on reading your own writing

Just before bed last night I was looking at what wordpress calls “the dashboard”–your basic blog control panel–when I saw that someone had arrived here yesterday by Google search. The dashboard shows daily “referrers”–links that bring people here–and which pages visitors read each day. For this blog, most people come from Facebook or an e-mail subscription. But for the first time, someone had come because they’d searched for me. Query: “mandy len” Vancouver.

When your online presence is as small and new as mine is, having someone intentionally seek you out sends an electric signal straight to your ego. And having someone stick around and read every post? It’s totally gratifying. Because what writer doesn’t want to be read?

But then it dawned on me that whoever searched for me wasn’t looking for the blog itself. If they know my name and know about this blog, they would’ve just typed in the web address. Or they would’ve searched for “mandy len” “love stories”, not “mandy len” Vancouver. So it was probably someone who had my e-mail address and guessed that Len was my last name, someone who doesn’t really know me. And since I’ve only given my e-mail address to one person in the past few weeks, I think I know who Googled. This realization sent another, more complex signal to my ego which can be translated as a series of questions: What would someone who doesn’t really know me think of me based on what I’ve written here? And would someone who stumbled across this blog want to read the book I’m trying to write? Would I want to read the book I’m writing?

I looked back over what I’ve written and an uncomfortable thought came to me: this blog would probably not motivate me to read my own book. I even suspected that I might sometimes be annoyed by its writer. When she is rushed, she lapses into what Orwell would call “ready-made phrases,” as if she cannot be bothered “to hunt about” for the best combination of words. She is careless and imprecise in a way I often caution my own students against. On a bad day, she and her rhetorical questions might easily be written off as a member of the “Carrie Bradshaw” genre.

I originally pitched the idea of a blog to myself as a workspace, a place to play with ideas, as something that would necessarily be rough and unpolished. I was okay with that. But sometimes reading your own writing is like listening to your voice on the answering machine. Its cadences are familiar, but the tone is warped. You hear as with someone else’s ears, and you become a stranger to yourself. When I was writing with no audience other than my writer’s group, I could be sloppy. I could let things simmer. Or I could polish feverishly. My writers group expected things to be messy, and all anyone else would ever see would be the clean, shining gem that might appear one day in print.

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avalanche stories

“It’s like skimming cream off the top of fresh milk,” J says. As he says this, he pivots on the balls of his feet, turning his heels from one side to the other, bending his knees with each turn and stabbing the floor with an imaginary ski pole in a perfect marching rhythm. On his face is this strange, faraway grin. He’s left the living room and is floating down a fresh powder slope, leaving a perfect single-helix trail in his wake. Laying trenches, the boys call it. They look at the snow forecast and giggle like school girls.

Powder skiing is what my friend Kirsten would call type-1 fun. Like dancing ’til dawn or playing with puppies or eating my dad’s pulled-pork barbecue, every moment of a type-1 fun activity is intensely pleasurable. Type-2 fun typically denotes things that you don’t necessarily enjoy in the moment, but that you can look back on and say, “Oh yeah, that was fun,” things like camping in torrential rain or traveling by bus in some parts of the developing world. (When googling the term I found a blog that put it succinctly: “When you engage in type-two fun, you’re investing in your future self.”) But powder skiing, once you learn to make even two or three turns without bailing, is addictive, hypnotic. The satiny float of your skis on the snow, the momentary weightlessness as you straighten your legs. You crave it. The dopamine levels in your brain rise just thinking about it. And you find yourself engaging in all kinds of type-2-fun activities just to experience it.

type-1 fun

I took my first avalanche safety class last February, primarily because of a dawning awareness that I needed access to more powder skiing. An avalanche safety class, especially on a day when the dumping gray snow obscures the tops of trees and soaks through to your long johns, is definitely type-2 fun. But I was up for it. The year before, my roommates–the boys who had titled our wireless network “powderhounds”–had spent the winter sniffing out the fresh powder in the British Columbia backcountry, and now I wanted in.

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an attempt at an honest and unsentimental discussion of breaking up

Last weekend I came across a quotation I’d scribbled in my journal a few months ago:

We need, in love, to practice only this: letting each other go. For holding on comes easily, we do not need to learn it.

Rilke’s “Requiem for a Friend” is about grieving the loss of a friend, not romantic love, but I’m pretty sure romantic love was what I’d had in mind.

When I wrote it down, my own on-again-off-again relationship was in a precarious position: back on. Being on after being off is scary. Mostly because you know what off is like. Off is terrible. It’s that raw state of constant low-level self pity that, in certain desperate moments, you would do anything to escape.

I’d spent the entire preceding month listening to Harry Potter audiobooks and tearing up–on the bus, or on my bike, or in Whole Foods–each time a character died or, on particularly hard days, whenever someone told Harry he had his mother’s eyes. I downloaded Adele’s latest album. And I spent one entire afternoon searching youtube for covers of “Someone Like You.”

