Author Archive

Danger Zone

Goddammit, Top Gun: I kind of love you.

I saw you again last night, at Ontario Place’s Cinesphere. The venue alone was enough to prompt a surge of nostalgia: I sat there often in the 1980s, heart hammering in anticipation of EVEN BIGGER Lukes and Leias and Hans, Indianas and T.E. Lawrences (and possibly even Marty McFlys?). Last night, there you were, Top Gun, you big, dumb, Bruckheimer movie. And not only that: my friend Katherine, with whom I first saw you in 1986, was sitting beside me. (This wasn’t the first time she and I had strolled along memory lane together.) Yup: Nostalgia central, for us and the hundreds of other middle-aged people who surrounded us, clutching the cans of beer and plastic cups of wine that are miraculously available at movie theatres, here in 2018.

Pop-cultural nostalgia can be creepy and cancerous. It can drive middle-aged people to spew hate because there’s now a black Stormtrooper in the Star Wars universe, and also a bunch of female characters, some of whom have clearly failed to be white. Oh, and because there’s a female Doctor in the TARDIS. “This has killed my childhood.” “Thanks for ruining everything with your political correctness.” (Those are paraphrasings of much more vitriolic statements that I don’t have the heart to seek out now, even in the interests of direct quotation.)

To my great surprise, I discovered last night that I don’t feel terrible about you, Top Gun. Not like I do about the John Hughes movies I also loved, which, when I’ve re-watched them, have made me wonder how the fuck I, and really mostly everyone else, could have been so oblivious in the ’80s. (“I could violate her ten different ways if I wanted to.” “What are you waiting for?” To say nothing of Long Duk Dong. Really, Sixteen Candles?)

Those other heinous ’80s movies—hell, most of today’s big-budget Hollywood movies—set such low bars that I’m likely overstating your just-fine-ness. But it was so unexpected, to discover this where I thought I’d find only retroactive horror.

I repeat: You’re a Big, Dumb, Bruckheimer Movie, from your “Danger Zone” soundtrack to your fighter jet porn to your cheesy (and thus eminently quotable) dialogue to your cirrus-thin yet also bombastic plot. You have one black character and three female characters (two of whom are navy wives; one of whom has only one line). You’re macho and loud, swathed in stars and stripes. You are, pretty simply, bad.

What you aren’t is heinous.

Strangely, for a Big, Dumb, Swathed-in-the-Flag Movie of your ilk, you lack brown-skinned terrorists or soldiers with strange accents. No nation’s name gets invoked again and again, making American blood boil. It takes nearly two hours for anyone to even die, in this movie that’s about boy-men who fly war planes, and we don’t know who, exactly, has died—just that they were flying MiGs (so the U.S.S.R. is the closest we’ll get to an I.D.) above the Indian Ocean. We don’t see them die; we just see their two jets explode. We don’t see their faces; we just see their menacingly tinted helmets. This is cartoon violence, yes—an easy, bloodless way of making it all a game, keeping the audience’s spirits high and existential questions low. But this also means there’s no targeted hatred. And that means you’ll age better than most of your Big, Dumb friends: your Enemy could be anyone, because they’re no one. (Also, as is made clear with the subtlety of a megaphone and jackhammer combined, Maverick’s true Enemy is himself.)

Then there’s Kelly McGillis’ Charlie. She could be dismissed as just another sexy librarian type—but you know what? She’s actually, genuinely (in Big, Dumb Movie terms) intelligent. She has an established career of her own—she’s a goddamn astrophysicist. She’s beautiful, but she’s not Barbie, and other than that one lingering shot of her stilettos and seamed stockings during the Big Reveal, the camera is most interested in her face. (IMDB provides this tidbit about Kelly McGillis: “Was fired from the film Bachelor Party (1984) allegedly because the producers thought she wasn’t pretty or sexy enough.”) Sure, Charlie exists, narratively, to shape Maverick’s arc—but so does Val Kilmer’s Iceman.

Maverick pursues this idiosyncratically gorgeous, smart, older woman…without being a rapey asshole. There’s an early scene when he follows her into the women’s bathroom at the bar after she’s gently, smilingly, banteringly told him she has friends to meet and that his pick-up attempts must therefore come to an end. She asks him, after he’s followed her in, if he expects them to drop and do it right there on the tile; he suggests the counter. She laughs and walks out. The whiff o’stalking wasn’t great, Top Gun, but you made her firmly in control and him an impetuous but totally unthreatening idiot, and it could have been worse. Lowbaritis strikes again. (Sadly, at the very end of the movie there’s more than a whiff o’quitting-her-awesome-Washington-job-because-she-wants-to-be-an-instructor-with-him. She doesn’t say it outright, but the whiff is pungent.)

Her beauty and intelligence get to him. His beauty and vulnerability get to her. And hoo boy, but Tom Cruise was beautiful to me, in 1986. Not so much when he was flashing that toothy grin (the largeness of his teeth is unsettling today, probably because they’re no longer that large; he’s definitely had work done), but when the camera catches him in repose, his eyes bright green with tears (there are copious tears, in this Big, Dumb Movie, though they mostly gleam and don’t fall). Cruise has become this thing—this crazy Scientologist bone-breaking stunt-doing machine thing. It’s hard to remember that, in 1986, he was just a boy-man who looked beautiful when he cried.

Yes, Top Gun: Your hot boy-men. They talk tough and fly killing machines but they’re also grieving for their dead pilot dads and loving their wives and kids. And, in not even slightly subtextual ways, each other. “This is giving me a hard-on,” murmurs one trainee to another as they’re watching footage of a plane being shot down. “Don’t tease me,” the other murmurs back. And the locker room scenes. Hardly-there towels draped across boy-men who are, in turn, draped near other boy-men. And sweaty, shirtless (except Goose) boy-men grunting and lunging, making beach volleyball look like a completely new and shocking thing, to the teenagers of 1986.

I’d never seen this kind of male objectification before. I was used to getting eyefuls of the female kind, but this…Well. Then and now, I just want to wrap all those hurting, reckless, six-packed boy-men up in a horny, compassionate embrace. It’s not a very smart or enlightened instinct, but instincts seldom are.

