Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Perception shifts

i'm fascinated by how we look.

the day we arrived, i can confess now, my heart sank. the neighbourhood did not appear to be the chic palermo hollywood of boutiques, lofts and design that the guide books described but, rather, a wanna-be (or, actually, a used-to-be) neighbourhood struggling to re/gain a certain social elevation. i couldn't see what there was to see. i wondered what happened to derail the gentrification i'd read so much about, and i wondered whether there were groceries within walking distance. i worried about where we'd get a cup of coffee in the morning.

partly it's a function of the construction, which is ubiquitous, small-scale and primitive. you see plenty of two-men teams working over a driveway using shovels and wheelbarrows. that is, they break up and shovel away the concrete or stone or clay-tiled sidewalks by hand. they hack out trees using hatchets and axes. they mix concrete in a 5-gallon bucket and spread it over a 15 x 15 foot area by hand, like they would if they were replacing part of your sidewalk. unfinished work is blocked off at the end of the day by arcing and then wedging a 1 x 4 board between the storefront and a still-standing tree. these small construction zones are taped off with simple plastic rope, and everybody is used to detouring into the street at least a few times every block.

there is some large-scale construction, some of it consuming entire blocks of the city. somehow, though, it's less obtrusive. i'm not sure whether that's because your eye just glides smoothly over the billboarded walls or because it's so tidy. i suspect the latter. which makes me realize how tidy edmonton (and, indeed, most cdn/US cities i'm familiar with) is.

add to the ubiquitous construction a fair bit of trash blowing around the streets. then mix in the size of the retail establishments: small. there's a terrific leather jacket store right around the corner from us that is the size of my study at home. gorgeous stuff, all in a place so small you could walk by it without noticing -- that is, a place so small i did walk by it without noticing, quite a few times. ditto the bakery on the other corner. and the fancy kids' clothing store, and the furniture shop. yeah, the furniture shop! just think about that: a shop selling furniture that could fit inside an ikea "storage solution."

well, i'm not saying anything new here: norteamericanos are space pigs. let me be the first to admit that in this respect, i am at one with my people.

what's really fascinating is how my perception has changed over the few days we've been here. i now find our neighbourhood so cool, so full of unexpected little treats of hipness and style, that it's hard to remember the dismay i felt on saturday, and impossible to relive it. now that i know what a mercado looks like, they are everywhere. now that i know how to navigate the sidewalks, they don't unnerve me. now that i have a feel for the traffic (it's beautiful, socialism in action, everybody driving with a sense of the greater good) it's not so bewildering. as for finding coffee: even though it's not particularly a coffee town, you couldn't stretch out your arms without slugging a barista.

the change has come over me so gradually that the new shock is how we are seen -- how we look to others. we don't even have to say "hola" before they're handing us the english menu. among latin american countries, argentina is one of the whitest (something about the "complex" legacy of WWII, ahem) -- so it's not that, at least not simply. it's a white enough country that i don't see myself as being different from them. to me, i'm white, portenos are white, we're all white: i don't really make fine distinctions within the category, since other things (e.g., straightness/queerness, accented/unaccented speech, gender relations between strangers, age differences, and individuals' style, always) interest me more.

but here's something to learn, again: how i see myself and how i am seen are remarkably different! you know that truism that gendering happens as soon as the viewer notes, subconsciously, three markers of femininity? it's like that. blue eyes + short hair + giant stature + glasses = inglesa. oh, the glasses?: both mo and i noticed around three days into the trip that no one in palermo wears glasses, unless you count the occasional gay american. (see? glasses + gay = american.)

is it a cultural thing? a regional thing? a physical thing? a straight thing? all of these? none? even if my spanish were better, i'm sure no one would violate the rules of etiquette and tell me. that, i'm pretty sure, is a cultural thing.

Beautiful object

argentina is famous for its silver. here is what i have bought in silver so far:

admittedly, this is not the kind of silver argentinians are famous for, but i love my little cheese grater. it makes me happy every time i look at it, with its perfect cylinder of shiny brightness. it cost two pesos (about 66 cents) in the dollar store at the end of our street. oh, the red backdrop? that's our kitchen countertop. i so love this little apartment i might never come home.

Please, take me for an american

if the best thing that can happen is to be taken for a local, every canadian knows that the very worst is to be taken for an american. soy canadiensa!

however, i am breaking rank, and i think you'll thank me for it. consider the following:
  • i am in a store with handmade leather jackets, gorgeous ones, with funky colors and inventive designs. even when it's clear that not even the XL jackets are going to fit, i try them all on anyway.
  • mo and i order lunch at our local restaurant. she's been practicing "sin ceballo" so that she can avoid the onions. our server seems puzzled, asks a lot of questions which turns into a longish discussion over the pronunciation of the word. we've been told to say "se-ba-jo" (that double l = j thing so hard to get used to: pollo = pojo, llama = jama), but our server has us practice "ca-ba-ja". when our salads come, hers is without the roasted pumpkin (calabaza). the really embarassing part: it's a roasted pumpkin salad.
  • picture me, if you will, along avenida bullrich, the grand boulevard that runs past a Jumbo Easy supermarket and an understated mosque. actually, just picture that for a second. now add me. i am wearing blue shorts and a bright orange t-shirt. in my left hand is a white gym towel. in my right, a yellow water bottle. i am doing my trainer-mandated accelerating sprints.
  • portenos are super polite. if you say "gracias" at a restaurant, chances are the server will say, 'no, please, thank you.' nobody moves without saying "con permiso" (literally, 'with your permission': excuse me). nobody, that is, but me. i spend a day in this ultra-polite city elbowing my way past people saying "sin permiso," "sin permiso," "sin permiso."
don't you agree, under these circumstances, correcting the impression that we're american is, um, unnecessary?

