Try before you buy! Here are samples from two essays featured in Midlife.
Which Gwyneth Paltrow do you want to be? It’s a question that has apparently been vexing me since 1998. I was working at the Oliver Square Blockbuster Video (RIP) that year when the movie Sliding Doors was released on VHS. I didn’t watch it at the time. The cover art, which juxtaposed two Gwyneths with different, but very late-’90s haircuts, greeted me every day in a grid of 24 on the New Releases wall. This image was meant to convey, I learned, two alternate timelines. A missed subway car sets Gwyneth 1 on a very different path than Gwyneth 2, and the film follows both Gwyneths in parallel through a series of rom-com foibles until one of them—I don’t know? Falls in love? Dies in a slapstick traffic accident? Like I said, I didn’t watch it. But the wall of Janus-faced Gwyneths (Janeths?) stayed with me.
1998, fittingly, was a year of options, and options begetting more options. I was 18 and starting university when a friend seemingly destined for great things casually tossed me a gem of shallow teenage wisdom that seemed like a mystical codex: “Always make the choice that expands your options.” It was delivered in the brashness of infinitely expanding youth. Anything seemed possible, and therefore everything possible was desirable.
There is a time when we can think this way without cost, when what we collectively understand as real life—adulthood—lies almost entirely in front of us, a series of elections yet to be made. For an 18-year-old working at a video store (still a career highlight), this was a set of hypothetical decisions that could be deferred indefinitely. The important part was to preserve all options. Misgivings about committing to one path could be quelled by telling myself that with a few tweaks, there could be an alternate timeline Geoff out there living His Best Life, free of whatever thing was causing me to gaze outside of my reality. I can become a touring musician! I can move to Spain and grow dreadlocks! In addition to being very cringeworthy in retrospect, these flights of fancy were a convenient way to avoid confronting actual decisions, and what lay beneath them.
I wore this flexibility as a badge of honour. What’s the fun of knowing what your life will look like in the future? Once when I interviewed for a job between degrees, the interviewer asked me the stock question: “where do you see yourself in five years?”
“If I can predict that, then I think I will have failed at life,” I answered. Surprisingly, I did not get a call back.
With time you make choices, or they are made for you. And even if you try to make the maximally option-expanding decisions, those choices eventually do the opposite. Life marches on, and more of those subway doors start to close. But rather than sliding doors, perhaps tree branches become the more apt metaphor. What once reached endlessly up, always deviating unexpectedly, lies static, leaving a thorny map of phantom limbs that never grew.
I kept making choices that appeared to expand where I thought I could go. I went to law school, the ultimate “keep your options open” card for people who are bad at math. I moved to Toronto with my partner; we got married, and pursued careers. I was a partner at a law firm doing corporate litigation. It was not ever something I had seen myself doing, but when you sell yourself on the virtue of an unpredictable future, unexpected outcomes are a measure of success.
Do one thing for long enough, though, and you realize that it might be all that you’re qualified to do. Branches closing ever inwards, like grim skeletal fingers.
I contemplate these things when I trace the pattern of my life over the outline left by my parents. It’s the only real map most of us receive. But the document I think about more is a letter that sat forgotten in a jacket pocket in 1978. It was a moment where time not so much branched as cleaved. My father was offered a fellowship in Auckland, New Zealand. The only formality that remained was a letter of recommendation from his supervisor in Edmonton. That letter was written and sealed in an envelope, intended for hand-delivery by a mutual contact to the recipient at a conference in Rio De Janeiro. What an impossibly cosmopolitan way to start an exotic life on the other side of the globe.
Except that’s not what happened…
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Cocoa and Coconut
My singular ambition as a parent is that my child grow up to not be an asshole.
So although the logical part of my brain knew it was normal for young children to be self-absorbed sometimes, the emotional part of my brain churned with anxiety whenever my kid acted like an inconsiderate turd. When he turned nine, the spouse and I hoped giving him the opportunity to care for a pet would parlay his affinity for animals into a deeper sense of empathy.
