Jeff is the man wearing the blue checked shirt and vest.
It happened on a suburban September Saturday afternoon.
Our co-ed softball team, who’ve been playing together for 16 years, was in the middle of a game when Jeff, a 61-year-old teacher, ran to first base — and collapsed.
“Don’t be so dramatic!” scoffed Paul, the first-base coach.
He was having a heart attack, in the middle of a ball field.
Luckily, one of our team-mates, a physician, was there and immediately knew — and knew how — to start chest compressions.
Police came, and EMTs and a paramedic and took Jeff to a local hospital, where he was placed in a medically induced coma.
He’s fine now.
He’s back to teaching.
He’s back to playing softball.
I wasn’t there that day, but it terrified everyone who witnessed it, helplessly, fearful that our friend would die in front of them.
He could have.
So, wanting to be sure we’re prepared should it ever happen again, 28 of us paid $35 apiece to take a two-hour Saturday morning class last weekend to learn how we, too, might be able to save a life if needed.
It was deeply sobering — you have barely four to six minutes to get someone’s heart pumping again before their brain is damaged.
There’s no time to waste!
You can’t panic.
You can’t want someone else to fix it.
You have to do it, and do it quickly and do it with strength and speed — 120 compressions per minute. You’re mimicking a heartbeat for someone who doesn’t have one.
We each practiced on plastic dummies, both child and adult-sized.
We also learned how to do the Heimlich maneuver, on adults, children, infants and (worst case) even ourselves if we’re ever alone and choking. (Lean hard against a chair back and push down on your diaphragm.)
We also learned how to use and apply the two pads of a defibrillator and how to do so safely.
It was a lot to absorb, physically, intellectually and emotionally.
“No matter what happens, you tried your best,” the instructor cautioned.
Not everyone will survive even the best rescue attempt — unlike a recent local save who needed 25 minutes of CPR to return, literally, from the dead.
After the class, there was a lovely, moving ceremony in the town’s volunteer ambulance garage, with the town mayor and the nine people: EMTs, two police officers and a paramedic whose quick action and excellent skills saved our friend’s life.
Jeff gave a quick, graceful speech and served us a lemon cake at lunch to celebrate his second life.
If you’ve never learned CPR, I’d urge you to consider doing so.
It’s not as complicated as you’d think and there’s nothing worse than feeling helpless in a life-threatening situation.
It’s hardly as though we need any more books. We have hundreds already, many of them (ugh) still unread, even years after buying them, whether reference, history or fiction.
But who can resist a brand new book?
(I’ve just bought three more books: Transit by Rachel Cusk, The Hustle Economy [a bit too basic for me, 12 years into full-time freelance] and Hillbilly Elegy, a New York Times best-seller that I’m enjoying but not bowled over by.)
The top three books in this stack were requests, given to me by my husband Jose for Christmas 2016.
I love the names of wine: gewurtztraminer, gruner veltliner, Vouvray, Muscadet, grenache, Montepulciano. (Dream second career? Sommelier, except for all that memorizing!) Jancis Robinson is someone whose work we read every week in the Financial Times. (My other favorite wine writer, a friend, is another woman, Lettie Teague, who writes for The Wall Street Journal.)
The next two books are a holdover from my childhood years growing up in Canada, where most of my reading material was published by Penguin; I’d read rapturous reviews of MacFarlane in the FT and am fascinated by landscapes and how we experience them.
The bottom four books were the happy result of browsing an indie bookstore, Logos Books, in Manhattan while recently waiting to meet a friend.
I so rarely spend time in bookstores — I would easily spend hunreds of dollars each year! — so I really enjoyed a good long browse.
The collection on offer was deliciously eclectic.
If you don’t know her or her work, Martha Gellhorn was a legendary war correspondent, ferocious and admired — and, incidentally, the third of Ernest Hemingway’s four wives. She was the only woman to land in Normandy on D-Day and covered every war, determined to be there to record every detail, no matter what the obstacles.
