Subject: Writing as an outsider. My chosen venue: a basketball game in a high school on the west side of the city.
When I first arrive, I sit on the wrong side in the wrong set of stands, then notice a dad I vaguely recognize heading in the other direction, and try to discreetly switch ends. It is hard to focus and write because I want to watch and things happen so quickly, end to end and back again. Coach whacking her clipboard on the sidelines, shouting, “Whoo!”, the team scores. My daughter is on the bench looking small in the red and black jersey. The coach wears red too. The other team is white and blue. Girl misses her free throws.
Shoes squeak. Ball pounds on the wooden floor. The sounds are particular to this space. Close your eyes and you would know what you are hearing. Echoing.
Girls are up 4-0 when the teams take an inexplicable break. They have been playing for mere minutes. I don’t understand. The team huddles up with a tall assistant coach who is not wearing red (blue, instead), and the head coach, who is also tall, animated and vocal. I recognize one of the refs from soccer.
The teams play for another minute and take another time out. The refs stand together at the far end, side by side, like identical twins in their black and white striped shirts, long black pants, black shoes, and round heads, one bald, one with short white hair. I know the bald one. They run up and down the court with whistles in their mouths. I don’t know much, but I can see that the coach plays the same five players most of the time. Nine girls sit on the bench and wait.
Bright lights. Echoing chamber. Blue plastic benches, terminally uncomfortable. “Home of the Highlanders.”
I should watch instead of writing.
At half-time, the ref who I recognize from soccer comes over to chat. “You don’t watch while your own daughter is on?” “Oh no! When was she on?” “She was on for the last minute.” “Oh man, I totally missed that.” “This is a good team.” “Yes.” “She’s in grade nine, your daughter?” “Yes.” He tells me about how he used to coach basketball and why he quit (a long story).
The buzzer counts down and the next half starts and now I watch with great duty and attention. My daughter does not play again. I don’t know much about basketball, but the same nine players sit on the bench and don’t move for the final quarter. My attention drifts to the clutch of slender teenage boys watching and horsing around with their phones on the lower benches. I recognize one from soccer.
I understand soccer, but not basketball. The team wins by more than 10 points. That seems sufficient.
Afterward, walking across the parking lot, my daughter, who is glowing, says, “Have I converted you to basketball yet?” “I’m really sorry,” I say earnestly, even though I’d intended to keep this opinion to myself, “but I have to admit that I’d rather be watching you run cross country.” “Oh Mom,” she says in a fond tone, “but I want to play basketball.” “I know,” I say, “and that’s what counts. You’re the one who’s doing it! I’m just here to watch.” (And today, I didn’t even do a good job of that.)
A funny thing happened yesterday morning. I started reading old blog posts, from 2009/2010, and F and CJ sat down and read along with me. They loved the photos, but they also loved the snippets of dialogue and descriptions of our daily life — adventures in which they played starring roles as 1 and 4 years olds. We were in stitches laughing and remembering. I mean, I’d almost forgotten about our “cooking with kids” experiment, and how we would hold family meetings using a “talking crayon.”
I’d forgotten, too, how openly I wrote about my own writing struggles. This was a quiet and difficult time in my writing career. I was three years away from publishing The Juliet Stories, and five years from having published Hair Hat, at the time, my only book. Yet I shared when I finished a new draft of a manuscript — even though the manuscript would ultimately be sent back to the drawing board by my kind agent. I shared when I felt aimless and unsure. I shared the small joys, too. I didn’t seem afraid to let others see me fail.
I’m much more afraid now, I understand.
Why haven’t I shared my ups and downs since publishing Girl Runner? Why hold my cards so close to my chest? I would like to be as brave as my former self. I would like to tell you when I’m excited about a new manuscript, even though it may never be published.
