Cosy

On Monday I had my second gum graft, which was as gruesome as expected. The dentist double-sutured the new tissue in place and insisted on showing me photographs of his handiwork, which I now cannot unsee. Once home, I handed off the bulk of the household chores and parenting to my husband and climbed into bed, as I’d been instructed not to speak, and the children respond best (if imperfectly) to voice commands.

While my husband was putting pajamas on the four-year-old, our seven-year-old spilled most of a pitcher of orange juice on the kitchen counter, down the side of the stove, and all over the floor, and told nobody – just the kind of surprise one wants to find at 8:30 p.m. when one parent is nodding off in tylenol-3-land. (The floor under the stove is very clean now, and the counters are sparkling.) The next morning, after my liquid breakfast, I put a load of sticky dish towels in the washer, along with my tea cosy, which was sodden with juice.

I was not pleased to do this. In general I try to take care of my things, but I never wash my tea cosy, despite its stains. It belonged to my mother, who died almost ten years ago, and it’s the thing of hers that I use most frequently: daily, in fact. It was a fixture of my childhood. I remember being three in our west-end Winnipeg house and asking for tea and toast before bed, and the teapot, a Brown Betty with a yellowish ring around the lid, lived in this little cottage with its climbing flowers, charming cats, and brick chimney. On the farm, my mother brewed Red Rose under it every afternoon. My sister was working in east Africa when Mom died, but if she’d been local, we might have fought over it (though at the time we were too wrung out to do anything but agree about her modest estate, dividing up the money and handful of valuables without argument). It is irreplaceable. In some ways it’s safer to use than other objects, like the pottery mug I took from her kitchen, which my eldest shattered in a strop as a toddler. Textiles can’t smash. But they can fade, and rip, and shred in the washing machine. So I leave it dirty.

Because I’d never washed it before, I turned it inside out to see if the forty-plus-year-old care instruction tag was still inside. I found it, and more.

(forgive my giant fingers)

Cuckoobird, I read. Designed by Pat Albeck. I am not really a design aficionado; my enthusiasms (Kähler Lyshuse and vintage Pyrex) are mass-produced and affordable; but, lightly drugged and relieved of childcare duties, I decided to do a little research. I fell down the most well-appointed of rabbit holes. I discovered that my tea cosy is just one in a whole village of cosies – not just for teapots, but also eggs. And just who is Pat Albeck? None other but the queen of the tea towel.

Albeck, who died in 2017, attended England’s Royal College of Art in the early 1950s, and went on to design myriad textiles, household objects, including, of course, over 200 souvenir tea towels for the National Trust. To say she was prolific would be an understatement: . Later in her career she made and exhibited gorgeous, complex floral papercuts that rival Matisse’s abstracts. More details can be found in her obituary in the Guardian. More of her beautiful work can be seen in this home tour.

In the early eighties, before I was born, my mother was well-established in her social work career, and had divorced her first husband. She drove all over Canada, camping by herself, scandalizing locals by swimming in the frigid ocean whenever possible, because when you’re from the prairies you seize those opportunities. She took two trips to England, hiking around with a giant green backpack that spent my childhood stuffed in the back of a closet, unused. On a bus in the Midlands, she happened to bump into the aunt or uncle of someone she had grown up with – I’ve forgotten which, but the person recognized her as belonging to her giant, noisy, infamous family and tried out a couple of her sisters’ names before arriving correctly at hers. She visited Thomas Hardy’s cob and thatch cottage, a National Trust site, and I feel certain that that is where she saw the Albeck tea cosy, possibly nestled in a little cotton village with its neighbours, eyed its dimensions, and judged it appropriate for her Brown Betty. “Aw, carrying it around to bring home,” my sister texted me after I sent her too many hyperlinks.

Cross-referencing the open tabs in my browser, I realized that Matthew Rice, author of the Queen of the Tea Towel book, is Albeck’s son. Rice is married to none other than potter Emma Bridgewater

…whose mug (given to me by the godmother of my youngest child, who is named for the pictured bird) I use for my afternoon tea.

When I lived in Denmark I learned that the Danes use hygge, cosiness, differently than might be inferred based on the plethora of cutesy books that are marketed in North America every November. Det var så hyggeligt, the daycare’s daily online writeup would say, It was so cosy, when my youngest had gone with her group on an outing to a windy beach or the daycare’s allotment. Hygge is about togetherness, not winter, though the unrelenting dark encourages people to congregate indoors with candles. It can be hyggeligt in a sunny backyard in July if you’re having a good time with other people. It’s the word I think of when I see these dumb objects together, proxies for the people who can’t be. The cosy is as clean as it can be. I hope it will do its job for another ten years.

The Hatred of Summer

I ran over 100 kilometres in the month of May, a personal record, and it felt excellent. I am not fast, but as I chugged along the reclaimed rail line that runs parallel to my urban street, I thought that I might one day soon be able to run an objectively remarkable distance: perhaps a half-marathon. I often think of my efforts at sport as mere dabbling, married as I am to an ultra-runner. But my husband pushed too hard in April and sustained a stress fracture, losing his ability to run altogether. For once it was me calling, “See you in an hour,” gently closing the door on the children’s ruckus, and returning in a haze of endorphins.

Now it is summer. Once upon a time we lived in Texas, and I was thrilled to return to Canada, where summer is brief, longed-for, and joyful. But we moved to the sweaty armpit of southern Ontario, and the planet is melting. I’m a dozen years older, and I hate summer. This is an unpopular opinion. I don’t care. I hate the sun, the humidity, the way the heat brings out the shirtless men. I hate needing to use the air conditioner. I hate the way people here pronounce the world cottage. (I am everlastingly depressed that my grandparents’ modest lake cottage in Manitoba, which I visited annually until age 21, was first sold because my grandfather unwisely willed equal shares to his 15 children, and subsequently destroyed by a windstorm absolutely powered by my mother’s vengeful ghost. But I digress.) I hate the way it’s already 23 degrees Celsius with 80% humidity at eight o’clock in the morning, making it impossible to run without feeling as though I’ve drowned. My baby (okay, now four-year-old, but my baby) had heart surgery, the raccoons ate my eggplants, a dentist hacked my mouth apart and sewed it back together, my children are feral, and I cannot even with the pandemic anymore. Bring on the fall. Everything may still be terrible, but at least it won’t be hot.

