What To Expect When You’re Not Expecting – an insider’s review

This past Saturday night, I performed in the debut production of What To Expect When You’re Not Expecting, a themed show by the TMI Project to benefit Planned Parenthood and TMI’s community outreach initiative (which brings writing and monologuing workshops to disadvantaged populations). The show was nothing short of magical, and it was an honour beyond words to be a part of it. E and S, the co-directors of TMI, put together a collection of pieces, mostly monologues (one penned by me), around the theme of reproduction and reproductive rights. The script was phenomenal. The pacing and sequencing were perfect. The final piece was absolutely devastating. I’ve heard that piece, “The Lucky Ones,” four times now, and after each time, I’ve realized that I’ve been holding my breath the whole way through it.

I was freaking out during the tech rehearsal, thinking that there was no way we’d be able to pull this off – but it went off flawlessly. Every single piece hit home. We pulled no punches. We went to the dark, difficult, impossible places at every single opportunity. We told true stories that very few people have heard about the complications of reproduction – what can go wrong, and the complex ways that it can go right. The audience laughed. They cried. They gasped in shock and horror at times. After the show, it took me forever to get to my car because audience members kept stopping me to thank me for sharing my piece. The whole experience was transcendent and transformational.

E and S are planning to release this script to the public so that it can be performed by other groups to support Planned Parenthood, in much the same way that Eve Ensler released the Vagina Monologues. It makes me cry with pride for both of them that they are doing this. I know they’ve poured their hearts and souls into this show for the past 9 months, and it shows. I see this script as a warning shot across the bow of those who seek to limit reproductive rights and access to care for women and men: We will NOT let you do this to us. We will NOT let you dumb down these issues or avoid looking at difficult situations just to make your own moral lives easier. We are starting small, but this will snowball.

A phrase apocryphally attributed to Ghandi comes to mind: First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. I am proud of E and S for taking a part in this fight, and I am proud of myself (and everyone else in the cast) for joining this fight.

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run run run run run

So I stopped practicing and teaching yoga about 3 months ago.  This is the only time in the past 11 years that I’ve abstained from yoga practice for more than a week.  I wasn’t finding any meaning or growth in my practice anymore, and I was getting frustrated with a lot of the culture around yoga (which doesn’t actually have much of anything to do with yoga itself).  I got tired of overhearing conversations about homeopathy and vaccine conspiracies and ear candling and Mercury in retrograde and rave reviews of someone’s new gluten free, dairy free, egg free, sugar free, chocolate free cookie recipe (as far as I can tell, this describes a cookie that is comprised chiefly of sawdust).

I have spent the past 15 years working in medical research (ACTUAL medical research, with science and numbers and peer review and stuff), and eating well is one of my few unmitigated sensual pleasures.  Anti-science and cuisines of deprivation?  No thank you.  Life is too short to be so ignorant and unhappy.

I’d started (and continued) practicing yoga because in it, I’d found a way to create some peace for myself and work on unresolved issues.  But it wasn’t working anymore, and maybe that’s partly because I’m dealing with a different set of issues now.  I remember hearing a great, great yoga teacher say that yoga is not a way to develop boundaries; if you need to work on your boundaries, practice martial arts.  Whoa.  Full stop.  So, so, so true.  How are you going to work on boundaries with other people if you’re just stuck on your mat, contemplating your navel, not interacting with other people?  It had become too easy for me to use yoga as a beard to avoid self-work, rather than engaging in it.  And boundaries, in the most general terms, are the issues I know that I need to work on right now.  So no more yoga.

