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.

 

 

Ugly Truth: Why Boston Shouldn’t Host the Olympics

A girl leaps into a swimming pool, wearing water wings.

The Belly Dive, by Claudio Beck

There’s been a lot of debate about whether Boston should host the 2024 Summer Olympic Games. Popular support for this is quite low, with concerns raised about lack of transparency by the planning committee, financial repercussions, and whether our city could really handle that influx of visitors.

But no one’s talking about the real reason why selecting Boston as the host city is a terrible idea.

Boston doesn’t have the social skills to host the Olympic Games.


This is a city where a friendly “hello” is likely to be met by a dead-eyed stare. Where I buy coffee from people who never meet my gaze during the entire transaction.

Sometimes I feel that only dogs smile in Boston.

Smiling dog. Photo by Conrad Olson.

Smiling dog. Photo by Conrad Olson.

I’ve lamented for the last 15 years about how unfriendly Boston is. And then I’ve raced to defend it, to justify its lack of warmth. It’s not unfriendliness so much as reserve. Distrust of strangers.

People are fantastic once you get to know them. There’s none of the fake, forced cheer you get in the Midwest or the South.

Maybe, as a friend recently theorized, the reason that Bostonians won’t talk to strangers is that they don’t want to BOTHER them. Bostonians have a healthy respect for each other’s personal space, and conversational space.

Maybe a little too healthy.


I was telling a friend who lives in South Carolina that if I sit by myself at a Boston bar eating dinner, no one will talk to me. Except maybe the bartender. (Thank the gods for bartenders.)

A bartender sits behind an empty bar.

Lonely bartender. Photo by Georgie Pauwels.

“That’s not normal, right?” I asked my friend. “Would people be talking to me in Charleston?”

“Of course they would!” she said. “Tons of people would be trying to talk to you.” She explained that guys would be hitting on me, women my age would be striking up conversations–there would be no wall of reserve.

Sure, some of that attention would be unwanted. But I’d rather be annoyed than feel invisible.


So Boston, if you want to host the Olympics, learn to be a good host. It’s all about making your guests comfortable.

Don’t yell at them if they get on the wrong bus.

Maybe put up some street signs? At least for the major roads?

Breaking news: Smiling at a stranger doesn’t mean you’re asking to marry them.

Want to host an international event, Boston? Learn to make some eye contact.


Photo credits: The Belly Dive by Claudio Beck; Smiling Dog by Conrad Olson; Lonely Bartender by Georgie Pauwels, all via Creative Commons on Flickr.

Eucalyptus Vs. Birch

I just got back from five days in California: the Bay Area, Marin County and Berkeley. What a stunning place. I saw a lot of eucalyptus trees.

eucalyptus-2Photo by jar (away) via Creative Commons on Flickr.

I lived in Berkeley briefly many years ago. I’d forgotten the enchanting smell of eucalyptus. It makes the air feel like it’s purifying your lungs.

My friend Katie told me that these beautiful trees are an invasive species. They aren’t meant to be there, and they cause problems for the native vegetation.

I can’t help loving them anyway.

eucalyptus-1Photo by jar (away) via Creative Commons on Flickr.

But I’m a die-hard New Englander. That’s why I came back to this region when I had the chance to settle in Berkeley and start a west-coast life.

I missed the radio stations that started with “W” instead of “K”. I missed the straightforwardness of New Englanders. Many of us are reserved, but if we become your friend, we’re your friend. In CA, there’s a lot more surface sweetness, but I found fewer genuine connections.

I missed birch trees. They aren’t fragrant, but I grew up climbing up their smooth gray-and-white branches.

birches-1Photo by Nicholas A. Tonelli via Creative Commons on Flickr.

I often toy with the idea of leaving Boston, of moving to Adelaide, Australia, or Pittsburgh, PA. Somewhere where the people are down-to-earth and where the cost of living is reasonable.

Will I be an invasive species, if I do that?

I have a lot of loved ones rooting me here, for sure…

Sacred Snowstorms

snow-med

Photo courtesy of Lorenzoclick, via Creative Commons.

My grandmother, Dorothy Towey, loved snow. Through her whole life, right up until she died at 94, Grandma D.D. rejoiced when the fat white flakes filled the air. She saw snow as beautiful, and (though she was mostly agnostic), as holy.

In 1994, a few months shy of her 85th birthday, she wrote this letter to the editor of the Danbury News-Times, the paper in her hometown of Danbury, CT. I love my Grandma D.D., and this letter is brilliant, so I’m sharing it here in her memory.

Shouldn’t refer to snow as ‘abominable’

Your handsome Feb. 9 “White Blight” front snow page was a triumph of journalism–the “Winter of our discontent” quote, the neat photo of a car driving between seven- or eight-foot snowdrifts in our 1969 storm which was much more severe than our recent current deluges.

But I beg to differ with you in labeling it “Abominable snow cover.” Of course, many have felt that way when they lost job days (and income, although others made extra income) or when they had auto accidents or severe injuries from falls. But our world has been beautifully white and peacefully quiet.

Calling the snow cover “abominable” is an emotional rather than a reportorial word. It’s like calling the sun or the moon abominable, aspects of nature that cannot be humanized, as it were. It’s like calling the sun abominable when it burns your summer neck or the ocean abominable when it floods a beach.

