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A Pernicious and Vile Beastie

I’d like to talk to you about this brain-worm I have.   It’s a brain-worm so old and well-established that I believe he’s planted a wisteria in there that’s had time to grow as thick as my wrist.    I try not to feed him.   I wish he would move out.    But he won’t, because I’m not the one feeding him:

Men are.

Men, and media, and media made by and for men.   But also the men in my actual life.

Lest any man who knows me stop reading immediately, I have to assure you that I’m not talking about you, personally.    I’m not here to blame you, or isolate you or call you out.   I am, however, going to attempt to call out a pattern of behavior and thought.    And if you happen to recognize yourself in that pattern?  I’m also not here to absolve you.

This has to do with the kind of love and partnership that I want to find.   And the particular kind of love and partnership that media by men and for men conceives of and lauds as desirable.   And of the vast, terrifying differential between these two things,   and the corresponding way I see these values etched into the dating patterns of myself and my peers.

I would like to start here:  The Ideal Marriage According to Novels

If you haven’t read that New Yorker essay, I highly recommend it.  It made the rounds a few years back – I seem to recall Jezebel doing a small piece on it, etc – and the general response I recall it garnering from women was basically:    “Oof.  Yeah.  Shit.”     And then maybe wanting to punch stuff.   Personally, it hit me like a hard fist in my solar plexus.

The gist of it is this:   There is a chasm between the way female authors have conceived of Great Love and the way male authors have.

“For as long as novels have been written, heroines in books by women have studied their beloveds’ minds with a methodical, dispassionate eye. The ideal mate, for Jane Austen’s heroines, for Charlotte Brontë’s, for George Eliot’s, is someone intelligent enough to appreciate fully and respond deeply to their own intelligence, a partner for whom they feel not only desire but a sense of kinship, of intellectual and moral equality.

A link between love and respect hardly seems like a unique or daring proposition—until we consider that so many male authors have tended to think about love very differently. Straight male authors devote far less energy to considering the intelligence of their heroes’ female love interests; instead, they tend to emphasize visceral attraction and feelings. From Tolstoy, whose psychological acuity helped to redefine what the novel is capable of, to unabashed chroniclers of sex like Saul Bellow and Philip Roth to contemporary, stroller-pushing, egalitarian dad Karl Ove Knausgaard, men have been, in a sense, the real romantics: they are far more likely than women to portray love as something mysterious and irrational, impervious to explanation, tied more to physical qualities and broad personal appeal than to a belief—or hope—in having found an intellectual peer.”

Delving into Tolstoy,  Austin, George Elliot, Elena Greco and many others, this essay makes a persuasive case for something that many of the women I know have understood instinctively or subliminally for a very long time.    “love as something mysterious and irrational, impervious to explanation, tied more to physical qualities and broad personal appeal”   vs  “a belief—or hope—in having found an intellectual peer”

This, quite frankly, scares the ever-living shit out of me.    I’m just going to be honest about that.

I am tempted to pull-quote that article so thoroughly that I might as well just transcribe the fucker, so I’ll resist.  Just read it.    The point is, I feel this.   I observe this chasm in my reading and I see it in my life, and I feel it in the pit of my stomach like a gravitational singularity that sucks away the parts of me that are soft and forgiving.

Intelligence, taste, conversation—these are the terms on which the heroines of novels by women again and again evaluate their love interests. Male authors, on the other hand, tend to proceed differently. …For the most part even those male writers who are most attentive to love and sex tend to direct their attention elsewhere—to the face, the body—and to personality only in a loose sense.   ….Bellow and Roth both describe women’s mental qualities casually, carelessly, if at all, in terms far more general than they describe the physical.”

Ag.   Well, ok.   Let’s move on.   Literature was always one of my great loves, and I’m a card-carrying nerd from before it was cool (lol) so naturally, I’m also a great lover of Sci Fi.    Which brings us to this:

 

This trope is instantly recognizable, of course.    And steeped as I am in this genre, it too elicits a visceral and profound unease about the romantic ideals promulgated therein.   The Pop Culture Detective nails it:  this trope represents the ultimate sexualized teacher-student relationship, one wherein a purposefully created, extremely-sexy, wide-eyed female with no experience of the world or love or sex itself is paired off with an “experienced man” (often a terribly ordinary one).    He finds her naivete enchanting, and desires to protect her, and she falls for him based on – well, gee, these women are not given much inner life or any experiences against which to compare – so I dunno, what exactly?  The fact that he rescues her?  The way he gazes at her devotedly and loves her at first sight? (Love at first sight  is a patently absurd concept drilled into us endlessly, from the Knausgaard novel in the Waldman piece to my own beloved Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World )    Or just simply because she is quite literally the first man that has ever existed in her life?

It is dangerous to regard media as mere entertainment.   As Adelle Waldman writes, media “colors the vision of life that emerges”  from it.    And I believe I have witnessed, throughout my life, the disturbing consequences of these overwhelming messages about what love ought to be, look, and feel like.

Take, for example, the understanding we as a culture have that older men will pursue younger women as almost a default setting.   Lots of people will tell you that this is biological in nature, plain and simple, and that we ought to just accept it.   That is obviously a load of crap for a series of reasons, but let’s start with that women do not become infertile at the decrepit and wizened age of 35, the age which our current repulsive president once referred to as “check-out time”.     Hell, if you ask Hollywood 35 is generous.    More like 30.  And the ideal mate for a woman at or under 30?  A man in his mid to late 40’s, of course.  Hell, even in his 50’s.    And if you’re Leonardo DiCaprio, she’s gotta be under 25.