People applauded, as the credits rolled. People took selfies and laughed and hummed that insidiously catchy theme music and got ready to throw their 3D glasses away. (3D Top Gun—now that was new.)

Speaking of credits rolling: This has to be all I have to say in defense of a bad movie. My first blog post in eight months, and it’s about Top Gun. Second-person Top Gun, no less. I’m an idiot, and I’m probably hideously wrong about almost everything I’ve written here—as blind about the object of my nostalgia as anyone else is about theirs. But there it is. Top Gun, you doof: I kind of love you.

Archer understands.

I Remember the Ansibles

Last Tuesday night, while I was at Mt. Sinai hospital, Peter texted me that Ursula K. Le Guin had died.

I was at the hospital with my friend Megan, who was in labour with a boy she’d already named Monty. Her mother was there too, exhausted from a trip down from Sudbury and a sore back and a night of only a few hours’ sleep, thanks to Megan’s, “I think my water broke…” at 2:15 a.m. Megan was still fairly comfortable, when I got Peter’s text. I clutched my phone and felt a wave of something profoundly weird: sort-of nausea; sort-of adrenalin rush. Moments later, there it was on the CP24 newscrawl on the TV at the foot of Megan’s bed: Ursula K. Le Guin, award-winning science fiction author, has died at 88.

In 2002, when my first novel was, at long last, finished and ready to go to press, I wrote to Ursula. Penguin Canada had asked me to get in touch with authors I admired to ask them to blurb the book. I spent days on my letter to her. I pared back the adulation in the opening paragraph in what I thought was a very impressive show of restraint and professionalism. I allowed the mention of ansibles to stay. I thought the result was pretty fabulous.

I can’t be sure now, though, because I can’t find the letter. That was five computers ago, in a different house, in a different marriage; there’s no hard copy in any folder, or not that I’ve found, anyway.

She sent me a reply a month or so later via a handmade postcard that I immediately displayed in the most visible place I could think of: the fridge. Thick card stock, rough-edged. She’d done an ink drawing on one side, of a cat curled up asleep. On the back, more ink: my name, written by her. Other words: Thank you…will try to get to it…looks wonderful…

I can’t be sure now, though, because I can’t find the postcard. Three fridges ago. That different marriage. All the boxes I packed, while leaving that other house; all those boxes unpacked, but I’ve never found it.

And then it was 2005, and Penguin Canada sent me out to Vancouver to promote my second book. I was staying at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, wide-eyed, alone, vertiginously free of toddlers and tasks. (I almost cried when a hotel employee asked me how I’d like my coffee, in the morning, when it was brought to my room.) The hotel was full of people: a conference, I soon realized, whose theme was English literature and education. I wandered about, tippy with the vertigo, and there she was, standing in the middle of the main corridor. She was tinier than I’d imagined (shouldn’t our idols always be at least as tall as we are?). Her face was far more lined than it was in her author photo, but I recognized her immediately anyway. She was standing with an elderly man, holding his arm. I remember that they were both wearing khaki raincoats.

I wobbled over to them. I think I said, “Ms. Le Guin?”. She turned and looked up at me and smiled. And I babbled. I said something like, “I wrote to you two years ago because I had a book coming out and you wrote back—you wrote me a postcard with a cat on it—and after that you wrote a letter that said you wouldn’t have time to read the book, but that’s OK, and I’m here because I’ve written another book, and I love you.”

Something like that.

I’d like to remember that her smile didn’t waver, but I’m pretty sure it did. She said, “Ah!”, brightly. And then, “We’re going for a walk; trying to get it in before the rain.” And I, flushing and nauseous, stammered, “Yes…Vancouver…rain…” And off they went, slowly, toward the door. Her hand still on his arm.

I went back to my room. I tore a piece of paper from my notebook and I wrote to her with one of the hotel pens. I apologized for my babbling. I expressed my admiration in measured, precise terms.

I can’t be sure now, though, because I have no copy of this missive. I folded it up and dropped it with the front desk, with her name on it. I nurtured a hope, for some hours thereafter, that I’d hear from her. The hope made me feel stupid, even in its earliest incarnation. By the next day, I flushed all over again, thinking about it.

I can’t be sure about her books now, either. I have an increasingly terrible memory for books and movies, hers included. And yet I do remember how I felt when I read them. I remember that her words were, with Lloyd Alexander’s, the only ones that ever made me want to cry because they were so beautiful.

And I remember being 21, and thinking I was pregnant, and finding an essay of hers in an anthology called (I think) The Choices We Made, about abortion. She’d chosen to have one. I was thinking I’d have to, too. And these very real words of hers made me want to cry even more than her others had, because I was freaking out, and there she was to steady me.

I discovered the rest of her non-fiction around the same time. I scribbled quotes in my “quote book”, until it was ridiculous: I was essentially transcribing entire essays, because all of them shook me, made me think, “Exactly!”, made me feel vulnerable and indestructible, as a writer and a woman.

After baby Monty was born, in the darkest, deepest part of the night, I walked with him. His mother and grandmother were sleeping, in bed and reclining vinyl chair. I held him and I walked back and forth across the room, because whenever I tried to ease him down into the bassinet, he mewled, and his closed eyes fluttered, and his hard little heels thrust at me from within his flannel swaddling. So I walked, jiggling him and patting his back, swaying and patting his back. I held him, this solid, warm, new mammal, and I thought about Ursula K. Le Guin, and how she’d done this too. How she’d jiggled newborns and also hugged cats and written words. How she’d drawn pictures on postcards to send to people who loved her—to young writers who’d get older and lose the postcards and forget the words, but not the love.


We Need to Talk About Kevin: Part II

Part I of this story can be found here.


October 22, 2017

“Life is complex. Your next night in doesn’t have to be,” proclaims the Miss Vickie’s ad in the middle of my Facebook feed (because I haven’t bothered to install Ad Blocker).