I long ago read a biography of Antoinette May, another war correspondent — a birthday gift from a friend and Globe & Mail colleague. Smart, tough determined fellow female journalists give me role models!
I’ve never read anything by John O’Hara and, frankly, I just loved the cover. The story is set in 1930. I love reading about earlier eras.
A Little Life has received rave reviews, although some say it’s a very sad book. I very rarely read fiction — as you can see, with five of these seven being non-fiction — so I hope it’s good. (I was given The Goldfinch as a birthday gift two years ago and put off opening it for a year, having heard it was far too long. But I absolutely loved it, even though it is too long.)
I recently started re-reading The Illustrated Man, which I first read when I was 12. I was so impressed with it that I wrote Bradbury a fan letter, from my summer camp in northern Ontario, and sent it to his New York City publisher, Ballantine.
Within two weeks, I had a hand-signed reply, with his home address in California, a postcard I treasure to this day.
He was real!
He wrote back!
To a little girl in Ontario!
What I could not have known then was that he — also age 12 — was magically transformed by a chance meeting. This, from his official website:
Throughout his life, Bradbury liked to recount the story of meeting a carnival magician, Mr. Electrico, in 1932. At the end of his performance Electrico reached out to the twelve-year-old Bradbury, touched the boy with his sword, and commanded, Live forever! Bradbury later said, I decided that was the greatest idea I had ever heard. I started writing every day. I never stopped.
Books can do this to us.
They connect us to the past, to an imagined future, to ideas and questions and challenges and gorgeous images.
They transport us, without a need for tickets or passports or jet lag.
One of my pleasures is enjoying culture — and yes, it costs money!
A friend recently saw an ATM receipt that left her gobsmacked — $139,000 — in the hands of a young woman, maybe in her 20s.
My friend is a single mother who works in a creative field, frustrated that she has yet to hit the level of income she craves, deeply envious of the stranger with so much more than she.
I get it — when I found out that a friend of ours, someone our age, earns $500,000 a year, I was stunned.
My husband and I are both working full-time freelance, with a mortgage that won’t be finished for another five years unless, somehow, we make a lot more money and can pay it off sooner.
What’s currently killing our ability to save — or enjoy much beyond basics — is $1,800 month in health insurance costs; his, heavily subsidized by his former employer as a retiree while they soak me the full price.
Yes, there is cheaper insurance, but it all comes with huge deductibles and co-pays.
The getting and spending, (and saving and investing, ideally), of money is often a lifelong challenge for all but the very wealthy.
But it comes down to basic economics: if you’re always broke, you’re under-earning or living beyond your means.
If you’re mired in poverty — with little education and/or weak job skills, multiple dependents and/or health issues — it can feel, and be, almost impossible to climb out.
And I know far too many women, of any age, who remain somehow terrified of money — especially when asking for it or more of it, (i.e. negotiating an initial salary, asking for raises/bonuses/commissions/better freelance rates), and handling their finances confidently and intelligently.
As if, for some reason, we don’t deserve it.
It does mean taking charge.
It does (gulp) carry consequences, no matter how much action (or inaction) you choose.
I once attended an information session at the U.S. firm where I keep my retirement money.
It was laughable.
As in laughably bad, full of jargon and weird, arcane advice possibly of value to people with millions to manage — or waste.
Selfishly, as a journalist, I get paid to learn, and, in writing about personal finance for the Times and Reuters and others, have learned (and taught readers!) a lot about handling money.
I also read the financial pages of two newspapers daily and read several business magazines to keep abreast of what’s happening in the domestic and global economy.
If you don’t know the word fiduciary, learn it and make sure anyone going near your money professionally is one.
I urge anyone thinking about how to better handle their finances to read this fantastic book, (which I reviewed in The New York Times, and am now friends with its author), Pound Foolish. It’s not a how-to, but a smart and insightful overview of the personal finance world.
Jose and I were were lucky to both have attended and graduated from college debt-free; he on full-ride scholarships, I attending Canada’s best university for $660 a year. (No, there’s no missing zero.) Neither of us attended (or needed) graduate or professional school.
