Monday, December 20, 2004

Gifted

I had a rather nice surprise yesterday.
There I was minding my own business, propped up in bed with coffee, dog and paper when up from The Toronto Star’s media column written by Antonia Zerbisias leapt my own blog name under the boldface title: JUST FOR FUN: I goggled at it. Rubbed my eyes in appropriate cartoon fashion and read on: ‘… And for us girls, secretstorm.blogspot.com is a gal pal in your computer; she knows what you’re thinking about; boys, clothes and Bush.’ (Like there’s something else?)
The effect on my tracking numbers was immediate; boom, boom, boom boom boom… browser after browser stopping by for a quick peek – maybe a few gals looking for a new pal – and I’m not sure my regular readers (tiny, hardy bunch that they are) didn’t feel the elbowing and jostling as the newcomers dropped by to rubberneck.
I felt immediate shame and guilt of course; the date at the top of my last entry was a full week beforehand! Gentle readers were graciously dropping by and all I had to offer was a smile and some slightly stale copy. Here was Antonia favouring me with a gratuitous plug and I was still moaning about my busy week and oh aren’t the holidays murder and gosh what wouldn’t I do for a few hours more sleep and dog cuddling. Thin excuses, but mine own.
I emailed her to thank her and told her that next to the seed pearl earrings (from the fabulous designers at ExperiMetal on Queen Street – I can plug with the best of ‘em) given me as an early Christmas gift by a friend, her column mention was my favourite present by far. And weren’t girlfriends just simply THE BEST at gift giving?
She wrote back; her pleasure, no problem. But no actually – in her experience, some of her very best ever gifts had come from men, most recently a set of Pirelli snow tires with steel rims. This, she indicated, was true love.
And on second thought, I have to agree. But seed pearl earrings aside, it’s a lesson it took me some considerable time to learn.
When I was in my early 20’s, my then boyfriend gave me a membership in the CAA for my birthday. I’m pretty sure there was much the same cartoon eye rubbing and looks of shocked disbelief as yesterday, though with a completely different motivation. Membership? In the CAA? Something to do with cars, right? I scrabbled in the box, looking for the real gift under the gag offering and came away with nothing more than a few wisps of tissue paper and sense of having been hoodwinked – what was I supposed to show my girlfriends? How on earth could these dull scraps of paper indicate anything other than a stunning lack of imagination and a serious dearth of romantic sensibility?
When I think now of the real romance and the loving care springing from what was perhaps too active an imagination (visions of me broken down in the middle of nowhere – cold, frightened and helpless) it nearly takes my breath away.
But whether I’ve appreciated it or not, I’ve always been well gifted. In fact, I officially lost the right to complain for all time around my 10th birthday when my father gave me a pony. A pony! And lest you think I was more horribly spoiled than I actually was (which I realize now was considerable) please know – even as I begged and pleaded and left little tearstained notes around, suggesting I might actually pine away and die if I couldn’t have a pony – that it never occurred to me that I might actually get one. It was just too big an idea; too marvelous, too miraculous – too far outside the realm of reality to truly believe.
And then it happened. Paintbox (whimsically named for his pretty colouring) arrived. I’m surprised I didn’t drop dead of shock right then and there – quite honestly, it still rocks me and rekindles those feelings of astounded wonderment that I felt back then. How many ten year olds actually achieve their heart’s desire?
At the age of twelve it happened again.
We were living in England, in a smallish town called Sevenoaks in Kent, and I was attending St Hilary’s School for Girls. (Never before or since did I ever love learning so much, nor do so well; if I had a daughter she’d be in a girl’s school so fast it would make her uniform beret spin on her head like a propeller in a hurricane.) My best friend was Anna – the funniest, sweetest and most popular girl in the entire school.
She was also a scholarship girl. In the complex murky hierarchy that is the English public school system (or was then) there was always space for a few academically gifted nonpaying students, and with the level playing field that uniforms purportedly created, the class lines were supposedly a little less rigidly drawn. But still, think about it: I knew she was a scholarship girl. We all knew.