I would have liked to take up martial arts again, but the martial art I’ve studied in the past, kendo, is not taught anywhere near me, and I’m not interested in aikido or karate.  Call me a snob, but if I can’t fight you with a sword, I’m not interested in fighting you at all.

suffer-runSo I’ve been running instead.  The benefit of running, for me, as I’ve been sharing with anyone who will listen (and some who would probably prefer not to), is that I already know that I hate it, so I don’t have to worry about discovering later on that I despise it and deciding that I need to quit and try something else.  No, I’m being honest with myself from the get go here.  Hating it in turn confers another benefit to running – I’m so focused on how much I’d rather be doing something else (anything else!  Please!) while I’m doing it, I can’t get lost in my head.  My focus is single pointed:  This sucks.  I can’t wait till I’m done.  And getting lost in my head (in addition to being sick of yoga) was why I started running in the first place.  I realized I was falling into a depression, and I needed a way out.

The downside to running is that I still have boundary issues to work on.  Which, again, in the very most general of terms, is why I was spiralling into a depression.  So maybe I should bite the bullet and sign up for karate.  I have friends who practice, and I’m sure they’d love nothing more than to beat the tar out of me once or twice a week (which, actually, sounds kind of great to me too).

“You’re nervous because it means something.”

Woke up this morning around 5:30 and knew I had to start writing.  I didn’t want to.  I tried to find distractions.  Checked my text messages, narrowly fought off the urge to check email and facebook as well.  I wrote the date and the topic of my free write in my journal, then lay back down with the journal next to me in bed.  Standing on the cliff’s edge.

The same question keeps coming up in this round of TMI, and I keep not knowing how to answer, so I coyly avoid it and work on other things.  Wednesday, I finally heard the question in terms I understood.  Unsurprisingly, the terms that finally clicked with me involved a Canadian, which is a useful reference point for me.  And on Thursday I figured out my way in, how to start answering the question.  So eventually I did pick up my pen and start writing, and I didn’t come to a stopping point till I was three pages in.  I did some editing this afternoon to get the chronology right, but stopped myself before I’d edited all the life out of it.  Hopefully.  And I think where I stopped sets me up to pick up my pen again tomorrow morning.

I’m a simple person.  This is pretty much all I ask out of life.  Challenging work, and some sense that it’s coming together, or will.  I can usually tell when I’m onto something interesting because it spurs more questions.  Sort of the way fractals unfold.

Anyway, I watched this interview of Gord Downie on George Stroumboulopoulis’ show afterwards, and somehow, it made sense to me.  What Gord says towards the end about not holding back, using it all up – I need to keep reminding myself.  There’s nothing to hold back for.  This is it.

(Oh, also this article Gord wrote a few months ago for Maclean’s.)

The Tragically Hip, 15th November 2012 at Clifton Park, NY – a review

I should probably start by saying that during the course of the hour and a half drive to the venue last night, I was alternately bawling and screaming.  It was that kind of a day.  I’m not going to go into why; I just want to set the scene.  I’d more or less worked out my issues by the time I arrived and I felt a lot better, but I was still raw.

This is hard for me to admit, but Tragically Hip fans are weird.  I don’t mean “Insane Clown Posse Juggalo” weird; I mean “How the hell do these people love the same band that I love?” weird.

I hate that I just used the word “Juggalo” in a post.  And now I’ve done it twice.  Damn.

It was a general admission standing show, and I got there early enough that I was pretty close to the stage, even after going to the bar for a pint.  I was about 4 rows back.  The trouble with being that close to the stage at a Tragically Hip show was that everyone around me was a Tragically Hip fan.  Gord Downie is pulling off an impressive slight of hand; he’s front man in a band that passes as bar rock.  But beneath the surface he packs his songs with more obscure literary references and unanswerable questions than you can shake a stick at.  Based on what I see at shows, I think most of the Hip’s fan base is there because they like bar rock.  On the other hand, I love the Hip mostly because of the lyrics.  Also, the rambling Gord does between and sometimes within songs is epic; major world religions have been based on far less than what he spews out off the cuff. I feel like I need an extra session with my therapist half the time after their shows.