On the bright side, it’s been a good couple of months in the book mines: the library opened for curbside pickup and my nine-year-old is now in possession of enough Warrior Cats books to sink a ship. I have listened to more Warrior Cat plot summaries than I would prefer. I read the following:

Recollections of My Nonexistence, Rebecca Solnit. A memoir that offers an excellent foundation for reading other work by Solnit, especially if you’ve come to her via Men Explain Things To Me. A good book to read as a reminder that yes, women’s fear of men is justifiable and even normal, and yes, that’s a fucked-up way for half the world to live.

July’s People, Nadine Gordimer. I nabbed this from a Little Free Library down the street, because I’d never read any Gordimer, and wanted to. The timing felt strange – I finished this the week before George Floyd was killed and the demonstrations surged through the streets. I didn’t know anything, really, about Gordimer’s work with and for Mandela. In the novel, which is historically speculative, a rebellion occurs in South Africa, and a well-off white family flees with their longtime Black servant, called July, to his home village. They both rely on him for survival and chafe under the inverted power dynamic that keeps them safe: will he surrender them, or protect them from harm? On the one hand, I suppose I could read more by Gordimer. But at this particular juncture, I don’t want to read more white colonial voices, however critical, writing about race relations. The power (indeed – the point?) of the novel is that it allows us to step into other, underrepresented perspectives, other lives. More of this.

The Glass Hotel, Emily St. John Mandel. I read Station Eleven in 2015, and I went to see a very exhausted Mandel give a reading – her 90th+ event for the book, she told the audience. Like that novel, though, I found The Glass Hotel to be less than the sum of its parts. I’ve already forgotten all the characters’ names (ditto those in Station Eleven). Her writing is precise and somehow compelling at the paragraph level, but too clinical, detached, for my taste. Artists practice their art, bankers swindle, and people make snap decisions, but there seems to be zero motivation behind these things; or where there ought to be motivation, there is instead erasure, as in the case of the poor demented swindler, or the swan-diving female protagonist, Vincent (I googled). It was about what I expected.

American Primitive, Thirst, Felicity, Blue Horses, and Long Life, Mary Oliver. Part of an ongoing project to figure out what I think about Mary Oliver and her wild geese and life. Her work is ubiquitous and beloved, but I wanted to read it for technique, to see what is there beyond inspirational soundbites. So far? As a collection, American Primitive was the best: there were many surprising images, phrases. To read later Oliver collections is not to feel surprise really at all. Devotionals aren’t my thing, and there are a lot of them, and more exclamation marks than other poets might be allowed to take to press. Long Life, which contains prose selections on Emerson and Hawthorne (but also the dump?) was a mixed bag. Oliver knows her local Massachusetts luminaries as well as she knows her local woods, and her prose voice is assured and her criticism knowledgeable. To be continued.

The Vegetarian, Han Kang. A woman quits eating animals. In fact, she goes fully vegan. Visceral; grotesque; goes from bad to worse; a book about what always happens when someone changes their diet: everyone else makes it about themselves. (Full disclosure: my spouse is a vegan; I have seen this happen dozens of times.) I’m still not certain why this novel goes where it goes. I half wish I could unread it.

The Pleasing Hour and Writers & Lovers, Lily King. Dang, I love Lily King. Her novels are as reliably enjoyable – maybe more so – than Ann Patchett’s, but less ostentatious. There are no grand statements of intention. Where St. John Mandel’s books are cool, even cold, King’s are warm, rich, full of feeling. One wants to linger in them. The Pleasing Hour tells the story of an American au pair in Paris; Writers & Lovers is about a struggling novelist, crushed by student debt, mourning the untimely loss of her mother. I read the former on a park bench while my daughter did her cardiac pre-screening (only one parent was allowed in the hospital at a time due to covid), and it was the best possible way to spend those worried hours. I read the latter in a single day, which hasn’t happened for me in a long time. So pleasurable.

Asymmetry, Lisa Halliday. Not far into this book, I thought, “Is this about Philip Roth?” The answer, it seems, is yes. But it’s also about the ethics of attempting to see through someone else’s eyes. Where Gordimer mostly avoids this, Halliday goes off the high dive. Is it successful? I think so. Is it political? Always. Is it correct? When is it not correct? I’ll be thinking about this one for awhile.

Exit West, Mohsin Hamid. Like Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, this novel uses a simple conceit: the passage of migrants around the world is made possible not by boats or cars, but doors. This opens up geographical possibilities, but the book is otherwise realistic. This is the kind of speculative writing that I find most successful: the writer can move the story confidently forward without having to over-explain. A thought experiment with defined parameters that doesn’t require knowledge of particle physics: my kind of summer reading.

Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado. I haven’t read Machado’s latest, In the Dream House, but I will. This collection was solid: gothic, queer, spooky, twisted. I didn’t love the opening story, the ending of which was too predictable, and the reimagination of Law and Order: SVU about did me in, though I know there are superfans out there who would probably love it.

The Hatred of Poetry, Ben Lerner. My husband read this first, and made his usual complaint that nobody ever goes back far enough in time when they talk about the role of the poet (except the obligatory nod to Plato), which is much discussed in antiquity. “People have been answering these questions for a long time,” he complained. During my turn, I was reminded of the most annoying Marxist in my graduate seminars. I dunno. “Do the thing or don’t do it,” Anne Enright said in the Guardian in April. “Either is fine.” This is about as far as I’m willing to philosophize about poetry.

Purple Hibiscus, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The author’s debut novel, and it feels like a debut, but an accomplished, complete one. A Nigerian teenager, whose father is a zealous Catholic, is challenged by a stay with her more free-thinking aunt and cousins. To see the growth between this book and Americanah is really something. I hope she has something new in the works.

The Grammarians, Cathleen Schime. Identical twins read the dictionary. I expected the central conflict of the book to be both more central and more of a conflict.

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, Andrew Miller. One of those titles I must have ordered based on some thirdhand recommendation, because if you described the plot to me, I wouldn’t have picked it up (in 1809, an English soldier returns from the Napoleonic front in Spain), and this would have been tragic. Miller’s sentences are things of beauty. If this hadn’t been a library copy I’d have dog-eared the hell out of it. Two characters fall into bed and he observes, “A mutual falling, the grief of appetite,” and I had to stop and give in to my utter envy at such a perfect phrase. Moreover, his pacing is impeccable – the soldier is being pursued, and the narrative interleaves his flight with the pursuers’ chase, which is an ideal pace to enliven a historical novel: a technique Sarah Moss successfully uses in Signs for Lost Children. I’ll seek out more of Miller in the future.

