The bearable fullness of being

This Saturday, I drove my 14-year-old son and 4 of his friends down to Storm Crow Manor for a DM&Dine session as a belated birthday party.

Picking the boys up from various corners of our neighbourhood, I knew a lot of the streets because I have mapped out or driven routes to pick kids up for the After School Program at work.

One of the boys was in Noah’s baby-mom playgroup that I joined when Noah was about 6 months old, so we’ve been stopping by his house for that long. Another one of the boys is the sort-of stepbrother of Noah’s best friend (also along for the ride, but goes to Noah’s arts high school in dance. And the fourth member is a straight up new friend from high school.

Noah’s choice of music was an 80s classic rock station, which played Queen, Steppenwolf, and The Police (“hey…that’s Sting, why does the display say The Police” – 14-year-old) as we drove past the cemetery where Emily is buried. We drove by Carl’s and my first house, neighbourhoods where we have visited friends, where my sister lived, where we’ve worked. Down Church Street to park across from Wellesley station.

Storm Crow Manor is nerd paradise in the middle of Toronto’s gay village/rainbow district/whatever I should call it, please comment.

The DM for Noah’s party, Nicole, is a friend of mine that I met on PernMUSH in I think 1992 or 3. When I was on maternity leave for Emily’s birth (March 2004), she took my job, which created awkwardness when Emily died, but we worked out a job share arrangement that I hope worked as well for her as it did for me. I ended up first at home alone after those part-time hours, and then working remotely a lot of the time from Ottawa, because Carl accepted a contract that meant he essentially moved there.

What I think I have perhaps never told her is that her friendship was one of the strong strands in the web that held me up during that time.*  My daily life was like watching TV with the volume off; things only kind of rolled by. I left the house early each day and walked in the cemetery and talked to Emily. Then I worked until mid-afternoon. I would take the GO Train home, and stop at the LCBO in Union Station on Mondays and buy a bottle of whiskey. Each day I would add a chocolate bar. I would come home and do physical labour — yardwork, painting the basement, clearing out the barn, anything that tired me out. And then I would crawl into bed, watch VHS tapes of Sex and The City, drink a finger/two fingers/three fingers of whiskey and eat my chocolate bar, and go to sleep. But every now and then, Nicole and I would hang out and discuss everything not to do with work, homes, or babies.

In June of 2004, Nicole invited me out for Pride. She was (and is) married, so was I, and so we hit the party with nothing on our minds but dancing. And we did dance, like crazy, drunk and hot and sweaty and dehydrated.

I had been moving into the role of mother, avoiding sushi and soft cheese, reconfiguring our home, planning Life With Baby, and then the house of cards came down and I hit a new barrenness. Dancing with Nicole, and in the energy of that celebration of identity and self, I felt a shaft of joy again. It went through first just as happiness, and then a shock of recognition of it, and then a wave of guilt that I could feel it with my baby in the ground. But most of all, that feeling was possible, in the after.

This all hit me after I dropped the boys off to enjoy their campaign in the hands of one of the best storytellers I know. The way enjoying “nerd stuff” is mainstream now. The way my son and his peers accept fluid gender and sexual identities. The presence of my living children in my life. The amount of joy every week that we all share. The way my Toronto and Scarborough roots have spread underneath me and pop up everywhere in the ground itself. And the way Noah is just at the start of that, making some memories with his friends.

It’s a pretty rich life going on.

*In typical fashion, I am posting this on the Internet before I tell her, if I even do.

#OkBoomer + The Rise of Skywalker anticipation

The generational warfare is strong this week as the NY Times points out the #OkBoomer trend.

Thanks, New York Times, but the Boomer/Y showdown is really about to play out this December through the mythology of our time, as The Rise Of Skywalker hits movie theatres. Let’s pause to consider the oeuvre to date.