Nor did we have children, saving us an estimated $200,000+ per child to raise.
Nor do we have dependent relatives.
My priorities have been travel and retirement.
But I admit it — it really did feel useless and annoying to keep putting money away year after year after year for what I hoped would one day help fund a retirement, denying myself so many purchases, (newer car, nicer clothes) and pleasures in order to do so — until that sum finally grew to six figures and I thought, with relief and pride: I did that!
And, yes, for many reasons, saving money is difficult for some people, and impossible for those who don’t earn enough to get past subsistence.
But it’s also urgent (and tedious!) to distinguish between wants and needs, between what everyone around you may boastfully own, often on credit, (new phone, new car, huge and lavish wedding, bigger house, etc.), and what fits your financial priorities.
Peer pressure to keep up — i.e. spending! — will kill you and your financial future.
Set at least one face-to-face date with a friend (or colleague) every week
In a world of virtual connection, it’s too easy to spend our life tapping a keyboard and staring into a screen. And we miss out on so much by not sitting face to face with friends and colleagues — their laughter, a hug, a raised eyebrow.
Eat less meat
I’m neither vegan nor vegetarian, but have decided, for health reasons, to try and eat less red meat. Great recipes help, as does finding a good and affordable fishmonger.
Switch up your cultural consumption
If you’ve never been to the opera or ballet, (or played a video game or read a manga), or visited a private art gallery or museum, give it a try.
We all fall into ruts, easily forgetting — or, worse, never knowing or caring — how many forms of cultural expression exist in the world.
If all you read is science fiction, pick up a book of real-life science, and vice versa.
Have you ever listened to koto music? Or bhangra? Or reggae? Or soukous? One of my favorite musicians is Mali’s Salif Keita. Another is the British songwriter Richard Thompson.
Watch less television
I turned off the “news” and my stress levels quickly dropped. I read Twitter and two papers a day, but most television news is a shallow, U.S.-centric (where I live) joke. I enjoy movies and a very few shows, but try to limit my television time to maybe six hours a week.
Read for pure pleasure
I consume vast amounts of media for my work as a journalist, (we get 20 monthly and weekly magazines and newspapers by subscription), often ending up too tired to read for pure enjoyment.
Make a point of finding some terrific new reads and dive in.
Schedule a long phone call or Skype visit each month with someone far away you miss
Like me, you’ve probably got friends and family scattered across the world. People I love live as far away from me (in New York) as Kamloops, B.C., D.C., Toronto and London. Emails and social media can’t get to the heart of the matter as deeply as a face to face or intimate conversation.
Get a handle on your finances: spending, saving, investing
Do you know your APRs? Your FICO score and how to improve it? Are you saving 15 percent of your income every week or month? (If not, how will you ever retire or weather a financial crisis?)
Have you invested your savings? Are you reviewing your portfolio a few times a year to see if things have changed substantially?
Do you read the business press, watching where the economy is headed? If you’ve never read a personal finance book or blog, invest some time this year in really understanding how to maximize every bit of your hard-earned income and cut expenses.
I wrote five pieces last year for Reuters Money; there are many such sites to help you better understand personal finance. Here’s a helpful piece from one of my favorite writers on the topic, (meeting her in D.C. last year was a great nerd-thrill!), the Washington Post‘s Michelle Singletary.
Fast one or two days a week
I’ve now been doing this for seven months, two days a week, and plan to do it forever. The hard core consume only 500 calories on “fast” days. I eat 750, and eat normally the other days. (Normally doesn’t include fast food, liquor [except for weekends], junk food like chips and soda.) It’s helped me shed weight and calm digestive issues.
It’s not that difficult after the first few weeks and doing vigorous exercise helps enormously, thanks to endorphins and other chemicals that naturally suppress appetite.
Explore a new-to-you neighborhood, town or city nearby
Do you always take the same route to work or school or the gym? We all try to save time by taking well-known short-cuts, but can miss a lot in so doing.