(Of course being Canadian, I was a little beyond the pale myself, which was probably why Anna so generously went to the trouble of making friends with me in the first place.)
She would also invite me over for tea every now and then – to her tiny little house with her friendly mum and gorgeous big brother (I think he was all of 16, but he’d be nice to us and play with us and I think he’s the reason why David is still my favourite name of all) and the big bottle of ‘Daddy’s Sauce’ always set on the dining room table. (“That’s for daddy!” she’d giggle, each and every time we sat down to tea.)
We had a couple of games that we’d play, like putting her pet tortoise out in the pocket handkerchief-sized back garden and hide our eyes for a while, then go to find where he’d crawled off to. We’d also play a game with a Mars bar, a pair of dice and a pile of her father’s clothes that involved shaking for doubles then dressing up, complete with hat and gloves and scarf and trying to cut a piece off the brown paper and string-wrapped chocolate bar before the next person got a turn. That Mars bar was the one treat Anna received each week; she had no allowance and few extras, but she always shared. David would play with us sometimes, offering up his treat so she could save hers, and I’m sure I fair swooned with pre-pubescent delight, the cause of which having nothing whatsoever to do with chocolate.
After tea, we’d go up to Anna’s room and talk or play or try on her clothes – and it was then that I would begin coveting with a desire that was so strong (and so secret) I often left her lovely home feeling unhappy.
Anna had a bra. A tiny (28 triple ‘A’) pink-rosebud printed bra. A proper bra – not a training bra, like a little abbreviated undershirt with a little silk bow at the front – an actual bra with tiny little cups, and a fastener at the back and straps that could be lengthened or shortened. I adored that bra. I dreamt of that bra. I coveted and longed and pined (I’m a great piner) for that bra with a yearning that also knew it would never be met. For one thing, I had no breasts. For another, it was Anna’s, and as much as I passionately craved those few small ounces of cotton and silk, I knew it was unthinkable that I should wish for her things. Unthinkable too that I should betray my desire to one so generous, so I kept my hunger to myself and took it off after only a few intense glances in the mirror to see my miraculous transformation.
But after two and half years in Sevenoaks, my family were told (with the usual abrupt surprise) that we would be moving again. Back to Canada this time, back to Toronto, where we would live for a further two years, before returning once more to England. (And that’s another story…) We had only a few days to leave school, pack bags and furniture and ship dogs (and the 1948 MG my dad had been having a mid-life crisis within) and start the whole new-girl process over again. I was heartsick. We had to sell my pony and say goodbye and leave all my lovely friends, most especially Anna.
I did it quick. On my last day, I came to clean out my gym locker and return my textbooks and say goodbye, and as wrenching as it was, it was nothing new; this was probably my third major move in the last 5 years. Hugs, tears, then home to help mum wrap the china and glass (and complain and bitch and whimper about the cruelty of parents who clearly made it their business to ruin their children’s blameless lives) and prepare for leaving the house the very next day.
So it was dinner time (and we always got special treats for dinner around the move) and we were having fish and chips in newspapers and making desultory conversation as each contemplated the million things that would never get done before the car came to pick us up on the morrow when there was a knock at the front door.
I went, giving my brother a look that would blister paint, warning him to not even dream of touching my chips, and opened the door to Anna.
She wouldn’t come in. She’d walked over from her house – some distance away – and just wanted to drop something off she said. She wouldn’t even stay to watch me open the weightless froth of tissue paper, just gave me a quick hug and a kiss and ran away.
I never saw her again.
Of course it was the bra. Freshly laundered and gently folded and given with a generousity that still makes my eyes prickle and well and is difficult for me to fathom. I wrack my brain and I don’t think I have ever given so unselfish and great-hearted a gift.
So yes, I agree with Auntie Z – sometimes the best gifts do come from boys, filled with love and care and concern and smelling like the garden hose department at Canadian Tire. But girlfriends – girlfriends will surprise you too.
Thanks again Antonia…