Kevin is still in our backyard. When I peek out a window, he’s sometimes by the shed, sometimes on the glider, which is behind a bush (now in scarlet autumnal splendour mode) that makes him hard to see. Blueberry Panda is always near him—either on the glider beside him, or on the ground next to him, or on his sleeping bag when he’s in it. She’s more dog than cat, the way she stays by him. Then again, until a few months ago she was an indoor cat. He’s the only thing she’s sure of, now that she’s outside all the time.

Life is complex.


We had to kick him out into the ravine. Again. Of course we did.

“We were nice to you this time, but next time…” Finger-wagging at a toddler after having given in to the toddler. Just as fruitless as that; just as defeated-making, as the words come out. “You can hang out with Blueberry Panda in our yard during the day but you have to go somewhere else at night.” So there.

He hasn’t come to see us today. Hasn’t asked us for money, or to use our bathroom or our phone. This might mean he’s in “altered” mode. It means he won’t be charming and smiling, if and when we talk to him. His gaze won’t be clear. He’ll probably start shouting, sometime after midnight. That’s when he sees the demons most vividly and banishes them most loudly. He says he thinks he can and does banish them. He thinks he’s God, or a god—something all-powerful and all-seeing, living on the surface of the sun with his cat while nothingness fills void fills non-linear time and lava spews from the subway tracks by the ravine and his family betrays him, again and again, with their homophobic cruelty and their financial double-crossing.

His Facebook feed is an all-caps record of solitary madness—in 2017, anyway, and for much of 2016. In 2015, a couple of people made comments on his posts (a video of Blueberry playing with her favourite toy; a photo of a Madonna concert he went to in NYC); in 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, more posts, more friends. In 2010, his sister, going back and forth with him in Trinidadian patois.

A few of his 2017 posts have like and love reactions. I hover over them, hoping for a name, someone I can try to get in touch with, but the emojis are all his own.


Yesterday a guy he met in a park bought him breakfast, after he left the Salvation Army shelter where he’d spent the night. I’m pretty sure he hasn’t eaten today. He’s been in our yard since 6 a.m. (after a presumably abortive attempt to stay overnight with an estranged uncle). I keep expecting him to round the corner like he used to in the summer, when he lived full-time in the ravine in the tent we gave him; expect him to wave and call out a cheery, “Hi, neighbours!” But he’s just there in the back, standing, sitting, rocking, picking things up off the ground and throwing them over the fence, methodically and decisively.

The tent was taken away when the cops and paramedics and Salvation Army Gateway workers took him away, a couple of weeks ago, in cuffs, strapped to a stretcher. He was back a couple of days after that: discharged from the hospital, sent to one shelter, then another, until he checked out and hightailed it back to ravine and fence and Blueberry Panda and us.

He graduated from the University of Toronto with a degree in chemistry and philosophy. His email is a utoronto alumni address. On his Twitter profile he wrote, in 2012, that he loves chemistry and music, dancing, having good times with good friends.


Days earlier, I emailed our city councillor and got a swift response from someone on her staff. She forwarded my message to someone else at the city; he’d get back to me. Five days later I emailed again; again she answered quickly, assured me she’ll follow up.

More days. Nothing.


In previous weeks we tried to bargain.

“We’ll give you a token and some cash if you promise to go to that bathhouse you’ve been to before, that’s $32 a night.” He went. We heard him coughing a few hours later, back in our yard. He told us the next morning that he couldn’t bear to be away from Blueberry Panda.

“Kevin. It’s getting cold. You need a roof over your head.”

“My skin itches at shelters. People steal things. And the itching is terrible.”

“We’ll give you breakfast if you promise to go to a shelter.” He wouldn’t promise. He didn’t eat.


The only shelter that accepts homeless people with pets is always full. I’m assuming so, anyway, though I’ve only been calling them for a couple of days. “Bless you for what you’ve done for him,” the shelter staffer said to me. “So many others wouldn’t. Keep calling. Something will open up.”

And if it does, and Kevin goes there, and Blueberry Panda’s afraid of the Rottweilers and German Shepherds and even the other cats? If he does, and his cat “tells” him (as she tells him other things) she won’t stay there, and they both end up in our backyard or across the fence again, as the nights get colder and the meteorological pundits continue to predict the snowiest, coldest, longest winter in recent memory?


I can’t stop looking at a couple of photos I’ve downloaded from his FB page and stuck together in a TIFF file. Kevin in 2009 and Kevin in 2016, side by side.

The difference isn’t simply that in one he’s clean-cut and healthy and in the other he’s all long, wild, curly hair, on head and face; the difference is in his eyes. Someone I showed the photos to said, of the most recent one, “He’s gone. You can tell.” Except that he’s not: he’s all-powerful God, vanquisher of demons, and he’s also the guy who says, “I have nowhere to go. I have nowhere to go” as he plucks at the cigarette butts he picked up near the subway station and rearranges them on the glider. The guy who feeds his cat too much and shrugs, smiles wryly as he says, “I must have been stupid when I called my uncle last night, thinking I missed him.” He’s not gone. He’s just not one.

We can’t help him. It feels like we’re the only ones helping him. His Salvation Army Gateway workers have told us they’ve done all they can, dropping by the ravine, offering him a shelter bed, a meal, a shower—and a sleeping bag, when he said no to all those other things. They’ll keep coming by, but they can’t force him to do anything.

He isn’t sick enough to be involuntarily admitted anywhere. He’s too sick to be living like this.

Does he have a doctor? A social worker? A single friend other than his cat?

He cannot stay in our yard.


We talk to him around 6 p.m. Mention that we heard him at 6 this morning. “Oh?” he says. “6?”
“Yes,” we say. “You were talking. Listening to music.” “I don’t remember talking,” he says. “So when did you get back here last night?” “Oh, I wasn’t here last night. No. Not here.” “So when did you get back? Considering we heard you at 6.” “I don’t really…I don’t remember.”

Gaze sliding away—canny? Genuinely confused? Calculating? A teenager trying to see what he can get away with?

Toddler teenager God and man.


“Spare some change?” the guy sitting on the floor in Bay subway says, and I walk past. I’m doing my bit, right? Kevin is my bit—more than a bit, in fact. Of course it must work like this, right?