Make time to try a new-to-you neighborhood or place nearby. Travel, adventure and exploration don’t have to require a costly plane or train ticket.
Ditch a long-standing habit — and create a new one
Watching television news had become a nightly habit for me, even as I found much of it shallow and stupid.
My new habit for 2015 was playing golf, even just going to the driving range to work on my skills.
My new habit, for 2016, is fasting twice a week.
Not sure yet what my 2017 new habit will be.
Write notes on paper
As thank-yous for the dinners and parties you attend. For gifts received. Condolence notes.
Splurge on some quality stationery and a nice pen; keep stamps handy so you’ve no excuse. Getting a hand-written letter through the mail now is such a rarity and a luxury. It leaves an impression.
Decades from now, you’ll savor some of the ones you received — not a pile of pixels or emails.
Even a can of paint and a roller can transform a room.
Your home is a refuge and sanctuary from a noisy, crowded, stressful world. Treat it well!
Visit your local library
Libraries have changed, becoming more community centers. I love settling into a comfortable chair for a few hours to soak up some new magazines or to pick up a selection of CDs or DVDs to try.
Get to know a child you’re not related to
We don’t have children or grand-children, or nephews or nieces, so we appreciate getting to know the son of our friends across the street, who’s 10, and a lively, funny, talented musician.
People who don’t have children can really enjoy the company of others’ kids, and kids can use a break from their parents and relatives; an outside perspective can be a refreshing change (when it’s someone whose values you share and whose behavior, of course, you trust.)
If you’re ready for the commitment, volunteer to mentor a less-privileged child through a program like Big Brothers or Big Sisters or other local initiatives. Everyone needs an attentive ear and someone fun and cool to hang out with and learn from — who’s not only one more authority figure.
Write to your elected representative(s) praising them for work you admire — or arguing lucidly for the changes you want them to make, and why
I admire those who choose political office. For every bloviating blowhard, there’s someone who really hopes to make a difference. Let them know you appreciate their hard work — or make sure they hear your concerns.
Write a letter to the editor
If you ever read the letters page, you’ll find it dominated by male voices. Make time to read deeply enough that you find stories and issues to engage with, about which you have strong and lucid opinions and reactions.
Support the causes you believe in by arguing for them publicly — not just on social media or privately.
Spend at least 30 minutes every day in silence, solitude and/or surrounded by nature
A dear friend sent me an e-card for Christmas, filled with birds and flowers and music.
Her message, typically feisty, ended with: “And in 2017 we fight!”
An avowed, life-long progressive — and one of the smartest science writers I know (here’s a link to her terrific book, “Fevered” , about climate change and its effects on health, globally) — she’s full of piss and vinegar as I think we all should be in 2017, and for the next four years.
There has been a shocking and dis-spiriting increase in hate crimes, physical attacks and appalling verbal abuse in the past few months, both in Britain post-Brexit and in the United States, after the election of a President who has vilified women, Muslims, Mexicans and many others.
By “fight” I don’t mean fisticuffs.
I don’t mean screaming abuse back at someone who’s clearly got boundary issues.
Nor do I mean seeking some shouty, nasty draaaaama, if that can be avoided.
But I do mean — stiffen your spine, no matter how scared you are of what might happen if you do. (Clearly, not if you live in an abusive situation, where your life and that of others is at risk.)
In the past month, after long deliberation and, yes, fearful of the consequences, I finally stood up and fought for myself in three difficult and enervating situations, one within my family (I wrote a long letter, snail mailed); one within my parish (ditto) and one with a client whose disregard for basic courtesy (and abysmal pay) were grim beyond words.
It takes guts to tell someone, (who can just blow you off completely): “Enough!”
It takes trust in your own judgment of what you truly most need.
It also means preparing for the potential consequences, the most frightening bit: loss of income, loss of affection, affiliation, respect, losing your welcome within a community.