First you have Anakin, the boomer. Midichlorian origin story worthy of an LSD trip (or a parent “lost in the war”), he attaches himself to a hippy Jedi movement. However, due to his codependent relationship and the influence of an Evil Old White Guy he ends up murdering children.

anakin-palp

It’s into this that Generation X launched itself in its self-contained trilogy. Princess Leia’s spunky stand-up-for-herself-while-still-needing-rescue self, Luke’s whiny ass bored-on-Tatooine self, the Generation Jones Han Solo staying bemused at it all, fight together for the Rebellion and wins!

It’s 1989 and the Berlin Wall is coming DOWN! Peace ahoy!

throne room

Except, of course, no, the spectre of Palpatine, the ghost of Anakin (hippy – evil – dying turns to good) and the nouveau evil of emo Kylo Ren and his alt-right sidekick merely reboot the Empire into the First Order. They probably used Facebook ads to do it:

first-order

But no worries, here come the heroes of the Resistance, who may be fighting evil but also are doing it for their friends. Welcome, diverse and mysterious Gen Y!

resistance

But what is Gen X doing? Slogging away at their rat-race jobs that have never panned out as they hoped, playing with their favourite tech:

han

screwing up their children while single parenting and juggling their career while having to deal with all kinds of mansplaining in conference rooms,

leia

 

and of course, running away to meditate ironically on how crappy life was on some  island about to vanish into the rising seas.

luke

Ultimately, Generation X may have provided the iPhones and the Internet, or as I’ve commented before, a whole bunch of narrative, but the upcoming fight will be Kylo Ren and Rey against the Palpatine/Anakin post-war, white male dominant culture.

From Generation X to yours, May The Force Be With 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.)

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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.

 

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.

Proprioception, or how to exercise when you hate it and you aren’t any good at it.

The last month, when my leg has been mostly ready to go, I have been struggling to get back into martial arts training, which isn’t really great for a martial artist! But I was reading a question on a chat community from someone who wants to exercise but feels like they are just no good at sports, never have been, never will be and I wrote a response that I think is actually to myself.

I was that kid, for sure. Looking back I’ve realized that I loved to move my body. But I wasn’t “good” at most sports, and my family’s approach to exercise, as I have joked throughout the years, was pretty much “walk to the library or bookstore, get books, walk home.”* Reading is great, and has given me very much joy indeed. But I wish I had discovered martial arts or something equivalent as a kid. Instead, in elementary school I was picked last for teams (remember that tradition?), ended up holding the skipping rope more than jumping, and was bullied for a lot of things including being really clumsy.

The emotional why of how that changed is pretty complex and would take a few blog posts, but the steps I went through aren’t.

Issue 1: Out of breath no matter what I do. A lot of what I hated about exercise was that out of breath feeling. When I get out of breath, I can start to panic, and when I start to panic, all I want to do is go hide somewhere and possibly eat chips. I read a blog post waaaay back by DoctorMama which changed how I approached aerobic exercise, and that worked for me. Go slow. Super slow.

Issue 2: Lack of coordination/clumsiness/”I’ll never get my body to do this, ever”/How come everyone else can do that? There’s a magic word for this, besides the usual practice/try harder/do more, and it is proprioception. I learned this word in physiotherapy and it was an aha! moment, because about 4-5 years ago, I suddenly became confident that if I took an exercise class it would be okay. I never, in 40 years, had that sense before. Looking back I think it’s because I had started to improve my proprioception. The Wikipedia article talks about how to do this, but I of course recommend martial arts. Or yoga. Or, frankly, a few sessions with a physiotherapist.

Issue 3: Mental space. So let’s pick your favourite friend or young person and ask them to learn a new skill. But while they are learning this new skill, someone is going to stand behind them and tell them they are no good at it, never going to get good at it, and basically be the bully that I had in elementary gym class. How quickly do you think they will learn and how much will they enjoy it? Right? Well, this is what I did to myself every time I went out for a bike ride or to run or to try aquafit or whatever. It’s hard to stop. I banished mine mostly through listening to podcasts while running (I started with the New Yorker fiction podcast because then I was a writer who happened to be running while thinking about literary greatness, rather than someone trying to run) but if you have a way to banish negative self-talk, please comment.

