Guess Who’s Coming to Thanksgiving Dinner (It’s Charlie)

“God damn it, Charlie, go upstairs and take a shower!” were my Dad’s first words to his half-brother when he arrived at our home on Thanksgiving Day, 2004. That might sound a little brusque, but years of unpleasant visits had us braced for the worst; Thanksgiving was “pre-ruined,” as my dad said, simply by having invited him. We hoped, of course, that that year would somehow be different, but his entrance did not bode well.


Ride-Sharing With My Daughter and Juan Carlos

Originally published Nov. 25, 2013

People who engage in Rideshare are, almost by necessity, a more open-minded bunch, less dogmatic about life and its prospects, largely reasonable. It’s hard to be doctrinaire about things when you take a complete stranger in your car for six hours. And many of the drivers I’ve ridden with are women. When I tell people this, generally they are shocked. But Ridesharing is different than hitchhiking. You answer the ad on Craigslist, they get your phone number and email address, they can see who you are by looking you up on Facebook, and they talk to you on the phone to get a sense of who you are. The main attribute you both are looking for is this: Is this person gonna be cool about the ride? For me, I’m just trying to get to San Francisco or LA. I’m not looking to get into a big political or religious discussion, I’m not looking for a lifelong friend, and I usually don’t even get a last name.

In April, 2011, before we both left Los Angeles, my daughter Saskia and I made our last Rideshare together up to the Bay Area. This one ride was the fitting coda for both us about the years we endured, together and apart, as a father and a daughter since my wife and I separated.

“Who is this guy we’re riding up with?” Saskia asked, as we sat at the Universal City Red Line station waiting for our ride up to San Francisco. Saskia—who was heading to college in the fall—was joining me because her big sister, Sasha, my eldest, was coming from New York to visit friends in San Francisco, and this probably would be the last time Saskia and I would ever make this trip.

“His name is Juan Carlos,” I said.

“Juan Carlos what?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “That’s all I got.”

“Why is he going up to San Francisco?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“You don’t know his last name, you don’t know why he’s going up to San Francisco,” she said. “Good job, David.”

“He sounded nice.”

“Great,” she said. “He’s probably a gang-banger. And he’s probably going up for a gang meeting.”

And then she laughed.

Joking about a man named Juan Carlos was something that came easily for Saskia because she was fluent in Spanish and had grown up in Los Angeles. The stew of languages and cultures that she swam in every day was normal for her. Virtually everyone she knew was bilingual, and not just in Spanish: Mandarin, Armenian, Russian, Arabic, and on and on.

She was being ridiculous about Juan Carlos, of course, but she did point out one of the basic problems with Rideshare: you really have no idea who you’re going to end up spending the next six hours with. For all you know, it could be Charles Manson. Or an Amway distributor, which is its own special form of torment.


Texts to My Super

These are real text messages to Alex, the super of my totally normal building. He’s great.

Hey Alex, we have a small leak under the sink! Can you come check it out when you get a chance?

— September 29, 2013

Hey Alex there is a REALLY weird chemical smell in the apt… Not gas, more like paint or plastic? It is too strong to stay here. Can you check it out tomorrow??

— December 4, 2013

Did you get a chance to check out that weird smell yet? I have not been back yet and I am worried about the apt exploding

— December 5, 2013


The Best Time I Dropped Out Of College (Twice)

I dropped out of college the first time in a bright kind of fall. The college, because I’m Canadian, was actually called university, and the university was of Western Ontario, a great, big, unevenly beautiful school at which both of my parents had matriculated. It would have been nice if that’s why I too had enrolled, or why my decision was forcibly encouraged; the real reason was that the U. of W.O. was a 12-minute drive from our house, where as a stay-at-home student I’d cost a lot less, help with the chores, and continue to attend our evangelical hell-hole of a church.

Resigned, I spent my first year of an undeclared major wearing comfortable shoes and riding the city bus to school. I remember making very few friends. One of them I kissed for 20 minutes by the light of a neon Sublime poster, and when my mother read my diary to find this out, she not only sat me down for a long talk with my dad, but also, the following Wednesday, showed up at 3:10 p.m. to an even longer lecture on Hegel. Five hundred students of Modern European History turned to look at her. I looked for a sharpened pencil. She just had a feeling, she said to me later in the van, that I was doing something here besides learning.


What Makes Us Feel Better When We’re Sad?

Everyone has a favourite activity for when they’re mildly depressed. For some, it’s huddling in bed with a comforter pulled up around their ears to shield against this cruel world; for others, it’s donning neon underwear and blasting “Deceptacon” for an impromptu bedroom dancing party.

My own ministrations involve watching old episodes of Freaks and Geeks I’ve already seen at least four times, soothing myself with the familiarity. (If I need a quick hit of joy, it’s straight to Youtube to watch a 47-second clip of Bill Haverchuck stutter “You cut me off mid funk!”) When that’s not working, I go watch videos of Michael Clark. For the unitiated who may not share my interest in post-punk and wacky outfits—Michael Clark is the apotheosis of the two combined. He was the enfant terrible of 1980s contemporary dance and you can watch old videos of him leaping gracefully along to the jagged guitar screeches of The Fall in ass-baring leotards or polka dot face paint. And now that it’s November, I’ll surrender to the sweeping melancholy of the Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs and let the music seep into my listless limbs.

