Trumped-Up Toronto

Sign outside a brick building saying "This is the place."I watched the first Presidential debate in a Canadian bar.

It was the best possible venue.

Democrats Abroad Toronto hosted the event. They were expecting about 50 people. About 300 showed up.

By the time the debate started, the bartender had run out of glasses and it was standing room only. A visit from the fire department would have gotten us all (very slowly) booted out.

***

I got there two hours early and scored a prime seat. On my right was Sean Marshall, a geographer, and on my left Stephen Chu, a photographer (both Canadians).

Sean’s a political aficionado who shamed me by knowing more about Massachusetts politics than I do. He watched the debate with rapt concentration.

Stephen and I kept laughing at particularly surreal moments, of which there were many (both on- and off-screen).

One newcomer standing behind us tried to order food, but the bartender said he had to be seated first. I offered up my seat. A few seconds later, he found out there was a two-hour backup in the kitchen, and gave up on eating. I got my seat back.

When Donald Trump claimed to have been endorsed by ICE, a woman sitting nearby misheard and said, bewildered, “Endorsed by ISIS?”

Several people mentioned that it was like watching a boxing match. It seemed more operatic to me, with Hillary shimmying in a moment of triumph, and Donald shaking his head, booming “Wrong,” his voice coming out almost in slow motion.

Time slowed way down and sped way up. The hour and a half was coming, was here, was gone before the bartender picked my Canadian tip off the counter.

It would have been so lonely watching this in some hotel room. In the bar, surrounded by strangers, I was surfing on top of a fragmenting glacier, melting from the past into the future.

Photo by me. View my Toronto album on Flickr.

Read my first Toronto post here and my second Toronto post here.

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Toronto, Part 2: Alone Among Canadians

Wall art showing a boy standing on a small grassy island in a lake, saying "Hello?"

You can feel like this in the middle of 5 million people.

I’ve always enjoyed traveling alone.

It started when I was living in China. In the late 1990s, this was not a welcoming place to travel as a foreigner. Trains and buses ran on incomprehensible schedules. I was once sold a ticket for a train that didn’t exist.

But I loved the freedom of hopping on a bus and going to visit other Peace Corps Volunteers in a town a couple hours away.

Traveling with others can be wonderful. But you have to accommodate another person’s desires, moods, and interests. Traveling alone, I can do whatever I want, at my own pace. It’s luxurious.

It’s also lonely.

Whenever I tell people that I’m going on vacation somewhere, they ask, “Just you?” Saying yes is a point of pride with me. I want to be the kind of person who has the bravery, as well as the time and the financial and emotional resources, to hop on a plane somewhere for a few days.

It feeds my ego to see myself as an adventurer.

This Toronto trip, though, I felt my alone-ness vividly. It’s not that I was terribly isolated during my trip. I stayed in an airbnb (renting a room in a couple’s apartment), and visited with two college friends. At times I was engulfed by hundreds of humans, most notably when I watched the first Presidential debate at a bar.

I vacillated during this trip between enjoying making my own agenda and following my own whims, and wishing I had someone to share the experience with.

Being childfree and unmarried is like that too. I love my independence—I’m an American, after all, and we’re obsessed with freedom and self-direction.

There are also moments when I feel adrift in space. With a really sweet oxygen tank and a viewscreen that delivers Netflix, for sure. But still, just me in my spacesuit, floating through the galaxy.

I wonder what it would take for me to feel truly connected to others. I have great friends and family members I’m close to. Mutual love. My friends and family live all over the world.

I guess I miss the partnership I’ve felt when I’ve lived with a boyfriend in the past. Or even a great roommate. The feeling when you hear them opening the door, and you’re delighted, instead of annoyed to have your privacy violated.

Introvert’s dilemma, perhaps?

Photo by me. See my other Toronto photos on Flickr.

Toronto, Part 1: Fredelle

Graffiti of the word "Toronto" in red with green borders.

Graffiti Alley introduces itself.

Toronto had been calling me my whole life.

Somewhat odd, maybe. Seems more like something people say about Hawaii or Tuscany than about a city in Ontario. But I’ve always thought of Toronto as a cosmopolitan place—a place full of brilliant, delightful people.

This is because of a large figure in my childhood: Fredelle. Fredelle was my mom’s best friend when I was a kid, and we’d go visit her in the small town in New Hampshire where she lived for part of the year. The rest of the time she lived in Toronto, a mythical Emerald City where I’d never been.

