Archive for November, 2011


Seven-year-old

Dear Rowan,

Seven. You know, it doesn’t seem so strange that you’re as old as you are right now. I used to marvel, unbelieving, that I had a baby, a one-year-old, a four-year-old. But for some reason you just seem exactly appropriate as you are, right now, all shoulderlength hair and no front teeth, playing piano, playing soccer, swimming, climbing the ropes in gymnastics class. At your class’s Halloween party, you eschewed your Value Village Spiderman costume (complete with built-in muscles) in favour of your everyday clothes. “I’m going as a second-grader,” you said, and man, did you pull it off. You’re just so perfectly cast as a seven-year-old that it’s hardly surprising. You know? (Or maybe I’m simply gearing up to turn 40 in a few weeks and so you’re getting off easy.)

So you at seven (or, as you like to point out, in your eighth year): typical in so many ways. I can’t tell you how many renditions of “Jingle Bells, Batman Smells” I’ve heard in recent weeks. At your birthday party, you and all your friends took delight in the same kinds of jokes: “Mom, mom, what’s your name?” you say, and then “And what’s this?” pointing to your nose, and then, holding out your empty hands, “What’s in my hands?” (Susan knows nothing!) Ha ha ha, say I, and didn’t you see me standing here just as you told that same exact joke to your brother, who tries to repeat it to me but doesn’t quite get it because he’s only in JK? No, that didn’t occur to you, because, of course, you’re only seven years old.

You read like a fiend: each morning, your alarm goes off at 7 AM and you curl up in bed for half an hour or so with a book. In the past year, you’ve started devouring some of my childhood favourites: Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books, Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing series (I still remember what a big deal it was when Blume came to Toronto to sign copies of Superfudge at the Toronto Children’s Bookstore: hours-long lineups and screaming fans. See, children’s authors were still rockstars even before JK Rowling. Not that we’ve started to you yet on JK Rowling. Because once we start, we won’t be able to stop you. And some of those books are a little scary.). A few weeks ago, I got Norton Juster’s Phantom Tollbooth out of the library for you and you loved it and all its crazy puns. And I loved reading it to you — the parts you didn’t read yourself, leaving me scrambling to catch up to the story.

And yet, I have to convince you almost every time to try a new author, a new adventure. For your birthday, I went a little wild in the children’s section of the bookstore, picking out titles based on your previous favourites (the latest Magic Treehouse), my childhood classics (CS Lewis’s Narnia series), the New York Times literary supplement (Brian Selznik’s Wonderstruck), and things that just looked interesting (Wildwood). You thanked us profusely and then put the whole damn stack aside and pick something familiar to read before bed as I held Wildwood not-so-subtly in my lap. “Put that away,” you told me. “I don’t want to read it.” As bedtime drew to a close and you finished your allotment of one of those tiresome Geronimo Stilton chapters, I offered to read just two pages of the new book, and you grudgingly agreed. When I reached the end of the two pages, you said, diffidently, “You can read more.” And then, after the lights were out, you called out in a darkened room to Rachel: “Mom?” When she answered, you said, “Thanks for the books. I already started one: Wildwood.” And I smiled to myself.

And I guess that’s kind of how it is with you at the moment: passionate and hesitant, a taste for adventure tempered with heavy doses of the familiar. Is that all seven-year-olds? Is that all of us? Will I spend my life as a parent gently (forcefully?) coaxing you into the next adventure just as I coax you to eat breakfast and wear a hat in the cold? Or will you one day pick up a new book, a new sport, develop a new passion, spontaneously, of your own accord?

On the other hand, we’ve just found out about a Pokémon club at the local library and you were in from the get-go, so maybe I’m overthinking this whole thing.

Speaking of Pokémon, they have replaced Bakugan as your preoccupation of choice. You are Pokémon hustler, with an encyclopedic knowledge of each creature’s damage points and powers, playing on Skype with Rob, with your Zaidie when he shows up in town on your birthday weekend. “It’s quite amazing,” your Zaidie told me, shaking his head slightly as you trounced him over and over: “He knows every detail, every card, every rule.” And those cards: you must have several hundred by now, given to you as gifts, bought at Zellers with your birthday money and allowance. “Do you need to go to university to work at Zellers?” you ask me and your other mother. Because that’s the job you want (either that or working at Starbucks): so close to all those cards all day long, and you get a discount! And, after futilely trying to explain that no, you don’t need to go to university in general to work at Zellers (or Starbucks), but that you may still want to consider university in general, I think, Well, as long as you’re happy.