The oldest millennial

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Positano, March 2019

My inability to read in recent months has meant that I’ve been watching more television, which is to say, some television. The big streaming services offer too much choice. I find myself browsing without committing to anything, then giving up and doing something else. Is there such a thing as a slow-release feature, which would parcel out episodes of older series weekly? What I miss is anticipation. I need something to look forward to as I watch people in other countries return to recognizable daily life, while answers to the big questions – when will the kids be able to return to school? Will I ever have time for myself, by myself, again? – remain stubbornly airborne.

The best of what I watched this spring was unquestionably the ongoing adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. Last year in Denmark I had a subscription to HBO Nordic and was excited to watch the first season, but the Italian was subtitled only in Scandinavian languages: crushing. With the money I’m saving on daycare fees (sob) I splurged on a new subscription in March. Watching the first season, and then the second (weekly, upon release – anticipation!) was such a tonic. The story is so ably handled, the casting ideal, the dialect perceptible even to my untrained monoglot ear. The colour palette transitions gradually from grim postwar grey to the more vibrant sixties (Lila’s pink kitchen, the azure waters off Ischia). The clothes are period-perfect, all those visibly itchy woollens, boxy suits, and sloppy housedresses. I visited Naples and the Amalfi Coast in March of last year, and was struck by the slovenly beauty of the place, its proud decay, its terrifying roads hugging sublime cliffs, and of course the spectre of Vesuvius looming in the background like a giant unreal postcard. The trip gave me a much more accurate visual index for the books. Whatever your opinion of the Neapolitan novels, the show is worth watching as the best kind of supplement.

Then I watched Fleabag. Maybe I missed the zeitgeist, or read too many spoilers in the wake of its extensive prizewinning streak, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as the internet promised I would. The failure is probably mine: I don’t find bad decisions funny, even when my pathos button is being mashed by Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s smart black ballet flats. I can’t, for example, watch Julia Louis-Dreyfus. I can’t abide a trainwreck, even a cheeky one, and Fleabag is a full derailment.

Finally, in early May, when it seemed that it would be always winter and never Christmas, I watched BBC Three’s adaptation of Normal People. I read both Sally Rooney’s novels two years ago, and was mostly bored by them. I agree with Rohan Maitzen’s assessment of Rooney’s style: “spare” does not necessarily mean accomplished, or compelling. I read a different review describing her prose as screenplay-like, and it does feel like stage direction, the relentless rearranging of actors and a strange focus on the props. More than that, though, I felt too impatient with the book to become at all invested in Marianne and Connell, or their endless emails. There’s been much discussion about Rooney being the first great millennial novelist. I was born in 1984, making me one of the oldest millennials, and perhaps an atypical one: though the beginnings of my career were scuppered by the 2008 recession, I married at 23 (with apologies to my horrified mother) in the midst of graduate studies, had my first child at 26, and became a homeowner at 27. I’ve never lived in my parents’ basements, but they’ve lived in mine. All this is to say that I felt life had carried me too far beyond the vicissitudes of awkward young love to seek it out as a preferred narrative. Give me a full-fledged adult woman who knows exactly what she wants; give me someone who’s been partnered a long time and needs to make a change, an Anna Karenina or a Fru Bagge, someone with a complex, messy past to sift through.

But I watched Normal People anyway, and was knocked sideways by it despite being a greying Old Millennial – older than the actress who plays Connell’s mother, which made me feel even older, and also slightly perverted. The adaptation is gorgeously shot, those long northern-hemisphere evenings with their slant light exploited for all they’re worth. Sometimes the camera dances nervously around, watching light playing on a wall; at other times the leads fall out of the frame. The instrumental music is hesitant, atmospheric, but the soundtrack is also peppered with jams. (On this note: would TV music people please consider a temporary ban of Max Richter? He’s fine, but I think there are one or two others who’d appreciate the paycheque.)

Much has been made of the show’s intimacy coordination, but that’s because it generally works, and the chemistry between the leads is, well, powerful. Watching Connell and Marianne fumble gently through their first sexual encounters took me back. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt the thrill of the unknown, of – again! – anticipation, but I remembered all at once, and was verklempt. There is so much trauma on television that it’s possible to forget that sex can be depicted as consensual, pleasurable, loving, silly, even fun. But what the show also underlines is that physical intimacy is not the only kind, that talking about one’s feelings demands a different sort of baring. Everything in the show is “obvious” or “literal,” except when it isn’t, and the development of the leads into adults capable of other intimacies is the point.

When I finished the show I felt compelled to spend several days listening exclusively to Phoebe Bridgers and her occasional band boygenius, like a teenager in a thirtysomething’s body, but it’s almost out of my system now, just in time for the end of the “school” year and the beginning of “summer vacation.” At least the public library is open for pickup soon.

Reading roundup: January, February, March, Second March, March 3.0

My reading has slowed down a lot compared to the Before Times. I’m stuck in the middle of several enormous books, like a child whose rubber boots have sunk into quagmire. I have a library’s worth of electronic books at my fingertips, but I’m trying not to model phone-zombie behaviour in front of my toddler, so the books keep returning themselves half-read.

I’ve spent much of the last eight weeks trying not to think too hard, to accept that each day will be much like the day before, to show compassion to my bewildered children, to watch for signs of spring as though my life depended on them. Often I fail. Last week I picked up my annuals from the greenhouse in a brief snowstorm, and they served as a kind of little jungle for the cats until it became warm enough to put them outside. There are leaves on some of the trees now, and the birds are back: goldfinches, starlings, nuthatches. Last weekend I saw a  rose-breasted grosbeak at my neighbours’ feeder, and a pair of Blackburnian warblers in my own personal tree! It felt like a gift.