Think, if you will, about the “wife of many years being left for a much, much younger woman” trope.  We’ve all seen it in movies, and we’ve – I daresay – all seen it in life.   Lord knows I have.   The First Wives Club came out when I was fifteen, and I can’t deny that it made an impact.    The ubiquity with which we as a culture trot out this as truism, an unsurprising quirk of the genders, was not lost on my young mind.

And guess what?   I’m nearly 35 now.   Ageing out of peak desirability, according to this shit-sandwich of a culture.     But I’ll be goddamned if that’s how I feel about my own age.

At 34, I feel sublime compared to how I felt at 24.   I’m far more confident, competent, knowledgeable, comfortable in my own body, aware of my own needs and desires, and far far more capable of advocating for those needs and desires.   I feel sexier than I did at 24.    Not only that, but I know myself to be a far better partner and a more valuable mate than I was at 24.    I am in all relevant ways a better version of myself than I was during those “peak desirability” years.    (And before any 40, 50 year-olds feel the need to tell me that I’m still so young and so desirable please let me say that I know that.  That’s like, part of my whole point.)

So let’s follow this model – the other model, the Leo model – around for a moment.   Let’s examine the implications and realities here.

Dan Savage says that “youth is also a kind of power”.    And sure, he’s right.   It’s a kind of power.    But it is not inherently power.   And even when it manifests as a kind of power, often that power is substantively diminished by other power realities – the power realities of experience, financial stability, and self-knowledge.    Not to mention this salient fact:   Dan Savage is a man.   And when Dan Savage talks about the potential for sexual relationships between older men and younger people being mutually beneficial, he fails to account for how differently sexual pleasure works for female bodies vs male bodies.    Now, I’m not saying young women can’t have good sex.  God forbid.    What I am saying is that most of the women I know did not have much truly physically fulfilling and pleasurable sex (read: orgasmic)  until their mid to late twenties or later.      Part of that is how our sex ed fails both girls and boys when it comes to sexual pleasure.   The current narrative we draw for young people around sex and gender, ie, “Boys always want and like it and girls have to be convinced/tricked/talked into/seduced/ etc”  and a complete dearth of insistence on mutual enjoyment has led to successive generations of young girls who do not expect to enjoy sex, and young male partners who don’t expect them to.   (Again, see the above link.)   Which means that, on the whole, girls and boys go into sexual encounters with very different expectations of what the personal payoff ought to be.

For many of us, we spend the last half of our teens and the first half of our twenties trying to square this depressing circle.    We have to find out what works for us, and then we have to learn how to communicate that to a partner who may be entirely surprised that the thrusting of a penis isn’t it.   Many of us encounter multiple male partners  – even into our twenties – who are shocked, insulted, offended or resentful of this fact.  Many of us encounter partners who know this fact but still fail to act on it, as though they theoretically care and maybe talk a big talk, but you can count on one hand the times in the last six months that they’ve even tried to touch your clit.

(This is one of the many reasons that barely-out-of-adolescence boys are not an erotic mainstay for most women I know. )

Ok, you say, so it’s good that young women date older men – older men who know how to be good lovers.    Sure.   Sure, that can be the case.   I have known that to be the case at times, certainly.    But again, there we have a teacher-student relationship instead of a shared discovery between equals.  And honestly, it’s a best-case scenario and not to be counted on at all.    Were the culture belaboring us over the head with the erotic potential of older women schooling younger men in the same way, I could even accept it.  But we don’t.    And not because men don’t find that sexy – they do.  Or they can.  You can get enough hits on Pornhub that confirm this, to state the obvious.   But regardless we are not wholly primed for that pairing the way we are wholly culturally primed for the other.   (More’s the pity, quite frankly.   I would love to go back in time and sic an older, tough-as-nails female lover on some of my early partners in advance of me taking them to bed.  Good lord.)

So there’s that.   There’s also this fact:  people in their early to mid twenties are still trying to figure out who they are.   What kind of partner they want to be, what kind of lovers they want to have, what kind of life they want to lead.   A person at 21 or 22 may not have even identified their sexual orientation clearly.   And when these things change – as they do – and when we discover these things about ourselves – as we will – the nature of that relationship with that older stable person may be fundamentally changed or even destroyed.

So this is fine if what you’re looking for is a probably short-term love affair of mutual respect and consideration.    If you go into the age-gap partnering with real understanding of that likelihood and the probable outcome.    However, I don’t see that happening nearly so often as I see this:

Men valuing their own trajectory through and into their thirties very highly.   Valuing their independence, career and education, their preferred timelines for marriage and baby-having inexorably stretching into the 30’s and beyond.  And willing to defend this at almost all costs.    Then:  falling in love – choosing – a 21, 23 year old who makes them feel the way they want to feel.   Seeing her age as perfectly compatible with his, as she’s peak-fertile and peak-hotness and peak-perky, and hell, he really loves her.    And he picks her.   And views her as though she – this intoxicating, fresh, vibrant young woman – might just be The One.

But let’s look at the female half of this pairing for a moment.   Let’s look at what this asks of the woman involved.

