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Gateway crew reunites midway to oblivion in brilliant Midlife anthology

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Dressed in the hardcover green-and-gold of The Gateway student newspaper’s annual bound editions, it’d be reasonable to assume the new anthology Midlife is some sort of fetish object for insiders.

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On the surface, the book certainly feels like an intimate class reunion given physical form: 27 Xennial to Millennial former contributors of the notoriously freewheeling, curse-spattered U of A student newspaper suddenly finding themselves — whoopsie! — middle-aged, spinning their thoughts into free range, op-ed style personal essays.

And if any real space inside Midlife was spent on goopy nostalgia for the hazy, hookup, those-were-the-days of student journalism — which surely kickstarted the very identities of so many of this diverse crew — this would hardly be the compelling little work of art that it is.

But it really turned out to be much more, thanks to the range of post-Gateway experience of its terrific authors.

As a side effect of trying to fathom their own mortal midpoints, Midlife’s editors and longtime buddies Sarah Chan and Jhenifer Pabillano herded together a captivating anthology of perspectives from their once ever-present, layout-night peers: now-leaders, trauma survivors, anxious parents and otherwise often-tired multitaskers, each baring their soul in a way that’s as alluring as finding someone’s diary at a bus stop. C’mon: you know you’d read that.

If you make it through Midlife, you’ll for sure laugh, especially at its non-scientific charts and graphs, and possibly even cry through its wide range of thoughtful, 1,500-word testimonials by the mothers, activists, lawyers, social workers, architects — even the current mayor of Edmonton — these punchy kids have become, post Gateway.

But let’s rewind, just for a sec, back to the Big Shiny Tunes 4 university days.

“I was never the popular kid,” Chan, 40, notes on an early-morning Zoom call. “The Gateway was a place where, even though we were all insecure little kids, you really felt like you belonged because you were with these other smart word nerds.

“It was a place of curiosity, of irreverence, trying things and failing — an incubation chamber.”

Because, week after week, young staff and volunteers would create from scratch two papers late into the night as a common creative project, “it’s the sorts of friendships that have the level of intimacy of siblings,” says Chan who went on to marry her Gateway boyfriend, Don Iveson.

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(The mayor, incidentally, has a hopeful essay in the book about the power of cities, while Chan’s piece goes the David Sedaris route, mining her family relationships.)

“I’m really drawn to people who are funny, and question the status quo,” Pabilano adds of the paper days. “And all those people were there.

“When I talk to other people about their university experiences, to me, The Gateway seems like what they had if they went to a sorority or a frat.

“That’s my tribe; it wasn’t just like a job,” says Pabillano, news editor from 2001-2003; and she, too, ended up with a Gateway-sourced husband, David Zieben.

Yeah, it was a total thing — one other such couple in Midlife: cookbook author Leanne Brown and her Google-brainiac husband, Dan Lazin, both unsurprisingly great reads.

Of course, in life, we all move on — as did most of these writers, into grown-up lives. A few ended up in mainstream, water-ever-rising media — photojournalists especially keeping the flame going. But most found themselves all over the career taxonomical map as educators, ad people, full-time parents, strategists, lawyers, and in the case of the hilariously acerbic former Gateway star Neal Ozano, the last editor-in-chief of the last millennium, a construction worker in Halifax. Correctly, his story ends the book.

Jhenifer Pabillano and Sarah Chan, editors of Midlife, a spinoff of their years at the mighty Gateway newspaper.
Jhenifer Pabillano and Sarah Chan, editors of Midlife, a spinoff of their years at the mighty Gateway newspaper. Photo by supplied

The nexus happened a mere four months ago in the depths of pandemic isolation, when Pabillano and Chan got to talking. Remembering they started as writers, and missing their old friends, they came up with this connective-tissue project with a simple pitch: tell us something meaningful about your midlife experience.

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And here’s exactly why the book manages such wide appeal.

“The experience of midlife is something that’s been happening forever,” says Pabillano. “People were turning 40 in 1830.”

Some of the moving stories inside Midlife include Heather Adler’s journalism career smashing into a wall in the Mondrian in L.A.; Iva Cheung considering the cold, scared hearts of guinea pigs; Leah Collins loathing everything about having to dye her hair; Daniel Kaszor living in disbelief through a heart attack; astronomy-lover Kati Kovacs watching her whole world wash away; Adam Houston mourning the video stores in one of the best-written pieces in the book. And, of course, there’s a terrifyingly hilarious Top Ten by Dave Alexander.

Jimmy Jeong, meanwhile, still an incredible photojournalist, simply drops a photo worth more than 1,500 words; Christie Tucker writes a brutally hilarious letter to a child she’ll voluntarily never have; the yang to that ying, Chris Boutet addresses a terribly loving letter to his new son Henry; Amanda Ash yearns to poop alone; Pabillano then traces the line between them all, calmly embracing the ordinary, noting that you contain multitudes, too.

And Montreal illustrator Raymond Biesinger shines, as ever, with his impossibly perfect, maze-embossed cover.

As I said, a work of art.

Pabillano explains, “I wanted you to leave with that feeling where, you’d go to a party — when we used to go to parties — and you’d have that conversation with somebody you maybe only knew a little bit. But there would be some piece of their story you would get.

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“And there’s something about that that either helps me put my own life in perspective, or understand that I’m not alone.”

“And,” she laughs, “I think we really achieved that. It’s something that we’re all quite shocked by, to be honest.”

Midlife already sold out of its first-printing first run at midlifebook.ca, though you can still buy that edition at Glass Bookshop online — and the second “and final” printing at the Midlife site.

“We didn’t go out there thinking, ‘What kind of book is going to sell,’ says Chan. “This is a gift to each other, to be together again.

“And then, whatever happens, happens.”

fgriwkowsky@postmedia.com

@fisheyefoto

If you’re reading this before 8 p.m. Thursday, there’s an online event at that time hosted by Chan and Pabillano, who will discuss the book with contributors Jag Dhadli, Iveson and Brown — including a giveaway contest. Hit up facebook.com/midlifebook for more details.

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