Things I’ve read so far this plague year:

The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, David Wallace-Wells. I read this book on the heels of the devastating Australian forest fire season. It’s based on the author’s long piece in New York Magazine, from 2017, which is necessary reading. The facts are terrifying, but more terrifying is our inaction as a species. Yes, during the pandemic we’re all driving less, flying less, but our emissions are down only an estimated 5%. It’s nowhere near enough. Wallace-Wells describes what will happen – what is already happening – in such unassailable detail that I had to close the book every couple of pages. It is hard to read. It will upset you. It will probably not upset you enough.

Your Duck Is My Duck, Deborah Eisenberg. She is a master. Listen to this interview. One reason I ought to write up my reading in a more timely fashion is to record gems of the sort that Eisenberg pulls out casually, the way my mother-in-law will often end a cheery anecdote about someone I’ve never met with the sober reflection, “He’s dead now.” There was a metaphor in this book about varicose veins that blew me away at the time, and why can’t I remember it? (This is probably a sign that I should buy the book.) In the New York Times, Giles Harvey calls Eisenberg’s fiction “her siege on the ineffable,” and this rings true.

The Three-Body Problem, Liu Cixin. It took forever for my name to come to the top of the holds list for this book, and it was propulsive and fun, with lots of compelling writing about the cultural revolution. The scientific rationale for bits of it was over my head (physics was never my best subject, but I appreciate when SF writers aren’t overly poetic about it). I haven’t gotten the next in the series due to the library being shuttered.

Last Witnesses, Svetlana Alexievich. I read Voices from Chernobyl last fall, and was keen to read this, a collection of oral histories given by Belarusians who lived through World War II as children. The details the now-adults remember are fascinating, and the hardships and traumas they endured are horrific. Alexievich’s project, though, is the most interesting thing. She is nowhere in it, even though she evidently witnessed the tellings; there is almost zero commentary. Somehow I can’t imagine a male historian practicing this self-effacing curation, simply shaping the primary material and letting it stand.

An Ocean of Minutes, Thea Lim.

The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World, E.L. Konigsburg.

This is Pleasure, Mary Gaitskill.

Sweet Lamb of Heaven, Lydia Millet. Borrowed because I read some press about her just-published A Children’s Bible, but it wasn’t available at the library yet. A new mother starts to hear mysterious voices, and can’t figure out where they’re coming from. This book was creepy as hell, and an excellent reminder to choose your co-parent carefully. It was terrifying, and I finished it, but I was elated to send it back to the library.

Several Short Sentences About Writing, Verlyn Klinkenborg, and Letters to a Young Writer, Colum McCann. I don’t know. I have yet to read a really good whole book of writing advice by a woman who is a parent (Ann Patchett has some excellent essays, but as she herself observes, she has dogs, not children). The advice I’d find useful is more along the lines of “Wanting childcare is a good enough reason to have childcare” or “It is not reasonable to demand unstinting productivity from your limited uninterrupted time,” and not quite so much about the perceived abuse of adverbs.

Night Waking and Bodies of Light, Sarah Moss. I’ve now read all of Sarah Moss’ oeuvre, in entirely the wrong order. She continues to fascinate. I love her work because she knows not only her material, but the material, so well – someone always knows what’s for supper, clothes are often wet or scratchy or in the way. None of this stops her from asking bigger questions. Both of these books are about motherhood in extremis, and Moss goes boldly into territory that is uncomfortable, even taboo, even now.

Ghost Wall, Sarah Moss. I listened to this book last year while I was abroad as my Danish library didn’t have a copy, but read the actual text this winter, and I felt so let down by my first pass. I appreciate the necessity and convenience of audiobooks (and my children adore them), but they are not for me. I can count on two fingers the number of audiobooks I have listened to in the last twenty years. I can read a million times faster with my eyeballs than with my ears, and though this book was superbly read by someone who knew exactly how to deliver the plot-relevant accents, I need to see the words. Moss knows what she’s doing on the page, and if she chooses to leave out all the quotation marks in the whole novel, I want to know about it.

Burnout and Come As You Are, Emily Nagoski. Two takeaways from these books: 1. It is fine, even preferable, to focus on pleasure; and 2. To complete the stress response, one needs to move one’s body. I’m grateful to have overcome my most recent running injury in the first weeks of the shutdown, because running away from my always-home, never-not-interrupting children three times each week is an emotional linchpin right now.

Weather, Jenny Offill. My street has a listserv that is mostly dedicated to self-disclosure of loony behaviour, like reporting “someone wandering around with a clipboard” (it was a property assessor) to the police. Someone spearheaded a public art project for morale in the first weeks of the shutdown. One week the theme was “jokes.” I posted the time traveler joke from Weather (just read it) on a corkboard in my driveway. A neighbour walked by and said, nose wrinkled, “I don’t get it. Did you see the one by my house? ‘What’s a cat’s favourite colour?'” Me: “Is it purple.” Her: “Hilarious!!” I now cross the street to avoid her, which is perfect, because she thinks I’m following public health guidelines.

Fight No More, Lydia Millet. Linked stories orbiting a Los Angeles realtor. Creepy as it was, I preferred Sweet Lamb of Heaven.

So Long, See You Tomorrow, William Maxwell. This book blew my mind. It is brief, but deep and deft, a succession of character studies linked effortlessly together by a narrator obsessed by a crime of passion. Of this novel, Alice Munro wrote, “I thought: so this is how it should be done. I thought: If only I could go back and write again every single thing that I have written.” This is not an exaggerated response. Maxwell moves around in time with such gentleness that the motions scarcely register.

Names for the Sea, Sarah Moss. I identified with many aspects of this travelogue. Living abroad with small children is not for the fainthearted, especially in insular, licorice-chomping Scandinavia. The culture is unassailable. My children’s assimilation was measured by their enthusiasm for rugbrød. I once served a Danish guest strawberry shortcake, and she looked at the cake, berries, and cream with utter confusion, as if I’d told her to eat using only her face. All this to say: Moss gets at the benefits of adventure, but also the unexpected costs.

Father of the Rain, Lily King. Borrowed while I wait for Writers and Lovers to become available, because Euphoria was one the steamiest book I read in 2015. My then-youngest child was two and I sat up till past midnight to finish it. This novel is the story of a narcissist and the daughter who valiantly tries to win his love. If you’ve ever known a narcissist, you can guess the madness that ensues.

The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead.

Becoming, Michelle Obama. I am no first lady, but as the spouse of someone driven (and driven to extremes), I appreciated this book.

Sing To It, Amy Hempel.

