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Essays

I, artist

Trust me to get to new movie releases after the buzz has passed. I'd heard plenty of good things about I, Tonya back when it was a thing but failed to let it register in my mind. It went by me like so many action-hero flicks do, sort of a vague whoosh easily gone and forgotten. 

It came back one day as I was fiddling with the public library app on my phone. There it was featured at the top, having recently been the subject of a commentary by another library patron. And I thought hey, why not. I mean, it's free. 

I watched it last night. I was intrigued by the techniques used to tell her story; a cross between a mockumentary and a secret ode to Woody Allen. So many asides, so many wise cracks, such as when the mother complains that her story is at risk of disappearing from the narrative. 

It was like watching the proverbial train wreck in slow motion. Everyone knows how the story goes, what challenges she faced, what domestic horrors she lived through. Stereotypes exist for a reason; the level of dysfunction in Tonya Harding's private life is depressing and not because it's so rare. Quite the contrary. Lives like hers are as common as rain in April. 

Tonya was no angel. She contributed to her own misery in many ways. But there was one thing she did well, and it was skating. 

It was her life, her everything. After her trial she got banished from it. The scene where she reacts to her sentence despite her lawyer trying to shush her is by far the most poignant of all. Whereas the guys involved in the sordid affair that resulted in Nancy Kerrigan's knee being bashed in got shortish prison sentences, she got a life-long punishment she considered worse than being temporarily deprived of her freedom. She implored the judge to send her to jail instead but it was too late and maybe nobody cared anyway. 

I do. Here is a woman whose punishment for a crime she did not herself commit was to deprive her of the one and only thing she ever wanted to do with her life. They took the meaning of Tonya out of her, leaving only a shell where her essence once lived, however imperfectly. 

She was an artist. She worked with ice, very sharp blades, blue nail polish and slightly vulgar flair. She made it work for her. She found meaning in what she was doing, until it was taken away from her. 

It was a troubling reminder for me. We should never waver in doing our thing, because we can't count on anyone making it easy for us to live our art - not even ourselves. 

Basic survival skills for highly educated dummies

It’s a funny thing, getting older. Actually I’m not getting older. I’m getting lost. Yet I’d bet you in a group of young people I’d be the only one able to use a compass.

Literacy, numeracy, and trying-not-to-die-stupidly skills are down. Again. If you were born in the previous century you’re probably rolling your eyes, or ripping your hair out, or more likely not enjoying being scared shitless at the prospect of your kids not making it. Well maybe not your kids. Because you’ve taught them the basics. But their friends, sheesh.

I remember when my kids were little and I’d take them to the cottage by myself. The cottage was on an island with no neighbours. The eldest was barely four, the youngest still an infant. Between them was a charmingly head-forever-in-the-clouds two-year-old.

What would happen to them if I fell down and knocked myself out? How would they get help? This fear gripped me tight.

I showed my eldest how to dial 911 on my cell phone and what to say. Told her to listen to whoever picked up and do as they say. But ONLY when you call 911. Don’t listen to anyone else. Unless I’m unconscious and they’re coming to help. It’s complicated but you’ll need to figure it out.

I also taught her how to signal for help in Morse code. Three small dots, three long dashes, three small dots. Probably useless since my kid is no doubt the only person on the lake who’d know what that meant. But so what. Go to the sun deck, and whistle or bang on a pot in bursts of threes. Someone will at some point show up just to tell you to stop making that racket.

As it turns out we never needed that knowledge. But it was useful nonetheless. Now she can amaze her friends with her savoir-faire. Including in the kitchen. She knows what to do to avoid starvation other than tapping for Uber eats.

Speaking of which, don’t just sit there waiting for the hot steamy bowl of Thai noodles to arrive. Take the time to talk to your own personal offspring and make sure they know how to calculate pill dosage or what to do when they get a flat tire. Because teaching, too, is a basic skills.

Marriage as a meal

Youngest daughter asked (again) why I had separated from her father. She wanted to know why a marriage could be unsuccessful. Her tone was not particularly accusatory or aggrieved; she seemed genuinely curious.

It’s not always easy to answer such question to an “almost 8-and-a-half” year-old. Especially as I try very hard not to say negative things about her father because no matter how many grievances people have when a relationship breaks down, it’s not really fair to the kids to dump all this emotional garbage on their shoulders.

I came up with an analogy I think works.

Imagine two ingredients, I said. One is broccoli (she loves broccoli) and the other is chocolate. Separately, each is perfectly good. But if you put them together in a meal it doesn’t work so well. One ingredient is just as fine as the other. But yuck, they don’t mix.