Your other passion is soccer. You’re up and dressed early and outside, even in the snow, kicking a ball around, begging us to play with you, complaining when we call you in for dinner or insist that it really is time to go to school. I never imagined myself as the mom kicking a ball around with her boys after school, after dinner, first thing on a weekend morning, but that’s who I am now. And maybe if I weren’t so busy keeping up with you I would marvel at that, too, but who has time?

Happy seventh birthday, Rowan: you’re marvelous.

Love,

Mom

P.S. Comment if you remember when Superfudge was released!

A year ago.

Two years ago.

 

 

 


Sally Field

The scene: a Saturday morning in early winter. ISAAC, a small boy still clad in his pajamas, is playing with an educational alphabet puzzle bought for him by his grandmother. His older brother, ROWAN, sits down on the floor beside him and begins to put together letters.

ROWAN: I need an O.
ISAAC: No, Rowan! I don’t want you to do my puzzle with me!
ROWAN: I just need an O!
ISAAC: No!
ROWAN: Yes!
SUSAN (who has been watching): Isaac, I think you’ll like what Rowan is doing. He might be writing you a secret message.
ISAAC: Really?
ROWAN: Yeah. See? Look what I made you.
ISAAC: What it say?
ROWAN: It says, “To Isaac, I love you.”
ISAAC: Oh! Oh Rowan! Oh, thank you for “To Isaac, I love you!”
ROWAN: You’re welcome.
ISAAC: Mommy! Look! Rowan says he loves me!
SUSAN: I see that!
ISAAC: Rowan loves me!
SUSAN: It’s nice, isn’t it?
ISAAC: Rowan, you love me!
ROWAN: Not that much.


A note on the text

It’s Rant Thursday!

For those of you who are too polite to ask, yes, I’ve been working on my novel. It’s a humbling process, this: this coming to the realization that my manuscript, in fact, wasn’t and won’t be dictated to me by God. Or, perhaps it was/will be dictated to me by God, but man is that Dictaphone in rough shape and only about one in every three sentences is legible. I am learning all sorts of Useful Lessons, though. For example:

a)    Just because you have read lots of novels, it doesn’t mean that you are qualified to write one.

b)    Just because you have edited novels, even if you have won awards for editing books, it doesn’t mean that you are intuitively capable of writing a decent novel.

c)     The fact that you are good writer in no way guarantees that you will write even a halfway decent novel. Good writing is not the same thing as a good novel.

And so on. As I said, humbling.

My first draft was pretty much pulled out of the air: sitting down and semi-desperately trying to tune into that staticky voice of God over the shoddy celestial Dictaphone and getting down the words. For my second draft, I’m working from the ground up: going back to basics, reading books on the craft, doing the kinds of exercises I have tended to avoid. In essence, I’ve designed for  myself a one-year Masters degree in fine arts, complete with textbooks, assignments (e.g., pick a novel I like and break it down scene by scene in order to analyze its construction) and a thesis: my second draft. At the moment, I’m creating the equivalent of a thesis proposal: a plot treatment, a sort of Rosetta Stone for the entire manuscript wherein I list, in order, each scene and its structural function: who’s doing what, where, and why? How do these actions further the overall plot? What, by the way, is the plot, exactly? The theme? What does my protagonist want, and what  antagonistic forces are preventing her from getting it? What is her fatal flaw of character and how will she overcome in order to fulfill her desires? Just simple stuff like that. The kind of thing that drove Anne Lamott on a booze and cocaine bender — and that was after she did what I’m doing and then her editor rejected it, again.

But that’s for later.

Right now I am just chugging along, doing the exercises, reading my books. Which leads me to the real point of this post, and this rant. Here’s what it says on page VI of Robert McKee’s Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting:

NOTES ON THE TEXT

To deal with the pronoun problem I have avoided constructions that distract the reader’s eye, such as he annoying alternation of “she” and “her” with “he” and “him,” the repetitious “he and she” and “him and her,” the awkward “s/he” and “her/im,” and the ungrammatical “they” and “them” as neuter singulars. Rather, I use the nonexclusive “he” and “him” to mean “writer.”

Mr. McKee. Robert. Bob! Can I call you Bob? Can we get all chummy like that? Well, no, actually we can’t. We can’t because you don’t think I exist. We can’t because you are still mired in the antiquated miasma of sexism that thinks it’s perfectly okay to verbally exclude more than half the world’s population from your ideas, all the while protesting that in no way are you being “exclusive.”

