How Not To Have Your Eureka Moment

Sometimes, for those of us with any measure of privilege, the unraveling of that privilege begins with a Eureka moment.

By this, I mean the moment where a circumstance forced your eyelids wide, and made you see the ugly things you’d previously had the privilege to pass on by: racism, for instance, or sexism, and oppressions of all kinds. Maybe you thought you understood the issue, but never gave it too much thought — and then one day wham, this Thing happens, and you realize you had no idea how much privilege you’ve got.

I remember some of my Eureka moments. I’m not proud of them — or rather, I’m not proud they had to happen for me to grasp what millions had been saying all along. They were jolting and uncomfortable, a rough hand to shove me straight out of a cozy little nest. But I am incredibly grateful for them. They made me a better person, in the end.

Well, film critic Michael Calleri recently had his Eureka moment about sexism.

Or, as the brilliant Melissa McEwan put it: Man Notices Misogyny.

It began when the movie reviews he wrote for the Niagara Falls Reporter began to disappear into the ether. When he confronted his publisher about it, the publisher responded with an email railing against promoting movies “where women are alpha and men are beta. where women are heroes and villains and men are just lesser versions or shadows of females.”

By this and other rants about feminist “moral rot,” of course, the publisher was referring to Snow White and the Huntsman which, just, yeeaaaahhhhhhh okay then.

Yeah, it sucks. It all sucks. And it does suck for Calleri, who lost a writing gig in a world in which writing gigs are increasingly hard to come by. In the large scale, just add it to the list of damages that misogynists wreak on society every damn day. But on the small scale, I empathize with the shock and discomfort he must have felt.

Because boy oh boy, was Calleri shocked. Like really super shocked.

From the blog:

What you are about to read may shock you. It’s all true, and it happened to me. It involves censorship and the movies and one man’s loathing of strong contemporary women.

One man’s loathing of strong contemporary women? Well I gotta admit I’m entirely not shocked at this point, but goooo onnnnn….

(It goes on.)

This story, with its villainous treatment of strong women, is so appalling, that it borders on being unbelievable. It isn’t. It deserves to be told and really does require a detailed explanation. Many writers will recognize the trail of experience I have traveled. But I wonder if any writer has faced what I ultimately faced.

This is where I have to pause. As much as I want to salute a man’s Eureka moment that sexism is real, here’s where Calleri’s arrow officially sails far, far past the mark, clattering harmlessly into a haystack beyond. While cows look at the arrow curiously. And a baby squirrel perches on the top of the arrow, chattering tunefully.

That’s far, guys.

Again: I understand that Calleri was shocked by the raging misogynist email he received from his publisher. It would be shocking to absorb that kind of bald-faced hate for the first time, had you been sheltered — by virtue of your gender — from being on the butt-end of it before.

What is strange is that in all the time end effort Calleri poured into writing about the experience, it apparently did not occur to him before he got to just this paragraph is that yes, writers have faced this before: women writers have faced this before. Thousands upon thousands upon thousands of women writers have faced this before, dating back centuries and still alive today.

We talked about it too, because we also believed it “deserved to be told.” But we found, over and over, that people didn’t want to listen.

Perhaps we were just having trouble with intergalactic communications:

I got my answer in the form of an email that is so shocking, it seems to come from another galaxy, an evil one.

N.B.: The email he received is basically half the everyday inbox haul of the average woman blogger of any renown (more if you’re Anita Sarkeesian!), so it appears the Evil Galaxy may be closer to our own than originally measured.

Way to suck, NASA.

I’ve been lucky in my career.

From the time I was 18, I largely worked for women editors and producers; where I didn’t, I never personally encountered misogyny as overt as this. I have felt it in emails from readers and read it in truly countless articles, blogs, forum posts and website comments — but never have I felt a sting so harsh from anyone in a position of direct power over me.

