His Whole Life by Elizabeth Hay – a review


He didn’t know how to put it all together, life and death and things looming up.  Your heart lies in pieces on the forest floor and the days and nights keep coming.  p. 278

Elizabeth Hay’s new novel, His Whole Life, juxtaposes a family in a slow state of collapse, the Bobaks, against the decade or so surrounding the Quebec sovereignty referendum of 1995 – a time when Canada itself felt as though it might be in a slow state of collapse.  The novel starts with a question on a car ride from New York, where the Bobaks live, to a lake in eastern Ontario, where they vacation every summer.  Jim Bobak, ten years old, asks his mother, Nan, “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?”

It’s a question that keeps reappearing in the book, both directly and indirectly.  And it’s a question whose answer requires regular revision.  Every character is a flawed human being looking for connection.

I’d like to be able to say that what I like best about this book is how well written it is, how rich and accurate the descriptions of people, places, and things; or perhaps how well developed, human, and understandable the characters are – all of them, even those who are not painted in the most favourable light – there are no broad strokes here.  I could lay the same praise on any of Hay’s novels, though.  What I love best about this one is far more personal.  My family was also in a slow state of dissolution in the 90’s.  We also split our time between New York and a lake in eastern Ontario.  I was also struggling with questions of loyalty and identity I did not feel well equipped to handle.  And all of what Hay writes rings true for my memories of that period.

As a natural extension to the question of the worst thing each character has ever done, the primary issue each (but most especially Nan) must resolve is the transition from avoiding to accepting the inevitable complexity of living.  In this way, the book recalls Hugh MacLennan’s beautiful line from The Watch That Ends The Night:

But that night as I drove back to Montreal, I at least discovered this: that there is no simple explanation for anything important any of us do, and that the human tragedy, or the human irony, consists in the necessity of living with the consequences of actions performed under the pressure of compulsions so obscure we do not and cannot understand them.

Hay, to her credit, does not let her charges off quite so easily as MacLennan does.  She allows their actions to explain themselves.  In a lesser writer’s hand, this (and the analogy between a family and a nation in a state of crisis) could have come across as ham fisted, but there is no such danger here.  The exchanges between her characters flow beautifully, even through the tension between them.

Through a combination of perseverance and acceptance (recurrent qualities in Canadian literature), Nan eventually does find resolution for the primary conflicts in her life.  She comes to a state of equilibrium, as does the nation after the Quebec separatist motion is narrowly defeated.  And equilibrium brings her forgiveness.

It felt like two rivers meeting insider her, one blue, one brown.  The brown of “George, you hurt me,” and the blue of “I’m still breathing.  I must have hurt you too.”  If that could be considered forgiveness, if forgiveness could be considered a kind of movement in one’s chest that made it easier to breathe.  p. 350

She had been hungrier than she knew to hear [Pierre Elliot] Trudeau praised after all the years of denigration and indifference.  And now the hunger was being satisfied.  “I wonder,” she said to Jim, “if the urge to appreciate and forgive is actually more powerful, if a good deal rarer, than the urge to dismiss and despise.”  p. 358

Towards the end of the book, after Nan and Jim have returned to Canada for good, Hay drops this beautiful little nugget into the text:

How vast a land this was in which people lost things that could not be replaced.  p. 360

To this, I can only add that some of us have also found things there that we feared we’d lost forever.

His Whole Life by Elizabeth Hay is a gorgeous and evocative work.  It’s not just fiction; it’s literature.  If you’ve enjoyed her other work, you will love this.  If you’ve not yet had the extreme pleasure of reading her, it’s a great place to start (but by all means, make sure you read Late Nights On Air and A Student Of Weather, too).


Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, edited by Sari Botton – a review

goodbye-to-all-thatI do not venerate New York City.  I never have.  Despite living a stone’s throw from it (rather, a fairly short bus ride from it), I almost never visit The City.  The limited appeal it holds for me has always been tempered by the anxiety I’ve sometimes felt when I have been there; the crush of the crowds, the busyness, the claustrophobia, the overwhelming New York City-ness of it all, and until recently, I never saw a need to challenge that.  Other writers and artists (Woody Allan comes immediately to mind) have essentially based their careers on fetishizing the city, and this is something that has distanced me from their work.  I just don’t feel it.  So I wondered when I began to read this book whether I would be able to identify with the authors, or whether I’d feel left out in the cold.