Bob, look: I’ve been over this before. But just in case: women exist. They exist as actual people, of course, but also as novelists, screenwriters, playwrights, copywriters, editors and characters in stories. We exist as writers. And very few of us, I’m willing to bet, would find it “annoying” to see our teachers and so-called mentors acknowledge that existence. I’m sorry that you think that the simple phrase “his or her” is distracting; personally, I find it distracting to be constantly reminded that the so-called expert advice I’m reading comes from a person who doesn’t think I’m alive. Personally, I think it’s annoying that, well into the 21st century, it’s still perfectly acceptable in your imagination to perpetuate the myth that men are the default, “neutral,” writers of this world. You know what’s actually awkward? It’s awkward when somebody won’t shake your hand or make eye contact with you because you’re a girl, when they go to great syntactical lengths to avoid acknowledging your existence and then insist that they aren’t sexist, not exclusive at all. No-ho.

(Something else that’s annoying, by the way, Bob: the phrase “put emphasis on.” Say “emphasizes.” It’s briefer and more elegant.)

It’s especially annoying because I’m reading your book on the heels of reading Dara Marks’s fantastic Inside Story: the Power of the Transformational Arc, which has given me all sorts of wonderful tools and insights into this process. It is, in my opinion, a better book than yours: much more practical; take-home points on every page; written with a certain economy that you lack — and this despite the fact that Marks uses “he or she” and “his or her” and other gender-neutral terms throughout. Guess what? It’s not distracting in the least. It’s respectful. It’s also realistic.

Bob, I’m prepared to be humbled by this process, but I’m not really prepared to be ignored, devalued, discounted, solely on the basis of my gender. If you’re going to dismiss me, do it for a real reason — like the quality of my writing or the structure of my plot. And I’ll try to take the few helpful points you provided and make them work for me. But that’s gonna be hard, because I don’t trust you very much: I mean, how am I supposed to take seriously your claim to be a “master of the craft” of storytelling when it’s clear that you’ll never be able to write a fully formed female character?

In other words, Bob, the pronouns aren’t the problem here. Misogyny is.

 

 


Maybe it means “You behaved badly in a previous life”

I’ve been going through some old journals recently and came across this description of a recent morning:

Sunday, 11 September, 2011, 7:10 AM

Moved over to the bed in Isaac’s room at 2 AM, after he woke us (“Can you cuddle me?”) and I couldn’t fall back asleep. He woke me an hour ago because he wanted some “private reading time” in his own bedroom. Because, you know, he can read and all. After he kicked me out, I went back to my own bedroom, where Rachel was lying in Isaac’s little bed because he had crowded her out of our bed. So I crawled in with her. And then Isaac wandered in, asking if anyone would read to him or play War with him, and we said no. And then he berated us for cuddling together, without him, and crawled in between us, which was sweet for a while but eventually got too crowded and so I left.

This is a metaphor for something, but I’m not sure what.

 


You know that you’ve really come round to the fact that you live in Thunder Bay when…

Ladies and gentlemen…

 

 

 

I present to you…

 

 

 

my new…

 

 

 

 

 

Sorel boots.

Rated to -40 F! Utterly waterproof! Unbelievable treads! Removable ThermoPlus™ InnerBoot! I don’t even know what that means! But it’s exciting! I saw these, and my heart did a little flip-flop, the kind of flip-flop that urbanites would more likely reserve for boots like this. I would say that these boots are a sign that you really can take the girl out of Toronto, but for the fact that I bought them at the corner of Hip & Happening also known as Queen West & Spadina in downtown Toronto. But there, I suspect (or, at least, I like to believe in order to keep my northern cred) that my sweet, sweet Sorels would be considered ironic. Here, they are utterly earnest.

Let it snow.

 


Ward

Has anyone ever written a poem for you? About you? If not, I highly recommend befriending a poet and getting on with that project, because it’s easily one of life’s most exquisite pleasures. Especially when the poet is as gifted as my astonishing (and astonishingly prolific) friend, Ward McBurney. Check it out.

[Update: Ward, tortured artist that he is, is in a constant state of refurbishing his blog and has taken down lots of old poetry. So here it is:

You helped me make my bed decidedly. This

is a bed for a grown-up, you said. You folded

and we spread. You told me not to get up

 

when you left, but hugged me bending over

me as prone as an infant, and big as a lion.

You were here. You were emphatically present.

 

I still don’t understand a word of what you say.

I still know you are absolutely trustworthy.

If I don’t keep you posted, it may be because

 

I think you already know that life is hard, sucks,

can suck. And then there is this bed, standing

right in the way of panic and forlorn. Susan,

 

You helped me make the bed where I was born

and left me lying there awake like morning.]