But the costs of not fighting for what you know is right can be crippling to your mental, emotional and physical health.
To your self-esteem and confidence.
So, eventually, it must be done.
Ask for help before you do it, from a friend, a therapist, a loving partner, to steady your nerves and make sure you’re not about to self-immolate.
But we’re also living in strange and challenging times, politically.
So, it’s also time to go fight the good fight for social justice and economic progress that doesn’t , once more, simply re-enrich the already wealthy; 95 percent of Americans, according to a recent New York Times report, have seen no rise in their income in seven years.
If all we do is whinge and cringe, nothing will change.
Write to your elected representatives.
Work hard – if you live in the U.S. — to get some Democrats elected in the mid-term elections, only two years away.
Donate your time, energy or money to Planned Parenthood, the ACLU and other groups working daily to protect our rights, bodily and civil.
Write letters to the editor, in print; women, especially! Most of those appearing these days are written by men.
On-line, leave civil, smart comments.
If you’re a writer, send out some op-eds, essays and opinion pieces or reported stories to keep issues front and center.
If you see someone being verbally abused in a public setting, stand beside them to signal that you’re an ally. Speak calmly and quietly to them. Do not ignore cruelty; passivity signals assent.
It’s not the time to shrug and look away.
It’s not the time to say “Not my problem.”
It’s not the time to just soak up fake news and comforting lies.
It’s not the time to ignore the news because “it’s too depressing.” It’s our world.
There is never a “time and place” for cruelty. By staying silent, you robbed the little girl of the acknowledgment and the apology to which she was entitled. And you deprived the boy of learning the consequences of nasty behavior. He may not understand how mean he was. But your inaction ensured that his ignorance persists.
That’s how the best journalists think: tough-minded, skeptical, dubious, cynical, questioning.
Our job is to challenge authority, in its every guise.
To speak truth to power.
One of the 20th century’s greatest journalists…
In an era of fake news, it’s absolutely essential to know who is supplying you with the information with which you are making key decisions about your future, and that of your town, city, region and nation.
You can’t make intelligent decisions based on garbage and lies.
I’ve been a journalist since my undergraduate days at the University of Toronto, worked as a reporter at three major daily newspapers and have written freelance for dozens of national newspapers, magazines and websites. Here’s my website, with some clips.
Seven ways to consume media critically:
1. Read, watch and listen to a wide variety of news sources, whatever your political leanings.
If the only media you consume keep reassuring you that your world is exactly as you wish to see it, you’ve got a problem. The world is a complex, messy place — comforting simplicity, while seductive, is rarely honest.
2. Get off social media!
If the only news sources you rely on are social media, you’re stuck in an algorithmic echo chamber. You’re doomed! See point one.
That means questioning every single comment, data point, anecdote, story, and “fact” you are given — no matter at what volume and speed. That means your default position isn’t: “Oh, cool. I need to tweet that right now” but “Hmmm. Really? That sounds weird.”
4. Research the news sources you’re relying on.
Google them. Read everything you can about them and their history. Who is funding them? Why? Who is quoting them as authorities or experts? Why?
Every reporter in the world has a track record — if they’re the real deal. Google them. Go to their LinkedIn page. Watch their videos and read their work.
Working journalists are highly protective of their professional reputations as accurate and reliable because without that, we’re useless.
5. Assume nothing.
Read every story, if in print, with a highlighter marker handy — and highlight every point you think dubious or unlikely. What conclusions did the reporter draw? Do you agree? Why? What makes you trust them? What did they fail to ask? Why? What assumptions did they make going into that story? Would you have done it differently? How? Why?
6. Talk back to the media!
Not simply on a comments page.
Write letters to the editor. Use their corrections editor or ombudsman to complain when you see lazy or inaccurate work. Email reporters and editors directly to express your concerns about their coverage — or lack of it. Be calm, civil and constructive if you want to be listened to. Thoughtful journalists are in the middle of a period (finally!) of self-examination, so your timing is good. Be an active participant in the flood of information out there, not a passive little nothing nodding your head.