Girl, Woman, Other, Bernardine Evaristo. It’s criminal that she had to share the Booker.

The Little Virtues, Natalia Ginzburg. A Christmas gift that made me want to write essays. Perfect for reading alongside my viewing of season 2 of My Brilliant Friend (adaptation of the year!).

The End of the End of the Earth, Jonathan Franzen. Franzen is at his best when he’s writing about birds. It’s birding season. That is all.

Hateship, Friendship, Loveship, Courtship, Marriage, Alice Munro. A re-read. Such a pleasure. It’s hard for me to write critically about Munro, because I enjoy her so much. But this collection is a turning point between the stories that lean harder on youth and shame and those that are concerned with crisis: loss, disease, infidelities, personal wagers.

Giving Up the Ghost, Hilary Mantel. The press around The Mirror and the Light reminded me that I’d meant to read this memoir. I’ve long felt guilty, or at least puzzled, that Wolf Hall did absolutely nothing for me when I read it ten years ago, so much so that I probably won’t complete the trilogy. To assuage this, I borrowed this book. It’s perhaps weighted a bit too heavily on her very early childhood – I wanted more detail about her life abroad – but an important book for its documenting of how female pain (due in Mantel’s case to endometriosis) is still so often considered normal and ignored.

 

 

 

 

Recess, recede

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Winter Recess, ink and acrylic on canvas, by my dad

About two months ago I resolved to write here weekly. I can say only that the end of autumn was busier than expected, and culminated in my father’s move into long-term care one week before Christmas. This sounds sadder than it is. It is the right place for him to be. In some ways, I had been preparing for this eventuality for the last two and a half years, when I first got a call from a concerned person in his community in Manitoba, who told me that something was wrong. She was correct; Dad, born the same year as Robin Williams, shares his diagnosis, dementia with Lewy bodies. Williams’ suicide was tragic, but there is no denying that he evaded a fast-moving, merciless decline—a fate recognized by some to be worse than death. This is not luckiness, but its twisted inversion. Dad painted the picture above just a few years ago: 2013, 2014? I photographed it and printed it on poster paper for his new room as evidence of his old life, proof for his PSWs (that’s “personal support workers,” for those not in the know) that he used to be capable of intentional expression. As he was, he would have chided me for this, complaining that the colours were off, that I didn’t take care with the light. Not now. I apologized to him anyway. He’s still there, or part of him is partly there.

Having been responsible (to varying degrees, and alongside my very capable sister) for both my parents through their decline and terminal illness in my twenties and early thirties, I keep telling people—jokingly; I can’t imagine anyone wanting to read, let alone publish it—that I’m going to write a book called The Millennial Guide to Elder Care. It would be a book of stark facts, interviews with experts, gentle coaching. For example, if you, as an adult with living parents, have only ever been on the receiving end of their help, consider that you are lucky beyond measure. Consider that this might not be the case indefinitely. Consider that one day you might have to dismantle all the systems of your afflicted parent’s life, and that you will require the legal right to do so. Consider that a crisis can move as slowly as a glacier, that it is possible to live in crisis for a very long time, and that this can erode you until you are particulate, moraine. Consider that within the Ontario hospital system, staff have the right to physically restrain your parent in his chair or bed, not in the interest of recuperation, but because dementia makes him walk obsessively and has also stripped away his literacy, so that he can no longer read signs that say, “Do Not Enter,” and this is an inconvenience. (Happily, the use of restraints is illegal in long-term care except to enhance dignity—helping people sit braced upright for meals, for example.) Consider that when you object, you will be told that the only solution is your supervising presence in the hospital room, all day and all night, for as long as is necessary. This happens to caregivers daily. It could happen to you.

In October I read Ann Patchett’s latest novel, The Dutch House. (Spoilers follow.) I like Patchett because her prose is so assured and unflashy as to be hypnotic, and because she takes her time to please. Most of The Dutch House was no exception. It was a delight when the pieces fell into place and Danny made his first real-estate move, recalling the moment when Barbara Bovender tells Marina Singh a story that causes State of Wonder to swerve wildly in another direction. Watching an expert perform her expertise is deeply satisfying.

Then I came to the scene where Danny and Maeve finally re-enter their childhood home and confront Andrea, their wicked stepmother, thief of their birthright, only to discover that she has lost her mind. Stricken with dementia, reduced to childlike behaviours, and cared for by a hired nurse, Andrea weeps and wails and no longer knows her stepchildren. She is both punished and unpunishable. I finished reading about Danny’s celebrity daughter  finally opening the doors of the Dutch house to an adoring public and felt mostly nausea. Is this really Patchett’s fault? Writers have used madness to punish villainy for centuries—hello, Shakespeare. In reality, though, dementia is not actually a punishment any more than influenza or psoriasis, or if it is, it’s the gulag, which is to say, justice’s opposite. I’ve read reviews describing The Dutch House as “a fairy tale”; that lament the fact that due to her dementia, Andrea receives an insufficient comeuppance for her tyranny. This, in the same month when my sister and I had to sit before a panel of healthcare professionals, brandishing peer-reviewed studies that prove restraints lead only to falls, fear, and aggression; when I had to listen to a nurse berate “you girls” (I am 35) for not believing “that this is only going to get worse” (I was aware), asking me how I would feel if it were my mother in a hospital bed “and a strange man came in the room.” I took the deepest breath and did not refer her to the clearly unread patient history we had provided, which stated that my mother is dead. Instead, I walked to the quiet suburban street where I had parked my car, got in, and screamed.

On the day we moved my father into long-term care, a nurse took his arm and showed him to his seat in the dining room. “You’re cold,” she said. “Let’s get you a sweater.” She introduced him to a passing PSW, who said, “Oof, he looks rough. Hospital? Don’t worry. We’ll get you all cleaned up.” And they did. They don’t really need his pictures to know that who he was is still partly there. I have needed the last month to adjust to the new routine. The old one has not yet sufficiently receded for me to relax. Things will get worse, but they are so much better.

Book of the year: A Change of Time by Ida Jessen

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2019 has been a good reading year: a good mix of novels, stories, memoir, poetry, and biography. Some quality nonfiction, too—thank you, Jia Tolentino and Jenny Odell. I started many books I did not finish, which was a sad consequence of needing to read on my phone a lot, but is also one of the liberties of getting older and prioritizing things that hold my interest. I did not expect Ida Jessen’s A Change of Time (En Ny Tid) to be a book that would hold my interest; I certainly didn’t expect it to delight and astonish me, nor to make me turn immediately back to the beginning upon finishing it to understand how it was done.