I am excited about a new manuscript, even though it may never be published. It sprung from out of an abandoned idea, and tapped me on the shoulder, and I worked on it in a torrent of concentrated obsession for the past number of months, in locations that seem woven right into the book, in my mind: beside several different soccer fields, sitting in my little white car, or the camping chair I keep in the trunk, or at a windblown picnic table, and in a cool calm classroom in New York State that allowed me to find an ending. I wrote some of the book by hand. I drew cartoons of the main characters. I drew sequences and storyboarded scenes. It was fun. It was super-fun.
And I want to share that with you, whether or not the manuscript is ultimately destined to be published. Because it’s part of the story.
Because the writing felt like play. Because I’ve had a sense of well-being as I’ve worked on this manuscript, and that is a good, good thing. Because I’ve had a sense of spaciousness, of enough, but not too much, these past few months.
Now to go walk the dogs around the block with my Fooey and CJ, who have grown to the enormous ages of 11 and 8. Wow. I love that I can learn from my former self. I love that my kids have this virtual scrapbook to flip through, if and when they’re interested. And I’m glad, glad, glad it’s still summer.
PS Home again. CJ led us in an around-the block heptathlon. He got gold, Fooey got silver, Suzi took bronze. DJ didn’t appear to have Olympic ambitions, and I blame my sandals for my poor showing. That, and the late-afternoon inertia. We were having a grand old time right up until CJ stepped in dog poo (not ours) on the sidewalk, which Fooey found disproportionately amusing, which in turn put CJ into an even worse mood. “This is just a bad day,” he said, although he did take my hand as I tried to cheer him up, to no avail. By the time we reached our back yard, he was so mad that he took off his hat and kicked it into a small tree. The hat-kicking had a salubrious effect on his system. He and Fooey are friends again, and they are playing at the dining-room table with a craft kit dug up from heaven-knows-where that can be used to make miniature cakes and pastries, and probably, also, a major mess. What is this stuff? “It smells terrible,” says CJ. “Don’t worry,” says Fooey. “We’re using it all up.”
Balance. Is there such a thing? I’ve stopped looking.
This week, I biked to the university library on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, where I took over a carrel on the 9th floor and did research. Personal bliss. But every day can’t be spent zooming through the park and poring over dusty old books. On Monday, I volunteered on a class school trip to city hall, and today I am home with a sick child, who was up half the night, but is now drinking tea and told me I could go and blog. She is reading.
I’m really not kidding when I say that researching at a library is just about my happiest state. Researching, writing. I could do this all day. I don’t even take snack breaks.
Which is why it was odd to find myself, last week, spending a full day as a children’s entertainer at a school, reading my book The Candy Conspiracy to approximately 450 kids, and filling in the space around the reading with age-appropriate activities. I even brought my pineapple ukulele. I was pretty nervous in the lead-up (see happiest state, above). I tested my plan with my live-in focus group before unveiling it to the public: the 8-year-old sang along happily to my made-up songs; the 10-year-old informed me in no uncertain terms that I would be embarrassing myself. Ergo, kindergarten through grade two got to sing and pretend to be Juicy Jelly Worms and Clever Children. Grades three through six got a more traditional author visit, with a Q&A and a make-your-own book project. Each session lasted 45 minutes. At the end of the day, I crawled home and collapsed into dreamless sleep on the couch, like a toy whose batteries have run out. Apparently Robert Munsch did coke. I forgive you, Mr. Munsch.
This is feeling like a randomized news roundup. Let’s continue. This morning I went to boot camp and pulled a muscle in my back. Now I can’t look to the left. I’ve been writing in the car in the evenings when I take my eldest daughter to soccer or theatre, or, like last night, both, back to back. Here is a list of the books I’ve read since leaving France: Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin (you must read it even if you’ve seen the movie!); How Should a Person Be, by Sheila Heti (so Canadianly weird); Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire; a bunch of short plays; and one more play called Yellowman, by Dael Orlandersmith. None of these are the dusty old books I’m poring over at the university library.