This concern was not well founded.

Despite my coolness towards New York, the ostensible subject matter, this collection still pulled me right in.  I caught on pretty quickly that these essays aren’t just about New York; they are about having an intimate relationship with a place and being so fundamentally changed by it that it ceases to be home.  They are about transformation; New York is merely the backdrop.  Not all New Yorkers go through this transformation.  Some never leave.  But these writers allowed themselves to be changed; they grew, and they spread their wings and flew away.

In odd ways, the writing reminded me in places of Barry Lopez’s descriptions of his relationship to the land in Arctic Dreams.  I never thought that I would come across writing that so beautifully evokes a similar sense of relationships of reciprocity with an urban landscape, but here it is.

Although the references are all local and specific, the experiences of the writers are universal. A few passages hit me hard:

When it comes to place, there are two kinds of writers:  those who more or less stay where they’re put and look around themselves, and those who need to go somewhere else to look around themselves there.  p127, “Losing New York,” Lauren Elkin

I thought I fell firmly in the former category, but I wonder if it’s as simple as that for me.  I remember telling K after our trip to Guatemala that one of the benefits of travel is getting to see home differently.  I do most of my writing in Ulster County, where I live, but the ink sometimes seems to flow most readily when I have some separation from my day to day life.  The important thing, I think, is the looking around and within myself, regardless of where that happens.

I liked to observe non-loner-alien people, and New York City was the best place to do that….  Here, on foot, I was free.  Wherever my feet took me, I was happy to have the city as my sole companion.  I loved the feeling of being alone but among people. p154, “Real Estate,” Sari Botton

I love that feeling, too, though it’s not New York, specifically, where I go for it.  An odd quirk of my own flavour of introversion/extroversion is that I do need to be around people, even if I don’t want to interact with them all of the time.  It’s reassuring to see that others feel this as well.

And finally:

My relationship to New York City – home – is and always has been about my relationship to yearning. p235, “Captive,” Dana Kinstler

Full stop.  Yes.  This is the most powerful sentence in the book for me.  My relationship to home is also about my relationship to yearning.  What would home even mean if I actually arrived there?  If I actually had what I wanted, if I did the messy work of removing it from the abstract and bringing it to the real, what then?  Would I, too, be changed, and discover that I now wanted or needed something else?  That is why these essays touch me so deeply.  It’s a courageous act, bordering at times on desperate, to go after what you want, but it’s an even more courageous act to realize later that it no longer suits you, and that you must let it go.

So, my review in short:  this essay collection is deliciously written, exquisitely introspective, and thought provoking.  Buy it.  Read it.  Thank me later.  I’m not even going to edit out or apologize for all of the adverbs I just used to describe it.  It’s just that good.

A call to arms for reproductive and health care rights

A few months ago, I appeared in the debut performance of the TMI Project‘s show What To Expect When You’re Not Expecting; I wrote about that amazing experience here.  Those of you concerned with such matters will no doubt have observed that the issues the show addresses (attempts by the right to obliterate reproductive and health care access) have not magically gone away since then.  Texas, for example, is shutting down Planned Parenthoods under some complete bullshit pseudo-public health loophole they invented, and it’s going to take more than a one woman filibuster by shoe-in-for-badass-of-the-millenium-Wendy-Davis to undo this horrendous fuckwadery.  So what are we going to do about it?

Here’s what we’re going to do about it.  We (the TMI Project) are planning to take this show on the road, and perform What To Expect When You’re Not Expecting in Texas and elsewhere.  But guess what!  As it turns out, travel to Texas isn’t free, and this is where you can help.  I am asking you to contribute to this cause, and if you’re wondering if I mean YOU specifically, yes, I do.  Help us bring this show to Texas, the state that more than any other needs to be smacked upside the head with some raw undeniable truth in the form of devastatingly honest first person narratives on these issues.