Anyway, last night’s show.  I was way up close, sandwiched between a drunken bearded man who seemed to keep vacillating between either wanting to beat me up or wanting to make stinky Canadian hippie love to me (he eventually got escorted out for lighting up during “Ahead By A Century”), and a drunk young woman who kept trying to get me to finish her drink for her. I think she was trying to roofie me.  Or maybe she was just too polite, even when drunk, to just drop her drink on the floor as everyone else had done.  Which, you know, was kind of sweet of her.  My bearded associate, when he was not either:  1. Putting his arm around me and staring me dead in the eye while singing to me, 2. Grabbing my shirt in preparation for a fight, or 3. Telling all the women around us that I was hot for them – when not otherwise preoccupied with any of these noble tasks, my new bearded BFF/frenemy was himself hitting on every single woman within sight, including the woman who kept trying to give me the dregs of her gin and tonic.  She pulled me over at one point and slurred, “He’s a jerk!”  To which I replied, simply, “Yeah,” with a sympathetic nod and smile.  Because, really, what else was there to say?  But towards the end of the evening, I guess she’d put her grievances with him aside because they were grinding against each other, and I’d rather not picture what may have happened later.  Is this how Hip fans are made?  Gross.

The music – when I could focus on the music, when I wasn’t preoccupied with the fascinating antics of my fellow Hip fans – was, of course, delicious.  It really helped to pull me the rest of the way out of the funk I’d been in on the drive up.  Gord introduced “Gift Shop” by saying, “I promised myself I wouldn’t cry,” which for me was the best intro he could give to that song because pretty much every time I hear it the water works start, and last night was no exception.  “Fireworks” was fun, and slipping “Nautical Disaster” into the middle of “New Orleans Is Sinking” worked really well (I think that’s how “Nautical Disaster” began, actually – as a ramble in the middle of “New Orleans Is Sinking”).

Wow.  I know a lot about the Hip.

The new material was very good, too, though I’m not as familiar with it.  I was a little disappointed not to hear “Goodnight Attawapiskat;” I kind of expected them to close with it.  Otherwise, it was a great show!  But I’m kind of glad that at least until the next time they tour, I can go back to enjoying the Hip on my own, without the peculiar ministrations of my fellow fans.

Wild: From Lost To Found On The Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed – a review

I did not expect to enjoy this book.  I’ve been seeing it everywhere I turn for the past few months, in bookstores and on best seller lists, and that level of popularity usually gives me pause.  I assumed it was a “memoir” by some twenty-something trust fund kid who hiked the trail on a lark one summer.  Not sure why I assumed that, but I did.  I tend to assume the worst.  It’s not my best quality.  I remember picking up a copy of Wild at Chapters in Ottawa and wondering whether I should give it a try, before putting it back down again and walking out of the store.  The turning point for me was an interview that one of my friends did with the author.  I sensed depth and raw emotion beneath the surface that I didn’t expect, so I decided I’d give the book a chance.

And wow, am I glad that I did!  I could not have been further off-base with my assumptions.  I loved it; absolutely loved it.  Not at first, to be sure, but within the first fifty pages it started growing on me, and by the last fifty, I didn’t want it to end.  By the last ten or so, I REALLY didn’t want it to end.  There were several points at which I was so concerned about the author’s safety and well-being that it was difficult for me to continue reading, and impossible to stop.  Strayed’s writing is incredibly honest, without wallowing in melodrama or poor-me.  She doesn’t pull any punches; she doesn’t sugar coat (or overdramatize) what her life was like before the trail; she doesn’t make any attempt to hide her failures in preparing for the trail, or her near complete lack of understanding of how rigorous the trip would be.  Her descriptions of trail life are spot-on – the fetid odours arising from one’s own unwashed body, the soreness of muscles, blistering of feet, and the ravenous hunger that comes from hiking all day, every day, with a pack that weighs half one’s own weight.  Her writing made me want to do two things that writing about hiking almost never makes me want to do:  hike and write.  And so I have been doing both.

