I went as Minnie Mouse and other Halloween confessions

“How was your Halloween weekend?” one of my students asked yesterday. I replied that it was great, and then he asked if I wore a costume, and what it was. The answer was simple but, somehow unprepared for such a question, I turned bright red, stammered that I bought a pair of ears at the dollar store across the street, and then I quickly changed the subject.

I have always worn my embarrassment publicly in the form of immediately and fully flushed cheeks (and ears and neck and chest). In middle school, my classmates made a game of trying to make me go red. Adulthood has, thankfully, made these occurrences less common, but it still happens in front of a classroom at least once a semester. It’s unpredictable and awful—and I have learned, in the eight years I’ve been teaching, that the best thing to do is to just keep talking.

I woke up this morning and saw my mouse ears hanging on the radiator and wondered what it was about the phrase, “I was Minnie Mouse” that seemed so impossible to confess to a classroom of eighteen year olds.


the handsomest, saddest Halloween dog.

The truth about my weekend is that I spent a significant portion of it thinking and talking about the space between loving someone and being in love with someone, and how, exactly, one can traverse that space. And one of those conversations took place in a bar very late at night while totally intoxicated and wearing Minnie Mouse ears. And maybe it was that—maybe it was the disjunction between chugging PBR by the Skytrain station on Saturday night and assigning a research paper on Monday afternoon.

Maybe, in that moment, naming the costume felt equivalent to confessing the whole thing: how happy I was all weekend and how strange it is to sit in an almost-empty bar and say to the person across from you, “I totally love you but I am a little bit terrified at the prospect of being in love with you.”

I have written before about the limits of the language of love. Our love vocabulary isn’t quite adequate for discussing all the ways we can be deeply invested in one another, but for the sake of this conversation, let’s call loving someone ‘friendship,’ and being in love with someone ‘romance.’

As far as I can tell, you can get to a romantic relationship either way—you can love someone first and then fall in love with them, moving from friendship to romance. Or you can do what I think most people do, which is to pursue someone as a romantic partner first and hope a friendship develops. But you have to have both, I think–friendship and romance–to create something durable. Continue reading

The Perpetual Terror of Forgetting (or attempts at immortalizing my dog)

I always thought of stories as records, as ways of remembering our lives. And I thought it was our duty to tell them, a way to keep ourselves alive and thriving. And I don’t mean our species here—because it seems obvious that stories help our species thrive—but rather our individual selves. As in: I tell therefore I am.

But stories are also ways of forgetting. Maybe this explains the relationship between collecting and recollecting: a story is a collection of details and circumstances that seem worthwhile. Any act of recollection necessitates prioritizing that which is relevant and discarding the rest.

Forgetting seems like an unfortunate side effect of time and age and general human fallibility. But  research suggests it’s part of the brain’s design and has real neurological value. What this means in practice is that we selectively inhibit some memories in order to facilitate the retrieval of others. The more a particular memory is retrieved, the more likely competing memories are to be forgotten. Forgetting is the brain’s way of speeding its processing time, and from an evolutionary perspective this seems advantageous: remembering takes work and we need some mechanism to streamline that process. I imagine remembering like walking through a field. The more you walk the same path, the wider and more accessible the path becomes. But, at the same time, the less you walk alternate paths, the more they grow over and become increasingly difficult to follow. If you need to get somewhere quickly—or remember something important—you are grateful for the well-trodden path.

Another dog photo may seem totally irrelevant at the moment, but wait for it.

I know another dog photo may seem totally gratuitous, but wait for it.

When I tell the story of the first person I loved, I remember his white t-shirt and his long hair pulled back. I remember the night a group of us went to Sonic and he sat down next to me. And I remember that particular mode of noticing that only happens when you are sipping a milkshake beside a handsome boy on a hot September night: your body becomes an antenna tuned to his every movement and inflection. And all your intention is split between two actions: noticing him and not letting anyone notice you noticing.

I remember how my friend Joel said, “I don’t want to get your hopes up, but it does seem like he likes you.” My hopes soared.

But I cannot remember exactly what I thought of him. Did I think we might fall in love, or was he just a diversion before I left for London? Would I have considered, at the time, the possibility that I might be here now, writing about that September evening? Did that night seem any different from the one before or the night after? Or did he, from all the other crushes I’ve had? Now that I have written our story, I can’t remember the night before or the night after. I can’t remember if it was him I longed for, or if it was Love. Continue reading

January roundup: love and memoir

It’s ten degrees celsius in Vancouver and today I saw a woman drive through the alley behind my apartment in a sea-foam green convertible with the top down. Convertibles tend to stand out in a city where most people buy rain tires, but what made the woman particularly remarkable was her chinchilla fur hat and her passenger: a chihuahua in a chihuahua-sized baby blue Snuggie®. His erect posture and casual gaze made the dog look like he was accustomed to being chauffeured and the two of them made a funny picture idling beside the butcher-shop dumpster.