October 23

It’s 8:30 p.m.: dark outside; raining outside. Kevin’s in our yard, and he’s looping—round and round, declaiming about being alone with Blueberry Panda on the surface of a giant sun round and round about nothing else existing in time and space nothing and no one except him almighty able to harness the power of his sun for purposes of destruction.

The paramedics arrive about five minutes after we call 9-1-1; the first cop car a couple of minutes after that. Others follow.

“Kevin? Hey, Kevin.”

Six cops, all with flashlights, tromp along the narrow, glistening, overgrown path that leads to the back of the yard. Kevin’s hunkered down with his sodden sleeping bag over his head, rocking, looping, round and round.

“Kevin—let’s get you up. Let’s get you somewhere dry.”

No,” he snaps, briefly free of the loop—then resumes. “Blueberry Panda and I are in an unknown location because we are the only creatures in all of time and space. Blueberry Panda and I are in an unknown—”



I’m crying, pressed against the wall of our house.

In the end he goes with them quietly. Two cops stay behind with us in the almost-fully-dark. The big burly one says, “You guys warm my heart, you really do. Your compassion—it’s amazing. But…”

We talk about how we won’t let Kevin into the yard again. We talk about how helpless we feel, because he’s going to come back. The cop refers to the “revolving door” of these things—homelessness, mental illness, drugs, hospitals, shelters, aaaand begin again. Looping.

When we return to the front lawn, cop cars and ambulance are still parked facing the wrong way on our one-way street. One by one, they leave. We retire to bed and a bottle of wine; at last, we say, a full night of sleep for all of us, including Kevin.

At 3 a.m. the phone rings. It’s a CAMH mental health worker; she wants some background on Kevin, and wants to let us know that the hospital has just sent him somewhere in a cab, having not assessed or medicated him. As predicted, he was lucid by the time someone there spoke to him. He answered questions. He got in the cab. He was supposed to end up at a shelter, but who knew—he could walk a different way.

At 9 a.m. he rings the doorbell. He tells Peter he’s sorry about the previous night. He promises he will never stay in our backyard again. And then he says he’s lost Blueberry Panda: he was carrying all his stuff and her plump self up the alley across the street (unprecedented; he must have actually been going somewhere else) and she leapt from his arms and disappeared among the parked cars and backyard fences and tall weedy grass. She disappeared.

Peter had to get on an international call. He had to close the door. When he was done, he heard Kevin crying, in that familiar, lilting way, “’Berry! ‘Berry!” Maybe she was already back in the ravine, or back near the food bowl we’d dedicated to her. He wandered off, still calling. And there’s been no sign of him in the hours since. No sign of her, either. Did he find her and head off wherever? Will he be back to look tomorrow?

I don’t want him to be gone forever. I never did. I want to know where he is.


October 25

Blueberry comes back around just after Kevin does (I’m pretty sure she followed his voice). He sits in the backyard with her. Tells Peter he’ll be going to a shelter at night. And he does: at about 7 p.m. he tells us he’s heading off. I give him a token. We stand in the back doorway and talk for a bit.


October 26

Kevin starts a fire in our yard in the morning. Peter charges out. Minutes later he writes to me: “Told him he couldn’t light fires back here. Look at all the leaf litter. Look at the fucking fence. He insisted that his degree in chemistry gave him qualifications in ‘controlled fires’, and that I had to trust him on this. I reminded him that he went through phases where he thought that he was a great red ball of fire, and I didn’t have to trust him at all.”

And yet I want to. How is that possible? He’s starting fires.

He goes back to the ravine for the rest of the day.


October 28

5 a.m. He’s coughing—back in our yard, after three whole nights at a shelter. Peter goes out and tells him he can’t stay there. Reminds him he promised not to. Says he can’t visit Blueberry Panda in our yard anymore, either, as he keeps making promises and breaking them. Kevin gathers his things and moves them to the street. We watch him pace and listen to him mumble and wonder if he’s about to loop again. We don’t go back to bed for another hour, when he retires to his customary spot in the ravine. There’s a plastic Adirondack chair where the tent used to be.

I fall into a dream-spiked half-sleep. Kevin’s all over the dreams. A woman comes to pick him up in a car, and she’s a friend, and he’s suddenly clean and smiling and clear-eyed, saying goodbye to us. Because this is the fairy tale I want, of course. Maybe we don’t see him for a few months. Maybe he rings the doorbell sometime in 2018 and we don’t recognize him at first, but as soon as he says our names we exclaim and maybe even hug him—and he’ll smell like soap, of course, and his clothes won’t smell at all. He’ll tell us about his apartment. He’ll show us photos of Blueberry Panda on his new phone. He’ll say he just wanted to tell us how well he was doing, and to thank us again for being there when he was hitting bottom.

It’s a not entirely altruistic fairy tale.


He and Blueberry seem to be gone again. It’s raining. Her bowl is sitting under a tree, hours after we put it out, the food in it turning to mush.

Except, in the afternoon, there she is in a tiny dry patch by our porch. Which means he’ll be back.


I feel like my heart’s been racing for weeks: a bunny’s heart, permanently startled.


November 1

There’s room at the inn. I’ve called every couple of hours, as the front desk person told me to weeks ago. And at last, at last, a bed at the Bethlehem United shelter for Kevin, and a place for Blueberry Panda with him.

I’m at work. Peter hurries to the ravine and tells Kevin. Peter rents a Zipcar and hurries to pick it up at a Canadian Tire sort of near our house. When he gets back, Kevin is starting little fires. There’s no Blueberry in the carrier. “She got upset,” Kevin says. “She ran away. I can’t go without her.”

Peter yells at him—articulately, I’m sure. He convinces Kevin to put his stuff in the trunk and himself in the front seat. Drives him to Bethlehem United, way north-west of our place. He tells me later that Kevin was conversational.