That’s what happens sometimes, I told her. There’s two people who think maybe they can make something together and have it taste good. But no matter how hard they try, it still comes out wrong. So the broccoli leaves to be on its own, searching for melted cheese or something, while the chocolate tries its luck at finding strawberries or toasted coconut.

She seemed to understand that, even though as I think she realizes, broccoli should have known better than to think it could mix with chocolate. Sometimes I think she’s wise beyond her years.

Une bonne leçon, apprise sur le tard

Quelqu’un demandait quelle phrase de vos parents fut la plus marquante.

“Personne ne vit de sa plume.” C’est ce qu’on m’a dit et répété lorsque je partageais mon rêve d’être écrivain. Il n’y a que les gens exceptionnels qui arrivent à en vivre. Toi, tu devrais faire quelque chose de plus pratique, qui te donnera un salaire respectable, de la sécurité, enfin tu sais, les choses nécessaires.

Il ne leur est jamais venu à l’esprit que l’écriture m’était plus nécessaire que la sécurité. Ça m’a pris 30 ans à en revenir. Je commence ma vraie vie d’écrivain sur le tard, mais comme on dit, oh, vous savez ce qu’on dit.

La leçon que j’en tire, et que je pratique avec mes filles aujourd’hui: il ne faut jamais démolir le rêve ou l’ambition d’une jeune personne. Certes, il peut être utile de mentionner les défis et difficultés qui joncheront la route choisie. Mais il ne faut jamais leur faire choisir une autre route parce que nous on a peur de l’avenir.

The hardest thing I ever watched

It was in the 1980s in Quebec. Not a time and place known for being especially open to learning about other societies and cultures. A TV host, known for her habit of asking hard questions on her program - both of her guests and of her audience - decided to run a special episode on clitorectomy.

The episode featured a film showing a clitorectomy done to a little black girl somewhere in Africa. She had the details of where and when it had taken place, but I don’t remember them. However, I remember very clearly the girl’s screams as she was pinned down by female relatives and cut with a razor blade. The blood, too. It was everywhere.

This wasn’t surgery like you’re used to. It was in a hut, done right there on the ground, with no anesthetic or sterilization. They took off her clitoris and labia majora, before sewing the mangled remains shut except for a little hole through which she would pee.

I was maybe 16 years old when I watched this. The host had warned us it would be hard to see, but she urged us not to look away. It was too important an issue for us to close our eyes to it.

The film was followed by a discussion, but I don’t remember what was said. All I remember is that the host was crying. Quite possibly I was, too. I was profoundly upset, and have never recovered. The thought of clitorectomies happening to little girls to this day makes me despair of the human race. Knowing that in some cases it’s women themselves who perpetuate the practice is unbearable to me.

It was the hardest thing I ever watched, and to this day I thank that TV host (she’s still around, and still as kickass as ever) for having the guts to convince executives and her audience this was important to know, and not just in theory.

So, kids, about Santa...

The question was: Do you tell kids Santa doesn’t exist, or not?

I have three kids. The eldest was the first one to notice something wasn’t adding up in the stories she heard. She was maybe four.

Now personally I don’t care for Christmas. The thought of my sweet little princess having busted Santa all by herself made her dad a bit sad, but not me. I was proud of her. Way to doubt and question authority. She was thinking for herself and challenging received dogma. You bet I beamed.

You’re right, I told her. Santa is a story adults invent for little kids to explain the gifts and make them see the magic of the season (I lied there; I don’t see magic in Christmas one bit). You’re big enough to understand that, but let’s keep it to ourselves so we don’t ruin it for you baby sisters, alright?

The youngest daughter also got a whiff that something was not quite right in the storyline early, like five years old or thereabouts. She got the same treatment from me. Middle daughter, who at that point was probably around seven years old, decided to continue believing in Santa even though at that point she kind of knew, too. But she likes magic, that one, and why not. It’s not because I’m a grinch that everyone has to suffer because of that.

They are 12, 10 and 8 now and of course they all get it. Not only why there is no Santa, but why adults pretend there is for little kids - and sometimes for themselves, too. Which I think is the best attitude to have. It’s sure better than mine. Mistletoe gives me hives.

So. When your kids first start asking questions (How can Santa come down our chimney when we don’t have one?), string it along juuuuuust a little bit but don’t outright lie. Whatever you do, don’t make them feel bad or guilty for asking tough questions. Foster that independent spirit, please. Use your creativity. Make them feel like they might be onto something but don’t rush to burst the bubble. They’ll get there soon enough. And if you burst it too soon you run the risk of upsetting them.

When the bubble is gone, ask them to think of smaller children, who may need more magic, and keep this big-kid story to themselves and people older than them. At least until January. Then it will all be mercifully over.