Monday, December 3, 2012

what it looks like to me

Originally published on 365 Attempts [at Life].

 

And then there are the days when you get it.

The days where all the other days, the ones you spent rewriting the same paragraph for 6 hours, or editing the same clip or repeating the same line 48 different ways, suddenly have currency.  The days when every rejection, especially from that one guy, adds up to something.  Even the time you got into the bathtub with your clothes on and cried like a 3-year old because you suck, you will never make this happen, you are deluded for even thinking you could try.  Yes, you are a little bit dramatic and maybe just the tiniest bit pessimistic, but you’re working on that.  

Because then there are the days when you don’t think enviously about the life you could have had.  The life you almost did have, before you made the leap – the life where you own an It Bag and take cabs everywhere and buy $200 jeans on the way home from work.  You don’t think about the 5-star vacations you could have taken or what your bathroom would look like renovated or the many uses you could have had for a health benefits package. Because suddenly, it’s worth it.  Something you made, something that came from your heart and your guts and your blood, becomes a little bit more real.  Something that you birthed into existence starts to take shape and form, and people appear to help you shape and form it.  And you think, oh my god.  You think, this might actually happen.  This could happen.  I could make a life out of just being me.

And you eat bad French food, and you go to sleep.  And you wake up to possibility.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

where I am from

 originally published on 365 Attempts [at Life]

There are few things less enticing than finding yourself alone at a wedding.  One of them might be finding yourself alone at a Lebanese wedding - even more so if you are not, in fact, Lebanese.

I get asked where I’m “from” all the time, especially when people see my last name. My father is from Beirut, I explain, but his father was Russian, and my mother’s Hungarian.  No, I don’t speak either language.  One might say that’s the true definition of Canadian, and I can agree now, but as a kid, I wouldn’t have.  Canadians didn’t have labneh for breakfast, or lecsó for dinner.    They played hockey, not the classical guitar.  They were allowed to date boys before they turned 30. 
 
The bride at the wedding in question was the daughter of one of my father’s close friends.  My father was away, and Tony was snowed under with work, so I was sent as the family emissary.  I knew I was going to stand out -  I’m not even remotely brown, and have hair that could best be described as “colourless.”  Plus, I don’t know if you know any Lebs, but the word “underdressed” will never be spoken of a single one of them.  Lebanese people look better going to the grocery store on Saturday morning than I did at my prom.  

But I didn’t realize quite how much of a sore thumb I’d be until I parked my car in the church parking lot.  A couple strolled past, she in a floor-length silk gown of turquoise, purple and gold; he in a suit tailored so sharply you could use it to slice  cucumbers.  At that was just the beginning.  I took a pew on my own, watching as more Lebanese wandered into the church and gave the red carpet at the Oscars a run for its money. Then, I spotted an uncle.

He isn’t technically an uncle.  Like the Greeks and the Italians and god knows who else, the Lebanese use “uncle” and “aunt” to refer to ones parent’s friends.  I have had these uncles since I was a kid - three Arabic-speaking, pistachio-eating, arak-drinking men who arrived from Beirut at around the same time. They are some of the kindest people I know, and they are my Lebanese family.

“You’re not sitting at our table!” his wife gasped as soon as she saw me.  “I don’t know why!  It’s HORRIBLE!”  

Another uncle arrived with his three teenaged daughters and their cousins, all legs and sequins and patent-leather pumps.   The girls lined up in the pew in front of us, and when the procession started up, they went into overswoon, clutching each other’s hands and snapping photos like rabid paparazzi.

“Oh my GOD,” they repeated, with increasing excitement, as the flower girl entered, then the bridesmaids, and finally the bride and her father.  “I’m going to die.  I’M GOING TO KILL MYSELF.”  I struggled to keep a straight face, until I looked over at an uncle’s son and saw that he was cracking up also.  

Then the chanting in Arabic began.

As always, this brought me to another place, although I don’t exactly know where that place is.  I’ve only been to Lebanon once, but I feel so connected to it - through blood, through stories, through memories that are not my own.  My mother was less involved in her culture as I was growing up, and, not surprisingly, doesn’t have fond memories of a childhood under a Communist regime.  But something about the Mediterranean people has always felt right to me, like it’s where I belong.  After all, I did marry a Greek.
At the reception, the teenagers, despite being about a hundred years younger than me, invited me to their table, but I felt too old and out of place to join them.  Awkwardly, I took a seat with another uncle, his wife, his siblings and their spouses.   Instantly, a plate of hummus appeared under my nose.

“Where’s your husband?” one of the sisters-in-law demanded.  When I told her, she motioned to hers, who was standing on his chair, ululating and belly-dancing.  “I’m envious.  Hear, have some kibbeh.”  

That’s how I spent the rest of the night.

I was continuously fed, pulled onto the dance floor, and invited on expeditions to the dessert table.  I was included in family photos,  and told tales of recent trips to Beirut.  When the bride and groom arrived, everyone rushed to greet them in a giant, Lebanese dance floor explosion, and there was so much joy in the room that I found myself biting my lip to keep from falling apart.  I hate to admit it, but at this Lebanese wedding, where I was “alone,” I had more fun than at my own wedding.

