when she had been only an impediment to Ben’s ability to joyfully jump off the couch pantless, and every arrival of her now-ex sparked the same light in her son’s eyes as fireworks. She truly delighted in that bond, her own relationship with her deceased biological father mired in toxic memory, and told herself that Ben would circle back.

But he didn’t, he spiralled down, and by the time he was in middle school she knew that his hollow one-word answers to her questions were masking – well, everything. But by then the habit of quick connection, the pause before eating, the brief interlude at bedtime, had also become a slick surface over which her concern could only skate.

So now she is picking at the crumbs of his day, peering into the recesses of his pencil case. A small dark crystal, a crumpled phone number. Knowing she’s now committed, she opens his notebook and find exactly what she had feared: blueprints, plans to turn loathing into empire. Not self-loathing, a thing she would know how to address, but screeds on everyone in his way: women, peacemakers, diplomats. She recognizes herself in it but knows that he would be furious to have her think it was merely her against whom he rebels. The rebel’s rebel a dictator.

He reminds her of her father, who reminds her everything she has been fighting to commit to history.

The help then needs to come from the world of men and so she calls her brother. Hi, how are you. Sorry I haven’t been in touch. Look, Ben needs a – a break from things here. Oh? Oh great. When can we – okay, I’ll let you know when we’ve booked our trip. Thank you. Thank you.


On Joker and raising boys

I saw Joker on Canadian Thanksgiving. First the whole family went for a walk in Colonel Danforth park and along the lake, and then we ended up hungry enough to stop at Swiss Chalet (we did our Thanksgiving meal on Sunday, as I usually do for long-weekend holidays as it gives me a day to laze around afterwards.)


During the meal, Noah said that he was interested in seeing Joker. I’d been of two minds about it. I am still really angry about the Toronto Van Attack, not just the horrific fact of it but also that the perpetrator was not accused of a hate crime. I know that it’s probably not necessary to put him away appropriately, but I feel like attacks designed to take out as many women as possible should by definition be hate crimes. And I thought that this movie would probably reignite that anger. I was worried about its portrayal of mental illness (I still am) and the legacy of abuse (ditto.)

When the 1989 Batman came out, I, err, liked it. Actually I decorated my entire dorm room in a Batman theme, painted a mural of Gotham city in the stairwell, and memorized a lot of the script. The reason wasn’t just my glorious geekdom, although that was a big part of it. But it was the urban grittiness of it — a grittiness that now, decades later, looks like 80s glitz nonsense. But at the time, contrasted to something like the Christopher Reeve Superman, it was. It felt true. Yes, like so many things, it’s problematic now but at the time…it really spoke to me. I’ve seen most of the franchise and reboots since, and The Dark Knight stands out, but it hasn’t really continued as the superhero epic of my dreams.

Still, I wasn’t sure I was ready to confront what seemed from some of the reviews to be an incel-friendly version of Gotham.

But, I have kids, sons, one of whom is a teenager, and when he said he really wanted to see it, I decided that it would be wise to see it together. So off we went right away, because the next few weeks are madness here at the Gruden household.

I came away profoundly sad. Not for Arthur Fleck per se, although that too, but for the world.

I think it’s very well done, particularly some of the writing and the way that it’s shot. Like most people, I thought Joaquim Phoenix’s performance was amazing in its physicality and in his ability to convey a kind of alien use of the human body — when putting on his shoes stands out — that will stay in my mind for a long time. And it did allow a lot of ambiguity in so many ways. It definitely did not come across to me as justification. It asked for empathy, but not sympathy.

But it’s a film that’s possible because…that world is. I thought seeing it together might be another way for Noah and I to talk about what it is to be men and women in society right now, about a society where our respect for the dignity of people requires that we behave in certain ways – listening, accepting different viewpoints, respecting boundaries, paying taxes and supporting services for those in need. And of course, we could still have that conversation.

But in the moment, instead, I felt a world-sadness. What if this is the world we’re building? There were so many flashes of things that are all too real that it’s hard to do anything but try to keep your head above water in the pain of it. And that feeling, while I think it was an artistically aligned one, that the film worked because it did leave that ambiguity, is one that I find I am still breathing through. It’s all well and good to open your heart to the suffering of man, but then what? There’s almost nothing to say after that.

You don’t worry about telling your kids to watch out for Thanos, but the Joker…

I don’t think it touched Noah as deeply. He took the film on its face value, an origin story about Gotham City, an imaginary place, and one of its supervillains. And that in itself gives me hope. Maybe as long as our children know the world is better than that, it will be. Getting back to work yesterday and looking at my young staff and our students, there is so much good there.