All this in contrast to other hiking narratives I’ve read, most notable Bill Bryson’s A Walk In The Woods, about his time on the Appalachian Trail.  My recollection of this book (which I read ten or fifteen years ago) is that Bryson bent over backwards to be so affable, so goofy and chummy, that by the end of the book I kind of hated him and wished he would shut up.  Subsequent experiences with several of Bryson’s other books have not dampened this initial impression.  I experienced the opposite emotional progression, though, when I read Wild.  I did not like Strayed at first.  Despite her hardships, it was hard for me to feel sympathy for the questionable decisions she was making.  That, perhaps, says more about me than it does about her.  I kept thinking back to friends of mine who have made similar decisions in bad situations and who were not as fortunate; did not come out on top of the game, or even still in the game.  It made me resentful about the dubious connection between cause and effect, a connection which seems more and more tenuous as I get older.  Chance plays a horrifying large role in every outcome.  We can’t control everything.  But these are my issues, and have little to do (directly) with Strayed’s excellent writing.

I did not expect to enjoy this book; but I did, tremendously.  And although I don’t believe the author and I could have been friends at the start of her 1100 mile hike, by the end, I think we may have had some things to talk about.

One of my favourite passages:

…what mattered was utterly timeless.  It was the thing that had compelled them [the trail’s creators] to fight for the trail against all the odds, and it was the thing that drove me and every other long-distance hiker onward on the most miserable days.  It had nothing to do with gear or footwear or the backpacking fads or philosophies of any particular era or even with getting from point A to point B.

It had only to do with how it felt to be in the wild.  With what it was like to walk for miles for no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets.  The experience was powerful and fundamental.  It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way.  That’s what Montgomery knew, I supposed.  And what Clarke knew and Rogers and what thousands of people who preceded and followed them knew.  It was what I knew before I even really did, before I could have known how truly hard and glorious the PCT would be, how profoundly the trail would both shatter and shelter me.

page 207

Wild:  From Lost To Found On The Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed.  Read it!

pet peeve

Why is it that certain people feel a need to give “the grand tour” to new house guests?  I don’t need to see the bathroom in your master bedroom suite.  “And here’s where I take a monster dump every morning.  Whoo-ee!  Man does it stink in here afterwards.  Okay, now on to the S&M dungeon.”

I know what a house looks like.  Not to brag, but I’ve seen a house or two in my day.  I’ll ask if I need to know where the bathroom is.  I don’t really care about the rest of it.

Unless, of course, you actually do have an S&M dungeon, in which case I definitely want to see that shit.  But then I will probably be totally creeped out and never visit you again.  So plan accordingly.

The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje – a review

My review in short:  it stunk.  Lots of purple prose that had me rolling my eyes and thinking “Oh brother,” and a story that took forever to go anywhere.  This was the only Michael Ondaatje I’ve read, and I don’t understand why he’s regarded as a great writer.  Was The English Patient better?  Anil’s Ghost?  Maybe his editor just gave up on this one?  Figured he’d sell a bazillion copies regardless, so why bother trying to make the book readable?  The biggest question for me, of course, is whether I should bother delving further into Ondaatje’s canon.  Suggestions from the readers of this blog with respect to this question would be much appreciated.

The writing reminded me a lot of John Irving – overwrought, overly precious.  Come on, man.  Just let the story speak for itself.  If you need to dress it up this much, the material you’re working with probably stinks.  And this story could have been much better, but he blew it with his self-important writing style.

There was one section I really did enjoy, but I was fairly drunk when I read it, so my judgement is suspect.

I bought my copy at Indigo on Princess Street in Kingston, Ontario a few weeks ago.  I was looking for something fun to read during my brief vacation, so I limited my browsing to whatever was on the tables at the front of the store.  The Cat’s Table was emblazoned with a sticker declaring it “Heather’s Pick.”  Heather, I don’t know who you are, but my reading interests and yours don’t seem to share much ground.