Thursday, August 31, 2006

How Do You Decide...

…which blogs to read?

A couple of posts on this topic have gotten me thinking today. Beanie Baby has been posting lately on the subject of Blogging Across Boundaries – an effort to make people more aware of the tendency toward homogeneity in our blog-reading habits: in essence, we tend to read within our demographic categories. And while that may be natural, it also stifles the potential of the Internet to broaden our thinking. I’ve been mulling that over all afternoon, and then I came upon a post from Crouching Mommy, Hidden Laundry, arguing that the blogosphere is infected with a high-school politics of name-dropping. So that has left me wondering – what factors determine the blogs that you read? Do you read – and comment on and link to – the "popular" bloggers in hopes of being noticed by their legions of readers? To what extent does your blogroll reflect an increasingly narrow niche of people exactly like you?

True confessions time. When I poke around the web looking for new blogs, there are certain criteria I bear in mind aside from pure quality of writing. Here are some of the factors I consider:

  • Geography: I do read blogs from Arizona and Australia (among other places), but the shameful truth is that I almost always take a second look when I find an Ontario blog, which, in almost all cases, means a Toronto blog. Yes, as I have admitted before, I’m nothing but a shameless Toronto-blogger wannabe (and I’ve got the nails to prove it!).
  • Myers-Briggs Personality Type: If you leave a comment telling me that you’re an INTJ, I will immediately subscribe to you through Bloglines. There are lots of other good personalities out there (and the mommy blogosphere appears to be dominated by INFJs like myself), but I shore do love me an INTJ.
  • Jane Austen References: If you’ve got ’em, I’ll be back!
  • Tear-Jerkers: Everybody likes a funny post, but I’m most addicted to the blogs that make me cry.
  • High-Needs Children: When someone writes honestly and movingly about parenting a quirky child, a high-needs child, or a child facing some kind of handicap, I am always riveted. But this category is a strange one. I have been lurking for awhile on some blogs by mothers of autistic boys, but I don’t feel comfortable yet poking my head out to say hi, perhaps because I don’t really know how to introduce myself. "Hi, I’m the mother of a son who probably isn’t autistic (but might be)!" Seems insensitive at best and doltish at worst.
  • Irritation: There is a very small minority of blogs that I keep reading because they irritate me, but in a good way. I often disagree with what the writer is saying, but I always come away feeling enlivened and stimulated.
  • Small Potatoes: I don’t bother with the really big-name bloggers (the last thing they need is more readers!), but one of my favourite blogging treats is to find a brand new blog and leave the very first comment.
  • A Partially Completed Graduate Degree: Okay, so I don’t actively look for that, it’s just something that happens to be shared by a surprisingly large percentage of the bloggers I love.

So what about you? How do you decide what to read?

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Unapologetic

I have a policy of not opening my door to strangers. There are various reasons for this policy, with safety concerns coming in considerably farther down the list than my desire to avoid Animal Control representatives attempting to enforce my city’s absurd cat-licensing laws. No matter how often I remind myself that I am under no obligation to talk to random people who knock on my door, there’s always a kind of siege mentality when I hunker down in the basement while someone bangs on the door, rings the doorbell, and then bangs on the door some more. That anxiety is proportionally higher when I’m lying on the couch in full view with the door open and my children prattling happily on the floor, as I was this afternoon when two pleasant young gentlemen came by. They knocked. They rang. They knocked again. During this time, Bub asked to play the piano, so I put both children up on the piano bench and they banged away happily. Finally, having inexplicably failed to take the hint that I wasn’t interested in talking to them, one of the young gentlemen said, "We teach families about Jesus Christ. Are you interested?"

I wasn’t.

"Thanks for your kindness and hospitality!" he called out as he left, and as I was processing the fact that he had just been sarcastic with me for choosing to spend my time playing with my children rather than talking to men in creepy-looking suit-and-backpack combos, he added (in case I had missed it), "That was a JOKE by the way!"

I guess I should count myself lucky that he didn’t call me "bitch."

Once they were gone, I checked my mailbox to see if they’d left any pamphlets with a number I could call to report them for rudeness and lame joke-telling (along with some advice – if you want converts, try scaling back the nastiness while you’re doing door-to-door evangelism).

Those men are two reasons I often get all flushed and sweaty before admitting that I’m a Christian. The Christian homeschooling mommy-blogs I occasionally stumble across often provide additional fuel to my instinct to duck for cover (suffice it to say that I didn’t feel the need to ask permission from my husband or my father before starting a blog, nor do I plan any posts in the near future extolling the virtues of wifely submission). I’ve made no secret of my faith, of course, but every allusion to church or Sunday School, to C.S. Lewis or my high-school youth group has been the result of some exasperated self-talk (along the lines of "Stop being such a coward/ninny/sell-out"). After all, I know that you aren’t going to suddenly view me through a lens of stereotypes and presuppositions, assuming that as a Christian I must be a cross between Mandy Moore in Saved and Kirk Cameron in Left Behind. You are open-minded people, capable of discussing religion without judgment or rancour. Some of you are even – gasp! – Christians yourselves.

The possibility for civilized and open-minded discussion has been most recently demonstrated by a pair of posts from Blog Antagonist and Veronica Mitchell about the relationship between faith and science (or, more particularly, Christianity and evolution). And since BA has put out a call for further posts on this topic, I’ve been wondering if I have anything to say about it (and, I’ll admit, I’ve wondered whether the topic would simply drive my readers away in droves). Like Veronica, I don’t believe that the first two chapters of Genesis were ever meant to be seen as a literal play-by-play of real events. Which is not to say that I dismiss them, but rather that their meaning lies elsewhere for me than in the various hotly contested debates about the age of the earth or the precise length a "day" might have before the invention of the sun.

In the beginning, God created heaven and earth. … And God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. (He seems kind of surprised, there, doesn’t he? As if he put the conditions of the world in place, intervening here and there to cut off some possibilities and realize others, but mostly let the world unfold itself, even incorporating a degree of randomness so that the process would be as rewarding as the product. And each day ended with the same words: "And God saw that it was good." A surprisingly hedonistic text, this one.)

Right now, I am sitting at my kitchen table, and I can see the maple tree on my front lawn. In autumn, that tree turns scarlet; in winter, the bare branches let the sunlight through to flood my living room with light. The first chapter of Genesis tells me that I’m not alone; my joy in the colour of that tree is shared with the One who made me. The delicious smell of the Pie’s smooth skin, the way she reminds me of chocolate and graham crackers, is a side-effect of hormones that serve an evolutionary purpose, tying me to my baby, ensuring her survival, and thus the potential for my DNA to be passed on to the next generation. But it’s not just that. Evolution may tell me how my brain was formed, but it tells me nothing of why (except when, occasionally, it steps beyond the boundaries of science to insist that there is no why – that there is only competition and natural selection; science concerns itself only with what can be observed and measured and proven, but it isn't scientific to say that what can be observed and measured proven is all that there is).

My baby’s velvet skin has meaning and purpose; it is why the world was made. She is very good.

Monday, August 28, 2006

If Conversation Be the Food of Love, Talk On

I’ve always been afraid of snowmobiles. Once, while I was walking through a pedestrian walkway on my way home from school, two snowmobiles came roaring down the path (illegally, I’m sure), and I reacted the only way I knew how: I threw my backpack over the fence and then scrambled over myself. Only after the roar of the engines died away in the distance did I notice my best friend standing calmly and rationally on the snowbank at the side of the walkway, rolling her eyes at me in disgust.

During my first marriage, snowmobiles became a point of contention. My position was that (a) we don’t have $4000 to spend on a snowmobile, (b) if you choose to borrow $4000 to buy a snowmobile, you need to tell me about it and not keep it a secret for two weeks, and (c) once you reveal the existence of the snowmobile, you really can’t expect me to ride it – not, at least, if you’ve ever met me before and thus realize that the only thing I hate more than fast-moving machinery is being frozen on a fast-moving machine.

I always considered it shallow and unreasonable of then-husband to expect me to accompany him on his various camping, bungee-jumping, and snowmobiling excursions. I had never pretended to be an outdoorsy or athletic type, and I couldn’t see why it mattered. Since then, I’ve realized that it did matter: for him, these peak experiences were not mere hobbies – they were essential to his well-being; they made him feel fully alive, and it was important the he be able to share such experiences with his partner. Long conversations over a candlelit dinner just weren’t going to cut it for him.

Since anniversaries are a time to reflect on the state of one’s marriage, I’ve been thinking about the currencies of marriage – the habits and activities that promote a sense of intimacy. I think I’ve always measured my relationships with family, friends, romantic partners in terms of word-count: talking is the currency my heart most readily recognizes. And this goes back a long way, to the days when the purpose of liking a boy was to have secrets to whisper at sleep-overs, to create an inner circle of girlfriends to whom such top-secret information could be entrusted. In the same way, my relationship with my mother was negotiated over the dishes: each night after supper when I picked up the tea towel, the problems of my day would be dissected, analyzed, put into their proper place. It was a comforting (and one-sided) ritual of talking and listening; our hands were busy and our tongues wagged freely.