I also worked with a trainer at Venice Fitness for a while who was great at talking against the talk. But that’s probably another post. It helped a lot but didn’t stick for a while.

Issue 4: Anxiety while exercising. Besides that issue where when I got out of breath, I panicked, I also spent a lot of my adult life in fitness classes, which I would sign up for and go to twice and then abandon, waiting for the bullying to start or someone to touch me inappropriately. Last fall I went to a Parent Council conference that introduced me to Dr. Stuart Shanker and he did a talk about anxiety in children and teens and how that shuts down their brains so they can’t learn. That was eye-opening about learning.

But it wasn’t until last week when I took a bad step on my injured leg in martial arts class, and then couldn’t get through a set of basic blocks, that I realized that it wasn’t just self-critical thinking or lack of coordination that made exercise classes so hard for me, it was anxiety. Which is highly ironic, because I was there in part to try to address anxiety and stress. Anyways, again I do not have a solution other than the one I found which was to stick with a particular class (in my case it was yoga) for over a year, twice a week. By the end of the first year, out of sheer boredom I think, my self and my body (the last probably being more important) finally accepted that no one was going to come up to me in class and bully me.

I mean the reality of most adult classes is that everyone is there for themselves, fitting in it as time allows, and they don’t care about other people but…even with my brain knowing that, it took a year of going to the same place and the same movements and the same routine and the same changerooms to start to be able to learn freely.

(Weirdly while I was writing this post, my gym called my home number. I didn’t get to the phone in time so I have no idea why, but that’s odd, isn’t it? Considering they don’t call. I just noticed the time and if I scoot quickly, I can get to a martial arts class, so here I go.)

Enslaved and Empowered

I was speaking with my mother-in-law Judy over the weekend about mediums and the concept of an afterlife. To picture this conversation you have to understand that I was in the backseat with my crutches and my Air Cast and wondering how I was going to cope with the buffet-style meal my youngest chose for his birthday dinner. It was also the second time I’ve left the house for anything other than medical appointments or work since December 4.

One of the comments she made was along the lines of where does all our energy go when it’s no longer constrained by our bodies. The assumption kind of was (or at least I took it as) — we’re bigger on the inside than the outside.

I was brought up short by my own reaction. My hastily written note:

Gifted with body

I spent most of my time in my 20s trying to get out of my body. My body, especially as it had been used by others, was a pretty shitty place. I played PernMUSH back in the day, which was kind of a proto-World of Warcraft game, except you didn’t kill things, you just pretended to be someone else, on some other planet. Dragons were involved. One of the best parts of it, for me, was that I could interact with other people without having to deal with fingers, toes, clumsy actions, too-loud laughter, ugly smells.

There’s no question that if you had asked me about my beliefs at the time that I would have insisted that my body was one of the smallest parts of me. A regrettable necessity.

Being knocked on my ass by my broken leg, though, I realize how much that’s changed. Since getting going on my martial arts journey (and really several years before I knew I was on it), I work out to grow and feel my strength. I stretch out to feel the earth and the hum of the world around me. I breathe to connect with, yes, the energy that comes from some wellspring I can only touch and never describe.* I move because I love going ahead. I’ve been really frustrated with my limitations. But nowhere in the last 7 weeks have I wanted out of my body. (Except maybe the period between shock wearing off and painkillers, before my leg was set – I will give anyone that!)

The idea that I would be bigger after death doesn’t sound so right any more. I’ve held my daughter as she died, so I know something changes that isn’t just about breathing or heart rate, but about – for lack of a better word – soul. But I’m no longer sure that’s larger than life. Life is pretty big.

Years ago I cried in the bathroom because I had to go to a PR event that involved a pedicure, which meant baring my feet in front of colleagues and having a stranger touch me, and I did not think there was any way I could make it through that experience in one piece. (I survived, even though it made me feel like I’d lived on the wrong planet forever, and the icily polite person dealing with my unpampered heels clearly agreed.)