Driving home that night, sweaty, stuffed and exhausted, I thought about my future kids. They’ll be half Greek, and a quarter Hungarian, and an eighth Lebanese.  I wondered if they’ll feel as wonky as I did, or wonkier.  Or is it so common now to be from so many different worlds that they won’t even notice?  I’m determined to pass down my cultures to them; determined that they know where their people come from.  But what does that even mean?

I still can’t answer that question.  But I do know this: when I teach them to dance the Dabke - the Lebanese dance, where everyone holds hands and dances in the same direction - I’ll show them how, before you leave the circle, you have to connect the hands of the people on either side of you.  That way, the dance continues on, and the circle is never broken.



Friday, November 2, 2012

Back to School

originally posted on 365 Attempts (at Life)



It is an afternoon in August of this year, and I am sitting on the lawn of Pitman Hall, where I lived during my first year at Ryerson University.

Tony’s film is playing at a theatre a block away, and I’ve taken the opportunity to visit my Alma Mater.  Except it’s not really my Alma Mater.  I studied photography here for two years before switching schools, cities and majors.  But it is this place that holds the most vivid student memories for me, during frosh week, sleeping on this very patch of grass with my 10 new best friends until the sprinkler system sent us running inside, to picking up the phone on the morning of my 20th birthday and learning that my parents had finally gone their separate ways.

I hadn’t been happy in photography, not because it wasn’t a good program, but because it wasn’t right for me.  But while I struggled academically during that first year, my “home” life was almost idyllic.  My floor mates had become family, in every way imaginable.  When my brother, aged 13, came to visit, I had to forcibly drag him into the elevator when it was time to head to the bus station.  He didn’t want to leave this magical place, so far away from our parents’ fighting, where artistic people stayed up all night, lived on hamburgers and Hagen Dazs bars which they paid for with the swipe of a card, and drank their faces off.  

         
     One of my more fashionable frosh moments.

These are the memories I’ve come back here to revisit.  I don’t think about them often, though I’m not sure why.  But sitting here on this lawn, gazing up at this ordinary-looking cream coloured building, it hits me that I’ve never forgiven myself for being the person I was during those years.  Instead, I’ve judged myself for not knowing who I was, and for leaving this place that taught film, journalism and television arts - areas I went on to work in – to study psychology, which I never made any use of, even though I loved learning about it.  I’ve mocked my physical appearance at the time; my obsession with wearing black, and the fact that I lived the cliché and gained at least 15 pounds during that first year.  I’ve rolled my eyes at how I dealt with the news of my parents divorce: utter denial, and then finding myself in a counselor’s office, hysterical with grief.

These are not conscious judgments.  They’ve just been sitting there in a dusty corner of my mind, surfacing occasionally before being stuffed back into the dark closet of Things I’d Rather Forget.  But today, something else occurs to me.  

During my time here, I spent each day creating.  I honoured my way of doing this, even when it meant not fitting in with my fellow students.  I ate more French fries, danced more, and listened to more music.  I loved hard, grieved openly, and decorated my room with sunflowers.  

I did know who I was back then. I just didn’t know it yet.

In August 2012, I pick myself up off the lawn, and wave to the window of my former room on the 7th floor.  And I wish I could tell that person who lived there what I now know to be true:
                          
It’s not the wrong step.  It’s just the first.
 
      

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Fill 'er Up

originally posted on 365 Attempts (at Life) 

Tuesday, in the middle of the day, my phone rings.  I look at the number and my mouth goes dry.  I know who’s calling, and I don’t want to answer.  Let them reject me by voicemail, I think.  It’s a far more civilized way of doing things. 

“They” are an organization I’ve applied to for a short film project.  I’ve been working on this project for a few years now, first as a pie-in-the-sky idea, then in bursts of Ineedtomakethisnow (most of them lying in a hammock, drinking Tetrapack wine,) and finally for this program, as a script and proposal.  The program is geared towards helping young (ahem) filmmakers launch a short film, with the support of seasoned mentors and industry people.

The script is about my father, who was in a rock band in Beirut while he was growing up there in the sixties.  It’s a story that gets me right to the bone, partly because it reminds me that he, a straight laced, high tech, all-business guy whose idea of being emotionally demonstrative is writing “love, Dad” on a Christmas card, was, once upon a time, a rebel.  He snuck around behind his parents’ back, in exactly the same way I did.  He went after his dream, and then his country fell apart.  Since this happened 50 years ago in the Middle East, I envisioned the film to be animated, to avoid having to worry about things like 50 zillion dollar sets, actors, and potential political uprisings.

But when I sent my proposal to the program, it was with a spirit of downtroddenness.  I think this is the byproduct of rejection.  Any successful artist will tell you that were rejected again and again before they got anywhere.  Of course, they will tell you this while nursing a 35 dollar glass of scotch, on a book tour for their new bestseller, while their film, which opened at Cannes, is touted by the New York Times to be “the greatest thing to happen to humanity, ever.Their success seems so otherwordly I have a hard time imagining myself achieving one tenth of it.  I secretly believe they coasted out of the womb with an agent and a manager already taking their calls, and booking them on Jimmy Fallon.

Also, though I’ve been writing for a long time, aside from a home video in which I (aged 8) put my brother (aged 2) in full makeup, dressed him in one of my undershirts and a red sash, and joined him in an air guitar version rendition of Heartbreak Hotel, I’ve never conceptualized an actual movie before, and feel convinced it is a talent reserved for others.  