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

How the other half dies

when mo asked me what i wanted for my birthday, i said "sun!" the light's been so flat that it's hardly been worth taking pictures. well, i got my wish. we woke to gorgeous blue skies.

i should have specified sunny and warm. but no matter. how warm can you be at a cemetery anyway?

i have a horror of boring people with vacation pictures, so i'm trying an opt-in system. if you want to see images from recoleta cemetery, click here.

La vida en espanol

being taken for a local is always the best moment in any trip. my moment was last night, when a guy stopped us on the street and asked how to get to bonpland and soler. the second i opened my mouth, of course, he realized his mistake. still, he stood gamely by while i worked my mouth around the phrase for "seven blocks this way" (the "this way" indicated with gestures, not words) and "four blocks this way." mo was impressed that i knew "cuadra" (block), so my dignity was saved from otherwise certain doom.

i'm okay with spanish as long as people don't depart from the script. when i ask, "donde es el bano?," i want economy of words: "alli, a la izquierda," maybe with some helpful pointing. i do not want to hear that it's around the bar, up the stairs, through another room of tables at the back of the building. i cannot cope with that, and i simply have to move on to the next person/establishment until i get actionable information.

sometimes the issue is not language at all, but culture, experience, or good old-fashioned ignorance. last night, buying a bottle of wine, i asked, "es seco o dolce?," meaning is it dry or is it sweet. it didn't translate, so i tried again, managing to say something like 'the man, does he drink it with the dessert or with the food?' when the clerk still had to ask someone else in the store, i realized she was probably about 16 years old and knew nothing of wine. similarly, the other day i asked for "un capuccino, pero con espresso doble." the server looked confused, so i tried again. "uno capo, dos espresso," counting it out on my fingers. no go. she says to me in english (everybody of course speaks english), "you want one capuccino but with extra espresso?" "si, por favor. es possible?" (which does not exactly mean "is that possible" but more like, "could it be so?" i was not going for sarcasm.) she held off answering. "more coffee," she said, "but with the same milk?" exactly. the thing is, it's not a coffee town. the problem wasn't linguistic but conceptual.

what people do drink: mate. and this ain't your usual steeps-type "hmmmm, should i go with madras spice or yerba mate" drink. it's a full-on experience. you take your gourd and fill it with herb, then pour in 80-degree water to fill. the water must be at 80 degrees or you start again. you take the three sips of tea from the gourd (which is so full of yerba paste that's all there is, allah be praised), refill with water and pass it to the next person. not so much in the capital, but everywhere else you see people of all ages -- from 3 to 83 -- with a thermos slung over their shoulder and a mate gourd in their hand, sipping away all day. gas stations have a hot water station with the water set at precisely 80 degrees, from which you can refill your thermos for free, and several apartments set their hot water tanks to mate level, too. i find that yerba mate smells and tastes just like henna. or, as we say in spanish, no me gusto.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Mysteries of the argentine woman

breakfast in buenos aires normally consists of a big mug of sweet hot chocolate along with a couple of churros: deep-fried donuts filled with dulce de leche and sprinkled with sugar. three-course lunches appear to be at least widely available if not universally consumed. dinner, as most people already know, generally orbits around a large hunk of cow and patas fritas, hold the vegetables.

this is all very encouraging.

until you go into the palermo soho shops, which tend to have three sizes: size 1, size 2, and size 3. small, medium and large, you are thinking? no: tiny, tinier, tiniest. in a cruel and bizarre twist on the traffic in women, it's as though after the currency crisis (precipitated in part by former president menem's decision to stop pegging the argentine peso to the US dollar), designers decided to do something to stop the terrifying freefall, so fixed clothing sizes in a 1:1 ratio. sizes 1 and 3 match the 3-5-7-9-11 scale, with a size 2 thrown in for those who prefer the 2-4-6-8 system. here's how tiny the palermo sizes are: we stopped into a parisian design shop today, where the clothes were designed, built and flown in from paris. after a several hours of palermo-based designers, the parisian outfits looked brobdignabian. and before you raise the obvious: these clothes were flown down here well before the new french anti-anorexia laws.

who are these women? i do see women in the restaurants, and they do appear to eat. the straight couple at the table next to us at lunch opted for the three-course meal. he had a salad and stir-fried vegetables while she tucked into black bean soup, hungarian goulash and flambeed bananas. i couldn't see where there was room in her skinny jeans for a full plate of goulash, but down it went. and she was schlepping shopping bags, too. it's a given that the servers at restaurants could all wear a size 1 or 2, but for the most part they are 18 or 19 years old, and i have to believe they can't afford to shop in these palermo boutiques. (c'mon, i'm carrying 20 years and 20 kilos: give me something to hold onto!)

at the same time, i don't see women out exercising madly, either. i attracted way more than my fair share of stares on the avenida de la libertador this afternoon, when i went humping around the trails. following this beautiful circular path around a nature preserve with paddleboats, swans, and sycamores, i was initially worried that i might be running the wrong way around the circuit. maybe there's a secret counterclockwise code that locals know, and maybe it's a huge offense when ignorant giantesss turistas mess it up. then i realized, oh, no, it's just that i'm the only woman in a hundred miles. the rest are probably tiding themselves over from lunch to dinner on potato chips and treats from one of the many panaderias about. marcia tells me i'm overreacting and overgeneralizing and don't know what i'm talking about because so far i've only gone running at the end of a weekday: wait til sunday morning, she says, and it's a whole other scene. maybe.

until then, it's handbags for heather. eh, maybe i'll actually preserve some pesos to put in 'em. i mean, it. in it. singular. i do not need to buy multiple handbags to compensate for the fact that i can't buy cute palermo clothes.

do i?