Yesterday I went to physiotherapy for the first time, and people touched my feet and poked and prodded, and we talked about what I can do and what I can’t do, and what I should do…and what I want to do. I felt great. Also my leg was all hairy. And I didn’t care.

I feel pretty lucky I came to this in my 40s, because I can see how the hill crests here somewhere and then it’s back downhill. Good thing there will be so many awesome books in the world.

* Being of Gen-X, you can pretty much substitute The Force for energy.

No Man’s Land (1)

Sometimes when we lose our heroes we lose ourselves. And the corollary holds.

Growing up I frequently got through the day (hour…minute) by fantasizing constantly. My mind was full of The Bionic Woman, Star Wars, Star Trek, Arthurian legend, V, Pern…pretty much anything other than the there and then. I could call it fandom, or I could call it fantasy-prone personality, or I could call it a creative connection to archetypal myth and legend.

But mostly for the last two decades I have tried not to call it anything at all and focus instead on being an ordinary human being.

I suppose it’s either understandable or cliche then that my midlife turning point came in the middle of watching Wonder Woman. I have been waiting for a decent female superhero movie for literally my whole life, The Incredibles notwithstanding. Lots of people wrote about this movie last summer, but I didn’t. I did talk about it with my friends but I didn’t invest too much money in themed merchandise or start writing fanfic.

I just quit my very nice arts-related job and became the operations manager at The Academy.

My adolescence spent hanging out at the Silver Snail and spending money on Alien trading cards is apparently nothing when weighed against the amount of perimenopausal havoc I can wreak.

I particularly blame the No Man’s Land scene. I cried through it every time I watched it in the theatre, and I found clips on YouTube and watched them, and now I have the movie via iTunes and I watch it still about once a week.

It wasn’t that it was Diana’s first steps towards becoming a warrior for humanity, although that will also do. And it wasn’t watching a female-directed movie allow a flock of men to support a woman’s vision, although that will do as well.

It was the moment Diana turns away from Steve with an absolute commitment to her own vision.

Steve: We can’t save everyone in this war. This is not what we came here to do.
Diana: No, but it’s what I’m going to do.

I’m turning 47 next week. I was raised in the days of Free to Be, You and Me and I grew up believing William Wants a Doll and Parents are People and all those things. And I gradually took fewer STEM classes, and came to hate trigonometry, and I studied literature instead, and I got several jobs and got promotions and got new jobs and got promotions. I spent 8 years working for mainstream women’s magazines, in time for geekery to become cool.

I have worked with many amazing women. And for many years I believed the time would come when the women that were a decade or two ahead of me, the stellar and ambitious ones, would be the CEOs and I would follow in their wake.

Instead, I have watched women I highly respect get worn down. Worn down by sexism and the old boys’ club. Worn down by harassment. Worn down by life-work balance that still meant they were responsible for the second shift at home, or caregiving for elderly parents. Worn down by the low-grade drip of having their ideas continually put down because they had breasts, or had taken maternity leave, or any number of reasons.

But worn down mostly by watching mediocre men get promoted past themselves.

And that is why I cried. Because Diana is – unbowed. And she did not wait for approval, or try to argue her team into listening to her or changing their mission. She just climbed the ladder and walked into the hail of bullets. Because that’s what she was going to do.

(And then, the men followed her.  Which will be another post some day.)

I didn’t leave my job to train Amazons exactly, although I have said on Facebook that a part of that decision was that I kind of did want to at least be able to say that. (My job is not instructional, and martial artists are not Amazons. But we do have swords and bo-staffs and perhaps even want to change the world.) It’s because that’s what my gut was telling me to do, and I listened to it, and then I got off the corporate ladder.

This is either one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done in my life or one of the smartest, the jury’s out. But it was a recommitment to…my own quirky freak flag.

My job is still new enough that I feel a bit like I’m at the phase where Diana is under her shield. I know I can hold my own. I’m not quite sure, yet, how best to move forward. (Also Diana heals super-fast and I am still sitting here with my broken leg elevated.)

I still watch that scene and cry.