He drops Kevin off at the shelter. Promises to bring Blueberry Panda as soon as we can wrangle her (which will be hard; she gets skittish when Kevin’s not around). We don’t catch her that day or the morning of the next—but that’s OK, because Kevin comes back, of course, swearing he’s going to get her into that carrier this time; swearing he’s going back to the shelter. He’ll be gone before 4 p.m., he tells Peter, who tells me that he doesn’t believe him. But when Peter goes out onto the porch at 4, Kevin’s stuff is gone. The carrier’s gone. He calls the shelter; yes, Kevin showed up, carrier in hand.

We call for Blueberry one more time that night, as we put out kibble. Just in case.


November 3

I wake up at 5 because I think I hear him across the fence. “Did you hear that?” I whisper. “Yes,” says Peter. But in the morning there’s no sign that anyone’s been there.


Walk On

Emma says, “This is my third-last night here before I go.”

We walk to Staples and buy bankers boxes. She sifts through her own baby pictures and finds some to pack. I don’t cry, when I look at the photos, but I do feel gutted. That plump baby with the fuzzy blonde hair that stuck straight up is gone. I can’t hold her anymore. Except of course she’s not gone; she’s grown into a person who is so very fully here, in herself and the world.

Her dad drives her to Montreal; I take the train. I walk out of the station into a night that feels like fall—up McGill College to Sherbrooke, navigating roving bands of toga-sheet-draped frosh. One of them face-plants on the pavement and his friends laugh and laugh. He leaps up as if he hasn’t just broken his nose and laughs too, wetly.

In the morning I walk the 25 minutes from my bed and breakfast to Emma’s place. I love the walk, which takes me past those Montreal apartment buildings I wished I’d lived in, when I was a student—the old stone ones with metal steps spiraling to second floors, and balconies. Emma’s apartment has a balcony. We sit on it after she’s given me the tour; the sun is hot and the ivy is bright green and full of teeny tiny grapes.

Her father’s here too. We go to IKEA, the three of us, and later we put together what we buy there, and then we sit in her huge living room and talk. After a bit we walk to Emma’s boyfriend’s new place. When I introduce myself to his roommate, I say, “Hi: I’m Caitlin, Emma’s sis—” Everyone laughs weirded-out, nervous laughs, including me. “Sorry—Emma’s mother,” I say—but there it is. Not early-onset dementia, but evidence of my deep, reflexive certainty that it’s still me, moving into an apartment in Montreal; that I can’t be as old as I am, with a daughter as old as she is. I don’t feel any different than I did when I was the one weaving through these wet streets, wondering what my classes would be like, or sticking photos of family, friends and cats onto the wall by my bed.

The five of us (Emma’s dad, me, Emma, her boyfriend and his mother) go for dinner at an Italian place on Laurier. Emma’s dad and I split a bottle of red.

We make references to shared things, he and I. I wasn’t sure we would. We mention the apartments we had when we met, in fourth year. The slog from mine to his—unbearably long, in the winter (which lasted most of the academic year).

I cry a little, as I walk back to my B&B that night.

The next morning we buy her a whack of groceries, a kettle, a food processor. Her kitchen—from food processor to hardwood floors to enormous woodblock counter space—is so much better than any kitchen I’ve ever had. I put stuff in cupboards and tell her she can rearrange it, of course, and then I finally internalize the fact that this is her kitchen, and realize that it was presumptuous of me to put anything anywhere in it, and I feel both wobbly and idiotic.

It’s pouring and windy and cold, but she and I go out in it, after her dad hits the road. I buy her a pair of boots because all she has are sandals and Converse, and apparently it’s already autumn. We buy poster putty and tape and return to her apartment, where we put things up on her bedroom walls. I get splinters from unfinished picture frames, and pepper her pristine white wall with pencil markings, and make her hold the tape measure because I’m not doing it right—it’s all very mathesque, and there are four pictures that have to be hung just so, and I’m certain they’re going to look terrible, if they stay up at all. They do. We reward ourselves with a trip to Starbucks (for the WiFi), and then we meet up with her boyfriend and his mother and have dinner at a another Italian restaurant—the one her dad and his dad used to go to, back when.

The pictures are, miraculously, still up when we return to her place. We go to the kitchen and I tell her again how amazing it is. She starts to cry as we walk the wonderful long hall to her room. She says she knows it’ll all be fine—better than fine, maybe—but it’s suddenly real, not just a thing she’s been waiting for; it’s big change, and it’s now, and she can’t help it: the tears have been waiting all day, since her dad left, and all weekend, in fact, ever since she said goodbye to the bunny and the cats, and she knew this would happen. I hold her for a bit, this young woman who used to be that plump blonde baby who slept against my chest when I was too tired to put her back in her crib.

After a moment she draws away and mops at her nose. I lie (hideously, gloriously replete with pasta) on her bed, beneath the photos she’s taped to the wall, and she sits, and we talk until her boyfriend comes to pick her up. They’re going to get a few groceries, before the store closes at 11. I walk as far as I can with them. My mother calls and I hand the phone to Emma. 28 years ago, when I was stacking boxes in my basement bedroom, preparing for my own move to Montreal, my mother came in and hugged me and said “Going away is the right thing to do, and I’m so proud of you and so happy for you” and started to cry. I’d seen her cry maybe twice in my 19 years, and we hardly ever hugged, so this was all very unexpected and unsettling but also right. I was leaving. I’d be back for holidays and in the summer, but things, I, wouldn’t be the same.

Emma finishes talking and hands me back my phone.

I hug her again, when we get to the street I have to turn down, and we say goodbye. She doesn’t cry this time. I don’t either, though I do tear up briefly when I turn and watch them walk together, gesturing, holding hands. And of course, being replete with emotion, memory, and their dangerous progeny, symbolism, I remember when she finally learned to walk, at 15 months. I was convinced she never would; she’d been cruising around our little house for awhile, clinging to bits of furniture and our hands, but showed no signs of wanting to be fully bipedal. She chose Home Depot, in the end, over our little house. I remember that she was wearing her brown corduroy OshKosh overalls. By then her blonde hair had grown into a wispy, sort-of mullet that curled over her turtleneck. We set her down at the head of one of the wide, gleaming aisles and off she went, bandy-legged and reeling.