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Flying toward daylight

we are here, buenos aires, and i am so tired that i'm not sure i'll be able to capture the many fleeting, first and flawed impressions, but i'll try. the apartment has smooth cement floors that feel cool to my luggage-schlepping feet. i see now what a big city BA is. ridiculous, right? like imagining new york runs from battery city park up to the park, broadway to avenue c. what can i tell you: to make it manageable, we focused on the neighbourhood we wanted to be in and the apartment we rented. we know in two dimensions how to get across the tracks from palermo hollywood to palermo soho. but as everybody knows, street level is a whole other thing from mapping. once you have drooping sycamores and edwardian facades, the intricate choreography of two lanes falling into three regrouping again into two, supermercadas, squeegee boys and design shops, clarity vanishes.

my marcia came out to shepherd us safely in from the airport. it took nearly 45 minutes to drive in, and that was after the confusion of finding a cab. the first taxi driver wanted too much for the fare, so marcia hauled us out of it. the second picked up another, more promising party than the three of us with all our luggage. the third driver was just great. still, we didn't tip him, since it's not typical to tip cab drivers here. i'm not sure i'll be able to get used to that. also: taxi drivers will not take US dollars, neither the legit cabs nor the illegit ones. i thought everybody took US dollars; i thought it was one of the grim facts of contemporary life. how nice to discover otherwise. but also: how odd.

the airport is modern, in the technical, period sense. well, okay, there's a typical pomo white steel and glass reno inside, but outside, in the clear blue sunshine, is a perfectly cantilevered goal-post-like carport. its scale is human, its proportions so pleasing that you actually feel happy to be standing on the curb while mo has her first post-flight cigarette.

the city is visually rich. everywhere you look there is something to see. (i'll post photos tomorrow.) my friend nat is always insisting on how important visual pleasure is to a sense of civic belonging and, even more importantly, to a sense of possibility. buenos aires proves you're right, nat. still, the talk here, from marcia, from blogs like line of sight, city of faded elegance, and sandra gutrejde suarez's travel guide, and from the guy who handed over our apartment, is all about tearing down the old to make way for the new. even at first glance, i can see there is a lot of construction.

the guy who did the apartment inspection is a doctor from colombia, training to be a forensics specialist. his papers won't come through until july. meanwhile, "a guy has to make money, yes?" so the doctor fences flats.

you're wondering why i'm blogging instead of out and about? it's 7:45 PM (three hours ahead of edmonton), and we're waiting for marcia and lee to come take us out for a bite to eat. it's a nighttime city; restaurants will mostly open around 9. so the blogging is a way of staying awake until i can decently retire. at home, 11 counts as decent, if not exactly impressive, but mo says the new goal is midnight. i don't know whether i will survive. but also, i'm blogging because the WWW really is worldwide -- sorta. among the funniest conversations i've heard in the last 24 hours took place between a couple of maintenance guys at pearson who were speaking russian. what i heard was "grawlschrivuk grawlschrivuk grawlschrivuk facebook grawlschrivuk grawlschrivuk." here, even blogspot speaks spanish. "acceder," if you're wondering, will lead you to the sign-on page. i was not entirely successful trying to send a message from the internet kiosk in santiago: where's the back slash? okay, then, the front slash? okay, fine, i'll sign onto gmail, no slash required. but i'm still gonna need an @.

santiago? as we left pearson at midnight, the flight attendants asked everyone please to consider lowering their shades out of consideration for their neighbour. "we're flying into daylight," said the purser. unbeknownst to us, our flight from toronto to buenos aires detoured through santiago (maps, again, mean nothing compared to actually moving through space). so it was that, hot and bleary, tired but with the first hint of the double macchiato from the SCL departures lounge starbucks just coming on, we found ourselves banking hard over the andes in the early morning light.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Homo academicus

i am a bad academic.

i say this without judgment of either myself or the academy, but it is pretty obvious at this point that i simply don't fit. the people i've worked with in the university are amazing. and by "worked with," i mean -- well, these people work work work work work. they love to work. they live to work. and me: i just don't. not no mo', anyway.

i've been at a symposium this weekend that i helped organize. as is always the case when you're an organizer, you hit the event tired to begin with. add to that the week we've had at home, what with the recalcitrant roofers and aunty jo suddenly in the hospital, our trip to buenos aires just a week away, and you've got all the ingredients for a stress fest.

there's something about being this tired that turns me into a human portal. i have a body that i can propel around campus. it's your typical human body equipped with two legs, two eyes and a pair of hands. i myself was in another universe, the parallel universe of the exhausted. but through those eyes, like some kind of extraterrestrial anthropologist, i could see the academic life. and it's ... well, frankly, it's kind of staggering.

one person at this symposium came in spite of the fact that her 18-year-old daughter had just been admitted to the hospital with a brain clot. this colleague is a lovely woman. after apologizing for missing the first half day, she explained that she felt coming at all was a "healthy choice." besides, her husband, who had been in europe, arrived in toronto to spell her off at the hospital. she was in edmonton for something like 36 hours, all told, and faces an all-day journey to get back to the maritimes. it's not that i am scandalized by her decision. if she says it's a healthy choice, i'm sure it is. i am just stunned that she could do it. me, i don't have that much energy.

