Archives for category: Brain

I am an American living in Toronto. I arrived in 2004, at a time when it was fashionable for young liberals to threaten to move to Canada and, on a more personal but related level, when one-upmanship meant a lot more to me than it does today. This means I’ve lived in the city for almost a decade. For almost a decade, nobody back home cared about it. “Ooh, Toe-rahn-toe,” some would say when I told them where I’d gone for school—an out-of-state tuition I could afford, across an international boundary but on the same system of glacial lakes. How exotic, this implied. Usually, though, I’d just get a vaguely perplexed stare, and whoever I was talking to would change the subject. This is how most Americans think about Canada: briefly, barely, and with little understanding. It isn’t because of willful disinterest, necessarily. I think most people just prefer the mystery. I have relatives with advanced degrees who still think I speak French. 

Because of this, I’m a little tickled to have my mayor’s name on all my American friends’ lips and Facebook walls. Actual shits are being given! About Toronto! Getting America to acknowledge the existence of Toronto is kind of like getting your sheltered Republican grandpa to admit that he’s long suspected Obama’s probably not a Muslim. It’s not the best-case scenario, but it’s a step.

A step to what? That, I’m unclear on.

I’ve lost track of all the major media coverage we’ve gotten back home.The flashy tail end (knock wood) of a years-long public spectacle is being (and has been) broadcast, in distillation, for all the motherland to see; really, all the world. Once the mayor was lampooned on the opening sketch of Saturday Night Live (and why yes that would be the sketch reserved for the most interesting and important news of the week, thank you very much), I knew I had to cut myself off. I couldn’t even pretend that I cared they screwed up the accents.

This is all very exciting. It also feels terribly absurd.

For the record, I did not vote for Rob Ford. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t, because I am not a citizen and cannot legally vote for anyone. My experience of Rob Ford’s tenure as mayor of Toronto has been one of a civically concerned and emotionally invested denizen without full license to have either concern or investment. From a bleachers seat, I’ve watched the mayor oppose every remotely compassionate by-law thrown in his direction, well before he admitted to using and buying drugs, driving drunk, and publicly insisting he has “more than enough to eat at home” in the context of his poor, poor wife’s bits. Somewhere along the line, Toronto stopped being the aloof but gentle leather-jacketed enigma I’d envisioned when I moved here, an ignorant American, at 18. It became, instead, something more familiar: a divided city.

While I’ve been here for some time, it’s Ford who has made me realize that I can’t reconcile the symbolic Toronto of my shaky but gut-trusting understanding with the truth that it’s a real city with real city rifts still figuring out how to grapple with both. If I could, I’d likely be less surprised that we’ve found ourselves with a leader so obviously, so cartoonishly, villainous, yet with such broad appeal.

Audiences abroad won’t likely catch the nuance. They haven’t been backgrounded on policy and demographics, growing pains in a city most viewers will not know. Instead, they’ll see more of the gong show they didn’t expect from a place they may not have given thought to, be momentarily surprised, and forget. They are not commiserating with us; they are eating popcorn and waiting for the next outrageous plot twist. It feels uncomfortable but oddly uplifting, like lapses into tenderness from a largely indifferent lover who occasionally bangs your friends.

Notoriety is a narcotic buzz. It’s like being in a fight, waiting for the next punch to land. That is, until you’re unable to feel anything at all.




By CF, courtesy of NYT

By CF, courtesy of NYT

Lately I’ve been joking a lot about monetizing my anxiety. Why not? Everyone loves an entrepreneur.

Early in the year, I spoke with the author Claire Messud about her latest novel and, in one of the many tangents that conversation would take, she explained to me how some women are “good in their skin,” like the sort-of villain in her book. I think there was a french phrase associated with that, which I don’t remember because I can’t speak french, but the unfairness of the concept really struck me. So much so, when I played the interview back for transcription a while later I heard myself ask Messud: “REALLY? These people exist?” And there’s so much doubt in my voice that it doesn’t even sound like me anymore, my low nasal drone warped shrill with incredulity. Without context, a listener might guess that a third person had entered the mix.