Fredelle was a first-rate storyteller, and had a keen eye and ear for bullshit. She’d grown up on the Saskatchewan prairie, and had no patience for anything less than honesty.

For me as a child, she was the ultimate in intellectual and cultural knowledge. She’d traveled all over the world; she’d written memoirs and books about raising creative kids. She baked sesame cookies that were notorious for burning if you left them in even one minute too long (which she never did). She was independent and a feminist, though I don’t remember her ever using that word.

Fredelle could have a sharp edge. I remember telling her that my school had gotten a new American flag that had flown above the state house previously. She said, “Anya, that’s the kind of thing that doesn’t interest me at all.”

But her interest, when you had it, was laser-like and unforced. When she listened to you—and even when she was the one telling a story—you felt surrounded by her brilliance and her complete attention. I wonder what she would have made of our fragmented world of cell phones, apps, and swiping left and right.

A business sign saying "This is the place," hanging outside a brick building.

Because Fredelle lived part of the time in Toronto, I associated the city with high culture. What culture meant to a nine-year-old, I’m not sure. Some combination of graciousness and fearlessness, and lots of art all around.

Fredelle died of brain cancer when I was a teenager. Her loss to my family was surgical, both abrupt and enormous. Strangely, though I was sad when she died, I don’t remember grieving hugely. Maybe this was because I was at the height of teenage self-absorption, or maybe it was because I already considered her, at 67, to be quite old.

I never visited Toronto during Fredelle’s lifetime. But this week, I finally traveled there. Decades after she painted a bright picture in my mind of a city of kindness, sophistication, and order, I explored it as an adult.

More later on what I found there.

Dedicated to the memory of Fredelle Maynard, 1922-1989.

Photos in this post by me. View my other Toronto photos.

 

 

Book Review: The Wolf Road

A wolf looking alert against a wilderness background
Elka’s a 17-year-old girl living in what used to be Canada. But the Cold War got hot back in the 1980s, and now North America’s a partial wasteland, partial wilderness. You have to be tougher than nails to survive.

The Wolf Road tells the story of Elka’s cross-country journey looking for her parents, who left her as a baby to seek their fortune in the wilder-than-a-Western west. She narrates the tale, and her voice is extraordinary: hard, fierce, and rich with dark humor. As we learn more and more about her past, we see increasing amounts of emotion and love–and also a core-deep darkness that’s hidden even from herself, until it finally detonates.

I’ve had it up to here with post-apocalyptic books, but I loved this world Beth Lewis created. It’s vital and raging and real, just like Elka herself. Lewis (a Brit) also gets points for creating a distinctive North American rural dialect for Elka.

A gorgeous, original book.

Photo credit: Mark Kent, via Creative Commons license

Airing Things Out

A door opens in a stone wall leading to a sunny garden
The Boston Globe ran an article recently about an incident of sexual misconduct at my high school. This is the latest in a string of stories about sexual abuse, harassment, and assault at private high schools across New England, and several of the events happened at my school.

I love my high school and its surrounding community, where I was born and raised. The school is a place where intellect and kindness are both prized, and where reasoned debate is essential.

It’s a house of privilege in many ways. Financial privilege, in that many of the kids who go there come from wealthy families. (Many others do not.)

Academic privilege, because every student is expected to work hard, and the teachers do as well. Social privilege, because of the powerful connections you build there.

I was able to go because I got a full scholarship, since my parents both were employed there. I worked my ass off, and I learned a lot. Way more than I did in college.

But while I was growing up in this bastion of fortune—a place where I felt nourished and protected every day—some of my peers were being abused, by each other and by faculty members.

I’m lucky that this didn’t happen to me. It shouldn’t happen to anyone.

*

What’s been striking lately is the flood of reports of sexual assault, harassment, etc.—some of them from 20, 30 years ago or more.

I hate the idea of someone carrying that malignant memory inside them, silent, all that time.

From my experiences with obsessive compulsive thoughts, I am familiar with the sensation of having a small, dark room in my brain piled to the rafters with shit.

For me, therapy and the book Brain Lock helped me open the door to that room, hose it down with warm soapy water, and air it out.

Having obsessive thoughts is not the same as living with the memory of sexual assault. Not even close. But I remember how it felt to carry something ugly around inside me. Like having a blighted spot, permanently, in the corner of my vision.