In my dating relationships (all two of them), the qualities I sought were similarly conversational: I was looking for someone who would converse with me about books and politics and religion (and I underestimated the extent to which an interest in such subjects might be feigned by someone whose ultimate goal was less, um, verbal). After my first date with the ex-husband, I reported to my diary the topics of conversation covered: "At the end, he went on a tangent about how everyone is different and you have to know what will make you happy, which is why he’s learning to play the drums, and that got a little tedious, but other than that, here’s what we talked about: (1) Italy, (2) alcohol, (3) hockey, (4) the crisis at Oka, (5) school, (6) writing, (7) the secret of happiness."

Early-relationship conversation has to be its own genre, I think, incorporating several features that are no longer typical in the later, more comfortable, years:

  • Showing Off: This is the kind of conversation that is designed to display one’s intelligence, incisiveness, and wit. References to books and movies abound; ideally, one combines the arcane with the popular, analyzing the Nietzschean politics of Survivor, for instance, or the faulty theology of Pearl Jam’s "Last Kiss," so as to seem well-read yet ironic.
  • Mutual Discovery: As Harry puts it in When Harry Met Sally, this is the part where "she tells you all her stories, you tell her your stories." (For Harry, the story-exchange occurs post-coitally, which is why he panicked after having sex with Sally – what do you say to a woman you’ve just had sex with if you’ve already heard all her stories?)
  • Compliments: Ah, the wonderful language of compliments. I understand that there are some husbands who continue to compliment their wives even after the initial getting-to-know you period is over. Fortunately for me, I have a husband of exceptional foresight who warned me in advance that he hates to repeat himself, so once he had comprehensively complimented every aspect of my appearance and personality, the well would run dry. In this he spoke nothing but the truth (and luckily, I wrote all his compliments down for future reference).

To return to Harry’s question, though, what do you talk about once you already know one another’s stories? When all the compliments have been paid, and when the need to show off has blessedly subsided, what is left for a husband and wife to say to one another?

Without including the words exchanged for purely utilitarian purposes ("Do I need to pick up anything for supper?" "Did Bub have a nap this afternoon?" "Don’t forget to put extra soothers in the Pie’s crib."), I would estimate that around 60% of my conversation with my husband revolves around the children: their sweet and winning ways, their latest milestones, their status as evidence of our amazing genetic compatibility. (About a year ago, I asked hubby to come up with a new compliment. It took him a few days, but he finally managed it: If I died, he said, he’d be reluctant to have more children with his second wife, because once you’ve found the perfect genetic combination, you really don’t want to mess with it. Technically, that’s not a compliment for me so much as for (a) the children and (b) my DNA, but I’m willing to take what I can get.)

The other 40% divides as follows: me boring him with talk about blogging (20%); him boring me with talk about comic books/card games/movies about comic book heroes (10%); fun conversations on topics of mutual interest (10%). Ten percent seems like a fairly low number, really. Clearly we need a few more shared topics of conversation. The return of the fall television schedule should be a good start; even better would be a few social gatherings that would produce the kind of gossipy post-analysis that we used to indulge in with so much enjoyment. One of the hazards of procreation is that our social life is conducted separately: I go out to the spa with my blogging buddies, he goes to the Versus tournament with his crew. When we do go out together, it’s for a romantic dinner that, far from providing conversation fodder, simply highlights the lack of it.

So what do you talk about with your spouse? Any ideas for a conversation-deprived wife?

Friday, August 25, 2006

The Mathematics of Attraction

So I’ve officially beaten my old record – as of today, I’ve been married for six years, and I’m celebrating by draping cold cloths on my husband’s feverish brow while he battles the flu. (At least that’s better than our fourth anniversary, which I spent hurling into the sink. Something about this late August weather must be conducive to illness.)

So who is this man I’m married to?

It’s an astonishingly difficult question to answer. Part of my difficulty in selecting husbands is that I focus too much on the quality of the relationship and not enough on the quality of the man. Having made a disastrous first choice based on those criteria, I resolved that difficulty the second time around by relying on the superior judgment of my mother and best friend, both of whom gave now-husband the stamp of approval. A fortunate thing, really, since I was in love and thus was not only incapable of objectivity but possibly also incapable of heeding their warnings if he had deserved a thumbs-down.

The same principle holds true now: I find it nearly impossible to describe who my husband is, but I have little difficulty analyzing the state of our particular union. We have a working partnership: we can depend upon one another to pick up bread and milk at the grocery store, to wipe a runny nose, or to bring Starbucks home to perk up a bad day. (Okay, he’s the only one who does that. But sometimes I bring him a cookie – white chocolate macadamia nut – and I never eat more than half.) I worry that we’re too distant from one another, spending too much time with our noses buried in books. I love the way we laugh together about dozens of ridiculous things; I love the spontaneous games of twenty-questions that can be triggered in dozens of different ways. I miss watching Buffy and Lost and Survivor together, and I miss the inevitable post-show conversations even more. I would say that our relationship has followed the path dictated by my first-year psychology textbook: our commitment is high, our passion is low, and our intimacy is moderate.

But what about him? What’s he like?

This isn’t a question that many bloggers are able (or willing, perhaps) to answer. By and large, I know more about your mothers than I do about your husbands. Based on hints here and there, the occasional loving tribute or angry tirade, I know that some of you have hard, complicated marriages; I know of at least one who has put much of the bad stuff behind her; I know many who feel very lucky to be married to the kind of man who would get up in the night to launder a wet blankie. But I know very little of what these men are like themselves, as people rather than fathers and husbands.

Well, my philosophy as a blogger is: when in doubt, fall back on the old list of five.

Five Facts About My Husband
1) He prefers games to sports. Warhammer, Dungeons & Dragons, Settlers of Catan, Risk, card games, tabletop fantasy games, board games, role-playing games … if it’s a game he likes it. Especially if it has zombies.
2) Since he took over the duty of getting the Pie dressed in the morning, she has been wearing pretty dresses. Every day.
3) He will object to the inaccuracy of the above statement. Precision of language is important to him, and it’s an ideal I constantly violate. (People who exaggerate are more interesting, as my mother always says. Actually, she said it once about twenty years ago, and I’ve been quoting her ever since.)
4) He will refuse to see a movie if it (a) is described by reviewers as "heartwarming"; (b) focuses on an underdog football team that makes up for what they lack in talent with a whole lot of heart; or (c) ends with a romantic embrace while snow falls gently all around. He will make an exception, however, for films that are either (a) British, or (b) starring John Cusack.
5) A few months after we met, while we were officially "just friends" (but flirting outrageously), he sent me the following email in response to my casual, innocent observation that it is simpler for all parties concerned if it’s clearly understood that the man is responsible for making the first move to initiate a romantic relationship. He replied as follows:

Even when all the signs appear to be there, there's still a significant amount of risk, and when you consider the sort of risk it is (the rejection kind), I'm rather amazed at how often guys just go for it. Obviously we must be pretty nutso about the lot of you. Of course that's just my perspective I guess.

Here's a thought:

Let Dxy be the Degree of Attraction X (male) feels towards Y (female)
Let Dyx be the Degree of Attraction Y feels towards X
Let dx be the Datability Threshold of X
Let dy be the Datability Threshold of Y
Let Pxy be the Perceived Probability of Success of X
Let Syx be the Strength of Signals given by Y to X
Let Fx be the Fear of Rejection of X
Let By be the Base Flirtatiousness of Y

If Dyx > dy, then Syx = k * Dyx + By, for some constant k (often proportional to By)
If Dyx <= dy, then Syx = By

(Translation: If a woman likes a man enough to date him, she flirts more than usual; if not, she subsides to her base level of flirtation.)

Pxy = Syx * ou, where ou is the coefficient of over/underestimation

Fx varies positively with Dxy (i.e.. if Dxy < Dxy' then Fx < Fx', although it is not necessarily the case that there exists a 'c' such that Dxy = c * Fx)

(Translation: The more a man likes a woman, the greater his fear of rejection.)

If Dxy * Pxy / Fx >= Ta (Threshold of Action) and Dxy > dx, X will make a 'risk-move' towards Y.

(Translation: If a man likes a woman enough to date her, he will ask her out as soon as his perceived probability of success sufficiently outstrips his fear of rejection.)

As an interesting corollary, as Dxy increases, Pxy becomes increasingly insignificant. Hence in circumstances of intense attraction, actual signals may become insignificant. For a fellow with a fear function of O(n^2), the more attracted he is to a woman, the less likely he is to act, whereas a man with an O(log n) fear function is increasingly driven.

Which is to say not much of anything, but it sure amused the hell out of me.

That may tell you all you need to know about my husband – and if I add that the receipt of this email may in fact have been one of the most exciting and happy moments of my life, that may tell you all you need to know about me.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Bub's First Science Fair Project

Purpose: To consume as little lunch as possible, while simultaneously preventing the consumption of food by other family members.

Method:
1) Refuse all food directly offered to the Experimenter.
2) Express avid interest in any food being consumed by the Experimenter’s Baby Sister.
3) Engage in elaborate games with the food; scream when food is taken away; scream louder if food is offered to Baby Sister; under no circumstances allow food to pass the Experimenter’s lips.