Firstly, you don’t get what they got.   They got a leisurely, robust decade or more of self-discovery and sexual/romantic variety.    You didn’t.   This has always struck me as intensely unfair.   The dissonance between valuing your own gathering of experience while dismissing it as not really necessary in or for your partner of choice.  In this scenario, the hapless girl involved must simply hope that the self-contained adult male who has chosen them turns out to be a suitable match in all kinds of ways she is likely not yet even aware of desiring.

Personally?  I never wanted that kind of relationship.  While I had profound and multitudinous crushes on older men and boys when I was a teenager, I always understood them – on a fundamental gut-level – to be grossly inappropriate matches. When it came right down to it, that level of imbalance of experience was pretty terrifying to me.   Granted, I started getting hit on and propositioned by adult men during eighth grade, and being on the receiving end of that kind of attention at that age can sketch you the fuck out about older dudes.   

Either way that kind of age gap was never my jam.   I might have crushed out on senior boys when I was in 9th Grade but if one of them had asked me out I would have been mortified, paralyzed and completely in over my head.  And I KNEW that.  So I never, ever wanted it.

While the mortified/paralyzed/in-over-my-head thing is long since in the rear-view, I still never desired a relationship with anyone other than a reasonably age-appropriate peer.    I don’t want a man who teaches me about the world as I blinkingly emerge into it, nor do I want to chaperone a young man through self-discovery and sexual education.   Were I to decide to have children, I would desire a partner who wasn’t going to be sixty when the kid was fifteen, for god’s sake.

I value – have always valued – partnerships where experience, age and power were evenly distributed, or at least thereabouts.    And I have understood this about myself for a long time.

So here, now, we come to the poisonous, wisteria-growing brain worm.

Because as long as I have known my own mind, or sensed my own instincts and desires,  I have known the world around me to present a bleak and frightening alternative:   That the kind of romance I seek is not the kind I can expect to find men seeking.    That I would be better off if I had been one of the lucky 21 year olds who gets ‘picked’ by a grown man who will love and care for her the way he’s now ready to, after all his experience and Life.    That it is practically inevitable, were I to marry a peer, that he would leave me for a 22 year old right around the time we both turn 45.

Remember that thing I mentioned about the gravitational singularity in my middle that sucks away all the parts of me that are soft and forgiving?     This twisted morass of culture and expectation – this awful dissonance – is the seed of that singularity.
And it’s growing.

Because they’re feeding it.

Every time a guy my age decides he’s in love with a 21 year old.   Every time I see that relationship – so far inevitably – collapse when reality starts imposing itself onto the fog of new sexual energy.   Every time they express to me in their earnest, heartfelt way how these women make them feel.  

These conversations are never about real compatibility or the nuts-and-bolts realities that make a long term relationship actually viable.  If they were, or when they have been, they do not factor in to this schematic.    Instead they are invariably about the sexual passion and fun.    Which, yeah, sure.   But that is such a limited corner of the picture as to render it near-myopia.     When I discuss mate choice with my female peers it doesn’t sound like that.    We are forever tearing apart the nuts and bolts, forever hypothesizing about compatibility and wit-matching and sexual generosity and problem-solving and conflict management styles.    So what the Fuck, guys?

And worse is this:  the message behind this thing, where I see men in media and in life choosing young, inexperienced women…  is that everything I value about the last ten or fifteen years, about myself and the woman I have become, is not valuable to men.    The experiences I’ve had, the vast and marvelous progress between my shaky-legged youth and now… these advances and experiences and the self-knowledge that I value more than almost anything are inherently less desirable than the collagen-infused buoyancy of a girl just out of her teens.

This is, in effect, a kind of poison.    A long-term corrosion that won’t stop, no matter how I try.   It makes me crazy, and sometimes it makes me barf.   Sometimes it makes me want to lock my heart away for fucking eternity because I refuse to play the game if that’s the fucking game.

I do not see this as inevitable, or else I would turn in my badge and name-tag immediately and begin to investigate whether I’m gay enough to just be gay.   Which for the record I doubt I am – but I’d sure as shit check.

As Waldman says, there are many male authors who escape this trap, as there are many men in my life who demonstrably have.   I’m not turning in my badge and name-tag.  That remains a last resort.    And it is not lost on me that I originate with one of these matches: there’s a twelve-year age gap between my mum and my dad.  She was 20.  That relationship?  Lasted just three years.   And while I am very grateful for my existence, I don’t otherwise consider that match to be in any way a reasonable one.    My mum left my dad for a man who was – you guessed it – right around her own age.

 

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Comedown Town

Ok, well, this is harder than anticipated.

But I mean…   DUH, Sherry.    Obviously. 

I can’t stop thinking about the second time I went to Europe, and then came back and moved to Vancouver.   One minute it was like, Hostel Job in Lisbon!  Day Trips to Sintra!  Love Affair in Paris!  Drunken Reunions in London! Jewelry Street Fair in Manhattan!  …and then suddenly it was all Vancouver Rain, Bad Room-Mates, and Day after Day after Day.

Thing is, some things are simply too good to last.

This doesn’t make what comes after them bad.   It just… well.  It’s a Frame of Reference thing.

But honestly, things… could be cooler.