And yet, this same weekend, signs went up in my neighbourhood for the Canadian Nationalist Party, a party that promotes “eurocentric” values, is anti-LGBTQQ+, and is running three candidates across Canada, one of them in my riding. That made me angry too, in a strange political-meets-not-in-my-backyard way. I believe in the democratic process. I also wanted to deface the signs. These things are not compatible.

As it turns out, after a couple of days they were gone; I assume because they didn’t meet the municipal bylaws, but also reported to the city by people who wanted them down. These tools — bylaws, laws, elections, social supports, therapy — seem so vulnerable these days. It’s hard to trust them to keep us from a world full of Jokers.


Review: Once More We Saw Stars

Jayson Greene’s Once More We Saw Stars 

Why I read it: I read one of the excerpts published online in advance of the story and the description Greene wrote of being in hospital with Greta was the closest thing I’ve ever read to my experience of Emily’s death. So I read this book not for edification, but for connection.

How it was to read it: The naked directness of that excerpt continued throughout the book. Lately I’m attracted to writing that is direct, bare-boned, probably because right now in my life I feel like I only have time to read things that get to the point, so to speak. My love of literary pyrotechnics is in a waning phase. I absolutely love that Greene expresses his experience of grief without a lot of meandering through the critic’s mind that would justify his emotional and, spoiler, mystic experiences.

I also have sometimes struggled to find writing that expresses the totality of grief. There’s the grief, and then there’s one’s experience of oneself experiencing grief, and then there’s the whacked way that grief actually hits you when you are also intersecting with the world.

A few weeks after Emily died, I was walking down Yonge Street just south of Yonge. A woman passed me going north, holding a baby, about 6 months old. The baby was in a pink coat, red-cheeked with the wind. The mum was, on that flash of passing, upset, a little hunched over, in a longer raincoat with jeans and sneakers on. I remember these things vividly, because I slowed my walk down, deliberately slowed my breath. I knew that this woman was overwhelmed and that any moment she would turn around, run towards me, and give me her baby.

 It was a feeling deep inside me, from the place that knows when you fall and break something that this fall was a real fall with a real wound, the piece of you that knows the glass is going to shatter before it hits. This baby is going to be mine, said that place.

And at the same time, an equally knowing place in me, higher up, between my ears, knew that I was having essentially a break in reality, that no one just turns around with a baby on the street, that this baby was not mine and that I had no claim to it. This part of me was also sure that it was fine that my gut, the place dread grows in nightmares, fully believed that this baby was mine.

And a third part of me balanced the two, both assessing that since I was not, you know, grabbing the baby, and the rational mind was engaged, I was okay enough not to have to call a mental health professional right away. And that part of my mind also found it absolutely hilarious that I thought I would find a baby on Yonge Street, like plucking Thumbelina from an orchid, but in front of a Taco Bell.

I find Greene’s book rings so true from that place. And I’m awed that people can write like that; the word fearless comes to mind.

I admit that I read this book quickly, setting some training wheels on the emotional bicycle in that I read it at a time I knew I’d have way too much to think about shortly to let it dominate the week. That was for me. But it means I didn’t savour it. Maybe I’ll re-read it in March.

I gave it a 5 star rating on Goodreads.

Midlife Dreams

Over the last few months, I’ve started to sleep more consistently than I have in years. I’m not sure whether this is because of the changes I’ve made professionally and personally, because I’m writing again, or — most likely — because my hormones are shifting again. But I’ll take it, because sleeping well is pretty amazing.

If you take my dreams as a whole over my adult life, most of them have been anxiety dreams. When I was in therapy for PTSD and a few other things, a lot of them were focused on feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness in that context. Right after Emily died, I had constant where’s-the-baby dreams, dreams that I felt at the time came right from the soul of primate evolution, telling the mommy monkey not to drop the baby, But my baby had dropped, dropped from birth to NICU to grave. And then on the heels of that, another pregnancy, and then all the ways that sleep is disrupted when you are raising young children. And finally, failure dreams; my subconscious’s policing of my fitness as a worker, mother, partner, and human being.

I think there’s a reason so many mythologies have the gods coming to us in dreams.

But last night, I had a powerful dream of reconciliation. I dreamt I was in Sackville, NB, where I went to school at Mt. Allison University. The Sackville of my dreams only lightly maps to the real Sackville; I’ve had many, many dreams of failure and getting lost and being late and being somehow inadequate there in my dream-town. But the topology of my dream Sackville includes the ocean, and areas of the town that are, frankly, more majestic than what’s there, although it certainly has its corners. It’s also been remarkably consistent over the years, with a wharfside market and two “downtowns” and a second university campus near an exit to the Trans-Canada Highway.