Anxiety is a feeling of impending doom that finds a home in everything. I work for myself on a contract-to-contract basis, so there’s plenty in the inherent structure (or lack thereof) of my day to day to encourage an ongoing hum of existential dread. But I know it wouldn’t make a difference if I woke up every morning to the same routine at the same reliable desk job with the same benevolent taskmaster making sure I met my daily quotas. Because anxiety is something I carry with me, like an infant. I am its next-level attachment parent, shaping my life in tandem with its wants and pissy peeps, holding it over strategically placed bowls when it wants to void its bowels. I try not to think about how codependent we are, how much the both of us needs the other in order to exist in a way that makes sense. Fact is, there’s always something to ruminate over, a future to prepare for, a now to correct. Things are going well? That other shoe will hurt especially hard once it drops. 

I’ve discovered the New York Times‘ anxiety blog, which makes me feel a little less like shit–or, at least, like I have company in the quagmire. It’s quite an age to worry in! So many channels for our thought loops! Every day is pretty much a worrier’s choose-your-own-adventure. 

“We worry,” says the blog. “Nearly one in five Americans suffer from anxiety. For many, it is not a disorder, but a part of the human condition.” 

I haven’t determined the line between disorder and human condition, and neither has the profession that’s responsible for drawing those distinctions. But I’ll probably spend the next ten minutes mulling it over, or until I come up with a professional worrier’s business plan. I hope it will involve bumper stickers.

Basking in the warm glow of my late 20s, that's what.

Basking in the warm glow of my late 20s, that’s what.

I turned 27 last week. “That’s a good age,” a mid-30s friend told me. “Not too young, not too old!” I agreed. It felt good, I told him via Twitter message.

Later, when I was lifting two birthday bouquets into the narrow hallway to my very 20-something apartment (the kind with a futon in place of a couch), my upstairs neighbor asked me: “How old?” I suppose I could have answered, “Young enough that grown men don’t feel strange asking.” Instead I told him, and when he asked how it feels I said, again, “Good.”

When my mother was 27 she’d been married for four years and employed for three by the same people who write her checks today. When her mother was 27, she had two kids (my mom was the second) and ran a farm. Now I’m 27 and employ myself and put off getting married and buy $12 cocktails instead of saving responsibly. I’ll worry about that, I’ve figured, when I’m an adult. Or adult-er.

It’s telling that the show Girls (about 20something women in New York who I guess I’m supposed to relate to) is written by the nearly-27-year-old Lena Dunham. The characters are a couple years younger, but not enough to make a huge difference. I may have been a little more of a mess when I was 24, Hannah Horvath’s age on show, but I was no girl. But if I had been, nobody would have faulted me for it.

Adulthood isn’t a number, but you know it when you see it. My friends from high school are getting married and having babies, for instance, and while I don’t think those milestones define adulthood or togetherness they do signify a place at which lasting choices are permissible. At first it was only the friends I might have gone to wholesome parties with once upon a time but never visited after graduation, but now the group’s expanded to include people with whom I’ve shared books and pubescent angst, Brooklyn cab pukes and 3am dancing. And where I might recently have thought,”This is wrong,” as though other people’s commitment to Big Decisions meant I was on the clock for mine, now I think “This is nice,” because it feels good to get a sense of what the long term is going to look like for the little friend-family I’ve forged, to feel like the girl-flux is slowing down. I liked being a girl sometimes, but it got exhausting. Bring on those late-20s, the thirtyish years. I’m ready to be a woman.

Whenever some hugely incomprehensible tragedy happens where a bunch of people are killed by, say, a single gunman who is young, white and male, we react by trying to make sense of things and by straining to figure out how to prevent history from repeating itself. The issue of mental illness and its probable role inevitably crops up, and we debate whether or not the gunman was “crazy” or “normal” as if those two are entirely separate possibilities.

Here’ s the thing: mental illness is normal. Actually, it’s totally banal, as is this entire blog post.  It’s your drunk uncle, your perpetually weeping grandmother, the cataclysmic highs-then-lows of your best friend’s mom. What it isn’t, by default, is some abstract “crazy person” caricature who grimaces through the world with the subtlety of a sonic boom.  

You don’t “probably” know someone who struggles to escape the grip of mental illness; unless you were hatched from an egg and are reading this from a secluded cave that just happens to have wi-fi, you absolutely 100% do. Real talk: you know several. 20 percent of all Canadians will personally grapple with some form of mental illness in their lifetime. For those of you even worse at math than I am, that’s one out of every five people. In the U.S., that rate is even higher—26.2 percent is the estimate. That’s higher than the number of people in the U.S., for example, with blue eyes.