Like, Hi North Island, You Are The Greyest Thing In All History, thanks.    Spring hasn’t even thought about arriving here yet, and every day this week the sea has remained the relative color and hardness of graphite.    Even the white-caps are grey.    And you know why the wind sounds so menacing in winter?   It’s because the hissing of pine needles and the rattle of bare branches is viscerally different from the soft green ruffle of actual leaves.    It fills me with hunger of a kind that food doesn’t fix.

Anyways, it’s a rough goddamn comedown, is what I’m saying.    Dawson isn’t soon enough – Dawson Springtime, Always An Adventure.   It’ll fuckin’ do nicely once I get to it.  There are things waiting for me there.   Kindred, age-long friendships and work, a reason to roll up my sleeves again, a glittering river to sit by, some mouthy broads to sit with.

But things are different here in Campbell River than they used to be.   Long gone are the house party days, the 90’s rock and “safety meetings” out back.   Sure.   That’s fair.  We can’t all stay idiot hipsters forever (…ooops…)  But gone now too are the early-parenthood days when things are new, toddlers sleep deeply and often, and everybody’s lifestyle is still kinda the same.

Parenthood is a noble calling, to be sure.   But I guess it’s hard not to miss the days when my cousins’ freedom…  more closely matched my own.

See?  Frame of Reference.   Sometimes, I kinda think mine is bullshit.

What do I expect from life, anyhow?    Endless adventure, unmitigated joy, flawless blue skies over a clear, rippling stream?

…sometimes, yeah.

I dug through old boxes yesterday, for pants and also distractions.    It was good.  (One of the distractions:  a strange sensation at the edge of perception as I rifle through the clothes.  I freeze.  I check.   Yes, I just put my hand on a giant dead wolf spider.   I left it there. Put the lid back on the box.  Future Sherry will have to manage that one, sorry bud.)   I made a banana cream pie from scratch, which was fun, even though I didn’t eat any of it.  There are… three deer in the yard I can see, and one of them is curled up in the grass like a very large loaf of brown bread.   There’s an eagle all majestic and silhouetted on a tree nearby.    It’s technically all pretty great here.

But I feel like time has suddenly ground to an excruciating halt, and I wish to fuck it would just kick back into gear already.   Or at least that it might stop fucking raining.  Or that I could stop comparing the color pallete of today with that of last week and coming up starkly, hungrily wanting.

If I could fix my frame of reference.   Tweak it back to somewhere in January, when the dark-crazies whirled like bats around my head and the winter chill was so deep in my bones it felt like it would never go.    Stop measuring this against 25-degree kayak days and spring-water the color of polished aquamarine

Hangovers end, is the good thing.    And three weeks isn’t exactly interminable lengths of time.   And at the end of the three, I get to Have The Things again;  glittering river, amphetamine spring, the possibility of Camping With Friends.

And really…   I mean…  when I step back and push through the grey it seems as clear and obvious as can be, and uncouth to deny:

Just how lucky it is, and how wrenchingly lovely, to have something – even temporarily – that sucks so much to leave behind.

 

O God of Nostalgia, I Invoke Thee.  Do Your Sweet Thang, Dude.

…Or, y’know, El Duderino if you’re not into the whole brevity thing.

Hard and Soft

Vancouver, 2017

So, this thing happens to your feet when you spend six months in supple moose-hide soled mukluks walking on nothing but squishy powder snow.    For one, I feel like the muscles are better – flexible and engaged more often, like barefoot sand feet.  (I bet I could toe-pinch extra hard right now.)    But impact readiness?  OH GOD.      My feet are like stupid babies and they do not understand.     It’s the centre of my heel that’s the problem.   It feels like it’s never been walked on before, and now contains the deep, tingling tenderness that precedes blisters of real consequence.

And I only walked ten or twelve blocks.      I’m so screwed.

I don’t understand hard ground anymore.   Or soft air.   The air here is so fucking soft.  It’s full of salt and moss – and memories, because my hotel is just blocks away from the house I grew up in.   And as much as this neighborhood has changed since the 80’s-thru-Oughts when I lived here, it still feels like home.   It’s the basic geography of the West End, I think.    The particular titchy little peninsula we’re on, the jade-green sea on 3.5 sides, the way the streets slope.    It triggers in me this instinct of “Rest now, home base is achieved”  that isn’t connected to actually having a place to stay.

That being said – 3 nights in an 18th floor balcony king room?   Yeah, this is NOT the worst.  January travel (plus a little Hotel Staff Solidarity from the front desk girl) pays off in spades – except there’s no bath tub?      I mean, there’s this glorious rain shower and did I mention I can see Lost Lagoon from my balcony?   So Ok, I’m not complaining.     But my pansy-assed winter muscles could sure use a soak after yesterday.     I wonder if this place has a Jacuzzi.

The sheer scope of possibility now at my fingertips makes me feel like goddamn wizard.       It’s like arriving in Oz.    From duo-chrome emptiness and bitter, sterile weather to this insane explosion of colors and sound and light.      It can send your nervous system into overdrive, poison you with input.   Sometimes you leave the Yukon and you’re like “Aauuuggghhh what have I done” and the crowds and the lights and the traffic make you want to scream and run and hide.

…And then sometimes, it’s like this.

oz.jpg

(basically me rn)

I don’t expect a lot of argument about the the following assertion:

Trains>Airplanes.