Off she goes, long-legged and graceful, and I watch her for just a moment before I walk away.

She thinks it looks like she has a weird bald spot, in this photo, but I disagree.

Tyre, tyre, burning bright

I have no idea what I was thinking. What the hell was I thinking?

I was 50,000 words in, then. I’ve since written about 26,000 more. Not bad, right? Not bad for someone who usually requires years, not months, to get into the tens of thousands of words.

Except that my sense of the rightness of the story declines even as its word count goes up. It started out strong and fairly conventional (part I) and continued strong, if not quite as conventional (part II). Part III, though, is quagmire, tire fire, explosion of Silly String.

I’ve felt like this before, right? I think so, but I don’t feel so.

It’s too ambitious. That might be it. Part III is a succession of five Marys, all the same; Marys who die while giving birth to their next self. Parthenogenesis and cloning, in cave and deserted manor house and asylum. Five POVs but also only one. A single body with five internal voices that manifest as singing colours.

What the HELL was I thinking.

It’s too scattered. That might be it, too. My first three books took years to finish because I wrote them in order, chapter bit by chapter bit, in longhand. I never leapt to an out-of-sequence scene, no matter how vivid that scene might have been in my head. That changed with books four and five. The Laptop Revolution. The Dawn of the Haphazard. I got the books done, but the process felt weird. Unsettled.

Maybe this book represents the Mid-morning of the Haphazard? Or perhaps High Noon, after which some other order will prevail?

I was frequently the student who insisted that this time was going to be the time I actually did get a terrible mark on an exam. The student whose “this time” ended up being a crying of wolf, every time, because I mostly kept doing well. I’ve fretted about each of my now-published books, too, and they’ve turned out to be varying degrees of fine, but now…now I might actually lose a book at 76,000 words. (I’ve lost books at 40,000; working my way up?) “Losing it” may, in fact, mean finishing, many months from now, and sending it to interested agents, and hearing what I heard from my former agent: “I can’t sell this.” He said that about The Pattern Scars, and it ended up published—but this time. This time I just don’t know.

And yet I keep writing, hoping to god there’s no wolf.


Keeping Score

Funny, how intense is the nostalgia generated by Decembers and epic franchise movies. Lord of the Rings, for example: Whenever I watch the first installment of the trilogy now, and catch that opening glimpse of Frodo in Peter Jackson’s Shire, I remember my sister grabbing at my hand in the theatre as both of us teared up with relief and recognition. Later, as Aragorn led the Fellowship out of the Mines of Moria, without Gandalf, I remember grabbing my sister’s hand and pressing it against my belly, within which my second child was performing a complicated underwater percussion solo with her feet. I tell said daughter (now 14) this, every time we watch the movie as a family. It is, for both of us, eye-rollingly predictable (“Here it is! This part right here! You went nuts right here!”), but tough: it has become part of the experience of this movie. Memory forever layered with image.

Sometimes the nostalgia is even more complicated: a movie remembering another movie that I remember; a tangle of personal and meta. So it was with The Force Awakens, last December, and so it was this December, with Rogue One. (Mildest of spoilers ahead…) Somewhat unexpectedly, I found that Rogue One did nostalgia better than its holiday predecessor. A mere day later, trying to figure out how it pulled this off, I’ve come up with the following: because the Big Three cast members weren’t—with one brief, CGI’d exception—involved, many of its call-outs to canon are fairly subtle, in some cases almost peripheral (that little Imperial box droid zipping along in the background; a brief appearance by that snub-nosed dude and his creature buddy, who would, only a short time later, though in a different movie, take exception to Luke in the Mos Eisley cantina; blue milk!). This makes for a story that relies more on its own merits than it does on immediate, unquestioning love for familiar faces. (I must admit, though, that that first shot of the back of Grand Moff Tarkin’s head made me giddier than I could ever have expected. I didn’t even need the CGI’d face. The hair was enough.) No lightsaber until the very end. Minimal use of Force—though there was early use of the Force theme. And that’s really why I think I liked this movie better than last year’s. The music.

Which is weird. I love the original trilogy John Williams soundtracks with the intensity of those two unlikely Tatooine suns, and Williams also did the score for The Force Awakens—so why did this music, by Michael Giacchino, hit me harder?

Something about familiarity accompanied by change. A woman dipping back into a place adored by a girl. Memory satisfying transposed.*

You know from its second frame that Rogue One is going to be the same old Star Wars experience, but different. “A long time ago”: the words are there, and the notes of the familiar fanfare are already sounding in your head—except they don’t sound. There’s no fanfare, no crawl. The (literal) tone is set.

Giacchino’s soundtrack evokes Williams from the outset, in sweep and orchestration, just as Williams’ soundtracks evoked Mahler and Holst. Listen: the skirl of oboe from Return of the Jedi! The familiar fanfare for two notes, at which point it’s inverted. Piccolo and harp. Syncopations and muted trumpets. The timpani rolls. Snippets of the Imperial March. The same dreamy violin line that accompanied the final scene in The Empire Strikes Back—but only for a moment. There are so many such moments: fleeting, delighted recognition, followed by newness. It should have felt like a giant tease, but it didn’t.

I would have been well content with Giacchino’s music alone. That’s saying something (see my comment re: Tatooine’s suns, above). This new music was enough.

But then the end. The cargo ship from that galaxy far, far away, in 1977. The gleaming white corridors; the desperate Rebels; Vader advancing. The princess draped in white (“Computer-generated face,” my brain told me as I teared up, “and super-weird, but I don’t care”)and, at last, at last, the other music. The first. Echoes of Mahler and Holst and Williams and now, like a melody inverted and transposed, Giacchino.



*All of which puts me in mind of South Park’s savagely brilliant take on nostalgia, during its mostly excellent, if horrifying, 2016 election season: the “’member berries.” “We all want something new, but that makes us remember the things we love. We want to ‘member. ‘Member Chewbacca?”