I just spouted off some totally common knowledge that we, as a group, manage so frequently to ignore. So, let’s do each other all a favor and stop talking about mental illness in terms of “some crazy person.” We know far too much about its ubiquity to perpetuate stigma. Instead, let’s acknowledge that it’s something many of us have to deal with, that it doesn’t make us bad or weak, and that it’s something that deserves treatment—and, that most unpopular word, compassion—in order to make people more functional and humane members of society. And then, once we make its care more accessible (LOTS of work needed on that front), let’s not chastise those who make the incredibly courageous and responsible decision to take advantage of it.



Every Tuesday night I take a bus, then a subway, then another bus to get to the church where my choir rehearses. I sit on public transit for an hour, give or take, and I get off and walk for three minutes down a woody path that cuts straight through a cluster of apartment buildings and spits me out within view of the church.

I didn’t always know about the path. Before I found it I would get off at the next bus stop and walk, at an impatient clip, for 11-13 minutes through an outdoor mall to get to practice. Sometimes I would stop on the way for a too-hot and too-expensive cup of soup from the luxury grocery store on the periphery of the complex. Then another member of the choir showed me the path. The shortcut saves me a minimum of six minutes.

The shopping centre route I used to take is the maze with all the recycling signs.

The path is genius. It acts as a bridge where the grid of the city lets up into an unwieldy tangle and smells like forest, to boot. But, also like the forest, my path is unlit.

This past Tuesday, the sun set in Toronto at 6:20p.m. Last week Tuesday, sunset was 6:31. Rehearsal, both Tuesdays, began at 7. Both Tuesdays, the “give or take” hourlong commute gave instead of took and I was late.

Last Tuesday I got out of the bus with my earbuds tucked in. It’s probably not a good idea to walk into a wooded, unlit path after sunset with earbuds tucked in, but I was listening to a podcast about a woman who got attacked by a shark and I didn’t want to stop listening. So I walked into the dark, wooded path without being able to see very well, and also without much ability to hear things apart from the podcast, which was very good.

That’s when the man appeared.

I saw his arm first, which he extended toward me with a piece of paper at its end. Then I saw his hood and his shape. He said something I couldn’t understand.

“NO!” I shouted at him. I half-heard my own voice as it came out of my body, girlish and shrill. I had re-watched Clueless the night before and it occurred to me that I’d just sounded like Cher.

“God!” said the man. He sounded wounded. I could hear him because I’d pulled out an earbud. “I–I’ve lost my cat!”

I could tell from his voice he was telling the truth. He had probably asked me, “Have you seen my cat?” before I could hear him, and he probably lived in one of the apartment buildings adjacent to the mouth of the trail. He was probably trying to hand me a poster he’d made with his cat’s picture on it and a number where I could reach him. He was upset.

“You can’t just sneak up on a girl walking by herself in the dark like that!” I realized I was crying.

A serial perpetrator of sexual assaults in my neighborhood (possibly, allegedly, a teenage boy) didn’t stop my nighttime jogs. I don’t carry weapons and I don’t know self-defense. I walk alone more often than I don’t, usually through the city, sometimes at night. While I wouldn’t say I haven’t been cautious, I haven’t really been scared either. I guess you could say I’ve been macho.

But I wasn’t crying because I’d been macho. My tears were hot and so was my face. I was crying because I was angry.

I was angry because I had acted like an asshole. Fear and a pair of earbuds and a guy who didn’t know not to approach a woman in the dark because he had never lived as one made me into the kind of person who shouts at a guy who’s just lost his cat. Who shouts at someone who just lost their cat? An asshole. And, well, me.

I was angry at myself for other reasons, too–for losing composure, for being slow on my feet. But probably, more than anything, I was angry at the cosmic injustice of knowing that, if guy had hurt me, people would be wondering why I was careless enough to walk down a dark path wearing earbuds. And I was angry at myself for being careless, too! It was all very circular.

Anyway, nothing actually happened. Thank goodness! But now I have to think about whether it’s a good idea to keep taking my shortcut. And it’s a bummer.