These stories about young people in my community getting assaulted and abused fill me with anger and a toxic sense of powerlessness.

I’ve written a letter to the school’s administration to ask them to up their game on how they respond to student allegations of sexual misconduct.

I signed another letter, along with 900 other alums, putting the same challenge to the trustees.

Other than that, not much else I can do. My feelings of insufficiency about that bother me—but they’re really not the point.

*

I admire everyone who’s coming forward to share your stories. I wonder if it feels like hosing out a roomful of shit in your brain.

Probably for some of you, it’s more like ripping a bandage off a wound that’s been festering for years, or for decades. And inviting the whole world to watch you do so.

All I can offer is my limited understanding of what you went through, and my desire to understand better.

If you were abused, assaulted, molested, raped—at my high school or elsewhere—I’m so sorry that you went through that.

And I admire you for talking about it.

You’re very brave.

Photo credit: by William Murphy via Creative Commons license

Right Speech and Door-Slamming

A wooden door to a crumbling, sunny building.
Photo by mhobl via Creative Commons on Flickr.

There’s a concept in Buddhism called “right speech.” It involves being truthful, while minimizing the pain your words cause others. There’s good info on this and other Buddhist ethical concepts here.

The flip side of “right speech” is “right listening.” Here, Beth Roth discusses how she and her teenage son have negotiated their increasingly difficult communication.

In the Buddhist view, speech can be ethical or unethical. “Right speech” is supposed to share truth, be timed appropriately, and be given with a warm intention. This can be hard when we’re telling someone about something they’ve done that upsets us.

I struggle with letting small annoyances or minorly hurt feelings accumulate, and then blowing up at someone when the pressure has built up too much. This isn’t healthy, and I’m working on finding better ways to express when I’m feeling frustrated, or when something that someone said or did isn’t sitting right with me.

Otherwise, these feelings fester. It’s like carrying a slow-burning acid-filled coal deep in my gut. Eventually it’s going to turn into hot bile and spew out.

My cousin, who like me is a Myers-Briggs INFJ, says that those with our personality type are prone to “door-slamming.” We’re mostly serene, let a lot of stuff slide that we don’t like—and then, when someone crosses a line with us, that’s it. Friendship over.

I’m not proud of that tendency, but I do see it in myself.

A teacher I was working with recently has elements of his instructional style that I take issue with. After several months of being aware of this, I finally broached the subject. The conversation went badly—we were both upset, and I didn’t feel that he heard what I was saying.

It’s unclear if I’ll return to his class, even though there was much in it to enjoy and value. At this point, I don’t feel trust or comfort with him, so I’ll probably never go back. I door-slammed.

Do you ever slam doors? When it is effective and healthy, and when it is not?

Can “right speech” (and “right listening”) help prevent door-slamming?

Two Qualities to Look for in a Romantic Partner

 

There are tons of appealing qualities to look for in the people you’re dating. But two keep standing out to me as essential: kindness and curiosity.

These aren’t at the top of most people’s wish list. They tend to get outshone by flashier traits, such as “hotness” (whatever that means). Especially for straight women, unpredictability and even a sense of danger can be enthralling.

But kindness is where it’s at. Observe your date’s behavior. How do they treat the bartender, the person making coffee, the police officer who pulls them over for speeding? Is there an innate respect and gentleness there? Or do they get pissy and whiny?

Curiosity is also beautiful. Does your date ask you questions? Do they follow up and remember your answers later? If you ask them something, do they reflect before answering? Can you see them thinking?

Curiosity can take many forms. It can be intellectual, emotional, sexual, or a range of other things.

But beware the lack of it. Steer clear of people who don’t want to expand what they know about the world.

Curiosity and kindness. Keep your eyes open for them. They’re signs of someone who’s worth your while.

What other qualities do you look for in a romantic partner?

Strength, Part 2: Taking Up Space

A woman makes a small muscle with her right bicep.
Photo by Rebecca Trynes via Creative Commons on Flickr.

I’ve been doing workouts lately using a wonderful website, Fitness Blender. They have a bunch of free videos, everything from gentle stretching to what the instructors, Daniel and Kelli, term a “sweatfest.” I’ve been using the site for about 8 months, and am especially into their 30-minute cardio and strength training videos.

Kelli and Daniel are the antithesis of the stereotypical workout Barbie and Ken dolls. They’re buff, yet human and welcoming. They joke around with each other, and occasionally their dog starts barking off-screen.