After researching common pet options, we settled on guinea pigs pretty quickly—pigs, plural, because they’re social herd animals, and keeping a lone guinea pig is considered so abusive some countries, like Switzerland, have outlawed the practice. In September 2017 a pair of rescues became available at our city’s shelter. Over the next month, as we got ourselves allergy tested, built an enclosure, sewed some fleece bedding, and stocked up on supplies, I checked the shelter website every day to see if someone else had beaten us to adopting them. The day after Thanksgiving, we brought them home.
They came to us as Diana Ross and Whitney Houston, but the kid immediately renamed them Cocoa and Coconut. Coconut, the cream-coloured pig, is an absolute tank at 1.5 kg (most guinea pigs are between 0.7 and 1.2 kg), with an assertive personality and expansive hips that give her the silhouette of a butternut squash. Cocoa, our little brindle pig, is two-thirds Coconut’s size. She’s more timid but loves to zoom around her enclosure, her majestic tuft of butt fur billowing behind her.
Cocoa and Coconut were the kid’s pets, but I had no illusions about who’d do most of the feeding and cleanup. I expected to care for them, but I didn’t expect how quickly and utterly I would adore them. These absurdly proportioned animals—with their potato bodies, beady eyes, tiny toes, floopy ears, and darling little mouths—brim with cautious mischief. My stoic façade crumbles when I hear their repertoire of noises: wheeking for food, satisfied purring, and posturing rumble struts. I became a pet owner after becoming a parent, so the fact that I could love these creatures unconditionally without worrying if I was properly socializing them to function in the outside world was a revelation.
What did concern me was how much I started having to put in the trash—their newsprint litter, their wholly inoffensive but endless turds, their leftover hay. Throwing all of this organic matter into the garbage was galling, but our municipality doesn’t let us put any kind of animal waste, no matter how innocuous, into the green bin for composting.
One day, as I was procrastinating via YouTube, the recommendation algorithm unearthed a homesteader’s video about how rabbit poop makes excellent fertilizer. Since rabbits and guinea pigs have near-identical diets, I figured guinea pig poop might work just as well, and I started collecting it and giving it away to grateful gardening friends—one of whom calls it “magic.” Until the pandemic hit I had a pretty sweet racket going, where, in exchange for literal shit, friends reciprocated with gifts of garden-fresh garlic scapes, beans, potatoes, kale, and, once, a savoy cabbage twice the size of my head that we ate for months.
I’d never used the poop myself because I have a notoriously brown thumb, killing so many “unkillable” plants that at one point I thought I probably shouldn’t have kids. I’d given up on gardening years earlier, but the apocalyptic pall of 2020—a noxious mix of COVID-19, the ever-present climate crisis, and creeping fascism—spurred me to learn some life-sustaining post-apocalyptic skills. Guided by YouTube gardening videos, I planted some grow bags on our balcony, fertilizing them with the guinea pigs’ turds, mulching with their leftover hay, and watering with whatever they didn’t drink from their bottles. I pasteurized some of the hay and used it to grow oyster mushrooms. I got a compost bin and could finally turn the pigs’ litter into soil rather than more methane emissions, and I became disproportionately proud of my steaming pile of garbage.
My garden had so many failures—I never could get beans or cucumbers to grow, and slugs obliterated my salad greens—but my handful of successes, including fresh herbs and tomatoes and zucchini and shishito peppers and potatoes, were enough to convince me it was worth learning new tricks in midlife and trying to get better at something after sucking at it for a long, long time.
Without guinea pigs, I’m sure I wouldn’t have taken the leap. “You made this!” I told them when I fed them homegrown peas for the first time. By treating them to fresh produce fertilized with their own manure, I felt like I was closing a loop. Not quite a self-sustaining ecosystem but a satisfying first step.
Satisfying for me, that is…
Copyright 2021 The Chan-Pabillano Initiative