Sunday, December 12, 2004

One note nation

It’s one hundred and sixty-something pages of what you might have been led to believe is the wisdom of the ages. A pink-covered, two-authored, based-on-the-TV-series advice tome, promising the answer to questions that have reportedly vexed the imaginations and emotions of women since the first single-celled organism split – and never called back.
What’s a single female to do?
According to authors and, based on their vast experience as television series scriptwriters, experts, Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo, accept that ‘He’s Just Not That Into You’ – their one-size-fits-all insight into the ways and means of men who won’t call back, and not incidentally, the title of the runaway bestseller and this publishing year’s silly season offering into the pre-remainder bin.
Subtitled ‘The No Excuses Truth to Understanding Guys’, Behrendt and Tuccillo (or Greg and Liz – a consultant and writer for HBO’s sizzling single gal sitcom Sex and the City) apparently need all one hundred and sixty-something pages to deliver one answer – one thought, one response – to any question regarding why he doesn’t call in a timely fashion, agree to commit, or say he loves you: He’s Just Not That Into You.
Though this Pet Rock of print claims to be based on “a popular episode of Sex and the City” even that description overstates its pretensions – it’s actually based on one of a number of story lines in one episode of the popular series. (A story line that incidentally disproves the overarching theory in the final scene.)
Imagine that: spinning gold from such insubstantial dross.
But everyone’s talking about it: Oprah dedicated an entire episode to the book and it’s single-answer premise – and this from a show that couldn’t find 60 minutes to dedicate to “Children who shook the world” and had to plumb the ancient practice of foot-binding and an update on Oprah’s Book Club in order to fill another unforgiving hour.
The morning news shows, talks shows, tabloids, radio call-ins, international publishers and each and every neighbourhood Pennysaver from here to Istanbul seems to have dedicated a segment, a feature or a mention to 2004’s new signature catchphrase “He’s Just Not That Into You”.
And as is the case with virtually every short-lived, simple minded solution – most especially those in advice book format - initial response is huge. (Think: the ‘The’ diets – Scarsdale, Atkins, South Beach, Zone, Cabbage, Grapefruit, Suzanne Somers!) And as is the case with most every simple solution guide, there’s both a grain of truth and a world of hurt. One lightbulb moment does not peace of mind, mended heart or thin thighs make.
But you have to admire the single minded – though depressingly cynical – pursuit of success in publishing such a book. Can’t you just see them in their funky little Manhattan script-writing aerie? All exposed brick and high ceilings and self-consciously styled antique mixed with modern shabby chic furniture sensibility? There they are: Greg and Liz, chortling with glee as they decide to stretch a one note idea into a best seller, coming up with endless variations on the same theme, with a table of contents that by themselves cover the waterfront – no need to actually read all the words that follow.
(Seriously, what amplification do you need of the following chapter headings: He’s Just Not That Into You if …
… he’s not asking you out
… he’s not calling you
… he’s not dating you
… he’s not having sex with you
… he’s having sex with someone else
… he only wants to see you when he’s drunk
… he doesn’t want to marry you
… he’s breaking up with you
… he’s disappeared
… he’s married
… he’s selfish, a jerk, a bully or a really big freak
With the exception of a Q & A and closing remarks from Greg and Liz, I’ve just saved you $19.95 plus tax and delivery charges.)
It’s what people want: the simplest possible solution to a complex problem. “This will save your life!” shrieks Oprah, dazzled by the notion of most famous best gal pal on earth Gail never again calling for those marathon sobfests about why such a nice, pretty (pal of a multi-millionaire media franchise) gal can’t find love.
Because that’s the sub sub-title and central message: stop wasting time; hie thee thither from the silent telephone, the empty e-mail box and the endless supposing and maybe-ing that follow a great date with no actual follow-up… He’s Just Not That Into You.
Talk about a waste.
A waste of space, newsprint, airtime and real time. If a message with the same approximate ‘stop the presses’ urgency as ‘smoking causes cancer’ and ‘Russian roulette can be risky’ needed delivering, surely it would have been more wisely applied to matters of greater moment…
How about:
He’s Just Not That Into You if he…
… starts a war on a dishonest premise
… says the war is about freedom and democracy
… ignores world opinion
… pretends to be interested in one despotic terrorist when he’s really interested in another
… sends improperly armed and trained people into battle
… talks about freedom, then kills civilians
… favours supporters who obey his every wish and whim and ignores solid, sober, experienced voices of reason who differ
… states ‘Mission Accomplished’ then goes back for a whole lot more
… runs an election on issues, but makes sure he wins on values
… attempts to heal rifts by offering an open mind and a ready ear to those who ‘share our goals’
… calls the systematic removal of human rights and freedoms the ‘Patriot Act’
No need to waste another moment trying to figure out why he does these things; why he doesn’t care or call or send flowers or candy, or stop the war or let people who love each other marry or treat other beliefs, values or nations with respect.
He’s Just Not That Into Us.
I’d like to think I’ve just saved you $19.95 plus tax and delivery charges. Sadly, the world of hurt is still being billed.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

