Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Why I Skipped my High School Reunion

It has been thirty years since I walked over the stage of my high school gym with less than forty fellow graduates, and this past summer everyone who'd attended and was still alive was invited to congregate in the hockey arena, in its off-season incarnation with concrete floors before the ice going in.  From Facebook posts, it appears that a lot of people who see each other every weekend had a good time.  They stayed and remained invested in the community that brought them up, unlike me, who rejected it and didn't hesitate to disparage it to anyone who would listen.  Many times in my life, when I have jumped into situations and realized I am completely out of my depth, I have envied them.

My version of my past is based on the belief that my life began at post-secondary education. As soon as I was allowed,  I left the narrow world of hockey jackets and a town so small that grown men spent frigid Saturday mornings driving around together drinking whisky, looking for something interesting to happen between the three stoplights that served as its boundaries, to a sedate university town by Lake Ontario.  Its ivy-covered buildings reassured me I had escaped forever. 

My high school town was where I grew up, but it wasn't where I was from.  Although my father, as a provincial police officer in Ontario, was stationed only an hour away from where he and my mother grew up (later, during those post-secondary years as a summer tree planter, I saw the places in the north of the province that Dad had referred to as "hell holes," towns where there was nothing in the way of entertainment but an establishment with a heavy-metal band on one side and strippers on the other, I realized how much worse it might have been) they and I by extension were outsiders in our postings.  Sure, we made friends, but it was understood that we weren't sticking around forever. 

No, the land of my people is the Ottawa Valley.  This weekend I headed up to see my parents, where they live in a quiet suburb that is technically the city but only ten minutes to territory familiar to them for more than seventy years. We drove past fair grounds in Carp where I remember eating cotton candy for the first time, and as we continued along a beautiful ridge where the autumn leaves were starting to gain their color--while back in Texas, we were still in sweat all day weather--and the little towns came back to me, knowing where I was before I even saw the signs.

I didn't drive these roads as a teenager and I never lived within fifty miles of them. I don't personally know more than five souls there. But as I sat in the car with my parents, all of my childhood rides on Sunday afternoons to visit relatives had embedded the route in my deep memory.  I had a flash of understanding as to why Alzheimer's patients retreat to their childhoods: I can't remember things that happened five years ago, but the drive over the Pakenham bridge felt like I had done it yesterday.     

Of course, hockey and whisky rule the towns in the Ottawa Valley as much as they do where I grew up. There is as much of a sense of community, good works, petty gossip, and insularity. It's just that I never lived there.  So instead of going back to see people who remember my awkward adolescent moments, my snobbishness, my dateless prom, I remember being with people who adored me.  A trip on a tractor at five, wrapped up snugly in a blanket.  Playing Crazy Eights in a "summer kitchen" and drinking my first vanilla float.  The smell of an indoor woodstove, still burning in January even though an electric furnace had been installed. 

I often say I don't like to look back, but it's clear I view the past as a smorgasbord.  The delicious parts are those I choose to keep. 


Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Big Brother: Using the Word Fat

But what, or rather who, is the skinny? By conceit, the rail-thin are harsh, joyless, and critical....They don't know how to have a good time, and don't hesitate to poop your party, too. Scrawnies are superior, haughty, and elitist.  Vain, self-centered, and cold. Picky. Stingy and withholding. Aloof. Uptight.  Judgmental and condescending...Dishonest (likely to decline the offer of dessert because of feeling "far too full"), and insincere ("You look terrific!").  Nasty, although usually behind your back. Fearful, not only of food but also of people who eat it, as if libertinism might be contagious.

--Lionel Shriver, Big Brother

Pandora, the protaganist of the deeply affecting novel Big Brother, lives in Iowa with her cycling-obsessed husband, who has recently repudiated cheese, and their two stepchildren, whose mother, now stage left, is a meth addict.  Pandora has, surprisingly to her--and, it turns out, her family of origin--made a business success. She's forty years old and still describes herself as a little sister. Her much-adored and prodigal older brother, Edison, comes to visit, as he's fallen on hard times.  While waiting at the baggage carousel, she hears a couple of strangers complaining about the fat guy who was beside them.  "What gets me, is we all get the same baggage allowances.  Our friend in aisle seventeen was packing a quarter ton in carry-on. I swear, next time they try to charge me extra because one pair of shoes has pushed me over twenty-six pounds, I'm going to offer to eat them." Turns out the fella who gets wheeled off the plane is her big brother, who has grown to twice his size in a few short years. 

What follows is a family dynamic between siblings who've endured an odd childhood where they competed with their screenwriter father's versions of themselves on a sitcom.  Edison fashioned himself into a promising young jazz talent--except now he's forty-two--and Pandora has done her best to fade into the woodwork.  Like many who peak too early, Edison has now crashed and is in the grips of what can only be called an addiction.  Pandora has come to success in middle age and, consequently, grapples with a towering imposter syndrome.

Shriver deals bravely with possibly the most emotionally-charged issue of the era facing the developed world.  "Whenever I encounter a picture of myself, the first thing I assess is my weight," confesses Pandora when she finally decides to confront her brother about his morbid obesity. (Shriver's own brother died of complications from his weight.) Women think about this many times a day, whether they are in the rail-thin crowd or where Edison has landed.  Men likely do, too, but are less likely to discuss it.