Hopes Springs Infernal

I am really, really falling down on the blogging front. This disappoints me—though I have the very best reason for falling down: I’m writing with the kind of joy and focus I haven’t felt since three books ago, with The Pattern Scars.

I did a reading last week, as part of the Words at the Wise reading series at the small but mighty Wise Bar on Bloor West. I’ve done many readings over the years, the most recent of which have all been via ChiZine Publications, at my launches. I was nervous about this latest one, because it was out of my comfort zone: an organizer and other writers I didn’t know; an audience I mostly wouldn’t know either—plus (and possibly most nerve-wrackingly) an excerpt that wasn’t from a finished book.

The other two authors were Claire Horsnell and Andrew Simpson (who was also the organizer). They read before I did, and their pieces were funny and smart—totally engaging. The small-but-mighty space was full of people who were attentive and appreciative. Of course, I still got my customary right-before jitters. But once I was at the mic and talking, it was all OK. More than OK. I spoke new words—words which, despite the joy and focus with which I’ve been setting them down on the page, I was afraid might not work aloud. They did.

I fear and resent hope. Hope is an almost embarrassing thing to have felt, when it’s crushed, and I’d kind of prefer not to let it push up into my brain at all. But it does, time after here-we-go-again time, and it is now. From Gibraltar in 1781 to Quebec in 1878—from a girl named Ana de la Rosa to a man named Louis Riel—I feel like I have something, here, that might be something. I said at the event last week that reading from a work-in-progress is frequently considered seriously jinxing by writers who are otherwise perfectly sensible, non-superstitious people. Setting down the fact of my newest hope may be similarly foolhardy. But there it is. I’m 50,000 words into a story that excites me beyond even the excitement I felt writing about Bronze Age Crete. (Yes. Truly.)

“A madman came by steamer today from Montreal.” That’s how it starts. I can’t wait to find out how it ends.

Damn you, hope.


Ode to a Cicada

When I was in Greece 30 years ago, my classics classmates and I stayed in double rooms in hotels and got up at the crack of dawn to pile onto tour buses.

When I was in Greece last month, my family and I stayed here, at the Villa Calista on Crete.







The photos almost capture the splendour of the place. What they don’t capture at all, of course, is sound—in this case, the relentless screaming of cicadas. The place was otherwise so quiet: pretty much just wind and distant bleating and the mewing of invisible kittens. (The kittens were apparently at the bottom of the little olive orchard; while we saw their mom, and she bonked Elder Daughter Emma affectionately, we never did see them. Luckily, there were hordes of visible cats absolutely everywhere else.) But the cicadas. The metallic, grindy shrieking that swelled in waves, from olive tree to olive tree, as if each group felt compelled to be more stridently impressive than the others. “No way,” I thought as I stood by the pool for the first time, sweaty, breathless because it was so damn beautiful but also because the drive from Heraklion had been so nerve-wracking. “I will never get used to this sound.”

But I did. It faded, somehow. Became part of the beauty and the solitude. (It faded for real at night, when things went very quiet indeed.) We didn’t forget about the cicadas, though. In fact, we sought them out: stood with our noses inches away from olive trunks or branches, speaking in coaxing or frustrated tones. “Here, cicada cicada. Come on: show yourself…” The closest we came to an actual sighting was at ancient Aptera, where a couple of them bumbled out of trees and into Younger Daughter Stella, who didn’t seem quite as eager to meet them as the rest of us were.



There were cicadas in or on this tree. Possibly hundreds of them.


We ferried to Santorini, after our idyllic days in the villa. And lo: there were no cicadas. Actual, daytime quiet—except for the irritable braying of nearby donkeys…




…and the patter of kibble as it went into the bowl that fed our resident feral kittens…





…and, as it turned out, a bunch of adult cats who obviously got wind of the kibble news.




When we left Greece, I figured that would be it for cicadas and us for a good long time.

Only it wasn’t. This guy was lurking on our porch the week after we got back.




Because we’d never actually seen one of his Greek brethren up close, we had to Google it to be sure—but yes: a cicada. A single, silent cicada.

I took more pictures than I probably needed to. But come on: look at that face!





We relocated him from the porch table to the rose bush, thinking this might deter predators (like our cats) and provide him with sappy sustenance.







We checked in on the rose bush the next day: no cicada. “He’s moved on,” we said cheerfully. “Yup: he’s off finding a more appropriate home and he’ll be just fine.”

One morning a week later, I went out to throw some recycling in the bin beside the porch. I turned, took a step back to the front door, and felt something crunch beneath my shoe. It was a significant crunch. I glanced down—and there he was: our lone cicada, flattened, oozing a yellowy-green liquid.

After all the shrieking on Crete and the silent, surprise photo shoot in Toronto, this was not how the cicada story was supposed to end. I was supposed to glimpse him, before my foot descended—was supposed to cry out joyfully and pluck him up and deposit back on the rose bush. He might disappear again, of course, but he’d be back: the porch of the Magic Bungalow was obviously his chosen place.

I’m possibly a little too upset about how the story did end. Stupid messy, abrupt, arbitrary smoosh, when the story had such a coherent and pleasing arc. Stupid story about a stupid bug. Get it together, me.




Living Rooms

The other night, Grace, a friend and former neighbour, invited me over for an evening of writing talk with some friends of hers. They were an inspiring, inspired bunch: women navigating the intertwined drudgeries and joys of life and art. Some have known each other for years; others had never met until that night. I talked, maybe too much (there was Prosecco involved). They listened, and asked questions of me and of each other. They were funny, warm, curious, passionate.

I don’t think I’ve ever carried all my books anywhere, before, but I took them to Grace’s. They were passed from hand to hand around the table and I felt like I was looking at them from a vertiginous sort of remove, even though I was even then describing their provenance in detail. Five books. Mine— products of Montreal, Mexico, Toronto; early love and lost love; spiral-bound notebooks and laptop screens. It’s only been 13 years since that first one, but it felt like a hugely long time as I sat there, watching it go around the table.