The phone is still ringing.  Today is the day the applicants find out if we’ve been accepted to the short film program.  I know this, and yet I didn’t bounce out of bed this morning and leap excitedly into the shower, as I used to on “answer” days.  Hope, I’m starting to feel, is for the naive.  I did not wear my lucky underpants – either pair.  I figured I’d just get home tonight and find a thin envelope in my mailbox, with a letter bearing those familiar words: so many entrieswe regret to inform youwe wish you the best of luck in future projects.  

Still, for whatever reason, I answer the phone.

“I’m calling about your entry into short film competition,” says the woman on the other end, after she introduces herself.

“Yes,” I sigh.  “I know.”

“We really loved your script,” she says, “but there were so many entries.  I regret…”

Except that’s not what she says.

She says,

“And we’re pleased to tell you you’ve been accepted into the program.”

Or something like that.  I’m not sure, because as soon as I hear it, it’s like a bucket of ice water has been tipped over my head.  I start to shake.  I struggle not to burst into tears.  When I open my mouth, the noise I make is similar to the one my miniature schnauzer Ruble emits when we pass a German Shepherd in the park.    
     
“Really?”  I gasp, when I can speak again.

She says, “We really liked your script.”

I don’t remember the rest of the conversation.  I only remember physically restraining myself from leaping out of my chair, from banging my fist on the window to alert passers-by - and the construction workers across the street - that SOMEBODY LIKES MY MOVIE!  NOT JUST SOMEBODY – BUT PEOPLE!!! PEOPLE WHO KNOW THINGS!!!!!

It’s a 5-minute film script.  In the grand scheme of the world, it’s really not a huge deal.  And getting accepted into the program doesn’t actually guarantee that my script will be made into a film.  It’s just a stepping stone in the right direction, towards guidance, and support, and possible funding.  But it’s validation.   It’s a yes.
And it fills me with just enough hope to keep on going.

          
(awesome comic by fellow 365er Anthony Imperioli, aka The Zimp, aka an old Italian lady on the internet)

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Greeksgiving

originally published on 365 Attempts [at life]

Monday of Thanksgiving weekend, we drive up north to spend the day with Tony's family.

We stop on the way to pick up Mama Greek.  I am bearing a pie – not one of the two pies I’d spent the previous day baking, but a store bought one I’d picked up in case the baking went wrong.  As we walk in the door, Mama Greek’s gaze travels from the pie box to my (relatively) flat stomach, and I see disappointment flash across her face.  Back at the car, we have our usual argument.   

“Why you sit there?”  MG asks, when I climb into the back seat.

“Because,” I say, “you should sit in the front.”
       
Her eyes widen. “No!” she cries.  “Why?  You sit in front with your husband.”
      
“No,” I say, “you sit in front with your son.”
      
This is the carbon copy of the argument we have every single time we go anywhere, and yet Mama Greek won't let a trip begin without it.  Finally, as usual, she relinquishes, pretends to swat me with her handbag, maneuvers into the front seat, and starts chattering to Tony in Greek.  Usually, this means I will close the door and gratefully dive into the latest happenings on Facebook.

But not today.
       
The day before, Mama Greek had attended a birthday party for her great-nephew.  Now, from the front seat, she launches into a play-by-play, with the accuracy of a sports announcer and the enthusiasm of a Justin Bieber fan.
      
“And son of Katerina – remember Katerina? -  sooo cute!  Big brown eyes, one year old!  He sit with me… he look at me… oh!  And then Yianni say to his Papou, ‘Papou, I want to dance!’  And Nicholas – remember Nicholas?   He get wet!  And he say, “Ma, I’m wet!”  And his mother say…” 
        
This goes on until well past St. Jerome. 
      
 I am a terrible actor. I cannot pretend to care about something when I don't to save my life, or even yours.  So my fake delight about the comings and goings of every single one of the 15 babies at the birthday party, when I’m sitting in the back seat having period cramps, is strained.  But it’s a Catch 22.  If I were to say, “Mama Greek, I don’t want to know about the kids at the birthday party because I’m not pregnant and I don’t know why and if you say another word about it I’m going to throw this pie out the window and then jump after it,” things will get much, much worse. 
        
Thankfully, the baby talk dies down. MG switches to Greek chit-chat with Tony, who turns up a Led Zeppelin song on the radio, in a silent gesture towards cheering me up.
  
                     Funny Farewell Ecard: When Led Zeppelin is playing, you shut the fuck up.
       
 Then, mingled in the final strains of Good Times, Bad Times, I hear Mama Greek throw out an English word.  That word is “pregnant.” 
       
“Ma,” Tony says, raising his voice, but it’s too late.  I know.  Someone in the family is knocked up, and Tony is telling his mother to put a cork in it on all things baby, child and bun-in-oven-related.  She tries to wrestle a question in, but he, with the ease and skill of years of practice, shuts it down.  There is blessed silence.
        
I look out the window at the 1970s macramé of orange, brown and red trees, and I think about Papa Greek.  This is the first time we’ve gone up north since he died, something he always loved doing and looked forward to.  In the back seat, with my shitty pie and my relatively flat stomach, I suddenly miss him so much, I can hardly breathe. 