most academics, from what i can tell, enjoy working on the weekends. i seem to be the only sourpuss who complains that conferences should happen on working days, or that department retreats should take place instead of, not in addition to, our regular commitments, or that people deserve a couple of weekdays (not weekend days, which are a whole other thing) to turn documents around. i don't know how they do it, these colleagues of mine. i find it hard to work five days a week, let alone six or seven.

don't even start me on colleagues with kids. i fare badly on one night's sleep; they are chronically underslept. i need weekends at the end of each and every week, downtime when i dust and vacuum, cruise the blogosphere, catch up with my friends, and, on a good weekend, rent a movie or two. while i am squandering my life this way, they are giving up yet more time to other people, driving to soccer practices, making nice at play dates, and running endlessly for groceries. i keep reminding myself that there must be payoffs to that life choice, but for the most part it looks to me like two full jobs.

it's not just the lack of energy that sets me apart from my colleagues; it's also the lack of patience. you need extraordinary amounts of patience to deal with people, but especially, i think, academics, who, god love 'em, take every opportunity to become their own nightmare students. take yesterday. i announce, "lunch is across the quad. i'll stay in the room so your stuff will be safe." there's already a hand in the air. "heather, can we leave our stuff here?" "yes." another: "will the room be locked over lunch? will our computers be safe?" "yes," i say, but already somebody is tapping me on the shoulder. "heather," she says, "i'm just wondering, do you think i can leave my things in the room over the lunch hour?" there must be some people who don't mind this or are inured to it -- perhaps people with kids?? not only does it irritate me to have people constantly tugging on my virtual shirtsleeve, but i've lost my ability to pretend it doesn't. so by yesterday i found myself saying, snippily, "yes, that's why i just announced that very thing." which is, i think, a pretty significant sign that you've been in it too long. i don't want to be an irritable bitch, and i don't want a job that turns me into one.

this morning, i walk the group through a process. i explain what we hope to get from it. i solicit the group's agreement to the process, and we carry on. i'm in a bathroom stall when a handful of symposium-goers comes in. "i don't think this makes sense," says one. "i know," says another. "we should do it like this," she says, and goes on to explain what she thinks. the third person with them agrees. when i re-enter the room, one of them approaches me and says that she thinks we should do it differently. i say, as pleasantly as i can, that if she feels that way, she should go ahead and lead the group. "oh, i don't want to take over!," she says.

it sounds like a bald lie -- and yet, the logic of homo academicus suggests that it isn't. i think what academics truly love, more than anything, is being right. they don't like the unknown, they don't want to trust processes, they don't want to take a wrong turn and end up in unfamiliar surroundings. they want to know things, and they want the things they know to be correct. critical by habit, by training, and by conviction, they always, always know best.

and this is ultimately the biggest difference between me and the academic world. there are gazillions of things more important to me than being right. for one, being happy. for another, learning. for a third, collaborating. also: taking chances. making things. using my imagination. seeing beauty. listening to other people. trying things out. leading.

so, i disgraced myself. i left the symposium in tears, before it was even over.

the surprising thing is how disappointed i am.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Never say another mean thing to yourself

i go to this sweet wednesday morning yoga class. it's tiny, usually just three or four of us -- and no, i'm not going to say where, 'cause i don't necessarily want to share. our teacher is terrific: wacky and funny and curious and talented and honest. she's just what you want on a wednesday morning.

i'm quite surprised to groove on this class, because it's very casual. make that extremely casual. and i'm not just saying that because i came up through iyengar yoga, a tradition based on nit-picking exactitude and dead seriousness. iyengar is yoga for protestants, perfectionists' yoga: if you're not being constantly corrected, you're just not doing it right. i first checked out chantelle's class because what's a sabbatical for if not taking yoga on weekday mornings? plus, being near zocalo and the italian centre, it would provide a built-in alibi for any consumer splurges. i didn't really know what a vinyasa class would be like, but i figured it would be self-improving to learn. when i found out vinyasa means flow, i almost fled. BKS and Gita definitely do not approve of "flowing." the next surprise was music. yoga to music? and we're not talking ShantiOm sitar-and-tabla covers, either: chantelle blasts dave matthews, ruthie foster, vintage U2, and colbie caillat.

there's always a lot of laughing in chantelle's classes, a certain amount of chitchat/catching up, as much ranting as necessary, and i usually get teased for analyzing everything. above all, there's a lot of learning. there's something about the immediacy and forthrightness of our time together that means we tackle our questions directly, whether they're about the optimal positioning of your shoulders in a dolphin plank, the name of a given muscle in the rotator cuff or the pronunciation of a sanskrit word. there's no singular agenda, and so we all teach and learn together. it's the paulo freire ideal, in action.

if you've read my earlier comments on yoga, you'll know that i'm not much on the non-physical bits. so when chantelle came back from a workshop with rolf gates and brought his book meditations from the mat into the class, i was nonplussed. turns out, rolf has smart things to say. i don't mind rolf. but what i really love is chantelle herself. at the end of last week's class, she said to us, during sivasana, "never say another mean thing to yourself." the fact of it was shocking enough: it's a terribly intimate thing to say to a collection of women. but the idea behind it is so shockingly revolutionary that it's had me thinking all week. what would that mean, to make a commitment not to say mean things to yourself? how telling is it that my first reaction is, but what will we -- my selves -- talk about, then? could you think mean things about yourself, and just not say them? if you stopped being mean to yourself, could you still be mean to other people? and how long is "never," anyway? what if you started by not saying anything mean to yourself for, say, a week. uh oh: what if you did start that way? far from being the end of a conversation, it might just be the beginning.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


the day started off normally enough. i let the skylights guy, glenn, in at 9 and headed off to my 10 AM appointment in st albert. by 11:30 i was starting to feel the warning signs: a little tightness in the neck, sinus pain, a sore jaw. but we were out of coffee beans, and the shop was right there, so even though i was starting to feel migrainous, i made myself run the errand. which took longer than i expected. by the time i was driving back into the city, 12:15, i knew i was in trouble. or, rather, in retrospect it's clear i was in trouble.

