Tuesday, June 19, 2012

the birthday project: sweet sixteen.

I started the birthday project last June in a fit of memoir-related fury, the desperate, annual self-examination in which I find myself around the turning of my years. In a way, putting all those stories down marked a shift for this blog, away from incredibly biased, useless book reviews and posts about back issues of People Magazine (but don't worry, I'll still keep editorializing about their editorial page as often as I can) and toward a forum for personal stock-taking, a collection of random, lesson-less moments of my little life. It's a shift I've been happy to make and one that I hope people have enjoyed. I hope to compile some of the better-received pieces into something a little more fully-formed.

But for now, a few more sunshine sketches of birthdays past, beginning with a birthday exactly half a lifetime ago.

In June, 1996, I greeted the end of the school year with more relief than ever before. I was a peaople-pleasing brain and as such, I'd always loved school itself, but I hated the incredible social anxiety and constant backstabbery that seemed to plague even such lowly orchestra nerds as me and my friends. Grade ten had been a particularly dramatic year for my little circle, and I was glad to see the ass end of it. The idea of turning sixteen made me excited, however false and pop-culture-driven that excitement may have been.  After a year of personal tumult, I felt like I knew where I was going. I knew who my best friends were and I knew who I wished my boyfriend was and I was altogether comfortable with this unrequited love (I was an emotional teenager, the type who preferred some baseline level of delicious misery to boring contentment).  I'd planned a party for the evening of my birthday, which would fall on a Tuesday just after final exams finished. 

The Saturday before my birthday, my best friend Heather and I did what we did every Saturday: took the bus downtown, hung around on the roof of Jackson Square listening to whatever Sonic Unyon band was playing for free that afternoon (there would come a time when our behaviour on the roof of the mall would devolve into horrifying debauchery but that is a tale for another day). We went to Dr. Disc and bought records I sold later to pay for rave tickets, records like The Hardship Post and the Superfriendz, Tristan Psionic and Treble Charger (back when they were good--gather round, children, let me tell you about the mid-90s). I spent most of my teen years battling depression and various eating disorders, and the past few months had been hard, in a wavy, nebulous way. With the school year over and the summer ahead I was finally feeling more human, more like myself. Heather and I had the kind of wickedly intense friendship that you can only really forge when you're an uncertain teenager who stumbles upon a kindred spirit who shares your crushing love of Douglas Coupland and your absolute certainty that you are so much smarter than everyone else you know and goddammit won't it be good when we get out of this town. It was going to be a good summer, filled with sweaty shows in dangerous all-ages clubs, sunny afternoons at the record store, G1 Driver's licenses.

Heather drove me back to my house on Huxley, where we were going to watch movies and bemoan our existence for a few hours. When we pulled up in front of the house, my parents were both standing on the porch, grinning expectantly. I remember having a flash thought, like, oh god, are they staging an intervention? But the moment passed, and I didn't really think anything of their suggestion that we go to the backyard to check out my brother's new stunt bike (the bike which, incidentally, he'd begged and saved for all year, and also the bike from which he would soon fall during his first tour around the block and sprain his wrist, thereby confirming my parents' worst daymares). As we rounded the corner into the garden, I saw the horde of people, and didn't even have a moment to let it sink in before they all shouted "Surprise!"  Someone had a dinosaur of a video camera, and somewhere on an old VHS tape there is mortifying documentary evidence of me freaking out, running out of the yard, then immediately running back in, shaking like a leaf. I'd never been surprised like that before, and I still count it as one of the most delightful moments of my life.  It is so comforting to see all the people you care about in one place, especially when that one place is your own backyard.

Heather had orchestrated the whole thing with my parents' help, and it was truly wonderful. She told me later how nervous she'd been as we drove home that evening, how convinced she was that something would go wrong, as something always seemed to. Miraculously, though, everything went right. The sun went down and in the dusky light I opened presents and ate cake and probably drank four cans of Coke--these were the days before boozecan madness, the days when everyone still had to be home by eleven, the days when the after-party was a caffeine-fueled sleepover. As the night got darker we spilled out onto the street out front and I convinced the boy I'd had a crush on for at least a year to help me ride his skateboard. I put my hands on his shoulders and it was one of those moments where you just felt like you were being given a taste of what was coming next in your life, where you were happy to hover for a second, somehow aware that once you crossed over, you'd never get to go back.

Not long ago I dug out the photos from that night and they are as blurry, silly, and poorly composed as you would expect. At the end of the evening my mom took a picture of the whole sorry bunch of us, sugar-high and goofy and smiling like maniacs. Of the sweet faces I can make out, I see boys and girls whom I still count among my best friends, boys and girls who are now married, boys and girls who have survived illness and hardship and uncertainty, boys and girls who didn't. I see the start of a grown-up life, an incredible potential.

The night before my actual birthday that year, I watched Sixteen Candles, like I always did. Knowing I was about to be as old as Molly Ringwald's character filled that viewing with a certain adorable gravitas. From now on, I thought to myself, I will be older than this. I will never go back to this place. I cannot take this with me.

Monday, June 11, 2012

teenage dream.