The point is, no one is immune to getting the mean reds, the SADs, the abject paralyzing fear of continuing to live your own life. No matter what you want to call it we all have our own unique ways of coping with the world when everything turns to shit, and I’ve made it my mission to collect some of the “sadness routines” of some of my favourite people on the Internet and IRL.

So here’s to buying an entire box of Hallowe’en candy for yourself and eating it while watching The Craft. Here’s to buying overpriced essential oils and pouring them in the bath. Here’s to putting your socks in the microwave to warm your feet. And most of all, here’s to allowing ourselves to wallow and assuage our guilt with the knowledge that hopefully soon we’ll feel temporarily a little bit better.


Reviews of Store Catalogs

The J. Peterman Company: Owner’s Manual No. 121 By John Peterman The J. Peterman Company, 74 pp., $0.00

Not long ago, I spent an afternoon in a sparsely populated cafe on the bank of the Seine with an older gentleman, an Ernest Hemingway-type in rolled-up sleeves. His chief claim to fame was that he’d successfully wooed Audrey and Marilyn in the 1960s, but while the glamor of his private life eclipsed his public travails, he’d been busying accomplishing more than his fair share of success in life—or should I say exactly his fair share; when you meet the man it becomes immediately clear that he runs on only a dash of luck generously greased by a certain European charm and personality—and today his résumé includes climbing Mount Everest wearing only a motorcycle jacket and adopting a coterie of displaced polar bears from southern Alaska, which he raised as his own children. We’d been talking for three hours before I realized I wasn’t in a weathered cafe off the Seine at all: I was in a small room in my own home—my bathroom—reading a J. Peterman catalog.


How to Have a Dinner Party

1. Invite people who believe in food. A dinner party will be much more successful if everyone there believes that food really exists. Remember, it just takes one food skeptic to ruin the party. Also, don’t invite anyone who is afraid of food.

2. Ask your guests to prepare questions. Preparing questions in advance will give the dinner party more structure. However, guests should not expect to receive clear, straightforward answers to their questions since food does not communicate in the same way that people communicate. Also, you may want to ask your guests to bring photographs of their own food – it helps to make connections.

3. Create a food-friendly atmosphere. Choose a quiet, dimly-lit room with a round or oval shaped table. Light candles, since food is attracted to heat and light. Begin your dinner party near midnight.

4. Ask your guests if they’re ready to participate in the dinner party. It’s normal for people to giggle nervously, but if anyone looks genuinely afraid, you may want to ask them to leave. Encourage your guests to relax and hold hands. Soft chanting can help.

5. Summon the food.


Black Girls Don’t Read Sylvia Plath

It was another muggy summer, the summer I discovered Plath. If I had discovered her legacy later in life, it may have served as a calming revelation, the meat of hindsight. Wonderment not as thorny and beloved.

I discovered Plath through the typical girlhood grapevine: a slumber party. A friend who looked like Stevie Nicks circa Rumors but had suited up in detail-heavy riot girrl gear mentioned Sylvia Plath. She had just finished The Bell Jar. She wanted to know if I had read it. She casually said, like a cowboy flicking a cigarette stub to the side, I think you’d like it.


Bonfire of the Inanities

Courtesy NYPL

The story arrived in November of 1992—more than a year after the video for Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” premiered on MTV’s “120 Minutes.” It was nine months after the Toronto Star asked: “Why is Seattle the rock capital of the world?” It was two months after the St. Petersburg Times told everyone’s grandparents that “the scene is dead.” That’s the moment that the New York Times finally went big on grunge—a trend that reporter Rick Marin called “a musical genre, a fashion statement, a pop phenomenon.”

In “Grunge: A Success Story,” Marin summed it all up:

This generation of greasy Caucasian youths in ripped jeans, untucked flannel and stomping boots spent their formative years watching television, inhaling beer or pot, listening to old Black Sabbath albums and dreaming of the day they would trade in their air guitars for the real thing, so that they, too, could become famous rock-and-roll heroes.

But the real absurdity, Marin suggested, lay in the fact that the entire “trend” of grunge was a fabrication, and he carefully unpacked the ways in which the media had built up the story of a trend.


Self-Care, in Theory and Practice

This column has a singular purpose: to talk to single women about navigating a world where they are their own savior.

I’ve fluctuated between dating a few men after the end of a fairly significant relationship. After sleeping with people who, I learned, were ultimately uninterested in me (and generally incapable of thinking of anything other than themselves) I realized I desperately needed to focus on me. All me. All the time. I had never done that. I was scared, as a lot of women often are, to explore what existed in the great abyss—me. I realized how much I relied on others telling me that I was pretty, so I began to depend, a surfeit amount, on other people’s opinions of myself in general, putting emphasis on their assumptions over mine.

After months of self hate and destruction, I knew I needed to learn how to be better. But self-love was this weird concept. I was aware of what it meant but had never interacted with it; I thought it too audacious a commitment. Then I began reading: Susan Sontag, Eartha Kitt, Ruth Asawa—all of these women who I admired, who had also battled with self-care. One of my favorite writers, Jean Rhys, was a raging alcoholic. I used them as examples to be and not be at the same time. I wanted to tap into whatever greatness I knew existed inside of me so I could be happy with myself. Self-love can mean whatever, to whoever.


The Shopping Games