the thing about migraine is, i start making bad decisions. poor judgment, not a visual aura, is the first sign of danger. and the trouble with poor judgment is that i don't recognize it as anything out of the ordinary. while this migraine is working itself up into a real state, i'm still living my regular life, acting as though i am my usual competent self. in this case, i'm wondering whether i should stop at the grocery store now or later -- and, as if it's the most natural thing in the world, noting at the same time all the possible places to pull off the road should i need to throw up. because by this time, vomiting is a real possibility. the pain in my right temple is hot. i keep thinking, in the back of my mind, that if i could just pull out my eyeball, things would get better. in the front of my mind, i'm trying to decide on the best route to my 1 PM physiotherapy appointment. i drive through intersections with my hand over my eyes. it occurs to me, briefly, to wonder whether i should be driving at all, but what are my options?

i suffered my first migraine when i was 8. i remember lying face down on the bed i shared with my sister and picking at the bright yellow chenille bedspread. the texture of the bedspread was troubling under the influence of a migraine, but what i really remember is how unbearable that sunshine color was. ever since, i have done my bedroom in soft, soothing colors. some people decorate for romance, some people for sex, some for the civilized pleasure of reading in bed or the less civilized pleasure of watching TV, but i have always decorated for migraine. we go back that far, megrim and i.

and my bedroom is where i want to be right now. correction: where i need to be. i don't remember the last ten minutes of the drive. i don't remember pulling into the garage. my sinuses are abscessed and my stomach is spasming. my right eye is watering. i know where i am now, i have been in this hell before. time for the rules, things i have observed when i am well and that i have promised myself i will believe when unwell. rule number 1 is that migraines give you bad judgment, so you have to follow the rules. rule number 2: make simple lists.

item 1: cancel the physio appointment. i am sheer will now, not body, not mind. i walk past the couch without looking at it. i am going to my study. there is a business card with the physio's phone number on it. i will pick up the phone and dial the number. i will explain myself efficiently and apologize. i will offer to pay for the session. i will rebook later. the phone call will not take long, and then i can get to my precious drugs. but there is a snag; i am asked to hold. "of course," i say, courteously. inside i am screaming. when the receptionist comes back i stumble over my name, then recover and say, professionally, that i have a 1 PM appointment with glenda, that i'm very sorry to call on such unforgivably short notice, but i am developing the sort of migraine that means i can't drive, let alone -- at which point the receptionist cuts in and says, "i get migraines too." "you do?," i say, "really?" under normal circumstances i greet these declarations with skepticism. lots of people use the term "migraine" as a synonym for "bad headache," the kind they take 2, maybe 3 aspirins for. it is emphatically not the same thing. today, however, i find myself weeping with relief. "then you know," i say. "yes," she says. "do you want to rebook later, when you're feeling better?" it is a tiny miracle; i am not alone in the world.

item 2: cancel my 2 o'clock meeting. how. i have no phone numbers. it requires email. email requires the computer. i do not let myself think about how it will hurt, because it must be done. i open the computer. i wince at the blue light. i squint. and then, using my touch-typist fingers, i key a perfectly chipper note saying why i can't meet, apologizing, and closing with the upbeat promise that i'll be back in touch as soon as possible. email cancellations -- and i've had to do a lot of them, i've grown good at them -- make me feel utterly fraudulent. i feel guilty. i think there should be more to show on the screen for the agony i feel. there is such a disconnect between my bodily experience and my verbal representation that people must assume i'm faking it. which in turn reinvigorates the bad judgment and makes me wonder whether i shouldn't soldier on. okay, i can't drive, but maybe i could just take a cab? at this point, i remember the first rule. this is why i am not allowed to think when i have a migraine.

item 3: drugs.

but before i can get there, glenn, the guy installing our skylights, appears at my study door. if the first mystery of migraine is that even after all these years i don't recognize when i'm getting one, and if the second is the guilt i feel at cancelling meetings when i am ill, then here is the third: shame. i am so ashamed to feel ill that i can't stand for glenn to know. i muster everything i have and ask, cheerfully, "how's it going up there?" his lips move in answer and there is sound coming out, but i cannot follow it. i have no idea what he's talking about. the veins in my head have dilated, and sulfuric acid is careening through them. mechanically, i follow him up the stairs. my drugs are upstairs. to follow glenn is to get closer to my drugs. he is showing me something: apparently he has plugged a piece of equipment into our bedroom outlet. i think he is asking whether this is allright. i don't know what the answer is. why wouldn't it be allright? but what if it isn't? it's too much responsibility. i nod, a bad idea. my brain hits my skull and i wince anew. i try to avoid talking. the less i say, the sooner i will get to my drugs. this migraine is a bad one.