Observations:
Stage 1: Shredded Cheese

Success was achieved in diverting food from the Baby Sister’s tray to the Experimenter’s plate. Upon extensive manipulation, cheese proved to bear a strong resemblance to Play-Doh. When dropped to the floor, food failed to make a satisfying splat sound or to stick to mama’s feet when stepped on.
Satisfaction Rating: B+
Stage 2: Banana
Success was achieved in diverting banana from the Baby Sister’s tray to the Experimenter’s plate. Attempts to arrange peel in pleasing artistic pattern were continually interrupted by parental admonitions to "Take a bite or I’ll give it to your sister." Solemn retort of "No, it’s [Bub’s] banana" proved to be less successful than anticipated.
Satisfaction Rating: C-

Conclusions:
This experiment has proven that mama is almost as gullible as the Experimenter had projected. Further experiments should be designed to test the effectiveness of a more varied methodology in diverting food from those who might actually consume it.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Never Such Innocence Again



Those cheeks! That tummy! I often catch myself poking and squeezing all the chubby bits on my children – their delicious dimpled elbows, their plump, sturdy thighs. At first this was a matter of professional pride: at six months of age, my eighteen-pound babies were made of pure breastmilk, and each roll and dimple was a hard-won accomplishment. Nowadays the curve of Bub’s leg is leaner, and the Pie’s round belly is full of cereal and banana rather than mother’s milk, but still I love the roundness and softness of them. I think it’s because their bodies are so unguarded – so innocent and guileless, so totally without artifice. The Pie doesn’t know how to suck in her tummy; when she’s had a good supper she leans back coyly, chin down and belly outthrust. She might even pat her tummy fondly with her tiny open hand. My babies have not yet learned to prepare a face to meet the faces that they meet; their faces are transparent, registering each ripple of emotion, and at rest their cheeks are soft, slack, tender.



But the end of the innocence is coming. A few nights ago at the park, we passed by a father playing soccer with his two children. The ball skittered across our path and Bub started to go after it but then paused uncertainly when he saw the kids’ father heading in the same direction. "It’s okay," the man said. "You can try it!" Bub stared at him quizzically, unmoving, so the man kicked the ball our way. Hesitantly, Bub gave it a little nudge with his toe, and the ball rolled away a few feet. Gaining confidence, he set off after it more exuberantly, rearing back for a mighty kick – and then somehow he was all akimbo, legs splayed across the ball, and he tumbled gently to the ground. It wasn’t a painful fall, but when Bub stood up his crestfallen expression was unmistakable: the tips of mouth pointed downwards and his lip trembled ever so slightly as he looked back and forth from me to the children and their father.

That’s when I realized it: my son was embarrassed, possibly for the first time in his life. I quickly praised him for a good effort, and he sidled over to me, timidly asking for a hug. A few moments later, he was hurtling joyously down the path, bellowing, "Where are we going? To the playground! Where are we going? To the playground!" But I haven’t forgotten that moment, that face. Until now, Bub has barreled through life, head down, eyes fixed on his puzzle, book, or toy, mostly oblivious to the attitudes and opinions of those around him. Now, he’s becoming more socially aware, for which I am so deeply, deeply grateful, alert as always for signs of an autistic spectrum disorder. But his developing awareness has a price. His face is a bit more set than it was a few short months ago. He’s losing his baby fat, and his innocence; he’s beginning to arrange his face into smiles and frowns that serve a social, rather than merely an expressive, purpose. And that moment on the playground, where his sheer physical exuberance was suddenly paralyzed by embarrassment, was only the first of many such moments. It's a huge responsibility to bring a child into a world that includes things like school dances. I used to have a book called Kisses That Miss and Other Awkward Moments, a book entirely devoted to the vast and deep topic of teenage embarrassment (including tips on how to handle such dilemmas as "The Gum That Started Out in His Mouth Ends Up in Yours"). Poor Bub. What have I done?



*****

A big, big thank-you to Kristen and John of Fringelements for my beautiful new banner. You can check out their website by clicking on the pretty red button over on the sidebar!

Monday, August 21, 2006

Am I Bored?

A Perfect Post

I’ve been asking myself this question since reading Rebecca Eckler’s column in The Globe and Mail this weekend. Picking up on Helen Kirwan-Taylor’s notorious article in Britain’s Daily Mail, Eckler interviews various mothers (tapping into the blogosphere for at least some of her sources) who candidly describe the unbearable tedium of hours spent in the company of toddlers while mommy’s brain gradually turns into Play-doh.

So. Am I bored?

Quick answer: all the time. I am a notorious multi-tasker, able to tolerate my children’s company only if I’m armed with a crossword in one hand and a Sudoku in the other. Before I began blogging, I could at least convince myself that there was value to my particular approach to child-rearing: I am setting the example of reading, I would tell myself virtuously – and then turn the page and dig back into Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year or maybe Catherine Newman’s Waiting for Birdy or Andrea Buchanan’s anthology of essays, It’s a Boy. (The irony is not lost on me that I find it far more entertaining to read about parenthood than actually to DO it.)

I can sit down with Bub and work on a puzzle for maybe three minutes before I get all restless and twitchy; I can read a book to the Pie once or twice, but by the third request I find myself remembering all kinds of household tasks that require urgent attention. (Unloading the dishwasher is scintillating work compared to singing endless rounds of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat.")

"My problem," I told my husband the other day, "is that I’m incapable of actually paying attention to my children, and yet I think about them all the time." In my head there is a constantly looping soundtrack of observations and anecdotes. My brain is full of language acquisition charts against which I anxiously measure Bub’s progress, and I’m constantly collecting data on the Pie’s developing personality, trying to pin down her Myers-Briggs type before her second birthday (right now, odds are that she’ll be an INFJ like her mother, but I like to fantasize that she’ll turn out to be an adventurous and warm-hearted ENFP, like Anne Shirley or Maria Von Trapp). I’m bored when I’m with my children, but I am never bored by them.

Nor do I see my boredom as a reason to spend more time away from my children. I do occasionally wonder if there are mothers who genuinely enjoy stacking blocks and tipping them over (and over and over), who take a sincere and wholehearted interest in driving Hot Wheels cars up the elevator and down the slide (repeat ad infinitum). Such women may exist (my home day-care provider appears to be one of them), and they are to be envied. But even so, I see boredom as an occupational hazard, not a sign that I’m ill-qualified for the job. Boredom is the price I pay for those moments of pure happiness that can’t be planned or predicted or (often) recreated – the sweetness of my daughter’s hand on my cheek, or the thrill of watching my son hesitantly throw a ball to a neighbourhood border collie, and then nearly burst with excitement when the dog bounds away in hot pursuit. I live for these moments … and I put in a lot of boring hours to get them.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

This is Your Brain on Testosterone

While I was reading the newspaper this weekend, my attention was grabbed by the headline, "Women: It’s all in their heads." It was a review of Louann Brizendine’s The Female Brain, a new book on the role of hormones in shaping women’s biological destiny. The male reviewer had gobbled down the book as if it were a bloody red steak; he repeatedly used the term "hard-wired" to describe male and female characteristics, rubbing his hands in glee at the news that men are "hard-wired" to be unfaithful to their wives, while women are wired to gossip and flirt. Setting aside the issue of whether "wiring" is an appropriate metaphor for something as fluid and adaptable as brain chemistry, I was annoyed as always by the attempt to claim the authority of hard science for this heavily rhetorical characterization of the "female brain" as a combination of Scarlett O’Hara and Mae West (with occasional, mellower strains of Ma Ingalls thrown in for good measure).

The article reached its greatest heights of absurdity in a sidebar entitled "Her Chemistry Set." The first character in the dramatis personae is Estrogen, the "aggressive seductress," followed by her "powerful sister," Progesterone, and Dhea, the "mother hormone." The members of this matriarchal family are characterized by turns as "frazzled," "sensitive," "luxurious," "soothing," or "secretive." Possibly my favourite item on the list is Androstenedione, which supplies "sassiness" in the pre-menopausal years, though the reviewer is careful to note that this quality "dies with the ovaries" (so if you’re under the impression that you know any sassy post-menopausal women, that simply indicates your enslavement to an unscientific feminist ideology).

Men don’t exactly get off lightly, however: Brizendine claims that their brains develop normally until eight weeks’ gestation, when the tsunami of testosterone hits, wiping out the centres of the brain that control socialization and language acquisition. This event is referred to in the article as a "toga party with killer kegs of testosterone" (keep in mind that these are eight-week old fetuses frying their brains on testosterone). We are left to marvel at how well men manage to cope in a society that thwarts their natural predilection to be violent, anti-social serial rapists. Despite the brain damage they suffer in utero, a remarkable number of men go on to become productive members of society. Some of them even eventually learn to talk.

But not very well, apparently. Perhaps the most interesting scientific "fact" in the article is this statistic: men use an average of 7,000 words per day. Women use 20,000. And women talk twice as fast as men, at a rate of 250 words per minute versus men’s plodding drawl of 125. That’s the idea that will stay with me, long after I’ve forgotten all about those coquettish hormones flipping their hair and showing their cleavage – the sheer weight of all those words spoken, day in and day out, by women who are verbally running rings around their poor, slack-jawed husbands.