As I’ve written about a lot before, I’m a mixed kid who grew up in a bicultural household. My mom moved to the U.S. from El Salvador as an adult. My dad’s grandparents were immigrants to the U.S. from Poland and Germany (so, generic white person). I grew up listening to my mom’s Latin pop (my dad’s not really a music guy) and eventually got into noisy alt rock as a teenager (my fave bands were Sonic Youth and Sleater Kinney, neither of which sound like merengue). But I didn’t discover Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez’ Love and Rockets, the early 1980s alternative comic series, until I was in my early twenties.

I loved the aesthetic of the series, the women-centric storylines, and the punked-out Chicano characters of especially Jaime’s stories. I don’t think there’s been anything quite like it, before or since. Los Bros Hernandez were on my favourite music podcast yesterday, NPR’s Alt.Latino, to talk about the music they grew up on and how it shaped their work. Here’s the link.

I shaved my body hair six weeks after that last blog post. The legs came first, because they were patchy and looked like they’d been sprinkled in dirt. The pits were last, and those finally went because I was developing b.o. that smelled like celery, which I hate. It may be the way my body is supposed to smell (I don’t wear, or own, deodorant and haven’t purchased any in about five years, so this is a genuine mystery). But my body doesn’t produce these smells when I shave under the arms, so that’s what happened with that.

I also haven’t been sleeping well. This is unusual, as I usually sleep easily and often. Now I’m in a constant state of half-awakeness, and I feel like I have the flu. Maybe I do have the flu, though it’s been a month. Maybe I’m actually dead. Maybe I’m in an M. Night Shayalaman movie.

Finally, one of my foster kittens got adopted Friday. I fostered three of them in June, which I wrote a lengthy post about in July that WordPress promptly deleted (thanks, WP!). Anyway, I meant to get them out of my house around then, because I didn’t want to get attached. But they stayed, and I did. Finally the longhaired one I named Flurkin went off on Friday to a pair of sweet undergrads who are “thinking about naming her Luna” according to the email response I got from them this afternoon, after I casually asked them how she was doing as though I hadn’t dissolved into shake-sobs the moment they took her.

But life is okay otherwise.

Photo courtesy of some insipid Internet gossip blog. Do I really have to link to it?

I got my first armpit hair when I was 9. For awhile it was just the one and I kept it around for quite some time. I was maybe a little mesmerized by its existence.

 When others joined, maybe a year and a half later, I retaliated with a pink daisy-printed BIC razor my mother kept in the shower. I would proceed to retaliate daily for the next 15 years of my life.

Body hair removal is probably the easiest way we women can avoid looking like women (much easier than starving away curves, I’d guess), which is itself transgressive. It’s also something I’d never given much thought until last week, when I decided to stop shaving everything.

I made the announcement to a group of girlfriends in the park. “Oh get over yourself,” sighed one of them, a self-proclaimed hippie who stays away from razors. But she’s exactly that: a hippie. I’m not, and sporting hippie signifiers like hairy pits (and, on the beach, full fluffy bush) doesn’t mesh with whatever it is I’m presenting as. So, as the hair has tufted out over the past days, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about what it means to be a woman in this world, about the boldness of body hair. How puberty makes us enemies of our physical selves. I’ve also realized that, my goodness, I am hairy.

No, I’m not surprised. I’m slavic and Salvadoran. I probably came out of the womb as a mound of fur (must check with mother). At 13 a classmate caught a peek of my bare belly—this was the late ’90s, when we stupidly wore hip-huggers—and shrieked: “Ew *Kellikorducki, you be HAIRY!” which prompted me to depliate the entirety of my pelvis to my ribcage for the next ten years. In sum, I expected there to be hair. What I didn’t expect was how fast.

The hair on my head is a mousy medium brown, wavy and fine. Everywhere else it’s almost black and triumphant. It is darker and starker than the body hair of most of my hippie friends, freckled blue-eyed gals with freckled blue-eyed gal hair.

While visible in this phase, it doesn’t quite look like anything other than its owner being too lazy to shave. When it gets a little longer, it will be a statement. Because that’s what body hair is on a woman.