When you start to understand the media ecosystem — and how these businesses are run and why some are succeeding and some struggling — you can’t really grasp how their products are created and distributed. Yes, it matters! Eating “clean”, locally or judiciously should also apply to your media diet.
Women’s voices are often missing and discounted in public affairs, even when they have seats at the tables of power. They speak less, make fewer motions and are more often subject to negative interruptions. Similar patterns prevail online.
If they feel at a disadvantage speaking as women, it’s because they are. In settings as varied as school boards, Vermont town meetings, community meetings in rural Indian villages and online news sites worldwide, researchers have quantified how women’s voices are underrepresented.
Women take up just a quarter to a third of discussion time where policy is discussed and decisions made, except when they are in the majority.
As someone — clearly! — unafraid to speak up publicly, whether in a blog post, letter to the editor, (with my letters published in the Times and in Newsweek), essays or op-eds — I’m not someone scared of being heard.
But so many women are!
I was raised this way, and many girls aren’t: I attended a single-sex school ages 8 to 13 and single-sex camps ages 8 to 16, where women led and their competence simply assumed as normal and expected.
I was raised by my father after I turned 14, and he never discouraged me from speaking out, (even if he should have!)
If you’ve ever attended a town meeting or a conference or a public panel discussion, especially when there is a microphone one must speak into, where you’re being recorded on video and audio, it’s an intimidating moment to speak out loud in front of strangers.
They might laugh. They might jeer. They might boo.
Or — they might listen attentively.
I see a similar pattern, and one that disturbs me, everywhere. If you read Twitter, and comments during Twitterchats; if you read letters to the editor in print; if you read on-line comments, you, too, will have noticed the paucity of women’s voices and opinions.
Only one woman’s name stands out as being an extremely vocal letter-writer to the Times, a professor at Brown named Felicia Nimue Ackerman. I don’t know her, but I’ve seen her published comments many, many times.
In one of the many writing classes I’ve taught, I urged my students to start writing letters to the editor, to add more female voices to the overwhelmingly male cacophony. I was thrilled to see one of their letters recently in The Economist.
A random survey this week showed three letters to the October 31 issue of the New Yorker (all women); 11 letters to the Financial Times (no women!); nine letters to the FT (one woman) and eight letters to the FT (no women’s name I recognized; couldn’t tell the gender of three of them.)
Our voices need to be heard!
We vote. We pay taxes. We employ millions of workers. We serve our country in the police force, fire houses and the military.
From Guts, a Canadian feminist magazine, written by a woman who fought against workplace bullying:
The suspicion, paranoia, anger and even hatred that was evident in my situation shows the disdain with which women are treated in many workplaces, where women are not encouraged to speak up and confront harassment for fear of further abuse by co-workers, unions and employers.
Any employer or union which claims to want a respectful workplace for all should be concerned about the fact that women are afraid to speak out about harassment and discrimination. Employers and unions should make real efforts towards making the workplace safer for women. This involves diversity training geared towards understanding women and women’s concerns about working within a male-dominated workplace. It also involves a commitment to making fair treatment and respect towards women the norm, rather than an exception to the rule. Employers and unions must support women who come forward and openly report harassment, and encourage others to do the same.
Until this happens, of course, you will be told you are “crazy” for coming forward, for stepping up as a target for retaliation and abuse. However, remaining silent while tolerating abuse will ultimately, really, make you go “crazy”.
It’s a wonder, really, that so many of us are able to survive, even thrive!
As an undergraduate student at University of Toronto I studied Spanish and, for a while, volunteered to do interpreting work with Chilean refugees who came to Toronto fleeing the repression, abduction and torture of the regime of former dictator Augusto Pinochet.
As some of you know, it’s exhausting to confide your worst moments ever to a total stranger, to relive them over and over to prove how much you’ve suffered. For a man of Latino heritage, having to do so to a young Canadian girl, me, must have been so difficult.
I won’t share here what they told me, but it was terrifying and I will never forget it, no matter how much I’d like to.