Sound familiar, anyone?

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

In high school I thought about writing my English independent study project on Harlequin romances. I intended to argue that there were only six plots, all of which took their origin in a Jane Austen novel:

  • The Instant Antagonism Plot (Pride and Prejudice): Demure young nun meets stern ex-naval captain and their immediate mutual antipathy is a sure indication that they are in fact highly compatible soul mates.
  • The Previous Engagement Plot (Sense and Sensibility): (Paris, 1940) Handsome young man meets lovely young lady but a previous commitment gets in the way.



  • The Wallflower Plot (Mansfield Park): Nice young man gets distracted by dashing, clever, beautiful woman while painfully shy heroine suffers in silence (or, occasionally, attracts the notice of dashing, clever, but ruthless cad).
  • The Foolish Misunderstanding Plot (Northanger Abbey): Naïve and heedless lovers are nearly parted by their shared inability to communicate clearly or divulge important information in a timely manner.
  • The Just-a-Friend Plot (Emma): Highly compatible couple is unable to recognize their love because they are under the impression that they are just friends.
  • The Blast from the Past Plot (Persuasion): Old flame returns to town, rekindles old passion.

The Persuasion plot was always a favourite of mine, back in my Harlequin-reading days. One problem with the Harlequin formula is that it requires every interaction between hero and heroine to be a relationship-advancing event. There’s nothing worse than reading about a romantic date between two people who like each other and spend their time learning about one another through conversation about their hobbies and past relationships. In a romance novel, couples learn about one another through accidental discoveries, and their conversations take the form of sparring matches, each interaction heightening the sexual tension and raising the stakes. Unfortunately, there’s a finite number of relationship-advancing events that can occur in any given relationship: (1) first impression (positive); (2) creation of antipathy; (3) initial expression of romantic interest; (4) misunderstanding; (5) resolution of misunderstanding (sex); (6) uncertainty about level of commitment; (7) resolution of uncertainty about level of commitment (The End). Hence the two-week time period covered by most Harlequins – it’s simply impossible to keep fictional characters from getting engaged for any longer than seven interactions. And as skilled as I am in the suspension of disbelief, as a romance reader I always felt a bit troubled by this rush into matrimony. I found it much more reassuring when characters had a long, buried history that they could unravel and resolve in that two-week period.

Inexplicably, my English teacher discouraged me from my Harlequin/Austen project, directing me instead toward a rather dry analysis of war novels written from the home front perspective. But I was reminded of my list last night after watching The Devil Wears Prada, a film that employs a newly ubiquitous chick-lit plot not covered by my supposedly exhaustive list. The happy ending of a good old-fashioned romantic comedy is the union of hero and heroine, but in these novels (and their film adaptations) the happy ending is the heroine’s break-up with her significant other: her job. From The Undomestic Goddess to I Don’t Know How She Does It to Something Borrowed and Something Blue, novels employing this plot depict women in the grip of an abusive workplace from which they must escape by (a) moving away from the city, (b) wearing comfortable clothes, and (c) having a baby/learning to cook/writing a novel.



And here’s the cue for my startlingly incisive analysis of the corporate culture that has produced this trend and the post-feminist backlash these novels perpetuate – except that I don’t really know why this plot gets written again and again, or even why I find it so strangely compelling. Do I like these stories because they affirm my own career decisions (to live in a small city, to slide onto the mommy track)? Plausible, but somehow I don’t think so. The Devil Wears Prada is full of eye-candy – it’s a tantalizing glimpse into a lifestyle enjoyed by very few, a lifestyle of catching yellow cabs in the big city, wearing stilettos and hobnobbing with the rich and powerful. And yet envy is always kept firmly at bay in these stories by the comforting moral that the life of an ambitious, successful lawyer/financier/journalist is ultimately soul-crushing and empty, that the price is paid at home in the divorces and custody battles. What could be more tantalizing fare for four moms out for a rare night at the movies than a wish-fulfillment fantasy that ultimately tells us we already have it all?

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Beloved

A Perfect Post

Her Bad Mother’s recent post on the Eros of mothering has me thinking about the physical pleasures of motherhood. As always, her words are inspiring:

And I want to write about this, too: how my love for her is physical, desperately physical. How my love for her wants to cleave to her, always, to feel her pressed against me, her breath on my cheek, her tiny hands tangled in my hair, her wee proud belly warm against my chest.

Did anyone – can anyone – read those words without feeling a shock of recognition? And yet when I grope for words of my own, what I keep bumping into is the reality that the physical part of motherhood has been slow in coming for me. In pregnancy, I gave my body over joyfully, loving the little rippling stream of kicks and hiccups, the feel of a sharp elbow tickling my belly button. I felt healthy and glowing and unbelievably powerful; I reveled in my ability to eat an entire French Breakfast combo at a single sitting (three eggs over easy, hash browns, bacon and sausage, French toast with maple syrup, and a side order of brown toast with strawberry jam).

And then I gave birth, and traded that glorious enceinte body for a ravaged wreck. The stitches from my episiotomy protested every time I tried to move; my arms quivered with the effort of holding a spoon. What overwhelmed me then and for months thereafter was how heavy my baby felt in my arms. Two months to the day after he was born, Bub weighed in at fifteen pounds, and my aching shoulders and back and tailbone gave shrieking testimony to the sheer heft of this unwieldy burden. In my bath, I cautiously touched the lopsided skin over my collapsed uterus, and felt unbearably lonely.

I cried the first time I realized that breastfeeding occupied eight hours of my day. And I cried when I realized that I was spending every minute of my baby’s naps on the computer, trying to rescue some semblance of an adult life. If my cat tried to curl up on my lap, purring and nudging my chin with her nose, I was flooded with hatred because the one thing I absolutely could not stand was anyone else demanding something from my body – comfort, pleasure, nurture, companionship.

Bub, too, came slowly to the kind of love that expresses itself in hugs and kisses, in the quiet cleaving of one body to another. His was a head that never willingly rested on a shoulder; always, always, his body struggled for independence. Occasionally, at a playgroup, he would sit on my lap, calm and still as he watched the riotous two- and three-year-olds gamboling like kittens. More often, he demanded to be carried around the room, facing out so that he could survey the changing scenery. When I think of his infancy now, I see the two of us chained together like inmates of a medieval dungeon, struggling inexpertly to arrange ourselves, limbs splayed awkwardly, those pesky iron shackles chafing our necks and wrists.

It worried me, once, that I never felt the urge to kiss my children. With my eyes, I worshipped them, their round cobalt eyes, their butterscotch hair. My heart swelled painfully at the touch of a small hand on my shoulder. After the Pie was born I joyously reclaimed my lap, loving the way Bub fitted so neatly in the space his sister had so recently vacated. But my babies’ cheeks, as round as apples, remained mostly unkissed, and only with a conscious effort could I form my mouth into the words "I love you."

I’ve been learning, over the last few months, to press kisses into those soft warm cheeks, to nibble softly on those plump, smooth toes. But I don’t think I will ever be the kind of parent Catherine Newman describes in Bringing Up Ben and Birdy:

A few nights ago I was at a dinner party where a friend had brought her two teenagers, a boy and a girl. And they were just so beautiful, these kids. I mean, sure, they looked very teenager — army-surplus type clothing, vaguely menacing expressions, that funny kind of hiding posture. But after dinner they sat on the floor, curled sleepily around their mother while she talked with her grown-up friends. And they rested their heads in her lap, calm and relaxed, while she absent-mindedly stroked their hair, and I thought: that's what I hope for. For my body to be that kind of home the children can return to, for as long as they want.

The boundaries of my body are more sharply defined than that. I cannot sleep, as she does, sprawled on a bed with the sweet breath of toddlers enmeshed in my own, their smooth, chubby limbs nestled against the softness of my belly. The grief of parturition, for me, is that for whatever reason I cannot share my body with my children; at best I can loan it out from time to time, bridging that separateness for a few brief, ecstatic moments when a tired head rests on my chest or a cheek sticky with bananas and applesauce finds its way into the curve of my neck.

But for all that, Bub and I are finding our way together. We are better at the side-by-side than we are at the face-to-face. Each night when it’s time for his story he lies down beside me, two heads on one pillow, and keeps time with his own book, turning each page as I do, his motions synchronized carefully to mine. The Pie, walking sturdily on her own two feet, is learning the language of smiles and glances, her laughter beckoning to me across the space between our bodies. And in that separateness, my children are also finding each other, leaving the occasional bruise as they clamber over one another, testing their strength in numerous bouts of tug-of-war. The Pie ripples with laughter as her brother’s impatient slaps morph into an impromptu game of patty-cake. They are puzzle pieces, all flailing arms and legs yet fitting together perfectly in those moments of quietness when they discover the joy of warmth and companionship and love. And I look on, humbled and appreciative but always, a little bit, on my own.