*

On the way home, too stuffed to argue, I allow Mama Greek to sit in the back.  Over lunch, I was filled in on the new Pregnant: another cousin’s girlfriend, who wasn’t there today.  I like her a lot, and maybe because she’s not someone I’m close to, the news is a bit easier to take.  But still, it sits on me like a stone, along with 12 pounds of turkey, taramosalata and full fat yogurt.
       
As Mama Greek’s snores begin to reverberate through the car, and I wonder to Tony why this whole trying to get pregnant deal has been so much harder for me than it has been for him.
      
“Is it because it’s my body?”  I ask.  “Or is it because I’m just more dramatic and negative than you are about this particular subject?”
      
 “I don’t know,” Tony says, carefully.  “But whatever it is, it’s probably something that you should pay attention to.” 
     
 Normally, this kind of remark would make me slump into a good, old-fashioned mope, but today, for some reason, I ponder his words.  I think about all the Pregnants I know, and all the people with kids, and I find myself in my usual go-to place: that these people know something that I don’t, that they’re are doing something that I am not, and that there must be something more I could do.
       
A light goes on. 
       
With blame comes control.
      
I’m a self-blamer.  To the core.  You name something, and in my mind, it’s my fault: my sore throat, the provincial election results, global warming.  I’m working on it, slowly but surely, but in the car that day, I see the other side of it.  I can't blame myself for something if I don't believe I actually have control over that thing.
       
When you have control over something, and that thing doesn’t work out, it's usually because of something you didn’t do right.  So, when it comes to getting knocked up, if I’m not doing something right (not that, gutter-minds - I’m pretty sure I have that part figured out,) then it makes sense that I would feel horrible every time someone else gets the results I want, and that I'm not getting.  After which I silently punch myself in the face, over and over again.  Which feels totally awesome, by the way.
       
But the truth is, I am doing everything within my control.  Acupuncture.  Fertility testing.  Not drinking.  (Very much.)  Even thinking positively, although in this moment, I realize that I’ve even been beating up on myself for not thinking positively enough. 
       
If someone I loved got sick, or was hit by a bus, or got struck by lightening, would I say, “You know, Fred, there are probably a few things you could have done to prevent that.  Here’s an Excel spreadsheet I’ve made listing some changes you might consider”?  No.  So why do I keep saying it to myself?
       
The realization hits me like a blast of air.  I sit up, take a deep breath, and look out the window.  The colours on the trees seem brighter, sharper, more there than they were before.  I am so struck that I consider getting a tattoo on my forearm, or at least buy one of those wall decals, in a good font, that reads:

YOU ARE NOT IN CONTROL.
      
Mama Greek snores louder.  I take Tony’s hand, and turn up the radio.  And I feel, truly and deeply, for the first time in a long time, how little power I have over anything, anywhere, at any time. 
       
And I am thankful. 

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Blob

Originally published on 365 Attempts [at life] - the new blog project I'm a part of. You should go check it out!


I’ve been afraid to write about this for a long time.

First of all, I work freelance.  Essentially, this means I’m always looking for a new job.   I know that someone might read what I’m about to write and not want to hire me, especially as what I’m about to write does not put me in the best light.  

But I also know – or learned, after some Googling – that this is one of those things that people really don’t talk about.  And I like talking about the things that people don’t talk about.  Because whenever I admit that my life is not shiny and wrinkle-free, I feel better, and I suspect you might too.  In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s why you’re here.  Either that or you like looking at pictures of old Greek ladies.

image

    just in case              


So, here we go:

Two years ago, The Swedes came to visit.

The Swedes are my Canadian friend – lets call her Ella – and her Swedish husband – lets call him Sven.  No, Ivar.  Ingvar?  Yes, I am looking through the Ikea catalogue. Anyway, Ella and Ingvar live in Stockholm, and during the 2010 Christmas holidays, they, and their 6-month old son Nils, came to stay with Tony and I. We were pretty nervous, as we’d never had a baby in our house before.  Also, one of our favourite parts of the Christmas holidays is sleeping in, and as far as we’d heard, this is not an activity at which babies excel.

But Nils was sleep trained.  This meant he went to bed from 7:30pm until 7:30am, while the rest of us stayed up and talked and ate cake.  More importantly, he was the coolest baby I’d ever met.  By the time we woke up, his parents would be in the kitchen, preparing bagels, and Nils would be chilling on the kitchen floor like a tiny Buddha, while  Ruble stood guard.  And before you say it, yes, I know not all babies are like that.  But I never thought any of them could be like that. 

image
me with baby, pre-2010

That might be when it began.

I used to shudder at the idea of parenthood. But at some point over the last 2 years, I couldn’t tell you when, Tony and I went from being mystified at why anyone would trade in their sleep, their freedom and their sanity for a small person running around their house, screaming and breaking things… to “trying.”  We started “trying.”  God, I hate that term.  There is nothing less romantic or erotic than getting busy with the end goal of producing something that wears poopy diapers. But the more our friends had kids, the more we saw how much joy and wonder came with the deal, and love – lots and lots and lots of love.  And we wanted it for ourselves.  We watched in awe as a friend was patient and even encouraging with his screaming, wailing 5-year old, pretty much the opposite of how our parents were with either of us.  We turned into swooning teenagers when, for whatever reason, as soon as most of our friends’ children could speak, they asked for Tony.  And we still talk about meeting Tony’s cousin’s daughter, Alexa, when she was a few days old.  Her father handed her over, and she stared at us with such wide-open purity that we felt like she’d landed on our souls.   