In my Vancouver literature class, my students and I have been talking about Vancouver as a postcard city, and the discrepancy between the real and the ideal. The woman in the convertible struck me as someone who somehow hadn’t noticed she was in the city of gore-tex and yoga pants and Subarus, a character in a story set in a different Vancouver than the one I live in. It was a few hours later that I wondered if anyone who writes about her own life can really criticize someone for making herself a character (even if said character purchases dog Snuggies). If nothing else, the book I’m writing is about my inherent tendency to narrate my life as a way of making some larger meaning out of it.

postcard city

postcard city

With that in mind, here’s your late January early February (I’m behind) round-up of love and memoir:

  • I really love this essay in Modern Love about the postcard kiss and the difficulty of letting a good story be nothing more than a good story:

He walked me to my car, and we kissed in the parking garage, under orblike yellow lights. It was a still kiss, a postcard kiss, a Disney princess kiss, the kind of kiss that makes blue cartoon birds chirp and swirl in the sky, their beaks holding garlands.

And this is exactly where the story should end. It should cut to credits, and the music should be triumphant but soft. Your last image should be of the young girl and the handsome poetry-writing boy frozen in a movie kiss. You should brush the popcorn off your lap and leave the theater smiling because everything worked out the way you knew it would. You can leave remembering that time when you were young and lovely, and things like that could happen.

(From “When the Words Don’t Fit” by Sarah Healy) Continue reading

the smitten

Exodus 12:12 goes like this:

For I will pass through the land of Egypt this night, and will smite all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the LORD.

It’s classic King James Old Testament; like every Gothic cathedral you’ve ever visited, it’s at once ornate and resplendent and petrifying.

Another good smiting occurs in Deuteronomy 8:22:

The LORD shall smite thee with a consumption, and with a fever, and with an inflammation, and with an extreme burning, and with the sword, and with blasting, and with mildew; and they shall pursue thee until thou perish.

The OT is full of smitings. Most notably the mid-night killing of all Egyptian first born sons. But a smiting isn’t always genocidal; it can apparently resemble certain STDs (or bathroom molds?), and includes curses, plagues, punishments, and pestilences of all variaties. Though the word smite has been used in other contexts, thanks to King James we usually equate it with a blow of Biblical proportions.

Reading these verses reminds me of a visit to Mamaw’s one-room Southern Baptist church. I must’ve been seventeen or eighteen–familiar enough with theology to be arrogant, young enough to be angry. Before baptizing my cousin’s new baby, the preacher made a call to the unusually-large crowd (most of which, in this tiny congregation, was my family) to consider God’s daily personal message to us. If our lives weren’t going as we’d hoped, he cautioned, if we were experiencing sickness or suffering, God was probably punishing us for a lack of faith. It was God’s elbows, nudging us back into his worship. I left boiling with anger at someone telling an already-impoverished community that they were sinners, that their suffering was deserved. But here it is, in God’s very own words (by way of a variety of scribes, politicians, and translators, of course).

Sesquiotica considers the word in all its etymologic complexity. Continue reading

on the dangers of kissing

Last night I fell asleep to the sound of my neighbors arguing. I don’t really know them, though they’re friendly on the rare occasion Roscoe and I meet them in the hallway. They are never noisy. Until last night, they were a practically invisible presence in my life. But when I heard her crying, the kind of crying you only do when you think no one is listening, when you find yourself in that strange, desperate place between love and frustration, I felt…sad and a bit sick.

I’ve spent the summer blissfully removed from that feeling. Even as I have tried to remember, to write about the moment J and I finally decided to move apart, I’ve failed. The dialogue sounds tinny, the tone melodramatic. All I could come up with was a single, strange image: the moment the ball breaks through the glass instead of bouncing off of it. Something broken, something changed that can’t be repaired. Maybe I can’t tell the story, I thought, because it just wasn’t as momentous as it felt. Because the argument was barely an argument, just a disagreement about how we’d spend our Saturday. And maybe I shouldn’t explain it, I told myself, because in the end isn’t it always the mundane that drives us apart?

Though I couldn’t even hear their words, the tones of my neighbors’ voices validated the feelings which just last week had seemed so distant and overwrought to me. I lay in bed reading and trying not to listen, and thinking how grateful I was not to feel like that.

I spent yesterday afternoon reading about the brain. The research on the literal, physiological chemistry of love is too complex for a single blog post. Several chemicals and neural systems are involved and new research is always amending what we think we know about the mysteries of the heart, which in fact all reside in the brain. But understanding a little bit about it helps us to understand a lot about how love stories function in our lives.

Neuron, by Roxy Paine

First there are mirror neurons, the cellular basis of empathy–at least that’s the most popular theory at present. They appear to be far more complex than most brain cells, which respond to a single frequency, sound, or image. The same mirror neurons fire when we pick up a mug to drink from it, when we see another person drink from a mug, when we think about drinking, and when we say the word “drink.” Some scientists believe mirror neurons explain why we love fiction, and, by extension, movies, songs, stories of all kinds. So it’s likely then that when we hear a midnight argument and feel a kind of unbearable empathy, that’s our mirror neurons at work. They’re why when, in Dirty Dancing, Patrick Swayze says, “No one puts Baby in a corner,” we grin goofily, as if he’s speaking those words to us. They might explain why we love love stories: our brains feel temporarily like we’re the ones in love.