Kelli mentioned in one video that a lot of women are afraid of strength training. They’re worried they’ll bulk up, get huge, look masculine.

She explained that lifting a reasonable amount of weight will tone your muscles, not cause you to become a Schwarzenegger clone. Then she added something like, “And if you do get bigger, so what? Women are supposed to be tiny and helpless? I don’t think so!”

*

Yet I often see women minimizing themselves.

Guys spread their legs wide enough to take up three seats on the subway. Women scrunch away from them, cutting their eyes and sighing but not telling the guys directly to bring their knees back into their own space.

(For a brilliant analysis of this cultural phenomenon, see the Saving Room for Cats Tumblr.)

I just took a self-defense class with about 35 women, ranging in age from 19 to 78. One of the main components was yelling verbal commands, such as “No!” and “Get back!” Yelling these things (not screaming, but really bellowing them) can cause a potential assailant to seek out an easier target.

But the women in my group had a hard time yelling. “No,” they’d say to the instructor, batting away his hand. “Speak up, ladies,” the instructors kept telling us.

We’re so terrified of sounding stupid, or drawing attention to ourselves, that we’d rather get hurt.

I have my moments of minimizing myself, biting my tongue, smiling when I don’t want to.

And I just bought a new and bigger set of dumbbells for my workouts. Every time I do a rep, I think about strength, and about taking up space.

*

If you’re curious about Fitness Blender, a good place to start is with their Free 5-Day Workout Challenge for Busy People. If you try it, let me know what you think!

Strength, Part 1: Hard Versus Strong

A woman stands with a man flexing his arms behind her, so that it looks like his arms are growing out of her shoulders.
Image
by vaibhav ahuja via Creative Commons on Flickr.

On a series I just watched, the main character’s mom criticizes her adult daughter’s cold way of speaking to her family. “You’re very hard,” the mom says. “You think it’s strength. It’s not the same thing.”

In our culture, we often use hard and strong interchangeably. For men, being able to get an erection (“get hard”) is equated with being a real man—with strength. We describe people with strong muscles using metaphors from machinery and car racing: someone is “torqued” or “ripped,” and their belly is a “six-pack” (all imagery relating to hard objects, from a race car to beer cans).

So what’s the difference between hard and strong, emotionally speaking?

If you’re genuinely a hard person, you don’t care for others, or even register when your words or actions cause them pain. You shield your own wounds by numbing yourself. You build walls that keep you safe, and keep others away.

Strength, on the other hand, involves vulnerability. The researcher Brené Brown has made the study of vulnerability her life’s work. The Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön describes enlightenment as the slow, repetitive process of taking our armor off.

What can we do when we feel the world hardening us?

How can we keep taking off our armor, when others carry such sharp and stealthy weapons?

No answers here, people. Just stuff I’m thinking over, in these days of a terrifying presidential race, when nothing’s true unless you tag it with the correct emoji, and the air is thick with the ferric odor of irony.*

Over the next few posts, I’m going to be sorting through some ideas about the various ways people can be strong. Chime in if you have ideas. We all need all the help we can get.

*I shoplifted those last 5 words from the Stephen King novel The Dark Half.

My New Wheels

A blue women's street bike parked on pavement by some grass
Photo by Anya Weber.

Biking in Boston can be scary. Every year or two, someone gets killed because a car opens its doors into the bike lane. Or because they take a nasty spill and aren’t wearing a helmet.

But biking also means freedom from the lurch and delay of the T. It means a cool breeze even in the worst humidity. It means rewiring my brain to understand how different parts of the city connect to each other.

After 5 years without a bike, I decided to access that freedom and pleasure again. I bought my new ride off a bright and fearless high school student who’s upgrading to a mountain bike. “Are you planning to race?” she asked me.

Nahh. Competition isn’t my goal. Exploration is.

I just moved to Quincy, and I don’t know it well at all. After only a few days out on my bike, I’m forming a clearer picture of what’s around me.

I even biked to the beach!

And I’m joining Quincycles, which advocates for better access for cyclists to all parts of our city, and leads bike tours to neighboring communities.

Blue women's street bike with person's shadow
Photo by Anya Weber.

Summer is a time for expansion, and for delight. This bike is my vehicle to both. So happy that I have her, and a safe place to keep her.

I also want to name her. Any suggestions?