Monday, August 14, 2006

A Domesticated Goddess

I had a few moments to myself this weekend (at last!), and I spent them reading Sophie Kinsella’s The Undomestic Goddess. After last month’s lament that I should have gone to law school, this novel provided a pleasant antidote. Though the premise of the novel is that an up-and-coming lawyer ditches her career to become a housekeeper, the moral is simply that there is both value and pleasure in such tasks as cleaning and baking. More to the point, there is a strange but real pleasure in reading about housework. A few years ago I bought Home Comforts, an enormous tome of housewifely advice, not because I ever really planned to implement its mad regime (which involved, among other things, removing all items from the refrigerator and wiping it down with vinegar every week), but because I found it oddly entertaining to read about crisp sheets folded smoothly in closets, about beating the dust out of rugs on the front porch. Reading about food is, of course, even more enticing. If I chop a few vegetables into the slow cooker, that’s an unusually productive day for me, but I still enjoy reading about cloves of roasted garlic, baby mozzarella and extra-virgin olive oil, pine nuts and fresh basil, spiced Italian pancetta, pan-seared rainbow trout, hot bread fresh from the oven.

All of this is by way of celebration of my first day back as a SAHM. I’ve spent it cleaning my house properly for the first time in two months, and I’ve got a jar of organic spaghetti sauce and some 100% sirloin ground beef ready to go for supper, along with a stick of frozen garlic bread from M&M meat shop – a big improvement over the usual daily ritual of peering into the fridge optimistically at 5:30, hoping to find something edible, before finally settling on a cob of corn and a piece of old fort cheddar.

So I’m grateful, today, for my house and the time to clean it, and for the food that my family will eat for supper. And some of that gratitude is a response to the lovely meme started by A Severe Mary called Sleeping with Bread Monday. Here’s the back story:

During the bombing raids of WWII, thousands of children were orphaned and left to starve. The fortunate ones were rescued and placed in refugee camps where they received food and good care. But many of these children who had lost so much could not sleep at night. They feared waking up to find themselves once again homeless and without food. Nothing seemed to reassure them. Finally, someone hit upon the idea of giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, these children could finally sleep in peace. All through the night the bread reminded them, "Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow." (Linn, Dennis et al, Sleeping With Bread, p.l)

I love this idea of practicing gratitude, of remembering the things that nourish you and using those thing to help you sleep at night. And because I’m a very literal-minded person, I’ll start by cultivating gratitude for food and shelter and the time to be with my children, to prepare food for them to eat, to pull a dust cloth across my piano and leave a smooth, shining surface. I don’t think I can accurately identify what has been bringing me desolation lately – it could be the transition from working too much to working too little; it could be the aging process and the havoc it’s wreaking on my body; it could be my recent discovery that my ex-husband now calls himself Vlad (how does one recover, really, from the knowledge that one is Vlad’s ex-wife?). So for now I’ll focus on the things that bring me consolation. Because they do.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Umpire Mom

I first became interested in baseball in 1985. The Toronto Blue Jays were in the playoffs against the Kansas City Chiefs, and my first real baseball-stadium experience was a play-off game – fans stacked to the rafters, peanuts and popcorn, the whole works. I don’t tune into the games much anymore, but I was reminded the other day of that staple of the ball game, as traditional in its way as the seventh-inning stretch: the inevitable face-off between the coach and the umpire, both shouting, red-faced, their noses almost touching, spittle flying everywhere. "Why do they do it?" I asked my father once. The pointlessness of the argument amazed me – the umpire never reverses his call, yet the coach, displaying a phenomenal inability to learn from experience, continues to risk ejection from the game by jumping off the bench to berate the umpire’s stupidity and visual impairment.

"He’s not trying to reverse the call," my dad explained. "It’s the next call he’s trying to change."



It has occurred to me lately that the Bub may be taking a leaf out of the baseball coach’s playbook. My preferred method for dealing with his tantrums is non-reaction: I go about my business, taking little note of the 2-year-old volcano erupting in my kitchen. Certainly I do not give in to whatever he’s demanding (though occasionally he may think that I have – if, for instance, he’s flailing and screaming because instead of giving him an apple, I have the audacity to wash it off first). His tantrums do have their effect, though – they change my behaviour the next time the situation arises.

There is a set of "rules" that the Bub has managed to establish in our home. By following these rules, we can generally avoid the worst of the tantrums, a result which has, perhaps, blinded me to the toddler tyranny that’s beginning to take over my life:

  • Bub's Rule #1: If it’s in his hand, he can take it with him. Yesterday, for instance, Bub spent four hours holding onto a small yellow tomato that he had plucked from the vine – that tomato went with him to the beach and back again, and he surrendered it only after he got home and the Pie poked a hole in it with a pen (distributing the seedy contents onto our couch).
  • Bub's Rule #2: Under no circumstances is he to be lifted bodily from his bath. After several warnings and promises of a "towel hug," he will exit the bath under his own steam, in his own good time.
  • Bub's Rule #3: In the event of a brother-sister dispute over possession of a toy, whoever hangs on the tightest gets the toy. Fortunately for her, the Pie has learned to develop a very tight grip.
  • Bub's Rule #4: At mealtimes, he is to be offered a wide selection of food (noodles, bread, two flavours of yogourt, peas, lima beans, a peanut butter sandwich, macaroni and cheese, sliced cheese, and shredded cheese, an apple, a banana, and several clementine oranges), from which he will select as much or as little as he chooses, up to such time as he indicates "All done!" – at which point he is to be promptly released from the table.

If baseball coaches behave like two-year-olds, does it follow that a two-year-old can think like a baseball coach?

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Pity Parties (Then and Now)

When I was seventeen, my Sunday School teacher suggested that I keep a log of how I spend my time. The purpose of the exercise, I think, was to demonstrate that everyone has time to do a half hour of daily devotions, but my log raised some rather different issues. Instead of the expected record of football games and high-school dances, my typical entry went something like this:

6:30: Get up, wash hair, eat breakfast.
8:00–3:00: School.
3:00–5:00: Hang out at Carolyn’s house, lounging on her waterbed and talking about how much we hate our lives because (a) we aren’t popular, and (b) no boys like us.
5:00–8:00: Supper, homework.
8:00–10:00: Talk on the phone with BFF about how much we hate our lives because (a) we aren’t popular, and (b) no boys like us.
10:00–10:30: Cry.
10:30: Lights out.

(It strikes me now that being a new mom is not entirely unlike being a teenager, what with the freakishly sudden changes in the size and shape of our bodies, along with that lethal cocktail of hormones messing with our emotions.)

The point I’m trying to make here is that I had more than my share of teenage angst. But what I don’t remember feeling is any real sense of body-shame (apart from a general longing for larger breasts). I did have some pretty terrible perms back in the day, and there were mornings that I ended up throwing my hairbrush at the bathroom wall because no amount of back-combing would persuade my bangs to stand up any higher than two inches from the top of my head. Hair problems aside, though, I knew I was pretty. And I also knew that – contrary to nearly every teenage movie from Pretty in Pink to Some Kind of Wonderful neither beauty nor wealth had any real currency in the cutthroat politics of my high school. Clothes mattered more than looks, and what mattered more than either was cruelty – the casual cruelty of the barbed witticism, the devastatingly subtle snub, the ability to deflect ridicule from oneself onto others. Being pretty in a sweet, romantic way was worse than useless.

Upon escaping from high school, I landed, almost instantly, in the arms of the ex-husband. And for a very long time, I couldn’t believe my luck. A boy actually liked me! As absurd as that reaction sounds, a part of me still marvels at the sheer improbability of it – that a girl might like a boy and somehow, by monstrous coincidence, he might like her back. Marriage is even more astonishing. It’s a mind-boggling compliment, really, that anyone would like another person enough to forsake all others until death do them part. Were it not for that potent mix of hormones and endorphins disrupting all rational thought processes, I don’t think anyone could do it.

In the midst of what became a rather bleak marriage, I continued to feel exceptionally fortunate to be married at all, as if I had, at age 22, only narrowly escaped old-maidenhood. At the same time, from the safe vantage point of my married status, I finally learned how to converse comfortably and naturally with men, and began – rather late in life – to notice those subtle signs of interest, the signals that some of these men might, if I were single, have asked me on a date.

And then, one day, I was single, and I became aware for the first time that the kind of quiet, brainy men I might be interested in might actually be interested in me. Might consider me a catch, even. I was still jaded and bitter in those post-break-up days, wearing a lot of black clothing and navy blue nail polish. I got contact lenses so that I could tell the ex-husband that "Men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses." Food held no interest for me for months, and I found myself buying size six jeans and fitting into them comfortably. And I started to be aware of my power – to see now-husband stop breathing every time I smiled.

And the point of this, really, is to find a way to express my grief, that punched-in-the-gut feeling I’ve had for the last twenty-four hours. Because it’s gone – that power is gone, and it’s not coming back. I often joke about losing my looks – I see those seven grey hairs, that puckery skin around my eyes, or I look at a photo taken in 1998 and I say, "That was the pinnacle. I had never looked better and I’ll never look that good again." But I don’t mind. I’m okay with it. I’m still pretty. But – I now realize – I’m no longer marketable. If hubby were to be struck down tomorrow I might conceivably find a nice widower with seven children who’d be willing to take me on, but he’d be no Captain von Trapp, and he’d never tell me he’d fallen for me the instant I sat down on that stupid pine cone.