We drank the baby Kool-aid.  We smoked the parental crack.

I also spent most of my life believing that if you’re trying to get a bun in the oven, you just ditch the birth control and 9 months later, a baby shows up.  It starts in high school, where they get you believing you can get pregnant by holding hands.  I think you get where I’m going with this.  Also, “trying” is really, well, trying.  Anyone who thinks it’s “the fun part” has never had to turn it into work – relentless, scheduled, no-matter-how-tired-you-are, get-up-at-5:30am-before-you-go-to-work, work, which is then charted on graph according to basal body temperature. 

So.  Still trying.  Not achieving.  And meanwhile, the entire world has gotten pregnant.  My childhood friends. Our upstairs neighbour.  Every single woman at the Jean Talon Market.  Yes, I’m in my mid 30s, so you might tell me that this is the sort of thing I should have expected.  But I didn’t expect it.  And I never imagined, in my wildest nightmares, that I would then become the type of person who, upon receiving an email from a friend I’ve known since we were 12, announcing that she’s expecting, would not call her bursting with congratulations, but rather would shut my laptop and crumple into a heap of jealousy and self-pity.  It’s infuriating.  Why can’t I just be happy that a dear friend has been given the gift of life?  We haven’t been trying for that long – some people go at it for 5 years, or longer.  Some people never get a kid.  

But none of that helps. Someone gets pregnant, and I turn into a human fire hydrant, as if there are only a finite amount of children in this world, and someone may have just horned in on my lot. 

*

Ella the Canadian Swede had always been open with me about how difficult it was to get pregnant the first time, and how horrible she felt when someone showed her an ultrasound or, worse, got their kid to ask if she was knocked up.  She and Ingvar were coming to visit in September, along with Nils and Nils’ 1-year old baby brother.  I couldn’t wait to see them - to have their wise, calm energy around for a few days, to be comforted by Ella’s words, and to meet the new Swede.  Then, in August, Ella wrote me an email.  

“I need to tell you something,” she said, “and I know this is going to be hard.”

Yup. A third little Swede is on its way.

Ella is one of my favourite people on earth, and still I crumpled.  My oldest friend, Michelle, who went through 3 years of “trying” and 7 unsuccessful rounds of IUI, recently described the feeling perfectly: a huge, heavy sadness, of seeing someone else get this huge thing that you want.  It almost takes your breath away.  And then, you feel like an asshole.

I was terrified at how I’d feel seeing Ella’s swollen belly.  I was sure I’d have to run into another room every five minutes to get a hold of myself.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to put on a convincing happy face, and that she’d see right through me, and then our friendship would be over and I’d feel even more rotten but it SERVED HER RIGHT FOR GOING AND GETTING PREGNANT, AGAIN.

And now, I didn’t even have her to talk about it with.

The day of their visit came.  The taxi pulled up in front of our house, and I opened the door, my stomach in my throat.  Ella greeted me on the doorstep, and handed me a small, warm blob.

“Could you hold this?” she asked, and rushed back to of a pile of luggage the size of a small house.  

The blob examined my face carefully.  He looked down at Ruble.  Then he smiled, revealing 4 teeth.   

image
 This is not The Blob, but it is, according to Google, the cutest baby in the world. For the record, The Blob is cuter.


Like the Grinch, my heart grew two sizes.  The darkness was gone.  I was won over.
In the end, their visit was far too short.  I loved getting home from work and having Nils, now 2 years old, yell “Nata!” when I walked in the door.  I loved that The Blob took over as the new king of the kitchen floor, greeting us with his little James Brown shrieks.  And I loved having our friends around, staying up late talking about life, and eating cake.  Most of the time I forgot that Ella was pregnant, and when I remembered, I was truly, genuinely happy for her.  Sure, the sadness was still there, but not in a bowling-ball-in-the-stomach kind of way.  I don’t know why, or how any of this works.  But that’s what happened.  

Ella told me about a woman she’d met who’d had 3 miscarriages.  She told me about another woman who was 38 years old, had polycystic ovarian syndrome (“We’re talking baseball-sized cysts!”,) and who’d had unprotected sex once and was due in 2 weeks.  In other words, she reminded me of how very much all of this baby stuff comes down to luck.  For a week after they left, I stopped obsessing.  I stopped panicking.  I felt lighter than I had in a long time. 

Then, I got an email from an old friend.  “Good News!” the subject line read.

I wish I could tell you that I took a deep breath, picked up the phone and gave her a cheerful, heartfelt, congratulatory phone call.

But then what would I have to write about?

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

wedding

 Funny Wedding Ecard: We're happy that you were able to come to the wedding despite not having time to RSVP with the self addressed, pre-paid envelope we sent you months ago.

Saturday: a Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Amazingly, it is my first as part of the family.  (Tony's and my wedding, with an outdoor ceremony conducted by a Unitarian minister at a maple sugar shack, definitely didn’t qualify as Greek.)  But there have been lots of other events - engagement parties and funerals, the dipping of babies in olive oil - and they all have one thing in common, aside from the abundance of food: half an hour before we leave the house, my husband goes bonkers.