when glenn leaves, i realize the severity of the situation. i am standing in the bedroom, my oasis of dark brown and cream. i need to lie down for 50 minutes. the drugs will start working in 50 minutes. but in the room next door, glenn is sawing a hole through the ceiling. it is very loud. what are my options? he and his helper are walking garbage out the front door. i will be seen if i lie down in the living room. the spare room is out: more skylights, saws, sawdust. the basement? no, the smell of cat litter will kill me. the closet floor. i could lie on the closet floor. it would be dark there and no one would see me. it would be hard and cold and i know there are nails sticking up, but it is my best bet. i fall onto the bed to consider how this will work.

i am lying on my right side, digging my fingers into my right eye socket. if i could just pull my eye right out ... i can feel dry heaves building, but now that i have taken an imitrex, i do not want to throw up. i try to figure out how long it will take for the imitrex to dissolve into my bloodstream. i wish i had an IV. i wonder whether i should go to the hospital, but now i can't move. now that i have fulfilled all of the jobs on my simple list, and collapsed onto the bed, i cannot move. i am bested. my stomach heaves again, dangerously. i wish i had taken some gravol before i lay down, but now glenn is in the bathroom where the drugs are. i must wait. my eyeball aches. i wonder if there is a world beyond the pain. i lie as still as i possibly can. i get smaller and smaller and smaller while the migraine gets bigger and bigger and bigger. it's ferocious now, and triumphant. it trumpets like a wapiti. it tramples like an elephant. it mauls me like a tiger. it laughs, it dances, it trounces and jigs. i lie even stiller, forcing my head down into the pillow. my hands reek of steel. i wish they were clean. i want to whimper, but that will hurt more. i am on the brink of tears, but crying will hurt more. i grind my fist into my eye socket and try to stop thinking. thinking, willing, deciding are all too much. the migraine has my head and my stomach and i give up my will. now it's just a matter of time passing.

i hear footsteps on the stairs. mo is home. i must have called her. did i call her? i dimly remember, but it is all quite jumbled. her hand on my forehead is cool. she brings me gravol. better, she leads me to the basement, where she has set up a mattress in the quiet cool. i fall asleep, eventually, and when i wake up i can roll over and take my fist out of my eye socket. the drugs are working. i will make it.

for hours afterward, my whole body feels like it's been through a wringer -- a literal wringer, the two metal rollers on an old-fashioned washing machine. i am a limp shirt. i am sore everywhere. everything hurts: my legs, my arms, my feet, my hips, my back. oliver sacks says this is the consequence of being hyper-toned before a migraine; hyper-toning is one of the prodromes he points to. i can't say that i've noticed that. my warning signs are too quotidian to remark, even after all these decades of acquaintance with migraine: excessive sleepiness (but who's not tired all the time?), lapses in judgment, a chill. in spite of our decades-long dance, every migraine is its own event. each one is a terrible surprise. though there is a certain pattern to the pain itself, migraine sneaks up on me more often than not. how can this be, after all this time? how can bodily agony take me unaware, yet frequently? how can my longest and most intimate companion come trailing newness? why can i not get used to migraine as a constitutive element of my life, a structuring influence? -- for that is what they are, even a stranger could see that. why can't i? i can't recognize myself with migraine. would i recognize myself without it?

Sunday, April 13, 2008

BL regularis

i can't be the only person to notice the recent explosion in yogurt advertising. if TV can be believed, yogurt is the coolest thing to hit supermarket shelves since lean cuisine. yogurt -- at least the new generation yogurts, with their prebiotics, probiotics and space-age bacteria with made-up latinate names -- will make you thin, it will make you sexy, and it will make you "regular."

the obvious implication is that constipation is epidemic in north america. (any relation to the obesity epidemic, one wonders?) i feel for the irregular among us. it must be awful to cruise the dairy aisle looking for a miracle.

but i would like to suggest that more serious than literal constipation is its intellectual analog. i speak as a victim, here -- not even a survivor, but an unreconstructed victim of mental irregularis. every day, i strain to have an idea. i sit in front of my computer waiting to produce something, anything, even a hard little pellet of a notion. my question: if they can put all those branding dollars into BL regularis for the bowel, why not BL regularis for the brain?

for one thing, you'd have a more interesting blog to read.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Angela gladue is my hero

even when my new anna sui tights arrived in today's mail i didn't understand what a fantastic night we were in for. i'm just back from the mayor's celebration of the arts. a combination awards ceremony and olio performance, the event does exactly what it says it's going to: it's a real celebration.

"talent" and "diversity" were the watchwords, and they were there in spades. the talent is obvious: kita no taiko drummers, the bewitching samantha schultz (but how does a 17-year-old sing songs about driving at twilight? did she do it on a learner's permit?), stewart lemoine, renee brad, le fuzz ("for those of you who don't know, that's french for 'the fuzz'") -- but the stars of the show were undoubtedly red power squad, an inner-city first nations hip hop troupe. wow. i work out at the kinsmen next to the 11-year-old rhythmic gymnasts whose backs are made of rubber, and they can't move like RPS, with their one-armed handstands and their shocking ability to turn their bodies inside out. they rapped about racism and alcoholism, the perils of foster care, dysfunctional families and the importance of hope -- "peace, love, unity and having fun," as they put it: hip hop pith.

angela gladue, who's been with RPS and "freshly squeezed" for a few years now, won the emerging artist award. (here's to mile zero for nominating her!) angela is the only woman in the RPS crew; her baggy jeans and baseball cap mean you don't necessarily read her as 'girl' at first -- or maybe that's just from the second balcony. when she came on stage to claim her award, she did a cartwheel, faced her audience to give the big victory salute, and then hugged the guy from edmonton northlands who was giving out the award -- and we're not talking a polite arm-over-the-shoulder photo-op stance, or a mannered european kiss-kiss. i mean, angela threw both arms around him and gave him a big ole hug. before leaving the stage, she stopped by the mayor's box and thanked him, too.