Someone with very good taste is in charge of the new fiction display at my local public library: intermingled with the ubiquitous Lee Childs and James Pattersons are usually a handful of Europa editions and other international titles. I took the Jessen home in October because I was missing Denmark intensely, and wanted to revisit it. The beauty of the Archipelago edition convinced me. This is not an edition that screams, “You are about to read a Serious Translation, furrow your brow.” The little painting on the cover is by Vilhelm Hammershøi, whose work makes me think of Vermeer and Alex Colville, the same natural light and graininess. It’s the perfect image for the story, which is in large part about interiors.

The novel is a diary, belonging—as we’re told on the first page—to “L. Høy, Schoolteacher.” A few early, broken-off entries are dated to 1904 and 1905 before the diary leaps ahead to the autumn of 1927, which opens deliciously: “There has been so much tidying up in the house these last few days I thought I would see if I too might have something to put away and conceal. But what could it be? And from whom?” There are observations of the weather—damp, windy, the days darkening rapidly, and I felt a pang for the lowlit golden mornings last fall in Aarhus, “fifty minutes of sulphurous yellow sun on the horizon.” Lighting the lamp and stove are purposeful, necessary, repeated actions. We learn that the narrator, now called Fru Bagge, has been making the train journey from her village of Thyregod to the hospital in the Give, near the city of Vejle, to visit her dying, taciturn husband, the local physician. On impulse, she checks into a hotel after visiting him; a famous poet is giving a reading there. Fru Bagge is an educated woman, more intellectual than the locals (and owner of the first bicycle the village had ever seen), and she listens carefully to the verses. The next morning, she learns that her husband has died, and that she, having told no one of her whereabouts, missed the call.

We learn that he has taken care of all the arrangements without telling her, including finding her a new place to live, as the physician’s house is managed by the parish, and with no physician, she is homeless. Fru Bagge endures her grief, and begins to perform an accounting of her life. “It is a matter of having lived with one person for most of one’s adult life, and to have lost that person. To have been set free. Freedom is not always a good thing.” There is, for one thing, too much time in which to think. How on earth did she end up with such a gruff, unaffectionate husband, and who is she without him?

As the diary marches forward, Fru Bagge busies herself with the ordering of her new life, while going over and over the unrelenting past in narrowing circles: “And now evening again. Each day draws with it the next… In the evening, secret friends come scampering. Old joys, old sorrows, and all that lies between. They come with the light. I strike a match and put it to the wick of the lamp.” Jessen moves around in time effortlessly. I won’t tell any more, but the pleasure of the novel is that the great revelations of our lives happen within the confines of our days and nights—in other words, in ordinary time, occasioned by the familiar. There is no other place for them. One is reassured that “everything is still there” on a dim evening in early December, looking through the rectory window where the lady of the house is making black pudding, not in a void. The past does not make sense without the present, a fact which is borne out in the structure of the diary, with those early entries penned by the young schoolteacher illuminated at last.

The final sentence of the novel is perfect, so outrageously good that I gasped out loud while reading it. It made me furious that I finished the book just a few weeks after Ida Jessen visited Toronto to do an event with Anne Michaels, for which I would have braved the Greyhound if I’d known. Although Jessen did not translate the novel herself (the work was done by Martin Aitkin, and it reads beautifully), the back flap tells me that she is the Danish translator of Marilynne Robinson, Alice Munro, and Elizabeth Strout. This makes perfect sense, and is a good metric for opting to take or leave it.

Reading, summer 2019

Danish autumn

So much has happened since I last spent time in this space. My youngest grew out of her babyhood. My father became disabled and is now my legal, moral, and logistical responsibility. I went back to work part-time, then quit after acquiring an extensive private list of remarkable names that I can never use in fiction thanks to a non-disclosure agreement I signed to take the job. I spent a year in Denmark. I came back to southern Ontario and have spent the last eight weeks in the post-sojourn mindset, feeling like the year away was a socialist hallucination, because nothing really changes here except that there are more gross condo developments and, against all odds, a functional light rail system. Also, we got cats.

I want to write more about Denmark, because it was unlike anywhere else I’ve lived. But I’ve been meaning to write more about what I’m reading. Although I didn’t meet a single Dane who wasn’t a capable English speaker, and Aarhus boasted a beautiful modern library complex (Dokk1), the kids and I exhausted the children’s and adult fiction collections quickly. I’m not a huge fan of on-screen reading, but the Libby app saved us, and the kids loved listening to audiobooks (I am not an audiobook person, but it worked especially well for S, now 6, who wasn’t reading fluently yet but likes long and complex stories). It was a huge relief to return to our excellent public library, even if it meant leaving a land of free pediatric dental care, excellent public transit, and protected cycling infrastructure (waaaaaaahhh).

An incomplete list of books read this summer:

Shout, Laurie Halse Anderson. A memoir in prose from the acclaimed YA author. I read this mainly for the Danish parts – Anderson spent a year as an exchange student in rural Denmark, and speaks Danish. I was keen to see what she had to say about the country, and laughed when she described how tough her legs became from all the cycling (hard same, LHA). I am certain she can pronounce rødgrød med fløde better than I can.

Less, Andrew Sean Greer. After his younger lover marries another man, heartbroken novelist Arthur Less circumnavigates the globe, writing, lecturing, and attending literary events. The transliterated German in the Berlin section had me howling on a plane. Funny, hopeful, and warm with some admirable turns of phrase: “One person after another came up and said his mother was at peace. His mother’s friends: each with her own peculiar spiked or curled white hairdo, like a dahlia show.”

The Position, Meg Wolitzer. A group of adult siblings live with the enduring success of their now-divorced parents’ illustrated sex manual. Wolitzer’s interest in the family isn’t dissimilar to Jonathan Franzen’s, but she’s funnier, and more realistic and confident in the scope she attempts. (This isn’t to knock Franzen; I don’t dislike his novels, but prefer his essays, although….yeahhh.) I also read Sleepwalking, her first novel, which was juvenile as expected, but complete.

