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.

End of the peace process

Last year I entered a writing contest.

It was a flash fiction competition. The deal for the first round was you were assigned a genre and a few things to include in your story, and then two weeks later you had to submit your piece. Since I have been ruining my chance at a literary career by not writing my own things for about a decade — to illustrate this specifically, I did not finish a book while a Canadian literary giant who was championing it was still alive — I thought a two week timeframe was about right so that I didn’t collapse in a pile of goo.

The genre I got was fairy tale and I wrote a story that wasn’t very good about a young woman who learns she’s a fairy princess and kicks ass. But I wrote it.

I got the feedback from the reviewer, and had it focused on my lack of detail or somewhat stilted prose or that two of the characters’ dialogue sounded the same, I’d’ve agreed. But the feedback I got instead was that the story was unbelievable because in one day the fairy princess was able to complete three tasks and save the kingdom, the last being that she had a duel.

I had opened the story with her sword and martial arts achievements visible on her wall. Also, in the fairy tales I read growing up, it seems like the prince was able to complete his three tasks fairly expeditiously without it being a character flaw.

I was enraged and started working on My Own Stuff again for about three entire days, and then fizzled out.

Since then I have been working to make peace with the idea that I am not really a writer. Not because I got bad feedback — as a editor and a writer I know that is a necessary part of the process, even though I still am bad at the emotional part of it. But because the rage didn’t motivate me for very long. Because I don’t write. Because I have defined myself as “someday-a-writer-but-it-never-works-out” for 30 years and so obviously I just…am not.

I have said many more times in the last year that I am a martial artist than I have said anything about being a writer, not just out loud, but deep down. In the continued mental construction of my self, I had taken writer out of the building plans. I even told my writing partner I am not a writer any more, several times. (I think I was ignored.)

But right now I feel like I was building a nice modern restaurant, and I was about to launch it when the pipes burst. And when I took a sledgehammer to the wall to get a better look, I found a venerable old pub back there, with all my old drinking buddies at the bar…Anne Lamott, Julia Cameron, Natalie Goldberg, Stephen King, John Gardner, Ralph Keyes. I’m not sure yet whether I’m having one drink for old times or creating a practice but…it’s so there.

I also feel like I can’t hold my liquor any more — well that’s torturing this metaphor. It’s stiff, writing these posts, and I feel like I’m hobbling around a dance competition. But here I am writing them.

Really Bad Poetry — Labour Day: Uber Education

Labour Day in the age of parenting

Dear school,

I am consigning my child to your curriculum
Hoping that you will have him labour, but not too much.
Help him arrive in at least the middle of the middle class,
Although upper middle class would be nice
As long as he is not too much of a hipster and
Doesn’t take the New York Times Style section too seriously.

Could you please let me know what the standards are this year?
NPR informs me there’s an Overparenting Crisis.
Could you define over parenting? Will there be a test on that later?
Do I need to supply the snacks?
And if so, do boxed mix cupcakes count as nut-free?
Should I worry whether the food colouring was made by child labourers in Bangladesh?
(Do you think my child’s job will be outsourced to Bangladesh in 2045?)
(Do you think he should be learning Bengali?)

As for learning, here are our summer benchmarks:
Handwriting: Not Instagram-worthy yet
Times tables: Able to multiply 4 NDP signs by 5 lawns.
Vocabulary:  “Since beginningless time, darkness thrives in the void, but always yields to purifying light.” (Netflix had Avatar: The Last Airbender this summer!)

You will find my son two shoe sizes larger,
Four eye-rolls closer to puberty,
And three camp friends richer.

I hope he won’t disrupt the class,
Although if you could help him create a disruptive app that would be awesome.