No more Ms Nice-guy

It should come as no surprise that the recent Bush visit to Canada has raised my dander to sky-high levels. And the news coverage – which followed every little studiedly self-deprecating aside, insincere thank you, announcement of lifelong friendship and family style American/Canadian love, and deft insertion of missile defense shield politicking into otherwise meaningless twaddle – didn’t do anything to settle said dander southward.
But what really froze my frostables – other than the much-reported south of the border punning on icey Canadian clich├ęs – was the aura of ‘nice’ the President wore like a halo, as he hypocritically glad-handed his way around our customarily cold capitol city, thawing various and sundry with his warm and winning personality.
The man was making a mockery of ‘nice’.
I should know. ‘Nice’ – acting it, showing it, being it – is my thing. And I can trace my association to it with near pinpoint accuracy.
It was on some long-cancelled sitcom, a long, long time ago that I recall a character who got all tongue tied trying to compliment another character; a character of such blinding wholesomeness and goodness, that it was as though the word ‘nice’ had been created especially and lovingly and particularly just for them.
(And in fact, if it indeed wasn’t created especially for them, God himself might pop into his own personal WayBack machine - what’s a little time and space manipulation to the Almighty? – and make sure that for ever and all time, when the word ‘nice’ came up, this character would get a nickel in residuals or at least a footnote for credit.)
“It’s nice,” said the tongue-tied character. “Yes – it’s nice to be nice… to the…nice…”
Were truer words ever spake? I didn’t think so, and subsequently took this shred of episodic televised wisdom and applied it to my entire life. If the nice were going to attract all that reciprocal niceness, I thought, I’d better make it my business to get me some. And to be sure, there were other reasons – a really nice mum for instance, and being Canadian for sure; but whatever the order, the decision was made. And so began a lifetime of endless, stultifying, crippling niceness.
Yes, as fellow good girls and boys will tell you, a lifetime devoted to the pursuit of ultimate niceousity is a lifetime at least half (if not wholly) wasted. Forget taking five minutes off for a little resentment or righteous anger; disabuse yourself of the notion that there will be times when there will be no repercussions for a little blowing off of understandably pent up steam – once nice, always nice. Or else. That’s the rule. That’s the law. That’s the fact.
And nice don’t get no respect. Anyone already shaking and nodding their heads with all the bouncy fervour of a backseat bobble-head, can back me up on this one: to take on the mantle of nice means forever to have signed up on a one-way deal with the delightful. For if the once nice ever attempt even a mini-meltdown, those experiencing the fallout will forever afford the formerly nice an extremely wide berth.
Folk seem to like familiarity, even if that familiarity comes with a side of scary or mean. The scary and mean will never surprise you – and even if they do, by being unaccountably nice every now and then, no one’s ever going to consider re-stereotyping them; mean’s mean – mean will revert to mean just as soon as it’s able. Comfortingly, dependably, familiarly.
Tough, scary and mean get respect – get raises and promotions – get elected. And possibly worst of all, get to put on or remove the mantle of nice whenever it suits them. It’s as though chameleon-like, the rules are different for them, and gravity, E-MC2 and Gold’s Law (if the shoe fits, it’s ugly) seem somehow suspended, or even reversed… just for them.
Take George Bush. (Please!) A friend of mine was at the big dinner in Ottawa Tuesday night and met the fellow himself; exchanged a couple of words with him, got a compliment and enjoyed a plate full of Alberta beef and cheesy mashed potatoes.
“You’d like him,” she said. And of that I have no doubt; it wouldn’t be the first time I’d been charmed by someone I’d normally consider on par with the Devil.
It happened when I was invited into former Premier Mike Harris’s home and was thoroughly beguiled by the man and his wife.
(For those wondering why I didn’t use the opportunity to share a few home truths with him, give him the critique I’d been bleating about for years outside of his hearing – or notice – I have to say I have always believed that if you want to say appalling things, those things should be shouted from the sidewalk, pushed through the mail slot, or written on a paper bag full of flaming dog poo deposited on the welcome mat. It’s simply not appropriate to wait until you have a full glass of red wine and are seated cozily on their rumpus room chesterfield. I may not be Miss Manners, but I know what’s what; it may actually be the exclusive territory of the nice to know how to handle similarly awkward rumpus room situations. Be nice – or be gone.)
And the payoffs for being nice do exist. First and foremost, people will call you nice. They might even tell others tales of your niceness and for the most part will be nice to you in return. Who wants to slap a kitten square in the face? Who wants to shout boo! at a baby? Who wants to club a crying seal?
And therein lies the rub: while most people don’t wish to do any of those awful things, there are many who take a particular pleasure in doing just that. And many more who are either completely indifferent, or simply see them as possibly necessary actions at some undisclosed future time or other. And if the nice continue to play by the rules, the only appropriate response is whimpering, howling, or rolling over and playing dead.
Up to now, with a few rare exceptions, I’ve carried on a rather seamless version of day to day niceness – and I’ve got all the resentment, bottled up rage and sense of mounting futility you’d expect. So far, I’ve kept most of my anger enclosed within the confines of my Mazda 323 – the air blue not with cigarette smoke, but with foul language, epithets and threats to the drivers who seem bent on irritating, putting out, cutting in or somehow or other thwarting me from my daily rounds. I surprise myself with the whip-fast nature of this auto anger; if measured, I’d no doubt have evidence of a pretty good aerobic workout what with the constant raising and lowering of my reactionary heart rate.
Solution? I don’t know. But I don’t want to be the modern day Mikey anymore (ask Jane – she’ll do anything) smiling through disappointment, excusing myself to people who grind their stilettoed heels into my blameless aching arches, or thanking someone for a patently patronizing comment.
But it’s not because I want to become tougher or meaner or stronger; I leave that to the presidents, premiers and taxicab cutter-inners.
It’s because being so cravenly dishonest actually isn’t very nice at all.