Like, x 10000.     For one thing, I have ACRES of leg room.   And it’s silent here, or near enough, and the air I’m breathing is real air and not a dry, excessively recycled facsimile of air.      And instead of jolting, secretly terrified, over thunderheads –  instead of views akin to satellite imagery of the faraway earth – instead we glide and curl along lakesides.    Up the Hudson River Valley, through grey-brown winter marshlands and forest still carpeted with last year’s dead leaves.    The empty summer houses with vast, screened-in porches tell me there are mosquitoes here aplenty, and probably black-flies too, but also nights with air warm as hands on your skin.

There are rickety home-built docks floating in green water, and dilapidated grain silos and tumble-down barns.   It looks like the America that Tom Waits has been singing about for a half century.    Something vast and old, studded with summer stars and free, unschooled young people racing pell-mell through fields.  “we, primeval forest felling, We the rivers stemming, vexing we, and piercing deep the mines within;  we the surface broad surveying, we the virgin soil upheaving, Pioneers!  O Pioneers!”     Something that existed – as sure and solid as these bridges of stone and iron – but maybe only for a moment, and maybe only for a few.   I wonder what the job market is like out here.   There are only so many abandoned farms turned summer houses turned abandoned summer houses you can pass before you start coming to some conclusions.  The nicest ones have winter caretakers, you can tell by the dark windows and freshly mown lawns.  The owners probably live in New York and Boston and DC, they don’t live out here at all.

The shorelines of this place are steeped in history, thick with relics, awash with a sense of What Once Was.    A sharp veering turn away from my arrival here – a long drive in through New Jersey, past huge prisons and filthy warehouses,  where the trees by the roadside have garbage in place of leaves.

Mum and I were so deeply stuck in traffic for so long that I had to crawl into the backseat and pee in a paper cup – which we then tossed out the window in front of probably a hundred cars.   THAT was a first.    Also apparently I sometimes contain 14 oz of pee.  Which seems HUGE.

Coming from fifteen straight months in the Yukon, it’s all enough to make a girl’s head fall right off.

When I got to Vancouver my sense of smell went absolutely mental.   Yukon Winter Air is essentially sterile – it’s snow and ice and woodsmoke, and not a whole lot else.   Suddenly my nose was bombarding me with information – three dimensional floods of it, a job you’re used to your eyes doing.    I could smell everything all at once.   Cars going by, the recent rain,  damp moss warming in the sun, a nearby bakery, spicy noodles, a restaurant making sausages, a passing dog.   Seriously.  I could smell the wooden paneling on houses and the long-term dampness of heritage homes and the sea, always the sea.   Briney and stinging and vast.

Just a pop-in, there, really.   Enough time for a few tightly-scheduled lunches and dinners and one glorious nap on the beach.    I miss English Bay, but I miss it in that everlasting but gone way.    I was a kid there, a scampering mouse thing, then a teenager, bold and uncompromising.   You had to be, back then, if you wanted to make it down the street at night without incident.   I remember coaching my kindly suburban friends on why no, they shouldn’t stop and engage the drunken men who approached us on silent, empty streets in the middle of the goddamn night.    Not even if they started out by slurring that we were pretty or asking us a question that seemed hard, in politeness, to ignore.

But I’m from the Yukon now, and I look strangers in the eye, I search their faces for familiarity.   I’ve forgotten how to deal with men staring obviously down my shirt as they pass, because in Dawson they know you and it just doesn’t happen that way.    Things go wrong in Dawson, just like they do everywhere.   But it’s different.

Vancouver makes the memories surge, and the nostalgia, but it’s been so long that it’s as likely to be a memory of early childhood in the West End or early adolescence in Richmond as it is to be my early twenties.    I miss things and places that simply don’t exist anymore.

And so, we slide northwards.    A rain cloud just passed, the roads are dark and slick now, the distant valleys full of mist and grey.      A couple just walked by with beers from the concession car, and I find myself tempted.    It’s 3 now, or thereabouts, I’ll arrive in a mere 4 more hours.     With these kinds of views and this much leg room, that almost feels too soon.     And then, Montreal, a city I’ve never been to.    I’m widely assured that I’m going to love it.    I’m so thrilled.    I am going to eat and drink absolutely every goddamn thing I can.   We are going to have to roll home on our sides like barrels, leaking wine.

 

Because Kate’s is great and all,

but, well….

y’know?

The Darkest Timeline

I mean, it’s great, don’t get me wrong.    This winter is cartoon-style lovely and enjoyable, I’m basically living in a gingerbread house surrounded by sugar, I’m FINE.   

snow 2

But there is an ache behind my sternum where the sun used to be.

It’s a hollowness, a weird internal vacuum that places barely perceptible but constant pressure on your lungs and heart.    When I think about The Sun my breath catches and sort of grinds to a halt, pressure builds up, and I end up grimacing.     Or else this vast sinkhole of loneliness opens up and I want to cry.

It’s so fucking weird.  

This is my fourth or fifth winter up here, but it’s the first time I’ve spent the whole of the darkest months without ever Getting Out.    Honestly, I was pretty stoked to see it – I’ve seen the edges of it, I’ve seen the sun go and I’ve seen it come back, but I’ve never stayed while it was just Gone.   What was it going to be like?  How dark was it going to get?

And OK, so it’s not dark all the time, it’s just not.   Every day, even the darkest days, there’s a chunk of time that’s fully daylight.   Not sun-high-in-the-sky daylight, but daylight.  Bright blue sky, sure.   But we’re talking two, three hours.   Maybe four.    It’s pitchy dark until 11am, and back that way by 5.   And on either side of the few hours of day are these long, slow, deep blue slides from one into the other.    It’s eerie, and calming, and sweet, and slow, and I love it.