Today marks 21 years since I met my husband. We always remember the buds on the trees busting out overhead. This morning, while he took our sick child at the doctor’s office, I walked the dogs up the street with our 8-year-old to meet his walking-to-school buddies, and he pointed out all the things that were coming to life around us: the tulip in our front yard (only one, randomly placed), the strawberry patch, the buds on the trees. It’s happening! Instead of going on a date tonight, Kevin will be driving our oldest daughter to Oshawa for a soccer tournament. I will be tending a sick kid and prepping for her team’s first soccer festival (non-competitive tournament) tomorrow, which it looks like she’s going to be too sick to play at; but I’m the coach, so I will be there. This is what 21 years has brought. We can do this! From randomized news roundup to randomized positive self-talk. Let’s stop here.
Yesterday, we gave the kids a snow day. This was not my idea, but Kevin was very keen on it, so I agreed somewhat begrudgingly as it meant sacrificing a quiet day at home in my office, alone. Quite a lot of snow had fallen overnight, but it was crisp, clear, and beautiful, as you can see from the photo above. In the morning, Kevin took the kids sledding; some safety boundaries were pushed to great hilarity, apparently (good thing I hadn’t gone along!). In the afternoon, AppleApple and I went cross-country skiing. We still had all of our regular after-school activities: piano lessons, soccer practice, and a soccer game. It was awfully late when we gathered together again for supper. The boys had been home alone, playing dominoes, waiting to eat until we’d all arrived. Well after 7PM, we sat down to a very popular meal of soft tacos. I could sense the difference the unofficial snow day had made for everyone. We were so relaxed, and especially kind to each other. We sat for ages after we’d finished eating, talking and laughing; everyone.
It’s a luxury to take a holiday in the middle of the week. Kevin and I are both very fortunate to have jobs that allow us this level of flexibility, and yesterday was a reminder to take advantage of that freedom from time to time.
Today, my office is quiet. The dogs are sprawled out napping near my feet. I’ve set the timer for fifteen minutes.
I have some news. I’m going to France in April. (!!!) I’ll be away nearly three weeks, attending events at an arts festival in Normandy, and promoting the publication of the French translation of Girl Runner (or, Invisible Sous la Lumiere, as it is being called). I’ve been commissioned to write a short piece as part of the arts festival, and will be given an artist’s residency at a museum for about ten days. I’ve been dreaming of a writing retreat for a long time … just never imagined it would happen in France!
One sad thing about the trip is that I’ll be missing the performance of AppleApple’s adaptation of Macbeth. Of course, in 18 days, I’ll be missing much more than that. I think I’m missing everyone and everything in advance right now. Premature homesickness. Adventures are so much harder to throw yourself into when you’re leaving behind children.
Two readings coming up this weekend. I’ll be in Hamilton on Sunday evening at an event called Lit Live, and in Toronto on Monday evening at the Rowers Reading series. Check my upcoming events page for more info.
Ding-ding-ding! That’s my time. Tomorrow I’ll try to remember to tell you about turmeric tea, the laundromat, and swimming.
This morning, I bought two kitchen timers, the kind that you can set for an hour and that tick loudly to mark each passing second. I bought them after listening to the CBC radio program Spark on Wednesday afternoon. I was driving through the most miserable weather (freezing rain) to pick up a child for piano, so I missed the name of the expert and the context, but the point of the interview came across clearly, like a message I needed to hear: video games are entertainment. They are designed to suck players in, to make players want to keep playing. That is their sole purpose.
Adults get sucked in to their digital worlds too: email for some, Facebook or Twitter or other social media for others.
Lecturing a kid about self-discipline around video games is not only ineffectual, it’s completely pointless, said the expert. You can’t tell a kid to have more self-discipline, when in fact, the kid is responding to the stimulus exactly like a normal human being.
Which is why I’ve got two new kitchen timers. Here is what the expert recommended: set a time limit, and enforce it by setting a timer. An old-fashioned ticking timer that reminds the child that time is passing. When the timer goes, re-set it for another 1-2 minutes, to let the child extract him or herself from the game/digital device. When that time is up, if the child hasn’t disconnected, there will be a penalty, say, 5 minutes less playing time tomorrow. If the child has shut off the game, the expert recommended a reward. I didn’t hear what kind of reward. (I wouldn’t really want to offer more playing time tomorrow.)