Here is the link to donate to this cause.  I am hoping you will do so, and sooner would be better than later.  This is an opportunity to improve radically the dialogue around these issues, allow voices that have traditionally been silenced to be heard, and make sure that the jackasses who are trying to take away our rights and health care access (YOUR rights and health care access) do not succeed.

We will also be performing this show again locally, in Rosendale on October 25th and 26th (same show both nights), so if you missed it in Woodstock in June, you have another chance to see it.

And whether you’re in a position to contribute or not, I hope you will please spread the word to other like-minded individuals who may want to help us.  We shouldn’t have to fight this fight, but given that we do, I want to make damn sure that we win.

Don’t you?


Last night, I dreamt of the RCMP.  Yep, Mounties.  I was observing some sort of ceremony or fête.  It was indoors with stark, almost industrial lighting.  There were two young women with me, both of whom seemed interested in me.  I gave one my affection, the other, a knife, and my hand lingered in hers when I handed it to her.  Both women realized my duplicity, and they left.  I saw them later in the dream, but they no longer had any interest in me.  This dream fell on the heels of a day on which I woke up cranky, tried running but only made it 2km, went to yoga with a friend for the first time in many months, saw two of my favourite teachers (both of whom noted the physical changes in my body), and had a therapy appointment in which my therapist called me out on the quixotism of my desire to fix the past.  I can’t fix things that I didn’t break.  I ended the day with an AlAnon meeting in which I offered to take the chairperson position for the next three months.  I don’t know which of these events may have influenced my dream.  Maybe the therapy appointment.  Certainly there’s some overlap between my desire to pick at unresolvable issues and my waking attempts to run in two mutually exclusive directions at the same time, or to invest myself in quagmires which not only are not mine, but which I only seem to make worse with my well-meaning but fumbling attempts.  I also dreamt last night of vampires and zombies, a theme which has become repetitious to the point of being almost nightly for me, and which never fails to wake me up in dread fear for my safety.  Before I started dreaming regularly of zombies and vampires, for several months I dreamt occasionally of someone breaking into my house, which also woke me in dread fear.

I really don’t get what the Mounties had to do with anything.  They were a nice touch, though.

I’ve not been writing much lately; not here, not in my journal, not anywhere.  Although there are a half dozen topics I know I’d like to develop, it’s been hard to find motivation.  I’m not sure how to seek out the regular feedback I seem to need.

Great Big Sea at Ottawa Bluesfest 2013 – a review

I remember a few months ago, my trip to Minnesota with K to transport her apiaries in preparation for her and E’s move from Massachusetts.  We drove 26 hours over the course of two days, then spent a week at her parents’ house.  One night I spent 12 hours in bed.  I’d wake up every few hours and then fall back to sleep after a few minutes.  I’d never spent that much time in bed before.  I was wrecked; completely emotionally spent after months of emotional upheaval and heart break.  That trip was very healing for me.

At some point in the trip, K told me that I’m like a hipster, except that I earnestly enjoy the things that hipsters enjoy “ironically.”  I never would have thought to put it that way, but after a few months’ reflection, I think she’s right.  I do only enjoy earnestly.  The idea of enjoying an experience solely to mock it for its kitsch value is foreign to me; does not even sound like enjoyment, but rather the ghastly phantom shell where genuine enjoyment ought to live.

I spent most of last week in Ottawa.  Partly I came for Bluesfest (which I’ve been promising myself I’d make it to for many years), but mostly I came because being in Canada, especially being in Ottawa, is an experience which I earnestly, wholeheartedly enjoy.  The evening I saw Great Big Sea perform on LeBreton Flats was a capstone experience from my trip (at least, the Bluesfest portion of my trip).  There was something incredibly moving about seeing them play for an audience of 30 thousand, all of whom knew and loved their music at least as much as I do.  My tastes for Canadian cultural touchstones usually separate me.  They introduce an element of otherness.  To find myself in an enormous crowd of people who also knew every word to every song and were singing along at the top of their lungs transformed, for those moments, something that in my day-to-day life distances me into something that connected me.  I am so accustomed to the distance that I am scarcely conscious of it, but it does pervade.  To find that distance lifted, briefly, was validating.  I can think of no better word for it.