But having spent many years talking to women writers, I know this: thousands of us have experienced just the sort of nasty, silencing, career-limiting sexism that Calleri had thrust upon him. We’ve told what not to write (“woman stuff”) and how not to write it (“women talk too much”), passed over for certain beats or denied editorships.

In other words: it is telling that I just said I’ve been lucky in my career. It’s telling that this is how I have to think about it, as being in terms of luck.

The good news: based on reams of anecdotal experience, I absolutely believe it is getting better.

But it’s still not best, it’s still not done.

And as much as I am glad that one film critic had his Eureka moment, so I wish he had considered more deeply what working under that publisher, or men like him, would have been like for a woman. And what women writers must have seen. And what they may know. And what they may have committed to writing already, but had it be blown off as “overreaction,” shrugged off and ignored.

In short: the fact that his column is shot through with more shock than empathy suggests that we still have a long way to go.

Why I Write

Whenever I turn my eyes to a page, I can’t forget Mrs. Brooker’s face.

I never knew Mrs. Brooker, nor even know her first name. She must have died long before I was born, her passing recorded in some dusty crate of records in a northern English town. But I see her, because George Orwell saw her; and because he sketched her cleanly, I cannot forget her face.

“Partly blocking the door of the larder there was a shapeless sofa upon which Mrs. Brooker, our landlady, lay permanently ill, festooned in grimy blankets. She had a big, pale yellow, anxious face…

…She had a habit of constantly wiping her mouth on one of her blankets. Towards the end of my stay she took to tearing off strips of newspaper for this purpose, and in the morning the floor was often littered with crumpled-up balls of slimy paper which lay there for hours.”

-George Orwell, The Road To Wigan Pier

Well, check off another loss to the impending death of newspapers, I suppose.

I discovered Wigan Pier when I was 14 years old, and devoured it whole beneath my blankets in two nights flat. But even as the book unraveled, I kept turning back to those very early pages. Back to Orwell’s introduction of Mrs. Brooker and her silent, filthy husband, and I’d fall into those words again.

It was so perfect, how he drew them. So simple and pristine. Each adjective carefully chosen, polished and allowed to speak the fullness of its definition. And so the couple lurches into focus, as if you had just closed your eyes on them and saw the scene behind your eyelids.

The Brookers are doubtless long dead, but in a handful of pages, they live forever.

God, I realized, in the way sudden clarity springs so easily to the young, that is power.

So on the first of this month, I decided to try my hand at National Novel Writing Month. I got this far, and very little farther:

In the second after the shove and before the crash and wail, when the animal seemed paused mid-flight and tail lashing at the air, there was just enough time for me to think: maybe I shouldn’t have thrown the cat out the window.

Let me be completely honest: I can’t write fiction. This is terrible.

It’s strange, because I have such an active imagination. I can spend hours laying on the couch, letting distant futures spin out in my mind. I conjure ghosts in places steeped in stories, and imagine them going about their daily lives. I covet little bits of history — an old pill bottle, a Red Flyer wagon, a tattered Golden Era comic book — and fondle them, and drift off into a fugue of who held them before.

But I can’t write about it. I can’t turn imagination into a sentence that deserves a page; inevitably, I lose interest and turn away.

See also: I almost only watch documentaries.

See also: I almost only read non-fiction.

There is something sacred in this, I think, in the recording — however dramatized — of the real.

Our species has long struggled to come to terms with time, and how it passes. Life slips by in moments that dash across the meadow and then vanish in the bushes. We cling to memories, but our memory is terribly unreliable. We turn to marble, stone and steel to construct immortality, conveniently forgetting that even mountains are eventually worn away.

But in non-fiction, time stands still, and looks you in the eye, and God it lives forever: the infant’s first wail, the battered ruins of the family home, the shouts and ululations after the perfect shot and goal.  Mrs. Brooker wiping her mouth with a wadded strip of newspaper, and tossing it on the floor beyond her shapeless couch.