I vividly recall my first protest. Various organizations and individuals came together in outrage over a subpar sentencing recommendation for a convicted rapist. Armed with a sign demanding our justice system take rape seriously, I marched in front of the court alongside veteran activists, and every time I tried to join in the chants (“If you do the crime, you must do the time!”), I choked up.
That lump in my throat wasn’t borne out of sadness, but from an overwhelming feeling of togetherness and pride. I was incredibly proud to be part of a movement that dedicated itself to protecting and promoting women’s rights, one that fearlessly advocated for sexual assault victims.
Feeling of awe aside, I remained unconvinced of what end result, if any, our action would have that day. As it turns out, our protest and an online petition made a difference; the judge handed down the maximum sentence.
That triumph—my first real taste of feminist activism—taught me a powerful lesson I’ll never forget: that speaking up can make a tangible difference. And not just in one’s own healing journey, but in the lives of others. I loved playing a part, no matter how small, in that process.
It’s a perpetual dilemma when, if and how much to reveal to someone new to you, to peel back the onion and trust them with something deeply difficult.
I had two friends who were abused as young women, one by a relative, who took many years to finally share that with me. One always wore layers and layers of clothing and scarves, and I wondered why.
Then I knew and understood.
Only when I took the chance, here, and blogged about dealing with my mother’s mental illness did another person who reads Broadside open up about her own experiences with it, sparking a deeper intimacy and growing friendship as a result of taking that risk.
I’m now reading a small, slim book by a man who knows a great deal about survival — Sebastian Junger. The book is Tribe, and he examines the social dislocation so many of us now feel in an era of constant “connection” but often very shallow links to others.
What he focuses on is how we all float around, working, marrying, (or not), having children (or not), but how some of us long, very deeply, for a profound sense of belonging.
He writes of a young woman who lived through the war in Bosnia and who misses the powerful camaraderie it produced then.
Junger’s book talks about how a true tribe requires some sort of initiation, and a very deep sense of shared values.
For decades, journalism, has been the tribe I’ve been proud to join and belong to.
No matter how much some people viciously deride “the media” and call us “presstitutes” I’m still happy this has been my choice.
Made in 1985, it opens and closes with a great tune by Simple Minds, Don’t You (Forget About Me) and was shot in a set in the gym of a high school closed in 1981.
But it’s really about what it feels like to be a teenager — misunderstood or ignored or bullied by your peers and/or teachers. To feel at odds with your parents, whose lofty expectations of success and prowess — you know, living up to your potential— can feel like an elephant sitting on your chest.
The movie was shot within three months for a reputed $1 million, since earning more than $97 million in box-office receipts. I can’t imagine how many residual checks its actors are still receiving, decades later.
It’s also about something that really never changes, no matter where you live or when you grew up — how you can spend four years in high school and walk past the same people for days, weeks and months assuming you have nothing in common, nothing to say to them or vice versa.
The five students are each a “type” — the criminal, the princess, the brain, the recluse and the jock.
I identify most with the brain, the nerdy kid who geeks out over physics and Latin club. Not that I was so smart, but I definitely didn’t fit the other categories.
I arrived at my Toronto high school halfway through Grade 10, a terrible time to arrive — halfway through the second year?! Even worse, I’d chosen a school in a neighborhood so insular that everyone there had been attending the same schools since their first grade. The lines were well-drawn, the cliques established.
I hadn’t even been in a public school, or in a classroom with boys, since Grade Seven. I had pimples and wore the wrong clothes and was far too confident, (having attended single sex schools and camps where I won every award available.)
I was nicknamed Doglin, barked at in the hallways, a dog bone laid on my desk. It was brutal. I cried every day after school and would crawl into bed with all my clothes on when I got home.
My torturers were all male, a gang of three or four, one a redhead with freckles whose 50s-ish nickname (and this long past the 1950s) was Moose.
I made a few dear friends, which kept me sane, and I made the team, two years in a row, for a high school television quiz show and our team did really well.