The problem is it’s been a million years since the sun has been on my skin, or in my eyes.    I remember the summer like it was a fever dream, malarial and pulsing.    I wonder what will happen when I see the sun again, if it’s going to be like what they warn you about after a blackout, how you should unplug your stuff so that when the power surges back it doesn’t fry all your circuits and blow all your fuses.   I dunno, maybe that was fifty years ago tech and I’m a person not a house – but I’m worried all the same.

Last year, when I left in mid-December, it was 16 degrees and sunny in Vancouver and when I got out of the airport I took my coat off and sat in the sun and I laughed for like fifteen minutes straight.     Not even exaggerating:  by myself on a curb outside the baggage claim, laughing.  Nonstop.   For fifteen minutes.    I must have looked like a lunatic.   God, I felt like a lunatic.

I think most people in Canada understand this, to one degree or another.  All you have to be is “Employed At Coffee Shop During February/March”  to know the cock-eyed joy that geysers up through a city on the first sunny, promise-of-spring day.    People are all high as kites, and grinning, and loopy, and those days are the best.    There’s something fundamental and biological happening there, and we all feel it.

Well, try this.

I mean it, it’s great, I honestly think you should – I think (and I’m most assuredly biased), that everyone should spend one crazy no-darkness summer and one cozy snow-cupcake winter up here.     Like I say, I live in a gingerbread house, and the other night (hey, new years, whaddya know) I was at an even MORE gingerbread-y and magical winter cabin, this one buried in snowforest.     Take a vast and terrifying snowscape of emptiness and pines, and put a little ice-cream scoop of wooden village on a hillside.   Every house tucked deep in the trees, every woodstove ablaze.

See?

It’s really, really great here.

snow 1

It’s just, I miss the fucking sun.

This Fire, and The Last

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It starts like any other minute.    First there is nothing.

And then there is fire.

I was just falling asleep, when suddenly my room-mate Leslie’s voice called me from outside my window.  Her voice was different – tense – angry?   I had time to worry I’d done something wrong.   But she didn’t say “could you turn that movie down”, she said “We need to call the Fire Department.   Can you see that?”

So I looked out my bedroom window, and saw.

Blazing orange, billows of smoke.   Pouring off something one building away from mine.     I couldn’t tell what yet.  Only that it was Too Close – Far, Far Too Close.    I ran outside barefoot, to make sure it was safe to run back into my house and dial the number.  The street was empty, the town was utterly silent.  The northern lights blew in pale strands across the sky.    And there in the field, the Minto Park concession building was very much on fire.

Now in Dawson, the number isn’t 911.   I know this, but do I know what number IS?  Well, I do now.   Flooded with miserable adrenaline, shaking like a leaf, I called.   I wasn’t the first, but there can’t have been many before. The fire was still new, the street still deserted, the sirens still ten minutes away.   I grabbed the fire extinguisher and ran back outside.

Not to charge towards the doomed structure.   I’m not crazy, after all.    But I’ll be goddamned if I’m going to stand there without a weapon.   I don’t care how futile those shining red cylinders might seem when confronted by thirty foot flames.   I don’t care.  Idon’tcareIdon’tcareIdon’tcare.   Because I know how this goes.

Southwest Alaska, August 6, 2005. 

Before

Before 

This is my second wilderness lodge job, and my first time in the far north.  It’s a luxury fishing lodge deep in the bush, float plane access only, the nearest town is a half hour flight away and houses under a hundred souls.   The Alaska Peninsula, which segues into the Aleutian Islands – our lodge is nestled several hundred kilometers from inland from the crook of that finger.   It’s a stunning landscape, and the fishing is world-class. 

This is also, as luck would have it, the worst summer of my life.   And it’s about to be the second worst day.  

Sandy and I are napping between shifts in our tiny plywood cabin.    We are woken suddenly when Jason Atkins, the chef, knocks on our door.   To ask us a silly question.   And afterwards, we can’t get back to sleep because it’s so stuffy in there, so hot and so airless.   Strange, for such a cool, overcast day.  Resigned, unworried,  I trot down the winding forest trail to the main lodge building.   Microwave a bowl of chili and inhale it at speed.   At the very most, seven minutes passed since Sandy and I had left the cabin.   I look out the window, and see… smoke.    And…  it’s close to the place where we burn our garbage….     but it’s not….quite…. close… enough.     So I trot back.   Just to check. 

I hear the fire before I see it.  The last corner I take at a run, rounding a cluster of trees to see my cabin – my cabin – my house – flames, thirty feet high, pouring out of the front door and off the roof.    And Chad, the hotel manager, is standing there with a single red fire extinguisher pointed desperately at the towering flames.  

“GET HELP!” he yells, and I turn and I run.  

The lodge was always mostly empty during the day.  Our guests, the guides, the pilots – all fly out to pristine rivers and unpeopled lakesides each morning.  They return for dinner.   Remaining on the property:  Me.  Sandy.  Chad.  Jason.  Nicole.  And Nicole and Chad’s fifteen month old daughter.   

So I burst back into the main building.  And in that moment, my racing brain has time to register the bizarre nature of what I have to do:   I have to yell FIRE.    Me.  I’m the one.  It’s not happening in a movie, or in a dream.  It’s me.  Yelling Fire.  Because my house is burning down.  