I don’t know why.  I don’t know if it’s because he has to wear a suit and tie, or if it’s something he inherited from Papa Greek, who always showed up 1 hour and 45 minutes early for everything.  And it doesn’t matter how organized we are, or how early we start getting ready.  Case in point: today, the ceremony starts at 3.  Since we have to pick up Mama Greek along the way, we decide to leave at 2.  Tony then reminds me of this several times over the course of the morning.  In a desperate attempt to avoid the traditional stress explosion, I start getting ready at noon.

At 1pm, Tony is going over a script.

At 1:50, he appears at the top of the stairs with bits of toilet paper stuck to the shaving cuts on his face, wearing only his underwear.

“Fuck,” he is saying.  “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”  

Backing away, I say, “I’ll just go start the car, and cool it down,” and run out the door.

He yells after me:  “Can you call my mother and tell her we’re running late?” 

I dial Mama Greek from the safety of the air conditioned car. 

“We’re just leaving!” I say, when she answers the phone.

“Who is this?” she asks.  

Tony is an only child.  Papa Greek passed away a year ago, and Mama Greek leaves her house three times a week, at most.  Her friends are all over the age of 80, only speak Greek and don't drive.  And she hasn’t forgotten about the wedding, because we discussed it at length two nights ago, when we were over for dinner.  

 “It’s Natalie,” I say, through clenched teeth.

“Oh,” she says. There’s a pause.  “What I’m doing?”

Also, she refuses to admit that her hearing is starting to go.

I take a deep breath.  “WE ARE JUST LEAVING,” I repeat.

“Oh!” she laughs.  “But it’s too early!”

Tony, eating pancakes at our wedding venue. We make a pilgrimage to the sight at least once a year.


I wait in the peace and quiet of the car a few more minutes, before realizing that the address of the reception is on the invitation, and the invitation is still inside the house.  In an attempt to stay in my oasis, I call out to Tony from the driveway.

“Can you grab the invitation?”

“COMING!” he yells.

“NO,” I shout, for the benefit of our entire block.  “THE INVITATION!” 

“WHAT???”  he shrieks, and this I when I snap. 

The oasis is gone.  I storm back up the stairs, getting one of my high heels caught between two of the slats.  Why does he have to do this?  What is the point in getting so stressed?  “It’s a WEDDING!” I want to scream.  “It’s supposed to be FUN!”

Inside the house, I find Tony in my office, red-faced and sweating, trying to climb into his shirt, which has the cufflinks already in the sleeves.

“Can you help me?” he asks, pleadingly.

Pointedly, I hold out my hands to show him they have just been manicured – an event so rare it could have its own Hallmark card.  

“I’ve put them on backwards three times,” he says. 

Letting out a labored sigh, I do the cufflinks.

We drive to Mama Greek’s in silence for a while, until I look over at my husband. His cufflinks are still firmly in place, but his shirt is unbuttoned to the navel, exposing his stomach for all of Ville St. Laurent to see, his chest hair ruffling in the breeze.

“What,” I say, very slowly, “are you doing?”

“I ran out of deodorant,” he says.  “I need to stay dry. I'll just borrow some of yours when we get to my mom's.”

I point to my handbag, which is slightly larger than a piece of toast, and could no sooner hold a stick of deodorant than it could a Great Dane.  Tony’s eyes bulge out of his head.  “You didn’t bring any?”

I turn back to the road, saying nothing.

“What happened to you loving me?” Tony asks.  “Why are you so fickle?”

“I do love you,” I tell him. “You’re just really annoying.”

“That’s more like it,” he says.  “How’s my hair?”

*

This will come as no surprise to you, but by the time I’ve set foot in Mama Greek’s house –30 seconds behind Tony – a yelling match has broken out.  Even with my very limited Greek, right away, I know what’s going on: Mama Greek is freaking out because Tony isn’t wearing a tie.  From the sounds of things, he may as well have showed up butt naked, or, for that matter, with his shirt unbuttoned to the navel. 

“You can wear one of your father’s!” she shouts. 

“I’m not wearing a tie, Ma!” Tony shouts back, disappearing down the stairs, presumably to find deodorant.

“Paul will be wearing a tie!”

“PAUL IS THE GROOM!” 

Despite all this, we arrive at 2:53.  350 people are expected at this wedding. 

The church is still completely empty.

Mama Greek asked Tony to take a photo of her in her
BFGW finery. "You never know when you gonna need nice picture of me," she said.


After the ceremony, during the picture-taking on the church steps, I see the groom’s uncle, who grew up with Tony. 

“I asked your mother-in-law how she’s doing,” he tells me.  “She says she’s not going to be happy until you guys have a baby.”

“SAY CHEESE!” the photographer yells.

I gaze at the row of girls standing in front of me, their manicures unscathed, their salon ringlets piled perfectly on the sides of their heads, still frizz-free in the heat.  I know what’s coming next.  We will return to Mama Greek’s to feed the dog.  She will sit down across from me at the kitchen table, and deliver her favourite talk: on the sanctity of marriage.  Then she will say that Papa Greek and her rarely fought, when in reality I know they spent most of their 42 years at war.  And she will cry a bit, which she is perfectly entitled to do, but which I know, without the uncle having to tell me, that she wouldn’t be doing if there were a mini Asimakopoulos on the way.