What I’m reacting to, maybe, is my new perception of the balance of power in my marriage. Hubby always made much of the fact that I was the more attractive of the two of us. When we first began dating, he asked for a photo so he could practice looking at me without getting tongue-tied. He posted that picture on his desk at work and then told me how his boss picked it up one day and showed it to a co-worker, shaking his head in disbelief and asking, "Does this seem right to you?"

Hubby’s looks haven’t changed much since those days. He’s five years younger than I am and he’s got the kind of looks that will age well. I knew going into this marriage that someday his marketability would surpass mine. I just didn’t realize it would happen this soon.

(The foregoing pity party is the result of the following conversation, which took place last night at around 8 pm:
Me (poking tummy):
Hey! My tummy feels like a waterbed! Touch it!
Hubby (putting forth one finger, very hesitantly): Yeah. Weird.
Me (patting tummy enthusiastically): It’s kind of fun, the way it goes all sloshy. Do it again!
Hubby (pulling hand back hastily): No, thanks. It kind of freaks me out.)

Thursday, August 10, 2006

A Hogwarts Guide to Infant Care

After the Bub was born, hubby and I tended to recharge our batteries each evening by watching an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Television, I had learned, was an exercise in frustration – invariably Bub would awaken just as the immunity challenge had ended, and I would trudge upstairs, seething and guilty, to feed my baby while the survivors lit their tiki torches for tribal council. Our Buffy DVDs were much more practical (thanks to the lovely "pause" button), and we worked our way through one season after another, occasionally violating our two-episode per day limit during the run-up to the season finale. One episode featured an especially deadly, drug-addicted vampire shut up behind a brick wall. Every so often he would awaken from his stupor with a roar, and his keeper would pull open a little gate and feed him his pills on a spoon. I had the strangest sense that he reminded me of someone, and then I figured it out. Oh, right … the baby.



That déja vu feeling hit me again the other day as I contemplated the Dementors in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. These shadowy hooded figures – a mix between the Grim Reaper and the Dark Riders of The Lord of the Rings – feed on human suffering: they can suck out your soul by administering the dreaded "Kiss," but more often they simply suck all the joy and happiness and hope out of your life, leaving you a maddened, gibbering shell of your former self.

Maybe it’s best if I omit the part of this post where I explain that reference, recalling memories of the days when I would meet my husband at the door saying "Here!" and shove the baby into his arms while I sprinted to the car, sobbing, and took refuge at Starbucks.

Moving on.

Yet another Harry Potter metaphor has been bobbing around in my brain since I read Kittenpie’s post on the decision to have a second child. One of the less talked-about reasons to have more children is the Insurance Policy. We all know the saying – having a child is like agreeing to allow your heart to walk around outside your body. And the point of the saying, really, is that this is obviously a very unsafe thing to do. Even if you lock up your heart in the Dead Man’s Chest and bury it on a deserted island, there’s still an uncomfortable amount of mucking about that goes on. And if you just let your heart wander around the neighbourhood, or send it to school one day - not to mention college – there are entirely too many opportunities to get your heart pinched and bruised and stamped on and snuffed out. And so, for some of us, the obvious solution is to break off a few extra pieces of the old heart as a back-up, an insurance policy. The ideal thing, really, would be to have six or seven bits of my heart stored carefully in separate locations (and never permitted to enter the same car or, worse, plane).

And this is where I get that uncomfortable prickly feeling. What does that remind me of? And then I realize – my children are Horcruxes, the dark magic talismans into which Voldemort divided his soul. As the sixth novel in the series has revealed, the Dark Lord managed to survive the killing curse by storing bits of his soul in various objects: a locket, a snake, a notebook, a ring. As long as even one of those objects survives, he remains immortal, but his existence is a shadowy half-life, with no body to call his own, no independent agency, no freedom.

Okay, so that’s totally different. Not like motherhood at all. Right? Right?

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The Book Nook

That’s the title of a column I used to write for my church youth group magazine. It was a brilliant ploy, since it gave me an excuse to call Mr. Converse-shoes (editor/beloved) on the phone, and then to talk to him at least once a month. And it wasn’t a bad little column, for a fifteen-year-old (I recall with some pride that I reviewed C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters; I feel somewhat less proud of a glowing review I gave to a biography of a slave who loyally stuck by her former owners for decades after the end of the Civil War).

Anyway. It’s also the title I’m giving this fun little book meme I’ve been tagged for by Veronica at Toddled Dredge.

1. One book that changed your life: David Keirsey’s Please Understand Me II, which introduced me to the Myers-Briggs personality types, forever changed the way I see myself and others, and persuaded me that it was safe to marry my husband.

2. One book that you've read more than once: I’m a compulsive re-reader – given the choice I’d always prefer to re-read an old favourite rather than dip into the chilly waters of a brand-new book. That said, the book I’ve read more often than any other is Anne of Green Gables.



3. One book you would want on a desert island: For a desert island, it would have to be poetry – something I’d never get tired of. Is it cheating to say The Complete Works of William Shakespeare? If I had to pick just one play, it would be King Lear.

4. One book that made you laugh: The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 and 3/4. I borrowed it from my high-school library and it was my first introduction to British humour, my first step through the door that led to Blackadder and Monty Python, Jeeves & Wooster and Bridget Jones. For the first hundred pages or so I was totally unamused, and then suddenly I got it – and I was rendered helpless with laughter every time I picked it up thereafter.

5. One book that made you cry: Many, many books have made me cry over the years, but none more so than Rilla of Ingleside. The last of several sequels to Anne of Green Gables, this novel follows Anne’s youngest daughter through the First World War. When I had to get into character as the weepy Madeleine in my high-school production of Nicholas Nickleby, this was the story I told some hapless stagehand in order to get the tears flowing. All I have to do is say the words "Little Dog Monday" and I get all choked up. (Without giving away any plot spoilers, I can tell you that when Jem Blythe goes off to war, his Little Dog Monday takes up residence at the local train station so he can dash out to greet each and every train until his master comes home.)



6. One book that you wish had been written: Emma, the novel Charlotte Brontë was working on when she died. It exists now only in fragmentary form, but it’s intriguing, so intriguing – a more acerbic narrative voice than her other novels, and a mixed-race heroine of mysterious origins.

7. One book that you wish had never been written: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. I had to read this book for an American literature course I took in the summer of 1991. It was my first time living on my own, alone in the attic of an otherwise unfurnished student house. Each night I pulled the downstairs phone out of the wall to prevent intruders from taking the receiver off the hook and wedged shut the door at the foot of my stairway. That cut off all escape in the event of a fire, but I considered the risk of smoke inhalation a small price to pay for the added protection against rapists and murderers.

8. The book that you are currently reading: I’m between books right now – I just finished The Red Tent and I’m planning to start Sophie Kinsella’s The Undomestic Goddess. I didn’t enjoy Kinsella’s "Shopaholic" books – they gave me anxiety attacks. I like to read a chapter or two each night before bed, but a chapter of Confessions of a Shopaholic is a recipe for insomnia – I would lie awake, heart pounding, unbearably stressed by the web of lies and credit-card debt the heroine had entangled herself in. But I’m giving Kinsella another chance – I’m hoping the Undomestic Goddess will have fewer self-destructive habits.

9. One book that you have been meaning to read: A Feast for Crows, the latest in George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire. I read the first three books a year ago and it took me a long time to emerge from that experience – for several weeks my "real" life became shadowy and remote, while my true life was lived amid the political intrigues of Westeros. But by the time the new book came out, I had detached, and I haven’t found the emotional energy yet to dive back in.

Okay, I tag Metro Mama and Sunshine Scribe. What are the books that have changed your lives?

And as a postscript to my last post, I’d like to add that I’ve discovered two things in the last few days: (1) How to get my husband to read my blog; and (2) The existence of a new disorder: post-sleep amnesia. That is to say, I have no memory of the alleged four days in a row last week that I got to sleep in, and hubby has no recollection of the two-hour nap he took Saturday morning while I tried to mark papers and look after the kids.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Three Completely Unjustified Grudges I'm Holding Against My Husband

For awhile now, I’ve been wanting to post a tribute to my hubby – something affectionate and lyrical that would capture how much I appreciate him. But perhaps the best I can do is refer you to Her Bad Mother’s words on the subject of the Good Husband, and use this space instead to vent. Because if there’s one thing that drives a wife crazy, it’s those totally unjustified resentments that have to be firmly squelched. A genuine grievance can at least be aired out and resolved, but the unreasonable grudges are the ones that fester.

1) He has more fun than I do.
In the craziness that is my teaching schedule this year, I am doing two thirds of the year’s paid work in a six-week period that ends sometime next week (whenever I finally finish marking the Stack of Papers that Never, Ever Goes Away). My workload is such that when I leave the house without my children in tow, it is for one of two reasons: (1) I’m going to work; or (2) I’m going to pick them up from daycare (to bring them home where they will promptly melt down, crying in perfect unison and scrabbling at their high chairs wanting to be fed, instantly, while I dart around the kitchen like a madwoman, gathering up raisins and chickpeas and Heinz toddler-size chicken cacciatore while the macaroni and cheese heats in the microwave and Bub screams, over and over again, "Zero! Beep!").