Which brings me to dopamine. Continue reading

Bon Iver, dopamine, and Neruda’s wives

Last Friday night I saw the Bon Iver show at Deer Lake Park. It was my first warm summer evening in Vancouver, and I was feeling simultaneously happy and sad in that wistful way one inevitably feels as the sun sets over a lake and the sound of a nine-man band—including two full drum kits!—echoes through the leafy branches. The experience has gotten me thinking about the things that move us.

Take this, for example:

When Justin Vernon’s voice cracks as he sings “Now all your love is wasted? Then who the hell was I?” it just nails me. Shirt to skin to sternum to aorta. Over the past five days, I’ve probably listened to “Skinny Love” twenty or thirty times. Because I want to understand something about the aesthetics of love, something about how a song or a poem or a love story can make us feel, and something about the legitimacy of that feeling.

I’ve always thought that the difference between love (of the regular affectionate variety) and romance (the more spectacular, dreamy kind), was an aesthetic difference. My most romantic memories seem to be predicated on the beauty of a particular moment: The empty pebble beach, the gleaming Aegean Sea, and the limestone cliffs. The setting is so aggressively beautiful that if you visit it with the man you love, it is not possible to care who did or did not wash that morning’s dishes. That’s romance: He is the landscape. So are you.

What is both powerful and problematic about love songs is that they make us feel like we’re the ones on the beach, when in actuality we’re living another person’s romantic moment vicariously. Love songs annihilate any suspicions we may have that our feelings don’t matter, that they are only atoms organized into neurons that shoot chemicals across our brains. Continue reading

the head and the heart: a valentine to the brain

One of the best things about writing (publicly) about love–and I think I’ve said this before–is that people send me love stories. They send me articles and images and videos, and I have not yet gotten tired of receiving them.

On Valentine’s Day in particular love stories abound, and they run the gamut from saccharine to sad; some are so full of the right kind of sweetness that my eyes go glassy on the bus ride home from work, and others are more like the middle-aged couple beside me at the bar tonight who dedicated their dinner hour to some heavy hand-holding. Later, I was unsettled to find them standing beside my bicycle and making out in that slow-yet-aggressive way that includes certain unconscionable suction noises that neither my loud jokes nor my flashing LEDs could modify.

For most of today, I was content to read the love stories, the one about the nun and the monk, the letter from a wife to her husband’s student, the photo essay of marriages that survived half a century, even the dog and the box of chocolates. But on my bus ride home, tear-ducts prickling as I listened to yet another love story (what is it with tears and transit?), it occurred to me that one who keeps a blog about love stories–and receives them via e-mail and reads them in between classes–ought to post a Valentine, even if at the eleventh hour. So here it is, friends, the most lovely of love stories I saw, read, or heard today (collected both on and off the bus). It includes lots of beeping, whirring and mechanical noises, but no suctioning, I promise.

This is ostensibly a story about science (though the science itself seems a bit shaky, even by the researcher’s own admission). What really got me, however, was not the data gathered from the subjects, but the participants’ post-experiment radiance, their astonishment at their own capacity for love. After just five minutes spent meditating on a loved one in an fMRI machine, even those most infatuated seem to surprise themselves, as if the machine stuffed the love into their brains rather than measuring what was already there. By internet standards, it’s not a short video–about fifteen minutes long–so wait until you’re settled on the couch (or bus seat, as the case may be) with a bottle of beer and a dog at your ankles and a few minutes to yourself. It’s worth the watch, even if–especially if–you haven’t spent your day doing any heavy hand-holding.

breaking up or breaking down

The belief that love is a force beyond our control—that it can be as capricious and devastating as the weather—is so common that it’s built into our language. Love sick. Love struck. We can’t speak about romantic love without using the vocabulary of illness and aggression. Sure, it’s occasionally like a summer’s day, but more often love burns or conquers; it sweeps us off our feet. Lovers collide or are torn apart. Hearts ache and then break. Even smitten comes from smite, a blow from an angry god. And Cupid may be chubby and rosy but he still assaults us with arrows.

“Love is smoke raised with the fume of sighs,” says Romeo, the archetypal Western lover. It is “a madness most discreet/ A choking gall and a preserving sweet.” Whether we are seized, crushed, or captured, falling or afflicted, love happens to us. We are practically powerless, weak-kneed and nauseous, drooling at love’s mercy—or this is what the metaphors we’ve created for love imply.

But before we blame metaphors, it’s worth noting that recent research shows that love causes real pain. Ethan Kross’s fMRI scans showed that the same parts of the brain were activated during social rejection (thinking about a recent break up) and during physical pain. In other words, a broken heart feels a lot like a broken arm. Kross argues that we ought to be a little more sensitive to the pains of those suffering from heartache. (Ahem, college dorm-mates: my “Sarah McLachlan phase” now has scientific backing.)

Continue reading