Jason drops his knife and tears off through the trees.  Nicole shoves her baby into Sandy’s arms (Sandy was a mother of three already, far better at babysitting than I) and tears off after him, and I follow her.   And this is where my memory glitches out.  The whole rest of the day I could carve for you out of a solid block of glass, it’s so fucking clear.   All I remember is knowing that there were more fire extinguishers.  No hose.  But more shining red cylinders.  I know there’s one in every cabin, I know because I clean them.    But I have no memory after “they are in the cabins I’ll get them” . Suddenly, I just had them – six, eight maybe – hauled in a single armload back to the fire.  I drop them in a clattering pile near Chad and Jason, who are very clearly not wining the fight.    I turn on my heel and race back to the lodge, and begin hauling buckets of water. 

But the water lines under my house have melted.  So the water pressure in the kitchen is for shit.   I stick a slop bucket under every tap I can find.    Race the buckets up the hill, race back down for more.    I stop for a moment to vomit the utterly undigested chili into the bushes beside the trail.   And then keep running. 

The risks here are utterly clear: We are alone in the forest, and the forest can burn.  Everything.  Everyone.  If this fire spreads our only hope is the kilometer-long  lake, and the island in the middle of it.   This could be very, very bad.  

There are massive propane tanks strapped to the back of every cabin.   Jason charges in, taking a face-full of insulation smoke, and wrests the five-foot-tall tank from the back wall.    There’s a pile of them now, huge, explosive, silver bombs just feet from the flames.   I grab one and start hauling it down the hillside.   And another. And another.   Nicole is trying to help, but mostly she’s just flapping her hands, in mortal terror for her husband, whom she is much younger than and utterly dependent upon for guidance, stability, and decision-making.    So she panics, and drops a propane tank on me from ten feet up the hill.   I yell at her for the first time.     

Someone has radioed for help, and so there are planes now – circling, landing.   But they aren’t firemen, they’re civilians.  Just people who were nearby and flying.   Young boys and confused fathers.  And they stand around, uselessly, staring at the flames.  My stomach knots as I fly past them, and when a boy takes one of my hard-won buckets of water and flings it at a part of the cabin that isn’t even burning, I want to hit him in the head with a rock.   Finally the fire plane lands, and the hose is getting set up, but the random dude trying to help is holding two female ends, ends that don’t connect. One side drops down a steep bluff to the pump plane that bobs on the lakeshore and the other side contains the nozzle.   He bumps the two pieces dumbly against each other, and looks around slowly for advice, or help.   My brain explodes  and I leap down the bluff, following the hose to the firemen below who know what to do.  There’s enough hose, they say, pull it up.  Get it higher.  Just use the one.  So I throw the heavy canvas over my shoulder and start hauling it back up the bluff, using the trees that grow sideways out of the dirt like handlebars.   Once I get to the top, the boys have started moving quicker.  One grabs the newly delivered hose lengths and starts running.  But the hose runs in a loop that’s closing – fast – and I’m in the middle.  That thick, that heavy, and moving that fast – it could break my ankles, wrap around my knees, would certainly knock me on my ass.   I have just enough time to drop like a stone and the hose rushes over my head, held just off the ground by the layer of bramble and scrub.   When it passes, a hand reaches down and I am hauled to my feet.  The guy asks me if I’m OK with wide, serious eyes.    

By this time the cabin next door is also engulfed.  A chopper has arrived, and it’s dipping a huge metal bucket into our lake – our lake – our pristine, silent lake which no people but us ever visit.   It empties it’s contents onto what used to be everything I own.   All that’s left are twisted steel bed-springs and the melted tin roof.  

Afterwards:   We still have to put on dinner.   The chef and manager have been flown to the hospital for smoke inhalation.  Sandy and I boil chicken and carrots and I serve these thousand-dollar-a-night guests with twigs in my hair, soot in my fingernails and somebody else’s sweatpants on.   Sandy stays the night with one of the guides.   Everything is gone.    Everything I own.  My journal, my underpants, my toothbrush, my pens.  I have a sheaf of paper and a folder, the clothes on my back. And nothing else.    I stay in Jason’s room that night.  It’s when I remember that Chocolate, my childhood favorite Gund bear was in there, and most definitely burned, that I finally burst into tears.   I cry myself to sleep in Jason’s bed, clutching a pillow to my chest.     

Dawson City, 2015

So when it happens, when I see the flames,   I don’t care that my fire extinguisher probably won’t help.   I just remember two years of picturing what my belongings looked like on fire.  

So I’ll be damned if I stand there with nothing in my hands.

Because it can change so fast.   Because it always changes so fast.   Look at the words we use to describe fire.  Fingers, tongues, eating, devouring.  It’s alive, it has agency, and motives, and hunger.

The police arrived first, banged on all the doors and woke everyone else up.   We had to know.  We had to be awake.  It was too close to let your room-mates sleep, even the ones who work at 4 in the morning.    The thick gravel road between us and the fire meant we weren’t – probably – in immediate danger.   But there are telephone poles, and electrical wires, and the wires were already burning.  White sparks were showering off the north corner of the structure.   And fire, well, it’s contagious.    All it takes is a caterpillar of flame, creeping towards a breaker.  A change in the wind.  A propane tank.    And a fire like this, the heat that comes off it – paint blisters at thirty paces, the boards begin to smoke, and – whoosh – without a single kiss of orange the house next door begins to burn.