angela gladue is my hero for the way she just puts her thing out there in the world. it is such a foolhardy, dangerous way to live, making art. it takes my breath away.

so, talent in spades. the diversity of the event is more puzzling, and kind of weird and embarassing, and -- as i suppose diversity always is -- more challenging, yet ultimately more moving. there's the obvious cultural diversity: japanese drummers, european opera, the teutonic poet laureate ted blodgett, etc. then there's the second most obvious diversity: age. i've noticed that the arts community is particularly attentive to emerging artists, youth artists, and so on. mo and i were sitting in the second balcony with all the high school students whose tickets were sponsored by a corporation -- epcor, i think, and probably others -- and let me tell you, you didn't want to be anywhere else when RPS took the stage. the mayor made a point of welcoming the kids, saying things like, "we want you to stay here in edmonton, we want you to be artists, we want you to make a life here." it was a pointed variation on the usual "you are our future" speech, and it was great to see 15, 16, 17 and 18 year-olds hobnobbing with the city's barbara pooles.

but the really puzzling, weird diversity? arts and corps. the mayor's celebration developed out of what used to be the mayor's luncheon for business and the arts, and all the awards handed out were sponsored by companies like stantec, atco, telus and molson. now, don't get me wrong, the northlands guy was deadly, and i got the giggles when the molson rep talked about his company's "long-standing commitment to canadian culture." it was hard not to feel a bit creeped out by artists doing command performances for corporate patrons and moneyed citizens.

but that analysis -- even if it's correct, and it's hard to see that it wouldn't be -- that analysis betrays the spirit of the event. it's far too chary to capture the feeling of shared joy, celebration, and goodwill that ran throughout the winspear. over and against my sardonic, eye-rolling hard left analytical all-knowingness, i kept seeing angela gladue bear-hugging the northlands lackey. what made that such a great moment was angela's total self-confidence and unself-conscious glee. in that moment, corporations and their disproportionate social power, their tax-deductible donations and their gratis self-promotions were beside the point, 'cause a little money and a little fame went to an artist, and that's cause enough for celebration.

the event ended with le fuzz, and on their last number the audience poured up onto the stage and started dancing. within five minutes there was a huge conga line of high school students, award nominees, MLAs and society ladies, the mayor himself and a bunch of ordinary folks from the audience. there's something about that -- and about the whole evening, the emerging artist award going to a first nations b-girl, the mutual goodwill between artists and their patrons, the pragmatic, fun-loving way people turned the stage into a dance floor -- that is quintessentially edmonton.

what a foolhardy, dangerous way to be a city.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Surreal gym

as soon as i caught sight of my hair in the rear view mirror, i knew mo had been too kind. however, here i was, on my way to the gym, and the worst was over. or so i thought.

the friendly freak was lurking in the change rooms. if you go to my gym, you know this woman. there's something off. she desperately wants to be friends with -- well, with everybody, really -- but is oblivious to all the codes governing social interaction. and so she is always, always alone. i deftly avoided making eye contact and headed to another part of the change room. i was just about to pull off my shirt (the one i'd slept in, by the way) when in walks a colleague of mine. she's a statuesque woman, a former ballet teacher, who lost her husband a year ago at that very gym. he just collapsed in the middle of his workout, the first semester past his retirement, of a massive heart attack.

"nora!," i said. "are you here for a swim?" i can't imagine being her, being here. "yes," she said, "it does me good." and then sighed a little. i feel awful for her, but we're not exactly intimate, so i'm not sure what to say. and besides, i'm distracted by the sudden nudity issue. if i just strip down in front of her, what will it be like next time we run into each other on the fourth floor? on the other hand, heading into a private cubicle seems unnecessarily mannered. i think i'll have to just go ahead and change. will she notice i'm not wearing a bra? wait, why don't i start from the bottom, take off my jeans. it's rule #1 of the locker room that no one looks at your underwear. then i remember i don't have any underwear on. what can i tell you: it's laundry day, i spent the afternoon vacuuming in my boxer shorts. maybe a cubicle would be best.

i look up to the nearest change room, only to discover that the friendly freak has retired to it, apparently to do her feet. she has not closed the curtain. she's rubbing away at her left heel above a quickly accumulating pile of dead skin. she grins at me. ridiculously, i wish i had brushed my hair.

by this point, nora has slipped into her own cubicle and reappeared wearing a navy swimsuit. she says to me, "i just lost my nephew." i think, stupidly, does she mean "lost" as in he's somewhere in the gym but she's not sure where, or does she mean lost-lost, lost-dead. "a stroke," said nora, "at 47." "jesus," i said. "what?," said the freak. "a stroke?" nora edges a little more precisely towards me. i still have my sleeping shirt on over my gym shorts, which i'm wearing commando. "47 and four teenage children. in ontario." "oh, nora," i say. "was it his first?," asks the freak, "his first stroke?" nora politely answers "yes." i say, again, "oh, nora." and add, "i'm so sorry." "did he die right away?," asks the friendly stranger. "yes," says nora, a little more crisply. then, to me, "i was quite close to him. to him and to my niece." "i'm so sorry," i say. then, for reasons passing understanding, quiz her: "your niece his wife, or your niece his sister?" nora stares. "you know, it's almost better that he just died," says the freak, cheerfully, moving on to her right heel. "i had a friend who had a stroke? and he lived for ten years afterward. but he never walked again." i try to recover, ask "are you going to fly out for the service?" nora says, "no. the service was today, but i couldn't get a flight." you can always get a flight, so this is code for it was too expensive. i can't imagine how much a flight would have to cost not to take it. at this point i'd give my left nut to be flying out of this locker room.