A few summers ago I remarked to myself that I was quickly turning into an 80 year old woman. I was pretty happy with this shift, to be honest. I was in an Old Soul kind of phase of life, newly thirty and living in the town I thought I'd call home for the rest of my life (this blog is often in danger of becoming a Limestone City fan fiction forum). I was content in an inertia comprised of professional apathy, the best friends and neighbours in the universe, and Bob Dylan records. I spent the summer of 2010 whiling away the days and nights eating local tomatoes and writing blog posts about Jonathan Torrens and exploring the multitude of swimming holes in Frontenac County. Every weekend I'd drive out to Tom's house and put up the tent and spend a few days surviving on homemade sangria and campfire coffee. It was a pretty sweet set-up. It was the spiritual equivalent of curling up in your armchair with your knitting. Yeah, I thought to myself, I'll ride this one out for a few more decades.

Life, of course, happened. The events of the following six months pulled me out of my octogenarian reverie, spun me around in circles a few times, then spat me out back in my hometown. It's taken awhile, but I can honestly say that Hamilton finally feels a little more like home these days. Maybe it's the comfort of being home at the Canada Street cottage for a full year now, the sun on my porch and the tomatoes in my own garden. Or maybe it's the manner in which I have regressed in completely the opposite direction and am now turning back into the 18 year old version of myself. Here's the incontrovertible evidence:

1. I'm back on the pill, and just like the first time, my mom has a lot of questions about it.

2. On random weeknights my best friend gets dropped off at my house by her mom, and we sit in the backyard discussing the various ways in which we intend to change the world while also hoping we can score a good stash for the cottage.

3. The only album I want to listen to is Exile in Guyville by Liz Phair.

3a. I may also allow for One Chord To Another by Sloan.

3a(i). I still remember the day One Chord came out. My best friend Heather had an afternoon spare period and drove down to Dr. Disc to buy it. She came back to school and stood outside the door of my Society: Challenge and Change class and held up the album and waved it around like a beacon and my dorky, Andrew Scott-lovin' heart nearly smashed into pieces. Man, I thought, this is going to be a GREAT SUMMER.

There's a guy who's been around a lot lately who often tells me he thinks nostalgia is dangerous. He's not one for living in the past, I guess; he's someone who keeps swimming. I don't mind moving forward, but I'm not going to lie: I love to look backward too. I love nostalgia. It makes me feel connected to all the people I've known, all the different versions of myself I've been. Old before her time; living fast, dying young; part of this large family.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

a girl's guide to hunkering.

Anyone who knows me is aware of the fact that I love a good hunkerin'. There is no finer way to spend a day than at home, curled up, enclosed and coccooned and otherwise safe from the outside world. I've pretty well perfected the art of hiding out. It's a sport usually reserved for the colder months, though, and I always feel a little sad when the days get longer, the sun warmer, the urge to leave the house mysteriously stronger. Sure, you can still hunker down in the summer, but it's frowned upon (unless you're deathly ill and there's a wicked heat wave and you have the first five seasons of 90210 at your disposal, but that's another story). That's why Friday's monsoon-style downpour felt like one last cold-weather gift, one last chance to huddle up. 

I didn't get around to my burrowing until late in the day on Friday, which wasn't necessarily too awful. I had the great good fortune not to have to go too far afield. Working and visiting and teaching and running errands, I walked back and forth and up and down Locke Street all morning and afternoon. Each time I left my house it was raining a little harder, and each return home felt like a tiny miracle. There is something so comforting about spending an entire busy day in your own neighbourhood, going and returning, one foot in front of the other. And there's no greater relief than that final coming home when you know you can put on your thick socks and unplug the phone and stay awhile. This is a lucky life.

The worst of the deluge may be over, but Saturday's still looking a little iffy. With that in mind, here's my foolproof summer hunker survival kit.

The Hour. This is a BBC series that takes place in 1956. It's about murder and intrigue in Cold War London, the dawn of the post-newsreel age of reporting, the Suez Canal Crisis, and smart young boys and girls in perfectly tailored suits. At the risk of sounding like a culture-vulture dipshit, I think this series will satisfy all lovers of Mad Men and/or Downton Abbey, which I'm pretty sure amounts to the sum total of the English speaking population of the universe.

Miso gravy on sweet potatoes with steamed spinach and halloumi cheese. It is exactly as incredible as it sounds. At the risk of sounding like a foodie dipshit, I find it to be poutine-reminiscent. Here is the miso gravy recipe that got me started, all the way from the best vegetarian restaurant in the world, The Naam, not far from my old Kistilano stomping grounds. I'm already fantasizing about eating there every blessed night when I'm back in the city of glass this summer.

The June issue of Vanity Fair. This magazine features nude photos and new tales of the last days of Marilyn Monroe, as well as a very informative and tragic story about the last days of Whitney Houston. I'm a fan of last days.

The Night Strangers by Chris Bohjalian. The first Bohjalian book I ever read was Trans-Sister Radio. Actually, I listened to it on audiobook back when I lived in Ottawa, and have listened to several of his books since, as well as reading several more on paper. Bohjalian's books are wonderful. He creates rich, morally complex characters wading through myriad life-altering circumstances, from gender reassignment to attempted rape to domestic abuse. He's a master of the trauma-inducing moment and the long, drawn-out, harrowing process of recovery. The Night Strangers is a ghost story of sorts that starts with a truly terrifying description of a plane crash on Lake Champlain and then follows the pilot as he tries to get past what has happened to him. At the risk of sounding like a literary dipshit, it has elements of Updike's Witches of Eastwick and echoes of the best books Alice Hoffman ever wrote (Fortune's Daughter and Practical Magic, for starters). If you'll excuse me, I'm off to turn on every light in the house before I go to bed. Why I thought I could read this book and then fall asleep alone is beyond me but god DAMN if it isn't worth it.

Happy hunkering.