My Sister, the Serial Killer, Oyinkan Braithwaite. There’s sisterly love, and then there’s cleaning up your sister’s boyfriend’s murder scene. Worth it.

The Overstory, Richard Powers. There is probably a pun here, not seeing the forest, etc., but I’m too lazy to make it happen. Richard Powers wants you to care about trees. Indeed, it behooves all of us on this stifling planet to do so. The strongest portions of this book are about individuals and their love for specific trees; an environmentalist sit-in in the canopy of a giant redwood is a high point, as is the chronicling of the life of a lone, improbable American chestnut on a midwestern family farm. The more violent activism scenes, where the individual characters start to behave as a group, are saggier, and work less effectively. This is a novel that, for me, suffered from being read on a phone screen – it’s too sprawling to be contained on such a tiny, stupid device. Better to read it in a park with a maple throwing its keys at the page.

The Last Hours, Minette Walters. I’ve been trying to read more historical fiction lately, for secret reasons. Set in 14th-century England, The Last Hours recounts one demesne’s struggle to survive the plague. After her husband succumbs, Lady Anne, the clever, shrewd, beloved, literate, medicine-mixing, God-fearing, peasant-respecting, head of the household steers her serfs ably through disaster. I probably shouldn’t have finished this book, nor should I have ordered the second in the trilogy from the library. Lady Anne is a medieval Mary Sue, for which I have no patience. It’s not implausible that she has merits, but all of them?

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Caroline Fraser. If you are an adult over whose childhood the Little House books exerted any influence at all, Fraser’s superb biography is worth reading (or, if you are me, borrowing from my library via the Libby app, failing to finish it within two weeks, and having to request it over and over again until completed. For god’s sake, get the paper copy). Fraser has done a huge service with this book. The volume of research she’s undertaken is staggering. Do we want to admit how much of these beloved stories is carefully constructed artifice? Probably not. Should we learn what really happened and try to accept it? A million times, yes. I’d known that Wilder’s daughter Rose had played a role in the publication of the series, but not the full extent of her codependence with Laura. It’s the stuff of an HBO miniseries.

Big Sky, Kate Atkinson. What a pleasure to return to private investigator Jackson Brodie’s world. I’ve read all Atkinson’s more recent literary – as opposed to detective, not that this distinction is terribly important – novels, of which Life After Life is the best, but she’s in her element with Jackson, keeping a whole sackful of knives up in the air and catching them with precision as they fall. The coming of Brexit hangs over Yorkshire like the fug of a coal furnace, but Jackson keeps ticking along, feeling his age in his knees, righting wrongs within his power and training his adolescent son to look, listen, and think. There is a sense that he can’t do this forever, and maybe Atkinson is reminding us that she can’t, either. But when it’s over, we’ll still have the music.

Spring, Ali Smith. I’ve so enjoyed Smith’s quartet – I always learn something that feels essential, and wonder how I’ve lived this long without knowing about, for example, Pauline Boty. In Spring, another chronicle of Brexit wounds, a child walks into an immigration detention facility and demands that changes be made. There are two ways to respond to disruption of the status quo: acceptance or rejection. That Smith shows us both is important, and also horrifying.

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, Alicia Elliott. In the prairie town where I went to high school, there was a neighbourhood with housing mainly occupied by indigenous residents. It was far enough from the school that in the winter months, the walk was dangerously cold, so many students who lived there simply didn’t come to school much in the winter. I had lunch with my old principal (an old friend of my mother’s family) a few years ago. He told me that when he pushed the possibility of busing the students to school, the school board rejected it, pointing out that students from the other (whiter, wealthier) side of town didn’t have bus access either. Never mind that many of them owned their own cars, or were driven by their parents. If this seems problematic to you, read Alicia Elliott’s book, which pries open many aspects of the systemic racism that is considered perfectly normal by so many in this country.

Immigrant City, David Bezmozgis. I haven’t read Bezmozgis’ novels yet, but his stories are such a pleasure – like watching Simone Biles perform her floor routine, or Kipchoge run. His sentences never get in their own way. The assurance of his understatement carries him far enough that when the narrator of the title story leaves his young daughter in the care of perfect strangers while he purchases a secondhand car door he’s found on the internet, a beat passes before you go, “What?

May your fall reading not be on a screen!

Early spring reading

from the cemetery where Elizabeth Bowen is buried, 2012

I’ve begun to quit pumping for the baby. At nine months, it seems to make little difference to her what she’s drinking, not like in the early days when two consecutive bottles of formula would send her into a gas-fueled rage. Correspondingly, I’ve been reading more instead of watching TV on the internet to hurry the time along whilst connected to a machine. Mechanically expressing breastmilk is right up there with eye exams and jogging on my list of Things That Do Some Good But Are Nonetheless Exquisitely Uncomfortable. I will not miss it. I’m quitting slowly in an attempt to avoid a hormonal crash, and all of a sudden the days seem more expansive. This despite the fact that I flew solo with the two younger kids last week while A. and N. were gallivanting about Nova Scotia.

I would love to write expansively and individually about the books I’ve been reading with this new time, but for now, bits and pieces will have to suffice.

The Break, Katherena Vermette. So wonderful to read a book set in my birth city in a community about which I know very little. But so very sad. There is such a gulf in Manitoba between aboriginal communities and white ones, and so many shortsighted and plainly wrong ways of explaining privilege or the lack of it. (So many family dinners spent listening with great frustration to older relatives explain how “that’s just the way it is”.)

Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life, Yiyun Li. I’ve read both her novels and story collections over the past several years, and when I read the essay from this memoir that was excerpted in the New Yorker I knew I wanted to read the whole book. Li uses these meditations on fiction and literary biography to examine her two suicide attempts and her decision to write in English rather than Chinese. The essay on Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart, in dialogue with which Li wrote her novel Kinder than Solitude, was especially interesting to me, as I read the former haltingly last fall and really wasn’t sure what to make of it. I think I understand it better now, though I still find her mining of the psyche intense, scraping brain matter down to the neurons. I remember listening to Li being interviewed by Michael Silverblatt on Bookworm a few years ago, and he was positively quivering with excitement, asking her if she had modeled the novel after Bowen’s, though they’re very different. Listen here.