There are larger issues, here, of course. You have to be present to know and actually see when your children are disappearing into their devices. What are they doing in their bedrooms while I’m cooking supper or sitting here in my office? What about at friends’ houses? Will my eldest choose to go to hang out a more permissive friend’s house, if he isn’t getting the screen-time he so craves at home? I worry about that.
But I worry more about being too permissive myself, and not consistent in how I apply my values to this situation. Tick-tick-tick-tick-tick. That’s the sound of my children growing up more quickly than I can really comprehend. Tick-tick-tick-tick-tick. My own timer is going. (In fact, I know the method works because I use it all day long, to keep myself on task, and free from distraction.)
P.S. Our washing machine is broken. OUR WASHING MACHINE IS BROKEN! And won’t be fixed till the middle of next week at least. AND WON’T BE FIXED TILL NEXT WEEK! I weep.
As she comes on stage, the stadium lights up, the plastic rubbery wristbands we’ve slipped onto our wrists suddenly alive and pulsating with colour, to the beat of a song I don’t recognize. There is a collective inhale, a gasp, as we prepare for this spectacle, and recognize its announcement, its arrival.
She is here.
She is wearing sunglasses and a jacket and very high heels. From where we are sitting, high up in the highest, remotest seats of this concrete bunker, she is dollhouse-sized, but her face, her stride, is simultaneously captured and broadcast onto two wide screens that flank the stage. I don’t know the first song: Welcome to New York. But she’s just getting warmed up.
The third song is Style.
She strides down the narrow runway, but doesn’t come quite far enough. It’s like she’s teasing the audience, walking forward and back, but never to the end of the platform that stretches out into the audience below, those who must have paid astronomical fees for their tickets. I want her come to the end of the runway. I wait for her to come all the way down, where we will be able to see her clearly. I think that she is deliberately teasing us, and I am impressed that desire can be invented so easily, so strategically, by the simple act of denial. The semaphores in this show are simple and effective, the narrative clean and crisply delineated.
She takes off her sunglasses, she pulls off the jacket, as if now we will see her for who she is—a doll-like creation of red lips and pale perfect skin and arched brows. She is dressed in black, the outfit cutting across her pale skin, sectioning her up into pieces. I wonder how she can stride the stage in such a short skirt with such confidence.
But is it confidence? I think, but do not say to my daughter, that Taylor Swift is not singing. She is not even doing a particularly good job at lip synching. After having heard the first two performers, both young men, sing and play their guitars with flair and emotion and talent, this is disappointing. I admit to initial disappointment, as she whips off her sunglasses and disrobes before us, and holds the mic at an unlikely distance from her lips, her mouth moving out of synch with the words that are soaring through the air: We’ll never go out of style, we’ll never go out of style.
But I will forgive her for this lapse later in the show. Because the singing is the least of what she is attempting: What she is attempting is the creation of spectacular flashing moments, a montage that tells a story—the story of Taylor—replete with fleeting images, shimmering, an illusion of perfection, an illusion of intimacy, as gutsy as it is implausible. Later in the evening, when she is spinning around in the air at the end of the runway, which has been tilted and raised high up on a mechanical arm, later, when she is being whirled counter-clockwise before us, grounded to the platform by thin wires, playing or fake-playing chords on an electric piano, balancing in her high heels, hair swinging and swooping over her forehead, chased by high-wire cameras, projected onto enormous screens, all while singing into a microphone, I will forgive her for singing over a recorded track, singing only partially. I will admire her willingness to be on display in this feat of daring, and to display for her audience only the most idealized version of her experience of this moment.
Even when she struggles to move the microphone from her hand, where it has been strapped, into a microphone stand, she does not comment on the trouble she is having, she smiles and continues to talk to us about friendship, about how she has an easy way with friends, and can feel as close to someone she’s just met as to someone she’s known forever, if this someone (could we all imagine it is us?) is authentic and trustworthy. Finally, the microphone slides into the stand. She has not burdened us with this technical irritation. She doesn’t complain, she refuses to draw attention to it. The show churns onward, making its own pace.