Chasing the immortality of the scene, the people and the scene, the people and the scene and the sense of things, the vibe, and the light: that’s what burns me up at night, when I lie awake and think of stories I so desperately want to tell. And I just think: if I can tell it perfectly, then it could live for generations, and generations more.

You’ll never tell it perfectly, by the way. But it keeps you trying.

All this is to say: Orwell’s book is why I became a nonfiction writer — a journalist, I suppose — and not a novelist.

Though as it turned out, it’s not like there’s more money in one over the either. Heh.

Speaking of which, anyone have a journalism job?

Revive The 90s: Rusty Edition

On tonight’s late-night edition of Nothing In Winnipeg, we’re going to talk about rock’n’roll.

Here’s where I start feeling a little old: the mid-1990s were a bang-up time to be a Canadian kid with a guitar, a Kool-aid dye job and a bad attitude. Music was happening. MuchMusic was happening, and we lived and died by the riffs it doled out. Canadian content rules pushed homegrown music onto the channel, and what floated to the surface was, by and large, pretty rad: bands that later become intolerably commercial were writing pretty neat songs.  Videos were totally out there, man. People were doing weird things with music and somehow making it work.

Best of all: in a country of wide open spaces, the boom seemed to happen everywhere. I’m pretty sure everyone from the East Coast was part of a hip indie-rock band. Skate punk blossomed across the West. Toronto was holding up its end with razor-sharp riffs. And even the most widely successful Canadian rock was smart. 

Oh yeah, it was a good time to tune in and turn it up.

Then this little band called Rusty came along. And they rocked, hard.

I was 13 years old when first I heard this tune, and it blew my brain out my ears and sucked it straight back into my head again. The tune taught me what “misogyny” meant; it also taught me what a perfect rock’n’roll tune sounded like.

In time, it would teach me the definition of “criminally underrated.”

Rusty’s debut album, Fluke, was short and sweet, as perfect a slab of hooked-up four-on-the-floor rock’n’roll as you can find.

It was also deliciously different. It was sorta grunge and punk and pop and rock, but whatever you called it the tunes were blended from something raw and deliciously real. Every tune was hooky as all hell, brandishing that ragged mix of delicate melodies and atonal wails, grinding rhythms and elegant phrasing. There was nothing quite like it at the time; truth be told, I’ve heard nothing quite like it since.

God, this album rules so hard.

Rusty was a band of their time, no doubt, but they also wrote sort of before and beyond and outside of it. Eighteen years later, Fluke is still a bad-ass album, their SnowJob gig may as well be legendary, and their 2011  reunion was reportedly the most requested of all Canadian bands of the era. Apparently, I’m far from alone in my fond memories of the sound.

I will argue in front of any judge that Ceiling is one of the most strangely alluring rock ballads yet written.

Okay, yeah, I’m biased: I still remember my older brother, my hero, snarling along with Misogyny on his rare visits home from med school. That’s when I fell in love, and the first rock’n’roll show I ever went to was Rusty: it was 1996 at the West End Cultural Centre. I had turned 14 a few months earlier, I went stage diving, I came home bruised and battered and bleeding from the lip. My mom asked me what the hell did I do and I shrugged.

She’d never understand, but it was the greatest night I’d ever had.

He’ll always ask for one more try, one try; you’ll always give him one more.

Rusty ended up releasing a solid (if more lo-fi) follow-up record, Sophomoric, and a few other CDs that sort of ran out of steam, and then they were gone. And 18 years after their debut, so many of us search out the YouTube videos to say: they were one of the most underrated Canadian bands of the 1990s.

But you never really know what you have, until you’ve drowned in Nickelback.

As for me? Rusty became my gateway drug into punk rock and thrash and everything loud. But even now, when I turn back for something from my early teens that makes me want to clean, I put on the entire Fluke album and just start scrubbing.

Sick band. Sick songs. And a sick reminder of the 1990s that would actually be worth reviving.