A chain of events leads Pandora from enabler to full-blown co-dependency.  The novel touches on serious familial subjects.  Where is the line between duty to one's blood relatives versus the person we've married?  How far must one go to save someone we love from addiction?  Pandora's husband, like me, is an only child, and I must confess I identified with him closely. And, to say the least, he uses the word "fat," and some other choice words when he lets loose.  That's when the plot blows wide open. Shriver writes a compelling story, and I now understand what drives Pandora to strive so mightily to save Edison.

Her assessment about how weight has divided our society is the most striking part of the novel.  The mean things the skinny characters say about the obese sound familiar and of course are unhelpful to their targets. Edison, for his part, isn't a terribly sympathetic character, until he lets his sister into the reasons behind his rapid expansion.  In the view of the protagonist, the very fat are cheerful, generous, harmless, and lacking pretension.

So Pandora's comments about the "scrawnies" that hit back against the collective notion that thin is better, superior, are rather brave.   "...when  I look at the lists of attributes we instinctively ascribe to the very thin and the very fat, I would rather be fat."  Like every other divide our society has faced, it will require a great deal of compassion and understanding to solve what has become the health crisis that will define our age.  

Monday, September 2, 2013

Vacation Horror Stories

After a night of many, many pints at several pubs in Halifax, I woke one morning to a Pepto Bisbol-tinted, insufferably hot room in a bed and breakfast over in Dartmouth.  It was more like a house with a couple of old people and a ceramic dalmation on the ground floor. We were the only guests and there had been quite a wait that morning by the proprietors. She with a beehive, he unremarkable.though he was clearly not in favor of letting strangers who stumbled in drunkenly in the middle of the night and who laid in bed until past ten in the morning into his house; his displeasure was conveyed with disapproving grunts. The long minutes that constituted our consumption of Corn Flakes, with the only other choice being bran cereal that looked like hampster dung, was a wee bit awkward.  It was 1990, and I was pleased to have found the room on the World Wide Web.*  My hangover was my fault; the pink room helped lead me to chumming off the side of a fishing boat in Halifax Harbour later that afternoon, to the eternal amusement of my sturdily sealegged friend Hugh. 

Through this summer, NPR has recorded a hilarious series entitled Vacation Horror Stories.  I don't think I've ever had a bat land on my leg in the middle of the night, and I've never spent a night in a foreign jail.  But I've had a couple of good ones.

There was the Motel 6 in Gary, Indiana, with the first bullet-proof glass I'd ever seen at a check-in desk. The little guy behind it looked terrified, and I slept with one ear open. There were lots of loud arguments in the parking lot and some rather interesting business transactions taking place in the rooms next door. It turned out my instincts were right, as Gary was then and perhaps now the murder capital of the U.S.  I might have checked that on the WWW before choosing that Interstate pit stop. 

A few years earlier in Corfu, Greece, I crept through a darkened bedroom where a middle-aged man lay snoring and his annoyed wife let us in after a night of cheap moussaka and even cheaper retsina.  We didn't even think it was that late, but as the old saw goes, youth is wasted on the young. We dozed on the floor in sleeping bags in the extra room until we woke to banging pots. The wife had snagged us at the train station and despite what could have been disapproval, fed us a lovely breakfast with wonderful fresh bread in the morning, and I remember a much-desired shower in a tiny stall in the confines of the kitchen.  It was weird to be rinsing off while the proprietess prepared lunch right outside my curtain. It actually seemed pretty good.  Earlier in my European tour, I'd schlepped down the hall in an ancient hotel in Paris to a shared iron bathtub.  It filled up with remarkably hot water for its eighteenth-century pipes, and I'm grateful I didn't think much about who might have been soaking earlier.    

I thought those days were over.  I'm now spoiled rotten, used to solicitous staff and Frette linens, pristine soaking tubs, and a Wall Street Journal under the door.  But last year T and I went to a family wedding on the Outer Banks, NC.  We landed late in Norfolk VA, and got to our pre-booked hotel, where a desserted lobby and a dark restaurant greeted us.  Our room turned out to be next to the elevator and had a nursing home-style bath.  We'd made it to the hotel guided by the delivery guy from a local pizza place, and then realized we'd brought good wine but no corkscrew.  Neither of us remembered the last time we'd stayed somewhere that didn't have a wine opener. The front desk was no help, so T went off in the night in search of one.  I fretted and called and T finally appeared, as did the pizza.  It was one in the morning, but it turned out to be a great meal, after all that.

Another night with one ear open, and then around eight in the morning a staff member walked in and interrupted what would have been a rather happy beginning to the day. I declined a soak in the bath with the security rail, and we found a Starbucks ten miles down the road. The worst trips really do make the best stories. 

*As noted by a reader, clearly I didn't book this online in bloody 1990.  How the hell did I find it?  One of the worst things about being divorced and old is that there isn't anyone I can ask, but then again, he might not remember either.  At some point it may come to me.  Maybe it involved a fax machine.  All I know is that without Google, I might not remember anything.