It’s not just about Great Big Sea.  It’s not really about them at all, though I did thoroughly enjoy the show (and the Waterboys who played before them – between the two acts, the evening felt like a giant céilidh).  But it wasn’t about the music.  It’s about Canada; but more than that, it’s about feeling validated in my experience; and even more fundamental than that, it’s about feeling connected.  There is a subtext here having to do with other issues in my life and not feeling quite right in my assigned identity, but I don’t want to overlook the text itself, the most obvious level of this.  My Canadian fixations are not simply a veneer for other things, attractive and tidy as that explanation may be.  I genuinely, earnestly connect with this place and love my experiences there by their own rights.

As far as the show itself – I loved it.  The band from Newfoundland (Great Big Sea) and the band from Ireland (the Waterboys) were unabashedly joyful in a way that perhaps only the traditionally downtrodden can be, and I found myself thinking about the conversation K and I had about hipsters and ironic enjoyment.  No one in the audience was enjoying the music ironically – and unlike bands that may curry greater favour with trend setters, Great Big Sea was not playing music which deifies ambivalence and mediocrity.  They were playing their hearts out on songs that they love; songs they’ve written about the people, places, and things that they love.  And we, the audience, were reflecting that beautiful, earnest, joyous energy right back, giving back 100%.  And that’s what was so validating for me – simply letting the soft animal of my body love what it loves, to paraphrase Mary Oliver, in the midst of many others doing exactly the same.


Björk at Ottawa Bluesfest 2013 – a review

“Review” is perhaps not the right word for this.  My thoughts on the show are wholly unencumbered by any illusion that I understood what I saw or heard, so it’s hard to know exactly what to say.

As limited as this word is, the show was awesome.  Throughout, I kept thinking that this was what magic must look like.  I knew something amazing was happening, but I understood not a bit of it.  It was just amazing to watch.  My first intimation that this was going to be Something Completely Different was when a giant Faraday cage descended from above.  The  two van de Graff generators it contained arced across the gap between them during some of her songs.

Her backup singers were a choir of teenage girls from Iceland.  In addition, there was someone working the synthesizer/iPod/computery thingies and someone else on percussion.  That was it.  Björk in a blue dress, all of five feet at most in her heeled ankle boots and wild red hair wider than she was; some cute kids dressed like extras from an episode of Star Trek TOS; a guy at a desk; a guy on the drums; and a gigantic arcing electrical apparatus dangling from the ceiling that would have impressed Tesla himself.  Prior to her set, I’d noticed a few pipe organs on stage and had assumed they would be part of her show, but they were not.  Possibly they were part of a prior act’s set?  But none of the prior acts seemed very pipe organy.  Possibly Björk just likes having pipe organs on stage?

I didn’t know any of the songs she played, but that really didn’t diminish my experience.  Possibly it made it richer.  She played for a little over an hour, then gigantic jets of fire erupted from the stage, she played one song for an encore (“Raise Your Flag?”), and the night was over.  I was transported from whatever inter dimensional portal Björk had taken us through back to a field in the middle of Ottawa surrounded by happy Canadians.

In the distant future (when misogyny is just a myth we tell each other but which no one quite believes), archaeologists who discover footage of Björk will, I hope, look on us more favourably.  After seeing her perform, I am convinced that she is evidence of higher mental processes at work.

Maybe the best thing about this amazing, amazing show is that the next time someone wants to tell me about how great the National’s new album is, or Vampire Weekend’s, or the Decemberists, or whoever, I now have a perfect response.  Do they use a Faraday cage?  No?  Well, where’s the Faraday cage if they’re so great?

This should stop any conversation in its tracks.

Prior to the show, an image displayed on the screen asked in English (then French) not to take pictures as Björk finds it distracting.  I did take this one, surreptitiously, and although it is not the best photograph I’ve ever taken, I think it captures the quantum fuzziness of the evening perfectly.


This review is dedicated to my dear, dear friend T, who desperately wanted to be at the show but couldn’t.  I was texting with her to tell her what was going on for the first few songs, but after the Faraday cage I stopped.  It just seemed cruel.  T, if it is any consolation, I kept wishing throughout the show that you could have been there too!