To be strictly truthful, I have experienced out-of-the-home amusement on exactly two occasions since the beginning of July: one was a date with hubby, which I spent secretly calculating how much blogging/marking I could have accomplished in the time it took to watch Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, and the other was an ice-cream outing with a friend. If there is one bright spot in the bleak landscape of my life right now, it’s the yumminess of a waffle cone filled with cinnamon ice cream blended with a crushed Coffee Crisp chocolate bar. (Do you Americans have Coffee Crisp down there, south of the border? It’s like a KitKat, only bigger and yummier and more like coffee.)

But to return to the topic of my grudge against the husband, my two nights of giddy freedom in the last two months are balanced by the fact that last weekend alone he went out with his friends two nights out of three. He didn’t leave until the children were in bed, and I spent both nights marking exams, so his bacchanalia had no actual effect on me other than to render me green with envy. That is not a mitigating factor, though: With every miserable paper I marked, the hate got a little bit deeper.

2) He gets/needs more sleep than I do.
Most mornings Bub gets up between 6:19 and 6:22 am. (On the other mornings he wakes up, shrieking, at 5:45. This morning was one of those "other mornings.") Three mornings out of four, I get up and hubby sleeps until the Pie awakens, usually an hour later. This isn’t entirely a bad thing – I pour out Bub’s bowl of Mini Wheats, then check my Bloglines, read the paper, and drink my coffee. Every once in awhile, though, the 6 am wake-up is too much for me – I struggle into consciousness only to find that hubby is already up, so I collapse back into bed and return blissfully to sleep. The less blissful part occurs after I get up. I wander downstairs to find Hubby stretched out on the couch, looking like death. As soon as I enter the room, he stumbles to his feet and heads upstairs, mumbling something about going back to sleep. Which he does. For another hour, or sometimes two. And I spend this time fuming.

One of the more useful thing I’ve learned about marriage over the years is that sometimes equality matters less than need. If I’m stumbling around in a zombie-like state, it’s okay to have a nap and leave hubby in charge, even if I haven’t "earned" this privilege on a quid pro quo basis. Conversely, if hubby takes a nap, that act suggests that he’s feeling sleepy – not that he has decided that he deserves it because I’ve been failing to pull my weight. "I’m going back to sleep now" does not translate to "Get moving, you lazy cow, and try looking after your own kids for once."

So I know that the late-morning nap simply means that hubby is too tired to function, and that it’s not really relevant that I manage to function most days on no more than six hours of sleep. I do reserve the right, however, to collapse on the couch as soon as he gets home from work tonight if I’m exhausted from my efforts to prepare supper, clean up pureed sweet potatoes from the floor, and wipe peanut butter out of the inside of Bub’s nose.

3) He didn’t clean up the kitchen on Sunday night.
After the Pie was born, the division of labour in my family tended to go along gender lines: it was Hub and Bub vs. Pie and I. Since the Pie has been weaned, I’ve managed to reclaim my son: not only do I usually get up with him at breakfast, but I also put him to bed at night, even though his routine is quite a bit longer than the Pie’s simple storybook-and-lullaby. The half hour I spend with the Bub each night before bed is the one thing that has kept me sane this month, so it’s not a task I’m willing to share.

Bedtime around here is awash in sentimentality. By day, the Bub is fiercely autonomous, but as soon as we cuddle into his bed at night, he becomes sweetly affectionate. "Noses!" he’ll announce, and we’ll lean in, nose-to-nose, for an Eskimo kiss. Not satisfied with this nauseating display of mother-son tenderness, I’ve recently upped the ante with – are you ready? – Robert Munsch’s Love You Forever. The Bub is strangely mesmerized by this book; when I sing the chorus he smiles a small, secret smile, and when my voice starts wobbling as the story reaches its tear-jerker conclusion, he looks at me with frank curiosity, intrigued by the occasional tear I brush hastily from my cheek. He loves this book, and I love reading it to him, even though when I teach it in a Children’s Literature course, I always skewer its adult values and morbidly strange mother-son relationship (for those of you who haven’t read the book or GingaJoy’s fabulous post on the subject, suffice it to say that the mother in this story expresses her love for her adult son by driving across town with a ladder to break into his apartment).



While all this mother-son bonding is going on, I expect hubby to pick up toys and clean up the kitchen. I continue to expect this despite the fact that it never happens. Typically, once Bub is settled I come downstairs and get to work. At some point before I emerge from my office at eleven o’clock, the toys and dishes are magically put away. On Sunday night, for some reason, I didn't do this. Hubby was talking on the phone in the office, which meant I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on marking, so I unloaded the dishwasher, cleaned up the kitchen table, picked up the toys, and simmered, simmered, simmered. By the time I was finished, it was almost bedtime and my stack of exams remained unmarked, which meant I was up past midnight last night finishing them, and then up at 5:45 this morning when Bub came shrieking from his room.

Maybe what I need to do is ditch the martyrdom act and just go have a fucking nap.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

How About the Wall Street Journal for a Little Light Reading?

It had to happen. One day I would clue in. And realize it. My blog is too hard to read.

Mom-101’s post on Readability Meters has sparked a new craze that has the enviable quality of pleasing no one. Clearly, the goal of using a readability meter would be to make one’s blog more readable, not less, but that hasn’t stopped legions of bloggers from bewailing the discovery that anyone with a grade four education can readily comprehend the content of their blogs. (At least, the results suggest that those nine- and ten-year-olds could understand the many single-syllable words and short sentences they find in the blogosphere; they might have greater difficulty understanding such concepts as the muffin top.)

I’m a sucker for any kind of online test or quiz, so I clicked right over to Juicy Studio and typed in my URL, generating a Flesch-Kincaid level of around grade seven, and a Gunning Fog Index that placed me somewhere between The Da Vinci Code and Time or Newsweek. Sounds good to me. So I posted my results and sat back while the other results poured in: lots of fifth-graders, a few grade fours, one or two grade sixes. And here I am in grade seven, with braces and a badly fitting bra, slapping on the blue eyeshadow in a desperate attempt to look like Cyndi Lauper, while all the cool kids are over there on the junior playground, skipping rope and playing four-square.

The great thing about online quizzes is that if you don’t like your results, there is a simple expedient – retake the test. So I went back to Juicy Studio and this time typed in the URL for my entire July archive. There you go. Maybe my last few posts have been a bit wordy and pretentious, but with a larger sample, the true clarity and simplicity of my blog is sure to shine through. Behold the results:

Total sentences: 849
Total words: 15178
Average words per Sentence: 17.88
Words with 1 Syllable: 10402
Words with 2 Syllables: 2993
Words with 3 Syllables: 1241
Words with 4 or more Syllables: 542
Percentage of word with three or more syllables: 11.75%
Average Syllables per Word: 1.47
Gunning Fog Index: 11.85
Flesch Reading Ease: 64.51
Flesch-Kincaid Grade: 8.70

For your ease of reading, I will highlight some of the key stats. (See? "Stats" is two syllables shorter than "statistics.") First of all, in the month of July, I managed to crank out more than fifteen thousand words. That is, during a month when I was lecturing for two-and-a-half hours per day and cranking out posts in five-minute gasps of time between monstrous stacks of essays and exams, I managed to produce an archive that is about a quarter of the length of a Harlequin romance novel.

And did you notice the average sentence length? If a sentence comes in below eighteen words around here, you can count yourself lucky. And get ready for it – because every eighth word you hit is going to be three syllables or more. My Gunning Fog Index is now suggesting that if you find this blog a little taxing, the Wall Street Journal might be more your pace, since it comes in at around 11 and I’m a whopping 11.85.

But my Flesch-Kincaid Grade is the real heart-breaker. Sigh. I always hated high school – and I’m clinging onto grade eight by the skin of my teeth. A couple more four-syllable words (in addition to the five hundred I used in the month of July), and I’ll be missing the bus and forgetting my locker combination all over again.

Friday, August 04, 2006

An Ordinary Woman

When I was seventeen, my mom took me and my two best friends to Toronto for a performance of The Nutcracker. The journey was half the fun – we went by train, and on our return trip we enjoyed that immensely satisfying sensation of piling an empty seat high with all our shopping bags filled with Boxing Day bargains. I bought a dress from La Cache that weekend at 50% off, an old-fashioned dark brown floral print with long sleeves and gold buttons. I later added a Laura Ashley lace collar and wore it as a costume in my high school production of Nicholas Nickleby, in which I played Madeleine, Nicholas’s one true love, a role that required me to look sweetly romantic and to burst into tears convincingly (those being feats I was particularly well-equipped to perform in my teen years). As a shopping spree, our trip was a success, but alas, our ballet plans went awry: the National Ballet stage hands went on strike mere hours after we arrived in the big city, leaving me prostrate on the bed in tears - a reaction that now strikes me as uncomfortably familiar (the Bub comes honestly by his inflexibility and emotional intensity).

With no ballet to attend, the four of us put in the evening at Honest Ed’s Italian restaurant, eating spaghetti and listening to tales of all the boys my mom dated in high school, how the relationships began and ended, and how many months/years of tearful mourning ensued. Even I was forced to admit that my mother’s tales of high-school heartbreak outdid the dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy for sheer entertainment value.