The plastic wristband warms my wrist oddly, in an electrical manner that disturbs me, but I do not take it off. When we arrived, we found that wristbands were taped to the back of every seat in the stadium. When we first slid the wristbands onto our arms, it seemed almost cultish, all of us willingly submitting to the mysterious plastic band, with no concern for what it might do to us. We trusted implicitly the glossy promises of Taylor Swift, her relentless optimism projected onto the screen before the show began, along with her stories about her cats, whose names my daughter knows. “Really, you know their names?” She shrugs. Sure. As if everyone does.
When the wristbands light up and flash and fill the stadium with a pulsating glow, I willingly wave my arm in the air, as instructed, even though my skin gets hot underneath the plastic, and even though I have to wrap the plastic around my palm to keep it from sliding down under my coat sleeve. The woman next to me, who has also come with her pre-teen daughter, dances wildly in her seat, sings breathlessly, gasping and giggling, while her daughter sits rather rigidly; I catch the girl observing us when I glance in her direction. The woman stops herself sometimes, as if embarrassed, but is again overcome by emotion. She knows the words to every song.
I know the words to three songs.
My daughter knows the words to a few more, but not many. We are here because her dad and I thought it would be an exciting and surprising birthday gift; she had written in a school project last spring that this was one of her dreams, to go to a Taylor Swift concert. That’s something we could actually do! we thought, her dad and I. So. We are here for the show, for the novelty of it, and for Taylor Swift whom we both like, if only abstractly—we turn up the radio when her songs come on and sing along, but our admiration doesn’t go a great deal further. We are here together, witness to what the power of money and imagination can create on a vast stage, for the consumption of a broad audience.
“Hi, I’m Taylor,” she says as she marches down the runway, early in the evening. She sounds nervous, swallowing her words, but even this might be an act.
Because I have so recently been so exhausted after performances on a completely different scale, I wonder at her ability to pull out this magnitude of a performance, night after night. I wonder at her willingness to go on, city after city, show after show. But when she stands at evening’s end to receive the applause ricocheting off the closed stadium roof and the girls’ screaming, I think, how could this not be addictive? How could you not believe the stories being told about you? You are a blank slate for the projections of millions of people, and your words are being sung back to you in unison, and your very body, your very flesh and blood is a recipient of this adulation. You absorb the warmth from all these people, here for you, and you become in this moment as near to being one of the gods as a human can get.
When I first heard the lyrics to Style on the radio, I said to my daughter, “I don’t really like this song. It’s not my favourite.”
“I’m doing a dance to it in gym class,” my daughter said.
“She’s kidding herself if she thinks she’ll never go out of style. Style comes and goes. She’ll be old someday too.”
I might have been missing the point. My daughter might not have been listening.
“Also, it’s such a vapid style she’s describing. ‘I’ve got that good girl thing in a tight little skirt.’ Is that what she’s saying? It sounds like that’s what she’s saying.” It is approximately what she is saying. I look up the lyrics later: “I’ve got that good girl faith and a tight little skirt.”
That’s a bit different, message-wise, a bit richer.
But I don’t like songs about good girls, because it’s us against them, good girls v bad girls, and who are the bad girls? What do they do that’s so bad? And what do the good girls do that’s so good, come to think of it? Who is telling them they are good or bad? I also don’t like models for girlhood who teeter in high heels, their exceptionally skinny bodies exposed and hairless. But I do like that this young woman is an extraordinarily powerful presence on the stage, and that she talks to her audience in a way that appears personal, promoting messages of trust, vulnerability, no shame, and strong female friendship.
And I do so very much like that the next morning, after the concert, when my daughter crawls into bed with me, and I say, “What do you think Taylor Swift does when a show is over?,” my daughter says, “Well, she probably has to help take down the stage. And she probably needs to eat something. And maybe take a shower and go to bed. I think she sleeps in a trailer.”
She probably has to help take down the stage.