I kid around a lot in my advice column, "Damage Control," which appears in this space, but I take the responsibility of it seriously. I'm not hubristic enough to think everyone takes my advice, but what if they did and it blew up in their face?
So sometimes, when someone's written in with a particularly thorny problem, I've followed up later to ask: Did you take my advice, and if so, how did it work out for you?
This week was a new one for me, though. I found myself face to face with the person about whom advice was asked, rather than the advice seeker: a woman named Kai'enne, from a completely different culture, who challenged my assumptions about that culture, and who I have a funny feeling I will bear in mind every time I think of a joke or dispense advice in the future.
It's an occupational hazard of being an advice columnist: We know so little about the people we dispense advice to. Meeting Kai'enne helped me remember these are real, complex people who are sometimes profoundly affected by the stuff I hammer out in my tiny garage office.
But let's back up for a second. Last week, a woman wrote in to say that a neighbour of hers had started walking her girlfriend down the street on a leash. Her four-year-old daughter asked about it, and the mom told her one lady was pretending to be a dog, the other lady her owner. But she felt eventually her daughter would want more info, and she didn't relish the thought of having explain S&M (or as Kai'enne would later correct me, D/s, standing for "dominance/submission") practices to her young child. Should she maybe confront Leash Lady (my nickname, not hers), and ask her to confine this leash-walking to after 9 p.m.?
I gave my answer, prefaced with a few more jokes: "Maybe go up to Leash Lady, and, asking her permission first, scratch her behind the ears, and offer her a treat." The more serious part of the advice being: Don't confront. There's too much confrontation in the public sphere as it is. Why not approach in a friendly way and try to get to know them? Then decide how to proceed.
The column provoked a tsunami of reaction: hundreds of comments on The Globe's website, online forums going crazy, radio hosts weighing in. A lot of it was harsh and judgmental – to the point where Leash Lady herself, aka Kai'enne Tyrmerik, finally came forward on The Globe's site to say: "I am she," in an effort to refute some of the more contentious comments, and illuminate, a bit, her point of view.
It was a first – and a unique opportunity, I felt, to a) to find out how it might feel to be drawn into this sort of media maelstrom, and b) shade in some of the nuances and complexities of a knotty situation.
And I was curious. So I got in touch with Kai'enne and she agreed to meet for sushi.
I didn't really know what to expect – but if I'm honest with myself, I assumed I'd meet a woman a bit rough around the edges – and domineering. The reality was different: a striking presence, elegantly dressed and in conversation a soulful, sensitive, funny and thoughtful person.
"It's funny this tempest is happening. I mean, we went out for a walk one day and wound up in The Globe and Mail," she said. A friend forwarded her the column within hours of it appearing online, with a note: "Is this you?" She realized it was and started reading the comments. There were so many misconceptions about her and her girlfriend that she decided to speak up.
I had suggested in the column that promenading with your girlfriend on a leash through the streets was a classic case of "épater la bourgeoisie," like the poet Gerard de Nerval walking his lobster through the streets of Paris – or to put it in more contemporary way: trying to shock the "straights." Kai'enne told me that's not it at all. "We don't do it to shock people," she said. "It's just the way we live our lives." She said she was called "shameless" a lot by online commenters – but asks: "Why is that an insult? Why should I feel shame?"
She says she fully understands that people immediately think about sex when they see her walking her "sub" (she's the "domme"), whom she also calls her "pet," on a leash – but that part of it is purely platonic, like other couples holding hands in public. She assures me their relationship is a loving and consensual one, that her girlfriend had the leash when they met but had never found anyone willing to use it.
One thing I did get right? Her sub "loves being scratched behind the ears." She enjoys being treated like a pet, Kai'enne explains (one thing I got wrong: "She's not actually my dog, she's my cat – well, kitten, really"), and people have come up and patted her. But it's best to check with Kai'enne first. In fact, when it comes to this particular arrangement, there are numerous protocols, well known within what Kai'enne calls "the kink community," that straights (my word, not hers) may not be aware of. In most situations, "I speak for her," she says. If you wish to speak to her, etiquette dictates you ask Kai'enne first.
In her view, the mom who wrote in to me had explained the situation perfectly to her daughter. It really is just role-playing, she says – and itself quite child-like. "We've turned our lives into a game," she says. "We like to have fun. Why people aren't people allowed to have fun as soon as they turn 20?"
And it's funny, as she speaks it all seems, well, kind of … normal to me. Or at least understandable. Madame de Stael said: "To understand all is to forgive all," and while I've never really been fully sold on that saying, it's true a little understanding goes a long way to eliminate hostility, prejudice – so much of which is based, let's face it, on fear of the unknown.
While Kai'enne getting caught up in this was stressful at first, they both wound up "thrilled," because it's helped shine a light on a subculture not too many know about or understand.
Her landlady told her a neighbour had come over with a bottle of wine, but Kai'enne was out. An olive branch! I told her that makes me happy, too. "Maybe put in your article that she should try again, with the bottle of wine," Kai'enne shyly says.