But after some self-pep-talking, I went on a few dates with smart, funny guys who had good taste in beer. I was making progress with off. Did I really want to risk returning to the old relationship? If it still didn’t work, I’d be starting all over, back at The Philosopher’s Stone. I couldn’t return to being the girl who wandered around the pastry counter with her bike helmet on and her earbuds in, desperately clutching a soft pretzel while dabbing recycled-paper napkins at the corners of her eyes. That’s why I wrote down the Rilke quotation. If I was going to go back to on, I needed to prepare for the risks involved.

Most of us expect love to make us happy, and neuro-chemically speaking, it does, at least initially. (Radiolab has a pretty entertaining podcast on this very topic.) And we Americans love happiness. The pursuit of it, after all, is not only an unalienable right guaranteed by our Declaration of Independence, but it is also the promise of our fairy tales.

When my parents split up a few years ago, they offered little more explanation than to say, “We’re not happy.” It was a hard argument to counter. Didn’t I want them to be happy? But, for the first few days at least, I was furious. Their separation had come as such a shock to me; I’d sensed no unhappiness from my life three-thousand miles away. I was sure the real problem was that they weren’t trying hard enough. They’d given up. And if my parents had taught me anything, it was that quitters never win. Continue reading

the right choice

When I was home in Virginia two years ago, my dad and I were driving around town when we drove past my friend Mitt’s* house. After his mom died and his dad remarried and moved to another town, Mitt ended up moving back into the house he grew up in. Later he bought the house from his dad, and then his long-term, out-of-town girlfriend moved in.

I asked my dad if he’d heard whether Mitt had gotten engaged yet. Marriage not only seemed like the next logical step, but like something Mitt would be good at. He’s someone people describe as “a good guy,” the kind of person everyone just likes. Because he’s friendly, uncomplicated, easy to be around. He’s kind of like my dad, actually, and maybe that’s why I can so easily imagine him married, settled and happy.

But my dad said no, Mitt was not engaged. And I made some comment about how the one time I met Nancy, I thought she was a real keeper.

“Well, what I want to know,” my dad said, “is when Reg** is going to ask you a very important question.”

This was a conversational detour I’d totally failed to see coming. My parents had never asked about me marrying Reg. And, because they’d never asked, I’d kind of assumed they were quietly waiting for things to fizzle out between us.

“Um. I hope it’s not too soon,” I said without thinking, “because I’m not sure how I’d answer any very important questions right now.”

Dad kept his eyes on the road. Then he said, “Well, honey, I’m sure you’ll make the right choice.”

And this, I think, is the problem. The idea that there is a right choice to be made about a relationship also implies that there are wrong choices, which suggests that one could make a very serious mistake with her life, which can make a person a bit panicked about love. But my dad is someone who has always inhabited a world of moral clarity. Almost anything can be labeled as right or wrong. The problem is that he’s not the only one who talks about love this way. We all do it.

men are not from Mars

Today I came across a book called Are All Guys Assholes?a title designed to sell books if ever there was one. The copy on Amazon wonders “what if everything you’ve been told about guys your entire life has been a lie?” and promises to tackle questions like “Why do guys stop calling after a few dates? How can you tell if a guy actually likes you? How soon is too soon to have sex?” with answers “based on actual research.” Apparently, customers who bought this book also purchased the thoughtfully-titled Why Men Love Bitches and Have Him at Hello: Confessions from 1,000 Guys About What Makes Them Fall in Love . . . Or Never Call Back. 

There is a lot to say about the ridiculous (and problematic) implications these titles make about both men and women. But I’m most interested in the story they tell: that there is an uncrossable chasm between genders, that men and women speak different languages and follow distinct but secret rules of conduct. From my experience, being in a relationship is difficult. It’s work. And the moment I start looking at my partner as a member of a code-talking race of assholes, the more difficult the whole thing becomes.

From what I can surmise, the book arrives at the shocking conclusion that no, all men are not assholes. Jezebel describes it this way:

In general, Madison found that men are people, think of women as people, and appreciate being treated like people — with consideration, honesty, and a little confidence. None of this will be shocking to most men, who have long known that they are actually human beings. But when a big chunk of the dating-advice industry is devoted to convincing women that men are in fact giant penises, any evidence that they might have thoughts and feelings is pretty groundbreaking.

I wonder how many women really believe the rhetoric that all men want is sex. It’s easy to conclude that this dating-advice industry is a self-perpetuating phenomenon wherein books or magazines depict men as strangers, give women advice on how to approach those strangers, and, when treating men as strangers rather than other humans perpetuates difficulty communicating, send women running back for suggestions on what to do next. But I don’t quite buy that either. Nuns and boarding school students aside, aren’t most women in daily contact with real live men? And aren’t most women–and most men for that matter–smart enough to see that if this  were the case, gays and lesbians would be out forming problem-free relationships all the time? (You guys can let me know how that one is going in the comments.)