The photographer calls out to the guests to crowd more tightly into the picture.  I am tempted to hide behind one of the ladies in front of me and bemoan my fate, but suddenly, I remember something else about Big Fat Greek Weddings: the most beautiful, memorable part.  The part we will talk about for ages.  The part which is still to come.

The open bar.

And I smile.

 http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/pictures/2010/4/23/1272034869532/Rowan-Atkinson-in-Four-We-002.jpg

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

best response to a Big Lebowski debate ever

If I weren't already married, I would propose to the guy who answered at the bottom.



Friday, June 8, 2012

montreal

Published in the Huffington Post (sans images) as "My Love Letter to Montreal, 10 Years in the Making" on June 13, 2012.

10 years ago last Sunday, I sat by a window at restaurant called "Tutti Frutti" on de Maisonneuve, ordered a plate of pancakes, got out my journal, and wrote:


"What the HELL have I just done?"


I'd been in love with Montreal for years.  From the night I'd arrived for a weekend visit during first-year university (do I have to say it? YES, from Toronto,) and bought WINE with my McGill friends at 10:58PM, FROM A CORNER STORE.  From my first trip to the mountain, when I found myself at a poodle's birthday party.  After my first hangover recovery over a highrise sandwich and a milkshake at Santropol, I'd made up my mind: Montreal was where I was going to find myself.  It was chic.  It was Europe without the visa issues.  It was where I belonged.

 circa 1996. As you can see, some chic was definitely in order.

Cut to 2002.  I was living in my hometown of Ottawa, working at a job  as mentally stimulating as bellybutton lint, in a relationship with someone I had not yet admitted to myself I shouldn't be with.  I was, I now know, clinically depressed.  It was the only time I ever got out the Yellow Pages and searched for a mental health hotline.  But there was a light on the horizon: I'd applied to the 1-year journalism program in Montreal. My favourite city was going to save me, and journalism was going to give my life meaning.  I'd be a writer, living in an Amelie Poulain-style apartment in the Plateau, but still be a respectable citizen, and also maybe change the world or something.

The journalism program rejected my application.

 yeah, I kept the letter. For the day I would blog about my story and they would regret EVERYTHING

Lying in bed some nights later, during a brief moment of calm between bouts of hopeless misery, something occurred to me.  There was nothing keeping me in Ottawa, except my relationship, but wasn't there that thing about absence making the heart grow fonder?  I could move to Montreal anyway.  I could live in my Amelie flat, get a job,  be colourful and interesting and poetic, and also buy 79-cent pizza at 4AM.  And so, on June 3rd, 2002, with a rental car full of clothes, my metabolically-challenged cat, and $1000 (enough money to live for, like, ever,) I moved into a tiny sublet bedroom in a 5-student apartment on Maisonneuve and Guy.

I would be just like this, only with frizzier hair.

The next morning, after my moment of terror over my plate of pancakes, I put my journal away, its question still dangling over my head, and walked up St. Denis to Mount Royal boulevard.  It was a sunny, perfect, early summer's day, and people were out on their rollerblades and their bikes and their terraces, beaming at each other as they do here, as if we're all in on a giant secret that the rest of the country doesn't even suspect.  A Dutch tourist actually stopped me on the sidewalk and asked me out for coffee.  (This has never happened again since.)  I bought an Amelie poster, went home, taped it to my wall, and slowly, the light came back in.

what every single day is like in Montreal (except for 11.5 months a year)

Over the next few months, I moved into a shoebox-sized studio on St. Joseph.  I took a writing workshop, where I was introduced to Anne Lamott, whose books would go on to guide not just my approach to putting words on paper, but my understanding of spirituality, community, parenthood and when to just shut it all down and take a nap.  I got my first piece published in The Gazette, glory of glories!  I got a temp job answering phones at Global TV, which somehow got me a temp job answering phones at a small television company, which somehow got me my first real, properly-paying job in TV... at the same office where, 3 years later, I would meet my future husband.

I'm making this all sound like some kind of rom-com montage sequence starring Reese Witherspoon.  Those first few years in Montreal still mostly sucked.  Did I mention I was temping?  95% of the population assume that temps are on par, intelligence-wise, with lobotomized Barbie dolls, and treat them accordingly.  I lived on my own, so it was hard to find places to make friends, except at work (see previous sentence.)  And I stayed in my relationship, blaming myself for my unhappiness, instead of accepting that maybe I'd just chosen the wrong person.

Even when I started getting regular TV and writing work, I wasn't bounding out of bed in the morning.  Every minute of every day, I told myself that I wasn't doing enough.  I should be writing haute couture commentary for Vogue!  I should be in the Middle East, reporting for the CBC!  I should be the glam, the bam, the foosh, the whoosh, the new noir.  I should be at schmancy receptions, canoodling with Important People.  I should be Somebody.  And nothing was going to stop me until I achieved that goal.  Not even all the misery I inflicted on myself to get there.

Including bangs.

10 years later, I share an office space with my dog, a pile of dirty jeans, and some dust bunnies who have created a bungalow beneath my printer.

My shoe collection does not require its own room, or even its own closet.  I have been to some fancy events, where I spent a fair amount of time hiding in the bathroom.  (There are only so many hours you can spend listening to someone with glow-in-the-dark teeth tell you about the play he wrote and directed in senior year and the advertising firm in Brooklyn he "fucking rocked out.") I spend my disposable income going on road trips with the guy I live with: a 225-pound former junkie who wears undershirts to bed, and sings Fine Young Cannibals in a chicken voice when I bug him about not eating enough salad.