I’ve always known that my mother was the mom. She was never any good at arts and crafts – while other mothers wielded glue-guns with conviction and created original recipes for homemade turtle chocolates, my mother was always overwhelmed by such tasks. The day before one memorable birthday I arrived home from school to an unexpected treat: two round, one-inch-high slabs of homemade birthday cake that had failed to rise – the cake was dense and heavy, and my mother was furious, but I was thrilled: cake! A day early! (The next day, and for many years thereafter, my birthday cakes were made from Duncan Hines.)

Games were an equally daunting challenge for my mother. When, as a four-year-old, I managed to talk her into a round of CandyLand, she could barely conceal her boredom; later, I simply conceded that my mother had a strange aversion to anything fun. While the rest of the family was shrieking and laughing in the pool, she could be found hidden in the deepest shade, reading a book.

My mom was no fun. But she was the mom for all that: the mom who fulfilled her role more fully and completely than any of the other moms I knew. She was the mom to whom I could – and did – tell everything, and in whom my friends could always depend on finding a sympathetic listener. My mom has wisdom, and insight, and an uncannily vivid memory of what it’s like to be a child or, later, a teenager. It’s not merely that she remembers the past; rather, those memories produce an emotional echo of surprising intensity: all I have to do is mention the Bub’s birth, for instance, and my mother groans audibly, transported in an instant back to the corner of the high-risk delivery room where she sat huddled in the fetal position while we waited for the obstetrician to tell us whether it would be the forceps or the C-section. Either way, her daughter was about to be cut open, and I’m not entirely sure which of us was suffering the most in that moment. "This is a nightmare. This is a nightmare," she thought at the time, over and over again, and all I have to do is mention that room, or the mean doctor who wouldn’t up my epidural, and she starts to shudder.

My mom is not a writer, though it was she who taught me to read, who took me to the library and recommended Thornton Burgess, L.M. Montgomery, and later Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë. But if my mother had a blog, you would all want to go read it. When I first went away to university, I took with me an "interview" my mother had written up for a class reunion. Each member of her graduating class had to write a one-page report of who they had become and what they had done with their lives, and my mother entitled hers, "An Ordinary Woman." I stuck it up on my wall because it made me laugh and because, more than any photo, it reminded me of her and made the miles between us seem a bit less wide. Here it is (reprinted with permission).

Modern Woman magazine presents the first of a four-part series of interviews with ordinary women. Our first subject is J.C. of Lambeth, Ontario, who seemed to us to have a particularly lack-lustre existence.

We met our subject at her residence where a middle-aged woman with a nondescript hairdo, wearing a faded "ROOTS" sweatshirt welcomed us with a smile that revealed a rather distracting gap between her front teeth. The house itself seemed to have great potential if one could manage to turn a blind eye to the décor which could only be described as dated.


*****

M.W. Ms. C., you have a lovely home. What family do you have?

J.C. Well, I have a daughter who is 19 and in university and another daughter who is 16 and attends a vocational high school. And of course, there’s my husband, who is a chartered accountant. Oh, and I mustn’t forget my two boys Mack and Lucky.

M.W. Mack and Lucky?

J.C. Yes, they’re our cats, but they are almost human. As a matter of fact –

M.W. Uh, Ms. C., to get to the point, don’t you find your life as a housewife to be somewhat monotonous?

J.C. Oh, no. I’m quite busy. I teach Sunday School and volunteer. Then there is the ever-present challenge of getting the downstairs clean before the upstairs needs it again. And then being somewhat of a hypochondriac, I make all our baked goods from scratch, using whole grains and baking powder without alum, as well as canola oil instead of palm or coconut oils.

M.W. What? Oh, I’m sorry, I must have nodded off for a minute. Seriously, are you not afraid of losing your husband to a less boring woman?

J.C. No, he’s just as boring as I am.

M.W. Oh that’s right. You did say he was an accountant.

M.W. Do you not miss having a career?

J.C. I’m not sure. I used to be a nurse, and occasionally I dream I am working at the hospital. Then when I wake up, I’m always disappointed that I’m not – but I suspect I just want to be young again.

M.W. Yes, I see what you mean. You know, an eye lift would do wonders.

J.C. I know, but Barbara Bush is my role model.

M.W. Then there’s no point in mentioning porcelain bonding?

J.C. No.

M.W. Well, I suppose the one good thing about your life is that you don’t inspire envy in others.

J.C. Oh, I’m sure that’s true, but I really like my life.

M.W. Of course you do dear.

Note from the Editor: On reconsideration, this concludes our series of interviews with ordinary women.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Pride and Joy

I was at a wedding reception a few years ago where the mother of the groom stood up and said, "When Dave was in kindergarten, his teacher once told me, ‘You know the saying, our children are our pride and joy? I can tell that Dave must be your joy.’" Hubby and I sat at the back, snickering at the implication that Dave was not a source of pride, while the rest of the wedding guests clapped politely and glared at us for our rudeness. Okay, not a joke then. This particular Dave is indeed a kind, generous soul; my husband grew up with him tagging along, the youngest of three brothers, the one who invariably burst into tears when the big boys called him "Geisterhaus." And his mother, the mother of three boys, has indeed received nothing but joy from this the youngest of her sons, the one least likely to reject her impulses to read Anne of Green Gables aloud or teach the art of making decorative latch-hook rugs.

There are those who believe that it is essential for parents to treat their offspring with strict impartiality. I know that it can be devastating when parents pick favourites or assign roles (she’s the smart one, he’s the athletic one) – but I’m not sure I believe in loving my children exactly the same – I’m not sure that I can measure my love or ensure that it is apportioned evenly between my two children.

I was still in the hospital when I first felt it, that tug, that dislocation as my heart made room for a second child. The Pie was asleep, curled up with her head resting trustingly on my chest and I knew, from the very first time she did that, that my body was her haven, her favourite place in the world, that here, with her ear pressed to my heart, the thrum of my heartbeat keeping time with the in and out of her breaths, here she felt perfectly secure and loved and whole. There was a rightness about it, a peace, and at that moment a tiny, betraying thought darted across my mind: "The Bub was never like this." The day the Bub was born, he came screaming into the world and stood rigid on his own two feet. What he liked best was to be carried, facing outward, his eyes dazzled by the hospital lights and the big, new world.

My love for my son is so unlike the love I have for my daughter. The first love is like a rope, a cord that twists around my heart and my lungs and my intestines. Every once in awhile something happens to tug that cord just a little bit tighter. I’m at the top of the jungle gym at the playground, hugely pregnant, and I watch as Bub stumbles on the step, lurching toward a sheer seven-foot drop, and I know that I can’t catch him or save him. Then he steadies himself, regains his balance, and I take a deep breath – but not as deep as before. The rope tightens its grip.

My love for my son has always been complicated, multi-layered. The very traits that make me feel proud also cause me to worry. When I began researching autism and discovering that some of Bub’s quirky, endearing habits were actually symptoms of the disorder, I felt at once frightened and vindicated, confirmed in my belief that it is no ordinary child I’m raising. Bub and I study one another as scientists, learning one another’s behaviours, struggling to predict one another’s responses. I know of no better companion, no one with whom I would more enjoy a quiet stroll. He is a child who keeps his own counsel.

My love for my daughter is simpler – it is comfortable, expansive, joyous. Her adaptability amazes me, as does her good nature. When Bub is hoarding his toys, hunched protectively over his tool truck, radiating hostility, she is undaunted. Her eyes sparkle with mischief and she hangs back, waiting for her moment. As soon as his back is turned she darts in to nab a hammer or a screwdriver, squealing in glee as she toddles away as fast as her fat legs can carry her, stolen booty gripped tightly in her chubby little hand. She is simple and pure, and my love for her is the pillow I fell back on in the moments after she was born; she is my haven and I am hers.

Pride and joy.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Tenth Commandment

Thou shalt not covet...

As commandments go, the tenth one is quite possibly the trickiest. I generally do okay when it comes to my neighbour's wife and ox, but occasionally there are posts that drive me directly into mortal sin - posts that capture a moment so eloquently that I'm filled with a despairing wish that I had written them myself.

I had that experience this month when I read KittenPie's post on her daughter's illness. It has been a hot, hot July this year, and my children too have suffered from bouts of summertime fever that left them limp and cuddly, radiating heat and love and sweetness. While I made jokes about how much I was enjoying my children's sickness, KittenPie was weaving together words that somehow capture the very essence of a summer thunderstorm coming at the end of a long, humid day, and the wonderful intimacy of cuddling with a sweet, trusting child as the thunder rolls overhead.

A Perfect Post

I'm a newbie at this business of nominating a Perfect Post award, and I've managed it only after much wringing of hands and sending of "Help! Where's the button?" messages, so I beg you all to go and read her post. (It has a wonderful title which I would reproduce for you here if only I knew how to type the degree symbol! Alas, my technologically-challenged self fails again, so you'll just have to go look. It's worth the wait.)

For more perfect posts, check out this month's list at Petroville or at Suburban Turmoil.