It finally got better in my senior year when — yay!!!!! — I even got chosen as prom queen, and will regret forever I have no photo of my gorgeous butter yellow chiffon gown, complete with matching scarf. I’m not sure I ever felt so pretty. Even then, a very long time ago, it cost $125, a bloody fortune.
By the time I graduated, I’d had a really cool boyfriend, sold three photos to a magazine for its cover and another to our school library. I’d rounded up my pals to create a school newspaper that fellow students were glad to have once more.
I still don’t know what turned it all around, but am so glad it had a happy ending.
Then, at our 20th. reunion, I re-met one of my closest friends and we re-ignited our friendship, which has continued on for decades more. We’ve visited their lake-side home in Ontario many times, in every season, and our husbands love spending time together.
Neither of us ever had children.
But our friendship is a joy and a pleasure I thought we’d lost.
Five years ago this week, my husband — then fiance — decided to take me to a silent Buddhist retreat.
It was a birthday gift, one he thought might prove calming and healing.
I went in like a sulky five-year-old, arms crossed, dubious.
I emerged with a lot of new insights — if you’re interested, search my archives for July 2011 and you’ll find them, as I posted every day, a bit stunned by how powerful my feelings were and how much they changed over that week.
I’m not a Buddhist, but have spent time at various sanghas with Jose, who is, so was already familiar with the language, precepts and rituals like mantras, chants and prayers. I also knew and was friends with his lama, Surya Das, so wasn’t intimidated by him or his presence. Had every single bit of it been unfamiliar, it might have been even more challenging.
It’s never a bad thing to withdraw and retreat from the insanity of “normal” life and this was an opportunity to do so, and one — I admit — I would never have undertaken on my own.
In a week of silence, your heart speaks very loudly indeed.
Every morning, as we nestled once more into our cushions or chairs for the morning teaching, more and more were empty as people fled, unable or unwilling to stay.
Even those who stayed rebelled, some driving off-campus in their cars to a local bar or standing deep in the woods, yammering on the cellphones — both a violation of the rules we agreed to when we arrived; 75 of us had come from across the globe to do this thing, knowing it would be difficult, and craving that discipline.
I emerged from it dazed, sharpened, newly and exquisitely aware of the daily noise we barely even notice, and had never been conscious of before: cars, sirens, animals, neighbors, airplanes overhead, people talking on their cellphones or listening to music too loudly through headphones.
Jose and I drove to a local bar — where two enormous television screens blared…something. Instead of it feeling, as it usually would, like background noise it was suddenly alien and very much in the foreground. We felt assaulted and exhausted by it.
I missed the precious, glorious, cocooning silence we’d bathed in all week.
I missed the inter-generational community we had created in our silence, sometimes with just a raised eyebrow or shy smile.
I missed sitting in the retreat’s luxurious garden, alone for an hour, my only companion a very bad bunny eating everything he could reach.
I missed the soothing simplicity of our days, from the waking early-morning hand bell rung down the long corridors to our meals eaten together at long wooden refectory tables, the only sounds the clinking of cutlery on china.
The retreat offers three teachings a day, the only time we’ll be allowed to speak. The food will be vegetarian. There will be no cocktail hour, or wine at dinner, both something we usually enjoy daily at home.
Steak? TV? Three daily newspapers? No, no, no. Ah, the things I cling to.
We’re taking my softball glove and ball, and my bike. I’m taking my camera and watercolors, and plan to write a speech due August 10 in Minneapolis.
I’ll sit in the teachings and meditations and chanting as much as feels comfortable. He and I will share a room, and plan to write notes back and forth. It will be very odd — and difficult — not to talk to him. We typically talk several hours a day and I really enjoy it.
So it’s already a powerful meditation on the loss of that comfort. We may whisper to one another in our room. We’ll see.
I’ve been the butt of jokes for weeks now. “Buddhist,vegetarian, silent — I can’t think of three words less likely to describe you,” said one friend.