HPV vaccines

A few of my friends on Facebook have recently posted links to an article entitled ‘The Lead Vaccine Developer Comes Clean So She Can “Sleep At Night”: Gardasil And Cervarix Don’t Work, Are Dangerous, And Weren’t Tested.’ by Sarah Cain.  I’m writing a brief commentary because this article is misleading and I want to explain why.

Let’s start with the title.  The article never quotes Dr. Harper as saying that she can’t sleep at night, or that she wants to come clean for some misdeed.  It scarcely quotes her at all, actually, and it doesn’t give a link to the text of her speech in 2009.  I could not find the text of this speech through a google search, so it’s very difficult to know what, exactly, she said.  The article does quote a Joan Robinson who comments on her own perceptions of Dr. Harper’s talk, but does not give Ms. Robinson’s credentials.  I was able to find other interviews with Dr. Harper, and in none of them does she suggest that the HPV vaccines don’t work, are inherently dangerous, or weren’t tested.  What she does say is that these vaccines only protect against certain oncogenic strains of HPV and not others (which the article conflates to a suggestion that the vaccines “don’t work”), that women who are vaccinated do not always understand this and therefore are at risk of skipping Pap screenings (which the article conflates to a suggestion that the vaccines “are dangerous”), and that long term (eg, 15 year) efficacy of these vaccines is not yet established (which the article conflates to a suggestion that the vaccines “weren’t tested”).

Moving on to the body of the article itself – it is true that most HPV infections resolve themselves without treatment.  It is also true that there have been tens of thousands of adverse reactions to the vaccinations reported – but it is important to keep in mind that the vast majority of these have been minor and common to all vaccinations (pain and swelling, fainting, soreness at the injection site).  Regarding the possibility of more serious reactions, Google searching did not reveal much reliable reporting about these.  A Slate article says there were none, and I am inclined to believe this is true or very close to true.  At any rate, there were certainly not tens of thousands of deaths or serious adverse reactions, as the article implies.  If there were any serious reactions at all, there were few.  To be quite frank, if there had been adverse reactions in large numbers, this issue would have been reported much sooner and by a much larger news source than “Southweb Real News.”

Vaccines (including the HPV vaccines) are very thoroughly tested before being released to the public.  They are not simply invented by a biochemist at a pharmaceutical company and then dumped on us.  The CDC has a very helpful website which explains how vaccine safety is verified and monitored.

This point gets its own paragraph.  The article states that “At the time of writing, 44 girls are officially known to have died from these vaccines.” I could find no confirmation of this whatsoever.  Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence – the author, Sarah Hain, provides no evidence whatsoever here, though.  No reference, no link.  As far as I can tell, she invented this out of whole cloth.

It is true that Pap screenings alone have significantly decreased the incidence of cervical cancer.  The HPV vaccines are not intended to replace screenings; as I understand them, they are intended as a tool to decrease even further the incidence of cervical cancer and pre-cancer.

What’s most upsetting to me about Sarah Hain’s article is that it mixes fact and fiction, and gives no references for her claims.  It plays on existing fears about vaccines, and will appeal to a portion of the population which is already inclined to believe that the medical establishment’s sole motive is profit at any human cost.  It plays on confirmation bias – if I already believe what someone is telling me, then I will not question it as deeply as I otherwise would.  We all do this; it’s not a personal failing of one person or another, it’s something everyone does, regardless of their perspective.  Critical thinking and science are meant to root out confirmation bias, and force us to question even those things that we believe to be true, because (and here’s the important point, kids) believing something to be true has absolutely no bearing on whether it is.  Which, really, is quite amazing.

Anyway, back to HPV vaccines.  The following interview with Dr. Harper from 2011 gives a far more nuanced (and to me, interesting) perspective on HPV vaccination and its limitations.  I’m particularly fascinated by what she says at the end about differential duration of efficacy between males and females.  I’m incredibly curious about why this would be.  But she never says anything as sensationalistic as Sarah Cain’s article implies.