We are so lucky that building stands alone.    Half of this dry, clapboard town could fall to a single careless cigarette, if we were unlucky, and the wind was high.

The losses, of course, are still stark.   The DCMF tent, it sounds like, and the baseball equipment, and who knows how much liquor. Most assuredly more than this.    But no lives.  Nobody’s home.   It’s luck.  And the volunteers who were hauled out of bed to throw gear over their heads and race towards the flames.

So Leslie and I, we stood and watched from our driveway, until the last of the liquid hot orange stopped dripping from the eaves, until the sounds turned from roaring and crackling to the hiss and billow of steam to the mere blasting of water against rickety, burned-out walls.   They got it under control so fast.  Considering how big it was, and how hungry.

Stark naked under my bathrobe and parka, my red boots on bare feet, I kept the extinguisher clutched to my chest until the last of the glow died away.    Because I couldn’t let it go, couldn’t go in.    Couldn’t feel safe.   Until it was over.   For really, really over.

Because I know how fast a minute changes.   And what it means when things are Gone.

After

After                                                                         (2005) 

The Thaw

It’s melting

It’s all melting

To those of you not consigning your lives to the northland,  “Melting” is probably an unremarkable sentiment.   Nothing much, really, not for a mossy Vancouverite or skittery Torontonian.  You will have seen rain.  

But up here, our lives are changing.

It wasn’t even that cold a winter – shockingly warm in fact, given the usual standard here.   Whole long months at -15 instead of -35.  The poles are warming much faster than the rest of the world, after all. (Yes it could be a fluke but also yes it is genuinely unnerving.)   And Yet, the fact of the matter is that at no point between October and the first smidge of March is “liquid water out-of-doors” a possibility.    Or “ground”.   There hasn’t been “ground” in AAAGES.   Just snow.    Snowfeet, snowboots, snowcrunching, snowpaths.   Snow on the trees and on the roofs and handrails and cars, always-always-always, fluffy, gorgeous and totally unrelenting.

February was stunning.   I was fresh then still, I’d gotten out, I’d seen Ground.   So coming back to the silent snow-globe town at -40 was actually magnificent.  Even though I came back to a dark and crazy-eyed place full of lunatics with bitter tongues.    I thought it was great.    Like an iced-cake daydream.     Ice fog, a stark blue sky and the low, gold sunlight slanting sidelong through the town.

The sun is always low here, and the shadows are always long.

and then -Wham- March.  Less like a lion than a lamb up here. But like, a very very fast lamb.   The sun comes back in a matter of weeks.  We went from Darker Than All Of You, Everyone Stay In Bed ‘Till Lunch Time Town…  at the beginning of March… to – well – it’s light here ’till 10 now.  Already.   I can see the summer comin’ quick in the periwinkle edge of an 11 pm sky.

And then the dripping starts.   A sound you’d started to dream of with a full-body hunger, a concept so far gone as to blow your actual mind the first time you hear it again.     First all the snow falls off the trees, so the hills are black-and-white-and-mud now, instead of uniformly frosted over.   (For the record – frosted over is WAY prettier.)      Then patches of gravel open up on Front Street and Fifth.    They scrape six inches of packed ice and snow off the streets and suddenly there’s gravel in all kinds of places.      Roofs start unloading terrifying piles of snow and ice all at once, in these great scraping avalanches.   The Downtown has to close off that whole section of boardwalk so that nobody is actually killed.

The mud is coming.  There are melty yellow ice-slicks crawling down from the mountains, turning the town into a treacherous obstacle course.   We’re still four inches in snow here, three or two in places, grass is peeking through.   It’s going to be Lake Season soon – already you have to stop taking shortcut paths through empty lots or risk your foot punching through a snow-crust into two feet of ice water.  My favorite is the few places in town that usually flood out enough that the boardwalk floats and you can walk across it like a long smooshy dock.     One of my favorite local art projects ever was a map of the town’s puddles at this time of year.   Everyone got really enthusiastic discussing their favorites.

It takes an enormous amount of time to rid the town of all it’s snow.  Like, months.   It won’t be gone ’till early May.

And Yet:

We are suddenly living T-shirt weather afternoons.    Beer and porch days and gloveless, coatless walks.

COATLESS WALKS.

Omg.  I cannot express to you what a thing that is.    Considering how recently the whole concept of “going outside” came hand in hand with fifteen actual pounds of protective layering.    One time this season I want to take one of my summer friends and dress them up in all the things I wore to go to the grocery store at -40.

So like, it’s hard not to be a side-eyeing asshole when the Summer Kids show up.   With their city hair-tossing and tiny, fashionable shoes.    We’ve all become bitter ‘Nam Vets of Wintertime.

“You weren’t there, man.”  

And it’s unavoidable, because it’s true, and winters here are L.O.N.G. and fuck you and your recently-consumed pho.

But that’s not the whole picture.  Huge parts of the picture include “I was a summer person too” and “where else do we get the new winter people anyway?”  and “there are not enough possible sex partners in this town right now”.

So bring your short shorts, girls, and your springtime saunter.   Trim your beards gents, brush up your chesty plaids.   The winter leaves us with wolves behind our eyes, and you are plump from city feasting.