The forces of nature should be scientifically described, not in our downgrading human language. The sun and the ocean, and the moon, and thunder and lightning, are powerful forces with physical natures way above our feeble human terms.

-Dorothy Towey, Danbury

There’s a strong Pagan streak running through this side of my family. Or maybe Transcendentalist–I think my grandma and Ralph Waldo Emerson looked at nature through a similar lens.

Grandma, every time the snow falls, I think of you, and pause to marvel.

Life Lessons from a GPS

bighulaImage courtesy of Jim Clark via Creative Commons on Flickr.

You know how, when you’re using a GPS to get step-by-step driving directions, and you mess up and go off route, it says in a really snotty tone, “Recalculating” or “Rerouting”?

I always used to hate this snideness. It felt like the GPS, in its robotic soul, knew more than I did, and was flaunting that fact. “You’re not even smart enough to follow directions,” was the clear implication.

But lately, I’ve come to see “Rerouting” as a useful mantra. When my life takes an unexpected detour, when there’s new construction keeping me from my goal, or when I mess up badly–I try to process what happened, and then tell myself, “Recalculating.”

The beauty of “rerouting”/“recalculating” is that it leaves the past behind cleanly. The GPS doesn’t obsess about the route that was. It doesn’t brood about how dumb it was (or I was) to miss that crucial exit.

It starts over, from where it’s at. Remaps everything. And goes from there.

GPS, you are my Zen master!

Self-Storage

When I moved to Boston 14 years ago, all my possessions fit in my dad’s car. Yesterday, I moved an apartment’s worth of objects into storage. This feels weird.

I’ve always had mixed feelings about owning things. On the one hand, it would be wonderful to just have a suitcase of items to my name. On the other hand, I like having a comfortable, well-decorated home.

After a year in my first Boston apartment, there was this bizarre period when I moved four times in 16 months. This was disruptive and annoying, but also helped me keep my stuff to a minimum.

Then I started staying longer in the apartments I lived in–two years here, three years there. Most recently, I lived by myself in a one-bedroom apartment for four years. The longer I stayed, the more stuff I accumulated.

I’m a million miles from being a hoarder. But I own furniture now. I own artwork. I own random items like a hot-air popcorn popper.

So when I moved this week into a new roommate arrangement, I put almost all of my stuff into storage. Seeing your home packed into boxes is always weird, but seeing all my worldly possessions loaded into a storage unit was especially emotional and disorienting.

When I was looking at that storage unit, packed up to its mesh ceiling, it was like all the emotions of my life were boxed up and shrink-wrapped, put on ice until I need them again.

My heart feels like my arms do after hefting heavy boxes: lighter, relieved, and aching.

The Four Pillars of Adulthood

tinkerbell
Image courtesy of JD Hancock, via Creative Commons on Flickr.

Most Americans do four things before they’re considered a mature, successful adult:

  1. Graduate from college.
  2. Get married.
  3. Buy a house.
  4. Have kids.

While the order is somewhat flexible, if you don’t achieve these milestones, you’re not considered a grownup.

Of these four, I’ve accomplished #1 (college). The other three are iffy.

I have a lot of ambivalence around marriage. It’s moving when two people commit their lives to one another. And it can be sooooo hard for that to work out well.

I’ve already written about self-identifying as a renter, not an owner.

And just from the name of this blog, you can tell #4 is not a priority.

So I’m a wicked underachiever. I don’t even have a car, for crying out loud. I might as well be living in my parents’ basement.

But other actions I’ve taken have transformed me.

  • I joined the Peace Corps and taught English in Asia for two years.
  • I wrote a screenplay. I’m writing another one.
  • I’ve loved with all my heart, and had my heart shattered–and rewired.

The truth is, I’m quite a conventional person. I work a 9-to-5 job, pay my rent on the first, buy things on Amazon. I play by society’s rules.

But going by the four pillars up top, I’m an outlier. A rebel. Call me Peter Pan, because clearly, adulthood and me? Not such good friends.

What about you? Are you an American grownup? How do you feel about that?

What’s More Relaxing–Going Away or Staying Home?

ptown-buddhaPhoto by Anya Weber.

My friend Kavita listens to heavy metal music when she’s getting a massage, because it helps her relax. This taught me something: serenity is subjective.

This extends to how we take vacation. My friends divide into two camps. Some have a strong preference for going away somewhere, and others prefer to stay home.

The first group might be called the Away Gamers. For them, leaving home makes the stress of everyday life melt away. There are no bills to pay, no visual reminders of their job or household tasks. They just get to play and have fun.

For Away Gamers, having a “stay-cation” (a few days to spend time at home) is stressful. They wind up cleaning the house and doing errands, and when it’s time to go back to work they don’t feel rested at all.

The second group is the one I belong to. Call us the Homers. For us, being at home is relaxing in itself. We love having an open schedule and being in control of our surroundings, knowing that we’ll be comfortable.

It’s not that Homers don’t like to explore. But travel is not a restful experience. While it may be thrilling, it entails a loss of control and requires a high level of planning.

Although I’m a Homer, I also know that pushing myself to travel feels wonderful. It stretches me in a way that staying at home just doesn’t. I turned 40 recently, and traveled to Provincetown, MA, where I took the Buddha photo at the top of this post.

Now I’m wrapping up two serene and lovely days of stay-cation at home. Ahhh.

What about you? Are you a Homer or an Away Gamer? Why?