I'm happier than I've ever been.

It's not because I'm in Montreal.  Okay, maybe a little bit.  I still get giddy about eating at an outdoor table, being able to touch an amazing Indian restaurant with one hand and a Greek one with the other, and, yes, buying wine from the corner store.

But mostly, it's because somewhere along the way, I stopped making it about Montreal.  Or about wherever I was, or was supposed to be. (I moved to London in 2005 because I felt like I belonged there, too, and found even that wasn't far enough away to escape myself.) 

If I could go back in time 10 years, and grab the girl in the pancake restaurant by the shoulders, I would tell her that she was never going to be Somebody.  Not that she wasn't going to go places, some of them just as she'd imagined, and some of them a whole lot better than that.  But that being Natalie is enough.  That exactly where she was sitting, pancakes, panic, frizzy hair and all, was where she was supposed to be.  Then I'd tell her to finish her breakfast, go out and enjoy the sunshine, and the fact that she was only paying $200 a month for rent.

Because despite how far she thought she had to go, she was already home.










Wednesday, May 30, 2012

confession

Last Sunday was the one year memorial of Papa Greek's death.  The Greeks do a lot of memorializing.  There is a 40-day memorial, and, should you so choose, a 3-month memorial, a 6-month memorial, and a 3-year memorial.  If a Greek woman's husband dies and she doesn't wear black for at least a year, people talk - at least, that's  according to Mama Greek.  Who, by the way, is glad to be getting back into her pinks and purples.

"My husband gone," she'll say, plucking her black cardigan as if it were made of sandpaper. "Why I need to look bad too?"

*

At the memorial, I sit at the front of the church with the rest of the family, listening to the priest drone on in ancient Greek.  Standing up and sitting down with everyone else, I wish, as usual, that I were anywhere but here, had eaten a proper breakfast, and were wearing more comfortable shoes.  I have long ago accepted the fact that having incense thrust in my face and listening to a dead language is not how I celebrate Papa Greek's life.  I miss him in my own way, usually at Canadian Tire, or lying on the couch in Mama Greek's basement, and thinking the last time we were all down there together, watching the Stanley Cup Finals.

*

Back in church, Tony's cousin's daughters, 6-year old Sasha and 4-year old Alexa, make their way to our pew and stand next to me.  I look down at their pigtailed hair, and out of nowhere, I start to cry.  Silent tears gush into torrential, snotty, ugly-cry, to the point that Mama Greek completely stops paying attention to the service and starts throwing Kleenex at me.  Tony fends her off, and his aunt Olga, who is a force of nature and could take down parliament if she put her mind to it, takes my hand and starts weeping too. 

The worst part is, I'm not actually crying for Papa Greek.  I'm crying because of the two little girls beside me, and how badly, much to my dismay, I wish one of them were mine.

*

The memorial is followed by a ritual of coffee, cognac, and cheese.  

Don't ask.

I head to the bathroom, to get in a few minutes of hiding before it's time to shake hands with Greek strangers, who give me their condolences, even though I knew my father-in-law for 5 years and they knew him for half a century.  But no sooner am I through the door when an old lady grabs me by the arm and starts speaking very quickly in Greek.  Once I get across that I don't understand what she's saying, she pauses, looks me straight in the eyes, and says, 

"You are decent girl.  Not too many like you no more."  

Then she disappears, leaving me staring in the mirror at my mascara-stained face - the face of an impostor; the kind of girl who cries at a memorial for all the wrong reasons.

*

At the cemetery, as is the tradition, Mama Greek puts fresh flowers in the vase affixed to Papa Greek's tombstone, and chucks the old withered ones on the neighboring grave - something that never fails to bring a smile to my face. As sweeps and dusts the tombstone, Sasha and Alexa show up, standing at a respectful distance while their dad explains that Papou Menio is gone, and this is how we remember him.  Mama Greek and Tony start to argue about whether or not to replace the candle, and Sasha shimmies over to me.

"Do you know how to make a wish?" she asks.

"No," I say, surprised.

"You don't?" Sasha gasps, in disbelief.  "What kind of person are you?"

We climb back into the cars to head to the traditional post-memorial souvlaki restaurant, and I discover that I am deeply disturbed, both by the fact that I don't know how to make a wish, and that I have suddenly convinced myself that a 6-year old holds the secret to the universe.  I decide I must find a way to get it out of her, and that this way will be French fries.

 Sasha, age 3, dancing at our wedding

Later, with the promise of potatoes boiled in oil, I lure Sasha round to my side of the table.

"Sasha," I whisper into her ear, deathly afraid that Olga is going to overhear and check me into the Douglas.  "Will you tell me how to make a wish?"

Sasha looks at me oddly, and shrugs.

"You just think about something you really want," she says, "and then it comes true."

Then she dances off, singing Michael Jackson at the top of her lungs.  And I realize that maybe,  between this 6-year old pigtailed girl, the old lady in the bathroom, and the ghost of my father-in-law, there is something to be said for crying in church.  Or, at the very least, for spending a Sunday morning thinking about something you really want, surrounded by tzatziki, and people who love you, despite yourself.


 This one's for you, Papa Greek.