I find myself talking about it a lot. It’s summertime, so it’s out there. I feel eyes falling on it and then quickly averting. We’re very guarded about our hair, and seeing it on others can feel like trespassing. So, I tell people about my experiment. “I’m growing out my body hair, just to see what it feels like.” Not what it feels like to have hair of course, but to walk through the world as a person who does. As a woman, that is.

The reality is that nobody really cares. But, they do notice. “I didn’t want to say anything,” said a friend at a beach party over the weekend after I’d explained myself, “but I saw it.” Then, “I couldn’t do it, myself.”

So, another day as a hairy non-hippie, a bundle of mixed signifiers navigating July. I dare you to give it a shot. 






*Yes, my name in elementary school was often Kellikorducki. Sometimes, Kellikorfucki.


Ira Kappylappy

Many adult daughters talk about their relationships with their fathers differently than the ones with their mothers, because the dynamic between a father and daughter isn’t fraught with the baggage of being a woman in this world. In my case, both parents deserve a hearty pat on the back for abstaining from throttling me in my sleep. But as it is Father’s Day, I will aim my thematic tribute where thematic tribute is due.

I was, to put it gently, a Difficult Child—defiant, rebellious, and, as became apparent around the age of 12, prone to some not-insignificant mental health hiccups. Both my parents dealt with me, their eldest and only girlchild, in stride. The steered me toward the things they thought would save me, some that worked (music lessons, endless books), and others (pill-happy psychiatrists, Catholic school) that didn’t. When I announced at 17 that I was applying to university in Canada—an impulse, a whim, a clean slate—they made their objections clear. But they didn’t try to stop me, because they knew they could not.

It was around this time that I started making a concerted effort to pick myself up and put myself back together. Over the past three years, I’d gone from a straight-A student who’d sung in three choirs, played violin in the orchestra, acted in numerous plays, and occasionally defeated opponents on my high school’s tennis and debate teams, to Ally Sheedy in the Breakfast Club. But this university I suddenly really wanted—needed—to attend didn’t care about my past. If I performed really well in my last year of high school, I stood a decent shot of getting in. So, I tried to start over.

The mission was clumsy but earnest, and while my mother totally lovingly suggested I pursue a practical life—in-state college, a line of study that would amount to something—it was Papa who quietly encouraged my wacked-out plans. For whatever reason, Papa had faith.

Then, there was the Yo La Tengo concert.

I don’t need to explain what music means to a 17-year-old. Anyone reading this has either been there or is on its precipice. Anyway, being the kind of kid that I was, artistic temperament* and all, music was a Very Big Deal. And, again, being the kind of kid that I was, it was very unusual that a band I was super into would find its way into Brew City, U.S.A.** When I discovered that Yo La Tengo was hitting Wisconsin on its Summer Sun tour, I announced to my father that I was going to take a bus to Madison “and sleep on someone’s couch” (Whose? Who cared!) to catch their weekend performance. Papa, ever so wisely, rejected that proposal. Instead, he offered an irresistible alternative: he would personally accompany me to their Monday night performance at Shank Hall, an intimate 21+ venue in downtown Milwaukee. Though I was under age, with my father in tow, State of Wisconsin law allowed the predicament of my youth to slide.

Did I mention that this was on a school night?

Most of my adolescence no longer resides in my memory. The vast bulk of it’s been relegated to a pit at the base of my sternum, wilfully forgotten or buried away for self-preservation. Dancing up against the stage to Yo La Tengo in frenzied, sober exhilaration, is not one of those. I remember Ira Kaplan’s glorious New Jerseyan sweat droplets flicking onto my own with better clarity than the events of even this morning, and the way it felt when I turned to Papa—wearing the same black-and-white Chuck Taylors as my own, in a size 13—and noticed he was dancing, too.

“These old guys aren’t bad,” he mused.

We were the only two people in the whole joint who weren’t too cool to dance.

He may not remember this event, and I’m not sure he even reads this blog, but it’s one of those moments I’ll never forget–and definitely my favourite concert experience, ever. Nothing so perfectly encapsulates the kind of Papa I grew up with: the kind, patient, and slightly nerdy wind beneath my freak flag. I love him desperately and am grateful to have his influence and his genes–even the ones responsible for my chin.

*This is the way nice people say “mentally unstable asshole.” I am not a nice person and would therefore just go ahead and say “mentally unstable asshole,” but I want to feign some semblance of self-esteem here.

**e.g. snob