To Chris at the car dealership, who thought I was racist

Hey! It’s Rant Thursday! Here goes:

Dear Chris,

Can I call you Chris? I mean, of course I can. You asked if you could call me Susan, and, obviously, I said yes. I’m not sure if you’ll remember me, but I bought that family-friendly car from you last week, flew all the way to Toronto from Thunder Bay because cars are less expensive in the big city and I wanted an excuse to visit my family and friends, not to mention to navigate the drive home along the north shore of Lake Superior solo. It seemed like a rite of passage.

But I digress.

What I wanted to say, Chris, is that I love the car. I mean, it’s difficult not to love, what with the windshield wipers that actually wipe and the brights that stay on without me having to hold down the lever and the door locks that actually lock and the acceleration that actually… well, you get the picture. I’ve been spoiled with freebie, hand-me-down cars for more than a decade now, and I am eternally grateful for them, but I have to say I am kind of giddy about having a new one.

You must be familiar with that new-car feeling, Chris, having grown up in the industry. Your dad, you told me, owns several dealerships, and you’ve been around them your entire life. “But things are really different now,” you told me, conspiratorially, as I signed the papers for my new vehicle. “I mean,” you said, looking around the dealership, out near the Toronto airport, “I’m the only white guy here.”

And, you know? You were the only white guy there. It was, objectively, true that all the other salespeople at the place were people of colour. I honestly hadn’t paid much attention until you pointed it out. And while I thought that was weird that you pointed it out, I was prepared to grit my teeth and let it go if you didn’t say anything else. So I initialled the first page of the contract and then we moved on to the second, the one where I signed to confirm that I was whom I said I was and not some imposter trying to buy a car on Susan Goldberg’s behalf. “I mean, it’s easy to tell who you are,” you told me, Chris. “I mean, with everyone around here, you can’t tell who’s who: everyone is Mohammed Abdullah Singh. They all have the same names.”

(I have to admit, Chris, that I wasn’t really sure how to take that one coming from a white guy named, well, Chris. Which is, basically, the Christian equivalent of, say, Mohammed, isn’t it? But here, I am perhaps the pot calling the kettle black, having grown up a Susan in a world of Susans. Admittedly, there weren’t too many Chrises at my Jewish parochial school, but it still seems to me that there’s no real shortage of Chrises in North America, if you know what I mean.)

Now, I knew I had to intervene. Because I have made a pact with myself and the world to speak up in instances like this. Because not to do so is to be part of the problem, yes, and, more selfishly, because when I don’t I feel like an ass for weeks after. Months, even But it’s difficult to know how to intervene. It’s so easy to be caught off guard by the bad behaviour of others. I suppose that’s a good thing, but it doesn’t necessarily leave me with a whole bunch of prepared remarks for these kinds of situations. By the time you commented on the fact that, “You know, they’ve got 15 or 16 guys are living in one house and one guy goes down to the licensing office with another guy’s ID to try to get his license,” I finally managed to get it together enough to look up from my contract and say, “You know, I really don’t want to have this conversation with you.”

Was that enough? Likely not. But it was what I came up with at the time. And at least I succeeded in letting you know that, despite the colour of my skin, we don’t share the same values.

Which isn’t to say that I’m not racist. Because, Chris, you were right: I am. Sometimes, I see someone from any random ethnic or cultural group and an unflattering or sometimes even downright mean stereotypic thought flashes through my brain like some particularly vile form of Tourette’s syndrome. And I marvel, frustrated, at how deeply ingrained these kinds of thoughts are, at my brain’s persistence in thinking them. It’s like that song in Avenue Q: “Everyone’s a little bit racist, sometimes.” I’m working to explore that part of myself I don’t like, to acknowledge it, to figure out where it comes from and to work against it.

I didn’t walk out of the dealership in a huff. I mean, I had come too far already and contract was mostly signed. Plus, we got a really good deal. But I wonder if you would later tell someone about how I “Jewed you down.” I mean that’s what happened to my friend Susan (my God! We’re everywhere! It’s amazing you can tell us apart, all these white Jewish writer Susans) when she bought a car and the salesperson told her that she better not Jew him down any more. But that was 30 years ago. You said that things are really different now, Chris, but are they?

So maybe I didn’t say enough at the dealership, which is why I’m writing this letter. I haven’t decided yet whether I will copy you, or maybe your managers, on this link. But in the meantime, here are a couple pieces of advice for you, nuggets that I omitted to mention at the dealership: first, don’t assume that just because I’m white, I’m like you. And second, to paraphrase my mother, if you can’t think of anything nice to say, shut the fuck up.

Susan