Sackville has a history that includes shipbuilding, but Sackville’s location was on a meander of the Tantramar river, and, as Wikipedia so nicely supplies, “The wharf and the end of Landing Road was on a meander of the Tantramar River, but in the 1920s the meander was cut off due to erosion and silting, leaving the site without access to the sea.” I know this is flighty new-age thinking, but I feel like when I was there, you could feel that under the ground, the inescapable reality of change and loss, when nature literally changes course. And this story has stuck with me as it has some analogy in my experience there.

But last night, in my dream, Carl and I were visiting Sackville as ambassadors of a kind of reconciliation movement around medical error at the Sackville hospital. My dream didn’t provide any reason for this but the feeling was that it related to losing Emily. In the dream, I was constantly astonished at the beauty — oceanside beauty — of Sackville, like all the times I’d visited it in my anxiety dreams, I’d missed that it actually is a very nice place. We were meeting with families who had lost people at that hospital in the late 80s and giving them information and compensation, and in general, being real with them. I was making a lot of tea, in the dream, despite being in a kind of gastropub.

But then the dream shifted to me going over an uncomfortable — okay, traumatic — episode from my time there, although again it was all blown up, dream-style. Somehow, all the key people from that time in my life were present, along with other classmates, and they all agreed with me that this incident had occurred. Except for one person who packed up and left the pub. And they were also there to reconcile with me. And…I felt good about it. Not changed or anything new, not like an ABC Afterschool Special. But glad to be having the conversation, and pleasantly surprised that we all agreed on what had happened.

Throughout the dream, my own feeling inside was a little braced, like I was ready to handle whatever the trip threw at me…but I would need to handle something. But instead, what I kept coming up against was that things were better than I thought they would be.

If this is the kind of dreams that hormones produce as I get closer — really really close now! — to my 50s, bring it on. Maybe this is why so many crones laugh so much. And maybe after the river shifts and you can’t build ships any more, well, you build your university.

Worldbuilding by neglect

I started the fantasy book(s) I’m working on now a long time ago, while on maternity leave with my eldest son…and in a rage over the popularity of the Twilight series. In the Writers and Company interview in my mind, I point out that I started the books holding my baby in the middle of the night, and I’m pushing through the draft in Starbucks each morning after I drop the same baby at high school.

There are so many reasons for the derailment of that train, but it’s amazing how things grow lush out of neglect sometimes. Today I’m working on a minor but important detail of how fairy wings hide. It’s one of the few details so far that hasn’t resolved with just a very brief visit to the 3-d world that’s popped up in my head over the last, well, decade+. I feel like there was a small recorder going over that time that noted details that would come back later…and I’ve been terrible at journalling, a choice I kind of regret.

And yet, and yet.

This is basically how Carl and I do our gardening too. I’m not sure what that says about us, but I do know we had a lot of migrating monarchs this year.

Honey badger

A couple of weeks ago I went down one of those YouTube rabbit holes and ended up delighting in the exploits of Stoffle the Honey Badger (as well as other related honey badger content):

I’m now trying to write a honey badger into a reverse portal story which takes place largely in Toronto…if only honey badgers were native here. Although I am starting to wonder if trash pandas are cribbing their playbook.

Stoffle’s attempts to get out of his cage came to mind this weekend. There’s a house for sale on our street which is about twice the size of our current bungalow. Real estate is a perennial Toronto obsession, but I also come by it via family tree as my mum’s time as a real estate agent took place in my formative years. So I’m the nosy neighbour that goes to most open houses in the neighbourhood.

The house as listed is…a little crazy. It looks like it was beautifully kept, but it also looks renovated room-by-room over the last 40 years, so that each era is represented. There are a whole bunch of different tiles, flooring options, wall coverings, windows, lighting…you get the idea. As a result, it’s a bit of a steal.

To be clear, we are not moving. I cannot handle a move right now, and:

  • We have all the space we need, even if it’s not always the kind of space we want (no walk-in closet is my number one complaint), and it is much kinder to the Earth to keep it where it’s at.
  • Our house is sort of at the nadir of our home maintenance in that we moved in 14 years ago, and have been raising young children since, so in the natural life cycle of homes we will start fixing everything we’ve broken/scratched/scuffed…any day now.
  • I’d rather travel and spend money on education in various forms (from the boys’ upcoming tertiary education to my own interests) than increase our house debt.

But…like the honey badger working his way out of the cement enclosure only to go break into his keeper’s home, I can’t stop planning the possibilities in this other house. In some ways I gave that house more rent in my head this week than my own home.

Dissatisfaction is part of the human experience, and is what keeps us learning and growing and helping other people. And gratitude for what we have is what keeps us grounded. I feel like midlife is so much about living in the space in between.

And being crafty, with sharp claws, and ready to stand up to a pride of lionesses.