There was another odd moment, right at the outset, when one of the guests asked how I knew Grace. I said, “I used to live there,” and pointed out her living room window at the window of what used to be my living room, right across the street. I lived there for eleven years. I’ve been back, of course, to pick up the girls when they were too little to get to my place themselves; a couple of times, soon after the divorce, for Christmas brunch. I’ve been back to the street to visit Grace and my other wondrous former neighbours. These returns have always been difficult, but also predictable, manageable. For some reason, though, as I pointed at that house the other night, its presence was strange and sad in a way that felt old, new, tangled.

Later, when I was describing my first novel’s path to publication, I talked about getting the call from my agent. “Penguin wants it…advance of…” I’d started to cry, I told the women around the table. I sat at my desk in the dean’s office at the Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design and my computer screen blurred and ran. I told them that I nearly hyperventilated on the streetcar ride home (which seemed to proceed in slow motion). And I told them that when I finally opened the front door of the house across the street from this one, my one-year-old daughter was standing at the top of the stairs in that denim dress of hers, with the embroidered mandala-shape on the bodice. That she cried, “I love you, Mommy!”, as her dad had urged her to. That her dad was standing behind her, smiling at me as he brandished a bottle of champagne above our daughter’s fuzzy blonde head.

I stopped talking and waved my hand around in front of my face, breathing the tears away. The women I’d just met sat there with me—funny and warm, curious and passionate, holding my books in their hands.

(E) Bundle of Joy

Last year, The Pattern Scars was selected for inclusion in an Aurora Awards “e-bundle”, along with some other pretty fine novels. The bundle is now available–and for a mere three weeks. Check it out! Buy it! Read, read, read!

Author Doug Smith provides some background:

“How would you like to own, at an incredible bargain, ten books that readers like yourself have already voted to be the best examples of speculative fiction published in Canada? Well, here’s your chance. I’m curating an ebook bundle for that contains winners and finalists for Canada’s premier speculative fiction award, the Aurora Award.

The Auroras are awarded annually by the Canadian Science Fiction & Fantasy Association (CSFFA) for excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy. The award started in 1980 as the Casper and was renamed the Aurora for the 1990 awards. Auroras now include eight professional categories and four fan categories.

One of my goals when putting this bundle together, aside from offering the best books possible, was to have a gender balance in the selected authors. Mission accomplished. The bundle includes five female and five male authors. You’ll also get a great mix of SF and fantasy, adult and YA novels, as well as a selection of short fiction. The bundle also reflects the long history of the Auroras, with titles spanning over twenty years of Canadian speculative fiction. Here’s what you’ll get in the bundle…

Starplex from Robert J. Sawyer, takes you on board a giant exploration starship crewed by humans, dolphins, and extraterrestrials as it embarks on a journey covering billions of years of time and millions of light-years of space. It was also a finalist for both the Hugo and Nebula awards.

Dave Duncan’s West of January is a rare standalone SF novel from a master writer of fantasy series. In it, astounding world building drives a thought-provoking tale of a strange, slowly rotating planet where the habitable zone shifts over a human lifespan.

Karin Lowachee’s Cagebird is the third book set in her Warchild universe about a galaxy spanning human-alien war. It’s a standalone novel, so don’t worry if you haven’t read the first two. (But you should—Warchild won the Warner Aspect First Novel Award and was an Aurora finalist.)

Susan McGregor contributes The Tattooed Witch, the first book in her fantasy trilogy set during the Spanish Inquisition and wonderfully infused with Romany culture of the time. In it, a young woman must turn to her dead mother’s magical legacy to battle the Grand Inquisitor himself.

Caitlin Sweet’s The Pattern Scars immerses you in the world of a young female seer able to see the future but not change it. A dark, literary fantasy with believable characters and beautiful prose, the book also won the CBC Bookies Award in 2012.

Candas Jane Dorsey’s Black Wine is a much-praised novel that can be viewed as both fantasy and SF. It is challenging, memorable, with the beautiful prose one would expect from cross-genre writer who is also a poet. It also won the James Tiptree Jr. Award and the Crawford Award.

Sean Stewart provides an excellent young adult fantasy story with Nobody’s Son, in which the hero defeats the beast and wins the hand of the princess in the first chapter—and then learns what fairy tales never tell you.

The bundle also demonstrates the rich tradition of Canadian short speculative fiction, with an anthology and two collections. The anthology Blood & Water, edited by three-time Aurora winner Hayden Trenholm, gives us timely tales of battles over our most precious resource, fueled by climate change, population growth, and humanity’s natural aggression.

Gifts for the One who Comes After, by Helen Marshall, is a brilliant introduction to the work of one of the brightest new lights in short fiction. Gifts also won the World Fantasy Award and was short-listed for both the British Fantasy Award and the Bram Stoker Award.

My own collection, Chimerascope¸ contains a mix of SF, fantasy, and horror, including an Aurora winner, seven Aurora finalists, and a Best New Horror selection. The collection was also a finalist for the Sunburst Award and the CBC Bookies award.

And if you are looking for still more pedigree, the bundle includes two CSFFA Hall of Fame inductees (Sawyer and Duncan), as well as a current nominee (Dorsey).

At StoryBundle, you decide what price you want to pay. For $5 (or more, if you feel generous), you’ll get the basic bundle of five books in any eBook format worldwide:

  • Blood and Water, edited by Hayden Trenholm
  • Cagebird, by Karin Lowachee
  • Gifts for the One Who Comes After, by Helen Marshall
  • Nobody’s Son, by Sean Stewart
  • The Pattern Scars, by Caitlin Sweet

If you pay $14 (or more, if you feel generous), you’ll get these five bonus books as well:

  • Black Wine, by Candas Jane Dorsey
  • Chimerascope, by Douglas Smith
  • Starplex, by Robert J. Sawyer
  • The Tattooed Witch, by Susan McGregor
  • West of January, by Dave Duncan

The Aurora Award bundle runs for three weeks only, from March 30 to April 21. It’s a fantastic deal and a great way to pick up titles already voted by readers like yourself as the best of Canadian SF and fantasy. Click here to check out this great ebook bundle.”


Photo by Rebecca Springett

Release Date - October 2015

Published by: ChiZine Publications

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