Featherstone, Kirsty Gunn. I read her debut, Rain, last year, and found this one in at my local thrift for a dollar. Two and a half days in a (Scottish?) village unfold in detail after a former resident returns there. Probably should not have read this while sitting poolside at N’s swim lessons, trying not to hear the very loud swim mum discuss her work’s latest restructuring or her parents’ real estate woes, as it kind of killed Gunn’s expansive and really lovely language. Best description of the dawn I’ve ever read. Take that, Homer.

Annihilation, Jeff Vandermeer. Creepy, atmospheric, fun. I came to this after reading a review of Vandermeer’s new book, which I plan to get my hands on after I finish his Southern Reach trilogy. This is the first. I like the odd bit of sci-fi every now and then, and reading one by a man who can write convincingly in the voice of a female character (zero descriptions of women’s hair/eyes/skin tone/body shapes! Amazing!) was positively novel.

Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders. I’m not a Saunders completist by any means, but I probably should be. I can’t think of another writer who looks so lovingly and apologetically on the human condition, which is to say, imperfection. How we cling to things when we should let go; how this can be funny and tragic at the same time. Looking forward to my sister finishing this so we can talk about it.

Butcher’s Crossing, John Williams. Two years ago, someone recommended Williams’ Stoner to my husband, so I special-ordered it from my local bookshop for his birthday. When I told the cashiers the title, their heads whipped around, their eyes bugged out, and both men immediately began to rhapsodize about Williams’ greatness. Stoner is a beautiful book; Williams’ prose is unmatched. But it’s also the most thoroughly depressing academic novel ever written. I mean, wow. So I gave it some time before attempting this western, which was, like Stoner, incredibly cerebral. A young student from Boston named Will Andrews goes to Kansas in 1873. He funds an expedition for a buffalo hunt in the Colorado Rockies. Carnage ensues. This was a kind of interstitial western – not the pulpy or aggrandizing novels of yore, but also not Cormac McCarthy (who I think does more for the idea of the west than Williams does). Also, not Stoner. Sorry, husband.

Vignettes from a small island

One.

A job ad is posted by a local organization. A job for which I am amply qualified. It’s half-time, walkable. The deadline is the next day. I prepare the documentation. I pause. Doubt fills the pause. If I don’t get the job, as has happened many times over the last seven years, I will be flattened. If I do get it, how will I manage with three children, one not yet a year old, and a spouse who has no fewer than three upcoming trips scheduled? Who would do childcare? How would I manage work-schoolbus-babyfood-bedtime-preschool-laundry-readingaloud-diapers-lunchboxes-hygiene plus childcare coordination? I will never have the luxury of taking a job without thinking of everyone else. The doubt boils over. I recycle the application. I resolve to return to the question in the autumn once two children are in school full-time and the baby has turned one.

Two.

Three men, friends from other places, stay with us for a few days during a conference. All are awed to some degree by my husband, whose credentials are impressive, who publishes productively, who is a committed vegan, who volunteers, who runs vast distances, who teaches a spin class for triathletes on the weekend for fun. “How does he do it all?” one wonders aloud. His dedication is strong, to be sure. But he has help. In general I stay home with the kids, plan the meals, cook the suppers, do the laundry, tabulate the budget, get up with the baby at night. Willingly, more or less; and he is not a hands-off parent, either. Across the years the labour has expanded to fill my time. In advance of the conference I cleaned the guest spaces of the house in fits and starts while caring for kids and it felt like an accomplishment. In my diary I wrote, “I never thought I would be the sort of woman for whom a vacuumed floor constituted an achievement.”

Three.

I stand behind my bench at weightlifting class, shivering slightly. The gymnasium echoes with the chitchat of the retirees who arrive twenty minutes early and take all the plum spots. Before she switches on the thumping warmup music the instructor explains the theme of the month’s workout: nothing changes if nothing changes. Together we clean and press our barbells and settle them onto the meat of our shoulders. We sink into deep squats, the burdens calculated deliberately. We want to put on enough weight that we risk failing to complete each set. This, we learn, is how to become stronger.

Everything but making things

It’s the most important thing in my life, making things. Much as I love my husband and my children, I love them only because I am the person who makes these things.

AS Byatt, interviewed in the Guardian, 2009

***

“You’re always getting ready for the next thing,” my sister remarked a few weeks ago after supper. I was enjoying ten minutes’ respite on the couch before embarking on my late-evening drudgery (literal bottle-washing, preparing night feedings, scouting lunchbox fillers in the fridge) after completing my early-evening drudgery (kitchen sorted, baby bottled, bedtime hugs dispensed). It’s true. There is always a Next Thing, and I like to be ready for it, even though this often comes at the expense of Other Things I’d rather be doing, hence the long silence here and the fact that so far I’ve read just six books this calendar year, two of which were slim volumes of poetry.

I finally replaced my computer that died a sudden death at the end of November, right around the time I was organizing Christmas, dealing with a child’s head lice, and losing out on a lucrative editing contract that would have paid for a new machine. I thought that buying a new one would cure the feedback loop of drudgery and turn me into someone who makes things again. But I find myself climbing into bed at night thinking of all the things I’d have liked to have done during the day, none of which I’ve had time to do.

I know that the time is coming, but it seems far away. Six months. In six months Mr. S will begin school, there will be no preschool fees, and I will hire a sitter for Baby L two or three mornings each week. It shouldn’t be hard to find one, and as she’s the chillest baby in the universe, I don’t think she’ll mind much. I will no longer be pumping milk five times each day. I’ll probably not be faced with a counter full of used bottles to scrub daily. There will still be supper (there will always be supper), laundry, deep breaths, but there will be space in each week for making.

Before then, forms of sustenance:

* The landscaper came back to us with a plan for our sad, bare-earth front garden. It is glorious. Come May, we will no longer have the ugliest yard on the block.

* I submitted a story to the CBC Story Prize this year (not for the first time), and I was proud of it. Its existence is all the more miraculous because I typed it out in fifteen minute bursts over the baby’s head as she slept on me in the sling. The word limit is paltry, so lots got cut, but not to the story’s detriment. I don’t really think I’ll be longlisted, but I look forward to seeing the longlist in April.

* Several good friends from different times and places in our married life will congregate under our roof in three weeks for a conference hosted by A’s department. Seeing everyone together will be a bit mind-bending, but in a good way.

* My birthday is approaching. Bring on the cake.