I think we want love to be easy but it’s not. Calling the opposite gender assholes or aliens enables us to imagine that something complex can be coded and simplified. But gender aside, we humans are terrible at actually saying what we mean. Sometimes we don’t even know what we mean, which is probably the painful by-product of possessing the capacity for both emotion and reason. So how can two creatures so notoriously bad at direct communication, with separate but sometimes overlapping agendas and a whole host of unspoken or unacknowledged expectations, ever successfully make a life together? It seems to me that the problem is not that most of us want relationships with a person of another gender, but that we want relationships with people. It’d be much easier making a lifetime commitment to my dog.

the problem of voice

My friend Duffy said to me, “I was reading your blog on the bus and a funny thing happend. I knew it was you. But I realized it didn’t sound like you.”

What did it sound like? According to Duffy, like my thoughts were hijacked by Marcia Brady. ugh.

After asking if I hated him (no), and then buying me a beer, he agreed that voice, when it comes to blogging, is kind of a hard thing to get right. The thing is, you want to seem approachable–likeable–not literary. (At this point, if I were grading this blog entry, I would say to my student “by ‘you,’ don’t you mean ‘I’?”)

But I should know–because I tell my students this–that voice evolves over time. That the attempt to sound like something–like, say, a blogger–wears itself out, and then you just sound like yourself. I spent a year of grad school trying to sound like Joan Didion, but instead of sharp and insightful, my voice sounded affectedly jaded, which might be the opposite of my natural voice.

So now I’m aiming for Jan. She was my favorite Brady anyway.

(the fourth Brady sister)








I love thanksgivings and one of the very best things about being an American in Canada is celebrating two thanksgivings. This is good practice, folks, and I cannot recommend it heartily enough. Sure, Americans already have Columbus Day, but you might ought to* consider how the addition of turkey gravy would liven-up an otherwise dull weekend. The main distinction between Canadian Thanksgiving and American Thanksgiving, as far as I can tell, is that the Canadian version seems to be missing the whole Pilgrims-and-Indians backstory.

The American-Canadian difference I’m stuck on lately is a question of vocabulary. I have been in love with the same person for a decade. (a decade!) And in that time we’ve lived in the same room and on separate continents. Before I moved to Vancouver, I didn’t know anyone who’d been in a ten-year relationship and not gotten married. For my friends in Virginia, loving the person you loved at twenty and still, after a decade, not being married to him (not to mention not having yourselves a baby or two) is rare. Or unheard of.

But when we moved to Vancouver five years ago, I realized pretty quickly that “boyfriend” is a word used by teenagers, not adults who live together. Boyfriend is low-commitment. And we’d just moved to a new country together—that wasn’t low commitment. But using the word “partner” felt weird. In Virginia, referring to my partner meant I was either a business woman or a lesbian.

I think this semantic gray area–the space between dating and marriage–points out a difference in Canadian and American attitudes toward long-term relationships. Here, you can put your live-in partner on your health insurance. You can file taxes together. (All of which is independent of your gender or sexual orientation, by the way.) You get all the legal rights that come with marriage. Though I have lots of married friends, I also have plenty of friends who are in committed long-term relationships but who aren’t married. They have babies and own homes, but they don’t wear wedding rings.

That moving to another country made my boyfriend into my partner was something I wasn’t prepared for. Partner seemed to imply that I intended to spend my whole life with this person, which I wasn’t quite sure about, though I was happy to offer him the excellent dental care that came with my new job. (I’ve never known a more enthusiastic flosser!) How we talk about love matters, and when I found myself without the right words for my own relationship it stressed me out. Like Thanksgiving, Canadians seem to treat long term relationships a bit more casually than we Americans do. And while I’m perfectly content to embrace a turkey day without parades and football and elementary school pageants where kids in feather headdresses and buckled hats sit down together to an awkward dinner, I’m not so sure about this partnership thing.

After five years here, I’m still committed to the idea of commitment. Formalized commitment, that is: rings and a white dress and a red velvet cake. The modern gal in me sees wedding traditions like being “given away” as antiquated. And I can see that marriage is far from a guarantee of happiness. And I know, I know that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. But I still make a distinction between a boyfriend, a partner, and a husband. And I still want to get married. Maybe it’s that I’ve spent my life imagining my wedding day (as we American girls are taught to do) or maybe it’s that my father wouldn’t let me quit the rec basketball team until the season was over (“when you say you’re going to do something, Mandy, you do it”), but I don’t think I’ll ever feel fully invested in a relationship without it.

So am I old fashioned? anti-feminist? way too into dresses?

*before you grammarians get upset, “might ought to” is a legit Appalachianism that has a distinct meaning which is lost when you use either “might” or “ought to” solo