"so, are you going for a swim?," asks the freak. she's put her gym socks on and is fastening the velcro straps of her black doc martens, her workout footwear these days. i am hopelessly unmoored by the disjunctions. they can't be real doc martens, not with velcro straps. "yes," says nora, "i am. going for a swim." she looks at me. i say, "it's a beautiful pool." the freak says, "the 50m pool? yeah, it's nice, but guess what? you're not swimming there. not today! there's canoes in there." nora says, "i guess i'll swim wherever there's room." i say, "there's nothing like swimming for quiet meditation." the freak says, "i think it's canoe polo." i say, desperately, "i think you're right, i think i saw that on the sign coming in." i will never get out of here. i will be stranded in the basement of the kinsmen field house in perpetuity, wearing my What Would Gramsci Do? t-shirt.

of course, the freak saves the day. "you better get at it," she says, a bit disdainfully. nora pads off to the showers. "what about you?," she asks me. "uh, yeah," i say, "uh, i'm going to work out." "oh good," she says. "i'll walk up with you." and happily sits back on the little bench in her cubicle until i'm ready to go.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Not hot for hillary

i've defended hillary rodham clinton pretty vociferously through this whole campaign (and longer), but i think i have to let her go.

oh, it's not her. it's me. and, yes, there is another woman -- two of them, actually. one is my generous friend malinda, who always makes me think. the other is alice walker, whose open letter is making the rounds.

as with any break-up, there's sadness, regret, and lots of unfulfilled dreams. i wanted her to get the presidency because she's worked hard for it. moreover, she's put up with a lot of sexist crap: the 1992 chocolate chip cookie challenge, larry king, the "monster" characterizations. i want her to have some payoff for staying with bill through the lewinsky affair. even now it's painful to talk about that period -- i so desperately wanted her to leave bill for us. i want the country that defeated the ERA to have to wake up each and every day to the fact that there's a woman in charge. i want hillary to have had better timing.

and by "hillary," i mean us. and by "us" i mean ... well, i want to mean all women, but i have to admit that there's a powerful identification between hillary rodham clinton and second-wave white feminists, an identification to which i am not immune. i want there to be a woman in charge of the USA so that it is conceivable in this country -- canada, for those or you reading from beyond -- that a woman could land an endowed professorship, become a premier, run major national corporations, and so on. i think this identification is the reason i've supported her for so long, excused her growing conservatism and her recourse to white femininity (as in her use of "hillary" and "clinton"). to support hillary has been to support the feminist choice.

but the thing is, and i still choke a little here, my fingers pause over the keys as i wonder anew about what i'm going to write: hillary doesn't represent my feminism. the fact that she's represented me (white, middle-aged, professional) has perhaps blinded me to the fact that her feminism is not my feminism. the feminism i espouse isn't just about making the world better for white, middle-aged, professional women and the halliburtons of the world, while supporting the war in iraq. it's about working from below, working to understand the vicious connections between transphobia and misogyny, working to ensure that homeless women and men, women of colour, immigrants, the disabled and the uninsured (to choose just a few thorny examples) have better lives. it's a feminism that's about working for the people who come after you and not the folks upstairs. to put this in analytical terms, it's a feminism that works not from gender as a foundational category, but at the interstices of gender -- genders, i should say -- and race, class, nation, sexuality, and so on. it's the hardest work, and the most exhausting.

virtually everyone agrees that hillary clinton has grown more conservative over the years. at what point have you changed so much that you're not recognizable? is senator clinton the same person as HRC at the beijing conference? is this the same person who championed real health care reform in the US in 1992, and who was so punished for it? hillary, i wanted us to grow together, but i'm afraid we've grown apart. i hardly recognize you these days.

and here come the really hard questions, the ones i don't know how to think my way out of. if hillary rodham clinton's conservatism is a function of her experience, a consequence of the constant, necessary compromise that characterizes public life, then why should she take the fall for the circumstances she did not invent but has to navigate? my psyche is littered with horrifying examples of women who have let me down this way: hillary rodham clinton, anne mclellan (who supported rendition), shirley neuman (nicknamed 'shotgun shirley' when she got to u-toronto). what price success? who are the counter-models? and what assurances are there that i won't go the same way? i am already far less radical than i was a decade ago -- more efficient, more effective, and even more courageous, but less bold, less imaginative, and less patient. what yardstick can you use to measure "progress" within the moving field of a human lifetime?

i don't know how to answer these questions, but i'm pretty sure they can't be answered through figure-heading. the US election won't solve them. i feel like a Bad Feminist saying this -- or is this just my own growing conservatism coming out? -- but this US presidential election is too important to be framed as a gender-versus-race issue. and incidentally, that framing is something that robin morgan's revised goodbye to all that does. the first part of that missive shamefully pretends that racism is over while sexism is alive and well. cheap shots, robin. the beginning of alice walker's epistle is similarly manipulative, but i'm with her on the importance of "alliances based not on race, ethnicity, color, nationality, sexual preference or gender, but on Truth" -- whatever that means.

what the framing of the US election as gender vs race shows to me is that we still have a long way to go in figuring out how to address sticky old-fashioned questions like role models, essentialism (barack obama is black, and that means something, hillary rodham clinton is a woman, and that means something), solidarity, and the inter-imbrication of race and gender with other social justice issues.

sticking with hillary is not the way to get there.